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A ROUGH SUMMER

It’s been a rough summer.

 

Don’t misunderstand. There are millions of people out there who’ve had a way rougher summer (or winter for those in the southern hemisphere!) than I. I don’t think my summer was special — but it was mine. Mine to walk through and mine to seek the Lord through.

 

And it was rough.

 

Our first year back overseas was as smooth as possible with three young children, including a newborn.

 

Then May came and a big hole was punched through my gut.

 

You see, I went home.

 

Well, I went home to the city in this country where we had previously lived for six years. And I had something there that had yet to be developed here, because it takes time, patience and sacrifice —- deep, abiding friendships. The kind where you know each others’ weaknesses and strengths and forgive the one and cherish the other and occasionally call each other out — the kind that is the closest thing to a healthy family outside of your own (if you have one), the kind where you feel known and treasured and vice versa.

 

Then I came back to our current home and realized anew just how hard this international lifestyle can be, especially for someone who sits on the introvert/extrovert fence. I need people, but I need a few and I need them deeply. And those things simply take time and cannot be forced or rushed. They blossom over time.

 

Then our whole family went to pot. Sickness traveled in and out of our home. We got to visit the local Chinese hospital more than I’d ever want thanks to sickness visits and ER visits (one of them including over two hours of my four year old screaming and thrashing on my lap with a popcorn kernel shoved up his nose while a doctor attempted to use sharp, eight inch tweezers to get it out).

 

A few days later the boys ran off and went missing for almost half an hour.

Strange interpersonal interactions dug deeper at my insecurities as they do when in a vulnerable state.

I looked forward to getting to focus on Chinese class in July without it costing my family much emotionally.

 

Well, that went to pot, too. My two youngest got sick. Then got better. I missed Chinese class to keep an eye on a particularly nasty tummy bug they had. Then another odd interpersonal interaction resulted in my emotional knees getting knocked out from underneath me and I was faced wondering when I would get to just be rid of these wounds I’d carried so long.

 

And then…I found myself sitting in a Chinese ER passing blood, in unspeakable pain, shaking uncontrollably while bloodied patients wandered around me in the consultation room, pushed past me to see the doctor before I could, and the doctor, inexplicably, got up and left the room.

 

Two fellow Christian expats stuck closer than a brother…one of them wheeling me around and the other interpreting at the speed of light. My night ended with a midnight rite of passage into Chinese hospital culture — the medical IV.

I was sent home and told to come back for the next two days, each for another treatment. I was also given oral antibiotics. I went in the following two days and sat among sick people in a crowded room while a needle pumped antibiotics into my blood. I figured I’d catch an additional issue sitting in the SICK PARTY HEADQUARTERS.

 

I did.

I woke up after my last day of receiving IVs with my chest feeling like someone had sat on me all night. My breathing hurt. There were sharp pains behind my ribs. My back and hips felt like someone had had a go at me with their fists. My neck and head were pounding. All I could do was lie weakly in bed and watch my fever rise.

 

Then came night after night of an inability to sleep. I had already been waking up for about an hour and a half each night, overwhelmed. Now I was awake up to four or five hours a night.

 

Then came the rash. By the third day or so I woke up covered from head to toe in it.

Then two of my children got sick – one mildly so, the other quite seriously. My virus had passed to them. For nine days my one year old struggled with diarrhea, severe diaper rash, a moderate temperature (102), extreme discomfort and finally a body rash.

 

Needless to say I never finished my Chinese classes.

 

Did I mention I was in charge of hosting a new family who was moving here?

 

Yeah. My summer was rough.

 

I didn’t see it coming.

 

It was exhausting emotionally, spiritually and physically.

 

But here’s the hard lesson I’ve learned through the last few years and that was driven home to me this summer.

 

Guess what? I live on planet earth like everyone else. I’m entitled to suffer and feel the effects of a life less than perfect like everyone else. I’m not special.

 

Maybe that sounds super weird.

But somehow I had this thinking a while back that if I loved God enough and was really serving Him, then things would be smooth — or at least if I suffered it wouldn’t really get to me because I would be super spiritual or something.

Where did I get this? Hmmm…not from the Bible. Nope. I got it from American Christian culture. You know the culture that says, “The true Christian life is the one that looks good from the outside and that gets results. ” You know, the cookie cutter Christian.

The message that to struggle or to hurt or for things to not turn out as you’re sure God wants them to turn out is to be immature or lacking in something.

The message that says God is a means to an end.

And so when I would get in these situations, these battles for the heart or for the body, I would cry, “Why? What did I do wrong to not have everything fall perfectly into place?”

 

This time I didn’t ask the question so much. The self-pity party wasn’t such a party – it was one person in a room half-heartedly attempting to blow a noise-maker and then getting up and leaving, realizing the party wasn’t going anywhere.

 

Why?

 

Because God has generously and gently begun to free me from the misbelief that my faith is measured by how smooth my life is going. Or how quickly things turn out the way I want…or the way I think He wants.

 

As I sat in the room full of sick people staring at me — the foreign lady with the large, swollen left hand (from where a nurse had blown a vein), hooked up on her right hand to medicine, just as they or their friends or family were— I asked myself a different question. “Why not? Why shouldn’t I have a body that has weakness like everyone else in this room? Why shouldn’t I have to experience what your average Chinese person does when it comes to health care?”

And a week later at 4 am I asked, “Why not? Why shouldn’t I stay at home nine days with a feverish child who poops her bed multiple times a day and wakes up with poop on her stuffed animals and in her hair? Am I that special that I should have life trouble-free or at least just with troubles that I feel are tolerable?”

 

No. I’m not special. At all. People face trouble and adversity and disappointment every day — many to a degree I am likely to never, ever know or comprehend. And I am just one of the human population.

 

No, I’m not special and I can now stop expecting to somehow receive a “Get Out of Life on Planet Earth” card.

 

But, I am deeply, deeply loved by God.

 

A God who willingly choose to come and face adversity and disappointment, sickness, grief, loneliness and death.

 

So when I sat in that sick room and a lump rose in my throat at the pain in my left hand that was swelling and the sharp pinching in my right hand that had a needle protruding from it and I thought of other people that I erroneously think have it all together, an enormous gift of humility was given to me. And rather than balking at it, because it is a hard gift to receive, I took it. And I asked for it to be given again, because I would need it again. And soon.

 

Because guess what? God loved the world so much that He gave His son, who truly was special and truly didn’t deserve to experience adversity. And Jesus came. And He sat with wounded people. And He allowed Himself to be wounded. And He didn’t balk and refuse the humility of his humanness. Sure, He grieved. He asked that if it was possible He not have to face the most immense suffering that ever took place. He asked why He was forsaken. He didn’t deny the pain, He didn’t plow through it conquering it in a way that really wasn’t dealing with it at all. He accepted it and trusted Him who is Faithful. And we know the end of that Story — the Resurrection.

