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11th Adventure: Grotte di Oliero

1 Jan

You leave for war on 29 June.  The goodbyes are sad and sudden, but as expected.  Nicole spends the day in shock.  You spend the day on a bus and grounded plane, then bus again.  Before midnight you are home with the family for a God-given, completely unexpected 4-day weekend.  You choose to go on just one adventure – to some local caves you had heard about when you visited the wind caves in Lucca.

The Grotte di Oliero are less than an hour from Vicenza, the perfect length of time for the children to be in the car since they all get anxious and wiggly after that.  You park alongside a small church and walk just a short distance to the park entrance.  Once inside the park, you walk a short nature trail up past a river to explore a small cave in the hill.  It is shallow overall, but it goes far enough back to be very dark.  Nicole and Kirby venture into the darkest part armed with only the light from the camera, but upon discovering no ancient treasures, they head back out.  The boys spend a few minutes climbing around the walls and then you head back down the trail toward the river.

The pièce de résistance of this park is a short tow-rope boat ride through an underground river into the larger cavern.  The boys can hardly wait their turn on the dock.  Kirby eagerly puts on a helmet (including hair net) and life vest, but after deciding that the helmet and hair net just don’t quite suit him, Frankie insists on being fashionably unsafe.  When it is your turn for the ride, Nicole and the bundled-up baby get in first to the back of the rowboat, and the boys and you follow.  About 15 people total are loaded, then two men pull it along the towline slowly, but steadily, until you reach a stone dock for the chilly caves a few minutes later.  Neither of the two boys complain once about the cool temperature, and since both are all-time champion complainers, you are quite proud.  The ceiling is low in some places, and the floor is slippery, but there is not too much walking.  The actual cave tour is about 15 minutes, and the guides speak both Italian and English for the group, so you are all able to understand the stories and jokes.  The cave formations are fascinating, and they have a couple anecdotes about unusually-shaped ones – such as a skull-looking piratey formation, and some upside-down stair looking stalactites that a cave witch was said to walk on.  A few words don’t quite translate, though.  When your guide explains why it is so dark, he notes that the bright lights would cause “sea grass” on the surfaces.  It is not until long after the visit that you realize he meant “algae”.   You are advised to not touch the formations or the oil from your hands can prevent further deposits, so naturally your boys both try to touch whenever they get an opportunity.  You are mostly able to stop them in the short visit.

When you get back in the boat, the guides encourage you to touch the freezing cold water.  The guide claims to get lost at one point, but since the river part of the cave is about 40 feet wide, it’s fairly apparent that he is teasing.  During the ride, the boys marvel at the darkness, then get thrilled at returning to the sunlight.  Frankie doesn’t want to leave the boat, but you convince him that he can stay by the water.  Right near the dock, there is a picnic area and a rocky beach where you choose to spend some time skipping rocks.  Kirby gets a couple skips in, and Frankie does some awesome tossing.  Even little Daisy (with help from you) throws a rock or two.  Before you leave the cave park, you stop at a small playground in a field just up from the river.  It is nice to sit and rest in the sunlight, but Frankie returns from the slide with a very serious face, and upon sitting in your lap, it’s clear he has had quite the accident that is spilling out of his diaper onto you.  Nicole and Kirby laugh, and you take Frankie to go get cleaned up at the car, while she takes the other kids to the main building to buy some ice cream.  Unfortunately, Daisy decides to get even with Nicole for making fun of you, and also overflows onto her shirt and jeans.  You choose not to be annoyed when you see that your darling daughter has gotten even for you.

Aside from the dirty clothing, the drive home is pleasant and you still have one day left before actually leaving.  The final goodbyes are bittersweet, but you know you will have plenty of adventures left when you return home in 9 months.  So keep reading every month or so as you await what you’ll choose next (and be sure to subscribe to get automatic updates)!

10th Adventure: Easter visit from Grandmas

1 Nov

Your mother & grandma fly in to Italy the day before Easter for a 10-day stay.  Since they arrive in the afternoon, you decide it is best to get them home for a simple dinner and resting up that first day.  They both sleep until woken up the next morning, an attempt to break them of jet lag which barely works for Joyce and doesn’t ever seem to quite shake Connie of the grogginess.  But there’s nothing quite like a newborn baby’s slobber in the face to get your mom out of bed.

Your first full day with the family is fairly laid back.  You begin with a quick trip up the local “mountain” Monte Berico.  The weather is cold and the smog is thick, but the view is still fairly lovely.  After driving down past a few vineyards, you go to Il Fauno’s, a restaurant with your favorite: a menu prezzo fisso – a fixed price menu for a set lunch with a few options.  Next you stop by a friend’s house for an Easter egg hunt.   The grandmas are wonderfully outgoing at the party, despite the fact that Joyce spends the majority of her time there playing with the dog.  You swing by the nearby winery on the way to dinner – a taste-as-you-buy place with 15- and 20-foot tall vats of wine and super cheap prices.  Connie and Joyce are very pleased, and it definitely cuts down on the wine bill at dinner.  Dinner is at Ada’s, a huge restaurant with tree branch columns and delicious food.  You all eat well, the children make a huge mess, and you leave happy and full.

Easter morning is laid back.  Kirby and Frankie dye eggs with you, while the grandmas crack into their special chocolate eggs with surprises inside.  Apparently inspired by the festive colors, Nicole has Connie dye her hair into pink stripes.  It looks fantastic and lasts about as long as the hard-boiled eggs do.  For an exotic Easter dinner treat, you decide to take out the grandmas and boys to the DFac (or mess hall).  There’s no special menu, but it actually is very decent food and it’s nice to not have to prepare a big feast, especially since the next day is your big trip to Tuscany.

You set out on your journey on a completely different route than you initially plan.  Upon closer inspection of the map, you decide that you would be going hours and miles out of your way if you take your first path, so you choose to start the vacation with a visit to a town in Cinque Terre.  You go to the small village of Manarola, and drop off the family as far as cars can drive, then park at the top of the cliffside town.  You enjoy a quick run through a pretty vineyard back down to the others, and view the incredibly blue sea.  After a short walk through the city, you find a playground for children where you spend the majority of the visit.  You all get delicious gelato, then drive to find the agriturismo.

An agriturismo is like a farmhouse bed & breakfast that serves locally harvested or raised food.  This one you find through a Groupon online and hope it’s good.  The winding roads through the mountain get you hopelessly lost, but some helpful locals jump in their car and let you follow them till you are close enough to find the agriturismo.  You are the only guests that night, and although you may have only needed one apartment, you have two.  Each has a living room, mini-kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom downstairs, plus a loft with two beds upstairs.  It is lovely and the boys think it’s a blast.  Your private dinner is served to you in courses.  You have never felt so pampered, and it is quite fun to have a private chef and waitress.  The grandmas love the waitress, and even get photos with her.  Precious Daisy enchants her, of course, as she does everybody.  You head to your rooms after your delicious dinner, very pleased and very tired!

