Saturday, July 30, 2011

Spanish Steps and Piazza Navone

After the most amazing afternoon nap we headed back out into the Italian streets by horseback carriage toward the famed Spanish Steps.
Kinu had ever so much wanted to ride a horse, and well, this was the next best thing, slowly clip-clopping our way on the cobblestones to through crowded piazzas and little markets.
It was dusk when we arrived and the church bells were ringing in the distance as we climbed up the steps, hand in hand, to the little church at the top for water breaks and and a some flowers to smell.
The girls are doing so well, we trade off "Daddy Time" which is basically me lugging them here and there. Xian has been quite a good big sister as she helps lift Kinu up to see the sites, and Rebekah, with her amazing sweet little heart, does her best to keep everyone encouraged.
That morning we toured Piazza Navone, quite by accident, but what a surprise. All these little lovely places right around the corner that you would never know existed if you didn't stretch your feet just a few paces more.
My girls are fascinated by fountains. The love to pretend throwing coins in and running their fingers in the little ripples. So sweet they look laughing in the sunlight.
But there are always other people around, it's rare to have a moment completely by ourselves, so I create little pockets. We huddle and whisper. We rely on each other. My little darlings and me. I am so blessed, aren't I?
And in the end, what is there. There is art and beauty and funny things and sweetness. There is what we want and what we can have and dreams are what we make of them. I hope all of you out there reading this are having the times of your lives. I hope you find some inspiration here, if there is anything you see in this blog, this father traveling with his daughters through this beautiful land, with nothing but my sweat and my wits and my strong legs, it's that anything is possible.

Italian Smoke and Mirrors

Oh, believe me. I make this stuff look easy, but it ain't. None of it. Dragging my kids up and down these dusty streets, stopping for gelato when I want to run wild, trying my best to put their needs first. Believe me, it ain't easy, but it's the best thing I could have done.
First day off, Kinu fell into the bidet. Well, I wouldn't really call it fell... more like she was standing there washing her hands in the spray.
Oh yeah, I freaked. Pretty much everybody in the little pension hotel heard me scream "YUCKY, Honey..... Ewwww!"
Kinu thought, of course, that it was hilarious, and tried it again before I thankfully got them all to bed. Oh yes, we sleep together, wrapped on top and in between and all curled up like little kittens.
And the next day when her fever spiked to 101 and I just held her while the other girls bounced off the walls... well, I can hear my Mom in my ear right now. "Brian, what were you thinking taking your young kids to Europe?"
But I came prepared: Sacks of medicine and vitamins and even a thermometer. I'm a well prepared father, for sure. And by the end of the day, Kinu was back on her feet, or at least, I was back on my feet enough to hoist her on my shoulders and carry her through the city again.
And I don't want to even talk about Rebekah puking on the pesto up on the table or Xian developing these weird 7 year old mood swings... where'd that come from? Is this like a sign of things to come raising daughters? Oh dear, am I in trouble, or what?
But let's face it, most of this parent stuff is done with smoke and mirrors, angel kisses before bandaids, a little conventional "rub dirt on it" and lots of little hugs, smiles and lolipops.
I know that if someone looks at these pictures they would think, "Wow, Hartenstein, how are you doing it?" And the answer is... years of practice and... these rest is the art of illusion.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Roman Pantheon: Bread for Pigeons, Bread for little Souls

