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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!

New End of the Year Traditions

September 16, 2012

Since we arrived so late in the school year, there were a few events that we missed out on last year, but of course got to make up for this year along with crossing a few milestones.

In June, we celebrated Rob’s 40th birthday.   It’s funny because when you aren’t exposed to different people of different cultures, you don’t realize what is unique to yours.  Making fun of a 40 year old birthday boy is one of those things.  The Americans immediately assume there will be some “over the hill” decorations, maybe a tombstone on the cake, but a woman from Germany thought the black balloons were just the funniest thing she had ever witnessed.  The woman from Turkey could not believe that there was a picture of a graveyard on Rob’s cake AND that we were lighting all 40 candles!  The man from Spain thought the inflatable walker and the Senior citizen’s survival belt was just hilarious.  The party felt like an international event.  We had representations from the countries of Turkey, Spain, France, Great Britain, Germany, US and of course Italy!  The gifts were even that much more exciting, Rob even got some of his favorite jamon serrano.

We attended a NATO Ball.  For those of you who didn’t know, Rob has worked for NATO since he went to Afghanistan and has continued working under NATO here in Italy.  NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an intergovernmental military alliance based on an agreement to defend each other in response to an attack by any external party.  You can see where this would keep Rob quite busy, what with recent global events.  Anyway, a military ball is an opportunity to bring these communities together, break bread, and enjoy.  This NATO ball was special in that it was the last at the existing NATO headquarters, as they will be moving their facilities right across the street from where we live.  HOORAY!  Rob can’t wait to simply walk to work.  Speaking of bringing cultures together, it is this ball that brought out the extreme differences in at least two cultures.  With our host country of Italy, you quickly learn that the dining customs are quite different.  Dinners are meant to be an all night affair.  In the United States, restaurants are accustomed to making reservations per couple of hours, but in Italy a reservation indicates that your party, and only your party, will be dining at that table for the evening.  There is no “turning over a table”.  While surely there are advantages that can be easily seen in that manner of dining and the relaxing ambiance, it is a stark contrast from what both Americans and Germans are accostomed.

The NATO Ball was coordinated by a German officer but catered by an Italian chef and his crew.  Our schedule of events included an appetizer that was to be served at 6:30 followed by an entree served by 7PM.  Needless to say when our appetizer was presented at 7:30, we knew that this would be a typical dining experience based on “Italian time.”  As the evening progress, the sliding scale of time seemed to slip further and further behind with the keynote speaker taking the podium 2 hours later than what was scheduled.  With dessert being served at 10 PM, I thought our German officer’s head was going to explode.

Meanwhile, Ben was staying with the child care that was provded by the event but was scheduled to end at 10 PM just in time for the fireworks display (or maybe not).  We had originally dropped him off, handing off on our only child to a young man we had never met amidst a room full of screaming children, and who wore a piece of masking tape that was serving as a makeshift nametag that read Marco.  We had our concerns, but for the time being, he was with other military kids and they were right next door to the dinner, so we rolled with it.  At 10:30 we arrived to pick up our son, who excitedly greeted us with, “I had so much fun!  First I was wrestling with this German kid, but then we started playing with this Greek kid.  I pinned him, but then Marco said we had to eat.  It was fun!”  And I ask you, where can your 9 year old son have experiences like that?!  Priceless.  As we walked up to our car at 11 PM, the fireworks that were scheduled for 10 PM began, Rob and I looked at each other and just laughed. Somewhere back at the dinner, a German man is rocking himself in the fetal position under the table.

As June sailed by, it brought us to yet another end to the school year and all of its pomp and circumstance of honor roll assemblies, class outings and last day of school traditions.  So for the last couple weeks, Ben had been chatting it up about some girl in his class, that he “definitely likes more than a friend.”   He was sitting at the table doing his homework and out of the blue he said, “I just did it. I told her, ‘Listen I kind of, sort of, have a crush on you…and well, I just wanted to tell you.”

“So what did she say?” I asked.

“She said, ‘I’ve kind known for a while and actually I kind of have a crush on you.”

“So what does that mean?”

“I dunno, it means I finally told her. And now she knows I like her.”

