In which I get pickpocketed, and Eric nurses a Brutalist hangover

After a lazy morning in with more croissants, fruit, and yogurt, we headed out for a day at the park. Passing by the Centre Georges Pompidou along the way, our first stop was to the Musee Cluny, the Medieval Art museum. It is housed in one of two remaining Medevial buildings in Paris, and contains multiple medieval artifacts and the ruins of old Roman Baths that used to be onsite. As always, I’m a sucker for anything fiber arts related, and they have a room with seven other “lady and the unicorn” tapestries, clearly a popular motif of the middle ages. Was it the only art form of the time which allowed phallic symbols? Perhaps so. 

Really, the tastiest yogurt ever.

I now feel free of the need to try and visit the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, their medieval art museum. Whenever I go, I talk about how I’d like to visit and see the unicorn tapestries there, and now it’s something of a running joke with Sapana because it’s really far out of town and we never make it there. Spirit, you  are free of the need for more medieval art! (But really it would be nice to make it up there sometime)

Contemplating the sartorial appearance of a knight. One word: heavy

Unicorns! Lions! Monkeys! and a millefiore background. This tapestry has it all.


We strolled down to the Jardin de Luxembourg, intending to pick up bread, cheese, and vegetables along the way for a picnic. I assumed that I’d be able to walk up any street and see a million fromagerie and boulangeries. While there are a lot, they do need to be found. We wandered around for longer than I would have liked in the hot Parisian noontime, and I resolved next time to pre-pick some selections and save them to my googlemap. We found a fromagerie on that app and headed over. Upon entering what was actually a food hall type of place with many smaller vendors, we found the cheese shop closed. I walked over to the butcher next door and asked in French, “What time does the cheese shop open?” “Not until 4 pm!” she explained. “Oh…” I replied, “We were hoping to get cheese for lunch. Do you think the Marks and Spencer food shop next door would have some?” At this she visibly shuddered and placed her hand on her chest, as if to say “God forbid one eats cheese from Marks and Spencer.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that for this American, cheese from Marks & Spencer in Paris would probably be tastier than anything I was used to back home. She told us to go up the street for an open cheese shop, however upon following her instructions there was nary a fromagerie to be seen. We ducked into a Carrefour supermarket, away from her offended eye and bought some brie and comte, some fruit, veggies and two bottles of Heinekin and headed to the park. We got waylaid by a pastry shop and picked up a lemon tart too, because Paris. 
Friends, thus began a perfect afternoon. Walking into the garden from the North entrance, we found ourselves on a path lined with trees that opened into a plaza with a pond in the center. Beyond were rows of larger trees fiercely manicured into severe rectangles arrayed in rays extending southward. I kept remarking to Eric that I felt we’d wandered into an impressionist painting! 

Children sailing boats at the Garden of Luxembourg, Paul Michel Dupuy

Finding  a shady bench, we set up shop, tearing the bread apart and slicing the the cheese and vegetables into it with a plastic knife. Eric used his bottle opening ring to pop the caps off the beers, and we munched away in happiness. Below us was a pond where colorful wooden boats lazily made their way around in the breeze, chased by children holding long slender bamboo poles. When the boats would reach the edge of the pond, the poles were used to push them off into the center again, their little sails billowing out when they caught the wind.  

I like to send the kids out on small missions in foreign countries, especially in ones where they don’t speak the language. I feel it helps them to learn how to operate in unfamiliar circumstances, and at this point they’re comfortable with this. They went down on their own to find out how to rent boats and how much it cost, scurrying up a few minutes later with the verdict – 4 euros for 30 min. I handed them a 10 note and off they scampered to get their boats. The boats sail for a country – the boy wanted Japan but it had been taken, so he settled for Ireland instead. The girl, she sailed for Spain, and I suspect it was partly because her boat would then match her dress. Without electricity or motors, children happily sent the boats around the pond, devising races and competitions. Beware though – some flags look quite similar, as the boy discovered when he found a little pirate trying to poach his Ireland boat instead of the India boat that he actually owned. The cheek! 

Once the maritime adventure ended, we headed over to the large playgrounds. 2 euro for the children to enter, and 1 for the adults. Eh, I could take pictures from outside the fence and save 2 Euros. We handed them enough coinage and found a bench where we could watch in but not actually have to sit among the running bulls. As it was before 3 and not Wednesday (because French children just don’t have school on Wednesday) it wasn’t terribly crowded. The kids befriended a couple of other visitng American kids, Eric took this time to enjoy a nap in the shade, while I read a book (The Sympathizer) and took a few pictures. We ended up spending almost four hours total in the park, and enjoyed every single second of it. 

Fast times on the flying fox

Zut Alors! The Métro!


We popped down to the metro and found it…packed. Cheek by jowl (and guarding our pockets) we made it home and conjured up dinner. This evening from Maison Plisson, a high end small grocery store and cafe around the corner from our flat, akin to Dean and DeLuca. Fresh ricotta and spinach tortellini and a side salad made a perfect summer meal.


After dinner, we let the kids entertain themselves (translation: play Minecraft and some game called Animal Jam on the iPad) while Eric and I scouted out some speakeasy cocktail bars in the area. The first one was Candelaria, in which you walk up to a hole-in-the-wall taco joint with maybe six seats in it, serving up fresh tacos off a flat grill. At first we looked at each other, thinking, this can’t be the place, but then we saw someone exiting through a false wall in the back! We slid on through and found ourselves in a small well lit space, the bottles behind the bar glowing from golden light. 


We texted the kids, and as they were fine we decided on another stop – the Red Door. There was a doorman holding the false door open, so this element was no surprise this time, but the fun was that all the drinks were based on architectural styles. Eric chose a “Brutalism” which came served, appropriately, in a concrete columnar glass. Perfect. I chose “Modernism” mostly because it came in a very long-stemmed bowl cocktail glass which felt quite elegant. We chatted with the British waitress afterwards – the staff was responsible for the thoughtful drinks, and she told us they considered various ingredients for months before putting the drinks together. The Brutalism, for example, has ingredients that are all treated rather harshly – burnt roasted orange, oxidized vermouth – down to the coated and fried baby’s breath garnish on top which was indeed edible. I took a bite of the flowers, syrupy and crunchy without being overly sweet.

