Monday, December 26, 2011

Buon Natale

And this will be a sign for you:  you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  Luke 2:12 

The medieval walled village of Laterina lies high on a hill in the Arezzo region of Tuscany, overlooking the Arno River Valley.  The community was about 6 KM from the farmhouse we were staying in and we drove by this walled fortress almost every day on our way to somewhere else.  As we passed by I would peer up at the walls, wondering what lay on the other side.  Laterina was not listed in any of our tour books and was not considered a sight of any monumental value in the eyes of Fodors, Frommers or Rick Steves, so we continued to drive by without pause.  

Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and on Sunday morning, December 11, when we had little on our itinerary for the day, I suggested to Tom and our friends that we drive up and explore Laterina.  They were game and we jumped in the car.  There was a light rain falling and the skies were gray.  We weren't expecting much and when we drove up to the walls, we discovered we needed to park outside the city and walk in.  We grabbed our umbrellas and began the trudge up hill, traversing slippery cobblestones and hoping that the outcome was worth the effort!  As we approached the city we began to see signs announcing a Christmas festival that day and soon, we were accompanied by Italian families with children, eagerly climbing up the steep walk to enter the city walls.  We looked at each other and grinned - this could be fun and interesting!  We'd already discovered the Italian tradition of building nativity scenes (Presepe) in their churches and communities and we began to see familiar words on the banners, announcing a Presepe ahead.   

As we turned the final corner we entered the main piazza of the village and there we discovered the Christmas festival.  Parents and children were scurrying about from booth to booth, playing games and competing for prizes.  Santa Claus (or someone dressed like him!) was visiting with children and handing out bags of goodies and food stalls and craft stands were setup in the streets.  Men were milling about, roasting chestnuts on fires for sale and sipping hot spiced wine.  Women were chasing after their excited children and calling greetings to one another, trying to keep up in the light rain on the slippery cobblestone streets.  Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was crooning from a loud speaker and the sound of his mellow voice singing the traditional carol reverberated around the village, as it bounced off the old stone walls of the city buildings. 

What a unique treat!  This was not a Christmas festival for tourists, that much was clear.  This was entirely local and we were, to our best guess, the only Americans - or tourists, for that matter - in the entire piazza.  People were friendly towards us and as we milled among the craft stalls we began to pick up on a theme - there were stars with long tails above many of the doorways in the village streets and people were coming and going out of each open door.  They were talking and laughing excitedly.  We had seen the sign announcing the Presepe but had not yet found it and began to look around curiously. 

A young woman who spoke limited English saw our confusion and approached us with a friendly smile.  The village was hosting a Presepe contest, she explained.  Every family and church had built their own nativity scene and all were on display in their homes, church buildings, etc. Everywhere the star was displayed over the door, a Presepe was inside for viewing.  She quickly led us to the closest doorway and indicated we should go in and look around.  What we saw astounded us.  There were several nativity scenes, all created in a variety of materials and with a varied appearance, on display throughout the church.  They ranged extensively in their levels of complexity, from the simplest design created by two little girls aged 5 and 6, to an elaborate mechanical display with multiple moving parts, pieces and working lights.  We began to explore the doorways marked by stars - there were well over a hundred different displays, I'm sure.  Each was different then the other.  I did not envy those making the decision for the winning Presepe as all were beautiful in their own unique ways.  We became separated as we were looking around and as I stepped out of one house foyer and turned the corner, I found myself alone in a small medieval alleyway, with a light misty rain falling and the ancient beauty of the village surrounding me. 

Suddenly I heard the soft, sweet sound of a young girls voice singing "Silent Night" in Italian.  I didn't understand the words but I knew the song and I knew what she was singing.  The emotion of the moment struck me and before I knew it, I had tears streaming down my cheeks.  The beauty of the nativity scenes, the lilting sweet voice singing a universally cherished song and the realization that I was standing in a village over 1,000 years old and celebrating the events surrounding Jesus' birth with complete strangers, overwhelmed me.  The simplicity of his birth, born in a manger with a star proclaiming his blessed arrival and announcing him to the shepherds and wise men is a story that never fades and never loses its appeal to Christians around the world.

Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) to my friends and fellow Christians.  May his peace surround you and may you always hold the spirit of his birth in your hearts.

Tip:  Did you know that Christmas Carols and the traditional Nativity scene originated in Italy?  St. Francis of Assisi introduced the carol and the concept soon spread all across Europe.  He also created the first nativity scene using live animals and a manger strewn with hay to re-enact the story of Christ's birth.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Packing for Italy

"When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money. "   - Susan Heller


I love going on trips, but I dread the packing.  I'm getting better at it I must admit, but I still dread it.  I find myself planning way in advance of the departure date, virtually coordinating and packing outfits in my head and wondering how many days those little bottles of travel shampoo will last.

As I looked at the calendar this morning I was struck with a mixed feeling of anxiety and excitement - we are leaving for Italy in 10 days from now!!  I have to start packing and planning this weekend and be ready by this Sunday night - even though our departure date is Monday December 5.  I need to be ready ahead of time since I have a major project wrapping up at work this next week and I'll be flying to Newark, New Jersey December 1-2 to present it.  UGGGHHH!  Now, I'm really feeling anxious.  What if the weather in Newark is bad and my flight home on Friday night is delayed?  What if I don't get home at all?  What if I miss my flight to Italy?  What if.... what if .... what if.....  The list could go on and on and on.  Deep breath. Calm down.  Okay -  think logically.  What do I need to do today, in order to be prepared and relaxed by Monday, December 5?

