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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.

Turkish Delights Takes on a Whole New Meaning!

March 5, 2013

Pick up for Nana and PapaOn November 20, 2012 my parents endeavored to take on an overseas trip for the very first time ever in their lives!  It was exciting and nerve-wrecking all at the same time.  My Dad had been on a total of one round trip flight and my mom has NEVER been on a plane.  I wanted everything to go smoothly and as uneventful as possible.  Of course I wanted it to go well because it was their first trip overseas, but I had other reasons up my sleeve as well.  Months before, I had been inspired to not only show my parents the country of Italy that I have come to call home for the past 18 months, but I wanted to take them to a brand new country that none of us had been to either!  I decided to take my family to Turkey for Turkey Day!  My friends in Naples thought I was nuts and not a soul stateside knew of my plans because I was afraid someone would slip and my parents would change their mind about coming.  Ready for the zinger?  Our flight departing Naples and headed to Istanbul was hours after my parents’ original flight landed.  Now do you think I was crazy?  As the time grew closer, I was beginning to think I was crazy.

So the big day of their arrival finally claim, Ben and I patiently waited for them to come through the gate.  He even made a sign with their name on it, like they do when a driver is picking you up from the airport.  It had Nana and Papa Ledesma on it, which made the other passengers smile.  We greeted them with hugs and we started to walk away from baggage claim, at which point I directed them to a set of chairs.  Seeing the look of confusion on their face as to why I was not leading them to a car that would whisk us to my house in Naples, Italy, I broke the news.  Dum Da Dum Dum…Dum!  They were fine!  I mean obviously tired and a little jet lagged but excited to go to Turkey!  Whew! And so ourIMG_0304 adventure began… It was fun sitting next to my Mom and Dad on what would be their 2nd and 3rd flight in their lifetime.  We shared Ipod music and our first taste of Turkish airplane food.  If that was any indication as to what we could expect of Turkish food, I think we will be in good hands!  We landed, and mom and dad got to experience what we have many times in flying in Europe.  The entire airplane erupted in applause.  Upon collecting our luggage, we experienced something new.  VISAS!  You see when you fly within the European Union, as long as you are only planning a short trip of less than 90 days, then you don’t need a visa.  Turkey is not part of the European Union, so we were required to get a visa.  Some countries have more of an extensive process than others, but as Americans in Turkey, it is generally just a matter of paying $20 at the airport.  So we got our visa and off we went. We had arranged to have a driver pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment where we would be staying.  It was funny because as we weaved in and out of traffic, both mom and dad remarked on the terrible driving.  Rob and I giggled, and informed them that Turkish drivers, “got nothin’ on the drivers in Naples.”

We arrived to our apartment and the owner was so hospitable, he lived just below where we were staying and offered to provide us with anything we might need during our stay, gave us suggestions of what to see, and directions to a local neighborhood store.  We were set!  Mom and Dad had their own room and Rob, Ben, and I each had our own bed in another bedroom.  The kitchen doubled as a living room with a tv and a  breakfast nook type table.  Having arrived so late we knew we wouldn’t begin exploring until the next morning but EVERYONE was hungry.  So off we went to find food.      Our first taste of apple tea!We found a great restaurant and Rob went to find an ATM since we didn’t have Lire yet.  The owner brought us Apple Tea, it was on the house…and it was delish!  We all fell in love with it!  Then we waited for Rob to return.  We waited and waited…and waited…and waited.  As it turns out, in his search for an ATM, it took him all over the city.  Meanwhile, we imagined all the crazy things that could have happened to him.  In the end, he arrived safely, he knew the layout of the whole city and we had a delicious meal.

So we finally headed back to the apartment to let mom and dad get their very much needed rest after their transatlantic and transeuropean flight.  Though it may have been a good night sleep, it was the wake up call that came a little too early for all of us.  The adhān or أَذَان‎, call to prayer began at 5:01 AM!  Traditionally this was done from a minaret, summoning Muslims for mandatory prayers.  A second call then summons Muslims to line up for the beginning of the prayers. The main purpose behind the multiple loud pronouncements of adhan in every mosque is to bring to the mind of every believer and non-believer the substance of Islamic beliefs, or its spiritual ideology.   Despite the fact that none of us were expecting it at the crack of dawn, we found we barely noticed it each of the five times that it occurred throughout the day.  It’s funny because by the second day, mom was doing the sign of the cross and saying her own little prayer.  On the third day, we caught dad on video lip syncing to the call to prayer…now THAT was funny!

