Monday, April 29, 2013

Tanti auguri a me!

My birthday is a pretty big deal. Make that a very big deal. I might start the birthday countdown on January 1. And when I say 'I might'...I mean 'I do.' I can't help it. Growing up, my mom always made a big deal about the birthdays around our house. We would wake up in the morning and the kitchen would be decorated with streamers, balloons, and signs. She would meet us at school at lunch time and we could pick where we'd go to lunch. For dinner, we could either go out to eat or she would make us our favorite meal followed by the dessert of our choosing. Big deal. And that's stuck with me throughout adulthood. No matter how old I get, 3...., I still love my birthday. This year was no exception.

I awoke, surprisingly, somewhat early on my big day. April 16, just so you know or want to mark you calendars. I decided that a nice walk/run would be a good way to start my day considering that I awoke in a funky kind of mood...not terribly happy, but not really sad or whatever. Funky. I opened my parents' card and one of their gifts--I rationed them out throughout the day. My mom had written that she was praying that the Lord would bless me with a small reminder of how much He loves me. Cheering me up just enough to get going, I headed out into the gorgeous Rome day, bopping along with my iPod. Towards the end of my time, my phone beeped with a text from my friend Laura. She was in my neighborhood and did I want to grab a birthday coffee with her, she asked. Heck yes! I didn't even care that I looked and smelled like...ehhh. I was just so thankful because I knew this was God's "Happy birthday, Kristen" gift. On top of that, the corner bar had started stocking cold coffee since the weather had turned. What a great present! (And let's not forget the double-cheek kiss that I received from Daniele, my favorite barista) I was so blessed to start my birthday with a friend who has been a true gift from God, drinking my favorite beverage, eating a yummy cornetto, in my favorite city.

Arriving home, I showered real quick, got dressed (of course, I put a little more effort into it seeing as it was my special day), and went into the kitchen where I was greeted by a gorgeous bouquet of yellow tulips (my faves!!!) and lovely card made by my students. Awww!! I felt so incredibly loved!

After this discovery, I went and watched  my students' "perform" their final oral exam for Italian class--skits. I love watching their skits because not only are they really creative, but they're also hilarious! Following the skits, Sean, Joy, and I made our way back to the corner bar for my second cup of coffee. Why? Because one of the things I want to do before I leave is have one of the baristas let me use the espresso machine to make coffee. What better day to try and get them do this than my birthday? Sadly, though, I failed. Daniele explained the process to me, but didn't even offer to let me get behind the machine. I will try again!

I spent the rest of the early afternoon with my RA, John, in our final one-on-one. We both wanted to try pizza from Pizzarium, said to be Rome's best pizza, so we decided to wait for his last meeting with me for the honor. The pizza was very good, the company better, and again, what a way to spend my birthday!

Later on that afternoon, I was called into the kitchen because John needed "to talk to me". Upon entering, my students, Sean, and Joy began to sing "Happy Birthday" to me. The buffet was lined with delicious treats that Joy had made for me and I was presented with my birthday gift--a pedicure! Couldn't ask for a better gift!! Of course, we then followed up the yummy treats and gift with a dance party. On the terrace. LOVE it! No birthday is complete without a spontaneous and random dance party.

Leaving the students behind, Sean, Joy, and I went out to dinner to celebrate at an adult-only time. Woo hoo! We ended up going to a restaurant recommended by Laura not far from the Pantheon. We were not disappointed. Everything was incredible! We started with fabulous breads, an artichoke tart, then I had the blueberry risotto (yes, blueberry. It was AMAZING. Tart and tangy, but so flavorful), and finished it up with my favorite--creme brulee. The restaurant itself was cute and quaint and I couldn't have asked for a better place to have my birthday.

All in all, it was an incredible day. I felt so loved and just...loved. My favorite gift, though, was from my niece, Sophie. My sister and bro-in-law made a video of her attempting to sing to me. Instead, she distracted herself every time she began. Best.Gift.Ever.

Of course, my birthday is never relegated to one day....psht, one day is for amateurs. I celebrated again on Thursday night with Laura who drove us out to Castel Gandolfo (the little town outside of Rome where the Pope 'summers') so that we could eat alongside the beautiful lake. Good food, fantastic fellowship, and gorgeous scenery just capped off the celebrations.

