Monday, May 30, 2016

Pockets of Hope

For a Gold Star Family, Memorial Day is more than the beginning of summer and a fleeting note of appreciation for those willing to put their lives on line in service to our country. Unfortunately we know the depth of "the ultimate sacrifice." As a Gold Star mom, I want to know,  "Did my son make a difference?" Two recent events give me a measure of assurance my son and his fallen comrades did not die in vain.

Most of you are family and close friends and know the details of my son's death. For those that did not know us four years ago, let me explain. In February 2012 my son was working with the Afgan National Police at the Afghanistan Interior Ministry as the chief plans advisor.  He and a coworker, Major Robert Marchanti, were shot by a Taliban insurgent. The insurgent was able to escape the heavily guarded Interior Ministry complex. Thinking he probably found refuge in Pakistan, we had no anticipation that he would be apprehended.

The last time I saw my son, he was on a 2-week leave about 3 months before his tour in Afghanistan was to end. During that visit I asked him, in his opinion, were we making a difference? He said there were pockets of hope.

A few weeks ago we received word that the murder suspect had been apprehended, not by the U.S. Military, but by the Afghanistan National Police. From what we were told, my son had worked alongside the general of the Afghan National Police and they had become friends. Apparently the general was not going to allow this murder to go unresolved. General Solongie and the Afghan security officers never gave up the search. The fact that the general and the Afghan National Police were determined to seek justice gives me reason to believe my son's efforts were appreciated. It gives me hope that my son and his fallen comrades made a positive impact in the Afghan security forces.

In a note left for his daughters before his first deployment, my son explained his reason for volunteering to go to Afghanistan. One of the things he mentioned was the need for Afghans to educate their children. As his wife, Holly, said in a 2013 interview, “He knew education opens doors and minds and that is the key to people understanding each other.” Darin believed that education is a major key in the stabilization of Afghanistan. The recent release of We are Afghan Women; Voices of Hope by the George W. Bush Institute gave me another reason for hope. Women in Afghanistan are taking huge risks to claim their education and economic rights. The international security forces have made it possible for them to attend school and start businesses. While it remains a struggle, progress is being made. Reading this book I saw pockets of hope for the Afghan women.

This Memorial Day weekend, Captain and I were honored to attend the annual AfPak Hands' Wreath Laying Ceremony in Arlington Cemetery. 

With tears in our eyes, we watched our granddaughter play taps at her father's grave. 

My tears were a mixture of sadness for our granddaughter, grief for the loss of my son, pride for his accomplishments and gratitude for the Afghans that cared enough to seek justice. I have to believe that out of those pockets, progress is being made.

Mother of Lt Col J. Darin Loftis

To read more about Darin's story, follow the links on the J.DarinLoftis Memorial Scholarship website.

Update, in October, Abdul Saboor was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. We were told, given the typical life expectancy for men in Afghanistan, at age 32 this is pretty much a life sentence. He lost an appeal in the Afghanistan Appeal Court earlier this month. Apparently he still as the opportunity to appeal to the Supreme Court (it is a somewhat complicated legal system.)  

Monday, May 23, 2016

FAQ about our Italy Adventure

Number 1 question we get is, "Who are those people with whom you are traveling and how did you get tangled up with them?" (Actually the question asked is "Are these friends of yours or are you on a tour," but we know what you are thinking.)

Yes, they are friends and, while not on a tour, we did have tour guides. Many years ago when Captain was an upstart fresh from college, he went to work at Texas Utilities in Dallas where he met Bill.

Through Bill he met Cindi. After Captain left TU, they lost contact for several years. About six years ago they reconnected. Bill and Cindi have a group of the most amazing friends with whom they frequently travel. Three years ago the group had an awesome trip to Italy. Sharing the stories and photos with us we were intrigued and said to let us know if they decide to do it again. They did and here we are. Truly they are a talented and fun loving group. Most of them were members of their church choir and have beautiful voices. At the mention of a topic they will burst into song. We are so happy they allowed us to join their adventure and made us feel part of the group.

"Did you drive in Italy?" Are you kidding? In a small country with narrow streets flooded with autos being driven aggressively, motorcycles and scooters squeezing into the tiniest gap in traffic, tour buses taking up more than half the road and where traffic signals and signs are a mere suggestion, I think not. We were extremely impressed and appreciative of our bus drivers whose skills were very well tuned.

