My Field Trip to Pompeii (written by Tom)

by guest blogger Tom

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I just got back from an overnight trip with my class to southern Italy.  We left on a Tuesday morning.  I met my teacher and the other students at the bus stop at 7:00 am for a five-hour drive down to Pompeii to visit the ancient ruins.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

During the bus ride down, kids listened to music on their phones to pass the time.  I played Uno with my friend Luca.  Halfway through the trip, we stopped at an Autogrill to eat lunch and buy a snack.  I bought two big bags of marshmallows.

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We stayed at the Hotel Vittoria near Naples.  We arrived around noon and checked in.  The hotel itself was good.  I shared a room with Matteo and Giovanni.  There were no teachers or chaperones in our room telling us when to go to bed so I stayed up until 1 am listening to music and watching a movie. Only one unfortunate thing happened while we were there.  I was playing with a toy that Matteo brought.  It was a squishy ball filled with powder that stretches into many different shapes.  When I was trying to twist it into a face, it suddenly exploded and sent white powder everywhere.   It was all over the beds, the chairs, the carpet and all over me.  It took forever to clean up.

Here's what the room looked like before the explosion.

Here’s what the room looked like before the explosion.

Unfortunately, the food wasn’t so great during the trip. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of our hotel.  Dinner was pasta with ragu, steak and potatoes and then gelato for dessert.  Lunch was gnocchi, potatoes, chicken and gelato.  For breakfast we were served a bagged croissant and a jar of pear juice.  (American breakfasts are so much better.) During the trip, we stopped for a gelato break three times.  Italian kids eat so much ice cream.

breakfast

breakfast

During our first afternoon, we went to look at the Pompeii ruins with a guide.  Pompeii is an ancient city that was buried by ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  It was interesting for a little bit, but after a while it got hot and I became tired.  At the end of the tour, we  visited the museum  which displays casts of humans who were buried by the ash.  We also saw the houses and stores where those people lived and worked.  We spent most of the day in Pompeii and got back to the hotel around 8pm

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During the second day we visited Il Antro della Sibilla a Cuma which is a cluster of caves up in the hills.  These caves used to be the homes of fortune tellers during the time of the ancient Romans.  People could visit and ask the women (called sibyls) a question about their fate and the women would give them a vague answer.  We spent about three hours up there looking at the caves.  There were lots of plants and trees and geckos.  And there was a great view of the ocean too.

This is one of the caves we saw

This is one of the caves.

I saw this gecko climbing up the wall of the cave

I saw this gecko climbing nearby

Before we got on the bus to go back to Perugia, we stopped at another gelateria.  I got a popsicle shaped as a watermelon with chocolate for the seeds. Then, we headed home.  During the bus ride, we played “monkey in the middle” with a bottle of water, but after a while, the teacher told us to stop so we sat quietly until we arrived in Perugia.  My parents and Ray were waiting for me.  I went to sleep as soon as I got home, but I still felt tired for the next few days.

Mt. Vesuvius from the window of our bus.

Mt. Vesuvius from the window of our bus.

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Tourists in Perugia

My mom and dad are ready for the tour of Perugia

My mom and dad are ready for some sighseeing.

We’ve had 20 guests over the last nine months, the latest being my parents and my brother’s family. During the past couple weeks, we devoted several mornings to long walks around town and a tour of our favorite sites.  Our must-see list is always changing; we have new favorites all the time.  And while there really isn’t any required stop in Perugia, there are lots of little interesting things to do and see.

For a little dramatic punch, I like to start at the eerie, 2000-year-old Etruscan Well.  It’s right around the corner from our apartment, and it only takes about five minutes to see.  Once you enter, you can walk down a dark, damp, stone path to a bridge which crosses the base of the well.  The air is warm and humid.  It looks and smells ancient.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

More Etruscan feats are found all over the city.  The enormous Etruscan Arch sits nearby.  When Caesar Augustus defeated the Etruscans, he carved the new name of the city on this arch, “Augusta Perusia.”

Oliver under the arch

Oliver under the arch during his visit in February

And even more Etruscans ruins: five minutes outside the city is Ipogeno dei Volumni where 200 tombs are on display.  The best part is the walk into the dark underground chamber where the largest tombs lie.  On both sides of the stairway sit the carved stone urns which held the ashes of the dead.

Mom, Dad and Matt head below.

Mom, Dad and Matt head below.

Back in the center of town, some important sights are found around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre.  First, there’s the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is one of three patron saints of Perugia.  He was grilled to death by the Romans when Christianity was illegal.  Inside the church sits the wedding ring of Mary.  Yes, the actual wedding ring of the actual Virgin Mary.

