Diversity of experience is the mother of tolerance

I have always valued travel. Exposure to different countries and cultures provides you with perspective and a tolerance for diversity. My goal has always been for my children to see 40 countries and 40 states before they start college. And we’re well on our way.

I’ve included a selection of some of my favorite travel blog entries from our family trips. While my children aren’t fond of this practice, I know they’ll thank me later.


Lots of things to report from Day 2.  First and foremost, my experiences with the German autobahn were similar to those I’ve had with golf.  Just as I was about to finally give up after sitting in a work construction zone forever (i.e. hitting bad golf shot after bad golf shot), the road would open up, and speed limits would be lifted, and I would be flying down the road at 200 km/h (as fast as my car would go), smile on my face admiring my perfect shot!  The most awesome thing of all was that at this speed it was still like I was at a standstill compared to the other cars on the road.  What a pleasure it is to drive in Germany.  I can’t imagine being able to drive to Dallas in 1.5 hours – how awesome would that be?

I’m happy to report that I also made my small contribution to the Swiss economy today with a speeding ticket.  I’m sure my money will help make the difference. Dachau

So what started as what should have been a long day in the car (6 hours), ended up being ridiculous (9 hours) due to traffic.  A whole lot of driving but it all proved to be worthwhile – our destination was Dachau.

This Jewish memorial outside of the crematorium area of Dachau puts it perfectly – “never forget”.   There was some discussion in Austin with my parents about visiting Dachau – I will say that I would absolutely do it again.  We have been to multiple holocaust memorials and museums and I think the kids have a good grasp of what happened, but let me say that nothing can prepare you for what it feels like to be standing INSIDE a gas chamber thinking of the thousands that have died, or looking into a cremation chamber wondering about the thousands of lives that were abruptly ended for no reason other than being born somehow “wrong”.

The other thing that was shocking was the sheer scale of the operation.  As we looked upon the vastness of the buildings, meeting areas, barracks, and land, it was sickening to think of how well organized this camp was.  And that was before you are told that in effect Dachau was the first camp of its kind, the smallest, and merely a testing ground for camps like Auschwitz that emerged later.

I am a firm believer that the best way to stop history from repeating itself is to LEARN IT.  Yesterday, the Gabbi’s got a small taste of the atrocities that humankind can commit in the name of the wrong cause.  My hope is that as the Jewish memorial to the unknown fallen said, my children “never forget”.

The Palio …. no words.

As I sit on the bus on the way to Rome writing this blog, I am confronted with the problem that no words, images, videos or other descriptions can do justice to the Palio of Siena.  I must say that the 36 hours I just experienced may have been the most exhilarating of my life.  My only regret is that Heather was also not able to share the moment with us.  If you are not familiar with the horse race that is the Palio, Google it immediately and learn everything you can.

Our football rivalries pale in comparison to the multi-century old rivalries of the contrade (Sienese neighborhoods) that race in the Palio.  The Porcupine (one of the contrade) is currently suspended because they beat up and broke the femur of the jockey of their archrival neighborhood in the last Palio to ensure they couldn’t race.

2014_jul_europe2014_125140702Washington politics seem simple and trivial after you see the last-second negotiating among jockeys to solicit the Turtle jockey’s help right before the race, since the Turtle was picked in the last position and thus would start the race.

The sound of a Formula 1 car engine is nothing compared to the pounding hooves of 10 saddle-less horses entering the first turn, with jockeys whipping each other, other horses, and who knows what else.  You see, there are no rules in the Palio other than no jockey may grab another jockey’s reins.

And I truly understand what it means to FEEL the tension in the air.  To actually believe you could cut through it with a knife.  It was this feeling I had when 60,000 people collectively held their breath.  You could hear a pin drop as the members of the various contrade awaited the announcement, one by one, of the starting order of the horses, something that is only revealed minutes before the race.  Eagle – Aquila – in first position.  Pantera – panther – in second position.  Cries of despair – two arch-rivals have been randomly selected to be next to each other at the start – will the race even ever get going?  And so on through the list of 10 contrade racing.

Our experience in Siena was outrageously expensive – our nights for the Palio were over 40% of the expense of our 30 day trip.  And yet, I’m here to say that I would pay twice as much for the privilege of doing it again tomorrow.  I am officially hooked.

Let me rewind a little bit for you, with the premise that I’m hoping you will be rewarded with pictures and video at some point tomorrow, and perhaps also the perspective of the kids, who now owe me their second blog entry.

We arrived in Siena two days ago.  We were randomly assigned to the contrada of the Eagle for dinner.  Although my allegiance is with the Goose (Oca), as my father was part of this contrada when he lived in Siena, unfortunately they were not selected to race at this Palio (only 10 of the 17 contrade race at each Palio).  The Goose has the distinction of being the winningest contrada ever with 66 victories.  The dinner was incredible – 1000 people singing songs, partying, raising toasts to their jockey for the races the next day.  Prior to the dinner, we were treated to a tour of the museum of the Selva contrada – amazing to see the custom banners of the former Palio wins of the contrada, the church of the contrada, and costumes.

2014_jul_europe2014_133140702On the day of the Palio, we went to San Domenico to see the blessing of the horse of the Dragon (Drago) – all of the horses are randomly assigned to the contrade only days before the race.  The Drago horse was small and grey.  Six priests provided a blessing, at the end of which, the contrade members scream in unison – “Go, and come back a winner!”  Then all of the contrade parade through streets and into the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) – location of the race.

