Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Want to Spread Exponential Joy

This morning I dropped my youngest daughter off at school.  It's her week to be the "star" and we made a poster all about her.  I felt incredibly privileged to work on that project.  We picked out photographs and talked about her favorite things.  Her favorite color is blue and Mew Mew is her favorite kitty.  She *loves* the picture of her dad laughing and drinking coffee.  Believe you me I hugged that girl and held her tight.

This morning, as I dropped her off,  I gave her another big hug then quickly turned away.  You see I started to cry. I've been doing that a lot these past few days.  I can't help myself.  My heart aches for our country and our world.

I adore my daughter's school.  It's old and has big bright windows and sweet little drinking fountains.  The halls are full of laughter and projects and joy.  I simply can't imagine.

What is the solution?  I could not tell you.  Clearly the young man needed help.  Clearly he should not have had access to such weapons.  There will be much debate over what to do and how to do it.

What I do know is I am responsible for myself and the lives of my children.  And I believe there is good in this world, a lot of it.  I believe in paying it forward and I believe in karma.  I believe small people can do big things.

So Friday afternoon we started a personal campaign.  A campaign to infuse goodness back into this world. The kids and I bought and gave a gift to Operation Elf.  We donated to a 4-H club.   We bought toys for the pets at the humane society and we made a KIVA loan.

This morning I got coffee on my way home.  I also bought coffee gift cards.  We are going to randomly distribute them this afternoon.    We are going to write and deliver notes of love and encouragement (we've done this before and it made a big impression on my girls).  We are going to make snowflakes for Sandy Hook.  We are going to knit hats and give them away.  We are going to yarn bomb something.

Essentially we are going to make sure light and joy and goodness remain.  Not only do we want it to remain.  We want it to be seen.  We want it to be infectious.  We want to spread exponential joy.

Middle has pledged to do one good deed for each day of 2013.  Imagine if we all did that?  365 days; each an opportunity to make this world just a bit brighter.

Am I naive?  Perhaps.  But I refuse to live in fear and I refuse to give up hope.

I hope you feel the same.  



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12-12-12; An Ordinary Day

Today I took part in a project:  12-12-12.  Goal?  To record a day in the life.   Thank you Xanthe Berkley for the inspiration.  

This was all shot on my iphone.  I've not yet fiddled with the video component of my DLSR and today my "real" camera wasn't practical.  It's a bit hard to take on the slopes when learning to skate ski.  Did I get any actual ski footage?  H*ll no.  I was too busy trying to stay upright and catch my breath.  

But it's okay.  Today I'm taking Arthur Ashe's advice: 

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."  

And there you have it.  One ordinary day; 12-12-12.  


Monday, December 10, 2012

A little of this, a little of that

This past week I've been sick.  It started as a head cold which has now settled nicely in my chest.  As an asthmatic I expected this and yet am none too pleased.  Each day I'm feeling the tiniest bit better. I'm hoping I'll be well enough to attend skate skiing lessons on Wednesday.

These lessons were an early Christmas present to myself.  An excuse to get out, enjoy the snow and to get some much needed exercise.

It's funny.  Despite my asthma and my meniere's I consider myself a healthy person.  And despite my utter lack of exercise I consider myself an athletic person.  Labels stick; whether positive or negative.

Right now I'm sitting in my chair by the fireplace.  It's facing our tree. A train whistle blows in the distance (oh how I *love* that sound).  I've got a chai tea latte by my side and the spices are just right for the season and my throat.

Our tree is up.  The lights are twinkling.  I can't even begin to tell you how happy this makes me. The smell of pine, the ribbon, the sparkle.

Each year, when we open our Christmas box, I'm drawn to the handmade goodies, felt gnomes, paper mache mushrooms, pine cone ornaments from waaaay back.  I am reminded that this season is not about fancy.  It's not meant to be perfect.  Rather it's meant to be like home; warm, cozy, safe and full of love.

Despite this I'm not quite prepared yet for Christmas to come.  I'd like to sit a while in the pre-Christmas glimmer. To pause time and wait for gifting inspiration to strike.

This year I'm knitting stockings for the kids (something I've meant to do for years).  And I'd like to make something like this for our house.

The mister can expect a toilet paper holder (what every man wants) made with a vintage license plate from his home state.  I'd also like to knit him a pair of socks but time is running short.  The Boy, well we've got him covered though I'll not say what here -- he may just happen upon this space.

As for the girls -- I'm getting there.  I've ordered one item for Middle which she will love (hush hush).  And I think I'm going to get a subscription to something else that will spark her creativity.

Then Little.  She will be getting a freezer paper stenciled shirt from Doctor Who, as well as, a DVD of the latest season.  I'd like to get her something more but, again, am waiting for that inspiration.

Oh and then there are the holiday cards.  I've got plans there.  Things to do.  But they won't be done by December 25th.  I'm giving myself a pass.  Friends and family can expect a mail anywhere from New Years to Valentines Day (or beyond).  I love you.  I'm thinking of you. But time is running short.

And now to go make use of that time.  I'm going to put Madeleine Peyroux on Pandora and get some knitting done.

Au Revoir!


Friday, December 7, 2012

Morning Joe (aka the way I passed the better part of the afternoon)

What?  What's that you say?  A time lapse application for the iphone?  Yes!  Yes please!

And this is how I spent the better part of my afternoon:

Morning Joe from Shalet Abraham on Vimeo.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Peculiar Stories: Mail

I just finished reading "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern.   It's a fable really, a fairytale, full of dark and light and magic and love.   And it was just right.  I was in a place where I was ready to be carried away.  To be taken to a fantasy land.  And a circus at night?  Even better.  Perfect for those long and lonely shifts at work.  I highly recommend this book should you have a propensity for reading and even if you do not.

As I am wont to do, once finished with the book, I went to explore the author's website.  And to read her blog.  She has these amazing little snippets -- Flax Golden Tales.  They are ten sentence stories written to accompany a photograph. The tales are a collaborative work as the photographs are taken by Carey Farrell.

Ack!  Now I find myself inspired to do the same though I know I can not limit myself to a mere ten sentences (although today, somehow, I managed it).  I'm an avid photographer and thus the photos will be my own.

Without further adieu I present to you the first of my new series; Peculiar Stories.  I will not promise them on a time table as for now I am simply playing.

This particular story is dedicated to The Night Circus with its black and white and red.

