Thursday, 18 October 2007

We got up and out early Thursday morning to jump on a water taxi to take us to the train station. We traveled for most of the day, changing trains a couple times. After a train change in Milan, a young guy joined us in our six-seater train compartment. He immediately noticed the kids playing their Nintendo DS’s and said, “Ah, Pokémon Pearl, Animal Crossing, Mario. Yes. I have them all.” Then he turned to Nate and asked, “Do you want to trade something?” This 25 or so-year-old man proceeded to take a Nintendo DS out of his bag and a little metal box with games. Nate acquired a yellow cushion on his Pokémon game and gave Francesco a table. Alayna gained a boxer dog for her Nintendogs and gave him a Dalmatian, and Benji’s hamster cages and outfits were sufficiently admired on his hamster game.

Francesco is a cool guy who is going to school to get a Psychology degree and does social work with kids in a small village right outside his hometown of Genoa. It was interesting to hear his views on books (he loves Harry Potter, which he read in English since it didn’t come out in Italian until much later), and the merits of focaccia bread from Genoa. He loved our kids and was perfectly at ease with them. It was fun to see them interacting with an adult (sort of an adult, more like a big kid, really!). So often when adults approach our boys they just smile shyly and aren’t sure how to respond to broken English that they often don’t understand.

As Francesco got off the train he handed Nate and Benji a recent copy of an Italian Nintendo magazine. The boys have poured over the pages, determining which games are the best and studying all the pictures intently. I have fought those DS’s each step of the way. I’ve complained that they cause brain loss and frustration and general discontentedness. I have to say that I’ve discovered a hidden value in those silly things. We may have never met this particular face in the street without this common interest.

One of our trains was late arriving, so we missed the train to Vernazza, and had to double back and take a different train to get to our final destination. We are beginning to notice major differences between Germany and Italy when it comes to train schedules!

On a train thirty minutes from the small town of Vernazza, our home for the next few days, we called to confirm our hotel reservation. The man on the other end, in broken English, said, “Room? No room. Completo.” After a couple of minutes of asking about the reservation we made last week, Clay gave up. So, we had nowhere to sleep that night. It would be 6PM by the time we arrived, so we pulled out our trusty Rick Steve’s (which we had taken from our Venice hotel, some kind tourist had left it, and though it’s missing the Florence pages, we’re happy to call it our own) and started dialing. Fourteen phone calls later, we found a sweet woman, Daria, who had a room! Clay was almost convinced our kids were going to learn what it was like to spend the night in a train station like he did many times as a backpacking college student.

After arriving at the train station we all gathered under the bridge of the train station to wait for Daria’s friend, who would guide us to our room. Apparently, she couldn’t just give us an address. While we waited, an American woman and her husband and baby passed. She’s lived in Vernazza for two years, her baby was born there. She ogled our two duffels and five backpacks and a look of great concern crossed her face. “What room are you staying in? That’s a lot of luggage . . .” she commented. Then she continued on with her little family.

An Italian man greeted us and motioned for us to follow him. We climbed some steps. Then some more steps. We scootched through a narrow passageway between peeling plaster walls, laundry flapped three stories above our heads, and cats slipped past our legs. Many steps and twists and turns later, we got to our room, huffing and puffing as we lugged those duffels through the maze of Vernazza’s back roads. This city literally crawls up the hill, its houses cling to the cliffs and the tiniest of streets connect them to the town below.

We made a solemn vow to make ourselves much lighter. We promised to lose twenty pounds (of luggage) soon. Our rooms were plain, white walls with a tiny wooden crucifix on the wall. But, they didn’t need to be anything more. We flung open our windows and basked in the glory of Vernazza. The only cars that can go through the town are the garbage truck and a few delivery trucks. The homes are in various shades of pastel: greens, oranges, pinks, yellows, and cream. Plaster peels from every wall, and laundry hangs like colorful flags made of underwear and shirts and bras. We could see the ocean from the kid’s room, and a small-ish old castle in ruins hovered over the town.