As fortune would have it, after the multi-hour fantastic parade of all the contrade, which we viewed from our private balcony in the square (a more perfect view I’ve never seen), God looked favorably upon the contrada of the Dragon, because after 22 years, and a brilliantly run race that took the horse from 4th to first, the Drago won the race.  I can’t even describe the pandemonium that ensued.  Italians are emotional people, but other than a World Cup victory, I’ve never seen this amount of emotion concentrated – Drago contrada members starting rushing the track before the race was even over.  They were kissing and hugging the jockey AND the horse.  And then singing their song and parading for a long night of partying.  Incredible.  Captivating.  Perfect.

By the time I took my morning stroll through Siena this morning, it was hard to even see that there had been a Palio just yesterday.  The flags that clearly marked the neighborhoods were all gone, only to re-emerge in August for the second Palio running of the year.  The streets were silent.  I easily navigated to the Chiggiana music school, and in my father’s honor, placed a “Little Mommy” to rest in the courtyard of the music school that he has always shared such fond memories of.  My work in Siena was complete – I was to be heading home to Rome for 4 days of friendship, memories, and sight-seeing.  The Eternal City awaits.  But the Palio will be in my heart forever.

Grazie Roma

There are certain friends that we come across at various points in our life – we all have them – that stand the test of time.  These are the folks that you can go one day or 10 years without seeing, and no matter how little or long it’s been, you pick up right where you left off.  Your relationship stands the test of time.  Rather, your relationship stares time down and says, “no matter what you may try and do, we will always be special to each other”.

Rome to me is just like one of those friends.  No matter how much time goes by, it still welcomes me home with open arms.  I quickly flow back into the hustle and bustle of the city’s life.  I always find myself appreciating everything it has to offer more every time I come.  My Roman dialect returns to me almost immediately.  From family, to friends, to magnificent churches, elegant piazzas, majestic fountains, and the corner pizza place with Roman waiters that make fun of the one poor waiter who roots for the “other” Rome team, Rome has everything.

PantheonNo matter how long I’m away, Rome will always be my first love.  My special city.  My real HOME.  It fills me with joy to see that Nico & Maya are starting to develop a love for the city, as I know in my heart that someday they too will call Rome home, even if for just a brief moment in time.

Since we really didn’t have a lot of friends along in Rome this time (just Todd and Gage), it was much more flexible of an itinerary for us.  So we got to do some more off the beaten path things – Nico got to see parts of the Colosseum he had never seen before, we went out of town to the volcanic lake of Nemi to explore an awesome man-made cave system, we got into my favorite pizzeria to have quite simply the best pizza in the world, and we got to spend a LOT of time with friends and family.  In short, everything just felt right the entire time – even the tears that were shed among friends as we laid a Little Mommy to rest behind a panel of her favorite building, the Pantheon, where I’m sure she will share the grace of the Pantheon for another 2000 years to come.

So it is with excitement that we embark on our Sicilian leg of this adventure, but also a little bit of a heavy heart.  Rome – you will be missed.  But I know you will be there awaiting me again with open arms next year when we return.   And my hope is that every year I am able to share your love and beauty with just a few more of my friends each time.

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom

There is an old Greek proverb that says “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”.  I would like to take a little poetic liberty by expanding this proverb to read “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom, and travel is the beginning of wonder.”

This couldn’t be more true than in Greece, where travel provides wonder around every corner, from the first view of the Parthenon rising majestically from the Acropolis overlooking Athens, to the back alleyways of the giant Monastiraki Flea Market.

The last couple of days in Greece have been a welcome treat for just the family to spend time together.   We saw some incredible sites – the Parthenon, Agora, Temple of Zeus, Acropolis Museum, and Parliament just to name a few.  We had some great food, ranging from fish to calamari, moussaka, shrimp, kebab, and fried feta with honey.  We even shared the wonderful of experience of watching the World Cup final until 1:15 AM in a bar with more or less belligerent Greeks, and of course, got the last say as Germany defeated Italy’s hated rival Argentina in extra time.2014_jul_europe2014_321140714

But for me the turning point came this morning during our visit of the National Archeological Museum.  For all the effort, money, and time that Heather and I have spent since the children were born helping ensure “travel was the beginning of wonder”, today, for all three kids, I unequivocally saw the real Greek proverb come true.  As I saw Nico enthralled with the bronze statues, Maya excitingly come to me to show me something she had found, and Luca walking around with our camera taking pictures of all the pretty things, all at once I knew that we had been doing the right things all along.  Today more than ever before, I watched my children’s wonder begin to become wisdom, and realized they were so much the better for it.

Seeing them appreciate the museum today, and come to their own realization of in fact how little progress has been made in so many of the aesthetic things that life has to offer in the last 2500 years, made me realize that travel truly is the essence of knowledge.  It takes actually seeing a 2500 year old bronze statue of Zeus to realize that beauty has existed as long as humankind.  It takes a taxi driver describing how the Mediterranean people (Greeks, Italians) figured out many centuries ago that flexibility and a more relaxed approach to life can yield much more happiness to understand that cultures are the essence of a people.  And it takes a stroll up to the majestic Acropolis to grasp what amazing things people working together can accomplish.

This trip is the culmination of all prior trips.  But for the first time in Greece, I now know that my kids not only realize that there is a vast world of experiences awaiting them outside of the USA, but that they thirst for the wisdom these wonderful places can provide them with.

It is only fitting that a Little Mommy now rests at the foot of the Parthenon shaded by an old olive tree.  For as Greece was the basis of so much of what we value in Western Civilization, Heather’s passion for travel, learning and cultures in many ways lies at the heart of our family, our little self-contained civilization.

I’m a big believer that shared experiences are often more impactful and powerful.  As the kids continue to convert travel to wonder, and wonder to wisdom, my final hope is that they develop one last purpose – a yearning to influence others to wonder as well;  a desire to share their experiences and send others on their own incredible journey to wisdom.

