Our First Italian Road Trip: Pisa

Pisa is about 3 1/2 hours from Vicenza, Italy.  We had planned to spend the night, but, alas, last minute planning which left few hotel options available and children who seem to think we’re kidding about doing school work in a timely fashion forced us to make this a day trip.  A long, tiring day trip.  7 hours in the car, 7 hours in Pisa.

The first thing that struck me as we approached the town was how isolated the Tower, the Cathedral and the Baptistry are.  In many towns, these important structures are in the heart of the city with other buildings crowding in close.  In Pisa, the densest sections of the city are to the south, and these structures are well separated by a lovely green space called the Field of Miracles.

The Cathedral, or Duomo, was built first, and was consecrated in 1118 (yes, that’s nearly 900 years ago).  The Baptistry was built between 1152 and 1363.  The Tower was started in 1173 and started leaning as early as 1178.  It is typical for churches in Europe at this time to have these three separate structures: church, baptistry and bell tower.

We arrived in plenty of time to attend Mass, although Bill sat outside with the dog and went to the evening Mass instead.  Non-prayers had to wait in line and go in the main doors with a ticket, but pilgrims could go through the Door of Mercy.  No lines for mercy, people.  Lines for gawking, no lines for praying.  Non-Catholic friends who do not like to wait in line: please note that nobody checks your I.D. or asks for the secret Catholic handshake.  Go in, sit, enjoy.


John 10:9 I am the door.

The cost to go into the Tower was 18 euros, so we declined.  Personally, I had little desire to go up.  They say it’s safe, yet it is leaning more than 17 feet from the vertical.  It doesn’t look safe to me.  There was also a charge to go into the Baptistry and the cemetery, so we didn’t do those either.  I heard, later, that the Baptistry is the best thing in Pisa.  Maybe next time.

After Mass, we went to lunch, and after lunch, we watched many people taking their riposo (nap) on the grass by the Baptistry.  The Duomo was closed during riposo, which seems to be typical throughout Italy.  Except for gray skies and an occasional drizzle, it was a lovely day.

Everybody takes pictures of themselves or their loved ones either holding the Tower up, or pushing it down.  It’s the thing to do.  It’s very hard to line up seven children…much easier to do one or two people.

After we decided to not climb the Tower, we thought we would head over to the church of Santa Maria della Spina (St. Mary of the Thorn).  This church once held a thorn from Christ’s crown.  Once.  We didn’t know that until we got there, and the church was locked anyway.  It was a 15 minutes walk through town and across the Arno River.  We took a different path back towards the Duomo to see more of Pisa.

The church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was not locked, and we were able to go inside.  Bill thought the unlit interior felt empty and sad.  It certainly was dark, but it helped me to imagine what it would have been like to attend Mass there before electricity.  I didn’t take any pictures, but this link shows the beautiful altar windows which were one of the few things one could see inside.



St. Apollonia

We also passed a small church which happened to be the church of St. Apollonia, for whom I have a special devotion.  I only grabbed a quick shot of the exterior.  The interior was closed, but the note on the door announced that there would be a Latin Mass that evening.  If I were more familiar with the TLM, that would have been nice.  I would have liked to see the Baroque interior.


Palazzo della Carovana

The last part of Pisa we wanted to see was the Piazza dei Cavalieri, or Knights’ Square.  I learned later that the church on this square, Santo Stefano, has banners captured during the Battle of Lepanto.  I really could have done better research before taking this trip!  I suspect, though, that no matter how much research I do, there will always be things that are missed.  It was in this square that Florence announced to the citizens of Pisa that they were now a conquered city.  The Palazzo della Carovana, pictured above, had been the Palace for the Knights of St. Stephen (who brought home the banners from Lepanto) but is now part of a university (according to Wikipedia, the university was founded by Napoleon).


Some of the buildings near the Duomo


Part of the walls surrounding the Duomo


These gates lead to the Jewish Cemetery.


Mail slot.


George holding up the Tower. I don’t think he will succeed.


A plant growing in a wall crevice.


They really are not going to allow those dead people to get out.


This is how my men riposo.


Waiting for Godot.


A random door.


Chasing the 4 yo.


A neat building.


Across from St. Apollonia.

Just throwing in some other pictures from our trip.  Our final stop was to eat some gelato, and then 8 of us headed back to the van, exhausted, while Bill went to Mass.  The evening Mass had been listed as beginning at 5 pm, but, as we had been warned, the posted time is not always the actual time that things begin.  It actually began at 6 pm, so we waited, and even the dog passed out from all the walking.

