Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All Over Italy

Day 1: Sunday, October 10, 1999 - We got the kids in bed by 7:20 the night before, because we had to catch a train to the airport at 5:48 a.m. My son was really excited, and got up at 1:30. He crawled in bed with me, and kept feeling of my face until about 3:00. He finally went to sleep, but when the alarm went off at 4:45, I was really tired.

We got ready, drove the three minutes to the train station, and took the train into the airport. Our plane was to fly first to Amsterdam, and then to Rome. When we were on the runway in Amsterdam ready to take off, the pilot announced that we had technical difficulties and had to return to the terminal. Fortunately, the problem was solved in less than an hour and we were off.

On the flight to Rome, I sat between the kids, and my wife sat on the other side of the aisle between two nuns from Belfast, Ireland. They were very curious about life in America and Germany, and they told my wife all about life in Ireland.

On the way, we flew directly over the Alps in Switzerland. We were flying low, and the scenery was spectacular. The Alps were covered with snow, and I could see all of the little villages in the valleys. I would like to take a trip down there ASAP. We could probably drive down there in six hours from Düsseldorf.

After arriving in Rome, there was a guy waiting to take us to the hotel (we had prearranged this with the hotel). You can tell right away that Italy is not quite as safe as most European countries. At the airport, there were cops standing around everywhere with machine guns. We drove about 25 minutes to the hotel. The hotel room was good, but it had only three beds instead of the four it was supposed to have. But, the people at the front desk spoke no English, so we let it go.

As soon as we settled in, I took off looking for a cash machine. No luck. We decided to eat at a pizzeria next door that took credit cards. After eating lunch, they said they couldn’t take the card because it was Sunday and all the banks were closed. However, they changed their minds when they found out I had no Italian money.

It was only early afternoon, so we decided to explore the Colosseum and the ruins surrounding it. To get to the Colosseum, we had to take a narrow stairway down from the street. On the way down, two girls who were about 12 years old got in my face and started kissing their fingers and then touching my son and me (he was holding my hand). They were also speaking very loudly in Italian. I didn’t know what to think until I saw their two mothers holding babies. They were Gypsies trying to pick my pocket. I walked quickly passed them and reached the bottom of the steps. my wife asked what was going on, and I told her. Unfortunately, it looked like we would need to take the same route coming back.


The Colosseum in Rome


We walked around the Colosseum. The crowds were very bad, and there were people (mostly Arabs and Africans) hawking everything under the sun. They would get right up in your face, which was really annoying. We walked around and found a shady spot on a hill overlooking the Colosseum and let the kids play while we relaxed on some Roman ruins. An Italian woman asked me to take her picture with the Colosseum in the background. Right after that, a black guy with a British accent walked up to me and asked “Señor, picture?” He wanted me to take a picture of him with his wife. I told him I was an American, and he laughed and said “Thank goodness. I can’t speak any Italian.” Anyway, I took their picture with the Colosseum in the background, and we got ready to go back to the hotel.

This time, I studied the Gypsies carefully before we went up the hill. I watched their mothers frantically looking at people’s wallets and handbags searching for an easy target. I waited until a large group of Italians was going up the stairs, and I followed them. I had my wife and my daughter walk behind me, and my son held my hand. When we got near the mothers, one stepped out and held out her hand for money. I guess this was a signal to the girls, because they immediately stepped in front of me and held newspapers in my face and started with the kissing and loud talking. I had read many times about this trick, so I knew they were about to try and pick my pocket. I yelled at the girl, and told her I wasn’t playing that game with her again. I shoved her away, and her hand got hung in my front pocket, where my wallet was. I yelled at them again, and so did the Italians who were walking with us. The girls ran back to their mothers, and we went back to the hotel.

My son kept saying “Those girls are stupid for doing that.” I agree, and I don’t understand why the police can’t do something about that situation. I had read many times about this, and then it almost happened to us. The thing that really bothered me about Italy is that I didn’t feel entirely safe there. It is very polluted, the traffic is absolute chaos, and we encountered several thieves. Also, fewer people speak English, which makes it tougher to function. On the other hand, they have art and history there that you can’t see anywhere else in Europe, and most of the people are very friendly.

Day 2, Monday - My son woke up at 5:30. We had a rough night, because my son slept with us. At first, I tried to sleep with the kids and let my wife have the single bed, but my daughter tossed and turned until I had to have her and my wife switch beds.

