On Living In Pause

 

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Hey everyone!

If the third time’s the charm than I’ll be publishing this post this evening. There are about 14.5  thoughts running through my head, and they all connect,  though somewhat tenuously, so putting them together on here has been difficult.

As I mentioned here, at the beginning of the year, I hit pause on certain interests in my life, things that were starting to affect me negatively. I love learning, and figuring out people and new ideas. I enjoy new literature on a multitude of topics such as ministry, relationships, singleness, and social issues.  I have advocated personal growth and intentional living on here, in the pursuit of living more vibrantly and wholly as women in Christ. It is a message I will probably always be passionate about, but the why’s and the how’s have been changing for me over the last six months.

The book of Isaiah is nestled chronologically in between some very difficult places in Israel’s history. There is fighting, sin and idolatry and God continually threatens to destroy them. Then God shows up in a blaze of glory and fury in Isaiah and records in beautiful language, who He is and the reality of who mankind is as well. There is some poetic interchange between God and Isaiah as He establishes just What It Means to Be God and Isaiah who attempts to explain What It Means to Be Human. This beautiful-back-and-forth has continued through the centuries as the created and the Creator interact. A few themes have emerged as I’ve read through this book, and one of them sums up beautifully what I’ve come to during these past six months in pause.

I’ve come to quiet.

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” 

And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust[a] forever.

At first glance they are beautiful verses that could likely be found somewhere in Hobby Lobby on a sign or coffee cup, or maybe under a pretty picture on Instagram. However, to accept and embrace and live in these promises requires asking some very important questions. In returning to what, will we be saved? Quietness in what becomes strength? What is righteousness?

Answering these questions requires one to make truth claims, and Christians are finding that harder and harder to do. We want to know who everyone else says God is, and we want God to say, “Blessed are you. You are___________________(insert name) and I will do ____ (insert thing) for you.” Sound like an exchange between Jesus and His disciples? It is, but it leaves out the most important part- the dramatic personal belief and declaration of Peter. Popular Christian literature and psychology has inverted this concept and most likely the millennial Christian today would connect more with Jesus’ address to Peter, than Peter’s beautiful declaration of Jesus.. Our primary desire is to be understood, to have an identity and to be accepted. We seek to figure all that out through books and podcasts and tests. We’ve been led to believe that in understanding ourselves and in being more self-aware, that it will somehow lead us to God. In the past ten years, as I’ve watched this evolve, it’s been interesting to note that this hasn’t solved the human problem. Even with all these formulas, Christians are still depressed. Still confused. Still lonely. Still looking for God.

Where is He? I found Him, or maybe He found me in the quiet. In the seeking of Him through His words to us. In turning off the noise of the thousand voices that too are searching. In the reading of old books whose themes reflect His values. He’s there. He’s here. He’s findable. But He won’t compete with the voices and He won’t re-arrange to fit our versions of ourselves and how we understand ourselves to be.

It is only in finding Him that we can understand and are willing to accept who He says we are, but we also find that we aren’t that big of a deal. I suppose that’s probably a bit of a drastic statement but I find myself somewhere between oh what a worm am I and if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.  This has been liberating for me, though at first glance it seems rather demeaning. As one who is prone to over analyzing and overthinking, it has been good for me to come back to God and let Him settle me back in His truths and my place in Him. And when I’m most connected to Him, I’m less likely to stumble all over myself.

Anyway, this has gotten kind of long and deep and it wasn’t supposed to. But I’d like to encourage anyone else who is is also struggling with the overload of ideas and concepts and books and podcasts to just hit pause and find God for yourself. Return to quiet and there find strength. And if you’re like me, you’ll find the daily things with which we tangle, start falling into place.

-Vicki

 

 

 

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Italy and Switzerland~ the Dolomites

I have been pushing off this post for so long for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I feel like my pictures don’t do justice to the majesty of what we saw and secondly, there aren’t quite the right English words to describe this part of the trip, and thirdly, I’ve had some technical difficulties with WordPress. However, last night after thinking about our trip with awe and thankfulness, I discovered that I might  have a few words for this part and the rest you’ll just have to imagine. 🙂

One of the technical difficulties I’m facing is the inability to download my photos from a file to this blog. I am able to access Marylou’s pictures and she has graciously let me use them on here. All but one of the pictures are hers and if you want to see even more stunning images and a more detailed summary, go check hers out.

So we left the crowds and the colorful concrete jungle that is Venice, and hit the open road, heading north. We were surprised at how quickly the flat coastlands gave way to rolling foothills, and I remember seeing our first set of baby Alps, and it was quite impressive!

You have to keep in mind that we’re from Georgia and well accustomed to the sea and to land at sea level, and so even baby mountains really wowed us!

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These stunning views were just outside our van windows on our way to Fiè allo Sciliar, our destination in the Dolomites . The timing of this part of the trip was perfect, with the trees starting to change color, but with the brilliant October skies.

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We kept stopping every couple of kilometers it seemed to oooh and ahhhh more adequately. You’d think a soul would run out of awe but the tank is bottomless, thanks to a good and kind God who not only created such beauty, but the capacity to enjoy it as well. Missing a road on our route took us within a few kilometers of the border of Austria but we didn’t have the time to keep going.

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Because of some excellent research by Marylou, we came upon Rainbow Lake just as the sun was about to set. The crystal clear water made the perfect mirror for a set of craggy mountains in the background. You can’t really make stuff like this up, I promise, and to experience it is to leave you almost speechless, and that says a lot about a group of Hershberger ladies 🙂

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We finally made it, after many stops and photos, and pleasurable sighs, to our destination, and it was one of two places where we only spent one night. In this part of northern Italy, there is a lot of Swiss influence and flavor, and our hostess for the night spoke fluent German, not Italian, and she helpfully pointed us to what was to become a highlight of the trip for me- the Alpe Di Suesi, an alpine meadow tucked in between some more wonderful, craggy mountains.

