Monday, November 19, 2012

Home Again Home Again Jiggity Jig

The final Roman Holiday wrap-up. 

In the name of a busy week (and busy 3 months really), I dedicated Friday and Saturday as strictly lazy days of packing, playing and stocking up on pasta, pizza and espresso for the winter months to come. Dedicated to daily life in Rome. It took until Wednesday or Thursday for my departure to really sink in for VA. It still doesn't seem 100% real to me. Is it strange that I made best friends with a 6-year-old this fall?

Saturday was a day of extra hugs and celebrity status. When Virginia hugs, you get a two-for-one deal—one squeeze with her little arms and the other with her soft cheek up against yours. Giulio gives great hugs too for a boy who is convinced all females have koodies. We spent my final hours making stovetop espresso (my favorite) and gnocchi for lunch (another favorite) and went out to our Neapolitan Pizzeria in Ostia beach. This one, a family favorite. Back home for limoncello toasts and kind words, I felt honored to tears…literally. This has been a very special experience with very a special family. I feel more than blessed than words can say. And I told them so.

I hate saying goodbye--maybe more than most--and saying goodnight on Saturday was the one of the more difficult things I’ve done in a while. If we’d had our way, there would’ve never been the last cuddle, or the last drawing, or the last Violetta song for me and Virgi. For Giulio, there was rejoicing in the final English lesson. He showed few signs of sadness that I was leaving (he’s a middle school boy, go figure). None except for announcing (certainly not asking) multiple times each day that he would be accompanying me to the airport at 5am Sunday morning. It didn’t matter how many "NO's" he got from his parents, he was up and joining me in the kitchen at 4:45am. People say goodbye in different ways. Virginia was emotional and Giulio thick-headed. Both displays meant the world to me and left me helpless to know how best to show it. And so I didn’t say, “goodbye." I said, “see you later.” Cliché as it is, it was the best I could do. Besides, it's probably true.

And just 22 hours later, I was back home in Virginia. The above picture was taken at hour 8 in London Heathrow Airport. I'm not usually a huge Starbucks person in the States, but after three months of naked shots of espresso and baby cappuccinos, a tall, watery American coffee was calling (screaming) my name. I had no idea what the pound-dollar conversion is, but it didn't matter. I was almost home, I could taste it!

Flowers, flowers everywhere! My mom has always had a knack for dressing the house in cheerful seasonal flora, both inside and out, and my homecoming was no exception. 

Falls Church Farmer's Market

Monday through Thursday, I spent time visiting friends and family in both Lexington and Harrisonburg, Virginia. I think fall is most beautiful in the Shenandoah Valley.

Reunited with my very hairy, and slightly overweight baby bro...
Whoops, caught him during an embarrassing snooze. 

While I've been exceptionally well-fed this fall on a strict diet of Italian carbohydrates, nothing quite compares to my mom's home cooking. I've been loving life as an only child this week, complete with all my favorite dishes--involving a good deal of red meat, red wine, and java chip ice cream. I'm joining a gym tomorrow.

I support this company.

Above, my sweet old friend, Mae, back from the Peace Corps. SO glad to have her home.

And below, my sweet new friend, Elliott. We'll be spending lots of time together in the next few months.

He's not so sure about me yet...

Friday, November 9, 2012

il finale

My time here in Rome has come and gone just as I had imagined it would: slowly at the beginning and speedy at the end.

Hard to believe this (above) picture was from back in August, when Virgi and I would often spend afternoons cooking upstairs in my room. I'm not feeling quite as anxious as I would have expected at this point, perhaps partly because I can easily imagine returning this spring. Here's how I've been filling up my final fall days in the ancient city.

You might remember I'd started a pseudo job--specifically teaching English to a young Brazilian woman twice a week. What I failed to mention was that those lessons have been done almost entirely in Italian. Admittedly, I hadn't really thought this one through, but of course only makes sense given her level in English, which is just about zilch. Imagine for a moment, trying to explain English grammar rules to a US immigrant. Now imagine teaching those lessons in a foreign language. O
f course, Italian is neither her native tongue nor mine, so we had quite the eclectic international exchange going on. These sessions offered me an exciting challenge and were surprisingly successful, all things considered.

