Friday, July 24, 2015

Don't Super-Size Me: Adventures in Itay, Part 3

On our third day in Italy, we hopped a local train from Bologna to Venice. About an hour an a half later, we were greeted by the Grand Canal. Amazing. Jason and I were thrilled to finally be in Venice, but as we stood there taking in the famous city, I began to realize that the guide books we'd brought with us were hardly a match for its reality. A seeming endless stream of tourists surged towards the bridge towards a proliferation of souvenir stands.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed. Jack, however, was in heaven. Not only were there rows and rows of cheap bling, but before us loomed the ultimate sign of Western civilization: The Golden Arches. I could not believe that the zoning commission of Venice would allow fast food in this historic city, but there was McDonald's in all its American super-size-me glory.

"Mom, can I get chicken nuggets?" Jack asked.
A gondola ride is classic Venice ...

"No!" I cried. "Not here! Not in Venice! You are NOT eating at McDonald's in Venice!"

Jack shrugged and stuck out his bottom lip in complaint. I thought that was that.

Soon, we were lost in the maze that is Venice. We became tangled in the Jewish Ghetto while seeking a specific gondolier about whom I had read excellent reviews. At noon, we decided to set aside our quest for "Luca" the 4-star TripAdvisor guide and found a bakery that served all sorts of sandwiches and pastries. There was prosciutto, arugula, tomato, mozzarella, and salami sandwiches, and pizzas and salads, all beautiful, fresh and remarkably cheap. But nothing in the shop appealed to Jack. He begrudgingly selected a pastry. I heard myself saying sharply, "Eat your doughnut!" as if I were commanding my child to consume liver.

... McDonald's is not!
Having fortified ourselves with bread, cheese and cured meat, Jason and I were ready to embark on the two mile trek to St. Mark's Square. Jack, hungry for more souvenir stands, insisted he was good to go and off we went.

Venice is an enchanting city. There is no doubt about that. It is simply an amazing and beautiful collection of architectural wonders. But what the guide books fail to mention is that there are very few discernible street signs and the path from to St. Mark's (despite the fact that it is the main attraction here) is not well marked. It is easy to take a wrong turn and end up walking a long way only to find you're at a dead end and —if you took one more step — you'd be quite soaked canal brine.

Although we had a map, our trajectory was less than on target. We wended our way through the markets and past the lovely piazzas and apartments following our fellow pilgrims, some of whom were equally as clueless as we were, and therefore also very lost.
Jack learns his first Italian phrase in a Poggio,
a little Tuscan restaurant:
"Pizza Quattro Formaggio" per favore!

The other thing that guidebooks fail to mention about this city of intrigue and beauty is that — in mid-June — it is hot, really hot, with morning temperatures climbing into the 90s. Walking through the city at mid-day is not exactly the romantic stroll one might imagine when one thinks of Venice. And there we were, sweating our butts off, lost and a bit less than joyous at this point in our vacation.

We needed a break, so we hailed a striped-shirt boatman and climbed aboard his gondola. The ride through Venice's canals perked us up. It was, after all, a must-do in Venice and one of those experiences that you really can't have anywhere else. Gliding along the water between the age-old buildings, there were times when I could just look up and watch blue sky floating by with a sense of peace that is most definitely the reason why people love to ride in gondolas. 

With our tour of the canals complete, we picked up the pilgrimage trail and — despite some set-backs —finally arrived at St. Mark's Square. After traversing the rat maze of Venice, entering the famous plaza felt like a victory.

St. Mark's was indeed grander than any guidebook or photo promised. The scale is boggling to the mind. How in the world did they create these monuments? The impossible detail of the statuary perched high, high on the eaves of the great church are that much more impressive in person.
The further south you go ... the larger the pizza.

We gawked for a long time and took numerous photos before finding a nearby gelato stand to celebrate. But, for Jack, seeing the wondrous church and eating (average, tourist-price) gelato was less thrilling.

We all were hot and tired, but now he was hungry and only one thing would do. As we tracked back through the cobbled streets of Venice, he saw the (McDonald's) sign he was looking for. (Damn those Golden Arches!)

"Ple-ease, Mom," he said. "Can I go to McDonald's?"

After months of planning, we were in Italy on vacation, and I didn't want to spend my time here at odds with my son because he wanted over-priced nugget-shaped chicken.

Ronald McDonald (that sly Siren) led us back through the old city. It was mid-afternoon and very humid. We seemed to walk in circles, but on we trudged, over bridges and past shops selling glassware and t-shirts. While our fellow tourists cruised to Murano to tour the glass factories, our destination was not even remotely Italian. How does this happen? How is did I end up in Venice, ordering chicken nuggets and french fries? In the city that is a true wonder of the world, how in the world did I end up here?

