Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

The trains out of Paris were on strike for the second time in my travels over the last couple of years, so we were rerouted on a coach bus. There were several things that would come to light relatively quickly about this part of our adventure: the ride would be overnight into Milan, the seats could not recline if there was a normal-sized passenger behind you, and the bus would make frequent stops all night long. The stops ended up being roughly every two hours. Sleep was not really something any of us got much of that night.

When we arrived in Milan, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the train station. It was a pre-arranged deal, and I, a diabetic for nearly two decades, was taken aback by the amount of carbohydrates heaped onto my tray. There was a sugar donut, a ciabatta roll with olives nestled into the top, a giant croissant, and some other piece of bread. I nibbled on enough to get by, and we headed out to catch our train to Florence.

As we awaited the train, I looked to find one headed to Florence, but it was not on any boards. I quickly realized that the Italians do not spell Florence the way that we Americans do- it is Firenze in Italy. We boarded the train and that’s the last I remember. Sleep gripped me with the force of warriors.

I woke up and we were nearing the station in Firenze. Our luggage was picked up by a local company, and my pal Stephanie was dubbed the one who would go with the luggage carrier to make the drop off and meet us back. We put her location in our “WhatsApp” so we could track her and hit the ground- headed for our first stop which was at the Piazza Della Signoria. This square became a central meeting place for our time in Firenze. In the center of the square stands a giant statue of Cosimo de Medici- a statue of power that reminds everyone of the most powerful family in Florence history.

Whoever said that the best things in life are free must have visited this Piazza Della Signoria. This open-air, free museum in the heart of Florence is a bustling area of coffee shops, cafes, and art. There are all sorts of sculptures and statues around, including a replica of Michelangelo’s “David”. It was interesting to learn about Michaelangelo. He lived to be 89 years old, and he was a fascinating character. So fascinating, I think I will reread the Agony and the Ecstacy again soon. Apparently, the government felt that the nose on his famous statue was too big. When they were watching, but not carefully, he pretended to chop off parts of the nose, holding decoy scraps of marble in his hand, and dropping them on the ground to simulate the cutting back of the nose. When he was done, he asked the officials if it was better, and, low and behold, they said it was now perfect!

Running along one side of the Piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an area where there are a host of statues including “Perseo”, who is holding Medusa’s head, which I found to be really gripping.

From the center of town, we moved through a narrow street to the Leonardo Leather Works, where we watched and learned how leather products are made. I found it so interesting to learn about the process, and I now know how to tell the difference between real and imitation leather.

Just as the leather presentation was wrapping up, I was summoned by our tour guide, Simon. “Heidi!” He motioned. “I need to see you out here immediately.”

His tone was absolutely not the jocular wit I’d come to appreciate, and I rushed to meet him outside the shop.

“Have you heard from Stephanie?” He asked.

“No,” I answered. “I just tried to call her but I didn’t get an answer.”

“This is not good,” he said, frowning and looking intently at his phone screen. “I’m tracking her location and it seems that the driver is taking her miles outside the city! We must get in touch with her!”

At this point, the thoughts going through my mind were absolutely frantic. I envisioned her being kidnapped by the luggage handler- drugged unconscious, and headed for some sort of scary din that I couldn’t fathom. I texted her again… “Are you okay??” “Where are you?” Nothing.

Just when I thought we would need to call the authorities, Simon heard back from her. She had simply gone on a bit of a sightseeing route back to us. When she finally showed up, I hugged her with more relief than I’d care to admit!

We took a fantastic walking tour of the city next. We made our way through the streets, where our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting things. I was versed on the impact of the Medici family, and realized quickly that their “stamp” was all over the city. They have a family “crest” of sorts, that is adorned with six balls, known as the Medici balls. Five of them are red and one is blue. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere. While numerous folklore exists about what those balls represented, the most acceptable story seems to be that they represent the medical background of the Medici family- they were doctors and the balls represent pills.

We saw large, cast iron loops along many of the buildings. These were places for people to tie up their horses when they came into the city.

We wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, otherwise known as the Old Bridge. This is the bridge that crosses over Firenze’s Arno River, and is the only bridge to survive the natzi’s during WWII. As we walked to the bridge, strolling through the shops, we learned that this place of expensive jewelers was once a street filled with tanners, meat venders, and smelly fish shops. In the early 1500s, Ferdinand I thought it was too smelly and said that the only shops he wanted in the area were goldsmiths and jewelers. The view from the bridge was lovely, and I knew staring out at the river, that I would have to return to this place of art and romance. One day…

After the walking tour we had a wonderful cheese fondue lunch at a local cafe. They delivered a basket of bread and Brooke, another traveler on the trip, was excited to share the mouth watering delight. Simon couldn’t believe the size of the bread basket, and asked, “do you think you have enough bread?” I told him I hoped so. I think he had to have been impressed with our fortitude when the basket was emptied!

