Monday Book Review: The Dance: A Story of Love, Faith, and Survival by Joan Aubele

Long-time readers of my blog know I usually review middle grade and young adult books on Monday, but every once in a while, I review something for adults, too. Today is one of those days! :)

I’ll be very upfront and tell you I may be a bit biased about this book as it’s written by my cousin and godmother Joan Aubele. :) But even without the family connections, I think anyone who has endured a devastating cancer diagnosis in their family will be able to relate to Joan’s experiences and find comfort and inspiration in her story.

IMG_5876Title: The Dance: A Story of Love, Faith, and Survival

Author: Joan Aubele

Genre: Memoir

Synopsis: At the age of twenty-nine, Joan Aubele is diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (a.k.a. “childhood leukemia”). She is told to say good-bye to her husband and three young girls and to prepare for her funeral, but she and her husband Carl decide to fight the cancer anyway. It’s not an easy fight. Time and time again, Joan and her family are warned that death may be near, but their faith in God keeps them moving forward, and somehow miracles (one even worked through a prayer intention brought to the Blessed Mother at Medjugorje) seem to save her from the brink of death.

My mom is Joan’s godmother, and one of the most striking parts of this book for me is how similar their stories are. Both my mom and Joan were diagnosed with cancer when they were married and had small children at home. Both worried that they wouldn’t live to see their kids grow up. Both have endured “mini strokes” (TIAs), but both have now lived at least 25 years since their first cancer diagnosis (my mom has had numerous kinds of cancer), and both have lived to see their children and their grandchildren. Most importantly, both have a very strong faith in God. I truly believe it is their Catholic faith that has seen them through these harrowing experiences.

At a little over 100 pages, The Dance is a quick read, but in that short time, it will leave a lasting impression on your heart. These are unforgettable people enduring extremely trying hardships. If you or someone you know is facing a cancer diagnosis, this lovely memoir will help them remember that they are not alone.

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Why I’m Such a Star Wars Geek

I promised on Facebook that one day I’d write a blog post about why I’m such a Star Wars geek.

Well, be careful what you promise on Facebook. :)

Ginny Marie of Lemon Drop Pie saw my post and decided to use it for this week’s Spin Cycle prompt. This week we’re talking about what makes us geeky, and for me that’s definitely Star Wars. But why?

These are my action figures. Not my brothers. :)

These are my action figures. Not my brothers’ actions figures. :)

My students already know part of the answer to this. Every spring in my sixth grade reading class, we end the year with a fantasy/mythology unit that asks the big question: “What makes someone a hero?” And in this unit, we talk about how Joseph Campbell, a renowned anthropologist, studied the myths and tales of cultures around the world. After years of comparing what tales had been told century after century, he discovered that all cultures have hero stories, and those hero stories have a lot of similarities.

He came to the conclusion that all hero myths could basically be combined into one “super myth,” a monomyth that incorporates all the major events that have occurred in hero stories around the world for as long as stories have been told. Campbell then wrote about this theory in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he describes the seventeen key elements that are in hero stories (although not all hero stories have all seventeen elements).

George Lucas had studied Campbell’s work and used it to create the plot of Star Wars. If you’d like to read about how Star Wars fits into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, you can read my blog posts about it here, here, and here.

So part of why I’m such a big Star Wars geek is that I love a great hero story. I love hearing about a character who is brave enough to leave his own safe homeland in order to fight evil in a dangerous world far away. This also explains my love of Harry Potter, by the way.

However, I think there’s more to my Star Wars love than just the fact that it’s a great hero story. It’s also a story with great characters. I mean, who doesn’t love a feisty princess who can shoot a gun and handle a smart-alecky pilot? And who doesn’t love a smart-alecky pilot who also has a soft spot?

Princess Leia and Han Solo

And what about the wookie? I mean, what is a wookie? I don’t know, but I love him! And I admit to liking Ewoks, too. I know some people thought the Ewoks were a bit childish, but I like ’em! They’re cute but tough.

Chewbacca and Ewok

And who can resist two droids who bicker all the time but are really best friends and would be lost without one another? (Does anyone else think Carson and Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey are a little like C-3PO and R2-D2? There was always something of the British butler about 3PO.)

C3PO

And then there’s the setting! See, the trick about taking the old hero story and turning it into something new is finding a way to make it really fresh for the audience. Lucas accomplished this by making what is called a “space  opera” or “space western.” He grew up in the age of cowboy movies, so to him, Star Wars was basically an old cowboy movie set in outer space.

