Thursday, May 28, 2009

5.28.09 Napoli

Melba is not feeling well at all – she was up for a good part of the night with a terrible cough. If there was a good place to get sick I think Napoli is it – there isn’t a whole lot that we want to see here. We slept in until about 9ish. We were woken up by emergency lighting and a broadcast by the ship captain that the engine powering the ship had failed so the ship had no power. I can’t remember the cause, but they started a different engine and restored power to the ship within about 15 minutes. We went to breakfast around 10 and thought that once Melba had something to eat she would feel better. Well, breakfast didn’t help much.

We came back to the room and Melba slept. I looked over the Lonely Planet guide and found some spots right next to where we were docked that I thought would be fun to go see. Melba slept until around 1 and I convinced her to get ready and go. We left the boat around 1:45 and saw the 4 sisters as we left. They told us about a train that would take us to the top of a nearby mountain where we would could see Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The train was pretty close to the ship as well so we decided to go there instead of what I had initially planned (I wanted to see a cathedral, opera house and piazza).

Getting to the last train stop on the mountain was easy but I had to ask directions to get to the top of the mountain. There was an old castle there called St. Elmo’s Castle. We bought tickets to go inside and went up the elevator. Inside, we met a really nice Italian family from Napoli who are currently living in Germany, but have come back here for a vacation. I talked to the Dad for a while – he asked how I spoke Italian so well and when I said I was a missionary he immediately knew I was Mormon. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Funny how we were able to figure that out. He spoke English fairly well, albeit broken, and we talked for a little while longer – they headed back, but we stayed to look around some more.

The view from the castle was amazing. At least as good as the one from Tuscany. It was a bit foggy and rain clouds were coming in, but we could still see for miles. Mount Vesuvius is huge and in the distance we could barely see the Isle of Capri. We walked around the castle some more and then headed back. We ended up spending about 3 hours in Napoli and it was really nice. The Lonely planet guide said that crime was really high and to be very careful – but I only noticed friendly Italians. We didn’t have any problems.

I might be coming down with whatever Melba has. My throat is getting really sore. Melba seems to be getting worse. She was really light-headed walking back to the ship and has gone to bed. No dinner for her. We might order room service (it’s free on the ship) but I’m going to wait a little while longer to see if she feels well enough to go to the dining room.

Tonight we need to pack our bags and leave them outside our door for the crew to take. We will get on the bus tomorrow morning at 8:15am and it will take us to the airport. From there, we will get on the Marriott shuttle to the hotel. What we do tomorrow depends on how we feel. I think we’re going to try to do the rest of Vatican City that we didn’t get to our first day in Rome. We’ll see. We’re actually staying in Rome for the weekend to save money – plane tickets to Dulles any day on Fri-Sun were at least $1,000 per person compared to what it would cost to fly home on Monday. So it’s not like we’re spending a bunch of money to be in Rome and may not be able to do anything.

We just got back from dinner – we went to the cafeteria style dinner room as opposed to the main dining room. Same food, mostly, but a much more casual environment. They had lamb and it was delicious. I went back for seconds and thirds. We enjoyed eating dinner while cruising along the coast of Italy and seeing the small islands alongside the ship. Now we’re back in our room and ready to start packing. This will be the last post until we get back into Pennsylvania. I’ll post more pictures then – for now, I don’t have enough internet minutes left to upload them (it takes a long time).

It’s been a fantastic cruise – except for getting sick. I’m now as sick as Melba was two days ago and I hope I still get to enjoy Rome. Ciao-

From Melba: I’m feeling a lot better now after a good nap and dinner. At dinner, we were talking about our favorite ports of call and realized we loved all of them. Some highlights from each port: climbing to the top of the Duomo in Florence, then eating a bona fide Italian lunch; running off the train to see the leaning tower in Pisa, then making it back before the next train left in an hour; beautiful, scenic, affluent, snobby, my-yacht-is-bigger-than-your-yacht Monaco; Picasso, Gaudi and the Medieval fair in Barcelona; going to church, meeting Bill, and eating gelato in Palma de Mallorca; the mosaics, Roman baths, and the view in Tunisia; the mosaics in Cappella Palatina in Sicily; and the view from the top of the castle in Napoli. Around the boat, our favorites are the four sisters (Susan, Linda and identical twins Betty and Janet), Whinny and Gaston, other people we’ve met at dinner and around the ship, the towel creations every night, the shows – especially the magic/acrobatic show Mysteriaque, the food!, line dance classes, butter mints and popcorn after dinner every night, leaning over the railing on the promenade deck to look at the water. But MOST of all…I’ll never ever forget the belly flop contest!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5.27.09 Palermo

I’m currently sitting in the Sports bar on the ship frustrated because we can’t get ESPN – that is where the Champions League Final match is being broadcast. We can get ESPN2 – but that’s just showing the French Open. I’m so frustrated right now. In fact there are seven other people in the bar just as upset as I am. I may run back to the room just to see if we can get ESPN there – I don’t think we do, though. The bartender just called the Casino Manager who called the Broadcast Tech who is trying to get ESPN. I’m crossing my fingers that they can pull this one off. At the start of the trip Melba wondered why I wasn’t going to catch a train to Rome from Palermo and go watch the game live. Well, the answer is that I have no idea how to find the stadium and I doubt I could get tickets – even if I could, I’m sure they would be EXTREMELY expensive. Rome is probably filled with people right now just partying outside of the stadium – even there were any tickets available, they would be gone in a heartbeat.

Today we decided to be lazy. We’re both pretty worn out and we looked at the Lonely Planet guide last night and there wasn’t anything that really appealed to us. It did say that the premier tourist attraction in Palermo was the Cappella Palatina which is in the center of the city. There were also some museums so we decided to head there.

The port is about a mile from the city center so we were able to head out on foot. Right from the get-go we were approached by people wanting to sell us cab rides. Once we got past them we were approached by people wanting to give us horse and carriage rides. It turned out that the horse and carriage drivers were all over town and they approached us every time we passed one. The city was really dirty and run down – I was actually surprised a bit by this because I thought it would have been better kept.

The main square in town is really amazing – the corner of each building is decorated with lots of statues of religious figures – what you expect in Italy. I commented that we don’t have anything like that in the States and Melba commented that even if we did the ACLU would demand it be removed immediately.

One corner of Quattro Canti – the city center of Palermo

We continued on a bit further and visited the main cathedral in Palermo. Nothing too special – but it was big and nice. It was also cool inside. The humidity is awful here and it was really hot.

Well, it’s official – I won’t be watching the Champions League Final because this stinking ship with all of its technology can’t get a live broadcast of ESPN. I am so upset/mad right now. We saw apartment buildings in Tunisia that were falling apart and our tour guide pointed out that they still have satellite dishes just to watch soccer – people would rather watch soccer than have four walls underneath their roof. These people are watching the game and I am not. This is so frustrating… Barcelona is up 1-0 in the 20th minute. I wish I could be watching. Oh, well.

OK, I’m done venting. Back to what we did today. We chilled in the cathedral (literally) for a while in the cathedral and then headed for the Cappella Palatina. We stopped to look at the Lonely Planet guide map and I noticed that the Cappella closes for lunch from 12-2. We had a late lunch and we weren’t ready to eat yet so we looked at few other places nearby that were open – just to kill time. We headed back to the Cathedral to look at their treasury and crypt. The treasury had some really beautiful pieces that dated back to the 16th and 17th century. Lots of jewels in the shape of crosses, gold and silver goblets, and clothing worn by the diocese from that time. It was weird to look at these things and think that they were made before the Declaration of Independence was written.

The crypt was kinda cool, but kinda weird. There were about a dozen or so stone caskets down there that mostly dated back to the 15th and 16th centuries. One of them was for a priest named Giovanni Paterno. Giovanni is technically ‘John’, not ‘Joe’ – but it is still close enough to be cool. (Joe is Giuseppe in Italian, btw).

