Tuesday, July 30, 2013

heat wave? let's get some ice cream

EXCESSIVE HEAT EXPECTED. My Weather Channel App had a most foreboding weather alert for the Pontresina area on Sunday. What to do? We came all this way to avoid the heat, and now this. How are we supposed to hike in the heat wave? Okay, give me the bad news, weather app. How bad will it be -- 110? 100? Nope. 75 degrees. I do love myself some Pontresina in July.

When the "heat" descended, the Ecksteins (along with Collin and Holly) ascended -- the easy way. (As you will see here, Collin has shed his Baby Bjorn camera pack from the day prior. Too bad.) That is, we took a funicular up to Corviglia (8,150'), a small summit just above St. Moritz. Corviglia sits in the middle of a massive collection of ski runs in the mountains behind St. Moritz and Celina. I saw at least six chair lifts heading out in all directions from Corviglia. Those lifts were all shut down, though, as the summer is the time of the hiker and the mountain biker, and there were plenty of both out that day. The mountain bikers, in particular, seem to make their presence known, both on and off the trails. (The emergence of mountain biking is probably the biggest change in this place since I was last here in 1989. I am clearly getting old, as I find myself wanting to shake my fist at the bikers as they whiz by us on the trails, doing their fancy jumps and all. Damn kids.)

From Corviglia, we took a gondola up to Piz Nair (10,030'), the tallest peak that overlooks St. Moritz. The views, as with all the mountain peaks in this area, are breathtaking. Notwithstanding the "heat wave," it was really cold and windy as we stood outside. (Dan, Katherine and Jennifer are braving the elements in the name of a good photo op.)

We all rode the gondola back down to Corviglia, where we ate and split up -- my parents taking Lauren and Owen on public transportation back to the hotel and the rest of us hiking the nearly four-mile trail down to St. Moritz. From there, most of us walked back to Pontresina, back in plenty of time for dinner and our second encounter with the dessert buffet. I won't write a lot here about the buffet, other than observe it was pretty much the same layout as the week prior. I felt a bit better prepared this time, focusing my attention on the ice creams and mousses. My uncle made several passes at the buffet. He likely would have made several more had my aunt not been there to rein him in.

Our good-luck weather streak ran out on our final full day in Pontresina, as a cold rain moved in, and did not move out. I was determined not to let the weather deprive me of a last hike/run, so I hiked (quickly) the three-and-a-half miles to the Morteratsch station, and ran back. I was a little shocked to see that I was not the only idiot in the area that day, as there were several others out walking/hiking/biking. I even saw two families, including one with two small children riding mountain bikes in the driving rain. Those were two totally miserable looking children. I was soaked when I made it back to the room. In case I had any doubt about how I looked, I saw all I needed to when Keri opened the door, slowly closed her eyes, sighed, turned around, and grabbed me a robe -- all without saying a word. I think she was too impressed to put into words her true feelings.

We all spent the afternoon at the hotel, swimming, reading and talking. I would have rather the weather cooperated, but the rain did give us a chance to sit down for a while as a family. Even Owen managed to put down the iPad and join us for some real conversation. I doubt he will soon recover from that. (Pictured here is Owen manhandling the knight in armor that stands outside the entrance to the Walther dining room. This photo captures well Owen's general disregard of our instruction to keep his hands to himself, as well as his level of comfort in the hotel. If I have not made it clear before, let me do so now -- the hotel staff bent over backwards to made Lauren and Owen feel at home, and we cannot thank them enough.)

Our last dinner was uneventful. Luigi took good care of us, as he had for two weeks, meeting without the slightest visible sign of judgment or frustration each of our many, many culinary demands. The kids got their glasses of apple juice, and their chicken nuggets/steak. Keri was delivered an extra helping of wine. Most importantly, Luigi met perfectly each of our eleven different dessert orders. I am not sure how this happened, as there were two perfectly good desserts on the menu, but I was the only one to order one of them (something called a Coupe Romanov that had a scoop of vanilla ice cream sitting on top of a whole heap of cut strawberries. (It was delicious.)

Everyone else let go of whatever inhibitions had heretofore compelled them to stick to the dessert menu, instead asking for whatever the hell they felt like. Owen ordered two scoops of strawberry sorbet and one scoop of vanilla ice cream -- in two separate bowls. (When it comes to frozen desserts, Owen is a strict segregationist.) Keri got a scoop of mango sorbet and chocolate ice cream (a rarity for this low-fat frozen yogurt eater). Lauren went with two scoops of chocolate ice cream. Everyone shared in a the chocolate sauce that Luigi had placed in the middle of the table. Even my aunt splurged and put some chocolate sauce on her fresh berries. Must have been something in the air.

Most impressive was the performance of my uncle, who finished off with a flourish his two-week eat-a-thon. Kevin McHale, the old Boston Celtic, was often called the Black Hole, as once the basketball went into him in the post, it did not come back out. My uncle is pretty much the same when it comes to food, in particular desserts. Keri and I have had many dinners where we passed desserts around a table full of adults. Most of the time, those desserts make several trips around the table, with some food remaining uneaten as the plate comes to a final rest. Literally six different plates/bowls went in the direction of my uncle last night. Not a single one emerged with even a morsel of ice cream or cake alive.

This morning, we sent off my aunt, uncle, and cousins to catch their train. Keri, the kids and I followed an hour later, taking a train to Zurich, where we are spending tonight before we fly through London and on to Phoenix tomorrow. My parents are staying a couple extra days in Pontresina, and will be home by the weekend.

As we were saying our good-byes, my uncle said he looked forward to the dessert buffet at our home Sunday night. I am not sure he was kidding.

Monday, July 29, 2013

f%*! this hike and may I please have some chicken that will not send me to the hospital

"F%*! this hike." Keri Eckstein, July 26, 2013, 40 minutes short of the Tschierva Hut

It was really just a matter of time until Keri, my gentle wife, mustered the courage to state her opinion. I'm not sure whether it was the six miles we had already hiked, the muddy path we had traversed, the streams we had crossed, the rocky trail we struggled over, or the 2,500 foot elevation gain. On top of those things, I had told Keri that our destination  -- the Tschierva Hut -- was one we would see about 40 minutes before we got there, a particularly painful way to end the first half of a long hike. (Pictured here is our view of the hut and the mountains/glaciers behind it. The hut, which looks really small in this picture, is on the rocky terrain just to the left and at the bottom of the glacier.)

Keri agreed to stick it out until we saw the hut, at which point she agreed to reassess. Seeing the hut, it would seem did not change her mind, as she uttered the above-referenced statement. Dan and I agreed it was time to turn around. Truth be told, Dan and I (and Jennifer, who was a bit behind us and can not be held responsible for this group decision) were the better for it. We were sore and our feet blistered when we made it back to Pontresina -- but not nearly as sore and blistered as we would have been without a subtle suggestion from Keri.

That evening, our family was joined at dinner by our long-time and dear friend, Collin Barry. Collin grew up in Arizona, but left there (much to our chagrin) years ago. He now lives in Stuttgart, Germany, and graciously decided to come down here and see us this weekend. Collin brought his lady friend, Holly. In pure Collin fashion, it would seem that he did not provide full disclosure to his unsuspecting date as when I met the two of them and invited them to dinner it was clear that Holly was under the impression she would be meeting only Keri, me and the kids. I reminded Collin that, as we had discussed several different times over multiple months, we were in Pontresina as part of a larger family vacation, and that there were seven other family members with us. Collin unconvincingly pretended not to recall any of this. Holly, to her credit, seemed unfazed by the entire episode -- and she was further a good sport at dinner, where Owen engaged her in a lengthy Avengers-related discussion.

Lauren was feeling a little ill at dinner, so she and Keri retired a bit early. Lauren's symptoms had abated by the next morning but she declared herself very tired (i.e., she really didn't want to hike and this was a good excuse as any), so Keri agreed to stay back with her. Owen, of course, was all too easy to convince to join them. Why go outside and enjoy the Swiss Alps when you can stay inside?

