Saturday, November 30, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part III: Israel, Cyprus, Crete, & Pompeii...

We pulled into Ashdod... the incredibly busy shipping port of Israel.  This was the major selling point of the tour to everyone.  Mom really wanted to see the pyramids, but as we all know, Egyptians can’t get their shit together (trust me… my office mate is Egyptian and every day I fight the urge to strangle him with his own arrogance.)  But Israel was something that our family as Catholics, and especially my father as a seminarian, felt a connection due to years of Sunday masses and CCD classes next to the church.  We had listened to the stories and knew the Biblical history; but to show up and see them in person was incredibly exciting for everyone onboard.
old city of Jerusalem...

Except me… I was scared shitless.  As most of you know, I live in Qatar, a Wahhabist Muslim nation.  And the Muslim people don’t have the greatest relationship with the Israeli’s.  Something about one family stole another’s goat way back when, or one tribe threw a shoe at the other… no one really knows why anymore.  My passport is covered with work visas and exit permits all written in Arabic.  According to Qatar, going to Israel is possible grounds for my work and entry visas to be cancelled upon arrival back home.  So I was a little wary of getting off the boat.

The steward assured me that I could request a paper visa so that no stamp showed up in my passport.  We waited for over an hour in the theatre until our color was called and headed to the front of the ship instead of out onto the buses.  This time, we had to give our passports by hand to the customs officials for inspection.  I handed my passport to the inspector, she saw my work visa, stared me down, then stamped a bookmark as my one-day, completely temporary, no permanent record entry visa into Israel.

On top of my flop sweat, we had another problem. It was a Sunday, and there was nothing in the ship’s daily newspaper about any masses held on board.  I went to ask Gopher and was sternly told, “There are no church services on board.”

Oh shit.  Oh holy shit.  There’s no mass on board and I’m with my parents.  This is not good.  My father has never, I repeat, never, missed a mass.  And here we were, pulling into the spiritual heart of our religion, and Dad doesn’t have a mass to attend.  Needless to say, the news did not go over well with Dad.  I argued that going to visit Israel was as close to a pilgrimage as you could possibly get; so maybe it could count? Dad countered that if we drove past a mass, he was getting off the bus.

As the buses pulled out of Ashdod, we were quick to notice two things.  One, everyone was armed.  As all Israeli’s are required to serve in the military, there were throngs of soldiers everywhere carrying assault rifles.  But they weren’t performing drills or KP duty, they were getting onto buses, pushing shopping carts full of groceries, and pumping gas; all while armed to the teeth while fighter jets buzzed overhead every two minutes.

the Wailing Wall...
The second thing was that Israel was beautiful!  The hour long drive to Jerusalem was filled with rolling green hillsides and orchards brimming with Jaffa oranges.  I was expecting the dry rocky outcroppings I had seen from Jordan staring across the Dead Sea.  As we approached the city, the fields of green died away and the meandering streets of Jerusalem pulled us in.  At a photo stop overlooking the city, we gazed upon the towering walls and terraces of the ancient city.  The old city stands like a castle surrounded with a dry moat.  The Dome of the Rock, the golden topped mosque stands above the city like a beacon welcoming you in.  It’s only then you realize that everyone in this country would celebrate for a year if the mosque that desecrates their holy city was blown off the face of the Earth.

Our guide was fantastic, telling us a wonderful summary of the city, the walls, and the creation of the Jewish state.  When he asked where everyone was from, I had to do my part and yell out “Qatar!”  A quick ugly glance my way later he continued to regale us.

Before I continue, I have to ask that you indulge me as we climb aboard the way-back machine to the early 80’s in Richmond, Texas.  It was there where my first memories of a Catholic rite of passage were created:  attending the Friday night Stations of the Cross during Lent.  Our priest, Father xxxxx, was not known for his creative approaches to church doctrine.  The sermons could knock you out cold due to sheer boredom, as my sisters can attest to dragging more than one comatose sibling down the aisle to the rectory.

But there was something about his Stations of the Cross.  Around the church was the customary fourteen plagues telling the fourteen stories of the crucifixion of Jesus.  We would pick up the worn little booklets with the prayers and hymns for each station, and get ready for an hour of the continuous kneeling, standing, sitting regiment.  Over the weeks and years we attended, Father xxxx’s mini-homilies for each station never changed, not by a word.  Amazingly, each was hauntingly beautiful as he discussed the grove of olive trees where it all began, walking the path of the Via Dolorosa, the meaning of Golgotha, how Simon of Cyrene was pulled from the crowd and made to carry the cross, and the pain Jesus must have felt, starved and naked, beaten until he fell three times.  He always discussed the statue The Pieta for one station, as Mary held her son in her arms… I now know where my father gained his admiration.  Each station was a location pinned to Jerusalem…
one of the Stations on the Via Dolorosa...

