20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a Mediterranean cruise that we took for our wedding anniversary in 2015. It was our first big cruise line cruise. We had done a river cruise in the USA, transportation cruise to the Bahamas, and an exploration cruise in the Galapagos, but never one like this. For beginners, I think we handled this learning experience really well and had a lot of fun along the way.

ITINERARY

Trieste, Italy

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Trieste was the port where the cruise would depart and return to. We lived in Italy at the time, so we just took a train to Trieste from our hometown but allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to tour around the city for a bit. This town is the bridge between Western Europe and the Balkans. You can easily access Slovenia from here if you have time.

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Bari, Italy

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Our first stop on the cruise was the small coastal town of Bari in the Apulia region on the eastern side of Italy. It was a great walkable city, so we did not feel the need to take an excursion offered by the cruise line. There are forts to explore, a nice waterfront and the beautiful Cattedrale di San Sabino (Bari Cathedral).

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Corfu, Greece

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Our first stop in Greece was the island of Corfu. We again didn’t take a cruise line excursion, which you might want to consider doing if you want to get to the heart of the town in a timely fashion. However, we decided to just find a cafe, where we indulged in a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere of some locals.

Mykonos, Greece

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Mykonos was a highlight for me as I’ve been wanting to go there since I was a kid. It did not disappoint. We took a jeep tour of the island excursion, which was an amazing way to see most of the island. Plus, my husband loved driving around on the rough passageways. This excursion also included lunch on the island with an ouzo tasting, which is an alcoholic shot that looks cloudy and tastes like black licorice. After the excursion, we had time to clean up and catch sunset on Mykonos. The island lights up with amazing colors at sunset. We decided to eat a fancy dinner for our anniversary on the island, which I highly recommend. Though it is tempting to eat only the food that is included on the cruise you paid for, it is nice to give some money to the local businesses. Mykonos was just stunning!

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Santorini, Greece

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Our next island stop was Santorini, which was my favorite stop on the cruise. I had seen beautiful pictures, but pictures don’t seem to do it justice. We took the excursion transportation to Oia, which was 100% worth it. The guide gave us a great overview lesson of the island, its history and economics, and then we wandered around. We immediately found a cafe, where we could sit outside with coffees, enjoying an amazing view of the caldera. When you have finished viewing and taking pictures of the cliff-side architecture, I would do a wine tasting and purchase some bottles of wine if possible. Due to the eruption of the Santorini volcano many years ago, the soil on the island is rich for producing wine. You will have a lot of white wine choices, and Santorini’s specialty is the Vin Santo, which is a dessert wine. I loved everything about this island and especially Oia.

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

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This was not part of the original itinerary, but due to some bad weather, we stopped in Dubrovnik instead of Split, Croatia. Dubrovnik was the last stop before heading back to Trieste, Italy, where our cruising adventure would end. I went to Dubrovnik ten years prior to this trip (I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post about the Balkans), and it has remained very dear to my heart ever since. I was happy to revisit some of my favorite places, including the cafe that overlooks the Adriatic, where the owners gave us coffee and drinks even though they were not officially open. The weather was not great but we still got to walk in the ancient city walls and visit the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

