Saturday, December 31, 2011

Romania in pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here are about 20,000 words worth! However, if you prefer to read 20,000 words, check out my other posts about Romania. :)

Part One

Part Two

A very tired Pete on our last leg of the journey--a teeny prop plane that left us all a little queasy.

We heart motion-sickness drugs!

The enormous Christmas tree in the Targu Mures town square where we took all the kids. This shot was taken from our hotel room--what a view!

Don't let the background fool you. This isn't someone's property out in the Romanian contryside--it's the zoo! Here I am with my little friend ...

Some of the kids posing in front of the Christmas tree after we went to the zoo.

This is one of the teenage girls I really loved getting to know.

Look at her beautiful eyes! This is another of the teenagers I loved talking to. Her English was great, and we got to have some cool conversations.

This is what much of the housing looks like in Romanian cities. Some of the orphan homes are in buildings like these.

A few of us from the team playing cards with the kids at their house. This was a home full of boys--it was definitely one of the nicer ones we saw. It was so fun playing cards with them, and a great way to breach the language barrier.

Here we are with all the kids from that house.

I know you're not supposed to have favorites, but if you read my last post, you know that I don't always play by the rules. This little boy definitely captured my attention, and we had some fun times playing games and laughing. He shares my sarcastic sense of humor, so obvi we hit it off right away. Miss this guy! His sister and he are both orphans in the same home. They thought it was so cool that Pete and I were brother and sister too.

Pete with his ever-present groupies. They called him their Justin Beiber. SO cute.

This is one of the group homes singing Christmas songs. After they sang, each of the kids gave their candle to someone in the audience. I was one of the lucky ones. :)

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this year.

Another group doing their skit. These two girls are absolutely precious, playing Silent Night on their recorders.

Acting out the Christmas story, which transcends all languages!

My friend with his Christmas presents--look at that smile and tell me you don't want to keep him!

The girls loving their pizza.

I love this picture ...

Having fun with the icing. This is another of my favorite pictures--this girl is a delight!

Merry Christmas!!

Romania: My moment, part 2

I talked about my first, life-changing moment in my last post. The second one came our first day with the kids in Romania…

After a veeerrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyy long journey (I think we traveled for almost 24 hours), we arrived in Romania. We had dinner, went to bed, then got up the next morning surprisingly well rested and ready to meet the orphans for a day at the zoo.

As you can imagine, after years of building up this moment in my mind, I really didn’t know what to expect, and to be quite honest, I was nervous. Would I be able to communicate with the kids despite the language barrier? Would it be weird talking through a translator? Would the kids like me?

All my questions were laid to rest the moment the kids piled out of their bus and ran to meet us at the entrance to the zoo. There were about 40 or 50 orphans that first day, ranging in age from five to probably 18. For many of them, it was their first time to the zoo; their first time seeing animals up close. What fun it was to see them wonder at how huge the cow was and laugh at the silly monkeys.

At first, the kids were tentative around us, feeling us out. Most of the orphans we saw the first day weren’t ones the Mission Outfitter team had met before (others we met later in the week have been part of the ministry for the last nine years, though), so there wasn’t a familiarity yet, and I’m sure the kids were wondering who we were and why we were there. After a few exhibits and one very bonding experience in the monkey’s awful-smelling house, the ice was broken.

One little girl caught my attention. She kept eyeing me, and I smiled at her. After a few smiles, she bravely came over, took my hand, and didn’t let go until we said goodbye that night.

Moment number two.

I have tears in my eyes now thinking about her. Again, I had years of expectations and ideas of what it would be like to spend time with Romanian orphans. But in that moment, it all melted away, and all that existed was that little girl and me. I had the feeling before I went on the trip that I would want to bring the kids back with me. I had no idea, though, the bond that could be forged. When I say that I left my heart in Romania, I really did.

The zoo became background noise as my new little friend and I got to know each other. Through the translator, I found out lots of things about her. She loves ice cream (all the flavors except banana), her favorite subject in school is music, and she’s lived in the orphan home for a little over three years (I wondered about that as you probably are now. I found out why a couple days later … keep reading). Her favorite word to say is “beautiful.” Even when the translator wasn’t with us, we found ways to communicate. Her English is impressive for a child her age, and she loves to sing. That was a fun was to communicate, since she knows quite a few English songs.

