Who’s THIS Guy?

Several days before I arrived in Jamaica, my aunt (who’s currently staying with one of my cousins in the US) had her house in Montego Bay broken into.

It’s the first time my aunt’s house was ever broken into, in an area where this type of thing isn’t unusual. But whomever they were (and my aunt claims she knows who did it), they made a point of  leaving their mark.

Like, for example, taking her TV. And her refrigerator.

Earlier in my visit, Kaye and I dropped by the house to see the mess left behind. When we entered the front yard, there was a bottle of cooking oil lying in the grass.

Inside, a dining room chair sat at an awkward angle on the living room sofa — they’d used it to break a few slats of glass in the window looking out onto the verandah.

In her bedroom, drawers were pulled out and emptied. Various articles of clothing, undergarments and papers lay in a pile on the floor.

Fast forward a few days, and we’ve returned (with Uncle Eucline) to the house, because the welder and a couple of tradesmen are coming to (a) fix the bolt on the security gate that had been pried open during the robbery, and (b) fit the window overlooking the verandah with its own set of security bars.

Around the time we’re there, a woman from up the street stops by – her name’s Honey, and she’s a long-time family friend. (Apparently I met her when I was really young.)

As we sit inside the house to keep Kaye company while the tradesmen work, I grow bored and start wandering. I peer inside the kitchen. It’s much smaller than I remember (amazing how one’s memory makes everything bigger), and it’s dark.

2015-07-27 15.44.05I return to the living room, looking at a few photos upended by the break-in.

There’s a photo of my late grandfather as I remember him, sitting in profile on his verandah. There are other photos of my cousins at a much younger age.

I eventually enter my aunt’s bedroom. Other than the mess on the floor, it looks a bit sparse. I peer into her closet – which isn’t wide as it is a bit long – and see all the various objects – sheets, blankets, and I think a hat or two. It smells a bit musty.

I step out, and before I know it, I’m bent over, rummaging through the mess on the ground.

2015-07-27 16.10.58This woman keeps everything, I think to myself. Old immunization records, invoices of different types, and even the odd old photos of my cousins.

I open and close a couple of the empty drawers of my aunt’s dresser … and shoved in the corners of one of them, I come across a couple of dog-eared photos.

One of them was a photo of me at three and a half months old, apparently “blowing bubbles”, according to the description in my mom’s handwriting.

And then, there’s THIS one.

2015-07-27 16.10.28-2You have to understand, my family doesn’t have old black-and-white photos of immediate OR extended family members.

And the oldest photos I’ve ever seen were when I was in Jamaica 22 years ago, at my grandfather’s house. They were colourized portraits from the 1950s — one of him, and one with his wife (who’s also since passed away).

But this. I look into the face of the well-dressed young man in the picture – specifically his lips – and goosebumps go up my arm.

I have a very strong hunch I know exactly who this is, but there’s really only one person who might be able to tell me – and right now she’s in Toronto.

I really, REALLY want to put this photo in my purse. But given what’s been taken from this house already – and knowing how much my aunt like holding onto stuff – I resist the urge, snap an image on my phone and return it to its (undignified) home.


I return home on July 28th, and visit my mother a few days later.

We’re in her living room chatting away, when I bring up finding the two photos … and that’s when I bring them up on my phone and show her.

Upon seeing the second photo, she gives a smile and says, “Yep. That’s my daddy.”


My trip to Jamaica was a sweltering whirlwind. But I was glad I managed to do it and to see some of my family.

I still have questions. And who knows if I’ll ever get them answered. But it’s a start.

And if I’m lucky to visit Jamaica again, I hope I don’t wait so long next time, and that I get to see even more of my ancestral home and family.

*Photos taken are mine. Please don’t use without my permission. Not for commercial use.

A Couple Hours in Negril

Monday, July 27th.

IMAG0399“D, get up.”

It’s 6:34 a.m. Guess we’re leaving fairly early for Negril. Although, it would’ve been nice to have known that the night before.

K kindly fixes me breakfast (scrambled egg, sardines and dumplings), and we’re out the door just before 8 a.m.

We pick up Uncle Eucline on the way at a nearby gas station, and off we go, reaching Negril by about 9:30 a.m.

K and Eucline want to take me to Rick’s Cafe (which I vaguely remember visiting back in 1993), but when we arrive, we discover it’s closed. Turns out they open the bar until 12 p.m. and close at 10 p.m.

That’s unfortunate for us, but good for the dozens and dozens of smaller bars in that area that rely on the visitor and tourist traffic for their business. Oh well. Another time.

Next stop: one of the aforementioned bars, owned by one of K’s friends. We have a bit of trouble finding it – it’s so small, it’s wedged between another bar (whose exterior sort of resembles a boat), and another building that’s boarded up.

Beer and liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes line the shelf above the bar. Overhead, a TV plays an American daytime talk show.

The open rear door reveals a view of the rocks, and the water just beyond. Walking out to the back, there’s gravel and wooden beams — the bare outline of an addition K’s friend has plans to build.

