Tag Archives: travel

Over the river, and off the Beltway

100_0661“Grams, could we make brownies?” my daughter asks, already knowing the answer.

“Is the Pope a Catholic?” replies my husband’s mother, smiling up at Anna, who has at least a half a foot on her now.

Short but feisty. Born of Irish heritage. Humbly brought up in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey. Married fifty-three years to a quintessential Italian. Raised five children. Hates housework and cooking. Loves her twelve grandchildren.

Digging through her cupboards, Grams is surprised by what she has stockpiled. “Jesus, Mary and Good Saint Joseph, here’s some coconut — ever made Girdle Stretchers, Anna? Oh, and I’ve got a bunch of cake mixes, and here’s raisins, and a helluva lot of chocolate chips . . ..”

Anna removes a baking pan, inadvertently causing a small but noisy avalanche, sending Grams’ Westies, Patty and Murphy, scrambling into the dining room. Grams laughs, assuring her granddaughter that there’s nothing she’ll ever do to make her angry.

Anna and her sister transform the cozy blue kitchen into a science lab, eventually producing a batch of triple chocolate peanut butter chip cupcakes, in which Grams happily indulges, despite her diabetes.

A few days later, we are back in Grams’ kitchen, saying goodbye.

The Beltway and I-270 lead us out of urban sprawl and into pastoral hills and forested mountains. Three hours into our drive, signs of civilization dwindle to tiny towns, coal trucks, and soft serve ice cream joints, as our minivan rolls deeper into rural Western Pennsylvania.

While the kids snooze, I make a mental “To Do” list of the things I need to do when we arrive at our final destination. Thankfully, our ninth military move from Mayport, Florida to Newport, Rhode Island has made our summer visits with the grandmothers a bit easier, since they both live on the way.

“Kids, wake up! We’re almost at Grammy’s house!” I say, peering into the rear view mirror at open mouths, drooping heads, and sprawled legs.

Once in the driveway, the girls run giggling from the minivan, sneaking up to Grammy’s kitchen window to scare her. Mercifully, their plan is foiled by Oscar, the stereotypically Napoleonic dachshund, whose sharp bark is as good as any home security system.

Grammy appears at the side door, miniature Cujo at her feet, forcing the girls to settle for a lame “Boo!” from the shrubs.

“Wait! Go back!” Grammy pleads, “You have to come through the Secret Garden!”

My mother was a first grade teacher for thirty years. Despite retirement, it’s still in her blood. Sticking to the schedule, Grammy leads us back to the driveway so that we must walk through the trees that she had carefully pruned and adorned with lanterns and birdhouses.

With Step 1 of her plan complete, we finally hug and kiss hello.

Much like Grams’ house, we congregate in the kitchen. With us seated at the booth she painted with red apples so many years ago, Grammy seizes the opportunity to have our undivided attention. She reaches into a kitchen drawer, retrieving four typed handouts; each colorfully highlighted and decorated with sparkly smiley face stickers.

“Kids, during your stay here at ‘Grammy Camp,’ there are some rules which must be followed,” she says only half-seriously.

“Seriously?” Anna replies, only half-seriously.


The girls look at each other and smile. They know how Grammy is. A mix of Romper Room’s corny but nurturing Miss Patty, Hodgepodge Lodge’s nature-loving Miss Jean, and Magic School Bus’ scatter-brained Miss Frizzle.

She goes over her “Camper’s Guide to Health & Happiness,” explaining the finicky plumbing which still uses well water, and upcoming “mandatory” participation in creative activities like making gourd birdhouses.

In the days to follow, we follow her plan. Before we know it, we are back in Grammy’s kitchen, saying goodbye.

As my minivan heads northward again to our next home in Rhode Island, I wonder what it would be like if we weren’t in the Navy and lived closer to family. Between the exits I realize: the rarity of our time with Grams and Grammy is precisely what makes it so precious.

Grammy & the girls

Grammy & the girls

Going to the movies with Grams

Going to the movies with Grams

Spring Break Odyssey: How I got punked by my GPS

Four hours of hairpin turns in the Dolomites.

The minivan came to a screeching halt. Lilly leapt out the side door and ran toward a patch of grass. Carsick, again. Unable to produce the boiling contents of her weak stomach, she stumbled back into the van.

“Mom, how much longer?” she whined. “I hope not long, I just don’t know why the GPS can’t find our hotel.”

We had been lost on winding country roads in the foothills of the Italian Alps for more than an hour, searching for a small hotel where we were to spend the first night of our Spring Break journey to Venice, Italy to take a cruise.

