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Epilogue

Aboard Delta Flight 237, July 2, 2012

Eli, Nell, and Seth have all written about their feelings on our departure from Rome. I’ve found this difficult to write about. The past few weeks have been so packed with events and emotions that it’s been hard to pinpoint my thoughts and feelings. In many ways, our year abroad was the culmination of travel plans I made back in 1989 – an intended junior year abroad in Florence that I had to cancel due to family illness. The culmination of such a long history of hopes and expectations is hard to encapsulate in words.

But there’s nothing like a ten hour flight to provide the mental space I need.

In truth, it’s fitting that I should write our final blog post (number 104!). Last spring, when we were planning our trip, I suggested we keep a family blog about our year in Rome. Initially, we thought that it would be a great way to stay in touch with family and friends back home and elsewhere. And it seemed like a great format for the kids to learn a new way to express themselves in writing.

But in the end, we’ve found ourselves writing more for ourselves than anything else. The blog has become our journal, with words and images that we want to remember, and I believe that these pages will help keep this year alive for us in years to come.

Our final days in Rome were bittersweet. As Nell wrote in her recent post, we don’t really feel like we are saying goodbye to the city and our friends here, because we know we will be back. Two different Roman expat friends, who have seen many short-term visitors come and go, affirmed this for us, telling us that they believe that we are one of those families that really truly will be back early and often. That makes everything feel a lot easier, though it has not precluded tears from all of us. And we did have some especially sad goodbyes that were most likely forever, including our wonderful housekeeper Maria, who is moving back to Romania. Though Maria has invited us to visit her in Romania, so who knows?

It has been quite a week. Since our return from Toscana on Wednesday, we have cheered Italy in the EuroCup (a tremendous win in the semis and a trouncing in the finals). We have enjoyed lovely goodbye dinners, including a fantastic meal hosted by our friends Shannon and Matthew, carry-in pizza on the terrace with Shannon, Matthew, Andrew, and their kids that was accompanied by a fireworks show at Castel St-Angelo, and Pizzerium pizza on our terrace followed by I Mannari gelato brought by Hisham, Maria, Laith, and Aden.

We’ve also treated ourselves to several great meals out. All year, the kids have heard us raving about the restaurant Roscioli (see Restaurant post). Nell was especially excited to go because they are famous for their tagliolini cacio e pepe, her favorite Roman dish (pasta with a deceptively simple sauce made from sheep cheese and pepper  – basically, Roman comfort food). She loved it – but adored her gorgeous caprese salad even more. Eli, true to form, enjoyed one last great steak. And for our last lunch on Saturday we went to Cantina Cantinari, the little restaurant serving food from the Le Marche regione, which we first tried last August when Robert and Virginia visited from Montreal. I was craving one last seafood fix before heading to the Midwest, and it was perfect, followed by a gelato at I Caruso.

We awoke Sunday (yesterday) to the news that our flight was delayed by 6 hours, ruining our Detroit connection. This was a stroke of luck, in fact, because we were able to rebook for today, allowing us to watch the EuroCup final in Italy. Our landlords, ever generous, let us stay in the apartment, and we treated ourselves to a second last lunch, this time at our favorite Sicilian restaurant. And we had the opportunity to enjoy one last gelato at Il Gelato, which our beloved Rocco wouldn’t let us pay for.

In a journal article or book, it’s customary to end with an Acknowledgments section. As that is the style of writing I know best, here goes.

First, the Romans. Thank you for teaching us that even when things don’t work quite right (or at all), everything still works out okay. Thank you for helping us to see that we don’t need to always be rushing around, or stressing out about being on time (okay, that is one that will be hard to avoid in the Midwest). Thank you for tolerating our weak Italian, correcting us gently (my favorite was when I tried to order lamb and the server laughingly told me that I’d just ordered a hug). Your warmth, hospitality, and generosity are world-class, along with your food, sights, light, colors, and history.

Second, all of our new friends. In a city like Rome, foreigners are always coming and going. For the kids and parents at our international school, expats and Italians alike, it is commonplace for children to make dear friends and then have those friends depart – and for their parents to do the same. Thank you all for opening up your lives to all four of us, despite our lack of longevity in the city. You all made this year especially meaningful and enriched for us. You’ll be seeing us again soon!

Third, our jobs. We are so fortunate to have careers that afforded us the flexibility to travel abroad for a year. And we are equally fortunate to have colleagues who not only helped to pick up the slack, but who so warmly cheered us on. We are excited to see you again over the next few weeks!

Fourth, our students.  From dissertation defenses where our Skype connections failed, to meetings with us when it was late at night Rome time and Seth or I were clearly not at our best… you were all troupers, and we are so looking forward to being in the same time zone with you. We truly can’t thank you enough for being so patient, and we fervently hope that sabbaticals still exist by the time you are professors!

Fifth, our family and friends ‘back home’. So many of you have made such a great effort to stay in touch with us: emailing, Skyping, commenting on the blog or on Facebook, sending snail mail, and visiting! It makes our homecoming so much easier to contemplate – we are so excited to see you!

Sixth, I want to thank my parents. My mom always loved Italy; it was a place that was very special to her. Long before I ever came to Italy, I loved it through her eyes. And though I was never able to travel to Italy with my mom, I thought of her and my dad every day as I soaked up the winter sunshine on our terrace. They would have really enjoyed watching us love this year. Seth’s mom, and our grandmothers Rosie and Sara, would have too.

