When I was 11, my parents chaperoned a high school trip to Italy, and due to the low numbers of attending students, I got to come along.
It was 1993.
10 glorious days touring Rome, Florence and Venice.
There were 3 guys and 5 girls between 15-17 years old, my parents, and me.
As my dad taught at the high school, my parents had done a few of these trips in Europe with the students, and had developed a practice of providing free time each afternoon. Dad would tell the students something like,
"Ok, it's 1pm. You need to be here by 4pm. If you don't make it, you need to find the hotel. Here's the address. Make sure there's at least 2 of you. Any questions?"
Remember, it was the early 90s.
No one had a cell phone.
But also, neither of the "Taken" movies had been made yet.
Because the boys were interested in Italian women...they tended to take off together and see what they could, well, see.
Because it was the early 90s, 4 of the 5 girls on the team were enchanted with pink leather. They spent most of their free time bartering with Italian merchants and trying to convince them that Canadian stitching would have been done with better quality, and therefore they should get a discount.
The 5th girl, Nicole, was 16, well-read, an explorer, and not particularly interested in pink leather. She was, as she pointed out to the girls, in Italy....ITALY! She could shop at home. She wanted to see the sights and go exploring. So, Nicole, being a bright, responsible girl, who also happened to have an 11 year old sister at home, approached my parents with a proposal.
"Seeing as we need to have 2 people in a group during free time, and the other girls want to shop...what do you think about me taking Kathleen?"
As I pointed out to my parents just last month...
"What were you thinking?"
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, for taking that risk"
Together, Nicole and I explored Rome, Venice, and Florence.
I have incredible memories of those days. We covered a lot of ground. Found lots of unique spots I don't think I could find again now if I tried. After 10 days of exploring, taking awful photos, and that one moment where I thought I was being mugged (which in fact was my dad, pranking me...), we returned home.
And I have wanted to go back ever since.
So, after originally, stupidly, saying "no thanks" to this latest trip proposal...I re-evaluated and agreed that I was being stupid. As Carleigh told me one day in the kitchen: "You just need to do it!"
She was so right.
16 days in Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Athens, Delphi, and Santorini.
There is no way to summarize this experience properly. The sights. The smells. The food...oh the food. The art. The people. The politics. The transportation (of every kind).
One of my last nights in Santorini, I pulled out a small journal I had brought along and started making notes. The magic of Italy the first time around was found in those moments where Nicole and I went off the map...perhaps got in trouble, perhaps got lost, perhaps were a little naive...but I never forgot it. While I may be 20 years older, I wanted to recapture the essence of what it felt like to come home from a time that could only be described as magical.
I hope that in sharing these moments, you may reminisce in your own adventures, borrow mine for today as you need, and/or dream of your own moments in whatever adventures lay ahead. I thank God for the opportunity we have to adventure and journey....whether 5 minutes from our homes, or across the sea.
My favourite moments from Italy and Greece 2013... in no particular order... told in present tense, in a desire to keep living the moment... shared with a smile on my heart.
* Freddocino. Cafe freddo (frozen cafe latte); my first taste is in Rome's Termini station, and the last in Cinque Terre; they provide me a small cup with a tiny spoon of perfectly blended coffee, sugar and milk, and I know this is my ideal way to both cool off from the heat and aid my coffee-withdrawal headache.
* The haze settles over the Greek islands as the sun sets over Santorini. From my chair I marvel at the pink hue bathing the white washed homes, as I sip on my wine, feel the breeze on my skin, thankful for it after two weeks of heat. While the sun sets, the moon rises. Eventually, all that is left is the moonlight over the Aegean, showing me where the wind is continually urging the water towards the shore. I begin to hear the soft lullaby of a mother singing with her children; their night time ritual. A sweet melody, the children's voices so precious as they crackle with tiredness.
* My eyes catch a nun in St. Peter's as she paces slowly in an area cordoned off from us visitors. She walks rhythmically; is she praying, pondering, perhaps counting rosary beads? I ponder the reality of St. Peter's as a regular place of worship for her.
* Walking the streets of Corniglia, I encounter small pockets of basil everywhere I look. A large sign shows us we have arrived in the week of the annual basil festival. The gelato place is serving basil gelato for this week only. I ask for a sample, and am delighted by how refreshing it is. We have arrived at the birthplace of pesto. These people know what they are doing with basil.
