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Third Adventure: Asiago Cheese Festival

28 Aug

You decide to go to the cheese festival in nearby Asiago with a group of friends.  You, Nicole, and the boys pile into the car and follow the caravan of American cars to the festival.  First you go the wrong way on the Autostrada (like the interstate), but it’s the one that goes through the cool tunnel under the hillside, so it’s worth the extra €.80.  Then you get properly righted and go on a nice drive along the highway and up through the winding switchbacks of mountain roads.  Asiago is nestled in the foothills (still pretty high up – 3000 feet) of the Alps.  You all admire the lovely architecture, similar to the Bavarian style, and the rolling hills of endless grass.  As you enter the area, a massive rolled hay couple greets your family, and not too much farther so does a giant cheese wheel.  Italians are really proud of their cheese.  And for good reason: the cheese is great!

You follow the stream of cars for a while, and then pull off to find a place to park for free.  The walk to the festival isn’t too bad, and you especially appreciate passing by a pizzeria where Kirby can use the restroom that he’s been dying for.  For the first time in weeks there’s a breeze, and this is the one day in many that Nicole chose to wear a dress.  She spends a great deal of time keeping her dress down while you push the stroller along.  You pass by a loud and happy wedding, a beautiful carousel, and many small tourist shops.  In the center of the town is a lovely old fountain, and nearby is an out-of-use well surrounded by about a dozen tents – the entire cheese festival.  You can’t be disappointed, but it could go without saying that you were definitely expecting something much larger.  The tents are housing honey, cheese, salami, sauces, and wine; all for sale and some for sampling too.  Over the course of an hour you purchase a kilo jar of honey, three different cheeses, a wedge of salami that you expected the seller to slice but he didn’t, and a bottle of wine.  Rather than eat a formal lunch, your family shares the meat and cheese, using the spoon from a sample of honey to pull chunks of meat out of the wedge.  Sure it’s unconventional, but it also works, right?  You enjoy a cheap glass of another kind of wine before heading to admire the most amusing part of the festival – a manmade river with a waterfall, a variety of cheese wheels atop log pedestals, and a fake deer plus a real stuffed…other animal.  It’s bizarre and fantastic, and the children adore it.

Once you’ve spent all your money on delicious food and the shopkeepers begin closing their businesses for the lunchtime break, you head back to the car.  You left the car right next to a little park, and the boys go crazy for the teeter-totter there.  Kirby bounces Frankie in the air every time he hits the ground, and Frankie shrieks with delight.  You play at the park for a half hour before heading back home.  The view of the valley below the mountains is incredible, but you are all tired from the good walking and all the tasty food, so the boys and Nicole fall asleep before reaching home (you don’t, thankfully, since you’re driving).  You are grateful for the opportunity to visit this fascinating little town in Italy – just an hour away from home and for only €5 (about $7) in tolls.   Next Sunday, on September 4th, is your 6th anniversary so you’ll get to go to Venice for their annual historic regatta, also just an hour away.  There is no parking within the interesting part of Venice, though, so you can either take the free airport shuttle and catch a city bus into town, or take a city bus to the train station and catch a train into town.  Continue reading if you choose to take the train, or go to Fourth Adventure: Anniversary in Venice if you decide to go with the cheaper option of taking the shuttle.

You are traveling with a group from the Army base’s Outdoor Recreation department, but even though they are taking the train both ways, you decide to leave earlier so you can see more of the city.  You still take the train – you just take it home only.  Now go to Fourth Adventure: Anniversary in Venice to read about your wonderful 6th anniversary!

Second Adventure: Edelweiss

28 Jul

You wisely choose the marriage retreat option, and not only is the trip to Germany is almost completely paid for, but since it is sponsored by the Army your unit even gives you a pass for the Monday you are gone.  So essentially you are getting paid to go on vacation!

