Last January I received a perfectly timed email from my friend Amy, whose family spent a sabbatical in Amsterdam a few years ago. She had written to check in; recalling that at the halfway point of her year away, she was coming to terms with the fact that sabbatical doesn’t last forever. It was helpful to hear from her, because the week I received Amy’s note, I was in sheer misery.

I had pulled off a great travel coup, optimizing our travel to Europe with minimal frequent flier miles. A feature of my plan allowed me to continue pushing back our return date each time the airline made a schedule change. But then I learned that our airline tickets were about to expire and, finally, I had commit to a flight home.

Jenny was away giving a talk in London on the day I booked our return flight. And after I got off the phone with the airline, I crawled into bed, fully dressed, pulled the covers over my head, and stared blankly at my pillow for hours. My chest felt heavy, my eyes swelled, and I couldn’t even bring myself to write or call anyone to say how miserable I felt. Later, when I tried to write a blog post about all this, I couldn’t type more than a few sentences before I got upset and stopped. I’ve started this blog entry numerous times since January, but finally, now, on February 21st  April 2nd  May 17th  June 1st  June 7th, June 16th, I think I am coming to terms with this precious year coming to a close. And although I wish the sabbatical could last another year, now I am mostly feeling thankful that Jenny, Nell, Eli and I were able to share this amazing experience.

There are three reasons why I think I am having a particularly hard time grappling with our time in Italy coming to an end.

The first reason is easy and simple: sabbatical—any time, any place– is liberating and awesome. Who wouldn’t love being totally in control of one’s own time? I’ve been afforded a year free of almost all meetings and have only had to glance at my appointment calendar a handful of times. I’ve had zero work-related travel, written no grants, taught no classes, and ignored almost all administrative emails. I even have a collection of funny emails from colleagues around the world enviously responding to the autoreply on my email (inspired and paraphrased from my friend Megan Gunnar) that basically says “My time is my own for this one year.” Nearly everything I have done this year, from work to social engagements, has been by choice, not obligation. But having days free to think and write, and not feeling under pressure every day to get more and more done, has been wonderful. As has been the growth that comes from pulling myself out of my comfort zone and into a new situation.

The second reason that I was so sad is that I really adore Rome. There are many things in life that I wish I had done differently, but the impulsive and random decision that Jenny and I made over seven years ago to spent a year here was perfect! Rome is a city of the past and I’ve always been too focused on the future, but this context has helped me savor and appreciate the present. I have taken to the pace of the city, resonate with the colors, will never tire of the food, and still get almost giddy as things come together and I realize the Roman origins of so many aspects of our contemporary civilization. I like the hours, the chaos, the clothing, the climate, the high culture, the language, the thirty-second breakfasts and three-hour lunches, and even the superficiality of la bella figura (literally “the beautiful figure”), a philosophy that governs social life here and basically is about how one comports oneself. After a full year here, I don’t feel like I have even scratched the surface of what there is to see and learn about Rome, and I feel surprisingly “at home” here given that we are strangers at every level.

But the third, and deeper, reason that I want to cling tenaciously to this year is more quirky than the other two explanations. It is that this period of time has been something incredibly special that Jenny, Eli, Nell and I have shared, intensely, together. . and we’ve enjoyed it, noticed it, been so aware of it, and I just wish we could have more of it—not forever, but just a little longer, before the kids get older. I’d love to freeze us all in this moment for just a bit longer.

This was really a family adventure that changed and improved the way we all interact. We knew no one when we arrived, had no entrée into a social network, no work connections, no histories with anyone here. So we’ve been really dependent upon each other. There is little rushing off for activities or practices or clubs or work; we’ve missed only a handful of dinners together as a family. And our traveling adventures this year have put us in some unusual situations and led to a lot of time talking and playing with each other. Early on, even everyday errands required collaboration, as we’d work together to try and figure out how to ask for help or directions. Amy wrote in her email to me that at around the six-month mark of her own sabbatical, she began to realize that every day left felt precious. That has felt very true for me, too!

