Things We’ll Miss about Living in Italy . . . and Things We Won’t

As our year in Italy rapidly draws to a close (it’s hard to believe how quickly it has flown by), we spent some time thinking about the many things here that we’ll miss when we return to the United States.  The discussion also morphed into some grousing about the things we won’t miss when we get back home.  Here they are.

Things we’ll miss . . .

1.  The clinking sound that the saucers and little spoons make as the barista lines them up on the bar and readies them for the tazzini (the small espresso cups) holding caffè macchiati.  It’s a sound you hear as soon as you enter bars throughout Italy.

2.  I vini, the many wonderful and often inexpensive wines throughout Italy.  We’ve been fortunate to travel to many of the regions in Italy and to sample the local varietals.  From the Sagrantino and Orvieto Classico of Umbria, to the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Chianti Classico of Tuscany, the Nero d’Avola of Sicily, the Aglianico of Campania and many, many others, it’s been a real treat.  A bonus is that the mark up on wines in restaurants is far less than in the U.S. so you can drink pretty well at a restaurant for a reasonable price.

3.  Attending Mass at the many beautiful churches throughout Italy.  It’s hard to beat having Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Duomo in Orvieto as your home parishes.

Our "parish" church in Orvieto

Our “parish” church in Orvieto

4.  The artwork everywhere.  We’ve grown accustomed to walking down the street and seeing incredible sculptures, fountains, frescoes, churches, historical buildings and ruins as part of our daily routine.  Fortunately, we have not become jaded by it.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

5.  Il caffè.  We really enjoy the coffee in Italy, particularly the caffè macchiato, espresso “stained” with a splash of milk.  When we get it in a bar, the clinking of the cups and saucers (see no. 1) just adds to the experience.


6.  I pomodori (the tomatoes):  All fourteen different types (or however many there are), each with a different, specific and restricted use.  God forbid you should use the salad tomatoes to make bruschetta.

7.  Seeing the pope so many times this year (four times for Pope Benedict XVI and twice for Pope Francis) that it doesn’t seem like that big a deal any more.  Wow, is that the definition of spoiled Catholics or what?

8.   The cinghiale (wild boar) and coniglio (rabbit) so common on restaurant menus in Umbria.  The cinghiale is amazing, and Kevin is really going to miss that, maybe more than anything else about our year here.  We’ll also miss the porchetta panini, sandwiches made with roast pig stuffed with herbs and spices. In general, the food in Umbria is amazing.

9.  Seeing how excited Italians in small towns and villages get when we speak Italian to them.  Italian is not one of the European languages that a lot of people learn, and the Italians in the smaller towns really appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language with them.  The Romans, not so much (see no. 5 below).

10.  Gli spuntini (snacks) that accompany a glass of wine or a beer in a cafe in Italy.  Italians traditionally have viewed alcoholic drinks as something consumed with food.  As a result, when you order a glass of wine in a caffè, particularly away from tourist hotbeds, you usually get a nice selection of snacks along with the drink.

The array of gli spuntini we got in Siracusa when ordering two glasses of wine

The array of gli spuntini we got in Siracusa when ordering two glasses of wine

11.  The friends we’ve been fortunate to make in Italy.  There are Anna and her friend Tino who were our contacts when we arrived in Rome and helped guide us through some of the bureaucracy, Anna and Enrico, each of whom started out as our partners in “scambia lingua” where we helped them learn English and they helped us with Italian but who became much more than language partners and with whom we spent time visiting some off-the-beaten path sights of Rome, and Julie and Angelo, who were in Rome while Julie worked at the U.S. Embassy and who have pledged to become Biking Meerkats for next year’s ride.

12.  I gelati — need we say more?

13.  Pizza al taglio — “Cut” pizza to go that is very popular in Rome

14.  Olive oil — this list is starting to develop a real food theme, but the olive oil imported into the U.S. just doesn’t compare with getting it fresh here.

15.  The ease of traveling by train throughout Italy.  The U.S. is really woefully behind on this count.

16.  The ability to travel easily to so many other places in Europe and around the Mediterranean.  We were able to travel with short flights to Greece, Israel, Austria and Turkey as well as to Sicily.  While planning a trip to Greece would seem like a big deal, here, with the ability to cross borders in many European countries without even showing a passport and given the short distance, it was like flying from Boston to Washington.

17.  The many types of fresh, homemade pasta (yes, more food) you can buy from small shops all over town.

18.  Going out for a walk in Rome with the opportunity to stroll easily past sights like St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, the Colosseum and Piazza Navona.

The fountain in front of the Pantheon at night

19.  Listening to the church bells near our apartment in Orvieto chime “Ave Maria” every evening at 7:00 p.m.

20.  Shopping for dinner at the outdoor markets for vegetables and fruits and hitting the butcher shop and bakery almost daily to get the freshest food.

