Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Italian travels ...

A whirlwind weekend in Venice

We decided to take an impromptu trip to Venice last weekend. We’ve learned that breaking up long train rides makes the trip more bearable for the kids so we spent the first night in Bologna and then went on to Venice. Our first afternoon we headed to Piazza San Marco where the kids had heard there were a lot of pigeons. I’m not sure why but the kids are incredibly fond of pigeons, they were similarly intrigued by them in Paris. We purchased some pigeon feed for the kids and they happily began feeding the pigeons. In moments they were literally covered in pigeons; pigeons on their heads, their arms, and swarming about their feet. Before long they had mastered catching them. This entertained them for at least 90 minutes.

Bill and I noticed that they were setting up for a Peter Gabriel concert that was to take place that evening. We debated whether to come back for the concert but decided it would be too late for the kids. While the kids played with the pigeons, I heard a familar haunting voice. Sure enough, they were doing a sound check for the evening’s concert. I watched through my telephoto lens and could see Peter Gabriel singing on stage. He ended up singing 5 songs so we got experience the concert after all.

Venice was, of course, swarming with tourists, but once we walked two streets beyond the major tourist attractions we seemed to be in the company of locals. We spent the weekend wandering through the streets of Dorsoduro and Cannareggio, eating makeshift picnics from grocery store items, and riding vaparettos (the water buses). We also went to Murano, the island famous for its glassmaking factories. We saw few of the sights, choosing to let the kids dictate our activities. But we had a great weekend just being together. Venice is so unique not only because of the canals but also because it is so colorful. The buildings on the back streets are lovely shades of coral, yellow, orange, and red and the shops are filled with the most beautiful glassworks. Two days was not nearly enough; we all hope to return someday. And the food was just fabulous! It was such a treat to enjoy seafood after 4 weeks in landlocked Umbria.

Diplomatic Immunity

A friend of mine is married to a Marine and, consequently, has moved her children all over the US. For the first several months after every move she has noticed that her children are sick more than normal as if they are encountering a whole new set of microbes. That must be what we are experiencing here because we’ve had a lot of illnesses in only 4 weeks.

About 10 days after arriving, Aidan feel asleep on me while we were traveling via bus to Florence. [Aside: When I was standing in line at the bus station the day before we were to leave for Florence, I overheard that there would be a train strike the next day. The strike was to last for 12 hours from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm. Then, everything would go back to normal. Apparently this happens about once a month. I have no idea if the strikes are effective but, if not, perhaps they should look into extending the 12 hour limit. It was lucky that I overheard it because otherwise we would have arrived at the train station to following day to discover we had no way to get to Florence. But I digress...] I glanced down at Aidan and noticed he had red blotches all over his neck, face and ears. I pointed them out to Bill and he dismissed me, “It‘s probably just a heat rash.”
Bill and I have a long history of disagreeing about the kids’ ailments. Since he is primarily a basic scientist, he seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of pediatrics: Always trust a mother’s instincts no matter how kooky she might seem. The first time Bill dismissed me Amelia was just shy of her first birthday. My normally happy little girl was a pill for the first time. I told Bill that I thought she might be getting her first tooth, and that perhaps we should give her some Motrin. He reached in her mouth, felt around and told me I was mistaken. The next morning Amelia greeted me with a big smile when I got her out of her crib. There on her bottom jaw was her first tooth. I glared at Bill triumphantly, “Told you so.” Similar showdowns have occured on many occasions. Most recently, I correctly diagnosed Aidan with scarlet fever before Bill did. One the bus to Florence, however, it didn’t matter if it was a heat rash or something else. There wasn’t anything that we could do about it.

We arrived in Florence and proceeded to drag the kids all over the city for hours. When we returned to the hostel, I noticed the rash was now everywhere and Amelia had also developed it. But neither child seemed sick so we didn’t worry about it. The next morning Aidan developed GI symptoms and Amelia looked like she was the victim of a new strain of small pox. Her face looked absolutely horrible and remained that way for over a week. She dealt with the many stares from strangers really well and had no other symptoms so, all in all, it was a pretty easy illness.

About three weeks later, Aidan developed his second GI ailment. Ten days later it is still going strong. Then I started thinking about all that bottled water, “Maybe these Italians know something I don’t.” Then I remembered my grandpa, Carmen. Carmen was born and raised in Foggia in the region of Puglia. He emigrated to the United States in his late teens, spending some time in Pittsburgh and then moving onto Chicago. I never knew why my grandparents left Chicago but my understanding is that it was in Carmen’s “best interests.” That’s when they ended up in Philadelphia’s less famous Little Italy, Tacony. By the time I came along, Carmen had settled into the typical existence of an elderly Italian-American immigrant. He spent his days in the park with his goombas and still appreciated life’s simple pleasures. I can remember sitting on his porch and hearing him say, “How nice!” when a pretty girl would walk by. He was a character. He still made his own wine, which would have substituted nicely for anesthesia, well into his eighties and when he saw anyone drink water he would warn them, “That stuff will kill you.” I laughed at the memory, wondering if there is some deeply rooted Italian taboo against drinking tap water.

