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Two-Second Travelogue - Italy & Greece

Italy - January & February 2001 (Italy photos)

January 1 - Monaco to Venice - I liked getting to our couchette on the train at 9:30 PM instead of midnight. I was able to have a little quiet reading time before sleep. Maggie, Duncan, and I stayed up for a late night snack of chorizo. -- Monica

Though we turned off the heater in our compartment and had paper blankets, we incinerated during the night. -- Duncan

Just before we left, Uncle Marc let each of us take a little circle of slighly curled gold paper from a little blue jewelry box. On each of them, someone had written "One Kiss." Uncle Marc explained that just before Aunt Toni left for the United States for medical tests, she had filled the little box with these paper "kisses." Marc could take one out when he missed her and say to himself, "She'll be home soon." Toni never returned; she died at the Mayo Clinic, far from the box of kisses. -- Mark

January 2 - Venice - We chased pigeons today at Piazza San Marco. I think it must be pigeon paradise. People pay vendors for corn to feed the pigeons. After people throw their food to the pigeons, they don't stop to watch the pigeons to finish eating, so the pigeons are still there when we hit. Tote and I run about 6 feet apart while Maggie flanks us. The pigeons can't run one way, and they can't run the other. They have no choice to take to the air. Tote sometimes steps on them, because he is running at full speed. I have a "pigeon full speed." Fast enough to get the pigeons to fly and get their little hearts aflutter but not fast enough to hit them. The vendors shout at us, but we're not sure if they're asking us to buy their corn or to stop it. -- Duncan

We arrived in Venice by train to San Lucia Stazione. At 7:00 AM, we took a vaporetto to La Giudecca, the island where the youth hostel is located. Maggie and I sat outside in the stern. As the sky began to lighten, we watched the city come alive. We stashed our stuff in lockers and took another boat over to St. Mark's Square. We marveled, gaped, gawked, and chased pigeons. Then we set out to feel the magic of Venice: the bridges and canals; the smells of strong coffee; the colorful buildings with balconies and ivy; women in fur coats and jewelry; tourist shops full of glittering blown glass and carnival masks; rapidly spoken Italian, along with every other language; young people with backpacks; old people walking their tiny dogs; Christmas decorations and confetti scattered about; the cool, moist air; gondolas; and kissing on every bridge - Mark taught me that last time we were here, 20 years ago. -- Monica

I wonder whether English is becoming the universal language of tourism. It is certainly common around here. Most of the hostel signs are in English. When I stumble through "Where are the soft drinks?" in Italian, the clerk points and says in English, "Over there." If there is a second language on an Italian sign, it is almost always English. (This might be because English is becoming the most common second tongue or it might be that Italians think that English-speaking tourists are particularly dumb.) Even in Spain and Morocco, where there seemed to be little English spoken, a Japanese fellow we met got by communicating with everyone in English. At dinner in the hostel, we overheard a group of three girls and two guys speaking English. We learned today that they are from Venezuela, India, France, South Africa, and Peru. They met studying in Switzerland. The only language they have in common is English. I also routinely hear Germans talking to waiters (and arguing with them) in English. -- Mark

The buses we go on in Venice have tires, but they're on the sides as bumpers. That's because the buses are boats. Dad, Tote, and I walked out of the train station to get cash. When we were on our way back, we stopped at the bus stop and got tickets. The bus stop is a floating bridge into a little floating room where you wait for the bus-boat. It's really scary to stand at the edge because it goes up and down, and you think you're going to fall in. I tried to trick Mom by telling her we were going to take the bus, but I didn't tell her it was a boat. -- Maggie

January 3- Venice - Today we went to a museum. The museum had a lot of rooms of stuff for weapons. One of Daddy's riddles was a prayer book with a tiny gun in it. I think if you were just going to get your head cut off in a castle, you would take out your little prayer book and say "Let me just say one little prayer before I get my head cut off." And then you take your gun out of the book and shoot the guy. Another one of the riddles was a suit of armor that was missing its hands. It looked like a fat guy would have worn that armor in battle, because the stomach plate was huge. One of Mommy's riddles was "It looks like rock candy with lollipops." It was a glass chandelier with flowers on it. -- Maggie

We went to a museum that was made of two museums. One was an archeological museum and the other the museum of the city. When we got there we took an English tour of the archeological part. I learned alot about Greek and Roman funeral artifacts, but their section on Assyrian and Egyptian artifacts needed some work. In the museum of the city, we split up and looked through all the rooms to find a favorite artifact and made up a riddle about the artifact for the others to guess. My favorite was a battle hammer. We had never seen a battle hammer before. My riddle was "It is like the other but not. It pierces but does not hurt. When it stings, it kills." The answer is a strange key that has a concealed dart shooter. I thought it could be a perfect assassination thing, if you stuck it in a keyhole and shot someone inside the room. -- Tote

Three times today I was so stunned by the beauty of what I was seeing that I couldn't move for a second or two - St. Mark's from across the Piazza, the view of San Giorgio through the Piazzetta San Marco, and the rosy faces of the kids as we crossed Canale della Giudecca on the vaporetto. This really is another world. -- Mark

We sat in Piazza San Marco for a couple hours. The children ran and ran, chasing pigeons. They ran until their faces were flushed. We sat on the planks that will make a boardwalk when there's flooding. -- Monica

January 4 - Venice -I like that there aren't any roads to get whacked by a car. If you're swimming you could get whacked by a boat though. -- Maggie

Duncan: You can kinda tell what language people are speaking by the sort of sounds they make without hearing any words. Arabic you can tell, because it always sounds like they are yelling at each other.

Tote: What's a cover charge?
Mark: Well, in the United States you might get charged to get in if a place has live music or something special like that.
Maggie: Dad.
Mark: Yes.
Maggie: What was special in that restaurant?
Mark: A lot of tourists come here.

We are now staying in our third spot in Venice. We have stayed at a clean, dry family room at the assembly line youth hostel. (It could only accomodate us for one night.) Last night we slept at a lovely one-star hotel -- perhaps the nicest hotel room of the entire trip. Those places were fine, but today, we hit the jackpot.

Today, we moved into a magnificent "house." Our house is four or five or six stories tall -- exactly how you count the last two floors is a bit unclear since they ramble a bit. The first floor consists of a marble hallway and stairs. (I suspect the marble and absence of much of anything in the stairwell is preparation for the floods.) The next three floors have hardwood floors, Persian carpets, tall windows, exposed beams, and the kind of simple furnishings that cost a fortune.

The amazing thing about all of these places is that they all cost about the same amount. Booking the hostel took only a phone call. The price was fixed. Kids pay the same as adults. The hotel required some bargaining but ended up costing $10 more than the hostel and was in a much better spot. In addition to bargaining, getting into the apartment took yelling and screaming. It was worth it though. The apartment costs the same as the one star hotel and is undoubtedly better for us than any hotel could be. The children are making an ungodly amount of noise running around upstairs. Monica is in the kitchen doing one of the things she loves best, cooking. I am listening to Bach and watching people pass in the narrow streets. -- Mark

As we walked around Venice, I despaired of capturing Venice in words. I couldn't satisfactorily describe to Mark what I was seeing and feeling and wondering about. At least I am able to capture some of this with my camera: the little bridges, some decorated and some plain; the "new" Rialto Bridge from 1592; and the sometimes colorful and sometimes peeling edifices lining the canals. It's winter so the air is damp and cool, sometimes cold. The alleys are dark and, when it drizzles, the lights reflect off the stone walkways. -- Monica

January 5 - Venice -
Tote: This place is more like a city in Dinotopia than anywhere else. It's just so different!
Mark: But Dinotopia was a fantasy. It's not real.
Tote: That's what I mean.

Maggie: I liked Versailles better than the Doge's Palace. I liked the different colored rooms. It also has a bunch of windows to look out at the gardens. And when you looked out the windows of the other palace all you could see was a little bit of land and water.
Mark: I thought Versailles looked sort of chintzy compared to the Doge's Palace. Versailles looked like a movie set. This place just looked richer and real and authentic. There was also real art everywhere.
Monica: It was older, too. Versailles made me feel like I would be at a big party. Here, I felt like it was really the seat of a government where important things happened.
Duncan: I could imagine being an assasin here, working for the Council of Ten, roaming the corridors looking for traitors, and using my dart key. At Versailles, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything, especially wearing a wig and tight pants.
Monica: I couldn't live in either of them. The place I could live was the Alcazar. There I could sit in the sun and enjoy the garden.
Maggie: Versailles was better.
Mark: I thought it was interesting to read about a government that lasted about a thousand years. Americans are so cocky about our government. This place kind of puts it in perspective.

In 828, the body of St. Mark was brought to Venice from Egypt. Mark was martyred in Alexandria. Two Venetian merchants, Buono and Rustico, swiped the remains. They stuffed the bones in a basket, and knowing that the Egyptians who were Muslims would not have anything to do with pork, topped the basket up with pork meat and sailed for Venice. The Venetians were so happy to have a first rate saint that they forgot about their former patron, St. Theodore, and gave St. Mark top billing.

Mark appears to be comfortable in Venice. So comfortable that he enjoys playing Hide and Seek with the Venetians. In 1063, the Venetians were doing restoration work on the church. To protect Mark, they put him in a safe spot. Unfortunately, they hid the guy so well that nobody could find him again. The Venetians tried everything to refresh someone's recollection - prayers, services, fasts, and feasts. Nothing worked. Saints are very patient. It wasn't until June 25, 1094 that Mark got tired of the game and stuck his arm out of the pilaster in which he was hiding, spoiling the marble decoration. The Venetians reburied Mark in the crypt. Unfortunately, the crypt kept flooding, and the Venetians closed it sometime in the 16th century. Out of sight; out of mind. Everyone eventually forgot where they had buried Mark -- once again Mark had slipped away. This time the Venetians didn't find him until 1811. They stuffed Mark below the main altar which is where he supposedly is today, though no one will admit looking recently. -- Mark

January 6 - Venice - I liked the witch race. I hated the big cathedral concert. It's so cold. It's like they have an air conditioner. After hearing the organ in Notre Dame, these organs sounded so hollow and weak. They didn't have the same type of voice. -- Duncan

Tote: That's a siren!
Mark: Duncan, Turn down the radio. Turn down the radio!
Tote: It's a siren. It's a flood!
Monica: But it's not raining!
Tote: Sirens mean a flood, Mom!
Monica: But, it can't be, it's not raining.
Mark: It's tides and wind. Last night the water was close. Those low spots in St. Mark's were wet. Maybe tonight it's there.
Duncan: Let's go check.
Mark: Finish dinner first.
Monica: It's not raining.
Duncan: Let's go now.
Mark: The sirens mean a couple hours, so we have time.

