Skip to content

In Zimbabwe, our dear Zimbabwe, the lion doesn’t sleep at night… (Zimbabwe Adventure part I)

May 1, 2017

Our first full fledged African adventure began with the arrival of Auntie Jen!  She was our first visitor to Lesotho and so after showing her around our little city of Maseru we headed across the border to South Africa and then onto Zimbabwe to experience our first safari.

The day started early on Good Friday, as we packed all of our luggage into the car, to begin our journey.  Luggage, snacks, malaria meds, and passports for 5 people takes a lot more planning than what the three of us had grown accustomed to, but somehow we managed to remember everything…except for the waterproof camera…but other than that we were good.

First stop was Johannesburg where we got to stop into the Hard Rock Cafe for a great burger (not so easy to find in Lesotho) and enjoy some live cover band music.  Next morning was the flight to Zimbabwe!IMG_2787 - Copy  Let me tell you, this was no ordinary flight, right before we took off, we heard an announcement warning us to cover our nose, mouth and eyes if we are sensitive to aerosol because the cabin was being sprayed!  Wait…what?!  Sprayed?!  Sprayed with what?!  So it turns out that in addition to taking your anti-malarial meds before going to certain destinations, the airlines spray to prevent infectious diseases carried by insects.  Uh…okay…that’s just weird, but what are you going to do?  So we all proceeded to cover our faces, and off we went.

IMG_2135Our first night’s stay was at the Kingdom, a beautiful lodge with swimming, a gorgeous open air restaurant, balcony with a scenic view and direct access to Victoria Falls!  So, our first sign that we “weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto” was this gem letting us know to beware of crocodiles in the lake!  Well, okay then…welcome to Zimbabwe.  Don’t get me wrong, while it took a few moments of adjusting to being in this new country, we all agreed, there have been few places that we have met encountered the most kind, friendly, and polite people we have ever met.  I will take the chance to introduce them throughout, because to overlook them would be to remove 1/2 of what made our Zimbabwean Adventure so fantastic!

So for our first night in country, we got to experience the magic that is Victoria Falls.  The location of our lodge was so amazing that we only needed to follow the walking paths to a breathtaking overlook of the gorge and Zambezi river that lead to the falls.  This will also be the same gorge that the Leese Family was insane enough to zipline across, but more about that later.  To get to the gorge and later the falls, did not come without a few obstacles, namely the monkeys and the vendors.  Yes, you read right, there were monkeys and baboons EVERYWHERE!

rob v vendorSo a stroll down a walking path IMG_3407required just a little more caution, because you just never know what was going to pop out along your way, Rafiki from a Lion King or the intro scene straight out of Aladdin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inzkJ34VMfk) with vendors trying to sell you their wares.  I’m sure those who have experienced the sales pitch of a street vendor understand what I am talking about.  You’re like, I see your beautiful items you are selling and while I fully plan to voluntarily come and buy out your store, but right now, “I just want to see Victoria Falls!”  The views of the gorge were simply beautiful, we took a little time just to take it all in.

IMG_2154IMG_2799 - CopyIMG_2800 - CopyIMG_2796 - Copy
Next up was actually seeing Victoria Falls.  If you do not know, Mosi-Tunya or Victoria Falls are among the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The Zambezi River, which is more than 2 km wide at this point, plunges noisily down a series of basalt gorges and raises an iridescent mist that can be seen more than 20 km away.  Because of their location, they can viewed on both the Zimbabwe side and the Zambia side.  On the Zimbabwe side there are 14 lookout points, we made it to about 11 of them while Ben and Rob got to about 13.  They vary in the accessibility due to the amount of mist that can turn around and feel like outright rain pouring down and making things less visible.  No matter what, expect to get wet, and wet we got, but man was it worth it!

IMG_2202IMG_2167IMG_2805

Despite the fact that we were on vacation, safari days meant getting up at ridiculously early hours, but we weren’t about to complain, we were in for the adventure of a lifetime!  First up in introductions is our driver, Wilson, who took us to our safari and to IMG_2277the airport, but most importantly got us through the many police checkpoints as we traveled to the Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. His company Wilpro (http://wilprotours.com/) arranged all of our activities while we were at Victoria Falls and made sure everything went off without  a hitch. Wilson taught us so much about the customs and history of his country.  If you are ever in need of any kind of tour or activity at Victoria Falls, we highly recommend him.  The kind of customized service that he provided for our family was nothing short of phenomenal, by the end of the trip we felt like he was family!

We arrived to Vintage Camp (http://www.vintagecamphwange.com/) which borders the Hwange National Park for the safari experience of a lifetime, some planned and some not so planned.  Upon arriving we were greeting with a cool beverage and introduced to the camp-which we had all to ourselves which was a lovely bonus because we could totally be ourselves and enjoy roughing it together.  Right off the bat, we sat in the treehouse laughing and sharing stories and settling in to our home away from home for the next 2 days.  Rob and I shared a tent, Ben and Jen shared a tent and Papa got his own.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There were solar powered lamps, a bucket to take showers, and a bucket to flush the toilet…yup, we were roughing it alright.  So after we laid down our things in our tents, off we went to our first sunset safari.  This brings us to our second introduction.  IMG_2311This is Jefferson, he was our safari guide and he was nothing short of amazing!  His extensive knowledge of animal life and his sense of humor was more than enough to answer all of our questions and keep us entertained during our whole adventure.  During our first afternoon alone, we saw impalas, giraffes, monkeys, and elephants!  At one point we asked him what kind of bird we are seeing and he pulled out a book looked it up, made a guess and then pulled out some magic bird whistle, made a noise and when the bird responded, he was like, “Yup, that’s a brown eagle,” then he put his things away and kept driving.  We were all dumbfounded.  Jen said, ” I need that book and whistle.”  These are the elephants that we watched for at least 20 minutes as then showered themselves and each other with dirt to keep themselves cool. We were so close it was crazy, but they were having so much fun they were oblivious to us or didn’t care.  Last count there were 18 elephants of all ages and we couldn’t have been happier to witness their playtime.

IMG_2381IMG_2370

It was an awesome outing and just after sunset we drove back to camp only to be greeted by some of the most delicious food served by Nigel.  Although a little startling at first to discover that our camp bathroom had an open ceiling, we all admitted that the African sky was one of the most beautiful clear skies we had ever seen and every constellation was clearly visible.  Admittedly, there were lots of sound effects that if we didn’t know better could have been on a ‘safari noises soundtrack’, but there we were in the middle of the bush of Africa, so they were real alright.

No exception to the early rise rules of our vacation, everyone was up at 6 AM and ready to go on our first all day safari.   Since we were up before the sun, things were a little cold, but of course our trusted guide Jefferson came prepared with blankets that we all dutifully bundled ourselves into as we briskly moved through the trees and high grasses of the Hwange.

We saw it all!  We saw impalas, which to the American eye look a lot like deer, but impalas are strictly found in Southern Africa and have pointed, ridged horns.  We saw more elephants, more zebra, and many more giraffes.  We saw 4 hippos, a jackal, water buffalo, wildebeests, and a rarely seen sable antelope.  Jefferson came prepared with our hot tea and coffee to enjoy for a morning break and we stopped for a picnic lunch.  We were out all day and the only animal that we hadn’t seen was the elusive lion.  Other guides would pass us throughout the safari and ask Jefferson if there had been any sightings.  Obviously everyone was disappointed but we weren’t complaining we had literally seen everything else.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So we returned to camp, exhausted but having seen so many fantastic animals and created  so many new memories, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come next.