Convergence in Istanbul

If I had to pick only one word to describe Istanbul, it would be “convergence”.  To be sure, the number of sites and history the city has to offer is simply awe-inspiring, in my opinion comparable only to Rome of the places I’ve been from the perspective of the span of history covered, many times within the very same structure.  Take for example the Haghia Sofia, an amazing structure spanning both multiple religions and historical periods well over 1000 years apart.  The mosaic artistry on display there is simply phenomenal.  The basilica cistern was a one-of-a-kind experience, with the indirect light reflecting peacefully on the tranquil water filled with giant fish.  The size and majesty of the Topkapi Palace, with the incredible ceramic tile artistry, was almost overwhelming in its opulence.  The interior and exterior gardens were equally exquisite, and of course immediately felt like the perfect place to all of us to lay a Little Mommy to rest in Turkey.  Finally, the shores of the Bosphorus, lined with castles and palaces at every turn, were a clear sign of the greatness of the multitude of civilizations that have emerged on Turkish land.  In other words, the sites were all beautiful and no words I could write would ever begin to do them justice.

IstanbulOur hotel, TomTom Suites, an old converted Franciscan house, was equally spectacular.  Our top floor room had a wonderful 1000 square foot terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia and much of the city center.  It provided for a welcome beginning to each of our days in Istanbul and an equally relaxing end.  The service was fantastic, down to the fresh fruit tray and water we found in our room every evening to welcome us home.

The food in Istanbul was also spectacular – from the mezes (tapas style plates) to the rich seafood and delightful sweets we had, every meal was perfect.  It is was truly a culinary crossroads between many of the cuisines of the Mediterranean I have tasted in the past, such as Greek and Lebanese.  The kids had a really fun ice cream “experience”, more of a show really – hard to describe, almost like a Turkish version of the Amy’s “shows” we get in Austin.  As seems to be case almost everywhere we go, Luca quickly became the center of attention and seemed to touch the hearts of old and young alike – it’s amazing how naturally charismatic like Heather he is.

But what made Istanbul special to me was in my opinion what the essence of the city was all about.  It could be felt almost immediately – all of the kids and I commented on how much we liked the “vibe” before we even got to the hotel from the airport.  Istanbul is truly a melting pot of religions, cultures, nationalities – a true crossroads or convergence point –  gateway to Europe and Asia.  And what was absolutely brilliant was that Istanbul throws stereotypes, preconceived notions, and prejudices aside and proves that it is possible to all get along.  The kids got to experience whirling dervishes, church bells and the awesome effect of the mosques calling to prayer all in the same city.   From those dressed in traditional conservative garb to modern, young or old, life went on.  People were just that – people.

A young Muslim woman’s shirt succinctly described some of the prejudices that abound around us – “Don’t Panic.  I’m Muslim”, it read.  And the funny thing is that in Istanbul, nobody did!  And that in a nutshell, beyond the wonderful art, food, history, and culture the large city had to offer, was what made Istanbul special.  To me Istanbul’s essence – its vibe – was that it was living proof that people of different races, religions, cultures, ethnicities, and background CAN actually live and thrive together.  I hope that our short stay there served to also break down these barriers even further for the kids, and taught them that a person should be judged by their character and their actions, and nothing else.  As I watched Maya observe the whirling dervishes in silence, respectfully, and with an interested gaze, I’m confident this is the case.

And to Istanbul, one of the greatest cities I have ever laid foot in, I cannot say goodbye.  Rather this will be an “arrivederci” until we meet again.  For I’m sure that the wonder that is Turkey will definitely be welcoming the Gabbi family again in the future.

37 Minutes

Last night in Venice I witnessed the most amazing fireworks display of my life.  Imagine the absolute best firework display you’ve ever seen, then make it ten times better, put hundreds of boats in the Grand Canal, and have the beautiful Venetian skyline as the backdrop.  If you do so, you will come close to giving the Redentore Festival firework display a fraction of the justice it deserves.

venice_18The multi-colored display was both artistic and awe-inspiring, and lasted an incredible 37 minutes.  I thought of Heather the entire time.  Since the last firework display I saw was the day Heather died, it was wonderfully therapeutic to see a firework display that for 37 minutes filled me with all of the happy memories we had, one by one erasing the awful despair that the last firework display created in me.  I’m not sure I ever need to see another firework display – none of them stand even the remotest chance of measuring up.  But if I ever should, I know that now fireworks will fill me with happiness, not sadness.

Honestly, it was quite unexpected that Venice would prove to be the healing portion of the trip.  If Rome was sheltering and familiar, Venice was liberating and warming – a fulfilling reminder of all the great memories Heather and I made together.  Almost immediately upon our arrival, we visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum.  It was great that the first painting the kids would see would be one of Heather’s favorite works of Pablo Picasso, a large copy of which hangs in our bedroom.  Still to this day, the Guggenheim Collection in Venice remains one of my favorite museums – a wonderful art collection in a spectacular setting.  And it was fantastic to see how much the kids now appreciate it as well.  Needless to say, it brought a smile to my face when Luca pointed out one of the Jackson Pollock works as one he loved – maybe he has one of my genes after all, since Pollock has always been my love, not Heather’s

The memories continued as we had a great lunch with my cousin Gianni at Trattoria alla Rivetta – the gondoliers’ restaurant of choice.  We spoke at length about Heather.  Even though Gianni had only spent a small amount of time with Heather over the years, as she did with so many others, she left a lasting impression.  Gianni’s description of her was perfect – an “indomitable lion” – he had perfectly understood her – her courage, pride, charisma, and desire to never give up.  For some reason, speaking to Gianni of his memories of Heather proved to really set the stage for the rest of the short two-day stay in Venice.