(The Dome Ceiling or Rome’s Pantheon)
We wandered side streets until we came to the Pantheon. Kinu in the stroller and Rebekah and Xian trading the backpack back and forth. We had a bubble blower that shot silvery soapy spheres into the sunlight that popped on cobblestones, and of course, our laughter.
(Pantheon Exterior after wandering via mingheti)
Outside the Pantheon was amazing. I’ve been to many ancient places in the world, India’s Varanasi, Beijing China’s Old Quarter, Cambodia’s ruins of Angor Wat, and the stones always smell the same: piss and blood and mold and age. These stones are no different, worn by pounding of sandals, horse hooves, and the echoes of voices and time.
(Originally constructed as a temple to the Roman gods, the Pantheon has functioned as a Catholic church since the 7th century.)
That morning we’d been to the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, which actually means “fields of flowers.” A vibrant piazza, set off by historic statues, vegetable markets, and little cafes for lovers.
(The fountains outside are gothic examples of demons and devils)
But no matter where we go, my daughters just want to throw bread to pigeons. They love to set out after them in full soldier attack, arms steady like lances, legs pounding on stones, they chase them in circles and into waiting trees. Until they get tired, that is, then they want me to bring out the stale bread I keep wrapped in an old blue bandana to feed them.
(Catholic worshippers from around the world wander inside in tour groups or in small packs, some kneel on creaking wooden pews, some lay on the prostrate on the floor, some hold their mouths in awe.)
We’ve spent many an afternoon here in Rome watching the sunlight fall against the buildings and tossing old crusts and crumbs of bread to the pigeons, laughing as they waddle toward us.
(There are portraits inside of famous leaders during the Renaissance modeled in poses of the Virgin Mary, Zeus, and what appears to be Artemis the huntress)
I find this is sometimes the best way to keep their attention. When the bread runs out and they want some more, I take them inside these holy places and show them the art: Jesus nailed to the cross, Mary sitting in a chair holding the young child, Old sightless John’s arm raised toward heaven. Bread for birds, bread for my daughter’s little winged souls.
(It is the most well preserved ancient structure in Rome, and the oldest to still support a dome)
Later that afternoon we headed over to Palatine Hill, one of seven hills in Rome, to look down at the Forum and the Circus Maximus. There the girls ran around Cyprus trees and we lounged in the shade throwing bread into the dust.
Days like today, watching the world and life and meaning slowly unfold, I am beside myself with joy. The fading afternoon light, my girls laughter louder than any passing voice. Heads turn, necks crane, eyes look at me and smile back. Well, those that know, they smile back, because they see I am the richest man alive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In the Taxis of Rome, We Whisper of Utoya

With a map of Rome in my back pocket, creased and wrinkled and etched in scribbled notes, we load our backpacks full of water bottles and green apples and head out to Trevi Fountain.
Such blue is the sky, bluer than dreams, bluer than imagination. People have always looked into my eyes and said, such blue like the sky. Today, I feel it is just for me.
In the taxi the driver is Giuseppe. He tells me he comes from the Florentine family, that his ancestors have been in Rome since the days of the Republic, and that he also has two boys of his own. He points at the Campidoglio and the Piazza Venezia, he laughs at my three daughters, putting his fingers together like he’s squeezing a grape, “Mama mia tres bambinas.”
He tells me the story of Trevi, how it is said that a young virgin led her village of early Romans to fresh water, how if you throw a coin in the fountain it will ensure your return. He said thousands of Euros are thrown every day and thus the crowds… he winks.
He wasn’t kidding. Just getting to the fountain can be an art. Down side streets and dodging pedestrians and horse carriages and busy vendors, the taxi tires hoping over the cobblestones. I roll down the window and let the cool summer air into the backseat. All of us smiling.
But our hearts are heavy today. Eyes glued to the hotel television set at this madman, this insane lunatic who opened fire on children and workers at the Norwegian Island of Utoya It was on Guiseppe’s mind as well.
“How could this be?” He asked. “What kind of world is it for fathers and mothers who send their children out into the world with hopes for their safety?”
I understood. I understood so well. We must hold our children ever so close, if they are to have moments like this, promises like this, dreams such as throwing coins in fountains so that one day they will return.
The world is lost to many of us. To others it is if they never lived at all. Even now the stories of the British press are dominated by the drugged out death of this former “winehouse” star or which politician knew of phone hacking and which didn’t. When the attention should be on living. Remembering the dead whose eyes are not blue but red raw. Yes, we are smiling, but only because we are so happy to be alive.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Italiano for Dummies

