Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Most of What I Know about God, I Learned from my Children

Do you ever wonder why God chose to organize the human reproductive system the way He did? Don't worry - this is not going to be a PG-13 rated blog. But just think, He could have made us like mushrooms that reproduce by spreading spores on the wind. He could have chosen to make us like amoebas that reproduce through mitosis, creating a virtually identical replica of ourselves. He could have made us like sea turtles who leave their eggs to hatch in the sand and their offspring to find their own way into the sea.

So why did God create human offspring to be needy? To require care and feeding for years? To have their own unique characteristics, personalities, and will - often diametrically opposed to that of their parents? Why did God create them with the ability - even the propensity - to disobey our instruction, even to their own harm?

I don't know if this is what God had in mind when he created children with a mind of their own and yet with the need for long-term parenting, but my children have taught me more than any preacher or teacher ever could about my relationship with God.

I remember times when I had to discipline them to help them learn a tough lesson. And God showed me how He also allows painful lessons to teach me.

I remember holding them when they suffered through an immunization, knowing that the ultimate result would be for their good. And times when God showed me that the pain of my momentary suffering was worth the benefit in eternity.

I remember having to deny them something they wanted with all their heart - because I knew it would not be in their best interests. And God speaks the same words to my own heart when I pursue a dangerous course.

I remember my kids as toddlers clinging to me when they were in need - just as I cling to God in times of trouble.

Often when my children said, "I don't want to." "That's not fair." "Why me?" "I can't." I could almost hear God saying to me, "That's what you're saying to me! But I have your best interests at heart, just as you have your children's. Trust me, just as you want your children to trust you."

I remember thinking at times, "Is this how God feels when I mess up?" as I watched my child ignore godly counsel and go their own way. Or, thankfully more often, when they made a wise choice,  "Is this how God feels when I get it right?"

There were moments when their safety or health were at risk and I recall thinking that I would gladly take whatever pain, whatever suffering, whatever disability or death, any possible consequence if only to protect them from that consequence.

Isn't that a picture of God's grace?

God created everything with purpose. We could spend our whole lives studying his creation and still not be able to grasp the whole purpose behind each element of His design. But perhaps one reason He designed us to reproduce children who need our care, yet sometimes reject our authority, is to give us a better understanding of His unconditional and sacrificial love.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Separation Anxiety

A friend recently mentioned how her three-year-old son follows her around the house from room to room as she puts away the clean, folded laundry. He just watches her. Do you remember those days? I vividly recall my own children at that age wanting to always be in my presence - it was years before I could even use the restroom in peace!

Children follow us because they love us, their parents, unconditionally. They want to be with us 24/7 - which often leads to some real hysteria when we try to put them to bed or leave them with a sitter.

But isn't that a beautiful picture of what our love for Christ should be?
I was reading in John Chapter 14 this morning. It begins with Christ's familiar admonition for us to not be troubled because He is going to prepare a place for us and will return to take us to that place. Doesn't that sound just like a parent comforting their child? "Mommy and Daddy will be back soon!" He goes on to say, in verse 13, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father."

Please don't get me wrong - I do NOT subscribe to a prosperity gospel. God's Word is very clear that in this world we will have tribulation and the examples from the early church are stark reminders of how devastating those tribulations may be. However, Christ clearly says, "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." I believe that we can have confidence when we ask for something that glorifies God, He will provide whatever we ask.

After reading this, I prayed for two areas that have long been struggles - areas that I feel like my life fails to glorify God in. I long to see Christ give victory in these things - not for what it will do for me, but because I want to boast on what God has done! I want others to know that God has conquered these things in my life and He can conquer whatever enemy they are facing as well. I prayed, "Lord, help me to know how to receive the victory that I know is already yours!"

And then I turned the page of my bible to verse 15. "If you love me, you will obey what I command."


So I prayed, "Lord, I want to obey - help me to do your will!"

Verse 16. "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever - the Spirit of Truth."

Isn't that precious? Don't you love how God answers prayer from His Word?

In order to obey the Lord, I need to have my eyes set on him just like those of a toddler are set on their mother and father. Follow Him wherever He leads. Cling to Him, especially when I'm scared or confused. Refuse to turn to anyone or anything else for comfort. Run back to Him as soon as I realize I've strayed.

The chapter finishes with such a strong reminder of who our battle is with - "...for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me."

I pray that the same could be said of me - that "I do exactly what my Father has commanded me."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Who Are You?

Maybe I should stop reading the news. Maybe it's just too depressing, too disturbing, too filled with strong evidence that we live in a fallen world.

Two stories really shook me up this week. The first was the story out of China of a toddler, hit by two different vans, left bleeding in the street while 18 people walked, bicycled, and strolled past her broken body. Security cameras caught these people turning and looking, practically stepping over her, clearly aware of the child injured so badly that news stations blurred the image to spare us the view. But before we condemn them, we should recognize - this could have happened anywhere. China has not cornered the market on heartless insensitivity to children.

The second story was that of young girls in India participating in a 're-naming' ceremony. You see, their parents had looked upon them at the moment of their birth and chose to name them "Unwanted" in Hindi. Can you imagine? I think of the moment when I gazed into the precious face of each of my children and try to conjure up what circumstance, what horrible life history, could cause a person in that moment to hang such a hideous epithet on their own child. The government, recognizing that their society is doomed if it continues in its current trend toward a preponderance of males, is trying to right this wrong and allow these girls to select their own name - trying to give them hope to persevere in a very difficult life.

I attended a lecture recently on globalization - working in a 'flatter' world. The idea is simple and pervasive - the differences between us are disappearing. We are becoming one society - whether we like it or not. These news stories from the other side of the globe are not about 'them' and 'us' - they are all about us. The human race. Do we need any further evidence that we live in a fallen world? That we are sinful people? That we desperately need a savior? Not a savior - THE savior?

Juxtaposed against these news stories is a story from our mission team's recent trip to India - about a young girl who suffered from an infection that prevented her from being allowed into the building they were teaching and preaching in. So she stood by the window, listening, watching - taking it all in. For six hours she stood there. Can you imagine? We complain about standing in line for 20 minutes to spend $5 to ride a two-minute thrill ride at the fair!

You see, the world is not only desperately in need - many of them KNOW they are in need. They know they are sinful. They want the forgiveness provided through Jesus, but have never heard the truth. Another heartbreaking story from their trip to India was the sight they saw of people walking as much as thirty miles, barefoot, because they believed that this pilgrimage would bring them forgiveness for their sins!

Of course, there are millions who have heard. Who don't believe they need a savior. They spend their lives happily comparing themselves to 'the next guy.' You know what I mean, "I'm as good as the next guy." Problem is - the next guy is sinful too! They're like the Pharisee who puffed out his chest in pride and said, "Thank God I'm not like that tax collector"; when in reality they are so much worse.

So which are you? Are you the careless driver, leaving a trail of wrecked lives behind you and ignoring it as you go on with your life? The heartless bystander ignoring someone in obvious need? The child named "Unwanted" searching for someone to love you? The parent who allowed the cares of the world to rob the most precious blessing from your life? The girl at the window, eager to hear the truth? The tax collector repenting with tears or the Pharisee departing unjustified?

Whoever you are - Jesus is waiting for you.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 16! The Journey Home

Since we had booked our flights at different times, we weren't able to get on the same flight as Megan - especially unfortunate since she had a direct flight and we had another long layover in Boston. Megan had to get to a different Terminal, but the driver of the golfcart/shuttle from our hotel to Terminal 4 was able to direct her to the train that would take her right to her terminal.

Her flight had a departure time about an hour before ours so we went over to Terminal 4 together and then said goodbye. It was a very good thing that we arrived at the Terminal early...this is what it looked like when we got there:

They had a fairly orderly means of waiting in lines, with an airport employee guarding where they broke the line to provide a space for through traffic and they made sure no one used the break as an opportunity to jump in line ahead of those of us on the other side. They also had an area for weighing and re-packing your luggage, which we almost missed. We had to pull a few random items out of our suitcases in order to be within the weight limit, but they let me run each suitcase over and make adjustments and then rejoin Mom in line.

They had significantly overbooked the flight and were offering $1000 in flight vouchers plus a free hotel and meals to anyone who would wait a day to take a flight. It was a very tempting offer but Randy and I had arranged for Matt to stay with a friend for the day since Randy was leaving that morning for camp with Kelsey and Daniel. Mom was exhausted and we both were ready to be home so we said, 'No, thanks' to their offer.

