Category Archives: Holiday

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The Trip to Italy Episode 5: The Wedding

The last leg of our trip through central and northern Italy found us on a 2-hour train ride from Florence to Venice, before another 35-minute commuter train took us to the location of the wedding, the midsize city of Treviso.

At the Florence train station, the Santa Maria Novella (even the train stations in Italy have fancy church names), we found the counter for the rail we were using. In Italy, there is one state-sponsored rail company, but now there are a few private ones; we went with Italo, one of the private lines. Their message board did not list our train yet because it hadn’t arrived. To board the platforms, you have to pass through a security gate and then show your ticket to armed soldiers; based on my experience while lost in the Rome subway system at the beginning of the trip, I was looking forward to not having one of them point their weapons at me, thank you very much. You can’t enter the platform area until your train has arrived. We kept checking the Italo board and the general board for the whole station; our train kept not being there. It was a 10 a.m. train. 10 a.m. came and went. No one seemed alarmed or surprised. I asked one of the Italo ticket agents: “Scuzi, dove il tren?” as I pointed to my ticket. In English, she replied, “It won’t appear on the board until it arrives at the platform; it will get here soon enough, sir.” Just an FYI if you travel to Italy, the whole country runs on the “soon enough” method of things happening. Our guidebook suggested a slogan for the country: “Things always seem to work out in the end somehow.”

So my lovely wife Jen said, “I guess we just wait here until we see our train appear on the board?” We looked around and saw about 20 other people staring at the board, so we assumed as much. After a length of time that could reasonably be described as “soon enough,” the board was updated, and our train was on it. Yay! We rushed to the security gate, where I calmly showed my ticket to the soldier; he grunted and waved me through. We jogged to the platform, settled into our seats, and approximately 20 seconds later, the train departed. Jen and I were like, “Che due palle!” (We were getting cocky with our Italian.) If we hadn’t rushed over there the minute the train appeared on the board, we would have missed it. How many others missed the train because of this? Oh well, as they say in Italy, “Non e el mio problema” (not my problem).

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Rush hour on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Ah, Venice. You arrive by train at the Santa Lucia station (of course it’s named for a church) right on the Grand Canal. Whenever anyone found out we were heading to Venice for a day, they either said a variation of “you’ll love it, it’s the most gorgeous city in the world” or “ugh, Venice, it’s smelly and crowded and sinking into the Adriatic Sea and did we mention how bad the canals smell?” After spending the day there, we sided with the “gorgeous city” group. Maybe it was the day we were there, but it wasn’t stinky (except for when we stumbled upon the Rialto Fish Market; that was indeed stinky).

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Heading outbound on the Grand Canal. Wait, is the whole city sloping toward the sea?!?

Jen had planned for us to take a vaporetto up the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. The vaporetto is a commuter boat that holds about 250 people, mostly packed like sardines in the center cabin, but there are a limited number of seats at the front of the boat, maybe 20, that offer the best views. Jen found one, and I hovered near her like a creep and snapped photos. Line 1, the most direct line, takes about 20 minutes, passes the best sights on the Grand Canal, and costs about 7 euros. Compare that to a gondola ride: a friend of mine rode on a gondola for 40 minutes in a tiny canal and paid 80 euros. Yikes! Jen and I like each other, but we’re too cheap to spend that much on a romantic boat ride.

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Romantic views from the sardine-packed vaporetto with 248 strangers.

The architecture in Venice is unlike that in most of the rest of Italy, and definitely unlike Renaissance-heavy Florence. Because Venice is in the northeastern corner of Italy, and because the Venetian Republic was a major port of entry for trading partners to the east, there is much more of a Byzantine, Moorish, we’re-not-near-Rome-anymore feel. When the vaporetto approaches St. Mark’s Square and you can see the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute on one side of the canal and the Doge’s Palace with St. Mark’s clocktower behind it, it’s like nowhere else you’ve been in the world. (Unless you’ve been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. I don’t judge.)

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I said to Jen, “That’s St. Mark’s Square, or Piazza San Marco. The campanile was built in the 1100s but collapsed and was rebuilt in 190s. Napoleon called this ‘the drawing room of Europe.’ The square frequently floods.” The great thing about being on a vaporetto was that she couldn’t walk away from me when I turned on the tour-guide act.

We disembarked and joined the masses of tourists storming St. Mark’s Square the way Napoleon’s troops did in 1797, the only difference being most of us were wearing flip-flops, sunglasses, and Bermuda shorts instead of blue jackets with epaulettes and fringes, plumed shakos, and white breeches. But otherwise exactly the same. After wandering around, we skipped out on the expensive cafes in the square and the fees to enter the palaces and the Correr Museum and found a little side street to explore. You might notice a pattern that we skip out on things that cost money. That’s because (as previously mentioned) we’re cheap. Every year for our anniversary, I give Jen a big box of “I got you nothing this year,” and she likes it. On family vacations, our kids are constantly saying at the end of the night, “Wait a minute, did we only have two meals today?” Also, I give myself haircuts. And so forth.

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We’re here!

Venice is known for its glassmaking. Venetian glass has been made for over 1,500 years, and if we had more time, we would have visited the island of Murano, a 40-minute boat ride from St. Mark’s Square, where the glass-blowing industry is centered. We found a shop with all kinds of glass objects and lingered there. I really wanted to get my father-in-law a knife with a glass handle, but Jen talked me out of it by reminding me that airport security would probably remove it from my carry-on backpack, toss it in the garbage, and beat me with loaves of prosciutto. We did get my mother-in-law a necklace. Then we started wandering down the streets of Venice.

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Now we’re here!

Here’s the great thing about the city, especially for those of us whose every blog entry could be titled “Lost in (Enter Italian City Name Here)”: You can’t get lost in Venice if you are walking. Sure, you could stumble over the edge into any of the more than 400 canals in the city, but here’s their trick: although the streets are winding and there are tons of small piazzas, called campi (by some counts, there are about 700 campi, some as big as the Piazza San Marco and some as tiny as the bathroom in our hotel back in Levanto), nearly every intersection had directional signs pointing toward major sights. Jen and I decided to spend the day heading generally in the direction of the Santa Lucia train station, and there were signs saying “All Ferrovia” (to the train station), “Per S. Marco” (to St. Mark’s Square), “Per Rialto” (to the Rialto Bridge). It was awesome.

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The fish market. It reads “Mercato del Pesce Al Minuto,” translating as “Market of the Fish of the Minute.” I have no idea what the heck that means.

The only sad-face-emoji moment I had in Venice was when I decided to have a gelato. Jen passed; good choice. We were in a tiny campo, and there was a small shelter with a man selling gelatos. My first clue that it probably wasn’t going to be of the highest quality was that it was a small shelter, so clearly he wasn’t making fresh gelato on-site. The next clue was something we saw all over Italy: even though there’s a ban on smoking in public places, the country is lousy with smokers. My friendly gelato guy was smoking in his shed, or just outside of it. Although I didn’t order the cigarette-flavored gelato, I might as well have. Boo.

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One of hundreds of tiny canals. After a while, it’s like, “Yawn, another gorgeous view.”

Venice was also the first (and only) time we broke down and paid to use a public restroom. We made it almost the whole trip without having to, but we weren’t sure how long our train to Treviso would take (or if we’d miss it, like we almost did in Florence), so we paid the 1-euro fee at the train station to take care of our business before the train arrived.

On to Treviso: The commuter train dropped us off around 7 at the Treviso train station (no fancy name here: Treviso Centrale). When we exited the station, you might not be surprised that we were lost. The train station is just outside of the city center, which is roughly where its old city wall stood. Portions of the wall remain, as do three of the 12 original gates. Again, since there is no grid system to the old portion of the city, we were back to our “let’s try this street here–nope, that’s not it” method of navigation. In JRR Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf writes in his letter to Frodo: “Not all those who wander are lost,” referring to Strider (Aragorn), leader of the Rangers. I’d like to see a corollary to that statement: Sometimes people who wander a lot are usually lost a lot. We couldn’t find the bed-and-breakfast that we randomly chose online, knowing nothing about Treviso. It took us 20 minutes to do a 5-minute walk. Acquaintances of ours staying nearby, in town for the wedding, opted for a taxi: the driver looked at them curiously when he picked them up from the station, then drove for approximately 90 seconds to their rental.

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Along the Treviso city wall, with a moat that used to keep out Barbarians but nowadays keeps out suburbanites.

When we arrived at our B&B, we had to be buzzed in. I use the term “B&B” loosely. I’m not sure what else to call it. Imagine a building filled with lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. Then take one of those on the third floor, slap up a few drywall partitions, put locks on the doors, add bathrooms in the closets, and presto, you have a B&B. After the host checked us in, he left for the night, and until we checked out, we never again saw anyone on staff in the 2 days we stayed there. Jen was fine with it; I felt as if I was locked accidentally in an accountant’s office for the night.

