Travelog

The Home-Again Blues

Posted on: Friday, August 17th, 2012
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The little girl in the ruby slippers says, “There’s no place like home.” And she’s right: After a long travel adventure, home can feel like the most dull, predictable, and (just say it) boring place on earth—versus the nonstop stimulating scenes of faraway places.

We’ll save seeking cures for another post. So for today, here are 11 signs that you may be suffering the Home-Again Blues…

  • The city you live in seems like a nice place to visit.
  • Your precious, private, cushy bed seems no more special than the one in Sommocolonia, Hornbaek, or Stockholm—and the relentless construction next-door causes more sleep disruption than a 7-hour time-zone change.
  • Those great photos (all 5,555 of them) now look like a hallucination.
  • That time the kids lost their cool and you blamed travel fatigue? It happens sometimes at home too—so what to blame now?
  • The food in American seems so dang mass-produced, unlike Tuscany’s homemade pastas, Denmark’s bakery goods, and Sweden’s super-fresh seafood.
  • You get annoyed looks (instead of a wise grin) from bartenders when you order a “Stor-stark” (large, strong beer).
  • The credit card statements are arriving and are more shockingly expensive than you expected—but you now know it was worth every penny.
  • You’d love to tell more stories to more people, but most just ask, “So what was your favorite?”
  • You realize that about 95% of the fears you faced before going were irrelevant.
  • A month after coming home, you still haven’t unpacked everything—and would rather grab the gear and fly away again.

If only…

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Food, Glorious Food!

Posted on: Sunday, August 12th, 2012
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Back home, eating returns to auto pilot, which is to say the pantry is always full, the menu of restaurants staggering, and the supermarkets’ provisions seemingly endless. Food in America can be an embarassment of riches, really—while eating on the road (with kids in tow) can be a challenge.  Still…

  • One misses that authenticity

It’s true: Most places, even in Europe, offer more selection than they did even a decade ago. And BK, KFC, and all the greats sneak up on many corners. Still, the fare in Tuscany can feel worlds away from that of Copenhagen. And even Denmark’s menus often look little like Sweden’s.

 

Best of all, most anywhere you go in Europe, the little bakeries and butcher shops still abound. And fussy, local loyals still shop daily not only to pick up fresh goods, but to socialize. You just don’t find that experience at your typical Costco or Giant.

 

 

  • The more things change…

A foodie-traveler can quickly pick up on what’s new and trendy. In Scandinavia, for example the New Scandinavian food movement is epic—so much so that not only does Denmark have the world’s greatest restaurant in Noma, but American cities are picking up on it in a big way.

Yet beware of tummy ennui. A friend just told me of a colleague who returned from Italy complaining of boring food. “Could that be true?” he asked me. Too true, I fear. After a few weeks in Tuscany—where few eateries dare to vary from traditional ways (and menus look the same for both lunch and dinner)—one begins to crave Indian, Asian, or anything other than Tuscan!

  • A wistful moment

Yet the ongoing thrill (and occasional challenge) of deciding what, where, and how to eat makes traveling so distinctive and memorable. What I wouldn’t give for one of those “boring,” three-hour Tuscan meals about now…

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BAD DAD: Don’t Take Your Kids on BreakAway!

Posted on: Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
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The family vacation may go the way of the dodo bird—if work bennies and family units continue to fall apart. Perhaps that’s why some of us keep advocating long-term family travel:  escaping your homelife for weeks or months for eye-opening education, stimulation, and inspiration—before it’s too late.

It sounds good in theory, right? Not! Throughout this 35-day trip exploring a long slice of Europe, the offspring demonstrated symptoms of fierce dissatisfaction and outright insanity. Only a BAD DAD would put them through such challenging enviroments and experiences.

Thankfully, we did survive. Yet I recommend all parents and families bury their dreams. Just stay home. Stay plugged in to as many techno-devices as possible. And stay away from terrifying situations like these 5—which represent only the tip of a dangerous iceberg…

  • Boredom. A parent never knows what will thrill (and what will make shrill) the children. But be aware that the castle may enchant the daughter, but disgust the son; the fishing village may excite the boy, but nauseate the girl.