21.  The “meat truck” at the Saturday market in Orvieto.

22.  The festivals that take place all over Italy, most of which are either religiously or food based.  We were fortunate to experience Il Palio in Siena, the Festa de Noantri in Trastevere in Rome and the feast of Corpus Domini in Orvieto to name just a few.

Siena's Il Palio horserace around the city's main square

Siena’s Il Palio horserace around the city’s main square

23.  The incredible views of the Umbrian countryside that are just a five-minute walk from our apartment.

The countryside near Orvieto

The countryside below Orvieto

24.  La passeggiata, the traditional evening stroll throughout Italy.  At around 5:30 p.m. or so it seems like all Orvietani pour out of their homes, shops and offices and stroll down the Corso Cavour for “face time” and visiting with friends.

And, alas, things we won’t miss

While our time here has been enjoyable beyond description, a year in a foreign culture brought with it many differences, some of which have left us shaking our heads or a bit disappointed.

1.  The smoking.  At times it seems like all Italians smoke and smoke all the time.  EU regulations now thankfully prohibit smoking inside restaurants.  On the downside, that means the smoking diners congregate at the outside tables, often driving us inside in good weather.

2.  Making change in stores.  Italian store clerks seem to have some sort of deep-seated, almost religiously-based aversion to making change.  When we pay in a store with cash the clerks perform some sort of arithmetic gymnastics and ask if we have some unfathomable quantum of change so they can minimize the amount of change they need to count out.  A “no” answer is met with an audible huff, often accompanied by some mumbled words apparently indicating exasperation.  On the other hand, one of the enjoyable experiences is watching a clerk’s eyes light up and seeing her smile when we give her exact change.

3.  The dog waste we had to dodge each day on the sidewalks outside our apartment in the Trastevere section of Rome.  Romans in general, and the inhabitants of Trastevere in particular, are not big on curbing their dogs.

4.  The complete disregard for others that it seems many Italians and so many Romans show.  It was commonplace to have people in line at the grocery store work to cut in front of us, and even the line to receive Communion at Mass often resembled a rugby scrum.  We’re not sure if it’s overt rudeness or whether it is just the culture. While in Rome the other day and in a line, an Italian cut in front of about four people, and Deirdre shook her head.  An Italian woman told her that it was “just an Italian characteristic that they don’t respect the line.”  I jokingly told Deirdre one day that my goal before we leave Italy is to convert Italians to Christianity.  I’m running out of time and don’t have much to show for my efforts.

5.  Speaking Italian to shop keepers, wait staff, etc. in Rome and getting a response in English.  A surprising number of Romans (and Italians all over the country) speak English, and many Romans insisted on conversing only in English no matter how hard we tried to speak Italian with them.  And in many cases their English was only a bit better than our Italian.  Along with this we can add the lack of customer service in restaurants and stores in Rome.  When you enter a store in Rome, a clerk, after speaking to you in English, will tail you throughout the store, watching you as though you are a known shop lifter.   In restaurants the service from the wait staff is barely passable at best.  It’s obvious Roman waiters are paid a salary and don’t work for tips. In Orvieto though it is a different story, and it is a pleasure to go out to dinner.

6.  The lack of screens on the windows.  This one we just don’t get.  It’s not like they don’t have bugs here.  Of those they have plenty.  Yet windows in Italy, no matter how new and how nice, do not come with screens.  That means that when you open the windows to let the air in, you have to invite flies and mosquitoes in as well.  Somehow the Italians either are immune to the bugs, or they just don’t care.

7.  Doing laundry.  Washing our clothes in Italy occupied too much of our time and required an inordinate amount of planning.  Washing machines take almost 2.5 hours to do a single load, and Italians don’t have dryers because of the high cost of electricity.  As a result, once the 2.5 hour cycle is done, we have to hang the clothes to air dry. We often would have to adjust our schedule to make sure we were home when the laundry was done to start the drying process. We joke that we have spent way too much time and mental energy thinking about laundry.

8.  The rain.  It rains a lot in Italy in the winter.  That sunny Mediterranean climate we all fantasize about lasts only from May (usually) through late October/early November.  The rest of the time it rains. While it’s hard coming from New England to complain too much about a usual high of 52 and rain in January, the frequent rain and constant dampness leave the winter more uncomfortable than anticipated.  We quickly learned not to leave the house in the winter without our umbrellas, no matter how sunny the skies.  And Romans seem to have some magical ability to make an umbrella appear on demand.

9.  Our neighbors in Rome.  While we lived in a great location, at times our neighbors made it seem like we were living on the set of the old The Honeymooners show.  Thankfully we couldn’t interpret much of the language we heard.

10.  The strikes and demonstrations.  Italians will strike at the drop of a hat and love a good demonstration that shuts down streets, traffic, public transportation and the like.  The rail system and city public transportation are notorious for staging one-day strikes (occurring almost without fail on Fridays) announced about a week in advance.  These strikes happen every few weeks, and it’s hard to understand the purpose (unless it’s just for a three-day weekend) since they all go back to work the next day.