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Lessons Learned

  • Make sure that you have a spare set of clothing (aka dress, underwear, shorts, etc) in the small bag that you carry on to the cruise boat. We had our luggage checked prior to getting onto the boat. The luggage check-in was located outdoors in the midst of a huge windy rainstorm. When we received our duffle bag full of clothes, everything was drenched. While the cruise line had all of our clothes dry cleaned for free, this took a couple of days, where we were wearing the same clothes.
  • The drink package is sooooo worth it! After finding out about our wet clothes and having my credit card canceled (even though they knew I was traveling – thank you Capital One), we wanted nothing more than to sit at the bar and have a drink or three. We decided to purchase the all-you-can-drink package, which we definitely utilized frequently. This includes water and coffee as well, so it is 100% worth it!
  • Pack multiple sets of dress clothes. Apparently dressing up for dinner on a cruise boat is sometimes mandatory. That bit of information can often be hidden on websites and can catch you completely by surprise if you have never been on a cruise before.
  • Find a good booking site. After getting frustrated on trying to figure out how to see some Greek islands on our own, without using an organized tour, I received an email from VacationsToGo, advertising a discount on a Mediterranean cruise for the time period we were looking to travel. It seemed like a sign, so I picked up my phone and called the 800 number on the website and within a few minutes an agent had us all booked on this cruise. It took barely any of my time to plan, cost a lot less than if I had set up travel to the islands on my own, and we even got our drink package for free as part of a special deal.
  • Plan excursions prior to being on the cruise. Before going on your cruise, check out the possible excursions and make a decisions on the ones you want to go on prior to being on the boat. We did not purchase excursions ahead of time and found at least one we wanted to do was fully booked.
  • Don’t be afraid to change dining tables. Cruises love to give you assigned dining seats, so you can meet new people. However, unfortunately we did not have a great experience with our dining table, and we waited too many days to change tables to sit with some friends. If after the first night, you do not enjoy your dining experience, talk to someone, so that you can be relocated.
  • Allow plenty of time before and after the cruise. Most people will travel to take cruises. If you are one of those people, make sure to leave a good cushion of time before and after your cruising experience. The cruise line took a long time returning passports to passengers at the end of the cruise (hours after we were docked) and madness erupted. Many passengers were furious, because they missed their schedule trains or planes home. While we had allowed plenty of time before and after the cruise to catch our transportation home, it was hard not to feel for every individual who had to suffer missed connections because of this delay.

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While I am not sure I would recommend Costa cruise lines as the best option for cruising, we enjoyed our cruising experience overall. So much so that we have decided to take another cruise at the end of this year. If you have done some cruising, please feel free to leave some tips and recommendations in the comment section below. I would greatly appreciate it. Until next time…

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #10: Milan

The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a visit to Milan, Italy. Even though our trip to Milan in 2015 was brief, it was very memorable, including checking two things off my lifetime bucket list.

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Duomo di Milano

We did not waste any time going to see the Duomo in Milan. We got up early and had a coffee at a cafe off of the Piazza del Duomo, while waiting for the cathedral to open. We bought tickets to not just tour the inside but also to do the rooftop tour, which I highly recommend. I’m not going to lie, I am absolutely terrified of heights (major vertigo) and found the rooftop adventure a bit difficult, but it is still worth it. I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals and this is one of my favorites. Expect to spend many hours exploring the Duomo di Milano.

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Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

No trip to Milan is complete without a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to view one of Da Vinci’s most famous pieces of art – The Last SupperI would definitely plan on purchasing tickets to see The Last Supper well in advance. I don’t know if everyone has had this experience, but we were given a certain amount of viewing time, which I wish had been a bit longer. Other than that, I enjoyed every moment of learning about this piece of artwork and spending as much time as I could looking at every part of it.

The Last Supper - Da Vinci 1495-98

Teatro alla Scala

When I was in high school, I wrote a paper on the opera singer, Maria Callas. Through this report I learned a lot about the La Scala Opera House and have wanted to visit it ever since. Knowing this, my husband bought us tickets, as an early birthday surprise, to see one of the best Puccini operas – La Boheme – at La Scala. We had great seats; the onstage sets were really impressive; the acoustics were perfect; and for those who don’t appreciate operas because you don’t understand the language, every seat had individual TV screens that have subtitles translated into your language of choice.

