Saturday, June 25, 2005

Two tough legionaires

The "for hire" legionaires made much more of an impression on the boys than the 2000 year old structure they posed in front of.

Rome for kids

Alexander’s burning question after seeing the Vatican was, “what do the Pope’s pajamas look like?” Given that the colorful Swiss Guard costumes look like PJs, he was convinced that an important guy like the Pope wears something really special at bedtime.

While touring St. Peter’s basilica, the piece that most captured Austen’s attention was the skeleton holding an hourglass. Yvonne and I had missed it, but they captured the essence of the basilica in one figure – make your life count while you can.

All in all, however, Rome is a bit much for little guys. The thing the boys liked most about Rome was the plastic Coliseum play set we bought them, complete with lions and catapults, which they played contentedly on the floor of our hotel.

Finding churches in Rome

Rome is so thickly strewn with churches that our concierge used newspaper stands as landmarks to guide our walk to a nearby landmark. “You can’ miss it – you go down the street lined with churches and look for the big newspaper stand – the church you are looking for is right behind that.”

In a city built on such a grand scale, it is the small details that impress. The senator’s names from 2000 years ago carved into the marble seats of the coliseum, the shaft of light through the top of the pantheon, the small painted wooden icons around the stations of the cross at a no-name church that didn’t make the guide book cut.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Old fashioned A/C

Yvonne makes use of Rome's plentiful fountains to freshen up an overheated kid.

That can-do American attitude

At forty kilometers away from Rome, we had exhausted every hotel suggestion our tour book had without finding a single vacancy for a family of four. It turns out that there are some cities where a bit of advance planning is useful.

In an act of desperation, I pulled out my American Express card and called their 800 number. The next minute, an enthusiastic Texas twang blasted in my ear, “hi, my name is Randy, how can I help you?”

Within 5 minutes, Randy had us booked into one of the hotels that had just turned us away, no fuss, no muss, no bother. As wonderful as Europe’s culture and charms are, there are times when only that can-do American attitude can get the job done.

The romance of the unintelligible

There is a certain magic in unknown languages that makes any overheard conversation take on added weight. Each unintelligible exchange has a mystery to it that it would not have if you knew what they were talking about.

The same romance seems to hold true for non-English speakers. The streets of Amalfi are full of shirts with captions like “touch me” and “disco king,” worn by people who speak little enough English to wear these articles with no apparent shame.

A more difficult obstacle for American tourists here is that local restaurants play really, really bad 70’s music. The restaurateurs surely have no idea how painful it is for their English-speaking guests to listen to a 30 minute “Best of Barry Manilow” tape repeat 4 times during the course of a two hour dinner. As difficult as it is to imagine, it must sound much better if you don’t understand the words.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Travelers as modern hunter-gatherers

One of the great joys of travel is finding out how well just winging it works out. Looking back on just one month of travel, all the really magical experiences happened by accident.

Thousands of years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have experienced the miracle of provenance on a daily basis. To experience this now, we have to get far enough from our tightly scripted lives that we can let serendipity take over.

A certain amount of planning is required to get to a spot, this is true. Yet once there, plenty of slack in the schedule is required for anything interesting to happen.

We expend tremendous energies convincing ourselves that the more minutely we plan our destinies, the better they turn out. Travel proves just the opposite, that the more tightly we plan, the more surely we will miss the essence of a place.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Madonna and child in Amalfi

Featuring Alexander, in one of his relatively unscarred moments. He went on to do a face plant later in the evening which rendered him temporarily much less photogenic

Amalfi or else

Driving from Sicily up to Rome, we toured the rugged Amalfi coast. We stopped at the town of Amalfi when Alexander declared that he would throw up if we took him around one more curve.

The city of Amalfi is an old fishing village built up a steep ravine, on top of a buried river that you hear rushing under your feet as you climb through town. The town has two stoplights, one at either end of the ravine. They regulate the traffic on the narrow street by sending it in one direction for five minutes then reversing the flow for five minutes.

The only flat place in town is a small square near the marina, which is where all the local kids go to play at night. Austen tried out his soccer skills with the local kids while we talked to their parents and the rest of the town did laps promenading along the marina.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Armed and dangerous in Sicily

Who cares about greek ruins, look at the kind of weaponry you can buy in Sicily!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Sicily - the land the internet forgot

Abandon hope of internet access, all ye who enter here. Even electricity is still somewhat doubtful technology here. For example, the lights in the house flicker every minute or so as if to warn us we should be breaking out the candles.
By far the most decrepit building in downtown Trecastagni is the Telecommunicazioni headquarters. Despite this, portable phones are everywhere, particularly in the hands of the mounted fiends who zoom around the world’s narrowest streets on motorbikes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Strolling around Syracuse

Yvonne complained that there were no pictures of me on the blog, and wanted to make sure that my presence on the journey was properly documented.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Feeding kids in Sicily

Dinners in Sicily are a problem, as the restaurants open at 9pm, well after bedtime for our boys. The only place to get a bite earlier is in the take-out pizzerias - but these can be hard to find, as the good ones are located away from the high rent town center.

My friend the fruit stand guy told me about a great pizzeria, owned by the father of his helper (it’s a small town). He took pity on us after watching us trek around the town square to three restaurants at 8:30 pm, none of which were open.