IMAG0397Looking out across the water, I can see the various bars and other buildings lining the shore. Even over here, the water is relatively clear and a greenish-blue. The sun is beating down on my neck and shoulders, so I head back inside for a bit.

We eventually leave and – on our uncle’s suggestion – try a resort just down the road. When we drive up the driveway and reach the front gate, we’re faced with something we didn’t anticipate: having to pay $15 US apiece to enter resort property, sit on the beach, and for me to go into the water.

The cost of leisure, I suppose.

My uncle – who has worked in the hospitality business – tries to negotiate with the man at the front gate, but the guy holds firm. After some momentary waffling, we decide to pay and go inside. We’ll get a nice view of the beach, have some lunch and leave.

While in the main lobby, K asks me to inquire about a towel. I approach the reception desk and ask.

“You can buy one at the gift shop,” the desk clerk says in a half-sing-song, completely unhelpful, tone of voice, referring to the building just next door.

Good thing I packed my own.

I go to one of the changing rooms and don my swimsuit (to the nearby soundtrack of a woman severely scolding her misbehaving child).

IMAG0416While K and Uncle Eucline recline on chairs under the shade of a small gazebo, I wade into the warm, clear water. The sky’s an impossible shade of blue.

About 10 minutes in, I spot a dark object gliding through the water. A sting-ray. I stand upright, watching it pass by.

We have a delicious beach-side lunch of jerk chicken, rice and peas and salad.

Then, it’s out of my swimsuit, and back on the road to Montego Bay — K has to go to her mother (my aunt)’s house so she can let in a local welder to repair the security gate pried open by thieves almost a week and a half before …

But not before we make a couple of stops along the way. First, a local school in Sandy Bay, where I believe K taught at some point. Then, we stop in to see one of Uncle Eucline’s younger brothers.

Over glasses of lemonade, we learn his brother (whose name I never learn) is recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour. Looking at him now, seemingly robust and in great spirits, you wouldn’t have known it. And —  understandably — he gives Eucline a lecture about giving up drinking and smoking. I know he’s doing it out of love, but I’m not sure Eucline’s having much of it.

Before we know it, we’re at my aunt’s house, picking mangoes and waiting for the welder to arrive. But it won’t be a completely tedious visit.

(Photos taken are mine. Please do not use without permission.)

A Little Fish, A Little Beach

Saturday, July 25th.

The last several days have been comparatively quiet – and hotter than I can ever remember.

On Thursday, I accompanied K on an assignment outside of town. She’s a teacher who’s well-known for her literacy training, and she was asked to give a special presentation to a group of local children and their parents. It was cool seeing her in her element, trying to engage the kids and parents and interacting with them. I could see why a lot of kids might want her as their teacher!

After, there were some games for the kids and parents, followed by refreshments. Unfortunately, the sinus problems that had been plaguing K the last couple of days (probably due to the heat) started taking their toll. When we eventually returned home, and she headed straight to bed.

Friday was a late start, but we braved the heat once again as my cousin ran more errands. Later in the day, we dropped by Uncle Eucline’s house again to visit for a bit, then headed up to Uncle Egton’s place for a second visit.

2015-07-24 18.19.29This time around, we actually spend enough time that I can snap some photos around his lovely property — and get eaten alive by mosquitoes in the process. (The one part of visiting Jamaica I always dread.)

We returned Uncle Eucline to his home, then drove to a seafood place for some fish.

2015-07-24 19.48.13When it came time to order, I asked for some escovitch – fried, well-seasoned, and spicy fish – with vegetables, breaded, fried bammy and rice.

K said that steamed fish would have been much better. And at first, I thought it was because she preferred healthy meals. But I understood better when I tried to separate the meat from the bones — it became a part-time job!

We order a second fish, but after eating the previous one, I barely made a dent. Full of food, we pack it up and leave.


“K, it’s ten minutes to six.”

My cousin rolls over, and softly laughing. I think she wanted to sleep in, and was hoping that I’d want to do the same.


I’ve been looking forward to this ever since she mentioned earlier in the week. Plus, K said she liked to go to the beach to swim early on Saturday mornings, before it got too hot.

2015-07-25 07.07.27By the time we get our act together and get down to the small local beach — near Montego Bay’s “Hip Strip” — it’s close to 7:30. A bunch of people had the same idea — they’re already in the water.

We bathe, K runs into a couple of people she knows (fellow educators, I think), and she collects rocks for her garden, while tiny fish whiz past our ankles. After an hour, we’re back in K’s car, heading home.

Today, we had hoped to go to Negril, but things don’t work out. So as soon as we get home, K goes back to sleep, leaving me hang out around the house.

In addition to the mosquito bites starting to itch like crazy, I notice this crazy rash running down the right side of my neck to my right clavicle. I briefly panic, because I know that chikagunya is an issue down here. The last thing I need — on top of sweating non-stop — is to come down with a mosquito-borne illness. I’m hoping that it’s just a heat rash.

When K gets up, we head out for more errands. On our way down, we stop by this man’s house – he’s got a stand for selling jelly coconuts. Standing under the shade of one of the trees in his front yard, we pass a coconut back and forth to drink the water, then the coconut is chopped in half and the man hack makeshift “spoons” out of the outer shell so we can eat the jelly.