My parents in Piazza IV Novembre.  Behind is the city's biggest fountain and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

My parents in Piazza IV Novembre. To the left is the city’s biggest fountain and behind is the cathedral

From the main piazza, one can take Corso Vannucci to the other side of town.  On the way, there is the National Museum of Art, which is okay.  It’s a far cry from the Uffizi; however, if you like paintings of the Madonna with child, Tom and Ray counted more than 75. Next door is the Collegio del Cambio, a small room that was frescoed by Perugia’s most famous Renaissance artist, Pietro Vannucci, known as “Perugino.”  This is a more efficient stop for art.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio di Cambio.  No photos allowed inside.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio del Cambio. The frescos would make the top of my list for art in Perugia.

Corso Vanucci stretching across the historic center of town

Corso Vannucci stretching across the historic center of town

Further down the street sits a piece of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress build by Pope Paul III to assert his dominance over the rebellious Perugians.  On it is the inscription, “To curb the audacity of the Perugians.”  We always take visitors down the escalators (underneath La Rocca) to see the remains of Perugia’s medieval city that Pope Paul destroyed. The Perugians later destroyed much of the fortress.

A corner of the Rocca Paolina

A corner of the Rocca Paolina

One of Perugia’s assets is its location high on top of the hills.  The benefit is a great view in every direction.  To simutaneously see the countryside and the city, we walk down Corso Garibaldi to Porta Sant’ Angelo.

The boys take in the view with their cousins last week.

Last week, the boys climbed to the top of the tower with their cousins.   In the distance, we can almost see our apartment.

And on the other side of town, in Piazza Italia, we can see two of Perugia’s most important churches, San Dominica and San Pietro.

My mom and I in Piazza Italia.

My mom and I and a great view.  San Dominica is the huge church to the left, and the spire of San Pietro rises further in the distance.

Finally, whether for coffee before the sites or an glass of prosecco after, we like to visit the oldest and most distinguished cafe in Perugia, Sandri.

Matt and my mom at the bar

Matt and my mom at the bar in Sandri

A Tuscan Cemetery

The graveyard of Cortona

The graveyard of Cortona

It’s impossible to visit a city in Italy without facing centuries of death.  It seems that every town is filled with crypts, catacombs and necropolises.  Some of the most compelling sites in this country are the graves of illustrious Italians.  We’ve seen the tomb of Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, St Francis of Assisi and Galileo Galilei among many others.  Even when the dead aren’t famous, their graves sometimes are. They are everywhere.

We visited the underground “Ipogeno dei Volumni” with our guests in December.  This is one of the best-preserved Etruscan tombs in Italy.  It dates back to 200 BC

We visited the underground “Ipogeno dei Volumni” with family in December. This is one of the best-preserved Etruscan tombs in Italy. It dates back to 200 BC.

Inside the ancient Pantheon rests the body of Renassaince artist Raphael Sanzio and two Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.

Inside the ancient Pantheon rests the body of Renassaince artist Raphael Sanzio and two Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.

There are three popes buried in Perugia.  This is Pope Benedict XI's tomb in San Dominica.  His bones are in the box on the wall to the left of his monument.

There are three popes buried in Perugia. This is Pope Benedict XI’s tomb in the Basilica of San Dominica. His bones are in the box on the wall to the left of his monument.

Beyond the famous burial sites, Italy is filled with cemeteries.  There is a “monumental” cemetery in Perugia that Matt and I visited a couple months ago.  Some of Perugia’s most important families have erected ornate (and fanciful) mausoleums here to house their remains.

These small apartments can hold lots of bodies

These small apartments can hold lots of bodies

Yes, a pyramid tomb in Perugia

Yes, a pyramid tomb in Perugia

Last weekend we were in Cortona, Tuscany.  As we were taking in the view from the top of this small hill town, Matt saw a big beautiful cemetery in the distance.  We decided to visit it on our way home.

Italy does cemeteries well.  The grounds are bright and colorful.  Nearly every grave or slot on the wall is full of flowers, flickering electric lights and framed photographs.  There is nothing creepy or ghosty about them.  The atmosphere is soft and the souls seem tangible.  The people look at you from their pictures, and you can’t help but want to know more.  I can imagine them once living and eating pasta, making wine and gesturing.

We arrived through the main gate with my parents (who are here for a few more days).  Once we entered, the six of us separated and wandered through the rows.  During our visit we admired the old names and we admired the elegant photos. We tried to find someone who had lived for up to 100 years (with no luck). We found the most recent date-of-death (February 23, 2013). We saw graves of kids.  We saw tombstones for entire families, and we discovered many parents who outlived their children.

