Battle of Pavia Tapestries Exhibit - From Naples to Fort Worth

The day finally arrived: Saturday morning, June 15, 2024. The lecture auditorium at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Listening to the world's foremost expert on medieval and Renaissance tapestries, a gentleman who has earned the moniker of "Tapestry Tom" (aka Thomas P. Campbell of Oxford, the Met, and now San Francisco's museums), exceeded all of my lofty expectations. Envious of one who had afforded himself the luxury of dedicating his life to the pursuit of something not of this world ("this world" being comprised of both place AND time), I was also keenly aware that I could have just as well done so, were it not for my younger self prioritizing the pursuit of immediate financial reward above a lifetime of personal and professional fulfillment.

The Battle of Pavia, near Milan, was part of the wars around the Italian Peninsula in the late medieval/early Renaissance period. Everyone wanted a piece of Italy, but the two major belligerents were the kings of France and Spain, Francis I and Charles I, respectively. Charles also happened to hold the title of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (not I, but V) for good measure, and his coffers were overflowing with the ongoing plunder of overwhelming riches from New Spain. He had money to burn on mercenaries, and burn he did. But Francis I (or "Francois Premier" as Tapestry Tom's British accented voice repeatedly referenced him) was a formidable opponent. The battle came down to guns, specifically arquebuses, triumphing over armor, and it was over quickly. Charles had them, Francis did not. What remains are the exquisite tapestries that were created to commemorate the conflict, as they have done for the last 500 years. In fact, this first visit of the 7 Battle of Pavia tapestries to the U.S. will still be in America on the 500th anniversary of the battle in February 2025 (the exhibit will grace first Fort Worth, then San Francisco, and finally Houston, before making its way back home to Italy).

The tapestries are enormous, 28 feet wide by 14 feet tall, and breathtakingly detailed. To give yourself an idea of the size, just go step off 28 feet in a large room (which will likely not be wide enough of a room, so find a bigger one) with tall ceilings (which will likely not be tall enough, so find a taller one), then imagine 7 tapestries of this size. With threads of wool, silk, and even gold and silver, only a few people in the world would have had the wealth to produce such a multi-year undertaking by the best weavers and equipment in the world (found only in Brussels due to a variety of factors) as the creation of these works of art and propaganda. Among them were the aforementioned combatants, along with King Henry VIII of England (whose country would have its own invasion by the son of Charles V, Philip II, thwarted 63 years later when the Spanish Armada sank). But what does this have to do with Faith, Reason, and Truth?

These monarchs of Europe, be they Kings, Emperors, or Popes, all derived their legitimacy in one way or another from God. Without that, they would not have had the necessary authority to rule over the people of their realms. Still, they also very much relied on their reason to formulate not only the plans and strategies of warfare, of attack and defense, of diplomacy, of logistics, of alliances; not only those, but also for weaponry and armor. They needed all of their human faculties to create the kingdoms and empires whose achievements and failures have come down to us through the centuries. As for truth, we see once again that any true king would need both faith and reason in order to rule, as has been the case throughout human history. That is the truth.

4 Years Later

Once again, January works its magic, and here we are. Writing something on this blog.

The transportive effect of reading what I wrote in the last post, 2 weeks into 2020, is hard to shake. The first paragraphs, along with the ending sentence (“Let’s start this thing!”) could be rewritten verbatim right now and fit perfectly (minus the part about having written thousands of words of a novel last year, which I did not do this time around). But the other words of that final paragraph can be haunting, if permitted:

”So, 2020. Where have you been all my life?”

No such tempting of fate will be attempted here.

Five days in, I am already grateful beyond belief. It is enough that the year began with one of my teams winning, one losing. SO CLOSE to having a ridiculously improbable dream realized, the one where both of my teams play each other for the national championship. But despite a dream year for the Longhorns falling about thirteen yards short at the end of the semifinal, my alma mater’s football team will not be battling my original college football love, Michigan, in Houston for the title. It is now solely up to the Wolverines to finish the job.