Halloween in Rome. While it's a US holiday through and through, a select few Italians do try to get in the spirit. An excuse to dress up and eat candy is reason enough in my opinion. Unfortunately, the children were unable to go around the neighborhood for dolcetto o scherzetto (trick-or-treating) due to stormy weather, which made for a particularly sulky, whiny evening. This said, it didn't stop Virginia from donning her little devil costume, throwing back the sweets, and even writing a vampire short story. Here's her tribute to Halloween on the back of the front door.

Friday was All Saint's Day and so the children enjoyed a four-day weekend from school. On Thursday, we went to visit Le Catacombe (catacombs) di San Sebastian. According to ancient Roman tradition, all burials were to be outside the city walls. Land was also expensive and so it was typically the poor that were buried in a sort of labyrinth of caverns, or catacombs. There are upwards of forty known catacombs around Rome today, but it's likely that there are yet many more. Le Catacombe di San Sebastian, for instance, consists of 3 distinct levels, covers an area of 12 km, and holds 40,000 tombs (although the bones were removed years ago). This is not even close to the largest catacomb either. 

We joined an Italian group and lucked out with a fabulous tour guide. I loved learning about all the symbolism still very apparent on the walls and above many of the grave plots. And if this experience wasn't already cool enough, the excavation site was on THE APPIAN WAY, one of the oldest and strategically significant roads of the ancient Roman world. I swear I've been living in a history book this fall.

In other news, we've been on something of a baking rampage recently. Giovanna loves everything lemon and has been craving a sweet citrusy dessert to pair with her tea on chilly afternoons. I knew my mom's lemon bars recipe would be perfect. I was right. We made them on Friday and those gooey tarts barely made it through the weekend. So what did Gio and I do Sunday night? Make chocolate caprese cake and chocolate chip cookies of course! Holiday season has officially begun.

Other savory favorites Giulio and Virginia have enjoyed are "birdy in a basket" (fried egg bullseye on toast) and popcorn. And I mean the REAL popcorn too: cooked on the stovetop with plenty of salt and butter drizzled on top. It's a wonder to me that most Italian food can thrive without these two magical ingredients. And if eating eggs for breakfast wasn't enough, these Romanettes have merited a true American baptism through sampling (and LOVING) candy corn, thanks to a box my mom sent me...almost 6 weeks ago. Just in time to pack it up and bring back with me to the States. Piano piano, Italia.

Famous words: "Sah-rah, I help you?" Couldn't ask for a better little helper in the kitchen.

My final Italian class began with a dictation exercise, led by yours truly. Having shared a plate full of homemade chocolate chip cookies the lesson before, classmates and teacher alike had made me promise to bring the recipe on Wednesday. Well, this turned out to be quite the homework assignment for me--not just in terms of translating, but also in converting standard measurements to metric. Yikes, let's just hope everything was correct! And so our Wednesday lesson commenced, teacher Antonella took out her notebook, assumed her seat as a student, and pushed me forward to the front of the room. Our dictation exercise? Sarah would read her recipe as the class records it in their notebooks. It concluded with with a rousing applause and several announcements of parties and events where they planned to bake their own American chocolate chip cookies. I will miss this class more than words can say. For me, it's the bizarre, awkward, and unique situations like this one that infuse the richness into travel and make it all worthwhile. 

Aaaand not so sweet, but alarmingly edible: boiled octopus. Oh and that yellowish sphere to the right...that's its head. MMMMMmmmmmmMMMMmm dinner is served ;)

Here are a few fun pictures from our trip to the neighborhood "McDonald's park" on Saturday. It's a large shopping center with soccer fields, jungle gym and mini fair rides. McDonald's happens to be there too.