  • Gelati daily. What parent can resist, “Daddy, can I have a treat?” But I implore you:  Just say no! Or before you know it, you’re buying $7, triple-scoop frozen stuff several times a day in expensive Scandinavian cities—or you’ll be punished with world-class pouting and stink-eye (til you finally give in).
  • Language angst. One great reason to drag your kids through foreign lands: Try some other languages. Be prepared, though, for them to pick up even fewer words than you do, and to routinely ask, “Daddy, will you order my gelati for me?
  • Exhaustion. It can happen any time and any place, but it usually flares up in the most remote, inconvenient occasions. It’s called melt-down—and not the kind that two-year olds do, but a much louder, heavier performance. “I’m hot!” “I’m tired!” “I can’t walk another step!” are just a few signs that this disease has struck.

  • Food fights. Are your children picky eaters? If you are so delusional as to say no, may I invite you to take them on tour through countless international eating escapades. No primi, secondi, or contorni will arrive as envisioned. The kids will gag at their own pizza choice—and then steal your steak. Pack 555 granola bars!

I blame myself…

Okay, that rant may show my surly side—but it also suggests you bring a big jar of Chill Pills when you travel as a family. Mellow days and magic moments will abound, of course. But so will scenes that make you shake your head (if not bang it on a wall) with befuddlement.

I guess that’s called growing up. And it never stops, so long as we keep living it up.

If you get the chance, please go see for yourself. It may be the most meaningful, challenging, unpredictable, amazing gift you’ll ever give to yourself—and those dang kids.

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Some Stockholm Secrets

Posted on: Sunday, July 22nd, 2012
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Our family of four spent this BreakAway’s final five days in stunning Stockholm—a Swedish city that shines with history and pride, drips money from its mostly cloudy skies, and is built on 14 islands that lead to 25,000 more. Many (most?) residents have a summer “cottage” on one of those islands.  And by “cottage” these days, they may mean McMansion.

So there’s a lot to love. In fact, Stockholm won honors for being my favorite city during a previous seven-month stay in Europe; a future post will show all that remains to adore. This time, though, Stockholm freely revealed its traveler frustrations and quirks. Here are a few photos that share a slice of that pricey pie.

(Nothin’ but) gray skies. We arrived in July to see the sun, damn it. But she was as elusive as a happy-hour beer. My bad: Last time I was there, it was in July and nary a cloud appeared in the sky. But, wise traveler, don’t expect the same magic twice. This time called for jackets and ponchos–but maybe (if you’re lucky) sunscreen and tank tops two hours later. Oh well, Stockholm remains a rare waterside gem. Just don’t count on too much sparkle and shine.
A dear, dear place to visit (but I couldn’t afford to live there). Stockholm ranks as one of the top five most expensive cities in the world. Of course, this veteran traveler knows how to cut corners and seek bargains and therefore sniffs at such stats. Well, believe it. Sure, you can find deals and surprising values. But meantime, visit your Mr. Money ATM early and often.
A propensity to vacate. They must live well in Stockholm–and not need (or want) to work much; stores kept short hours–on the days they were open. And even in the tourist high season, many (especially restaurants) shut down for weeks. A hotelier told us his five fave recommendations were all closed. Meanwhile, everyone told us to eat at nearby Nostrano. We’d love to, except that a small sign on the door whispers that they’re outahere until long after we are too.
A dark side. To paraphrase Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There, suicide is the national sport in Sweden. Indeed, the locals could, at times, carry themselves with rushed, brusk attitudes–and even treated each other rather rudely. Sweethearts and traveler’s saints abound too. But be prepared to be ignored, underserved, and stared at.

 

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(More!) Wonderful CPH Snapshots

Posted on: Thursday, July 12th, 2012
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Ask most amateur travelers—like the happy couple I recently met, one Dutch, one Italian—and they may not get all hyped about Copenhagen. Their popular dream destinations remain Paris, Florence, Rome, and other top tenners. When they finally get to the USA, they’ll head straight to New York and San Fran.