We all turned in for the night after another delicious dinner and chatted around a fire.  Now I can only speak for what I witnessed in our tent, but around midnight an indescribable noise could be heard in the distance. Around 3 a.m. , the noise was right outside the right hand side of our tent and then it slowly moved to the front side of out tent.  Admittedly bad timing, I really needed to use the restroom and we were instructed not to go to the bathroom by ourselves.  So, of course I woke up my “not really sleeping husband” who had been hearing the same noises I had for about an hour.  I couldn’t hold it anymore, so my brave husband got up with me despite hearing there noises (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX_ZPDXa4V0&feature=youtu.be) and I went to the bathroom quicker than I knew to be humanly possible.  Eventually the noise drifted off into the distance and we were able to sleep.

Ben's comic

Ben illustrated the night’s events according to everyone’s anecdotes…

Being the early birds that we are Ben and I were up around 6 AM the next morning even through we didn’t need to be, but our guide Jefferson who had been tracking the lions all night came quickly into camp and said, if everyone can get up in two minutes we can go see the lions!  Ben ran to Jen’s tent and I ran to Rob’s.  I wish we had pictures of the blankets as they sprang from their beds with excitement.  I don’t think I have ever seen Rob get up so quickly.  He came in his pajama top and sweats and Jen came in a sweatshirt and pajama pants, it was hilarious, but no one wasted a second before they were ready to go.  Off we went in our safari jeep, and in no more than 5 minutes we arrived to the spot where the lions were sitting in a tree, two lionesses and two cubs.

Once we approached, only one of the lion cubs remained long enough for a picture, but we were so excited to have seen them.  We returned back to camp, enjoyed an exciting breakfast as we shared our individual reactions to the previous night’s events, and packed for our trip back to Victoria Falls …and THAT would conclude Part I of our Zimbabwean adventure.

Next Up…an African Adventure!

January 25, 2017

It had been two years since we lived in a different country and I think we were all itching for a new adventure.  We rolled the dice and the winner is Maseru, Lesotho!  Haven’t heard of the country?  It’s okay, few people have.  I have come to the conclusion that it is my job to educate all my family and friends on African geography and this little gem of a country  completely surrounded by South Africa.

img_0530All in all, our journey to Lesotho was far less eventful than our trip to Italy.  When we finally arrived in Italy, we had no luggage, arrived 10 hours later than what we were scheduled, and the only toothpaste we could get our hands on was lemon flavored.  Our journey to Maseru was on time, we arrived with all of our luggage, without so much as a delay and we came home to a completely stocked refrigerator inside our new home for the next two years…this was already starting out way better than the last time.

Our first couple of weeks were spent in a state of discovery…learning the ways of the grocery stores and everything that they offer.  There are things that we anticipated not being able to find, peanut butter maybe, Stacey chips, salsa…but then I think there were things that we never imagined would be difficult to find, and yet we are realizing we may need to go without -for two years.  Ah the joys of an overseas adventure!

So here are the lessons we have learned while living here in Maseru for 3 months:img_2374

  1.  “Hot dog sauce” in a yellow container with a big picture of a hot dog on the front is not actually mustard (despite the deceiving appearance).
  2. “Mustard sauce”, also in a yellow container, despite it’s name is NOT mustard.
  3. Everyone walks here.  Don’t get me wrong, some have cars, but the vast majority do not.  People walk miles to get to work, to the store, and to church.
  4. Since everyone walks everywhere, in the African hot sun, they all have umbrellas and hats.  Hats are very big here.  img_0804Baseball hats, floppy hats, fisherman hats–there is no one “right hat” but the flag of Lesotho has a “mokorotlo” on it which is the traditional Basotho hat and those are very popular.  People wear them with great pride.  Umbrellas are everywhere, on a bright sunny day at 5 PM, you will see a mass exodus of people walking alongside the highways wearing hats and armed with umbrellas.img_25211
  5. Growing up I realized that my family was always on different schedule than everyone else, we joke, but I came to realize this was ‘Mexican time’.   Once we were in Italy we realized that Italian time and Mexican time were very similar.  Things started and people arrived just a little later than what was scheduled…Maseru time is very much the same.
  6.  Corn tortillas are a hot commodity to the American community here, I’m pretty sure they carry more value than gold and are just as rare.
  7. Unlimited internet is not a thing.  Everything is on a pre-paid plan and when you run out, you run out.  This is true of your phones as well as your WiFi at home.
  8. Shoes are optional at the shopping malls in South Africa.
  9. If you thought you understood and appreciated thunderstorms and rain, you soon realize that there is much more to Toto’s song than you ever imagined.  The rains in Africa are indeed something to behold.
  10. Basotho (people of Lesotho) have perfected the art of disseminating media.  News img_25081headlines are strategically placed alongside the road.  Want to know the story?  Guess you have to go pick up a newspaper.  They have mastered the nuance of teasers.
  11. Ndate, pronouced “en-dah-tay” means sir and all men are addressed this way.  ‘Me, pronounced “may” ,eams ma’am and all woman are addressed this way.img_25101
  12. Living in Lesotho has taught us lessons about living in a society as a minority.  In Italy, even though we were from a different country and spoke a different language, we could learn the learn the language, adapt our fashion and try to blend in.  In Lesotho, no matter how well we learn the language and adapt our clothing, there is no way to ‘blend’…we still stick out.  So the key is learning to accept that everyone will know we are Americans, yet if show respect for their culture, they will surely accept us into their world.img_24001

The Winnie Chronicles 2014-2015

June 30, 2015

Sept 19

So we have a new neighbor. Turns out they have a daughter that is quite cute and is one grade above munchkin. He was quite eager to take over the cookies I made to personally welcome them to the neighborhood and then invited her to see his room…I’m kinda feelin’ a Winnie Cooper vibe goin’ on here if you know what I’m sayin’.

IMG_0328Sept 23

Winnie Cooper Update:
Munchkin: It’s like I can’t even wait to go to the bus stop.
Me: Really? That wouldn’t have anything to do with the new company at the bus stop would it?
Munchkin: Mom,she is so cool, she doesn’t even like girl stuff, it’s so weird.
Me: What is “girl stuff”?
Munchkin: I dunno most girls cover their phones in purple and pink and glitter…do you know what she has on her phone?
Me: No, what?
Munchkin: Minecraft! How cool is that! She’s pretty, she’s smart AND she plays video games, I didn’t know girls like that existed!

Sept 24

Winnie Cooper installment #4: A Modern Day Shakespearean Tale. (On our balcony) “Oh Juliet, Juliet, wherefore, art thou Juliet.”balcony

Sept 25

Another Winnie Cooper Update:

So, it’s raining here in the district. Headed to the bus stop, munchkin took two of his old umbrellas, a Superman one for him and a Batman one for Winnie. It took everything in me not to hide behind the bushes and snap a picture, it was too freaking adorable. Cynthia Ramos Cisneros I was thinking of the photo you snapped from behind the bushes of your high schooler on his first day of school!

