A Travellerspoint blog

May 2014

Roman Holiday, Only Better

Visiting friends and family continue in the Eternal City

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Teatro de Marcello, Rome

Visits with family and friends continue with a two and half week springtime trip to Rome. As always, it fills my heart to visit Italy and I am lucky to have the most welcoming family. There’s nothing like Rome’s chaotic streets, the sunlight (it really is different here), the hum of the vespas and the gentle clanging of espresso cups on their way to the sink. And then there's the food.
I was fortunate to be in Italy in time to join my cousins and my aunt and uncle to celebrate Zia Pia’s (my great, great aunt) 102 birthday! She looked great and there’s no better way to celebrate a birthday like that than with a cake with tons of in-season strawberries and champagne. That day also included a trip to my Zio Silvio and Zia Rita’s home in San Cesareo, just south of Rome. Memories of visits to Italy in my youth are most strong at this warm home with an amazing garden where I undeniably had some of the best meals of my life, played with dogs and many, many cats, and where I sang to all kinds of music (especially the Beatles) loudly with my cousins.

Today, new memories are created as I spend time with my cousin Marcello, his wife Antonella and other cousin Fulvia, her husband Fausto and son Filippo with whom I stayed. They are sweet as pie, even Filippo when he whirls a nerf soccer ball by your head. For those unfamiliar with the obsession of Italian boys, the need to play calcio, even in the living room, is something that cannot be tamed.
Chad arrived in Rome a few days after me and the tourist activities began in earnest. A couple of days into his trip, we celebrated his birthday by getting up at the crack of dawn to see Pope Francis at Wednesday’s general audience service. We wedged ourselves into Piazza San Pietro with tens of thousands of other people from around the world and patiently waited for the pope mobile to come in our direction. While my view consisted mostly of back of peoples hands and their cameras, I did get a couple of good glimpses. It felt good to see this pope and give him a bit of a thumbs-up.

Auguri Chad!

A day trip to the the north of Rome to Bomarzo above with my cousins and below at Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Braccio with Chad.


Fulvia and Fausto enjoying a break in the sun at Bomarzo

As Chad and I visited many of the traditional sights in Rome I was reminded of past trips when Fulvia and I were given nearly free reign of places. For example, and maybe it was just the excitement of being young in a fantastic place, but I hold on tightly to memories of running with abandon in the Castle Sant’Angelo in all its nooks and crannies conjuring up ideas of how fabulous (and terrifying depending on what room you were in) it would have been to be there in during the Roman Empire. That’s not to say that Italy should not protect its treasures the best it can but so many closed doors and velvet ropes puts a damper on the imagination.

More Damianis after an amazing meal at Kosher Yotvata at Piazza Cenci
Zio Giorgio (far left), Zia Rita and Zio Silvio (seated far right) and lots of cousins.




Comfortably situated on the high-speed train back to Rome from Florence, I reflect on the beauty of this Tuscan city. I also am shocked at the amount of luck that presented itself to us while here. We arrived at the Termini, the main train station in the center of Florence without a hotel reservation. In the high season. On a budget. But it was mid-week, I told myself. We’ll find something.

With the typical shrug of the shoulders and slight raising of the hands, I was reprimanded by a woman who replied to my shock at the quote €150 per night for a room. “Signora!! It is high season!” Chad and I walked away like deer in headlights. After an unsuccessful phone call and a linty of “booked” responses from internet searches, we went old-school and hit the pavement to find a room.  Near the train station, just after one of the staff of a hotel told us they were booked, someone yelled down the stairs that a room had opened for one night and at a rate so much better than the €150 we were quoted before. After sharing a cafe with one of the owners later that morning we were informed that the room remained available for the rest of the trip. Whew!
For our trip to Florence I was content to roam around the city and take in a day trip to almost anywhere but Pisa. Yes, the tower and basilica are amazing. The throngs of tourists are not. But Chad had his heart set on seeing this iconic bell tower so we compromised: arrive at the crack of dawn before even one busload of tourists get there. Our Florentine luck continued when one of the owners of the hotel (whom I had recruited in trying to talk Chad out of going to Pisa) said that a previous guest could not use a round-trip train ticket for two to Pisa and had left it for her to give to someone.  Travel tip for those that need to see the Tower of Pisa: go very early in the morning. We arrived just before 8:00 to a serene piazza with only a couple of folks meandering around a 1,000 year-old church and bell tower with a passing local getting to work on a bicycle. And some workers.

In Pisa. Yep, still leaning.

Another wonderful turn of events thanks to Facebook (it pains me to say that) is that I learned a friend and former neighbor was in Florence to perform in an opera festival. Chad and I joined Jonathan and walked the curvy strade dodging the fashionistas in search of what I was told was the world's best sandwich. And it is true. All'Antico Venaio did not disappoint. I still can remember my dreamy sandwich of cheese, zucchini, and truffles on warm bread. You don't go for the five-star service (though the guys behind the counter didn't laugh when I asked them to make me their favorite combination without meat, so that is five star to me!) since there are only a handful of seats crammed into the side of the spot. On my second visit there, I blissfully ate my sandwich with a glass of Brunello while sitting on someone's stoop a few doors down from the shop. For me, it was the best seat in the house.

To top off (or ruin, depending on who you talk to) our trip to Florence, we shared the train back to Rome with the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Thanks to Chad for the paparazzi-like photo.