After the zoo, we went to a playground where we climbed on a jungle gym, played on swings and made s’mores for the kids. I enjoyed all the orphans that day, and included them in the activities I did with my little friend. But, throughout it all, she kept me right next to her; anywhere else wasn’t an option. And that was ok with me.

The whole group of us walked from the playground to the center of the town we stayed in, Târgu Mureș. Unknown to the kids, we were taking them to the GIGANTIC town Christmas tree. Some of them don’t have Christmas trees in their homes, so seeing this one was going to be a real treat.

On our way to town (a very cold, 40-minute walk), my friend and I walked hand-in-hand, singing Christmas carols. Sometimes, she knew them in English. Other times, she sang in her language and I in mine, both of us smiling at the new words we were learning. My appreciation for the power of music grew a hundred-fold that day. She showed me how high she could count in English (which was impressive), and then went over the names of colors, animals and other words she knows in our language. It was the best day I’ve had in years.

We arrived at the town square a few minutes before the lighting of the tree. The kids were looking around, wondering why we brought them there to see a big, lightless pine tree. Some I could see were disappointed—but mainly they seemed anxious to get out of the cold and onto our next activity, a fancy dinner at a hotel restaurant. All the adults knew what was coming, though, and kept saying, “just wait—you’re going to love this.”

The joy on their faces when that tree lit up—from the littlest boy all the way up to the oldest teenager—radiated brighter than all those Christmas lights combined. It was one of the sweetest moments of the trip.

It also made me think: How often in my life do I rush things? I always want to get onto the next bigger, better event, when God is saying, “Just wait here. I promise, something good is on the way.” Just a thought …

After taking about a thousand pictures (which I’ll share in my next post), we went to the hotel for dinner. Again, for us Americans, it’s no big deal to have a meal where there are two forks, three courses and more calories than we care to count. For these kids, it was everything. Eating out is unheard of for them, and eating at their houses is a simple, cost-effective thing. Excess isn’t part of their vocabulary. Eating till they’re stuffed? Probably never. It was so fun to teach them how and when to use the different utensils, and to see them shoveling the entire meal into their mouths, not willing to have even a crumb go to waste.

The best part, though, was what happened after we ate. The kids from each of the houses stood up and sang Christmas carols for all of us.

I like to think that I enjoy the simple things in life. But now gathering joy from the little things has taken on a whole new meaning for me. These children are experts at it, and they inspired me. They have so little; yet, to see them singing with such joy, you’d think they had the secret to all the riches of the world. How is that possible? I mean, when I say they have little, they literally have NOTHING of their own, besides the clothes on their backs. What I consider to be my greatest blessings in life—my family—they can’t even conceptualize. Yet they are grateful. Sweet. Kind. They certainly taught me a thing or two…

As the kids left that night and I said goodbye to my little friend, I had to hold back tears. I knew I’d see her again, so it wasn’t that. I was overcome with emotion. Fear at wondering what kind of life she’ll face. Sadness knowing that I would have to say goodbye in just a few days. Hopelessness at the Romanian government’s laws against foreigners adopting their orphans. But mostly, I was overwhelmed by this anticipation of the emptiness I knew would fill me the moment I said goodbye at the end of the week. I tried not to allow my emotions to take over, put a smile on my face, gave her a big hug, and told her I couldn’t wait to see her again.

And that was just day one.

Over the next several days, we spent time with different groups of kids at the ministry center. Mission Outfitter partners with a foundation in Romania headed up by an awesome young couple, Leandru and Claudia. They have a ministry center where they bring the kids each week to learn life skills, build character, play games and give them a safe place to go.

We also visited some of the children in their homes. It’s an interesting system Romania has now—it has come a long way since the 20/20 episode I saw so long ago. Several years ago, all the huge, institutional orphanages were closed and the children were distributed to houses around the country. The government hired a husband and wife for each house, and then filled it with the orphan children. The homes we visited ranged from five to eleven kids per home (most parents have children of their own that live in the home too).

