The Dignity of the Ordinary and Adequate

I’ve had the germ of an essay bouncing around inside my brain for over a year now. The seed was planted as I wandered the streets of the medieval town of Aix-en-Provence last August, noticing the difference in lifestyle of morning markets and corner boulangeries; the humble beauty of a life in which one’s daily business is not much more than one’s daily bread.

This is not that essay. When it finally germinates and sprouts and grows into something it’d better be good, because I am expecting a lot out of it. Ya know, since it’s taken a year and counting.

But for now, the teaser. A marker of sorts, of a day when I especially noticed how I’m living this Ordinary and Adequate, and how sometimes there’s really no room for anything else. It was this morning: Jacob had thrown up immediately after waking up. Now bathed and hungry four hours later, I was literally watching myself get juggled around my house, and every little bit of it had to do with bodily needs: All in the same instant Jacob needed yogurt, Joshua needed a diaper, and Merry needed her hair washed before she got out of the bath. It was tricky to know which should come first. The puddle of pee on the nursery floor was still there from thirty minutes ago but that was obviously not important.

It was a remarkably ordinary moment. It was full to the brim but nothing unmanageable so long as I kept my wits and wisdom to handle the triage feel of it effectively. But all this work to achieve mere adequacy is exhausting. We’ve had three separate puking incidents (four if you count the week Merry had it Wednesday and Jacob & I had it over the weekend as two separate occasions) in just over a month. Let’s just say I’m gun-shy now. I just expect puke every day. And pretty much every evening by dinner time I feel awful and weak and exhausted, and I arrive at the conclusion that tonight will be the night when I finally puke my own guts out all night.

I always turn out wrong, waking up the next morning wondrously thankful to be wrong again. I’m beginning to think the issue is just that by 5:00 p.m. I’m straight-up bone tired from a day of nothing more than running triage on a house full of body needs. Using up my body for their bodies, to the point that I think I’m literally ill by the end of every day, only to realize that I’m actually probably just hungry. There are heart needs to meet, too, and those are exhausting in a different way. But these days it’s an awful lot of manual labor and an awful lot of laundry, so much so that a “night off” has come to mean those evenings when all I have to do is sit on the couch and fold laundry and watch Netflix.

It’s a good thing I’ve come to see dignity and beauty in all this humanness, because on days like today when I am watching it juggle me around my house like a set of circus balls it’s good to feel satisfied that what I’m doing is enough. I’m unemployed, barely tapping into my professional skills, and empty of any grand notions of changing the world. (It’s also possible that I’m un-showered and wearing yoga pants.)

Maybe the world doesn’t need an endless procession of world-changers aware of their own unique awesomeness and ambitious to make their mark as much as it needs humans, aware that the business of being human, waking up each day to pray and work for daily bread, is not only adequate and enough, but just about as good, true, and beautiful as anything can be.

Now to finish that laundry and check on the coughing I hear that might be puking.

Things I Thought in the Now Yesterday

I’m thinking Switchfoot this morning:

Hello, good-morning, how you been? Yesterday left my head kicked in.

Sunday my pastor preached about normal. About small. About reveling in it. About being here. Now.

Apparently I wasn’t the only mom who went home and scrawled “Revel in your smallness. –Dan” over the top of her weekly planner page.

Yesterday I was in the middle of smallness.

I can’t say I reveled, but at least I didn’t self-destruct, and I’m calling that a win.

In fact, I’m thinking being in the middle and not self-destructing is the whole goal. (For now.) It’s like holding a yoga pose. There’s nowhere you’re going, you’re just there and that is the whole goal. I think sometimes that’s what grace means. I mean the kind of grace that strengthens and equips. Living in the middle of grace means accepting things as they are, reveling in the reality that you are not necessarily doing it right but at least you’re aware of that.

I’m thinking that living in the middle of grace means submitting to the awareness that you (and everyone else) are in a jam, in a hard place, maybe even dancing around your freshly-minted golden calf (we read about that with our kids last night). Somehow in the middle of that dance you are still opening your heart to God: letting him tinge – temper – your mess with His love.

I’m thinking that’s better than trying to control it, anyway. Trying to fix it so it’s not broken anymore. And it’s better than accepting it, letting go and living – really mucking around – in the mess of your garbage and everyone else’s.

I’m thinking that it’s better than visualizing tomorrow, when you will no doubt be able to keep things a little more pulled together so you can feel better about yourself, or maybe a year from tomorrow, when you will all no doubt be so much more sanctified and wise that there won’t be a mess in the first place. THEN you can revel. THEN you can claim grace.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when your 4yo son quietly crawls across the floor and throws two tiny dirty socks at your legs with all the strength he can muster, instead of shutting him down, telling him that he can’t be angry, means figuring out the anger instead. “Are you angry at me?” “Yes.” “Listen. It’s OK to be angry. We need to figure out what to do about it. Throwing socks at mommy is unkind and disrespectful. You may not be angry in ways that are unkind and disrespectful. If you are angry you can say that, and I will listen. I will listen to you. You can tell me that you’re angry and I will listen. And I will help you figure it out and I will try to comfort you. But you may not be unkind and disrespectful.”

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when your preschoolers fail a half-dozen times in a simple task that you know they need to muddle through without help (you know, so they can move past preschool) is entering their foolishness-zone a half-dozen times (and not less) to discipline and re-assign without giving up on them. Without indulging that sarcastic cynic in your head telling you that they will not get it, ever. After all, this is their now. If they are bad it, so are you. Grace and hope, not despair. Be here. Now.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are spitting mad at your kids for not listening to you is going to your room with an explanation over your shoulder: “I can’t hang out with you right now because you are being rude to me and I feel really mad. So when you are ready to tell Mommy you are sorry for treating me like that, you can come find me.” And then when they do come to find you, claiming grace (and hope) means recalling how much you love them and how lovely they are instead of handing over forgiveness like a compulsory tax.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you recognize that your kids are up to their eyeballs in their own foolishness and sin patterns means recognizing, too, that what is needed is not so much training for them as patience for you. Being here, now, today, means that today I need to choose (and ask for) patience instead of coercing (and expecting) altered behavior. They will always be up to their eyeballs in this and so will I. This is now, after all. So yes, my 3yo needs to learn to mentally check in when she hears the sound of my voice and at least twitch a hint of acknowledgement. And yes, my 4yo needs to learn that he cannot respond “But” or “What!!?!” or “Why?” to every instruction. But today that is where they are so today what they need is for their earthly mother to see them as their heavenly Father sees her: “He remembers our frame.” He is nothing if not patient. My kids will discover that by its reflection in me. That my own need for patience even occurred to me above the noise of my “righteous” anger in the face of their shortcomings means I’m calling this a win.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are spitting mad at your kids for going ape-sh*t in the doctor’s office, for sassing you when you say simple things like “Can you push the door open for us?” is to decline to chat with them. “Mommy, what does that sign say?” Instead of bitterly engaging in casual conversation as if there isn’t disaster afoot, “Mommy is really angry right now and I know if I talk I’m going to say rude things, so instead I’m not going to say anything. You need to leave me alone. We can talk later.” I’m calling this one a huge win, because it kept me from saying something stupid and it modeled for them a way to acknowledge (and live in the middle of) their anger without using it as a weapon.

I’m thinking claiming grace (and hope) when you are in the middle of self-imposed silence on the drive home from the doctor’s office and your 3yo calls out “Mommy, look!” means making room in your heart for your second thought when your first thought is “OMG I SAID SHUT UP” but your second thought is “I bet she just saw the mums in front of that store and she’s excited to share that special moment with me.”

