Category Archives: Italia

Whatsapp? A Tale Of Two Sleeper Cars

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June 05, 2018
Euro Night Schlafwagen Sleeper Car, somewhere between Venice and Vienna.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: Oh man oh man oh man, my love!!!!!! I am currently on the Schlafwagen – yes, you read that awesome German right – the night train to Vienna! I don’t have wifi but I am actually SO PUMPED I just had to Whatsapp you anyways and it’ll send when it sends …. this sleeper coach is freaking FANTASTIC! My mom and I are totally balling out here! Slippers, a teeny tiny sink, a crazy rope swing to keep me in my ludicrously high top bunk as the train rocks, free sparkling wine (it was on our bed and my mom being a …

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: HOLD THE PHONE. THIS BROADCAST INTERRUPTED TO INFORM YOU THAT MY MOM JUST DISCOVERED THERE’S A SHOWER IN OUR CAR. A SHOWER. I JUST SHOWERED ON THE TRAIN. No wonders of Europe can ever – EVER – compare with that.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: (Continuing on with our saga)

[06-05, 10:56 PM] Sara M.: … shameless uke and asking the porter (who btw, came to ask our BREAKFAST ORDERS), “Is the wine complimentary??” And him replying, “But of course. We just want you to enjoy your evening.”

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: Holy crap. This is what happens when josh and not sara books the overnight train 😛

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: (I said that to my mom and she replied, “I like josh.”)

June 06, 2018
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

[06-06, 2:17 PM] Joshua: Hahahahaha WOW this was an epic text-barrage to wake up to!

[06-06, 2:18 PM] Joshua: Lol I’d forgotten that I had bought that ticket! Well, you’re welcome, you’re welcome (said in my Maui voice, of course)

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June 09-10, 2018
Polrail… Sleeper car? Maybe. Definitely not Car 431 (since that was on our ticket and that would thus make too much sense). Somewhere between Budapest and Záhony.

[06-09, 11:19 PM] Sara M.: I don’t know if 2 sleeper cars could be more different than Polrail vs. The Schlafwagen.

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[06-09, 11:20 PM] Sara M.: To begin, Lviv wasn’t listed as a destination on any of the trains, and there were literally zero train employees anywhere in the station to ask. A cleaning lady told me this was the right train, but our car # was not to be found (we were car 431, and the train only had up to 405). So I’m running up and down the train and finally just heave mom and the suitcases onto a car and find some seat numbers that kind of match ours. There’s only one other lady seated in the whole car and we have a very confusing conversation in English / Hungarian, during which she just repeated “Chop? Chop!” And I repeated “Seats 11 and 15!!!”

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[06-09, 11:24 PM] Sara M.: My mom saves the day at this point by discovering lady is Ukrainian , so they immediately start chatting in Ukrainian about grandchildren, which is adorable, whilst I try to puzzle out where the heck we may be off to. FINALLY an employee comes along! I show her our tickets and she goes huffily, “Sleeper car. Dat way.” I’m trying to gesture and figure out where we’re going, when she snaps, “Or stay here, up to you, I don’t care!!”

She then descends on our lovely new friend and informs her, “Your ticket second class. Out. ”

Our lady obviously can’t understand English, so employee raises her voice and goes, “Idiot. Second class! Two!! Dva!” Then she turns back to us, “Sleeper car! Go!!”

[06-09, 11:28 PM] Sara M.: Ay yi. We go through what looks like an engine room and so I had assumed was off limits but nope, apparently just the way to first-class (Obviously. Maybe I am also an idiot). We find our berth. We’re so amazed and relieved there are actual beds (and not the non-reclining chairs we had thought were our “Sleeper car” seats!)

Suddenly, this balding unshaven man in dirty jeans and a beer t-shirt comes out and gets in our room, and is gesturing at the beds and grabbing at our sheets, and waving his finger at us. Both mom and I are both thinking the same thing, namely, “Holy #@$% is this guy sharing our berth????!”

