Tying my two weeks of vacation together is a daunting task that lies before me. Such a lot has happened and after having had a long plane trip complete with unexpected layover in which to think about how I would write this blog entry, the theme of family seems to be the only one that effectively encompasses all of the events that have recently occurred. First I must establish the fact that for me the term “family” is a very flexible one and has been all my life. In my memory it has been a long standing tradition to include people who are close to me under the umbrella term of family regardless of the technicalities of blood lines. The title of “Aunt” has been applied to friends of the family; the term cousin, possibly the most flexible status available, applied to first through seventh cousins alike which conveniently saves the trouble of figuring out how many times removed a cousin is. I have taken it upon myself to stretch the family boundaries even further. When I went to study abroad in Australia during high school my “Australian Parents” as I now call them, earned this title about ten fold over the six months I was there as they went above and beyond the call of surrogate parenting duty to the point that the fact that we do not share the same genes now seems entirely irrelevant. Hopefully this will sufficiently explain my mindset for the remainder of this entry.
After Las Fallas I had a day to set everything in order for the arrival of Mom and Dad…the ones from the US from whom I get my genetic traits and the majority of my behavioral characteristics as well. They decided to take Mom’s spring break and come to see me in Valencia. They arrived on Easter weekend which gave us some interesting challenges. Spain is indeed a Catholic country, but anyone who observes Spanish religious behavior can tell you that they are really only Catholic in the nominal sense. People go to church and everything but church services are extremely short and I have gotten the sense from the people I talk to that Saints days, and even traditionally heftier religious festivals, are really just a convenient excuse for a siesta that lasts for days on end. I’m sure this is not true for all Spaniards. I’m sure some Spaniards would be enraged to read what I have just written, but the fact toward which I am meandering slowly is that in Valencia, Easter is a very popular tourist event. There festivals and the day before Easter Sunday all the museums are free. Things are definitely open during La Semana Santa (Holy Week) so Mom and Dad and I definitely had a good time going around and seeing the city. The weather was coldish (for Valencia, not New Jersey) and there was a killer wind, so it made walking around interesting but not entirely unpleasant. Some of the highlights included taking trips on the Bus Turistica around the city of Valencia, the Fallero museum where Mom and Dad got to learn about the history of Las Fallas; El Museo Taurino which recounts the history of bullfighting in Valencia; and some excellent meals which included Paella Valenciana. We stopped to see the funky architecture of La ciudad de las artes y las ciencias which is one of Valencia’s biggest attractions but the place was mobbed so we decided not to go in. I don’t have really good pictures of these buildings but they are worth a look, so Google it. Above all I think Mom and Dad got a good first-hand taste of what is has been like to live in Valencia for these past (almost THREE) months.
At 4:30am on Monday the 24th I caught a taxi from Mom and Dad’s hotel to the Valencia airport. Dad came out and gave the taxi guy a once-over (it was cute) and Mom was caught between kissing me goodbye and documenting the moment of me getting in the taxi with her new camera. I was on the first leg of my journey to Italy and it was worth getting up in the madrugada (early morning hours). My plane for Milan left at 6:30am and we got a lovely little pastry for breakfast. There was some turbulence and the woman next to me kept trying to drink scalding hot coffee as the aircraft was bouncing around. I desperately wanted to tell her to wait it out which would have the dual purpose of making it possible to drink and allowing the coffee to cool, but instead I kept my mouth shut and vowed to write about it in my blog. People are silly sometimes.
The flight to Milan Malpensa and subsequent bus to the center of the city was amazing. Malpensa smelled like pastry at 8:30 in the morning and the Alps provided a breathtaking backdrop for the beginning of my adventure. Mike and Lizanne met me an hour later at the Stazione Centrale in the center of Milan. There were no words, we were so excited to see each other. It had been four years since I had seen my Australian parents but after a few minutes it was as if no time had passed. They had a surprise in store for me. It turns out that they were staying with the family of an Italian boy, Olivier, whom they had hosted for a month sometime last year. I knew they had hosted him but I had no idea that I was going to meet him in Italy! We had some time before catching the train to Florence and so we went back to Olivier’s house to meet him and his family. So now I have another brother!! Olivier is 17 and a very talented clarinet player. We hit it off right away speaking a mixture of English, Spanish and Italian!! His mother is French but speaks Italian and a little English. His dad also speaks a little English, Spanish is very close to Italian and in a pinch, Olivier was there to translate! I am surprised how much Italian from my two years in high school came back to me over these two weeks. I was able to have functional conversations with people! And of course with Olivier we all managed to communicate splendidly and of course there was a TON of food. The mother is an AMAZING cook, Mike and Lizanne told me later about all the wonderful things they had to eat.
After about an hour of hanging out we had to leave to catch the train to Florence where we would be spending the next four days. It was a lovely train ride and Mike and Lizanne really liked the little gifts that I brought them from Spain. I gave Lizanne one of my fans from Sevilla and Michael got a really nice book about Valencia that was small enough to carry around but had lovely pictures and information about the city. I also brought them turrón that they enjoyed immensely. We caught up on the train ride and Michael kept asking Lizanne to poke me to see if I was real. It really did begin feeling very normal to be traveling with them again. They have truly become another set of parents to me and it’s nice knowing I have people who will look out for me from all angles of the globe.