World’s Fair Exposition – and my brush with death

The first movie I ever owned when I was young was Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland. This movie is about a family living in St. Louis during the time when St. Louis is about to hold the World’s Fair (The Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904. Naturally, attending a World’s Fair has been on my travel bucket list for a long long time. As if finally seeing an opera at La Scala was not enough, our trip coincided with the 2015 World’s Fair Expo in Milan, so we also spent a day at the World’s Fair. The theme of this fair was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Attendees were provided with food from all over the world. As we were currently living in Tuscany, Italy at the time, we were unable to get many foods that were not strictly Tuscan, so we were super excited about trying food from all over the world.

However, I think I got too excited. I unfortunately had an allergic reaction to something I ate, which could have been at some point while I was indulging in Belgian fries, Dutch pancakes, Food truck BBQ, Mexican tacos and Chinese noodles. The attack was bad and luckily we found a health clinic on site that I could go to. I didn’t have to wait at all before they had me lying on a clinic bed, hooked up to a few machines, with an IV in my arm. I had at least three doctors looking at me.  At one point they asked me what I had had to eat, so I started giving them the list, and they just shook their heads at me. They gave me some medicine, which they thought would work, but the lady doctor noticed that I was still having trouble breathing and the rashes on my chest and legs were getting worse. They actually kicked my husband out of the room at this point, so he was actually a bit nervous about my condition. The doctors opted to give me a big booster shot of adrenaline, and in 10 minutes I was doing fantastic. I cannot remember ever feeling as great as I did at that time. The doctors released me with the advice that maybe I should just stick to eating chocolate gelato from now on. For those that have not experience health care outside of the United States, I did not have to fill out any paperwork before being treated or after I was treated. I just signed a document at the end, saying that I was treated, and that was all I had to do. A big thanks to those doctors who treated me. They were awesome.

Since I was feeling amazing, we did wander around the expo a little more. I did not eat any more food though and was a bit sad that I missed out on Ethiopian food and trying the crocodile at the Zimbabwe tent. However, I was not about to risk ending up in that clinic again. While that was a scary situation, I guess it made the day even more memorable, beyond seeing all the amazing exhibits and architecture.

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Milan was such a lovely weekend adventure and very memorable.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts:

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

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Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

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Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.

Reflecting on the “Final” Move

After living in Lucca, Italy for three years, my husband and I will be moving back to the United States. My husband was offered a job in Houston, Texas. We are both excited and nervous about this next stage in our lives.

For the first time in my life, this may not be a temporary settlement. This is a somewhat scary thought for me personally. Previously, I lived in multiple states (Iowa – when I was a baby but I still count it, Wisconsin, Washington DC – technically a district not a state, Missouri, Maryland & Massachusetts); attended academic courses in England, the Balkans – mainly Serbia, & Switzerland; and lived overseas in Italy.

Actually the address I had in Lucca for three years was the longest standing address I resided at since I was seventeen years old. I’ve gotten quite use to this mobile lifestyle. You learn quickly not to collect “things,” as you will have more to eventually pack if you do. I’ve also never had much chance to be bored with my surroundings either.

However, the idea of a long-term settlement means that my husband and I can purchase a house. I am about ten years behind all my friends from school who own homes or have been working toward that for years. Having a home to us isn’t just a next step though but an opportunity to finally have all our belongings in one place. I have boxes I haven’t looked inside of for at least ten years. It’ll be like Christmas morning when my husband and I actually open every box and piece of luggage. It will also be nice to travel some place (yes…traveling will most definitely continue) and have a home to come back to when the trip concludes.

Plus, living a nomadic life has at times been very lonely. I’ve met amazing people everywhere I’ve been, and when it comes time for me to move to my next destination, we always say that we will keep in touch (along with maybe a plan to visit), but most of the time that does not happen. With social media being what it is today, I always expect that it will be so easy to stay in touch and am disappointed when it still does not happen.

