Reading about New York

First posted March 19, 2014.

Most of the nonfiction I read falls into the memoir category, with an emphasis on travel. But one of my favorites is Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a book for book lovers. If you haven’t read it, buy it now. It’s short and you’ll read it so quickly you’ll wish it were longer. I’ve read it a couple times and love all of the essays, but one of my favorites is called “My Odd Shelf”.

It’s about Fadiman’s obsession with polar exploration and the collection of books she has built centering on it. You can read a little of it in this review, but the concept is a simple one: many of us voracious readers have a niche topic which fascinates us, one that the general population wouldn’t understand. I have a few of them – favorite authors that I’ve read almost everything by, girls’ mysteries stories with a focus on Nancy Drew and books about Nancy Drew, and fairy tales. But I’m starting to build a small collection which could be called “Books about NYC that I haven’t finished reading yet.” Not quite like Fadiman’s collection. Oh well.

The only book in this collection that I did finish is called My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City, and I gave it away. It’s a collection of essays from New York Magazine by notables from all fields about what New York was like when they first arrived, whenever it was. I saw it on the ubiquitous New York tables at bookstores and museums and finally gave in and bought it. It was, like Ex Libris, a quick read, but a good one.

Another “saw it everywhere” purchase was New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009, edited by Teresa Carpenter, which offers snapshots of the history of this city in diary entries from New York residents throughout the city’s existence. I’ve dipped into it, but have yet to read more than 40 or so pages. What I’ve read, though, was fascinating!
When I graduated college I was given The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn as a gift. It traces the history of each section of the borough I’ve lived in since moving to New York, and while I’ve read up on some of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, I have yet to read all of it.

Not strictly about New York, but my friend gave me a copy of To Marry an English Lord, the book that inspired “Downton Abbey”, and while I’ve only read about three-quarters of it, I was struck by how many of the American heiresses in it were from New York society, and by the portrait of that society it painted.

A book that is useful for this blog: the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: New York City 2014, given to me by the fabulous Allie Singer. Once the weather’s a little nicer I’m going to use it to plan adventures in parts of the city I haven’t had the chance to explore yet.

On my to-be-purchased list: Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve seen it in the Met bookstore (where else) and my fascination with museums means I will eventually get around to buying it.

What’s on your odd shelf? What books do you buy faster than you can read them? And what books about New York should I add to my read-eventually pile?

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Thinking warm thoughts of Florence

It’s still a little cold here in NYC — we’re no longer shivering in the twenties, and we’ve even made it up to fifty degrees, but thirties and low forties are still on the table for us. It means that if you don’t check the weather before you leave, stepping outside can turn into an unexpected adventure. I’m still congratulating myself on going back for my umbrella on Tuesday morning, because it was pouring on the way home that night.

But spring is on the way! At least that’s what we’re hearing. And so in honor of the warm weather we might see soon, I figured it was time to flash back once more to the last time I spent time outside without a jacket on: my trip to Italy back in October. It feels like a dream because I got back right about five months ago.

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Florence was both a really lovely part of the trip and a not so lovely part. The not so lovely happened at the beginning, when my mom lost her camera. It put a bit of a pall over our arrival in Florence, and then I managed to turn my ankle on our way to the Uffizi. Let’s just say we were both very glad to get back to our hotel that night and relax. Also we maybe didn’t appreciate the art as much as we could have.

But we had a lovely time the next day. We went to the Accademia bright and early to see the David. Our hotel that first night was just blocks away from the museum, and our early ticket time meant the crowds weren’t that bad. We got a great view of the David before too many other tourists arrived.

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From there we saw the window at the Museo degli Innocenti, which for hundreds of years was an orphanage. Newborn babies used to be passed through the window’s grill to be taken care of at the orphanage. It was both really sad to see, and also very hopeful to think of babies being given a chance at life.

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We had to see the Duomo, of course, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. I didn’t make my mom climb to the top, like I did on choir tour in college, but we did stop at a kiosk and pay a few euros to listen to some bits of history. It’s such a beautiful church, and so unique.

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One of my favorite parts of the Duomo is the gorgeous 16th century fresco that covers the inside of dome. It depicts the Last Judgement, but it’s so bright and beautiful, it’s easy to forget it depicts such a solemn topic. My camera couldn’t quite do it justice, but I tried!

