Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wet ear wax and bad B. O........danger!!

Recently Japanese researchers linked a gene that was expressed in the affected individual having excessive 'wet' ear wax and extra smelly apocrine glands with increased breast cancer risk. That's a new one. Now I know that mammary glands are just 'modified sweat glands' and it's not a stretch to imagine that if there are faulty cells in one, there could be faulty cells in the other but the ear wax glands seem far removed. I noticed right after surgery, my sweat glands seemed especially funky despite my best and constant attempts to keep clean and deodorized, and I wondered if they too were cancerous. But not long after chemo began, these sweat glands were killed and they have not come back. I don't think I've had 'excessive' ear wax but during chemo, I produced absolutely none. Of course my oil glands shut down too (along with my hair follicles). The ear wax has not come back either. TMI indeed!

So last night I had dinner with the kids. I have seen Naomi only once and only for a few minutes at that since I returned from Italy. If she isn't going to school, she is working. Even though she has been seeing Dontae for allegedly 9 months and now she is living with him, I've only seen him a few times and Naomi always found it necessary to give me a list of what I can't say before seeing him. It was hard to find a night that they both were free but last night was the night.At the last minute, I received a request to meet them at Red Lobster. Red Lobster..hmmm. When she openned up the menu, she was surprised to find out that this was a SEAFOOD place and she hates SEAFOOD. But I do like calamari, that's seafood right? Yep, but it's not on the menu. I also don't translate exactly what calamari actually is. She stopped eating lox when she found out it was salmon. Do you think I'll like lobster? Nope. (That was a lie, I gave her some in the past and she loved it) She settled on a scallop, shrimp and chicken combo. I figured if she didn't like the scallops, I would take them but she loved them. Dontae, bless him, ordered popcorn shrimp. Everyone was on their best behavior. At one point she asked if Dad or I were working yet amusingly showing a little disdain for the idle now that she is herself working. I told her technically that Dad was. Really? How much money is he getting? Well nothing. He is promoting his ex-boss's company in Beijing and doesn't get paid unless he generates business for them.

Dontae was quiet and polite. He smiled a lot. I did most of the talking and the questionning with surprisingly little dagger looks from a certain someone. She made a big show of hugging me as if she wasn't going to see me again.

Indian summer is over. Last night as I was standing on the cheap side of town getting gas (always 15-20 cents more/gallon near my house), the wind suddenly picked up to 30 mph gusts and the temperature dropped. My run today will be difficult.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My cute grandsons

Hopefully this link will work. Since their last check-ups, one has gained 2 lb and the other 2.5 lb making them at 30% and 90% tile for their ages.

Chemobrain study, part 3

Today I completed the chemobrain study. While stuffed in a throbbing, narrow tube to the dulcet sounds of a jackhammer, I performed recognition tasks while my brain activity was being monitored by a fMRI. Not for the claustrophobic! I did the same before chemo, right after chemo, and now a year later from the time I was going to begin chemo. Staring at a screen for so long gave me a headache but there was a plus, I got to see my brain. The technician was quite chatty and of course, I ask a lot of questions. No brain tumors and no signs of Alzheimer's. In fact I appear to have a brain of a young individual. How old do you think I am? Um..60?
WRONG ANSWER. Oh I'm really, really bad at guessing ages. Well I hope he's right about my young brain.

Must dye hair ASAP.

When I agreed to do this last year, I made them promise to share my results with me. They will set up an appointment in a few months. I don't really think that I have a severe case of chemobrain as I still can do puzzles quickly etc. but I do have a problem with remembering names for things in a timely manner. (I will remember the name only it might take a week before me to recall it). The slogan for the Glacier Express (private train in Switzerland that is very scenic) is the "World's slowest express train" I wracked my brain for the name of this literary device. "Jumbo shrimp" and my favorite as it was my motto in high school where I was sometimes the only gentile and/or female in some of my advanced classes "Smart Shiksa" are some other examples. Teri about 3 days later was saying something about needing some Oxyclean and Eureka!!!Oxymoron came to mind. And BTW, I did have a tube of Oxyclean.

According to the weather map, this wet mass has stalled over the midwest. Rain, rain, rain. Before my brain study, I decided to lift weights instead.

On my busy social calendar, I am taking Naomi and her boyfriend out to dinner tonight. I am sure she's on edge worrying about what 'stupid' things that might flow out of my mouth. Oh it's so hard to have an embarassing mom!

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Here in Ann Arbor, we are at 42 degrees latitude. In Northern Michigan as I circled Torch Lake (by bike), I kept crossing a line announcing the 45th parallel reminding me that I was as close to the North Pole as the equator. This same parallel runs through Milano, Italia or at least slightly below it. On this trip, Firenze was our southernmost point at 43.5 degrees.Gagliano Aterno, where I stayed 5 weeks, was almost exactly the same latitude as Ann Arbor, Michigan. If I looked up to the North  Star there, the angle between it and the horizon would be exactly the same as at home, which by some divine coiincidence is 42 degrees. (No North Star can be seen on the equator). This little fact made navigation easy at least when one was on this side of the equator. Longitude calculations needed a good clock. And there, I had a much better chance of seeing it as there were rarely clouds and no competing light sources. Molte stelle!! One thinks of Spain and Italy as the South but much of it lies north of Michigan. What does this mean? Well at this time of year, even less hours of daylight than here. Daylight is quickly disappearing here to no good effect on me.

