This is the second Christmas in México for Leslie and me, and this year is much busier than last. We’ve already had the Riviera Alta neighborhood Christmas party and the annual Carol Sing and Pot Luckat St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. We’re joining other families for Christmas dinner at the home of neighbors Barbara and John, and dropping into at least one “open house.”
We also enjoyed the CASA — Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic— Christmas party. Leslie presented in the “appetizer” category: Polenta Bites with Mushrooms. She overcame some problems with the polenta and won first place! Her presentation was very good, but the consensus was that the taste of the mushrooms was maravilloso (mara-vee-YOH-so, marvelous)!
And I’m not trying to brag here because my part in this is very small, but the St. Andrew’s choir has been hitting it out of the park the last few weeks. We did “Ave Maria” by William Gomez (a native of Gibraltar) a few weeks ago — in Spanish. Click on the link to hear a small choir (like ours). If you’re interested, go to this video to see the words at the bottom of the screen. Our friend Judy had people in tears with her soaring mezzo-soprano solo. We’ve worked hard on the Christmas Eve anthem: “There Is No Rose” by Philip Stopford. The chorus in that video performed a cappella, and we will too.
Here in México, Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is more important than Christmas Day. Families usually go to church for the Misa de Gallo (ME-sah day GAHY-oh), a late-night mass celebrating the Messiah’s birth. Family is very important to Méxicanos, especially on Nochebuena. A big family dinner may include tamales, pozole (poh-ZOH-ley, a hearty corn-based soup) or roasted chicken for most. Richer families may be able to afford a Spanish stew of dried cod and potatoes called bacalao a la vizcaina (bahk-ah-LAHO a la veez-cah-EEN-ah), or a dish called revoltijo (rev-ol-TEE-ho) that combines wild greens with dried shrimp fritters in a rich mole sauce. There’s more, like traditional turkey (pavo) with a rich stuffing based on ground meat or sausage, but I’m getting hungry!
Family members often exchange gifts on Nochebuena and the niños try to bust open a piñata. These are special piñatas with seven points, representing the seven deadly sins. The person trying to break the piñata is usually blindfolded to represent blind faith as a way to combat evil. Here’s a short video I took during the Christmas party at Olé México, where I’m taking Spanish classes:
The festivities often go into the wee hours — sometimes until dawn — with music playing constantly. That means Christmas Day is usually quiet, since most are still sleeping.
Leslie and I arrived in the Lake Chapala area of México on Nov. 1, 2018, and we’re about to celebrate our one-year anniversary here. We enjoy a great climate, excellent health care, terrific restaurants, lots of ways to stay active and involved, and a low cost-of-living. The guest room is ready, so come see us! Nuestra casa es su casa!
We’re staying pretty busy. I’ve joined the choir at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and Leslie is co-chair of this year’s Harvest Comida, a dinner that celebrates Thanksgiving — both the U.S. (November) and Canadian (October) versions. It’s one of the church’s most popular events.
Our garden is thriving, as long as I keep an eye out for leaf cutter ants. These nasty creatures come out at night and slice up the plants in our yard and our neighbors’. If I could find the nest, our grounds crew could wipe it out. But the nest seems to be in a rock wall that’s covered with bougainvillea so it’s nearly impossible to reach. I dust with powder regularly and that helps. While we were in San Diego for three weeks in the summer, these ants cleaned almost every leaf off the plants we put out just a few weeks earlier. Won’t let that happen again.
Day of the Dead is coming soon — a very important holiday in México. It’s definitely not the same as Halloween in the U.S. Dia de los Muertos is actually on two days, Nov. 1 and 2. Most gringos simply say, “If you want to understand this celebration, just watch the movie Coco.” Here’s a link to an article on the Ajijic News website, with details about Dia de los Muertos and other celebrations in October and November.
More on this celebration in the next post.
We still get lots of questions about how things work here for ex-pats. One of the most-asked questions is, “How do you get your mail?” Frankly, we don’t get much anymore. People we still deal with in the U.S. (doctors, financial advisors, etc.) communicate electronically. Leslie’s birthday was earlier this month, and a few people asked how to send a birthday card. Answer: Electronically! And most of you used email, text, Facebook or online greeting card services — thank you!