After a grueling hour or so in line, we finally got checked in and found our way to the handicapped 'corral' to await Mom's transportation to the gate. We didn't have to wait too long and before we knew it we were sitting at our gate eager for the boarding call for the flight home. We were sitting in the two seats closest to the gate with Mom on the end and a small space between her seat and a pillar. All the sudden I noticed a man, in his 20-30's, who appeared Middle Eastern, squatting down beside Mom's seat, panting as if he'd been running and looking around nervously as if he were being chased. I said, "Excuse me, are you all right? Is there a problem?" He stood up, stepped across the aisle from us where a kid sat wearing a baseball cap, snatched that hat from the boy's head and placed it on his own, looking around as if he were hoping the hat would disguise him. I said, "You are acting very suspicious; I'm going to call security." The words were barely out than he tossed the hat at me and ran through the crowd back towards the main terminal. I started yelling, "Security!" When that only brought odd looks from the crowd of passengers seated around the gate, I approached the desk and explained to the Delta officials what had happened. They seemed barely interested in what I had to say and, as far as I could determine, security was not called - no one chased after the man, no security guards arrived to ask for a description - nothing!

Nothing, that is, until it was time for us to get on the plane and then I was 'randomly' selected for an additional security check - so they completely emptied my carry on bag, carefully checking every single item. I had to take off my shoes and was patted down from head to toe - for the second time that morning! Even worse - when I returned home and sent a message to Delta complaining about their lack of response to what certainly seemed like a security issue of some variety, their response was to send me a voucher for $50 off my next flight with them. They needn't hold their breath waiting for that reservation!

Once we boarded the plane, the flight was thankfully uneventful. I enjoyed watching a couple of movies - Adjustment Bureau and Soul Surfer and then we had another long layover in Boston before arriving home in time for Dad to pick us up and have dinner.

Thanks, Mom, for a great adventure!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 15!

Our last day in London dawned rainy once again. In fact, the whole time we were there it alternated between dreary rain and steamy hot sunshine about every thirty minutes it seemed.

We had decided to get a day pass on the hop-on, hop-off bus that was always outside our hotel. For about $27, we figured it was a pretty good deal rather than fighting the crowds on the London Underground. The thing we did not count on was how far removed the various sights we wanted to see were.

We set out to see the British National Museum - what can I say, I'm a sucker for mummies? But really, I wanted to see the Rosetta Stone, the Codex Alexandrinus (a 5th Century Greek Bible), and a few other highlights. Unfortunately, to reach the museum, we had to change buses - after waiting in the rain for about 20 minutes. The problem with the hop-on, hop-off buses in London is that apparently no one told them it rains there. A lot. When Mom traveled to Barcelona, the buses there had retractable covers that they could pull over the top to keep you dry if it rained. In London, they hand you a plastic rain poncho. Which we were very thankful for since the rain was pouring - and I do mean POURING - down the stairs from the upper deck.

It had quit raining and the sun was shining when we reached the top for the Museum and we found it without too much trouble. We finished up around noon and started looking for a nearby pub for lunch. Of course - by then it was raining again! A little soggy, we found a place that served tomato soup and cheese bread which was perfect. Then we started calculating how long it would take for us to make the bus circuit clear back around to where Mom wanted to go to see the Victoria and Albert Museum. There was just no way to make it work and still get back to the hotel by the time we had asked them to have a taxi for us for our ride out to the airport. Since the museum was just a few stops past our hotel, and the buses run only one direction, we would have to make the entire circuit again to get back to our hotel after visiting the museum. Our flight was the following morning and we wanted to spend our last night near the airport rather than have to rush and worry about traffic, delays, etc, making us late for our flight.

We finally decided to just ride the bus back around, past the London Eye, the Tower of London, and some other sights, and head out to the airport.

The taxi to the airport cost about $120 - but it was money well-spent. We were pretty exhausted at that point and ready to just relax. Staying at the Heathrow Hilton was definitely a good choice - it is a beautiful hotel. They have several in-house restaurants and we decided to go to the Chinese restaurant, Zen Oriental. We were a little surprised when the maitre d' pulled the table aside to let each of us slide into the booth. Then when they served us spring rolls, he actually served one to each of us - I thought for a moment he was going to cut it and feed it to us too! It was the fanciest Chinese restaurant I've ever visited and probably the best as well. The food was fantastic and we were so sorry we couldn't save the leftovers since our flight was the next morning. Of course, it was also the most expensive Chinese restaurant I think I've ever visited - over $100 for the three of us.

The lobby of the Heathrow Hilton is particularly spectacular - it is open all the way to the roof with glass walls in the front and back and a walkway connecting the two wings of rooms. The elevators are in the middle of the walkway so as you cross to your room you can look down on the restaurants and lobby area. The open space above the restaurants had hanging sculptures reminiscent of a couple dancing.

The beds were typically European - about the size of a twin rather than a double or queen like you see in US Hotels, so we had to do a little rearranging of the room to push the beds together so that all three of us could sleep in one room. But they were pretty comfortable and I don't think Megan slipped into the crack between them too much!

Tomorrow we head home!!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 14!

The morning tour of London included St. Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard, and ton of walking in the rain - so Mom decided to pass on this tour, which she'd taken on a previous visit to London, and wait for Megan to arrive from Prague.

So I went with the tour group. Our first stop was St. Paul's where our new tour guide told us about the water brigades that stood atop the church during the blitz and put out any blazes before they could spread. I had no idea the significance that Londoners attached to being able to look to St. Paul's as a symbol of their resilience and survival.

After St. Paul's, we headed toward Buckingham Palace - just in time to enjoy a real taste of London weather. The temperature was a good twenty degrees cooler than anytime on the trip and it was pouring rain. Of course, the rain meant no ceremonial Changing of the Guard - but it was interesting to learn that the Changing of the Guard is not the hourly shift change, as some tourists believe. It occurs daily, weather permitting, when the regiment that is retiring their duty of service turns over the mantle of responsibility to the new regiment. It is, we were told, accompanied by the regiment's band and a grand procession of the entire company that assemble on the grounds of Buckingham Palace to be inspected before assuming their duties.

The bus cruised through a good bit of the city giving us a brief tour before returning to the hotel around lunch time - just in time for me to meet Megan as she emerged from the subway station. Our plan was for Megan to fly into Heathrow and take the Underground from there to Victoria Station, which was within a block of the hotel. Seems simple enough, right? It turns out, they were doing some type of work on that line and she had to lug all her luggage from her nine weeks in Prague up five flights of stairs, onto a bus, then back down at the next Underground station and then up several more flights at Victoria Station. She was really dragging by the time she met us!

After settling her luggage in our room, we ventured out in the pouring rain to find The Albert - the pub our bus driver had recommended. The block that our hotel was on was not so much a block as a triangle, which made it a little confusing. Add to that the fact that his description - brown wood with potted flowers hanging outside - turned out to describe half the pubs in London! By the time we found it, we were pretty soaked.

With the weather continuing to be nasty, Mom decided to relax in the hotel while Megan and I braved the Underground to see Westminster Abbey, Parliament and Piccadilly Circus. We actually had someone come up and give me their day pass for the subway as we were waiting to purchase one! Brits are so nice. But I must say as we made our way through the tunnels to the platform - tunnels that were completely packed with people, more crowded than the rock concerts I attended in high school - all I could think of was the bombings that occurred there a number of years ago. The thought of being trapped in those tunnels with people stampeding in panic was quite nerve-wracking. I was quite glad when we arrived at Westminster!

They had just closed for the day, so we didn't get to see inside, which was a disappointment, but the outside was beautiful. I never realized how similar Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey were.

I was determined not to take the Underground again until we had to so we walked from Westminster and Parliament to Piccadilly Circus. The main purpose of visiting Piccadilly was so that Megan could point out the Piccadilly Backpackers Hostel where she and two fellow study abroad students stayed for several days at the beginning of her adventure. Suffice to say, if I or her daddy had seen this place before she left, she would have been in a hotel even if it meant selling a kidney. Picture a motel in Times Square that rents by the hour and you'll be getting close.

We finally headed back to the room to synch up with Mom for dinner. The ride back in the tube was even more packed - in fact, at one point, I had to yell at this man who was crushing Megan against the pole. I imagine this is what India is like. After that experience, there was one thing I was sure of - Mom would NOT be getting on the London tube.

We had dinner across the street from the hotel at a pub called The Bag O' Nails - we figured with a name like that, it had to be good. And it didn't disappoint! In fact, I think it was probably better than The Albert.

We plotted our final day over dinner. The Hop-On, Hop-Off bus that almost constantly had a bus parked in front of our hotel seemed like the best way to see the things that remained on our list - ideally, the British National Museum, the Museum of Victoria and Albert, and hopefully at least a glimpse of the Tower Bridge. We had made our reservation for the following evening at the Heathrow Hilton and decided it would be the best $100 we had spent to take a taxi to the airport after hearing Megan's harrowing tale of trying to maneuver the tube with her luggage.