Starving, we headed out to the one restaurant our host recommended. The streets were abandoned, and judging by the graffiti, we couldn’t tell what kind of neighborhood we were in. Italians love their graffiti; it was literally invented there–the word comes from the Italian graffiato, or scratched. When we got to the restaurant, it was completely empty except for a few servers; 150 open seats in the dining area. One of them asked us if we had a reservation, and when we said no, he said, “Then it’s impossible to seat you! It can’t be done. We are fully booked.” I looked at Jen, then out on the street. Tumbleweeds rolled by. I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg or just sniffed out that we were cheapskate Americans, but we left. We found a grocery store and had a thrown-together meal of cheese, crackers, dates, nuts, and chocolate. Back in our accountant’s office.

The next morning, at breakfast, it happened: We met the Spaniard! But we didn’t know it yet. At breakfast in the employee lounge-turned-dining room, there were two tiny tables. We took one, and two gentlemen came in and took the other. We didn’t speak to them; frankly, we were a little exhausted from trying to communicate with people and just wanted to be left alone. We heard them speaking English under low voices; one of them had an accent. He was taller and handsomer than me, he had an operatic voice, and his beard had its own Twitter account (probably). We didn’t talk with them then, but we would run into them again later.

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The River Sile.The Sile runs for 95 km (that’s about 59 miles) and flows into the Venetian lagoon. (Am I doing the tour-guide thing again?)

We had a free day to explore Treviso before the wedding craziness consumed us. Treviso is a midsize city (pop. 85,000) with its own pretty canals; its nickname is the Little Venice of the Mainland. The River Sile runs through it, and in Dante Alighieri’s 1320 narrative poem Divine Comedy, the town makes an appearance as the place “where the Sile and the Cagnan accompany each other.” Its city walls date to the 1500s, and like most of the places we visited, it contained buildings much older than that. There’s a cathedral with long stone steps out front that is popular with teenagers as a hang-out late at night. The most famous native son is Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton Group, the clothing company. There are no longer any United Colors of Benetton stores in The United States, but anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would remember their colorful clothing and ads; they are all over Italy and Europe. I told Jen, “The flagship Benetton store is in Treviso, and we have to go there.” She was not on board with that plan. “What are we going to do, buy a bunch of clothes and jam them into our carry-ons?” Still, I planned on visiting at some point. The other claim to fame for Treviso is that it is where tiramisu was invented. I was still drooling over the tiramisu we had back in Rome, so this meant a lot to me.

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Treviso has its own canals to rival Venice. All it was missing was the hordes of tourists to overrun it. Let’s keep the town our little secret, okay?

We strolled around the city and had a good lunch at Pizzeria “da Roberto.” I don’t know who this Roberto is or why they had the parentheses in the name of the restaurant, but the pizza and salad were tasty. A little fancier than what we were accustomed to, and once again we couldn’t get the attention of the servers when we wanted to leave. I body-blocked a busboy as he walked by and tossed a wad of euros in the air to let him know we were ready to pay. That seemed to work.

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This is the coat that Jen had to have from the Benetton store. Amazing, right? She has worn it zero times since we returned home. Zero! Come on, little sweater coat, make that leap into her rotation! (Editor’s note: Jen claims to have worn it one time, to a play that her daughter starred in. The author doesn’t remember that.)

We hit the Piazza Independenza and came upon the two-story Benetton flagship store. “Jen,” I said, “there it is!” She let out a “meh” and grudgingly agreed to go inside with me. (Italian-film buffs might recognize this area of Treviso as the filming location of the 1966 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner “Signore e Signori,” or as it was known in the United States, “The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians.”) Once we entered the store, however, Jen’s mood changed. She got this hypnotized look in her eyes and was drawn to this multi-colored, knee-length knitted coat hanging on a rack off to the side. “Ooh, I like this,” she kept saying, then tried various ways of justifying buying it and lugging it back to America in a carry-on. Meanwhile, I went upstairs to check out the menswear and came up with nothing. We were short on time, and I was realizing what Jen said was right: How would I jam anything else in my carry-on? So went back downstairs, and I saw that look in Jen’s eyes. No, not that one; the one that said, “I am going to buy that coat, carry-ons be damned.” So we bought it, and she just added a carry-on bag to the pile. I call it Jenny and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

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We look like a Benetton ad: “Benetton: even Spaniards love it!”

Randomly, we ran into some acquaintances from Australia on the streets; they were on their way to visit other in-town wedding guests, so we joined them. (Three-quarters of the wedding guests would be Italian, and the remaining quarter was mostly Australian with a few of us Americans in the mix.) We were invited to the rental apartment of an amazing Australian woman in her 80s who had basically traveled the world several times over and was still doing it late in life. Her son-in-law accompanied her on the trip; his wife couldn’t make it. I asked him if it was weird traveling with his mother-in-law; he looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” he said, “she’s great. I love her.” Boy, did I feel small for assuming all the in-law cliches applied to them. They served us an awesome spread of meats and cheeses and drinks that Jen and I turned into a free dinner.

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Ah, Treviso!

The next day was the wedding. Jen had to be picked up early with another out-of-towner from Australia, so I walked her over to the rendezvous spot, and off they went to do whatever women do with the bride on the morning of a wedding. I met up with some friends, and we waited for a shuttle van that took us to the church. Across the street from the church was a nice restaurant that hosted the wedding party and out-of-towners like me; pizza, meats, cheeses, desserts, and drinks were laid out for us. I could get used to this.

The bride (who is like a sister to Jen) and groom have a toddler son who I get to babysit every summer; he spotted me in the courtyard at this restaurant and immediately demanded that I get on the ground and play with his trucks with him. So while all the other adults enjoyed delicious food and sparkling conversation, I was on my knees in my wedding clothes going “vroom vroom” with my little buddy. I’m sure I made a great impression on all the Italian relatives.

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Let’s get this wedding started!

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Not a bad getaway car.

The wedding was magnificent. The bride lit up the church when she entered, and the groom was the only person in the room who could match her. The priest spoke in Italian and English; I was asked to do one of the readings (it was a tough call, but I opted for English). Then, halfway through the ceremony, the Spaniard stood up and sang. From deep within his beard that has its own Twitter account (probably) came a voice of such command and presence. Picture Pavarotti, or more accurately, Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras. Wow. After the wedding, Jen and I introduced ourselves to him and his partner, and we all recognized each other from the B&B.  Bizarrely, like Jen, they thought it was a “nice place.”

We all crowded into shuttle vans to head into the mountains for the reception. Initially, there wasn’t enough room for Jen to squeeze in, as she hadn’t been in the van on the way to the church. Desperate, I ran over to the best man, Francesco, and explained our dilemma. “Ah, Jenny,” he said, “I am the best man and she is, how do you say, the best woman?” He calmly walked over, spoke to the driver in Italian, smoothed things out, and 5 minutes later another van appeared from out of nowhere. That dude was being a best man like a boss.

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Heading up to the villa for the reception.

Almost an hour into our drive, the van driver pointed into the mountains to show us where the reception was: there were two separate villas in the heart of the Prosecco region (that’s an Italian white wine), one where most of the guests were staying, and then another about 10 minutes further up the mountain where a large house contained only three rooms and the large outdoor garden where the reception was held; somehow, Jen and I ended up with one of these rooms, allowing us to stumble into our bed after the reception ended.

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Hanging with our amazing octogenarian friend from Australia before the reception.

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Waiter! More Prosecco!

On the grass outside the villa was a long table that sat 100 people. When we went to be seated, I was supposed to be sitting across from Jen, who was next to the bride. A cousin of the groom started speaking in heated Italian to Francesco; clearly, by her arm movements, she was unhappy that she had to sit next to me instead of her husband or whoever. Francesco would listen to her screaming and yelling, say something to her, then turn to me and say, “Everything’s okay. You sit there.” Then she would yell at him some more, pointing at me, I’d say to Francesco, “Is everything okay?” and he’d smile and say, “Yes, yes, everything’s fine. You sit there.” After about 5 minutes of this, he yelled something at her, talked with about five people on the other side of the table, then smiled at me and said, “How would you like to sit on the other side of the table, next to your beautiful wife?” Perfect; he was killing it best-man style.

This being an Italian wedding, there were approximately 187 courses of food served during the dinner portion.

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Twelve days into the trip, and we still had those “can you believe we’re in Italy?!?” looks on our faces.

