It’s All Greek to Me (Day Seven in Mykonos)

This is Monday.

This is Monday, September 9.

This is Monday, September 9, 2013, and today we are docked in Mykonos, Greece.

I have to repeat a similar mantra for each day we are on this trip, else I might lose my mind.  I am thrown off by the whole waking up in a different port/ city/ country/ continent thing.  I feel like I have been away from my family and my home for months at this point.  If someone had a finite number of days on this planet earth, I would highly recommend they spend their last ones on a cruise ship.  Time seems to double or often triple when experienced this way.

Day Six was spent completely at sea.  We were excited for Day Seven so we could scream, "Land Ho!"

Day Six was spent completely at sea. We were excited for Day Seven so we could scream, “Land Ho!”
Coincidentally, that was also my nickname in college.

We have only a few hours in port today.

I’ll bet we spend some of it shopping.  It never ceases to amaze me how much shopping my mom, sisters, and Kid A can do.  Just when you think they’ve bought everything they could possibly need or want to buy, they see another store that they just have to browse.  My dad observed in Spain that he was missing the art gene.  If that is possible, then I am definitely missing the shopping one.

This port is incredibly beautiful. There is so much blue water, which is in stark contrast with all of the white buildings and white beaches.  Mykonos has a very relaxed charm, despite the fraternity/ sorority row comparison (I am just being sarcastic…. I’m perfectly aware which is the chicken and which is the egg).

Someone mentioned wanting to rent a house up in the hills here, but I fear it may be a little too quiet for me to spend an extended vacation.  I really wish we had more time to explore this city and see what it is all about, beyond the touristy stuff.

In the meantime, we are going to wander, window shop, stop for a most excellent Greek coffee, and take lots of pictures.  Most importantly, I want to put my feet in the sand and let the water splash over them.. What a glorious day to be at the beach!

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Pompeii Day – The Turnaround (Day Five)

…and then there were four.

My dad barely limped across the finish line yesterday, and he subsequently self-medicated with a bottle of room service vodka.  Even if we decided to do a tour on Saturday that included being pushed around in chariots all day, it was clear that he would not be participating.  He and my mom stayed on board when the ship docked in Naples.  They really needed a day off.

Kid A, Sister B, Sister C and I were also exhausted, but none of us had been put on injured reserve, so we just reminded one another that this was likely a once in a lifetime situation.  Who knew if or when we would be back to any of these places again?  We set our alarms and dragged our tourist butts out of bed early yet again.

But we decided after having experienced the public transportation systems in Florence and Rome, and relatively little else in both cities, we would try an organized tour this time around.

P (one of our aunts on the trip) had gotten a brochure from a company called CBM (Can’t Be Missed) when we were leaving Rome.  Their tour was only 65 euros and included the spots we wished to see.  That was to be the tour for us!

We left the port proper and walked a short distance to a bus depot.  We walked in a queue and then climbed aboard like pod people. (There is a whole lot of queueing and pod-people behavior associated with cruises.  You just get used to it.)

Guido and The Tour of Happiness

Our tour guide introduced himself as Guido.  I knew immediately that this tour was exactly what we needed.  On the heels of two days of sweating, wandering aimlessly, and pushing our way through throngs of tourists and not even getting to lay eyes on the statue of David (although I had surely seen enough naked men carved in stone in Florence alone to last me a lifetime), I was truthfully a bit negative on all things Italy.  But Guido the Tour Guide turned all of that around with his opening line.

“The sun is shining.  You are smiling.  Your spirit is smiling and shining also,” he beamed as he spoke in his very broken and incredibly endearing Italian-English.

“The sun is whispering to you, ‘Life is wonderful!’” he continued.  Then he gave us some history of the area and a little back story on Naples.  Our plan for the day was to bypass all of the morning crowds at the ruins and to drive up the Amalfi Coast first. We would stop on the way back down for lunch and some free time in the village of Sorrento.  Our last stop of the day would be to observe the destruction wrought by Mt. Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago.