IMG_0385Oct 4

The Winnie Cooper Story continues with one round of video game playing, one round of bike riding, and dinner at the Coopers! … Of course mom’s stalking continues…is it wrong that I am enjoying this so much?IMG_0384

Oct 21

And for your Halloween episode of the Winnie Cooper Chronicles…
Rob: (laying garbage bag on kitchen floor) Okay, buddy, are you ready to carve your pumpkin?
Munchkin: Uh, why don’t we carve them on the deck, Dad
Rob: Uh, okay.
Munchkin: (carrying pumpkin and feigning surprise as to who is out on her deck) Oh, hi!

Oct 24

Kevin Arnold quote of the day:

Me: How was your day?

Munchkin: I’m just saying, if a girl asks you to watch scary movie YouTube video clips with her, you should always say yes. That is the easiest way to get her to hold your hand when she gets scared.

Winnie Cooper

Oct 28

So yesterday I joked that all the windows were down because I almost burned the house down (I mean there actually was a little mishap, but that is a story for another day)…to which munchkin replied, “That’s not even funny! If you burned down the house, then we would have to move and we would get NEW neighbors!”

So glad my kid has his priorities straight. Sigh.

Nov 18

An “almost” Winnie Catastrophe!

Munchkin came home on Friday with the most despondent look on his face.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” as he shrugged his book bag and coat off onto the floor (in front of the coat rack, I might add)

“Really? Because you look like your pet just died.”

“She sat with someone else.”

“Who did?” Come on mom! As if anyone else in the world even matters to this guy.

“I gave her this look as I was passing her sitting with him and all she said was, ‘I’m sorry,’ so I went and sat by myself. Then, when the bus stopped, I just walked straight off the bus and didn’t even wait for her.”

Ouch. Man, a woman’s scorn doesn’t come close to THIS kid!

So all weekend, we had the hypothetical questions being thrown around, “What would you do?” “Why would she do that?” “Do you think she’s mad at me?” along with the sulking and the constant checking of the phone.

And then Sunday happened. The phone rings! Alleluia, the phone rings. A quick trip to the balcony and happiness is restored. “So, she sat by him because I was late to the bus!! She thought I wasn’t riding! She invited me over! Everything is fine! Can I go over?”

And today it’s back to packing the mad libs and trivia books into the book bag to do on the bus together (thanks Uncle Matt) All is right in the world again.

Dec 18

So there’s been a lot happening in my family, so forgive me for my lack of Winnie Cooper updates, but today was monumental.

I was reviewing his day as we always do. How did the Science test go? What homework do you have? Did anything remarkable happen today? (Which believe it or not is a routine question I ask) It took me a moment to realize, despite the fact that munchkin was answering, he wasn’t quite “all there.”

“So I just did it.”
“You did what.”
“I told her.”
“You told who, what?”
“I told [Winnie] that I liked her.”
“Whoa! You like [Winnie]?”
“Very funny mom.”
“Well what did she say?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“She said, that she had a feeling and then she asked if it would be okay if she told her mom? I told her that I’m pretty sure her mom already knows. Do you think that’s a good thing?”
“Hmm, I don’t know, what do you think?”
“Not sure…I’m just relieved to have told her.”

So this weekend’s dinner with the “Coopers” will either be incredibly awkward or will be the best holiday ever for one munchkin.

Dec 29

And just like your favorite tv shows, we took a winter hiatus, but the Winnie Cooper Chronicles are back!

Before break, munchkin updated us with his conversation with Winnie after his big reveal. “She said, ‘I like you, and obviously we are more than friends, but I’m not really ready to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Can we still hang out and stuff?’ ”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“Didn’t you hear me? She said, “Obviously, we’re more than friends!”

Sounds like both of us were content with Winnie’s answer.

Fast forward to last night…

Munchkin had a very special Pokemon stuffed animal and card set delivered to Winnie’s house directly since we wouldn’t be here for Christmas. Last night, he was invited to go hang out and for dinner.

When he came home he was carrying a gift box. “What’s in the box?”

“Oh, just my present from [Winnie].”

“So what did she get you?”

“It’s weird, they’re just clothes, they aren’t themed or anything, they aren’t related to me in any way shape or form. I don’t know what to think!”

“Well, they seem nice. What did she think of your gift that you gave her?”

“Oh, she looooved it!”

“Really, how do you know?”

“She screamed, ‘I loooove it, thank you!’ and then she hugged me for at least ten Mississippis!”

valentines dayFeb 9

What a fun little surprise package from our friends in Japan! ThanksVanessa Alaniz Lee Japanese Pokemon cards should help munchkin ensure he rocks Winnie’s Valentines Day this year!

Feb 17

Who knows? It may just be a cliff hanger to this season, but Valentines Day turned out to be a little bit of a heartbreak from one Winnie Cooper. You would have never known it from the first two days of the weekend with exchanges of sweets and Pokemon cards and over an hour on the phone (a first). But last night after spending the evening at the neighbors, he came home with “Girls Suck!” Looks like she’s really starting to focus on high school plans. We’ll see what happens next season. Hard to see the munchkin so bummed.

Mar 26

The Winnie Chronicles return!

Conversation last night:
“So where’s munchkin?”
“He went for a walk with [Winnie].”
Enter Munchkin.
“So how was your walk?”
“Good, really good. We talked about how nervous we were thinking about kissing someone for the first time.”
Exit munchkin.

Soooo, that was interesting.

June 11

The Winnie Cooper Roller Coaster

Munchkin called me from the bus in the morning to let me know he got on the bus safely:

“Mom, I’m on the bus.” (Sounding down)

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, I think [Winnie’s] mad at me.”

“Why do you think that?”

“She’s acting weird and she’s not really talking to me.”

“Why don’t you ask her what’s wrong?”

“Yeah, maybe I will.”

“Are you still staying to see her choir concert after school.”

“I don’t know. I’ll let you know.”

Voicemail left on my phone: “Mom, I don’t know what’s going on, she’s mad at me but I don’t know why and so I’m not staying after school.”

Voicemail left 1 hour later:
“Mom, I think things are okay, I changed my mind, I’m staying after school and will ride the late bus.”

Munchkin comes home on the late bus:
“So how was the concert?”

“It was fine. I just don’t get girls! So, [Winnie] and I got to an argument about gay rights yesterday so I thought that’s what she was mad about, but she said she wasn’t mad about that, it was something else but she didn’t want to talk about it. So she’s okay now. (Heavy sigh) I just don’t get her! What is wrong with your kind?!”

Rob: Buddy, you’ll be trying to figure that out your whole life.”

June 13

Munchkin: “So Ms. [Cooper] (Winnie’s mom) stopped me on my way into the house today and asked if everything was alright, because it seemed like [Winnie] had been a little moody lately. …Ha! You don’t know the half of it sister!”

“You didn’t say that did you?!”

“Of course not, I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ve noticed’ but I didn’t know why, but I wanted to say that!”

Oranges, Not Just for Juices and Zest Anymore!