Let me explain the purpose of this next trip.  My wonderful husband and our dearest friends have planned a get away for all of us for my "milestone birthday", occurring on December 10.  We are renting a farmhouse in Tuscany for 7 days and then transferring to Venice for 4 days before coming home on December 16.  I can't believe we are going to do this - it's really a dream come true.  As I've explained in this blog, I'm a bargain shopper and I travel on a shoestring budget.  That translates to finding the deals (I comb the internet and select sites), traveling during the shoulder or off seasons (luckily, my birthday is during the off season for most destinations -- pre-Christmas, post-Thanksgiving) and using frequent flier miles, hotel points, car rental points, etc.  When Tom and our friends first brought up the idea of a trip to me, they were recommending a Christmas market tour through Germany.  This really did sound wonderful but as I researched and planned, I realized that the trip would be very expensive, difficult to navigate in bad weather, and honestly, how many gingerbread men can you really look at it in two weeks?  So I began my research and planning for a trip in December that all of us could enjoy.

I came upon a trusted website that I had used with great success before,  Tom and I had used this group earlier this year for a trip to Ireland and the entire experience was perfect, from the pricing to the accomodations.  It was on their website that I found our destination -- Il Borro Estate (   The package included airfare from New York, a 7-day car rental, and a 2-bedroom, 2-bath farmhouse for 7 nights, for 4 adults.  It looked beautiful, tucked in a small medieval village in Tuscany with olive groves, vineyards and a full restaurant with the option for private cooking lessons with the chef.  This would be our vacation destination - we all love Italy and the idea of a peaceful Tuscan farmhouse in the countryside between Florence and Siena represented my idea of heaven on earth.  I called Sceptre, added airfare to/from Denver and a side excursion to Venice for after we checked out of the farmhouse.  The price nudged up a bit, but not much and after calling my friends and my husband, I booked the trip.  We were going!  Now, to find a hotel in Venice for three nights.  For this part of my itinerary I turned to another trusted advisor,  I researched Venitian hotels in the approximate area I knew we wanted to stay and came up with a lovely option, Hotel Canal Grande (  I emailed them directly and due to the off-peak timing of our stay, they offered us a special rate that included extras such as a full daily breakfast and gondola transportation.  We were set!

But alas, back to the packing.  I've been checking and so far the weather looks pretty promising -- highs in the 50's, lows in the 30's.  Some sun, some rain.  I'll take 3 pairs of nice jeans, 2 pairs of black pants, sweaters to mix and match, a scarf, a light jacket and a trench coat.  Good walking boots and a pair of tennis shoes and workout clothes - I'm set!  It sounds so simple when I describe it like this but I know that the process will take alot more time and energy.  "The devil is in the details" when it comes to packing - ensuring the clothes all mix and match, a few select pieces of jewelry that will work to dress up or down any sweater and matches with them all, and then those little nagging "things".  Shampoo bottles, makeup containers, kleenex packets and medicines/vitamins/aspirins, etc.  Then, what comes on the plane with me and what can go in checked baggage?  In other words - what can I live without, should it not appear in Pisa when I do?   It's the little things that drive me crazy, but when I start to lose my mind counting daily vitamin doses into miniature containers, I'll pull up the website for Il Borro, sip a calming glass of Italian wine, and dream about how it will feel to be there in just a few more days...... 

Travel Tip:  Pack a few days ahead of time if at all possible.  This helps to eliminate that last minute stress and the risk of forgetting something important.  It also allows you to free your mind and enjoy your time leading up to the departure - keeping everyone more sane and calm in the process.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Go West Young Man! (The West End, that is!)

"Go West young man and grow up with the country."   Horace Greeley

It was our last day on Roatan.  Tomorrow, we would fly home.  We had been having a ball - exploring the island, meeting new people, scuba diving and snorkeling and generally just relaxing, laughing and enjoying life on island time.  We were all soundly in love with this island and knew that we were making the right choice to invest here.  But - we still had not found our land.  Nothing was quite yet fitting our needs and we were beginning to feel disappointment.

The island is divided into two "ends" - the East End and the West End.  The West End, as its name implies, is the west side of the island and is home to a stunning segment of white sand beach and an adorable little village packed with shops, restaurants and small hotels.  We enjoyed coming into West End each day to eat dinner, stroll the white sand beach and cool off in the beautiful, stunning clear waters.  The East End is beautiful, too but most of the tourist activities and small hotels and restaurants are located in West End. 

As we sat on our rental house deck and sipped coffee, preparing our agenda for our last day on the island, Steve showed up with some interesting news.  He had just discovered that a plot of vacant land on a protected bay known as Gibson Bight on the west end of the island was for sale and he wanted us to have a look.  We gamely piled into the Squia and drove towards the west end, following Steve's lead.  When we stopped, got out of the Squia and took a look around the land we knew instantly - this was what we were hoping for!  It was a beautiful piece of land that was right on Gibson Bight and covered with fruit trees, avocado trees, plush vegetation and access to the ocean.  It even had an old well in one corner.  We were stunned and pleased - we had passed the entrance to this property every day on our way to/from the West End and had no idea this would be our final destination!