 

So, no, I wasn’t alone. I experienced Christ this summer. I grew up…I grew up into Him.

 

Maybe it wasn’t in a way I would have chosen.

 

But we don’t get to set the terms of our maturity. If we think we do, chances are we are still stuck in immaturity.

 

We are only offered chances to mature. Or not.

 

To work out the Truths He’s put in our mind if we’ve been in His word. Or not.

 

To be thankful for even the “small” details. Or not.

 

Finally, the resources provided by the BODY OF CHRIST during our month of sickness literally made it bearable.

 

We are so individualistic in America.

 

How beautifully humble to learn to allow others to help us.

 

Two fellow Christian expats came with me to the ER. I sensed deeply the presence of Christ through the deep care, compassion, empathy and even physical touch of these women as we traipsed all over the hospital. You better believe that was Jesus. And I heard, “This is life. And I love you,” all over those events.

 

No, I don’t want to ever experience those events or anything similar again — and yet, and yet, the sweetness of His presence through them is something I just can’t separate from that night.

 

The meals my fellow Christian expats dropped by for over a week.

 

The loaves of bread baked.

 

The groceries picked up.

 

The bouquet of flowers lovingly handed through the door.

 

That was the Body of Christ.

 

And I, in turn as a part of the Body, as I tossed and turned in pain in bed during the day and failed at sleeping at night prayed for the health care workers fighting, at those exact moments, for their lives from Ebola in Africa, interceded for those they had been working so hard to help — the communities trapped in misunderstanding and misbelief and surrounded by ill health care, grieved for those Christians suffering in Iraq, cried for Christ’s mercy on family and friends that I knew desperately needed it.

 

I won’t elect to go through any pain again. I’m a wimp.

 

Good thing it’s not up to me to choose the ways in which I might be sanctified  — those ways are elected by Him. And He meets me all along the way. I am never truly alone. But I must be willing to look and find Him and His mercies, even in the most humbling ways.

 

I am so thankful that our family is, for the present healthy and whole – recognition of the good and a thankful heart makes you treasure the good stuff and takes the power out of the frustrating stuff. And God allows seasons of ease as well as seasons of adversity.

 

I still choose wisdom in how I live my life. I choose carefully what I invest my energy and time in. It’s part of good stewardship and faithfulness to do so.

 

And when things I would never choose come speeding at my soul — well, Christ is the ultimate Steward of that which has been entrusted to Him – my soul. And yours, too.

The Dreams He Dreams For Me

I had always wanted to serve God overseas.  Having been raised part of my childhood on the mission field with the Great Commission as the first and greatest act of obedience; I knew that my path was overseas service.  In my teen years I seized opportunities to do short-term service locally and globally, taking various trips in America, Africa and Central America.   These trips only confirmed the calling I felt in my heart.

I went to a Christian college where I could get a Biblical education, grow in my faith and be prepared to serve the Lord overseas.  I majored in education with the goal of teaching overseas either in a national school or missionary kids’ school.  I was determined to follow the “highest” and “holiest” calling on a Christian’s life, to show my utmost commitment to Christ, by going to the ends of the earth.

I struggled greatly with knowing whether or not to marry the man I was dating at the end of my college years.  While he was completely open to the field, he did not necessarily feel “called” there.  After much prayer, a lot of talks, and a lot of advice from those I respected, we married.  Before our first year of marriage was celebrated we signed on as teachers at a brand new Christian international school in the heart of eastern Asia.  We would have a two-fold focus: our international students (many of whom came from non-churched backgrounds) and also relationship building with our fellow national staff.  I can remember the anxiety I felt while we waited to hear the final word on our acceptance and all of the visa issues…  I was so afraid of staying home and shirking the call of God to bring the gospel to the world. The thought of not going overseas strangled me.

We graduated and two months later found ourselves in the middle of a city of 14 million people in what many nationals call “the furnace of the country”.  And so our journey of overseas service, of a life-long dream began.  Almost exactly six years later tears would stream down my face as I watched this city fade below me, wondering why I had failed at something I thought God had wanted and certainly something I had wanted for Him.

From the first day in our city very few things turned out in the manner I had envisioned or expected.  While my husband, who had never been out of the States and had never taught in a classroom, thrived at teaching and discovered it to be his calling and loved life in our new home, I found myself increasingly struggling.

A very small team, made up entirely of people in other stages of life (singles or older families), created circumstances in which I often felt alone and unsupported.  Although I had by that point in my life been to over ten countries, I struggled immensely to adjust to the culture – one I found much harder to navigate and one I found less warm and welcoming than most I had encountered.  (If you know your eastern Asian history from the last century, you will have immense understanding and compassion on many cultural habits we in the west deem “cold”.)  Despite my desire to understand the differences, I found myself often frustrated and overwhelmed.  My theology hit a brick wall as I considered what it meant living in a city where less than 10% of the population had even heard the name, “Jesus”.  Most of my other teammates appeared to love their lives and my husband was thriving, and I chalked my experience up to my immaturity.  I pushed through my first and second years.

By the end of my second year I became even more isolated from my team as I gave birth to our first son and was no longer able to be involved in the international school setting.  The loneliness and isolation continued to build each year as our team grew in small increments (mostly young singles — leaving me the only stay-at-home mother on our team until the last two years), but I continued to push through each year, determined to not give up, to be faithful, despite the loneliness.

By the time our second son celebrated his first birthday, I could tell I was wearing out.  Our team had suffered a severe division the previous year, culminating in a family being asked to leave.  I had also watched different international workers in other organizations battle each other.  I had often found myself the soundboard for people who needed to be heard in their confusion, so I often heard both sides of many stories.  I also had watched people rage, weep, and/or blame others for their experiences.  I watched those in leadership struggle with doing the right thing, while sparing as many feelings as possible.  I learned that rarely in life is there 100% a victim and 100% a villain – we are wounded, complicated people who make enormous messes of our own lives and others’ and usually fail to be completely honest with ourselves.  I was worn out and disillusioned from within and I was worn out and disillusioned from without.  I was not the person I had envisioned I would be.  Christian community was not what I had envisioned it would be.  God was not who I had envisioned He would be.

I sought some wisdom from a family friend who also happened to be the head of counseling for a well-known mission organization.  I was looking to renew my energy and keep pushing through.  To my utter shock, he informed me that I had given everything I could; that the circumstances were not going to change (I’d waited almost six years), and that it was time to come home and refresh.  “Well done, good and faithful servant; but you are DONE,” were his words of encouragement and urgency.  I openly wept with mixed feelings of relief and of confusion, of joy and of grief.  My dream for God was going to die – and it needed to.  Would I ever dream again?  Did this mean I was not equipped to serve overseas?

