Monday, January 5, 2009


Monday morning we head for Milan, we stick Mark in the trunk for a couple km and drop him off for a day of skiing in the town a few hundred meters down the hill, St. Gervais. He decided not to come with us as there would be no easy way for him to get to Milan-- 5-6 hours by bus or train... too bad! He spends the day on the slopes - (when he wasn't waiting on a typically annoying French line). He also said the Alps are a very different experience from skiing Utah. The snow is too icy for his taste (UT has powder) but it was beautiful and the complex of runs was immense - he compared it to Park City (which might mean something to you skiing readers out there...)

We did get a bit of a late start but it is amazing to see the mountains in the daytime instead of in the pitch dark - they are very imposing and also endless- the clouds sit upon them puffily and the sun is dazzling on the snow. Perhaps one of these behemoths is Mt. Blanc - the highest mountain in France - but I'm not sure! The first half hour or so we spend just gazing in awe out the windows. Then we hit the tunnels. We hate the tunnels - we can't see the mountains when we are underneath them! On the one hand, the tunnels are our friends - can you imagine how long it would take to get there if we actually had to go over these mountains instead of through them? We hated being lost on the way to Geneva and want to make sure we are on the fast roads. We can't afford to get lost since Milan is already reported to be 3 hours away - well, you said you didn't want the scenic route, and you got your wish. The longest tunnel was one of the first, the Mt. Blanc tunnel, which is about 8 miles long - kind of crazy to be travelling under a mountain for that long.

We are on vacation - but it is still on a budget and we are pretty happy as we haven't been spending too much money so far, not a bit of worry in our minds when we saw the tunnel had a toll. No problemo - we'll just get out the change, right? Oh no, not this road! That will be 41.40 euros please, round trip - (plus another 17.70 right before Milan....and again on the way back) The grand total for 6 hours driving, not including our gas at €1.20/L, was 75.80 euros ($113.00!!!!) And we always used to whine about $8 for the Verrazano....

We can see why they charge so much when we see the amount of work that must have gone into tunnelling through all these hills. We must have gone through about 25 more tunnels over the next half hour.... it was a bit frustrating - we wanted to see the mountains and all we saw was tunnel, after tunnel, after tunnel, after tunnel. Whenever we would see the light at the end of the tunnel (I feel like I need to make a joke about this proverbial saying but something amusing escapes me), the kids would start to say: "I see the light, please be the end, I beg there not to be another tunnel, please, please, please be the end, not another tunnel, let there be light, let the tunnels end, we want to see, we want to weave, we want to draw etc... etc... and then, when we came exploding out into the brilliance of light, and our snow blindness faded to reveal, half a mile up, another hole, despair would hit. They would all scream "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" After the 10th or 11th tunnel this became so ridiculous it turned into a game - Soon they started to invoke the magical power of their sing-lings to come cast some spells and take away the tunnels. It took invoking all the grandparents, cousins and ancestors for the magic to finally be powerful enough to cast away the tunnels and let us out into the light. (remind me to tell you all about the sing-lings in some other blog).

Actually it was kind of cool since, each time, it was like an amazing surprise, beautiful mountains in dazzling light exploding all around as we emerged, triumphant, from the tunnel. It made us appreciate the Alps anew again and again and again and again. Also, there was the beauty of northern Italy all around with a little village full of vineyards to look at, often with a castle presiding over it. We love to look at these castles - and there lots of them to look at, from 15th to 19th centuries - it seems like life in a fairy tale, to be driving along and saying - Look kids, another castle! It really makes me want to come back to this area of the country and visit the insides of them.

I am so excited to go to Italy and so grateful it all worked out for us to go - I am a quarter Italian and the story of my Italian ancestry is my personal favorite. It is the story of my father's mother's parents - the Barilles....

OK - so the details are sketchy but it seems that my great grandfather was in Italy in the early part of the 1900's and was part of a movement to overthrow the government - he wanted anarchy - and he was prepared to fight for it. He got caught as part of a group planning to bomb the government buildings and was given a choice, hang or emigrate! Well, he made the choice that kept him alive and ended up in Paterson, New Jersey, where he worked as a loom fixer in the silk mills. Well, he wasn't about to give up his rebel rousing ways and was one of the main organizers of the Great Paterson Silk strikes - some of the beginnings of the strikes that started the union movement in our country. My great grandmother was a weaver in the mills as well. Well, of course, Great Grandpa was blacklisted and forbidden to work in any mill in town. Great-grandma had to weave to feed the family and got paid by the piece. Of course, the bosses would put her onto broken looms. Great Grandpa would break into the mill at night, to fix her loom so she could do her work, at least, until the bosses discovered it was fixed and put her on a different broken one (bastards!) Zander is very interested in this story, and thinks as he also loves weaving - that maybe this skill was passed down as well. Of course, in the end, the unions were formed with my grandparents as part of them. My mother and father were both union members as well (teacher and iron worker) and are now comfortable in their retirement with their union pensions (can you tell I'm pro-union - maybe stay at home moms should unionize....) My Great Grandpa and Great Grandma worked hard all their days and brought all 9 of my Great Grandma's siblings over to America as well. My grandmother, Edna, was one of his daughters and she died before I was born. However, we have always credited her side of the family with our beautiful derrieres - we call it the Barrille butt! Anyway, besides my cute butt, I have always admired the independant, hardworking streak - the willingness to take action for what you truly believe. One of my mottos is "Question Authority!!!" Maybe this is why my kids are so disobedient at times (can't possibly have anything to do with my parenting skills).

