Life moves so quickly at times, its pace can take your breath away.
Feels like yesterday I was sitting down to write in our Barcelona apartment for the very first time... getting used to the sounds of the street traffic gently wafting up from six levels below, enjoying the surreal brightness of the intense morning light; later meeting new friends at the school bus stop as we waited with our nervous children for their school days to begin.
I remember the apprehensive, excited sensation in my stomach each time I left our apartment to run a simple errand, hoping I would remember the right words in Spanish to buy cereal and fruit or have a photo developed. Every experience was new! At times I would come back from a simple shopping trip exhausted from trying so hard to communicate and make friends in a foreign language.
Somehow though an entire year has nearly passed in a flash.
Today we woke in a small southern Italian coastal town called Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi, 1,606 km from our beloved home in Barcelona. We're on the Amalfi coast, just 40 minutes from Positano.
It's June now, and the school year ended for our children one week ago today. We are already traveling, trying to make the most of our summer vacation. "Make hay while the sun shines," they say in the United States... "Aprovechar al máximo tu experiencia!" one might say in Spain.
We'd just wrapped up two wonderful weeks hosting Los Abuelos Extraordinarios, my husband's amazing mother and her delightful husband. What a joy to share a taste of our real Spanish life with them... not the tentative life of a family just finding its footing in a new country... but the confident and joyful life of a family that has found its way.
How fantastic it was to drive them up to the Costa Brava where we enjoyed wandering the exquisite seaside Jardi Botanic de Cap Roig together (a beautiful botanical garden)... swam in the refreshing Mediterranean... and enjoyed a relaxed outdoor lunch at a tapas restaurant Señor Aventura and I already knew and liked.
We share our lives and experiences in Spain differently now. We live and operate in bold strokes; comfortable with the country, the language, ourselves.
Such great fun to watch my mother-in-law fashion authentic Mexican tortillas by hand with Little Angel for her eighth birthday... and equally exciting (for me) to know exactly what to say to the butcher as I asked for lard to mix with the flour for the tortillas.
I knew which stores to go to find each ingredient, and how to ask for them politely! When I entered our apartment with bags of groceries in each hand, I was beaming from ear to ear. If every day living abroad is a small test, I am passing more and more of them lately!
Saying goodbye to Los Extraordinarios felt calmer this time, less sad and emotional.
"We'll see you in September!" we hugged them warmly, "And then again in December!"
We now knew that the weeks will fly swiftly between visits and when we see each other it will honestly feel as though no time at all has passed.
In the course of those last two weeks I also threw two slumber parties by myself for a total of thirteen children (my husband was traveling in Huesca and Menorca, the grandparents cycling in France) and managed to supply the kids with all of the ingredients that make an American slumber party great... plenty of games, food, ice cream, birthday cake and breakfast pancakes, all because I knew how to find them now - or if not, who to ask for what I needed. Success!
By the end of two birthday party weekends and TEN fútbol tryouts for the boys in two weeks I was quite tired... but also confident and happy. I felt capable and strong; experienced. A far cry from the nervous, quivery person I'd been nine months earlier.
Then suddenly our first year had come to a close and we found ourselves in Italy. Italy!!!
This is one of the many incredible things about living in Spain. I can plan a trip to Italy, one of our other favorite countries in the world, with ease and very little expense. We can go anytime... ("Would you like to go to Italy? Tomorrow?") because all we have to do to get there is fill up the gas tank and point the car north.
The distance between Barcelona and Italy is actually shorter than the drive between San Diego and San Francisco (California). When you put it in that context, road tripping from Spain suddenly isn't a big deal.
Traveling around Europe can be done with ease and spontaneity, as long as you have the time to do it, a little pocket money, and the will. We are blessed with all three.
We also had a great reason to travel. Soccer Dude would be turning 10 years old (double digits!) and he'd asked if we would take him to see our favorite band play on his actual birthday in Florence, Italy. What a great way to celebrate!
Two days after the end of the school year we packed up Chico Suave with duffel bags of clothing and toiletries, some beach nets to explore coastal tide pools, a frisbee, some smash ball paddles and balls, and an inflatable kayak... and piled into our zippy family car for the eight hour drive to Liguria.
