Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cabot arrives and Kirk turns 30

Kirk's recently turned 30! I can't think of a better birthday present for him than a visit with dear friends. Cabot and Christina were here to help celebrate Kirk's big day; they arrived en route from Paris and headed to Germany. Cabot went to college with us and served as one of Kirk's groomsmen in our wedding. There honestly is nothing like college friends! They know you through and through. And Cabot's wife, Christina, is glamorous and kind. She is super sophisticated in that unassuming, down-to-Earth sort of way. We couldn't stop smiling when they arrived.We took Cabot and Christina on our"Grand Tour of Brussels." I am getting my tourist circle down pat now. We headed to the Grand Place, St. Hubert Gallery, Manneken Pis, and of course for chocolate tasting in Sablon. We saw delectable Belgian waffles overflowing with toppings.I even got to discover something new that has been on my "to see" list - the Palais de Justice. The Justice Palace is Belgium's Supreme Court building as I understand it. A perfect place to take Cabot, the lawyer. It was grand on the inside and out once we got past all the scaffolding. And all the lawyers - or barristers as Cabot taught us they are called - were scurrying around decked out in this formal black robe with a white ruffle. For lunch on Kirk's big birthday we went for a lunch of mussels in Brussels! We found this terrific place right underneath our apartment, Restaurant de la Bourse. Not the most creative names (the Bourse is the stock exchange building nearby) but the owner could not have been kinder, a real rarity in Brussels. It was a yummy and festive meal.
Next up - a quick afternoon trip to the town of Leuven. It is a university town about 20 minutes from Brussels. We played in the ornate town square and walked up the main college drag to the beguinage. The warm sunny weather on this trip sure was a big change from the last time we went to Leuven! I just love Leuven!I have tried to explain a beguinage in the past on this blog, but I find it a hard concept to articulate. Beguines were 'religious women', widows or spinsters who wished to live an independent but committed life without taking full vows of becoming nuns. They organized themselves in self-supported 'cities of peace', with architectural and urban qualities. Leuven's beguinage is now transformed to student housing, but the aura of peace, quiet and respect continues. It is a little slice of Heaven on Earth.Karen hosted a party that evening where we celebrated both Kirk and Karen's (belated) birthdays. I baked a carrot cake as best I could with European ingredients. The Proctors have an incredible backyard where all the kids could play and run.
Brady wanted to be sure he had a chance to blow out the candles too so we relit and let him join in the wish-making!
To cap off the day Kirk, Cabot and Christina went to Delirium Cafe for a Belgian beer and to revel in the Grand Place at night. Here's to 30!!!
Thanks for coming to help celebrate, Cabot and Christina!!! We can't wait to come visit you in your new home next time (that is if we can't pull you back to Europe first for another adventure).

CULTURE in Milan

After finishing the Cinque Terre hike we gave ourselves a quick pat on our tired backs, took speedy showers and were back in the car driving towards Milan. While I would have liked to have squeezed in a quick peek of Portofino, we had bigger pursuits ahead. Another time maybe.
When we went to Milan last December it was cold and we were shut out of our attempts to see Leonardo Da Vinci's famous "The Last Supper." So when we knew we would be in the area I called and booked tickets for us to see the renowned painting THIS TIME months in advance. Ever since "The Da Vinci Code" was published the demand to see the painting has been unprecedented. Since they only allow 15 people in for 15 minutes at a time, they are booked out months at a time.
Our arrival in Milan met 90+ degree temperatures against hot pavement. We were starving and since it was Sunday and after 2:30 PM we knew the only place sure to be open to feed our hungry bellies was in the famous shopping Gallery in the center of Milan. We beelined it to a pasta place not caring about bargain shopping for a cheap eat, rather just anxious for food. Connor ate quickly and we let her gallop around the Gallery. She went straight for this fancy-schmancy shop of leather gloves. There were all different color gloves and Connor was literally drooling over them. She watched them intently and pointed gleefully calling, "gloves, gloves, gloves!"
With full bellies we headed to the Scala Opera House in Milan. This place is world-renowned with all those famous Italian opera singers and we had fun pretending to be pretentious in the classy place. The opera hall was dripping with crystal chandeliers and red velvet! It was hard not to want to just sing out like an opera singer just for kicks.
Finally we drove over to a small church to see Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." It is a powerful 28 foot mural that is in what was once the refectory of the church's adjacent convent. I was unsure whether the actual painting would live up to all the hype, but oh baby it was a powerful experience. The image just glowed from the wall and the faces are so provocative with Judas's betrayal and the other disciples puzzlement in Jesus' prediction. I really felt like a fly on the wall at the last supper. We looked at it up close and far back and every which-a-way.
Between the opera house and "The Last Supper" we felt so full of culture in Milan. Connor was of course most interested in the leather gloves in the Gallery and then in playing with Daddy's hat. She will certainly grow up to be a good accessorizer!The funniest part about the trip came at the end when Connor learned to say "Ciao Baby Jesus" and kept repeating it again and again. Ciao BJ!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Market Milestone

