Sunday, January 6, 2008

The 12 Days of Christmas: The Summary

So here we are on the last of the 12 days of Christmas. What an amazing way to wait for the Epiphany to the world: both seeing the world, following the history of Christianity, and being amazed and filled with wonder at the history of our world. Yesterday was filled with (at LEAST) 11 hours flying. It was actually about 15 hours in the air and almost 11 hours of layover/wait time in airports. Today was spent resting and recovering in a very busy house.

You can sing along if you like, but here is my version of the 12 days of Christmas:

"On the days of vacation, my Europe trip gave to me...

1 Warm winter coat
2 Delayed Flights
3 Different Tube Lines
4 Tour Stops
5 Ali Isms
6 Eiffel Keychains
7 Trains a-Passing
8 Train Hours Resting
9 Pieces Buying
10 Monuments "Rome-ing"
11 Hours Flying
12 Hours Resting"

There is so much involved in the trip and a real debt of gratitude for both the opportunity to go and to Michelle B. who brainstormed and planned the whole thing. Wonderful and Amazing are the words I'm left with.

May the year be filled with many more epiphanies.

Friday, January 4, 2008

10 Monuments Rome-ing

4 January 2008

So today we "attacked" Rome. It was an intense blast of amazing monuments, historical sights, political commentary, miles and miles of walking, and centuries of history. Here's the rundown of the whole day.

We met up with our guide outside the walls of Vatican City. We walked through the Vatican Museum first. The art work was amazing and it houses over 1/2 of the worlds’ pieces of art. We walked through a room with some of the oldest existing tapestries. The room was air and light controlled because of the fragile nature of these pieces. One of the adults in our group decided that it would be OK to touch one. Obviously, just because someone is an adult, doesn't mean they have grown up.

Our next stop was the Sistine Chapel. The experience of awe was similar to the time in the St. Frances Basilica. Everyone was walking through from the altar towards the back of the church looking up. About 1/2 way down the sanctuary, there was a step that they had put a ramp on. I figured, if this were in the US, there would be big red letters painted across the ceiling of the beautiful Michelangelo ceiling that would say, "Caution: Please watch your step."

Next monument was the St. Peter's Basilica. The church is the largest in the world, but designed to appear 1/3 smaller than it is through optical illusions. The goal is to not overwhelm the occupants and make them feel insignificant. I could have spent a whole day in any of these places.

After lunch, we went to the Coliseum. Our guide for the day, Paula, was wonderful and knowledgeable. She had a great blend of commentary, history, and anecdote to keep the day interesting. One of the things she mentioned was that the Coliseum was not used by Nero to kill the Christians. They know this because 15 years ago they were able to date the Coliseum building to 7 years after Nero. The Christians were fed to the lions in Circus Maximus.

We had huge amounts of walking around the city and driving around in the tour bus. We met up at the Plaza Colonnade after seeing Palentine Hill, the National Monument, Hadrian's Arch, and the Pantheon. After dinner we all went to throw our leftover coins into Trevi Fountain. The thought is that if you throw 1 coin, you will come back to Rome, 2 coins, you will find love in Rome, 3 coins- you will marry in Rome.

On our evening bus tour before heading back to the hotel we saw the Castel Sant’ Angelo that is the "secret stronghold" for the Pope, according to Dan Brown and fact, however the secret tunnel is an over the road walkway.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

9 (ceramic) pieces buying

3 January 2008

We took off this morning on our coach from Florence to Rome. As we headed out of town, we stopped at an overlook for the city. We went out to have a group picture and it was snowing. Fortunately, it stopped later, but it was a beautiful sight.

We headed to Assisi first. Near the city, we stopped at a ceramics factory that produces pottery in the style of the region. It was a fun pottery shop, so I stocked up on some souvenirs and gifts. 9 pieces of pottery will be making the journey back with me. Fortunately, they are much smaller than the pieces from Vietnam:-)

We headed into Assisi to see the Basilica of St. Frances. Beautiful, peaceful, spiritual, refreshing. Many of the adults in our group commented on how peaceful it was. It was frustrating that some people in the sanctuaries and crypt couldn't follow the silence rule or avoid taking pictures, but overall it was a great experience.

We got into Rome tonight and will have a packed day tomorrow that may make me want to come back. Tomorrow will be our Roman Holiday. Ciao.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

8 train hours resting

2 January 2008

We took the night train out of Paris last night and went to Florence. We were assigned cars by sixes. Some of us were assigned by fours because we didn't have the whole sleeping cabin. I was in cabin with one of the moms, a co-worker, and our tour director. We ended up sharing with an Italian couple from Florence. They were very nice and the man was tall, so he helped up put all our luggage up high so we would have room to sleep later.

