Top 5 Memories from August 2009

Following the “trip of a lifetime---cycling across central Europe for the summer,” August was the month that we began to wind down. We spent the first 2 weeks of August in England, then made our way to Florence, Italy for the upcoming school year.

Notwithstanding the fact that we actually unpacked at each destination (a new experience), the adventures continued. Here are my Top 5 memories from the month of August 2009:

5. London Cycle Tour. Although we were no longer on our bikes everyday, we dedicated a day in London to cycling across, through and around all the major London parks (Hyde Park, St. James Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park). Any family can enjoy cycling in a park for the day. But, crisscrossing London’s busy town center on bicycles is not for the inexperienced. It did make for an incredibly memorable day: tranquil, lush and expansive parks contrasted with adrenalin-pumping rides and near collisions with double-decker buses. London has built some bikes lanes, but most British drivers still remain wholly unaware of the existence of cyclists.

4. Swimming in Florence. Anyone who has traveled in Italy knows that the cities are literally “shuttered” in August: the heat can be suffocating. I would guess that less than 20% of the businesses in Florence were open in August (and those that were open were predominantly tourist-driven). Our goal quickly became: locating the best outdoor public pool. We spent entire August days at the Piscina Le Pavoniere, along the Arno River just west of Florence city center. It was a great respite from the summer heat and provided a fantastic opportunity to have fun swimming together.

3. London Theatre. No visit to London (as a tourist) is complete without attending some theatre; we were not disappointed. We enjoyed two shows: Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot. Both were kid-friendly, offered fantastic sing-along melodies, and easy-to-follow stories. In the boys’ words, it was an “amazing experience” to witness such great talent on stage. We won’t forget the weather either - prototypical London downpours en route to the theatre. Fun!

2. Manchester Retreat. This was definitely #1 for me, but given it wasn’t a family experience in the strict sense of words – it falls to #2. While our boys were at Manchester United Soccer Camp for the second week of August, Janelle and I reposed at a 4-star hotel in downtown Manchester. After spending three intense months traveling with our two adolescents boys (often in close quarters), a week “off” for Janelle and myself was just what the doctor ordered. And, yes, we soaked up our time together: sleeping in, exercising, swimming at the spa, reading, walking, eating well and just being carefree together. We found some great restaurants in Manchester (try Piccolino and Pesto) and shopping too. It was wonderful to soak up time with Janelle and reflect upon the past summer, goals for the coming year in Florence, and taking time for contemplation (what do we hope to accomplish with our lives. Our Manchester “retreat” was reinvigorating for us on many levels. Meanwhile, the boys enjoyed their week at Manchester United soccer camp: it was a well-timed week off for all of us.

1. Visiting Friends in London. Regardless of the novelty of the places we visit, we continue to find that people end up making our travel experiences the most memorable: London was no different. The first weekend after our arrival in London, we had the pleasure of going to dinner at the home of Raphael and Simone, and their young girls. Although they were departing the next day for vacation, we had a wonderful meal at their home, highlighted by great conversation, laughter and delectable food. Raphael is French, so naturally he is a great chef. Thank you!

We also had the pleasure of spending several days with Chris and Natasha, and their sons Clarke, Myles and Jasper, in London and Windsor. We enjoyed meals together, toured Windsor, the British Museum, shopped and drank a lot! While the Brits drink beer like fish (and remain standing), Janelle did manage to surprise Chris and Natasha with the potency of her lemon-drops. ;) We enjoyed Jim Gaffigan, played soccer in the parks, and simply enjoyed the merriment that is afforded by a group of adolescent boys. Altogether, fantastic memories that we hope to relive again.

Other August 2009 experiences that qualify for honorable mention: watching Harry Potter VI in London (then walking over the Millennium bridge – destroyed in the film), riding the London Eye, touring Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, touring Old Trafford stadium, riding the Tube in London, renting and driving a stick-shift cargo van in Manchester, (to transport our boxed-bikes to the airport), arriving at Pisa airport (and re-assembling bikes again), arriving in Florence, and two-a-day soccer practices in the sweltering August heat (for the boys).