 

Brutalism and Modernism side by side in cocktail form


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The next morning, Eric woke up with a headache and nausea. “I feel terrible,” he groaned. “I think you might have a hangover,” I replied. “I only had two cocktails though!” he said back. Unfortunately, when you are generally a relatively light drinker of beer (no more than two a night) two cocktails with any possible combination of alcohols can easily do you under. For better or worse, I was not so afflicted and so once it was clear that Eric wasn’t suddenly struck with meningitis or another life threatening condition, the kids and I took off to see the pyramid of the Louvre and then visit the Musee d’Orsay, complete with a picnic in the Tuilleries along the way.

 

Most of the time when I’m out and about, I just put my money in a deep inside pouch of my backpack, but today I thought that with going into tourist territory, I’d be better off with my money in a fanny pack (yes, I do have one) right in front of me. As we boarded the relatively empty metro at our first stop, I suddenly felt a few people shove into me forcefully and push me back. I was pushed into the kids, they were pushed into the people behind me, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. A group of British women behind me started talking about times when they were pickpocketed, which made me wonder. We were all crammed intogether in a small space, and then one of the women, teenager really, who had pushed me picked up my coin purse off the ground and handed it to me. Turns out – I HAD been pickpocketed! Given that my attention was entirely on the kids, I hadn’t noticed the group of women hanging around at the station looking for easy targets (me). When they pushed us all in, my focus was nowhere near my money and it was easy for them to zip open my bag and then lift out my coin purse. Now, I actually keep my credit card, driver’s license and a little cash in that, but if you were to pick it up it feels empty. After the thieves got off at the next stop, I checked my coin purse and saw that everything was still in it. The cash, about 50 Euros, wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but to lose my license and credit card would have been a real hassle. The British tourists behind me said that they thought that perhaps the would-be thieves returned my wallet because they felt found out, but I partly think it’s because they thought that there wasn’t anything valuable in it. At any rate, deep into the backpack went the little coin purse. I kept the fanny pack for my phone and for decoy. Mostly though, I felt incredibly foolish – here I am, someone who’s been all over and considers herself a savvy traveler, getting taken for the oldest trick in the book. Sheesh. 

The Louvre? Who cares! BUBBLES!!

After this, we exited at the Louvre where I was triply careful, and walked past the pyramid. I gazed upon the I.M. Pei piece in wonder and gawked at the huge palatial buildings around me, the former Paris residence of Kings Charles V through Louis XIV.  The kids saw “BUBBLES!!” and ran off to play, with barely a sideways glance at the architectural masterpiece. One of the really nice things about having more time in a place is that you don’t have to feel rushed to always be getting somewhere, so bubbles it was. 

MORE BUBBLES!


We spent about twenty minutes in front of the Louvre while they chased bubbles big and small in the sunshine, before heading to Eric Kayser to grab a baguette and some drinks. This time, I’d marked out a few places before we set out for our trip so we wouldn’t wander forever. I’d brought some cheese and salad from dinner the night before, and we settled for a picnic in the Tuilleries. After this we walked over to the Musee D’Orsay, the Impressionist museum across the Seine from the Louvre. Housed in a former train station, the building itself is a gorgeous sight. I’d purchased e-tickets that morning, so we just walked into the museum and skipped the line. Side travel note: I cannot tell you how many times I’ve skipped a line buy buying e-tickets. Why everyone doesn’t do this is beyond me, since most of the people I see in lines are staring at their smartphones. I’ve even bought e-tickets while waiting in a line and then simply left and walked into the speed entrance. Granted there are times this isn’t possible, but for all others, why not? It is always, always worth the extra Euro per person. 

Looking up at lady liberty

There’s an exhibition at the D’Orsay currently on spiritualism and Impressionism. It was packed. We moved slowly, waiting for popular paintings to be able to get in closer without pushing people. Whenever I go to an art museum, I always like to find an artist I like who I’ve never heard of before. This time it was Odilion Redon, who paints dreamlike scenes that draw you into the miasma, so different from other impressionists who generally stick to real-life scenes, painted softly. 

Tree on Yellow Background by Odilon Redon. (Sorry for the crappy photo, best I could get in the crowded gallery)

While the kids and I were looking at an artwork, and I pulled the girl closer to me so that she wouldn’t be in someone’s way, I heard an angry British voice behind me (again with the Brits! What country is this?) “See there?! You just moved in front of me!! I was trying to read the information and you just moved right in my way!!!” I looked back at the man who was at my eye level and said coolly, “There’s no need for that. I wasn’t aware that I moved into your way. All you had to say was ‘Excuse Me, I can’t read the sign anymore,’ and I would have happily moved aside.” “Well! I can’t even look at a piece of art around here without people stepping in front of me!!” he exclaimed back. “It seems to me you need to work on your manners.” I admonished quietly. “My manners are FINE,” he said back angrily. “That’s … debatable,” I said. He moved on, and a French woman next to me said, “You guys are being fine! I don’t know what his problem is. Some people just want to be unhappy.” Indeed. We walked through the rest of the gallery, not letting the incident mar our time there, and later crossing paths with the French woman from time to time and exchanging words of amazement with her about the beautiful paintings.

I CANNOT find the. name of this artist. Internet, if you know it, help.

After a walk through the van Gogh and pointillism galleries, we headed back home to meet up with Rob, Dana and their son S who had flown over from Timisoara to meet up with us!! I’m again floored by people who take time and space out of their lives to meet up with us, and am always, always grateful. This time dinner was from a traiteur, a tip we’d learned from Bruce the bike guy. Traiteurs are takeaway catering places, and we’d walked by a Greek one near our house the last few days. This time we went in and found a little place with a cooler full of delicious looking Greek spreads and foods.  I asked if I could take a picture, and the woman there said “only of the food! I don’t even have any makeup on!” I told her truthfully that she looked beautiful, and snapped a few shots. 

 

We loaded up on dolmades, olives, hummus, artichoke spread, greek salad, tabbouleh, and sarmale that the proprietor told us “people come from far away to eat.” She wasn’t wrong, and we had a happy evening catching up over the delicious food.