I am currently at that stage, right before the move, where I get a bit weepy, as I reminisce on all the memories and moments I’ve experienced in that particular location, but this time it is different. I find myself worried about how I will adjust to normal everyday living in the States. I’ve only been living outside of the USA for three years, but I feel as though I’ve missed so much. Things have changed. American politics has taken an interesting turn, Game of Thrones is the television show of choice for many, and everyone seems to be addicted to Pokemon GO – all this while I’ve been wandering ancient streets and sipping cappuccini. I have faith that I can catch up on all the things I’ve missed, but how do I handle the knowledge that most people will not care about what I have been doing and what they have missed.

I’ve enjoyed a certain motto over the last few years: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” Does that mean that when you stop wandering, that is when you are lost? That is how I am feeling.

I know how lucky I have been. I’ve lived an amazing, adventurous life, and I’m only in my thirties. I was recently in a small-ish town in the Ukraine, where I spoke with another American woman who has lived around the world. She told me, “like all places you move to, there is an adjustment period.” She went on to saying that it may take longer this time to adjust, but that I will do just fine. However, she warned me not to lose who I am, being a  “a citizen of the world” as we call it. She stressed to me that I must take what I have learned from my time abroad and use it to strengthen myself both emotionally and intellectually. I hope to do just that. There is no fear. Only hope…

Arrivederci Italia!

Lots of Love As We Head into 2016!

Lucca, Italy

Lucca, Italy

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year! Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

We unfortunately did not get to spend the holidays with our family and friends in the United States this year. We knew it would be a little difficult to be away from everyone at such a special time of year, so we took a little holiday R&R break and escaped to Portugal, which was wonderful! We are definitely feeling refreshed and ready for the new year – whatever it might bring.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

I can hardly believe that my husband and I have been living in Lucca, Italy for almost three years. Time really does fly by sometimes. One of the main reasons that we chose to make the big move to Italy was our love of travel. Living in Italy has given us such accessibility to other parts of the world. 2015 certainly provided us with many amazing adventures. We explored 12 different countries, which includes visiting Italian cities outside of Lucca as well. (Find more details on my Travel Page, which I am constantly updating.) Our three favorite travel adventures this year were taking our first big cruise (on the Mediterranean), participating in a photographic tour through Cuba (hooray! Americans can go to Cuba legally!) and experiencing our first World’s Fair Exposition in Milan, Italy. A personal favorite moment of 2015 for me was when my husband surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La Boheme at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. It was definitely a dream come true.

In the midst of all the travel, we welcomed my in-laws for a visit to Lucca. It is always nice to show family and friends our wonderful home and all the things that we love about Lucca and living in Italy. We were thrilled that they came. We also hosted Thanksgiving again for the third year and had a wonderful turnout of about 20 people. There were many new faces this year, and we enjoyed it very much.

While we saw every travel moment as an adventure, some of the trips were actually work-related. My husband participated in 5 conferences this year in Berlin (Germany), Arizona (USA), Zaragoza (Spain), Helsinki (Finland) and Budapest (Hungary). He has had a very busy year. All of the conferences he’s been to recently have been very productive, and he’s working on multiple different projects.  One really successful one has been patent inventor and assignee disambiguation (basically, knowing that “MIT” and “Mass. Inst. of Tech.” refer to the same thing), which is really important to do accurately if you want to understand how universities and companies combine different skills to create technology or how scientists move around the world.  He’s solved that problem for 4 million patents worldwide, and there’s a lot of interest in using his results!

I too have been working. I completed my work on the Introduction to Network Science book that I was helping to edit. Then I signed a contract to do some work for IMT – School for Advanced Studies Lucca, where I also edit publications. I am very fortunate to have these opportunities. I never for one second saw myself as an editor, but I rather enjoy it most of the time. I will say, however, that working from home has its difficulties. It is easy to lose one’s motivation and concentration at home. It can also be difficult to spend so much time within the house. I started consistently running miles outside every week just to get a bit of fresh air. It not only provided the break I needed, but it turns out that I actually started to enjoy running. Who knew that would happen?!

