Sunday, January 5, 2014

What I did on my Not-Summer Vacation, Part 1

This might as well be the place to do my graphics-heavy review of what I did on my not-so-summer vacation, i.e. my not-one-bit-of-work-done two weeks in Europe that did a lot of good for my sanity.  My site isn't up yet and I don't feel like putting all of this on Facebook, so here goes.  Part 1.  This will be done in several parts so you don't have to put up with as much at a time.

'Twas the Night Before Europe

Katey and I specifically bought our plane tickets for November 24 because the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special aired on November 23.  A friend was good enough to let us come and watch it with her at her place across the street from home.  I laughed, I cried twice, I really enjoyed it.

And then I stepped wrong off of her stoop, heard an ominous crack and collapsed in a heap on the concrete.  This is the sort of thing you absolutely want to do when a nursing student is around.  He made me sit down, checked the swelling and tested my range of motion.  He and his wife got me to Katey's car so they could take me to Instacare.  I was having mild shock symptoms, my left ankle was huge and I kept saying variations on "OH, GOD!  MY TIMING SUCKS!"  (I took the Lord's name in vain a few times, but did not say any four-letter words and I'm very proud of myself for that.)

A few x-rays, examinations and a couple of hours later, the doctor came back to say, "Good news, I don't see any fracture.  But just to be sure, we're going to have another doctor look at the x-rays."  The second opinion doctor arrived and through the open door while I was waiting to be seen, I kept hearing the word "avulsion."  They came back and said, "Well, it looks like there is an avulsion fracture, but it's not displaced."  That meant that I had a very little bit of bone broken off my fibula.  Because it was non-weight-bearing and because it wasn't displaced, they could put me in a very spiffy brace, tell me sympathetically to try not to walk all over Europe on it and to RestIceCompressandELEVATE. 

 If you really want details on what happened to my ankle, go here:

Essentially, with 6 hours before the shuttle to the airport left, I was told to treat it like a bad sprain and have fun on my trip.  I went home, packed the rest of my stuff very quickly and then watched Doctor Who on the couch until the painkillers kicked in and I could sleep.

The Long Haul

We took the shuttle at 3:30 a.m. and only had to wait a little while to get me a wheelchair through the airport.  That was nice because I was very new to this whole walking-with-a-cane thing and was still in a lot of pain.  We got on the plane and the first thing I asked for after 9 months of soda-abstention was a very cold Coke.

Yes, by golly, I took a picture of it.  I lost 29 pounds in 9 months due to not drinking soda or eating sweets during the week.  Yes, by golly, I took a picture of my Coke.  I also admired some scenery out of the window.

One of the best things about the trip over was that we landed at one gate, turned around and found our next gate right there.  I set up shop at the gate, Kate made the trek to get some breakfast and we had a fairly uneventful wait for the next plane.

I took advantage of the "passengers requiring extra time to board" pre-boarding offer and hobbled down the insanely-long path to the plane.  I forgot that just five months before, I had been annoyed by this airport's ramp after ramp after ramp to get to a flight.

I watched Monsters University and Admission, read some and managed to actually sleep for a little while thanks to the neck pillow that Lori-Ann and Andrew had given me for my birthday. This is a nice contrast to the time that I read all of the books that i had brought for a two-week trip on the plane because I couldn't sleep all the way to South Korea.


 My first priority in getting to Milano was to make Kate pose for a picture in front of the Arrivals terminal map.  It's mostly in the spirit of Post Proof or Retract.  We got our bags, found our way to the Malpensa Express train that would take us from Milano Malpensa airport to the Milano Centrale station.  Along the way, I saw delightful murals and added them to my collection of "interesting things slapped on walls" that started with graffiti pictures in Philadelphia.

I have to say that of all the train stations, Milano Centrale was my favorite.  It's open and airy and filled with cool shops in a way that Boston's North Station never has been and in a way that reminds me of New York's Grand Central Station.