I set out in the late morning with Collin and Holly for a hike on the ridge opposite St. Moritz to the Hahnensee Hut, and down to Sulej, the base of the Corvatsch station. Holly, who is not an experienced hiker, toughed out what I know was not an easy day for her. Collin, who has done a lot of difficult hiking, was continually pointing out to Holly paths that he hoped to take the following day -- paths that happened to be the most difficult and dangerous in the area. I suggested he reconsider.

Collin also brought with him a ridiculously large 35mm camera with a removable lens. A camera like that needs its own padded bag, which came along as well. What was noteworthy about this particular bag was that Collin was wearing a strap system that mounted the large bag on his chest, pretty much identical to a Baby Bjorn. Collin is one of the few men I know that could get away with such a ridiculous contraption. As I said, his absence is still felt by many in Phoenix.

The hike took a bit longer than I had expected, and, after catching a bus at the bottom of the Corvatsch, we made it back to Pontresina at 545. (Pictured here is the view of the Berninas from the top of the Corvatsch. The photo does not do the view justice.) I had not been close to this late any other day so, understandably, Keri was concerned. After much pleading, she forgave me my tardiness, and we prepared to meet Collin and Holly for dinner at the hotel next to ours -- our first adult night out since we left Arizona in early June. Cue Owen, who was "very sad" that we were leaving him (with seven adult relatives) for dinner. "I thought this summer was supposed to be about spending time together as a family," said the little man. Apparently, the last seven-plus weeks of having every single meal together -- many of which Owen was so deep into my iPhone that he would not have known if Keri and I got up and left -- meant nothing.

Some of Owen's expressed anxiety may have actually been legitimate, as he lost a tooth earlier in the day. Or, rather, he performed a self-extraction of a tooth that was probably weeks away from being ready to go -- which is how most of Owen's baby teeth have met their fate. After losing his tooth, Owen asked the front desk in the hotel whether the Tooth Fairy exists in Switzerland. (Owen stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy some time ago, and has ruined the whole thing for several of his friends. His inquiry of the hotel staff is a testament to his practical nature. He may not believe in the fairy, but he'll take advantage of those who want to perpetuate the myth if it can get him something.) Owen was told that small chocolates are left under a child's pillow. Owen asked us to make sure that was done to lessen his pain and suffering.

After multiple promises to Owen -- mostly involving the chocolate and a future ping pong game, Keri and I were released and made our way to Hotel Steinbock to meet Collin and Holly. Our dinner was fine, which is to say decent but nowhere near the quality -- in food or service -- as the Walther. As to the service, Keri asked whether the chicken on the menu was prepared with cream or butter (either of which will send her to the bathroom for the night). The waitress responded that there was cream in the pepper sauce that accompanied the chicken. Keri asked whether it could be prepared without the sauce. She said she would have to check with the kitchen.

Minutes later, she returned and said it could not be prepared without the sauce, as the flavor would suffer. Keri asked whether either of the fish items could be prepared without cream or butter. Same response. I interrupted, saying that Keri was willing to sacrifice some flavor for the health of her digestive system. The waitress said she understood. I was about to tell her that she clearly did not understand when Keri cut me off, said she would be fine with just a salad. The waitress immediately expressed deep and heartfelt sorrow for Keri's dinner being a salad, as though some third party had been the cause of this.

Keri is used to going full Sally in her ordering. I don't recall her ever getting a response like that before. Perhaps the waitress knew of her derision of the Tshcierva Hut hike and took offense, on behalf of the entire region. Either way, we made it through dinner, got back to the hotel, put both kids to sleep and made sure Owen had three little chocolate pieces waiting for him in the morning.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

the little devil

We have had the exact same forecast every day of our time in Switzerland -- high around 70 with sunny skies in the morning and a 40% chance of rain/thunderstorms starting at some point in the mid-late afternoon. This forecast has been accurate, as we have seen generally sunny mornings and rainy afternoons. So, when we saw the forecast for yesterday had a 70% chance of thunderstorms all day, we figured 70% is nearly twice as much as 40%, ergo, there is really a 100% chance of rain all day. Turns out, 70% means there is a 30% that there will be no rain. Who knew? Not us, apparently, as we cancelled our hiking plans and stayed around the hotel.

That would be all good and well if we had not wanted to be outside but, we did. And, because we actually wanted the rain to come and justify our non-hike plans, Mother Nature punished us by holding off the rains until the end of the day. I know we deserve no sympathy, but it does not hurt to ask.

The no-hike day did give Lauren a chance to strong arm me into something she has been trying to do since we arrived -- tennis. The hotel has three clay courts and Lauren was most excited to put them to use. She diligently spoke to the front desk about borrowing rackets and balls and, before I knew it, I was out of excuses and on court #2. Lauren and I managed to stay on the court for nearly an hour. We were not a well-matched pair, as I don't play often enough to have the precise control I would like to have in my game. For her part, Lauren may be a bit too reliant on the precise ball-feeding of her tennis teachers back home such that a ball hit to her more than six inches outside her happy zone does not getting returned. I asked Lauren at the end if she had fun, which she said she did, so, despite the very few rallies we had, I am pleased with the result.

Today the entire Eckstein clan headed to the Diavolezza (the Little Devil), a 9,770-foot mountain that sits just below the tallest Bernina peaks, and just above the Pers and Morterasch glaciers. It has a decent amount of snow year-round, and serves as the area's most popular ski resort from October through April. My mother remarked that she could stay in the hotel on-site for a couple days, watching the sunrises, sunsets and the constantly changing look of the snow-covered peaks, with the sun moving in and out of the clouds. Two days may be a bit long, but I see her point. It is really a special place.

We got to the summit by train and gondola and walked around some, admiring the views. Owen spotted some snow/ice and started "ice skating" in it. In reality, he was walking into a snow/ice patch of some kind. With each step, he was getting his boots deeper and deeper into the snow, eventually to the point where the snow started coming in over the top of the boots. This immediately led to his observation that he now had wet socks. (Pictured here is Owen removing a sock to hug it, in hopes of making it warm and dry. By the look of it, I am not concealing very well my befuddlement with my son's judgment.)

After 40 minutes or so on the mountain top, we headed inside for some lunch. By way of background, my grandparents had a strict policy of not buying lunch in Switzerland. A breakfast buffet came with their rooms, and if there was one thing a Euro-breakfast buffet is good for, it is for making lunch. My grandmother would, without the slightest bit of shame, grab from the buffet table rolls, meat and cheese, sit down at the breakfast table, prepare several sandwiches and openly and notoriously place them in some ziploc bags. Voila, lunch.

My family had toyed around the edges of this practice over the last week, every day moving a little closer to my grandparents' strict observance. This morning, Keri crossed the rubicon, albeit with a great deal of discomfort, making sandwiches for herself and the kids, and sneaking them out of the breakfast room with her head hung low. Having gone to all of this trouble, one would expect that we would have at least eaten these breakfast-buffet-table-prepared sandwiches. Instead, once inside the Diavolezza cafe, menus were being studied, orders placed, and large plates of food emerging from the kitchen. We are not sure how we got from A to B on this one and, clearly, there will need to be some greater thought given tomorrow to how we handle all this.

After lunch, we took the gondola back down with various plans of getting back to the hotel. My parents were going to take the train with Lauren and Owen while everyone else would walk back via the Morterasch, a nice five-mile walk that is mostly level with a slight downhill grade. Keri and I had toyed with the idea of walking the other direction toward Alp Grum, where we would catch the train back to Pontresina.

As fate/Owen would have it, that walk did not come about. There was, I understand, an incident of some kind on the gondola ride down. Owen alleges that Lauren either pushed him or "compared herself to him" (his description of what she said suggests he does not understand our rule against intra-sibling comparisons). Whatever happened, Owen walked to the middle of the gondola and sulked. Several of us tried to snap him out of it, without success.

When we arrived at the bottom, we were still not able to bring him around. My parents waited for the train with Lauren while everyone else started their walk back. Keri and I did not want to leave my parents with Owen in this condition. It took some doing -- more than twenty minutes of discussion -- to get him to agree to "make good choices," freeing Keri and me to leave. At that point, though, I was concerned that we might not have enough time to make it to Alp Grum and back, so we followed the others on their walk.