And there we found ourselves, in the grove of ancient olive trees just outside the city walls.  The trees, dated to over 2,000 years old, were gnarled and twisted, and under armed guard.  It was here where our guide told us about the thousands of graves that covered the small valley between us and the city walls; all awaiting their rising up once the second coming occurs.  He then proceeded to tell us that the second coming cannot occur since Muslims dug their graves right in the way of where the Lord is supposed to walk; and therefore it was the Muslims fault why he hasn’t come yet.  Heads were nodding in agreement around us… it took everything I had to stop from giggling. I guessed correctly that a visit to the Dome of the Rock wasn’t in the cards.

Two security checks, two metal detectors, and a full body search later, and we were inside the city walls.  Almost immediately we came upon the Wailing Wall.  The most important site in all of Judaism, throngs of locals and tourists were taking pictures of the men praying with foreheads pressed firmly against the stones.  Women were not allowed to get close unless they walked to a special area on a footbridge, and most of the ladies on our tour declined.  Dad and I stopped by an open table and picked up our guest yamakas.  Mom took advantage to comment that me and Dad’s matching bald spots made us look like we were already wearing skullcaps… pretty obvious joke, but funny nonetheless.

For one of the most holy sites in the world, the wall was fairly “unholy” looking.  There was no pomp or circumstance, no ushers asking you to not use any flash photography or velvet ropes curtailing what you couldn’t touch.  Instead there were junky white plastic lawn chairs that you pick up from Wal-Mart for ten bucks a set scattered throughout.  Men were putting on their shawls, wrapping cords around their arms, and adjusting the little black boxes full of prayers tied to their foreheads.  A group of little Orthodox school kids, all with their heads shaved and long curly sideburns, were washing their hands as their chaperone yelled at them to hurry up.  Religious or not, it’s hard not to approach the wall without feeling small compared to all the men bobbling back and forth, chanting their heartfelt prayers under their breath.  Dad and I each took a moment to pray, and stuffed our folded prayers written on the ship stationary into any crevice we could find.  I don’t know if the prayer slip works like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, but I’ll tell you mine anyway.  I prayed that Mom and Dad would have wonderful time with me, and a safe return home.  Turns out it worked…

Meandering through the narrow alleys and tunnels of Jerusalem, we were amazed by the people we were running into.  Orthodox Jews followed by priests followed by Muslims in thobes followed by Latin American nuns followed by Russian orthodox monks; all mixing in and around with the people who were just trying to buy some bread and get to work on time.  The group stopped walking to stare at a tile street name buried into a stone wall, “Via Dolorosa.”  We were about to walk the Stations of the Cross.

As we climbed the steps of the Via Dolorosa, doorways were pointed out where in Latin and Israeli you could make out the words Station III, Station IV, Station V, and so on.  A group of Poles were carrying a large wooden cross and singing songs at each station.  We had to gingerly make our way around Brazilian nuns “walking” on their knees up the steps.  Mom and I were astonished to see the actual spots where all those scenes we had imagined in front of us; even though most had nothing special to see.  You pass by Station VII and the barkers from the storefronts are trying to convince you to buy old postcard sets, splinter-filled rosary beads, or frankincense shampoo “from the holy land!”

Dad was quiet and solemn most of the time.  I could see his lips moving as he said little prayers at each station.  I finally figured out that he was singing the Stabat Mater, the tiny hymns sung at the end of each station that he knew from memory…  “bruised, derided, cursed, defiled… she beheld her tender child… all with bloody scourges rent…”

At the end of the road was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The non-descript entrance hid the ominous interior where the final Stations were held.  In this dark space, the walls blackened by years of incense and candle smoke, was where Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried.  Lanterns in the Russian Orthodox and Armenian styles were hung everywhere, as the candle light glistened off of the gold and silver reliefs that covered the walls.  Up some stairs we came to the final Stations and watched as people earnestly prayed upon the stone slab where Jesus’ body was washed with oil and prepared for burial.

