Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ode to a Super Dad

S- Testing 1, 2. Testing. Okay good it’s working. I was afraid if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have someone to fix it. As some of you may or may not know, our Dad was always the sound technician for the church when he could spare the time between work and opening up new shoe stores.
M- Speaking of new stores and in true Larry Kennedy we have a joke for you.
A new business was opening and one of the owner's friends wanted to send him flowers for the occasion. They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, "Rest in Peace."
The owner was angry and called the florist to complain.
After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist replied, "Sir, I'm really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, you should imagine this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, 'Congratulations on your new location.'”
M- It’s never easy knowing what to say at a funeral. Especially when that funeral is for your Dad. I’m 22. Stevie’s 24. We weren’t supposed to lose our Dad yet. To us he was invincible. Our own personal superhero. And standing in front of all his friends and family talking about how great he was, past tense, it’s not easy. I’m a Daddy’s girl, always have been, so to be at the church at a young age for anything other than mass or, oh I don’t know…my wedding, honestly just sucks. But Dad always was the best optimist out there and he wouldn’t want us to be sad or negative for too long.
Stevie and I were looking at photos and videos of Dad earlier this week and I will never be more thankful for his need to geek out and have the best gadgets on the market. The memories that we were able to relive was just what I needed. To hear his voice. To see his smile or to see how much we truly did as a family and enjoyed it was perfect. Dad was an amazing man and those pictures showed us that through his whole life he was always so inherently good.
S- Our Dad definitely left us too soon, but I remember one of the older Priests here at Our Lady of Grace said this during one of his homilies, “we’re still on this Earth because we are not perfect, but we are learning to be. The moment that God sees us as perfect, or ready to leave this earth, he calls us back home.” Or something like that. God definitely saw our dad as perfect or ready to leave this earth, otherwise he would still be here. That is the only reason I choose to believe why he was taken so quickly and unexpectedly from us.
Unfortunately there will be moments in life where Maureen and I will definitely miss out on some Dad moments. I have chosen to start a Dad journal for all the times when I still need his advice and he would be my first go-to-guy. Moments like professional career advancements or difficult work situations. My dad was and still is my number one role model for educational and professional advice as we share a similar career path of engineering.  Moments like expecting a child or trying to deal with a difficult or new and challenging situation with a possible future child. Moments when there might be tension in the family and he would be the most rational mind to diffuse the situation. Despite these moments when Dad won’t be there in person, there are PLENTY of fun and happy past moments where we learned from Dad and enjoyed our time with him, so he will never truly leave us without his D-ADvice.
M- Sometimes his D-ADvice was simple. Enjoy life’s little things. Family moments that make you laugh so hard you cry. Or the times when we can relax and enjoy ourselves despite the world moving at a fast pace. Or the times when you’re so hurt that all that can heal you is a good hug from family and feel better. Dad and I would be perfectly content being in each other’s presence not talking and just watching TV, reading or driving in the car. But the most recent bonding time I’ve had with him was when we opened up our new Red Wing Shoes Store in Pennsylvania. Dad loved working at that store and even opening the store. He and I were the sales people and mom, not so much. So one night when mom wanted to head back to our place, Dad and I went out to dinner. We went to a restaurant that was a bar, but was attached to an ice rink. The whole side of the place was a large viewing window. There was public skating going on and I look down at my phone for a second and I hear Dad suddenly say “oh!” then start to chuckle quietly. I looked at him questioningly and he then replied, “Some kid just fell, hard.” Now while it may not be good to laugh at little kids, it reminds me of some of Dad’s life lesson one liners, “If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough.” Dad, I’ve definitely fallen right now but you know us girls, we’ll get up. I’ll make you proud.
S-Now Dad had a lot of other one-liner D-ADvice that he used so frequently. Just a couple weeks ago in early January, I had called Dad to get some encouragement for a really big meeting at work that would make or break my project. There would be a couple Vice Presidents at the meeting and I was starting to feel the pressure and only Dad would be able to calm me down before the meeting. So he said he would stay up until 11:30pm for me so I could call him at 6:30am, Paris time. Dad sounded really tired but he still stayed up for me. All the D-ADvice that he could really gather for me was his usual Aladdin knock-off advice, “BEEEEEEEE yourself”.
Some of Dad’s other typical D-ADvice included “choose your ‘tude dude”. Right now is a definitely a time to “choose your ‘tude” dudes…and dudettes. Dad might have been taken a few decades too soon, but God wanted him (probably to fix Heaven’s acoustics) so Dad had to leave. Dad would want EVERYONE to celebrate. He has mentioned to Mom, Maureen, and I multiple times that he wants people to celebrate his death with dancing, drinking, and joke telling. Dad always said, you can mourn him a little bit, but he’s going to be the one in the better place.
M- Our Mom wanted us to say a few words for her. In 31 years of being with Dad, she has never heard our Dad raise his voice or say anything to anyone that would diminish one’s self esteem. If anyone would wrong him or honk him off he would just say to mom, “Mary we have to rise above this.” Because indirectly they would honk her off too. He would say, “In the big scheme of things this is nothing.” He would remind her he was behaving in the way he needed to, to make it to his end goal which was to be in Heaven with Jesus. At times our mom would struggle with feeling as an unimportant part of his life. It wasn’t until the other day when a friend told her on the phone, in consoling Mom, that “Larry always made everyone feel like they were the only one in the room.”
S- Talking with Amy, the HR Director of Powerteq where he worked the last 13 months of his life, she said Dad was a marriage role model for the younger engineers at work. He told everyone that he loved his job but it comes second to Mary and his two girls. Mom felt his job at Powerteq was a job that gave him the appreciation, gratitude and respect that she felt he always lacked at GM/Delphi. This last job brought back the joy and feeling of accomplishment to a career he loved.
M- Mom always tells us that our hearts are big enough to love many. She married our Dad who had the biggest heart of all and who loved all. Our Mom now realized she had only played second fiddle to God and she is content in knowing that. If you can walk away from this funeral with one thing, she would like you to realize your heart is big enough to love many, to be kind and to rise above. So Dad, Mom says, “Until we meet again.” (Or as the Terminator taught dad, “Hasta la vista, baby.”)
S- Maureen and I would always end our calls with Dad saying, “I love you dad.” He’d say “I love you more.” We’d say, “I love you most.” And he’d finish with “I love you to infinity and beyond.” 
M- Dad, we will love you to infinity and beyond, but one infinity we’ll be forever grateful for is you being our Dad!
S- In true Cathedral fashion we want to end with the Irish Blessing.  May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I love Scotch. Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch.

