Lessons from the Birthday Boy

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My biggest shortfall after being in Croatia for almost a year is that I still can’t speak Croatian. I know only the pleasantries.

I’ve discovered the limitations of charades and Google Translate. I know greetings, basic numbers and days of the week (barely). But things like parent meetings at the kids’ school leave me lost. I’m still intimidated by the circle of school moms whose conversations I don’t understand. I get excited when I know the words in Croatian television commercials. I’ve given up trying to decipher the local news.

When I’ve ordered pizza for delivery, I put my son on the phone to speak in Croatian.

I make shopping mistakes all the time. I once bought sour cream instead of coffee cream. Last week, I opened a can of something like Spam for lunch when I was expecting it to be tuna. And it’s not only Croatian that gets me. When we were in Germany in December, I bought a goose when I thought I was buying a chicken. We feasted on our first Christmas goose purely by accident.

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I keep thinking if we were staying longer, I’d put the effort into taking language classes. It’s been pretty easy for me to get by relying on the kindness of strangers. I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t caught on to the language the way Sarge and the kids have.

Moving abroad has been harder for the kids than it has been for me. Yes, kids are resilient. They have made friends and adjusted well. At school, even though it’s international, not all classes are in English. Math, for instance, is in Croatian. I’d be in tears by the end of the day. They’ve learned how to adapt.

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Today is our oldest’s 12th birthday. Almost every boy in his class showed up at our place last night to help him celebrate. They didn’t eat as much as American birthday-goers his age. That might be because they were playing outside most of the time. I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie, and they told me they didn’t want technology to spoil the party. They wanted to play. I love these kids.

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The most stressful part of the party for me was writing the invitations in Croatian. I’m still not sure if they were accurate, but they worked. Everyone arrived on time, even the one whose mom called and tried to speak to me in Croatian to get directions. I had to put Sarge on the phone with her husband because we couldn’t get through the language barrier.

This afternoon, our birthday boy is happily playing with Legos. He is looking forward to dinner at our favorite restaurant and having more of his chocolate cake. I interviewed him with a little birthday quiz I found online about his favorite things.

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One of the hardest questions was: “Who is your best friend?” He told me it was too hard to name just one. He has friends all over.

A weekend in on the water in Prague

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The swans were among the first to greet us in Prague.

That was after our Airbnb houseboat hosts met us on a bank of the Vltava River and handed over the keys to their apartment. They gave us a quick rundown of things to do and see and left us with a bag of bread to feed the birds. They told us we’d probably see dozens of swans.

I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect in the Czech Republic. I had worried that staying on a houseboat in the winter in Prague might be risky, damp and cold. I was glad to be wrong.

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Marka and Michal’s place, Houseboat Benjamin & Franklin, ranks up there as a memorable place to spend the night. It’s a modern and cozy, heated two-bedroom apartment. We had mild enough weather to enjoy the waterfront balcony. Our hosts even supplied us with a wifi hotspot, a Czech cell phone and an electric dinghy to take into the city.

As our boys fed the ducks, seagulls and swans, Sarge and I practiced tying bowline knots so we could be sure to secure a parking spot wherever we might find one on the water.

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Our first glimpse of the “the city of 100 spires” was from our little boat gliding along the river on the first sunny Saturday of 2018. As soon as I saw the city skyline, I wished we could stay for longer than a weekend. I was mesmerized by the architecture and art in every direction.

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The only thing on our agenda was to walk around the city. We stopped at places that caught our eye, starting with the Dancing House, a twisty building with a top that looks like Medusa. Next, we checked out the sculptures and vendors along the Charles Bridge, and then we hiked up the hill to the castle.

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On the way down, we ducked into Tavern U Krale Brabantskeho for some refreshments. The pub claims to be the oldest in Prague and dates back to 1375. Our 10-year-old said this cavernous tavern was one of his favorite places of our whole year abroad. It looked like something out of “Harry Potter” with an old-world feel, swords on the walls, candlelight and a costumed barmaid, who, in medieval character, whipped Sarge on the back and asked if he was enjoying his beer. I’m sure the grandparents will be proud that we’re showing the kids great taverns of the world.