*** *** ***

The piazza was empty save him and I and the gruff woman who’d come to open the Tabacchi.  Soon the sun would be up and the square would fill with tourists.  They’d push and shove, elbowing each other for a chance to see an ancient building that wasn’t going anywhere. 

But he wouldn’t be there when push came to shove.  He’d have already been and seen and would've disappeared with the rising sun.   

“Please, don’t go.” I begged.  But I knew it was inevitable.  

“Write to me.” he said. 

“Where?” I asked.  

“You’ll know.” he replied and turned and walked away.  

*** *** ***

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fire Station 15's Favorite

I need to finish blogging about our trip.  I've been meaning to since we've been back.  But my mind is in other places.  So, for now,  I'll just let my mind be.  Someday I'll finish up my travel notes and daily life will be interspersed with snippets from Italy.

But not today.  Today I'm thinking about my Grandmother.  I've got a little project in mind and asked my mother to send some of my Grandmother's handwritten recipes.  They arrived this afternoon.

My favorite recipe is one written on plain paper.  It's a recipe for green bean casserole, the kind found in just about every household on Thanksgiving; two cans of string beans, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a 1/4 can water chestnuts and a can of french fried onions.

I remember this recipe well.  My grandmother made it, my mother made it, I make it.  I've altered it a bit.  I add a squeeze of lemon (I think my mom does too) and I use the whole can of water chestnuts.

But what touched me today was not the recipe itself but the title "Station 15's Favorite."  You see my Grandfather was a fireman.  I suspect he spent many a Thanksgiving serving his community. And I can just picture my Grandmother delivering her casserole to the firehouse; a little something special for the men working the holiday.

I, too, had to work on Thanksgiving.  And I realize that, though our service is different, I am following in my Grandfather's footsteps with my holiday schedule.

At my Grandparent's house we always celebrated Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the actual day.  My Grandfather was retired by that time so I don't really know why Thanksgiving was scheduled as such.  But I do know it was special; family, food, gathering.  The day didn't matter.  The act did.

This recipe reminded me of two things.  First -- it is gratifying to serve.  Though I might moan and groan, working the holiday is good for our community.  Pets do not get sick on schedule and they need medical care.  I'm glad I was there to help them.

And second --Thanksgiving is important.  Gathering friends and family.  Taking time to be grateful and enjoy each other's company.  Solidifying memories for generations to come.  The day doesn't matter.  The gathering does.

This year our Thanksgiving was quiet.  The five of us around our table (a rarity indeed).  And yes -- I served green bean casserole.  I'm glad I took the time to cook and to gather my family. My Grandparents were at the table with us, their spirits wrapped up in green beans and soup.  You see it's not just a simple casserole.  It's family and community.  It's the past, present and future.  It's everything there ever was and everything ever to be.

Oh the humble green bean.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Day for the Boys; Modena, Italy and the Ferrari Showroom

Now you didn’t think we could go to Italy with a teenaged boy and a man (who rather thinks he’s a boy) and not spend a day looking at cars.  Italy, after all, is known for its cars.  

Now me?  I’m not a car person. I’d like a contraption that reliably gets me to and fro, keeps me dry and, ideally, doesn't use too much gas.  Beyond that I could care less; much to my boys' consternation I can’t tell a Porche from a Hyundai. 

So I did not plan for a factory tour or showroom visit.  But we had some open days while in Tuscany and the Boy figured out that the Ferrari Factory was a mere two hours away.  

I had housed our family on goat farm with an attached knitting shop -- pure Mama nirvana.  As such I could hardly deny the boys their automotive pleasure.  After cappuccino and croissants we ventured forth. 

The factory was near Modena which is a balsamic vinegar and olive oil hub.  I’m told it's a beautiful city.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to experience that beauty as the city was completely smogged in.  

Oh how my heart was broken to learn that Italy (particularly Northern Italy) had a smog problem.  In my mind this is the country of slow food, cold pressed oils, carefully cured meats and aged wines.  And Italy is all those things.  But it is also a country of people and cars;  people + cars = smog.  

My "Italy as a perfect country" bubble was burst.  Of course I already knew Italy wasn't perfect but this smog issue really saddened me.  One thing is for sure -- I have no interest in living in the smog. 

Anyway, we made it to Modena but missed our exit to Maranello which is where the factory resides.  It was lunch time, we were hungry and subsequently grumpy.  After some consternation we found our way to the factory.  

Outside the factory we were approached by an attractive woman decked out in Ferrari gear.  She offered to let the Mister drive a Ferrari -- a mere 60 euros for 10 minutes.  You could see his wheels turning.  Could I? Should I?  Finally he declined (thank goodness) and we went to tour the showroom.  

The showroom had a family discount. The normal entry price would’ve been 9 euros per person (for our family of five).  However the showroom was under construction thus the price was further discounted to 7 euros a person. 

The lady at the desk told us our discount was because “we would find some confusion.”  Both the Mister and I looked at each other and were thinking the same thing ... discounts for confusion?  Nobody told us there were discounts for confusion?!! We are owed some money (hello Vatican I'm talking to you).  

In addition to touring the showroom you can take a bus out the entrance of the car track and the bus shows you the front of the Ferrari factory.  But you don’t get to go inside either the track or the factory.  We didn’t do this part of the tour as it didn’t sound worth the 9 euro per person price tag.  Now a tour of the actual factory?  That would’ve been more interesting.  Alas they didn’t offer that option.  

There was a small cafe just before entering the exhibits.  Hungry as we were we indulged in cappuccinos and pastries thinking we’d have lunch later.  Not the smartest of plans.  Turns out it would be quite a while before we ate again ... 

The showroom was, well, a showroom full of cars; both old and new.  If you are car fanatic you are going to hate my description; the cars were neat.  And after fifteen or twenty minutes the girls and I were ready to go.  We retired back to the cafe to wait for the boys who were still oogling.  

When the boys finally emerged from the showroom I queried them -- was it worth it?  They enjoyed the tour but admitted that, perhaps, it wasn't worth the two hour drive, especially since Modena was a disappointment.

Tour complete we decided to head home and find someplace to eat.  We had a little Osteria in mind that Papa and I had eaten at five years ago.  It was on the way home and sounded just right.  