The car looked like the train car in the Harry Potter movies from the Hogwart's Express. When it was time for bed the back of the seat came forward and became the middle bunk. The seat dropped to the floor and became the bottom bunk. The top bunk had been there all along. I was surprised by how much room there was between and I was pretty comfortable. We were asleep around 10pm because we were all so tired from the night before. I woke occasionally, but overall had a wonderful night and was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. We were awakened at 6am to get off the train and I finally felt rested enough to awake refreshed at my normal waking time.

We arrived in Florence a bit after 7am and took a bus into the town for the day. We had breakfast at a local restaurant and then had a walking tour of the city. After lunch, 5 of us headed to the Duomo to climb the 463 stairs to the top. This is the 4th largest cathedral in the world and the 3rd highest dome. (We saw #2-St. Paul's in London-and will see #1 in Rome-St. Peter's.) The other large cathedral is in Milan and I have seen that also.

The climb was hard and narrow, but worth EVERY step. Amazing view and being in the dome, inches from the artwork was wonderful. Later in the afternoon we went to the museum where the David, by Michelangelo is. We had seen a replica in the square, but seeing the original under a dome with unfinished sculptures by Mike in the hallway leading up to it was even more amazing.

In the evening, we went to a Renaissance Dinner Theatre and had a wonderful meal. My favorite part was the asparagus risotto and watching the kids get pulled up to participate in some of the jester's antics.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

7 Trains a-passing...

1 January 2008

With a beginning like this, I don't know where the year will go. For New Year's Eve, I went out for a Feast of St. Sylvestre meal. (du reveillion de Saint Sylvestre.) We had several choices and they had an English "translation" of the menu for which they apologized as they handed it out. I chose "Rollers with salmon, lawyer, and grapefruit" for my starter. Turns out they translated "avocat" as "advocat", so an avocado became a "lawyer." I wasn't really disappointed that it WASN'T lawyer, but I did wonder what it would taste like:-) I also had "Gamba with the Provence One" (Grilled prawns) and "burned cream" (Crème brulee) for dessert.

After dinner we all headed to the Champs Elysees to ring in the New Year. We were within a 100 yards of the Arc de Triumphe and it was crazy. Wall to wall people and still they were shooting off personal fireworks in the street. There was no "event" at midnight, so it kind of rolled in as people's personal watches changed.

When we were done, John and Joke offered to take me to one of the metro stations. They plan was to get on one that would be a direct line for me and they would transfer. I was a bit nervous about changing trains and on the way to the celebration, the trains were PACKED and there was a lot of shoving and pushing one's way through. We walked away from the city central in order to get on a train that would be ahead of the crowds getting on. When we go to the metro station called Argentine there was a train there. John asked the conductor if I could take it to my stop and he said no, I would need to transfer at St. Michel. I had done this with my tour group and I was reasonably certain that I could do it, even with my lack of language. It was definitely a moment of switching plans in an attempt to be flexible that should have SCREAMED don't change to plan B. Joke asked if I wanted them to come along, but I didn't want it to seem like I couldn't handle it.

So at 12:30 am, I am heading back into the city. This train goes right by the Eiffel Tour stop. The train has been fairly empty and calm until that point. Soon there was a platform filled with thousands of folks waiting to get on and they did. I couldn't get up, but fortunately I had a few stops to go before I got off and headed into one of the longest nights of my life!

What follows now is a timeline and thought process, as best I can re-create it that involves the 7 trains a-passing.

12:40ish a.m.-Arrive in St. Michel's station and transfer with the masses down to the B4 line which will stop in Massy-Palalseau. We've been taught how to do this, so we can take it on our own in an emergency. One of the things to know is that the stations where the train will actually STOP are lit up on the board. I get to the platform and look. Masay-Palalseau is not lit. I wait (train 1 goes by) and when it pulls out, I look at the board that is now all lit up. I'm thrilled. 1 train from home, however, about 1 minute before the arrival, most of the lights go out, including M-P. This happens 3 times total. I'm not sure how many more times this will happen, so I go with plan C and decide to go back up to line C and take the one that ends at the same station.

1:30am head up to the C line. (The interesting thing with this unfortunate decision is that the group I was traveling with arrived at St. Michel station around that time and then headed to the platform that I was just leaving.) I got up to the C platform and waited while 2 trains eventually passed that were not stopping at my stop. I decided to go with plan D. I look on the map and find a station that is near my end goal, so I could just wait there for the next train or take a cab home. I get on a train and head out toward Les Ardoines.

2:00am- I take the train, realizing as we stop at stations that the other station was significantly larger. I'm also remembering my commitment/ belief that you should stay with your original plan, but that (of course) is too late.

2:12 am ish- Land on the platform in Les Ardoines. Wait for the next train. See the monitor and realize it doesn't go the way I want it to.

2:21am- next train arrives and, as it pulls out the next screen comes up. Also not an option. I quickly get the attention of a couple who is just leaving the track. I ask if there is a place to get a taxi. The woman tells me no, but explains that I should take the next train to Choisy Le Roi at 2:41am because they will have cabs.