You leave early Saturday morning on July 16, all ready for a quick 4-hour trip to the lodge nestled in the beautiful Alps, two countries away.  Apparently, however, every other Italian traveler is all set to drive this weekend also, so the four hours immediately turn into six hours.  But you have a nice late lunch at a rest stop in Austria that overlooks the valley and has toilets with self-cleaning, rotating seats, so it doesn’t seem so bad at all.  When you arrive, the summer air is brisk but not too cold, and the slightly warm temperature is a refreshing change from the high 90°s that you are still not adjusted to.  The resort is great – very retro ski-cabinesque – with an inviting sitting room, comfortable hotel rooms, and a very standard conference area.  Your late arrival allows you just enough time to set down your bags before it’s time for dinner.  But never fear: you are Justin, and this is a buffet, so it doesn’t matter at all that you only ate a few hours before.  You, Nicole, and the boys enjoy a delicious meal before the kids go to a daycare center while you attend your first class session.  The class consists of watching an entertaining video (Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage) and getting to know your tablemates.  You meet some nice new people and have an enjoyable evening.  Then you pick up the kids and go to sleep.  Somehow sitting all day has really exhausted your whole family.

The next day after a tasty breakfast buffet, your boys go to the daycare for basically the entire day.  You have the second class where you watch another video in the series and take a personality quiz (you’re a Purple, Nicole’s an Orange) and learn about your love languages (yours to receive is Quality Time, Nicole’s is Acts of Service).  Then instead of picking up the children…you don’t do that.  Isn’t that amazing?  You get nice Quality Time together – without the boys for once.  (You take a moment to remind your friends how precious free babysitting from grandparents is.)  You eat a yummy lunch.  You take a nice walk outside to admire the clear, rushing mountain river; and the extraordinary mountain peaks still sprinkled with snow.  And you buy the boys lederhosen and the little shirts and hats that go with them, of course.  Because it’s astounding they’ve made it so far in life without lederhosen.  At dinner time you pick the boys up to take them to the buffet (dressed in their finest lederhosen), but you and Nicole don’t eat at the buffet.  No siree.  Get this – you drop the boys back off and then you have dinner alone together!  A real date.  For real.  You choose to eat at the steak house and it costs you a whopping $17 since the incredible chaplain’s office covers the rest.  And you order (and eat entirely) The Best Steaks Ever.  And you have A Meaningful Conversation.  And the floor isn’t covered in a ring of food around the chair when you get up to leave.  Then to end the night you pick up the children again since, yes, you truly do love them, and you and the boys go to the pool.  Nicole is boring and sits on the side just taking fantastic photos the whole time.

On your final day, you all eat breakfast together before the boys go to daycare.  You and Nicole sneak in a quick trip to the hot tub before you have to go to your last class.  There you watch the videos some more, and suddenly it’s time to pick up the kids and pack up to leave.  The trip home is fast and before you know it you’re back.  Now to relax…until Nicole remembers that she has her Benvenuti class all the rest of the week!  And by the way, we mentioned she’s due in late February with your third baby, right?  And you get your car and all your household goods…right before you leave for work back in Germany for nearly three weeks.  Busy, busy!!  When you get home late on a Thursday, you have the option to stay home that weekend and relax, or go with friends to a cheese festival in Asiago.  Continue reading if you just want to chill and catch up with the family, or go to Third Adventure: Asiago Cheese Festival if you decide to explore the nearby mountain town and eat some delicious cheese.

You decide to chill and catch up just a bit…on Friday since you are given the day off of work.  Now go to Third Adventure: Asiago Cheese Festival to read about your Saturday plans!

First Adventure: Milan

10 Jul

You opt to go with the church to Milan, and this is a great decision.  Not only do you save over $250, but you meet some really nice people whom you’re glad to get to know.  The trip begins with a walk to the chapel from your house.  It’s only 25 minutes away, but you left at 8:30 to make the 9:00 bus, so you left very little wiggle room.  And it turns out that you weren’t supposed to meet at the chapel, but at the commissary instead – about 7 blocks farther away.  So you all run as fast as you can, but thank God, the bus was late too and is pulling up just as you arrive.  Of course you are all sweating and gasping for breath, but in the two-hour bus ride to Milan, you have plenty of time to relax and talk and enjoy some rest.  The sights along the road are interesting – lots of factories, many farms, vineyards, gorgeous old church towers, and three humongous wheels of cheese – and by the time you approach your destination, you are very excited.

When you get there, you arrive at a giant fountain in front of a massive castle.  Now there’s something you don’t see every day.  Castello Sforzesco was originally built in 1368, and is complete with moat, dungeon, huge towers, and a perfect view of the Peace Arch that Napoleon Bonaparte had commissioned.  We’re talking history here, people.  Oh and a few of those guys who cover themselves in paint or latex and pretend to be statues.  You get lunch at a panini stand, then go on a quick tour of the castle.  Your tour guide carries a blue umbrella so you can see her in the crowd on this 90° day, and she uses a Janet Jackson-type headphone and baby monitor-style necklace to amplify her voice.  Silly, but functional.