After lunch, we had free time to wander the city. I opted to hit the shopping market and the Duomo. The markets were literally brimming with leather goods. Leather is to Italy what lobsters are to Maine. The vendors were all willing to make deals, and it felt like stepping back in time to be there. One market we strolled through, the Mercato Nuovo, housed a very special sculpture- one that I was thrilled to discover because it was sure to bring me luck. It was a replica of the “Il Porcellino”, which means “the little pig”. The original bronze boar was sculpted in 1634 by an Italian named Pietro Tacca. The pig, according to legend, brings good luck to those who rub his snout. If you put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin makes it to the drain below, it means you will return to Firenze. (Apparently the money collected is donated to a homeless shelter for children.) I am pleased to announce that my luck should be good and I’ll be returning to Firenze!

Stephanie and I decided to spend our last hours at the Piazza del Duomo, home to Il Duomo Firenze, which translates to the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower.This towering cathedral, the Duomo for short, was built in 1206 and designed by Filipino Brunelleschi. It is the longest Christian church in the world, and the third largest. The grandeur of the dome can be seen all over the city, which makes it, according to Simon, “very difficult to get lost.”

The outside of the church is a mix of pink, white, and green marble. The pink, a light shade of red, stands for charity, the white stands for faith,and the green is hope; all of the marble colors are also the colors of the Italian flag. It is possible to climb the 476 steps into the Duomo for only 8 euros, but we didn’t have the time or the gumption with only a couple hours of sleep the night before. I would love, another time, to attempt these steps to get a closer look at the amazing frescos at the top by the artist Giorgio Vasari.

It is free to enter the Duomo, but the line an be up to two hours. We got lucky and made it in with only a thirty minute wait. Outside, there were plenty of scarf peddlers for those who forgot to cover their shoulders. The Italian churches demand the covering of skin for those entering their holy places.

Our evening ended with a dinner in a little back street at a place called Osteria dei Baroncelli. The food was good, but the tiramisu was devine! The Italians know how to please a palate. Back at the hotel, sleep took over until I awoke to our next day, which had us on the road to Rome…

Fear and loathing on the Berlin trail… Day 2

I woke up this morning and headed to breakfast. Wow- was I impressed! They had everything anyone could want on numerous separate stations! Cheeses, meats, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and even hard boiled eggs… and fruits, yogurts, and homemade breads that rivaled a bakery. I ate with a few teachers, and as I cut my kiwi into quarters, I surveyed the group as to whether or not they eat the skin of the kiwi. Every single one of them said no. And I think they decided that I’m a bit of an odd duck.

I did waste two different cups of God only knows what on the coffee machine which didn’t have English subtitles. I finally clicked the golden button and got some mega-bitter coffee that was sure to wipe any last fatigue from my body!

After breakfast I had a two-hour training class, and then we had ten minutes to bundle up and load the tour bus. And I was ever so thankful today to have so many cold gear articles… because it was 30 degrees with a few hours of snow! (One guy from New Mexico called it blizzard conditions!)

Our first stop on the bus was at the historic East side gallery. No one visiting Berlin should miss this- even if it is below freezing and windy. This gallery is actually a series of murals painted on a remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, murals which were put up to celebrate all that was joyous and peaceful and free about the Wall coming down. The Wall has 101 different paintings- some very abstract, others more pop art style. One of the most famous is the “kissing dictators”, which says at the top “God help me stay alive” and at the bottom “among this deadly love”. This is, according to our tour guide, the longest outdoor painting in the world.

There was a fellow playing his instrument in front of one of the panels… this instrument was like the chitty-chitty bang bang of instruments. It made these funky gurgling, seven-horsepower motor sounds that were not very musical to my ears, yet I was fascinated! I bet I could make one of these?!

We got to see St Mary’s Church, which is one of the few buildings to live through the war. This church was actually built in 1270, according to our tour guide, who also said that the tower was put on it to make the church appear smaller. All the guides we’ve had stress the lack of interest the Germans have in religion. So much so that, according to today’s guide, 80% of Germans are self proclaimed atheists. “We have in Germany a religion tax,” the guide explained. “But if you sign a paper declaring yourself an atheist- you don’t have to pay it.” Hahaha

We we made another stop where I visited what must be the most famous chocolate shop in Berlin. In return for free facilities, I bought some chocolate and wowed over the chocolate creations. This Rausch shop smelled like heaven.

As we made our way to Potsdam, we passed some interesting modern monuments. The one with the curved, spaghetti-like appearance is actually a Kaiser Wilhelm memorial. According to our guide, the locals call it “aluminum worms” or “dancing in spaghetti”!

