Archive for July, 2007

Next stop: Milan

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

                    I know that it doesn’t really count to say you’ve been in a city if you’ve simply changed planes there. The same has to go for trains.

                    But does it count if you leave the train station in search of lunch?

                    Kaitlyn seemed awfully happy to get to eat a happy meal today at the McDonald’s across the street from the train station in Milan. Honestly, I was glad to eat something other than pizza or spaghetti.

                    My week with Patrick and his family is over. It’s been full of hugs, laughs, tears and even a little yelling. What would a week with your family be without all those things? Still, I’m going to miss them all an awful lot. I haven’t lived near him for more than 15 years now. But being this far away can seem a little too far away. When we move back home… I’m going to make sure we see more of each other. I don’t know how… but I’m going to. Family is too important.

Late Night Celebration

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

                    Staying up for a fireworks show that starts at 11:30 is not easy. Kaitlyn did everything in her power to make sure she wasn’t going to miss that show. She nearly missed it because staying awake required misbehaving a bit… but she made it.

                    Around 10:30, we left the hotel for the two minute walk to St Mark’s Square. It was already packed with people. We staked out a spot and did what we could to hold our ground. It wasn’t easy. Finally the show started. It wasn’t like at Disneyworld, the lights didn’t dim and no one came on a loudspeaker to say “ladies and gentelmen, boys and girls….” There was just one loud boom, everyone looked up, and the fireworks started. They were set to music, but we could barely hear that over the explosions.

                    Once they started, the crowd pushed forward to try to see around the buildings and we lost sight of Patrick, Julie and Sarah. Some activities are not easy for a group of six to do together.

                    About halfway through, Kaitlyn said she was done. She’d been watching from Bill’s shoulders and was drooped over, with her head resting on his. The crowd easily made way for us to find our way back out… Kaitlyn got a lot of little pats on the head and smiles. We paused in front of St Mark’s to look back just in time to see the finale. It was spectacular… framed by the landmarks of Venice. What an experience. I still wonder what they were celebrating, though.

1, 2, 3 must-do items in Venice

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

                    Last night before bed, I presented Patrick, Julie and Sarah with our top-three list of things we want to do today. In no particular order: gondola ride, glass blowing factory tour and Doge’s Palace. I left their room with Patrick chanting “glass tour! Glass tour!” All he was missing was the foam finger declaring the glass tour number one.

                    On our way to the canal to see if the taxi strike had indeed ended, a man walked up and offered us a free taxi ride to the such-and-such glass company’s tour. Julie was worried about what the guy was up to. I assured her that the only catch was that the company wants us to drop a load of cash there in their shop after seeing their glass blowing demonstration.

                    I was fairly sure we wouldn’t even get to the island of Murano to find out if I was right. The taxi rocked back and forth and back and forth… this was not fun. Again, I wasn’t sick. I was scared.

                    Otherwise, the tour was what I expected. We watched some glass blowing that was interesting, but revealed no secrets about how they make the amazing patterns in some of the Murano glass. Kaitlyn was enthralled by the older man who kept making little glass horses. That was followed by a tour of the seemingly endless showroom with our “guide” lurking behind us. Kaitlyn was amazing; she didn’t touch anything. Some of the glass on display was amazing. But it was all more than I wanted to spend on glass. Patrick was going much more slowly, so we gave up and went back into the furnace room to watch that man make more glass horses. I finally searched the showroom and found Patrick filling out the shipping form for his about-to-be acquired glass objet d’art. It’s very pretty. It’s very brave for a house with two cats and two dogs. It would stand almost no chance at all in a house with a four year old. But his big spending did get us a taxi ride back to the main island. Bill and I sorta wanted to go see some other demonstrations, but we figure none are showing anything too amazing, for fear of revealing too much to the competition next door.

                    The taxi dropped us off in an area we hadn’t been and we had no idea where we were or how to get to where we wanted to be. That meant a lot more walking.

                    Today it’s Bill’s turn to nap or nap-observe after lunch. I went out shopping with everyone else. They were hunting souvenirs and gifts. I was hunting our own piece of Murano glass. I found a couple of things (including some Christmas presents) but had about given up on finding the vase Bill sent me out to get. It is hard to pick something like that out, because I know he had something in mind that he’d seen earlier. I found a couple of things I was going to take him back to look at, assuming I could find those shops again. Then, a wrong turn and a dead-end on our way back to the hotel led us into a shop with the perfect item. Well, I think it’s perfect. We’ll see what Bill thinks. The guy wrapped it all up so very carefully I’m not going to open it until we get home.