I have to point out a few amusing aspects of London that we noticed - first, the water pressure for their toilets is pitiful. They seem to require you to stand there and cheer them on, 'You can do it! You can do it!' In Paris, on the other hand, if you don't hop up fast enough, they could suck you right down the drain! The other thing we noticed in London is the poor placement of their automatic hand dryers - at least three times we walked into a ladies' room and in walking in, set off the dryer. The last time, in the Bag O' Nails, Mom set it off and was so startled by the sudden rush of hot air, she jumped three feet in the air and nearly had an accident right there on the floor. I think this may be a plot to get back at American tourists. Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 13!

Day 13 started with breakfast at the hotel - this hotel, despite being one of the nicest ones in many respects - had one of the lamest breakfast set ups. There was a huge buffet, but the tables were not cleaned regularly so by the time we got there, only places covered with crumbs and spills were left. White linen table cloths are only nice when they are clean. The food was mediocre even though there was plenty...maybe I was just tired of the same thing for breakfast each day.

We left around 8:30am to catch the 11am high speed train to London which you would think would be plenty of time, but when we got to the train station, we had to wait until they brought a baggage cart around for our luggage - once again, our gentlemen were quick to help load the carts since Stefano was driving the bus once again. Then we started for the security check and platform. We had waited long enough for the carts that I think Simone was concerned about us making the train because she was moving at a pretty good clip and we quickly fell behind. We finally managed to catch up when they hit the throng of people waiting to go through security, but a French couple with a child in a stroller cut in line between us and our group. Since we had no idea where we were supposed to go and didn't want to get separated from the group, I said, "Pardon me, we're with that group and we don't want to get lost," and we stepped ahead of them. The woman said, "Oh, yes, go ahead, you are such small children to be traveling alone." Nice. Well, it wouldn't be a trip to Paris without a little French attitude, now would it?

We made it to our car of the train just in time with only a few minutes to take our seats before the train left. I have to admit, although I pride myself in being pretty proficient in geography, I had no idea Paris was so far inland. I had this idea that the train was basically just the 'Chunnel', when in reality the majority of the trip was overland. It was not a bad ride overall - but a word to the wise, buy your lunch early because they only pack so much food and they started running out of the more popular lunches very quickly. I think we ended up eating an apple, a candy bar, and Mom got the last cup o' noodles meal. Of course, as we raced through the train station, we decided we had carried the fruit, which the hotel in Venice had given us for the inconvenience with the AC, long enough and tossed it.

We arrived at Kings Cross St. Pancras Station around 1pm and were picked up by a new bus to take us to the hotel, the Westminster Thistle.

OK, so it doesn't look like much from the street - but it really wasn't bad. The room was the largest we had the whole trip, with two true double beds and a sleeper loveseat. The only difficulty was the passage getting into the room wasn't wide enough to roll the suitcases...which are about 21" wide. We were glad for the larger beds since Megan was joining us and we were hoping to have her stay in our room rather than having to pay for another room. In addition, the hotel was located within a block or so of Victoria Station and literally across the street from the stable entrance to Buckingham Palace.

Simone handed us off to "the ladies in red" - Globus tour guides in London who wear red blazers. Funniest moment, when I asked our new guide if we were going to have to walk to dinner and the show, Wicked, that night. She looked at me a little like I was crazy and said, no, they had a bus to take us. Then we discovered that night that the bus drove us no more than a total of three blocks to get to the restaurant and the theatre! We could have easily walked, but they had the bus because some of the folks going to dinner and the show were staying at another hotel much farther away. The new guide proved to be much nicer and more helpful than Simone - she helped us get a cab lined up for our trip to the airport hotel for our last night and gave us good directions to find a cash machine and the subway station that Megan would be coming from (Victoria Station).

Dinner before the show was at Bank restaurant - and it was delicious. We had a few choices and I was a little worried when I saw the choices for the main course - pan-seared trout, risotto with mushrooms, and chicken with coconut and sweet potatoes. Now normally, I would have chosen chicken, but there are few things I hate more than coconut and sweet potatoes - maybe if they had drizzled raspbery sauce on it, that might have made it even less appealing - and I like mushrooms ok, but they don't like me at all, so it was trout for me. As I've mentioned, I'm not generally a big fan of fish, but this was fantastic! Paired with the duck springroll appetizer and the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce - wow, makes me wish I could fly back to London, just to have it again. It was that good. And not a ton of food, so I was satisfied but not stuffed when we left.

We got to the Apollo Victoria Theatre and found our seats - about ten rows back on the right side - excellent seats. I was surprised how small the theatre was - much smaller than our Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, so there really weren't any bad seats in the house. The show was magnificent! It definitely lived up to all the rave reviews I'd heard from Megan, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

As we got off the bus, we asked our charming, Cockney-accented bus driver if there were any pubs that he would recommend in the area for lunch or dinner the next day and he gave us directions to The Albert, not far from our hotel. 

Day 14 - St. Paul's, Buckingham Palace, Megan arrives! Just three days left!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 12!

Our first morning in Paris, we once again enjoyed sleeping 'in' until around 7am. Being in Paris on Bastille Day is a little like being in Washington, DC, on the Fourth of July - something you probably only want to do once. We awoke and turned on the TV in our room while we were getting ready to learn that five French soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan that morning - the highest toll in a single day since they had deployed troops to aid in the war there. Interviews with patriotic French citizens expressed anger and frustration, heightened by the losses, at their government for participating in the war. We were a little nervous about being anywhere near the throngs who were gathered for the Bastille Day celebration, so we decided to visit Notre Dame since it was not in the midst of the celebrations.

Our hotel was half a block from the subway station, so while the rest of the tour group was speed-walking through Versailles, we caught the subway to the station as directed by the concierge. It was still a good little hike from the station to the cathedral, and the streets were busy, but also well-guarded by policemen at each corner. They were very helpful in directing us toward Notre Dame. Along the way, we met an American couple who had just come from the Louvre and said not only was it open, but it was free. We instantly regretted having told Simone we would meet the group at the hotel at 12:30pm for the afternoon tour. Instead of being able to walk from Notre Dame to the Louvre, we would have to take the subway back to the hotel and meet them and let them know that we had a new plan.

As we were walking along the bank of the Seine River toward Notre Dame, several airplanes executed fly-bys with red, white, and blue smoke trailing behind them. It was quite a sight to turn around and see the Eiffel Tower in the distance with jets flying by overhead.

When we arrived at Notre Dame, there was no line to get in at all - most of the crowds were at the parade although there were still a significant number of people milling around outside and touring the beautiful cathedral.

We toured the cathedral quickly because we were eager to get word to Simone and head over to the Louvre knowing that we had limited time and wanting to see as much as we could there. We hurried back to the hotel and had a few minutes to rest our feet before meeting Simone and the others from the group who had opted out of the tour of Versailles. When we explained to Simone (and the other members of the tour) that not only was the Louvre open, but it was also free admission today in honor of Bastille Day, she was pretty obviously miffed with the tour company for having told her it was closed. We told Rama and Lori, the two librarians from the tour that we had teamed up with on the gondola ride, that we would meet them for dinner at the open air shopping area right outside the subway station by our hotel and set off for the Louvre.

When we arrived, the crowds there were fairly thick - it took us a while to find our way to the back of the line which seemed to stretch on forever. But the guard near the front had said about an hour wait, and we definitely thought it was worth standing in line for an hour. Fortunately, the gentleman behind us gave us lots of good advice for when we got inside. He showed us his dog-eared and falling-apart map of the museum and urged us to pick one up at the information desk as soon as we entered - without the map, he told us quite accurately, you could be lost inside for days. He was from Costa Rica, visiting a friend who was studying in Paris and this was his third day straight visiting the Louvre!

It turned out that the line moved very rapidly and it was only about 20 minutes until we said good-bye to our friend from the line and, map in hand, set out to see what we could see in a few short hours. We started with the Egyptian exhibits and tried to focus on a few of the highlighted pieces, as he had suggested, but there were just so many wonders to see. I like to read every placard, or at least most, when I visit a museum, but of course, these were in French, so we were mostly just pausing a few seconds at each case and quickly trying to absorb whatever we could of the ancient culture. It wasn't long before we were turned around and trying to figure out whether we had already seen that sarcophagus or not? We finally decided that we had seen all we could enjoy of Egyptian art and studied our map to try to find our way to the French Renaissance artwork. To get to that, we cut through the Greek displays - which are showcased in sections that were once the palatial home of the Kings of France. The rooms themselves, and the paintings on the ceilings, were much more interesting to me than the still impressive Greek statues.

