Hello, friends. This travel blog post will be likely twice as long as most, and surely the longest of the series over these two weeks. But I hope you enjoy “Day 0/zero” our travel day and first night in Florence, as well as thoughts on our first full day, “Day 1.”
Day Zero: Saturday, Sept. 24 – Sunday, Sept. 25
Travel day to Europe was a stressful exercise in “packing engineering.” I had a relatively easy time packing (likely) too much clothing into an exceedingly large bag, as well as close to 40 pounds more in the form of carry-on entertainment reads, laptop, small bathroom supplies, backup clothing, and candy. Erin, on the other hand, took a few hours trying to meet the challenge of packing two weeks into one of those rectangular rollers that most short-distance fliers try and carry on an average flight between L.A. and Sacramento. Orchid was no help, but tried to whine her way into providing as much direction as possible. Who knows if she thinks we got things right … our inability to speak Boxer whining continues to frustrate her I’m sure.
Our Lufthansa (for “identification purposes only”) flight to Munich was smooth (Todd’s anxiety needs that) and relatively easy. It must have been my first flight on an Airbus A340-600, as I don’t ever remember being on a plane that is very long, fits A LOT of passengers, and where one walks down a small flight of stairs to find 5 lavatories. I managed to sleep perhaps a collective 3-4 hours, a minor miracle for me on airplanes, especially given my lack of willingness to lean back very far into the lap of my Father-in-law, sitting in the seat behind me. I watched “Keanu” on the flight, an incredibly funny action-comedy starring one of my favorite comedy duos, “Key & Peele.” (any fans?)
I didn’t even manage to open my eyes, however, for the short jaunt between Munich and Florence, which was aboard and Embraer 195 (Note: I work in manufacturing now, for a company, Nycote Laboratories, which makes anti-conductive, anti-corrosive coatings used widely in aerospace, so you’ll get some airplane references).
And yes, friends, I didn’t admit this to family, but it did feel a little eerie looking out at the tarmac of the Munich airport. Given that August’s summer Olympics are still fresh in my mind … a small chill seemed almost appropriate.
Once in Florence, it was dusk and we enjoyed a nice drive from the airport to our wonderful 3 bedroom apartment that Erin and I would share with my in-laws Fred and Carol, and my brother and sister-in-law Rich and Carrie. It is an amazing place with a huge living room with what must be a 20 foot ceiling. Couldn’t figure out how to work the TV. We unpacked and ventured out for a much needed meal around 6:30 / 7:00PM, a little early for “happening” dinner hour standards here. But we were hungry!
We enjoyed a wonderful dinner not 20 “meters” from our apartment at the charming “Cuculia Ristorante Libreria,” where the wait staff seemed entertained and pleased by our (not overly obnoxious/almost muted) “Oh, my GODs!” and “Oh. Sooooo Goooods” as we dined on an impressive array of meats and cheeses with a starter charcuterie plater. Then, some of the most inventive pasta dishes I’ve ever seen. For me, it was a spinach fettuccini with olive oil, red pesto, and topped with warm almost shavings… Yeah. Delicious! Bed soon followed on our return home.
Day 1: Monday, September 26
No one woke us, so Erin and I slept until 2:30PM, which was a staggering 17 hours for me, and a reasonable 8 hours for Erin who had to battle my snoring and some other issues keeping her from sleeping. Her discomfort was only mitigated by being able to view some “Hallmark Channel” programming online. Oh – you ladies! Meanwhile, the rest of the family made it out on the town by 10:00AM, and we’re debriefing now about the respective days we had out on the town in the central hub of Florence.
Even with the modest 3 hours Erin and I gave ourselves before regrouping with family just after 6:00PM, my phone-connected pedometer easily cleared 10,000 steps as we walked all over Florence’s busy district near the Duomo (see glorious cathedral and dome in my Facebook posts). Naturally, we kept saying to ourselves, “We’re in Italy! We’re in Italy” quietly to ourselves. And it felt like it! Cavernously designed buildings introduced us to very narrow streets and prayers that no fire would break out, as surely it would spread to just about every building within hours. Florence makes Santa Monica’s “density bonus” development structure seem like a city with almost “too much” space by comparison. There were throngs of tourists in the area from seemingly all over the world, and Americans not afraid to where their “Cal Bears” T-shirt or “New Orleans Saints” baseball cap.
We had a light lunch and I was surprised how attentive the service given what one traditionally thinks of European service, which gives tourists space to “dine” at their leisure. Our server was a young, attractive Venezuelan woman who we assumed was Italian until we conversed about how often she herself was corrected on her Italian pronunciation upon moving to Florence 2 years ago. My Greek salad and afternoon cappuccino hit the spot. In other news, I inquired about Florence’s soccer club. She says they are quite good. Time to look them up online!
Erin found one of her favorite baggage/luggage stores and purchased a REALLY cool looking purse/travel bag and stylish new wallet. With that down, she feels she can now focus on gifts for everyone else. Gifts for me are always tough. Should we buy a perishable delight? A boring T-shirt that still nevertheless meets or beats expectations? … Stay tuned.
Dinner tonight came at 8:00PM, and was truly something. Not only was the restaurant very stylish – it was recommended to and enjoyed by my brother and sister-in-law 10 years ago on their Honeymoon – but the food was once again very different that American-style Italian cuisine it places, similar in others, but all-around delicious. Even the menu was unrecognizable – as I posted a photo of it on facebook. Foods one MIGHT recognize simply were worded differently, far more Italian (should come as no surprise), but they even SOUNDED different. I enjoyed a lean pork cut that was breaded and fried over a large leaf of lettuce and smothered in small tomato squares. On the side, I feasted on a delicious bowl of white beans in a slightly salty soup with a single roasted tomato in the middle.
But the real story of the night was that of our server, Mr. Bajram Havalja. He was a loquacious, upbeat man probably around 50 years of age. He was a real pro – probably been a server since the time he landed in Italy in 1994 and likely until he retires. There is no doubt he does very well. He is married 18 years with 2 kids. How do I know this? Because we asked him, and he was more than willing to share his tale. As an Albanian-born man, he – as the Albanians are the few prone to be – very pro-American and I think enjoyed the fact that he was serving us and a couple to our left from Key West (not Bloodline fans, though. We asked, and were collectively disappointed. But I digress). He clearly sees American tourists regularly and I’m sure hundreds have heard his story.
During the War in the Balkans, Bajram took a chance at freedom, crossing into Slovenia, briefly into Croatia, and then on passage to Italy. One must understand that this was a PERILOUS time to negotiate one’s way through small nations at war. But he did it, determined to get to Italy and start a new life. In Croatia, he was held at border security with refugees from all over Eastern Europe with an aim to head west. Most were detained, but Bajram was smart. Wearing nice, dress casual American clothing and a Boston Celtics cap, he approached the guards who were surprised by how strong his English was. When they asked where he was trying to go, he said to Italy so he could get back to his family in Massachusetts. Long story short, it worked, and he’s been in Italy ever since. He now has family in Italy and the United States, along with a sibling back in Albania.
It’s 11:20PM as I wrap up day one. Three hours, 40 minutes to debate time on the East Coast…. I don’t think I’m going bother trying, despite the fact that I’ve just slept almost an entire days-worth of hours overnight and could easily do it. Prayers for Hillary to get her message across, for Trump to screw up and show thin skin, and fir the United States of America to begin to see the clear choice.