Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oderzo + The Last Family Reunion

Our last full day of family time on Wednesday was spent in Oderzo, where another branch of the family lives. The main church in the city piazza is where Margaret's grandparents were married in 1892 before coming to the US. So, much family history here.

We arrived at Valentina's house, where we were met by 10 family members. We were welcomed with soft drinks and snacks. The espresso cups were out and ready, but the heat was already close to the 92 high of the day. Seven year old Laura was the gift giver, and she brought around tied stalks of lavendar from their garden and red bags containing candy treats and held together with a ladybug for good luck.

We piled into cars and caravaned down the street to Enrico's wine shop. Guess what we did there? Yes, we tasted Prosecco! Enrico started his wine shop three years ago, and he also works for a winery, so he sells some of their wines. The Prosecco was delicious, and the best weakve had. They had breadsticks, chips, cheese and meat out for everyone's paletes.

Then, the lunch to top all lunches (though we didn't know it at first). We all sit down in the back room and wine and water is brought to the table. Then, lasagna is brought out, and I had great bowties and tomato sauce. As everyone is feeling full and comfortable, the second round comes out. First, salad for me and salads for everyone else to share. Roasted vegetables. Then, plates of meat for everyone; on each plate, five pieces of meat: sausage, chicken, two ribs, and something else. Everyone looked mortified by the amount of meat. So, everyone dug in and tried to get through the wonderful but large portion. My salad was just perfect :)

We then went on a great four hour archaelogical and historical tour of the city. Most of us walked around in a food coma, not helped by the heat. Our guide led us through the Archaelogical museum, explaining very well in English the pre-roman, roman and medieval history of Oderzo. We saw roman artifacts, mosaics, and building materials. He explained the growth of the area and how it evolved. He took us into a restaurant that was built around a significant roman site that was discovered when building the restaurant. He took us through the old roman forum and other builidings that had been excavated. It felt like hearing an adventure story.

As we finished the tour and found ourselves in a history stupor, we were told it was time to head to dinner because there were reservations. Looks of panic ran across everyone's faces ('I can't possibly eat' was the universal thought). We returned to the same restaurant and the same back room. The waiter was waiting with...yes, prosecco.

For over an hour we all cooled off, chatted, and drank prosecco. I couldn't possibly pass up the olive tapande bruschetta. Oh, so delicious (the olive is one of nature's perfect foods). Eventually, everyone ordered pizzas and shared with each other, thus making it slightly less painful. I ate my entire cheeseless vegetable pizza. I convinced myself that I had more room due to missing out on the lunch meat orgy.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was spending time with Laura. She was a little bored of us adults and amused herself by walking circles around the table. Finally, she sat down at the table with me. I had a sudden curiosity to see if Laura knew tic-tac-toe, which she did. We played a few rounds, but then I got bored. So, I tried hangman (while wondering if maybe this was a little macabre), and she knew it. So we hung teddy bears instead of people. Is that worse??? Since she was learning english in school, I did English words for her, and she did Italian words for me. It was absolutely delightful. Then, when it was time for dinner, she moved her seat next to me. Break my heart.

Then, after dessert arrived (glasses of ice cream, lemon + vodka), it was another round of presents: beautiful scarves and a photo of Oderzo). They were so generous to us, and it was humbling to see how much it meant to them that all this family had come over. While I was not blood family, I was treated like it. I would love to host any of them in Chicago and repay their many kindnesses.

The night eventually ended, and it was time for us to say goodbyes and return to the hotel. A wonderful family reunion thanks to Margaret's spectacular planning and the generosity of the Italians.

On to Slovenia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Family Dinners, Treviso, Prosecco, Etc.

