Thursday, October 30, 2008

Italy Day 3: Roma: Part 2: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here

From the Colosseum, our plan was to walk toward Roma's Termini train station through the park that houses the Domus Aurea (Nero's "Golden House", a vast villa of over 300 rooms set on approximately 300 acres including an artificial lake at the site of what is now the Colosseum) and the baths of Trajan. The park is lushly landscaped with bougainvilla and palms, with a view back toward the Colosseum. Unfortunately, as we entered the park, it seemed as if its now frequented by large groups (gangs?) of 20-something year old males, plus maybe a fair squad of homeless people. We saw people hanging out their washing on the park fences, and more than a few of the groups of hanger-outers turned to stare at us. Feeling that prickly "mom radar" go off, I told Wayne we might be better off not wandering through and just taking a detour around the park. I would've loved to have seen the Domus Aurea, and perhaps it would've been just fine, but I got a bad feeling and so around we went.

This actually ended up being a good thing in the end, because it meant we had time to discover and explore the beautiful Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs), an astounding architectural treasure hidden right next to Termini station. After going to the train station to look at timetables and get an idea of how easy it would be to buy tickets and get to our train later in the week (very easy, as it turns out, the Italian train system is great!), we were about to wander back toward our apartment, when a set of very interesting bronze doors in the front of what looked like an old Roman ruin caught my eye. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of the unusual facade (or really, lack of a facade) to this basilica, but you can see a photo (along with lots of great information) in this Wikipedia article. The bronze doors are new, cast in 2006 by a Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj, and are only one of the many incredible and intriguing things about this church. Essentially, it's a gorgeous basilica hidden inside the remains of the truly stupendously huge Thermae (Baths) of Diocletian.

Michelangelo himself designed the church to fit inside the remaining ruins of part of the baths, and it is a lovely space equaled by few others that we saw in all of Italy (in fact, I much preferred it to the overblown St. Peter's at the Vatican). The muted pastel colors and white vaulted arches of the ceiling create a gorgeous effect, and as big as the church itself is, it's hard to believe that it occupies only a fraction of the space enclosed by the structures of the Thermae. Once inside, the church is so elegant, you quite forget that you're actually inside a Roman ruin, until you step outside into a courtyard and all around you are the ancient brick walls of the baths, rising far above your head.Like so much of Rome, you are struck here by a sense of ongoing history, not just one culture but many. The rise and fall of the Roman empire, the Roman Catholic church and its many powerful popes (one of which, Pope Pius IV, was buried here in 1565), and the modern country of Italy born in the middle of the 19th century. A vast structure like the baths can be remade as a church, and used through hundreds of years.

But wait, the fascination of this place doesn't end there. Once inside its beautiful and religious spaces, you notice what looks like a large star chart on the floor, with a line running at a slant across the church floor. Made of inlaid marble and gilt edges, it's a meridian line (longitude 12° 50' that runs through Roma) installed in the 1700's as a sundial and used to predict Easter and check the accuracy of the then-relatively new Gregorian additions to the ancient Julian calendar. Because the Julian calendar didn't account for the fact that there are actually about 365 1/4 days in a year, the leap year rule was added when the Gregorian calendar came into being. This stopped Easter (which is tied to the vernal equinox) from drifting forward later and later each year. The meridian line acts as a giant sundial, with the sun coming through a hole in the wall and hitting the line at various places depending on the season. At the summer and winter solstices, the sun hits at the nearest and farthest spots along the line. Additional holes in the ceiling also allow viewing of key stars such as Polaris and Arcturus.

In short, this single spot is a treasure trove of ancient history, art and architecture, sun, stars, calendars, Popes, and music (we heard an organist playing there the second time we visited). If I was a person planning a trip to Rome, I wouldn't want to miss this almost-hidden gem. The guidebooks that I saw barely granted it a footnote, yet it was one of the most engaging places that we visited in that city. Here's a few more photos of this incredible basilica before I sign off of this day's entry:

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Unschooling and Older Kids

This topic came up on a parenting board that I frequent - what does unschooling look like when your kids get older. I thought some folks who read this blog might also be interested in this topic. I used to really enjoy reading about people who had unschooling older kids in the 12 - 18 year old age range, and one day I turned around and I had one too!