Just outside of this area the church opened up into a gorgeous array of stonework, frescos, and tiled marble. It was here where we saw the Aedicule that contained the Holy Sepulcher itself.  Dad took a moment to himself as I watched the various priests staring the tourists down.  Fun fact, the church is run by four factions of the Catholics: the Eastern Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Greek Orthodox, and the Roman Catholics.  All of which despise each other!  Every few years the priests in charge take offense at one of the other sects, for instance, leaving a door open or sweeping the floor out of turn, and the priests will beat the shit out of each other!  The churches purposely station young and strong priests willing to fight there… amazing!  There’s a ladder from the 1700’s that hasn’t been moved because it would upset the status quo that no religious order can make changes without the approval of the other orders… totally insane.

the grotto to the birthplace of Jesus...
We left Jerusalem thru the Jaffa Gate, boarded the buses, and headed to the next part of the tour, Palestine and Bethlehem.  The massive wall separating the two countries was imposing, just as the extra security sweep thru the bus and all the passengers.  Once through, you could immediately tell that the prosperity of Israel did not extend to Palestine.  The homes were in rough shape, the roads were crumbling, and the little towns we crossed were definitively in a class below those just beyond the wall.  We stopped at a tourist house where we met our Muslim guide for a massive group lunch of hummus, fish and tabouli… pretty standard fare for me.

In Bethlehem, we walked up the hill to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth.  At first glance, there’s really nothing much to see.  It is just a big, bland church from the outside with the exception of the door only being three feet tall.  The guide explained how it was to keep horses out and to make the priests bow in penitence.  I’m pretty sure it was made so the crowds could get a laugh as I had to crawl on all fours to get through.

underground city in Cyprus...
The interior of the church was interesting as they worked to restore frescos buried under centuries of plaster on the walls while we walked on planks to protect the tile floor underfoot.  The complex is actually three separate churches, none of which are very remarkable.  But we followed the crowds to a long queue and waited our turn to see the actual birthplace.  Tucked away under the altar, we had to funnel down into a grotto, shoving and elbowing our way into another very tiny door.  In the dark room we saw what we came to see… a tiny semi-circular alcove that looked more like a fireplace than anything special.  Inside it was coated in marble with a silver star inlaid into the ground.

And that was it… a little bit of a letdown after Jerusalem, but still interesting.  I ran to the gift shop to buy postcards and get them ready to mail before the bus took off.  Dad went exploring and found that one of the churches in the complex, an incredibly plain affair that would not look out of place in Tucson, was just about to start the communion wafers.  I told Dad we might have just enough time to join in so he wouldn’t have to miss mass, but he turned to me and Mom and said, “I’m pretty sure God will forgive me considering what I’ve experienced today.”

And with that, Dad missed mass… and didn’t regret it for a moment.

Back on board the boat we fell into what became our routine.  Mom and I would wake up super early and walk to the rear deck to smoke after fiddling with the self-serve coffee machine that never worked.  Next would be the mad dash to the breakfast buffet complete with the copper-haired throwing elbows in the omelet line.  After this was the walk around the ship to find any available chairs in a smoking section where we would order our daily round of anything we wanted since we paid handsomely for the drinks inclusion package.  Dad would sometimes splurge and order the non-inclusive drink of the day… which came back to bite him when he tried the chocolate martini. Mom and I would hit the casino when they opened, which was never the same time or days on end depending on the local maritime law. Later we would dress for dinner and join the second seating with our missing tablemates, and our Portuguese waiter would delight us in the meal options and just for good measure, would bring me two or even three of the entrees to sample.  Finally, we would order all the desserts available, binge on the last of the red wine, try to gamble some more, change out the orange peels in our shoes, wash our socks and undies in the sink, and pass out cold while praying the neighbors wouldn’t complain about Dad’s snoring.

eating gelato after stealing my umbrella...
The next excursion was to Cyprus, the Greek island half occupied by Turkey, or as our guide liked to call them, “The Turks!!”  We went through customs in Limassol where the bus, this time filled with Danes, drove amid undulating hillsides to the city of Nicosia to visit a very old and very cramped Greek Orthodox church that was so exciting and memorable, I can’t find it on Wikipedia.  After that we headed to the coastal town of Paphos, known as the birthplace of Aphrodite.  Overlooking a bluff, the guide pointed out the exact rock that rose from the depths carrying the goddess of love and beauty.  It would have been more memorable if they weren’t talking about a figure from mythology. If Bea Arthur had risen from the sea on that rock, I probably would have taken a picture.

