Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Minnesota Trains!!

As everyone knows, a vacation is not complete without trying out the local public transportation!

Here in Minneapolis, there's now a light-rail line. (Yes, there's just one line, but from there you can transfer to buses and such.) So I decided to take my sons and my niece Emily on a little ride. My brother Ben and his family came along too.

My nieces were excited to ride the train, but by sons were pretty blase about it:

Oh, boy! We get to ride a tramway almost exactly like the one we ride every day back home in Switzerland.

My kids just wanted to go because they're interested in unusual coins, and Louise (my SiL) told them that the ticket machine gives dollar coins as change.

I also learned an important lesson that day: If you're wearing beige pants, don't put your black camera-case in your lap just before handing someone your camera to take a picture.

Yes, I am wearing pants in this picture.

The verdict: Better than nothing, but not quite the same level of convenience as the transportation in Zurich. ;)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Our Heavenly Nico!

OK, so now I'm in Minnesota where my parents have been taking care of my kids for two weeks during our trip to Italy.

Upon arriving in Minnesota, I was a little jet-lagged and not quite in line with the local schedule. So I warmed up some leftovers for a solo meal (while chatting with family in the kitchen), and just as I was about to eat, my 8-year-old Nico suddenly announced that he was going to say the prayer!

Naturally, I was a little shocked (this is what happens when the atheist family leaves their kids in a religious household for two weeks?), but I didn't object or try to stop him.

Nico started by explaining that everyone has to be quiet until he says the magic word: "Amen!" Then he began his prayer:

"Our Heavenly Nico..."

He then said a few things about the food and about being thankful that Mommy could come. Then he gave a bit of a pause (as if waiting for a drumroll) and gave an enthusiastic "Amen!"

It was kind of a cute approximation of a standard Mormon prayer. It had the same basic structure, but he didn't quite use any of the standard phrases. Notably, he didn't close "in the name of Jesus Christ."

Later my mom took me aside to explain that they didn't tell him that he needs to pray or anything like that -- he was just spontaneously imitating what they do at their house. I replied that it's totally obvious that they hadn't actively taught him to pray. If you teach a kid about prayer, the one thing he's not going to mess up is who the prayer is addressed to!!

It seems pretty clear that it was just a question of "when in Rome..." Nico -- being a curious kid -- wanted to try out the strange customs of this new household. I imagine he'd heard my dad giving a prayer (starting with "Our Heavenly Father") and cleverly guessed that that was the spot where you insert your own role. (OK, he was wrong, but it was an interesting guess nonetheless.)

And, ultimately, I want my kids to learn that different households and different people do things differently; that the way Mommy and Daddy do things is not the only way. And I think we're on track. We'll have plenty of opportunity to discuss "What is prayer?" with Nico and Leo as they grow and have more experiences, and it's great for them to discover things on their own.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Italy trip tips #4: graffiti!!

OK, this one isn't really a tip. I just wanted to highlight some amusing graffiti we saw. For example, this ordinary traffic sign in Florence was (for some unknown reason) transformed into a crucifix:

Also, what's up with these space invaders???

I saw this one right by the famous Spanish staircase in Rome, and I saw another one on my recent trip to Paris as well (though I don't remember exactly where it was).

Also -- this is a bit of a tangent, but -- I want to throw in a picture of my husband so you can see that he really was there with me:

My sweetie and Hercules battling a centaur

As usual he doesn't show up in that many photos because he tends to be on the other side of the camera. ;)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Italy trip tips #3: Souvenirs!!!

And I thought Lourdes was great for souvenirs -- with their unending supply of Catholic kitsch!!!

The thing about Lourdes, though, is that there's really no reason to go there unless you're Catholic (and/or happen to be visiting an aunt who's a nun, like we did). But with Rome? There are so many reasons to visit, many of which have nothing to do with Catholicism! (Catholicism and Christianity became important largely because of Rome, not the reverse...)

The hilarious result is that the souvenir stands have all of the Catholic devotional made-in-China souvenirs, with the secular-questionable-taste items displayed right beside them! One very popular item was boxer shorts with the genitals of Michelangelo's David printed onto them. And the souvenir shop across the street from our hotel had a whole selection of rosaries on one shelf, while the shelf just below it was cartoon figurines of gladiators and of the emperor giving the "thumbs down."

Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera handy when I was at that shop. But maybe you can make out the pope plates in this one, featuring the current pope putting on his best trying-not-to-look-like-the-evil-emperor smile:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Italy trip tips #2: Beware of the dome!

