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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The secret is out: Croatia is not ‘undiscovered’

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The guidebooks say there’s still an “undiscovered” quality about Croatia.

Those guidebooks are not talking about July and August in the seaside towns along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s peak tourist season here, and Sarge is cursing the tourist drivers as if he were a local.

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The boys and I have taken in some sights, even if we have been elbow-to-elbow with people walking the streets of Old Town Zadar or gazing at waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a wonder we didn’t see anyone in the Plitvice crowd pushed off the park’s boardwalks on the water’s edge. But I guess they have railings where it really counts. (The park is stunning, by the way).

Croatia was undiscovered, at least to me, before we moved here. It was under my radar, and I had to look up Zadar on a map when we found out we had the opportunity to move here. Sarge says all the convincing it took was for me to look at Croatia’s proximity to Italy on a map. I was ready to move as soon as he said, “Go!”

Italy has a place in my heart because I’m part Italian on my mother’s side, and my grandfather used walk around his house in Kentucky singing songs like, “’O Sole Mio.” That was one of his favorites. I heard that song here and imagined the singer to be my late grandfather.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Italian flavor of many of the towns here. I had no idea that Pula, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, has a well-preserved Roman colosseum that rivals the one in Rome. Or that the fishing port of Rovinj is “the most Italian town in Croatia” and is officially bilingual (Italian and Croatian). The flavor extends to the foods. I’ve had the best cheese and prosciutto here I’ve ever tasted. And the wine isn’t bad, either.

My preconceived notions of Croatia were that it would have lots of Communist-era architecture and be pockmarked from the war of the early 1990s. There is some of that. But there is lots of beauty beyond those scars.

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I’m struck by the old windows and doors here that function despite their age – and the old people here who function despite their age, making it up steep streets of cobbled stone, walking the stairs to their apartments and leaning out their windows with brightly colored shutters to hang their laundry.

I’ve heard people say that parts of Croatia are “what Italy used to be.” I’m sure the crowds here don’t rival the summer crowds across the Adriatic in Italy. But the charm of Croatia is no longer a part of secret Dalmatia. The word is out. I’m just another American discovering what Eastern Europeans have known for decades. It’s a pretty good time to be here, even if I have to bump elbows with other tourists.

Europe with kids, ain’t it grand?

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“I don’t know why everybody says Europe is so beautiful,” my youngest complained today as we walked our bikes through a crowded street of Old Town Zadar, Croatia, trying to avoid running into tourists. “Look at all the cracks on the stones!”

“Do you know how old those stones are?” I said. I don’t know how old those stones are. Old. Very old.

I’ve spent half the summer defending Very Old Europe to my kids and explaining why they should appreciate their surroundings as much as going to roller coasters and water parks. Some days, I lose the battle.

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Today, I promised them that after I finished my work, we’d go somewhere. My oldest, “A,” wanted to go to a history museum, which naturally meant his brother, “W,” wanted to stay home.

“Why do we have to go somewhere that seems like school?” he said. “It’s summer!”

Sometimes, I think my kids have a secret pact. If one wants to do something, the other must protest. I run the spectrum of wanting to keep them from being spoiled brats to wanting to keep them content in a country that is not their own.

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Today’s destination was the Archeological Museum. Lots of old, cracked things. “W” was not impressed. I kept having to stop and say nagging, motherly things to him, like, “Don’t sit on the tomb!”

“A” is more of a history buff who likes lingering on past lives. We walked around the museum talking about the people who must have made the objects we saw. “W” sped past us looking for interactive exhibits that haven’t arrived in this country just yet.

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If the best education is not learned in the classroom, I hope all of this “old stuff” is rubbing off on both kids. It’s kind of like taking them to an antique store and wanting them notice more than a dusty collection of stuff. Not everything comes with an app or video or a climbing ropes course like the children’s museum back home.

If one child tours museums looking miserable, disinterested and bored, will he still take it in by osmosis? Or do the teenage years last way beyond the teenage years? (He’s only 10).

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I keep having to remind myself that my kids are not mini adults. They’re just kids. Their travel experience is not supposed to be like mine.

We will not look at cracks in cobblestones in the same way. And I need to be fine with that.

 

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Driving Lessons

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Sarge has started my driver’s education course. After two months of leaving him behind the wheel of our manual transmission rental car, he’s handing over the reins so I can get a taste of driving in Europe.

Almost all of the cars here are stick shifts. They’re cheaper to buy (and rent) and are more fuel efficient than automatics. In America, only 3 percent of car sales are manual transmissions, compared with 80 percent in some European countries, car-shopping website Edmunds says. In Croatia, mastering a manual is a practical necessity.

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Sarge is of the school that everyone should know how to drive a stick. I’m sure it’s something he’ll teach our kids, even if changing gears on a manual is a novelty by the time they are drivers.

