Diary of a Florentine (or, The Ups and Downs of Apartment Life)

DSC_7491

Week 1

We have just arrived.  It’s amazing to be back in Florence – the sights, the sounds, the scents… Feels surreal to be back here in the midst of it all.  Our apartment looks out over an internal courtyard and we can see the chefs and kitchen staff coming and going through the back door of their neighbouring restaurant.  All day amazing smells have been wafting up into our open windows – rich meaty ragu and sweet pastry cream.   

There is a half-restored fresco on the highest part of the boys’ bedroom wall, up towards the vaulted ceiling.  Love living in an old palazzo – makes us feel like royalty!

The guy upstairs is a bit of a heavy walker, but he seems to be gone most of the day so that’s fine.

We’re so close to the Duomo – right in the thick of the action.  Everything’s within really handy walking distance.  Love it!

There seem to be a few mosquitoes about, so we might have to put on the odd bit of repellent, just until the weather cools down.  Do mozzies hibernate?  I don’t know.

Looking forward to picking up some school supplies and getting started on the homeschooling in earnest.  It should be a fun challenge doing school without any books!

DSC_7049

         

Week 2

We’re pretty well set up now, a week into our stay.  We discovered that our apartment was woefully ill-equipped for a family of six, so on our third day we took a trip out to Ikea (they run a free shuttle bus from the train station every weekend) and stocked up on teaspoons, a high chair, and a few other essentials.  Nice and cheap, and now we’ve got what we need.

Turns out that there are more than a few mozzies.  After a night of being bitten mercilessly, we pushed aside our gentle ideals of citronella and organic repellent and went straight for the hard stuff: we’ve got two noxious plug-ins billowing out their poisonous fumes 24/7.  We can see evidence that mosquitoes have plagued previous tenants, too – the odd shoe-mark high up on a wall speaks volumes about some earlier inhabitant’s frustration with the pests, as do the myriad squashed-bug smears on other parts of the stucco.

This is what happens when you're a little bit allergic and you get a mozzie bite on one ear...

This is what happens when you’re a little bit allergic and you get a mozzie bite on one ear…

It’s a good thing we’re handy to everything because we have to shop pretty much every day.  And that’s a good thing, too, because it gives us all a necessary break from the rigours of homeschool.  Not to say that we’re not enjoying it – just to say that I’m not particularly gifted as a teacher but my kids are particularly gifted to still be alive after our first few days at it.

Family life in an apartment – and without a car – takes a bit of work, but we’re enjoying it.  What a treat to be living in Florence!

So excited to be homeschooling!

So excited to be homeschooling!

Week 3

We’ve nicknamed the tenant upstairs ‘Thumper’.  Every night, around when we’re heading for bed, we can hear his heavy footsteps, thump, thump, thump, across the apartment above us.  He also seems to dine late, scraping his chair back – and maybe shifting the table before and after meals?  The thumps and scrapes reverberate around our own apartment – parquet floors and high ceilings provide the perfect acoustics for maximizing neighbour noise.  Still, it’s only for a short time each night – he must be out a lot – so we don’t mind.  In fact, his footfall has become a bit of a familiar sound and we have almost grown used to it.  I think we might even miss Thumper when we move out!

We have been in Florence, living like locals, for a couple of weeks now.  It’s so amazing to just go about our daily business in the midst of such antiquity.  We’ve got a regular veggie-and-fruit provider at the market, a regular stall we go to for breads and cheeses, regular routes to our most frequent ports of call (the supermarket, Piazza della Signoria, our favourite gelateria, the American church – where we go on Sundays and also during the week to visit their children’s lending library for books in English)…  Being regulars in a place really helps you feel like a local.

I guess the downside to living somewhere like a local is that you take certain things for granted.  The Uffizi Gallery – world-renowned – is at the end of our nightly walk.  We see it, we admire it from the outside, but we have not yet been in.  The same is true of the Duomo, the Baptistry, and in fact almost every other building and gallery for which Florence is known.  We haven’t yet been tourists as a family in Florence.  Our to-see list is mounting.  We will have to start getting to that list before we leave – we’re now about halfway through our time here!