Anyone who knows my entertaining style knows I have a tendency to overdo rather than under. It drives me nuts - I can't tell you why. The worst part of this fault is that whenever I am cooking a dinner for the two of us or a larger party, I make enough food to feed my guests five times over. It is an irrational fear that people might go hungry on my watch. I am a sucker at the grocery store for buying two of whatever by reflex, especially if they are on sale. My grandmother would famously buy a closet full of toilet paper when it went on sale to maximize the bargain - so I guess I get it from her.

Well, the bulk shopping doesn't work out too well in a European apartment. We have such minimal storage for pantry items and especially slim pickings in our fridge and freezer. Plus I have to haul whatever I buy from the store along with Connor + stroller home whenever I shop.

So the name of the game here is to right size your grocery list for what you need that day and possibly the next and no more. I have struggled mightily with the concept. I dislike daily grocery store trips with a toddler. But yesterday I did just right. I thought about - and only about - what we needed that night to make dinner. And somehow I managed to come away from the grocery with just those two additional ingredients: chicken and curry sauce. That must be a record for me. I felt like quite the European carrying my groceries in my arm rather than a bulky bag. Let's see if I can keep it up.

PS - Just because this is a random recollection - I am really missing seedless watermelon and air conditioning right now in these hot summer days. Two little things I take so for granted in the US that are hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hiking Cinque Terre with a Two Year Old on our Backs

We've wanted to hike Cinque Terre for several years now. Everyone seems to rave about it, so when another flight deal came about to get close by, we hopped on the big bird and headed to Italy! I have included a map above that shows both the position in the country of Italy as well as the 5 towns that make up Cinque Terre. It is about 3 hours from Milan and maybe 1.5 from Pisa, near the town of La Spezia --- slightly northwest of Tuscany.

Rick Steves describes Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh) as a remote chunk of the Italian Riviera...a traffic-free, lowbrow, under appreciated alternative to the French Riviera. There's not a museum in sight. Just sun, sea, sand (pebbles), wine and pure, unadulterated Italy. Enjoy the villages, swimming, hiking, and evening romance of one of God's great gifts to tourism.

Are ya sold yet? Maybe this will help.... Cinque Terre is a beautiful coastal region with five tiny towns jetting out into the sea. Hiking trails connect all five with paths of various rigor along the terraced mountainsides. The views are the type that bring tears to your eyes and make you happy and grateful to be alive to experience it.