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This meadow, along with other stunning villages we drove through, was relatively quiet due to the time of the year, but when skiing season starts, these places are crawling with people. We spent the morning here, and it felt as though we had wandered into Heidi’s book, and even ran into one of her goats! We split up and all headed separate ways for the morning. I followed a little road to the top of the mountain and was rewarded with more incredible views. Some cowhands were bringing a herd of brown and white Swiss cattle down the mountain and I stepped off the path to let them all pass, cowbells clanging, and hooves clomping. I also bought a little wooden spoon from a roadside stand, with an honor-based pay system. Those few hours were incredibly special, with the panorama of beauty and a heart full of worship. Clouds starting rolling in and were so low I felt as though I could nearly touch them, so I scampered back down the mountain and met up with the others who had wonderful experiences of their own to share. Dolomites-3

Here we are with the goat. RuthAnne’s goals for the trip included petting all the animals so she got to add a goat to her list 🙂

Lois and Marylou drove Peppy (the van) down the mountain, and Kelly, RuthAnne and I took the cable car down.Cable Car

We hit the road again, this time headed for Tirano, up near the Swiss border. As usual, we punched the address into the GPS and buzzed along. We had left enough margin in our timing for more photo stops, as we were wont to do by this point, but it was mid-afternoon when we finally really tried to actually drive more than a few kilometers without stopping. We were about to stumble upon the most unexpected, memorable part of our trip. I still can’t really think about it without shivering a little.

It started innocently enough, until we hit this spot:

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Of course we HAD to stop and take a million pictures and pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t on a puzzle box. I mean those are glaciers up there in the right corner! We couldn’t even!!!! Eventually we settled ourselves back down and starting driving. Uphill. Very uphill, and there was no downhill in sight. Soon we were nearly eye level with the glaciers.

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We were soon above the tree line and going around one hairpin curve after the other, winding up a road to who-knows-where. At one point we were about 25 miles from the moon, or so we imagined. The curves were so sharp that those of us in the back had to give the all-clear for the next right or left hand swing. The average gradient was 8%. The higher we got, the quieter we all got in the van. I’d venture to say that was the quietest, non-sleeping time of any part of our trip. We were all controlled and not outwardly freaking out, but you could almost feel the tension rising. It’s hard to describe how lonely and otherworldly it felt up there, above the trees and civilization. The occasional oncoming vehicles were reassuring  that indeed, life was happening and possible, but it just felt incredibly lonely.

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(the photo above is mine, and excuse the quality but notice the road!)

Forty-eight hair pin curves later (I’m not exaggerating), we made it to the top.  At this point, we noticed on the GPS that we were almost in Switzerland so we made a turn and drove for just a bit down a side road to get into Switzerland and then came back.

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Coming down was definitely easier, although Peppy’s brakes were running kind of hot, so we pulled over to let him have a break. Coming down the mountain and seeing the friendly lights of villages was one of the most beautiful moments of the trip 🙂

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When we got to our place for the night, we looked up our route and discovered that we had successfully driven the Stelvio Pass, the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the Alps. The highest point is 9,088 feet but it seems a lot higher when you aren’t expecting anything of the sort and have no idea where you are!

We settled in for the night; Lois got a back massage for the incredible and difficult driving she mastered, and the rest of us cooked a yummy supper of vegetable stir fry, with groceries we picked up in the welcoming little town.

The following day we did a train-trip up into St. Moritz in Switzerland where we spent a few hours. The Bernina Express train does the same route but we found that taking the local train, with windows that we could open, was a good bit cheaper. Here is the local train station in Tirano: Bernina-59

The train trip was wonderful, but our experiences along the tops of mountains the day before was hard to beat! We sort of expected to see more Swiss country with towns and chalets but we really just saw a lot more mountains and glacier lakes, and lots of tunnels. Train travel is always relaxing in the country and this was no exception. We enjoyed walking around the glitzy resort town of St. Moritz, and it is definitely different from any Italian city we had been in. For one thing, everything was in francs and everything was expensive! Finding a burger meal for less than $25 was impossible so we opted for kebabs in a little shop off the beaten path. French fries, kebab meat and a special sauce made for a deliciously fattening meal. The dear little grandpa running the place charged me $.13 for my meal and about $300 (I think) for Lois’. The language barrier and credit card machine confused him a little but we got it all worked out. Visit Marylou’s page to see our take on some of the Gucci and other designer stores in this town 🙂

St. Moritz is beautifully set by a lake and is fun to explore for a bit but if you aren’t into fashion and glam and high-end living, you might not completely appreciate what it offers. T to St Moritz-27Bernina-32Bernina-18Bernina-16Bernina-3Bernina-10

Friday morning we packed up and headed south, this time with no mountain pass on our route. I’m not sure we were emotionally ready for another pass 🙂 They have a great road system and the interstate was similar to American ones. All we saw of Milan was driving around the outside of the city on our way south. Our route also took us along Lake Como, so we stopped there for a bit, to eat our leftover stir fry, and to use the bathroom. The bathroom part is a long story but lets just say there were some desperately happy ladies who finally found a “banyo”and who consequently sang a few songs in four part harmony to the restaurant owner who let us in. We were just that thankful and relieved (pun kind of intended). I’ll probably never sing for a bathroom again 🙂Lake Como-9Lake Como-10

Stir-fry wasn’t really classic food for a Lake Como picnic but we were within 48 hours of flying home and were trying to eat up all of our food 🙂  We saved many $$$ by occasionally preparing simple one-dish meals and then eating leftovers on the road. Obviously we didn’t do it at the expense of trying and enjoying local foods, but it did help our pennies stretch further. Lake Como-17b

Lake Como is absolutely gorgeous and it’s easy to see why the rich and famous vacation here. Again, due to being off-season, many of the places were closed and it really felt like not much of a happening place but during peak season it is a lot more lively.