We fell in love and told Steve - this is it!  Let's buy this land before we leave the island tomorrow.  And so we did.  We were off to Steve's office to settle the paper work and begin the adventure of buying land in a foreign country - a country and culture that we were quickly embracing and excited to join.   We had done our homework and knew that purchasing land in Honduras required forming a corporation but we had not considered the name of our future corporation until we sat in Steve's air conditioned office and began the paperwork process.  When Steve asked for the name we all looked at each with a blank expression - what should it be?  Our last names seemed so boring and ordinary and we wanted something that represented our time in Roatan.  Suddenly someone said "What about Squia?  We can name our corporation after the van!"  At first we all laughed but then we knew - this was the name we would choose!  It was certainly unique and definitely reflective of our island adventures and we would always remember the reason for the name.  The Squia Corporation it is!

And so we ended our week with a newly formed corporation and a wonderful piece of land that we were excited to some day expand on.  As we headed back to the airport the next day and unpacked our mountain of luggage, we felt the tug of sadness at leaving but this was coupled with the excitement of knowing we were definitely coming back - again and again and again and again!!!  All in all - a wonderful week.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

This land is your land, this land is my land...

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.   Attributed to Mark Twain

The first morning of our land seeking adventure dawned clear, blue and hot.  Steve joined us at the island house right at 9 am as he'd promised and we sat down with a cup of coffee to discuss our plans for the day.  "What exactly are you looking for?" Steve asked.  We appreciated his need to understand our goals and we shared that we were looking for a nice piece of property within a certain budget range, close to the water and with opportunities for expansion and perhaps a future business.  Steve considered our requirements for a moment, asked a few more questions to clarify, then said "follow me!".

We piled into our van and followed Steve back to the main road, and away we went on our land hunting adventure!  Steve showed us a variety of land, homes and small business opportunities over the next several days and the more we looked, the more confused we became.  Roatan is an island with limited land available for purchase and it quickly became evident that there was not a great need for title research and land survey reports, as everyone knew who owned what land and where the borders were.  As we walked across a stretch of property Steve would do a wide sweep with his hand and say, "Henry owns the land on that side - the border is right there.  His brother Gordon owns the land on this side and this particular piece is owned by Henry's 3rd wife Vera, who wants to sell and move to the mainland.  She's not getting along with Henry these days and she wants to move back with her family.  Now, if you buy this, you'll have to negotiate the water rights with Gordon and the access rights with Joe, who owns the land in front of Gordon that you'll need to cross to get to this piece...."   And so it went.  We tried valiantly to take notes and keep all of this straight in our heads and I was completely impressed that Steve knew all the ins, outs and particulars of every piece of land.  I found myself humming in my head, "This land is your land, this land is my land ...."

We didn't spend all of our time with Steve as we wanted to explore land that was listed by other agents, too.  At the time that we purchased Roatan didn't have our equivalent of an MLS and agents were somewhat limited to showing their own property listings.  So we engaged the services of a woman named Evelyn, whose website indicated that she had several years of experience and a large variety of land to sell.  Evelyn, it turned out, wasn't quite as interested in aligning with our budget and goals and ended up showing us some beautiful pieces of property but way out of alignment with our budget.  I'll never forget one property in particular - and not because the land was so memorable, but because of our SQUIA adventures in getting to the land!  We had to climb a very narrow and steep dirt road up the side of a jungle covered hill.  Our SQUIA was not a 4-wheel drive vehicle and let me tell you, I've been on rugged 4 wheel drive roads in Colorado that were in much better shape then this one!  But with Jim behind the wheel and the SQUIA squealing like mad, we managed to grind and bump our way up that hill, following Evelyn in her 4-wheel drive Land Cruiser.  We were hanging on, swaying, bumping and sweating in the back of the van as we climbed what seemed to be a straight uphill road.  Finally - we made it to the top!  We parked where Evelyn indicated (actually - the road ended, so we really had no choice!), but the parking was not flat and we worried the van might roll right back down that hill.  Jim, Ransom and Jamison stayed with the van while the rest of us piled out and navigated our way down the other side of that hill to the beach front property below.  This is where it became interesting - for the guys on the hill, at least!  When we had explored the land and hiked back up the hill to debrief the guys, we discovered that they had experienced an adventure all their own! 

The van had indeed begun to slide back down that hill and it took Jim, Ransom and Jamison struggling with the brakes and pushing against it with sheer might to prevent it from careening backwards down a sheer drop off.  What a catastrophe that would have been!  The guys were covered in sweat and had looks of anxiety on their faces when we returned and we were just so grateful no one had been hurt.  We quickly decided that this was definitely not the land for us, piled back into the SQUIA and began the harrowing drive back down that hill, going straight down in squeaky van with overheated brakes.  Let me tell you, we uttered a lot of prayers getting off that mountain!

We parted ways with Evelyn that day and moved back to Steve.  It just didn't seem like her listings were going to be what we needed and the adventures they offered were just a bit more then we were hoping for.  Let the search continue!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bugs, crabs and bats .... I prefer to be underwater!

