Thursday, June 2, 2011

The World by Numbers

Hello from Hong Kong airport!  We are en route home (via Rome and Istanbul and then the Bay Area for a wedding and family visit and theeeeen back to Vancouver) and thought we'd share some fun trip stats with you readers.  This was a fun list to compile as is sparked many wonderful memories (and some not so wonderful ones as well).  I hope you enjoy gawking at some of the numbers as we have...

In no particular order, over the course of our 5 month trip, here are the number of...
Planes flown: 27
Train rides: 11
Bus rides: 11
Boat rides: 17
Beds slept in: 38
Nights spent not sleeping in a bed: 13
Countries visited: 12
Languages we learned to say "thank you" in: 10
Broken electronics: 1
Photos/videos taken: 10,000+ (sorry, took too long to figure out the exact number)
Books read: 48
Blog posts: 52
Babies born to loved ones: 5
Loved ones seen while on the road: 20
Number of Vancouver friends who moved while we were away: 10
Jobs obtained: 2
New leases: 1
Fields peed in: 1
Clothing items bought: 12
Lowest elevation: 423m/1388ft (Dead Sea, Israel)
Highest elevation: 2195m/7201ft (Nagargot, Nepal)
Mishaps with wildlife: 3
Food poisoning episodes: 8
Use of emergency antibiotics: 2
Highest fever: 103.5F
Hospital visits: 1
Plagues: 10
Continents visited: 5
Cities/towns visited: 67

And so many more stats, we could add to this list until our next trip...  Again, thanks for reading, there may be a few more blog post stragglers as we re-enter our Vancouver world, remember more stories, and recount details to anyone who will listen, but until then, only one more 13 hour plane ride before we're back on North American soil! 

Signing off for now... S&S

Friday, May 27, 2011

When (not) in Rome

Please pardon the lack of photos in this blog post. We're unable to put our latest camera shots on the computer to then be posted to the blog. (sigh) Technology...

Here's a first for our trip: a blog post written in a leather-bound, handmade Indian paper journal and transcribed onto a computer at a local gelato and coffee bar. I diidn't want to risk the internet crapping out on me (though, already, the internet service in the little hilltop twn of Trevi, Umbria far surpasses the scattered wifi of Venice), so I thought I'd draft the blog post agead of time rather than feeling I needed to speed through my thoughts while sitting at the cafe. As we've found ovet the course of our 5 months, blogging an be a wonderful and time consuming activity if you factor in the photo viewing, linking and time spent thinking about what to write rather than just letting the muddy thoughts run out of your fingers and into cyberspace. Some people can blog that quickly, but I like trying to craft my thoughts (something I was about to do when the computer sailed on the wind).

Anyway, it didn't seem right to end our travelthelongwayround experience with the sad news of a dead computer. You, fearless readers, have travelled everywhere else on this 'round the world journey, so I invite you to join us at our last stop before returning home. Welcome to the quiet, sunny town of Trevi, Umbria, a gem of a find (thanks to aunt Laura and uncle Pete's introduction) nestled amongst the olive groves. Our original plan was to rest, read, write, knit, and sunbathe in the Umbrian countryside for one week and then have a last huzzah in Rome, but after having many conversations with weary traveler about the wild and craze of the city, we decided to throw in the proverbial towel and save Rome for antoher day. We have not been disappointed...

With the exception of one flying computer, our days in Trevi have been thoroughly stress- and carefree. A 10-minute straight up (or so it feels) walk takes us to the tiny town with its two piazzas where, at any given moment, a dozen or so locals can be found sitting around with their 17th espresso or spritz of the day at one of the two cafes in town. One grocery store provides us with half of our needs (olive oil, granola, milk), whereas the other half is provided by the farmers/antique market (truffle cheese, vegetables, an 18th century cherry wardrobe). When not in or circumnavigating the small town (choking on our handful of Italian words or ogling the glitzy Italian diva wobbling on the cobblestones in their stilettos), we've been spending the majority of our days either on our patio overlooking the valley and town or wandering through the olive groves that surround the town.