We then ended our driving back in Florence, where we dropped off the van and then got on a fast train back to Rome. We arrived in Rome in the early evening and ate our last dinner at one of the places they tell you not to eat: the places with the bright menu pictures and where the menus are in English and pushy waiters are out in the road trying to coax you in. Well, we just did anyway and turns out, Roman made-for-tourists- lasagna, though disavowed by the Romans, is quite delicious. Served up by a very flirtatious and charming waiter, and that was the final flourish to our Italian adventure! We spent the night in an ancient hotel with peeling paint and a rather sketchy looking elevator, but we all slept well. Our flight home was early afternoon the next day and we got to the airport just in time, and that was with taking an earlier train than we had originally planned. The airport is out of the city about 30 miles. Our flights home went well and we arrived home tired, but supremely happy and full of amazing memories.

I don’t think I’m done with Italy just yet. I’d love to visit the Amalfi Coast and spend more time at Lake Como, but overall, I’d say we experienced Italy about as fully as one can in three weeks time. However, there are many other lovely places on my to-experience list so we’ll see about a return trip to Italy 🙂

Definitely the most important ingredients of a great trip are good and thorough research, good and compatible travel companions, and an open mind and willingness to explore new cultures.

Italy is an ancient civilization and a proud one, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of trying to understand it and unpack it in the short time I was there.

There is so much more that could be written about our trip, but it’s hard to know how many details are of general interest, or are dear little gems to just keep in my heart. If you are thinking of visiting Italy and want more specifics, shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to help.

Until next time,

Vicki

 

 

On not living a hashtag

It’s a new year. Humanity is doing its annual declutter, probably KonMari style this year. Bullet journals are being set up and the exercise equipment at the gym is being put through its own paces. It’s a fresh start.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who laughs when they read Ecclesiastes, but I feel like Solomon either had kidney stones, or was looking forward into the twenty first century when he moaned out some of his chapters. Water cycles and wind circuits and life spans are all subjects he laments at some point or another and when you finish his book, you really wonder if there is any hope for humanity.

I laugh at him because I’m really laughing at myself. I think we’d get on marvelously, as we are both prone to overthinking and both like poetry.

I wrote a series awhile back on Women and Consumerism and how I changed my thinking patterns on consuming and accumulation. I’m happy to report that this has indeed become a lifestyle and not just a passing trend. To date, I can think of no area in my house that needs to be decluttered or purged, and I even live in a house with a basement. There are spider webs and dirty corners and unorganized cabinets, and a couple cats but nothing that needs to be gotten rid of, except maybe the cats.

Living a simpler life in terms of what I want and acquire has truly been life changing. The hunt for a new purse because my only purse is wearing out has become fun and guilt free. Choosing a new notebook because I need it is significantly more enjoyable than mindlessly grabbing one at a store because it’s just too cute to leave there but I have no immediate need or plan for it. I know minimalism is all the trend right now, but I’m not minimalist and my lifestyle change is a commitment to contentment and not a nod to an ascetically pleasing empty space .

What followed the physical and tangible choices and decisions I made has been really  interesting and it brings me into my goals for the new year. It was about the time that I was most invested in my Amazon business and my little hobby couponing ( both things that contributed heavily to my accumulation problem) that I was also most active in the ideas marketplace- interested in all the ministry formulas, personality tests, psychology analysis (I love understanding how people and things work). I was reading the books, taking the tests, establishing my goals and trying to just, you know, get my life going. However, with time, the information and constant stimulation of all these different ideas started to stockpile and collect like the shampoos on my shelf and I soon realized I was overwhelmed. Because I was living on borrowed ideas and in other people’s hashtags, I got discouraged when my life and goals didn’t work out like theirs. I got a bit disillusioned with life and somewhat Solomonesque in my outlook.

Interestingly enough, it was when I started my journey to contentment in my possessions that I was able to see what was happening and had the clearness of mind and eye to start addressing it.

The problem with the Ideas Marketplace, where as ladies,we both buy and sell, is that it is never ending. There is virtually no aspect of life that is unaffected. Relationships, Parenting, Marriage, Singleness, Health, Spiritual Life, Education- each topic is a virtual community with devoted scholars and speakers, and unique buzzwords and hype. Trying to keep up with them all and do them all well is exhausting and defeating.

It really makes life so complex and complicating and stifles the instinctive and natural. Do X, Y, and Z  if that’s your child’s  love language and make sure that as a single, you make the time for you because others will walk all over you, and eat lots of grass-fed butter, and make sure your child’s carseat is rear-facing until such and such an age, and do this and that and the other if you are reaching out to this kind of person, but if they respond in this way then you must not do those things but instead this other thing and does anyone else have a headache yet too? Now, these things aren’t all bad but they are overwhelming.

A few things jarred me last year in relation to this topic:

  • Reading Elizabeth Elliot’s biography and wondering who will be the role models of today’s little girls. Hers was a life of emotional strength, fortitude and resilience in the midst of hardship and we are trading out these qualities for an Ikea kind of womanhood. Trendy, versatile and even functional, but ultimately light-weight. The ones that show up well on camera and shape up prettily on blogs but collapse under pressure.
  • the realization that a lot of my worldview and thought processes turned to others instead of Christ and His Word to troubleshoot my problems or influence my thoughts on a topic. I really didn’t need Him that much and was content if the ideas contained at least His flavoring.
  • The amount of women  I discovered through books, social media and IRL who are anxious, depressed, discouraged, and lonely. If we have the tools, the podcasts, the relationship books and the platforms, why do we struggle with these things?
  • Jesus’ invitation to rest.  If we are overwhelmed and anxious from doing all Jesus’ things, then something’s likely wrong. He expects our participation in His work, but He also promises to give us what we need to do it.