This was our last family trip before we move back to the United States. As always, I anticipated happy family moments absorbing breathtaking scenery, with lots of laughter and frolicking. But for my three kids, the thrill is over, and they are often heard saying, “No! Not another castle/cathedral/snow-capped mountain!? Can’t we just stay home and watch re-runs of King of Queens?!”

As the minivan squealed around another hairpin turn, we spotted a sign to our tiny hotel. “There it is!” I yelped with relief.

The owner showed us to two rooms at the opposite end of a hall in the old Tyrolean guest house. Before settling in for the night, we gathered in one of the rooms to eat the dinner that I’d packed for us.

An hour later, we were snug in our beds. The girls were excited to sleep in their huge bed, which looked like a giant coconut crème pie mounded with feather pillows and crisp white linens.

I drifted off to sleep thinking of the fun we would have on the days to come.

“Mom, Lilly threw up in our bed!” Anna gasped, standing over me in the darkness. “What?” I mumbled, and stumbled down the hall to their room.

Opening their door and stepping over the threshold, I saw what can only be described as complete carnage. The marshmallow white bed had turned into a veritable crime scene, akin to the horsehead scene in The Godfather. The half-digested concoction of turkey sub and sour cream and onion Sun Chips was tinged brown with the chocolate of too many M&Ms, and was pooled in the center of the king-sized bed.

Trying to mitigate the damages, Lilly dabbed the mess with a bath towel, managing to slop it on herself, the carpet, the bathroom floor, and two light switches.

I stood for a moment, unable to contemplate any solution to the problem. Obviously, Lilly was more than just carsick. She had some kind of stomach virus. Why didn’t I buy that travel insurance!

Somehow, my mothering instinct, which had been somewhat dormant lately, kicked in. For two hours I scrubbed, scraped, rinsed, dipped, and squeezed until I had cleaned up the horrific mess. (Aside: a bidet makes a very nice wash basin for soiled linens.) I found more sheets in a hallway closet and put my poor sick child back to bed.

After a long night of more retching, I told the hotel owner about the situation, and despite his graciousness, I left an apology note and some extra cash over the stain on the mattress.

I set the GPS to take us the “fast route” straight to our next hotel, apparently only 3.5 hours away in Venice.

For some unknown reason, our GPS instructed us to drive past the onramp to the highway and onto a two-lane road that paralleled the freeway for more than 45 minutes. I thought our GPS knew something I didn’t, so I warily followed her instructions.

At some point, our GPS demanded that we head east. The road ascended into the mountains, higher and higher, winding toward snowy peaks. I thought perhaps she was taking us on a diversion to a nice straight highway to Venice. So I did exactly as she instructed.

An hour later, there was snow on either side of the road, and we passed a sign indicating that we were more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Without a map, I felt trapped. Peeking in the rear view mirror, I could see that Lilly had fallen into a fitful sleep, her head wobbling left and right with every hairpin turn.

Another hour later, the road was blocked with police tape, and an arrow directed me to drive my minivan onto a dirt path. As we bumped our way over the rocks, I saw the reason for the detour: an avalanche had covered the road!

I began to giggle at our predicament and wondered whether our GPS was playing some sick joke.

The Alpine road lead directly into the Dolomites, and our minivan continued to wind its way past snowy ski slopes and tiny mountain chalets. The scenery was spectacular, but impossible to enjoy with a sick kid in the backseat, a virus threatening to infect us all, and a rocking boat awaiting our arrival!

Good times at 2K meters above sea level with a stomach virus and motion sickness!

Finally, after four hours of zigzagging at 2000 meters, our GPS relented and released us onto a straight toll road toward Venice. Having driven no more than 30 miles per hour all day, I snatched the ticket from the toll booth and gunned the engine.

Out of pure vengeance, I raced our dirty white minivan at illegal speeds. Every time our smug GPS warned, “Beware!” and flashed the speed limit, I gritted my teeth and pressed the gas pedal down harder.

I arrived at our hotel, frazzled, but somewhat satisfied that I’d taken two full minutes off of her estimated time of arrival. Take that!

Lilly seemed to be feeling better, and I hoped that our fiasco was over. We unloaded our bags, and I slid my travel agent’s confirmation e-mail across the desk to the hotel clerk. As I waited for him to find our reservation, I made a mental note to buy a map for the trip home.

“I’m-a sorry-a ma’am-a, but-a we-a have-a no-a rooms-a,” he said, with a shrug. I wondered if he knew my GPS.

[To be continued in “Spring Break Odyssey: Relay for Relief.”]