In addition to being verklempt at the fact that my 9 year old little boy has his first crush, I’m less than surprised that the girl knew the score way before he did.  I ask, “What’s her name again?”

“Jodi.”  And with that he went back to the homework thing as if he had just asked, “What’s for dinner?”

It was about a week later that I was picking up Ben from school.  This little girl, well I guess I shouldn’t say little since she is as tall as I am but, she came up to me and said, “Hi!  I’m Jodi and as you may know Ben and I have become quite close.  Are you going to the class movie with us next week?  My mom is and I was thinking that if you went, you could meet my mom and I’m sure you would be great friends and then Ben and I could sit next to each other.  Wouldn’t that be great?”

Oh my God, my child has met his match!  I tried to stifle the giggle, “I will have to look at my schedule, but yes, that sounds like a pretty good plan.”

Ben walked up after the exchange, “That was Jodi, Mom.”

“Yes, I gathered.  She introduced herself.”

“Yeah, she’s good like that.”

So there you have it, Ben has his first girlfriend in June 2012.  That wasn’t the only excitement Ben had for the end of the year.  He made Honor Roll for the 4th quarter in a row and we were super proud, but it was at this award ceremony that they announced that Ben had won an art contest he entered earlier on in the year.  It was the PTA’s Annual Reflections contest.  This years theme was “Diversity Means…”  Ben’s caption that finished the sentence was “…even though we are all different colors we can make beautiful things together.” A drawing of a person’s hand sketching the world on a pad of paper and using all different colored Crayola crayons, with the box of crayons off to the side.  He won first place at Naples Elementary at the local level and first place at the European level in Germany too!  The awards were quite official, glass award with his name engraved, you would have thought he won a Grammy.  We were quite proud of our little munchkin!

Which brings us to the last day of school.  I don’t know if there are other schools that do this but it was a pretty cool thing to see, as the busses prepared to leave the school for the last time for the academic year, the teachers lined the streets that the busses left on, waving goodbye and wishing the kids a fun summer.  I thought that was a neat touch and I’ve never seen it done before.

It may be more than 20 years after we graduated , but Rob and I got to go to prom!  That’s right, a blast back to the 80’s and it’s like we never left the days of Journey, Madonna, and Michael Jackson.  It is quite scary how easy it was to find something to wear for this event here in Naples.  You see, much of Italy, and for that matter Europe seems to be stuck in what we know to be the classic 80’s.  Men dressed in the pastel polo shirts with turned up collars, women wearing leggings, and classic 80’s music fills the air waves, one might think we never left.  It’s a bit of a time warp sometimes.  Dancing the night away to the likes of Prince and Lionel Ritchie and we had a blast!

And now comes the packing!  We will enjoy three weeks in the states followed by leaving the munchkin behind for another three weeks for him to enjoy Cousin Camp!

Experiencing all of Italy, not just what you find in the travel books…

May 12, 2012

With being a member of a military family and having a military hospital on base who would have ever thought I would have the opportunity to be a guest in an Italian hospital?  Not I.  In fact, that is exactly what happened on April 17.

Back in Alexandria, as I completed all my physicals in order to get a medical clearance to travel to Italy, the doctor is required to ask all kinds of questions.  One set of questions led to the revelation that perhaps I may have some sort of a sleeping problem and she advised that once I got to base I should take advantage of the facility and have that checked out.  Since giving birth to Ben, I began snoring and according to Rob, there are moments that I wake myself up and fall back to sleep.  As a result, I wasn’t always feeling well rested, and obviously I wasn’t helping Rob feel well rested either since my snoring was keeping him awake.  As most mothers can identify with, making appointments like this are easy to put on the back burner, right?  I mean, I wasn’t in excruciating pain and there was always something more important to do.  Well, I finally got around to making my initial appointment.  I have an amazing doctor here and she made a checklist of all the potential sources of my sleep deprivation:  weight gain, diet (caffeine intake etc.), allergies, or even early onset of diabetes.  So she created a list of tests that we could look into in order to get to the source.  She also ordered a “sleep study”.  I was to call the appointment line and schedule a sleep study.