I’m telling him that we have tickets and saying the berth number over and over again, and he then grabs our tickets and says, “I take these, give back in Lviv.”

[06-09, 11:30 PM] Sara M.: Wtf um, NO. So I try to grab them back and he’s getting all pissy and finally yells, “Yura!!!!!”

And Yura, this kindly older gentleman dressed in – imagine that! – a train uniform with an ID badge, comes in, and says yes, we’re in the right place and he’ll take our tickets now and give them back in Lviv. And then he brings Mom coffee in a beautiful silver salvar and leaves.

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Mom and I just couldn’t stop laughing and calling yelling man every bad Ukrainian name we could think of (“Snot-nosed whiney idiot flower pot!!” …it loses something in the translation). Who the heck WAS he???

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Needless to say, there was no breakfast menu or sparkling wine, so good thing we still had a bottle of prosecco from the Schlafwagen — we definitely needed it!!!

[06-09, 11:33 PM] Sara M.: Just spent a lovely few hours sitting and knitting with mom, and now it’s almost bedtime. When I wake up … I’ll be in my country!!!!

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[06-10, 12:44 AM] Sara M.: Oh jeepers. Woken up by literal banging on the door at midnight — welcome to Ukraine! Border guards on-board to examine everyone’s passports!

[06-10, 1:25 AM] Sara M.: Dear goodness. Ever since crossing the border, the train has been grinding deafeningly. It actually sounds like it doesn’t fit the tracks. Eff. Looks like there will be no sleeping in this sleeper car 😑😢😩

[06-10, 1:46 AM] Sara M.: Psych! That was actually just the Hungarian exit crossing! NOW it’s Ukraine entry time! 😣 Bwahahahaha Mom definitely found her Ukrainian sassy vibe and when there was more banging on the door, she yelled, “Що ти хочеш!?? Що ви робите?!!!?” (“What!!? What do you want???!”) in Ukrainian. Safely hiding in my top bunk, pretending I didn’t understand anything, I let her deal with the border guards!

[06-10, 1:47 AM] Sara M.: Got my passport stamps!!! Ay yi, onward ho?

[06-10, 3:05 AM] Sara M.: Update – 3AM and still no ho.

[06-10, 7:15 AM] Sara M.: Aha. So apparently a giant crane came sometime after 3AM and fixed something on our train before we could start moving again.

Even the toilet paper knows we’re in Ukraine. It is literally a roll of crepe paper streamers, the colour of every good Slavic birthday party: grey.
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First glimpse of the Motherland!!
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[06-10, 9:14 PM] Sara M.: Still more hiccups upon arrival, where seminary people [random family contact in the Ukrainian Baptist community who were graciously allowing us to stay with them during our time in Lviv] were supposed to meet us but no one was at the station and we were kind of peeved and there was no Internet and no phone number to get ahold of them… but we ended up talking to a lovely cabbie who informed us there was the UKRAINA RUN marathon today (but of course!) And so no cab could even get through to the seminary. We were about to brave public transit but stopped for some breakfast first and GOT PEROGIES and suddenly we weren’t peeved at all anymore 😊😊😊😄😄😄

[06-10, 9:15 PM] Sara M.: And then perogy place had wifi and we got the mobile # for the seminary guy who was apparently wandering the station looking for us! He (and everyone at the seminary) are so exceptionally lovely and our rooms are freaking ginormous! Except we each have our own and it’s actually really sad to be separated down the hallway!

June 10, 2018
And again, back at the ranch…

[06-10, 5:56 PM] Joshua: Wowwwwww you basically just composed a complete blog entry just through these whatsapps! That sounds absolutely crazy! Glad you guys look happy (in a just-teetering-on-insane kind of way 😝)

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Gradtirement begins!

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My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
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Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

Wait, what’s that we spy from our front door? Could it be… ??!!

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
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My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
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Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
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Exploring the ancient mysteries of Pompei

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
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More firsts: Venezia gondola ride
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Visiting Burano, home of the famous Museo del Merletto (Lace Museum), is a completely different experience when you’re with a master craftswoman

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Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
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And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna.

