Yamas! Good friends part ways…for now.

Funny enough, one of the closest friends I have here in Greece is neither Greek nor American. We had a chance encounter at OAKA, and for the past year Katy and I have become besties. Her daughter is just a smidge younger and a smidge bigger than Violet. Last week we took the girls to see Peppa Pig at Golden Hall and they just about LOST THEIR MINDS. Katy and Dmitrius took us out for the most fabulous and immersive Greek Sunday supper. And they’ve been an endless source of all things Greek — language, customs, great things to see and when to see them, advice on local products to buy and shops to go to, you name it.

So when Dmitrius accepted a job in Chicago, I was at once disappointed that my friend would be leaving me, but also elated that she would be moving to the US. I mean, eventually my adventure will be ending, and then we’ll be on the same side of the Atlantic again!

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With a few more weeks until their departure, we’re trying to squeeze in as many get-togethers as we can manage. Last night we had a double date at a lovely new restaurant in Halandri called Red Pepper. The cuisine was northern Greek, and the owner is from the same village that Dmitrius hails from, Florina, which is known for its awesome spicy red peppers (hence the name). The food was fantastic. I kept asking Katy to tell me what each dish was called as I typed it in my phone. Eventually I gave up and just handed her my phone to type it in for me.

First, of course, we started with drinks. Dmitrius asked if we’d ever tried Tsipouro. Turns out, I had. But I wasn’t sure at the time, so I figured let’s give it a go. Whoa. I was warned it was like Grappa…and it was. Yamas! I learned that’s Greek for “cheers!” Two minutes later and we were all a bit merrier. Katy and I decided to switch to white wine after that. (“Lefko krasi, parakalo” — I got to use it again!) Let the feast begin!

The menu was all in Greek, and while the waiter graciously offered to translate it all for us, we decided to let the experts order for us. Besides, we planned to order a bunch of dishes and share them, and we are adventurous eaters.

Along with salad, we started with Bougiourdi — a hot clay dish of melted Feta cheese, tomato, spicy peppers, olive oil, and oregano. I couldn’t resist teasing Katy for how she pronounced oregano. Or-a-GON-oh. If she’s going to move to the US, she’s got to learn how to pronounce it like a Yank. Or-AYE-gan-oh. There ya go. We all gobbled this one up, as Dmitrius advised it is best consumed while it is warm. James said this was his favorite dish of the night.

Next up, Melintzana Sxaras, oven roasted aubergine (eggplant) with feta and tomato. And we had a fantastic Pork Tigania, a stir-fry with sausage, peppers, mushrooms, and a rich, dark sauce. This one was my favorite of the night. We also had traditional Florinian sausages with mustard and a plate of kebabs with pita and tzatziki sauce. Greeks love their meat! And so do we.

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We finished with complimentary dessert: Halvas with kormos, sort of a creamy paste paired with a chocolate “tree log.” Sooooo good! And perhaps because Dmitrius was talking up the owner (apparently they know some of the same people back home in Florina), we got another round of tsipouro and white wine on the house.

While enjoying this fantastic food, Katy and Dmitrius insisted that we really MUST make it to the northern part of Greece. It’s very different from the south, cooler and mountainous. Apparently there’s a huge festival at Christmas in Florina in which each little neighborhood tries to build the biggest bonfire. It’s quite a sight to behold, especially in the snow. There’s a whole chain of villages worth stopping to see: Ioannina, Kastoria, Pella, Vergina. There’s a great ski resort in Kaimaktsalan and a wonderful spa with thermal springs called Pozar Salt Cave. (I found such a great deal with free cancellation on Booking.com that I went ahead and made a reservation over Christmas break.)

And we were able to return the favor by extolling the virtues of Chick-fil-A and Trader Joe’s. (Just as Katy had to type all of these Greek village names in my phone, I had to type in Chick-fil-A for her. Ha!) All month long Katy has peppered me with questions about the US, and I’m happy to tell her everything I know. I suspect we’ll be keeping up the conversation over What’sApp long after she moves. And we’ve already made plans for a trip up to Chicago on our next US visit.