I’m still an ideas kind of girl. I still believe that an open mindedness to new ideas is a very attractive character quality. I firmly believe that a vibrant, Godly woman will always be a scholar in life and will be ever learning and growing.

However, I think the biggest problem facing women today is not that we are taking in nothing, but that we are taking in everything and consequently drowning.

So this year is a year of simplicity for me in pretty much every area of life. I want to balance my love of new books and ideas and foods with the old, and tried and true. I want to reread old books that inspire and challenge my character. I want to visit old recipes and cook with simple foods. I want to spend quality  time with my Grandmas who are from a generation that experienced hardship and whose characters I want to emulate. I want to further pursue the character qualities of contentment, holiness and wisdom-qualities that don’t photograph well on social media and don’t get any sort of airtime.

I want to explore the whole of God, not just His beauty and his love, because living only in His beauty and love actually makes me pretty selfish. I want to familiarize myself with His Word and have His Voice be immediately where I turn when facing decisions. I want to live instinctively and freely and not by the books and the hashtags.

If you’re overwhelmed, and would like to unsubscribe from ALL THE IDEAS and experience the simplicity of Jesus this year as well, I’d love some accountability in this. I’ll put my email address in the comment section.

Also, my final post on northern Italy will be up soon, hopefully. I wanted to get this New Years post up before June, you know 🙂

Vicki

Italy:: Venice

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Photo credits: Marylou

::VENICE ~ VENEZIA::

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There are many words to describe Venice, but one of the most common and fitting is the word “magical”. Without a doubt this island is about as tourist-centered and splashy as tourist destinations can be. And sadly, because of the tourism, many of the residents are leaving the island for more affordable and sustainable places to live.

The real charm of Venice lies in its canals. If you were to replace the canals with roads, it would lose 96% of its personality. The fun of getting on a boat instead of a car, and getting into a canal instead of an interstate is what sets Venice apart from other splashy destinations. I’m supposing that when she floods, she probably isn’t as charming and is more along the lines of inconvenient, but we didn’t experience that in our 2 days there.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and waited in a very long queue for the overcrowded parking garage located just off the causeway. It was literally let one car out of the garage, and let another in. Parking is rather limited on the island and we found that when we left Tuesday morning, it was a lot less crowded. We had arrangements for meeting our apartment host at 2:00 and when the line for the garage wasn’t moving much, Marylou and I left the others and sprinted to our apartment to finalize details. We discovered instantly that Venice is very, very crowded. It is not a very big island, approximately 4 km east to west and 2.8 km north to south. It averages about 60,000 tourists a day and so there’s not a lot of places for people to spread out.

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The view of our “street”, er, “canal”.

One of our first matters of business was to buy our vaporetto passes which gave us unlimited access on the boats for the duration of our stay. Vaporettos are a bit like water buses and there are a few main lines that each run. We found the stations to be well marked and for the most part,  the routes were easy to understand. We rode around the island for a few hours that evening because boats are fun and also to orient ourselves with the layout of the island. The Grand Canal, which empties out into the sea is quite magical at dusk when all the ristorante lights come on. We also got to see a huge cruise liner leave and after being there a few days, we were happy to see any cruise ship leave 🙂

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There are hundreds of little bridges spanning back alley canals.IMG_2987

One of the most famous bridges in the world is the Rialto Bridge pictured above. We enjoyed walking it and shopping the local market at the one end.

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There are a few iconic places in Venice that are definitely worth visiting. St. Mark’s Basillica is one of the most famous and unless you get there right when it opens, you’ll wait in line awhile. I’d recommend paying 2 euro and wearing a headset with the history and information of everything you are seeing. Rick Steves also has an audio download for many of these sites and we used him as well throughout our trip. The apostle Mark was killed and buried in Alexandria and it is rumored that two Venetian monks smuggled  his remains out of the country under a pile of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims aren’t permitted to eat pork, this was a perfect way to avoid rousing suspicion. Supposedly his body lies underneath the altar of this Basilica. We were not permitted to take pictures inside but it was yet another ornate and elaborate church, and we wondered yet again what Mark would think of his namesake basilica.

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In the same complex is the Doge’s palace which we heard is also worth some time exploring. We were running short on time and kind of tired of spending money so we enjoyed this from the outside. Venice in the 14th century, was the seat of the government before it moved to Rome and the doges lived here in the palace. It has a decidedly Gothic style and the intricate arches and moldings were pretty incredible!IMG_3026

The famous Bridge of Sighs linking the palace to the prison. Supposedly prisoners would take one final look at their beloved Venice through the windows on the bridge and sigh before going into their cells. There was a wedding photo shoot happening while we were there and I thought it added a somewhat romantic layer to this iconic place 🙂

Everything is a bit more expensive in Venice, due to literally everything including supplies being boated in. Mornings on the canals were a bee hive of activity, with loading and unloading supplies and tools, moving things around, picking up and dropping off passengers and everything else that a normal city does, this just being done on water.

And of course, no roads means no fire trucks or police cars but they do have police and fire boats, pictured below. We saw a casket being taken down a canal in a….. hearse boat?! The one day when we were riding the boats just because we could, we got off at our stop with a bunch of school children. There were pockets of normal life that we got to see happen but mostly it was tourists like us who were taking it all in like we were.

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IMG_3060IMG_3068And of course there were the gondolas with the renowned gondoliers in their striped shirts. It costs a pretty penny to ride one of these and for even a bit more, you can hire a singing gondolier 🙂 We thought it was beautiful and could be very romantic but as I mentioned, we were hitting the spending fatigue part and opted to enjoy Venice on the vaporettos and just take pictures of the gondolas.