DSC_7217

We haven’t seen any Michelangelo paintings yet, but we’ve tried painting like he did for the Sistine Chapel!

Week 4

Thumper was awake upstairs and moving furniture around last night, as has become his habit.  Sometimes it seems to go on forever.

I imagine he’s got one of those IKEA apartments, where everything serves a double purpose, but he just takes it to the nth degree.  So every evening he has to move his coffee table to the side, turn his sofa into a bed, unscrew the bookcases from the wall and dismantle them (just because), throw the books into the bathtub for the night, and push the dining table clear across the apartment.  This is what I imagine, because the only other reasonable alternative is that he is dismembering bodies up there.

While I’m in a complaining mood, perhaps I should list a few of the quirks of our apartment here.

Let’s start in the kitchen, shall we?

The water is hard – so the kettle element, a bare coil in the bottom of the kettle, calcifies overnight.  Every morning, I feel like a zoo veterinarian scraping the tartar off a yawning hippo’s teeth.  I have to chip away at it before swishing it out, re-filling and boiling for my first cup of tea of the day.

The fridge is small, as most European fridges are.  It is full height, though – lots of places only have what amounts to a bar fridge.  The door is particularly finicky – it needs you to lean on it to close it properly, like you’re trying to coax a stubborn horse to just.move.over.

DSC_7051

Moving down the apartment, past the hard chair and the lumpy couch that seats two (three in a pinch), on past the table and the chairs with the lethal metal legs that magnetically attract bare toes, and you get to the first bathroom.

We’re delighted to have two bathrooms; this first one contains a toilet, a bidet, a pedestal sink, and a shower.  The shower stall is tiny – it’s so small that you can’t help but become entangled in the shower curtain whenever you bend to shave your legs or find yourself temporarily blinded with shampoo.  And that curtain has to basically be hermetically sealed to the sides to avoid the creation of a small flood each time you shower, but unfortunately you have to keep the window open for ventilation – which obviously creates a curtain-flapping draft.  If you don’t keep the window open, you just KNOW you’ll be damaging the plaster so that it falls off the walls in a single sheet when someone slams a door behind the rental agent arriving for the final inspection…

The second bathroom has another toilet and bidet, a big bathtub (perfect for the kids), a sink and a washing machine.  This front-loader seems designed for the viewing pleasure of our poor toy-deprived children – it seems the equivalent of the hillbilly bug-zapper in terms of entertainment value.  Several times I have come upon a huddle of boys in front of the window; watching, mesmerized, as the clothes spin round and round and round…

Apparently the appeal of the washing machine wasn't lost on bigger boys, either!

Apparently the appeal of the washing machine wasn’t lost on bigger boys, either!

It’s actually a great apartment overall, and we’ve been perfectly happy here (well, except for Thumper’s occasional disruption to our peace).

Week 5

Thumper was up stomping around – pressing grapes? – at 3 AM.  I think I might be over apartment living.  Don’t even get me started on the stairs to our flat… So.many.stairs.  I wouldn’t object to the daily quad workout, if it didn’t also involve lugging a toddler along for the ride.  He’s getting so heavy!

On the plus side, we still love living in Florence.  We finally prioritized ‘seeing the sights’ over the past couple of weeks, and we have been running around in tourist mode – it has been a fun change of pace.  There really is a lot to see here, and it has been great not having to squeeze our sightseeing into a few consecutive days; instead, we have drawn it all out and enjoyed living like locals in the process.

We’ve been here for over a month – we leave next week – and I can honestly say I’ll miss most of our life here (sure, maybe not Thumper nor the stairs, but almost everything else!).  How wonderful to have this chance to live in the shadow of the Duomo!  Bella Firenze.

Living in this city certainly has its compensations!

Living in this city certainly has its compensations!

.

.

.

Tune in next time for more practical information on our time in Florence.