Giovanni Paterno -- Died in 1511

We headed out of the cathedral and looked for lunch. I had asked the woman at the ticket counter where a good place would be – we looked but couldn’t find it. So we went into a bread shop and had some pizza-sandwiches. (Update: Barcelona 1-0 at halftime) They were pretty good, but not great. The woman who worked there was Southern Italian to the bone – she spoke really loudly and really fast everything with her was subito, subito, SUBITO! (Subito means ‘quickly’.) At 2pm we started walking towards the Cappella.

The Cappella was much harder to find than we thought it would be and when we got there the line was long. The problem was that it seemed each person was taking 2-3 minutes to buy tickets. After about 10 minutes of waiting Melba asked if we really wanted to see this. Well, we got in and were blown away. Gold mosaics throughout the entire ceiling – most of them went chronologically through the Old Testament. We were in the room – and it wasn’t very big – for 45 minutes or more. It was just simply amazing.

Inside the Cappella Palatina -- everything here is a mosaic

Funny story – we left the Cappella and sat on a bench to rest our feet. Two teenagers sat next to us and started taking pictures of each other making goofy faces. Their Dad came out and grabbed a video camera from one of them – it was obvious that the Dad was mad at his kids. A few minutes later we saw a tour guide come out of the cathedral and explain some things to a woman – I wondered why one person would hire a tour guide. Melba figured out that this woman was the mom. As best we could tell, it looked like this family decided to do a trip to Italy and the two teenage sons were bored out of their minds and goofing off, the Dad was doing his best to keep his sons in line and the Mom was enjoying the tour guide. Funny.

The Cappella made the day worthwhile – we left there and began the walk back to the ship. It was hot, so we were compelled to buy some more gelato. I will definitely miss the many gelaterias we see all over Italy. As we crossed a busy street and almost got hit by a car that was running a red light – I reminded Melba of something our Tunisian tour guide said yesterday, “In America the stop lights are compulsory, in Greece and Italy they are suggestions and in Tunisia they are decoration.”

It took a bit longer to get back to the ship than we thought it would, but it was still a nice walk. Palermo is really dirty and we could tell that people seem to go to the bathroom wherever they please – and the odor really comes out in the heat. The day turned out to be just what we wanted, though – nice and relaxing.

We went to a disembarkation meeting today. Kinda weird to think that our cruise will be over on Friday. Nothing that I didn’t expect at the meeting – getting back to Rome on Friday should be a cinch. Tonight was a formal night so we headed back to our room and got ready for dinner. Last night, Melba ran into Winnie and Gaston (the couple we met at the airport from Arizona) and agreed to meet up with them tonight for dinner. We had a wonderful time talking to them – they are fun people.

Melba decided to leave a tip this morning for the room stewards who have taken really good care of us since the start of the cruise. We knew that they wouldn’t take cash, so we left them a pack of gum, some candy, and a note to say thanks for all of the hard work and towel animals. We got back to the room and there was a towel orangutan on the bed. How fitting.

The Towel Orangutan

Melba has been sick since yesterday. She woke up yesterday with a sore throat and had a hard time talking. She got some medicine that seemed to help – tonight, though, she couldn’t find it. Possible that she ran out – but she got a 4-day supply of the other types they gave her. Anyways, she bought some Dristan from the store on the ship, but it didn’t help her stuffed up nose. We went back to the room after dinner and Melba tried to feel better while I went down to the Sports Bar to try to watch soccer (don’t worry, I won’t go off on another rant about how extremely upset I am that a state-of-the-art cruise ship with all of its super-duper advanced equipment can get a broadcast of ESPN2, but not ESPN).

I have since come back up into the room to write this blog/journal. Melba is really stuffed up and can’t talk well. I’m making fun of her by talking like I’m clogged up – I’m sure that if she wasn’t so sick right now she’d be really mad at me. I left to go down to the store and buy her some Benadryl – maybe its allergies. Walking down the hall I saw a couple heading back to their room. We said the typical “Hi, how ya’ doing” and for no real reason (other than it doesn’t hurt to ask) I told them that my wife was all stuffed up and wondered if that had some Sudafed. Well, they both lit up and asked if I wanted Sudafed, Claritin or something else. I have no idea if the store is even open right now so I’m glad I ran into them. They gave her some Sudafed and a Sudafed PE – so she ought to make it through the night.

Time to get some pictures ready to upload to the blog. Napoli tomorrow and then Friday comes and we’re off the ship. We’ll spend the weekend in Rome and fly back to Dulles on Monday.

Oh, and Barcelona won 2-0. I'm happy they won (because I don't like Man U) but I'm still upset that I missed the final.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5.26.09 Tunisia

This morning the boat pulled into La Goulette, Tunisia. This would be the only stop that I felt somewhat uncomfortable about. Melba and I had such a bad time in Egypt two years ago and I wondered what it would be like in a different part of North Africa. Well – it was nothing short of fantastic. The vendors were a little bit pushy (and I mean just a little bit), but other than that we had an excellent time. We chose to not explore this city on our own – rather, we paid to be part of an excursion with a tour bus and guide. It was money well spent. This particular tour was 8 hours long and it went to all of the spots that Melba’s Lonely Planet Guide said we should see. While we were driving around I had the chance to look into a couple of public buses, and, well, let’s just say that it confirmed to us that this was not a city we would want to see on our own.

Tunisia is the only country on our stop where we have to go through customs while getting off the boat – that means we have to carry our passports with us. I was nervous knowing that if we got robbed it would mean our passports are gone. But we felt safe the whole time and didn’t have to worry about that.

There is all sorts of history in Tunisia – I had no idea. Most history dates back over 3,000 years to the Phoenicians. (Yes, the name made us miss our dog…) While this country is mostly Muslim and therefore has a predominately ‘Middle-Eastern’ look to it, Tunisia certainly has an identity of its own. It is a desert – but has lots of cactus and flowers everywhere.

Our first stop was in the city of Carthage. Our tour guide said that the houses in Carthage (very big and beautiful) are for the wealthiest people in Tunisia – his words were, “This is the Beverly Hills of Tunisia.” We went to visit some Roman ruins that were across the street from this neighborhood. Our guide explained that the ruins spread to the areas underneath the huge houses but they couldn’t be excavated because it would be too hard to convince all of the people living there to move. Funny how politics work. I was taking lots of pictures – the tour guide started referring to me as ‘The Paparazzi’ because I was constantly snapping my camera.

We drove 30 minutes through the city and went to El Bardo Museum – it used to be a palace and now houses the largest collection of mosaics in the world. I was amazed at the artwork here – it was absolutely beautiful. Some of the pieces used tile so small I could’ve fit about 10-15 pieces on my thumbnail. From a distance, they looked like paintings because of the detail.

This is Melba now. Sammie doesn’t feel well so he’s off to bed…
We loved the mosaics at the El Bardo Museum. Apparently, Tunisia was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. And since they supplied so much bread, olives, figs and other food to Rome, they got very rich. So, they decorated their houses with mosaics to show off how rich they were. Most of the mosaics we saw were pre-Christian, so they depicted a lot of the gods and goddesses—especially Neptune because he’s the god of the sea and they were very dependent on ocean trade.

After the museum, we went to some shops in the old city. It reminded me almost exactly of Jerusalem’s old city, except a bit more mellow. The line here is “Come in please, just for a look.” Whereas in Jerusalem, the line was, “Special price for you.” But we still heard lots of “Hello, please” and other familiar phrases. In particular, I noticed the smell – spices, leather, some b.o. It brings back a lot of memories.

(Warning! Boring history paragraph) Our tour guide took us to a rooftop to look out over the old part of the city. He pointed out four different types of mosques. The first was an Arab mosque and the second was Turkish. Then he pointed out a Moorish mosque and a Berber. It took me a while to get all of these groups straight in my head, but as far as I understand, this is how it goes… Berbers are the native people here, the Africans. They also inhabit Algeria and Morocco. (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia make up North Africa). Sometime before the Romans, the Phoenicians from Lebanon came over and established Carthage. The Romans followed some centuries later, during the time of Julius Caesar, and destroyed the old Carthage then built a new one. Roman culture pretty much hung on until the Arabs swept through in the rapid expansion of the Muslim Empire. Their ultimate goal was to get to Spain, but they set up shop in Northern Africa along the way. They also gathered locals and took them along to Spain—Berbers, Carthaginians/Romans, etc. When the Muslims were expelled from Spain, the descendents of those natives came back to Tunisia, but were called Moors because they weren’t Arab nor Spanish, but also not really Tunisian either. Finally, the Ottoman Turks came through and ruled until the 19th century when the French came in and took over. The poor Tunisians finally gained independence in 1956 and, ever since, Tunisia has been a fairly stable Arab-Muslim country with a relatively good economy, fairly low terrorism, and high religious tolerance. Phew! Sorry about all that. I actually wanted to write it down so I would remember it.

