Friday, December 31, 2010

The night before the new year

My ten-year-old twin granddaughters are making believe in the next room, as they've exhausted their two-hour "screen time" limit for the day. My husband Art is reading his latest Lee Child book. In a few minutes we'll start our agreed-upon events for this New Year's Eve: we'll watch "Neverending Story", new for the girls, and "Up", new for me. And at midnight we'll go outside and wake the neighbors with our horn tooting - if we're all still awake by then.

This year was when I started my blog and stopped working. When I took eight trips in six months and read every magazine in my wicker basket. When I had my eyelids lifted so I could see again. When I set my first-year retirement goals and started working on all of them, albeit slowly, with a sense of purpose but no sense of urgency whatsoever. When I started living on my husband's income after decades of financial independence. When I learned how to snowshoe, made friends with my neighbor across the street after 15 years, saw David and the Pieta, offered to join the planning commission in my town, joined the neighborhood gym and started improving my balance. When I bought a Kindle, an iPod nano and an iPad but not a flat-screen television. When I renewed or deepened friendships, and found new ones in the blogging world. When I started remembering my dreams when I woke up in the morning.

It's been a very good year. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Yellowstone photos

I'm pretty new at taking photos - it's been years since I haven't relied on my husband Art to do the visual things on our trips. But this new venture is fun. The combination of a digital camera and iPhoto on my Mac make my efforts look better than they might otherwise.

We were fairly snug and warm in the snowcoach, and the temps were in the 20s on the day we spent in Yellowstone. What I notice most is that these photos almost look like they were taken in black and white. But they weren't. The park looks desolate, but not deserted. It's stark and beautiful at this time of year

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lessons from Island Park, Idaho

We chose this timeshare resort because we'd banked our own three years ago and it was "use it or lose it" time. Brier, Washington to Island Park, Idaho is about 800 miles, a reasonable two-day drive. And I wanted to spend some winter time where it snows.

We spent Monday on a snowcoach tour in Yellowstone. If you only get to the park once, it should be in winter. The roads are closed, so you go with a guide on a snow vehicle. Our group of nine was alone at all the stops in the park. It was beautiful. I'll be posting the rest of the photos I took when I'm not using wi-fi in the resort's laundry room!

We start driving home on Saturday, Christmas Day. Here's what I've learned so far this week:

1. It's all about layers. Through experimenting I know that, to walk or snowshoe when the weather is in the teens or twenties, I need, on the bottom, silk long underwear, jeans, snow pants, gaiters, wool socks and snow boots. On top I need silk short-sleeved underwear, a knit shirt, a vest, a heavyweight sweatshirt, and a hat. If it's windy I also need a scarf and maybe a snow coat. I own all these things, but until this week I had never worn some of them - and certainly not all of them at the same time. The idea is to be room temperature wherever I am - or, at least, not to be wet or cold.

2. Snowshoeing is easy. Easier when walking behind someone else or in the tracks of a snowmobile. Otherwise, excellent aerobic exercise. And, while a groomed trail in a state park may be nice, if you don't feel like driving 15 miles to get there, you can use the resort's golf course as your wilderness.

3. A new IPad will do just about everything except operate a blog, so you only need to go to the clubhouse for the wi-fi when it's blog time.

4. If you're in a remote area and it's snowing, you can get a lot of reading done. I have read two issues of Atlantic, one of Yes, one of Habitat World, two of The Sun, three of Smithsonian, two of National Geographic Traveler, and seven of Time. I brought all these magazines with me and I am proud to say that my magazine basket at home is empty for the first time in 15 years. That's the first retirement goal I've met so far.

5. If there's five feet of snow on the ground, and you keep the blinds open, it's bright enough in the condo that no light box is necessary in the morning. And you need sunglasses to walk outside even when the sun isn't out.

6. If the climate is moist where you live and dry where you're visiting, you need a lot of chapstick and you should have brought some kind of moisturizer for inside your nose.

7. If you bring soup ingredients from home and make a huge pot on the first day, you can eat it for lunch every day. When you're looking at three-foot-long icicles outside your window, the soup tastes good no matter how many times this week you've eaten it.

8. It is lovely to have your living area heated by a gas fireplace.

9. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you could swear your cat has jumped onto the bed, even though she is at home with her paid companion.

10. If you are staying in a remote area, but the terrain is flat and wide open, it doesn't feel nearly as isolated as when you're in the country in the middle of a forest.