Some of the homes were nice—not by our American standards, but at least compared to some of the others we saw. Some were cramped, sparse and didn’t feel very hospitable. It was quite a mixture, as were the house parents. You could tell that some cared about the children, while others don’t have pure motives.

Our team also got to visit two young adults who used to be orphans, but have since gone back to live with their families. What happens in Romania sometimes is that families will have a number of children, then decide later that they can’t afford all of them, give into some sort of addiction, or simply don’t want them, and so they give them over to the state. To me, these cases are some of the most heartbreaking. As if it isn’t bad enough to be an orphan in the first place, from birth, to know your parents chose you, over your siblings, to be sent away, must just pile rejection upon rejection and heartbreak.

The houses of these former orphans we visited can hardly be called that. They were cement slabs no bigger than my dining room, with flimsy walls and roofs that didn’t do much to keep out the cold Romanian winter air. Neither home had running water or a bathroom. Bathing happened rarely because the water source is so far away, and to use the toilet they had to go outside to the outhouse. There is so much more to the stories of the two former-orphans we visited (years of neglect, abuse and more), and I want to share them with you, but I don’t think doing so in a public forum is appropriate. If you want to hear their stories, though, send me a message, because I think it is absolutely vital for the world to hear what’s going on. How will change come if the truth is buried?

The next day, I was able to go to the house where my little friend lives. I was relieved to see that out of all the homes we visited, her house parents seemed the kindest, and though her walls were bare and her bedroom sparse, it was painted pale yellow and had windows in it to brighten it up even more. (I’m sending her things to put up on her walls for her 11th birthday next month). We played games and she gave me a tour of the house. Then we went downstairs to the kitchen.

At this point, the house parents served coffee to us visitors, and we sat around the table. My friend was next to me, holding my hand, and Leandru was translating for us. The little girl’s house parents told us that all the kids had written letters to St. Nicholas to ask him for things. We began to go around the table and ask the children what they’d asked for. A new toy. A pretty shirt. Soap. These were the answers we heard. When we came to my friend, we heard that in her letter, she asked St. Nick for one piece of candy. And also that he’d help her to be a good girl. Once again, I fought to keep my emotions under control. One piece of candy? And help being good? You have to understand, this girl is the sweetest, most pleasant little girl you can imagine. What help could she possibly need in that area? Can you imagine an American kid asking Santa for one piece of candy and help being good? Better yet, receiving one piece of candy and actually being thrilled about it? It’s mind-blowing.

I then found out the reason she has only been at the orphan home since she was seven: Her mother gave her to the state three years ago because she either couldn’t or didn’t want to be her mother anymore. There was never a father in the picture. The little girl often writes letters to her mom, but has never once received a response. She often asks why her mom doesn’t write to her.

I didn’t feel like my heart could take anymore. How could a mother not want this precious child? It’s not my place to judge, and I try so hard not to, but I can only imagine that her mom must be in a very dark, desperate place to give up her daughter and then make no effort to maintain contact. And the poor girl must feel rejection each day as she hopefully runs to the mailbox for letters that never arrive.

Again, I had to fight and pray hard for control over the tears springing to my eyes. And the whole time I was hearing her story, she sat there next to me, squeezing my hand so tightly. I wanted to gather her in my arms, cover her ears, and bring her home with me.

When we left the house, she walked with me all the way to our van, which was parked a couple streets away. I hugged her tight and told her I’d see her the next day for the Christmas party.

On our last day in Romania, we threw a huge Christmas party for the children, and really, they threw it for us just as much as we did for them. There were probably close to 100 kids there that we’d seen throughout the week. In addition to my little friend, I’d gotten close to a little boy and several of the older, teenage girls. It was so fun to see them all one last time to celebrate Christmas together. Each of the homes put on a performance of some sort. It was so much fun to watch them—even in Romanian and Hungarian, the message of joy they were sending was clear. After their skits and songs ended, we gave them each bags full of Christmas presents. Nothing extravagant—toiletries, a shirt, pencils, stickers—but talk about grateful, excited kids. I’m not sure, though, if they were more excited about the presents or the pizza and cake that followed! Pizza and cake are both delicacies to them—again, it was so fun to see them indulging, almost guiltily at first, and then voraciously after that. One little boy had his plate held right up to his face, shoveling every piece of pizza he could in it.

