Finishing up School

School is out! The girls completed their last day of school this last Friday and are off for the summer. It was a time of celebration, reflection and a little sadness. They’ve both made great friends while in France, and while they’re excited to return to the United States, they’re sad to leave their new found (and hard won) friends behind.

Ann and I are both amazingly thankful for St. Marc’s incredible school. I heard one parent once refer to it as a Marcel Pagnol fantasy. I couldn’t agree more. The school is small, intimate, and beautiful. I don’t think they realize how lucky they are to have attended school here.

 

The last day of school featured a parental visit to the canteen. We met the girls at school and joined them for lunch, where we had a nice meal of… Salmon and mashed potatoes, avocado stuffed with tuna salad, fresh peaches, french cheese and bread. While the kids say the meal was exceptionally good that day, I think they’re actually holding out on us – the canteen serves the kids 50% organic / 50% regular meals – so they’re eating well.

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We said goodbye after the meal, snapped a few pictures of them and their friends, and headed back into town to continue packing and running errands. Later in the afternoon we headed back to pick them up and relaxed in the pool – playing a new game called “launch the orca”, in which the girls would climb up onto the inflatable Orca and I’d push it up into the air as they hung on for dear life. Smiles (and a few bellyflops) for everyone!

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In the evening we headed into Aix for our last dinner out. We went to our favorite restaurant, the Jardin de Mazarin where we had an incredible meal. Ann and I had hoped to have a nice conversation with the girls about their year abroad, but they were both in a sad and uncooperative mood. By the end of the meal though, they cheered up and we all skipped back to the car singing french schoolyard songs “Deux pas en avance, deux pas en arriere…”

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It’s sad to leave Aix. It’s been a magical trip, and the time has flown by so quickly… but when I stop and reflect on the alternative (a year of working on digital proactive assistants at Microsoft), I can say with certainty that it’s been worth every penny and sacrifice. You just can’t get this kind of time back…

Nic and Steph come to France!

Nic and Steph came to visit for a few days in early June. It was so wonderful to see them both. They arrived on a Thursday evening and met Marc and the girls downtown at one of our favorite local restaurants, the Burger Bar. Yep, the name says it all. The next day we did a 4 hour hike up to the top of Mount St. Victoir. It was a gorgeous day. Friday night we got a sitter and headed into town. We ate at a cute little pizza restaurant called Le Pizza in AIX. The food is great but the service was terrible. The next day we headed to the AIX market and grabbed groceries for dinner. That afternoon we headed to Cassis to meet John and Lauren’s family. We hung out at the beach while the kids swam, then headed back to AIX for a  group dinner and an evening of celebration as Nic just got engaged!!! YEAH!! The next day we all hung out at the house until John and Lauren headed home. The next day Nic and Steph took off for Paris. It was a quick trip but wonderful to see them both and to celebrate their special announcement.

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Rome – Day 4

Day 4 : Pompeii and Herculaneum

We woke early the next morning to a sleeping monastery. We quietly got dressed, shuffled out of the room and made our way to the dining hall. Our hosts had left us a nice breakfast of bread, coffee and cereal out the night before so we could eat and head out.

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The trip to Pompeii requires you to take several trains – one to Naples and then a local commuter train from Naples to Pompeii. We arrived at the train station in Rome, quickly found our train and boarded the TGV. Travelling by TGV is always a classy affair. We had an area of the cabin with seats that faced each other, as well as a table between us. We settled in, pulled out cards and played games as the Italian countryside screamed past.

We arrived in Naples on time, and had about 30 minutes to make our connection. We wound our way through poorly marked corridors to the platform from which we’d catch our train. Graffiti covered the walls and trash littered the platform. If the TGV was luxurious, the local commuter train was anything but.

The train pulled in and we boarded. We were fortunate enough to find seats, and we settled in for the 45 minute ride.

The ride from Rome to Naples was beautiful. Gorgeous green fields and mountains had slipped past in silence. The ride from Naples to Pompeii took us through a more urban countryside. Cheap apartment buildings rose up around us, and once again the walls were covered in graffiti. The area felt sad and depressed. It was clear that the economy was not treating the residents well here.

The stations came and went, and we soon arrived at Pompeii. We exited the station and were greeted by our guide, Julia. She immediately built a rapport with the girls, speaking to them in English and getting them excited about seeing Pompeii. After a brief bathroom break during which I snuck in a shot of espresso, the girls were ready to go. We wandered across the street from the station, purchased our tickets and stepped into Pompeii. It started raining.

Our first stop was the outer walls of the city. Our guide explained to us that Pompeii had been discovered by chance. After mount vesuvious had erupted, the exact location of the city had been lost. The landscape had completely changed, and the city had been hidden under 50 feet of ash. The coastline had also changed as a result of the eruption. The Mediterranean had retreated more than a mile from its previous shores.

The city walls stood before us, breached only by a large arched entryway into the city. The ancient roman road of large flat rocks wound it’s way up to the gate. Smaller house structures stood in ruins outside the walls.

