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When in Rome…

… have a great time! We certainly did!

Friends had invited us to join them on a cruise leaving from Rome a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, Dave’s work schedule wouldn’t let him take that much time off. We were able to sneak away for a long weekend to explore Rome with them before they boarded the ship.

We arrived half a day before they did and used the time to take a Segway tour, one of our favorite ways of seeing a new city. I got a laugh out of a passing tourist that called us lazy – you can see far more in 4 hours on a Segway than you could on foot; but boy do they tire your legs out! It doesn’t seem like much, but you have to lean forward to go forward and lean back to stop, then further back to actually go backwards, all without falling off – it’s a great calf and shin workout! 

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After that, we met up with our friends for dinner at a restaurant called Cotto. The food and wine was good in a not fancy, not expensive way; and the service was great. My only complaint was that Dave and I ordered a seafood dish, and what should have been scallops were either thin slices of one scallop per dish, or skate cut with a cookie cutter. The cheese platter we started with and our friends’ pizzas were wonderful, though!

The next day we woke up at 7 (ouch!) to have an early breakfast before heading out to see the city in more depth. We were staying at the Hotel Artemide, which had a wonderful American-style breakfast. We purchased tickets for a hop on, hop off tour, which turned out to be a disappointment from a narration perspective, but a great way to get between the sights we wanted to see. Our first stop was the Coliseum, which is amazing. It was really cool to see all the all the little rooms and passages that you see in period movies like Gladiator.

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After that, we walked around on the Palatine Hill, which was the hill where the aristocrats lived. It was strange how familiar the Roman ruins looked – you can really tell that they built Caesarea (well, the first time, at least!) After a stop at Mussolini’s Wedding Cake and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we found a sidewalk cafe to have pizza for lunch.

Feeling restored, we set off on foot to the Pantheon, which has an amazing dome, with a circular hole, open to the elements, at the top! The inside has been converted to a Catholic church, which was beautiful.

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We hopped back on the bus and rode two stops to the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica. The security to get inside the Vatican is intimidating! We had actually wanted to take the Angels and Demons tour, but it was not available on the days we were there. It was neat to be able to see a famous place that I’m used to seeing in the movies or on TV.

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On our way back to the hotel, we passed the Spanish Steps, which were completely covered with people, and stopped to make a wish at the Trevi fountain. We also found some nice Italian leather belts and silk scarves.

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That evening, we went to a five course tasting dinner at Il Convivio, a very exclusive restaurant. So exclusive, in fact, that they don’t have an exterior doorknob! The taxi dropped us off and pointed down an alley and around the corner. We set off in that direction and found ourselves at a massive wood and metal door with the name of the restaurant and a doorbell off to the side. We rang, and soon someone slid open a small panel in the door to ask if we had a reservation. We passed the test and we were in! It felt like entering a Prohibition-era speakeasy

The restaurant was amazingly luxurious, with a 100-page wine list, a 4-page water list, and small upholstered stools to keep your purse up off the floor. Some of the courses were a little unusual, like the salami gelato that was served as a palate cleanser. I didn’t have my camera with me, but you can see pictures of the interior and the food on their website.

The following morning, we ate breakfast with our friends and the four of us went for a short morning constitutional before sending them on their way to the cruise ship. Dave and I headed to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch, which was heavily decorated for Halloween, and then met up with our last tour, Crypts and Catacombs.

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I hadn’t thought about it being Halloween when I booked it, but it worked out perfectly! Our first stop was 13 miles of catacombs outside the original Roman city walls; then we saw St. Clement’s Basilica, which was fascinating because it’s actually 3 buildings built one on top of each other as the level of the city rose around it. Much of Rome is this way, in fact – our guide compared it to one big lasagna!

Our final stop was the crypt of the Capuchin monks, who gave their names to both the Capuchin monkey, because people thought their fur coloration looked like the hooded robes the monks wore, and the Cappuccino, because it’s brown on the bottom and white on the top like a monk’s tonsure.

The only words to describe the crypt are eerie and macabre. The monks were trying to communicate an “ashes to ashes” type message, saying that the physical remainder of the body after death is so unimportant that it may as well be used as a decorating medium. We had an excellent tour guide with a sense of humor just dark enough that he made what could have been a morbid experience enjoyable.