We finished our last year there, all the while I felt in a great sense that I had failed.  I had given all I had, but I couldn’t keep going.  I returned burnt out and disillusioned, in many ways feeling I had nothing but ashes for my years of hard work and determination.

We moved to a seminary campus where, for the first time, I was surrounded by lots of young moms and the truth of just how hard that time in life can be was enormously freeing.  I realized how isolating young motherhood naturally is, even more so in extreme circumstances like the one I was in in Asia.  I found resources at every turn for anything I needed on the campus and at our new local church.  I experienced autumn for the first time in seven years.  And I simultaneously grieved the loss of a dream and of an image of God I had built my life around, all while seeking to build again — hopefully this time not a dream, but the Truth of the Lord – tried and true.  I eventually began to come to terms with my time overseas and experienced enormous healing and perspective on life, on human nature, on the Holy One.  Lots of questions and wounds remain, but I have grown up more than I can express.

My husband and I have begun the process to return to the country we served in and continue working with international school students — a ministry very close to both our hearts and one that brings us immense joy.  This time we are seeking a different city and community, one in which we are certain I can thrive in as well.  We have closed doors there that we know wisdom dictates we should not open at this time.  But we are not obsessed with whether or not this opportunity will work out or if we will continue to live Stateside and find ways to serve the Lord here.  I no longer envision God’s will as a tiny spec, nor anything I undertake as a favor to Him.  To combine what a wise mentor and my father (one of the greatest teachers of my life) said, “Read the words of Jesus.  I cannot recall a time He talks about success; but He does talk about faithfulness — faithfulness in your day-to-day life, in your relationship to Him, to others.  The geographical setting you do this in is secondary.”  I say, dream for God, strive to do what you feel called and pulled towards — but any cause can fade and you can build your life on something, even for God, that turns to sand.  Build your life on Him.  Don’t be surprised by pain or disappointment – we live on planet Earth.  And when confusion and pain come, as they surely will, cling to Him.  He is the One who holds all together – including you.  Abide in Him, trust in Him, and He will be faithful in any season, even when you can’t see it and even when your visions turn out different than you imagined.

Why do you complain, Jacob?

Why do you say, Israel,

“My way is hidden from the Lord;

my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Do you not know?

Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

– Isaiah 40: 27-31

Below you will find a link to a song that sums much of this up.  I have a feeling you have also, in your own life, walked this journey of grief and growth.  Take a minute to listen.

There is only one other place my heart has burned to see in my entire living memory more than Rome: the British Isles.  I cannot recall a time I have not been enthralled by Britain and all things British.  I’m not sure if it comes down to all the stories I’ve imagined myself in throughout my early childhood.  I’m not sure if it’s our two British neighbors in New Guinea.  I do know the desire has only burned all the fiercer as I’ve grown older and further studied history and literature.  Something draws me there with an irresistible force. . .  One day!

But, this is about Rome.

There are two places I’ve always thought I couldn’t bear to die without seeing:  the British Isles and Rome.  I recall one of the conversations Aaron and I had about this.  It stands out in my mind because it was one of the first times I got this suspicious feeling that he was in love with me and that I might have just met my polar opposite.  We were sitting at the back table in the cafeteria in college.  He was leaning back in his chair, grinning from ear to ear.

“Isn’t there just one thing you HAVE to do before you die?” I pushed.

“Nope.”  Smug grin.

“Be something?  Do something?  Go somewhere?  Meet someone?”

“Nope.”  Same grin.

“Really?  There is nothing you feel you have to do before you die?  No force or passion that drives you?”

Shrug.

“Like, for me, I have to go to the British Isles and explore them.  And I HAVE to get to Rome.”

At this point he broke out in a big grin and shook his head a little and kept looking right in my eyes.

“How can you live like that?!  Without some burning passion or desire?!” I posed.

He laughed.

My fascination with Rome springs from my love for history and stories; and Rome is the mother of Western civilization.  (I’ll give Greece the father-figure here.)

I had seen Rome one other time before this, from the comfort of a window-seat on an airplane from Nairobi to Brussels.  The captain came on the loud speaker and announced that right below us shone the lights of Rome.  Naturally, being the dramatic, impulsive person I am, I craned my neck to look down.  It was beautiful.  The sun was setting and had left a golden brown line on the horizon.  The stars were peeking through.  And down below I could see lights scattered along a dim coastline.    It was one of those moments that seem frozen in time.

Well, cut forward 11 years and Aaron and I are in Rome together, with two children.  We stayed at a campsite about fifteen minutes from the Vatican.  Camping Roma, it is called.  Unfortunately I cannot recommend it for families.  The two pools were five feet deep each, with no shallow end.  The noise curfew was not enforced.  They had no mini-fridges in the rooms.  It was advertised as being conveniently located to Rome.  If you find a bus that may or may not come once an hour and drops you off a five minute walk away from the metro, on a different road from the metro, convenient; then yes, the campsite is conveniently located.  If you find a shuttle bus that drops you off a five minute walk from the Vatican, with a driver who points and shrugs in a general direction convenient, then yes, its location is manageable.  If you find one person at the help desk for 20 people waiting in line convenient, then yes…  The one good thing about the campground?  The restaurant was delicious.  We had some of the best Italian food there.

The first day we went to the Colosseum.  We decided to go ahead and pay to go inside.  I’m just that intense.  The thought of going all the way to Rome without going into the Colosseum just didn’t seem right.  So, in we went.   We had bought tickets ahead of time and went straight to the front of the line.  One great thing about the tourists spots in Italy: The all held true to their word.  If you bought a ticket ahead of time to skip the long lines, you did indeed skip the long lines, as long as you came at your assigned time.

Ethan has a blast crawling all over the fallen columns and blocks.

If you notice a pattern in our Italy pictures it is this: Peter is eating in every single one.  We found this keeps him happy.  He’s a lot like his mother. . .

We enjoyed wandering around the Colosseum.  Ethan kept asking where the lions were.  (I had told him about how people used to fight lions in the Colosseum.)  He was very disappointed when we explained they no longer housed lions there (although cats have free reign!)  To his delight, he did find a lion, though.  And as it seemed good enough for him, we shared his excitement.

 

Ethan finds his lion on an original mosaic

 

 

There are a lot of nice views from the Colosseum of the city.

The Forum and Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument

One thing I began to notice about Rome right away: there were people everywhere.  Even worse (to me) there were tourists everywhere – in large groups, waving flags, with their leader shouting information.