We ended up walking pretty fast, in part because we walk fast, in part to work out the emotional frustration that can only be caused by your own child. Back at the hotel, we enjoyed some rhubarb cake, some m&m-like candies (that are far better than M&Ms) that the hotel gave to our children, and, really, the fact that our children were elsewhere with my aunt and uncle.

Another good dinner tonight, this one featuring an appetizer bar and a white coffee ice cream. I would further note from our dinners a growing consensus that I am married to someone who likes her wine. Lauren and Owen have, for several weeks, been saying aloud that Keri has had wine with "every dinner." (In her defense, I have had wine, too, and who does not do so when in Italy?) Apparently, this association with Keri and wine has spread, as our waiter, Luigi, has taken it upon himself to make sure that Keri has a full wine glass at all times. Tonight, Luigi giggled when he saw Jennifer give Keri the remainder of her wine that she did not want. I doubt Keri has a drinking problem but, with some moments like we had today, I would understand if she did.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

my uncle does not attempt to eat his weight in desserts and the segantini is not to be trifled with

The good news is that Lauren and Owen went with us on a moderately difficult hike. The bad news is that Lauren and Owen went with us on a moderately difficult hike.

First, a few reflections on dinner at the Hotel Walther. We have eaten well. As mentioned in a prior post, breakfast is included in our nightly room rate. Dinners are more formal than any of us are used to eating -- soup, appetizer, salad bar, main course and desert courses every night. There are a couple options in each course, described in the hotel menu in French and German. Through the hard work of Lauren (with some assistance from other family members and Goggle translate), our family arrives at dinner every night with an electronic version of the menu in English. I cannot order without it. Once she got rolling with the translator, Lauren took it upon herself to produce a copy of the menu in Italian to present to our waiter, Luigi. He was very pleased to get it, complimenting Lauren on her great work. He told us a couple nights later that he was originally from Quebec. Very disappointing. I suppose it could have been worse -- he could have been from Brooklyn.

The highlight of the weekly dinner menu is the dessert buffet, which is served every Sunday night. (Pictured above are Lauren and Owen enjoying their introduction to the dessert buffet. Lauren, as you can see, has opted for two kinds of mousse, among other things. That smile is probably still in place.) My recollection from 23 years ago is that the buffet table was covered with platters of full-sized cakes and pies, and that my uncle would attempt to eat his weight it desserts. He may not have hit that lofty goal, but I am certain I saw him go back and forth at least five times to the buffet table, each time returning with a plate piled high to the point of toppling over. When you impress a 19 year-old boy with your food consumption, you are doing something remarkable.

Whether it is my faulty memory or the buffet has changed, there were few large cakes, the buffet featuring bite-sized torts, chocolates and pies, fruits, shot glasses of mousse concoctions, bowls of chocolate and vanilla mousse and ice cream and mango gelato. Everything was good -- really good, but it was different than I had remembered. My uncle ended up making only a couple trips to the buffet, as well, which was slightly disappointing. My aunt gave him credit for showing restraint. I don't know it was that, or whether he, too, was expecting something a little different and whether his heart (and stomach) just weren't in it. Perhaps some things are best preserved in our memory banks. (One other possibility is that the hotel, mindful of my uncle's past exploits, has put in place for the next two weeks a special, Eckstein Family dessert buffet. Seems like a lot of trouble, I know, but the economics of it may be justifiable.)

Sunday night's desert buffet inspired/guilted the whole group into a Monday hike from the Muottas Muragl back to Pontresina. We took a bus and cable car up to the Muottas Muragl, which is just over 8,000 feet, and offers spectacular views of St. Moritz and the Val Roseg. (Pictured here are Lauren and my mother with St. Moritz behind them.) There were a number of posters up promoting an Earth Wind & Fire concert there tonight. Not two things I generally associate in my mind.

From there, we hiked down a bit (350 feet) and up the Muragl valley, filled with flowing streams, grass-covered hills and pastures, and lots of cows. The latter led to my uncle sharing his observation that the cows, many of which were of a different hue, did not seem burdened by the same prejudices as us humans. (Pictured below are the cows that inspired my uncle's insights into human behavior.) A few minutes after this observation, we happened upon some cattle where the only two gray cows were separated from the herd. I suggested that age discrimination seems to be common to all species.

At the end of the valley, we had a choice, head up to the Chamanna Segantini (9000') and then down to Alp Languard (7640') where you can take a chairlift into town -- or walk around the Segantini to the same end. The Segantini is most famous in my family for a trip, 24 years ago, where my Uncle John took a then-sixteen year old Jennifer from Pontresina to Segantini, over to Alp Languard and then up to Piz Languard (10,700'). This hike took more than ten hours. And it was on day one of their vacation. Jennifer still bears the emotional scars from it. I think my Aunt Ronnie also broke her ankle on this mountain some years ago.

Keri advised both Lauren and Owen that they should go with their grandparents and Aunt Diane on the even path that wraps around the Segantini for a much less-strenuous hike. As is often the case, they ignored their mother's advice. The four of us hiked together most of the way up the Segantini, separating about three-quarters of the way up. Keri moved ahead with Lauren while I stayed back with Owen. I will not repeat here his complaints from prior hikes (all of which were pulled out), but I will give him credit for one new complaint (why can't we eat lunch before we hike???) and for a slightly new behavior -- laying down prostrate on the ground and declaring that he simply could not move another step. I will further say that I was no longer speaking to him by the time we got to the summit.

Eventually, we all made it to the top. (Pictured here are Katherine, Dan, and Uncle John.) There, Owen decided he needed to collect "crystals," which I think are just whitish-colored rocks. He brought over some "crystals" and placed them in glass of water that had been set aside for him to drink. He said the "crystals" needed to be cleaned. He later forgot what he had done, and took a sip of what he thought was a mix of apple soda and water. He declared it disgusting. I took some pleasure it that one. (He got his revenge, though, by sneaking his "crystals" into my wallet, which I only found this morning. I am thinking about upping the ante and placing them under his sheets on his bed.)

The four of us and Jennifer started down around 130, which turned out to be not a moment too soon. The hike down was challenging, a narrow path that hung on the side of a steep slope and had a number of places with some slippery rocks. Lauren and Owen were both pretty scared. With some small steps, slow hiking, encouraging words, and hand-holding, we all ended up getting to the Alp Languard in one piece. Steps from the chairlift, the rain started. It slowed down and then picked up as we rode the lift down, eventually becoming a nice little hail storm. To her credit, Lauren was pretty positive throughout.

Let me first say that we are proud of Lauren and Owen for getting through the hike. It took some real work to get to the top and the way down covered some legitimately treacherous terrain. The kids definitely went outside of their comfort zone and, I hope, have grown and gained confidence as a result of their achievement. That said, I think some of these hikes are just too much for them. Hikes like yesterday are probably just not worth it. Whatever confidence may be gained cannot make up for the the total misery that everyone is put through during the experience.

When we got back to the hotel, we learned that my father had fallen a couple times, injuring his calf muscle. A couple who was staying in a neighboring town helped him back to the hotel. My uncle examined him and thinks he probably tore some muscle fibers, but not enough to require surgery. My father stayed in bed last night, but was up this morning, walking (slowly) to the breakfast room, the salon and back to his room. I don't think it will heal enough for him to do any further hiking here, which is really a shame. (Although not technically on the Segantini, my father's injury was just below it, making it close enough to fairly credit this mountain with another victim.)

Between my father's injury, and some mental/physical exhaustion in the rest of the group, today was declared an off-day from hiking. Lauren and Owen were very happy, and would probably be happy to have non-hiking days from here on out, as they would prefer to spend their time hanging out with family, playing in the pool, and on their iPads here at the hotel. After yesterday's hike, their parents would not disagree.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

bad naked, good glaciers

The Hotel Watlher has an indoor swimming pool and hot tub. Next to the pool is a single locker room that is used by everyone, regardless of age or gender. Down the hall from the locker room are a couple massage rooms, as well as an entry to the spa. The spa, unlike the locker room, discriminates on the basis of age -- no one under the age of sixteen is allowed. It does not discriminate on any other basis, though. And, like the locker room, clothing is most certainly optional. (My uncle took it upon himself to sneak both kids into the spa a couple days ago when no one else was using it. Owen was most happy to be breaking the rules. We think Lauren may have already confessed to the hotel management.)