I love this picture of Virginia! That's my Italian little sister in a nutshell. Going to miss this girl, a lot a lot. Currently, her top right tooth is incredibly wiggly and holding on for dear life (although to be sure it's been dead for some time now). Italians call baby teeth denti da latte or "milk teeth," which of course makes sense too. 

This household loves Violetta! It's essentially a Spanish soap opera for tweens and we've been faithful viewers most week nights since September. I think it started out as something of a joke, with only Virginia taking it seriously. However, as time went on, the rest of us became fairly invested in the characters and plot line. Giulio swears he hates everything Violetta (because well, she's a girl, duh), but I've caught him watching intently on more than a few occasions. It's a topic you can bring up with Virginia at any time. And I mean ANY time. The problem is getting her to stop talking about her little Spanish teen idol. She proudly carries her Violetta journal to school each day and even recorded her very own Violetta music video--one I'm under oath not to post. This is how she got her nickname Virginia Violetta Vitolo, or simply "Triple V."

Always picture ready.

I often tell Virginia she is beautiful. It was probably one of the very first English words she learned. Whether it's once I've done her hair for school in the morning or after successes during English lessons, she is quite accustomed to hearing, "beautiful, Virginia!" And I nearly always know what she'll be saying next. "No Sah-rah! YOU is beautiful!" I simply don't have the heart to correct her grammar here. And so we enjoy a mini argument of flattery instead. 

Below is a picture I took while playing soccer with Giulio and Benito. I always have more to report on Virginia because she is my little leech after all. I am never wondering where she is because, if home, she is usually talking or playing with me, or physically on top of me, or all of the above. Giulio is almost the exact opposite, but in the best way possible. He seems much older for his maturity, manners, and overall consideration of others. Giulio is very bright and never ceases to amaze me with the kind of things he remembers from one English lesson to the next. He's way too much fun to tease and is quick with the sarcasm. G is, hands down, the coolest 10-year-old I know.

Since returning from Venice, the city has been repeatedly on the news for even MORE flooding, apparently the worst it's seen in two years. If you're interested, check it out online! The pictures are absolutely unbelievable. With acqua alta rising past knee-level in some areas, it's been difficult to distinguish between the canal and walkways. Never thought I'd say this, but it makes me thankful for the mid-calf acqua alta I experienced during my trip two weeks ago!

And now, news from Rome. Last week, Benito read reports that the Sistine Chapel will be allowing FAR fewer visitors from now on. Apparently, the volume of people that file through the site each year, and even each day pose a threat to the artworks' preservation. While it won't be impossible to visit the Chapel in the future, it will certainly be more difficult, perhaps requiring a reservation far in advance. I am officially even more thankful that I had the chance to see it when I did!

I took these last two pictures on Thursday while walking back from my last English lesson with my Brazilian student. While most of my favorite summertime bars had already closed for the season, I never tire of this coastal walk (or more often, run). How wonderful to live in a place where you can dip your feet in the water during the month of November!

People have asked how I've been feeling during my last days in Rome and, quite honestly, I am at peace because I have no regrets from my time here. I've done everything that I really wanted to do and more, both in Rome and around the country, which I realize is a huge blessing. It's been a very full 3 months and I've learned SO much about myself, God, and His world. For me, extended travel alone makes for challenging and stretching periods, but I'm always better for it on the other side. 

I'm so looking forward to spending the holidays back in the motherland with all the people I love most. A presto, USA! (see you soon!)

Basilica di San Pietro

On Tuesday, I enjoyed a final saunter downtown, for this trip anyway. Up until this point, I had just about conquered Rome, but for one major touristy landmark: La Basilica di San Pietro. I could not and I would not leave without crossing this sucker off my list.

St. Peter's is one of the largest churches on the planet and the architectural brainchild of art masters like Michelangelo, Bernini and others. The kind of design and precision that went into its construction is truly something to behold. Completed in the early 1600's, San Pietro in fact a church and not a cathedral since it is not the seat of a bishop. Regardless, it is still an understandably very holy place within the Catholic community and is believed to house the tomb of St. Peter himself.