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At least we didn’t keep them out late. The sun sets early in January in Prague, around 4:30 p.m. By the time we got back to the dinghy, it was dark. We saw Prague aglow as we headed back to the houseboat. Once we tied up, a couple of swans returned, hoping for some bread crumbs and attention.

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I guess I am biased. I am a boat person. I like having my coffee while looking out over the water. There’s a peacefulness in watching the bending light, the ripples on the water and the world waking up.

This is how I will remember Prague: its steeples and swans, its beauty and its boats. And the kids won’t let me forget the pub.

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Getting serious about a load of rubbish

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The most complicated thing about house-sitting in Germany is figuring out what to do with the trash.

I’m afraid we’re collecting it all wrong, and it might upset the neighbors. My oldest son already used a neighbor’s trash can when he couldn’t find a place to throw something away. I hope they didn’t see him doing it. It felt like a punishable offense. We’re not following the rules like good Germans. I don’t think they tolerate this American trait very well.

Our landlord in Croatia gave us different colored bags for recycling there. But Croats are a little more laid back about everything. Germans are definitely more rigid about the rubbish.

I remember years ago visiting American friends on a German Army post. Our friends warned us not to mess up the garbage sorting system. I thought it was kind of a joke. Now I know it’s serious business. Mishandling trash here is kind of an environmental sin.

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The homeowners where we’re staying left us a schedule so we wouldn’t miss the paper and compost collection days, which are only once or twice a month. There are baskets in the kitchen for glass and returnable plastic bottles, a compost pot, a bin for paper and cardboard, one for packaging and a waste can for everything else. There’s a color scheme for the bins, extra rules for what’s considered packaging, and a calendar to keep track of garbage days.

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I could become a hoarder if I lived here, because I just keep creating piles of things I want to toss out. Our stack of Christmas wrapping paper and boxes won’t fit in the paper bin. I’ve spoiled the compost with leftovers I’m not sure are supposed to be in it. I haven’t figured out when the general waste is supposed to go out. Thank goodness we don’t have to dispose of the Christmas tree. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

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In America, I rarely think about what I throw away. We have just two ways to sort it: the recycle bin and everything else. Our neighborhood felt the pain when the city switched trash collection companies. Instead of being allowed to toss as much trash as we wanted, we had to put stickers on large items and follow strict rules for yard waste. Germany makes that look like a luxury.

My generation was raised to appreciate clever packaging and not feel guilty about throwing it away. Growing up, we minimized garbage with a trash compactor. My kids are much more educated about recycling and saving the world.

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The Germany way when it comes to garbage is a little daunting. I don’t like being forced into such a rigid system of recycling, even though I know it’s better for the environment. Waste management here works well because it’s based on rules that most people follow.

By the time we leave, I may figure out what the rules are.

Goodbye, corner bathtub

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Tonight is our last night in our black-and-white-and-red-all-over Croatia apartment. What I’ve come to think of as our “Duran Duran” décor era is about to be over.

Our original plan was to move back to the States before the new year. Turns out, we’re staying in Croatia for a few more months. But first, we’re going to spend Christmas in Germany. I’ve always wanted to visit a German Christmas market, and just for a moment, feel like I was in a snow globe scene. I hope it is magical for the whole family.

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I found a housesitting job for us on TrustedHousesitters, a website that’s something like Airbnb for pet lovers. The boys will get the Christmas joy of dog-sitting a labradoodle. In exchange, we will get to stay in a German home whose owners are leaving a decorated tree up for us. Their town has already had some snow this week. We really might get our winter wonderland.

On the way there, we’re going to see some friends from Sarge’s Army days and celebrate Sarge’s birthday. It’s bound to be a fun reunion.