11. If you've put all your snow clothes in the washer, you can be assured that's when your husband will call and say there's a sleigh ride in 15 minutes and do you want to go?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We're done!

December 15, and Christmas at Linda's is done! We had our family gathering last Sunday night. Of our eight grown offspring, five of them attended (the others live in other parts of the country). Our meal was lovely - prime rib this year, rather than our customary Costco lasagna. The gift exchange (generic gifts, draw a number, select or steal) was especially fun because everyone had given some thought to their gifts - not a Starbucks card among them. And then...everyone stayed for an hour and a half more. Art and I were quiet, listening to snippets of conversation and grateful everyone was comfortable enough not to dash off to their next event.

Now we're getting ready for Friday's departure on a two-day drive to a timeshare in southeastern Idaho, 22 miles from West Yellowstone. We have snowshoes - purchased two years ago during our last snow, but never used. I found our snow pants, missing for at least eight years - Art moved them out of the hall closet at some point and hung them elsewhere. He denied I ever asked him where they were. No matter, though - we've got them now. We've got our Kindles, our magazines, our scented candles, our AAA maps, and our snow chains. We're looking forward to the four feet of snow currently on the ground in Island Park, Idaho - and hoping we can get there.

I've been using my dawn simulator, thoughtfully returned by my sister, and sitting in front of my light box for 30 minutes a day. I feel really good. I've been going to the gym and doing my balance exercises faithfully. I can see improvement already.

I've been sending out feelers for home exchanges in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont for next September. So far I've gotten one tentatively positive response. And we're exploring our first Road Scholar (used to be Elderhostel) class, in South Dakota in May.

And next week is the solstice, and then the days start getting longer!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Almost winter thoughts

I was wakened this morning by a long, very loud clap of thunder followed by a torrent from the sky. Very unusual for our part of the country. Within an hour, the clouds had moved on and the sky was momentarily blue. But it is raining again, and it will be for at least another six months. Or so it seems.

I get cloudy this time of year. And sometimes then I eat. Yesterday I joined the gym that took over the gym I belonged to before but never used. And I talked to a trainer and got his assessment of what I need. I'm very flexible but I need to increase my strength. And I need to change how I eat. The trainer recommended a book which I downloaded onto my Kindle and started. So far, I've been reminded of the terribleness of obesity and bad eating habits, and all the diseases, and the life-shortening possibilities. And the three tiny pieces of biscotti I ate last night started to feel like poisonous little chunks. So today I'm eating fruit and not sugar and not much dairy, and I'm hoping the pants that were a bit tight three days ago will loosen up by the end of the week.

I gave blood this morning. My blood pressure was 110/80. I said to the lady, "Isn't that great? Thank goodness for Lisinopril." She looked at me and said, "Do you have a cough?" I said yes. She said, "I had that cough too until I stopped taking Lisinopril." So when I got home I looked up when I started taking that med - about two years ago. And when I got the cough - also about two years ago. Duh! I sent an email to my doc asking for a change to the medication. He responded by suggesting I split the dose for a week, then get off for a week, and see how the bp looks. That had been my suggestion a couple of months ago, actually, but he said then to wait until we got back from Italy in November after we'd eaten all the salt there, and I said okay. I'd really like to not need the meds. But then I thought, well, I've gained a few pounds since we got back from Italy and I started sitting around instead of walking because I had jet lag and then I caught the two-week cold that's going around, so my bp will probably be high when I go off the meds, and I always get nervous when I take my bp and it's high. But then I figured, at this point at least I can go back on meds, if necessary, that don't make me cough! So I'm sitting here, feeling fat and slothful and pre-nonmedicated.

My neighbor across the street has become a friend now that I'm not working. Today she called and asked me to take her to the doctor on Friday morning so she can get a tissue biopsy. Of course I said yes. But now I feel fatter, and guilty because I'm healthy but slothful.

And there's a tinge of sadness in me today because one of my favorite blogging friends is taking a break from blogging and I know I will miss her posts and her comments on my posts. I sent her an email and said if she travels to our part of the country she's welcome to stay with us. She responded with a lovely email, but I still feel sad because I'm not nuts about change. I want all the people I care about to stay around forever, and for some reason they all insist on having their own lives instead.