IMG_0874And so began our journey into the city.  First up, the Hippodrome of Constantinople!  It was a circus that was the sporting and social center of the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square), with a few fragments of the original structure surviving.

Onto the Basilica Cistern!  It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul.  The cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.  It is there that I realized that I come by my theatricality honestly.  The Ledesma and Leese family donned their Turkish costumes and posed for the camera.  IMG_0293After our photo shoot, we explored the beautiful cistern and then to get out of the rain we ducked into a cafe.   Let me tell you, conveying to a Turkish waiter that Mom wanted whipped cream to go with her hot chocolate proved to be quite humorous.  I think we tend to take for granted how hard language barriers can be by themselves let alone when you throw in a dash of cultural differences.  To Americans hot chocolate and whip cream just go together but to other cultures…not so much.  Go figure, after a game of charades and back and forth, they had some that they used for some of their desserts, but if the looks on their face were any indication–whipped cream was not a typical ingredient added to hot chocolate.

IMG_0922By far, hot chocolate was not the only challenge my mom faced in Turkey (actually on her trip in general) next was the bathrooms.  Mom came back from the bathroom soaked, something was screwy with the plumbing and instead of washing her hands, she got sprayed!  It was at that point that she insisted she would never go to the bathroom alone and would ask which button to push before doing anything.  This would come to serve as fodder for making fun of mom for the rest of the trip.

Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya) is a former Orthodox Patriarchal Basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum.  What a beautiful place!  Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and it is said to have said to have “changed the history of architecture.”

There is a section of the church that we found very fun.  According to Frommer’s travel book,Crying Column the legend goes that when construction of the Ayasofya reached the height of a man, the construction team set out to get a bite to eat, leaving their tools under the watch of a small boy. An angel appeared and urged the boy to fetch the men so that they could return to the work of building God’s house. When the boy told the angel that he promised not to leave the tools unattended, the angel promised to keep an eye on everything until his return. After leaving the site and thus breaking his promise, the boy was never allowed to return, and the angel continued to wait for him and cry when he didn’t return.  This is known as the “sweating column” or the “crying column”.   Legend has it that these waters have healing powers and that the angel grants a wish to all those who complete a 360-degree circle with their thumb in the hole of this wish-worn column.  SO of course we all had to take our turn.

IMG_1007Not to be deterred by the rain, the Leese’s and the Ledesma’s pressed on to our next stop at the Blue Mosque.  Shoe-less and completely inspired by the beauty of this place we sat for a few moments just to take it all in…well, AND to rest our weary feet.  It was interesting to see the place that was segregated for those worshiping since half of them were on their cell phones.  Guess the electronic age has affected us all.

What would a trip to Turkey be without experiencing the art of carpet IMG_1024buying.  I experienced it in India and there is something to be said about “the show” these shop owners put on for you.  We had our tea, got our tapestry lesson learning how Turkish rugs are the best in the world, I should tell you that the justification is remarkably similar as to why Indian rugs are the best in the world, but we politely listened.  Though we did go home with a beautiful piece, I think my grandma and mom’s bargaining skills have found a safe place in my soul that I have come to treasure.

IMG_1054Then there was Çiğdem Pastanesi.  I am pretty sure as the song goes, my mom left her heart in Çiğdem Pastanesi.  This was a bakery and though we have yet to figure out what the name of the magic dessert is, Mom just might have bought stock in the place for all the times she made us stop in to stock up on this chocolaty goodness.   It was fun to be adventurous and try all the foods that Istanbul has to offer.  After passing dozens of karts with them, smelling the lovely aroma, and all of us singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Dad thought we should finally all try the “kestane” chestnuts.  I am here to tell you, despite their yummy smell.  None of the Ledesma or Leese Clan were a fan of the kestane.    Ben says, “They taste like eggs!”  Pretty sure that wasn’t meant as a ‘good thing’.  But, there are plenty of things that we did LOVE eating and drinking in Turkey….we loved borek (think quesadilla but with Turkish flavored meats), pomegranate juice, Adana Kebabi, of course baklava and Turkish Delight.  One night the owner of the place we were staying brought up some freshly made ashure.  It is also called “Noah’s Pudding” a reference to the legend of Noah’s Ark. Traditionally; it is made on the 10thof the Islamic month of Muharrem. IMG_1239In Arabic “Ashar” means Tithe, a tenth part of something; so it may have acquired its name from this connection.  According to the legend associated with the story of Noah, days passed and food became scarce, and starvation seemed impending. There was not enough food left to make a decent meal.  Noah collected whatever edible left around the boat, and mixed them together in a big cauldron. Famine was averted, and everybody in the boat survived. And Ashure was born.   Historians believe that the Noah’s Ark came to a rest at the top of Mount Agari in Eastern Turkey. This special dish that Noah is believed to have improvised serves us as a reminder of the God’s mercy over mankind through Noah.  No matter what the story behind it is, we inhaled it!