But latitude has more meanings; freedom from restraint in all senses; room to move, etc. All needed by this one. Of course, most of my restraints are self-imposed.

I went to the Y yesterday after a long absence. I did just fine on the ellipitical trainer but doing some of the weight machines was tough. So double timing the many staircases carrying heavy luggage was not a substitute for the machines and I am quite sore now. I did run almost 35 miles in the week since I returned. I will be thin, I will be thin.. I am waiting for the fog to clear before hitting the road again.

I received something in the mail from the UM billing department. I froze as I thought all that billing was behind me for my 'excessive' port checks. But I got a refund as I overpaid for a visit 9 months ago. Things are looking bleak on the insurance horizon: my provider and the other big provider in
Ann Arbor will no longer be considered preferred providers. Only the Henry Ford system; nearest hospital  30 miles away; will be considered 'in service'. None of our physicians are on their tiny list either; most on the list aren't even MDs but ODs.Thanks P***er for thinking about your retirees.

I have a follow-up mammogram this Tuesday. It better be clear, I can't afford CANCER.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The zoo

Between 1920 and 1930, my grandmother (the middle lady pictured here in probably December 1970) had 7 babies. Only babies No.1, No. 2, and No.7 survive. My mother, No. 5, on the left died 2 years ago after a very long descent into the hell of Alzheimer's. (Also pictured here is a reluctant teenager who couldn't keep her eyes open for even a second. By the time she got to college, she got rid of the 'granny glasses'.)

Yesterday I had lunch with the eldest, Ginny almost 90 and  the youngest, Carol almost 80, (both aunts in this picture)and my cousin Donna, just a couple years younger than me. Over the past few years, Aunt Ginny has filled in many pieces of my mom's life for me but as she was 7 years older, she lived in a slightly different world. Aunt Carol, 3 years younger than my mom, who normally lives in Florida, was in town and I was hoping to find out more from her, which I did.

We met in a nice restaurant in Royal Oak (Cafe Muse) and had some good conversations catching up on family comings and goings.Donna has wanted to go to the Zoo for some time. Now a little history, although my father had a day job (analytical chemist for Ford's glass division-had left Corning Glassworks for that), he spent every spare moment taking photos that he marketed through various agencies for extra cash and he was quite successful. During the 50s and 60s, every photostore would have a frieze of 20 to 30 16x20 prints sponsored by Kodak and my job would be to pick out which were his, not a hard task-usually 2 or 3 would be his. The agencies would not tell him to whom they sold his photos but he would find them on puzzles, magazine ads, petfood labels, etc. I remember as a first grader, bringing  my Weekly Reader home, and the feature story on raccoons was illustrated by one of his photos. Even as late as Shanna being in middle school, I found a Scholastic poster on the wall when I went in for parents' night and there was my kitty Pebbles on the wall. When not travelling around the country for photostock (these trips were not fun at all for us Sherpas but I did get to see a great deal of the country and Canada), the zoo was a good source of subjects. He even had his own parking place there. Often I had to go to the zoo with him, not to see the animals, but carry the equipment so he could take photos of the animals. (We also spent lots of time in cat and dogshows-my houseguest came along often and she counted these as happy childhood memories-for me, not so happy) He specialized in 'large format' photography 4x6s (never would he stoop so low to use a 35 mm camera-horrors!). Suffice it to say, his equipment could not be carried in a little fannypack (such as my camera that served so well in Italy and now is travelling in Texas-could have used it yesterday) and he conscripted help--me. So going to the zoo was work for me as a child and not pleasant work as he was ill tempered and not above taking his frustrations out on me. He was extremely easily frustrated. Yesterday the zoo had plenty of peacocks walking around begging food reminding me of one bizarre piece of equipment that one of us had to carry-the peacock mirror. This he made of flexible carboard covered with aluminum foil. He would place it in front of a male peacock (some redundancy here) hoping to prod it into displaying its tailfeathers (Think NBC peacock). This would actually work some of the time to give good, profitable photos. Everything was about money. Can I ride the zoo train? Nope, that cost money. Can I get a ZooKey to listen about the animals? No, just read the signs instead, you can read can't you?
So I wasn't too excited about the zoo. I did take the kids there once or twice, but I usually went to the Toledo Zoo instead.
Aunt Ginny begged off but Aunt Carol was game although the cold after almost 4 hours of walking was getting to her. Not cold for this one (55-60 deg) but I don't live in Florida either. Also, sad to say, I have more fat on one arm than the combined excess of all my moms' relatives put together, they are a very thin bunch. I can't blame their genes for my current state. She is also close to 80 but my moms' people are a healthy lot. But we talked and walked with me trying to extract as much info as I could about my mystery mom. Theirs was a chaotic household. My grandma, a very nice interesting woman, really wasn't too big on nurturing. She had side projects to pursue, the kids, well, they could just raise themselves. An example, Baby No. 1 was (4years old!!!!) was to watch her 2 year old sister. The 2 year old swallowed some poison and died. Now who do you blame here. The four year old was blamed!!! She still feels bad about this 85 years later. (All the neighbors agreed, it was all my fault.) Everyone in the family was quite musical (except my mother) and they played and sang together. So much fun was going on in the family that neighbor kids and only children who were cousins wanted to be around too and were invited in. My mom, however, was just lost inside of all this. My aunt insists that my mom was her mother's favorite and that she as the baby, got the least attention of all. I was very surprised by this as my mom would have been my last choice as a favorite-there was the extremely handsome one (who was very troubled and killed himself in his 20s), Ginny with her outgoing, fun-loving personality; Carol, the cute baby and my nice, personable uncles Gordy and Carl would have made good favorites too. Not my boring mom, who seemed to have no personality. Oh, but she had a personality, and she was very smart! But still, my mom was not thriving. There was little money and food too.  She was advised to leave and go to a boarding school for 'special kids". Now I wondered about this 'special school' I know my mom had some fluency disorder-did they think she was stupid? Who was paying for this? From what I could tell, the disorder was emotional-severe shyness. She didn't last long at the school and at 16, went out into the world on her own. So I still don't know everything about my mom, just a little bit more.
I did enjoy the zoo despite some unpleasant memories. It has changed a lot. The butterfly and hummingbird house was very interesting with 25 different species flitting around-my favorite-the giant morpho with very beautiful turquoise wings) and the purple hummingbird. Donna got to see the lemur twins born this summer. I liked the meerkats and the bear cats-none of them truly cats. Carol liked the bears who wanted to hide from us. I've been having bad luck lately with bears. We walked a mile to see the bear pit in Bern and it was empty! There were two trees there that each had at least 50 vultures perched on them. These are uninvited guests. There are a lot of volunteers there who have buttons on them saying Ask me. A very talkative lot and hardly any other visitors to talk to so we got lots of time. The zoo has an eagle, who looks fine but will never be able to fly. One day, they found another eagle with it who flew in to share the food. It stayed around for several months, coming and going as it pleased. The vultures find plenty of food  in the displays to share with the pernament guests.
They have a new (to me) display: the Outback Experience, in which you can walk inside the kangaroo enclosure but the 'roos kept their distance. But I had an interesting day in Royal Oak.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding the new normal