We miraculously understood enough of his directions to find our way to a tiny pizzeria well outside of town. Inside was a big oven made of lava rocks with a roaring fire that cooked both the pizza and the people in the restaurant, and a number of sweating Italian families. Nobody waited longer than necessary to get their pizza box, pay and run back home to feast on thin, crisp pizzas filled with flavors that grew right around the corner.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The great granite conspiracy

The city squares are crowded with gelatorias, but the good stuff here is the granite (grah-nee-tah), which is made without cream, like sherbet. There is some sort of conspiracy in that granite is never actually displayed or put on the menu but is all that anybody eats (they seem to serve gelato just so that the gelato police don’t take away their gelatoria signs).

The flavors we go for are limon, gelsi (a berry only available in Sicily) and mandorla (an almond sherbet which dates from Roman times). It's a bit hokey but I get a kick out of eating something that the legionaires were into 2000 years ago. The secret is to eat your granite with a brioche - again, the brioche are never on display, they seem to be whisked piping hot to your table out of some secret brioche factory operating under the gelatoria.

A mail-order villa of dreams

Renting a villa after perusing a few pictures on the internet carries with it many of the same risks as mail-order brides. The less concrete knowledge you have of what you are getting into, the more unrealistic your expectations.
Remarkably, what we found on arriving in Sicily was a villa of dreams, full of tiled floors, arched ceilings and covered with grape vines. It looks like it was built in the 1600s but was actually built in 1969, which means that it has lots of romance AND the plumbing works.

The villa sits near the town of Trecastagni on the slopes of Mount Etna. It has a small pool, where we plant ourselves on sunny days, and an airy kitchen where we cook most of our meals. The roads around the villa are full of farmers selling fresh fruit and vegetables, and the towns have a wealth of small shops selling local specialties like a country salami, pecorino cheese and local olives.


Monday, June 06, 2005

Watch for the little man in the donkey cart

Driving to our villa in Sicily, semi-lost along a deserted road, we came upon a man out for an evening stroll with his friend. He was driving a small donkey cart and his friend was in an equally small car, chugging alongside the cart.
As the two of them blocked the road, we had no choice but to meander behind them for a mile or so.

Being forced to stop hurrying through the countryside and look around made this the most enjoyable part of our journey.

Every time we go for a drive now, the boys compete to look for the next "little man in a donkey cart."

Sunday, June 05, 2005

France Hotel Review - Paris, Left Bank St Germain

France, Paris, St Germain, Hotel Left Bank St Germain (

Location: very near Odeon subway stop, in the middle of all the hubbub, if that is what you like
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we had a nice but small room that barely fit two queen beds and was quiet. We found it was very difficult to find rooms for a family of 4 in Paris, so we were thankful to have someplace take us in.
Service: good, but Parisian if you know what I mean. The quality of service depended greatly on who was sitting at the front desk
Internet: no
Food: breakfast was included, but just ok - don’t expect world class croissants and cheese here
Best feature: location
Best food nearby: there is a lot of really, really bad food in the St Germain area. We didn’t have any good meal in the area.
Price: 250 euros a night (June).
Overall family rating: OK 6 out of 10 - we looked hard to find a good family hotel in Paris near St Germain. We looked hard before booking this, so maybe this is the best you can do in this price range. Still, I think you can do better.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The score after 1 week - crepes: 47; museums: 0

Trying to find a good bistro in St Germain is very much like trying to find good seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. There is some sort of diabolical principal at work in the world’s great tourist areas that situates the worst restaurants exactly where the most people are trying to find something to eat.

Although the steak frites in St. Germain were a complete write-off, we found that the crepes are heavenly. We therefore determined never to more than a few blocks at a time without refortifying ourselves with a crepe au sucre.
All the famous places were mobbed and all the parks were pleasant, so we stuck to the open spaces and avoided anything culturally edifying. We have a whole year to educate ourselves but only a week to convince our boys that this vast dislocation was a good idea.

At the Eiffel Tower and the marvelous play structures of the Parc Luxembourg, the boys gained a healthy respect for French engineering. At a beautiful outdoor restaurant near the pont neuf they played until 11 pm with the owner’s son (who spoke no English).

After a week in Paris, Austen had not darkened the door of a single museum or church. I felt that I had done my parental duty, however, in that Austen became enough of a connoisseur to formulate a simple way to judge crepe vendors, "dad, the best crepes have more sugar and cost less."

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Kids and travel - don’t forget handi-wipes

"Parents need to let their kids explore so that they can find new places. If parents don’t follow their kids, they won’t find new places." Alexander, 5

The highlight of our first day in Paris was when the kids got stuck in the elevator. In a city where no building is used for the purpose it was originally intended, elevators are improvised affairs and can be prone to sudden work stoppages, just like the rest of Paris.

After 15 minutes, we got the doors open and could pass provisions through a narrow opening. For the next hour, the boys gorged themselves on bonbons, played gameboy and read comic books. Their greatest disappointment was that their rescuer was not a fireman in an exotic uniform, but a plainly-dressed elevator repairman.

At breakfast the next day, Alexander complained that the milk tasted funny (in fact, because it hasn’t been pasteurized, it actually has taste). Shortly thereafter, we got on the subway to visit an apartment we hoped to rent. During the trip, Alexander decorated our subway car and a good part of the station with the colorful remains of his breakfast.

Following an emergency stop at the pharmacy for handi-wipes, we raced to the apartment, fragrant but determined. We hit it off with the landlord, who stayed well upwind of Alexander during the interview. We ended up renting the apartment, a beautiful but very small 2-bedroom place near metro La Muette in the 16th arrondisement.
Despite, or maybe because of these adventures, Alexander and Austen are having the time of their lives. They don’t really walk anywhere: they flit, they skip, they leap to the next adventure.

"Dad, I really like all this new stuff. San Francisco was getting a little boring." Austen, 8