We have no idea what is in store for us in 2016. My husband’s contract at IMT-Lucca is ending at the end of May. He is currently applying for jobs in the United States, as well as other places in the world. However, he has also been offered an extension of his current position if we choose to remain in Italy. We are going to let the Lord and fate guide us these next months. Please keep us in your prayers as we may have some big decisions to make. Whatever happens, we know that we are blessed with wonderful friends and family who continue to support us. We love you all very much!

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence at Christmas time – December 2015

Duomo at Night

TreeFlorence, Italy is just a short trip from Lucca, so some friends and I decided to spend a full day there, enjoying the holiday festivities. The Duomo or main Cathedral in Florence is spectacular on a normal day, but it sparkles at night now with the large Christmas tree in front of it. I don’t know if I have ever seen anything so beautiful. There is also a large nativity scene in front of the cathedral as well (pictured at the bottom of this post).

The streets were all decorated with lights, and we were pleased to discover a few light shows throughout town as well. The one pictured below we just stumbled upon, but the big one is displayed on Ponte Vecchio. Don’t be fooled though. Just because it is the holiday season doesn’t mean that the light show will have a holiday theme. However, it is remarkable nonetheless and shows a deep appreciation for art. Pictures or videos just don’t do it justice. You have to experience it.

Lights

We managed to catch one of the last nights of the Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. It was a great place to try different holiday foods like Hungarian Chimney Cake and German Apple Strudel. You can wash it down with some mulled wine. When you have eaten all you can, then it is time to shop. There were so many unique gifts to be found there.

There is nothing like Christmas trees, lights and markets to put one in the holiday spirit. Buon Natale!

nativity

ADVENTURES IN ITALY 2014 (July)

ASSISI, UMBRIA DSC_3145a Home of Saint Francis, Assisi is one of the most beautiful towns we have visited during our time in Italy. It is not a short trip from Lucca, Italy, but it is a scenic one by train. We only had the day, so we once again, as done on previous travels, relied on the free walking audio guide by Rick Steves to show us the highlights. To minimize travel time, we purchased bus tickets at the train station T stand in Assisi that took us directly into town. We started by walking around the old amphitheater and then went inside the Cathedral of Saint Rufino. From there we headed to the Basilica of Saint Clara. Unfortunately the Basilica of Saint Clara, which houses her and her sister Agnes’ remains, was closed at the moment of our visit but we took the time there to learn about the life of Saint Clara, who gave up wealth to become a follower of Saint Francis and devote her life to God. Then we continued on to the Piazza del Comune where we visited the Temple of Minerva. Following a brief lunch break, we finally came to the main highlight of the visit which was the Basilica of Saint Francis, which now holds his remains. Inside the Basilica are works of art relating the story of Saint Francis as well as many other Biblical scenes. Since the scenery surrounding Assisi boasts of stunning landscapes, we chose to take the approximately 30-minute walk, instead of the bus ride, to the train station to enjoy as much of the scenery as possible. I highly recommend the walk.

SIENA, TOSCANA

Il Duomo di SienaWhile Siena is accessible by train from Florence, my girlfriend and I decided that we would rather spend a little extra money and take a tour bus with a guided tour. We went with a company I had used before called Come and See Italy. This tour would take us from Lucca to Siena where we would have a guided walking tour and then some free time. The guided tour was decent as she talked a lot about the Siena neighborhoods that compete in the annual Il Palio di Siena. Il Palio is a horse race that occurs in Piazza del Campo every July 2 and August 16. The walking tour finished at the Duomo just as the magnificent church bells were starting. Since we had some free time, we decided to check out the inside of the Duomo. This is a must see as the inside of the Duomo boasts works of art by Michelangelo, Pisano, Donatello, and Bernini to name just a few. As we headed back to Piazza del Campo, we found a nice little spot for lunch called 4 Cantoni. Our Come and See Italy tour would conclude with a short stop in San Gimignano on the way back to Lucca.