"How did you pack for three weeks?" We packed for one week and tossed in some laundry detergent.

Every couple of days we washed clothes in the sink. Sometimes our hotel actually had a clothes line.

 (If you got bored seeing photos of us wearing the same clothes, just imagine how tired we were looking at each other!)

Here is a tip; choose to take clothes that are wrinkle free, place them in Ziplock bags, while sitting on the bags to squeeze out the air, zip the bags and you will not be packing air. It is kind of like vacuum packing. 

Since you don't speak Italian, how did you communicate and how did you manage to find your way around?" Tourism is one of the major industries in Italy, so most folks can speak some English and most signs are in Italian and English. Actually all one really needs to know is , buon giorno, a polite greeting meaning something like "good morning/day," grazie meaning "thank you,"  ciao, a term similar to "see you, later, etc." and toilette. If one can't remember an Italian term, I think all one needs to do is add a vowel to the end of the word in English. (Just kidding, but sometimes it seemed that way.)

"How did you get around?" The first couple of weeks we traveled in a minibus, the last week by train.

The first two weeks, in Cortona and the Amalfi Coast, were arranged by our friend, Cindi. After the Texans returned home, we stayed another week to see Venice, Florence and Rome. For the last week, we reverted back to our earlier travel days. With Rick Steve's Travel Italy we embraced the challenge of figuring out train schedules, staying in smaller, private lodgings, scheduling tours and searching out authentic Italian food. We did a lot of walking! Captain found the CityMaps2Go app on his iPhone to be a tremendous help.

How did you know what you were seeing? Tour guides! We made advanced reservations with Walks of Italy for the sights in which we were most interested. The groups were small, 6-15 in a group, and the guides were quite knowledgeable. Being with a guide we were able to avoid the long lines for tickets and, in some cases we could enter before the attraction opened to the public.

Did you find masses of other tourists? We were traveling in highly popular areas and there was no lack of fellow travelers. Knowing tourism is one of the major industries of Italy and we were traveling during the most popular season, it was about like we expected. For us, getting out early (a little tough for Captain), taking a break in the afternoon, and going out later in the evening, it seemed to be less crowded. Well, except for Trevi Fountain; it did seem that all the tourists in Rome gather at Trevi Fountain in the evening. From what we could see, it is quite a lovely fountain.

How was the food?  Hmm, that is a tough one. Sometimes it was very good, sometimes it was the same as eating pasta at home (only more salty and they used a lot of canned mushrooms.) The best was in Cortona (probably because our villa came with a chef that previously worked for a celebrity.) We ate a tremendous amount of starches; think pizza and pasta. And of course there was always gelato! (Which Captain agrees, it taste better than Blue Bell ice cream.) ABN enjoyed the strong coffee, especially with warm milk. We liked that fennel was used often in salads. We were pleased that the lemincello ABN makes taste very much like the authentic limoncello of Italy.  

What about security?
From what we had read, violent crime seems to be rare. We felt perfectly safe walking after dark in Florence, Venice and Rome.

On the other hand, we understand pick pocketing and petty theft is rampant. Following Rick Steves' advice we did not carry anything in our pants pockets. Well, for the most part; Captain insisted on carrying his cell phone in the zipper pocket of his cargo pants (which sometimes he neglected to zip.) He carried his cash, credit card and passport in zipped shirt pockets. ABN carried her cash and cell phone in a small, cross body purse which has a wire cable in the strap (to prevent the snip and run theft.) Not taking any chances, ABN kept her passport and credit card in a sleeve pinned inside her pants. (Yes, all of our hotels had safes in the room, but what if we ran into trouble and couldn't get back to our room???) Rick Steves advised that pick pockets typically look for elderly Americans distracted with bags or looking at maps. We can't help the "elderly American" part, but when Captain needed to look at a map, ABN assumed the responsibility for watching his pockets.

To help prevent identity theft and compromised bank accounts, we kept our passports and credit cards in RFID sleeves. Supposedly these sleeves will prevent information being read by electronic devices. Also we paid for everything with cash, except our lodging. On several occasions in the states we have had our credit cards compromised while traveling. While inconvenient, we could get new cards overnighted. Not sure how that works in a foreign country, besides it is a bit less expensive to use cash.

What differences did you notice with the Italian culture? Besides the language?

Food, they eat things we don't think about eating like octopus, wild boar, cured ham that wasn’t cooked and hog cheeks (yep, we ate those, too.)