Since we sold our house in the U.S. over three years ago and started this journey we have used U.S. Global Mail to handle what little actual mail we receive. I’ve mentioned them before but it’s worth repeating — if you plan to relocate overseas or do extensive foreign travel, you should sign up for U.S. Global Mail. You can do that by clicking on one of the two previous links. Check out their website first, but when you’re ready to sign up please use one of these links so USGM will know I sent you to them.
Our mail goes to a Houston address. USGM emails me when we have mail and I can see a picture of it through my account on their website. I usually direct them to either throw it away or send it to me. If I’m not sure what it is, I ask them to open it and scan it. Most things get tossed. For important things, such as new credit/debit cards, USGM gives me many delivery options — FedEx, DHL, UPS and other carriers. I can see how much the delivery will cost, how long it will take to reach me and if I can track the shipment online. It’s not cheap, but it’s dramatically less than having a friend or relative take it to a FedEx office and ship it. Plus, I’m not imposing on anybody to do that for me. I’m paying a professional service I trust and depend upon. I highly recommend USGM.
We also get questions about health care, home ownership and safety. I’ll deal with those topics in later posts.
Leslie and I are cat-sitting in beautiful downtown San Diego while daughter Stephanie is enjoying a well-deserved vacation on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s sort of a vacation for us. We walked two blocks to Petco Park to see the San Diego Padres play the San Francisco Giants (Stephanie has a season ticket package).
The Padres lost, but it was a good game. On Independence Day, we watched fireworks from the crowded Embarcadero (a city park along the marina). Best of all, we’ve attended worship services at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on Coronado Island, where our friend Tom exclaimed, “Welcome Home!” the first time we walked in.
Dining out is one of the best things about living in San Diego. We’ve already been to some of our favorite places, such as the East Village location of Breakfast Republic and The Blind Burro. We still have a few places on our go-to list, but Stephanie recommended a new spot on J Street called Whip Hand for burgers. Leslie had a glass of wine with her burger, but I had to try their Beer Bank — you get a card to use at any of about 20 different self-serve taps, mostly local craft beers. You can pour as much or as little as you like and pay by the ounce. I poured a healthy taste of five different IPAs and spent roughly the same as buying one brew. Burgers and beers were excellent. We’ll be back.
We’ve also done some shopping for things that are hard to come by in Ajijic, like the shampoo I use for thinning hair — can’t buy it in Mexico (except through Amazon) so we’re “importing” some. Also, an optometrist in Ajijic warned me that soft contact lenses, unlike most things in Mexico, are about double the price we pay in the U.S. So I got a year’s supply from the Costco optical shop here in San Diego.
You may be wondering if the two recent California earthquakes caused any problems for us. Only in the most minor way. We barely felt the first one, a 6.5. The epicenter was hundreds of miles away so all we noticed was a slight movement. A day later there was a 7.1 that happened while we were driving home from shopping in Carlsbad and dinner at the Del Mar location of The Brigantine seafood restaurant. When we got home, we pulled into the parking garage and found the elevators were out of order. We were glad Stephanie’s condo is on the second floor and her parking space is on B1!
San Diego isn’t close to any active fault lines, so it’s rare to feel a quake in this area. But this one was strong enough to trigger the earthquake protocol on the elevators in our building. As we came out of the garage stairwell onto the ground floor, a resident taking his dog for a walk asked excitedly, “Didja feel it?” But we didn’t, since we were on the freeway at the time. We were only slightly inconvenienced by walking up two flights.
We’ve enjoyed taking care of Lewis and Piper, Stephanie’s two Maine Coon cats, and they seem to appreciate our attention. Lots more to do and see while we’re here. We’ll be driving to Los Angeles to pick up Stephanie on July 13 (for direct flights to and from Europe, LAX is better than SAN), then we have a few days to spend with her before we go home July 19. I must admit, I have enjoyed driving her BMW!
Apologies. It’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report until this past week or two. Now we’re very busy and getting things done!