After coming down from the rooftop, we spent some time in a rug shop. The rugs were breathtaking! Many of them resembled the beautiful rugs we’ve seen in Israel and Egypt. But the rugs made by the Berbers were quite different. They almost looked South American or Native American. We weren’t really in a position to buy a rug—not only do we not really have an income right now, but we don’t know what our home in Austin will look like or what kind of rug we would need—so we didn’t buy, but I look forward to the day when we have a Tunisian rug in our home!

Lunch took place at a buffet filled with delicious Mediterranean-type food. I was sitting next to two women—one an artist who taught art in high school for about 30 years and is now a docent at an art museum, and the other a retired journalist who is now writing a book. We had lots to talk about! We’ve really had fun meeting different people from the cruise. Most people are older—enjoying their retirement. Many here are celebrating an event—a wedding anniversary, or a graduation. Another family on our tour bus today is celebrating the father retiring from the Marines. He’s here with his wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and both sets of grandparents. It’s fun to hear about different people’s situations and what brings them to Noordam. (The name of our ship.)

After lunch we went to a quiet hillside village where all of the houses are painted white with blue shutters. It overlooks the Mediterranean and has a constant cool breeze to mitigate the hot African temperatures. We walked up a busy street, past lots of shopkeepers, and were rewarded at the top of the hill with beautiful views of the Med.

We had two quick stops on the way back to the ship, to see some more Roman ruins, and then stumbled on to the boat exhausted but happy. We’re both pretty tired tonight. Sammie’s sick to his stomach and I’ve picked up a nice cold. I think we’re also both feeling the anxiety again of the move ahead of us. We had hoped to hear news during our cruise that our house has sold, but it hasn’t. In fact, I don’t think anyone’s been to look at it since we’ve been gone. They’ll probably all want to come when we’re home, trying to pack up and move. Sigh. That’s how it goes. We’re going to take it easy the next two days. The last two ports are Sicily and Naples. We plan to have easy days and save up our energy for Rome! Oh yeah, and the move…

So… anyone wanna buy a townhouse in State College? Special price for you! Come in, just for a look. Hello? Hello please.

Monday, May 25, 2009

5.25.09 at sea

I woke up (late) this morning to wonderful news. My sister Martha had a baby! Emily Carol was born Sunday morning. Mother and daughter are doing fine! And then, tonight, I came back to my stateroom and found some more great news – Sammie’s brother Steve and his wife Janet also had a baby girl! She doesn’t have a name yet, but she’s also beautiful. Congrats Martha, Adam, Emily, Steve, Janet, and Baby Girl!!!

I knew Martha’s baby would be born while I was gone, so I called her from the airport to wish her luck. When I was in Europe in 2000, my niece Lizzie was born. I commented to Martha that I like this arrangement: she and Lindsay stay home and have babies while I take trips to Europe. :)

Today was another long, lazy day at sea. Sammie and I staggered upstairs for breakfast and then I walked a 5k around the ship’s deck. I listened to one of my recorded lectures, this one about TS Eliot’s Wasteland. It was very interesting.

When I came back to the room, Sammie was already working hard on his morning nap. He was way ahead of me on rest, but I soon caught up. We finally made our way to the pool in time for lunch—kabobs, salad, and rolls out by the pool. After lunch, the ship DJ held a line dance class by the pool. I loved it last sea day, so decided to join in again. The last line dance was “Hey Baby” and DJ Glenn got everyone in and around the pool dancing. It was awesome!

After sunning, swimming, and hot tubbing, we changed for dinner. It was formal night again tonight, so Sammie dressed in his suit and I wore what I had worn to church. We sat with a recent college grad and her grandmother. It was lots of fun to sit by them. They asked what has become, for me, the “golden question”: how did you guys end up in Virginia? I love turning to Sammie with a big grin and saying, “Yeah, Sammie! How did you end up in Virginia?” Then he has to tell about being a funk musician in LA and moving to VA to get a real job and find a wife. People always get a kick out of it. (And, of course, he always asks if they’ve heard of the p-funk…)

Tonight’s show was music from Broadway and it was very good! Some of the Noordam singers shows have been cheesy. Okay, they all have. But tonight’s was really good. Very low on cheese and high on entertainment.

I know the big question on everyone’s mind is what towel creation we found when we got back to our room. An elephant! Our guys are getting more and more creative.

Early to bed tonight. Big tour in Tunisia tomorrow!
Congrats again to the new babies! Welcome to earth!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

5.24.09 Palma de Mallorca

I’ve found that something that bothers me on the cruise ship. When we go out onto the main decks by the swimming pool there are a few European men who, instead of wearing a regular swimming suit, wear what I call “Man Panties.” Gross.

It’s Sunday today and Melba and I got up early to head out to Church. Last night, I looked online for a ward thinking that there was no possible way we would find one in Palma de Mallorca. I was partially right, I didn’t find one – I found four. It longer than expected to have the ship cleared by local authorities so instead of leaving the boat around 9 and using the bus and our feet to get to Church, we took a cab. €14.05 to get to Church and we even made it on time.

After Sacrament Meeting was over we were in the foyer talking to a few people. We talked to the missionaries and I was talking to a convert from Nigeria who had been on the island for 3 years. He works at a restaurant in a hotel. He was converted 4 years ago in Nigeria and is trying to get back there. We then met a guy, Bill, from the States who travels all over the world for his job, but spends his summers in Palma de Mallorca – where he boss lives for the summer. Then we met 2 people, Vaughn and Ben, from our cruise – Vaughn, the father, was taking his 18-year-old son on a 20 day cruise (they did the other 10-day excursion covering the Eastern part of the Med before this 10-day leg) before he – the son – goes to BYU. As we spoke, I asked Bill which direction we should start walking to get back into town. We weren’t that far and I figured that we could all walk back. Bill offered the 4 of us (Melba, me, Vaughn and Ben) a ride into town. Hard to turn that down.

As we got in the car, Bill offered to take us to a castle on a hill – it is the only perfectly round castle in the world. Um, really hard to turn that down. Bill then said that after the castle he would drive us to the cathedral (really big, built in 1600’s) and we would be able to walk from there back to the ship. This was very generous of him and I asked if there was anything we could do to repay him – he said to just repay the favor to someone else. As we drove, I started asking Bill about his work. He provides security to a rather wealthy businessman – we’re talking a net worth well into the 10 digit range – as he (Bill’s boss) travels the world to the different businesses he owns. Most of these businesses are in Latin America – Bill therefore spends Fall through Spring travelling in that region and lives on the island during the summer while travelling with his boss on his private yacht (153 feet) around Europe. It sounds like a cool job, but the more we talked to him I realized that it’s something that would be fun the first time, and then it would turn into work – meaning it’s not like travelling for vacation.

We got to the castle and Bill let us out of the car to walk around. (I think Bill had work to do and didn’t mind waiting for us). This castle was really pretty and gave amazing views of the city. No charge to get in or climb up to the top. We walked around and talked to Vaughn and Ben for about 10 minutes and then went back to the car. We could’ve stayed there for easily 45-60 minutes, but we didn’t want to keep Bill waiting. We got to the cathedral shortly thereafter and thanked Bill for being so kind to us. Perhaps this was our blessing for going to Church.