???????????????????????????????The next morning our adventure took us to the Topkapi Palace.  Little did we know what exactly was in store for us.  As we wandered through the Chamber of the Holy Relics Collection, nothing could have prepared us for what we found.  It’s as if I didn’t quite see it when I passed by the first time, in a double take I re-read the placard describing the item on display.  “Wait, what did that say?  Mom, did you see this?”   An extraordinary mixture of relics, including Moses’ rod, Abraham’s saucepan, John the Baptist’s hand and Mohammed’s footprint, one of his teeth and a selection of hairs from his beard.  So…wait…really?  Moses’s staff?  Seriously?  So of course I did my digging when we got home and of course there were the skeptics that give all the reasons, scientific and otherwise as to why this couldn’t possibly be authentic.  But,  just like when we saw the Shroud of Christ, maybe it was the real thing and maybe it wasn’t but the bottom line is I was okay believing in that one moment that  I was in the presence of something so sacred and precious that it gave me chills.

???????????????????????????????A visit to the Topkapi Palace was especially entertaining when as we were slurping down our yummy pomegranate juice a girl chased after us shouting, “I’ve been shouting O-H, why aren’t you shouting I-O?!”  Dad was wearing a Buckeyes backpack and she was from Ohio.  She said, she was ready to dismiss us as some tourists who happen to pick up a OSU bag, but we assured her we were true Buckeye fans.  Small world…small world.  Then despite a little bit of rain, we walked out of the palace to a beautiful double rainbow!  Talk about keeping with the “Noah theme”.

To really add to the excitement, after trying chestnuts for the first time,  there was much commotion in the plaza with cart vendors running in all different directions.  We came to find out that these were illegal vendors who were scurrying with their carts before the “undercover civilian mob” nabbed them.  I don’t think anyone successfully escaped but it WAS exciting!IMG_0295

Our visit to the Galata Tower was far more educational then we ever imagined.  It is there that we had the opportunity to see the beautiful landscape of Istanbul at night, but more importantly, we learned that my dad is afraid of heights!  Who knew?  In 40 years of my life I had no idea.

IMG_1396For our final couple days in Turkey we made our to the Asian side of the country.  I think all of our exploring had finally caught up with us because Rob was able to catch each one of as we tried to sneak in some Z’s on the ferry ride over.  Among other things we saw the Rumeli Fortress, which was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before he conquered Constantinople.  When we landed on the Asian continent, Ben and Rob went up to explore the Yoros Castle while Mom, Dad, and I enjoyed some apple tea and some more Turkish treats.IMG_1359

Finally, we made our way to the Turkish Markets.  It seemed only appropriate that we spend some quality shopping time in two of Istanbul’s biggest markets since our time in Turkey happened to land on Black Friday and we all know how seriously the Ledesma women take Black Friday.  So we made our way to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.  There were ceramics, Turkish delight of every kind, and of course my personal favorite the Turkish lamps!  Next was the Spice Bazaar, where they sell more of the edible treats that Turkey has to offer like baharat (spices), nuts, honeycomb and IMG_1047olive-oil soaps, and truckloads of incir (figs), lokum (Turkish delight) and pestil (fruit pressed into sheets and dried).

We were all very sad to see our Turkish adventure come to an end, but we have no regrets.  We explored the heck out of the city and are ecstatic at the contemplation of returning!

Checkmate, Shakespeare, and Grape Stomping…Just Another Day in Italy

January 2, 2013

Partita a Scacchi (Chess Match) di Marostica Since about the age of 7, Ben has been a big fan of Chess.  He learned to play in SACC (Student Aged Child Care) back in Alexandria,Virginia from Mr. Max and has loved it ever since.  So when we learned of an opportunity to see a chess match that would be acted out with live horses, knights, kings and queens, we jumped at the chance.