At some point, Kate found a guy who would haul our bags and show us to the hotel for a nominal fee.  I wasn't aware of this until I got the impression that someone was trying to steal our bags.  Luckily, that was not the case and we found that the hotel was a mere block and a half or so from the station.  Since it was too early to check in, we dropped our bags at the hotel, paid the guy for his help and then walked back to the station.  This is probably the time to mention that I hate European sidewalks.  They don't believe in level surfaces and because of the location of my injury, the thing that hurt most was an incline.  The sidewalks were sloping, there were ramps everywhere and whenever I wasn't looking, I'd miss part of a cobblestone and my foot would flop down at a diagonal, sending shooting pain through my leg.

Our primary purposes in going through Milano were to see L'Ultima Cena and the Duomo.  I said that I wanted to see the famous Golden Quadrilateral, but wouldn't be too broken up if we didn't make it to the famous shopping district.  We got off the subway and got to the Duomo with gorgeous weather.  Last time I had been to Milano, it had been raining pretty hard and the first thing I did upon arriving was get sick to my stomach.  This time was entirely different, but I still had Kate take a reminiscent picture for me.  In 1999, Mom took a picture of me wearing a red shirt and standing in front of the Duomo.  Kate took a picture of me wearing a red shirt and standing in front of the Duomo and that is currently hanging on the wall by my desk at work as well.
In 1999, our main purpose in going to Milano was to see DaVinci's L'Ultima Cena, so we stopped by the Duomo, took a few pictures and then headed to Santa Maria Della Grazie.  This time, we arrived on the one day of the week when that is closed, so we paid a few extra euro and took the lift to the upper levels of the famous cathedral.  Boy, was that the best idea of the day!  This is something that took nearly 600 years to build and you can tell why from all of the details.  Here are a few of my favorites.  (No, seriously, I took 70+ pictures of this one cathedral, so these are just a few.)

(Pssst, I love finding things that you really don't expect.  This Madonna and Child statue was around a corner, surrounded by scaffolding and seemed practically fogotten.)

(And this final picture goes to prove that even in a house of God, you have to put up with renovations.)

Oh, that reminds me...they had Samsung on the scaffolding of the cathedral.  See?

Once we'd had our fill of all that, we were tired and hungry.  Lucky for us that the Golden Quadrilateral that I mentioned earlier was actually very close. 

I originally tried to get Kate to go to the Burger King pictured here just for the amusing novelty of it, but she vetoed that idea.  

Instead, we went to the Golden Quadrilateral and she put up with my squeals of "PRADA!  GUCCI!  KATE, THEY HAVE ARMANI!" while we were looking for food.  We finally decided on a pizzeria where she got margherita and I tried the diavolo.  Great food, very great food.  And we spotted a happy couple from our table...
We headed back to the hotel after that, used the free wi-fi to connect with home for a while and fell asleep.

Rome, Day 1

When Kate and I were in the early planning phases of this trip, she gave me a mournful look at one point and said that, because our cruise left from Civitavecchia on November 27, we were going to have to be in Rome no later than my birthday.  I smirked and asked if we could go to the Vatican for the occasion.  She agreed.

After a good night's sleep, we schlepped back to the Milano Centrale station with our bags and determined that we needed to take the ferrorosia (red train) to Roma Termini.  Kate left me with the bags (this was becoming a habit) and went to buy the tickets.  In Milano Centrale, it was no unusual thing to see a pigeon fly through the station and when I saw one hanging out a few feet away, I snapped a quick picture.
Kate returned just minutes later and had to show me a hilarious picture of a pigeon...  We're pretty sure it was the same pigeon.  We had a good laugh at that.  We then tried to determine which level the train would be on.  When she asked at one point if we had disembarked at this level, I firmly told her that I would have remembered an Armani store.  We found the train and found that the ticket vendor had given us seats in separate cars.  That was okay because I spent .9 euros to access the onboard wi-fi and did such things as playing Criminal Case and watching Veronica Mars.
After a 3-hour trip that covered 1/3 of Italy's length, we got off in Roma Termini.  I had picked the hotel for the night, a little French-run boarding house called La Maison de Martra that claimed to be "right next to the Vatican."  Reviews said it was close to both the Vatican and the Castel Sant Angelo.  Well, one of them was right.  It was close to the Castel, but it was NOT close to the Vatican.  We were halfway to the hotel when Kate realized that we couldn't get there and get back to the Vatican in time to pick up our tickets for the Sistine Chapel.  She left me in the Piazza Risorgimento, where I took pictures of amusing birds and hoped that this wasn't the last time I'd ever see her.
No, seriously, I was pretty convinced that she'd get mugged or abducted or something like that because I was too gimpy to book it to the ticket office with her.  And it took a while for her to return because that was a long walk for her, bless her patient little heart.