Weekend 22! Edinburgh, Scotland
Friday, January 16th
                We got into Scotland and hopped on the convenient double decker bus towards the city center once we arrived in “Edinbruh”. After getting off at the main train station we wandered our way up and over towards our airbnb in New Town, just outside of the University of Edinburgh. We took a nice tour through the campus park (The Meadows) before arriving at our rented out room of a very nice and new apartment complex.
                After dropping our stuff off, we made our way to a cute pub up the road for a nice cider…in an Irish pub. The pub was neat with a balcony/second floor surrounding the first floor’s stage area. The décor looked like an old stone church turned into a bar. After a nice Irish cider we went next door to get some dinner (Japanese). Not the best Scottish foodie experience at first, but it was good nonetheless.
                After dinner we moseyed over to the train station to pick up the one and only Katie!! We went back to the airbnb and planned for the next day!
Saturday, January 17th
                We got up nice and early only to find the café we wanted to eat at was closed for another 20 minutes, so we made a tour around the neighborhood. It was definitely visible that J.K. Rowling got her Diagon Alley inspiration from the cute, crowded, medieval streets of Old Town Edinburgh.
                We went back to The Elephant House café to eat a lovely Scottish breakfast and tea with the same view of the Edinburgh Castle that inspired J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter. Pictures of the napkin she wrote on were on the walls of the café.
                After a really good breakfast (gastronomically and aesthetically pleasing!) we set off for the Edinburgh Castle. We got a nice little outdoor free walking tour of the castle from a really charismatic and knowledgeable guide before we wandered the campus. The castle is a conglomeration of a lot of different buildings that Scottish royalty have added onto over the years. The oldest standing building was the tiny little St. Margaret’s Chapel, built in the 12th century by Margaret’s fourth son, David I.  Other buildings we saw in the castle were the one that housed the Scottish Royal Jewels, the National War Memorial, the Royal Palace apartments, the old prison, the military prison, the Royal Scots Museum, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum, and the National War Museum. We also stopped inside the Great Hall for a nice little Renaissance music lesson and show. Some guy in costume showed us about 5 or 6 different instruments and played a little melody on all of them.
                We ended our tour of the castle museums with the 1 o’clock cannon fired (at 1 o’clock!).  After the castle we had to warm up and get some lunch, so we stopped by the restaurant attached to the Scotch Whisky Experience. All of us got a nice warm meal with a whisky drink to top it off. Katie and Stuart had a little glass of a smooth but strong Scotch and I had a hot toddy (whisky, hot water, honey, lemon, and spices).
                After lunch we went across the street to a Tartan tavern of sorts. This was like a mini factory and mall that made different plaid fabrics used for kilts and scarves. I even found a Kennedy tartan (it wasn’t very attractive so we didn’t get it….green, red, yellow, and purple).
                After the Tartan factory/mall thing we made our way down the Royal Mile to check out St. Gile’s Cathedral and The Real Mary King’s Close. We stopped to see if we could get a tour of the old Close or alley where the Plague really hit Edinburgh. The Close is underground present day Edinburgh. We decided against the tour and went across the street to book a Hidden and Haunted tour for that evening.
                After the Close we made a pit stop at H&M to get some warmer winter gear then headed back up to the airbnb to warm up.
                We went to mass at a church near by the apartment and then headed back towards Old Town for dinner. We found a cute little Scottish Pub right on the Royal Mile. Stuart had some bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) and I had some haggis stuffed in chicken and wrapped in bacon. Haggis is the tradition dish of Scotland. I’ll let you look up what’s in haggis…
                After a nice warm dinner we made our way to the meeting point for our Hidden and Haunted tour! The tour guide was wearing a long black velvet cape and caught all our attention by screaming suddenly while telling stories. She started with the story of the public executions outside St. Giles Cathedral then moved on to The Real King Mary’s Close. After that we stopped in a Close and heard a revengeful story of a divorce in the 1800s (or so). Finally, we made our way to the Vaults. Since Edinburgh had a wall around the city, the city grew vertically. The Vaults are old rooms under a huge bridge that connected two sides of town. Pretty much all the space below the bridge was taken up with brick arched rooms where store keepers kept their stock. Eventually it got too flooded and the black market and body snatchers put up shop in the vaults.  
                After the tour we were decently awake from the animated stories so we stopped at Greyfriar’s Bobby pub for a drink and some live music. The artist (Graeme E. Pearson) was very talented and played guitar, banjo, ukulele, and harmonica.
                After that… it was bedtime!
Sunday, January 18th
                We didn’t wake as early on Sunday, but still went out to breakfast at a café right next to The Elephant House. The café we went to this morning was styled as a Parisian bakery (go figure).
                After a nice warm breakfast we went behind the cafs to see what the Greyfriar’s Bobby was all about. There was a little Skye terrier monument and a plaque on the wall of the pub we had drinks at the night before. Apparently John Gray, a night watchman for the police of the city had a little puppy who accompanied him for two years before he died in 1858. The dog never left his graveside for the next 14 years until the dog died. We visited the dog and John’s graves in the graveyard behind the pub and café. The dog was buried just outside the graveyard (as it was only for humans), but not so far from John’s grave.
                After a stroll through the graveyard, we went across the street to the National Museum of Scotland. There were a lot of cool animal and interactive exhibits in the museum. There was also a nice new addition to the building that went through Scotland’s history, which was pretty cool. We spent a lot of time in the museum as it was pretty big and interactive.
                After that we picked up our things from the airbnb then headed towards the train station for a quick little American styled lunch (burgers and chicken tenders!). We had to say good bye to Katie at the train station then we got on another double decker bus back to the airport. We did sit at the top level in the front seats to get the full effects of driving on the left hand side of the road, from the second level perspective!
This will probably be our last blog post as this weekend is our final weekend in Europe and we are just hanging out in Paris, exploring the places/museums we haven’t yet and taking advantage of the semi-annual soldes (sales).
À bientôt (see you soon) !
Stevie and Stuart