Like everything else in the military, an appointment for a sleep study takes time.  I finally got my appointment and it was for a month out.  With our Spring Break trip to Greece coming up, this was actually a good thing.  I was to report to the base hospital at 2 PM and I would be finished around 10 AM the next morning.  Rob would come home a little early to get Ben from the bus, see him off in the morning and I would be home by the time Ben came home from school the next day.  So the day I was to report to my sleep study appointment, we were set.

Except we weren’t.

Rob got orders to go on a Temporary Duty Assignment (TDY) to Sarajevo and he would leave at 6 AM the next morning, before he could put Ben on the bus.  We found this out hours before I was to be at the hospital.  We’re a military family, we are totally flexible, we are used to last minute chaos, right?  Of course we are.  So instead of planning out what I would need to take to the hospital, I spent the morning running around packing a bag for Ben to drop off at a Aaron’s who lives on base and whose parents was so wonderful they agreed to make sure he got his homework done and get him to school the next day.  Realizing, I should probably have something to stave off the boredom of sitting by myself in a hospital room, I grabbed one of our laptops, my iPod, and a book.  Two bags in hands, one for Ben and one for me, I was off!

I dropped off the bag at Aaron’s house and reported to the hospital as scheduled.  Upon arrival, I was told to keep my things as I was going to follow my escort in his car to the facility.  He had all of my paperwork and he would get everything set up.

“Oh, okay,” they must be taking me to Capo (another one of our facilities) I think to myself.

As we drive out of the base, I realize we aren’t going into the direction of Capo.  Before we know it, I am driving into a wall.  Okay, I didn’t actually drive into a wall, but the car in front of me, appears to have literally driven and disappeared into a building.  That is how small the space was for cars to drive through and park in the courtyard.  I swear, I might as well have closed my eyes and prayed, which is basically what I did with about one inch on either side of my car.  I don’t know how these people do it!

Great God Almighty, somehow I parked unscathed.

I followed my escort into what was clearly NOT an American base facility.  The most my escort could get out after speaking to the people at the check -in desk in his rudimentary English was that they would lead me to a room, get me when they were ready to “hook me up” (whatever that means), bring me back to my room for dinner and then I would sleep and leave in the morning.

I asked when they would be coming to get me and he said around 5:30 PM…and then he left.

“Uh…okay…”

SO here I am at approximately 2:30 PM and someone would be coming for me around 5:30 PM?!  What the heck was I supposed to do until 5:30 PM?!  I was taken to my room that consisted of two beds, neither of which reclined like the cool hospital beds in the states to facilitate good ‘ol television watching.  There were two twin beds, a TV (with only Italian programming, which while entertaining for the first couple hours is not going to do the trick here), and a bathroom that was simply a sink and a toilet (that will be important later).

So I set down my bags, thinking, “Thank God I brought my electronics!”  I took out my iPod hoping to browse Facebook or email for a little while (that’ll kill sometime).  Nope.  No WiFi.  Hmm.  No problem, I’ll use my phone.  Nope.  The signal was so poor I had to stand at the window in order to get any reception.  Hmm.  Whew, good thing I brought my laptop, there are tons of things I can work on there!  Oh God, this isn’t my laptop!  I brought Rob’s laptop!  Oh my gosh, I brought Rob’s laptop!  He’s going to kill me, especially since he leaves tomorrow at 6 AM to Sarajevo, and who knows I’m just spit-balling here, but I’m thinking he might need his laptop.  Okay, so I’ll need to let him know to grab my laptop and take that, but meanwhile it occurs to me that this is the laptop he had in Afghanistan so surely there is lots of cool stuff to watch that will help me kill time, right?  So I power it up, find the video libraries, and there is just one folder.  Seriously, one folder?  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for the next 8 hours or so to kill time, all I had was Season 7 of none other than…South Park.  Seriously?  Just shoot me now.

So I call Rob, let him know what’s going on.  He thinks that the fact that all I have to watch is South Park, the one show I loathe is hysterically funny, and only perfect justice for the fact that I took his laptop.  I give him the low down of what is going on and we agree to try calling each other a little later.

