An Adventure A Day

Because "life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all" – Helen Keller

Last week I shared the beginning of our summer travels. We started off slowly, but a trip to the mountains was just what I needed to refresh my mind and spirit. Feeling a bit more like my old self, we entered the month of July.

In July, we participated in some unique evening events, right here in Rome.

The first was the Bioparco di Roma’s evening safari. Every Friday evening in July, the zoo hosted a guided tour through its grounds, allowing participants an opportunity to see animals that are less active during the zoos regular daylight hours. This was a fabulous, albeit late experience. We participated in one of the earlier tours of the evening. We set off at 9:15 for a 1.5 hour evening stroll through the zoo. Stops included feeding time with the lemurs, viewing the giraffes, lions, tigers, zebras, the hippo and a lengthy visit with the elephants. The tour was conducted in Italian, and even though we had some difficulty following the guides’ explanations, we found the evening at the zoo to be immensely enjoyable. Bioparco is hosting Safarinight again every Friday in September. Advance reservations are required, and the evenings tend to sell out early.

The evening was such a flawless success, that I began to feel a little overconfident in my summer adventure planning skills. Living here in Rome, life usually finds a way to humble you – just a bit.

Our second evening experience was the light show in Caesar’s forum. This was a fabulous opportunity to walk among the ruins while it is far less crowded – and much cooler. Once again, we purchased the earlier tickets of the evening – the first show in the summer months commences at 9:00 pm.

Unfortunately, I realized when we arrived, about 15 minutes before the show was to begin, that I had neglected to note exactly where the entrance to the show was. I had assumed (big mistake) that I knew where it was, based on where I had seen the lights on previous evening strolls. After a half an hour of searching every conceivable entrance to Caesar’s forum we could think of, we arrived at the tour’s starting point. Across the street from the Forum at the base of Trajan’s column. We arrived, slightly winded, sweaty, blistered and 15 minutes late for our scheduled tour.

After a bit of confusion at the entrance and a little discussion with various ticket people, the folks running the show were kind enough to let us join another tour.

The 55 minute tour is definitely one to include on your Rome itinerary. You’ll enter at Trajan’s column, and follow your guide beneath the street to Caesar’s forum. It was a fascinating combination of lights, history and storytelling. The light show covers several different areas of the forum, allowing you to become immersed in the past. Special headsets are available in an assortment of languages. It was especially helpful if, like me, you have a difficult time imagining exactly how the forum looked in its heyday, or exactly where the various buildings you read about are located.

We did not make it to the show in the Forum of Augustus this summer, but we absolutely plan to visit that another time. Both shows run from the end of April to the end of October. For tickets and other information, visit their website.

Our final evening tour in July took us back to World War II. Thanks to the Roma Sotteranea an association of archeologists dedicated to preserving the underground sites of Rome, we were able to tour the underground bunker at Villa Ada Savoia.

The bunker was built in the 1930’s for the protection of the Italian royal family. Its unusual shape and size allowed a car to be driven into the bunker.

Abandoned and neglected for nearly 70 years, it was recently thoughtfully restored by the association and opened for guided tours. The tour is a fascinating look into the precautions taken in World War II Italy. The Villa Ada Savoia grounds are home to a lovely park with dozens of beautiful paths.

Not all of our July travels happened at night. July in Rome is hot. It’s the kind of weather that makes everyone wish they were near the water, all day long.

During the month of July, we also attempted to visit some of the lovely Italian beaches. My family loves the beach. I do not. I am not a fan of the sun, the sand or the salt water. Clearly this was not my first choice of vacation spots.

I wanted to get a bit further from Rome than the nearby beaches at Ostia, but everything seemed to book up rather quickly. So I decided to head across the Italian peninsula to Abruzzo. We found a vacancy at the Hotel Sea Lion in Montesilvano, just north of Pescara. The hotel was fabulous, with private beachfront access, a pool and a very nice hotel restaurant. The weather unfortunately was not. The rain and winds made it impossible to enjoy the very lovely stretches of beaches in Abruzzo.


We chose a slightly closer location for our second beach trip and headed to Anzio. About an hour’s drive from Rome, Anzio is full of lovely beaches. We stopped at one of the first beaches we came to and enjoyed plentiful parking, and rented an umbrella and chairs from a local beach club. The water was calm and the air was warm, we caught a break and enjoyed a beautiful day at the beach.



Views from above

“I have wandered all my life, and I have also traveled; the difference between the two being this, that we wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Hilaire Belloc

Here’s the thing about summer breaks in Italy – they are really long. I’m talking June to September long. That’s three months long. Which is great if you’re the kid on holidays. Not so much if you’re the parent trying to keep them occupied – or the working parent who needs to figure out childcare.

This year, the extra-long summer break coincided with a continuing case of travel fatigue. I had no desire to plan, organize or embark on any travels this summer. None. I didn’t even want to travel downtown.

Ordinarily, I delight in researching, planning and executing travel. I don’t mind squabbling children or irritated travel partners, because everything is new, exciting, different, I am out of the house.

This past year, I was tired of the planning, tired of conflicts on the road, tired of hearing complaints about food, weather and leaving the house. Even a change of scenery was not enticing me to jump right in and plan another trip. I wanted to curl up, grab a book, and just stay put.

The negatives were looming large in my mind – and let’s face it, at least occasionally, everyone has less than perfect moments when they travel.

No one is immune to succumbing to the stress of being in a new place, on a new schedule, in a new environment. Most of the time I find this exhilarating. This summer, I was dreading it. Don’t get me wrong, usually the positive experiences on our vacations far outweigh the few inevitable bumps along the way. But this summer, the thought of travelling was not filling me with joy. I was still in that first year haze after a move. I voted that we stay home.