The French Renaissance rooms were so overwhelming - canvases larger than most of the walls in my house boasted paintings with detail that even after hundreds of years, it seemed as if you could touch the skin of their faces. In fact, we were quite surprised that the artwork was generally not protected in any way from people touching it, although we didn't see anyone doing so. As we emerged from our final room, with only one thing left to see - the Mona Lisa - we were faced with a life-sized puzzle. We stood on one level with stairs going down to one side and to the other. One set led to a floor below, while the other was about half a flight, then a statue on display, then half a flight up on the other side. Across an open atrium we could see similar stairs on the other side, and saw based on the map that was where we needed to go to get out as it was nearly 5pm and we wanted to get to the subway ahead of the huge crowds. We stood at the top and looked at all the stairs, and looked at our map - it appeared that we would have to go down the equivalent of two flights of stairs and then immediately back up two flights in order to get out - it just seemed pointless and excruciating after having been on our feet about five hours between our trek to Notre Dame and our time at the museum. Finally, I figured out that if we went down the small flight by the statue and back up the other side, there was a room that would lead us to the other side of the atrium where we could exit. And would put us within a very short distance of the Mona Lisa - instead of standing in a long line that was waiting dutifully to stand before the small picture, we ducked into the room from the opposite direction, peeked around the wall and were able to get a pretty good view of her despite the crowd.

We took a few moments to find a seat and rest before beginning the walk back to the subway, but while we were resting we met some chaperones from the Mid-western United States who were with a large group of band students - the Mid-West Ambassadors of Music. Some 200+ band and choir students from all over the mid-west were touring London, Paris, Switzerland and several smaller countries performing. What a wonderful group and great idea for broadening kids' perspectives!

When we finally started trekking back to the subway station, I convinced Mom there was a closer station than the one we'd taken to get there. We got to the station and she was very worried that we wouldn't be able to find the right trains to get us back. We might have had trouble, too, since the woman in the glass booth was our first taste of the infamous French hospitality - I showed her my map and pointed on it to the Bercy station and she rattled off something in French that sounded suspiciously like, go take a flying leap off the Eiffel Tower, you stupid American. I can't be sure. We were blessed, though, when a young black man asked if he could help and I showed him the map. He didn't understand English either, but understood what it meant when I pointed to Bercy. He went to the window, spoke to the woman in French and then returned and pointed to the map and then pointed down the hall of the subway. Trusting our good Samaritan and hoping for the best, we followed the growing crowd of people into the subway.

With the parade over and the day winding down, the trains were getting much more crowded and we initially had to stand up on the train, but very shortly it stopped and some seats opened up. A group of about five young men, probably in their late teens or early 20s got on the train with one young woman. They were a pretty rough looking group, with piercings and unique haircuts, and expressions that scream of bottled up rage and frustration. When a seat opened up and one of the young men flopped into it, leaving the young woman standing up, clinging to the pole, Mom muttered with quiet sarcasm, "What a nice young man you are, won't even let the lady have the seat."

I have to say, this was the one and only time the entire trip when Mom and I almost got into a fight! I could just picture these hoodlums deciding they didn't appreciate Mom's tips on etiquette and beating us both to a pulp, but somehow Mom - the same Mom who has warned me all my life about how to avoid being a victim - didn't see anything wrong with taking this young man to task for his lack of chivalry. We did manage to escape unharmed, but I still think, based on the riots in London not long after we'd left, that a good tip for traveling in foreign countries is not to pick fights with young hoodlums. Just sayin'.

We arrived at the hotel and took some time to relax and freshen up before we were supposed to meet Lori and Rama for dinner, but then found out that Simone hadn't given them the message that we wouldn't be on the afternoon tour but would still meet them for dinner. Since they weren't in their room, we decided to go on without them, but ended up running into them in the shopping area and so we got to have dinner together after all.

By the time dinner was over, we were worn out and ready to put our feet up and relax, glad we had opted out of the optional excursion to Moulin Rouge and could get some rest before leaving for London in the morning.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 11!

The day began with us learning that Stefano, our bus driver, and Simone had spent the night in the Emergency Room being treated for a problem with his back. Simone was searching diligently for another driver who could drive us to Paris, but since it was Sunday, she wasn't able to reach anyone at the Globus offices. I suggested that perhaps we should take the train to Paris since our hotel was about two blocks from the train station. Simone's response was, "it's really not a humorous situation." Can someone explain how my very reasonable solution to the problem seemed humorous? Maybe it didn't translate well.

Shortly after we were scheduled to leave, Stefano appeared and said he believed he could at least make it two hours to the French border. The gentlemen in our group quickly stepped up and loaded all our luggage in order to spare Stefano's back and we were off just a little later than originally planned.

So far on our trip, we had not seen any rain, so the timing was perfect when it rained virtually all day as we drove to Paris. When we reached the border, Stefano said he was feeling better and would finish the trip to the French capital. The countryside looked a lot like the Piedmont of North Carolina with rolling hills and farmland. The only distinction was the regular appearance of small villages, each with a single church steeple.

It was quite a long trip, about eight hours on the bus, with an hour at the AutoGrill for lunch. The cafeteria-style restaurant was pretty good. After lunch, Simone spent the afternoon telling us about the history of France. She also explained that our full day in Paris was on Bastille Day which meant that some of the sights, including the Louvre, would be closed, and our tour schedule would be the reverse of their usual schedule in order to avoid the crowds and the parade. I was disappointed to think that we would miss getting to see the Louvre, which was one of the top things I wanted to do in Paris.

Note: I really was amazed not only at Simone's ability to talk for 8 hours a day, but also her ability to maneuver the aisle of the bus as it sped down the highway without landing in anyone's lap.

We arrived in Paris around 5pm and the gentleman once again took care of our luggage - what a wonderful group they were! Everyone thanked Stefano profusely for suffering through a long day behind the wheel despite his condition. The hotel in Paris was the Paris Bercy Pullman - which was away from all the activity of Bastille Day, but was a beautiful and very modern hotel. We decided to join the group for the dinner and Paris by night tour after all, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Our group was given a private room and that was probably a good thing, since we got a little rowdy! One of the couples on our tour were newlyweds and so we had the waiter bring her cake with a candle to celebrate. When the obligatory musicians came into the room, they got up and danced. The next thing we knew, some of the young guys had picked up her chair and were carrying her around the room!

The dinner was delicious and I even had the opportunity to try escargot and liver pate - notice I said, I had the opportunity. I chose to let opportunity keep right on knocking. I enjoyed a salad, beef bourguignon and a scrumptious slice of chocolate cake instead. Afterward, we piled back into the bus for the tour of Paris (courtesy of a new driver).

We ran into a few roadblocks as they were already beginning to block traffic for the Bastille Day parade scheduled for the next morning, but were able to arrive at the Eiffel Tower in time to quickly pull to the side of the road (blocking traffic) and get off the bus and take pictures for a few minutes. The tower was quite amazing, especially all lit up at night and each hour they set off lights that looked as if they'd attached a million + firecrackers to the frame. It was dazzling. As we drove back to the hotel, Simone pointed out various points of interest including the Louvre, Champs Elysee, and the tunnel where Princess Di was killed.

Even with the majority of the day spent on the bus traveling across most of France, we enjoyed ourselves and were thankful that we hadn't had to spend the day waiting for a bus driver to arrive - although honestly, I think Mom and I both would have been perfectly happy to be 'stuck' in Lucerne!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tales for the TRIP - Day 10 - Lucerne, Switzerland

Mom and I enjoyed sleeping in until about 7:00 and then hurried downstairs to get breakfast before the 9am deadline. They had finished serving breakfast and were cleaning up when we got down there, but directed us to a second restaurant in the hotel that was still serving. It was such a pleasure to have the day ahead of us with only the group dinner scheduled for us.

After breakfast we walked several blocks through the cool morning to the shopping area Simone had pointed out the day before. Their agreement with a shop named Bucherer's included a free spoon - and once again the use of their clean and free restrooms for the day! We enjoyed browsing through their shop that included jewelry and watches, Cuckoo clocks, and Swiss army knives. I ended up getting a small pocket knife for each of my sons and having their names engraved on them.

Our next stop was to find our way to the city wall - I was determined to learn more about it and hopefully see the town from atop the wall. We had pulled out our map and were searching for a path to the wall when a very friendly local stopped and asked if she could help. She told us exactly how to get to the wall, where we could actually get into the tower and walk along the wall, where there were benches along the way, and recommended that we take a bottle of water with us. In fact, everyone we met in Lucerne was incredibly friendly and helpful.

We meandered through the shopping district and up the hillside to the city wall, climbed up into the tower and walked along the ledge they are in the process of adding. It ran along 3/4 of the wall, which dates back to the 14th century. The views from the wall were stunning - and we were so sorry we didn't have a really good camera. Here's what we were able to capture with the little disposable-

OK, so imagine a view about a million times more beautiful than this - it just seems impossible to really capture how beautiful it was!