The side of the table that I sat on was backed up to the edge of the mountain. We had a gorgeous view over our shoulders of the surrounding valley that only got prettier as the night went on. Also, our chairs sunk deeper into the grass, and because of the slight slope, people would periodically lean back and fall over. I was talking to the woman to my left, and she tilted back laughing at one of my many witticisms, and down she went. We helped her back up, and not 2 minutes later, the man on her other side took a tumble. We could just stare down the table and predict who was going to fall next based on the number of Proseccos they drank. There was a fence protecting us from falling over the cliff, but I’m hoping someone did a headcount on our side of the table at the end of the night.

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I tried to get a picture of the sunset, but I found out later that we were facing east. I guess the sun sets in the west over in Italy.

My little babysitting buddy was having a blast, but he was all riled up. By the time the dancing started, he was looking for me. I picked him up and started dancing with him, and within a few minutes, he fell dead asleep in my arms. I laid him down in the building on a couch, where he slept for the rest of the night. The groom’s Italian relatives hugged and kissed me for this; whatever they were saying in Italian, I’m assuming they were calling me the toddler whisperer or something similar.

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Cocktail hour. This being an Italian wedding, “cocktail hour” meant “burgers, meats, and cheeses hour.” I was stuffed before dinner began.

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“Hi, I’d like to make a reservation. Do you have a table for a hundred? Oh, good, we’ll take that one.”

At about midnight, I was exhausted. Jen checked with the bride about how late the reception would go. She laughed and said it was just getting started; she promised that pasta would be brought out soon to rev people up for more dancing. So we danced; a little-known fact about me is that I can clear a dance floor with my moves. Invite me to a wedding and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, at about 2 in the morning, Jen and I dragged ourselves upstairs to our room and collapsed on our bed. From what we heard the next day, the party raged on until 4:30.

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After-wedding brunch in the villa.

Late the next morning was a lovely brunch with the wedding party and out-of-towners; we got to say goodbye to all of our Australian friends and talk some more with the Spaniard. We hitched a ride with some of the groom’s relatives back to Treviso, where we spent one more day relaxing and recovering from the wedding. We found a different hotel this time; it was called B&B Hotel, which was a strange name because it wasn’t what you’d normally call a B&B but rather a chain hotel. The first “B” part was great; it was clean, modern, and comfy, probably the best hotel we stayed in on the whole trip, if lacking in uniqueness. the “&B” part was good, too, but breakfast was an extra cost, so it was more like “B plus B if you want to pay more.” Still, if by some miracle you find yourself in Treviso, I recommend it.

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The last photo I took in Italy: another Treviso street scene.

Our 80-something-year-old friend called us up and invited us to dinner with her son-in-law and her, so we hung with them for a really nice evening. We walked over to a pizza place, had good conversation, and said so long in the night. We wandered down the streets of Treviso, and amazingly, we ran into the Spaniard, his partner, and a few other Australians from the wedding. They took us to a gelato place, then we sat on the steps of the cathedral with about 50 teenagers and ate our treats. At one point, I was complaining about the state of the world to the Spaniard, and he said, “Let’s not worry about that now. Right now, just think: we are here, in Italy, with new friends and old, eating gelato on the steps of a cathedral on a wonderful evening.”

Perfect. That was a nice summary of what the trip was all about for Jen and me. I could go on and bore you with the details of the next day’s bus ride to the Venice airport and the 9-hour flight back home, but let’s leave it at this sweet gelato-fueled moment, shall we?

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The Trip to Italy Episode 4: Florence and the Three Davids

Before we visited Italy, I didn’t have much interested in going to Florence. I would have ranked Florence, Italy, as my third- or fourth-favorite Florence, behind Florence Henderson (Carol Brady in “The Brady Bunch”), Florence and the Machine (British indie rock), and maybe Florence Nightingale (sure, she basically created the whole field of modern nursing in the Victorian age, but what has she done in the last 120 years?).

Way back in Rome, on the first day of our guided tour, the 26 of us sat in a circle on a rooftop deck at our hotel and named the one thing we were looking forward to doing on this trip. The vast majority chose the Cinque Terre. There were some votes for Tuscany, wine, food, and some of the sights of Rome. (I said that we left our kids behind with my in-laws, so the rest of the trip was gravy for me.) Exactly zero people mentioned anything in Florence as their top choice.

But then we got there. And it was spettacolare! 

Before we arrived, though, we had one last trip on the luxury tour bus. Every time we got on the bus, our guide would balance letting us snooze with lecturing us on any topic that popped into his head. We’d be cruising along the Autostrade, in and out of sleep, when the intercom system would click on and he’d start speaking in a voice-of-God manner: “Let’s devote some time to the history of Tuscan cuisine.” And off he’d go. Sometimes he would provide us with our room numbers for the upcoming hotels, but usually he’d stare out the front windshield, not even checking if any of us were awake, and ramble on about Italian politics, history, art and architecture, wine and cheeses, etc. He loved giving Italian language lessons: “Lesson one: Grazie does not rhyme with Yahtzee. It’s three syllables: Grot-see-ay.” He’d point out sights from the window: “There’s Andrea Bocelli’s childhood home;” “Those are the mountains where Cararra marble is harvested;” “There’s Pisa, see the leaning tower?”

He surprised us on that last bus ride with a stopover at something none of us knew had even existed: the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, the last resting place for over 4,300 U.S. military dead. We spent an hour walking around the hillside 70 acres of headstones, and our guide filled in for the cemetery superintendent to provide us with a history lesson on the Allied invasion of Italy, a mission that happened a year before the Normandy invasion and offered lessons on how to better prepare for that excursion. (The superintendent was not available for anything other than a quick 5-minute talk because he was with family members of a soldier buried there, and that’s his first priority.) Humbling and quieting.

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Poor Duplo! I never got to taste your sweet goodness in your true form! (I did lick the melted chocolate off the wrapper, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same.)

Before we stopped there, we had made a pitstop at a rest area, and I bought an Italian candy bar, the Ferrero Duplo Nocciolato, a chocolate-covered hazelnut candy bar. I stuck it in my pocket and got back on the bus. “Aah,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “time to enjoy a little Italian sweetness.” She said, “Um, no, you have to wait until we get off the bus. No food on the bus!” I looked at the other bus riders: they were busy passing around bags of m&ms and packages of biscotti, chocolate and crumbs spilling on the floors, and sloshing their coffees all over the seats. But sure, we’ll be the rule followers here. “When can I eat it?” I asked. “When we get to the cemetery.” That’s ridiculous, I thought, and maybe a little disrespectful to eat at a cemetery. But I waited anyway.

So after we toured the cemetery, I said to Jen, “Now?” She gave me the nod. I opened the packaging, and as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what happens to a chocolate bar kept in one’s pocket for 90 minutes (did I mention it was 80 degrees out? Sorry, I should say 27 degrees Celsius for you Europeans, meaning really hot), It was a melted, yucky mess. “Gosh, that looks awful,” Jen said. “You probably should have eaten it earlier.” Oh, you think? Thanks a lot, lady! You’d think that would be the last time I listen to her about food. You’d be wrong. (See the bollito sandwich section below.)

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I was trying to get a shot of the pizza place in the background, but this gorgeous Italian bride and her groom had to ruin the photo. Thanks a lot, Florentines!

One thing you notice when you arrive in Florence is the lack of autos. The roads are narrow, cobblestoned, winding, and clogged with walkers. Our bus had to drop us off a few blocks from the hotel because it was too wide for the hotel’s street. (Rolling Thunder 2018 was back! The tour group’s wheeled suitcases were put to good use on this trip.) The city center purposely makes it a hassle for drivers: the only vehicles allowed on the streets are taxis, limo services, some tour buses if they are dropping off passengers, police, and delivery vehicles. It’s bizarre to be in a city that prioritizes pedestrians. You’d be walking, and you’d feel something hovering behind you: there would be a taxi or three, silently and patiently creeping behind you. But nobody honks. I got the feeling that if a driver honked at walkers, he’d be pulled from his car and beaten with slabs of prosciutto by a crowd of angry Florentines.

Our hotel was 720 years old. It was called the Torre Guelfa, or the Guelph Tower, named of course for the centuries-long power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two factions in Italy that argued about the supremacy of the Pope vs. the Holy Roman Emperor. (It’s not often that a hotel promotes its charming, welcoming aspects with the words “papal supremacy.”) It was imposing, with a tower that can be accessed by a steep staircase with amazing panoramic views of Florence. It was very dark; I pulled the drapes back in our room and it seemed as if I was the first to do it since the 1500s. Plus, bonus, there was this wide, square staircase that went up and up with an opening in the center, where a glass elevator shaft was added; I kept waiting to see Jason Bourne either ride a motorcycle down the stairs or jump to the elevator shaft and slide down the side of it.