Our guide explained to us that while the city was fortified, years of peace had encouraged the more affluent people to build villas outside the city for better views and access to the ocean.

We walked up the ancient road, under the arch and stepped into the city.

I was immediately taken by how easy it was to imagine what the city must have looked like. Villas stood to the left with storefronts lining the street. Large counters covered in marble mosaics still stood in the shops. Ceramic pots were embedded in the surface where they had once been used to serve up food and wine. To the right side stood a tall wall painted in deep orange frescos. Holes were spaced at regular intervals in the wall and had been used as anchor points for awnings that had covered the sidewalk.

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The street itself was deep. Sidewalks lined the street, but the street itself was more than a foot lower. Large black stone pavers covered the surface and white shells were embedded at random intervals in the road The white shells were reflective, enabling people entering into the town at night by torchlight to see where the road was located. Larger stones placed at regular intervals that served as crosswalks.

Our guide explained to us that it was traditional for villas to be built with several shops lining the outer walls. The shop space belonged to the villa owners, and was either used by them or rented out to tenants who wanted to set up shop there. It was the perfect blend of setting up a residence and generating income at the same time.

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We wandered up the street and emerged out into the central marketplace. The road was intentionally blocked by a steep step up. The market had been designed to be a pedestrian space.

The market was a large square flanked by columns. The columns had stood several stories high, and shops had lined the edges of the square. A temple stood in ruins at the far end of the square.

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Archeologists had set up shop here, turning the old remains of a villa into a makeshift shelter for various artifacts they had recovered. Through the bars we were able to see extensive collections of pottery as well as the casts of corpses the archeologists had found in the ash.

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On one side of the square stood a very ornate entryway to another courtyard flanked by a set of buildings. The area had once been used as a marketplace for fabric. It was likely the place where people had once gone to purchase clothes or fabric for bedding, awnings, etc.

As we explored, the girls started to appreciate and take in the sights. We’d stop from time to time and imagine what the space must have looked like. “Imagine rows of columns surrounding us several stories high, with shops spilling out into the square. People are wandering about, stopping at stalls and making purchases. The walls are all orange, and the columns are white. At the end of the courtyard vast columns rise up and support the entry of the temple.” It was easy for them to create an image in their minds.

We stepped out of the square and wandered down a street. Pompeii is quite large, and a good portion of it remains buried. As we walked down narrow streets, you could see the shops and entryways to villas. Steps led upwards to where second stories had once stood. Smaller streets flanked by the walls of buildings branched off in different directions.

We arrived at the public baths and entered through the gates onto a green field. Buildings flanked the buildings and a covered walkway with columns ran along it’s perimeter. To one side of the field was a deep swimming pool. We entered into the buildings and explored the baths – both the male and female areas.

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It’s clear that the romans took great pride in their public buildings. Mosaics and frescos still covered the walls of the changing rooms. Nooks and shelves lined the walls where people had once left their belongings to go lounge in the steam rooms and baths.

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The baths consisted of chambers that had once been flooded with water, as well as various steam rooms where people had met to talk. It was clear that this was not only a place to wash, but also to socialize and do business.

The steam rooms included arched ceilings that were tiled in a ribbed pattern to capture water vapor and channel condensed water back down along the walls to the hot water tanks beneath the floor. The floor itself was elevated. Water was heated outside, and ran underneath the floor, bathing everyone in the room in steam. Mosaics covered the floor.

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I was impressed with the thought and care that went into the design of the buildings. The romans were incredible builders, and really took the time to build functional, livable and beautiful structures.

The next stop on our tour took us to a restored roman villa. Our guide explained that villas in Pompeii all had entryways to an internal courtyard that was open to the sky. A shallow pool always stood at the center of the courtyard, and water from rain was channeled off the roof to the pool.

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Rooms lined the entryway, and were typically storerooms, dining rooms, or offices. If you stepped back further into the villa it would open into another, much larger courtyard with a garden. Water from rainfall was channeled from the roofs and walkways to cisterns under the house.

Every surface in the villa was decorated. Frescos covered the walls and were colored in deep ochre and orange colors. Intricate patterns covered the walls. The floors were covered in mosaic, and even the ceilings had been painted. It was ornate, and must have been astonishing when it was first built.

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By this point the girls were starting to meltdown. We had already spend three hours in Pompeii walking and looking at ruins, and despite how incredibly they were, there’s only so much a ten and eight year old can take.

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We made our way to the exit, passing through one of the theaters on the way. I was sad to leave as we had only seen a small part of the city – but the rest would have to wait for another day. There was just too much ground to cover.

We bid farewell to our guide and stopped for a quick pizza before boarding the train and heading back towards Naples.

We opted to stop at one more ruin on the way back, the ancient town of Herculaneum in the commune of Ercolano. The town in which the ruin is located is one of those places we had rode past on the train from Naples – small, economically depressed and covered in graffiti. The ruin is located down a long hill lined with shops and apartment buildings.