We found the hotel after discovering that people in Rome don't give good directions and that you can have Via Tacito 43 that goes on for three blocks before you get to Via Tacito 41, where your hotel is.  We also discovered that they had booked us for a single queen-sized bed instead of two twins as I had requested.  We didn't argue with it much, just dropped off our stuff, got a very handy map that showed us exactly where we needed to go and set out for the Vatican.

Because our tickets to the Vatican were good for any time that day, we went first to St. Peter's Square and Basilica. 
There are varying stories about why the Archangel Michael is sheathing his sword in this awe-inspiring, fearsome sculpture, but I like this one best:  there were people worshiping a false idol in a separate town and Pope Gregory I went to investigate.  Upon his arrival, the idol miraculously fell apart with a clap of thunder.  Upon returning to Rome, the Pope had a vision of an angel standing atop the castle, wiping the blood from his sword and sheathing it as a sign that God was appeased.
 And here we have the Angel With the Sponge (of vinegar).  Not the most interesting name for a statue, but it's gorgeous and it's by Giorgetti.  This is one of the ten angels on the Ponte Sant'Angelo.

Once inside the Basilica, I had to take a million pictures.  Well, 70.  Well, more than that, but I kept 70.  Here are my favorites...

A long shot of St. Veronica, the only person I know of who has canonization and a bull-fighting move to her name.  She is holding a shroud because she used it to wipe the sweat from the face of Christ on his way to Calvary.  In bull-fighting, la veronica describes a movement where the fighter draws the red cape over the face of the bull.
 Those lights are part of the entrance to the Tomb of St. Peter.
 I love the text that runs around the basilica.  This is part of the text that says "I am the refuge of the world."
 "Peter said, 'Thou art the Christ.'"

 When I originally saw the Pieta, it was in a darkened alcove that you barely noticed after an attack on the statue.  Now it's sealed off, but much more visible.

 I love the detail of the mural around this oculus.
"And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren."

 Dibs on this pipe organ.
 A closer view of St. Veronica.
It was a marvelous and sacred place to visit and we emerged, excited to see the Sistine Chapel next.  Well, then we noticed the time.  The Colliseum is open until 4:30, but the ticket office closes at 3:30.  We decided that we would go to the Colliseum ticket office, pick up our tickets and go there and then come back to see the Sistine Chapel.

We got to the Colliseum at 3:32.  The centurion-dressed guy who gave us directions to the ticket office was wrong.  At 3:37, we realized we were never getting to see the inside of the Colliseum.  I sat down on the steps at Kate's insistence while she got us water bottles.  At that point, someone asked if I was okay and I answered in very frustrated Italian.  It was my first rant in Italian and I knew enough to say something along the lines of "I had to run up 42 steps from the train and we're two minutes too late and it's closed and I can't even walk and the stupid thing is CLOSED."  Like I said, I was very frustrated.

There, proof that we were there.  I had been looking forward to seeing it again and seeing if they had excavated more of the maze part, so was a little sad that we didn't get to go inside.  (In the second picture, you can see Palatine Hill.)