Fortunately, the rest of the family was not as eager to take on the life of a recluse for the summer as I was, and we managed a few outings. We decided that we would travel in August. Frequently. But the build up to August was a slow one, with only one outing in June. A hike in the Apennines.

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The Apennines are a surprisingly close getaway from the city. Depending on where you are heading, you can arrive in the mountains by car in only an hour or two.

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I love spending time in the mountains and one of the things I love most about it is that feeling I get as I draw nearer to the spectacular vastness of the mountains. They make everything else seem so very small. The mountains are the perfect place to conquer world-weariness.

Naturalist philosopher John Muir once wrote – “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”

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Having lived in Rome for a year, I began to see his point. The city moves so quickly. There is a constant barrage of noise. You are constantly accosted by scents and aromas – both pleasant and not so. Living in the city, it is easy to lose sight of what is important. I find that every now and again, it is necessary to find somewhere to just be in the stillness. The Apennines are a perfect place to fill your soul with stillness, breath in the freshness of the mountain air, and relax in the beauty of your surroundings.

For the start our summer adventures we chose a day trip to Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso – Gran Sasso National Park in the nearby Abruzzo region. This was a trip that had long been on my husband’s radar. As a history buff, he was eager to see the Campo Imperatore Hotel – sight of Operation Eiche, where Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was liberated from captivity in a daring raid led by Otto Skorzeny. The Campo Imperatore Hotel looks much the same as it did in the 1940’s, which provides a unique glimpse into history. Looking at the site, it is difficult to imagine anyone landing aircraft on the small flat spaces around the hotel, but land they did.

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Gran Sasso is a popular hiking spot in the Apennine Mountains. It is easy to reach by car, and there are signs along the way. Of course, this is Italy, and the signs are not always perfectly clear, but it was a fairly easy route.

There is plenty of parking at the hotel, but it begins to fill up early – especially on a beautiful day. There are plenty of other trails and areas to visit in the park itself, you can visit their website for further information.

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We spent the morning hiking near the Rifugio Campo Imperatore. We had gotten a later start than we anticipated, and chose a short but challenging hike from the hotel parking lot to the rifugio above. It was not a long hike, but it was quite steep, and challenging for our two youngest hikers. We returned just in time for a lovely lunch in the hotel restaurant. We enjoyed a delicious three course lunch with dishes typical of the Abruzzo region for a bargain price. For more information on the Campo Imperatore, visit their website.

The region is stunning and definitely worth a day trip from Rome. You’ll come back refreshed and once again ready to take on the city – even in the heat of summer. Our daytrip to the mountains was the perfect place to start our summer. It was a gorgeous location which provided some much needed breathing space. I came away refreshed and ready to take on the next two months of summer. Almost.

You can find some great information about Gran Sasso here.

On the 15th anniversary of 911, I am remembering the day.

Fifteen years ago today, my life was forever altered. Fifteen years ago today, the world that we lived in changed. Fifteen years ago today September 11 became more than just another date on the calendar.

My September 11 story is a small one, and not unlike those across the globe. I received a phone call, and turned on the news. I sank to my knees in front of the television and watched in horror as the unimaginable events unfolded one after another before my eyes.

Like so many others with family and friends living and working in the vicinity of the twin towers, I waited for news. As I sat there watching the unimaginable, I knew that without a doubt, everything was about to change.

I was not in New York on September 11. I was living five hundred miles to the south – just outside the largest US Army installation in the world, home of the 82 Airborne and US Special Operations Command – Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

I had been an Army wife for just three years. Most of those three years were at various training commands, where the largest concerns were training injuries and wives were inundated with the more trivial aspects of the social side of being the spouse of a soldier.

September 10, we were an Army at peace. September 11, we were an Army in shock. September 12, we were an Army preparing for war.

My September 11 story began when my husband returned from work that day. One of those soldiers preparing for war. That morning, I was the spouse of a peacetime soldier. That evening, I knew that my husband was going to war.

On September 10, Fort Bragg, like most installations, was an open post. The guards and fences which are now so ubiquitous were not there. It was so open that a major highway ran through the center of it. On September 12, that changed. They were preparing for war. Units were on alert. Soldiers patrolled the base. Uncertain about what could be coming next, the post was closed to the public. That morning, my husband left for work at the same time he always did. He phoned at lunch to let me know that he still hadn’t made it on to post. Security measures were so tight, that although we lived less than a mile away, five hours later he still hadn’t arrived at work.

It was two weeks before I entered Fort Bragg. It was hard not to notice how things had changed. Temporary guard shelters had been added to the post entrance, moveable barriers protected the buildings, and streets that had been open were now permanently closed.

The following month, we were officially at war. We left Fort Bragg the following spring. My husband was assigned to a unit that would deploy several times during our two years there. The first deployment after my husband drove away, I lay down on the bed and cried. I wondered if I would ever see him again, or if I would need to stand stoically by as a soldier in dress blues handed me a carefully folded flag.

Life as an Army spouse changed. The spouses groups were no longer frivolous – they were lifelines, information conduits, support groups. These were the people who held your hands as your husband boarded a bus to the unknown. These were the people who sat next to you at informational briefings during deployments. These were the people who understood exactly how hard it was to breathe while your spouse was somewhere over there.

Fifteen years ago today we lost 2996 individuals in the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the attack on the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in rural Pennsylvania.

In the fifteen years since, we have lost untold numbers, military and civilian in conflicts and terror attacks across the globe.