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View of Florence from the Altrarno neighborhood.

The first thing we did when we hit town was head out in search of these special Florentine sandwiches at the Mercato Centrale. Our guide suggested we go there for shopping and lunch, and if we were brave enough, he recommended a certain deli counter that had two particular sandwiches: the bollito and the lampredotto. We kept hearing people say that Tuscany is known for its meats, and Florence is known for its own particular meats. (Town motto: “Florence: Come for the Meats, Stay in a Papal-Supremacy Hotel!”) Here’s what you need to know about the bollito: it means, roughly, “boiled meat,” and as far as anyone would tell us, it’s the meat from the back-fat of a cow. But it could be any meat from anywhere (on, I guess, any animal). It’s sort of like roast beef. And the lampredotto: that means “like a lamprey eel,” but it’s actually (are you ready for this?) the fourth and final stomach of a cow, sliced up and cooked in a broth. I don’t know why the “and final” part is added to the description of the cow stomach from which it is taken; does that make it more appealing? “Oh, it’s the fourth and final stomach of the cow? Give me two!”

We walked around the market; the first floor was concrete-floored, lots of meat and fish counters, many other food products, and generally a little dirty/gritty. There’s one counter that everyone gravitates toward, like flies to a rotting carcass. (“Rotting meat carcass” would be another accurate translation of “bollito.”) Jen said, “Why don’t you get the bollito and I’ll get the lampredotto?” I said okay, not so much because I was looking forward to the bollito but because I was starving and it sounded better than the fourth (and final!) cow stomach.

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Our first glimpse of Michelangelo’s David.

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This David statue is a Goliath! (Heyo, Biblical humor!)

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This guy really doesn’t have a bad angle.

Here’s the problem with being from the Chicago area: I know what a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich tastes like. (Shout out to Little Joe’s in LaGrange for one of the best!) The bollito that I had tasted like…boiled meat. It was okay. Then Jen said, “I can’t finish my lampredotto; do you want some?” I should have said no, but we were in Florence, other tourists were eating it, so I thought why not. This is why not: I couldn’t chew the stomach meat or fat or folds, whatever they were, enough to get them to a small-enough chunk to swallow. I’ve never gagged on a food before, but I couldn’t choke this stuff down. If you visit any food-centric website discussing Tuscan cuisine, they all mention the lampredotto and the bollito and how this “authentic Florentine street food” is a must. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s okay to say, “No thanks, I’m saving room in my first (and only) stomach for the gelato.

Florence is easily walkable, and we were getting better at not getting lost in Italy. We walked with purpose back from the Mercato Centrale to the hotel and definitely got lost, but since we knew our hotel was near the Arno River, we pushed onward until we hit a body of water, hoping that it wasn’t the Mediterranean (which is 92 kilometers away, so that would have been embarrassing).

Our morning walk brought us to the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. This square has some impressive sights in it: the Palazzo Vecchio (the “old palace”), which is the town hall; the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is a triple-arched alcove containing an open-air sculpture gallery containing a dozen or more statues from up to 500 years ago; and, on the corner, the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery, a museum housed in the Medici family’s former offices. As our guide pointed out sights and we walked toward the palazzo, I couldn’t help but noticing…wait, that can’t be…is that…Michelangelo’s statue of David in the front of the palazzo?!? What the heck? I thought it was in a museum somewhere!

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At Piazza della Signoria, with the creepy Cellini statue showing Perseus with the head of Medusa. Note the replica statue of David in front of city hall in the background.

Turns out the original is in a museum somewhere, which we’d be visiting the next day. This replica stands, however, in the exact spot where the statue first stood in 1504. The original was moved indoors in 1873 to the Accademia (“Academy”), after having suffered a broken toe, a broken finger on the right hand, damage to the base from lightning, and, not surprisingly considering Italian politics, an arm broken off in three pieces when rioters occupied city hall and threw furniture out the windows at it.

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Our first glance at the Duomo, behind the nave and the bell tower. A few days later, we climbed to the top of that sucker; if you look closely, you can see people at the railing, just above the orange of the roof tiles. If you listen closely, you can hear a few of them screaming, “Get me the frick off this thing before it collapses!”

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The narrow staircase between the two domes to get to the top. Whose idea was this?!? (Hint: not mine.)

We continued our walk to the Duomo (officially the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or “Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower”). Fun fact about Florence: nearly all of their most-visited sites have boring names: the Dome, the Offices, the Academy, the Old Bridge, the Old Palace. Anyway, the cathedral and its dome are so remarkable that it’s hard to peel your eyes off of them. The architectural specifics behind the construction of the dome are fascinating, and not to get too much into the science of it here (because I have no idea what I’m talking about, even after reading the Wikipedia entry about it), but basically, the Italians had forgotten the technique by which the ancient Romans had built domes such as Hadrian’s Pantheon (I talked about it way back in my Rome post), and the concern was that no self-supported dome would stand. The original architect for the dome, di Cambio, proposed his plan in the 1200s, then died before any work was begun. About 200 (!) years went by before anyone else decided to take a crack at it. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400s. He worked out the math behind it, creating an inner and an outer dome, called upon his friend Donatello (of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame) to build a wood-and-brick model with him to explain it, and only 60 short years later, the dome was completed.

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This walkway on the inner ceiling of the dome leads to the last, curved staircase to the overlook. Jen: “Only 15 more minutes to the top!”

We visited the dome and church several times over the next few days, including climbing between the two domes to the top of it. For those of you who are afraid of heights and also don’t trust the laws of physics and math, I would suggest not squeezing your way up the 463 steps to the top of the dome and outside to the viewing area. It was dizzying. Also, on the inside, at one point you walk along the inner side of the dome and see, worryingly, massive cracks in the ceiling of the dome. Our guide said that engineers don’t really know what’s happening or how to counteract it, so it’s best if we visit it while it’s not under renovation (or collapsed). So we spent a good 10 minutes on the top, looking over the whole city, while in my head I was having a mini panic attack and was ready to get the frick off of it as soon as Jen was ready.

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Me at the top of the Duomo. I just kept telling myself, “I’m brave like a Spaniard!”

One night, we had another outstanding, one-of-a-kind view of Florence, this time from the tower back at our papal-supremacy hotel. Halfway up the walk to the tower, there was a tiny bar with beers and wines that you had to carry the rest of the way up yourself. There were about five tables on the open-air rooftop; we spent a pleasant hour there chatting with our tour mates before heading down for bed.

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View from our hotel’s tower. Those Guelphs really knew where to place their papal-supremacy hotels.

The second full day in Florence, we visited The Accademia (so called because it’s a gallery connected to an art academy), where Michelangelo’s original David now stands. It really is incredible to approach this perfect-human-specimen statue down a long corridor, be able to walk around it, and study it closely from any angle. You notice the veins on David’s arms and how realistic his muscles look. Of course, for me it was like looking in a mirror. People would say, “This is amazing!” and I’d reply, “I know! How lucky Jen must be to look at a body like this every day!” Then they’d walk away slowly as I stared off into space, smiling at my own humor.

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Carabe! Nothing like a tasty gelato to clear the palate of the lampredotto.

Our guide had suggested two gelaterias in Florence: Gelateria Edoardo, near the Duomo, where there was always a long line, and Carabe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop a little bit harder to get to near the Accademia. Most of the people on our tour chose Edoardo because it was easy to find; Jen was feeling confident about our chances of finding Carabe (mostly because we already stumbled upon it while leaving the Accademia). I can’t speak about Edoardo because we skipped it, but Carabe was out of this world. So good. We went back the next day. It was definitely the best gelato we would have in the whole country. The flavors were inventive, the creaminess was tongue-pleasing, and I am starting to sound like a snob describing it so I will stop. Just, if you find yourself in Florence for any reason, seek it out. And tell them the Spaniard sent you.

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She wasn’t even this happy on our wedding day.

There were tons of leather shops in Florence. (Not those kinds of leather shops, you sickos.) Our guide, who had misled me about finding wood and alabaster in Florence, was right about one thing: if you like shopping, Florence will please you. High-end retailers, the world’s best clothiers, jewelers along the Ponte Vecchio, and, if you’re into cheap leather goods, so much leather. There was one shop across the street from our hotel. And when I say “across the street,” the street was only about 10 feet wide, so we’re talking within spitting distance (but don’t spit in Florence, that’s rude). Jen kept circling back to the window every time we passed. I knew where this was heading. “Hey,” she said casually one evening, “maybe we should pop in there and take a look. You know, for souvenirs for the kids.” Sure, for the kids. I was on to her. Ten minutes and one fancy leather strapped shoulder bag later, we left with one thing for her and zero things for the kids.