They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the same way, the journey of a thousand chicken nuggets began with one desperate drive-through, long, long ago ...

Jack's enthusiasm matches the circumference
of his dinner!
I remember it well, actually, although it may not have been the first time I rounded the drive-thru to appease my child, this was certainly one that registered in my mind. Jack was 20 months old and we were moving from Grantville, Ga. to Birmingham, Ala. In our state of betwixt and between, I gave into convenience. One afternoon, rather than make my young son wait for a homemade dinner, I went through the Wendy's drive-thru and ordered up chicken nuggets.

Prior to this event, Jack ate all types of food: risoto, avocado, pasta, mashed potatoes, quiche ... you name it. But once he wrapped his mouth around a crunchy, salty, fried chicken nugget, that was that.

I'm sure we gave into convenience a lot in those months as we were slowly moved from Georgia to Alabama. The path of least resistance was littered with Happy Meal toys before we said final good-bye to our antebellum farmhouse. There would be no turning back for Jack who realized that, although the world as he knew it was changing, he could control one aspect of his life: What he did or did not eat.

Now here we were, more than ten years, later trudging through Venice towards McDonald's because it was easier than saying "no." This wasn't Jack's fault, of course. He didn't drive himself to McDonald's and Wendy's and Popeyes all these years. I knew where the problem began ... and —at last — I knew were it would end: With me.

To my amazement, by the end of our 14 day
vacation, Jack tried fried squid —
without being bribed or coerced.
"This is IT!" I heard myself growl, as we turned yet another corner only to find that we still had blocks and blocks to go before finding the mythical McDonald's of Venice. "You are not eating at another McDonald's as long as we are in Italy! You have to find other things to eat here besides chicken nuggets! I'm done!"

Jack had his Happy Meal that day, but it was a turning point for us all. As we continued our vacation across Italy, we encountered McDonald's in Bologna, LaSpezia and Naples, but Jack's requests ceased. He even found a new love: Pizza Quattro Formaggio, which is pizza with cheese only, no salsa di pomodoro  (tomato sauce.) Towards the end of our trip, he even tried fried squid and grilled fish.

Now that we're back home, I can't say that Jack has set aside his picky eating habits altogether, but I came to a new understanding that day in Venice. My frustration was not with Jack, or fast food. It was with myself for giving into a request that I knew wasn't very healthy for my child — just because it was easier.

Somewhere in Germany or Switzerland or Croatia there are tourists who —if they look very closely in the background of their Venice selfies— can see a hot, tired middle-aged Mom having a full-blown melt down about her child's eating habits. Most people who visit Venice return with fond memories of romantic gondola rides and tours of that incredible basilica. For me, Venice will always be the place that put the "I'm through" in drive thru and where the "crocchette di pollo" hit the road.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Stuck in Manarola (Avventura Italiana Parte Due)

By train, the ride to Manarola takes all of 10 minutes from the nearest major city, La Spezia. After being hurtled through dark railway tunnels, you emerge. The first sight of bright sunlight and sparkling Mediterranean blue sea is, in a word, breathtaking. It as as though you've been blind all your life and suddenly have sight. The moment I first saw the sea, an involuntary cry rose from my throat. The water was so impossibly blue — and yet, there it is.

In fact, The Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is a feat of impossibility made possible. The cities have literally been built within the steep cliffs and mountains, precariously set beside the sea. The terracotta buildings are painted bright shades of blue, yellow, red, pink and green and they look like a doll village, something so precious it could not possibly be functional, but it is and has been for centuries. The cities are a testament to Italian determination, aesthetic and love of beauty. Who else would imagine to carve vineyards into mountains and wrest lemon groves from arid ground? The word "terre" holds deeper meaning when you appreciate the terraced gardens that rise to the very tops of mountains that touch the clouds. And to think that all this was accomplished long ago, without benefit of technology or even electricity, for that matter.

Manarola was to be the first stop of our tour of these five precious villages. We arrived on Monday evening and planned to commute the next day to at least two of her sisters — Corniglia and Vernazza — by train or ferry. Having only about 24 hours to explore these wonders, we thought we were being conservative to restrict ourselves to three. But Mother Nature and the Italian Rail Workers Union had other plans in mind for us.

One of the charms of the Cinque Terre towns is that there is no car traffic. Motor vehicle use is extremely limited and is only a few towns are even accessible by car. The roads are perilously narrow and steep, precluding only the most skillful, stalwart drivers. Buses are limited as well. So the train and ferry systems are the way to go, and (normally) these modes of transportation are ideal given the terrain and the port access. But on Tuesday, as we rose early to make the most of our day, we discovered that our two transportation options had been eliminated.