So what does a day look like for an unschooling 12 year old?? There's the daily stuff - taking care of pets (guinea pigs, chickens, cats) and helping out around the house, kitchen, or garden. Today he had some robotics programming to do for our FLL Robotics Team, then we took a bike ride down to a local park where there was a big apple tree I wanted to gather apples from. While I was taking Asa to classes, he probably played some Spore, the big evolutionary computer game that about every tween and teen boy we know loves. It's such an interesting game concept that National Geographic did a documentary on it. A clip is here.
Some younger boys from the neighborhood came over in the afternoon, and he showed them (safely!) how to set leaves on fire with a magnifying glass. There's this little troupe of boys around here who love to come over. He plays Yu Gi Oh with them or pirates or swords or imaginary games, it's very cute to watch him interacting with these littler guys and having a good time with them. I told him I'd pay for him to go take the Red Cross babysitting course, he'd be a great babysitter and I said he should advertise that he "speaks Bionicle and Lego".

He and I walked down to the store together to get some stuff for dinner, and then while I was cooking he read the NY Times online to me. He's especially very interested in all the political stuff right now. In the afternoon, he had watched me fill out my ballot (Oregonians all vote by mail-in ballot)and discussed the ballot issues and candidates with me. He had read through the voter's pamphlet and was pointing out some of the candidates he liked. In the evening, he hung out with Wayne as he filled in his ballot as well. They lay by the fireplace and talked about the issues. Wayne and I had marked up our voter's pamphlets with our personal answers on ballot measures and candidates, so we discussed the ones we differed on and then he went on to finish up his voting. I love that Mackenzie feels like such a big part of the political process, from going to rallies to voting, he's been actively watching and reading about everything that's transpired in this amazing election year.

So that's one day in the life of a 12-year-old unschooler. Every day is different of course. We do karate together on some days, have robotics team meetings and practice on others. So much of his days now are up to him, what he wants to be interested and involved in. It's a bit weird for me to start taking these steps back as he moves more and more in his own directions without really asking for much input from me. It's also cool to watch as he matures and grows into a person I really like hanging out with and even talking politics with (I can't say that about everyone!)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Italy Day 3: Roma: Part 1: The Colossal Colosseum

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here
The plan for today was to get up early and go to the Colosseum as soon as it opened to avoid the tour-bus mobs... and I really wish that we had been able to do just that, but jet lag had other plans for us. I finally got to sleep around 4:00 am this morning, so getting up before 8:00 was not all that possible, and the kids were still asleep at that point as well. We finally made it down to the Colosseum just before 10:00 am, not bad for folks from the other side of the pond on the third day here in Rome. There were still plenty of people here, though not nearly as many as accumulate in the afternoons.
I would love to walk into this place and have it be totally empty. The impact of the structure itself is very weighty. Not just that the size and scale of it is impressive (it is!) but it has a feeling of heaviness to me, all camera-pointing people aside, there's no forgetting what went on here. Thinking of the people's lives made sacrifice here for sport, for religious intolerance, the deaths of magnificent and beautiful wild animals hunted down with no place to run. The pain and suffering laid down in this one spot on earth fills the air with almost a palpable sadness.
The big cross next to the arena is another reminder, and though the rest of the family I don't think was as affected as I was, I had a hard time moving past the emotions of the place. The family is used to this aspect of my personality, I was also the one who declined going in all of the dungeons and torture chambers of the castles in our last trip to Europe. There are things I just can't let myself think on too long, or it feels like the pain will not leave my own head.
Still, once I could move past all of that and just start looking around, I did find the architecture of the place fascinating. The brickwork and the supporting arches, the sunlight slanting in on the ancient stones.
Mackenzie was a great tour guide, telling us all that he remembered of the history of the place, the gladiators, where Caesar would've sat, what the configuration of the underground areas was like with their pulley-drawn elevators and passages. According to what we heard, they are going to attempt a full restoration of the Colosseum, and indeed there is part of the floor on one end, extending over the underground portions. It would really be something to see the place restored to its former size and grandeur, yet I think maybe something would be lost, too. I'm glad we got the opportunity to see it the way it is right now.
When we finally exited the structure, we walked around to the eastern side. That's when the scale of the building really becomes impressive, since much more of the original facade is intact on that side. It's simply huge from this angle. Here's a few more images from the Colosseum before we move away from here:

I will post the rest of our third day in the next installment! Coming up: the incredible Santa Maria degli Angeli, Roma's most fascinating, unique, and interesting Cathedral.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Our New FLL Robotics Team Blog

We've been up and programming (not to mention building, researching, and planning) with this year's FLL Robotics team. The team has chosen their new name: Veni, Vidi, Roboti (I came, I saw, I built a robot) and I've got a new blog up for the team with some photos and video of one of the challenges we build from the Mayan Adventure NXT book this summer. I'll be adding more as the team progresses into this year's Climate Challenge season.

Political Football

So there we were as a family, clustered around the screen, rooting for the home team. Yelling at a good hit, clutching our heads when we were on the defensive... Yeah, those political debates are doozies....

Seriously. Our family takes politics seriously. We have discussions around the dinner table, over breakfast and tea and cards and anywhere else we happen to be. We email each other commentaries or funny spoofs (Tina Fey's Sarah Palin is a big hit around here: "We're going to ask ourselves what a Maverick would do in this situation, and then ya know, we'll do that.") and of course stay up to watch the debates, the post-debate coverage, and the pundits and pickers-over afterwards. In a time when political apathy has been the norm among young people for so long, it's exciting that not only young voters, but those too young to vote are so interested in this election and in the political process.

Jody writes about her experience already voting with her son. We have to wait a few more days until our ballots arrive, but we've been reading through the voter's pamphlet already. Mackenzie told me he wants to watch me vote for Obama, a historic occasion by anyone's measurement. But beyond the history in the making, he knows my reasons for choosing candidates, and not just the Big Cheese for Prez candidates either, but judges and representatives and our own very tight mayoral race, which will have a huge influence on the direction of our city in the next few years (we have one candidate who is openly for sprawl and development over any kind of environmental sanity). It will be a moment to remember all of his life, the first time he became involved in the political decision-making that is the cornerstone of our country's existence. It makes all of that reading about the American Revolution come to life when you exercise that right to vote.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Italy Day 2: Roma: Paths of the Ancients

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here
What an amazing day, about twelve hours of walking around and my feet are actually a bit sore. This morning we walked down to the Piazza Venezia with the gorgeous towering building with the statues of chariots on top, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Inside was a military museum, which we browsed through. Along the way, we stopped to watch a traffic cop in action on this amazingly chaotic multi-way intersection. It was like watching an orchestra conductor in the middle of a big symphony. We loved how he had everything from horses and carriages to the scooter mob to big buses to wave on through.

From there, we headed off to the Colosseum, but it was totally mobbed, so we diverted to the Palatine Hill. Near the Colosseum, Asa bought a bright green parasol, which she would end up carrying everywhere and loved dearly. Since she sunburns easily, that was a great purchase for her. I could've spent all day on the Palatino among the ruins and the cyprus trees. It was so peaceful, especially after the constant roar of Roma's traffic. There are so many different structures standing up here, from houses to athletic courts, things were built here then torn down and built over, repeatedly over the centuries.

From there we walked down the side of the hill to the Fora Romana and all of the amazing ruins there. One of the buildings there that was the most interesting was a church they built right onto a temple. This kind of recycling was common in ancient Rome. The Pantheon used to be a Roman temple, the marble from the Colisseum was carted off to use in other structures. Everything gets turned into something else, used for something else, or built over the top of. Of course, the kids were really enthralled with this little flourescent-spotted lizards that lived among the ruins, and we spent a good deal of time trying to catch one (they're much more devious than the blue-bellies that I have no trouble capturing back home), but at least I got a photo.