And it is enough that my family was able simply to be together for the holidays, and that my wife’s mother is still with us despite all prior indications to the contrary (never underestimate the will to fight, no matter what the doctors and nurses tell you). We never know how long we have with our loved ones, young or old, and this holiday season has been a daily proof of that reality. From the day we took her to the hospital for some general unwellness two days before Thanksgiving, to the weeks-long struggle for her very life, to the somewhat stable condition she is now in.

The truth is, no person knows how long any of us has. The only one who truly knows is God, and for us and our faith in that all-knowing, all-encompassing plan and the One who created it, that is enough.

What Is It About January?

Over a year. Wow. That's how long it's been since the last crafting of a blog post. That was January 4, this is January 15. After reading the two posts from last January, I can confidently state that some things refuse to change. Apparently, they require someone to change them, as they simply will not change themselves.

After a few weeks of furiously repetitive picking, my lifelong practice of not playing the banjo resumed well before the calendar turned to its second month, and the thing has been touched only on occasions to move it during vacuuming or creating space for an air mattress on the floor of the room in which it resides. I did make myself pick a few strings for a minute or so over the course of the year just to say I did, but could not say where the actual finger picks are. They are not lost, nor are they thrown away, of that much I am certain. But no more than that.

I also steadily kept up the habit of not recording any audio or video for others to consume. No podcasts or Youtubes were created in 2019. Consistency!

On a positive note, I did manage to continue my active involvement in the lives of those who also reside under the same roof as I do, even if their residencies were and continue to be interrupted by stays on their college campuses for days, weeks, even months on end. I continue to be awestruck at the activity and accomplishments of my wife and kids, and though it is barely two weeks into 2020, they are already crushing it within their own particular universes.

While I did manage to bang out tens of thousands of words of one novel, I also crafted several hundred to a few thousand words in each of a few others. Having multiple irons in the fire is the way I've always rolled, and 2019 was no different. 2019 was also the year of honing in on what my channel would be, knowing that focusing on too many subjects is the same as focusing on none at all. My solution is to work in a little history, philosophy, and maybe religion to my tech videos, but only enough to where if the viewer blinks, it will be missed. An interesting or informative side observation or background item here and there will serve only to provide some additional color to the real subject of the video, with long digressions kept to a minimum, if not avoided altogether.

So, 2020. Where have you been all my life? I'm ready, tech topics are ready, my gear and know-how are ready. Let's start this thing!

Christ Knew There Was More to the Story

The mercy of the Father is infinite. We know this. But WHY is it infinite? Why does it exist at all?

No, I do not claim to know the mind of God. But I do know that people have reasons for doing things. People may reasonably disagree about those reasons, but it seems that all action is undertaken because of . . . something. That thing can range from fending off starvation to seeking shelter from something harmful to wanting something to happen. The cause could also be nothing more than a desire to be entertained, occupied, or otherwise distracted from a present circumstance.

God knows this, and so should you. When the Roman soldiers arrested Jesus in the Garden, he forgave them. When Peter cut off the ear of one of the aggressors, Jesus forgave Peter. Jesus forgives. He understood that the soldiers did what they believed they should have done, and he understood that Peter did what he felt he had to do. The Lord instructed us to turn the other cheek not out of masochism, but out of understanding. Understand the other, see things as they do. Do not retaliate. Perhaps the thing has been done out of pure cruelty, perhaps not. It is even quite possible that the person does not want forgiveness at all, believing that either he or she has done nothing wrong, or that the wrong was somehow justified. We will most likely never understand the full, true motivation of an action, but we can make an effort to do so.

God, on the other hand, does in fact know the whole story. He knows what we have been through, and he understands why we do the things we choose to do. Jesus went so far as to ask his Father to forgive people who did not even ask for it, people who "knew not what they did." Think about that! It is a hard, hard thing to do. In my own life, I am about the furthest from being persecuted as a person could be, as far as I am aware. And yet . . . I struggle with harboring ill will towards a perceived slight. I know I should not, I know people did things they felt they had to do. I know that I am largely at fault for what led to the thing, by not trying harder to either handle or escape a difficult set of circumstances.