Italy enjoys many customs. On Tuesday we were introduced to the common practice called transportation strikes. The various unions actually schedule their strikes with the Minister of Transportation, so Italians know to check with the proper authorities before they schedule their flights and buy their train tickets. But for ignorant Americanos, the concept of the Italian train strike was introduced at the window of the ticket office as we tried to buy our tickets to Corniglia.

"There's a strike," the lady behind the counter said flatly. "No trains are running right now. Maybe later. We don't know for sure. It's a national strike."

"Do you have any idea when the next train will come?" I asked, dumbly. (Maybe she hadn't understood me??)

"No," said the lady. "You'll have to just come back later. Try later."

She smiled and shrugged a little. She made no apologies and none was needed, really. Train strikes happen all the time in Italy. We could have consulted the Ministry of Transportation website before venturing out. But we're silly Americans who expect to show up and have something work as advertised! (Note: The woman was not the least bit sarcastic or rude. In fact, she was extraordinarily nice given the number of travelers who asked her the same question over and over again that day. Honestly, I was impressed with her sense of compassionate detachment.)

We walked back through the tunnel that lead from the station to the town. During WW II, this tunnel was used as refuge from airstrikes. Today, we welcomed its coolness and shade.

We headed to the ferry stand only to discover that the sea was too rough for the boat to come into the crude port. (We marveled at how they navigated into the simple, rock enclosed harbor even in the best conditions.)

Just like that, our plans changed. There would be no town-hopping that day. The trails between the cities were steep and long. It was a difficult two and half hour hike from Manarola to Corniglia. And even if we made it to Corniglia with our belongings, we would be in the same predicament with respect to the train. 

We walked around the little town, checking out the various shops that sold cheap limoncello and overpriced hiking gear. We climbed up into the vineyards until we conceded to the steepness of the path and turned back to seek out yet another gelato. (The answer to just about any predicament in Italy involves having a gelato. And in Italy, there's a gelateria on every block.)

At first, I wanted to be disappointed. After all, we had spent a lot of time and money getting to The Cinque Terre and now we couldn't even see most of it! Plus, I had spent months gazing at images of the five towns and learning the distinctions between them. I wanted to be angry or frustrated or upset, but oddly I could not muster the enthusiasm for any negative emotion in this beautiful place. As soon as I heard myself say, "Looks like we're stuck in Manarola!" I had to laugh. "We're stuck in Manarola. Poor, poor us!"

To be stuck in Manarola means to be stranded in a place surrounded by incredible beauty, both man made and natural. To be stuck in Manarola means to be out of options in a town that boasts some of the best slices of pizza and focaccia for three bucks a slice. To be stuck in Manarola means to abandon your idea of how things might have been if you got your way in one of the most gorgeous settings in the world, surrounded by the bluest water you've ever seen. To be stuck in Manarola is a blessing. We should all be so lucky as to be stuck in Manarola.

We lunched on the excellent focaccia and purchased biscotti and water and took a stroll to the path called "Via dell Amore." This path leads to the town of Riomaggiore, but due to a landslide in 2012, the trail was closed and has yet to open. We walked a short distance and found the path barred with a fence. Stuck again? Hardly.

There was an empty shop (once the last stop for gelato) along the closed pathway. Tables and chairs remained on the covered veranda overlooking the blue, blue Mediterranean. We marveled at the view. The train ran directly below us, and we were with a few blocks of the station. This was the perfect vantage point to watch for the errant trains.  I retrieved a deck of playing cards from my backpack, and we settled in for a game of Gin a' fresco beside one of the most amazingly gorgeous vistas in the world. We were stuck in Manarola. Thank God! We were stuck in Manarola! As we munched Italian cookies, I pinched myself to make sure it was real. How could I be so incredibly fortunate to be with my family in this beautiful place?

I was dealing out our second hand when we heard a rumble beneath us. It took a minute to register what was happening. The train! We watched as it pulled into the station. It was heading to Levanto, the furthest stop on the line. But this meant that it would pendulum back south through Manarola on its return trip to La Spezia (and the parking lot where we left our rental). I regretted that we had to break up our card game, pack up our things and go, but we weren't sure when another south-bound train would come through. We had to hop aboard this one while we could.

In the end, I was grateful for the train strike. All of my planning and hours of TripAdvisor perusing could not have landed us in this idyllic spot, playing Gin with the Mediterranean as the backdrop. If the trains had been running, we would be trekking around one of the other pretty little towns, but we would not have paused to have this time together.

As we boarded the train and I gazed out at that gorgeous sea, I tucked away a most valuable lesson: Sometimes the things that go "wrong" are what yield your most cherished experiences.