 

Being ‘a Casa’ (at Home) in Italy

DSC_7089 It was love at first sight.  From my first glimpses of Tuscany in a travel magazine feature as a teen to the peek-a-boo views I caught of the red-tiled roof of Il Duomo as I arrived in Florence in ‘98, I have been utterly besotted with this part of Italy. You only have to say ‘Florence’, or Firenze, and those who have been there get a far-away look in their eyes. The art, the architecture, the very atmosphere of this city – birthplace of the Renaissance – all draw you in and invite you to place your own feet upon the cobblestones once trodden by Dante and da Vinci. DSC_7140 DSC_7418 And then, of course, there are the lucky few who get to call Florence ‘home’. I was one of those lucky few in my early twenties; I’d spent a few weeks travelling south from the Netherlands and ended up in Florence, where I lived and worked as a nanny for almost a year. Then, a year or two after West and I got married, we returned to live in Florence for three months.  And now this was an opportunity to spend a short time living in Florence with our family. As it worked out (because of when airfare deals were available), we had five weeks in Florence, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  We arrived after the end of the summer hiatus and the highest peak of the tourist season; Florentines had returned from their August exodus to seaside places, and schools were back in session. The city was perfectly itself. DSC_7088 DSC_7087 Weather-wise, we were spoiled during our Florentine sojourn.  We enjoyed a lingering summer heat – it was unseasonably warm – which meant that our boys (and we, too) got to experience the city’s tempestuous summer thunderstorms, sunny days and balmy evenings at the beginning of our stay, and then the freshness of the cool autumn weather in the weeks before our departure. All the guidebooks will tell you that it’s cheaper if you stay on the periphery of town, but being within walking distance of the main attractions was of paramount importance to us – I had to be able to walk with the kids to the Duomo, the Uffizi and the mercato, and we felt that we needed to be right in the historical centre to have a properly authentic experience.  We opted to spend a bit more on our accommodation in Florence and balance out the expense by staying somewhere cheaper later on (Malta), and this splurge afforded us an appartamento on via Cavour, less than 500 m from Piazza del Duomo. This was the longest stay we had anywhere during our travels, and as such we settled into routines of work, school, grocery-shopping, church; in short, we experienced ‘life’ as a family in Florence.

D, modelling the latest in Italian fashion

D, modelling the latest in Italian fashion

Why yes, we DID eat a lot of pizza!

Why yes, we DID eat a lot of pizza!

And how different our family’s life in Florence was to our life on Vancouver’s North Shore! In Canada, we’d load up the minivan at the grocery ‘superstore’ once a fortnight and then pick up the odd thing at the local supermarket to tide us over between mega-shops.  We got our milk delivered. In Florence, two to three times a week (usually in the evening) we’d all walk just over a kilometer to the supermarket (there was a closer one, but as it was in the centre, the prices were about double what they were at ‘our’ supermarket) for basics like milk, coffee, red wine, and pasta; and every other day or so the boys and I would head to the mercato centrale (the central market near the San Lorenzo basilica) to pick up fresh bread, fruits and veggies.  Unlike in Canada, we wouldn’t pick our own produce (in fact, if you do touch the fruit, some vendors will take umbrage at the intrusion).  Instead, we’d ask the gentlemen running the grocery stall for what we wanted, and they would weigh and bag it for us.  They were very kind, and every single time we went there the boys came away with some free pieces of fruit.  After a couple of weeks, the boys also started getting caramelle (hard candies) from the generous Halal butchers whose stall was next to the vegetable stand – even though we never bought any meat. It’s great having the personalized service –unless you’re in a hurry – and we grew friendly with the guys at our regular stall (as we did with the bread-and-cheese lady in the mercato); the only downside to having someone else pack your groceries is sometimes ending up with softer fruit being squished by heavier items placed on top! When we went to the supermarket, we’d occasionally pick up the odd bit of fruit or veg (always feeling guilty for diverting our custom from our friends at the mercato), and even that process was different from how we’d have done it ‘back home’.  In much of Europe, when you pick up your produce at the supermarket, you weigh it yourself and print a sticker with a bar code to place on the bag; failing to do so will generally earn you some very surly looks from the checkout staff – and you will have to scuttle off to do it yourself while everyone behind you in the line stamps their feet.   Consider yourselves warned. We could only ever buy as much as we could carry, of course – and the boys really rose to the occasion when it was a question of ‘can we manage to carry all the essentials PLUS a jar of Nutella?’  Joking aside, though, their willingness to help surpassed our expectations almost every time we went shopping; each of the older three would end up with a small bag or two, and sometimes the older boys (A&B) would vie with each other to see how much extra they could carry, staggering home thus burdened along the darkened streets of town. DSC_7290 Even though we’d missed peak tourist season in Florence, the sidewalks in the centre were still full of pedestrians, especially during the day.  I’d find myself herding these kids of mine – who’d never even crossed the street on their own before – off the sidewalk and along the side of the road to bypass the crowds where it was busiest. DSC_7419 When I had D in the buggy, I often needed to go ‘offroad’ (well, actually ‘onroad’) because the pedestrian paths were just too narrow.  Fortunately, we had brought the front pack on our travels, and we used it a lot! The boys and I refined our ‘single file’ formation; and where there was space, we’d go two-by-two, holding hands.  I’d call out to them, “Buddy up!” and my little ducklings would dutifully pair up with me or a brother and off we’d go.  They got so used to this that D started to echo my instruction, or even initiate the order: “Buddy up!” DSC_7484 DSC_7255 When we weren’t out running these errands we were busy with homeschool, washing dishes, doing laundry, and generally living life with a family of six in a small apartment*.  We quickly found routines that worked and ditched the things that didn’t.  We learned.  We adjusted.