I went into the sauna yesterday where there was already a couple sitting, as naked as the day they were born. They appeared slightly older than me and in average shape. I took one step in before I saw them. Having taken that step inside the room, I had a choice -- either continue in and sit down (swimsuit on, of course) as though nothing irregular was taking place, never, ever, ever looking at either of them or stop, turn around and walk out, likely offending them/outing me as the prude I am in the process. I could not think of a good way to negotiate a graceful exit so in I went and sat down on my towel. I did everything but whistle in the air and look at the ceiling in my effort to avoid looking at either person. Minutes later, they walked out. Perhaps they were offended by my attire.

Back at the spa today, Keri walked into the steam room to warm up after our rainy afternoon hike. She was met by a 60-something woman who, like my couple, had nothing on. The woman was making herself right at home, performing a series of exercises and stretches. (I actually saw the same woman minutes later, sitting down, crossing her legs and leaning in as though she was going to start cutting her toe nails. Look away, Tim, look away.) As a general matter, I would think a steam room a good place to stretch out one's muscles. The particular time and place of these exercises were, however, most certainly, a case of bad naked (another Seinfeld reference for those who have been with us for a while).

Keri and I are not sure why there is the age limit on the spa, in particular given the non-age restriction in the locker room. We don't think either of our children has been exposed to naked elderly European flesh as of yet, but it is just a matter of time. We're always happy for them to have something else to work out in therapy.

Two good hiking days this weekend. Yesterday, our third full day here, saw our hiking numbers dwindle to four -- Uncle John, Dan, Keri and me. With sufficient adult supervision at the hotel, we felt comfortable leaving Lauren and Owen behind. I should say that no two people were happier than they not to be hiking.

The four of us who did hike walked a little more than the three miles up to the Morteratsch train station, which is at the mouth of a valley at the other end of is which a glacier with the same name. The Morteratsch glacier and the Pers glacier (which runs into it) combine to make the largest glacier in the eastern Alps. They are spectacular, sitting below the snow-capped peaks of the Berninas.

Without our children, we made pretty good time to the train station. Once there, the four of us elected to hike to the Boval hut, one of a number of mountain huts in this area that are used by serious rock climbers (for food, shelter, and starting points for very difficult, technical climbs) and less serious day hikers like us (for food and destination points). The Boval is probably 1.500 feet above valley floor, just below where the serious climbers do their work. It provides incredible views of the two glaciers, the peaks that surround them, and the entire valley below. The hike there is moderately challenging, between the altitude here and elevation change. It is, as Keri said, worth every bit of discomfort given the scenery, both on the hike there and at the end. (Pictured here is one of several waterfalls that lead up to the Boval.) And no offense to our children, but not having them there may have been the best part. Silence, punctuated by adult conversation, all the while keeping a good pace and stopping only for good reasons. You know, hiking.

Today's hiking experience saw some of that, as we returned to the Morterasch, although this time with the whole group and with the intention of staying on the valley floor and hiking up to the glacier itself. My mother and aunt took a train to the Morteratsch station, and graciously took Lauren and Owen with them. Once there, we all started walking up the path that leads to the glacier. Among the interesting things about this walk is that there are signs marking the regression of the glacier by year, from 1900 to 2010. I remember coming here with my grandparents in 1978 and 1980. Memory is often not too accurate and, without signs, I would have said that I remember the glacier coming further out into the valley on those trips. Fortunately (and unfortunately), the signs back me up, showing regression of well over a thousand feet in that time.

Lauren, as before, was terrific the entire hike. Owen, as he did the first day, was a royal pain for the first twenty minutes or so. Some tough love from Keri seemed to shake him out of his funk, though, and both kids acquitted themselves well. They kept up a good pace on our walk to the glacier, climbed over rock piles, and jumped over small bodies of water, all leading up to the glacier's edge. I know this is something they will not forget. Standing beneath this massive sheet of ice and dirt, a river of water flowing out from underneath while a cold wind blows over the top of it. The scope of it is awesome and humbling.

We walked back to the train station, had lunch and my parents took the kids via train back to the Walther, while the rest of the group walked back. About one minute into our walk, the rain started. A light mist, progressing into a comfortable shower and then a steady downpour. As Dan pointed out, it was one of those rains that gets so serious so quickly you don't have sufficient time to adjust your behavior (should we think about taking a train?) or clothing (I know I have a rain jacket here somewhere) before you are totally drenched.

We made it back, though, having a good ten miles hiked today. We built up our appetites for the traditional Sunday night dessert buffet at the Walther. And, without the rain, I doubt Keri would have used the spa today, and we all would have been cheated the joy that was her one-woman show.

Friday, July 19, 2013

pontresina, val roseg and our first time without the kids in six weeks

Pontresina has long been a special place for my family. My paternal grandparents, Albert and Liese, honeymooned in this area (following their marriage in Frankfurt, Germany) and started returning to vacation here later in life. After their grandchildren came of age, Chief and Nana (as they were known to us) started taking them and their parents here to enjoy the spectacular weather, scenery and hiking. I came here when I was 8, 10, 17 and 19. This is my first time back in 24 years. It is also my first time here with Keri and, of course, Lauren and Owen.

It is a treat to be here with the three of them. It is a treat made even better to have my parents, Uncle John, Aunt Diane and my cousins, Jennifer, Katherine and Dan with us. (Pictured here is the whole group sans Dan, who was holding the camera, and my mother, who was a bit under the weather and missed out first hike.) Some of my best memories of my grandparents come from our times here. The long walks/hikes in the Engadin, games of Spite and Malice (a card game that I am pretty sure my grandmother made up to give her an excuse to talk smack to her grandchildren) and delicious post-hike cakes. We are two days into our time here now and already sharing some of these things with Keri, Lauren and Owen. These experiences would be meaningful and rewarding for my family even if I had no connection to this place. Knowing that we are continuing some kind of family tradition, and knowing how much this would have meant to Chief and Nana only adds to my own joy.

After the four of us settled in on our first night here, we met the rest of the family in the hotel lobby and made our way to the dining room. (Hotels in this part of the world typically include breakfast and dinner in their room rates. Pictured below is where we are staying, the Hotel Walther.) The menu is posted just outside the dining room. The good news is that the menu is posted in two languages. The bad news is that those languages are French and German. There is just enough high school French and German knowledge in the group to make us dangerous. We have, quite wisely, relied on our waiter, Luigi, to translate for us so far. That may change, though, as Lauren took it upon herself to spend an hour earlier this afternoon to, with an iPad (and help from Aunt Diane), attempt to translate tonight's menu. We'll see how that goes.

We are seated at a large table in a room just below the main dining room. I think that is probably for the best, as there are often some loud and potentially embarrassing things that come out of people's mouths during our meals. At least half of those can be attributed to Owen (either as the speaker or target).

Keri experienced a little anxiety as we were ordering dinner the first night. Once Luigi assured her that the kitchen could prepare meals a little more to our kids' liking than the venison and ham and melon on the menu, all was well. Pasta bolognese, steak, french fries and ice cream, so far. Between Luigi's help and the apples, Owen will not die of hunger during our time here.

We all slept well the first night, the kids in a room adjoining ours. Keri and I made some effort at running the next morning, but we need not have done so, as our first hike ended up being a nine-miler. We walked from the Hotel Walther to the Val Roseg, a glacier-carved valley surrounded by 12,000 foot mountains with two glaciers at one end. Let me first say that Lauren was an absolute champ on this hike. She kept up with everyone and did not complain a single time. To the contrary, she was, on her own, remarking about the incredible views -- rugged mountain peaks, glaciers, and lush forest.