It will be healthy to get back into a regular social milieu, and good for all of us in many ways. But I hope that this period of family bonding will stay with us for a long time. I especially hope that the special bond that Eli and Nell developed after a year of reliance on each other for companionship will endure. And I hope I deal okay with the ambivalent feelings I am sure to experience when we get home and the kids are able to run out of the house on their own to meet friends—something we haven’t done since June, 2011. There will be some big changes.

We left on our last sabbatical when Eli was two years old and Nell was six months old, and I didn’t realize at the time how deeply fatigued we were. This time, our sabbatical is happening during a wonderful age for children; I can’t imagine an easier developmental period for parenting. The children are old enough to wipe their own asses, but young enough to crawl into my lap and snuggle. They are old enough to carry their own luggage through an airport and read to themselves for hours when flights are delayed, but still young enough that they actually want to travel with us. I love this age where the kids can dress and groom themselves and share independent ideas and reflections on travel, but do not yet have teenage hormonal fluctuations. The kids have a broad friendship network, but it’s still always under parental watch. I can’t imagine a period where parenting involves so much fun and so little fatigue or worry, and I’m so grateful that this year away allowed me to step back and really appreciate it.

And as someone who works all the time and loves it, I’ve also come to appreciate the southern European emphasis on quality of life.

During our last sabbatical in Montreal, we seriously considered not returning to Madison. But Jenny’s dad wisely encouraged us to consider that had we been on the faculty at McGill and spending our sabbatical at Wisconsin, then we would likely be in love with Madison. Being a no-strings-attached visitor is not the same as having to work, teach, assume administrative responsibilities, and maintain long-term relationships. . . it just isn’t an equal comparison. It is hard to imagine not falling in love with a sabbatical destination and feeling trepidation about returning to a regular life. And even the kids feel this a bit. I think they like having relaxed and attentive sabbatical parents. And they like the interpersonal warmth we’ve all experienced from people here. Eli asked us if we could promise him that we would always return to Rome at least once a year, adding “and when I get older, I am going to bring my children to Rome every year, too.”

We will be back. We’ve met a few wonderful friends with whom I would like to have more of a history and a future. And to help that, I’ve lightened my mood by already booking flights for us all to return for an extended visit here next year.

We have a lot left that we want to do in our last few weeks here. And we are all a bit sad at the prospect of leaving. But I am so, so glad that we took this sabbatical year together.

I know that when I get home, I’ll be energized and stimulated by face-to-face meetings with my students and collaborators. I know I’ll feel comforted sharing a hug and a glass of wine with my old friends. I know that we will appreciate this year for years to come. Nonetheless, I’m going to head off to the airport suppressing the urge to yell out what my kids say when we tell them that it is time to leave a fun party: please, not yet. . .I don’t want to go. . .cinque, solo cinque. . .I’m not tired. .  .just five more minutes. . . I’m not ready; I’m still having fun. . . per favore. . .I promise I’ll go right away if you’ll give me a little more time, pretty please. . . .can’t I stay just a little bit longer. . . no fair. . . .

–Seth

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Here is a link to a slide show  we made about our daily schlep this year: collecting the kids from their school bus stop. You might want to read the text below for context before viewing the slide show!

Many months ago, our friends Pam and Kevin wrote asking us about what our daily lives in Rome were like. But we got so distracted by big things and trips that we never got around to posting about ordinary things—like getting the kids to school.

The whole school bus issue was a big struggle for us.

The children’s morning bus stop is an easy 4-block walk from our house. The piazza where we meet the bus, Piazza Augusto Imperatore (Emperor Augustus Plaza), is really quite interesting. In the center of the piazza is the tomb of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor and the namesake of our final month of summer. On two sides of the piazza are prime examples of fascist architecture (that Mussolini intentionally placed next to Augustus, to lend an air of credibility), and on a remaining side of the piazza is perhaps the only contemporary building I have seen in the center of Rome—the Ara Pacis Museum, designed by the American architect Richard Meier. So there is a lot going on visually.

This would have been the children’s bus stop after school, too. But things are never so simple in Italy.

