26 July, 2013

Spoleto, Italy (22 July-27 July)

We are staying in one of the coolest little Italian villages - Spoleto. Our apartment is right in the middle of the town, down a cobblestone road that is too narrow for cars. To enter it, you first open a tall black metal gate and walk through a little courtyard filled with pots of flowers and trees until you get to our little wooden door. 

Our courtyard - our apartment is on the second floor.

The natural light in the apartment is amazing!

We've had fun wandering around the town:

And eating gelato. This time I had ginger snap, Kaija and Courtney tried the Kinder Chocolate Nazeriah had her normal limone and Chayton (who likes everything naked) had vanilla.

Tonight, pizza at the local pizzeria!

19 July, 2013

The more I travel, the less I know.... (July 9) Dachau Germany

Today was the first full day that I have been away from my family on this adventure of ours.  It would have been nice to have Melissa with me to share the experience. But since I was spending the day at the Dachau Concentration Camp we decided the kids were still a bit young to grapple with the horrific story that unfolded there and the memories that linger in this exspansive, sad complex.

Entrance Gate - Arbeit macht frei

I clearly had no idea what to expect.  I opted for a small group tour, 7 of us, which really provided an opportunity to hear all that our guide told us and ask questions (alas, after about 20 minutes I really did not feel like talking anymore).  It was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature in the 70's.  We entered the camp the same way as those that were sentenced here - through the black gates that said in German "Work makes you free." You see, Dachau was a "work" camp, not an"extermination" camp.  

The definitions are a bit lost on me, but for the sake of some background info, the Nazi's had basically two types of camps - work and extermination camps.  Extermination camps were set up to rid society of those not "clean" enough to be a part of the superior German race.  If you were sent to one of these camps you might live 3-4 months if you did not die first of malnutrition, disease, abuse, crude scientific experiments, or the whim of some officer with a gun.  If you did not fall to your fate that way you were sent to the gas chambers and were promptly cremated. Work camps were set up to help feed the Nazi war machine: build small machines, equipment or anything that the Nazi's needed to further their cause.  Or, you were "offered" up to outside companies like Hugo Boss, Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), Kodak, Chase, IBM and many others as cheap labor.  However, most met the same end as those in the extermination camps.  In the work camps the torture would just be prolonged. 

Jews, political criminals (those that did not support the Nazi's), homosexuals, and basic criminals were the main groups sentenced to camps. Below is an overview of the triangle coding system (not exhaustive):

Yellow - Jewish
Red - Political prisoners 
Green - Criminals
Blue - Emigrants
Purple - Jehovah Witnesses
Pink - Sexual offenders (mostly homosexual)
Black -  Work Shy (homeless), Pacifists, Alcoholics, mentally ill
Brown - Gypsies

Once through the gates we stood in an expansive courtyard where those that arrived were sorted based on age, gender, ability and ethnicity.  This after days of being in a box car (many perished on this journey) while transported from any number of areas from Germany, France, Italy, Holland and other countries that Germany invaded.  Families were separated at this point, most never seeing each other again.  This is also where roll call was done every morning and evening and could last for hours - regardless of weather.  If you were unfortunate to have died between these times and had not been cleared by a Doctor as being dead, your companions were to bring your body to the courtyard to be counted.  Even in death, there was no dignity.

As we walked towards our next stop our guide pointed out the 7 guard towers.  After the camp was liberated and the complex was set up as a memorial, the survivors asked that the towers were to never be used again. In that way no one could ever look down (from high up in the towers) upon anyone - ever again.  A very fitting request and a powerful statement to us all.

We then headed to the baths.  This is where any last shred of dignity was literally stripped away.  You were stripped, all your belongings taken away, washed and given a uniform.  You were lucky if the uniform fit and it really didn't provide any protection from the harsh weather. 

Next we watched a brief video taken when the US troops liberated the camp.  It was probably the most chilling of things I had seen up to this point; the bodies piled up, the few Nazi SS still there, and the few that were living were so emaciated that their lives were on the brink - only a miracle at this point would see them through the next few hours.  Days before the US arrived many were killed, those that were not, were starved and most of the Nazi's abandoned the camp.  It should have been a time for celebration for those imprisoned there, but sadly most were on deaths door.