All in all, the month of August marked the conclusion of our “cycling trip of a lifetime,” and the beginning an incredible cultural experience as we settled in to “live” in Florence for the school year (a separate adventure in and of itself). Stay tuned!


a day in Florence

How to explain our experience? It seems that the best way to relay what we step through, is the same way we tackle it: one day at a time.

Today (Wed), for example, was a list of errands for our re-entry into Florentine life. We landed in Italy late Friday (from a 3 week diversion to the states to 1. obtain extra 'residing in Italy' paperwork, and 2. visit family). It was an unexpected trip, but a good one.

Today we stood in a lot of lines, sat in a few offices, and otherwise took a number:
  1. trying to obtain a laminated card much like a social security card (no, that is another office, and you need even more paperwork),
  2. we sat with officials to fill out paperwork for permission to reside in Italy (watching them inefficiently copy individual pieces of paper---a total of around 100---from each of our four folders was painful; meanwhile James ran to a shop to buy specific stamps that cost 14 euros each, for this precise paper-pushing function),
  3. visiting offices re: health insurance which you can purchase here (we asked in 3 places, each of which we were sent to by another, the last of which included having a number and sitting for an hour plus, only to find out that we need another official document first... but here is the form and BTW: you can only purchase it for the calendar year... and its October).
  4. We submitted official paperwork---with Anthony in tow (since he just turned 14 he has to file separately too)---at an office inside the post office (yes: another queue plus fees).
It is humorous, really. And we are learning that each task can take up to four times as long as one might normally expect. Assuming the humor doesn't wane, all should be well... James and I take turns being the one optimist and pessimist.

In addition to those errands, we picked up the last few school books for the boys (James went to 3 book stores a few weeks back to find one where you could purchase both used and new books. The books come in one at a time. (Fortunately, this time the line was much shorter than the previous four visits; the boys have hoards of books).

This is normal, and daily: we visit an office to obtain a specific card, document, registration or the latest is an Italian translation of our marriage certificate (stamped by another office, then returned to a third office with another 4 documents to obtain a specific number...). At that appointed office
, we are sent to another office across town. When you get there you discover it is only open Tue through Thursday mornings---or to field questions via phone from 2-4 every other Wed afternoon. During that special blocked out time, you take a number. When your number is finally called you will either 1. be told you need document A before you can have document B (which is consistently the reverse of what we were just told at another office the previous day), or 2. be given another number for another line in the same office, or 3. have the opportunity to schedule an appointment for another day.

And you thought the day was done?

We also bought the boys their school logo-specific sweats for PE. This is no small ordeal. The uniform store---which we went to a few weeks back prior to school---is a hearty bike ride outside the city. We called them (fortunately having adequate minutes on our phone... because recently we had no internet and no minutes and no way to reload except by going to a store... or rather, James going to a store to gain information to add minutes which has to be done online, which meant finding an internet cafe... etc., etc.). The uniform store pointed us to another sport store, but couldn't remember the name. We went to 3 sport stores (each one recommending the one following) before we found the correct one. We were so excited to finally find the right store, AND the sweats were on hand not needing to be ordered.

The biggest sigh of finding the specific PE sweats, was avoiding the impending doom (in adolescent terms) of the PE teacher herself. She was getting a bit... annoyed that the boys didn't have the right sweats. Can you tell her your parents have to reach stores via bicycle? Can you tell her the store doesn't have the sweats in stock? Can you tell her we have to FLY HOME to the states to worry about things like visas and licenses, stamped bank statements, original birth certificates and health care? Can you tell the PE teacher we just got back, are still adjusting to jet lag, are barely avoiding every available airborne sickness, don't have internet access to locate stores and phone numbers (Misc: when we returned from the US our apt. had no wifi b/c some bill prior to our arrival hadn't been paid... of course we didn't know why it was turned off. Since we had paid for our months' use... which left us with 1. stress, 2. headaches. 3. 12 hours of troubleshooting, 4. numerous phone calls to the internet company---thank GOD James knows Italian, 5. creative wifi finding at nearby cafes...), and then some? Shall I talk to the teacher? Do you want a note? How about a few 'Hail, Mary's?' (Um, no mom. I prefer just to get in trouble).