Of course we got turned around on the freeway and, once again, took the wrong exit (I’d like to think this is mostly because Papa was driving -- the one day Mama drove we didn’t get lost.  But, hey, I guess we’ll never know).  

We got off the freeway and tried to get our bearings.  We turned a corner and bam -- there it was.  The restaurant.  This was a place that Mama and Papa really liked. Papa had carried their business card in his wallet ever since we ate there -- it was that good. We were hoping it was still that good. 

We were quite happy and relieved to have found the place and all piled out of the car only to find it closed.  Closed, that is, until 7:30 pm.  That’s Italy for you -- they eat late.  Lunch from 1 to 4 pm.  Dinner from 7 to 10 pm.  

Of course we American’s, who’d stupidly skipped lunch, were ready to eat at 5:30 pm.  Dagnamit!

We elected to drive through the countryside until places opened up.  The countryside was beautiful and the drive was lovely.  But the kids had been in the car most of the day and, due to our lack of planning, were even more hungry and tired than before.  

Finally we happened upon a little, nearly deserted, hill town (which was really a suburb, if you will, of Pazano).  In this little town we found a restaurant that opened at 7:00 pm. We were hesitant to eat there as nobody else was around.  But one look at our forlorn kids and we decided to take a chance.  At this little restaurant in this quiet little hill town where we were the only customers we had one of the best meals of our trip. 

The kids tried, and ate, everything we ordered; crostini with liver pate, tagliatelle with wild boar ragu, thick crusty bread, tender sweet meats, rich local wines and delectable tiramisu. The waiter/owner was terribly sweet.  The whole experience was well worth the hunger and the wait.  If we ever go back (when we go back) we’ll eat here again.  I’ve got their business card tucked safely in my wallet for when we return.  

And then home to bed after another long day.  Mama had plans for our final day in Tuscany.  We were going to see some pigs -- and indeed we did; both wild and domestic.  


Friday, November 2, 2012

The Land of Twigs and Berries; Florence, Italy

After some debate we decided to take a day trip to Florence.  We’d done enough research to know we didn’t want to drive into the city.  Instead we drove to Greve, parked in a free lot, and took a bus to Florence.  

It took about 20 minutes, give or take, to drive to Greve and about an hour to get to Florence; it’s only 22 kilometers from Greve to Florence but the bus had several stops and the roads were curvy. 

Our bus tickets cost 3,30 euros or approximately $4.25 per person each way.  And, no, I didn't make an error using a comma instead of a decimal point; for some reason many European countries use commas rather than points.  Believe you me it can be confusing.  

But back to the trip.  We purchased our bus tickets at the tabacconist in Greve. Fortunately for us the tabacconist was right next to the local bar (aka cafe).  Thus we got bus tickets, cappuccinos and pastries all in one fell swoop.  The bus tickets were open ended (assuming we made the last bus back to Greve).  

As I said the bus trip took about an hour.  Once in Florence the kids had to go the bathroom.  This was the perfect excuse for Mama and Papa to indulge in another cappuccino.  We went into the first bar we passed which looked a little suspect -- there was graffiti on the wall and the exterior was nothing to write home about.  I wasn’t sure we were in for a good experience.  Boy was I wrong.  

Inside was the most enthusiastic barista I’d ever met.  He was playing it up to the hilt and flirting with all the women.  And let me tell you, they were buying it hook line and sinker.  And then the art, coffee art.  Each and every beverage had wonderful designs - a face for the mister, a heart for me, and sunshine for the kids.  

The barista was so much fun to watch we ended up ordering two additional cappuccinos. 

It was one of those moments when you realize it doesn’t matter what you do for a living so long as you do it well.  This barista, this man, left joy in his wake.  What more could one ask for?  

Of course the children were not interested in my pontifications on coffee and life.  It was time to see Florence.

We used this Trip Advisor walking tour as a guide and headed for the Duomo.  What this tour doesn’t tell you is to plan on walking a LOT.  And not only walking but hiking to boot. 

Our first stop was the Duomo.  How to describe the Duomo?  I can’t even begin.  It’s huge and majestic and ornate.   It takes up a whole city block.  Photographs (at least my photographs) don’t do it justice (I should probably learn to take panoramic shots).  

The inside was shockingly plain compared to the exterior (though still beautiful to see).  There was a line to climb to the top (and a charge of 8 euros a piece).  We opted to forego this part of the adventure (and thank goodness too because we had quite a bit of hiking ahead).  

From the Duomo we walked to Palazzo Vecchio.  Now I must pause.  If you are traveling with children and you have not had “the talk” with them, if you are not up for discussing the finer details of intimate human anatomy then don’t go to Palazzo Vecchio.  Just don’t.  

Fortunately our children have been educated in such matters and were therefore not too shocked to be face-to-face with a replica of Michelangelo’s David (the real one is tucked safely in a museum).  

My son blurted out, “Hey!  Look at his twigs and berries!”  And, indeed, the twigs and berries were in full view; not a fig leaf in sight.  

The square, the Piazza Della Signora, also holds Neptune’s fountain (more twigs and berries), as well as many other statues.  We spent some time wandering around and marveled at the age of things (this piazza had been in existence for over 500 years!)

Okay.  Now we were tired.  We should’ve stopped for lunch.  But we didn’t want to get stuck in a tourist trap and therefore clamored on.  The thrill of male anatomy was a thing of the past and the kids were hot, tired and hungry.  Add to that a misstep in our walk and mile long detour a pied. Needless to say people were not pleased.  

Finally.  Finally we stopped to eat on Via San Niccolo once we regained our bearings.  I sat down at the table and my heart sank.  My purse was open (something I’d been very careful about).  I panicked and pawed through it.  My wallet isn’t here, my wallet isn’t here, shit, *^&$# my wallet isn't here ... oh, wait, here it is! 

My wallet was safely tucked in the dark recesses of my bag.  Turns out I’d left my purse open when Little handed me her scarf.  Bad Mama!

Now the Boy, at this point and time, was tired of Italian food and jonesing for a hamburger.  The restaurant had a hamburger on the menu, complete with fries. How is a teenager to resist?   The waitress gave a little snigger and wrote down his selection.  

Our food was delicious (and I can’t even remember what we got).  But the Boy?  He was treated to a meat patty on a bed of lettuce.  No bread. No bun.  And the burger? It was more or less raw.  Lesson learned: hamburgers and Italy are mutually exclusive (that is unless you go to McDonald’s and we certainly were not going there).    