After I finished my last entry, we were all resting after a busy day in Treviso and gearing up for family dinner number two. Monday night's dinner was to be held at Elena's restaurant in Mirano. Her son Simone and daughter Sara would be helping with the dinner, and who knew what other local family would show up.
Dad drove expertly with his GPS leading the way with her elegant voice. When we turned onto "Via Dante Aligheri", she said, "Via Dante Alleeeeyeri". Oh, grating to the ears!
Elena's restaurant looked familiar as I'd seen it in the skype background when talking to Sara. In person, it was just as quaint as you would hope a family owned restaurant would be, without the chianti jars and red checkered tablecloths. This was quaint but elegantly simple. The building is from 1882, and Elena has been running it for 24 years.
They set a gorgeous long table in their back room, and we yanks spread out so that the Italians could intersperse. We were all handed Prosecco, which I declined until food was in inhaling distance from my face. For about 10 minutes, plates of food were brought out. It just kept coming. Then the wine kept coming. Then the stories were flowing. Then more Italians came. Then the last few Americans arrived from their jaunt from Paris. Then a little lull to feed the newcomers. Then more food and nore wine. Then more Italians. Then more laughter and stories, which nobody could fully understand. Then more prosecco. Then dessert plates. Then grappa.
It was simply lovely and entertaining. I was called to translate a few times, which really made me laugh. This Italian man was trying to tell them he had just retired, that he had worked for 30 years on the train system as an engineer. Or maybe he told me that he never finished school and had always wanted to be an engineer but cleaned trains for 30 years? Regardless, he was lovely and we ended up having a lovely conversation about the two amores in his life, his previous wife who died and his current wife, the sister of Elena.
Then, one of the Italian women asked me how old I was and then it was all over. It became a game of "Guess how old Maureen is" in Italian. When someone would inevitably say 20 or 21, there would be laughter followed by, "She's 36" and "No!" This led to a lovely conversation with some Italian women who wanted to know how I did it, how I had found the fountain of youth. They decided they would all go vegetarian the next day. They really made me laugh, these women. They smiled with their whole faces, laughed with their whole bodies and vocal cords. My face hurt from all the laughter that evening.
The Italians then gave us these wonderful gifts of Venetian masks and olive oil. So sweet and generous. We all posed with our masks and did the rounds of kissing cheeks and thanking them. It took us another hour to leave because there were more photos to be taken, more laughter to enjoy, more wine and toasts to make. Finally, we said out bittersweet good-byes and left. A truly lovely evening.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sunday + Monday: Verona, Scorze, Treviso, Mirano

Sunday was both departure and arrival day. A day for hugs good-bye and double cheek kiss 'nice to meet you' or 'molto lieto.'

Claire was leaving back to Liverpool, and Martina was joining me in Scorze for opening night of the family reunion. We spent the morning packing up and then went for one last walk through town. The streets were full and half the stores were open. We made it to the arena, where some industrious actors were dressed up as Gladiators. For a small fee you could have your photo taken.
After a quick lunch, we said our good-byes. These trips never seem quite long enough, every minute so important. Quiet conversations over breakfast, the long moments over wine and dinner. Will I see them next year, or will it be longer? Juni will change so much even in the next few months.

So. Martina and I arrived in Scorze with Dad and Margaret on the hotel porch to greet us. A quick greeting and check-in, then a clean up before 6pm cocktails and reunion dinner.

Since Sara, one of the Italian cousins, had come to the US last year, there was one Italian I knew. I obviously don't look like the long lost Italian cousin, so there were many rounds of who are you? And 'I'm the daughter of Margaret's husband.' Then pointing to my dad and their 'Oh, si, si si' as they see the resemblance.

Prosecco on the patio followed by dinner. 20 Americans and 30 Italians. Margaret prepared a speech in Italian, and there were toasts and laughter. Then a four course dinner and wine with family stories being told everywhere. As the Italians began to disperse, there were kisses and ciaos and see you in America. A group of us stayed on the porch until 11:30pm finishing drinks and telling more stories.

Then, the joy of skype con mi amore on the hotel porch with the late evening breeze. Perfecto.


A pleasant morning breakfast spread and the last hour with Martina and Juni. A round of pass the baby, which included Juni and Frank, Kate's baby, playing a game of flirt. Good-bye to Martina and Juni, hoping time and finances will cooperate.

Then, 12 of us hopped in cars and made our way to Treviso for a guided tour. I felt all sorts of nostalgia from the tour I took in Oxford in November. In just a short time (2 1/2 hours), you learn so much about history. You are looking up and around instead of in a guidebook.

Treviso's story includes ancient rome, feuding families, powerful bishops, poetic traditions (ala Petrarch and Dante Aligheri), various ruling states, and WWII bombing + rebuilding. Withering frescoes, quaint bridges, bell towers, old buildings crumbling, new buildings incorporating the old arches and architecture.

A simple lunch in a cafe with sandwiches where I had a grilled vegetable sandwich and an espresso. Our weary feet and eyes, our sun-flushed skin, taking a brief respite under the cafe umbrellas.

Now, back at the hotel waiting for departure for family dinner at one of the -talian's restaurants.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Verona Photos

Last Full Day in Verona (but not much in Verona)

We woke up a little more bright and early this morning (for me way to bright and way too early due to my 4am alert state). Off to Lake Garda. A quick little bus and train jaunt and 14 minutes later we are walking toward the gorgeous lake. I wouldn't have put this Lake on my to do list if Martina and Claire hadn't been so keen on it. I'm glad they were.