Two other great museums that we saw: the Uffizi and the Museo del Duomo. The Uffizi was crowded with paintings by Renaissance Masters. I couldn’t spin a fancy leather bag above my head without hitting a Renaissance painting. (Seriously, I couldn’t. Their crack security squad wouldn’t let me.) I’d turn a corner and be like, “Hey, it’s Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” or, “Oh, look, there’s another da Vinci/Titian/Caravaggio/Bronzino,” etc. There were almost too many great paintings that it got boring. Just kidding, it was awesome.

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In the Museo dell’Opera, original statues from the exterior of the Duomo and cathedral.

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Jen in Florence. Looking like the Spaniard that she claims to be.

Jen and I ducked into the Museo del Duomo, which a lot of our fellow tour mates were skipping. It’s next door to the Duomo and is devoted to the construction and planning of the cathedral. I know that sounds uninteresting, but maybe you’re uninteresting. Sorry, I’m a little testy and probably suffering from gelato withdrawal now that I’m back in the States. Technically, the museum itself is called Museo dell’Opera, I have no idea why. Anyway, it has a neat layout that allows you to see the artwork of the cathedral up close, including some originals that have been removed from the sides of the buildings. Spread out over three stories and in 25 rooms, the artwork (mostly sculptures) highlights the history of the cathedral, and there’s a bonus on the top floor: an exit leads you to a balcony that overlooks the Duomo.

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They do like their Vespas in Italy.

Our last night in Florence was spent at a feast at a nearby restaurant. Our guide knew the owner, so the food and the wine flowed nonstop. This being Florence, the menu was mostly meat-based. Sorry, vegetarians! The meal was bittersweet; after instantly bonding with the few dozen people on our tour and spending a week and a half with them, we were about to say goodbye and never see most of them ever again. (I assume I’m going to keep in touch with my wife. But other than her…) The late-night walk back to the hotel, and the conversations that continued in the hotel lobby and up on the tower, were like graduation night; no one wanted to be the ones to end the party.

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Ciao, Fiorenze! (Inside joke; I don’t drink wine.)

The next day, we had until mid-morning before we had to catch our train to Venice. I convinced Jen to go on one last side trip, this time across the Arno River and to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a park in the Oltrarno district with a panoramic view of the whole city. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, with its fancy jewelry shops not yet opened for the day’s business, and into the funky Oltrarno neighborhood. Up a hill and several steep staircases, we found ourselves looking at…could it be?…yes, another statue of Michelangelo’s David, this one a bronze reproduction. Criminy, those Florentines love their anatomically correct naked-man statues! The view was magnificent, looking out across the river (not looking back at David’s anatomy, although that was fairly magnificent, too).

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The third and final David statue in Florence. I laugh at the number of Davids there are in Florence, but there are at least 12 in the United States, including in Philadelphia; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and, of course, Las Vegas.

I said to Jen, “A pretty good way to end this part of the journey, eh?” She said, “Give me a gelato and a lampredotto sandwich, and I could stay here for a long time.” I knew it was the right time to move on when Jen started waxing philosophically about the fourth (and final!) stomach of a cow.

Bear with me, faithful readers, we have one more leg of this adventure: a quick stop in Venice, then out to the lovely town of Treviso and our friends’ wedding! (You do remember that this whole trip was about a wedding, right?)

 

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The Trip to Italy Episode 3: Cinque Terre (“The Five Terrys”)

Where was I? Oh right, on a tour bus in Tuscany, having escaped the Visigoths and Etruscans in the walled city of Volterra, my lovely wife Jen at my side. We were heading for the Cinque Terre, the beautiful cliff-clinging towns strung along the Italian Riviera. If I’m not mistaken, “Cinque Terre” translates to “Five Terrys,” named after five guys named Terry from Passaic, New Jersey, who first came up with the idea of dragging their wives and kids to the small towns of the Mediterranean; the area has been jammed with baggy-shorts-wearing American tourists with rolling luggage every summer since. Hang on, Jen is telling me that “terre” means “land” in Italian. So, five lands, or villages. That makes WAY more sense than what I came up with.

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The Lucca city wall. Note the grass and trees on the wall itself. It was originally built to keep enemies out. Now it’s used to keep tourists in.

Before we arrived in the Cinque Terre, however, we had a quick 2-hour stop in Lucca, another Tuscan walled city. Their city wall was wide like a boulevard: on top, there was a crushed-gravel path that you could walk or ride bikes on, grassy areas, and trees lining the path. Lucca’s central plaza, the Piazza Anfiteatro, was oval, with curved buildings lining it. There was once a Roman amphitheater on the spot, and as the walls of it crumbled, new buildings went up to replace those sections.

Each neighborhood had a tower that the wealthiest family in that area built, dating to the 1300s. Torre Guinigi is the most notable for the trees that grow at the top of it. You can walk to the top for city views, if you are up for the 230 steps (and the hordes of tourists at the top).

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Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, or Amphitheater Square. Misleading because (a) there is no longer an amphitheater there (note how the buildings are curved because they were built around the original amphitheater walls), and (2) it’s not square. Ah, geometry humor!

We had a local guide who told us colorful stories about the history of Lucca while walking us around town. She peppered her talk with comments about the long-standing rivalries that Lucca has had with other Tuscan cities, such as Pisa (“nasty, stinky, dirty Pisa,” she’d say) and Florence (“those filthy, lying, double-crossing Florentines, worse than the Pisans, ptooey,” she said, while spitting on the ground). I’m going to be generous here and assume she was joking.

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Terre Guinigi. The only tower in Lucca that has trees growing on it. Originally grown for the fruit for the family’s kitchen, the trees are now used to attract tourists. It works.

We were on our own for lunch; our guide recommended that we try a local delicacy, a sort-of pancake made out of chickpea flour and olive oil called either “farinata” or “cecina.” After getting lost trying to locate a restaurant (but we walked with purpose!), we found a place that sold farinata. Reflecting our growing comfort in speaking Italian, we walked up to the counter and said, “Um, due (two) della…” and then pointed at the farinata. Really smooth; we were practically native speakers at this point. The farinata was good, but I kept thinking, shouldn’t we be eating healthier food than just this bread for lunch? Jen agreed, so we found a gelateria. While we were strolling with our gelatos, someone asked us for directions, mistaking us for locals or, more likely, Spaniards. I pointed them in the general direction of where we got lost, and then we found a bench in a piazza.

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How were we not supposed to get lost when Lucca’s streets were this beautiful and confusing?!?

While we were sitting there, the winds picked up and started swirling around the piazza. There was a restaurant next to us, and they had this fancy outdoor seating area with umbrellas that had glass lanterns hanging from them. The wind kept getting stronger, to the point where I said, “We should really move further away from that stuff in case it gets blown toward us.” Jen laughed at me and said, “We’re fine.” First about 2,000 napkins blew off of the tables and went scattering about the piazza. Then a few metal chairs were overturned. “Now?” I asked. “We’re fine,” she said. Then some glass lanterns came crashing down and shattered. “How about now?” Jen dug in her heels: “We’re fine!” Then, alarmingly, the umbrellas were being lifted along with their heavy support bases and slammed down on the ground over and over. I said, “Okay, that’s it, I’m moving, I don’t care what you say!” So we moved to a bench further away from the umbrellas, and miraculously, the winds died down. “See, I told you, we were fine,” Jen said, and nonchalantly finished her gelato. Plus, she didn’t share any of the gelato with me. What a jerk!

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Is that a Spaniard resting from his bike ride across Europe? No, it’s just me at a canal in Lucca. Also, I don’t know whose bike that is; I hope they didn’t mind that I dragged it from their backyard out onto the street for the photo op! Grazie!

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t pay to use a bathroom in Italy, but I couldn’t help myself as we waited for our bus to the Cinque Terre. Our tour guide had mentioned that, although there was a toilet on the bus, it was a hassle because the driver had to turn on a separate power supply to get it functional, so to use it while the bus was moving, you had to tell the driver and the guide (and basically everyone on the bus) that you couldn’t hold it until the next stop. I did not want to be that guy, even though the likelihood was high that if there was a that guy on the bus, it was going to be me. There was a cafe next to our meet-up area, and several of our tour mates were in line for the bathroom. So I bought a bottled water and got in line. Not exactly paying for the bathroom, but that was the quid pro quo. (That’s Latin for “can I pee here?”)

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One of the beautiful Cinque Terre cities. I believe this is Corniglia, but I’m not 100% sure; I was drunk on limoncino when this photo was snapped. (There might be 35 blurry selfies on my camera roll from this day.)