We did visit the Roman theatres, the Greek mosaic floors, the Byzantine fortress, and the underground catacombs where the influential apostles Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses visited.  You remember Barnabas and Saul of Tsarses, right? They traveled around the Med preaching about Jesus during the day, and at night solved crimes; unmasking greedy businessmen scaring away customers from the old amusement park.  The only thing really memorable about Cyprus was that Mom and I got into an argument over who got the umbrella when it started to rain (even though I was the one who had brought it!) that devolved into a hair pulling match.  Mom, who claims her hands are so weak that she can’t carry her luggage, somehow found the strength to get a death grip on the few short, wispy strands I have left.  She won, and then gloated by making me buy her a gelato and not sharing.

The next stop was to Crete, and the cities of Heraklion and Knossos.  Heraklion was uneventful save for the winery we stopped at to try all the local vines and the grappa.  I’m pretty sure we bought a few bottles, but I can’t remember getting on the boat with them… or really much from this excursion.  Next was a long drive through the scenic mountains of Cyprus to Knossos, Europe’s oldest city.  This Bronze Age marvel nestled up in the mountains is a tiny town with archeological ruins that simply baffle you with the size and scale of city.  It became less impressive when the guide explained that this was the exact site where Hercules wrestled the Minotaur; a creature that walked the Earth three thousand years ago.  There is only so many “oh for fuck’s sake” I can take on any given day.

best part of Crete...
We walked through the alleyways of the town, us three always at the back of the pack stopping for swigs of wine and more gelato.  The tour ended in a large restaurant decorated like a nursing home cafeteria where we dined on fried dough balls, creamy cheeses, grape leaves, and more grappa.  Unbeknownst to Mom, I kept pouring my grappa into her shot glass, insisting that she had to finish or it would be rude to the hosts.  Dancers in traditional spangled outfits covered in tassels came out and danced for us for a few minutes.  I always like these little demonstrations of the old customs and traditions, as it helps make you feel less like a stranger in a foreign land… as long as they know when to get off the stage.  The pairs of dancers just kept going song after song like they were getting paid by the twirl.  At some point you want to have a conversation or keep eating, but you feel obliged to keep your eyes focused on them at all times.  You’d hate for them to go home after the show feeling that they didn’t give their all since they couldn’t keep the attention of the chunky American in the back of the room. I gave up and downed more grappa.

We had a full day of really rough seas, making the indoor chairs a hot commodity.  That night Dad surprised us by having me make a reservation at the private dining room on the ship.  No ready-made entrees for us, we were having five-star a la carte French cuisine.  I put on my grey suit with my brown shoes (Dad did not approve) and we sat in the candlelit room picking out the finest red wine that wasn’t part of our drinks inclusion.  We had a wonderful five course meal with multiple bottles of wine.  For the appetizer we ordered the escargot, my first attempt at eating snails.  Dad downed them like oysters, floating globs of grey meat drowning in pools of butter and garlic.  Lord, were they good! We passed through the Strait of Messina, staring down the night lights of Sicily just off the port railing.

Our final excursion was to Naples for a full day tour of Pompeii.  The trip was made more exciting as we were deluged with rain, walking ankle deep in water just to get on the bus with the Germans again.  At Pompeii, we met up with a fantastic guide who gave us probably the best tour of the entire trip.  The city is magnificent in its scale and technology.  Paved streets perfectly aligned, multistory buildings with running water and plumbing, fancy villas with indoor pools, ancient ovens and flour mills that would still work perfectly today.  The scale of it is unbelievable; you can’t see the ends of the roads as they go on for miles.
Curiously, both Dad and I discovered the cocks carved into the roadways before the guide even acknowledged them.  “The penises point in the direction to the brothel,” the guide chuckled.  The brothel is, and probably was even in 79 AD, the highlight of the tour.  Inside were paintings above each room depicting a particular sex act.  Want a hand job, just head to the hand job room.  Everyone was quietly giggling to themselves when Dad, a man not known for his volume control, suddenly exclaimed “Look Cory, there’s one we haven’t tried yet!”  The packed crowds had a hearty laugh while I lamented that I had eaten two helpings of snails the night before.

Mt. Etna with a dirty camera lens...
Pompeii is also somber as you are taken past the plaster casts of the people who had died there in agony as their bodies were choked and smothered with burning ash.  Mothers holding children and men curled up in agony remind you that this was a major city that was suddenly, and painfully, extinguished. The bus ride back to Naples was solemn and quiet, but the clouds finally parted and gave us all a quick glimpse of Mt. Etna still foreboding on the horizon.