I guess I should turn on my light box! It's winter, after all.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas Present (rather than Christmas Past)

Art and I have eight children between us. Until we got together, my two sons and I celebrated on Christmas Day. Once we had a blended family, for many years we all gathered on Christmas Eve for a meal and gift exchange. Then they all grew up, half of them moved away, and Christmas Eve wasn't a good time for the other half, and then there were grandchildren. So we changed the tradition several times.

This year we're having a family meal on Sunday, December 12. We'll have only three of our offspring but will also have a wife, a significant other and two to four grandchildren. We buy gifts for all ten of our grandchildren, stepgrandchildren and grandchildren's halfsiblings. For the family gathering, each adult brings a generic gift with a value of $20 or less, and we do the "draw numbers, choose a gift or steal" routine. That works well for our family's current configuration.

Once the 12th has past, Art and I are finished with the family Christmas. In previous years this has been hard for me. Last year I decorated a live tree with all the old ornaments - the ones I collected when my two boys were growing up. When I finished, I felt so sad I started to cry. I was thinking about and wishing for Christmas Past. So I took down all the ornaments and put the live tree in the yard.

This year we drove into the country to buy a dozen poinsettias, as usual. Today we put up 19 stockings on the banister, set out the nativity set and put up all the decorations except a tree. It looks good, and I don't feel sad.

On December 17th Art and I will attempt another road trip - this one to Island Park, Idaho, where we will be in a two-bedroom timeshare 22 miles from West Yellowstone. One of the days we're there we'll take a snowcoach trip inside Yellowstone. We're taking the snowshoes we bought two years ago that we've never used, plus our Kindles, a dozen magazines, a jigsaw puzzle, my laptop, and half of the poinsettias. I expect it to be cold, with snow, and I think we'll have a quiet, comfortable week before Christmas. On Christmas Day we'll start our two-day drive home.

This plan sounds good to me. It lets me live in Christmas Present instead of pining for Christmas Past. Which I now remember as being wonderful sometimes and just wretched at others (like for two or three years after my divorce). Christmas Present is what we make of it, and I like the one we're making this year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I think I may have had enough

I think I may have had enough of traveling, for now at least. Since June 25 I have taken trips to San Antonio, Whistler, Southern California, Alaska, Maine, Italy, and Alaska again. That 's seven times I've left home for two days to three weeks. We still have three more trips scheduled - to eastern Idaho over Christmas, to Mexico for a week in January, and to the Washington coast for a week in February. And I' m chagrined to admit I' m not looking forward to any of them yet - not even to the warmth of Puerto Vallarta.

Art and I were talking today about how our travel ideas have become more refined with this series of times away. We still prefer times when we interact with locals - which rarely happens when we're with a group, as in Italy. We still prefer to make our own meals rather than eating at expensive restaurants. We like to find our own way. It's easier to do that when English is the native language, of course, but not as interesting as when we're feeling our way along with two or three words and a pocket dictionary. So I expect our next trip of more than a week will be a road trip, which we've never done together. To the midwest, probably, in the spring.

I was travel starved, I guess, after working at the same job for 20 years. And now I am full. I'm ready to be home, to go through closets, to load all our CDs into my iMac, to look up some really easy recipes for soup. And to get back to my normally scheduled activities.

That's good, I think. There are other things I want to do now that I' m not working. I've gotten back to work on my online ESL class. I' m working a lot on genealogy. I've written a couple of pieces for submission to somewhere. I'm scheduled to work this Saturday at a Habitat for Humanity build. I' ll probably take a mediation class in January. All these things I didn't have time for when we were on the road.

November is usually our rainiest month. I'm indoors a lot - it' s hard to go for a walk when it' s dreary out. I' m more inclined to stay indoors. But also to eat. And to sleep late. And to read. For a woman who lived by a to-do list, I'm becoming a slacker. As a matter of fact, there are a few things I have to do that I didn't put on my list! How times change.

Art and I will be giving blood next week at my former workplace. I see my former colleagues and I think they look caged. I never noticed that when I worked there. I must have looked that way too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The day before

We are in Kenai, Alaska for the next few days. We successfully escaped from Seattle right in the middle of its frigid, trafficky storm, at 3 a.m. on an icy interstate. We waited for two hours for a delayed flight to Alaska, and once we finished our final travel leg we waited for five hours for our luggage. We're experiencing rain, temps in the 30s and seven hours of light each day.

