My Year Away. And Back.

Four Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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Things I Simply Don’t Understand About Italy

This is my fourth time to visit Italy. I have now spent well over 100 days in this country and I look forward to the next 100 days over the next couple of years. After teaching a study abroad class in Rome, the hubster and I are tucked in at Meta, a small town just two train stops from Sorrento. To say I am obsessed with Italy might be a bit of an understatement. In many ways (and I’m not sure why), it feels like home.

Still. From an American’s perspective, anyway, Italy has some odd quirks that I simply don’t understand. Here is my list (in no particular order).

Coffee. I love coffee. Italy is known for its coffee so this seems like a no-brainer. But, non e’ vero! To me, coffee should both satisfy the caffeine fix—and serve as a beverage. Is that too much to ask? In Italy, yes. First, understand that you pay for your coffee by the cup. And by cup, I mean a teeny, weeny hint of a cup. One swig and you’re done. If you want something a bit larger, try a cappuccino, but Heaven help the American who tries to order one in the afternoon. Cappuccinos in Italy are works of art, but still, they are made with a touch of coffee and a whole lot of foam. So, again, a swig or two and you’re done.

I might have conquered the Italian espresso maker but I don’t understand it.

The apartment we’re living in this summer is huge. It sleeps five, but it contains one espresso maker. As in one coffee maker to make one itsy bitsy espresso for one person. I’ve at least figured out a way I can get two (small) cups of regular coffee out of this Lilliputian contraption. While it’s perking, I boil a pot of water so I can pour half of the (okay, yes, quite delicious) espresso into a cup and fill the rest with water. Caffe Americano! It’s a labor of love, but at least I can get a morning beverage. (Now, if I repeat this three times, I will have had my morning coffee.)

Bathrooms. C’mon, Italy. You can do better. I’ll let you have the bidet, although I simply do not understand this contraption other than it takes up too much space in small Italian bathrooms. But, why do the showers have to be so small? Our shower in our apartment doesn’t even have doors that close, which means that after you shower, you have to use towels to dry the floor. Public bathrooms are even more confusing. Why do so many Italian public bathrooms include missing toilet lids? The design of the toilet shows that it calls for a lid, so did someone, somewhere, decide that Italians can’t trust tourists with toilet lids? Of things to swipe to take home as souvenirs, I wouldn’t think toilet lids would top the list.

Street Noise. In every Italian town we have visited over the years, the noise on the street is LOUD. Even the quaint towns with only local traffic have way-too loud noises. Italian towns are built in stone, so noise reverberates off the postcard-worthy buildings. Add to that the barking dogs, the Italian mamas yelling at their Italian bambini, the teammates of the local Italian soccer club yelling at each other just because they can I suppose (we hear this every night), the motorcycles weaving through the narrow streets all day (and night) long, and the street sweeper cleaning the streets every morning, it’s hard to get away from the noise. From pictures, Italian towns look quiet. Rest assured, they are not.

This is the lock to our front door in Meta.

Obsession with Security. All the Italians I’ve met have assured me how safe Italy is. And I feel safe in Italy. Back home, I never walk alone around my town at night. But, while in Italy, nessun problema. Given how late the morning starts, the three to four-hour riposa in the afternoon, and the evening, which begins around 6, if you don’t walk around at night, you are basically stuck at home the whole day. However, as safe as Italy feels, locked gates barricade every home. Each front door has a deadbolt system that would rival any New York City walk-up. Every first-floor window has steel bars on them. I’ll tell you. No one is getting into your home.

This is the view from our terrace in Meta.
This is also the view from our terrace.

Juxtaposition of Squalor and Splendor. Like any tourist, I want my pictures on Facebook to look pretty. So, I post the sea view. The lemon groves. The bucolic vistas. But for every lemon grove in Sorrento, you can see an empty lot strewn with trash. For every winding street, you can find another right next to it packed with garbage, junk, and all sorts of gross things. (Speaking of garbage, every day is a different recycling day, which means basically, that refuse sits out on the street, waiting for pick up, every single day.) For every great masterpiece, you can find 10 times the amount of graffiti. The graffiti is so bad that most of the village names at each stop on the Circumvesuviana local train from Napoli to Sorrento are grafitti-covered and unreadable. Which is challenging giving the train stops for about 30 seconds before moving on to the next village.