Finally, I want to thank Seth, Eli, and Nell. I would never have been brave enough to pick up our family and move to Rome if it weren’t for Seth. He is not intimidated by travel… He loves the challenge of navigating new languages and cultures, and cultivating new friendships. I was inspired by his all-encompassing embracing of our year away. And the kids were the best travel companions imaginable, in every possible way. At the end of her family’s sabbatical last year, my friend Stacy described their family as having become a well-oiled machine. I know exactly what she means.

I don’t think we will know what this year really meant to us for a long time to come. Last night, Eli said that maybe he’d take a gap year or a year abroad in college in Rome, meet someone, and get married and move to Rome. That sounds like a good idea to me.

– Jenny

For my last blog post, I was planning to write about saying goodbye to Rome. But as I started it, I realized it was too hard and sad for me. You probably didn’t know this, but when I make my blog posts, I write them out on a piece of paper and then my parents type it on the computer when I am done. But when I started the blog post that I was going to call “Goodbye to Rome” I barely finished a page. I thought you would probably want to know about how I am feeling about moving back to Madison and saying goodbye to my friends and teachers. It was confusing to me because I had so many feelings about leaving Rome. I was also thinking about the cobble stone streets, the motor cycles, the small streets and sidewalks and all the cars. I have these pictures in my head about things I won’t be seeing every day. So instead, for my last blog post I decided to write a happy blog post.

At the beginning of the year, I thought it would be too hard to be friends with the kids who lived here in Rome. At first, I only played with other kids who came from countries that spoke English. But then I started to play with a few Italian kids at recess. And we all became close friends.

One of those Italian girls is named Costanza. She has a great smile and I knew that I wanted to be friends with her. At the end of the year, her family invited us to come to their summer house in Tuscany. Costanza’s family goes to their house there every summer, and Costanza’s mother went to the same place every summer of her life growing up.

We all really wanted to go, so we made a visit the week after school ended. Before I tell you about what we did at the visit, I will tell you all the people in Costanza’s family. First is her mother, Francesca, then her father Benedetto. She has two brothers, Jacopo and Ludovico, and a baby sister named Bianca. One reason that I am very glad that we made this trip was that I did not have to say goodbye to Costanza at the last day of school. She was a very good friend to me this year.

Costanza’s house is on the coast of Tuscany. The temperature there was lower than in Rome.

Here is what we did.

We arrived at Toscana. We went straight to the beach. We got caught in a traffic jam on our way there, so me and Eli didn’t have lunch because we went straight into the sea when we arrived. Except my Mom and Dad had lunch at a beach restaurant. We stayed at the beach to swim and play games until we were all exhausted. Then later that day, we went to an outdoor restaurant for pizza. While we were eating, a show started, so all the kids went to watch the show. It was like a comedy show for kids. We stayed up late watching. Then the people in the show started dancing and so all the audience started dancing with them.

We spent the next day at their pool, had lunch at a neighborhood farm, and then went back to their house. Then the kids had a big water fight with a hose. For dinner, Costanza’s mom served a lot of foods from Toscana that I really liked. For instance, white Tuscan beans, olives, and a local cheese from the farm that was amazing.

Did I mention that Francesca is a FANTASTIC cook? If you know me well, you know that I only like cakes that are chocolate. For Costanza’s birthday, her mom made a non-chocolate cake. I tried it and I liked it the same as chocolate cake!

The next day, we went to a town nearby called Orbetello. I got my favorite breakfast pastry I have had in my whole life. It was an apple struedel. Then we drove back to the beach, spent a few hours there, and said goodbye and drove back to Rome.

This trip was very special for me and I will never forget it. It was special because at the beginning of the year, I never thought I would make a good Italian friend here. And when Costanza’s family invited my whole family to their summer house, I realized that I had made a good Italian friend here.

– Nell

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Last week at dinner, I told my Dad something that I thought would surprise him– and it did. I told him that even after talking about it for so many years, I never really believed that we would actually go live in Rome. Even while we were getting on the airplane in Chicago, I still didn’t believe that we would actually be living in Rome. I thought probably the plane would crash land and we’d have to come back to Madison. So even though my parents talked about this for so long, I actually felt surprised when we arrived here.

I thought that I would never really be living here because when my parents first started talking about it, it seemed so long away. It felt unrealistic. I never started thinking that we were really going to live here until we actually arrived at our apartment on via del Babuino.

When I brought my suitcase into my bedroom, then I thought “well, this is my room.” I felt nervous. It felt kind of like a whole new life. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand things here and what school would be like. It was so strange that I didn’t even really think to myself about whether I would actually like it here or not. But I did think the year was going to be a fun experience even though I had no idea what it would be like.

At first I missed my friends and Michael’s Frozen Custard. In Madison, you just go see people by walking down the block to their house. But here, everyone was in apartments instead of houses and I couldn’t walk anywhere alone. It was okay though, just different. One of the first things I remember noticing was that a lot of adults here smoked cigarettes and that really bothered me to smell it everywhere. The two things that I was most excited about were pizza and soccer.

Now I can’t believe the year is over. I am really sad to leave Rome and wish we could stay here, but I hope that saying that is no offense to the Madison people.

I am sad because I have met so many very nice people here. Waiters, gelato tenders, and the kids at my school were very nice. I have made a lot of friends here this year and it is really hard to have to say goodbye to friends. It was my hardest day all year when I had to say goodbye to all of my friends here on the last day of school.

Rome is now my favorite city in the whole world and I want to come back here every year to visit. And I want to stay a week at the least each time, but maybe longer.