The next morning you wake up early to eat breakfast before heading out for the busy day.  You all sit down to another private meal, and the same sweet waitress delivers you a variety of shortbread cookies and coffee and juice.  An hour goes by before you and the family figure out the cookies were breakfast.  Connie’s in disbelief that a breakfast could even exist without including bacon & eggs. Kirby and Frankie seem perfectly delighted by this, however.  On the way out you pay the remaining bill – less than $200 total for the entire family including 2 rooms, dinner, breakfast, and 2 goodie baskets!  You choose to take advantage of Groupon agriturismo deals whenever they pop up!

Your first stop this day is the Lucca wind caves, a nature park way up in the mountains.  The slim road is twisty-turny and you admire wildlife and lovely forests along the side.  As it continues to snake back and forth, Frankie seems to get a little uneasy.  You figure he is just bored, so you continue to hurry to the caves along the snaking road.  Then Frankie pukes.  After a stop to clean him and his car seat up, you get back on the road, driving a little slower this time.  You find the caves fairly quickly and without any backtracking – quite a goal in Italy!  Grandma Joyce decides to sit this trip out, and you opt for the shorter cave trip – a one-hour tour with electronic guides in English so you can actually understand.  Kirby receives his own audio tour and feels very grown up as he skips to the next number for the different locations within.  Frankie admires the cave formations and says, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe all the mud.”  Once through, you all peruse the tiny museum/gift shop and pick out some fun gemstone souvenirs, before your hunger gets the best of you.

You choose to have lunch at the woodsy, rustic cafe right beside the caves.  There are just over a dozen seats and they are all taken, but you don’t have to wait long.  Interpreting the menu at the tiny restaurant is more complicated than navigating the caves.  You end up with some pretty delicious food, but the marmelades that accompany the cheese dish end up being onion jam and tomato jam.  Nicole enjoys them far more than you, and even though you agree they are tasty, your brain just can’t quite wrap itself around the concept of vegetable jelly.  You choose to let her finish eating them.

You next drive a couple hours to Pisa, which you heard was a little boring, but is actually quite interesting.  Sure, there’s not much to do except in the vicinity of the leaning tower, but the duomo and the surrounding wall provide more beautiful architecture to admire.  And the boys love playing in the grass and running around with you…and eating gelato, of course.  In fact, your whole family loves eating gelato.  After some miscommunication and a few brief tantrums, you drive to your next stop: Florence.

Upon arriving in the beautiful town, you waste an hour trying to find the hotel.  You finally locate it and unload the whole family, dropping off the van in a crowded parking garage with a promise to pick it up the next evening.  You and Nicole head out to retrieve dinner for the family: McDonald’s for the grandmas & kids, and kebaps (like gyros) for you two.  You consider going out for a drink or dancing, but you have a busy day ahead of you and opt to just head to sleep.

But the next day is rainy.  Like old-man-is-snoring pouring down rain.  The Uffizi museum with the incredible statue of David is just 8 blocks away, but Grandma Joyce admits she would be miserable walking it, and after a long consideration you agree.  Florence will be there another day and you decide to head back home, making it in plenty of time for an easy-going dinner at the house.

The rain lets up long enough for a nice trip to the market in downtown Vicenza, one of the highlights and “authentic Italy” parts of your town.  The market fills the public square, and the women spend lots of time perusing the clothes, purses, food, and knick-knacks.  You are done in about half an hour, but you humor the ladies by staying the extra couple hours with them.  Connie is fascinated by the older women riding their bicycles in high heels, and Joyce likes looking at all the other interesting shoppers.  You choose to go retrieve the car and miss the amusing exchange between Connie and a vendor arguing about the definition of “one-size” leggings.

You go to Venice the next day, choosing to take the train.  You buy tickets for the cheap, slow train, but unknowingly get on the more comfortable fast train.  The ride goes smoothly and you meet some nice women to talk to (who admire the baby, of course), and you get away scot-free with your crime.  Venice is beautiful as usual, but the rain never lets up.  You begin the day with lunch, and spend the rest of the time darting in and out of stores while the grandmas do their souvenir shopping.  Eh, Venice will be there another day too, like Florence.  You catch the proper train home, which arrives eventually, and after the kids go to bed you and the women watch a movie and eat popcorn.

With just a couple days to go, you check out two nearby towns: Nove, known for its ceramics, and Marostica, home to 2 beautiful castles.  The ceramic shops are pleasant, but with their suitcases already stuffed full, the grandmas don’t buy very much.  Right around the corner are the castles, and they just happen to be having a fun street fair that day.  You are wearing running shoes, so you make the run up the hill to the high castle to take photos, while the others stay down at the lower one and the fair.  There are plenty of nice local items for sale, and you all find something you desperately needed but didn’t know about till now.  Before heading back to the house you stop at a milk machine – like a vending machine with fresh milk in it.  The milk is creamy and cold and you and the others choose to finish it up that night.

Your last day with the grandmas is spent just relaxing around the house and post, but after all the adventures of the previous week, you need it!  You take them on the shuttle bus to the airport the next morning and see them off.  Just a couple months after this, you know you will be off to war.  The date looms closer and closer, but will the Army actually send you on 29 June as planned?  You choose to trust them on this one and go to your Next Adventure.

The Never-ending Adventure Begins: Parents of 3

20 Mar

This birth is radically different than the last two.  Kirby was born naturally, and from first pain to birth, labor lasted about 24 hours.  He weighed about 8 pounds exactly and was 20 inches long.  Frankie was born in the birthing tub, and from first pain to birth, labor lasted about 24 hours.  He weighed about 8 pounds exactly and was 20 inches long.  Daisy is born 6 hours after Nicole’s water breaks, and 7 days after Nicole first feels a contraction.  She is facing up, causing pain that is definitely 10 on a scale of 1-10, and Nicole requests a much-appreciated epidural this time.  She weighs 8.7 pounds and is 20.9 inches long.  She is thankfully still a girl, as the ultrasounds indicated.  She has long brown hair just as the boys did, but her eyes are definitely blue and her nose is not upturned but rather sculpted like yours.  She is chubby and cute and pink and little and perfect.  You cannot thank God enough for this amazing little blessing.