They tend to eat heavier meals, first course or apertief; second course, pasta; third course, main dish (usually some kind of meat with a side dish;) fourth course, salad; and fifth course, dessert. After lunch they usually take a couple hours for siesta and dinner time is around 9:00 p.m.

Bathrooms, even the smallest, had bidets. To conserve water, toilets had a choice of flush, large or small.

Some of our hotels had linen towels instead of terry and no wash clothes (just lather up the hands,) While not the norm, we did encounter a number of non-gender public toilets--didn't seem to be much of a problem.

To conserve energy, in some of our hotels the electricity was initiated when the room key was engaged in a slot. In other words, when we were not in our room, the electricity was off. Forget charging the iPads while we were out touring.

To Captain's dismay, dessert spoons were often very tiny.

As for the people, we can't really say. Sometimes we felt welcomed and accepted; sometimes we felt as though we, as tourists, were tolerated because we were a needed part of their economy. With all the tourists, and there were thousands, the local folks cannot enjoy their country's treasures, like the islands, the fountains, their cafes, their museums. Although Americans, especially when traveling in groups, are loud, we did notice that most are very polite. Not always the case with Italians and travelers from other countries. It isn't our nature to push and shove. Perhaps it is a passive aggressive response to the dependency of tourism.

What was our favorite thing/place?

Now this is another tough one! There was the lip sync contest at Villa Laura; even though we were awarded the prize for the act that no one ever wanted to see again, there were some very good acts. And then there was the really fun evening at La Trattorria Antica in Sorrento with the Joe Cockerish mandolin player. And the 3 ½ hour Best of Florence Walk with Ishmael, our fantastic guide.. I think we would both agree, the most beautiful area is the villages along the Amalfi Coast and we totally enjoyed the Bar Tour with Alessandro in Venice.

Would you go back to Italy? Well, yes, if we had unlimited funds and we had many more years to travel internationally; we would go back to the Amalfi Coast and explore those wonderful little villages like Ravello. However, there are other places in Europe we have not explored, (Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, to name a few.) Chalk it up to age, but we really miss the comforts of our little cottage and The Wanderer. Living out of a backpack/suitcase is just not as appealing as when we were younger.

So, now we are home. Our souls have been fed with adventure, new friends and with the satisfaction of knowing we are still able to wander around in a foreign country.

Inspired by Tuscany, ABN insisted we stop at a favorite nursery on our way home from the airport.

Arriving home, we were greeted by Peggy Martin.

We were afraid we would miss her show this year and we almost did.

(So happy to have consistently fast internet again! And blogging on the computer is so much easier than on the iPad!)

Friday, May 20, 2016

All roads lead to Rome

and that is where we are.

Certainly not the favorite part of our trip, but how could we be tourists in Italy without visiting Rome? Like most big cities, it is large, crowded, noisy and probably dirtier. 

As tourists, of course, we had our sights set on The Colosseum, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Fortunately we booked ahead and reserved early morning tours, thus avoiding the long lines waiting for admission. We were told there are 30,000 visitors a day to the Colosseum.
As we were leaving.

With our guide from Walks of Italy, we walked around the Colosseum and learned all that is depicted in the movies isn't accurate. The Gladiators did not look like Russell Crowe (they were fat and ugly and most often they were prisoners or slaves.)

As impressive as the Colosseum looks today, 

one can only imagine how magnificent it was when covered with marble. Throughout the ages the marble has been stripped for other projects like St. Peter's Basilica. It has been damaged by fire and earthquakes and has been the victim of vandalism.

As we walked through the ruins of Palatine Hill, we gained renewed appreciation for being spared the lot of living during the dark ages and for modern sanitation. Did you know that instead of one seated toilet, sometimes there were 10 or more in a room? In addition to taking care of one's "business" it was often a place for socialization? And if you committed a crime you could actually be "thrown to the wolves" or any other wild animal? Of course if you survived the encounter (slim chance,) you would be exonerated. And then there were the barbarians and the plague! Goodness what a dismal time it must have been. 

On to Vatican City; again, with a guide from Walks of Italy. We started at the Sistine Chapel before it was open to those without reservations. And we are so glad we did! It was not crowded and we were able to actually sit in the chapel for about 20 minutes just looking at the ceiling. We were not able to take photos inside the chapel. Why? Because Fuji (the film company) sponsored some renovation and were given the copyrights. We did take this photo just before entering the chapel. 
Not done by Michaelangelo, it is nevertheless beautiful.