At 5:15 PM, an orderly comes in who speaks no English whatsoever, leaving it all up to me with my rudimentary Italian to get all the information necessary for my medical procedure.  Needless to say, the butterflies in my stomach far outweighed the confidence in my Italian but we seemed to understand each other okay.  Now, differently than American hospitals where the nurse comes into your room and hooks you up to whatever you need; Italian hospitals take you from your room and hook you up to an IV, or transmitters, or machines that record your vitals in one central location.  So I was brought down to a hallway (waiting area, if you will, lined with chairs) filled with people waiting to get hooked up to whatever they needed.  There was this adorable little old Italian woman sitting next to me among many others.  She smiled at me, I smiled back.  Then they called my name.

I went in to find all kinds of wires and connectors laid out on this table along with a little plastic tub that read “glue” (in English).  Think Noxema or body lotion, that was the type of container.  They (the nurse who had come to retrieve me and some female nurse) were going to connect these wires to my body, they would send me back to my room, I would eat dinner, and then at 11 PM, everything would turn on so I would need to turn off all electronics so as not to interfere with whatever these wires were doing–at least that is what I was able to gather with my handle of the Italian language (so here’s to hopin’).  I followed the nurse’s hands as he dipped his fingers into this goop and applied it to my temples, my forehead, my chin, and chest.  To each mound of goop he attached a transmitter of sorts.  I asked them how you say “robot” in Italian, and they both laughed as they explained it was the same word in Italian.  Then, there was this back and forth discussion that I didn’t understand.  The male nurse kept showing the other nurse this diagram they had been following in order to determine placement of the transmitters.  Apparently, one of them was supposed to go on the crown of my head.  He looked at me and said what I believed to be the word for “shave”.  Oh my God, they are going to shave a little patch of hair on the top of my head!!  My eyes must have been the size of golf balls because they both started laughing at me.  He explained that he was kidding.  They parted my hair and put an extra helping of this goop and attached the final transmitter.  Just as they were doing this, a man came into the room.  He was the doctor who would be conducting the procedure and he spoke fluent English.  The nurse looked worried, he spoke very fast Italian and I caught very little of it.  The doctor explained the nurse’s concerns and asked if I understood what was going on.  I explained what I thought I had understood and as it turns out I’m not doing so bad with this Italian stuff.  The doctor gave me a sheet of paper that is to serve as a sort of log.  I am to write down anything that disturbs my sleep that will likely cause an anomaly in my sleep patterns, like for example going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  That was that.  So, I was set to return to my room.

As they opened the door, the same little old lady was still sitting there.  Since I couldn’t see what I looked like, I can only assume it was scary based on her reaction that consisted of enlarged eyes, a very loud gasp followed by, “Ayyy Mamma Mia” and the sign of the cross.  Later I would take a picture to send to Rob that would explain this woman’s reaction.  She must have been freaked out at how I went in looking normal and came out looking like Frankenstein.

So, I returned to my room to continue watching South Park and approximately 30 minutes later my dinner arrived that frankly would have been enough food to feed a football team.  If you have ever seen the rectangular tubs that busboys use when they are retrieving dishes from a table, that is what my meal came in.  Not on a tray like we are accustomed, no no no, I got a tub of dinner.  For dinner I received a behemoth bowl of pasta with meat sauce, three pieces of some kind of meat slathered in tomato sauce (because after all we are in Italy), a salad, two kiwis, and a bottled water.  I ate about 1/4 of what they gave me and returned to my South Park viewing…sigh!

When I had my fill of Cartman, Kyle, Kenny and Stan (which wasn’t long I promise you), I played a few games on my iPod  read several chapters in my book, and finally lay down.  Somewhere around 1 AM I turned over and noticed that all the connectors were lit so it must be working properly.  Around 2 AM, I went to the bathroom and diligently took notes as instructed.  And at 4 AM, my cell phone rang full blast.  Heart racing, I jump up from bed and look at my phone.  ROB,  I read on my caller ID.  Seriously?  Sleep study here, right?  I answer the phone.

“Hello,” I whisper, barely conscious.

No answer.

“Rob, is that you,” I whisper.

No answer.

Oh my god, my husband just butt called me during a sleep study!  Really?