The last night during dinner the waiters did a special entertainment routine involving lots of flambé and musical interludes.  It was a fitting sendoff, but I’m sure it was designed to keep you distracted from the final bill that was quietly slipped under the door before you got back to the room. We packed up our still-not-dry socks while I calculated how much more my credit card could handle from all the tips we were required to leave.  In the morning we pulled back into Genoa on a clear but bitterly cold and windy day, said our goodbyes to our purser and the rest of the crew, ready for our final leg of the trip back in Italy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part II: Italy, the Vatican, France, Malta, & Greece...

Sorry it’s taken so long... but I sliced the tip of my finger off, followed by a family reunion, and followed by my being lazy. 

Vatican City
Anyhow, back to the tale.  Mom, Dad, and I boarded our flight to Rome, landing early in the morning.  At the airport I expertly figured out how to buy the train tickets into the city even with Mom questioning my logic, and we made it into Roma Termini.  Now from here, to both save money and give my parents the local "backpackery" feel of the city, I decided that we would take the metro instead of getting the perfectly reasonable taxis parked just outside the station door.  Turns out… worst mistake of the trip.  I have to explain though… it wasn’t entirely my fault.  It was Mom’s.

I specifically told my parents that they needed to pack light.  This was made difficult by the fact that they were arriving to the warm winters of Qatar and traveling to the bitter cold of Europe; plus we had to pack fancy clothes for the cruise.  But I insisted that they only bring one piece of luggage since we would be traveling around the entire time.  Dad packed a sensible large rolling suitcase, while Mom brought garbage luggage.  I’m not saying her bag looked or even smelled like garbage, I’m saying Dad got it for her by stealing it from someone’s actual roadside garbage.  “Look at this… can you believe people here throw out perfectly good suitcases?” I can hear him saying to Mom as he gave her the worst piece of luggage in the world.  This was an old style hard-case with tiny wheels along the long, narrow base with a pull strap.  The moment it started to move it would instantly fall onto its side and you ended up dragging it down hallways like a child throwing a tantrum in the Kmart.  It was more unstable than my sisters on roller skates on Christmas Eve.

on the Vatican tour
So of course we get on the packed rush-hour metro dragging our luggage behind.  Unbeknownst to me, the metro stop where we needed to change trains was not the clean and well-designed systems of Paris or Stockholm… it was under construction without any escalators or elevators.  We were forced to scramble up and down fifteen flights of stairs trying to carry two fifty-pound cases while I had all my gear in my backpack.  The whole time I had to remind Mom that this was just part of the fun of local travel.

We finally got off the metro, and I may have gotten us a little lost trying to find our hotel.  We finally found the old hotel and shoved ourselves into the very tiny room with one bed and a couch.  The bags were piled into a corner, and we walked the three blocks into Vatican City.

Vatican City really does take your breath away.  The circle of statues overlooking the square, the monolith towering above, and St. Peter’s is truly godlike in its beauty.  The line into the cathedral was so long it literally started in another country.  Mom and Dad had both visited the Vatican before, so this was nothing terribly special for them.  Dad pointed out the papal apartment and the chimney where the smoke is released, and bemusing only himself, could identify the different priestly sects by their garbs or design of the crucifixes around their necks. We walked along the sloping walls to the side entrance to pick up the museum tickets I had purchased online the day before. We started the self-guided tour and were amazed by what we saw.  The art, statues, frescos, tapestries, paintings, gold and jewelry, papal garments… all were on display with every room more fascinating than the next.  You think you can’t see any more gorgeous articles then you step into the map room, or the hallway with the frescos on the ceiling… jeez.  We entered the narrow doorway into the Sistine Chapel.  Absolutely packed with a murmuring crowd of people, the guards were shouting in four languages “No talking! No photo!” all the while over booming speakers was another stern voice exclaiming the same thing.  Between the speaker feedback, the carbinieri, the whirr of camera shutters, and the hum of people whispering, it was difficult to take in the absolute splendor of The Creation of Adam overhead.
St. Peter's

We exited through the gift shop (this is a museum, of course) and Dad picked up a few items for people back at his hospital with the courteous exchange, “Ben, buy this for me.”  At the start of the trip, Dad came up with a solution to the difficult issues of exchange rates and having the correct currency during a trip covering multiple countries; I was to pay for everything.  And I mean everything.  Dad didn’t even carry his wallet on the trip.  If he or Mom wanted a coffee or a snack, he would just order things and say “get this for me.”  Rosaries from the Vatican?  “I’ll take two.”  The man was in heaven knowing that he was completely set free from the burden of having to deal with any of the details.  I considered it my little gift to him.  My only minor win was that if he needed to use the public bathrooms, only I had the Euros to pay for the toilet paper. 