We then visited the Prison.  A long, dark hallway with small rooms on each side.  There was nothing distinct about it, but it had a deep saddness around it.  As busy as it was, a school group had descended upon it at this point, it still felt very quiet and cold - and the hallway had the illusion for going on forever.  I looked in a few cells and found myself making my way for the exit.  Our tour guide later told us they not only used it to detain a few people (most people were killed for even the most minor infraction, so it was hard to understand the logic of having a prison in the first place), but it was also used to do "experiments" on people or torture them.  After the war it was actually used to house some of the Nazi's themselves.

On our next stop we visited the memorials.  The first one, the International Monument is filled with emotion and despair.  Quite moving.  It really seemed to represent what took place here.  At that point I felt my visit was becoming much darker.  The entire place felt void of life.  I couldn't help but be consumed with a total sense of sadness and despair - in a way I have never felt before.

At first glance, the second memorial was a bit more uplifting and honored those that passed through the gates. It is a sculpture with three links of a chain held together by bars in between signifying the unity among the prisoners.  

However, after a few seconds you notice a few colors are missing: pink, green, and black. Those colors of homosexuals, work shy, and criminals (a Nazi's definition of criminals could have been a Jewish sympathizer or some trumped up charge).  I will withhold my commentary about penal systems in general, but for the sake of the memorial, it is quite telling of the times (1960's) and how society did not honor all that had been persecuted in such a horrendous way.  Didn't this just perpetuate the ignorance that had gone before?  Were they not directly feeding into the same unfounded ideology of the Nazi's?  I have to admit, this only added to my anguish - even in death they were not recognized.  I can't reconcile this in any way.  We did learn that eventually homosexuals were honored many years later with a small plaque somewhere else in the camp.

The 3rd memorial was a lot simpler, but equally has powerful.  It was the words "Never Again" in 5 different languages. Right infront stood a small box containing ashes found when the camp was liberated.  Never again ... sadly there have been numerous "agains.". We are all inexplicatly linked as a race, but have too often turned another eye or not been critical enough to disern what is really taking place.

We then took a brief tour of the bunks, which were recreated.  I tried to understand how triple the "normal" amount of people would get any kind of rest, privacy or reprieve from the non-stop oppression.  The rules were strict: no sleeping on the floor, nothing on the floor, always cleaned - even the smallest infraction could be death.  And to make it worse, the Nazi's would enlist prisoners to monitor and hand out infractions to fellow prisoners - the mind games were unconscionable.

Onto the long walk to the other side of the camp.  This is where there are three religious memorials: Protestant, Cathlolic and Jewish.  We did not have time to tour them, but it seemed like if there was any place to heal and reflect, this would be the place to spend some time.

Our final stop was the Crematorium.  It really was quite overwhelming. I could not even begin to grapple with what took place in this area.  I walked slowly through the gas chamber.  It was painful to think not only about what happened physically in this space, but what people went through in their final seconds emotionally.  It is beyond words.  I quickly went to the next room which housed three massive ovens.  I could only spend a few seconds here.  Sadly, others did not have the luxury I had to be able to leave this place alive.  I took no pictures, actually I decided I would only take a few select pictures my entire time to respect those that had suffered so dearly in this place. 

Sculpture outside the Crematorium. Translate to - Honor the Dead, Reminder for the Living

There is so much more to understand.  How the Treaty of Versailles from WWI impacted the rise of the Nazi's.   Hitler's popularity, how this could go on for so long and millions lose their lives, and what role propaganda played.  How did Germany and its people recover/reconcile after the war.  How did the world treat Germany?  

So much to learn, understand, grapple with - many without a clear answer.  However, this I know; we must constantly educate ourselves, question what we see and hear, be open to learn new ways of seeing things and move away from old ideas that just don't work anymore. 

There and Back Again ... A Journey to Venice (17 July-18 July)

It started out orderly enough. All dressed, teeth brushed, lunches and extra clothes all packed. Then a quick five-minute walk to our #12 Bus Stop.

We arrived at the bus stop with plenty of time to wait for the 10:20am bus that's listed on the schedule. Never mind that the other day the 10:20 bus didn't come until 10:50 ... missing two scheduled stops. We still anticipated a prompt (or somewhat prompt) arrival of our bus. So we waited. And waited. 

Suddenly, it appeared. Yea! And we easily found seats.