After the First World War, members of the local chess club began playing chess in the main square and decided to play a game of chess using people as the gamepieces.  After the Second World War, the comedy writer Vucetich Mirko authored a play in which “Two noblemen, Renaldo D’Anganaro and Vieri da Vallanora, fell in love with the beautiful Lionora, daughter of the local lord, Taddeo Parisio.  As was the custom at that time, they challenged each other to a duel to win the hand of Lionora.  IMG_9273The Lord of Marostica, not wanting to make an enemy of either suitor or lose them in a duel, forbade the encounter.  Instead he decreed that the two rivals would play a chess game, and the winner would have the IMG_9306hand of Lionora.  The loser of the chess game would have the hand of her younger sister, Oldrada.  During the play, the game takes place on the square in front of the Lower Castle with supporters carrying the noble ensigns of Whites and Blacks, in the presence of the Lord, his noble daughter, the Lords of Angarano and Vallonara, the court and the entire town population. The Lord also decides the challenge would be honored by an exhibition of armed men, foot-soldiers and knights, with fireworks and dances and music”.  Needless to say, this literary account has nothing to do with factual history and the chess square in the city was built after the Second World War and after the writing of Vucetich’s play.  This fictional story is now re-enacted in the main square of Marostica in September of even-numbered years. Realizing that we would only be in Italy for one of those even numbered years, we knew we had to go.IMG_9396

It was such a spectacle!  The pomp and circumstance was exciting and the house was completely sold out.  It was a very popular event.   When the queen took out a piece, the bugles sounded before she moved, then she tapped them on their shoulder before moving into their place.  They spun their sword around until it faced down, and walked along the chess squares military-esque off the board.  There’s all kinds of musical cues when someone puts the king in check (did I say that right-I’m still learning).  But man, what fanfare for checkmate!  It was amazing and I am so glad we got to see it!

Since the chess match was a couple hours away from home, we decided to make a weekend of it.  We stayed in Villa San Biago, a beautifully restored Benedictine monastery situated between the hills of Breganze and Marostica.

Next stop was the city of Verona, home of the fictional story of Romeo and Juliet.  Now this whole visit, confused the heck out of me and fascinated me all at the same time.  It was a great IMG_9478teaching moment as we told Ben the story of Romeo and Juliet.  I mean how many parents have the opportunity to say, “And this is the balcony where Romeo came to Juliet and hid in the bushes when he heard her say, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ ”  On that same note, how can we be taking pictures from Juliet’s balcony when Juliet never existed?!  She’s a fictional character people!  And yet, there I was, saying, “Here honey take a picture of us kissing on the balcony!”  But I digress, the balcony belongs to the aptly named, La Casa di Giulietta, or House of Juliet, the former home of the Cappello family and the inspiration for the Capulets.IMG_9557

We visited the coliseum and Juliet’s balcony and grave.  It is a beautiful and charming little city, I will say that!

IMG_9700The next adventure was Cinque Terre, which directly translated means “Five Lands”.  It is the coastline of the Italian Riviera.  The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside.

We weren’t able to visit last year because torrential rains caused flooding and mudslides in October 2011.   IMG_9776One year later, and you’d never even know there was an issue!  We were so excited when Rob found out that he had training for work in Cinque Terre, it would give us a great opportunity to explore the area finally! The weather was just perfect, imagine playing at the beach at the end of September!  So we packed our bags and made it a long weekend for Ben and I.  We went to the beach and wandered the boardwalk while Rob went to his conference, it was quite  a brilliant arrangement!IMG_9767

To finish off the month of September, we realized you can’t live in Italy and not experience the art of grape stomping.  When we first learned of the opportunity, I had lofty vision of dancing to Italian music and holding hands with Keanu Reeves under the Tuscan sun like “A Walk in the Clouds.”  Somehow, I should have known that I would be a little more like Lucille Ball in “Lucy’s Italian Movie.”

IMG_9833So upon our arrival to the vineyard, we were handed baskets and sheers and instructed which grapes were ready to be harvested.  The white Falanghina grapes were ripe and ready for picking!  The red grapes would be ready in a week or two, we’ll try those next year!  The owners of the vineyard provided a small breakfast and then we were off.IMG_9878

