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Venice, we are no longer “Under the Tuscan Sun”. You pour down pleasures of aquatic plentitude upon us. We are now Under the Venetian Rainclouds.
This side of Italy is expensive. Where Firense’s gelato was twice Rome’s price, Vennezia requires water taxis everywhere, ten times more than a New York taxi. They say there is a family price available, but they’re talking two adults and two children. We have been told a few times: you make too many children, and for those offended by that notion, keep in mind that there are very few children here.
The cost is always directly related to demand, of course. 10,000 tourists depart cruise ships to Venice every day! There’s a reason there are endless knickknack shops of Venetian masks and Murano glass and postcards and calendars of the Pope. And why my lot is tired of the crowds!
Even on this pouring rainy day, Saint Mark’s Square is a lake of umbrellas, which makes for a rainbow of colours. The kids were eager to walk along the ‘tables’ conveniently placed throughout the square, to access the other side of the Duomo. High tides occur every six hours. Venice is familiar with flooding; glad we got to see it before it goes the way of Atlantis.
When our triple layers were soaked through, we purchased “I love Vennezia” plastic ponchos from the train station. We made a trip back to our Jewish Ghetto apartment to change our socks, tie our feet in plastic bags and tromp out again, to a water ferry toward San Marcos and a guided tour of the Grand Canal.
We learned that Lord Byron lived here. He didn’t like boats, so he swam everywhere. That’s an alternative I suppose. A little tricky for a mom of four, unless you’re a duck.
We learned that Wagner (pronounced Vogner), musical writer and performer, when not performing could be found at the world’s oldest casino in downtown Venice. No after-hours outdoor activities for us.
The kids were most curious to learn about a man that was hung from a downtown square for having served great soup—finger food meant something different to this fellow. He was discovered to have stewed human body parts; a finger was found. I am less fond of this tidbit of trivia.
Hannah says she misses home for the food. The pasta? The cioccolota? The gelato? Perhaps the simplicity of home.
I am not there yet, as I could really live on this food. Last night we went to Turista Centrale…okay, that’s not the name, but it was right beside the famous Rialto Bridge, cheap tables with plastic chairs, a menu with HAMBURGERS and polish sausage on it, with pics, so you can just point. AIY. And to my embarrassment, each of the kids ordered hamburgers or hot dogs. This is a sign that this trip is nearing an end!
Not Under the Tuscan Sun any more…that thunderstorm last night sounded like it might take our nine year old casa down the mountain.
But the final quiet day preceding it in Toscana brought us to an art showing (a group from United States were touring France and Italy), took us on another hike around the farm, reading a few more chapters of the Castle in the Attic with the kids…and prepping for the next day’s travel.
There’s nothing more boring, yet more mind blitzing, than sitting in a foreign train station, Siena to be specific, for a few hours on a rainy day AND trying to fend off creepy Italian twenty-something pickpockets. Hannah says we should buy knives…they’re eyeing dad every move he makes, watching our bags, following us into the bathrooms and around the station. I know our reactions are too subdued for fending them off with knives, but still we are on high alert.
I won’t overwhelm you with a half dozen toilet stories, but I could. Okay, I won’t, but these stories mark a most unpleasant addition to an already unpleasant day.
Trying to find something to amuse the kiddos, in Italian…
Things you can buy in the train station…play automatic guns, AK 47…
We had nothing to do but wait, so we found somewhere to sit, in a pizza shop. What we did find in the Firenze station was THE BEST PIZZA we’ve eaten in Italy, in a chain restaurant named Alice. I don’t prefer a white, baked pita crust for my pizza, and they seem to be everywhere here. The toppings are sparse, and I like my funghi, but I do not like my canned funghi. Of course their salami or prosciutto offerings are divine. I think the best pizza I’ve eaten the last few months is (call me crazy) Pizza Hut (aren’t they proud?) OR a little café in Kaslo, in the British Columbia Kootenay mountains.
This was a truly boring day. A long day, filled with nothing. We do so little, yet we feel so tired.
Arriving at the Santa Lucia train station downtown Venice, we head to the church next store to meet the Italian fellow letting us our Jewish Ghetto apartment across the bridge. Another adventure begins…
One thing we do get for free in Tuscany, is the famed natural aesthetics. This place is gorgeous. Florence has its own medieval perfection.