The big news first: We may have found our new home! A few days ago Leslie and I looked at a new 3-bedroom, 3-bath home in Riviera Alta, one of our favorite communities in the Lake Chapala area. It has a great view of the lake to the south and the mountains to the north and west, so we’ll see amazing sunsets. It’s outside the central village of Ajijic so it’ll be a bit quieter, and some Canadian friends from church live right down the hill. Best of all, it’s unfurnished so we can bring all our furniture and household goods to Ajijic. We expect to sign a one-year lease next week, so nothing’s definite until then. More as things start to happen, but we are excited.
Leslie had a major role in the annual Italian Dinner fundraiser at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Feb. 1. She made her authentic Italian sauce, which is Stephanie’s favorite, for the featured lasagna. Not only did Leslie get a round of applause at the dinner, but one person spoke up Sunday morning during “parish time” after the service. This person was thrilled to have had a gluten-free vegetarian version of the lasagna and raved about how good it was. For everybody else, there were meatballs and Italian sausage. We learned Tuesday morning at the organic market that our friend Gregor, the sausage king of Lake Chapala, sold some Italian sausage to people who enjoyed the dinner so much they wanted to buy some. No, we didn’t get a commission.
The dinner was a big success, both in being a treat for taste buds and in raising funds for special projects around the church. Leslie and several other women on the Social and Hospitality Committee worked on the meal for three days straight. There was some leftover lasagna, which several people happily purchased to take home — that’s para llevar (PAR-ah yeah-VAHR) in Spanish.
I managed to stay out of the way by helping my friend Al tend bar, which is an important job! It was easy, though. We sold wine, beer, soda and water. The hard part for me was making change but I don’t think I shorted anybody. Wine, 40 pesos ($2 USD). Beer 25 pesos. Bottled water 10 pesos. I think Al said we went through almost 20 bottles of wine!
The Mexican fuel crisis, which you may have heard about, seems to be over. It reminded me of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that created shortages and long lines at U.S. gas stations. This gas shortage was caused by the Mexican government’s attempt to stop the theft of gasoline. For years, thieves have siphoned gas — lots of it — from government-owned pipelines, then sold it to the gas stations at a lower price than Pemex charged. It’s been going on for a long time, but new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as “AMLO”) is trying to root out corruption.
I shot this brief video of a line at the Pemex (the government-run oil company) station on Ajijic’s carretera (main road) about two weeks ago. I was eastbound at the time. You can see the line on the other side of the westbound lane of traffic. It’s a little hard to see until there’s a break in traffic, but there are probably 20 to 30 cars waiting. Here it is:
This is a very short line, comparatively. About a week before I shot this, I waited 45 minutes in line at the BP station on the libramiento (bypass). By the time I got to the pump, they only had premium and I could get just 500 pesos worth (about $26 USD). That gave me half a tank, but I continued to look for opportunities to fill up. One day when I was taking Leslie to a friend’s house, we noticed the BP station west of Ajijic was pumping. And there weren’t even 10 cars in line. Then we saw a tanker truck at the Pemex station just down the road and I knew I was in luck. On my way back home, I pulled into the Pemex station with only two cars ahead of me.
The traffic is horrible here and the roads are bad, so this added insult to injury. But if this is the biggest problem we have — well, we can have a glass of wine and watch the sunset! Even if January was fraught with the gas crisis, the Lakeside Weather website shows the lowest overnight low temperature so far in 2019 is 54.1°F. and the daytime high so far this year is 78.8°F. To our friends in the Chicago area: Come on down! If you just want to feel cold, we’ll use the Celsius scale and say it’s 25° (77° F.).
Finally, we’re both working on our Spanish and looking forward to the Northern Lights Festival, which begins this week. It’s a series of classical music concerts by talented young performers from around the world. We bought tickets for four concerts. More on that next time.
The vagabond years are over. Leslie and I are headed for our new home — Ajijic, Mexico. As the temperatures dropped here in Chicago’s western suburbs over the past few weeks, we have enjoyed seeing the beautiful fall colors. However, we didn’t expect to see snow flurries. It’s a sure sign we stayed in the Frozen North too long!