You then get back on the bus for a driving tour around the city.  Milan is home to 1.4 million people, and if the surrounding areas are counted, it’s more like 4 million.  And the place looks like it.  There are people everywhere, and as you point out to Nicole, there are no buildings shorter than 4 stories.  The architecture is astounding, and every so often you pass by a very large “gate” that was once used as an entrance to the formerly-walled city.  You discover that the center of the city used to be flooded with water and the main transportation was boat, similar to parts of Venice.  There are many stores with expensive-looking high fashion clothes, plush green parks, and a massive cemetery with an extraordinary entrance.  But the bus tour ends and it’s time for the main event.

You go to the monastery (Santa Maria della Grazie) where Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper.  The inside of the sanctuary is breathtaking.  The walls and ceiling are covered with vivid iconography, and are majestically detailed.  It is, in brief, The Best Waiting Room Ever.  But you are soon ready to view the painting.  They only allow 30 of you in at a time, for only 15 minutes at a time.  The room where it is housed used to be where the monks ate their meals, and you can see why monks are so quiet – every whisper is echoed and magnified to no end.  So trying to have a 4 year-old and almost 2 year-old try to be quiet in the room is nearly impossible, especially when they are clearly delighted at the magnificent noise.  But from the moment you lay eyes on the painting, you are in awe.  You did not expect it to be nearly so large – about 15′ tall and nearly 30′ wide.  It takes up the entire width of the wall, and the painted men are larger than life.  After many restorations you can see the proper detail again, although those punk monks enlarged the door to the kitchen long ago, cutting off Jesus’s feet.  And the Allied Forces bombed the building during WWII, destroying the ceiling above and one wall near it, but the painting was covered in sandbags and kept mostly safe.  The structures were obviously rebuilt, but the beautiful painting of a starry night sky on the ceiling was lost forever.  As you leave the room, you see an enormous fresco painting of the Crucifixion done by another artist (Gaudenzio Ferrari) just a few years after Leonardo’s painting.  It is beautiful and rich in color & dimension, and stretches from wall to wall and ceiling to floor.  If this painting wasn’t second-billed in the same room as The Last Supper you get the feeling it’d be nearly as popular.  Photographs are not allowed inside the room, but you get a nice snapshot of a framed photo outside of it.

Your last stop in Milan is at The Galeria – a large mall of beautiful shops with much too costly items for sale.  But the window display at Louis Vitton is nearly as impressive as The Last Supper!  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the mall is exotic and gorgeous.  Nicole joins other tourists and spins her heel in a hole on a tile mosaic of a bull, a fun tradition for good luck.  And just outside the Galeria is the most incredible building you’ve ever seen.  You round the corner and almost cannot believe your eyes.  The Duomo (cathedral) is larger than any building you’ve ever seen, and far more extraordinary.  It is made entirely out of marble and took 600 years to finish constructing.  The spires are so high up you almost don’t notice that they are each topped by ornate statues.  The grand doors are big enough for a giant to pass through.  Every bit of the outside is carved and sculpted and made perfect.  And the inside is just as amazing.  There are stained glass windows that stretch 7 stories high, and immense pillars & columns & buttresses that dwarf you and the hundreds of other visitors.

You leave Milan at dinnertime, grabbing a quick sandwich & Coke at the AutoGrill – the Italian McDonald’s for roadside fast food.  You are exhausted from your busy day, but grateful for the amazing opportunity.  And speaking of opportunities, just this next week you’re offered a chance to go to Germany to the Army’s resort lodge Edelweiss for free through the chaplain’s office.  It’s a marriage retreat for your already solid marriage, but it can’t hurt to be a little closer together after living apart for 10 months.  Continue reading if you opt for your next weekend to be a relaxing one, or go to Second Adventure: Edelweiss if you decide to go for the free vacation.

You decide to have a nice relaxing weekend…at Edelweiss in Garmisch, Germany.  Now go to Second Adventure: Edelweiss to read about it!