We stayed in Monterosso at Hotel Punta Mesco. The hotel was clean with a filling breakfast, but nothing to write home about. But the price was right which always helps. And the staff were so kind, welcoming and attentive that that is really what I will most remember. Although we actually would have preferred to stay in Vernazza if there had been hotel availability.
Kicking off our adventure, we started by taking the train from Monterosso at one end to Riomaggiore at the other. We poked around the pastel houses and got a feel for the place. We even found a 'built-in-the-mountain elevator' to take in a spectacular sea view panorama. We were getting very excited as we set out on the hike ahead!
Perhaps I should amend the above "we" to "Kirk and I" were getting excited. Connor was falling apart. We set out anyway reasoning that the first hike was only meant to be 15 minutes long, flat, and easy-peasy. It is called the Via dell'Amore, or Pathway of Love/Lovers' Lane since it was the only way folks from neighboring towns could meet each other in the remote region.
Along the Via dell'Amore we came upon a large cluster of padlocks under a tunnel. Supposedly closing a padlock with your lover onto a cable or railing at a lovey-dovey spot - often a bridge - is the current craze in Italy. There wasn't too much time for starry-eyed romance though since Connor was moving around all over and fussy. We made the mistake of letting her walk under her own power and thought we would never make it through the first easy hike - more or less all four. Not fun. But still very stunning.
We brought along our hiking backpack and I was determined we would make it further after so much anticipation for the Cinque Terre hike. By golly if I was going to leave without seeing every bit! So I strapped Connor on my back and forged ahead.
To our surprise that was just what Connor needed. I think she appreciated the snug fit and she settled in nicely. We huffed and puffed not only through that first hike but two more, up and down the mountain stairs and along cliff walks overlooking some of the most beautiful coastline (Riomaggiore to Manarola; Manarola to Corniglia; and Corniglia to Vernazza). The entire 4 hikes are meant to take 5-6 hours total so we hiked these first three in about 5 hours, leaving the most difficult one for the next day. Not bad.
Stopping for a much-needed water and rest break along the path...nice hair, huh??!!??It was certainly our stubborn perseverance that saw us through. Fellow hikers would gape probably thinking us insane, but one foot in front of the other and we too got to see and enjoy it all. I taught Connor and sang the "Zip a dee doo dah" song which she loved. Singing this happy tune helped pull us through. I can't help but wonder how much our fellow hikers enjoyed my weary singing voice but maybe it helped put a spring in their step as well!As we reached Vernazza, our final town this day - this is indeed how I felt....
We arranged to meet another one of Kirk's Ernst & Young Global Exchange colleagues in Vernazza. Nicole is an auditor on assignment in the London office and her boyfriend, Matt, also works in London. We discovered through Facebook we would be overlapping in Cinque Terre and therefore planned to connect for a drink. When we arrived drenched in sweat from our ambitious hike and they still had on their bathing suits we decided the best thing would be to grab a bottle of wine from the nearby shop and uncork on the beach. That way Connor was able to run around after being "backpacked" all afternoon. She adored the sandy beach and running ankle-deep into the gentle waves! What a special treat to meet Nicole and Matt to compare notes in expat adventures. They are avid travelers too so it was terrific tit for tat.
We took the train back to Monterosso and all three of us crashed into bed after a bulging day of exercise.
When we awoke on Sunday we had the one remaining leg from Monterosso to Vernazza to complete the Cinque Terre. It is a 90 minute up and down and the most strenuous - as well as the most scenic - segment. We tied on our hiking boots and our can-do attitudes, Kirk took his turn carrying Connor in the backpack and off we went. I LOVED looking down at the beach getting smaller and smaller with all the orange and blue beach umbrellas neatly lined rows.
I was fascinated by this man fishing solo with the enormous long fishing pole!
It wasn't long before we were again covered in sweat and shuffling around the narrow steep path. But oh my. I am not sure I have ever witnessed anything so breathtakingly wonderful. The hiking route was not at all crowded so it felt like we had the whole thing to ourselves to pace and enjoy. The few folks we did see were Italian and their hearty "Buongiorno's" as we passed were heart-embracing incentives to keep going. I appreciated these simple, sincere words of good day and good cheer. Life should always be so simple and joyful that we would greet neighbors and strangers on the street in this way.
The views overlooking Vernazza as we approached were some of the best of the entire hike...At the end we found a playground for Connor to enjoy. Much earned after all the sweaty hiking. I hope one day she will grow to appreciate what we did with her and think it as cool as we do.I love these "36 Hours in XYZ City" articles by the New York Times and thought I would include the link here for the piece on Cinque Terre. What a truly spectacular part of the world. And definitely worth a little (or a lot!) of sweat to enjoy and fully appreciate!