So it's been six days since I returned from our European adventure and slowly am getting back into the swing of things, such as that might be. I've been running, which I didn't do at all in Italy, though walking, especially up mountains, from dawn to dark gave me plenty of exercise. The colors are at their peak here in Michigan and it is fun running up on Warren Road surrounded by all their colors. The first day running was not pleasant as my legs were so stiff from the long plane ride and I have a cold but running is as easy now as it was before I left and the little hills I deal with here seem easier.

Readers may note that I changed my focus of this blog as cancer becomes a smaller part of my life. There are days I don't think about it. Still some minor effects remain like losing my eyelashes again for the 3 rd time though not completely and the disappearance of the hair on my legs (that can stay way but it's probably coming back) and my can-fro of course. Next week I have another check-up complete with mammograms that I am not looking forward to. Occasionally I do think about it and am scared even though the more time that passes, the better my chances.

With all my European (you're a peein') bathroom talk, I come home to 2/3 of our toilets being non-functional with the 'good' one way downstairs in the 'guest ' quarters. Rats.  But now one is working again. The one in MY bathroom, will require a plumber and removal of a ceiling to access and that will have to wait until the guest quarters are vacated.

I spent a lot of time updating this blog and still I am not completely finished. Just when I was almost through, I noticed that blogger now has a better photo editor but too late for me. My kids are doing well as far as I could tell.I had lunch with Josh who filled me in with lots of local gossip. Naomi came over shortly after my return in a furious state as she thought her employer was cheating her (probably is) and she had a new ticket that we are making her pay for and its consequences. One more ticket and she will not be driving. But she did calm down over the next few days and is doing fine in school even though she now is working a lot. She really liked the fancy lace Italian leggings I got her. She's agreed to let me take her and Dontae out for dinner so I can get to know him better. Shanna and the babies are also doing well.