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Tomorrow, we’ll bid goodbye to our home for the last half a year. I will miss the giant corner bathtub, the light-filled rooms and the sunset views from the balcony. I’ll also miss our kind landlords, who leave fruit and vegetables at our doorstep and were the first to introduce us to the local culture. I’ll even miss Orange, the turtle that lives in the yard, and the landlords’ sweet dog, Lily.

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We arrived in Croatia with one duffel bag and one backpack each. (Except that one lost backpack the airline never recovered.) Our move to a new apartment by the marina will take several trips for all the extras we’ve accumulated – mostly household goods and beach gear, kid stuff and bicycles. I told Sarge we might have to introduce the country to yard sales before we leave. We’re limited to 22 pounds of carry-on luggage and 44 pounds of checked luggage each when we move back home.

Part of the experience of living abroad has been living with less. Maybe it will help me clear the clutter when I get back to my “real” life. Maybe I can finally clear the boxes out of my basement in Kentucky without wanting to hang on to everything. For now, I’m still savoring living in new places and soaking up the scenery. I’m not ready to leave just yet.

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Krampus fear and St. Nick cheer

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Traditions run deep here, and that’s one of the things I love about Croatia.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, something I’ve celebrated since I was a kid. Sarge grew up in Florida and missed out on this particular custom. In my childhood suburb of Cincinnati, St. Nicholas Day was definitely a part of the Christmas culture. If you woke up Dec. 6 with coal in your stocking, you knew you had a few weeks to shape up before Santa came. St. Nick was the one who filled stockings with fruit, nuts, chocolate coins and probably a toothbrush. The official countdown to Christmas break was on.

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Our boys came home from school on Monday talking about how their classmates said St. Nick brought sticks to naughty children here instead of coal. And instead of stockings, kids here polish up a shoe or boot and place it on a windowsill or doorstep. They go to sleep hoping for candy instead of sticks.

Last night, our boys chose the biggest shoe they could find. Our oldest cleaned up a hiking boot, and our youngest set a high-top Converse outside our doorstep. In the morning, they woke up to shoes full of tangerines, pistachios, candy coins, a chocolate St. Nick and a chocolate Krampus (the Christmas devil). Oh, yeah, and the evil American Elf on the Shelf showed up here, too. We should have named him Krampus.

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I don’t remember Krampus ever being part of our St. Nicholas traditions growing up, but as an adult, I can fully appreciate the fear the beast-like creature can instill in kids who don’t want to be punished for being naughty.

Krampus was on full display in our town in Croatia today. Just after dark, Krampus, St. Nicholas and a man dressed as an elf marched through the Old Town in an odd little ritual that’s part of the advent celebration here. It wasn’t quite the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade the boys were expecting, but it was memorable.

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When I read up on other traditions associated with this day in Croatia, I learned that in the fishing village of Komiza on one of the islands, they honor St. Nicholas as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen. On St. Nicholas Day, they carry his statue in a procession and burn an old boat in front of the saint’s church as they pray for protection for the next year. Then they throw the ashes on newly built boats as a blessing.

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As a family living abroad, we are short on holiday traditions this year. We haven’t tromped through woods for a tree or even put up a fake one. We will miss family gatherings back home. And since we are away, we aren’t sending out our annual Christmas cards.

But today, in addition to the treat-filled shoes, we also had a bottle of homemade fresh-pressed olive oil placed on our doorstep. We ran into people we knew in Zadar’s Old Town. We admired the Christmas market’s lights, and the smell of vendors’ pancakes and mulled wine. And we’ll all have a hard time getting Krampus out of our minds.

‘Mom, what is adultery?’

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The email from the woman in the tour office at Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia struck me as slightly strange.

I told her I’d like to go on a tour called “Behind Bars” with my husband and kids so we could learn about the castle’s history as a penitentiary.

She said that would be fine, “but I hope it wouldn’t be too rough for your sons.”

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I didn’t think much of it, really. I figured my 10- and 11-year old boys would love seeing the castle’s dungeons. And, if anything, hearing stories about lives of prisoners might provide some kind of lesson about how they should behave.