Yamas! To great friends, great food, and great times to come!

Two kids, one adult at a resort…and I survived.

Saturday the kids and I embarked on a little adventure…an all-inclusive resort in the Peloponnese for Labor Day weekend. I’d taken Liam on a similar vacation when he was three in Florida, and despite the challenges (we were potty training at the time, as I recall), we had a lot of fun. I was hoping to recapture the magic.

Turns out that taking TWO kids on a beach vacation is about FOUR times more work. Coupled with our lackluster opinion of the resort, and the weekend was pretty much a bust.

The afternoon started out promising. Our room at the Barcelo Hydra Beach Resort was much bigger than expected, and we had three beds plus a proper crib for Violet. But when I sat on the beds, I realized only one of them was even remotely comfortable. I seriously thought they’d mistakenly put the box springs on top of the mattresses. Liam claimed the bed by the window, the only soft mattress, and I wasn’t about to argue with him. So I was already dreading bed time.

We headed to the beach for the late afternoon, and the kids had a wonderful time digging in the sand. It was rockier than I would have expected from a resort, but the Greek beaches have continually disappointed me, so I should have known. My recent vacation at Grand Cayman and our time in Florida have made me a bit of a beach snob, I’m afraid.

I was indeed impressed by the variety at the buffet — the kids could eat somewhat nutritiously while also indulging in french fries. And they had wine on tap, so everyone was satisfied. I wish my kids were a little older and more capable of getting their own plates. Liam can hold a plate, but couldn’t seem to get the food onto it. And Violet couldn’t manage it at all, though she certainly tried. (“Put the plate back where you found it, Violet!”) I spent most of our time ferrying food back and forth to our table, like that mom on A Christmas Story who hasn’t had a hot meal in eight years. At least the views from the dining room were lovely.

I had originally planned to book us a ferry from the resort to Hydra island for a short excursion, but much to my disappointment, there weren’t any ferries until Tuesday evening. The helpful desk receptionist suggested we take a ferry from a stop 15 minutes down the road, but after consulting the times table, I realized I’d be trapped on an island for eight hours with two children, one of them in serious need of a nap. No thanks!

Instead, we rented a sun bed and sat on the beach all day. Conveniently, I had received a coupon for 16 Euros for joining the Barcelo’s rewards club, which just about exactly covered the cost of a sun bed rental. If I’d been staying longer, I would have been annoyed by this little financial jab — pay for an all-inclusive resort, then pay extra for the only spots in the front row on the beach. But staying on a Sunday in the off season has its perks — we easily secured a bed in front of the beach bar. There wasn’t any wait service (another gripe), but I could easily run to the bar for snack and drinks while the kids played in the sand. The kids had another enjoyable day digging in the sand, though our spot was even rockier than the day before, and every foray into the surf left my feet aching from sharp pebbles. Liam wouldn’t swim by himself, so I was constantly in and out of the water. A few Mai Tais later and I didn’t mind it too much.

We spent a little time at the pool, which offered some lovely views. Liam wanted to swim to the very edge near the ocean, so I dutifully followed him while Violet screamed in my ear. Apparently she wasn’t in the mood for swimming.

After we’d had our fill of the sun, we cleaned up and took the camera on a walk about the resort. I got some great photos despite Liam and Violet’s sour moods.

The walk was hillier than I had expected, and it didn’t take long for the heat to drive us back into our room. We had to wait around for dinner to be served at 7:30. I regret not bringing more food of my own, or at the very least snagging some food when they decided to serve it.

That evening I managed to trick Liam into sleeping in the big bed, so at least I could enjoy a soft bed for one night. Of course, I also had the annoyance of a hot room. I complained in vain at the front desk about the thermostat stubbornly locked at 25C — a balmy 77F — apparently a hotel policy. One of many cost-cutting measures that left me disappointed in this resort. We were also limited in the number of towels we could have for the week. It wasn’t a problem for our short stay, but I would have been annoyed by this if I’d stayed the whole week. Who wants to bring a sandy towel back to their room to reuse the next day?

