Family Vacation

Iceland through the eyes of my eight year-old niece

Iceland through the eyes of my eight year-old niece

Iceland was one of those trips I set my mind to and willed company to follow. Thankfully, my brother was up for a very different kind of trip than his usual beach or city visit. And his daughter, my 8 year-old (now 9) niece. And finally my colleague and co-advisor from TGS. Somehow, our crew came together… different age groups, some strangers at first, novice and experienced travelers… and what transpired was truly enjoyable.

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Back on Home Turf: Day 202

Maui Sunset on New Year's Eve

Maui Sunset on New Year's Eve

I left Tokyo in the evening of November 17th...and then I arrived on the morning of November 17th after flying halfway across the world's most expansive ocean. Time travel can really trip you out, if you allow those thoughts to infiltrate your over-stimulated senses. I landed and immediately started making phone calls, thanks to the ridiculous concept that Hawai'i is a part of America (a concept I'll happily accept since it's ballin'.) Oh, the joys of making domestic calls and not worry about accessing the value of your phone call since each minute steals from you $3.00. For the first time since I found out about her engagement in September, I talked to my best friend about her upcoming wedding. It was grand.

Something that developed from this solo trip abroad was an intense willingness to chit-chat with anyone I could come in contact with: customs officers, check-in personnel, and the guy who arranges the pylons in the parking'body. I find great joy in identifying these things that have changed in me from May to November, and talking to strangers as if we're chums is one of them.

I hung out in the Honolulu airport for a few hours, smiling from ear to ear every time I could speak to an airport employee or grace my optics on a gawdy, hilarious Hawaiian shirt. And I was anxiously anticipating the coming reunion, that with my parents after six months apart. Not that I'm a Mama's girl or anything, but that length of time can certainly make you miss your parentals. It was only a 15 minute flight, flying with the trade winds and grazing over blue waters and white feathered waves, but it was hard to appreciate the beauty of my last lone flight on this journey because of my knocking knees and chattering choppers.

Descending the escalator of the terminal to see Mom's dancing feet was a thrill. There were a few double pulsed hugs and the adornment of the obligatory lei. I willingly soaked up every moment when someone wanted to do something for me. Usually I demand to carry my own weight and open my own doors, but I let Dad be the white knight to his heart's content.

I rode in the seat of honor, up front in a blinding white convertible, regurgitating stories non-stop and watching the street shoulders, amazed there were no entrepreneurs out selling their food and wares. I played my CDs purchased from the streets of Bangkok and showed off what finger and toe nails I was able to salvage from my fungal issue (delicious, eh?).

I looked around to observe the entire island of Maui. We weren't driving on a skyway or even at a high elevation, but as we looped around towards Maui's northwest coast, I could see the looming volcano and wrapping beaches for miles. Each time we drove throw a cut, fences and nets held back the settling crumbles of volcanic rock wanting to go with gravity. The drive reminded me of my bucket list plans to live on a beach for a year and solidified the idea that Hawai'i might have to be the place for such a beach-front lifestyle.

We had a time share condo in a building by the Kanapali beach where I took great pleasure in seeing the Clark household staples food groups: red wine, skim milk, chocolate, pretzels/nuts, and whole wheat bread. My mom didn't waste a second in making me a welcome back Bloody Mary, not that I enjoy this drink especially but because she was proud of her ever-so delicious Zing-Zang mix. After setting up my office on the patio with my computer my parents brought from home, I began showing photos from the most recent experiences. I could not organize my thoughts into digestible stories nor could I even stay with one photo album but jumped from safari shots in Africa to people poses in India. How does one start retelling a tale of epic proportions?

I kid you not, and I apologize for being graphic, but I had a beard of acne upon getting back to American soil. I was disgusted with myself, and Mom was more than willing to help me out with this issue by sending me on my way to the in-house spa. After briefly discussing my trip and recent trans-Pacific flight with the woman performing my intense facial, I completely passed out, unfortunately not feeling the soothing effects of the work but definitely benefiting from the extraction of African dust and sweat from Asia. It was a job that desperately needed to be done. Ick.

I lounged by the pool, read issues of my high school magazine, and called every friend I missed hearing. I adorned new clothing for the first time since...who knows when. And we hit up every type of food I had missed while out and about. Mexican was a speedy first stop, although, being out of the habit of carrying around my ID, I lacked adequate proof I was of age to imbibe any cold ones from Mexico. This happened not just once but just about every time we went out. Fortunately we stopped getting so adventurous and just started eating at the hotel, within running distance from the ID in our room.

Now, the Clark family isn't the most adventurous or active family. We have trouble doing anything that doesn't involve a tennis racquet, walking shoes, or a beach chair while on vacation. But one thing Mom organized for us to do, initiated by her own desire, was ziplining across the valleys of the volcano. And let me tell you, watching those two fling themselves around from ledge to ledge was entertaining to the point of stomach cramps. Each time one of them landed at the end point of one zipline, their feet would struggle to grab the landing, often resulting in a butt slide or Fred Flintstone twinkle toe moment. I video taped everything to laugh at time and time again. Our group loved the hilarity and couldn't believe this was all Mom's idea to fly around a volcano on wires.