Tomorrow I will meet with my cousin and my aunts. I really know very little about my mother's past and the bit she had told me about doesn't jive one bit with what her siblings remember. Her older sister lives in Michigan and is very forthcoming about info concerning my mom but she was 7 years older and left the house when my mom was only 9. I am meeting with my younger aunt who was closer in age to my mom and thus might have more information to fill in some of the blanks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trains and planes

Our Cisalpino train between Brig and Bern from website

Inside of train (from website)
During our stay in Europe, we rode in many different trains. Some placed us into little compartments in which you usually got to know your compartment mates well on long trips (although we had to share a compartment with 2 women from hell from Milano to almost all the way to Sestri Levante-they were rude, loud and would never, never shut up-one of them was able to rant for 4 hours straight with her friend occasionally trying to speak over her to get a word in edgewise). The Regionale trains were usually old-some of them double deckers. But the Eurostar and Cisalpino were very deluxe, even in 2nd class, and new and shiny. Of course they were alot more expensive for us.
The more interesting of the trains was the Cisalpino developed in a joint venture between Trenitalia and SBB CFF FFS (the official name of the Swiss railroad-note to Swiss: rename your country with its 30+ letters and get a better name for your railroad). This train was equipped to handle sharp curves at high speeds by tilting so they could breeze through the Alps. The Italian name for the train was 'il Pendolino"-little pendulum. Earlier models didn't work out as planned: riders got motion sickness from all the tilting and it was difficult to keep the toilet contents in the right place with the swing cars. We were lucky that the second generation trains just came out for our use: no nausea and the toilets were adjusted. They still tilt but I couldn't feel it. Indeed on the way back, we seemed to be stopped a long time in Visp (right before the train becomes scenic). I told myself I could rest a bit and then wake up when the train started moving. When I woke up, we were in Brig meaning I never felt any motion whatsoever and I missed out on the best scenery. Rats. But Teri said it was very cloudy and I didn't miss much.
The planes: We had a 6:20 am flight to Amsterdam from Malpensa. We got to the airport at 4:45 am thinking that it was an international flight but no, not really as it was between two EU members. But it was no fun waking up at 4 am. I chose this hotel specifically for it having the earliest, free shuttles.Two other hotel guests were chomping at the bit(words by the way, you never use in front of non-native speakers as they would just think WTF) to get to the airport early. I asked Teri if she were ready to go at 4:20 am (NO!!!!!-she apparently was looking for a passport-she was a bit more relaxed at 4:25 am when it reappeared). We cleared the skimpy security easily and found ourselves without coffee as it was all before security. Rats. Finally something opened at 5:25 am and we were happily caffeinated. I fell asleep as soon as we boarded waking up only for more coffee and cute litttle Dutch breakfast buns and their syrup wafers.
Officially we had a 2 hour layover in Amsterdam but they wanted us to board 1.75 hours early. Hell no. We did some last minute shopping-plenty of stores in Schiphol (pronounced like Ski-pole). I got some bright green (pesto) Gouda I had tasted there before and some other cheeses. However we had to cross their so-called Schengen passport control line-very long-and still we weren't free to board. There were two security checkpoints at the gate alone and they moved very slowly (thus the 1.75 pre-board time). They decided that Teri needed to remove her shoes but I didn't. She had thick soles: I did not-but that's a guess. The plane was filled to the brim. In front of us were 2 very unhappy toddlers who screamed for a good part of the flight. Behind us was a group of 20 Dutch teens all excited to be on their way to the US expressing their exuberance by kicking my seat if I ever fell asleep in the rare moments the screamers were asleep. Extra bonus: the video system shut down so I couldn't see the ends of the movies I had started on the way out. For compensation, we got $50 certificates to be used as a day pass to the airport lounges or 5000 Delta miles. On the side, were 2 pleasant Canadian ladies who had been visiting their ancestors in Ireland. I had asked if they were mistaken for Americans (they live in Windsor on the border). No. They were careful always to wear Canadian flags. (not the Canadians fault that American policies have wreaked their worldwide damage).
On the positive side, we had a tail wind instead of the usual headwind, left the gate early and thus would be early. Customs in Detroit also had no lines (travel must be really down) so our trip was soon over.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

i bagni di Italia: a balancing act

This is a public bathroom in Lausanne Switzerland. I searched the web to find my Swiss toilet but this one is more fun. See below what the toilet looks from the inside.

Now presumably noone can see in but would you feel comfortable seeing the world walk around you as you did your business.

Now we used the bathrooms in Schiphol airport but sadly, not the mens'. Apparently all the urinals have a fly painted in it as studies show that men will aim at a fly (huh?) even if it isn't real. Anyrate this little trompe d'oeil improves cleanliness.

The bathroom available at the train station in Sestri Levante, in Liguria, on the coast. Allegedly this is a very pretty town but all I remember is its bleak platform that we waited on 90 minutes for the regionale and its stand-up toilets

Esther's combo bathroom/laundry room in Bonassola. Almost every bathroom that has a toilet has a bidet. Still I don't have much use for them. This room was very clean with a view of the mountains as you sat.

The bathroom in Stresa. A poor shot as it doesn't show the 9 headed shower or the very deep soaking tub. There were lots of lotions and shampoos to try.

