Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Undiscovered City

Picture a city with tree-lined avenues, buildings from the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire (and others with hints of Venice), a fairy-tale castle, coffee shops and delicious pastries, parks and seaside charm. That's Trieste, favorite of James Joyce and British travel writer Jan Morris.

See what I mean?

Castle Miramare was completed in 1860. It was a residence of the Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maxmilian II, later declared
Emperor of Mexico. When he was assassinated in Mexico, his wife, Charlotte of Belgium (Carlotta) is said to have gone mad.
 I wonder if Carlotta's ghost haunts the castle?

Yet the charms of Trieste were not what drew us to this lovely city.
Rather it was the charm of one of its residents, Fiorenza, a friend of ours from Seattle who returned to her native city a few years ago when her mother needed more help. Thanks to Fiorenza's assistance, she is able to stay in her own home. 

Kevin and Fiorenza in downtown Trieste.

It's true--you haven't experienced hospitality until you've experienced Italian hospitality. Fiorenza and her mother, Stella, showered us with food and affection, which, in Italy are very closely linked! 

Tea, Stella, Fiorenza, and Kevin after another delicious meal! (Tea is pronounced tay-uh.)
She is Fiorenza's renter,who has become a close friend.

It was wonderful to see Fiorenza again. She has many friends back in Seattle who will be pleased to know she is doing well and has many supportive friends. And they are all so close! It's easy for them to get together, because they live within blocks of each other. They are all warm, welcoming people just like Fiorenza!

Below: After more food (tiramisu--yum!), with Fiorenza's friend, Marisa.

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay with Fiorenza and Stella. We got to explore the town and catch up on the news from mutual friends. Here's a photo of Fiorenza as we were catching the city's signature tram/cable car to the suburb of Villa Opicina:

And while it doesn't fit the narrative of fun, friends, and fabulous food, I will close with one of the other important things that happened in Trieste:  Kevin got a haircut! As you can see, I had my reservations, but it turned out quite well.

A huge thank-you to Fiorenza, Stella, and their many friends for providing that "home away from home" feeling when we needed it most. Grazie mille!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Venice and the Aqua Alta

We didn't get many good photos of Venice on this trip. I think we have much better shots from our earlier visits. But this time we witnessed something we hadn't before--Venice during aqua alta or high water.

You might expect that the frequent flooding Venice experiences between late September and April is due to its sinking. But although Venice is sinking at about 0.5 to 1 millimeter per year, the aqua alta occurs more frequently now because of rising sea levels. Water gates designed to help protect the city during the high tides are supposed to be operational next year. If they work, I know a lot of merchants who will be happy.

Here's what Venice looked like the day we arrived.

People were still feeding pigeons at San Marco, even though that's now illegal, and you can be fined. (I'm secretly glad they still do, partly because I'm a bit of a rebel, and partly because I like pigeons.)

But the next day, there were other birds in the square.

Shopkeepers had to sweep water out of their stores.  And vendors switched to selling plastic boots in bright colors of orange, teal, and yellow. (See the orange ones below.)

In low areas, such as at San Marco, people got around on catwalks.  Even at our hotel, the last day, the desk clerk told us to come back and get our bags by 11 a.m. if we didn't want to have to wade for them!

The rain created a soft light that made Venice look both pale and  slightly overdone, like an old actress with powdered skin and a little too much rouge.

I liked this soft-focused photo of Kevin looking out on the rain, but it makes me feel cold, remembering how the damp got into our clothes.

We didn't do a lot in Venice on this trip, because we were still suffering from our colds. The Venice Biennale, the art exhibition that Venice hosts every two years was going on while we were there, and we did manage to catch an exhibit or two, but mostly we just enjoyed wandering the old city.

I still love Venice--I think it is the most romantic city on earth--but I have to admit that I like it better in the sunshine, without the aqua alta, and without as many tourists.

Monday, November 16, 2015

No Roman Holiday

View of the Tiber River, a bit muddy following the rain.

We bid Shirley goodbye when we returned to Rome.  We said goodbye at Termini Station, where a taxi was waiting to speed her to the airport.  

The title of this post makes our stay sound a little bleak. It wasn't all that bad, it's just that when we arrived in the afternoon, still suffering from colds, it began to rain, and our taxi dropped us far from our studio rental in Trastevere. By the time we made our way to the place, we were soaking wet--in spite of our umbrellas.  We were cold, tired, and a bit miserable, so we took hot showers, spread out our things to dry, and went to bed for a long nap.

