Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The apartment: then and now

Many people have been asking for pictures of our new apartment since we moved in, and I'm finally getting around to posting about that. Our move in day was back in February, about a week after I arrived in Milano. Since the buildings here are so old, many of the stairwells are too small to bring in couches and other furniture. With that in mind, the Europeans have developed an interesting way of moving people into houses. They hoist the furniture and boxes up into the apartment with a lift and bring it in through the windows. This was a crazy sight... furniture being lifted up to the third floor of the building, but it worked! They brought everything in through our master bedroom since we have a balcony and a floor to ceiling door. The poor guys that moved us in had a hard time with our bedroom furniture. I could hear them say "damn American furniture!" as they put it together. They were very nice, but unfortunately my Italian was so horrible at that time that I only knew about five words that I could actually use to communicate with them. But, everything went smoothly as they moved in the boxes. The hard part was unpacking and organizing!

Guest room before

Living room/dining room before
Master bedroom before

They started to help me unpack the kitchen and wow... you don't realize how much stuff you have until you get into a smaller house! We packed about three of everything and the boxes just kept on coming! The cupboards were full, as well as the drawers in our center island, and one of the guys brought in another monster kitchen box! Yikes... We ended up throwing away all of our cheap plastic cups (good riddance!), and a bunch of duplicate utensils that we never used. We also have a box of pint glasses still packed away that we don’t know what to do with. As it turns out, Josh had about 100 pint glasses! OK, that’s an exaggeration, but he had more than our cupboards could hold, and there were two of every style. We compromised and he kept a few favorites, and we recycled the rest. It was a good thing though, we were able to simplify to only the things we need. At home we seem to hoard things (even though Josh and I clean out the closets every year to donate old clothes and household items). We (Americans) seem to have this subconscious idea that we need all this stuff to make a happy home. It’s just not true. A big lesson I’ve learned since moving here is “less is more”.

No Parking zone! The truck with our sea shipment

a box being lifted into the apartment

master bedroom on move in day
After getting things put away and organized, we realized how much we missed closets!! Our apartment only has two closets- a linen closet and a pantry. We didn’t have a place to hang clothes in the bedroom, or coats in the entryway. So… to Ikea we went! We ended up getting two large armoires that we could use as closets. That was an interesting trip to Ikea!! I wish we had a camera to capture all of the stuff we had in our small rental car!! It was a small hatchback car (similar in style to VW Golf, but wagon style), and we had long pieces for the armoires. So, with a little creative maneuvering we were able to fit everything in. But first, we had to lay the front passenger seat flat, as well as the back seat. Then, we had to fit in the long pieces that started at the very end of the car all the way up to the front, resting on the dash board, and pile them on top of each other. There were so many that we were concerned they would break off the rear view mirror if they moved. After about 15 minutes of puzzle solving, we got everything in! We tied the hatch down so we didn’t lose everything on the highway, and realized that I didn’t have a seat! There was just enough room for me to sit behind Josh on the folded down back seat. There was not enough head room, so I was crunched over holding things to make sure they didn’t go flying out the back. I’m pretty sure that we would have received a ticket in the US if we were pulled over, but in Italy rules are made to be broken. They probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. We got everything home successfully, but the next task was trying to get everything unloaded and in the house! This was another funny story…

the master bedroom and hallway... we had a lot of work to do!!

As we pulled up in front of our building to unload, a gentleman tapped on our window and politely asked us to move because they were filming a woman right in front of our car. They were filming a TV show with an “undercover” camera and a woman on the road pretending to be a prostitute. It was some prank show and they were trying to catch a man pulling over to “make a deal” with this woman. Since prostitution is technically illegal in Italy, it was an interesting concept… Maybe they were undercover police? But I don’t think the police really care that much if prostitutes are working. They don’t look that hard for the prostitutes; otherwise they would be on our street all the time. But, the guys that were filming were really nice and helped us bring in all of our long pieces for the armoires which saved me! They were SUPER heavy!! The guys dropped them off inside of the front door for us and then we brought them upstairs. We definitely got in a good work out that night bringing them up the three flights of stairs (they didn’t fit in the elevator). Well, after a lot of work and time, we finally had an organized apartment! It feels like home since we have our furniture from back home (with a few new pieces). Now when we travel, we are excited to get home to Milan to our house. It’s a great feeling J