We’ve been in the U.S. since mid-July, and we’ve accomplished a lot. For example, Leslie has excellent vision now, thanks to Dr. Lafayette’s cataract surgery, and she was able to spend quality time with her two sisters and daughter Stephanie. The best thing about being here so long is that we were able to have great breakfasts, lunches and dinners, some at old “favorite” places, with our many friends in the western suburbs. And we can both hit the road with excellent haircuts! Thanks, Traci!
We also enjoyed worshipping with our friends at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, where Director of Music Dan Wagner has begun a monthly Evensong. If you like great choral music, you will love the Grace Evensong series. And we had a ball visiting The Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see the trolls. If you live in Chicagoland — or if you plan to visit here — you gotta go see the trolls! (See big photos below.) This terrific, slightly quirky, display of art will be at the Arboretum until the end of 2018 and possibly longer.
People who learn of our plans often ask, “When are you coming back?” We’ve been approved for Permanent Resident status in Mexico, so we don’t expect to come back! We may return to the U.S. for a two-week vacation next summer to see family and friends. We might also vacation in Europe. Realistically, though, we’ll remain at least one full year in Ajijic and evaluate after we’ve experienced all the seasons.
Many of you have asked if the blog will continue. Definitely, yes! And I hope you’ll continue to follow us. Leslie and I already have plans to join friends in Léon, Mexico, for an international hot-air balloon festival in mid-November, so we expect to have lots of things to tell you about during our first full year of non-vagabondness. (That may not be an actual word, but it’s really descriptive!) And, of course, all our friends have a standing invitation to visit us south of the border.
Now it’s goodbye to the U.S.A. Next post from Ajijic!
Earlier today (Wednesday, Aug. 29), Leslie and I picked up our visas from the Mexican consulate here in Chicago. The folks there were very helpful and easy to work with. Thanks, Jorge, for all your assistance! Oh, sorry — I mean, gracias por todos, Jorge! Now we can purchase plane tickets for our flight to Guadalajara, probably on Oct. 31.
Once we arrive, we’ll have 30 days to appear at the immigration office in Chapala and complete the two-step process for our permanent resident cards. Those cards identify us as legal permanent residents of Mexico. We can come and go as we choose, and there’s no need to renew.
Last week, we sent in a deposit and signed a six-month lease on a casita in Ajijic. It’s new construction on Privada Independencia with three casitas. We got #1, which is closest to the street. We’re excited about moving into this place. There are two bedrooms, two baths, a nicely equipped kitchen, water filtration system, washer and dryer, and a mirador shared with the other casitas (remember, that’s an outdoor space on the roof, usually covered and with a view).
We’re looking forward to reconnecting with St. Andrew’s Anglican Church and the people we met there a year ago. Hope they still have our name tags! This is a vital church that does a lot of good work in the community, and we hope to find ways in which we can contribute.
Finally, Leslie had cataract surgery yesterday (Tuesday, Aug. 28) on her left eye and is really excited at how well she can see just a day after surgery. Her doctor is very pleased with her progress. Final step is a visit with an optometrist in about a month to see if she will need glasses for reading or driving. Hopefully not!
We’ll keep you posted as the time approaches for us to leave for our new home. The vagabond days are almost over!
Apologies, all. I neglected to provide a pronunciation for this energetic city in which we’re living through the end of June. If you took any French classes in high school or college, you probably know Montpellier is pronounced: moan-pell-YEA.
Leslie and I are getting into the French lifestyle, and it has its advantages. Notably, the idea of joie de vivre (zwah-du-VEEV-ruh), or “joy of living.” Leslie has done a bit of research on this concept. It’s all about enjoying life, nature, good food, fine wine. Work is less important than having a leisurely meal with friends, and it’s fine if that’s a two-hour lunch. Actually, work is less important than just about everything, which is counter to the culture we left behind in the States and we like it a lot.
Through Airbnb, we have a nice one-bedroom apartment with a comfortable bed, a big-screen TV and a decent kitchen. The refrigerator, however, is quite small. Once at the nearby grocery store I commented on something that looked delicious. “There’s no room in the fridge,” Leslie responded. So I stopped suggesting. Anyway, she picks the food, I’m just the pack mule.