Capuchin Crypt 

Picture courtesy of:

http://www.cappucciniviaveneto.it/cappuccini_ing.html

After that, we headed back to the hotel to pack and grabbed another quick dinner at Cotto. I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I ordered vegetable soup, which turned out to be a lovely, creamy puree instead of the thin broth I has been expecting. This restored me enough for us to head back to the room and polish off the rest of the bottle of wine we had waiting for us.

I have to mention Hotel Artemide again; the service was impeccable – they made phone calls to confirm our tours for us, helped us with restaurant recommendations, and even helped me arrange a surprise for my friend while we were there!

Washington Visit

No, I haven’t fallen off the planet; I’ve just been on the other side of it for a while

Two weeks ago I hopped a plane to Washington State to visit friends and family. The Puyallup Fair is a long-standing tradition for one of my friends and me, so we made the trek down on the second to last day of its 2009 run. My mom and a couple of her friends, plus two of my aunts also came – quite the girl trip!

One of my favorites in this hang-glider ride – whee! Unfortunately, it seems like the ride you get for your 5 tickets gets shorter every year…

The next day, my mom and I headed to the Seahawks game. We rode the new shuttle operated by Starline Luxury Coaches – it leaves from the Eastgate Park and Ride and drops off a short walk from Qwest Field. It is definitely the way to go!

I knew once the game started I would be too involved to snap any pictures, so I got this video of them charging out of the tunnel and a shot of Blue Thunder performing before the game. Even though we didn’t end up winning, it was a great game. (But I’m very relieved to have Hasselbeck back this week!)

Both ends of the food spectrum

Last Wednesday we went with good friends to Catit restaurant in Tel Aviv . There was going to be a guest chef in from the Netherlands preparing a special menu together with the head chef, Meir Adoni.  They did not disappoint – it was a 7 course tasting menu where each course was paired with a wine picked to complement it. The food was amazing and we all agreed that we had never had such a perfect food/wine pairing. All we had with us was the camera in Dave’s phone, so the pictures aren’t very good – from left to right that’s foie gras prepared 3 different ways, a heavenly dessert platter (featuring chocolate mousse in an eggshell, a frothy caramel popcorn drink in a cute little mug, a tiny doughnut on a cinnamon stick and several other forms of chocolate), and a single oyster in a tapioca sauce topped with caviar. Other courses featured Kobe beef and lobster; and each one was a small serving so that you didn’t feel gorged on so much rich food.

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Totally at the other end of culinary skill and cuisine, on Monday night we watched the Seattle vs. San Francisco game on NFL GamePass. I made nachos with homemade salsa and we took a picture before digging in because they looked so good. If possible, they tasted even better than they looked!

I am off to visit my parents in Seattle – the taxi is coming at 2am (yeek!). I am already looking forward to foods that we can’t get here; babyback ribs and Chinese food, in particular! Also on the schedule are a trip to the Puyallup Fair and the Chicago vs. Seattle game at Qwest Field – I can’t wait

From Russia with Love (part 4)

We had chosen not to do the optional excursions the next day, so we had free time to explore Moscow by ourselves on foot and via the Metro. Our first stop was the former KGB headquarters (now home to the Russian Security Service) on Lubyanka Square.

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From there we went to Gorky Park, where we got hot dogs and I rode the dragon boat several times before we explored the rest of the park. One of the original 4 Buran Soviet Space Shuttles is there; looking at it, Dave remarked that it was hard to believe it was ever capable of flight! It now houses a children’s movie theatre.

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After a slight detour, we were able to find the Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch. The local draft beer Baltika No. 7 is really quite good! We sat outside and watched a Hare Krishna parade go past as we ate.

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That evening we rejoined the tour group for the Moscow State Circus. We really enjoyed it; there were some amazing acrobats and Cirque du Soleil type acts, as well as trained housecats and a dancing bear (well, it was Russia after all!)

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The following morning we stopped at Victory Park on our way to the National Cemetery. From the bus, we also saw the central hot water plant, from which many homes get their hot water, which flows through separate pipes! In the cemetery, we saw the graves of Kruschev, Tupolev, Boris Yeltsin and many others – to have been buried there, you had to really be someone. I loved the graves – so different from the low markers used in the US to make it easy for the groundskeepers to mow; each one was its own little garden!