-s

In which I feel a bit homesick, and later am told that we’re a pagan family

A few weeks ago I took a short trip back to America, to visit my sister and my brand new nephew!

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Look at this adorable family!

I thought he was pretty cute. Here he is in some of the handknits I’ve made for him, and there will be more.

Being with a newborn again makes me reflect on parenting in general, especially as my children start to begin the process of pulling away even more. Your baby is wholly dependent on you for care and often for food, and you are quite literally their whole world. You’re physically in contact with your baby for most of your waking hours, and often much of your sleeping hours as well.

 

Over the years that changes, to where the kids separate more, to feeding and toileting themselves, dressing themselves, and to now where there are large swaths of time where I have absolutely no clue exactly where they are or what they’re doing. At night, we still have snuggle time where I crawl into bed with the kids and we chat for a bit before I kiss them goodnight and they go to sleep. I sense, however, my time doing this is coming to a close especially for my older one. At some point it’ll feel weird and I don’t picture myself getting into my 16 year old’s bed to snuggle anymore, just maybe a kiss on the forehead if that. It’s bittersweet, to be sure, in that I’m happy for this independence and I certainly wouldn’t want it differently, but the difference is stark and made me nostalgic for those heady early days, where despite the sleep deprivation and difficulties, you had a tiny little being that only wanted to cuddle in your arms all day long.

 

Being back in the States was fantastic. It can get wearisome to always feel like a stranger, so to be in New York where I just understand how things WORK was such a relief. I was also lucky enough to have friends  who could travel to see me and got to spend time with them, and marvel on what good friends I have. This was soul-reviving, to be with people who I could just relax with instead of having to feel like I was “on,” and I’ll admit that I was feeling quite homesick after the journey.

 

Back in Ireland, I returned to spring break and a trip out west. First stop was to get the rental car from the airport. Eric had made the reservations and so went to pick up the car, but when he arrived, it turned out that his US Driver’s license had expired! Of all the details to overlook. So out I went to fetch the car, and did all the driving along the way. We did upgrade to an automatic transmission, which I was glad of after I nearly got into an accident on the way home in one of the roundabouts. Tricky things, those are.

 

As I sat down to write this blog post out, I looked through the pictures I took of the trip. For once, there just weren’t all that many. I wish I could tell you that this was due to some nobler purpose of being so involved in the moment that I couldn’t pull out my camera, but I feel the truth is simpler – I was feeling a bit travel weary on this trip. It’s a complicated moment in our time away, where I’m simultaneously itching to move again, bored with being in one place, and yet tired of feeling like we’re on a trip. That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy this leg to see more of Ireland, but we couldn’t help but feel that we would have enjoyed it more from a warm beach, with an umbrella-garnished cocktail in one hand.

 

We started in Dingle, a peninsula on the southwest coast. We checked in to our hotel and started chatting with the proprietor about living in Maynooth and the kids being in Catholic schools, given that it was Easter weekend. She asked, “If you don’t mind, what religion do ye follow?” I didn’t mind at all, shrugged my shoulders and replied, “We’re really not religious, don’t follow anything in particular.” At which point the girl piped up and said loudly, “We’re Pagan!” as the boy nodded vigorously beside her. The hotel owner looked simultaneously shocked and entertained, I tried to correct the kids but they kept insisting that they were indeed pagan as they believed in the Norse gods, and Greek gods, and Hindu gods, and what have you. I suppose this summer we’ll be dancing around the Beltane fires at this rate.

A stop on the Slea Head drive around the coast

A favorite stop was the Dingle Brewery where we had a glass of Crean lager and chatted with Paudie, whom the girl informed “had a name that sounds like ‘bathroom’ in America.” Awesome. She’s making friends all over this island. Tom Crean is a local hero in Kerry, and rightfully a proper badass.  Known as a famous Arctic explorer, he took three separate trips to the South Pole in the early 1900s, was turned around each time, dealt with frostbite, starvation, team members dying, and at one point walked solo across the ice for 35 miles to save a colleague. After the last trip he returned to Kerry, settled down to raise three children and opened a pub. I’m happy to report that the lager brewed in his name is quite delicious, made from spring water near the brewery itself. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a glass of fresher tasting beer, and it made me appreciate lagers again after years of being an almost exclusive IPA drinker.

Enjoying a pint in a recreation of the arctic sailing vessels

Next was a drive northward to Westport, where we stopped in at the stunning Cliffs of Moher along the way. Also known as the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride, or the Horcrux cave site from Harry Potter, a sheer 600 foot drop from the edge to the ocean is carved out of rock. A signboard tells you of the types of birds that nest on the cliffs, and upon seeing this I yelped “PUFFINS!” so loudly that Eric jumped. Like daughter like mother, I suppose. Thankfully, we were well inland when this happened, else he might have had a long journey down. I was so excited to possibly see a puffin (puffins!) but alas, they had gone sea fishing in the afternoon and I was disappointed. You know you’re not in America when there’s nothing to block you from a cliff edge other than a few signs that warn “danger” in a half-hearted way.

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The next day the girl woke with a fever. Because I’m a medical parent, and I have little sympathy unless you have an obviously broken bone or an active hemorrhage, we popped a few ibuprofen into her, proceeded to rent bikes and took off on the Great Western Greenway. This is a 27 mile long trail from Westport to Achill island, with exit points along the way. We decided to go for the 19 mile section and take a shuttle back. It’s almost all entirely car-free, which is a rarity for cycling here and was utterly gorgeous. The mountain Croagh Patrick is in the distance, and all about you are peaceful rolling hills and grazing sheep, goats, and some curious cows. Around mile 15 of 19, the trail became almost entirely uphill, and the girl may have wept a bit at this point. We may have said things like “Come on, we just have to keep pedaling!” and she may have wailed back “Fine! Fine! Just leave me behind!! You don’t even care about me, DO YOU?!?!”  After about a mile of this, however, the trail again turned downhill, she hopped on and returned to her usual sanguine self.  I swear, I don’t know many adults who would have been able to do what she did, she is so, so tough.