Do I focus on mea culpa though? Or do I instead choose to look at what they could have or should have done differently? Most of the time, it's the former, but occasionally the latter creeps in. The fact is, everyone should have acted differently than we did, and it is up to me to make my peace and forgive, even though no one is asking for it. Easier said than done, this business of forgiving; Jesus is indeed an impossible act to follow.

The main takeaway, for me, is that of all the reasons to do something to another person, the fact that they first did something to you is not acceptable. Do not strike someone simply because they struck you. Do not help someone simply because they helped you. Do not hate someone, or even love someone, simply because they first hated or loved you. Hate no one, love everyone. I believe the purpose of this instruction is to instill personal responsibility for one's actions, rather than making them dependent upon the actions of another. It leads us, as does so much of what God teaches and provides, on an expansive path to empowerment and freedom. If we can actually do it, then we can break the chains of limiting, self-destructive tendencies like revenge and retaliation. It is daunting when we are down here in the weeds, rather than in Heaven with our Father. But Christ was down here with us, and his trust in God that there is more to this story than being tortured and murdered is what enabled him to live that brief earthly existence walking among us. He understood that, yes, he himself would suffer. But the gift he gave us through that suffering and ensuing forgiveness would save billions of people, which is the REAL story.

Doing Something New This Year

Reflecting on 2018 was a tale of two selves for me. The husband/father, and the rest, i.e. the self. From the perspectives of my “kids” (I place the term in quotes because one just wrapped up her first semester of college and the other is one semester away from following her out the door of our home), it was an amazing year. And, not to brag or boast, but I am proud of the role I played in their years. My son confidently proclaimed it his “most productive year ever,” and I cannot argue with that assessment. The things they did, and my wife as well, would fill pages, and I could not be more proud!

I, on the other hand, cannot claim the same level of accomplishment. I did all that I could to support the three of them, and I do share in their achievements. I have no doubt that they would have done much or all of what they did with or without me, but there is great joy in making the paths of others a little smoother, a little clearer. Plenty of attaboys, attagirls, emotional support, encouragement that frequently dipped well into more philosophical waters, keeping the lows from getting too low and the highs from getting too high. Getting them to think about things from different perspectives, more broadly or more granular, varying the time horizons of the implications of their choices and decisions, realizing that their losses are sometimes others’ wins and reminding them that it can feel really good to be happy for others, that sort of thing. But as for me personally, while listening to John Lennon ask “so this is Christmas, what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun,” I found myself wanting. Indeed, what HAD I done? Not much. Being there for others is essential, make no mistake. But one cannot live solely for others any more than he can live solely for himself. Not for any sustainable length of time, anyway.

To be sure, I had plenty of things that I did FOR myself. No one would ever accuse me of not taking enough time for myself, far from it! But I just did not make the most of all that self time. I read a lot, watched a lot, listened to a lot. I suppose I learned a lot, but only in the sense of knowing more stuff. The problem is that I did not do much with what I learned, and I don’t feel like I learned a new “thing,” a new skill. I wrote some, got into some entertaining Twitter fights back in the spring and summer before unfollowing the political content and miraculously finding myself a gentler, less angry human. So the “unfollow” capability is definitely a new arrow in my self-preservation quiver, now that I think about it. And, all rage and frustration aside, the realization of how pointless the whole political process and ensuing media coverage from both sides are was truly eye-opening, and I could not have gotten to it without the full immersion I employed from around February through, say, August.

A new camera, microphone, software, and LOTS of Youtube (again, something I had not previously explored, beyond looking up a specific viral video every now and then) led to attempts at photo and video editing. I did not stick with it long enough to consider video production a learned or even a developing skill, but it is too early to declare that I will never acquire those talents. Photo, video, and audio are areas that have always held my interest, and I will continue to attempt to produce works that I would actually share with strangers with an expectation that someone may actually enjoy them or find them useful in some way. But that’s a long way off, and not something I’m focused on as I sit here at the beginning of 2019.