Yes, I had a fantastic birthday. Yes, I heard from the many people in my life who took time out of their busy lives to show that they care, but really...what I am taking from April 16, 2013 is how lavishly the Lord pours out His love upon us. He never does things by half. He's an all in or nothing kind of God. And He showed His love for me over and over and over again. I am blessed and am thankful for His reminders.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ein wochenende zwischen schlössern und bergen ... Deutschland

I have never had any desire to see any of Germany's major cities. From what I've been told, they're cold and reminiscent of the Communist/Fascist reign of the 1930s-80s. That didn't appeal to me at all. No, I wanted small town Germany where I could see gorgeous mountains, see cows in a field with bells around their necks, hear men yodeling, fraulein in their dresses serving beer, cuckoo clocks, and tuba players wearing hats with feathers in them. This was the Germany I wanted to see. Surely, I'd see all of this and more in Bavaria, right? Ha!! What in the world was I thinking?!

I arrived in Memmingen on a Friday morning with a student, Jessica, who'd come along for the adventure. We would travel by rental car south to the small town of Fussen so that we could visit the "Disney" castles, Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau on Saturday. We had a quick something to eat (I was able to get a BAGEL!!!) in the airport and then picked up our little Hyundai rental. I'm a good driver, but after not driving for 3 months and seeing how people in Italy drive, I'm not gonna lie and tell you I wasn't nervous. Cause I was. I had this fear that they would drive like maniacs and I wouldn't be able to navigate. I was reminded before I left that I was going to Germany, home of all things orderly in Europe. My mind was somewhat at ease. Still, I speak no German...nichts. Ergo, signage intimidated me a bit. Thankfully, I'd "upgraded" and got the which I am eternally grateful! All I had to do was take care of the car and Leiseil, our name for our GPS, would take care of the rest. 

Let me pause here for a moment and tell you that everyone who knew I was renting a car in Germany asked me this question: are you going to drive on the autobahn? To which I patently answered: are you nuts!? Why would I want to drive on a freeway with no speed limits and crazy people in a foreign country? I don't even like driving through L.A. Oh, how naive I was. It wasn't until I was 20 minutes into our 40 minute drive did I realize that all of Germany's highways are considered...the autobahn. Cars were whizzing past me so fast that I could feel the vibrations from the wind as they zoomed on by. And again, I'm not gonna lie....but I punched the gas and went. Well, I went as fast as my Hyundai would take us. It was fun. No speed limit? Heck yes.  And it wasn't just the no speed limit thing that was so was the scenery. I have never in my life seen anything like the scene outside of our windows. Flat, green pastures suddenly gave way to majestic white-capped mountains. They were breathtaking and Jessica and I kept exclaiming "It's soooo beautiful!!" 

Arriving in Fussen, we were able to locate our hostel quickly, drop off our bags, and explore the town. That took us all of...45 minutes. No joke. Fussen isn't very big and there's not a whole lot going on, but what it does have is charm and character. It was cute and quaint with lots of architectural detailing on its buildings and houses. Precious!! We wandered through its streets and then spent a lot of time sitting on a bench staring out at the river when finally...the sun poked its way out from behind the clouds and Fussen went from pretty to...awe-inspiring. The Bavarian Alps jutted up from the ground, stretching towards the heavens. Their peaks were snow covered and it almost hurt to look at them when the sun was shining directly on them. What impressed me the most though, was the feeling that they were an accurate representation of God's grandeur...His majesty...His awesome nature. 

     On Saturday, Jessica and I visited the most beautiful castles I have ever seen. They were so incredibly picturesque and fairy tale-like that I could envision Beauty and the Beast or some other tale set there. There are two castles per ticket and you must take a guided tour in order to get into the castle. First, you must go thru Hohenschwangau castle before you can go on to "Mad" King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle. I was thoroughly impressed me, though was the history of the castles. Who knew that Ludwig only lived 100+ days in Neuschwanstein before being declared insane, being committed, and then found dead in a lake next door to the asylum the day after. Fascinating!! I can't begin to describe the I'll just post pics...


LOVED it! Followed up our castle adventures with some wiener schnitzel, German potato salad, and of course, strudel. Perfect!