"I don't like spiders and snakes, but that ain't what it takes to love me.."  Jim Stafford lyrics

Tom's Take:    My family isn’t real big on bugs, spiders or any kind of crawly thing.  But when you go to the tropics that’s exactly what you get.  Except these critters are on steroids.  When we checked into our island house, my job was to be the first one in our bedroom to “check” for any of these wild creatures.  An  island house on Roatan is not quite what we are used to in the States. They are very nice, but usually a little more rustic and a little less, shall we say, bug proof.  After deciding who was assigned which bedrooms, I was given the instructions to “check” the room.  “Check” is translated, "seek out and destroy anything that might make me scream".  In Colorado, I am known to be very brave and efficient at this task.  There isn’t a grasshopper, moth, spider or bee that hasn't felt my wrath.  My wife and daughters have been well protected.
I checked the room out and all looked safe to me but I soon discovered --  night time is when they come out to party.  Our first night turned out to be interesting.  We were basically in a jungle on the edge of the Caribbean ocean.  All the sounds of a jungle can really enhance your dreams, provided you can get to sleep.  There were almond trees over the top of our tin roof dropping almonds all night long - "THUNK, THUNK, THUNK".  Fruit bats the size of small eagles landed on the walls and eves of our island house, squeaking and fluttering as they chased insects.  All this noise, coupled with the urge to get up to use the bathroom from the several Saliva Vida’s (local Beer), kept you from what should have been a peaceful nights sleep in paradise.  I can get used to the sounds, but my wife can hear a caterpillar peeing on a marshmallow three blocks away, and if Sandy can’t sleep Tom won’t get to sleep.  I was periodically awakened by her asking “did you hear that”?  I was asleep, what do you think the answer was?
We went out to dinner most nights and would come back after dark, which was another experience in and of itself.  Crabs come out at night for their own type of party and believe me, they are everywhere! It is very dark at night (no streetlights here) and our house was on stilts because of its proximity to the beach, requiring climbing a flight of stairs to get to the rooms.  There were often so many crabs partying on the beach that it looked like the ground was moving and it was difficult to cross from the car door to the stairs.   My job was to blaze a trail to the steps.  In other words, clear a path and chase away the crabs so the rest of the gang could dash to the stairs and not land on a crab in the process!  Some of those crabs had an attitude. They would square up with you on their hind legs with their claws out -- If I had been packing they wouldn’t have been so tough!  I'll admit - a few of them were quite intimidating and I found myself giving them an extra wide berth.
Eventually we would get up the stairs and after all the laughter and commotion, we would settle down to relax and watch Gecko TV (translated:  watch Geckos eat bugs around the porch light).  This was great entertainment - if you haven't tried it, I suggest you give it a whirl next time you're in the tropics!  I remember one particular evening.  We headed into our rooms to get ready for bed and Sandy went into the bathroom before I had the chance to "check" it out.  Turns out, there was a cockroach in our shower that you could have put a saddle on.  After the mild heart attack I suffered from Sandy’s "quiet and calm" discovery of this lovely insect,  I went into the shower to take care of this critter.  Sandy’s discovery of this guy also alerted Jim and Jan's daughter, Beth.  Let me just say it -- this girl is the bravest woman I know.  She came into our room and offered to take this bug OUT.  My back had been bothering me (well, kind of, but okay -- not really. That bug was BIG), so I accepted her assistance.  She had a butter knife in hand and came into the bathroom with me.  I warned her this was no ordinary cockroach, but she wasn’t afraid. She pulled back the shower curtain and just like in the Hitchcock movie Psycho she went after this cockroach with her butter knife.  Eeeee Eeee Eeee.  She kind of scared me. But the bathroom was safe, and it was comforting to know she was nearby if necessary. 
On this particular trip we had more fun and more unusual experiences but we created some of the best memories we'll ever have.  I wouldn’t have changed a thing.   Except I would have done more diving.  But that is true for all our trips.

Travel Tip:  Pack Bounce dryer sheets in your suitcase and slide them into your bed at night.  Bugs are detracted by their smell and will stay clear of them!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

You bought land.......WHERE??

"People who think too much before they act don't act too much"   Jimmy Buffet

Tom is a fanatical scuba diver.  He instructs SCUBA part time and lives, eats and breathes it the rest of the time.  Our friends Jim and Jan are great divers too.  I, of course, am not.  But - I love white sand and I am always ready to hold down the beach with a margarita and a good book while the clan is diving.  We're very compatible this way!

Jim and Jan told us about this wonderful dive trip they had recently won at a SCUBA trade show event.  They went to the island of Roatan, Honduras and they fell in love with its charm, simplicity and gorgeous natural reef.  We were having dinner together and sharing the pictures and stories of their adventure when suddenly Jim asked, "Would you be interested in buying property on that island?"  Tom and I looked at each other and said, "Sure, why not?"  We had no idea what that would entail and thus - the adventures began!

We invited our grown children to come along, bought airplane tickets, booked an "island house" through VRBO, found a realtor on the island that hailed from Colorado - and on August 7, 2004 we flew to Honduras to start our adventure. 

So imagine this - there are eight of us on this trip and at least 16 bags of luggage, not to mention carry on items.  We had pre-arranged for a van rental at the airport and when the van showed up we all were a bit surprised.  It was almost like reliving a 60's experience with the "love van" - but no flowers, just a scuffed up white exterior and green vinyl row seating.  But it was big enough (barely) to fit all of us and our luggage and with some creative packing by Tom, Jim and Orlando, the baggage attendant at the airport, we managed to squeeze everyone in and off we went to find the island house!  As we began weaving our way around the one narrow paved road on the island - dodging bicyclists, vehicles, pedestrians and dogs, we quickly discovered that our KIA van had a very noisy engine that squealed loudly with every shift and turn, causing everyone around us to stare and laugh as we drove by.  Of course, they could have been laughing at our piles of luggage atop the van, the arms and heads of all of us hanging out the windows of the van as we strained to see everything around us, and just the sheer absurdity of seeing eight American jet-lagged adults navigating through their narrow streets with no clue of where we really going.  Fortunately, we were laughing too and my daughter brightly came up with a new name for our van - the SQUIA (squeaky KIA).  The name stuck and the adventures continued and by the end of the week the entire island knew who we were, why we were there and most certainly, they always heard us coming!