Until we arrived in Liguria, we had no trouble finding nice bathrooms for free. There was that funky cubicle bathroom in the park in Bern that took some deciphering: the toilet seat was hanging against the wall with a spring mechanism that required two hands to bring it down to the top of the toilet. (I was going to take a picture once we came across another but that never happened)I wasn't ready to use it yet and water sprayed everywhere when I released it. OK, start over again; this time I was ready to perch on it once I brought it down. The sink could only be used while on the seat but of course, you wouldn't need to touch the seat again. An air dryer could be used once you stood up while the toilet flushed as the seat was released. It was clean and smell-free. The Swiss train system had clean and free bathrooms. Bathrooms on the trains: not so nice but the Swiss provided disinfectant to clean the bathroom yourself if you were so inclined. Sometimes the flushing mechanisms weren't clear: Teri spent 10 minutes in a restaurant trying to figure one out.

Our overnight places had nice ones though sometimes the water pressure was lacking and the hot water heater would take a while to fire up. Some even had towel warmers.
But these Ligurian stand-ups found in public places were quite the experience. I have seen variations of them before: public WCs in the Loire Valley sometimes were stand-ups and they would make you pay to use them. In Lausanne (French speaking part of Switzerland-a beautiful place), the park by the water had fancy stand-ups in which there was something to hold on to, foot rests and the whole floor would be washed away-very sanitary. In the Ligurian specials, the footrests are too close together to be useful, they smell, no place to hold on to, only the area right around the 4 inch hole gets rinsed, the floor is slippery, and it turns out, not many women have good aim. Ugh! I rather go in the bushes, but there are no bushes. The first time, I was confronted with one of these, I used it successfully (success is measured by emerging from the area pee-free) and couldn't wait for Teri to try it as I think she was a stand-up virgin. In train stations, we took turns guarding the luggage while the other was free to explore. I was slowly and sadly discovering that there are several levels of 'regionale treni" and the level we needed to stop at our little town didn't come by too often. We had just missed the other. By train, we were only 15 minutes away. I was hoping that Esther would come and get us but later figured out that by train and by car are very different paths. She would need to drive over the mountains on a tortuous road whereas the train goes straight through the mountain by tunnel. We had plenty of time to kill so I suggested like some nagging mom that Teri might want to use the bathroom as we were going to be here a while and BTW, take your camera.

We came across these things again over the next few days but at least the public WC in Bonassola have seats: it is a classy place. My second experience in the Monterosso train station, not so successful. I was wearing particularly baggy pants and the floor (yuck!!) was extra slippery and I was sliding fast into a very bad position such that part of my pants were not out of harms way. Sadly I lack that fine control that even elderly dogs have to start and stop. Damn. My underwear was safe though and I tried to dilute out the damage in the sink but still..the pants were impossible to completely rinse while still on me. Fortunately the dry Ligurian air helped. I was much more careful next time and didn't wear pants that had so much material to protect. Good thing I never had the Italian equivalent of Montezuma's revenge.

Carrying wipes also came in handy several times as did a pack of tissues. The train station bathroom in Firenze required an euro coin to open the door. We did a bit of petty larceny and both entered on the same coin. It was clean, had SEATS, and a remarkable hurricane force hand dryer that you put both arms into. The Milano station had a similar system according to Teri. By that time, I was careful always to use bathrooms in nice restaurants rather than chance it with public ones such as the bathroom that one had to climb the old bell tower to use in Firenze.

Travel is always an adventure in ways you can't imagine! Below is the Swiss toilet I found in Lausanne in 2002

Friday, October 23, 2009

Quando vuole volare...*

Typical room in the First Hotel. Our room looked different but still had interesting fixtures

Lobby of the First Hotel that we stayed in on our last night

This sign, actually the name of a Bernese film festival and taken in Bern, fits in nicely with the theme, what a difference one letter makes, of this entry

Our pizza cappricciosa from our last day-the most common flavor other than Margherita and quattro stagione (4 seasons). Lessons to be learned from this picture: it comes to us uncut (apparently you are to fold it into a shape suitable for stuffing into your mouth though Teri is trying to cut it into a reasonable size. The topping consists of ham, artichokes, olives and mushrooms. Look carefully at the mushrooms: they are porcini. None of those Pennsylvania cave grown mushrooms on American pizza are found here. Also not found; their enormous cousins strangely called 'portobellos'. Despite their Italianate name, there are no portobellos in Italy. They were apparently named by marketing experts. This pizza later was our dinner.

Interesting architecture around the immigrant neighborhood that we found our last Italian meal at.

The antipasti bar full of all sorts of tasty goodies. I didn't take a picture though until it was mostly gone. One dish contained sea snails-really pretty shells (should have saved one for a souvenir-drat-always think of these things after the fact)

*When you (familiar(!)form) want to fly....

The above was on a billboard I saw several times in Milano that initially puzzled me as I thought 'volare' meant 'to want' and 'when you want to want' didn't make a whole lot of sense until I noticed the small print "Darwin airlines from 39 euros" Volare=to fly as in that song 'Vo-LARRRRR-e vol-oh-oh-oh " "Volere" means 'to want' and it is a very irregular verb that I used in almost every interaction, usually in its conditional form as in "Vorrei this" or if I wanted to include Teri standing next to me, "Vorremo that" I would like this or we would like that. We would want a lot.