What, then, is there? There is this: a banjo. I returned a gadget I had asked for and received (a Google Home Hub, if you must know), and ordered an inexpensive starter model of banjo in its stead. This required more reading, watching, and listening, but now, there was an actual purpose: the learning of the types of banjo and the styles of playing, and the gaining of sufficient knowledge to make a reasonably informed decision on which banjo, as well as the right finger and thumb picks, to buy. Just the act of choosing to return yet another device for consumption in exchange for a thing to learn how to play is a major victory; in fact, I will go so far as to proclaim the year 2019 off to a rousing start, especially when coupled with the annual swearing off of added sugar in favor of more plants in my diet.

Two days (ok, a day and a half) into THAT effort, I already feel shockingly good compared to my normal state. That is likely the main reason I took the time to sit down and produce the words for this post. I know what to expect regarding my embrace of green and forsaking of sugar, because this isn’t my first rodeo: after the initial euphoria, in which my body is living off of plenty of stored badness while the formerly impenetrable fog of mind and body begins to clear, I will experience some exceedingly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. And I will get through them with nothing more than a Tylenol or two, as they will be short-lived. Then, after rapid weight loss for a few more days and continuing overall well-being, I will come to a crossroads. Perhaps next week, maybe later. It will seem too easy, the progress will slow, and I will grow bored. It will be tempting to conclude, once again, that yes, the plant-based thing really does work, but what’s the harm in having that pancake with 100% maple syrup (or cookie, or ice cream, or burger, or Italian anything) on this special occasion (whatever that occasion may be)? But THIS time, I will grab my banjo, fire up a “how to play such and such on the banjo” video for one of my favorite songs, push through the doldrums and continue on to still greener pastures (as I continue my 2019 plant-based, banjo-infused diet while not being inhumane to any sentient animal for purposes of yummier-tasting food when so many amazing plant options are available with just a bit more effort and cost), because I stuck with it once before and want that feeling again. 2018 left me somewhat empty and unfulfilled, but 2019 is going to be something special. It already is!

The Latin Emperor Who Wrote His Masterpiece in Greek

The student becomes the teacher, and the teacher the student. It is so utterly rewarding to plant a seed, then enjoy the fruits of it years down the road!

Five and half years ago, a family decision was unanimously agreed upon regarding the education of our son. He would leave the public school system, where his older sister happily remained, and enter a Catholic all boys school for seventh grade. Then, if all went as hoped, he would continue on through his high school graduation. There were a number of good reasons for this, one of which was the attainment of a more classical education that delved deeply into the foundations of Western Civilization. In order to better understand where we are, it is terrifically useful to know where we started, and what transpired in between. It is not enough to learn that “Texas” began with the Alamo and 180 brave Americans, or that America commenced in July 1776. There is more to the story. Much more.

Over the next few years, he would become steeped in Latin and religion, along with the standard school subjects. All students followed the same rigorous curriculum. After some years of Latin, they would choose to concentrate on either Spanish or French, and he chose French, just like his old man before him. But for his junior year elective, a precious commodity that each student is allowed one per semester, he chose yet again to study a language, and this time it was Ancient Greek. For both semesters. The language instructors at the school are truly amazing, and the Cistercian monk who taught the Ancient Greek elective to my son and one other brave soul was no exception.

With all of this as the backdrop, fast forward to a conversation between my son and me a few days ago. One of us had brought up the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, noted Roman emperor from around 160 to 180AD. I believe I made some reference to it, wondering if they had gone over any of it back in the days of studying Latin during his first few years at the school, or if he had merely discovered the great Stoic for himself as I eventually had (although my discovery did not occur until my mid-late 30’s, and I never took Latin). The boy, or should I say young man, respectfully corrected me. If one can even consider it as such; looking back, it was more of a pointing out of something I obviously had not known, rather than a correction. There is a subtle difference, and he has mastered the art of informing without requiring the other party to feel that they were “wrong” in a way that most teens and far too few adults can pull off. Sometimes, one simply does not know a thing, has not learned it, and has formed an assumption based on what he or she actually does know. And that assumption is thus not fully informed, subject to further enlightenment through additional information.