The First Few Weeks

3 Jul

Jet lag is an ugly ugly thing.  Trying to explain to a preschooler and a toddler that even though it feels like 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s actually midnight, is not working out for you.  The first few days back together feel like a wacky dream filled with 2 a.m. breakfasts and 4 a.m. naps and lots & lots of sudden rain.  After several early mornings, the natural order of sleep & wake finds a balance and you all are adjusted enough to the new time (although the weather stays surprisingly crummy).

The hotel stay is only a few days long and then you’re introduced to your new house – one of the middle homes in a side-by-side quadplex within an off-base Army community.  It is located just about a mile from the base, and there is a pleasant walking route and a convenient shuttle bus to base every hour.  The house has three bedrooms plus a maid’s room/office & a bathroom upstairs, and kitchen & dining & living rooms & laundry closet downstairs.  The backyards all meet to a shared green space (where an alley normally is), and there are parks scattered throughout these grass strips where lots of kids meet every night when it cools down.  There’s a pool and a tiny store at the end of the development, and just about a block down the street is the school where Kirby will go in fall.  Even though you have only what you brought in your suitcases, you have borrowed the basic furniture and living necessities from a lending closet, and have been gifted some outdoor furniture and a barbecue and microwave from some kind neighbors.  Basically it feels like small-town America…if it were military occupied.

Now you have been in the Army for nearly a year, but this is your family’s first experience with military life, so they have to not only learn to live in a foreign country, but also figure out how to adjust to this incredibly different Army culture.  So here’s what else you all do in these very busy first few weeks: go to Germany for a week-long training, sign up for WIC (free coupons for food essentials), have the family apply for their Soggiornos (green cards that allow them to stay more than a year), register Kirby for summer preschool and Sure Start (like Head Start, beginning in fall), have him go to VBS at the church, get him started in the summer reading program at the library, bring Frankie to a weekly baby/toddler play group, sign up Nicole for Benvenuti – a Welcoming class for new spouses, go to the non-denominational church services every week, walk around downtown, eat lots of cheese and drink wine, and lots more.

It’s been busy to say the least.  But you are presented with your first travel option – either a trip to Milan on July 9th with the Outdoor Recreation club, or a trip to Milan on July 9th with the church.  You have to pay for the Outdoor Rec one, but the church trip is free.  Continue reading if you decide to go with the costly one, or go to First Adventure: Milan if you go with the church.

Now you’re just being silly.  Of course you don’t want to pay a dime.  Go to First Adventure: Milan to travel with the church.

Flying to Venice with a Stop in Amsterdam

3 Jul

Fooled you! Did you really think Nicole could just drive to the consulate, as she could have done in the first place, and receive the visas immediately? Nah – the consul is out of town for a month, so she has to chance it. But, praise the Lord, it works and the visas come just in time (fewer than 24 hours before the plane takes off!). She cleans the car and ships it off (which, unlike everything else so far, went perfectly according to plan), takes the 5 suitcases and 3 carry-ons with her, and heads to the airport with your sons.

As with nearly everything else, there are complications at the airport, but with some help from the USO and the one wise man who worked at the airline, your family gets on the plane with 20 minutes to spare.  The ride is 9 hours to Amsterdam, with an hour & a half layover, then a 2-hour flight to Venice.  Each boy sleeps two hours on the first flight, staggering their sleep so that they are only asleep together for an hour.  Nicole keeps them occupied with the inflight movies, snacks, small presents, lollipops, and of course Angry Birds on the cell phone.  Also, it is a polar flight, so therefore bright outside all “night” long.  So Nicole gets no sleep.  But although Frankie is very active, he only cries for about 15 minutes total, and that is A-OK with Nicole.  The layover is smooth and the second flight is uneventful, even though Frankie is dying to get up and walk around the much smaller airplane.  You wait just outside security at the Venice airport, and your family is struggling so much with their luggage, that you are permitted through to help them carry everything out.  But you’ve just missed the bus to the Army base, so you all have to wait 2 1/2 hours for the next one.  The time goes quickly reunited once more, though, and before you know it you are on your way to the hotel.  You have all arrived at last!  Since it is 4:30 in the afternoon (that’s 16:30 to you soldiers), if you go to bed and stay asleep now, you’ll be all caught up and fully adjusted to the 9 hour time change – bright and ready for the new day.  Do you fall asleep in the late afternoon, or do you wait till later to see if that works better?  Go to The First Few Weeks if you stay up longer, or continue reading if you fall asleep now.