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We wandered for a bit after the Duomo, and of course stopped for lunch. We also went in another church, Santa Maria Novella, which for me was interesting because it houses Masaccio’s painting of the Holy Trinity, which I remembered from my college art history class as being an important work because its three dimensional qualities. My photo isn’t great, but it was neat to see it in person.

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One of the highlights of Florence was having dinner with two of my best friends from college, who are both in graduate school in Italy. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in Otranto, a neighborhood south of the Arno River, called Il Guscio. It was delicious. Another of my best friends from college was in Italy this week and was not only going to see both of those friends, but also was going to get to eat at Il Guscio. (This post is maybe possibly inspired by jealousy after following her photos on Facebook all week. :))

My mom and I took a quick trip OUT of Florence the next day, to see the walled city of Lucca. We didn’t spend a ton of time there, but it was nice to be in a town, instead of a city, since so much of our trip (with the exception of our lovely overnight in Assisi) was spent in cities. We got to see a bit more of the Tuscan countryside from the train, and we spent a few hours walking in the sunshine.

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Back in Florence, I spent the next morning with one of my friends. We met outside the Pitti Palace and went directly into the gardens to get a view of Florence from above. It was a gorgeous place — quiet, with fewer tourists. The perfect place to have a real catch up conversations, since this visit was the first time we’d seen each other in over four years.

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We had pizza in a square and got some gelato to eat before I went back to meet my mom at the hotel. We had a train to catch to Venice. After a rough start to our Florence leg of the trip, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when it was time to leave. I had loved Florence on my first visit in college, and at first it didn’t quite live up to my memory of it. It’s easy to walk around the main tourist sites in the city, but it meant the city felt like one big attraction to me on our first day or so there. But with our dinner in Otranto, and with our second hotel (the first one was more expensive and only available the one night), which was a little farther from the center of things, and right by the river, I started to feel like there was more to Florence than we’d been seeing.

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I could’ve stood by the river in the sunshine all day long — but I had places to go.

I can’t wait to go back someday soon and look for all the bits of the city I missed — I know there’s more to see. In the meantime, this New York winter HAS to be on its way out, and once it is, I’ll be more than ready to spend time enjoying the sunshine and beauty in my own city. Where are you taking a mental vacation right now, and what can’t you wait to do once it’s spring?

Out of the city and away to Charleston

First posted March 28, 2014.

Note: This is a re-post from last March. I figured that even if I haven’t actually made a break for it and gotten out of the nasty NYC weather, I can at least bask in sunny memories — and share them with you! It’s especially appropriate because my trip to Charleston for a friend’s wedding was like a mini college reunion, and yesterday we got the schedule for our actual college reunion!

This past weekend I escaped the cold and headed to Charleston, South Carolina. Sure, there were highs of 50 here in NYC (ed. Dear God, I hope we have highs of 50 this month!), but in Charleston the temperature never dipped below 50, and most of the weekend it was in the 60s and even low 70s, so Charleston wins.

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I was there for the wedding of a lovely college friend, and I’d been looking forward to this weekend ever since she sent the save the date email last spring. She’d invited a number of college buddies so the weekend was basically a mini reunion, and I loved every minute, especially all the ones where we were able to spend time with the bride. It was a beautiful set of wedding events and a perfect vacation weekend.
On Friday afternoon I wandered the historic district and saw some of the gorgeous houses on King Street on my way down toward the Battery, where I stared out at

the water and wished there were benches to sit on. On my walk, I bought a chocolate truffle at a shop near the market, visited the Gibbs Museum of Art, said hello to a woman gardening along the beautiful and eerie Charleston Gateway Walk, and picked up a pair of flip flops on my way back up King Street, when my feet finally started to hurt.

 

Churchyard, part of the Gateway walk
The view from the Battery

I had dinner with friends at Two Boroughs Larder before we met up with the bridal party at Stars Rooftop Bar. It was a little chilly, but heat lamps helped! Saturday was packed with wonderful wedding festivities, ending with an after-party at Mynt (I was too tired to stay long!). Sunday wrapped up our time with the bride and groom with a brunch at Fuel, a gas station-turned-restaurant where waffles gave us delicious flashbacks to brunches in college.