One of my top priorities today was to exchange some money. We were going to be with a tour group for much of the next 6 days. We decided to do it this way, because you can see much more in a short amount of time when someone else is taking care of transportation, tickets, etc. The first thing we visited this morning was the Trevi Fountain. It is Rome’s largest and most famous fountain, completed in 1762. They were cleaning it, so it was empty. We next saw the Pantheon, which was in incredible shape. This building dates back to 118 AD, but inside it looks like it was recently built. My son was hungry all morning, and I was feeding him a steady stream of gummy bears and M&M’s. After that, we went to the Vatican, where several people commented on how well-behaved the kids were. If they could only have heard my son saying “I’m hungry” over and over. We went into St. Peter’s Basilica, which supposedly holds the bones of St. Peter. The size of this church must be seen to be believed. We saw Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, which is a masterpiece housed in St. Peters. I found myself wondering whether the Dallas Cowboys had won yesterday’s game, but my wife thought that was a heathen thing to be thinking about inside the largest and arguably the most beautiful church in the world.

After the Vatican, we ate lunch with a British couple who were currently living in Madrid. Before we ate, I walked around the block and found a cash machine. It would only give me half a million Lira (about $280). Since most of the hotels don’t take credit cards, this was not going to get us very far. Lunch was terrible. We ate something resembling meat, but I didn’t honestly know what it was.

In the afternoon, we went to the Roman Forum, where the bulk of the old Roman ruins are. We did not walk through the ruins, but we studied them from a hill directly above them. After that, we went to another old church. When we were crossing the street to the church, a motorcycle ran a red light and nearly ran over a woman. Inside the church, the ceilings were entirely covered with gold. My son was tired, and fell asleep on my back for about 40 minutes.

After this, we went back to the Colosseum, where we paid to go in and look around. The person at the ticket desk asked us where we were from. A friend who had been there recently had told us that all kids received free admission, except for Americans. So, I told her that we had arrived from Germany, which was the truth. She looked at me with a frown, but then said that the kids had free admission.

We went inside and walked around. I had seen it once before, but it still makes quite an impression to think that almost 2,000 years ago, 50,000 people were watching gladiators fight to the death inside here. The place is huge, and really lets you appreciate just what the Romans were capable of building.

In the evening, we ate at the Pizzeria again. While we were waiting for the pizza, I walked outside with the kids. There was a very old Italian woman who started talking to us. We had seen her walking the streets the day before. I have no idea if she was a beggar, or homeless, or just friendly. I kept telling her “No comprende”, but she kept talking to us. After a while, she gave up and walked off, but I was very curious about what she was trying to say.

Overall, we had a very busy and tiresome day. The kids held up very well. My daughter never had to be picked up despite lots of walking. However, I think we could have done better today without being with a tour group. The disadvantage would have been that we would have had to eliminate a few things from our agenda. But we could have taken a more leisurely pace, and not worn ourselves out.

Day 3, Tuesday - We were to see the Vatican museums in the morning. When we got there, the lines were probably ¼ mile long to get in. Once inside, the crowds were huge. It was not like that the first time I was there several years before. We overheard someone say that Tuesday was a tour day, which I guess meant discounts for tour groups. There was also a sign up that said the Sistine Chapel was closing at 12:30. On the way to the Sistine Chapel, we walked through the Hall of Tapestries and the Hall of Maps. I really liked the Hall of Maps. There are large paintings from the 1500’s depicting maps of various parts of the world. The Italian maps showed the locations of castles and small villages.

Once we got to the Sistine Chapel, the crowds were unbearable. We could barely walk, and couldn’t even see our feet. The kids were both miserable, and so were we. We went in and studied the ceiling. I must say that Michelangelo could really paint. The details in the ceiling are very impressive. We really needed an entire day for the museums, because there was a lot we didn’t see.

We left and went to lunch. Lunch today was great; pasta and chicken breast. The kids both ate well. After lunch, I went with another man to several cash machines to get out more money. All of the machines were out of order. I felt like I was in a third world country. I finally had to go into a place that changes money, and ended up paying a 5% commission to exchange German Marks for Italian Lira. This really made me sick, because I had already paid a commission once to exchange from U.S. dollars to Marks, and here I was doing it again. However, I had no choice at this point as we were checking out of our hotel early the next morning. And, on the bright side I was now a millionaire (at least in Italy). I was carrying 2 million Lira in my pocket.