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The site itself isn’t nearly as large as Pompeii, but it was a wealthier town than Pompeii at the time and primarily a vacation destination for wealthy Romans. If you can believe it. Herculaneum is actually better preserved than Pompeii. Unlike Pompeii which was largely destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Herculaneum was more “gently” covered. As a result, many multi-story buildings are still standing, and you can even see the wood beams still supporting upper floors or hanging on hinges where there were once doors. Even skeletons of some 300 inhabitants were found there.

The town doesn’t have the scale that Pompeii had. The streets are much more narrow and the villas are at a smaller scale – however the baths and the inside frescos are beautifully preserved. Mosaics are in excellent condition, and you quickly get the sense for how life must have been there. There are the same types of fast-food shops preserved at the village entrance, as well as several stores with large flour mills. You could also step into villas which still had their original second floor and roof structures. It was really impressive.

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As with Pompeii, it didn’t take long for the girls to get exhausted. Leaving early from Rome had taken it’s toll. We wandered through the ruins, stopping, imagining, and admiring the buildings and then headed back towards the train station.

We caught the train back, and waited in Naples at the train station for our connecting TGV. The return to Rome was uneventful and after a quick dinner, we turned in for the night. We were ready to head home.

The next day we only had a few hours in Rome. We wandered the streets again, stopping at our favorite Piazzas and getting coffee again at our favorite café. Soon it was time to go, and we met our taxi to shuttle us to the airport. It was an amazing four days packed with incredible sites and four days was easily enough time to get a feel for the city.

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Rome – Day 3

The Vatican

Despite the small size of the beds and rough wool blankets (at least that part of the monastery fantasy was accurate), we woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to go. We headed to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast of cereal and bread, and headed out to catch the metro to the Vatican.

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Ann, the planning goddess that she is, had once again thought ahead. Not only were we able to skip the quarter-mile long line thanks to the tickets she had purchased well in advance, but she had read up on the Vatican museum and knew exactly what to do when we arrived. Her online research had also let her know that she could skip the main audio-guide desks in the reception and pick them up on the second floor where there was rarely a line.

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Ann had read that the collection is so extensive that seeing it with small kids is impractical. We knew we’d have about 2-3 hours max before the kids would completely melt down – so we chose to target certain sections. We started with Pinacoteca and admired the collection of renaissance paintings and tapestries. We then worked our way through ancient Samarian and Egyptian relics (including several mummies!), and walked through the Greek and Roman sculpture exhibits.

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The girls were so-so on the renaissance. The one painting which really spoke to them was the depiction of Eden. They loved seeing a painting with all of earth’s animals in one frame.

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Egypt was definitely a hit, as it included statues of ancient Egyptian gods, as well as several mummies and some beautifully preserved sarcophaguses.

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For Josie, the highlight of the day came when she entered into a hall filled with Greek and Roman sculptures. It wasn’t long before she had grabbed the camera to expand her extensive collection of marble butt and fig-leave photos. It’s always a pleasure to see our children taking such interest in art and culture.

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From there we stepped into the Hall of maps.

Having worked on bing maps for a year, I was blown away by the beauty of hall and the detail with which people had labored to map Italy. The maps weren’t just accurate renderings of distances and shapes, but were works of art. Mountains, trees, and towns were all depicted on maps – showing not just the locations of places, but revealing a little about their culture and beauty.

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After the hall of maps we finally made our way to the Sistine chapel. We had been talking this part of our trip up for weeks. We had shown the girls pictures of the paintings, watched movies on Michael Angelo, and had told the girls how incredible it would be to have seen the Chapel themselves.

To get to the chapel we had to wind our way through countless halls of modern art. These were clearly the least appreciated section of the museum. A current of people rushed through the sections barely giving the art a second glance as they pushed relentlessly towards the chapel entrance. No one was going to be distracted by some 2 bit artist like Picasso or Miro.

We finally reached the chapel and stepped inside. Beautiful frescos rose up the walls and across the vaulted ceiling. The art of course was incredible. We were in awe of the detail, the motion and the drama of the composition. The girls pointed out the Creation of Adam and were fascinated by the Last Judgment.

Despite the beauty, I have to admit that the crowds of tourists in the chapel detracted from the beauty. It was standing-room only, and the guards were constantly berating people over loud-speakers telling them to be quiet. “Shhhhhhhhh. Quiet Please,” their voices would boom over the speakers “this is a holy place.” It was a little weird and ironic.

After admiring the frescos, we exited the chapel and emerged back out at the Pinacoteca, where our tour had started.

Our next stop was to head to St. Peter’s Bascilica. The kids were exhausted, but there was no way we weren’t going to see it. We asked a guard what the best way to get there was, and he gave us two options.

“You can either exit the Vatican, walk around the outer walls and enter through St. Peter’s Square, or you can get there through a shortcut in the museum. The line to gain access in the Basilica through St. Peter’s square is quite long, so you’ll need to wait for several hours. There’s no line if you go through the museum.”

We immediately opted for the shortcut.

“Just walk through the museum to the Sistine Chapel, and take a right when you exit.” The guard explained. “That’ll take you directly to the Bascilica.”