After an alfresco pizza and a bottle of red along the Vatican wall, we headed back to St. Peter’s and jumped onboard another hop-on/hop-off tour bus.  We encircled the entire city while I kept having flashbacks to every Roman history documentary I had ever seen.  The aqueducts, fountains, ruins, statues, Tiber River, baths and obelisks were simply too much to take in during one go-around.  I remember watching David Macaulay’s PBS special on building the city of Rome ( over and over; so everywhere looked vaguely familiar.  We kept jumping on and off at various sites.  While I knew a lot of the history, Dad was pretty amazing filling in the gaps with religious knowledge.  Every statue of a saint came with a backstory and a description of why Moses had horns.  We walked around the Coliseum and gawked at the tourists taking pictures with actors dressed as Roman centurions. Mom made me buy an apron with a picture of Michelangelo’s David’s dick on it.  I didn’t know for whom, and I didn’t ask.

Dad dousing harmless Italians...
From the Piazza Venezia, we walked around looking for the Pantheon; the Agrippa temple built to celebrate all the gods of Rome.  Before we got there, Mom had to pee, so we ducked into a café to use the restroom and I ordered us “tre café Americano.”  The proprietor didn’t want to bother to make us our espressos with water, the closest equivalent to black coffee you can get in Europe.  Instead, we got three perfectly normal cappuccinos.  Dad stared quizzing at the foam perched atop his cup.  “What the hell is this shit?”  “It’s coffee,” I said, “just drink it.”  He took two sips, winced, and tossed the cup in the trash.  So much for blending in with the locals.

At the Pantheon I explained the history of the building, the changing thickness of the concrete to support the open oculus, and showed how they saved weight on the dome by adding in the square indentions.  You have to love the engineering of this building to still be standing from 140 AD, and to still be the largest unsupported concrete dome in the world.  Dad, using his own bit of engineering prowess, went to use the drinking fountain outside of the pergola.  He realized that if he closed off the water pouring from the decorative duck’s mouth that the water pouring into the cistern would shoot up so he could get a drink.  Instead, Dad sealed off the hole, and shot a stream of water ten feet away, nailing a guy in the back of the head and all over his suede jacket.  Turning red with embarrassment, Dad pulled out his hankie and started to dry the completely befuddled and soaking man.  Mom and I, along with half the square, were pissing our pants with laughter while trying to keep the camera steady.

The sun was fading as we headed back to the Vatican.  The line into St. Peter’s was mercifully short, so we joined the queue.  Right when we entered a mass was finishing.  A choir of deep baritones was singing the last of a psalm in Latin… Dad of course knew the words.  St. Peter’s is, without any shade of doubt, the most beautiful church in the world.  I’ve seen hundreds all around Europe, ancient ones of grandeur and grace… but nothing compares to St. Peter’s.  We spent an hour just walking around staring at the walls.  Dad maneuvered me over to Michelangelo’s Pietá.  Dad was shaken, and visible moved by its beauty.  He choked out sentences about pain and agony being made into God’s beauty, but he couldn’t really express the amazement this statue brought to him.

the Vatican at sunset...
My feet and back were killing me from carrying the luggage and walking on all the marble, so I had to get back to the apartment for a rest.  For dinner we ate what would become our signature meals in Italy.  Me ordering the local specialty pasta; in this case it was salty gnocchi.  Dad, the large bowl of seafood pasta with clams, shrimps, and whole lobsters.  And Mom, who would always order the lasagna, said it tasted, “different.”

After a sunrise stroll around St. Peter’s, we took a cab back to the termini where I bought our train tickets to Genoa.  It was here where, once again, the three of us together could not deal with the commonplace European occurrence of traveling by train.  Mom was sure I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in a train station, and kept trying to ask anyone wearing a red jacket where our train was.  It was difficult, but I finally managed to explain to her that not everyone who wears a red jacket is an employee of the train service; they’re just European. 

Smurfette & Gumby...
When it was time to board our train, we had yet another snafu.  Mom had problems lifting her suitcase up into the train, so it was up to me and Dad to get the bags up into the narrow train car door.  This resulted in heated exchanges where we were yelling at each other over who needed to get into the train, and who needed the throw the bags in.  No matter what train, no matter the destination, this argument always occurred and always finished with me yelling, “JUST GET ON THE GODDAMN TRAIN!!”