But how great is that?!? Take what we’re really familiar with (a princess, a bad boy who’s really good, a good boy who tries but fails, and a villain clad in black with a mysterious past) and put them into a situation we’ve never seen before (space stations as big as planets) and with characters we’ve never met (alien creatures that can actually tug at our heart strings). This is what makes a winning story! This is why the same basic hero story can be told time and time again. As long as the writer does something new with it, the whole story feels new.

One last reason I’m a Star Wars geek: it’s a story with a lot of heart. I love stories that move me. I want to care about the characters. I want them to feel like friends I’ve known forever. I want to root for them when they’re down and cheer for them when they finally succeed. I think Lucas succeeded with this because he made the core of his story a family story. In the end, Star Wars is about a family–a father and his twin children, all mourning the death of the mother–who follow very different paths but wind up together in the end!

For those reasons, I’m completely geeking out over the new Star Wars movie that comes out in December. I’ve got pretty high hopes because director J.J. Abrams did a really nice job when he tackled the Star Trek franchise. He seems to be a big Star Wars fan, and from the glimpses I’ve seen it looks like he’s going to stick with the kind of storytelling that made us all fall in love with the original trilogy.

Also, he’s brought back a lot of the old cast. One of the reasons I think the Star Wars prequels that came out 15 years ago or so didn’t do so well is that we were missing out on the characters we had grown to love. C-3PO, R2-D2, and Yoda were the only characters tying us back to the originals. But in this new movie, we’re going to get Han, Leia, Luke, and Chewbacca back again. It’s like getting to see old friends that you’ve been parted from for a long time!

How about you? Are you as excited about the new Star Wars movie as I am? Or is there something else you geek out about?

Find out what others are geeking out about on this week’s Spin Cycle. Click the link below to discover more geek stories.

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How to get a bus from Rome to Siena

During the Mi Piace, Mi Gusta tour of Italy and Spain, there were several times when I was trying to find information online and couldn’t get it, and I thought, “Someday I’m going to write a blog post about this to save some other poor traveler from my frustration!” Well, today’s the day!

When I researched getting from Rome to Siena, all the info I could find online said it was best to take a bus. This is unusual because often a train is the best way to get between European cities that are too close to warrant a flight. However, there’s no good train that goes to the small hillside town of Siena.

So what bus do you take? And where do you get that bus?

Well, today’s your lucky day! Here’s how you get the bus from Rome to Siena!

The bus line you want is the Sena bus line. Here is their website. However, I found their website a little confusing, so I asked my Italian landlady if she knew much about it. She only spoke Italian, so between the website and my limited ability to understand spoken Italian, I was able to piece it together. She also suggested I take a trip out to the bus station to purchase the tickets ahead of time and figure out my way around. I’m glad I did because the bus station in Rome is large! Here’s the scoop to make it easier for you.

The Sena bus line can be found at the Tiburtina station. This is on the northeast end of Rome. This is not the big Termini station in the city center, but it is a very big station nonetheless. In fact, at the Tibutina station, you’ll find Metro lines (the subway system in Rome), regular city buses, “big” trains (like the high-speed ones between cities in Italy), and a whole bunch of coach buses like the Sena one you’ll want for Siena.

Step 1–Get to the Tiburtina station. If you don’t know how to get there, I suggest using the MoovIt app on your smart phone to help you out. In fact, I used MoovIt many times in Rome, Florence, and Madrid to help me navigate public transportation systems in Europe.

Step 2–Find the Sena buses at the Tiburtina Station. I’m not going to lie. This is a little easier said than done. I had taken a regular city bus to Tiburtina. It let me off in front of the station (along with a half dozen or so other city bus lines that ended at Tiburtina). I walked inside the huge station and found Metro lines downstairs and a whole slew of inter-city trains upstairs. The station went on and on. It has shops, restaurants, and washrooms insides. But I couldn’t figure out where the Sena bus line was. Finally, I went back to the entrance and asked a guy at a news stand where the buses to Siena where. He told me to go “across the street.”

Okay, so here’s the deal. If you’re facing the Tiburtina station and your back is to the spot where all the city buses drop you off, you’re going to want to go to your left. You’ll see a street that runs under some highway roads.

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In this photo, the Tiburtina station is to your right, and the city buses would be to your left. You want to walk straight ahead.

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Walk under those highway roads you see up ahead. Cross the street that runs under them, then turn to you right.

