5,022 miles: Italy, Part II

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Castel Sant Angelo

A quick little religion lesson:  Pope Francis has declared 2016 a Jubilee Year, the Holy Year of Mercy. While we are not Catholic, we are faithful Christians, and Rome is, of course, one of the Holiest cities on the planet, so all of this interested me greatly.

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During a Jubilee Year, the Pope opens 4 Holy Doors throughout Rome. (These doors are actually sealed with brick-and-mortar when not opened.) The significance of passing through a Holy Door is best summed up here:

“To pass through the Holy Door means to ­rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone
and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” — Pope Francis

The opening of the door signifies God opening a new pathway to salvation, mercy and grace. Your walk through the Holy Door symbolizes your access to God to receive forgiveness and mercy. During this journey of spiritual conversion, pilgrims will seek to be filled with God’s love so they can experience His love and mercy in their daily lives. (http://www.nawas.com/catholic/holy-year-mercy-jubilee-pilgrimages.htm)

I’m all about gaining some blessings, so I plotted out a way for us to pass through all 4 of the doors while we were in Rome. It was like a full week of Sunday School for my family, but we did it, and there was minimal complaining.

First up, the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’d read that you needed to register for this door; the instructions were partially in Italian, but I plowed through and had our little family registered as a group of 5 pilgrims. Once you complete the registration, you sit back and wait for the Vatican to approve your pilgrimage and to assign you a time to pass through the doors. We were given 9:30 a.m., which is all fine and dandy unless you are on U.S. time and have been in Rome less than 24 hours; in that case, it feels like it’s 3:30 a.m. Good times.

The pilgrimage begins at Castel Sant Angelo, which we didn’t manage to actually enter due to my dragging of my family to the Holy Door. I was paranoid that we would miss our appointed time. Passing through a tent where a man actually looked up our reservation and pulled out a folder with information with our name on it validated my sense of urgency. We were handed a pamphlet which detailed the steps we were about to take on this pilgrimage.

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There were several suggested prayers, reflections, and readings, but honestly, it looked like the majority of folks were just plowing ahead as quickly as possible. We walked down the Via della Conciliazione, past the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, through the Colonnade, and then through the decidedly neither religious nor contemplative security area.

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Passing through our first Holy Door was indeed pretty magnificent.

St. Peter’s Basilica is, obviously, pretty magnificent as well.

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Michelangelo’s Pieta is directly on the right once you enter.

You do a whole lot of looking up when you’re inside St. Peter’s, both figuratively and literally.

Once again, we waited too long to eat and were very grumpy and not in the mood to walk the distance to Pizzarium or Pastasciutta. Instead, we left St. Peter’s and walked over to De’ Penitenzieri. A few plates of penne arrabbiata and spaghetti bolognese fueled us up for a second trip to St. Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus and to climb the cupola.

When in Rome, the Pope typically holds 2 audiences a week:  a Wednesday Mass and the Sunday Angelus, or blessing.

 

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Even though we do not understand Italian, this was still one of the most moving things we’ve participated in.

After the Angelus, we went through security again and made our way to the dome of St. Peter’s in order to climb the cupola. We bought tickets to take the elevator halfway up; I can’t recommend this enough, especially if you are working on little sleep. Once you exit the elevator, there are still roughly 231 steep stairs to climb, so you really won’t feel like you’ve been cheated.

 

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The view at the top is breathtaking, and this is only slightly due to the fact that you’ve climbed straight up a tilting iron ladder to get to the tippy-top.

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while I was looking at this view…

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…these 2 turkeys were doing this.

The climb down was equally as harrowing.

After the dome, we visited the Vatican Grottos underneath the Basilica. There’s a ton of fascinating information in the Grottos. You exit the Grottos back into St. Peter’s Basilica again but on a different side. It was later in the afternoon, and the light was amazing.

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After a quick gelato stop, we headed back to the apartment for a bit of a much needed rest.

We made a frantic trip to the Pantheon in the rain, and were there for exactly 4 minutes before it closed.

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yep, hole in the roof

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rainy exterior shot

Sorry, Pantheon. We totally owe you another visit.

Monday evening, we wandered around the nooks and crannies of Piazza Navona until we stumbled upon an amazing little semi-hidden trattoria (whose name I’ll post when I can track it down via credit card statement). Because it was early (for dinner for Italians), we were the only people in the place, but the servers did not seem to mind at all. When people did start trickling in, we were pleased to see that they were all locals. We’d inadvertently unearthed a gem of a restaurant.

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We walked through the Piazza Navona to take a peek at the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, which our sons recognized more from the movie Angels and Demons than they did from the travel info I’d attempted to pump into them.