Also, a note on that gelato truck:

Kate and I regularly issue writing challenges to each other.  I suggested that we have one that would be judged by a friend and the loser had to buy the winner gelato.  She counterproposed that we had to write stories 10,000 words long and based on Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart.  If you're not familiar with it, imagine a world where there are superpower-gifted people, but they are all villains.  Chicago is ruled by an evil overlord quite a lot like Superman.  There is a group trying to kill that villain, Steelheart.  Kate wrote a 10,000-word story that continued the ending of the book.  I wrote a prequel story about another supervillain, this one a high-ranking religious leader who turned his church into a tyrannical theocracy.  Kate called me evilly brilliant.  I told her that she was absolutely going to win.  I was right.  So I owed her gelato. 

No matter where we went, I tried to get her that gelato, but we either had no time, weren't hungry, it was too expensive, etc.  We kept saying we'd do it tomorrow, in Napoli, in Milano...  Long story short, she never got the gelato and I told her that if that happened after all my attempts, she was going to buy me gelato instead when we got home.  She bought four kinds of gelato when we got home.

Anyway, so back to the rest of my first day in Roma.  So, we got off at the subway stop for the Musei Vaticani, only to discover that it was on the other side of this staircase. 
 We could have avoided it, but that would have meant getting back on the subway and approaching from another direction.  I turned to Kate, announced that she owed me a footrub for this and climbed the 79 steps.  She borrowed the cane because it is completely useless to me on stairs.
We got to the top at around 4:30, only to find that while the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel are open later, they stop letting people in at 4.  Kate hailed a cab and even though it was price-gouged, she paid for us to get back to the hotel.  We stopped on the way and I bought us food at a little bistro.

Needless to say, my feet looked like this after those 121 stairs in total which did not include the steps up to St. Peter's.
You can tell which one is injured by the fact that one looks like I carry 50 pounds of my weight in one foot.

A note on language:  I spent enough time with various language resources that I was essentially in charge of communication for the first while.  I didn't really need to use more than "Due biglietti, per favore" and "Qual linea va a Colliseo?" at first, but I found that some of the people at hotels and news stands were very nice to me when I made the effort to communicate in Italian.  Kate did very well once she got the hang of it.

The Vatican

Kate decided that we could choose to go to either the Colliseum or the Sistine Chapel the next morning before we had to get on the train to Civitavecchia.  I have been to both, so I let her decide and she wisely chose the Chapel.  The next morning, we got up and were given a breakfast that our hotel price should not have included and which included things like pate and cheese danishes and really fresh orange juice.

At 8:30, we were back at the Musei Vaticani, this time from the right direction.  The doors opened at 9 o'clock and we were about 50 people back with hundreds behind us.  On the way, I admired the Vatican wall and various features...
 This Latin says "He hath sent his angels to watch over thee."  I love being able to use the stuff I learned in Ms. Katkins' Latin class.  The weird half-people are a result of me taking a panoramic shot to get the whole quote in.
 Everywhere we went in the Vatican, there were things noting which Pope commissioned certain features.  This was the most recent thing I could find: a door commissioned by the previous Pope, Benedict XVI.  It made me wonder if in the future, John Paul V will try to find something to renovate and have to be told that the only thing left at the moment is that they could use some new soap dispensers in the ladies' rooms at the Musei Vaticani.
And in case you're wondering how tall the wall is, this is Kate standing next to it for scale.  On a good day, she's 5' tall.

We got in at about 9:05, having turned down every single offer to join a cheap tour and skip the lines.  I remember that Mom had made me skip the Musei on my first trip because it's "Just miles and miles of crucifixion tapestries."  She must have come from a different direction, since the predominant theme in the route we took was the Slaughter of the Innocents. 

I did enjoy this tapestry of the Ascension.

 Kate made fun of me for taking pictures of swans, since I've just finished writing a retelling of Swan Lake.  She later got clipped by the wing of a bird in flight and I told her it was karma.
The amount of artwork on the ceiling alone is staggering.
 Gorgeous tapestry of the Last Supper, not by da Vinci.
 These lions are really not related to the tapestry that seems in another picture to be of the Sermon on the Mount, but they looked so wise and friendly that I had to take a picture.
 Yes, friends, I went to the Vatican and took time to find the Apostolic Library.

