Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Smells of Tuscany

June 22, 2011 9 comments

The doors in the Florence airport fling open as my big toe hits the mat in front of them. I’m momentarily dazed at their flagrant efficiency, and then chide myself for this typical North American attitude. Yes, they have sliding doors in Italy, too.

Standing on the hot pavement outside, I spy a sign displaying the temperature as 32 degrees, although it is 6:30 in the evening. I watch a bleached blonde girl join the taxi queue while smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of beer. Although the smell of cigarette is affronting, it is at the same time a refreshing sign that I have indeed changed continents.

My husband and children pick me up and we proceed to get lost for the next three hours in the Tuscan countryside as we look for the villa they have inhabited for the last three days. We navigate narrow roads void of center lines that look like one-way lanes, but yet lorries and boxy Italian cars fly past us going the other way. We circle round abouts again and again looking for the names of villages we recognize, and finally just guess on a direction after seeing none that are familiar.

Finally, dusty and hungry, we arrive at our villa, named La Torre, not far from the village of Panzano. It is 900 years old, and nestled amongst vineyards and olive trees, postcard perfect. It is split up into 5 apartments, and there are two other families staying on the property; one from Chicago and one from Germany. The Chicago family leaves early to explore different things each day and return late at night. The German family rarely leaves the property.

We are somewhere in between, taking small, short daytrips, but spending lots of time lounging by the pool. The German’s have an eleven-year old boy named Paul, who in desperation for a playmate turns to our three girls. He speaks no English, but after a day or so they are speaking the language of play; which here means various forms of ball, pool games, and cricket hunting in the vineyards. Their voices echo all over the property, bouncing off the medieval walls of the tower, as they call each others names.

It is curiously true that everything tastes better in Italy. The tomatoes are sweeter, the basil more lively, the parmesan more pungent. I was prepared for this. What is surprising to me is the aromas that you encounter.

Rosemary bushes are everywhere, their intense sweetness can be smelled long after they are out of sight. Lavendar plants send floral cues floating about the nearby atmosphere. Lounging under the shade of an olive tree the smell of sage is overwhelming. Taking our clothes down from the clothesline, the fresh mint in the field overwhelms the scent of fresh laundry.

Walking through the vineyards is to experience all of these scents mixed together, like living in an overgrown herb garden. A sensory pleasure, especially of the nasal sort.

Advertisements

A European Vacation Experiment, Family Style

May 31, 2011 14 comments
a backpacking travel to europe R002-005

The decision to travel to Europe this summer, en famille, was not a light hearted one. My children tend to complain loudly on any walk that is longer than the length of our driveway, so there’s that to consider.

And then the sheer expense of the sojourn – multiplying everything by 5’s was great when we were learning our multiplication tables, but when we’re talking dollars it can be painful and exorbitant. When people used to tell me, children are expensive, I was thinking more along the lines of the extra toothpaste requirements, not additional plane fares. Yowsers.

Yet we are dying to show our children places that we have fallen head over heels in love with, and France and Italy are chief among them. My husband is taking a rare sabbatical, six weeks off work, and so with such a luxurious amount of time – unprecedented and perhaps never to be repeated – we have decided to carpe diem.

Despite the fact that my six year-old tells me every night she wants to stay home and practice her new monkey bar skills, we are flying to London in a week. After a couple of days there we will be spending time in rural villages in Tuscany and Provence.

My nine year-old is most excited about the mere fact she will be leaving North America for the first time, while my eleven year-old is under the illusion she will be shopping in Paris.

I have attempted to play Italian language CD’s in my car to familiarize my kids with some basic words, but it’s been impossible to hear them over the peals of laughter from the backseat. Mature guys, very mature, I tell them. Then they laugh harder.

Which leads me to ponder whether or not they will appreciate the food, the culture, the language, or the lengths we are going to to show them these things. Children being children, I expect not.

I recognize we are lucky to be able to take this trip – it’s a huge privilege I am so thankful for. Yet when my friends ask me if I’m excited, I tell them excited might not be the best word. More like trepidatious, cautiously optimistic, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

I have been a parent for long enough to realize this experience will certainly fall short of the Von Trapp’s dancing through the hills of Austria, yet hopefully rise above National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The Griswald’s set the bar pretty low, after all.

Exactly where our happy medium lies is yet to be seen, but come along for the ride for the next six weeks, and I’ll give you an idea.