We finally found the island house (trust me - no easy feat!).  The directions we had been given said simply, "leave the airport and head towards Sandy Bay, turn at the cemetery and follow the dirt road to the ocean.  The house in on the left."   Sounds easy enough, right?  After all, there's only one paved road on the island so how can you get lost?  What we didn't realize is that there's more than one cemetery and most certainly, more than one dirt road that leads to the ocean with a house on the left! 

We tumbled out of the van - we were a big, sweaty heap by that time and the adventure was starting to wear a bit thin, but we were here and had found the house - it was time to unpack!  The house was right on the ocean as the owner had said and the views were beautiful.  What the owner didn't say, however, was that there was no air conditioning and we were visiting the island during the hottest August on record.  The house turned out to be four bedrooms, each with a rustic bath, surrounding an open covered deck and a fifth room that served as the kitchen.  All living took place on the covered deck, facing the ocean.  Since it was so hot, that was okay and we quickly delegated bedrooms.  We couldn't wait to get into that ocean and cool off!  Steve, our realtor, was waiting for us when we arrived and we liked him immediately.  He told us of several properties he had lined up for us to see and we agreed to meet at 9 the next morning.

Let the fun begin!

Travel Tip:  VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) is a great website that lists vacation properties around the world.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Siena Itlay: Lunch in the Rain

Italian Quote:  Anni e bicchieri di vino non si contano mai (Age and glasses of wine should never be counted)

Siena Italy - where do I start?  The day dawned cool and gray and we drove to Siena from Soriano with anticipation, having never been there before.  As we parked outside the city walls and began the walk towards the hillside fortress of Siena's walls, a light drizzle began to fall and we instinctively picked up our pace.  The winding old city passageways were confusing at first but once we relaxed and began to get our bearings it slowly began to make sense and we discovered that we were naturally winding our way towards the Piazzo Del Campo.
As we walked through the narrow winding streets I noticed the lovely colorful Pashima scarves that men and women were wearing.  I spied the entrance to a brightly lit shop displaying a rainbow of beautiful scarves and quickly ducked inside.  I purchased several of the soft wool pashimas - some for me and others for friends and family, then received a quick lesson from the sales clerk in the art of wearing the pashima.   With her help I looped a colorful pink scarf around my neck and stepped back out into the light rain, feeling instantly warmer and happy inside.  Tom, of course, was not as interested in colorful scarves and had stayed outside the shop to snap pictures of the streetscape.  He captured a lovely photo that will always represent Siena to me - the bright shop entrances casting their light on the wet cobblestones and people moving through the streets with their colorful umbrellas, going about their life and business in a wonderfully relaxed way.

We found a cafe with outdoor seating at the edge of the Piazzo Del Campo and settled down under the awnings to watch passers-by and enjoy the leisurely pace of life in Siena.  It was lunchtime and we were definitely in vacation mode by now - a carafe of red wine with our pasta would be a wonderful way to enjoy a relaxing lunch!  There is no need to ask for a particular label or variety - red or white is all you need ask for, as any of the wines are superb and delicious. 

We snuggled together, enjoyed the warming red wine, listened to soft raindrops on the awning above and watched the local school children dance in the rain on the Piazzo.  We grinned at each other - I was getting used to this lifestyle!  It would be hard to go back home to the lunch hour spent at my desk with emails and voicemails waiting to be returned.  But for today I was not going to think about that - I was going to enjoy the moment with my husband in a beautiful old city, a carafe of red wine and a plate of mushroom ravioli in front of us with a light rain providing soft background noise.  Life is beautiful!

Travel Tip:  Take time to enjoy the liesurely pace of life where you are.  And don't count the glasses of wine or your age...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

July 4th across the nation

"I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!"
~ Patrick Henry, speech to the Second Virginia Convention

The fourth of July is a celebration of American freedom and liberty.  The day is full of symbolism and meaning, including fireworks that symbolize the battles waged for freedom and the general feeling of celebration among the American citizens.  It's not a holiday that can be argued against or religiously ignored like many of the other dates on the calendar.

Freedom and liberty are such precious gifts and we in the United States are incredibly blessed to experience the freedoms we have.  When our children were younger it occurred to us that they should experience 4th of July celebrations around the U.S. in order to gain perspective on the fact that this is a National celebration, uniting all of us together.  We wanted to expose them to how others across this great nation celebrate the victory of independence declared over 200 years ago.  Our quest to experience the 4th of July around the U.S. has taken us to some wonderful and fun destinations. 

Cortez, Colorado is a small town near the Mesa Verde National Park.  They have only one small city park and it was a very sparse and dry park.  As we approached with our requisite bucket of chicken and blankets, the kids were looking around uncertainly, wondering, "what kind of display could this town have?"  We spread out our blanket and waited enthusiastically for the sun to set and to our immense delight, this little town put on a better fireworks display then we have witnessed in our own large city!

Yellowstone National Park is a national treasure and we explored Old Faithful and witnessed the romping of grizzly bears, moose and buffalo for several days.  On the evening of the 4th we drove to the nearby community of Jackson Hole Wyoming and were treated to a wonderful display of fireworks set off from Snow King Mountain.   I chuckled to myself, picturing the moose and bison in the park, peering up at the evening sky wondering what they were witnessing as colors and sparkling lights twinkled overhead.