March 10, 2014

As we suspected, Italy has proven to be the source for more adventures than we could have ever imagined.  Perhaps the most exciting time of year in Italy was Carnivale, the final days before Lent begins.   Learning how the different regions and communities celebrated, proved to be some of the most fun experiences.  Nothing could have prepared us for what is known to those from Ivrea, Italy as the Battaglia delle Arance (Battle of the Oranges).img_9115

Carnevale Di Ivrea pays homage to an ancient uprising between the town’s villagers and its tyrant leader and his guards.  As the story goes, back in the 1800s, a civil war broke out between the townsfolk of Ivrea and the Royal Napoleanic Troops, led by the hated tyrant Raineri di Biandrate.

It’s said that di Biandrate tried to rape the daughter of a local miller on the eve of her wedding. Things got ugly and the daughter ended up decapitating the tyrant. His troops then tried to take the town by force as an act of retaliation, and the people revolted using stones and other crude weapons and eventually drove the soldiers out.IMG_9361.JPG

Today, participants trade slings and arrows for oranges.  There are nine teams, one group who dresses up in armor to represent the old guards, and even a young woman selected to represent Violetta, the mugnaia,(the miller’s daughter) who sparked the whole revolution.

Everything wraps up with a grim funeral procession to “mourn” those lost in battle, and, well, a lot of orange-sized bruises.

img_9107So, upon arrival to the festivities, what does one see?  The first thing you are bound to notice is the sea of red.  Even as we left our car, those who are walking towards the town are all donning an unmistakable red cap.  Violetta and the crowd wear long, bright red, Phrygian hats symbolizing freedom. They come from far away. They’re called berretti di Frigia or berretti frigi, from the ancient area of Phrygia, in what is now Turkish Anatolia. They used to be worn by the worshippers of the sun. They were then worn, in ancient Rome, by emancipated slaves and finally became one of the symbols of the French Revolution: the red bonnet meant Liberté. When you walk around with a red hat in Ivrea, people say you’re wearing the berretto frigio and therefore you must be free to pass unharmed. img_9109The red hat means you won’t be throwing oranges and therefore, no one will throw oranges at you. If you’re near the battle areas (even if you’re behind the protective nets) you’ll still get orange shrapnel, but no direct hits.  So to Ben’s disappointment, seeking out one of the “red hat selling kiosks”, became our first mission.  Despite the majority of caps available being the traditional style, Ben was delighted to find he could maintain his own fashion statement.

img_9122As we continued to walk towards the town, the next thing we noticed were oranges.  Oranges…oranges…and more oranges!  Dried oranges, drinks made of oranges, desserts made from oranges and then row after row, stacks of crate after crate of blood red oranges!  img_9120We were in the right place, that’s for certain.  There were approximately 11 different stations and each was bearing the banner of two of the dueling teams.  There was still time before the slaughter was to begin and so we proceeded to the town center to witness the serving of the “Fagioli grassi di Ivrea”-bowls of beans that are handed out to all those who come to witness the festivities!  

img_9152

The orange part of the Ivrea carnival is relatively new – prior to the nineteenth century beans were used. These beans were given to Piedmont and Ivrean peasants by the local lords and as a sign of disrespect the peasants used to throw them back.img_9144

The introduction of oranges to the whole thing has definitely added a whole new dimension.  The beans are still about and are remembered in the tradition of handing out free bean dishes on the day to all and sundry. This dish, an old Piedmont peasant staple, known as fagioli grassi, is delicious.

It is made by the townsfolk in vast quantities and in huge cauldrons from Saturday night. It consists of a tasty mix of beans, sausages and bacon rind.

After the serving of the beans, the teams can be seen around the town, “suiting up” with padding, helmets and uniforms.  img_9226Horse drawn carts with each team began racing by as they headed to their appointed starting points and we knew the time was near.  We started walking through the town to pick out where we wanted to witness this spectacle.  Each courtyard had varying viewpoints.  Some completely exposed, others out their windows had the distinct pleasure of having a great view but being too high to be vulnerable to stray flying oranges, and then finally there was the area behind the netting.  This is similar to the netting they use at baseball games to protect the audience from fly balls coming from home plate, but not nearly as effective (which we found out a little too late).   We found our place behind the netting, but still giving us a great view of the piazza. ben-ready-to-throw-and-duck There are some announcements made, people settled in and the process for us went something like this: 1. watch the horse pulled cart arrive with the first team to the right of us, watch as they put helmets on, come through and attack the team right in front of us during which we had to take cover. 2. As they drove passed we try to take pictures while still dodging flying oranges 3. Prepare for the next team to drive through from the other side who was close enough to get some good shots but be quick enough to take cover before they started attacking.  img_9317img_9321As the carts move into the piazzas the teams waiting for them in the squares and the lunatics on the carts themselves go absolutely mad, hurling oranges at each other like demented maniacs.  It was utter insanity!

Rob ended up with the biggest “orange souvenir” in the form of bright red cheek, as he was unable to avoid a whole orange hitting the side of his face.  img_9316Munchkin and I would continue to find chucks of orange in just about every nook and cranny of our clothing, but at least we smelled good right?  When we thought the battles had all ended, we courageously headed out from behind the netted curtain and waded through the grossness that is now a sludge of smashed oranges and what I am certain had to be horse manure.   img_9305There is chatter and laughing as we recount the exciting activity …until Rob and I hear the familiar sounds of another team coming through.  Our eyes meet and then widened, as we both realized that we were about to be in the path of another round.  We immediately grabbed Ben and found our way as quickly as possible through the crowd and  trying our best not to slip and fall as we sloshed around in orange sludge.  As we escaped, our adventure in Ivrea came to an end.  Next up…we finally get to see Da Vinci’s Last supper!

Finding Out Who Is and Isn’t Santa, the Unexpected Truth

October 23, 2013

Devastated.  The heart beat increasing.  The tears welling up in the eyes.  That was me, the day my son found out that the person who brought him presents for the past 10 years of his life was not in fact a big man in a red suit.

So let’s go back a little.  When Rob and I talked about our plans for a family, we had decided quite a lot before the birth of Ben and Santaour child as to how we would raise them, what we would say, and our thoughts on pretty much everything.  We decided that no matter how difficult or awkward conversations would become, we would always tell our children the truth.  There were a couple exceptions, but for the most part we were agreed that we would make it clear that our kids could always come to us for a straight answer and we would give it to them.  Those small exceptions included figuring out the role beloved mythological characters would have in our children’s lives.  We both agreed that the hardest part about reconciling the truth behind these enduring childhood characters was as kids once we figured out the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, everything else kind of unraveled.   So we decided early on that we wouldn’t really push the other two so we would really have a fighting chance to play out the role of Santa for as long as possible.

IMG_0547So when he was old enough to understand we heavily focused on what we believe to be the true meaning and importance of Easter.  In our faith, we believe as Christians that Easter is a celebration and remembrance of the day Christ was resurrected, three days after dying for our sins.  In addition, we told Ben that there was an Easter Bunny.   We explained that the Easter Bunny helped out children’s parents who couldn’t afford or were unable to fill their Easter baskets by doing it for them, but that we were able to, so we filled his Easter Basket.  This seemed all well and good until my sister’s family was coming to visit us in DC.  They had been financially struggling that year.  Ben’s cousins  had told him that their parents had said that the Easter Bunny might only be able to bring a few things for their Easter baskets.  Our son of course felt the need to reassure them by saying, “No, you won’t even have to worry about it, the Easter Bunny will take care of everything.  When parents don’t have enough money, the Easter Bunny takes care of everyone.  It will be fine.”