I must say, however, the fries were delectable.  

Mama and Papa shared a bottle of wine over lunch.  This soothed our increasingly frazzled nerves but also made our upcoming hike all the more daunting.  

After lunch we were headed up to Piazzale Michelangelo, our chance to view the city.  We bribed the children with promises of gelato once the hike was complete.  And indeed  bribery worked.  And the view was worth our while.  

We then chugged a little further up the hill to the San Miniato Church.  I could have stayed forever meandering through the graveyard.  But we’d promised gelato ... 

So back down down down -- down the hill we went.  We marched past the Ponte Vecchio with little fanfare making a beeline for the gelato shop on the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita.  

And with that we concluded our tour of Florence.  We made our way back to the bus station (getting a bit lost on the way) and caught our ride home.  

Once in Greve we stopped for snacks the CoOp (the local grocery store); Middle, for the longest time, thought it was called the “coop” and couldn’t figure out why all the grocery stores were named after chicken huts.  

Then back to Radda to rest and sleep.  

Next on deck?  Fast cars and smog-filled skies -- Modena, Italy.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tuscany; The Beauty and Brutality

Tuscany is, simply put, beautiful; a veritable fairy tale.  One could imagine a ginger house tucked gently into the woods.  But, just as in a fairy tale, Tuscany also has a dark underbelly; wild boars, porcupines, foxes and wolves.   

The wolves have been the bane of Chianti Cashmere.  On our first night in Tuscany, us tucked soundly in our beds, eleven goats were attacked in the yonder field.  Seven goats were killed outright (and only one eaten) while four others were severely injured.  

We only just found this out upon our return from Siena.  Nora, the owner of the goat farm, was devastated.  This attack represented a serious loss of income for her, as well as, loss of her beloved animals.

She has guard dogs; two for each herd but the dogs were recent additions and still too young to adequately protect.  At five months old they simply weren’t a match for a pack of wolves.

Now is the time I must confess I’d been pulled in by folk lore and Hollywood hype -- I couldn’t help but imagine werewolves roaming the Tuscan Fields, preying on wildlife and hapless humans.  Fortunately the moon wasn’t full and therefore did not lend to my wandering mind.

But back to Nora.  As we arrived at the farm she was in the process of moving the male goats from their larger pasture to a smaller, better barricaded pasture (i.e. one with barbed wire like you’d find around a prison).  She needed our help herding the goats from one pen to the other.
Our job was to keep the boys out of the flower beds and keep them from going up the road and out to the street.  This turned out to be an easy task -- Nora and her employee were leading the alpha male by the horns.  Everyone else followed suit.  

The dogs, too, followed the crowd, though they stopped to visit with us.  It took all our self control (and then some) not to pet them and love on them. You see they are meant to bond with the goats and not humans; thus making better guard dogs.   

Nora only had one barbed pen.  She couldn’t put the males in with the females as this would significantly disrupt her breeding schedule.  Thus she was stuck hoping the wolves wouldn’t return and/or her dogs would do their jobs.  

Now let me tell a little about the goats.  They are cashmere goats (as in cashmere sweater (i.e. expensive yarn) fame).  Once a year, in the spring, the cashmere (which is the soft undercoat) is gently harvested, by hand, by combing out each goat (talk about time consuming).  It takes anywhere from one to three hours to comb the cashmere from a goat.  

The goats are bred specifically for the quality and quantity of their cashmere, as well as, for the color (white, tan, hazelnut and cocoa).  

After combing, individual samples are taken from each goat and analyzed in a laboratory; testing for quality, softness and color. The cashmere is then sent to a local company that separates it from the coarser outer hair.  After that the cashmere is sent to another local company which turns it into roving.  Finally the roving is sent to a third company which spins it into yarn.  

No wonder cashmere is so expensive. And Nora’s yarn?  Oh you wouldn’t believe how soft.  

So, yes, when her goats are attacked she is devastated, financially and emotionally.  These are not "just goats."

While all this was going on I felt rather helpless.  As a veterinarian I wanted to jump in and fix things.  But I did not have any equipment or authority to practice medicine.  Nora used to be a vet but was longer practicing (though she keeps her licensing intact).  She, too, had limited medical supplies.

As an animal lover I wanted to cry.  Of course the wolves needed to eat and we were encroaching on their habitat.  But they didn't hunt solely for food; rather this hunt appeared to be more for sport.  

We did not keep the deaths hidden from the children.  I showed them one of the dead goats and we talked about what happened.  Now keep in mind my children are being raised with a veterinarian, an emergency veterinarian at that. Blood and guts and death and gore are a regular part of my life and this is something my children have often been exposed to.  

The good news is the four injured goats were making a miraculous recovery and were doing well by the time we left the farm. 

For my part I bought some of Nora’s yarn (which I would’ve done anyway).  I wanted to support her sustainable cashmere.  Now I have two skeins of very special yarn waiting for a project.  

Nora has a designer who is currently working on some exclusive patterns just for her.  She has promised to send me the designs once she receives them.  I can't wait to get my needles clacking. 

And for me?  Despite the brutality I am dreaming of a goat farm of my very own -- half cashmere and half milk goats -- right here in the states.  Oh how the wheels are turning.  

Next up? Day Eight -- The Land of Twigs and Berries (aka Florence).


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Italy Day Seven; Escalators and stairs, churches and gelato

On this day we let the kids sleep in a bit.  It seemed right given that we were vacation and had been getting up early nearly every day.  

After a leisurely morning we left for Siena.  It was about a 45 minute drive from our place in Radda over picturesque roads

Siena is a medieval town surrounded by a large wall.  It has a limited traffic zone meaning you have to park outside the walls and walk in.  We like these cities with fewer cars -- less chance of getting squashed like a bug on cobblestone.  Fewer cars is all well and good but first one must get in to the city.  

We had a difficult time finding parking .  Our hope was to park close to the walls thus limiting the amount of hiking to get inside.  I know I keep saying it but our dogs were tired.  Let me put it to you this way -- by this point in our trip I’d already worn holes in two (TWO) pairs of socks and Little’s pinky toenail was AWOL.  

It was challenging getting these kids out of bed let alone convincing them to go on a hike.  Therefore we didn’t quite tell the kids what we were doing when we gave up parking near the wall and went to one of the lower lots.  We figured we’d just start walking (aka hiking) and the kids would eventually figure out what cruel and evil people we were.