The following days in Rome would confirm in me something my current home (Wuhan) had taught me: I am not a city girl.  It doesn’t matter which city, I do not enjoy it for long.  Between the people, the cars, and the endless winding streets, cities exhaust and flat out depress me.  There are some European towns which I have found peaceful and sweet, particularly in Germany.  But then, this is another thing I discovered about myself after our trip: I prefer Germany to Italy, or at least what I’ve experienced in Germany I enjoyed more, for the most part, than what I experienced of Italy.

After being overwhelmed and inspired by the Colosseum (inspired to reflect on mortality, history, and the ages), we crossed the street to the Roman Forum.

One thing I absolutely adored about the Forum was the floral wildlife that thrived amongst the ruins.

Another thing about Rome that I discovered was how overwhelming it is.  There is so much to see, so much to learn, to experience.  It is impossible to experience it in one trip.  I think this frustrated me.  I had planned four days to “experience Rome” and from day one at the Forum you realize Rome has a never-ending story.  There were archeological digs taking place in the Forum and I caught myself in my ignorance.  I thought they knew all there was to know about the Forum!  They’re still discovering?!  This is Rome.  Under everything that meets the eye, above ground, are five stories of 2,500+ years of history, each layer older and more fragile than the next.

I talked with a friend of ours from college who grew up outside of Rome.  I commented how I didn’t care for the Roman transportation system, how so many people had said it was so easy, but how we, especially with two children, had found it frustrating.  He laughed.  “Yeah, it’s crazy.  It takes half an hour to travel the smallest distance.  The problem, of course, is that they cannot build anymore subways.  Every time they try to start another line, the run into some ruins somewhere and cannot continue building.”

I think Rome put me in my place.  It gave me a nice taste of how big and how old the world is.  You cannot have a checklist and check Rome off; there is too much there, too many stories, too many alleys, and way too many people.   I found it frustrating, to some degree.  I told Aaron as we stood at the Forum, “I think the only way I’d ever come to love Rome is if I lived here and was studying Rome for a good six months…time enough to get to know her and respect her.  I feel like this is just a fast glance.”

Wandering around the Forum was very neat, though.  We found some beautiful ruins, met a newly married couple on their honeymoon, and let Ethan crawl on 2,000 year old blocks.  It was strange to imagine it as it once would have been…strange and distant, yet fascinating.  To think of all the feet that would have tread those paths, the lives, the hopes and fears, the stories of all the people.  To think they would have seen the Colosseum towering over them as they shopped and worshiped.  To think they asked the same questions we ask today.  To hear a thousand voices in the silence of the monuments.  I would have loved to have the money and time to have a personal tour to explain each thing.  As we left I glanced down to my right and saw an excavation under way.  It was a bit bittersweet.  I had wanted in my childhood and teenage years to be an archeologist, but became convinced the amount of work and the hours of study, without people, would have turned me away in the end.   Instead I decided to get a degree in teaching history.  I peered down and thought, “It must be so nice, the dirt, the smells, the discoveries, the feel of the cold, ancient objects….”  Then I laughed, and thought, “If I were down there now, single, working in the dirt day after day, I would be wishing I were up here, married with two kids.”   The grass is always greener…

We were hot and starving by this point and out of chocolate biscuits.  And this is where Rome got frustrating.  We were down in a big hole, seemingly.  Where were we supposed to go to get food?  Anywhere to eat would be a five minute walk uphill, and then where to? We were all tired and thirsty.  We turned around in a circle, slowly taking a panoramic view.  Which direction should we head?!  We eventually decided to just board the metro and eat at the McDonalds at our metro stop.  Due to a class of middle school students whose teacher kept letting them butt in front of her, one at a time for ten minutes, to order food, we skipped McDonalds and headed back to our campground and had lunch there.  I don’t remember what I ate; I just remember it was Italian and it was heaven.  That afternoon we decided to rest as we had been traveling for almost a week non-stop.

Italy: Florence – A Day From Hail

Firenze (Florence) is often considered one of the best cities in all of Europe.  However, most of what I could find to do there involved art and history tours.  It all sounded absolutely wonderful to me, except for the fact that I have two small children who would last one tour (if we were lucky).  So, I decided we would have to give Florence an unfair chance with us by making her a stop-over on our way from Pisa to Rome. We had about eight hours there.  Unfortunately, the weather decided to give Firenze an even worse chance of making it into our hearts.  We had managed to avoid most of the rain that seemed to be following us for the last three days of our Italian tour.  Today, however, it would finally have victory over us.

We left early in the morning from Pisa on the hourly train to Florence.  Once in Florence we checked in our backpacks, had an early lunch at McDonalds at the train station, and then purchased a tourist map because we needed to book it to the Uffizi.  The Uffizi Gallery is “one of the oldest and most famous art museums of the world,” according to Wikipedia.  And we all know Wikipedia is never wrong. . .  Seriously, though, it holds some of the Western world’s most famous pieces, including pieces by da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Botticelli, and Raphael.  At the time we were there they also had an exhibit dedicated solely to Caravaggio.  We had pre-purchased tickets to the Uffizi Gallery and had to check in by 12:45.  The pre-purchased tickets were meant to allow us to get into the Gallery without having to stand in what is almost always known to be an extremely long line.  If we missed our check-in time, we would have to go to the back of the line.  We knew we had a small window of viewing opportunity with two children three and under.  If we had to wait in line an hour and a half, the kids’ ability to sit in their strollers and snack quietly would be utilized to the max and our time in the actual gallery would most likely be a quick and stressful one.  So, we bought a map and began our stride to the gallery.

Immediately upon stepping outside we saw a gray, almost green sky stretching from horizon to horizon.  A wild wind picked up and starting blowing, intermediately, in opposite directions.  My hair was whirling around my face and I had to grasp the map as hard as a could.  Aaron and I, pushing the strollers, looked at each other.  The mother-load was coming and we knew it.  I wondered how far the Uffizi was from the station.  Maybe if we walked fast enough we could avoid our coming doom.  We had walked maybe 50 meters when the sky unleashed not rain, but hail, quarter-sized balls of hail.  We were in the middle of a piazza with nowhere to hide.  We ran under the closest thing we could find, which was a gate to a church garden.  Aaron stood over Peter’s stroller, and opened the umbrella, trying to create some sort of shield from what was now a nasty mix of strong winds, hard rain, and hail.  I crouched down beside Ethan in his stroller and attempted to create a shield as well.  My shoes and pants were soaked through within the first three or four minutes.  The gateway, of course, provided no protection at all, as the wind simply blew the rain and hail into us.  I frantically looked everywhere for some sort of store or restaurant nearby and finally my eyes fell on a Currency Exchange Booth.  I shouted to Aaron (at this point it was difficult to hear anything, even Peter’s cries of fright) and pointed at the booth.  I took Ethan and ran over first.  There was barely enough room for Ethan and I.  There was an Italian man standing looking out at the storm and the exchange lady behind the glass window.  At first she looked frustrated at me and my limp umbrella (Aaron’s was, at this point, actually broken, the wires bent and broken by the wind).  When she saw Ethan though, compassion came into her eyes and by the time Aaron and Peter squeezed into the booth, she had opened the side door and handed us a roll of paper towels.  It was an extremely thoughtful gesture, though by this point all of us were completely soak and wet.  Ethan didn’t seem too shaken up.  Peter seemed a little in shock.  I told Ethan, “It’s not Europe, son, unless you get caught in the rain at least once.”  He responded with somewhat vacant eyes, “Yeah.”  I looked down at my map which now resembled a scrunched, brown paper bag with various holes in it.  It was now 12:15.  I turned, frantically to the man standing beside us and said, “Could you please tell us where the Uffizi is?”  He replied, casually, “Of course!  It is not far!  I am going that way.  Wait a moment until the rain dies down and you can follow me there.”