We drove over 1,200 switchbacks in less than 34 miles of coastline.  Guido serenaded us with the Beatles (“…the long and winding road…”) and Chubby Checker (“…let’s twist again…”) many times throughout.  He told stories of his mother getting up early each Sunday to cook the sauce (“blub, blub, blub… for seven hours”) which was the cornerstone of family dinners.  The views were spectacular.  His commentary was priceless.

“Look what life is presenting you today!”  We smiled proper, special smiles as we ate our lemon slushies that we purchased for two euros from a cliffside stand above a breathtaking harbor.  My dad would love this spot.  I took lots of pictures.

After a delicious lunch at an authentic Italian restaurant (“…bottle of red, mmmmmmmm, bottle of white…”) we walked around the local markets until it was time to get back on the bus.  The town of Sorrento was colorful and charming and one of my favorite stops on the trip so far.

“Bene, bene, bene, belissimo!” Guido greeted us.  I could not help but smile around this man!

We had time for some Italian music on the sound system and then a short nap before we started our walking tour of the ruins.  Guido did a fantastic job recounting the story of Pompeii and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  I could almost see the mud tsunami that suddenly and unexpectedly covered the city.  He painted us spectacular pictures with his words.

I think we spent over two hours walking through the ruins.  By the end, we were tired and covered from head to toe in Vesuvian dust and grime.  I could taste it in my mouth.

Guido reminded us that Mother Nature does not care if you are man nor woman, rich nor slave.  Then he asked the women who “liked to fall down” (including one of my aunts and Sister B, but in fairness, those streets were totally dangerous and uneven) to come walk by him because they “were not good; they were not ok.”  I think he was just looking for an American girlfriend who would cook him sauce on Sundays.

At the end of the tour we were reminded to always “…have the best of today to you.”

All I can say is that I thought that Italy was fantastico after such a proper, special tour.  But I really need a Silkwood shower to clean all of the Pompeii off of me.

Ciao for now, Italia!  Torneremo!

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Florence and Rome… The European Charlie Foxtrot (Days Three and Four)

REAL TIME NOTE:  I was at my kids’ elementary school yesterday for a parent/teacher conference and I saw a friend (She is the Queen of the PTA, B and C.  She does so much for that school, including leave me alone when it comes to looking for committee chairpeople.  I love her and her kids.) in the parking lot.  She said, “I thought… ‘That can’t be Stacy!  I just read this morning that she was in France.  But it IS you.  What gives?”

Alas and alack, my globe-trotting adventures came to a halt last Sunday.  It was indeed me doing mundane things like interacting with the people who care for my children for eight hours each weekday.  I clarified to the Queen that I am back home and readjusting to my less European lifestyle (less wine, more housework).

I wrote these entries while I was on a cruise called the Grand Mediterranean for 12 days aboard the Royal Princess cruise ship.  So don’t be confused if you see me running walking about town these days.  I may have some talents, but I have not yet mastered the art of being in two places at once.

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TWO WEEKS AGO:  Let me preface this by saying… I am having a fabulous time on this trip.  I am thoroughly enjoying spending time with Kid A, my sisters, my parents, and the various other friends and relatives who also came along for the ride.  But let me be clear that this whole experience is definitely a ride on the Crazy Train.  Correction: The Super Crazy Train.  There and Back.  With very few stops.  Woot-woot… All Aboard!

This particular Royal Princess cruise has four total stops in Italy… three days in a row in the beginning, and one at the very end.  We began in the province of Tuscany/ port of Livorno (near Florence), made our way to the port of Civitavecchia (with reasonable access to Rome), and then we would dock in Naples (from whence we would be able to travel to Positano, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, and Pompeii).

We started off traveling with 13 of the 15 people in our group.  The other two – sister D’s godparents – are very smart and paid for the Princess Tours.  The tours are expensive, but it turns out that they are usually well worth the money.  You actually see the notable things in each port, hear interesting facts while you are touring, learn about local cultures and customs, stop for lunches featuring local cuisine, and – most importantly – YOU DON’T GET LOST.  If you miss the ship’s daily boarding time when are on a Princess tour, the ship will wait for you to return.  If you go out on your own tour and you miss it, they will leave your ass dockside.