As we stand there, we find out the coconut jelly man actually lives in Canada part of the year – Montreal, to be exact. He’s been living there for 45 years! Go figure.

Later in the evening, I tag along with K to an evening meeting at her church.

The overhead fans aren’t working, and despite all the open doors, the air inside the sanctuary is hot and stuffy. The small choir pews we’re sitting in are so hard — there’s no cushioning whatsoever. If the intended effect is to make one sit at attention, it’s not working.

As the small group makes its way through its agenda, I’m fighting to stay awake (due to the heat) and K – still having sinus troubles – has quietly nodded off.  There were refreshments after, which perked me up, but I’m sure unsettled K a bit.

With that meeting done, it’s back home and just about time to sleep.

Sunday’s going to be a long day.

Leather, Pizza, and More Leather

2013-10-01 09.04.52(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Our trip leader, Franco, starts this part of our day trip by first orienting us to shops and other amenities in the immediate area.

Then, some of the group takes off, while the rest of us are taken by Franco to a store called Peruzzi, which specializes in leather goods. He’s mentioned it’s the best place in Florence to find high-quality leather purses, jackets, and other accessories.

In an area near the store entrance, we’re introduced to a salesperson (I think named Roberto), who gives us a pitch about the quality of the goods, has an employee demonstrate how the company applies gold embossed patterns to some of the products, and even gets one of our American tour-mates to try on a leather jacket. It’s all a little bit dry.

We’re finally let loose to look around and see what we can find. Most of the tour group leaves shortly after.

But I’ve been waiting this moment for about four days, and I’m on a serious mission to leave Florence with something, anything, leather.

Mom and I head upstairs to the shoe section. Not much there. We move from room to room, floor to floor, not really finding anything truly affordable, never mind nice.

After going back and forth, I decide on a reasonably-sized (for me) black leather purse. It is, honestly, the most money I’ve ever dropped on a handbag of any kind. But considering all I’ve bought so far has been several pairs of earrings, I justify it as my prime splurge for this trip.

The salesperson we’ve been dealing with then tries to sell my mom on a leather jacket (including a really nice cream-coloured one), but she stands her ground and declines to buy it.

(Truth be told, the salesperson’s being kind of pushy, despite the store’s apparent “no obligation to buy” spiel from less than an hour ago.)

We wander back out into the square, running into yet another peddlar trying to sell us scarves for less than 5 Euros. We rebuff her offer … and I don’t remember what we say out loud, but it’s within earshot of a middle-aged man walking close by us.

I think he responds to our comment by first saying “Pardon?” to which I respond by voicing our annoyance at being harangued by street vendors. He says he hates them too, and asks where we’re from. When asked in return, he says he’s Italian, and a resident of Florence … and owner of a family-owned leather shop nearby.

Oh yes, of course. Trying to convince us to go into his shop. We try to worm our way out of it by saying maybe we’d drop by later, but right now, we’re going to eat lunch.

Of COURSE, we end up at the restaurant right next to his store. Which means he can check on the progress of our meal. Oh, well.  **sighs**

Mom’s not hungry, but I am practically ready to chew my own arm off, so I order a pizza with tuna, olives and onions. (Don’t judge me.)

While tucking into that potentially stank delight, a really attractive young man (accompanied by an older man) passes by, doubles back, then sits on the restaurant patio – our restaurant patio – right across from us.

(Stellar meal choice, D. Cue the “wah-waah-waaaaah” brass section.)

We get to chatting with them, and it turns out this guy – and his dad – are from the States; from what I understand, they both used to be in the army. Son is now working here in Italy (just outside Venice, to be a bit more precise – for the government in some capacity, from the sounds of it), and Dad is finally visiting for the first time. They’re spending the day in Florence, and will be visiting a couple of other places.

It’s nice being able to have a full conversation with fellow travellers from our part of the world, and fellow travellers of colour, at that. It certainly doesn’t happen to me a whole lot.

The two men leave before us. Shortly after, I excuse myself to use the ladies’ room before we continue on. When I emerge from the restaurant, guess who’s chatting up my mother?

We basically have now been cornered. So, into the store we go.

I look at an assortment of purses which, frankly, don’t really tickle my fancy. I get the sales pitch on a grey clutch, which apparently is the same brand used by Pope Francis. Given the unholy ugliness of the big, plastic, gold-coloured logo slapped on the front flap, I’m very doubtful, but keep this opinion to myself.

Then our “friend” suggests I try on a leather jacket. No obligation. And he has just the one.

He passes me this fitted, eggplant-coloured number with a decorative belt that he ties in the back.

Ohhh, shit.  It actually looks good. But I can’t. I JUST dropped some coin on a purse …

I want to protest, and I look over at my mom for an out. But she doesn’t help when she comments on how good this jacket looks on me.

It’s the death knell for my credit card. Some 300 Euros (or $430 CAD) later, I carry out that aubergine moto-styled jacket (I’m kidding myself) in a big, stapled paper bag. The total cost of my purchases today? $600 CAD. Damage: officially done.