We walked back along the base of the wall, beside a pasture featuring a shaggy-haired cow. It was interesting to see that one side of the wall was 'city' and the other was 'country' even after 700 years!

We meandered back through the shopping district and found the most adorable fondue restaurant for lunch. We were able to share a meal again - this time bratwurst, swiss cheese fondue, and then a chocolate fondue. Again - one meal, two people, and lots of leftovers. Even left some of the chocolate fondue, if you can believe that! Actually, I have to admit, the Melting Pot's fondue is much better, but still, this was good.

Even on our own, we had spent a good 4-5 hours walking - but didn't feel nearly as exhausted as we had in Rome. Being able to take it at our own pace and rest when we needed to made a huge difference. We went back to the hotel and relaxed before the scheduled dinner with our group - interested to find out of their tour had been what we expected.

The dinner that evening was in the rooftop restaurant with a nice view of the city and they served grilled fish - which is not generally my favorite. But it was delicious...probably the best fish I'd ever had. We enjoyed hearing about their tour and the previous evening's yodeling - which actually did sound like they'd had fun and some of the members of the group got to try their hand at alpine-horn-blowing. Still we were glad we had been able to go our own way and don't believe we missed a thing. The train-ride up the mountain that they took turned out a little more as we had thought - when they arrived at the 'top' they had to climb a number of tall stairs if they wanted to reach the area with an actual view. Even the young men in the group (age 20 and very fit) said they could barely catch their breath due to the altitude - definitely would not have been a good plan for Mom and me!

We got to sit with some folks at dinner we hadn't had a chance to really meet, including one of the 'Mom and son' couples. The son, Mike, played in his high school band and was looking forward to being in the band at Pitt this fall. Talking about band really made me miss my kids though!

We finished off the evening by spending some time at the lounge on the roof - a different section of it was open this evening, so we had a view of the lake and the rest of the city as well as a view of the mountain that the group had visited that day. We also met some ladies about Mom's age who were traveling from Australia for six weeks through Europe. The night before we had met another two couples who were traveling from Australia and finished their tour with a two week stay in Lucerne!

Tomorrow - Paris!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 9! FREE AT LAST!

We awoke at the usual pre-dawn hour, but with a renewed sense of freedom and optimism for the trip. We were driving to Switzerland and hoping for cooler temperatures and a much more enjoyable second half of our trip. The drive from Venice to Lugano, where we stopped for lunch, was breathtaking. We traveled through Milano - actually through the city as the loop around it was a parking lot - and then to the Alps.

Lugano is a lovely town situated on a glacier-fed, blue-green lake. We only had a brief stop for lunch, due to the delays in Milano, but enjoyed some Burger King and a walk along the lakeshore. There were numerous cafes which would have been nice (but very expensive - 20 Euro for lunch?) and there was not enough time.

This picture was taken by one of our traveling companions by the fountain in Lugano. Don't we look happy and more relaxed? After our short break, we headed on through the Alps to Lucerne, driving through a number of tunnels including the world's longest tunnel. It took about 30 minutes to get throught it and I was only a little relieved as Simone explained that it had a massive air system for providing fresh air inside the tunnel and a parallel emergency tunnel adjacent to it in the event of a collapse. In fact, the Swiss stock these tunnels with months worth of provisions so that they can be used as bomb shelters if needed.
I think this was Lake Lucerne - it might have been at Lugano - both were beautiful!
Simone decided to include the one sight we were scheduled to see in Lucerne upon our arrival - so we piled out of the bus and walked just a block or so to see the Lion of Lucerne. The Lion is carved into the side of the mountain as a memorial to the Swiss Guard who were killed in 1792 during the French Revolution. It is a beautiful carving, but the shadows at that time of day made it impossible for me to get a good picture that showed the detail.

Our next stop was the hotel - and this was one of our favorites. The Astoria. Our room had a beautiful view of the ancient wall around the city of Lucerne, built in the 14th Century and complete with turrets. The optional excursion for this evening was an "Alpine Folklore Experience" - we knew exactly what that meant - they would pack us in like sardines and yodel at us for two hours while feeding us mediocre food at an inflated price. Instead, we checked at the front desk, and decided to have dinner at the riverside cafe that cooked food that the desk clerk said was, "just like her grandmother makes."

What a wonderful treat! We sat with the cool breeze wafting off the river, watching the sun set on the flower-adorned, covered wooden bridge as the swans glided past. For less than it would have cost for one of us to go to the Yodel-fest, we shared a meal that included a farmer's salad with zuchini and yellow squash, a scrumptious soup, fabulous potatoes that tasted a little like a hot version of German potato salad, and a piece of viener-schnitzel that was as big as my foot. That's a size 10, thank you very much. And we had enough food left over that we easily could have fed a third person.

The view from our table at dinner...not bad, huh? See the swans over by the side?

We strolled along the river and planned our attack for the next day. While Simone's victims would be riding a boat on the lake and then taking a train up the side of the mountain (which we discovered later meant climbing huge steps at the top - 7000 ft. elevation - with no air left in your lungs), we planned to explore the shopping and see the town wall.

It was just turning dark when we returned to the hotel and we decided to visit the rooftop lounge. The lounge was actually divided into several sections and only one section was open each evening - so on this evening we had a beautiful view of the mountains and the city wall as well as the river. The lounge also provided free wifi access, so we were able to touch base with home.

The very best part was our sense of freedom. We just couldn't get over how different it felt to not be herded from place to place. And even better - since we weren't going on the optional tour - we could sleep in as late as we'd like the next day!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 8!

"Ahhhh...Venice!" to quote Harrison Ford. Well, not exactly.

Day 8 started once again with an early morning wake up call and back on the bus we went. Once again it was about a four hour drive. I always thought I might enjoy being a tour guide, but I must say, not even I have the wind to talk for four hours straight, day after day! Simone told us about the history of Italy, about the Medici family, and the historic Romeo and Juliet, about how Venice was built...it was all very interesting, but at some point your brain simply cannot hold one more tidbit of information! Not to mention, most of us would have preferred snoozing a little given our early morning departure.

The bus trip was also occupied with her giving a description of all of the optional excursions that were available, and passing out a sign-up sheet for us to indicate which ones we wanted to participate in. We checked at least one excursion in each city, including the one we had already participated on in Rome. We were to turn in our selections at dinner that evening.

Arrival in Venice consisted of parking the bus and walking a couple of blocks to the pier to catch a 'water-bus' to the area we were going to visit, which included Piazza San Marco (weren't we just there yesterday? Different Piazza San Marco). The ride took about thirty minutes and the views were quite amazing with buildings rising right out of the sea.

It was about five blocks from the pier where we landed back to Piazza San Marco, and then another four blocks back toward the pier to the glass factory - where once again, we had the Venetian Glass/timeshare sales pitch. It was interesting to learn how they make glass - but the best part was the AC and free and clean restrooms! I also have to note that in Venice, when you are thinking of blocks, there aren't streets, there are canals, so at every "intersection" there is a bridge, but the walkway is at such a level that you have to walk up a flight of steps and down a flight of steps at each bridge. Who needs stairmaster?

After our lesson in glassmaking and perusing their shop - which really did have some incredibly beautiful glasswork, especially chandeliers - we enjoyed lunch at one of the outdoor cafes and shopped for a bit before we had to meet up with our group for our optional "gondola serenade" at Piazza San Marco. We made it back to the Piazza about 45 minutes before the meeting time and managed to find about 18 inches of cement ledge to sit on in the shade and wait - the Piazza was as crowded as Rome had been and we were particularly on guard against the pickpockets we had been warned were very common in Venice.

Mom decided she needed a visit to the restroom before getting on the gondola, but there wasn't enough time to get to the glass factory and back, so she decided to take her chances on the public restroom in the Piazza while I guarded our precious real estate. As with most of the restrooms in public areas, she encountered an old woman outside who was collecting the fee - a whopping 1.50 Euro! The woman directed her up the steps - unfortunately, when she got there, this restroom had a turnstile and a man insisting that the woman was just a gypsy and had nothing to do with the restroom - so it ended up costing 3 Euro (about $5!). Then she got locked in the bathroom and couldn't get out until finally someone helped her. Lesson #59 - when in Venice, don't pay until you see the turnstile!

We met our group and walked to the gondola loading area - a few more blocks. We were grouped with two other pairs of ladies we had met in our tour group - Tracy and Joan, who were also a mother-daughter pair about our ages, and Rama and Lori, friends who had just completed their Masters in Library Science and decided to celebrate with this trip to Europe.

Stepping into a gondola is a whole lot like stepping into a canoe - you have to be very careful not to tip it over! Mom and I got in first and got the best seats, forward facing at the back of the boat. Joan and Tracy were next, and then Lori and Rama - poor Rama really got the short end of the stick - she was stuck sitting at the bow, facing the rest of us and getting to see only where we'd been and not where we were headed.
But she was still sweet enough to take each of our cameras and take pictures of our group! (Notice our gondolier talking on the cell phone).