You and Nicole and Daisy spend the next two days in the hospital, and a few good friends take turns taking care of the boys.  You have never received so many visitors in the hospital before, and you are beyond grateful for the generous outpouring of meals, and gifts, and support for your whole family over the next couple weeks.  Your work gives you 10 days off following your return home, so you are able to get the household all back together before you have to join your company for a couple weeks of training.  The boys adjust quickly to the new baby.  Kirby is very doting and Frankie is very protective.  Both boys love on Daisy endlessly, and Frankie especially requires a kiss from her every minute or two.  Your household involves a lot more laundry, but it is definitely fun to have pink & purple clothes with hearts and butterflies and polka dots on them for a change from the monster trucks & dinosaurs.  Enough talk, though; let the photos of your precious daughter speak for themselves.

You eagerly await the first visitors to share Daisy with.  Who will it be?  Go to 10th Adventure: Easter Visit from Grandmas to find out!

Ninth Adventure: Rome

4 Mar

You choose to go to Rome for New Year’s, driving all the way with 5 people in the Ford Focus, and without any knowledge of parking availability.  Surprisingly, the drive is totally uneventful.  Except for a slowdown in the mountains, you get there as planned, and on only 1 tank of gas.  The tolls are only about €30 and the trip takes just about 5 hours exactly.  You aren’t too cramped at all in the small car (it’s considered large in Italy!), and you find the hotel quickly after just a couple wrong way turns.  The hotel is definitely good for your needs, and it’s situated right outside of Vatican City.  The clerk directs you to a nice parking garage 2 blocks away, which you keep the car in for 2 days at €25 a day, then move it to the street for the last day at a cost of only €4.  The best part about this hotel is that you have enough credit card points to pay for it entirely, making your stay in Rome cost only about $100 a day!

You and the family are fairly tired after the drive, but the hotel has an easy-to-read map that seems to indicate some historical sites that are within 10 blocks.  So you set out at about 5 in the evening to check out the surroundings.  You are right next to a huge castle – Castel Sant’Angelo – and a beautiful large palace (Palazzo di Giustizia).  You cross the bridge over the Tiber river and head toward Trevi Fountain with Nicole as guide.  She is an excellent pathfinder when she has her bearings, but in Italy she has no sense of direction, and so you end up first at the Spanish Steps, a few blocks away.  There are a couple thousand people in the square and all up the steps tonight, and you & Lexy opt to walk up all 178 stairs to the church while Nicole & the boys hang out at the boat-like center below.  You reconnect at the bottom and walk about two blocks before the boys are dying of hunger.  The streets are all lit up, so you pick the prettiest one and start walking.  You choose a fancy outdoor restaurant for dinner, and Kirby makes animal faces from the slim breadsticks while you and Lexy enjoy the copper pinot grigio Contelucio wine (your new favorite). Next you head just a few blocks to the amazing Trevi Fountain.  You follow the map quite well, but seem to just be down a side street until you turn the corner and are blown away by an 8-story high fountain and sculptures just hanging out on the back of a building. There are hundreds of people gathered around, and below you near the water, a couple has just gotten married.  You vow to attempt to convince all your unmarried friends and family to have their future weddings at this magnificent site (ahem).  After leaving the fountain you pass by an ancient temple, the Tempio di Adriano, but all that remains are the massive 50′ high columns.  It is very close to the Pantheon, a church that was once a temple for the gods, which towers over the plaza around it.  Frankie enjoys running around the porch portion of it, disturbing a few sleeping beggars, and looking remarkably tiny in comparison to the humongous doors.  A tour is just about to head in, but it is getting late and chilly, so you head home.  On the way is a market selling food and knick-knacks at Piazza Navona, but you choose to survive another day without the whistling flying disc and Pinocchio pencil.  You arrive at the hotel just after 10 o’clock, and your legs could not be happier!

Breakfast at the hotel is cold, but filling & delicious, and you set out with the family for the hefty walking portion of your trip.  You decide to nix plans for the San Callisto Catacombs (they are beyond walking-distance and probably not appealing to the boys), but you figure you can get in plenty of other sights on the first of your full days.  After crossing a different bridge on the river, you stop in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, a large church with a beautiful nativity scene still set up.  The majority of churches are open all the time and have different candles set up with collection boxes for saying prayers.  Each boy lights a candle and you have them say a quick prayer (Kirby prays briefly while Frankie just says “Amen”).  You eat an early lunch, walk past another street market, and stop at three old palaces – Palazzo Farnese, Campo de Fiori, Palazzo Spada – that have all been converted to consulates and other government office space.  A very amusing fountain sits outside one, and the boys play in the water streaming from the statue’s bosom.  Finally you approach the first of the ancient ruins, the Area Sacra – the remains of four 2200-year-old temples sitting in the middle of a busy shopping area.  You get the feeling that modern Romans must pass by these ancient sites as unaffectedly as we walk by grocery stores.  You literally cannot travel more than a few blocks without seeing a centuries- or millennia-old building.  Two of which you did not even plan on viewing, but just happened to come up as you walk toward your next destination are the Chiesa dei Gesu & Palazzo Venezia.  They are gorgeous, architectural works of art that sit on the street as simply as the surrounding brownstones.  Just around the bend is the Altare della Patria, an over-the-top (as is all of Rome) marble monument to the first king Vittorio Emanuele II.  Outside are huge sculptures of horses, lovely fountains, and most interestingly (to the boys at least) a gravel pit.  You decide to explore the war museum inside, while Nicole watches your sons play with the rocks, and Lexy scouts ahead.  Inside are beautiful views of the Campidoglio (Capitol Hill) and surrounding area, extravagant statues & sculptures, and many paintings & historical artifacts.  You are most struck by the pen and inkwell that were used to sign the armistice ending WWI.  You rejoin the family outside and continue on to walk up the stairs to Capitol Hill and back down a windy road to the Forum ruins.  The ruins take up blocks and blocks, and as they are an active archaeological site, they are squared off in strings for different digs and refurbishments.  After walking past the end of it, you pass by the simple (yet towering) Arco di Giano, then stop at a little park before heading to Circo Massimo.  Here they used to hold the famed chariot races, but now it is just a massive dirt pit.  The size is very impressive, but you are disappointed to see that such a classic site in history has come to such disrepair.  You walk the length of the track, then pass along the other side of the Forum, which leads to the superb Arco di Constantino that sits in the shadow of the Colosseum.  The Colosseum itself is half-ruined, but still spectacular.  It is more impressive in “real life” than you imagined, and you jog the perimeter admiring every part of it.  The weather and sun are perfect for taking postcard-like photos, and since some of the walls have come down, you have a perfect view from near the arch to see into the fascinating ruins.  Everybody is tired from a very long day of walking, and the Colosseum is right near a Metro stop, so you decide to ride the subway back to the hotel.  It is only €1 per adult, and your connection to another train is quick and simple.  You choose to get off at the stop before yours, and visit Piazza del Popolo, a terrific plaza with roads leading out to all the various sites you’ve recently visited.  After a quick dinner you walk home, more exhausted than the day before, but very pleased with a productive day of sightseeing.

