Firenze appartemento

I have been antsy about our Florentine landing pad for months now. I researched apartments online before we ever left Seattle, and contacted agents and apartment owners while we were cycling across Europe this summer. I emailed friends who emailed friends about various neighborhoods in the city. We looked at which school and what soccer, so we might know what vicinity to aim for. But we really didn't have a clue. I had never been to the city, we had no way to know what soccer club they would be invited to play for, and we hadn't visited schools.

There was so much to consider, like a really personal storied math problem with too many unknown variables. Including---but not limited to---a mother with a nesting drive and homing instinct, a need to help her young settle in... lets just call it an added ball of stress, shall we?

As planned (love that word), we landed in temporary diggs (2 weeks) in Florence. Then we started to get to know the city and look at apartments. And although I really wanted a place arranged in advance, it worked out quite well to make our 'home' choice while on the premises. Here is why:

If you think of the main part of Florence as the face of a clock---with the Duomo at the center---our temporary apartment was at noon. This gave us a good sense of what it would be like to live in the north quadrant of the city (nice area but not our preference, and too far away from the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, city center). It also gave us time to find soccer clubs, the bike paths (our means of transportation around the city) and visit schools. And air conditioning became a desirable feature.

Incidentally, the two soccer clubs are located beyond the clock's face at 3:00 and 9:00; and the school we visited and love, is extended beyond 5:00.

But that isn't all; we had a list of requirements beyond location. Including a tight budget. We may have occasional guests and would love at least 2 extra places to sleep (like a pull-out couch) to accommodate them. With young teenage boys, and requisite piles of soccer gear, smelly socks and sweaty shirts, we placed '2 bathrooms' very near the top of our list. And a washing machine---for the same reason. Dishwasher nice, but not necessary. And we really started to love the idea of being in the center of the city (well within the face of the clock), so when guests DO come, we don't have to hike each time we want to tour the various sites in the city. Near the river, air conditioning, tall ceilings, wifi access, not too many floors up...

How is that for a laundry list of variables?

And we found it. But only because we were here scouring, stressing, negotiating---and beating the reams of students by mere days before they scooped up every remaining bed in the city.

To those of you visiting: there is a humble place to rest your heads. There is air conditioning, the price is right, there is a washer and a dishwasher and the table is in the kitchen (nice for people spending a lot of time cooking...). One bedroom is a loft (for the boys) and the master bedroom will double as an office, as it has a desk. There are TWO BATHROOMS, thank God, and they are very nice. It is only up one flight of stairs. It has internet access, and a TV---a requisite for soccer-watching types like ourselves. Sigh. Happy.

I would say the only downer is we have to pay extra to lock up our bikes (in a nearby garage) and it is on a tourist thoroughfare. Which means it will be busy during the day, but it also means we are well, resident tourists and in the heart of the city (and piles of fun for loaded water guns, since our windows are just above the masses...). Besides, where else would we want to be?


Top 5 Memories from June 2009

Okay, this post is long overdue - about 7 weeks coming. But, I have kept copious notes. ;)

June was a month that was bicycling intense – meaning we logged a lot of kilometers. We started the month in North Holland, and ended the month at the southernmost point in the Netherlands (Maastricht). In between, we crisscrossed the country twice and saw a lot of cows, sheep, goats and windmills. It is hard to narrow it down to the Top 5, but here goes:

5. Reposing in Weert. After 100’s of kilometers and 5 consecutive days of riding (unplanned), we had the great pleasure of landing at a lovely B&B in Weert (a member of the Vrienden op de Fiets network). The family offered us comfortable accommodations and a lovely garden, complete with swinging bench, fishpond and walnut tree. But, more importantly, they extended a warm welcome to us (strangers), and a great dinner under the stars. It was the “recharge” we needed after several days on the bike. We felt at home and were ready to move into the garden for the remainder of the summer.