Kitchen after

Painting we bought in Venice with Craig, it is now
hanging in our living room

Guest room

Guest room


master bedroom- you can see the monster armoire

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A northern girl in the heat of Italy...

view of Isola Bella from cocktail hour
The day after we came home to Milan, the heat from Africa decided to make a stop in Italy... and stay here! It's been in the mid 90's in Milan every day since we got back from the Netherlands. Thankfully this weekend it’s supposed to cool off. Bring it on!!

Cocktails with a view

Last weekend we had tickets to the opera "Romeo et Juliette" in Verona, so we just hung around Milan most of the weekend. When I say "around Milan" I mean in cooler, nearby areas. We took a drive up to Lake Maggiore on Friday since Josh was still on vacation, and got away from the heat of the city. We just wanted to be in the air conditioned car more than anything (the lake was just an added bonus). The Lake is one of three major lakes near Milan (Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and Lake Garda). All three are about an hour’s drive away from our house and up until this point we hadn't visited Lake Maggiore. Josh packed a picnic basket and we were on our way.
Another view of Isola Bella
There is a really cool island called "Isola Bella" that I wanted to see while we were there. Unfortunately, we got there around 4PM due to a late start and the island closed at 5:00. By the time we took the ferry to the island, it would be closing. So we just enjoyed walking around the nearby city of Stresa. Of course, on a hot day like that day a spritz was in order! We enjoyed a quick cool down cocktail while enjoying the view of Isola Bella. This island is entirely occupied by the Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens. Since we didn't make it to the island on this trip, it is a must to go back and see it! It looks so amazing!

We leisurely ambled along the coastline of the lake, then drove to find a picnic spot for dinner. Josh is such a romantic! He drove to a spot on the lake with a beach and a great view of the sun set. He had caprese salad prepared and sandwiches packed with a bottle of wine. We didn't drink the wine since he had to drive though. As we sat and ate, we watched the sun set behind the alps. What a great, romantic evening!

The next day, we packed and headed to Verona for the opera. I was so excited for our first opera! We stayed at a hotel about 20 minutes from the city center and it was worth it! The hotels in Verona were not cheaper than 130 euros a night... we found ours for 40! In addition, the hotel had air conditioning so we were happy! We decided to get into Verona early so we had time to eat dinner, pick up our tickets at will call, and just enjoy the night. We had dinner at a restaurant in the main square, with the arena right in front of us. For those of you that don't know, the arena of Verona is like a smaller version of the Colosseum. It was built in 30 AD! In ancient times, the arena could hold 30,000 spectators. Today, it can seat up to 20,000 for the opera.
Another table with a view

our view of the arena at dinner

Josh's "favorite"

Our spot for dinner was great for people watching!! It was right on the sidewalk so we could see the people walking by. We saw so many great outfits... people dressed to impress for the opera, and people just dressing strangely in general. One woman walked by in a florescent yellow, skin tight dress. Maybe she wanted to be seen?? Also, we saw and older gentleman walk by in royal blue pants, a white linen jacket, with a rainbow colored tie and his hair was long and silver. To top it all off... he had a long silver broom on his upper lip! He had an award winning mustache! He was Josh's favorite.

our view of the stage

The show started at 9PM (after the sun went down) and lasted until just before 1AM. Since the arena was outside and it was so freakin’ hot, everyone kept fanning themselves (myself included). Not my finest moment at dinner when I had sweat dripping down my legs while in a nice dress... It didn't cool down until after midnight when a breeze kicked in. But even then, it was still around 88 degrees! The heat didn't ruin the evening though. We were sitting in an arena that was more than 2000 years old, and I saw a shooting star just as the show was starting. I knew it was going to be a good show at that point! The tradition is to light a candle before the show starts when you are in your seat. This was fun- you could see all of the people in attendance. In the upper deck seats, its general seating (first come, first serve) and people can bring in food and drinks since they don't have access to concessions in the upper decks. Between this and the inexpensive tickets, the people of Verona and are well educated in opera. They also stay out all night after the show! When we exited the arena, many of the restaurants had tables reserved with bottles of spumante in buckets of ice, ready to go. The whole experience was great and we would love to see an opera at La Scala in Milano (another world famous opera house). The woman who played Juliette was fantastic! And so was Romeo- they stole the show!
Queen Mab
Mercutio's end