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Our magical weekend in London!

Weekend 21! London, England
Friday, January 9th
                We got into London late after our flight was delayed and late, so nothing of excitement happened Friday night (besides walking into the wrong room at the hostel in the middle of the night).
Saturday, January 10th
                It was an early morning and a long day so we quickly got ready and took the ‘tube’ over near the Globe Theater. We got off on the other side of the river and walked across the Millennium Bridge (the one in Harry Potter 6 that the dementors destroyed).
                We made it in time for the first tour of the Globe Theater and had a quaint little group of 5 to tour the Globe. The Globe Theater was Shakespeare’s theater where he owned a seventh of it. The Globe we saw was actually the work of a 30 year project as the original Globe burned down in Shakespeare’s time. The tour guide was very charismatic (an actor of course) and spoke about the yard where the ‘groundlings’ stayed, the acoustics, the decorations, the framework of the building, etc. The Globe was a long project because it was built off of donations and hard to find research. It was pretty neat to see the theater built as it would have been (or very close to what it would have been) in the late 1500s/early 1600s.
                After the tour we got a quick breakfast then walked across the Tower Bridge (not to be confused with the simple London Bridge). We also saw the Tower of London but did not have time to go into it. The Tower of London is where the royal jewels and crown is kept.
                After the Tower we tried to walk into Soho or the West End to get cheap day-of theater tickets, but we were running out of time. We hopped into a taxi (whose driver called Stuart ‘govna’ or governor) near Covent Garden then headed over to the tour office for our HARRY POTTER STUDIO TOUR!!
                The bus ride was about an hour and the bus driver was pretty fun to listen to giving us random facts as we passed different landmarks. Do you know that people of London who drive have to pay about 11 pounds a day for a ‘congestion fee’!?
                We got to the Warner Brother’s Studios and walked right into the tour. We saw a little introductory movie with the three main stars of Harry Potter then were free to roam the studios. The first room was of course the Great Hall decorated for Christmas with a giant feast of resin made food. The next room we went into was a big warehouse of props. In the big warehouse room of props was all the Horcruxes, the sorcerer’s stone, the door to the chamber of secrets, EVERYTHING! In this warehouse was also the magic of flying a broom interactive activity, spell casting, and dark arts props. The next room was the cafeteria with BUTTERBEER! It was pretty good with a thick marshmallow cream like topping. Outside of the cafeteria was the Knight bus, Harry’s Privet drive home, and the bridge to Hogwarts, as well as a replica of Hagrid’s bike, some giant wizard chess pieces, and the flying Ford Anglia.
                After that was the special effects room with makeup, masks, and animatronics. The most impressive thing to see was how they made Hagrid look so big (spoiler alert, stilts and animatronic head).  After that room was Diagon Alley complete with Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes magic/candy shop. At the end of Diagon Alley was a drafting room with a bunch of designs and art work. The set models followed the drafting complete with the actual Hogwarts castle model that was used. It was very cool!
                After walking through the models we entered into Ollivander’s wand shop and saw that some popular celebrity names (those who had visited) were written on the wand boxes instead of the type of wood and core in the wand. Then of course was the overpriced gift shop with scarves, candy, books, and clothing.
                We got back to London at Marble Arch tube stop and walked down Oxford Street (the main shopping street) towards Soho. It was crazy! Finally we found the theater we were going to and enjoyed a nice dramatic thriller, The Woman in Black. We’ve never seen a scary, live performance so seeing this play was really fun. It is also an English play set in the UK, so that makes it all the more authentic too. There were only two men in the cast and the play had a very minimalistic set, but man was it a great thriller of a play. The audience was gasping, screaming, and shaking at times.
                After that it was pretty late so we made our way to the tube (three stops away from Soho since it was so crowded- but we got to see Trafalgar Square all lit up) back to the hostel after grabbing a quick snack at the grocery store.
Sunday, January 11th  
                We got up and checked out of the hostel (no one was there…) then made our way two metro stops away from the city center to go to mass. We met up with Kaitlyn (the little sister of a good friend of Stevie’s) and her boyfriend John for a quick breakfast after mass. It was nice to see them and it was their first weekend in London before their semester of studies there.
                After breakfast we dropped our backpacks off at the hostel and made our way across town to the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone. We just walked right in as the British Museum (and most museums in London) are free. We were able to actually touch some of the artifacts in the museum, one of which was a 4000 year old ax head! We saw the top ten things in the museum then walked up to King’s Cross Station only to find a huge line and a professional photographer at the trolley cart for the entry to Platform 9¾.
                After just getting a picture of the trolley, we took the tube to Green Park and walked across it to see Buckingham Palace. It looked like her Majesty, the Queen, was in since the flag was flying over the palace.
                After the palace we walked down to the Westminster area to catch a glimpse of the Abbey, House of Parliament, and Big Ben’s clock tower (Big Ben is actually the name of the bell inside the tower). We also got a nice view of the London Eye giant ferris wheel. We weren’t able to go on it since it was closed for maintenance (the only two weeks of the year for maintenance and we chose that weekend to visit London, oh well).
                Then it was time to go so we picked up our stuff at the hostel and headed to the airport. We got there in time to actually have a nice sit down English meal; fish and chips with some London brewed beer for Stevie and some chicken wings and English cider for Stuart.