Each September 11, I pause and remember. I remember the lives that were lost that day. I remember the way my world changed. I remember the lives we have lost since, and I say a prayer of gratitude that my husband was one of the ones who came home.



If you’d like a more in-depth look at how life changed for Army spouses, I recommend reading Under The Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives by Tanya Biank


August marked the one year anniversary of our move from Germany to Italy. The first year was a good year, but it was not a great year. I frequently found myself feeling lost, overwhelmed, and incompetent.

I should really read my own blog more.

It wasn’t until someone left a comment on a post I wrote back in 2014 that I realized I had been in this exact spot once before. In rereading Five Things That Surprised Me about Living in Germany, I realized that my first year in Italy had quite a bit in common with my first year in Germany.

After moving to Italy, I convinced myself that everything had always been easier living in Germany. It wasn’t. That first year in Germany, I experienced many of the same things I experienced here in Italy. I felt at times overwhelmed, incompetent, unable to communicate effectively, and unable to understand what was going on around me. It wasn’t that those first years weren’t filled with excitement, happy times, new friends and amazing experiences, it’s that those first years were also filled with adjustments – and steep learning curves.

After five years in Germany, I wasn’t a cultural expert, nor was I fluent in the language, but I had gained enough familiarity and experience to feel comfortable in my environment. I was confident enough in my cultural and linguistic skills to experience new things and participate fully in the world going on around me. This was the Germany I was leaving. It allowed that other Germany – the one I first experienced, where everything was new and different and strange, to fade to a distant memory.

In Italy, I often found myself comparing life here to life in Germany. Everything was easier, I told myself. It was easier to learn German. It was easier to get things done in Germany. It was easier to understand the culture. It was easier to navigate the lifestyle. That’s not necessarily true. The truth of the matter was that I was comparing the ease to which I could do things in Germany when I left – not when I arrived. Just as I was comparing the relative ease by which I could accomplish things in the States, to the difficulty I had getting things done in Germany.

I was being extra hard on myself because I wasn’t comparing my first year in Germany to my first year in Italy, I was comparing my final year in Germany to my first year in Italy. Needless to say, the comparison caused both me and Italy to come up short.

So here’s what I’ve learned, coming to the end of the first year in my second non-passport country:

  1. Transitioning between cultures and living in a new language is always a challenge. Be patient with yourself, it takes time to feel comfortable. Some days you’ll feel like you’ve got it all under control. Other days, you’ll wonder why you decided to move in the first place.

  2. It takes time to regain feelings of independence, and competence. Each new experience increases your confidence, which leads to your resurging independence. Only time and experience will give you competence. Allow yourself to make mistakes, learn from them, don’t allow them to defeat you.

  3. It can be overwhelming at times. Yes, you have done the grocery shopping a thousand times before, but in another language it is no longer a mundane task. It becomes a test of your skills of deduction, logic and reason – all in another language. It is exhausting to remain alert all the time, but for a while, you need to because you don’t have the background of cultural context to draw from – yet.

  4. Know that you are not going to love everything all of the time. This was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with here, because I had created this idealistic memory of life in Germany where nothing was ever hard, and I always loved everything. But once I allowed myself to view my memories in a more realistic fashion, good and bad were represented. Somethings there were easier, yes. But some things were harder as well.

  5. Avoid excessive comparisons of life in different countries. You’ve heard the expression, comparison is the thief of joy? The more time I spent comparing things in Italy to things in Germany or in the US, the worse I felt. I’ve often said in this past year that I need to look at my time in Rome as an extended vacation rather than as my home for now. One of the reasons for that is the difficulty of avoiding comparisons. But by not fully embracing Rome as my temporary home, I am not experiencing it as fully as I should.

  6. Your discontent is mirrored to a greater or lesser extent by everyone in the household. By giving voice to your frustration, you are coloring their experience as well. Put on a good face, occasionally you need to “fake it until you make it”, especially for the sake of your children.

  7. Sometimes you need to take time for yourself. I have a hard time letting go of all of the things I feel like I should be doing, and my to-do-list grows daily. This year I have learned the importance of having a day that I don’t change out of my pajamas until I pick the kids up from school. Sometimes I need to watch a movie, go for a run, visit a museum, practice yoga, or meditate. Listening to yourself allows you to adjust more quickly.

  8. Do make friends with anyone and everyone. Don’t limit yourself, remember you can’t always trust your first impressions, especially when you are overwhelmed, stressed and frazzled. They may be in the same position you are, and expat friendships – and friendships made with locals, are something to cherish.

  9. Don’t deny feelings of sadness and reach out for help if you need to. I had a harder time than usual this year doing things like planning vacations and getting through my daily chores. Everyone experiences varying levels of stress, sadness or even depression with change. Especially those which are life-altering. For me, taking time to journal and meditate semi-regularly was key.

  10. Finally, try not to lose your sense of humor. Even the most trying of circumstances is easier to handle if you remember how to laugh at yourself every now and again.

While most people celebrate the New Year with the change of a calendar on January first, I prefer to restart my year in the fall. The children are starting a new school year, and I am marking a new anniversary. This is the end of my second first year in a new European country. I have made it through two of the most challenging first years I’ve experienced, and I’ve come out the other side. While I still way to go to before this feels like home, by being cognizant of not only what I’ve done wrong, but what I’ve done right, I’ll get there. This year I plan to take those lessons I’ve learned the hard way and put them into practice. This year will be fabulous. I’m sure of it! (And that right there is half the battle)

What lessons have you learned in the first year following a move?