Go across this street. You won’t see any buses at first. You’ll see bushes and trees on the other side of the street. Turn to your right and walk a little ways. You’ll soon see a whole bunch of coach buses. Believe it or not, you don’t want those buses either!

On your left, you’ll see this sidewalk with a blue canopy cover. Walk all the way through that canopy-covered sidewalk.

Walk under the canopied sidewalk on the left of this photo. You're almost there!

You don’t want the buses on the right side of this photo. Instead, walk under the canopied sidewalk on the left of this photo. You’re almost there!

On the other side, you’ll see a bunch more buses! The Sena bus to Siena was at “Stallo 5.”

Your Sena bus at Stallo 5!

Your Sena bus at Stallo 5!

Across from each “stallo,” you’ll see a bunch of little ticket offices with sliding doors. Go to the one directly across from Stallo 5. It should say Sena on it somewhere. Sena is connected with some other bus lines, so you’ll probably see a sign that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 5.57.44 PMGo inside and buy your tickets. You can purchase them ahead of time or right before (assuming there are still seats available). The bus will be at Stallo 5 right across from where you just bought your ticket.

Here’s a map to help you find the Sena bus stop (marked by the yellow star) when you get dropped off by a city bus (marked by the blue arrow) in front of the Tiburtina station.

Map to bus for Siena

When you get to Siena, you’ll probably want to get off at Piazza Gramsci. This popular bus stop is just north of the city center (Plaza del Campo) by about a 10-minute walk. You won’t find another bus stop that gets you closer to the city center.

And remember that Siena is a hill town, so wear your good walking shoes! Have fun!

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Monday Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

One of my favorite things to read is a middle grade mystery with puzzles that the reader can play along with, and Chris Grabenstein delivers just such a treat in his Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. (And seeing how I’ve just returned from a trip to Italy where I partook of a bit of limoncello, this book seemed like the perfect choice for my next Monday book review. 😉 )

LemoncelloTitle: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Author: Chris Grabenstein

Genre: mystery

Age group: middle grade

Synopsis: Kyle Keeley loves playing all sorts of games, especially board games designed by his hero Luigi Lemoncello. After Mr. Lemoncello designs the new town library, Kyle wins one of the 12 coveted spots to participate in a special “library lock-in” to celebrate its opening. However, Mr. Lemoncello has created a special game for this lock-in. The kids have to solve a series of riddles and puzzles in order to get out of the library. Whoever gets out first will star in a commercial for Mr. Lemoncello’s next board game!

I really enjoyed how much the reader can play along with the puzzles in this book. To me, a mystery isn’t fun if you can’t play detective along with the main character. Author Chris Grabenstein does a nice job of making many of these games “playable” with Kyle. I also enjoyed how he integrated many popular children’s book titles into the games and into Mr. Lemoncello’s speech. Grabenstein made use of classic titles like Anne of Green Gables (you know I’d like that!) and newer books I love like When You Reach Me.

The one little thing I wish were different about the book is that I wish there were more at stake than starring in a commercial. As an author myself, I’ve read many times that you have to decide what “terrible thing” will happen to your character if he does not succeed in his goal. Otherwise, why do we care? For that reason, the beginning of the book felt a little slow to me. I didn’t know why I should care if Kyle won this game or not. When I found out that the only thing at stake was starring in a commercial, it seemed a little shallow. Perhaps, if there’d been a financial prize, and Kyle’s family needed the money to keep their house or something, then I might’ve felt a bit more invested.

Fortunately, the riddles the kids have to solve were fun enough to keep a book lover like me entertained. Also, the library that Lemoncello (or really Grabenstein) dreams up is very cool, and I’d love to visit a library like that someday.

If you (or a kid you know) loves to read and solve puzzles, I’d definitely recommend this book. There’s even a fun puzzle-within-the-puzzle for the reader to solve at the end of the story.

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 24: Holy Toledo!

Did you know the expression “Holy Toledo” came from the hilly town of Toledo, Spain?  It was one of the few places Jews weren’t persecuted in Europe. They thought of it as a holy town . . . hence, holy Toledo!

Well, holy Toledo, it was hot in that little town today! Katie and I took the high-speed train out from Madrid to Toledo. The ride only lasted 30 minutes, but Katie and I almost missed it. We had bought tickets for the 10:30 train and had stopped near Puerta del Sol for some breakfast first. We had planned to take the underground Metro to the high-speed train, but the nice people at the breakfast place told us about a faster train (Renfe), which would get us to the high-speed train in only one underground stop. Good thing because by the time we figured out where to catch the Renfe and then where to find the high-speed train we were running between stations with only minutes before our departure.

