Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
This is the newest entry in a (short, but growing) series of letters from Flat Hailey to her lovely best friend, Hailey. (If you aren’t familiar with the Flat Stanley series, you are missing out on awesome geography and cultural snapshots for kids!)
Once again, you bundled me up in a manila envelope to ship me around the world. While I love getting to visit ancient ruins, beautiful shorelines and see all the amazing sites the world has to offer, I do have to say that envelope-travel isn’t that fun. For a few weeks, all I see is a haze of brown and I get jiggled all over the place. Sometimes I even feel like I am flying! Do you think the mailman throws my envelope? But, in the end, the less than stellar travel is worth it so that I can help you learn about lots of cool places.
This round of travel was centered in southern Europe. I started my travels in Rome, where I am afraid I missed the whole first day of touring, as my guide forgot me in her carry-on, so I spent the day resting up at the hotel so that I’d have lots of energy the following day.
Once I finally made it out of the hotel, I got to see some spectacular sights, including the Vatican City, where I discovered that the guards wear some awesome yellow and blue pants that look like they are made of ribbons. I wonder if we should start wearing those in American. It is a pretty fun look! (It’s a good thing they had big spears with them, otherwise I don’t think they would have made for very scary guards.) At the Vatican, I also got to walk through the huge museum system and then visit the enormous St. Peter’s Basilica. The church is so huge that when I was inside, I felt like I was the size of an ant!
A trip to Rome wouldn’t be complete without visiting the ancient sites as well, so I next asked my guide to take me to the Roman Forum and Coliseum. I had to fight my way into the Colisuem! As you can see, I was stopped by some gladiators who wanted a battle; they had full outfits of armor and giant swords. But, luckily, I convinced them that I was just Flat Hailey, on an adventure to see the world, so they let me pass. Thank goodness!
Next up on my travel agenda was to head south: Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. I was fascinated with the ruins at Pompeii. It is amazing how big the volcano, Mount Vesuvius is. And, it sits so close to the city! I think I would be a little afraid to live there. But, it is a beautiful mountain and easy to see why it’s eruption caused such a problem all those centuries ago. After walking around the ruins in the hot sun all morning, I thought lunch and some relaxing at the beach was a good way to spend the afternoon. Lots of pasta later, I strolled along the pebbly seashore, taking in the sunshine and blue skies. Beautiful!
Having enough of the Rome area, I decided it would be best to head north, so I asked my guide to buy us train tickets for Florence. I loved Florence! In the center of the city is a beautiful church, but I was too tired to climb the million and a half stairs to the top of the Duomo. One of the most exciting things in Florence though was the adorable little car we rented to drive around the countryside. We got a cute little red Fiat 500 that was made for people my size. (My guides definitely had to curl up their long legs to fit in!) As we drove around outside the city, I couldn’t believe how narrow the lanes were. Our car was tiny, but there were times I could have reached out and touched the wall next to the road. Tiny! But it was fun to tootle around, visiting churches and olive orchards and grape vineyards in the classic car. (I even rode on the hood for a while!)
My guides spent a day out at Pisa, which I went along for, but because it was raining, I decided to stay on the bus. Because absolutely no bags are allowed inside the Leaning Tower of Pisa (including purses!), they were worried I’d get ruined in the rain. I’m sad to have missed the tower, but glad I’m in one piece to continue my travels.
Italy was great, but it wasn’t the last stop on my tour of southern Europe. With Rome, Pompeii and Florence under my belt, it was off to Athens, Greece. I only had a couple of days in the capital city, but I loved getting to see the Temple of Zeus and the Acropolis. I even got to sit in the exact seats were Greek comedies and tragedies were acted out. Amazing! One thing I learned while in Athens was that all of those white, marble statues of the gods and goddesses that we see in photographs were actually painted in bright colors! Whenever we see them, they are a gleaming white, but hundreds of years ago they were fully colored. I loved seeing the recreations of what they would have looked like when they were created.
But alas, all good things must come to an end and that includes my little vacation. I’m now back in Chengdu, getting my envelope packed to come back to Idaho to tell you more of my travel tales. I’ll be in the mail on Wednesday, so expect me home the first week of November. I can’t wait to see you soon, Hailey! Thank you again for sending me off to see the world. I love it, but I will always come back to you.
Flat Hailey (World Traveler Extraordinaire)
To begin with, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to the woman sitting in row 09, seat C on the KLM flight from Athens to Amsterdam last week. Without her sharing her lovely germs with me, I’d be at work doing my CLO thing, rather than curled up in my pajamas, under a blanket, on my couch, coughing up a lung. I’d suggest raising a toast to her, but considering this is the same woman who waited all of five minutes after takeoff before opening her purse and hauling out multiple travel-size shampoo bottles filled with alcohol and lined them up on her lap tray, I’d say less drinking in her name would be for the best.