The next day is New Year’s Eve, and you walk through the crowded and impressive Saint Peter’s Square on the way to the Vatican Museums.  You are stopped by numerous “helpful” tour guides offering to get you to the front of the line and show you the hidden treasures inside, and they all tell you that the museums are closing early that day (starting at closing at 2 o’clock and progressively getting sooner until it supposedly closes at noon).  You choose to wait out the 45-minute line to discover that the last entrance is at 1:30 and the museums don’t close till 3:30.  It is currently 11:30 and you have plenty of time to view all the exhibits you want.  The museum is incredible.  You take the path toward the Sistine Chapel, but take no shortcuts, so even while constantly moving it takes a full 2 hours to view all of just the one set of galleries.  The tapestries, paintings, maps, sculptures, carvings, and artifacts are beyond description, so you take lots & lots of photographs.  Kirby takes the camera for a while and snaps photos from a child’s point of view.  There is artwork from many time periods in the museum, and although the modern pieces are interesting, you are most fascinated by the Renaissance-era art.  The Sistine Chapel ceiling is enormous and very detailed, but you have seen so much intricate and beautiful art leading up to it, that it is almost just another painting to you.  However it is amazing to spot the most popular sections and see them up close.  It is very crowded inside the chapel, and the peaceful atmosphere is interrupted every few seconds by a security guard shouting “No foto” to the dozens of rule-breakers.  You decide to cut the visit short with just the one route in the museums, and head outside to a delicious lunch across the street.  Together the boys devour an entire pizza, a sign that they were truly hungry!  You attempt to stop at the local USO, but it has closed just minutes before (early for the holiday), so you head back home for a rest.  Your attempt to find an inexpensive restaurant for dinner is fruitless, so you stop at a panini truck for a simple meal.  At the hotel the boys fall asleep long before midnight, but you and Nicole muster the energy to go back to Piazza del Popolo, where all the fireworks are ignited.  The square is abuzz with people, but nothing is happening aside from many vendors of wine and roses, and the paramedics preparing for the inevitable injuries.  After a few firecrackers go off much too close for comfort, you head back to watch the fireworks from your hotel.  You, Nicole, and Lexy count down to midnight, and suddenly the city is alight with fireworks and cheers and flying paper lanterns everywhere.  You watch and listen out the hotel window, then crash in bed!

Your last morning is back at St. Peter’s Square to hear the Pope’s New Year’s Day blessing. Down the street from your hotel a marching band from Nebraska is gathering and practicing for the event, so you stop to listen for a while, and Kirby eagerly takes a flyer to post on his bedroom wall.  The boys each get a blue balloon with Picasso’s dove of peace printed on it, and as you approach St. Peter’s, Frankie’s balloon tragically escapes.  He is devastated beyond consolation, so Nicole & Kirby approach a group of nuns to ask for one of their yellow balloons, but they hold tight to them and do not share.  Frankie calms down when  Kirby lets him play with his balloon, and you gather up front at a big fence with a perfect view of the central window of the basilica.  Just as you wonder why the nuns and so many other groups have not moved from the back of the square, another tourist shouts that it’s the wrong window, and you turn to see that the Pope is speaking from a tiny window on the side of the building, apparently selected at random to fool you and other tourists.  He speaks a kind message of hope for peace in the new year, in several languages, as Kirby feeds pigeons leftover sandwich from last night’s dinner.  The blessing is over within 15 minutes, and the nuns release their balloons into the air, so you figure there is nothing left for you to do in Rome and drive back home.

After Lexy leaves, you have less than 2 months till little Daisy’s due date.  You and Nicole expect she’ll be a little early (although you learned from Frankie’s birth not to really expect subsequent children to be sooner), but you are certain that she will be a natural birth just like the others.  Nicole starts to feel steady contractions of increasing discomfort on February 18th.  You know how to time her labor properly and you feel it is probably time to go in to the clinic.  If you choose to wait it out for stronger contractions, go to The Never-ending Adventure Begins: Parents of 3.  If you keep decide to go to the clinic to check in a week before the baby is due, continue reading below.

You choose to go to the clinic, so you wake the boys up to drop them off at a friend’s, and check in at about 6:00 a.m.  Nicole is barely dilated and you are sent home for at least a couple hours.  You collect the boys just before noon, spending some time with them until Nicole is quite certain that it is time to have the baby.  You drop the boys off again, and check back into the clinic at about 5:30 p.m.  Nicole is sent home yet again.  Now go to The Never-ending Adventure Begins: Parents of 3 to read all about new little Daisy’s entrance into the world.

Eighth Adventure: Gardaland

13 Jan

You decide to go to Gardaland on your birthday, and even with all the setbacks it is a wise choice.  Kirby is still really not feeling good, so you wait a couple hours longer for his fever to drop and then choose to keep the 5 year-old in the stroller all day while you take turns letting Frankie run, ride on top of the stroller, and be held.  It is a chilly day, but perfectly sunny, and you can’t think of a better mostly-relaxed way to spend your 29th birthday.

The drive out is simple and event-free, and you find a parking spot fairly quickly despite arriving 2 hours after it opens.  The tickets are waiting at will-call, and though you have to explain that you are OK to go to the theme park a day earlier than the date printed, there is no real hassle and you enter the park happily.  Right away you are greeted by a huge double-decker carousel, and you, Nicole, and Frankie hop on immediately.  Kirby stays in the stroller, with Gramma Lexy watching him close by.  You get some “Mexican” food for lunch (Italians are better at Italian food), then move on to more rides.  You force Kirby out of the stroller and onto the Flying Island – a ride where you walk onto an outdoor porch that’s like the saucer part of the Space Needle, then sit on a circular bench while it rises up until it is probably 75 feet off the ground, and admire the view as the saucer portion spins around slowly.  You have never seen any ride like this, and you and Nicole agree that Disneyland definitely needs one.

The next rides are not OK for a pregnant lady, a sick boy, or a small toddler to go on, but you are able to convince Lexy to at least go on the Mammoth with you.  She hides her head almost the whole time on the old-fashioned roller coaster, but she still enjoys herself.  Nicole and the boys take a simple train ride around the park while you ride, and Frankie loves dancing to the Christmas music on the train.  You are up for more roller coasters, but Lexy refuses to go on the Raptor  (where you hang down in seats off the sides of the track) or the Blue Tornado (where you go really fast and upside down & corkscrew multiple times, and cut it very close to the ground once or twice) with you.  You, however, have no problem getting some thrills in for your birthday.  While you go on the Blue Tornado a second time (the line is shorter and it is a better ride overall), the women and children watch a variety show with music and dancers and contortionists and strong men.  Kirby actually perks up a little during the performance and even claps for his favorite acts.