In the afternoon, we visited two more churches. The traffic was horrible and chaotic, and the smog was thick. The churches were all fabulous, but at this point I was getting tired of seeing churches. When my son saw us going into the second, he acted like Damien from “The Omen” movie. He said “Please don’t make me go in another church.” My daughter and a beggar outside one of the churches had a stare down. I told my daughter it wasn’t polite to stare like that. In the square outside the second church, people were again aggressively trying to sell all kinds of useless gadgets. One guy handed my son a toy, and he took it before I could stop him. The guy wouldn’t take it back, and kept asking for money. I was so annoyed. I finally put it on the guy’s shoulder and said “No”.

Inside the second church, a priest came up to the kids and gave them candy. He blessed them both, and kept patting my daughter and saying “Oh, bella, bella”. I looked it up in my dictionary and it means beautiful. The friendliness of the Italians to the kids was really impressive. Everywhere we went, people were patting them on the head, giving them candy, and wanting to hold them.

After the churches, we went to the catacombs. This was the main reason we were on this tour, because I thought the kids would really like it. The catacombs are extensive underground chambers where the early Christians were buried before Christianity was legal. The kids really had fun. My son told me he was a Power Ranger looking for bad guys. He also started speaking German to me in there. He had been answering questions all week with “Ja”, but once I asked him something and he said “Ja, das stimmt” (Yes, that’s right).

Afterward, we went back to the hotel, had some ice cream, and prepared for tomorrow’s big day. We didn’t have any dinner, so I went to a tiny local grocery store and bought a few things. I got some freshly picked black olives, which were really good. I had to cross the road coming and going, and I felt like I was risking my life every time. There are few crosswalks, and the drivers don’t always obey the laws. I saw more cops standing around with machine guns. Back at the hotel, I told the kids all about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii, which is where we were going the next day.

Day 4, Wednesday - We boarded the tour bus for Naples. The drive down took about three hours. The terrain becomes more mountainous the further south from Rome you drive. On the way down, we drove past the Abbey of Montecassino, which was the site of a major battle during WWII. In Naples, the traffic and smog were even worse than Rome, which is what I remembered from the last time I was there. The crime rate in Naples is also very high. Normally, the view from the hills around Naples is very scenic. You can see the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the Bay of Naples. However, the smog was so thick we couldn’t see either. We got into a huge traffic jam for almost an hour in front of the mayor’s office because some protestors were blocking the road. Our tour guide told us that protestors have the right to stop traffic with their protests, which is another crazy thing about Italy. We were delayed for quite a while waiting for the protest to end.

We finally continued south towards Pompeii. We had to drive through a toll booth, where there were numerous guys selling junk. They would walk back and forth between moving cars selling cigarettes, Kleenexes, etc. I had read some accounts of guys at this toll booth stabbing tires with a screwdriver, and then when you drive through the toll booth and pull over to change your tire, they rob you.


Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius


We had a very good lunch outside of Pompeii, and then we went into the ruins. Pompeii was buried in the year 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The ruins here are of the complete town at the time of the destruction. The kids had a lot of fun playing in the ruins and walking in the streets, which are estimated to be over 2,500 years old. For the kids, it was a giant playground. Once, when we were looking at some of the plaster casts of people who were killed in the eruption, my son handed me a piece of marble. I looked down and saw that he had dug it up from a 2,000 year old marble floor. I quickly put it back before anyone saw. Later, tour guides from two different groups got into a fight over who was going to go through one of the buildings first. An older man hit a younger man in the head with an umbrella. The funny thing is that the first time I came to Pompeii, the same thing happened in the same place. Two guys were screaming at each other over who got to go inside first.

After we left Pompeii, we drove along a very high cliff on our way further south to Sorrento. In Sorrento, we had a 1st class hotel on a high cliff above the Mediterranean Sea. The view was unbelievable. There was the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius across the bay. I could throw a rock into the ocean from our hotel window. The room was large, the floors were marble, and there was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. Outside, there was a courtyard with a swimming pool. There were olive, lemon, and grapefruit trees everywhere. This was the first place we had been in Italy that I thought would be a nice place to live. We sat down in lawn chairs by the pool, and as it began to get dark there were a lot of bats flying around.


Sorrento


We had CNN in our hotel room, so I got to see the news for the first time in four days. I saw that the government in Pakistan had been overthrown. I had a good friend whose daughter was in Pakistan doing geological studies at that time. I knew that he must be worried, because Pakistan is not the safest place in the world to begin with.

Dinner that night was excellent. We had fish, and there was a lemon on the side. My son kept sucking on his lemon, and making faces. There were two Japanese girls at the table next to us, and they were about to fall in the floor with laughter. My son told us he thought they were pretty.