We got a chance to get out for lunch around the corner from the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first Catholic Church to open its doors to the Potsdam community after the war.

We ate lunch in Potsdam, which our guide explained was “Berlin’s more beautiful sister.” For lunch we made our way down the Main Street in Potsdam and found a local sandwich shop. I had a delicious spinach quiche and they had a free WC (bathroom) which I’ve come to appreciate.

One of the most interesting sites we saw before arriving at the “New Palace” was the famous “Steam Engine” building, which is located along the Havel river. This place was built to look like a mosque, but inside it is home to a mega steam engine. According to our guide, there are 2000 Syrian refugees who come into Berlin each year and go there to pray. What a surprise when they find it is not a house of worship!

Our next stop was at the “New Palace”. This palace was finished in 1769 and was pretty much a 200-room summer place for king Friedrichstraße II. The rooms were lined with silks, silver, and gold, the floors were cut from the finest marble, and the art was jaw-dropping. Before I include photos of the palace, I want to describe the “not-a-palace” that was across the street. With sweeping circular stairs on the front, this was simply built to be something beautiful to look at- and was, according to our guide, “where the kitchen was.” This photo below is just a kitchen. Freddie’s diner!

The palace, across from the kitchen, is sprawling and impressive as well. When we arrived, the snow wasn’t sticking, but by the time we left, the grounds were white!

Inside the palace was historic beauty, fortunately preserved; saved from the destruction of World War II.

The porcelain chandeliers were the first of their kind, and they all had porcelain musicians built in. Much of the art was inspired by mythology and the caretakers of the palace have even kept the graffiti that was drawn on the walls during the war.

After a potty stop that cost me 70 cents, we were on the bus and headed back to east Berlin. Our next stop, and final tour stop, was the “Topography of Terror” exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is lined with a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This place is the exact site where the Third Reich housed the SS and the gestapo. Outside, visitors can see the remnants of the cells that the SS used to hold prisoners- those who were tortured endlessly in preparation for their execution. This is why the loathing had to be in this blog’s title.

Inside the museum, there are hundreds of photos that depict the historical atrocities of Hitler’s bloody, sociopathic reign. Many of the photos are painful to look at, but serve as a true, accurate depiction of the horrors of the time.

After leaving the museum, we found our way to dinner somewhere near checkpoint Charlie’s. I enjoyed a creamy mushroom risotto and a glass of German wine called Weissherbst. My dinner mates both had schnitzel!

The ride back, without our guide, was comical and I almost felt like what the contestants on the amazing race must experience! We didn’t understand the language, and had yet to fully comprehend the Berlin subway system. With only one wrong train, we corrected ourselves, had some laughs, changed the proper number of train lines, and got back to the hotel! The Estrel hotel, I might add, is really quite something at night!

Excited to see what awaits tomorrow- my final day in Berlin!

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!

A modest proposal for a digital world…

Each day, at any given moment across American High Schools, students sneak a text on their cellular devices. They hide their phones in pockets, under their thighs, inside their bras, and along the tops of their book bags. I am a teacher, and, as entertaining as I like to think I am in my classroom, I cannot compete with the allure of these devices. I have spent hours pondering the possible ways to thwart the sneaky methods of in-class texting, and I have finally hit pay dirt!  I have the foolproof solution to the problem of cell phones; I just need medical backing and an educational referendum.

My plan will allow teachers of cellphone-aged children to ensure that cell phones are “up” at a glance. By “up”, I mean that cell phones, under my simple plan, will find a natural resting spot on the tops of the heads of students. Indeed, a teacher will be able to look out to her attentive pupils and see them sitting upright, eager to learn, their cell phones resting comfortably atop their craniums.

Now, my eventual plan does require the reshaping of the human skull, and it must begin with the current newborns. We must mold the very skulls of infants, when they are most pliable. Doctors can easily create this “mold” using any available rectangular block. Actually, a small book would be best, since no one reads them anymore- it would be a great way to use up these antiquated dust collectors. Using the book, the doctor, who would certainly be adequately trained, would only need to press for a matter of minutes, and the indention would be set. Parents would then take the book with them, upon leaving the hospital with their new babes, and continue “book press therapy” throughout the child’s first year, to ensure that the bones set correctly. Parents will undoubtedly pack these books away with other sentimental baby items- first cups, bibs, and locks of hair.

Once a child hits the age of 7,  which I render the age at which most children will have their first cell phones, his or her skull indention would be mature enough to house a phone. It will be imperative that students sit still while resting their cell phones on their indented heads, so as not to wiggle and have the cell phones fall to the floor. Obviously, this would be distracting and costly to families. The necessity of stillness in elementary schools, so not to “tip” the cell phones,  will do away with the need for classes that require movement, which will, in turn, save money in district budgets.