Of course, my little friend held onto me all night, and we did everything together. She drew me pictures as we sat together for me to take home. I look at them often. I wore a scarf to the party that she loved, so at the end of the evening, I wrapped it around her neck and told her it was hers to keep, a reminder of how much I loved spending time with her and that I was back in America, thinking of her and praying for her every day. She told me she loved me, and I about fell apart right there.

The end of the party came too quickly, and we had to say goodbye. When I say it is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life, I’m not exaggerating. I barely held it together as I said goodbye to all the kids, especially the ones I’d grown close to. But how would I say goodbye to one I’d come to love? I didn’t know it was possible for that depth of emotion and bonding to happen so quickly. But my trip to Romania was full of lessons of things I didn’t know or realize were possible. That was just another one.

It’s funny. I went there to be a blessing and to bring joy to the lives of orphans. And I believe that happened. However, what I couldn’t possibly have anticipated was how much of a blessing those kids would be to me. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of them, prayed for them and pondered what I can do to help them.

I’ve had my moments. Now, what will I do with them?

I certainly don’t believe my first trip to Romania will be my last. But I also don’t feel as though going there will be enough for me. I want to do more. I want to be an advocate for these children who can’t speak for themselves. I don’t yet know what form that will take, but I’m committed to not be a person who goes on a mission trip and comes back all fired up, but that fire burns out.

No. What happened for me was the fanning of a long-simmering flame. It’s going to keep burning until I’ve done everything I can to help the precious children I met on my trip.

I’ve had my moments. Now I have my mission. Sound too dramatic? We’ll just see about that.

My next post will be full of pictures from the trip.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Romania: My moment, part 1

Some people can look back on their lives and pinpoint one moment—an event, a glance, a sentence uttered—that altered the course of their future. I’ve always envied people who have them, because moments like that don’t come to everyone. And when they do, they give life new purpose and meaning.

I had my moment.

But, before I tell you about it, I need to take you back to where the story really begins. Because, when I reflect on my life, I can see now that the moment which set it all in motion happened when I was ten …

Sundays were reserved for family in my home. Occasionally after Sunday dinner, we’d sit together and watch ABC’s 20/20 (yes, I was a dork even back then—I loved that show. I don’t care what anyone says: Barbara Walters is a saint!).

In this particular episode, Barbara traveled to Romania, where although their communist regime had toppled, it left thousands of orphans in its wake. I was instantly transported from the comforts of my home to a world my ten-year-old mind could scarcely comprehend: a miserable, hopeless existence for the children who lived it. As I watched the story of these orphans unfold, I vowed to someday help them. I also begged my mom and dad to adopt some of them, which didn’t work (instead, I got Pete, my now-17-year-old “little” brother, so I can’t really complain). Clearly, I’ve worked on my persuasive skills since then. But anyway … Since my parents didn’t share my passion for the orphans (or, now that I’m an adult and have a better grasp on finances, I understand how expensive adoption would’ve been for them), I decided that as soon as I was old enough, I’d adopt.

I’ve never forgotten that episode. The images of those children have haunted me for many years. You see, that day, something was planted deep within me. And because I believe that was my “moment,” what happened didn’t fade over the years; the desire to help children continued to grow and weave itself into my life. While I didn’t have the means or opportunities to go to Romania over the years, other children in need always captured my heart. Rather than attend college immediately after high school, I volunteered at an elementary school for inner-city, fatherless children, involved myself in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and moved to Hawaii where I spent a few months tutoring impoverished kids (and, let’s be honest—working on my tan in between).

However, even through all the work I did with other children, Romania kept tugging on my heart. I believed then, and I believe now, that God placed a desire to help those children in my heart, and that’s why I never “outgrew” it.

Last year, I found out that my mom’s best friend’s brother (I’ll give you a second to catch up …) has a mission organization called Mission Outfitters. And guess where they go every year at Christmas? Romania. As soon as I heard about this, I reached out to Tom, and asked him how I could get involved. He invited me to join them for their next trip. Due to finances and vacation time, I wasn’t able to go in 2010, but made plans to join them for their 2011 trip.