I like Argentinians. My brother spent two years in Argentina, and for the most part, they treated him well. When we went to visit, we enjoyed dinner with a lovely Argentinian family in their humble abode and felt welcomed by all of his friends. (I’m serious when I say humble. This home was made of construction site quality plastic wrap. As we sat on benches eating our meal with the family, a litter of adorable puppies crawled in and out of the house, between the plastic and the dirt ground.) I hadn’t yet met an Argentinian I didn’t like…until Daniel.
From the time I was in middle school, I’ve loved tales of Pompeii and have always been fascinated by what it must have been like to see Mount Vesuvius erupt, so needless to say, I was especially excited for our daytrip out of Rome to see the mountain and visit the ruins. Nothing could dampen my giddiness at walking through history that morning. Or so I thought. Then, I met the chaos that is Daniel from Argentina.
Thad and I were part of a three-person tour group. Daniel was our third. Daniel spoke very little English, but it was no problem, as our tour guide spoke both English and Spanish, but I should have known it was going to be a long day when the van hadn’t even pulled away from the hotel before Daniel was complaining. His first (of many!) complaints for the day was about the headrest of the seat in front of him. Apparently, it was too high and he couldn’t see out the front window well, but then when Roberta, our tour guide, tried to take it off, he hollered at her to stop because she was going to break it.
But whatever…it was early. I figured this odd duck of a companion was just not an early bird.
Things did not get better. Throughout the morning, whenever Roberta would turn to give us some information about an area we were passing or just to make a passing comment, Daniel would immediately demand that she translate everything she just said into Spanish. Which, to her credit, she was doing with the cultural and historical facts, but if I asked about a restroom, that hardly needed translated for everyone! Daniel was terrified of missing out on something, even something as mundane as asking about a road sign we passed.
Once we reached Pompeii, Roberta handed us off to Hector at the site of the ruins. Hector was this amazing older man who spoke a handful of languages and had served as a guide to Pompeii for twenty years. We quickly bought our tickets and headed up the steep stone path to the entrance of the ancient city. Before we had even made it to the top, Daniel stopped Hector to complain about the language issue. We had not been at the site for more than ten minute and Daniel was yelling (not an exaggeration!) at Hector, saying he had paid for this tour and expected it to be in Spanish. He went off about how Hector was talking to us for four minutes in English and him for only two in Spanish, so he thought he was being ripped off. I felt a bit like we were watching the eruption of the volcano that lurked just a few miles from where we stood. It got awkward!
Finally, Thad had me tell Hector to just do the tour in Spanish and then I translated the gist for Thad. (I must admit, I learned some great new Spanish vocabulary about volcanoes and Pompeii!) Hector would still jump back and forth between languages, but with me helping to translate, it took a lot of pressure of him because Daniel was just a jerk.
The, as Hector was doing his best to make Daniel happy, Daniel spent the bulk of his morning hitting on our main guide, Roberta. He kept regaling her with stories of other places he had been and forcing her to scan through hundreds of pictures on his iPad- all while we wandered the remains of Pompeii! Several times, Hector had to holler at Daniel to get his attention, like a parent would do to a misbehaving child. Again, awkward!
The day didn’t end there though. Daniel continued to be a first rate ass the entire day. A few of his other shining moments include:
*Forcing the driver to stop multiple times along the narrow road that runs along the Amalfi Coast. Daniel insisted on getting the perfect iPad photo, regardless of the safety of the driver, guide or himself. Several astoundingly beautiful photo-ops were declared “ugly” and we would have to wind up the mountain a few more curves and try again. Ridiculous.
*Constantly hitting on Roberta, our guide, who was a good twenty years younger than him. The woman was as graceful as possible in the situation, but Daniel was just not getting a clue. At one point, he expressed interest in not returning to Rome for the night, but rather staying in Pompeii to hike Mount Vesuvius the following day. Roberta and I jumped on board with that one right away, telling him what a great idea it would be. I was doing it to get a quiet ride home. She was doing it to avoid another date proposal.
*Wanting to have a long conversation with Thad about Syria and chemical weapons, but only knowing about eight words of English, which made me the translator of this very awkward discussion, as he wanted to know why America didn’t just take care of the problem, why Britain didn’t like America anymore and what were WE going to do about it? (It was at this point in the trip that I was really wishing I had some FSI Spanish! While FSI may leave you totally unprepared to order lunch from a street vendor or ask for directions to a dry cleaner, it prepares you well for discussions on 8-party trade talks and nuclear disarmament options. Armas quimicas would definitely have come up in a xiao baogao, I’m sure!)