The kids and I have been trying to find the hotel Monica and I stayed in 20 years ago. We haven't told Monica what we're doing on our long morning and evening walks or why we sometimes take such weird detours. Fortunately, she is so wrapped up in Venice that she hasn't noticed. The main thing I remember about our visit 20 years ago is that I was madly in love with Monica. That's probably the reason that the details are a bit hazy. I don't remember the name of the place or precisely where it was. I know we had a tiny, warm room in an attic, that the old lady who ran the place was surly, and that it was more a hostel than a hotel. I also know it was around the corner from a deadend that had a Post Office at the end of it. In Venice, if you don't know exactly where to find something, your chances of finding it aren't very good. As far as I can discern, the people at the main Post Office either think I'm a lunatic or have no idea where they've left their branch offices. We've looked in all the places that I thought I "remembered." We have looked in so many places that I now "remember" nearly every street, alley, and bridge. It has gotten so bad that when I make a wrong turn, the kids say, "Thought you saw a Post Office, huh Dad?" -- Mark

We went out and the water came just under our knees. We never felt it, because we just walked on the board walks. It was amazing, because I had never seen a flood and even though it was night, the sky was so cool. It was blue clouds with patches of dark blue sky. -- Tote

January 7 - Venice - Today we went into Saint Mark's cathedral for the first time. All the ceiling was gold mosaics with glass colors. They tell the stories from the bible, because it was easier for people in medieval times to see a legend like a comic book than to read it. I liked the mosaics showing the world's creation, Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, and the Tower of Babel. The floors were really cool, too. No one would guess stone could have such colors or could be put in such mind-boggling or complex pictures. -- Duncan

January 8 - Venice -
Maggie: We have had three floods here in Venice. We didn't have to walk in the water because they have metal and wood sidewalks.
Tote: The water rose from canals but mostly came out of sewers. You can get really sick from getting the water on you. If you don't want to walk on the bridges, you need to wear these tall rubber boots.
Monica: We have the boots in our apartment. They're part of the furnishings.
Tote: The deepest we ever saw was 2 and a half feet, near St. Mark's.
Duncan: It was almost to the top of our boots. Maggie couldn't walk in it because it was at the top of her boots.
Tote: She couldn't walk in the water next to St. Marco. She could walk almost everywhere else. San Marco is cool because it's made from pieces that they took from everywhere else. Wasn't it made to store their loot?
Monica: Not really. It was a chapel for the doge.
Tote: Well, it's sort of a storage place since it's made up of all of those parts that they stole.
Maggie:There are no cars where we are right now, so it's really easy to walk around. Except very easy to get lost, cause there are so many tiny alleys that look like you've gone down already. So that sort of tricks you into thinking that you should go down them to go home.
Tote: I think it would be just as hard to have a boat.
Monica: We've only been lost once.
Duncan: The city is really maze-like. It has dead ends. There's lots of different ways to get to a place. You'd never guess that little plazas are back in the middle of blocks with little tunnels to get you there.

On a long walk this morning, Maggie and I found the hotel we've been searching for! The one Monica and I stayed in 20 years ago. The fellow who owns our apartment was born in Venice. He pointed out that lots of things can change in 20 years but recalled one Post Office at the end of an alley. He didn't get the location exactly right, but he was close enough that we found it by asking in a couple nearby stores. Once we found the Post Office, it was easy to find "our" hotel. It's now a 3-star place with a bath and mini-bar in every room. It still has an attic room though. Unfortunately, it closed for the season, yesterday. -- Mark

January 9 - Venice - We went to Murano island today. We saw a church where there were dragon bones, because the church is for a saint that killed the dragon. Tote found them hanging behind the altar. I didn't like them that much. They weren't as cool as I though they would be. The glass museum wasn't that good. It didn't have alot of the old glass, and the museum wasn't very big. It had four rooms including the bathroom. I liked the cemetery island we passed. I liked my Mom eating the fish and squid and cleaning them. -- Maggie

Mark: Maggie, are you still going to learn Arabic?
Maggie: No. Italian.
Mark: You're going to do Italian instead of Arabic?
Monica: Who's going to do Arabic?
Maggie: I'll do it after I learn Italian.

January 10 - Venice - We sketched near San Marco. The interesting thing is that no one drew San Marco. Everyone drew things across the basin or a lamp post. As I was drawing, I looked for shapes and then found more shapes and related those to the original. That would help me get the size of the parts right. If you think your drawing is bad, keep drawing because alot of times they turn out good. After drawing, everywhere we went I noticed the shape I had drawn. -- Tote

Mark and I went out on our first date tonight . . . our "first date" on the Big Trip. I baked lasagne for the children, told them our "expectations," and told them what to do in case of an emergency. The emergency part sufficiently scared Mark (he said, "Maybe we shouldn't go until we get them in bed asleep.") I got dressed up, and off we went!!! After a walk around Venice we chose a wine bar. We sampled various local wines, ate osso bucco, sliced pork, sardines in vinegar with peppercorns and onions, cooked sausage with a salsa of "green stuff" - we weren't sure what vinegary concoction it was, and a bland lasagna. Before coming home, we thought we'd try a couple of grappas. Whew! First of all, we got more in each glass than our small "thimble-full" glasses of local wines, and secondly . . . they're a distilled version of the grape. It took us awhile to sip them, but we did, and we made it home. -- Monica

Monica and I went out alone to try the local wines. I discovered there are many, many, many local wines. From what I remember, we had a very good time. -- Mark

Monica: Does my face look as red here as it did in the bathroom?
Mark: No.
Monica: Right answer.
. . .
Monica: I actually think I could get us home from here.
Mark: Which way would you go?
Monica: Where are we?
. . .
Monica: How about down here?
Mark: Into the canal?
Monica: No, that can't be right.

January 11 - Venice -
Maggie: Duncan! Tote! We get to have eel for lunch!

Tote: Dad you really should go up and look out from St. Mark's like we did.
Duncan: Yeah. It was the best.
Maggie: I got to go for free, and it was great!
Mark: What was so cool?
Duncan: From up there the pigeons all look like rats.
Monica: And how about that picture? Tote said "If I were you, I wouldn't back up anymore."
Mark: Why'd he say that?
Monica: Because I would have tumbled over backwards into the square.
Mark: Why do I let you out of my sight?

Today we went on our last visit to San Marco. We went up to where the horses are. They are fake. The real ones are inside, because of pollution. The fake ones were made in 1978 but were in worse condition than the real ones. The four real ones were gold with a tint of green. Duncan and I found out that the gold tiles in the mosaics are not pure gold but glass with gold leaf. This was a disappointment, because the basilica did not seem so rich. Like "gold necklaces" that are bronze with gold leaf. When the cathedral is not lit up like it was on Sunday, it looks so different. It was lit with red candles and looked real good. -- Tote

This morning we went to the market with Dad to get fish, bread, and wine. It was fun. The first thing we got at the fish market were three boring silver fish - not bugs, fish. After that we went deeper in the market. We saw eels, rays, crustaceans, flatfish, and a whole lot of others. The next fish we bought was a slab of ray, because Tote wanted to try it. Dad was running out of cash, but as we walked back, Maggie convinced him to buy an eel, because she is reading a book about them. When Dad asked the guy to clean it, the guy threw the eel on a board and stuck a screwdriver through its tail and pounded it in. Then he cut off its head and started slicing up the length of it with his knife. Then he scraped out the insides with his knife. He dumped those into a big bucket of fish guts. When Dad was getting his change, one of the notes fell into a bucket of some kind of aquatic innards. On the way back we bought bread and wine. At the wine store, they didn't just give you bottles of wine. The guy poured the wine from big containers into cleaned out water bottles. Dad had to go back into the store to make sure he remembered the name of the wine to tell Mom. -- Duncan

Monica: I really want to go to St. Mark's today. I need to feel holy.
Mark: You really are hungover, aren't you?

January 12 - Venice to Florence - One of the trains to get to Florence was very full. I could not even stand up. There were seats that folded out of the walls. Luckily, one of the seats was behind me, but the seats were not very comfortable -- Maggie

Mark: What's the verdict on the seafood?
Tote: Boooya. Boooya. Boooya!
Monica: I'm not sure what "Boooya" means, but I think it's something good.
Tote: The eel was good. It wasn't as good as dinner. Dinner was great.
Maggie: Dinner was okay. Not very. I liked the eel the best. I'm counting . . . I have to count again. . . There are twelve.
Mark: Twelve what?
Maggie: Bones in this part of the ray.
Tote: I think it's cartilage, Mags. That's the reason the guy could cut it so easily.
Maggie: Quiet. I'm trying to count.
Tote: The ray was so different. It had its own taste.
Monica: I agree, Tote.
Duncan: It just has a sheet of bones. They weren't all through it like in the fish.
Tote: No guts or anything. It was sort of weird to eat my favorite animal though.

January 13 - Florence - Florence is a lot more modernized than I thought. Today our mission was to find a hotel, because we just arrived yesterday on the train. On the bus ride from the hostel, I got my first look at Duomo. It was amazing. What was different: A. it has green and white marble; B. the whole church was detailed; C. The clock tower was interestingly square. On the top of the church was a large dome. From down at the bottom it did not seem so big, but Dad says it's huge. I can't wait to go inside. After walking around, we came back to Duomo. Today was not so interesting. -- Tote

This morning we got up from our inch-thick mattresses to the sound of slamming doors, loud teenagers, and a very noisy little sister. We then groggily swaggered down to breakfast on a piece of bread and a cup of hot - no, lukewarm - chocolate. We proceeded to charge outside to have an exciting game of Jedis in the campsite area and the tent terraces. Later we paraded around Florence. Half the time we were freezing. Half the time we were starving. We came home on the bus. After missing our bus stop and being delayed at a store, we ate passable pizza and coke for dinner at the hostel. Later we played Star Wars RPG in a room with a red air pollution advisory. We retreated to the second floor landing followed by billowing clouds of cigarette smoke. -- Duncan

I again received the wrong change today. This is the fourth time this trip. Every single time it has been in our favor. -- Mark

The hostel insides are very ugly, but the outside is okay because the outside has a good garden. -- Maggie

January 14 - Florence - Michelangelo's David was horrible. It was unrealistic. First, David would be wearing clothes. Second, if he hadn't shot yet, he would be getting his sling ready, or if he had already shot he would be more energetic and happy. Third, his foot was right up against this log in a place where he wouldn't have it. Seemed like the log grew around his leg instead of putting his foot there. Finally, his hand that was holding the rocks was in a bad pose. The finger of the joint wouldn't be straight, if you were holding pebbles. I can't even make my hand get in that pose. As a statue of a man, I thought it was ugly, too. The guy wasn't handsome. His head was ugly. His hair helped make it uglier. It was just chiseled in big clumps that were sort of curly. -- Tote

I don't think David was good either, because they said a kid killed the guy, but that wasn't a kid. That was a man. -- Maggie

I liked the Rodin sculptures better. They showed more movement. Like you could see inside the people.You could see all the energy bound up inside. Michelangelo's David is realistic in style, though out of proportion. Rodin seemed more like he was showing the nature of the person. Like the soul of the human being rather than its physical form. Or it's both put together and kind of twisted up. -- Duncan

The big "artistic" hit of the day wasn't at the Galleria dell'Accademia, a gallery which houses the original "David." The big excitement was the discovery, upon our return, that the hostel was showing "Return of the Jedi."