11.  Public and restaurant bathrooms.  We constantly joked about the sorry state of restrooms often found in even nice restaurants in Rome.  The restrooms usually suffered from four shortcomings besides being of questionable cleanliness:  (1) no toilet paper; (2) no hot water (cold water is a little uncomfortable on a January evening); (3) no soap; and (4) no paper towels.  When one of us returned from a restroom, we would jokingly report on how it graded out on these items.

Categories: Italy Travel, Musings on Italian Life, Observations on Intereresting Peoples, Rome | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

We moved — to Orvieto!

That’s right. For those of you who think we still live in Rome, think again. We moved to Orvieto, a small town in Umbria, at the end of February (yes, I know I am very late with this post). Rome was amazing, but we thought it was time to try a different type of life in Italy (and also to get some sleep without our crazy Roman neighbors yelling all night).

We had been to Orvieto on two prior trips to Italy so we knew that we would like living here. We chose it for its proximity to Rome (only about 1 1/2 hours by train) so it would make it easy for us to get to the city and the airport and also for friends and family to visit. While still close to Rome, we feel as though we are also very far away.

Orvieto is a beautiful old medieval hilltop town that sits atop a big cliff of tufa that juts 1,000 ft straight up. Unlike other hill towns that are built up the side of the hills, this is one perched on the top and is quite the sight to see. Once you get off the train you take the funiculare (which apparently is an English word but I had never heard of it until I went to Italy) up to the historic center where we live.

Orvieto up on the cliff

Orvieto up on the cliff

It is a historically important city as the pope often would stay in Orvieto when Rome was under attack as the city was easily defendable. One of the times the pope was here the Miracle of Bolsena occurred (Bolsena is a small town about 18km away) upon which the Catholic doctrine of Corpus Domini is based and celebrated at the beginning of June. Since the pope was in Orvieto and not Bolsena, a beautiful cathedral was built in Orvieto to commemorate the miracle (needless to say the people of Bolsena felt cheated). It is truly a sight to behold and one of our favorite churches in Italy. The facade is intricately carved and decorated, and, while much of the interior has been returned to its gothic beginnings, there is the Chapel of San Brizio that Luca Signorelli frescoed where I could stand all day and marvel at the paintings.

Duomo in Orvieto

Orvieto’s Duomo and the busy piazza

To celebrate the feast of Corpus Domini the city of Orvieto stages a series of events with the most important being the Corteo Storico, or Historic Procession. This year is the 750th anniversary of the miracle so it was extra special. Residents of the city and surrounding cities dress in period clothing and actually take on the role of important people from the time of the miracle. The whole procession took an hour for it to pass and was so much fun to watch.

This is actually our landlady!

This is actually our landlady!

DSCN8236 DSCN8218 DSCN8248 DSCN8204

We live in the medieval end of town. Our street is charming, and the views off into the countryside are amazing. We have found our favorites stores in our little neighborhood. Again we have our local butcher and bread store. The butcher is run by a nice multi-generational family. After one of the women has served us out front and we tell her “arrivederci,” we always hear a distant “arrivederci” from the son in the back too. It makes me smile.

There also is a market that is only in town two days a week where we buy our fresh fruit and vegetables. Kevin likes it most on Saturday when a truck with freshly roasted meat is there. He affectionately calls it the “meat truck.”

(Below see views of our front door, the street where we live, the courtyard behind our apartment, me shopping at the market and just down the street from us in town).

DSCN8441 DSCN8452 DSCN8648 DSCN8651 DSCN5805 DSCN0259

It has been really nice living here. It has a smaller town feel but is a very active community. We never know what we may run into at night in the piazzas. We have been able to speak a lot more Italian as there are fewer people who speak English here. The people in the stores are much more willing to chat with us than when we were in Rome.  It has been a nice surprise that as we have been saying goodbye to people around town, everyone keeps asking if we will be back next year.  I usually say “forse cinque anni,” or “perhaps in five years.” We really are going to miss this place.

View out of Orvieto after climbing the town tower

View of Orvieto after climbing the town tower

This is my favorite view of the countryside. It makes me smile every time.

This is my favorite view of the countryside. It makes me smile every time.

Categories: Italy Travel, Musings on Italian Life, Observations on Intereresting Peoples, Pope | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Here Comes the Holy Spirit (on a Zip Line)

Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. When Jesus told the Apostles that the Father would send them the Holy Spirit in His name (John 14:26), I doubt He envisioned the Holy Spirit arriving via a zip line.

While Deirdre and I have attended a number of interesting feste (events associated with religious celebrations) and sagre (festivals associated with food or the harvest) during our year in Italy, I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite as unusual as Orvieto’s Festa della Palombella held on Pentecost Sunday.  Orvieto has celebrated La Palombella, a reenactment of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending on the Blessed Mother and the Apostles, since the 14th century.  While originally the depiction took place inside the cathedral, it had to be moved outside in the 1800’s after the Church prohibited the use of fireworks inside churches.  Now at noon a live white dove representing the Holy Spirit arrives at a mock-up of the Cenacle (the “Upper Room” that was the site of the Last Supper) set up in front of Orvieto’s magnificent Duomo or cathedral.  The interesting part is how the dove gets there and what happens on its arrival.

