The Season of Letting Go

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Also known as Advent and Christmas 2013.

This has been the best Christmas for our family in several years. Maybe ever.

Our Advent was full of most of our usual traditions and activities. Some were let go of due to the ever-changing shift in what is age appropriate. I just didn't think I could squeeze hand and foot reindeer out of the kids another year. Our schedule was a bit busier with Jack’s soccer schedule continuing right up to Christmas and that meant fewer nights at home as a family. We added a few new things and embraced old favorites.

For the past eight months, Jeff's schedule has been much more regular than it has been in nearly two years. This is a huge help in planning and just plain old life living. It also means that he has been able to attend the kids' events, parties and other activities with us. 

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were nearly perfect. One of the biggest reasons was that I let go. I worked really hard this year to not worry if I didn't get all of the cookies made (no candy cane cookies this year) or that Christmas cards didn't happen or that the kids didn't get to shop for gifts for each other until Christmas Eve.

For me it was bigger than that. I'm a huge tradition girl. It's important to me to maintain traditions for our family so that regardless of where we are any given year it still feels like our Christmas. I've always clung to the things we do; new PJs, opening one gift, lasagna dinner at home and reading Luke 2 before bed on Christmas Eve.

The thing I realized this year is that clinging so tightly to traditions that I love has left me sad and lonely the past few years.

Some dear friends hosted an Open House on Christmas Eve and we went. It was slated to run from 1-6 which was perfect in my mind as that would still give us time to come home for our dinner and evening events.

These people have become like family as we’ve lived life and explored Europe together. It was a loud, joyful evening topped off laughter, gifts and food. Just like Christmas Eve should be.

Listen, I left our house that afternoon determined to stick with doing it all (including feeding my family lasagna because that’s what we do every year. Yes, I’m a slow learner.) As the hours passed, we realized we needed to head home to wrap up our day. We were all full in the best possible ways.

We came home and enjoyed the rest of our Christmas Eve traditions, deciding to save lasagna for Christmas lunch. Christmas day was full of gifts, movies, FaceTiming loved ones and a quick stop next door for prossecco and panettone.

It has struck me over and over the past few days that sometimes I cling so tightly to the things that connect me to the past and our extended family that I miss all the goodness that is right in front of me. While all of those things of old are great and have huge value, there’s just as much value in embracing the ebb and flow of the new, especially with the life that we are living.

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Biking

Taking a break

I didn’t grow up regularly riding bikes.  Yes, I knew how but it simply wasn’t
something that we did regularly.  Much of
this had to do with how hilly our neighborhood was but beyond that I’m not
really sure why biking wasn’t part of our days. 

Aside from one wobbly attempt in Guam in 1999, my bike-riding career ended when
I was 9.  I liked the idea of riding
around town but couldn’t get past the wobbly, somewhat out of control
part.  I even had a great, European
looking cruiser that Jeff bought me when we found out we was moving to Italy. 

And yet it sat.  It
got to the point that the kids thought I didn’t actually know how to ride
because when they would head out on bike rides with Jeff, I would stay home.

One day last year Jeff convinced me to go for a ride while
the kids were at school.  It wasn’t
pretty.  There was a lot of wobbling and
I was scared to death every time a car drove by but deep down, I liked it.  

Then winter came and my bike retreated to the attic.   You know where all bikes spend the cold
months. 

Yet, I still couldn’t escape the images of how riding a bike, as silly as it
sounds, is so much a part of European life. 

There are the local grandmas riding around town as they check errands off their
list.

Our butcher’s wife as she loads up her cooler full of meat,
places it in her bike basket and hits the road to make deliveries.

The moms and grandpas who put a small pillow on the little luggage
rack on the back of their bike, have their (grand)child hop on and ride
home.  

My family and I on our bikes getting some exercise and enjoying the sun.

All summer my bike sat, save for the few times Jeff used
it. 

As the summer came to a close and the heat subsided a bit, I
was finally convinced (read: pressured) by my family to join them on a Sunday
afternoon ride.  I told Jeff that he had
to be responsible for watching the kids because I couldn’t focus on them and be
safe myself and we were off.  


We rode down to the bike path, passed the train station and onto some back
roads.  We stopped a long the way to pick
figs and wild berries. 

We commented on the sunflowers and unending rows of
corn. 

At one point I was so into the ride that I just took off…leaving
my family in the dust (those big wheels on the cruiser helps!).  The feel of the wind blowing through my hair the
sun beating down on my face was just what I needed.   

Six miles later, we were home and I was hooked. 