We parked at the Il Campo Lot which ended up being fabulous.   I can't recommend it more.  

We got out and began our hike to the city (again not tell the kids just how far we had to go).  We went up a small hill and turned to the right following the signs to the city.  

When what to our wondering eyes did appear?  No, no, not a reindeer.  More serendipitous than that -- we found a series of escalators all the way up to the city.  Hallelujah!  A break for our feet and fun to boot.  We were in escalator heaven. 

We entered the city near the Duomo.  As we turned the corner we found ourselves at it’s back side (this must’ve been where you lived Rachel!).  

I don’t really know how to describe the churches here in Italy.  They are majestic, intricate, beautiful and awe-inspiring.  And they seem to come out of nowhere.  

Little took a brief break on the steps of the church (tired from all that escalating).  Then we went to find coffee.  The coffee shop also happened to be a gelateria.  Mistake.  The kids immediately wanted gelato.  We, parents, thought they should have breakfast first because, you know, Nutella filled croissants are WAY healthier than gelato.  

The coffee shop was just off the main campo in Siena.  While Mr. Peculiar paid I took the kids down to see the campo.  I was trying to explain the Palio to them (which is an annual horse race right through the square.  

Then we started talking about the bell tower and I casually mentioned that one could climb to the top.  The kids got crazy excited and all wanted to it.  Really?  Ye who wouldn’t get out of bed? Ye who would have melted into a pile on pavement had we not found an escalator?  Ye children want to climb 300 steps up to see the view of the city?  Yes. Yes they did.  

And so we did.  We forked over 8 euros apiece, checked our purses at the door and climbed.  The stairs were narrow (I’d not recommend this for a claustrophobic person) and steep. The stairs and railing with silky smooth -- worn down from all the hands and feet passing over time.  

The view from the top was, of course, gorgeous.  More exciting to the kids was a baby pigeon on the landing.  

And then back down.  Down, down, down the steps we had just climbed.  

When we got back it was time for gelato.  After all we’d earned it.  But first -- lunch.    We wandered around the back streets and came across Cava De’Noveschi - a little restaurant and champagnerie.  

The food was wonderful but a bit fancy for the kids.  We ordered the girls pasta with shrimp which they normally would have eaten.  However I made the mistake of telling them it was cooked in champagne -- bleech, eech, yuck.  There was also the little matter of the shrimp still having eyes.  In different packaging the meal would’ve been devoured.  As is stood Mama and Papa enjoyed it with our champagne.  The kids sat and pouted because they didn’t want to be in a “fancy alcohol place.”  

Too bad little people.  Just be glad you were sitting!

The restaurant was just down the road from the Duomo.  So it made sense to go visit before ice cream.  Another decision heavily protested by the younger set.  Alas they don’t make the rules.  

The protesting quieted down once we entered the church.  Out of all the churches in Italy this is my favorite.  There are stars on the ceiling and moons on the floor.  Again I can’t even begin to describe these places -- words fail me.  All I can say it visit if you can.  You won’t regret it. 

After church? Gelato time!  You knew we wouldn’t leave the city without partaking at least once.  

Then time to go back to the car.  

I had the parking ticket in my purse and this time we were smart enough to pay before going to the car (cash only).  

We had a bit of trouble getting out of town.  We got mixed up and went South instead of North and therefore got an unanticipated tour of the rest of the city.  

Our plan was to go home to rest and then go back out to get some dinner.  But when we got back we met up with Nora and our plans changed.  

Turns out there had been some unwanted activity overnight and Nora needed our help.  


Friday, October 26, 2012

A Beautiful Day on a Train Puffing; Italy Day Six

Every time I’m at a train station I look for platform 9 3/4.  I simply can’t help myself.  Doesn't everyone want to ride a magical steam train? 
On this trip we were able to do just that.  We booked tickets on the Treno A Vapore per La Festa Della Castagne (Vintage Steam Train to the Chestnut Festival).  

You see it’s harvest season here in Tuscany.  And as I was perusing the internet I happened across this train, taken out of retirement, to transport passengers to the chestnut festival. 

I was sure, absolutely sure, the train would be sold out.  Nonetheless I sent an email in broken Italian asking for tickets.  I received a fabulous email in broken English saying “we expect to have a beautiful day together on a train puffing.”  Be still my heart!

We had to be in Siena at 7:55 am to catch the train.  We left at 6:00 am not knowing how long it would take to find the station.  As it turns out we happened upon the station the moment we entered the town.  We were an hour early and had some time to kill. 
We parked at the lot under the station and went upstairs for coffee and pastries.  The coffee was mediocre at best and the pastry case displayed flies, as well as, baked good (self inoculation, self inoculation -- that was the mantra I kept repeating to myself).  We opted for a second cappuccino from the vending machine on the platform (enough said).  

Finally the train arrived.  The body of the train was pushed to the station by a traditional engine. The steam engine arrived on it’s own accord.  The kids were mesmerized.  They were thinking about Harry Potter and The Polar Express and, I, Mama that I am, Thomas the Tank Engine.  

The exterior of the train was a bit plain (minus the steam).  The interior was gorgeous -- wood seats of two facing one another, pictures over the seats and beautiful luggage racks.  

A band played as we boarded.  Turns out they were with us for the entire trip - playing at lunch and the festival as well.  

The train took us deep into the Tuscan countryside -- it’s final destination a defunct train station.  From there we boarded busses and headed up into the hills.  A place, I might add, that busses really weren’t meant to go.  I did not envy the drivers.  

We were deposited at a farm and left to pick chestnuts.  Now have you picked chestnuts?  I had not.  Turns out they are encased in a very prickly shell.  After a bit of observation we discovered the secret to picking. 1) Find a BIG stick.  2) Pound the living bejesus out of the prickly shell.  3) Reap your rewards.  

Now this expedition was planned for the Italian people; they did not have American tourists in mind.  Therefore there was no translation.  When we got off the bus instructions were given solely in Italian.  We had no idea what time to return to the bus.  We decided to go by herd mentality and simply follow the others when they left.  

This plan worked well leaving the farm -- we successfully made it onto the bus and were transported to lunch.  There were five buses on our tour.  After chestnut picking all five buses drove to the Kronos Restaurant.  This was a large banquet hall made to accommodate large crowds.  Now I must admit, the hall gave us some hesitation.  We were expecting mediocre food at best.  We couldn’t have been more wrong.  