But if you met more weathered wanderers, they might get misty when reminiscing Copenhagen. As Euro cities go, it’s as unique as any. Yet the stereotypes more are elusive—unlike a Rome that, once there, may live up to your fervor but also looks a lot like all those images you’ve seen in the media for millennia.

Copenhagen calls with warmth—when you’re ready. And if it the weather happens to be un-warm (we are north, after all), know that this city should own the copyright to “cozy.” And the tolerant, proud, safe mindset thats prevail will inspire even the most jaded traveler.

It’s a great place to get lost—and that’s easy to do!  Here are some more impressions from my precious days in the Old Country…

Art happens. Relentless graffiti notwithstanding, art is like air in Copenhagen; it’s everywhere. This sand sculpture–with a funky performing center behind it–was one of dozens that sprang up for a summer-long competition.
You can get there. The busses, trains, and ferries all run on time, and all over the place. Cars are rare, small, and unnecessary.
The cuisine rocks. New Scandinavian food is taking over the world like the Vikings did back in the day. Here, at Fiskebar, a cool vibe sets the stage for world-class fare, design, and service.
The world’s first amusement park amuses on all levels, with a happy surprise awaiting around every corner.
Danish design defines cool, clean, and funk-tional. ‘Nuff said.
Great brains live(d) here. Hans and Soren remain critical thinkers and writers long after they’ve moved on. You can visit their graves in a beautiful, old cemetery–but they remain understated as can be.
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Wonderful Copenhagen (Snapshots)

Posted on: Sunday, July 8th, 2012
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There’s much to say about Copenhagen, but it must wait til I’m home where screen life will usurp street life. So for now, let the pictures tell the story—with these 10 vignettes from five days in wonderful Copenhagen…

Midnight sun. Oh my, it’s hard to sleep in the summer in this city. It gets dark—maybe—for an hour or two. And a full moon glowed like a neon orb. I prowled til 3:30 in the morning a few nights, and the light (and the locals) never stopped beaming.

Awesome architecture. I mean, what was Dude thinking when he made this church with a spire that you walk to the top? No doubt that info came at me through various guidebooks and tours and whatnot. But who care? It’s just crazy cool.

Christiania. This experimental city, thriving in chaos and anarchy since the 70s, makes you feel like you’re tripping before you’ve had a beer. It was rocking (with live music everywhere) this Saturday night. Here, a dinner featured cheap wine, organic food, 3 Swedish women performing a Lennon Sisters schtick, and the best people watching on the planet.  My kids were in shock, but I was in 7th heaven.

Meeting people. Danes may be reserved, but they’re also darn friendly and down to earth. This transpo-entrepreneur wanted to talk Jesse Ventura (even the wrestling chapter) with me til I had to run away. At crowded, late-night bars, conversants would invite me to join their table “if you are alone.” Nice.

Living history. This old city has some wear and patina, but each ancient relic gets TLC too. In this building, the architecture museum struts out a café sun-porch—and also hosts the best restaurant in the world, Noma.

The Big Little Mermaid. Copenhagan’s most famous landmark remains unpretentious, unprotected, and ridiculously popular. Who needs monstrous monuments to kings, generals, and wars? Well done, Hans.

P is for Party. I’ve got a little Dane, Norsk, and Svensk in me. Thank God for the Dane blood, FBOW, because they just want to have fun. Witness: The high school grad trucks that, for about a week, drove around with a party on top. The graduates wear commemorative hats. People stop and wave. They make more noise than a downtown disco. And nobody gives no stink-eye.

Biking culture. More bikes than cars, by, like, 1,000. Bike lanes rule over peds, and you may get knocked over til you learn that. Not sure about their BUI laws, but it sure is an impressive (and quiet) statement. Just sayin’.

Nyhavn. As pretty as a painting. But more alive (on a warm day) than Miami beach. If you don’t have a boat, table, or rezzie, just grab a bevvie (it’s easy) and hunker down waterside. 24/7. And to think this used to be where toothless sailors and hos hung out…

Water, water, everywhere. You can get lost trying to keep up with all the canals and harbors. I guess that’s the point!