(To be continued!)

This Adventure Made Possible By…

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Anna Maria Esposita for finding us on the side of the road in Salerno, putting up with our feeble attempts at Italian, and magically making our luggage appear out of nowhere.  Maya, for introducing us to AirBnB in the first place…our travels will never be the same.  Our barista in Vietri Sul Mare (thank you for the doughnuts, we hope you made it to Australia!), and our wildly flirtatious maitre d’ (that wine was impressively strong!).  Fernando, for the ride to the Tiber (we’re sorry if we gave the impression that we wanted to boat back to Rome).  Pope Francis for instilling humanity into our visit to the Vatican.  University of Manitoba College of Medicine for changing the direction of our lives while sitting in a Roman burlap tent!  Jamie Pierce, for pointing us in the direction of Cinque Terre in the first place.  Kaya and Aeden for being the best roommates we could have asked for, and Sarah, Alicia, and Stacey for getting lost with us in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And for the calamari cones.  Genius.  The Lemon Man, for delicious homemade wine with a side of really disgusting jokes, and the Pizza Man for abusing/believing in your employees (either way, you made a pizza in record time, well done!).  Pak Kashmir Doner Kebab for starting a 3-month-long love affair with kebab…and for not judging us when we came back twice in one day.  The Sprachcaffe receptionist for helping two confused travelers find a place to sleep in a language school.  Pietro for being a (very charming) walking encyclopedia of Florentine espionage.  All’antico Vinaio for your legendary sandwiches and free wine refills (no, seriously, it’s for real!).  The lovely couple who shared coffee with us on the train to Venice.  Archie & sons…your front hall will forever evoke in us a sense of oriental mystery.  The kiosco girl (and all of Vienna, for that matter) for your patience as we realized we knew literally NO Deutsch (“Card!…48?”).  The Musikverien Usher for engaging us in a Viennese musical intrigue and, therefore, much better seats!  Our Bulgarian/Brazillian (Bulgrillian?) cellist hostel roommate.  We tried to find you on iTunes but alas we were…so far…but…so close.  The Heinrich and Kress families for welcoming us so generously into your homes (and travel snacks that nearly broke the bus tables!).  Artur & Irina, we feel like we have a real home in Germany thanks to you.  Robert, Christian, and Erwin, we hope we can jam and play Dutch Blitz again one day!  Johannes for an unexpected evening of German tango (we’ll bring our dancing shoes next time).  Julia & your roommate for making us feel so at home in Köln.  Viel Glück to both of you in your new jobs!  Oma for always talking about your home country and inspiring us to retrace your Sunday walks down the Rhine.  Maybe one day we can go back with you!  Linda, dankjewel for your bikes, your lovely attic, and taking a chance on us as your first AirBnBers!  Edwin and Farah, for taking the time to hang out with us even with your wedding being a week away.  Once a WOOFer, always a WOOFer (ps come to Manitoba, we’ll take you to the snake pits!)  The stars, for aligning so perfectly as to allow us to have a lovely lunch with Dorien.  The Alma Dixons for getting us to and from Europe in the first place (Mom, your axiom of ‘would you rather have stuff or memories?’ has successfully stuck with me into adulthood) and for showing us all the places you always talk about.  The Farnham Dixons for a lovely afternoon and some authentically British fish’n’chips (sans mushy peas, thank-you!).  Wendy for taking this whole motley crew into your home and showing us around Glastonbury. Elly for introducing us to your family (I cannot imagine a more adorable kid to blow bubbles with than your granddaughter) and an evening of reminiscing about icebergs and penguins.  Pete & Patricia for the most incredible Welsh hospitality, and for driving us all over the country at all hours of the night.  Mark Hanford for keeping us simultaneously amused and not dead as we threw ourselves off cliffs into the sea (still waiting for those carpets!).  The disembodied Welsh couple whose voices helped us find our way out of the mist and back to the path somewhere on Mount Snowdon.  Jack Johnson, for being you, and for entirely coincidentally being in Paris at the same time as us.  Andréanne, for showing us around your beautiful new Swiss home.  Irene and Martin for sharing so many things with us: your inspiring work and outlook on life and faith, the truly breathtaking landscapes, and yes, the little bears :P.  Andreas and Simone, also for sharing so many things with us (like mother like son, eh?): your friends, your family, your food, your car, your bike…. That night with the giant map (and the many road trips that ensued) is still a memory that we talk about regularly!  Aric and Gabriel, for being as excited about the high-ropes garden as we were and never judging us on our (lack of) Swiss German. Joël for sharing your beautiful pays et famille. Yannick for the best duck I’ve ever tasted, and Hélène for showing us the work you’re doing to help new immigrants become self-sufficient in Toulouse.  Ron, Nicole, Aimée, Sean (and yes, Cougar) for making us recognize the name Carcassonne, even if we’ll never pronounce it properly.  Les Cabys des Taillades (et oui, de Paris aussi!) for sharing your passion for history, many hours of games (we now have our own Möllky set!), French puns, and more wine and cheese than any North American could comprehend.  Mami Caby, for a beautiful afternoon in St. Jean du Gard, and the silk scarf that’s currently on display in our living room.  Isaac and Sylvia of JUCUM Barcelona for the generous hospitality, the 2AM tour of your majestic city, and showing us what we truly believe is the best beach in Europe.  Hind, Nour, and Adam for helping us finish off the bag of snails and confirming everything we’d heard about the welcoming nature of Moroccans.  Nour, of Sahara Desert Crew, for an unforgettable few days of sights and culture unlike anything else we’ve ever seen (also, your mad photography skills. ‘Nuff said.).  Cafe Restaurant Nora, for providing a literal oasis in the desert (Nothing tastes as good as Berber pizza and Berber whiskey at +50C!) The Samnoun family for taking us in when our hostel was suddenly infested with bedbugs, and Bousha for introducing us to the madness of the Medina (and many, many friends ;)…)