Sunday continued with a visit to Cypress Gardens, a swamp garden where I wandered the paths with a few friends before checking out their birds, butterflies, and the animals in their “swamparium” or swamp aquarium.

Favorite moment: seeing the alligators in the pen near the swamparium stay as still as statues, except some eye movement, for several minutes and then slowly start to move their feet. Beautiful and terrifically creepy, all at once.

And then it was time for the short flight back to NYC and the long over-priced taxi ride that got me home just at the moment Once Upon a Time began. I fell asleep thirty minutes after it ended and went to bed similarly early the following night.

But it was all worth it to see my dear friend get married, to catch up with people I haven’t really seen since college, and to explore Charleston while soaking up some beautiful weather. You can pack a lot into a three day trip, and I hope to plan more short-but-sweet adventures soon!

Thinking back on this mini trip, I realized that there were four key factors that it made it feel like a real vacation.

  1. Tourist time.I took Friday off from work and got an 8 a.m. flight. This meant I arrived in Charleston around 10:30 a.m. and had several hours to myself, since the first official wedding-related event I was attending wasn’t until after dinner.
  1. Semi-swanky accommodations. I booked a room at the Cannonboro Inn. Many of my friends stayed at the Not So Hostel, which was a perfectly fine choice, but I realized I’d sleep better, not to mention feel less stressed about getting ready for the wedding, at a B&B. And while I didn’t get to take much advantage of their breakfast or their wine and tea at 4 p.m. (too busy!), I did have a delicious parfait before rushing out to brunch one morning.
  1. Easy airport transportation. I splurged and took a car service to JFK and a taxi home. Next time I’ll take a car service each way – the cab fare was atrocious – but it was important to me not to have to stress about getting to the airport early in the morning on the subway, or about getting home on Sunday evening. I also bummed a LOT of car rides from friends all weekend. Thanks, guys – you are seriously the best!
  1. Sleep. I slept as much as I could, given how busy the weekend was. I knew if I wanted to enjoy myself each day – not to mention function at work on Monday! – I needed to be well-rested.

It would have been easy to keep this trip to a lower budget – subway travel, only staying one night, a room at the hostel, etc. etc. But I think vacations are important, and while I’m all for saving money where you can, travel is one of the few things I’m willing to spend a little extra on. I’m tired after this trip, but I spent the weekend feeling relaxed and comfortable. While most of the credit is due to the fabulous celebrations I was invited to attend, allowing myself time and space to really enjoy them also helped.

Where have you gone on your own weekend vacations, and what did you love most about being away?

A sunny day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

It is bitterly cold in New York this week, which makes it to perfect time to remember warmer times and places. I mentioned my California trip on this blog a few times last year, but I never quite got around to sharing many pictures of it. I’m feeling especially nostalgic now because for my first three years here, I spent MLK Jr. weekend in San Diego with one of my best friends. Last year I went in June instead as part of a larger California visit, and this year she’s visiting me in March, which is exciting! She’s only been to visit once since I moved here as her PhD program keeps her very busy.

But I am kicking myself a little for not scheduling a trip. We’ve had a mild winter up until now, but the claws have come out, and San Diego is just so lovely all the time. The weather was always in the sixties during my January visits, and we usually spent at least one afternoon sitting and reading in the sunshine and another visiting one of the many outdoor attractions of San Diego.  We also spent a lot of time watching movies, especially Jane Austen adaptations and whatever TV show my friend has decided I should watch next. (She has very good taste.)

If you ever find yourself in San Diego with a day to spare, consider checking out the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Located a ways outside the city, it’s different from the famous zoo (which is also definitely worth a visit – I went a few years ago and enjoyed wandering around). For one thing, it’s huge – 1,800 acres. The zoo is only 99 acres. For another, there’s a huge range of “safari” experiences you can choose to follow. My friend and I mostly walked, except for a tram ride which went around one of the enclosures, so we were tired at the end of the day, but it was totally worth it. If you’re a bit leery of zoos, know that this one has a really great mission: “San Diego Zoo Global is committed to saving species worldwide by uniting our expertise in animal care and conservation science with our dedication to inspiring passion for nature.” Their goal is to end extinction. And at the Safari Park, the animals really seem to have a lot of space, which is something I appreciated after the other zoos I’ve visited.

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And some of the animals are RIGHT THERE, like these flamingos. I’m pretty sure there was only a wooden fence separating us from their pond.