SAN GIMIGNANO, TOSCANA

DSC_3386aThere are two things I love about San Gimignano: the views and the gelato. After spending the morning in Siena, we headed to San Gimignano, the final stop. Here there was no walking tour or guide. We were shown how to make our way into the town from the parking area and then left to our own devices. We wandered and found some amazing scenic overlooks, took lots of pictures, and then headed to our main San Gimignano target, which was the “World’s Best Gelato.” We knew that we had found the right spot, because there was a long line outside Gelateria Dondoli. This did not discourage us, and we were rewarded. The line moved fast. The clerks inside were almost too efficient. ThereDSC_3380a were dozens of flavors, and it was hard to pick what we wanted in a timely fashion, but I don’t think that either of us were disappointed by our choices. We sat in the shade with a beautiful view of the many towers that make up San Gimignano and savored every delicious moment. Afterwards we still had some time left before we had to head back down to our bus, so we wandered the streets some more and took in all the magnificent towers that have stood for hundreds of years. It is a stunning town.

Arrivederci 2014-Benvenuto 2015

Buon Anno!

This holiday season I decided to follow in my mother-in-law’s footsteps by not coming out with a Christmas message until after Christmas. She said that people don’t have a lot of time before Christmas to sit and read letters anyway, and I agree if for no other reason than the fact that I have been too busy to write my letter.

My husband and I have been very fortunate to spend the holidays in the United States with friends and family. It has been our first trip back since we moved to Italy a year and a half ago, and we have been having a wonderful time. Being back makes us realize some of the things that we have missed since moving to Italy. We have been eating lots of Mexican food, and I have definitely been taking advantage of the fact that I can wash and dry a whole load of laundry in less than two hours. We both also drove cars for the first time in a year and a half. Overall, we are just enjoying spending time with our parents, siblings, niece and nephew. We have had so much fun talking and laughing with family that I have lost my voice.

Soon we will be returning back to our home in Italy. It has been an interesting year living in Italy. It is a simpler lifestyle. The main focuses are family and food not work like in the United States. It is a slower lifestyle where you do actually take time to smell the flowers (and the pastries). Lucca is a walled city that has converted their ancient walls into a park that you can walk on. Sometimes I would walk on the walls and think to myself that no place is more amazing than Lucca. We feel so blessed to have this amazing opportunity living in Italy no matter what struggles we have been faced with.

My husband continues to amaze me. He has embraced living in Italy so much that it almost seems like he was always meant to live there. He speaks and understands Italian far better than I do and has also started dressing more like an Italian. He continues to create new masterpieces in the kitchen which recently included making pasta from scratch. We hosted Thanksgiving for the second year in Lucca, and the turkey came out even better than last year. My husband spent the whole day cooking the turkey and his toil was to our benefit as it was the best turkey I had ever had.

My husband continues to work full time at IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca. He has spent the last year continuing work on using complex network methods to understand innovation networks, with about ten people at his institute working with him on linking the patent data he’s worked with to other databases they have access to.  He has about five papers that are partially completed on a wide range of topics right now including geolocation (putting millions of pins on a map based on patent addresses), disambiguation (determining that “MIT” and “Mass. Inst. of Tech.” refer to the same institution), predicting collaboration between scientific authors, detecting structure in correlation networks, and understanding citations within or between firms.  This year has been very productive, and the fruit of all that labor will be seen in multiple publications next year!

While my husband is at work, I have been working from home on a project with a professor from Northeastern University. He is writing an Introduction to Network Science textbook. The online version is available here. The hard copy may or may not be coming out in 2015. It has been an enjoyable project.

At the beginning of 2014, I found a English book club in Lucca. Everyone that knows me knows that I love reading. When I lived in Washington, DC and then in Boston, I enjoyed participating in book clubs. I love having people to discuss books with. I find that I appreciate books more when I can discuss them and be faced with different viewpoints. The book club in Lucca has also helped me meet a few ex-pats that I can spend time with and share experiences beyond books .