Pizza. Pizza in Italy is ridiculously delicious (especially near Naples). It is also ridiculously cheap. Last night, I chose the Marinara pizza (tomatoes and basil). It was huge. It cost 3.50 euros. The hubster splurged and ordered a Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and added olives and eggplant. His totalled 4.50.  The dichotomy of pizza prices compared to the cost of one cup of coffee, water, bread, or just about anything else on the menu does not make the least bit of sense to me. Seems to me that Italy could erase its economic woes just by charging tourists double for their pizzas. I don’t think we’d even notice. 

But I’m not going to complain about cheap pizza. In fact, I’m not really going to complain about anything in Italy. Just because I don’t understand much of it, doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied. I like the confusion of Italy. I like that my wash takes hours and that I have to wait additional multiple hours for it to air dry (this also explains why laundry is always hanging outside in Italian homes). I like that I need to ask the grocery guy to select my vegetables because, apparently, you do not touch the produce. I like that I can basically mix anything together in a pan, cook it for a long while, mix in pasta, and have a rather delicious meal. I like that we buy our wine from the wine guy down the street and pay 4 euros for 3 liters of wine. I like that we relax in Italy.

Resting. Eating the best food in the universe. Drinking excellent wine. Walking everywhere. Repeat. So maybe I do understand a bit. Amo l’Italia!

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The Adventure Begins!

A few weeks ago, we drove 10 hours to Paducah, KY, checked into our Airbnb, and began what we think we will come to call The Challenge of a Lifetime. As I wrote in my last post, we bought a Big Brick House, basically sight unseen. It was now time to come to terms with that decision.

Gary had seen the house after closing in October. But, for me, this was the first time to open the door, look around, and absorb the enormity of what we had done. I was rendered nearly speechless as our decision started to sink in. What. Were. We. Thinking?

I walked through the carriage house (1,700 square feet), trying to imagine the apartment we would build on the top floor and the workshop Gary would build on the lower floor. Then I walked over to the Big Brick House (4,200 square feet. And, yes, I realize that we’re supposed to be in the “downsizing” stage of our lives.). I paced back and forth trying to make sense of this behemoth we had bought. Then I realized I hadn’t even gone upstairs yet. Once on the second floor, I gazed upward into the attic. It’s possible that I gasped. Thoughts like “You could build a whole gymnasium up there” crossed my mind. Dumbfounded, I walked around the house again. Upstairs. Downstairs. Front. Back. Upstairs. Oh, and did I mention there is a basement?

And then, after about 48 hours, I started to see it. Our house! First, in the apartment, I saw the open concept plan (thank you Property Brothers). I saw me sitting on the porch with my morning coffee. I saw where I’d be baking pies. It took longer over in the Big House, but, there too, I saw the kitchen with the exposed brick walls, the cheery living room with the funky fireplace, the tucked away suite where the hubster and I would escape. And once I saw it, I was ready to attack.

First up, the house needed a bit of cleaning. I started by trying to sweep dirt, spider webs, and unnamed gross things out of the spaces between the joists and the brick walls. I scraped off layers of wallpaper on wall fragments that hadn’t been removed.

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Whew. I’m glad this is not the style today! I think my wallpaper days are over!

The hubster and I loaded the car with items strewn around the house that we knew we wouldn’t be using in the rebuild. An old, but not antique crib. A car full (yes, we completely filled the CR-V) of chandeliers. Off to Goodwill we went.

Now I was getting downright excited.  But this is not to say that things moved quickly or easily. They did not.

First, it was crazy cold outside—and also inside since we don’t have heating yet. It’s not easy working with tools with frozen hands or while wearing fluffy gloves.

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Ripping up floors is invigorating. But doing so in winter clothing is challenging!

Second, learning how things worked in the town took some time. We needed to find out about the trash, start the process of getting building permits, figure out how to pay our taxes, try to get the house reappraised. Getting a library card was fairly simple, but from there it got a little bit nuts. We were late in paying our city taxes because we weren’t sent a bill. We were sent a blank envelope from the city, but nothing else. That took a while to explain (and to successfully argue why we shouldn’t pay a penalty for neglecting to pay our taxes). And, just understanding city taxes took some mental gymnastics. Turns out, you pay half of the taxes for the previous year and half of the taxes for the upcoming year. At the same time. Okay.