The Duomo in Orvieto showing the route the dove travels

The Duomo in Orvieto showing part of the route the dove travels.

A Cenacle constructed of wood and containing figures of the Blessed Mother and the Apostles is placed in front of the cathedral.  At noon on Pentecost Sunday, the bishop of Orvieto-Terni waves a white handkerchief to set events in motion.  At his signal the Capomastro ignites rockets of some sort placed around the box holding the live dove, and the dove, with smoke billowing from the contraption, hurtles its way along a wire strung high over the street from the Church of St. Francis to the front of the cathedral.  On arriving at the top of the Cenacle on the steps of the cathedral, the box with the dove in it illuminates red lights over the heads of the figures of the Blessed Mother and the Apostles to represent the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them and also triggers a lengthy blast of fireworks.

Here comes . . .

Here comes . . .

the dove.

the dove.

The dove in its capsule after its mission.

The dove in its capsule after its mission.

Somehow the dove survives this ordeal (not surprisingly, animal rights activists have pushed Orvieto to replace the live dove with a fake one).  Here’s the proof:


The dove alive and well.

The dove is then given to the couple most recently married in Orvieto who are responsible for caring for it.

The day also included a flower show held around town with beautiful scenes made from flower petals.  Deirdre and I learned of the effort it takes to make this flower art as we watched a group of about ten people craft this picture the night before the festa.

A depiction of the Miracle of Bolsena in flower petals.

A depiction of the Miracle of Bolsena in flower petals in front of the Duomo.

In two weeks Orvieto holds its Festa del Corpus Domini (“Body of Christ”).  The Church’s feast of Corpus Domini originated in Orvieto with the Miracle of Bolsena and is the town’s major festival.  Given that, the Festa della Palombella certainly has whet our appetites for what might what be in store in a couple of weeks.

Categories: Holidays, Italy Travel, Observations on Intereresting Peoples | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Istanbul — ‘Cause You Can’t Go Back to Constantinople

The Blue Mosque on the left and the Hagia Sophia on the right from the Sea of Marmara

The Blue Mosque on the left and the Hagia Sophia on the right from the Sea of Marmara

Earlier this month Deirdre and I spent four days in Istanbul (f/k/a Constantinople), Turkey.  It is an amazing city with fascinating history and culture that combine elements of Europe, Asia, the West, the East, Christianity and Islam.  Over the past year or so I have been doing a lot (well, for me anyway) of reading about Rome, the Byzantine Empire and the conflicts between the West and East throughout history.  As a result, I really wanted to see Istanbul.  Also, visiting Istanbul allowed us to complete our goal of seeing the great old cities of the central and eastern Mediterranean (Rome, Athens, Jerusalem and Istanbul) on this trip.

Istanbul is an enormous city with a population of almost 14 million people.  Everywhere we went we were amazed at the crowds in the streets, in the markets and at tourist sights.  With that many inhabitants, I guess they have to be somewhere, but we couldn’t get over the constant crush of people.  Due to Istanbul’s massive growth since the end of World War II, much of the city is covered by unattractive urban sprawl, and despite its history, blending of cultures and unique location, it surprisingly is not a particularly pretty city. Despite this, tulips may have outnumbered the people in the city.  Central Asia is the home of the tulip, and during our trip Istanbul was celebrating its tulip festival so the city was awash in color.

Istanbul sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.  In fact, the city itself straddles the Bosphorus Strait, the traditional dividing line between Europe and Asia, and it is the only metropolis that covers two continents.  Part of Istanbul is in Europe (which contains the Byzantine Empire sights and the major mosques), and part lies in Asia.

The Theodosian Walls that helped protect Constantinople for almost 1,000 years

The Theodosian Walls that helped protect Constantinople for almost 1,000 years

The colorful Grand Bazaar

The colorful Grand Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar

The Spice Market

Upon arriving at our hotel in the afternoon, we went up to the roof deck to check out the views of the city.  Although it was overcast, the huge Blue Mosque towered over the neighborhood where we were staying.  That afternoon and evening we toured the Sultanahmet section of the city on foot to get the lay of the land.  We walked around and saw the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the outside and then headed over to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.  The Grand Bazaar is an enormous 15th century version of the shopping mall.  It’s a covered shopping center that goes on for blocks and blocks with dozens and dozens of streets containing thousands of shops selling everything you can imagine (with an emphasis on gold and silver jewelry, carpets and spices).  The Grand Bazaar almost overwhelms all of your senses with its crowds, sounds, sights and smells.  Similarly, the Spice Market contains shops selling pyramid-shaped piles of all imaginable spices.