Park City, which was original holiday destination, is in a blizzard. My friends have been snowed in for four days and the high today will be 8 degrees.

We didn't know where we would be for Thanksgiving, or whether roads would be passable. We just knew what we wanted to do. It could just as easily have turned out that we stayed home on Thanksgiving. One jackknifed truck, or one accident, or one airport closure.

We made plans, but we didn't count on them. And things have turned out okay.

I'm looking back on the five months since I left my job. I had three goals for my first year: to learn to teach English as a second language, to get mediation training, and to help build a house for Habitat for Humanity. So far, none of those things have happened. I've started on two of them, but just barely.

What I've done instead is taken six trips, written a bunch of blog entries and a couple of pieces for publication, done a lot of reading, and taken a class on the history of Seattle. Most important, I've learned to how to live with time and quiet.

My plans are good ideas, but they don't necessarily happen. And for me to live well with myself, that needs to be okay. So far, it is.

Art and I will be spending tomorrow with my sister Alyx and my cousin Georgia and their husbands Virgil and Alan. Our parents are all gone now, along with the intergenerational tensions, so we laugh and banter and eat and are grateful for family present. A "memory maker" for each person is included in the dinner menu. Not one of the ten children we have will be with us, and that will be okay.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The cold

I have a cold. I've had it for at least a week. I took Airborne when it first started, and for four days it didn't advance. Then I stopped taking the Airborne and the cold resumed, as if the Airborne was just a postponement.

I'm okay with colds. They're predictable in symptom and length. Now that I'm not working, I don't have to go to work - or anywhere - when the cold is working itself out. So I stayed home a lot this week. Read, played Sudoku, worked on genealogy. Today I finally even wrote an article about the crew from our September schooner cruise. Pay no attention to the pile of balled-up kleenexes on my computer table.

We have changed our Thanksgiving plans. We were going to drive from Seattle to Park City, Utah to spend a week with old friends, but the weather worsened and we finally decided the stress would be too great to drive 900 miles in two days on snow and sub-freezing, black ice temperatures. So instead, we're using frequent flyer miles for a trip to Alaska to spend the time with family.

I'm big on keeping my commitments, so this change of plans bothers me. Even though people are saying, "It's a no brainer, Linda." Like maybe I should have spent $800 on last-minute plane tickets and $150 on a round-trip shuttle from the Salt Lake City airport to Park City. But then I think, no, my friends wouldn't have done that themselves. They would have cancelled the trip if something came up that made a change of plans make sense.

So I'm going to have to work on this "keeping my commitments" issue. I'm going to have to be reasonable about it.

Now that we're going to Alaska instead of Utah, I'm thinking about the RV we'll be staying in for four nights. My husband Art is allergic to my sister's four cats, so she puts us up in their motorhome. My sister is planning on buying a space heater, but the temps are going to be in the 20s and 30s and I doubt any space heater on the planet is going to keep us warm. So we'll pack long underwear and wool socks and ask for the thickest quilt they have in the house. It will be fun, she said hopefully.

In years past I've gotten Seasonal Affective Disorder. Now that I'm not working, I've noticed no sign of it yet. May that be a further blessing of not working. Or maybe I just need to wait until January.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Winter coming on

Where I live it didn't snow last winter. The winter before, we got only one storm, in December. Art and I walked to our neighborhood restaurant in the so-quiet neighborhood, and I fell off the edge of a sidewalk in the snow and sprained my ankle badly. Since then I've gotten in the habit of being very careful where I step, and I haven't fallen, but the ankle still gives me twinges from time to time.

I love snow and cold weather. That said, I've never lived where we got a lot of snow or a lot of cold weather. In the teens is about the coldest I've experienced. I like to think I'm a cold weather person, but that is a very large guess.

We're supposed to drive to Park City, Utah the week before Thanksgiving. I see the Cascades are due for snow next weekend, so I'm wondering whether we'll make it to Utah. I hope so, but. Our first alternative is, oddly, Alaska - where we could fly right into my sister's town. Or maybe we'll end up at Denny's on Thanksgiving Day!

Then we're driving to a rural resort in southeast Idaho the week before Christmas - using a timeshare trade before it expires. I'm making reservations for a snowcoach trip into Yellowstone, which opens the week before we arrive. The lady at the resort said it should be quite cold, but maybe not too much snow yet. Maybe.