I’m calling this a win because in the instant she interrupted the silence I was mad and wanted to shut her down: “Do you not care that I said not to talk to me?” I wanted to show her only the angry side, as if I wanted her to believe (perhaps as if I believed myself) that there was no other side. For an instant I labeled myself and my forever-relationship with my daughter: “She is going to learn not to risk intimacy with me for fear of what she’ll find. If I’m going to have angry days like this we’re doomed to live a life shaped by my sin.” But in the next instant I knew I had a better option, and I’m thinking this is claiming grace: (Caged, a little grumpy. Terse): “What, Merry?” “Look! Those are mums over there!” (As fully cheerful and enthusiastic as sharing my love of horticulture with my kids makes me): “Yeah! That’s so cool! Thanks, baby. I’m so glad you showed that to me.” That was all and then we were silent again, and I was still angry. But I knew that the silence held not only their sin and mine, but our best attempt to hold that pose with grace and a tinge of confident hope, too:

I’m thinking claiming grace means recognizing that sin, in Christ’s economy, does not mean despair. You can be angry and still love each other truly, wholly. My kids can feel the weight of my angry refusal to talk to them without concluding that our future is doomed to vengeful distance and cautious calculations. In other words, sin, tempered with grace (and hope), doesn’t have to be poisonous. There is an antidote. This is big news for me.

Switchfoot: I’m learning to breathe. Learning to crawl. Learning that you and you alone can break my fall.

Last night I let him break my fall. After we got home from the doctor I called on my husband to speak some sanity: “You guys have had a terrible day. That is done. We are going to have a happy day together starting now.” (Talk about hope.) And then I parked my kids for quiet time and I retreated to their 100% filthy room with some good music and a spray bottle of Murphy’s. All alone with a little sanity spoken by JJ Heller I cleaned and organized, not to enact my anger – “What a mess my kids are” (I’ve done that) – but to say “I love them.” I didn’t run away and shut them out. I didn’t despair. I didn’t change the subject. I chose hope and claimed grace and made something in our world for us to delight in together.

I doubt they’ll be much better at listening to me today than they were yesterday but I am remembering that I love them and that happiness (like, for example, a tidy room) is our grace-earned privilege anyway.

I call this reveling in smallness.

On Kim Davis, Bullying, and the Impossibility of World Peace

I have a few things to say about Kim Davis. I know everyone does, so forgive me, but these have been burning like fire shut up in my bones, to quote the songwriter.

On Sunday I stood in church and we sang about peace. “Hope dawns in a weary world when we begin to see all people’s dignity.” It’s a nice enough song – a little on the cheeseball side – but the celebration feels premature. This week it grated on my ears and stuck in my throat.

As Christians we are all about premature celebration, coming to The Table every Sunday to engage in a feast that hasn’t happened yet. “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!” It’s true that all the world will, in wonder, whisper ‘Shalom,” as the song concludes with promise. But this particular prematurity doesn’t feel like hope and faith. It just makes me angry.

See, Kim Davis is not unworthy of the dignity and shalom we are singing about. It’s easy for that stream of the church that comes down on the side of the gay rights movement (seeing it framed as the same sort of humanitarian question as racial equality) to start waving victory flags; this summer the gay rights movement had a big win: according to a handful of people who are allowed to judge, these relationships deserve marriage licenses just as much as the next guy (and girl).

My problem is this: The work of the gay rights movement is not done with the SCOTUS ruling. That’s not the way our country works. We have somewhere along the way lost as a people an awareness of our own governmental process. The courts (that means both SCOTUS and Kim Davis) exist to uphold the law. They don’t make the law. That’s the job of the legislature. There was a reason this system was put in place at the inception of our country.

It was to handle the problem of bullying. The law transcends the wishes and opinions of individual people, and in its transcendence it protects the magistrates (we call them judges and county clerks) from having to be the meanies. Their job is just to do as they’re told by the law. And until the actual law has gay marriage on the books, Kim Davis is not failing in her duties by refusing those marriage licenses, and consequently no one can fault her.

Unfortunately this summer we are a little blinded by our celebration of SCOTUS, thinking that now finally there is law on this issue. My message to the gay rights community is this: Your work is not done. If you want to be able to insist that Kim Davis issues you a marriage license, it’s time to lobby your actual lawmakers.

Until then, Kim Davis has a right to her grey area as a member of the judicial branch of our government, and however rude and obnoxious and generally backwards you find her behavior, you have to acknowledge that she is within her rights as a citizen of this free country.

But there’s a bigger issue. Kim Davis has been thrown in jail for her religious convictions. She’s being seen as a bully, a member of the government gone rogue. She’s an embarrassment. But the problem is, in our collective embarrassment and disgust we have turned the tables and become the bullies. If we really can’t allow her to gum up our progress, due process would look like impeachment, and perhaps administrative leave in the meantime. She is an elected official, after all. No one has any business throwing this magistrate (not to mention citizen) in jail over something that we profess to value as a country (see Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner): bravery. She is bravely standing for what she believes and I don’t care how backwards and rude you think that is: you are just as backwards and rude if your solution is to jail her and scorn her.

It’s hard for me to say that. I grew up squarely planted in the religious conservative right. As a child I didn’t really think you could be a Christian and not be socially, politically, and morally conservative all the way across the board. When I discovered a bigger world out there (you’ll find this filed under “all people’s dignity”) I was angry at the monochromatic lie I’d found my identity in. It’s hard for me to stand in solidarity with Kim Davis, because I know the warts inside the conservative, fundamentalist church and I hate them because, while not technically a fundamentalist myself, I rubbed shoulders with this sector of the Church plenty. I identified with their long hair and long skirts and long lists of siblings. I identified enough, actually, to have a really hard time calling them “the Church” now because I find their moralisms routinely distract me, them, and (worst) the watching world from the glorious gospel of Jesus. I just can’t deal with it. It makes me crazy. As a loud-mouthed conservative Christian, I find Kim Davis embarrassing and I want her to go away. I don’t want the world to think this is what the Church looks like.

But this is my confession: that I am embarrassed by her. In my best moments I am not proud of that. If you corner me I will admit that, according to my system of thought and theology, she and I stand together at the foot of the cross of Christ, which makes her my sister. Sisters don’t bully each other or stand by and let someone else bully.

On Sunday as I groaned through our reflections on Shalom I recognized my own sin in being so quick to judge this annoying sister instead of looking for the good in her. Upon looking, I see it: a clear awareness of what her position as part of our judicial branch requires and does not require of her, a jealousy to protect that system of liberty-under-the-law, an integrity that lives what she believes, and, most of all, true bravery: a willingness to put herself in the public eye where she will have to bear all of its scoffing and ridicule and angry, bullying attempts at hiding her like she’s that embarrassing relative we can’t not invite to the party.

I’m going to acknowledge that she is braver than I. In my very writing here I have made that obvious: Go ahead and try to infer from what I’ve said what I think on the underlying issues about the legitimacy and goodness of gay marriage. I’ve very intentionally not planted my flag, and I suppose in reading this your conjecture will leave you horrified that I’m not like you and comforted that I am.

See, the anguish for me, and the reason bravery feels hard (too hard, to my shame) is that “my people” are not to be found in the middle of this question, if a middle exists. My people are the ones running out this summer for their hard won marriage licenses and my people are the Kim Davises. Somehow that’s the world I live in, and it is exhausting. So go ahead and think I’m on your side. I’m not even sure I know and I’m not even sure that matters.

What I do know is that Shalom is 100% elusive, and I hope there is a large sector of the liberal church that can stop waving their festive branches over the triumph of the SCOTUS ruling long enough to recognize that there is shame here this summer. Shame, yes. Shalom, no. When jailing a woman over her views because they don’t line up with ours and those of SCOTUS is our solution and maybe even our delight, we do not get to claim Shalom.

Perhaps my view from this place–where my communities feel like a frantic pendulum-swing between Kim Davis and the people she won’t marry–is a sane view. And what I’m here to report from what I can see is that Shalom is coming, but definitely not on our watch. There is no way for peace to exist before Christ comes to “judge the living and the dead” and in so doing ushers in the new heavens and the new earth. By this I mean to say that we will not, can not, ultimately, be the ones to usher this kingdom in, even though we try to live in a way that actively anticipates it. (I only wish I knew what that looked like.)

We keep sharing the peace of Christ amongst each other, but sometimes all we can see of that peace is its absence and impossibility, because as long as we have two sides seeking it, we will have two incompatible concepts of it, and Kim Davis will still be sitting in jail being the scapegoat. If she doesn’t get to be a participant in the peace, we are doing something wrong.

So Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

There and Back Again: Thinking about Home

Dear Baby,

Pretty soon you will have a name (you do already, but that’s our secret…) and you will get your monthly missives here just like your big brother and big sister. But today I am thinking about you, thinking how one month from this very hour we will be holding you for the first time. I am thinking about you because this week is a landmark for our family – one which we have worked hard for, almost since we first heard of you.

When your brother and your sister were where you are now I used to write to them. With Jacob I wrote often. It was my therapy. Pregnancy is distracting for a first-time mom. With Meredith I wrote a few times, but not so much because I needed it for me. I just wanted to say things to her. With you… Well, little boy, I thought I’d write to you, too. And I did, once. This is what I wrote:

28 Sep 14, 7:00 a.m. Dear Baby,

I am pretty sure you are real because of this headache that intruded through my sleep all night and hasn’t left with the morning. I am pretty sure you are real because of the gassy belly and the sleepy fatigue and the Stupid Factor. I melted my favorite plastic lid all over bread dough on Saturday. I am pretty sure you are real even though the early-response pregnancy test I took yesterday was negative. I’ll try again in a few more days, especially if this headache doesn’t give it a rest. I hope I’m right and I just have to say for now: I love you.

Love,
Mommy

And that was all. I was surprised just now to find that I’d never gone back to that document to say more along the way. I’ve thought a lot and perhaps those things will all seep into these first letters I write you this summer as we get to know each other.

For now, though, about that landmark: This week we are moving into our new house. This is uniquely momentous for us because it feels not just like changing homes but like achieving home. I have not felt as though we have had “home” for several months now. We bounce back and forth between two up-ended dwellings. On almost every level, we’ve suspended those things that we think of as “life” since Christmas when we began renovating a house for us to live in. We thought it would take less time, absorb us less drastically, be completed sooner and more completely. So as I’ve carted pillows and blankets back and forth, and sometimes the sleeping toddlers that belong to them, too; as I’ve fed my family hummus and crackers on paper napkins and washed them up with baby wipes for who knows how many meals; as I’ve missed the days of setting a table to welcome friends to it and the rhythm of waking to the same basic human necessities every morning, working a few hours and sitting down satisfied by 10:00 to read story books with the house in order, clean and peaceful…. As I’ve done all of this I’ve been waiting. Working and waiting, like a marathon that isn’t over yet. Maybe like a marathon that isn’t over yet and that keeps having its mileage reset. Maybe like a marathon that you run when you’re pregnant, which is inadvisable, to say the least.

I’ve been waiting for home, waiting for you, waiting for that magical moment when where we belong and how we live looks like what we love again. When I don’t clarify every sentence to Jacob & Meredith with an adjective: “Old house? or New house?” This week we get to move into our new house. We will tape plastic over the stairway leading to the incomplete basement and we will adjust to life at home, and to the beautiful reality that we actually have “home” again. I don’t think I would ever be able to verbalize how deeply I am craving that peace and calm and beauty. Maybe someday you will have a wife and she will be pregnant and then you can imagine what it is we did the year you were born and how it would’ve felt and then maybe you’ll know.

One day this spring a house on Nancy Street triggered a long train of thought for me. I was walking with Meredith in the stroller, carrying lunch from our “Old House” to our “New House” to share with Daddy & Jacob. At Merry’s request, I was singing, and it was her song: Shall We Gather At the River. As I admired this one house and imagined the pride its owners take in the work they’ve done to make it lovely (I know about this work now) I was singing “Soon we’ll reach the shining river. Soon our pilgrimage will cease.”

I’d never heard those words quite so loudly before. For many years I’ve thought of the nature of the Christian life as pilgrimage. As journey, to be perfectly cliche. I published an album of piano music five years ago and it was subtitled “Meditations of Hopeful Christian Pilgrim.” Pilgrimage is all I know of life. Not being there yet. It’s the way we experience God. The way we experience reality. It is about longing and waiting and trudging. In the best days, hoping. It is a good concept, and I think it’s easy to think it’s all there is.

But there’s this thing called “Home” too. It’s that thing that gripped my imagination as a deeply struggling college student just before Daddy & I met. I held tight to it: “There shall I find a settled rest while others go and come. No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” Those words were my mantra for a long time and I pressed so much out of that elusive idea of “home” and what it could possibly mean. I was only beginning to learn it then, mostly learning that I didn’t know, and I suspect I’m still only beginning.

The reality is, there is a destination for this pilgrimage – a reality we are hoping towards. Pilgrimage, as good and noble as it is, as much as we name it a good thing and define our Christian experience by it – it will be done someday. It will cease.

I get lost in my head thinking about that.

Pilgrimage, done. Home, attained.

I have no category for that.

But maybe now I do, now on the eve of rooting ourselves into this new space and re-establishing the life we’ve suspended for so many months. I can see how attaining home and retiring pilgrimage is just what a soul most wants. I haven’t stopped pondering this in these crazy months, and last night as Jacob & Meredith & I took our first walk in our new neighborhood, leaving the house with bike and stroller just long enough to wander a few blocks and wander back, that purposeless activity we call “taking a walk…” As we walked I thought of Bilbo & Frodo and There And Back Again and how I want my children to experience these things – both pilgrimage and home.

This week we are going home, not just going home, but attaining home. Achieving it. Creating it. And I’m thankful that it’s becoming a reality before you arrive. Next month we’ll bring you home and hopefully the chaos that we’ve experienced since we first heard your heartbeat will be a story to tell – our history, but not our present anymore. But that story is another story for another month.

I love you.

Love,
Mommy

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August 22: Milan

6:30 a.m. 22 August, Albergo Lenno

Our last day. I’ve woken early to see the sunrise. Our window blew open in the middle of the night, letting in the lullaby of the lake’s rhythm. Add to that the gentle rain and a perfectly grey morning. There is no sunrise to speak of but a soft, growing light. Out our three windows, vistas of this fairy tale place, the only other sounds to be heard – a few birds chirping, the occasional bump of two boats together, a duck now and then, and every half hour the beautiful church at the center of this village tolling the time. I’ve never felt so much a part of a fairy tale scene – never found myself enveloped by the peace of a place. I could stay here forever. Instead, I will carry it home with me and let it last in my imagination, shaping me by its peace and beauty. It reminds me of all the loveliest lines in European Romantic orchestral music – like Smetana’s Moldau or Mendelssohn’s sweetest moments. I don’t think I believed before that places this idyllic actually exist – unstained by even so much as a telephone wire cutting through the panorama. It is perfect. I think this is what people have in their mind’s eye when they imagine they are going to “see Europe.” I’ve seen Europe.

We lingered awhile in our room on Friday morning, sleepy and enjoying the ridiculous luxury of a large bathroom, complete with a “rain” shower head and an actual sink counter where we could both stand. Our ferry was due to leave from just beyond the hotel doors at … Breakfast was served in an unbelievable dining room on the second floor of the hotel, its large windows overlooking the pool below. The buffet offered completely blew us away: everything you could imagine was available, including a gorgeous array of meats and cheeses and raw vegetables. We are an enormous meal, planning to make a lunch out of nothing but the small remainder of salami & cheese from the day before.

By the time we’d returned to our room for our bags and checked out at the front desk the gentle rain had turned into a downpour, and we fumbled through it to the ferry ticket house with our umbrellas and our ridiculous number of heavy bags, drenching a couple of them thoroughly. After a few minutes we saw the ferry emerge from the dense fog and made another dash through the deluge to board. We sank into the first seats that caught our eye, but I wished through the whole ride that we’d taken the trouble to lug our bags just a few feet more to situate ourselves right near a window. With the rain sliding down the windows, and our position in the center of the wide boat, there was not much chance to glimpse the coastal hillsides we’d been awed by on our drive the day before. We hadn’t bothered with photos telling ourselves it would be a better view from the water the next day. The ferry sped down the water, covering the 15 miles of lake in about thirty minutes.