The thing I did not know is that Marcus Aurelius, one of the more magnificent emperors of Rome and a follower of the Stoic path (there were already plenty of Christians in the empire, but Marcus did not count himself as one), wrote not in Latin but in Greek. As, it turns out, the highly educated people of the empire did at that time. As one who has always prided himself on an above-average knowledge of classical and medieval history, that is a fact that had escaped me. I knew the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew, and eventually translated into Latin. But I had not carried that knowledge over to the composition of the Meditations, and assumed that Roman Emperor = Latin writer. Wrong. Countless books and articles, hundreds and hundreds of hours spent on my own extracurricular education, and here before me stood my 17-year old son pointing out something that I had never known. This is a different sensation than, say, calculus or chemistry, where a thing may have been once learned but then eventually forgotten due to lack of further pursuit or interest. This was a thing that I was passionate about, a passion that had been passed on to my son, for which I had considered it important enough to alter his very educational path to do something different than almost everyone does. Now, at age 48.9, I myself was the benefactor of a tiny sliver of that education. The takeaway from this experience is simply to keep planting those seeds, no matter how old or young one is.

In planning the writing of this piece, I went back and perused some of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in English, as my bedside copy is). Every time I do so, I am dumbfounded by the universality of his thoughts. Here are a few:

Book 5, 16    Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Book 4, 36    Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.

Book 8, 36    Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee:  but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? For thou wilt be ashamed to confess.

A Great Storyteller Telling A Great Story: Pope Saint John Paul II & His Pal, George Weigel

Pope Saint John Paul II lived an incredible life of faith, hope, and love. We all know how beloved he was, and many of us know he was Polish. A great number also realize the absolutely critical role he played in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, although there were others who received more credit than the Pope. The fact is, it likely would not have happened at all, were it not for John Paul II; if it did, it certainly would not have done so as suddenly as it did. Ironic indeed, as the Soviets themselves were almost certainly behind the assassination attempt on the Pope early in his papacy. They obviously realized the grave threat posed by the unarmed leader with no military at his command. All he had was his unwavering faith in God, his love for all people, and an unyielding hope that history would play out as intended. A hope that, taken at face value, seems almost as absurd today looking back as it did at the time, before the events unfolded.

In my mind, there is none greater at telling this fascinating tale than papal biographer George Weigel. He has written a number of books on Karol Wojtyla, the Pope's given name, and I have read them all (audiobooks, but that still counts - in fact, I contend that the audio versions have a distinct advantage for non-Polish speakers, as the narrators of these books pronounce the names of the people and places in Polish, and one would never guess how those names actually sound merely by looking at letters on a page). I am so familiar with the Polish pronunciations after listening to the works of Weigel that I instinctively hear "Krakov" every time I see "Krakow" in print or on a screen, and I wonder if I were to say it aloud, should I use the "American" or the "Polish" pronunciation? No matter. I am here today to simply extoll the wonder of a beautiful life story as told by a master storyteller who is clearly as in awe of and in love with his subject as one could be. So am I, thanks to Weigel.

The first two treatments of Pope Saint John Paul II by George Weigel were Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. The third, which I am just finishing, is Lessons In Hope, a finely detailed recounting of the process behind the production of the other works. Weigel has gone back through his decades-old copious notes and shares them with us, everything from people and places and dates to the thinking behind why he spoke to specific individuals. Some were helpful, while others tried their best not to be; in the end, all were seen for what they were, even if nothing more than being generous with their time. But insights can be gleaned even by attempts to thwart progress, and Weigel seems to have successfully turned many or most such attempts towards the ultimate goal of producing as deep an understanding of his subject as possible.

The shorter days and colder, darker nights of winter still lay stretched out before us. Times like these, calling into question the values of our leaders and fellow citizens, are when the soul longs for something personal, though it may not be sure exactly what. Perhaps it is the simple wondering of "what can I DO?" Jesus of Nazareth, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is the answer to every question. Sometimes that may not be the answer we would like to have, partially because of how obvious and straightforward it is. Though simple, it is by no means easy, and Jesus came to personally show us that the Way can be unpleasant in human terms. But that is the point. There is more to our existence than just the self-centric side of the equation. If making things more difficult for ourselves leads to making them better for someone else, as Jesus did, we are probably on the right track. Pope Saint John Paul II was an inspiring, compelling, extraordinary embodiment of that kind of selfless, "others first" existence, and there is simply no better guide for a journey through that life than George Weigel.