I confess Accademia left me cold, too. David looks better outside, where its obvious flaws are less noticeable. And the copy standing in front of Pallazo Vecchio, where the original stood for centuries, is more interesting and beautiful. The rest of the collection is the cartoonish stuff apparently produced nonstop by the studios Medieval and Renaissance painters. I have tried to like this stuff. Aesthetically, most of it fails to move me. I skip these galleries in the Louvre. In the Prado, I like to stop and admire the size of the canvases, shrug at how much wall space is devoted to stuff that is so ugly and move on. In Venetian churches, rather than the ballyhooed Titian or Tintoretto or Tiepolo over the altar, I end up looking at the sculptures on the tombs. (An exception is Titian's "Assumption.") I have also tried to get engaged intellectually. Many popular descriptions of Renaissance painting begin by gushing over how Renaissance artists discovered "realism" and "nature." Give me a break. Sure, the background has changed - the gold paint of the Medieval altarpieces is often replaced by weird architectural concoctions. The strange collections of saints typically sport less clothing in the Renaissance paintings than in the Gothic, and the bodies aren't as flat. Yet, so much of this stuff is formulaic, cartoonish dreck. At its best, this art is beautiful though not particularly realistic or natural. At its worst, it's in the Accademia. -- Mark

January 15 - Florence - As we walked home to the youth hostel from the bus stop, we needed to walk up two dirt paths. On the second of these paths, toward the end, just before a muddy patch, I saw an inspiring sight, particular to that exact place, time of day, season, and year. I've notice how Titian and several other painters have managed to make light in their paintings really glow. Sunlight that backs their figures melds into a blue sky. I think the blue amplifies the shades of gold, orange, and yellow that create that "holy" light. What I saw on the path could easily be painted in such a style and if I had acrylics, I would give it a go. I saw the brown path, brown leaves, unnaturally green grass, and the goldest light possible coming through the trees in broad stripes, throwing all the rest into an angelic light. -- Duncan

Tote and I did algebra in the public library on Piazzetta Guelf. The building, now used as a library, existed as a church in 1036. The piazzetta was named for a political faction that was around in the 1200's. (Dante's family supported it.)

The "cold," tourist-battered people in Florence have been great to us. The fellow at the checkout of the self-serve place at which we lunched, told me I had "a beautiful family." The owner of a wine shop went on for five minutes, entirely in Italian, about the height progression of the children and the heights of his own grandchildren. When I went to pay for our first three days at the hostel, the folks running the place discussed things in Italian for several minutes, I heard the word bambini several times, and then spontaneously reduced our charge by $42. This gift was in addition to a rubber band Maggie used to make a slingshot from a y-shaped stick she found behind the hostel. Later, they lent Maggie scissors and tape and gave the kids discounted dinners. On our first night, when we were trying to find the correct place to hop off the bus, two people made sure we got off in the right spot, and an older couple pointed us in the direction of the hostel once we were off. Yesterday, an older woman showed us how to stamp our bus tickets. Twice today I have inadvertantly given a shopkeeper too much money. They both simply gave the extra back and then made change. Everywhere we've been, we've gotten cheerful answers to questions and good-natured help. -- Mark

January 16 - Florence - Today we went to the Uffizi gallery. The gallery was up on the top floor of the Medici's palace (the main rulers of Florence.) Inside the paintings were horrible, all centered on people and not a lot of details. Before we looked around in the museum, Dad gave us a mini-lesson on perspective. He told us to find a good piece of perspective and draw it flat and to find a flat piece and make it have perspective. I did mine of some columns and arches.

The famous paintings were not very good. The Birth of Venice (a lady standing on half a clam shell) was boring - a normal naked lady with people looking at her and an older lady saying "Behold" with a blanket. The only one I rated good was a painting of a village in the middle ground there were some pinnacles of rock. On one there was a castle, but on another was a little cottage. This painting was detailed and not centered on a person.

Over all, the Uffizi gallery is cool. I liked walking around in it. I liked doing the drawing. I liked the building. I didn't like the art. -- Tote

The Uffizi is wonderful. What a relief. I cannot describe how beautiful Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is in person. Everything is wrong with it - composition, theme, and style - but Venus is really stunningly beautiful. The Uffizi has a large number of secular works by the artists who produced so much of the innocuous wallpaper that fills the Accademia galleries in Venice and Florence. Tintoretto and Titian were remarkable portrait painters. The portraits seem to give a sense of their subject and carry suprising emotional weight. -- Mark

January 17 - Florence - Today, Tote, Duncan, and I went to the top of the dome. Dad and Mom did not want to go to the top, because it was $25 or 50,000 lire for all of us to go to the top. We saw all the machines used to build the dome. From the top you can see a whole bunch of the city, but what I liked the very most, was the three castles. -- Maggie

Mark: Monica, I am afraid people are going to thing I am some sort of art thug, because I don't like all of this stuff. First Versailles, now this Italian stuff.
Tote: People don't like it if you don't like the stuff in Italy, because Italy is known for art. If you don't like the stuff in Asia, they wouldn't care.
Duncan: My dad the art thug. That's pretty good.
Tote: Wait and see. When we get to Asia all people will want to know about is the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal and whether there were monkeys.

January 18 - Florence to Perugia
- I like Perugia. It's sort of an advertisment for the virtues of enthusiasm and credulity. Maggie and I go to buy bus tickets at the kiosk in front of the train station. When I ask how to find Piazza Italia, the woman at the counter smiles and says, "Don't worry." I ask her ask again, and she smiles again, as if delighted, and says, "You'll like it." She's charming and doing the best she can with English, so I can't bring myself to pester her anymore. I think to myself, "We've figured these things out before, and I'm sure we can do it again." Not exactly. The bus ride from the train station up the hill and through the walls of the old city is like a bobsled run in reverse. Imagine sitting on a bucking bronco while wearing a backpack and trying to keep track of the signs bouncing up and down and whizzing past the windows. It was hopeless. It was also pointless: when we reached the last stop, it was Piazza Italia, the bus stopped anyway, and we did like it.

We found a little hotel called (what else?) the Hotel Piccolo. The landlady doesn't speak a word of English but speaks Italian very slowly and believes we understand everything she says. Her slow pace and confidence work a miracle - somehow we do understand most of what she says. The tiny street running past our hotel spills out into a large, carless square where groups of young people chat and laugh in the cold. They're beautiful, rosy-cheeked, enthusiastic, and happy. I can't help catching their good humor.

The cathedral that forms one side of the square has a unique relic: Mary's "wedding" ring. It cannot be real. (As Duncan said one day about all the pieces of the "true cross" we've run across, "If all the pieces of true cross were put together, you'd have a cross the size of a Sequoia tree!") Yet, based on the number of gold and silver hearts thanking Mary for various things, if the ring isn't for real, lots of people believe that it is. Real or not, these folks believe Mary has decided to care for them. And what's the harm in believing the ring is real? Perugia has made me so mellow, I can't even argue with myself about it. (The ring is displayed only twice a year, and tomorrow is one of those days. Can't wait to see it.) -- Mark
January 19 - Perugia - Lasagna is better than any other pasta, but spaghetti is almost as good as lasagna, because you can eat the long noodles even if they aren't cooked. But I do like eating the tube noodles, because I like slurping the sauce out of the holes. Macaroni and cheese is good because you can stick the fork through the holes in the pasta, but I usually do not get four noodles on my fork even though my fork has four prongs. -- Maggie

January 20 - Perugia to Casacastalda - We mostly hung out inside the old part of Perugia, so we didn't realize just how spread-out and big Perugia is until we were on our way up the hills to Casacastalda (although it is a smaller city than Venice or Florence...it is known mainly as a university town.) Getting here, family of five with all our stuff and LOTS of groceries, was painless. We hired a cab, because it was cheaper than renting a car and the bus would have been impossible with all of our bags and the groceries. What showed up was the world famous Digicab which features a fax machine, VCR, internet connection, Playstation, bar, and super stereo. It cost the same as the regular cabs and everything fit in it, so we drove out into the hills in our Mercedes listening to classical music and enjoying the late afternoon, sun-lit landscapes. We were deposited in front of the Bank, and as we waited for Marco (the landlord who lives in a town 9 km from here) to arrive, we took turns walking up and down the streets to discover Casacastalda. It didn't take long. -- Monica

When we first arrived, we had no idea where to go. Dad called Marco, the person in charge of the house. After 30 minutes, Marco came with a car and drove us to the house. We had to make two trips, because we had so many groceries. The house was cold, so we turned on the heaters. Later in the evening we set a fire in the fireplace and cuddled up in blankets. -- Tote

Tote and I played in the fire until Mom made us go to bed, and she put out the fire. After about 20 minutes, we saw flickering light on the wall. Tote went to tell Mom the fire had started again. The huge piece of wood was grey ashes by morning. -- Duncan

January 21 - Casacastalda - Today was a long day in a good way. I had time to do anything I wanted and still have time for work. I did tons of stuff. I played with Duncan's Star Wars pieces, did journaling, looked through some picture books in the house about different people around the world, played on the bed, played in the park, went to the shop, went on a couple exploring walks in town, and did my math. -- Tote

Mark and I went for a run this morning....well, we did a lot of running down and briskly walking up some pretty steep hill roads. It was absolutely lovely. It was a sunny day today, a good Welcome-to-Casacastalda day. We even got to enjoy our caffe outside on the terrace. And at sunset, we took a family walk through a cemetery. -- Monica

January 22 - Casacastalda -
Monica: Maggie did you find cartoons on there?
Maggie: Yes.
Mark: Isn't it sort of weird that they're all speaking in Italian?
Monica: Why? Did you think that mice and cats only spoke English?