We did have an absolutely lovely all-day train ride up through the Italian countryside, past the seaside towns of Cinque Terre, and pulled into the northern city of Genoa where we would catch the cruise.  Arriving in Genoa the weather had dipped thirty degrees with storms approaching; making the already dark alleys very seedy.  Our cab skirted down narrow streets and thankfully only clipped a few people before finding our hotel right off the waterfront.  We walked around for a while ignoring the barkers and trying to catch glimpses of the prostitutes further up the sloping alleyways.  We ate a three course seafood meal with lots of wine before quickly falling asleep.

she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe...
The morning in Genoa was bitter cold and drizzling rain.  We had six hours to kill before the cruise departed, so we just started walking around the area.  It turns out the Genoa has some absolutely beautiful sights tucked away.  We found a gorgeous striped church around the corner and attended Sunday mass in Italian.  The rain started to come down hard so Mom and Dad pulled out their plastic ponchos. I know they’re an essential travel item, but I just can’t make myself into looking like such a dork.  I was walking around with Gumby and Smurfette.  When a gust of wind inflated Mom’s poncho, she had the gall to quote Marilyn Monroe, even though she looked like a blueberry.  But then they were dry, and I was soaked to the bone. 

We took the hop-on/hop-off bus for the tour around the city, and even with the tarps down we had a great time exploring the palazzos and castles.  The Piazza de Ferrari was a stunningly beautiful square, and we climbed the towers of the Porta Soprana of the ancient city walls.  Walking along the promenade in the pouring rain, occasionally popping into a storefront for some stone oven pizza with a bottle of red, we had an amazing time in Genoa.  As the afternoon approached, we grabbed our luggage and took a cab to the boat.  And somehow, once again, I was mistaken about the time.  We were some of the last people to arrive for the cruise check-in, and stood in line for almost two hours.  At this point, my back and feet were shot to hell. 

But we finally made it onboard the Louis Majesty.  This being my first cruise, I was amazed at the size of the ship! Mom and Dad exchanged glances at each other at what would be the smallest boat they had ever been on in their thirty years of cruising.  Louis Cruises is a small cruise line, and doesn’t have the splashy amenities or luxuries of a Costa or Princess.  We were also on the same boat that exactly one year earlier, on the exact same route, had struck a rogue wave that killed two people.  Mom loved the YouTube video.
the ship...

But I thought it was pretty nice… until I saw the room the three of us would have to share.  It made me jealous of my first college dorm.  Dad decided to take the top bunk, for some reason he was nervous about me sleeping four feet above him.  We did our safety drills, Mom explained who our purser was, made fun of me slamming into the walls as I gathered my sea legs, and found where we would meet up on the smoking deck next to the casino and bar.  God bless the fact that we paid for the all-inclusive drinks package.  Mom and I drank a little too much that first night, and Dad got pissy at the really wonderful all-you-can-gorge dinner.  We went our separate ways and crashed out a little nauseous from the movement.  I’m glad to say that our arguments that night were the only ones we had the entire trip.  Normally my sisters and I cannot be together more than three days without at least some hair pulling.

a little chilly in Marseilles...
In the morning, we hunted for chairs and enjoyed the large breakfast buffet of omelets, breads, sausages, and lots of smoked fish… Dad was loving that.  We spent the morning just exploring the ship and checking out all the features; of which there weren’t really very many.  Mom and Dad were used to huge fancy cruises where you have to run from place to place to get in all the activities… think Kathy Lee with Gopher and special guest star, Charo.  This cruise was definitely not that.  This was a whole bunch of very old people who liked to sit quietly next to a window with a pipe and a cocktail. The sheer amount of old woman with fake copper-colored hair made Dad uneasy. 

We docked into our first stop, Marseilles, France.  Following the excursion rules, we went to the ballroom, got our colored stickers, and waited for an hour.  When they finally called our color, we knew we were in for a treat.  How do you plan excursions for 1,200 passengers that speak twenty different languages? The French boarded their buses, next the Chinese, the Japanese, the Spanish, etc.  The English speakers boarded the bus filled with the Germans.  On the entire ship, there were six English speakers: us three, a very old couple from central Texas, and one lady from Dallas.  Six people who speak English, all from Texas.

Valetta, Malta
The bus spun us around the scenic city of Marseilles; the guide talking endlessly in German while throwing out tidbits of knowledge in English like “deez iz church” five minutes after we had already passed der church.  We got off the bus to climb the steps to the highest point in Marseilles, the Notre-Dame de la Garde; a gorgeous basilica that overlooks the entire city.  It was a very sunny day, but it was also about 35 degrees outside with fifty mile-per-hour winds.  While I was trying to take a picture, one old guy turned the corner around the basilica, got blasted with a really strong gust of wind, and got knocked down on his ass.  From this vantage we could also see the islands including the Château d’if, the fortress prison from The Count of Monte Cristo.