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We enjoyed one of our most memorable dinners in Venice. Some lovely fellow Americans that we had met in Tuscany recommended this little restaurant in Venice and raved about the Cacio e Pepe so we decided to give it a try. I think our waiter was a bit disgruntled with having to make it five times because we all ordered it 🙂 Cacio e Pepe means cheese and pepper and the process by which it gets to your plate is most intriguing. They cook spaghetti noodles before hand and then bring it out to your table alongside this huge hollowed out cheese wheel. They scoop out the noodles and a bit of the hot water into the cheese (in this case, cheese from pecorino sheep ). They stir the noodles around in the cheese wheel, the hot liquid melting the cheese and then work it together for awhile resulting in basically a very glorified pile of macaroni and cheese. They then use a mortar and pestle to grind peppercorns to sprinkle over the top of the entree.

This was another one of those meals where we all ended up with a huge serving of pasta and not much else, but another (by this time very familiar 🙂 bowl of gelato finished our dinner. We had mucho leftovers so we combined them all and took them home and enjoyed another meal the next day  for lunch. We added a bit of ham and some extra cheese and it was quite nice. We got rather creative with our leftover food and saved lots of money by re-purposing leftover food.

So yes, we discovered Venice to be fun and charming as well as expensive and crowded, all of which we were prepared for. It is definitely has romantic vibes and I think we saw more love-birds here than any other spot. Here’s a PSA for any potential honeymooners in Venice- the streets are very crowded with people and suitcases and bags. It won’t always be conducive for holding hands and so be aware when its suitable (cue gondolier music) and when to momentarily unclasp those loving hands. P.S (it makes it easier for all the other tourists walking beside you)

That’s a rather strange way to end this part so I’ll leave you with one final beautiful picture:

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From here we head north to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We trade beautiful old buildings and congested streets for Alpine heights and lonely roads.

Vicki

Italy:: Tuscany

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Photo credit: Marylou

As I was sorting through and selecting my pictures for this part, and as I walked back memory lane (lined with pencil trees), I realized that Tuscany may be my favorite part of the trip. And I’m fully prepared to feel that when I get to Venice as well, oh, and the Dolomites for sure! See, we just really had a wonderful trip and I find myself still thanking God for allowing me to experience all these wonderful places.

So it’s harder to describe Tuscany because Tuscany is a region and not one particular place with a zip code. There are many different aspects to tell about and so many little towns to describe and I’m not sure I can describe such a big, classic area in one little post, but I’ll try.

One of my objectives for our trip in general was to experience and enjoy Italy organically, and not just for the touristy photo-ops and places, beautiful though they were. Tuscany fulfilled that wish. Tuscany is famous for its olive and wine production and for those stunning vistas with pencil trees (forgive me, that’s what we called them 🙂 and stone villas.

But let me back up. We left the Cinque Terre on a fast train and arrived in Florence on Wednesday evening. I regret (just a smidgen) that the only part of Florence that we experienced was the rather sketchy train station, but we were still struggling with PTSD from the crowds of Rome and the option of more crowded museums and places was rather low on our priority list by this point. We hired a rather (read VERY) self assured, dashing young Italian taxi driver to take us to the car rental place outside Florence proper. This was our first experience in a car driven by an Italian and it did not disappoint. We careened rather wildly around corners and between cars and I was pretty much leaning away from the window, willing him not to hit the car inches from me. He parked with everything but  a smirk and we were just thankful to have gotten there alive. We picked up our big, spacious van, which we named Peppy, here and we had it for most of the rest of our trip.

We definitely recommend using the efficient and inexpensive train and metro systems in the bigger cities, and getting from place to place, but then renting a vehicle for easy access to little towns and villages off the beaten path.

We spent the biggest part of our trip in Tuscany (Toscana in Italian). This was day 7 of our trip and some of us were struggling with colds and so a more relaxed itinerary was lovely at this point. We stayed in a little village in the Chianti area called Ponte Agli Stolli. Our farm house had an old Tuscan feel and it was most amazing.

The view out the front of our house, and the view from the back. This was a typical road through a village, with buildings just feet from the side and mirrors mounted off the buildings to show oncoming traffic around corners.

Tuscany-55

Photo credit: Marylou

We were rather desperate for fresh fruits and veggies by this point, as the Italian diet consists of many carbs, so we drove to Aldi for groceries and enjoyed many a wonderful, homemade meal in the wonderfully furnished kitchen. Grocery shopping quickly became a highlight and we enjoyed seeing all the local foods and the ridiculously cheap, fresh pasta.

Italy was unified from a number of different states into current Italy as recently as the late 1800s. Prior to that, regions were ruled by kings, and the castle towns exist to this day, giving a peak into town life, surrounded by walls and guarded by castle towers. We day-tripped into many of these towns, which are now popular tourist spots, and saw many beautiful, old buildings.

IMG_2821IMG_2808IMG_2807We loved stumbling upon little villages that weren’t teeming with tourists, and Pienza, (photo above) was another favorite place from our trip. IMG_2792You quickly see differences in architecture design and style. This particular Basilica in Siena had a more elaborate, Byzantine feel, distinctly different from the Roman and Greek styles we saw back in Rome and even the Cinque Terre.

It was in St. Catherine’s Basilica in Siena that we saw her (Catherine’s) very dead but preserved thumb. Apparently, if you can acquire a saint’s body part or parts, you can name the basilica after them. You have to take their word for it, but it is rather startling to see a black thumb in a case 🙂IMG_2788IMG_2783IMG_2896Some of the towns we drove through and enjoyed: Siena, Pienza, Greve and Radda in Chianti, Montepulciono, San Gimignano. I could write more about each place but we didn’t adequately explore nearly all of them and so they remain decorative little memories of a very beautiful region.

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These are the classic views of terraced, Tuscan hillsides and vineyards. It took us a long time to go anywhere because we kept stopping for pictures. My pictures don’t do justice to the beauty, as they were taken with my iPhone, but if you want to see the real deal, go check out Marylou’s website where she is also blogging about our trip.