On the way back to the train station, Aaron snapped a photo of the garden gate we attempted to take shelter under

"The Gate to Hail" is on the left

Fortunately the rain slowed to a piddle in about five more minutes and then we set out after the man.  We almost lost him multiple times on our journey.  He was speed-walking, trying to keep as dry as possible, ducking under the awnings of coffee shops, bakeries, clothing stores and restaurants.  Aaron and I were trying to meander, with two strollers and open, broken umbrellas stretched over our children, through all the other people seeking shelter under these stores.  Eventually we came to a cross roads.  The man pointed, “There, under that archway, turn right in the piazza and the Uffizi will be ahead on your left.”

We had to ask a few people, but eventually we found it.  And, due to the fact it was June and it was raining, the line was, indeed, very long.  I was highly concerned we would not be allowed into the museum considering we all looked like drowned rats, and these paintings are extremely old, priceless works of art.  However, it seemed to be no problem and we entered the gallery in a separate entrance from the large crowds.  My fears of our dampness being an issue would soon be allayed as we saw, everywhere, dehumidifiers.  By the end of our hour and a half wanders through the museum, we would be completely dry, save our shoes, thanks to all those machines dedicated to persevering the paintings.

My reflections on the paintings come from someone with the basest of eduction in art.  I will simply talk about what I observed.  Most of the paintings were Judeo-Christian in nature, which did not surprise me considering the main time periods the paintings came from.  However, what did surprise me was how few non-Judeo-Christian paintings there were.  (Although. some of the more famous paintings in the gallery are purely pagan, i.e. Botticelli’s, “The Birth of Venus” or Caravaggio’s, “Medusa,” pagan-themed paintings were few and far between.)   Furthermore, not only were most of the paintings Judeo-Christian in nature, most of them gave homage to one person in particular, and that person’s identity is what, well, bothered me.  I won’t say it surprised me, but more on that later.  Mary, mother of Jesus, was the main character in almost every painting.  Some of those paintings featured her son (though a good number did not).  I found very few paintings that featured Jesus without Mary.  If Jesus was in the paintings, he was usually a very fat, white-European baby, or a dying or dead white-European adult.  I came away from these paintings with two realizations in mind.  The first was the massive control the Catholic church had over its’ painters’ art.  The second was how seriously the Papacy took (and still takes) the person of Mary.  I said earlier I was not wholly surprised by this.  I have seen Mary’s place in the Latin Catholic church and attributed it much to the Virgin of Guadalupe incident.  I did not realize how highly she was viewed in the Italian Catholic Church.  After that visit I felt the gulf between my own beliefs and the Catholic church’s continue to widen.  It had already suffered a very large schism earlier in our visit, which I will relate at a later time.

With all that said, I am immensely glad we went.  It was fascinating and a pleasure on so many levels.  I must say, from my extremely un-art-educated view, I was captured most by the exhibition on Caravaggio.  His paintings are known for being violent in nature (which perhaps reflect his life), but the color and play on shadow and light, and the brilliance of the paint were very captivating, as were all the details.  I felt like I could look for two or three hours and still not get everything in.  I feel this way about almost everything in Italy I experienced.

It had stopped raining for most of our stroll in the Uffizi.  Of course, once we left, it returned.  We found the closest restaurant and had an early supper of pizza.  I was wondering if we would be able to at least stroll by the Duomo or if the rain would force us to simply make for the station.

The view from the restaurant

Fortunately, the rain did clear up and we left the restaurant.  I began to ask passersby in Italian where the train station was.  We followed the general direction everyone pointed.  We were pleasantly surprised to stumble on to the Duomo Piazza.  We enjoyed meandering around the piazza and hearing tidbits of all the guided tours that passed by.

A peek at the Duomo between the church and bell tower

To make our day complete we, naturally, had some gelato.  Peter threatened me with grunts quite a few times when I wasn’t shoveling the stuff into his mouth fast enough.  After our stroll and gelato we tiredly headed for the station where we boarded our train on to Rome.

One of my favorite moments in Florence had to be when, sitting in the Uffizi hallway, we glanced out of the windows which looked over the river and the famous bridges.  The image of the colors of the paint on the houses and bridges mixed with the falling rain was very beautiful, indeed.  I don’t regret our short time in Firenze, nor do I wish we had extended it.  I knew our time was limited and wanted to devote more time to Rome.  I’m not saying I’d never return, if given the chance.  After all, we didn’t  tour the Academia.   And I’ve heard from more than one person Firenze is always better the second time around. . .

Italy: Pisa

Early Wednesday morning we boarded a train for Pisa via Florence.  I’m trying to recall what the train ride was like for our family of four.  Ah, suddenly the memory surfaces.  People were on and off the train, as we had a few stops between Venice and Florence.  One particular time a middle-aged woman sat across from me and Peter.  Peter took the liberty to repeatedly crumple up the newspaper the lady was reading.  This was one of the many instances that we found what we had heard about Italians and children to be true: they love children.  The lady laughed and eventually gave him the paper.  Later on an elderly woman sat beside us and she petted his arm and gently talked to him.  Peter definitely enjoyed all the attention.  Ethan was happy playing games on Aaron’s iTouch for a portion of the ride.  Once in Florence we hurriedly took a bathroom break that involved a spanking and a loss of a shoe (Peter and I were uninvolved in the incident, we just sat outside and listened) and then ran to the hourly train to Pisa.  This train was a few grades below the train we had come on from Venice, but it was still nice.  Interestingly enough we sat across from a Chinese couple who must have been raised in Canada or the States.  They clearly had North American accents; however, they switched back and forth between Mandarin and English.  Aaron would later laugh at my confession of how difficult it was for me to not let them know we understood what they were saying.  They mostly talked about Peter and Ethan.