Next weekend’s agenda: Edinburgh, Scotland with Katie!!
à tout à l'heure (see ya later),

Stevie and Stuart

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Italian Adventures (Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice)

Week 20 – Italy!
Saturday, December 27th - Rome
                After seeing off Joan, Bradley, and Mitchell we made our way over to a different airport than them. We got into Rome early afternoon – early enough to take a nap! We then took a quick tour around our hotel’s neighborhood which included the Spanish Steps, Plaza di Spagna, and Trevi Fountain. It was a little rainy and dark by the time we saw everything (so we saw them again later this week). Not to mention – the Trevi Fountain was all boarded up with scaffolding and barricades due to cleaning and restoration. We also stopped for some gelato and pizza of course! The restaurant we went to (San Marco) was a really nice and a new trendy looking place near our hotel. Definitely a good first Italian pizza experience!
Sunday, December 28th   - Rome
                We got up nice and early, had a free breakfast at the hotel’s terrace restaurant (thanks Santa!) then made our way to Vatican City! The line was EXTREMELY long for the museums due to the last Sunday of the month being free entrance into the museums. We made it in eventually and walked through the conglomeration of museums which ended with the Sistine Chapel. Not really a religious experience with a thousand tourists crammed in there and a loud speaker reminded everyone to be silent.
                After the museums we got some lunch just outside the City and met a nice couple from Massachusetts. Carl and Lorraine are retirees who gave all their possessions to charity and are currently traveling the world spending a month in a city at a time.
                After lunch we made our way over to Castel Sant’Angelo or the Mausoleum of Hadrian. It’s a very impressive fortress now with a museum in it. We didn’t have time to do the museum but we got some nice pictures of the castle. We hustled back into Vatican City (after some gelato of course) to wait in another huge line to get into Saint Peter’s Basilica. We made it just in time to celebrate mass in the Vatican! There were so many beautiful decorations around the church it was very difficult to try and translate the homily from Italian to Spanish to English. After mass we saw a bunch (~20) Cardinals go to Vespers that evening, which was very cool to be so close to the Cardinals.
                We also saw the treasury of the Basilica which held a lot of relics of different saints and the list of all the Popes since Peter.
                After that we made our way back to the hotel area to get some dinner then rest up for the next day in Rome!
Monday, December 29th   - Rome
                [Spoiler alert – this was probably Stuart and my most favorite part of our trip.] We got up early and headed to the Roman Forum to avoid the Colosseum lines as one ticket gets you into all the ruins. We were able to see the old Forum and Palatine Hill where all the high and mighties of ancient Rome ruled and lived – including Romulus. There were A LOT of old rocks here. We saw some old temples to the gods, the place where Caesar was cremated, the old stadium, etc. There was also a small museum describing Palatine Hill that we went into.
                After that (don’t be mislead – that took a couple of hours to explore all the ancient ruins) we went over to the Colosseum. We got in very quickly and skipped the line thanks to our tickets and the hotel’s advice.  The Colosseum was very cool and neat to see, but very crowded for the end of December.
                After the ruins we got a quick touristy lunch then checked out the Pantheon, which has the tomb of Rafael in it (Stuart wants you to know this is the famous renaissance painter, not the ninja turtle). We then walked over to Piazza Navona to just wander around. We got some gelato right off the plaza, but then we found a place with 150 flavors! (We didn’t get a second gelato, but we would highly recommend the second place over the first!)   
                As it was an incredibly beautiful day, we made our way over to the Trevi Fountain to actually see it in the daylight. There was a small line of people to walk across the scaffolding bridge that Rome set up for tourists to see the fountain, even thought it was covered with scaffolding, machinery, and guys cleaning it.
                After the Trevi Fountain, we went back down (and up) the Spanish Steps and enjoyed its cute Italian Nativity Scene in the daylight. We then took the long way back to the hotel through the park Villa Borghese. It was a really pretty park, about the size of Madrid’s Retiro, but with hills and bike/golf cart rentals.
                When we got back to the hotel, it was time to Skype family to wish my mom (Stevie’s mom) a happy birthday! Then we made our way to a cute little pizzeria around the corner from the hotel.
Tuesday, December 30th - Florence
                After a rocky start to the day (showing up at the wrong train station for our high speed train to Florence), we made it to Florence on time. We put our luggage in the (very nice) hotel room (thanks Santa!) then wandered the city.
                We stopped by to see Ponte Vecchio (an old bridge that Cosimo 1 de’Medici had a corridor built above to connect the town hall to the Palazzo Pitti). We then got some really nice sandwiches, or paninos, at a local natural cute little sandwich shop that Lonely Planet suggested. Stuart had humongous pieces of mozzarella on his sandwich and I had some sun dried tomatoes and tapenade on mine (olive paste).
                We walked through the Palazzo Vecchio after lunch and saw the old Florence town hall, the supposed death mask of Dante Alighieri, and a lot of cool old palace things. After the palace museum we up the bell tower of the palace. It was a really cool medieval tower that had a great view of the Florence cathedral and church bell tower.  
                After the palace we got some gelato (really good gelato! Chocolate orange and chocolate hazelnut). We made our way to the cathedral or the Duomo of the city. We walked around the Duomo, which has the most beautifully painted domed ceiling by a lot of different artists. We got tickets to all the sites of the cathedral and started with the ruins of the old church under the cathedral. After that we waited in a line to get to the top of the dome. We made it just after sunset so the sky was very pretty and the lights of the city were coming on.
                After the dome we saw the baptistery across the plaza from the Cathedral. This was the baptistery where Dante was baptized (along with a lot of others too!). The ceiling of the baptistery was just as beautiful as the cathedral’s dome. (NOTE: the outside of the cathedral, bell tower, and baptistery of Florence are just as beautiful as the inside of the buildings with red and green marble!)
                We then moseyed back to our hotel after walking up and down the Ponte Vecchio. Since this bridge had a corridor for the important people of medieval Florence, the bridge still has only jewelry shops along it. Then we stumbled a long a little osteria near our hotel. We got a really nice dinner of pasta carbonara and pear and gorgonzola tortellini here.
Wednesday, December 31st   - Florence