Newport Oregon.  It was a cold, windy and rainy 4th of July day and we were sure the fireworks would be cancelled.  We had rented a condo on the bay and settled in that evening (again with that requisite bucket of chicken!) to see what would happen.  As the evening progressed the sky cleared and the wind died down and once more - we were treated to a fireworks display to rival others.  The fireworks burst out over the open ocean, the sun was still spreading tiny rays of color across the western edge of the sky, and we had the best seats in the house - on the deck of our wonderful condo with cold chicken in hand and warm blankets wrapped around us.

Washington DC.  We decided to visit our nation's capital and expose our children to the rich history of our national city.  This trip was pre-9/11 and we were allowed to spread our blankets on the Whitehouse lawn to watch the fireworks display over the Washington monument.  The parks were crowded to maximum capacity but the crowd was calm and family oriented, excited to witness the 4th of July celebration in our nation's capital.  The display was nothing short of amazing and afterwards we packed up our blankets and kids and headed to the subway.  This is where the trip became a bit of a nail biter, as thousands of people began to crowd the subway station together, so close that we could not move in any direction and our little family became separated.  I grabbed the hands of my two youngest children and refused to let go, no matter how tight my grip.  I lost track of my husband but my oldest son is tall and I could see his head above the crowd ahead of me.  He was looking around, trying to maintain sight of me and in his eyes I saw the wild look of desperation and fear.  I prayed he'd stay calm in the crowd.  We made it back to the hotel safely and as I reflected the next day I was very impressed with what had happened the night before.  We were enveloped in the largest crowd I'd ever been in and swept through the crowd by sheer force.  But everyone was calm and kind and considerate of one another.  What a testimony to the goodness of mankind.

The Big Apple and Lady Liberty.  I've watched the NYC fireworks display on television many times and always marveled at their grandeur.  I saw the image of the Statue of Liberty, holding her torch with the fireworks illuminating behind her.  This year, we would see that show live!  We watched the display from a boat on the Hudson River and once more, we were not disappointed by the experience.  It was a very moving time for me, watching the fireworks bursting overhead and seeing the statue illuminated on her island in the background, representing freedom to the huddled masses that immigrated to our great nation.    

Kauai, Hawaii.  Fireworks on an island, over the ocean, with the calming tropical breezes sweeping over and around you.  The little island of Kauai has as rich a 4th of July celebration as any other part of the U.S. and when I consider all this island state went through in WW II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the resulting battles that were waged, I felt a pride for our American military and a deep respect for the men whose lives were lost on December 7, 1941.

Windsor Colorado.  My son was a member of the Volunteer Fire department and he was a part of the fireworks crew on a recent 4th of July.  We got the privilege of front row seats to the local show, since he was one of the crew putting it on.  As we moved in that evening and settled down with our lawn chairs, blankets and friends, the Fire Chief gave us the opening lecture of safety first at such a close proximity to the fireworks.  When he ended the speech he said, "And now for the most important thing to remember.  If you see me running - you'd better run to!"  We stared at him in concern for a minute, wondering if this would really be necessary, and he laughed at our faces and expressions.  "Don't worry," he said, "I was really just joking with you on that one".
Watching fireworks in such close proximity to the launch pad and seeing my son in his fire gear moving around the front line, I felt such pride. 

What a great nation we live in!

Travel Tip:  Always join in the local celebrations wherever you happen to be.  This is the true way to experience the life of those in other places!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Give me your eyes...

Look down from a broken sky
Traced out by the city lights
My world from a mile high
Best seat in the house tonight

Touch down on the cold black top
Hold on for the sudden stop
Breath in the familiar shock
of confusion and chaos
All those people going somewhere
Why have I never cared?

Give me your eyes for just one moment,
Give me your eyes so I can see.
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity

"Give me your eyes", by Brandon Heath from the album What if We

As I listened to this song my mind drifted to all of the airports that I have been in over the years, both for business and personal travel.  All of those people going somewhere - people that I have seen, walked past, sat next to and yet, will never know.  Why have I never cared?

Those words began to haunt me.  I know that it is impossible to meet everyone that we encounter, but it is not impossible to meet a few and certainly not impossible to care.  I made a concious decision - as much as it is possible, I will get to know something about the people that sit next to me on every flight.  Instead of just being the person in seat 24B I would work to place an identity with the individual.  What a difference that decision has made in my life and my travels.

A young man sits next to me in the last row, middle seat of a very full flight from Newark to Denver.  He's going home to visit his mother and siblings for a week before being deployed to Afghanistan for the next two years.  He spoke lovingly of his mother and her heroic efforts to home school her four children while working to provide for their future.  I thought of his mother and felt a tug on my heart - she must feel a combination of excitement to see her son and fear for his well being when he leaves again next week.

A woman about my age shares the exit row with me on a recent trip to Phoenix.  She was going to plan the funeral of her mother, who'd passed away unexpectedly the night before.  She shared stories of her mother and even laughed a little at the memories.  As we touched down on the Phoenix runway I stole a glance her way.  Tears were running down her cheeks as she looked out the window and I felt tears of my own begin to well up.

A middle-aged business man sits next to me on a trip from Dallas to Guatemala City.  He is traveling to Guatemala City to visit his family and he spoke of the poverty and war that has taken hold in the city and made its people captive.  But his pride for his country shone through as he described the beautiful countryside and the gentle spirit of the Guatemalan people.  I explained that I was traveling with a medical team, on our way to hold a clinic in a remote mountain village.  As we stood to exit the plane, he touched my shoulder and said, "you will be blessed for this".  And oh, how I have been.

Give me your eyes for just one minute, give me your eyes so I can see.  Everything that I keep missing, give me your love for humanity.....