A panorama of Piazza San Pietro that I took from my phone. Forte (cool), huh!

The line to enter the basilica is famously long, often wrapping the entire perimeter of the square. I staked out my spot and settled in for the long haul, which happened to be only about 30 minutes. I could just make out the security checkpoint. I was almost there! That’s when grandma and girlfriend decided to jump the line, conveniently and blatantly in front of me. I waited, wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt (maybe she was the confused type?). Mostly I waited for someone else to set her straight, not wanting to be the one to rock the boat…especially in Italian. Anyways, it never happened, and so I had no choice but to stand back and watch the rude old woman wiggle her way exponentially closer to the entrance. Five minutes later, we met again in the bathroom. Due to another long queue, the custodian ushered us out to form a line in the corridor. All willfully followed suit, all except Miss Shameless that is. By standing her ground inside the restroom, she immediately upgraded from the very last place to very first in line. This one just about pushed me over the edge. I could hardly imagine a six-year-old child behaving like this, much less a woman well into her seventy’s who was supposed to be sweet, timid, and wise at this point…wasn’t she?! This is just one example of what seems a much larger cultural mentality here, which both Benito and Giovanna have confirmed for me. Italians love to cutting lines. Actually, they enjoy breaking rules in general, mostly to see if they can get away with it. One has to be aggressive to get ahead in Italy, in far more than simply long lines. 

Just the same, I caught her glance and gave grandma the stinkiest stink eye I could muster.

Anyways, I digress. Once I had finally crossed the threshold, it took me upwards of twenty minutes to completely circle the atrium. I’ve grown fairly accustomed to oo-ing and awe-ing to myself and stopping every ten feet to snap shots. To say this church is BIG would be a gross understatement. My head was flung so far back in admiration of the ceiling, I had to hold onto a railing to steady myself. 

I wanted to get an up close and personal view of the cupola, so I scaled to the top. 

Half-way up!

Even in opting for the elevator ticket, I was still left with well over 300 steps to tackle. I huffed up the narrow winding staircase, very aware of the arrestingly slanted walls. Go figure, I was inside of a dome. 

At one point during the climb, I was granted an equally breathtaking and frightening birds-eye view of the Basilica from the base of the dome. See for yourself. It’s a wonder the camera didn’t slip out of my clammy, shaking hands.

In the end, the metropolitan panorama was well worth the struggle. It was also a perfect way to wrap up my time in Rome as I was able to spot many of the places I had visited during the past three months--some of my favorites like the Pantheon, The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument in Piazza Venezia, and the Colosseum. The cupola also offered spectacular views into the mysterious Vatican City, which felt a little bit like spying on a perfectly groomed little ghost town. 

The Vatican

Looking out over Piazza San Pietro

Once I finally made the descent, I popped into a nearby bar for acqua frizzante (sparkling water) and one of the Italian panini I’ve grown so fond of--this one with prosciutto crudo (raw) and mozzarella on a homemade roll. The second portion of my city jaunt began with a stroll through a flea market (uh oh) just past Castel Sant’Angelo on my way to Piazza Navona. 

Piazza Navona is one of the largest and arguably most beautiful squares in the entire city. The Vitolos had taken me through La Piazza on only my second day in Rome and it felt appropriate to close my trip the same way. I exited the square to pay my respects to La Fontana di Trevi, but didn't leave empty-handed. Piazza Navona is also a famous haven for a slew of talented Roman artists showcasing their works, and a cheerful depiction of the Spanish Steps in watercolor was calling my name. 

I passed Trevi and headed for the real Spanish steps where I caught the metro and headed for home. It was anticlimactic and unemotional and strangely peaceful. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Friday evening I was welcomed by a soggy, dreary Venice. I trudged through the pouring rain, up and over a handful of bridges, and under a tunnel-esk street before arriving at the door of my cozy B&B. Venetian streets seem to have been designed by Willy Wonka, who may have also consulted Dr. Seuss. Not only do they wind and change every ten feet, but some are so narrow you have to close your umbrella and turn sideways in order to fit through.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B (please notice the height of the door to the right)

After getting the rundown from the sweet lady running the B&B, I shed my wet things and hunkered down for a generous mug of tea with a young English couple staying in the room next to mine. Eventually, I braved the rain and cold once again for a dinner of pappardelle with porcini mushrooms at this cozy little Italian kitchen down the street—complete with singing chef and all. 