Disneyland or Bust

February 17, 2011 5 comments
Disney - Disneyland Rose (Explored)

Image by Express Monorail via Flickr

Deprived of Vitamin D and perplexed with ways of entertaining children indoors as rain and snow pelt their windows, many families throw in the towel this time of year and book a pilgrimage to that storied place that bills itself as the Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland.

But this hot spot can quickly become Nightmare on Main Street if you don’t plan properly. Read this list of dos and don’ts before arriving in the Magic Kingdom to ensure you don’t tell Mickey to take his overpriced ears and shove them where the sun don’t shine.

  • Do plan to be up with the birds. Be at the park when it opens to get a few minutes of peace before the mobs arrive – it only gets busier as the day goes on.
  • Do bring a daypack.  The energy required for hoofing it all over the Magic Kingdom requires more fuel than greasy donuts and pop. Stack your day pack with healthy snacks and bottled water. After a day filled with grease and sugar, even the unlikeliest of suspects will be clamouring for a grape. Once you pass through those gates, there is not a vitamin-filled morsel to be found.
  • Do book lunch beforehand. If your entourage includes little girls who are starstruck by the thought of meeting princesses wearing more make up than Lady Gaga, don’t stand in those long lines at the wishing well to meet Snow White. Book lunch at Ariel’s Grotto, where six princesses will come to your table while you eat your lunch in a booth shaped like an oyster shell. You need to eat lunch anyway, and having the princesses come to your booth can save you an entire day of pain and suffering as you try to track them down.
  • Do start at the back of the park. It’s not easy to drag your children past some of their favorite rides, but books have been written on this subject: start at the furthest reaches of the park and work your way forwards for the best use of your time.
  • Do plan to hit a show at the peak of the sun’s rays. Usually it’s the rides that get top billing, but some of the musicals I’ve seen in Disney rival Broadway. If it’s a hot day, pick a noon time or early afternoon showtime, and sit down in a nice cool theater for an hour of bliss. Aladdin and A Bug’s Life are two of my favorites. No joke.
  • Don’t buy your child a souvenir until the end of the day. Every ride you exit forces you to go through a gift shop for that ride, to the chagrin of every parent alive. Murphy’s Law has it that they will buy the Winnie the Pooh mug, only to find the Jack Sparrow mask they’ve dreamed of ten minutes later. I’ve had great success putting this task off until the end of the day while we are waiting for the parade to start. Almost all of the souvenirs can be found in the shops on Main Street; those Disney marketers know what they’re doing.
  • Do set a souvenir budget. Be forewarned they will be wanting every Goofy hat and Belle boa that walks past them. If you don’t prepare them beforehand, you will spend their education fund on such useless trinkets.
  • Don’t bother reserving a curbside seat for the parade or fireworks. People will stand in front of you at the last minute anyway, and it’s difficult to find a bad seat for the fireworks. Do your souvenir shopping and wedge in somewhere at the last minute.
  • Don’t ask a person with a thousand pins on their banner for directions. They may look like a Disney employee, but these people are not employed by the park, they are just strange people who spend a lot of time at Disneyland.
  • Do use Fastpasses for the most popular rides. As you are hightailing it to the back of the park to begin your day, grab a Fastpass for a super popular ride like Space Mountain on your way, to save yourself an hour long line up later. The caveat, however, is you can only hold one of these golden tickets at a time.
  • Don’t put your little cherub in her Cinderella costume on hot days. I’ve seen more children melting in these polyester torture devices on hot days than exhausted adults. Throw fashion sense out the door and dress all family members in runners and comfortable clothing, with either sunscreen or umbrellas at the ready in your day pack, depending on the weather forecast.
  • Do divide and conquer. Little boys won’t be as enchanted by the magic castle, and my eleven-year-old won’t care to ride the merry go round. If there are two adults involved in this pilgrimage, split up for part of the day to concentrate on child specific requests.
  • Don’t try to do it all in one day. We have attempted this, and it is the equivalent of running a marathon backwards. Don’t frustrate yourself and your children by promises of doing it all. Pick the most important things, and be happy with a few extras thrown into the mix.
  • Do bring Tylenol. You’ll thank me later.

I have seen more unhappy children at Disneyland than any other place on this planet. Plan and prepare properly beforehand so that your child isn’t added to this medley of overtired, sugar-fueled, hysterical orangutan’s during the fireworks.