2013-10-01 09.50.52Mom and I set off in search of shoe shops, passing sidewalk artists and various other kiosks along the way, in hopes she might land herself a good pair of leather shoes.

Of course, she wants said shoes at Canadian-sale-plus-senior’s-discount prices. Not much luck.

We stop while my mom gets a fruit gelato. Which normally isn’t a big deal. EXCEPT that when go into this one place to order and the woman behind the counter says, “Cone?” and my mom says yes … the gelato lady decides my mom needs the biggest waffle cone known to humankind. By the time I catch the miscommunication, she’s already plopped it into the cone and has charged 10 Euros. NOT. Impressed.

I simultaneously feel badly and queasy, watching my mother attempting to eat that gelato and NOT waste her 10 Euros. After getting about three-quarters of the way through, she quits and tosses it.

2013-10-01 09.55.21We continue looking around, Mom changing her shopping objective to finding a nice belt.

We pass by a small market full of purses dangling from hooks, various belts and scarves we’ve seen at other stands, as well as other touristy knick-knacks. Not much luck.

We then realize it’s getting close to meeting time. Were we supposed to meet at 5:15? Or 5:30? Or maybe it’s 5:45?

2013-10-01 09.48.22In any case, we set out to return to our meeting place – getting lost and ending up northwest of our intended destination.

And we’re both directionally-challenged. But it seems I’m marginally better at reading a map.

So it takes a few minutes more, but we find our way back to the church square.

The group eventually re-assembles and boards the bus down near the river. By the time we return to the hotel, a group of us decide to head out in search of dinner. I’m certainly game, but I’m not sure my mom is, since she’s still feeling a bit under the weather, and is also assuming we’d find something at the hotel (which I’m doubtful about).

In the end, Mom and I join Dallas and Randy from Winnipeg, Selene and Paul from Ireland, Jenna and her friend Andrea (from the U.S.) and another mother-daughter duo, Crystal and Louise, from Tasmania.

We have to navigate a couple of roadways (without getting run over) to get to the restaurant, which basically resembles like a box on sticks (for people in Toronto: it looks like OCAD’s Sharp Centre for Design, minus the fancy stippling). Thank goodness there were two elevators to the top!

We all have various dishes – a number of them pasta dishes – and leave very full.

One more day, one more hotel change. Final destination: Rome.

Fair Verona, Lovely Lugano

2013-09-28 04.31.28(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Saturday, September 28.

This morning starts a bit better. All I needed the night before was some interaction with other people, and a couple of alcoholic drinks.

We start today’s itinerary in the town of Verona – backdrop to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Fun fact (which I don’t think I actually knew): Shakespeare never visited Verona. In fact, he’d never set foot in Italy, period. From what’s relayed to us, he essentially got his information about towns and cities in Italy from other people more familiar with the country.

2013-09-28 04.31.47Never mind that, though. The biggest draws – or a couple of them, depending on how vast your knowledge of Verona is – are the balcony and statue of Juliet, visited by many tourists from all over.

Today is no different. The courtyard is crowded with tourists, most of whom are gathered around the statue of Juliet, cameras at the ready.

Franco herds us in a group just behind another group, waiting for our opportunity to take our photos and get out of there.

According to Franco (pictured at left), the superstitious custom is this: If someone is single and poses with the statue of Juliet while cupping her right breast, that person will be married in three months.

Some tourists are groping the statue (one young woman actually does this while sticking out her tongue a la Miley Cyrus), so I don’t know exactly what that means for them. Frankly, I don’t want to find out.

2013-09-28 04.33.24At the opposite end of the small courtyard, not that far away from the statue, next to the souvenir shop, there’s a wall with dozens of padlocks … of love.

It’s very similar to the locks I saw on a couple of bridges in Paris the previous September.

Next to the locks are scraps of love notes, stuck to the wall with gum by teenagers. (Um, ew.)

Franco leads us out of the packed courtyard (through a grafitti-ed archway) through the streets towards Verona’s main square, and past the arena, where classical music aficionados come to town for its annual summer festival.

2013-09-28 05.15.15When he releases us for an hour, Mom and I stroll around a bit before sitting on a bench and just taking in the general neat-and-tidiness of the place. Verona is a very cute town.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. While sitting on that bench, Mom turns to me and tells me she actually likes this place.

Whaaaat?! A place she likes? There may yet be hope.

Our time in Verona is over. It’s back on the road and heading north … over the border … and into the Italian part of Switzerland (and the lakes district).

So different. So BEAUTIFUL.

The water, hills and mountains are – for lack of a better word – breathtaking.

2013-09-28 09.58.54We arrive in the city of Lugano, where we’re taken for a brief walk around, then are let loose to take in the scenery for ourselves.

On this particular day, there’s some sort of street festival happening, so the place seems a bit busy.

Mom and I take a stroll down by the water, passing a life-sized chess game in progress, and into the nearby botannical garden. It’s small, but just as picturesque and peaceful.

2013-09-28 10.04.06Our brief stop in Lugano over, we head back over the border into the town of Varese, where our hotel’s located. It’s nicely spread out; all the rooms are spread out on one level, and the dining room is at mezzanine level.