At this point it is just past noon, and we have an appointment with one of the Madres at the school. We are full of questions: where to leave an extra bag at school for soccer (twice a week the boys have to leave early from school to cycle to soccer, so they have to bring their belongings... should they just take an extra pannier? Do you feel my logistical pain?). Also: who to pay supply money to, do you have a copy of the morning prayer the kids recite in Italian, when is the field trip, what is the protocol for kids leaving early from school, times for teacher conferences, the school schedule (not printed, not online... can you confirm it?)...

Today: we came away with many questions answered, had found the sweats, James had a few successful phone calls, we knew what offices we needed to find and or revisit tomorrow and it was a beautiful day to be on your bike... even if it was in between office visits... all and all, a good day.

Even though James and I stand in line a lot, and are learning the innards of the immigration process, soccer and school re-entry is going well for the boys, for which we are grateful. Caleb sprained a wrist tonight, but only b/c he was sliding for a winning goal (add to tomorrow's list: find a wrist brace in Florence). It was a bummer, but he didn't seem deterred. And now, tonight, we
are in the midst of homework; sadly, I am quite useless when it comes to Italian homework. James has to be 'on' all the time. HE has secondary (is the official on call homework assistant) homework for a few hours each night, thanks to the boys' assignments.

We hope that soon, our lives will shift from this overarching, grinding 2nd gear into a happy 3rd. We will soon be well into the Florentine time zone, enjoying our self-prescribed routine and responsibilities. We should have stood in enough lines to call it quits for awhile; and will have time to visit more sites, see great art, and soak up our Florentine life.


Segue to the States

Huh? Wondering what we have been up to? Where we have been? When we might post again?

Me too. Holy smokes it has been a segue wrapped in an adventure, skewered with international errands. Do you want the short version or the long? ... Lets do the nearly short version, since the long one might---with some encouragement---turn into a book.

We cycled all summer. Blissfully scooting by canals and windmills in the Netherlands, climbing hills to see castles in Belgium and rolling into Paris to soak up cathedrals, picnics and great art. We hovered over London and Manchester and flew to Florence. All with bubbles of dreaminess well-formed around our heads; what we didn't know was that while we were busy having fun, Italy was busy cinching its immigration belt. No, we aren't immigrating, but we are 'residing' for a year. And while there was once 26 visas with varying notches and loopholes... it has been buckled down to just 5 or 6---sans loopholes.

Even the short story really is... a bit long. Anyway, thank god James speaks Italian (I don't know how we would have maneuvered, understood or otherwise inquired about all the proper paperwork); we visited countless immigration offices, attorneys, American and Italian consulates, police stations, post offices, political offices, volunteer services, document-piles, daunting-lines and unceremonious buildings... where we sat and stood, read our books, took a number. James read a plethora of websites as we searched and strategized to obtain the right paperwork. Months ago, it wouldn't have been an issue. You can tour for 90 days, leave for a few, return for another 90... no problem. But soon our answer was: 'not possible' and we booked our flight back to the states.

(When and if we write a book about 'how/when/where/why to go abroad for a year' we will have more than enough ammo to fill up the chapters).

So 2 weeks into their school year and 4 weeks into their soccer season, we flew back to Washington state for a 3 week hiatus. Long enough to send our passports off with AN INCH HIGH pile of accessory paperwork and receive it back again. Stamped.

Our 3 week segue in the states: we flew home (Washington state) beginning of October and without realizing it were about to drive and drive and drive---as if to make up for the last 5 months sans automobile. We took a train from Florence to Rome, another hopper train to the Rome airport, flew to London, landed in Seattle, drove to Tacoma, drove to Yakima, drove back down to Portland, Oregon (to the Italian consulate in our region), up to Seattle, then to Bellingham, Washington (all inside four days). Four days later we drove through Idaho to Montana---enjoyed a week of respite with grandparents---drove back to Bellingham... and the next day drove up to Vancouver BC, Canada. One day of rest, then we drove to Seattle (today actually) for a day of errands and back again; we have two more days in Bellingham, then it is back to the airport with a flight from Seattle to London to Milan and finally, we catch a train back to Florence.