Without a computer to provide iTunes and/or the latest baseball stats, we've returned to the vacation basics of the pre-technology days gone by: writing on paper (!), playing cards, listening to the birds, reading thousand-page novels, losing track of time, taking hours to eat each meal and so on. Maybe the Umbrian wind was trying to give us that final push we needed to relax before heading home to our North American loved ones, 2 new jobs, and a move? Maybe 5 monhts of intense travel experiences of hundred os musuems, monuments, temples, churches, shrines, UNESCO world heritage sites, maps, public transport, hostels, hotels, overnight bus rides, new languages, food poisoning, yogurt, not showering for days, monkeys, strangers, bottled water, and mosquitoes deserves 10 days of doing nothing at the end of it? The Umbrian wind seemed to tell us all of we listened.

Tonight, we will return to one of the few town restaurants fo a 1/2 litre of their house red an some pasta and asparagus, and tomorrow, we may just decide to do the same. Then, who knows, we may take an after-dinner stroll along an old Roman viaduct before returning home for a game of gin rummy with an incomplete deck of cards before hitting the hay at 9:30pm. So rarely so we slow down just to soak up the sun and warm wind for days on end - never mind slowing down long enough to do that for an hour.

So, to all of our loyal, new, and passing-by readers - thanks for reading. We may have another postor two for you courtesy of the Hong Kong airport wifi, but I think I can safely say, from the last stop on our roung the world journey, this has been the most fascinating 5 months we've ever had...and thanks for being part of that.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Every Trip Needs a Mishap, Part Deux

Disaster strikes! The Umbrian wind rose up in gale force and swept the computer right off the window sill where it was preparing for its next blog post and made its final swan dive onto the beautiful Italin tile floor. Fortunately the hard drive is alive and well (with the pics, etc) but the monitor looks like a spiderweb of zeros and ones.

Having decided to forego Rome for the beautiful hilltop town of Trevi, Umbria until we fly out on June 1st, we will have to reside the rest of our days in and amongst the olive groves, taking a long break from digital communication (with an occasional cappucino in the cafe with a computer in town). We have planned a few more blog posts and may find some way to post them before we arrive home in the beautiful Northwest, but if not, we are thinking of our loyal readers while soaking up the Italian sunshine, reading our books, playing cards, and drinking the bubbly local prosecco.

Thankfully, there could have been much worse disasters :)

Cant wait to see you all soon,

Digitally yours,

S & S

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Standing in David's Shadow

I've never been much of an art history buff (this is Steve speaking, Sarah is definitely up on the art), and I would generally summarize my reactions to the art we've seen in our recent Florence museum marathon in one of two ways - either, "hey there's some art" or "Wow." Fortunately Florence is full of alot of Wow.

For instance, take the experience of walking into the city. We arrived by train, shouldered our large packs, and began the twenty minute or so journey to the center of town where our hostel is. After the incredible narrow warren of streets of Venice, Florence's broad streets felt quite navigable, especially with a map we picked up from a vendor on the street. After a number of twists and turns, we thought we might be off on the wrong track when we turned a corner and found ourselves faced with Michelangelo's David in the middle of a courtyard of other unbelievable Renaissance sculptures. We were nearly bowled over, which would have been awkward with our packs on. As it turned out, while the other statues were originals, this David was a replica of the original which is in L'Accademia. The one in the picture above is actually on a ridge overlooking the city. The point is - Florence wears the beauty of its art as a badge of honor, as it should be.

After that introduction to Florence, I've had a number of other Wow experiences. There were a few at the Duomo Museum, including one of the last of Michelangelo's works, where he has envisioned himself as one of those helping Christ off of the cross.

There was also Dante's The Beheading of John the Baptist. 

And Donatello's extremely creepy but moving Mary Magdalene.

There is something very powerful in seeing these works of art in a museum of other works from the time and realizing by contrast how exceptional they were and continue to be. Sarah will have to fill you in on the full art history analysis of the pieces, but for me, they just registered as Wow.