And of course, contributions from VIEWERS LIKE YOU!

News from away! (with the Batmanns and their iPad)

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We received our iPad just before going to Argentina, and it has been our faithful travel companion ever since. It was on this little screen that we saw our niece for the first time (after hiking six hours down a mountain to find wifi on a semi-weekly basis… Two weeks overdue, seriously, kiddo?!);
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that Josh applied for Education from an Argentine campground (and was accepted!);
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that a Mennonite frantically tried to learn Cree as his train chugged towards the Northern school at which he was expected to teach it;
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and of course, it was on this little screen that this very blog was born.
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Now, halfway across the world in a different direction, our little iPad has remained faithful in keeping us connected with our lives back home and in being the bearer of some very exciting news. In May, in a campground outside of Rome, it was on this iPad that I opened the email that would change the direction of my life yet again:
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Med!

Going into Medicine has been a dream of mine for many years. I am beyond thrilled to not only have the chance to study Medicine, but also to study it in the Bilingual Stream, which will allow me to continue pursuing my passion for the French language and the French community that has become an incredible part of my life!

I received the email around midnight, so all the buses going into town had stopped running. Therefore, we celebrated my future career in Medicine by running across the highway and going to McDonald’s for celebratory McNuggets. I figured I didn’t need to worry about being a good role model for healthy eating practices until I was actually IN med school 😉
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After receiving my acceptance in May, I had a few blissful weeks free of any obligations. Finally, however, the magnitude of paperwork caught up to me. In early July, I spent an entire day in my cousin’s office in a tiny hamlet of Switzerland downloading, printing, filling out, scanning, and finally coaxing an ancient fax machine to send all the forms required for my admission. I am frankly astounded that the forms actually sent properly… I don’t know if the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Manitoba have ever received an enrollment package from Ober-Says, Switzerland!
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Faxing

During this trip, Josh’s path has also meandered along some new adventures! In May, Mr. B officially graduated with his B.Ed. Although we were in Köln, Germany at the time of his convocation, his wonderful Ed friends made sure to include him in their celebrations:
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Grad

In June, we were living in a London flat with Josh’s family during their annual trek to England. One Sunday evening, Josh received an email describing a possible job opportunity for the fall. He excitedly emailed back, but the next day, we went to Glastonbury for the night, so we were without Internet for one day. ONE DAY… which was apparently enough time for the principal of the school to request an interview with Josh! Arriving home that night to a pile of emails, we panicked that he had missed his chance. However, thanks to a convenient time difference and some speedy Skype-calls, Josh got ahold of the school, who reassured him that it wasn’t too late, his interview could be moved to the next day.