Seriously yummy sangria

I made this strawberry-kiwi sangria for the second time this past weekend.  When looking for a sparkling wine, my main consideration was cheap, but the one I found had the added bonuses of a strawberry flavor and a screw-off, screw-on cork.  It still gave a thunk when I opened it last night.  Not the original THUNK, but a thunk nonetheless.  Works for me.

By last night, the fruit had been steeped in alcohol for over 48 hours.  After I drank the wine, I enjoyed those strawberries and kiwis in the bottom of the glass.  Setting it on the coffee table, I turned to my husband.

“Every summer…” I began.

“Every summer, you should soak fruit in vodka?” he finished my sentence.

(It’s rum and wine.  Not vodka.)

How did he know what I was about to say?

I threw my book at him.

(Emma: A Modern Retelling.  Amusing.  Well done.  Not for children.)

“I’m done with you!  You know all my jokes.  All my punch lines.  I need to find somebody else who thinks I’m funny.”

The man had to wipe away his tears of laughter.  Of course, he was laughing at his own cleverness.  He then suggested it would make a great breakfast, and started singing a Wiggles song: Fruit Salad.

Yummy yummy.


OK, Kids.  We’ve got 26 hours to see Richmond.  Ready, set, GO!

First up: The Poe Museum (as in, Edgar Allen).

Eat lunch at a local eatery.  Yummy.

Next, visit The Valentine Museum.

Then drive down Monument Avenue and through Hollywood Cemetery.



We had a hard time finding this 90 ft pyramid.  Seriously.

It’s getting late.  Rush off to Maymont Park.


I didn’t even have to ask them to pose….they just KNEW.

Then, a quick trip down Memory Lane: here, my first job; there, my second job; the library; a friend lived there; the elementary school is that way; more friends’ homes; where we lived for 8 years (they painted the shutters and door purple); Dead Man’s Hill (fun to ride your bike down, but a killer going up).

Dinner with people the kids don’t know, but I’ve known all my life.  So nice.

Then get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty breakfast because today it’s Tredegar Iron Works.


Ironwork to museum


Cannons made here


To bind up the nation’s wounds (Lincoln and son statue)

Then on to the White House of the Confederacy.

A quick lunch at Sally Bell’s.

Finally, back to the American Civil War Museum (part of the White House) to see things we didn’t have time to see before the tour of the White House…


Anchor of the CSS Virginia


Please buy me this, Mom.


Peter was sulking at lunch because I would not buy him this gun.  It costs $99.  George wanted the cannon behind the gun. 


The photo above was the last thing I really looked at before deciding we had to leave.  It shows men who had survived the Battle of Gettysburg re-enacting Pickett’s Charge.  There was no date on the photo, but it looks like it was done about 50 years later, based on their ages.  They have replaced their rifles with hats and umbrellas, their uniforms with the trappings of civility.

And that’s all we had time for.  Saving things for the next time we can go.

Working on Eagle

What I learned (and what I hoped he learned) from my son’s Eagle Scout project:

Beneficiaries: It doesn’t take much at all to make some people very, very happy. Or maybe you work hard and give a lot of time and sweat to something, but the corresponding gratitude is disproportionately greater. He did the project for a small charity (a ministry within Catholic Charities) which serves a community in great need (homeless families) with limited funding. For somebody to come in and do something meaningful for them makes them observably giddy.

Sponsors: Ask and you shall receive. I will forever go to Home Depot, if possible, with all of my household construction and repair needs because they donated the vast majority of the materials he used. I am sure other companies would have also done this, but since Home Depot was the one who was asked and said yes, they have my loyalty.

Adults: There are many adults who support and encourage boys in their scouting journeys and who will go out of their way to help them. There are some adults who will expend their talent and dozens of hours of their time to help your son succeed, simply because somebody else did it for their son. Your son does not deserve this; you do not deserve this. Your son owes these people a debt of gratitude; you owe other scouts the same sacrifice, even if all you are able to do is make sure your boys consistently show up to help them with their Eagle projects.

Scouts: Teen boys are capable of giving up sleeping late on a Saturday morning to provide cheerful labor to a fellow scout. Perhaps they aren’t cheerful from bed to work site, but once there, they do good stuff with a great attitude. Teen boys are capable of moving around a crowded work site with loaded paint rollers without getting paint anywhere other than the wall. Teen boys are capable of tremendous kindness. Nobody complained about the 3 year old running amok. Teen boys are capable of great patience. I watched one 8th grader painting wood trim with my 8 year old daughter and another scout who has a mental handicap. Never did he complain or get frustrated with either of them, even though he did most of the work and had to touch up their areas.