Even so, we were incredibly anxious. One final mad dash lay before us, the last tight connection of our trip. (I suppose not counting the distance from our shuttle to the ticket desk at Malpensa airport.) To make it even more interesting, this dash was going to be an improv. We didn’t have a clear sense of where we needed to end up or where we’d be starting from, only that we had to get from the boat to the train platform in under fifteen minute, on foot with all our bags. We used our mediocre map to form a rough plan and then set off running from the dock. (I was wearing a dress and sandals with a small heel.) If we missed that train we’d wait several hours for the next (slower) one and lose a large chunk of our short time in Milan. We made it with several minutes to spare, despite the several flights of steps that lay between our winded selves and the train station’s entrance.

The train ride was quick and we were in our terminal city: Milan. It took us as long to navigate Milan’s huge central station, ride a few stops on the subway, and emerge onto the city streets as it did to ride the train from Como. So we emerged from underground by an enormous flight of stone steps and sprawled before our eyes was the Duomo, Italy’s largest cathedral, and the fifth largest church structure in the world. It was a staggering welcome to a fascinating city. But we didn’t get there without a quick taste of local culture:

Saturday 23 Aug, 6:15 a.m., Malpensa Airport

Now all that remains to be told is the story of Wednesday. And the tale of the un-uniformed man helping people with tickets to board the metro under Milano train station: he smoothly, quickly guided us, then reached in the machine to retrieve our tickets for us, handing them to us and then taking the 2E coin of change and motioning as though he’d eat it, asking us to give it to him. We wouldn’t have dared say no, and so for the second time we were conned on the streets of Europe. Those streets more than made up for it five minutes later, though, as we listened to a violinist positively dancing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on the subway. The many kinds of street music we’ve heard and seen have been an amazing part of this trip, not least the saxophone plaintively rising as we climbed the Duomo yesterday, loud enough to match the immensity of the place.

Finding our hotel was a nerve-wracking experience, and another evidence of the small holes left in my obsessive preparations for our trip. We had no map of Milan and only the address of our hotel and a general sense that it was about a half mile southwest of the Duomo. So we began following our noses into a tangled web of strangely-angled streets, bouncing back and forth ideas for how to achieve our goal, eyeing various shops with the thought of going in to try out our English on a local and hope they’d know. We ended up asking an old man sitting in a public transit booth. He’d never heard of the hotel or the street, which we found alarming at first, but later when we saw the diminutive alley it was it made sense. He pulled out a tattered street atlas and helped us look it up. We thanked him and, like the quintessential tourists, snapped a photo of his map before setting off down the road he told us to follow. By this time the cobbled roads had finished their destruction of one of the wheels on our large suitcase so we were basically dragging it along the cobbled streets. It was becoming obvious that our journey was at its end.

Saturday 23 August, 6:15 a.m. Malpensa Airport

Our hotel last night was plain and old but completely satisfactory for what we needed. It was deep in the heart of Milan’s narrow streets, just a quick walk SW of the Duomo. They graciously gave us our keys at 11:30 when we arrived yesterday and then we set out, stopping on our way to the Duomo at the most glamorous grocery store imaginable, in part only to wonder at it, but also to find our last gift: coffee for Mike’s Dad. We bought some bread, too, which we ate with the remainder of yesterday’s cheese and salami on the Duomo’s piazza after a couple hours wandering its interior, “reading” its tremendous stained glass, standing in awe beside the underground remains of the baptistery where Ambrose baptized Augustine. A pilgrimage, for sure. I think this was my favorite church. It was unspoiled by plaques to educate tourists and much of it was inaccessible to us. It felt sacred. The size fascinates me, too: built large enough at its time to contain every citizen of Milan, because of course all the city should gather in its walls simultaneously. Fires the imagination. After a rest we wandered the dim, immense, but rather unrewarding museum, and then climbed the stairs to walk the roof.

Afterwards we walked through the massive covered shopping streets – glamorous and immense as consumerism gets – the USA of Europe. From there we walked past La Scala but shamefully didn’t bother to gain access, and then past Sforzesco Castle into Milan’s “Central Park,” where we rested in a quiet spot and I fell asleep, exhausted. We returned to our hotel, navigating the surprisingly empty streets as best we could with the terrible map our hotel had to offer. The streets wander so haphazardly, giving way to confusing piazzas and perpetually changing names and directions.

We relaxed awhile and found a well-reviewed pizza place 2km south on the famous canals – a street that comes alive at night with Milan’s happy people out for a good time and sprawling buffets – “tapas,” free with drink and cover charge: Italy’s definition of happy hour. It was an ugly district, though, and like so much of what we’ve seen, clearly poor by comparison with what we know in the states – not just poor, or maybe not poor at all, but old, unpolished, less pretentious and tidy: humanity at its truest and a melting pot, too, of many cultures. America and monoculture – not just in farming!! We were tired yesterday and happy to take an easy peace.

We enjoyed the day as much because it was our last as anything. We didn’t love Milan but we were glad to experience it for a day. We felt satiated, and even our appetites were poor, our stomachs weary of endless cheese and brioche. Abstractly, we had high hopes for dinner, having saved pizza to be our farewell experience.

As we waited twenty minutes for the restaurant to open, perched on a bridge over the canal, we talked of the day, the trip, the city… And then we took a table indoors at Pizzeria La Tradizionale and what a farewell it was!! The best pizza in the Neapolitan style we’ve ever dreamed, the wood fire easy to taste with every bite of perfect crust. Mike’s was slathered in ricotta. Mine, fresh mozzarella, capers, olives, mushrooms, ham, anchovies, artichokes, oregano. It was marvelous, and the chianti alongside was perfect and exactly what we’d wanted. We bought a second bottle to bring home and drink in ten years. I think our waiter thought were on our honeymoon.

Our waiter!! Garon, from Croatia, thoroughly endeared himself to us. Though tipping is not customary in European restaurants we eagerly tipped in five euros. He took such good care of us, worked tirelessly to overcome the language barrier that arose when we tried to explain our desire to age a bottle of wine 10 years. (Would it keep?) It was an ordeal sorting out that enormous miscommunication, but he wasn’t happy until he’d gotten us exactly what we wanted. We’ll raise a glass to him in ten years, and remember all the laughter together. He sold us an unplanned piece of tiramisu when we’d finished, sold it like a pro. It was to die for. Better than the serving I had Thursday night at the fine trattoria in Lenno. When we’d finally paid our check he came out with two limoncellos, frosty-cold, a gift to us.

What a night!! We left enchanted, beyond pleased with our farewell meal, thoroughly in love with that restaurant and the Italian way: when we’d arrived the staff was dining and laughing together, like a family having dinner before their night’s work. Obviously they’d honored their siesta, too. A sane way of life. We laughed at the popped collars, ubiquitous here, but some are simply up and some are carefully styled with all the pains we might take tying a tie at just the right length, with just the right know. One of the waiters sported the most amazing specimen we’d ever seen and we laughed at his personality to match.

We left the restaurant in high spirits and walked north again, stopping to indulge in gelato one last time, feeling it almost a duty since we’d been so un-Italian as to go two days without it. Mostly, I was in search of a repeat of the perfect, barely sweet milk-flavored gelato I’d had in Manarola. It was not as good here, but still, gelato in Italy!

Early morning in Lenno. The cloud cover got thicker and thicker.

Early morning in Lenno. The cloud cover got thicker and thicker.

The boats that we heard bumping and jostling through the night just below our window.

The boats that we heard bumping and jostling through the night just below our window.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe this as a parking lot.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe this as a parking lot.

Breakfast in a 4-star Italian restaurant

Breakfast in a 4-star Italian restaurant

The ferry approaching

The ferry approaching

As we disembarked from the ferry Mike just about poked the captain's eye out with his umbrella!

As we disembarked from the ferry Mike just about poked the captain’s eye out with his umbrella!

Swans

Swans

A little glimpse of the coastline from aboard the boat

A little glimpse of the coastline from aboard the boat

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Inside Milano Centrale Station

Inside Milano Centrale Station

Chocolate!

Chocolate!

Confections at the upscale Milanese grocery store. In this store you make your selections at each counter and the staff hand you a receipt. When you've finished shopping you pay for your wares and then go pick them up from each counter as you walk out the door. No shopping carts!