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Some Favorite (Danish) Things

Posted on: Thursday, July 5th, 2012
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Ten days in a picturesque Danish fishing (and vacationing) village works wonders for the psyche and soul. At some point, I felt a groovy, easy feeling that rarely happens at home amid real world nonsense and only sometimes happens on vacation—but often happens when taking a full-on BreakAway.

  • So much nothing to do

Oh sure, Hornbaek was sleepy at times, and just plain dead at others. It’s true, the restaurants and bars weren’t all that, and the shops barely existed.  To be honest, the weather was at times disappointing, forcing us to spend time relaxing in a striking, spare house of traditional Danish design.

I must confess, I slept too much, and ate (and cooked) more than my share with excellent, fresh ingredients. And let’s not even mention the languid days spent lounging in libraries, getting lost in castles, lingering at slow-food eateries, and wandering around coastal towns.

If a picture paints 1,000 words, I need not say much more. Instead, I’ll let the pictures tell the story, with a simple caption for explanation. May they bring you, too, a moment of faraway dreaming and repose.

Most might call it Danish-flag art; I call it what kids do when unplugged and left to their own creative (vs digital) devices.

 

Some days at the beach never fail to amuse; toys, towels, and beverages optional.

 

Life without cars? Nothing better. Family bike riding on safe roads with a fancy lorry for carrying stuff beats the heck out of fighting for parking at the mall.

 

Danish design helps with lean, clean thinking–whether or not that also translates to my writing.

 

Home cookin’ with fresh, affordable seafood makes for happy, healthy bellies (and billfolds).

 

Those silly Danes…they still believe in traditions, trolls, and things like thatched roofs.

 

Colorful fishing villages make for a photographer’s paradise.

 

In Helsingor, they’ve erected this controversial (and fun and funny) sculpture called “Han,” which means “He.” A contemporary counterpart to the famous Little Mermaid.

 

In Kronborg, also known as Hamlet’s castle, this massive ballroom sure could use a dance party.

 

All around Denmark, on the Saturday after the summer solstice (at sundown), they sing traditional songs, burn a witch, and then party like modern-day Vikings around blazing bonfires.

 

On one rainy, muddy day, we went back in time for a raucous Medieval festival held at nearby Esrum, an ancient monastery.

 

It’s true, the grass is greener in charming, eco-friendly Denmark.

 

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First Impressions: Denmark

Posted on: Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
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One Mission of this BreakAway: Show the kids their heritage. Like all good writing teachers preach: Show, don’t tell. So we’re here—not just listening to Grandma’s tales or eating lefse at Christmas. It’s working, mostly, if by osmosis; they see the blue eyes and blond hair and fit right in. They like the Danish salamis and ice creams.

We’ve made it to Hornbaek, Denmark—a beach town about an hour north of Copenhagen. One downside of multi-destination BreakAways becomes the days that get wasted by moving from Point I (Italy) to Point D (Denmark). So after a 12-hour migration that took us from hot sun to cold gray, we moved into a comfortable house a few blocks from the beach.

Danes love their little country and carry a national pride evident in everything from extraordinary cleanliness to ubiquitous flags. The people are quieter than Italians—especially in the countryside and, for that matter, the towns. Still, Danes live it up too. Edginess sometimes lurks.

Yet one rarely sees a cop, a posting of rules, or a threat of any kind. Denmark rejects wars and violence. “All for one, and one for all” works here in a way that’s refreshing when you come from America—always in conflict, evermore a police state.

What you do see: Homes and farms and hills so quaint and cute you wonder if you’ve stepped into a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Ancient castles, churches, and neighborhoods that make you wonder if you awoke in a former life. Jauntily dressed individualists with bikes and bags going about their business amid an exceptional quality of life.

  • Kids rule

In America, dogs are often elevated to aristocratic status. And in some circles, shops, and settings, kids are viewed as a nuisance. Here, children are not only welcome most anywhere, amenities for parents abound, kids’ discounts (to age 15!) are common, and some spaces (libraries, parks, museums) are so kid-centered you wonder if adults are allowed in on the action.