There was plenty of sun, I’ll tell you that.  So the owners of the vineyard were quick to have water ready for all of us.  One man said that it was brilliant on the part of Italian Vineyard owner too charge us dumb Americans to do the work he would otherwise have to do himself.  Wow!  I never thought of it that way and we all laughed.  Throughout the morning, Rob kept singing spirituals…”Swing low, sweet chariot…”  Then Ben jumped in and we all laughed.  Later, as the boys were singing, “Girl look at these grapes, girl look at these grapes” to the tune of “Sexy and I Know It”, it was then that I realized that the heat had finally made them snap and it was time to turn in for lunch.  And what a spread it was!  The owners put together tables and chairs and prepared a huge meal under the canopy of vines that shaded us from the sun.  There was bruschetta, fagioli (that’s beans in Italian), zeppolini (which is what the Leese family translates to deep fried yumminess), of course homemade pasta and sauce, assortment of cheeses, and some sort of a dolce (dessert) and of course a sampling of last year’s wine.  Our fantastic lunch was accompanied by authentic Italian music and followed by the STOMPING!

MVI_9912-004Ben was first, they instructed us to soak our feet in one bucket and then step into the enormous grape-filled bucket.  There was only one little problem.  What you may or may not know, is Ben is petrified and I mean petrified of spiders (the irony of one of Spiderman’s  biggest fans).  Well, when he approached the big bucket after soaking his feet, he saw the smallest of spiders.  The owner explained that the particular spider he saw was good for the grapes because it eats all the other bugs and things that try to eat the grapes.  He was unswayed and the last thing he wanted to do was to put his feet in a bucket where he saw a spider.  So when the owner lifted him up to jump into the bucket, he hiked his legs up to his knees and braced his arms so as not to touch the inside of the bucket.  MVI_9912-003When we finally convinced him that if he stomped real hard he’d kill any spider in the bucket, what looks like eager stomping on our video is simply a demonstration of self preservation in the eyes of a 9 year old boy.  Then it was my turn.  I was told I needed to stomp harder, 2012-09-29_13-18-39_94I was being to nice to the grapes and that’s when I became Lucille Ball and got carried away.  What an experience!

As activity-filled as our morning was, we finished the day off with a hike with the cub scouts at the Cuma Archaeological Ruins.   The city of Cuma is the most Ancient IMG_9931Western Greek colony.  It is believed to have been founded in the 8th century B.C. by colonists who had already settled on the neighboring island of “Pithekoussai” (Ischia).  IMG_9977On the opposite side of the town, there is the Amphitheatre, built in stonework, dated late 2nd century B.C., which is one of the oldest in Campania and the Roman world.  So in one day, the Leese Family definitely got a full dose of Italian history, culture, and food!

September was a good month!

Cousin Camp Comes to an End and a New European Adventure Begins!

January 1, 2013

IMG_7722Three weeks of a break from having a munchkin around the house can be exciting, especially since Rob and I haven’t had that kind of time alone since before we had Ben, but we were excited to have him home!  Just to add to the excitement was that he wasn’t traveling alone…Aunt Jenny accompanied him back to Italy!IMG_7752

While we didn’t do the amount of traveling that we did the first time she came out to Napoli, I still think we showed her a good time.  IMG_7735Since we just picked her up from the airport  and whisked her off to France last time, she kind of missed out on Rome.  We certainly weren’t going to let that happen again.  IMG_7734We explored the Colosseum,  St. Peter’s Basilica, and every other landmark that was represented in the DaVinci Code…ah, if only I was joking about that being our guide.  Sad but true.IMG_7859

When they arrived to Italy, a great deal of time was spent getting Ben ready for school.  He would be a fifth grader and this time he knew a lot more friends.  You may remember, his best friend Aaron Cornette who he experienced Hanukkah and Passover with last year  and of course, Jodie.  As we arrived to the Back to School Block Party, both of them eagerly greeted us to let Ben know that they were all in the same class again!

And so the cycle begins once again, Ben is in Mrs. Krause’s fifth grade class.  This year is her first year of teaching, but she is no stranger to the world of education or the military.  She herself was in the Navy and later home schooled her own three children.  She did her student teaching here in Naples and has now begun her second career.  She is very smart, organized, and thinks outside of the box…to me, these are all necessary qualities in a teacher.  We all have been very happy with her and Ben has excelled in such a great learning environment.IMG_8370