Well, there you go!  That was our first lesson in many, that to parent one child can often mean you are parenting many without even meaning it.

Then came the next challenge, but in my defense I think I was bamboozled!

Ben started the morning asking me if zombies were real.  I said, “No.”
“What about ghosts?”
Assuming that we weren’t having ‘that’ conversation, I said, “No.”
“What about fairies?”
You mean other than your Uncle Matt, I thought, with a smirk on my face.  I said, “Well except for Tinker Bell because of course she’s real!”
“Mom, that’s just Disney!  She isn’t real!”
“Oh, well then no fairies aren’t real.”
“So, the bobo fairy isn’t real?”
We had called Ben’s pacifier a bobo when he was little and to get rid of them Rob told him that that the Bobo fairy came and took them all away on his second birthday because he was a big boy now.   Wow, I hadn’t seen that one coming.  “No Ben, the Bobo fairy isn’t real.”
“Then who took my bobos?”
“We did, when you were too big to have a pacifier we took them.”  I winced, seeing how that went over.
“Okay then,” and with that the boy was silent.  We all know that isn’t a good sign.  “So, I think this tooth here is going to be IMG_1107the first tooth that I lose.”  Ben has been dying to lose one of his teeth, being the youngest in the class he’s one of the few who hasn’t lost any teeth yet.
Fishing for information, “Yeah, and when you lose your tooth what happens?”
“I put it under my bed.”
“Under your bed?!”
“I mean under my pillow.”
“Cool, then what happens?” I was interested because this is a conversation we have never had.
“Well, then I get a dollar under my pillow.”
“Really?  Where does that come from?”
“Um, I think it comes from mom and dad right?”
“Really?  Where’d you hear that?”
“Well, you said that fairies aren’t real, so it must come from my mom and dad.  Is that right?”
And at that moment I thought of those Twix commercials, ‘need a moment’?  I hesitated, but then decided, the truth was easiest, “Yup, that’s right Ben.”
And with a big accomplished smile on his face, he sat back and looked out the window the rest of the car ride to school.
So that was that, I had come clean about the Tooth Fairy, he already knew about the Easter Bunny, so all that was left was “the big guy in the red suit.”
As a kid, my big turning point year was when I was 9 years old.  Much like every kid, I had kids at school that were urging me to question the existence of Santa Claus.  I had so many questions and doubts, and I was on the highest level of observation to catch my parents for any slip up.  Now as a parent, I realize that they too, were probably in tune to my reservations.  But THAT was the year…hands down…that was the rebirth of faith.  Our family had what I assume is a pretty typical tradition.  Every year we went to my paternal grandparents house to celebrate Christmas Eve with my dad’s side of the family.  Sometimes that would include evening mass, but it always included an exchange of gifts and lots of great food.  Then, we would spend the drive home trying to spot Santa ‘s sleigh in the sky.  We would arrive home and never was there a greater incentive to go straight to bed than on Christmas Eve night as we would await Santa’s arrival.  This year was different. Picture1This year, mom and dad got out of work early and they came home to get ready for the evening’s activities.  We had all been home together until we left for Grandma and Grandpa Ledesma’s house.  Then, this is where it diverged from the routine and tradition of every other Christmas.  When we arrived home and got out of the car, there were lines in the snow!  They began in the street, followed the driveway, and ended right in front of the house.  My two sisters and I stared at what looked to be unmistakably the marks left by a sled of some sort…or sleigh, perhaps?  We stared at the tracks and then stared at each other.  Then the hysterics set in as we ran to the front door.  A chorus of frantic, “Mom, Dad, hurry, open the door, hurry he was here, he was here!!!!” echoed through the neighborhood.  Every question, doubt, and skepticism melted away as our front door opened to reveal that Santa had already visited our home.
That night bought my parents another 2 years before I caught on and chose to play along, but for that one night my heart was full and I reveled in the magic.  I vowed that whatever it took, I would do everything to keep that magic alive for as long as I could for my son.

I’m sure every child presents his or her parents with some fantastic challenges to keep the magic alive and my son was no exception.  Why should he be?  I know Rob had asked for a real life reindeer when he was a kid, why should Ben be any different.

Some of those parent challenges include Ben’s second year of taking a photo with Santa Claus at the mall.  He was deathly afraid of the man in the red suit.  We actually had to do a dress rehearsal!  We took Ben over to Santa and he cried.  We tried a second time, where Santa introduced himself.  Ben seemed good until we tried to sit him on Santa’s lap.  Once again, he started screaming and crying.   The next time Santa talked to Ben as we walked by, called him by name, and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, but we didn’t even try to sit with Santa on that day.  Finally after 4 rehearsal runs, Ben was ready to sit on his lap.  Whew!

There was the year that Ben was intent on getting a Santa Claus action figure.  When asked if he had seen one in the stores he responded, “Oh no, but it’s not a problem, because Santa has his own workshop. He can just MAKE one, don’cha know?”

BensantaThen there was the year he was especially particular in who he could divulge his list, “I know that the Santa I take pictures with is only a Santa helper, but I am going to check his ears to make sure he is a REAL Santa elf before I tell him anything!”

Nothing could prepare us for the year Rob was in Afghanistan, when Ben created his list Santa Letterfor Santa just like he had done every year but topping his list prominently stated his wish for a baby brother.  Aside from the obvious barriers preventing us from even trying to make Ben’s wishes come true, we had to figure out how to let him know that Santa just couldn’t grant him his number one wish.  After much deliberation we decided a letter was the best route to go, and to go along with current technology, Santa sent Ben an email.  Santa had explained that decisions about having children are solely to be made by moms and dads and God and that was not something he was able to give Ben for Christmas.  Ben seemed satisfied with the response and was twice as excited to have obtained Santa Claus’s email!  This of course would have been parenting mistake number #743, since it never occurred to me that I should probably Email from Santacheck on the email for subsequent messages.  It wasn’t until Ben mentioned in passing, Dear Santa II“It’s funny I wrote a message awhile ago to Santa but he hasn’t written back.”  I nonchalantly explained that perhaps he was busy gearing up for next year or maybe he took a vacation.  Then I let a couple of days pass and of course diligently went to work on responding to my son’s emails to Santa.

Little did I know that the email from Santa was Ben’s turning point, that was his boost in Christmas spirit.  The email was his weapon of choice to those kids on the bus who were trying to dissuade his faith in Santa Claus.

So fast forward just a little bit, the past couple of years confronted us as parents with so many new subjects to tackle.  So many questions about relationships, puberty, and of course sex had crept into and laced our conversations since our arrival to Italy.  We have handled them all in the same manner that we had agreed to many moons ago, with as much straightforward honesty that we could muster.  I’d like to think that this trend will convince Ben that he can in fact come to us for anything and we will always give him the straight answer.