After dinner we went to the evening entertainment show… or at least we think it was entertainment.  Dear God it was horrible!  A goofy pregame pitting teams to pop balloons with their ass (which just makes my skin crawl), followed by two hours of covers with really bad dancing and costumes.  The Solid Gold Dancers would have been more entertaining… the Soul Train line would have been awesome! They all wore sequins and pastels, and at one point came out in pink and sliver chaps… that was our cue.  We woke up Dad (really… he fell asleep) and hit the casino.

the Blue Grotto of Malta...
The next day was at sea, so we went to a trivia game, read books, drank wine, took naps, and enjoyed the sun for the hour it was out.  We dressed in our formal wear for the captain’s dinner, and enjoyed cocktails and canapés while Stubing introduced the crew… yawn.  We had much more fun people watching!  There were the screaming Thai women in a group that all wore leisure suits, the Italian that only wore a black leather pants/vest/fringed jacket the entire trip, the old Asian guy with the tall he/she companion (never did find out), and the two beautiful dykes who liked to finger each other in the saltwater pool.  I had to keep my eye on those two.  It was made even better that our table mates never showed up again.  Wonder why?

that is stolen fruit!!!
In the morning we docked into Valetta, Malta, and boarded the now French speaking bus with the other three Americans.  Malta is a tiny island with a beautiful grand harbor and tons of maritime history.  We were escorted to all the port cities and tiny fishing villages, blue grottos and series of caves worn out over huge cliffs overlooking the Med.  There were little farms everywhere full of citrus trees and olive groves where we sampled disgusting prickly pear liqueur.  We rode on to Mdina and Rabat.  If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones, these are the filming locations of King’s Landing.  That evening all the drinking and smoking caught up to me as I started to feel sick during dinner and had to puke up all that prickly pear. 

We awoke to a freezing cold downpour with dark clouds overhead… perfect weather for an excursion to Olympia, Greece.  Our bus took us through a tiny village where we met our guide, who just happened to look exactly like my Uncle Tony… except that our guide mainly spoke Slovenian.  He kept speaking Slovenian for a hour while the rest of the tours walked around, so we ditched the tour.  Olympia looks exactly like it does when you watch the lighting of the Olympic torch every two years.  Just a bunch of ruins and columns, but the stadium is pretty cool.  Afterwards we stopped into a town where mom stole a bunch of orange and lemons from people’s yards while we tried tzatziki and boxed wine.  From there we strolled through the old town near the ship and had the local delicacy of hotdogs and Bahama mamas for lunch.  We couldn’t eat the fruit that mom stole as it was so sour it made you gag; of course Dad loved them.  Instead we shoved the peels into our shoes at night to help with the stink of rotting feet.
it was a little cool in Mycenae...

The rain died down the next day, but it was still ungodly cold and windy for our trip to Mycenae, capitol city of the Bronze Age Mycenaean empire.  We entered the famed Lions Gate and clambered up the wind swept hillside.  The cold bit into our faces, but the landscape was really stunning.  Afterwards was a small museum where they showed off the golden funeral mask of Agamemnon. Our guide showed us the tombs and tunnels where Jason slew the Minotaur… although I could have sworn that was fictional. The last part was a visit to a huge Roman amphitheater in Epirus.  A famous French singer was on the cruise, and she stood in the middle of the stage and sang an opera for a few minutes, allowing everyone to be amazed at the acoustics of this 4,000 year old structure, punctuated with a round applause.  Mom followed her up with Eddie Blazonczyk’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”

A side note to all these damn bus trips.  At every stop, I had two tasks: I needed to buy myself a tacky shot glass for my collection, and I had to buy, write, and send postcards to all my sisters.  This second feat almost always involved me holding up a bus or frantically scribbling “wish you were here in…” on the bus while scanning for a post box.  At the end of the trip I tallied up over $70 in cards and postage… hope the girls enjoyed it.

A full day at sea and we were finally blessed with warm, sunny skies.  The deck chairs were untied and everyone nabbed their spots.  We broke out the books and headphones, and spent the entire day getting sunburned next to leathery old Europeans.  A poker tournament at night where I came in third was not a bad way to finish the day.  We crashed early since our next stop would be a biggie for everyone… Israel.