Is that the sewer, mom?
No, honey, that’s the river.
Kind of reminds me of the Thames River in London. Mud, with water. Caffe latte, but with pretty arched bridges mounted over top.
Can I imagine living here? Absolutely. Am I making an announcement? No. Some believe Italy might go the way of Greece, but I will happily inject my share of turista Euros into the economy.
We found ourselves searching for dinner outside of Firenze, as dinner begins after 1900 for Tuscans. We wandered until we found ourselves back at San Gimangnano again, ala local Tratorria. One can eat enough Pasta Carbonara or Arrabiata, but one can certainly not get enough Chianti especially when in Chianti region. At home, I thought of Chianti like a pleasant red wine vinegar, not good wine. Not here though. More like a Sangiovese-Malbec mix. Yum, yum, yum. Wine on an empty stomach, not a good idea, but dinner was a happy dream.
Don’t worry, we weren’t starving, as my kids like to suggest. The kids’ eyes nearly bugged out when Jim purchased a second gelato, for himself. What has the world come to? This stuff is good. Try the coco (coconut)—definitely my favourite, but the bacci, or anything cioccolati (chocolate), limon—really anything gelato. But don’t buy it downtown Florence at 3,80 Euros a scoop. Medieval highway robbery. That’s like $5 a scoop. I wouldn’t have guessed that our shared cannoli would be $7 either. Eat off the beaten path.
We’re learning to spend one day consumed with activity, the next with quiet. Better formula for familial happiness.
No matter how memorable, how grand, how perfetto the view twelve feet below Michelangelo’s David is, Jim declares he’s 100% saturated; no more muses or galleries, no more Duomos or frescoes. When we head to Venice, we’ll have to find something else to do. We can take a boat trip halfway up the Adriatic, I don’t care, but, please, no more museums! Lucky for him, I, too, am saturated. Uffizi and Leonardo da Vinci and another Mother Mary will just have to wait till next time.
Since we stood in the line for an hour, perusing the trinkets occupied some of the time. But the masks of Venice, Papal plasticware, Firenze keychains and wooden Pinocchios only occupied so much interest. I took a turn creating stories for their amusement. We never did come to the end of Michel and Angelo’s day at Scuola. They’d been writing lines for reasons only Mrs. Leonardo Vinci could understand. I’d pop a latin phrase from my latin app into every second sentence; my indirect way of teaching latin. Then Jim started a ladder game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. He is the King of amusing the kids at boring moments.
Why not just lay down to watch the science movies?
We didn’t just visit the Accademia though. We also hit the Museo de Scienza, where Galileo’s instruments were housed. Leonardo da Vinci had his instruments preserved there too; he wasn’t just an artist, but a scientist too, making his first attempts at flying machines and bicycles, sketching out human anatomy.
How Hannah, Zach and Madelyn came out…
Medieval terracotta obstetrical presentations explained to his mini-medical students…
How Rachel came out…ouch.
I’d not understood the connection between longitude and the cartographic brilliance in finding your way from one place to the next…and I still don’t, but the Museo de Scienza has officially introduced me to it.
I’d not understood that people actually enjoyed playing with inclined planes to prove gravity, or build time telling instruments for fun, or stare at the moon every evening wondering why it shifted location… but I am so glad they have, that they do, and that I don’t have to. And I’m glad their mothers didn’t insist they just complete the standard schedule of subjects… The world is a more interesting place.
Our medieval home reminds me of Kapsowar, Kenya…but larger, with consistent electricity and more hot water, similar WIFI capacity (not good). Tiny little kitchen with window by the four person table and dish dryer above the carerra marble sink is handy. The grand fireplace in the family room is fun to play with before the kids’ bedtime, sitting on the sofa reading to candle and firelight is charming, but does make us smell like we’ve taken up cigarettes.
The beds are comfy, the wool blankets plentiful, and necessary, as the days grow cooler, and darker. Still, the plus 22 is enough for my bambinas and hubby to get into the outdoor pool. I’ll sit by the pool with my book for one last summer day this October 2. The view is a little too pristine, so I must, just to have this memory planted in my mind mid-January in Canada.