My happiest things have been: meeting all my friends here and trying all kinds of new foods that I love. I have loved traveling and having new adventures in new parts of the world. I also loved getting even more into soccer here and learning about all of the Italian and other countries’ soccer teams.

Learning Italian was really fun, too. When I learn new things in math, I like to look for patterns. And this year I learned you can do the same thing with Italian. As an example, in Italian there are three kinds of verbs. So once I know if the third letter from the end of the verb, then I know the pattern of how to use it. The verbs all end in -are, -ire, or -ere. But once you know the word and the rule, it is very easy to figure out what form it has to be (like in English we just say eat and use the same word for I eat, you eat, we eat. But in Italian the verb mangiare changes depending on who is eating). But some verbs are just weird and don’t follow the pattern and you have to remember them, like essere or avere. And the endings tell me whether something already happened or will happen, so that is easy, too. It is hard when I don’t know the word for something, but if someone tells me I can usually remember it. I really like learning new languages.

I feel that I have more knowledge about other places in the world. And when I hear about different places, I will remember seeing them or know people who live there or have families there. I have liked lots of different languages, and I have tried to learn at least a few words in each place we visited. We have had lots of problems traveling and now I feel like a confident traveller and I think I will always like to travel a lot when I grow up. But not for business, just for vacation.

I am super glad that my parents took us on sabbatical. It has been really, really fun being in Europe. Honest. I liked speaking in Italian, playing soccer almost every day at school, how outgoing and friendly Italian kids and grownups are, how late dinner is here, that the food was not “fancy” but really good. I liked EVERYTHING and will miss everything except the cigarettes and one kid from school.

It is ironic because now that we are leaving Rome, I feel like I spent most of my life here. Like I did when I was leaving Madison.  I don’t remember what my room looks like in Madison, and my bedroom here feels like my room. And my friends here, I feel like I have known them my whole life. I still want to go back to Madison, but I wish sabbatical could last another year or two or maybe three. It is hard for me to believe that I won’t stay living in Rome.

— Eli

One of our motivations for maintaining a blog this year was that we benefitted so much from reading the blogs of other families who had spent a sabbatical year abroad. We felt a need to return the favor.

In writing these reflections, we acknowledge that we were atypical in that we began planning this sabbatical many years before we actually took it. Also unusual about our experience was that we decided to dis-save this year (sorry, college and retirement funds), and use whatever financial resources we could to make things go smoothly. Part of that reflected that we had been saving since our last sabbatical, seven years ago, to have a financial cushion for this year. But part of it also reflected our belief that anything that helped ease us into the year, prevent stress, and avoid tearful evenings during our limited time away, was a wise investment.

1. Because we could, we took a full year. Often there are hard constraints on the length of a sabbatical—what percent salary cut a family can afford, spouses’ jobs, cost of living, etc. But if it is feasible, we are strong advocates of making the move for a full year. We have met many families this year that originally planned half-year visits, and they all regretted not planning a full year. It often takes several months for children to settle in, make friends, find favorite restaurants, feel like their room is their own. Second, it takes time for children to become sufficiently integrated that they do not feel like the “new kid.” It also takes adults a while to really find the people who end up clicking as family friends. Our observations are that children end up having a lot more fun when they attend a regular school or day care program with peers during a year away (as opposed to staying with parents all day). It provides an entrée into a new culture that wouldn’t otherwise be available to a visiting family. Best of all, because of an odd legal loophole, people paid in US dollars who stay outside of the United States for over 330 days do not have to pay any federal income tax!! That has helped make this year much more financially feasible for us.

2. We started language/culture exposure early. A year and a half before moving to Rome, we signed the children up for a very casual Saturday morning Italian class. They really enjoyed the games and food. The point wasn’t to learn much Italian—in fact, our kids left the US overconfident about their abilities. But that was the real benefit of the class. With all the worry they had about leaving their friends and arriving at a new school, one thing they were not worried about was communicating in a different language. This alleviated a great deal of worry for them and made the transition much easier. It is true that once we arrived, they realized how difficult it is to communicate in a non-native language. But at least they were familiar with the sounds, could greet people and introduce themselves, order food in restaurants, say please and thank you, and answer simple questions from friendly adults. All of this helped them a lot socially. At the very least, it is good to arrive knowing how to introduce oneself and say “Can I play, too?”

3. Think about the stuff. Packing up one’s house is a tricky maneuver. On the one hand it is good to get things cleaned out early, especially if someone else will be living in your house. We were very glad that we did not wait until the last minute. It was easier for our children to leave their bedrooms when those rooms were no longer filled with cozy memories; starting to pack things up many weeks in advance helped them slowly adjust to leaving. Still, packing up a house can also be distressing for kids and bring up a lot of anxieties about the upcoming move. Here, we tried an experiment that ended up working very well for us. We slowly started to pack the children’s rooms up removing a few items every weekend and filling separate boxes in the attic with items to be saved versus given away. For each child, we made a box for keepsakes with large labels that read “Eli’s Special Things” and “Nell’s Special Things.” One day, Eli came to us very, very upset because he couldn’t find something that was important to him in his room. We took him to the attic and showed him the box, and he stared at it, and dug around looking at his favorite stuff all tucked away. He felt extremely satisfied. Then, about a week later, Nell was in tears believing that we had thrown away one of her beloved stuffed animals. Eli turned to her and, in a very reassuring and upbeat voice, told her not to worry. “In the attic we each have a box where our special things are protected,” he told her happily, “it even says “Nell’s Special Things.’” Then he took her upstairs to confirm that her favorite belongings were safe and would be here when we returned. Everyone lived happily ever after, and not another word was spoken about stuff that would not accompany us to Italy.