This euphoria lasted for about ten minutes. As we arrived at another bus stop a rather large woman and her daughter tried to force a two-baby carriage onto the bus - the long type. 

Even before she had gotten the carriage half-way onto the bus, the lady had run into a man in the wheelchair who had gotten on at a previous stop. Then while the bus driver started to yell at her, she just kept wedging the baby stroller into the aisle effectively trapping all of us in the back. 

Needless to say, it became a battle of the wills between the woman and the bus driver - who wouldn't move the bus until the lady removed her carriage. And she wasn't going to budge. 

Have I mentioned that the weather is quite hot and wonderful here? When you are on a crowded bus the air conditioning is quite welcoming. Of course, when the bus engine is turned off so the driver can come back and argue with a customer, the air conditioning is off, too. It was geting hot. And the rather large woman just wedged her carriage even further down the aisle. 

People started to get off the bus (that could exit, that is) to wait for whatever bus was coming next. The woman and the bus driver kept arguing. This went on for another 5 minutes, until with the help of a fellow passenger sitting behind us, Courtney figured out how to get the backdoor of the bus open and we escaped.

Onto another bus, with the help of our new friend. And finally back on our way to the train station. We got to the train station around 12:00pm. Luckily, Courtney had bought our tickets to Venice a couple of days ago and all we had to do was find the correct train and get on it. Trains from Padova to Venezia leave every 30 minutes from the Padova train station. There was one set to leave in ten minutes - transportation timing was starting to look better! Off to Platform 2 we walked, chatting happily.

A few minutes of waiting and the Italian started coming in over the loud speaker. Of course we can't understand any of it. But at least there is a little bit of english on the electronic platform sign. It seems our train is going to be twenty minutes late. Another wait. 

And then, we discovered it. Chayton's backpack was missing. Not such a big deal you think - but it happened to have his iPad Mini in it. Not something that we want to leave laying around. It is his books, music, camera, school and entertainment all rolled into one. At least I had pulled out TJ, his favorite tiger stuffed animal, out of the bag before we left or I would have had one very unconsolable boy on my hands. On one of our many bathroom runs the backpack was set down. The wait for the train is forgotten and off we rush to the last place of the backpack. 

Would you believe that it was still sitting on the window ledge right where it was left? In a very busy hallway of the train station. Left untouched. There was a collective sigh of relief from all of us - especially the children. Now it made sense why we weren't on a train yet. Could you imagine discovering the lost backpack en route to Venice? Can you imagine Courtney or I trying to speak to a train station attendant over the phone with our nonexistent Italian and hand signals? Yea, neither can I. Huge sigh of relief. The travel goddesses where looking out for us.

Back up to the platform. Finally the voice started over the loudspeaker again. I caught what sounded like "quatro" and noticed that the other hopefull passengers had started to leave our station - I was guessing they were heading over to Platform 4. We grab our backpacks and start to move with the crowd. Back down in the underground walkway Courtney notices that there is another train arriving sooner than the one on Platform 4. We decide to take the earlier one. Back up to the platform, and the train arrives! Onto the air conditioned train we went, ready for our 30 minute train ride to Venice.

We all watch the beautiful countryside roll by and start to read our books. It was quite enjoyable. 

Thirty minutes later we get off on our stop. Outside of the station we look around. We don't see any water. We don't see any old looking Italian houses. We look at a map, can't figure anything out. There isn't a Tourist Information Center anywhere. Back into the train station and off to the ticket/information line. 

Thank heavens for the (little bit of) English speaking ticket guy. Between his English and drawings we found out that we were in Vicenza. We went backwards. As in took the wrong train and headed in the wrong direction. As in, had to buy train tickets to get BACK to Padova and then finally head to Venezia. 

Luckily, once we are on the train at Vicenza we could stay on all the way until Venezia. Whew. There was time for a quick coffee (Italian, not American - so very tiny). I have since learned to at least order a latte macchiato or cafe latte. But when I was in New Zealand the flat white ruled. 

Back to the train platform!

By 3:00pm we finally made it to Venice! There was water and gondolas and old looking Italian houses. It was absolutely beautiful. It called for ice cream!