One thing was consistent in the architecture of Vernazza. The shutters. Every shutter in the entire city was a glossy green. These were cool shutters, they opened like a beach chair. Push a little and it catches, push a little more and it opens a little more and catches. They had about four settings, from hardly open to all the way open. I can imagine the town meetings where they decided, “The tourists really like the peeling plaster. Keep the plaster. Can you imagine, some of them spend thousands of dollars to make their walls look the same back in America! But the shutters, we must do something about the shutters. Raise your hand if you like green . . .” and poof, the green shutters are voted in.

While Clay and I got settled in our rooms, the kids dumped all their accumulated toys on the bed. These include contraband hazelnuts (my rule: no organic things in the backpacks), shells, fuzzy balls with googly eyes, Happy Meal toys and Kinder Surprise trinkets, etc. We will definitely lighten their load soon, people always smile when they see Benji with his overstuffed backpack on his back. He always looks like he’s just about to tip over backward.

Time for dinner. This is one of those times when we really didn’t feel like heading back out to find food, but we had no kitchen and no provisions, so out we went. I was eager to explore the town without duffels, while the kids were happy to spend the rest of the evening on the bed with their toys. We wound our way down the stairs, through those narrow streets, to find the main drag. We wandered down to the ocean, admiring the moon on the water and marveling at the water that was so clear we could see to the bottom, even at night. Thank you God for a room to sleep in, the moon and the sea and the fact that we made it this far.

We settled on a restaurant, where Clay was surprised to get a mound of anchovies on noodles for his main course. He claimed they were good and ate each one, but I don’t think I could have eaten them! We let the kids lead us back to the room, they had already figured out the way back home. It was fun to see the cats darting around corners. Someone near our room has two small bowls sitting out to feed one of them, and I’m sure we’ll be making some furry friends over the next few days.

 

Friday, 19 October 2007

The next morning we got ourselves dressed and headed into town for breakfast. Breakfast is not provided, apparently those who live in Vernazza drink a cup of coffee and start their day, so the tourists have to find somewhere to buy their breakfast in the town. We chose to eat in a bar that was supposed to have a self-serve laundry, but apparently the laundry had closed since our guide book was written, so we resigned ourselves to washing it in the sink back in the room after breakfast.

Eating in a bar with kids is just fine in Italy, and is often a place where you can get an inexpensive, laid back meal. But, it’s still a bar. Our bar had some very interesting pictures on the wall, and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The food was very good, regardless of the surroundings. Benji had a great quiche made with rice, cheese and egg, and Clay and I had some of the fabulous focaccia that Francesco raved about.

After breakfast we did the laundry, hanging it outside the window. I felt just like a local! Then we decided to hike around the town and get oriented. The weather was absolutely glorious, a clear blue sky and sunshine. We investigated a bakery which is known for their pastry stuffed with ricotta and dusted in sugar. The owner, a funny man who loved to joke around, claimed he was saving his last pastry back for a special customer who would appreciate it. It was our lucky day, and we appreciated it thoroughly. As we left we heard him telling some American women who had just arrived that he wanted to see America but he needed more money and wanted to marry a rich woman, “Are you rich?” he asked them. A funny guy.

We bought some picnic provisions and explored a while, then settled on some rocks near the water. Bread, cheese, bananas, and some Cinque Terre white wine. I felt like a real Italian, drinking wine at noon! I guess a true Italian would have poured a glass for their kids. We aren’t there yet, although the thought has crossed our mind as an option to subdue certain hyper children.

Big boulders created a calm bay where colorful row boats floated. Alayna and Nate loved climbing all over the boulders, while Benji preferred to hang out near the boats, where schools of fish could be clearly seen. While I finished up the wine, Clay and the kids tested out the water and decided they wanted to put on their suits. The water was cold, but no colder than Lake Austin in June, and even I went back to the room and pulled on my suit, getting wet up to my knees.