4. Given our children’s ages, we tried to make the destination concrete. This is an expensive undertaking that is not always feasible. But a year before moving to Rome, we visited over the children’s spring break. We looked at neighborhoods and schools, saw some sights, and ate a lot of gelato… We thought that the kids might be less anxious if they could concretely picture things like the school playground or have some memories of parts of the city, making it seem more familiar. Indeed, that seemed to work.

5. To help promote buy-in, we gave the kids some choices. Many families that we have met this year at our kids’ international school have been struggling with children who are not happy about having been forced to move. At the beginning of the school year, the elementary school principal met with the parents of all of the new kids. As the daughter of a diplomat, who had to move a lot herself as a child, she had great insights. One of the things she told the group of parents was really helpful. She reminded the adults that we had chosen jobs that we loved that involved international travel, we were advancing our own careers by opting to spend a year in another place, we were fulfilling our dreams of living in Italy, or we had finally gotten that sabbatical we so wanted. And even though as parents we told ourselves about all of the benefits that this experience would confer for our children, these were still OUR dreams and fantasies, not what our kids had signed up for. She reminded parents to chill out, be patient, and not be surprised if our children are less excited about it all than their parents.

We had thought about this type of issue a bit before leaving Madison.  While the option of going away on sabbatical wasn’t up for a vote, we tried to think of constrained choices to give the kids to give them some sense of control over what was happening. For example, we narrowed the list of possible schools down to ones we liked, and let the children provide input into the final decision. That sense of ownership actually helped a lot. If there was one thing the kids LOVED about this year, it was their school. We gave the kids some choices about our home, allowing them to help pick the final apartment once we had narrowed it down to two choices we liked, and allowed them to choose their sleeping configuration (they had really wanted to share a bedroom this year, probably for comfort). We each brought one large suitcase for the year, and we gave the kids a lot of latitude about what they chose to put in their own bag. First we helped them make a pile of everything that they ideally would want, and worked with them to make sure they made good choices that fit (and ensured that they would have some underwear!). We advised, but their own hands took stuff out of the pile of things to be packed and into the storage bins. There were no tears while packing.

Since we had chosen our sabbatical destination, the kids asked if they could choose some of our trips. So we allowed each of them to select a destination for their birthdays, and their Fall Break destination. We had planned on London, but they really wanted to go to Paris for the entire break rather than travel around. So we showed them how to peruse travel web sites and let them set our activities. It worked out really well, especially since it was a destination that we already knew well as parents. They really enjoyed both the trip and the feeling of being in the driver’s seat. For other cities, we found more limited ways to help them feel involved, such as selecting hotels once we had made a short list, or rank-ordering restaurants we might try to visit based on recommendations by food bloggers.

We think activities like this gave them some authorship over the year. Admittedly, this might be too child-centric for some people’s parenting tastes. But we considered it to be in our own self-interest.

6. We laid the groundwork for a smooth landing. This was another expensive decision, but a good investment. About a month before we moved, Seth made a two-day trip to Rome as an add-on to a conference trip. During that time, he set up infrastructure. He opened our bank account, set up our cell phones, applied for annual metro cards, mapped the route to the children’s school bus stop, found the nearest grocery store to our home, turned on utilities, internet, etc. He took pictures for the children of our street, our closest gelato place and chocolate shops, the nearest playground. When we arrived as a family, almost everything was working, and we didn’t need to spend a lot of our time with the kids waiting on long lines and running dull errands. It helped get us off to a fun start.

7. We may regret this later, but we let a lot of things go this year. The adults in our family were getting a treat, a real respite from the regular demands of our daily professional lives. So we thought the kids deserved a break, too. And we told them so, waiving a lot of the rules that we normally follow at home. This year, the kids are allowed to order anything they want to eat or drink from restaurant menus. The kids wanted a break from violin practice—what the heck, it was a sabbatical, so we allowed them to take the year off. We’ve allowed more TV time, more desserts, more electronics, later bedtimes, more impulse purchases. . .all with the idea that it is a special year for all us. We think of it as a way to mark this time as a special epoch.

8. Invest in eReaders. We were a bit dubious about introducing the children to Kindles. But English language books are incredibly expensive and hard to find in places where English is not the native language. Plus, books are very expensive to ship home. Back in Madison, we shuttle books back and forth to our local library every week and we worried about what it would be like not to have that resource. So we decided to buy each kid a Kindle as a buon viaggio gift. Best. Idea. Ever. We don’t know what we (or they) would have done if we couldn’t simply download new books for the kids. . .and all of their favorite books from the year now only weigh a few ounces. Best of all, a lot of the child classics are now free downloads.

9. We made a decision to budget, and then not worry about money for one year. We had a very funny (in retrospect) and humbling experience a few months before our sabbatical began. We had spent hours figuring out the most we could possibly spend on rent in Rome, then stretched a bit more to “treat” ourselves. But when we began looking at real estate, we realized that we had been living in Wisconsin for too long! Our estimates were so far off that realtors all wrote back saying they had absolutely nothing to show us. So we took the view that our daily lives are pretty inexpensive in Madison relative to what they would be in bigger US cities. Given that, we decided to just live in the moment and stress about finances before and after– but not during– the sabbatical year. We reasoned that we only had a year, and we didn’t want an apartment that required us to spend time on a bus or in a car commuting, or having breakfast in a dreary room, or not being able to walk and get a good coffee or gelato or bread. Sabbaticals are special, and so it did not seem worth it to us to cast a shadow over the time by sweating a little debt for one year; we decided to just make great memories. We’ve uttered not a word to each other , or even focused much, about our daily expenses this year. That said, our friends are welcome to join us for beans and rice next year, because our major austerity measures kick in on September 1st!