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a completely pitiful photo but it was pouring down rain, so we didn’t linger

chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

(no one really likes chestnuts, by the way…)

Day 2 was pretty doggone amazing. I’ll close with the best photo of the day, taken from atop St. Peter’s Dome. It sums up our first Holy Door experience to a T.

 

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5,022 miles away: Italy Spring Break, part I

Spring Break 2016 did not disappoint. We booked flights to Rome way back in early July, and then sat back until nearly mid-January before we started planning anything else. After a frenetic few weeks of devouring guide books, websites, blogs, and anything Roman I could find, we put together a plan for our week there that I dare say rivals any vacation we’ve ever taken.

First off, hotels in Rome are crazy expensive. We decided instead to find an apartment–a housing choice that’s outside of the box but worked out infinitely better than we ever imagined. I scoured VRBO a bit and stumbled upon a website called My Magic Rome. We rented Via della Croce 44 int. 6, and while the all caps statement on My Magic Rome’s site stating that the apartment “IS NOT NOISY AT ALL” is also not true at all, the apartment really was a great home base for us. The views were unbelievable. (We also booked a driver directly through My Magic Rome for airport pick-up and drop-off at Fiumicino, a drive of only about 35 minutes or so.)

looking right and then left out of our bedroom window

the nighttime views were even better…

But before we got to this awesomeness, we had to cross the ocean. Oof. And we had to do it via a connecting flight out of New York. Double oof.

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Russ contends–and I agree–that it’s rather pitiful that our boys are semi-seasoned international travelers yet have never visited New York. Until now. Our 2 hour layover in NYC consisted of a walk through the domestic terminal, a walk outside (danger, Will Robinson) from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, and a photo op by a ridiculous t-shirt store to prove they had actually been to New York. Obviously, stepping foot outside the airport terminal and onto the actual ground of NYC makes it count as a visit.

Alitalia. My goodness. Yes, you delivered us safely to and from your marvelous country, but, honestly, your planes are in desperate need of an upgrade. Zero legroom and seats that are so old that they don’t recline anymore at all.

IMG_7555not a whole lot of breathing room here…and this is in Alitalia’s economy plus section...

We landed in Rome around noon and made it through customs without an incident. We were truly worried about our luggage as Alitalia’s number 1 complaint listed on Consumer Affairs was about their spectacular ability to send luggage off to opposite corners of the world from its owners (and after seeing the plane and realizing that lack of space and very uncomfortable seats should have been the number one complaint, we really started to sweat). Fortunately, our 2 bags came through just fine; we met our driver quite easily, and headed to the apartment to check-in.

Needless to say, we were all rather tired and rumpled and hungry. Carina from My Magic Rome met us at the apartment and gave us a thorough tour of the apartment and its amenities. Before she had finished her introduction of the place, we’d already broken into the bottle of wine they’d given us as a housewarming treat.

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When we went to London 2 years ago for Spring Break, our arrival day was ugly:  4/5 of us were lying on the floor of the hotel lobby while Russ checked in, and Jack was so tired he fell asleep at the dinner table and actually fell out of his chair. We planned our Saturday accordingly for Rome; the goal was to have a quick lunch, get a little fresh air, grab a quick dinner and hit the hay early.

We aimed for Pastificio for lunch (and actually found it), but once we truly realized how it worked (order at the front, lean against the wall and eat quickly while standing; Pastificio is known for being an incredible pasta store with a tiny restaurant-like element to it), we decided instead that we actually wanted a sit-down lunch, so we ambled back a bit to Pasticceria d’Angelo. We should have stuck with the original plan. d’Angelo was nothing special, and Pastificio clearly did look special. Our loss.

We walked down to the end of Via della Croce and turned right at the corner a block from the Spanish Steps, which, unfortunately for us, are in the process of being refurbished.

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Our next stop was the Capuchin Crypt Museum. This chapel built entirely out of the bones of Capuchin monks was listed as one of the top “must-sees” with children. It certainly was, um, different. Located in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucchini, we were thrilled to have found it on foot on our first try (even with a well-studied map, Rome is notoriously tricky to navigate on foot).

IMG_2494Photos are not allowed inside the museum–or in the gardens, either. (I discovered that last little bit after being scolded by a security worker after taking this photo.)

Russ got a little weirded out by the whole thing, but the boys thought it was pretty neat (remember that our little Reverend Tucker loves him some Halloween…). There is a sign by the exit of the chapel which reads, “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be…” but I remembered it after I’d exited, and they wouldn’t let me back in to find it. I think the guard was still a little miffed that I’d snuck a photo.