Scouting in general: perhaps we’ve just been lucky, or maybe it’s because we live in areas with military families, but in each of the four troops in three states to which we have belonged, we have found both the adults and the youth to be welcoming and supportive. The first questions the current troop asked were how old the boys were and what we were doing about Eagle projects. And they helped make it happen, even though we have no history with them.

Other thoughts: You can always use more paper towels. There will always be things that don’t work out as you expect. It will take longer to finish the project than you think. And lastly, the boys work so hard that the least you can do for them is buy the good pizza for lunch.

Fight Night

Fridays are Fight Night at the fencing club.  After the one hour lesson, students take turns fencing each other until the pizza arrives at 9 pm.

Some Fridays, my boys take themselves there and back, and we just get the highlights when they come home.

Some Fridays I need the car, and the boys get dropped off.  Later, their father or I comes along to bring them home.  Yesterday, I had a meeting, so I dropped them off and afterward returned.  It was early, and one boy really wanted that pizza.  I didn’t mind hanging around a bit and watching them bout.

The boys ended up facing each other.  There was my oldest son, almost a man, dressed all in white, with longish hair and a thin, blond growth of fuzz on his upper lip, shaking his hair off his face as he aligned his mask to slide it over his head.  Be still my heart.  My memory recalls that young man with whom I fell in love – young, longish hair, blond moustache, captain of the college fencing team.  Where did my little boy go?

There was my second son, getting tall, but still scarecrow thin.  Even when he was tiny, I thought he looked like his dad when suited up for fencing.  So jovial as he faced his brother.  It was a friendly match – they were having fun, not desperate to prove themselves and win the bout.  The older boy won, of course, but it didn’t matter.

They found different partners – one fencing a younger girl who was thrilled to beat him by a few touches, the other barely beating an old man, despite a huge margin half-way through the bout.  Then came the pizza, and their attention was diverted to the filling of their stomachs.

I sense that we are on the cusp of change in this last half year with my oldest child.  Even if he stays with us for a bit after high school, the dynamics will be altered as he sets off on his own path, independent from us.  I relish these last few months of his childhood, where he, still a child, plays knight with his little brother, sparring in their own imaginary realm but in reality on a fencing strip in a club with spectators.  I look forward to his manhood, which I glimpse through the mesh of his fencing mask on that fuzzy face so familiar, yet so unique.

Memory Lane

Great (or not so great) thing about moving is finding all sorts of memory distractions.  I found a note written to my husband on the eve of our anniversary, 15 years ago.  We will be married 20 years this fall, but this is from our 5th anniversary.  Has anything changed?  Apparently not much!

“It’s such a shame that you’re there and I’m here when I’m sure we would rather be anywhere as long as it was together.”  I don’t know where he was, but not with me: the story of our life.

“Yes, things have changed beyond my imagining from the time we first began our married life together.  But they only seem to change for the better.”  Still true.

“You always say I never regret anything.”  I distinctly remember him repeating this last month.  “I do tend to do my best to accept the path my decisions and fate have combined to lead me to.”  I say “God” more than “fate” now.  “I can say with absolute certainty that my choice to spend my life with you is not a decision I’m just dealing with.  It is definitely the best decision I ever made.”  He still apologizes often for this crazy trip we’re on, and I have to remind him every time that I willingly came along for the ride.  “Thank you for being a fantastic husband and father to my children.”  Still fantastic, just 5 more children than when I wrote that.

This move to Virginia coincides with his completion of War College which he did “distance learning,” which means in addition to his regular job, for the last two years.  His last job took him out of town frequently, and when he was home, he had school work to do.  This new job seems to keep him mostly local, and his time at home won’t be burdened with the stress of reading and writing papers.  I have no idea what to expect in this new phase of our lives, but I sincerely doubt it will be boring.

States and Capitals Memory Aid

After years of struggling to get Peter to memorize the states and their capitals, I began to use this memory aid.  Posting it here so I can remember it for Mary and to share with others who may find it helpful.  Seriously, despite seeing a flash card with the shape of Virginia hundreds of times and hearing me prompt “Richmond….???” he still could not put the name to the state in which he was born.  After using these “stories,” he had the states and capitals for each area memorized in a few days.