Through this whole ordeal the children were amazing. Not just disgruntled sheep being herded from one point to the other in the hot sun. But actually nice to each other AND to Courtney and me. They really have learned how to ebb and flow with the tides of travel. This might be one of the greatest gifts of our adventure - life gives you bumps and sometimes the best thing is to just jump over them and keep on going. (Now, this doesn't mean we don't have meltdowns or snitty attitudes, and that is from all five of us. We're just learning when that type of behavior really doesn't influence a situation ... for the most part.)

After our ice cream we took a long meandering walk from the station to Piazza San Marco and the docks where our boat tour was departing. Venice is quite stunning. I believe that I love Venice just as much as Courtney loves Paris. (We're making plans on coming back to Venice just the two of us ... )

And it was time for our boat tour through the canals. Our tour guide was great and there was only nine of us on the tour. 

After our tour it was time to find dinner ... pizza of course! Our first attempt seemed promising. A nice seating area outside, wonderful smells of food drifting towards us. Plus, we were all hungry. The waitor signaled for us to just sit down and we waited for him to come back. And waited. And waited. He then decided to grace us with his presence and started to take our order ... then left without us finishing even our drink order. He came back and we tried again. We got through the drinks and started on the pizza when another family appeared wanting to be seated. The waiter completely stopped talking to us, turned and walked away to sit the other family ... completely ignoring us. Courtney and I looked at each other, had the kids grab their backpacks and left. The family waiting to sit seemed a bit surprised at our actions. As they spoke English I was able to tell them what horrible service it was as we left. I hope they had better service than us, but I know we found a better restaurant!

This one was a little off the main walkway, right next to a canal. Quiet, plenty of seating, wonderful staff, great wine, yummy pizza AND free WiFi. I would heartfully recommend eating at Pizzeria Trattoria Alle Lanternine! 

After a very generous amount of pizza we wandered some more and walked to our hotel, Boscolo Venezia. The sun was starting to set sending out a golden light over everything. 

Our hotel:

A quick rest and then we went out for the night. 

View from hotel's dock:

Fun in the mask shops:

It is just as beautiful at night. 

Then it was finally time for bed.  

The next morning we took the hotel's boat to Murano Island to see the glass workshops. We all enjoyed watching the craftsmen working the glass and the showroom was absolutely stunning. 

After another boat ride it was time for lunch. 

I really wanted to go to the Giardini Biennale to see the country pavilions of the Biennale Arte 2013 - this year there are 88 countries participating. Alas, the intensity of the sunlight was just too much for us. But we did make it to one of the pavilions that was located outside of the gardens - the Thailand Pavilion that was located close to the train station. 

This showcased two artists: Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch and Arin Rungjang. It was an amazing experience. The first exhibit even had a hands on activity where we could craft our own brick and add to the artist's display. This exhibit was speaking on how, Modern life, thought and desires cover and hid the traditional culture and beliefs. 

After this, it was time to go home. 

We got on the appropriate train and it headed in the right direction. But our travel trip-ups continued to follow us. What should have been a thirty minute train ride took over an hour; as the train stopped twice in the middle of the tracks (and of course the bathrooms did not work and Chayton was doing the "dance" most of the way).   Finally we reached Padova, sprinted to the bathroom, and then ran to make the #12 bus that was getting ready to leave the station. We were on our way home!

All seems good, the bus is going along the streets that we recognized. Then suddenly, it took a turn off the main road. What!?!? We don't normally go this way. Maybe it's just an extended bus route. But no, it pulls up to an unfamiliar bus stop and ... the bus driver turns off the engine and sits there. 

So, it seems there are two number 12 buses, that end in different places. How's that for confusing. The bus driver speaks maybe two words of English, but tries his hardest to be helpful. 

"Go straight, turn right. In five minutes you be there." To the bus stop that I showed him on the map that we wanted to be at. Or so we thought he meant. 

We walked for 20 minutes and started to recognize the route until we came to the correct number 12 bus stop. We gratefully sat down on the ground to wait for the bus. Which we had no idea when or if it would come, because there wasn't a bus schedule at the bus stop.

We waited for 20 minutes. No bus. We agreed to wait five more minutes. Then five more. Finally we gave up and started walking home. It took us 20 minutes of walking in the hot sun until we arrived at the supermarket down the street from our apartment. Chayton and I sang the theme song from the pink panther and played soccer with a rock as we walked. Courtney just kept the girls trucking. 

After a stop in the air conditioned super market (and picking up dinner) and a quick ten minute walk, we made it.

We were finally home.