Travel Theme: Breathe

May 20, 2016

This week the travel theme at Where’s My Backpack? takes a look at slowing down and remembering to breathe.

In my ideal, dream world, when I need to breathe I’d simply head off to the mountains. It is in the mountains where I find a calmness and peace unlike anywhere else. As a mother of two young children with a spouse who travels a lot, this is often times just that. A dream. So it’s those places closer to home that I turn to most often.

Moving every few years leaves you a perpetual newcomer, always trying to locate something. For me, it’s important to add finding a space to breathe into my explorations of a new area. Sometimes it can be difficult to find a place close by that allows you to get away from it all – a place that gives you a sense of inner peace.  That is one of my great joys when I explore. Finding a place that is still and quiet that allows me to simply be, to simply breath. Solitary paths in the woods exhilarate me, but it’s not always a possibility. I try to find some space in each day to breathe simply by taking time to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the quiet stillness of the early morning.

Some days though, I need to get out. I need to explore. I need to shake up the routine and rhythm of everyday life. I need to find someplace wild, someplace calm, someplace new to hear the myself think over the day-to-day necessities.

Living in Germany is a great place if you’re looking for breathing space. Both of the towns I lived in were small towns in a rural setting, offering a multitude of beautiful green spaces to explore. You were guaranteed to find someplace quiet. Someplace where you were the only one around. I loved exploring the trails and the woods. Even though I have a terrible sense of direction, I rarely got lost. The trails in Germany are usually well-marked.

When we moved to Rome, one of the things I feared was that in this giant city, I would never find a quiet place to breath. I was wrong. You may not think of green spaces and quiet places, but they are there. If you know where to look. I don’t begin to think I’ve unlocked all of the secrets of the quiet places of Rome in just 9 months, but I have found a few places where I can breathe.

Here are just a few of the many breathing spaces I found in Germany:

And here are a few of the breathing spaces I’ve found in Rome. So far.

If you’d like to explore the way others view this topic, visit Where’s My Backpack? Travel Theme Breathe

Friday Photo: Face

May 20, 2016

This week, the WordPress photo challenge takes a look at getting to know people as an artist by studying their Face. This week for the photo challenge, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the faces I’ve come across in my travels.

Many works of art masterfully depict faces to convey a message, an emotion, a brief snapshot of a period in time. I love to stroll through the galleries and piece together the past through the work of the great artists, marveling at their ability to capture so much within their canvas. But for this challenge, I decided to look at some of the faces of folk art and art in public spaces I encountered in Germany.

For me, the great art provides a glimpse of the epoch, the themes that prevail on the larger scale. I find that the art people make, the art that they keep in their homes and erect in their communal spaces, allows you to see the individuals. It shows you how they choose to honor what is most important to them.

As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “you use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”

In Pfullendorf, a small town in southern Baden Württemberg we see the faces of the past in the local cemetery.

And in the water park, we see the faces of the future.

In Burglengenfeld, a small town in Bavaria, we find the faces of the people in the local folk art.

And the faces of the community in the public spaces.

And a glimpse into the soul as we view the faces in the Kunstwald.

To find more Faces, head over to The Daily Post challenge – Face



 I have just returned from making my fourth hair appointment – this year. That may not seem like a lot of haircuts to you, but I’ve seen decades through with fewer trips to the salon than that. But not here. In Italy, it’s not just my hair that’s being taken care of, it’s the relationship with my hairdresser.

In the States all I needed to do was call and schedule an appointment. There was rarely a long-term relationship with any one hairdresser. By the time I found one I liked, I usually had one or two appointments before we moved again. It may have been inconsistent, but it was simple. There was never any type of communication or culture barrier to overcome. Well, except once in Georgia when the nice lady at the other end of the line said to me in her thick southern drawl, “Oh, honey, we don’t do white hair here.” 

Getting my hair cut was never one of my favorite tasks, but it was manageable. Make a phone call, schedule an appointment, talk through a haircut, and voila you’re done. Then we moved to Germany.

In a new language with two kids, haircuts rapidly moved up my list of dreaded activities. I soon realized I couldn’t call to make an appointment because even in the unlikely event that I figured out how to schedule one, there was no way I’d be able to understand the response.

What had in the past merely required a phone call now turned into a multi-day farce, complete with phrasebook, much gesticulation, and a lot of raised eyebrows. Eventually I found a place that took walk-ins, which eliminated the first awkward phase. I was still left with one major hurdle. How on earth do I tell them exactly what I want done with my hair?

I came up with an intricate combination of photographs and more gesticulations, and I was fine with the results. I continued to frequent the walk-in salon until they abruptly shut their doors. Next I went to a salon recommended by a friend, but when she had a falling out with the hairdresser that came to an end as well.

Not long after that, it was time to move once again. I found the salon in my next German town relatively quickly, and I was fairly pleased with the stylist. Until I got cocky and decided that my German was now so good, I didn’t need a picture. I could explain in German exactly what it was that I wanted. I was delusional. One look in the mirror at home cleared that up. It was back to pictures, and although I was going a little more frequently – once every 4-6 months, you still couldn’t say I was going regularly.

And then we ended up in Italy. Italy is different than other places, and Rome is different than other places in Italy. People here are very aware of their outward appearances. They are very good at putting themselves together. Even when they exercise here, they look flawless. I’m pretty sure they can run a marathon without breaking a sweat. And I’m pretty sure they all go to the hairdresser regularly.