The cathedral was built from about 1300-1600 (yes, it took 300 years to build) and it is really big. There is a museum that has many artifacts pertaining to the museum, but it was closed. In fact, most everything is closed on Sunday around here. Mass was going on when we got inside so we couldn’t walk around. When mass ended, we started roaming around and looking at everything – lots of stained glass windows and statues. A second mass was starting and we decided to stay and watch. We didn’t ‘participate’ per se, but we did enjoy being there from a cultural perspective. And, of course, we didn’t understand a single word that was being said. Mass ended and we did some more walking around the cathedral, but it was closing and they hurried us out.

The Cathedral at Palma de Mallorca

Outside the Cathedral at Palma de Mallorca

Outside of the cathedral were some picturesque staircases and walking paths that seemed to be a part of the cathedral grounds. We listened to a very talented guitarist play classical music while we took pictures and strolled across the grounds. Then we began the long walk back to the ship. Bill had pointed out to us the walking path that would lead back to the ship and after a little bit of roaming, we figured out where we needed to go. This was a really fun walk – lots of palm trees and it was right along the port. There are about a million sail boats of all sizes in the port here and it was fun to walk by them and see where they are all from. We could see the ship from the cathedral and I thought it would take about 15-20 minutes to get there on foot. I was way off – it would have taken about 45 minutes had we walked and not stopped.

Walk back from the Cathedral

We did have to stop a few times – my feet still hurt from all of the walking we did yesterday and it got kinda hot and we saw a gelato shop and well, had to stop again. Amazingly good gelato and it was dirt cheap – Melba got 3 scoops for €2 and I got 4 scoops for €2.50. We sat on a bench looking out over the port and ate gelato. It was really fun. I try my best to enjoy moments like that – I know that they won’t last long and I won’t get to experience them again – but it seems that every night when I sit down to write a journal about the day I reflect on them, wish I could do it again, and wonder if I really appreciated it while it was happening.

As we got back to the port we began talking to another couple on the ship who had walked back from the cathedral as well. (Everyone is really friendly around here). Yesterday the woman had her purse stolen in Barcelona – I felt really bad for them. She was being really careful while they were walking around to make sure nobody snatched it from her. But while they were sitting on a bench she took it off of her shoulder, somebody came up to ask directions (as a distraction) and someone else came up from behind and grabbed her purse. Someone from a distance saw this happen and yelled at the couple from a distance – the woman tried to run after the guy, but he went into an underground garage and disappeared. They were able to go to a Police station and get the paperwork necessary to get back on the boat and cancel their credit cards. I don’t think she lost anything valuable (everyone leaves their passports on the ship), but I’m sure this was a real downer for their trip. Melba and I did our best to try and make her feel better – but I don’t think it helped much. I’m glad that we travel with Camelbacks (there nothing valuable inside for anyone to grab anyway) and have all of our valuables in a money belt. While we are still vulnerable, I feel like we have taken enough precautions that we don’t need to worry about someone getting our money or credit cards. I also know to watch out for thieves if a local comes to ask directions or something – that’s usually how they distract tourists for a robbery.

Interesting note: It is 5:35pm local time as I write this. All aboard for this port was 5:30. The captain just made an announcement that all of the passengers and crew are aboard and we will be leaving port. This is interesting to me because we haven’t left this early in any other port we’ve been in. We’ve always left at least an hour after the all aboard time. I wonder if it’s because of legal issues, replenishing items onto the ship, or if it’s because there were passengers that we had to wait for. Hmm. I’m just curious. Melba and I try to get back to the boat about 90 minutes before the all aboard time because we don’t want to miss the boat and we never know how long it will take to get back. There could be traffic, a parade (there was one in Barcelona yesterday) or a gelato stand which could all delay us getting back. Even if I knew the ship would wait for everyone before it left, I wouldn’t change that plan – I’m just curious to know how long the boat waits for people until they decide to leave without them.

Dinner was delicious tonight. We arrived around 6:30 and the place was mostly dead. We got a table to ourselves today simply because there weren’t enough people to fill the 2 other seats. While the service has been magnificent since we got on board, our waiter tonight was by far and away the best. He was very cheerful and friendly. When we finished our soup (each meal has appetizer, soup, entrée, and dessert – in that order) Melba commented that hers was absolutely delicious – our waiter said, “Do you want me to bring you another one?” Of course. He looked at me and asked if I wanted another bowl (I had duck and sausage gumbo, Melba had a chilled melon soup) – I didn’t, but asked if he could bring me some meatballs. Melba had them for her appetizer and said they were delicious – and he brought me out some. Very cool guy.

The show tonight was spectacular. A married couple from France did acrobatic dancing – where he holds her in the air while she twists her body all sorts of ways that make everyone else cringe – and magic tricks. Some of the tricks were unbelievable – literally. We went to the 8pm show and decided to head back to the 10pm show just to see if we can figure out how they do it.

Something that I will miss about the cruise is coming back to our room after dinner and having towel animals on our bed. Each day the creations grow increasingly more impressive. Yesterday we had a lobster and today we had a pig – and the room attendants put Melba’s sunglasses on the pig. Perhaps when people come visit us in Austin (hint, hint) we will have some ready in the guest bedroom.

The Towel Pig

Tomorrow is another sea day so there’s no point in going to bed early. On Tuesday we will be in Tunis – neither of us has been there before and I don’t think we’ll ever get a chance to go back anytime soon. The itinerary schedule that the ship gave us says that “vendors can be pushy” – I took that to mean that this port may be Egypt all over again. We decided that we weren’t going to explore this city on our own. We paid to have a tour called “The Best of Tunis” which will include ruins, a museum, and sightseeing in a town known for rows of white walled houses with blue roofs. The guided excursions that the ship offers are expensive and it seems that Melba and I have pretty much done what they offer – but for less than half the cost – on our own. The only real difference is that we use public transportation and/or feet instead of a bus. Tunis will be different, though. I don’t feel comfortable going around there by ourselves.

It’s time to get some pictures ready to upload, post this blog and then go to the 10pm magic show and try to figure out how those tricks are done.

It’s now almost midnight and we’re back from the second show – we figured out how most of the tricks are done. That said, the second show was more impressive than the first because we were really able to see the showmanship in the two performers. We walked around the promenade on Deck 3 after the show and then went up to the upper deck and looked at the stars. Melba wanted me to be ‘romantic’ – but I don’t/can’t do that. I decided to go back to the room and she decided to stay up on the deck and look at the stars. I left the deck and went into the dining room (you have to go through there to get to the elevators) and saw some desserts – “perhaps this will be romantic,” I thought. I brought two of them out to the deck to Melba. I said something like, “Excuse me, Ma’am” in a deep voice and it kind of freaked her out – but she smiled when she saw me with desserts. The only problem was that these desserts were gross – and I mean they were completely unfit for human consumption. I felt bad, but Melba still thought it was sweet. We went into the dining room and Melba grabbed some chocolate cake and I grabbed some ice cream.

Tonight I get to sleep and not have to wake up early. But before I sign off, here are some pictures from Barcelona that I think you will enjoy:

Melba with a Chicken

Look at the name of this plant

Saturday, May 23, 2009

5.23.09 Barcelona

Today as we sat on the Metro, exhausted but also excited about our great day in Barcelona, I apologized to Sammie that we had come so far, spent so much money, gone through so much trouble, made so much effort, and my favorite memory of the trip was going to be his strut around the pool doing the moonwalk, lawnmower, and sprinkler. As I sat by the side of the pool watching the first contestants, I reflected that I had NO idea what Sammie was going to do. I just knew it would be funny. When he broke out into his super-cool dance moves, I was the only one by the side of the pool not clapping and cheering—because my head was between my knees, trying not to fall off from laughing.