The kids enjoyed just walking among the ruins, and Mackenzie was especially taken with the fact that Julius Caesar's tomb is right there in the Forum Romanum, in a small stone hut. We stood there for quite awhile with sunlight streaming in upon the gravesite. It's one thing to read about Roman history, it's another thing to stand right there in the middle of where it all happened. Though the ruins are impressive, they're so...well...ruinous (and have been since before Alaric sacked the place), that it's hard to imagine what many of the buildings originally looked like. But to think that you're standing right next to the remains of Julius Caesar, I guess that makes it all a bit more real.

I think my favorite part of the Forum was probably the Temple of the Vestal Virgins. The reflective ponds are overgrown, and some of the statues are headless, but there's a peaceful, gardenlike feeling there and you can imagine how it might've looked in its day. Its overgrown with wild roses and asters.

On the way back to the apartment, we bought groceries at the nearest store on the way home. It's very different there from the big-box model of grocery stores that are more common in the U.S. The grocery stores in Roma have small storefronts, and then inside are like a little warren of rooms. One room is fruits and veggies, another room is crackers and cookies, another is the meat and cheeses, etc. You go through them in order, one leading to the next, and you pop out at the cash register, and when you exit the building, you're just next door to where you started.

At the apartment, it was time for dinner and a short nap. That's the nice thing about being really close to everything, since after dinner we took a stroll to the Trevi fountain, which is really pretty at night, and we got some gelato on the way back. The gelato place right around the corner from our apartment is wonderful, handmaking the gelato right there. They also have a small adorable fluffy dog that hangs out behind the counter, that Asa of course got to pet. Mackenzie cracked me up at the Trevi fountain by tossing his coin so enthusiastically over his shoulder that it bounced off an upper ledge and nearly hit him in the back of the head. Asa stood with her coin clutched in her hands and her eyes shut tight with such concentration that I could practically see her visualizing her farm with its stable of horses and 83 small fluffy dogs.

The Language Bug Bites

Yes, I'm still working on the next installment of my Italy journal, but I'll interrupt that for a moment with a bit of the present. It seems that while the kids had previously understood in the abstract sense that speaking another language was A Good Thing, it was not until we spent almost a month in a country where English was not the major language that they really got it. There were many times in Italy when I was the only one who could communicate fully, although both of the kids learned enough Italian to say some basics - hi, bye, please, thanks, good evening, how are you? etc. and this got them lots of smiles and affection from many people there. Personally, I think it's a must when you travel to a country to at least be able to do this much - the little polite words that let people know that you are in their country, not some tourist Disneyland extension of America.

Although most people in the big cities spoke at least a very reasonable amount of English, it wasn't necessarily that way in the smaller towns and rural areas that we passed through, especially while biking. So the kids saw first-hand that the time I had put in learning to at least communicate in my rudimentary Italian was really important. There were at least a couple times that it was actually vital to us either discovering where we actually were, or where we needed to be going.

So now that we're back, the entire rest of the family has gotten the language bug. Asa has decided she needs to learn French, and Wayne and Mackenzie are ready to tackle the much-more-practical Spanish. Fortunately for us, our library has a very good foreign language learning section (from which I derived all of my Italian language resources, I even read "A Friend for Dragon" and other kids books in Italian while I was learning, I'm struggling through the first Harry Potter book right now). We also have a French-speaking family in our neighborhood, whom we've been friends with for years, and many Spanish speakers (as well as my ever-helpful Mario, who I've been peppering with my Italian questions). So the kids are planning to hit these folks up for help and conversation.

When I was in high school and college, I knew in a vague way that it was a good idea to learn a foreign language, not to mention a requirement for graduation. But the fact that I didn't choose Spanish (I took Latin and French) shows how poorly I understood either the relevance or the necessity of such a thing. I'm glad that we could show the kids by example how to be good world citizens, how to walk gently into another culture instead of carrying your own like a banner to plant, and how important language is to communicating with people who live in different places around the world. I'm excited to revive my French and re-learn alongside Asa, and maybe pick up some Spanish along the way with the boys as well. If we ever make it back to Europe, we'll be well set for the Romance languages at least!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Italy Day One: Roma at Last!