I hadn’t tried to drive a stick shift since I was in college, and it’s a skill I never mastered. I knew it was time for some schooling. For me, it’s kind of like learning the language here: It would be so much easier if I didn’t even attempt it. But I’d always be a little lost if I didn’t at least try.

Lesson One was on Sunday afternoon when the local hardware store closed and their parking lot was nearly empty. (Side note: Hardware stores in Croatia are not really set up for weekend Do-It-Yourselfers. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, you’re out of luck if your project is incomplete and you need more supplies. Might as well take a siesta!)

Sarge, an instructor pilot and natural teacher, drove around the lot and demonstrated how to release the clutch, when to push the gas pedal and how to shift gears and how to reverse. Then, I took the driver’s seat and followed his instructions. He’s good at this kind of thing and was patient as I fumbled through the process.

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Our boys sat in the back seat and watched and added their own commentaries.

“You’re doing great, Mommy,” 11-year-old “A” said. “I’m a little scared, though!”

I was doing well in the flat and nearly empty parking lot.

When Sarge had me turn onto the roads with the other drivers, I got a little nervous. It was the same feeling I had when I joined a women’s sailing club years ago and was left in charge of navigating the boat myself. It takes a while to get in tune with being the captain of the ship.

Especially when you stall out. Lesson One ended when I stalled twice at a stop light and had cars lining up behind me through two rotations of the light.

That’s when I asked Sarge to switch places and take over. I expected the driver behind me to cuss me out in Croatian. Thankfully, he just waved and smiled watching our musical chairs performance.

In Croatia, you have to drive with confidence. Locals drive fast, and motorcycles and scooters zip between traffic. I’m not quite ready to take them on yet. It will take a few more lessons before I feel good about going out on the open road. Until then, I will be a Sunday driver in the Bauhaus parking lot learning a lost art.

Haircuts Abroad

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I’ve been wearing my hair in a ponytail every day for more than a month. That’s because I have the worst haircut I’ve ever had since my Shirley Temple look of the fourth grade.

I used to have long hair that fell below my shoulders, maybe too long for a 46-year-old. That must be what my hair stylist thought. I stopped in a hair salon shortly after we arrived here and handed the Croatian-speaking stylist a photo of the cut and color I was going for. But our communication problems went beyond a language barrier. Neither the cut or the color looked like the picture when she was finished. She just kept cutting and then announced in English: “Now we can see your eyes!”

My hair is chin-length now, shorter than it’s been in 20 years. The color the stylist put in it is already all washed out and lightened from the sun. I’m still trying to get used to it. On the bright side, it cost less than half of what it would have in the United States for a cut and color. Too bad I hate it.

“What happened to your hair?” my oldest asked when I got home. “You look like a butterfly.”

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Today, it was the boys’ turn on the chopping block. I took them to the hippest place I could find, a vintage barbershop in Old Town that’s been there for more than 60 years. It’s where my husband’s pilot friends get their hair cut. This was actually the boys’ second time there. They had decent haircuts there a little more than a month ago.

It’s kind of a throwback place with antique chairs, a barber pole in the window, and photos all around of GQ-looking models. It costs only about $7 for a child’s haircut.

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This time, my 10-year-old rebelled. “W” has cowlicks like crazy and desperately needed a trim. I think he would have preferred looking like a skater all summer. But he got a clean-cut look with a bit of gel swooped up on his bangs.

This is a photo of how he reacted when he saw himself in the mirror after it was finished. You can’t hear his whimpers. It really wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t like it.

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Our next stop was for a new hat from a street vendor. And then ice cream.

What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? It’s not two weeks. It’s the transformative powers of a new hat and of ice cream.

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I’ve read that we are experiencing the modern revival of barber shops. They’re as cool as craft beer, cold-pressed coffee, thick-rimmed glasses and a look that says “Movember” year-round. I find it funny that this is a worldwide trend. Even the “man bun” has made it here.

“Men are rediscovering what it means to be manly, the hipster has been resurrected, and facial hair has become the fad de jour,” I read today in an Australian magazine. Thank goodness my kids are too young to fall for this foolishness.

Even they know they just needed their cowlicks tamed.

Photos in the salon touted everything from bowl cuts to “Flock of Seagulls” hair wings. I think the idea is to make getting a haircut an experience and less of a chore.

Getting a haircut overseas is definitely a cultural experience. It’s like traveling itself: a bit of an adventure, and you just have to roll with the punches no matter what happens.

Haircuts abroad don’t always work out the way you’d hoped. But new hats and ice cream cones have healing benefits the world over.

 

Pigeons in the Piazza

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Back when we were young newlyweds, Sarge and I planned a European rendezvous.

At the time, he was serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, and I was working as a newspaper reporter in Hawaii. We met up on his mid-tour leave in Germany, rented a car on an Army post and set off for more countries than we had ever been – all in the span of two weeks.