Murphy’s Law was in action as our train was, of course, on the very last track (Number 16, thank you), and our reserved seats were on the very last coach. We sat down in our seats just moments before the train took off.

Thirty minutes later, we were in Toledo. If you’ve been in any of the small hillside towns in Italy (Assisi, Siena, San Gemignano), you’ll have at least an idea of what Toledo is like.

It’s that old medieval town with the wall around it and narrow, winding streets that are easy to lose your direction in.

After grabbing a quick coffee for me and juice for Katie, we headed off to the cathedral. Toledo used to be the capital of Spain, so its cathedral was of upmost importance. Hence, it is extremely impressive and took over 200 years to build. Katie and I used the free audio guides that came with our admission tickets.

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I love this statue of Mary with Jesus!

I love this statue of Mary with Jesus!

There is so much detail in every  piece of artwork in this church that it’s hard to fathom how many people spent thousands upon thousands of hours creating everything for this church. Everywhere you  look is something amazing to gaze at and contemplate.

After our cathedral visit, we stopped at a place Katie used to go to when she was a student here in Madrid. We had a light tapas lunch with a sangria-like drink and then snacks that included fries with ketchup and mayonnaise as well as little ham sandwiches.

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When we walked out of the bar, it was so incredibly hot it felt like we were walking through walls of heat. According to our calculations, we believe the Farhenheit version of the temp we saw displayed outside was 106 degrees. Katie wanted to take photos of a bridge she remembered going over the river, but we couldn’t stand walking along the river for long with the sun beating down on us.

Finally, we decided to try another Rick Steves’s suggstion and take a city  bus that looped around the city and offered views of the gorge around it. The bus stop was nearby so we hopped on, glad to have abandoned the heat for a bit.

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Before long, we had circled most of the city and had traveled a bit south. We looped around a hospital and then started back on the route we had come down. One other girl had gotten on the bus at the hospital. Other than that, Katie and I were the only other two people on the bus.

In Spanish, the bus driver yelled back at us, “What stop are you getting off?”

Katie explained that we wanted to go right back to where we had started and that we were just taking  pictures of the city. The bus driver made us each pay for another ticket. We only spent a total of 30 minutes on the bus, but had to pay twice!

After our bus ride, we decided to visit the Santa Cruz museum. It was another way to escape the heat. Sadly, only half of its exhibits were actually open, but we did get to see some more El Greco paintings (we had seen some in Madrid yesterday).

Then we got ice cream and did a little shopping. We tried to go to a Rick Steves’s suggestion for dinner, but it wasn’t open. Then we tried to find a monastery where they sold mazapan, but they  were closed.

Hot and exhausted, we found a coffee and tea shop open and each had some iced tea. Then we tried the recommended restaurant again. The automatic door slid open when Katie stepped in front of it, but there was only one man seated at a table inside. There was a hostess standing near the back.

“Abierto?” (Open?) Katie asked.

Yes! They were open! As a bonus, the hostess spoke both Spanish and English, and we got a really good deal on a yummy  tapas dinner with wine and dessert. A really nice final dinner for our trip!

Another 30-minute high-speed train ride, and a short Renfe ride, and we were back in the heart of Madrid.

It’s back home to Chicago tomorrow! I’ll have some wrap-up and bonus posts when I return.

Thanks to everyone who’s been following along!

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 23: Non ho le parole! (I don’t have the words!)

I don’t have the words to describe today, so instead I will just list what happened.

1. On our way to find breakfast, we saw Kermit the Frog walking through the Plaza del Mayor. I should have known right then that it was going to be a strange day.

2. We had breakfast. I ordered in Spanish: “Numero quattro. Cafe con leche.” (Breakfast #4. Coffee with milk.)

Numero quattro with cafe con leche

Numero quattro with cafe con leche

3. As we walked through Puerta del Sol, we saw Homer Simpson. (Maybe he should go hang out with Kermit.) A few minutes later, a bird po0ped on me. We went back to  the hostel for me to clean my clothes and to wash my hair. Again.