 

Our last stop was to Donegal on the Northwest coast. Along the way, we stopped in at the Country Life Museum. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a dark room with a butter churn and walls covered in text, as I’ve seen in some other museums. This is however an incredible place. Displays about Irish rural life from prefamine to the 1960s bring to life what was clearly a very difficult existence. I felt like I was walking in a real life “These are the people in your neighborhood” song from Sesame Street.

Listening to school lessons, trying his hand at the butter churn (yes,there was one after all), and hand woven straw baskets


 We tried to hike up Slieve League the next day, but were stymied by fog. Another high cliff like those of Moher, there’s supposedly a gorgeous view up there but it was not to be for us. I looked for signs of puffins as well, and again they were not to be.

 
The Donegal Yarns workshop was a delight. Rooms filled with beautiful yarns and handwoven and handknitted scarves, sweaters and hats. Fun fact: most wool in Irish products does not come from sheep living here, and is imported from England, New Zealand and Australia. One Irish season is enough to turn the softest sheep’s wool into Brillo pads, and as such the wool is exported for upholstery. Most of the adorable lambs you see tottering about on the side of the road are fated to end up on your dinner plate in the next few weeks.

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Upstairs is the weaving room, where fabrics are created as they always were, on long hand looms with foot pedals, by one person at a time.  Behind that is the spinning room, where the dyed fleece comes in and is mixed into skeins for the weaving, and then the sewing room where the fabrics are made into their final product.
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Here he is in action, the rhythmic click clack of the loom with each shuttle pass taps out a cadence for him to follow. Unfortunately, the sound didn’t record so you’ll have to use your imagination.

On the way back home we visited the Corlea Trackway Museum, where an ancient 2000 year old wooden bog trackway has been preserved. No one knows what this road was for – there are many such roads along the spongy bogs, which were heavily trafficked as ways to cross over without sinking into the sludge, but this one remains pristine. It was a long road, and took months and many people to construct, and as such is a mystery as to why, after all that work, it remains unused.

 

We’re back in Maynooth now, and glad to be here. We pulled up in the rental car, I dropped Eric and the kids off to go and return it, and when I got back the kids were nowhere to be seen, having run off to join their friends somewhere in the green of the estate. I think I’ll have a glass of the Crean’s lager we brought back with us.

 

 

In which we make a shift in plans and head for Spain

The initial plan for our break between Romania and Ireland was to travel to India. I thought we’d have a good four weeks there, but the Romanian refused to give us the dates of winter break until after we’d arrived, so we learned late that it would only be two and a half. When we were in Budapest we tried going to the embassy to get a visa, only to be met by a malodorous clerk who informed us, after an hour of waiting in a small cheerless room with a random table of Ayurvedic products for sale, that it would take five weeks. Then when I looked at tickets to a visa on arrival airport instead, they came to about $2000/each, putting them well out of the budget for this year. In hindsight, what I should have done was get a year long visa while in the States and then buy tickets the minute we had our schedules in hand. Live and learn, and perhaps we can make it happen next year with better planning.
We decided instead on a shorter hop to Spain, and using one of the discount airlines in Europe (the somewhat off-color named “Wizz Air,” not joking) got a ticket from Romania to Valencia for $31 each. We pulled into Valencia in the evening, and even after the sunset the warm air was a relief from the frozen air of Timisoara we left behind. I’ve learned to book a certain type of neighborhood for us now – one that’s closeish to downtown, not in the main tourist area, residential, but still with shops and restaurants nearby, honestly similar to our own neighborhood at home. Here in Valencia, that neighborhood was Russafa. It was once a downtrodden area, but has been revitalized thanks to an influx of artists and city planning which has created more pedestrian friendly zones.

Russafa market


The next morning Eric picked up a plate of incredible pastries from Dulce de Leche, a delicious coffeeshop/bakery down the street and along with coffee at home we had a breakfast feast. It was a rare rainy day in Valencia, so with our trusty Tokyo Disney umbrellas in hand, we made our way Eastward to the Jardin de Turia park and then the Science museum. The Turia river had run through the city of Valencia, but after recurrent flooding was diverted and the riverbed converted to a large green space that snakes through the center of the city and ends in the City of Arts and Sciences buildings, including the science museum, aquarium, theater, and Imax among others.


The buildings are a futuristic collection of metal and glass by Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela. Locals hate them because they cost a fortune to maintain and are in continuous repair. The project also came in far over budget and is a symbol of government financial waste. As a tourist, however, I have to say that they are impressive.



The science museum was, well, adequate. Having been raised on excellent science museums, and having the highly interactive Denver one at home, I expect more than what we saw here. There’s a section called the Exploratorium, and it has a collection of the exact same experiments as the one in  San Francisco, where I spent many happy hours as a kid and, well, also as an adult. The activities are spread out in awkward ways and not well explained at all, a true disappointment when you know the magic and wonder of the original.. An exhibition on Tesla detailed his unappreciated discoveries and feud with Edison, who comes out of the whole business looking like a real jerk, but there was little to interact with and the exhibit was mostly a lot of text on the walls of the museum. Exhibits are dual language for the most part, and we used Google translate to fill in the rest with mixed results. My favorite one was where they had chicken eggs in various stages of hatching. I’m not sure, though, what happens to the chicks afterwards. I suspect a well fed reptile nearby. A pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon, in all, but I don’t know that I’d recommend this museum as a must-see. Had the weather been more amiable, exploring the park would have been nicer. 

I think he’s a little too big for the pouch anymore…


We hopped a bus home and left the kids to relax while Eric and I went out for happy hour. We’ve been doing this a fair amount on our travels to everyone’s benefit. The kids get to watch TV, we get a little time alone, then all join up for dinner, happy for the breaks. I would have thought that by now, the kids would have learned how to walk, but they are incapable of it. Always stepping on my feet, or suddenly cutting in front of me and causing me to trip and fall, or pushing me into the street, or walking in front of me and then stopping abruptly, or even running into people on the street because they aren’t watching where they are going. Sometimes I slow down a bit to let them get some space, to no avail as they also slow down and remain six inches in front of my feet. It is a full time labor of attention to simply walk with them and a relief to get a break for an hour and just enjoy the ambiance of walking around a city without it feeling like an obstacle course. 