Our trash bill is part of our water bill. Uh, okay. Recycling costs extra—and recycling is limited. If we want leaves and small brush to be picked up, that’s part of the trash bill, but you have to call and talk to an actual person to arrange for this—every time. I did this for one bag of leaves and a small pile of brush. The phone conversation took about 10 minutes while I answered all the nice lady’s questions. All the while I’m thinking, well, lots of people have their leaves and brush on the curb. Can’t the leaf guy just pick it up when he drives by? (The answer to this is no. You have to call.)

You get your main building permit in the Fire Prevention Office. And you get your plumbing permit at the County Health Department. The plumbing inspector’s office is just down the hallway where people get their HIV vaccines.

I can report, however, that you do, indeed, get your library card at the library.

The good news is that we ended up spending 12 eventful days working on the Big Brick House and getting to know this community we have decided to join. Our Paducah friend Marcie returned from her London study abroad trip in time to spend a few days with us, introducing us to people we should know, running errands, sharing meals. And laughing as we do every time we are together.

This is just the beginning. The task is unending and will be that way for a long time. But that’s okay. I can see the house in my eyes. It is beautiful. And it is Home!

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I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. But that’s the fun! (Or at least I hope so!)


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We Bought a House.

Yes, we already own two houses. But, well, this one was special.

Driving back to South Carolina after our yearly summer trip to Minnesota to see the kids, we stopped to visit our friend Marcie who lives near Paducah, KY.  And that’s when it hit us. Paducah was exactly half way between our Minneapolis family and our home in SC. If we lived in Paducah, we could drive up to visit the grandkids in one day. And maybe they would even visit us!

With those thoughts swimming in our brains, we took a little stroll down beautiful historic Jefferson Street. And there it was. The Big Brick House. In the front yard was a sign that said “For Sale” but there was no phone number, no name, no information, nothing. Still, we jumped out of the car to take a look.  I clamored up the front steps and peered through one of the three front French doors. Flailing my arms, I turned around screaming “It’s gutted!”

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Here is our Big Brick House!

While not everyone’s dream, for us, this was a miracle. We had often talked about how great it would be if some day we could find a house where the outside was complete, but the inside was a blank slate just waiting for us.  And here it was! But how to get information to find out if it was really for sale, let alone if we could afford it.

During the next several weeks, Marcie tried to find people who knew the owner. We heard the house might be for sale, but, apparently, out of our price range until we sold our beach house. Then we heard that a couple of people had started a bidding war over the house. We could feel the dream vanishing.

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Our Living Room with original fireplace tile made right in Paducah.

We had to do something. So, we put our beach house on the market with plans that the minute it sold, we would head up to Paducah and find the perfect house, if not the Big Brick House, something as exciting. We even connected with a real estate agent.

And then it happened. Our real estate agent found someone who knew the owner. For whatever reason, our agent and the reclusive owner connected and the next thing we knew, there was a chance that we could buy it: The Big Brick House, which also included a carriage house and a three-car garage. We had to act fast. Word had gotten out that the owner might be ready to sell and already someone was lined up to view the house that afternoon. So, we called our realtor and said we would buy the house (even though we hadn’t sold the beach house). Right then. Without actually stepping foot inside. And that’s what we did.

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Can’t you see the possibilities?

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Home is where one starts from.” That’s what The Big Brick House feels like to us. It seems like our whole remodeling lives have led to this house.  We still can’t quite believe that this worked out. It will take years of work, we know. But we’re ready. As Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” We bought a house. We have begun.

 

 

 

 

 


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Cooking 4th of July Dinner When in Italy

Those who know me, know that on the 4th, it’s an all-out summer cooking extravaganza. Lots of variety of salads (pasta, potato and fruit are always on the menu) as well as some kind of fresh fish. And always the legendary blueberry pie. Our friend, Marcie, is always there to help us celebrate (and to cook!).