Fantastic… Except that the next day, we had tickets to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at London’s West End. So, we brought the iPad and during the show, Josh snuck out of the theatre and ended up doing his interview in the theatre bar over Skype. Only at one point did his potential employer ask Josh if there was a marching band in the background. Unconventional, perhaps – but, that very evening, there was a job offer in his inbox, so unconventional seemed to have worked!!
Josh Skype

A huge thank-you to Laura for faithfully checking our mail back at home, M.O.M. for being willing to sign and drop off all Sara’s crazy forms, Andreas and Simone for letting Sara commandeer their office all day and then (trying to) explain to their workplace why two Canadians had to use the fax machine for an hour, Gwen and Leanne U. for being the most persistent emailers, the Dixons for the 3G, the bartender at Royal Drury Lane Theatre for not batting an eyelash during Josh’s interview, Margaret Park School for being so flexible (note from Josh: I’m so excited to join you this fall!)… And to all of our amazing friends and family, back in Winnipeg or here in Europe, who cheer us on in our crazy, unconventional, ridiculous adventures. We love you guys and love sharing our life with you!

Js Glastonbury

saratreetravels… Over The Hill!!!

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Congratulations, dear reader.

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You have stumbled upon the fiftieth saratreetravels post. In recognition of this momentous occasion, be the first to leave a comment of EXACTLY fifty characters (no cheater comments, like fifty zeroes in a row) and you will be rewarded with an authentically European video tribute.

Thanks for following! 🙂

Sara & Josh

Piccolo Città, Grand Impression

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While I’ve always considered myself a city person (I’ve never quite recovered from my first year of college, which was spent living in dorm in a pig farming community where the “nightlife” consisted of going to the Timmy’s in Steinbach), I’ve never loved big cities. I guess my small village/farming ancestry goes too deep to be ever completely rooted out of my system. Traveling has convinced me and Josh that we prefer to pay homage to cities for a day, but then escape again to small towns or even smaller communities. A city has never been as beautiful, as engaging, or as connected to me as nature is.

Which was why I was astonished when the city of Florence first took my breath away, and then captured my heart.

Florence is a piccolo grande città, a little big city. It is the ancient stronghold of the Medici family, the great patrons of the Renaissance who supported (politically and financially) the careers of the artists, scientists, theologians, economists, and architects who inspired a new culture of awareness and knowledge (read more about the House of Medici). Modern beliefs of science nerds being “uncool” would have been laughable during this time: a classy night out included demonstrations of scientific principles (such as the “electric soirées” that literally shocked attendees), and scientific instruments were symbols of culture and social status. Are you starting to see why I love the Renaissance?

High society essentials: The barometer walking stick and the “Lady’s telescope” (equipped with an ivory cosmetic box)
High society essentials

This revolutionary perspective of treating science and art with equal reverence has created in Florence an incomparable tapestry of elegance and innovation that is visible even today in the graceful lines of the bridges, the talent of the street musicians, and the overwhelming number of geniuses and inventions birthed in this duchy (including Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Dante, to name just a few).

Galileo’s finger and thumb at the Museo de Galileo:
Galileo digits... ?!