Today at lunch I asked him why, in our almost 4 years of marriage, I never knew he could do the moonwalk, the lawnmower, or the sprinkler. He replied that the moment had never come when he thought the best way to strengthen our marriage and deepen our relationship was to break out in the moonwalk. I asked him if everything he did, then, was to strengthen our marriage and deepen our relationship (if you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you know what a scary thought that is!). I asked him where he learned that stuff. He then told me all about the break dancing lessons he had in 3rd grade. Apparently he can also do the backspin. Sure would have been nice to know all this about 4 years ago…

ANYWAY… Barcelona is awesome! Sammie said it very well on the bus back to the port – the geography of Barcelona is not as scenic as Monaco or Tuscany, but it’s PACKED with culture! We began the day (and I made Sammie leave the boat early so we’d have lots of time!) by walking up Las Ramblas (or, in some guidebooks La Rambla). It’s a wide, tree-lined street running up the middle of the city and filled with all sorts of shops, markets, and street performers. Actually, most of them don’t really perform. They dress up and pose as “live statues.” It’s pretty cool. We’d been told we could buy almost anything on this street, including squirrels. I proposed buying a squirrel for Phoebe and letting the two of them loose in the basement. We never found squirrels, but we found baby chipmunks and lots of mice, hamsters, chicks, birds, etc. (No, we didn’t buy one for Phoebe.) We veered off the street at the Mercat de la Boqueria. It’s a crowded, crazy market that included entire dead pigs. My already queasy stomach lurched a few times at the meat stands. Back on the street, we wound our way through the Gothic Quarter towards the Picasso Museum. Barcelona is OLD! The Gothic Quarter has old houses with narrow, windy cobblestone streets. In fact, the Picasso Museum is in one of these old houses. On the way to the museum, we stopped for a while in another market—this one medieval. The vendors were dressed in period costumes and they were selling medieval items—pottery, herbs (culinary and medicinal), calligraphy, all sorts of meats and cheeses, perfumes, etc… And Belgian Chocolate! A medieval band strolled through while we were browsing. We intended to go back later in the day to buy souvenirs and see some sword fights, but we didn’t make it back.

The Picasso museum is awesome! I’ve never paid much attention to Picasso. I’m not a huge fan of modern art. I love the stuff right before modernism—impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, and even some early cubism. After that, it just gets too weird for me. But this museum focused on Picasso’s early development as a painter and I was struck with his early styles. A lot of his early work resembles van Gogh and some of those guys that I like. (And he was influenced by them while he was in Paris.) It was interesting to see the evolution of his work.
After Picasso, we sat down for lunch at a sandwich shop. We had yummy sandwiches and sat for a while, resting. Unfortunately, we both got off the ship with stomach aches (maybe a little sea sick from our day at sea) and by lunch also had headaches. I remember on previous trips abroad when I would run around hot and humid cities all day for days at a time and hardly feel it. Getting old… (Joe reminded me on my last birthday that I am now as close to 40 as I am to 30. Thanks Joe – you wanna die, clown?)

After lunch we walked through the City History Museum. It was basically a walkway and audio tour through Roman ruins that have been excavated underneath the city. What I liked most about it was the explanations of different occupations in the city. For example, while we looked at ruins of the local laundry and dye place, we learned that they used urine to disinfect their clothes. In fact, the launders paid a city tax so that they could put buckets out for people to urinate in so they could use it for the laundry. The doctors in my family have always tried to tell me that urine is sterile. But my definition of something that is sterile, laundered, or in any way considered clean, is that it doesn’t have urine on or in it. Call me OCD… Anyway, we also learned how to dry fish to make a popular fish sauce and how to make wine. It was a very interesting museum.

Our next stop took us an hour to walk to. The guidebook said it was the MUST-SEE of Barcelona and we took their word for it. And boy were they right! La Sagrada Familia is a big—no, enormous—Cathedral that has been in progress for over 100 years and won’t be finished for another 20-30 years. Its main architect is Gaudi, a popular and innovative Spanish artist who made this Cathedral his life’s work but, unfortunately, died while working on it. It’s based on traditional Gothic cathedrals but with a modernist twist. For example, the shape is a Latin cross, and it has the traditional facades, naves, apse, cloister, etc., but they’re modern rather than gothic. Two facades are completed, one representing the passion and, the other, the nativity. The passion façade is very stark and bare—symbolic of death—with scenes from the crucifixion—beginning with the Last Supper and ending with the burial. The sculpted figures are almost cubic—very angled and stylized. But the effect is staggering! Inside, the columns are made to look like tree trunks and the tops of the arches spread out, not into a typical vaulted ceiling, but into what looks like tree branches! So as you sit in the Cathedral (and it can hold up to 10,000 people) you feel like you’re in a forest and can quietly meditate. It’s amazing! The nativity façade, in contrast to the passion façade, is filled with all sorts of signs of life—flowers, plants, animals, etc. It celebrates Joseph and Mary as well as Jesus and assigns each of them a virtue—charity to Jesus, faith to Mary, and hope to Joseph. The first thing I was struck by when we finally found the Cathedral was its height. But the main tower, which has not been built, will rise quite a bit higher than the 8 already built. I think I’ll need to return to Barcelona to see the completed Cathedral. Anyone wanna come?

We hopped on the Metro after leaving La Sagrada Familia and then had a ways to walk, back down La Rambla, to catch the shuttle bus back to the port. La Rambla was chock full of people. Of course, it was 8:00 on a Saturday night by this time. There was some kind of a parade with lots of traditional dancers. That was fun to watch, but also made for a lot of crowd-jostling. We also saw some of the more colorful aspects of Barcelona—including 3 local cross-dressers out for an evening stroll. (I joked with Sammie that they made me nostalgic for my mission—I met a lot of transvestites in Campinas).

We got back to the ship just before 9:00, had a yummy Italian dinner, then made it an early night. In fact, Sammie is in bed next to me snoring, already—his red hair beginning to stand on end in preparation for the morning and his toes wiggling where his feet are sticking out of the covers. (He’s cute!)

Friday, May 22, 2009

5.22.09 Day at Sea

When one’s motivation to get out of bed is derived primarily from the fact that the breakfast restaurant will close in fifteen minutes (at 10:30), one knows that one has had a good night’s sleep. We wandered up to breakfast and sat there for quite a while just looking at the sea going by. After the busy days that we’ve had at port, I’m glad that we have a day at sea. We need to relax. I think I’m at a point where I know where everything is on the ship and I don’t have to ask questions about where something is or how to do something (like laundry, internet, etc).

After breakfast we changed into our swimming suits and went up the top deck and lay on the beach chairs by the pool. After about an hour I decided to go get my hat – the sun had come out (it was slightly overcast) and my sunglasses weren’t enough to keep the sun out of my eyes. When I came back, I heard the tour director say something over the PA (for just the pool area) that only 4 people had signed up and he wanted more. I got to where we were sitting and before I could ask Melba what people were signing up for, she told me that I needed to go sign up for the belly flop contest. Sure, Melba. I remember somebody saying earlier in the day that the ship was going to have ‘Pool Games’ at 1:30 – I guess this is what they were talking about.

Now, I’ve belly-flopped before and I know that it doesn’t hurt if you do it right – that’s the trick. If you do it wrong, it hurts. I was in the contest with 5 other people. Once it started, we were told that they would play music for each of us – and we had to strut/dance around the pool and then belly-flop. The first guy didn’t do much dancing, did an OK belly-flop and got a nice reaction from the crowd. The second guy was somewhat goofy while strutting to the jump point and got a really big reaction from it. I decided then that the key would be a goofy dance. I went fourth – I moonwalked for a little ways, then I did the sprinkler and then the lawn mower. I stuck my tummy out as far as I could for the crowd and then jumped.

I got up from the water and the tour director, who was the MC for this event, looked at me and said, “That was a REALLY loud pop.” The guy after me didn’t do much dancing, but did a really big and loud flop. The MC said that we were going to have a tie-breaker between me and the guy who jumped after me. Great – I didn’t really want to do another belly-flop. The first one kinda hurt. I went first and did some more goofy dancing and jumped. The next guy did basically what he did before. The MC said the winner would be determined by crowd noise – the other guy got noticeably louder cheers and applause. (Of course, I leaned over to him after it was done and pointed out that I had all of the high-pitched voices cheering for me – meaning I won the female vote. ) It was fun. 2nd place in a belly-flop contest will make today memorable.