Brandon Heath - Give Me Your Eyes 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lunch with a Princess? Tom's Take...

"If you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true"    Cinderella

Tom's Take:   Ok I’ll admit, when Sandy first said that we were going to have lunch with a Princess in her castle my initial reaction was, "Boy, someone sold you a bill of goods. Is Elvis going to be there too?"   I mean really, who does that kind of stuff?  We are Tom and Sandy from Colorado, not Tom and whoever he’s married to from Hollywood.  How much wine did she have to drink anyway?  I went along with it because she was so excited, and it’s usually me taking her down some goofy boondoggle.  I thought, maybe I’ll finally know what it feels like to smile at her and say "See, I told you so”.

We arrived in Vignanello by train and when we walked up to the front of the castle I was expecting to see a pumpkin shaped carriage parked in the circular drive.  I figured the guy that was going to answer the door would look strangely like a mouse.  None of that happened and I was becoming slightly disappointed.  Instead we were met by a lovely woman who introduced herself as Princess Giada Ruspoli.  What, no big billowing blue gown? And no glass slippers? I’ll bet Elvis isn’t here either. She led us to her private quarters, a large room with a massive fire place, and a roaring fire. There we were treated to appetizers and an endless glass of wine.  The room overlooked the family garden, with path ways and sculptured trees and hedges.  I found myself thinking, "I could get used to this".   After a great lunch she led us on a tour of the castle where she showed us a room the Pope had slept in during the 16th century and revealed private escape passage ways behind hidden doors.  It was amazing! 

She later took us to her family's church a few blocks away, where the church organ was designed by George Frideric Handel.  I know, I said “who” too.  Handle is the great composer who wrote Handles Messiah and he was commissioned by the Ruspoli family to build the organ for the church. Floriana, the guide that had set all this up, serenaded us with her beautiful opera voice accompanied by a friend playing the organ and the acoustics were amazing.  Even without the glass slippers this was a very fun day. But the castle was the best part. Oh if I had been a little boy growing up in that place with all the rooms and secret passageways hide and seek would have gone on for days.  Okay, so once again Sandy was right.


Travel Tip:  Talk to the locals, they always know of the secret sites to visit!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lunch with an Italian Princess!

The morning after we checked into the Palazzo we met Floriana. Born and raised in Soriano, this beautiful young woman led us and our new companions on a walking tour of the village and the castle. She shared the village history in such a real manner that I half expected to see Roman soldiers awaiting us as we crossed the drawbridge into the castle.  Another day, Floriana took us to meet her friend, the Princess Giada Ruspoli, and we were all invited by the Princess to have lunch with her in the private quarters of her castle in the village of Vignanello.  Lunch with a Princess!  This was every girls dream and I was so excited at the prospect.  Princess Ruspoli was pleasant and friendly and her staff served us a wonderful lunch while we ate and sipped wine in her private quarters in front of a roaring fire.  Her beautiful castle has an amazing history all of its own, including playing host to Popes and to George Frideric Handel himself.  She shared the history of the castle and her family as she led us on a private tour of the castle.  After this wonderful lunch and castle tour, Floriana took us to the small village church which boasts an organ built by Handel in the 16th century, while he stayed in Vignanello as a guest of the Ruspoli family.  This castle and church are not on the tourist lists of Italy and had it not been for Floriana and her relationship with the Princess we would never have known of this historical gem.  As we sat in the wooden pews of the church, the organist played the organ and Floriana sang the most beautiful version of "Ava Maria" I have ever heard.  The accoustics were amazing and the organ had perfect pitch.  I had tears in my eyes as I listened to the sweet sound of Floriana's voice and thought of the history I was experiencing that day.

And on yet another day Floriana and her talented friends entertained us with an opera dinner at the Palazzo. The talents of this little troupe was very evident and we all enjoyed the evening immensely.  These activities allowed us a rare peek into the lives of the local Italian people and each of us came away feeling richer for the experience.

We had numerous wonderful experiences in Italy, more then I can possibly share in this blog.  We made a connection with each person we met, and made friends quickly for the remainder of our time there.  For me, the real beauty of travel is meeting fellow humans across the globe.  My true meaning of humanity is the realization that we are all the same inside, no matter where we are born or the upbringing we experience.  Our dreams and hopes, our fears, longings and our prayers echo those of each other.  I look forward to my next adventure!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

European Adventures: All Roads Lead to Rome

Our first trip to Italy was a dream come true.  I planned our itineray, used frequent flyer miles and a timeshare exchange for the accomodations and booked the rental car online.  We were ready!  We landed in Rome on a beautiful sunny morning and that's when the fun began.  But to do this story justice, it needs to come from the perspective of my chauffer/husband - the driver and navigator who drove us through the country. 

