Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Winter Wonderland: West Stockbridge, The Berkshires, MA

I have to admit, when I was growing up if someone mentioned the Berkshires I thought; how lame.  Little pimples of mountains, terrible snow conditions and just a few bodies of water to paddle. Heading up the highway in College to face off against the Purple Cows of Williams certainly wasn't much of an enticement.  Who has a purple cow for a mascot?  But, a pre-baby weekend to Lenox with the wifey changed my tune.  The Norman Rockwell Museum was pretty cool.  (We love his covers for Cobblestone, still a great magazine for kids). The Book Loft in Great Barrington was just our speed, used and old.  Maybe a couple of hours down the pike was worth it?

Our closest family friends have just bought a place in West Stockbridge.  What a super cute little town!  Twenty minutes down route 41 from the restaurants and shops of G.B., and just a hop, skip and a jump to the highest concentration of cultural institutions anywhere outside NYC; see Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow and MassMOCA.  But we came for the snow.  We hit Butternut on Saturday.  Sure the bunny hill was a little bunny.  The greens a little steep.  We still had a blast.  I managed to ski Sydney and his pal on my polls down a blue, solo.

It was the house and the hood that were the hit though.   It just kept snowing, hour after hour.  From the blizzard like drive out on Friday night to the flurries on home.  Saturday was snowman day.  Miami Kami (see wifey, aka Live from the Fence) even got into the snowtacular with some really cute snow bunnies.  But the icing on the cake, (pun intendended) was the snow battle of the century on Sunday.   It was bloodline vs. bloodline as the fort walls piled high.  The snowballs flew, as we worked ourselves into a sweat in 30 degree freeze, soaking in the snow.  We had such a blast, we might even forgo the Cape this summer for a little culture of our own.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Pope and Pinocchio: The Vatican and Frascati, Italy


What do the Pope and Pinocchio have in common?  Beyond the fact that "Jiminy Cricket" used to be a polite expletive for Jesus Christ, these two historic figures appear to be the number one sales items in every tourist trap in the city of Rome.  So how fitting that we started the day at the Vatican and ended it at Restaurante Il Pinocchio in Frascati.  We had made reservations for the Vatican because of the horror stories we had heard about waiting in line with kids.  The irony is the that the drive in was over two hours, (no more Metro parking lot crisis on our last day we decided) and then waited twenty minutes to get into St. Peters.  We barely even had time to chase pigeons while mommy waited in line!  Ok, so how do explain the Pope and the city-state of the Vatican to a young Jewish kid?  I didn’t even try.  Sydney was really into the cupolas though, and we were all were pretty amazed by Bernini’s use of marble, bronze and general baroque extravaganza.  

I had higher hopes for Sydney’s interests in the Sistine Chapel.  Although, deep in my eighteen years of memory banks I had images of wandering for ages through the Vatican museums to find it.  Luckily, they had mummies.  Even Lij got into the Egyptian museum, comparing “little mummies, big mummies and oh, kitties!”  He thankfully passed out for the long haul through the long halls.  Finally we arrived, with Sydney about to face plant it and we got through a brief summary of the Old Testament highlights thanks to Michelangelo; the Exodus from Egypt, Noah and the Ark and the creation of Adam and Eve.  He thought the pictures were “cool,” even if we may have to still send him to Sunday school for the content.

Wasted from a long walk back to the car we crawled down the autostrada for one last supper in our favorite neighboring town, Frascati.  This is one of the castle towns of Rome with a great old church and perfectly cute shops, (including lots of childrens’ clothing which seems odd given that Italy has the lowest birth rate in the world.)  Kami had read Pinocchio with the boys before leaving and we were even suckered into getting them both wooden dolls when we got here.  Yet far from the tourists here in Frascati we turned the corner and viola, a six-foot high rendition of the puppet.  Ahhhh the finishing touches on a great trip; a last penne and ragu, some gelato to wash it down and a reservation to return to the most kid-friendly city we’ve ever seen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rules of the Road Trip: Montepulciano, Toscana, Italy

The first rule of any dadventure is making sure that mommy is happy.  Today, we loaded up into the car for the pilgrimage to Tuscany’s wine country.  Long before we had children, Montepulciano meant nights out in New York City for my girl.  Why would I drive over two hours through the Italian countryside all the way to Tuscany?  Road rule #2: food trumps all.  So we started the morning in our little neck of the ‘burbs with cream filled croissants, cafes for the ‘rents and a quick stop in the fruitteria.  The strawberries and clementines with leaves intact are out of this world, and made it all of ten minutes into the drive. 