These days you can find me riding bikes to school with the kids and a few weeks
ago rather than walk or drive to the next town over for a quick stop at the
produce stand, I grabbed a backpack and jumped on my bike. 

Just like the locals.

 

On Laundry

So, there goes the 31 days thing.  I came down with a nasty head cold late last
week and just couldn’t put together a decent thought.  Seeing as I have never been one to write posts
in advance, there just was no way I was going to get a post up.  Throw in a few technical glitches and well
here we are.  I’m giving myself grace and
moving on.

To get back on track today I’ll share about one of the less glamorous aspects
of living in Italy. 

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Laundry.

One would think that the process of making sure your family
has clean clothes would be the same all over the world.  Or at least throughout the first world. 

You would be wrong. 

We were given a washer and dryer to borrow during our time
here. However, they aren’t the massive, efficient machines of America.   Both are much smaller than those that we are
used to and the dryer doesn’t really dry it just takes most of the water
away.  Plus, because of the way the electricity
is wired, we can only run one at a time. 
Which is a challenge when you have laundry for five. 

Thankfully, we had gotten used to almost always hang drying
our clothes while we were still in Colorado so the transition to that was
easy. 

Making it all even better is that we not only have a huge laundry room which
makes it easy to have three drying racks up and in use at all times but we have
a balcony off the laundry room.  Which
means we have the view above whenever we move the racks outside (which is
almost always). 
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There is nothing like catching a glimpse of the sunrise over Austria (yes, we
can see the mountains of Austria from there) as you hang laundry at 6:00 on a
Monday morning.

My sister said it best when she told me, “I’ve never enjoyed doing laundry as
much as I did on your balcony.”

Two Worlds Collide

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Our experience living overseas is a bit different from most expats who pack up and move abroad.  For those families, once they board that plane and leave the US, their life shifts to that of the country they are moving to.  Because Jeff is Active Duty Air Force there are parts of our life that will always be tied to the "American Life" simply because he puts on his uniform every day and drives to base.  

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with having an American influence.  We are proud of Jeff's service and our home country but we also know there is no one "right" way to live.

No one best country.

Many people assigned to our base go the entire three years (or so) of their assignment without shopping on the economy or eating in a restaurant where only Italian is spoken.  I respect that choice but if I'm honest, I think it's sad because there is just so much out there to experience.     

So, for our family, our mindset has been that if we are going to live here for four years, we want to truly live here.  

Sure, we shop on base for some things (peanut butter and oatmeal are hard to come by in Italy) but we also go to our local corner store almost daily for fresh bread, cheese and milk. It's great that we're able to take advantage of our town's library (awesome for the kids to practice their Italian reading) but I'm so thankful for the library on base where I can borrow many of those books on my every growing to-read list.  Similarly, being able to gather with friends for burgers and fireworks on the 4th of July is great when you're far from "home" but you can bet we're just as likely to hit the festival in the town down the road.  

And so, we live in middle.  

The collision, really, of two worlds.  

The result is more than I could imagine.  

The best of both.

 

Summering

Not a shabby view.  Lake Garda

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We're about at the half way point of Summer 2013.  It's hard to know for sure because unlike in the States, our school doesn't release any calendar information until about two weeks before school starts.  It's a big unknown until we see the sign posted outside the school.  My best guess is that the kids will head back around September 9th and, for now, that's good enough for me. 

This summer has been one for the books.  We've had a good mix of free time and scheduled activities and have really enjoyed our time together.  Some of the highlights have been:

:: "Camping" (we were in mobile homes) at Lake Garda with three other families.  Nothing kicks off summer like a weekend away with 8 adults and 13 kids in an amazing part of Italy. 

:: Lots of time at the beach, various rivers and ponds playing in the sun.

:: Reading tons of books.  I'm not sure who has read more, me or Jack.  

:: Board games of all kinds.  Yes, even the dreaded Life.  It's amazing how much I loved playing that with my siblings and cousins as a kid and now I say a little prayer every time I tell someone to "go pick out a game".

:: A night in Verona to celebrate our 14th anniversary and experience our first opera thanks to sweet friends that loved on our kids while we were gone.  

:: Enjoying 30 meters of pizza with friends and neighbors at our town's pizza festival.

Throw in BBQs, birthday celebrations, dinner parties, a day in Venice with friends and I'd say the past 6 weeks have been pretty amazing.

 

We Went to Paris

Eiffel Tower, Feb 2013

Paris is the one place that I have dreamed of visiting for as long as I can remember.  I think it goes back even farther than when I started taking French in middle school but I know for sure it was no later than seventh grade.  For various reasons, even though I (we) have visited many other places both in Europe and else where, I never made it to Paris.   