There were about six gondolas for our group and we learned that by 'gondola serenade' what they actually meant was that they would put two fellows who could barely carry a tune in a bucket, much less a gondola, in one of the boats and let them belt out some Italian favorites. The only time we heard them was when we reached the Grand Canal and they pulled all the gondolas together side-by-side, and then spun us around to head back to our starting point. The big excitement came when we realized just after we'd set out that we were somewhat unbalanced and tried to have Joan and Tracy switch sides to even us out. Lesson # 62 - Once in the gondola, DON'T MOVE! Overall, it was a nice ride - probably not worth 37 Euro but, hey, how often do you get to ride in a gondola?

Once we successfully evacuated the gondola, we headed back across the bridges (up a flight, down a flight, walk a block, up a flight, down a flight, walk a block...) back to our water-bus. We were standing on the pier, looking forward to a shaded ride back to the bus, when a linebacker for the NFL plowed into Mom.

OK, he wasn't actually a linebacker for the NFL, he was a short Asian man who had gotten in line for the wrong water-bus and was apparently afraid of missing his ride. But he basically came running down the pier, arms up like a blocker in the Superbowl, and nearly knocked her down as he slammed into her shoulder and arm. He came at us so fast that none of us even saw him coming in time to react. When we got up to our boat and saw him sitting in the one next to us, Mom politely inquired as to his mental health and intellect, but he didn't respond. We can only presume that he also suffered from hearing impairment.

By this time, we were pretty much exhausted, sunburnt, and ready to collapse in a nice cool hotel room. We arrived at the hotel and found (with some difficulty) the welcome reception Simone had promised. Since we were a few moments late, we did not hear the description of the pink liquid that filled the frosty glasses being provided. Given our overheated and parched condition, we each took a nice swig before realizing it was rubbing alcohol - OK, yes, I know, it wasn't rubbing alcohol, and I know I'm no connosieur, but this stuff was awful! It was all I could not not to spew it across the room. Frustrated, we headed to our room, only to discover it was about 90 degrees in there! After several trips to the front desk, we finally got someone to come and fix ours, but apparently it was an issue throughout the hotel - eventually ten guests from our group had to move to another hotel for the evening.

The air conditioning was, I do believe, the final straw. At that point, Mom was hoping the whole Italian peninsula would sink into the Mediterranean. She was exhausted, injured (I left out the part about opening the mini-frig onto her toe and slicing it open), frustrated, insulted, feeling guilty and afraid that I would miss something because she couldn't do it all, and almost ready to pack up and go home.

I'll give God all the credit for the words that He gave me and the sense of calm in the midst of the storm, but I said something along the lines of: "All this STUFF has been here for thousands of years, and it will be here for thousands of years, but you will not. I did not come on this trip to see everything I could possibly see, but to enjoy this time with you and see what we could. From this point on, we are going to do exactly what we want to do and nothing else. If that means in the midst of the next march, we decide to call a taxi to take us to the hotel, then that is what we will do. If that means we don't go on any of their excursions, so be it. We will ride their bus, stay in their hotels and eat any meals that are included, but anything else, we'll just do our own thing. If it costs us more, it costs us more, but I don't think it will because so far every one of these excursions we could have done the part we wanted on our own for cheaper than what we're paying. Most importantly, if we get to see everything, but you end up killing yourself doing it - THAT is not my idea of a good vacation!"

With that said and our room down to 85 degrees, we dressed for dinner and met up with our fellow travelers. When one of the 20-ish travelers couldn't make it to dinner due to heat exhaustion, we took a little comfort in the fact that it wasn't just us who were overwhelmed. We crossed out every one of the excursions we had indicated on our selection sheet - except Dinner/Wicked in London and the dinner/bus tour of Paris at night - over $1000 worth of excursions, and handed it to Simone with a smile. She looked at us strangely and we just said, "from here on out, we're doing our own thing."

I have to admit, we tried to inspire others to join us in our rebellion. We suggested that everyone just slow down on the marches - I mean she couldn't really leave us all behind, right? Or maybe we could offer Stefano an extra tip for picking us up early? I stopped short of suggesting we stow Simone under the bus with the luggage, but it was tempting.

Tomorrow - Day 9, but really Day 1 of the Freedom Tour!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 7 - Florence, Italy

Remember back on Day 3 in Prague when I told you about the red spots all over my ankles? Well, Day 7 began with Mom waking up to find them on her ankles. And mine, which had nearly disappeared, were back and even worse than before. By this time, we had heard from my sister-in-law, who confirmed that you don't get bedbug bites in just one spot, but we could not figure out what we might have stepped in that could have caused such a reaction. A little nervous that we might be spotted (pun intended) and quarantined, we kept our unsightly ankle-bites hidden by long pants despite the warm weather.

After all the warnings from Simone about keeping on schedule, we loaded the bus and pulled out five minutes early for our trip to Florence. This apparently made a HUGE difference as we escaped the city before traffic could get to its normal crazy volume. In fact, Simone reminded us at least a dozen times how fortunate we were that we were ahead of schedule because we had escaped before traffic got bad. The drive to Florence is about four hours and they had planned for one stop about halfway. I'll spare you the details, but it would have been nice if Simone had mentioned that there was a functioning toilet on board for emergencies - enough said.

Due to some rule about how often Stefano, the bus driver, had to take a break, we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill just outside of Florence, and then continued into the city. Autogrill's are Europe's version of Stuckey's. Basically, they operate along the many toll roads of Europe providing everything from a hot meal to junk food to books on tape. In this case, the restaurant was actually located above the highway with access from either direction of the highway - so we were cautioned by Simone to be very careful to come down on the right side or we might end up on the wrong bus.

We all made it back to the bus and arrived at Piazza San Marco, where the bus deposited us for our daily hike. It was only a few blocks down a crowded alley until we reached a very non-descript entry which we were told housed Michaelangelo's masterpiece, David. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical, but after waiting thirty minutes, we were led inside by our local guide for Florence; I think his name was Ferdinand. I don't recall his name because I've really tried to repress the memory. Between his strong accent and the paper he held over the microphone as he broadcast tour information to our headsets, we couldn't understand a word the man said.

Mom was surprised to discover that the statue of David was a statue of THE David, from the Bible. All these years, she thought it was just a statue of some naked guy named David. LOL. But when you think about it, you never hear it referred to as King David or David-as-He-Prepared-to-Fight-Goliath. In fact, I had never realized that he was holding a sling and a stone even though I've seen photos of the statue many times. Maybe it was because we had seen so many statues already at this point, but it was a little anti-climactic for me. It was beautiful and crafted with incredible detail -  but we had just seen 2000 equally beautiful statues in Rome.

I did catch one thing that Fernando said that I found amusing - apparently the benefactor for whom Michaelangelo created the David did not like the nose - he said it was too Jewish-looking and he wanted the sculptor to fix it (ignoring the fact that David was, after all, Jewish!). Rather than change it or openly offend his benefactor, Michaelangelo merely waited a reasonable time, told the man it had been changed, and left it as is. The benefactor agreed that it was much improved with a more 'Roman' nose.

We spent less than an hour in the small museum that housed the David and didn't really have time to explore the rest of the museum which included some beautiful paintings before it was time to continue our hike through Florence. This time the hike was well worth it - we came to the Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore.

This was perhaps the most beautiful of all the churches we saw in Europe to me. The entire outside is covered in white, rose, and green marble. I took a ton of pictures, but none of them even approaches the beauty of this place. The niches around the entire structure are filled with sculptures of saints and the arches at the bottom include beautiful artwork over each doorway. The dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th Century as the first of its kind to be built without the aid of a framework. The baptistry, which predates the cathedral by several hundred years, mirrors the ornate tri-color detail.

I really would have loved to see the inside of the chapel, but there was more to see so on we hiked, ending up at the Piazza di Santa Croce, where Simone introduced us to her friends at one of the local gold and leather shops. This works a little like a time-share weekend - only in exchange for enduring their sales pitch, you get to use their restrooms and sit in their air-conditioned shop for free. I know that doesn't sound like a very good deal, and in the US, it would never work - but in Europe it is well worth it! I even got to model a lovely $600 leather jacket in which, I must say, I looked absolutely fabulous.

They did actually inform us how to distinguish real leather from the fake leather that many merchants spray with 'leather scent' to fool tourists. (Basically, you just pinch the leather between your fingers and rub back and forth - if the unfinished side of the leather slides easily against itself, it is not real leather. Go home, try it, tell me if they were telling us the truth!)