Confections at the upscale Milanese grocery store. In this store you make your selections at each counter and the staff hand you a receipt. When you’ve finished shopping you pay for your wares and then go pick them up from each counter as you walk out the door. No shopping carts!

Milan's Duomo

Milan’s Duomo

We spent nearly an hour standing at the foot of eight or nine windows like this, doing our best to make out Biblical history, traced from one pane to the next. (We kinda impressed ourselves...)

We spent nearly an hour standing at the foot of eight or nine windows like this, doing our best to make out Biblical history, traced from one pane to the next. (We kinda impressed ourselves…)

My other contraband shot from within the building.

My other contraband shot from within the building.

For real.

For real.

The ruins of the baptistery where Ambrose baptized Augustine. You don't make this stuff up! A church historian friend told us we'd find this here, and that was all the encouragement we needed to put Milan on our destination list.

The ruins of the baptistery where Ambrose baptized Augustine. You don’t make this stuff up! A church historian friend told us we’d find this here, and that was all the encouragement we needed to put Milan on our destination list.

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This was the entry to the indoor shopping just north of the Duomo's piazza.

This was the entry to the indoor shopping just north of the Duomo’s piazza.

Snapped from where we sat to eat our quick lunch.

Snapped from where we sat to eat our quick lunch.

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This structure in the distance was just too weird not to photograph...

This structure in the distance was just too weird not to photograph…

Up on the roof.

Up on the roof.

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Looking west over the city.

Looking west over the city.

Sforzesco Castle

Sforzesco Castle

Our map toward pizza... :)

Our map toward pizza… 🙂

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True love.

True love.

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The pizza restaurant

The pizza restaurant

Goodnight, Italy!

Goodnight, Italy!

August 21: Where the Milanese Upper-Class Go for Vacation

Not being the sort to settle for a normal amount of activity in any given venture, we were easily drawn towards a “quick little detour” in our itinerary as we planned last year.

Deciding where to go in Italy was a tough process. It became clear early on that we couldn’t afford the time to travel far in. Our friend and professor, who was leading the London expedition, had waxed poetic about the beauty of the Cinque Terre as we told him of our unfolding plans and it soon became our first destination, since we realized that travel as far as Florence, Venice, Rome, Sicily – all the famous cities – was impractical in our short time frame. Cinque Terre was easy: A quick flight into Genoa; a quick train down the coast. Other sources told us that Milan’s Malpensa Airport might be our most economical choice within continental Europe for a flight home, and being lovers of church history and church architecture, we happily settled on Milan as our terminal city: we could spend our last day seeing the Duomo and then be ready to catch our flight home.

As we read the travel guides we became aware of an incredible district at the north edge of the country, a lake lined with villages, villas, and resorts. Lake Como, home of famous resort town Bellagio, lies at the foot of the Alps. According to the travel guides, it is where the Milanese rich and famous go for their weekend getaways: elegance, luxury, unspoiled beauty. The train ride between Milan and Lake Como is little more than half an hour. So rather than a fourth night in Cinque Terre or a second night in Milan, we figured we could make a quick jaunt north, adding these vistas to the topography we’d get to see. It’d be a nice balance to bustling, unadorned Milan, anyway. We’d come away feeling we’d seen just that much more of the Italian scene.

So we poured over the books and the maps and eventually settled on Lenno, a tiny town about one third of the way up the west side of the long, fingerlike lake. This would be the counterpart to our extravagant Paris day. We’d book a lovely hotel and eat a long, lovely dinner. Settling on Albergo Lenno was one of those surreal, exciting moments in our planning in the dead of last winter. Even the website was all loveliness. The staff treated us with kid gloves when we wrote with questions. And the price for a room at this 4-star place was not much more than our 3-star splurge had been in Paris.

Thursday morning I got up for one more sunrise over the water. My heart wasn’t really in it but it was the principle of the thing… It was even colder than Tuesday morning when I’d been out, and I shivered in my light scarf as I sat at the edge of the castle cliff overlooking the fishing pier. Later, down by the water, was even colder, but the sound and sight of the water lapping against the pier was mesmerizing, and drew my attention since the cloud cover made for a pretty uneventful sunrise. As I read, someone’s puppy wandered over to give me some Italian love (lots of kissing, no reservations) much to my amusement.

Mike and I had arranged to meet there by the pier around 7:30, in time to find breakfast and shop the market for lunch and a few last gifts. He came up behind me, a moment vivid in my memory. In three weeks together I’d finally re-learned to look for his company and I had been anticipating his arrival to the point of distraction. After four crazy years of Life In Your Twenties together (by which I mean, barely together at all) I had grown accustomed to his constant presence again and missed him in his absence. There I was, sitting by the pier, and suddenly I saw him approaching and my heart started racing like I was back in college. Instantly my day was made. I’d say our “honeymoon-five-years-later” had worked its magic.

We ate an absurd number of brioches at the cafe on the market square, shared an orange juice, and I got adventurous and ordered an espresso in honor of my sister, who was sure I’d learn to like them if I drank them in the right context. No luck, Kilby, but I did appreciate the caffeine. The Monterosso market was substantial compared to its sister in Vernazza. We procured focaccia from the nearby bakery and then selected a couple cheeses, a small hunk of salami, half a dozen apricots. We lingered long over a huge spread of brightly colored ceramic ware, trying to talk ourselves into buying a big beautiful bowl of something equally impractical to bring home with us. We made our final gift selections for family and friends at home (save Milanese coffee for Mike’s dad), settled on a small ceramic plate, deep sky blue and shaped like a fish with a little eye painted on (it sits by the stove to hold cooking spoons now), and we found two more treasures for our kids: a pair of three-inch tall wooden Pinocchios to hang on our Christmas tree, procured from an amusingly grumpy vendor.

We dashed back to our room and I showered while Mike packed. We checked out and said goodbye to the owner’s wife, Marisa, and the housekeeper, who upon seeing pictures of our two toddlers (by this point in the journey we missed them enough that it took very little encouragement to whip out their pictures to share with strangers) were completely surprised to find out we were not honeymooners but had been married almost five years. They bid us an affectionate Italian goodbye and we were off to the train platform, where we discovered, this time in our favor, that I’d remembered our schedule wrong again. So we sat by the water’s edge for an hour with our bags and enjoyed people-watching. Our train was more than a couple minutes late. We sank into our private first-class cabin with a fresh sense of adventure, keeping our fingers crossed that we’d make our connection in Milan.

Thursday 10:00 a.m. 21 August Monterosso al Mare

We’re waiting out the last hour of our time here on a bench overlooking the Ligurian Sea, flanked by mountains, listening to high surf crashing and happy Italians chatting on holiday. Behind us, though, a local bar is blaring some of the worst country music America has to offer. You can’t have everything.

We’ve enjoyed these three days too much to spend time writing about them. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here almost exactly as long as we were in Paris, our first days. We feel seasoned now, and our trip has taught us almost all it has to teach us. We miss our kids madly. We are starting to look ahead to the next five weeks and the next five years in these last hours as we’ve spent much time already looking back at the past five years. This has been a true holiday and we are ready to live a new chapter, if a little stricken with nervous energy about all the very immediate unknowns that will greet us in just another week: where we’ll live and work and worship – hard to believe it’s all likely to change now.

These three days we’ve rested intentionally, I suppose like only type-A people can rest – even this with energy.

The country singer just crooned “Sometimes I feel like Jesse James.” The world is small.

We’ve loved being situated up the hill from the beach on a street that seems populated by endless terraces of locals, wandering past fig trees, lemon trees, bougainvillea, roses, aloe. Our hotel was up 3 flights (thus the address 85/3 Via Molinelli, as we discovered) in a jumble of a building leaned into the steep mountain. We’ve also loved the cheap food – we’ve subsisted mostly on foccacia – sometimes with salami, cheese, prosciutto sandwiched in – or brioche (croissants, donuts, and all the rest) for only 1 euro and gelato – we ate it three (four for me) times in our three days – large servings at less than half the cost we saw in Paris. We’d drop 5 euro and each walk away with a large cone of 3 flavors.