A few personal Tuscany highlights:

MONTE OLIVETO MAGGIORE MONASTERY in Asciano

Because one of my favorite books remains The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy, (I reviewed it here), it was important to me to see a working monastery. This particular Benedictine monastery (built in the 14th century) is set on the top of a beautiful mountain, with breath taking views all around. We got there at sunset, and in time for Vespers (the evening service) and got to hear their Gregorian chant. I suppose I mentally compared it to the one in the book, and this one was much more elaborate, with art being highly celebrated and displayed here. There was the beautiful quietness and serenity that I expected, and the monks were dressed appropriately in long, white robes, so it all checked out well 🙂 The picture of the medicine above, available for purchase in their gift shop) is in honor of Brother John in the book and his loving, healing hands that loved the aged and infirm right on home to their God.

TRADITIONAL ITALIAN MEAL INVOLVING FLORENTINE STEAK

Marylou was gifted some travel money and she generously offered to put it towards a classic, traditional meal for all of us to enjoy. Italians eat late at night, usually after 8:00 and it can take up to 2 hours to enjoy all the courses. You have to understand that Italians eat in courses, and they never eat their meat and pasta together. Being budget travelers, we usually chose one course as our meal which meant we usually ended up with a pile of pasta and not much else. In retrospect, we should have ordered more courses between us and then shared for a more rounded out meal. However, for this special meal we chose a few antipasti (the appetizer course including things like olives, smoked meats, some vegetables, etc) and a few pasta dishes including one infused with truffle oil. Truffles are expensive fungus that grow underground and are found by trained dogs or pigs. We then ordered the famous Florentine steak, which are from the local and world famous Chianani cows. When we put our order in for the T-bone steak, the waiter repeated it to make sure he understood correctly. The owner then came out to verify and others were looking at us kind of strangely. It was brought out, seared on the outside, but rare in the middle, which is the only way they will cook this steak. We pretty much devoured it down to the bone, much to the waiter’s amusement. Soon, kitchen staff  started peeking their heads around the corner and the owner came back out and made enough of a to-do about it that we finally asked if we were missing something. Turns out, Italian women don’t usually eat steak, and to see a group of 5 women scarf it down in record time was rather note-worthy to them and we won their approval 🙂 The waiter indicated that his wife eats food more along the lines of, and his English wasn’t perfect, so he made delicate, ladylike motions with his pinky finger in the air. 🙂 🙂 Dessert ended up being an assortment of marvels such as creme brulee, chocolate molten cake, tiramisu and panna cotta.

IMG_2948We finally finished our meal around 11:00, and the locals were still going strong, drinking their espressos and everything!

Overall, Tuscany was lovely and just what we needed for the middle part of our trip. It gave us the space and time to go out and explore during the days, and then come back to our house when we needed some down-time and time to just absorb and savor all that we were experiencing. Like I mentioned, renting a vehicle allowed us to do this, and we found the highways and road systems to be well marked and easy to follow. The little towns and villages were the most difficult, with roads that would narrow down to one lane, and no clear visibility around upcoming corners. We definitely worked together to check for traffic, and with Lois’ confident, expert driving and Marylou’s capable navigating, we got around just fine.

I mentioned in my first post about enjoying a culture and place without always comparing it to your home culture or mentally trying to make it conform to your experience, but it was here in Tuscany that I did make some interesting comparisons.

There is virtually no individuality in certain aspects of life in Italy, anywhere. Coming from a culture that values self-expression and celebrates individuality, it was quite interesting to visit one that values history and tradition. You want a Cape Cod style house in Tuscany? Well for starters, you probably shouldn’t even be wanting it, but you for sure won’t get it. What makes all the idyllic scenes possible anywhere you go, is the template of life handed down from generation to generation. There is a continuity that you see regardless of which town you drive through. The houses are the same, the colors are the same, the landscaping is the same, the terrace designs are the same. Traditions are important to the preservation of this ancient culture.

Our Australian tour guide in Pompeii told of a birthday party her friend was hosting, where she decided to stretch her Roman friends’ food borders by serving an entree of chicken and pasta together. The friends arrived, took one look at the entree, asked what the chicken was doing with the pasta, and refused to eat it.

Okay, so my America is all about listening and not just accepting, but celebrating new ideas and ways of doing life, and this new mindset was rather startling 🙂

Italians aren’t as concerned about new ideas or others feelings, which means you could take it personally that they don’t do more to make you feel welcome. We encountered some fairly rude and unhelpful people on our trip, and I think it might be part of their proud, traditional culture. We also enjoyed many warm,  and wonderfully inviting people, and they were usually the ones from whom we rented our houses or did business with  in general.

I guess I found the culture kind of refreshing in certain ways and while I think I’d find it stifling living in a culture that regulates creativity and individuality, I do think there is a certain structure and stability that I could appreciate.

And if you’ve made it this far, bravo! The next stop is magical Venice, which is also my favorite location from the trip 🙂

Ciao!

 

Italy:: The Cinque Terre

While Rome was everything that it should be- cultured, timeless and beautiful, it was also very, very crowded. I think we were all ready to get on the train and head north, to the Cinque Terre, which hugs the Italian Riviera coastline. The Cinque Terre means five towns, and it is just that- five villages that sit precariously on the cliffs along the sea. Before tourists discovered it, they were only accessible by the sea, and survived on fishing and wine-making. Today, they live on tourism, and are easily accessible by train, boat or hiking paths.