We sat down to a six course meal (SIX) that included crostini, bread salad, risotto, pasta, pork and desert.  You could’ve rolled us out of there.  

In between courses the band played and the Italian children danced on the stage (we couldn't convince our lot to do the same).  

Mr. Peculiar correctly noted that he felt like an interloper.  With the exception of two Asian women we were the only foreigners in the crowd.  The Italian people, however, were kind and welcoming despite our language barriers.  

After such a meal a nap was in order.  Instead transported to the Chestnut Festival -- streets and streets of vendors; food, goods, coffee and crafts.  The bus driver told us to be back at 4:00 pm (as I understood in my limited Italian).  The group dispersed and we could not follow the herd.  I only hoped I was right.  

We returned by 4:00 and indeed I as right about the time (yay me!).  However, at this point, the kids were whiny and tired and THRISTY.  They NEEDED something to drink and could not POSSIBLY survive the trip back to the train without a beverage.  

Fine. I, less than happy, dragged the boy back into the throngs of the festival for drinks.  In the meantime our bus arrived.  Mr. Peculiar told the driver I’d left my camera and had to go retrieve it (as if I’d be that careless).  We were back shortly thereafter and boarded the bus.  Right after we got on the roll was called.  There were people missing.  The bus, without an ounce of hesitation, left without them.  Holy cats.  Good thing our tea didn’t take any longer.  

And that tea?  Well that tea had to go somewhere.  This meant a trip to the bathroom.  The girls went on their own as it was just at the front of our car.  They came back whispering and full of giggles.  Little told us "the train poops."  It turns out the toilets emptied directly onto the tracks au naturale.  That's vintage for you!

And another note about vintage trains.  They don't have central heat and/or air conditioning.  This was all well and good in the morning when there was a nip in the air.  Not so well and good after a hot and tiring afternoon.  The train did have windows.  And the air felt great.  That is until the train went into a tunnel (of which there were many).  Steam (aka coal) in a tunnel has nowhere to go but through the windows of the the train.  Talk about a cough fest.  

People took to covering the windows with the heavy curtains each time the train entered the tunnels.  This worked surprisingly well to keep the smoke out.  

And the tunnels.  There were interior lights on the train but they weren't turned on. Therefore the tunnels plunged us into total darkness.   I couldn't help but think we'd come out the other side to find someone murdered.  It had the makings of an Agatha Christie Novel if I'd ever seen one.  

I do believe we all made it home intact (expect, perhaps, those left hapless at the festival).  The train got back in to Siena at 7:00 pm.  We got into our car and were looking forward to going home to chillax (yes I was traveling with the teenagers). 

The parking lot, of course, was a pay lot.  We pulled up to the exit and put our ticket into the slot.  Then we tried to figure out how to pay.  We stuck our credit card into the ticket slot -- nothing.  We could not find a place for coins or bills.  We were hot and tired and frustrated.  I do believe Mr. Peculiar contemplated ramming the barrier (thank goodness he didn't follow through).  

An Italian woman pulled up behind us and was becoming increasingly impatient.  I got out of the car and explained to her via gestures that we didn’t know how to pay.  She held up two coins; i.e. you American idiot.  Finally she got out of her car and walked over the the pay station with me.  She, too, couldn’t figure out how to pay.  She pushed a call button and had an exuberant conversation with the person on the other end.  Then she gestured for us to follow her.  She backed her car back into the lot and we did the same.  

Turns out there were pay stations INSIDE the parking lot.  You had to pay BEFORE you got into your car and tried to leave the station.  Duh (said facetiously).  After paying you insert your stamped ticket into the exit slot and the barrier lifts.   

I was glad the Italian lady was also surprised by the pay system -- it made me feel slightly less stupid (though only slightly).  

We were still full from lunch, skipped dinner and went straight home to bed.  We slept soundly (a little too soundly as we’d later learn).  

On the agenda for the next day?  Siena proper.  Stay tuned.  


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Van Gogh, Vampires and a Jesus Handle; Italy Day Five Continued

The A1 is a large highway and driving on it is much like driving in the states (except for the tolls).  The roads in Tuscany, however, are a different story.  These roads are curvy and one lane each way (sometimes only one lane period).  

Now there are a few ways one can drive on these roads.  The first is at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenery and enjoying the view.  The second is to treat the roads as if they were a video game and/or the autobahn.  

Guess which way Mama drives and which way Papa drives?  Papa was behind the wheel as we left the A1 on our way to Montepulciano (our first stop out of Rome).  Needless to say the Jesus Handle was put to good use.

Montepulciano is a medieval hill town known best for it’s wine.  Apparently it is also the place where some of the Twilight Saga was filmed (thanks Tracy for that little tidbit, and no, we didn't see any vampires -- sparkling or otherwise).  

We were using Montepulciano as a place between Rome and Radda in which to stretch our legs.  And if we partook in a little wine while stretching?  Well you know what they say -- when in Rome ... 

We took the first Montepulciano exit off the A1.  This exit, apparently, was not for the actual town but rather for a gas station.  Gas stations off the Autostrada are like pit stops; you pull over, fuel up and peel back onto the freeway.

We didn’t need gas so, after a few choice words, shot straight back through to the Autostrada.  The next exit led us to a pay booth; this was promising as it meant we were leaving the A1 (aka we were in the right place).  The tolling station took credit cards and was quite simple to use (a miracle in and of itself). 

Then we were set free in Tuscany.  We followed the blue directional signs (when going slow enough to see them) to Montepulciano.  

We parked outside the city walls in a pay-to-park area. It took some time to figure out the parking machine.  Turns out we needed coins which, thankfully, another tourist gave us in exchange for bills.  The machine may have taken credit cards but, for the life of us, we couldn’t figure out how to use them (this will be a theme -- stay tuned).  

Finally time to wander the streets.  We were foot weary and our wandering was accompanied by a litany of complaints -- tired, hungry, sore, bored (seriously, bored? I mean c'mon!).  If you can think of a complaint we heard and subsequently ignored it.  Have children.  Will march.  

It was just after noon and we decided to browse the shops before they closed (many shops close from 1 pm to 3 pm for lunch and siesta).  Restaurants, thankfully, stay open.