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Afterwards, we had the bus drop us and some others off at Red Square to visit Lenin’s mausoleum. It is only open a few days a week from 10-1 and we had missed it the other days we were there. When we arrived, the line was so long there was no way we would have made it to the front before it closed; but Dave found a person offering tickets to go to the front of the line for 450 rubles ($15). Lenin’s body looked like a macabre exhibit from Madame Tussauds. After that we explored GUM and ate lunch in a typical Russian cafeteria before meeting up with the rest of the group for a tour of the Kremlin, including the state armory. Inside the armory are the crown jewels of the czars, as well as many of their dresses, carriages, and gifts received, as well as the famous Faberge eggs. Another part of the  armory is used as a barracks for the military – I snapped a platoon marching out before anyone could tell me not to.

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Then we headed back to the hotel for dinner and to repack our suitcases for the trip home the next morning. It was a great trip! I can’t wait to see where we choose for our 10th

From Russia With Love (part 3)

Wednesday we checked out of our St. Petersburg hotel and boarded a substitute tour bus. Our regular bus, with our faithful driver Sergei, left before breakfast with all the big luggage, which we would be waiting for us in our Moscow hotel upon arrival. We loaded an overnight bag (which we always carry packed in our regular suitcases in case of souvenir overload) onto the new bus along with our carry ons and set off for a river tour of the city; as there are parts you can’t see from a land vehicle. Our tour director surprised us with a champagne toast for our anniversary. There was also vodka offered around, which Dave tried and pronounced not as good as the one at the ballet.



After a lunch break (we had spotted a Pizza Hut from the river!) we continued on to the Hermitage. We saw several Da Vinci Madonnas, a large Rembrandt collection and a fair sized Monet collection, including one of my favorites, “Woman in a Garden” (which sounds way better in French.)  It would have taken the better part of a week to see everything there, but leaving the Monet collection we happened into an Asian exhibition, so I was very pleased.

Next we headed to dinner in a small local restaurant/hotel where we had another champagne toast for our anniversary!  Evidently there is a custom in Russia that anything like that must be toasted with as full a glass as possible, so I was feeling quite happy by that point. I barely remember the food, though, because Dave surprised me with the matching bracelet to the necklace he gave me for our wedding – he had hand carried it from Seattle to Tel Aviv and then Tel Aviv to St. Petersburg! Afterwards we went to a Cossack folklore show.  We have not been overly thrilled with other “local culture” type shows before and were very pleasantly surprised at the energy level and talent!


From there we took went to the train station, getting a look at the “high street” shopping along the way. In the station, we had just enough time to find a small bottle of wine and the Lays caviar potato chips I had become addicted to before boarding the midnight “Red Train” to Moscow.



We were booked into the first class sleeper cabins – definitely the way to travel!
 
   

The seating folded down into surprisingly comfortable beds; I slept like a log with the sound and motion of the train. When we awoke just outside Moscow the next morning, the attendant for our car had strong black tea ready for us, which was just the wakeup I needed to be ready to get off the train and back on the bus.

Our first stop after breakfast was the Borodino Panorama, a painting on 150m of canvas depicting the 1812 defeat of Napoleon outside of Moscow. There is a battleground diorama in the foreground that fades almost imperceptibly into the painting in the background; combined with the tape of battle sounds that plays on a loop it is really quite moving. Afterwards we went to the Moscow Metro for a ride to Red Square, with stops along the way to view some of the grand Stalin-era stations.

Red Square is really big, and is bordered on one side by the GUM Department store (actually a mall, in "American"), the Kremlin and Lenin’s mausoleum on the other and churches on both ends. We took some pictures and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; then re-boarded the bus for the trip to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, near to the “White House” where Putin works (also the site of the August 1991 attempted coup . After two full touring days and a late night on the train, a nap was in order. Next was a great local dinner in the hotel, including little baked pots of mushrooms in sour cream – yum! After that, we had the Moscow by night tour; our first stop was Moscow State University.



Next we took a walk around the lake that supposedly inspired Tchaikovsky to write Swan Lake – it was beautiful.



Behind the lake is Novodevichy Convent.



We also returned to Red Square to see it lighted for nighttime; the big red stars on top of the Kremlin are lit from inside, the churces are all aglow and GUM was covered in thousands of little white lights and was just spectacular – I would have liked to see it in the snow!