The Oscar Goes to… Any Movie Viewed On An Airplane

February 3, 2011 4 comments

Whether it’s the high altitude messing with my oxygen flow, or the need to engage my mind to stop it from dwelling on being hurled through the air in a tub of steel, my entertainment receptors switch to their simplest form of engagement on airplanes. I suspect All About Steve could have passed as acceptably funny if I’d seen it on a plane. In a movie theater, it just fell into the “creepy’ category.

Am I alone, or are funny movies hilarious when viewed from great heights? And do you weep with anguish and sympathy more than usual during sad movies on airplanes? Could flying actually force your body into a temporary menopausal state? Why is the entertainment bar so freakishly low when suspended mid-air?

Last weekend I was on a three hour United flight which didn’t offer a movie. I wanted to disembark after take-off, but then an episode of 30 Rock came on, which is funny at the best of times, but at 30,000 feet its hilarity could barely be borne. It was an episode from season five called “The Fabian Strategy”, in which Matt Damon guest stars as Liz’s boyfriend. Every line delivered was yet another knee slapping situation, with no commercials to let you breathe. My seatmate, trying to sleep, was not impressed, prompting me to think they should divide passengers into laughers and sleepers for higher levels of customer satisfaction.

On the return flight, Air Canada actually put me on a decent plane, so I had a wide array of movies to choose from on my personal screen. (Traveling days when you hoped for a good movie seat are so yesterday!) I watched The Social Network, and was captivated by both the storyline and the concept of having Facebook during my university years, and the unimaginable dramas that it would have caused.

I now realize my movie reviewing abilities are askew at high altitudes, since ranting and raving about Twilight to anyone who would listen after watching it on an overnight flight (along with Revolutionary Road and Australia, LOVED all three – coincidence?). Sharing elbow space with teenagers in all Twilight sequels since, I’ve noticed these movies don’t hold the same appeal with the voting-age crowd. (Incidentally, only ten months to go until the Breaking Dawn Part 1 release.)

Was it just another high-on-altitude situation, or was The Social Network an incredibly great ride? I’m not sure I trust my own judgment.

Home Exchange.com – Let the Games Begin

November 20, 2010 2 comments
The Eiffel Tower.

Image via Wikipedia

We want to bring some unique travel experiences to our childrens lives, expose them to new languages and countries rich in history, show them there is more to the world than our small enclave, preferably while eating good food and watching people who are much more fashionable than us.

In other words, we want to go to Europe.

Up until now, I have felt they were too young to travel long distances.  I thought they would get more out of a camping trip an hour from our house then dragging them to another continent.  But now they are eleven, nine and six; the older two in particular eager for new adventures.  Our youngest will go along with whatever her sisters want, so she is a moot point.

If we are schlepping them so far, it stands to reason we want to be there for a while, preferably a month.  The accommodation price tag alone of housing a family of five would quickly bankrupt us.  So yesterday, I joined HomeExchange.com.

Friends of ours have used this successfully to travel to France and Australia, meeting great families in the process.  We thought we would throw our ring into the hat, and see if we can pull out a rabbit.  Or a castle.

The other day, as sunlight filtered in through our windows – a rare sight in November – I was inspired to photograph our digs.  I ran around, stashing piles of crap in drawers, stuffing clothing underneath beds, and turning lights on even though it was daytime, and cursed myself once again for not taking a photography course.

I miraculously found my USB cord and loaded them onto my computer.  This must be a sign that good things, and surely castles, are coming my way.  Next, I cleverly searched the internet for a coupon for HomeExchange.com; and the first one I found actually worked.  A definite sign.  Call me Princess.  Am I actually becoming internet savvy or have they just dumbed it down?

I filled out the required information about our home, trying hard to not sound like a used car salesman, yet clever enough for our listing to scream “castles only need apply!” in a very discreet way, of course.  I finished the writing part, but then had to search their directory to figure out how to load photos.  It was the first Frequently Asked Question, so again I patted my internet-savvy self on the back, since I clearly was not the first person to inquire about this.

There were four places to list where you would like to travel, so along with France and Italy for this summer, I also added Maui and Naramata, for March break and August, respectively.  You can’t win if you don’t play.  How cool would it be if we could get a sweet place in Hawaii or the Okanagan on a lark?

Presto.  After two hours of work, and a grand total of $85 (the cost for a yearly membership, after my crafty coupon) chez nous is open for business.  Fingers crossed that this experience doesn’t resemble National Lampoon’s European Vacation.