After the major rides, you head to the ToonTown-like land for the boys.  You are stricken by the first ride there – a Magic House, hidden underneath a huge cartoonish tree.  Although the sign clearly says that pregnant women are not allowed, you decide to ignore the rule since clearly Nicole can go on if Frankie is allowed to go.  She holds Frankie in front of her tummy as you approach the ride, and you descend in a slow elevator down to the main room.  You are expecting a haunted mansion, but instead find yourself seated in a few rows of a barrel-like room, opposite of an equal number of riders.  The safety bar clamps down tightly, and Nicole has just a moment to lift her Daisy-filled tummy out of the way before she is too smooshed.  Perhaps you will honor the pregnancy warnings next time!  The show begins with some creepy animatronic giant speaking a lot of spooky Italian, and then the opposing rows of seats begin to rock, never reaching higher than about a 45° angle.  But suddenly the room starts spinning around at the same time as the rocking seats, but in opposite directions or slightly higher or completely upside down.  You are certainly aware that you are not upside down, but you have no idea which way is up, or if you are rocking back or forth, or even how long it will go on for.  It stops as abruptly as it started and you & Nicole rave about how fun such a simple ride was, and again, how Disneyland should copy.  Frankie seems to not be phased at all.

In the meantime, Lexy enjoys a vin brule (like glühwein), and Kirby takes a nap.  When you rejoin them, Lexy and Frankie ride in a pirate ship Ferris wheel, then you and Frankie spin round & round in an airplane that bobs up & down also.  You watch a puppet show about the Three Magi, and understand…that it’s a puppet show about the Three Magi.  The children enjoy it, and Kirby actually watches the show with a hint of a smile.  Italians celebrate the visit from La Befana on Epiphany, and the good witch provides the humor in the show.  You know it must be funny because everyone else is laughing.  Afterward, Nicole and Lexy take a tour around a farm in a tractor driven very seriously by Frankie.  You start to go with everyone to the Spongebob Adventure in 3D, but Nicole’s pregnancy makes her too gentle for such a wild show (think Star Tours but more high-pitched & nasal).

There is a small parade starting just as you file out of the show, and you follow Santa in his sleigh as the park closes.  It is now dark out and the streets are lit up and there is even realistic snow falling around.  Just outside of the park gates there are workers passing around panettone (sweet bread), and some performers sing and dance as a giant Christmas tree lights up in rhythm to the music.  Despite the huge crowd, you are able to easily drive out and back home, stopping for dinner at the Autogrill (that has a dining room which crosses over the whole freeway).  You all return back to the house tired and happy from a perfect day at a fun theme park.

The next couple days are busy in the area – you have 24-hour staff duty, Nicole & Lexy go to the beauty salon and a fun local restaurant and mask-painting in Venice, you get photos taken with the family, and you know that New Year’s Eve is approaching soon.  You have booked a hotel in Rome for a few days, but with Nicole 7 months pregnant, and your boys cranky about walking, and little old Lexy, and a 5-hour drive in your little car, you aren’t sure if you want to go after all.  Not to mention how much you’ve heard it costs to vacation there.  If you keep your plans for visiting Rome, go to Ninth Adventure: Rome.  If you choose to stick around instead of going to Rome after all, continue reading below.

You cancel the hotel and ask online for advice on what to do instead.  Everyone replies to still go to Rome after all.  A friend recommends a different hotel-booking website and you find another for $150 less total.  The family seems up for the challenge and Kirby is all better, so you make new reservations.  Now go to Ninth Adventure: Rome to read all about your incredible New Year’s.

Seventh Adventure: Assisi

9 Jan

Your friend takes the boys, and even offers to watch them overnight so you are all able to get more sleep before your early morning trip with the chapel to Assisi.  You get so much sleep, in fact, that you sleep through your alarm and wake up at 5:35 – 25 minutes before you are expected to be on base at the bus.  Thankfully you are nearly completely prepared for the trip ahead of time, and darned if your visit to Assisi requires Nicole or you to shower or her to put on makeup.  You make sure you are at least clothed and camera’d, and head out the door to perfectly catch the bus.

The drive is over 3 hours, and since it is dark out in the beginning you are able to catch a little cat nap.  You awaken to some beautiful snow-covered mountains and, being childless for the day, you are able to have an Actual Adult Conversation with Nicole about the geology and favorite courses you took in college and other Grown-Up Topics that don’t involve the words “potty” or “Mickey Mouse” or “super Ninja fighting”.  You pass over bridges that look straight out of The Polar Express, and awe at the lovely small farms and towns.

In Assisi you have a couple hours of lunch and free time before reconvening at the Basilica di San Francesco.  You and Nicole admire the stone buildings and streets, shop for St. Francis trinkets in the little souvenir stores, listen to the beautiful church bells, and eat a couple panini.  The walk to the basilica is nearly all downhill, which is very nice for your now 7-months pregnant wife, but the streets are slim and the cars drive fast!  Every so often there is an alleyway draping in hanging vines and surrounded by lush flowers.  St. Francis began the tradition of Nativity scenes, so the town is sprinkled with all sorts of them, of every size.  The  church yard is filled with a large one, complete with many animal and human visitors to the baby Jesus’s manger.  This is dwarfed by the gigantic basilica, though.

A local tour guide gives you a nice background on St. Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant who abandoned his inheritance to pursue the Lord.  He then takes you into the church and lets you explore the upstairs and the tomb area downstairs.  The main sanctuary is fairly similar to others in Italy – very tall ceilings, beautiful artwork on the walls & alcoves, and even some lovely stained glass windows.  But the really astounding art is downstairs.  The centuries-old frescoes on the walls surrounding the tomb are paintings of The Last Judgment, and the reality of some souls being dragged to Hell by demons while others are carried to Glory by angels is a little too emotionally intense for words.  You and Nicole drop a few Euro in the slots of the fancier electric candle machines and two prayer “candles” immediately light up.  The tomb itself is behind an iron cage and is relatively uninspiring except that you know a great man lies there.

After touring the basilica, you head back to the tour bus – this time uphill and more tired than before.  Some older women opt for a taxi ride the mile or so, but you are feeling just fine.  Nicole, on the other hand, is a little cranky and achy.  To save yourself some whining time, you run ahead to buy rosemary bread and chocolate candies for your wife.  This gives her just enough energy to make it back to the bus.  The ride home is peaceful and relaxing, and you are eager to see your boys after a full day gone from them.  It is always nice to get away once in a while, but it’s a good reminder how much you love them when you realize you’re missing them so quickly.