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Or this deer — we were walking along a path and happened to notice it crossing into the brush and away. You can just see its back leg and tail as it disappears.

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The gorillas were a bit farther away. There was a deep ditch, almost like a moat, between us and them, but in person we could spot the tiny baby gorillas.

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We even got a glimpse of Pumba’s brother, a warthog, hanging out with some zoo employees who were telling us all about him. Here he is, lying on his side. Can you spot his tusk?

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The lemurs are in a special enclosure. You can walk through and visit them, but make sure to shut the door tightly behind you so they don’t escape!

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A view of part of the park from above, just to give a little perspective!

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The Africa Tram! It travels around a large enclosure while a guide points out the many animals visible from the tram.

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I’m pretty sure this is an adult antelope and its baby, but if I’m wrong, let me know!

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A rhino, resting. I remember hearing about the plight of the white rhino on this tour, and I was sad to hear that one of the zoo’s white rhinos (possibly this rhino?) died last month, meaning there are only five left, all in captivity.

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And because I can’t resist, three giraffe pictures. They were almost my favorite part of the Africa Tram ride. My favorite part, which I couldn’t quite capture on my camera, was a few animals (maybe wildebeest, but I can’t remember) taking off at a run across enclosure for no apparent reason, and all the other animals pausing and then following them. I’m not talking about one or two other animals — it was dozens. Herd instinct, perhaps?

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After the tram ride, we visited the lions, who were resting.

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And then we stopped by the elephant enclosure – just in time to see a young elephant get his tusk capped!

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We poked our heads in the petting zoo…

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…and rounded out our visit by visiting the new tiger enclosure. One of the tigers (I think his name was Teddy) was new and got fed through the fence by a zookeeper who explained to us the work she was doing with the tiger to get him trust and obey her.

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On our way out, we each purchased a souvenir — for my friend, a stuffed elephant, and for me a stuffed tiger. And we did spot one last friend on our way out — this wandering turtle!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse of California sunshine — I know I needed it! And I may or may not have looked up last minute airfare prices for flights to San Diego… Too expensive, unfortunately, so I’ll have to find some warmth here in NYC!

What’s your favorite winter getaway, and what do you do to think warm thoughts when you’re stuck in the cold?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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There may be Christmas weather headed our way today, here in NYC. I guess the weather gods got the month wrong – it’s still November, guys! I’ve seen a lot of different forecasts of how much snow the area may or may not get (and since I’m writing this Tuesday night, it all may have changed by the time this goes up), but I think we can agree we’re glad we don’t live in Buffalo. Sorry, Buffalo friends – I love snow, but last week sounded hellish.

But despite the precipitation, it’s Thanksgiving we’re celebrating this week. Just like last year, I have a lot to be thankful for – family, friends, a great job, a great apartment, good health, and a year that included both cross country and transatlantic travel. In the wider world it has often been a difficult year – this week is no exception – and it makes me that much more grateful for my own blessings.

The older I get, the faster the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s seems to go. Lots of people complain when holiday decorations start as early as the day after Halloween, but I like it. When I was a kid and in a production of A Christmas Carol for several years, our rehearsals always started right around Halloween. That was the beginning of the season for me.  Now I try to stretch it in little ways, like putting my Christmas tree up early so I get to enjoy it for longer, and playing lots of Christmas music.

When I’m home with my family this weekend, we’ll go and pick out a tree, too, and decorate it. The decorations went up at my office this week. They’re all just trappings, but in the midst of the cold and ice that is about descend here for the next several months, the lights and the greenery and the candles remind me of warmth and family and friendship. I may roll my eyes about the inflatable snowmen and Santas I’m sure to see in my family’s suburban neighborhood, but it all comes from a place of gratitude and joy.

Well, probably.

I hope wherever you are that you’re able to spend time this week with people you care about! And I hope your planes and trains and buses and cars experience perfect travel conditions and no delays.

Happy Thanksgiving, and see you in December!

 

A visit to Assisi, part 2

Earlier in the week I wrote about Assisi, and I wanted to come back to it. Here’s the thing about my last post: It wasn’t my best. The photos tell the story, and while they do a pretty good job of it, I wanted to tell you a little more about my love for this beautiful town.