Buongiorno, Venezia!

Saturday morning was confusing to say the least. Breakfast was to be served at 8am, yet there was nothing on the table even at 9 when I had to leave to make my appointment in San Marco’s Basilica. Without a map, I wandered aimlessly, but didn’t get far thanks to a little thing called HIGH WATER. I would later learn that the city is prone to flooding during the fall and spring, due to the changing tides. And during both days of my stay, it happened to do just that. Add that one to the cultural experiences. I have never ever seen anything like this. The city had transformed into one massive baby pool overnight. I watched locals don rubber chaps and boots and cruise through water that rose to mid-calf (and even higher in some places). I looked on as they pumped out water from their shops and secured barriers in front of doorways, entirely un-phased by the evident routine. I literally had no idea what to do. Thanks to a kind bar owner, I acquired two oversized utility trash bags and worked hard to fashion them around my legs into something useful. Once again, even less embarrasses me when abroad. You might not want to travel with me;)

In times of high water, you'll find these elevated sidewalks in more heavily trafficked areas.

Somehow, I ran across a very cranky man selling rain boots and was ready to fork over a small fortune for these green rubbery gems, but surprisingly only parted with eleven euros. There is absolutely no other shoe that will get you through the city in times of high water. Many people went barefoot. 

Having already missed my appointment at the Basilica and without the slightest idea how to get to a far off San Marco’s (the lowest point on the island by the way), I resolved to purchase a city map and postcard, and practice my Italian with the friendly Tabacchi store owner. He assured me the tide would begin to go down within the hour. At least I was in Venice, right? Even the simple knowledge of being there was enough to sway my mood, and so I bought more time in a nearby café over a cappuccino and nutella pastry. I will never ever grow tired of this heavenly duo. Back at the B&B to drop of my old shoes, I discovered that breakfast had finally been served and I sat down for a second cappuccino with my new English friends. We conferred, reached consensus, and hopped on the #1 vaporetto (waterbus) for Rialto Bridge. The vaporetto system is a funny one to me. The routes are like that of a bus or metro, but with mariners and ropes and jerky stops against the docks. An in perfect Italian fashion, the course of any given vaporetto will travel in zig-zags across the canal. There is no identical stop for the return trip on the other side.

As I waited to meet Amy (a family friend studying here this semester), I explored the area and did some shopping. One of the positives of traveling alone is the people you are more likely to meet, like the three Venezuelan women who invited me to spend the day with them or at least meet up later for dinner. But how would I find them? “Just look for the three beautiful women,” they told me. HA.

On Rialto Bridge

Rialto shopping

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Market

Finding Amy among the masses of Rialto was probably a small miracle. We caught up over a pasta lunch, where I held my breath and ordered Spaghetti al nero di seppia (spaghetti in squid ink), which is typical of the region. Perhaps I’m too trusting of Italian cuisine, but I haven’t had a bad experience yet and this was no exception! 

Yes, I realize it looks very disgusting, but I promise it's very tasty. 

We spent the early afternoon wandering the streets, which is a fabulously authentic way to enjoy the city. Get lost—every inch is beautiful and you’ll love where you are at all times. We found our way to Academia Bridge, passed the Wake Forest house where Amy lives, and then popped into Santa Maria della Salute Church. One more cappuccino before parting ways and I boarded the #1 vaporetto at Academia, headed for Piazza San Marco. 

Santa Maria della Salute 1


Amy and I on Academia Bridge. Her house is in the background, just over my right shoulder.