I had considered staying an extra night, but by Monday we were ready to just be home. Besides, you’d have to pay me to sleep on that hard bed in that hot room for one more night!

The road less traveled

I found myself thinking about our first day in Athens as I drove from my dentist’s office near the airport down to the embassy. I have bleary memories of these beautiful hillside vistas, and as I peered out the window I could see the vast city below. We went through a few tunnels, and then suddenly there was the Acropolis in the distance. It’s funny — I’ve never had occasion to drive on that road again until the other day. It was called the Imittos Ring, and as highway driving goes, it is one of the most lovely drives in Athens. I would imagine most tourists approach the city this way. It was a nice little drive down memory lane.

Tomorrow the kids and I are off on a journey of our own. James had to travel to Africa at the last minute, so I decided to book us a couple of nights at a seaside resort in the Peloponnese. When Liam was three I did a similar thing in Florida, and it was one of the most lovely mini-vacations I’ve ever had. Our Greek resort provides all-inclusive food and drinks, three private beaches, and excursions to a Greek island, so it promises to be even more luxurious than Florida. However, I am a little nervous about the drive down with car-sick prone children (I have Dramamine at the ready!) and the sleeping arrangements with one child afraid of the dark now, and one who can’t stand the light on when he sleeps. Sigh. I wonder if the staff will let me take a bottle of wine to my room before bed?

The kids wanted to watch Toy Story 3 this morning, and as I’m blubbering through the ending, I’m reminding that I need to cherish these amazing years when they are so young. Sure, vacations might be a hassle, and they may drive me crazy sometimes, but these sweet little years won’t last forever. I plan to bring my Nikon, so stay tuned for some (hopefully) nice photos of the kids in my next post.

Fun with Friends in Germany

Our trip to Germany last weekend went wonderfully — no major issues with travel, accommodations, or misbehaving children. Huzzah! That’s not to say the journey wasn’t difficult. We arrived in Hamburg at 9:30 PM, transferred Violet from the baby carrier to the car seat with wheels, then picked up our rental car, installed the car and booster seats, and started our three-hour drive at about 10:30. I brought my own GPS, and the road to Göttingen was pretty straightforward. I kept myself awake by blasting Michael Jackson (at Liam’s request) and slapping myself in the face a couple of times. And by 2 AM we made it! My friends Christie and Michael had our beds all made up, and after a quick change into jammies, we all completely passed out until the morning.

Interesting observation about the traffic lights in Germany: while they are all still placed on the asinine near side of the intersection, the light would flash yellow briefly before it turned green, thus alerting drivers to prepare to step on the gas. Genius!

Saturday morning my children were up bright and early, per usual. Seriously, you went to bed at 2AM and you’re still up at 7? My children have no concept of sleeping in.

At any rate, we had a lovely breakfast of pastries and donuts from the local bakery, and the kids met their new playmates, Maya and Felix. Maya, nearly 10, loved sitting with Violet and showing off her Monster High dolls, while Felix, age 5, loved dancing around the living room with Liam. They all made fast friends.

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The weather was a little colder than we’re accustomed to — we left Greece at 80 degrees, and arrived in Germany to a chilly 45. But we bundled up and headed out to see the little German university town of Göttingen. We took the kids to Thalia, a two-story bookstore with a little castle slide for the boys to play on. Violet snoozed away in the bike trailer/stroller while Michael graciously walked her around in circles outside. Christie and I caught up over hot drinks — mine a bit on the overflowy side.

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After picking up a few fresh fruits at the farmer’s market (called the Wochenmarkt), Christie suggested we try a fabulous German street food, Currywurst and pommes. We stood at a barrel and gobbled down all that sausagy and French fry deliciousness — so good!