10. There are many other topics that we wish we had thought more about ahead of time. It is worth considering how much travel is right for your family (too little and you don’t take full advantage of your location, too much and you miss integrating into local social life); How much effort will you make to avoid using English (kids will follow adults’ lead in their comfort level); How can you maximize meeting other parents, even if it cuts into work time?; How can you best find babysitters (Hint: students studying abroad are not allowed to work and often welcome extra cash, local high school students know the lay of the land, and student teachers are young, energetic and in need of cash); How frequently you can accommodate guests so that you can have fun visits and share your experience, but still be available to accept invitations from locals?

But our take home message is simple: If you’re in a job where you have this sort of opportunity, grab it and worry about the details later! Or, as they used to say in Rome, carpe diem! For all of the planning, work, expenses, and anxiety, we feel that our family got out of this year every single thing that we had hoped for.

We hope that some of these thoughts and suggestions will smooth your future paths, and welcome additional ideas from others who have taken a family sabbatical.

And for those of you on the fence about whether you can really pull it off, we offer an unequivocal yes—just do it. . .go!

– Seth & Jenny

Back when we were first learning to use the nasone.

Rome is normally very expensive, but one of the best things in the city is free! I am talking about the drinking fountains all around Rome, called nasone.

Why are these fountains called nasone (or “big noses” in Italian)? It is because these fountains have long, bent tubes or spouts coming out of them that resemble long noses.  You can put your head under the spout or fill up a water bottle. But the “noses” also have little holes on top. So if you put your finger in the spout, water shoots up out of the spout (like a whale’s blow hole) and it is an easy drinking fountain.

Most of the nasone were first installed in 1874.

They are useful for refilling water bottles.

Most tourists don’t know that the water coming out of these fountains is drinkable. It is especially surprising how good the water tastes. It tastes good and is refreshing because it comes from the mountains, through aqueducts and a mix of springs around the city.

Teaching Zach, Gaby, and Sam to use the nasone when they visited.

Some people think it is a waste of water to have the fountains running all the time. But it is good because people do not need to danger the earth by buying new plastic water bottles all the time.

There are more than 2,500 nasone in Rome.  Most are in the historical center, but you can still find some on the outskirts.

A special naso on Via Margutta, around the corner from us.

I like them because when it is really hot out and I am thirsty, I can wet my head under them and have a drink. My favorite place for nasone to be is when it is right near a gelato place. So if I get stuff on my hands, I can wash it off. And it is always good to drink after you eat gelato.

Nasone are useful for dunking kids in.

There are also more than 90 fountains that you can drink from around Rome. One of the most famous is the “broken boat” fountain near our house in Piazza di Spagna.

— Eli

The nasone and the water are owned by the city of Rome. That is why they all have SPQR written on them. It stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”). But my Dad keeps saying that it means Sono Pazzi Questi Romani, which is Italian for “These Romans are crazy.” It isn’t true, he is just being goofy.

On Mondays my after-school activity is choir. The choir I do is for grades 2 and 3. At the end of the year, the choir goes on a special trip.

At 9 in the morning we went on a bus and drove to a school where we were going to perform a concert. I thought it would be in a lunchroom or gym, but it was in a little courtyard under olive trees. After that, they gave us ice cream, even though it was only 11 in the morning.

With Darcy, Eve, and Tatiana in the hull of one of the ancient boats.

After that we took the same bus to a boat museum on Lake Nemi. In Ancient Rome times, one of the emperors, Caligula, built these huge boats in the lake, with marble floors and mosaics and gold.  They were apparently party boats of some kind. The boats sank long ago, and years later they were found at the bottom of the lake.

So in the museum they used to display those two boats. But during World War 2, someone came in and put a fire in the museum so the boats aren’t there any more. But there are pieces of the mosaics and anchors and other parts of the boat to see. In the museum, since it is always empty, Mrs. Short, our choir teacher, had us perform a song that was particularly sad because the boats were burned. It’s called The Swan. She posted a movie of us singing in the museum to YouTube. Here is the link if you’d like to listen to us sing.

Then we took the same bus to Lake Albano, which was once a volcanic crater and is also where the Pope’s summer castle is. We had lunch on the beach, and then we went in the lake to swim. It was very cold and the sand was very mushy so people were screaming and shouting. In some places the sand was sticky. My friend Darcy was wearing Crocs and they got stuck in the sand and I swam under and found them.

We stayed in the water for about an hour, playing. My teacher, Mrs. Short, went in the water too. Then we got out to dry. They had real beach chairs and beach umbrellas. So then me and my friends just lay there and sunned ourselves. Then we sang a concert on the beach in our swimsuits.

After that we got dressed and the grownups brought us more ice cream!

I was looking forward to this day so much, and it was even better than I expected!

-Nell

Everyone in our family loves cities. We love the thrill of discovery that comes from turning a corner and seeing a beautiful building or a bustling restaurant, and the excitement that comes from so many people all together.

Not everyone in our family loves nature. But Nell and I do. My biggest worry about living in a sprawling city this year was whether I’d still see trees and hear birds (absolutely yes on the trees – we have them growing on our roof and dominating the skyline – and definitely yes on the birds– there is a flock of seagulls that lives in our neighborhood, and if you sit on our terrace and just listen, you’d think you were at the beach).