Our bus driver, Giorgio, was a native of Tuscany and handled the twisting mountainside roads down into Levanto with aplomb; for someone like me who gets motion-sick just looking out the side of a moving vehicle, it was much appreciated. Levanto is actually not one of the Cinque Terre villages, but just north of the northernmost of them (north to south, the cities in the Cinque Terre: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore). Levanto was pleasant and tourist-filled, but it was a flat seaside city with its own beach, not one of the picturesque mountainside villages worthy of the “Cinque Terre” label.

The first thing we did when we got to Levanto was to have a feast in the lobby of our hotel. The hotel owner used to run a fancy restaurant in Levanto, so he wanted to host dinner for us with all sorts of Tuscan specialties, including rabbit. (Tuscan cuisine is known for its meats.) Our guide kept talking it up, how much we had to try the rabbit and how the Tuscans love their rabbits. (Not like a pet, presumably: “I love Fluffy! Let’s cook him for dinner!”) Giorgio the bus driver (picture Bruce Springsteen with a thick Italian accent, and you might get a sense of why all the ladies and some of us guys in the group wanted to sit with him) ate near Jen and me, and we noticed he wasn’t eating any of the rabbit. We asked him why. He shook his head: “Nobody from Tuscany eats the rabbit in Levanto. Now, if you want seafood, then yes, come to Levanto. But the rabbit here is…” (he made a sad frown) “…so you eat rabbit from the mountains and forests away from the coast.” Not exactly our Lucca guide’s “nasty, stinky, dirty” comments, but definitely more of that Tuscan provincialism.

At the meal, our host filled shot glasses with a local version of the fluorescent-yellow Italian hard liquor called “limoncello,” or “limoncino” as it is known in northern Italy. I decided to try it even though I’m not a drinker. Have you ever tasted paint thinner? Well, you shouldn’t because it could kill you, but I’m sure it would taste a lot like limoncino. I stuck with the “acqua naturale” the whole rest of the trip.

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This is definitely Corniglia. We could have stayed there forever. (But they have a strict “tourists can’t stay here forever” rule.)

The next day was a free day to explore the beaches and villages, so Jen and I decided to take the train that connects all the coastal towns down to Corniglia and hike back to Vernazza. There’s a nice, challenging hike connecting the Cinque Terre villages (called Cinque Terre National Park); our guidebook said that some of the stretches were closed because of rockslides and that we shouldn’t attempt it on wet or rainy days because most of the trail is rocky and mountainous and gets very slippery, so the risk of injury is high. It was a cloudy day, but there was no rain in the forecast, so we decided to give the 90-minute hike a go. (This is called “foreshadowing,” folks.)

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“I can see a tiny boat from here!”

At the tiny town of Corniglia, we had another one of those “how do we get out of here?!?” moments. The train drops you off…somewhere. There didn’t appear to be a town anywhere. There was a stairwell across the street from the station, so we started walking up the steps, until we realized it was private property. So we walked back down the stairs and noticed a few other people on a different, steeper set of stairs. So we took those up, and up, and up, until we reached the town proper. Corniglia is cute and colorful, with a few standout cliffside ocean views. We didn’t attempt to find beach access (we just looked over a stone wall and said, “Hey look down there, it’s the Mediterranean,” and moved on), so we headed for the trail. When we got to the trail, there was a college-aged guy sitting in a hut. He was there to collect fees and let us know how the trail looked. He said, “Everything’s great out there. Just know that you don’t want to be on the trail if it starts raining. It’s difficult enough already without being wet, but when it is wet, you could basically die with each step.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.)

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The aforementioned tiny boat.

I didn’t even bother trying to talk Jen out of the walk; I’ve been on enough treacherous nature hikes to know what she was going to say: “It’s fine,” “we’re experienced hikers at this point,” “you’re just being a wimp again,” “I haven’t managed to kill you on a vacation yet.” And so forth. The walk was lovely, and the views were apparently stunning. I say “apparently” because it was so cloudy and misty that it was hard to see anything. Most people return from trips to the Cinque Terre with amazing photos of these gorgeous, colorful towns; us, not so much because of the clouds. And then 10 minutes into the walk, it started to rain. We had raincoats, of course, but after a few minutes we were completely soaked. It was the type of rain that causes guidebook writers to suggest that you schlep your raincoats across the continent just in case there’s that one horrible day when you need them. After an hour, we had to laugh. (After an hour and a half of slipping and sliding with every step, we had to cry.) We saw other people on the trail, and they all had that “we paid a lot of money to come to this place, and by golly we are going to get our money’s worth” look in their eyes.

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Looking back at Corniglia from the hiking trail, just before the clouds turned “brutto” (that means bad).

The rains really picked up as we approached Vernazza. Vernazza is (again) usually stunning, but it was raining so hard that we just wanted to get to the train station. You approach it from above; as you come down from a mountain, there is a fork in the trail, and you can see the train station straight down from the fork, but you don’t know which path to take to get to it quickly. So we went left. We chose wrong. It did take us into the heart of Vernazza, but we were trudging and slipping and clinging to doors of private residences trying to make our way to that train station, which turned out to be just a few steps down from the fork if you took the right path. When we got to the train, we looked like two wet puppy dogs who had had enough of living on the streets and were ready to be adopted by any family that would take us in. We left puddles on the train seats and squish-squished our way back to the hotel.

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Jen: “Look at all the treacherous rocks on this trail. This should be fun!”
Me: “Oh brother.”

After hanging up our clothes to dry, we hit the tiny shower in our hotel. Again, our tour guides like to pick unique hotels in the center of town, so you never know what you’re going to get with the bathrooms. What we got was a shower about the size of half a phone booth. (Editor’s note: For millennial readers, insert explanation of what a phone booth is here.) It was made for a person three quarters the size of an average adult, which conveniently I am. Still, I couldn’t lift my arms above my head for fear of knocking a hole in the wall with my elbows. There was a guy on the trip who was about 6-foot-4 and muscular, and we asked him how he showered in that hotel; he said, “First I backed in and did the rear side, then I came out and reentered headfirst and did the front.”

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Arriving in Vernazza, we were completely soaked and exhausted, and we couldn’t find the train station. That’s vacation-blog-post gold!

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Gorgeous Monterroso al Mare. That’s Italian for “red mountain on the sea.” Or “land of overpriced restaurants for American tourists,” one or the other.

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The beach in Monterosso al Mare. Nice! I dipped my hand in the Mediterranean, just to say I did it. It felt like water.

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Levanto, the not-quite Cinque Terre city where we stayed. This was on our hike up the “Certain Doom” trail. I managed to survive only by convincing Jen to turn back when it got dark.

Later that same day, we went to Monterosso al Mare, and it was comically sunny as we walked along the oceanfront street and watched crowds at the beach. We decided to do another hike that would take us back to our hotel in Levanto, but as we approached the trailhead, a sign said, “Warning: Trail closed until further notice. Do not attempt to hike it or you will face certain doom.” (Paraphrasing.) Miraculously, Jen agreed not to try it. After a train ride home for dinner and a gelato, we went for a sunset stroll along the boardwalk in Levanto. We came upon a stairwell and decided to take it on a whim. It went past ritzy mansions and then stopped at a road that led up toward the cliffs. We started walking it and realized it was the opposite entrance to the trail marked “Certain Doom.” Here, there were no signs, no obvious reasons why it would be closed, and beautiful overlooks of Levanto, a city so gorgeous that it rivals any of the official Cinque Terre cities; I’d argue that you’re better off staying there because it is less crowded, less hilly, has tons of restaurants and shopping, has a jewel of a beach, and is still on the train line to reach the other tourist-overrun cities. Because it was getting dark, we couldn’t walk far enough on the trail to find where the Certain Doom parts were. Lucky me.

The next morning, we boarded the bus and headed for Florence, which I’ll cover in my next post. Ah, Florence: birthplace of the Renaissance; a city of romance, political intrigue, and way, way too many statues of naked men in public places. I mean, seriously people.

Thanksgiving Dishes: The Ultimate Ranking

Let’s get straight to it: You don’t have time to read a blog post about the joy of traditions and family and giving thanks for whatever it is I’m thankful for. I’m here to rank traditional Thanksgiving dishes by order of enjoyment. Judged by me, the expert.

What makes me an expert on Thanksgiving? I’m glad you asked. These are my qualifications: 1. I am an American, last time I checked. 2. I eat food.

Let’s do this!

The Ultimate Ranking of Thanksgiving Dishes (from Best to Worst)

1. That sweet potato dish with the big, puffy marshmallows on top. I love that stuff. Jen’s family introduced me to that. Oddly, my family never ate sweet potatoes when I was a kid. The marshmallows on top are not necessary. (But come on; seriously, who doesn’t love them when they melt into the sweet potatoes?)