So the 13 of us were (granted, much less expensively) touring Florence on Day Three and Rome on Day Four on our own.  Our first Italian Job was simply to not lose anybody.

That is a lot easier said than done.  So is getting back to the ship on time.

We ended up making our way around the Italian countryside, without anyone who really speaks the language, and with no one who is familiar with the cities we are visiting.  When I say, “made our way around,”  I mean that we were either waiting in lines, lost, or shopping.  Instead of seeing, hearing, learning and eating all of the local stuff, we have become the American poster children for a European Charlie Foxtrot.

In Livorno, we took a bus out of the port, and then we walked down below the train tracks, through a long tunnel, and then back up some steps to the main train terminal to purchase our tickets into Florence.  It is easier said than done unless you understood the board and the stops and the stamping process for the tickets (which was all in Italian, capisci?).  Somehow (mostly because of Kid A’s Spanish), we figured it out and made it to Platform 7, boarded our train and we were off to the city of Florence.

Throughout the day, it was much of the same… push through crowds of people, not quite sure where you were going, but believing it would surely be better when you pushed your way free of the bodies.  Somebody in our group had to go to the bathroom.  We waited for them.  The somebody had to get more euros, so we waited again.  We had moved about two blocks from the train station at that point.  It was going to be a very, very long day.

We had purchased tickets online to go to the Uffizi Museum and Gallery as well as the Accademia (Academy of Fine Arts), where the statue of David is on display.  We walked around the perimeter of the Duomo, but opted to not go inside because of the extremely long lines.  There were also very long lines for the museum, but we had already bought tickets.  First we had to wait in line to change the online vouchers over into actual tickets.  Then, we had to get in another line to gain entry.  Next, we waited to go through the x-ray machine.  Lots and lots of queuing.  Keep in mind that it was in the mid- to high- eighties (°F), and oftentimes we waited in lines while under direct sunlight.  I surrendered early on to the fact that it would be a sweaty underpants kind of day.

All 13 of us were still moving through he Uffizi together at one point.  I am not sure about anybody else, but after all of the hurry up and waiting, in especially in conjunction with my underpants sweat, I was not in the mood to appreciate the many, many, many, many stone penises on display.  And don’t get me started on the violence and depiction of the hurting of the babies.  The art may be breathtakingly beautiful, but the Renaissance was not nice.

It made me miss Sheepdog and Kids B, C, D, and E very, very much.

We had a yummy lunch (tomato and mozzarella paninis, with a side of wine) in Florence, and we got to see the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, but we missed seeing the statue of David because were too short on time.  We made it back to the train station and were (not easily) able to decipher which platform/ train to board.  Our group of six made the bus back to the port, but the others got lost/ sidetracked and had to take a cab in order to board the Royal Princess on time.

The next day we were in Civitavecchia.  It was much of the same.  Bus to the port gate.  Walk three or four blocks to the train station.  Decipher Italian train schedule.  The train to Rome took just under an hour.  After debating a bus tour vs. taking the Metro and local city buses (we opted for the “local flavor” option), we somehow managed to get to the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Square, and the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel (Amazing, yet much smaller than I expected.).  Oh, and we got lost.  More than once.  And it was hot and humid again, so there were more sweaty underpants.  And we barely caught the last train (standing room only) back to the port.  The Charlie Foxtrot continues.

By the end of our second day in Italy, we were all hot, tired, sweaty, and a little down.  We all looked like hell.  My thighs were chafed (sexy, I know).  But there was a nun who boarded the train with us and she winked at me.  And for some reason it really made me smile, despite how grouchy I was at that moment.

At dinner that night, after we had showered (I showered twice because I was so dirty, then rubbed Vaseline on my thigh rash) and dressed nicely, my dad spoke to everyone at the table.  We were all kind of defeated by our less than stellar travel days so far, but he decided to put a positive spin on it all.  It’s what he does.