(Italian flag hanging in Stazione Termini)
Dov’e la toilette
Ciao
Bene grazie, E tu?
(Via Cavour at S. Maria Maggiore)
Sono di Americano
Buon giorno
Ciao Bella
Scusa!
(Magnifico Piazza Venezia)
Ti amo
Buonanotte
Salute!
(Near Vie Del Corso)
Vuole ballare con me?
Buona sera
Non capisco
(Tiber River Castels S. Angelo)
Bello
Grazie
Il mio hovercraft e pieno di anguille
(Aquaduct at Piazza Giovanni XXIII)
bacio
viaggio con me
buona fortuna

The Roman Forum and Coliseum

The morning was very hurried and hectic. We traveled to over three banks trying to change money before finally settling for an ATM, hustled by Metro over to Stazione Termini to buy tickets to Venice, saved almost a thousand U.S. dollars rather then buying an on-line round trip ticket, and finally made it to the ancient ruins of Rome by noon.
Foro Romano is classic Roma at her best. Stretching from Via Dei Fori Imperiali to Via Dei Cerchi, she holds secrets to as past we all share. (And my personal favorite site in Rome, the Coliseum)
The Colosseo of Rome is an amphitheater located in the heart of ancient Roma. Constructed around 70 AD, it held 50,000 people and was originally used for gladiatorial battles, public executions (especially of Christians who were often dipped in wax and lit as candles along the Via Appia for Nero to ride under naked on his chariot), and other public debacles and spectacles.
Although the Coliseum is worn by age and earthquakes and potshots from former French Generals with “Little Man” Complexes, she still remains a symbol of ancient and modern Rome and the glory of the old empire. How could anyone not take pride in such a structure? It is a world marvel!
Right next to the Coliseum is the Forum and along with throngs of hawkers selling anatomically correct boxers, aprons and Italy sweatshirts, is what’s left of the center of ancient Rome. It was the site of multiple buildings and a way of life that still exists to this day. It is hilly and tree lined and one gets a sense of how splendid ancient Rome must have been.
I don't know... I guess I'm a guy that always loved to give speeches, so here is one. I love this place. The smell of old stones, the dust between my toes, the smooth felt of worn rock, and my girl's faces smiling back at me in the fading light. Here's to the glory of old Rome, and the new feet who trod these roads smooth.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Of Gladiators and Geeky Dads

We started over two months ago with a kid’s picture book on ancient Rome. Illustrations of togas and chariots, armored breastplates and aqueducts. We read about citizens and slaves, hairbrushes carved from ivory, and how early school subjects were mathematics, reading, and public speaking.
My girls loved the pictures. We sketched The Forum and families laying on cushions to eat grapes. We laughed how only boys went to school and studied on tablets etched in wax, and girls stayed home and learned accounting and quilt making.
They had questions about slaves. How they were bought and sold and how a human life could be owned. Those were good discussions, years in the classroom helped.
We make Lego Pantheons and Clay Coliseums and practiced being Gladiators, wielding umbrella swords with bedsheets tied around our necks. We fought stuffed lions and raging Dumbo elephants and afterward made speeches to the glory of our deeds.
During bath time we spoke about refrigidariums and public meeting places, laughing about dusty sandals as I squeezed soap between their toes.
Basically, we totally geeked out!
But I knew that was the only way. When we got to the Coliseum my girls started screaming from the back of the taxi, “There it is! There it is!” When we passed the train station and saw the original wall from the First Republic they laughed because they understood.
But of course, their favorite were the Gladiators. They loved the stories of their battle, how their life could be held in the fickle applause or boos from the crowd.
How the mere turning up or down of a thumb could mean life or death, and how they accepted this as law, and how the people in return understood that it was a sacrifice, a blood sacrifice they were making to appease their own lives.
When we got to the Coliseum we toured the grounds and walked around the massive structure. We saw the bullet holes that Napoleon’s canons pierced but could not bring down the walls. We touched the ancient rock and sat for a long time in the shade thinking about what we had learned.
My girls were great. Despite the crowds and the heat and the surging rush of people and merchants and tour guides and locals all vying for position and leverage and escape, we just quietly went about the business of making it real to just us.
I’m proud of us for that. But I’m more proud of this: that I had a plan that came from a book procured from the shelf of a library half the world away, and that made all the difference. Thumb up, Dad! Thumbs up.