Owen, for his part, was not so good. He started to slow down maybe a mile into the 4.5 mile up to our stopping point. If there was something that could be complained about, he was on it -- too many bugs, an unquenchable thirst, hunger the likes of which no human had ever experienced, ankle pain that could lead to amputation if he was forced to walk further, general itchiness (I'll grant him the last one as legitimate). We spent the next three and a half miles coaxing/threatening him to keep him going. To his credit (or is it ours?), he made it to our destination -- and lunch -- where I offered to let him use my iPhone while we waited if he agreed to walk back without a single complaint. Never let it be said that Owen Eckstein is not a man of his word, as he did exactly that. I'm proud of both kids. I know that was a long hike for them and they pushed through. (Owen, Katherine and Lauren at lunch are pictured here. Note that Owen is holding my iPhone. If the screen were angled toward the camera, I suspect it would show that he was playing Angry Birds or Scrabble.)

Part of the reason Owen may have been so good on the way back is that he is quite fond of the Walther. He has access to his own room key (which he still struggles to use properly), a tray of apples on every floor by the staircase, a kids' playroom complete with a ping pong table and Lego set, and a swimming pool and whirlpool. Owen has been over every inch of the hotel property, and he is making himself at home. (Keri and I were walking with him up the stairs yesterday when he picked up an apple that already had a bite taken from it. He took another bite. Following the horrified looks from his parents, he explained that is was all good -- that he had been the one who had taken the bite and placed it back sometime earlier. Well, in that case, Owen, have at it . . .)

A second great dinner last night followed by another good night sleep in this cool mountain air. Today's hike took us to St. Moritz. My mom and Aunt Diane stayed back, and Uncle John, Kath and Dan took a more difficult route to the same destination. The rest of us took a fairly flat route that cuts across the woods that sit between the two cities. I think the walk is a little more than three miles in one direction. Owen did better today, and Lauren worse, but both were pretty good. (Pictured above are my dad, Lauren and Owen at the halfway point on our St. Moritz hike.)

We ate lunch at Hanselmann's, a place we used to go with my grandparents for some delicious cakes. I think there are now a couple different Hanselmann's locations in St. Moritz, as this one did not look all that familiar. It was still quite good, though, as the adults had either sandwiches or (what I am told was an) outstanding, thick vegetable soup. Owen had spaghetti marinara and french fries. Lauren opted for a piece of chocolate cake. Parents of the year, we know. This girl of ours really does love her chocolate though, and to deprive her of it in Switzerland just seems wrong. After lunch, Lauren and Owen decided they would accompany my father back to Ponrtesina on a bus while Keri, Jennifer and I walked back.

As we walked along the St. Moritz See, Keri and I observed that we were together and without our children for the first time in six weeks. It is amazing we have gone this long. I would have thought that at least one of the four of us would have opted out of the family by now. Truly, though, Lauren and Owen have been wonderful -- better than we expected of them. Not that we are not happy to have a little child-free time. As far as we are concerned, they can spend the next ten days making new memories with the other members of our family. We will not complain.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

the ecksteins' long goodbye to italy

We knew it was going to be a long day. We were going from Lake Garda, Italy to Pontresina, Switzerland. Google Maps logs the distance between those two places at 145 miles and even suggests a driving route of 3 hours and 24 minutes. We expected our trip to take around eight hours. It was closer to nine. And, no, we are not total idiots.

We were up early, got the kids dressed, the car packed and were on our way out of Garda just after 630. We pulled up in front of the reception office at Hotel Poiano, I walked in, card key in hand, said hello to the clerk and said we would like to check out. "Now?" "Yes, if that's ok." "Can you come back after breakfast?" "We're not eating breakfast here, and we have a long day ahead of us (internal voice adding, "I'm not sure why any of this matters, or why it is your business")." "I suggest you come back in ten or fifteen minutes; will that work?" "Suggest?" "Our computer is not ready yet." "Oh, so you are really not suggesting anything; you are telling me that you will not be able to do anything for another ten or fifteen minutes, right?" "Ten or fifteen minutes, and all should be okay."

Twenty minutes later, we got checked out. I'm still not sure why the hotel computer was not usable before seven. I think the internal accounting software may have been closing out the books on the prior day. In any event, it was odd. Almost as odd was the clerk informing me that there was a city tax of one Euro per person per day and that tax had to be paid in cash. The city tax I find credible, but paid in cash? The city of Garda can't process electronic payments? Hotel Poiano lacks the ability to collect the money as part of its normal billing and then pay the city directly? Something fishy is going on, and I'm pretty certain it is not all kosher.

Out of Garda, we made our way west, and then north, headed to Tirano, a town on the Swiss border where we were to catch our train to Pontresina. Our plan was for me to drop Keri, the kids and the bags off at the Tirano train station, drive 25 miles west to Sondrio return the rental car, catch a train back to Tirano and then all head up together. As crazy as it seems, this may have been the best plan possible. Although Garda and Pontresina are under 150 miles apart, those miles have two important qualities -- they include an international border and a good forty miles of some pretty serious mountains.

The international border meant we would have to pay an additional $700 to drop off the car in Switzerland, so that was out. Indeed, the only place we could drop it off near this part of the border, we were told, was in Sondrio. And large mountains, it turns out, make for some pretty slow driving, particularly in the last stretch of road going into Tirano. Neither Keri nor Lauren threw up after navigating those mountain curves, so that was something.

With the Tirano train station plugged into the navigation system, all was going well. Late into the drive, things went slightly awry as our actual route and suggested route became so disparate that we were totally off the navigation system map. That ended up not being a big deal, though, as Keri had printed out directions and we knew we were on the right road and heading for the right cities on our way to Tirano. In fact, we made it by just after ten o'clock. I unloaded my passengers and baggage, put in the Hertz office in Sondrio into the navigation system and drove off. At that point, I hoped to drop off the car, catch the 1139 train back to Tirano and make the 1250 train to Pontresina.

I arrived in Sondrio on schedule, followed the navigation system's directions precisely. "You have arrived at your destination," the system said. Strange, I thought, I don't see a Hertz sign or office anywhere. In fact, this is a really residential area and all of these buildings seem to be apartments. I know I have on my reservation sheet a street address for the drop-off location: Sondrio Downtown Office, Via Don Guanella 30. Hmm. The navigation system has taken me to that street and that city, but there is no building with that number. I try Goggle Maps with the same information and have the same result.

I drive up and down the Via Don Guanella a few times, eventually seeing number 46 on one building and 20 on another. In between, I see a large nursing home complex. I walk in with my rental reservation, looking rather pathetic. I was slightly concerned that I was going to be admitted against my will. The clerk is befuddled. Fortunately, the office manager explains to me the problem. I'm in the wrong city. Excuse me? Yes, the manager tells me, the return location is actually in Montagna in Valtellina, a town right next to Sondrio. I see. So Hertz has set up a system where its Sondrio Downtown Office is not in Sondrio, let alone in downtown Sondrio. It has further created this office in a neighboring town on a street -- Via Don Guanello -- that also exists in Sondrio. To top it all off, it has told the navigation system in its car that there is a Hertz office in Sondrio at this non-existent location. Perfect.

I eventually made it to the Hertz office. I was ready to go over in excruciating detail my experience for the poor employee who was stuck working that day. Just as I was about to begin, the clerk muttered something to me in broken English. I had not a clue what he was saying. He typed into his phone and handed it to me. "I need to see the car." Sonofabitch. The only guy in this office did not speak English. I know he lives in Italy and all, but working for an international company that rents cars for a living -- most of those cars being rented to non-Italians -- I would think that a rudimentary understanding of the English language, to include such phrases as "I need to see the car" and the like, would be in order. (The author is pictured here with his smiling daughter on their train bound for Pontresina. In retrospect, I wish I had taken some photos of my misadventure in Italy. As it was, I was a bit too focused on other things at the time.)