                We got up early to make it to the Uffizi art gallery (one of the most well known galleries in the world). We stopped for a quick breakfast at a bakery on the way – where I, Stevie, got a really awesome nutella filled croissant. We only had to wait an hour in line, which was pretty good reading that you could wait in line for up to 5 hours for this museum. The museum had a lot of really good renaissance paintings and some from Michelangelo including Medusa on a wooden shield.
                After the museum we went across the bridge to see the Palazzo Pitti and get some lunch. Stuart got another pizza and I got the traditional Florence vegetable and bread soup (Ribollita).
                After lunch we got some gelato (really really good caramel gelato – pretty much caramel fudge). Then we went back to the cathedral square to go up the bell tower. It was about as tall as the dome and we got to see the city in the daylight. Then we headed back to the hotel for a quick clean up for mass that night.
                We went to mass early and ended up going to vespers led by Cardinal Arcivescovo, which was really neat! We then got dinner on Piazza della Signoria. There was supposed to be classical music played there for New Year’s, but they weren’t out yet so we went back to the hotel to rest before midnight. We also got a huge size of gelato on the way to the hotel…hey, it was a holiday!
                After a few hour nap/rest, we dressed warmly and headed out to Plaza del Carmine near our hotel for free jazz music and New Year’s celebration. The jazz was pretty good and the square wasn’t too crowded. There were a lot of characters out and everyone brought their own bottle of champagne to pop at midnight. We didn’t know it was midnight until some woman on stage started counting down from her phone from 10 seconds to midnight. Champagne was popped all over the square and fireworks were lit from any free patch of street all over the city. We made our way back over the bridge to find more random fireworks going off in various parts of the city. People were also setting off fireworks off the side of the river and OUT OF THEIR APARTMENT WINDOWS! It was really fun to celebrate New Year’s in a different country to see their traditions.
Thursday, December 1st   - Pisa
                We made it to the train station and bought our tickets to Pisa and had a quick café breakfast. We thought we would have to wait in line (again) for the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but we actually got there quite easily and bought tickets and walked up the tower very quickly. Pisa is a tiny city just an hour outside of Florence. It’s also a University city where Galileo used to teach.
                The tower was neat to see all the scared tourists walking up the slanted tower. The tower was actually renovated in the 90s so it’s now structurally sound to walk up. You can see the level and the pendulum they use monitor the tower’s tilt.
                It was a beautiful day to explore Pisa for a couple hours. After the tower (which was supposed to be the bell tower for the city’s Cathedral) we checked out the cathedral. We also went in the city’s baptistery, which wasn’t as nearly elaborate as Florence’s. After seeing everything we wandered the city along the river and also happened to walk through Piazza del Cavalieri near the University of Pisa. We then found a nice little Italian deli thing for lunch. We then got gelato, of course.
                We sat in the sun for a little bit near the Baptistery in the Piazza dei Miracoli of the church and tower then made our way back to Florence then on to Venice where we had to take the water bus to our hotel.
Friday, December 2nd   - Venice
                Waking up early in Venice was beautiful to see the sunrise over the water at our hotel! We got a quick breakfast in hotel (thanks Santa!) then took the first boat over to the main island of Venice. We immediately got into the Duke’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale to check out the place. It was a nice museum kind of like Versailles, but with less stuff in it. We also got a tour of the bridge of Sighs or Ponte dei Sposiri and prison attached to the palace too.
                We then went next door to the palace to St. Mark’s Basilica (which was originally supposed to be a chapel for the Duke). We walked through the extremely golden and detailed church then walked up through the altar area to see the golden altar piece or Pala d’Oro which was covered in gems and gold! We also saw the tomb of St. Mark (the evangelist!!) under the altar. We then went through the tiny treasury that had a TON of relics of various saints. We also went through the museum and terrace of the church too.
                We got a quick pizza lunch off of a square on our way to the Rialto bridge and food market. There were some fresh fruit and veggie stands at the market but it was closing by the time we got there, so we got some gelato.
                We went back to St. Mark’s square to go up the bell tower. The bell tower actually collapsed randomly in July 1902. The only casualty was a cat. We went up the reconstructed bell tower and had a great view of the city. You can’t actually see any canals from the top of the bell tower.
                After that we hopped on the hotel shuttle boat to go back and enjoy our free access to the hotel spa (thanks Santa!) and a nice Venetian dinner at the hotel.
Saturday, December 3rd   - Venice
                We got to sleep in a little today then made it over to the main island after a nice breakfast. We walked from one side of the island over to the other and saw the Gallery of Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim collection buildings.
                We then walked to the tourist office and booked our group gondola tour. We then went through the other three museums that our Duke Palace tour ticket had gotten us. We saw the Museum Correr, the National Archeology museum, and the old Marciana library rooms. Museum Correr was an old palace turned museum so it looked like Versailles again without as much stuff in it. The archeology museum was cool because it had stuff from 2 BC!!
                After the museum we wandered around towards the Castello district and got a quick slice of pizza and gelato. We then went on our group shared gondola. There were 6 people on the gondola including us, but it was still a lot of fun! The driver showed us some important buildings, like where Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Mozart stayed. He also sang a little to us.
                After that we walked around and saw the Chiesa della Salute (or Saint Mary of Health), which is a small basilica in Venice, but looks like one of the biggest churches there. FYI – Venice has 140 churches on it...This church is named that as a sign of gratitude for deliverance from the plague.
                We then tried to find somewhere open for dinner early and had a nice warm dinner.  We then wandered around after dinner and walked into a church converted to a music museum, which was pretty neat. It had really old instruments and an instrument making school replica there.  After wandering some more we made it to mass at St. Mark’s then got a quick gelato and hopped on the boat back to the hotel. We celebrated our last night in Italy with a drink on the rooftop terrace of the hotel (a Venetian Spritz for Stevie).
Sunday, December 4th    
                We took the airport water bus to the airport dock early in the morning and made it to Paris by early afternoon to recuperate from the past week.