I use these flash cards.  We would go over the stories, and I would hold up each state’s card as I introduced the prompt and told him how the prompt would remind him of the name of the capital city and the state.  The stories are corny – sometimes the crazier they are, the easier it is to remember.  And they definitely reflect our family’s culture and the things that interest us.  You might not get some of the references. The next day, I would go over the story again holding up the flash card, but I would pause before giving the clue to see if he remembered the prompt and also the capital city.  If not, I would give the clue and pause for him to name the capital, giving him the capital only if he still didn’t remember.  I would only pause for a bit – I’m not trying to torture the kid, only give him a chance to answer if he did know it but wasn’t quick.  Generally, by the 3rd or 4th day, he was able to name the capital city and state with no prompt, not even the story.  I assume he went over the story silently to himself.  The flash cards present the states in unequal groups.  I made stories based on their divisions.  Each week, I reviewed all known states and capitals in random order and then presented the new group in story order.  I would only work on the new group and any old capitals he missed the rest of the week.  By Friday, I was usually able to mix up the new group.

The stories:

The First Thanksgiving

The most famous attendee at our first Thanksgiving was none other than Caesar Augustus (Augusta, ME).  We toasted a wonderful year by raising glasses of wine made from Concord grapes (Concord, NH).  On one table was a mountain of peeled potatoes (Montpelier, VT).  For dessert we had Boston creme pie (Boston, MA).  We said a prayer of thanksgiving for Divine Providence (Providence, RI).  We thought we would run out of food, so the Indians went and hunted some harts (Hartford, CT).

The Middle States

In New York, all will bend their knee at the name of Jesus (Albany, NY).  The rent on New Jersey is expensive (Trenton, NJ).  Don’t harass the capital burg of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA).

Playground Recess

There is a game of red rover (Dover, DE) being played by some girls led by Anna and Mary (Annapolis, MD).  The poor kid, Charles (Charleston, WV), is getting into a fight with the rich kid from Virginia (Richmond, VA).  Other boys rally around to watch (Raleigh, NC).  There is a tall column (Columbia, SC) being used as a tetherball pole near the Atlantic Ocean which the playground is near (Atlanta, GA).  A tall lassie (Tallahassee, FL) is playing tetherball with Monty (Montgomery, AL) and Jackson (Jackson, MS).  A girl with a red baton (Baton Rouge, LA) is standing on a little rock (Little Rock, AR), twirling.  She drops the baton and it bounces off my fist (Memphis, TN) and hits a boy in the head.  Frank got hurt (Frankfurt, KY).

Murder on the Orient Express

The passengers are climbing aboard for the fateful journey.  The first one to get on is Christopher Columbus (Columbus, OH) who is carrying is sling (Lansing, MI) and a pole (Indianapolis, IN) and a Springfield musket (Springfield, IL).  Why all the weapons?

Next on board are Presidents Madison (Madison, WI) and Jefferson (Jefferson, MO).  Madison says, “I owe you da moyne.” (Des Moines, IA).  “What???” asks Jefferson.  “Sorry, I had my mouth full,” says Madison.  “I mean, the money.”  Could this be a motive?

Next on board is St. Paul (St. Paul, MN) carrying only some letters.  With that Elvis-like pompadour, he doesn’t look very saintly.  Blackmail, perhaps?  I would like to peek at those epistles (Topeka, KS).

Finally enters the victim, Lincoln (Lincoln, NE) who gets shot in the head.  His French poodle, Pierre (Pierre, SD), barked an alarm, and the first to respond was the famous detective, Hercule Poirot, who is not French, and who is traveling with Otto von Bismark who is also not French but comes from farther North (Bismark, ND).

Home on the Range

The cook, Helena Montana (Helena, MT), comes onto the porch to ring the dinner bell.  A noisy boy is peeling potatoes on one side (Boise, ID).  Bugs Bunny is there wearing his boots and hat and munching on a carrot.  “Carson City’s the capital of Nevada,” he tells you (Carson City, NV).  The rancher and his son arrive (you tall, I small).  They are drinking salt water (Salt Lake City, UT).  Another ranch hand, a bear named Colorado who lives in a den under the ranch house, crawls out in answer to the bell (Denver, CO).  Helena’s daughter is hiding in the kitchen.  They call her Shy Anne (Cheyenne, WY).

Quirky Slogans

It’s O.K. to be from Oklahoma City (Oklahoma City, OK).

It’s awesome to be from Austin (Austin, TX).

There is no snow in Mexico for Santa (Santa Fe, NM).

Free Nuts in Arizona (Phoenix, AZ).

Pacific State Party Time

We’re going to a big party in Hawaii – a luau in Honolulu (Honolulu, HI).  A friend approaches you with two other people.  He asks you, “Do you know the capital of Alaska?” as he introduces you to the man (Juneau, AK).  And then he indicates the woman, who looks like a Greek goddess in her toga and gold crown.  “And this is his wife, Olympia,” he says (Olympia, WA).  You look out past the beach to the water and see some sailboats and from them comes organ music (Salem, Oregon).  On every table are sacksa memento of the best luau ever (Sacramento, CA).