And Florence has definitely kept up its reputation as a city made of art. We've seen many modern pieces around the city that show how Florence is keeping up its crop of aspiring artists as well as its counterculture air.

After the past four day musuem marathon, I'm fairly convinced that there are more museums per capita here than anywhere else in the world and I very much appreciated the night we took off to go check out Pirates of the Caribbean (what number are we on now? 17?) at a restored theatre in town.

On a final note, it absolutely amazing to us that we only have two weeks left before we board a big ol jetplane and head back to Vancouver (via Istanbul, Hong Kong, and SF). We've officially began planning our reentry into society and are getting very very excited to reconnect with family, friends, and the lovely West Coast.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

You say Burano, I say Murano...

Pardon the delayed posting, has been having some troubles as of late due to some sort of hacking issue, but everything seems to be running smoothly now.

In Venice, there are two modes of transportation: you walk or you float.  Sometimes, the two shall meet when one wanders the labyrinth of calli (lanes), mouth agape, staring up up up at the crumbling facades and the leaning towers, thus bringing on a float-like method of walking amongst the tourists.  One cannot get anywhere in a hurry, oh no, one must float through the crowds, thus being happily forced to browse the windows for Carnevale masks, marbled handmade paper goods, and glass shops proudly boasting that their goods were not made in China, but on the neighbouring island of Murano.  Ah, Murano…

But before I wax poetic and even share some in-the-moment poetry composed about Murano (by neither of us, but a guest blogger who gave me permission to share his words with our readers), I must recap a bit of the last several days on this sinking island.  As you’ve seen happen in the past, the moment Sarah and Steve come into contact with loved ones, frequent and punctual blogging goes out the window (and, in this case, bouncing off of the bridge and directly into the canal outside our studio apartment). 

Day #1 in Venice – well, actually in the ancient town of Bassano del Grappa

We are lucky to have an international group of friends in Vancouver (hi friends in Vancouver, we miss you!) who have connected us with many of their international friends and family around the world (remember Oz?).  One such connection was the ever-growing family of Shanaray, Roberto, and Thomas who welcomed us into their town of Bassano del Grappa 1.5 hours outside of Venice for an afternoon of sight-seeing, dining the Italian way, and catch up on the years since we saw them last in Canada.  Not only were they so lovely to give us their Saturday, but they walked us around for hours, just 3 weeks away from the due date of their second son.   When the amazing parents weren’t telling us the history of Napolean’s conquest in the area, or ordering an amazing meal for us (note to travelers: ask a local to order your meal sometime, you won’t regret it), their first son, Thomas, taught us how to eat cherries while sucking on a pacifier and say grazie the proper way (GRA-tzee-ay).  It was a lovely day out of the city with a lovely family – what better way to spend a first full day in Italy than with an Italian family?

Day #2 in Venice

We had an early treat happen 1 month before our official return to Vancouver – Vancouver friends came to us!  Well, actually, they were on their own amazing Ireland/Italy/Holland vacation, but through the mighty power of the interwebs, we managed to coordinate schedules and meet up for an evening in Venice, satisfying our growing craving for loved ones and making for a fantastic evening out on the town.  Our meet up time was a little thrown off by none other than Mr. Pope who was making a 5 million euro visit to Venice (security’s tight with papal people, apparently), but we managed to not only tell the Pope “ciao,” and we found our friends, Trish and Derek, amongst the thousands of people in the San Marco Piazza crowd!  An evening of prosecco, stories, toasts, memories, squid ink, and lots of self-pinching (i.e., “I can’t believe we’re seeing you in Venice!!”) enfolded, and we left happy travelers, excited for our imminent return to Vancouver at the end of the month.

The days since then…

We had one day to ourselves in the city, in which we performed our usual act of sitting at a café for hours, reading, writing, knitting, sharing our lunch with the birds, and people-watching.