So, several weeks ago and after years of praying and waiting, I embarked on the journey that will forever change my life.

Stay tuned for more in the next day or two.

Monday, October 10, 2011

So many blog ideas, so little time!

Oh dear.

Here it is, October 10th, and I haven't blogged in two months. Unacceptable! I have so much to write about, but I just haven’t had the time to write! My last few weeks in Basel were crazy (in a good way), and I’ve been going nonstop since I got back to the U.S. Long on blog fodder; short on time. So, just as a little preview, and to get myself back in the swing of things, here are the topics I plan to blog about over the next few weeks, in no particular order:

1. My trip to Germany, which included Munich, the Neuschwanstein Castle (Walt Disney’s fairytale castle!) and the Dachau concentration camp

2. Paris, the city of love. Or is it the city of light? I can’t really be sure, but all I DO know is that I loved it. So we’ll go with “city of love.”

3. My last few weeks in Basel, and all the fun I had

4. Why I’m going to Romania in December (because people keep asking)

5. The books I’ve read lately—I’ve been reading a ton (um, this could also be why I haven’t blogged lately …), and most of them have been blog-worthy

6. NYC! (Just got back from an awesome trip with Terri)

7. Dancing with the Stars. Maybe. I don’t want to step over the edge I’ve been precariously hanging onto into complete loserdom by blogging about a reality TV show. But I do watch the show. And I do have a lot of thoughts (some nice, some not-so-kind, some funny, some not-so-humorous) that I share with my friend and fellow blogger Terri. So why not just put them into a blog? At least it’ll get me blogging regularly, and who knows. Perhaps I’ll become famous as the Dancing with the Stars blogger, and my stardom will land me a spot on the show. Obviously my partner will be Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

Or Derek Hough.

Or Tristan MacManus.

I won’t be choosey.

I’ll be back soon. I promise.


Friday, August 5, 2011

La Dolce Vita kicks La Vida Loca’s butt. Sorry, Ricky Martin …

As a now-seasoned(ish) world traveler, I think I’ve reached the point where I can compare and contrast the places I’ve been and opine about each one. I hope it’s not too premature for that.

Last week, I returned to Cinque Terre, Italy, and while I was there, the phrase “La Dolce Vita,” or “the sweet life” was constantly on my mind. Why? Because Italy is unique from anywhere else I’ve ever been. They not only live a less stressful, “hakuna matata” (I’ll always love the Lion King) lifestyle—they embody it. I think it’s foundational to the very core of who the Italians in this region are. “Sweet” is the perfect way to describe their lifestyle. It’s simple. It’s friendly. It’s open. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. It’s relaxed... It’s sweet.

“La Vida Loca,” or “the crazy life,” which is more descriptive of the Mexican/Central/South American lifestyle, is a whole different world. It’s a fun world too—trust me, my weeks in Cancun, Mexico have been anything but dull! But if I had to choose between La Dolce Vita and La Vida Loca, there’s no contest—I’m going with sweet over crazy every time. (Note to self: I should also keep this in mind when it comes to dating decisions.)

Mom arrived in Switzerland last Thursday morning, and we left for Italy that same night (looking back, I realize a day to relax and get settled in probably would’ve been nice. I’m still working on living la dolce vita. Sorry, mom!). We arrived just outside of Lake Como, in a quaint village called Bellagio, after midnight.

Our hotel there, Borgo Le Terrazze, was sweet. And I don’t mean sweet solely in the way I was using it above. I also mean it in the, “Dude, this place is SWEET!” way. The room was decorated in traditional Mediterranean coastal style with a bit of a rustic, breezy feel, and the view was … well, why don’t I just show you.

It’s obvious to me now why George Clooney loves Lake Como so much. Not that I ever doubted his impeccable taste … well, except for the fact that he still hasn’t proposed to me. But we’ll chalk that one up to the lack of an introduction.

Now here’s a winning combination.