It wasn't until the Sistine Chapel that the Vatican signs told us we were on sacred ground and pictures were now forbidden.  It also had a dress code posted.  (I had remembered that on my previous visit, our tour guide brought a shawl to cover her shoulders, so we were both dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts.  It's not like either of us is very immodest anyway.)  This was obviously outside of the parts where we could shop for souvenirs.  (Kate got a bag and magnets and a pencil box with the Sistine Chapel fresco on it.  I bought one friend a rosary and another friend a Tau Cross necklace.  After the Chapel, I went to the gift shop and bought a Christmas ornament for the sister who collects them.)

There's some debate between Kate and I about how many people were in the Chapel at any given time during our visit.  I believe the maximum was 10 and the minimum was 2.  She claims to have seen 5 other people at the moment that I looked all around us and saw no one.  Anyway, it was a huge contrast to the July 1999 visit that I made.  At that point, there were so many tourists crammed into the chapel that it was hard to breathe and I had to stand near the fresco of the Last Judgment just to get some air.  It was a very quiet crowd, but it was a stifling crowd nonetheless.  This time, we sat on the low benches that formed a perimeter and took in the whole painting at our own pace.  We did enjoy the rest of the paintings, since there is much more to see in the Chapel than just the famous ceiling.  I told her that I would love to play the organ in there.  The tour groups that "skipped the lines" arrived later, since they had to put up with guides who wanted to explain everything they were seeing on the way instead of letting them read the signs.  All in all, it was a very sacred experience that we got to view in relative privacy.  It reminded me of 2002, when I got a postcard from my sister from France.  Dad had decided to go to Paris for his birthday and took her along.  Because it was off-season, they had the Louvre virtually to themselves.  Given those experiences and how tame Dublin was just one week after St. Patrick's Day, I'm never traveling during the peak of tourist season again.

We left by the never-ending spiral staircase.  (If you can get Kate to show you a picture, do.  I was more concerned with not falling down the steps of the Vatican museums and breaking my other fibula.)  We stopped at a tourist shop so Kate could use the powder room and I got the first of my t-shirts.  (For those of you not aware, I realized a year and a half ago that I had started collecting interesting t-shirts from places I had visited and now, I make it a quest.)  I found a shirt that shows man evolving from an ape to neanderthal and on down the line to a Roman centurion.  I decided that I had to have it.

We made it back to the hotel around 10:30 and checked out.  Rather than take the train back, we rounded the corner and boarded a bus to the station.  On the way, I kept a lookout for interesting sculptures.

Rome was also a good place to find quirky little twists on the familiar, like a curbside gas station...
 Or a cobblestoned crosswalk.  Or is it a crosswalked cobblestone?
 Or just "Catching Fire" retranslated as "The Girl on Fire," which is still from the book, but not the title.
We arrived at the outer reaches of the station and discovered a lot of very non-Italian people lugging suitcases.  We had obviously found some of the people going on the cruise with us.  This one couple from England kept telling me to watch out for some men who were eyeing my suitcases and didn't pay attention when I said that I was a very careful traveler since my experience of getting robbed in Firenze in 1999.

After an hour on the train, we got off at Civitavecchia, 600 meters from the port entrance.  A cabbie offered to drive us 600 meters for 20 euros and Kate laughed in his face.  We lugged our bags to the port entrance, where there were shuttle buses to drive us the rest of the way to our ship, the Norwegian Jade.

The check-in process was relatively painless.  We showed our IDs and our tickets and set our luggage aside for the porters to sort out and got our room keys for cabin 5521.  I still have mine, since they didn't need them back.

Long before departure time of 5:00, we were settled into our room, which contained twin beds, tiny nightstands, a desk, a small dining table, a closet, a mini-bar, a TV and a very tiny bathroom.  We put in a request for a shower stool and an ice delivery, which meant that I didn't have to stand on my injured leg to wash my hair and could ice/elevate.