Two days ago, we met up with my stepmom and her fiancé with whom we will spend the next several  days exploring the city. We’ve had a ball so far on the mainland (if you can call it a mainland), but managed to get away for the day to the island of Murano known for its glass art.  Just a 35 minute ferry ride away, Murano (and its neighbouring island of Burano, known for its lace-making) is a welcomed escape from the city, providing a quiet few streets filled will shops selling every type of glass art imaginable: vases, jewellery, sculpture, hair clips, chandeliers, wine stoppers, and endless delicate tchotchkes.  I’ve always been a fan of separating art mediums into different towns/streets/etc., so that one can compare and contrast without being overstimulated by a painting, or a carving, or something else to offset the beauty of the craft itself.  Murano provided such a separation.  The island seems to gather its mood from the medium – one has to be careful and gentle when walking around glass studios as violent sneezes or wayward backpacks can cost you thousands.  I received a well-deserved eye roll from Steve, the carrier of the backpack, when I cautioned him one or two times, “careful, hon…glass houses.”  But Murano is not just for the tourist with an eye on a beautiful (or tacky, in many cases) piece of art almost impossible to transport.  I was astonished by the number of elementary-aged kiddos on a school trip who seemed to be relatively successful in controlling their pre-adolescent limbs.  With the glass-blowing demonstrations and gelatorias, I can imagine the small town being a great place for the kids to get a sense for a different art medium.  If I were the teacher, however, I’d suggest on leaving the oversized school bags behind and sticking to the window-shopping. 

In preparation for our trip to Venice, Steve and I have been toting around The City of Fallen Angels by John Berendt (same author as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).  In the nonfiction book, he details a dramatic story of one master glass blower whose son copyrighted his name in order to preserve his designs and open up a separate store to sell his father without asking.  Scandal!  There was quite a blow out between the family and the son and when the book was written in 2005, the family had not spoken for years.  We managed to locate the son’s store, but not the father’s – the work, however scandalous, was stunning and worth the hunt. 

Unfortunately for us, the majority of the studios asked for no photos to be taken, but we managed to capture a few of the day’s outing and the island itself…

We each walked away with some glass goodies and a fun adventure, though sadly, not enough time to head to the sister island of Burano, known for her lace-making.  As mentioned earlier, one of our traveling companions was able to put the day’s events into lovelier words than I could for which I am grateful and happy to share here:

Murano Island
Arched bridges of ochre punctuate the ancient canals
Where shoppers wander this island mall
In search of what’s hidden within fine glass.
What do we find to take home?
-Lama Surya Das

We’ve still 3 more days to go in this lovely city, staring out of our two-way mirrored studio apartment over breakfast at the self-examining passers-by (examples below of our daily spectacle), wandering for hours with family in and out of the streets and churches and museums and shops and cafés, and shaking our heads in disbelief that we have less than 3 weeks now before we touch down again in North America.  Fortunately, Venice has its fair share of North American tourists, so we’re being eased back into recognizing the accents (some may not find that a great thing, but I’m sure enjoying practicing my Southern, Midwestern, Tri-state area, and Canadian accents again – much to Steve’s chagrin).  This has been quite the trip of a lifetime, Venice being no exception to that feeling.  We’re not leaving yet, though, so more to come presto (soon) as we travel south through the delicious and exotic Italian countryside and cities – being careful of and intrigued, of course, by the glass houses along the way.   

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The wine, the cheese, the dress?

As Laura's eloquent post described, the south west of France is a place known for its earthy wines, its very strong cheeses, and its local armagnac (thanks for the tasting, uncle Peter!). But what did we spend a long morning doing last week in this land of culinary delights? Searching out a place where we could finally find out the answer to that age old question - what was Kate's dress going to look like? Enter Bassoues, a tiny (tiny) town about 30 mins away with a very nice cable package. Mission accomplished.

After a few discussions with the locals about 1) how much weight Kate lost, 2) how William needs to sit up straight, 3) how pretty Kate's dress was, we decided to stick around for lunch. In many small towns in this area, there will be one or two places that cater to the local lunch crowd. And the French do not mess about with their lunch. There are many courses, there is always wine, and in fact, most businesses shut down between noon and two or three to make sure no one is deprived of this particularly civilized repast.