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Last year, our Marcie celebration of the Fourth was in high gear!

Well. Here we are in Italy on the 4th. Since Marcie’s gone back to the States, we have invited our apartment owners over to experience a good-old fashioned American Independence Day Meal. However, shortly after the invitation, a couple of challenges  emerged.

No blueberries. Okay, so I’ll switch to an apple pie. That’s about as American as it gets. No Granny Smith apples. Oops. I’ll improvise. No brown sugar. Okay, let’s go with miele (honey). But, when I get to the flour section of the Jumbo Supermercato, I know I’m really in for it. A gazillion choices for flour, but nothing that says anything remotely like “all purpose.” Instead, I see endless varieties of pasta flour and pizza flour. I make a choice (having no idea what kind of flour I am actually getting) and move on.

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An endless supply of pasta flours left me really confused!

When I get back to the apartment, I realize I also have no measuring cups—and most importantly, no pie plate. This is going to be interesting.

There are a couple of good finds, however. Kraft mayo. Dijon mustard. American potato salad is a go. However, these are the only “American” foods I find.  If I’ve learned one thing about Italy during my time here, it’s that it is important to be flexible. For example, here’s how we get our food:

Tomatoes. We walk a little over a mile into a neighborhood and enter what looks to be a random neighbor’s house. The house is modern in a McMansion kind of way. We walk down the driveway to the back of the house, past the carport of BMWs, to find the tractor with the fresh-picked vegetables. Two stereotypically good-looking, tanned Italian 20-somethings (in bathing suits, no less!) help us with our order.  We buy about five pounds of tomatoes. The most delicious, vine-ripe tomatoes. Two Euros.

Water. We walk up a hill to the back side of the town and find the “water station.” There we put our jugs under the spigot and pay 5 cents per liter for frizzante (fuzzy) water.

Pasta. We walk the opposite way down the main road (Viale Roma as in “all roads lead to Rome”) and buy a couple of days’ worth of pasta, including fantastic ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach. We tell the counter person what kind of pasta shape we want, and he cuts it right there.

Bread and Cheese. On Tuesdays, we go to the weekly market and purchase our weeks’ worth of cheese, bread and random vegetables. We’ve been there twice now and already have seen an increase in what gets thrown into our bags because we are returning customers.

Gelato. In the evenings, usually instead of dinner, we walk down Viale Roma to what is now our “regular” gelateria. We gave up on our first place because the owner seemed more interested in keeping the regular card game of a group of men going than serving us gelato.

This evening, even though it might be a little unconventional, we will have some sort of 4th of July celebration. My pie (cooked in a torta pan) is a little odd looking, but I hope it will be tasty. I’m confident about the potato salad, less confident about the shrimp and pea salad (made with frozen shrimp because those were the only ones without the heads on). The farmer’s tomatoes will take up space on the plate—and will be red. At least one of the items will be patriotic.

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Without a pie pan, I had to be flexible. But, for the most part, it worked out.

Postscript. Our American 4th of July dinner in Italy is complete. Our dinner guests enjoyed eating American potato salad and while a bit confused about the pie, they seemed to like it.  I’m not the most patriotic person out there, but I am definitely glad I am an American. Since our Italian is basic and our guests’ English (while way better than our Italian) has gaps, discussing the history of our country was exhausting.  But, it was also lovely to have a concrete example that demonstrates no matter where we’re from, we have a lot more in common than we may think. Felice Quarto,  tutti!

 

 

 

 


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Far from the Maddening (Tourist) Crowd

As of today, I have been in Italy for four weeks with three more weeks to go. After spending time in the crowded, tourist-teeming cities of Bologna, Florence and Rome, the hubster and I are now tucked in at a little Italian town near the Adriatic Sea.

A common thread I heard throughout my early weeks in Italy was about finding the “non-tourist” restaurants, the coffee shops where the “locals hang out,” the places where “real Italians” shop, walk, eat, you name it.

American tourists are an interesting bunch. Florence, in particular, is overrun with American college students on their first study abroad experience, which means they tend to move in a pack with their fellow American students. I watched them eat American French fries, share a pizza (c’mon, order your own pizza!), ask for more ice for their Diet Cokes.