Everybody who participated got a free drink – rum lemonade. I politely told them I didn’t drink and they walked me to the bar to get a soda. I asked for 2 since I got 2nd place and they said that was fine. So Melba and I each got a free soda from it all. They were barbequing out on the deck (REALLY good steak) so it made for a nice lunch.

We swam for a little while and then I came back and got ready for dinner. Melba stayed a little bit longer at the pool. As I was leaving to go down into a lounge to get better internet reception, Melba came back. I did some emailing and came back for Melba. Tonight is a formal night so I was in a suit and Melba was in a dress. This is the first formal and there will be two more. (The other nights are ‘smart casual’ meaning no shorts or jeans.) It was nice to dress up – that made for a fun evening. We had lunch with the 4 sisters we met on the shuttle in Livorno. They are a really fun group of people. We’ve seen them a few times on the ship and had a lot of fun talking to them. These 4 sisters act the way Melba and her sisters would be acting if they were to be on a ‘girls only’ cruise together. (Of course, Melba says this would never happen because if all of the sisters went on a cruise together they would want Larves to come along – so it wouldn’t be all sisters – and then they would also want Joe to come along. He probably wouldn’t, though.)

I had lamb with mint pesto for dinner – delicious. We left dinner and went to the 8pm show. It was much better than the one we saw 2 nights ago. It was called “Ballroom Blitz” and mostly dancing with a little bit of singing. The dancing part of the show was pretty good, but the singing screwed it up. But it was still enjoyable.

Melba has a fun day planned for us tomorrow in Barcelona. We’re heading to bed early so we can get up early and make the most of the day.
5.21.09 Monte Carlo

Melba and I have found a new place to live and it is Monte Carlo, Monaco. This place is gorgeous. We slept in this morning because people with excursions (a paid tour the ship does) got priority so we knew we wouldn’t get off of the ship until later in the morning. We were anchored and therefore had to take a boat into the port.

We had breakfast in the dining room (no room service this morning because we didn’t know when we would wake up). We filled our Camelbacks and went down the main deck. The tender ride was in a life boat with a motor – they had lowered several of them into the water and were shuffling people back and forth all day. I don’t think I could’ve ever been a sailor because even though the ride was pretty short, I got a little bit sea-sick as the waves (which weren’t big at all) tossed our little boat around.

Monte Carlo is one of those picturesque towns on the Med that looks EXACTLY like what you see in the movies. Except, it’s everywhere – and I mean everywhere. I had absolutely no need for a viewfinder on my camera because anywhere I pointed was a good picture. Our map showed us some museums and gardens within walking distance from the port so we decided to go on foot today. We walked up lots of steps and inclines to the main area where the museums were.

Along the way we saw plenty of street vendors selling shirts, hats, programs, etc for the Grand Prix. Turns out that the Monte Carlo Grand Prix is tomorrow (I think) and the cars were racing today for pole position (I think). What I mean is that the cars were out racing full speed today through the city – certain streets were closed off to make the track – and I know it wasn’t the real race and I heard that it was for pole position for tomorrow’s race. Grand Prix racing is a big event in Europe and the Monte Carlo race is perhaps the biggest. We weren’t able to dock at the port because so many people had brought their boats in to watch the race. We got a glimpse of the cars racing – they were going really fast and it was fun to watch. After about 3 minutes, though, it got really anti-climactic because it was just loud cars going really fast through the streets. We stopped watching to go do other things, but there were TONS of people trying to get a glimpse of the cars.

We strolled around looking at the Med and the beautiful countryside of Monaco. (Monaco is a microstate on the Med in between France and Italy.) We walked through a palace/castle where the royal family of Monaco lives, and has lived for hundreds of years. It has obviously changed over the years, but the style of the home was stunning – not only a sign of money, but of power and legacy. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures. Our ticket got us into a museum about Napoleon Bonaparte as well. It was pretty lame. There were a few items that belonged to Napoleon, but other than that it was pretty lame.

We then walked down to the side of the mountain that was on the Med – there was a huge garden there for people to walk through. It was so relaxing to stroll through the trees and flowers while overlooking the Med. It was hot outside, but these gardens had a nice breeze blowing through them. (Speaking of being hot, our Camelbacks are a lifesaver – not having to buy bottled water in cities designed to overcharge tourists is nice. It’s also nice to carry around snack bars to keep us from getting too hungry.)

On our way out of the garden we did a quick walk through the cathedral. Lots of nice artwork – similar to the other cathedrals we have seen. They have also buried some of the royal family here. Nothing spectacular, but for some reason it always nice to take a quick stop at a cathedral.

We stopped for lunch at a sandwich stop. The sandwiches, no surprise, were delicious. Very similar to what we got yesterday. We walked back into the gardens, sat at a bench and ate lunch. For dessert, we bought a grilled Nutella sandwich – a bread roll with Nutella spread in it and grilled. A seagull landed on a fence right next to us and stared at me while I ate. I assumed it was waiting for me to drop some bread or something. Melba pointed out that this bird was our “European Phoebe” – she is referring to how our dog, Phoebe, always sits by me while I eat steak knowing that I’ll eventually give in to her begging and give her a piece. So as we left the bench I looked over at the bird and said, with a twist, what we always say to Phoebe when we leave her alone, “Bye, bye, Phoebe. Be a good bird.”

We headed back to the tender pick-up point around 3pm. The last tender would leave at 4. We could see from where we were standing that the line was really long (but I was sure that as long as people were in line, they would keep running the tenders until everyone got back on board). We got back on the ship around 3:30ish and went swimming. At 5pm we got the announcement that all of the tenders had returned and we were heading out.

As the ship started sailing away, Melba and I went down the 3rd deck and admired the French Riviera. Wow. That’s all I can say. Hard to take a bad picture here. Well, the sun was setting right in front of me and there was some mist so the pictures didn’t end up as nice as I would’ve liked, but they’re not bad. By the time we got to Nice, we could see the French Alps in the background. I know now why so many people long to live here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything nice about the French – I’m just acknowledging that the geography upon which they happen to be located has a very high level of aesthetic beauty.

The performance the ship had tonight had us laughing our heads off. (Last night’s performance had us laughing, too, but tonight’s was intentionally funny.) The comedian, Richard Gauntlet, was very witty and dry – what one would expect from British humor. He started out with some simple jokes about getting a call to do this show while he was “in a dirty, mining area west of England called Wales.” Someone came in about 10 minutes late and he looked right at them, smiled and said (in a very polite British way), “Oh welcome, welcome, come right in – please sit down. Can I get you anything? Like a watch?” He mumbled the last line under his breath. It was really funny.

Tomorrow is a sea day so we get to sleep in. Sleeping in is easy when you don’t have a window – the room stays dark and you can just keep sleeping. Going to port is fun, but it is a bit tiresome with all of the walking. I’m looking forward to staying on the ship and relaxing all day.
5.20.09 Livorno, Florence and Pisa

This morning we had breakfast delivered to our room. This is a free service on the ship. I don’t know how I’m going to go back to not being pampered like this. We headed out around 9:30ish and took a shuttle into Livorno where we would grab a train to Firenze (Florence). We met 4 sisters on the shuttle (all in their 60’s) who were planning on doing the same, but had no idea how. I told them to just follow us and I would take care of it. The shuttle took us to the city and we grabbed a bus to the train station. From there Melba and I bought tickets to Firenze and the 4 sisters bought tickets to Pisa. Pisa was along the way so we took the same train – it left at 11:11am.

These four sisters fell in love with me (according to Melba). Getting around town isn’t that difficult, but it sure helps that I know the local customs, language, how the buses/trains work, etc. This is the first real day of the cruise and I’m sure these sisters liked having a ‘personal tour guide.’ It was really easy for me to just tell them to follow us, but I know that it made a big difference for them.

Melba and I filled our Camelbacks and loaded them with granola bars before we headed out. My Camelback has a leak on the top (near where you fill it up) so I can’t set it down without having some water leak out. Now that I know that it makes using the Camelback much more enjoyable. Our train ride into Firenze was 80 minutes long so we didn’t get in until 12:30pm. Our plan was to see some sights there, eat lunch, hop on the return train, get off at Pisa, run and see the leaning tower of Pisa, then hop back on the last train heading to Livorno where would catch the last shuttle back to the ship.