                    Item number two on our to-do list was Doge’s Palace. The Murphy half of the group opted for napping. We dragged Kaitlyn to the palace. She wanted to find the princess. The book about going to Italy with kids said it’s great for little ones… like a Star Wars set. I don’t know about that. I liked it, but like most museum type experiences with Kaitlyn, I didn’t get to read or learn as much about it as I’d have liked.

                    Once everyone else woke up, we were out for that gondola ride. Of course, the guy who offered us a discount was not around. The guy we did deal with seemed less than thrilled at our attempt to bargain. Kaitlyn and I just stood in the background and waited to be told to get in the boat. We sat in the big back seat with Bill. It was a little crowded, but when Kaitlyn sat on our knees it was ok. It also made it easier to keep her still so that the boat wouldn’t rock too much. The one condition I put on getting in one of those things was that there is no way I’m riding one in the grand canal. If ours had started to head that way I don’t know what I’d have done. I think the gondolier cut our ride short since we’d agreed to a lower price. It didn’t matter. It was still an incredible way to see Venice… in the back canals where the old homes have doors right on the water. We saw a lot of locals decorating their boats for a big celebration that’s tonight. Patrick told us earlier that it was a holiday and we came just short of calling him crazy. But it turns out he’s right. I still don’t know exactly what is being celebrated but late tonight there will be fireworks over the water.

                    Dinner was a given tonight. We were back at the restaurant with Grandma’s spaghetti sauce. The manager remembered us. And the spaghetti was just as good as the night before. (Thank goodness for that!)

The Eating Challenge(s)

Friday, July 13th, 2007

Ok, taking a shower this morning was darn near impossible. I decided I’m just going to smell on the ride back to France on Sunday (Bill noted that no one would even notice)… the undersized bathing facilities is too much for me. I told Bill I was ready to go find another hotel and he told me he is not spending his two days in Venice trying to find a place to stay and to just suck it up. Fine.

                        We managed to get Patrick and his crew up early enough to check out the hotel breakfast. He greeted me with good news: the hotel is 300 Euros a night for both rooms, not each. Ok, well, I’d said last night that the hotel would have been ok with me for half the price. I got my wish.

                    The breakfast area is not set up to handle groups of more than three people interested in eating together. Groups of two would be better. So when we went in and said 6, then held up 6 fingers for them to understand, the waitresses were a bit overwhelmed. We sat at three tables in a row… not good for conversation. The breakfast didn’t include any eggs, which I know made it even less ideal for Patrick. But at six Euros a person, we figured it was good for the coffee and a roll. (not croissant.. they had lemon flavor…gross)

                        Not being able to come up with much of a plan since it was too hard to talk, we just hit the streets of Venice. Our first stop: St Mark’s Square. I had no idea I knew what it was until I got there, then I recognized it. (I’m such the fine world traveler!) And there I found the answer to a question Julie posed earlier in the week I didn’t know the answer to at the time: where is that place with all the birds? I have never seen (outside an Alfred Hitchcock movie) so many birds in one place. It was really kinda creepy. For a Euro you can buy a baggie of bird feed that is like a pigeon magnet. Sarah was more than happy to put some feed in her hands and hold out her arms to attract the birds. Bill let some land on him, too. So did Julie. Patrick and I drew the line at being bird perches. Kaitlyn mostly screamed and threw feed down. She was equally happy chasing the birds as she was feeding them. Some seemed too fat to even take flight in an emergency. Talk about thriving on the tourist industry!

                        From there we went to the lagoon for a bargain-basement tour of the grand canal on the boat bus. There was one problem with our plan. The drivers were on a 24 hour strike. I knew that happened in France, I didn’t know that happened in Italy. Live and learn. Lucky for us (ahem), the company could offer us a semi-private tour of the canal in English… the family discount made it a mere 100 Euros. Bill paid and we got on the boat. This was not a good time to figure it out, but I’m not such a fan of boats. It isn’t the rocking motion; I never felt sick. Just scared that the darn things would tip over and dump us all into the canal. Kaitlyn felt quite the opposite. She stood on the back seat and held her hands up in the air and, I swear, hollered “I’m king of the world!”

                        The fear and/or thrill of the boat ride made us all hungry. We wandered some more until we came across a restaurant that we could agree on. Ok, a restaurant where Patrick saw something he’d eat on the menu. Heck, I’m not even sure how we picked it. I was so hungry by then. Later I realized it was written up in my “Italy with Kids” book because the author let her children roam in the square by the restaurant; I’m not going to do the same.