After the bone chapel, Russ discovered the most amazing thing:  you can get vino to go in Rome. The boys were fired up to explore, and you really can’t beat a stroll through Rome–especially with a toter.

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We made our way past the Piazza Barberini and came up on the back side of the Fontana di Trevi.

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And it was not covered in scaffolding! We were thrilled (we’d heard the Fountain had been recently restored and were worried our view of it would be similar to our view of the Spanish Steps). My original idea was to give the boys quarters from their birth years to toss into the fountain, but that got ditched before we even left Atlanta when I ran out of time to sift through quarters looking at the dates. Best laid plans, right? We scrounged around in our backpack and found a handful of coins, explained to the boys what do to, and waited our turn.

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Yes, Rome, we will be back…

One of the things I really tried to do prior to us leaving Atlanta was restaurant research. I knew we’d be overwhelmed by all the choices, and I certainly didn’t want us to accidentally end up eating at the Italian equivalent of a Ruby Tuesday’s. So I was armed with a list of fantastic, non-touristy restaurants and had made reservations at the (few) places which took them. Saturday night, especially after our navigational success with finding the Capuchin Crypts, I had my sights on Trattoria da Gino (which is also sometimes called Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino). After reading multiple glowing reviews of the place, I’d tried to make online reservations but had never received a reply.

This place is tucked away behind the Parliament building, with “tucked away” being the operative word. We gave the map to Jack, and he took us up and down Rome’s labyrinthine cobbled roads until we found a sign posted high on a wall with an arrow pointing to Gino’s. We then walked in a complete circle two times and still couldn’t find it. Frustration set in, so we broke down and asked a concierge at a hotel, and he had no idea where it was, either. The concierge looked Gino’s up online and told us that it was closed on Saturdays, even though the website says it’s closed on Mondays. (Upon looking up the restaurant online for ourselves, I found a link showing an actual photo of it and realized we’d walked right past it twice. The vines covered up the name and it was dark–because, duh, they’d decided to take the night off.)  We had another rather nondescript dinner at a trattoria whose name I can’t even recall and caught a taxi in the rain back to our apartment.

We stocked up on provisions (water, wine, popcorn) at the funky little market Coop under our apartment and settled in for the night.

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Despite some bungled dining plans, day 1 was a total success. We saw several important sights and survived on very little sleep. Spring Break 2016 was off to a terrific start!

the goat pen

Ah, the ‘tweens…that newly coined term denoting kiddos who are not quite teenagers yet still not little children. It’s a tricky time in parenting; we’re hitting the mid-life period of those 18 years we are given with our offspring living under the same roof with us. It’s the middle age of parenting; the crises will abound.

Gone are the mornings filled with fingerpainting and Gymboree classes. Franklin and the Backyardigans are replaced by the awfulness that is Victorious and iCarly. Late afternoon jam sessions are now fueled by the likes of Shawn Mendes and Imagine Dragons, instead of the innocuous Justin Roberts and Frances England. Long gone are the afternoon naps.

But the funny is still there, although now some of it has morphed from cute-funny to cringe-worthy-funny.

Take, for instance, our inaugural ‘tween Topic of Awkwardness: body odor.

I picked my sons up from sleep-away camp last summer, so excited to have them back with me and to hear the stories of their adventures in the mountains of North Carolina that I didn’t even mind the 2-and-a-half hour trip up there. But before we’d even made it back down the mountain–barely ten minutes into the return trip–my car smelled like a goat pen.

We barreled down I-85 with the windows cracked open, despite the pouring rain. I assumed the stench was wafting up from their trunks, stuffed with a week’s worth of sweaty, filthy, mildewy, unwashed clothing. What I didn’t realize was that this magnificently gross smell was just the tip of the iceberg. The odor has followed us, permanently, from that day forward, drifting up from the back seat after school, after baseball games, after birthday parties. Add the powdery, pale pink, baby-fresh scent of Johnson & Johnson’s to the growing list of things that we’ve now outgrown.

When I was this age, my dad used to tell me that I smelled like Mother Nature–which I took as a compliment. I must smell green and springy, like hide-and-seek and freeze tag with a splash of softball and climbed tree, all happy and joyous things, I thought.

Mother Nature definitely does not smell like that. Mother Nature smells damp, musky, and earthy, like mushrooms and soil–the undeniable smell of ‘tweenage boy.

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Cue the first awkward discussion between mom and son:  the deodorant talk.