Tonight’s meal is different, but it’s also a bit of a special occasion: two people on our tour – Selene (here with her husband, from Ireland) and Rex (from San Antonio, touring with his wife and another couple) are celebrating their birthdays. So in addition to getting a little extra something at dinner, they both get a little cake with fruit topping, as the rest of us sing them “Happy Birthday”. It’s quite cute.

After dinner, Mom retires to the room while I join some of the others outside for a little socializing and a couple of drinks. I try to hang on as long as I can before it’s time to turn in.

Tomorrow we’ve got not one, but two excursions on our schedule.

A Little Venetian Vexation

2013-09-27 02.43.59(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Friday, September 27.

Our group starts out for Venice around 7:30 a.m. Another early start.

We pile into a water taxi and head for Giudecca Island, where there’s a glass-blowing factory, as well as a small gondola yard.

Our guide around the facility gives us a brief overview about gondolas, including cost (one can run in the neighbourhood of about 20,000 – 30,000 Euros), and a brief history lesson (for example, why all gondolas are black, and the fact they used to have “lids”).

2013-09-27 02.53.07We’re led inside into the glass-blowers’ factory, where we’re treated to a demonstration by a maestro. He first crafts a vase with handles, then a horse frozen in mid-gallop. Quite impressive!

We’re then herded into the showroom, where our host explains how colours are added to stemware, why good quality glassware – or at least the ones made here – won’t chip or crack when plopped onto a table (they WILL still break when dropped on the floor – it is glass, after all), and how to find the marks of authenticity and of a maestro’s good work (he will only add his signature to the best work, not to seconds).

It’s not cheap, either. A small gilded cup might run at least 70 Euros, depending; even really nice glass jewellery might run around 120 Euros at the very minimum. I come across some small stud earrings with various patterns embedded within the glass, for about 10 Euros each. I end up getting several pairs, for a small deal (plus a glass bon-bon I don’t have much use for). I’m pleased that I finally make my first purchase of the trip.

We’re put back on the boat and whisked back to Venice, where we’re let loose for free time. And so the challenge of finding things to do – and getting Mom (who just wants to get back to the hotel) to do it – begins.

Sitting on some marble steps just behind St. Mark’s Square, guidebook in lap, I suggest we go visit the Gallerie dell’ Accademie. We get just enough time to figure out our directions on foot, before we’re booted off the steps by a woman in an orange shirt. We can’t sit on the steps. (As we would see later on, it’s a recurring theme in Venice.)

The walk there is … interesting. There will be signs pointing us in the direction of the gallery, and then they’ll disappear along the way. This happens a couple of times, forcing us to stop and re-direct ourselves slightly, but we eventually find it.

IMAG0433The gallery – while large in size like a lot of galleries I’ve been to, is somehow manageable and not completely overwhelming.

There is a LOT of commissioned religious work (as seems to be the norm in a lot of European cities) – portraits, paintings, stained glass, and a handful of sculptures. How many times can the Madonna and Child be painted? You have NO idea.

There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, which Mom opts to sit out.

There are some of his sketches, but a lot of the work on display is by other artists influenced or inspired by him. I do see his sketch of the Vitruvian Man, which is cool.

We exit the museum sometime after 1 p.m., stopping  by a snack place for something to eat. I have a mediocre hamburger; Mom gets a pork sandwich, with no cheese and not much of anything else.

We continue our return trip back to St. Mark’s Square, going off course at first. But we get some help from spray-painted graffiti directing us towards the square, when “official” signs disappear.

2013-09-27 05.13.04We reach the square at around 3 p.m. I suggest to Mom that perhaps we should check out the Doge’s Palace. (It’s also known as the Ducal Palace. No, it’s a real place. And no, this is not the “doge” I mean.)

Perhaps it’s just me, but for the first time this trip, Mom seems to hesitate.

Perhaps she’s just tired, but it all of a sudden I feel as if I am making all of the decisions of what to see and do.

This irritates me a little. We’re supposed to be mother and daughter, travelling as tour companions, not me playing tour guide, picking which direction to walk, or what sites to see, while my mom feebly agrees to go along with whatever I decide.

We approach the Doge’s Palace. First, there’s some hesitation/confusion over where to find information on the hours of operation and ticket pricing. When we find out tickets are 16 Euros a person, Mom balks at the price, then worries about what I’m going to eat for dinner, and how I am going to pay for it, if we do the tour.

Now, I’m fully irked. I need a time-out, and I have nowhere to go.

I’ve been in a foreign country, and haven’t been more than 50 feet away from my mother for the past eight days. Yes, I fully accept that this whole trip – the idea of spending time with my mom – was my idea in the first place.

But perhaps between the lack of proper sleep, my mother’s fretting over money (she wasn’t prepared – and to a lesser extent, neither was I – for the cost of excursions and incidentals on this trip), the sheer number of excursions, Mom’s dietary challenges, as well as her back (which she threw out some 10 days before we left) …

We may have both hit a wall.