Despite the craziness of starting a new school year, we were able to get some traveling in for Jen.  While Rob was at work and Ben was at school, Jen and I went exploring new areas near where we live and others along the Amalfi coast.  We went to a market in Nola, and it was fun to see how t-shirt designers are trying to target the English speaking or American market, but just not quite “hitting their mark”.2012-08-22_09-55-58_613  I was able to pick up a dress for the upcoming Air Force Ball for next to nothing, she was able to pick up some cool Italian material, but no one could have anticipated the adventure we were about to have in Nola.  You see, Rob and I had brought Ben to this town a couple months back for a summer festival and had spotted a Spanish restaurant, but it was closed.  We were bummed, but we figured if we came back out here we’d try to figure out if they were “closed closed” or had actually gone out of business.  So now that I had returned, I got this brilliant idea to go to the restaurant if I could remember where it was.  I remembered where it was, the only problem was that that roads that lead to the restaurant were pedestrian, so I could only go so far.  I wasn’t sure where I was allowed to park, so I pulled alongside the road and asked Jen if she would walk around the corner and take a picture of the restaurant ‘s shingle so we would know what to look up on the internet and find out more information.  She went on foot and I sat, waiting in my car for a couple minutes.  It is then that I saw Jen speed walking towards the car with determination in her step and fear in her face.  Three men were in pursuit, following closely behind her.  I thought, what the heck!  I got out of the car.  She didn’t even stop, she just got into the car saying, “I don’t know what he’s saying, I don’t know what he’s saying, he was just yelling at me and then he started to chase me and so I left and he followed me.”  So with my little bit of Italian, I gathered that this man saw Jenny taking pictures (like I asked), but he lives above the building where the shingle is hanging and so he believed that she was taking pictures of his house.  He told the other two men to call the police because this woman was taking pictures of his house.  These men looked intimidating so I was a little worried.  Once I understood the problem, I explained in my broken Italian that she was only taking pictures of the sign.  That we just wanted to remember the name of the restaurant.  Once I explained, the other two men seemed to understand the miscommunication and told the man that he was crazy.  They tried to explain in Italian, but he was having none of it.  What we didn’t realize was that the building I had stopped in front of was the police station.  So into the building he ran when he saw the other two were not going to help him and I dutifully got into the car and drove away!  Jen has decided she doesn’t ever need to go to Nola again and we may never get her to take another picture.

IMG_8408Our day trip to Ravello was remarkably less eventful but no less exciting.  An adorable little city Ravello is just above the coastline.  There is an ancient legend, still recounted by tour guides in Salerno and Amalfi, that it was to Ravello, with its breathtaking view of the Mediterranean and the dramatic Amalfi coastline, that Satan transported Jesus during his second temptation to show the beauty of the world’s kingdoms. (Luke 4: 5-8)  It was our trip back that was the most significant since that is when Jen spotted her very own damigiana left on the side of the road!  So back we went to collect her treasure.

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If you don’t know what a damigiana is you need only go to Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel to see how they gouge people’s wallets for something we, here in Naples, pick up for free.  Check out the story a friend wrote about our damigiana treasures!  http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/trash-to-treasure-demijohn-bottles-172423

IMG_7917Next up was our weekend trip to Procida, one of the Flegrean Islands off the coast of Naples.  The island towns out here are just amazing so we decided to share one of them with Jen.  Away we went!  We rented a boat and leisurely spent the day exploring the waters.  We anchored the boat for some swimming, cave exploring, and finally lunch in the little town of Procida.  Everybody got a little sun but no one as much as Jen did!IMG_8017

Later that week, served as what could possibly be labeled as a life changing experience for Jen.  It was the day she…had gelato!  She tried many flavors during her time here, but it was pistachio that stole her heart.  Here is a good opportunity to talk about gelato, everybody’s heard of it and most love it, but how is it different from ice cream?  Apparently, it has more whole milk rather than cream.  Since there isn’t as much fat, the flavors are more intense   It has less air, because it is churned slower than ice cream.  So whatever the reason, and no matter which you prefer, know that a yummy frozen treat awaits you anywhere in Italy.

IMG_8209And then there was Assisi, one of my all time favorites in Italy.  This is the town where St. Francis was born, lived, preached, and died.  It is amazing!  The Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are two castles, but every aspect of this little town is just breathtaking.  You walk the cobble stoned roads and are instantly taken back through time.  Words cannot begin to describe how moved I was as we explored the place where he was born, where he witnessed the vision of Christ, where he was imprisoned by his father, and encouraged St. Clare to follow her calling and began the Franciscan Order.  I can’t begin to explain how beautiful this town is both in aesthetic beauty and its rich history.IMG_8268

IMG_8508Finally, comes our Czech experience.  A million years ago, when I was an undergrad and studying in Spain, I backpacked through Europe.  After a crazy train incident where the train going from Amsterdam to Germany split, my side of the train went to the Czech Republic, and I was left in a station overnight before I could buy a ticket to back to Germany.  Up until now, that had been my only experience in Prague. It was a whole new experience this time around.  We all fell in love with this beautiful city!  Truth be told, if I ever had the opportunity to be posted there for work or even just to visit again, I would jump at it in a heartbeat!  The hotel we stayed in was at the foot of the famous Charles Bridge.  It is this bridge that made Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.  While a beautiful and peaceful place at night and an excellent photo opportunity of the night landscape, it is quite different in the morning.  There are musicians, artists, and vendors bustling about the area.