4. Days at the beach in Schenveningen and Katwijk. After weeks of cycling across the Netherlands, we made our way to the beach. Great fun! Although our accommodations were negligible, the beachfront made up for any shortcomings. We had splendid weather in Schenveningen (upper 80’s), and enjoyed a secluded section of the beach in Katwijk. Burying ourselves in the sand, building sand castles, counting a handful of topless women (a surprise to the boys), playing soccer in the sand, and jumping down dunes was a welcome reprieve from our bicycle seats. Needless to say, Janelle and I enjoyed a few cocktails beachside too.

3. Water fights in Sittard. When traveling with adolescent boys and staying in B&Bs, we could never be certain how we would be received. However, sometimes we were amazed at the hospitality of our hosts: Sittard was a highlight. After a lengthy 50km ride on a hot day (including a brief foray into Germany), we were graciously received by our hosts. After assisting us with our bikes, they immediately brought out cold beer (“good for parents of adolescents” they said), and then buckets of water with sponges. Our kids looked on with some confusion, but then our hosts immediately demonstrated the joy of simply soaking a sponge and throwing it at each other in the garden. Obviously a water fight ensued, and smiles and laughter filled the air. We later enjoyed dinner and had a wonderful evening with our hosts.

2. Gouda. Of all the cities across the Netherlands, Gouda is the embodiment of all good things Dutch. We spent 3 nights in Gouda at the B&B Aan de Gouwe and enjoyed every minute of it. Gouda offers all the attractions of a big city: canals, a fantastic cathedral, a huge market and piazza, good food and specialty shops. It also captures the benefits of a small city: clean, easy to walk, affordable and very hospitable. We had great food (Spanish tapas, Italian), visited the Great Kerk (remarkable stained glass), played soccer in the Markt, and were spoiled by a personal tour of a Stroop Wafel factory (which originated in Gouda). It was a fantastic experience: we definitely plan to return.

1. An evening with friends in Eindhoven. In the midst of our trip we had the pleasure of connecting with extended family friends (whom we had never met). To our good fortune, they had two kids around the same age who had an affinity for riding bikes, playing soccer and games. We talked, ate and drank for several hours, while the kids readily entertained themselves (even though our kids spoke only English, and theirs only Dutch). Needless to say, after several bottles of prosecco, a barbecue, dessert, and digestivos under the stars, it was a day and night to remember. (Thanks Benno, Alexandre, Fleur and Bas!)

In addition to the above Top 5 for June 2009, there were several other memories made in June that deserve honorable mention: a fantastic stay at Villa Augustus in Dordrecht – a renovated industrial warehouse turned into boutique upscale hotel with an artisan organic farm-to-table restaurant (we definitely will return); the medieval festival at Heusden – a fortified town where every citizen was immersed in middle age garb, foods and events (think of walking on to the set of Lord of the Rings); retracing the steps of Van Gogh in Neunen – living history; and, last, but not least, riding along, through and with cattle, sheep and goats across the Dutch countryside.

June 2009 will be forever etched in our memories.


Florence week 1

First week: HOT.

So this is where they have been hiding the sun. This first week in Florence has been all about orientation to the city, adjusting to the heat, and searching for a long-term apartment.

We are not overdoing the tourist sites; they are currently swarmed. But we have been cycling circles around and through the city, as sort of a meet and greet. I can tell you the location of major piazzas, gardens, food markets and iconic museums, churches and statues. I cannot tell you much about the restaurants, since we have only been to one. We have not seen the inside of museums or leather shops, but we have toured one possible school for the boys (an endearing, 4' 2" bilingual nun included).

Besides getting a general grip, we have been learning to go out and about all morning, cycle home around lunch, stay inside the air conditioned space until late late afternoon then consider our options. Usually we eat dinner in, then go out for another spin about the city.

Our favorite repose so far---and the one that has felt most like vacation---was a full afternoon at the largest, public pool in Florence. We were lucky to have found it while cycling routes to varying calcio (soccer in USA, football in EU) clubs. It was brilliant: huge doses of Vitamin D, an enormous pool, nowhere to go, nothing to do, nobody to see. Just chill. Even on our cycling trip we were busy packing, moving, mapping, eating, and entertaining ourselves.

