Posts Tagged With: Europe

H is for home.

Today, on my birthday, I am reflecting. Looking back at a blog post from this time last year, it’s hard to believe all that has happened. In that post, we had just sold our house, we had a month to vacate, and we had no idea where we were going to go. I remember that angst, and I’m happy I’m not there this year. We had nothing booked – anywhere. That was not our wisest hour.
To be faced with moving out of a house you have lived in for ten years, storing most of your stuff, but making sure you keep out the stuff you will need for the next ten months is an arduous enough task. But planning a ten month trip while you’re at it? That’s just insanity. No wonder I was having anxiety issues. And to think I had known about this trip for four years…there’s a psychological diagnosis in there somewhere, I’m sure.
Anyway, the point is, if you are planning to take your family travelling for an extended period of time, I would recommend booking everything in advance. Or at least most things. Or even some things. Or one thing. But definitely not no things.
Miraculously, though, on this particular occasion, it all worked out ok. It would, in retrospect, have been a much more enjoyable experience for me if things had been better planned beforehand, but there you go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And with hindsight, I might have realized how much easier the trip would have been for the kids if it had been well-planned. However, it is what it is, and they experienced the whole process, angst included.
In asking us about our trip, people often say “the kids must have loved it”, but in all fairness, they did not always love it. I’m sure I have said before that there were many times when they just wanted to go home. And sometimes, as we settle back into the routines of school and soccer and birthday parties, we wonder what, if anything, they gained from our “year out”. Of course, we know they did, really, and we know their appreciation for the experience will increase as they get older, but it’s funny how quickly it has disappeared in some ways…
For example, a week after they started back at school, the little one had to do a writing assessment on which they were asked to write about something that happened in the past. When I asked her what she wrote about (thinking smugly about all the fabulous experiences we provided for her to choose from), she told me she wrote about that time we went to Halifax two years ago when she bought a teddy for her sister. I said, “Oh. I thought you might have written something about our trip”, to which she replied, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that”! You have to laugh, really, but comments like that don’t come without a tiny little sting. Shortly after that, she redeemed herself by compiling a pretty amusing A to Z of Travels which summed up her experience, though, so all was not lost.
In actual fact, we are starting to see the experience of our travels permeate lots of things the kids do and say quite often now, and every time we see that, those little stings are replaced with another feeling. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I know it’s a very warm and glowy feeling. Like pride and satisfaction – and maybe a little relief. When I read Mairi’s speech for school and it’s all about European foods – which are good, and which should be avoided. Or when they point out places in library books that they recognize and have been to. Or when their stories have settings they would never have had a year ago. Or even when I can see their appreciation for home. It’s a good feeling.

Here is a collection of tidbits that give me that feeling:

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My birthday card

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This one was accompanied by the caption: X is for exit. Where is the exit in this airport?! It is a very accurate rendition of us wondering where the heck that exit is, right down to the sour expressions on our faces!

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What Was Your Favourite Part?

It has been some time since the last blog post, but I have been re-inspired since returning home by the number of people who have told me how much they enjoyed reading it. It’s funny to run into acquaintances, friends, and neighbours who have been reading along with our travels, because you never really know who’s out there while you’re actually writing. And when you see people for the first time, it really changes that initial conversation completely. You start in a totally different place.
People who have followed the blog ask about a specific place, or tell me how much they could relate to a certain post, or how much they laughed over me hiking in the Pyrenees in flip-flops, for example. Because they know where we were, they know which parts were good, and which were not so good. They understand the joy, or the frustration, of the experiences that moved me to write.
People who haven’t been following along ask me, “what was your favourite part?” And I am struggling to come up with an answer to that one. The girls have said the same thing – the experience seems so vast, that it is very difficult to come up with a favourite part. Or even a favourite place.
I don’t think there is anywhere I can honestly say I would never want to go again; almost every place we visited seemed to be cut too short, if anything. Even after spending several months in the UK, I feel like we only just scratched the surface. Some places were like appetizers; we spent such a short amount of time in them, and in a way, it would have been smarter to see less, but give ourselves more time in each place to really absorb the culture. On the other hand, even being exposed briefly to places like Cinque Terre and Santorini makes me want to come back for the main course some other time. Places as magical as those inspire you to plan future travel. And to be honest, some places are well worth a visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay longer than it takes to see the iconic sights. Venice, for example – a must see, but too busy and expensive to spend more than a day or two. And Athens – again, you are sort of obliged to go for its historical and cultural importance, but really, you wouldn’t want to stay! You really wouldn’t.
Anyway, I do have a lot more to say about this trip. There are still many unrecorded places and adventures. Sometimes, too much happened in the space of a few days to blog about it all. Sometimes, I didn’t have any Internet for a while, and when I finally did get it again, we had moved on. Sometimes, I didn’t have time. And sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered.
But it’s not over. And I look forward to writing about the missing bits. And the learning that no doubt will continue for a long time, despite the fact that we are home. Sort of. Actually, I wonder if it’s possible to seamlessly morph this roadschooling blog into a building-your-own-house blog.
I have a feeling there may be some interesting moments to come…
Cinque Terre

