shocking that I may be culture shocking so quickly

I am tired. Each evening the symphony of insects eases me into slumber, and each morning the tropical vegetation awakens my senses. As soon as I walk through the station compound, though, I feel I have entered an altered universe. I don’t know how … Continue reading

first day in Inuvik

The road turned from gravel to pavement and a huge sign welcomed us into this most northerly town. We curved up the road to the left and there was the colour-blocked hospital sitting atop the hill. A quick stop at the hospital to pick up keys to our summer abode, we instead discover a room was booked for us at the Mackenzie Lodge – after nine days in hotel rooms, we have arrived, and will stay in a hotel room. Our promised two bedroom apartment has become a two bed room.

Unpack the van, reorganize the room – that’s Hannah, Madelyn, and Rachel’s bed (each takes a turn at the end)–luckily they’re all under 9 and small enough for that, and that’s Zach’s corner (the foldable travel crib with two blankies) and this is our bed—my husband closest to the bathroom so he can wake, dress and go to the hospital without waking the rest of us. This would be our new dining room table—the classic hotel ‘desk’ with a small upholstered sitting bench and chair. The kitchen is a bar sink, microwave and bar fridge—thankfully I didn’t leave home without my “kitchen”—a backpack style picnic bag filled with matches, a towel and cloth, scraper, peeler, and anything I absolutely need in my kitchen back home. Was I ever smart to bring that now!

Perhaps there could have been some planning, some forethought for our arrival and accomodations since we did request final arrangements for our summer locum five months ago. Renovations were still being completed on the hospital dormitory style building.

When the hospital cafeteria is a sought after, less-expensive dinner option than any restaurant in town, you know you’re in a northern arctic town. The profundity of pizza pops—even at the cafeteria—cannot be a good sign for this town’s version of healthy eating. But who can avoid it when healthy choices are so darn expensive. Almost a hundred dollars for hamburgers and French fries for two adults and four kids under nine.

We’re making the best out of this though—exercise room down the hall is well-used for an hour and a half during Zach’s nap and the leather sofas in the hotel lobby have become our public sitting room and study zone. Ideal? Mwahaha. Make the best of this? Flexibility r us.

murano, burano and turcello

I’ve brought a wool blanket and stuffed it into my backpack for the boat tour to the Murano, Turcello, and Burrano Islands. We pull our soaked sock feet tied in plastic bags and cover ourselves with the blanket, enjoying the view.

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When we arrive at Murrano, we are shuttled into a showroom, where the glassmakers demonstrate the creation of a glass unicorn. I am feet away from third degree burns. It is warm and toasty; I might be interested all day.

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I am asked if I would like to visit the private showroom upstairs. The girls are with me, Zach off sight from this glass wonderland. As we climb the stairs, I see hand-blown glass, grand chandeliers. There are giant vases and sculptures in all colours. Not something I can bring home in my backpack. He tells me they ship all over the world, at no cost. If I were a collector, I would purchase the Noah’s ark set for Zach, or the Under the Sea dolphin set for Madelyn. In efforts to downsize, this room is not for me. But I smile politely and buy things with my eyes, to store in my memories.

Turcello is my favourite island: I could live here. The water placid and glassy, the overcast capturing this world in an ornamental globe, sitting atop my fireplace mantle. The gelato is really good. The museum is closed, the shops are closed, but there is a playground with trampoline and tire swings, and the children are happy.

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Buranno is as charming as I’m told. Smartie-coloured homes like Inuvik, Northwest Territories, but Italian-style. Enough shops to amuse the tourists, pizzerias, gellaterias. We must get another gelato. The best gelato yet, Nutella-flavoured, stracciateli, chocolate fudge with Nutella. This island is known for its lace, tatted lace, lace runners, baby dresses, tablecloths. It reminds me of our gift opening day. Gift after gift of doilies. It is refreshing that somewhere in the world, this is still appreciated.

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At the end of these five hours, we are all tired. We just want to cuddle in a warm apartment and sleep. First, an hour walk home in the rain.

the merchants of venice: us!

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.Italia 2013 166

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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!

fanciful field trip to Firenze

One thing we do get for free in Tuscany, is the famed natural aesthetics. This place is gorgeous. Florence has its own medieval perfection.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How Hannah, Zach and Madelyn came out…

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Medieval terracotta obstetrical presentations explained to his mini-medical students…

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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.

a slice of italia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

the best italian hill town

Siena

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.

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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.

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The facades of the buildings seem sad and foreboding, also known as Gothic; a contrast to the San Gimignano medieval town we visited yesterday.

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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.

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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

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).