I knew that restaurants opened late in Spain, but I wasn’t really ready for the reality of it! Many don’t open their doors until 8 pm, and even more don’t open until 9! It took some getting used to, but our schedules have adjusted to this eating schedule a bit – we wake up around 8 am, putter around until 10, have a late breakfast, late lunch, snack and then dinnner. The weather is mild and even at 9 pm you’ll see a lot of families out and about.

The next day I was forced to stay at home for the morning due to some more poor planning on my part, namely waiting until the last minute to order our rail tickets which have to be delivered to a physical address. Eurail passes are in general not that great of a deal anymore, unless you happen to have kids and then you get a “kids travel free” pass where you only pay the reservation fee for the leg of the journey, so we still opted for them. My forced torture of being home alone, no bickering of children, being stepped on, having to answer constant questions, just…peace and quiet. I don’t know how I survived it, but readers, I perservered. I met up with the kids and Eric later for some delicious veggie paella and we spent the rest of the day ambling about the neighborhoods, with the orange tree lined streets. Fun fact: Valencia oranges were actually developed by a Californian agriculturalist and have nothing to do with Valencia, Spain. 

Battle of the Graffiti


Valencia overall is a wonderful smaller city to enjoy and explore! It reminded me a lot of cities like Portland, Denver, and Austin in a way – not as massive as the level A cities, but more inimitable and full of character. 

-s

In which I say goodbye to Romania, and have one last madcap adventure

It’s our last few days here in Romania. We packed up all of our stuff we wanted shipped to Ireland, since we’re traveling for 2 weeks before we get there. It all fit into seven smallish boxes that we took to the one post office in town that handles international packages. To demonstrate our ridiculous helplessness at basic life skills here, we had four helpers to assist us mailing packages. Three of these were Eric’s delightful students here, and the fourth was Rob, who has become our guide here of “How to manage Romania as an American.”


They led us through the process of filling paperwork, then giving it to the clerk to check before sealing packages, then weighing them, getting the paperwork stamped, putting the paperwork into little pouches and sticking those on the boxes. While this was happening I heard a sound that instantly took me back to childhood, a whirring, clicking, beeping noise. I followed the sound and it took me to…a DOT MATRIX PRINTER. I stared at the relic, remembering hours of lining up the dots, then carefully tearing the edges off at the perforations.  


We followed with a lunch at a local restaurant, where we had lively discussions about the new Gilmore Girls revival, the Romanian job market, and how to steal cable. 


It’s no secret I wasn’t all that excited about Romania when we first found out we were coming here. Romania? I thought, picturing dreary landscapes with concrete blocks for miles, lines to pick up milk and eggs, and scheduled power outages. People shuffling around despondently, grandmothers with scarves tied over their ears and men with cylindrical furry hats. And when we first got here, it seemed that this would indeed be the case. 
But over time, as we learned the layout of the city, where to find things, how to do things, and I was able to let go of some of my own doubts and fears, it became increasingly warm to us. Unsurprisingly, people react to who they see, and the more open and friendly we were, the more we got in return. 

We learned so much about the world of Communism and dictatorship, what that really felt like, and the lasting impact it still has here.

Things change when you are able to build community somewhere, which makes anywhere seem like home. I’ve had more lonely and dreary times in some of the world’s best cities than I’ve had here. 

And I leave with a feeling of sadness that we’re not staying for longer to let that community grow, as it feels we’ve only just started. I’m sure we’ll find the same, and even more in Ireland as the kids will be in school and, well, we can speak the language. 

Timisoara occupies a warm place in my heart, and I’m happy that we ended up here after all. Had we been in a more Westernized city, I don’t know that we would have been able to make the same connections that we did. 


I’ll share one last story from Timisoara here, something that just wouldn’t have happened back home. The kids and I had gone to see Rogue One (excellent, btw) and hopped in a cab to take us to Viniloteca. Eric was working as assistant bartender for the night, and when we got there, he was flitting about from table to table with a frantic energy. I had run out of cash, so grabbed a 10 lei note from Eric, ran back out to pay the taxi and headed in. Lots of people were there for the amusement of watching Eric work, including many of his students. We chatted with some friends who were there, and I had a nice conversation about the differences in hospital organization with a young medical student. Eric asked me then to take pictures to document his night of servitude, and I reached in my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. I then searched my backpack, the kids’ pockets, and my pockets again, but to no avail. 
I used Eric’s phone to track it, and saw that my phone was making its merry way around Timisoara, having some fun at the mall, then heading back to city center. Clearly, I had left it in the taxi. I rang the phone remotely, hoping the driver would find the phone and bring it back, and a few times the taxi did seem it was heading back my way, only to turn in a different direction. Emile, upon hearing my plight, tried to call the taxi company to see if they could track down the driver, but was told “this is not possible.” A few other people tried to call also with the same result. At one point I had a few people clustered around me, watching my phone’s progress around the city – it had become a bar-wide event. The battery indicator of my phone, which shows up when you’re tracking it, was at an unnerving 8%. There was only one thing left to do, which was track it down ourselves. Three of Eric’s students, Dena, Roxy, and Roxi decided to help me out. They called another cab that was there in five minutes. In the meantime we changed into trenchcoats and fedoras so as to feel like we were truly private detectives on a mission, well, at least mentally we did. “Who’s going to yell ‘follow that cab’?!” I asked the girls. 
We got in the cab, they told the story to the taxi driver and while tracking my phone yelled out streets for him to go to. He picked up his phone and called the dispatcher to try and call the taxi, but that driver never picked up. I would refresh the screen, call out the street “Tigrelui!!” The girls would respond in unison “tigrelui street!” And then the driver would say “tigrelui!” Into his cell phone, talking to the dispatcher, he too now fully invested in the hunt. We followed my phone around, the battery becoming ever more depleted, until it stopped moving on a small side street. We drove down the street and off to the side, in a small lot, was the taxi I had taken! The interior dome light was on and I yelled excitedly “That’s it!” The girls and I piled out of the car and surrounded the taxi with the stolen goods. I peered in the passenger window and spied my phone on the seat “There it is!” I couldn’t believe we’d actually tracked the phone down. 
I tried to open the passenger door but it was locked. The driver got out of the car, looking incredulous at being tracked down. He stammered some lame explanation of planning to give the phone back tomorrow, which was clearly a lie. The girls and he bantered in Romanian before he finally got into the car and picked up my phone, continuing his false excuses. He gave it one last longing look then opened the passenger door and handed it back to me. We scrambled back to our car, hooting in exhiliration. On the way back home, after dropping the girls off, the taxi driver told me how happy he was we got the phone back, which was sweet. I paid him double the meter reading, a whole $15, which was a small price to pay for getting my phone back, and in all what ended up being a fun adventure. (Not that I wish to replicate the experience!)