Of course we had just been in the Sistine chapel, and had taken a left. “Can we just go back down this corridor and take the other exit?” we asked.

“No, I’m sorry, you need to walk through the museum again.”

So, the shortcut became a second visit through all of the exhibits we had just walked through. We figured it would take us about 20 minutes moving quickly, which was better than 2 hours waiting in line. We stepped back into the museum.

What happened next is what you’d expect. Ann was on a mission.

She plunged into the crowds and weaved between people with Josie in tow waving a poster with one hand up in the air as though she was a tour-guide. Within seconds she had cleared the first gallery and disappeared into the next. Chloe and I struggled to keep up with her.

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We finally caught up with her at the hall of maps about 10 minutes later where she stood up against a wall holding a rolled up poster in her hand to attract our attention. She looked like a frustrated tour guide who couldn’t find her flock. When we arrived she turned and plunged back into the crowd, cutting through it like a hot knife through butter.

We arrived at the end of the gallery and she was gone. There were two options, a longer tour through other galleries, or a shortcut to the chapel. I opted for the shortcut, but Ann had apparently missed the option and had continued on the extended tour.

We arrived at the chapel before her and made our way to the right exit. We stepped out and waited in the hall.

About 20 minutes later Ann arrived. She had been waiting for us on her “extended” tour of the museum.

Total shortcut time: 40 minutes. J Still shorter than 2 hours – plus we got to see the entire museum a second time. Yay! Culture!

We descended the stairs, turned the corner and stepped into the basilica. I’ve been in some pretty huge cathedrals and churches – Notre Dame de Paris, The Sagrada Familia, etc…. But nothing had prepared me for the immensity of this building. I think we could easily have fit three of our houses side by side in the space and stacked them floor to roof four times over without even touching the ceiling. The building is massive. Every surface is covered in marble, sculpture and inscriptions. The effect is overwhelming.

We wandered around and stumbled upon stairs which descended into the crypts. We followed them down and walked past the tombs of all the previous popes.

“Remember the portraits of those popes we saw in Avignon?” I asked the girls… “Well, they’re all buried here.” It was a nice (if a somewhat morbid) way to tie the two together.

Our next stop was the dome. We took the elevator up, and then climbed the narrow stairs to the top of the Basilica. The climb up was a strange experience. The stairs ran along the inside edge of the dome, so as you neared the top, the ceiling slanted right over you. The effect was a little dizzying, as you almost needed to lean at an angle to make it up. The ascent was well worth the effort. We were greeted by an incredible 360 degree views of Vatican City and Rome. It was beautiful.

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By this point the kids were nearing meltdown. We opted to walk back to the Spanish steps, stopping for gelato along the way. The girls were happy to make it back to the monetary so they could “relax” before dinner.

All in all, it was a culturally packed day. I’m not sure how much the girls will retain, but they’ve now bagged another country – Vatican City.

Rome – Day 2

The Coliseum, the streets of Rome and the Roman Forum

The next day was packed. The plan was to start off with breakfast in town and exploring the coliseum. Since we only had the AirBnB for a night, we also had to coordinate with the owner and lock up our bags at noon. We wouldn’t be able to check into our next hotel until 5.

We quickly got ready, packed our bags and headed out to town. We made our way down onto the subway. It was still early, so the Metro was relatively clear of people. We were able to spot gypsy’s from a mile away and formed a protective circle to defend our valuables.

We arrived at the coliseum without incident and stepped out of the metro station. The area was pleasantly deserted as the monument was still closed. Arches rose majestically up level after level and curved off as far as the eye could see. The girls were impressed, and gasped at the scale of the circus. It was huge.

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We headed down the street in search for food. We made our way to the neighborhood behind the coliseum, past rainbow-clad bars to Google’s suggested bakery. Our luck with Google’s suggestions has been spotty at best. It often guides us to places which don’t exist, or as was the case here, that were closed.

Ann looked at the closed shop with annoyance. I could tell she was getting hungry, and with a trip to the coliseum in our future, I didn’t exactly relish the prospect of becoming lion bait. She needed to be fed. We wandered down the streets and eventually found a bar / restaurant. After stepping inside to check out their assortment of fried dough (seems that donuts are a popular breakfast in Rome), we sat down at a table on the street and enjoyed espresso with an assortment of glazed croissants and fried doughy delights.

A quick tip: Eating in rome is a little like flying a discount airline. They ding you for all sorts of little extras – like sidewalk service. What should be a quick and cheap meal can quickly turn into something a little more expensive than anticipated.

We walked back to the coliseum where crowds of tourists (us included) had formed. Long lines snaked their way out and around the base of the monument as people semi-patiently waited to get their tickets. Ann, being incredibly savvy, had made sure we had purchased our tickets online ahead of time. Despite having had our bank account closed due to suspicious activities (e.g. buying tickets in Rome), I was happy we had gone through the hassle. We breezed through security and made our way directly to the ticket counter without a wait – bypassing onlookers who shuffled along holding their soon-to-be-invalidated debit cards.