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Jack hid his head under his pillow and giggled through the whole, 20-second gentle suggestion of the benefits of smelling less piquant. The next day, I plunked a green Mennon Speed Stick on his bathroom counter while he was at school. The day after that, Tucker swiped it; in his mind, he and Jack are twins born 19 months apart, so if Jack needed deodorant, then he certainly did, too. Thus, the second Speed Stick entered our house, where it sat unused–nay, unopened even–for several weeks.

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Cue the second awkward discussion between mom and son. Apparently Speed Stick was not the cleaner smell Jack had in mind. “Hey, that’s fair,” I thought and then went a little crazy. You see, after decades of flip-flopping between the overpoweringly fake perfumed scents of Degree and Secret, I recently stumbled upon a true extravagance: Donna Karan Cashmere Mist. Designer deodorant. Utterly ridiculous. Utterly worth every penny. I speak the truth.

So the Speed Stick was replaced on Jack’s counter by a stick of Calvin Klein Be deodorant, which smelled youthful and happy and crisp and faintly like an old crush I had back in the early ’90’s. Jack deemed it acceptable, and, taking that first baby-step towards adolescence, began to wear it every day.

I’d tamed the goat pen.

Briefly.

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Go Mom!

Jack returned from a trip to Washington DC with Mother Nature dragging along behind him. Upon further inquiry, it seems our new pal Calvin had been left behind in a hotel somewhere in Virginia. Lesson learned:  no 11 year old needs expensive deodorant, no matter how nice it smells.

We headed off to the K-Roger, and I deposited Jack at the deodorant aisle with instructions to pick one while I did the rest of the grocery shopping.

Twenty minutes later, after sniffing every single option the shelves had to offer, he came back with this:

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And that, dear reader, is why my car, my house, my every waking moment no longer smells like a goat pen.

Instead, it resonates with eau de goat pen…during breeding season.

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I kid you not.

reading round-up 2015, part II

Half the year has flown by, and for the first time in ages, it looks like I might be able to read 50 books in a year again. Here’s a run-down of what’s been on my shelf since April began.

Euphoria by Lily King. I really wanted to like this one more; the premise (3 anthropologists conducting a field study in a remote area of New Guinea and the resulting love triangle they endure) was enticing and, out of the gate, the locale was fascinating. Then the novel turned into a treatise on tribal sexuality which was a bit much for me. I know I’m in the minority here on this one; it’s worth reading for the parts on life as an outsider living amongst an off-the-grid tribe, but when it shifts over to more philosophical thoughts on all varieties of conjugal relationships, I wound up skimming.

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario. This one must be read in print, not on an e-reader, because it’s chock full of Addario’s war photography which is absolutely stunning. Plus, the pages are printed on thick, sleek paper, so the book feels terrific in your hands. Addario is crazy, and I mean that in the best of ways. She’s traveled on assignment as a photojournalist to some of the most dangerous places in the world–Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Congo–and her stories and the accompanying photographs will make you grateful for your simple 9-to-5 job.

Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horowitz. Coming straight off Addario’s nightmarish trip through dangerous lands, I stumbled onto this gem from 1992. Horowitz’s writing is reminiscent of Bill Bryson, and his true stories–while not as harrowing as Addario’s–will amaze you. An excellent, quick, funny read.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year by Matt McCarthy. While there was a whole lot of non-fiction during these past 3 months, this one was my favorite. McCarthy recounts his first year of medical practice (as an intern at a hospital in New York City) with humility and humor. It will make you wonder why anyone goes to med school anymore.

The Royal We by Jessica Morgan & Heather Cocks. It’s summertime; don’t judge. (This actually has a whole lot more meat to it than you might imagine.) In a plot mirroring real life, a non-royal falls for the Prince while at university in England. Great beach read despite its silly looking cover.

Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin. I picked this up on a whim after reading a review of it in The New York Times. Mahin is a high school drop-out, and her book was touted as a bit of a look-see into Hollywood. I’m not into Hollywood, so I’m not sure what made me throw down the impulse buy. This is a quirky, all over the place read that garnered a decent NYT review, but it felt like a triple-issue of, say, People magazine to me.

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza. This is another book I bought sight unseen after reading a decent review, but this one did not disappoint (again, I say:  it’s summer). This is a timely tale of an older (ahem, only in her 40’s) woman trying to wedge her way back into a high-profile career after taking several months off. Imogen is behind the 8-ball when it comes to social media and the immediacy of internet marvels like Twitter and Instagram (and I feel her pain). This book is well written and funny and hits very close to home.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. True story:  I wandered into my favorite independent book store on Amelia Island post-dinner one evening and struck up a conversation with Dan the bookseller. We traded our “best book ever” recommendations. I gave him A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. He gave me The Sparrow. This book was exceptional, but it takes a huge suspension of disbelief (or a love of science fiction) for it to work. A Jesuit priest in the near future makes first contact with a sentient species on the planet Rakhat which is several light years away. He and a team of 8 others take the multi-year journey to visit them and, of course, all Hades breaks lose. Y’all remember I have a space fetish, right? And I taught at a Catholic school. Enough said. This book was simply fantastic.

Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin. Poor old Wendy Martin. Her book hit a nerve with a heap of people, but I found it rather enlightening, in a Heathers meets Cruel Intentions kind of way. This is a classic study of cliques–albeit uber-wealthy ones in Manhattan–and Martin hits the nail on the head in many of her assessments. If you’ve ever felt like you were the odd-man-out, this kinda-anthropological-study is for you.

Eight-Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave. The viticulture parts were interesting, but the story as a whole was a bit flat. There was a lot of plot set-up that fizzled at the end. Still, if you’re looking for a beach read about California’s wine country, this is the ticket.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. Excellent. Melancholy. Inspirational. Uplifting. All in one. Eighty-three year old Etta–who suffers from dementia–walks out of her house one morning to go on a walk…all the way to the ocean, some 500+ miles away. Her husband Otto, to whom she left a note letting him know where she’d gone, embraces his mortality in a different way. If Terry Kay’s To Dance With the White Dog spoke to you, read this. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, read this. If you are growing older, read this. In short, just read this.

reading round-up 2015, part I

One-fourth of 2015 has already blown by.

Apparently I had my nose in a book the entire time, which was a delightful way to spend one of the longer winters I can remember. (Since I obviously haven’t been writing much, I had to have been doing something, right?)

Here’s a quick round-up of what I read from January 1st through March 31st, complete with unbiased reviews. There’s lots of good stuff on this list; enjoy!

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. This epistolary (there’s your English lesson, folks) is a hilarious take on how educators get bogged down by department politics and life in the fishbowl of academia. While my life as a teacher was nothing compared to Professor Fitger’s, the story did ring true–one fall semester I wrote 27 letters of recommendation to 27 different colleges for just a handful students. This book is laugh-out-loud funny and a very fast read, and it’ll make you want to send a (heartfelt, well-penned) thank you note to anyone who’s ever publicly vouched for you. [Looking at you, Dr. Vance.]

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion. This was a quick beach read over New Year’s. Don is still as neurotic as he was in the first book, and Rosie is still as charming. In The Rosie Effect, it’s far more obvious that Don suffers from Asperger’s (his tics and quirks aren’t veiled as just tics and quirks anymore), and because of this, Don morphs (amazingly) into a more likable character. A good, easy read.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I have never, ever enjoyed scary books. In college, I had to put my assigned copy of Dracula outside of my room each night because it gave me nightmares (true story). So I have no idea why I spent this gray and cold winter cooped up with so many murder mysteries. Maybe I’m finally growing up. The Girl on the Train is a study of nut cases…of voyeurs, of obsessives, of psychotic levels of jealousy. It’s not gory, just weird. And it’ll make you realize just how well you handled that one big break-up you endured early in life.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. The subtitle to this one is “OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought.” While having a huge rubbernecker factor to it (reading Adam’s meticulous patterns of living and germophobic ways was startling), the book also was filled with very scientific information about how someone develops true OCD. Not a light read; the technical language definitely served as speed bumps between all the juicy, “he really does that?” spectacles, but I’m glad I read it.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I loved this book about the art of ballet, the micromanaged lives of ballerinas, and a sneaky Russian defection. The story begins in the mid-1970’s and jumps around in time, much like a dancer on a stage. There’s a sordid affair, a career deferred, a token marriage, and a moving revelation. A terrific read.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I was officially the last person in the free world to read this one. While it certainly had its gritty moments (drug use? promiscuity?), Strayed’s bold journey to recenter herself was definitely well written and enjoyable. But I’m sure you knew that already. Like 2 years ago, actually.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Absolutely beautiful. I read this poetic, painful, heartbreakingly honest novel two times in two days. Seriously. I also dog-eared almost every other page for its incredibly mellifluous prose. This story of a marriage from beginning to end and back again will resonate with anyone who has been in love and had her (or his) heart broken.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. This time capsule of a novel takes place during a hot Louisiana summer in the late 1980’s. The facets of a horrible crime are slowly revealed, almost as slowly as the novel’s characters grow up. I’d read several advance reviews praising this novel, so I once again went against my literature of horror ban and gave it a go. I’d say this book is not so much a thriller as it is a study in adolescent obsession and how we tweak memory. An interesting, thought-provoking read.