Okay, let’s try to fall back asleep.  If you know me at all, you would realize that I am not really good at doing this, but I try.  I can’t even imagine what my heart rate was doing with that.  I must have finally drifted back to sleep, because I woke again around 6 AM and couldn’t fall back asleep.  So I added my 4 AM “butt call” from my lovely husband to my log sheet, read a little longer, and at 6:30 AM my nurse came in to detach me from all my wires.  Most of them were uneventful, but I have to admit the one on the top of my head was less than pleasurable.  While he is doing this, another nurse comes in and asks what kind of coffee I would like.

When I tell her cappuccino, she looks at the nurse and says in Italian, “Of course, Cappuccino for the American.”

My nurse finishes taking off all of my wires and tells me I will probably want to wash my hair because of all that goop they put in it.  He takes my log sheet, glances at it and quizzically looks at me.  I already know before he asks.  I explain that my husband called and though I don’t know why, I think it was a butt call.  Yeah, try explaining THAT in another language!  Ironically, I think he understood, laughed, and shook his head.  He said, “Ciao” and left.

Taking a shower sounds just like what the doctor ordered, until it occurs to me…I don’t have a shower!  Well, isn’t this going to be interesting?  I mean obviously I could wait on a shower until I got home but I absolutely needed to wash my hair, so I stick my head into the sink that I assure you was never designed for hair washing based on its size and the fact that I bumped my head repeatedly just trying to pull my head out of the sink.

Just as I am finishing up, I hear someone enter the room and announce, “colazione,” which means breakfast in Italian.  For one moment I must have forgotten where I was and that Italians don’t really “do” breakfast.  So, I came out to a carafe of coffee and a little packet of miniature toast and one packet of jelly.  Wow.  THIS is my breakfast?  Yes, yes it is, because you are in Italy my friend.  So I jelly up my little morsel of toast and drink my coffee, get dressed and find my car to have completed one of my most memorable adventures in Italy.

A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale!~Anything Goes at Carnival!

March 10, 2012

Carnivale at school!

In Italy, Carnevale is the last celebration before lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent has historically been the time before Easter when Catholics deprive themselves of something they enjoy. The thought is to party until you drop and spend the period of Lent recovering.  Although the origin of the word is disputed, folk etymologies exist which state that the word comes from the Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying that those were the last days when one could eat meat before the fasting of Lent. The word carne may also be translated as flesh, so suggesting carne vale as “a farewell to the flesh”, a phrase actually embraced by certain Carnival celebrants who encourage letting go of your former (or everyday) self and embracing the carefree nature of the festival. So, whatever the history everyone agrees that you enjoy yourself  in the days that lead up to Ash Wednesday and then it is time for sacrifice whether it be meat or a personal fast.

Confetti fun!

Celebrations are held all over Italy from Venice and Milan down to the villages and towns of Sicily. The celebration of Carnevale is the Italian version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans with oranges instead of beads.  This year the celebration lasted from February 12 to March 5 with many of the biggest celebrations on Martedi Grasso or Fat Tuesday.  It is a huge winter festival celebrated with parades, masquerade balls, entertainment, music, and parties. Children throw confetti at each other. Mischief and pranks are also common during Carnevale, hence the saying A Carnevale Ogni Scherzo Vale, anything goes at carnival.

Carnivale parade brought the kids walking throughout the school donned in masks and costumes!

Masks (maschere), are an important part of the carnevale festival and Venice is the best city for traditional carnival masks. Carnival masks are sold year round and can be found in many shops in Venice, ranging from cheap masks to elaborate and expensive masks. Walking through the streets of Venice, it’s a pleasure to view the variety of masks on display in shop windows.  Ben both bought one in Venice and bought a blank one that he created himself.  I must say, I was not surprised that his homemade mask came out awesome! People also wear elaborate costumes for the festival and there are costume or masquerade pareds.  It’s like having Halloween twice in one year!  What kid doesn’t love dressing up in costume and throwing confetti, heck, for that matter, what adult doesn’t?

Carnevale was first celebrated in Venice, and has been officially sanctioned in that city since 1296. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Carnevale celebrations were popular

Making our own masks for Carnivale with Aaron

throughout Europe. Today for two weeks public areas around Venice become the showcase for actors, acrobats and musicians with residents and visitors alike

Ben had us looking all over Venice for a mask like the one he made out of paper (Rob is wearing it) with rabbit ears AND a long nose like the one Ben is wearing to no avail, but he has not given up!

wearing elaborate masks and elegant costumes.