We stayed north of the Cinque Terre, in a little village called Levanto. I will never forget train-ing into the area and getting glimpses of sparkling blue waters on one side, and terraced mountains on the other. We chose to stay in Levanto because it is only a 5 minute train ride away, and because accommodations were considerably cheaper there. Our first stop was a stroll to the grocery store that took way longer than it should’ve because of views like this:

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Italian villages are effortlessly charming and Levanto was no exception. I fell in love with the quietness and the authentic culture of this town. While the CT (Cinque Terre) is set up for tourism and is teeming with people enjoying the views, Levanto is quieter and more unassuming. We viewed Levanto as our little refuge, and we’d escape here after the masses of humanity engulfed the CT. This remains one of my favorite locations on our entire trip.

If you intend to spend any length of time in the CT, I would highly recommend getting a Cinque Terre Park Card. This pass gives you unlimited train rides between the villages and Levanto, as well as access to the hiking trails. The train system is mostly easy to understand and we made good use of our passes!

We discovered that while they all have similar characteristics, they all feel distinctly different. Monterosso is resorty and flat with the nicest and biggest beach front. Vernazza has the classic Riviera views and looks like a postcard, Corniglia is quieter and sits on a hill with no harbor front or beach, Manarola is smaller with beautiful views and Riamaggiore is the most workaday and least touristy.

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Monterosso

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Vernazza from sea level (picture from Kelly)72a

Vernazza from mountain level and I-can’t-even level. (also taken by Kelly, as well as the next one)73

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Cannoli at mouth level 🙂 IMG_2590

Unedited, brilliantly blue water. We really tried to get our fill of this beauty, and continually marveled throughout our trip that our beauty capacity never completely filled up. There was always room for one more gasp or delicious sigh.IMG_2602

Riamaggiore. You can see the railroad tunnel through the mountain, IMG_2642

We decided to experience the villages from the sea so splurged on a private boat tour and enjoyed sunset views of the five villages. Our boat driver was a nice, friendly guy from Spain and he took us into delightful little coves, like the one pictured above, and showed us things like sea tomatoes and other interesting things. And then God showed His stuff with a breathtaking sunset, and even boat driver was taking pictures 🙂

78It was in the Cinque Terre that we ran into friends from Thomaston! Seeing familiar faces five thousand miles from home was a special high light of our trip. We knew the group was going to be in Italy the same time as us but we didn’t know if we’d run into them. Most of them, however, had no idea we were around and I think we shocked them really well! And now its fun to say Ciao! and stuff when they come into the deli.

Everybody has been asking what our favorite place in Italy was and it’s really a tough call to make. If I had to say, I’d probably choose the CT because of its beauty and because I love the sea so much in general. It’s a place like none other and I’m secretly hoping to go back someday!

If you are reading this and thinking about visiting the CT, here’s what we recommend:

  1. Get out and about early. Cruise ships often dump hundreds of tourists into these small villages and it completely overwhelms them. Going out early in the mornings or later in the evenings gives you breathing room and the space to adequately take all this beauty in.
  2. Be prepared for climbing. We were a bit surprised by all the steps and inclines but since they are built onto mountainsides, I guess it makes sense. Some of the steps aren’t that great and are really steep so be prepared for that. You’ll get toned legs as a reward 🙂
  3. Stay either in Levanto (to the north) or La Spezia (to the south). Rates are cheaper and it feels good to get away from the crowds at times.
  4. Spend no less than two full days here. We were there from Sunday evening to Wednesday morning and found that amount of time to be good. I’d recommend briefly visiting all five villages and then finding one or two to thoroughly explore.
  5. Be prepared to leave a bit of your heart behind. One of my most treasured memories of our whole trip was sitting on a rock in Monterosso, with the blue waters gently lapping over my feet and just being quiet and enjoying the moment. We saw and experienced a lot in a short amount of time and so those 15 minutes of just being quiet and absorbing it were really special.

And I think that’s it for this little piece of coastal paradise. Next we head inland to Tuscany, in a post coming soon, hopefully.

 

Italy:: Pompeii and Rome

The success of any trip lies in the research and planning preceding it. For those of you who don’t know the back-drop of this trip, it was an aunts and nieces trip planned months ago. We missed our other cousins who couldn’t make it because of schedule conflicts, so it ended up just being a group of five. Depending on where you want to visit, I would caution against a much bigger group. The bigger the group, the more it plays into lodging accommodations, vehicle sizes, and just the overall logistics of keeping everyone together in crowded places.

The behind-the-scenes parts of planning involved several meetings where we all got together, bringing our must-sees and preferences to the drawing board, where we then mapped out a general itinerary and time frame. Things we considered in the planning:

  • Weather. Optimal weather in Italy is late spring/early fall. Doing our  research helped us figure out the best time for us to be there.
  • Crowds. We chose October for the weather and also because it’s at the tail end of peak tourist season. There were masses of tourists in many of the places we toured and I can’t even begin to imagine peak tourists season!
  • Expense. Researching everything from lodging accommodations to transportation costs to attraction tickets gave us an idea of how much to budget and how long a trip we could afford 🙂
  • Lodging. A whole post could be written about how to choose lodging and Marylou could very capably write it but how to choose lodging is key to to the enjoyment of a trip. Finding places near public transportation costs more up front, but gave us easy and cheap access to going nearly anywhere we desired. Your time is a valuable commodity and so being smart about transportation keeps you from spending precious time walking when you could be traveling faster and seeing more sights. Also, we spent less than two nights at very few locations and we highly recommend that. You lose precious time trying to orient yourself in new places/connect with the new VRBO person, etc, so doing it as few times as possible was important to us. We also would suggest one person getting an international phone plan to make contacting new people easier. We spent precious time trying to find wifi to get a hold of contacts about lodging because none of us were able to make in-country calls. Also, offline maps are hit or miss and we would have used phone maps many times if we would have had access to them.
  • Luggage. We took everything we needed for 2.5 weeks in a carry-on suitcase and day bag. If that seems like unusual and cruel punishment, think again. Keep in mind that you have to take everything everywhere you go and that means up and down stairs and hills and everything in between. Packing smartly allowed us to easily take what we needed and still left room for souvenirs to bring back.