I was intimidated at the thought of trying to go to the hairdresser in Italy. I find Italian more difficult to operate in than I found German. My emphasis and intonation are always off. Italian is a very melodic language, and alas, I have discovered that I have no rhythm. So me and my phrasebook and my gesticulating bravado were not going anywhere near a salon.

Instead, I raided my daughter’s hair accessory box and avoided thinking about the hairdresser. Then one day, I ran into a new friend who took me around my new neighborhood and introduced me to some people. Including a hairdresser. This was the hairdresser that she took her children to, so I made an appointment right then and there for my son, who was beginning to look like he might need to raid the hair accessory box as well. There was an added initiative to frequent this establishment – this hairdresser speaks some English. It was looking fortuitous indeed.

The morning of my son’s appointment was also the day of a formal event my husband and I were attending, so my husband asked if the hairdresser had time to style my hair.  It turned out he did. He asked me what I wanted and I told him. It was a fantastic haircut. We weren’t even four months into our first year and I’d found the perfect hairdresser. It was amazing, this had never happened to me before. He told me I should come back in three weeks, 4 weeks maximum. I nodded in that “yeah, yeah sure, whatever you say” way moms sometimes do when they are distracted by their children who are about to run in to the street.

That was early November. It was January before I returned. My hairdresser was not happy. He asked me if I wanted the same thing. I said yes, the previous cut was perfect. I spent a lot less time in the chair this time and although it was not a bad cut, it lacked the pizazz of the previous one. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, and I thought about the possibilities as I went home and studied my new not quite as lovely style.

It is of course, entirely plausible that my stylist was having an off day, but I became convinced that he was actually angry with me for not coming back within 3 – 4 week window he had given me at the first cut. This time, I wasn’t offered any coffee. There were no flamboyant gestures with the scissors. There was no conversation. This time the cut was more straightforward and about as quick as a new recruit’s first haircut in basic training.

I was a little scared about the next visit, but determined to get back into the good graces of my fabulous stylist. I wasn’t going to take a chance on trying to find that perfect combination of someone who cut my hair really well, and spoke enough English for me not to have to revert to phrasebooks and gesticulating.  

Exactly three weeks later I scheduled my next appointment. I went in and he was waiting for me. I think he even greeted me with a smile this time. As I took my place in the chair, he asked me if I wanted the same style. I started to say yes, but I noticed that as he asked he was slowly shaking his head no. Although I was perfectly happy with the cut I had, I realized that apparently he thought it was time for a change. I slowly answered: “no, no I don’t.” I then observed his slow, not so subtle nod as he said: “you want to try something different, yes?” I respond with my own slow nod. “Yes, yes I do.”

At this point I’m a bit nervous, because I have given complete control of my head to someone who is possibly still angry with me. We still aren’t making much small talk, the difference in language factors in to this quite a bit, but there is a bit more pizazz in this cut. I leave the salon a little more than half an hour later, with a completely new, much shorter style. I also left with a new outlook on the importance of this simple phrase in Italian – “Che Consiglia” – what do you recommend?

I recently read an article that spoke about asking for recommendations in restaurants in order to coax out hidden gems. I can attest to this being the case, at least some of the time. I learned this through my consistent inability to choose from a menu. There are occasions when you ask Che Consiglia and you get something delightful and not advertised.  When they really don’t have anything hidden to offer, they will at least steer you towards something seasonal and delicious that is on the menu.

I would extend this beyond the restaurants though. I have noticed that whether I’m at the butcher’s, the deli, the bakery, the vegetable stand, or the florist’s, no one shies away from making recommendations – occasionally unsolicited ones – and I have not been disappointed yet. I am steered toward the freshest products and the tastiest morsels. I am told the correct number I will need to serve two or four or ten. I am guided through what I may need to go with it, and how to prepare it. Far from feeling intruded upon, I feel like a part of the community. I never have any doubt as to the sincerity of the individuals I am dealing with.

It is a complex relationship however. There seems to be an unstated expectation that with this exemplary service, you are a regular customer. The shops I frequent will make comments if I show up on a different day, and I feel the need to justify extended absences. The places you go will take care of you, but you are expected to return the favor.

Keeping that in mind I make my next hair appointment exactly three weeks later. I arrive a bit early, and my hairdresser is with another client. One of the other stylists asks if he should do my cut, and my hairdresser tells him to back off – or the polite Italian version of this. Next I am treated to a very long wash, and an extra-long head massage. Then, they bring me a cup of tea. I am totally back on my hairdresser’s good side.

This time when he asks me what I want to do, I am prepared. Whatever you think, I say. I trust you. I am beginning to notice a trend. Each time I leave the salon, my hair is just a little bit shorter. But I also notice, that the more faith I place in my hairdresser, the better my cuts get.

It’s been just about three weeks, and I’ve scheduled my latest appointment. I’m not sure how much shorter he actually wants to make my hair, but the weather here is getting warmer, and I’m pretty sure I’m still on his good side. 

These actions may seem pushy or presumptuous if you take them out of context, but I really feel like I am being taken care of. I know that if I have a question about which product to try, I am going to receive the best quality – at least in the shops where I have taken the time to establish a relationship. Here it’s not just about the exchange of goods. It’s about creating a loyal relationship. There are many different shops I could go to, but for my weekly excursions, and my now very regular haircuts, I choose to frequent the same places. The more I go, the better the service, or the quality of the products I receive. It’s funny, because in a city the size of Rome, you’d think you’d be anonymous. But with just a little effort, you can establish yourself as a regular – a temporary citizen of the eternal city.