We have enjoyed the company of many friends throughout 2014. We have shared Lucca, wine, and our home and loved every minute of it. We find that we explore more of our beautiful town and country when we have visitors. In 2014, we watched fireworks in Pisa for New Years, stood among a million people from all over the world in Rome for the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, wore masks through the streets of Venice for Carnivale, threw confetti for Carnivale in Viareggio, ate our way through Bologna, watched fishies at the aquarium in Genova, listened to the bells of the Duomo di Siena, relaxed along the waters of Cinque Terre, ate the worlds best gelato in San Gimignano, visited Saint Francis in Assisi, listened to multiple Puccini concerts in Lucca, and explored the surrounding areas of Lucca. Even with all of these adventures there is still much more of Italy to see. We look forward to seeing a bit more in 2015.

Other than exploring Italy, my husband and I had a few wonderful adventures outside of Italy as well. In January, we visited friends in Berlin, where we wore our heavy winter coats for the only time that season. In the summer, we joined my husband’s family for our annual trip that included a weekend in Istanbul, Turkey followed by a safari in the Serengeti in Tanzania to view the wildebeest migration. At the end of the summer, we visited friends in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia. In October, we traveled to the beaches of Normandy in France. I will continue to write more about all of these individual travel adventures on our Travel Page. As we continue to check off items on our travel bucket list, we also continue to add items. We have definitely learned this year that there is more to see and do in the world than we had ever imagined previously. We hope that 2015 will bring just as many travel adventures as 2014 did.

I hope that everyone had a wonderful 2014! May you all be blessed with love and joy throughout 2015!

SHOPPING – IKEA (PISA)

I’ve been pretty happy with shopping in Lucca, Italy. If I want certain vegetables, I go to the many vegetable stands. If I want a cut of meat, I go to the many butchers. If I need medicine, I go to the many pharmacies. If I need shampoo, I can get that at the local grocery store or store called Ipersoap. However, I have had the hardest time finding affordable housewares like bedding, furniture, cookware, etc. There isn’t a local equivalent to Target or Walmart.

When I first moved here I knew there was an IKEA in Florence, but that always seemed like a long distance (an hour and twenty minutes each way) to go for a few items. However, in the last few months, IKEA has opened a store in Pisa, which is only 30 minutes from Lucca. Last weekend was really nice, so my husband and I decided to finally go to IKEA.

The train is less than 30 minutes from Lucca to Pisa. Across the street from the train station is a free ten-minute shuttle to IKEA that runs every 30 minutes. They have a visible schedule online. The IKEA in Pisa is extremely large, so it is easy to spend a full day there. If you don’t have a full day to spend there, carry a specific list and maybe skip getting Swedish meatballs at the very crowded cafeteria unless you want to experience the designated smoking room. I’ve been to IKEA stores in the US and none of them have been so clean and nice. The bathrooms are amazing. I don’t have a child, but if I did I would love the fact that the changing table had a mobile above it in the bathroom. IKEA also has storage lockers so you can lock up some of your belongings you don’t want to carry around with you. I was just really impressed with all of the conveniences they provided to make you enjoy your shopping trip.

My only complaint about this store is a complaint I have had with other IKEA stores. Once you pass a section of the store, it is hard to go back to it. There is a certain flow to the store. We made the mistake of thinking we could go back to the cafeteria after shopping and before paying for our purchases. We wanted to make last minute decisions on what we had collected over some meatballs. We had to walk all the way back through the store to go to the cafeteria.

The check-out process was smooth. We were able to skip long lines by going to one of the do-it-yourself lines as long as we paid with credit card. Then we hopped on the free shuttle back to the train station. All the bus driver asked for was to see our receipt so make sure you have that handy.

Everything about this trip was smooth and painless, except that we bought too much stuff and then had to carry it home from the train station.