Until a few weeks ago.  

Because of how busy the big cities get during high tourist season, we try to do our traveling when everyone else is at home.  This works well for us as most places we are interested in visiting can be explored well in long weekend seeing as we are only a short flight or reasonable drive away.  

Unfortunately, due to conflicts with Jeff's schedule, both of the breaks this semester wouldn't work for a trip.  In true Italian fashion, we received a notice in early February that the schools would be closed during elections.  So we jumped on the chance and booked a trip to Paris for two weeks later.  

In the nearly eighteen months that we have lived here in Italy the five of us have all adjusted very well to what vacations in Europe actually look like with kids.  As Americans, we are used to having each second "programmed" with things to do at every stop along the way.  Here, a trip is more about experiences, looking at old buildings and walking a whole lot.  Jeff and I have also learned to modify our expecations of what a family trip (let's be honest, it's not really a vacation!) will be.  

That being said, I was a little nervous as he and I discussed our hopes and plans for our time in Paris.  We all wanted to see and climb the Eifel Tower, Morgan wanted to see all of the fashion designers (love!) and the boys were interested in the castles but all three kids were adament about not being that excited about the art.  This was a problem given that Jeff hoped to spend at least several hours in the Louvre.  There were gentle reminders about meeting the needs and tolerance levels of everyone and off we went.  

Another view from the top

Once we got situated in our flat we headed immediately to the Eifel Tower.  Because I had looked forward to this trip for so long, I was nervous that I would be dissapointed.  I was afraid that Paris would live up to all of the hype especialy since my first visit wasn't the romantic getaway that I had always envisioned our first trip would be.  

The Eifel Tower did not disappoint.  As soon as we climbed the stairs out of the Metro station we spotted it and all five of us stopped in our tracks.  It really was amazing.  We grabbed some dinner.  And headed over to the tower to make the assent.  We had decided in advance that we would walk the 700 or so steps rather than take the elevator in an effort to save a little money and get some exercise.  

Everyone was on board except one who may or may not have cried the entire way up.  In he defense, it was really cold, windy and there were a lot of steps.  

Once we got up, it was stunning with lights of the city surrounding us.  Eventually, we made our (tearless) way down and found our way "home."  

Pont des Arts

We were up bright and early, as usual, on day two.  After the Eifel Tower, Jeff had ventured out to the supermarket to get breakfast items (and French wine!) while I got the kids settled.  He cooked breakfast and we were out the door by 8:00.  In hopes of seeing more of the city than taking the metro allows we decided to walk from our flat in the Latin Quarter to the Louvre.  It was a great plan, except that it was about 30 degrees, windy and snowing.  We persisted and enjoyed getting to know the city.  The kids especially loved the Pont des Arts (Lock Bridge).  As with the Eifel Tower, seeing the pyramid at the Louvre took my breath away. We headed in, got passes and headed toward the Mona Lisa stopping at things that caught our attention along the way.  

We got to the Mona Lisa and the crowds weren't as bad as we had been told to expect.  The problem was that none of us were that blown away by her. One of the kids actually said "I don't get what the big deal is."  

To be honest, neither did I.

In the Louvre

I thought that "The Wedding Feast at Cana" (the piece Mona Lisa spends her days gazing at) was much more impressive and I loved seeing artists copying different pieces throughout the museum.

But what do we know?  

We ended up wandering through this amazing museum for nearly four hours.  While that isn't enough time to even scratch the surface of all that there is to see, I was thrilled with how we all hung in there.   After lunch and spending the morning having to be quiet, still and extra respectful of others, we head out to explore Tuileries Garden, play on the playground there and then head to l' Arc de Triomphe.  The walk down Champs Elysees was a bit underwhelming.  There were tons of people, everyone was cold and we may or may not have had a crier.  Maybe we should have gone at night and been more impressed.  

We made it to l'Arc and climbed up to the top.  It was fun to see the city in the daylight but we didn't spend a ton of time up there.  We headed to the Metro station, got a bit lost, found a great place for beers and pommes frites before heading home where Jeff picked up take out and we settled in for an early night. 

Day two brought us to the Musee d'Orsay.  What I most looking forward too.  Again we were up early.  Jeff cooked while I prepped the kids.  We were out by 8:00 and again walked in the cold and snow.  This where we forgot the cardinal rule of travling with kids…visit your must sees first.  It seems obvious, but our natural inclination is to start at the ground floor and work our way up.  That's great except when the Monets, Manets and Reniors are on the 5th floor and it takes over an hour to explore lovely but unknown art on the main floor.  Throw in four hours of art at the Louvre the day before and even after skipping floors 1-4 (remember in Europe there is a "0") we had limited time in the best part. 