The children’s school offers a rich variety of afterschool programs. Kids can pick a different activity for each day of the week, but need to stick with that schedule for the year. Nell chose choir, Math-letics, modern dance, and soccer; Eli chose soccer, basketball, soccer, and mixed sports. (Although music lessons are also offered, we all agreed to take a sabbatical from nagging about practicing an instrument.)

There was only one wrinkle in the plan. We realized that by staying for these activities, the kids can’t take their regular bus home, and instead must take a “late” bus to a part of the city that is really hard for us to get to. We couldn’t car pool because we had no car and knew no other families in the area. Taxis and car services were prohibitively expensive.

Given that we live in an apartment in the center of the city with few children or open spaces around, we didn’t want the kids to miss the afterschool activities that have, in fact, become the hub of their social lives. So Jenny and I sucked it up and committed to the two hour round-trip journey every day to get across town to pick the children up. At first we found it really aggravating and complained about it constantly to each other. We tried buses and the metro to get across town, but they were no faster than walking. Then, slowly, we realized what a fabulous walk we got to take all year. Ironically, now with the school year ending, we are going to miss the bus pick up.

Below is a slide show of photos on each block, from the time we leave our apartment, until the time we arrive at the bus stop. (Viewed in Full Screen, it is easy to see a lot of interesting details about the historic center.) We go home by bus or metro- but it isn’t convenient, pretty or pleasant . . . the kids need to get off the school bus and then take two more buses or two metros to get home, but we’ve all made it work.

Here are a few things you’ll see in the slide show that might not be immediately obvious:

Although it was not still the style used at the time, Emperor Augustus decided to have his tomb crafted in the style of the ancient Etruscans. It was a clever political move, tying him to the most ancient civilization of his people. That is why the building is round and has grass growing on top. It is quite a sight in the center of the city.

Mussolini was also a clever guy and followed the same principle. For added credibility, he had his government office buildings constructed around Augustus’ tomb. In this way, he showed his historical tie to Rome’s first ruler. Something that we walked by hundreds of times before noticing was this decoration on the side of one of the buildings. The angel on this relief is holding a bunch of rods. The term “fascist” comes from the Italian fascismo, which is from the Latin fasces.  The fasces were bundles of rods that were tied around an axe, the ancient Roman symbol of authority, used for corporeal punishment. Hence the origin of the term fascist as related to politics. For years Mussolini’s name had been chipped off the side of the building, but it has been long enough that the letters were recently replaced.

If you read the blog post about the ubiquitous Wedding Cake, you can see it a few times in the background during the slide show.

There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in the Jewish Ghetto. It may seem to you that Rome’s Great Synagogue looks a lot like a church. At the time it was built, there were no Jewish architects. Although the building was constructed to be a synagogue, the architects did what they knew how to do. . .design churches!  There is a noticeable police presence here. After a horrible attack following a religious service in which a young child was killed, Roman police are now stationed at each corner around the old synagogue. And a police car is stationed in the center of the ghetto when the Jewish school is in session.

Just after the Ghetto pictures, there is a photograph of Hebrew writing. You may think it comes from the side of the synagogue—but it does not. It is writing on the front of a Catholic Church that faces what used to be the Ghetto walls. Pope Gregory—an otherwise enlightened man who introduced the calendar—required the Jews of Rome to attend Sunday mass every week. The Jews were encouraged to save their souls, and the writing, in Hebrew, reminds them that if they don’t convert, they are screwed for eternity.

The Temple of Portunus, dating to the first century B.C., is (along with the Pantheon) my favorite building in Rome. It is here that we can see how the Romans totally set the stage for everything we now consider standard in a building. The Etruscans built using earth and the Greeks had columns with entrances to buildings all around the perimeter. Here the Romans combine these ideas with their own style. This introduces ideas such as a front door, a porch, the use of concrete rather than single hunks of marble, columns that are decorative rather than functional, a roof that totally closes in and covers the building beneath . . .it’s all there for the first time!

The Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is the portico of the Paleochristian church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The church itself is amazing. But the tour busses stop for what is essentially a manhole cover representing a river god with an open mouth. Legend has it that if liars put their hands inside its mouth, they will lose them. The mask was featured in the film Roman Holiday, in which Gregory Peck challenges Audrey Hepburn to put her hand inside the mouth. The film is apparently a cult classic in Japan and so queues of tourists line up outside the beautiful church for a photo op. Nell and I did it once and threatened each other with embarrassing questions we might ask each other when it was our turn.

Towards the end of the walk, we pass the home of the US Ambassador to the Vatican. The Vatican requires that countries maintain two distinct embassies in Rome: one to Italy and another to the Vatican. Walking past this building is irritating because one block away is the UN organization fighting world hunger. I keep thinking: how many children could we feed a year if we weren’t paying for all of the infrastructure needed to support a separate embassy and ambassador home from each country for the Vatican? Couldn’t one embassy to Italy and the Vatican cover enough ground?

The children’s bus stop is at the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). This year we have had the great pleasure of learning more about these kinds of organizations and meeting the extremely bright and dedicated people from around the world who are working to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food and water. Many of the kids’ friends’ parents work FAO or at the other very wonderful UN organizations in Rome, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations that addresses rural hunger and poverty in developing countries, and the World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger in the world.

Here is a link to the movie…

-Seth

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

Me and my friends waiting for the game to start. I am number 9.

I play soccer with my school team, that is made up of some 5th graders, 4th graders, and 3rd graders. We practice Mondays and Thursdays after school.  There is about 36 kids on my team. My coach is named Mr. Hough. He is also a 4th grade teacher.

Me, Sam, Nikos, and Loet, waiting between games.

Soccer in Rome is much different than soccer in the States. For example, people play much more rough, and we do not wear shin guards. On my first day of school, the first person to be nice to me was named Charlie (who is from Australia). He told me to never play soccer at recess because kids have broken bones on the soccer pitch. At the beginning of school, I was a bit nervous because kids played much rougher than at home and also all the kids speak only Italian when playing soccer.

Me, Sam, and Nikos.

But I really wanted to play, so after the first week or two, I just started playing. It was weird to see how many shots that seemed impossible the kids tried to make. It turns out that I did get hurt a few times playing soccer at recess, but it was still really fun. I ended up making friends with a lot of kids that I really like now because of playing soccer. Plus I learned how to say a lot of things in Italian (that I can’t write about here because they are inappropriate). A couple of times a month, our coach comes on the pitch to play with us at recess.

Our team jerseys have long sleeves, maybe because the Romans always think it’s cold even when it’s hot.

In Madison, everyone gets to play in games and the coaches give each kid an equal amount of time on the field, whether you are a better or worse player. But they do not do that in Italy. Here, the coach invites only a few kids on the team to actually play in a tournament. The coach only picks the not bad players to play in games, and before the game you are told if you are a substitute player or starting.

My team.

At the beginning of the year, I didn’t ever think about really going to play in a tournament because there are too many good players in Italy. But I still really liked going to the practices. I was SUPER happy when Mr. Hough invited me to play in a tournament. But it was cancelled due to snow. Then I got invited to be in another tournament and that is what I am going to talk about here. I have never played on a school team before.

Right after I scored my goal, with Nikos and Andrew.

Two things surprised me. First, I got to play on the 5th grade team. And second, I scored a goal. I never thought that I would score a goal in a tournament in Italy. I feel like I will always remember this; it was one of the specialist moments of my life.

Only three other 4th graders got onto the 5th grade team. All of them are really good friends of mine. They are Nikos, Andrew, and Victor. My friend Nikos assisted my goal. The best players on my team were Hans and Fillipo and Jacopo. Originally, the coach told me that I was going to the tournament as a sub. But when the game started I was sent in as l’attaccante which means striker. I think in Madison we would call it center forward. That is my favorite position to play.

Waiting to hear the places.

Our team made it through the quarter-finals, semi-finals and made it all the way to the finals. But then we lost in the finals. We got second place in the all-city international schools tournament and we got a trophy. Fillipo got to take the trophy home, because he is the team captain.

Getting our trophy, which was filled with candy.