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We grabbed the audio guides and made our way up the stairs to the first level where we were greeted with sweeping views of the arena. The coliseum is an impressive monument. The circle of it’s arches are still intact on one side, and gradually decays down to the lower levels to form a ring. The center arena floor is long gone and the foundation of the holding rooms for the wild animals and gladiators is visible beneath. The stone bleachers that once covered the arches are also gone – long scavenged by the residents of Rome as an easy quarry for building materials.

I was blown away by how long it took to build the monument. Unlike the cathedrals of Europe, which took hundreds of years to complete, the Romans were able to build the coliseum in a mere 10 years. It’s unbelievable, given the sheer scale of the building and the degree of precision in the engineering that was required. It’s even more impressive when you stop to consider that they had no modern cranes or building materials like steel. Each stone had to be carved and laid by hand.

We walked around the arena listening to the audio tour and trying to recreate the scene in our imagination. I pictured white stone stairs resting on the inside arches, banners flying and canvas awnings blocking out the sun. Marble was everywhere, encasing the stone with polished smooth surfaces. Statues stood tall and defiant, calmly contemplating the scene below. Down in the arena, wooden planks lined the floor and were covered in sand. Men and animals looked at each other warily and circled, looking for a chance to make a kill.

The audio guide went into great detail about the thousands of wild animals and theatrics that took place at the Colosseum. The inauguration games in 81AD at the Roman Colosseum, lasted for one hundred days and during this time over 9,000 wild animals were slaughtered. During just one festival in 240 AD a staggering: 2,000 gladiators, 70 lions, 40 wild horses, 30 elephants, 30 leopards, 20 wild asses, 19 giraffes, 10 antelopes, 10 hyenas, 10 tigers, 1 hippopotamus and 1 rhinoceros were slaughtered.

I imagined how loud it must have been. Tens of thousands of people sat in the bleachers, yelling in excitement. The yelling and cheering surged as the gladiators engaged in battle. It would be rare at that time to have so many people collected in one place. The scale of the circus must have been overwhelming to a foreigner. The greatness of Rome could not be denied in this venue.

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After an hour of touring, the girls were ready to leave. We headed back to our apartment, met the owner and dropped off our bags in a closet in the foyer. We had just enough time to hop back on the metro and head into town for lunch reservations near the Pantheon.

We arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened. People were already lined up, hoping for a table. When the waiter finally opened the doors, everyone shuffled in and were kindly turned away. Every table was reserved for lunch.

We stepped up and the waiter showed us to our table. We settled in and perused the amazing menu of pastas and salads. We quickly found what we wanted and ordered. The food was excellent, but for whatever reason, the girls weren’t satisfied with their meals. What ensued was a game of musical pasta – in which I was extremely happy with my meal selection but only got to enjoy a single bite. My plate made it’s way to Josie, and Josie exchanged hers with Chloe. Soon I was eating Chloe’s, and looking longingly at Josie’s plate that was the meal I had originally ordered. While Chloe’s was good – it wasn’t nearly as delicious as mine.

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On the plus side, we ordered their house wine and were delighted with the bottle. The wine was exceptional – and this was one thing in the meal the girls couldn’t steal from us. J

Following lunch we made our way through the streets of Rome back to the Forum. Along the way we passed the Altare della Patria, a huge white monument built in commemoration of Italy’s first king and the soldiers of World War I. We climbed the steps up to the monument, watched the changing of the guard, and then headed back down towards the Roman Forum.

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The Forum is an amazing archeological site. Situated across the street from the Coliseum, it’s an amalgamation of ruins spread over centuries of construction, destruction and renewal. Columns from ancient temples have been incorporated into more modern-day churches, and a chaotic layout of foundations and roads hint at where the seat of Roman power once stood. The forum was the cultural center of Rome at the time of the empire, and included the Roman Senate, a place where orators made speeches, and tribunals were held.

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It’s impossible to get a good feel for the space now. The entire area is a huge ruin and it’s hard to see where one building stops and another starts. The signage is rudimentary, and the site maps / info panels do a poor job of explaining the site. Different buildings had been built at different times, so it was even hard to know whether things existed at the same time, or had been paved over.

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In all of this complexity is a simple opportunity for those smart and ambitious enough to grasp it. If I was a HoloLens developer, I’d create an augmented-reality tour of the Forum which recreates the buildings, famous historical moments and figures. How incredible would it be to see the ruins through a lense only to have it augmented with what the full building must have looked like? Or to see Julius Cesar killed on the steps of the forum… It would bring history to life.

It was tough for the girls to appreciate – so after an hour or so of walking through the ruins, we headed back to the AirBnB to pick up our bags, drag them onto the metro and head to our next lodging.

Well before we left to Rome Ann had booked us at Trinite de Monte, located at the very top of the Spanish steps. We heard about this location from a French couple in Aix. The Monastery is owned by the French government, and is available only to French or francophone travelers. Thanks to my French nationality, we were able to book a small private room for us in the monastery.