The town was full of artisans.  One artist that caught our eye was a man making mosaic reproductions of Van Gogh’s famous works (he doesn't seem to have a web page). Van Gogh is one of Little’s favorite artists (she studied him in school last year).  The mosaic pieces were prohibitively expensive, otherwise, we would have purchased one on the spot.   

As far as the kids were concerned lunch couldn’t come soon enough.  At 1:00 pm, on the nose, we sat down to eat at a lovely outdoor cafe. Two loud, boisterous and gabby Italian women sat a couple of tables away.  They were laughing and gesturing and waving their cigarettes about as if they were on display.  And indeed they were. I daresay even the waiter was pleased when they finally went on their merry way. 

The food was fresh and delicious; seafood linguine, crab linguine, ravioli with pistachios and pecorino cheese.  The children ate with nary a complaint.  Mama and Papa, of course, had a half liter of vino -- just enough to calm the nerves.  The meal was rounded off with two espressos -- drunk with a touch of sugar.  

And then time to explore some more.  We found a wine cellar advertising free tours.  Suddenly we were underneath the city -- deep and dark, musty and sweet, oak barrels stacked all around.  The cellar opened onto a tasting room.  

More vino?  Why yes!  Yes please.  Even the boy got to taste.  We left sated.

Our parking meter was running out (we'd paid for three hours).  Alas it was time to leave.  

From Montepulciano we followed the blue directional signs to Siena.  We were scheduled to be at the Siena train station early the next morning.  Our thought was to find the station to avoid early morning confusion.  But, as we pulled into Siena, we saw blue directional signs for Radda, our final destination.  Tired and worn we decided to skip the station and make our way home.  

We had reservations at the Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm.  

Following the Radda signs we found our way to the farm, checked in and promptly fell asleep (it was 7:00 pm).   

This wasn't the last time we'd end up skipping dinner.  The food here is filling and plentiful.  Believe you me we didn't go to bed hungry.   

The next morning we had an early wake up call (we had a train to catch) thus it was good to get a good night's sleep.  

Next on the dock?  A vintage steam train ride.  Stay tuned.  


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rome Day Five; Getting out of Dodge

Rome Day Five; Getting out of Dodge

Time to leave Rome.  The question was how?  We had car reservations from the Termini Train Station (which was about 1.5 miles, give or take, from our apartment).  Walking 1.5 miles with three children *and* luggage was less than appealing.  

We considered the buses.  Routes 40 and 64 would both get us there.  However, after some research, we decided this also may be a bad idea.  It seems these buses can be "the most expensive rides in town" (the expense due to heavy pick pocketing).  Three children and luggage would leave us exposed to those who might take advantage.  Therefore we decided to take taxis (plural).  

Most taxis in Rome only hold four people. Five people and luggage would be a tight fit indeed.  We could’ve called a larger taxi but I was told the meter starts when the taxi leaves it’s current location.  Therefore it made more sense to take two.  

We walked the couple of blocks to Piazza Navona where the taxis gathered.  Our car reservation was for 10:00 am and we arrived at the Piazza at 9:00 am.  Thus we decided to have a bit of breakfast and waste a bit of time. 

Up until this point we’d had breakfast standing at the bar.   Our breakfasts had been typically running 12 to 14 euros (five pastries, two cappuccinos and three other drinks).  On this day, however,  the children were whining and we chose to sit down.  Bad idea.   In comparison a sit down breakfast, containing essentially the same items, cost 35 euros.  Point taken.  Stand at the bar no matter how much the kids fuss.  

After our shocker of a breakfast we caught our rides.  Little and I took one taxi and Middle, the Boy and Mr. Peculiar took another taxi.  My ride was 10 euros, the Mister’s was 15 euros.  The difference, I think, was the luggage charge.  

At the train station we had to ask where the car rental booths were -- platform 24.  Our reservations were made through Auto Europe.  Therefore we stood in line at Auto Europa.  We questioned whether we were in the right place.  Then I compared logos -- the one on the paperwork to the one on the Auto Europa sign.  They matched.  We had to to be in the right place.  Not.  

Turn out that, yes, we’d made our reservations Auto Europe but our pick up location was through EuropCar (which was clearly stated on the paperwork if we had read a little further).  Alas another line and another lesson learned (read your paperwork dummy).  

Now another line normally wouldn’t be an issue (we were getting used to waiting).  However our taxi driver had mentioned that a big protest was planned at 11:00 am, that very day, at the train station.  Romans from near and far were to gather to revolt against austerity.  If this were to occur we could very well be stuck in Rome.  I was hoping the protestors would be on Roman time and show up at say -- twelve o'clock or even one.  At any rate I didn't want to stick around and find out.  

Finally we got to the front of the rental line.  We had our passports and international driver’s licenses at the ready.  The paperwork went quickly.  Then another chink in the armor.  Our car was to be driven around; the driver would meet us outside.  

Hmmm.  I had very specific directions on how to get out of Rome; how to get out of Rome from the parking garage.  Not how to get out of Rome from the front of the station.  Eeek.  

And then our car came.  I had rented a Volkwagen Toureg (or equivalent).  We got the equivalent -- a 3008 Peugeot.  The Mister nearly had a meltdown.  Our Peugot, in his mind, was NOT equivalent.  Our luggage, though relatively small, barely fit (though, with some creative squishing, it did).  

I felt we should take what we could get and get the hell out of dodge before the protests started.  After all the five of us and our luggage were safely stowed in the car.  The Mister wanted to march back in to the rental place and complain.  

After some stomping and choice words, he agreed to let it go.  We had to find reverse (this was a stick shift, as were most rentals in our price range).  We also had to figure out the parking brake --which turned out to be a funny button in front of the stick.  

Now on to the streets of Rome.  My directions starting from the front of the garage turned out to be useless.  We did not pay additional for a GPS unit.  Therefore we decided to wing it (loosely based on the directions I had).  

We drove down one street, turned in front of the station, turned right again and skirted around the station, right again behind the station, then left, left again, right, left, left, under a train track and miraculously (by the hair of our chinny chin chin) we were on the road that lead to the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA).     

The GRA is a main highway that circles around Rome.  Off this circle are the exits for the Autostrada that lead to where ever one might want to go.  