My mom and Tom figure out the age of someone in the wall.

A wall of past lives

Dino and Ida, among others

Dino and Ida (RIP), among others

"He lived for three happy years.  The son of Atilo and Ginetta.  He was Little Francis.  Now he is an angel."

“I lived for three happy years. The son of Atilio and Ginetta. I was Little Francis. And now I am an angel. December 3, 1913-January 12, 1917”

I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that this couple had to bury TWO young children in their lifetime.

It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that this couple had to bury TWO young children in their lifetime.  Mario was eight and Lidia was just four

This was our favorite - the absolute surrender to the sadness and desolation of death.

This was our favorite – the exhausted statue draped over the coffin in absolute surrender to the sadness and desolation of loss.

We finally left the grounds when the wind picked up. Despite the sunshine, we were freezing cold.  As we drove away, we talked about the graves and the people who died. Tom and Ray both said that this cemetery was way better than a museum or church.

Then we talked about what we wanted to do with our own remains.  The boys are undecided about cremation or coffins.  Matt wants to donate his whole body to research, so do my mom and dad (then they want to be buried near Eugene or at their farm.)  I think I might want my ashes to be gently tucked away in an Italian cemetery like this one.

Me in Italy (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

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School has been going really well for me ever since Christmas break and the week I was sick.  I’ve been understanding a lot more in Italian.  I use to get easier work than the Italian kids in school, but now I do the same exercises and homework as them.  I think it’s fun.  Also, conversation is easier to understand.  I hardly ever have to say “Non capisco.”

My favorite class in school is Italian grammar because the teacher is really nice to me and it’s the easiest class.  Right now we are studying comparisons and superlatives.  For instance, if something is good, we say it is “buono.”  If something is better, we say “migliore.”  If something is the best, we say “ottimo.”  At first it was confusing, but my tutor Paola helped me understand.

In history we are learning about the Etruscans.  They lived before the Romans.  Where they came from is a mystery, but they lived in here Umbria and around the center of Italy.  They were the ones who invented the arch.  They were really good architects.  When they wrote, they wrote from right to left, and they did not have spaces between their words.  They wrote with a different alphabet than ours.

This is an Etruscan arch.  It's the most famous arch in Perugia.

This is an Etruscan arch. It’s the most famous arch in Perugia.

My least favorite class is science.  Right now we are studying the body.  We are learning about breathing, muscles, bones, intestines, nerves, veins and cells.  There are some funny pictures in my science book like a rotting orange, the Italian food pyramid, a little baby sitting on a potty, and an angry boy riding a bike.

This is a picture from my science book.

This is a picture from my science book.

We always have a break at 10:15.  That’s when we get to have a snack and talk.  My friends are Alberto, Andrea, Gaia, Anna, Alessandro and Teresa.  During break the boys sing Gangnam Style or play charades.  Actually, I don’t play charades because I have no idea what they are acting out.  Sometimes they do things and I don’t know what it is suppose to be.

This is me with my classmates.  I'm sitting between Andrea and Gaia.  In the background is poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year.  It says, "Welcome to our school."

This is me with my classmates. I’m sitting between Andrea and Gaia. In the background is a poster of me that my class made at the beginning of the year. It says, “Welcome to our school.”

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

Today during snack time, I talked with Gaia.

After school, I come home for lunch, check my emails, do my homework and get gelato.  I go across the street to Grom for gelato.  Right now my favorite flavors are cream, lemon, chocolate and stracciatella.  The most common flavor is hazelnut.  Vanilla is not very popular, and it’s hard to find.

Sabrina and Verenna and me.  Today I ordered three scoops and some whip cream.

Sabrina and Verena and me. Today I ordered three scoops of gelato and some whip cream.

We are half way through the year. It has been fun when people visit us, but I’m also excited to go home.  I miss our backyard and our house and our neighborhood and my friends.  But when I leave I will miss the gelato, the food, my Italian friends, all the traveling on Sundays and vacations.

Our Company

Tom, Jill, Heidi, Ray, Richard, Deanne, Tom and Matt

This week we are eight

Matt’s sister and brother-in-law are visiting until the end of the week, and my aunt and uncle are here for almost a month.   We’ve filled our days with short trips to nearby cities and lots of time here in town.  We been both tourists and residents in Perugia, and it’s been so much fun.  It’s different having such close family here.  There is so much understanding each other.