But sometimes, Nell and I need more nature than we get from our Roman neighborhood’s flora and fauna.

Fortunately, the city is packed with parks that range from sculpted to wild. One recent Sunday, we set off to explore the famous Rome rose garden. The garden is at the base of the Aventino hill, just across from the Forum and Palatine Hill on the far side of the Circo Massimo.

Originally, this land was the Jewish cemetery, and the lanes are laid out in the shape of a menorah. The garden has a very short season given the heat, but it is spectacular, with over 1,000 varieties to see. It was too hot for Nell to sketch, but she took photo after photo of roses to draw at home.

Afterwards, we climbed the Aventino to picnic in the Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Oranges). The layout of this park is very unusual. In the center is a big grove of orange trees, whose fruit perfumes the air. Surrounding them are my favorite Roman umbrella pines, which shade the walkways. And at the far end is a terrace overlooking a spectacular view of the city. We ate the fresh sweet cherries that are at the peak of their season and enjoyed the scented air and views.

A few blocks away is a somewhat obscure but very cool tourist sight, the keyhole of the knights of Malta. There’s a doorway in a high wall that holds a keyhole that offers a rather amazing view over the property of three sovereign powers (Italy, Malta, and the Vatican), directly onto St. Peter’s Cathedral a few kilometers away.

While we could have still taken in more nature, a more urgent destination beckoned: the Il Gelato outpost on Viale Aventino. Roses are red (sometimes), and oranges are orange, but there’s nothing like gelato after a long hot walk!

– Jenny

They all have a fantastic time!

Our final visitors for the year were our Madison friends and colleagues Trish and Melanie. We credit them with introducing us (especially the kids) to the joys of cheesehead-dom. So we were especially happy to host them on their first trip to Italy.

At Ponte Milvio

One event that we missed during our year away was Trish and Melanie’s wedding. Last August, on the weekend of their wedding, we happened to be exploring a part of Rome dominated by a bridge, Ponte Milvio. There is a tradition that newlywed and otherwise hardily coupled pairs bring locks to Ponte Milvio, sign or carve their names on the locks, and attach them to the bridge to symbolize permanent love. They can then toss the keys into the river if they really feel committed!

With their very own lock.

So on Trish and Melanie’s first day in Rome, we gave them our (belated) wedding present – a walk to Ponte Milvio and a lock to attach to the bridge. They are brave souls, and threw away the key. As I wouldn’t recommend diving into the Tiber river (yuck), I guess their marriage has to last.

Siena and the Tuscan vista.

Another highlight of their visit was a trip to Siena. This city was one that I particularly wanted to visit, and we thought it would be fun for our visitors to get to see a very different side of Italy: from the bustling ancient city of Rome to the picture-perfect medieval city of Siena. And picture-perfect it was! My kids tease me for my obsession with beautiful views, and Tuscany really does take the cake; Seth calls it Disneyland for grownups. Accurate, given the incredible wine paired with the views.

Breakfast room and terrace at our lovely hotel.

We stayed in a fabulous little hotel – just 6 rooms – called the Campo Regio Relais; I think it might have been my favorite hotel of the year, in large part because of, yes, the view. It has a little terrace overlooking the city where breakfast is served, and our bedroom had the same view. It was so pretty that it was hard to believe it was real.

Now that’s a breakfast nook!

Our time in Siena was largely spent wandering the little streets and exploring back alleys, and, of course, climbing towers. And we ate surprisingly well. We’d heard that the food in Siena was generally not so great by Italian standards (especially compared to other cities we’ve visited recently such as Bologna …mmm…), so we really did our homework.

Both kids sporting the local team jersey.

Our two favorite meals were our Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. Friday dinner was at a little place called, simply, Osteria (which means wine bar; Via dei Rossi 79/81). No web site, no frills. But the food was excellent, the local wine among the best we’ve had, and we loved the relaxed atmosphere. And unlike other places we saw in Siena, no tourists.

Lunch the next day was at Ristorante Castelvecchio (Via Castelvecchio 65), outside the center, which I chose because it was one of the few restaurants I read about that specialized in non-meat dishes. We loved it! The room was fancier than the other restaurants we tried (cloth tablecloths), and we were the only table eating, but the food was perfect and a bit creative.

Seafood feast in Ostia.

On Trish and Melanie’s last day, we joined a tour of Ostia Antica that was organized by a local guide/ historian/ artist/ archeologist/ architect/ you name it. Nancy de Conciliius is legendary amongst local Anglophones for her biweekly tours of Rome neighborhoods and landmarks – and if you’re ever visiting Rome in the spring or fall on a Monday or Tuesday, join her tour regardless of her destination; it’s always fascinating. We felt privileged to be able to explore this ancient town just outside Rome with her. Afterwards, the four of us lunched on piles of local seafood (Ostia is by the ocean) at Il Monumento, and reflected on how glad we were to have shared time in Italy together.

It was strange saying goodbye to our last set of guests. We’ve had more visitors in Rome this year than in 15 years living in Madison. Now, we are hoping that some of our friends from Rome will make their way to visit us in the land of the cheeseheads.

– Jenny

Before leaving Madison, I took language lessons from Roberto, an Italian graduate student. Roberto is from Torino (Turin), and in between trying to teach me how to ask for discounts for my children and order food in restaurants, he kept insisting that I had to visit his hometown during the year. That turned out to be great advice!