The sow had her babes while we were here…nine little piglets, possibly two pounds each. Madelyn would have held them if she could, but they were kept behind an electrical fence in the Italian forest. The piglets were too occupied snuggling to their mamas teats anyway.
Our two hour morning hike to a crumbling monastery revealed the Beautiful Ruins that might one day be restored for prayer and meditation. We walked all the way to the dried river to see the Ancient Roman bridge…a sharp arch toward the road, daunting. No side rails, curved in the middle, so no more than one person could pass.
The girls would like to recreate it for their Secret Garden…Spannocchia already has a delightful Secret Garden, created by the farm’s interns, for the enjoyment of visiting children. Willow-tied deer and porcupines, little paths, a pond and playhouse with nature guides and samples; even a bat harbouring in the corner.
Wild boar with chocolate was our dinner last night, prepared by the Spannocchia cooking staff. Now that’s not something I’ve eaten before. Thought it would taste like bacon, or the pancetta we eat for breakfast. Tasted more like a mildly gamey beef, not nearly so gamey as bison. The kids preferred the cannelloni di ricotta di spinachi. And the drops of Spannocchia’s rose in water was a hit too. Their first ‘glass’ of vino, in Italy!
It was tricky to find this fortified hill town…but we knew it was securing the valley, so we drove higher and higher until we couldn’t find parking, then we knew we must have arrived.
Siena boasts the oldest bank in the world, and its original owners, the Spannocchia family, continue to own and farm the Estate at which we presently reside. This is an old town if old means anything in Europe; and this is a long-established family.
The facades of the buildings seem sad and foreboding, also known as Gothic; a contrast to the San Gimignano medieval town we visited yesterday.
Siena was a thriving merchant and textile town that housed a school of Gothic painting and a building boom, until the Black Death of 1348 when its population was decimated.
Siena would no longer be competition for nearby Firenze (aka Florence) and it wouldn’t have enough money to overhaul its Gothic façade. Still, it’s Piazza del Campo so stunning, so large, that it still hosts horse races once a year and is touted to be one of the most stunning piazza in all of Italy.
San Gimignano, the Town of Towers. This is a medieval fairy-tale city full of towers to climb and alleys to explore. This is quintessential small-town charm. Before ascending the highest tower, which each of us did (though Zach had to be coaxed), we listened to the harpist play his melodies. Could there be a more idyllic Italian experience?
Pinocchio was filmed here, so naturally we purchased tiny wooden, red and green Pinocchios, for the children’s Christmas decoration collection. Other than merchandise, I would not have known of his presence.
With every hill town is a Duomo. By this point, even Jim and I must have vested interest or previous historical knowledge to purchase biglietto for museums. We have viewed enough Renaissance, Baroque, and Byzantine art to get us credit for a first year University Arts degree.
Our feet are not accustomed to walking upward on stone pathways, so we rested them by paying the extra fee for a tavolo (table vs. coffee bar). Cappuccino, Americano, torta di albicocca (apricot tart), and quatro solo gelato…cioccolata, crema, limone, and fragola...these were our tickets to people watching and soaking up the atmosfera.
Which town is more beautiful? Which one should one choose to visit? These are two towns of dozens. Each owns a unique stamp on Italy’s history.
Sitting leisurely in front of the grand fireplace in this Casa di Loma last night (our home for the week), it dawned on me that much like comparing towns, one can’t compare one person to another. Thanks to a Facebook story, compliments of Julie, I was reminded that each flower is aesthetic, perfumed, unrivaled. One flower is not better than another; all pretty, fragrant, found in different locations; intended for different purposes. But each is meaningful, whether acknowledged or not, beautiful whether noticed by many or few. Each of our lives, as each of these towns, has equal value. We should be who we were meant to be, so we can shine for our originally intended purposes.
“Divina natura dedit agros, ars humana aedificavit urbes”. Tibullus
(The divine nature produced the fields, human skill has built cities).
At our six hour cooking class with Spanocchia’s born and bred Loredana, we were taught many things today. Toured around their vast hillside garden, I saw their stone-creeping capers, walnut tree, limonatta trees for limoncello, free-run chickens, twenty seven cats, three dogs, and a cabbage patch.