We spent the first night of our Italian trip in Borgo Sant'Agata ("Wow Mom, who is Agata?" the children asked me... "She must be really famous, there are so many towns here named after her!") arriving just before midnight in the tiny town and escorted to our upstairs apartment by the kind young woman Donata who had waited for us along the street in the dark to guide us to our parking place.
Donata's apartment was lovely! So cheerful and clean, with freshly baked chocolate chip muffins waiting for the children. (This is a great thing about using AirBNB, we meet so many kind people who open their homes and hearths to us.) We slept deeply after the long drive and woke to a beautiful hot day.
We could have stayed in Borgo Sant'Agata much longer... surely we will return. Donata and her grandmother were warm and welcoming, speaking to us in their best English as we approximated any/all Italian we could remember. With hosts like this, it will be easy to find a reason to visit again. Surely there are many treasures to discover along the Ligurian coast.
In the morning though, we quickly repacked our car and drove onward to the outskirts of Florence... Firenze. (I have never understood why outsiders call Italian cities by different names than they call themselves. Here in Italia the names are Firenze, Roma, Milano... How strange it would be if outsiders called our native city, San Diego, by a different name!) The drive took a little over four hours, and along the way we stopped for lunch in a charming seaside town called Sestri Levante.
I'd heard good things about Sestri Levante, a formerly quiet fisherman's village which is apparently becoming quite the hot spot on the Italian Riviera. We had a simple outdoor lunch and strolled along the waterfront before driving on to Florence. It was a nice place, worth visiting.
Oh, the beauties of Florence! This city never, never gets old for me. Over twenty years have passed since I lived and studied here in college, and it genuinely feels as though nothing substantive has changed at all. I expressed as much to my husband.
"Well that makes sense," he nodded and smiled at me. "In context to how long this city has thrived, twenty years would pass like the blink of an eye!"
If only my body and face could stand the test of time as well as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florentine Duomo! I assure you, I do not look the same at 41 as I did at 19... but she manages to keep her beauty after 700 years!
Rising majestically yet with joy and good humor from the center of the city, the Duomo remains a center of Florentine activity... although now, rather than attended by statesmen, it's flocked to by visitors clutching their guide books in one hand and gelato in the other.
"Who is that man, Mommy?" Little Angel asked me, pointing to a sculpture on the side of a nearby church wall.
"He must be an important biblical figure," I responded, "but they have carved his face in the likeness of a Florentine citizen from a long time ago. How incredible that we can see what he looked like even today, even though there were no photographs back then!"
"How old is this place?" Soccer Dude gazed back again toward the Duomo.
"Over seven hundred years," I mused, pulling out my phone and looking for an exact date. "It says here that the Duomo was begun in the year 1296 and construction continued until 1887 when the final touches were added to its exterior."
"Wow!" the kids exclaimed. "That's almost 600 years of building! Almost twice as long as the United States has been a country!"
"The scale of time here is different," I nodded. "This is why Europeans look at the United States through a particular lens... we are still such a young country, they sometimes say... still an experiment. We are still forging our path in the world."
"I guess we've done a lot in a short time!" the Scientist added.
We decided to celebrate both Italy and the United States with a universally beloved treat... gelato!
We spent three splendid days in Florence wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, getting lost and finding ourselves in unexpected and wonderful new places.
Twice we returned to Palazzo Tempi, our favorite pasta restaurant in the city. Located along the Arno River, it has large portions and very reasonable prices... not to mention, gluten free pasta!
On Soccer Dude's birthday after lunching there we sat on the stone steps just around the corner from the restaurant, enjoying double scoops of cool and refreshing gelato.
"Mom," my son said quietly. "Why is that man wearing so many backpacks?"
I looked over to see a young man staring at the stone steps and taking photos of them. Indeed, he was wearing bags front and back and looked to me like a backpacker.
As if on cue the young man turned to Señor Aventura (who was taking our photo as we ate and enjoyed cones of chocolate, straciatella, mango, crema) and said, "Would you like me to take your picture with them?" indicating our family.