So we’re adjusting to how the French live. They visit the markets almost daily, buying food for tonight’s dinner and maybe tomorrow’s breakfast. But many shops are closed (or have limited hours) Sunday, and many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday. You have to plan appropriately.
And the markets are amazing. Across the street from our apartment is the Halles Castellane, an enclosed market that’s open daily with stalls for a variety of vendors: fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, cheese, fresh fish, dried fruits, pastries, even wine. One produce vendor sells fresh-squeezed orange juice — 5.90 euros ($6.94 USD) for a liter. Expensive, but it’s the best OJ in town! There are a couple of cheese vendors, but we like Les Marie because the young woman who runs the stand speaks a little English and is helping us try different French cheeses, like comté and appenzeller. Leslie was over the moon when she found her all-time favorite roquefort — the real stuff.
The Marché des Arceaux, a short walk away, is an open-air market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. It’s more like our favorite Saturday morning farmers market in Downers Grove — and just as crowded. You can buy almost anything here. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we got some gallettes (like a potato pancake — great lunch), some pâte de fruit (fruit candies), and a nice chunk of smoked ham with roasted vegetables. We also bought a bottle of wine and some olive oil from a woman who told us she grows the olives and presses the oil herself. Vendors set up their tents under the 18th-century aqueduct that once brought the city’s water 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from the Saint-Clément spring to the water tower in Place Royale du Peyrou.
We’ve also learned more about the wines made in Languedoc-Rousillion, which is an area of more than 700,000 acres under vines. It is the single biggest wine region in the world, producing more than a third of France’s total wine production. You can get Languedoc-Rousillion wines in the States (see our friend Sean at Hinsdale Wine Shop!) but Leslie and I are focusing on wineries near Montpellier — especially from Pic Saint Loup (a mountain about 15 minutes northeast of Montpellier). There’s a wine shop right around the corner from our place, Maison Regionale des Vins, where they speak a little English and are eager to help us find great local wines, many of which come from the Pic Saint Loup appellation.
We spent a morning recently at Domaine Haut-Lirou, riding in a 4X4 with new friend Nicholas to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The vines are bright green and growing like crazy right now. There’s been a lot of rain lately, which is good. Most of the vines have already set fruit, and we could see the beginnings of grapes. Their wines are excellent. We came home with four bottles! We’re planning more wine tours over the next few weeks.
Finally, we’ve found an English-speaking non-denominational church. When I stumbled upon the website for International Chapel I thought most of the photos showed young people — college-age or slightly older. And highly diverse. Not many people that look like me or Leslie. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our place, so we went. Yep, mostly students and no old people. But this was one of the warmest, most outgoing congregations we’ve encountered yet. We met a couple with three kids from The Netherlands, here because of his job. We met a young woman from Papua who’s just wrapping up her Ph.D. We met a guy who grew up in Montpellier but is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a baby. Diverse? Yep again. Black, white, brown, yellow and mixtures of the above, from lots of different countries. It truly is an international church.
We talked extensively with Pastor John and his wife Robyn, who have been serving International Chapel for 14 years. Turns out John grew up in Hinsdale! The church is in a very small space on the ground floor of an apartment building just outside the historic district. Their services don’t include much liturgy. Just several songs, some prayer, a sermon and a closing song. We like the church, the people, and the energy. We’ll go back over the coming weeks.
Next time, I’ll tell you more about the history of Montpellier and about some of the places Leslie and I have been able to visit — like the 13th-century Jewish ritual bath.
Last weekend (May 26-28), Leslie and I rented a car and drove back to Florence. That’s an eight-hour drive through two countries and lots of tunnels! But it was worth it to spend a whole day with our dear friends Julie and Dave Kronbach.
When Julie and Dave lived in Naperville, Ill., we all attended Grace United Methodist Church. Leslie and Julie became fast friends when they were roommates on the church’s annual youth mission trip. And Julie somehow convinced me to serve on the Stewardship & Finance Committee. (Can you imagine? ME on the finance committee?!?!) She and Dave moved to the Denver area several years ago to be closer to family. Leslie and I last saw them about five years ago when we drove to Prior Lake, Minn., to spend a few days with them at their lake house.