Should tourism be restricted and limited? Having grown up in a town that swelled to two or three times its local population during the summer months, I have to say, I am very much in favor of regulating tourism. Living in Cooperstown, New York – home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, gave me an intimate look at the complex relationship between the tourist and the local. Many years later I would live in Key West, Florida and see the continued complexity of this question, this time in the form of cruise ships with massive numbers of visitors disembarking daily to visit the small island village.

Even as a tourist myself, I remain aware of how much of an impact the industry has on the local economy and infrastructure – both welcome and unintended. For the most part, I try and steer clear of the must-do, must-see places. Not because I have no desire to visit them, but because I simply do not enjoy battling the crowds.

Not long ago, a decision was made in Italy to limit the number of tourists allowed to access the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. These five small towns have long topped the must-see lists of many travelers and guidebooks, resulting in a situation that over taxes the areas infrastructure. In my opinion, it’s a perfectly reasonable decision. We visited one of the five towns a few years ago, early in the spring. It was well before start of high tourist season. It wasn’t particularly crowded, but it was such a small, delicate area that it did make you wonder how it could handle the vast amounts of tourists that regularly visit Italy each year. I mention this, because I was thinking about this decision, and my aversion to crowded tourist attractions when I was caught in the middle of another huge tourist draw – the Vatican Museum.

Once you enter the corridors of the Vatican Museum, you are caught in a maelstrom pulling you deeper and ever forward into the depths of the museum. Occasionally, you can momentarily pause and escape to the exterior of whichever gallery you’ve entered, but before long you are once again pulled forward, ever forward through the monstrous museum.

Not too long ago, we paid our first visit to the museum, and I’m not sure what we did see. The tour begins in the Egyptian exhibits, but with elbow to elbow visitors on the day of our visit it was difficult to appreciate, or even view the artifacts. Once we made it through the first few rooms, the crowds began to thin out a bit and we wandered through several more rooms of Egyptian antiquities. Although we tried to follow the maps, and traffic through the museum only runs in one direction, we quickly became disoriented in the 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) of interior exhibits. I know that we skipped the Raphael rooms because, after being caught up in the forward flow of humanity for what seemed like days, we were ready to find an exit. The museum is set up in a one directional flow, and all roads through it lead to the Sistine Chapel – eventually.

You know you’ve reached the chapel, because the traffic slows as you descend the staircase into an area where every head is turned skyward, and you are being urged forward to make room for the unending stream of visitors behind you.

The Sistine Chapel, while astonishingly beautiful, was simply too crowded to enjoy. We stood there, elbow to elbow in a room packed to the brim with visitors. You are told before entering that it is a holy place, you are told that you must be respectful – and photography is absolutely forbidden.  But it didn’t feel holy to me, there was no refuge left in this chapel. It was crowded, and dizzying and one more overwhelming room in an overwhelming and crowded museum. I was not expecting the sheer volume of the paintings. Every surface, from the ceilings to the walls, are covered with paintings. Between the crowds and the number of painted surfaces it was impossible to take it all in.

You might think that I didn’t like the museum, which is not the case. I thought it was stunning, the paintings and statuary collected within the walls are spectacular. But it is a lot to absorb. We left the museum, and I felt unsteady on my feet. It took me a long time to begin to process all of the things I had seen that day, and to truly appreciate it would take several visits. I’m just not sure I could withstand the crowds again.

If you are planning a visit to the Vatican Museum, try and do it during the off season. We visited during an Italian school holiday, and it seemed to be really busy. Also, if you do plan on visiting, you absolutely need to purchase the tickets in advance. The line to purchase tickets wrapped down the street and around the corner on the day we visited. We had purchased the tickets on line that morning and were able to enter the museum without much delay. We rented the audio guides, but I had so much trouble following the maps that I didn’t think they were worth it. The children were given maps with a treasure hunt on it which was a lot of fun for them – when they could find the items.

The Vatican Museum while absolutely amazing, and stunning, is completely overwhelming, large, and chaotic. I found it incredibly difficult to appreciate the beauty I was surrounded by, simply because there were so many fellow visitors that it was impossible to pause and reflect on what you were viewing.

While it is arguably the most famous museum we have visited so far in Rome, the Vatican Museum is not the only museum that we’ve visited since moving here.

My favorite museum thus far, without question is Chiostro del Bramante. This relatively small museum tucked away on a side street, is fabulous. I visited during the Tissot exhibit, which ran from September 2015 to February 2016. I loved this exhibit and this museum. I visited on a weekday in January and was one of a handful of visitors, which gave me time to listen to the audio guide, read the displays and really observe the work. Although Chiostro del Bramante is not a large museum, it is fabulously curated. The displays were beautifully exhibited and interesting. I am looking forward to visiting it again when the next show I Macchiaoli opens on March 16.

Another museum that is deceptively large and far less crowded is Maxxi – a museum of modern art on the northern side of Rome, not too far from Ponte Milvio. I must admit, I am not a huge fan of modern art. For the most part, I just don’t get a lot of it, but for the right price – admission was free for women on March 8 (Festa della Donna) I figured I had nothing to lose.

The museum is quite a bit larger than I thought it was going to be, with several special exhibits running simultaneously. The first exhibit I visited was Istanbul, Passion, Joy, Fury. I felt a little lost in this exhibit, as I don’t know much about political movements in Turkey, so I meandered through them somewhat aimlessly. It gave me a sense of something, although I wasn’t entirely sure what.

Next I headed to an exhibit called Transformers, artist who created something new out of everyday objects. According to the website, the works of these artists / social activists combine to create a space where “reality is transformed into another reality, which sparks the imagination, stimulates reflection, encourages sharing, experience, and looking beyond.” I don’t know about that, but I found the work of Pedro Reyes and Didier Faustino to be particularly thought provoking.