We ordered the traditional menu du jour, which comes with a potage (soup with veggies and whatever else gets thrown in), a little salad with some type of meat on the side, a steak and fries, and ice cream for dessert. Oh, and the wine is included.

The restaraunt. 
The wine.

 After the wine.

This is the face of a man very pleased with his prune Armangac vanilla ice cream. (can't fix the orientation on this photo for some reason...)

All in all, we probably spent 3 hours over lunch, chatting with the woman and her two sons who own and run the restaraunt and watching life in this small town go by. Being in the countryside, spending time in our local town, Tillac, and Bassoues has reminded me of the summer than Sarah and I spent living on Hornby Island, which is about 5 hours, three ferries, and a world away from life in Vancouver. There are some universally wonderful things about living in small towns and it has rekindled the off again/on again thought that living on Bowen Island (just outside of Vancouver) sounds like a pretty wonderful thing. Here is the list that Sarah and I came up with about our favorite things about small towns. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

1) Becoming a local on your second visit. We enjoyed our lunch so much that we ended up going back five days later to do it all again. We got a royal welcome (pardon the pun) from the mother and sons who run the restaurant, and spent another three hours visiting and watching the locals pour in and out of the little town square for lunch. A similar thing happened this morning when we stopped in to get eggs in the tiny shop in town only to discover we'd forgotten money. "Pas un probleme" the shopkeeper said, letting us know we could come back the next day to pay when we got our bread and croissants.

2) The sounds. Here's what I can hear right now - Sarah winding a ball of yarn, a frog croaking in the patch of woods, the murmor of the pipes above my head. The lack of cars, horns, and general busyness makes all of these sounds that are usually in the background of city life come popping out like the pages of a 3D picture book. 

3) Having the choice made for you. We need to go to the Post Office - well there's only one in town so I guess we'll be stopping there. Shopping? Well it's Thursday and the only market on today is in Mielan. For dinner? There's only two places open in town, so that should be easy. Entertainment? On Hornby we used to wait all week for Saturday pizza night at the bakery and the movie being shown in the town hall. Having limited options sometimes has the opposite effect of what you would expect. It doesn't feel limiting, it makes you appreciate and revel in the options available to you.

Don't get me wrong, there are wonderful, exciting things about living in a big city and as the calendar flips to May we've found ourselves yearning more and more for home. But here's hoping a long visit to Bassoues, Tillac, or Hornby Island is never too far around the corner.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

When in le Sud-Ouest...

Hello readers!  Thanks for your patience between blog posts.  My aunt Laura agreed to be our guest blogger, so here are some of her thoughts on the past week we've had in France.  What a week it's been!
Having spent the last few months experiencing much of the world through the eyes of Sarah and Steve, it was  great to have the opportunity to welcome them into our little corner of France and share this European stop. Actually, what was even nicer was to arrive after a 14 hour trip from London to find that Sarah and Steve were already there - flowers already in a vase on the table and provisions in the fridge.  This is truly the way to have house guests!

In fact they had arrived a couple of days earlier and already had the lay of the land.  Bread from the local shop, cheese on the board, sun loungers on the terrace, wine in the fridge, olives in bowls, and a sense of calm that comes with this part of the world - the essentials of life in France.

Just to help to locate you, we are in the Gers, known to many as the "sud-ouest" or midi-Pyrenees. That very beautiful part of France famous for sunflowers, foie gras, rolling countryside and the tour de France. And our escape from the real world.  It was interesting to have the chance to share this with Sarah & Steve.