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Santorini

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Venice

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Athens
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And Athens

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Home

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On Being Thankful

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I suppose it may be my imagination, or just wishful thinking, but I’m sure our girls were different this Christmas. Perhaps it was simply a maturity that comes with getting a little older, or maybe it’s just that they knew they couldn’t ask for anything that wouldn’t fit in the suitcase (although that didn’t stop one of them from asking for a piglet), but they all seemed more thankful, more gracious somehow. They exclaimed on many occasions that they couldn’t believe how much stuff they got. They thanked everyone profusely and sincerely for any gift, no matter how small. One even said she felt guilty at having so much when others had so little, and wondered if you could send actual stuff to World Vision or did it have to be money.
There was no mention whatsoever of the items on their lists that they did not get, no wishing they got something else. And in reality, they got less than they usually do, and a lot of what they got was simply replacing things that were lost in Europe – clothes, journals, books, swim goggles, and their precious stuffed toys. Santa somehow managed to find the exact same ones, and although these were newer models, they seem to have brought great comfort. The little one maintains hers is the best gift she got, and that thinking about the robbery doesn’t even make her sad anymore. And she’s the materialistic one! She asked for an iPod touch or a Nintendo 3DS, neither of which she received, but now that she has her teddy back, it doesn’t matter.
I am really proud of them, and I’ve told them so. We had a wonderful Christmas, but I’m not concerned that they will be “spoiled”. I feel like even just the tiny little bit of the world they’ve experienced has been valuable to them. They have seen a little bit of a life that is not as easy as their own. They have witnessed poverty and hardship in the places they have visited, as well as the contrasting luxury that is available to so few. No, they have not been to the third world, but at least they know not everyone has it as good as they do.
So, again, maybe I’m clutching at straws here and trying to find a positive effect (since they have yet to directly express one) of their travels, but I’m going to go with it.
I see no other way to explain a certain child’s generosity of spirit and lack of jealous tantrums.

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Home Comforts.

We are back in England, and the gray, misty drizzle is strangely comforting. It means we have survived another leg of our adventure, and now we can settle for a bit in a place that feels like home. We can relax, reflect upon our experiences, learn from them, and see how long it takes the wanderlust to set in! And of course, we will have to start planning for the next phase.
The past couple of days has been full. We left Paris in a whirlwind – the taxi had arrived half an hour before we expected, so it wasn’t exactly a calm exit. So much so, that we left without loading the map into the ipad, so actually getting out of the city once we got to our car was not easy. Quite stressful, in fact. But we did it, and made it to Vimy Ridge without so much as a wrong exit. I won’t mention our attempts at getting from there to Bruges; it will suffice to say we are not yet navigators up to Liah’s high standards. I keep telling her she just has to trust us, but she says every time she does that, we lead her to nowhere. Ok then.
Anyway, seeing the Government of Canada signs upon our arrival at the Vimy Memorial was kind of exciting, and we had the unique experience of being the only ones there for a brief time. It was, again, a cold, gray and misty day, and as we approached this isolated and remarkable monument, we tried to imagine the conditions at this ridge during the war. The freezing mud in the trenches, the loneliness and fear of the soldiers. The interpretive centre gave us more insight with several artifacts and a really informative video that helped the kids understand what it might have been like at this time in history. The whole experience was very moving, and made us feel proud to be Canadian. Although Mairi did argue that we didn’t really have any right to Canadian pride since we were “mostly British” anyway, and our relatives didn’t even live in Canada then. Whatever. Next.
Bruges was fantastic. Like a postcard. What can be bad about a place famous for beer, fries, waffles and chocolate? Hard to beat. For a great summary, check out mairionthemap.wordpress.com.
And now, we are almost home, and the kettle is on, apparently, ready for a cup of tea – expect more reflections later!