Torino is the capital of the Piemonte (Piedmont) region of Italy that abuts France and Switzerland. And after Bologne (a city that really captured our hearts and stomachs), I’d rate Torino as a fantastic city that deserves more attention that it receives from tourists. I loved my visit there. The city has style and its own charm– and it felt very different from other cities we visited in Italy. It reminded me that not long ago, the regions of Italy were in fact separate countries, and Torino was the seat of a glamorous one.

Torino is known for industry, especially as home to Fiat and the Italian automobile industry. We saw vestiges of the gracious old style Piemontesi from the city’s powerful years in the 19th century. Torino flourished much later than other major Italian cities, so the look of the buildings, streets, piazzas, and caffés has much more in common with Paris than with Rome. In fact, if Paris had stayed a small city, it might look a lot like Torino. Through our wanderings, we stumbled upon fantastic, highly decorative piazzas that in Paris would house elegant and expensive caffés, but in Torino remained humble neighborhoods. The city also has the grit and cultural diversity of a city now populated by laborers from North Africa.

One aspect of Torino that really stood out for us was what an amazing job the city does with its museums– each one was better than the next. We began with the Egyptian Museum (the largest of its kind in the world outside of Egypt and the second largest including Egypt). The collection was amazing. And because Eli’s class had done a unit on ancient Egypt this year, he was able to add all sorts of interesting facts to our visit. We also went to the newly opened Automobile Museum. This isn’t ordinarily our sort of thing, but we all had a fantastic morning there. The museum not only had an incredible collection of vintage cars and futuristic prototypes, but also put the automobile into historical and cultural context in a way that was accessible and extremely thought provoking. It provided a cultural commentary about post war United States that we had not considered before. (A funny incident at the Car Museum was that we encountered a group of high school students visiting from Istanbul; they and their teacher were so delighted to see a kid in Torino wearing their city’s soccer team jersey that the kids asked if they could pose with Eli and take pictures to show their friends back home.)

We ended with a fun trip to the National Museum of Cinema, housed in the Mole Antonelliana, originally constructed as a synagogue. This place definitely is not a museum in the traditional sense- though it included famous stage sets, contracts from famous actors, original screenplays from famous films, an opportunity for us to insert ourselves into existing movie clips, and a two-story viewing area with chaise lounges where one can watch highlights from famous movies. We enjoyed the special exhibit on the history of Looney Tunes!

Atop the tower of the Museum of Cinema. The view was great, but so was the ride up in the glass elevator!

Nell inserted herself into a film that then played on a large screen over the Museum atrium.

Besides cars, lots of good food stuff came from Torino. . . chocolate in the form of bars or individual pieces was created in Torino (and we had some outstanding examples), vermouth (the herb-and-wine drink that was later married with gin to form the martini) was born here, the Slow Food movement was founded here, as was Lavazza coffee and GROM gelato. So this is one serious food place.

At Bicerin.

One of our favorite caffes was Bicerin (Piazza della Consolata 5), the oldest caffé in the city with continuous operation (since 1763) that has always been owned an operated by women. The caffé is named for the famous beverage it serves—a combination of hot coffee, chocolate, and cream. The bicerin, we were instructed, is not stirred, but sipped so that each layer of liquid stays separate and mixes in the mouth. It was amazing, and just as good as the special chocolate that they serve. My favorite was their cioccolato Ratafia, a dark chocolate bar favored with cherries. If I ever hear of anyone passing through Torino, I will plead with them to bring me back just one bar of Ratafia!

We had some really great meals, each a fun experience.

Absolutely horrified that Nell was a vegetarian, and was turning down his offer of house cured prosciutto, the owner of Valenza threw bread at her. Fortunately, she caught it and it was excellent.

At Trattoria Valenza (Via Borgo Dora 39) in the heart of the antiques market, the seemingly inebriated owner, Walter, walked from table to table singing, threw (literally) pieces of bread at us, and kept bringing free samples of different foods to the table for the kids. When there was something we didn’t want, he picked it up with his fingers and ate it himself. The menu was a single piece of paper with a few items handwritten on it. When we ordered, the waiter would tell us they didn’t actually have that item and cross it off our menu with his pen. Finally, we simply asked him what we should order! The food was simple, authentic, and outstanding. It was one of our most enjoyable meals and cost only a fraction of a lunch in Rome. This place oozes authenticity- and it made us feel like time stood still: old clocks on the walls, paintings of every variety covering every inch of wall space, yes, even a little dust as a reminder of times gone by. The house barbera by the carafe was unbeatable, as was the warmth. We felt like we got to sample a bit of the city from the past. . .and it was fun to walk through the Balon market to get there.

We had a very tasty dinner at Trattoria l’oca fola (via drovetti) a typical Piedmontese osteria, where a wonderful assortment of antipasti began arriving at the table even before we ordered. The restaurant’s logo—a goose—pops up on the table, plates, napkins, and all around

Usually a fan of whites down in Lazio, Eli liked the reds in Piemonte and became our official wine taster.

the room. Everything was organic and simple with a local menu that changes daily, and our polenta was perfect.

It turned out that our lunch at Con Calma was on the day that would have been Jenny’s father’s birthday. And we were all especially delighted when a bottle of mineral water arrived bearing a label that we had never seen before—Saint Bernardo. So we felt like Bernie was joining us!