One of the greatest things was celebrating the victories after our games. We all ran around the pitch shouting in victory and patting each other on the backs and stuff like that.

In the end, it was one of the greatest days of my year in Rome.

– Eli

Two years ago, we made a family trip to Rome to check out possible schools for the children, give them a concrete sense of where we would be moving, and explore potential neighborhoods to look for apartments. We had absolutely no sense of where we were going as we traversed the city. As we stood on street corners trying to GoogleMap our way around, I complicated matters by insisting that we avoid—at all costs—walking through Piazza Venezia. I had taken an instant dislike to it.

Despite its renown, many first-time visitors find Rome off-putting. Compared to Florence or Venice, it can feel too crowded, too clamorous, too dirty, too chaotic, too confusing. And if there was ever a location this might ring especially true, it is Piazza Venezia. Piazza Venezia is the geographic heart in the center of Rome, almost like a bull’s-eye. The piazza is named for the Palazzo Venezia, which was the foreign embassy of the Venetians and then the headquarters of Benito Mussolini.

The historic center of Rome has some other open urban spaces, such as Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and St. Peter’s Square. These, too, are not my favorite parts of the city. But at least they retain some Baroque charm. In contrast, Piazza Venezia just feels chaotic to me– thousands of cars, buses, and motorcycles constantly wrapping around the circle doesn’t help. Neither do throngs of tourists stepping far away from their beloved to take photos that include lots of backdrop, thereby forcing everyone else to have to walk off the sidewalk and into the imposing traffic to pass by. There are hawkers selling plastic replicas of the Colosseum, or cans of coke for five dollars, or cheap scarves. The area is also a major bus transfer point. It’s a Roman maelstrom.

There’s still a lot there that I adore. For example, Michelangelo’s work on the Campidoglio is fantastic, unveiling a spectacular city view on top that is—surprisingly for its time—secular. There are no Christian religious elements among all of the highly decorative statuary. And rather than have each new building make its own “statement,” Michelangelo created buildings that fit with their surroundings. This idea, I have learned, was revolutionary. Up until that time, Renaissance architecture had been about single, isolated buildings—the aim was to display each individual building to its maximum advantage, not to create an aesthetically unified whole with the surrounding buildings. Michelangelo’s concept here of creating a unified outdoor space was utterly new, and it is beautiful, and it changed the way we think about how neighborhoods should look.

Unfortunately, a huge marble pile erected in 1911 now blocks the view of the Campidoglio and blatantly violates the very principle that Michelangelo championed. This one building is the singular source of my intense dislike of Piazza Venezia. The culprit is the Victor Emmanuel Monument. I’m not alone in my vitriol. This monstrous neoclassical building is widely– and deservedly– reviled. Locals call it “the Wedding Cake.” This is because it looks like it has been slathered with sugary frosting and should have giant plastic matrimonial figurines stuck on top.

The Wedding Cake in the center of the piazza was built to celebrate Italy’s unification and was named after the nation’s first king. Though it took forty years to build, it is lamentable. I won’t hold back here to make it perfectly clear how I really feel: it is an architectural calamity.

The monument is pompous, overblown, oversized. I wish I could put it in PhotoShop, crop it, and reduce the image by 70%. To add insult to injury, it is made from an antiseptic looking, stark, white marble that heavy-handedly grabs all of one’s visual attention. In the midst of all of this bulk and superfluous decoration is also the grave of Italy’s Unknown Soldier, attended by two live guards. Yet the grave is practically invisible amid the welter of visual distraction. So any simple, moving, or subtle message is drowned out. It is like a huge, artificial mountain was dropped in the center of this beautiful city. It reminds me of a puffy, cheap taffeta wedding dress purchased from a tacky discount outlet. There is no charm or grace, only volume.

So I always avoided walking through this piazza, just to prevent this hideous building from bearing down upon me. I did not like the way it distracted me from what I love to look at in this city. Seeing it was enough to sour my mood.

But over this year, something changed.