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. One of the strangest books I’ve ever read. This post-apocalyptic tale starts off strong, with the protagonist being held against her will in a hospital housing individuals who have mysteriously survived the great flu epidemic which wiped out the rest of the population. Then Part II of the story comes along, and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what happens. It reads like the trip down the tunnel in Willy Wonka’s boat. Read the first half and then move along to something else.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley. Written by a Georgia girl and set in Athens–which were the 2 main reasons why I picked this one up. The premise is there:  a young wife with a terminal illness decides she is going to pick out her soon-to-be widower’s next wife. Though there are points that are forced and worthy of an eye roll, there are also some poignant sections that will make you think about very uncomfortable situations you’d typically care to avoid. I predict you’ll see this bright yellow book on lots of beach chairs this summer.

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre. Go read this right now…like right this very minute. Few of us know enough about the war in Iraq. Even fewer understand what our soldiers face once they return home. This book is brilliant. Painful and raw and just brilliant.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I’ll be honest; I have never read any of Ms. Hannah’s previous 2,398 books because I feared they would be too girly and/or far too saccharine and romance-y. But I’m a sucker for a WWII novel. This one did not disappoint. It’s multilayered and fast paced and has some seriously strong female characters, one of whom runs an underground railroad of sorts to get downed pilots out of occupied France and back to the U.S. or England.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Another thriller chock full of psychopaths? Really? I read this whodunit in about 48 hours, and then passed it off to Russ, who actually read it, too. The novel jumps around among various narrators, most of whom are less than reliable and several of whom wind up dead. All sorts of twists and turns take place…both rapidly and rather creatively. This book is a great, fast, train wreck of a read.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker. A bit of a modern-day fairy tale that definitely requires a willing suspension of disbelief, this saga of star-crossed lovers is poetic but feels forced and overly dramatic. Set predominantly in Burma, the novel waggles between modern day and the 1950’s and piques the reader’s interest out of the gate when a successful New York lawyer–with nothing more than a decade’s old address on a mysterious envelope–heads off to Burma in search of her father who apparently up and disappeared into thin air. What slowly unravels in the next 200 or so pages is an interesting–if highly romanticized–meditation on true love.

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. A dense, complicated puzzle mystery about the Shroud of Turin. This one is deeply laced with Biblical history, so at times it feels like you’re reading an exegesis of the New Testament. The rest of the time you’ll think you’re knee deep in a Dan Brown page turner. Either way, I found this story of an Eastern Catholic priest and his Western Catholic brother (who is also a priest) utterly fascinating.

Around the World in 50 Years by Albert Podell. A few quick caveats about this non-fiction tale:  A) the author obviously has serious cash to be able to travel to every country in the world; and B) because of the aforementioned hefty bank account, the author also obviously doesn’t give a flying fig about offending anyone. He comes across as a total chauvinistic toad, a rich punk used to getting his way right this very minute or else he’ll pitch the mother of all adult temper tantrums; however, I loved this book because of the adventures Podell endures, particularly when traveling to the Nasty Nine (including Yemen and Somalia) and other ridiculously remote places on the map. He goes all in on the culture of a region, too, dining on everything under the sun and attending things like voodoo rituals and tribal funerals. If you enjoy tales about traveling, you’ll love this one. It is absolutely fascinating, even if you do want to cheer against Podell at times.

16 books in 3 months.

(Russ is thrilled that I’ll be cycling some of the stacks of books out of our room now.)

Happy reading!

spring break 2015, part II (“who goes to Cancun anymore?”)

On Wednesday morning of our Spring Break adventure, we packed it up and headed south to Mayakoba. We checked in to the Fairmont and headed straight to the pool. The main pool has a water slide, so the boys were thrilled. After lunch, we headed down to the ocean.

Mayakoba is situated in the jungle and consists of 3 resorts, all very spaced out. In fact, to even get around the Fairmont, you had to take shuttle carts (or bicycles or walk a very long way).

I’d read that the beaches in Mayakoba were not as spectacular as the ones in Cancun, and the reviews were correct. The ocean was a lot rougher, and the beach was a lot smaller.

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don’t get me wrong; it’s still a beach, so that by default makes it pretty awesome…

Guests at the Fairmont have the option to take a boat tour around the property. We grabbed the last boat of the day and settled back for a relaxing jungle cruise. The area is gorgeous and lush and chock full of critters.

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turtle on a crocodile

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crocodile sunning himself

We headed back to our room to shower and get situated for dinner. We had no advance reservations in Mayakoba, but because we’d been able to switch reservations and get new reservations so easily in Cancun, I was not worried.

That was a mistake.