After his visual inspection of the car, we walked back into the office and I asked where the train station was. He said it would be a moment, looked for some car keys, and then the phone rang. Ten minutes later, what was clearly not a business-related conversation ended, the clerk handed the keys to another person in the office who was kind enough to drive me to the train station (which was, in fact, in downtown Sondrio). I got there at 1143 which, I knew was four minutes after a train had left for Tirano. The next one was scheduled for 1222, arriving at 1250 -- which happened to be the exact same time as the Swiss train was leaving Tirano. Unless my 1222 train was several minutes early, I was was looking at the 140 train to Pontresina. I emailed Keri, who had been waiting with the kids and our bags since ten, telling her the bad news.

And so it was, we got on the 140 train, emotionally drained and physically tired from the early morning and long drive through the Italian Alps. We made it, though, and enjoyed two hours of some pretty spectacular scenery as we ascended up through the Bernina Pass and into Pontresina. I did not have an altimeter on me, but I imagine we must have gone up 6,000 feet in about fifteen miles.  And the scenery -- beautiful lakes, snow topped mountains, dramatic glaciers -- was incredible. Almost made the rest of the day worthwhile.

The good trend continued when we arrived in Pontresina, as the Hotel Walther sent a van to pick us (and our luggage up). When we checked in, we were given glasses of some outstanding juice concoction. And, best of all, we got to see the reason we are here -- our family -- my parents, aunt and uncle, cousins Jennifer and Katherine (and her newlywed husband, Dan). We also walked into the lounge where the hotel had out its afternoon cake service. I had a piece of the apple cake. Damn good. Minutes later, we saw on the stairs an offering of apples for hotel guests. Owen was most pleased. I think we are going to be ok.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

garda: scenic views, just not of the vacationers

We planned to end our time in Italy with some "relaxation," as Keri put it. We booked a room at the Poiano Resort just outside of Garda. The hotel overlooks Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake and, given its natural beauty and warm climate, a favorite summer vacation destination -- favorite, it seems, for Germans, in particular.

Our hotel is fine, but not great. It sits on a hill with dramatic views of the lake. The hotel has a large pool and a schedule of activities for children and adults. There is also a breakfast buffet included. On paper, it looks pretty good. In reality, it is only okay. (Pictured here are Owen and Lauren lakeside, in the scenic town of Garda.)

The children's activities, which we hoped would free us up to do some poolside reading, are pretty lame. They are all run out of a small shed on a hill just below the pool area. There was on the schedule for yesterday at 300 a "clay molding" class. No one showed at 300 other than the Eckstein children. When Owen and I went back at 330, a young Italian woman arrived and Owen asked whether she was teaching the "clay" class. She asked him to speak English. I intervened and asked again whether she was doing something with "clay." She said her English was bad and did not know what I was talking about. She further said she had some "drawing" materials. Minutes later, she brought out something that resembled play-doh. I fully realize we are in a foreign country and I don't presume to think any Italian's English should be better than my Italian. But when the hotel puts on its schedule "clay molding" is it too much to ask that the person they put in charge of it at least recognize the word "clay"?

Lauren and Owen were occupied with drawing and "clay" for the better part of an hour yesterday. They spent another couple hours in and around the pool. Speaking of the pool, I think it must have been built for some other purpose. It is 50M in length with room for eight lanes and the uniform depth required in competitive swimming facilities. It is really a very quality swimming pool -- just a bit odd for a resort setting.

We went to town last night for dinner. Garda sits in a cove on the edge of the lake. There is no beach here, just a stone boardwalk lined with hotels and restaurants. We ate at one of the hotel restaurants. Halfway through our meal, Keri observed that the hotel sign had one star on it. She further saw that the sign used to have a second star. I imagined someone from the Italian Hotel Star Association coming to the place, slapping the hotel manager in the face and, with great disgust, removing the second star, spitting on the ground as he walked away. I have no idea what one has to do to get knocked down to one star or, frankly, why a hotel would advertise its one star status. As the people who ate at the one-star hotel, I know, we are in no position to talk. The meal was not that bad, by the way, which only made me really curious as to how bad the rest of the joint had to be.

We also saw promotional posters for Die Herren, a German cover band, performing their In the Name of U2 show. The show was scheduled for 930 in the town square. We saw them setting up the stage and running a sound check, but we did not have it in us to keep the kids up to see what I feared was going to be a bad show. U2 is a tough band to cover. Indeed, I have never heard a good U2 cover, and I did not expect last night to be the first.

Our hotel breakfast this morning was mediocre. We had eaten a couple good breakfasts at our Venice hotel, and this one was nowhere near that level. This, along with our complicated travel plans to Switzerland tomorrow, have inspired us to leave early tomorrow.

After breakfast today, Owen and I had a brief game of catch and the four of us spent several more hours at the pool. For those of you who have not been to a European pool/beach, you are really missing something. There were no topless ladies today, but the swimsuits were skimpy -- far more skimpy than was warranted by most of those who wore them. (Pictured here is one of the best-dressed persons at the pool today.)

I was struck, in particular, by a 50-something man with a large stomach standing in the snack stand line wearing a suit that, for all practical purposes, was a spandex pair of boxer briefs. The view from behind was troubling. The profile will haunt me. (Keri did not have her camera or I would definitely post a picture of this, as my description cannot possibly do justice to this scene.)

We are up in our room now, the sounds of techno blaring poolside reverberating through our hotel window. We are very old, very American, or some combination of both.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

ah, venice

There is really no place quite like Venice. It sits in a lagoon just off the Adriatic Sea in northeastern Italy. It is made up of 118 islands, separated by canals and connected by bridges. Its total size is about double that of Central Park. And for two centuries, it was the most important city in the world; a commercial center, naval power and home to the world's most important printing presses. Today, Venice is, above all, a tourist destination. It has a population of around 60,000 people -- the same number of tourists who flood this city every day of the year. You cannot walk these street without hearing a lot of languages other than Italian -- English and Spanish seem to be the most prevalent -- and you can not look out into the harbor very long without seeing a massive cruise ship sail by. For the last day and a half, we have been part of that throng.

We had a generally good drive from Florence to Venice. I had missed a turn that forced us to drive on the equivalent of a state route that paralleled the Autostrade for about 20 miles as we waited for the next access point. When we finally found it, we saw a McDonalds just before the toll booth. Hoping to make our own lunch easier, we decided to stop there and get something for the kids. As I was waiting in the car, I someone who I thought strongly resembled Alan Garner, the Zack Galifanakis character from The Hangover. He had the same haircut, the same build, and, most importantly, a man purse (I know, it's not a purse, it's a satchel). He even flipped his hair the same way. When Keri and the kids came out, her first words were, "I saw this guy in there; he looked just like . . . . " "Zack Galifaniks," I responded. Great minds.

We got to Venice around three and began the slow and expensive trek to our hotel, the Hotel Sant'Elena, which sits in the Sant'Elena section of Venice (of course), at the east end of the islands that make up the historic city. An old man who spoke no English and looked slightly desperate offered to take us by boat for a small fee (or at least that's what I think he offered), but we opted for the licensed water taxi driver, who charged us an arm and a leg, but spared us the chloroform-aided kidnapping and dismemberment/sale into slavery.

Our hotel is a little over one and one-half miles from St. Mark's Square, which is slightly inconvenient. The area around us is quite nice, though. It is very quiet and there are a couple small, scenic parks nearby that the kids took advantage of a couple times today (pictured here are me, Owen and Lauren walking through one of those parks). After getting settled, we walked into the heart -- and the heat -- of the city. The kids were impressed by St. Mark's Square, with its Venetian Gothic style (a Byzantine-influenced gothic style that is very common here). We told them briefly about the bronze horses that sit atop St. Mark's Cathedral (or at least the replicas do) and which were plundered from Constantinople at the height of Venice's power.

Owen, by the way, remarked many times that it should be called St. Pigeon Square, given the many, many birds that congregate there. Most strangely, we saw several tourists posing with a number of those birds on their outstretched arms and their heads. Ugh.