Your mother-in-law Lexy is arriving in just a couple days, which will be spent with various friends for outings and Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  Since the 26th is your birthday, you decide you would like to go to a local small-version Disneyland theme park called Gardaland for your birthday.  Unfortunately you buy the tickets a day late since the online ticket system isn’t working, and you have to go on the 27th instead.  Then, also unfortunately, you find out you have to work 24-hour staff duty on the 27th.  Then, most unfortunately, Kirby comes down with some dreadful sickness on Christmas night and can’t shake his fever and won’t eat anything or participate in anything.  You have many options: pay again and go on your actual birthday, try to work something out with the theme park and go on your actual birthday, trade staff duty days with someone else and go on the 27th, or stay home with your sick child.  You narrow it down to trading days so you can go on the 27th, and somehow going on your birthday.  Continue reading if you choose to try to trade work days, or go to Eighth Adventure: Gardaland if you go on your birthday.

You start to find someone who might trade you staff duties, but just as you are searching, Nicole calls you and says she was able to get the theme park to let you in on your birthday anyway.  You still debate a bit about possibly leaving Kirby with Lexy or taking him, but you decide to take the whole family anyway.  Now go to Eighth Adventure: Gardaland to read all about your fantastic birthday.

Sixth Adventure: Innsbruck, Austria

4 Jan

You decide to drive up to the marriage retreat and stay an extra day in Austria.  You are very glad you do because this results in 6 hours less travelling time, plus one more day of drinking delicious winter glühwein (spiced hard cider).  The marriage retreat is a welcome getaway, as before, but this time you stay a little longer to play in the pool with the boys and relax in the outdoor hot tub for a bit.  Then when it is time to leave, you have only a short one hour drive to your hotel in Austria.

You have chosen to stay at a pension hotel – essentially a bed & breakfast without the breakfast.  It is cheaper, but it offers no amenities and you have even opted for a shared bathroom.  For a simple family, this works very well for you, as you do not require the fancier luxuries.  (Nicole is a big fan of room service, but she is able to survive the couple days without.)  The water closet and shower room are located immediately outside your door, and you only share with one other couple for just the first night.  You bring milk and cereal and juice with you for cheaper breakfasts, and your unsuspecting children never know what they are missing out on.  In fact, Kirby is so comfortable with the arrangement that he kicks his shoes off outside the bedroom door and wonders why someone else is in your bathroom at one time.

After settling in, you go to check out the couple markets that are open.  It is just a short walk to the markets and the streets are beautifully lit with Christmas lights strung across from building to building.  The architecture is bright and lovely, and the mountains provide a painting-like backdrop.  You wonder if Europeans appreciate how gorgeous their surroundings are.  The markets are small stalls filled with pretzels, cider, sauerkraut, wooden toys, and many Christmas decorations.  Right away your boys sucker you into buying them springy animal trinkets (plus a spinning top for the baby).  You watch fairy tale stories put on by a theater group in fast German.  Your whole family has no clue what they are saying, but the boys enjoy the silliness.  You then listen to a fun brass band playing Christmas music from a balcony in the center of the square.  You finish the night by eating some humongous bratwurst for dinner and heading back to the room, as the air is very cold once the sun goes down.  All is well until Frankie suddenly gets sick and you spend the next hour cleaning up after him and helping him to rest.

The next morning you and the family are ready to go back.  Frankie is feeling much better.  Kirby wonders why you are going back to the markets that you were already at.  You decide to skip ice skating (Nicole has no balance lately and Kirby hasn’t really ever had balance), and opt for a very cheap and very quick horse-drawn carriage ride through the nearby streets.  You admire the Fairy Tale Lane filled with human-size animals and people from the Grimms’ and Andersen’s stories.  You take a quick look down Giant’s Alley, that has massive statues of bearded giants.  You watch the street performers – a silver lady with a huge hoop skirt & parasol, a silver man dressed as a miner, and a burly smelly-looking fellow tossing a wooden spool in the air with a short rope.  After getting some lunch and buying the boys some ridiculous wooden and felt mace toys (the spikes are felt at least!), you watch a puppet/variety/fire throwing show.  Once again, none of you have any idea what is being said, but the boys are amused and Kirby makes sure to laugh when the other children do.  You join up with another American couple and eat Thanksgiving dinner at a pizzeria in Austria.  Quite the cultural mashup!

On your last day you stroll through a couple more markets, then take a funicular (tram car on an incline – see a little video of it here) up to the middle of the hillside.  The view is lovely and the boys enjoy the little ride.  You ride just a short way back down to stop at the Alpenzoo, expecting the zoo to be small and simple.  Instead, you spend over 3 hours watching the different animals.  The most exceptional are the wolves, which (on a prompting from some howling grown men) gather in a very intimidating pack and  start singing the scariest howls ever.  You walk away from them, grateful for the fencing.  There are playful otters, long-legged moose, and horrid-looking vulture-like birds.  At the end of the zoo is a fabulous play area for the boys to wear out whatever energy might be left in them before the long car ride home.

You astoundingly have the next month home too (2 months in a row is spectacular for here!), and the chapel is planning another trip to a holy site – this time Assisi, the home of Saint Francis.  There is room on the bus for all four of you, but you can perhaps find a friend to watch the boys while you two go by yourselves.  Continue reading if you choose to bring the boys along again, or go to Seventh Adventure: Assisi if you would rather find a sitter and go without them.

You tell the chaplain that you might take the boys with you, but after a day of thinking that’d be the right plan, you think how much nicer it would be for another couple to be able to go to Assisi…and especially how much nicer it would be for you to spend time with just your wife!  You offer up the children’s seats to some other adults instead.  Now go to Seventh Adventure: Assisi to read about your day trip out with just Nicole.

Fifth Adventure: Trip to Olive Farm

22 Dec

You decide to go along with the MOMS Club, and thankfully there are plenty of dads there too this day.  In fact, it’s a perfect day outside – sunny but cool – and you are very grateful to have a fun afternoon out.

Both boys took a little nap on the 40-minute car ride, and you’ve arrived early enough that they have time to wake up and come to life before you join the group.  You have learned very well that the McNeil brothers have a fine line between groggy & cranky and well-rested & spunky, and it seems they’ll be happy for the rest of your time at the farm.  The farm is perfectly laid out for tours: there is parking about 100 feet from the olive trees, which are about 50 feet from the factory, which is about 150 feet from the gift shop & tasting room.  This is the ideal distance for all the preschoolers who have gathered by now, as they feel independent walking by themselves, but can’t possibly get tired from the walk.