Loredana, with her English translating (also homeschooled for twelve years) Kansas-born Tiana, taught us to prepare a menu of Crostone al cavolo nero (Kale Crostone…only Kale recipe I’ve ever enjoyed). We made Tiramisu and finocchi gratinati (fennel in béchamel), rotolo di petto di pollo (chicken breast butterflied, rolled in omelet and spinach), and my kids’ piece de resistance…ravioli spinaci e ricotta al burro e salvia (ok, so they didn’t appreciate the swiss chard).
Chingalli…aka pig. Learned this word in a discussion that began over the pigs nightly attack on the compost. We nearly drove over three when returning from Siena last night. Please package that and send him via airmail. How capable is Vatican City’s postal service?
Finocchi…fennel. When we arrived Saturday, we were given a huge basket from Spannocchia’s farm garden (the medieval farm that we are residing): three heads of radicchio, garlic and onions, carrots, potatoes, beets, and four heads of fennel. Besides an orange and fennel salad, I was at a loss for cooking with this licorice-flavoured veggie. The cooking class dispelled me of uncertainty…serve it in Bechamel sauce! Anything goes with Bechamel.
Pomadarro…I have never tasted tomatoes like these. People say such things as: These are the BEST tomatoes I have ever tasted in my entire life, and though we North Americans tend toward exaggeration, I have two of four kids now eating them each night. That’s a 50% increase from three days ago. These are the BEST tomatoes I have ever tasted in my entire life!
Olivo di Olio…This is the BEST olive oil I have tasted in my entire life! They say with words, you must paint a picture, speak in the five senses. I believe one can’t be converted on pure argument…one must experience it. Still, greenish yellow, tastes like olives, not just oil, and it IS THE BEST olive oil I’ve tasted in my entire life. Tasting is believing.
Now I have eaten a diverse, rather spoiled diet these last fifteen years. Loads of organic farmer’s market veggies and fruits. British Columbia fruit is delizioso…why we sell Washington fruit in our grocery stores…well, seems like a crime to me. But there must be something to this Italian iron clay soil or humidity that accounts for the crunchy-as-newly-picked apple Red Onions (ciopolla) or gigantico heads of radicchio.
The kids would add that the canned Toona is the best in the entire world. But they don’t like the milk. Apparently, not a lot of cows here in Italy. Butter is hard to come by. Goats, sheep, yes…cause a lot of GREAT cheese, but not great milk.
Jim captures it well when he says: the Italians didn’t go to kindergarten, they went to cookthegarden.
Add your thoughts to cooking the last of my fennel bulbs, a cabbage head and the beets…
Okay, so I had nothing to be afraid of. Roma traffic is looney. Otherwise, Italy is fairly tame.
Still, when I asked our driver what the worst thing about living in Rome was, he said, ta da: traffic, and parking. Surprise, surprise. But his family likes to have a vehicle because walking is no fun. So each of his family members has many vehicles. His mama has four cars. His papa has three. He has two cars and a scooter.
Yes, I wanted to ask too…I understand you don’t want to walk everywhere like Kenyans, but why more than one vehicle per person? I’ll have to leave it to the imagination. But I think they know how to solve their traffic problem.
Apparently, Italian citizens on the western coast have just one vehicle. The drive reminded me of the hills of Creston, BC…trees frosting the tops of hills, and similar greenery, except for the occasional palm tree.
When we first touched down in this blessed country, the kids were aghast: It looks like Africa!! It looks like Africa! Where are the giraffes? People were giggling.
I had to agree. It looked like Africa. The ‘plane’ trees appear similar to the acacia trees. There are vast, untouched spaces much like the savannah where Giraffes and antelope roam… But there weren’t hundreds of people meandering alongside the packed traffic. There weren’t a dozen dark faces hanging from matatus. And eventually, when we drove into city center, there was definitely not the Ancient Colosseum and Palatine greeting us.
I’d been studying traffic signs…the stop and yield are similar but I could find few speed limits. Our driver said, Well, we drive whatever feels good. 150-160 on the Autostrada, maybe 130-140 to the airport, 50-60 inside town. HA, now I’m scared!
Jim asks the kids in the spacious back of our Mercedes minivan (that’s all they have in automatic): We’re on a road trip; what would you like to do?
If I could drive, that would be awesome, four year old Zach declares. I could drive faster than dad.
I’m sure he could! And would!
Dad responds, And Zach, we’ve had the same number of accidents!