After our time at the Sistine Chapel, we visited the expansive Vatican Museum. We think we have seen enough lovely renassance paintings and sculptures to last us awhile.

Before leaving the Vatican City, we stopped by St. Peter's Basilica

It is believed that St. Peter's remains are buried directly beneath the dome.

This ends our time in Italy. As we return home we take with us a better understanding of ancient history , especially as it relates to the Bible. 

As much as we have enjoyed our Italian adventure, our souls are fed and we are looking forward to returning to our little cottage, especially to our kitchen and our memory foam mattress. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wandering Around Venice

Arriving in Venice, we made our way from the train station to the vaporetto (water bus). We waited about 2 hours for the one we needed. We noticed some type of regatta in progress, which apparently closed the waterway. 

When the vaporetto service resumed, we crammed in with a bunch of other tourists and proceeded to our stop. 

Our lodging for our stay in Venice was at the Don Orione Religious Guest House. The fifteenth-century building was once used as a convent by the Jesuits and later a public orphanage. After the fall of Napoleon, it was purchased by Don Orione to help the needy people of Venice find jobs. Fairly recently it was renovated to become a Religious House of Hospitality and a retreat center. Proceeds from the 62 room guest house are used for charity work. 
A lovely spiral staircase led us to our 2nd floor room (we had the option to use the lift.)

Our room was like a dormitory, free of decoration with  2 beds, 2 chairs, a desk and a large bath. It was immaculate! An Italian breakfast was included in the room rate.

After breakfast, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a choir warming up in the court yard beneath our window. 
We also heard a flute player practicing in the room next to ours, which led us to believe some type of music retreat or conference was being held.

Rick Steves, in his guide book, suggests one just get lost in Venice and discover "off the beaten tracks," so we did. We wandered over bridges and
down narrow streets
taking in the beauty, 
stopping for pizza and gelato and finally found our way back to the guest house.

The next morning we ventured over to Murano to see the famous glass blowers.
No, we did not purchase any of the beautiful Murano glass (except for one small pendant.)

We had only one scheduled tour in Venice, the Classic Venice Bars Tours. Alessandro Schezzini, a connoisseur of old bars serving wine and traditional cicchetti snacks, was our tour leader. 

Along with us and eight other American tourists (and Rick Steves groupies) he led the way to three different local bars. He is quite the entertainer, making light of the American cuisine, language and wine. When asked for dinner recommendations, he led us to a restaurant. Since we did not have reservations we were asked to wait for a table. We didn't have to wait long as we were seated shortly. But not our new American friends; why, because we were older! After sharing that with us, the maitre'd was afraid we were offended. We assured him, not at all; 15-20 minutes later our friends were seated next to us. It was a delightful evening.

We are now in Rome where we will end our Italy adventure. We have had a grand time exploring but we both are looking forward to returning home on Friday.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Florence in the Rain

After smooth travel on a clean and comfortable high speed train, we arrive in Florence. Leaving the train station we walk a couple of blocks to the Bellevue House, climbed the 93 steps to the 3rd floor, 6-room hotel and are greeted by Luciano, who was "expecting us." Luciano graciously showed us to our room and gave us tips on how to avoid the tourist traps and find the "most authentic" Italian food. He directed us to the San Miniato church where we were able to hear the monks chanting in Latin at the evening vesper service. Luciano neglected to mention the steep climb up to the church. However it was worth it for this beautiful view.

Our first evening in Florence, before the rain, we took a lovely walk along the Arno river. There were an amount of tourists around but not overwhelmingly so. We stopped for a light, but wonderful dinner at Signorvino Wine Shop and were delighted to find a wonderful barbera wine.

The following evening we took Luciano's advise and ate dinner at an "authentic Italian restaurant," a favorite of the locals according to Luciano and the price was very good. It was kind of like an Italian version of our hometown Gold Rush. Luciano had mentioned the owner was a friend of his which may explain the recommendation. After dinner we strolled back over to Signorvino and made reservations for the next evening. 

We have been fortunate to have had beautiful weather since our arrival, so we won't complain about the rain. We don our rain jackets, grab an umbrella from the hotel and explore in the rain. The showers came mostly while we were in the museums or while we slept and did not put a damper on our sight seeing.