Having lived in Germany for five years, Christie had completely immersed herself in the language. It was interesting to hear her conversations and find myself somewhat following along. Amazing how much German I can still understand after all of these years! Granted, I could barely speak a word myself, aside from hello, please, thanks, sorry, and the like. But I have a feeling if we ever ended up in Germany, I’d more easily be able to pick it up than I have with Greek. Course, if I actually put any effort into my Greek studies…

Sunday morning we had another fabulous breakfast, this time homemade pancakes with orange-vanilla syrup, expertly prepared by Christie. I remember she always liked to cook back in our college days. Michael’s not too shabby with a frying pan, either. His scrambled eggs and bacon were deemed amazingly edible by my pickiest progeny.

20170430_130411Then we were off to do the most German thing we could think of: Hike up a hill in the woods to a Beirgarten and have brats and beer. This is apparently how Germans most love to spend their Saturday afternoons, at least in Lower Saxony. Liam did remarkably well, especially once we got him a hiking stick…or two. Resembling a cross-country skier, he hiked up with relatively little complaining (for him…there was definitely some griping about the temperature as we started off through the Schillerwiesen, but he soon warmed up…and shut up). Violet slept on my back most of the way. After an hour or so, we arrived at the top for our much-deserved brats and beer. I ordered a huge Dunkel Hefewiessen, one of my favorites. Liam even ate a brat! After Michael painstakingly peeled off the skin. I owe this guy a beer!

 

When Violet finally roused herself and munched on some bread, we headed over to the nature preserve to see the native “wild” boars. The kids were fascinated…and the boars were loud! Many altercations led to loud squealing. They really do squeal like pigs!

On our way back home, we kept seeing this pretty green plant, and I was told I really must try the ice cream flavor that is made from this plant, Waldmeister. Challenge accepted! It wasn’t hard to talk the kids into stopping for ice cream before dinner. And indeed, Icelust had both vanilla and Waldmeister, so Liam and I were both happy. The flavor was fantastic…and sort of indescribable. It was green like pistachio, but not quite as sweet. Definitely worth trying next time you find yourself in Deutchland! Violet enjoyed her ice cream…and Maya’s. Her adorableness lends itself well to her thievery.

 

Monday afternoon Christie and Michael suggested we drive over to the Gottingen Kiessee, a small lake and park area where you can rent paddle boats and the kids can play on a playground shaped like a pirate ship. “Sounds great!” I said, “But…we can’t all fit in my rental car, right?”

Apparently renting a car for the afternoon is as easy as checking an app, walking to a nearby car, and driving it to your house. It really is an amazing age we live in! Now I can see how easily they can get by without a car in Europe.  Not only can you easily rent a car for a few hours, but the town is incredibly bike-friendly, so most people get around on two wheels when they can. I’m not sure if I would survive as well without a car in Athens. Biking here is hazardous to your health, both because of traffic and pollution. I heart Germany.

The kids loved the paddle boats…though Violet was just a tad hard to handle. Liam did his best to help Michael paddle our boat, but he couldn’t quite reach the pedals. I jumped in there for a bit, until Violet squirmed out of my arms and got a little too close to the edge for my comfort. Seriously, I owe this guy two beers!

 

We had a lovely mid-day meal at the boathouse restaurant overlooking the water (or Bootshaus, as they call it in German). The kids feasted on schnitzel, pommes and garden peas…and I had the most amazing tomato soup and “schokolade kucken” (which is incidentally my favorite German word, meaning “chocolate cake”). Then they were off to the pirate ship. Ahoy, matey!

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Faced with an extremely early rise the next morning to catch our flight, I decided to drive up to Hamburg that evening and stay in a hotel near the airport. I am now an expert at international traveling with young children. No elevator, and our room is on the third floor? No problem! I got this. I can seriously conquer the world now. We arrived home on Tuesday without incident. (And we got to try Turkish ice cream during our layover in Istanbul. Very different from gelato and ice cream I’ve had in Europe — so thick and sticky!)

Thank you to Christie and Michael, and their amazing children Maya and Felix, for being such wonderful hosts and showing us around their lovely German city. Thanks to Michael for taking all of these great photos, ensuring that I’m actually in some for a change! We had a fantastic time.  I hope someday soon we can return the favor in Athens!