Us, trying to look like badass detectives


I recently changed the settings on my phone’s Weather app, deleting some cities which we didn’t need anymore – Tokyo, Saigon. My kids saw what I was doing and said to me, “Make sure you always keep Timisoara on, Mom, because it’s another place we’ve called home.”
And you know what? I think I will. 

At the airport, saying goodbye with Romanian wine


-s

In which the Vatican doesn’t quite have the intended effect on our family

Our first Italian train was from Milan to Rome, on the excellent Freciarossa. Clean, modern and fast, we made the trip in just under four hours. A friendly taxi driver took us to our Air BnB, this time centrally located just next to the Pantheon.


Eric and I left the kids at the flat and walked about the streets, which are charming everywhere you go. Narrow cobblestoned pathways with small shops and restaurants around every corner. Every few streets they would open up into a plaza with a statue or obelisk of some sort. We figured the kids could use a little more time alone, so we stopped in for a few glasses at the wine bar across the way. Alex, the host at the wine bar was affable and knowledgeable about different types of Italian wines and brought us a few to try. He then told us about a wine called “Amarone,” and said that it was one of the richest and tastiest red wines they had, but only to be had at the end of the evening else one’s palate would be spoiled. After a couple glasses of other reds, we had a small taste and thought it was delicious, so asked for a glass. Alex hesitated a bit and said, “A glass? You are sure?” Yes, we’ll split one, we replied. The glass came and was shared, and it was entirely delicious. What was not delicious was our check which came to near 70 Euros. We went back the next day and learned that a glass of Amarone cost 30 Euro! We’ve seen bottles for sale elsewhere that are around 300 euro, so it’s just a very expensive wine overall. Well, at least it was tasty and honestly, had I known the cost I never would have ordered it, but can now say I’ve had $300 wine!

Early morning light in Rome, omnipresent smokers


The next day was planned by the boy. I’ve found that the kids do well with travel planning but need a real map and book to do so, which were kindly lent to us by our friend Rob. The plan was to walk south to see the old city wall, and then follow it westward to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s cathedral and the Sistine chapel. We committed to not using our phones to navigate, only maps and street signs. We quickly learned that the signs in Rome may leave out some critical turns, and we got a bit lost! We started just asking people ways to known landmarks. Our first stop was the Campo de Fiori, a former flower field now the site of a bustling market. We arrived with anticipation, perhaps we would pick up some fruit and cheese for a snack, and found the plaza entirely deserted. The boy asked a local vendor, “Scuza, where is the market?”and we learned that on Tuesdays, the market is closed. Ah. We found the church of Santa Maria and popped i to enjoy the detailed stone flooring and gilt ceiling work.

Onwards south we went, through narrow winding lanes that climbed upwards.  Worried we were getting lost and the path to the Vatican the boy had planned was unreasonably long, we stopped at a corner to catch our breath and consult the map. We had just decided to descend when two friendly walkers came upon us and asked if we needed help. They told us that our initial plan was actually a lovely walk, and if we made it up to the top we could see the firing of the noon cannon. So we continued on, Eric yelling at the girl periodically to stay out of the way of oncoming traffic, and found ourselves at the plaza Garibaldi overlooking all of Rome. Eric and I had a cappuccino whille awaiting the cannon fire. Once my eardrums stopped echoing after the blast, we went down the other side of the hill, found a simple lunch place and then headed to the Vatican. 

When the kids take pictures, they manage to make sure you have the most unflattering expressions

The museums of the Vatican are massive, and contain room upon room of antiquities Greek and Roman. Every room is decorated with opulent gilding on the doors, the ceilings with elaborate paintings, and the overall effect is rather overwhelming. I think I’m supposed to be awed, but mostly it makes me think of the extravagance and wealth of the Catholic church, and how it seems hypocritical given that there’s something about rich men and camels and needles in the Bible, but what do I know. By far our favorite was “The map room,” a long hall with frescoed maps on either side.


The Sistine chapel is truly beautiful – no pictures allowed inside. We’ve all seen the closeup shot of Adam and God, but I didn’t know that the entire rest of the chapel is decorated with frescoes as well. Michelangelo did a series of them telling the story of Creation, each more detailed than the last. One wall is a bright fresco of the Last Judgement, demons and hell in grotesque details that was truly shocking for the time. His painting was, in a way, a rebuke of the church’s control and an expression of artistic freedom- he had been hired to paint pictures of Popes and saints, and instead used his art to depict something quite different, to tell the story of God instead of painting hagiographies of Popes past. 
Our feet were quite tired by the end of this, and my phone pedometer told me we’d walked eight miles already. One last stop at St. Peter’s Cathedral, the largest church in the world. It was time for vespers and the choral singing lent a hallowed air to the cathedral, though again, it’s hard for me not to feel a sense of overdoneness with all of the grand churches. The reverent purpose of the church is also lost on the girl, who exited Vatican city and came up with this sacrilegious joke: “What’s Jesus’ least favorite letter? A T!” We shushed her and told her not to say it too loudly, at least until we were out of hearing range of the Pope.