We were quite surprised to find that the ferry we wanted to take to the nearby stopping point only ran a few times a day. We had four hours to wait. So, we scrapped that plan and decided on Bardolino instead. To prepare ourselves for the arduous 45 minute boat ride :), we had to seek sustenance from a 'very Italian' restaurant near the harbor. We ordered and the waiter looked at us and said, 'I don't think that will all fit on the table.' We are three women without fear of food.

Martina's tuna and roasted rosemary potatoes. Claire's ceaser salad and chips (french fries). My beans and onions, roasted vegetables and roasted rosemary potatoes. Bread Basket. Water. It was a delicious meal. Please note: no spaghtetti marinara to be found.

Bardolino proved to be a stunning choice. A few photogenic stops on the ferry ride and we disembarked. We window shopped, Claire and Martina ate gelato, and finally we sat by the lake for at least a good hour. They jumped into the water for a little dip, while Juni and I sat in the shade. She tried to eat leaves. I tried to write and read poetry. Neither of us were very successful.

Then, back to the ferry, back to Peschiera, then back to Verona. Then the hunt for food. 8:30pm. Last night in Verona. Walking up and down streets trying to find an acceptable restaurant. Acceptable: not touristy, Moe friendly, and pizza (for Claire). We were on the edge of giving up, when suddenly, out of the fog (okay, no fog in sight) we stumbled across a cute little restaurant along the river and looking very friendly. We sat down and didn't get up for two hours.

It was a last night in Verona meal made for the gluttonous. When we placed our order, the waiter smiled and said, 'Okay, we need anther table.' He scooted over a second table so that it could hold all our food. Twice in one day. This takes real skill and culinary dedication. Three courses, a bottle of wine, and dessert + dessert wine later, and we left three very satisfied women. A truly decadent and wonderful meal. To top it off, Juni slept the entire evening. Walking home was almost bittersweet.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Verona, Day 3: Church Pinball + Operatic Tragedy

A lazy morning in Verona thanks to good sleep and happy Juni. We finally leave around noon in search of our opera tix and lunch. The crowds around the Arena are thick, perhaps due to the evening or just the awesome imposing nature of the historic building.

We hunt down lunch off the Arena because 2 hours after breakfast it's definitely time for lunch. I had risotto with porcini mushrooms (yeah for no spaghetti marinara), while Martina and Claire dove into gorgonzola and walnut pizza and salad. No afternoon wine today due to leftover headaches from yesterday's one glass indulgence. Margaret's cousin Dave and his wife Marlena joined us, so it was a very merry lunch indeed. We heard their travel adventures and mined them for good stops on our afternoon meander.

Meander we did in a game of church pinball: San Lorenzo, San Anastasia and the Duomo. From the simple Lorenzo to the ornate Anastasia. From the quiet, serene music in Lorenzo to a shock of history (three churches in one) at the Duomo. The pinball of taking cameras out, putting them in, taking shawls off, putting them on.

I've just gone through the day's photos. I really am obsessed with Italian windows and fading frescoes. I could make one of those cheesy posters of 'Italian Windows' like you can find the 'Doors of Ireland' posters everywhere. Why are balconies and shutters and plants so captivating?

It amazes me how nonchalant Italians can be about frescoes indoors and out. Age, time, weather, pollution--all indifferent to the fading paint. I wonder what this city must have looked like with all its facades vivid and fresh, telling stories and histories. There's such texture to these buildings as colors and layers of paint and plaster fade.

We eat sorbet on stone steps and wait for a church to open. We watch as a hearse passes and mourners in smart business attire kiss each other and smile. We hope the rain stays away.

Then, the Opera. We leave Juni with a babysitter and off we go. The arena is crowded at every entrance. We stand in the long line for the cheap seats, make our way up the ancient stone steps, buy our cushions, and find our space. We pack in like sardines, and we try not to kick the butts of the people in front of us or lean longingly back on the knees behind us (oh, too have something to lean on!). We watch all the posh people meander into their reserved seats. Except for the cramping back and fidgety legs for a few hours, our seats really are the best seats in the house. The whole arena lies before us.

We buy wine from the vendor and he pours it into paper pepsi cups. I buy a souvenir libretto. There are no names of performers, no list of the various movements/arias/etc. But a line by line translation is not so bad! We wait for the gong and the opera to begin. The sky is a perfect blue, the breeze crisp but comfortable.

What a spectacular performance from the simple but intricate set design to the setting to the orchestra to the voices. I will post photos, but what a sight. Soon we sit in plitch black, and everything focuses on the stage. At one point, at least 60 people weave on the three different interlinked stages. Through my binoculars I watch as the heroine belts out her last words, falling to the stage in a heap. An unexpectedly moving death, since it took a whole act to happen...