We chose to visit Prague because Rob’s paternal heritage comes from what was once Bohemia, later Czechoslovakia, and what is now the Czech Republic.  The city is rich with culture, history and most importantly…a TGI Friday’s Restaurant!  Ben was one happy camper.  Among the sites of Prague there is the clock tower, from the plaza you can observe the procession of the Twelve Apostles: on the hour, every hour, a small trap door opens from the clock and Christ marches out ahead of his disciples.IMG_8570

IMG_8829The castle was magnificent!  It is the largest coherent castle complex in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of a large-scale composition of palaces and buildings of various architectural styles, from Roman-style buildings from the 10th century through Gothic modifications in the 14th century.  Ben even found a toy museum!

The solemn part of the trip began with the tour through the Jewish Quarter.  Its history dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish community in Prague were ordered to vacate their homes and settle in one area.  Over the centuries more and more people were crowded into the area, as Jews were banned from living anywhere else. Restrictions on their movements and the trades they were allowed to conduct underwent constant change.

The Jewish Quarter, or the Prague Jewish Ghetto as it was later to become known, also endured a lot of structural changes, the latest of which was a vast redevelopment of the area between 1893-1913.  There are six synagogues that remain, including the Old-New Synagogue, the Spanish Synagogue, plus the Jewish Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is the most remarkable of its kind and Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery.  According to halakhah (religious laws for Jews), Jews must not destroy Jewish graves and in particular it is not allowed to remove the tombstone. This meant that when the cemetery ran out of space and purchasing extra land was impossible, more layers of soil were placed on the existing graves, the old tombstones taken out and placed upon the new layer of soil. This explains why the tombstones in the cemetery are placed so closely to each other. This resulted in the cemetery having 12 layers of graves.IMG_8941

IMG_9024The next stop was no less solemn but so very interesting.  We visited a city called Kutna Hora a suburb of Prague.  Inside the city was Sedlec Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic Chapel.  Sedlec Ossuary has a long history, beginning in the 13th century when the Abbot of the Sedlec Monastery (Abbot Henry) brought a handful of earth back from a journey to the Grave of the Lord in Jerusalem. He scattered this “holy soil” across the Sedlec cemetery, securing its place as one of the most desired burial sites for people all over Bohemia and the surrounding countries. Everyone wanted to be buried in that handful of the Holy Land and more than 30,000 were. But it wasn’t long before there simply wasn’t enough room for everyone to rest in peace, and the bodies were moved to a crypt to make room for the newly dead.IMG_8997

In 1870, a local woodcarver, František Rint was employed for the dark task of artistically arranging the thousands of bones. Rint came up with the Bone Church’s stunning chandelier, as well as the amazing Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which includes a raven pecking at the severed head of a Turk–all made of human bone. Rint was responsible for bleaching all of the bones in the ossuary in order to give the room a uniform look. His artist’s signature is still on the wall today–naturally, in his medium of choice, bone.  It was like nothing else we have ever seen.

IMG_9093Our tour had become way too macabre for our taste and so off we went to continue our Czech adventure at AquaPalace, a fantastic water park!  We went down slides, played in the wave pool, soaked in the heated pools, and then there was the Fast River.  Let me tell you, while much of the time we desire that Italy and other European countries share some of the same need for regulation as the States, there are times where the lack of such regulation make 10 times more fun for everyone.  This was one of those moments.  There is something called the Fast River, or as we liked to call it, the Kamikaze River.  You don’t ride a tube or raft, you simply hold onto a bar for dear life and when you are ready to be sucked in by the incredibly strong current you let go of the bar.  It is as if you are white water rafting, but without the raft.  If you aren’t prepared by having your legs and arms ready to block so you don’t crash into other people or the walls of the slides, you will do just that.  After the first time, I was covered in bruises, but I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to even care and the second time I learned my lesson.  You completely lose all control of where your body is going at a very high rate of speed.  It’s what we in the U.S. call, “a law suit ready to happen,” and honestly I haven’t laughed so hard or had so much fun in a very long time!  MVI_9113

And with our trip to Prague was the end of another fantastic European adventure with our sister Jen and we can’t wait for the next!