Our next day was another big touring day, this time with a later start. We walked down to the Colosseum, excited to see the grand spectacle. One advantage of travelling in the off season is that there are no lines to get into any of the main tourist sites in Italy, as opposed to summer where you could end up waiting three to four hours just to get a ticket. We really had wanted to do the extra tour where you could see the upper level and the basement, but when I went to purchase, the ticket seller said, “All English tours are sold out for today. There is a Spanish tour at 1 and two Italian tours in the afternoon.” Eric and I looked at each other, shrugged, turning the corners of our mouths downward in a “what the hell” expression, and signed up for the Spanish tour. Between the two of us, I figured we’d have enough Spanish to figure it out. The kids were free for both entry and the tour, so it wasn’t a big loss on that end. 
We entered at first to the grand arena, thinking of the brutality that occurred there, imagining tens of thousands of Romans cheering and jeering a bloodbath below. 


It was time for our tour and we hurried off. Our tour guide was an animated young man, and more often than not we were grateful for the hand gestures to help us understand what he was saying. I mean, I can get myself through a train station and even a hospital in Spanish, but understanding a tour about the construction of Ancient Rome is another thing. The Hypogeum, or basement, was really interesting – the old stones and a reconstructed wooden contraption to show how animals and props were brought out onto the stage from below, a water gutter as well for drainage. Fun fact: before the basement was constructed, the floor of the Colosseum was solid enough that they would fill it with water for aquatic competitions! Boats would be floated in and grand maritime battles were staged, all in the space of the arena. Much of the Colosseum was made out of valuable marble and travertine, all of which were stripped away for use in other buildings when the arena fell into disuse, leaving only the stone foundations. 



 Our tour guide kept talking about huevos… huevos this huevos that. Eric and I wondered what it was about eggs that was so important to ancient Romans. Perhaps it was a slang word for something that we weren’t quite getting, I mean there were a lot of male gladiators. Near the end of the tour, I realized he was saying “juegos”! Aha! Games!! Given this, I think we probably got about 40-50% of the tour, though I’m not sure if I understood him correctly when he talked about the ancient audience taking pictures and tweeting about the fights. Every now and then I’d stop to translate for the kids, sure that it was something like a game of Telephone,, where little of the original information reaches the final recipient.
Our last day in Rome was one of wandering and souvenir shopping, more meandering the small streets.  Campo de Fiori was operational, and we picked up fresh tomatoes, cheese, pesto and some bread for lunch. 

 We found our way past the Trevi fountain again, then onto the Spanish steps and an easy stroll back home, not before stopping at the magical, magical place that is the Lindt store. Bins and bins of chocolate truffles in whatever flavor your heart may desire.  My heart desired almost all of them, except for cherry because that is revolting.

In the morning, we had one last stop at the Pantheon, the boy’s favorite place to visit, before heading out to Venice. Imagine, a building that is 2,000 years old, still standing and in use as a worship site as per its initial intention. 


-s

In which we find that we quite like Milan

Eric had a trip to Bologna lined up to visit colleagues there, initially planning on a five day trip as he had to teach on December 2nd. Of course, this being Romania, it was announced a few weeks before that classes would be cancelled on that day as the previous day was a holiday for Romanian National Day. We looked for cheap flights to Italy to leave the week prior and found that we could fly one way into Milan for €30 per person. Done.
Milan is not thought of as a big tourist destination, lacking the old world charm of Rome and the tourist draw of the Venetian canals. Even the tour books say bluntly “Milan is not a city that rewards casual strolling. Take the metro.”It’s known as more of a business and fashion capital, but is becoming more popular. We landed in the afternoon into Bergamo airport, one hour away by comfortable shuttle bus. Looking up directions to our Air BnB, I anticipated a bit of a walk from the center of town. This is where paying attention to the scale of a map is important. We ended up needing a subway ride to the end of the line, then a walk through a somewhat desolate area. A somewhat derelict building lay ahead, and I found myself hoping that it wouldn’t be our place. As we walked up a dog began to bark menacingly at us behind the gate, and a small handwritten “bnb” sign on dirty paper taped to the black iron. My heart sank, wondering what we would find inside. Thankfully, the dog was actually quite friendly and the space itself was large and clean and even had a piano, though it was rather far from the city center. 
We found our way to a nearby restaurant at 7:15 and walked in, finding the space bright and cheerful. “Do you have reservations?” No, we didn’t, so she gave us a concerned look and said that she had a free table until 8:45. An hour and a half for dinner seemed preposterous to us, but now seeing how the Italians eat super leisurely, I can understand her concern. The boy, excited to see gnocchi on the menu ordered those. In a few minutes a hot basket of fried dough pieces arrived! Delicious, but not the gnocchi we had been thinking of! Turns out, of course, gnocchi here can just mean “little pieces” or dumplings, not the potato gnocchi we think of. We munched away on the happy surprise. The girl had the first of many caprese salads whe would eat on this trip.  We noticed all the other Italians finishing their meals with a bright yellow liquid. “What is that?” We asked our waitress. “Limoncello! I bring you some as a gift.” Tasty stuff, and like the liquid version of lemonheads candy as was described to me later. We finished our meals with this whenever possible and I highly recommend you do the same if offered the chance.
 I had worried that we would find Italians to be unfriendly based on what I had read, and I can say that this is categorically not the case. Of course, I have a different standard for immediate friendliness based on my time in Romania, but again, if you smile, say a few words in Italian, and aren’t generally rude, I’ve found that Italians are generally kind and playful and most importantly, sweet to my children. 
The following day was our big tourist one. We started off by a visit to “The Last Supper.” I wasn’t expecting much to tell you the truth. I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of this work of art so much we can recognize it anywhere. But much like seeing “Starry Night” in person, it is a different experience to be there. The painting occupies an entire wall of the chapel, and was painted over a long period of time so that da Vinci was able to perfect the details. Unfortunately, this meant that it was not done as a fresco and thus has degraded quite a bit. Frescoes are painted onto wet plaster and have great longevity, appearing brilliant centuries afterwards, but paint on a surface fades and wears away. You can still see the expressions on the faces, ranging from anger to sadness to disbelief, at the moment Christ tells his followers that one of them has betrayed him.  I did get a giggle out of the fact that the doorway right below Jesus had been enlarged at some point, and the workers failed to notice that they sliced away his feet in the process. I can only imagine the conversation between the priest and the contractors after that happened. “Salvatore, what have you done with the feet of our Lord?!” “Father, you said you wished for a taller door, I have given you a taller door, who needs feet anyway, he is going to ascend to heaven soon.” After which Salvatore quietly disappears. 