2:30 p.m. the train from Milan to Como

We made a tight connection in just a couple minutes – seamless, flawless, satisfyingly successful. Now for a night of “vacation” like the wealthy of Milan spend their weekends. We made a meal just now of food bought this morning in Monterosso’s weekly market – salami fontnia, focaccia, and an amazing pair: apricots and the same goat cheese we loved on Tuesday. Delicious.

10:30 p.m.

This evening we are enjoying luxury – drinking it in (literally!) as we think toward a season of poverty to come. Our arrival here at Lake Como was perfect. We disembarked from the train to see a large, middle aged Italian smiling in our direction, holding one of those enticing signs you always see at the airport. This one said “Powell.” We carried our heaviest bags and navigated us to his van and then serve as our tour guide with perfect English, up the scenic edge of Lake Como, past George Clooney’s villa, to Lenno. This afternoon we walked the tiny village, awed at our room and our view, wandered the grounds of Villa del Balbianello. We napped an hour and got up for our reservation at the Trattorio our driver had suggested, sitting outside for a completely exquisite meal and coming back after dark to the lobby of Albergo Lenno where we’re sitting now, reading and nursing our complimentary Kahlua and cognac. Three windows in our room, a balcony on the lake, and wide, shallow stone stairs girded with red carpet. We are celebrating this journey tonight.

In the restaurant it felt so familiar and comforting – dear – to hear the waitress speak to our neighboring diners en Francais.

We sat tonight over drinks and books: “Here’s to being the As.” … “And the Ms.” (Along this journey, we’d been awakening to a recognition that we have the same capacities and qualities that we see in a couple we immensely admire; a husband and wife we have only wished we could imitate both in our professional and personal lives. Our wishes had begun to shift to aspirations as we’d talked about these five years and all we’ve pursued and achieved, and we began to realize that, really, the world is our oyster. We can be who we want to be and we have a pretty good shot at making as much of ourselves as this particular pair we look up to has done. So much of life is a choice – even if the choices are more about how you handle what you’re given then what you choose to have. And thus our toast to “being the As.”)

Wandering Monterosso al Mare in the early hours of the morning

Wandering Monterosso al Mare in the early hours of the morning

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The colors of the buildings were inspiring!

The colors of the buildings were inspiring!

We loved the narrow alleys and sometimes it just felt like we were in a movie, for how quaint a spot was.

We loved the narrow alleys and sometimes it just felt like we were in a movie, for how quaint a spot was.

Breakfast!

Breakfast!

Our view from breakfast. Under the train bridge were the various market vendors.

Our view from breakfast. Under the train bridge were the various market vendors.

This impressive building and landscaping sat right next to us as we ate at the cafe.

This impressive building and landscaping sat right next to us as we ate at the cafe.

I miss this. But it's for the best, because I put on seven pounds in these three weeks, even after all the walking.

I miss this. But it’s for the best, because I put on seven pounds in these three weeks, even after all the walking.

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The cafe

The cafe

This was my favorite building of all in Monterosso. It was even more lovely seen from a distance when we were swimming out in the water. The gold walls with bougainvillea climbing them were so dramatic and so quintessentially Italian.

This was my favorite building of all in Monterosso. It was even more lovely seen from a distance when we were swimming out in the water. The gold walls with bougainvillea climbing them were so dramatic and so quintessentially Italian.

Apricots!

Apricots!

Happy girl playing in the sea

Happy girl playing in the sea

This is where we sat to wait for our train.

This is where we sat to wait for our train.

And this was the source of the blaring country music behind us.

And this was the source of the blaring country music behind us.

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I took these photos from the train platform. Not your average train platform.

I took these photos from the train platform. Not your average train platform.

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We were pretty awed by our luxurious first class accommodations on the train to Milan and we settled in for three happy hours of incredible scenery.

We were pretty awed by our luxurious first class accommodations on the train to Milan and we settled in for three happy hours of incredible scenery.

Out the train window...

Out the train window…

Also out the train window.

Also out the train window.

Again, out the train window.

Again, out the train window.

You might recognize this villa from the Oceans movies. It is George Clooney's residence. Apparently he whines to the  local authorities about how close tourists come in ferry boats to snap photos.

You might recognize this villa from the Oceans movies. It is George Clooney’s residence. Apparently he whines to the local authorities about how close tourists come in ferry boats to snap photos.

Lake Como is completely magnificent.

Lake Como is completely magnificent.

This was our view out one of our bedroom windows at our hotel.

This was our view out one of our bedroom windows at our hotel.

And this was our other "window."

And this was our other “window.”

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This was the ferry dock.

This was the ferry dock.

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As we napped that afternoon - and slept that night - the sound of the lake lapping at the edge of the walls was peaceful and enchanting, such a contrast to the crashing waves of the Ligurian Sea.

As we napped that afternoon – and slept that night – the sound of the lake lapping at the edge of the walls was peaceful and enchanting, such a contrast to the crashing waves of the Ligurian Sea.

This one was for Mike's dad. (And for Mike...)

This one was for Mike’s dad. (And for Mike…)

We were drawn to Lenno in part because of its claim to this 11th-century octagonal baptistry, just across the square (and, incidentally, next door to where we ate dinner) from the parish church. We were disappointed with it, though. It's been repurposed to a generic community space and while we were there was home to an art vendor.

We were drawn to Lenno in part because of its claim to this 11th-century octagonal baptistry, just across the square (and, incidentally, next door to where we ate dinner) from the parish church. We were disappointed with it, though. It’s been repurposed to a generic community space and while we were there was home to an art vendor.

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What you have to understand is that these photos were not staged to capture "the best of" what we saw all that day. This is just what the whole lake looks like. The best word I found for it was "unspoiled." Nothing crass or ugly or strictly utilitarian to be seen anywhere.

What you have to understand is that these photos were not staged to capture “the best of” what we saw all that day. This is just what the whole lake looks like. The best word I found for it was “unspoiled.” Nothing crass or ugly or strictly utilitarian to be seen anywhere.

We walked to the far end of this edge of the lake and then up into the hill towards Villa del Balbianello.

We walked to the far end of this edge of the lake and then up into the hill towards Villa del Balbianello.

It was about a 20-minute walk through the outlying grounds of the Villa to get to the garden and residence.

It was about a 20-minute walk through the outlying grounds of the Villa to get to the garden and residence.

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You don't make this stuff up.

You don’t make this stuff up.

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This famous villa was the home of a 19th-century explorer and gentleman. We were too late (and too cheap) to walk through the actual residence, but the grounds were enough!

This famous villa was the home of a 19th-century explorer and gentleman. We were too late (and too cheap) to walk through the actual residence, but the grounds were enough!

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Looking back towards the village

Looking back towards the village

The villa at a distance

The villa at a distance

Can you say "celebrity wedding?"

Can you say “celebrity wedding?”

Back by the water's edge, swans were hanging out here. Some guy tried to get up close to take pictures and we witnessed a hilarious Angry Swan moment.

Back by the water’s edge, swans were hanging out here. Some guy tried to get up close to take pictures and we witnessed a hilarious Angry Swan moment.

This is water running down from the snow melting up in the Alps. It roared through this gutter in between these buildings and spilled into the lake.

This is water running down from the snow melting up in the Alps. It roared through this gutter in between these buildings and spilled into the lake.

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Back at our room for a siesta

Back at our room for a siesta

The view from our window as we set out toward dinner

The view from our window as we set out toward dinner

We split a magnificent bottle of dry white wine with dinner.

We split a magnificent bottle of dry white wine with dinner.

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This was our first course--salad with figs topped with goat cheese on toast. This food was unbelievable. We were glad we'd taken our driver's recommendation. He grew up in the town and said this was as good as it gets, and all interesting creations drawn from local, seasonal offerings. We were not disappointed!

This was our first course–salad with figs topped with goat cheese on toast. This food was unbelievable. We were glad we’d taken our driver’s recommendation. He grew up in the town and said this was as good as it gets, and all interesting creations drawn from local, seasonal offerings. We were not disappointed!

For our second course, a light fish served with potatoes and an avocado cream.