2. Pumpkin pie. Illinois is the top pumpkin-producing state in the nation. Around 90% to 95% of all pumpkins used for canning are grown in Illinois. In fact, in 2012, Illinois produced twice as many pumpkins as the second-leading state, California. (Oh, snap! Now California has a pumpkin inferiority complex!) I totally did not make up this information; it came from The Illinois Farm Bureau and the University of Illinois Extension.) None of this explains why I love pumpkin pie, though. I have a secret ingredient for making awesome pumpkin pie. (Is the secret ingredient “love”? It might be.)

3. Cornbread. One of my old flames taught me how to make delicious cornbread. Her name is Betty Crocker. Oh, you’ve heard of her?

4. Stuffing. An in-law of mine makes a sausage-based stuffing that is to die for. On the years that we don’t get together with that side of the family, Jen gets a twitchy look in her left eye that speaks directly to me: “Find. That. Recipe.”

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This was either colored by my son during his preschool years or painted by Picasso during his Blue and Purple Turkey Period.

5. Turkey. Of course turkey was going to be in my top five. But I am ambivalent about it. I enjoy it when properly cooked. I have improperly cooked it many, many times. I’m getting better. My father-in-law loans me his electric carving knife when I host Thanksgiving; he makes me do the carving because he is testing my manhood. The first time he made me do it, things didn’t go so well. (I believe my final words after having gotten the knife stuck in the skeleton of the turkey were, “Mommy! Make it stop!”) I’m getting better.

6. Whipped cream. Can this be a separate entry?

7. Cranberry sauce (not canned). I make a cranberry swirl bread that is so time-consuming that, frankly, I would rather just prepare the cranberry filling and eating it. (Cranberries and sugar; it’s a beautiful thing.)

8. Cranberry sauce (canned). Jen prefers the jellied cranberry sauce.  I use it in the days that follow Thanksgiving on a leftover-turkey sandwich. I’m a little creeped out by the metal-can shape it holds when it slips out of the can.

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Our youngest, light of our lives, did this one. We pull this artwork out of storage every year, to embarrass them. Now it’s on the Internet. Forever.

9. Black olives/gherkin pickles. My dad was a big fan of these food items, so they always had a place on our table at the holidays. My siblings and I would put five olives on a hand under the table and then wave at each other with them before our beagle, Tiger, would eat them off of our fingers. My mom was under the impression that we ate the olives. Please don’t feed your dog olives; they are probably not good for dogs in large quantities. (But Tiger had an iron stomach and lived for 15 years.)

10. Bread rolls. Because dinner wasn’t filling enough already. I only ate them because, being the youngest in the family, I never knew when the food would run out before it got passed to me. (This explains so much about my personality; I should really be sharing this stuff with a therapist and not with the Internet.)

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My middle child drew this. “My favorite food is mash ptados and grave.”

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Why are the mashed potatoes black? Because the white crayon wouldn’t show up on the paper. Obviously.

11. Mashed potatoes/gravy. I know I am in the minority here when I say that I’m not a big fan. There have been times when one of my kids ate only mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving. Just a big plate filled with white slop and brownish sludge. I don’t have time for something that doesn’t have sugar in it.

12. Mincemeat pie. Is there actually meat in it? Does it have to be minced? Can it be diced or chopped? Again, my dad likes it, so I defer to him on this. Turns out, according to Linda Stradley of What’s Cooking America, this was a way of preserving meat in the 11th century. According to an English cookbook from 1545, “Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth…” I’m sorry, I have to stop. That sentence is all kinds of annoying for the editor in me. Didn’t people know how to spell in 1545? (By the way, canned mincemeat nowadays might only have dried fruit and spices, but there are animal fats in it.)

13. Green bean casserole. Oh dear God. Please keep this “food” off of my Thanksgiving plate. I know that there are a good many people who absolutely adore this stuff. You can’t explain taste. But I will try: I believe that these people are missing taste buds. This was an annual tradition at the Dudley house; it is part of the reason I got married so young and moved out. This wasn’t even one of the original dishes passed around at the first Thanksgiving: it was actually invented in 1955 by the Campbell’s Soup Company. Cream of mushroom soup, green beans, French fried onions. General rule: If you would never eat two or more ingredients in a recipe by themselves, you shouldn’t eat all of them slopped together.

So that’s my ultimate list. I know I left off some dishes that others might traditionally have at their Thanksgiving feasts (e.g., collard greens, apple or pecan pie, deviled eggs, turducken, pepperoni pizza, leftover Halloween candy), but I don’t have time for arguments now: as we speak, my father-in-law is cleaning his electric carving knife.

Pie: My Third-Favorite Garbage Food

IMG_0319Our youngest daughter, the light of our lives, wanted to have some friends and their parents over for dinner and a sleepover a few weekends ago. (To clarify, the friends would sleep over, not the parents. That would have been weird for all involved.) My lovely wife Jen and I discussed the menu for the evening, and my daughter interrupted: “Why didn’t I hear you say ‘pie’ when you talked about dessert?” I said, “Because we’re having ice cream, cookies, and fruit; that should be enough.” She said, “But we’re known for our pies!”

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Apple pie. Clever, eh?

It is not exactly true that we are known for our pies. But we do like to bake pies. Or rather, we tolerate the baking of the pies because we love to eat pies. The four most popular pies in our household, spanning our own personal pie season (May to December) are strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry, apple, and pumpkin.

I wonder who was the first person to pick a rhubarb stalk, eat it, spit it out, and say, “This is horrible! It would taste great with 7 cups of sugar!”

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Something went horribly wrong with this crust. It was still tasty.

The only things my family likes more than pie are chocolate and ice cream. This has nothing to do with the rest of the blog post; it’s just that I am hungry and thinking about chocolate. And ice cream. (Part of the reason that I run marathons is so that I can eat garbage food as a reward. That’s probably what separates me from the elites.)

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“Hi, I’m a pie with a man’s face on it. Please eat me and put me out of my misery.”

Growing up, pie was not a big thing in my family. I don’t ever recall having a homemade pie at any time in our house. I did, however, spend a lot of time at a Poppin’ Fresh Pies restaurant in our hometown, which became a Bakers Square right around when I entered junior high. I mention this because the first two dates that I went on in eighth grade involved taking girls out to Poppin’ Fresh/Bakers Square. I’m surprised those relationships didn’t last more than a week or two: I knew exactly what ordering pie “a la mode” meant and used it correctly to our server. (Something about ice cream, right? I’m still hungry.)

My mother-in-law is a great pie baker. I don’t try to compete with her. Her pies are elaborate, delicious, and have a high degree of difficulty. If Jen requests an apple pie for her birthday, I let the mother-in-law do it. I know my place in the pecking order.

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It’s an image of a pie on a pie. How meta of me.

My pies, on the other hand, are humble. (Humble pie; see what I did there?) I make the crust from scratch with a little butter, some whole-wheat flour, salt, and water. For the fruit pies, I mix as few ingredients as is necessary to impart the flavor of the main ingredient (example: blueberry pie filling has blueberries, sugar, tapioca, a splash of lemon juice, and maybe a little cinnamon). I overfill the pie pan, then I put the top layer of crust on it and make a creative or goofy design. Usually the latter.

Then we eat the pie. Then my kids complain that the pie went way too fast.

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This was a summer pie.

I selflessly cut my pieces smaller to help the rest of the family out. I do this knowing that at least one person (Jen) doesn’t like to finish the crust, so I eat the leftovers to make up the caloric difference. I get all the glory of being selfless without the actual selflessness.

A few weeks ago, I was so desperate for rhubarb that I convinced my neighbor to let me cut down some of hers. I had already cut mine down for a pie the previous week. I felt guilty about that for a while. Then I ate some pie and felt better.

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Step 1: Harvest rhubarb and strawberries. Or guilt neighbor into giving you some. Or buy it; I don’t really care.

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Step 2: Make the dough by hand. This is the hardest part. I’m sure you can use electric kitchen equipment for this, but I like to feel all old-timey.

 

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Step 3: Mix chopped rhubarb, sliced strawberries, sugar, and tapioca together. Let sit for 15 minutes. Sneak many pieces of sugar-covered strawberries while letting it sit.

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Step 4: Roll crust out. I prefer to use a cylinder of marble that used to be a rolling pin but was dropped on its handles so many times that the handles broke off. One of my children is mostly to blame, but I won’t call him out by name. Except that he’s my only male child, so I guess I just did.

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Step 5: Press crust into pie pan. Cut off excess at edges. Eat excess. Or fill with extra fruit filling and make a little mini-pie that you can sneak into your pie hole while the kids aren’t looking.