We spent the rest of our weekend exploring an Austrian town even smaller and more dead than Fussen. It was hard for two American women to understand how a town closes its doors...and I mean ALL of its doors before 1:00 pm. Does nobody want to make any money? This lead to many laughs...and making our own fun.

All in all, it was a great weekend and a fabulous introduction to Germany. No, I didn't see half of what I wanted to see (seriously!? Was it too much to ask for one lousy tuba player?!) I want to go back and explore more of this beautiful country. After all, part of my family history traces its roots back to Deutschland. I want to know more about my "people"; my "homeland." 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Una passeggiata

There are times when I find myself in another city in Italy or another country besides Italy when I stop and ask myself: is this my life? Sometimes, it seems so surreal to me that I live in Rome, in Italy, in Europe, that I honestly have to stop for a moment in order to truly allow that truth to soak in because it seems so overwhelmingly mind-blowing to me. And then there are days when I do something rather ordinary in Rome, but because I live here, live in Rome, it becomes somewhat extraordinary. 

As I have said before, the Italians love their bus strikes. To this day, I still don't know what or why it is that they are striking. Nor do I know what the outcome of the strike is. And it seems to me that these strikes just happen to occur on the most inconvenient of days for me. So, on what was a gorgeous Friday, a day when the sun was finally shining brilliantly, spring was in the air, and a day when almost all of my students were going to be out of town in order that I could head out of Rome to a little town 40 minutes away---there was a strike. Of course. Sean, Joy, and I were left wondering what to do on a day when we didn't want to find ourselves inside the convent. We decided to go for a walk, una passeggiata, and discover our neighborhood. And thus became one of my favorite days in Rome. 

I love my neighborhood, as I've said many times before. It's just so...Roman. It's not's real...and it's beautiful. There are pockets of beautiful villas, lush greenery, vivacious parks, and wonderful people sprinkled throughout the apartment buildings, shops, and car parks. And I love to explore it, to find new and hidden treasures. 

We set off first towards our favorite chocolate shop for a sweet treat after popping into the corner bar for a coffee made by my favorite barista--Daniele. It seemed like everyone was out as we walked towards Leonidas---and they probably were considering that they couldn't get anywhere thanks to the strike. We purchased our chocolates and continued on our way. We strolled through side streets, and up hills, until we reached a park full of 'nonnas' and 'nonnos' with their grandchildren (who, of course, despite the hot sun and warm temperatures were still decked out in their winter gear of coat, scarf, hat, and boots). Across from the park is a fresh food market. So, we crossed through the park and picked up some supplies for an impromptu picnic, just the necessities---salami, prosciutto, cheese, bread, olives, roasted eggplant, pickled artichokes, apples, and wine. We, then, found a bench in the park, ate, basked in the sun, and soaked up the culture as we watched the families and older Italian men gather to talk about life and all that was going on in the world.

And it was then that that feeling of absolute awe struck me. This is my life. I live in Rome, Italy. I am doing something seemingly innocuous, but at the same time...something that most people will never get to experience. And it was then that I, once again, thanked the Lord for the opportunity that He's given me to live out my dream. It was a slice of heaven here on Earth and I breathed it in deeply, letting it sink into me, and I tucked it away so that on those days when I miss home, when Rome and Italy frustrate me or when I've finally left this place and am once again residing Stateside, I can pull it out, look at it, and remember why it is that I love this place, why it is that I am here, and be thankful once again for all that I have been blessed to experience.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Paris: Part deux of....part deux

So much to see!! My second day in Paris was another jam-packed, sight-seeing, city-experiencing day o' awesomeness. 

I started my day as everyone should start at least one day of their life: with a warm croissant and a cafe au lait. Say what you want about France, French people, and French food...but it is a country, a people who know their pastries. My version of food heaven would be thus: pasta from Italy, pastries from France, and chocolate from Belgium. Heck yes. But I digress. After I finished my breakfast I decided to head out to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. A cemetery?, you ask. Yes, a cemetery.

The Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the final resting place for many famous people and has some lovely grave markers. Some of the more famous people interred at the cemetery include: the Doors' frontman Jim Morrison, French vocalist Edith Piaf, opera diva Maria Callas, French novelist Colette, Polish composer Frederic Chopin, Irish novelist Oscar Wilde, American author Gertrude Stein, and German painter Max Ernst. The cemetery also has several moving memorials to those who perished in Nazi concentration camps and those who joined in the resistance movement.