It was truly a travel down happy memory lane.  Sharing childhood memories with the kids of going to the beach near Venice with my grandparents every summer.  Describing my grandmother’s spirited negotiations with the fish market vendors.  Showing Luca the house where his Nonno grew up.  Placing a Little Mommy to rest at San Zaccaria, source for Nico’s honorary Jewish name and site of my grandparents’ wedding.  Eating pasta with cuttlefish ink (and hearing that Nico now liked it!) and reminiscing of wonderful trips past with friends.  Listening to the live music in St. Mark’s square.

And many great new memories were created.  Crossing the Bridge of Sighs and watching Luca’s eyes get wide with fear when he heard that meant we were going to the dungeons of the Doge’s Palace.   Hearing Luca exclaim with excitement when he first saw “Mark Saint’s Square” from our hired speedboat transferring us from the airport, connecting the dots with all the pictures his Nonno had showed him in Austin.  Feeding the pigeons with leftover bread from our meals.  And eating gelato after gelato until we couldn’t eat any more!

As we sit in our hired car on the way to Budapest and I write this blog entry, I extend my thanks and gratitude to Venice.  Thank you for being the most magnificent, unique city in the world.  Thank you for housing the spirit, memories and origins of the Gabbi family.  Thank you for hiding wonders down every alley and artistry on every island.  Thank you for providing me with incredible seafood to eat every day.  And most importantly, thank you for giving me the Redentore and all that it means as I continue this voyage with the children.

In short, thank you for being you.  Arrivederci.  Alla prossima.

Old World, New World

If Rome is the Eternal City, Venice is the fairy tale city, and Istanbul is the city of convergence, then surely Prague is a city of collisions – forces brought together in a way that creates a truly unique, wondrous city.  These collisions – young and old, new and historic, conservative and risque, traditional and avant-garde, make it such that Prague truly has something to offer for everyone.

Where else in the world could you find a chic night club nestled in a historic medieval building?  Or the laid back atmosphere of a vintage Czech pub with yes, fantastic beer contrasted with a high-end gourmet steak house?  Or a beautiful Gothic cathedral standing tall next to a wonderful synagogue and Jewish cemetery?  Not to mention an art museum, sex machine museum, and communist history museum all within a three block radius?  And that is just the beginning.

Prague truly has something for everyone – from wonderful activities for kids, amazing history and architecture, or any variety of forms of debauchery for those with more edgy tendencies.  It is the kind of place that makes itself familiar quickly, but takes years and dozens of visits to truly peel back all of the layers of the onion.

Just as it has for hundreds of years, Prague seems to have the ability to take a wide variety of inputs and generate from them symbiotic, constructive rather than destructive collisions.  And this is I believe the essence of what has made the city extremely special for me.  There is no doubt in my mind, that just as was the case with Istanbul, Prague deserves a much more extended stay.  It is certainly one of the most beautiful, vibrant, energetic, and quintessentially Old World cities I have ever been blessed to visit.

I loved strolling across the Charles Bridge with the kids, listening to live performances of jazz, classical music, drums and more all in the space of a few football fields.  The tranquility of Vyserahd  park, with its solemn cemetery, made it a perfect place for Heather to rest and watch over this city that we have now both visited, but unfortunately never together.  The Gothic spires of St. Vitus rivaled some of the cathedrals in France that I have visited so many times.  The hustle and bustle of Wenceslas Square, close to our lovely penthouse apartment, perfectly captured the energy of the city at all hours of the day.  I had some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten, including steak tartare, at a great restaurant in Prague recommended by a Czech student of mine.

Stupid Rich…

Yesterday I kept thinking of the commercials that Nico and I like on TV that have the tag line “stupid rich”.  There is rich.  Then there is stupid rich.  Then further over the top there is something that far transcends stupid rich.  And that something is Portofino.  It seemed only fitting that after visiting the Portofino Bay hotel at Universal Studios in Florida, just a few months later we would be sailing into the real Portofino Bay.  As our ferry boat navigated the small harbor, the wealth was obvious.  You know you’re surrounded by the rich and famous when the SMALL yacht was the 175 foot “Regina d’Italia” (Queen of Italy) owned by the proprietors of Dolce & Gabbana (yes, THAT Dolce & Gabbana).   The piece de resistance was the 210’+ Ester 3 owned by a Greek steel magnate which we later googled and found to have cost $154 million.  Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we found the solution to the Greek debt problem in Portofino!  Of course, wining and dining with the rich and famous doesn’t come cheap, and I will say that a Gabbi vacation in Portofino would definitely NOT last 5 weeks and leave it at that.

On the extreme for the day was our visit to the Abbey of San Fruttuoso, a sublime small monastery only reachable by boat tucked back in a remote cove on a pristine beach overlooking the Mediterranean.  A small orchard of olives and mangos next to the monastery overlooking the sea seemed to be the perfect spot to place our 4th Little Mommy of the trip.

Luca is obsessed with learning Italian – I love it!  Yesterday he insisted on asking the waiter for parmiggiano (parmesan) by himself.  He wanted to tell him that he was finished.  And he said buona sera as we left.  This boy is going to be a world traveler for sure!

Welcome to Naples… LOL

Take a short one-hour train ride south from Rome to Naples and you enter a different world.  In some ways amazing.  In some ways shocking.  In some ways frustrating.  But most certainly different.