The tour begins with picking olives from two trees.  This would seem a simple task, but it appears that your group is the Most Inefficient Olive Pickers in the world.  For the half hour you pick olives, you barely fill two large buckets halfway full.  You have a feeling that it’s all these darn kids slowing you down, and if the fathers & mothers could just unite, you’d make a lot more progress.  But you suppose it’s about the experience and you decide to help the boys take their olives off the branches very slowly.  Nicole doesn’t believe a man who proclaims that olives fresh off the tree are the most bitter and horrid things ever, so she decides to try one herself.  He is right.  Kirby and Frankie both have a great time picking the olives, but Frankie seems to most enjoy playing with the olives that are already in the bin.  Kirby takes his job very seriously, but soon enough it is time to bring the olives to the factory and watch them being pressed.

The assembly line in the oil factory is fascinating to watch; each step is interesting for both children and adults, and you have never seen anything similar before.  First the olives are separated from any stems & leaves, then they go through a few levels of pressing, then the oil is filtered and put into vats to cure.  The pressing room is very noisy, but smells pretty fantastic.  It’s not quite as fun as stomping on the olives would be, but you are still happy to have seen it.  And the best part is to come because you don’t have to wait for this batch of oil to finish – you get to skip right to the tasting room.

There are a few samples of olive oil and pesto & sauce made from the oil.  And there’s lots of bread for dipping.  Nicole decides this is by far the best part of the tour, but the boys have discovered a sculpture to climb on and a little orchard outside to run around in, so you spend most of this time playing.  The gift shop is cleverly attached to the tasting room, so that you are inspired to buy lots & lots of oil and olive oil soap.  You manage to only spend about €20, and head out in the early evening full of delicious oil and happy from the trip.

Just a week later you go to another marriage retreat in Germany again, from Monday through Wednesday.  Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday is a free day, so you receive the entire week off from work, a very welcome change from the norm.  You can ride the bus with the group and visit Innsbruck, Austria for just Thursday & Friday as planned, or you can drive up to the retreat, then stay Wednesday night in Austria also.  Continue reading if you choose to take the bus and return to Italy for one night, or go to Sixth Adventure: Innsbruck, Austria if you opt to spend a little more for a much longer vacation.

You decide to take the bus, then think about how much longer you will be in the car with two wild little boys.  Innsbruck is quite literally directly on the way back from Germany, and almost 3 hours from your home.  The reduction in travel time is well worth the price of one extra night in the hotel.  Now go to Sixth Adventure: Innsbruck, Austria to read about your Thanksgiving.

Unadventures in Fall 2011

3 Dec

You choose to report, albeit a little late, on all the goings on from day to day.  Months go by with few or no adventures, but the daily happenings are interesting enough sometimes, that you decide family and friends might still like to hear about them.  There were only two slightly interesting occurrences in summer: Frankie turned 2 and has been talking like crazy, and you found out you’ll be having another baby (a girl, praise the Lord!) in February.  But fall has been full of astoundingly exceptional adventures.  Or at least enough worth writing about.

On September 23rd, you hurriedly leave the last day of your special training classes and rush away to the Warrior Challenge, a 5-K obstacle course consisting of crawling like a bear, balancing on a log, climbing up an 8-foot wall, jumping over a car, and many other hurdles (including muddy ones!).  You win by over a minute before the second place contestant, but as usual, you are so fast that the photographers weren’t ready in time and your moment of glory is never recorded on film.  It will surely remain in the memories of all the incredibly impressed fans and witnesses to your great defeat.

Throughout September and October Kirby goes to soccer practice and participates in soccer games, each once a week.  Soccer practices consists of a bunch of 3-5 year-olds: the 3 year-olds run around mostly aimlessly if they aren’t looking at flowers or talking to each other, the 4 year-olds run toward the ball and get kicks in every once in a while, and the few 5 year-olds on the team score most of the goals.  Soccer games are the same except there are more breaks for water and whining, and there are twice as many kids doing all that.  Clearly, the best part of soccer to all the children is the snacks afterward.  You are gone to training in Germany for nearly all of October, but return home just in time for the last soccer game, during which Kirby actually kicks the ball toward the correct goal a few times.  These are the thrills, folks.

You are thankfully gone for all of the planning that Nicole does on the USO Halloween Spooktacular & “Haunted” House that occurs on the weekend just before Halloween.  She fills the living room with various disgusting props, goes dumpster diving for unusual decorations, and works on large crafts such as a mobile of chicken bones and a massive twine spiderweb.  You come home just in time to discover that you are committed to helping with the haunted house that Friday & Saturday, but you all have a wonderful time at the big party and trunk-or-treating on Sunday, and you are a good sport about the 5 different Halloween parties you are forced to attend.  Perhaps receiving a Stormtrooper costume makes all the work more worth it, and having friends to watch both boys that Saturday night so that you two can actually go to a grown-up costume party and spend the night without children sure helps.  Kirby takes turns between dressing as Raphael the ninja turtle and a SWAT team guy, and Frankie dresses as Winnie the Pooh in the honeybee disguise and an astronaut.  Both are obviously the cutest children trick-or-treating every time.  Kirby’s birthday is that busy Sunday, but you hold off on his bowling party (a Spider-Man theme) until the next weekend when you’re just a tad less busy.

When you are gone, Nicole takes the boys with some friends to a chocolate festival in Soave, a close town with a beautiful castle.  Then when you return in early November she enjoys exploring some more of the local areas with her friends.  On Thursday the 10th, she goes to Nove where they make ceramics for big name companies like Lennox & Tiffany.  On Friday, she goes to some nearby purse factories where they sell beautiful leather goods and she picks up a pair of butter-soft red gloves that she promises she’ll pretend to be surprised about when she opens the bag Christmas morning.  Then the next Monday she takes her 3rd trip to Venice with a friend, eats at only the cheapest spots and takes the slower train, proving that if any of you visit here you really can stop by Venice for less than $20.  Amazing.  She buys some clementines from a man selling produce from his boat, and sees the church that’s a library in Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, one of her favorite movies.  Inside is an exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci, one of her favorite people.  Italy is fantastic.

On the 19th you participate in a just-less-than-5-K fun run, the annual Italian & American Turkey Trot, and you do not win.  Not only that, but someone steals your commemorative shirt that you threw on top of the car before running.  Italian runners are apparently a little bit faster and not quite as ethical as American runners.  This gives you great motivation to beat them next time and bring home the win for America.  It is a beautiful day, although chilly, and you really enjoy running around the lovely Lago di Fimon lake.  That night you attend another Italian/American event – a traditional Thanksgiving dinner held at a country western bar, and it’s clear that the competitiveness stayed on the track.  Despite the language barrier, you have found that Italians here are almost always friendly and considerate to you and your family.

In fact, some Italians have figured out that the nicer they are to Americans, the more money they make off you!  There is a very friendly olive farm & oil factory that loves to cater to Americans, and Nicole’s MOMS Club is planning on going one Sunday.  You are invited too, but you are a little unsure if you want to go with a bunch of moms and babies.  Continue reading if you decide to stay inside, or go to Fifth Adventure: Trip to Olive Farm if you tag along with the family.