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of diary entries and photos from our trip to Italy this fall. You can see all the journal entries here

September 15, 2008: Roma

As I'm writing this, the bells of all the churches in our area of town are ringing. We have our windows open and it's pleasantly warm with a breeze. The trip over was insane, with the flight across the U.S., then the flight to Roma, customs & immigration was fortunately a snap, but then we had to figure out how to get us and all of our bags into the city. While we were deliberating the merits of trains, busses, and cabs, the kids literally fell asleep on the table of a cafe in the airport. We finally decided to check our big luggage (containing the bikes) at the airport's bag check and leave them there for the week. Then we just took a train into town and a cab ride to our apartment.

When we got there, turned out onto the street with our luggage, the person we were supposed to meet was nowhere to be seen. My first opportunity to try out my Italian, as I managed to find out who I needed to contact from someone else who lives in the building and we met the apartment owners and they showed us the place. I'm immediately glad I took the time to learn some of the language as the apartment owner spoke about as much English as I do Italian. Between the two of us, we managed to figure out enough words to communicate everything just fine though. It's absolutely perfect, with a nice little kitchen and three beds. Mackenzie managed to lock himself in the bathroom and it took awhile to figure out how to flush the toilet (inconspicuous button, high up on the wall), but it's all great.

The kids took a nap, but we were afraid to let them totally go to sleep for very long, being as then they'd be up all night. So we got them up and tried to get them moving again. It's not easy! With Asa's permission, I post this photo of "the face of jet lag". However, by the time we'd gotten out the door and walked to some fountains, all was well and she was skipping all over the place, her usually spright-like self again. Note: when combating incipient jet lag in children, a little gelato goes a long way!

Today we walked down to Piazza Navona with its three great fountains (unfortunately the Fontana di Quattro Fiumi, or fountain of the four rivers is under construction and was turned off) and ate gelato on the piazza. Mackenzie especially liked the fountain with Poseidon (of course, he is in heaven in this city of reverence for the ancient myths!), then strolled to the Area Sacra dell'Argentina, some of the oldest Roman ruins in the city. Four temples were discovered here in the 1920's, the oldest dating from the 3rd century B.C. The block containing the temples is also a cat sanctuary, run on donations. The Roman ruins here are literally covered in cats, and the kids took a lot of photos of them. Here's one of mine:

So far we've been amazed by the trafficin this city, especially the bold scooter drivers who all weave through the cars to amass at the front of each stoplight, then zoom off in a big pack at the changing of the light. Lanes, crosswalks, lights, etc. seem to be more fluidly interpreted here than in the U.S. but it all flows along in a kind of organized chaos.

Walking back to the apartment, we came upon this enormous and ancient building with incredible archwork in the bricks supporting the massive structure. From the back of it, I wasn't quite sure what it was but as we got around the front we discovered it was the Pantheon. I had no idea we were so close, but it's about a block from our apartment. I'm glad we discovered it this way, kind of sneaking up on it from behind, marveling at the structure before even knowing what it was. I can't wait to go inside.

8:00 pm

And now another treat, a thunderstorm and torrential downpour on the little piazza beneath our window. My laundry (hanging outside the bathroom window on a rack) got not only soaked but filthy from water pouring off of dirty awnings on the floors above. Washing time again, I guess. The lightning has been crackling almost above our heads with the closest thunder coming just a second away. Very impressive weather, and we're having fun watching the scurrying pedestrians with umbrellas below.

Italy Prologue: Packing

First installment from my journals from our trip to Italy. Note that in my journals, I've used the Italian names for cities and towns (Rome is Roma, Florence is Firenze)

September 13, 2008

We're all packed up and ready to go. In the four big black suitcases are the tandem bikes, dismantled by Wayne and packed away neatly. He spent this week sewing little flannel cases for all the tubes so they don't get all bashed up, and packing his "MacGyver kit" with duct tape, quick ties, vecro, tools, spokes, tubes, etc. for fixing any mishaps on the road.