Recall from tip #1 that we were wandering aimlessly around Italy, visiting anything interesting that we noticed in our path.

Well, in Florence, we noticed this rather remarkable dome:

On one entrance, there was a sign that said "Visit the dome." Sounds interesting, we thought.

Now -- this is perhaps silly of me -- but my initial assumption was that this was just an entrance to go into the cathedral "Il Duomo" and look up at the dome. Then, as we were buying our entrance tickets, I noticed a sign that said there were four-hundred-sixty-three stairs, hence the visit is "not appropriate for people with heart conditions." That warning went right past me. I don't have a heart condition, and I can climb four-hundred-sixty-three stairs without the slightest difficulty.

It wasn't until I'd passed the point of no return that it hit me that this wasn't quite the same as climbing four-hundred-sixty-three stairs in a modern stairwell.

The problem is that the path to the dome is a long, dark, narrow, cramped stone tunnel. There's a huge line of people in front of you and behind, and the corridor is so narrow that two people can't pass each other (except in a handful of isolated wider points). In particular, you can't turn around and go back out the way you came -- the only way out is to continue to press forward through the cramped tunnel, and who knows what's up ahead??

I normally think of myself as only mildly claustrophobic. (Of course I had a weirdly similar scare at that polygamist church service...) Even before I got to see the dome, I was already starting to get very, very nervous. If someone were to have a heart attack in the middle of the visit -- which I could totally see happening!! -- how could that person (and everyone else) be evacuated?

Then we stepped out onto the balcony of the dome:

It's actually quite amazing! It's apparently the largest purely-masonry dome in the world. Here's looking up:

And here's looking down:

This is why, naturally, you don't want someone freaking out, ruining the visit for all of the normal people.

The balcony along the inside of the dome is made of stone, but is encased in glass, and is still so narrow that it isn't possible to pass anyone. And it was rather unfortunate for the tourists ahead of me in line -- who wanted to stand there at leisure admiring the ceiling -- when I gently suggested that they please step away from the exit because I have to get out of here now.

I climbed down the earliest exit possible (there were only two choices), but my husband continued on up the second path to the visit to the outside terrace:

If it had been necessary to go up there, I'm sure I could have done it without a major incident. But I'm glad I didn't have to, and boy was I ever happy to be out of that towering dungeon and back on solid ground in the great out-of-doors!

Later we happened upon a museum of medieval torture devices. On that one, they were careful to post a warning that the visit wasn't recommended for people who are "very sensitive or claustrophobic." Of course, merely by reading that it's a display of medieval torture devices, I already know I don't want to see that.

But I appreciated the careful warning. ;)

Italy trip tips #1: Stuff we discovered by accident!

Remember how I said that one nice thing about a trip to Italy is that you can do it without any advance planning? And that -- from Zurich -- you can have the idea to go one morning, and then go hop on a train and be there that afternoon...?

Well, just because you can do it that way doesn't mean that's the optimal way to visit Italy...

For example (with just a little advance planning!) you can avoid going in August. In Florence and Rome, any site that was even remotely visit-worthy was packed to the brim with tourists!! (Milan wasn't quite so bad, but also didn't have quite as many sights to see.)

Fortunately, the locals (the few that weren't on vacation elsewhere) made the best of it, and were nothing but friendly and helpful. And, really, why should people in Florence hate tourists? That would be like Swiss people hating cows! In Rome, many of the Romans who didn't have standard tourism-industry jobs would dress up as gladiators to pose for photos with tourists. Basically, it was a little like visiting an Italy-themed amusement park, except that you can potentially get run over by the crazy drivers for real.

Our lack of planning also kept us from booking things we might otherwise have booked in advance. For example, here's the view from our hotel window:

See that round building in the background? That's the church where you can go see Da Vinci's "Last Supper". Or you could, if you'd made an advance reservation.

But here's a tip we discovered (by luck!) when visiting the Colosseum:

The Colosseum is a lot more popular to visit than the other ruins of the ancient city (the forum and the Palatine hill), but the same ticket gets you into the lot. So visit the forum first (and buy your ticket there) to avoid the lines.

The Colosseum is a bit easier on the tourist than the Forum is. It's a huge structure that's mostly still standing, and the upper floors have a large indoor section that's set up like a museum (with a lot of historical information). The rest of the ancient city center is an enormous field of intriguingly scattered chunks of marble:

I studied Latin all through High School and College, so naturally I had to go visit the Forum! But it's one of those sites where you might actually want to have a tour guide explaining what this or that piece of marble used to be.

Remains of the Temple of Vesta, perhaps...?