Mark: Mags was it hard to go shopping down there? You don't speak the language.
Maggie: No. It was easy. She knew we didn't speak the language, so she spoke slowly and pointed to things. I like going shopping. We got everything except pepper flakes and rosemary.

January 23 - Casacastalda - I saw the kids playing. I didn't know whether I should go down or not. So I waited at the balcony, and they kept on looking at me. So, I went down and opened the gate, and they talked to me. First we played soccer, and then we played tag. It was fun. Diego lives across the street - he's 9. There are two Anns, but I don't know where they live. -- Maggie

January 24 - Casacastalda - The postman brought Maggie a letter from her friend William. There were photos and an origami x-wing fighter! -- Mark

Today we walked to the top of a hill and had an art picnic....which means we ate a delicious lunch of sandwiches, chips, cookies, apples, nuts, wine, and water, and sketched, drew with charcoals, and painted with watercolors. Later, Maggie, Tote and Mark made arches with small flat rocks....experimenting with some of the math and architectural concepts we've been learning about. -- Monica

Mark: I think in one way it's easier here on the language front. I know I can't speak Italian, so I don't really try. In France it was an effort to try and embarrassing when I muffed it.
Monica: But you thought that was fun.
Mark: Yeah. I did. I think it was one of the best things so far.
Duncan: Like when you told the guy his feet were really stinky and heard all those words that weren't in your French book.
Mark: Duncaan!
Tote: I don't think the language classes they give you in school help. I think they just have them so the school can say that they teach the kids a foreign language but they really don't.
Monica: You might be right.
Duncan: They don't really teach you anything you need to know. What good is knowing that the word for cow is "vache."
Maggie: They should teach you things like how to talk with people, like "Hello" and "What are you doing."
Monica: How do you talk to the kids you play with?
Maggie: They just point and stuff.
Mark: Do you understand them?
Maggie: Yeah. I'm still going to learn Italian though.

January 25 - Casacastalda - I made some friends the first day we came. I was a little nervous, but when I came down all the kids gathered around me, then I was really scared. They were all talking and yelling at the same time. I felt like I wanted to run to Mom. Then we played soccer, and I was not scared at all. -- Maggie

January 26 - Casacastalda - Down the road and through two arches is a little shop. We go there every day to buy food. When we were in Perugia, we were told to stock up, because the shop was small. On arrival, we found out that the shop was not so small. (In fact, there's two shops.) In the shop, they sell fruits and vegetables, pasta, cheese, drinks, meat, toiletries, cookies, and yogurt. Usually Maggie and I go by ourselves with a little list from Mom. Maggie and I also get a piece of candy to go with it. The people in the shop are nice and don't get frustrated. Just yesterday we discovered that the man who works there speaks a little English. He asked us whether we wanted to borrow an umbrella and bring it back tomorrow. -- Tote

January 27 - Casacastalda - It is a nice switch to hang out in one place with no touristy things to do. We've been hiking, picnicking, taking runs, cooking and eating, learning math, reading and writing, and smiling and greeting folks. -- Monica

The store, newstand, barbershop, appliance store, church, bakery, and who knows what else do not have any signs on the outside. Some we have walked past again and again before discovering they are actually businesses. I wonder what else might be here. -- Mark

January 28 - Casacastalda - The sky here is so cool. Today, when we went on a hike, the sky started with billowy white clouds on a blue sky, then it turned different shades of grey. It looked like canyons and mountains from a satellite video of Venus. The clouds move so fast they look like ships entering hyperspace. -- Duncan

January 29 - Casacastalda - Rain, rain, rain in Casacastalda. I wish the weather would fold itself up and put this rain away. This rain discourages me from my run this morning. I think I'll cook up some eggs and fried potatoes first. -- Monica

January 30 - Casacastalda - When Duncan and I walked through the door of the barber shop, there was one fellow in the chair and another examining the soccer standings. When we left, two hours later, the barber had completed three haircuts: the original fellow in the chair, Duncan, and me. In the interim, we talked to and were talked at by six other men who passed through. The soccer fan left before the first haircut was finished. Another arrived, grabbed a pair of scissors from the "sterlizer," trimmed his own eyebrows and ears, and left. The only things we understood were the greetings, the word "good," that somebody was concerned about a Mandarin something or other, that the other fellows thought his Mandarin comments were very funny, that the barber had had his photo taken with Ms. Finland, and a debate about whether we spoke English, German, or Portuguese. (Portuguese?!) -- Mark

January 31 - Casacastalda - No heat or hot water this morning. The inside temperature at 10 AM is 60 degrees. We consider burning the furniture in the middle of the kitchen for warmth, but only briefly and not very seriously, since there is a fireplace. Our landlord tells me he willl be over at 3:30 to fix things. He actually arrives at 3, immediately repairs things, and volunteers to have the pros come check everything out later. By 7 PM, the inside temperature has risen to a balmy 62 degrees. Fortunately, there is hot water, and we know the house will be warm by morning. (It's not a good time for houses. In Denver, the basement in our house just flooded with sewage.) -- Mark

February 1 - Casacastalda - During our hike today, the snow was coming down so hard you could actually see the flakes land on your eyeballs. For fun we stood under trees and shook snow on our heads. Mom thought we were crazy. When we got home, Dad had cleverly managed to lock us out while trying to help the heating men. He said they all had a good laugh together but that didn't help him get in. Fortunately, we kicked slush from the terrace and watched it splatter while a new key was on its way. -- Duncan

Today, we hiked to the Castle Giamici again, but this time we walked a couple of kilometers farther. The swirling snowflake or two turned into a windy snowfall coming at us horizontally. We decided it would be wise to turn back. It was beginning to darken as we arrived home. It took me longer than the kids, in bed with tea and my book, to thaw out. This is our first snow on the trip. -- Monica

February 2 - Casacastalda - When I went to the bakery this morning, there were two other guys buying pies. I waited for three or four minutes and when it was my turn I bought three sweets. The lady said a bunch of stuff, but I didn't know what she said. I could tell she thought is was funny I was buying three sweets, because I was there by myself. I like going there, because everybody I passed was really nice. When I made a wrong turn, someone came up to me and said "Pane?" I said "Si," and then she pointed to the place, and I said "Grazie." On the way home, an old lady patted me on the head and said "Bella." That means beautiful. -- Maggie

My little running route each morning passes a farm which has lots of barking dogs, two dark brown ponies, five little black pigs which run up and down along the hill of a driveway, and three emus - my friends I talk to each day. I'm certain they're females, and I miss female company. It's hard not to speak the language. -- Monica

February 3 - Casacastalda -
Duncan: Wow Mom! This is a feast!
Monica: Well, I flipped on Italian TV this morning and caught part of a cooking show and got inspired.
Mark: You also watched some of the news, didn't you?
Monica: I can't believe they covered a lingerie show and a striptease on the news. They'd never show that in the States.
Mark: Except maybe on a soap opera. Did the news get you inspired, too?
Monica: I am not going to do a strip tease, if that's what you mean.
Duncan: Were those cooking guys in their underwear, too?

February 4 - Casacastalda - The kids and I took a walk in the hushed hours. No one was out. It was gray, cloudy, but mild. We saw two people in two hours. It made me wonder what people were doing inside their homes . . . Sunday visits, meals, homework, TV?

The bell on the town clock chimes every 15 minutes. The clock bells chang, chang, chang the number of the hour and then chink, chink, chink each quarter hour. A half hour before mass begins and again, maybe five minutes before, the church bells clang profusely. At that point, a few of the town's dogs start howling like crazy. -- Monica

February 5 - Casacastalda - I am very grateful to the Casacastalda shop lady who came running out of her grocery store to prevent me from loading us all onto a school bus, which in a momentary lapse, I thought was the bus to Perugia. How was I supposed to know it was a school bus? It was blue and a bus. It had no signs, of course, but neither does anything else we've needed to find around here. The bus schedule itself seems to exist only in the consciousness of the people of Casacastalda, who all know it by heart. After a couple days of trying to find a schedule, someone finally wrote down the times for the Perugia buses for us. There are only four a day. Just part of the ongoing comedy routine we are performing for the citizens of Casacastalda, despite their best efforts to look after us.

We took the bus to Perugia to fetch a rental car, because my mother is coming to visit. She claims I have twice left her standing at an airport gate after promising to pick her up. This is untrue, but it does raise the stakes for this particular rendezvous. (Once I had to take Monica to the hospital because she was in labor, and mom assured me she would have no trouble taking the airport bus. The other time, it was indisputably Ted's responsibility; I was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.) We plan to pick her up at the Florence airport tomorrow and drive her back here. Then we'll use the car to visit some of the hill towns around here that are accessible, but inconvenient, to visit by bus. -- Mark

We are going to trick Grandma when she comes. We are going to try to trick her by flash cards. I will race her, and here's how it's going to work. My dad is going to say, "Well, Maggie has not been working on her flash cards, so if you can, please work on them with Maggie." Then Duncan will say, "How about you race her?" Then I will beat her, because I know my flashcards really fast. -- Maggie

February 6- Casacastalda -
Mark: Monica, this map isn't great, but I think this is the turn up here. You need to go right.
Monica: Mark, it says left. That sign says left.
Mark: Oh no. That's right, you need to go left.
Grandma Hughes (from the backseat): Do you have a map up there or are you just guessing?
Mark: That's it. Great! We're doing great now.
Grandma Hughes: Wouldn't it be better to have a map? I at least would have a map.
Mark: We're really glad you're here, Mom.
Monica: Mark!

February 7 - Casacastalda -
Grandma Hughes: Do you have an Italian talk book around here?
Mark: You mean a phrase book?
Grandma Hughes: Yeah.
Maggie: Grandma wants to know how to say Grazie instead of Gracias. Grandma really needs a Spanish to Italian book!
. . .
Grandma Hughes: How do you say my package is stuck in customs in Genova? It's not in here.
Mark: Just give him the notice and a questioning look.
Grandma Hughes: No. I really want to try it.
Mark: Well, I guess we haven't entertained him recently. He'll get his laughs today.
Maggie: He'll go home at lunchtime and tell them "We had an old lady in speaking Spanish, today!"

