Saturday, May 14, 2016

Road Trip!

My fear of all things culturally new faced off against my love of the familiar. Fear of the indecipherable and misunderstood met the joy of adventure. Fear of high density cities with low parking availability encountered the thrill of twisty mountain roads. We rented a car and set off on a road trip to Italy. It was (mostly) awesome.

I'm good at sticking things out, even when I shouldn't, so it may have been unwise to have asked, "Just how many tunnels do you think we passed through on our way here?" This is fueled by my competitive nature. Once I decided I had to count, I was committed. The only plus is that I think I have a better grasp of the French number system, as we decided to count in French.

It's possible I screwed up a couple of French numbers along the way. But I made it all the way up to 198 tunnels.

Think about that. 198 expletive deleted tunnels.

Some of them were quite long, too. It's no wonder tolls were so high--boring through mountains ain't cheap.

Phase I: getting a car

Ten years ago Anne and I took a train to southern France and rented a car for a few days. It was pretty simple, as my Michigan driver's license was adequate proof that I was an adequate driver. And I was adequate enough, especially with Anne frantically looking up strange road signs on our printed sheet of things that we didn't understand. We didn't hit a thing, even though I still had only a vague notion of what "priority to the right" meant when we left.

The challenge was different this time--it relates back to our many adventures trying to get our visas. I needed an official translation of my driver's license for it to be legal. I expected much hassle anyway. Instead, we got the usual treatment for when we have all of the necessary documents with us: "Oh, we don't need to see those!" I'll take it.

This is the driveway to our place outside of Florence. Pictures don't do this slope justice. We weren't confident the car could make it up on the way in. We didn't tell the rental company.

Phase II: getting out of Marseille

Renting a GPS costs about $15 a day. So we hemmed and hawed about whether we should just buy one in case we ever rented a car again. But...I'm not sure anyone in our family would be on speaking terms on vacation if we didn't have clear, real time directions. We caved.

It turns out that the GPS was cheaper than gas and cheaper than tolls (60 euro each way!).

I think I can speak for Anne in saying that this was a great investment in our trip. In our family. In our sanity.

Phase III: getting to Italy

Though at this age our daughter doesn't fully get it, we're seeing some amazing things. The drive to our place in Italy took about 8 hours, but it was an amazing 8 hours. I'm not ashamed by the number of times I said, "Guys...guys! You have to look at this!" "Check out that mountain!" "Look to the right...look to the right!" Around every corner...out of every tunnel there was a new village up above on a mountain or down below in a valley on the Med. I wanted to stop to take a picture each one. Anne was as impressed as I was. Bea wondered what was the big deal.

This is the view of Monaco. From a rest area.

Once we hit Italy, things changed. Yes, there were even more mountains, but my fears of the unknown raced back. Whereas in France I always had a clear picture of the rules of the road, in Italy I was confident of the speed limit only about a third of the time, and during most of those times the number didn't match that of the GPS. We will find out soon if a ticket(s) arrives in the mail.

No matter. Italy was breathtaking. We stayed in an agriturismo outside of Florence, which was one of the highlights of the trip (don't worry--I didn't know what that was until right before we left when Anne explained the great place we had booked). Our apartment resided on a farm atop an impossibly steep hill that overlooked the rolling hills of Tuscany covered in olive trees and vineyards. It was basically the cabin we stay at in the UP, with the same charm and decor, but located in Tuscany. None of us wanted to leave. Dinner was incredibly cheap pizza in a picturesque town...after we'd figured out how to park the car without getting towed.

This was the view from our breakfast table

Dinner in Montespertoli


Phase IV: figuring some more things out

I know what I'm supposed to like, and I'm finally starting to get what I do like. Ten years ago we visited a lot of museums. But we had museum cards for the Netherlands that allowed us free entry, so we could spend as much or as little time in a place without worrying whether we'd looked at enough things to justify the entry fee. I loved most of them.

In the past month, we've visited the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and I'm pretty close to hating both of them. I think I'm figuring out why.