Roman Awe

The double espresso shot was strong and over quickly, as expected. The kids enjoyed their gelatti, with my wife opting for a cappuccino. Then, a text from Natalia - finally! She explained that she had six different properties checking out and then in this morning, and she apologized for her non-responsiveness. No matter the circumstance, an apology is always appreciated. And I never lost sight of the fact that she had been trying to accommodate us by allowing us to get into the apartment several hours earlier than her normal check-in time so that we could drop our bags and get to exploring Rome. It was about an hour later than we had initially discussed, and the apprehension of being in Europe for the first time while being unable to get a response from our only local contact, piled on top of so much sleeplessness with a long, full day of Roman sightseeing ahead of us had taken a toll, but it was time to regroup and get rolling!

Keeping an eye out for "Phyllis," Natalia's representative, I noted a hopeful-looking, smallish man of possibly Filipino descent making his way toward us on the narrow cobblestone street outside of Don Nino. Definitely not what I would be expecting to be a Phyllis. In fact, when I stepped toward him, prompting him to say "Mr. Worth?" to which I responded, "Phyllis?" I could feel my family thinking me a clueless idiot. Much to their surprise, however, came his enthusiastic '"Yes!" followed by an offer to grab some of our bags and follow him through a locked door on the street that was directly in front of us. Time for the first of many old, dimly lit staircases, coming as no surprise to any of us. Universally, a thing Americans notice about European travel is the lack of elevators and abundance of steps. Our expectations were duly met over the course of the following two weeks.

The place was ridiculously more spacious than a hotel would have been, which we already knew from the many pictures on the airbnb site. That's one of the great things about airbnb. You could theoretically run into some fraudulent image posting and find yourself in a place decorated completely differently than the pictures show (which never happened to us at any of our six apartments), but the place is the place, and you know what to expect when you walk in. Still, it felt more magical than I had anticipated, being in the home of someone who actually lived in Rome by the Pantheon (or at least had at one time, before deciding to go full airbnb with it and turn it into a rental property). We looked out the bedroom windows down onto the street a couple of stories below, a smattering of people walking and talking. It was still early, too early for the crowds we would see later on and especially into the night. Now, it was time to leave most of our belongings in a Roman apartment with a man we had just met a few minutes earlier, with no way to know who he actually was if we returned later to find some or all of it missing. After getting our keys from him and checking that we could get through the various doors between the street and our home for the next three nights, we were on our way.

First up was the Pantheon. I don't believe any of us were ready for how massive and awe-inspiring it would be inside. This was a sensation that would be repeated on numerous occasions over the coming thirteen days:  "wow, I knew this would be amazing, but not THIS amazing!" And there seemed to always be some little thing that could easily be missed or taken for granted, but if you noticed it, proved to be yet another incredible find. First up on this list was something none of us knew about the Pantheon, which was that Raphael is there. When he died at just 37 years old, he had already accomplished so much (including the magnificent fresco "The School of Athens," which has been the cover image of this very blog for many years) that his request to be buried at the Pantheon was honored. So there he lies, as he has for the past 500 years.

Next was the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II ("Il Vittoriano"), an enormous marble complex which looks ancient and spectacularly classical but is actually barely a hundred years old. It's a commemoration of Italy becoming a unified country under its first king, Victor Emmanuel. Again, this only happened in the late 1800's. The Kingdom of Italy.

I didn't take any pictures of the monumental building and steps, but here's one from the top of it. Really great vantage point from here, even better than from the top of the dome of St. Peter's. That's why we stopped there and spent more time than we had planned (yet another recurring theme of the trip).