Are you kidding yourself?  When else will you have an opportunity to pick olives and watch them pressed?  In Italy, no less!  These are the opportunities you were hoping for when you moved here.  Sure you stay inside, for part of the day, and then you get up and go to the olive farm!  Now go to Fifth Adventure: Trip to Olive Farm to read about a perfect Sunday afternoon in Italy.

Fourth Adventure: Anniversary in Venice

19 Sep

You and Nicole decide to take the free airport shuttle and catch a bus into town from the airport.  But what you don’t know is that the bus ride to Venice from the Venice airport costs €5 – exactly 10¢ less than if you’d taken the train.  You now know this for the future, though, and hey – you saved 20¢, right?  Both bus rides are fast enough and you arrive in the city just after 9 o’clock.  You choose to walk the less-direct path toward your destination, since you really don’t have to be anywhere anytime soon.  This decision proves to be both wise and foolish.  Wise, in the sense that you get to see more of Venice than you ever thought you would; foolish, since the phrase “get lost in Venice” is entirely applicable, even when you have a map.  Neither you nor Nicole have any idea where you are for approximately 2 hours, but that means you get to explore some very gorgeous empty streets, visit the beautiful main lagoon, and walk through multiple dark alleys.

There are multiple neighborhoods within Venice that were enclosed and used as ghettos for the Jewish refugees over 500 years ago.  These communities have low ceilings as you pass through the portal that was used to lock them in at night.  The walkways are just a few feet wide, but the many apartments are alive with music on the radio and clinking of silverware as the people get ready for their day.  You pass through various other dim back streets, most lined with pastry and souvenir shops, as you make your way to the basilica in Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square).  But first you find every other cathedral in Venice, including one that’s hosting part of an incredible art exhibit.  You stop in to admire the colorful picture of a man and a deer, and it takes getting within a few feet of the artwork to realize that it’s compiled entirely of individual hand-painted Ukrainian eggs – hundreds of thousands of them.  This helps reinforce why having no ultimate plans in Venice is great; if you had known where you should be headed, you would have missed this entirely.  You make your way to the main lagoon, admiring the James Bond-like speedboat water taxis and huge yachts.  You are quite certain the largest yacht must be Beyoncé’s, but she fails to invite you in for some breakfast.  Across the lagoon is Lido Island, where the Venice Film Festival is going on at this moment.  You are pretty sure that is George Clooney waving at you, but the photo comes out blurry.  You’ll visit the festival next year or the year after, and then you’ll make the connections necessary for Nicole to become a Foley artist and for you to play soldiers in films like Avatar 2 and Rambo V.

After a couple hours you do finally stumble upon San Marco.  Nicole had gotten a hot tip to visit the treasure room, but it’s not open yet, so instead you head up to the museum at the top and walk out onto the balcony.  The view is spectacular – you can see all of the square and the lagoon – but your favorites are the Golden Lions that meet the waterway (Saint Mark’s Lion is a theme throughout your entire county, not just Venice) and the gorgeous clock tower just beside the basilica.  The church itself is over 1000 years old, but some of the art inside is even older.  There are four life-size copper horses (the Triumphal Quadriga) that sat on the balcony until very recently, but now rest inside.  They were created before Jesus Christ was born.  The magnitude of this historical tidbit is astounding.  By comparison, your hometown of Tacoma is about 135 years old.  The museum also houses different Catholic artifacts – Bibles, extraordinary tapestries, musical instruments, vestal robes, manuscripts, etc.  But the most impressive part is in the inside of the basilica itself – it is almost completely covered in golden mosaics.  On every wall, many from floor to ceiling, and the entire ceiling are colorful and rich stories from the Bible brought to life.  You are incredulous at the elaborate Tree of Jesse, showing Mother Mary’s family history in precise mosaic, covering the entire wall and over 2 stories high.  Once you have visited the whole upper floor, you leave the church since it is Sunday and a service is going on.

You make your way toward the Rialto Bridge, hoping to find a cheapish spot for lunch.  The trouble with having a pregnant wife in Italy is that you can buy good wine for €3, but a bottle of water costs the same, and Coca-Cola costs €5-8.  You understand why Italians like wine so much – it’s literally the same price as water, and, especially in the case of a refreshing spritz, it tastes way better.  You settle on a nice lunch spot where you enjoy a delicious meal and share an overpriced Coke.  Nicole knows it’s tacky to get a doggie bag, but there is a lot of calzone left, so she does it anyway.  One nice thing about Italy is that tipping is not customary or expected whatsoever, so for a menu prezzo fisso (fixed price menu), the coperta (seating fee) is waived, and the price on the menu is exactly what you pay.  Still, you notice that the majority of what you spend is on food here.

Finally you come to the Omnibus bar along the Grand Canal where you will watch the Regata Storica.  You are very pleased with the service at the bar since your waiter refills your wife’s water bottle multiple times, and gladly.  This is practically unheard of in Italy – nobody else serves house water from the tap.  You wait for the rest of the group to arrive and do some window shopping before the races begin.  There are multiple regattas in Venice each year, but the annual historic regatta is the most popular.  It begins with a fun parade of boats, with people dressed in various historical costumes.  This is followed by the competitors in their boats, also dressed colorfully and in matching outfits.  You are not sure whether it is because the regatta is poorly timed or because the event is just run by Italians operating on Italy time, but there are long lags between the actual races.  First is the children’s race, and they are amusing only because they are young and don’t quite know where to start or when to begin rowing.  Next, after a long wait, is the women’s race.  This one is more interesting, as you even watch some boats get passed by others while they go past you.  The last one you get to see before having to catch the train is the men’s race.  It is very fast and the rowers are clearly very decisive.  They are gone before you know it, and it’s time to head home.  The walk to the train station is long, but since your trip leader knows where you are going, it’s not nearly as long as it could be!  There’s one last fun surprise at the train station: a brass band sits on the steps outside the station, at the end of the canal and you hear a rousing version of “Funiculì, Funiculà,” which inspires many older Italian men to snap and briskly move their arms in time.  The train ride is comfortable and uneventful and you arrive back home, happy and tired.  This is the best anniversary so far!

You know there isn’t much else in store for fall since you’ll be leaving for the majority of October for a big training event.  Continue reading if you figure fall is too boring to hear about, or go to Unadventures in Fall 2011 if you choose to recap the few months.

September slips away fast with just a couple notable events, and thanks to Operation Security procedures you can’t tell too much about jumping into Germany and your mock-war training that you received, but there’s still enough going on that it’s more interesting to read than the average daily planner!  Now go to Unadventures in Fall 2011 to know just what semi-interesting things happen.