Spring Break in Venice

Ah…Venice. James and I visited during our college days, almost (ahem) twenty years ago, and not much has changed. There are still way too many pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. They still require you to dress modestly in the basilicas. The gondolas are still horribly overpriced. And the canals and bridges are just as magical and quaint as ever.

One big difference for us, though. These two little monkeys we decided to drag along with us. But we came prepared. For weeks before our trip (and years, really — I bought the book when Liam was 2), we read Olivia Goes to Venice. The week before we left it was Violet’s very favorite book. We rented a two-bedroom apartment close to St. Mark’s Square. We planned only one, maybe two outings per day, with lots of time built in to go back to the apartment to rest in the afternoons. And we packed as light as humanly possible for a family of four so we wouldn’t have too much luggage to drag from the train.

And I’d say, all things considered, we had a fabulous time. There were moments that weren’t so great (the line inside St. Mark’s Cathedral that Liam just about lost his shit about, our stupidly overpriced first dinner, our bathroom that reeked of cats), but the weather was fantastic and, what am I complaining about?! We spent a week in freakin’ Venice!!

Although, I do have to say, our first night was a little rough. After four hours on the train and another hour getting the Vaporetto (Venice’s mass transit system) to our apartment, we settled into our rather amusing digs — not a level floor in the place, or curtains in the bathroom…hello, neighbors! — and I set out to get groceries for my hungry family. We were on the first floor, up one set of stairs from a large entry way. I went to unlock the door to the street — it appeared I could just push a button — but the door wouldn’t budge. I monkeyed with that thing for five minutes before I ran up to get James. Then he monkeyed with it for another five minutes before I called the owner. She was a bit perplexed, but said she was sending her husband to come help us. Hungry, tired children don’t wait happily. Neither does hungry, tired mommy. He showed up after maybe 30 minutes, and of course he opened the door just fine! But after some explaining we discovered what had happened: another tenant in the building at locked the deadbolt from the outside when they left the building, apparently locking everyone else inside. Are you kidding me? What are we supposed to do if this happens again?! He just shrugged his shoulders and said to call him. Perhaps I should start saying because…Italy! At any rate, he said he’d alert the other stupid American tourists not to throw the deadbolt. (I might have added the stupid part.) Finally, I made it home with groceries, and my children ate like Gremlins after midnight.

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Our first full day in Venice we started at the Doge’s Palace, an easy walk from our apartment. We met a long line, but it moved fast. The kids enjoyed watching the boats, or as Violet called them, “The boatsies.” As per usual, Liam rushed us through the palace, complaining about how boring it was until we got to the Bridge of Sighs and the prison rooms. Then he had a fabulous time traipsing through the dungeons and looking at the shiny armor. Violet fell asleep in the Boba and slept through the whole thing.

Gelato o’clock! Liam ate his vanilla waffle cone while I surreptitiously shot some photos. Violet continued to sleep.

While people watching in the square, I spied an Asian tour group with a tour guide speaking softly into a tiny microphone while the group listened intently on their ear pieces. Very high tech!

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Then we were off to see the famed Rialto Bridge! Liam was fairly unimpressed, but he did notice it was just like it was pictured in our Olivia book.

After lunch and siesta at our apartment (I’m so glad we rented close to everything!), we let Liam lead us around the streets until we got hungry for dinner. We landed in a piazza and we chose a sleepy restaurant with tables outside. The kids chased pigeons while we waited for our overpriced meal. Seriously, 75 Euros to feed four people! The restaurant was called Al Burchiello, and looking back on Trip Advisor, the consensus was average food at inflated prices.