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Sorry, Paris is Closed Today.

I have blogged before about the frustrations of getting used to the different hours of opening in Europe. And we have been more aware of that lately, and have tried to plan around it. So, some Paris museums are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays. The palace at Versailles was closed on Monday. The famous ice cream parlour, as we discovered yesterday, is closed Monday and Tuesday…you get the idea. We thought we had it all figured out, so here was our plan for today. Get up and go to the Catacombs (which we took a few days to get psyched up for, making sure everyone was ok with it, building a little spooky excitement, and all that), then head to an actual destination for lunch (a recommendation from our Paris Guru) to avoid a fiasco like yesterday’s, and then go down to Champs d’Elysee and end up at Arc de Triomphe (and go up it for a great view of twilight Paris). We are excited. My only reservation about the plan is the number of steps it involves – at least another 1000 – because my calves are pretty sore from yesterday’s steps.
So, out we go this morning and head to the subway. I have checked online to make sure everything is open. All good. We have to take two lines to get to the Catacombs, for a total of 23 stops, so we have some time to chat about why the bones of 6 million Parisians are actually stacked down there, and what it might be like. We eventually come up from the Metro and walk aimlessly for about 10 minutes looking for the entrance, which I know from my research is tricky to spot. We ask someone in the street, and we are there within the next five minutes. We are greeted by this sign:

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Part of me is really disappointed, and part of me thinks God is trying to protect me from all the steps. We decide an early lunch is the cure for this, and get back on the Metro for another 16 stops to reach Saint-Denis. It’s a good thing the Catacombs weren’t open or we would have been having lunch at supper time. It took a while, but we had an interesting walk around the neighborhood. We found it in the end and sat down for a good meal, and tried to get warmed up by drinking a little red wine with it. I don’t think we drank enough, because we were still chilled when we left.
OK, it’s off to the next destination. We have a little time to kill, so we decide to walk down to the Louvre and just look at the outside. Then we are freezing again, so we hop back on the Metro and get off closer to the Arc de Triomphe. We try to sneak past the Disney Store when we get off the train, but it’s just too bright and inviting in all its Christmas finery, so we have to go in for twenty minutes or so. Not all that cultural, but a fun time for the kids. Out for another walk, and then when we get cold again, we slip into Jack Wolfskin for a bit to feel the warm cozy fleeces and try on hats and mittens as if we intend to buy them.
Finally, we make it down to the Arc, take a few pics, check out the eternal flame, and head for the entrance so we can go up to the top and see what the “etoile” is really all about. Here’s the sign this time:

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I’m starting to think I may have inadvertently jinxed the day by complaining about my calves, because there goes the other attraction with the many many steps! Someone clearly didn’t think I was up for it!
The kids are a little disappointed and we are all really tired, so we get back on the Metro and end our day on our familiar Moulin Rouge corner, do a little souvenir shopping, and grab something for supper.
We still had a great day, but it was not quite what we expected, and I think Paris was pretty successful overall. Even Liah didn’t hate it.

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What do you mean, Budget?