Zach’s four. He put the minivan in reverse and backed in, and almost through, the side fence a few months ago.
At 1,70 Euros per litre, we weren’t idling at stoplights. We headed away from the Autostrada up the western coast, out to Civvitiveccia. A memorable surprise…it is right on the Mediterranean Sea.
We stopped at the Ideale Ristorante…always a bad sign that they’re self-named perfection. However, they were right. The dining terrace opened to a pristine view of the Mediterranean; we ordered a Rose with lunch (you know you’re in Italy when you’re expected to drink wine with lunch), gamberi (crayfish??), risotto, ravioli alla funghi, and insalata misto. The kids amused themselves with their newly purchased parasols and sang a ditty: Swiss Chalet, always so good, for so little (Whaa? Ya, that was my reaction too).
Not everyone liked lunch…
The meal complete, Jim left a tip with the conto but the waiter brought it outside to him. They don’t take tips? Italians expect no more than 10% we were told, but no tips? Ideale, indeed. Even the toilet seats were photo worthy–embedded with rhinestones. Okay, they can have their name, and advertising too.
We stepped down the side stairs, pulled off our shoes and flicked waves of the Mediterranean with our toes. And saved a geological sampling for my other collection…jars of sand and rock from all the waters of the world…so far, Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic, Bahamas, Mexican Riviera and Mediterranean. Cheap, not-necessarily-so-easy souvenirs.
The kids could be in school, or they could be here…
From Civvitiveccia, we could have taken a ferry to Tunisia, but we drove NorthEastern toward Siena.
We stopped at La Coop for the evening repast at our Tuscan farmhouse. Traquina’s grocery had so many pasta, cornetto, risotto, cheese and meat varieties that I cannot understand why the Italians are not competing with North America for obesity rates. Bella, bella…fresh pasta for 2, 00 Euros. Twelve croissants (cornetto) for 1, 50 Euros. ½ Litres of Sangiovese for 2, 50 Euros!
Wandering the aisles like the kids have first discovered Disneyland, Hannah came rushing at me: Mom, you know you’re not an Italian mom when your shoes don’t have heels. Indeed, we dress like paupers. Not that I’ve ever cared to dress haute couture, but these people make us look like we live in cardboard boxes. And this is small-town Italy!
We are indeed in Italy. A dream I didn’t imagine would come true this side of life, or definitely, this side of forty. I could pinch myself….
Wooh, I am wiped. It might be the hypoglycemic effect of eating too much bread, or pizza, or gelato. It might be overexposure to Italian renaissance art, but I doubt it–I could spend a weekend in the Vatican.
I think it’s all that walking, and walking, and walking, and walking. I need my chiropractor, a couple Advil and a strong massage. Even the kids are complaining of sore backs and feet.
Have you heard of Michelangelo’s scribble in the Sistina Capella? They declare it a holy place, which requires silence, which no one but our family considered, despite the polizia presence.
….these are not pics of Sistine Chapel…the sign tells you why…the blue with gold stars was once what covered the ceiling of the Chapel…the other is a hallway leading to the Chapel…no pics allowed in the Chapel…
I’m not sure about the ‘holy place‘ thing, but it was impressive. He worked hard on that historical piece. Can’t imagine having my feet molded into my boots, unable to pull them out at the end of the day without removing some skin to boot…
Michelangelo Buonaroti ate, breathed and slept “The Creation of Adam“, though he reported to his brother that he wasn’t fond of it. He didn’t paint the part about Noah; but after he had received “help” painting that aspect of the Bible story, he decided he would go it alone till the end. A perfectionist after my own heart.
Sure enough, four years later, he was asked when he would ever be done. He threw the brush down, mid-stroke and declared “finito“.
Yesterday, we thought we could cover St. Peter’s Cathedral AND Vatican Museum. Much like Paris’ Louvre, it is much larger than one thinks; the stream to the Mona Lisa, in Paris, wasn’t nearly as daunting as the stream to the Sistine Chapel. We were cows in a cattle drive. One misappropriated yell of “fire” and people would have perished.
Why did they like it so much? Rachel asked.
Since there was so much remarkable art in this museum, and she saw some of it on her birthday in the Louvre last year too, I can understand her question.