Clay and Alayna swam across the quiet bay to a cave accessible only by water, but decided not to explore further. Coming back, they passed several sunbathers who seemed to be irritated by the presence of children (me, Nate, and Benji had already traversed their turf as we followed Clay and Alayna’s progress). We couldn’t imagine why they would be disturbed. Maybe when Benji slipped on the rock that was covered in pigeon poop, or when Nate took ten minutes calling out to Alayna and Clay, trying to get up his nerve to swim out to them. Maybe that disturbed their quiet moments.

There was a small beach where we built a sand castle. The boys built an impressive sea wall to protect the castle, while I must say I did not give my best effort in creating the actual castle structure. I was too busy trying to reach an ideal rock for sun bathing, surrounded by super slippery moss-covered rocks. I paid for my efforts with two foot wounds that plagued future hiking expeditions, but I got to that rock! So did Clay, but somehow it wasn’t so peaceful once the kids found us. So maybe those sun bathers had a point . . .

Some dead fish had washed up on the beach the night before. Big, bloated, ugly things. But, by the time we got there with our swimsuits, the cats had taken care of the fish and were looking quite satisfied with themselves. Like little gods, they sun themselves on warm rock walls. They close their eyes to little slits, keeping an eye on their domain through narrow cat eyes.

When we got back to our room our clothes were baked dry from the Italian sun. It was lovely, we usually have to wait at least two nights and a day for everything to dry. We also came home to about ten flies buzzing around. That’s something we hadn’t noticed on this trip, the lack of bugs or insects. We really haven’t seen any since we left Texas, but here, where the weather is warmer longer, they exist again. We chased them around for a while, took a little siesta (we’re fitting right in around here, with our laundry on the line and our nap in the afternoon), and then went to watch the sun set.

This was painful for the children, who wanted only to climb on the boulders which we had forbidden, they could only climb on them with an adult nearby to rescue them if they fell. We were not interested in climbing boulders at the moment, much to their disappointment. They could not stand to just sit still, watching a dumb sun set on a dumb horizon, and it took a game and much prodding to get them to slow down enough to enjoy the final descent of that burning orange sphere into the ocean. They finally did. A goal, for the kids to enjoy a sunset for the sake of a sunset before the end of this trip. We climbed up a steep set of stairs to a restaurant overlooking the ocean for dinner.

The nights are cool here, the night before we shivered on the outdoor patio during dinner, escaping into the bathroom for a few warm moments. This evening, we ate inside next to plastic walls that warped our view but kept us warm. An American family sat behind us, with a pair of fourteen-year-old twins and a two-year-old boy adopted from Guatemala. They were on a six week holiday, and home school year round which makes trips like theirs easy to take from a school point of view. It was fun to talk a while and get some tips about Florence, a future destination for us. We walked home with the sound of the surf in our ears and the Vernazza moon framed in the window (with the green shutters). Tomorrow, we hike.

 

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The reason most people go to Cinque Terre is to hike between the five towns. They were once connected only by a skinny trail. Even today, no cars are allowed in the cities, and they are accessible only by the trail or by a train. After talking to the American family the night before, we decided to tackle the more difficult, but more rewarding, trail to Monterossa. I hobbled out of our rooms, my foot plastered in band aids but still aching from the gouge I got the day before.

We had breakfast at that pastry place we found the day before. It turns out that funny owner has a brother who looks just like him, and the both of them dashed around the busy little shop, joking with their customers while they made sure everyone was happy. “Do you want hot chocolate the Italian way or the American way?” he asked me. When I said American, he delivered it, saying, “I made it the worst way I could, the American way, I think you will like.”

To hike on the trails, you must have a Cinque Terre card that you show at booths at the beginning of the trail. As we were showing our card, Nate said, “A rat! I just saw a rat!” Sure enough, a very large rat had crossed our path and scampered down to some grape vines below us. The guy who was in the hut, looking at cards, was very concerned. He did not like rats, and Nate said as we were leaving he looked back and saw the guy throwing rocks at the large rodent.

The path started very steep, we climbed and climbed and climbed. Luckily, we had built up our leg muscles just walking to and from our room in Vernazza. Benji held his own, and impressed all the hikers who passed us coming the other way. “Ohhhh, a little man. Keep going little one, aren’t you strong!” Benji was quite puffed up by all the compliments. As we climbed we got some amazing views of Vernazza and the ocean, just beautiful. The trail became very skinny in parts, with steep drops down cliffs to the ocean below. We hugged the rock when encountering hikers coming from the other direction, but we all survived just fine.