We also had to do the mandatory emergency drill, which consisted of us going to our assigned places in the Stardust Theater, listening to a brief lecture from a staff member and then going back to our cabins.  I quickly discovered that one of the most annoying things about being on a cruise ship would be the PA announcements that were long-winded and uninteresting...and then repeated in Spanish, Italian, German and Chinese. 

I wanted to stay off my feet for the next week, but decided to do a walk-around of the ship with Kate.  We discovered a waist-high chess board on one side of the ship and checkers on the other.  We found the library near the spa off the pool deck.  We checked out the gift shops and found Guest Services.

There was a handy channel on TV that told us what the wind speed was, how rough the sea was, when the next sunset would be, etc.  I checked the time for sunset and headed up to Deck 12 to enjoy the view.

We went to the Alizar, one of the complimentary dining rooms, for dinner.  They offered to seat us more quickly if we could agree to share our table.  We didn't mind, so wound up sitting next to a couple from Malta who were on their 42nd cruise.  The man's name was John and we never did find out the woman's name, but they were very friendly and funny.  We ran into them pretty much every day, whether in the dining rooms or looking for the open-air bus tour in a city.  The wife would always ask how my ankle was doing.  The man made me slightly uncomfortable by telling me that he was having success with Viagra.

I was worried about seasickness or getting used to the rocking of the boat, but that turned out to be no problem.  On the roughest day, it felt as though we were perched on a slide, but I was never sick. 

Thanksgiving on the Mediterranean

The next morning, we got up in time for sunrise and I got my first proper pictures of what Homer insisted on calling the "wine-dark sea."

 We chose the Garden Cafe for breakfast this time, which was a buffet.  I had bangers and mash, brioche and was returning to my table with the family favorite birchermuesli when I tripped and sent my bowl flying.  The staff was so efficient and friendly that I hadn't finished blushing before they had cleaned up the spilled muesli, taken away the bowl and brought me another bowl of the stuff.

Even more frequent than the PA announcement was the sound of "washi-washi-happi-happi."  They had a person stationed at the door of the Garden Cafe whose sole purpose was to make sure our hands were sanitized before we went into the dining room.  He carried a spray bottle of hand sanitizer and I guess they figured that everyone could understand that if you washi-washied your hands, you'd be happi-happi by not getting food poisoning.  I do have to admit that I sometimes chose other restaurants just so I could use the automated dispenser and avoid that cheerful little guy.  The main reason for branching out, though, was that the other restaurants had really good foods that were never the same.  You went to the Garden Cafe if you wanted a predictable menu.  I could always find pancakes and waffles and eggs benedict in the morning, burgers at night, etc. where I could get a salmon tartare or pear and arugula salad at the Grand Pacific.

I spent some time in the library, picking out books to read and reading the book that Kate had given me to enjoy on the cruise.  (We each chose one that the other had put off reading.  I made her finally read The Historian, my favorite non-Dracula vampire book.  She insisted that I read The Curse of Challion, which was a nailbiting fantasy quest by Lois McMaster Bujold.)  I discovered that the Spinnaker Lounge, around the corner from the chapel, had couches that looked like sine waves and therefore auto-elevated my sore foot.

Later in the day, Kate and I came back to our cabin and she blithely asked if I really had my heart set on Thanksgiving turkey.  She had been there when I made a full turkey dinner two weeks before our trip and I said, no, I could enjoy something else.  Her response was, "Good.  I made reservations for us for shabu-shabu."  I think I exhibited a slightly horror-struck expression, since she quickly said she was paying and I was quick to say that I had been planning to try the specialty restaurants LATER in the cruise.

We went to the Jasmine Garden and enjoyed Japanese hot pot for Thanksgiving dinner and went to bed fairly early because the next day, we were setting foot in Greece!

Okay, I think that's enough for one blog post.  We are now up to November 29 and this trip lasted until December 8.  Hope you enjoyed!

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