Category Archives: Family travel

Dependence and independence

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Castellina in Chianti, Italy – It’s been great for Dan and me to have so much time together during this sabbatical. Our jobs and lives at home keep us very separate. Like many couples our age, we often share the same space and time but not the same experiences.

During four weeks of absolute togetherness, we’ve had a few moments of fatigue-induced crabbiness (mostly mine). But for the most part our time together has been cozy, collaborative and comfortable. We’ve rediscovered what good friends and easy travel companions we are. I’ve come to rely on our shared troubleshooting of common inconveniences and errors.

On Monday, I decided to reassert my independence. We needed groceries. Dan was happily settled on the couch with a book. I was restless and eager to fly solo for awhile.

Going for groceries may not seem like a big deal, but it is when you’ve never driven an Italian car in Italy.

FiatOur Fiat rental car (or van, really—it seats seven so we can accommodate shifts of guests we are expecting soon) is a lot bigger and boxier than most of the cars we see on local roads. And the roads are much narrower than what we’re used to in the greater-Phoenix area.

Ancient stone walls on both sides of many city center roads feel like they’re closing in on you. Then a delivery truck or (even scarier) an enormous tourist bus starts charging your way from the other direction.

Don’t even get me started on the challenges of parking an oversize vehicle in spaces better suited to Smart cars. And then there are the hazards of distracted pedestrian tourists, local residents darting in and out on bicycles and motorcycles/scooters following no apparent rules of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of stereotyped descriptions of Italian drivers (who are often accused of hyper-aggressive driving and chronic tailgating) but I prefer to look through the same lens as Joseph F. Lomax: “People who say Italians do not know how to drive are measuring them by the wrong yardstick.” Italians are skilled, attentive drivers. It’s their very confidence that makes you realize how scared and uncertain you are.

I knew all of this before I even tried to drive our rental car because I watched Dan do it first. I saw his white knuckles and heard his colorful language as we tried to navigate our way from Milan to Lake Como without a map or GPS. (The rental car agent skipped a few steps while explaining how easy it was to get there.)

And there’s one more thing: The Fiat has manual transmission, which neither of us has driven in, well, close to 30 years. And it has an unbelievably finicky clutch. This was confirmed by John Genzale, a writer and friend who lives in Como. John graciously agreed to do the driving when we visited so we could enjoy the views–and probably because he saw how freaked out we were.

When I decided to take the car out for the first time I wanted to do it alone. I didn’t want anyone watching me or telling me what to do or try (like I’d been doing to Dan). And I certainly didn’t want anyone I knew within earshot if I got myself in trouble.

I learned to drive a stick shift at age 22, when I bought my very first car as a newly employed reporter for The Pacific Daily New on Guam. I paid my deposit, got the keys for my brand new white Honda Civic and sat down in the driver’s seat. I panicked when I saw the four-on-the-floor gear shift. I looked at the salesman sheepishly. He gave me a very quick description of what to do and I was on my own. The dealership was at sea level; my apartment was at the top of a very high hill in Agana. Motivated by a strong desire to keep my life, my job and my new car, I very quickly figured out the “feel” of the clutch and the gear shift.

I was no less motivated to reach an understanding with this Fiat. I went outside, started the car and…couldn’t remember how to put it in reverse. I struggled for several minutes before swallowing my pride and heading back to the house to ask Dan to explain it.

Back in the driver’s seat, I backed up and pulled forward to ease down the rutted gravel road leading from our villa to the road below. I crept slowly and carefully into town, allowing everyone behind me to pass. I made it to the store, managed to park, bought groceries and headed home.

The road leading to our villa pops out of nowhere after a hairpin turn. I made a sharp right turn, crossed a narrow bridge that doesn’t look anywhere near wide enough to accommodate a mini-van and experienced an elated sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt in a very long time.

“That was fun!” I declared, a bit over-confidently, as I walked into the kitchen with our groceries.

“Good!” said Dan, an intelligent and easygoing guy whose sense of self-esteem is largely driven by the satisfaction he feels in solving problems–his own and those facing his litigation clients. “You’re in charge of the driving.”

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Eight movies in four days? Yep. (With apologies to Vicki Balint)

Flying to London is easy: the British Air flight leaves Phoenix in the evening. You get your dinner, you watch a movie, you go to sleep. You wake up a few hours later and you’re almost there.

The 10-hour trip  home, however, is not the same story. You leave about 2:30pm. You eat “lunch” at what is about 4:30 England time. You watch a movie. You watch a movie. You watch a movie. I actually watched four movies during my recent flight home. I’ve been so jetlagged all this week (and home alone because my husband stayed to visit friends in Scotland) that I’ve watched four more movies in the odd hours when I should have been sleeping.