We make it to Milan in great time - about 3 hours total, matching the time it said on the directions - usually, with the 3 kids, getting lost and potty breaks we go over by at least 1/2 hour.... The border didn't cause any problem - we just drove over it (like we did between Switzerland and France earlier in the week) seems no one cares when you go from one country to another around here. Milan is a big, big city - we drive into it for at least 15 minutes before reaching the older part of town near the center. We get out as soon as we see something big and cool which turns out to be the Castle Sforza. We eventually find legal parking and look for a meter to feed. It turns out we have to buy a ticket from an actual person to park on the street--he just stands around waiting for you to show up--crazy!

Well, we are happy that at least they use Euros here in Italy! (In Geneva they wanted francs half the time - what a pain)

The kids are excited to see the big old castle and it has the largest courtyard I have ever seen - we also see a bunch of wild cats, which fascinates the kiddos. They love cats and often pretend to be cats. They thought it was so cool that the cats could run all over the grounds of the castle. I remember on our honeymoon we saw packs of cats living together in the streets of Barcelona - reminded me of lion prides. I wonder if this is all over Europe?

We grab sandwiches off a street truck and head for Il Duemo, the cathedral of cathedrals. Less roundabouts in Italy - and the steets are very windy! It is a bit hard to navigate and parking is impossible - you can only park in the blue squares - IF you have a special ticket (which we luckily got at the castle) and it seems there are only about 10 blue spaces in all of Milan. We see hundreds of folks parked in other places - yellow (which is no parking) and on curbs, sidewalks, whatever. It is kind of fun because we get to look at all the amazing architecture and sculpture all over the place. Milan is a beautiful city. Why don't we just park somewhere illegal? First off, we have Olivier's car. If it got towed that would be bad. Very bad. Also, we have obviously not embraced the true italian spirit and we doggedly circle until we luckily get a spot only half a block from the main event - yup - Il Deumo!

This is the most 'major' must-see tourist trap that we've hit since moving overseas. Milan was once the capital of the imperial roman empire and this cathedral shows it to the hilt - to call it ornate is like calling an iceberg a bit chilly. Walking into the square I was just awed - what a sight - definitely worth driving 3 hours for! Here is a carving of David and Goliath that was on the outside and check out Zander's expression as he looks at this behemouth! The world is full of such wondrous variety and it is a gift to be able to see not only the natural beauty of the Alps, but also the man made artistry displayed on such monuments as this ancient cathedral.

The inside was even more elaborate than the outside, if that's possible. The building was just immense and besides the marble walls etc... they had even added in all these painting hanging in between the columns. Another thing that was interesting was that some of the tombs (which you usually see on the walls of all these large cathedrals) had glass fronts displaying the bodies of various saints/cardinals for your viewing pleasure, dressed up, with heads 'dipped in silver' as the kids said. They also said "That's really gross" several times! (have to say I agree - I mean, please just seal them up behind some marble or something). It was amazing but it was just all so, so, much!! Is this place for the glory of God or just a colossal waste of money? People are starving all over the world but we build this??? (Of course, I could have sent my vacation money to those starving people so who am I to judge?)

In the bottom of the cathedral there was a special extra room that held the locked up host... (the holy of holies??? grr... I know it had a special name of some kind) This room was the most elaborately carved and decorated yet, even though it served only to house the bread and wine. Of course, the kids wanted to know why and (lapsed Catholic that I am) we had a fascinating theological discussion with the kids about how Catholics believe the host literally turns into the body and blood of Jesus when it is blessed. When we came home later, and are talking about the day, Zander told Mark that the people who go to this church thought they had Jesus buried under it! (well, er, sort of...)

We head towards the glass umbrella and go down stairs marked for the tourist office - we discover the best thing so far in Europe for Griffin - Yellow World! It was like walking into a museum of modern art - not a tourist office! Kids loved it - Callie was especially fascinated by the slide show of Milanese fashions they had running on a TV screen. Thought most of them didn't look too comfortable.

Came back out to walk under the glass umbrella, which is reportedly the world's oldest shopping mall. Take a look at my three - hand in hand - heading into this amazing place - are they lucky kids or what? Inside, the floor was inlaid and we spun our heel around three times for luck on an inlaid bull. (Not sure why, but everyone else was doing it and hey, you can never have enough luck, right?) We peeked out the exits and found some beautiful places and these interesting head statues. Then we walked a bit more and found a giant old library and a piece of a church that has been around since roman times - seems Milan has been taken over many, many times, was once a part of France, once of Spain and was often occupied and even the citizens have uprised lots of times against the tyranny of whomever was ruling - lots of ruins all around. I liked this military statue because the horse looks so tired. Usually they are rearing or something - this old nag looks sad and worn out after all the campaigning! We also found a shoe store where all pairs were only 25 Euros (instead of 200 like all the other shops we passed) - but, alas, it was closed. No Italian leather shoes for me, this time.... I shall return!

We head back to the car (catching some beautiful night time lights again) and then try to head out of center city and find a 'real' italian meal (that doesn't cost a million euros). We got lost (suprised?) again and it was more difficult to ask for help since they speak Italian and there was alot of confusing turns and it was dark. We also hit traffic, very unusual for europe (at least in our experience so far). Practically starved, we pull off at an Ikea mall complex where there is a restaurant named, Ciao - sounds italian enough for me! Well, it's closed. Argh! We finally take a random exit off the highway and find a great place. Filled with locals. They happily heat up Griffin's gluten free spaghetti and put sauce on it for us (premade that morning by mom, in anticipation of this moment) and we enjoy rigatoni with pancetta and onions, risotto with seafood, spaghetti pomodoro, ravioli and some amazingly good fish. We also have creme caramel and profiterols (which are cream puffs drenched in chocolate sauce) for dessert.

Roads are empty at night and speed limits are high but we are exhausted and don't make it home until about 1am - told Mark 10pm so he was understandably worried but alls well that ends well. Looking foward to a day at home tomorrow...

Arrivederchi Italia!

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