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Under a Tuscan Cloud

“Mom, the bucket!” my ten-year-old cried from the middle seat of our minivan.

We were fifteen minutes into a nine-hour drive from our military base in Germany to Italy.

“Last night’s chicken noodle soup,” she weakly observed after emptying the contents of her stomach into the pail.

I carefully retrieved the sloshing container and held it over the dashboard. “Ok, now pull over so I can dump this,” I told my husband.

But on he went, mile after stinking mile. Unlike most men, my husband is a nervous driver. A request for an unplanned stop is enough to send him into a state of mild panic.

As the miles ticked away, I politely suggested stopping areas. “Oh, here comes one on the left” or “Aha! There’s one just up ahead,” but all he could do is alternately jab at the gas and brake pedals, unable to make a decision as we whizzed down the Autobahn.

As my own stomach began to gurgle and ping, he finally pulled over. I poured half-chewed chicken noodle soup over the guard rail and thought, eight and a half hours to go….

But I wasn’t going to let a revolting start ruin our trip to Tuscany. Come hell or high water (or soup, as it were) we would be awed by art in Florence, wander winding alleys in Lucca, gaze at the gravitational pull on Pisa’s Tower, and trek the treacherous cliffs of the Cinque Terre.

“Hey kids, let’s learn a little Italian!” I said excitedly, inserting the first of four “Drive Time Italian” discs into the van’s CD player.

After what seemed like an eternity of introductory material, the narrator began Lesson One. At my behest, the kids reluctantly repeated the simple phrases.

“Buon giorno, come sta?”

“Molto bene, grazie.”

Twenty minutes later, the kids and I were sound asleep, and the only Italian words I could remember were cosi cosi (so so) and spuntino (snack), just because they were fun to say.

We awoke in the hills of Liguria, Italy, but the spectacular views were completely obscured by dense fog. In an attempt to distract attention from the weather, I read aloud from “Budget Guide to Italy.”

“Listen to this, kids — It says here that, in order to deter pick pockets, we should not wear attire that is ‘obviously American (sweatshirts, college t-shirts, sneakers, hiking shorts, jean jackets.)’”

“But Mom, that’s all we have,” my middle child astutely pointed out.

To perk up my travel weary crew, I sang some Italian-themed songs. Robustly belting out “Mamma Leone’s Pasta Suprema, a bit of old Italy!” I realized I might need more than a jingle to galvanize this crowd.

“Mambo Italiano, Mambo….” Hmmm, how does that go?

“We open in Venice, we next play Verona, and onto…” What the heck is next?

“Prego! Scuzi! Grazie! Napoli!!!” Wait, that’s not how it goes…

After butchering the words to every Italian-themed song I could remember, I settled on humming a depressing rendition of the Theme from The Godfather. No one seemed amused.

Finally, we exited the garbage-strewn Autostrade and headed for Camp Darby, where we reserved “deluxe” rooms at the Sea Pines Army Hotel for three nights. While the girls whined about ants in the bathroom, our teenage son snuck under the paper-thin polyester bed spread to go back to sleep (he slept the entire drive, waking only to eat a salami sandwich.)

Our “deluxe” rooms were neither de-lightful nor de-lovely, but we were still de-termined to make the best of it, so we lured everyone back to our soda-can-and-crumb-filled minivan, promising authentic pizzas in Pisa. It was too dark to take the requisite “See me holding up the Leaning Tower” pictures, so we wandered into “Pizzeria Duomo” with its plastic-covered menus and mural of the Tower for the promised pies.

The next morning we awoke to torrential rain. Pressing on, we toured Lucca’s charming walls from under our dripping tarps. A lunch of Tuscan pumpkin soup with ciabatta smothered in broiled pecorino nearly made up for the discomfort of my soggy tennis shoes.

Later in Florence, the kids stared at me staring at Michelangelo’s anatomically amazing David at the Accademia. In the museum gift shop, I decided that, as much as I really wanted the two-foot replica of the famous statue for my night stand, the refrigerator magnet would require less dusting, and explanation.

On day three, we drove to La Spezia train station to catch a ride to the Cinque Terre. Despite continuing bad weather and a precarious parking spot, I was truly looking forward to this adventure. The arguments with my husband, the dumpy base hotel, the infamous Italian indifference to trash – it would all be worth it to hike the olive groves, vineyards and alleyways of the five cliffside towns.

“The trail-a is-a closed, a-too-a much-a rain,” the local woman reported from behind the station’s tourist information desk. I felt a hot sensation in my cheeks and held back tears. In an instant, the last three days flashed before my burning eyes. The up chuck bucket, ants, fog, crumbs, wet socks, our warped soggy travel book, my tense husband. I put up with it all for nothing.