Going to Italy was an unexpected part of my adventure plans for 2014. But I am so grateful for the experiences, the chance to have Filippo show me the amazing sights of Rome and thrilled that I was able to share with Chad one of the world's most beautiful countries.

Posted by BettinaNYC 15:31 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Introducing Wonky Thoughts

Italy Edition

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It's no use trying to stop my brain entirely from looking at the world through a policy lens while on this adventure. So instead of fighting it, I'll attempt to nurture it with the occasional "wonky thoughts" entry. I hope readers chime in with their experiences, thoughts, and of course corrections along the way. That said, I can't imagine a better first wonky post than one from Italy.

Italy's changing demographics have been written about ad nauseam. Among the reasons, broadly speaking are immigration from people fleeing poverty, low Italian birth rates and the economic crisis that has effected much of Europe's Mediterranean countries. But an underlying component that is now even more glaringly obvious to me is the role of organized crime that fuels the immigration piece. Of course, everyone knows the mafia and its influence on business, but I underestimated its role in the world economy.

During dinner with a friend from work when they lived in New York City, Dan and his wife Elisa, who moved to Rome a couple of years ago, Elisa recommended Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia (a best selling book and now mini series) after I had mentioned the obvious increase in the African and Chinese population that was shocking to me since my last visit here in 2006.

Reading the book written by Roberto Saviano, a journalist from Southern Italy, it is part thrilling autobiography and part lesson in economics of organized crime, (the business model is too complicated for me wrap my head around) I realized that the mafia is the glue between the rise of immigration in Italy and access to cheaper fashionable consumer goods for not only Europe by the U.S. The Africans hawking cheap Gucci and Prada bags on the streets of Rome and Florence made by Chinese workers help fuel this demand.


Certainly, the factories of Tuscany and Naples that make the clothes and leather goods were difficult to work in when mostly skilled Italians labored in them. But if history is any guide, I can only imagine the awful working conditions endured by these recent immigrants. I've always peered at the goods being sold on Canal Street in Manhattan with more than average skepticism. But now, I presume there is a similar, if not the exact same, business model taking place in Italy and parts of the United States. If you read the book, the beginning is particularly a page turner, I suspect you'll never look at buying clothes the same way again.

Posted by BettinaNYC 14:11 Archived in Italy Tagged thoughts wonky Comments (0)

Part Three Begins!

Nica Travels and Spanish School

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I had read that all of Nicaragua wakes up at 5:00 am. My first morning here proved that tenfold. It was a Saturday just shy of 4:45am and the sounds of a marching band, fireworks and celebratory gunshots competed with the roosters under our window to ensure the visitors from the north were awake.

In our first days in Central American we've found everyone to be generous and full of smiles. Chad and I enrolled in a Spanish school called La Mariposa that is also an eco-hotel, animal rescue, farm and runs a handful of community oriented projects. The school is a gem of a place and we're really enjoying our Spanish classes.

I was fortunate on our first full day to be at the school while most of the students were off on a day trip allowing me to join the school's founder Paulette for a hike with about a dozen of the more than twenty dogs that live here. We reached the top of hill to be rewarded with an amazing view of the Masaya region where I got my the first glimpse of a volcano. Paulette, a social worker from the UK set up La Mariposa about 10 years ago after having spent years traveling here. Hearing about her dedication to creating a businesses committed to socially and environmentally just practices was a perfect transition into this adventure.

We've decided to do a home-stay versus the other boarding options (eco-hotel or cabanas) because we wanted to be exposed to the language and culture of Nicaraguans. And it fit nicely into our Central American budget. Our new Nicaraguan family could not be kinder. Hernaldo, the father is a bounty of knowledge as his family has been in the region for generations. He speaks proudly of his garden and fruit trees with my favorite being the handful of avocado trees that periodically drop its goodies at my feet. His wife Aura Maria has never ending patience with my broken Spanish and delivers up amazing meals from a kitchen that most American's wouldn't recognize. Their granddaughters (one is nearly 2 years-old and the other around 20 years-old) that live with them are charming. The baby, Angelina has finally started to warm up to us, especially Chad affectionately calling him "Chad-ee" and Miracela is at university in Managua studying English. This makes for wonderful conversations when she is there and she helps us learn cool words Nicaraguan kids use like "tuani" that means awesome.

This first week also introduced us to the magical Laguna de Apoyo about 45 minutes south of our town, La Concepcion. Swimming in a lake that some believe has healing powers was just what I needed after a very hectic beginning. The water is warm because the lake is inside the crater of a volcano. Resting with a cold beer and reading while swinging in a hammock is just what what the doctor ordered!


Sunsetting over Volcan Masaya

Last night we had a night hike on the Volcano Masaya. It was the first time I had been near an active volcano and it is stunning. Albeit it a bit noxious. We learned that the community that lives closest to the volano, Panama, must endure chronic health problems and serious infrastructure issues since the gases from the volcano eat through everything, even nails.

I am happy to say that as we round out week two in Nicaragua, I am settling into a groove (Spanish classes in the morning, activities or relaxing in the afternoon), enjoying immensely the abundant wildlife, new friends and I just might be learning to tolerate cold bucket baths!

Posted by BettinaNYC 16:42 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged spanish school la mariposa Comments (4)

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