If you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, you’ve seen the picture of the four of us in front of the Duomo. Julie and Dave were in Florence with Julie’s sister Susie and husband Mike. The four of them took a Mediterranean cruise and had a few days on their own after it ended. We met Julie and Dave about 10 a.m. Sunday in front of the Duomo and looked around for a place to chat and get an espresso. We found a nice al fresco spot on the piazza and stayed there almost all day, talking and catching up.
At some point shortly after noon, I realized our waitress was looking at our table often. I imagined her thinking, “Are they ever going to leave?” It wasn’t long before one of us had a great idea: Let’s get some menus. So we enjoyed an excellent lunch there and kept talking until we decided to check out two possible dinner locations, both of which Leslie and I discovered during our initial visit to Florence.
After reviewing the menus in both restaurants, we chose Le Botteghe di Donatello for its diverse offerings, outdoor seating and view of the Duomo. Susie and Mike joined us for our goodbye meal, and we enjoyed meeting and getting to know them. Leslie and I got back in the car Monday morning for another eight-hour drive while they took a train to Rome for their flight home.
What a great day we had, sharing the events of the past few years and renewing our friendship with these delightful people. Now we’re back in Montpellier, learning more about living in France. Until next time…
On our last day in Rome, Leslie and I spent some time at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Michelangelo’s work on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as his Pieta, completed when he was only 24.
This was the second time Leslie has seen the Pieta. The first was at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The sculpture is stunning in its intricacy, and inspiring in its subject matter. As I tried to get a decent photo, which is difficult since the statue is protected by plexiglass, I noticed a young man make the sign of the cross right after taking a picture. His reverence was balanced, however, by those who felt they just had to get a selfie with the madonna.
Laura, our amazing tour guide, explained that Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So when Pope Julius II hired him to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he refused. Turns out it’s hard to say no to any pope, so in 1508 Michelangelo started the project that would keep him on his back for four years. As Laura pointed out, painting frescoes is difficult because you must paint on wet stucco. Once the stucco dries, it’s too late. So he painted on wet stucco on a rickety scaffold about 60 feet above the marble floor. Is it any wonder the artist started dictating to the pope what he would and would not do?
But the ceiling, with the creation of Adam as the iconic focus, was just the first contribution Michelangelo would make to the chapel. Between 1535 and 1541, he also painted The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, on commission from Pope Paul III. While he was working on it, Michelangelo crossed swords with a powerful cardinal over the nude figures in the painting. But Michelangelo was older now, highly respected and powerful in his own right. He painted the cardinal’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. When the cardinal complained to the pope about this, the pontiff said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so — no changes. Moral: You don’t mess with Mike! Michelangelo also painted his own face in the work, on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew. (Click on the link in this paragraph to see the whole work and get lots of details. Fascinating stuff!)
Probably the coolest thing about the Sistine Chapel, though, is that this is where the conclave of cardinals meets whenever it becomes necessary to elect a new pope. I recall a great scene from the 1968 movie “Shoes of the Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn plays a Russian cardinal who attends the conclave only weeks after being released from a Soviet gulag. Nobody’s winning, even after lots of politicking and a number of failed votes. Suddenly, one cardinal makes an impassioned speech in which he practically deifies Cardinal Kiril, who isn’t even one of the candidates. His speech sways other cardinals, who end up proclaiming Kiril as pope despite his vigorous refusals (“My brothers, I beg you! Do not do this!”).
I would love to show you the incredible, high-resolution, professional-quality pictures I took of Michelangelo’s works. But The Vatican doesn’t allow photography in the Sistine Chapel. You can go to the Vatican Museum’s website to see what it looks like. And Khan Academy has a site that is very educational.
We ended the tour in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Laura told us the basilica was built on the site believed to be where the Apostle Peter was martyred. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same way Christ died. The Vatican claims Peter’s tomb is under the basilica’s altar. Therefore, only the pope can say mass at this altar.
The rest of the Vatican Museum was interesting — a good warmup act, if you will. Works of art in sculpture, painting, mosaic and tapestry. Gallery after gallery of stuff. Impressive, but in a way it made us think the church could sell off a small portion of these treasures and help the poor. Isn’t that what Christ wants us to do? I’m just sayin’.