Reyes transformed weapons into musical instruments, which eerily played music without human accompaniment. Faustino’s work transformed plastic baskets into a forest of green bulbs, through which the visitor must pass.

The next part of the museum housed the permanent exhibits, including a large glass igloo containing the Fibonacci sequence in neon lights. Finally, I ascended to the last exhibit on my tour, Jimmie Durham’s sound and silliness. I found this exhibit eerie.  The room was nearly empty, except for a large screen of the artist doing something close to the initial steps of the Macarena. I was the only person in the room, and I was surrounded by greyness and discordant music.  Leaving the museum, my ears were ringing – the displays were not silent, and my mind was racing. Maxxi left me with the idea that modern art is not only about creating something beautiful, but creating something that sends a strong message from the artist to the consumer. I would definitely recommend this museum, it may not have made me a connoisseur of modern art, but I definitely appreciate it a little bit more.

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma was actually the first “modern art” museum I’d visited in Rome, but it is a bit more of a traditional gallery. Although this museum is a part of the Musei in Comune di Roma, it was very quiet. We were at times the only visitors in the museum which provides ample time to view and talk about each painting and sculpture. There were mainly Italian artists, and I don’t think I was familiar with any of them before visiting the museum.  The kids and I had a great time in this museum discussing what we liked or didn’t like about each painting or sculpture, and what we thought the artist was trying to portray.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis was another museum I visited, primarily for the special exhibit featuring the work of Toulouse-Latrec. The special exhibit was fabulous. Through this exhibit, I learned quite a bit about the life, works and techniques of an artist I was largely unfamiliar with, other than being able to recognize a few of his more well-known works. I thought the exhibit was well curated and I look forward to attending other exhibitions here. I was less impressed with the actual museum. The Ara Pacis is amazing to look a, but for the price of a ticket, unless you are really interested in ancient Roman architecture, I’d skip it. I found the self guided map and audio guide difficult to orient myself to – and there was only one room.

One of the kids favorite art shows was the Art of the Brick, which is being held over through April 26, 2016. This was a fantastic exhibit of art masterpieces and original works all created from Lego bricks by US artist Nathan Sawaya. This was one show that the kids could return to again and again. We went during the Christmas holidays, and although we arrived shortly after opening, we still needed to wait in line. It was a very popular show, but the layout of the exhibits provided enough space to comfortably observe everything. The Art of the brick is being held in the Spazio Eventi Tirso, not too far from Villa Borghese.

Another favorite of the kids was the exhibition of the machines of Leonardo DaVinci in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, not too far from Campo di Fiori. Not only was this a very hands on exhibit, but we timed it perfectly and nearly had the museum to ourselves.

On a recent rainy day, we visited another museum, located behind the Monument of Victorio Emmanuel. I was rather disappointed in the show “From the Musee d’Orsay: Impressionists tete a tete” held at the Complesso del Vittoriano. While there were several artists exhibited that I was familiar with, I just didn’t come away with a feeling of having seen something worthwhile. I thought the exhibition was poorly displayed and extremely small. I’m not at all sure I would visit this gallery for another show.

Of course if you are looking for art in Rome, one of the best (and least expensive) options is to visit some of the many churches, which provide beautiful artwork and a quiet refuge. Here are just a few of my favorites thus far: Santa Maria Maggiore, The Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, San Luigi dei Francesi, and Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi.

There are of course many more museums and churches to visit in Rome, and I look forward to continuing to explore them in the years I live here!  And while I may not have a perfect solution to the question of balance between tourist and resident, I hope that being aware of the delicate balance between the two makes me a more responsible traveler.

The witches jump over the remnants of the burned witch.

Let me take you back in time to a cold midwinter’s eve early in 2011. It is early in our second calendar year living in a small German town in Southern Baden-Württemberg, and we are in the midst of our first pre-Lenten celebration in Germany.

It is the last night of Fasching and the witches are jumping over a bonfire. This is what I know beforehand. This is my first Fasnet and I am not quite sure what to expect.  Already this week, my children were the only ones at the kindergarten NOT dressed in Halloween costumes – in February.  But I told my husband the children and I would meet him in the town center later that evening, so we’re off.

We’ve lived here less than a year, and already, I’ve learned a lot about the culture and the people. Both of my young children attend a German Kindergarten just up the street, and the staff and parents alike are eager to introduce me to various aspects of the local culture. We celebrated Saint Martin’s Day in November, Saint Nicholas Day in December, and The Feast of the Three Holy Kings in early January. There were national German holidays to learn, and a new holiday schedule to adjust to, but nothing prepared me for the celebration in Germany known as Fasching.

In the weeks just before Lent, countries around the world countries enjoy festivals and celebrations. You are probably familiar with Carnival in Brazil, Carnivale in Venice, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Images of the still snow-covered streets of Germany are probably not the first thing that pops into your mind.  However, here we are, celebrating on the Tuesday before Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, but tonight – tonight is a parade.

Evening arrives early in Germany during the winter months, and we set off into the growing darkness.  As we get closer to town, I am beginning to see a theme emerge. One that we have missed – again. While the children and I are bundled against the cold in a manner best suiting a polar expedition, the rest of the town is dressed in white nightshirts. And sleep caps.  It is Wee Willie Winky run amok.

“Well, this is new,” I say. This is an expression the children have come to expect on a nearly daily basis from me.

I see someone I recognize from the kindergarten, and after a jumbled conversation of barely intelligible German and English, I manage to get the time (soon) and location (near the Obertor) that something starts. I wish her a pleasant evening and continue on my way.