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One of my favorite spots we visited was Venice, where we stayed in a hotel off the beaten path that had interesting artwork on the walls and a romantic arbor-covered restaurant in the back garden.

When we made spur-of-the-moment plans last week to take a weekend trip to Venice, I pulled out my worn Italy guidebook that I packed from the States and searched for that little hideaway. Of course, it was completely booked. It’s July in Venice. But through the magic of the internet, I found a reasonably priced apartment across the canal on the island of Giudecca, and we piled in our tiny rental car for another European road trip.

We told the boys we’d do all of the quintessential touristy things we could fit in a 24-hour tour, including taking in the art and architecture, a gondola ride, Venetian food and souvenir shops.

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I had forgotten about the birds. I had no idea one of my boys’ lasting memories of Venice might just be playing with the pigeons.

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As soon as we entered St. Mark’s Square, it wasn’t the breathtaking beauty of what Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe” that they boys noticed. It was the hundreds of pigeons and what seemed like almost as many Bangladeshi birdseed hawkers.

Half a dozen vendors accosted us, shoving bird food in the boys’ hands and roses in mine, and putting their palms out to Sarge for money. It probably cost Sarge 40 euro for us to walk across Piazza San Marco.

“We’re not spending money,” Sarge explained when I urged him to stop handing out coins. “We’re making memories.”

Those street hawkers loved us. The boys made it out of the pigeon frenzy alive, and I ended up with a dozen red roses.

I also had a chance to relive some nostalgic memories. We took that gondola ride with the kids, just like Sarge and I had done years before.

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And the next morning, we found that hotel with the grapevine arbor. It wasn’t open to the public for breakfast, but we snapped a few photos anyway.

We picked up some souvenirs, a glass bracelet for me and fedoras for the boys. “W” talked me into letting him get a dog, at least one made of Murano glass. Thank goodness he didn’t pick a pigeon. Those things will give me nightmares.

Road Trips and Memories

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When I was a kid, we went on family vacations every summer, and those trips are some of the highlights of my childhood memories.

My dad, an avid boater, liked to go to the water. My mom, a teacher, liked to educate us with history and culture. So we usually did a little of both. Dad strategically packed everything for our family of six. Sometimes we rented an RV – once to Walt Disney World and once to Canada. On another trip, Dad towed the sailboat to South Carolina. And for several years, we rode in style in the family van that he configured with a table and benches that collapsed into a bed. Mom made the brown cushions and the curtains, and we had plenty of room to play games, color or sleep.

We always had maps and a giant road atlas that I’m sure my siblings and I fought over to pinpoint where we were going and whether we were almost there. I remember my older brother being an excellent navigator. I miss those maps.

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On our European mini road trip this weekend, we relied on our phone apps to get us to our destinations. My phone service didn’t connect outside of Croatia, so it was hard to tell what country we were even in just going by road signs that I couldn’t read.

Some things, though, are universal. Border crossings are exciting, whether it’s a state or a country. And as much as I love having authentic experiences meeting people who can talk about what life is like where they live, I still love touristy stuff.

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I like double-decker buses that you can hop on and off to get an overview of a city. I like watching street performers and wondering how they endure wearing body paint in the summer heat. I like landmarks and statues and taking goofy pictures with the kids. And I like seeing the world from my kids’ perspective.

One of the boys’ favorite parts of the trip was spotting Ferrari sports cars in Budapest, Hungary. If they were going to have a scrapbook from this trip, it would include pictures from their self-guided tour of the parking garage near the apartment we rented, where they excitedly documented cool cars.

That scrapbook also would include a picture of the architectural sculpture directly across the street from the apartment we rented. “A,” who is 11, opened his bedroom window to take pictures and giggle. “Mom!” he said, “Doesn’t it look like he’s taking a selfie naked?”

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“A” liked the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s urban core and the tall buildings and people milling about. “I’m going to miss this city,” he said when we left. “I’d like to live here for a few days.”

“W,” our 10-year-old, liked that our Airbnb rental was above a Lego store. And he was impressed to learn that the man who invented the Rubik’s Cube was from Budapest.

The next day, Vienna, Austria, became their next favorite city. Its Ferris wheel and amusement park caught their eyes as much as any palace or monument we visited.

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Our whirlwind tour of Budapest and Vienna didn’t leave us much time to cruise along the Danube River (which we tried to do, but the tour boat unfortunately left without us when there was no one to unlock the pier gate). We didn’t have time for museums or to linger in coffee shops or a chance to see one of my favorite paintings in person. But I’m sure Gustav Klimt’s works will still be in the Belvedere Museum if I make it back to Vienna.

We had the usual trip headaches (including that tour boat leaving without us!), a parking ticket and no air conditioning on a hot Vienna night. But we left impressed with the history and beauty of both cities, the grand boulevards and majestic buildings.