My offspring have assimilated to that notion quickly, while also, being kids, being oblivious to it. For example, they’ve gotten lost for hours in two engaging, well-equipped public libraries now; how often does that happen at home?

 

  • “No fear!”

At the local Solstice bonfire on the beach they call “Sankte Hans,” one worldly young Dane sensed my incredulity at the remarkable safety and trust. No one locks doors. Or bikes. Or cars. Or, usually, anything.

It takes people like Americans a long time to grasp that much trust. “Imagine: A world with no fear!”

he proclaimed with wide eyes.

No one checks for tickets on the trains. Many people scan their own groceries on the honor system. When you wander museums and attractions, a security guard occasionally appears, but you’re more likely to find yourself lost in a castle dungeon so dark and treacherous you’d  have to sign waivers to see it in the U.S.

  • Ikke alle kan snakke Americansk!

It’s easy to chat up a Dane. You may have to take the first step. But after that, it may be hard to step away. Most will beam—or at least smirk—at the notion of a foreign tourist. And though they’re often demure (even kings were expected to practice modesty), they’re particularly delighted to meet an American visitor.

Their English has been less than scholarly so far, though. This surprises me, and is not how I remember it from my last visit. But they probably still can handle three more languages than the average American. And we’re in the country now; Copenhagen’s city-folk will probably be more westernized.

  • Self-Service

Though every vista and setting gets tended to the point of super-tidy, the Danes don’t work all that hard. Oh sure, there’s that aimless European economy. And both entitlement and unemployment run deeper than the fjords here.

Yet as a suburban American, the service methods can be maddening. An upscale restaurant will be so short-staffed you’ll be tempted to help out. The supermarket lines will be so long you may opt to go hungry. No one’s in a hurry (except at closing time); steeples have clocks that stopped working centuries ago. It’s relaxing at times. Other times? God bless America!

  • Green, green

Denmark makes the green movement look like no movement at all, but simply the right (and only) way of doing things. Some of the roofs are even green—as in, covered with live grass!  Bikes are certainly more common than cars, and given the best parking spots, easy access to trains, and the right of way.

One word: Plastics. If you believe in their future, you’ll pay dearly—for picnic goods, your basic zip-lock, and even a grocery bag . And garbage gets sorted so thoroughly that when I threw a soda can into a nonrecyclable garbage bin by a train station, someone had reached in and taken it out within seconds.

Wild little daisies and clover are welcome in lawns here; pesticides are not. And though some prices run high (Pringles may run you $4 and a large soda in a café may set you back $10), you can buy fresh produce for way less than the states.  The message: You want to live unhealthy? Fine. But you’ll pay. Anyway, many prefer to grow their own food.

Food? That rumor that Scandinavia is gastronomically challenged has been officially disproven here. In fact, some items (laks, mussels, pickled veggies, etc.) are as good—and healthy—as any I’ve had anywhere.  And THE best restaurant in the world? It’s in Copenhagen. It serves delicacies you’ve never heard of, and that they pick in deep, wild woods. It’s Nomo. And it will set you back about $800 if you want the full multicourse tasting meal with accompanying wines.

By the way, they’re booking October 2012 right now. So plan ahead, as in 3+ months ahead!

  • A country with heart

Which is to say, Danes put their money where their mouth—and their heart—is. And this country has a lot of heart. Of course, the weather may cloud things up; they say it rains one-third of the days, and my experience is it’s cloudy on most others.

And yet, there are 21 hours of daylight this Solstice week.  And peace, love, and integrity fill the clean air.

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Arrivederci Italia, Old Friend

Posted on: Sunday, June 24th, 2012
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Serious sunlight seared mercilessly from above and sweat glowed on everyone’s brow. But because this was our last day in bella Italia, my heart was stuck in a Minnesota snowstorm. The intense mid-June light had to penetrate a thick cloud of melancholy.

When traveling large, the day before departure means unwelcome hours of reality checklists. You’d rather wander, ponder, and soak in history (the world’s and your own). But instead you do laundry, finagle logistics, and clean up the mind-boggling mess that a family of four makes when habitating a foreign home for 14 days.