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Wednesday morning we stood in a very long line for the San Marco Basilica. Liam was actually pretty good standing in line…until we got inside and he realized the line continued pretty much through the entire church. And then, oh the complaining! There are signs all over the basilica requesting silence, but that had no effect on my increasingly impatient eight-year-old. (Violet was, of course, sleeping this whole time.) Faced with another line at the stairs to the roof, we almost skipped it. But I remembered that was really the best part of the basilica, so after some bribery and threats of abandonment, we made it to the rooftop. There we could wander freely, and it was as if a pressure valve had been released. Smiles on everyone’s faces. (Well, except Violet, who was…yes, still sleeping)

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Gelato o’clock! I know. This is turning into a thing. Our guidebook suggested a trip to the Naval History Museum would entertain young children, so we decided to walk along the shore and check it out. Violet woke up along the way. It turned out to be a rather small museum, but with a lot of huge boats. No lines and very spacious, so the kids had a great time.

Afterward we found much better and affordable food in the Castello neighborhood at a restaurant called Al Canton. My pesto was outstanding, and even better was the chocolate torte.

That evening I took the kiddos on a little walkabout. They had a blast chasing pigeons in the square. It was probably their favorite thing about our trip to Venice. We made our way to the harbor, then wandered our way along the Grand Canal. Eventually Violet fell asleep on my back, and Liam and I wandered our way to a…you guessed it…gelato stand. Third of the day for my little ice cream addict! It was lovely wandering the city as the street lights flickered on…until we got to St. Mark’s Square. Then we were accosted by dudes hawking these flying, spinning glow sticks. I told Liam to tell them, “No Grazie.” He had to say it about five times as we crossed the square. I really thought it would be like magic to walk through the square at night. So annoying!

Thursday morning we sprung for the two-day Vaporetto passes (an astounding 30 Euros a piece!) so we could more easily get around Venice and outlying islands. Liam kept calling them “busoats,” combining “bus” and “boat.” This kid cracks me up.

We popped by the Guggenheim to see my very favorite painting in the whole wide world, a Rene Magritte masterpiece called The Empire of Light. I first laid eyes on this work back in ’99, the last time I was in Venice, and I was completely entranced. So much so that I came back home and painted it on canvas for myself. Family and friends may recognize it from the walls of my houses — regrettably my version is currently in storage.

James is not so into modern art (putting it lightly), so we headed to a nearby church that was featured in one of our favorite films, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We had fruitlessly searched for it twenty years ago, before Google made everything so easy to find. Lo and behold! Hubby looks so happy!

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Back on the “busoat” and to the Jewish Ghetto we went! Interesting piece of history here, dating back to the 1500s. You can read about it here. Interesting history for me, as well — I’m almost certain I stayed at a hostel in the main square when I was here in college. The kids, of course, could care less about the history. Time to chase pigeons!

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On our way back to the apartment we stopped for yet more gelato, and I discovered my favorite flavor: Kookie Tango, a mix of vanilla, chocolate, caramel and sugar cookies. Divine!

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Energized, we decided the line for the climb to the top of the Campanile didn’t look too long. Let’s do it! Violet kept pointing and asking if it was going to fall down, like in her Olivia book. Predictably, she fell asleep before we made it to the top. And — a welcome surprise — there was an elevator straight to the top! The views were amazing.

After dinner, I took the kids on another walkabout. We came upon some gondoliers tying up for the night. As we watched them, one of them playfully took his oar and tapped Liam’s foot. Everyone around us laughed, including us. Violet couldn’t stop shouting “Gondola!” every time she saw one.

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Friday morning as we headed back through St. Mark’s Square, we saw a huge cruise boat sailing past the square in the lagoon. As we looked through the clock tunnel, it looked otherworldly next to all of the Venetian architecture.

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Incidentally, we had this same vantage of the clock tunnel from our apartment.

 

We took the “busoat” out to Murano to watch a glass blowing demonstration. Liam totally dug it. Violet slept through it.

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Thankfully Violet slept through all of our glass souvenir shopping, too. Liam got reprimanded for picking up a very heavy piece of art…marked 350 Euros, yikes! Ok, time for lunch! We found a little Italian place along a canal — two orders of lobster gnocchi and fries for 50 Euros. A cover charge for the table, plus a charge for bread and bottled water…it all adds up. Sheesh.