2013-09-27 09.22.05The palace once housed the powers that ruled over Venice, where justice could be meted out with severe consequences, as illustrated by the dungeons below the main building.

The frescoes in a number of the rooms are intricate and massive.

But I spend half our visit in the palace feeling angry for dragging my mom around Italy (seemingly against her will), wanting some distance, and getting irritated at aaall the other tour groups clogging up staircases and the various rooms on the tour. I shouldn’t feel this way. But I can’t help it.

We manage to kill enough of the time remaining to cross over the four bridges leading back to our meeting spot just before 4:30.

2013-09-27 09.56.30While waiting, I decide to get an ice cream while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, because it’s absolutely hot. But Mom follows closely behind.

Rationally speaking, she just wants to keep close because she’s in a foreign country and no one she recognizes is around yet.

But part of me – perhaps the overheated, overwhelmed part – can’t help but feel a bit suffocated by the close proximity. I just want a few minutes of space.

The others eventually appear, so there are others to talk to. We board our boats at 5 p.m. While making small talk with the others over how we spent our afternoon, our fellow Canadian traveller Else asks my mom how she’s doing. Mom admits she’s really tired and just wants to go home.

And, there it is.

How do you now enjoy a trip with someone who just wants to go home? And the best parts of our journey haven’t even happened yet.

Back at the hotel, in the silence of our room, Mom eats a banana. I can’t take it, and for the first time since the start of our trip, I pull out my iPod and phone and fiddle with Instagram and Twitter to pass the time, like a very sulky teenager.

Around 7:15ish, Mom asks if I’m going to the pizzeria. Yes, I reply. Do I want her to come with me? Again, I reply yes (sullenly). Off we go, down the road and across the bridge, to the pizzeria.

While I wait for my take-away order, Mom – seemingly out of the blue – mentions how she’s recently been thinking of her aunt (the last of her father’s surviving siblings, and the youngest, although she would now be about 99, if she’s still alive). She last saw this aunt about seven years ago.

The topic of conversation then veers into family history. This piques my interest, and I’m a little less grumpy then when I entered the restaurant. But not by much.

We return to the hotel, and I eat my pizza in near silence, hoping this irritability will pass.

In Venice …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-26 09.15.23Thursday, September 26.

I did NOT have a good night’s sleep. I hope to make up for it on the bus ride to Venice.

After a shower in possibly the tiniest shower stall in Italy, and then breakfast, our group’s bus is on the road by 8 a.m.

During our lunch break at one of the rest stops, I have a brief chat with a physician’s assistant from Nashville (she’s not on our tour), who’s being dragged around Italy on her own non-stop trip, by her Italian husband (to see his friends and relatives).

A little later, while Mom and I are sitting at a table with Susan (the outreach nurse from Australia), an older Italian lady tries to make conversation with her. I think it’s quite sweet and refreshing, since our contact with folks outside our tour group has been extremely limited.

We arrive on Venice’s outskirts by about 4 p.m. From there, we take private water taxis to St. Mark’s Square, where trip leader Franco leads us on a brief walk around, along side streets to get us oriented.

2013-09-26 10.15.06From there, we’re taken to the small docking area for a 35-minute ride on gondolas through Venice’s canal system. Cheesy? A little bit. But I can see the “romance” factor if you’re with your sweetheart and want to do something that screams “Venice!”

But … I’m with my mom, who’s a bit nervous about the prospect of sitting sideways on a chair that’s been lashed to the inside of a tipsy gondola with rope. At least we have cushions on our seating to help pad out our ride.

The ride itself is pleasant, and – in addition to the boatmen dressed in their striped shirts, bandanas tied around some of their necks – there are musicians on a couple of adjacent gondolas, playing and belting out Italian classics, turning the cheese factor up a notch.

Following our return to dry land, we’re allowed about a half-hour to walk around, get a coffee/tea, or whatever we’d like.

2013-09-26 10.47.05St. Mark’s Square is lovely, but absolutely teeming with obvious-looking tourists like ourselves. You can barely look at, say, a jewellery display without literally smacking someone’s hand by accident.

(And no, grammar soldiers, I’m not using “literally” incorrectly. I actually did accidentally smack some poor Spanish lady’s hand while pointing at something. As you were.)

Franco collects the herd once again, takes us back to San Marco pier, and puts us back onto water taxis. At the other end, the bus drives us to the nearby town of Oriago, where we’re staying. Unlike the hotel in Assisi, the rooms are bigger, and the beds are firmer.

Dinner’s at 8 p.m., with a mimosa to start, followed by lasagne (pasta with bacon for Mom), salad, what I think is veal and potatoes, finished off with some “grandmother cake” (cake with lemon filling, and topped with browned almonds, which I eat), and tea. Mom says it’s the best meal she’s had all trip so far. Another victory!

Tomorrow, we spend another full day in Venice, but with a painfully early start from Oriago.

The Road to Assisi

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-23 04.31.39Wednesday, September 25.

Yet another super-early start to the day …

But for the first time on this trip, our tour group’s getting a bit of a reprieve in the (non-stop) excursion department.

Our driver, Pierluigi, has a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to get us to our next destination – the town of Assisi.