*And my favorite of the day: Daniel announcing that the worst part of Argentina is the Argentinians. At this point, I thought I must have totally misunderstood our conversation earlier about where we each were from, because he went off on how Dominicans are so much better than Argentinians. I finally leaned over and asked, “But, aren’t you from Argentina?” And yup, sure enough, he’s from Buenos Aires.
Our day with Daniel was more than a little annoying, as he really was a terrible human being, but it looked up when he finally decided he *would* stay in Pompeii to hike the mountain the next day. With no efforts to change his mind, Roberta quickly found him a hotel for the night and we dropped him off before he could questions the decision, making our three hour trip back to Rome much more pleasant than it would have been otherwise.
So no, Daniel, Argentinians are not the worst part of Argentina. You are. Go back there. Stay there. Your behavior is an embarrassment to your beautiful country.
*Photo credit: Most photos are courtesy of Thad Ross
Over the years, I’ve learned it is best not to be too judgmental of the decisions others make, as life takes us all in unexpected directions and it is hard to anticipate one’s reaction to a given situation until the waves of change are crashing. There was a time when I would have put money on the fact that I would never have a tattoo. I now have three, and can’t promise a fourth isn’t waiting in the wings. At one point in my life, I would have rambled on about how a bad haircut isn’t that big of a deal; it’s just hair after all. It grows out. Then, I joined Peace Corps, moved to western China and had a hairstylist who swore he had worked on blonde hair before bleach my head a glowing white. I wasn’t nearly as stoic about bad hair decisions as I had thought I would be.
But, over dinner at an outdoor café in Florence, Thad and I pinky swore that on our trip to Pisa the next day, there would be absolutely no “holding the tower up” shots. It’s overdone. It’s not unique. It’s a bit ridiculous.
Apparently, we were the *only* ones who felt this way.
From the time we stepped foot on the piazza that holds the Church of Miracles and the Leaning Tower, we were surrounding by tourists, posing in the infamous “holding the tower up” shot. They lined the walkway leading to the tower. They surrounded the tower, some holding it up and other pushing it over. They even clamored over the chains, bypassing the signs that said “stay off the grass” to get their coveted shot. And while we weren’t after the in-demand camera angle that was so desired, Thad did have a great time documenting the tourists-turned-architectural bulwarks.
And then came the moment that I swore would never come. I did the shot.
Now, before you chuckle and think me a hypocrite for giggling at everyone else, I must say that my circumstances were very different, not in the least because I am holding the tower up from the *inside.* You see, I have this terrible fear of heights, which only seems to worsen with age. (Is it the knowledge of my own mortality that pushes me farther into the world of acrophobia or merely my own wimpiness gaining ground?) The Leaning Tower of Pisa is tall (although not as tall as the Duomo in Florence, which I mostly scaled the day before) and once inside, the lean is felt much more prominently than I expected. As we curled up and around the inside walls of the tower, gaining height with each tilting step, my heart raced faster and faster. I quickly skittered by the cell-like windows that occasionally popped up along the wall, not needing a confirmation of my ever-growing distance from the ground below. Finally, we popped out on a platform, where I was happy to know I’d at least reached the pinnacle of my ascent, only to be told to keep moving by the guard, on what is apparently just an external landing, with the top of the tower still being several more flights of steps above. This last stretch of stairway was tighter than before and now that I had glimpsed the outside world, I was ready to be done. But, with just a few more stairs to go, I couldn’t turn away and head back down, even though the voice in my head was screaming at me to do just that. While I wasn’t quite ready to bail on the whole operation, I was definitely feeling the fear building, so when Thad, who was behind me and yielding the camera, told me to stop and turn for a photo, there was no way I could do that without something to hold on to, but with no handrails in sight, that meant using the wall to steady myself.
Which, as it turns out, looks exactly like I am doing the “hold up the tower” pose!
I’m not! I may have a few tattoos and care about my hair more than I had previously thought, but I did not, I repeat, DID NOT do the “holding up the tower” pose!
So, once again, it appears my jump to judgment betrays me yet another time. I didn’t intend to do it. I swore I wouldn’t do it. In the end, I kinda’ did it.