The tour is a performance where actors play the roles of prisoners punished for crimes ranging from manslaughter to witchcraft. It’s well-done and really gives you a sense of what happened to reformers, soldiers and civilians, the rich and the poor, freethinkers and the politically problematic.

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I just didn’t expect that my youngest son’s commentary would entertain the whole crowd. Two other English-speaking couples joined us on the tour, and they were all ears when the tour guide explained the scene we would encounter next: the disgrace of a woman whose adultery earned her public shaming in the Wolves’ Hole, where she was taken by a monk.

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“Mom, what is adultery?” my son asked (loudly) during a lull in the guide’s narrative.

The couple beside me, grandparents from Pennsylvania, turned to hear my response.

“It’s when people are married and one of them cheats,” I said, “Like if a wife has an affair with a neighbor.”

“Does it have to be a neighbor?” my son said.

By this time, I had as much of an audience as the tour guide. During the course of the hour, I also explained “treason” and “prostitution” to my attentive fifth-grader.

Maybe this is what the woman in the tour office meant by “rough.” It definitely wasn’t what I expected. It was better. Sure, we could have chosen a classic guided tour or stuck with the audio guide at the mighty medieval fortress in Slovenia’s capital city. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.

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Traveling without to-go cups

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One of the things I’ve missed since moving abroad has been talking to my mom.

In the States, she and my dad live less than half an hour away. They dote on the grandkids and entertain the family. We catch up by phone at least a couple of times a week and get together often. Being in a time zone six hours ahead has cut down our talking time.

We’re making up for it this week. She and two of my aunts are here visiting, and we are taking a bus tour through Croatia, a bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia.

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We started in Italy with a quick weekend in Venice, where my mom and one of my aunts flew in. They spent the week with us in Zadar, taking in national parks and hanging out with my family. Then we left for an all-girls vacation.

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Right now, I’m rooming with my mother in a hotel in Dubrovnik, and the sound of my typing is probably keeping her awake. She’s not complaining. She just doesn’t want me to stay up too late because we have another full day tomorrow on the Gate 1 Travel bus to get to Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. The wake-up call will be an early one.

Growing up, our family always took vacations. They were usually simple road trips and summer beach destinations. This is my first bus tour and my first time traveling with my mom, one of her sisters and one of my dad’s sisters. It has been a bonding experience and neat for me to be able to connect with my aunts as an adult.

More than just seeing different parts of the world, what makes this trip special is being able to do it with these women.

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We’ve shared wine, stories, songs and selfies, critiqued the food and explored places we never thought we’d go.

We all went to the same all-girl high school and even took a picture with a school newsletter to send in for publication. Since we didn’t have the real newsletter to hold up, my oldest son drew us one before we left, and my mom has been carrying it around everywhere we go.

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My mom says she doesn’t have the adventurous spirit that I do to be able to live abroad and go without the comforts she misses. That would include things to do with coffee the way she likes it: a tall Starbucks-brand coffee pod made in a Keurig and mixed with Coffee-mate. She also seems alarmed that I don’t have flour in my pantry or a dryer to soften my towels.

To me, enjoying life here is about learning to adapt. Try your coffee another way.

As one of our tour guides said, there will never be Starbucks on every corner in Croatia. It goes against the country’s coffee culture. Here, take-out cups are seen as a sacrilege. You have to make time to catch up with people. The ritual is to have coffee together – not by yourself.

Our bus leaves early tomorrow. I’m waking up early to find some coffee with my mom and aunts. I’m not sure the hotel where we’re staying is the right place to start a tradition with them (the coffee here is terrible). But we’ll adapt and spend another day exploring a new place together.

 

 

 

 

‘Sretan rođendan!’ – A happy birthday in Croatia

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When I think back years from now about memorable birthdays, today’s will probably rank up there.