Richard juggling clementines

Juggling clementines

Everything is more detailed with eight people.  With everyone’s background and perspective, we notice more.  Take beer, for example.  I think Umbria makes good beer.  I can appreciate the labels and pretty bottles.  But with the help of Tom and Heidi, who grow hops and make their own IPA, we are learning to recognize the subtleties of each Umbrian brew.  For the first time, the local beer is more than just “good.”  It’s complex and colorful.  Some even have hints of coriander (which I never would have detected in a hundred years).

Most of us chose the "lentil beer" in the middle as our favorite

Most of us chose the “lentil beer” in the middle as our favorite

Beer tasting

Beer tasting

Grocery shopping and dinner is more interesting too.  Since we are twice as big, we get to eat more.  The other day for lunch, we bought eleven types of cured meats, five types of cheeses, three different breads and four Christmas desserts.

one particular pecorino cheese aged 8 months in a well.  But it was still good.

One particular pecorino cheese was aged 8 months in a deep well. But it was still good.

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel shaped almond flavored torciglione and slices of almond torrone

Four seasonal desserts: a tiny Christmas panatone, a plate of almond cookies, a eel-shaped, almond-flavored torciglione and slices of white, almond torrone.

Some other highlights this week included a day trip to Assisi.  All eight of us squished in the car and drove to the woods high above the town to see where St. Francis lived and prayed.  Later we had lunch, walked to the famous cathedral, saw St. Clare’s entire preserved body, and visited the 2000-year-old Roman temple.

Tom and Heidi arround the Temple of Minerva in Assisi

Tom and Heidi around the Temple of Minerva in Assisi

Piazza

Piazza del Comune

Yesterday, while the boys were at school, the adults visited the nearby city of Deruta.  We talked with the ceramic craftsmen and bought more plates.  We toured a three-story nativity display that featured the works of 40 artists.  On the way home, we got stuck in traffic and were a half hour late to get the boys from school.  I had to call the landlady of Tom and Heidi’s apartment to ask her to pick them up.  She made sure they got home okay.  It was a little embarrassing.

Group photo with Monica from

Group photo with Monica from Maioliche Artemisia

This morning we went shoe shopping.  Deanne, Heidi and I looked at a pair of plastic high heals that cost about 160 dollars.  The salesman pointed out that they smell like Starbursts when you wear them.  We tried them on (just for fun).

They are even waterproof

They are even waterproof

We have two more days before Richard and Deanne leave and about two weeks of plans to fit into that time.   Richard is throwing an Italian wine tasting tomorrow night.  Uncle Tom’s going to make beef tongue.  There’s an ancient well down the street we need to see.  Plus a Raphael fresco.  Then a castle.  And some Etruscan tombs just outside the city wall.  And if there is time, we are going to try and cook black truffle pasta for dinner tomorrow.

Breakfast in Italy

Breakfast, the most important meal of the day

After moving here, we had to get use to the way Italians eat.  Dinner is super late.  Lunch is enormous.  And breakfast, as we know it, is non-existent.  We say it’s the most important meal of the day, but Italians don’t eat when they wake up; they drink coffee from their espresso machines or brew some in a tiny coffee maker at home.  If coffee isn’t enough, many have a cigarette along with it.

It’s not until 10 or 11 am when the cafes open that Italians take a break from their morning and get a bite to eat.  But there are no breakfast menus.  No eggs Benedict.  No oatmeal.  No bacon.  Just pastries.  And here in Italy, powdered sugar donuts and huge cinnamon rolls aren’t just for kids.  Men in business suits eat whipped-cream filled croissants all the time.

A case full of choices at Santino

It’s 11:00 and the cafes are busy.

Most Italians enjoy their morning snack while standing up.  The cafes serve customers along a bar.  Traditionally and most commonly, patrons order an espresso to accompany their sweet bread and then eat on their feet.  You can sit at a table if there is one, but you have to pay more.  (And it doesn’t feel as authentic.)

The guys at Bar Pasticceria Accademia waiting for our order

Serving espresso and croissants on the bar at Antica Latteria

We haven’t entirely acclimated to this routine yet.  Once in a while I’ll make breakfast for the kids.  When some local friends heard about this, they wanted to know more.  What is a traditional American breakfast?  We got to talking and then decided to have them over for Sunday Brunch.

It took a week of planning and experimenting before we settled on the menu.  I wanted something with syrup.  And Matt wanted to include savory dishes.   We bought all sorts of ingredients in our search for the perfect flavors.  Since Italians don’t have breakfast meats like bacon, we bought an assortment of cured meats and sampled them all throughout the week.  Pancetta was too salty, so was guanciale.   We tried prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto and speck (smoked prosciutto).  Eventually, speck won the vote.