We left Tarragona this morning, a fabulous little city I will write more about later.
Because tonight I need to discuss other things.
We are en route to Paris, and so we calculated seven hours from Tarragona, and booked an Ibis hotel just off the autopiste to break up the trip. We made great time, and to Liah’s astonishment, did not get lost once (because we are just that kind of people, if you haven’t heard). Anyway, we pull off the motorway, and five minutes later we are in the parking lot of our hotel. Perfect. We get our bags out (which are mostly long-life grocery bags and garbage bags), and head inside, anxious to check in and freshen up. The lobby is bright and spacious, clean white decor with accent splashes of fuchsia and lime green. There is a kids play room right there in the lobby, and posters of the rooms on the walls celebrating their “thick comfortable duvets”, all decorated in classic cream and taupe. The girl at the reception desk doesn’t speak English, but we manage to check in. I feel good.
Until I gather the girls and head for the hallway marked chambres, and she calls out, “no, no”, and points outside across the parking lot, “la bas”, she says, “Ibis Budget”. Hmmm.
Ok, probably not much of a difference, right? I mean, this reception area is so nice…perhaps we wouldn’t get the extra thick duvets, but that would be ok…it’s not cold or anything.
So, off we trudge across the parking lot and into the Budget version of the Ibis, where the reception is actually a machine into which you put your credit card, and it assigns you a room number and a code for the door. Maybe that’s how they save money, I think hopefully. We already have our code since we checked in next door, so we find the elevator and ascend to our two almost-adjoining rooms.
They are not exactly taupe. More of a nicotine-stain sort of colour. Which may be the case since there are ashtrays on our bedside table, and the room smells faintly of stale smoke. The carpets (ish) are blue with a variety of darker areas in different shapes and sizes. I wonder if those could have anything to do with the fact that you can bring in a pet for three extra euros?
The shower cubicle opens into the room. The sink is right there in the room. And the toilet is in yet another cubicle that is so small I have to leave the door open when I pee because my knees won’t fit in.
Not only is the duvet not extra thick, it is not even there. We do, however, have a 1970s bedspread in an orange and blue splatter print. It’s shiny. And the skinny little bunk above the double bed is not yet made, but it has a scratchy blue blanket and a sheet waiting for your sleeping pleasure. If you can get up the spindly metal ladder.
I want to go back to what I now know is The Ibis Styles. But we already have our bags in, and the kids have used the bathroom, and to be honest, princess syndrome is not what I want to teach them on this trip. So I decide to suck it up. I am feeling grossed out, but trying to hide it. Then Dev farts and as I am about to utter the usual admonishments, Mairi interrupts me, “don’t worry about it, Mum, it will probably improve the smell of the room”. You know it’s bad when…
We decide to go out to eat to kill some time before bed, and make ourselves (me) feel better. But it’s Remembrance Day, and the only place within two miles that seems to be open is McDonalds. Oh, Boy. McCheval anyone? We go, and even Mairi is hungry enough to order chicken nuggets, and she has refused to eat there since she was very small on the grounds that it is not actual food. Liah wants to play in the softplay area, so based on what we have to go back to, we let her. By the time we leave, I feel like things are crawling on my skin, and if I didn’t have kids for whom I must set an example, I would stamp my foot and demand we get a room in the duvet-filled sister hotel next door. I have a Visa card, and this is what it’s for.
Instead, I have cuddled my littlest girl to sleep, and connected to the (miraculously) free wifi to write this blog.
I have to go to bed soon because we have a long driving day again tomorrow and my senses need to be sharp so I can navigate us out of Liah’s bad books. I am determined to convince her that we are not, in fact, that kind of people.
We will be leaving way earlier than necessary.

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Archeology and Stuff

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So, I emailed the kids’ teachers today for the first time since we left. I wanted to check in to see how what we were doing compared with what they were doing. Because if I’m honest, I don’t feel like we’re doing much. Weeks where we are on the road, nothing really gets done, and even now we are settled in one place for a few weeks, it’s hard, somehow, to make the time to do “school”. Yes, I know travelling is an education in itself, but as I think I may have mentioned before, I don’t want them to return to school feeling lost in any way. Hence the need to check in.
One teacher got back to me almost immediately with a pretty detailed run-down of what they were doing, and he happened to mention that they were doing an archeological dig in class tomorrow using rice as soil, and with real artifacts supplied by Parks Canada so they can learn how we discover information about the past. Excellent idea – what an exciting hands on lesson for a grade five class!
It occurred to me as I finished reading the email that we had been to the “Dig” archeological museum in York where our own little students had a similar experience. They were able to dig up real artifacts from York’s Roman occupation, it’s Viking era, and it’s Tudor period. I was pleased to make the connection, so I started to tell the teacher about it in my response email. Then I remembered we had also been to the current Roman excavation of Vindalanda near Hadrian’s Wall. Then I thought about our brush with The Acropolis, our tour of The Roman Colosseum, and finally our visit to ancient Akrotiri in Santorini where we actually walked on the streets that had been buried in volcanic ash for the past 3,500 years.
Then I stopped writing the email because it sounded braggy. I just deleted it and said instead that she was familiar with archeology from our trip, so she should be ok for social studies.
The great revelation for me, though, was the fact that even when I think we aren’t doing any “school”, we are, of course, doing all kinds of it. It’s just not the kind where we are in a classroom or sitting at a table. I need to make sure I remember that more often. The experiences our kids have had with just that one topic in the past two months are more than many will have in a lifetime. It reminds me how lucky they are. How lucky we are. What an amazing gift to our family and to each other this year is, despite it’s ups and downs. In fact, there aren’t really any downs, are there?