For our last evening stroll, I took the kids back to St. Mark’s Square while James started packing our things. After chasing pigeons and each other, we wandered over to hear the bands play. Two bands across the square from each other would play classical music and more modern medleys, one after the other. Each had a piano, violin, bass, and clarinet player. Liam asked if I’d like to waltz, which he’d learned how to do in school this year. Eighteen years ago I sat in St. Mark’s Square at midnight with my college friends watching adults in fancy dress waltz to the music, and here I am now waltzing in the square with my eight-year-old son. “Mommy, now I have to spin you!”

Saturday we bid Venice farewell and, as the Italians would say, arrivederci. We took a “busoat” to the train station, and the kids and got to ride in the very front. Violet hollered, “Rialto!” as we passed the bridge. Liam peppered me with questions about the sinking city. What a great send off!

A weekend in Rome…with children

The family and I spent a our spring break in Italy this year, flying directly to Rome from Athens, spending the weekend sight-seeing, then taking a four-hour train to Venice to stay for the week. We finished back in Rome for a day to catch our plane home.

Rome and Venice are such incredibly different cities, I’ve decided to devote two separate posts to our vacation. First up, Rome!

Let me start off by saying I was told by many that Rome and Athens had similar traffic and crowd issues, but this was not what I found. With far fewer motorcycles buzzing about, I found Rome to be refreshingly absent of the typical traffic nightmare that is Athens. Of course, we were there for the weekend, so it’s very likely that, like in Athens, traffic is much better on weekends. Still, the streets seemed wider and more accessible, at least where we were staying. Our two-bedroom apartment was near the Borghese Gardens, coincidentally just down the street from the US Embassy.

Staying in apartments in Rome and Venice, which I found on booking.com, was probably the best choice I could have made for this vacation. We had a lot more space than in a hotel room, and for just about the same price. Plus we could heat up our leftovers (in theory — microwaves don’t seem to be a “thing” in Italy), plus we could feed our picky kids from the grocery store rather than repeatedly eating in restaurants.

We started Saturday morning bright and early with pastries from a nearby bakery, then a walk over to the Borghese Gardens to see about getting a timed ticket. We’d be here the whole weekend, so we figured we’d get a time later in the evening or in the morning on Sunday.

For. To. Laugh.

We were greeted with a sign that said, “Tickets for the museum are sold out until April 19. That was a week and a half away! I guess that’s what you get at spring break in Italy.

We did have a lovely time wandering around the gardens, vaguely headed toward the nearest Metro stop at the Spanish Steps.

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Refreshingly (and relatively) free of tourists for a Saturday morning, we stopped to snap some photos.

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Liam was already in a mood.

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Next up, St. Peter’s Cathedral! Which was a complete circus. The line stretched all the way around the square, easily a three hours’ wait.

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The kids quickly tired of walking around the square and dodging tourists, so after a not-so-brief and embarrassing meltdown, we went on to Plan C…

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Castel San Angelo fortress! Which was so much better. The line was reasonable, and there was plenty of space for the kids to run around. Plus, the views of the surrounding area were spectacular. Violet especially thought so — she wanted to peer into every single port hole we passed.

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The view of St. Peter’s Cathedral. And proof that I was on this vacation.

Liam particularly enjoyed spying the secret entrance for the pope, though he was disappointed we couldn’t walk through it. The kids also enjoyed the playground in the moat — a welcome, kid-friendly respite from all the sightseeing.

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That evening we had a wonderful dinner at Pizzeria San Marco near our apartment. The fried artichoke appetizer…I’m seriously drooling just thinking about them again. My pasta was excellent, and while the pizza was a bit too greasy for my tastes, James thought it was really good.

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Of course we had to visit the Colosseum while we were here! The lines were unsurprisingly long, just a week before Easter Sunday, so we sprang for the “skip the line” tickets. Liam actually did pretty well on the guided tour, but once Violet woke from her snooze, she wanted nothing to do with the group. Our tickets also included Palentine Hill and the Roman Forum, but with kids ready to mutiny, we decided to skip it. It pained me to have had paid that much just to walk around the Colosseum, but we’ve discovered that unhappy kids=unhappy parents.