I haven't got much snow gear. A ski coat, gloves, hat and boots. Long underwear. And snowshoes we bought two years ago but haven't taken out of the box yet. That's on the list for this weekend, so we can try to figure out what shoes/boots to wear with them.

What's happened here is that I've enthusiastically scheduled two trips with the potential for driving in snow - without much experience, and probably without the right gear or equipment. For a person who doesn't take risks, I'm taking some.

This week I have been recovering from jet lag and moving through the normal stages of a cold. I am taking it easy - sleeping and reading and working on genealogy and not much else. It's wonderful to not have to go to work.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Quiet time

For the last four days I've been catching up with sleep as I work through my jet lag. Each night I'm able to stay up a little later and get up a little later; last night I went to bed at 10 and woke up at 5. I think I'm at the tail end of the jet lag, so I'm hopeful tonight I'll be 11 to 6, which is normal for me.

I've sent in the material for the job application. I have no hope of an interview, even, because they advertised on Craigslist, so there will be hundreds of applicants, I think. And that will be fine. However, if I claim to say "yes" to whatever comes along in the universe, and then this comes along which is not quite what I had in mind (full time work), and I say "no", I'm not walking the talk.

I've noticed myself isolating a bit this week. After spending nearly three weeks with 18 other people in Italy, I've taken some time for myself. I did go for a sunny walk today with my neighbor and her two kids, but that's about it. I do paperwork and correspondence and that feels sane and right to me.

I've set a goal of reading one magazine a day from my basket before I read any books. The idea of having that basket in order is appealing to me, small as it is. So when I finish this entry I'll go do that.

There's no place like home this week. Then, next week, we're doing a road trip to Utah for Thanksgiving. Am I crazy or what?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What I learned from our trip to Italy

We've been home for 36 hours now. We're still out of sync with our sleep from time zone changes and the ending of Daylight Savings Time, so we wake up at 4:00 a.m. Still, three weeks away does yield insights. Here's what I learned.

1. Italian food is plentiful and excellent. Tastes are extravagant and subtle, never wasteful. We don't have to eat everything placed before us, but it would be nice if all we eat is of value. I'm going to try to eat wisely and well now that we're home.

2. The days got short quickly while we were gone, and the rain started. It's dark now when I wake up, but I'm not depressed. I'm still interested in lots of things and my time at home allows me to pursue them.

3. I'm no longer interested in exploring options for semi-communal living such as cohousing, where everyone has their own residence, but there is common land and a community building. The 17 other tour group participants were interesting and good to travel with, but I need more quiet time than I expected. Discarding the cohousing option has actually simplified things, because I will no longer need to investigate that option and visit cohousing sites.

4. I may decide to work at least part time. When I was in Florence I logged into a favorite travel company's website to see if they offered any trips in Italy that wouldn't go to destinations I've already visited. I found out the company is advertising for a writer/editor/proofreader for its series of guidebooks. I decided to apply for the job - not because I need the money, but because I really like the company's mission and the job sounded perfect.

5. If you leave a designer cat home, and they're secure in their environment, they are thrilled to see you when you return home, and they follow you around, sleep next to you on the bed at night, and sleep on your computer desk during the day. They purr loudly and give up all pretense of feline aloofness.

6. Traveling with a husband can be touchy at times, and it's wonderful to have separate schedules and activities at home.

7. If you eat heartily while traveling, but you walk three to five miles a day on cobblestone streets and on hills, you can still fit into your clothes when you get home.

8. It's possible to learn a lot about history, art and architecture on a trip, and still be profoundly tired of walking around looking at old churches.

9. Even though you like to travel, it's great to be home for two weeks before you leave on the next trip.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Home again - Atlanta layover from Rome

At the end of this post, the first four photos are from the Vatican Museum in Rome. All of them struck me for one reason or another, though none is famous, as far as I know. The last is a sculpture, very famous and very beautiful. I'm surprised cameras were allowed in St. Peter's.

We walked a LOT in Rome. In the course of four days, we saw the Forum, the Coliseum, The Vatican Museum and St. Peter's, the papal crypts (really interesting), the Pantheon, Trevi fountain, and Spanish Steps. Yesterday we walked five miles in the interest of our final day of tourism.

Our flight from Rome to Atlanta took 11 hours. We have a three-hour layover here, where I'm writing this blog entry, and then a nearly five hour flight to Seattle.