Luckily, I did break away from the grunt work and head to Barga below to run errands (an ubiquitous curse), take the kids swimming at Barga’s picturesque pool (a cool bonus), pick up a prepped dinner for 6 (an unusual challenge in Barga), and—most important—meet up with Keane.

  • Meet Keane

Keane.  He’s a BFF who landed in the valley from England decades ago to make art. That he did; his installation of hundreds of umbrellas painted with faces and positioned all over town was one of the first things I noticed on my first visit, long ago.  He has also made a life here, replete with wife, 3 children, and an ancient house in Old Barga.

Keane is the kind of friend you make only rarely, and even less so when on tour.

We’ve shared countless happy hours and adventures together—and solved nearly 95% of the world’s problems through the years. On this last day in Italy, I was stunned by how busy we’d both been during my two-week stay. We had run into each other, and certainly chatted, but barely squeezed in a string of complete sentences.

So we’d arranged an hour—one measly, literal happy hour—to sit and sip and catch up at a table outside Aristo’s Bar, the place where we first met.

That hour was to begin at 6. By then, I’d miraculously found my dinner solution—“take-away” roasted chicken and sides from a new rosticceria nearby that would be ready for pick-up at 7. I sent my kids off to meander the walled confines of Old Barga and have their 555th gelati.  And at 5:59 I arrived like a Swiss train, including ample puffing and steam.  And at that moment, everything was right on schedule.

That minute lasted exactly that, and then the hour evaporated like spilt wine on Aristo’s hot cobblestones. Naturally, Keane didn’t show. And the deafening duomo’s clock tower reminded me of that every 15 minutes—when the bells tolled a time that had passed 30 minutes ago.  The bells, like Keane, were not on time. Italy still has its own (or is it no?) sense of time.

  • Aristo’s: World’s Best Bar

The sign on the door reads, “Da Aristo: From wine what sudden friendship springs.”

I sat alone at a table outside that legendary place on this quiet, sweltering evening, while everyone else hid from the heat.  The slow-motion chisel of change kept carving in front of me. You can go back, I contemplated, but it’s never the same. One image of proof: In the late 90s, I’d given Aristo a a nicely framed, 11” x 14” perfect B&W picture I took of him tending bar. For years, it hung proudly on the wall directly behind him, surrounded by his collection of antique booze bottles.

For me, knowing my artwork stood behind him was like always being there. Now, that portrait is hidden away on a distant shelf; it’s still in the house, but a challenge to see.

Aristo has gone away too; he died 4 years ago—and I can guarantee you that, during that funeral day, every shop went shuttered and the Duomo filled with mourners. At the bar now, the next generation, his son-in-law, has taken over—the 6th generation to run the joint!

My favorite bar on the planet remains uniquely amiable, and given the chance, I would drop by routinely, like back in the day. But today the soul there is harder to find, rather like my picture.

When Aristo passed on, much of the bar’s joyful noise, music, passion, and crazed combustion went with him. Old patrons and neighboring proprietors have died too, or moved on from their own serendipitous stay in Barga.

Aristo loved running that bar as much as he loved his people, hospitality, and life. If there are saints, as Italy insists, he is playing piano among them.

Aristo’s evening hours were approximately 4 – 7, though that usually meant 3:30 until, oh, 8? Maybe 9? Sometimes later? Until the musical instruments had broken strings or his 94-year-old momma had called him to supper? You could buy a liter of vino locale to-go there for about 50 cents (if you hadn’t had enough, or were one of the moms and grand-moms heading home with fresh goods to make dinner for husbands and sons).

I occasionally left that place so giddy and tipsy that I was literally bouncing off those Roman walls which, fortunately in Old Barga, are only about as wide as a horse.

  • Still solo on the piazza

As I sat in the shade sipping, journaling, and secretly cursing Keane, those Aristo memories emerged in my head.  But I realized that, with the absolute inevitability of change, it’s impossible to relive even the simplest of life’s moments. So just be there—I suddenly remembered writing in a semi-profound post prepping my mindset for this trip.