What a great two weeks!!!
Next on the agenda: London and Harry Potter Studio Tour!
Grosse bise (big kiss!),
Stevie and Stuart

France with Family!!! Christmas in Paris

Week 19 – France with Family
NOTICE:  We had a really really really great week with Stuart’s mom and brothers during Christmas! Joan did a good job capturing the daily activities on Facebook, so I’m just going to list the different things we did day by day.
Saturday, December 20th   
·         Picked up everyone from the airport!
·         Chilled at our apartment for a little bit
·         Breakfast at a corner café
·         Champs-Élysées
·          Arc de Triomphe
·         Checked into the apartment
·         Mass at St. Ferdinand
·         Birthday dinner for Mitchell on Rue Mouffetard (fondue!)
Sunday, December 21st  
·         Waited in a long line for the Catacombes (got some crepes/galettes while we waited)
·         Saw Notre Dame
·         Shakespeare and Company bookstore
·         Berthillon  Ice Cream on Île Saint-Louis 
Monday, December 22nd  
·         Nice café breakfast
·         La Basilique du Sacré Cœur
·         Moulin Rouge
·         Champs-Élysées Christmas Market
·         Ladurée macaroons
Tuesday, December 23rd  
·         Versailles !
·         The Grand and Petite Trianon of Versaille
·         The Hamlet of Versaille
·         Thai dinner in neighborhood of the Air BnB apartment
Wednesday, December 24th  
·         Louvre!
·         Guided tour of Opera Palais Garnier
·         Christmas Mass in Notre Dame (<pretty legit!)
Thursday, December 25th   
·         Christmas festivities! (Gifts, champagne and pastries for breakfast!)
·         Eiffel Tower
·         Indian dinner with Rachel too
·         Bûche de Noël – Yule log cake and Christmas games
Friday, December 26th  
·         Rouen medieval city where Joan of Arc was burned
·         Palace of Justice
·         Cathedral
·         Cemetary
·         Church of Joan of Arc (and where she burned)
·         Clock tower/ Le Gros-Horloge
·         Tower where Joan of Arc was tortured
Saturday, December 27th  
·         Time to say goodbye and go off to separate airports L

Stay tuned for our Italian New Year’s Eve week adventures!! (or just read below J )

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

That weekend in Marrakech - where we blessed the rains down in AAAAAFRICA!!!