We spent part of the day exploring the Bellagio/Lake Como area, had lunch on the lake, window shopped and people watched. Mom kept saying, “this place is so beautiful—I wish we could stay!” and while I agreed that it was beautiful there, I also knew where we were headed. I told her to just trust me, because as impossible as it was to imagine, we were about to step into an entirely different world in Cinque Terre that she’d never want to leave.

As a side note, though, I would love to spend more time in Lake Como. In addition to the scenery, hiking, swimming, boating and other fun lake activities, I’d really like to give Clooney the opportunity to meet me. Maybe next year …

We left Lake Como in the afternoon and drove three hours to Cinque Terre, where we were staying in the most northwest village, Monterosso al Mare. The place I booked for us to stay was actually a Bed & Breakfast, La Serra sul Mare, and I couldn’t wait to see it based on all the reviews I’d read. And we weren’t disappointed! “A room with a view” doesn’t do it justice. See for yourself.

We spent the next three days soaking up every ounce of sun, sand and Mediterranean Sea we could, basking in the perfection of livin’ La Dolce Vita. We hiked, we boated, we swam, we laid in the sun, we shopped, we ate gelato, we were serenaded by an old, Italian man with his guitar (in eight languages no less), we mingled with locals and tourists alike as we strolled up and down the streets of the Cinque Terre villages each evening after another gourmet meal, we met and talked to people from all over the world ... it was everything a vacation should be, except not nearly long enough.

I won’t go into too much detail about all we did, saw, and the people we met along the way—you really need to experience it for yourself. But I will share pictures below, and tell you about one activity we did, which we still can’t stop talking about because mom and I both agree it was the best day either of us has had in ages—so much fun!

The tour was with a company called “Angelo’s Boat Tours” and I discovered it by chance when I googled “boat tours Cinque Terre.” I thought it’d be nice to go out on a boat one day. Fellow travelers on the forum (my travel Bible) had only good things to say about the tour, so I signed us up.

Best. Day. EVER!

The boat’s captain is a guy name Angelo, and his family has lived in Cinque Terre for generations. He’s about as local as they come. Every stereotype of an Italian man that you can imagine fits Angelo—all in one incredibly fun, charming and hilarious package.

Angelo’s wife Paula (an American who met him during a vacation to Italy years ago) is a talented chef who prepares all the food for the day on the boat. Linda, Paula’s cousin, was Angelo’s “co-captain” and our hostess for the day on the boat. She had the perfect personality for the job.

There were twelve of us total on the boat, representing all different corners of the world (Brazil, Ireland, Italy and the U.S.)—ranging in age from 20 to 80. After just a few minutes and as a definite testament to Linda’s perfect hostessing (totally a word), everyone was interacting and having a great time.

The tour itself was great—we learned some of the history of the region while seeing the most beautiful scenery—cliffs that jut out into the clearest, bluest water I’ve ever seen. Mom and I tried to figure out a way to describe the color of the water, and the best we could come up with was “it looks like a liquid sapphire—but prettier!”

Besides the awesome captain, hostess, new friends and AMAZING food, the best part of the tour was getting to stop and swim at different coves. Angelo had rafts on board for those who wanted to float in the sun, snorkeling equipment for anyone who wanted to be more active and plenty of adult beverages for those wanting to stay on board. (Those of us swimming in the water enjoyed a few beverages of our own too---don’t you worry.)

I can’t imagine a better day—we are still talking about it as one of the best days we’ve had in a long time.

P.S. I’m still waiting on Angelo’s son to call me (in 2011 lingo: facebook friend request me). While we were on the tour, mom and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Carly: I don’t want to leave here. Ever. Tell Dad, Nick and Pete I love them, but if they ever want to see me again, they’ll need to buy a plane ticket to Italy.

Mom: You need to do what Paula did—find an Italian guy while you’re here, fall in love and get married! Oh! I have an idea!

Mom: Hey Angelo—do you know any single guys you could introduce my daughter to??

Carly: Oh dear God, make it stop.

Angelo: Oooh, I wish I could introduce you to my son, but he’s too old for you. He’s 28.

Carly: Bless your Italian heart, Angelo. But 28 is not too old for me.

Angelo: I thought you were 20!

Carly: I’d like to marry YOU!

Angelo: I’ll be right back.