Apartment life is endlessly entertaining...

Apartment life is endlessly entertaining…

DSC_7185 In general, things just took a little more time and effort in Florence than they had in Vancouver.  It wasn’t always easy – but it was always beautiful. By the time we left, we’d seen what we most wanted to see and done what we’d most wanted to do – but most of all, we’d enjoyed living in Florence as a family. And I was still in love. DSC_7280

 .

.

(*More posts on Florence are on their way – stay tuned!)

Venice, Day Four

DSC_7013

We were in two minds about leaving Venice.

On one hand, we could imagine spending much, much longer here – there were still plenty of things we hadn’t seen, done, or tasted; and we hadn’t tired of the city’s charms (I doubt we could have done).  But on the other hand, Florence beckoned – and our apartment awaited us; as did the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio (and other amazing sites), and friends in various parts of Tuscany.  There was nothing to do but savour our last few hours in Venice and the board the train south as planned.

I still don’t quite know how Venice manages to make chipped plaster look so endlessly appealing...

I still don’t quite know how Venice manages to make chipped plaster look so endlessly appealing…

We didn’t have time for much, but we wanted to squeeze one more Venetian experience into our schedule before we left.  We’d decided that a gondola ride was out of our budget, but we’d heard that the traghetto (a gondola used to ferry passengers across the canals) provided a similar experience.  So, after packing our bags and tidying the apartment for our departure, we left our things ready to go by the front door and headed out into the labyrinth of crooked streets.  It didn’t take us too long to locate a sign indicating the jetty we were looking for.

DSC_7014 DSC_7030

After a very short wait, the traghetto appeared, punted (well, actually rowed – but the oar movement looks a lot like punting) at one end by an older gentleman and at the other by a younger woman.  We quickly negotiated a price for a return trip (which we’d heard could be cheaper) and hopped aboard.

DSC_7024

We loved it!  We sat and enjoyed the novelty of the experience; being ferried to and fro across the Grand Canal by gondoliers, transported just as Venetian passengers have been for centuries.  I’ve since learned that passengers traditionally stand in the traghetto, but I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time – ignorance is bliss; and a dunking saved is, well, one less mess when you’re with a gaggle of boys!

DSC_7025 DSC_7026

DSC_7017

Other Venetian forms of transport nearby: gondolas (foreground) and a vaporetto (background)

DSC_7027

And, just like that, we were done.  It was time to head back to our apartment, haul up our bags, and head for the train to Florence.

.

It seems like every place with a dyke or canal tries to ride this city’s famous coattails: Amsterdam (which is a wonderful city in its own right, but utterly different from this ancient Italian city) has been called ‘Venice of the North’ – as have Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, Bruges, and others.  Various cities in Asia claim to be ‘Venice of the East’.  But Venice herself is unique and unparalleled.