Also, it can get hot very quickly there -- another reason to avoid visiting in August!

Oh, and here's one more thing we stumbled on purely by accident -- Galileo's house! It's near the Palazzo Pitti.

At Einstein's house in Princeton, the residents not only have avoided putting up a plaque about it, they actually took the number off their house and put up a "private residence" sign (to ward off the tourists, I suppose). At Galileo's house in Florence, by contrast, they not only put up a plaque, but they painted Galileo's portrait in the top story:

So did he really live there? Who knows? But as they say in Italy, "Se non e vero, e ben trovato." :D

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm back -- now with more science!!!

I'm back from my trip to Italy -- with so many stories and pictures!!!

First stop was the science museum! Yes, even if we didn't bring our kids this time, and yes even with one of the most famous art museums in the world right next store, our first stop in Florence was the Galileo Museum, showcasing the most advanced science and technology of the renaissance! The high point: they have some of the earliest machines that were invented to study electricity and magnetism -- and they're so simple that you can understand them even if you know very little about electromagnetism! The low point? They have Galileo's finger in a jar. No, I am not kidding. You can even buy a book about Galileo's finger, oddly enough.

Unfortunately, we couldn't take any pictures in that museum, but we got a few pictures in the Leonardo da Vinci science & tech museum in Milan, where they have the history of early telecommunications technology. (To the left, that's me with an ancient, pendulum-based fax machine.)

I wrote an overview of my various science museum adventures at Science-Based Parenting here. (Note that Rational Moms merged with Science-Based Parenting, so I'm over there now.)

At least we got a picture of Galileo's tomb. It turns out he's buried in a Catholic church (which surprised me a bit, considering the trouble he got into with the Catholic Church...). (He's mostly buried in a Catholic church, that is -- not his finger.)

Before we set off on our trip, my husband's mildly-Catholic mom asked him to be sure to light a candle in one of the churches. So, naturally, we lit one for Galileo's monument. We wanted to light one for Machiavelli too (he's buried in the very same church! So's Michelangelo!), but Machiavelli's tomb didn't have one of those little candle-stands set up by it.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Yep, we foreign tourists have Italy all to ourselves!!

I guess that's what happens when you don't really plan your vacation -- or, rather, leave an unfortunate hole in your plans...

See, we were supposed to be spending this vacation in China. My husband was invited to speak at a conference, and we'd been planning this for more than a year. I even organized the most elaborate system you can imagine so that my parents would come visit us in Switzerland (and pick up the kids and take them to the US), and I'd fly to the US to visit (and pick up the kids) after the China trip. Then, we we foolish enough to put off getting our visas for China until the last minute -- and China unexpectedly changed the rules for French people to get visas! There were a bunch of new rules and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and we didn't have time to get the visas!

It must have changed all of the sudden because other French friends going to the conference didn't have this problem. Every French person I've talked to has guessed the Sarkozy must have said something to offend the Chinese.

So what to do on short notice???

The obvious choice was a trip to Italy. It has the advantage that, from Zurich, you can have the idea to go one morning, and then go hop on a train and be there that afternoon. Plus, we loved our trip to Lago Maggiore last year, but if you look at a map, you'll see that we hardly left Switzerland. And I've always wanted to see Rome.

The disadvantage -- from not planning ahead! -- is that this is the middle of the tourist season, so everything is overrun with tourists. And everything that's not touristy is closed for the month because everyone who lives in the popular-to-visit cities is currently on vacation somewhere else (except those who happen to be directly employed by the tourism industry).

One fun part is that it's like a second honeymoon. Or even like a first honeymoon since, technically, we never did go on a honeymoon. (Though being in Florence may not be quite as suited to that as, say, JulieAnn's choice of SLC since here you're rather strongly tempted to get out of the room to see all of the amazing art and architecture.) I'll post some pics when I can. (Of the art and architecture.)

Another fun thing is that my sweetie and I studied Italian together when we were first married, so practicing it brings back some fun memories. I've brought the book we read together so long ago: 40 Leçons pour Parler Italien.

One of the silly sentences from the book became kind of a running gag for us. There's a part where the turist orders spaghetti, and specifies that she wants it "al dente." The Italian waiter explains that in Italy the spaghetti is always served al dente: Gli spaghetti Italiani sono sempre al dente. So when we couldn't think of a relevant, coherent sentence in Italian, we'd just have fun claiming that all sorts of things are always al dente. The latest one we've come up with is the foreign tourists (like us). Whenever we see any of our fellow foreign tourists doing something particularly silly or touristy, we just sigh and remark I turisti stranieri sono sempre al dente.