He leaves, and I’m left looking at mom, wondering what Angelo is up to. A few minutes later I’d nearly forgotten about the whole, random conversation when Angelo is next to me, thrusting a cell phone into my hands.

Angelo: Here, say hello to my son.

Carly: WHAT?? ::skeptically takes the phone, because you can’t argue with Angelo; trust me on that one:: Ummm, hello?

Strange boy on the phone who I don’t know: Hey! Soooo, this is kinda awkward.

Carly: ::nervous laughter:: yeah … just a little

We went on to have a short, yet fairly normal conversation despite the total abnormality of the situation. My mom sat there mouthing “I’M SO SORRY” the whole time. And Angelo was just grinning from ear to ear. From what Angelo tells me, though, his son David is quite the hottie. If he hadn’t been in London, I would’ve loved to meet him. So, David, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, feel free to track me down on facebook. ;)

Ciao bellas!! Enjoy the pics. I'm sure you'll be able to tell just by looking that mom and I are having an amazing time. I just wish she could stay longer and we could visit some other places ... or, let's be honest, just go back to Cinque Terre and never leave.

More pictures to follow soon on facebook!


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Naked statues, nudie beaches and Speedos—oh my! How Italy literally changed my life …

Hello, dear readers! You’ve probably forgotten about my promise to finish the grand European vacation summary with an account of my adventures in Florence and Cinque Terre. I know I did—well, almost. Lucky for you, my memory is firing on all cylinders today…

Before I jump in, I just need to say that I’M WATCHING YOU. No, that’s weird. But seriously. Blogger has this tracking thing that provides a report of how many people look at my blog, how many “hits” per day and even where the traffic is coming from (which websites refer people and which countries the viewers are in). It’s pretty cool! I’ve seen a huge increase in traffic to my blog from all over the world (which is neat-o, but also slightly creepy as I am positive I don’t have friends in Saudi Arabia, Russia or Denmark at this point). So, as long as you’re not a stalker, welcome to my blog! I hope you enjoy random musings from a silly American girl. And hey! How about a comment every once in awhile?

Back to it.

Florence was an oddly fascinating jumble of smells—sewage, tropical flowers and fresh dough were the three that stood out most. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience when I took a deep breath of doughy air only to realize at the end of the breath that it was no longer delicious, yeasty dough I was breathing in, but rather sewage from the nearest apartment building’s obviously worn-out pipes. I tried to stop taking so many deep breaths. But let me tell you, when the scent of flowers wafted through the air toward my nose, it was intoxicating. It actually reminded me of the smell of plumeria that permeates Hawaii. Oh, but wait. There’s that sewage again. So NOT Hawaii. But then again, Hawaii doesn’t have sculptures crafted by Michelangelo or two thousand year old buildings … or gelato. So, I’m not taking sides here.

Our first full day in Florence, Amanda and I went to a cooking class. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to take a cooking class in Tuscany (see Bucket List post from a couple weeks ago). And while a half-day class only scratched the surface, it was by far one of the BEST days of our entire trip. The chef’s name is Melanie, and she’s an American who married an Italian years ago and moved to Italy to be with him. Their love story is one that rivals any fairytale (well, except maybe Beauty and the Beast, because clearly, nothing could rival that one …). I think someone should write a book about them, or at least a blog. But that’s another topic for another day. Anyway, she was amazing. If you’re ever in Florence or anywhere close to it, spend a day with Melanie in her outdoor kitchen in the middle of an olive grove with a view of the Tuscan countryside better than anything you’ll see in any photographs. Not only will you taste some of the best food of your LIFE, but you’ll get to experience the Tuscan culture as it’s meant to be experienced, and that’s a priceless way to spend a day. Some photos from our day together …

Did I mention we made gelato?

I’m totally buying a gelato machine once I get back to the United States.