But first one must get on the GRA by following the green directional signs.  We missed such a sign and had to turn around.  At this point the Mister, already frustrated, decided to do as the Romans do.  He swung a u-turn, cut a few people off, made some outlandish gestures and let out a few obscenities.  Truth-be-told he was rather enjoying himself.  Rome allowed him to drive the way he’d always wanted. 

Me?  I was just trying to keep my underwear clean.  

Our second time around we found the GRA.  The next question was where to find the A1 -- the Autostrada that led us out of town.  For all the research I did I had no idea if the A1 was on this side of the GRA or on the complete opposite end of town.  Plus there was traffic.  Oi!

Serendipitously the A1 showed up shortly thereafter and, despite all, we were on our way to Tuscany ... 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rome Day Four; Religion, Art, a Nap and Viagra

Rome day four:

This was our day to visit the Vatican.  You shouldn't visit Rome without visiting both Saint Peter’s Basilica and The Vatican Museums.  

Now these are popular places to visit and and the lines can be outrageous.  I recommend you have reservations and/or go very early.

The Basilica opens at 7:00 am and the entrance is free.  Thus we were up and out before sunrise once again; walking and in desperate need of caffeine.  

The walk from our apartment took about 20 minutes.  As I said before, I highly recommend walking around in the early morning.  

We found an open Bar (aka coffee shop) and ordered two cappuccinos, five pastries and three sodas (yes -- soda and pastry for breakfast -- healthy I know).  The total bill was 12 Euros -- quite a deal.  And a deal only for those who order and stand at the bar (as we found out the hard way the next day).  

Then on to the Basilica.  That early in the morning we were able to walk quickly through security and head on in the the Basilica.  The square was closed off as the Vatican was preparing for an event.  Thus we had to follow barriers to enter the church.  The barriers weren't problem as we were arriving.  Now leaving?  That was a different matter.  

The church is simply amazing.  We chose to tour it ourselves and likely missed out on quite a bit of the history of the building and art.  We felt the kids may not have the patience to take a guided tour.  In lieu of a tour we should have brought a guidebook.  Alas we didn't have the foresight to bring one.  Even without the historial minutia the Basilica is well worth visiting.  

As we were leaving we found that the exit was closed.  Instead we were re-routed back the way we came.  We walked all the way back to security where we were promptly yelled at and told to go back the other way.  We back to the church and asked how to get out.  Once again we were sent back the way we came.  At this point we were incredibly frustrated. I mean how hard is it to find an exit?  Uscita.  Exit.  We get it.  Just let us out!  

Finally we said “f*ck it” and decided to detour through a barrier which would then get us out into the open part of the main square.  We are talking 25 feet over open cobblestone.  Hardly suspicious activity.  

The Vatican Police, however, disagreed and whistled and gestured in no uncertain terms.  Not wanting to be arrested in the world's smallest country we promptly high-tailed it back to the visitor zone.  I was beginning to think we were being kidnapped by the Pope.  Perhaps he needed hapless Americans for a sacrifice.  

After much confusion the police opened a portion of the barrier to let people leave. For all their security you'd think they'd have an exit plan.  
At any rate we were set free and went back to the apartment to regroup.  I wanted to walk to a viewpoint but people were complaining about tired sore feet (and no wonder as Little later lost a toe nail).  I almost went alone leaving the rest of the troops at home.  However, at the last minute, they decided to go with.  I’m glad they did as they would’ve missed out.  

By this time we were hungry again and decided to have a second breakfast.  We found another fabulous coffee shop off a side street.   This coffee shop had a couple of things going for it.  First off they had a puppy for sale -- a beautiful yellow labrador that was allowed to wander around the shop at will.  And no.  We are not coming home with an Italian puppy (though the kids did beg).  

Second this coffee shop had prosciutto and cheese panninis for 2.50 Euros.  Another stupendous deal.  Of course we had two additional cappuccinos as well.  

Energy restored we made it to the viewpoint at Quirinal Piazza.  The view turned out to be disappointing.  However there was a museum on the corner advertising a Vermeer exhibit.  On a whim we decided to go.  The museum did not have “The Girl with the Pearl Earring" but the art was, nonetheless,  well worth seeing.  

And then, upon exiting the exhibit, the view.  Oh the view!  Floor to ceiling windows with a panoramic view of the city.  That was what I was looking for.     

Finally it was home for a well deserved nap.  The older kids and Papa fell immediately asleep.  Little took a shower until the hot water ran out (and never returned).  Then Little and I snuck out for some private girl (aka gelato) time.  

After returning to the apartment Little also fell asleep. The timing wasn’t great as we had night tickets to the Vatican Museums -- our reservations at 7:00 pm.  The whole family was somewhat crabby and not thrilled with me for a) waking them up and b) taking them on another forced march.  
I’d not been to the Vatican Museums and thought they were just around the corner from the Vatican.  No. They were around the corner and another and another.  In other words the walk was MUCH longer than I had anticipated.  After you saying "just five more minutes" repeatedly I began to lose credibility. And for good reason.    

When we finally arrived at the museum there was a looooong line.  Now I’d read the guidebooks and understood that this line was full of people with reservations and would move quickly.  Try convincing tired grouchy people of said fact after your credibility has taken a hit.  Not an easy task.  The moaning and groaning was heard all the way over at the Colosseum.   

Once we got inside most of the grumbling disappeared.  How can one not be mesmerized by the floor to ceiling art?  We decided not to push our luck by doing too much (there are multiple museums to visit) and headed straight for the Sistine Chapel.  

We sat on benches around the perimeter and starred up at the ceiling.  The kids, had all, in one form or another, seen the depiction of Michelangelo's “The Creation of Adam.”  But, until this trip, had never known where it came from.  So, yes, they did learn something while out of school.  

We finished our tour around 8:30 pm, and again knowing not to push things with tired kids, we took a taxi home.  Taxis in Rome don’t fit five people -- four at the most.  The first two taxi drivers refused to take all of us.  The third let us squish though he did take us to the far side of the piazza thus increasing his fare.  At this point in our trip it was well worth it.  

We ate dinner at a great pizza place just outside of the Piazza Navona, stopped for more gelato*, and called it a night.  

And that ended our time in Rome.  

The next installment?  

Renting a car and getting the hell out of dodge (aka driving in the big city complete with cutting people off, gesturing and obscenities).  

*** *** ***

*Gelato comes in many flavors.  The most exotic?  Viagra.  And I am dead serious.  Tell me -- who orders that?