Tom's Take:

“Driving in Rome will test every fiber of your marriage”  Pete B.
Our dear friend Pete and his lovely wife Wendy are world travelers and wonderful people. It would take Pete less time to tell you where he hasn’t been then where he has been. Pete is a New York Italian and has been a great influence and travel adviser.  When I told him Sandy and I were going to Rome, he was excited and asked our itinerary. When we mentioned we would be driving from Rome to Soriano, he paused and said “Driving in Rome will test every fiber of your marriage”.  I kind of laughed him off, and we talked more about the trip. But his comment kept ringing in my head. Surely it can’t be that bad. I mean, I have driven in may countries and I’m a good driver.  I’ve driven in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, LA. I’ve driven in Honduras and Cayman (they drive on the left side), heck I even drove from Colorado all the way to Cabo San Lucas with my buddy Jim, how bad could it possibly be?
I soon discovered it would be easier to defuse a nuclear bomb, blind folded, with my fingers taped together riding down the Colorado River in a raft, then driving your way around Rome. Here in the good old USA on every street corner there is a sign telling you what street you’re on and what street you’re crossing.  Somebody should bring that idea up to the
Italian street
department. Oh sure, every few blocks on the side of the building is an old plaque with the name of the street.  The sign is old and high above the street level and probably placed there by Caesar himself.  By the time you find a sign you have already passed where you needed to turn, and intersections -- oh my.  Most don’t have a stop sign, you just  close your eyes and go through (at least I did).  It takes both of you to get out of that town. Quite often the driver behind me would be so close I could smell his breath and count his whiskers. 
Pete could have shared this information with me, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as letting me find out for myself.   We finally got out of Rome and found our way to Soriano, but to this day neither one of us could tell you how we did it or what route we took. After a beautiful and restful week in the countryside of Italy we drove to Florence.  Sandy asked if we might need directions to the hotel we were headed to. Of course I said “No, Florence couldn’t possibly be worse than Rome”.  One more piece of information Pete could have passed on. Thanks Pete.

Travel Tip:  Always book your rental car before heading overseas.  You will get the best rates that way!

Amicizia Duratura: Lasting Friendships in Italy

In planning the itinerary for our upcoming trip to Italy, I could never have predicted the people I would meet during my travels or the lifelong impressions they would leave.  The people, it turns out, were the most fascinating part of Italy.

Tom and I began our adventures in Rome, that most wonderful blend of ancient and modern cities.  We stayed at  Hotel Giuliana, a small, clean hotel that fit our traveler’s budget.  Touring ancient Rome and Vatican City was awe-inspiring and wonderful, but soon it was time to move on.  The morning of our departure, when we ventured out to the hotel breakfast room, we found someone new sipping a cappuccino and she smiled broadly at our appearance.  She introduced herself as Jean Santa Croce, the proprietor of this wonderful little hotel and as she invited us to sit and enjoy our breakfast with her, our stories began to unfold. 

So many commonalities we had, as we talked about our pasts, our futures, our children, our hopes and dreams, and our faith.  We talked and talked and I suddenly became aware that over an hour had passed and we had all comfortably shared so much with one another.  We began as complete strangers, yet after one hour of conversation, we came to know one another as humans who share common worries, hopes, dreams and joys.

We left Rome with mixed feelings – we had loved our time there and knew we would return.  But more adventure awaited us!  Our next stop was the small village of Soriano Nel Cimino, a beautiful medieval town in the hills of Lazio, about 80 miles north of Rome.  As we rounded the curves of the mountain road, winding gracefully up the hills towards the village, we saw the castle of Soriano rising magnificently above the village walls, casting its shadow over the town and the people.  The castle evoked visions of fairy tale settings and different times, when the wealthy landlord ruled over the village people and the village sought protection within its thick stone walls. 

Using our timehsare exchange, we stayed at Palazzo Catalani, a former palace and the only lodging available in Soriano.   The Palazzo was beautiful and our room was authentic yet comfortable and inviting.  We were the only American guests registered that week.  The other 18 guests were from England, Ireland and Scotland.  As we gathered before dinner, sipping wonderful local wine and munching on bruschetta, we learned about the others who would share this week with us.  All were friendly and open, having just arrived that day and the soothing wine was calming our travel weary bodies.  We shared stories of our lives and families, forming connections and friendships that would last past the week.  So many of our new friends had common lives and stories and as the week progressed we found there was something unique that we could share with each one of them.

Travel Tip:  Renting or bringing an international GPS device (like Garmin or Tom Tom), can be invaluable when navigating in foreign countries!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

When did the travel bug bite?

Sandy's Story:  I can't tell you exactly when it happened but I do know this - the bug bit, and it bit hard.  As a child growing up we traveled some but I always heard my parents talk of the travels they would take upon retirement - those trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean, etc.  Retirement never came for my mother, she passed away at the young age of 44, having never realized her dream of that Hawaiian vacation.  Life is short and there are no guarantees, I learned this from my mother.  And it is in her memory and as a tribute to her, that I travel today.  I travel to expand who I am and to experience as much of God's creation as possible.  And I think of my mother on each adventure - dedicating my travels to her memory.  Fortunately, my husband is just as much of a travel hound as I am and we have friends and family that we often travel with.  We seek fun and different adventures as we plan each itinerary and every trip is different from the last.  And my husband is an excellent photographer, capturing our experiences in fun pictures perfect for reminiscing later.  I've learned alot along the way and I'll share my knowledge with you in travel tips and ideas.  Before long, you'll have been bitten by the travel bug and you, too, will be experiencing extraordinary travels!

Tom's Take:  Other then occasional trips to Illinois to visit relatives, my family didn't travel much when I was a child.  My first experience with travel was at the end of my college years, when I was recruited and flown to San Jose, CA for job interviews.  This was my first plane ride and Santa Cruz was my first experience with the ocean.  I was so excited to see the Pacific and I made a mad dash for the waves, planning to body surf my way back to the beautiful beach.  I ended up being tossed around like a rag doll and thrown onto the beach - no graceful movements here! As I lay on the beach breathless, a typical "beach dude" approached me with a grin.  Looking down at my sand filled face he chuckled and said "This is your first time at the ocean, isn't it?"  I had to laugh.  But there was no doubt that I was bitten that day and the bug bit hard.