At the art picnic, we played "thief." The thief has a long stick and gets a three-second headstart. The other people have to track the thief down and capture the stick. We were painting on a hill that goes down to a very steep part that had potholes in it. The thief always went down there, which was fun, because you trip and fall and it doesn't hurt. -- Tote

I beat Grandma. I got four more flashcards than her. Our trick worked. I wasn't nervous, because I got some that went to her first and then to me. -- Maggie

February 8- Casacastalda - In Valfabricca, the "big city" around here (it actually appears on some maps!), we were sitting in a bar drinking cokes and sodas and waiting for the laundry to open. We are never inconspicuous and today was worse than usual, since we walked up and down the streets asking for directions and then promptly heading off in the wrong direction in our search for the laundry. (Though there is no sign on the laundry the sign on the pizzeria inexplicably proclaims "Welcome to Navajo Country!")

While we were sitting there, a fellow came in bearing a postcard. He showed the postcard to the other men. A long discussion ensued during which they kept glancing at us. Finally, the bar man came over - the rest of the crew hovering in the background - to show us the card and ask whether it was addressed to us. It said something indecipherable and then Familigia on it. It turns out the fellow bearing the letter was actually the postman, and he was trying to deliver the postcard to us - the only unknown famiglia in sight. Amazing. Everyone, including me, was disappointed that we could not accept the delivery. -- Mark

February 9- Casacastalda - There are two St. Francis cathedrals in Assisi, because the people had an argument about which one would best represent St. Francis, so they built both. One is under the other one. The one on the bottom was my favorite even though I didn't think it best represented St. Francis. St. Francis tried to have a really simple life, and the bottom one seemed really complicated. It was dark and it seemed as if there were a lot more frescoes, because it wasn't as big. Under the bottom cathedral there was a tomb for St. Francis. It looked sort of like a Mexican restaurant. The walls were stone and plain - no frescoes. The lighting was indirect and it had an orangey glow. I really enjoyed looking at the frescoes and figuring out what they meant. It was really cool. In the bottom cathedral, above the altar there were four paintings showing the virtues - obedience, chastity, and poverty. The fourth one showed St. Francis in glory in heaven. The poverty one showed him marrying a woman who was poverty. At the bottom there were two small people throwing things at poverty. These little people were merchants, and they were small because they were unimportant. The upper cathedral had very high walls, so it was lighter and it just seemed a lot simpler. It didn't seem as detailed. -- Tote

February 10 - Perugia -
Our room in the youth hostel has bunkbeds and lockers, but the bathroom has a bidet. There are limits to how much Italians are willing to rough it. -- Mark

February 11 - Rome - The fountain was cool, because it was like a waterfall. We played griffins there. Griffins are big birds. Our nests were in the big carved rocks. -- Maggie

The best part about the fight in the pizzeria was the son's concern for us. The son yelled at his father to stop yelling, because the father's yelling was scaring "the family." When that didn't work he threatened one of the antagonists with his big, sharp, pizza-cutting knife. -- Mark

After we found our apartment, we just put down our stuff and went outside to do an overview tour of Rome, just to sort of see what there was, and we would go more in-depth in the next 9 days. First, we walked to the Colosseum which is two blocks away. Then we walked up a big street that would normally have tons of cars on it. It didn't, because today is Sunday, and there are no cars allowed in the historic center. Then we walked up the road and there were tons and tons of pedestrians and bikers, most of them had yellow balloons. We found out that it was an environmental group passing out balloons. There were also lots of kids in costumes throwing confetti; maybe it was some sort of holiday. We passed by the Roman Forum, and I thought we should stop there, but we kept going on the overview, much to my dismay. At the end of that road there is a big white marble monument that has fountains, statues, and lots of steps. Dad said it is a monument to Victor Emmanuel, the first king of united Italy. (Italy has only been united since 1870.) After walking through lots of little streets, we came to a big Neptune fountain, called the Trevi Fountain. There were tons of people all around it. Tote and Maggie and I climbed around until some guy told us to get off the rocks. We ate peanuts and jerky in our own little niche on the side. I liked the fountain itself, because it looks like a rocky beach after it's hit by a big wave, because there's water getting sucked out of the little pools. Then we did some other stuff, ate pizza, and went home. -- Duncan

There are arches everywhere! -- Tote

February 12 - Rome - Today we went to Palatine Hill, the hill that Rome was founded on. It's now covered in ruins of great palaces. I really liked the fact that although the ruins are really old, people today still know what they are. Duncan and I had alot of previous knowledge about the Romans, so we knew some things about the ruins. All that I had seen was in books, so I really enjoyed seeing the real things. My favorite part was the edge of the palace that overlooked the Circus Maximus. The Circus was bigger than I expected, and the palace was higher and larger than I expected. The idea of being able to be in your palace and watch chariot races from high above was cool. Chariot races didn't have many rules so there would be lots of crashes and smashes and lots of action. -- Tote

February 13 - Rome - One of the oddest things about St. Peter's is the enormous size of the place and the efforts the architects made to disguise the size - sort of an intentional, architectural oxymoron. From one end of the nave to the other is about three football fields long -- markers on the floor show how small other great cathedrals are compared to St. Peter's. The top of the dome is 390 feet above the floor. The canopy above the main altar is the height of a seven-story building. The enormous canopy can fit into the lantern - the "tiny" crowning nub on top of the dome. In one mosaic, St. Mark's pen is nine feet long. At ground level, there are six or seven foot tall cherubs holding basins for holy water. (Imagine a chubby, seven-foot cherub with a blank, stupid look on its face and a head swollen to three times as large as an adult human's. It's unnerving.)

Yet having built such an enormous church, the architects took great pains to disguise the size. For example, embedded in each of the huge "marble" pillars lining the nave (the pillars are painted to look like marble) are two enormous statues - one near the ground and the other near the ceiling. To the eye they appear equal in height and design. Yet, the architects have made the top statue about 21 feet tall while the lower statue is only 15 feet tall. This gives one the impression that the top statue is much closer to the ground than it really is. The lettering around the top of the whole church is in letters 6-feet tall. One doesn't typically encounter letters this big, unless you are in Hollywood. The kids and I didn't really believe the letters were that big until we did some rough measuring. This makes the ceiling appear much closer to the ground than it really is.

St. Peter's seems more a curiosity than a place for meditation or prayer. It is oddly bright. All the windows, save the one behind the altar, are clear. This and lots of electric lighting make the church brighter than every other church we have visited. The clear windows also let in bright beams that visibly cut through the air and create bright spots on walls and occasionally on statues. St. Peter's also has a nearly uniform interior design scheme. In many other old churches the walls and chapels are littered with mismatched memorials and frescoes and devotional paraphernalia. The buildings show the marks of human interaction. You can tell they've been used and loved. They may not be pure, but they are cozy. St. Peter's shows only a small bit of this interaction, including a bit of truly ugly modern art, but in the main the church has preserved the purity of its baroque gilt and marble. (If floating cherubs carrying papal tiaras put you in a spiritual mood, this is the place for you). This uniformity and light give St. Peter's a clean, bright look, but they also make it feel sterile. According to our tour guide, Bernini, the interior decorator, was trying to create a place that looked like heaven. If so, the saved will be mere spectators amidst the ornate glories of heaven. I couldn't escape the feeling that I was wandering around in an unnaturally clean train station. -- Mark

February 14 - Rome -
Duncan: Those Swiss guards are really from Switzerland, right?
Mark: Yes.
Duncan: And they're the Pope's army, right?
Mark: Yes.
Duncan: Does that mean they have Swiss Army knives?
(We asked. They don't.)

The most amazing thing is that we got to see the Pope up close. I never thought I would get so close to the Pope. I thought the only time I would see him would be with him high in a window and me like an ant in the plaza. I could see his humor and animation. It was wonderful to see that he was glad to be there and that he liked the people. I also liked our tourguide Penny. She's from England. She gave her information in such an interesting way. Even the things we had read in the books sounded better coming from her. I also liked the way she was dressed. She had on a nicely tailored pink jacket, dark skirt - slit to midthigh, pink tights, and a pink scarf. It was easy to keep her in sight. Walking home, I enjoyed seeing the vestment stores. I could imagine priests going in, trying on vestments, and checking out how they look in front of the mirrors. These shops were like the Armani and Diors of vestment fashion. -- Grandma Hughes

Duncan: St. Peter's was so undetailed. Compare the floor. The floor is a big part. In St. Peter's it was . . . .
Maggie: In San Marco . . .
Duncan: It was just big ugly blobs.
Maggie: In San Marco . . .
Duncan: In San Marco, they had really cool floors. And in the dragon bones church, too.
Tote: I've reached the conclusion, that Venice churches had the best floors.
Grandma: They're sanding the floors downstairs here. It looks nice.

Saint Peter's was really cool in some ways but pretty bad in others. The whole basilica was full of optical illusions to make it look smaller. The bad parts were: the front of the pillars were painted to look like marble. Saint Peter's had a gold ceiling like in all those ugly palaces. It really seemed like it was made for tourists, not a place of prayer. I really disliked the statues, they were too normal and ugly. We also went to a large auditorium and got the Pope's blessing. He work a white robe with a small skull cap. The Pope was really old, and he was a very slow walker, but he had really cool guards - the Swiss guards. The auditorium was huge and way too modern. -- Tote

February 15 - Rome - I loved just running around in the ruins of the Roman Forum. Tote and Mags and I chased each other around between parts of different ruins for three hours. We took a tour from a guy that reminded me of Cookie on the You Don't Know Jack computer game. I learned that the Roman basilicas were government places but weren't restricted to law courts. I also learned that the Romans made themselves puke by pushing a little bone in their ear, so they could eat some more. They had special rooms for it. One of the times they did it was during the Festival of Saturn - a big festival where everyone got gifts and everyone was treated equally. The slaves got served by their masters and got the day off work. Christmas has its roots in the Festival of Saturn. -- Duncan

What! Come closer while I tell you something about the Roman Forum. But, what is a Forum? Well, I only went to one. What was it like?. Well, the ground was higher than a temple had its door that you need a ladder right now to reach. But did you need a ladder then? No. I already made it clear that the ground was higher then. Go on, go on. I want to hear more about the Forum. I don't remember anything more about the Forum. -- Maggie

February 16 - Rome -
Mark: Mom, you've got some catsup on your face.
Grandma: Did I get it?
Mark: No, it's still there.
Grandma: How about now?
Mark: Do you have a napkin? Thanks. I'll just get it for you.
Grandma: What are you doing? Did you just spit on that? That's not healthy!
Mark: Who says it's not healthy?
Grandma: Who said it is?
Mark: You did, when I was a kid.
Grandma: Don't you know when someone is kidding? Get that thing away from me!