Once we arrived in Pisa we had to figure out whether or not we needed a bus ticket to board the bus to take us to our campsite.  I used the few words I knew in Italian to communicate with two elderly ladies.  “Mi scuzi….bigletti?”  They tried to explain in Italian what I needed to do; but, they could tell I was lost.  Eventually one of them said, “NO!  Money!”  Then she took my arm and had me stand by her so that I understood she would be taking care of me now.  Once we boarded the correct bus (sans ticket, you buy the ticket on board), she kept an eye on us until she got off, at which point she pointed ahead and said, “ONE!”  At the next stop we arrived at Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Leaning Tower, well, leans.  By this time everyone on the bus was concerned that we find our way and everyone together told us we should disembark.  I think they must have taken pity on two 20-somethings with enormous backpacks, lugging around two small kids in strollers.

We didn’t want to try to see the Piazza yet, though, as we still had all our “dongxi”.  (Dongxi is the Mandarin word for “stuff”.  It literally means “east west”.  So, it means everything from the east to the west.  Great word.)  So, we began our hunt for our campsite.  It ended up being about a 7 to 10 minute stroll from the Piazza.  Seven minutes without dongxi, ten minutes with all the dongxi.  We checked into our campsite which had the friendliest reception out of all the campsites we stayed in.  I am now going to take a discourse from the Pisa summary to talk about the campsite we stayed at because we really loved it; it was the best campsite BY FAR.  http://www.campingtorrependente.it/ Torre Pendente has beautiful grounds, friendly reception, a pool with two shallow spots for kids and a slide, a restaurant/bar that is open almost all day, an excellent small grocery stand, and their bungalows were the nicest by far that we stayed in.  It was perfect for our family.  And, it was very close to the center of Pisa.

Once we saw the slide Ethan decided he knew what he wanted to do next.  I told him we would eat lunch, swim, and then go see the Leaning Tower.  We put our stuff in our bungalow and headed back to eat lunch.  All the while I noticed lots of rain clouds swiftly gliding into the area.  This made me worry.  We had planned to be in Pisa on this day on purpose.  Every June 17th the citizens of Pisa celebrate the festival of St. Raineri.  Now, I’m going to admit my ignorance and say I have no idea what this “saint” did for the town of Pisa.  If you know anything about Italy, you know every town has, at the very least, one saint.   At the festival they have a race down the river in old style boats and I think they do some other stuff too.  But I didn’t care about boat races.  I live in China.  What we were interested in was the night before.  You see, on June 16th, the citizens spend all day preparing for a candle-lit evening.  All along the river and along the four and five hundred year old houses on the river, the citizens scatter over 700,000 candles.  And once it gets dark, (which by the way in Italy is like 10PM) they turn off all electrical lighting.  We had planned most of our traveling around this event; and, here it was clouding up.  If it rained, the candle-lit festival would be canceled.  =(

I walked down to ask about the forecast and was told rain was expected all afternoon and evening and that if this did happen, there would be no candles.  So, after some thought we decided we’d better switch our plans up.  I told Ethan we would go look at the Leaning Tower and then go swimming.  He, thankfully, agreed without incident.  We wanted to make sure to get to at least see the Tower if it was going to rain all night.  So, out we went.

Now, I can recall very clearly sitting in Mr. Fumo’s class in 10th grade World History staring at a picture of the Leaning Tower and thinking, “One day….one day….in my dreams…”  It was a very strange feeling to finally see something you’ve daydreamed about seeing for over 12 years.  It’s all so surreal.  And it was especially surreal because of how seriously it leans!

Notice the storm clouds gathering

Peter thought napping was a better use of his time

"PIGEONS!"

"Feed the birds..." Or, harass them

Ethan in Crisis Management Mode

Following the above picture and caption I will now relay how my three-year old responded to seeing a leaning tower.

Panic rising in his throat, “NO!  NO!  It’s gonna fall over!!!’

Parents laugh and respond, “No, it won’t.”

Hysteric sobs begin choking his words, “Yes, yes it will!  It will fall over and break into pieces!!!”

Parents laughing, “No!  It won’t!  It’s okay!”

A jealous wish, or legitimate concern voiced, “It WILL fall over and hurt Peter.”

After wandering around and snapping photos, we decided to get some gelato.  At this point Peter woke up and decided something was going on that was worthy of his consciousness.  The boys discovered a fountain and had fun getting their hands and arms wet.

If he liked this, what would he think of Rome?

Happy and full after gelato

We headed back to the campsite and went swimming.  Ethan loved the slide so much he had diarrhea in his bathing suit and Peter enjoyed watching Ethan so much he pooped in his swimmer.  Fun clean up time in the bungalow for us.

After showering and detoxing, we noticed blue sky peeking through and decided to head back over to the Piazza to eat dinner.  We ate at a little Italian place right by the wall surrounding the piazza.  It was our first authentic Italian restaurant in Italy (we had been buying groceries).  I ordered lasagna and Aaron ordered some cream based pasta.  Mine was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten.  It tasted like tomato paste and vinegar and I worried that maybe I wouldn’t like authentic Italian food after all (although Amanda’s Italian home cooking had been AWESOME).    My fears would later subside after eating in Rome.

With a blue sky behind it, the Tower is stunning.

We walked through the town towards the river.  I took the time to buy a shot of lemoncello and a bag full of licorice and gummies.  We strolled along the riverside and eventually climbed up onto the walls along the river to await nightfall.  Everywhere cherry-pickers were being used to help firefighters finish arranging the candles.  We enjoyed sitting and relaxing.

Finally night set in.  It was hard to take clear pictures.  It doesn’t help that the focus on our camera is somewhat broken.

Out of everywhere we went in Italy, Pisa was my favorite “tourist” place.  It is still small enough to be charming.  It is green and surrounded by fields and mountains.  People there are friendly.  It matches what I envisioned of Italy.  People often say, “Eh, Pisa, just the Tower…don’t bother…”  I’d have to say I disagree.  I loved it.  But then again, the light festival made it all pretty magical.

Next up: a day from hail in Florence.

Yes, I wrote hail on purpose.

Italy: Venice

On Monday morning we got up early and Amanda drove us to the “local” train station (about forty minutes from her home).  From there we caught a train to the Rome metro, metro to Roma Termini station, ate breakfast off of the Euro Value menu at McDonald’s, and boarded our train to Venice.

We took the “fast” train, which lasted just over four hours.  There is a slow train which takes six hours; but, seeing as how we had two kids three years and under and seeing as how they would be riding the train for free (on our laps) we opted for the fast train.