The trip was fascinating, tiring, lots of fun and very educational. I never had a bad meal, didn't get sick, met interesting fellow travelers, and figured out how to flush every foreign toilet I encountered! And I learned enough words in Italian to get by.

But tonight it will be very good to sleep in my own bed.

Monday, November 1, 2010

No free internet in Rome

We've checked into our last hotel and will be here from today (Monday) until Friday, when we fly home. Our internet access costs 5 euros an hour and is very, very slow. So most likely this will be one of my last posts this week. To get a logon and password I paid my money and gave them my passport to make a copy of. It gets stapled to a receipt and sent to the police station! When in Rome....

Our group of 19 is beginning to break up as we start this four-day optional extension in Rome. By tomorrow, five of us will have departed for home or other Italian cities. We had our last group dinner tonight. For the next three days we'll be on our own for meals. Which will actually be a good thing, since our group dinners have usually been multi-course feasts that I haven't finished.

Our tour guide will be with us until Friday. Tomorrow is ancient sites, I think, and then the Vatican, a recommended optional tour. I grew up Protestant but married a Catholic and converted. For over a decade I was a liturgical musician, but after my divorce in the mid-80s, the church didn't seem to know what to do with me. I stopped going. I was angry for a number of years, but gradually took a different spiritual path. On this tour I've visited a number of churches; the one that left its mark was the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. I've come to an okay place with the Catholic church even though I have left it behind.

Usually I don't discuss this kind of subject in my blog, but it's been the most significant outcome of our Italy trip - and it wasn't something I either sought or expected.

I haven't posted many photos in the last few days. We've been in cities, where photos are tougher to take. And in most of the museums and churches no photos are allowed. I'll see what visits we make in the next few days.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Last day in Florence

It rained all day today, so my poncho came in handy once again.

This morning we went to high mass in the Duomo. It was the first time I'd been to mass since a funeral several years ago. We've seen so much religious art and architecture in the past two weeks it seemed appropriate. It did feel weird, though. The printed service was in Italian, but most of the mass was in Latin!

Our last museum was the Bargello - with Donatello's David which is, according to Rick Steves' Italy guidebook "the very influential first male nude to be sculpted in a thousand years", plus works by Michelangelo and other artists. We had no tour guide for this one, so most of it was as unimpressive to me as other art I've seen. That's all me, though.

Tomorrow we leave for four days in Rome before we fly home.

You've probably noticed I'm a fan of Rick Steves. I logged on to his website yesterday and read that his company is looking for a copy editor to work on revisions of their 30 guidebooks and phrase books. His office is two towns over. I may apply for the job just for fun.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Getting comfortable with Florence

We had a couple of destinations today: the Galileo Science Museum, to the side of the Uffizi Gallery near the River Arno, and the Accademia, on the other side of Old Florence.

Art has been patient during our multiple museum/church tours during the last couple of weeks. So it was my turn during our time in the science museum. I listened to a Rick Steves podcast while Art read about the various instruments and gadgets from previous centuries.

This afternoon we arrived at the Accademia at 4 p.m., by which time our tour guide said there would be no line. Wrong. Art in his white jacket marks our spot after half an hour.

We did get in, though. After buying our ticket, we rounded the corner of the first room and there he was. Michelangelo's David. I'd seen pictures, but they didn't do justice to the real thing. I must have stared at the sculpture for 20 minutes. I'd never known David had a slingshot strapped across his back. Or that his hands and head were oversized because he was supposed to be on top of the Duomo, 200 feet or so above the ground, where his proportions would have seemed more natural. Or that for nearly 300 years he stood outside. Or that, from the side, his eyes are full of fear as he looks at Goliath.

The really cool part was that I'd given Art my iPod to listen to the podcast about the Accademia, which he did while we were standing in line. Then, when we went inside, he explained the place to me.

There are four incomplete statues in the space leading to David. They've been called The Prisoners because they look like humans trying to emerge from rock. That happened because Michelangelo didn't finish them. But it looks intentional. The man was a genius. I've already ordered "The Agony and the Ecstasy" to reread when I get home.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day trip to Siena

I am learning a lot about art in spite of myself. I found out that frescoes (essentially watercolors done on wet plaster) get dirty from burning candles in churches over centuries, so eventually they fade but can be restored. At the cathedral in Siena there was a room full of frescoes that was closed off for hundreds of years because it was never used. Eight years ago the room was opened up to the public, and the frescoes are as fresh as they were at the time they were painted. Here's a shot of part of the ceiling.