I could write much more about planning and if you’re interested in those details, contact me and I’ll happily give much more information.

But now, on to Rome. There’s nothing quite like landing in a new country all bleary-eyed and sleep deprived from a sleepless night on a plane. We landed around lunchtime and finally found our Flavio who took us in his van back to our apartment in Rome. Tiredness was quickly forgotten as we took in all the ancient sites and ruins on our way in. After some confusion, we finally found our lodging, situated just down the street from the Coliseum. rome1The view from our apartment. You can see the Coliseum at the end of the road. We were tired and jet-lagged but we reckoned we hadn’t come to Rome to sleep so we hit the town immediately. I was rather picture happy at the beginning: trying to document every set of ruins I saw, but I soon realized they were as plentiful as Dollar Generals in GA and so I slowed down 🙂

We ended our day with dinner in the Jewish Ghetto where we enjoyed our first pasta and yummy pastries.

The following day all of us except Marylou did a bus day trip to Pompeii, which is about 3.5 hours south of Rome. Our tour guide from City Tours did a wonderful job of explaining not only Pompeii and Vesuvius history, but also Rome’s long and complicated history of conquests, invasions, and finally unification and peace.

P O M P E I I:

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Ancient Pompeii with Vesuvius looming behind.
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For those who need a history brush-up, like I did, here’s a bit of what you are looking at. Pompeii was a medium to upper class city back in AD 79. Situated right along the coast, it played vacation destination for the rich Romans. Teeming with life and industry, it was a happening kind of place. One afternoon, Vesuvius, blew her top in an intense and catastrophic eruption. These people had no idea they were living under an active volcano and there had been no volcanic activity in their lifetime. Vesuvius blew rocks and debris 21 miles in the air, for 12 hours, burying the city in 13-20 feet of ash and pumice. The city was completely destroyed and forgotten until the 1500s when building excavations unearthed the city, frozen in time and perfectly preserved.

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Original frescoes from 80 years after Christ.

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The ancient bathrooms and laundromat, conveniently located side by side. Apparently  the ancients believed the ammonia content of urine was good for washing so they’d collect the urine from the bathroom to wash the clothes in the laundromat.

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Prior to the eruption, the sea came up and covered this area. The eruption completely rearranged the shoreline, pushing it back and re-situating it.

In the excavations, they uncovered many pieces of pottery and other pieces of a normal ancient city. They also discovered cavities where the remains of the people were at one point, and by filling in the cavities with plaster, were able to show the positions of the people as they died from the intense heat. Seeing these plasters made it very real.

After touring Pompeii and enjoying our first Napoleon margarita pizzas, we then drove part ways up Vesuvius before hiking the last little bit. I gotta say, hiking an active volcano was a bit freaky but we were assured that there will be plenty of warning before she blows again. When the animals and birds act erratically and start leaving the area, it is time to evacuate. Modern day Pompeii has its evacuation plan ready to go, with cruise ships coming in to move many residents away. It is also believed that when she blew in 79, she sealed her top or crater, and the next eruption will likely be out the side. Here is looking down into her crater:

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We arrived back to our apartment late that night, and a bit sore from a strenuous hike in still -swollen- from flying feet 🙂 We averaged 5 or 6 miles of walking on many of our days and so our feet needed a bit of time to recover.

The following day we conquered Rome, and by that I mean we successfully navigated and toured it along with approximately 33.9 billion other people 🙂 It was a rainy day and we thought with great optimism that we might not deal with crowds in the Vatican Museums. It was a cute idea but it looked more like this:

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Thankfully we pre-bought our tickets so we didn’t have to stand in the long lines in the rain, waiting to get in, but we should have been there when it opened. Basically, this sea of humanity was throughout all the gorgeous rooms in the Museums. We were pushed and pulled along, and really couldn’t even enjoy the stunning art, tapestries and maps. I highly recommend getting there at opening time and purchasing the earpiece tour guide which tells you about everything in the rooms.

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We visited the Sistine Chapel but were too tired of fighting crowds to visit St. Peters so maybe that’s a stop for next time 🙂

We trained back to the apartment in time for our ancient Rome tour.

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The Arch Of Titus celebrating the Fall of Jerusalem. We are accustomed to thinking of Jersualem’s fall as a very sad time in history but to the Romans this was yet another successful conquest and the Arch was built to celebrate Titus’ victory. The Jewish slaves he brought back would eventually help finish building the Coliseum where some of them would give their lives.  r6r5

There are so many emotions to feel in the Coliseum. From an engineering and architectural standpoint, it is a marvel. The Romans were good at engineering but not so good with design so they borrowed ideas from the Greeks for its decorations. But then its hard to ignore the horror and the incredible sadness of a civilization whose sport was human fighting and death. The bloodshed was so great that the sand in the arena was frequently changed out. Walking those shadowy corridors and halls was really an unforgettable experience. r7

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The Pantheon- formerly a temple to all the gods of Rome’s polytheistic system, but later becoming a temple to the one true God after Constantine made Christianity the state religion. Interestingly, there was a group of young people outside protesting Kavanaugh’s confirmation when we were there. It was a transport from the ancient to the here and now like none other 🙂

We ended our time in Rome with attending Mass at a nearby cathedral. Prior to St. Peters becoming the Pope’s official church, the church we attended was his. We had to go through metal detectors before entering. The opulence and grandeur was fun to look at, but left us all with a deep sadness of how Christianity was more about magnificent, amazing buildings and less about following Jesus’ teachings of self-denial and loving the less fortunate.

So much more could be written about the Eternal City and if anyone is interested in visiting or wants more details, please contact me, as we certainly learned some tips and tricks.

Rome was good but exhausting and so we were glad to exchange the crowds and walls for the sea breezes and crowds of the Riviera in the beautiful Cinque Terre, which I will write about next.