After putting our luggage in baggage deposit at the train station we ventured down to the Circumvesuviana (the local train that goes around Mount Vesuvius), confident that we were well on our way to Herculaneum.  Hiccup #1 – even though we were told otherwise by the clerk at the main station, the turnstile operator told us that kids over 4 needed train tickets.  Then the ticket vendor told us that kids over 6 needed tickets.  So 3 people, 3 different responses.  No problem.  Enter the train.  I’ve had my share of crowded subway rides in Rome and other places.  But never have I experienced the crowd of the Circumvesuviana during rush hour.  Imagine being packed so tight that you didn’t need to hold on to anything while the train is moving.  Then make everything sweaty and smelly.  Then imagine the hottest Texas day and put that temperature on the train.  Finally, remove all breezes.  That was our train ride for 30 minutes.  95 degree temperatures that greeted us once we got off at Ercolano felt truly balmy.

HeculaneumI posted a picture of Ercolano on Facebook/Instagram.  I’m so happy that most people still ignore this site and focus on Pompeii, which in my mind is totally overrated.  Ercolano boasts true streets with multi-story buildings.  It requires little to no leaps of the imagination to picture the hustle and bustle of every day life.  It is so unbelievable cool.  As always, while many of us began to wilt in the heat, my little Luca led the charge exploring the back alleys and houses.  What a difference a year makes – I have had him on my shoulders at most for 1 total hour this trip so far, compared to 90% of the time last year.  He insists on speaking to the waiters himself to ask for parmesan or tell him he is done.

Our first day ended with a two hour drive to Scala on the Amalfi Coast right next to Ravello.  Our mules (yes, mules) transported our luggage down to an unbelievably beautiful villa overlooking the entire coast with a swimming pool and 13th century ruined church.  Our hosts Marco and Pasquale greeted us with fresh fruit, wine and groceries so we could eat at home.  It felt so good to dip in the pool and watch the fireworks in the bay after a hot day at Herculaneum.

Our second day involved a drive around the various quaint towns on the Amalfi coast.  For me, the true highlight of the day was the dinner organized by my friends Aldo and Loredana, who have a summer house near our villa.  No disrespect to the gardens of Ravello or towns of Amalfi and Positano, but the meal  quite honestly may have been the best seafood meal I have ever had – fried zucchini flowers, two different kinds of seafood pasta, grilled sea bass, tuna carpaccio appetizer, and of course, limoncello for dessert – Amalfi lemons are the best in the world for limoncello.  Yummy!  I was so full I could burst!

As I write this entry, we are preparing for yet another dinner with Aldo & Loredana on this our last night at the Amalfi coast.  We had a fabulous day on our private 37-foot boat – touring the island of Capri, the coast line, and of course, the blue grotto.  I had to put a Heather at the blue grotto  – there is no way to describe the experience and no way a picture can do justice to the beauty that the perfect blue water reflecting in the cave creates.  There are some sites in the world that provide you with a glimpse of the perfection that nature can create – and this is one of them.

Redemption & Tradition

In a lot of ways it is easier for something to amaze you when you experience it for the first time.  You’ve never seen it before.  You don’t have any expectations.  You’re just along for the ride.  In my opinion, an event’s greatness is more defined by its ability to live up to and even exceed your past experiences year in and year out.  Those rare things that are able to do that inevitably become tradition – the can’t miss events in life we want to do over and over and over again.

So honestly it was with more than a little trepidation that I got off the train in Venice this year for the Redentore (Remeemer) festival.  Last year’s experience of watching the best firework show ever in the most magical city on the planet would be hard to beat.  Redentore 2015 didn’t just beat the 2014 experience, it absolutely CRUSHED it.  Indeed, our Venice experience would have been perfect – the only regret was being unable to see my family while we were there due to conflicting schedules.  But of course, now that Redentore has unequivocally solidified itself into the TRADITION category of the Gabbi vacation lifestyle, I know there will always be next year.venice_16

So why is Redentore so great?  First, it has the most magical city on the planet as a backdrop.  The analogy I can offer is pretty simple and one that our traveling group arrived at multiple times.  We kept asking ourselves why Italian food in Italy was just so many quantum leaps better than anything you could get in the US.  And we arrived at the conclusion that there was no way the cooks could all be better – it was the ingredients/raw materials that were vastly superior.  And the same goes for Redentore – when you start with Venice, with its magical canals, gondolas, delicate palaces, and breathtaking architectural landscape, the ingredients for the composition of an amazing fireworks show are in place.  And they are vastly superior to what any other location can offer.

Our day tourism this year was improved dramatically through pre-purchased tickets to everything, rendering the crowds and lines immaterial for our purposes and our visits to Venice’s amazing sites frustration free.  No matter how many times I do it, my breath is taken away every time I walk into St. Mark’s Cathedral.   From the millions of inlaid marble tiles on the floor, to the literally billions of gold tiles forming the ceiling mosaics, to the jewels of the Pala d’Oro, St. Mark’s has the ability to make anyone stand in awe.

Every time I visit the Doge’s Palace, I can’t help but think about how intimidating it would have been for a citizen to walk into the Council Chambers or the Assembly Hall, or how devastating it would be for a prisoner to make the walk across the Bridge of Sighs, knowing that would be their last view of sunlight in their lifetime.

Of course no visit to Venice for me is complete without going to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  A smile forms from ear to ear when I first enter the room that houses one of the best collections of my favorite painter and Peggy’s protege, Jackson Pollock.  What made this year’s visit even more gratifying was to watch Luca’s eyes light up as I explained action painting to him and he saw the motion in Pollock’s art.  One simple statement from Nico during this year’s visit made me realize that all of my efforts to expose the kids to a world outside Austin, ESPN and cell phones are definitely paying off – he said “Dad, I want to go find the Chagall so I can look at it again.”

Our improved experiences at the sites were complemented by the usual medley of inspiring seafood meals at our signature restaurant destinations.  The night of Redentore, we ate at Trattoria alla Madonna – seafood risotto, pasta with cuttlefish ink, spaghetti with clams, razor clams (unique to Venice), and about 10 pounds of fresh fish that we literally picked ourselves out of their display case.  Topped off with fabulous tiramisu, coffee, and wine our meal came in at $60/person.  Who says that food is expensive in Europe?