Also the name of the airline intrigued me. Do you want to fly in a plane whose name suggests 'the survival of the fittest"? Also would the name bother the Christian right? (Few in Europe thankfully)

I almost entitled this blog, what difference one letter makes as in the difference between volere and volare. But more amusingly, the difference between anni and ani: pena and penna. (years and assholes: penis and pen) Americans, especially those of the Midwestern variety, gloss over double consonants and maybe, just maybe, will pronounce one of them (making us especially fun to understand by the foreign born). Double consonants in English give us a hint how the vowel preceding them is to be pronounced. Just because we learned a few words of Italian doesn't stop our bad habit of poor enunciation (Brits are much better). Imagine us asking to borrow a penis (which I am sure many would be happy to lend) or asking cute little school kids how many assholes they have. We have to be very careful.

Back to the travelogue: Monday was our day of many travel legs starting with Lia again, driving us to the train station after our nice breakfast. She was such an incredibly sweet person and we had some good talks in our (my)broken Italian. Then back on the local to Firenze, then on the 180 mph Eurostar to Milano Centrale,then on the Malpensa bus to the airport, then to the shuttle for our last hotel ironically named "The First Hotel".

So we already had seen most of the scenery between Lucca and Firenze. Between Firenze and Milano, is the flat, boring Po valley as it turned out. Time to read the papers. On the trip, we would either get the international version of the London Times (better and more puzzles but not useful news)or The International Herald which is some kind of version of the New York Times-better news but with only a single crossword puzzle. A sample of the news from the former was the distress of British housewives that the prime minister wouldn't name his favorite biscuit as the other politicians had. The newspaper had a contest that readers could vote what biscuit suited him the best. One of the choices was 'Jumpin' Jammies'. A slow news day, London style. Not that the US was much better with the mythical exploits of "Balloon Boy". On the plane to Detroit, we were only offered Dutch papers even though Delta is an American airline.

The distance to Milano from Firenze is similar to that between Ann Arbor and Chicago. Imagine how nice it would be to get there in 2 hours instead of the advertised 5 hours that usually is close to 7 hours with Amtrak not having priority over freight trains, drawbridges up, etc..all excuses I've experienced for lateness. Our train system is so crude compared to the Italian one even with its doors slamming shut on slow-to-move passengers. With our now extensive experience, we are Italian train experts finding the correct binario (track), the cardozza -car-(always the fartherest one for our reservations and the trains are very, very long between the big cities) our posti (seats), knowing when we have to validate the tickets or not, reading schedules that at first glance look impossible to decipher, etc.

Milano Centrale was considered Mussolini's masterpiece and huge. Many, many tracks. The neighborhood around it is not the best but away we went looking for a bancomat and late lunch. The fast train ate up most of our cash being twice the cost per kilometer as a slow train. We walked quite a while in search for the ATM (and then we saw plenty!) We rarely used credit cards-just cash but it involved many trips to the bancomat. If I asked for too much at a time, I'd get an annoying message saying that I wasn't authorized to get international funds instead of saying the truth, you asked for too much. I'd ask for a lesser amount and then it would spit it out. Teri was allowed to get more because I guess, she's special (or asked for it in advance). The neighborhood was full of various immigrants including Tunisian men who followed us briefly saying how much they love people from England. We didn't correct them. The buildings were of interesting architecture but run down. We finally ate in a restaurant featuring Amalfi coast cuisine. (Southern Italians are considered immigrants by the northern Milanese-no love lost between the groups-rich vs poor-educated vs uneducated etc.). People there were very nice to us even though they could not speak English. No inglese but it was great and inexpensive. We had a wonderful antipasto bar with lots of nice vegetable dishes to try, then the pizza and for me, spaghetti carbonara, the best I've ever had. Of course, red wine. The pizza, always served uncut, was mainly uneaten due to the antipasto bar and Teri took it to the First Hotel along with some cheese that later was our late dinner. On to the Malpensa bus that drove a long time through the city going by the cemetary that Rick Steves says is the best in Europe for statuary. At the airport, we were to call the hotel to pick us up but alas, the phone didn't work until Teri included a 'plus' sign. There is a little village near the airport that contains the hotels. I selected ours because the boards say they have the earliest shuttles starting at 4:30 am. The boards also warned about the lack of restaurants in this little town but I did find the tabacchi shop that had a good wine selection and the cheapest kinder eggs yet. Dinner. The hotel itself, a 4 star place, was a boutique hotel very attractively decorated. We missed breakfast due to our early departure.