The concierge was zero help, as was Open Table. So the first night, we ate dinner at Las Brisas at the Fairmont. While the ambiance was excellent, the food was nothing to really write home about.

We got back to our room and I managed to lock in a reservation at the highly recommended Italian restaurant at the Rosewood for the following evening.

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the Mayan worry-doll was a nice touch from the turn-down service

We had our biggest adventure yet booked for the next day. We were picked up at our hotel at 8am and joined a group consisting of a couple from North Dakota, a couple from Mexico City, and a couple from Santiago, Chile. Our driver took us an hour south to a jungle near the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum.

First up, rappelling.

Well, actually, the first real part of the adventure was the 4×4 ride into the jungle. Our tour guide called the vehicle a Unimog. It was bouncy, fast, and without a doubt not very safe.

Then rappelling.

Into a deep hole that was filled with freezing cold water.

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I cannot believe I actually did this.

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You know it’s going to be cold when the helper-dude is wearing a wetsuit.

After the rappelling, we climbed an extremely rickety, homemade ladder/gangway type thing and zip lined through the jungle.

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The final zip line ended in another cave filled with freezing water.

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Then we donned snorkel gear and snorkeled in an underground river. Cold. But amazing.

After that, we ate an authentic Mayan lunch prepared in the middle of the jungle.

Yes, you read that correctly. And the biggest miracle isn’t that we all survived unscathed, it’s that every single person in our family actually ate the food without complaining. Even Jack.

After lunch, we hiked through the jungle to another cenote where some type of Mayan ceremony was performed that involved a whole lot of incense.

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Then we reloaded the crazy Unimog and reboarded the minibus which took us on down to Tulum.

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The ruins at Tulum were pretty incredible. If you know anything about the Mayans then you know that they were some seriously mean folks. The boys were fascinated by the guide’s tales of human sacrifice and whatnot.

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Theo was convinced these were bloody handprints on the wall of the temple where the Mayans sacrificed humans.

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While our tour guide spoke, this critter scampered by only about 10 feet away from me. 
It’s a coatimundi. Ok, then.

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Tulum was fascinating but very, very hot.

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After the official tour, we were able to explore the ruins a bit ourselves. The walled city goes right up to the beach. The water here was as incredible as it was in Cancun.

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Back at the tour group meet-up spot, there was a Mexican market and Voladores–these Mayans below who climbed a tall pole and then spun their way down. The boys were mesmerized.

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The Mexican market was the best place for buying souvenirs, but after all the craziness of the day, I was not fired up about bartering in Spanish. Plus, we only had a few minutes left before the ride back to Mayakoba so we opted to let the boys change into dry clothes instead.

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The only poorly translated sign we saw the whole time in Mexico…if you care about that.

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We got back to the room, showered up, and rested until time for dinner. Everyone was very excited about the Italian restaurant.

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But we got there and the restaurant didn’t have our reservation. And I wasn’t able to convince them that because their restaurant was empty and because it was only 6:00 that they most likely could stuff us in the corner where we’d eat very quickly and then be on our way. Instead, they sent us across the resort to what they called “the Asian restaurant” and said we could eat at the Italian place the following night.

Agave Azul was good–and the boys love Asian food–but it was definitely a 180 from what we were expecting that night. We ate quickly and headed back to the Fairmont for the night.

The next day was our last day in Mexico. We spent the entire day camped out by the pool.

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And I’m happy to report that our meal that night at the Italian restaurant, Casa del Lago, was just as great as we’d anticipated it would be.

Our flight home was uneventful until we got to baggage claim.

We saw Dikembe Mutombo in the international terminal last year when we flew home from London. Russ sent Theo up to him to give him his trademark finger-wagging/”no, no, no!” to which Dikembe responded by giving Theo a high-five. We didn’t take a picture though and then kicked ourselves afterwards for not being brave enough to ask for one.

We did not make that mistake again when we saw him this year.

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Mr. Mutombo is a supremely nice (and good-natured) fellow–all 7’2″ of him.
(Notice Jack’s hand…no, no, no!)

All in all, our trip to Mexico was fantastic, and we are very glad we split our time between two different resorts. The jungle adventure was the highlight; it was absolutely packed with activity, and the boys had a blast. The Thai restaurant in Cancun was our favorite meal, hands down. We spent much more time on the beach in Cancun than we did in Mayakoba, but our rooms in Mayakoba were much more unique (the bathroom itself featured an entire wall–floor to ceiling–of glass), and Mayakoba was much less crowded. We somehow managed to get the best of both worlds–beach and jungle, touristy and secluded–by splitting up our trip, even though switching hotels midway through a trip is something we have never, ever wanted to do before.