So it’s time to bid farewell to Rome. It will be a pleasure because Leslie and I have been sharing a summer cold during our time here. Now we move on to Florence (Firenze in Italian), birthplace of the Renaissance, and hope for better health.
Next post from Florence, and more about Michelangelo.
Shortly after arriving in Italy’s capital, Leslie and I climbed the Spanish Steps and gazed out across the city. “We’re in Rome,” she beamed as she grabbed my arm. Okay, we’ve been to many of the major cities in Western Europe by now, so a new town really shouldn’t be making us giddy. But there really is something special about this place. After all, we’re walking in the steps of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren. Lots of other folks, too.
There’s a lot going on in this town. More tourists than downtown Chicago in July! We’ve seen ancient wonders like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, as well as more recent tourist sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, both of which were an easy walk from our hotel.
We started with the Colosseum. Our outstanding guide Roberta explained that the world’s largest amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian to get rid of a lake and some buildings put up by Nero after he burned Rome. Construction started in 70 C.E., just after the Empire destroyed Jerusalem. Jewish slaves got the whole thing done in just nine years. Impressive. Vespasian got it started, his son Titus finished the amazing arena.
Events in the Colosseum were free, part of the empire’s way of keeping the populace in check — give them free bread and free sports. There were exotic animals fighting each other, simple executions and gladiatorial contests — the main event. Gladiators fought for three years. If they survived, they won their freedom. That doesn’t mean they went at it every day. Roberta said gladiators only had to fight four or five times a year.
The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people — some say as many as 80,000. Even though it was free, you had to have a ticket that provided a reserved seat in the proper section.
The best seats were reserved for the emperor, top government officials and wealthy citizens. The good seats were for the middle class, while ordinary folks were higher up. Slaves and women — because they really didn’t count — got the nose-bleed seats (women of wealthy families could sit with their husbands in the better seats, of course).
Roberta then took us through the Roman Forum, where we saw several temples to pagan gods and a massive victory arch celebrating the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
We also saw the Capitaline Hill, where the Roman Senate once met and which is still home to one of the most important Italian national government buildings. The Forum was a marketplace for ideas as well as consumer goods.
We finished the day at The Pantheon, which was originally built “to honor all gods” but now it’s part tourist trap and part Christian church. Originally built in the first century B.C.E., it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the second century C.E. Parts of it, though, are over 2,000 years old, including the marble floor, the stunning facade and the beautiful dome, which is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. (Yeah, the Romans had concrete.) The dome really is an architectural masterpiece. If you can tear your eyes away from it for a moment, you’ll notice lots of other people looking up and gaping. Great design.
Finally, a bit about Rome itself. Many of the streets are tiny, almost alley-like. But cars and scooters use them at will, meaning pedestrians do not always have the right-of-way. We sat down in the outside seating at one little restaurant and had cars going by less than a foot away from our table. We moved inside, but only because it started to rain. Drivers are stunningly aggressive. The only time they back off is for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Drivers have to stop — it’s the law. If you’re not in a crosswalk, though, stay alert or get run over.
Our hotel is in an area where there are lots of restaurants; one on nearly every corner — sometimes three in one block. The menus are much the same everywhere: antipasti, first course pasta, second course meat or fish. And pizza, of course. No, Roman pizza is not better than Neopolitan pizza. They both taste really good, but I still need to check the pizza quality in Florence. So far, we have not had a bad meal in Italy. And Rick Steves is right about one thing — in Italian restaurants, the pasta is always perfectly al dente.
The downside to Italy in general, in my humble opinion, is that pretty much everybody smokes. There are limits, such as no smoking in restaurants or public buildings, and not on trains. But just about every restaurant has outdoor seating, and smoking outside is OK. Well, not if your table is right next to mine. Also, while waiting for a train one day in Naples, we looked down at the track and saw that it was littered with butts. It’s hard to walk down a street and not smell smoke. Big downside.
I’ll leave you with a few additional photos and this short movie of the Colosseum. Leslie shot this with her phone. It may go into your “downloads” and you’ll have to look for it there.