In the two small carry-on suitcases are all of the clothes and necessities for all four of us for three weeks. I'm very impressed that we managed to pare down our packing to half of a carry-on apiece. Rick Steves with his one carry-on used to look downright spartan to me, but the more we've traveled over the years, the more we've appreciated that the lighter you travel, the easier it is. So we've tried to get as much quick-drying ultra-light clothing as possible and we will plan on rewashing everything from underwear to shirts on a near-daily basis. Since we already have the big and heavy (50 pounds apiece) suitcases carrying the bikes and bike trailers, paring everything else down to a minimum is a necessity. In my backpack are my Italian dictionary, my camera and lens, a book to read on the plane, my MP3 player, and this journal.

This week, the to-do list has been never-ending. Trying to hand over our household and the care of its 15 animals is not an easy task. Fortunately, my friend's parents are visiting and will be staying in our house, that should make our kitties much happier. I'm worried about Patches, the cat everyone calls "my dog" because she follows me around like a puppy. She's so attached to me, I worry that she'll run away. So I took her to get micro-chipped this week. The kittens are already chipped and Noggin my old guy is a veteran of our travels and has never disappeared on us. Still, he took to sitting on our luggage, in the house and in the car, I know he knows we're going. I will miss all of our critters so much!

Our flight leaves tomorrow morning from Portland at 7:15 am. We've been planning this for so long, and now the time has come to go and do it. Andiamo! (let's go).

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Home Again

We're back home, semi-coherent at best. Having gotten approximately seven hours of sleep in the last 48 hours, I'm just about shattered and am going to kick off to bed soon. Last night I went to sleep pretty easily, but then woke at 1:30. Just as I was knocking back off asleep at 4:00 am, the kids woke up. {sigh}. Jet lag sucks. Next time I swear I'm going to try the melatonin thing.

But, our trip was just wonderful. Rome, the biking, Tuscany, Firenze (Florence), Siena, Pisa, the Cinque Terra, all just marvelous. Well worth the jet lag and then some. I journaled every day we were there, and took about 3,500 photographs, so I decided I will just type in my journal entries here along with photos as I sort through them. So I can share our journey in a time-delayed fashion, since we didn't bring a laptop along to blog along the way.

So after two days back in Oregon, here's just a few observations about things I really loved about Italy and things I missed about home:


The train system. Totally amazing. No doubt about it, the US needs to be moving in this direction. The trains were on time, fast, smooth, efficient, easy to get tickets for, and very reasonably priced. Even the Eurostar, which we splurged on for our last leg of the journey only cost us 80 Euro for our whole family from Florence to Rome (and at 155 mph as clocked by our GPS, it was worth it for the "wow" factor!)


Free toilets and drinking fountains. Toilets cost as much as one Euro per person (making a pee stop for a family of four into an almost $6.00 affair with the exchange rate what it is)! Drinking fountains are almost non-existant except some spigots in the piazzas.


Italian drivers were the epitome of courtesy to us as we were cycling. Actually, I love the whole way that traffic flows seamlessly there with the drivers aware of what others are doing around them. It might look chaotic at first to an American eye, but it makes total sense. In 165 miles of biking, we never had a driver be anything but polite to us.


Roads without traffic. Other than the dirt backroads that we took, most roads had far more cars on them than rural roads here.


Fresh local produce everywhere. The nectarines were to die for - right off the tree and so ripe.


Real breakfast. I can't exist on a croissant and black coffee, especially not when biking four hours a day!


The agriculture integrated into every little nook and cranny. Kitchen gardens, even in front of apartment buildings with huge trellises of tomatoes and rows of herbs and peppers. Fence lines covered with grape vines. Olive trees everywhere.


Trees in the city. The cities there are very densely populated, which makes them compact and very easily walkable, which is great! But I missed the trees that cover our town. Coming back, our city just looked so incredibly lush and green and lovely, especially now that many trees are starting to turn.

All in all, it was hard to come back, but I was looking forward to it as well. Italy is a lovely country with warm and friendly people and gorgeous scenery, history, and culture. I hope to return some day, for sure. But we stayed just enough time to start getting homesick and I'm glad to be back with our garden and animals and friends here too.