2:38am- the screen changes the status to "supprime." I don't know what this is, but when the train doesn't come and then the screen goes black, I realize I'm in serious trouble. I take the stairs up and over the tracks and head down the other side. As I get to the other side, I think for a moment that I am locked in, but then I find an exit. In the parking lot is a night club. I decide to walk there and ask if someone can help me call a taxi. Before I walk over, I call John and Joke to tell them were I am or if they can send a cab to me. I call and get the voicemail and realize I may be in even more trouble. I do leave a message about where I am, just in case.

2:50am As I approach the club, I ask the first intoxicated man outside the door if he speaks English and if he can help me get a taxi. I get a VERY blank stare and no help so I went on to the next person who looked to me like he could be the bouncer. I asked if he spoke English. I used my phrase sheet to say that I needed a taxi. I asked if he could call. Finally, he held up his hand to me indicating that I should stay there and then went inside. He came back out and motioned for me to come in and told me to go to the bar. I asked the bartender if he spoke English, I asked for a taxi, I made the motion for a phone. The bartender was delivering drinks to a crowded room filled to the gills with loud music and North African inhabitants. He finally indicated for me to go to the end of the bar. I walked down and waited. Then he indicated I should go outside and pointed toward the road. I understood him to mean that I should go there to wait for a taxi or that he would call me one. As I walked to the road, I saw a taxi drive by. I tried to signal it, but was too late. I figured since I saw a taxi and this is where he told me to go, this was a hopeful sign. I stood and waited for the next taxi to come so I could flag it down.

3:15am- I am now cold and still outside. A young Muslim woman comes out of the club to use the pay phone that I now realize is near me. I wait until she is done and convince her to call information and then call me a taxi. It takes her 3 phone calls, 2 wrong numbers, calling information back and yelling at them, talking to the taxi company, then telling me that they will be here in 10 minutes. I had shown her the LIFESAVING card with the address of our hotel on it and she had communicated that to the company also. Great. Now I just have to wait for the cab, but I am starting to feel hopeful. There are several men coming in and out of the club. They are using the grass near me to relieve themselves and occasionally they try to talk to me. I find out they are from North Africa, they now live there, do I want a drink?, do I want to go with them, etc.

3:40am-No cab. I now decide to try the hotel to ask them to send a cab to me. I don't have many minutes left on my cell phone. I tell the hotel man that I am a guest in the hotel and spell the name of the station that I am at. He can't recognize my pronunciation. I realize I've spelled it wrong. I respell. I ask him to call me a cab and he says he'll try, but it's New Year's Eve and he's not hopeful.

3:45am-I am very tired, stressed, cold, etc. and I realize that it is time to call for help from someone who will care that I am missing. I call back to the hotel and ask for Randy and Claine's room. I don't want to bother Michelle because she has had to be responsible for all the kids. I call and ask for their room, explaining that I only have a few minutes left on my cell phone. The hotel man is trying to take my number and at the same time saying Randy's name to look him up. Randy gets on the phone immediately. I tell him that I only have a couple minutes of talk time. I tell him to write down the name of the station and that I have been there for a long time. I ask him to get a cab and have either he or Claine come get me. I hang up and wait.

4:00am- There is an explosion of screaming and yelling. There are bottles being broken. There are about 20 men fighting in the parking lot outside the nightclub. My goal...remain inconspicuous. I'm staying by the road and not looking toward the commotion, but still keeping an eye on it. Eventually, it settles down and most of them go back inside.

4:15am-a man from the club approaches me. He wants to know where I'm from. I'm not really trying to be overly polite. He offers to buy me a drink inside. I tell him that I have a friend on the way and that I'm waiting for him. Inside, I'm convincing myself that it would take just as long for them to find a taxi on New Year's morning as me. The man continues to talk to me, I continue to answer in the most "I don't want to keep talking to you voice" that I can. Eventually, he goes back to his friends and, while I couldn't understand or hear, my impression was that he lost the dare by not getting me to come inside.

4:35am- I see a taxi approach that slows at the train station parking lot. I see the door open and Randii get out. I don't know if I've ever been that glad to see someone. Michelle and Barbara are in the back seat and, while I'm chagrinned that there are 3 people on the errand to pick my up, I don't actually care at that point anymore!!! On our way back to our hotel, I heard about their night. They actually didn't get back to the hotel until 3:30am, so I couldn't have called them much earlier. They had similar train issues.

5:15am- back in the hotel room. I slept until 9:30 b/c we were meeting at 10:15 to head into Paris for the day.

In Paris, some of the kids went ice skating, some went shopping, and some of us had a nice lunch. We all met up to head back and get ready to catch the night train to Florence. Definitely a New Year's to remember.