Day 5, Thursday - This day we spent resting. We felt like the kids needed a day off, so we relaxed in Sorrento. In the morning, we went out by the swimming pool. There was a trail of ants, and the kids and I just watched ants for a half hour. We watched the ocean for a while, and then we walked around downtown Sorrento. My wife bought postcards with special stamps that had to be mailed from Sorrento. In the evening, when we were back at our hotel and after we had filled the cards out, I had to walk/run about 2 miles back downtown to mail them. The streets were very narrow with high walls on both sides, and there were no sidewalks. If someone lost control of their car, there would be absolutely nowhere to go to get away. The traffic was very heavy and fast, and I felt like I was walking down the center line on an interstate.

Day 6, Friday - First on the agenda today was a trip to the resort island of Capri. Capri lies just a few miles off the coast of Italy, and the scenery there is spectacular. It used to be a vacation resort for some of the Roman emperors. We took a boat to the island. On the way, we met a couple from Maryland, and then a woman from Columbia and a man from Lebanon traveling together. We got to the island and then transferred to a smaller boat. We went around the island to the Blue Grotto. This is an undersea cave that has a small opening which you take a rowboat into. The sand under the water is white, and there is a very strange effect of the light passing through the blue water and then reflecting off the sand.

The four of us transferred to a small rowboat. The man rowing the boat started asking for a tip right away. He rowed us into the cave and back out just as fast as he could. The only thing he ever said to us was to ask if we thought he had earned a good tip. Here the guy was doing the job that he was paid to do, and he didn’t even talk to us except to ask for a tip. This was a complete waste of time, and one of the worst tourist traps I have ever seen. Needless to say, I did not tip him. When we were getting out of the boat, the man from Maryland helped get my daughter back into the bigger boat. He asked, “Can I help with your precious cargo?”

We took the boat back around to the dock, and then transferred to a bus to ride up to the top of the mountain. There was a large group from South America with us, so the tour guide spoke quite a bit of Spanish. The bus was cramped, rickety, and reeked of diesel fumes. I thought to myself if we had a couple of chickens and a goat on board, it would have resembled some of the scenes I have seen of South America.

We toured Capri the rest of the day. The scenery was really amazing, but the island was packed with people, and the smell of car exhaust was everywhere. I can safely say that I will never go back to Capri again, because it is just too crowded with tourists.

On the way back to the mainland, the Columbian woman made paper boats for my daughter and my son. The Lebanese man asked lots of questions about the kids, and said he had never seen such well-behaved kids on a long trip. They were a very nice couple. After we arrived on the mainland, we had a three-hour bus ride back to Rome. Three other people who had been with us all day commented on how well the kids had behaved. Overall, this was a very long and difficult day, and I was probably as surprised as anyone that the kids did so well. Of course bribing them every day with ice cream helps.

Day 7, Saturday - We boarded the bus for Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance in the 15th century and one of my favorite cities in the world. On the way, we drove through Umbria and Tuscany, which are rural areas that are very hilly and wooded. On the way, I thought about how the population density in Europe is completely different from that of the U.S. In Europe, the population density in the cities is much higher than in the U.S. In Europe, there are few parking lots, lawns are very small, streets are narrow, and the houses are very close together and usually have multiple stories. Because of this, some of these countries, which are half the size of Texas, (yet have one third the population of the entire U.S.) have huge tracts of rural land. I would have never thought that small countries like Germany and Italy, with such large populations could have so much undeveloped land. If the population density in the U.S. followed the same pattern, you could move the entire populations of California, New York, Illinois, and Florida to Texas, and open up huge tracts of wilderness. Thus began my infatuation with how Europe developed their land, and how I wished we could model that in the U.S.

The first stop in Florence was to see Michelangelo’s David sculpture. This sculpture is widely regarded as the best ever made, and when you see it, you understand why. The details are perfect down to the veins in his arms and the look in his eyes. My daughter said that she didn’t like it because he was naked.

After that, we saw the Baptistery, the bell tower, and the Dome. These are some of the most beautiful buildings in world. We went inside the Dome, and there were a number of candles burning. The guide said that when someone has a special prayer, they light a candle. Well, my son saw all of these candles and ran up and started blowing them out. After we put a quick stop to that, he wanted to ride on my back. He immediately fell asleep, and I ended up walking around the church hunched over with him on my back.

We ate lunch, and then we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce. Inside the church, Michelangelo and Galileo, in my opinion two of the greatest men who ever lived, are buried. Outside the church is a big square where the kids chased pigeons and played while my wife and I relaxed.