Besides the pool and cycling around the city, we have been reading through 'learn to speak Italian' books, visited Boboli Gardens (see pic), Piazza San Marco, the largest outdoor market (mercado) near Piazza Lorenzo, have crossed the infamous Ponte Vecchio multiple times, and are quickly adapting to our gelato-eating habit.

Not that you find it interesting, but our preferred flavors:

James: Limone
Janelle: Hazelnut (nocciola)
Anthony: ranges from chocolate to walnut, caramel, tiramisu... and strawberry.
Caleb: Mint (menta) and Vanilla (vaniglia), with some chocolate thrown in.

And rule of the day is: whatever Anthony orders is usually so good we all envy him. So if we eat at a restaurant and he orders carbonara or we slide into seats in a gelateria and he orders some unknown but yummy looking gelato... it will be the best plate/cup/flavor on the table.


We did it!

We made it!

We made it from Amsterdam to Paris, to London and Manchester and have landed---safely---in Florence, Italy.

The boys had a splendid time at Manchester United Football Camp; we were all pretty excited to see Old Trattford (stadium where Manchester United practices and plays home games). While the boys were at camp all week, James and I caught up with each other, bought a computer (ours had broken a few weeks ago), enjoyed restaurants in Manchester (especially Piccolini) and set up our Fantasy Premier Leagues. (The leagues are online fantasy soccer leagues, where you play against others in the league, by picking your own team, managing trades and watching certain players all year. We set up a family league for both English Premier and Serie A).

We packed up the bikes and left Manchester; 1 rental van, 2 airplanes, 1 train and 2 small bike rides later---we were at our place in Florence. We decided to rent an apartment for the last 2 weeks of August. That way we can adjust to our new home city, get a sense of neighborhoods by day and night, and finalize proximity of the boys' school and calcio (aka soccer).

Caleb has a wee injury on his heel, so these first few days of Florence have been via biciclette (bikes). Not a bad way to get oriented, and to get a sense of how long rides would take from A to B to D and K. Besides, we will be getting around via foot and bike, so we better get used to it.

So far it has been around 100 degrees Fahrenheit and we are learning to love 1. shade, 2. very cold water and lots of it and 3. air conditioning. There are hordes of tourists here, despite the raging heat and mass exodus of Italians. I knew the country took the month of August off, but I am genuinely amazed (and really quite impressed) at all the little paper signs on windows stating temporary closure for all of August. 'We' will all return in September. And life will go on.

But we are here, already looking forward to what life as usual will feel like, when the tourists start to dissipate and the stores and restaurants reopen. Students will come from all over, we will have a permanent address, cram our brain with Italian verbs and prepositions---and sink right into this new life.

And you know I couldn't leave an Italian post without including something about food, so... Food highlights so far: gelato, granita, watermelon chunks on a stick, the abundance of chianti, shots of limoncello with a nearby restaurant owner, good espresso, homemade ravioli, a butcher. I say the latter with braced enthusiasm: I don't yet know where we will land, and therefore which outdoor market we will frequent (I look forward to loving my more permanent butcher). But we did find one, and promptly bought some pork loin beautifully wrapped in bacon... dinner in. We loved it. Salute!


London Days 8-10

Day 8 was Thursday. We brought a few boxes to the post office, to ship ahead some of our accumulated 'stuff' to Italy. We hopped on the tube and met friends at the British Museum. It was a great glimpse of Egyptian Mummies, the Rosetta stone and a plethora of Greek artifacts (many from the Parthenon). A quick cafe lunch at the museum, then to a nearby park for some ice cream, keep away with the soccer ball, and nestling our bare feet into the grass. We walked and shopped a bit, then landed at a Pizza Express for dinner (pretty typical chain in London, but not bad for a light meal and a bottle of red).

That night was very special: we went to watch Billy Elliot (a favorite); the boys loved it. We all loved it. And will never forget running through the rain---with newspapers over our heads---to get there. Anthony held my hand to make sure I didn't fall over, because my shoes were so slippery! It made for great memories.