IMG_9172Now when it came to the subject of Christmas, I was able to pivot around the subject and manipulate in such a way that I wasn’t really lying but pretty much much walking the line.  Rob, on the other hand, will profess that he too wanted to keep the magic going, but there was that small nagging part of his brain that felt defeated by the fact that the big guy had always gotten credit for all the cool gifts that he had spent so much of his time seeking out and finding.  Much like a snag in sweater that starts out small, but with little effort unravels into a giant mess, I anticipated that I could not leave Rob alone with a snag.  He wanted to tell the secret, but he would keep it as long as he needed to …or until presented with a snag.

This brings us to the present.  We were on a summer vacation enjoying the luxury of lying by the poolside on our cruise ship.  Jenny and I were sitting in our lounge chairs and Rob and Ben had gone swimming in the pools and soaking in the hot tub.  If I could erase that moment I would.  Ben came toward me, red puffy swollen eyes, clearly he had been crying or was about to and I thought, “Oh no, he got into trouble.”

IMG_9182

He simply collapsed into my arms saying, “Dad said that Santa isn’t real,” and he began to sob.

I felt my heart sink,  I gasped.  I looked up helplessly locking eyes with Rob.

“I didn’t say he wasn’t real buddy!” Rob said.

Through tears at this point, “Yes, you did,” he argued,  “I asked you if Santa was real.  You said, ‘Do you want to know the truth?'”

“No, you said, ‘Dad, you always promised to tell me the truth, so I really want to know, is Santa real?’ I said, There was a man named Saint Nicholas.  He was a real person and he was a good man.  He did some really great things and they made him a saint, but he is no longer alive so we keep his spirit alive through Santa Claus.”

“Right, you said, Santa isn’t real!”

Rob closed his eyes and hung his head, he knew there was no winning.  I mean, how could there be a winner in this conversation.  Ben wanted to know the truth, he really wanted to know the answers, but the fact of the matter is he wanted the truth to be that there was a Santa Claus.  He wanted there to still be the magic.  On that warm July afternoon, his world had changed just a little bit.  As I held a crying boy in my arms, I realized all of our worlds changed a little bit that day.  Now it was our job to show him that the magic still can live on, but for these next couple of months before Christmas, I have a feeling things are going to be a little difficult.IMG_9623

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” – John 20:26-29

August 8, 2013

DSCF0230My time in Italy has been an ongoing revitalization of my faith.  I know that I never really lost it, but I never imagined that these sites I have seen and experiences that I have been afforded  would inspire me and move me in such a deep and powerful way.  Being American, we come from such a young country that even the oldest landmarks are hundreds of years younger than it’s European counterparts.  As amazing as it is to walk through a theatre that was built in the 17th century or walk though a tunnel that was built in the early 1800’s, it is the places I thought only existed in the Bible that I heard about when I was a little girl that have truly moved me.  I think when you are young and you hear stories about a little Jewish girl who lived through the Holocaust or an amazing structure called the Eiffel Tower in someplace called Paris, you never imagine that you might one day visit her house or go up to the top of that structure.  So when you have the opportunity of a lifetime to do just that, it is humbling and breathtaking.  IMG_4498

For me, that feeling is multiplied by a thousand when it is seeing something from the stories I have heard all my life.  I say stories because that’s what they were, just stories.  Until they weren’t.  Until they came to life.  Until I was seeing them with my own eyes.

I like to pride myself as not being naive, as not believing everything I am told.  I was raised to question things…to get to the truth.  It all probably started when we went to visit the city of Turin.  Here, they have what is called the Shroud of Turin.  The linen is thought to bear the image of Jesus of Nazareth.  The burial shroud purports to show the imprint of the face and body of a bearded man. The image also purportedly shows nail wounds at the man’s wrist and pinpricks around his brow, consistent with the “crown of thorns” mockingly pressed onto Christ at the time of his crucifixion.  ???????????????????????????????There has been much debate between scientists and theologians, in fact the Catholic Church has never rejected nor endorsed the shroud.  But as we watched the video of the testing that the cloth has undergone and the image that is seen on the cloth, I couldn’t control the involuntary reactions my body had.  My heart quickened, my stomach turned, and I got goosebumps on my arms.  My brain was telling me, “this might not be what they claim it is,” but my heart was telling me all I need to know.  Floods of images popped into my head.  I pictured a man being beaten beyond what any human should ever have to go through.  I remembered how I sobbed watching the Passion of Christ, because my heart broke for a mother that was watching her flesh and blood, her only son, enduring such pain.  I remembered the words of Jesus to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  I thought to myself, “Who am I to see, and still not believe?”  I am looking at the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in before he rose from the dead!  Months later, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “This image, impressed upon the cloth, speaks to our heart,”and I couldn’t agree more.

The following year, when my mom and dad came to visit us we took them to Istanbul, Turkey.  Among the many beautiful
???????????????????????????????sites, we came across an item in the Topkapi Palace labeled, “Moses’s Staff”.  We were floored.  Could it be?  Could Moses’s staff be here in Turkey?  Why don’t people make a bigger deal about it?  I came to the conclusion, there is just as much a chance that this staff belonged to Moses and it was found here in Turkey, a land very much frequented by those in the bible, as anywhere else in the world.  Does it matter?  Or is it the mere fact that at that one moment both my heart and head were remembering what a loyal and devout follower Moses had proven to be?  I choose to believe that it could have been Moses’s staff encased in glass at the Topkapi Palace that day.

DSC_0954As I’ve already described previously in my blog, the thoughts and feelings I experienced when the Pope was selected was nothing short of a spiritual apex, a joining of my childhood, my faith, and my familial connections.  My Christianity runs deep within my veins, more so than I ever imagined.

Next, came the opportunity to walk the Scala Santa in Rome.  It is said to be the staircase that
IMG_6149Jesus walked up in Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. It was brought to Rome by St Helena in the 4th century, and is considered so sacred that you can only climb it on your knees, saying a prayer on each of the 28 steps.  All three of us, descended to our knees and climbed the stairs.  The stairs themselves are marble, but are covered with a wood set.  There is a slit in the wood of each “rise”
(the part of the stair that faces forward) where you can both touch and see the original marble.  It is here that pilgrims have left their prayers and petitions in between the marble and the wood.  Many placed their fingers on the exposed marble and then touched their lips, so as to kiss the steps.  Once arising at the top many kissed the marble left open through
IMG_6145the wood at the landing.  Again, this time of prayer and reflection brings me to a time where one man was sentenced to die and be crucified and my heart swelled with love for my family and loved ones as well as sorrow for a man who sacrificed his life so that I might know the the joy of forgiveness.