4. We went to the Prado Museum. I didn’t know we couldn’t take photos until after I took this one of Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation. Interestingly, no one stopped me from taking this photo, but a few minutes later, when I was reading about a different painting from the Rick Steves’s book on my iPhone, a woman who worked for the museum came up to me and said in Spanish (Thank goodness for Katie’s translation) that I should hold my phone down near my waist while reading so that it doesn’t look like I’m taking a picture and then the guards watching on the video walkie-talkie her to stop me.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

5. After miles of art, we stopped at a bar for more coffee (we needed itto refuel for the next museum) plus some cake (I ordered the “pudding cake” recommended by a local. Note to self: always get what the locals recommend.)

6. Then we got to the Reina Sofia museum of modern art, where I was stumped once again as to why Picasso and Dali are so famous.

7. Then we followed one of Rick Steves’s recommended tapas routes. We went to three of his spots, but only one was good!

Calamari and sangria

Calamari and sangria

8. Then for some unknown reason, we went to an Argentinian ice cream place he recommended. It was a twenty-minute walk away. We passed several other ice cream shops along the way only to discover the one Rick Steves recommended was closed, even though the sign said it was open. Third fail of the night, Rick Steves!

This store doesn't look open. The sign lies.

This store doesn’t look open. The sign lies.

9. We headed back to our hotel and stopped at a frozen  yogurt spot along the way. It was actual yogurt, not the sweet stuff we think of as frozen yogurt.

 

Ugh!

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 22: El Domingo Ocupado (The Busy Sunday)

You would think that with temperatures in the 100s that Katie and I would be taking it easy in Spain. Despite drinking lots of water and walking slowly, we still managed to fit in a lot today.

This morning for breakfast we stopped at a cafe right next to our hostel for churros with chocolate and coffee (caffe con leche for Katie and cappuccino for me). The churros were not as sweet as the Mexican-style ones we see a lot in Chicago, and the chocolate wasn’t inside the churro. It came in a mug that you dipped your churro into. It was good, but after a while, my stomach told me I’d had enough fried goodness for one morning! I was actually glad the cappuccino was a little more bitter than the ones I had in Italy.

That's not coffee. That's a mug of chocolate.

That’s not coffee. That’s a mug of chocolate.

This is a cappuccino in Spain. Not as good as Italy, but still better than Starbucks.

This is a cappuccino in Spain. Not as good as Italy, but still better than Starbucks.

After breakfast, we walked through the Plaza del Mayor again on our way to church. This morning it had sort of a mini flea market feel to it. There were lots of tables of people selling collectible stamps and coins, as well as currency from various European countries before the Euro took over.

We arrived at church (San Isidro) about 20 minutes early, so we had time to walk around. It’s a beautiful church with lots of statues of Mary.

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Two things I’ve noticed about churches in Spain so far:

1) They have a lot of saints that I don’t recognize depicted in their churches, which is not something I noticed in Rome. Why is it the Italian saints are well known, but the Spanish ones aren’t?

2) They seem to like dressing up Mary in a Spanish sort of style, which isn’t really surprising. Think of how many Renaissance artists made the holy family look like they lived during Renaissance times. Every culture seems to adopt Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to look like one of them.

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After Mass, we went to the big flea market that’s only open on Sundays and just down the street from the church. It’s so big we didn’t even see all of it before we tired out and stopped for some fruit, snacks, water, and juice at a local supermarket. The flea market is pretty much what you’d  imagine a flea market in Spain to be like. It’s hot, it’s crowded, you get elbowed from time to time, and there are lots of different tents selling goods, but a fair number of them seem to be selling the same kinds of things and you wonder if the guy at the next one is going to sell that folding fan with the flamenco dancers on it for less than the guy you just bought one from. Other things being sold: Spanish t-shirts, kids’ clothes, Levis jeans (no kidding), jewelry, paintings, key rings, magnets, and hats.

Flea market in Madrid

Flea market in Madrid

Then we headed off to see the Royal Palace. Along the way. we stopped at the cathedral, which is called the Catedral de la Almudena. Katie and I stopped in for a few photos and a little more time to pray.  The church is really pretty and bright inside. Also, they had some recorded music playing (chanting kind of music), which I think helped maintain a prayerful attitude inside.

 

Interior of the cathedral

Interior of the cathedral

Then we headed to the royal palace, which is really just next door. They don’t let you take pictures inside, but we saw a lot of the old royal apartments. The current king of Spain (Felipe VI) became king on June 19, 2014, so he’s only been king for a little over a year.

imageAfter the palace, we got some tapas and sangria at a nice neighborhood pub. Basically, we had toasted bread with either salmon or tuna on top. Surprisingly good for a small establishment.