During our stay in Italy, we encountered many types of keys and they were part of the more frustrating experiences we had. The worse was in Stresa. Despite the very attractive, House Beautiful, rehab of our place, the keys were strictly 19th century things. We were given a keyring with an eight ball on it (this happened more than once)and 4 keys. The one for our room was more like 16 th century. Two keys for the various gates of the courtyard surrounding the building, one for the hallway we were on and then one for our room. At night, the key had to be in the lock and you had to turn the key in some special way to get out ( I never, never learned this skill-this is a job I left to Teri-I ask for train tickets, she deals with the keys). The first night I awake to Teri frantically trying to open the door as she wanted to use the WC. It took about 5 minutes of fumbling but she got faster with time. Good thing there was no fire. As for the gate key, Teri turned it once and we couldn't open it at all. Fortunately there was a backgate that we left open. In Bern and Milano, they had old keys too that you had to give to the desk clerk when you left the building. Esther and Lia had a series of keys that worked OK but there was usually no light around to see which one to use. Teri's flashlite came in handy. The First Hotel gave us a modern keycard with its own twist: you had to put it in its special holder in the room or you would have no electricity. This insures you not leaving lights on.

I got 30 minutes of Internet with the room but it erased my entire blog entry plus no word from Northwest/Delta about checking in ahead of time. Teri schmoozed the bartender there into providing a useful wine opener for a particularly hard-to-open bottle (but very good tasting) I bought. Our last sad to see this trip end.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

La Domenica in Firenze

Synagogue in Firenze

Door of Santa Croce

Santa Maria Novella at dusk

Santa Maria Novella at noon

Door of Santa Maria Novella

Ponte Vecchio at dusk

Mask shop near Pitti Palace

Paoli's in an old church where we had our big meal

Gilli's a fancy candy shop

Gelato shops all over the place

Fountain in the Oltrarno

Fountain near the Ospedale degli Innocenti

The baptistery of the Duomo

Cute lanterns at a craft fair. I think I might try to duplicate these

Cupid dressed man on the Piazza della Signoria

Cool statue on Piazza della Signoria
David copy. The real one was taken from this spot and put in the Accademia to protect it from acid rain. Somehow marble isn't exposed so much to acid rain as much as it is in the US. 50 year old marble gravestones in Ann Arbor are all illegible due to it.

We were so close to Firenze that we decided we had to see it. All my proposed itineraries had us staying there but it would be hassle to find a place and where we were just outside of Lucca was very nice.
On Saturday night, we decided to eat in San Pietro a Vico's only restaurant, Il Granario. We had made the 15 minute walk there the night before but it was closed despite what Lia (our hostess at the Casolare) said but took the bus from there to Lucca where we had our very nice meal on Friday. The road, Via Acqua Calda (hot water), had no shoulders and it would be dark as we made our round trip. I had some IKEA battery candles to carry so we would be seen. These little lights came in handy as temporary night lights to show us in the middle of the night where the toilet was, etc. Teri had a small flashlight to help with keys in dark places. According to the paper, we had a 'nuova luna' peaking with our stay in Lucca i.e. no moonlight.
Apparently we were the only English speaking people this restaurant ever had before and we were early (7:30) putting the owner in a fluster. Lia had told us to say she sent us there and to ask for a 'scont0' (discount). As it turned out, they seemed to give us plenty of extras and this was our least expensive full meal even with .75 liter of wine. She asked us what we wanted to eat. Ah... but we need the menu first. We don't have one. Eventually she found an old one and put check marks next to the dishes they'd prepare. The food was very good.-I had pasta alla bolognese (since we were not going to have time to go to Bologna-another trip). The owner had her 6 and 7 year old daughters eat at the table next to us. They were cute, curious and talkative even though they didn't know English yet. With my level of Italian, their ages are about all I can handle. I speak at the toddler level. The owner knew only a tiny bit of English and said that speaking to us in it was 'distressing'. I tried to tell her (in Italian) to just speak Italian slowly, I could understand it but it didn't come out that way. Lia didn't speak much English either but when she wanted to make a point, she'd say "Ascolta!" (Listen!!) and then tell us slowly in italiano what she thought we needed to know and I would repeat what she said in Italian to confirm it. Lia had told me that I wrote Italian very well but of course, I had plenty of time and consultations with my grammar book to help me there. Speaking off the top of my head was much more difficult especially with my fluency disorder that rears its ugly head even in English. I definitely need more practice. Throughout the trip, I made mistakes constantly using the informal 'tu' forms when I should have used the more appropriate "Lei" forms. (Italian has four forms of the word 'you' with verbs and endings to match. In French, they have a verb just to describe using the 'tu' forms: tutoyer (they have only 2 forms). In Italian, it is 'dare il tu"
I also repeatedly (and wrongly) said 'Scusa' when I was trying to get by someone. The correct word was "permesso". 'Mi Scusa' is what one says if you are interrupting someone with a question they weren't expecting. I was always doing that.
But back to Firenze. Lia took us to the train station and we were immediately able to hop on the local to Firenze with nice Tuscan scenery to keep us occupied for the 1.5 h. Teri had been there for 5 days before and me, just 2 days. The line to the Accademia was very long. Lots of Americans: especially college students were there. I thought I was there on a Sunday in July at the peak of tourist season before but now in October, it seemed just as crowded. But unlike the 90 degrees I suffered through before, it was 60 degrees, so nice for walking for hours. We saw alot. No where is there better public art than in Firenze and there were nice craft fairs there too where Teri bought a few things. She also bought some beautiful Italian shoes. We ate in this beautiful former church that I had eaten lunch in before with Dana, a roommate I had during my WSU days. Rick Steves had warned it was touristy but said the food was very good and it was. Along with wine, I had risotto florentino and veal scallopini and an orange custard torte for my 'dolci' The bathroom was up the old bell tower involving a long circular staircase. We didn't have dinner as our lunch was so huge except to get a few things later for the room (wine!!!). I did get some gelato but instead of getting what I thought was nutella flavored gelato, they gave me pure nutella. Oops. Fortunately, I had two other 'gusti'-torrone and pinenut cream to dilute the nutella. In front of the Santo Spirito church on the other side of the Arno, they had a 'natural products' fair where I got some treats for the 'moms'.
Back on the train to Lucca, which was so crowded we could barely get seats but we did speak to local kids so it was an interesting experience. We were almost the only ones left by the time we got back to Lucca, the end of the line. Usually we hover by the door of our stop but not this time so we would be the last ones out even though we didn't dawdle too much. However, the door suddenly snapped shut on Teri and she was stuck. No train personnel were around at all. I tried to find an alarm to no avail. I wasn't strong enough to pry the doors open by myself. Fortunately some other tourists could see the situation and it took several men to pry the door open so Teri would be released and so I could get out too.
Then the taxi ride back to the Casolare. The fare looked reasonable until night fees, train station fees and Sundays fees were tacked on. Oh well.