We followed a map to the Duomo – it is beautiful. There was a long line to get inside (not sure why) so we waited about 20 minutes before getting in. Most of the things we wanted to do cost money (that’s not always a given when things are inside of a Church) and I had run out of Euro. I talked with a local who directed me to a bank and I pulled out some more Euros. I think the exchange rate has gone down slightly – but I’m not certain. I like being able to speak Italian because the directions to this bank were somewhat complicated and I don’t think I could’ve found it had I not been able to speak Italian.

€8 per person to climb the 463 stairs of the Duomo and look out at Firenze. Absolutely gorgeous. I looked out at the Tuscan country side and it was just beautiful. I haven’t seen anything to compare it to. Red rooftops throughout the city, the Churches stand out, and it all continues to the green mountains which have houses built up on them. Just amazing. I was no longer bothered that Melba chose to take me to Firenze (instead of spending the day in Pisa). We spent about 20 minutes at the top taking pictures and joking about when we would move to Tuscany.

We left the Church and looked at the doors of the baptistery opposite the Duomo. There were made by Berghini a long, long time ago. 3D gold carvings (not real gold – that was just the color). We actually looked at replicas of them because the real ones are being restored. There were 8 square carvings – 4 on each door – and each one depicted a story from the Bible. All of them were very well done with lots of detail.

As we worked out way back to the train station we stopped at a sandwich shop for lunch. Melba had prosciutto and mozzarella and I had tomato, basil and mozzarella. The food here is just so good. It was simple, but good. We ate quickly and made it to the train station with some time to spare.

Melba slept most of the way back – I needed to stay awake because I was worried about missing our stop at Pisa. I later learned that Melba was really hot. The train was hot, but I was sitting by the open window and had a breeze blowing on me – I was unaware that Melba wasn’t getting any of it. I would have gladly witched seats with her had I known.

We got off of the train at Pisa at 4:30pm. I checked the schedule and saw another train going to Livorno at 5:34pm – this gave us just over an hour to walk over a mile to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, see it, take some pictures and walk back. Sounds easy, but Melba wasn’t feeling well and had a headache due to the heat on the train. We also didn’t know exactly where we needed to go. We got to the Tower shortly before 5pm. It’s pretty cool. It actually leans quite a bit more than I thought would. Melba’s Lonely Planet guide says there are always lots of tourists taking pictures with their hands positioned to look like they are either supporting or pushing the Tower – yup, that’s exactly what we saw. We took a couple of pictures and worked our way back.

I bought Melba some gelato hoping it would help her feel better. We ended up getting back to the station in about 20 minutes so maybe it worked.  After walking over a mile each way (plus the walking in Firenze and climbing 463 stairs) my legs were dead – as were Melba’s. But we had done everything we wanted to do at this port. And now we were rushing to make it back to the ship. We got to the station with about 15 minutes to spare. The train arrived on schedule and thank goodness I remembered the name of the Piazza where the shuttle would pick us up. We got on the shuttle around 6:10 – not bad considering the last shuttle was scheduled to leave at 6:30. We made it back safely to the ship.

We were covered in sweat so we headed back to our room to take showers before going to dinner. I think today was one of the funnest days of my life. When I was a missionary I always thought it would be fun to come back to Italy as a tourist. I also thought it would fun to cruise Italy with my future wife. Here I was doing it. I knew the language, customs, etc and we were having a blast. The day ended up being everything we wanted it to be. When I got back on the ship I had a hard time speaking English to everyone because I was used to speaking Italian. I will miss being able to speak Italian to so many people once I get back to the States. In fact, I think I am going to miss Italy like crazy once we get back to the States – there are so many things that I love about Italy from being a missionary here and I had forgotten most of them. Now that it’s all coming back to me I can understand why it took me so long to ‘come home’.

Tomorrow we arrive in Monaco. We will be anchored, not docked. We were told that people who have paid for shore excursions will be the first ones to be tendered to land. (I think that’s the verb I should be using). We’re going to sleep in and leave later in the morning. There are some museums and such within walking distance of the port. My feet are feeling better after all of the walking today so I hope I can handle a day of walking tomorrow.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

From the Med...

So if the picture of Melba's gelato didn't make you wish you had come on the trip with us, perhaps these pictures will :) (I'll post more journal entries tomorrow)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5.19.09 Boarding the Ship

We had breakfast at the hotel and I’m really glad it was covered with the room fee. €27 per person – that’s about $40. The breakfast was good – I’ve come to expect nothing less from the Italians. We packed up our belongings and head out the door.

The front desk called us a cab to take us to the train station. I began talking with the guy on the way to the station and he said he would be willing to drive us all the way to Civitavecchia for €70. Hmm, tempting. I did some quick math and figured that we would spend about €50+ to go by train (including cab fare to the station and then to the boat) so we told him to take us to Civitavecchia. It was a lovely ride. Our cabbie was a good, honest Italian. He has been married for eight years, has a 3 year-old son and another on the way.

Looking at the hills and trees while riding up along the coast of the Med reminded me a lot of California. The biggest difference was that the homes were all Italian Villa style. In California a home like that would cost millions, but the cabbie told me it was very inexpensive to live there compared to Rome. Funny how that works.

The cabbie took us all the way to the check-in point. His meter was up to about €150, but he stuck to his word and didn’t ask for anything more than what we agreed to. I paid him €75 and thanked him for his hospitality. He was sure to caution me that if I took a cab ride back that I would have to pay a lot more than €70 – I would get charged whatever was on the meter. He was a really good guy and put both Melba and I in a really good mood. This was an excellent way to start our cruise.

We boarded around 11:30 (left early not expecting a ride all the way there) and our rooms weren’t going to be ready for another 2 hours. The ship directed everyone to a dining room with buffet-style lunch foods. We weren’t very hungry so Melba had a salad and I ate a sandwich. All of the food is really good and it’s all covered with the cost of the room. The only catch is that we have to pay for all of our drinks (except for water). All things considered, that isn’t too bad – I just don’t like being nickeled and dimed. Oh, well.

About an hour later we saw two people we met at the airport while waiting for our bags. They are a retired couple from Arizona. We talked to them for about an hour yesterday and they sat with us at lunch while we waited for the rooms to be ready.

Lots of retired couples on board. I think Melba and I fall amongst the youngest people on board. If I were create a normal distribution of age on the ship, we would be around the first or second percentile, I'm sure. That said, we’re very glad that this isn’t a ‘party boat’. Everyone is quiet, respectful and friendly. If there were a bunch of undergrads running around on the boat creaming, yelling and getting drunk all of the time, this would be a rotten cruise.

Dinner was excellent. We have what’s called a flex-dining plan which means we can eat anytime between 5:45 and 9pm. The other option would be to have a fixed time to eat every night – it’s mostly groups who prefer that option. Tonight we ate with a retired couple from Vermont. He had recently sold his share of a Pharmacy business to his partner. We have a delightful time talking to them over dinner. It’s weird to me to think that Melba and I can each order appetizer, soup, entrée and dessert all for free. The serving sizes are moderate – enough to fill you up and nothing more. The quality of the food, I think, is similar to a nice restaurant. Not something like Ruth’s Chris, but it’s still nice. There is food everywhere and it’s all free – we just have to pay for the drinks.

Right now Melba and I are planning out the day tomorrow. I kinda want to go to Pisa and see the sites there, but Melba wants to go to Florence and see the artwork. I think she is going to win out on this one. She’s already seen Pisa. We’re listening to a talented string quartet. I write the journal while Melba reads Lonely Planet to decide what tomorrow’s plans are. We’re heading off to a theater in a couple of minutes – the actors are doing an interactive production to introduce the passengers to what the nightly productions will be for the rest of the cruise.

Perhaps we’ll know by tomorrow if we’re going to go to Pisa or Florence. While I want to go to Pisa, I must admit that after Melba read to me what she wants to do in Florence I’m bothered that we can’t do both.