Let me say here and now, I could have spent hours examining each piece.  The detail, thought and stories all strike me as so beautiful.  Maybe it's simply because these are the pieces that are familiar to me, the ones I've studied most (though still limitedly).  

Regardless, it was amazing.  

I really should have gone back later in the day as Jeff suggested but hated to leave the family.  As I kept reminding Jeff, this wasn't our only visit.  

We headed out, grabbed lunch and then spent much of the day simply exploring the city.  I was really hoping to find pockets of the "true" Paris in the midst of all of the tourism and we did.  We made our way over to Rue Cler to shop for dinner (cheese, meat, baguette and wine…yum!!) and then headed home for an early dinner and bedtime.

Mirror Room at Versaille

Day three was probably the overall highlight.  We were up early (yes, again!) and grabbed a train to Versailles.  We were met with two inches of snow on the ground and an amazing display of wealth and grandure.  The Palace was interesting to walk through, much of the history from high school and college I retained only to get through the next test so this was a good refresher.  (note:  I'd love to take some history classes as I'm so much more interested now than I was then.)  

There were two things that bothered me about the Palace.  First, it was so crowded.  Jeff and I commented to each other through out the trip that if Paris was this crowded in February then what would it be like in the summer.  Second, the oppulance kind of offended me.  So much of what was built was for show and to make the king(s) feel worthy.  That makes me sad and a bit sick.  While this is a different time, I'm not sure that much has really changed but that's a different post all together.

Exploring the grounds at Versailles

Without a doubt, exploring the grounds at Versailles and Marie Antoinette's home was the best few hours of our trip.  We all enjoyed the vastness of the grounds, the peace, the freedom to run and the animals (chickens, sheep, cows and even rats!).  I can only imagine what it (and all of Paris) looks like in full bloom.  

 

The Farm at Versailles

The time we spent wandering those acres not only refreshed our sprits and burned off energy but reminded us of how much we want a good amount of space to call our own.  

It was a breath of fresh air.  

Literally and figuratively.

Sainte Chapelle

Notre Dame

Our final full day was a bit of a catch up day.  Because we were staying so close to Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle they seemed like stops we would just squeeze in.  That worked fine except for the fact that there was construction going on at Notre Dame and the towers were only open in the afternoon.  

Then is started raining.  And they closed.  

So, while we visted both and both were amazing (though at some point I have to wonder how many churches we will visit in our four years here) we weren't able to go up in the towers of Notre Dame which seems to be the highlight.  

Another trip is in order, indeed.  

 

Crepes!

Our final few hours were spent with more wandering and a stop at the crepe stand.  We had tried a few already but these were really good.  I'm not sure if it was the hot crepes on a cold, rainy day, the Emeril like man that made them for us or the Grand Marnier that Jeff and I had in ours but these were so good.  

Before we knew it, it was time to head back, pack up and settle in for a good night's sleep before heading to the airport the next morning.  

Cooking Class: Gnocchi

Arugula for Gnocchi

My sweet friend Ashley arranged for a small group of us to have three private cooking lessons at a local restaurant.  The first class was las tnight and we learned how to make three kinds of gnocchi.  

For those that have never had gnocchi, I often refer to it as the pillow pasta.  In it's best form it's light, airy and a bit puffy.  

Manlio

Our host, Manlio (chef and owner), was gracious with our group of eight women and one man.  Most of us knew at least one other person but beyond that we were a great mix of friends and strangers.  As the night went on we connected not only with eachother but also with Manilo.  We had so many quesetions about both Italian cooking and Italian life and he answered each one with kindness and care sharing a bit of himself and the region with each answer. 

As we started cooking, Manlio walked through each step in making traditional, pumpkin and ricotta gnocchi.  They are all so good yet so very different in both flavor and texture.  

Stuffing the gnocchi with arugula and cheese

As the night went on, I was reminded of the greatest lesson I'm being taught here in Italy, patience.  In this instance our meal tasted so much better than many I've had.  In other daily situations (ie. the bank, grocery, etc.), I'm always reminded that life isn't an emergency and if we rush even the little steps we just might miss the greatest gifts within our grasp. 

Gnocchi with smoked ricotta

At the end of the night, after much laughter and conversation we gathered around the table and enjoyed an amazing meal.  Yes, we ate great food but more than that, we connected with each other, shared stories, and gave our time.  

It was a great night indeed.  

(I'll post a recipe once I'm able to try it at home at least once with readily available ingredients.)