I've also learned about how two-dimensional art gradually yielded to three dimensions in painting and sculpture, but it took a while. This 13th century pulpet in Siena was revolutionary for its time. Part of the purpose of the art in churches was to teach the people, who were illiterate, the message of Christianity.

I have a new camera and haven't figured out how to turn off the flash, which isn't allowed inside the museums and churches, so these shots were taken by my husband Art. I've included them here as proof that we are, indeed, visiting the great churches and museums of Italy.

Siena was a big city in the Middle Ages, as big as Florence. Siena was located on the primary road to Rome but not on a river or coast. It was a banking city with a population of 60,000. After the Black Death ravaged a third of the population, Siena slept for several centuries. Today it is thriving - again with a population of 60,000.

Tonight, back in Florence, Art and I successfully navigated the city streets and found a restaurant recommended by a friend in Seattle. We've learned enough about the Italian language and menus to be able to order exactly the meal we wanted: a shared caprese (slices of tomato and cheese), individual bowls of Tuscan vegetable soup (base is black cabbage), and a shared chicken dish with lemon. Sounds like a small accomplishment, probably, but we've come a long way since our first meal in Italy ten days ago. We feel almost comfortable here now.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A full day in Florence

We had a fabulous local guide today for our time in the Medici Chapels and the Uffizi Gallery. He's an American teacher, an art archivist. Walking through the art in these buildings, he stopped at selected pieces and provided us a historical and artistic perspective. I never took an art class in high school or college - always went for the music and drama instead. I'm tempted to spend a few months in Florence and take every class he teaches! It makes a huge difference to understand what I'm looking at.

Between tours, we explored the public market - a lively place with the most tempting offerings. We decided against flowers, fruits and vegetables, but did pick up dry ingredients for pasta topping and a jar of truffles.

We enjoyed a rooftop lunch with friends. We laughed and chatted, most likely annoying the perfectly coiffed and dressed Italian women around us. Of the six of us, no one ordered a meat dish. We were ready for salads.

For dinner our group had big bowls of soup, stuffed artichokes(!) and custard tarts. It was the lightest dinner we've eaten in over a week. I asked someone in the group why we haven't seen any fat Italians. They said, "They're at home, eating." A good laugh. But my goodness, the food!

Florence, touring

Usually when we travel, we spend most of our time in small towns and in the countryside. When we were in the UK a few years ago, we spent a week 60 miles from London but only saw the airport. With a group, though, we go where the group goes.

So we're in Florence now. Beautiful city. Old. Famous paintings and sculpture and architecture. Gorgeous shop windows and interesting, tiny restaurants.

But also noisy, with motorscooters and buses and pickpockets.

Yesterday we walked with the group. With the day's theme "Florence in the Middle Ages", we visited San Miniato, a Romanesque church that stands atop one of the highest points in Florence on the south side of the River Arno. Quite a climb! We walked back down through the Piazzale Michelangelo, with its panoramic views of the city, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, and strolled through the city to the Piazza Santa Croce, where we had a guided tour of the church where we saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and assorted other famous souls.

I think I might be all cathedraled out!

Last night we had dinner "on our own", and we chose a little Chinese place next door to the hotel. Not exactly like our familiar place in Washington State, but good enough. And we don't gather with the group in the morning until 10:30, so we'll have plenty of time to sleep.

I love Italy and am glad for the city opportunity. But so far, my heart is still out there in the countryside of Umbria.
Just outside the walls of Florence

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Assisi to Florence

On the way to Florence, we took a ferry to Isola Maggiore, the only inhabited island on Lake Trasimeno, with a current population of 35. St Francis lived on the island as a hermit from 1211. Today it looked like an off-season place.

On the way back from the island, we mingled happily with a classful of Italian teenagers on a field trip with their mathematics instructor. They sang to us, we sang to them, we all sang together on "Yellow Submarine" and "Volare". Love the serendipity of travel!

We'll be in Florence for six nights, I think. The Strozzi Palace Hotel is a boutique hotel situated right in the oldest part of Florence historical center, in a lively pedestrian area. Art set out to do the laundry and I went looking for an optical shop to fix my glasses, which got sat on back in Orvieto. I got lost and ended up at the laundromat, where Art was holding forth with other English-speaking travelers while he waited for our two loads to be done. I went back to the hotel, took another look at the map, and found the optical shop.