We went to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was made for a temple to all gods. Later in its history, the Pantheon unfortunately got turned into a church and all the bronze got carted away for St. Peter's. In the top of the dome was a hole where light came through. Mom said that's how the smoke from the sacrifices went out. Duncan pointed out that the light coming through the hole would make a good sundial. Dad pointed out that even though the Catholics weren't always happy with astronomers, they sometimes made parts of their cathedrals into sundials so they could find when Easter comes. A little away from the Pantheon was a square where there was an elephant with a large obelisk on its back. I was really mad when I saw that the Pantheon was made into a church, but in some ways it was good, like that it preserved it. -- Tote

Mark: "Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art . . ."
Duncan: Dad, stop it!
Mark: "Not in lone splendor hung . . . "
Duncan: What are you doing?
Mark: "aloft the night . . ." reciting Keats' last sonnet . . . "and watching with. . ."
Duncan: Why are you doing that?
Mark: "eternal lids apart . . ." Because Keats died here . . "like Nature's patient . . ."
Duncan: So, you're going to kill us, too!?

If you stand at the center of the Vittorio Emmanuel II monument, all of northern Rome is spread out before you. You can see everything. Actually you can see nearly everything. From the center, a single column completely blocks the view of St. Peter's dome. If the column were moved a few feet forward or backward, the great dome would be part of the skyline. Is the obliteration of St. Peter's a coincidence or intentional?

The Italian government completed the monument in 1911 to celebrate the unfication of Italy - something the Vatican had strenuously fought. Pius IX, protected by Napoleon III's troops, was able to keep Rome out of Italy until Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian War. When Italian troops finally entered Rome after the symbolic resistance of papal forces. Pius refused to accept that Rome was part of Italy and not a papal kingdom. He also refused to accept the result of a plebiscite in which the overwhelming majority of votes cast were for the incorporation of Rome into Italy. Instead, he withdrew to the Vatican and declared himself a prisoner. The papacy also forbade Catholics from participating in Italian governmental elections. The papacy did not make peace with Italy until 1922, after the facists had replaced the democrats and Italy's constitutional government.

Pius IX was a curious character with an eventful papacy. He promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, wangled the declaration of papal infallibility out of Vatican I, fought the unification of Italy and managed, through his absolute determination to maintain the papacy's secular authority, to lose it entirely. -- Mark

Marilyn: I'll have the spaghetti americano.
Waiter: Americano?
Monica: Amatriciana.
Marilyn: Am-eri-something. Whatever.
Waiter: Amatriciana?
Monica: Si.
Waiter: Grazie.
Monica: Prego.

February 17 - Pompeii and Rome - From the outside, looking in at Pompeii, all you could see was a big wall. It didn't look at all like a Roman town. But when we went through the gate, it looked totally like a Roman town. There were shops on both sides of the street. I really liked the wine sellers, because they had little dips in the countertops for the amphora. As we were walking down the road with the shops, we saw big rocks that were the height of the sidewalks. This was so people could cross the street when there was flooding, but when there wasn't the carts could go between the spaces. -- Tote

We went to Pompeii with Marilyn and Grandma. It was funny listening to Marilyn when we were on the way home. She didn't have time to select postcards, so she just grabbed a whole bunch. When Grandma got to the register, the guy said, "How many?" and Grandma said, "Three." When the guy asked Marilyn she said, "I don't know," because she had so many she didn't even count them.

My favorite thing in Pompeii was a giant stone pot, three feet wide. It was bulb-shaped - like the bulbs you plant in your garden. I can't imagine what it was used for, since they had amphorae for wine and other stuff. -- Duncan

We saw the wine places and the bakeries. I liked the hole in the rich peoples' house, because when it rained the water just went out through a ditch and out in a lead pipe. They already had a courtyard, so I don't know why they had a hole in their roof. Maybe for fresh air. -- Maggie

Monica and I wandered around Rome, stopping here and there for a beer or a glass of wine. At Campo de' Fiori, we watched the commemoration of the burning of Girodano Bruno. He was burned alive 401 years ago at the Campo by the Inquisition for believing that the Earth revolved around the Sun and other outlandish things and arguing that his ideas were not in conflict with the Church's teachings. It was odd to find ourselves sampling roast pork within sight of his statue. -- Mark

February 18 - Rome - On Sunday, we went back to the Vatican to see the Pope give his weekly blessing to the crowd in St. Peter's Square. Marilyn, Grandma, and Maggie all remembered to bring religious somethings to get blessed. The Pope's voice was very shaky. He appeared weary, weak, and old; as if he had aged since Wednesday. Maybe he needs a vacation. -- Monica

On the metro, I felt a hand reaching into my pocket. When I looked down, sure enough, there was someone's hand in my pocket. I grabbed it and yanked a bit. I genuinely couldn't tell to whom it belonged. Finally I identified the culprit. He had draped his coat over his shoulders in an odd way. The coat disguised whose hand was whose. There was also woman standing close behind him and glaring at me rather than him. I had safety pinned my pocket closed, so he didn't get my wallet. He looked baffled, but didn't yell or complain. Though the metro was really crowded, there was suddenly a space around the two of us. Then, I didn't really know what to do. The standard wisdom is to let them go, because pickpockets and thieves can harm you trying to escape. So, after checking that my wallet was safe, I let him go.

I felt pretty cocky. Then after I left the subway, I realized that my other pocket, which had contained about $3.50 was empty. I think the guy may have been a decoy, while the woman got me. Why would he have let himself be caught with his hand in my pocket? I don't think pickpockets are that dumb. Nonetheless, it was a minor loss and an interesting experience, though it temporarily spoiled my feelings about Italy. -- Mark

February 19 - Rome - The Vatican Museum seemed to have a collection more like the Accademia in Venice than like the British Museum. As usual, I liked the cuneiform stuff the best. The museum seemed small until we got in line for the Sistine Chapel. On the way to the Chapel we went through many more rooms that are used mainly for people to wait in line. I think they put the less popular stuff enroute to the Chapel, because no one would be stupid enough to fight through the crowd to see those things. The slightly more popular things, they put into the places where everyone was just waiting and shoving, so they would have some paintings to glance at. --- Duncan

St. Peter's dome wasn't as cool as the one in Florence, because in Florence you walked up the dome. You were walking straight up the dome like a bridge. This one, the dome was just curved on both sides of you. In Florence, we walked out of the dome onto a little balcony on the top of it. I think it was a bit taller and had a nicer view than St. Peter's. I counted the stairs going down with Grandma going down St. Peter's. Grandma and I got 505 steps. Tote got 503. Duncan got 510. We might have lost count where they were doing construction work on the steps. -- Maggie

The Sistine Chapel was alot more colorful than the last time I saw it, because it had been cleaned since I was there. The colors made it easier to see the stories, the paintings, and Michelangelo's art, but the Chapel as a whole made a different impression. The first time, when it was darker and less crowded, it made a quieter, richer impression. This time it was very crowded, like a tourist zoo, but the Last Judgment painting is stunning. I could tell that Michelangelo was older when he painted the Last Judgment than when he painted the ceiling. It has a much harsher view of man. Even Jesus looks very stern and harsh, not at all compassionate or spiritual.

When we descended from the dome, I had just enough time to get to the little chapel in the basilica that is set aside for those who have come to pray at St. Peter's. At 4:30 each afternoon, a priest leads Benediction, putting away the host, which has been displayed throughout the day. Several old nuns in blue habits led the Ave Maria off-key. I enjoyed the solitude and incense. (Mark was outside pacing off the dimensions of the elliptical square. The boys waited to compare stair counts with Grandma and Maggie. Marilyn wrote postcards in the Vatican Post Office.) -- Monica

Literally hundreds of tourists were jammed elbow to elbow into the Sistine Chapel, jabbering and exclaiming. Yet, regularly, a stern, recorded, voice asked the crowd to do the impossible and be quiet. I couldn't really see the point. -- Mark

February 20 - Rome -
The Colosseum wasn't as amazing as I thought, fewer seats, construction, and less info. But I still liked it. I liked the size, what was left, and many other things. Inside the Colosseum, there were tons of walls. These were the remains of underground rooms. (The bottom of the Colosseum was no longer there.) There was something that was not clear to me. When a gladiator had someone helpless, if was told to kill him, did he kill him? In some of the books I read there was someone with a hammer who killed the person. There were people who sprayed perfume to hide the stench of blood! -- Tote

The Colosseum wasn't as cool inside as I thought it would be from the outside. I thought there would be more to see. Gladiator fights happened here. Animals like lions and tigers and bears were kept in the bottom and lifted through trap doors by elevators, so they could pop out and scare the gladiators. Some of the animals were kept in deep, dark places with no food, so when they lifted them out, they charged for the people. -- Maggie

Italians, with the exception of one group, have been wonderful to our children (and to us!) Some Italian museum directors have apparently decided to balance their books by gouging kids. European kids are free at the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Accademia in Florence, and the Accademia in Venice, but non-European kids must pay full adult price. This gets expensive (and infuriating) quickly. -- Mark

February 21 - Rome to Brindisi to the Adriatic - We took a Eurostar train from Rome to Brindisi. We hugged our good-byes with Grandma and Marilyn Sheahan in the dawn, outside the Colosseum. Grandma left soon after by taxi to the airport. Marilyn is staying one more day. -- Monica

Outside the train there are bright yellow flowers, ancient olive trees with trunks that I wouldn't be able to get my arms around, and fifty yards away, a deep blue sea. Across the aisle, the kids are clustered around Monica, trying to learn the Greek alphabet from a phrase book. In Brindisi we catch a ferry to Patras, Greece and then figure out how to get to Athens. -- Mark

Greece - February & March 2001 (Greece photos) (back to top)

February 22 - Athens - Greek food seems to have lots of spices and additions to make different flavors. But the flavors don't all hit at once. One hits and then another comes later. The second flavor seems to be the strongest. -- Duncan

Our guidebook describes our hotel as "newly renovated," with "welcoming owners," and awards it the book's highest rating. We literally have trouble finding it amidst scaffolding and huge construction sites. One enormous project, something having to do with the new subway, is right across the street. The work is dirty and noisy. When I ask to look at the room, the owner scowls at me, and she doesn't stop even after we decide to stay at least one night. "Newly renovated" apparently has a different meaning in a city where the major attractions were built 2500 years ago. The hotel has contact paper instead of linoleum on the landing, or perhaps it is just very thin linoleum, since it moves underfoot. The stairwell is dark and the renovation did not include painting any wall a single color or filling any of the holes in the walls. Our rooms do have balconies and a view of the Acropolis, though there is sometimes a crane in the way, and our room is clean.