When I saw Vicki Balint’s blog post on “Three movies in one weekend? Yep…” my competitive streak came out. So here you go, in the order I viewed them. The chick flick theme will become painfully clear — I was trying really hard to avoid movies I thought my husband would eventually want to watch with me.

ghosts-of-girlfriends-pastNumber 1: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” starring Matthew McConaughy, Jennifer Garner and Michael Douglas. I know! Totally fluffy, uninspired redo of the overdone Scrooge theme. But I find it fun to watch McConaughy and Garner in almost anything they do. Maybe it’s the dimples.

knowing-the-movieNumber 2:Knowing.” Nicholas Cage stars in this sci-fi flick that starts out strong, with spooky but somewhere-in-the-realm-of-acceptable plausibility and then has you shaking your head in disbelief. I’m a sucker for stories about the supernatural, so I was all over this one until the end, when all I could think was, “Are you kidding me?!”

love-in-the-time-of-choleraNumber 3: “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Got about halfway through this one before I gave up out of sheer boredom. Poorly scripted, poorly acted, lots of gratuitous nudity, some really stomach-curdling “mama’s boy” scenes and no great insights (which is what I was seeking in the first place) about that period of history.

is-anybody-thereNumber 4:Is Anybody There?” starring Michael Caine. I will confess that this was the last one I watched on the flight home and I did nod off a couple of times (it was about 2am London time when I got to this movie). But I will rent it and watch it again. It’s a lovely story about an aging magician whose senility forces him into an elder care home operated by a compassionate mom, her conflicted husband and an initially resentful young son. Honest and endearing with no sugar coating.

daughter-from-danangNumber 5: Daughter from Danang.” Oh, my gosh. This one will rip your heart out. I found it by accident through the prompts on my Netflix account and it was waiting for me in the mail when I got home. It’s a PBS “American Experience” documentary about one of the Vietnam children airlifted out of the country and brought to the U.S., where she was adopted by a single mom in a conservative southern state who named her “Heidi” and told her to “never tell anyone where you were born.” That’s just a tiny piece of what is a compelling, painfully honest story that reunites Heidi (birth name “Hiep”) with her birth mom 22 years after the Vietnam War — to very surprising and unsettling results.

miracle-at-st-anaNumber 6:Miracle at St. Ana.” I tried twice to watch this one. I’m a huge fan of WWII stories and a strong want-to-believer of miracles. So maybe my expectations were too high. The visuals were stunning (and sometimes shocking) but I found the story rambling, disjointed, confusing and ultimately unsatisfying.

seven-poundsNumber 7:Seven Pounds,” starring Will Smith. I really wanted to see this one when it came out in theaters but never did. I think Will Smith is incredibly talented (and easy on the eyes) and the trailers for this film really piqued my curiosity. The extreme-self-sacrifice theme is a little hard to swallow and I’m sure my husband would have been rolling his eyes (or leaving the room to watch sports on the other TV) if he’d been watching it with me. But I loved the chemistry between the main characters (Ben/Tim) and Emily and I was definitely wiping my eyes at the end.

nights-in-rodantheNumber 8:Nights in Rodanthe,” starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere. Okay, okay. Totally implausible premise, completely schmaltzy love story but a good lesson, nevertheless, that it’s never too late to find your passion. Hopefully you don’t have to break up your marriage to get there. And I really think they should have edited out the last scene and ended at the horses.

Back on the grid

Andy (24), Dave (22), Dan and me during our recent travels.

You know you’ve been neglecting your blog when you can’t remember how to log in.

It’s been weeks since I’ve had a minute to think about writing. My family went on vacation recently and I was out of town for 11 days. That may not seem like such a big deal, but you have to put it in perspective: There was only one other time in the 20 years since I started the magazine that I have taken off that much consecutive time in one chunk.

The preparation that goes into leaving a business when you’re the owner is mind-boggling. In the early days, when we had no centralized office and all of the editorial and administrative work was on my shoulders, I would be up all night for days in a row before I could leave. When I’d reach our destination (back then it was usually “grandma’s house”) I would go to my room and sleep for two days. I’m sure my extended family thought it was a bit strange (or even rude) but I was simply exhausted and in desperate need of some quiet time to regenerate.

Before this trip, I’m happy to say, I didn’t pull any all-nighters. But there were weeks of long days and copious “to do” lists leading up to our departure date. Thankfully, Raising Arizona Kids is in a better, stronger place these days. I have an incredible staff of professionals who approach their work with a great sense of ownership of the end product. They have my back. Which is why I was able to spend 11 bilssful days with my family — exploring new places, eating new foods, sharing stories and laughing until my face hurt.