We continued our walk through the small streets of San Marco, which are adorned by five-star hotels and high-end shopping, making our way to the Ponte dell'Accademia, the bridge that spans the Grand Canal, linking San Marco and Dorsoduro. The bridge is filled with love locks -- padlocks that couples (and perhaps a few plural-person relationships) have left there in hopes of locking up everlasting happiness. Lauren asked if Keri and I put a lock on there during our honeymoon. I said we did "not need that kind of shit" as our relationship was built to last. Keri shot me a look, disapproving of the language, I assume, and not the message.

Pictured here, by the way, is a discussion with Owen regarding the Grand Canal, including how the Venetians are positive this canal is the largest and therefore deserving of that moniker, as well as all of the different types of watercraft using the canal at that time.

After getting some postcards for the kids, we had dinner at a pizzeria in San Margherita Square. We then walked into Santa Croce and San Polo on our way back to the Sant'Elena.

We stopped along the way to take a gondola ride. A total tourist trap, I know, but it is kind of compulsory, and I could not very well have Lauren and Owen leave here without having partaken in the experience. (I mean, just look at that expression on Lauren's face. Well worth the investment.) Our gondolier, Bruno, was quite nice. He drove a good boat and, more importantly, answered all of Owen's questions. When he had a free moment, he shared with us some of he history behind the buildings we were passing under. He also pointed out the Ponte dei Sospiri (aka Sighs Bridge). There are some local legends about lovers getting eternal bliss if they kiss under the bridge at sunset as the bells of St. Mark's toll. I don't know about all that, but I do know the bridge connects the old prison and interrogation rooms at the Doge's Palace, and most of the sighs associated with that bridge would have been ones of resignation and despair. Aren't I romantic? Keri is a very lucky woman.

Keri and I both got our runs in today. We both found the city far more beautiful early in the morning, devoid of tourists. Too bad there are 60,000 here every day.

After enjoying our hotel breakfast -- which included better deserts than Keri had been providing us over the last couple weeks at her delicious meals -- I took the kids to play in one of the park playgrounds a few minutes from our hotel. After they had gotten out an ample amount of crazy, we went back to get Keri and the four of us walked across San Marco where we stopped for a rather unimpressive lunch.

We continued on into Castello and then on to the Jewish Ghetto. The Venetian ghetto was the first in the world. Indeed, the word ghetto probably originates from the first residents of the area (German Jews) and their mispronunciation of the name by which most Venetians called it -- jetto (phoenetic).

The ghetto was organized by city leaders in 1516 as an island separated by two bridges from the rest of the city and in which all the city's Jews had to live. The ghetto ended up being expanded some to include a larger area in the 17th Century, as Jewish merchants from the Levant were allowed to reside here (given their commercial and financial connections with the Middle East and beyond, they were of great value to the city leaders). Like the communities in Rome and Florence, this one was emancipated by Napoleon, only to be put back in the ghetto until the late 19th Century. Today, the entire Venetian Jewish community numbers about 400, only half of which live in the historic city. (Pictured above is the exterior of the German synagogue and its five windows.)

We took a tour of three of the ghetto's five historic synagogues. Our tour took us through the German and French Ashkenazic synagogues, neither of which is used any more -- other than a once-a-year employment of the French synagogue for tashlich as it has windows that sit directly over one of the canals that surround the ghetto making a convenient depository for the small rocks traditionally thrown by Venetian Jews to cast away their sins before Rosh Hashanah. We concluded our tour with the Spanish synagogue, which was built in the 17th Century, and is still used by the predominantly Sephardic community here. We figured it was important for us -- and our kids -- to see these buildings up close, so they have something tangible to connect to the histories they have learned (and have yet to learn).

We then took a long and leisurely walk back through the Castello district, stopping for water, icees and a bookstore to mail out postcards the kids had written to family and friends back home.

After a brief rest, we went out for a nice (and more reasonable) dinner on Garibaldi Street in Sant'Elena, stopping for gelato, and some more playground usage (pictured here are the two of them in some kind of swing/saucer contraption) on the way back to the hotel.

We also happened to be walking back around sunset. Our hotel location, the warm day, and a good photographer (Keri) captured pretty well Venice, at its most beautiful, in this shot (which is at the top of this post). We have not been here a long time, but we have made the most of our short visit here. As I have said to Keri, I would like to come back to Italy at some point and spend at least some time in Rome, Florence, and Venice with some kind of art historian who can help us better understand the artistic treasures that, on our own, we are ill equipped to appreciate. That trip will have to wait.

Friday, July 12, 2013

goatapalooza

Having conquered the fine arts of cooking pizza and gelato, the Ecksteins awoke today ready to step it up a notch and milk some goats. Okay, our goat-related activities had been planned for some time and they did not involve any milking (by us, anyway), but we expanded our horizons nonetheless.

Our friend Betsy Levisay had been with her family in Tuscany last year and, when I saw Betsy earlier this year, she had only two words: goat farm. She said that they had taken their three kids to a goat farm south of Florence, where they all made some cheese, drank some wine and ate a delicious lunch. We try not to ignore advice involving any two of these three things so, months ago, Keri booked a date with the farm when we would be in Florence. Today was that day.

Much to Owen's chagrin, we were up early and out the door by 800 am. Our car was ready and off we went. Having taken the same route out of Florence two days prior, I anticipated the seemingly arbitrary and random turns before the navigation system prompts came up. We were making great time and would be at our destination, Podere Le Fornaci, a goat-cheese farm located (by its address, anyway) in a small town called Greve in Chianti. We had a street address. Our navigation system recognized the street name, but not the number. How many goat-cheese farms can there be in this small town, we asked ourselves? We'll get to town, find the street and drive up an down until we hit (figuratively speaking) the goats.

The plan worked in the sense that it got us as far as the navigation system would take us, that is, to Via Citille, which seems to surround a town called Greta, which is three kilometers north of Greve, and, more importantly, happens to run in three separate strips off the main road (SR222) that runs through both Greta and Greve. Better yet, only two sections of Via Citille are marked with signs of any kind. We drove through the dirt roads on both of those, neither of which had any sign of a number 74, goats or goat-related life or a farm called Podere Le Fornaci. On the first section of narrow road we took, we had to stop and back up to allow a work truck of some kind to get through going the other way. The driver rolled down his window as he was passing and spoke, with great purpose, several sentences in Italian to me. I have no idea what the man said. Keri speculates he knew we were the goat-farm suckers and wanted to point us in the right direction. I'd like to think he wanted to share with us the key to eternal happiness, only we missed out because I refused to tell him I had not understood a single word of what he said. I guess we'll never know.

About 920, we gave up, called the telephone number we had been provided and were told that the farm is right off SR222, just past Greta, on the right, down the road lined with trees. Do you mean the road that is in no way identified with your street name and, is in fact marked private, I wanted to say. I held my tongue, got us to the farm, and allowed the fun to begin. Already there, knee deep in goat cheese, was a family with three kids around the same ages as ours. They were from Concord, Mass., and their nine-year old boy was wearing a Red Sox t-shirt. Despite that offense, they were lovely people and we enjoyed spending a half-day with them.

We put on hair nets, shoe protectors and aprons, washed our hands, and entered the cheese-making room. (Hello, my name is Owen and I am have prepared all of the goat cheese you are going to eat today. Buon appetito!) I assume there is a more technical term for that room that our host, Marco, mentioned, but I did not catch it. We each scooped some of the cheese curd into a small bucket that, we were told, would sit for some unknown number of days before it had finally earned the right to be called goat cheese.

Having made it that far, we then walked out into one of the several pastures between the farm and SR222, where we met the goat heard. We were first introduced to Mario, the older male who had apparently sired every single kid in the heard. In one season -- about five months, Mario is responsible for producing 40 or so kids. That seems like an awful lot of responsibility. Understandably, Mario is a bit on edge, and we were told to keep our distance.