It doesn't really mean anything, but somehow it fits. ;)

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Bodensee vs. Lago Maggiore: Which boat ride is better?

Southern Germany, Switzerland, and Northern Italy are surprisingly similar. OK, actually, it's not surprising if you think about it for two seconds. But if I say "Picture Italy! Now picture Germany! Now picture Switzerland!" you come up with three totally different mental pictures, don't you? But if I say "Picture a big lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of pretty greenery and old cities and villages along the coast," well, that could be any and all of the above.

All of these lakes have public passenger boats to ferry you from one side to the other. Recall that last year we tested out the boats of Lago Maggiore. This year we decided to visit the Bodensee (a.k.a. Lake Constance) -- mostly because it's only an hour-and-a-half from Zürich by train, and the kids had never been to Germany before.

As you might expect, the boat rides are very similar but a little bit different. As a control, we also tested out the boat ride on the Zürichsee -- from Zürich to Rapperswil.

Since we didn't bring along my husband (who normally takes the photos), I have to settle for illustrating this post with photos taken by Nico. For example, it may not be obvious from the picture, but here we're on the boat on the Bodensee:

Leo, just a couple days before losing one of those teeth you see in this picture...

(Having an eight-year-old photo-document a trip definitely gives you a different perspective on what's interesting. For example, here's a photo he took of the doughnuts at the Zürich train station:

The exotic doughnuts of the American Bakery of Zürich)

In all three cases, we decided to have lunch on the boat. Here's how they stack up:

The Swiss boat had quite a nice restaurant. The German boat claimed to have a restaurant, but I'm not totally convinced that they had a real kitchen (as opposed to just heating up pre-prepared stuff, like on the train). And, in proper Goldilocks style, the Italian boat was between the two -- not super fancy, but economical, pleasant, and a good value.

Of course the restaurant quality probably had more to do with the size of the lake than with the surrounding culture. The Zürichsee is really small. You have to travel the lake the long way in order to have a two-hour boat ride. The only reason to take the boat is if you want to go on a pleasure cruise. If you just want to go to Rapperswil, you take the train -- it's more frequent, it's only a half-hour, and it costs the same as the boat. On the Bodensee, it took an hour-and-a-half to cross it the short way, so naturally the boat is full of people who are as interested in getting to the other side as they are in the joy of riding on a boat. Naturally, Lago Maggiore is between the two.

The big disadvantage of the Zürich boat was that they separated off the top level for first class. Already, it was a small boat with only two levels (unlike a proper lake boat, which should have at least three levels). That was a bit of a disappointment because part of the fun of a lake cruise is to wander around and explore the whole boat. And the second-class section was fancy enough that it kind of made me curious to get a first-class ticket sometime, just to see what's up there...

The big surprise, though, was that -- contrary to all popular stereotypes -- the Italian boat schedule was more logical (made more sense) than the German one. The various boat lines on Lago Maggiore were very well-integrated with one another, and they fit together in a clear, easy-to-understand timetable. Then (and this is such a simple thing that I can't imagine why they don't do it in Germany), they post the destinations of the next boat on the pier where the boat will land.

The thing is that each port has as many as six or seven numbered slots where boats can dock (for passengers to get on and off). I suspect that the mapping of which boat goes to which slot doesn't change much, but, still, they don't print it on the boat schedule, and (in Konstanz) they don't post it on the dock where the boat lands either. You have to go read the boat-to-pier mapping off a central monitor or chart (which you have to go find, and it can be rather far from the pier in question).

Now, you may be thinking that I just found the Italian timetables clearer because I still read Italian (a little) better than I read German. But seriously, it's just a table of numbers -- the language is irrelevant.

The language, however, is another fun aspect of the trip! All of these lake cruises are (obviously) quite touristic, but they're almost all designed for local tourists. The Bodensee, in particular, is geared almost entirely for German tourists. It's basically the warm-and-sunny Summer seaside holiday destination for Germans. So in Konstanz (unlike Zürich) -- even if my German is obviously really limited -- as long as actual communication is taking place, they won't spontaneously switch to English.

Similarly, around Lago Maggiore, the tourists are mostly from Switzerland, Germany, and France, so all of the tourist-relevant signage is in Italian, German, and French (but not necessarily in English). If you have trouble communicating in Italian, it's not totally obvious which other language they should switch to. So they just stick with Italian until the tourist switches to some other language.

Anyway, sorry this is a bit of a ramble -- but I hope it's useful to any of you who are planning to visit the lakes of the Alpine region! :D