Someone asked how he was doing.  He started off by giving his standard response that comes out anytime we are doing anything together, even though he may be miserable (like anytime we take him shopping, or when he is wandering around a foreign country in unbearable heat with a twisted and swollen ankle, hobbling up and down the gajillion steps of the Vatican Museum).

He said, “I’m good.  I’m with my girls.”  And he really meant it.  But then he added something else.

“I learned two things in Italy.  First, I learned that there are things in this world that are older than me,”  I’m sure his body was feeling every minute of his age at that point; I know mine sure was.

Then he went on, “…and second, I learned that my girls love me very, very much.”

I think he added that part because we were walking behind him all day waiting to catch him if he fell.  And he’s a big guy (6 feet, 4 inches tall), but we totally would have caught him.  We made sure he had enough water and got to rest occasionally, wore his sun hat so his head wouldn’t get burned, and even found an elevator at the very end of the museum tour.  And just maybe the nun saw us watching out for him and that’s why she winked.

Who knows?  I’m delirious at this point.  Somebody please pass the wine.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

I’m in Toulon, It’s in France, Buy Flea Market Underpants (Port of Toulon)

When my sisters and I were younger, my mom dragged us whenever she could to the Columbus Farmers Market on Route 206 in Columbus, NJ.  We would get up at some insane hour and arrive at what was basically a field with wooden tables in it.  There were some paved roads, along which people pitched tents and sometimes displays.  They backed up their windowless vans and the odd men and women wearing vendor belts full of change would all sell their crap to anyone with cash in hand.  Long live capitalism!

Columbus Farmers Market, "The Place Where Everyone Shops"

Columbus Farmers Market, “The Place Where Everyone Shops”

They sold clothing, furniture, cosmetics, toys, tools, food, plants, wallpaper, luggage, housewares, jewelry, hardware, electronics, and sno-cones.  They sold fruits and vegetables and seasonal whatevers.  They sold belts and purses and underpants.  They sold baseball cards and china and formal evening gowns and hair bows.  Its claim to fame is being the largest and oldest flea market in the Delaware Valley.  Apparently, it has some staying power.

I think that this is the place where I developed such a strong aversion to shopping.  I really hated Columbus.  Following your mom around while she shopped for junk for four or five hours will do that to you.  Being ten years old and trying on matching, smocked dresses with my little sisters in a sex offender’s van will definitely do that to you.  And how many hair bows do I really need?

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We pulled into France on the morning of Day Two of our cruise.  When I woke up, I wondered if France was mad at our cruise ship because there were a bunch of grey battleships right off of our balcony.  We took a water taxi to shore and then walked around the tiny village of Toulon.  Kid A bought some French shoes.  We went into a beautiful church, which – odds are – was called Notre Dame.  We tooled around cobblestone streets to do some window shopping, and practiced what few, lame French phrases we could recall (Combien?).  Then we came around the corner and saw something that I found truly shocking.

They had a French Columbus right there in the middle of the street in Toulon.  They had crappy clothes and cheap fabric and vegetables and sun meat (meat out in cases, not refrigerated as far we could tell, and sitting in direct sunlight).  The sun meat stores also displayed for sale some tripe that looked like dirty rags.  Tripe comes from the stomachs of various farm animals.  We thought they were the skin off of lamb faces, complete with the eye and mouth holes, so I guess cow and pig stomach isn’t actually so bad in comparison.

Put that into the category of some things that you can’t unsee.

Put that into the category of some things that you can’t unsee.

Where was the incomparable French shopping?  The fancy clothes?  The lacy lingerie?  I was a little disappointed that Toulon had such crap for sale because I believed that the French were above the low-end nonsense, but I guess that everybody has to make their living somehow.  And this was the small port of Toulon, not Paris.  At least there were some really cute storefront shops along the road as well.  I tried to ignore the creepy vendors and focus on the good stuff.  Vive le capitalism!

We walked all the way down to the end of the market and soon made our way back to the pier.  As we rode the water taxi back to the boat, the salt water flew up and splashed me in the face.  I watched the French mountains fade away into the background.  And it struck me  – despite the icky flea market – how incredible it was that I had just spent the morning in France.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…