Juliette's aria before taking the potion

The next day it was still sweltering... so we decided to go to the beach at Lake Garda (not far from Verona). But before hitting the beach, we stopped at a medieval castle near our hotel, Il Castello di Soave. It was commissioned by the Italian king Berengario I, sometime around the 10th century. This castle was the real deal! The castle is a true fortress and sits on a hill overlooking the town, while the walls of the castle go down the hill to surround the city. It was very cool! We didn't stay long though since I was getting the back sweats and desperately needed air conditioning. Man, that weekend I was starting feel a little bit like James!! I was a sweaty cinghiale! (see "My birthday!… and more cinghiale!") This northern girl can’t take the heat! In small doses I’m ok… but this long stretch of heat has been rough!
The castle had a draw bridge

New guard on duty!

Entrance to the kings rooms
the prisoners tower

Soave and the walls around the town

I love lamp!

The REALLY steep and crazy stoned streets
we had to walk up to see the castle
We figured out where everyone goes when it’s hot… the beach on Lake Garda was packed! But they left enough room for Josh and I! So nice of them J We stayed on the beach for a few hours before going home- Josh on the sand, me in the water. It was nice! But as with all good things, it must come to an end… so we left and went back to the heat of Milano. I’ve been melting there ever since! Please, please, please… send some cooler weather!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Netherlands part 2: Den Haag

a "dancing house" next door to the Queens working Palace
After two and a half days in Amsterdam, we moved on to see more of the Netherlands. Our next stop was Den Haag. We choose this city because it is in close proximity to other cities we wanted to visit and they had a hotel property where we could use points to stay thereJ It worked out well.

When some people we met in Amsterdam heard we were going to Den Haag, they were surprised. They asked “why would you want to go there? It’s so boring!” Well… we enjoyed staying there for two days, and there seemed to be plenty of museums and things to see. Although, we can only see so many museums before getting board. So… they were right. There isn’t much to do if you stay longer than two or three days in Den Haag unless you LOVE museums and wouldn’t mind going to one each day.  

What you should know about Den Haag:
·         It is the home of the Queen of the Netherlands and is also the seat of government/ parliament for the country (even though Amsterdam is the capital)
·         MC Escher was from Den Haag and there is a museum with his works in Den Haag (it was right across the street from our hotel!)
·         All foreign embassies in the Netherlands are in Den Haag and it is a major city hosting the United Nations (among New York and Geneva)

We took the train to Den Haag from Amsterdam central station; it took about an hour to get there and was much more expensive than the trains in Italy. It was about 19 euros for the two of us (one way). The city is easy to navigate and a lot quieter than Amsterdam. It seems to be more of a business city (with older professionals), and is a little more serious. This makes sense since it’s the seat of the Netherlands’ government.

Outside the Binnenhof

Inside the Binnenhof
Knights hall in the Binnenhof
The jury is still out...
Once we dropped off our luggage at the hotel, we started walking around to explore the city. It was mid-afternoon and too late to see any sights with paid admission, so we went to the sights open to the public. We saw the Binnenhof (Parliament building), the Queens “working castle” and tried the local fare. Josh had recommendations from people to try the raw herring. He was told that it may sound gross, but it’s surprisingly good. Well, we stopped at a street vendor outside of the Binnenhof and Josh tried it. He wasn’t sure what to think… I tried it too and it was soft with a cooked texture (even though it was raw). The flavor of the fish was salty and it came in a bun with raw onions. For me, I will never it eat again! Onions and I don’t get along very well… As for Josh, the jury is still out on what he thinks of raw herring. Afterwards, we found a little bar for dinner and a drink.