Like an annoying colleague who talks too much, but can also be counted on to express something at a meeting that needs to be said, I realized how helpful the Wedding Cake could be. It has become an immensely useful and reliable orienting device. I can climb any hill, turn any corner, get lost in any labyrinth, and it comes into view, marking the heart of the city. The Wedding Cake has helped me find my way home many times. It has guided my explorations to unknown neighborhoods. Now, when I venture to a less familiar part of the city, I find myself looking for the Wedding Cake to give me a sense of where I am relative to the center. When I’ve hiked up some ridge or climbed some tower or castle to take in a panoramic view, the Wedding Cake is always there when I emerge on top, like a “You Are Here” pin on a map, helping me to place other landmarks. Often, en route somewhere, I glance up at it to ensure that I’m generally heading in the right direction. And I have to admit: it is comforting. I never feel lost amidst the narrow winding streets and unexpected hills of Rome as long as I can see the Wedding Cake somewhere in the distance.

Now I am willing to yield a little and acknowledge that the monument works better at night. Maybe it comes across more as its builders had intended? The bright white behemoth is flooded with spotlights and is transformed into something that looks grand. Against the black sky, the massive hunk of white and glimmering gold becomes an extravaganza. It is no longer architecture, but theater.

These days I think of the Wedding Cake as the hub of a wheel, around which the rest of the Eternal City continually whirls.

Dare I say it? I think I’ll miss seeing it every day.

— Seth

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

10. Finally figured out how to pay those damn Italian utility bills on line.

9. Now know the other parents at school, can match each child with their parent, and can follow a conversation when the other parents drift from English back to Italian in mid-sentence. . . .all this after months of vigorously nodding my head and smiling, with no idea of who people were or what they were saying to me.

8. Can actually help random tourists who ask for directions, instead of simply shrugging.

7. Still full from lunch at 6pm and not even considering dinner yet.

6. 70 degrees feels cold and warrants a scarf.

5. At last! Known and recognized by some of the most important people in Rome: the vegetable guy at the local market, the fishmonger, the cranky pasta lady, baristas at three good coffee places, the owner of the wine store around the corner, and the cheerful server at the best gelateria.

4. Work schedule now depends upon no new emails arriving until late afternoon here (when people in North America are just starting their mornings).

3. No longer intimidated to cross a street in Rome and am confident that the kids now know how to watch for motorscooters.

2. Average fat in Italian artisanal gelato = 8%; average fat in premium US ice cream = 22%.

1. 7780 kilometers facilitates denial about the Wisconsin recall election.

— Seth

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

Lunch by the beach in Sa Tuna.

At the end of our stay in Barcelona, we didn’t want to leave. I’d been there for a week (teaching an intensive graduate course), and Seth and the kids had arrived 3 days into my stay. We had so much fun in Barcelona (as documented in the kids’ most recent blog posts) that as we were leaving to drive up the Costa Brava, we wondered if we were making a mistake. Why not just stay in Barcelona for another few days? In the end, we loved everything about Catalonia (the region in the northeast of Spain) so much that we all wished we could have stayed longer both in Barcelona and in the Costa Brava. George Orwell’s book title is exactly right; this is a fantastic part of the world.

Lagoon at Sa Tuna.

Before planning our two nights on the Costa Brava, we really didn’t know very much about the area. My childhood friend Kathleen, who now lives in London with her family, vacationed there last summer and had mentioned it as a fun and beautiful destination. Our home and travels this year have been predominantly urban. And while I love interesting cities, I’ve wanted to do more exploring of the villages and coastlines in Southern Europe than we’ve managed to do thus far.  So the Costa Brava seemed like an ideal way to spend the last few days of the kids’ spring break.

Atop Begur, on the castle ruins.

One of the things that we’ve most enjoyed this year is not having a car. Driving in Rome strikes fear into my heart; I don’t even like being a passenger in taxis in Italian cities. We’ve relished our car-free existence, especially Seth, who is our family’s primary driver. To explore the Costa Brava, though, we needed to rent a car. In order to dull that blow, we decided to have some fun: we rented a convertible (a Mini – which was truly mini… despite packing light as always, with just carry-on bags, we still had to sit with suitcases under my feet and between the kids). Driving out of Barcelona and up into the hills and along the coast on a sparkling summery day was magical.