When I mentioned to my mother that Aidan was sick, she immediately asked “You aren’t drinking the tap water, are you?” “Mom,” I reponded, “This is Italy not the third world.” Debate ensued and she, being the Italian-American mom that she is, told me that we should not be drinking the water. I have to admit that I did take Aidan off tap water on about day 6 of GI bought number 2. I guess I am now the next generation to doubt the safety of Italian tap water. It has not produced a miracle cure for poor Aidan, unfortunately.

I’ve avoided infectious illnesses thus far and only need to battled the nasty Italian mosquitos. They are vicious and have a particular prediliction for biting faces so I’m not looking too pretty either. Bill, as always, has experienced no maladies of any kind. Even the mosquitos feast on me at night while he sleeps unperturbed. I swear his body functions with the precision of a Swiss time piece. Meanwhile, I seem to have a body more akin to the cheap knock off you get from a NYC street vendor. At least one of us is going to live to a ripe old age.

Hot, Hot, Hot

In mid July, we started breaking heat records here in Perugia. We were creeping into the mid 30s (mid to high 90s) daily with very little relief at night. To take advantage of the cooling benefits of evaporation, I started taking my daily shower at night before bed. Ever since I developed Raynaud’s phenomenon 11 years ago, I have not voluntarily taken so much as a lukewarm shower. Here I found myself flirtering with the cold spigot. After the shower, I would lay on top of the sheets and try not to move a single muscle lest I generate heat of any kind. Not a whole lot of sleep was happening and things were getting desperate. So we opted for a change of venue: an air conditioned hotel by the Adriatic Sea.

Three short train rides later we were in Rimini. You can learn alot about a culture’s priorities by watching where they focus their organizational energies. I didn’t find the French particularly organized. For example, they cannot form a line. But French gardens demonstrate a real tendency towards anal retentiveness. The Italians also aren’t going to win any awards for organizational prowess but they apparently take vacation very, very seriously. We arrived in Rimini and purchased our bus tickets. We were delighted to discover the bus stops are numbered. What an inspired idea! No guessing about where to get off (scendere, as they say here). Before long we were checked in, changed, and headed to the spiaggia. We were to go, specifically, to beach club number 81 otherwise known as “No problem.” Why it was called “no problem” rather than the Italian “No importa” is beyond me. They seem to have an affection for randomly using English and Americana. In another humours example, the restaurant next to our hotel was called the “James Brown Trattoria” and featured pictures of the King of Soul. It seemed so incredibly random and weird. As we approached the sand, we glanced right then left. Beach clubs lined the entire strand and all one could see was literally tens of thousands of beach chairs and umbrellas. You may not bring your own umbrella and you may not bring a towel. A sign on the beach said, “No towels. Pericolo morte.” [Danger of death] You will pay for sunshade, as they say. So we reported to the “bath master” as the sign instructed, paid for our sunshade, and joined the throngs of people frolicking in the sea.

I have to say, the beach clubs are impressive operations. They were reasonably priced: for 10 euros a day we had the use of an umbrella and two beach chairs. The umbrella was an absolute necessity as the heat can only be described as oppressive. It felt like North Carolina in August. We also had free access to a large children’s playground, babysitting, a bocci ball court, ping pong tables, and vollyball courts. Mind you it was too hot to move so we didn’t actually use any of these facilities but they were nice ideas in theory. There were also changing rooms, showers, and bathrooms. We had virtually everything we needed. In addition to all this formal infrastructure, people from various ethnic groups wandered the sand selling goods and services. Each ethnic groups seemed to have cornered a particular market. They were organized as follows:
• Massage services: Asian women
• Knock-off designer sunglasses, watches and bags and sometimes books: African men
• Cheap clothing, odd toys, and cold drinks: Indians
• Il Cocco (Coconut): exclusively Italians who wander the beach yelling “Il Cocco, Cocco Loco, Cocco Bello” raising their voices and drawing out the final “Oh” sound.
In addition to this odd assortment, I also saw some poor soul in a Barney-like costume walking with a fellow with a camera. Apparently they hoped to make their fortune snapping photos on the beach with the many kids. I thought the guy would die from heat stroke before the afternoon was through. The informal sector spilled out into the streets at night and, though somewhat curious and humorous, the air of desperation in all these people was a little hard to overlook. What a hard way to make a living.

We enjoyed our long weekend at the beach. The kids loved playing in the sand, which oddly few Italian children seem to do, riding paddle boats (with slides) in the sea, and swimming in the warm water. I also enjoyed a rare opportunity to be not only Raynaud’s free but so hot that I could only bear to wear a tank top. I hadn’t been that hot since, well, the last time I was in Italy .... Every night on the news they reported on the weather around the country. Florence was topping out at 44! They started showing people cooking pasta in the ocean, apparently the Italian equivilant of frying an egg on the sidewalk. Going to the beach had clearly been a good call.

The other unanticipated benefit of the trip was the food. We paid for a half board and took our breakfast and dinner at the hotel every evening. Each night there was an extensive buffet of antipasti. This coincided nicely with my being on steroids and gave me ample opportunity to satisfy my new and improved appetite. I ate so much that I looked three months pregnant at the end of every meal. In addition to the buffet, we had a choice of four “primi piatti” and “secondi piatti” each night. And pizza was not on the menu. This forced Amelia to eat something other than pizza at a restaurant. She rose to the occasion and discovered that she really loves turkey, chicken, mussles, and clams. Aidan, as always, ate only pasta every night.

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