DSC_7033

Venice is charming, mysterious, intricate – and eternally enchanting.

Torneremo – we will return.

Venice, Day Three

DSC_6990

Our third day in Venice dawned with brooding skies.  Having managed to walk everywhere we needed to go, we hadn’t yet taken a ride on the vaporetto (the Venetian equivalent to a city bus).  We had plans to remedy that oversight with a trip to the glass-making island of Murano – and a side trip from there to picturesque Burano.  With that in mind, we purchased a vaporetto day pass.

The boat ride was a highlight – especially for B, who giggled maniacally (and infectiously) as he stood on the open middle deck.  He laughed out loud, head flung back, as he caught the spray from the rising waves in his face.  I held D to my chest in the front pack – sheltered from the wind and spray by my scarf – and he slept through the excitement.

DSC_6987

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where we’d been the day before

DSC_6986 DSC_6988 DSC_6989 DSC_6992 DSC_6994 DSC_6996

When we arrived in Murano, we immediately realized the shortcoming of our ‘plan’ – and that was that we had none (aside from the vague intention to ‘go to Murano and see some glass-making’).  We eschewed the offers from the larger factories as we disembarked from the vaporetto, thinking that it would be too commercial a presentation and probably a bit of a hard sell (when we really just wanted to see a demonstration – without a ‘tour’ of the gift shop – and then head along to Burano).

DSC_7001

Some of the fine glassworks produced by the famed studios of Murano

So we wandered along on our own on what turned out to be rather a shambolic misadventure.

For starters, we couldn’t find any of the smaller studios we’d read about – and we didn’t even really know where to begin looking.  Our search for the glassmaking studio was further hampered by four hungry boys who were clamoring for lunch.  Complicating all of this was the fact that there were plenty of gorgeous places to eat all along the canal’s edge, with enticing menus, that were just a bit too far out of our budget to consider.  We found a supermarket and loaded up on fresh bread, cheeses, nuts, and a few other odds and ends – and we sat down on a little floating dock beside the canal to consume the meal.

More unfocused wandering followed, with my mood growing fouler and the darkening skies echoing my inner thoughts.  We decided to refresh ourselves with a gelato.

Only, we couldn’t find gelato.  So West popped back to the supermarket and returned with a box of chocolate-coated ice cream blocks.  He was delighted – they were cheap as chips.  I advised him not to get used to it – you don’t go all the way to Italy and then compromise with imitation gelato!

DSC_7003

Even D wasn’t impressed – gelato isn’t served on a stick!

The clouds were really starting to look threatening, so we decided to wander to the main drag (the internal piazza of the island) and then head towards the vaporetto stop; we thought we’d give it a final try and see if we could find a glass studio on the way.

Gorgeous glasswork in the piazza - but still looking for the studios...

Gorgeous glasswork in the piazza – but still looking for the studios…

Under black and roiling skies, we reached the end of our exploratory walk before our turn-around point, and A announced the need for a restroom break.  I happily concurred, and the two of us (along with D, who was strapped back into my front-pack carrier) popped into a café for an espresso for me and a pit stop for both of us.  (Upon my return to our apartment, I posted this status update on Facebook: “If balancing over an Italian toilet wearing your toddler in a front pack were an Olympic sport, I wouldn’t make the team…” – so you can guess how well THAT went!)

DSC_7008

A lighthouse outside the cafe – the photos don’t do the stormy sky justice

DSC_7006

The coffee was a welcome pick-me-up, but we could see that the downpour had begun to dowse nearby islands, so we hightailed it back to the vaporetto.  Perfect timing – there was one waiting at the jetty, and we hopped on.

But as we waited for the boat to leave, we had second thoughts.  We’d come all the way to Murano without seeing a glass-making demonstration.  Wasn’t that just too negligent of us?  We thought that it was.  So we quickly hopped off the boat and headed for a big, touristy studio where we were ushered in to see a short glass-blowing demo – the boys even got front-row seats.  With that done, we skipped out of the gift-shop when the rest of the group went through, headed straight for the boat, and sheltered from the first heavy raindrops as they hit the deck.