One of those evenings I will always carry with me. Good friends, gorgeous weather, stunning music.

So I sign off with an espresso buzz still going at 4am, 14 hours after dosage. Tomorrow, Lake Garda.

Chicago to Verona: Late But Thankfully No Blizzard

Well, only a seven hour delay followed by a torndao warning and another delay. Arrived 8 hours late in wonderful sunny Rome. An easy train trip to Roma Termini, where seven years ago, Rana, Diane, Kristin and I bought tickets to visit Pompeii. We got free tix to the ruins and wandered the remains and murals (most with large phallis)

Today, I am sweating in the train line, waiting to buy my ticket to Verona. The clock ticking down until departure, running with 10 minutes to spare. Then, a three hour train journey. Soon, we are out of Rome and into countryside, fields of sunflowers, mountains covered in green, and a gorgeous blue sky.

The ease of having my phone turned on, so messages reach me from Claire and Martina and Federica, the woman from whom we rent the apartment. Claire has arrived. Martina and little Juni are on their way. It's a comfort to know that these little pieces fall together. I can relax on the train and daydream and enjoy the fields, not worrying about meeting up.
My heart hurts a little as we pass through Florence. I can't believe that I chose to skip Firenze on this trip. I can picture the places where I've taken my favorite photos: the church at Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, the Duomo. The store where I bought expensive Florentine paper.

This trip is all about the Veneto, an area of the country I first saw in 1994 over the New Year. Venice was wet and cold and half shut down. We stayed at the hostel, ate cheaply, wandered the bridges, visited the Guggenheim (phenomenal), and ate mediocre Chinese. This trip I will explore further and wider, venturing out into the countryside and other cities.

First stop: Verona.

'Romeo + Juliet' is packed in my bag, and I am ready for this somewhat haphazard writing retreat with Claire and Martina. Nothing is planned but the opera on Friday night. Espresso and vino and writing and long conversations. Yes! The rest is a pleasant mystery.

I arrive to Claire, Martina and baby Juni waiting for me. We drop by the apartment to relieve me of bags. Then, next door to the Pizzeria where Martina and Claire have coffee and dessert, while I inhale spaghetti with olive oil and garlic. The red wine a tonic after the long journey.

Verona: Tragic Love & Such

June 23

After a nice long sleep, we awaken with cups of tea and breakfast. Our landlady, Federica, shows up to collect our cash and give us a little introduction to Verona. She sees me and says she expected a 60 year old woman. Does that mean my super organized emails make her think of a travel veteran as in old, or just anally organized, aka old and set in her ways?

We head out into the city, weaving amongst ruins and shoppers. The main street we take is throbbing with people, but it's not until we're on top of an unmoving crowd that we realize we've arrived at Juliet's house. The walls are covered with graffiti. There's even a wall of gum stuck to it, serving as more romantic graffiti. People buy locks and write their names, then attach them to the gates, as to signify the permanence of their relationship, or their hope in its longevity.

We join the crowds that one by one walk up to Juliet and take a photo with her, holding her right breast for good luck. Some old men are very shy to touch her, others take a good solid hold. There is a plaque that says a copy of the statue is in Chicago, and suddenly I know exactly where it is. During my first photography class, I took a photo of her in Grant Park. Little did I know a decade later I would be here.

We meander into the Piazza Erbe and find a restaurant where we enjoy some wine (which we will regret later due to the heat) and I have my spaghetti with marinara sauce (which I've had twice now already). We then buy some fresh delicious fruit from the street vendor and begin to make our way to the Giardino Giusti, in desperate search for a spot of grass and a good nap.

When we arrive at the Giardino Giusti, they are formal gardens full of structured hedges and old statues and fountains, even a labyrinth. No spot of grass to be had. A few stone benches, but that appears to be it. We climb and push the stroller to the tippy+top, and there, finally, is a bench, a large spot of grass, and a gorgeous view of Verona. We remove sandals, let our feet and legs sink into the cool grass. Juni plays as we read, write, close our eyes to the end of the day sun.

After two hours, we meander back home, stopping at the local grocery store for the essentials: bread, olives, cheese (well not essential for me, lol), prosecco, and some wine rings. We snack, nap a little, then head out for dinner. We return to a restaurant we saw in the afternoon, a popular spot in the Piazza dei Signori, or Dante's square. Wine and spaghetti with tomato sauce (still delicious), followed by the evening walk with thousands of other people. Gelato for Claire, then home in the quiet 11pm hour.