Weekend 18! Marrakech, Morocco
Saturday, December 13th
                We woke up nice and early and took the 7 o’clock flight to Marrakech. After thinking we were late, a 3 hour flight, and a long line to get through customs, we made it into the city! We took the bus right into the main square (or Medina/old part) of town then wandered a little bit to find our hotel was just around the corner. We dropped our stuff off then we were off to brunch!
                As the hotel was right on the main square of town (Jemaa El Fna or Djemma) we explored the square and found a nice terrace restaurant to observe the hustle and bustle of the square. For breakfast we had some fresh squeezed orange juice, a cheese omelet and some traditional eggs and dried meat smoked in a tagine pot (like a little steamer clay pot), and of course some mint tea. This café also had a lot of really cute kittens roaming around. Little did we know – the rest of Marrakech was swimming in cats…
                After breakfast we walked around the square and saw some of the stands and ventured into the souk (flea market) a little bit on our way to the Badi Palace. The Badi Palace is the remnants of the Saadian king’s home from 1578. It had originally jail cells in the gardens but now there are just orange trees being farmed there. There was also a nice little FLOCK of storks that guarded the tops of the castle (they made a really interesting sound with their beaks clashing). There was also a neat underground tunnel system with rooms. It was pretty creepy, but felt like you were walking into a movie set or something. We also saw a nice view of the city from the terrace of the palace. Pretty much this palace looked like you walked into the sultan’s palace courtyard in Aladdin.
                After that we headed to the Saadian Tombs. The tombs were attached to a really large and beautiful mosque. The tombs were made during the era of Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603), but were discovered in 1917. They have been restored and are really beautiful celebrations of life – except no one has a name on the tombstones. The Saadi Dynasty rests in the main mausoleum or basically a really decorated crypt /church thing (pictures are definitely worth 1000 words here).
                After this we tried to find the church we were going to go to this weekend, but had the wrong address and ended up in a not-so-nice part of town that lined the one of the main gardens of the city (Jardin de L’agdal).
                After this minor detour through the city, we went to the Bahia Palace. This palace was smaller than the other one, but a lot more modern and well decorated. It was made in the late 1800s (intended to be the greatest palace of its time). Apparently the rooms that lined the main courtyard were intended for the concubines of Si Moussa (grand vizier of the sultan). Again check out the pictures for better details.
                After that we went back to the hotel through the souk (market) to drop off the camera and go to church. We found the correct address an hour before church so we grabbed a snack at a pretty fancy Pizza Hut (some of us missed American pizza/breadsticks…ok both of us did). We then went to probably the only catholic church in the town of mosques to celebrate the third week of advent with about 20 other people. 
                We made our way back into town where the main mosque in the center of town has beautiful and tall minaret (La Koutoubia) so we stopped to get some pictures of it lit up at night. The town was also having an international film festival where there was a huge projector in the square playing a movie. Unfortunately it was sprinkling that night so the people had to stand getting a bit muddy.
                We decided not to watch the movie (13 Assasins, in French as French is the main language of Marrakech next to Arabic). We found a cute upscale and authentic Moroccan restaurant called La Marrakechi to have a quiet meal. There was no one on the second level of this restaurant (which was a bit weird, but very nice and quiet). The scenery was so cute with all the Moroccan designs and candles. The waiter then told us that we should move upstairs to enjoy some traditional music, so we did. Dinner was SO GOOD and we enjoyed some nice music with a room full of people. Stuart had some chicken kabobs with rice and I had some beef stew type thing that was delicious with a side of couscous and veggies topped with onions and chickpeas sautéed in cinnamon (so good!).
                We were ready for bed after that large meal!

Sunday, December 14th
                We checked out of the hotel to go get some Moroccan breakfast! We walked into the souk only to get turned around and cut across it and back track a little (<that is very easy to do). We stumbled upon a recommended café for breakfast (Café des Epices) in the spice market area of town. We got a huge Moroccan breakfast with mint tea, fresh orange juice, a fruit salad, and an assortment of three breads and three dipping sauces. The sauces were olive oil, a homemade chocolate peanut butter thing (so good!), and a cinnamon sugar honey. The breads were batbout (or pita), harcha (pan fried flat dense bread), and msemen (pan fried pancakes, similar to crepes, but crispier).
                After that meal we were definitely ready to take on the day – even if it rained off and on all day. We made our way over to the Marrakech Museum only after getting lost in the souk (we even asked for directions!). We finally made it to the museum after a cute little school boy lead us to the museum (of course we gave him a nice Moroccan tip of some dirhams). The museum was a little small with all the rooms branching off of a main indoor courtyard. It was a beautiful place with detailed architecture and modern Moroccan artwork. The museum is housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace which was restored in 1997.
                After that museum we went to the Ben Youssef Madrasa or the old Islamic college. The college was found in the 14th century and was reconstructed in the 1560s or so. The college was closed in the 1960s and is now a historical site. The college has 130 dormitory rooms (super creepy and small, but some were quite quaint – must have been the senior rooms). There was also as many as 900 students at one time at that school…talk about roommates. This school was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.
                After the school, we walked through the souks to buy some souvenirs. Stuart perfected his bartering skills after some awkward encounters with some scarf salesmen. I’d say 70% off of the first asking price is pretty good for a first bartering experience!
                After the souvenirs we got our backpacks and headed to the airport.

We just want to say that we did bless the rains down in AAAAAAAaaaafrica.
Next adventure on the agenda: exploring Paris with Joan, Mitchell, and Bradley for Christmas!!! Then it’s off to Italy!

Joyeuses fêtes! Happy Holidays!