So at this point, we had once again spent about 5 hours on our feet as we headed to the bus. Fernando lost any appreciation we might have had for him as he set out at a good clip, leaving several of us in his dust. Eventually, we were about a block behind the stragglers in our group. We were walking down the side of a one way street when we were attacked by pigeons. I don't mean a few pigeons, I mean a huge flock or Hitchcock-esque attack pigeons! They swarmed one way and then spun and dove at us like they were on a mission. I have never minded birds, in fact, I've always kind of enjoyed them, but I was left cowering against the building with my hands over my head squealing like a little girl. Shudder.

By the time the birds had sufficiently terrorized our little band, the rest of our tour group had turned the corner, completely oblivious to our plight. We were very relieved when we rounded the corner and saw the bus waiting within sight. And even more relieved when we arrived at the hotel - the Hilton Garden Inn Florence. This was arguably the nicest hotel we stayed in and definitely the most modern. It was situated quite some distance from the historic district but was modern and high tech - with free wifi in the room! Our dinner in the hotel restaurant was delicious - but even better than the meal was the company.

We sat across from a couple who owns a Ponderosa Steak House in Huntington, West Virginia - do you remember those? We used to have them around here and they were always a great meal for a reasonable price, but you just don't see them anymore in this area. At any rate, she was a nurse, and yes, we did it. We committed that unthinkable faux pax of asking a medical person for some free medical advice - which she was very kind to oblige and informed us that our 'ankle-bites' were actually petechial hemorrhaging due to the swelling in our ankles from all the walking! Even better, she had them too - you know how misery loves company. After spending the evening with our feet up and cool cloths wrapped on our ankles, we both were back in capris the next day!

Day 8 - on to Venice!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 6

The first thing they should tell you, in large BOLD letters, before you purchase a bus tour of Europe is that the average morning departure time is 7:30am. And they should also mention that your bags have to be sitting in the hall about 30-45 minutes before that, which means you have to be ready to go fifteen minutes before that so you can pack everything up. So if you're a woman, you should plan to just stay up all night.

They should also take a tip from the cruise lines and rate their excursions based on the physical activity level required. At least then you could call ahead and book your room at the nearest cardiac ICU. Nothing like being prepared.

Our first official tour day began bright and early with a promise from Simone that each minute we delayed would put hundreds of other tourists between us and Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel! We were blessed that our group took her warnings to heart and only two or three tour groups managed to squeeze in ahead of us in the line. Of course, being in line early meant the Vatican Museum did not open for another hour, so we got to catch up on our sleep while standing in line. Yes, it is possible to sleep standing up. We had a local tour guide for Rome named Marco, who really added a lot to the tour. Our tour was somewhat abbreviated and I'm sure we could have spent several days exploring the incredible treasures in the museum, the chapel, and the basilica, but even what we were able to see was completely awe-inspiring. A couple of sights really stand out in my memory even a month later - the first was The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo. While most focus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this work covers the wall at one end of the chapel and depicts Christ's final judgment. According to Marco, Michaelangelo created this masterpiece in the midst of the Reformation and, despite being commissioned by the Pope, depicted the Judgment in a very 'Protestant' manner. There is no evidence of purgatory, for example.

I found the painting fascinating and found loads of interesting information online about it, but I'll just pass along a link for those who may be interested: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/CSNs/CSNs_G_Giud.html

Saint Peter's Basilica was completely overwhelming - again, I could have spent a week inside inspecting each piece of art. An interesting fact I did not know was that most of the decoration and furnishing inside was completed after Michaelangelo's death and, according to Marco, he would have been furious at how his Renaissance design was 'ruined' by Bernini's Baroque furnishings and statuary.

Our next stop was the Coliseum, officially named the Flavian Amphitheatre, named for Vespasian and Titus who constructed it (Flavius being their family name). The name Coliseum came from a huge statue of Nero that he erected beside it. Marco pointed out that much of the damage to the Coliseum as well as other Roman ruins was due to Rome being constantly occupied since antiquity - they embraced the reduce - reuse - recycle mantra and many of the stones from the Coliseum could be found in the foundations of buildings throughout the city.

Marco seemed to appreciate that not everyone in the group was up to the task of hiking through the Coliseum and the area known as the Forum. He offered those who chose not to see the Forum the option of waiting for us near where our bus would return for us. That worked out great for my mom and gave her a little break while I enjoyed viewing the various columns, stones, and piles of rocks known as the Forum. I think my favorite part was seeing an active archaelogical dig and hearing Marco say, "On our right we have an excellent example of the species Homo Sapien Archaeologico. Notice the hunched over posture and the use of small brushes and tools, but please, do not attempt to touch or feed them. It's very dangerous."

While the bus took us back to the hotel for lunch and a rest, Mom and I tried to decide whether to join the afternoon optional excursion or not - finally we asked Simone whether there would be a lot of walking or if it was mostly by bus and she said, "Oh, no, no, it's not much walking." Yeah right!

The afternoon tour picked us up from the hotel around 3:00pm and the bus carried us across the Tiber River and dropped us off. We then proceeded to walk for the next three hours through narrow, quaint alleyways that opened into large picturesque squares...for the next three hours! All of it is somewhat of a blur of blisters and sunburn except two things - The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon was so totally unexpected - I had heard of it, but only vaguely - and it was amazing. Originally built as a pagan center of worship, the Catholic church purchased it and converted into a Christian temple. It has been in continuous use (since it was rebuilt after an earlier structure was destroyed in an earthquake) since 126 AD. The dome is made of concrete and they used less and less dense concrete as they neared the top in order to lessen the pressure that might eventually cause it to collapse under its own weight. At the center of the dome, it is open, letting in the only source of light - sunlight - and rain. The floor was constructed with drains to allow rainwater to drain off the marble floors. And all of this was conceived nearly 2000 years ago and has stood the test of time - amazing!

Trevi Fountain, on the other hand, was a complete disappointment. It was impossible to even get close enough to the fountain to study it in detail because there were probably several thousand tourists in the small square where its located. We had been warned by both guides, as well as others who have visited, that this is a hotspot for pickpockets, so we were on guard against any intrusion to personal space - but it was impossible because of the huge crowd. Fortunately, we did not fall victim, but it did take the fun out of it - I decided that I needn't throw 1, 2, or 3 coins in the fountain because I had no intention of returning.

We ended the tour portion of the excursion at the Spanish Steps...so called because the Spanish Embassy donated the land for them. I believe it was 137 steps - and our tour bus awaited us at the top! Marco offered a welcome option to take an elevator to the top (even that required climbing two flights of stairs once we 'arrived') and Mom and I jumped at the chance. After nearly seven hours on our feet, we were looking forward to sitting down to dinner.

The dinner for this optional excursion was significantly better than the one included with the tour - it offered some variety to choose from at least. I had the chicken and Mom had the salmon, both of which were about average. The entertainment was a little more enjoyable, featuring a flautist and a guitar player.

We were eager to return to the room and plan our early morning wake up since we needed to be on the bus by 7:30am to leave for Florence, the home of Michaelangelo's David.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 5

For our first full day in Rome, we decided to take advantage of one of the many "Hop On, Hop Off" bus tours, so we checked at the front desk for a recommendation. We were directed to pass through Saint Peter's Square and continue down Via della Conciliazione to catch the GLT bus line. Almost all of these buses are double-decker buses - doesn't that sound like fun? Well, don't be fooled. In July, in Rome, the top deck of those buses is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The buses are equipped with headphone jacks and the cost of the daily ticket includes earbuds - unfortunately it doesn't always include jacks that WORK. We switched seats multiple times and failed to find any two seats where both jacks worked.

The other thing they neglected to mention is that the buses don't stop "AT" the sights, they stop "NEAR" the sights (see previous European definition of "near"). We got off at the first stop, wanting to see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - which looked interesting as the bus drove past. After strolling through a bunch of shops down the several blocks back to the church, we realized if we wanted to see anything else, we needed to hoof it back to the bus stop to catch the next ride. Once we got back on the bus, we once again couldn't hear any of the sight-seeing information, so we missed getting off at the next stop to see the Trevi Fountain. By the time we reached the Coliseum, we had decided that we needed to move downstairs before we melted. The traffic was so heavy, with mostly buses and motorcycles or mopeds, that we were just sure we were about to see a fatality at least a dozen times from our bird's eye view!

The bus was packed by this time, so we asked a couple who had come up to the top floor if there were any seats below. They said there were, so we gave up our seats and maneuvered carefully down the circular stairs to the main level only to find that the guide had let additional people on the bus and there were no seats. We tried to tell her if there weren't seats that we needed to get off because we didn't want to be lurching through traffic standing up, but it was too late. After a minor difference of opinion with the guide, we managed to hang on tight and then exited as soon as the bus stopped...only to discover we were at the Circus Maximus. Now, when you are back in the US and hear Circus Maximus, it sounds very interesting - but what it actually looks like is an abandoned railroad bed. There are hills on either side of a rectangular field and a raised area down the middle of the field that looks like a railroad bed minus the rails and ties. There are a couple of places where stone steps lead up the hill, but that is about it. Oh, and garbage. There were bags of garbage and lots of loose garbage everywhere. Until we checked our map of the city, we thought maybe they dropped us off at the local landfill (note to self: don't get into minor confrontations with the tour guide).