The next day we made the Hagia Sophia (“Ayasofya” in Turkish) our first stop.  The Hagia Sophia is one of the great buildings in the world.  Byzantine Emperor Justinian had the Church of the Holy Wisdom constructed in 537 A.D.  Although enormous for its time (or any other time), it somehow took only just over five years to build.  Until the 16th century, the Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia showing the mix of Christian and Islamic uses

The interior of the Hagia Sophia showing the mix of Christian and Islamic uses

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks finally succeeded in conquering Constantinople and turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.  As a result, it now contains both Christian and Islamic symbols.  It is said that before entering the Hagia Sophia for the first time after the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II dropped to his knees at the sight of the building.  The Hagia Sophia contains an enormous dome, an architectural wonder for its time, and amazing Christian mosaics, many of which are in good shape today as they were revealed again after the  building was turned into a museum in 1935.

The author standing in the "Imperial Doors" to the Hagia Sophia

The author standing in the “Imperial Doors” to the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia at night

The Hagia Sophia at night

And in the daylight

And in the daylight

Our next stop was the also huge Blue Mosque.  We learned that the number of minarets or towers a mosque has indicates its significance.  The Blue Mosque is one of only two mosques in the world with six minarets, which testifies to its prominent place in Islam.  To enter the mosque we were required to remove our shoes and carry them in a bag during our tour.  Beautiful “Iznik” tiles cover the interior of the mosque and help give the mosque a blue hue.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

Deirdre in the Blue Mosque with required head scarf and carrying our shoes

Deirdre in the Blue Mosque wearing the required head scarf and carrying our shoes

After that we headed to the western part of the city to see the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, a church renowned for its mosaics that are so detailed and precise that many of them look like paintings.  Getting there was an adventure.  Our guidebook instructed us to take a particular bus, and upon arriving at the large outdoor bus stop near the Grand Bazaar we sought to confirm that we had the right bus information.  Doing so without speaking Turkish added some excitement to the effort, but in this case, as in virtually all other interactions while in Istanbul, we found the Turkish people helpful and friendly.  In fact, one kid of about 14 who spoke a bit of English made it his job to find and get us on the right bus.  Thanks to his help, we wound up on the right bus, one different from our original instructions and one that ended up absolutely packed with people as it made its way through Istanbul.  Unfortunately, while we were able to find the right bus, we didn’t have details on the stop we needed to reach the church.  After about a half hour jammed on a bus with no one who spoke English, we had decided to jump off and find our way on foot when a man tapped Deirdre on the shoulder and motioned that our stop was coming up.  We evidently looked sufficiently out of place that he knew we could have travelled to that neighborhood for only one reason.  Seeing the mosaics made the trip worth the hassle.

One of the best mosaics we've seen in all of Europe

Mosaic of Christ at the Church of the Holy Savior, maybe the best mosaics we’ve seen in Europe

The following day we spent the morning at the Topkapi Palace, the palace of the sultans for hundreds of years after the conquest of Constantinople.  As appears to be the case with all things in Istanbul, the palace was huge and contains treasures that the Ottoman Empire assembled, including an 80-something carat diamond, a relic of St. John the Baptist, the staff of Moses and items that belonged to Mohammed.  In addition, we toured the Harem, the living quarters of the sultans and their concubines.  Given the size of the palace and its grounds, our tour took up almost half a day.

After that, it was on to the military museum to watch a re-enactment of the military band that preceded the Ottoman armies into battle.  The band played a type of music that was designed both to motivate the Ottoman soldiers and to cast fear in the enemy.  To my albeit tone-deaf ears, the music certainly seemed appropriate to accomplish both goals.  We found it interesting that the hall was packed with Turks, many of whom appeared to be young men of military service age, rather than tourists.

We then headed back to our hotel in the Sultanahment section by walking through Beyoglu, a more modern section of town located across the Golden Horn from the old Byzantine city.  We walked down Istiklal Caddesi, a major shopping street so packed with people it’s hard to describe.  Curiously, along a maybe two-mile stretch of the street we passed four Starbucks stores.  What’s that all about?  On the way back we paused to enjoy a cold beer at a restaurant on a bridge overlooking the Golden Horn and watched the sun set behind multiple mosques and minarets.

See . . .

See . . .

I told you Istanbul is crowded

I told you Istanbul is crowded

On the morning of our last day in Istanbul we hopped a ferry over to the Asian side of the city so we could say we planted our feet in Asia and then finished up with a tour of the Basilica Cistern, a surprisingly huge underground cistern used to store water during the Byzantine era.

Istanbul is a unique melding of Western and Eastern, Christian and Muslim histories and cultures.  While the sights were impressive, we found experiencing the different culture to be the most memorable part of our visit.  Seeing minarets marking mosques all over the city and listening to the rather haunting wail of the call to prayer from the mosques was a noteworthy experience for us.  While we found the culture so different from the rest of Europe, we were also cognizant that Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, are the most westernized and secular places in the Middle East and southwest Asia.