We FINALLY got to see some glass-blowing!

We FINALLY got to see some glass-blowing!

We walked home through shiny streets, revelling in the sights and sounds: Venice was beautiful in the rain.  The scent of wet stone, the reflection of exquisite buildings in the puddles, the sight of Venetians hurrying home to dry off or sheltering from the deluge in a café…

We had wasted money buying our vaporetto passes and only using them twice; we’d been grumpy; we’d wandered aimlessly; we’d eaten supermarket ice cream instead of real gelato; I’d lost my balance and ended up sitting on a seat-less café toilet (ugh!); and it had POURED – we hadn’t even made it to Burano… The whole day was a bit of a comedy of errors.  But on the plus side, we’d had a riotously fun vaporetto ride; we’d enjoyed the island in spite of our moods; we had seen some amazing glasswork; and WE WERE IN VENICE!  Even when you’re a jaded tourist or a grumpy traveller, and even when your sightseeing doesn’t go as planned, Venice is still incredible.

In spite of it all (!) a good time was had by all

In spite of it all (!) it was a good day

DSC_6975

So that night, as we waited for Westley to return with our seafood feast and watched the rain drench the courtyard outside, I felt grateful for the day we had.  Grateful for my little D, perched in the windowsill and calling out to everyone returning home to the neighbouring apartments, “Ciao!  Ciao!”  Grateful to be in this beautiful place with all my boys, savouring La Dolce Vita.

Life is sweet – even in the rain.

We'd put our camera away when it got really wet - so here's Dmitriy Moiseyev's photo from flickr

We’d put our camera away when it got really wet – so here’s Dmitriy Moiseyev’s photo from flickr

Venice, Day Two

DSC_6971

On our first morning in Venice (having arrived the previous afternoon), we traipsed along to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – the gallery that had awakened my own interest in modern art fifteen years prior.  I figured that the collection is presented in a way and in a location that is particularly accessible to kids – and it’s a comprehensive representation of the genre without being so large as to be overwhelming.  Well, that was the theory.

In the end, we kind of blitzed the main areas – just quickly took in the major works, pointing out the most interesting/weird pieces to our boys as we passed by.  The kids found a particularly comfy sofa in one room, an arresting sculpture in the garden by the entrance, and enchanting vistas from both an elaborately-screened window and a courtyard overlooking the Grand Canal.  They were whiny and ‘over it’ way sooner than I’d anticipated, but I wasn’t going to fight it – we headed back onto the street to see some more of Venice.

DSC_6923

A comfy couch!

DSC_6924

The visual appeal of an amazing view, well-framed

DSC_6926

Artistic metalwork in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

DSC_6932

A view of the Grand Canal from the museum courtyard

DSC_6933

Sculptures, scenery, and sunshine: a winning combo

DSC_6934

Across the canal

DSC_6937

Iconic view

By the end of the day, we’d wandered through Piazza San Marco, found the Bridge of Sighs, watched some crazy tourists in Carnevale masks paddle along the Grand Canal in an inflatable boat, and marvelled at (and walked upon) the famed Rialto – and in the course of it all we’d conducted a scavenger-hunt for ‘our bridge’: the one pictured in an art print we’d had hanging on our wall at home in Canada.  West spotted it first – and in real life it was just as gorgeous as it was in our picture.

DSC_6968

‘Our’ bridge – pretty as a picture!

DSC_6916

Seafood at the market in the piazza near our apartment

DSC_6958

Crazy tourists!

DSC_6955

Cute tourists (not the guy in the background – I mean, he’s OK, but…)

DSC_6960

The Bridge of Sighs – so called because prisoners would sigh as they caught their last glimpse of Venice before being incarcerated

DSC_6964

Gelato di cioccolato!

DSC_6919 DSC_6942 DSC_6943 DSC_6947 DSC_6953 DSC_6954 DSC_6961 DSC_6969

We were exhausted from all the walking – we trudged home on tired feet.  The boys rested and played while West popped out for some local seafood to accompany the vegetable stew I cooked up at our apartment, but he didn’t have any luck finding what he wanted, so we dined on supermarket roast chicken to accompany our veggies and finished off with some sweet pastries from a local pasticceria.