     Far left: An example of the many headstones. Right: Jim Morrison's grave..still so many people who seem to mourn his loss.

 Following Rick Steves' tour, I wound my way through the headstones seeking out people whose work I'd read in school, saw in museums, or listened to on the radio. The day was once again gray and cold. The cemetery is huge, sitting on 110 acres. And so, it was eerily quiet. Occasionally I would come across another tourist, but for the most part it felt like I was the only one there. Every now and again I would hear a crow call and goosebumps would promptly pop up all over my skin as my overactive imagination put me in the middle of a horror movie where I was the star and somehow locked inside one of the many crypts trying to find my way out. Shudder.

Finally leaving the dead to return to the land of the living, I headed towards the former Bohemian haven of Montmartre. Anyone who has seen the movie Moulin Rouge is somewhat familiar with the eclectic neighborhood. Back in its peak it was home to such famous artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Dali, Picasso, Van Gogh, Modigliani, and Monet to name a few. Once again, I turned to my good pal, Rick Steves, for his guidance as I followed his Montmartre walk which took me from Sacré Cœur to Moulin Rouge and everything in between. I saw where Picasso painted, where Renoir lived, ate onion soup, strolled past Toulouse-Lautrec's haunts, passed by La Maison Rose, found myself in front of Le Chat noir cabaret, and strolling past a the last remaining vineyard within Paris. I loved Montmarte. It's as if its energy gave something to the artists who'd resided there in the past and those who reside there now. 

A view of Sacré Cœur              La Maison Rose                                      Parisian vineyard

One can never see too much art whilst in Paris, so of course my next stop was at the Musee d'Orsay. Again, I love me some Impressionism...couldn't wait to take my time through the museum. I saw some incredible art by Monet (I can't say enough about how much I love his work!), Van Gogh, Cezanne, and others. The Orsay is housed in an old train station and is beautiful in and of itself. If you get to Paris, don't miss this fabulous museum!

Leaving the Orsay, I meandered along the Seine and made my way to Notre Dame. I love this cathedral. Not only is it iconic, but it's absolutely beautiful. It's even more stunning at night. I sat there for nearly an hour as the sun sank further behind me and just stared. And stared. And stared. I finally left only because my belly started to rumble and it was a bit embarrassing. 

Unfortunately, my dinner the second night was...ehh. I didn't take the time to do any research as far as where to eat, so I went to a restaurant that looked promising. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. It was merely...ehh.

 Hugo's House. 
On my last day in Paris I once again followed one of Rick Steves' 
walks...thanks, Rick! This time, I made my way through the Marais neighborhood. In this part of Paris, I toured Victor Hugo's house. Ahhh! 
Pens and blotters belonging to authors
Anyone who has ever read or seen Les Miserables should get excited. The house tour was free and you were treated to a peek at his writing desk and ink pens and  blotters that not only belonged to Hugo, but other novelists such as Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo  and The Three Musketeers. The writer in me just about passed out thinking of the incredible works that flowed out of those ink pens and blotter.

From there, I made my way towards the Holocaust museum, Memorial de la Shoah (Holocaust in French).  It was an incredible reminder of the savagery that the Jewish people, and so many others, faced at the hands of evil. It was also an incredible reminder of those who fought the good fight on the side of the Resistance in Paris. One of the most moving parts of the museum was the crypt. It contains a large, black marble Star of David which contains ashes recovered from those murdered in the camps and in the Warsaw ghettos. It was an incredibly moving and tangible reminder of an atrocity that still haunts Europe and the world as a whole. 

Finally, I made my way through quaint shops and boutiques to the Pompidou. I gaped at the modern structure as, again, my tummy rumbled. So, I found myself in the cutest little bistro near the museum for one last Parisian culinary delight in the form of Quiche Lorraine, a side salad, and the best chocolate cake ever. It was such a cozy little place filled with Parisians who were eating with friends, colleagues, and others. I sat back, enjoyed my time out of the miserable rain, and took my last couple of hours in Paris in. 

All in all, it was a fabulous stay in Paris. I love that city and will get back again because I have more to see. One can never go to Paris just once, or in this case twice, and see all that it has to offer. And so I won't say au revoir to Paris, instead I'll just say: à plus tard.

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