We spend part of the afternoon, trying to find a better hotel. In the process we look at about seven other hotels. All of them are either dumpier or in the $90 to $100 range. Lunch costs $40. So much for "inexpensive" Athens. We decide to stay (and eat more sandwiches.) -- Mark

Hotel owner: How are you?
Mark: Well. Thank you.
Owner: How did you sleep?
Mark: Do they work all night across the street?
Owner: Yes. They say they are in a hurry to finish. After three years.
Mark: The room is okay, but you should have mentioned the construction when I called.
Owner: But if I mentioned it, you wouldn't come here.

For lunch, we decide to have a picnic on the balconies and watch the construction. It is rather interesting. As far as the kids are concerned, the construction site is a good thing. -- Mark

In Rome, I saw roaming cats . . . here it's dogs . . . big ones . . . but they appear well-fed and non-threatening. -- Monica

At first, when Duncan and Maggie came home and said "We got you a gyros with chicken with onions, tomatoes, onions, and sauce," I thought I would just take off the stuff I didn't like, but I didn't see how I could take off the sauce. But when I tried it, I really liked it. -- Tote

February 23 - Athens - This morning I ducked into the Mitropoli Cathedral across the street. I watched as people, old and young, traditional older folks, and youngish student-types, made the sign of the cross three times and then kissed the glass in front of each shrine, relic case, or metal plaque. There were lipstick marks, lip marks, and finger prints on each glass pane. It was dark but hushed. Finally, I too gave it a whirl. I stepped up to a Madonna and Child shrine and almost touched my lips to the glass, as I made the Greek Orthodox sign of the cross three times, then brought my fingers up to my mouth. -- Monica

It's Carnival time. Lent begins on Monday. Many people are walking around in costumes. For the most part, kids wear packaged Halloween-style costumes of cowboys and superheroes, and adults wear the sort of goofy, multi-colored hats we associate with snowboarders, though the hats are made of plush, velvety stuff and not fleece. Both groups carry brightly colored plastic clubs or hammers and gleefully whack any similarly-armed passersby whether they know them or not. -- Mark

February 24 - Apollonia, Sifnos - After I took Mom's seasick remedy, I was fine for a half hour. Then, I started to feel sick, and I said to myself, "I better try to fall asleep." But I couldn't sleep well, so I just got queasy and felt like I was going to throw up. I went upstairs to play with Tote and Maggie. That helped. The best part was just staring off into blackness. You couldn't distinguish sea from land. When Tote and I were talking, we sounded so poetic without trying. I said, "The wake stretches back into interminable darkness," and Tote said, "into the inky black it runs." Then suddenly, the lighthouse on Sifnos flashed on. Then it disappeared, and the whole world was black again. -- Duncan

Tote: This is the cleanest subway station.
Monica: It's beautiful. There's no graffiti.
Tote: And there won't be any graffiti as long as those guys with machine guns are guarding the place.

My estimation of Athens fluctuates like a teenager's hormones, and I feel about as rational. When our hotel turned out to be in the middle of a construction site, I cringe. When the man in the sandwich store tentatively speaks a bit of English, I am happy. When I convert the lunch bill to dollars, I despair. When the restaurant owner next door calls the kids over to give them Carnival streamers, I am happy. The sunlight and the Acropolis and the lovely little squares are stunning. Yet, Athens is more crowded, more English-speaking, and more challenging than it was 20 years ago. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable here. Part is familiarity with travel. Part is the sunshine. Part is Greece. -- Mark

February 25 - Apollonia, Sifnos - I do not believe it is possible for a Greek to cook a bad meal. -- Monica

I made my first friend. His name is Kryspin. He's Polish. He has a sister named Natalia. She's only one year old. She does not cry much, and she plays with her shoes. -- Maggie

February 26 - Apollonia, Sifnos - Monica and I walked to Kastro, a tiny town atop a fortuitous hill near a small, but very sheltered harbor. Saving the churches, which are always open, everything in the entire town was shuttered and closed. We walked up and down and back and forth through the town for 45 minutes without seeing any signs that anyone else was there. No people and only the sound of the wind. Then, just as we turned to head out of town, a kite appeared and then the head and shoulders of a boy trying to get it airborne. He paid no attention to us, not even glancing in our direction. The only sound was the rattling of the paper kite in the wind. When we reached home, we saw a kite just above the crest of the hill; its tail dancing furiously in the breeze. I watched it, half-hoping and half-believing that I would see the boy rising into the air at the end of the kite string and floating, disappearing, off across the horizon. -- Mark

Mark and the kids have gone off to the couple of shops that are open here in Apollonia with my list of food items to look for. We must be like robins to these folks, very early arriving foreigners. All the shops, caffes, restaurants, etc. which normally cater to tourists and travellers are closed up until the season begins again. Kastro seems a ghost town. Here in Apollonia, the largest little town on the island, there are two small food shops, a wonderful bakery, and a tiny fruit and veggie shop. We've heard there's a meat shop (I put goat meat on my list, so I'll see if the intrepid shoppers find it), a pharmacy, 2 cafe/bars, a library (which Duncan has checked on three times already this morning - the sign we've decoded says it should be opened from 10 -2, and then again 4 - 8....only it's not open) and many, many Greek Orthodox churches. There are many other small shops, restaurants, and cafes which I imagine will be lively, tourist spots come summer, but at the moment are simply more blank storefronts. -- Monica

February 27 - Apollonia, Sifnos - It's a bright sunshiny morning. I'm in bed with the computer and a cup of tea. The house is quiet; Mark is beside me with "Women in Love," which we have been making fun of because the characters are so intense and the word "loins" is used several times on each page. The birds are singing outside, and I can see the sea and neighboring islands in the hazy distance. -- Monica

February 28 - Apollonia, Sifnos - Dad gave us a quest. First we were featured in one of Mom's dreams (made up by Dad.) We were the creators of a world called Lyric. I was Earth; Tote, Air; and Maggie, Water. We first needed to go to the library to get a clue from Dad. Then we asked the librarian for our map. We had to ask in Greek. When we had the map, we went down to find a bottle of Fanta - the water prize. Tote found it behind a rock down on the trail to Kastro. It took us forever to find the air prize. It was night when Maggie finally found it. The following day, Tote and I quickly found the earth prize - a bag with three chocolate bars in it. After our saving of Lyric, Dad is thinking of making a new quest. He's been looking for chalk to make hints that will wash away. -- Duncan

Everyone here seems to greet everyone else that they meet. If we're walking we say "Good morning" or "Hello" in our fractured Greek and always get a greeting in return and most often a broad grin. When we wave to people in cars or on motorcycles, they beep. Even the bus driver gives a loud diesel honk, when we nod or wave. -- Mark

March 1 - Apollonia, Sifnos - All over Sifnos, there are little churches. Inside, they have a little wooden wall between the main church and a little back room. Sometimes there's swinging doors and sometime curtains and sometimes both that separate the main church from the little room. On the wall are tons of pictures and some religious icons. Also, usually on a window sill, is an oil lamp with all the stuff for it - wicks and matches and oil and water. There's also a little cup in front of the wooden wall where you burn your incense. Dad tried to burn some incense and instead burned his finger. There's also usually a pedestal filled with sand, and you light candles and put them in the sand. -- Tote

March 2 - Apollonia, Sifnos - Duncan offered me a dollar to pull a rope we found inside a church. When I looked outside, I realized it was connected to one of the church bells. I didn't pull it. -- Tote

One of the things Monica enjoys most is sampling local food and wine. Today, we walked into Kamares for lunch, and she ordered a local retsina wine. Retsina has a strong taste of pine sap that often provokes gags and allusions to turpentine among the uninitiated. This version combined the unique taste of retsina with a distinct yeasty smell, reminiscent of African palm wine. The cloudy cast indicated either that the wine was spoiled or that it was truly authentic. We pronounced it authentic and enjoyed it. -- Mark

March 3 - Apollonia, Sifnos - I venture to say I have been in 25 churches here on Sifnos. I have never yet met another person in any of them. One guidebook says there are 365 churches and 2500 residents. Come Easter, the tourist season begins. According to one of the island's three doctors, there may be 21,000 people here during the summer. -- Monica

March 4- Apollonia, Sifnos - I played with my friend Crispin, today. Crispin is a four-year-old boy who lives here. We play a bunch of games, and they change every day. He speaks in Greek and says in English "Good Morning!," when he kicks the soccer ball. -- Maggie

March 5 - Apollonia, Sifnos - Yesterday, we went to Artemonas. Artemonas is practically the same city as Apollonia. We walked up the main stairs which is the old road. They lead past a lot of churches. On the way we passed a huge wall of a succulent bush. Maggie has been using the same kind of bush to make pretend "fishes." Duncan attempted to climb the bush, but slid down, because they were succulent. When we got to the cafe, we ordered a soft drink and Cheetos. -- Tote

From the semi-whitewashed monastery atop the highest hill on the island, we could see the white towns of Sifnos sprawled below us on the terraced hills. Beyond the island, we could see other isles nearby in the low, distant, sea-shrouding clouds. -- Duncan.

This morning we climbed up to the highest point on the island . . . the deserted monastery and Profit Elias church. After the hot climb, the dark, cool inside of the church was very welcome. We ran into a couple of local young men and their two friendly dogs. They told us locals go up there in the summer, on weekends, and do restoration work.