Perfetto!

DSC_6972

‘Verdure’ – veggies!

A Visit to Venice – Day One

DSC_6970

Some other people enjoying that quintessentially Venetian mode of transport: the gondola

Rain thunders down from slate-grey skies and spatters heavily in a courtyard illuminated by flashes of lightning.  Thunder growls intermittently from the roiling clouds.  Little D is perched on a deep stone windowsill, hemmed in by an elaborate wrought-iron railing on one side and me on the other; we are watching for West – waiting for him to return with our seafood dinner.

We had arrived in Venice three days earlier, following a scenic rail journey down from Milano.  On the train, our boys had been entertained by two lovely Italian ladies who chatted with them and watched them with amusement as they joked and played in their adjoining seats.  The boys showed off the toys they’d brought in their backpacks: stuffies (soft animals) and Hot Wheels (train travel tip: toy cars are great fun to skid across train tables between brothers!).  The ladies shared their biscotti, and (to the considerable delight of my boys) one of them memorably complimented one of my sons on his flatulence.  No kidding.  Who’d make that up?!  Apparently – according to Italian folk culture – producing noteworthy emissions is the mark of a healthy digestive system. Proud moment.

As we approached Venezia Mestre we were treated to amazing views – and then we arrived at the main station (Santa Lucia) and our jaws dropped.  West and I had both been there before (this was my third visit), but Venice’s charms never get old.  Arriving at the station and stepping out onto the banks of the Grand Canal is a pleasure undimmed by repetition.

We paused and admired the scene before climbing the Ponte degli Scalzi (Bridge of the Barefoot – so named for the Carmelite monks who traditionally went bare- or sandal-footed).  We quickly figured out a system to help each other up and over the bridges with all our bags; and thus we ferried ourselves and our things along to our accommodation in the sestiere (district) of Santa Croce.

Walking along a narrow canal (the Venetian equivalent of a side street), we could hear strains of a piano practice filtering out from a second-story apartment above a cafe; it was just to the left of this that we found the narrow alleyway we were looking for.  We ventured down the passageway, multi-storied buildings leaning into the alley on either side above our heads.

DSC_6871

At the far end of the alleyway was a canal, and we could see boats passing as we stepped to the right, into the apartment courtyard.  Large double doors fronted the building we were looking for, and to the side of them a shuttered window opened.  Our hostess popped her head out to let us know she was coming round to let us in.

DSC_6863

Once we’d toured the apartment and settled in a bit, we headed out for a walk through our neighbourhood.  We strolled past canals and over bridges, marvelling at the beauty of the architecture and absorbing the ambiance of Venice in the early evening.  Watching fishermen motoring down the waterways with the day’s catch and families driving boats home for dinner gave us a great insight into Venetians’ daily life.

DSC_6887 DSC_6885

DSC_6888 DSC_6890 DSC_6882 DSC_6879 DSC_6878 DSC_6875

We were impressed with the delivery men and their method of moving large loads up and over the multi-stepped bridges: they pushed the loads in special wheeled trolleys that allowed them to jack up even heavy loads quickly and methodically over each step.

In one of the main piazzas of our district, fishmongers and greengrocers were packing up their carts at day’s end.  The square soon cleared of vendors and in their place the restaurants set out extra tables and chairs for dining al fresco; nearby, children began impromptu games of calcio (football/soccer).  Other kids scootered around while their parents chatted – many enjoying an ombra (small glass of local wine) and cicchetti (small bites – the Venetian version of tapas).

DSC_6899 DSC_6913

This seemed the perfect place for our first night’s dinner.  We looked around and settled on a place with an English name (‘Pier Dickens’), just because they had the best list of pizzas.

The service was friendly and we were glad to tuck in when our order arrived at the table.  We shared two pizza Margherita, one Quattro formaggi (four cheese) pasta, two side salads, and fizzy water.  West and I split a mezzo-litro of the house red.  It was all delicious, and the price wasn’t bad for such a feast – E56 for the lot.