I, too, found myself searching for the “non-tourist” parts of the city.

But, here’s the thing. Tourism provides the mechanism for the  interesting non-tourist places to visit in these towns. Tourism is what makes these cities flourish. For example, during our last day in Rome, we took a tour of the Vatican. It was a tourist-crushing experience to say the least. Sure, I saw the Sistine Chapel, but it was difficult to truly appreciate Michelangelo’s talent when we were packed in like sardines (and we were on a “skip the crowds” tour) while we were just trying not to suffocate. Craning our collective necks to gaze at the ceiling provided work for the tour guides, the guards periodically yelling “Silenzio!,” the refreshment hawkers at the museum entrance, the gelato sellers near the fountains, the Airbnb apartment owners near the Vatican, the ristorante owner around the corner, the taxi drivers waiting at Borgo Santo Spiritus, and on and on.

Even the small “authentic” villages of “old” Italy depend on tourism. Cortona, for example, is a fantastic village to visit with lots of lovely shops and restaurants. The town thrives because tourists have read the book or seen the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, and they want to experience the authenticity for themselves.  (When I was there last year, I was ready to buy a house on the spot.)

You can stay at a quaint agritourismo (and we have!) to experience the authentic Italian country way of life. Except most likely the other guests at the agritourismo will be Americans or Canadians (and an occasional Australian). Tourism has allowed those with these lovely farmhouses to eke out a living.

Rick Steves has been both celebrated and criticized for bringing tourism to previously little visited areas like the Cinque Terre, which now is nearly impossible to visit without stifling crowds.

But what about the towns untouched by tourism?

Currently, the hubster and I are in Nereto, a small town about 10 miles from the Adriatic Sea. It’s in the province of Abruzzo, a strikingly beautiful area of mountains, hills, blue skies. While it is hot and humid back in South Carolina, here in Nereto, it is in the mid-70s with low humidity. We have all the windows of our apartment open and I am wearing a sweater.

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This is the view of the hills outside Nereto.

There is not a single tourist in this town except for us. When we walk the streets, people look at us strangely. Surely, they know we don’t belong here, but they don’t seem overly curious about us. No one speaks English, but we know enough Italian now that we can order in restaurants (there only appears to be three here), can tell the grocery check-out person that we don’t need a bag, and can ask directions if we need to. Then again, we don’t need to because this town is so small, you can’t get lost.

But, I wouldn’t call Nereto quaint. Actually, I don’t know what I’d call it. It seems to be a town that had an idea for improvement and innovation, but somewhere along the way, it forgot about the master plan (if ever there was one). There are some beautifully renovated homes (where we’re staying is one of them), but lots of abandoned buildings, stores that are closed, others that we can’t really tell if they are open or closed.

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The old blends with the new in Nereto. It’s hard to tell what is in the process of being renovated.

The Jumbo Super Mercato is quite modern with lots of choices at excellent prices. Cars fly through the town to go who knows where. As I write, there is a week-long “beer fest” in the town square that includes a couple of hours of not great music in the evening (which we can hear even with all the windows closed), a bizarre bouncy house contraption, and some horribly cheap toys and other junk to purchase. A beer fest doesn’t sound very Italian to me, but who’s to say?

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Here is a half-built apartment building in Nereto that seems to be abandoned.

When you get right down to it, what does the average American know about Italy, anyway? Ask 100 Americans who have been to Italy where they went, and I’ll bet they’ll answer some combination of Florence, Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. But what about all the other places without the amazing art, or spectacular duomos, or tantalizing beaches?

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There might not be any amazing art or duomos in Nereto, but it still has some beauty.

This is my third time to visit Italy. I have been working hard every day for the past 18 months to learn Italian. I suppose I am getting better at it, but the more I talk, the more I realize how basic my language skills actually are. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like spending time in another country. The longer I’m here, the more I realize I don’t know Italy at all.   I’ve heard plenty of tourists say things like “I did Italy last year.” Well, I’ve got news for them. They didn’t.

Meanwhile, as I try to get my head around what I’m doing here, I’m settling in, figuring out the rhythm, drinking wine. Writing. And cooking pasta. Non che male!