"Oh, that's okay," my husband smiled.
The young man nodded and began to take selfies of himself in front of the steps.
"Honey, ask him if he'd like his photo taken!" I whispered to my husband, who gladly obliged.
"Would you like me to take a photo of you here?" Señor Aventura asked the young traveler.
"That would be great!" he replied, and proceeded to strike up a warm and friendly conversation with us. He turned out to be a former US government economist traveling the world alone this summer for two months until starting an MBA program in Washington, D.C. this Fall.
"Wow Mom!" The Scientist's eyes were big and bright. "A real live economist!" (The Scientist at age eleven adores economics, especially the economics of flight.)
"Let me know if you are ever in Washington, D.C." smiled our new friend graciously. "I'd be happy to give you a tour at the White House, I still have connections there."
Our kids sat in stunned, grateful silence. Wow! Amazing who you may meet while enjoying ice cream on ancient stone steps!
We said thank you and wished him the best of luck on his trip around the planet..
Other highlights of Florence during this visit included the Galileo Museum, the Leonardo Da Vinci museum (small but very interactive) and driving across the Ponte Vecchio amid a swarm of tourists (well done, Señor Aventura!!!).
To the extreme delight of our sons we also stumbled across a beach soccer tournament taking place in front of the gorgeous Basilica di Santa Croce.
"Beach soccer? I didn't even know there was such a sport!" I exclaimed as we sat down to watch the event.
"Oh mom," my boys laughed. "You're so OLD! Everyone knows about beach soccer!"
"It looks a little like beach volleyball," my husband smiled. "We know a lot about that in California, don't we?"
We watched in amused awe as muscular players from teams around Italy played a very aerobic and VERY sandy game (their uniforms were filthy after a few rounds!!!) in the humid late afternoon.
Who can deny that one of the best (and funniest) parts of the beach soccer experience arrived at the surprising moment when five twenty-something 'cheerleaders' rushed out onto the arena sand in bikinis to dance together for about a minute between rounds. The first time they ran out and began to jump and wiggle in their tiny sparkling bathing suits, I laughed out loud. "OMG!!!"
"Wow!" my husband grinned. "What a sport!"
"Oh gross!" my sons cringed and blushed... but continued watching with interest!
"Those ladies are wearing a lot of makeup mommy," Little Angel announced. "I like their dancing better than the soccer."
Between the muddy fútbol players who kept getting fouled - yellow cards all around - and the enthusiastic, awkward cheerleaders trying to dance in sand (all set against the backdrop of glorious ancient Santa Croce) this was admittedly a very entertaining experience!
In the end though, the most wonderful and exciting part of our visit to Florence was definitely the Radiohead concert that had inspired our trip to Italy in the first place.
This was the first-ever live rock show for Soccer Dude and Little Angel, and their expressions were beyond priceless when we finally entered the race track where the event was held (Ippodromo del Visarno) and saw thousands of people calmly enjoying music from opening act James Blake.
"There are so many people here!" Soccer Dude's eyes widened. "It's like an ocean!"
"That's why you need to stick close to your Dad and me," I explained. "It would be pretty hard to find you in here if you got lost, especially once it's dark."
Luckily nobody got lost and we had a terrific time listening to Thom Yorke and Radiohead create orchestral, melancholy rock music for just under two hours.
"Happy Birthday!" I grinned at Soccer Dude, who danced and played with his siblings around us and asked his dad to lift him up to see the light show again and again.
"This is awesome!" he glowed, as he surveyed the scene from high in the air before my husband set him back down upon the straw covered earth.
We stood together in the warm, humid Florentine night. There was a touch of moisture in the air and the feeling that the sky might open at any moment to pour upon us. We were exhilarated... adventurers on a new journey, listening to our favorite band in one of our favorite countries... surrounded on all sides by people laughing, swaying back and forth, and chatting quietly in Italian. Alone in a new world, we felt at home.
"I'm really glad we came." My husband wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
Leaning into him, I exhaled. Under the night sky we listened to Radiohead's heartrendingly beautiful melodies and watched our children dance.
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