Given the different culture we found ourselves in, a small but interesting event occurred in a wine bar where we stopped for a glass of wine.  As an aside, although it is a Muslim city, alcohol is generally available throughout Istanbul.  In the wine bar we were sitting enjoying a glass of Turkish wine and listening to jazz music on the bar’s sound system.  Jazz seemed to be quite popular in Istanbul, and we heard it in a number of locations.  We were relaxing, talking and had not been paying much attention to the music when Deirdre and I looked at each other and said together, “Is that “Jingle Bells” playing?”  The soundtrack had an acoustic version of “Jingle Bells” which was then followed by “White Christmas.”  Listening to “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas” in April in Istanbul seemed incongruous on at least two levels.

Deirdre in front of the Blue Mosque at night

Deirdre in front of the Blue Mosque at night

It was readily apparent to us that selling things is a major part of the culture.  Istanbul is bursting with shops everywhere you go, and the Grand Bazaar is just the most famous and interesting example of that element of the city’s culture.  The entire city itself seemed to be a bazaar, and everywhere we turned someone was trying to sell us something (usually carpets).  Carpet store owners would approach us on the street, provide tourist information and then nicely ask us to visit their carpet store.  Unlike the folks trying to entice you to buy something in Rome, they were quite witty and funny in their efforts.  One guy whom we encountered two days in a row told us on the second day that if we didn’t buy a carpet, when we got to the airport, “The police will ask you where your carpet is and want to know what you were up to in Istanbul if you didn’t buy a carpet.”  As interesting and entertaining as it was, it got tiring, and we learned to respond by telling them, “We already bought two carpets.  We’re all set.”  That seemed to work and allowed us to wander around this unique city taking in its sights, sounds and tastes.

Categories: Europe Travel, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

What an Amazing Day – Habemus Papam!

What an amazing day. You know how you have those days where everything just falls perfectly into place to make it an unforgettable day? Wednesday, March 13, 2013 was one of those days.

Even though we moved to Orvieto at the end of February, we knew when Pope Benedict announced his resignation that we would be making the trip back into Rome for the conclave. There was no discussion, we both just knew it. There was no way we were missing this historical and meaningful event.

Saint Peter's at 11am, awaiting the results of the morning votes.

Saint Peter’s at 11am, awaiting the results of the morning votes.

We arrived in Saint Peter’s Square in the morning around 11am. We knew that was about the time we would see white smoke if the first morning vote resulted in a new pope. Nothing. We milled around under a gray sky with just enough rain to need our umbrellas. The piazza was filling up with people. All of a sudden we heard a collective gasp and the black smoke could be seen billowing out of the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. No pope yet.

Kevin with the black smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel behind him.

Kevin with black smoke coming out of the Sistine Chapel behind him.

We knew we had at least four hours before there was any chance of another smoke signal. The cardinals would go back into the Sistine Chapel at 4pm after a break for lunch, and then there would be two more votes in the afternoon. If the first of these votes was positive, the earliest we would probably see white smoke would be 4:30, other than that it was a wait until 7pm.

We spent the time off wandering around our old stomping ground. We stopped at a restaurant we had been meaning to try. We swung by Gammarelli, the official Pope outfitter, to see the empty window where the vestments for the new pope had hung just a couple of days ago. All that was there now was a white skullcap. We also just happened to run into Sister Mary Christa, a nun from Philadelphia who got us the Papal Mass tickets earlier in the year. I always joked that we seemed to run into her all over the city.

DSCN5686 DSCN5685

We wandered back towards Saint Peter’s around 3:30pm as our Italian friend Anna was planning on meeting us there. We found a spot under the colonnade to protect us from the rain as it was coming down pretty steadily at that point. We chose a spot that gave us a good view of the chimney itself and also of one of the large TV screens set up in the square. We chatted with other people around us; everyone could feel the excitement in the air. We clearly were not the only people who had this idea. The square was starting to fill up again.

One of views out of the colonade. Bella!

One of views out of the colonade. Bella!

While waiting we noticed a camera crew set up near us, which was not unusual as there had been more than 4,000 press credentials handed out. Suddenly a woman came over and asked us if we are American. She explained that she is a producer for NBC and wanted to ask us a few questions. She asked us why we were there and what our hopes were for the conclave and then walked away. She came back a little while later and asked if it was okay if they filmed our reaction to the smoke signal and the announcement if there happened to be one that day. We said sure. They were very nice and unobtrusive, and it was even just more people to share this exciting day with.

"Our" camera crew

“Our” camera crew

From there on we were on smoke watch. It was a waiting game. After the time had passed when we might see white smoke after a first vote, we knew it would be about 7pm before we knew anything. 7PM, nothing. 7:05…7:10–> smoke starts coming out of the chimney! At first glimpse it looked gray/white, then it was darker and then it was so white there was no mistaking it. There was a new pope! (I am getting chills again just thinking about it). We were jumping up and down, screaming, hugging each other. Then I said, “I can hear the bells! I can hear the bells!”  The deep bong of the bells of Saint Peter’s started ringing, and then it could be heard at all the other churches across Rome. The emotion was overwhelming. I have tears in my eyes as I write this.