Day 9 was our last day in London. When it is our 'last day' in a big city we usually take inventory: what does everyone want to do on the last day? What haven't we done yet? Is there anything we missed? Is there a favorite place you want to re-visit? Or something you still need to buy? In Paris we finished our week with a dinner picnic on a bridge (right near the Louvre and Notre Dame), enjoying the sunset and people-watching. I remember in Maastricht, last day requests included Belgian waffles, visiting the candy shop and trying on wooden shoes before we exited Holland (I almost bought some but they were so big and uncomfortable!).

Our last day in London was all about following our noses. We deliberately walked about town with this plan: to walk across the infamous Millennium foot bridge (the one that is destroyed at the beginning of Harry Potter 6), to peek inside the Tate Modern (south side of bridge) and walk toward Saint Paul's (north side of bridge).

We took the Underground to the London Bridge. And lucky me: tucked on the south side of the bridge is my favorite outdoor food market in the city: Borough Market. It was my 'last day' request, and an unexpected delight that we were able to stroll through it without agenda. We grabbed grass-fed burgers and just-grilled chorizo sandwiches for lunch. The boys tried some dandelion & burdock soda and ate shortbread. We tasted olives and cured meats, and hovered in a shop that boasted aprons and tea towels with motifs from an impressive artist. I couldn't resist.... I bought an apron with a rainbow trout (artist Richard Bramble). We chatted about drawing and being artists, found some coffee and exited the market.

A few blocks later, we walked by the Clink Museum, a prison museum that beheld and explained torture devices. Of course we went in. We were adequately mortified, rightly grateful for our ease of circumstance, and took token pictures of Caleb chopping off James' head.

Next we went into the Tate to peek at some of the modern art---quite a fun contrast to the Louvre, Van Gogh and even the British Museum. We saw a handful of Picasso's works and some art by Andy Warhol. Then, we walked over the Millennium bridge over to Saint Paul's cathedral---and directly to our favorite, readily found and ironically named patisserie: PAUL's. We landed happily at an outdoor table and munched our pastries and stirred our tea, while Anthony and Caleb juggled the soccer ball back and forth for an hour... right by the cathedral. (Yes, we are careful it is low pedestrian and free of windows before the ball comes out of the bag). When we had sat long enough for even the pigeons to give up on our residual crumbs, we picked up and hailed a cab.

I almost forgot: climbing into one of those fabulous London Taxi cabs was an experience we meant to fit in. So we did. We snagged a ride in a pristine cab across London, landing at a sport shop (to buy a few more pairs of soccer socks), shopping our way from Oxford Street back to Covent Garden, and landing deliberately at the TinTin store. Caleb spent some of his well earned dollars (or euros or pounds...) on a TinTin sheet set and classic book.

By this time we were hungry, again. So we popped into an Italian joint for an early dinner; Caleb read his new book, Anthony worked on Sudoku (from the daily paper handed out en route to the TUBE) and James and I chatted over glasses of vino. It was a good moment, a fine way to wrap up our visit to London.

The next morning, Day 10, we packed up all of our belongings, slung them onto the back of our bikes and headed for the train station. James had reserved spots for our bikes, so we hurdled all of our bags into the train car, the bikes into a separate car and rode to Manchester.


London days 4-7

London started so fast but gained unprecedented momentum. The first few days seemed to start casually and slow, but the more fun we had the faster time flew. (We have already said goodbye to London---with fond kisses and promises of a swift return). But I still want to share our frolics:

Day 4 was Sunday, and James and I rallied onto the tube, then a train and finally landed in Windsor, England. It is a beautiful city just outside of London, where our friends live and Anthony and Caleb had spent the night. It turned into a sunny day, and we joined our friends and walked about Windsor, circling the castle, snagging some cider and pints at a nearby pub, and ogling at Eton college (THE school for princes and modern day aristocrats). We found some great hamburgers and milkshakes for lunch at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, peered at the train stations (impressive), and relaxed at their home for hours of basketball, games, food, wine, some rather strong lemon drops and stand-up [and a bit of home spun] comedy.

In the end, we crashed in their guestroom and the next day we rolled out of bed to a yummy breakfast and said our farewells. We made our way home---stopping for a 2 hour visit to Lily White, a famously large sport store with authentic gear at discount prices (clothes for the boys' forthcoming soccer camp)---and caught up on relaxing, journals, laundry, snacking and reading.