This brings me to rule #3, have a great foodie destination in mind.  Perhaps head for a quaint little country restaurant, famous for it’s wine and pork; (Fattoria Pulcino, thanks again Frommers).  After they plow through fettucine con ragu number twelve of the week, let the kids chase cats while you refill wifey on the wine and eat yet another bite of perfect prosciutto.  Which brings me to rule #4; don’t let her finish the bottle or what began as a set-up for a longer dadventure to Tuscany down the road becomes a conversation about why  can’t wejust move here; ignoring such important topics as jobs, family, housing, etc.

Rule #5; critically important, make sure to time your naps for the car, not for the long hike up the side of a medieval street to the highest piazza in the region.  Rule #6; keep plying your children with treats, this time a densely thick hot chocolate from the place that hosted the film crew of Twilight: New MoonAutogrill for their Italian shoot (yeah, I've read three of the books, I work with middle schoolers people).  Rule #7: give them a break from eating at the playground, while you lounge on the bench overlooking hilltop farms and villages older than the freedom trail.  The last and final rule, #8, make sure to stop for dinner in a Autogrill rest-stop, just to prove that American fast food is so poor in quality, that your wife is willing to go on another road trip in any foreign country of your choosing. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fiori and Forums in Imperial Rome: The Coliseum, Forum and Palentine, Roma, Italy

The Coliseum, Forum, and Palantine

Lazio, Italy

Flora and fauna seem to be recurring themes here in Rome, which is ironic given that most everything seems covered in thousands of years of cement, cobblestones or just plain dirt.  It is convenient though, given the boys’ addiction to these two categories.  They have hunted for whales off the cape, taken in the wildflowers of Elm bank and chased bullfrogs in their own backyard.  What’s a ruin?; Sydney asks today.  Hmm….  Why does stuff fall apart?; he asks as I explain that many of these ancient sites have been rebuilt recently only to look like a decaying version of what they used to.

What was most bizarre about these monuments of marble, paving stones and ancient cement is that they were all covered in fiori, (flowers).  As they boys chased around the Campo di Fiori it was hard to imagine where the paved piazza had gotten the name field of flowers.  Yet, the boys spent hours in the Palatine picking winter daisies off of the former estates of Ancient Rome’s version of Beverly Hills.  They didn’t even notice that the backyard fountains of these wealthy urban Romans would have swallowed our little house whole.

The only fauna we seem to find here are cats and pigeons, evidently one population does not control the other.  So, why is it that we spent the day talking large predators?  Well, evidently the cellars of the Coliseum were home to not just lions and tigers, (bears oh my?), but wolves, jaguars and other large cats.  We certainly skipped the entertaining debate about lions eating Christians, myth or reality.  We need to read "The Roman Coliseum" by Elizabeth Man for some kid-friendly versions.  But, we did look at some pretty cool pictures of them jumping out of cages elevated up from the basement to add to the surprise.  Sydney and Elijah have been recreating this scene all week, chasing every last pigeon out of every forum, (Caesar, Augustus, Hadrian, etc.) they find.  (Click here to see the "Running of the Pigeons" at the Coliseum). So while modern day central Rome is no typical urban oasis for kids, (few parks, playgrounds, or open athletic fields), the ruins have provided the best access to the outdoors we could have asked for.  Now, if I could only explain what a ruin is.

Roman Monkey Business: Villa Borghese, Roma, Italy

Villa Borghese

Lazio, Italy

We are masters of the Metro.  We’ve got Linea A from Anagnina covered.  It may be the only way besides driving to get from here to the super-turista sites, but we’re in the groove.  Except of course when the parking payment machine isn’t working and we keep getting stuck trying to get out of the gate at the garage, (I know enough Italian to see that it thinks we didn’t pay).  Or perhaps when we get out the wrong exit of the Metro at Spagna and spend an extra twenty minutes climbing ALL of the Spanish steps to the Villa Borghese, in the rain.  Of course, otherwise we would have missed the view from the top.

The Borghese family clearly wielded more power than just a couple of Popes and cardinals in the family.  They were not messing around.  Up until recently, (the last couple centuries, a drop in the Roman historical bucket), they owned four square miles of prime real estate within walking distance of central Rome.  In a city of princely palaces on every corner, the Villa Borghese stands above the rest.  We didn’t drag the boys through the art museum, but evidently the collection is one of the finest in a city of fine private collections.