Walking the ocean path between towns.

As a home base, we followed Kathleen’s lead and stayed in a little town called Begur, about halfway to France from Barcelona (an hour and a half or so). It’s perched up in the hills with the ruins of an ancient castle up above the pedestrian town. Despite its diminutive size, Begur is quite happening, filled with fun tapas bars and Catalan cuisine.

At the Hotel Aiguaclara

We found our hotel via Trip Advisor (side note: while we’ve found Trip Advisor highly unreliable for restaurant recommendations in our Euro travels, the hotel recommendations have all been spot-on). The Hotel Aiguaclara is a colonial-style mansion built in 1866 that’s been renovated without losing any of its charm. The entry and hall are piled with vintage typewriters, suitcases, and other funky knickknacks. The restaurant is fantastic and has outdoor sofas and a wicker egg hanging chair for kids to lounge in. They have an honor bar set up with fresh pastries (including our new favorite, Ensaimada de Mallorca).

Beverage break by the beach in Llafranch.

After we arrived, the staff recommended that we drive down for lunch in one of the nearest beach villages, Sa Tuna, about 10 minutes down a very steep hill (reminding us of driving in Corsica last summer). We sat outside on a terrace overlooking an ocean lagoon and felt very far away from city life. Seth had a snooze on the beach (all that driving!) while the kids and I scampered around the rocks surrounding the lagoon. After we returned to Begur, we wandered around the town and arranged for dinner at the hotel restaurant. The kids were too tired to eat, but they are now old enough to just head upstairs and go to bed while the grownups enjoy the end of a meal. Nice!

Beach soccer!

The next day, we followed a touring itinerary created for me by one of the Ph.D. students in my Barcelona course, who is from the area (she kindly made us a powerpoint showing sites and restaurants to visit in the area; other guests at the hotel overheard us looking at it and asked for a copy!). We drove to another nearby beach town, Calella de Palafrugell, which has a paved path over the cliffs to the next beach town, Llafranch. It was a spectacular walk, with lots of opportunities for the kids to climb and leap over the rocks, and to admire the turquoise sea. While the grownups enjoyed a coffee in Llafranch, Nell played on the beach and Eli joined a beach soccer game with some of the local kids.

We then walked back along the path to Calella de Palafrugell, where we treated ourselves to a seaside lunch at a rice restaurant (Catalan rice with salt cod for us, mmm). After some more climbing on rocks, we drove to a medieval village near Begur called Pals, which was beautiful and pleasantly empty after the busy beach town.

Enjoying Dracula for dessert.

We returned to the hotel and walked to the town park, which is basically a full-size dirt soccer pitch. The local kids welcomed Eli into a pickup game, which he played enthusiastically until we dragged him away for our 8 PM dinner reservation. This scene has repeated itself across multiple cities and countries – soccer is a universal language and Eli has used it over and over as a way to connect with other kids with whom he shares no spoken language. I am very envious of this ability to connect across cultures via the playing field!

Dinner that night was at Can Climent Platillos. This tiny tapas bar (5 tables) is run by a chef who used to own a Michelin-starred restaurant, and who gave it up to run a tapas bar. While occasionally a little precious (squares of smoked salmon poking out of a tin sardine can), the food was delicious and the atmosphere totally hopping. Eli especially loved his desert, called the Dracula, which involved fresh vanilla gelato, berry sauce, and Coca Cola.

Roman column, with the sea and the hills of coastal France in the distance.

The next morning, we were quite sad to check out of our lovely hotel. Fortunately, our flight wasn’t until the evening, so we drove north to visit an ancient fortress on the sea. Empúries was originally a Greek colony (indeed, apparently the largest in the Iberian Peninsula), and then a Roman colony; both sets of ruins are being excavated. We are steeped in Roman ruins but have seen few Greek ruins this year, and so it was interesting to compare the construction techniques. We then walked along the ocean to the next town, Sant Marti, where we climbed high above the sea to enjoy our final meal in Catalonia.

– Jenny