Botticelli's lesser known "Birth of Helga" somewhere on the streets of Florence

I hate to miss things. It's even more of a big deal if I recognize that I may never return to a place for The Rest of My Life. We had basically one day in Florence, and I was afraid of what we'd miss. We spent several hours in the Uffizi, and for much of the time my brain fought the battle of "We have to see everything here!" vs. "We have to leave time to see everything outside!" Both are impossible, and they start making you ask yourself or your spouse, "How many pietas are enough for one museum already?" I think I'm starting to get the conflict.

Less famous view in Florence

Regardless, I think it's safe to say that the selfie stick is a tool of the devil, and too many people prefer bad pictures of paintings over the nice postcards they can buy for cheap in the gift shop. I know it's hypocritical, but I have a strong dislike of tourists these days.

Phase V: I hate not knowing what to do

My good friend David told me that he visited Cinque Terre when he resembled Rick Steves, and it wasn't until after he had left that he figured out why his service was impeccable. He now bears a closer resemblance to Edward Snowden, so I suspect things have changed. I will echo much of Rick Steves' message--when we work to understand people in their own culture on their own terms, the world is a much better place for it. But he's also brought hordes of people to places that used to be peaceful. We became part of the horde.

Thanks for all of the crowds, Rick Steves!
(Just kidding. I love you, Rick. I just wish I'd made it to these places a few decades ago.)

We drove our car to the town of Levanto, on the outskirts of Cinque Terre. Our GPS failed us, trying to send us the wrong way down one way roads. Our daughter did not enjoy the twists and turns of the road despite the elevated views; I think I'm good for a while. I did not enjoy not knowing where to put the car and not understanding the parking signs. I melted down, yet my wife still loved me anyway. At one point I turned to her and whispered, "I HATE THIS TOWN." It took us two hours to find and pay for a parking space. When the car was still there the next day, I was pleasantly surprised. I was more thrilled that there wasn't a ticket. I still have a hard time believing we didn't get away with something.

video
Anne took this video after we got to the wide part of the road where we could actually pass oncoming cars without worrying that one of us would go over the edge. We went more slowly than I would have wished because we were concerned with our daughter's complaints about her stomach.

Phase Vb: I love water, and I love high places

But it was worth it.

If you've hiked in Cinque Terre, you have this picture of Vernazza

The charm of Cinque Terre comes from the trails that run high above the sea connecting the small towns. We set out on the most famous, a two hour hike connecting Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. The first strenuous ten minutes provide stunning views of Vernazza; it's the one picture that shows up again and again on Google. The trail is narrow in many places, and the drop is severe, but most of the way is protected by railings. And it is stunning.

The view from the trail between Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. If you look carefully, you can see the trail rounding the mountain on the left, right about at the base of the tower.

Our biggest fear on the hike was our daughter. We weren't afraid she would get hurt. We were afraid she would be a teenager. She has become the contrarian, as this seems to be her one way to maintain control over decisions in her life. She was brought here, away from her friends, her language, and her routines, without any say in the matter. Her strongest insult is, "This is boring," which we realized when she repeated this while hiking against her will in the spectacular calanques outside Marseille. The conversation went like this:

"Isn't this great!?"
"This is boring."
"But it's better than French days at school..."
"I'd rather be in school."
"But it's better than staring at the wall..."
"Nope."
"It's better than riding on the bus when you say your stomach doesn't feel well..."
"I'd rather feel sick."
"At least it's better than falling into hot lava!"
"I'd rather fall in hot lava."

[long pause]

"Well, I take back the part about hot lava."

Bea loved this hike. She was cracking jokes. She was telling us to hurry up or to be careful in a tight place. And I was as happy as I could be with pure family bliss. I am going to believe that she was up to the challenge, though it has been suggested that she may have been motivated by a promised popsicle (which morphed into a lemon granita when we couldn't find popsicles), I don't care. I'm going to simply remember the shared jokes and the oohs and ahs around every corner.

Rewards for a completed hike. One of the three pours may have been a little less than generous.

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