Sensing my disappointment, my husband rallied the troops, telling everyone that we would still see the Cinque Terre by rail. I indolently followed my family onto the train, drained of emotion.

In the first town, my husband discovered an alternate route to the other villages by way of a steep mountain hike. On hearing this news, my vigor returned. Our backpacks stuffed with water bottles and local focaccia, we trekked upward into the olive groves.

On the next day’s nine hour drive home, I was utterly exhausted. I realized that family travel is not always fun. Sometimes it is like a job you want to quit, but you keep getting up each day and punching the clock. I resolved to be mindful of this reality on our next trip to avoid disappointment. Other lessons learned: keep dry socks in the trunk, look up the words to the songs, and don’t serve chicken noodle soup the night before a long drive.

Buying Culture

One might think that families with moderate incomes would stick to strict budgets, right? Nope. Persons living overseas who spend significant cash on travel would not have the resources to buy frivolous items, right? Nah. Military folks who move every two to three years would not want to accumulate many breakable or irreplaceable objects, right? Negative.

To the contrary — military spouses living overseas get caught up in a veritable rip tide of shopping frenzy that belies all tenets of common sense and logic. We travel long distances packed into uncomfortable busses or jammed into crowded mini-vans to spend money we don’t have on unnecessary European-made artifacts that are usually breakable and often irreplaceable.

We head to Boleslawiec to experience polka-dotted Polish pottery purchasing pleasure. We scurry to the Czech Republic like ferrets in search of glittery crystal objects to hide in our dens. We trek to Soufflenheim, France to explore the myriad of poteries for the least-obnoxious glazes to adorn our dining tables. We endure sleepless bus rides to peruse the rich colors of Italian ceramics in Nove.

We rummage through piles of French country table linens, oblivious to the scent of fresh-baked macaroons in charming Ribeauville. We relentlessly haggle for Italian leather handbags in chic Florence. We don headlamps at 5:00 a.m. like miners digging for priceless gems at the Belgian antique fair in Tongeren.

In the meantime, we drain our bank accounts and pack every surface of our homes with stuff. But why?

Despite my vast Polish pottery collection, I went to Soufflenheim, France the other day with a friend who moving back to the States in a month. She was on a mission to acquire more of the characteristic Alsatian ceramics and nothing was going to stop her. As she deftly negotiated her SUV through a tangle of road construction on the Autobahn in the pouring rain, I asked her why we submit to these irrational shopping urges.

She thought a minute, then produced a guess: “In the military you don’t acquire much wealth, so you have to buy stuff from the places you lived to show that you are culturally rich.”

Another friend recently returned from a trip to Tuscany, where she said all 10 women in her group were acutely engrossed in senseless shopping fury. She witnessed fits of unbridled acquisition she had never seen before, such as one woman clearing a grocery store shelf of all the bottles of a particularly tasty Italian wine, and another hyperventilating upon entering a leather handbag store. My friend kept her cool, but splurged on a Deruta ceramic platter with matching oil and vinegar cruets for almost 100 Euros. She told me that, even if she uses it infrequently, the platter will serve its purpose by communicating, “Look! I went to Italy!” 

One might say that the acquisition of all this stuff is nothing but an ostentatious display of accomplishment designed to impress people. Are we all a bunch of shallow, pretentious phonies trying to use materialism to get ahead socially? A gaggle of women knocking each other over for a polka-dotted plate may look like superficial greed, but is there a more positive aspect to this widespread gluttony?

As the sign says, “Home is where the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines send us.” To some degree, what makes our home look like our home is the stuff we put inside, right? Undeniably, “home is where the heart is,” but what if that heart is ceramic and you bought it in Soufflenheim for 13 Euros? If we can’t take pride in the woodwork, walls and windows, then we should be able to delight in our teacups, tapestries and tables, for goodness sakes. After all, every piece we purchase has a story to tell, an experience behind it, a foreign place explored.

Eminent persons throughout history have pondered the topics of what makes a home and the morality of shopping, but even their famous musings do not resolve this debate. Ralph Waldo Emerson ruminated, “But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.” However, Oscar Wilde astutely observed, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

Whether we are materialistic charlatans or worldly travelers, Erma Bombeck had it right when she said, “Shopping is a woman thing. It’s a contact sport like football. Women enjoy the scrimmage, the noisy crowds, the danger of being trampled to death, and the ecstasy of the purchase.”


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