I follow the nightshirt-clad masses toward the white tower of the Obertor, the towered door in the remnants of the old town wall. Once there, I slowly, carefully, wind my giant double jogging stroller through the growing crowd. There are a few disappointingly small fires, which no one appears prepared to jump over.  The road to one side is shut off to through traffic, and we head over to join a small crowd gathering there. The tower itself is decorated for Fasching with garlands of patchwork fabrics. The entire town center is crisscrossed with these multi-colored lines. The small tiles of colored fabric wind through the town like a communal wash line that’s seen one too many windy days.  It is festive, it is medieval, it is – oh, hold on a minute, this crowd is starting to move.

So here we are, walking slowly, in a crowd of people in their pajamas, following unseen musicians. This is definitely something new.  The tempo increases as we come around the corner. The streets are lined with people, and those lucky enough to live on the parade route hang out of their windows. They shout “Narri”, as we pass, which is met with a roar of “Narro” from the masses in white nightshirts. I am in the Hemdglonkerumzug, a people’s parade at the end of Fasnet, the Fasching Celebration in Southern Germany.  We seem to aimlessly meander through the town on streets I did not know existed.

A final turn brings us to the town center, and we catch a glimpse of the giant straw witch that will be burned this evening, before the rest of the Hexen (witches) Guild jump over the fire. This is the final act in the nearly week-long festival of parades and tradition that is meant to chase away the last traces of evil winter spirits and usher in an early spring.

We follow the tide of people to our destination. We are here to burn the witch. There are so many people in the town square, that we can’t actually see the bonfire. We do see thousands of sparks beginning to rise through the air of the cold winter’s night, like stars racing to return to the heavens.  We hear the shouts as each of the older members of the Hexen Group test their mettle, and sobriety, attempting to breach the bonfire.

One of my neighbors makes her way over to me through the crowd. Her Eskimo like costume indicates that she is a member of the Fasching Guild known as the Nidler. The Nidlers have been a part of the Fasnet tradition since 1795. She stands before me, holding a hand-carved museum quality wooden mask in her hand. As she looks at me she says, with more than a hint of trepidation “It’s all a little strange, yes?”

“No,” I say as I look around the square. The entire town seems to be here, enjoying the evening and each other. “It is wonderful; I can’t wait until next year!” She looks both relieved and a bit surprised to hear this.

Later as the crowds begin to thin, we pass what is left of the bonfire. It is small enough now for my three year-old to leap over and he does. He relishes, as do we all, this small detour from our ordinary life.

We spent the evening following the assorted Narren guilds, groups whose members dress in elaborate handcrafted costumes and lead the various parades throughout the Fasching Season. Walking to the music, hearing the songs that my children sang in the kindergarten, I am no longer an outsider. I am for this brief moment a part of something. They stop, and I stop. They jump, and I jump. They shout, and I shout. As I sway side to side with the rest of the crowd, I am a celebrant, a participant, in an event that may no longer mean what it did initially, but one that defines the community as it is today. This is my home, for now. No, I don’t know all the words, and no, I am not dressed like everyone else, but I can move with this crowd, and for the moment, this is where we belong.


We lived in Pfullendorf for three years, and each year we eagerly anticipated the arrival of Fasching. The longer we lived there the more we could not only make sense of the traditions, but we could look forward to them. We participated in as many events as we could. My memories of these festive times are a swirl of laughter and costumes, of confetti and smiles, of music, parades, and schnapps. Somehow in the midst of it all, this small German town became a place that will forever be home, in our hearts if not in our passports.

If you’d like to take a look at some videos I shot during our last visit home you can find a Fasching playlist on YouTube

Friday Photo: Vibrant

February 5, 2016

Most people consider the long winter months after Christmas to be dull, grey and dreary. While I have always loved the cold winter months, it was living in Germany that made this my favorite time of year.

Even though the days are short and often grey it is the most vibrant time of year in Germany. From unexpected schnapps drinking visitors, to colorful decorations throughout the streets, to parties, costumes and revelries, the deepest winter days mean one thing – its Fasching Season. Fasching, known as the fifth season, officially begins on November 11 but the biggest events are on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This pre-Lenten celebration is unequaled in vibrant displays of costumes, colors and music. It will always be one of the things I miss most from years in Germany.

In my former German hometown of Pfullendorf, the festivities have already begun. On Schmotziger Donnerstag, the day begins at 5:00 am – with whips cracking outside your window. Today, everyone wears a costume. You will run into clowns, cowboys, fairies and pirates everywhere you go. Early in the morning members of the various Fasching Clubs will free the children from the schools and kindergartens, take over the town hall and raise the Narrenbaum in the town square. The festivities have begun.

Over the course of the weekend, there will be balls and parties and on Rosenmontag (the Monday before Ash Wednesday) is the giant parade – a highlight of the festivities, where the schnapps flows freely and spectators and participants alike are fully costumed. Tuesday you’ll find the Preisschnellen in the Marktplatz – a whip cracking competition in the main square, and that evening you’ll find the hemdglonkerumzug mit hexenverbrennen – the nightgown parade with a witch burning.

The burning of the witch signifies the end of the celebrations, the next day is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten period. But the vibrant memories of the Fasching celebrations are enough to last you through the remainder of the dark winter days.

Here are a few pictures from Fasnet in Pfullendorf.

The first thing you notice are the Vibrant decorations throughout the town. Brightening the darkest of winter days.


Head over to WordPress to find more examples of Vibrant