No doubt we will be armed with tales of re-entry.

We have our passports back, all approved and at the ready. We have visited more relatives than we thought possible; we knocked out errands ranging from getting international drivers licenses to an orthodontist visit to buying baking soda, Ziploc bags and a Costco size of Taco Seasoning (that alone was worth the flight home, don't you think?). We handled pharmacy matters, bought converse shoes at a fraction of what they would cost in Florence and piled our winter clothes into our bags for our return. Hey, at least we didn't have to pay to send them to Florence, right?

Though we resisted the flight fees and the time away from our lives in Florence, it has been a great 3 weeks of visiting with family. We filled our coffers with loads of adventures, tales and conversations. We helped family stack wood and paint houses, shared wine and photos, played guitar, carved pumpkins and drank root beer (we never found it in Europe?). And the boys had more concentrated time with their cousins than perhaps ever before. It has been an unexpected gift.

And now we return, with our suitcases, bellies and hearts full again. With stories brimming, and paperwork solved. We are thrilled to be returning without the frustration and stresses we incurred trying to finalize our paperwork. Now instead of visiting offices and government officials, we can spend more time in museums, at wineries and along the Arno. We will plan our trips out of town (the boys play soccer games all over Tuscany!!!), and sip our macchiatos with great content. Routine will feel deliberate and comforting, and to think: Italy actually does want us to stay!


familiarity in Florence...

I have been waiting for this to happen: for the grid of Florence to land on the back of my hand. For the breathing patterns of our lives to extend into the very air of the city. It has been six weeks that we have been here, full of logistics and finding apartments and schools and soccer clubs, visiting, consulates and the questura, filling out paperwork to be legal residents. We searched for grocers and drugstores, hardware and stationers. We tried different butchers and bakers... and candlestick makers?

So it was just a matter of time---of numerous walks and errands---that we would begin to know where we were and how to walk home. Our affection would grow for various streets and stores, specialty vendors and secret spots. And it has.

If you showed up on my doorstep, I would know just where to take you: to the best nearby gelato, what streets to walk down, good butchers and must-see tourist attractions (some on the grid, some off the grid). There is enough to see for weeks on end---we still have much to visit.

But, if you were to land in Florence for just a few days, I would recommend:

1. The David. You are in Florence, you have to see the David. (and read the book Agony & Ecstacy on Michelangelo, it is brilliant and will make all of Florence come alive...).
2. Cafe view of the Duomo. Here is a great hidden gem; this little cafe is unmarked, and sits on the rooftop of a department store: Rinascente (entry door in Piazza Republica). Enter store, find elevator, go to top floor. Exit elevator, look around for stairs climbing up; go up stairs into cafe, go up another set of stairs and... enjoy the view. Go mid morning and order espresso and a pasta (pastry), or land for a long lunch. Worth it.
3. The Uffizi. You just cannot leave without going to this gallery; it has a lot of 'originals.' You can stand in the long queue OR you can enter the same door as the long line, go to the reservation desk and grab tickets for entry later that same day (or early the next).
4. Santa Croce. This church is chock-full of icons. Buy the headsets, and pick and choose what to listen to. I plan to return soon...
5. The Duomo et al. Duh. Go to the Duomo, check out the Baptistry, visit the adjunct museum. You knew that, though, right? Good to know: Saturday evenings at 5pm is an all English-speaking mass.
6. The leather market. BARTER. This market (called the New Market) is aimed for tourists, and while 'happening' and worth a visit, is overpriced. They are ALL willing to sell for less. If not, move to the next vendor. Or you can walk a few blocks over, near the Piazza Republica, Mercato Lorenzo or en route to Santa Croce, and find less expensive vendors selling the same thing (purses, belts, souvenirs). Key things to remember when buying a purse: look to see if it has been stamped with a leather maker's name, ask for proof that it was made in Italy, and look inside the purse. You want it to have leather/nice material in the interior.

And if you can stay longer than a few days, well, that is another list for another time.


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