This train ride would prove to be one of the easiest on our family.  The boys went to sleep shortly after we boarded and slept for most of the journey.  Ethan was on my lap and I have to say you really get a sense for how large your children are when they are basically dead weight, spread out all over you.  My legs began to go numb after a while.  Still, it was nice to have them both asleep, as I sat staring out of the window watching the Italian countryside of Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Veneto pass by the window.  I was eager to see for myself the countryside which seems to capture so many people’s hearts the world over.  It was, indeed, beautiful.  Small, scattered red and orange towns (some guarded by long-ago abandoned, crumbling castles) dotted the rolling green hills, which were covered in vineyards and trees.  Wildflowers were everywhere, sprinkling shades of yellow, purple and red throughout the fields.  The sky was a brilliant blue (something we are not used to here in Wuhan)…so blue I realized how little I looked at the sky at home in China.

We pulled into the Florence train station, and as we did, I saw the towering Duomo, proudly rising over the rest of the city.  I smiled knowing we would be back in a few days for a closer inspection….if only I’d known how the weather would treat us that day…but, more on that later.

We eventually reached the stretch of ocean separating the Italian mainland from the Venetian islands, and we all sat, staring out the window in anticipation.  We pulled into the station and after purchasing more train tickets for some other journeys, proceeded outside to be greeted by Venice.  It was grand right away, with a large church (albeit covered in scaffolding, which we found common throughout all of Italy) rising across us on the other side of the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal; the train station is out of the picture on the left.

We proceeded up the large bridge and down it and began asking for Piazza Roma, where our shuttle bus to our campsite awaited us.

I must say strollers proved to be very interesting in Venice.  I think if we did not live on the sixth floor of an apartment building with no elevator the constant carrying of strollers up and down the endless number of bridges in Venice might have done us in.

We eventually made it to the campsite and settled in by about four o’clock; and, although initially we had not planned to go into Venice until the next day, my excitement proved too great and we headed into the city via shuttle bus for dinner.  We did let the boys have a quick swim in the pool before we headed into the city.  We found a pizzeria not far from the train station and it proved to be some of the best pizza we would have in Italy.  It was here that Peter’s obsession with pigeons began.  As they bobbed and flew around us, Peter would grunt, growl and scream at them (all in delight, of course).  He was very happy to discover that Italy is abounding in these birds.  Pigeons proved to be one of both Peter and Ethan’s favorite things about Italy.

Eating Pizza and Yelling at Pigeons: Enjoying the small things of Italy

After dinner we decided to do the “romantic” thing and get lost in Venice.  Well, me, in my total ignorance, thought, “We’ll just walk a complete circle around the island.  How hard can that be?  It’s a small collection of islands….”

So, after walking for an hour (this includes frequent stops for pictures), I figured we should be near the piazza where our shuttle bus would pick us up.  I was a little confused when I saw a large sign for the piazza with an arrow pointing in the direction we had just come.  Surely there was some misunderstanding.  Aaron laughed and said, “Just a small little circle, huh?!”  So, I did what any woman does, I went into the “Hello Kitty” store to ask for directions.  Immediately I thought I recognized what country the salesmen might come from and after asking him if he spoke Chinese, began a conversation in the middle of Venice in Mandarin Chinese.  He pointed back in the direction we had come from (much to my embarrassment) and after thanking him, I headed back out the door to find a group of Chinese girls fawning over my two sons.  They were extremely delighted to find we spoke Chinese and after getting the obligatory photo with my sons, we parted ways.  The setting sun set many of the buildings aglow as we made our way back to where we started.

Dusk

I had heard that gondola rides were ridiculously priced, but I thought I’d ask anyway.  The starting price was, as foretold, 80 Euros.  Once twilight set in, the price went up to 100 Euros.  Aaron laughed out loud at the price.  Instead of the ride (which I’m not sure I could have justified regardless of if we had the money or not), Aaron took a picture with the boys watching gondolas gliding by.

Waiting for the gondolas to float by

Once we got back to the campsite we had a pretty good night of rest.

The following morning we headed into town on the first shuttle bus.   The only itinerary we had was to ride the main public boat down the Grand Canal.  I did the touristy thing and had listened to Rick Steve’s tour the night before, so while we rode the boat, I pointed out a few things and Aaron snapped some photos.  The boat ride was fairly exciting for Ethan, but some crackers and pretzels helped make it even more so.  Aaron and I found on this trip just how important food is for entertaining kids…kind of like playing with fire though….in more ways than one.  Peter decided it was all overrated, and decided a snooze in my arms would be much more worth his time.  Below are some pics from the Grand Canal.  Venice was at one time a hub-bub of trade between the known eastern world and the Catholic-run, I MEAN, western world.  (More on some of my thoughts on the Catholic church in a later blog).  Since so much trade went on in this city, the city had moolah – lots of it…so much it poured into the canals…well, maybe not, I dunno. But seriously, the Venetians liked their palaces.  And the best place to build your palace to show it off to everyone was the grand canal…kind of like Big A in Toccoa, or 74 in Monroe and Charlotte, or Highway 1 in Colombia…  Seriously, though, if you wanted everyone to google your palace (physically then, technically now), you built it on the Grand Canal.  Well, seeing as how water levels like to rise over time (thanks to polar bears using hair dryers in the Arctic circle) many of these palaces are flooded at the first level.  Thankfully the local and national government have passed laws to protect these enormous houses from those who would make off with all the goods (like for instance, the original crystal chandeliers that still hang from the ceilings).  However, these homes require so much money in repair and upkeep that many have been abandoned over they years and they stand (or sink, I guess), slowly becoming somewhat of an all natural museum.  Speaking of which, the Venetian government is extremely concerned that within the next fifty years Venice will itself be basically a museum.  Something like 1,000 locals move off the island every year because the cost of living is just too high.  Too many wealthy foreigners move in and push prices sky high with their “high living”.  Sad, huh?  And most of these foreigners don’t even live there year round, they just have more of a “vacation” home.

A Venetian Palace; notice the flooded first floor

The main crossing on the Grand Canal; cross it here for .5 E

Making our way down the Grand Canal

Ah, Venice

We strolled by and snapped photos of the famous spots of St. Mark’s Square: the bridge of Sighs, the Dodge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, etc.  We then enjoyed taking our time winding our way through the city, finding Chinese people to surprise with our Putonghua, and snapping photos of little water alleys.  We lunched at McDonalds (which had no Euro Value meal…)  Then we crossed the Grand Canal to the large market on a little traghetto (looks like a gondola, but is for public transportation).  The moment we touched down at the market the skies unleashed rain and we found shelter in a lovely smelling seafood market.  After sheltering there for a while, we hopped, skipped, ran and skidded through the allies of Venice trying to shelter the kids from the rain and make it back to our shuttle on time.  Ah, rain in Europe….