Fumata bianca

I couldn’t believe it. We were there, witnessing a historical event on so many levels. We then knew we had to get out into the piazza for the announcement while there was still room. Traditionally once the bells ring, the Romans come running from all across the city to get to Saint Peter’s in time for the new pope’s first blessing.

We moved our way through the crowd so we were near the obelisk in the middle of the piazza with the balcony of Saint Peter’s directly in front of us. We knew we had about an hour before the new pope appeared. It went by quickly. The excitement built as the Swiss guard marched in formation onto the piazza below the balcony. There was a band playing the Italian national anthem. For an hour I kept saying, “Who do you think it is? Must be Scola. Oh, I hope it’s O’Malley. If it’s O’Malley I will go nuts!”

Waiting for the announcement in the middle of Saint Peter's Square

Waiting for the announcement in the middle of Saint Peter’s Square

We were in a huge mass of people who for this moment were all united in the hopes and aspirations for the man who would walk out on that balcony as the new leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. People laughed and talked with people they did not even know in a multitude of languages.

Suddenly, the lights on the second floor of Saint Peter’s turned on. Everyone cheered. Next the curtains parted and out came the cardinal to make the announcement. The crowd fell completely silent. “Habemus Papam!” A loud wave of cheers went through the crowd. Then he continued in Latin and gave the given name. Bergolio. This was met with a collective gasp, then silence. Then the cardinal said the name Franciscum. This just further confused things. Who was it? It was not a name that people had been talking about, that was for sure.

Franciscum, what did that mean? Was it a Franciscan? Was it O’Malley, and we just had not heard his name correctly (it was in Latin after all)? Who were the other Franciscans? Everyone started excitedly discussing together to try to figure out who it was. Finally, someone behind us yelled, “He’s from Argentina!”  Unbelievable, una sopresa! (surprise)

Pope Francis on the balcony with the cardinals in the windows.

Pope Francis on the balcony with the cardinals in the windows.

After a few more minutes past, a banner was hung from the balcony. Then the windows flanking the balcony were filled with the red robes of all the other cardinals. Finally, out stepped the new pope in simple, white and unadorned robes. He waved and smiled once, and then he just stood there for what seemed like the longest time with no expression on his face. I said, “What is he doing?” and Kevin said, “Does he realize he has to talk?”

Then he took the microphone and said “Fratelli e sorelli, buona sera!” (brother and sisters, good evening!), with a big smile on his face. I liked him immediately. You have probably read what his speech contained already, but it was the perfect combination of funny, humble, and spiritual. I understood everything he said in Italian which made it all the more special. He humbly asked that we pray for him and silence descended over the crowd as we did. You could have heard a pin drop. He then gave his benediction and closed with “Buonanotte and buon riposo” (Have a good night and a good rest). I loved it. It was just as though he was having a personal conversation with each of us.

It was a perfect day. Another amazing and emotional memory in this year that is full of them. Kevin and I have been so fortunate to make all these wonderful memories together.


Here are the links to our ten seconds of fame. We were on the NBC Nightly News and the Today show. It was the lead story with Brian Williams on March 13. We were also quoted in the article that is part of the first link.

Categories: Pope, Rome | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Conclave Begins!

The conclave to elect our new pope began today with a Mass at 10:00 a.m. in St. Peter’s followed by the procession of the voting cardinals from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel for the first vote this afternoon.  Deirdre and I are off to Rome tomorrow for day two of the conclave.  We plan to go in each day and hang around St. Peter’s Square until the new pope is elected.

Today on TV we watched the Mass, the procession and the opening ceremonies in the Sistine Chapel where the voting cardinals all took an oath before casting their first ballots.  In case U.S. television didn’t cover this latter part of the conclave ceremonies, here are some pictures of the events in the Sistine Chapel until the announcement, “Extra Omnes” or something like “all the extras out” was made to clear the chapel of the non-voting cardinals.  (For some reason we were denied access to the Sistine Chapel, and I had to take these pictures while watching our TV so please excuse the poor quality.)

Cardinal O'Malley in the Sistine Chapel

Cardinal O’Malley in the Sistine Chapel

The scene in the Sistine Chapel before the voting begins.

The scene in the Sistine Chapel before the voting begins.

Cardinal O'Malley's hand on the book with the oath.

Cardinal O’Malley’s hand on the book with the oath.

Cardinal O'Malley taking the oath before the voting commences.

Cardinal O’Malley taking the oath before the voting commences.

The last "extras" process out of the Sistine Chapel

The last “extras” process out of the Sistine Chapel

The official presiding over the voting closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel

The official presiding over the voting closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel

And the conclave begins.