Academia Bridge

Le Gondole 

Sadly, all my good fortune had reached its limit and I arrived just as the doors to the Basilica were closing for a special reserved mass. It wouldn't be reopened until after my train left the next day. Was this some kind of sick joke that I wouldn’t see San Marco’s (the main attraction) during my trip to Venice?! Spotting my first rays of Venetian sunlight, I crossed the square and rode to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) for a panorama. The view was especially breathtaking thanks to the lagoon and surrounding islands of Venice. I never wanted to make the descent. The city is truly a living postcard--that, or one of those simulated countries at Busch Gardens. Hard to believe anyone actually lives here.

Do children really go to public elementary school in Venice?? Really really?

Or another example...the building with the arches in the lower lefthand corner is a fire station.

Basilica di San Marco e il Palazzo Ducale

View from the Campanile 1


Another shot of the lagoon

Piazza San Marco

For once, there was no queue in front of Il Palazzo Ducale, and so I had no choice really. My favorite part was touring the prison and walking over the Bridge of Sighs. I could just a little too realistically imagine myself as a criminal seeing my city perhaps for the very last time. This is the view the prisoners would get on their way to their dark future in the dungeon.



Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs)

Palazzo Ducale 1

2. Notice the fourth and fifth columns on the second level from the left. They are a rosy red color and is where they used to announce death sentences to the public. Cute.

From inside Palazzo Ducale (view of Campanile) and Basilica di San Marco

Not quite ready to make the trek back to Riva di Biasio, I meandered the labyrinth of streets behind the Basilica and admired glowing shops and restaurants that could quite possibly swallow up my life savings in one single purchase. In yet another serendipitous moment, I noticed the side door of San Marco’s propped open with an official-looking man ushering people inside. He announced that it was for mass only, no visits. Hey, I could be Catholic for 45 minutes! And it was a glorious 45 minutes too. Trying to follow along to Italian prayers, songs, and sermon was an exciting challenge, and besides, I got to sit and stare at yet another incredible golden ceiling. This one was easily the most impressive though. Awed and utterly satisfied, I was finally ready to take the vaporetto back to the B&B and enjoyed a glowing backdrop of buildings and bridges all the way.

La Basilica

From Palazzo Ducale

Piazzo San Marco

Rialto by night

For dinner, I lugged my exhausted body around the corner in the name of spinach and ricotta pizza. I’m afraid I may be falling in love with myself after all these candlelit dinners alone…the red wine probably doesn’t help either.

                                                                          Si, per favore!

Sunday morning also proved confusing, but for a different reason. My Italian cell phone announced one time and my American phone another, when they had agreed just the day before. Daylight savings had happened in Europe and I had no idea. Well happy extra hour in Venice to me! I celebrated over a leisurely breakfast of a tall cappuccino and toast with my sweet British friends. Hearing the whistling wind and pattering rain, I was in no real rush to brave the outdoors. Apparently I slept through the citywide alarm for high water too. GREAT. It really says something about Venice though that the city is still breathtakingly beautiful even under these horrific weather conditions.

I layered on most of the clothes from my suitcase and hopped on vaporetto #4.1 bound for Murano Island. About a 45-minute ride from mainland Venice, Murano is famous for it’s glass art. I ran into one of the first glass shops I spotted and pretended to be a chronically indecisive shopper just to keep out from the wind and freezing rain. I definitely outstayed my welcome. It was strange walking around the island, which not surprisingly, seemed much more like a colorful ghost town on such a day as this. It wasn’t long before I waved the white flag and plopped myself down in a café in front of a generous wedge of lasagna and pint of birra bionda. After my return trip to the mainland, I had certainly spent more time on the boat than the actual island, but it was that sort of day in Venice—one for sheltered boating and café sitting. For others, it was a day of marathon running. Unbelievably, the city held a marathon Sunday morning around the perimeter of the mainland (aka the most flooded portion).

Murano 1

Murano 2

Around 2pm, I waved goodbye to the romantic and watery city and boarded the train for Rome and was ironically assigned to a cabin full of American college students studying in Europe. I couldn't have asked for a better trip!