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I mentioned that I went to Assisi on choir tour in college, and that it was one of my favorite places we saw in Italy. What I remember most from that visit is that we had a little bit of free time and I spent some of it on my own, wandering up and down tiny, steep streets, taking photos. I’ve mixed some of my favorites from that visit into this post, because on that trip I was able to get away from the main, commercial streets and see a bit more of the town.

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After that trip I printed some photos from Assisi, including the one with a cat, for my mom for her birthday. I think that’s part of why she was as excited as I was to go to Assisi – the photos had given her a taste of what it was like. That summer I was home with my family and went to an arts show where we saw a photographer displaying photos from Italy. I recognized the ones from Assisi just from looking at them – the town is that distinctive.

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It’s a town for tourists, for certain; most of the shops we saw on our walk to visit the Basilica of San Francesco were stores for tourists, not grocery stores or laundromats or anything useful. But because of the Basilica and the draw of St. Francis, those tourists might be better called pilgrims, which feels a little nicer somehow. And if the tourism is what keeps the town bright and clean and sunny, with its window boxes and curved, steep streets, then I’m okay with that. One of the guidebooks said something about how the town’s prosperity makes it clear that St. Francis is still protecting Assisi, some eight hundred years later.

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The Upper Basilica of San Francesco

St. Francis is known for being a friend to animals, for preaching and practicing simplicity. One of my favorite church songs is based on his prayer: “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”.  When I went to visit the first time, I brought my dad back a little icon of St. Francis with that prayer printed next to it in Italian. Regardless of your belief system, there’s something nice about a prayer that reminds us that it’s more important to do for others than for ourselves and asks for help in bringing peace and love to the world.

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If you have a chance to visit Assisi, wander the streets away from the main squares. Look for flowers in window boxes, cats on staircases, laundry hanging on lines – all the signs that this is a place where people live. Walk the twisty streets and look for those unexpected spots where you can suddenly see the countryside spread out in front of you. Visit at twilight and watch the sky turn a deep blue. Stay until it’s dark and see the Basilica lit up.

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It’s not a big town – you can walk from one end to the other in half an hour, at least if you’re walking downhill. But there’s more to see than I can tell you about – beautiful moments just around a corner or up a staircase. Go visit, and then tell me all about it!  
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A visit to Assisi, Italy

I’m slowly making my way through my Italy photos, cropping and fixing contrast. It’s taking a little longer than I’d like it to, but I’ve made it to nearly the halfway point of the trip. That means I can tell you all about Assisi! Our overnight in Assisi was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. I had been there before, on my choir tour to Italy in college, when we’d stopped in town for a day before staying at a country house about forty-five minutes away.

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For this visit, we took the train from Rome to Assisi (with a quick train change near the end of the journey) and then took the bus up to the top of the hill to our hotel. Hotel Ideale was highly rated on TripAdvisor and conveniently located right near the bus stop. There’s a parking lot there, too, if you’re ever nearby with a car.

Hotel Ideale is a small hotel. The rooms are neat and simply furnished, which highlights the most important feature: the view. Our room was on the third floor, which was a little annoying when we were carrying bags up and down the stairs, but totally worth it once we stepped out onto the balcony.

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We arrived early in the afternoon and it took a little prodding to get us to leave the hotel room. I mean, a visit to Assisi and a stay at this hotel would be worth it for the view alone! But finally we did meander downhill, stopping in La Cattedrale di San Rufino before continuing down to the Piazza Comune to have a late lunch.

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From there we followed the signs across town, still downhill, to the Basilica di San Francesco. It was a lovely walk, and the Basilica – both the upper and lower – were lovely, too. The frescoes are stunning and tell stories from the lives of St. Francis and Jesus. In the lower basilica, you can visit the crypt where St. Francis is buried. A little creepy, but the history is fascinating since it was only excavated in the last hundred or so years to prove he was actually buried there.

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After we visited the Basilica, we got some gelato and caught a bus back up the hill to our hotel. The next morning we ate breakfast on the hotel’s patio, enjoying the view, before heading back to the train station. I’m so glad we got to visit, and I hope I get to go back soon and explore more!

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Framework of a Trip

I’m still recovering from my trip to Italy (tonight that means watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy when I should be blogging – I know, I’m a decade late on this, but it’s fun). I can’t quite believe that just over three days ago I was in Italy. While I was on the trip, it seemed inevitable: Of course I was in Italy. Now that I’m back, normal life (plus a little extra tiredness) is inevitable and Italy seems a bit like a dream.