                    Ever since hitting the ground in Venice, Kaitlyn has been asking… no, begging… for a mask. We promised her if she behaved in the morning, she could have one on the way back to the hotel. We steered her away from the shops with the masks that go for hundreds of Euros. The one we ducked into included an artist hand painting and decorating the masks, but the prices were much more reasonable for a four year old’s request. The woman in the shop showed Kaitlyn some little masks that would fit her and Kaitlyn went for the pink one. (big surprise) Then she made us put it on her and she proceeded to wear it for the rest of the day.

                        Napping was not on Kaitlyn’s list of things to do, but it was on ours. So we finally got her to settle down and I agreed to stay with her while Bill went to climb the tower in St Mark’s Square for a grand view of the city. I had no interest in climbing stairs; I had a great interest in sneaking in a nap of my own. I was found out when Bill returned an hour later and I was just waking up. I’ve got to learn to use the alarm on my cell phone! That’s ok, he had his own confession to make: the tower has an elevator.

                    Our next wanderings were just that – wanderings. We really had no destination, just the determination to get lost and enjoy it just like the books and other travelers had told us to do. We walked down the grand canal then back some side streets and from there I have no idea where we were. We definitely seemed to be away from the tourist spots, although not away from the tourists (we weren’t the only lost people carrying backpacks and cameras.)

                    Pretty soon the wandering made us hungry then the wandering took on a mission… finding a restaurant with chicken Parmesan. Yes, Patrick had set his mind to yet another made-up-American-take on foreign food. Remember the quest in Paris for chicken cordon blue? After lots of menu-reading, Patrick looked at one and declared “this is where we’re eating.” He’d spotted cordon blue on the menu. When everyone else sat down, Kaitlyn and I went to the bathroom. When I came back, Patrick’s mood had definitely changed. While I was gone, at Bill’s urging, Patrick asked what was in the cordon blue. Veal. Frustrated, he ordered a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Bill and I were both pretty sure we’d be trying to find the McDonald’s after the rest of us finished eating. Maybe they’d have chicken Parmesan on a bun. Then the meal was served. Patrick coated it in cheese (always risky here, but I didn’t say anything) and he spun some on his spoon and took a bite. He was in shock. He announced that he had just taken a bite of Grandma Murphy’s spaghetti sauce. (She was Maria D’Incecco before Mary Murphy) So I took a bite. He was right. He polished that off and asked for a second plate. He tried to explain it to the waiter, who I don’t think spoke enough English to understand. I tried to ask a guy who looked like he was in charge if we could have a copy of their menu to take home to remember the meal. He didn’t understand, either. But he did go get the other guy in charge who does speak English. He understood. And Patrick left with a menu. And he left promising we’d be back.

                    Happy after the amazing meal, we thought a gondola ride would be a nice way to finish the evening. But even with warning, the prices caught us off guard. Besides, the wine and cappuccino at dinner was starting to make the idea of an hour in a gondola unappealing. One gondolier even cut his price for us when we turned him down initially, but nature’s call was getting louder. And it was getting late. There’s always tomorrow.

First Night in Venice

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

                    I don’t know if 60 Euros for a water taxi from the train station to our hotel in Venice is a good price or a bad price. I guess if you figure that’s 10 Euros a person, it isn’t horrible. I’ll try to ignore the fact that the taxi driver didn’t know where our hotel is. There are probably lots of hotels in Venice… how could a taxi driver be expected to know where all of them are? (Even when shown an address?)

                    I’d read that you should expect to get lost in Venice. I didn’t expect to get lost going from where the taxi dropped us off to the hotel. It was a little frustrating, but we managed to find it.

                    Now, I swear I am going to start writing myself notes when I book a vacation about why I book certain times, hotels, etc. We checked in, lugged our bags up the flight of stairs to our rooms (no elevator. At least we were on the first floor) and checked out our rooms. Two triples. The room was pretty big. The double bed was just two singles pushed together, but made separately. Glad we weren’t on our honeymoon. Kaitlyn’s bed was little more than an army cot. (which she later decided was good for dollies, bad for sleeping) The floor was tile. The bathroom was small. Clean. At least the door wasn’t transparent. The bathtub was perfect… for Kaitlyn. It didn’t fit the adults. There was no shower curtain. There was some sort of door thing that you couldn’t close from the inside and if it was closed you didn’t have enough elbow room to do much scrubbing or hair washing. I had no idea why I’d agreed to pay 300 Euros a night for this. Bill kept telling me how expensive Venice is. Yea, but this was out of hand.

                    It was late but we all needed dinner. We hit the streets to find a place to eat. We didn’t wander too far before finding a place with pizza and pasta and steak that seemed somewhat reasonable. That was as far as we got from the hotel… about a block.