A Second Honeymoon

December 30, 2012

After spending an action packed vacation in the States for a couple of weeks, we headed back to Italy sanz Ben.  He stayed behind to spend some time with relatives, something we have come to call Cousin Camp.  Now, don’t get me wrong, a house that is accustomed to the “general noise” of a nine year old can be awfully quiet and difficult to get used to, but we made our best attempt.  We missed our little munchkin, but a few weekend getaways were quite nice.Amalfi Coast sunset!

Tora e PiccilliEach month, the base sends out a list of festivals that are happening in the area.  This is how we learned about the cheese rolling and the festival of fire.  It’s great, we start off looking for a festival and stumble onto the cutest little towns.  We either stop or mark it on our map so that we can come back to it at a later date.  So, our first weekend home without Ben and first up, a renaissance fair.  Not really, but there was to be an old castle up on a hill, and music and a flag corps.  We punched the coordinates into what we have have come to know as the one of the most beloved members of our family…Jeepus.  Yes, you might know him by other names, like GPS, but for us, Jeepus tells us where to go.  I may have mentioned it before, but roads here in Italy are not like roads in the states that can be generally described as asphalt with a nice white or yellow line down the middle allowing two cars driving in opposite directions to pass each other.  Oh no…heeere, a road can easily be described as a dirt path large enough for barely one vehicle to pass but is meant to allow two and Jeepus doesn’t actually know its name so he just calls it “road.”  Jeepus doesn't tell us the name of the road, just that it's "road"By the some miracle of God, we find the festival and with a sigh of relief realize…we are back in Italy.

I'm a regular Robin Hood!The festival was fun.  I got to shoot a bow and arrow, I’m not a bad shot I must say.  We wandered around, enjoyed the parade and the costumes and finished off the evening with a great big loop of deep fried sugar something…and it was marvelous!Deep Fried Sugar Something!

Next up, the Amalfi Coast.  Much of our planning during this time was done by the seat of our pants.  We made our first stop in Positano, a coastal town that everyone had recommended and we finally got around to going.  PositanoNext, we went to a town called Praiano.  It was amazing!  We decided to visit because of their annual summer festival called  “Luminaria di San Domenico,” an event that occurs every year in August to celebrate Saint Dominic.

???????????????????????????????Every year, since 1606, Praiano inhabitants used to decorate its balconies, terraces, gardens with lighting system composed by wax and oil. This custom handed from 1599, when Dominican Monks came to the Monastery of Santa Maria a Castro, placed on the hill above Praiano.  “Luminaria di San Domenico” has a particular meaning: Domenico’s Mother, before giving him birth, she dreamed a dog with a torch in his mouth to burn the world. So when Domenico was born he had to diffuse “God’s word all over the world”.

While there are different activities during the festival that include candles being lit in the Piazza and floating lanterns filling the sky, the night we went we were treated to an amazing fireworks display like we have never seen.  Hundreds of people crowding the Piazza for the chance to catch a glimpse of the spectacular show!  Set to music, it did not disappoint! Pictures cannot begin to capture this amazing sight.???????????????????????????????

IMG_7707The following weekend was Ischia (pronounced I-shk-i-a).  We visited a Health Spa called Negumbo.  It’s what we would call an amusement park for adults…combination of Zen-like thermal pools, hammam (Turkish baths), contemporary sculpture and private beach on San Montano Bay off of the island of Ischia.  Throughout the park are thermal pools that range from 18°C – 38°C (which is like 64-100°F) some within the same pool! One of them, the Labrinto, (labrynth) is a circuit of two contrasting pools, one has 38°C (100°F) water and the front one 18°C (64°F), you are supposed to walk 5 laps through both of them to get the full effect of massage on the lower limbs and feet.  I wussed out, but Rob was brave as he sighed and relaxed through the first and shivered and chattered his teeth in the next.  Some of IMG_7689the pools were in caves.  There was also swimming in the bay where the IMG_7676waters stay low and have sandy bottoms well past a couple hundred feet out!  All in all, it was a experience like none that Rob and I had ever experienced and it was an amazing day trip!

As much as I loved our second mini-honeymoon I was ready for my little munchkin to come back home!