I truly enjoyed our hike down. I like to hang back in the quiet of an afternoon hike. . . Mark and Maggie telling "Gaba Stories"; Tote and Duncan deep in plans, ideas, and conversations. I get to revel in the birdsongs and wildflowers. Right now, there are many spring wildflowers . . . purple, yellow, blue, white, and pink. -- Monica

There is a wall around the monastery, and in the wall, there are rooms for monks to stay overnight. There is a kitchen where you are invited to make coffee. In the middle is a church. Inside, the church is like all the other churches but is a little bigger. On either side of the church are stairs so you can get on the roof of the walls. Mom cut apples and drank coffee up there, while we learned it was okay to ring the bells. So, we rang them hard. -- Tote

March 6- Apollonia, Sifnos - Today we went to the beach. The public bus is also a school bus, so the driver arranged some of the troublemaking kids in seats up front. He also waved a stick at one of them, but he was smiling. The water was really cool, it was blue with black lines moving on it. The black was the shadows of small waves. When we were ready to go, Dad and I skipped rocks. I had one that skipped really far. Then we smashed my sand buildings and went home. -- Tote

March 7- Apollonia, Sifnos - Today was unusual because it was overcast and cooler. In the evening we walked up to Artemonas to play hearts in a taverna. -- Monica

Tote and I go to the bakery every day to buy cookies and bread and sometimes baklava. I like the cookies the best. They are chocolate chip cookies with holes in the middle. The chocolate chips are on the top. Today we are going to get 10 cookies of one kind, ten of another, and bread. Tote talks in Greek. He says "ten" and points to the cookies. He doesn't say "thank you" all the time but I do it. He also says "good morning" or "hello." -- Maggie

March 8 - Apollonia, Sifnos - As we walked along the ancient stone pathways of Kastro in the late afternoon, the syrupy, sweet smell of baklava alerted us to a nearby bakery. It was the only open door we'd seen. The few times I've been to Kastro were eerie reminders that the island has few permanent residents and, until the tourists return, people generally remain shuttered in their houses. Inside the bakery we startled the young man listening to his radio . . . the children bought delicious cookies (including a local specialty, amigdalota . . . an almond cookie . . . almonds are so much more flavorful here than I've ever tasted before), different from the ones they buy daily at our local bakery in Apollonia.

After hiking hillside paths along the cliffs north of Kastro in the strong winds and overcast skies, we stopped again at the cafe in Artemonas for a "special drink" and a chance to play hearts together. Then we traipsed home in the dark, illuminated by the almost full moon. -- Monica

Try this in front of a mirror. Nod to yourself. Now, tilt your head about 30 degrees toward one shoulder and nod again. Didn't the second way look friendlier than the first? That's the way people greet us around here. -- Mark

March 9 - Apollonia, Sifnos - The milk is white and creamy and makes a milk mustache. When I look out the window, I see olive trees. I see the water and the waves crashing against the rocks. I can feel bumpy brick and soft leaves on my fingers. I smell sea water. I can smell flowers. I can smell mud and dirt that I want to play in. I can hear birds chirping, and I can hear motors from the road. I hear goats and roosters, and I can hear goat bells. -- Maggie

We went to the beach. Tote and Mom and I ran. Maggie and Dad took the taxi to meet us and bring food. When we got there we walked along the beach, because Mom insisted that we check out what the town was like before we played. Of course Mom had to stop to check out the church on the shore right in front of the clump of buildings that are the town. On the way to check out the town, we passed the coolest silver sand, like it had mica in it. When we got it on our hands and looked at it in the right light some pieces of it were clear. The beach had the clearest water ever. It was so clear it didn't even make sense how clear it was. When you looked at the water from far above, the water was just really light blue. There were also patches of seaweed that made these dark splotches in odd shapes. They looked kind of like ripped up clouds. We took the bus home. He was a little early so he waited in case anyone else was coming. -- Duncan

Maggie and I took the taxi to Vathi. Neither the driver nor I had the correct change, so the driver said "Pay tomorrow," as if it is the most natural thing in the world and drove off with a smile. -- Mark

March 10 - Apollonia, Sifnos - The past two weeks have sped by. Tomorrow is our last day on Sifnos. I've loved it here. . . the bright sunshine, white clouds, blue sky and water; whitewashed houses with lemon trees, terraced hillsides with small flocks of goats or sheep amidst olive trees . . . tiny orthodox churches, larger blue-domed churches, and deserted monasteries on hilltops or cliffs overlooking the sea. The sounds of goat bells, braying donkeys, church bells, the greeting honks of buses and cars. -- Monica

Today we went to Christopigi, a monastery right at the end of a peninsula. Actually, it's an island but a bridge connects it to the mainland. The first thing we did was go down to the swimming area. We felt the water, and it was really cold, but Dad didn't hesitate and jumped in. His face totally changed and he swam back to the platform really fast. Then we said "1,2,3" and Dad and I jumped in, but Duncan didn't. Later Duncan and I jumped in together and claimed an island for ourselves. -- Tote

March 11 - Athens - We took the "Flying Cat 4" back to Athens. The Flying Cat is a catamaran. It has two hulls. It goes superfast. When we went to Sifnos, the ferry took us five and a half hours to get there, but coming back it was only two and a half. Despite its speed the Flying Cat was one of my least favorite ships. It had nothing but seats on board, and the only entertainment was slapstick comedy and soap operas in Greek on TV. I read my book Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It is very good and well-written. -- Duncan

Back at our hotel near the construction site, the only question is whether the linoleum, sheets, or walls are thinnner. The kids have a beautiful terrace with a really nice view of the Acropolis, though as Tote points out, when the crane passes overhead the giant cement counterweights swing lightly to and fro. It is now after midnight. I am hoping the fellow next door, who sounds like he is from Alabama, will get his personal life in order and get off the phone. -- Mark

March 12 - Athens - One of the places that I end up meeting locals is at internet cafes. Most of the "cafes" are not cafes at all. They don't serve tea or coffee or anything else. They are usually just collections of computers in a room or two, though some, like some in Barcelona, are huge collections of flat screens with the computers tucked away in some clumsy looking, but supposedly more secure, cabinet. (With one or two exceptions, it seemed like Barcelona's cafes were set up by some paranoid who believes Netscape is the only program worth running on a computer.) The room is typically relatively new, just like the cafe itself. The places are also used by locals, not just by tourists. In bigger cities, tourists wander in, check their e-mail, and wander out but usually don't stay long.

The people in internet cafes and the people who run them are interesting to talk with. They are usually young, ambitious, and speak English. They also tend to be a bit bored. The patrons, too, generally speak English. In fact, internet cafes are one of those places where you routinely find non-native English speakers, usually students, chatting in English. Here in Greece, I can overhear a conversation between two Greeks and an Italian student about the relative merits of girls from France, Italy, and Greece.

Another nice thing about internet places is that the people in them can often give good advice to a tourist. They rarely have a "brother," "cousin," or "friend" who is a guide or runs tours, a restaurant, a hotel, or a souvenir stand. They come from a different background, and as students or recent students, they are cheap and assume everybody else is too. -- Mark
March 13 - Athens - On the way home from dinner, we began passing rows of police in riot gear. As we continued along embassy row toward the parliament building, the police presence increased, as did the tension in the air. We asked a couple of policemen what was going on and whether we could walk toward Syndagma Square toward our hotel. Two guys were so tight-lipped and tense, we just walked on. One guy told us to go right and avoid the Square. The number of police was amazing. They pretty well had the demonstrators surrounded. -- Monica

Man: Albanians! Phew!
Mark: What?
Man: Albanians! We give them freedom and everything else, now they want more!

At the War Museum, I liked the models of the boats. One had smoke coming from it. The boat was on fire. The other boat had people leaning off the sides using Greek flame throwers, called Greek fire. -- Maggie

It is amazing that Athens will host the 2004 Olympics. Athens is a wonderful place, but I cannot comprehend how it will ever be ready. Simply to patch the dangerous holes in the squares and sidewalks might take years. Syndagma Square, the one in front of the Parliament Building and arguably the center of the city has chunks of missing marble and at least a few narrow, foot-deep holes randomly scattered about. Some blocks in the modern part of town might have sidewalks of six different vintages, all in tatters. Some of the buses are new, but some - like the one we took from the bus terminal - are of 50s or 60s vintage. The hotel rooms we saw are the sort that people write home about. Once the Olympic prize gouging starts, there will be world records set for highest price ever paid for a crummy hotel room. But the biggest puzzle is the air. Air is something athletes cannot do without, and Athens is rather short on it. This evening we climbed a big hill in the center of Athens. The whole city spread out around us, and all of it was covered by a ghastly yellowish-brown haze. The airborne muck obscured buildings only a few kilometers away. Although the sea is close, it was invisible behind a grey-blue cloud. It wouldn't surprise me if some athletes decide not to compete in Athens just to avoid the air. -- Mark

March 14 - Athens - I'm sitting at a cafe drinking my good orange juice. It's fresh orange juice, and it's all pulpy and not sweet. I know a lot of people in my class would not like this juice . . . they like sweet orange juice with no pulp. There must be a rule here about how to drink orange juice. It has to be in a tall glass with a rounded bottom. And you drink it with a black, plastic straw. I'm wondering how many oranges were squeezed for my drink. I saw a lady make my drink with three oranges the first time I ordered it. I think when I'm finished, I will go over and play on the square. -- Maggie

Mark: How are you doing?
Restaurant Owner Near Entrance to Our Hotel: Tired.
Mark: Isn't that what coffee is for?
Owner: Have you tried one of these?
Mark: It's a frappé, isn't it?
Owner: Yes.
Mark: No. But I've seen people drinking them everywhere. It's Nescafe and some other things, right?
Owner: Yes, with sugar and cream or ice cream and sugar. It's very, very popular now. It's for lazy people.
Mark: Lazy people?
Owner: Yes. A guy orders one of these and he can read the paper for an hour or so. A greek coffee . . . five minutes and it's gone. So, it's for people who aren't in a hurry to get to work.

March 15 - Athens to Cairo - We arrived in Cairo at sunset. Maggie saw the pyramids out the plane's window at dusk. Disembarking at the airport, getting our visas, and going through customs was totally painless. Then we went outside to find a bus to downtown Cairo. There was a bit of confusion, but we were soon on our way. And what a way it was! I went through a range of emotions. First, I was excited: "Oh my goodness I'm in Egypt! Cairo! This is so fun. The kids are tired, but we've got our hotel reservation at the famous Windsor Hotel . . . this is great!" The driver drove the big, air-conditioned bus like a taxi driver. We drove fast, the horn constantly alerting all other drivers and pedestrians, braked suddenly, almost hit all the other cars and buses, and almost hit all the people trying to cross the roads. I watched, sometimes I laughed in disbelief . . . then I found it sobering . . . the throngs of people, the noise, the pollution, the number of vehicles, the pace, the stimulation. We saw two kids riding outside on the back of a commuter train, smiling from ear to ear, while two older kids sprinted to catch the train and then jumped inside the open door. Finally we arrived. We hopped out, as well as one can hop with a full, heavy backpack on one's back carrying a full, bulging daypack up front. We trudged a few blocks from the bus stop to the Windsor. I thought the Windsor would be old and charming like the Continental in Tangiers. Instead it was just tattered and frayed. We had to dicker over the price for our rooms - a matter we thought we had settled on the phone. -- Monica

Every time we leave Athens, Maggie gets a gift. This time she it was a set of worry beads and a foil flower (folded from cigarette wrappers) from the owner of the restaurant next to our hotel. -- Mark

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