We then walked back to some of the farm buildings to see some of the younger kids (kid goats, that is, not humans) and where the goats were miked. Owen fell into a mud pile on the way there and was most displeased. He wanted to call off the farm day entirely. Despite repeated efforts to knock the extraneous mud off his shoes, Owen could not be reasoned with. He insisted on going walking back to the farm house. He started heading back the road in that direction, while the rest of us continued in the circle the other way, not wanting to miss out on the rest of our tour. (As Owen's solo trip did not involve a toilet of any kind, I think Keri did not violate her blood oath to her mother.) Owen missed some pretty cute goats, Lauren's first experience with flypaper (think of Lauren totally grossed out and double that, twice) and the milking equipment, but we did see him back at the farmhouse. (Pictured above is Lauren petting a baby goat. This may be the first non-Eckstein family dog animal she has ever had physical contact with. We'll have to check the record books on that.)

Owen was most pleased to have found that a tasting and lunch table had been set up indoors. The farm house dining hall, he declared happily. The prospect of indoor seating, water and food seemed to have done away with his concern about the life-ruining muddy shoes.

Plates of goat cheese and bread were brought in, as were bottles of red wine from a vineyard in the same town. The cheese was good. It was a bit sharper and more pungent than the cow variety, but equally tasty. (Lauren is seen here enjoying her bread but conspicuously avoiding any of the cheese on her plate.) As. someone with a slight lactose issue, I appreciated not having to worry about that at all. Homemade pasta, salad, more wine, and a desert of goat cheese cheesecake or ricotta rounded out the experience.

All were really, really good. The cheesecake, I thought, was even better than cow cheesecake -- or at least how I think the cow stuff tastes. I did not partake of the ricotta (with honey), but understand it was quite good, too. By mid afternoon, we could eat no more and Owen had returned to thinking about his mud-caked shoes, so we were asked to leave.

Back in the flat, Keri embarked on an afternoon wash-a-thon. This is our final day in our final flat, so she wanted to make the most of our washing machine -- including all of our muddy shoes and clothes.

As promised, we went back to Osteria De 'Benci which, if anything, was better than it had been on Monday. Owen was in fine form at dinner, asking in rapid-fire a series of questions on topics ranging from religion, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, presidential assassinations, the conspiracy theories behind the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, John Wilkes Booth (including his profession and evidence surrounding his death) causes of deaths for presidents (current and former), socio-economic backgrounds of various presidents, the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, space, gravity, elliptical orbits, dark matter, tornadoes, and wine. I eventually gave up and just handed Owen my phone so the rest of us could focus on the greatness of the dinner before us.

After a warm evening walk back to the flat, the kids and I hit Antica Gelateria Fiorentina before calling it a day, or really, five days, in Florence. Today went about as all of our days here have gone. I met some nice people, learned a few things, saw some beautiful scenery and ate way too much. I regret nothing.

the eckstein children cook dinner!

Pizza. Gelato. We have been served about two tons of these delicacies over the past ten days. It was time to give something back. Or, at least, work for our dinner.

Keri and I both got in good runs. I had seen on the map what looked like a park northwest up the Arno about a mile. The park appeared to abut the river and be at least a couple miles along. Of course, maps can be deceiving, particularly for those places that like to lock up what should be public parks and gardens. I decided to give it a go, nonetheless, and ended up finding a wonderful running route -- flat, wide asphalt with plenty of shade. I even saw some number of other runners and walkers. You'd be hard-pressed to find this park on any Florence tourist map or guidebook but I can assure you it is there and offers a really wonderful route. The name of the park, which I just looked up, is Cascine Park.

After breakfast, we walked over to the Florence Synagogue and Jewish Museum. Keri and I had visited here before, and were struck by the much, much higher level of security this time around (e.g., a glass sally-port security door and bans on cellphones and cameras). The "museum" is totally unremarkable, with a few displays and artifacts that give one very little sense of the history of the Jewish community here. The synagogue, as we had recalled, speaks for itself. It was built in the late 1800's, around the same time as the one in Rome, and in the shape of a shortened cruciform, like many mosques in Turkey and the Middle East. The building has two floors and a domed ceiling in the middle. The interior is covered with gorgeous Moorish frescoes and mosaics. The total effect is striking. I suspect the entire Jewish community here is no more than a couple thousand. I cannot imagine this wonderful building gets the kind of use it deserves.

After a quick lunch (pizzettes for the kids -- much better result than our first effort) we walked back across town to the Palazzo Strozzi, named after the long-time rivals of the Medicis. At one point, the Strozzis were the wealthiest and most powerful family in Florence. That ended in 1434, when the Medicis exiled them from Florence. The Strozzis later married into the Medici family, returned to Florence and constructed their own palace, about one-half mile from the Medici Palace.

The Strozzi Palace now hosts art exhibits, concerts and other cultural events. Among the exhibitions presently on display is The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460. The exhibit is good on its own. We wanted to take the kids to see it as we had read that there had been an specific effort to make it accessible to children. The museum did that by, among other things, giving us a separate family-oriented discussion guide to take through the exhibit, as well as sketch pads and colored pencils for the kids. There are further several rooms and displays set up to prompt children to engage -- to feel with their hands the various media in which sculptures were made, to pick out on a computer screen those images they had seen that they most identified with a particular theme, etc. We were there for the better part of two hours -- and I think Lauren and Owen came out with at least some sense that art serves as a valuable form of human expression.

After a compulsory rest stop at the flat, we were off to our cooking school, inTavola, which is a couple blocks on the other side of the Arno. (Pictured are Lauren, Keri and Owen as we cross the river, hungry and ready to cook.) InTavola runs several different types of cooking classes, including one a couple times a week called, simply, Pizza and Gelato. As those make up two of the food groups for our children (pasta and chocolate being the others), we figured it would be a good fit.

We got to the school a bit before 630. Our class had twelve students (including us) spread over three tables. We started by flattening out our (pre-prepared) pizza doughs and placing them in our individual pans. Our teacher, Antoinio, then walked us through making dough from scratch, which we all promised to do when we got home.

After the pizza doughs were taken away for their first cooking, Antonio walked us though the basics for gelato and sorbeto -- the ingredients, the importance of having proper proportions, and why these desserts sit deliciously between liquid and solid. Lauren and Owen were tasked with beating and hand-mixing the ingredients for those items on behalf of the class. (As you can see here, they are both taking their jobs quite seriously.) When those were complete, Antonio walked us though making something he called "sweet salami," which was really a concoction of mashed up tea biscuits, chocolate, butter, and egg yolk. The resulting mixture is formed into a small cylinder and placed in the freezer. When it is served, it is cut up like a salami and specks of the tea biscuits in the darker chocolate resemble specks in a salami. Sweet salami = tasty.

As the gelato and sorbeto went through the ice cream maker, our semi-cooked pizza doughs were brought back out so we could added mozarella and basil, sending them back for a final cooking. The evening almost turned into a total loss when Owen, having been told the pizza was really hot, immediately touched the pan. Keri and I called out and he pulled his hand back. Cold water seemed to remediate against any potential first-degree burn, but the emotional trauma of having his parents call him out in cooking class lingered. Owen's defense, by the way, was that Keri said the pizza was not; not the pan. In any event, time healed the burnt feelings and Owen rallied to enjoy his hard work.

We then walked downstairs to the wine cellar, where a table had been set up for us to enjoy our work. Bottles of white wine and fresh foccaccia (which had been made with some extra pizza dough) placated the hungry students, at is was well past 830. The pizzas came down and there was some effort to make sure each person got the pizza s/he had prepared. As cooked pizzas tend to resemble each other, I thought this a fool's errand, but others seemed to take it quite seriously. Regardless, the pizzas tasted great, as did the wine.

When they brought out the sweet salami, I helped myself to several pieces of that, as well. And then, when I really did not need to eat another bite, out came the vanilla gelato and strawberry sorbeto. I finished mine, and had several bites of Lauren's. At that point, the staff came over, pried my hands off a third dish and told us it was time to go, but not before having our class's top students pose for a picture with their teacher.

Lauren and Owen had a great time -- as did their parents. I am not sure any of us was sufficiently inspired to attempt these dishes when we get home, having prepared them. Actually, I am pretty sure it is now just a matter of time before Chef Owen (a persona he takes on in the kitchen) forces us to make one or more of these. Keri and I just hope it is on a Saturday night so our sitter, Miss Laura, can bear the brunt.