                    We didn’t get to see much of Venice, but so far we all like it. We’d like it a little better with a different hotel…. if only I knew what I was thinking. Oh, well.

On, Off, On, Off, On, Off, On, Off… there!

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

                    It seemed like a good idea when we planned it: take the train to Venice. We even managed to get seats together despite booking at different times in different countries.

                    So, we got up, drove to the train station in Chambery (rather than start in Grenoble which is 30 minutes away just to sit for a couple of hours in the train station in Chambery which is 45 minutes away). And we waited. And waited. And waited. I found out that I can understand an announcement made in French about how late your train is. I got a lot of practice at it. The train finally rolled up to the platform about 30 minutes after it was supposed to have pulled away from it.

                    While Bill and Patrick were struggling to get all our big luggage into the luggage rack, I got to practice more French … trying to get a woman out of one of our seats. She told me how she has a bad foot or leg or something and that she took that seat because of that. Seemed like a lame excuse. What she’d taken was a seat with a table that faced another seat instead of a seat that has a tray table on the back of the next seat. I told her she was in our seat. She repeated her sob story about her bum leg. I repeated that she was in our seat. She asked why we didn’t sit across the aisle. I told her were were.. that we were taking up all six seats in that spot. I couldn’t remember the word for seat. So I just said it in English. I finally remembered how to tell her all six of us were together. (My French gets worse when I’m flustered) Basically, she just kept repeating her story and I just kept repeating mine… with the benefit of waving my ticket with that seat number on it in front of her. Finally, she relented and got up and moved. I am fairly sure she didn’t bother to move back to her actual seat. I don’t care. Let her go fight with someone who can fight back better. After we sat down, the little old lady behind me tapped me on my shoulder. “Vous etes la droit.” Or something like that. I had to ask her to repeat herself. She was trying to tell me I was right. That made me feel better.

                    It took forever to get from Chambery to Milan. It seemed like whoever is in charge of train schedules decided that since ours was already late, they’d just make it really late. We stopped on the tracks. We went really, really slowly. We arrived 55 minutes late. That was a problem… since we’d only given ourselves 10 minutes to change trains there. Our train was long gone.

                    Bill and Patrick were appointed ticket-fixers. They went to the international ticket window to be told to go to a different window. There our tickets were stamped and given a signature and we were told to get onto the next train: leaving in 5 minutes. So we ran to the platform and jumped on. The train had no assigned seats. It had compartments, which were all full. It had aisles, which were equally full. We had six people, five suitcases (two oversized, one weighing more than 50 pounds), two backpacks plus Kaitlyn’s Nemo backpack. Bill said he wasn’t riding for three hours on this #)$(I%()!!! train and got off. We followed… and got off seconds before the whistle blew and the train pulled away. Bill and Patrick went back to the window and told the man the train he tried to put us on was full. He seemed annoyed that we hadn’t accepted his generous offer of the free (not really free, we’d bought first class tickets) ride. He begrudgingly put us on the next train. We got on and couldn’t believe it. It was a Euorstar train. This one had assigned seats. And tables. And luggage racks. And a food car. The conductor looked at our tickets and told us to take any seats we wanted, the train wasn’t full. There was hardly anyone on it. And it was faster than the original train, to boot. We left later than that first train and got to Venice earlier. Amazing. Remember… traveling in Italy you don’t want the local train if you can avoid it.

                    We nearly got off at the wrong stop, but that disaster was avoided at the last minute. And finally…. we made it to Venice.

Oh… my Back!

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

No trip to Chamonix and Mont Blanc today. Patrick woke up feeling too sore to sit stuffed in one of our little cars for that road trip. Instead, he’s going to discover the French medical system… with a trip to the chiropractor. I made Bill call and make the appointment in French.

Tourism in Grenoble

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

I found someone who dislikes riding in the bubbles nearly as much as I do.

                        Now, everyone who comes to visit must be taken on a ride up the bubbles to the Bastille. It’s about the only tourist attraction Grenoble really has to offer. On a clear day, you allegedly can see Mont Blanc from up there. Today is cloudy and drizzly, but it’s the only day we can go (there’s talk of a road trip to actually go to Mont Blanc tomorrow)… so off we went.

                        On the rides up and down, Julie and I nearly left imprints from our hands on the metal railing in the bubbles, we were gripping so darn hard. On the ride down, Patrick missed our bubble and had to get in the one behind us. I asked him if it wasn’t just a little bit on purpose to get pictures of our looks of terror from a different angle; he says no.