As we wandered in the direction of our apartment following our dinner, we noticed that our local gelateria was still open – the perfect ending to the day.

DSC_6901 DSC_6909

And then it was back to the apartment, where we slept – lulled by the distant hum of boats motoring down the Grand Canal.

DSC_6914 DSC_6910

A Moment in Milan

DSC_6853

The Signora leaned over her balcony railing and flapped her hand at us.

“Spingete il campanello,” she ordered, Press the bell.

We did as we were told and she buzzed us in.  We ferried kids and luggage up the marble staircase – up and up and up to the third floor apartment, where we were greeted warmly by our floral-aproned hostess.  The salutations over with and bags stashed to one side of the living room, the Signora launched into a list of explanations and instructions (entirely in Italian), directed at me.  I nodded and clarified as necessary: So the plastics go there and the tins there and food scraps there (the recycling system seemed meticulous); and when we leave the key goes there… And then, with a cheery farewell she departed, leaving in her wake the faint but pleasant scent of lemon detergent.

The boys rushed to their large, tiled bedroom and claimed a bed each.  I popped D into his stroller for safekeeping and set up the portacot in our spacious room.  And West headed out to find something for dinner and pick up breakfast supplies for the next morning.

Almost an hour later, our stomachs were grumbling, and there was still no sign of West.  We had been on the go all day, having risen early to take the Metro from near our apartment to Gare du Nord, the RER to Gare de Lyon, and the TGV all the way down to Milan.  All we needed was some food, a quick wash, and bed.  We were hungry, exhausted – and cranky.

“When’s Daddy coming?”  “I’m hungry!”  “When do we get to EAT???” the boys complained.

“I don’t know.”  “We just have to wait.” “We’ll eat as soon as Daddy gets here!”  I replied, over and over again.

Eventually Westley returned, bearing two pizza boxes – and nothing else.

Here, in the midst of suburban Milan, finding after-hours sustenance was next to impossible.  Tucked away, as we were, in a labyrinth of post-war architecture (our own apartment for the night was one of several hundred contained in three identically depressing blocks of flats), our only options close at hand were in a small cluster of shops near the main road: a pizzeria selling thick, crispy squares of pizza-by-the-slice (the last few of which West managed to procure shortly before closing time); a pasticceria (bakery) that also served coffee; and a couple of other stores, neither of which sold food.

No breakfast supplies, but a light dinner was covered.  We were famished – and it was delicious.

Quick baths and showers followed the repast.  And then – to bed.

The kids settled quickly, tucked into cozy beds in their spacious room.  D was asleep almost before he finished his bottle.  But slumber took a bit longer to fall on us.

Our mattress was the opposite of what you long for when you’ve spent all day sitting on a train and lugging heavy bags around – hard and unyielding.  I could have sworn it was just a couple of duvets thrown over a plywood board, although when I looked I could see a proper (thin) mattress over a solid, unsprung frame.  Still, we were tired.  After a bit of tossing and turning, we fell asleep.

The next morning we rose early.  We got dressed and walked along to the bakery for some croissants and coffee, and then West returned to the apartment to pack things up while I took the kids to the playground.  We met three-year-old twins there with their Nonna (grandmother).  The toddlers and D got along famously, and my older boys clambered like monkeys over a climbing frame while the Nonna and I chatted by the little ones.  I stumbled over my Italian but I was pleasantly surprised to find that we could manage a rudimentary conversation.  I learned that this doting grandmother was about to lose these precious littlies to an international move; their family was going to be settling in her daughter-in-law’s homeland, Australia.  We dabbed at our eyes at the sadness of close family being physically distant from us.  It felt like a special connection, and we saluted one another warmly as I gathered my boys and headed away from the playground.

The boys and I returned to the apartment as West was zipping up the last of the bags.  We gathered our things, and left the apartment to catch our train to Venice.

Such was our taste of Milan, and the boys’ first night in Italy.  We didn’t get to marvel at the famed Duomo or stroll the fashion district – but we did see a little pocket of suburbia; we tasted local fare; and we met a few of the locals.  Sometimes the best thing about travel is experiencing the ordinary in another place.

DSC_6857 DSC_6858