In a nutshell, we’d recommend this trip to just about anyone. The only thing we’d do differently would be to bring along a full calendar of dinner reservations and a full stash of medicines for stomach ailments. Otherwise, we wouldn’t change a thing.

So who goes to Cancun anymore?

Well, we did.

And we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

spring break…or, London with youngsters, Part IV (final installment, I promise!)

[A photo-heavy, pseudo-travel-guide in several parts, written mostly for family and fellow Anglophiles…in case you were wondering.]

We spent our last day in London not actually in London. Instead, we boated down the River Thames to Greenwich, which was an excellent decision–other than having to endure boat people.

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(What’s a “boat person,” you ask? Boat people are the folks who sat basically on top of me even though we were the only 2 families on the top deck of the boat on the way down to Greenwich. This large woman felt the need to sit on the back of the bench we were on, leaning on me and pushing me forward with her big puffy coat. At first I thought it was a joke. Nope. Classic Euro-disregard for personal space. I promise you her family of 4 and my family of 5 were the only people on the deck. That’s 9 humans crammed into about a 4-foot square space.)

(Yes, I finally stood up and moved.)

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Nonetheless, it was neat seeing places we’d walked past earlier in the week from a different vantage point.

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The Globe Theatre

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The Mayflower–commemorates the actual launching place of the actual Mayflower

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Greenwich was wonderful. It’s on the River, obviously, and many of its attractions were maritime themed.

First stop:  The Cutty Sark (any old students reading? “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”). This ship has been restored and was a no-brainer to visit, especially since we were on a mission to see every boat we possibly could.

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View from a porthole in the Cutty Sark’s belly. Ugh.

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View from a porthole–looking back towards London.

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The Cutty Sark had all kinds of cool interactive things. Jack and Tucker loved it.

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We had lunch at a nifty little Italian place on the water and then walked over to the National Maritime Museum.

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You have no idea how much this thing weighed…

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…but all 3 boys (plus Russ) had to put it on.

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The National Maritime Museum had tons of hands-on exhibits, too.

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This might be the best photo of the trip. Jack, Theo and I were reading about polar exhibitions when I looked up and realized Tucker wasn’t with us. He was across the museum by himself doing this:

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…fully dressed in costume (a ladies’ costume, at that) and pretending to joust (inspired by the knight’s helmet he wore earlier). Hilarious.

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We passed through the Maritime Museum and headed up to the Royal Observatory.

Wow. Just wow. The park leading up to the observatory was unbelievable.

You know that point in your trip where you get nostalgic even though you are still on vacation? That hit us here. The weather was incredible; the scenery was spectacular; it was just perfect.

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The nerd in me was so excited about this:

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I’ve now stood on the prime meridian AND the equator.

Yep.

Total coolness.

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East meets West.

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I told you the park was magnificent.

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Tucker gets in a random headstand.

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Our boat ride back to London again gave us some awesome views.

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We went by this big church, but just missed being able to go in. (Sigh. We’ll move you to the top of the list next time, Westminster Abbey.)

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For our last dinner in London we invited Uncle Beardy to join us. The boys were thrilled to see him again; we took him to…wait for it…Balthazar. Thursday night’s meal was just as great as Wednesday’s lunch.

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Tucker and Jack are completely addicted to Dr. Who, and they loved getting in these (completely useless) phone booths and pretending to be teleported somewhere. Here, Theo uses Tucker’s iTouch to record the moment.

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a very tired Theo in a black cab

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Tuck’s version of levitating Yoda

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The next morning, we left the Park Lane Hotel and headed to the airport, courtesy of the most verbose cab driver on the planet. He told these long, rambling stories that included questions like, “have you ever heard of the band Fleetwood Mac?” and “guess how much [insert British celebrity here] makes?” We all had the giggles by the time he deposited us back at Heathrow.

The best way to spend 9 hours on a plane? Right here.

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And I also figured out one small yet critical element to maintaining my sanity while flying: the window seat. Normally Jack claims it and then proceeds to close the shade before we even take off, a move that obviously exacerbates claustrophobia for those of us not excited about flying. I convinced him that he was wasting a perfectly good seat by doing that and so I needed to sit there instead.

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It worked.

(Though I must admit I was tickled pink when we were finally back over land. Photo below is the eastern-most edge of Greenland.)

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So there you have it, faithful readers:  London with Kids. Not only is it doable, it’s highly recommended. We had the absolute best time ever; the boys talk about London on a daily basis. When asked what city he’d like to visit next, Jack’s instant reply is, “London, again.”

London, again, indeed. (Thanks for enduring the photo frenzy…)