Indeed, here I was—there!—counting down minutes on this precious piazza, alone with my ghosts and demons and saints, but surrounded by emotion and gratitude.  And feeling completely human. Italy isn’t better than the rest of the world. But it may be the most human culture around. And Aristo, a pleasant, peasant bartender, was my high priest and mentor. My friends there were apostles.

To drag me out of my thoughts, a red-faced, clammy couple trudged by toting a fat camera and a Tuscany guidebook in English. I averted their eye-contact. They looked lost, lonesome, and curious, but they wouldn’t understand.

  • Sad, sweet songs

Then, through one of the dozens of open windows that overlook the piazza, some melancholy Italian melodies came blasting out, echoing off the stone walls—right on cue. Perfect. Italy, you see, plays mostly American music, and mostly that one song that’s getting played to death everywhere and now feels rather like a death threat, “Tonight, we are young; so let’s set the world on fire…”

Tonight? Young? Sure. But tonight, thank God that song was nowhere to be heard. Instead, the soundtrack was bittersweet Italian schmaltz—an authentic genre that, even under normal circumstances, can shift me into a state that may involve loss of body control, shut eyes, and leaking at the edges.

Today, sitting solo, the songs worked that special effect as if Mr. Coppola and his masterful film scorer had arranged the whole scene.

  • Keane enters, stage right

When Keane did show up, brusque but witty as always, I blurted (like an blunt American would),

Dude!  You are 45 minutes late?!!”

“I woke up 45 minutes late,” he retorted in his Brit accent with palms to the sky, like a veteran Italian.  “And I’ve been 45 minutes late all day.” Okay, I thought to myself. That’ll do. I decided to pick up the food (and the kids) 20 minutes late, so Keane and I could catch up for a whole 35 minutes.  In Italy, that’s nothing.

So we did. We talked, straight from gut and heart, with little time for the small stuff, for exactly 35 minutes. It was frustrating, of course, yet perhaps worth the trip to Italy. Maybe you can go back. But only for 35 minutes. Every decade or so.

The whole point of this website is to encourage people to make and take time to step off the treadmill and see the world, realize a coveted mission, and spend quality time with family and friends. To Break Away:  for a whole year, if possible—or months, or weeks, or days if that’s what you can muster. Admittedly, sometimes 35 minutes is all you got.

The air was cooling off, so the piazza begin to buzz, and the people who could be my new friends joined our table. Everyone knows Keane, so I became briefly connected again. A police car pulled up; two officers lazily got out and started joking with we revelers. The bald, mustached guy, I forget his name, popped in with a jovial “Ciao!” on his way home from work—like he does every day. Then it was time for good-bye.

Keane and I did the Italian two-cheek-kiss that real men do there, and embraced each other and the past, and, God willing, a future reunion that lasts more than 36 minutes.

Then I raced to the rosticerria.

  • Up the mountain, then up in the air

The food was ready (and the salad had wilted). The kids had temporarily sated their gelati fix. And my coveted gathering had come to pass, if only for a moment so short-lived you must ask yourself, “Did that really just happen?”

I drove like a mad Tuscan up the skinny, zigzaggy mountain road and brought food by delivery—an extreme rarity in these parts—to my extended family. We enjoyed a Last Supper outside—delicious, luxurious, poignant.

Fine wine flowed, an apricot sky cooled the terrace, and the lights began to twinkle in the other mountain villages and valley below.

Then the party ended, and thus began the packing, the early morning alarm clock, and the drive to the Pisa airport (with a requisite stop for a photo opp at that one iconic landmark).

It’s no fun leaving Italy, but Denmark awaits. On the plane, I watched outside the window as the leaning tower, the terra-cotta rooftops, and the verdant hillsides of Tuscany faded into cloud vapors.

 

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Time to See the Sea!

Posted on: Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
Posted in: Travelog, Blog | Leave a comment

Years ago, I sauntered through Viareggio on a dreary fall day. The place was a ghosttown—so deep into its hibernation that the term “life support” came to mind. There was an empty shabbiness that suggested get-outa-here fast!  But also a fading stateliness and Coney-Island patina that evoked (and promised) brighter days.