*Photo credit: Most photos are courtesy of Thad Ross
by Shel Silverstein
A piece of sky
Broke off and fell
Through the crack in the ceiling
Right into my soup,
I really must state
That I usually hate
Lentil soup, but I ate
(A bit like plaster),
But so delicious, goodness sake–
I could have eaten a lentil-soup lake.
It’s amazing the difference
A bit of sky can make.
With the wise words of this blog’s muse in mind, I’ll be on a writing hiatus for the next two weeks. Chengdu has been gray for days (and weeks!) on end now, so it is time to escape to a bit of sunshine and Old World beauty. This blogger is off to explore the sidewalks of Italy and Greece, but will return in October with a heart (and head!) full of tales to tell.
Often, life is depicted as a horizontal line, starting at birth and proceeding on a linear course. History teachers love timelines, as they lay out events in an easily understandable chronological order. Epic battles are waged, empires rise and fall, great men and women leave their various marks, science and technology march forward and the knowledge of the world expands while the physical distance seems to shrink, all on these straight edges. (In school, I loved color coding my timelines. Pink could represent births and deaths, purple could be starts and ends to wars, green could mark social milestones, etc. History, while so cruel at times, can be so pretty!)
And yet, the older I get, the more time seems to fold back on itself, rather than running along smoothly from point A to point B. These folds tend to be minor, yet they pop up again and again. (Imagine them to be the crow’s feet around the eyes of the cosmic world. Inconsequential, but here to stay.)
For example, I remember sitting in my 8th grade geography class, wondering why Mr. Shake thought we needed to know the countries and capitals of the world. We’re from Idaho, after all! As we studied each region, we were given a quiz over those political designations; I hated studying for those tests. As a thirteen year old, I thought it was utter rubbish. I recall having a particularly difficult time on the “Americas” unit test. Yes, there are some freebies in there- Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala, Panama City is the capital of Panama and Belize City is the capital of Belize. (Or so it was! When I wanted to push for a Caribbean post as being high on Thad’s most recent Foreign Service bid list this spring, I quickly realized Belize up and moved their capital to Belmopan. That’ll throw a monkey wrench in the globe-makers plans!) But not all of those Latin and South American countries make it so easy on 8th graders. For the life of me, I could not keep Haiti and the Dominican Republic straight. How was I to know which got the tiny part of the island and which took the lion’s share of land? And their capitals? I still remember memorizing that by knowing the Dominican Republic matched is capital- both having two words, leaving Haiti and Port-a-Prince as the “other.”
Jump ahead six years to my sophomore year of college and suddenly, there is no doubt in my mind which part of Hispaniola was Spanish-speaking and which went the French route. Why? Because I was boarding a plane to spend winter semester in the Spanish-speaking half of what seemed like the other side of the world to my junior high self. Suddenly, Mr. Shake’s geography class wasn’t a bunch of busy work! (Although, much like with my color-coded timelines, I also enjoyed coloring the maps we created for each region of the world. The hardest part was that no two touching countries could be the same color, meaning he wanted us to stick with basic [read: boring] color choices- red, green, yellow, orange, etc. Really though, I wanted to do all of Africa in various shades of pink and purple- maroon, raspberry, grape, violet, orchid, magenta. I could easily come up with enough hues to fill in all fifty-four nations without ever having two of the same shade touch. But no. Primary and secondary colors it was.)
And then there was sixth grade. (I’ve debated back and forth in my head for a week now about whether this was sixth or seventh grade. I really can’t decide!) I joined an after school team called OMSI that would enter the spring competition in northern Idaho. I know there were different sections, possibly some math and science related options, but I quickly signed up for the humanities-based project, as even then letters always made me happier than numbers. Our project for the competition was to write and act out a play about the final days of Pompeii. I am sure there were very specific rules about timing and major points that had to be touched upon, but decades (what?! really!?) later, those escape me. What I do remember is donning a bed sheet-toga and a head of perfectly curled spiral ringlets. That year, I read every book in the Wilson Middle School library about Pompeii and volcanoes and Greek history. I was obsessed with those photos that show the casts made by bodies buried in ash as people fled to the sea.
Now, a few more years down the road (it’s best not to give an actual count this far out!), I’m about to experience another cosmic crow’s feet event. Yesterday, Thad booked plane tickets for our anniversary trip- to Italy and Greece! We’ll be spending just under two weeks touring Rome, the Vatican, Florence and Athens. And of course, no inaugural trip to the Boot would be complete without spending a day wandering the ruins of Pompeii. (I’m guessing bed sheet togas and heavily hair-sprayed ringlets are discouraged.)
Straight lines are easy to draw and give a good glimpse into a given era, but in reality, life is more Mobius strip than line segment.