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Hiking The Pyrenees in Flipflops is Not Recommended

Before I begin this post, I want to point out that I am aware there may be children viewing it; therefore, there will be no swear words in it. I am going to leave it up to my readers’ own judgement to insert appropriate swear words where they deem it necessary.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Due to the Roman Robbers (directly before “Roman” would be a great place to insert expletive of your choice – just so you get the hang of it), the only footwear I currently have is flipflops. We have been in the mountains, 1600 meters up (where, interestingly, mosquitos cannot survive) for 72 hours and my mountaineering husband is chomping at the bit to get us out hiking. We have had a couple of little walks, but nothing you would need a map for, so they don’t count really.
Anyway, we have spent the first couple of days settling in, recovering from our long and traumatic journey here, and just getting the lay of the land. But today, we must hike.
So, we set off to the ski town of Font Romeu, where there are a smattering of outdoorsy shops, so I can buy some walking shoes (on the way to Lac de Bouillouse where we will hike).The fact that it took me 3 weeks to find a pair of sneakers before we began this trip should have been an indication that this would not be an easy task, but to be fair, we had briefly checked the stores out yesterday, and I knew there were lots I liked, so I thought it would be fine.
Until I realized it was 11:36, and all the stores in France close from 12-2.
Needless to say, I did not get any shoes. But today was a hiking day, so hike we must. We drove up to the Lake where “we” decided on a shorter route than was originally planned, and headed out. After the first ten minutes (which was more of a steep scramble than a walk), I knew this was not going to be a hike for my flipflop-clad feet, but onward we pressed. Our “guide” was sure this was the steepest part. And it was. But the rest was rough rocky terrain, very little of which I would actually refer to as a path. The girls thought it was great. The two younger ones pretended to be on horses the whole time, and Misty and Sky were often racing ahead of us searching out the little yellow route markers to blaze the trail. The oldest walked along checking the map with her dad, commenting often how beautiful the hike was.
I wouldn’t know. I was busy with my eyes on the ground, painstakingly picking out every step to insure I didn’t lose a toe on a particularly sharp rock or break an ankle as my feet slid around my flipflops. Both eyes on the ground also served the purpose of enabling me to avoid eye contact with other hikers as they passed by with their mountain boots and walking sticks. I can just imagine what they were saying in Spanish or French (I don’t even know for sure what country we were in) about the crazy lady in the flipflops.
After an hour or so, we decided we’d better turn back. It wasn’t quite as sunny as it had been when we started. It was, in fact, 11 degrees and starting to rain.
For those of you who have ever tried to walk in flipflops in the rain, even on a flat surface, I don’t really have to explain to you what it would be like trying to get back down the steep scramble as your feet attempt to find some way to grip the bottom of the sopping wet flipflop so they don’t slide out entirely. I probably would have been better off trying to do it barefoot. Lucky my gallant “guide” was there to support me on the really treacherous parts. Even Misty and Sky struggled with those!
Despite the trials, we made it back in one piece. Toes and ankles intact. I don’t think we’ll be doing anymore hiking until I get some new shoes though.