In Ivrea, a small town in Piemonte, Carnevale has been around since the 1600′s. The celebrations begin with a

masked ball followed later in the week by the Battaglia delle Arance where people throw 400 tons of oranges. The throwing of the oranges is an enactment of an uprising by the people against those in power.  After all the oranges are thrown the various combatants sit down to a feast of codfish and polenta (coarsely or finely ground yellow or white cornmeal).

And away they go!

In a small town called Pontedolfo, the men of Pontelandolfo flock to the main square every afternoon until the end of carnevale. Proud and defiant, they challenge one another individually and in groups to a grueling contest of la ruzzola del formaggio . . . literally “the rolling of the cheese”!  They place bets and the townspeople come to watch…well, the townspeople and a few crazy tourists named Rob, Missy, and Ben.  It was funny, because since it was still cold there, some people just drove right up to the cheese rolling to watch the competition but just stayed in their cars (blocking the street and all) and would just move up as the competition progressed down the street.

Explaining to Ben how the game works, while the men set up for the next round.

The period of Carnevale is a time when people put their daily lives on hold to laugh at themselves and just plain old have fun.  Seriously, celebrating Carnivale both in the community and with Ben at school was such a riot!  We made masks, there was confetti, and we even got to see Italian skits with none other than Pulcinello and Arlecchino!

Pulcinella and Arlecchino

The perpetually poor and hungry Pulcinella (Pool – chee – nel – la) is known as a jolly bungler able to get by singing songs and playing his mandolin. He needs very little to be happy: only a slice of pizza and a jug of wine. It is for this that the Neapolitan people have embraced this amiable buffoon.  His character originated in the Commedia dell’Arte of the 17th century when he became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry.

Arlecchino and Pulcinella

He is a crafty guy, often pretending to be too stupid to know what’s going on. As the very embodiment of the streetwise Napoletanohe is quick to thumb his characteristically long, hooked nose at authority figures, to the delight of the masses.  Dressed in white with a soft white hat and a black half-mask he can be found hanging around just about everywhere in Napoli.

Arlecchino is another character from the Commedia dell’Arte.  Together they told of a story where Arlecchino was sent by his aunt (zia) to purchase

With the first site of snow, we couldn't pass up the opportunity for a snowball fight in Pontedolfo!

some statues with the money she gave him, but since he took the money and went drinking and foolishly spent it on silly things he doesn’t have the money or the statues.  So when his aunt comes to inspect the statues he bought, he panics and tells his friends Pulcinella to act like a statue and not move.  Comedy ensues when Pulcinella has an itch or needs to sneeze and once the aunt catches on and goes running after Arlecchino with a broom.

Carnivale is celebrated for a couple of weeks, and is nothing but fun activities for everyone!

The beautiful town of Pontedolfo.

Buon Capodanno e Agurri! (Happy New Year and Best Wishes)

February 21, 2012

Nothing fancy, just a sharing of New Years traditions with our neighbors and learning new traditions in a new country.

Happy New Year and Best Wishes! 2012 found the Leese Family experiencing the 1st of January Italian style. Although there were many events going on in the city, we decided to stick to some traditions that would give us a little taste of home. We had buñuelos (family recipe of my Grandma Amalia and courtesy of my Aunt Gloria) and homemade hot chocolate (courtesy of my friend Hugo and his family). We had the neighbors over to share in the New Year tradition. The Nedrow Family shared the Filipino tradition of hanging grapes in the doorways of their home in hopes of bringing money and properity to their family in the coming year. The Laney’s brought sparklers to ring in the New Year. It was simple but fun! And then came the fireworks…let me tell you, Italians looove their fireworks. There were terrific firework displays to be seen right from our front porch looking out in every direction, it was amazing! The displays started at around 8 PM and continued well past 3 AM. I’d say that it was like Fourth of July, but I want to say they probably have us beat. Italians know how to ring in the New Year!So, also in Italian custom, children hang their stockings on December 5th, the night before Epiphany (the day that the wise men found the baby Jesus) in hopes from a visit from La Befana, an old woman that had been too busy to help the wise men in their search who now travels the world leaving gifts in hopes that one day she will bring gifts to the baby Jesus. We asked Ben whether or not he had learned about this tradition in school. He said, “I don’t know, this Befana lady has never brought me anything before…but maybe since we’re in Italy…I’m hanging up my stocking…I’m not taking any chances!” The morning of Epiphany,there were lots of questions as to why La Befana would have brought him an American action figure and Italian chocolates. We traveled on the day of Epiphany, it was like trying to find a grocery store open on Christmas day in the States. Nothing was open. Everything looked like a ghost town. We were lucky to find a hotel restaurant open to grab lunch and did a great deal of window shopping. As for window displays, it was funny because you would have thought you were looking at a Halloween display. They were filled with what looked like witches on broomsticks but were actually La Befana.