For our second course, a light fish served with potatoes and an avocado cream.

We branched out after our first two shared courses and each ordered our own pasta and our own dessert. This was our attempt at "doing pasta right" while in Italy. For Mike this potato ravioli. The sauce was oregano and sage and I swear it was almost exclusively butter. I have never tasted anything so magnificent and magical.

We branched out after our first two shared courses and each ordered our own pasta and our own dessert. This was our attempt at “doing pasta right” while in Italy. For Mike this potato ravioli. The sauce was oregano and sage and I swear it was almost exclusively butter. I have never tasted anything so magnificent and magical.

For me, mussels with linguine and red sauce and fresh tomatoes. This was actually Mike's favorite. It was also completely fantastic.

For me, mussels with linguine and red sauce and fresh tomatoes. This was actually Mike’s favorite. It was also completely fantastic.

Mike had the lemon tart

Mike had the lemon tart

and I went for the tiramisu.

and I went for the tiramisu.

We lingered almost three hours over dinner, watching as the night got dark over the lake just a few yards away. This was on our walk home.

We lingered almost three hours over dinner, watching as the night got dark over the lake just a few yards away. This was on our walk home.

Luxury :)

Luxury 🙂

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August 20: La Vita Bella

I think if there were one day of our journey that I could recreate moment for moment, it would be this one. We swam, we lay in the sun, we read, we hiked, we explored. As the afternoon sun sank low, we sat over drinks (and over the water) and talked till well after dark. The record shows that I took no less than 268 pictures on this day, so I hope you will appreciate that I have included only about a hundred here.

The only thing I didn’t manage to fit into the day was an account of it, so my journal dates from Saturday as we traveled home.

Saturday 23 August, 9:00 a.m. EST, in the air over Canada

Now all that remains to be told is the story of Wednesday, last but by no means least. A magical day if any of them were. We enjoyed it every minute, and it seemed to stretch to contain everything we could want. It was our day to rest and rest and rest, to enjoy Cinque Terre at its finest. We slept late – perhaps till almost 8:00, and then went straight to the beach, checking train schedules and trail closures on the way and picking up brioches for breakfast.

We swam, slept, read – acquiring chaises and an umbrella till 1:30 for 15E and arriving early enough to be in the front row, right near the surf. It was chilly and breezy but the sun was warm. The water was so clear and bright out past the surf that we could look down and see our toes. Mike mostly read. I swam and swam and played like a kid in the surf. From out in the water the town looked so picturesque, gold walls, green shutters, fuschia bouganvilla climbing all over it.

About 12:30 we returned to our room for hot showers, eating a quick focaccia sandwich first, and set out to get cash, food for the journey, and an epic 2-hour hike up and down steep narrow stairs and trails, along bluffs, amidst vineyards, terraced fields of lemon or fig trees, mountain streams, dill and rosemary growing like weeds. How to capture the sound of the birds and the streams and, 600 feet below, the surf crashing on the rocks? Not to mention the awe of the houses we came upon nestled up there or the thought of these stone paths as the only connection between two tiny worlds not so long ago?

We hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza and walked to the water’s edge and stopped in a shop for the beautiful olive wood kitchen utensils we’d seen the day before, spoons and a jar of pesto will make the perfect gift for some friends as we pass back through to see them next week. And a little cutting board for us – for many years of cheese dinners to come.

We caught a train after a few minutes, squeezed in like sardines for the 6 minute journey to Manarola, which has been the village I’d originally wanted to stay in. There we had only a few minutes to take in the views – it was the most ridiculously picturesque of all the five villages – and eat the best gelato of our trip, and then another quick train to Riomaggiore, the last village.

We arrived about 6:30, walked the steep main road to the top of the village and then along a high side street back to the water’s edge, where we climbed down steep stairway “streets” to sea level and then up where, to our wonder, we found a table right on a bluff in a little bar where we drank wine (and more) and ate cheap bar food and watched the sunset over the water, the whole region in our view.

We left our perch happy almost to the point of silly, well-warmed by the wine and beer and limoncello and sweet, deep conversation of what we’ll be returning to and who we want to be, how we want to live. A completely perfect day.

The only thing remaining to recount from the day that can’t be accomplished within photo captions is also one of our most anxious moments of the whole trip. After a brioche for each of us around 9:00 (OK–two or three…?) and a yogurt for me, and a small salami sandwich which we shared around 11:00, we were starving at 1:30 as we walked towards town center to pick up the hiking trail. Starving, and penniless. We had used up all our cash and had by now grown accustomed to the complicating reality that almost nobody in these small villages would take credit cards. So the sole bank in Monterosso was our first stop. It was closed for a 2-hour lunch and the ATM refused us. Not expecting to find any other ATMs in town, our hearts sank. The moment we’d feared had arrived, and we genuinely had no spending power and very little hope of any. With our hearts in our throats, we set out for the 25-minute walk back to our hotel to retrieve our passports so we could wait for the bank to re-open and withdraw money at the counter. The day was growing hotter, our stomachs were growing emptier, and our time for exploring Manarola & Riomaggiore was slipping away. It was not a good feeling. Just before entering the tunnel that led to the other side of town I spotted a line of people at what looked like an ATM. Sure enough, there was another one. Thinking it would be stupid not to try, we headed for it. The happy dance when it spat cash out at us against all our expectations probably looked a little undignified to bystanders. And then we were on our way back towards food and trail.

This is where we swam and sunned and read--Mike making progress through his Franck biography, I finally making headway on my N.T. Wright book after having finished Weber's Surprised by Oxford.

This is where we swam and sunned and read–Mike making progress through his Franck biography, I finally making headway on my N.T. Wright book after having finished Weber’s Surprised by Oxford.

This is the view from the trailhead of the small beach on the edge of historic Monterosso. The restaurant where we dined the night we arrived was just out of view in the bottom right corner.

This is the view from the trailhead of the small beach on the edge of historic Monterosso. The restaurant where we dined the night we arrived was just out of view in the bottom right corner.

Monterosso, from the trail

Monterosso, from the trail

Resort, tucked into the edge of the bluff. I wish!

Resort, tucked into the edge of the bluff. I wish!

What follows are 45 pictures from our hike... Here, grapevines.

What follows are 45 pictures from our hike… Here, grapevines.

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The trail was very narrow in places, and we met people coming towards us all along the way. Often someone's body would have to be pressed up against the rocks to let another person pass.

The trail was very narrow in places, and we met people coming towards us all along the way. Often someone’s body would have to be pressed up against the rocks to let another person pass.

A large percentage of this trail was stairway. You can see in other photos the height of these foothills as they jut into the water. The Cinque Terre are five of these mountain arms, each with its own village at the tip. So we hiked up the side of one and back down again, from sea level to sea level.

A large percentage of this trail was stairway. You can see in other photos the height of these foothills as they jut into the water. The Cinque Terre are five of these mountain arms, each with its own village at the tip. So we hiked up the side of one and back down again, from sea level to sea level.

Each vista was breathtaking and we always imagined it might be the most breathtaking of all. But each one that followed was always better yet.

Each vista was breathtaking and we always imagined it might be the most breathtaking of all. But each one that followed was always better yet.

Figs

Figs

Mountain farming is amazing!

Mountain farming is amazing!

Monterosso is the northernmost village.

Monterosso is the northernmost village.

This one is for Mike's organ professor, an avid hiker. Mike was hoping to make him jealous.

This one is for Mike’s organ professor, an avid hiker. Mike was hoping to make him jealous.

Vineyard

Vineyard

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Our first glimpse of the other side of this "mountain shoulder" looking southeast.

Our first glimpse of the other side of this “mountain shoulder” looking southeast.

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A German family was playing in the stream up the hill from this little footbridge. I was jealous! By this point we were sweating profusely and winded. Not long afterwards, Mike, carrying our backpack, ditched his shirt.

A German family was playing in the stream up the hill from this little footbridge. I was jealous! By this point we were sweating profusely and winded. Not long afterwards, Mike, carrying our backpack, ditched his shirt.

Can you imagine living in this house?

Can you imagine living in this house?

View towards Monterosso again...