Most recently we traveled to Kusadasi, Turkey where we took a very short drive that brought us to the home of the Virgin Mary.  It is an intriguing story.  Before Christ was crucified he said to Mary and John, “Woman behold your son and to John behold your mother.” (John 19:25-27)  Because it is known that John then IMG_9869traveled to what is now Turkey and was later buried there, it is assumed that he would have taken Mary with him.  During her lifetime, a girl by the name of Anne Catherine Emmerich shared visions that she had, among them were her talking to Jesus and others were of what she believed to be Mary’s house.  She had never been to the land that is now Turkey and the city of Ephesus and its surrounding area had yet to be excavated, but she described in great detail this home and its location.  While the Catholic Church has never taken an official position of authenticity, several Popes have visited the site and it is treated as a shrine.  Anne Catherine Emmerich has since been beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II.
IMG_9883As we approached the site, one needs only to look at the extensive line of pilgrims that come daily to this house to know that in their heart they know that this must be the home of the Virgin Mary.  Outside the shrine is a particular “wishing wall” which pilgrims have used by tying their personal intentions on paper or fabric. Various types of florals and fruits are grown nearby, and additional lighting has been installed within the vicinity of the shrine for further monitoring of the site. A water fountain or well is also located
IMG_9886nearby, believed by some pilgrims to have miraculous powers of healing or fertility.  So we reverently walked through this home, drank from the well and prayed for those who left their intentions on the wall and thought of the woman who had lost her child, the woman who followed the Lord’s calling and the mother of our faith.

It is almost like a culmination in our journey here in Italy that we figure out our plans for our next major adventure.  This Christmas we will visit the Holy Land!  We will be in Bethlehem to visit the Nativity Church and walk the sacred ground.  As a family we have begun our serious refresher study of the Bible so that it will all be in our mind.  We got a youth Bible, which is very cool because it is different from the other children’s bibles I’ve seen.  This isn’t just a collection of parables, it is the full Bible written in a way that a younger audience needs to understand, heck sometimes so Map Holy Landthat we adults can understand.  We keep going back to maps and seeing what cities they are talking about and realizing, WE ARE GOING THERE!  There are references to bodies of waters that we will actually see.  We are all learning new things and remembering old things.  This is just the beginning of the journey of a lifetime, a journey in faith.  I know there will be so many more stories to tell and pictures to share.

Viva Il Papa Francesco I!

March 16, 2013

IMG_1546It was no secret, Pope Benedict announced his resignation to the world, therefore a conclave would convene in order to select a new Pope.  What were the chances that we would have the opportunity to sit for a Papal Audience and then have the opportunity to see a new one chosen in our lifetime?  Moreover, who imagined that I would be living in Italy at the time it all took place?

Many of my friends had been talking about the possibility of going, but it was all about logistics…How would we get there?  How long could we stay? Should we drive?  Where would we park?  We discussed lots of scenarios but couldn’t put any plan into action until the date of the conclave to begin was set.  As the deadline grew closer, news and radio began to report that cardinals were slowly beginning to arrive to the Vatican.  Then it was set.  The conclave would begin on March 12, 2013.  And so the research began.

No Pope has ever been selected on the first vote.  So we believed we were safe in waiting until at least Wednesday, though no matter what history says, it WAS a gamble.  Then we realized that if any of us were going to be able to try and make it to Rome even if for just a day trip, we had to have a back-up plan for getting someone to watch our kids (little did we know just how important that would prove to be).  Obstacle number one: all four of our husbands work at the Joint Forces Command for NATO here in Naples.  Beginning Tuesday, there was a mandatory exercise that they were engaged in that potentially would bring them home from work late.  This narrowed our choices.  Rob said he would do whatever he could to try to help me out so that I could try to go.  He rocks, doesn’t he?  So we kept going back and forth between Wednesday and Thursday.  Whatever we chose was a crapshoot, what and when it would happen was anybody’s guess.  Obstacle number 2 for me:  I had scheduled 2 appointments for that day, a physical therapy appointment for Wednesday morning that normally takes 3-4 weeks to get in and so I didn’t want to cancel the appointment and a pedicure that could easily be re-scheduled.  I decided that if the girls decided on Wednesday, I was going to have to pass.  I just knew that in order to even make the trip worthwhile they would have to leave early and I didn’t want hold anybody up.  As of Tuesday night, they hadn’t decided.  Wednesday morning, I went to my appointment and it was excellent, we seemed to have been able to pinpoint my knee pain problem and I was in and out in no time at all! (Very uncommon for a military doctor appointment) So I sat in the parking lot afterwards and texted my friends.

“What did you guys decide?”

“We R on our way to Capo now …meeting Dawn at Alibus.  Can u come?”  Capo is short for Capodicchino, the naval base right outside Naples Airport.  So they were parking their cars on base and walking to catch a bus to the train station to Rome!the gang

I texted back, “Just leaving Support Site now, finished with my appointment.”

“Come on!!  We’ll wait for you!” they texted back.

“You guys go ahead…so exciting!”

“We can wait for you!  Come on…we are all headed that way!”

A million thoughts were running through my head.  This is crazy!  I have made no plans.  This could be history in the making.  These are some of my favorite gal pals and there is no one I would rather experience this with if it happens.  Holding my cell in my hands, I look down at what I am wearing, because remember I just went to a physical therapy appointment, and I text, “I am in sweats and I have no camera!”

“We have cameras and we promise to only take pics of the waist up!”  I smiled to myself, I have the BEST FRIENDS EVER!  Before I had a chance to text back, I got a phone call.

“You are coming!!  Just hang up and meet us in front of the bus!”  And there you have it, I was on my way to the Vatican City in the hopes of seeing the next Pope selected.

AnthonyWe all met in front of the busses, when a taxi pulled up next to us and offered us a ride.  Man, little did we know how much this one taxi driver was going to kick off our memories of such a fantastic adventure.  His name was Anthony.  He sang Beyonce to entertain us, he was so excited for us and couldn’t believe that we were actually going to Rome to see “Il Papa” right then.  He even offered to be our chauffeur all day on our adventure, but we thought it best to stick to our plan and go ahead to the train station, but he sure did make us laugh.

So we took the train from Naples to Rome and a taxi to St. Peter’s.  As we arrived around 10:30 AM, we noticed large masses of people walking towards us; heads hung low and disappointed looks in their faces.  It was obvious, and we were so bummed that we were so close to seeing the smoke and “just missed it.”  Determined to make the most of it, we snapped a few shots of the pool of cameras and crews, the patriots and their flags of every country you could imagine, and of course, of the famous steeple that would emit the black or white smoke.DSC_0666

It wasn’t long before news crews picked up on the fact that we were clearly speaking American English and asked to DSC_0655interview us.  One camera crew held up a sign, “Are you from Chicago?  Come talk to us!”  That was our first, Sonya was interviewed by an affiliate and it was all very exciting!  Next, there was a DC station, one from Miami, and one from Boston.

Then we had to strategize.  The original plan was to come into Rome and be home around 4:30.  You know, it’s amazing how when no one knows the correct information about something how many versions of the facts you get.  One “seemingly” knowing tour guide explained that since the next vote was at 2 PM, the smoke should be sometime after that.  So the plan became:  eat lunch from a vendor alongside the plaza, get in place to see the smoke and then head home afterwards.  It would be cutting it close but it was possible.  So we ate our panini and stashed some snacks in a bag and proceeded to the desired spot, which just so happened to be front row!  We DSC_0660were so naïve!  So we started lining up our back up plans, making sure kids were taken care of and alerting the hubbies to the fact that we might be home a little later than expected.  As the 2 o’clock hour came and went, we waited.  …And we waited…and waited and then it started to rain.  As the rain continued to test our steadfastness, we started to get “different information”.   We were told that 4:30 PM was the magic hour, and while that was in fact true, there was some missing information but we wouldn’t learn that until later.  Obstacles began to arise when we tried to phone our husbands and let them know that as soon as the 4:30 smoke came out we would board the next train home.  As people began to fill up the piazza again, the cell phone towers were maxed out.  It was a little reminiscent of 9/11 and the 2009 Inauguration.  So we couldn’t text, we couldn’t call, we couldn’t receive calls, and we were at the front of this mass of people and were not about to lose our place as we were so close to the 4:30 hour.  Then our Italian tutor came along, his name was Giuseppe.  He explained that yes, it is true there would be a vote at 4:30 PM, but if a pope was not selected on that vote they would proceed to the next ballot before releasing the smoke.  So, here is what we learned:  there are indeed 4 votes, 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, but the smoke is only released twice.  If a super majority is not found with the first of the morning votes, another vote is immediately taken.  If the 2nd vote of the day does not result in the election of the Pope, than the ballots are combined and you will see black smoke.  That is what happened.