The street in front of the hotel in the rain.

Fortunately, there was a good pizzeria right across the street, so we had dinner there, but the first day in Rome was mostly spent sleeping.  By the next day, we were feeling better.

Kevin was pleased to discover a Henry Moore exhibit at the Baths of Diocletian, since Henry Moore is one of his favorite artists. (The Henry Moore print he bought in England in 1989 is a prized possession.) So the Moore exhibit was a must-see, which featured both sculpture and prints.  I was surprised at how well Moore's work fit within that ancient structure, built from 298 to 306 A.D. They were the most elegant of all the imperial baths in Rome.

We had seen the first statue below, "The Wounded Warrior" at Santa Croce in Florence, as it was being prepared for shipment to Rome. Kevin talked to the woman who was cleaning it. At the time, he didn't think to ask where it was going to be shown, so it was a surprise when we saw the signs promoting the exhibition.

Moore's sculpture fit dramatically into the ancient space.
Though our time on our return to Rome was limited, we did revisit some favorite sites, like the Colosseum and the Forum.

When we first came to Rome, years ago, I was thrilled to walk in the Forum, knowing I could be trodding in the same place as Julius Casear and the other famous Romans of history. I still feel a bit thrilled at that!

Caesar was deified after his death and, befitting a god,  his temple and tomb is still there in the Forum, though not much is left.

The tomb of Julius Caesar.
However, there are vestiges of the time of the caesars that show up in strange places.  The Roman legions marched under banners with the initials S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populusque Romanus or the Senate and People of Rome). Today, SPQR adorns lamp-posts and other less elevated monuments, like this manhole cover:

When you revisit a city, you feel comfortable much more quickly, and you don't feel compelled to return to every place you experienced before. Still, I regretted not having allotted more time to both Rome and Venice on this trip, because we didn't accomplish as much as we had planned. I had not counted on poor weather and being hindered by colds.  Mostly, we simply walked around, which offered its own pleasures. A return to St.Peter's Basilica, the Vatican museums, and the Capitoline Museum will have to wait for another time.

The Little Boy in the Tigger Suit

The World Summit of Nobel peace laureates meets this week in Barcelona this week. The events in Paris
and the plight of the refugees will be considered as discussions center on finding ways to further peace.
I am weeks behind with the blog, but events have caught up with me. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris prompt me to comment now. This blog post touches on political views, which I mostly try to avoid in the blog, but I feel deeply about this and cannot be silent.

When I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, November 13, I, like most people, felt great sorrow for those who had lost their lives, and for the city of Paris, a beautiful city which I love even more after spending two-and-a-half months there last year. Tributes have poured in from around the world, as they should, and I was pleased to see that the Space Needle, back home in Seattle, flew the French flag in solidarity. I can’t emphasize enough my sympathy for the families of those who lost their lives or who are wounded—some with psychological wounds that will probably never heal. But I also thought of someone else.

A few days before the attacks, I saw a news story on CNN while we were in Vienna.  It was the story of a little two-year-old boy, the son of some young Syrian refugees in a camp in Central Europe. The family had been through quite an ordeal.  They had paid most of their life savings to a man who put them in a rubber boat overloaded with other refugees, to get across the sea. They had walked for weeks, had gone hungry, and had slept out in the cold. The family had to leave everything behind, including the little boy’s toys. The only thing he had from home to comfort him was his pajamas with bright tiger stripes, just like his favorite Winne-the-Pooh character, Tigger.

When I heard what happened in Paris, I thought of that little boy.  His Tigger pajamas weren’t too different from the fuzzy-footed pajamas my own son loved to wear as a child.  His Tigger pajamas were also a lot like the Halloween costumes my grandchildren wear for trick-or-treating.

Later, I heard they found a passport near one of the suicide bombers in Paris that indicated he was a refugee who had entered the European Union through Greece. My stomach constricted.  Now, all the far right politicians in Europe and the US are starting to rail again about Muslim refugees, implying they are all terrorists. And I want to cry out, “Stop! Before you start those accusations, think a minute!”

Think about what it takes to leave your country and your family behind. No one does that lightly. Think about how bad things have to get before you put your life, and your family’s life, at risk. Imagine the choices you have to face before you give your life savings to someone who puts you in an unseaworthy boat—just so your children will have a chance—not a guarantee, just a chance—to have a normal life.  So the little boy in Tigger pajamas can grow up away from war and devastation. The parents knew that others, including small children have died on this journey before, but still, they want that one chance.  What kind of person sits in a warm, comfortable house every day, never worrying where their next meal will come from, and equates all these desperate people with terrorists?

The vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving people. I was privileged to live awhile in Singapore and work with colleagues who were Muslim—people who were kind, who were smart, who had a good sense of humor, and who were really not much different from my friends at home. ISIS and Al Qaeda no more represent most Muslims than the Nazis or Timothy McVeigh (who was raised Catholic) represent Christians. The terrorists represent a perverted form of Islam, not the mainstream, but you wouldn’t know that listening to some political commentary.

So I worry. I worry that once again, demagogues will rile people up, deny refuge to those who need it, and take away the civil liberties of their citizens. Because if there is something I have learned in traveling the world, it is that there are good people and bad people in every country and in every religion.  And then there is one thing above all: Most people everywhere only want a better life for themselves, but especially for their children and grandchildren. That’s it. That’s really it

Of course we should fight terrorism. But we should fight it in many ways—including by education, by example, and by welcoming good people into our society—people of all religions.

So I worry about the little boy in the Tigger pajamas.  What kind of life will he have? Because he really is all our children and grandchildren. More even then the acts of terrorists, his future—and theirs—depends on us.

I don’t know if this is the same little boy I saw on TV (click to view), but it may well be. He’s wearing tiger-striped pajamas and this story is also from CNN.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Travels with Shirley (Part III)

View of the Amalfi Coast.

If there is a theme to our visit to the Amalfi Coast, it would have to be "piano, piano." I have studied Italian a little, but I had not heard that phrase before. It was our driver, Inna (pronounced Ee-nuh), who acquainted us with the saying. Although piano means floor in Italian, in this instance it's more like the musical term pianissimo (very softly) to mean take it softly, slowly, or bit by bit. (Or in the American vernacular "chill out," but it's a kinder term than that!)

We hired Inna to give us a tour of the Amalfi Coast and then drop us at our rented apartment in the small town of Praiano. Kevin and I had recently received a reimbursement from our insurance company for overcharging us, so we decided to spend our small windfall on the tour. It was a great decision!

Inna, who was born in Russia, remarked that when she first moved to Sorrento, "I heard 'piano, piano' a lot, because I'm Russian, and I'm excitable." In any case, we quickly adopted the theme and used it to remind ourselves to sit back and relax. 

Inna was a perfect driver for the twisting road along the Amalfi Coast. Although she is short in stature, she does not tolerate any nonsense from the male taxi drivers (in spite of "piano, piano") and we liked that! She's used to negotiating situations like this one:

Along the way, there were views of towns, like Positano, that tumble down the hills, the houses like cascades, where streets are steps that often end in a maze of passageways, and shops spill out their wares for the tourists.

We visited Ravello, high above the sea, where Inna reserved a place for us at a restaurant with (of course) a view.

 The food was picturesque and good too! (Just a sampling here.)

One thing happened in Ravello that I didn't record with a camera, but it will stay in my mind. We were walking along in the square in front of the church, when suddenly, I noticed that everyone had stopped.  I looked up and saw a hearse. I have no idea whether the person who died was young or old, rich or poor. But as the pallbearers carried the casket up the steps, the crowd fell silent. Both the locals and the tourists stood and honored the moment. Not one person made a sound. I thought that was extraordinary.

Later, Inna delivered us to a spot near our apartment in the village of Praiano. We had to walk up the street to get to our lodging, because we were on a pedestrian-only street (though motorcycles could use it). The apartment must have belonged to the owner's grandmother. It seemed like a Nonna's apartment, and I loved it!

The terrace provided a relaxing spot for coffee and limoncello...

With a view of the sea.

From Praiano, we made excursions by bus to Positano and Amalfi. In Positano, we visited one of the "leading hotels of the world," Le Sirenuse," because Shirley's niece, who works in public relations, had written an article about the hotel that was very well received. It is a beautiful hotel, if a bit above our budget.

We stayed on to watch the sunset and the lights come on in Positano.

We explored Amalfi, too, buying some of their famous paper.  Kevin and Shirley also visited the church, which sadly, I missed because my leg was bothering me, and I just couldn't make myself walk up another set of steps! They said the interior was impressive.

There is much more I could say about our visit--about poking around the towns, savoring the meals, and finding delightful little places to sit and observe the scene.  But mostly, when it comes to the Amalfi Coast, it's sharing the experience with Kevin and Shirley and taking in the stunning views that I will recall. Along perhaps, with Inna and "piano, piano."