The next day we visited Trattoria alla Rivetta, one of the most characteristic Venetian restaurants which is still the lunch home of many gondoliers.  As always, Sergio took good care of us and we ate another fantastic seafood meal surrounded by true Venetians – who are some of funniest and fun-loving people I’ve found in Italy.

All of this would have been more than enough to say we had a great visit, but then of course there were the fireworks.  I won’t even attempt to describe them because as the families that were with us said, you can’t.  It’s like the color of the water in the Blue Grotto – you have to see it to believe it.  Let’s just say that the fireworks this year were even more phenomenal than last year, and that viewing them from a gondola made the experience even more special.

When we first arrived in Venice, one of the families we were with was pleasantly surprised – in fact, they fell in love with the city.  Someone back home had told them to expect a dirty, smelly, crowded, and miserably hot city.  What they instead saw was Venice – a wonderful, magical, unique, historical, artistic, beautiful city that is incomparable.  I would love to issue the decree that my Dad would offer to describe these kinds of people – a perfunctory wave of the hand and a comment along the lines of “barbarians”.  But honestly I’m happy – it’s kind of like people having a negative experience in Austin.  Let’s help spread the word – Venice is horrible.  It’s old.  It’s dirty.  It’s falling apart.  It’s definitely not worth going to see the greatest festival of all.  Maybe enough people will believe me.  With just a little effort and luck, maybe I’ll get to keep  more of the magic for myself.

Of Dungeons and Dragons

The main reason we went to Strasbourg was that somewhere deep in my memory banks I remember it being a cool city.  So it seemed like a great midpoint of the trip for our family to recharge on its own before embarking on the second half of our European marathon!

Let’s just sat that the city delivered and then some.  Our hotel, Le Bouclier d’Or was phenomenal – in the center of the city – each room impeccably decorated with antiques from the 1700’s and complete with rain shower and hydro-massage tub.  A must stay if you are ever in Strasbourg.

The city itself was also fantastic – for one, it offered a reprieve from the hordes of tourists we had been combatting (pretty effectively I might add) for the trip up to that point.  Second, it provided us with interaction with the wonderful French people and their cuisine – can you stay steak tartare and foie gras at every meal?  It’s a shame that many times a foreigner’s experience with France is limited to Paris – that France has SO SO MUCH more Strasbourgto offer than Paris.

But perhaps the coolest aspect of the city for me was the city itself.  It provided me with a similar feel as Carcassonne in the sense that when you were in the old town it was literally like stepping back in time.  As I mentioned on one of my Facebook posts, it didn’t take much effort to imagine what the city would have been like 500 years ago because it hasn’t changed.

I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, and was happy to pass the experience on to Nico and his friends a few years ago.  As a Dungeon Master, Strasbourg is exactly what I would have imagined a town to be like in one of my campaigns – the cobblestone streets, back alleys, quaint inns and pubs, bridges over canals and locks, and majestic cathedrals.  It has it all – and juxtaposed over this incredible medieval legacy is the ultra-modern EU parliament building, constructed of steel and glass and magnificent in its own right.

Sometimes the best treasures are those discovered off the beaten tourist path – and Strasbourg is definitely one of those towns worthy of ‘treasure’ status.  I hope my travels take me back there some day.

Old Friends in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is even better than I remembered it to be.  In fact, after just a brief few days it has joined Istanbul, New York City, and Rome on my short list of cities that I will be living in for a few months a year once I retire.  Everything about the city is wonderful, so much so I’m not even sure where to begin.

First, the Dutch.  Friendly, welcoming, gracious, fun-loving, uninhibited, and comfortable in being who they are.  It feels good to be in a city where people aren’t caught up in preconceived notions of appropriate / inappropriate but rather just accept everyone and everything for who they are.  It is liberating.  For example, where else in the world would you have the Homo Monument (yes, it is called that) sitting right next to the Anne Frank House and in front of a splendid cathedral.

Then there is the city itself – canals and row houses woven together into a fabric that creates a truly exciting dynamic.  I’m attracted to cities that have energy – that seem to have a heart-beat of their own regardless of time, day or season.  NYC, Rome and Istanbul have this, and Amsterdam most definitely does as well.   Most evident is in the vibrant bicycle traffic that seemingly never ends.  How wonderful is a city where the vast amount of transportation occurs by bike or foot?  I saw someone post on Yik-Yak that you haven’t truly experienced Amsterdam until you’ve been hit by a bike!  We’ve had more near misses than I can count in just the three days we’ve been here.  And for some reason it is AWESOME to say that!

Of course, Amsterdam also has an amazing artistic heritage with magnificent museums.  I have to say that the Van Gogh Museum in particular really stuck with me.  What an amazing collection.  What stuck with me the most was that sheer number of paintings that I thought were magnificent but that Van Gogh himself didn’t grace with his signature because he didn’t feel like they met his standard for quality.  It was amazing to see so many of his works in one place.

Finally, that last but most important piece of Amsterdam was that it allowed me to reunite with an old, and one of my best, friends from high school, who is Dutch and lives in Amsterdam.  Just the few hours we spent together yesterday brought back so many good memories from high school.  I am so grateful for having gone to high school abroad – the older I get the more I realize what a truly extraordinary set of people I had the privelege of going to school with.  And I realize what a unqiue bond still keeps us together – the need to experience, appreciate, and respect all of the amazing things that the world and its cultures have to offer.  I truly hope that I can convey this to my children.  WIth every trip to Europe, and every talk with a former St, Stephen’s alumni, I become more and more convinced that the Gabbi kids need to experience a year of high school there.   I realize now it would be a gift that would pay dividends for the rest of their lives.