Can I be honest? I really like it. I am not capable of painting anything remotely similar or even in the same light year. But I don’t understand myself why it is considered holy.
Maybe it was his genius, his natural aptitude. He’d fashioned the Pieta out of one piece of marble single-handedly when he was twenty four. People didn’t believe it could be anyone so young. He was so offended, he headed back to the statue and carved his name into Mary’s sash…his only signature to any of his work. Might be that.
Might be that he depicted the story of God’s intention toward mankind too, which in the Roman Catholic world, was all it took to get their attention. Why don’t we hear of Santa Michelangelo? Maybe Pope Francesco will still have his way.
Michelangelo had not seen the entirety of his work until the scaffolding was removed. Then he saw…that it was too small. So when he had a chance to do a little more work, he increased the size.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel was like one of those moments where you remember where you were on 9-11, or the day your husband proposed.
What was also memorable today were the mosquitoes. No, not the type that require a cream. Rather, Italia’s mosquitoes…people selling tickets in the line-ups: “It will take you three hours to get through the line-up. I can get you the tour for just 1 million Euros; and I’ll tell you all about Giotti and Raphaelo, though I know nothing about him. But you don’t know my Uncle Gino…his story’s interesting enough. I can tell you of his life, changing dates as needed…”
By the second dozenth scavenger, I looked one in the eye and bit: bit back, that is….if I need you, I will let you know!
But it wasn’t these guys that were evoking the deepest disdain in me. It was the impazzito conducente! After the near deaths of each of my family members these last few days, I was eager to learn a few ItaIian swear words.
Roman drivers make our hometown look passive, make New York look civilized, make Kenyan motorcyclists look timid.
The motorcycles weave in and through traffic….motorcycles line the walkways, dozens sit at all angles along the parkways, beside fire hydrants, encircling fire hydrants, cars too. When crossing crossworks, pedestrians can expect oncoming vehicles to speed up! The only way to get through traffic is to throw yourself toward it. And that is a little unnerving with four kids. There is so much illegal parking, if they borrowed a few of my hometown’s parking police, they could afford to reconstruct the Colosseum in a week.
But tomorrow we take the show on the road. I’ll admit, I’m a wee bit scared. Just cause we have International Driver’s licenses and thirty years driving experience, each, does not mean we can handle these drivers. We might need to get Papa Francesco to splash a little holy water and ask for a few Hail Mary’s. God bless us all.
1. Even a family of six can backpack Europe. The less you bring, the happier you are. But it will take you longer to decide what to put in the backpack.
2. It can take days to sleep through the night when adjusting to a new time zone. Last night was the night. Yayyyyyy!
3. Europeans must have skinny genes…you, dear North American, were not meant to eat cornettos (chocolate croissants) for breakfast, pizza for lunch, Chianti for dinner and gelato for snack every day…apparently, we lost that ability when the ancestors crossed the Atlantic.
4. Dishonest begging is everywhere. I’m most suspicious about those sweet old ladies… The fellow hanging back with his sign, Give me some junk so I can get drunk, almost got me to open my wallet. I appreciated his honesty.
5. Buy fruit, no matter how overpriced. It’s not a romantic notion about travelling, but it’ll be one that sets the tone to enjoying it all: fruit keeps you regular.
6. Kids really can do guided tours…just make sure they’re set up with the same equipment you are.
7. You will take pictures of stuff everyone else is taking pictures of, even if you don’t know what you’re photographing. Prepare with enough camera storage.
8. When in Rome, do what the Romans do…buy one, just one, bottle of water; drink it till its dry and fill up at watering stations around the city. Free, clean water. Oh, and don’t eat at eateries close to a major attraction…expensive and unless it’s Disney, the food isn’t as good. Eat where the locals eat.
9. Simple entertainment needs to be balanced with adult interests: gelato is 2 Euros, while Colosseum guided tours are 60. Carousel rides are 2 Euros, fancy dinners are much more than 60. You might not do as much, but you’ll all be much happier.
10. Cheap entertainment, really, really cheap entertainment is found in piazzas, squares, anywhere it’s warm and open. Those musical folks sitting with their guitars or lyres or bongo drums can become a half hour Euro of entertainment. Dance, I say, dance. When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza pie, that’s amore…
You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching
Love like you’ll never be hurt ,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.
William W. Purkey