La Befana window display in Matera

In efforts to maintain ties to the things we love, I have volunteered my efforts to helping co-direct the high school musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Rob is the assistant wrestling coach for the high school.  Ben has become a mascot of sorts for both the cast and the wrestling team.  Because he knows the show so well, it was funny to hear him advising the kids as they auditioned.Asking some random student, “What are you trying out for?””I think Charlie Brown.””Hmm, yeah, I think you should audition for Schroeder, you look more like a Schroeder or maybe a Linus.  Linus is really smart and you’re voice is good for Linus’s song Blanket and Me.””Huh?  Really?”  (Talking to another student) “I was thinking maybe I should read for Schroeder or Linus.”On the wrestling mat, the boys took to Ben immediately like their little brother.

Our first weekend trip of the year took us to Matera.  Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the “Sassi di Matera” (meaning “stones of Matera”). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself.  Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses.  Many may recognize the small town as the setting of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ.”  Our hotel was in a cave and the views were nothing short of breathtaking.

The town of Matera at night

My next adventure was a girl’s outing to the the trash collection areas.  Yes, you read that right I have recently gotten my membership card as a genuine and certified trash digger.  I’d say I was dumpster diving, but Naples doesn’t actually have dumpsters in the conventional sense.  The Naples waste management crisis is a series of events surrounding the lack of waste collection in the city of Naples that peaked in the summer of 2008.  While there a numerous claims to the cause of the problem, whether it be a lucrative mafia scheme that was thwarted, an absence of a proper disposal system, or the striking of municipal workers (don’t even get me started on the striking…I’ll get into that later) there are sections of the city that have now become reserved for the piling of trash.  While the newly elected government officials are doing their best to fulfill their election promises and get the problem under control…old habits die hard.  But I digress, back to my trash digging…

Of the many wonderful products that Itay produces, it is no secret that they have pretty much mastered the wine thing.  For many centuries, it has been carried in italian wine vessels, known as demijohns in English and damigiana in Italian, have been used to hold wine for centuries.  Here’s the thing, once Italians have drunk the wine the damigianas are simply thrown out with the rest of the trash.  We believe it is our responsibility to rescue those containers so that they can beautify our homes with candles, lights, flowers and an assortment of other decor.  And so, we begin our adventure into trash digging.  We go out in expeditionary searches, when we return we tell of our conquests, and if we are in the most generous of moods, we share our gps coordinates so that others may go and find them too!

Next on the list of adventures was a trip to Nusco, where they celebrate La

La notte dei falò in Nusco, warming up to one of the many bonfires set up around the town

Notte dei Falò or the Night of Fire.  We enjoyed traditional foods of the region, listening to music and warming up by the many bonfires set up throughtout the town.  The annual tradition commemorates the first bonfires that were lit to ward off the plague, which in 1656 had a record of up to 1,200 victims in Nusco.  In the kingdom of Naples, in the late seventeenth century, was distributed the Saint Antonio’s bread, prepared with the purest fat of a early age pig. It was a sort of ointment to treat herpes zoster infection, known as “Saint Antonio fire” The fires were then lit to purify the places but also the bodies, citing the miraculous virtues of St. Antonio.  It was lots of fun to witness the coming together of such a small little community surrounding the fires throughout the town with singing, dancing and of course eating…there’s always eating!