The beauty of the first thermometers, invented by scientists and crafted by artisans:
Science & art fusion

We arrived in Florence and commenced the quest of tracking down our hostel. Josh is a travel agent extraordinaire, and put the wifi in his Gillam apartment to good use by finding us the absolute cheapest accommodations in the absolute best locations. However, these accommodations are generally not the ones known by information booths, so we are usually left to our own crafty devices in tracking them down. At first, we thought our Florence quest would be the most straightforward yet – we made our way directly to the street, traced the numbers down… and found ourselves at the entrance to a 4-star hotel. While I wanted to trust Josh’s travel agent prowess, I was a bit skeptical that two scruffy backpackers would even be allowed in the lobby of such a place, let alone afford to spend a week there. One bemused conversation with the receptionist and several phone calls later, the mystery was solved, kind of. Our hostel was not actually a hostel, but a dorm room in a language school located in the same building as the hotel.

Silly us, why didn’t we think to look for our room here?
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Clean and spacious, with lovely staff and an incredible location, Iris Florentina, aka Sprachcaffe Language School, was by far the most amazing place we have stayed. Our only complaint is that we didn’t know it was a language school, otherwise we would have absolutely stayed longer and taken an Italian language course!

Walking a mere five minutes around the corner brought us to il Duomo, a gorgeous Florence cathedral containing the largest masonry dome on earth.

il Duomo

Five minutes around the other corner brought us to Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge,” the only bridge in Florence to survive the WWII bombing raids. It is also the only bridge to contain not only houses and shops, but also a secret passageway built in 1565 above the shops on the bridge. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor) allowed the Medici family to safely travel from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno without running into any of their subjects. It also connected to the private Medici balcony entrance of their church, Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence.

Ponte Vecchio

Buena sera, Ponte Vecchio

We learned about this and other gems of Florentine history from Pierro, an elderly gentleman who saw us trying to take a selfie on Vecchio and offered to take our picture. He then began enumerating points of interest and the history behind them, keeping us mesmerized by his stories for the next half hour. “This is my city and I love my city!” he declared, and this love was evident in the passion and generosity with which he shared his city with us, two strangers. Florence became alive to us through Pierro’s stories. Both the beautiful, as he proudly gestured to the green cradle of hills surrounding the city that prevented urban sprawl, and the terrible. As he pointed out the Corridoio Vasariano, I jumped in with a tidbit I had heard about treasures being hid in that same passageway to protect them from the WWII bombing. Suddenly, Pierro’s face went grim. “The war… That is a different story, a terrible story.” For Pierro was there during the bombing, a child who remembered only the terrible fear of the bombs and the Nazi soldiers who filled his lovely town.

As the sun was setting, Pierro sketched out our route for the rest of the day (“You must go to this church, it is 1000 years old, and the maker of Pinocchio is buried there!”) and gave us a handshake goodbye, which quickly turned to exuberant kisses on both cheeks for both of us. His obvious delight at finding people who wanted to love his city as much as he did was only matched by our delight at finding someone willing to let us see their beloved home through their eyes, which, after all, was our whole hope for this trip .

Enchanting San Miniato al Monte cemetery:
View from San Miniato

Piazzale Michelangelo offers the most breathtaking views of the city:
Piazzale Michelangelo

Pontes from the Piazzale

Pierro’s Firenze, cradled by hills:
Florence's high green hills

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And then a different part of Florence that equally took our breath away: The Food.

Beauty for the tastebuds

Cappuccini at the Porta Romana

Shout out to Kaya: We thank you, from the bottom of our stomachs, for introducing us to this place.

Mouth-watering foccace (porcheta and black truffle cream, where have you been all my life?) and €2 self-serve wine… Yes, we went back two days in a row.
Porcheta, tartufo, and €2 wine... Wha?!

Where’d All the Good People Go?

Standard

…to Cinque Terre, apparently.

5T: Good days made even better!

Almost a year ago, when this trip was just a twinkle in our eye, my good friend Jamie Pierce told me about this magical heavenly place he had hiked called Cinque Terre. Jamie is not one to go off on long soliloquies too often, so the way he raved about this particular Italian destination made us seriously consider it.