Both Ann and I had incredible fantasies of what staying in a monastery would be like. We’d walk through a cloister with a beautifully manicure garden and have a small cell-like room with bunk beds and rough wool blankets. Chanting would fill the hallways, and we’d join the monks for dinner in the great hall where we’d feast on dried bread and gruel served out of wooden bowls. It would be a formative experience for our girls – one which would teach them humility and an appreciation for the simple things in life.

We dragged our baggage to the entrance and rang the buzzer. We were greeted by a groundskeeper who led us up what felt like hundreds of steps to the monastery entrance. An kind Frenchwoman greeted us there, offering us fruit juice and iced water for refreshments.

After a brief discussion, we completed the necessary paperwork and confirmed our meal plans. We’d be having breakfast every day of our stay in the dining hall with the other guests, and we opted to join them for a dinner as well. We were assigned a small room located apart from the main hall. The Monastery was currently hosting a class of young French students, so they apologized in advance for the noise.

The facilities weren’t exactly modern, but they weren’t exactly medieval either. The buildings were modest but well maintained, and our room was very basic. It was large, contained a bunkbed and three single beds. Josie immediately grabbed the bunkbed, and Chloe one of the single beds. Ann and I looked at the remaining child-sized single beds separated by a table. There’d be no more romantic hanky-panky in this Roman monastery.

We settled in and relaxed before heading to the common room for Dinner. Rather than rustic arches and a vaulted ceiling, the dining hall was located behind the main facility in a modern non-descript room. Windows lined the walls and round tables and chairs were packed in tight. A single French nun greeted us and encouraged us to sit near the front of the room.

A few minutes before the meal the kids descended upon the dining hall, quickly shuffling in and filling up the tables. The volume surged as they settled in and the chaperones desperately attempted to control the mob of teenagers. It was clear that sharing a peaceful meal with monks was now nothing more but a fantasy. This was cafeteria fare.

Dinner was incredibly basic. Deviled eggs were served as an entrée (ironic given our location), pasta with red sauce as a main course, and yogurt for desert. To be 100% honest, I was disappointed we didn’t get gruel. The volume of the kids peaked and was crushed by the disapproving shouts of their professors. Dinner was concluded in a matter of minutes, and we shuffled out.

After dinner we walked down to the street to find some real desert (e.g. gelato). We emerged at the top of the Spanish steps, weaved our way through hoards of sitting tourists, and dodged selfie-stick vendors. I’m fairly certain they were the same ones we saw in Venice.

When we arrived at the bottom of the steps at the fountain, we paused to admire the view. The stairs rose up above us, and the fountain gurgled happily. Old buildings surrounded the square, horses and carriages were parked nearby and the evening sky was turning dark blue. It was a warm and beautiful night.

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I stood taking in the sights with Chloe when a man appeared at my elbow with a bouquet of roses.

“Please, take a rose.” He pleaded.

“No thank you.” I replied.

“I insist – if not for you, than for your beautiful young daughter.” He slyly said, looking at Chloe.

“No, we’re good.” I replied.

“Oh then just take one as a gift from the good people of Rome. No charge!” He said, extending a flower to Chloe. She shrugged and took it, thanking him.

“Perhaps you’d like another for your wife?” he said. “Here, have another.”

At this point I knew we had been taken. I couldn’t take a rose for Chloe without one for Josie, so I took it as he assured me it was free.

We thanked him, and started to wander off. He followed us, all the while praising how generous and good we were. How much he loved Americans, and how wonderful it was that we were enjoying his roses that he had worked so hard to procure.

I gave him two euros to shut up and go away. It seemed like a fair trade. Of course, it’s not everyday that you have your own personal chorus following you through the streets of Rome exalting your virtues. Perhaps I had been too quick to dismiss him.

We wandered through the streets and eventually found a gelatoria. Chloe had grown tired of carrying her rose, and Josie didn’t really care for it to start with, so I took them and left them under the windshield wipers of a couple different cars. Either they would make someone happy, or break up marriages. Only the fate would decide.

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We headed back up the Spanish steps, carefully avoiding men with roses and turned in for the night. It had been a long day packed with adventure, and we were ready for a good night’s rest.

Rome : Day 1

When I lived in France as a kid my family travelled all over Europe. We visited Spain, Greece, Germany, Luxemburg, England, and Switzerland, but for some reason my parents never took us to Italy. I don’t know whether it was a cultural mismatch for my dad – or whether we just never got around to it. Regardless, it’s been a country I’ve always wanted to visit – and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to go several times this year with Ann, Chloe and Josie.

Our latest trip was a few weeks ago when we headed to Rome for four days. We took the kids out of school, explaining away the unexcused absence with the fact that it was our last few months in France and that we wanted to make the most of showing the kids as much of Europe as possible. When we told the director that we were headed to Rome, Pompeii and the Vatican, he was quick to excuse the absence; “They’ll learn more seeing those things than in class.”