On Sunday morning we woke up early to start squeezing oranges.  By the time our guests arrived, all was nearly ready.  We had just a few frantic minutes with the oven and all four burners on at once trying to cook and talk in Italian while appearing in control (too difficult). I finally abandoned the cooking part and Matt took over.

When it was ready, we served big American cups of coffee, French toast, a breakfast casserole, egg sandwiches, apples with lemon and sugar, and smoked salmon toasts.  We even found a bottle of maple syrup (imported from Canada.)

French toast cooked in lots of butter.

Egg McMuffins

Sunday Brunch

As we were eating, we talked a little about a typical Sunday at home:  hanging out, watching football, going on a walk, barbequing, etc.  However, since we are in Italy, Milena and Sergio proposed a visit to a nearby ruin.  This sounded perfect, albeit in great contrast to an American Sunday.  So after we finished brunch, we walked down the street for a tour of the 2000-year-old Etruscan acropolis that was discovered underneath Perugia’s giant cathedral in the 1980s.  It was just opened to the public this year.

The oldness of it all was mind-boggling.  During our tour, we walked up and down ancient roads that had been buried for two millennia.  We stood in the remains of an Etruscan family’s house.  We saw an ancient cistern for collecting rain water.  We touched a tall wall that at one point extended to the highest reaches of the city.  All the while, we were just two blocks away from our apartment and just a little bit underneath.

Later, when we got back home, all the dishes from brunch were waiting for us.  By the time we cleaned up, we were tired and ready for bed.  The last thing we wanted to do was cook dinner.  So instead, we walked downstairs for an ice cream cone and a beer, neither an Italian nor American meal.

A Short Visit to Spoleto

Sunday afternoon in Spoleto’s Piazza del Duomo

Last week we drove to nearby Spoleto for the night.  We didn’t see much, however, because we were holed up in the hotel for half the time helping the boys with homework.  Tom had hours of math while Ray was studying ancient Greek history.

But the little that we saw was fantastic:

The Aqueduct:  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around aqueducts since I first saw one 25 years ago.  This week, I finally grasped the fundamentals and cleared up two decades of misconceptions.  While I knew that aqueducts somehow transported water to thirsty towns,  I never could visualize the process.  Why the arches?  Where is the water?  I thought that maybe the aqueduct worked like some sort of  bridge under which water flowed.  Then later, someone told me that water streamed up and down the arches in a maze of pipes (and I believed her).  Finally, this week, after an afternoon of Google searches,  I learned that the arches are just part of the aqueduct (albeit the only readily visible part) whose purpose it is to support the the pipes that transports water. I learned that aqueducts can be many miles long often tunneling underground. I also learned that water doesn’t run perpendicularly under a mulit-arched bridge (duh), but rather along the top of the structure on a precisely constructed, steadily flowing, slightly tilted, downward slope.  It’s simply a feat of gravity (and the ingenuity of the ancient Romans) that ensured the success of aqueducts.

(Wearing 3-D glasses will really help this picture come to life.)

This is Ponte delle Torri, the famous aqueduct of Spoleto and the highlight of our weekend.  The structure is 230 meters across with a footpath on top.  Unfortunately, at least once a year, someone jumps.

Standing nearly 80 meters high near the top of the aqueduct.

Once we crossed, we went for a little walk in the woods. Ray was super excited to find what he thought was a underground piece of the aqueduct.  It actually had water flowing through it.  Could it be?

The Town Cathedral:  Next, we went to church, or in this case, the piazza in front of the church.  There are two things the boys really miss in the crowded, stone hill towns of Umbria:  grass and wide open space.  So when we descended into the spacious, sunken Piazza della Duomo, the boys took off running.  Rather than spend our time lingering over Fra’ Filippo’s famous fresco, we played freeze tag.

Finally, the last place we had to visit before heading back to Perugia was Il Tempio del Gusto, a trattoria that came highly recommended by a friend in Perugia. In addition to spaghetti carbonara, saffron risotto and roasted duck, we ordered a traditional Umbrian plate of cured meats, pecorino cheese, toasted breads and a sampling of olive oils.  Spoleto is known for having the best oil in Umbria so before leaving, we stocked up.

Il Tempio del Gusto

Since Sunday, we’ve had bread with olive oil every day for lunch. And then we think about aqueducts. In fact, today Matt and I visited a really old one right here in Perugia.