This week was meant to be the vacation in the middle of the trip, a rest from travel, familiarity amongst new experiences, and long days of sunshine and family time.  So we did our best.  We being, myself, Peter (my husband - the uncle), Rachel (our daughter - the cousin) and Rowan (the adoptive daughter - and adoptive cousin who often comes as part of the family deal). Our plan was to do very little but enjoy each other, hear stories of  S & S's travels and relax.  And we did all that in great measure.  We did try to take in a few sights - markets, walled medieval villages, the odd cafe (or 2 or 3 or 4), and an art gallery or two.  But mostly, we just enjoyed time with each other, sitting for hours over lunch on the terrace, laughing at very bad jokes, and  sharing long dinners that lasted long into the evening.

We were so pleased to be able to introduce Sarah and Steve to this part of the world, or more to the point, the way of life here in this part of the world.  A way of life that includes the daily walk to the village shop for the morning's croissant and baguette and many hours in cafes in local villages.  Sarah took to this quite naturally as it seems to parallel life in Vancouver - but in French, a language in which she seems quite adept.  Steve, though always game to try, specialises in nodding amiably and hoping that no one actually asks him any questions, having said that, his "un oragena s'il vous plait" has been captivating locals across the region.

Sarah practiced her communication skills at the local market.  Vic en Bigorre has a wonderful market and as planning and choosing menus is key to life here, we enjoyed choosing and bargaining for everything from oysters to olives and kilo upon kilo of cheese. Of course we managed to make new friends at the market and the fish seller took a particular liking to Sarah and suggested that she meet his son, the IT manager currently living in Montreal (and apparently doing very well).  Sadly Sarah refused his email address, but made off with free samples of prawns and extra shellfish thrown in for good measure. I think she enjoyed the market.

A local rugby match was the highlight of the week: Marciac (our team) v. Rabestens.  We arrived just as the match began and took our place in the stands, beers in hand, already joining our compatriots singing allez, allez, allez.  Sadly, they didn't do too much allez-ing as our team was dreadfully out-classed.  Though keen, the skills of our slightly oversized farmboys didn't quite equal our enthusiasm.  A fight on the pitch added to the excitement, but sadly, there was no denying our defeat at 39 to 3.  Though tempted, we decided to pass up the 'celebration' paella in the village as the defeat was just a bit too much to bear.

As anyone who has ever visited us in France can attest, a bit of work in the house or garden is always part of the deal, and this time was no exception. I am not sure why this happens and we were really hoping that this time would be an exception and we might be able to just relax the whole time we were here.  But no,  the prior removal of a 40ft x 40ft laurel tree gave us a chance for a fabulous bonfire and we were so pleased to have the extra hands to move tons of laurel and to help fan the fire - a fire that smoldered for 2 days and left us all smelling of smoke.  A bounce on the trampoline seemed to be the only thing that would remove the smell - or so Sarah and Steve thought.

We did manage a day's outing to Bordeaux, one of our favourite cities in France.  It is a bit of a drive from the house, but we managed it, in convoy, possibly breaking the speed record for a Berlingo van (our somewhat silly local car).  A great day though as Bordeaux, a world heritage site, is simply stunning and we did our best to see much of the city's beautifully restored architecture, as well as new playful fountains and the fantastic contemporary art gallery.  We were lucky to happen upon a massive flea market and I practically had to be restrained from purchasing massive sofas, chandeliers and garden benches.  Rachel and Rowan took quite a shine to a stuffed and mounted Rhino, though we really didn't think that it would quite fit with the decor of our house.  The evening ended with a magnificent dinner in a converted chapel where Steve sampled his first foie gras and seemed completely overwhelmed by the lamb.  Rachel and I opted for the vegetarian menu (quite a rarety in France) which was delicious.  Though we were a bit surprised by the amuse bouche - strawberry and asparagus mousse and even more surprised by the dessert - strawberry and asparagus mousse.  Hmmm.  But we all ate well.  Perhaps too well, so Sarah and I decided that a long hike through the countryside was definitely needed the next morning.

We are sorry to be leaving tomorrow morning, but we have a wedding to go to back in London and Kate and Will might miss us if we don't get back.  Sarah and Steve are remaining a few more days and will hopefully continue to enjoy the sud-ouest.

Thanks, Laura, for the great post!  Back to our regularly scheduled program and adventures soon.