Mamma mia, what a little sun and heat can do! This time, the hot winds had whisked the ghosts away. And the early summer frenzy became more palpable by the minute. There must be one million beach umbrellas in Viareggio. And based on their bright, perfect symmetry alone, I’m guessing as many warm bodies will be chilling under them by July.

  • Beach clubbing

No doubt night clubs happen soon too, but the cool thing to do is check into a beach club, get escorted to your amenities (3 chairs, one little table, one big umbrella for about $35 per day). Our club, The Excelsior, also offered changing rooms, swimming pools, languid lifeguards, and a cheerful bar with chirpy help and surprisingly fine fare.

  • I mean, is there any bad food in Italy?

This beach stretches for, oh, about 30 miles. And in Viareggio alone, there must be hundreds of beach clubs—to match the hundreds of hotels.  On Day 1, each club’s lifeguards agreed that a red flag (high seas) and yellow flag (riptides) was in order.

Okay, the surf was up. But after a few dips in the water—in which one must walk for a few futbol fields before it reaches your shoulders—I sensed a conspiracy.  After all, any time a “swimmer” got out to knee depth, the lifeguard would slowly rise from his comfie chair and yell you closer to shore.

Then, they’d go quickly back to their tête-à-tête, fishing-net-fixing, or cigarette rolling. Another thing they didn’t like: If those “riptides” (or frisbee games) moved you to another guard’s beach, he’d call you to his chair, look up from his cigarette, and sternly state, “Your beach is over there!” Perfect English. How did he know?

Anyway, one soon learns to mostly ignore the salvataggio, as they do you. In fact, it became impossible to discern which ones were actually working and which were simply enjoying the day.  If there are job openings, I aim to brush up on my strokes.

  • Vendors, vendors, everywhere

Like most of Europe, Italy remains pretty provincial with only a tiny minority population of immigrants. That said, it’s possible that all 4 million of them were on our beach selling sunglasses, imported thingies, cheap jewelry, and various shtuff.

The coconut man had a chant that brought back Caribbean memories, and the umbrella man’s operatic tenor and multi-lingual song would make Pavarotti proud. Otherwise, I played deaf and they left me alone, although I did succumb to the magic fingers of a zenny Asian lady’s foot massage—the best 10-Euro value ever.

So while most were pesty as mosquitoes, a few simply made the setting more sweet. And while beaches from Mexico to Grenada have tried to sweep away random renegade peddlers, Italy doesn’t seem to be much into enforcement of anything  (except, perhaps, Catholic hierarchies).

Moreover, when the merchants would gather under an umbrella (for free), take a break, and laugh in about 55 languages, I couldn’t help wondering if they were snickering at me.

Ha, ha ha! Stoic white boy probably paid more to spend two days here than we make in a year, but in a month, he’ll be back in frigid Minnesota, and we’ll still be on the beach!”

  • Good time had by all

If you want to make your kids happy—and not work too hard at it—go to the beach. Our gaggle of 5 ran and splashed, played soccer, built castles, and exhausted themselves to the point of near-coma before sundown. Bellisimo!

This allowed some adults to sneak away to one of Viareggio’s best eateries (as per TripAdvisor) where the tourist-foodie’s best phrase, “Mangia bene, spende poco” was redefined yet again. And when we were the last lingering table, Luca (the ubiquitous chef and proprietor) paid us a visit, refused most of our tip (“You silly Americans!”), and sent us home with a bottle of chilled house Prosecco.

And to think some on TripAdvisor describe him as surly. Twinkle, twinkle, little star; what you say is what you are!

On the other end of the spending spectrum, we splurged on the hotel. When you want a seaside room for four and another for five—near each other, with a view, breakfast and rooftop pool—it is not easy to find.  Unless you follow the stars.  All the way up to *****!  Of course, this kind of indulgence doesn’t happen often for BreakAway families.  Sunny Viareggio may be once in a lifetime.

But ain’t life grand when you chase a complex vision, throw cash to the salty wind, and get more than you bargained for?

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