Pictures of the Cinque Terre and Levanto

Vernazza as we edged towards it in the final leg of our hike

Riomaggiore-where we began our hike

Tunnel in the Via Dell'amore

Our first view of Vernazza with Teri on the path. I was so glad to see it as this path was making me very nervous

Welcome to Corniglia, town 3. All you need to do is climb 367 steps up...

All along the route in the Cinque Terre are terraces of vineyards. It is said that all the stones for these many terraces add up to more than the rocks used to make the great wall of China

Typical scene as we walked between Manarola and Corniglia

Corniglia from our lunch place


Check out those white creatures on Teri's lunch

Pasta we ate up in a tower over looking the beach in Vernazza

Anchovies in Vernazza

Vernazza late in the day

Riomaggiore early in the day

Teri against one of the murals in Riomaggiore

Teri in Levanto. This we visited the day before but I wanted to keep the Bonassola pictures separated.


Teri in a tunnel on La Via d'Amore-the easy leg between Riomaggiore and Manarola. We did this first heading north.

The balcony from our Vernazza restaurant at sunset

Levanto scene

The very start of our hike. We did 3 of the 4 legs taking maybe 4 hours total not including our many stops in the towns

The staircase from the sea to Corniglia-allegedly 367 steps but Teri counted less. We bought beautiful watercolors from an artists on the way up

Riomaggiore in the morning

More Riomaggiore

You can see our path if you look closelyor click on this to make it bigger. This was on the 2nd leg from Manarola to Corniglia. Although steep in parts, there was usually a handrail and the path was wide so I didn't feel threatened.

Now here the path is wide but sometimes it would be less than half of this with a really long way down on the left

Stripped church in Monterosso. A lot of the local rocks around here are made of marble. Vernazza is full of black marble. The Carrara marble works are probably only 20 miles away.

Manarola from our boat. For better colors, it would have been better to take the boat in the late evening rather than the morning.

Riomaggiore from the boat

Manarola from the village

Teri and I eatting our lunch at an enotech in Corniglia, the smallest of the villages and less visited. In the spring, there would be wisteria blossoms dripping from the roof here.

Graffiti in the tunnel of the Via d'Amore

The owner of our Corniglia wine bar

Corniglia from afar. We are teetering on the edge of the path hoping for the best.

Corniglia from the boat. It didn't stop there as the town does not have an official port.

As we were leaving Corniglia, which is high up to begin with. Up, up, up.......

Restaurants overlooking the beach late in the day in Vernazza. Ours has the red awnings. It was hard to find the magic staircase to get up there.

My dinner in Vernazza-a mix of squid and prawns. Heads are kept on here in Italy

Teri on the suspension bridge between Manarola and Corniglia. Don't look down...


Looking down into the bay in Riomaggiore.

Our Vernazza restaurant again looking straight up from the beach

Vernazza at night
It would have been nice if I had these in the correct order. I will still add more when I receive Teri's pictures. So we were staying in a town north of the Cinque Terre called Bonassola (which I think means beautiful island in Catalan). Last Thursday morning (Oct 15) we took a train 2 towns south to Monterosso, the fartherest north town of the Cinque Terre. After a breakfast in Monterosso (sorry Esther, a slice of bread doesn't cut it with this chow hound), we took a boat to the southernmost town of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore and began our hike. Lots of Americans do this hike-we hadn't run into any before coming to the Cinque Terre but it was fun comparing notes with them and we'd meet up with certain groups of them as the day progressed. We went from Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corniglia to Vernazza. We could have done the last leg to Monterosso but it was allegedly more treacherous than the other legs. The last leg we did was scary enough, thank you very much.


Blog Archive