Our group took a short historical walk on the way to dinner. There's a richness in this city we'll be exploring all week.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Francis and Assisi

For some reason I never knew St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy man and, in his youth, was a "bad boy". At a certain point he narrowed his goal: "to walk in the footsteps of Jesus".

Today we visited the basilica built two years after his death to honor him. One of the finest tour guides I've ever experienced - knowledge of Francis' life and of art. All delivered in a low voice into my ear via headphone. I converted to Catholicism as a young woman and left the church 20 years later after a divorce. Today I was reminded again of the simplicity of the original message of Jesus.

Assisi is a hill town, built on rock. The hills are mostly steep and, it seems, mostly up. We walked four miles today on a self-guided walking tour suggested by our Rick Steves guide to Italy.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant two alleyways away from the central square. The proprietor noticed my Rick Steves book, brought me eight business cards in a torrent of Italian I didn't understand. Except I did. She wanted me to get one of those cards to Rick Steves. If a business gets visited by him or someone in his organization, and gets included in a subsequent edition of the guidebook, the business will thrive. I told her I would take the card to him. And I will. His office is two towns over from where we live.

Tomorrow we leave for Florence and a laundromat!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Olive picking in Agello

Our tour guide Stefania lives in Agello, a tiny hill town in Umbria. She made arrangements for our group to pick olives and then take them to the mill for the oil to be extracted.

Before the olives are picked from a tree, a large net is laid down around it - kind of like a Christmas tree skirt. Then the olives are removed from the tree.

Branches can be shaken, or the olives can be picked by hand, or a special rake can be used. The laborer is my husband Art.

The olives fall into the netting and are then transferred into baskets for transport to the mill.

We watched the milling process and each participant received a bottle of brand new olive oil.

Usually when we travel, after five or six days I become so relaxed I feel boneless.

I am there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Travel day - Orvieto to Assisi

Traveling through Umbria today, we saw miles and miles of countryside that photos can't do justice to. I wanted to doze but didn't want to miss a single glorious scene out the window.

Our first stop was at a 12th century monastery converted to an Alice in Wonderland type place by an eccentric architect, owned for the last 22 years by a couple of men who reconstructed it, who now live there and give tours of the place. The architect had talent, but the outpouring of his creativity went into a place he never expected the public to see. It was a tribute to vanity and oddly disturbing to me.

Lunch was at an agritourismo place. The Italian government, seeking to save farms from being abandoned and falling into ruin, offered 150,000 euros to people who would move to the countryside, fix up the farms and develop some kind of business that would create jobs and contribute to tourism. This place was an idyllic restaurant. We had our usual multi-course meal: antipasto, first course pasta, second course meat dish, and dessert. This week I've learned to eat only what I really want of each course so I have room for the next. Even then, limiting my intake is a challenge.

We arrived at Assisi around 5. This is the place where St. Francis was born and is buried. Born to a wealthy family, he renounced the material and lived to serve the poor. Now, the entrance to the city is lined with tour buses and souvenir stands. The steep streets invite visitors to drink and dine and buy. I remarked to a fellow traveler that many have benefitted materially from Francis' presence in this place in the 12th century.

Our hotel is on a steep hill, midway up a flight of stairs. In all our travels, we've had only one hotel room smaller than this - in Dublin in 1999. We were also disappointed to learn the town's laundromat is closed until Monday, so we're washing the necessities in the bathroom sink. Add to that inconvenience the fact that I initiated conversations at dinner on both politics and religion with a couple of conservative fellow travelers. I should know better.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Field trip to Civita

We got on the bus today and took the slow backcountry road to Civita. Here's how Rick Steves describes it: "Perched on a pinnacle in a grand canyon, the traffic-free village of Civita di Bagnoregio is Italy's ultimate hill town....Civita is connected to the world and the town of Bagnorego by a long pedestrian bridge." The soft volcanic tufa stone is eroding, and sometime in the not-too-distant future the town will probably crumble into the canyon. In the meantime, though, it's a lovely destination.

I crossed the bridge by paying no attention to the canyon below me.

Once within the village, I didn't want to get too close to the edge.

Today we also visited Lake Balsena, Italy's largest lake formed in the center of an extinct volcano, and ate an extravagant dinner at La Bodia di Orvieto, a converted convent. A memorable day, our last in the Orvieto area.