No, we had one destination in mind: the Zoo.  Amidst the beautiful wooden paths and mini-camper concession stands, the zoo stands alone in the minds of our boys.  We have hit zoos in every city we’ve visited.  We even sing along to the book, "Going to the Zoo," by Tom Paxton.   It is a bit of a calling card for our family.  This time, for some odd reason Liji was ambitious about the antelopes.  We never found them, we found all sorts of related deer, but along with the lions and tigers, they must have been on vacation.  We did run across some very friendly mandrills that seemed to be talking to Sydney; too bad it was in Italian.  The rain continued to fall, as we sprinted back to the Metro with a sleeping Lij in the stroller and a quickly fading Sydney.  At least this time we found the right entrance.  

Monday, February 15, 2010

How to Retire After Building an Empire: Hadrian’s Villa, Villa Adriana, Italy

Hadrian’s Villa
Via Tiburtuna
Villa Adriana

Lazio, Italy

Feeling a little cocky from our last foray onto the autostrata, we decided to head out of town for the day.  The boys needed a little running room that didn’t include cement.  Evidently, so did Hadrian, as he expanded the Empire out from its Mediterranean core all the way into England in the 2nd century B.C.E.  Now, I look forward to a little saltbox on the Cape when I retire, perhaps even a bungalow on the ocean Down East in Maine where the boys can bring their kids sailing.  Villa Adriana was no little shack on the shore.

Sure camping Barbarians had torn up the place in the 4th and 5th centuries, but what remains is still astounding.  Hadrian designed acre after acre of green fields, cypress and olive trees and glistening pools on his palatial estate.  The kids loved running past statues reflecting in the pool.  You could even picture little Roman munchkins doing the same during one of his fabulous parties.  Sydney was particularly excited by walking through the ruins of baths the size of our local Y pool.  Liji was just happy chasing ducks as they swam away “making noises.”

Of course we got really ambitious and decided to drive up to Tivoli for lunch.  Seventeen twists on a mountain road, three not well placed and we realized we were lost.  We settled for another scrumptious snack of sandwiches, and saddled up to a café bar in the shadow of castle of Rocca Pia.  Kami had mastered the art of ordering latte bianco (not to be mistaken with the Starbucks special), but we forget to remind them not to make it caldo and Liji almost thought he was getting hot chocolate instead of a lovely glass of warm milk.  Thankfully, my sons have both fallen in love with ham here, which has made it well worth the trip alone.  Mr. Hadrian you may have expanded the empire, but we have expanded the palate of a four-year old boy; no small feat.  Maybe I should retire to the Villa Adriana and call it a day.

p.s. when you go out for a nice dinner with the boys, let them order just dessert.  It make it much easier to enjoy your beef carpaccio when you watch them dip their gelato in their tiramisu.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gods, Angels, and Demons: Il Centro di Roma, Roma, Italy

Lazio, Italy

Ahhhhh, the angelic sounds of snoring children at 9:30AM.  It is fair to say that I have never heard such beautiful music at this hour, ever.  It was almost worth the jet lag.  Finding the Metro station was infinitely easier in daylight this time, I didn’t even veer off onto the autopiste once.  The metro is clean and well run, sadly it’s really meant for commuters and hits only a few of the super-turista sites.  We got off at San Giovanno, and I think by the grace of St. John the Divine himself, we managed to find the #85 over to the Ghetto.

Long before the term Ghettofabulous was a hit, we Jews were living cloistered in small, crowded sections of western European cities like Rome, under the watchful eye of the Pope.  Sydney got his first mini-lecture on the rise of anti-semitism in the western world as we sprinted through the Museo Ebraico di Roma.  We made a play for the famous Roman-Jewish fried artichoke special down the street, but evidently every American Jew had the same idea.  We settled for a wonderful salami and mozzarella pannini, thank heavens we don’t keep kosher.