 The only real point of interest at the bus stop was a small cart selling drinks and gelato, so we went to get something to cool off. In truth, the stop also had a good view of the real Caesar's Palace, Palatine Hill. We learned later that Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) is actually where many Christians lost their lives under Nero. The aristocracy would watch the 'games' from the comfort of their palace overlooking the field. But back to our gelato. As we were enjoying our break, an American currently living in Tokyo - but visiting Italy - approached and we chatted just long enough to miss the next bus! Realizing we needed to wait closer to the stop, we did just that, and watched as about ten buses from other tours came by (four from one company) before our bus arrived - so here is your helpful tip for seeing Rome: Buy a ticket on the Big, Red Bus! They had 3 to 1 more buses than the other tour groups and looked like nicer buses - and were 4 Euro (aobut $6) cheaper than the one we bought.

We still hadn't had lunch and it was mid-afternoon, so when our bus arrived we decided to see the rest of Rome from the bus. I think we ended up standing most of the way due to it being so crowded - and a note to the under 30 crowd: when you see a 70-year-old woman standing up on a crowded bus, get your baggy-pants-covered tail up out of that seat and let her sit down!

We drooped back to the hotel and collapsed for a much needed rest before our tour group was to rendesvous in the lobby for dinner. The group was an interesting and diverse collection - it reminded me a little of The Amazing Race. We had two mother-son teams, both of the sons named Michael; a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law team that got along amazingly well; two friends who had just completed their Master's degrees in Library Science together; several couples of varying ages; one newlywed couple who were expecting; and two larger families which included the parents, their grown-up kids and any related in-laws. We had people from as distant as Washington State, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, and Texas. I was amazed how well the whole group seemed to come together.

After our tour guide, Simone Kis, introduced herself and our Italian driver, Stefano, we headed out to our first experience together - a 'traditional' Italian dinner. The restaurant was located on one of the many circles in Rome - as they say, each one has either a fountain or an obelisk, and some have both. They led us through to the very back of the restaurant to a low-ceilinged room with several levels of tables packed in. Two Asian tour groups were already seated and before long the entire room was packed with about 150-200 tourists. Throughout the meal, a Fabio-wannabe played an accordion - very loudly and often right beside someone's head - and a mediocre singer belted 'Volare'.

The meal consisted of several courses - more food than should ever be served to one person at a single meal. First came antipasto - cheese, some type of cured meat and peppers. Then the first pasta dish which looked (and tasted) suspiciously like spaghettios. Then a second - I'm guessing macaroni and cheese. Finally, the main course of chicken with a slice of meat of some kind under it, and I don't even remember the sides - honestly, I think I've blocked out the memory. It wasn't good. The tiramisu they served for dessert probably would have seemed good if we hadn't had such a delicious version the night before! All of this served as we sat elbow to elbow and tried to converse with our newfound friends over the volume of Fabio and his femme fatale. Regardless of the food or the atmosphere, we had a wonderful time getting to know our traveling companions.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 4

Why would anyone name their airline "WhizzAir"? Do they suppose the image of a plane whizzing through the air overpowers the image of a fellow standing on the tarmac with a rubber band on the propeller? Because it doesn't.

Day 4 started with a taxi ride to the airport (which cost less than the one FROM the airport, hmmmm). We found the purple and hot pink WhizzAir counter with plenty of time to spare and caught a quick bite to eat since check-in didn't begin for 30 minutes. When they opened up two lines, we picked the line with the gentleman who was either new or learning disabled. In the time it took the gal beside him to process fifteen people, he checked in one family of three. Fortunately, we had paid extra for "Priority Boarding"; unfortunately, we had NOT paid extra for "handicapped assistance". Apparently, if you break your leg on the way to the airport, you are out of luck, because you can only get a wheelchair if you order it (and pay for it) online - in advance. Well, I guess that isn't entirely fair. They did say we could walk down to the area where they have the wheelchairs and try to request one, but there was no guarantee they would have one and it was located at the far end of the terminal at the opposite end from where you had to go through security. We decided to take our chances...

We made it through security with a minimum invasion of our personal space and followed the signs to gate C21...all the way to the very end, thankful for the moving sidewalk. But when we got there, there were only Gates 9 and 10. We looked everywhere and finally went into one of the shops and asked - we were pointed back the way we had come and told we would need to go down a level and then back out to the end of the terminal on the ground level. Of course, the moving sidewalk did not go in that direction AND when we got downstairs, there was no moving sidewalk on that floor. So we ended up having to walk three times as far as necessary. I'm not sure what the lesson here is, except maybe to keep looking for signs even when you think you know where you're headed.

At this point, the message boards in the airport had not yet posted the gate assignment. Although C21 was listed on our boarding pass, we were told that it was subject to change and wouldn't be posted until 30 minutes before boarding - I had visions of them changing it to the other end of the airport and us having to sprint to make the flight! Thankfully, that was not the case and we made it to the gate with plenty of time.

Uncertain exactly what "Priority Boarding" meant, I studied our boarding passes. Apparently, WhizzAir tickets are simply 'a ticket to ride' - no guaranteed seat assignment. I hovered near the desk wanting to be sure that we were among the first, since there was no way to know how many passengers had paid the extra $20 for the privilege of being at the front of the stampede. This was probably the best $20 spent on the trip. Instead of being stuffed like sardines into the bus - that's right, we had to get on a bus to go out to the taxiway where the plane awaited us - we were in the front section and only slightly crowded. More importantly, we were #3 and #4 getting on the plane and consequently were able to pick bulkhead seats at the front of the plane. This ended up being a mixed blessing in that we had plenty of leg room, but I could see the insulation of the plane in the crack around the divider between the cabin and the galley. What is the accepted etiquette for notifying the flight attendant that the plane looks like it's falling apart?

The flight itself was pretty uneventful - the attendants provided the usual safety instructions with a little more dramatic flair than most airlines. And I think they not only use planes from the 1960's but probably have the same employment guidelines as were used at that time. While our other flights featured attendants that were male, female, young, old, slim, and plump - all these gals were straight off the pages of "Coffee, Tea, or Me." The only really disturbing thing was that the entire airplane erupted in thunderous applause when we touched down in Rome...did they know something we didn't?

The tour we were joining was supposed to include airport transfers, but since we booked our own flight and arrived a day early, they wanted to charge us $75 to take us to the hotel - that's $75 EACH. Mom wisely contacted the USO before we left the US and arranged transport for us for $50 total. We were so thrilled when both of our bags showed up and we saw the gentleman with a sign that read "Bowen". (Did I mention that my bag didn't make it to Prague until about five hours after I did and had to be delivered to us at the hostel? And was damaged so we had to find a shop in Prague that sold superglue - couldn't find any duct tape - to hold it together? No?) Security at the airport in Rome seemed very slack - until we saw the soldiers with machine guns and bomb-sniffing dogs. No need to pat you down with all that!

Anyway, back to the USO driver. He was a man of very few words and even more limited driving skills. Or maybe he had really good driving skills since we avoided being in an accident. I don't think there is any way to adequately describe traffic in Italy so I'll leave it with one word - terrifying. It didn't help when I saw a couple of soldiers on a jeep guarding the entrance to a villa with machine guns. When I asked the driver who lived there or what was that - all he could say was "No problem." Where I come from, when you see soldiers with machine guns, it means there's a big problem.

The hotel was much nicer on the inside that it appeared on the outside and we persuaded them to give us a non-smoking room minus the view of the St. Peter's Basilica rather than a smoking room with a view - definitely a good deal in my book. The Starhotel Michaelangelo was situated literally across the street a block from the Vatican.

The front desk gave us a recommendation for dinner and we ventured out after a short rest. Forgetting that Europeans idea of 'just down the street' is a mile, we were unable to find the recommended restaurant, but discovered one that seemed perfect just a few blocks from the hotel. It sat on the corner of a street facing the wall of Vatican City and was called Papa Rex's. Complete with a costumed Centurion and live music, this was another highlight of the trip. The music was beautiful and subtle, providing a backdrop to conversation instead of overwhelming it. Occasionally, the handsome couple would serenade us while we enjoyed lasagne and tiramisu. The food was delicious and reasonably priced and the atmosphere was lovely.

Stick with me - tomorrow we visit some of the sights of Rome and meet our tour group!