There’s a well known science museum in Milan, and as it is steps away from there, we stopped in. They had a long display of da Vinci’s machines brought to life from drawings, and we spent a lot of time to see if we could figure out how they worked, just amazed by the ingenuity and brilliance of da Vinci. They also have incredible exhibitions on everything from Electricity to Steel, World’s fairs to Reusable Energy. We simply did not have enough time here!


Afterwards we headed out for a bicycle tour I had arranged before we arrived. I love bicycle tours, as you get to see so much of a city and spend time with a local resident as well. My favorite sight was the “forest apartment” buildings: 



Trees on every level chosen by arborists, maintained by the buildings. In the fall they have turned lovely shades of red and orange and are striking against the skyline. Unsurprisingly, this is a plum piece of real estate and inhabited by the Milano elite. Then a roll through the fall-orange central park and the main palace in which some bizarre silent crowd gathering was happening. A woman with a headset guided a large group all wearing headphones to move from one side to the other, raise hands, lower them, put on vests… It remains a mystery to us and to our guide, who was of no help in solving it.

We ended at the Duomo, a striking baroque cathedral which is large, ornate, and made of such delicate pink marble that some part of it is always in disrepair and scaffolding is ever present. Each of the hundreds of statues on the spires must be replaced every fifty years or so, ensuring that generations of sculptors should be employed for years to come. The sun had dropped by this time as had the temperature, and we were all chilled before we got back to the bike depot and off our bikes, into a warm place for dinner and then the train trek home. 

Milan is definitely worth a visit of at least a few days! I would have liked more time at the museum and som etime to shop, as the merchandise was enticing. Next time, perhaps?
-s

In which we make key lime bars and learn something in the process

We get a lot of questions about how we’re educating the kids. Aren’t you worried about them falling behind in school? How do you know they’re learning anything? Do they need to prove anything to the school when they return? (The answer to that last one is no) And sure, we’re doing some academic formal schooling, but sometimes the lessons are those that come from just being somewhere else. 
Yesterday, the boys went off to a yoga class and left the girl and I for a little time alone. After a bit of reading, we thought we’d engage in the classic teenage banter of “I don’t know, what do YOU want to do?” Mulling over the park (too cold), the mall (uh, no), we settled on baking. Initially, I chose a salted caramel brownie recipe but then the girl saw a link for key lime pie, her and her brother’s favorite. I thought we should make it a little easier and go for bars instead, and off we went to the grocery store, shopping list in hand. Limes, butter, eggs, gingersnaps, cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk. A few veggies for dinner too.

She insisted on putting the coin in for the shopping cart herself. Here, the carts are chained together to prevent theft, and to use one while you’re in the store you insert a 50 cent coin that you get back if you reattach them. 

We got into the store, crowded as usual, and set about to find our ingredients. Limes were the first one. Would they be next to the lemons and other citrus fruit? No. Near the refrigerated section? No. Would we have to abandon our mission? No, we kept looking and found them tucked in between the ginger and the pomegranates, in what I think is the “exotic fruit” area. 

Butter, eggs,cream cheese were no difficulty. The next barrier was the gingersnaps. Walking through the aisles, none were to be seen. We thought, maybe we’ll substitute with graham crackers, but again no familiar boxes of grahams, even after studying the pictures. We settled on McVitie’s digestives, a crumbly round biscuit that resembles graham crackers, though doesn’t have their cardboard like properties.  
Then came the sweetened condensed milk. I actually thought this wouldn’t be a problem since it seemed to me preserved canned milk would be common for a prior Communist state, and headed for the packaged milk section to look for the familiar cans of Carnation. Of course, none were to be found. We searched the baking aisle, the sweets aisle (all on opposite sides of the store) and then one last search in the milk section. In the States, if a certain store doesn’t have an essential ingredient I’m looking for, I tend to do one of two things. Either I give up on that recipe for the day or I just get in my car and drive to another store where it will be and I can be out in five minutes. Here, it’s a bigger deal. If we wanted to go to the bigger store, at the mall of course, it’s a half mile walk and far more crowded. It would take us an hour. The girl, undaunted, was all for the extra effort of going, just to be able to make our recipe. One more desperate scan in the milk aisle showed me two bottles that looked like they had condensed milk. Was it sweetened? Who knows – the nutritional info label, in German, was covered up by a sticker in Romanian that I couldn’t translate. 
We made our way out of the store, not before being veggie shamed by the checkout lady as I thought the cucumbers we got were priced by the number, not kilo, and got home. 
The milk was just evaporated milk as it turns out, so I looked up how to make it into sweetened condensed, which involves a little sugar and and a lot of simmering. While that was happening, the girl got the other ingredients going until it was time to crumble the cookies. Lacking a food processor or blender, we crumbled them by hand until we had a relatively fine meal, using the flat side of a meat pounder for the rest. 

We don’t have a 9×11 pan, but do have a tart pan so used that instead. No mixer to beat the cream, so did it with a hand whisk, triceps aching by the time stiff peaks formed. Had to figure out what the oven temperature should be in celsius to set it correctly. Melted butter in a pan on the stove as we don’t have a microwave. Throughout all of this, not one peep of complaint or whining from the girl, even though this was much harder than it would be at home.



In the end, it all worked and we had some tasty lime bars. Sorry, this is the only picture I was able to get before the hordes gobbled them up. 

My point is this – one thing you can’t learn in a school is the essential lesson of learning how to figure something out. Maybe things don’t work exactly as you want or expect them to, maybe it’s harder than you anticipated, but you learn to make it work. I think it’s hard to do this in your familiar environnment as you know how things work and it’s set up for you. If I were Romanian and coming to the States, I’d be lamenting how to substitute for smantana and papanasi mix instead – it’s not about US vs other, it’s just about being somewhere where things are unfamiliar, being away from home. 
More than all the history and the culture, it’s things like this I think are the true value of leaving home, stepping outside your comfort zone. So while my kids may be missing out on watching a bean seed soak in paper toweling and sprout or making a solar system model out of styrofoam balls, my hope is that the lessons they are learning make sure if they ever need to figure something out, they’ll know how to.  

-s