View towards Monterosso again…

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Straight down from where we stood...

Straight down from where we stood…

At the center of this picture you can see Vernazza, our destination. The hike took a little under 2 hours.

At the center of this picture you can see Vernazza, our destination. The hike took a little under 2 hours.

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Beginning the descent

Beginning the descent

Aloe plants larger than us grew all over this region.

Aloe plants larger than us grew all over this region.

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In the distance, Monterosso.

In the distance, Monterosso.

Vernazza getting closer

Vernazza getting closer

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Terraced fields

Terraced fields

Bouganvilla and grapes

Bouganvilla and grapes

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Looking back up the trail

Looking back up the trail

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Oh, Vernazza!

Oh, Vernazza!

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These boats get used by fishermen the way we use our cars in a morning commute. Every day they are out on the water fishing before dawn. World's most picturesque parking lot.

These boats get used by fishermen the way we use our cars in a morning commute. Every day they are out on the water fishing before dawn. World’s most picturesque parking lot.

You can see the colorful china plaque on the wall--this was the display of choice for addresses on the sides of buildings.

You can see the colorful china plaque on the wall–this was the display of choice for addresses on the sides of buildings.

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The church we'd visited the day before, now in mid-afternoon.

The church we’d visited the day before, now in mid-afternoon.

Tired, happy feet.

Tired, happy feet.

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As we headed back up the center street of tiny Vernazza we spotted this cave-like entrance, noticing the surf crashing on the other side.

As we headed back up the center street of tiny Vernazza we spotted this cave-like entrance, noticing the surf crashing on the other side.

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What a magical little alcove, this rocky inlet hidden from view!

What a magical little alcove, this rocky inlet hidden from view!

Vernazza was bafflingly small. Really, there was just one main street, winding its way from the train station to the harbor. There were other “streets” but they seemed so intimate, almost like private property, as they wound away from the main street into the pile of towering residences. Oh, and did I mention they were mostly stairways? Even the market on Tuesday morning surprised me with how small it was. And yet it is a lynchpin of the village’s economy and daily life. A community of this size fascinates me to no end.

Manarola was a little larger, but still tiny and preposterously adorable. Of the five villages, Manarola has the most haphazard-looking pile of buildings leaned precariously up against the mountains. It was the town I’d hoped we might find a room in. Our original plan was to arrive, a la Rick Steves, and wander into the cafes in the late afternoon, inquiring of the locals for a room available. Fearing the worst, we bailed out on this idea, booking a room ahead of time a few weeks before our journey began. In retrospect it would’ve been a terrible ordeal arriving with so much luggage, jumping on the standing-room regional train, walking the long tunnel into Manarola, and then navigating its stair-streets. If we can ever go again with just one or two light bags, I would totally risk it though. What an amazing experience it would’ve been to have a room with an open window looking right onto the sea past the cascading color of neighboring buildings!

This plaque caught my eye as we walked into Manarola. Fascinated as I am by both agriculture and architecture (like music, an incredible blend of science and art) I think it will be plain how intriguing I found these words.

This plaque caught my eye as we walked into Manarola. Fascinated as I am by both agriculture and architecture (like music, an incredible blend of science and art) I think it will be plain how intriguing I found these words.

Sweet Manarola

Sweet Manarola

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You can see the train bridge here.

You can see the train bridge here.

A little trail in the rock jutted away from the village, overlooking the harbor, making a great view back toward the center. We picked up gelato (for me, a simple flavor that was like slightly sweetened milk--divine!) and walked to its point and back.

A little trail in the rock jutted away from the village, overlooking the harbor, making a great view back toward the center. We picked up gelato (for me, a simple flavor that was like slightly sweetened milk–divine!) and walked to its point and back.

Manarola's harbor

Manarola’s harbor

I would love to have brought back an entire kitchen full of dishes. I settled for a wine stopper, salad spoons and a cheese board of olive wood, and a small blue plate in the shape of a fish which now sits by my stove to hold spoons.

I would love to have brought back an entire kitchen full of dishes. I settled for a wine stopper, salad spoons and a cheese board of olive wood, and a small blue plate in the shape of a fish which now sits by my stove to hold spoons.

Manarola, as we walked back toward the next train, bound for Riomaggiore.

Manarola, as we walked back toward the next train, bound for Riomaggiore.

As in Manarola, a long tunnel led from the train platform into the town center of Riomaggiore. This one was lined with an incredible mosaic.

As in Manarola, a long tunnel led from the train platform into the town center of Riomaggiore. This one was lined with an incredible mosaic.

The wide, steep main street of Riomaggiore climbed high up the edge of the mountain. Riomaggiore seemed large by comparison with the three middle villages, perhaps just a little smaller than Monterosso.

The wide, steep main street of Riomaggiore climbed high up the edge of the mountain. Riomaggiore seemed large by comparison with the three middle villages, perhaps just a little smaller than Monterosso.

From the top of the hill we doubled back on a side street set high into the edge, past houses cascading down toward the main road.

From the top of the hill we doubled back on a side street set high into the edge, past houses cascading down toward the main road.

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zucchini? this was a terrace below the street where we were standing. gardens in the city.

zucchini? this was a terrace below the street where we were standing. gardens in the city.

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We saw three churches on our short exploration of Riomaggiore.

We saw three churches on our short exploration of Riomaggiore.

Looking back towards the hill where the main street dead ends.

Looking back towards the hill where the main street dead ends.

This little church was right near the cliff.

This little church was right near the cliff.

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The streets were so very, very narrow in these old European towns.

The streets were so very, very narrow in these old European towns.

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This was looking straight up the hill from our table at the little cafe we found. Having walked off our gelato we were ready to look for a place to eat a nice dinner. The only essential was that it be right on the water so we could watch the sun set. Unfortunately we didn't get a nice restaurant, but we got the location and we weren't about to give that up.

This was looking straight up the hill from our table at the little cafe we found. Having walked off our gelato we were ready to look for a place to eat a nice dinner. The only essential was that it be right on the water so we could watch the sun set. Unfortunately we didn’t get a nice restaurant, but we got the location and we weren’t about to give that up.

This was our view from our table, and after a half hour we snagged the table right on the edge there when it was vacated. Perfection.

This was our view from our table, and after a half hour we snagged the table right on the edge there when it was vacated. Perfection.

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In the distance, cutting a horizontal line into the far hill, you can see what I am pretty sure is the Via del Amore, the most famous stretch of the trails that connect the 5 villages. Many hikers hike the whole set of them, which takes a full grueling day at least. We had hoped to hike at least this southernmost trail, but most of the southern trails were temporarily closed because of landslides. I'd see we did pretty well for ourselves anyway.

In the distance, cutting a horizontal line into the far hill, you can see what I am pretty sure is the Via del Amore, the most famous stretch of the trails that connect the 5 villages. Many hikers hike the whole set of them, which takes a full grueling day at least. We had hoped to hike at least this southernmost trail, but most of the southern trails were temporarily closed because of landslides. I’d see we did pretty well for ourselves anyway.

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The food was pretty mediocre, but we did avail ourselves of the opportunity to eat another local specialty: anchovies. A first for both of us, and we liked them pretty well. Although the food was rather poor, it was very cheap (as were the drinks) and they brought us a complimentary veggie tray too.

The food was pretty mediocre, but we did avail ourselves of the opportunity to eat another local specialty: anchovies. A first for both of us, and we liked them pretty well. Although the food was rather poor, it was very cheap (as were the drinks) and they brought us a complimentary veggie tray too.

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Having nearly reached the end of our journey and having spent days and days talking about the world and our hearts and our past five years, we began looking ahead, envisioning our next five and hoping for what they would look like, made wiser for the things we'd learned in these weeks. This night is not one I'll soon forget.

Having nearly reached the end of our journey and having spent days and days talking about the world and our hearts and our past five years, we began looking ahead, envisioning our next five and hoping for what they would look like, made wiser for the things we’d learned in these weeks. This night is not one I’ll soon forget.

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Boats spilling down the ramp toward the water, ready for the next morning.

Boats spilling down the ramp toward the water, ready for the next morning.

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