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Then we walked the royal garden for a bit and sat in the shade fanning ourselves with the fans we bought.

Then we found a Haagan-Daz ice cream shop. We stopped in for dessert, air-conditioning, and the free wifi.

Finally, it was time to head out for flamenco dancing. Katie had ordered us tickets for the 8:00 show. We ended up with front-row seats in this theater that would remind a lot of people back home of a stand-up comedy club.

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The dancers were really good. Their feet moved so fast they reminded me of a mix of Irish dancing and tap dancing.

imageAfter the show we visited the nearby park and then slowly made our way home. The sun stays up late here in the summer. Even at 10:00, it was still rather light out.

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 21: Hola, Espana! (Hello, Spain!)

Today is my very first visit to Spain! I am happy to be here with someone who speaks Spanish!

This morning in Florence it took at least 5 phone calls to different taxi companies to get a taxi to the airport. One company kept hanging up on Katie, and others kept saying they were busy and to call back in a few minutes. Suddenly, we got a hold of someone who said the taxi would be there in three minutes, and we had to run down the two huge flights of stairs with our heavy American luggage in order to catch it.

The airport in Florence is pretty small, so there was no concern about getting lost there. Our flight was pretty uneventful, too.

When we landed, it was around 4:30, so we had a late “lunch” at the airport. Interestingly, what we found at the airport was a place that specialized in beer, so (in a slight nod to missing out on Fourth of July celebrations back home), I had a burger, french fries, and a beer. Well, really only a little beer since I’m not a fan. It was part of the package deal (“Menu Burger con patatas”), so I just went along with it.

An American Lunch in Madrid

An American Lunch in Madrid

Our cabbie at the airport had a little trouble using his GPS system to find our hostel, and he and Katie had an amusing conversation in Spanish during our drive. If you know Katie, you can ask her about it sometime. I sat there speechless most of the time since I really didn’t know what they were talking about.

Our hostel is really nice. We have our own room with two twin beds and our own bath. It’s very clean and nicely but very simply decorated: wood floors, yellow walls, and red and yellow bedspreads.

Our small but cute little room

Our small but cute little room

Around 8:30, we went out to find a bar/restaurant near us. We were directed upstairs for the restaurant where we found a small room with no one it. We took a seat and checked out the menu while we waited. Before too long, a waiter arrived and we ordered sangria, some ham, and some fried eggplant. We also got bread and water.

Sangria!

Mi gusta sangria!

Fried eggplant and ham

Fried eggplant and ham

The food was really yummy, and the little upstairs room soon filled with two large tour groups. It got really noisy in that small space fast!

After dinner, we walked to a nearby church to check out the Mass times for tomorrow. The church was closed. Like a lot of churches in Italy, this meant that heavy iron gates were closed at the front of the church. Between the gates, we could see a sign with the Mass times near the door, but it was kind of hard to read. We hope we have it figured out correctly for tomorrow.

Then we walked to Plaza del Mayor, which is where they used to have bull fights. Like a lot of piazzas in Italy, this plaza is now ringed by restaurants with outdoor seating where waiters try to lure you to their food with whatever language they think you speak.

Plaza del Mayor

Plaza del Mayor

See what I mean about all the restaurants?

See what I mean about all the restaurants?

I’m getting a lot of Spanish spoken to me. I’m not sure if this is because I’m with Katie who speaks Spanish or if I look Spanish to them.

Tomorrow’s plans include Mass in the early part of the day and a flamenco show in the evening. What else? I don’t know yet.

Have you been to Madrid? Any suggestions?

 

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 20: Tre Cose Buone (Three Good Things)

I was happy to see today that the Spin Cycle writing prompt for this week is about “three good things.” It was saving me from writing a post that would probably come out sounding unintentionally negative.

You see, this morning, I was mentally ticking off all the things about Florence that make it “less than” Rome. But do I really want to spend my last night in Florence talking about what I don’t like? No. That’s crazy. I’m in Italy. I shouldn’t be complaining about anything! And I don’t want to sound negative because I am enjoying myself here.  (Of course, that being said, maybe someday I’ll write a post about why I prefer Rome to Florence.)

But in the meantime, let’s talk about three good things that happened in Florence today.

1. I took a test to finish off the “Intermedio 1″ level at school and got a 97% Yippee!

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2. Katie and I climbed to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo where we got awesome views of Florence.