 

 


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Everyone Moves. A Walking Tour of Florence

I am in Italy for most of the summer. I am traveling to big cities and small villages. Today I am in Florence.  The city moves. And we move with it. Tourists and Florentines, moving with an uneasy, yet familiar, flow. I first notice the tourists. The city teems with them. Many are college age. How did Florence become the playground for American students?

Upon closer look, the walking tour I am taking yields an insight to the daily rhythm of Florence life. First, there is the church. While tourists flock (and rightly so) to view the awesome sight of the Duomo, I notice other sorts of travel.

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The Duomo attracts travelers and it’s easy to see why!

There are the horses, waiting to carry the tourists away from the piazza. And there are church workers taking just pressed vestments to a baptism, perhaps.

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These vestments are traveling from the Baptistry to the Duomo.

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This horse looks like he is tired of traveling.

Second, there is the river. People walking across the bridges. Boats meandering down the serene water. Rowers perfecting their stroke—catch, drive, finish.  Runners and cyclists following the river’s path. The river provides both a place of solace and a beacon for wanderers. I hear a tour guide say, “If you can find the river, you can find home.” As a rower, I know this to be true.

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The river beckons.

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A rower practices his stroke.

Eventually, I peel away from the group to find my own path. I turn left. I turn right. I am not concerned because I know where both the Duomo and the river are. These two anchors assure me that no matter where I wander, I have a place.  Eventually, I find a quiet trattoria with friendly camerieri. I decide that this is where I will eat. “Buongiorno,” one waiter calls out. “Buongiorno,” I answer. “Siete aperti? I ask.”  “Si!,” he says, following this (in perfect English) with “Do you understand Italian?” I tell him that I am learning. That’s all he needs. We speak only Italian from then on. He is patient with me. What follows is a delightful lunch of pasta, sparkling water and local wine. Passersby are few as I marvel at the quiet just a few blocks off the main piazza.

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My lunch is a delightful respite from the throngs.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” I moved this morning. More than 10,000 steps of movement. And then I stopped. And I felt the rhythm of the city. And it felt bellissimo.

 


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It was the Best of Times. It was the Worst of Times. Life Aboard a Cruise Ship.

The beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily describe a cruise vacation.  While I’m a bit late to the cruising party, after five cruises in four years, I’m becoming a bit of an expert. This cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam, December 31-January 14, delivered just what I expected it to.

When I’m on vacation, I often don’t want to “do” all that much. Typically, I just want to relax, soak up the local culture, eat local food, and hang out. I like to go to a place, park myself there, and just see what happens.

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Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a sunrise like this?

But “seeing what happens” is the good-and not-so-good—of the cruising “culture.”  First the good.

The food. I can’t emphasize this enough. And not because there is a lot of it waiting to be gobbled up (although there is). What I love about food on a cruise is that there is always something available that I not only want to eat, but something that I can eat. One of the on-going challenges of living with achalasia is that I always have to pay attention to what I’m eating. Always. I have to analyze how my esophagus feels, make a judgment call whether the food in front of me is too hard, too leafy, or too complicated to give it a go.

Living with achalasia means that when I walk into a restaurant, I often have limited choices on what I can eat successfully. I always find something, but I might only have a couple of options on the whole menu.  However, on a cruise, the choices gloriously abound.

For breakfast on a cruise, I always start with oatmeal. (I know. I’m a little boring.) Steaming hot, hearty, and served with a smile.  (Seriously, the server who was always at the oatmeal station seemed pretty happy to see me each morning.) If I’m still feeling okay after that, I might add a croissant or some other soft bread item. Or maybe some strawberries and cheese.

For lunch, I start with soup.  During our two weeks at sea, I had roasted parsnip soup, asparagus soup, ginger carrot soup, hot and sour soup, garden tomato soup, potato leek soup—and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Then there was the spread of cheeses, fruits, pastas, stir fry, veggies, you name it. All sorts of things that were in my “achalasia-eating wheelhouse.” And, of course, a wee bit of chocolate ice cream to finish things off.

While more formal than lunch, dinner still had choices. And if there wasn’t something on the menu I wanted, I could always order salmon, which I often did. And, of course, the plethora of yummy desserts just waiting for me!