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A Lot Less Luggage

My very well travelled and worldly friend Kim emailed me just as we were leaving for this trip to tell me never to leave anything we valued in the car. Well, that’s pretty difficult when your car is kind of your home, but we have tried to be careful. But now we are travelling lighter.
Our flight from Athens to Rome was delayed on Saturday, so instead of being able to go into Rome to visit the Colosseum and The Vatican, we had to stay at our airport hotel for the evening. Because of this, we decided to leave the hotel early in the morning, and see the sights before we began the drive to Nice. So, we did some research, and asked the hotel staff, and the plan we came up with was to drive as far as the outermost Metro stop (where, according to the map, there was parking), and then take the metro into the city. Hotel staff thought this was a good plan – not driving into the city avoids massive congestion charges, and we would only be leaving the car for a couple of hours. The expected parking lot didn’t actually materialize, but there was some parking on the street outside the station, so off we went.
Unfortunately, while we were touring the Colosseum and getting our picture taken with very overpriced gladiators, someone was smashing our car window and making off with the vast majority of our luggage. When we returned to our car, quite jubilant from our visit to such an amazing site, and proud of ourselves for having navigated the metro without a hitch, still in good time for the long drive to Nice, we found the back seat of the car full of glass, two out of three of our suitcases gone, and the kids backpacks too. The really heavy suitcase full of math books remained. The irony.
Now, the really bad part of this is not our clothes, cosmetics and toiletries, vitamins and medicines, shoes, bathing suits, masks and snorkels, address books, netbook, iPods, all our chargers, and all the bags, although all this is mighty inconvenient. The really bad part is the kid’s journals that they have been keeping faithfully since we left home, and their teddies that they have had since birth. This is what makes me most upset and angry. How dare they mess with our children’s security? And what use are teddy bears and journals to a thief? They could have at least thrown them out nearby so we could get them back. There were many other little things in the kids’ bags that were important to them, the things they chose to bring on this trip, as well as souvenirs from their travels so far, but because we had just returned from our “backpacking” holiday in Greece, the bags were heavy, and we didn’t want them to have to cart them around Rome. And as it was 8:30 on a Sunday morning, it seemed like it would be ok. Not so much.
We have been trying very hard to focus on the positives. It’s just stuff. We are all ok. We had the ipad, wallets, passports and cameras with us (although we can’t charge them now anyway…). The window that was smashed was a small one, and we were able to patch it up and get on our way with only a couple of hours delay at the police station. We did not lose the car. We did not lose a child. There are so many positives.
But I’m still angry sometimes. And I’m still sad sometimes. And I’m so sorry for the girls’ losses. Although, again, these are not losses compared to those they could have been. But if I could get one thing back, it would be a $20 teddy bear, not an ipod touch or my new sneakers…
Moving on.
When we finally got to Nice and found our apartment, it was about 10:30 pm and it was a dirty smelly hole. We slept with the kids, and in the morning, we left. Despite the fact we were supposed to stay for two nights. It was gross, and it wasn’t as if we were going to have fun looking around Nice in our car with the window out wearing the same dirty clothes we had on all night and the day before. We didn’t even have a toothbrush. That made the dirty apartment seem even dirtier.
So, what have we learned? What wisdom can we impart to future travellers? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m thinking, don’t go anywhere unless you can get secure parking, cover all your stuff with a blanket so it looks less tempting(?), and I’m guessing having a car without foreign plates would be good. Although that may be tricky. And possibly illegal.

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Food/Nutella

I had a comment recently that remarked on how good the food must be in Cinque Terre, and we did, in fact, have a meal in Monterroso that was exceptional. Risotto a la Mare, complete with eyes and antennae. Dev said it was the best meal he’s had in a very long time, and once I picked the offending items out, I have to agree, it was delicious. We also had pasta one night, and pizza the other, so we covered the essential Italian fare in our first three nights.
However, accommodation has cost us more than we anticipated, gas is ridiculous, and there are tolls everywhere (over 100 euros in tolls just getting to our first destination), so really, food is where we’ve been cutting corners. Our staple picnic fare has accidentally become breadsticks dipped in Nutella (which our youngest calls Nutzerella). And I say accidentally because our first day in Monterroso, I was charged with bringing lunch down to the beach and I couldn’t find anything suitable, so I went to the little store and bought the two items most easily recognizable (and some fruit). The kids said it was the best picnic ever, so it has become a bit of a standby. In fact, at the cafe here on the camp, if you don’t want to eat a raw ham sandwich (which they generally don’t), Nutella is pretty much the only other choice.
I remember a friend of mine travelling in Europe in her early twenties and blaming weight gain on Nutella. Now I can see why. It is everywhere, in very large quantities. And it’s cheap. And when you can’t understand the words on a package or menu because you did not learn enough Italian before you came to Italy, Nutella is a pretty safe option. Europe’s answer to PB & J.

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