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3. For “dinner,” we had an aperitivo at a rooftop  bar at a fancy hotel that Katie’s Russian classmate helped us find. We had fancy drinks as well as potato chips, formaggio (cheese), and olives (I let Katie have most of those). Then we found a place that makes yummy crepes with gelato and chocolate. (To my mom and Katie’s mom, don’t worry we had protein at lunch.)

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Bonus good thing: We also spent a good part of this very hot day in an air-conditioned museum (Palazzo Pritti) with lots of cool art.

Where we hid from the heat.

Where we hid from the heat.

Off to Spain tomorrow for the final leg of “Mi Piace, Mi Gusta”! (Yes, that’s right, we’re finally getting to the “Mi Gusta” part of the trip.)

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Mi Piace, Mi Gusta – Day 19: Le Chiese di Firenze (The churches of Florence)

Today after school, Katie and I visited the two major churches of Florence: the Duomo (a.k.a. the Cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore) and Santa Croce (Holy Cross).

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

We headed first to Santa Croce, stopping for lunch along the way. Unlike Rome, the churches in Florence aren’t free to enter unless you are entering only a specific area for prayer, so we had to pay 6 Euros to get in.

Inside Santa Croce

Inside Santa Croce

The good news is that it’s a beautiful 14th century church that’s been pretty well perserved. It’s amazing to think how ma.ny millions of people have spent time praying in this church and encountering God here.

For history and art buffs, this is a famous church because it is where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried.

Michelangelo's tomb

Michelangelo’s tomb

Galileo's tomb

Galileo’s tomb

After Santa Croce, we made a gelato stop at a place that had a lot of flavors. I had pink grapefruit (tart but good) and mandarin orange (rather refreshing).

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Then we headed to the Duomo to see if we could climb to the top of the dome. We had purposely waited until mid-afternoon because we’d heard that mid-day was the worst for long lines, and we’d definitely seen long lines there on other days when we’d passed by. The line did look quite short when we arrived, so Katie stood in line while I ran off to buy tickets. By the time I returned, Katie was nearly at the front of the line so the timing was perfect.

For those of you who don’t know us personally, I’m claustrophobic and Katie is not a fan of climbing up or down stairs, so the fact that we made it up the 465 steps to the top of this dome is quite an accommplishment for us!

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You  start by climbing up this staircase that is basically six steps up, turn right, up  two steps, turn right again, up six more steps, turn right, up two steps, turn right, and so on. You do that for about 100 steps.

Then  you get to the spiral staircase part. This is a really tight spiral really made for only one person at a time. Two-way traffic is not an option here.
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By now you’ve climbed over 200 steps, and you’re at the inside lower portion of the actual dome, so you can see up close all the frescoes painted inside the dome. The general theme seemed to be souls in hell at the bottom, souls waiting in purgatory in the middle, and Jesus and the saved in heaven toward the top of the dome.

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The remaining 180 steps are inside the sloping walls of the dome itself. You circle around and around until you get to a section that is virtually straight up. It was almost like climbing a ladder. Let’s just say a lot of  people gasp  (or swear) when they see this section.

Uphill climb inside the dome

Uphill climb inside the dome

Then, finally, you’re at the top, and the view is amazing.

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By the time we climbed all the way  back down, we were exhausted, but we wanted to see the inside of the church. Unfortunately,  you have to go outside again and reenter the church. Inside, there isn’t a whole lot of artwork to admire, and if you wanted to pray, you had to go into a special roped off section of the church.

Katie and I headed to that section, and after getting the attention of the man who worked there, I asked, “Possiamo entrare per preghiere?” (Can we enter to pray?) He nodded to us and let us in past the barricade, but wouldn’t let in the  two woman behind us! There was only one other man praying in this small section.

After a while a priest came in and sat outside the confessional. Then a man came up and asked me in Italian where the confessions where. I pointed to the priest and said, “Li. Spero.” (There. I hope.)

“E libero?” he asked. (Is he free?)

“Si, io credo.” (Yes, I believe.)

I was half tempted to attempt confession in Italian, but this priest was taking a long time with each penitent, and I worried I wouldn’t understand what the priest was saying even if I could manage to confess my sins in Italian.

After our prayer time, we headed out of the church. It was too early for dinner, so we just did a simple aperitivo (pre-dinner drink and appetizer) at the same place we got dessert and wine last night. The hostess even recognized us!

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