The next day (Day 6) we rode into Leichester Square, lined up in front of TKTS and purchased half-price tickets to two musicals: Jersey Boys and Billy Elliot. We were thrilled. We took a walk about town to familiarize the boys with London, visiting the Covent Garden market, pacing down Oxford Street, passing Piccadilly Circus, and collecting postcards and stickers. We had an early dinner at Jamie Oliver's new restaurant in Canary Wharf---Jamie's Italian---then regrouped and headed back into town for our first show.

Whew, huh?

Wednesday (Day 7) we cycled. We hopped on our bikes and cycled 30 kilometers around London. Starting on the east side of London, we looped down over Tower Bridge, along the south bank of the River Thames, back over the Westminster Bridge near the Eye and locked our bikes up long enough to spend 2 hours inside of Westminster Abby. After, we cycled by Buckingham Palace, through James and Green Park(s)---ate lunch---cycled through Hyde Park and then landed in Regents Park for 1/2 hour of playing soccer and relaxing on the grass. We cycled home, this time on the north side of the Thames during rush hour (what a rush! literally!) in front of Saint Paul's cathedral and home again.

By this time, we were feeling fabulous about our London frolicking. It had included visits to key sites, both small walking tours and a large cycling tour. We had seen all the major parks, had quickly learned to think like a hamster and follow tube routes and eaten at a variety of 'typical London venues.' We had enjoyed some of the souvenir shops, had scones with clotted cream and tea, and watched Jersey Boys---a huge musical production---and even had time to relax together at 'home.'


London, days 1-3

What a great day in London. And how sweet to be able to take each day slowly, to not be in a hurry, to skip a tour or to dive in, to take time for tea or simply sit on some nearby grass.

How lovely to take in London without time nipping at our behinds.

Perhaps I appreciate our time in London (being here just 3 days) because our time in Paris was a whirlwind tour. In Paris we felt the pressure of a once in a lifetime visit, the sites you must see, the places to visit, the ground to cover and the familiarity to achieve. But London is different.

Not only will we be here 9 days, but we (well, James and I) have been here before... and are quite confident we will visit again. Our absorption of the city does not need to fit into short days with stern book ends. So we are here, and time slows and the days seem to expand.

The first day we landed in London was via the chunnel from Paris; after landing, we cycled to our 'residence' and found an English movie online. James grabbed some nearby take-out Lebanese food (quite good, actually) and we melted, guiltless into couches.

Day two in London started with the London EYE, something I had beheld but never experienced. A 30 minute ride in a capsule over London, we exchanged photo taking responsibilities with strangers, and oriented ourselves to the sites and scape of the city. Soon after we enjoyed a glorious lunch of tapas and then hit the nearby IMAX to view, finally, Harry Potter 6. We puttered about the city after that, strolling past Charing Cross station and spilling into Trafalgar Square, then finishing the evening enjoying a scrumptious meal with friends just south of London (thank you Simone and Raphael!).

The TUBE is an amazing thing, getting us from here to there and everywhere. It is quite well kept, efficient and worth the experience. (By the end of the trip, we were 'experts' in determining our routes, grabbing newspapers to read while in transit and slipping our tickets nonchalantly in and out of our back pockets. In our minds anyway, we blended).

Day three was a slow morning with James perfecting his egg-poaching skills and soliciting family smiles by the long, deep whiffs of bacon. After breakfast we popped on the London Underground (TUBE) and landed at London Tower for a day of King Henry VIII, sword fighting, historical facts and details of the Tower of London, Crown Jewels, tea time and fabulous gifts shops (Caleb found really awesome, functioning miniature catapults---perfect for launching paper wads in a forthcoming class; Anthony splurged on a poster time line of England's Kings and Queens; I bought a deck of cards, a common, well-used souvenir of places we visit).

We ended day three by joining friends over a splendid meal at a tapas restaurant in downtown London. Then the boys joined their new friends for an overnight in Windsor; James and I meet up with them tomorrow, day four.


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