After chasing pigeons at Campo dei Fiori for at least an hour, (just like in the awesome book Rome Antics, by David Macauley), the boys were ready for more gelato.  Perhaps it was in my head, but I am pretty sure that as Sydney and I switched cups of caramel and café and I took a sumptuous bite, the clouds cleared and a soft beam of light shone down on our heads in front of the Pantheon.  But, Kami and I were quickly caught up in the irony that Hadrian’s monument to “All the Gods” was tattooed by crosses in the Middle Ages.  Sydney didn’t seem to mind though, as we marveled at the beautiful mix of colored marble on the floor, he was staring at a passing “gladiator,” adjusting the balloon dog crown on his head.  It could have easily been mistaken for a halo; he was a gift from above today.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gelato and Ruins by 10AM: Ostia Antica, Roma, Italy


Lazio, Italy

We hoped off the plane in Rome a little bleary at 7:45AM and waited like dopes for our second stroller, only to find out that it was quietly resting by itself around the corner from our baggage carousel.  A half hour later we were en route to Ostia with Google Maps on iPhone in hand (note to Garmin users, this GPS hates Italy!) By 9AM as promised, Sydney had his first of many promised gelatos in hand; chocolate of course.

Ostia was Rome’s main port for over 600 years (according to Time Out Rome).  While I have been to Pompeii, I don’t remember ruins this intact and two hours closer to the city.  Sure, Sydney hit the potty wall half way down the ancient road of the former town, (no small feat, that dash to the nearest bathroom).  Within minutes we were sitting on the steps of the ancient theater, explaining to Sydney how this was kind of like the performance of Rainbow Fish he had seen at the Center for the Arts in Natick.

We made sure before leaving town to hit the 14th century castle of a Pope and made sure to have spaghetti where Fellini sat while reading The Kitten Who Thought He Was a Mouse by Miriam Norton, (the cats haven’t disappeared from Rome since I was here in ‘93).  Who ever told you that kids hate ruins, never saw my boys pick so many daisies they could have made Caesar’s crown look like a bunch of shrubbery.  A three-hour nap and a night out on Rome, with of course more gelato, not a bad first day...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Back Nine Winter Redux: Lake Cochituate State Park, Natick, Wayland and Framingham, MA

Lake Cochituate State Park
Natick, Framingham and Wayland, MA

We hadn't planned to move to Natick from Brooklyn. It was too rural, too far from our jobs and too full of adventure. Despite the long commute, it has been a blessing in disguise. Life on the lake is just minutes from the intersection of Rts. 9, 30, 27, 117 and the Pike; we are at the epicenter of the
MetroWest dadventure universe. In the summers you'll catch us paddling, swimming and catching turtles on the "pond." It is a far stretch from my tiny plot of a yard growing up in Newton.

It was the winter that I wasn't expecting. There are no "ponds" to skate on in Newton. Here in our backyard our neighbor snowblows out a rink for hold family hockey games. Our babysitter is a Natick Comet hockey all-star, dragging her parents across New England and up into Canada every winter weekend. We've added ice skating instructor to her list of "mommy's helper" jobs after school. She already does a great job with his favorite Mercer Mayer books, we hadn't even checked out "Skating Day" yet.

But it's the snow that transforms this park. Lake Cochituate is a thin strip of land surrounding all of the lakes. When the it falls, we throw on our skis, head across the lake and up into Lakeview Cemetery in Wayland for a few turns of the teles down the hill. A winter wonderland indeed.

Sydneiana Jones and the Pit of Sponge: Planet Gymnastics, Natick, MA

Sydney is a crazy man. This kid loves to dive head-first into a pile of sponge. He will hurl himself down a mountain without an ounce of fear in his thoughts. Perhaps it is the great work that they have done with him at our local gymnastics outlet. He has great teachers, they're safe facilities and he even gets to go with his classmates from Tobin School on the days he doesn't go to school.

Planet Gymnastics is da' bomb. But, we were going to have his birthday party at Playtown Express simply because he tears it up there, (they were sold-out till Liji's bday in March.) Boston Sports Club was also a great place to party for Ronen's 4th. But I'm so glad we picked his homebase for fun . Instead of his weekly tumbles, balance beam and trampolines, Sydney got treated like a king. While I was languishing in bed with a 102 temp and praying to the porcelin gods, Sydney "the birthday kid" was the only one flying through the air like Mary Martin in Peter Pan.

He was so princely, he even got his own throne. Sure, like any great kid he shared it with his little bro, (and even the crazy Ben and Jerry's underwater theme ice cream cake - clearly learned that from me.) It was a blast, or so it appeared as I sat through the footage, cursing into my piece of left over cake, two days later when I was finally well enough to sit at the table and behave.