It’s not because I did anything grand. Well, I did treat myself to a seaside lunch and set up my laptop office for the afternoon in a spot with a nice view:

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My main mark for the year is living abroad and truly feeling alive. I think it took shaking up my surroundings to appreciate my life and the people in it. The only thing missing from this birthday are the people I am missing back home. Their messages, texts and calls flooded in all day and made me feel loved.

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Since Sarge is working nights, he and the boys took me out last weekend to Konoba Pece, in Vinjerac, a neat stone tavern on a hill for some Adriatic seafood. And this weekend, we will be traveling to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana – which sounds like “Lube-lee-ah-nah,” which is just plain fun to say – for a getaway.

My 47th birthday has been pretty low-key. I stopped in a new neighborhood grocery and finally picked up some local bell peppers, the color of which I have never seen in the United States. They’re light green and more mild than green bell peppers in America. And here, everyone calls them “paprika” (very confusing to me at first, since I associated paprika with the ground red spice).

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Anyway, stuffed peppers are a traditional Croatian dish, so that’s what I made for dinner – “paprika” stuffed with seasoned ground meat and rice. I’m not sure it was a hit with the boys, but it reminded me of stuffed peppers my mom used to make. She and my dad FaceTimed while I was cooking dinner. My mom and I share a birthday week. She said since we are 70 and 47, bookended by sevens, maybe it will bode for lucky days ahead. I’m already feeling like I’m having a lucky year. It’s been full of surprises.

Sometimes my surprises are on purpose, like when I’m at the store and buy something without fully translating the package. Today, I thought I was buying ice cream cake, and instead we had a chestnut and chocolate roll for dessert. It was more like a Christmas log, really, and so frozen it was hard to get a knife through. Definitely not the same as ice cream cake. But it held candles just the same.

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Part of me has felt a little somber this week, thinking about lives lost in the Las Vegas mass shooting a few days ago, and even the death of Tom Petty, part of the soundtrack of my youth.

In a year when I truly feel alive, it makes me want to savor the best parts a little more and embrace the journey. Happy birthday, indeed.

Even in Croatia, a ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’

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The boys are disappointed that we are not in the United States to view today’s solar eclipse.

There’s no doubt that, if we were there, we’d be buying eclipse glasses, fashioning projectors out of cereal boxes and eating MoonPies or Oreos as we kept an eye on the sky.

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Instead, we have the windows flung open in Croatia, and we’ve been watching something else that could burn our eyes. There’s a smoky fire a few miles away in suburban Zadar that firefighters are battling with the help of planes.

And not too far away on the island of Hvar, close to where our visiting friends are touring today, there’s a wildfire being fueled by the wind.

Fires have been a problem this summer across Dalmatia. They’ve closed highways, displaced tourists, forced evacuations and left people scrambling to defend their homes and businesses.

Yet, a little bit of smoke is easy to overlook with the mountains and huge expanses of water all around us. Being an expat here, it’s easy to dismiss all of Croatia’s rough edges. I try to ride my bike past gritty Communist-era apartment buildings without really looking at them. I’d rather head to picturesque Old Town to look for architectural styles dating back to the Middle Ages.

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This is a land of contrasts. Sarge warned me not to hike off the trails here because there are still minefield warnings. The physical scars of war are not that noticeable here anymore, but it’s clear when you start talking to locals that there’s lingering opposition between the Croats and the Serbs that’s been around forever.

Our friends in town from the States want to know more about the war a quarter century ago and about all the history, warts and all. But it’s kind of like watching a solar eclipse. Isn’t it nice sometimes to blot out everything and focus on staring at something in awe?

Our favorite spots to show off to visitors have all revolved around water – and solar events like amazing sunsets.

With their American neighborhood friend in tow, our boys have jumped in the Adriatic at sunset, just off the steps of the Sea Organ. They’ve played the Croatian version of “Wipeout” at a beachside aquapark, and we’ve gone swimming by waterfalls at Krka National Park for the second time in a month.

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I won’t tire of this place and its natural wonders, even when a little smoke gets in my eyes.

 

Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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