* Slowly ascending the hill of the Acropolis, with each corner we turn, the view encountered is more impressive than the last. As we wander amongst the building sites...these temples, places of honour and worship for the Greek gods, I cannot help but think three things: 1. How the heck did they accomplish this? (Granted, I think this at most historical sites). 2. What would I have been thinking and feeling as an Athenian, climbing this mountain to give my offering, to engage in dialogue and debate, to worship and admire? 3. When should I start my new career as an archeologist?
* Arriving in Manarola, we quickly discover our accommodations directly outside of the train tunnel. Beauty. We buzz the door, and are greeted by Franco, our Italian pensioner landlord. He is mischievous, which is my favourite kind of Italian pensioner. His eyes tell me he is joking even though his English is too limited to fully tell. Kelly asks him, "do you speak English?" Franco replies, "No, I speak Chinese! You speak Chinese?" We laugh and tell him no. He tells us that's a problem. Then he brings us limoncello, made with the very lemons he grows, makes us cheer to our health, but won't drink with us. He makes re-appearances throughout the next three days...mostly yelling at me from three flights above. I peer up the circular staircase to find his smirking face, "All GOOD?" "Yes, everything is great!" I yell back. He doesn't understand me. We do thumbs up, and he disappears back into his apartment.
* Gelato. Coconut gelato. Creamy coconut gelato.
* The leisurely glide of the gondola. The serenading crooning of our gondolier, who pauses to tell us there are 409 bridges in Venice. Slipping into what feel like side alleys, we discover backdoor entrances to hotels, and homes, and stores. I consider the past, and what it would continue to require today to bring supplies in and out of Venice. A small motorboat turns the wrong way on the waterway (yes, there are rules here...), and creates a gondola traffic jam. The gondoliers yell back and forth their disparaging comments, but from their tone you can tell these comments are not fuelled with frustration, but rather serve as fulfillment of an expectation to express disgust. We continue on. Our gondolier, forgetting his script, again informs us there are 409 bridges in Venice. The songs of the passing gondoliers float on the water and slide up the walls to the sky.
* Everywhere I look in Rome and Athens there are cars. Scooters. Motorbikes. It feels as though they are crammed into corners and spaces which seem impossibly tight. And then we transport to Venice, Cinque Terre, Santorini...and I am overwhelmed with the comparatively quiet air of voices and footsteps. We walk empty sidewalks, save the tourists, whose eyes are glued to the sky, the camera, or the map. In Rome we sidestep cars; In these places we mostly just sidestep tourists. And sometimes we are those tourists. Out of habit, I apologize in Spanish. And then shake my head.
* Greek salad. Slabs of feta. Capers. Dripping in olive oil.
* Greek yogurt. With honey. With nutella. With jam.
* As it is July we find ourselves in tourist-laden locations. But there are always the locals to be found if you are close to watch. I am enchanted with them. The older women, who wear shift dresses, and pantyhose, and thick sandals; they hold each others' arms as they walk, their free hand gesturing as they talk. Grand, sweeping motions. Slow steps. Deliberate. In Greece, we encounter spitting men. Engaged in debate, hands held out to make a point, and then comes a breathy spit to finalize that point. I have to laugh. Where did this start, and how did it not make its way to us? Why don't we spit when we make a point? What makes it acceptable in their culture and rude in ours?
* Eight bells from the church in Manarola means I might as well wake up, check Facebook and see what happened at home while I was sleeping. I hear the train rumble through the mountain. A new day has started.
* Expressions of love. A two year old sits on his mother's lap on the bus. It is mid afternoon, and in the heat, she begins to doze. He reaches up and strokes her face gently. We get off the bus and wait for our transfer. A young man leans over to his love, pulling her toward him for a gentle kiss. She pretends not to be interested. He, slightly shocked, confused, pulls back. She smiles, knowing she's tricked him, pulls him in and offers what he was looking for. These moments throughout our travels both fill my heart and tug at the longing. Observation is beautiful. Experience is precious.
* After climbing down the Acropolis, we wander over to Mars Hill, overhearing tour guides giving short Bible studies to groups of teens trying to find shade in the square. We climb the steps to the top of the rock, and I am awestruck. I think of the audacity, the courage it would have taken for Paul to climb that rock, and stare out at the Acropolis, looming with the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and a 30 foot tall bronze statue of the goddess Athena complete with spear ready to pierce the air, declaring her power. Legend states her spear was visible from sea. Paul must have taken a deep breath in prayer before he spoke of the one true living God, who came to live amongst us, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us...and who rose from the dead, "For in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Did he turn and point to Athena? Acknowledge her prominence in the hearts of the Athenians? As I turn to walk down the hill, I acknowledge something new tugging at my heart, igniting the meaning in a passage I have read and studied extensively...the moment changes me.
This is why we travel.