The train spat us out in a sleepy, palm tree lined town called La Spezia. Rome, in all its eternal glory, is also an eternal throng of people and vehicles all trying to squeeze through impossibly narrow alleyways and navigate chaotic roundabouts. Quiet, tiny La Spezia, with the smell of the sea so close once again, was a welcome change.

‘Cinque Terre’ refers to five towns on the Mediterranean coast, each separated by a small mountain and connected by winding trails. The entire place is a national park, and has become something of a pilgrimage for those who appreciate natural beauty.

We set out early the next morning to find the trail. Classically, the goal is to reach all five towns in one day, but we had decided not to rush it and just see how far we could get.** This was a particularly good approach when, an hour in, we had still not found the beginning of the trail. Our instructions told us to climb some stairs by a church, then turn left at the castle (oh, Europe). Church, check. Stairs, check. Castle…none in sight. How do you hide a castle? (We rapidly learned not to trust the Italian sense of direction.)

Instead, we found some new friends who became an inseparable part of our Cinque Terre experience. Sarah and Alicia had recently finished a two-year term with the Peace Corps in Senegal, and were now looking for the same imaginary castle. We decided to stick together, and ended up doing so for the whole day, and the next one as well. Along the way we picked up Stacy, who was traveling Europe between teaching English in France and studying the history of women’s rights in Morocco. Definitely some of the most interesting and inspiring people to spend a couple of days with!

And this is what we saw:

Town #1 – Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore

We quickly realised that “trail” was a loose term that could involve ridiculously steep dirt paths up a mountain, vineyards, or crumbling stone steps:
Steep steps!!

Vineyard paths

They're a lot steeper than they look!!

Town #2 – Manarola.
Manarola

Necessary swimming break in Manarola!
Freezing cold beautiful Med!

Directions to the trail continued to arrive in the most surprising forms:
image

Stretching break between Towns #2 & 3:
Stretch those quads, ladies!!

Town #3 – Corniglia.
Mountainbound Corniglia

Sometimes, it’s just as important to know where you’re not:
Dorothy, I think we're not in Vernazza anymore...

Town #4 – Vernazza.
The fortress of Vernazza

Supper & swimming break in Vernazza:
Vernazza supper & swimming

Necessary refreshment break* between Towns #4 & 5:
Limonata fresca!!
*We were making our way down the trail through a vineyard, when a burst of radio music and cries of “Limonata fresca!” stopped us. The owner of the vineyard had set up a little hut on the side of the mountain, from which he hawked his wine and freshly squeezed lemonade from the surrounding lemon trees. A gregariously rakish old man, he had not only heard of Manitoba, he knew about Morden’s Corn & Apple and used MB flour in his pizza. “Normal Italian flour, it makes dough like old woman’s skin. Tough! Special Manitoba flour, it makes like young woman’s skin!” I will not try to describe his accompanying hands gestures here, but ask me next time you see me 😛

A truly Italian experience to hike down a mountain drinking from a bottle of wine!
Towards Monterosso (credit to Stacy for the photo)

Town #5** – Monterosso al Mare.
A beautiful end to a beautiful day
**We hadn’t planned to do all five towns in one day, but we had just enough time to make it to Town #5 and be rewarded with a sunset that felt like a worthy prize for our accomplishment.

…………………………………………………….
We had only 20 minutes to catch the last shuttle of the night, but we were starving and stopped at a pizzeria to see if it was possible for a pizza to be ready. “20 minutes?” mused the owner. “Si, e possible!” (As the bemused chef behind him shook his head and mouthed, No, it isn’t!) With enough encouragement (read: getting slapped on the head by the owner), the pizza prevailed and we made our shuttle!
Pizza never tastes as good as after 10 hours of hiking!

The joy of small towns: running into our new friends at the beach the next day. More supper, swimming, and sunsets!
Rock art and calamari cones

To Sarah, Alicia, and Stacy: Thank you for making a beautiful place an even more beautiful experience! This world is so small, we know we will run into you again one day. And remember: Festival du Voyageur is in February, and then you’ll definitely still have time to make it to Mendoza for Vendimia! 😛 Arrivederci, amici…