Florence was pretty awesome. We got off to a rocky start when the women who was supposed to give us the keys to our apartment was not there when we arrived and it was raining, but that soon cleared up and we found a grocery store at which we bought breakfast food and something simple for dinner. We were sharing the apartment with another family but they did not arrive until the next day. We were on the top floor of what was apparently an old palazzo, but we weren’t sure what it once looked like. My room was very comfortable and when the other family arrived I shared it with Carla, the 14 year old daughter of the family. The mom, Helena, works with Lizanne in Cairns and Stan, the father is an Australian supreme court justice. There was a medical/legal conference going on in Florence that Stan and Michael were both attending which is why we were all there. Carla was wonderful and became like a little sister to me. We didn’t do absolutely everything together but it was nice to have a non-parental companion.
Before Carla’s family arrived Mike and Lizanne and I went to the Uffizi. It was really cool, and obviously impressive as one of the most important art galleries in the world. We had reservations so we jumped the line (which was possibly more impressive than the art itself) and I have to say that my favorite part was the ceilings in the hallways. There was one hallway that had a ceiling panel representing different guilds. Ex: architecture, medical, music, law…Then there were pictures of famous people that operated within each field. It was cool. Of course I enjoyed the Botticelli’s Venus and Primavera as well but I liked people watching in the museum better than the artwork.
Florence was impressive, mildly rainy and very city-like. I enjoyed the duomo and the food. We went to a very nice restaurant one night up in Fiesole which is across from Florence proper and on the last day we went to the Boboli gardens. I met up with Amytza and Caralyn on the last night and brought Carla with me. The girls were with these Italian dudes that Danielle and Kelly met through couchsurfing.com. They were a little creepy looking at first but they turned out to be extremely nice. We all walked up to the top of the Duomo and arrived just as the sun was setting to take some breathtaking pictures of Florence from the air. It was one of the best things we did, climbing those 400+ steps to the top.
The morning of the 28th Mike and Lizanne and I left early to get on the bus to Siena. The medical/legal conference was moving around so that it could be a vacation as well as work for the participants. Siena was really beautiful and Michael and I climbed to the top of the clock tower to look down and out at the land below. I liked all the farmland in the distance. Michael told me about the horse races that they have in Siena and it sounds crazy like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. I’m currently reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I’m only about halfway through. Tons to do besides read. We only had the afternoon in Siena and then we piled back on the bus to head to Orvieto where we would spend the last two nights in Italy.
Orvieto was my favorite place by far. It’s a little village really on top of a hill that turns out to contain Etruscan caves! The story of the Etruscans is still largely a mystery but they did found the city of Orvieto and were then overthrown by the Romans (of course). We took a tour of some of the caves that were used to house pigeons, store things, make olive oil etc. Our tour guide was very good and I meant to go back and ask her what exactly she’s doing. I wondered if she is an archaeology student or something. Anyway, the reason that I liked Orvieto was that it was so self-contained. Michael and I walked the entire perimeter of it one afternoon. I’m sure living there for a lifetime might feel confining, but I liked the atmosphere and the sweeping vistas. We came across a playground with kids playing in it that was situated right near the outer wall. Just imagine, if you can, what it would be like to grow up playing on a playground that overlooks what I consider to be some of the most beautiful landscape that I have seen so far in the world. I’m sure these kids have no idea how lucky they are to have such a gorgeous playground.
Even though Orvieto was small it still had a whopping Cathedral. There was a choir concert there the second night and we poked our heads in before dinner. It was alright. We ate at the same restaurant both nights in Orvieto…it was THAT good the first time. The food in Italy was delicious but I feel like it was normal food. I think a lot of us feel that way about the pastas etc. It’s absolutely delicious, but familiar, so it’s hard to pick out what is really special about it…especially for food lovers like myself. I’m not picky. I like all food.
I was sad to leave Orvieto the next day for Rome…I would have liked to stay in Orvieto the whole vacation! The holiday ended on a slightly stressful note as late trains and full planes provided some roadblocks to traveling and a bitterish taste in my mouth about Italian transportation services. Still I managed to get home before the sun set (which is not saying much since it is now Daylight Saving Time in Europe) and Lizanne reminded us all that we couldn’t even be sad because I’ll be seeing them again VERY soon! I can’t believe I have been abroad for almost three months already! That means I only have three more months to set everything straight for Australia!! Ah!! Actually, it’s pretty much all under control. I’m not too worried about it.
I feel like I didn’t do Italy much justice in this blog entry, but the fact is that it was a really relaxing vacation! I didn’t have to plan a thing and I just got to take in whatever I could take in. I had a lot of fun and for the most part did not stress myself out. I have come back to Valencia facing two months of study and a month of exams…looking at it that way I’m even more appreciative that I got some real relaxation time. I hope you see what I mean about the family theme running through the two weeks of vacation. I have come out of these two weeks having spent time with my parents, reaffirmed the fact that I have two sets of parents and gained two siblings. Now I am back at home in Valencia. It was great to feel like I was actually coming home when I got off the plane looking forward to seeing all my apartment mates and friends, sleeping in my bed, and trying to remember how to speak Spanish.