I take advantage of the long ride to catch up on my sleep, as the last couple of nights haven’t been entirely restful.

Our first short stop is at the Cassino war cemetery, the final resting place for many soldiers from the Commonwealth – New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Canadians.

As we enter the grounds, a military ceremony is underway at the far end, so we move along as quietly and respectfully as we can between the rows of gravestones, gazing at inscriptions and taking photos.

2013-09-23 04.49.18Prior to our arrival at the cemetery, Franco told us that a large number of the fallen buried here are Canadians.

Standing on the grounds now, I can see them – rows upon rows – on the right-hand side of the cemetery.

The sheer number of tombstones – compared to the other soldiers from other countries – says volumes about their involvement and the ultimate price they paid.

Some were as young as 19 years old – as far as we know. Some could be younger, as it’s known that some young men lied about their ages to enlist. The visiting is quite sobering, but worth the visit.

Back on the bus, we travel for a couple more hours, passing Rome’s outskirts and going beyond, stopping for lunch at a rest stop near the town of Spoleto.

From there, it’s another two and a half hours before we reach Assisi – home of St. Francis.

2013-09-25 10.01.46As it happens, our group has arrived roughly a week and a half before Pope Francis is due to visit the town and give mass, on St. Francis’ Day (October 4). At the time of our visit, we’re told that Assisi is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people to descend upon the town for the festival.

Seeing the town at a distance from the bus, with the basilica appearing to be perched on the edge of the hill, the thought that we would be soon ascending up there seems a bit daunting.

But upon meeting our local guide for the afternoon, Vania, it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as originally imagined.

For starters, she leads us up two sets up escalators (no, really) towards the “new” gate, on the town’s northeastern side.

Assisi is anything but flat, but it honestly doesn’t seem so bad to navigate. It’s precisely the type of picturesque little town you’re supposed to imagine when you think of Italy, with scenic views of the landscape that don’t seem to end, and architecture that beckons you to take photos.

2013-09-25 10.17.09The streets are lined with shops, including meringues in patisserie windows the size of my face!

Every stairway, nook and cranny visible to the naked eye is image-rich. The two squares through which we’re led have views of the countryside that no picture can really properly capture.

Vania takes us inside St. Francis’ Basilica, where she talks a bit about St. Francis’ life before his decision to dedicate his life to religion, as well as the frescoes on the church walls that depict his life and work.

2013-09-25 10.41.12

(Another historic tidbit/sidebar: we’ve arrived the day before the 16th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Assisi [1997]; it damaged part of the basilica’s portals, apparently shattering it into some 200,000 pieces. A fair bit of one of them – I believe near the church entrance – has been re-assembled by experts through a painstaking method much like a jigsaw puzzle.)

From the sanctuary, we’re then taken down to the basilica’s lower level, where St. Francis’ tomb is kept. The structure is dramatically different – the lower ceilings, the design. It’s (obviously) from an older time, and so the atmosphere feels slightly more eerie, but also more sombre and reverent. Both clergy and average folks alike are there in the small, ancient chapel, praying. It feels a bit strange (even a tad disrespectful) to be shuffling about as a tour group, while this otherwise most sacred of acts is going on.

2013-09-25 11.50.46The tour ends, and we’re let loose for about 45 minutes.

There’s not as much to look at in the southwestern section of town. I opt to take a look in a couple of nearby shops, purchasing a sticky almond pastry from one of them. (The pastry is nowhere as sweet as I think it’s going to be – just very nutty.)

Finally, we’re rounded up and taken to the hotel – a tiny, 40-room establishment. The rooms and bathrooms are just as compact.

Following a lovely dinner, it’s once again to bed, and it will be early to rise. We have a full day of driving ahead for the next stop.

A Day on the Coast

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-22 04.12.59Tuesday, September 24.

Today’s a long day, but a good one.

Our first stop: the town of Sorrento – which also happens to be our trip leader Franco’s hometown.

I didn’t know this before we arrived, but Sorrento’s known for its intricate wood inlay designs, which can be found on everything from tables to music boxes. So – of course – the first place we visit in town is a wood inlay factory.

There’s a presentation by the man who runs the factory, followed by a “stop” in the adjoining gift shop to admire and – naturally – an attempt to entice us into buying something. (Nice try, wood-inlay man.)

Leaving the shop, we walk into town for a mini-tour of the shopping district. We pass numerous shops selling leather purses (this catches my eye), sample sweet almond candies, and even are treated to some gelato, courtesy of Franco (see photo of my selection, below).

2013-09-22 04.27.53But herein lies a test. For you see, my dear, sweet mother – who chose Italy as our travel destination – is lactose-intolerant (and gets a bit of heartburn when she eats tomato sauce). Yet here we are, lined up inside a shop that’s said to serve the best gelato in Sorrento. Fifty-six flavours’ worth.

We’ve already had a disappointing food experience the evening we arrived in Rome, and my mom hasn’t been completely impressed with her food options thus far. So I’m nervous.

But it turns out I don’t have to be. With Franco’s help, she finds a milk-free melon flavoured treat … and she likes it.

(Yay! A small success!)

We also make small talk with some of our fellow travellers, including a couple named Dallas and Randy, who hail from Winnipeg. As we find out, Randy is (1) quite funny and (2) an avid eater of gelato. He and my mom seem to get along almost immediately.

Around 11:45, we’re let loose. Some people set off on an excursion to a mozzarella farm outside Sorrento. Because of my mom’s lactose issues, we opt instead to browse a few of the shops in town, then take a local bus tour which lasts 35 minutes (cost: 6 Euros), following that up with lunch.

We find a little sit-down place where I chow down on pizza, while Mom has to improvise with some boiled potatoes seasoned with olive oil and onion (which she claims she likes).

After lunch, we elect to rest a spell on a bench somewhere. The only one I can find is under some trees that line one of the main medians in the town centre. Of course, it happens to be across from some not-so-young Italian men loafing about, smoking and such.

In the span of about 10 minutes, the gaggle of Italian dude-bros grows to almost a dozen, standing almost in the road, sitting next to us, just loitering. Mind you, they don’t bother us, but I grow tired of the impromptu sausage party pretty quickly.

We return to our group’s meeting spot by the wood inlay factory, where we board mini-buses for the afternoon drive down the Amalfi Coast, where we will stop in the village of Positano.

2013-09-22 09.18.29The journey down the coast is narrow, and a bit steep. Having done a similar stretch on my trip to Morocco several years ago, I’m not unnerved. For my mom – between the narrow roadway down, various cars and scooters zipping in and out, and huge trucks expertly navigating the terrain – it’s a bit daunting.

But the view leading into Positano is simply spectacular. In some ways, it sort of reminds me of Croatia.

The stop in Positano is lovely. But truthfully, there’s not a lot to do for the short time we’re here. Our local guide, Stefano, is nice, but he doesn’t say a whole lot about the town.

2013-09-22 10.03.28He leads us on foot, from our drop-off point at the top of the village down to the beach. It’s lovely, but the sun is high, so it’s quite hot … and there’s not a whole lot to do.

Our sightseeing done, we leave town and arrive back in the town of Castellmare di Stabia (where we’re staying) sometime after 6 p.m.

Dinner is spent with two nice American couples, Judy and Charles from Florida (they’re just lovely!) and a woman named Rosemary and her husband (whose name eludes me). We dine on spaghetti carbonara, followed by chicken and vegetables, with a flan for dessert. Mom gets spaghetti minus the tomato sauce, along with a special omelette with vegetables. (Other than the portion size – which she says is huge – I think she does okay.)

The hotel offers post-dinner tea upstairs, but tonight it seems a lot of people are too pooped to go. Mom and I do end up sitting and chatting with three Australians – a couple, Kerry and Keith (I forget where they’re from), and a lady named Susan, who’s from Darwin. She’s an outreach ENT nurse working to get care and treatment to those in far-flung Aborigine communities. (Listening to her talk about the language, cultural and geographic challenges, as well as her program being under constant threat of dwindling government funding, is unreal.)

The night winds down, and Mom and I head back to our room.

Tomorrow, we’re off to our next stop: the town of Assisi.

Oh Hey, Pompeii!

2013-09-21 09.59.27Our tour bus arrives outside the ancient city of Pompeii around mid-afternoon.

This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing. Ancient-ruin-anything pleases my inner geek.

Once inside the front gates, we meet our next local guide Vincenzo (or Enzo, as he likes to be called). He takes our group down a tree-lined path and into the sun-baked ruins of part of the old city.

We’re told it’s impossible to see the entire old city in one day; for our part of the trip, we’ll see roughly a third of the ruins (which lasts about two hours).

Enzo’s actually third-generation resident of the modern-day town of Pompeii, so he’s as chock-a-block full of information as he is entertaining when he describes what life in ancient times would have been like.

2013-09-21 10.08.28He takes us to see an ancient ampthitheatre, and explains practical purposes for things, such as the way the roads were paved, and how merchants set up shops.

He shows us an ancient “fast-food” restaurant, as well as how to determine whether the ruins of a home belonged to someone of a certain class.

We take respite from the sun in an old structure, and take a look of a couple of figures in plaster – said to be real people, frozen in the positions in which they died. I’m not sure what’s more surreal – that, or seeing them under glass, themselves relics from an ancient event.

2013-09-21 10.48.39From there, Enzo takes us to a section of town that housed a brothel, explaining how prostitutes would bring in business.

Up on the walls near the brothel’s entrance are faded erotic pictures, depicting the kind of services customers could ask for.

(In the street not too far away from the brothel, there’s a drawing on of of the stones that one could describe as an ancient form of “GPS”, so to speak.)

2013-09-21 10.13.27Near the end of our tour, we pass through a very large courtyard.

At one end is a building housing all sorts of recovered artifacts – urns, vessels, pieces of moulding, and again, figures frozen in plaster and time.

One particular person is crouching – likely under something to protect himself, but sadly, his gesture was in vain.

It’s been an interesting look around Pompeii. But after a post-tour gelato, it’s time to pile back onto the bus to get to the next leg of our destination.