I can say with confidence about my friend Quinten, it won’t be another 20 years before we see each other again.  Thanks for the brief tour of Dutch beers!

Trips down memory lane without occupying the passing lane

Memories are a funny thing and a very risky thing to play around with.  Sometimes you spend your whole life cherishing a memory, only to find out that your mind has somehow rewritten history and twisted it in a way to make it better than it actually was.  But most of the time, a drive down memory lane either meets expectations or even in some ways helps augment and fill in memories past to render them more vibrant and better than before.  For the most part, my visit to Belgium did just that.

Let’s start with the one place it didn’t.  As a child, I remember riding down a huge hill next to my house in Brussels at break-neck speed on my banana-seat bike (anyone remember banana seat bikes?).  I told my kids all about it.  You can imagine my disappointment pulling up to my old house and realizing that the “huge hill” was a nice long, gently sloping street.  I guess sometimes things look a lot more impressive when you’re 10!

BruggesEverything else in Belgium delivered with interest!  From the beauty of Brugges, the Venice of the North, to the majesty of the Grand Place (the main square in Brussels).  Brussels is the capital of Europe and for good reason.  This is a city worthy of exploration and an extended visit.  My future 3-month residency in Amsterdam may have just gotten split with Brussels.  All of my memories of Brussels were rendered fonder by my visit there.  The meals of course were outstanding – from a great bowl of Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty, to oysters, steak tartare, french fries, moules (mussels 3 different was on 3 different occasions), and chocolate.  The list goes on and on.  The piece de resistance was our last night there, when Luca watched in his own words “the best chef I ever saw” prepare a dessert of whipped cream, meringue, coated in chocolate and decorated with strawberries.  Simply to die for.  We even took a picture to document the momentous event!

Of course, it rained, as it always seems to do in Brussels.  But that didn’t bother us one bit,   There was too much to see, too much fun to have, and the place was just too welcoming for any raining on parades.  In fact, one thing I didn’t remember was just how wonderful the Belgians are as a people.  I have to say that my last few visits to France (and Paris in particular) have left me wondering whether my French had gotten so bad that people really just didn’t want to speak it with me.  Apparently it wasn’t my problem.  I got around everywhere in Belgium speaking French with no problem.  And not once was I responded to in English.

My visit to Waterloo was wonderful.  From seeing the Quick (fast-food restaurant my Mom would get me meals at on special occasions) to driving up to my old house at 54 Chemin des Noces and realizing that absolutely nothing had changed, my mind was flooded with so many good memories I didn’t realize I still had.  The lion of Waterloo (site of the final defeat of Napoleon) was truly informative – replete with a new state of the art museum and film experience that the kids really enjoyed.  It only seemed natural for me to put a Little Mommy at this site.  I truly love our travel experiences – as we ate our next meal we discussed how few people will be able to say as they learn about European history that they were actually AT THE SITE of the defeat of Napoleon.  Waterloo is not exactly on the main line of tourist attractions.  And this is in a nutshell why the travel experiences the kids are getting are so important to me.

I will miss Belgium, but I know I will be back before 30 years pass. It made me smile too much not to go back sooner.

I leave this blog with one last aside – over the last 10 days I logged almost 2,000 km on highways across multiple countries in Europe.  Across all of his distance, NOT ONE SINGLE TIME did I get stuck behind someone in the left lane holding up traffic.  If you weren’t passing you were on the right.  If you were passing slower than the person behind you, YOU STILL MOVED TO THE RIGHT.  For 10 days asked myself over and over, why is the concept of moving the heck over so foreign to American drivers?  From the discipline of moving over to going 135 mph on the autobahn and feeling like I was standing still, one thing I will miss a lot about Europe is driving here.

Au revoir Belgique – Copenhagen awaits!

In stitches, in more ways than one

Copenhagen might as well be the melting pot of Europe.  Only 60% of the city’s population is Danish, with the rest being a collection of people from all over Europe.  On successive evenings, our waiters were English, Danish, and Lithuanian.  But they all share one thing in common, apart from being locals in their own right, it were amazingly friendly.  Denmark and Sweden compete for the title of friendliest country in the world.  With our visit to Stockholm around the corner, the jury is still out, but the people of Copenhagen “represented” and will be stiff competition to the Swedes.

Other than being truly multi-cultural, Copenhagen was a city that shared similarities with others we have visited.  It possessed a lot of the “everything goes here” freedom and liberal perspective that we also experienced in Amsterdam.  And it had some of the vibrant nightlife and youthful feel of say Prague.  Copenhagen also had some amazing architecture – a truly interesting cityscape where centuries old buildings like the stock exchange lived in a strange harmony with phenomenal modern buildings like the Black Diamond – the city’s main library.

CopenhagenAll in all, it was a wonderful city and its people were truly charming.  The symbol of the city has in many ways become the Little Mermaid in the harbor, a small bronze mermaid in a park on the water.  Gifted to Copenhagen and inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, she is magical indeed.  Of course, that proved to be the site in the city that inspired me to lay a Little Mommy to rest below a beautiful sunset.  That’s something else I’ve noticed as we venture farther and farther north – the blues in the sky have gotten bluer, and the reds of sunset have gotten richer.