What’s not a dream is the amount of planning we put into the trip. I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to travel; I need to have the details mapped out, or at least sketched out, before I get on the road. I don’t want to worry about finding a place to stay or a train to take when I’m traveling. I don’t want to have to stand in long lines for museum tickets, either. But it’s important to build some flexibility in, too.

Planned flexibility. About as absurd as it sounds, but helpful if you can make it work.

Before leaving for Italy, my mom and I booked five hotels and bought two of the six train tickets we’d ultimately use. We booked a tour of the Vatican Museum and timed tickets to the Uffizi and Academia galleries. And besides our plane tickets and plans to meet up with some friends of mine, that was it for planning.

Well, sort of. That was it for formal planning. I had vague (though written down!) ideas of what we should do each day, and we did several of the things I suggested, some even on the days I’d suggested. But not having a tour guide to follow or a group itinerary meant we could take more time or less for something based on how tired we were.

It’s not a perfect system, especially when you’re traveling with someone, since your tolerance for activity is likely somewhat different from theirs, but building travel around a framework gives you fixed points of interest to hold up the trip and then some wiggle room to add in extra sights (or just some extra sleep!). I’m never going to be a truly spontaneous traveler, but having time to say, “Hey, let’s take the train to Lucca for the afternoon!” is important.

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Adventures in Italy

Last night I slept for twelve hours. It sounds like a lot, but it will sound like less when I tell you that earlier yesterday I spent almost nine hours on an airplane, on my way back from a trip to Italy with my mom. Between jetlag and just genuine exhaustion after about ten days of traveling, those twelve hours of sleep were well-earned. I worked from home today and am headed back to work tomorrow, hoping not too yawn my way through the rest of the week!

But enough about sleeping! ITALY! We’d been trying to plan a trip for years, but this summer my mom and I finally got serious and booked some flights and from there came up with an itinerary of hotels and trains and museums and churches.  I brushed up on my Italian and we flew off to the country all of my mother’s grandparents came from for ten days. I hope to write a few in-depth looks at each of the places we visited (Rome, Assisi, Florence, Lucca for an afternoon, and Venice) but for now, some quick highlights.

A trip to the Vatican was of course in order, but alongside a stellar art historian-led tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s, we also saw – the Pope! Pope Francis comes to a window every Sunday at noon to address the crowds in St. Peter’s Square. We were there as he spoke about a two-week meeting on the family (from which came some really interesting news this week!), some of which I even understood despite the fact that it was in Italian. After he spoke, a new translation of the Bible was given out in the Square and we managed to get two copies – a pretty neat souvenir! We’ll see if my skills are up to actually reading it.

Pope Francis! ...I didn't say we aw him UP CLOSE, guys.

Pope Francis! …I didn’t say we saw him UP CLOSE, guys.

In Assisi, the star was the view from our hotel balcony. Do I need to say more?

This view made it hard to make ourselves actually leave the room to explore, but we did! Assisi is gorgeous.

This view made it hard to make ourselves actually leave the room to explore, but we did! Assisi is gorgeous.

In Florence, I got to see two dear friends from college, one of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation! Definitely my favorite part of visiting Florence – though this random deer sculpture on the Arno is clearly a close second.

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We were only in Lucca for a few hours, but it was neat to walk around and window-shop. I was disappointed that this chocolate shop was closed – but since I’d just had a Laduree macaroon, it’s probably for the best.

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And in Venice, the star of the show was our evening vaporetto ride. Most of my pictures were pretty blurry, but this one gives you an idea of how beautiful it was!

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We had a lovely time, and I can’t wait to share more! Have you been to Italy, and if so, what’s your favorite memory?

On the train home

First posted on October 15, 2013.

It’s not quite 8 A.M. on a Saturday and I’m on a train headed north along the Hudson River. I’m on the wrong side of the train for the best view, but I can look out the window between the spaciously-set seats.

The trees have just barely begun to turn; scattered among the green are tiny shocks of red or dusty yellow. But mostly the leaves are green, enough that if I weren’t looking for fall foliage I might not notice the hints of color. They’re most noticeable where the sunlight hits. The sky is turning bright blue behind white cotton wisps of clouds in the east, but in the west over the river it’s a muted blue against gray clouds that stretch along the horizon.