So when the afternoon vote came, the first one was unsuccessful, so they took a second vote immediately, and that is when the magic happened!

Meanwhile, out in the Piazza, around 4:30 news crews began uncovering their cameras that were set up directly in front of the fence where we stood.   The rain began to come down and we realized that we were in it for the long haul.  So there we stood in place from approximately 11:30 AM.

Then something happened, I can’t help but think it was something akin to mass hypnosis as we stared at the steeple just to the right of the Basilica and on top of the Sistine Chapel, hoping and praying for smoke.  Any smoke, just smoke.  More people filled the piazza, the rain came down harder, and we all became paranoid observers.  “Was that light on?”  “Did you see a shadow walk by that window?”  “Look, they moved that curtain!”  “Somebody’s peeking out of that window up there!  Could that mean something?”  This meant that any time there was a change in the scenery the crowd freaked out.  When the Jumbotrons came on, the crowd cheered.  Little did we know that the Jumbotrons would continue to be up for hours before it showed anything remarkable, but there were a few events that we did see before the smoke.  A bird settling on the steeple seemed undeterred and sat there for quite a while.   That certainly woke up the crowd, especially when he pooped for the entire world to see.  Then about an hour later, there was a huge flock of birds that seemed to swarm around the steeple.  I t looked a little like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but it was still something new to look at.IMG_0344

We became good friends with those around us.  We met Giuseppe, the Italian tutor, and Lynette the German girl who had traveled by herself to Rome to experience the election.   There was a pilgrimage group from the States that had booked their trip last October when no one in the world knew that a new Pope would be elected this week.  Can you imagine?  You book a trip 5 months ago, for a Catholic pilgrimage that includes Assisi and Rome and instead you learn you will witness the election of the next Pope?!  Our friends had been there for the first vote and explained that they were thrown for a curve because the smoke appeared white at first and then “turned” black.  If nothing else we will be sure to exchange pictures with each other online.

DSC_0759And then it happened, it was about 7:15 PM, we had been standing in one place for over 8 hours, bending our bodies in half just to stretch out our strained lower backs and it appeared.  I don’t know about my friends, but when I saw it, I had in the back of my head what the others had said about thinking it looked white at first but turning to black, so I was apprehensive.  But it WAS white, and it was staying white and people were cheering and singing and shouting and crying!!  Oh my gosh, it’s white, it’s white, this is it!  This is really it!  The smoke is white and I am here to see it!!  I cannot believe this…and then the bells started to ring!  We had been told that the bells would ring so as to eliminate any confusion about color, and they were ringing!  This was really happening!  People were hugging and praying and all I could think of is how badly I wanted my mom and dad and family with me to experience this amazing thing, it was history in the making.DSC_0756

So now what?  Well, Giuseppe explained to us that they now had 50 minutes to announce who the Pope is.  This would mean, announcing the elected Pope to the conclave, having him actually accept the position, and then changing his clothes from that of a cardinal to the Pope.  So for 50 more minutes we stood waiting for them to introduce the new Pope to the world.  People took turns screaming, chanting, singing and the news cameras that were continuously scanning the crowd riled up the energy and excitement over and over.

Just a little past 8 o’clock, the bands started to enter the Piazza del San Pietro (St. Peter’s Plaza) and position themselves on the steps of the Basilica. The lights in each of the rooms that surrounds the Pope’s balcony lit up and the Cardinals came out of 4 different rooms onto their balconies and the crowd went crazy!  DSC_0946Giuseppe just kept saying, “Wait until they open the curtain…wait until the curtain.”  Then the curtain was pulled back and the excitement swelled.  The crowd began to push forward, everyone was dying to know.  A very elaborate and ornate cloth was spread over the balcony edge.  DSC_0932Then they announced it, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was to become the first Latin Pope and the first to use the name Francesco.  Pope Francesco I was introduced to the world!  It’s then that I got chills and realized that I would have given anything to have had my Grandma Sanchez experience this with me.  So many memories of her tears when I handed her a blessed rosary from Pope John Paul II flooded my head.  It was electrifying to be in this crowd.  Chanting ringing throughout the city, “Viva Il Papa…Viva Il Papa…Viva Il Papa!”  Then they closed the curtain and the custom is that the people invite the Pope to come and speak to them.  The words swelled from the audience, “Francesco, Francesco, Francesco”.  It was kind of sing songy, like the way you speak to a child.  The curtains parted again and he stepped forward before the world for the first time.  There was quite the fanfare as the cardinals presented his vestments and he put them on.  He spoke to the audience in Italian and offered a blessing.

This is the English translation of what he said,DSC_0954

“Brothers and sisters, good evening!

You know that it was the duty of the Conclave to give Rome a Bishop. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to get one… but here we are… I thank you for your welcome. The diocesan community of Rome now has its Bishop. Thank you! And first of all, I would like to offer a prayer for our Bishop Emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us pray together for him, that the Lord may bless him and that Our Lady may keep him.

(Our Father… Hail Mary… Glory Be… )

And now, we take up this journey: Bishop and People. This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us. Let us always pray for one another. Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity. It is my hope for you that this journey of the Church, which we start today, and in which my Cardinal Vicar, here present, will assist me, will be fruitful for the evangelization of this most beautiful city.

And now I would like to give the blessing, but first — first I ask a favor of you: before the Bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord that he will bless me: the prayer of the people asking the blessing for their Bishop. Let us make, in silence, this prayer: your prayer over me.

(…)

Now I will give the Blessing to you and to the whole world, to all men and women of good will. (Blessing)

Brothers and sisters, I leave you now. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and until we meet again. We will see each other soon. Tomorrow I wish to go and pray to Our Lady, that she may watch over all of Rome. Good night and sleep well!”

When he was through, he turned around and exited the balcony and for a moment time seemed to stand still.  Everyone was smiling and had this kind of glow, this realization that they had just experienced a piece of history, heck even the security guards were smiling.

McD'sWe had done it, we took a total gamble and shot out to Rome and had witnessed the election of the next Pope.  It was almost 9 PM when we finally departed the piazza and headed for the station.  We grabbed fast food and hopped on the first train heading home, our legs, back, and feet throbbing and stiff and we were exhausted, but had smiles plastered to our faces.  Nothing could keep us from smiling and laughing and sharing memories of having witnessed one of the most historical events of our lives.