UPDATE - She talked me into Florence. More tomorrow.
5.18.09 Arriving in Rome

I’ve spent enough time on airplanes to don’t want to be on another one for a long time. I clearly remember laughing (at my expense) several times throughout the duration of the flight – I feel bad that I’m too tired to remember what she was laughing at.

We got off the plane and went straight to baggage claim (what else were we going to do?) When we checked in at Atlanta we were told that our bags had made it to Atlanta and would be on our plane. We started to get nervous about an hour after the flight when we had no bags – except a lot of people from our flight were still waiting for their bags. At around 10am (our flight landed at 8:20sm) we were told that all bags had made it to baggage claim. Welcome trial number 1. Neither Melba nor I had a bag. Long line at customer service with people from our flight who didn’t have bags. I had grown sick of the clothes I was wearing (hadn’t changed them for three days) not to mention that I was really nervous about what we would do if we had to board the ship without out bags. Then we found out that our bags had made it on the flight from New York last night. So we have our bags and we’re sitting in the hotel – a very nice hotel.

Trail number 2 was learning that our port is over 100km away from Rome and it could easily be a €150 cab ride – that’s over $200. Well, Italian hospitality is among the best. The concierge printed off the train schedule and found us a much less expensive way to get there. He said the cab ride to the train station would be about 35 EUR and the train tickets will be €4.50 each. He even told me how to use the bus (instead of a taxi) and it would cost €1 each – but I it will be too crowded and I’m not that desperate. This is real Italian hospitality – it’s easy to find, but you have to look for it somewhere devoid of street vendors.

I was kinda bummed when we had to stay in Atlanta on Sunday because I wanted to go to Church in Rome. However, I don’t think we could’ve made it through Church yesterday. We were both so tired when we got to the hotel that we went straight to bed and slept for 2 hours. Well, Melba slept for 3.

I have really lost a lot of my Italian skills. I’m doing OK with getting around and chit-chatting, but I don’t think I could hold a full discussion like I could when I was a missionary. Bummer. Maybe I’ll start to get some of it back over the next couple of weeks. We’ll see.

As easy as it would’ve been to stay at the hotel – we were both really tired – we went ahead and bought bus tickets into Rome. I had forgotten how much I loved Italy until I got into the city. There were several little things that I had forgotten like how cars know to stop if you jump into the crosswalk – although it took Melba a little bit of time to develop that level of faith… We didn’t have much time and all of the museum were closed (we slept until about 3 and the museums close at 4) so went to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and walked around. No crowds anywhere and I was somewhat, but pleasantly, surprised to not see and Gypsy’s or street vendors. We stopped at a gelateria along the way and had some real Italian gelato. Buonissimo. We loved sitting on the street in the middle of Rome, eating gelato and looking at the people walking by.

The Basilica is beautiful – the way I remember Italian Catholic Cathedrals. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after He had died. I will admit that I choked up when I first saw it – I had never seen a sculpture so beautiful. I could have looked at it for an hour. Melba then told it was the Pieta. It all made sense at that point – Paul O’Neill (Producer of TSO) said that great art will give an emotion that someone has never felt before and used the Pieta as an example. He said that someone who has never had a child can look at that sculpture and know what it is like to have one who dies.

We walked around the rest of the Basilica, stopped at a store to buy some bottled water and then ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant. Service was great and the food was really good. We split a Pizza Margarita (crust, tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella) and then each ordered a plate of pasta. I had four-cheese gnocchi and Melba had a sausage, sage, and butter pasta. Both dishes were good but Melba’s was incredible. We brainstormed how we would imitate it when we got home.

We went back to the bus pick-up spot and went home. I had a really bad headache. We were both really tired, got home and went straight to bed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sammie Meets his Trash-talkin' Match

In his last post, Sammie told you about our adventures trying to travel abroad. Since we were flying out of Dulles airport on Saturday, we drove down to northern Virginia on Friday and stayed with my cousin Cate for the night. (Sammie didn't mention the part where, 45 minutes outside of State College, I asked him if he had his camera and he didn't. We went back for it. 90 minutes later, at the same spot we realized we didn't have the camera, we realized we didn't have our swimming suits. We didn't go back for them...)
Anyway, I knew that at Cate's house I'd have a lot of fun seeing her, her husband Mike, and their awesome kids. I knew we'd have a comfortable place to sleep in their beautiful home and a hot breakfast. I didn't expect to laugh harder than I have in a really long time. (Well, since my Mom came to town...)
Cate and Mike's 3rd kid, Nathan, is 8 years old. He's 45 pounds and probably just under 4 feet. When he steps on the Wii fit, he registers UNDER the underweight category. His BMI is something like 9 or 10.
Sammie, on the other hand, will be 34 in August. He's 6' 1" and, while I won't disclose his weight, I'll mention that he would definitely not fall in the underweight category. Basically, he's over 4 times Nathan's weight and age.
It started with Sammie and Richie (Nathan's older brother, who is 13, tall, and athletic) playing tennis. Nathan, who had asked to play the winner, sat on the sidelines commenting that their game looked like the ladies' championship game. Then it was his turn to play Sammie.
"Come on! Hit like a man!" says 45-pound-8-year-old Nathan. "You hit like a girl!"
"Is that as hard as you can hit the ball?" "Come on! You can give me a real serve!"
Richie and I were on the sidelines suffocating from laughing. And the best part was that Nathan was scoring hardly any points against Sammie.
Sammie started coming back with, "Well, if you can't hit it like a man, at least hit it like a boy!"
Nathan started jumping up and down, expending some pent-up energy. Sammie asked, "Dude, do you have to go to the bathroom?"
Nathan won the next point.
Sammie said, "I should fill my bladder. Maybe I'd start playing better."
After Sammie won the tennis match, they went on to baseball. Sammie's strategy became to lift Nathan up with one arm and pitch with his other arm, so Nathan couldn't hit the ball and struck out.
We ended with a rousing boxing match. It was disturbing to watch Sammie's Wii character beating up on Nathan. But Nathan won--knocked Sammie out twice!
Adventures Abroad (but not yet)

At the last minute, Melba and I decided to go on a Mediterranean Cruise to celebrate graduation. We left yesterday for Rome to spend a couple of days there, go on the cruise, and then a couple more days in Rome, and then back home. Here are the Top Ten best parts about traveling yesterday:

1. Having our flight out of Dulles delayed an hour, the gate attendants telling us that the screen is wrong and our flight isn't really delayed, then telling us all on the plane that we will be delayed for more than an hour.

2. Getting off the plane in JFK to find out that our flight to Rome has left and stand in line with a bunch of angry people while we wait to be re-booked. (FYI -- airlines aren't run like McDonald's so don't think that if you're really rude to someone you'll get free fries. Be nice to them and they will reciprocate it back to you.)

3. Being told by the nice girl helping us that the flight to Rome was at the gate right next to the one we entered in on -- and that if we had have gone straight there we would've made it.

4. Being re-booked to Atlanta, and knowing that we'll have to stay the night there and then go to Rome in the morning -- and because delays are due to weather, we have to pay for the hotel out of pocket.

5. Boarding our 6:45pm flight to Atlanta at 7pm (it was delayed, too) and then sitting on the tarmac for 3 hours and 15 minutes before taking off. And it's only a two hour flight.

6. Learning at baggage claim (at 12:30am) that because Atlanta is not our final destination, we won't be getting our bags until we get to Rome.

7. Finding a nice hotel at a low rate -- and I'm not kidding. Upgraded to a king size bed in a suite, being given a 2pm check-out time, free internet, free full breakfast and friendly service all for $59.

8. Calling Marriott and learning that I can change my booking there at no charge (that was a relief).

9. Sleeping in until 9am, going to breakfast, stuffing myself with loads of good breakfast, then going back to bed.

10. Being on vacation with Melba. Yup. Despite all of the troubles we had flying yesterday, it's nice to be on a vacation with Melba. We're heading off to Rome now -- direct flight to Rome out of Atlanta. Hopefully our bags will make it.

We'll try and keep a running blog of all of our fun adventures in Rome and the Mediterranean. Check back soon for more updates....