Stevie and Stuart

Monday, December 8, 2014

Castles, Clocks, and Crashes: Our weekend in Prague

Weekend 17! Prague, Czech Republic
Friday, December 5th
                We got into Prague about 8 pm and took the bus into town. Once we got into town we found our hostel just off of the main Old Town square. We dropped our stuff out then went to find some dinner. We also noticed that the CHRISTMAS MARKET was going in the square, so that was pretty at night with all the lights. Also there were a lot of lit up devil horn headbands…a St. Nicholas tradition that we will explain later. We found a cozy little touristy Czech restaurant not too far. For dinner, Stuart got the beef in a creamy sweet sauce. I got a nice little kettle of Czech style goulash with some dumplings to go with it. All the main meals in the Czech Republic were a lot of pork and meat with a gravy sauce and potatoes dumplings. After dinner we got a dessert at the Christmas Market, some trdelník  bread. Basically it was dough rolled on a metal rod and roasted rotisserie style then rolled in cinnamon sugar with some almonds. SO GOOD, fresh and warm too!
Saturday, December 6th
                St. Nicholas day! A big deal to any Christmas loving Christian population and Prague was no exception. Our tour guide later explained to us that the people with devil horns represented the Krampus, or the devil that accompanied St. Nick. According to tradition, if the Krampus were to scare children and they did not sing a Christmas carol (or were particularly naughty), the Krampus would kidnap them and then later eat them of course. So Friday night we saw people dressed as St. Nicholas and the Krampus wandering around the main square partaking in this frightening tradition.
                We started the day with some nice pastries from the bakery just next door to the hostel then observed the astronomical clock tower in the square chime. The clock was installed on the tower in 1410 and on every hour, four little puppets start moving and doors open up on the top of the clock to show the 12 Apostles waving to the people in the square. The puppets represented the four fears that people back in the 1400s feared – vanity, greed, death, and the Ottomans (<the Czech people were taken over by a lot of other people throughout their history – the Ottoman Empire was around the 1400s for Czech). We wandered around a little before we met up by the clock tower again for a free walking tour.
                The tour guide we had was a Romanian International studies master student who just stayed in Prague, for three years…The first stop of the tour was observing the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. This was the main old church on the old town square. It also took awhile to build and the drawings were lost so the two towers were different widths. Also on the square is St. Nicholas’ church and the tour guide told us about the old conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants. A couple religious skirmishes actually ended with people getting thrown out windows or the bell tower.
                The next stop on the tour was the Rudolfinum or the concert hall that houses their philharmonic orchestra. The tour guide told us about the history of the Reinhard Heydrich or Hitler’s right hand man that took over Prague. The concert hall had a Jewish composer statue on the top of it and Heydrich’s henchmen were told to destroy it, but instead they destroyed Hitler’s favorite composer. Their lives were quickly ended.
                After the concert hall we saw the “Old-New synagogue” or Staronová synagoga, where the guide told us the legend of the Golem that was locked up in the attic of the synagogue. The next stop was a statue of Franz Kafka as portrayed in one of his books. The Czech people didn’t really celebrate Kafka until recently as he wrote in German and Germans took over their city in WWII. After the statue we saw this old church (Church of St. James) that had the forearm of man. There was a story that the famine in Prague was so bad one year that a man tried to steal the necklace off of a statue of Mary to sell for food, but she caught his arm. The priests found him in the morning hanging from Mary so they slowly cut his forearm off and Mary then let go of the arm. The church was destroyed in a fire soon after that, but a new forearm was replaced. You can see the shriveled up old forearm hanging from the ceiling of the church warning any other thieves.
                After that nice image of the shriveled forearm hanging from the ceiling we walked towards the “new town” and the Powder Tower, one of the 3 remaining old towers from Prague’s old wall. This tower used to hold the city’s gun powder. Next to the tower was the beautiful municipal house of the city. After that we walked to the concert hall where Mozart conducted Don Giovanni for the city in the Estates Theater. Mozart was offered to stay in Prague but Vienna offered him more money and more musical opportunities.
                For lunch we got a nice kebab and sausage baguette sandwiches from the Christmas market then met up for another tour of the Castle district of Prague. We made our way across the river and took a tram up to the top of the hill where the castle was located. We walked across this really cool old stone bridge over a stream then saw the interior of one of the courtyards in the castle. Apparently the Prague Castle is the biggest medieval style castle in the world, but some wife of a nobleman wanted it to look more modern so she had a façade put on the castle. The Cathedral of St. Vitus next door to the castle looks more authentic with its Gothic architecture. The cathedral was started in the 1300s and the construction just ended in the 1929, over 600 years after it was started. The final four architects put their faces in the main façade of the cathedral to be remembered forever. Some other neat things that we saw in the courtyards of the castle were an obelisk, a balcony where Hitler once spoke, and a misspelled gate to the castle due to a stingy old king.
                After checking out the castle courtyards and cathedral, we watched the changing of the guards then headed towards a nice place to have a view of the city. Prague has a mini Eiffel tower in its main park (not really sure why) but we got to see that and the city. After the view, we went to this old monastery that made ‘holy beer’ or some of Prague’s best beer from a really old recipe.
                We walked backed towards Old Town over the Charles Bridge which was also built in the 1300s. After the flood of Prague in 2007, the mortar of the bridge was tested and was found to have raw eggs, beer, and wine in the mixture.
                We took a quick break at the hostel as we were frozen! It had been drizzly and cold all day and two walking tours made for some grumpy tourists…After a nice warm up we went out to dinner and had some more Czech food. Stuart got a pork steak and I got a quarter of a roasted duck with the traditional red cabbage and dumplings. The night was complete with some hot mead, cider, and watching some Christmas carolers at the Christmas market (as well as seeing the Krampus again!).

Sunday, December 7th
                Sunday morning we went to church at the Church of Our Lady Before Týn, and then got a nice sit down breakfast at a café around the corner. We tried to go see the old Jewish cemetery (which had 12 layers of graves on top of each other), but the line was just too long. We then walked to Wenceslas square and saw another mini Christmas market. We made it back to the square and got a nice view of the town from on top of the bell tower. After that we tried to use the rest of our Czech Korunas on snacks at the Christmas Market (fresh potato chips and ginger bread!). We also enjoyed some cute kids dancing in traditional Czech costume.
                After that it was time to catch the bus to airport. Good thing we left in plenty of time, because our bus got in an accident with another tour bus. The other bus was in the wrong lane and tried to cut off our bus at a left turn. Our bus ended up clipping the other bus and losing its right side mirror. Two of the windows were broken in the other bus. I hope no one was hurt on the other bus. We had to wait for the police to spray the areas were the buses were in the accident then we pulled over to the side of the road, as there were 4 city trams lined up that we were blocking. A new bus driver was called in and drove us the rest of the way to the airport (without a side mirror!). But we made it home safely, so that was good.

It was quite a fun, tour filled, cold, but delicious weekend in Prague!
Next stop:  Marrakech Morocco in AAAAAFFFFFRIIIICAAAAAAAAAAAA!
À plus (later!),

Stevie and Stuart