It’s not that I wanted to eat non-stop.  But feeling confident at every meal that I would be able to eat without repercussions made me feel like I was on a real vacation.

The people. While we met a couple of interesting passengers here and there over our two-week cruise, what I liked best about the people were the staff members.  In particular, Rony, Yuri, and Isman.

Rony was our room steward. He kept our room immaculate, cleaning it twice a day. As we headed to breakfast, Rony would pop in and get our cabin cleaned before we returned. The same thing would happen when we left for dinner. If we needed anything, we only had to call and he would magically show up at our door right away. He was always in a good mood, always wanted to make sure we were happy, and always tried to figure out if there was something he could do to make our cruise more enjoyable.

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Sure, on every cruise, you get towel animals. But I thought Rony’s were especially cute.

Yuri took care of us in the “Lido,” the buffet area on every cruise ship where passengers typically eat breakfast and lunch. Yuri learned our names on the first day, figured out what we liked to drink, chatted with us each morning, and was just all-around pleasant to get to know. One morning, breakfast was a bit crowded because everyone was interested in going ashore at the same time. When we showed up, Yuri found us and took us to the table she had saved for us because  she wanted to make sure we had our “regular” table.

Isman was our head waiter for our dinner table (table #115). After our first meal, Isman knew that I drank black tea after dinner, but Gary preferred herbal “sleepy time” tea. He knew that we didn’t like ice in our water. He knew that if I ordered salmon, I didn’t want Swiss chard with it. He knew that Gary didn’t like chocolate, but I did. He took care of us at every dinner like we were the most important people in the world. It was lovely.

But, then, there was “the worst of times.”

The food. While I reveled in the delicious, fresh and healthy food options, there were also plenty of other foods that I don’t even like to look at. Like mountains of bacon, piles of powdered donuts, grilled hot dogs (I really have an aversion to shaped meat), you name it.

It was bad enough to look at the unhealthy food before it was served. But it really turned my stomach to see piles of half-eaten food left on people’s plates. Sure, I could have just looked away, but I was both horrified and fascinated with the kinds of food that people had no shame about eating publicly.

The people. I hate to say it, but as lovely as the staff members were, some of our fellow passengers were, shall we say, a bit self-absorbed? I know the feeling of “hey, I’m on vacation so I can do what I want,” but there should be limits. Here’s just a glimpse of some of the things we saw.

It was beautiful in St. Maarten, but devastation from the recent hurricane was everywhere.  As we walked into town, we were amazed at the overturned sailboats, the shipping containers piled up on the shore line, the missing roofs from shops. But we were equally amazed at the resilience of the town’s residents, how happy they were to see the tourists return, and how diligently they were working to repair their beautiful seaside town. It was an inspiration.

While resting on a bench along the beach-side main street, a woman joined me and quickly started chatting. She was clearly upset.  “What’s the matter?” I said, expecting her to say something about the sadness of the devastation.  Instead, she said, “I didn’t come here to see this mess. I already saw all this on television.” All I could mumble was something like “Well, what did you expect?”

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We were so glad to visit St. Maarten on our cruise. It is breathtaking!

Seeing piles of uneaten food was bad enough, but watching some people eat was like a bad horror movie in slow motion. I saw a guy eating a pile (I’m talking about a heaping pile) of bacon.  Standing up while wandering around the buffet.  Mouth to bacon.  I mean, why use a fork if you don’t have to? Eww.

I saw people walking through the Lido deck in their bathrobes.  I saw spouses berating each other. I saw parents talking to their kids in such a way that if I were their kid, I’d start looking for scholarships to boarding schools.

But, here’s the thing about life on a cruise ship. If you know what to expect, I still say it’s a great vacation. It is definitely not for everyone. I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk the hubster into going on another one. But, I’m ready. I’m ready to sit on my balcony and watch the sun rise as it dances across the glittering ocean. I’m ready to curl up in the really comfy bed and watch movies on the large HD TV screen. I’m ready to walk laps on the Promenade Deck, listening to my Italian lessons. I’m ready to soak in the Hydrotherapy pool, letting the minerals and pulsating water take my aches and pains away. And I’m definitely ready to have someone serve me oatmeal for breakfast every morning.