Time for gelato! For lunch! Yes, parents of the year!

Refreshed, we mosied around Trajan’s Market, and as we came upon the impressive Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Liam pointed up and asked, “Can we climb that?”

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Hell yeah, son! Let’s do it! And by god, he climbed every step without complaint. Apparently climbing is ok, standing in line incites fury. Noted. Violet enjoyed running around the broad marble veranda at the top. And it was free.

No embarrassing outbursts from Liam, mostly due to our promise to take him to Hard Rock Café for dinner if he was good. He was so good, we even bought him a shirt. Violet, on the other hand, was a handful. I can’t wait until she’s bribable.

The next morning we caught the train to Venice. Liam was so excited to ride the train! For, like, the first hour. Then he was like BOOOORING! Time for the iPad! We bought lunch on the train, an expensive and largely unsatisfying experience. We resolved to brown bag it on the way back.

Next stop, Venice! Stay tuned!

Oh, mein Gott in Himmel!

I have so much to say about our trip to Italy, I really do. I have a ton of pictures to share and amusing anecdotes, but I’ve been consumed with something else right now.

Back in March I had the brilliant idea to book tickets to Germany for me and the kids to visit my college friends who I haven’t seen for the better part of a decade. Can you believe I took three years of German in school and never once went to Germany? I’ve been wanting to visit for years now.

I wanted to book them before Violet turned two so she could still ride on my lap, and Liam has a long weekend for the May 1 holiday, so it worked out perfectly. I caught a fare sale to Hamburg, and while the times and layovers weren’t exactly ideal (It’s as if no one from Athens would ever consider going to Germany…), I figured I could handle it. I’m becoming an accomplished solo parent traveler.

But then…

With the whirlwind of planning and executing our elaborate spring break plans, I didn’t start to figure out the details of our trip to Germany until we got back from Venice. I hadn’t really considered how I was going to get from Hamburg to my friends in the Saxony countryside, my friends who don’t have a car, but surely there’d be a train, yes?

I opened up Google Maps and plugged in my friends’ address, which turned out to be a 2.5 hour train ride from Hamburg. Whoops. Well, that was something I should have figured out before I booked us a ticket that got in so late at night. Sheesh!

And, it turns out, the last train of the night to their town departs before I would even have time to catch it because my stupid flight gets in so late. So, ok, after some back and forth with my friends, we found a nice hotel by the airport, and a morning train that would get us there before noon the next day. All set.

But then…

I started to figure out my return trip. The airline decided to cancel the flight I had intentionally booked for the early-afternoon, and instead put me on a flight that left three hours earlier, in the very inconvenient mid-morning. The train times back either got us there super early or a little too close for comfort, and the return ticket was about three times the price, too.

Between the hotel and expensive train tickets, I figured for same price I could simply rent a car for the long weekend. I don’t relish having to check the car seat and booster seat while traveling alone with two children, but renting two seats from the car rental place was stupidly expensive.

And as much as I love mass transit, our recent ride from Rome to Venice wasn’t so fun with a squirmy, hard-to-entertain toddler. At least when she’s confined to a car seat with a few books and toys, I don’t have to sit and entertain her. And the kids will likely sleep the whole way down.

The way back will be even less enjoyable. We’ll have to leave by 5AM to catch our early flight, then sit around for four hours to wait for the second leg. And, of course, changing flights costs almost as much as I paid for the stupid tickets.

But, I refuse to let the journey diminish my excitement. I get to drink German beer in Germany! I get to drive on the Autobahn! (Not at the same time, of course.) And my friends have kids the same age as Liam, so I’m sure we’ll have a great time catching up while the kids play. I love these guys, and I can’t wait to see their kiddos. I haven’t seen their oldest daughter since she was 11 months old. She’s almost 10! A restful weekend in a small German town will be wonderful.

Wish us luck. We’re gonna need it. Next up, Italy photos, I promise!