It was getting hot and we needed food. A stroll down the length of the ruins of Trajan Forum's below street level (wide and spacious, while set much lower than the present day street level) and the Column of Trajan brought us to a shaded outdoor eatery for our first taste of pizza, pasta, and expensive bottled mineral water to accompany the meals. But with the Colosseum beckoning, we instead headed back to the apartment to regroup, freshen up (which we still had not been able to do since leaving America), and hit the trail refreshed and reinvigorated.

Upon our return, after our first Roman bus experience using our Roma Passes that we had purchased at a tobacco shop by the Pantheon for cash (which prompted our second ATM stop, the first one being the one in the airport), the place looked even better than before, with all of our belongings as we had left them. No worries! There was bottled water for us in the fridge, fresh fruit on the table, and after taking turns with the two bathrooms in the apartment (we already knew what a prized commodity that any free, i.e. non-pay, restroom in Rome was), it was back to the Colosseum.

Airbnb, the Pantheon, and Gelatti

Three months before the trip, we had not made a single hotel reservation. Despite knowing our exact travel dates since last July, this March rolled around with no accommodations booked. The one thing we had arranged by March, thanks to a suggestion from a friend who had traveled to Europe extensively including multiple trips to Rome, became one of the most moving experiences of the entire two weeks:  the Scavi tour.

Before that life-changing encounter with the bones of St. Peter, which came on Day 2 of the trip, we needed to get through Day 1. Upon landing at 7:30am Roma time (still only 12:30am back home in Texas, which we had left at around 7am Texas time the day before), we had no checked bags, strolling directly off the plane and into an awaiting line of international travelers, but the line to get through the passport check inside the airport still took a good half hour. We had read and watched much of what renowned travel expert Rick Steves had to say about European travel, and his advice had been to wait until landing at the airport to pull Euros out of an ATM. That would supposedly yield a better rate than exchanging money at a bank in the U.S. or at a money changer in Europe. I have no analysis to back up his claim, but I had (and still have) no reason to doubt his wisdom. We dutifully withdrew a couple hundred Euros to get us started, knowing that the drive to the airbnb would cost 55 of them. Credit cards were supposed to be widely accepted at restaurants and shops, and it's best to use them whenever possible, but cash is still necessary - more than we first realized, as we quickly blew through most of that initial 250 Euros.

A driver awaited us, holding a piece of paper with our last name written on it, outside of the customs area at the Roma airport. Older, very Italian, and smoking as soon as we walked outside (cigarette smoke is a big player in Europe, probably more so in Rome and the rest of Italy than in Provence or Barcelona, but definitely everywhere), Massimo spoke practically no English, but our Roman airbnb hostess had arranged it all ahead of time for us, so Massimo knew exactly where to drop us off. I Google Mapped the drive to the apartment, and he took the exact route it laid out. Not that it mattered, since the cost was already set.

After miraculously not hitting anyone or anything on his drive through the exceedingly tight, ancient streets of the historic part of the city, he dropped us at the Pantheon. Literally, directly next to the Pantheon, nothing between us and it. He told us he had just texted with our hostess (as I had attempted to do but received no replies) and she would be there to greet us in a minute. Then we paid him and he drove away.

IMG_20170608_091422So there we were, four people who had been awake for close to 24 hours straight, holding eight carry on pieces, standing next to the Pantheon in Rome. There was no hotel, no lobby, no place to hold our bags until our room was ready, no one to communicate with, since our hostess was not responding to messages through the airbnb app, texts, or phone calls. We did not even know where the apartment was, even though we had its address, since the streets are not usually marked very well and our intended address was nowhere to be found. Adding to the disorientation was the realization that the blue dot on our phone maps representing our location tended to randomly bounce around from block to block, so not only did you not know where you were going, but you also did not know where you were. This should not have been much of an issue standing at the Pantheon or other landmarks and open spaces that are easily located with satellite view on the map app, but it had not yet occurred to me to turn on satellite view (and would continue to prove problematic when walking the narrow alleys surrounded by tall stone structures on each side, which was pretty much the base case scenario in Rome and Venice). Suddenly, the amazing airbnb experience that had allowed us to secure spacious, washing machined, multi-bathroomed, perfectly located places to stay in every city at prices ridiculously lower than cramped hotel rooms and which were long sold out anyway, seemed like not such a great idea after all.