After our amazing cooking class, we took a self-guided tour through Florence. And by “self-guided” I mean that we tried to get from the Uffizi Gallery to a famous garden whose name I can’t remember and spent hours wandering around, lost. Florence is a really confusing city, and I don’t think it was just me. But then again, I didn’t see anyone else who looked lost, so maybe it was. But regardless, getting lost is sometimes the best thing in the world in a new city (except that time I got lost in Chicago and ended up somewhere that resembled Detroit’s Eight Mile (sup, Eminem) on a bad day—that wasn’t good.) But in Florence, it was great! We ended up seeing all sorts of sights. Mainly really magnificent ancient buildings and naked statues. I’m not sure why, but the Italians REALLY love naked-man statues. Here I am trying to pull off a David.

Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking at the time. Do I seriously have no shame or sense of trying to NOT look like a tourist?? Oh well, the entire cast of Jersey Shore was in town the same time as me, so I’m positive I was less of an embarrassment to America than they were. After all, it’s all about comparisons …

I’m not sure I’ve given you any great insights into the city of Florence through this blog so far. So let me try to summarize before we move onto Cinque Terre. Florence is a beautiful city—larger than most other Tuscan cities with a mingling of rich, poor, pristine and gritty areas. It’s a place where some of the most magnificent artists in the world practiced their craft and left their mark on a world that will never be the same because of their skill. From Masaccio to Donatello to Michelangelo, if you want to see some of the most breathtaking art in the world, Florence is your place. Chapels, sculptures, paintings, architecture and more await you there. Along with real-life flavor of a big, Italian city with a lot of character, great food and friendly Italian people, Florence should be added to your bucket list of places to go before you die. And if you make it there, make sure you eat at Pitti Gola e Cantina. You won’t regret it (And the owners—three young guys—are super cute in case you’re interested in a little Italian eye candy. I’m just sayin’…).

Last but not least is possibly my favorite place in the world: The Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. I don’t actually have a lot to say about this place—not because I couldn’t go on and on about it—I think we all know I could. But I just don’t think my words could ever do it justice. This is a place you have to see to believe. It’s as if when God created it, He thought to Himself, “I’m going to make a place that, if I ever decide to leave heaven and live on earth for awhile, I wouldn’t get homesick because it looks exactly like home,” and thus, Cinque Terre was made. (A little trivia in case you’re ever on Jeopardy: Cinque Terre means "The Five Lands" and is composed of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.)

I’ll just tell you one story about a life-altering experience I had while hiking the trail between the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre—a moment where something fundamental changed within me, and I don’t think I’ll never be the same again. It summarizes my time there …

I was hiking along the trail that hugs the cliffs of Cinque Terre and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea (which is, by the way, the clearest, bluest water I’ve ever seen). Amanda and I were fairly silent, because like I said, there’s just not much you can say when you come face-to-face with that kind of beauty and the utter magnificence of God’s creation. As we were walking, we had to be careful in some places, because the trail was steep or wearing away. It was at one of these parts I was looking down so as not to face plant and ruin my communion with nature. As I was about to take my next step, I saw a little spider making its way along the trail too, and my right foot came to a stop in mid air. I stared at the spider, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel compelled to kill it. In fact, I felt just the opposite. And not out of fear (the only reason I’ve ever let spiders live in the past), but because I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place—the raw, unadulterated, unblemished perfection of it—that I could never deprive any living thing of it. If that spider was lucky enough to live there, then shame on anyone who would intentionally take that away. I let a spider live so that it could experience the joy of living in that perfect place.

Cinque Terre changed me …

You can get an idea of why that happened from the pictures below. But I implore you--Go! See it for yourself!

Lest I end this blog on too serious a note and make you wonder “Who is writing this blog and what have they done with Carly?” let me tell you a couple other things about Cinque Terre: There is a nudie beach that apparently is one of the best beaches on the Italian Riviera. I didn’t test that opinion out last trip, but maybe when my mom comes to visit and we go back, we’ll check it out(kidding, mom). There are hand-painted signs all along the hiking trail that direct you to the naked beach. Obviously I’m five years old and thought it was funny, so I took a picture of one.

Second, God bless America for board shorts. If I see one more fat man in a little Euro-Speedo, I will literally barf. But hey—if I have to see it, so do you. :D Enjoy!

Next week, my mom will be here, and I’m SO excited to take her to Cinque Terre and share the magic with her. I’ll post pictures and let you know if I have anymore life-changing revelations.

Until next time, ciao!