     

 

From Russia With Love (part 2)

The next morning we went on a city tour of St Petersburg with the tour group. St. Petersburg is 306 years old, and was returned to its original name 17 years ago, after being called Leningrad during the Soviet era. Our first stop was the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first construction of the city and resting place of Peter the Great and Princess Anastasia, among others. On our way out we drove past the Artillery museum again and our guide told us the the building was originally the armory for the fortress - makes sense! Our next stop was the Cruiser Aurora, which fired the shot that started the October Revolution. I fell in love with this jaunty captain's cap for sale at a stand nearby.



Remember in my last entry I mentioned that St. Petersburg is the same latitude as Alaska? Here is a picture of our tour director, Anna - what Alaskan recently in the news does she remind you of?




(She mentioned that she was born in Siberia - I wonder if she could see Alaska from her backyard?) Having daylight last until 11pm was weird - our guide said that in July, it doesn't get completely dark at all for a few weeks. The other side of the equation is that it gets dark really early in winter; with an average of only 60 sunny days a year. (And I thought WA was bad!) Because of this, Peter the Great ordered the buildings painted in different cheerful colors that still remain. I loved the peaches, blues, greens and yellows all in one block - like someone had been experimenting with the Martha Stewart paint chips!

Afterwards we had a break for lunch and the obligatory souvenir shopping - I got a kick out of this Obama matryoshka doll



Inside it featured Bush Jr, Clinton, Bush Sr and Reagan; (but we ended up buying more conventional ones that we thought fam. and friends would apprecieate more.) Then we drove out to the town of Pushkin to visit Catherine's Palace. Along the way, we learned that the same man who invented the periodic table of the elements also perfected the process for making vodka - I love the Russians!

On the second official day of the tour, we skipped the optional morning excursion to sleep in   After a leisurely breakfast and morning constitutional along the banks of the Neva River, we boarded the tour bus heading to Peterhof. Peter the Great did not enjoy city life preferring to be near the sea, so he built this palace and spectacular gardens. There are hundreds of fountains, all gravity fed by a series of spring-fed streams flowing from the hills, and the spent water flows into the Baltic Sea at the Gulf of Finland.  They are turned off every night to let the water level of the storage reservoir rise; and some of them are "trick" fountains, where stepping on a certain stone in the patterned walkway or stopping to rest on a certain bench will get you soaked!



We strolled along the water's edge and through the beautiful gardens before returning to the hotel for eat dinner and freshen up to attend a performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.



It was a beautiful performance, with a modern plot twist - a Dinseyesque happy ending. Dave particulary enjoyed the fact that there was vodka for sale in the theatre lobby, and you were allowed to take it back to your seat to sip during the performance! Nordstrom should learn from this - I bet their sales would double! If vodka enables men to sit through a full-length ballet performance without complaint, an afternoon of shopping and "Honey, hold my purse while I try this on" should be a breeze...

From Russia With Love (part 1)

To celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary, Dave and I headed to Russia for a tour with Insight Vacations.  We weren't as impressed with them as we had been in Egypt, but maybe we're just spoiled

We arrived in St Petersburg in the middle of the night after some mechanical problems with the plane. Once at the airport, we discovered that our travel agent had forgotten to arrange our transfer to the hotel. (Life lesson: ALWAYS check and double check your travel documents to make sure nothing is missing.) We were able to get a taxi to the hotel with a minimum of fuss, although all the river bridges were up so we had to go waaay out of our way to get there.

We checked in and slept until lunchtime, then headed out to explore. Paying for the extra night so we could check in in the wee hours instead of waiting for the normal 2pm check in turned out to be a great decision. It turned out to me not so easy to find a resaurant for lunch, so we gave up and got hotdogs and ice cream from a vendor on the grounds of the Peter and Paul Fortress; and watched the speedboat races that were being held on the river.

Next we explored the Artillery Museum, which we both enjoyed. They have a great collection from the beginnings of Russia up to and including huge Soviet ICBMs and launchers from the cold war. It was weird standing next to them, knowing they were once aimed at the USA!