And the conclave begins.

Categories: Pope, Rome | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

An Exciting Time to Be in Italy

So much has happened in Italy over the past month that it is hard to keep it all straight. The two big things that everyone is talking about are:  the lack of a government and the lack of a pope.

Briefly, I’ll just mention that the whole political system here is a little complicated for me to understand. I have been working hard on it and am starting to grasp it, but is it so different from what we have in the States that I sometimes get overwhelmed trying to make sense of it. The bottom line is that right now Italy is without a government. When Mario Monti resigned, the government was dissolved. There was an election at the end of February, but no one party or coalition was able to win the majority needed to control both chambers of the Parliament. This is required for a government to be formed. The various parties are all talking and trying to see if a larger coalition can be formed, but right now it seems unlikely. It looks as though there may be another election needed in the near future.

An example of the ballot for the Senate- 13 parties to choose from. The ballot for House had 16 parties.

An example of the ballot for the Senate- 13 parties to choose from. The ballot for the House had 16 parties.

More significant (to us anyway) has been the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. We saw Benedict back in August at his summer home in Castel Gandolfo. It was an intimate way to see him as he gave his Sunday blessing in the courtyard before a few thousand pilgrims. At that time we both commented on how fragile and tired he looked. As he turned from the window to leave after he was done speaking, you could see how deliberate and careful he was being. We also met a priest who works at the Vatican and while he did not have any specifics, he said that the general word was that the pope was “not well.” Kevin commented then that he would not be surprised if we saw a conclave during our time here. Continue reading

Categories: Pope, Rome | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

La Grassa and L’Ultima Cena

For some reason I felt that while we are here we should visit Milan. Don’t ask me why. I guess I just felt that not seeing Italy’s second largest city and its Duomo and Da Vinci’s Last Supper after being here for a year would be inexcusable. This feeling persisted even after every Italian we met (except for a friend who is from Milan) told us to forget about Milan. Southern Italians are not big fans of Milan, the business center to the north that is more like northern Europe in many ways.  Still, we planned a quick trip before we left Rome.

I also figured that if we were going to Milan, we absolutely had to stop in Bologna. Bologna is widely considered to have the best food in Italy and is even called “La Grassa” or “the fat” for its well known indulgences of the culinary kind. It is here that tortellini was invented and remains proudly made by hand. Taglietelle (long flat pasta) and mortadella (otherwise known as bologna) are from Bologna as well as its famous ragu di carne, known as Bolognese sauce around the world.


Main piazza in Bologna


Piazza Netuno in Bologna

Upon arriving in Bologna, we knew immediately it was a place we were going to like. It has a decidedly medieval feel with piazzas dominated by large brown stone palaces and towers. It is famous for its Due Torri, or two towers, which stand right in the center of the city. One tower is leaning so much it is closed to the public. We had been hoping to climb the 498 steps to the top of the  other tower, but alas, it was closed for restorations and is reopening in two weeks.

DSCN5213 DSCN5218 DSCN5287

Continue reading

Categories: Italy Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Home in Rome – Trastevere

As our time in Rome is coming to a close and we prepare to move on to a smaller and quieter Umbrian hill town, I realized that I have never really introduced you to our neighborhood and some of our favorite places.

Our train station

Our train station

We live in Trastevere which means “across the river” (tras- tevere with Tevere being Italian for the Tiber River). Trastevere is on the same side of the Tevere as the Vatican but across the river from the historic center of Rome. In the past Trastevere was known as the area where all the laborers who worked in the city actually lived. Nowadays it is a nightlife and dining center. It still maintains its small neighborhood charm though with narrow, cobblestone streets, laundry hanging from the windows and even a daily neighborhood market.

Typical street in Trastevere

Typical street in Trastevere

Continue reading

Categories: Rome, Trastevere | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our journey to the heel

Despite having been to Italy together on four previous occasions, we had never been south of Rome. We are making up for that now. We went to Naples in December and earlier this month took a few days to trek down to Bari and Lecce in Puglia, which are in the heel of the boot that is Italy.

Location of Puglia in Italy

Bari is all the way across the country on the other coast on the Adriatic Sea (I will never get used to saying sea instead of ocean). It was a four hour ride on the high-speed train. It has a charming old city (“Bari Vecchia”) with many buildings made of a stone that reminded me of our trip to Jerusalem. There were also buildings built in the Greek island style. This all makes sense because this side of Italy is close to Greece in particular, and it influenced the culture. Even today you can take a ferry to Greece from Bari.


We went to an evening Mass at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. That’s right – Santa Claus himself is buried here. All of a sudden during Mass we heard drums from outside the church coming closer and the next thing we knew, it sounded as though they were right outside. I resisted the urge to jump right up and see what was going on (we all know I like a good festa). After Mass we went outside to be met by a drums corp lined up on the steps of the basilica. Across the small piazza they were performing a Nativity pageant for the Epiphany.

Continue reading

Categories: Italy Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog at