Sometimes Lessons are Learned the Hard Way

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I have learned some really great lessons while traveling – like always keep your passport on your person at all times, locking your luggage with a TSA approved lock doesn’t mean that they will actually take the time to use their tool because cutting it off is easier, and avoid checking your luggage if you can. Those lessons weren’t particularly difficult to learn for me personally, but on the trip to Italy and Greece, I did learn one lesson the hard way.

To fully understand this lesson, I must remind you of my newly found understanding of my aversion to moving in inhuman ways, i.e. flying. If you missed that, feel free to read about it in this blog post.

On this trip with EF Tours, we toured Italy AND Greece. So after our wonderful evening in Pisa, we took a ferry from Ancona, Italy to Igoumenitsa, Greece. We took a bus from Florence to Ancona, which took about 3 1/2 hours. Loading up the ferry took nearly just as long, but it was fun to explore. This was the first time I’d ever taken a ferry of that size. It was basically a small town! The rooms were basically glorified closets, but there were multiple dinning rooms, entertainment areas, gaming rooms (for kids and adults), and countless decks to explore a 365 degree view of the Italian coastline and then nothing but the Adriatic Sea. It was beautiful!

Well.. back to my lesson…

So, I bummed some motion sickness medicine from a student and looked forward to a puke-less trip across the Adriatic Sea. A little bit later, the chaperones met up on the top deck to sit and chat until it was time for dinner. One of the parents had purchased a bottle of wine in Florence and we all sat down to share the bottle– about eight adults drinking one bottle of wine. I had about the equivalent of a Dixie cup’s worth of red wine.

And… you guessed it… about 15 minutes later I was drunker than a skunk, not a sensation I am super familiar with, and definitely not a sensation I enjoyed. I hardly ate any food due to the world spinning and wobbling simultaneously. I went to bed at about 7pm and slept until the next morning.

SO… lesson learned… motion sickness medicine and booze, even in small amounts, DO NOT MIX!

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My last unintoxicated view from the ship

The Enchanting Magic of Pisa

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On the epic trip that EF prepared for us, we were not “supposed” to go to Pisa. However, after we requested a side trip, our tour guide agreed to take us the Friday night after we had been in Florence.  I nearly didn’t go because it was an extra fee to pay the bus driver and a tour guide when we got to Pisa. However, since all the group was going, I decided to go as well… and my life is better for having gone.

We arrived in Pisa after dark, and like all of Italy, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Our tour guide met us by the baptistry (see my Florence post about the significance of the different buildings). She there gave us a brief history of the bad soil in Pisa that caused not only the bell tower, but also the baptistry to be slightly tilted.  People don’t often know about the baptistry because the tower is much more tilted.

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Because it was Good Friday, there was a quiet hush over the area due to actual services going on in the cathedral. Our tour guide even whispered as she gave us the history of many doors on religious buildings in Italy and around Europe. Much of the general populace (during the times the religious buildings were constructed) could not read. So often the doors told religious stories so that the illiterate masses could see them rather than read them.

These are the doors on the cathedral at Pisa, including one of the tiles that apparently has something to do with finding love… that tile is actually shiny from the humber of people who rub it for a blessing/good luck.

We were not allowed to go inside the cathedral as it was invitation only due to the presence of a very important Cardinal… or something like that. We were disappointed, of course, but it made sense why they wouldn’t want a bunch of American teenagers just bursting in.

So we walked around the outside and over toward the tower where our guide talked to us more about the tower’s history. Apparently, no one wanted to take “credit” for the starting of the tower, so there is some controversy as to who began its construction. It was only two floors high when it began to sink. They took a nearly 100 year break in the construction due to conflict with Florence and other surrounding towns. This was apparently a good thing because it gave the foundation a chance to settle.

The tower continues to sink a little bit from year to year. It was even bolstered up in the late 90s to decrease the degree of the leaning, but it will likely need to be done again at some point. It was quite an impressive sight to see. I’d heard about it, of course, but I really had no idea how dramatic the lean was. It is positively impressive that it doesn’t tip over. The uppermost floors are smaller than the others to reduce the appearance of the lean and also to add less weight to the structure.

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As we finished our official tour with the local guide, our main tour guide gave us ten minutes before we needed to head back. However, just a few moments later we started to hear singing coming from the speakers mounted on the outside of the cathedral. At first we didn’t know there were speakers, and it was a very beautiful and eerie collection of voices coming from… well, we didn’t know where.

And then, someone pointed out that there was some kind of procession off in the distance from the direction of the town. At the front of the procession was this very important Cardinal carrying an enormous cross, and people were just falling in step behind him, creating this long chain of people from the town who were all singing the same song that was coming from the cathedral. It was obviously in Italian, so I don’t know what the song was, but it was haunting and magnificent.

The procession went into the cathedral, and everyone poured in… so I did too! I got some amazing video of the procession – the Cardinal, other important religious looking people, civilians, and also first responders (police, firemen, etc). Everyone was singing and pouring into the church… it was positively magical!

I’ve mentioned before in other posts that I am not Catholic, but Italy has this way of making you feel a part of the religious experience even though you technically aren’t. The emotion of it all makes it very understandable that nearly 90% of Italy identifies as Catholic (even though only 36% of them consider themselves devout). On this religious holiday, it seemed as though the entire city of Pisa was in or around the cathedral as we open mouthed tourists stood outside.

I called my parents afterward (my father was raised Catholic) and actually cried as I described the beauty of the experience to them.

I don’t remember how much money it cost me to go to Pisa, but it was worth it a million times over! Pisa is a glorious place to spend Good Friday… and probably regular Fridays too.

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Birthplace of the Renaissance – Florence, Italy

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There are few places on Earth that give me the kind of joy that Florence, Italy did! The pictures I took on this dreary day do not come close to highlighting the beauty that Florence offers.

In preparation for the trip to Italy, I watched the first season of the Netflix series The Medici – a bit too rated R for me, but it highlights the rise of the Medici family and everything they did for Florence in the 13 and 1400s. Along with a healthy amount of unnecessary sex and love… quadrangles (?) was some of the history of Florence. It is a fascinating city!

The construction of the duomo is filled with scandal, sabotage, and political gain, but dear God it’s beautiful! Once again, the religious holiday made it impractical to inside due to the lines, but we did get to see all of Florence that day.

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This is the bell tower and cathedral in Florence (the duomo is behind this). The detail is unimaginable – so intricate, it is no wonder it took a hundred and forty years to complete this masterpiece!

A short history about the construction of cathedrals and their surrounding buildings in Europe:

  • Cathedrals and bell towers were originally constructed as separate buildings- unlike today where they are constructed together.
  • Originally, the you were not permitted to enter the cathedral until you had been baptized, so older cathedrals have a separate building called the baptistry. That way people could (pay to) get baptized, and then be able to enter the cathedral in order to worship, receive the sacraments, and to attend confession.
  • Baptisteries were octagonal in shape because in Christian numerology (which was very popular at the time), the number eight follows the “perfect” number 7, thus symbolizing a new beginning.

Pretty cool, huh! Who knew!

Below is a picture of me at the Paradise gate on the baptistery in Florence — so there is Ms. Paradise, in front of Paradise gate 🙂

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Also on our tour we passed the sculpture garden of the Medici family. One of the many things the Medici did for the city was finance artists. The sculpture garden was more of a courtyard than a “garden” – but it was insanely impressive, and during our free time I sat there and wrote in my journal to try to process the beauty of the city.

We had lunch at a beautiful little cafe with tasty, albeit expensive sandwiches, and of course a glass of red wine that was the same price as a Coca-Cola- one of the many reasons why I loved Italy!

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My friend and I also took the advice of our tour guide and found a glorious cafe at the top of a department store that gave us an amazing view of the city. There we had a cappuccino (of course) and sat and talked while enjoying the view of Florence from the air.

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Florence’s most famous tourist attraction is the Ponte Vecchio. It is one of the most recognizable bridges in all of Italy, and it is basically an ancient high-end strip mall. I’m over-simplifying of course, but it was interesting to see the beauty of the bridge lined with jewelry shops and leather purses. However, it is historically accurate. The bridge was the center of commerce when it was first constructed.

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The day was sunny and glorious – but there was so much more of Florence that I would have loved to have seen. It would be very easy to spend a week in Florence, and we were only there for a little over a day. There is, of course, the museum where they have the statue of David. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see that. It was an option, but due to the crowds and our time constraints, I chose to see more of the city and experience more of Florence rather than wait in lines. However, on the outskirts of town they do have a replica that was rather impressive too!

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Next week’s post will be about the most amazing evening of the entire trip – our impromptu trip to Pisa!

Take me Down to the Vatican City

After lunch on our second day in Rome, we left our little pizzeria and walked up to the wall surrounding Vatican City. As I mentioned in the last post, we were there during Holy Week, which for the Catholics is a big deal – and since the Vatican is the central hub for Catholics, to say that it was crowded would be a vast understatement.

This was my first struggle with traveling with a group: You go to see the things that everyone goes to see. It makes sense. We want the students to get the best glimpses of a country and go home with things to tell their friends and family about things that they have heard of before. It makes sense. But Going to Vatican City during Holy Week does not make sense.

I’m not sure how much it costs, because as I mentioned in my post about deciding whether or not to go on this trip, EF covers entrance fees within the cost of the trip as a whole.  But whatever it was, I’m sure it would be worth going to during a normal time.  But there were points when we were on our way to the Sistine Chapel that I felt so claustrophobic, so pressed on by so much of humanity, that I wanted to be anywhere but where I was in that moment. And at times it stole my joy of the moment.T  he sites were still beautiful, though.  And I did my best to ignore the close proximity of so many other humans.

IMG_8287  Above is a picture of the ceiling of just your basic hallway covered in artistically drawn maps. And yes, it is beautiful and the history of Vatican City is so deep and powerful. However, the thing that haunted me throughout the entire place was how much senseless opulence there was. In the time this place was built and decorated, the money could have been spent on things that truly reflected the faith of the Catholic Church rather than only demonstrating its power and wealth.

Once we did get to the Sistine Chapel, I was stunned. I imagined the high ceilings of a cathedral- long and narrow. But the Chapel is… well… a chapel: a relatively small box of a room. It is supposed to be a place of peace and reverence, but because of the large crowds, all we heard were the guards calling for silence. You are supposed to be still and reverent in the chapel, but when nearly 500 people are crammed into a room 132 feet long, 44 feet wide – that’s not easy. The ceiling is a mere 68 feet high (in comparison the main part of St. Peter’s Basilica is 151 feet high). However, despite it’s relatively small size, the art is as stunning as you think it would be.

I stood under Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”! Unfortunately I do not have pictures of this, because it is illegal to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. In the cell phone age, lots of people sneak pictures, but I’m a rule follower, so I didn’t. But I don’t need a photograph to remind me what those few moments felt like (they don’t let you stay very long because there are so many people trying to see it). I feel blessed to be among those who have seen that painting in person.

After exiting the Chapel, we walked over the Saint Peter’s Basilica– most definitely the largest church I’ve ever been in. The beauty is overwhelming– and again, the glaring riches of the Catholic church are all on display. To give you an idea of perspective. In the picture below, the letters on the wall are 7 feet tall! IMG_8292

They were setting up for the Easter service with the pope — the covered stage in the middle is where he was going to stand for the service. It truly was an amazing sight. And it was difficult to leave the church, despite the difficulties I had with the gratuitous wealth everywhere.

Overall, the Vatican was a beautiful place that I am glad I was able to see despite my aversions to large crowds. And I am glad I went to Italy with the tour group, because I would never would have braved the Vatican on my own.

Next week I’ll talk about heading out of Rome and the wonderful time we had in Florence!

Rome Wasn’t Visited in a Day

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Day two in Rome was unimaginably packed. If someone would have told me we could have seen as much as we did in one day and still have time to eat food, I would not have believed them!

We started out the day at the Roman catacombs just outside of the original walls of the city. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures in the catacombs (flash or no flash it is a no no), and I am a rule follower, so I didn’t take any pictures inside. The catacombs were not nearly as creepy as I imagined miles of underground crypts would be. The stories our guide told us were truly fascinating– from debunking the myths that the Christians hid there to avoid persecution to telling us about the modern Christian symbols that originated as catacomb graffiti to signify to other believes of a fellow Christian. We only saw a very small portion of the catacombs, but it felt like we walked for miles! It’s truly amazing the amount of underground tunneling beneath a massive city.

Once we were outside, we were allowed to take pictures of the the replicas seen below of famous graffiti from the tombs.

After leaving the catacombs we met up with the rest of our group (who had decided to tour Rome on their own instead of going to the catacombs) at the basilica called Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls – also on the outside of the Roman walls.

I am not Catholic, but this place moved me in a way I did not expect. The beauty of this church was unbelievable! We visited Rome during Holy Week (the week before Easter), and they were prepping for Easter services, and boy… they weren’t holding anything back. Below are a few pictures that honestly do not even come close to doing it justice.

I do not have the words to describe this place. Truly there are none that give explanation to the grandeur of St. Paul’s. The statue of Paul in the outer courtyard is huge – just the podium it rests on is probably 7 or 8 feet tall. The Holy Door, or the door of jubilee (with the large cross on it), is over 12 feet tall and only opened for very special occasions that would probably make more sense to a devout Catholic than they do to me (who is only Catholic if it’s passed genetically).

Also inside (and pictured above) are what is believed to be the remains of Saint Paul of Tarsus. The basilica was purposefully built over the site where Paul was buried after he was martyred. This portion of the tour meant a little less to me since the bones of Saint Paul really aren’t that intriguing to me (especially since no one knows if they really are his). However, the art and architecture of this building are stunning. Gold covered everything, and painted portraits of every pope throughout history line the walls like some kind of gloriously pious wallpaper boarder.

Despite my lack of Catholic faith, my eyes got a little misty as I thought about how amazed my grandparents would be at this place. Irish Catholic, through and through, they would have been stunned by the beauty and history.

The highlight of my day, however, was our third stop for the day: the colosseum. I knew I would love it before I even saw it. Literature and history (and even film) are so intertwined, that the colosseum has been something that has always fascinated me. And like everything else on this trip, the colosseum blew me away. I am not embarrassed to say that I wept a little as we toured the corridors and looked out upon the city. The stones, the steps, the passageways, and the intensely vast opening of the arena are wrought with history and legend and rugged beauty. Though some may not see the crumbling ruins of such a dark place as beautiful, as I touched the walls my mind swirled around the history of the place. That I, Allison from Indiana, was standing there where people before the time of Christ stood watching magnificent and gruesome battles carried out. Just writing about it gives me chills!

My only slight disappointment was that I did not realize that there was no longer a floor. I imagined, as I was planning for the trip, that I could walk out into the middle of the colosseum, raise my hands and shout, “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” at the top of my lungs in a glorious moment of camaraderie with Russel Crow in The Gladiator. However, since the floor was made of wood, and would need to be continually replaced over the years, they leave it open so that you can see all the hidden jails and trap doors that make the colosseum so ominous. There is a small portion where (for an additional fee) you can walk out a few feet, but that just wasn’t going to be the same, so I didn’t waste the Euros.

Next we traveled a short distance to the Roman Forum, which was also very interesting. At first I didn’t particularly want to go. And yet again, I was surprised by what I had thought would be boring. The Roman Forum was a hub in ancient Rome. Business took place there, politics, and even the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Believe it or not, we did all of this before having lunch at an adorable pizzeria just a few blocks from our next country – Vatican City! Stay tuned for next week’s post on more about that visit.

Italy: Rome, day one

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If you are expecting a glorious beginning to my travels, you are going to be very much disappointed.

To explain how terribly the start to this trip went, we have to back up to October 2016. I was less than a month away from my first solo trip abroad when my son got the stomach flu. One thing that I was not prepared for as a parent is that when your children get sick, it is truly only a matter of time before you also get sick. Sure enough, just as my son was starting to feel better, I got kicked in the gut with the worst stomach flu I’d ever had.

At the time I was not too worried about my trip being in jeopardy since my son had gotten better in just a few days. Mine did last longer, almost a full week before all was said and done. However, even then, I still had a very tender stomach for a few weeks.

When I got on the plane in late November, I really didn’t think there would be any problems, but during my eight hour layover (yes, eight hours!) in New York City, my stomach felt increasingly … bleh. And approximately ten minutes after take-off to Dublin, I began vomiting and didn’t stop until about two hours after I landed. I’ll eventually tell that story, but not today.  Then I blamed my sickness on my weakened stomach from the flu.

Flash-forward to ten minutes after take-off on the flight from JFK to Rome. Sandwiched between a dear friend and a former student I began throwing up. I continued to throw up every 20-30 minutes for the entire flight. Fortunately (?) once we landed I felt relatively “fine,” though I did get a little queasy on the bus ride into the city.

So… apparently I get motion sickness on planes. WHO KNEW!

However, once we started walking around Rome (much like when I started walking around Dublin), I began to feel much better.

At the airport, we were greeted by our tour guide, Raquel, who spoke about six languages fluently and is possibly the fastest walker in the history of humankind. We basically hit the ground running. We arrived in Rome about 10am and went straight to the city center.

Our first stop was just a couple of blocks from the Trevi Fountain (pictured above). Immediately I was in awe of Rome. Of course I knew it was an old city, but even having been to Ireland, I had no concept of how old Rome would be. The cobbled streets can be quite treacherous, but they are positively beautiful. It was intense to imagine the centuries of travel those stones had seen. How many feet? tires? horses? had walked on these very steps? I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

One of the first things on my agenda was to get a cappuccino in the birthplace of cappuccinos. So, my friend and I found a cafe just off of the square where the fountain was and ordered our first cappuccinos. We sat outside and listened to the people and the fountain and drank slowly, trying to soak in every minute of amazingness.

 

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Chelsea’s first Italian cappuccino

And it was there that we first learned the pace of eating in Italy is NOT the same pace at which they drive (or walk). Despite the fact that they drive as though they were fleeing Satan’s wrath, they eat and drink as though they have all the time in the world.  We finished our cappuccino, but waited another ten minutes for the waitress to bring us our check. However, we refused to get flustered by it and enjoyed the time watching people and listening to the water of the fountain.

After the fountain, we walked all over and saw amazing things: the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps (they lead to the Spanish Embassy- which is where they got their name), and tons of other beautiful sites.

We ate lunch at a small cafe, and I decided to be brave and eat caviar. It actually wasn’t that bad! I had it with salmon risotto. I’m not a big fan of fish, but I figured having fish in Rome would be quite a bit different than having it in Indiana. I wasn’t wrong. It was much better than I had anticipated!

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Next week’s post will be more about Rome — the Colosseum, St. Paul outside the Walls, the Catacombs, and the Vatican.

Adventures in Italy and Greece

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In spring of 2018 I went with a group of students to Italy and Greece. We spent 11 days there – only 9 of which were planned (you can read more about that in a future post). And I have to say that the time I spent in Italy and Greece was some of the most surprisingly wonderful time I’ve spent abroad. Though Ireland will always have my soul, Italy and Greece awed me in a way that I never expected.

Consequently, I’m going to do a series of posts in November, and probably December, on my time there. I’m sure I will come back to talking about Ireland again, for those of you who have liked those posts. However, I encourage you to be surprisingly wondered with my posts, even if that isn’t a place you’re particularly interested in.

I’d wanted to visit Italy for several years, but it was honestly a place that I never thought I would actually get to. I feel comfortable traveling on my own in places where I speak the language, but going to Italy seemed unrealistic because the extent of my Italian is basically food related. And though I assume that would come in handy as well, it wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to go.

Greece was not on my travel radar at all. Though I had heard of the beauty of Greece and the friendliness of the people, I really didn’t think it would be worth the time in the airplane to go there. Also, the Greek language is extremely complicated. Therefore, I never imagined that I would ever see Greece.

The school where I teach (the best school in the state of Indiana, in my humble opinion) has a wonderful history of taking students abroad. For the last twenty-four years, Cascade High School has taken students abroad through EF Tours. Most of the trips have been in Europe, but this summer a group is going to New York City and next spring break one teacher will also be taking a group to Japan.

In 2017 one of the teachers who often is in charge of trips asked me if I would be interested in going on a trip to Italy and Greece with her. Her usual chaperones were not going to be available for the trip, and she wanted to offer a slot to me since she knew that I loved to travel. Despite that chaperones basically get to go for free, I had to really think it over first. I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to travel with students, or with a tour, or be in charge of making sure teenagers survived in a foreign country.

Pros: 

  • Visiting new countries at a very minimal cost
  • EF provided: airline ticket, breakfast, dinner, transportation, hotel rooms, tour guides, translators, entrance fees to museums/attractions
  • The itinerary was planned out and arranged for me – I just needed to wake up and follow the guide (which wasn’t always easy)
  • The ability to see countries I didn’t think I would ever see
  • There were several parents/aunts/uncles going, so my chaperone requirements were going to be minimal

Cons: 

  • Being in charge of teenagers during a school break
  • The inability to go where I wanted, when I wanted

That last con was a big one for me. I’d just taken the trip to Ireland and had that freedom to come and go and do whatever I wanted because I didn’t have to accommodate for anyone.  However, the pros greatly outweighed the cons, and I decided to make the trip. And to be honest, when I got there I really didn’t mind that as much as I thought I would.

In next week’s blog post, I will talk about our first day in Italy — ROME!