On our way back to the hotel we dropped by the St Petersburg Zoo. Since our first date was at a zoo (safety in numbers and all that), we try to visit as many zoos in our travels as possible. It is a fairly small zoo, which we later learned is due to how far north their location is - approximately the same as Alaska! I guess one would not expect to find lions or elephants in Anchorage, either... The polar bears were having a great time - one had worked out what looked like a water aerobics routine that included swimming backwards sitting up in the water (and with no trainer in sight we figure he was just doing it for the crowd reaction!) My favorite, though, were the squirrel monkeys - I think I have found my next pet. Maybe they can ride Moshe?



That night was the welcome reception and first dinner of the tour. The reception of course was mainly devoted to selling the optional excursions, of which we signed up for all but two. The chicken at dinner was amazing, it seems to be one of the few foods that comes out better when you are cooking for 20 that 2. After dinner we walked a bit down the street to a small food shop to stock up on bottled water and a bottle of wine; then ordered dessert from room service and ate cheesecake in bed, washed down with a glass of red wine. Hey, that's what vacation is for!

A successful day!



Yesterday Dave and I had a golf lesson at the Caesarea Golf Club, a short drive down the main street from our house. He's played before and wanted a refresher to get him back in the swing of things (pun intended ) I had not played before except for miniature golf and wanted to see if it was something we could do together.



Dave was intrigued by this peahen and her chicks outside the golf course restaurant. Having grown up in Arcadia, CA, I've seen plenty of peacocks, but forgot how cute the babies are!



Our instructor, Boaz, was very good - he gave Dave a few pointers and taught me the basics. I really enjoyed it and both he and Dave thought that I showed promise!



After the lesson, we rushed to Tel Aviv to pick up our visas for Russia next weekend. We hit a small traffic jam on our way there, are were amused to see these graffiti Pac Man twins keeping us company.



We were a bit nervous about the visas, as the application was 3 pages long and asked all kinds of questions, form parents names to education and military service. After a bit of a wait (we apparently arrived during a coffee break) we got them! We picked up some chocolate truffles in a nearby bakery to celebrate and headed home. 

Weekend beach fun!

Today we decided to take the doggies to the beach for some playtime.




It's only about 15 minutes each way, but in 100-degree weather, hiking over sand dunes, I was beginning to think I wouldn't make it all the way back home. Upon our return, I decided I had earned a drink in the pool. I knew I brought those plastic glasses here for a reason!



Testing 123

Thursday I took the government test for the end of Ulpan. We had been having bimonthly practice tests in class, so I felt pretty prepared; but I was still nervous due to the official air surrounding it.

The test began at 1:15; but we had to arrive earlier to show ID and have the proctor fill out some forms. He was pretty strict - the whiteboard in the classroom was covered in rules: cellphones off, all purses/backpack piled in the corner of the room, cold drinks only (couldn't figure that one out...) I was relieved that he let me set up the two fans I had brought to keep everyone comfortable and use the little purple ruler I like to underline important phrases in the texts I am reading (more about these below.) Another woman in the class was not so lucky; she likes to do the same with a highlighter and he wouldn't let her have it

We were allowed 1 hour and 15 minutes for the first part of the test; three texts in progressively higher difficulty. I was lucky that I recognized the subject immediately - that makes all the difference trying to read something in a foreign language. After each text there were 6 or so questions to guage comprehension.

After a 15 minute break, we had another hour and a quarter to complete the second portion; consisting of a grammar portion, again in the 3 ascending levels of difficulty; a short note, and an essay to write based on one of five subjects. I got through most of the grammar OK except for the passive tense, which I blanked on, having learned it just last week. Strangely enough, I sailed right though the conditional tense which we learned only Thursday morning. The "note" turned out to be an ad selling something, which was not one of the things we had practiced in class; and I instantly hated all of the essay topics. I finally picked the one I disliked the least and compared Israel with the other places I have lived in the world. I was happy because I got to use a variation of my favorite saying "Israelis are the sweetest, most generous people in the world - until they're in the car behind you."

I will find out my grade in about two weeks - the points I earned on the oral test a few weeks ago count toward this, too. In the meantime I will revel in being able to sleep in on weekdays again; and figure out what to do with all my newfound spare time. I hope to stay in contact with my fellow students, learning together that intensively and sharing the experience of being "strangers in a strange land" builds a definite cameraderie. I've had several people tell me that there are two ways to make lifelong friends in Israel - the military and Ulpan. We're having an "End-of-Ulpan" party here at the house next week! Stay tuned for party pictures
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