It’s a long train ride home to visit my family in Western New York, but a beautiful one. I usually fall asleep as we pass through the Catskills but today I’m determined to stay awake. I hope as we progress west that I’ll get to watch the leaves change, and that when I arrive home it will be fall, which it isn’t quite yet in NYC this weekend. Sometimes in the morning or late evening the air smells, just a little bit, like the crispness of Halloween from my childhood, when we’d wear layers under and over our costumes because sometimes it was cold enough for snow. But mostly even on cool nights the air still smells like late summer, or trash, or nothing at all.

I like traveling by train better than any other form of travel. Cars and buses give me motion sickness most of the time, so I spend those trips sleeping. Planes are fine, once I’m on them, but getting to and from the airports in NYC is painful. On the train, I can read, write, or just look out the window, and get up whenever I want. Sometimes I even get a seat to myself. Train stations are easy to get to and navigate. Amtrak tickets are fully refundable if you have to cancel at the last minute, and pretty cheap if you buy in advance. The ride is long, but I tell myself to consider it part of the vacation, the time I have to myself to relax, and it’s usually lovely.

We’re pulling into Croton-Harmon station and my eyelids are drooping (a 5 A.M. alarm will do that) but for a moment there was water on both sides of the train. Half an hour in there’s a little more yellow and orange along the river, and the western sky is brighter blue. There’s a pond-like body of water alongside the tracks—or does it become a marsh when it’s full of cattail reeds? I can’t remember when I last picked a cattail, and these don’t have the heavy brown heads so maybe they’re something else entirely.

The sun is now high enough (and out from behind clouds) to get in my eyes as I look out the window. It lights the river and the hills, and the houses overlooking the river seem like toys from here. One is big, red and boxy with white trim and a white porch. We pass through a town and the river disappears for a few moments behind a high sheet of rock. When it emerges again there’s a pond again beside me, open and shimmering in the sunlight that floods the train.

We pass a subdivision, all the houses a uniform beige in the sunlight as we chug by, and while I think it’d be lovely to live out here, I don’t think I could do it like that, even if it meant being less isolated. It’d feel like cheating, to live near the river and not in one of the houses perched on a hill, looking like a good push could tip it off into the water.

We’re meant to get to Albany-Rensselear station soon, where the train usually sits for twenty minutes. They say you can get off for a break then, but in the seven years I’ve ridden on this route I think I’ve gotten out once. The idea of being left behind while my stuff goes on without me isn’t appealing, somehow.

Before Albany the ride gets shaky, making walking to the bathroom more difficult and rattling the tray tables. It’s unusual, but I also don’t usually end up on this kind of train, with its extra leg room, foot rests, and oversized tray tables. I think it’s because this train goes all the way to Toronto, whereas the one I usually take stops at Niagara Falls.

On my trip to the bathroom I notice a guy in the row behind mine who looks like someone I met a few times in college. During the longer-than-usual stop in Albany I catch his attention, confirm that it’s him, and say hello. We’re from the same city, something I remember discussing once in college. The world is pretty small. Oddly I’ve yet to run into someone from high school on the train, though I think there aren’t that many of us in the city.

When the train turns west I stop paying such close attention to the scenery and alternate between chatting with my college acquaintance and chatting with my seatmate. I’ve always been good at making friends on trains and talking does make the time pass more quickly.

When we get to the last hour of the ride, I turn back to writing. The trees are more colorful here, but they’re not bright yet, just golden greens. Maybe Thanksgiving will be a better time for leaves, if we don’t have too many storms, but they may all drop by then.

I started rereading one of my favorite books this week—Tam Lin by Pamela Dean—and today I realized that subconsciously I was probably drawn to how much fall and Halloween play a part in the novel. It starts in September and covers three years, ending with a climax on Halloween, and the first fall lasts over 200 pages out of a total of about 450. I’m traveling upstate to experience fall as it should be experienced, with apple picking and cider and pumpkins, so it’s no wonder I felt like reading a book set so firmly in the season.

It’s afternoon now, and I’m almost home. But with a little ways to go, it’s time to read more, and to look out the window at a New York that’s not NYC.