There was only one thing left to try, and it was a long shot due to the fact that it was still only 9am:  find some gelato (or gelatti as the Italians call it), which Rick Steves had assured us was the best in the world (in Italy in general, though more specifically in Florence to the north). Tired of schlepping heavy carry ons, I dropped mine with my family standing up against some ancient-looking stone facade a little ways from the Pantheon and walked up the plaza in front of the 2000-year old temple to the gods and took a side street. There, on the Via dei Pastini (which would prove to be the very street/alley that our apartment was on just a few doors down), was Don Nino, open for business. Having never heard of it, but seeing that the ice cream - sorry, gelatti - in its display case looked perfectly cold and yummy, I went back and retrieved the family. A minute or three of schlepping later, and we were all enjoying either our first shots of Italian espresso or the first of many, many gelattis! Still no word from Natalia, but that no longer mattered quite so much.


Getting to Europe

Europe had been a dream for years, since long before my wife and I were my wife and me. She had been to Germany and a smidgen of France with work before I knew her, and also to Berlin and Madrid while we were dating. Crushingly, I could not go with her on either occasion, but we were young, in our early-mid 20's, and there was always next time!

Twenty-something years later, we were not going to be denied. We went someplace every summer for a week or so, always to great American destinations. Nothing wrong with seeing one's own country before exploring the world, right? But with enough frequent flyer miles amassed, it was time to pull the trigger - a trigger that required being pulled eleven months in advance on American Airlines if we were to get the dates and airports we wanted. So we booked it last July for this June, as soon as school was out for the kids, and before the dreaded July and August. July and August bring two things to Europe that are to be avoided if at all possible:  heat, and lots of tourists. There are plenty of tourists in June, and the weather is certainly already warming up, but the northeastern U.S. as well as much of Europe gets out of school around the end of June, so things get far more crowded then. The masses make places and activities more expensive and tougher to reserve, while many Europeans take time off and close down their shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, the nice, warm weather of late spring and early summer turns into oppressive heat in some areas once late June and early July roll into town.

Flying from Dallas to Europe required a big decision:  which airport to fly into? Rome and Paris were always 1a and 1b as far as dream destinations, so we thought we would fly into Paris and then home from Rome. Maybe four or five days in each place, a week and a half total. Flights among big cities in Europe are short and cheap, so it would be easy to get from Paris to Rome. Many of these intercity flights are about an hour long and cost as little as $50 or $60 one way, which was shocking to see. One problem though:  none of us, especially my high school daughter, had any desire to be in Paris with the ongoing terrorist attacks that have targeted major cities including Paris, Brussels, and London. Rome is always a target as well, but whether due to the prayers of the faithful or extra tight security throughout the city or a combination of the two, it has not been rocked like the others. So we decided to fly to Rome, then home from Barcelona. And on the excellent advice of many, to extend the trip from 10 days to 14.


With the flight to Rome came a five-hour layover in New York, sandwiched between a 3.5 hour flight from DFW to LGA and a 8.5 hour flight from JFK to Rome, during which time we had to gather our baggage when we landed at LaGuardia, get a ride to JFK, and wait to take off from JFK to Rome. The flight back from Barcelona via Philly would be much simpler. Making all of this infinitely more doable was the fact that my wife and daughter made the bold, winner move of making their packing of two weeks' worth of clothing work with NO CHECKED BAGS. I cannot overstate how amazing this was for all of us! They made the sacrifice, and we all reaped the rewards. This act of kindness was made possible by the decision to do the trip in airbnb apartments, no hotels. Airbnb can mean multiple bathrooms, at least one living area, a kitchen, and crucially, a washing machine for clothes. Amenities such as these (and of course, air conditioning) can all be selected when the search for lodging on airbnb's magnificent website is being conducted.

Alas, all was not bliss when it came to some of the finer details of the airbnb experience. More to follow tomorrow.