Once back we rested the remainder of the evening and packed up our things for the next leg of our journey: Pisa.

I will say one major disappointment I had with Venice: never being able to find the church that Indiana Jones punched a hole through the floor of to find the catacombs where the 2nd marker lay in the Knights’ tomb to find the Holy Grail.  There go my childhood dreams….

Well, I sit here staring out of our friend’s window in her home in Monterosi, Italy.  The sky is a peaceful blue and the jasmine flowers lining the fence on the left are starting to droop, but still release their dreamlike smell.  The wild weeds are flourishing in the garden.  Ethan sits on a red carpet on the floor playing some mixed game of puzzles, dice, and “fighting”.  Peter and Aaron are asleep in bed.  I am trying to collect my thoughts over the last two weeks.

Italy…a country that is famous for innumerable things: wine, cheese, music, art, history, nature…  Most people have an image in their mind when they hear the word “Italy”.  I can recall very clearly sitting with my future-husband (though I had no clue at the time we would every marry, let alone “fall in love”) having one of our first conversations in which I sat bewildered.  “Isn’t there anything you want to do before you die?!” I asked him, “Anything you just can’t imagine not doing before you die?”  He shrugged, lifted his eyebrows and shook his head.  “Like, you know, dive off a cliff, or-or-here’s one I have: go to Rome…  I simply must go to Rome before I die.”  He smiled gently, laughingly, and shook his head again.  I looked at him bewildered.

I have always wanted to see Italy.  The hills, vineyards and cities I have read so much about; seen so much in movies.  As a history education major I have wanted for years to walk inside the Colosseum, get lost in the Forum, feel the saddened, stilled silence of Pompeii.

An Introduction to a Small Italian Town and Lazio’s Countryside

Our first few days in Italy were spent with a college friend in her home in Monterosi, Italy, a small town nestled in hills covered in wheat fields, scattered with olive groves, and sprinkled with poppy flowers.  Amanda took us to the local bakery (which Aaron and I would find was unmatchable anywhere else we went in its richness and quality).  We sat by a fountain across from the local church from the 1500s and enjoyed our goodies.  The sun was bright and teetered between overbearing and just-right in its warmth and light.  Later that day Amanda took us to Lake Bracciano, a volcanic crater turned long ago, by mother nature, to a lake.  The peaks encircling the lake form a green crown, with its centerpiece jewel being a medieval castle that proudly sits atop one of the highest peaks, looming over the glimmering lake.  The shore is littered with black glittering sand and scattered small red porous rocks, evidence of  what lies beneath the ice-cold water.

Chilly Volcano Water

Despite the temperature, Ethan was excited to swim.  He worked very hard to get me in the water, but his father would not be moved.  Amanda joined Ethan and I, and Peter eventually did too once a little floaty boat was lent to us from the owner of the chairs and umbrella we were renting.  Peter eventually splashed his hands in the cold water long enough that he decided he wanted to try and dive head-first into the water, and tried to do so for a very long time before my arms felt akin to jelly and we all went back onto shore to shiver dry as a cool breeze blew past us.  Amanda, Ethan and I headed across the street for gelato, bringing some back for Aaron and Peter.  It was love at first bite for Peter; and, from that moment on, anytime we stopped for gelato, Peter’s invisible gelato radar would go off. Whether he was fast asleep or distracted by the pigeons that he found so exciting, he would immediately scream in panic, lest he be forgotten by us and not get his share in the creamy, cold goodness of that Italian treat.

Peter and Gelato

That night Amanda and I stayed up late into the night talking, reliving and sharing some painful, some laughable moments from our college days. I miss this in China.

The following day Amanda took us to a local ancient city by the name of Viterbo.

Amanda getting directions for the art exhibition

There we went to a local Italian Christian artist’s display.  The theme was lions, lambs and hands with accompanying Bible verses.  Though I am very ignorant of art in every way, the combination of golden light and brown shadows in all his displayed painting were captivating and a peace and warmth seemed to radiate from the enormous canvases.  You can check out his paintings at http://www.bernardinobalzi.it

Later on the way home, Amanda took us to local Roman baths.  We sat under olive trees at dusk enjoying a picnic of bread, prosciutto, cheese, chips, olives and tomatoes.  To the left of us and behind us were Roman ruins, some overtaken by the beautiful and colorful Italian weeds I would see growing wildly in many places throughout the country.  We put our suits on and went down to baths…  There were three pools.  One was the hot bath, its source of heated water a bubbling, boiling, sulfuric spring that was channeled down from a small hill.  Another bath was ice cold and was encircled, much like a large well, by the original Roman ruins.  The ice cold water source was from somewhere near the hot springs.  The third pool was the “kiddy” pool.  Here the hot water and cold water were channeled together and met to create a warm pool, safe for the little ones.  Ethan’s fun consisted in running back and forth between each bath…not staying longer than five minutes in any bath.  Peter just squealed the entire time with excitement in the warm and hot pools (we did not take him into the cold bath).  So far as we could tell we were the only foreigners there and the Italians very much enjoyed watching Ethan and Peter.  Ethan later enjoyed himself while we all changed back into our clothes by chasing a man around the olive grove.  The man was jogging around the entire bath complex, and each time he would come around to the olive grove, Ethan would be waiting for him, he would then run behind the man, giggling and shouting, “Look, he’s running from me!”, until the man would reach the crest of the hill and run down the other side towards the baths.  Never did the man seem to notice Ethan…

On the way back we stopped and got gelato in a small town somewhere in the middle of nowhere…  It was some of the best gelato we were to have.  Of course Peter had to have his share, which he greedily consumed.  Most of our pictures of Peter in Italy consist of him happily stuffing his face.

The following day we attended the local evangelical church here in Monterosi with Amanda.  It is always an experience to hear songs one is familiar with sung with passion and joy in another language.  Every tribe, tongue and nation……

That afternoon Amanda and I went on a very long walk, winding out of town, through the Italian countryside which I found to be breathtaking and dreamlike…almost as if I was staring at a painting.  The rolling wheat covered hills, topped with a lone Italian pine tree, stretching it’s umbrella-like top to the sky…poppies scattered amidst the roadside…and all the colorful, flowering Italian weeds gave me insight into perhaps one of the reasons Italians boast some of the most famous painters in the world.  Talk about inspiration…

Fields of Gold

Then there is the culinary inspiration of Italy, of which Amanda, from Aaron and mine’s perspective, knows very well.  She cooked some amazing dishes for us.  If only the ingredients were available in China, she could teach me!!!!!!

That night Aaron packed up our stuff we would need for our eleven day journey to the more famous cities in our backpacks.  When we would begin to get exhausted on our tour, I would often think back to the the peacefulness and quiet beauty of this area and look forward to our return.