For Mothers’ Day lunch, we booked a table at Con Calma (Strada Comunale del Cartman 59) on the Superga Hill overlooking the city. This rustic restaurant occupies an old, yellow-painted village house and is cosy inside. We were welcomed by Renata, who runs the place and supervises her young staff with a sure hand. . .and who offers kids an opportunity to draw a picture that she then adds to her substantial collection. The food is classically prepared Piedmontese fare – I had three courses that all featured local asparagus. And Nell was happy because it is unusual to see a menu in Italy that notes many dishes that can be altered so as to be vegetarian. The waiters gave Eli a hard time because he was wearing a Juventus jersey and they, surprisingly to us, were not fans of Torino’s champion team. After lunch, Jenny suggested that we take the “short” walk from the restaurant to the Tram that would bring us back down to the city. But this turned out to be our own Olympic event. After a big meal and a bottle of fantastic Nebbiolo, it turned out that Jenny had started us off on what turned out to be a 3 hour uphill hike that included mudslides, walking along a highway, twisted roads, and maybe even cutting through some people’s back yards.

Another meal highlight was a casual and extremely fun dinner that we had in a wine bar. L’acino (via San Domenico) is a small but bustling place with a well-priced and colorful wine list. The food and the desserts were truly outstanding, and the gregarious owner made a point of stopping by our table to chat. I still remember my red peppers with bagna caoda!

Enjoying the native vermouth before dinner.

Our last meal in Torino was at Re Calamaro! “King Calamari “was opened by the great grandson of the guy who came up with the idea of fried calamari. (The story told at the restaurant is that grandpa received a batch of bad squid that couldn’t be served sautéed or grilled, so he decided to deep fry it to mask the poor quality- and people loved it). The restaurant interior is in the shape of a boat, and the calamari is served in large paper cones that fit nicely in the metal cone-holders that accessorize each of the small tables.

We were fortunate to be in Torino the day the city was celebrating their team’s winning the Italian Soccer League. Crowds in Juventus black-and-white went through the city cheering and the team met them in the center of town. It was really festive.

— Seth

My friend Eliza came to visit me in Rome. I had been looking forward to this visit for about 3 months. We did a lot of fun things together, and her visit went by very quickly for me.

Piazza di Spagna

Eliza and her sister Hope and mom Emily arrived on late on Thursday, at about 9:00. When she first came, we were very happy to see each other, so we practically just laughed the whole night.

On Friday we showed Eliza and her family Piazza de Spagna (the Spanish Steps) and the Pantheon. If you haven’t been to Rome, in the Pantheon there is a big hole in the middle of the roof. And what I did to Eliza and Hope is I made them keep their eyes shut until they could see the hole. Then we went to my favorite non-pizza restaurant for lunch, which I’ve probably mentioned a few times: da Gino. I have probably mentioned that my favorite waiter, Mario, works there.

Inside the Pantheon.

After lunch I showed them a museum called Trajan’s Market. It is a place where there used to be a real market in Ancient Rome, and you can see the market stall rooms and sometimes they have glass floors where you can see down where Rome used to be. Me, Eliza, and her sister Hope played tag except you had to wrap a scarf around your eyes so you couldn’t see, and you had to stay in a particular room in the ancient market.

After that, since they wanted to see the statue of Romulus and Remus, we went to the Campodiglio to show it to them. It’s a piazza that Michelangelo designed. Hope really liked the Campodiglio because she’s into horses and there were lots of statues of horses. Then we went home and played… Later, we went to our favorite gelato place which I’ve mentioned a few times: Il Gelato.

Inside the caves, looking toward the town of Sperlonga.

Next, on Saturday, we took a train to Sperlonga, which is a beach town a little south of Rome. First we went to explore caves that were by the ruins of the palace of Emperor Tiberius. The ancient Romans used to throw parties in the caves, and the museum has huge statues that were discovered in the caves.

After the caves we went to the beach. And we (the kids) went deep in the water and jumped over the waves. They were so big that sometimes we fell down. And when there was a ginormous wave coming we all ran back to the beach. We did that all day and when we went back on the train, we were all very worn out.

Relaxing on the beach.

Then for dinner that night, we went to one of me and my brother’s favorite restaurants, dal Pollarolo 1936. We like it because it has everything. They are named for their chicken, because pollo means chicken and they used to be a chicken store (since 1936). They have good salads, great pizzas, and great pasta dishes. When we got home the kids watched a little of the movie Parent Trap (the old version). After that, me and Eliza read for a while. Then our parents let us talk for a while. Then they said to stop talking. But we talked until about 2 in the morning!

At da Cesare.

On Sunday it rained. But before it rained we played on the terrace with this kind of stuffed animals I like to collect. They are called Beanie Boos. Then it started to rain so we went inside. Me and Eliza just wanted to play that day so we played until about 1:00, and then we headed out for lunch at da Cesere, another restaurant with a waiter who is nice to kids. After lunch we just played and had dinner at our house.

With Ambassador Thorne. His office was beautiful!

Monday was one of my favorite days of Eliza’s visit. We went to the American Embassy. And we got to meet the Ambassador – he gave us a tour and we went in his office. Eliza’s grandpa is friends with Ambassador Thorne. We got to hold a real gladiator helmet and real sword and shield. He gave us special coins as a souvenir. Then we went for lunch at another great restaurant, San Marco (which is known for their pizza). After that, while we were walking home, we passed a bakery/gelateria. Eliza got mint chip, I got chocolate orange, and Hope got two meringues. As we were going home, we stopped at our favorite pasta shop which makes pasta fresh (if you have been to Rome before you know what I mean). The lady who works there let us go behind the counter to see the pasta machine. After that we went home and played.

Next morning, Eliza left. I miss her but I’m glad I’ll see her soon. That goes for all of my friends in Madison!

-Nell