We found the San Lorenzo Market,

which reminded us of the Eastern Market in Washington D.C., but much larger. The huge indoor market housed many stalls of vegetables, wine, fish, meat, pasta, just about anything one could want to fix a special meal. Around the outside of the building are stalls of venders selling to tourists.

Connected to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici palace, is one of the most valuable treasures in Florence, the Uffizi. It houses the paintings and sculptures of artists like  Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Botticelli.

We stop in at the Accademia to see Michelangelo's David and marvel at the definition that cannot be seen in photographs. Our knowledgeable tour guide gave an in depth picture of Michelangelo's life and temperament (not exactly flattering.)

Circling the Duomo (or cathedral) our guide explains the the creation of the elaborate and beautiful facade. 

We enter the cathedral and discover the interior does not match the beauty of the exterior.

The interior of the small Orsanmichele church is much more impressive. Formerly an open air market for selling grain in the ninth century, it was later enclosed to form a church.

There are so many more museums and churches in Florence for which we did not have the time and stamina to explore. Without the knowledge shared by our tour guides, we would not have the picture of the renaissance period in Florence with which we leave. Seeing the long lines waiting to get into the Accademia and the Uffizi, we were glad we made advance reservations with a tour company which gave us more hours to tour and to rest. We found the early tours (8:00 a.m.) started before the city was saturated with tourists. We took a rest in the afternoons and strolled after dinner in the evening. According to Captain's Health app on his phone, we averaged 8.1 miles walking a day and climbed a total of 55 flights of stairs during our 2 1/2 days in Florence. We definitely needed a rest break!

Today we board the train for the 2-hr. ride to Venice. With luck we will have Internet service as good as we have had at the Bellevue House here in Florence. If not, well we will do our best to post snippets.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

As beautiful as Tuscany is, can it get any better?

The answer is yes! 
Let us show you the beauty of Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. But first, let's talk about the cuisine of this area. LEMONS! They are everywhere; groves abound, trees along the streets, they are in cakes, they are on pottery, aprons, in soap and of course in Limoncello. 

Right along with the lemon trees are groves of olive trees. We were given a tour of the Galtea, an organic farm that grows lemons and olive trees, raise cattle, pigs, chicken and other farm animals. Here Captain made a new friend.

We were also shown the process for making mozzarella cheese.

Being a coastal region, we enjoyed eating fresh fish and it isn't a meal without pasta. Typically there are four courses to every Italian meal, the starter or appetizer, pasta, the main course, and dessert. Often limoncello is served after the meal.

One of our favorite meals was at La Antica Tratterio in Sorrento. Not only was the food very good but we were entertained by a Joe Cocker-ish mandolin player as well as the wait staff. Such a fun evening! While in Sorrento we attended a musical at the Tasso dinner theater. We can't tell you much about it as it was in Italian.

Even though it is crowded (especially when the cruise ships dock,) we enjoyed our stay in Sorrento. It just felt comfortable. 

The photos don't do justice to the postcard beauty of the Amalfi Coast, but here are a couple photos taken as we cruised along in the Bay of Salerno, notice the deep blue water.

This cathederal is in the town of Amalfi, dedicated to the patron St. Andrew, the apostle and brother to James. It is said his remains are buried here.

We also had the opportunity to tour Pomjpeii, the petrified city that was buried under 20 feet of pumice and ash in during a volcano eruption in 79 AD. Excavation of the city, beginning in the 18th century, revealed, buildings, paintings, sculptures and even graffiti preserved under the ash and pumice.

 It was interesting to see a bread oven very much like the brick ovens used today.

Thousands of people were killed by the poisonous gases emitted during the eruption  and then buried under the falling ash and pumice. During the excavation cavities were found where the ash had hardened around the decomposed body. Plaster was injected into the cavities giving an image of the person who had died. 

A tour of the island of Capri concluded our stay on the Amalfi Coast. It is a pretty island with lots of tourists and souvenir shops.
We didn't bump into any of the rich and famous as their homes are located in an area not accessible to tourists. 

So, what are we taking away from this region of Italy? The costal area is as pretty as the post cards, ABN's limoncello is pretty much authentic (some of you have enjoyed it in sorbet in our home,) and some pretty little limoncello glasses. Sorry, no photo as they are packed for travel. You must stop by our house and sip some limoncello from them.

Today we will say "Ciao" to our Texas friends and board the train to Florence. Our adventure in Italy will continue as we explore Florence, Venice and Rome by ourselves. If we have good wifi connections, we will keep you updated.

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