The following day we had big plans. We planned on making a trek to Kinderdijk to see the world famous windmills. We started off with a Starbucks (so excited to see Starbucks in the Netherlands!!!), and took the train to Rotterdam. From there, we had to take the metro to the outskirts of the city, then a bus to Kinderdijk. I estimated that it would take about two hours to get there…. Well, one of the buses wouldn’t let us on, so we had to wait for the next one 30 minutes later. After three hours we finally arrived!! It’s a great opportunity to see some history and some really cool monuments. We rented two bikes and enjoyed the nicely paved bike paths and the scenery. Not to mention it was fun getting the cows to moo! It was like being in a large national park, only on a bike. The weather was PERFECT that day! So we enjoyed every minute out on the Kinderdijk. It was a nice, relaxing day.

The windmills were built around 1740 to keep the area from flooding. The water was pumped by the windmills out of the polders (low lying area of land surrounded by dikes) and into a reservoir. When the river nearby was low, the water was pumped from the reservoir into the river by other windmills. Now the work is done by diesel stations, but a few windmills are still in use. Most of the windmills are just sights now, although it looked like people lived in them. Maybe they were the “caretakers”?


My favorite picture of the day

We found some Italian friends to take some pictures of us :)

this windmill is still used
According to Wikipedia (2011) the “Cat and the Cradle” came from the folklore of Kinderdijk. The name Kinderdijk is Dutch for "Children's dike". In 1421 during the Saint Elizabeth flood of 1421, the Grote Hollandse Waard flooded, but the Alblasserwaard polder stayed unflooded. It is said that when the terrible storm had subsided, someone went on to the dike between these two areas, to see what could be saved. He saw in the distance a wooden cradle floating. There was no hope that anything would be living in it, but when it approached, movement was seen. When the cradle came nearer, someone saw that a cat was in the cradle trying to keep it in balance by jumping back and forth so that no water could come into it. When the cradle eventually came near the dike, someone fished the cradle out and saw that in it a baby slept quiet and dry. In some of the stories the cat kept it balanced and afloat. This folktale and legend has been published as "The Cat and the Cradle" in English.”

After our trip to Kinderdijk, we went back to Den Haag for some beer and amazing Indonesian food.  In the Netherlands they have Amstel (not the light version) and Josh was so excited! So we found a place that served Amstel and I had a Le Chouffe (one of my new favorites). We also enjoyed more of the fried food of the Netherlands. They have local favorites such as a kroket and frikandel. Krokets look like a fried egg roll, but are filled with a potato filling and ham (or at least that was it seemed like). The frikendel was a long sausage wrapped and fried. Both were very tasty! But the kroket had by voteJ Also, the Indonesian food we had that night was amazing!! It was our first time trying it, and it didn't disappoint! 

On our final day in the Netherlands, we went to the MC Escher museum. Since it was right across the street from our hotel, we had to see it! In Junior High I did a project on MC Escher and copied a few of his works, so it was really fun to see the original pieces. The museum is housed in a previous royal residence that was used by the royal family until 1990. The royal ambiance is still kept in the palace, and some of the royal families items are on display there. It was like vising a museum within a museum. This was by far my favorite museum so far (apart from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam). There is a great exhibition with Escher’s works with great explanations of his growth as an artist. I love his uses of geometry and perspective to create illusions. On the top floor, there are opportunities to see how he created some of his works and there are opportunities to create your own works. It was fun! We were also able to take a picture where Josh looks like a giant! I would highly recommend this museum if you ever visit Den Haag.

Escher studied in Italy at the beginning of his career

He even studied San Gimignano! or as we call it, St Jimmy John's

one of his famous pictures- "Falling Water"

Well, time to go home to Milano! We really enjoyed our time in the Netherlands (especially the cool temperatures) and we are already looking forward to our next visit. We hope to get back soon! But for now… time to go back to the mid 90’s and sunny weather of Milan.

Josh the Giant

My favorite part of the Netherlands: this is tough… I really enjoyed Amsterdam, but I also really enjoyed Kinderdijk. I have to say my favorite part of the Netherlands is just the laid back atmosphere and feeling of the country. That combined with the cooler temperatures, I felt very at home there.
There were some strange art installations on the street of our hotel
I love lamp!!

Next trip: a weekend in Italy, including the opera in the Verona arena!