At one point we came upon a couple of plastic tubs and some dishes set on a rock. There was a note on the tub saying, “Please feed the cats, they are homeless and unloved.” How could we turn our back on such a plea? There was a cute little calico kitty meowing, so we opened up the air tight tub and sure enough, found some cat food and a little scooper. We scooped some food out in the dish, and made that little calico purr like mad. Someone had a very good idea, getting the cats out of the city by feeding them on the hillside, knowing the trail was populated by lots of good-hearted hikers who would be happy to feed the cats!

We finally rolled into Monterossa, an hour and a half later, and decided to take the train back to Vernazza rather than re-hiking what we had just done. We ate the lunch we had brought along on a park bench, while Clay froze. He decided to leave his jacket at the hotel, but a cold front had moved in, the sun was covered in clouds, and it was very windy and cold. Alayna fed some pigeons with her piece of bread, and almost killed one. The pieces she threw were pretty big, and one greedy pigeon gulped the whole piece which stuck in his throat. We could see the big chunk there, and the bird kept heaving, like it was trying to spit it out and couldn’t. We really thought it was choking to death, and Clay said after it passed out he would pluck out the bread. Alayna wanted to lure it close with another piece and then smack it on the back. Meanwhile, the pigeon was still running after its comrades, fighting over the crumbs still on the ground, even though it couldn’t possibly eat them. Finally, after several long minutes, it managed to swallow the bread and we didn’t have to see what it was like to administer mouth-to-beak pigeon CPR.

After eating our lunch, we located the train station where the kids gorged on some fried veggies (bad idea, see later this evening). We came back home, where Clay, Benji and I siesta’d and Nate and Alayna read their books. We awoke, realizing we had to go find some dinner, but not really relishing the idea of another restaurant meal. We went to the main drag and settled on some pizza, and while it baked Clay went and climbed on the boulders with Alayna and Nate. Benji was feeling out of sorts, he said he had a head ache and his tummy hurt. Uh-oh. We have been so fortunate with our health, nobody has been sick except for the cold Clay fought back in England. By the time we got the pizza, Benji had acknowledged that yes, he might need to throw up. I got Clay’s attention, motioning that we were heading to the room, and made a bee line up those stairs, praying Benji didn’t throw up before we got back.

As we left, I noticed some sort of excitement from where Clay and the other two kids were. He told us later, some older teenagers had been out fishing and were in a boat, talking excitedly. One of the boys threw out a rope with a hook, dragged it across a squid resting at the bottom of the crystal clear water, and instantly the squid began squirting ink in the water. The boy waited a minute until the squid calmed down, then flipped it out onto the dock. Nate said it was really exciting and ink sprayed everywhere.

When I got back to the room with Benji he thought maybe he was just hungry, so he ate a piece of greasy pizza. Worse idea. Then Clay arrived with drinks and Benji, still not feeling so hot, thought maybe some Fanta would make him feel better. Worst idea. Benji threw up twice that night and felt just awful. In hindsight, I really think it was all that greasy food. His little body couldn’t take it any longer. I am really ready for a kitchen to cook in!

The kids were really sweet with Benji. Benji and I moved him into our room, and I slept with him while Clay slept with the older kids in the other room. Nate would come in and feel Benji’s head, letting us know if he felt feverish. Alayna constructed an elaborate dinosaur puppet play, and Clay checked in on his “little man” every so often. I read him from Nate’s most recent Harry Potter book and he laid on his pillow, listless and sad. After throw up number two he was through, and fell into a deep sleep. I lay on my pillow and studied his profile, lit up by the bathroom light which I left on just in case he needed to make a quick dash for the potty. I prayed he’d feel better, and for mothers all over the world with sick kids. It’s a hard thing, to watch your little guy suffer. And all we had to deal with was a little sick stomach. We are blessed.