For the kids who are too old for the infantile head reshaping, schools will need to provide each student with my patent-pending “Cell Phone Cap”, which shall be worn by all students, every day. This cap will be fashioned after a painter’s cap and made from the cheapest burlap, so as not to infringe on local budgets or anger governors who try their best to adequately pay teachers. The caps will have a Velcro belt system at the top, so students may easily secure their cell phones. These caps can be made in China for under $2.00 each, which will only be necessary until the book-pressed infants matriculate into the schools; upon which time manufacturing of the hats may cease.

Any educator will agree that this cell phone plan is truly the only solution to the digital disease inflicting our schools. It will ensure that students pay attention to their teachers, rather than their devices.  They will sit still, face forward, and be completely engaged. I’ve already spoken to a doctor who is excited about it, especially considering there is little to no pain involved. I have a more detailed proposal ready to present at the next area board meeting.  I hope that my caps will be in every school before the 2016 class graduates.

-HC

Corded window blinds kill. Please read and share.

October is “Window Covering Safety Month”. Most people would never know this, because they have no personal connection to the dangers of corded blinds. I didn’t either, until I learned what happened to a high school friend’s son.  In January of 2010, during naptime, Andrea’s son Daniel, who was three years old, strangled in the cords of the window blinds in his bedroom. Reading her story, following her heartache, and seeing photos of this beautiful boy who lost his life has moved me to share her story whenever I can, in hopes of preventing this tragedy for other families.

On  April 16, 2015, journalist Rick Schmitt wrote an in-depth article for fairwarning.org titled “Years of Talking, Kids Still Dying”. He wrote, “According to data compiled by the CPSC, at least 332 children, most of them under the age of two, have been fatally strangled by window cords over the last 30 years.  Another 165 have been injured, including some who suffered permanent brain damage or quadriplegia requiring lifelong care and therapy, according to the nonprofit group Parents for Window Blind Safety.”

To say the stories of these devastated families are heartbreaking doesn’t even scratch the proverbial surface. These families, like most of us, had no idea that a silent killer lurked in the rooms of their innocent babies.  They didn’t realize that these cords can kill in less than one minute. In one article I read, a mom left her 5 and 3 year old children playing in the playroom just long enough to make a bag of microwave popcorn. When she returned, her three year old was dead: strangled with blind cords.

The more I’ve read, the more enraged I become at the big-time window blind companies who are turning a blind eye to the research they are fully aware of. Schmitt’s article discusses the fact that these companies make a fortune selling corded blinds. He writes, “Corded blinds account for an estimated 75% of the industry’s roughly $2 billion in annual U.S. sales.”

Schmitt’s article really pinpoints the issue with the companies who manufacture the blinds when he cites an attorney:

 “They are not going cordless because they want to protect their profit margins,” said James Onder, a St. Louis lawyer who has filed, and settled, more than 50 lawsuits against the industry in 23 states related to children killed or injured by window blinds. “The industry has made a conscious decision that it is cheaper to pay off a lawsuit than it is to save human lives” by eliminating corded blinds, he said. – See more at: http://www.fairwarning.org/2015/04/as-window-blind-cords-strangle-toddlers-reforms-are-left-dangling/#sthash.L0D5hjm0.dpuf

A few years ago, I became a follower of the Facebook page titled “Parents for Window Blind Safety”, a non-profit organization who not only educates consumers, but they also fight for safer industry standards and support families who have lost children to corded blinds. They advocate companies, (Ikea most recently) who have opted to ban sales of corded blinds in their stores. This group raises awareness, supports education, and works to support the removal of corded blinds from store shelves. Parents Magazine, Consumer Reports, Fox News, CNN, The Today Show, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, USA TODAY and many other newspapers have advocated this organization, and helped to spread the important message of the dangers of corded blinds.

While I don’t have young children now, I have many friends who do. Hopefully one day, I will have grandchildren. We must all work together to ensure the future safety of our children. I have shared the danger of these corded blinds with friends, and will continue to share. I remember another chilling thought that I heard from someone, perhaps it was my friend Andrea, Daniel’s mom; the danger may be at a friend’s house, a friend whose family is unaware of the dangers.  The only way to ensure that these corded blinds do not take the lives of any more children is to raise awareness.

My heart truly grieves for the 332 children who have been strangled by corded blinds. None of these families knew the dangers. I certainly didn’t. I am horrified to recall that we had these cords in our kids’ bedrooms when they were little- in fact their cribs were near the windows.  This tragedy could occur in any house that hangs corded blinds. And, as every case indicates, it happens fast and silently.

Please spread the word. Take down corded blinds, and ensure that any house your child visits does the same. Be a life saver.

-HC