Getting to Rome, The Pantheon, Time Travel, and an amazing Dinner

We took the girls out of school on Wednesday and headed out to the airport early in the morning. The flight to Rome was uneventful – with the exception of learning that EasyJet charges you for every piece of luggage you check in (even your first). The girls were excited for the flight – and both were able to get window seats as there were plenty of empty seats on the plane. Ann sat with Chloe, while I did math homework with Josie. The flight to Rome is only an hour from Marseille, so it felt like we began our descent the moment we were airborne.

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Ann had the foresight of reserving a cab from the airport to the AirBnB. We were greeted at the appartment by a charming Italian man who let us in, coordinated the check-out time, assured us that we could drink the tapwater, and gave us some quick tips about riding the metro. The apartment was beautiful, large, and wonderfully situated near a metro stop (Re di Roma)

After saying goodbye to our host we ventured out for lunch. The girls were eager to try the Pizza, despite the fact that Chloe assured us that no self-respecting local would ever eat Pizza (it was only for tourists). As it turned out, Re di Roma Pizza was only a block away. Our friend Jeff Lemkin had previously suggested it, saying it was one of the best places he had been while in Rome – so we decided to give it a try.

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For a little hole in the wall, Re di Roma Pizza has excellent ratings and even better food. Unlike pizza places in the states, you order pizza not by the slice, but by weight. There’s a wide variety of rectangular pizzas behind a display. To order, you simply point to what looks good, grunt in english, roughly indicate how large of a piece you want, and they slice it off for you. They then weigh your order, give you a receipt, and ask you to pay. When you settle up your tab, they give you your food. You can dine in (standing), or head across the street to the graffiti-covered park for a picnic.

We took ours to go, and headed across the street to find a bench in the Piazza. The pizza was excellent. Thin crusted, light on the toppings, but packed with flavor. The girls had cheese, Ann had potato, and I had prosciutto with a tomato sauce. Yummy.

Neither Ann nor I had specific plans for the afternoon, so we opted to head into the heart of the city and explore. We hopped on the Metro and headed “into” town. I put quotes around “into”, because Rome’s subway system is really underdeveloped. The nearest metro stop is about a 20-minute walk away from the heart of the city.

The metro ride was exciting. Ann clutched her purse and I kept my hand on my wallet as Josie and Chloe scanned the subway platforms for gypsy girls. I wasn’t allowed to exit the metro until Chloe confirmed that I had my wallet. “Without that wallet, we’re all doomed.” she’d say. I kept assuring her that it would be OK, but she was not convinced. “Without your wallet I won’t be able to get gelato or ever get home.” Kids.

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We emerged out of the subway and began to wander our way into town. It was mid-afternoon, and Ann had read about a ride called “Time Elevator”. She was convinced it would be an amazing introduction to Rome for the kids, but to be honest, I was skeptical about the whole thing. The ride promised an unforgettable journey into the distant past to witness the most important moments of Roman history – the foundation of Rome, the death of Julius Caesar, the burning of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the plague, the painting of the Sistine Chapel, the foundation of the Vatican, etc. Thousands of years of history condensed into a 30 minute movie viewed on pneumatic moving seats.

OK, I admit it – I was curious about the seats. Any movie with the potential to inflict bodily harm through whiplash has to be respected.

Ann called ahead and confirmed that there was a showing in half-an-hour. We walked into town and made our way to the theater, winding our way through the streets, avoiding our selfie-stick selling friends and openly gawking at men fully dressed as Roman Centurions (plastic armor) posing with tourists for photos (10 Euros!).

We arrived at the theater with minutes to spare, only to discover that the showing had been sold out for hours. This was a small detail they had neglected to mention to Ann on the phone a few minutes earlier. I quickly suggested we get tickets for a later show and spend the hours walking around the city. A display of American outrage was narrowly avoided.

We headed back out into the streets and wound or way towards the Parthenon, stopping at a gelato shop for a quick pick-me-up. The girls devoured their cones, as Ann’s aggravation was slowly subdued by Nutella ice cream.

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You learn a lot poking around in a city. You see how people live, how they shop, what they value, and if you pay attention, you can get a sense for the pace of life. Rome is beautiful and bustling with tourist activity, but it’s also chaotic and tired. The urban planning in Rome feels organic – which is hardly surprising given the fact that it’s thousands of years old. Non-descript streets wind in every which-way and emerge into beautiful piazza’s with churches, fountains and monuments. Café’s, Gelato shops and restaurants are everywhere. Groups of tourist follow their guides like loyal flocks of sheep.

Rome is undeniably beautiful and romantic, but it also feels neglected. It’s clear that the economy has impacted the city. Tourism is likely up, but money to renovate and develop historic sites appears to be scarce. Monuments look underappreciated and in disrepair. It’s a little sad to see.

We arrived at the Pantheon and approached the entry. Before heading to Rome we had watched a Rick Steve’s video that gave us a few facts about the building. Ann and I rattled them off for Josie and Chloe to demonstrate our incredible knowledge of ancient roman architecture. The columns supporting the entry were single blocks of granite imported from Egypt, and are so large that the four of us could barely link hands around them. The dome remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world to this day. The building was oriented in such a way so as the sun would shine through the oculus at noon and bathe the front entryway wit sunshine on the day Rome was founded. The girls were impressed.

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From the Pantheon, we headed to one of the oldest and most famous espresso shops in Rome: Café Sant’Eustachio. The coffee shop was chaotic and crowded. As with many things in Italy, the process of ordering was somewhat backwards. You first had to pay for your drink, then fight your way to the coffee bar to place your order. Once made, you then had the opportunity to enjoy your hard-earned drink as crowds of people crushed up against you to try to place their orders. It was a caffeine induced full-contact crowd coffee frenzy.

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Rather than fight the crowds, we opted to pay an additional 5 euros for “sidewalk service” at the café’s tables. We perused the menu at a leisurely rate while we enjoyed watching the melee of caffeine starved patrons duke it out at the bar. It was wholesome entertainment for the entire family.

This is also the place I discovered God’s gift to coffee and chocolate lovers: The Maraschino.

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Imagine a small cup of espresso smothered in chocolate sauce. The sauce is thick, creamy and not so sugary as to mask the taste of high quality dark chocolate. On it’s own, the chocolate is a delicacy. Combined with espresso, it’s a decadent drink reserved for the gods. Now add a dollop of whipped cream on top. Sip it. Feel the perfect blend of chocolate and espresso course through your body as waves of ecstasy crash over you. Fall back into your chair, satisfied and spent. Tell the waiter that it was good for you too.

The coffee shop became a ritual for us. We stopped there every day we were in Rome – sometimes twice if we happened to walk past it. It was worth the detour.

After basking in the glory of the Maraschino, we headed back into the city and wound our way to the Piazza Navona. The girls loved this fountain-filled square. Mythical mermaids, mermen, and Hippocampi shot steams of water into cool pools of water. Around the fountains clustered art and street vendors. Along the edges of the Piazza were café’s and shops waiting to greet thirsty tourists. The Piazza was gorgeous, but our time had run out.

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We ran back to the movie theater, where we barely made it in time for the 5:00 show. We managed to weasel our way to the front of the line (not entirely on purpose), and land a cluster of seats in the center of the theater. The lights dimmed, and the opening titles came on. The seats lifted into the air and started to frantically shift back and forwards as we flew into ancient Rome. The girls laughed in delight as images of famous landmarks danced across the screen and the hydraulic chairs did their best to inflict whiplash on the unsuspecting audience.

As promised, we witnessed a dramatic reenactment of Rome’s birth. Remus and Romulus were abandoned to the wolves as the movie’s chief protagonist, a nutty Italian scientist who invented time travel observed the action. He jumped through time between historical moments, even stopping in to visit Michael Angelo as he lost (and then found) his inspiration for painting the Sistine Chapel.

All in all it was a fun movie – complete with special effects and pneumatic motion. The girls left the theater psyched to be in Rome. Mission Accomplished.

We headed back to the Metro and headed back to the AirBnB to rest up before dinner. Located a few blocks away was the Trattoria di Roma, a cute little restaurant where Ann had made reservations. It was an adorable little restaurant and our best meal in Rome: Fresh pasta in creamy tomato sauce with bacon, gnocchi, and spaghetti. It was a great way to end the day, and a meal that completely changed my opinion of Italian cooking.

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We headed back and turned in for the night. It had been a long day with a ton of walking and excitement.

School Play and Open House

Today was the school open house. We arrived at 9am and visited different workshops, put on by the children, showing off what they learned and accomplished over the course of the school year.  Josie’s class had different photo collages showing their “stage de decourverte”, where they went caving and mountain biking for a week in April. Chloe’s class had a workshop on recycling. We had the opportunity to visit with the other parents while spending the morning with the kids in the school yard.

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Later that afternoon, we returned to school for the end of year performance, Mid Summer’s Night Dream. The school director is an amateur opera singer and is very active in the arts. His brother writes music. The kids performed the play, adapted for youth, set in India. One of the parents is a professional costume designer and make up artist. She did an incredible job coordinating the outfits, doing the make up, etc. The girls had a great time. Chloe sang 2 solos and danced while Josie’s class sang in the choir.

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We were blown away by the performance. There were over 120 people in the audience and the kids performed beautifully. Chloe sang her two solos in French in front of all those people. It was incredible. Her teacher is a great singing coach. He spent a lot of time with Chloe helping her fine tune her singing. She was ecstatic after the play. It was amazing to think only 10 months ago our kids could not speak French and here they were, participating and thriving in a completely different culture and language. Marc and I felt a lot of gratitude for how things turned around for the girls after changing schools. We are so happy we made the choice to change schools in December.

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After the play they held a small graduation ceremony where they handed out gifts to the children. Both Chloe and Josie passed their grades (No small accomplishment given their language barriers) and were given gifts by the mayor of St. Marc and their teachers.

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Later that night, there was a school dinner put on by the town mayor. They had a huge Paella, Rose wine and apple tart for dessert. We sat with some of the other parents while our kids ran around and ate together. Overall it was a lovely evening and a great way to close out the school year. The kids continue at school for one more week and finish school on July 3rd.

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