Now let’s talk about surviving a strike Neapolitan style.  Since we have been here, we have witnessed a large number of strikes.  This or that airline will be striking for 4 hours on this day, or this train service will be striking for two hours next week.  We have never been affected or if so only mildly inconvenienced at most.  And then came January 23, 2012…

As I headed for home from my Italian class, I noticed that the expressway that normally runs three lanes, was slowly being reduced to 1 lane and moving very slowly at that.  Then, I saw what was causing the delay.  Semis and cargo trucks were lining themselves along the two lanes and blocking the exits.  Then, I realized in looking across the median, the other side looked exactly the same!  It was later that I learned that truck drivers were demonstrating opposition that had been mounting to fuel tax rises and economic reforms aimed at opening up competition in protected sectors including transport and pharmacies.  The strike:  truckers were on strike for a total of 5 days.  This doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you aren’t able to fill up your tank or run and get milk before it happens, it feels like an eternity.  Trucks drove down the interstate and blocked 3 of 4 lanes of all major arteries throughout Naples and completely blocked several major exits.  The scary part is if they believed you were a truck that was not adhering to the strike, they slashed your tires.  One person that we know of had her SUV tires slashed because they thought she was a courier van, they then profusely apologized and helped her get on her way when they realized that she wasn’t.  Tourist buses were subject to the strike.  The problem with that is that the kids ride what looks like tourist buses to school everyday.  Our worry was that they would try to stop the buses.   There were a few reports of scuffles but once they realized they were school buses, they let them pass through.  So no gas stations had gas, because the trucks couldn’t get there to fill them.  We didn’t get our mail for 5 days because Italian contractors bring the mail to the American postal system on base to then be distributed.  Fresh produce and dairy had no way of making it to the grocery stores.  It was crazy, it’s a good thing we drink skim milk, because apparently nobody wanted it.  There was absolutely no 1% or 2% on the shelves!  The biggest fear was that even when the strike was over, it would be another week to get back to normal.  Because as people neared empty on their tank, and as soon as gas was available, the stations would be tapped out in no time and need another truckload of gasoline.  In addition, a gas strike was supposed to immediately follow the truck strike, and then we really would have been screwed–that was predicted to last for 10 days!!  Thank God I have a gas efficient Prius, that’s all I can say.  Unfortunately, set and costume pieces that were ordered for the show have been held up indefinitely.  Welcome to the unique experiences of Italy

So we didn’t get a gas strike, instead Italy got snow.  Although, I am a Midwest girl well versed in the world of snow, we cannot say the same of our Italian brethren.  This is the first time Rome has seen snow of any accumulation in 26 years!  So where the strike left off, the weather picked up.  With no traffic being able to reach us from various parts of the country, both our mail and anything other than local produce was halted, and extra curricular activities like the high school wrestling team’s tournament in Aviano (near Venice) was cancelled.

Snow in Rome for the first time in 27 years!

Things have just started getting back to our normal schedule.  I was the announcer for this year’s spelling bee.  Last year, Ben had studied his butt off and then was sick the night of the bee.  This year he decided he would watch it and then try for next year.  So since the PTA needed a volunteer and Ben wasn’t competing, I decided to lend my public speaking skills to the school.  Let me tell you, it was no easy task.  The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, realizing that my mispronunciation could mess a poor kid up and his chances to compete in Washinton, DC.  But we got through it and Naples declared a winner to the bee, a fourth grader from Ben’s class.  Afterwards, I asked munchkin what he thought about it all.  This is the excahnge that followed:
“It was pretty cool.  It was pretty much obvious who was going to win.”
“Really?   You think so, I didn’t think it was obvious, there were some tough words.”
“Yeah, but once Kayla started praying, I was thinking it was pretty much… over.  I mean she had God on her side, how could she lose?  Heck after I saw her doing that thing…”
“The sign of the cross?”
“Yeah, the sign of the cross…after I saw her doing that I said a prayer for her too.”
“You said a prayer?”
“Yeah, I said, ‘Dear God, she’s really nice and she’s in my class and I know she’s been studying really hard and I saw her praying to you, so I think you should help her win.  Amen.’ “
Now how could I argue with such logic.

So there have been lots of little adventures here in the beginning of 2012 and no reason to expect any less in the months to come especially as we approach Carnivale and the Easter season.  The wrestling season has come to an end and the musical is set to open at the beginning of next month.  I can only imagine what Italy has in store for us next!