You do all fall asleep now.  But some of you wake up around dinnertime, and others stay sleeping until just about midnight.  Which brings us to the extraordinary tiredness of The First Few Weeks.

Getting the Family Their Passports

3 Jul

When you first find out about your big move, Nicole goes to Fort Lewis to get the family’s passports. But first she has to go to the civilian doctor for Frankie. Then to the base to make the appointments, which should be able to be made over the phone. Then back to the base for the Army doctor appointment. Then back again to hustle the passport appointment because even though it was made for over a month after the initial visit, apparently it could have been done the same day. Then back again for the actual passport appointment. And again to pick up just two passports. Then finally to pick up the last passport. But now really finally to make the flight arrangements now that your orders have been amended to state that your family did not accompany you to your soldier-exclusive training. Then Nicole mails the passports down to the Italian consulate in San Francisco, which mails them back a week later because the base didn’t give her the proper cover letter. So she goes to the base for the last time to get the proper letter.  (But not quite the last time since she leaves her wallet there that time, although when she returns for the really truly last time the wallet is there waiting for her with all its contents…hurrah!)

Now your family has a week and a half to send the passports away for visas and hope they return in time for their June 3rd flight. Or Nicole can drive to the honorary consulate in Bothell to get the visas right away. What do you do? Go to Flying to Venice with a Stop in Amsterdam if you choose to have Nicole drive just an hour and get it done immediately. Forget the other option – it’s not even an option anymore. She is really sick of waiting.

SNAFU – Situation Normal: All Fouled Up

3 Jul

You’ve chosen to wait a couple months to see if the house sells. Hopefully your persistence will pay off before foreclosure threatens your excellent credit. It is almost time for you to head home for a nice 2-week visit with all your family and friends, so you clear out of your barracks, load all your belongings except laptop & wallet & phone into your friend’s car, and spend your last few hours with another friend. In those few hours, the car (with all your stuff) is repossessed and the towing company will not work with you to return it. Of course it’s not enough to keep you from coming home, so you pray the situation will be remedied by the time your leave is done. It’s wonderful coming back to Tacoma, and along with having fun visiting everyone, you help Nicole with whatever sorting and packing is left before the movers come the day after you leave. The Wednesday before your departure, you awaken to the sound of the movers ringing your doorbell…5 days earlier than expected. You thank God you packed the suitcases already and have such an open schedule, because the next 3 days are spent with the moving company packing and moving all the things left in your house. Two days before leaving your wife again, you get to go stay at your mother-in-law’s house. That’s not quite what you two had planned for. But as long as the family gets their passports all right, then you know you will see them again soon. Do you doubt that they’ll easily get their passports & Italian visas, or do you think that maybe this time the Army will be efficient and reasonable? Go to Getting the Family Their Passports if you have any doubts, or continue reading if you have faith in the military’s sound business practices.

Once again you’ve chosen poorly. Nicole’s degree is in management. She worked for 5 years and dealt with many companies in her professional jobs. And she can certify that the Army has the most inefficient systems of any business that manages to stay in business. Now continue to Getting the Family Their Passports.

Preparing the House for Sale

3 Jul

You may be a fairly tidy man, but your wife is a bit of a clutterbug. And your boys are the kings of Spilling Anything & Everything. So when your house has to be photo-ready within 2 weeks for real estate marketing photos, Nicole must enlist the help of nearly everyone she knows. Each day another friend or family member or church member or even stranger comes over to help her sort, pack, tidy, and clean. She has a big garage sale and gets rid of a lot of clutter and unnecessary items. She learns to save memories, not mementos. She prays this decluttering of her home will be a new dawning in her life – a time of cleanliness and hope. The photographer comes and takes lovely photos, and the house goes up for sale. But the price is not right for a perfect house that has only one bathroom. The home buyers of Tacoma insist on multiple toilets. You can wait a couple more months to see if the house sells at gradually dropping prices, or you can spend all your savings to install another toilet. What do you do? Go to SNAFU if you choose to wait, or continue reading if you add a bathroom.

Are you serious? You aren’t spending your money on adding a second bathroom when you’ll have lost your nearly 3 years investment in the house already. Forget that. You’re buying a motorcycle instead. A sweet white-hot brand new 2010 Honda Shadow RS. Shoot, you guys are always practical with your money – you can afford to be totally impulsive now and then. Now continue to SNAFU.