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Step 6: Extreme close-up! This is what the hipsters call “food porn.”

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This was in honor of my middle child, the patient one, graduating eighth grade. It was either this or take her to Bakers Square, but I didn’t have much luck taking the ladies to Bakers Square in eighth grade.

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That’s supposed to be a strawberry image.

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This was for some friends from another country who were visiting our home.

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Celebrating my release from prison. Kidding! It was an anniversary pie.

It’s Halloween Again; Do My Kids Hate Me Yet?

My kids must hate me. It’s either that or they trust me blindly. Here’s why: Every year as Halloween approaches, I ask them what they plan on dressing up as, and it is a tradition for them to come up with a costume that will be impossible to find. Even in the Age of Amazon. So I must make it from scrounged parts myself.

This year, our youngest, light of our lives, said that she wanted to be a Hobbit. “Oh?” I said. “Like a female Hobbit in a dress?” She looked at me like I was an Ent who had lost a few too many branches in the Battle of Isengard. (I have no idea what that simile means; ask a Tolkien scholar.) “No, I want to be a Hobbit like Frodo or Bilbo. But I don’t want a store-bought costume; I want to you make it.” Of course, I thought. Because that would be the hard way. Did I mention that this was 12 days before Halloween? My kids love to wait until the last minute to brainstorm their costume ideas with me.

It’s my own fault. I raised the bar too high with our oldest, the boy. When he was younger and would ask to be something that only a select group of his friends would recognize, I should have said, “Here’s a black garbage bag with a neck hole and two arm holes ripped in it and filled with pillows, kid; you’re going as an olive.” But I didn’t do that, because I’m a nice guy. So I would spend hours racking my brain figuring out exactly what it was the boy wanted.

Example: One year, he announced that he wanted to be Ash Ketchum. I can tell by the stunned looks on your faces that none of you has had an aspiring Pokémon trainer in your household. Ash Ketchum is a character from the original “Pokémon” TV shows and video games, a 10-year-old whose dream is to one day be considered the world’s greatest Pokémon Master. He has worn various outfits over the years, but my boy wanted to look like this:

I took an old St. Louis Cardinals cap, covered the front above the bill with white felt, cut out and glued a black logo, made a blue vest for the boy, and found him some green fingerless gloves.

Which brings up the problem with many of my kids’ costumes: There is a balance between having a costume that nobody else has and having a costume that nobody else recognizes. No one wants to be the 701st Elsa from “Frozen” to come to someone’s door with a trick-or-treat bag, but trust me when I say that your child will quickly tire of answering the question, “What are you supposed to be?” That whole Halloween, nobody knew what the boy was. “Are you a baseball player?” they would guess. He’d reply, “Yeah, right, lady; I’m a baseball player with fingerless neon green gloves and a Poké ball in my left hand. Sheesh, doesn’t any adult watch my favorite show?” (Answer: no.)

One year, our eldest daughter, the patient one, went as a mummy cheerleader. “Because why?” I asked. “Because no one else in a cheerleader costume will also be a mummy, Dad,” was her cool response. You can’t argue with a 9-year-old’s logic. To her credit, this child of ours has put up with more “mainstream” (i.e., available at Walmart 1 week before Halloween) costumes than the others. She has graciously gone as: a Disney princess (I can’t remember which one; does it matter?), Tinker Bell, a black cat, and a bumblebee. She is also a more go-with-the-flow person than the others: this year, to help a friend who temporarily finds himself wheelchair-bound, she dropped her other costume idea and is going as a doctor who will push him up and down city streets so he won’t miss out on the candy.

Did I mention the candy yet? It’s the main reason I tolerate Halloween. My strategy for stocking up on Halloween candy is to buy twice (or five times, let’s be honest) as much chocolate as we need, and then when the hordes of trick-or-treaters don’t materialize at our front doors like I promised my lovely wife, Jen, I act shocked and appalled and say, “Oh, darn! Now you and I will have to eat all of these Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And Kit Kats. And Twix. And York Peppermint Patties.” And so forth. It never gets old. Then she gets mad at me for enabling our bad habit. But secretly, she’s the worst offender and will eat more than me. Which is why she gets mad.

Back to our boy: He often is an early adopter for costumes. When the Harry Potter books came out and the world went Hogwarts wild, he didn’t want to be Harry. That would have been too easy. He wanted to be Draco Malfoy. Nowadays, you can find a Draco costume in stores or online, but initially, only the Harry costume was available. So, nice dad that I am, I bought the Harry costume and proceeded to stitch, by hand, the Slytherin colors over the Griffindor colors on it. Then I made a “Potter Stinks” button for him and, because I was going insane with love for my child at that point, whittled a piece of found wood into the shape of Draco’s wand and painted it. (Frankly, I owed him the effort; when he was a newborn and then a year later when he was 1, we dressed him as a clown and a pumpkin, and somehow his tiny developing infant brain absorbed this knowledge and still resents us for it.) Wouldn’t you know, everyone still thought he was Harry.

Last year, our youngest came up with a very original costume that was easy, instantly recognizable by all age groups, and yet amazingly also not worn by anyone else: Sherlock Holmes. It was awesome. We went to a thrift shop, bought a woman’s long skirt with a houndstooth pattern for 3 dollars, cut a slit up the side and tossed it over her shoulders like a cloak, found a Holmesian deerstalker cap for 5 bucks, stuck a magnifying glass and pipe in her hands, and voilà. That could not have been easier or cheaper.

I should explain that I had an unusual relationship with Halloween costumes as a child: My mother worked, for several years, at a party supply store. It had Halloween costumes year-round but also stocked anything you could possibly want for any holiday you could think of. Need an Uncle Sam costume in July? They had it. How about Honest Abe in February, or gag gifts for dear old dad in June, or a racy “Adults-Only” gift area? Yes, yes, and yuck. What creeped me out the most was the wall of rubber masks. There were probably hundreds of masks displayed on this back wall, including every popular President, horror-movie characters, and bizarre clowns. I hated it. On days when I was sick from school or otherwise had to go to work with my mom, I would hide out in the break room drinking soda from a vending machine that still stocked bottles or I would wander the  aisles of the store and try to avoid eye contact with the wall of masks.

Strangely, I remember only two of my own costumes from childhood: One year, I went as a monk. Who knows why. My mom dyed a robe brown, put a rope belt on me, and bought a glue-on bald spot for my head; the label on the glue bottle promised that it would not do damage to the hair upon removal. That day ended in disaster when one of my friends thought it would be funny to remove my bald spot. Maybe he thought it was being held on by magic or tape or something, but he essentially ripped off about a hundred of my hairs while grabbing the bald spot off my head.

The other costume I remember, even more vividly, is from the year that my older brother and I dressed in identical outfits. This never happened. Mostly because I always wanted to be like him, and he never wanted to be associated with a child 4 years younger than him. But my mother convinced us that we should go as matching hobos. I’m not sure why dressing as a homeless person from the 1930s became popular, but it was huge in my neighborhood when I was a kid. From the party supply store, we found a plastic crumpled hat (because actual crumpled hats were rare?), a plastic oversized bow tie (did hobos wear ties?), and a plastic oversized cigar. My mom then painted facial hair on us and had us wear some of our dad’s ripped-up clothes such as sweatshirts and flannel. He was not happy about this, since these were the clothes that he would actually wear when he returned from his office job and fell asleep in front of the TV while watching “Barney Miller” or “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Oh, how I loved that stupid plastic cigar. I played with it all week leading up to Halloween. I imagined that it made me look cool somehow, not based on anything I had seen in the real world. On Halloween, I brought it to school, waved it around like a sword, and made plans for its post-Halloween usage. That afternoon, my brother, sisters, and I went trick-or-treating. At some point, tired of holding the cigar, I put it in my back pocket. At the end of the night, when we arrived home with our candy bags, I reached back for it and it was gone. Gone! I cried like a baby that night, so my mom made my brother trace our every step searching for that stupid cigar. We never found it, and I returned home a crushed little boy. My brother sized me up, looked at his own cigar, and did what any big brother would do: lorded that thing over me and teased me mercilessly. I wept softly every time I saw his cigar for weeks after that. Ah, brothers.

So. The Hobbit costume. We found a green cloak, a white dress shirt, brown pants, a leather satchel, and the one thing that will allow every self-respecting adult to recognize what she is: a ring on a necklace around her neck. Our youngest child tested it out at a Halloween party the weekend before the big day; everyone knew what she was. Nailed it. And, theoretically, she will have a harder time losing a ring attached to a necklace than, say, a stupid plastic cigar in her back pocket.