                        At the Bastille, the clouds rolled in and we could barely see anything. We couldn’t even see the bubbles approaching the station. Then as quickly as the clouds came, they left. It wasn’t clear enough to see Mont Blanc but it was still a good view. Kaitlyn lasted about one minute longer than she did last time before getting bored and asking to go back down. I distracted her as long as possible to let everyone see what they could before I could take it no longer.

                        I had raved about the place Todd and I ate on pizza row, so we walked there for lunch. But it was closed. Turns out that things downtown are closed on Monday and much of pizza row is closed on Tuesday. (I think the museum there is also closed on Tuesday.) We found another one which was very good. Kaitlyn ate an entire pizza then said she was tired. She never says she is tired. But following that declaration, we opted to skip walking around the pedestrian district and instead drove to Chamrousse. About half way up the mountain, the clouds got scarily thick. I was very glad I’d made that drive before. At the top there was so little to see because of the clouds that we didn’t even get out of the car, we just went home. Besides, we had to get ready for dinner. Tonight we have reservations.

                        The restaurant is about an hour from the house, but it comes very highly recommended. It’s called Nemoz and the specialty is racklette. I cannot spell the name of the restaurant or the dish, sorry. Basically, they put a giant chunk of cheese on a plank next to an open fireplace and as it gets melty they scrape it onto your plate. I was pretty unsure of it, given my cheese concerns, but I figured the worst case was I’d have to order a second meal (or heat up a hot dog at home). It was fantastic. We have a new place where we must take our house guests. Now that I think about it… I may have to figure out how to ask for a menu to add to our collection of menus from our favorite restaurants.

Day to Rest

Monday, July 9th, 2007

                    I wondered how long Patrick could keep up the staying up late and getting up relatively early on this vacation. It ended today. It was nearly noon when he finally got out of bed.

                        The only thing we managed to today was to go to Carrefour for groceries. Which is always an experience. I enjoyed having some help along. I had hoped to take them to the market in Uriage. I think that is tres French. He doesn’t eat vegetables anyway.

Last Day in Paris

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Today is devoted to the Eiffel Tower.

                        We checked out of the hotel, left our bags to their care, and marched over to the Paris icon. What we found was stunning. I thought Sunday morning (ok, late morning, but morning) would not be too horribly crowded. Oh, how very very wrong I was. The lines stretched from the base of each pillar all the way under the width of the tower and snaked around on themselves. Easily a three hour wait.

                    I didn’t care. We were going up in that stupid tower today.

                    I put the others into a line and went off in search of food that can be eaten while standing and waiting.

                        Across the street next to a carousel there’s a food stand. Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead eating at such a place. Today, it was perfect. I ordered four crepes (two with eggs), some fries and a bottle of water. Then I called Patrick to send over an extra pair of hands. Julie arrived and we juggled the hot food. It was really pretty good. Made to order.

                        While waiting in the line, the reader board at the ticket office announced the top level was closed. No rain. No wind. It must have been too full of people. We figured it would re-open by the time we reached the ticket window. It reopened by the time we reached the little security check point (which is about 45 minutes from the ticket window)

                        Overall, my estimate for the line was about right. It took about 2 hours and 45 minutes to get to the elevator that would begin our journey to the top. We didn’t dilly-dally on the middle platform, but got right into the next line for the rest of the trip up. I am still not a fan of that ride. I’d like to say I won’t do it again, but I’m sure I will. Especially if Kaitlyn wants to go.

                    The clouds rolled in about the time we got to the top level. The view was still great. It was kind of neat making the trip up after seeing Paris on the ground because we walked around pointing out all the places we’d been. We have crammed a lot into these past few days.

                        The line to go back down to the ground was nearly as long as the line to get up. But we made it with enough time to stop and get ice cream (I got soup) near the hotel. We also had time to check one last time for my camera. Still lost.

                        The Paris metro stations are not built with travelers in mind. Getting big, heavy pieces of luggage up and down the stairs was something of a feat. But we managed. And once we got onto the train to get to Grenoble everyone’s mood lightened. Turns out none of us are very calm or easy-going travelers.

                        We turned some heads on the train with all of our laughing. I’d brought a deck of cards and we played hearts. As if the game isn’t hard enough, the cards were French and it was hard to remember that the 1 is really an ace which is high not low… the R is a king… etc.

                        In the parking deck at the train station in Grenoble, I nearly had a break down. It was bad enough having lost my camera. Now, I’d lost my car. I swear I walked up one flight of stairs leaving the garage, but my car was no where to be found on that level. After calling Bill in a complete panic, I went down one more flight of stairs and walked right to where I’d parked. It was hard to miss… I was right by a wall that I got too close to pulling in and scraped up the front bumper of my car. This has been the long weekend of mishaps.