At this point, we left our tour group to stay overnight in Florence. We took a cab to our hotel, Nuova Italia. On the way, the cabdriver ran stop signs and red lights, and went the wrong way down a one-way street. My wife and I talked about the irony of coming from a country (Germany) where there are rules for everything and everyone obeys them, to a country where there don’t seem to be any rules. After we got checked into the hotel, we walked around the Mercato San Lorenzo, which is a huge outdoor market in which everything imaginable is sold. We picked up some food and went to our hotel for the night.

Day 8, Sunday - The first thing we did when we got up was take the kids back to the Dome. There were some artists there selling their work, and also drawing portraits. We bought a watercolor, and had my daughter and my son’s portrait drawn. My daughter went first and sat very still. Her portrait was very good. My son was second and would not sit still. Every couple of minutes he asked if it was finished. He was also trying to pose and was making a funny face with his mouth. His portrait turned out O.K., but it wasn’t as close a resemblance as my daughter’s. We paid 120,000 Lira for the portrait, and left for the train station. We were on the way to Venice.

The portrait had taken so long that we were almost late for our train and had no time to eat. And then we almost got on the wrong train. They really have an unusual system of labeling their tracks, and it caused us confusion more than once. There were no seats left in the compartments, so we had to sit in chairs that pulled out of the walls. After the first stop at Bologna, my wife and my daughter were able to get into one compartment and my son and I got into another.

In our compartment sat an older Italian woman, a young Italian woman, and an older man. The older woman sat my son in her lap and they carried on a nonstop conversation for about half an hour. She spoke entirely in Italian and my son in English. It was very funny to watch. The younger woman smiled and told my son, in a very heavy accent, that they only spoke Italian. It didn’t matter. He was telling her about the cows out the window, a water tower in the distance, and some trucks beside the road. The women were really cracking up, and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did.

At the next stop, some people got off and we were able to get into the compartment with my wife and my daughter. They were in there with a younger Italian man who spoke no English. He had some bananas and grapes and shared them with us. We gave him some M&M’s. My son and my daughter kept showing off for him, but he seemed to have fun with them. We rode with him all the way to the Venice main train station, where we had to change to another train to get to the island.


Venice


When we got to Venice, we left the train station and immediately found our hotel, the Hotel Dolomiti. It was very nice, and a place that we will stay if we return to Venice. We checked in and then caught a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square. St. Mark’s cathedral allegedly holds the bones of Mark, from the Bible. But first, we hadn’t eaten much all day. We had been promising the kids a trip to McDonalds, and I knew where there was one right off the square. After eating there, we hung out in the square and fed the pigeons. We bought a bag of food, and we let the pigeons eat out of our hands. I caught a couple of pigeons and let the kids hold them. My son tried to catch one and kneeled down on its tail. It flew away minus all of its tail feathers. After we ran out of pigeon food, two teenaged girls kept giving my son more. When my daughter had only one piece of food left, she held out her hand for about ten minutes until a pigeon finally took it from her.

After we left St. Mark’s, we just walked around the streets of Venice. We had seen Americans throughout Italy, but Venice was covered with Americans. My wife and the kids really liked Venice a lot. My son was waving at all of the people in the gondolas, and once one of the gondola operators came over to the sidewalk and reached out and shook my son’s hand. I saw a woman who was riding in one poke her husband and say “Look at that cute little boy waving at us.” After our walk, we bought another water color and then caught the water taxi back to the hotel. The kids were very happy that this was their last night in a hotel.

Day 9, October 18, 1999 - We had a flight for 12:30, so we got up early to spend some additional time in Venice. At breakfast we met and talked to some people from California. After breakfast, we found a playground for the kids which overlooked the Grand Canal. It was a little cool, and for most of the morning we had the playground to ourselves. Once, an Italian man stopped and watched us for a while with a smile on his face. My wife was pretending to be a bear and chasing my son, and I was swinging my daughter and watching the boats on the canal.

After playing for an hour or so, we checked out of the hotel and caught the train, and then a bus to the airport. The flight was delayed until 1:30. I have yet to fly KLM and leave on time. Once we got to Amsterdam, we had a short layover. Two stewardesses (my wife said they looked like supermodels) came up to my son and asked where he was flying. When he said Germany, they said “Oh, too bad. We wish you were flying with us.”

Although the pressure changes in the airplane had bothered the kid’s ears on the way to Rome, neither one had any trouble with their ears coming back. After the short flight back, the kids were glad to be home. They are really looking forward to our next trip, which is mainly for them. We fly to London, and then on to the Arctic Circle in Finland to visit Santa in his home.

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