Our Copenhagen visit was briefly interrupted during the day as Luca fell chin first into a wall and split open his chin.  Within 3 hours, we ate lunch, then took a taxi to an emergency room (which we had called in advance for an appointment), were admitted, and Luca was numbed and stitched up.  And we were back at the hotel ready for more sight-seeing.  The total cost of the entire ordeal – ZERO.  Nothing.  Not a single penny.  Fantastic service.  Great care.  No lines.  And ZERO cost.  The nurse was very bemused as she saw my reaction to being informed of this – I said the first thing that came to mind, which seemed to please her immensely – “you are much more advanced than us”.  The doctor on the other hand was amazed at us, and specifically Luca, in his own right.  He said he would never forget the only little boy to ever laugh as he received a numbing injection and stitches.  I asked Luca later why that happened and his response was great – he said “you told me to think of something funny so I thought of Jo-Jo (a girl from his pre-school class that he had a crush on) falling down”.

The whole experience left me to wonder as the sun set over our last night in Copenhagen as I did with drivers in the left lane in an earlier blog, if Denmark can do this, why can’t we?

The Gates to Paradise

The guide on our small rib boat pointed out into the fjord.  “You see that – it has always looked like a gate to me.  On this side of the gates, you have the real world.  And on the other side, paradise.”  He was right.

Over the course of my life, I can say that I have been truly fortunate to experience a lot of natural beauty – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, the Canadian and Colorado Rockies, Bryce Canyon, Arenal Volano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, the Swiss Alps, and on and on.  Nothing comes close.  And by not close, I just don’t mean in the same zip code.  I mean not even in the same solar system.

The fjords of Norway are the most stunningly beautiful natural wonder I have ever seen.  Our guide was absolutely right – if paradise existed on this Earth, it would be here.  Over the past several days, I have had the opportunity to experience them in so many different ways – by train, by foot, by small boat, by larger boat, and finally, by helicopter (my first such ride in my life).  From every angle and every perspective, they were amazing.  My most commonly recurring thought was “this is a fairy tale”.

There are no words to truly do them justice.  No pictures that I could show that would convey their majesty.  Snow-capped peaks.  Glaciers.  Blues and greens that are so rich that they almost look fake.  As we went down Sognefjord, one of the most majestic of them all, we spotted several places that were isolated retreats reachable by only boat or foot.  Many are booked several years in advance.  I fear that if I came back and stayed at one of them, like our rib boat guide, I would never leave.  They welcome you in with open arms, and once they captivate you, it is really hard to let go.Norway

Our home base of Bergen was Norway’s second largest town, at only 260,000.  Life here is relaxed.  The Norwegians are an amazingly friendly people.  So far both of the Scandinavian countries I have visited have shared the same characteristics – friendly, outgoing, welcoming populations.

The engineer in me was amazed in Norway as well.  Turns out 100% of Norway’s power comes from renewable energy (yes you read that right, ALL OF IT).  Norway produces a lot of oil but they DON’T USE IT.  Instead, all of their electricity comes from hydro (97%) and wind (3%).  What was really cool for me was how they did the hydroelectric power generation – you couldn’t see it anywhere.  That’s because they excavate tunnels in their mountains from lake to lake at different elevations and the hydroelectric power generation stations are INSIDE the mountains.  Needless to say, I will be doing more research on this because the process sounds fascinating and incredible.  And again I found a little piece of me wondering – if Norway can do this, why can’t we?

This is my last day in Norway, and I already feel some sadness creeping in that I will have to leave this beauty behind.  I know Sweden will offer new sites and new things to explore, and I am looking forward to them as our trip enters its final week.  But the fjords have taken a little piece of me forever, and I give this to them willingly, because they have given me the gift of knowing what true “peace” feels like.

Home Again

Our last few days in London were interesting, from great curry and catching up with old friends to exploring the countryside and mysteries of Stonehenge and other ancient sites.  Seeing Stomp at the Ambassador’s Theater was a great way to end our 2015 adventure.

On the way home, we got to fly on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner for the first time – I have to say it’s a fabulous plane.  I highly recommend the British Airways direct flight to London to anyone.

This was another amazing trip.  The best part is that we spent the better part of our last few dinners thinking about where we are going next summer!  It is truly amazing to watch people “catch the travel bug” – and a joy to be able to grant others this gift.

This was a fine trip for me – as much as last year was about remembering Heather, while Little Mommies were still spread across Europe (12 more in fact), this trip was much more about me rediscovering myself.  I have to say, while there weren’t many surprises, there were some important reaffirmations and some new discoveries:

1) I realized on this trip that while I’m still also an American, I’m not JUST an American.  In fact, there is a LOT more European still in me than I thought.  I find myself taking just as much pride in this and wanting to bring a new-found emphasis on this into my day-to-day life to ensure that my kids also feel their European roots more strongly than they may have in the past.

2) For the first time in almost 25 years, I realized I’m not necessarily as attached to Austin as I thought I was.  Do I still love the city I live in and the home I have? Of course.  But this trip I didn’t find it difficult at all to conceive of either leaving Austin entirely or splitting my time with other wonderful cities.  It wasn’t hard at all to imagine spending summers on the fjords in Norway, or strolling the canals of Amsterdam, the streets of SoHo in London, or the new harbor of Copenhagen.

3) In reuniting with a few good old friends, I realized that I have many more to see around the world, and that indeed there are many of them.   I also realized that while time does change people, many times it doesn’t, and that old friendships are just as good as new ones.  And with that thought I look forward to reforging connections that have long been dormant in the years ahead.

Most importantly, I realized I’m OK.  Actually, I’m finally better than OK.  I’m good.  For 5 weeks, I felt absolutely no desire to come home.  I didn’t even call once.  No homesickness.  No nothing.  And I realized it’s because I was having fun and I was happy again.  This trip I rediscovered myself.  And I have Europe to thank for that – the familiar streets of Rome and Venice, the idyllic coastline of Italy, the heavenly fjords of Norway, the energy of Amsterdam, and the mystery of Stonehenge.