The drive to and from the ziplines was reminiscent of the drive to the Serengeti in Tanzania, corrugated and highly pocked, which made the middle-agers wince and make one-liner jokes to their adventure companions. I love how people bond on these afternoon excursions; everyone wanting to prove they aren't the group party-pooper or dry spirit. It's hilarious. I volunteered to sit in the back, knowing from experience I don't normally spew when deprived of good air and sent airborne in the back of a motor vehicle.

The consensus of this Hawaiian experience in my mind was that it was surprisingly NOT hard to get back to the luxurious side of life. True, this fact shocked and actually scared me, that I had not be completely slanted towards the simple ways after four months of hard living (in Africa and Asia). However, I think this time coming home, I understood all too well that the world really is unfair, and that I've lived like this lushly since birth. Not that we lose Benjamins in the couch cushions and buy caviar for our Ritz crackers or anything, but we are comfortable in the American eye. I guess I looked at this change in lifestyle as a cultural experience. Just one more stop on the itinerary, and I looked at our family traditions with a fresh glance.

I awoke very late in the mornings due to jetlag, and I often felt uneasy as I opened my eyelids. Many times in Maui, I had the unsettling dream that I, along with my family and all who knew me, forgot what I had just accomplished: seven months of solo RTW travel. In these nightmares, I would have brief recollections of my experiences but would soon lose lucidity and go on living like I used to. I think I felt this because we stopped talking in such detail and with interest about my trip, but I battled those nightmares off by pulling out my computer yet again to reconnect with the images of my traveling past. Apparently, my subconscious never wants to forget my 2008 voyage. I don't blame it.

Rome on Two Wheels: Day 15

Scooters in Rome

Scooters in Rome

Every once in a while, parents forget how old their children truly are and all the times they’ve proven themselves responsible. After being denied the chance to experience a dance club in Florence or even a small pub in a Tuscan hill town, my brother, his wife and I (ages 27, 28 and 22 respectively) decided to embark on a side trip to the Eternal City for the weekend. It’s not to say my parents are hard to travel with. There’s just an unexplainable thrill in doing what would make your mother sweat a little. Ian, Allison and I walked only a few blocks down Via Cavour from the train station before deciding Vespas were essential. Scooting past the Coliseum, it was clear that this is the way to experience Rome. With one day in a city as tremendous as Rome, the only thing that beats the luxury of time with these buildings is flying past them, seeing them all within minutes, and knowing you’re joining the likes of Audrey Hepburn by partaking in this hair-rustling, tire-squealing activity.

St. Peter's

St. Peter's

We came all the way to Rome without hotel accommodations [on a Saturday night], so we parked, ordered beers at an alley eatery, and skimmed the guidebook for suggestions. Ian volunteered to scoot to the Colors Hotel by the Vatican in order to book our room, but when he didn’t return in an hour, we began twiddling our thumbs anxiously. I sat staring into the darkness of the summer dusk, realizing only after some time that Ian’s silhouette stood in front of me, his massive Marvin the Martian helmet sitting askew on his head.

When it began raining an hour earlier, the cobblestone streets became slick as ice, making it impossible for Ian to maneuver the scooter safely. Squeezing the brakes to avoid getting smacked by a bus, he flew over the handle bars and sprawled in the middle of a busy road flanking the Tiber River. The Lonely Planet Italy book he had between his feet, propped open by his alien toes, caught some incredible air and landed some yards away. The broken brake sliced a life line across his dirty palm. Buses and cars honking for Ian to fix his predicament, he scrambled to gather the guidebook and his unstrapped helmet (which flew off the other direction) only to forget that scooters don’t work like wave runners. He grabbed the throttle and twisted before his body sat atop the vehicle. Ian flew over the handle bars a second time, his bruises now certain to turn the color of the cobblestones.

At that moment when Ian appeared out of the midnight blue evening, I began laughing. His drenched clothing, the “I did something bad” childlike look on his face, his inability to sit normally on his now sensitive derriere, the entire retelling of his scooter incident, it all caused me some very happy crocodile tears. Not that I’m malicious towards my family members. For decades, I’ve loved finding the humor in my brother’s slapstick moments. Once dinner concluded and we successfully relocated to our hotel room without injury, we dedicated the night to numbing Ian’s travel wounds with Irish lager.

Ian, the Tourist

Ian, the Tourist

The next morning, Via del Corso, the Pantheon, the Piazza della Venezia...all at a speed of about 5 mph in the misty patches of rain. And then the Piazza Navona, where we witnessed in real life and time the 17th century rivalry between Bramante and Bernini. We returned the scooters, after I schmoozed with the local police to let us down a closed street, to find a nearby pub broadcasting the Roma-Catania final playoff game for the Schudetto. Unfortunately, a tie left the Roman fans unenthusiastic, and the bar cleaned out, that is except for three Americans, three Brits, and an odd Ukranian. Ian began the bonding over soccer, an experience he doesn't often get in America, and Allison was intrigued by the Ukranian's perception of America, his own life, and gypsies, of course.

Piazza Navona Lunch

Piazza Navona Lunch

Mom found out 16 months later our seemingly pleasant scooter experience in Rome was actually riddled with moments that would have made her gasp and squeal. Had we told her upon returning to our vacation rental outside of Florence, it would have been proof her worries were legitimate and we weren’t as responsible as we posed. Luckily, after 16 months time, she’d completely forgotten all the warnings she gave us for riding scooters, the “I told you so” reprimand completely avoided. Even in your twenties, it still feels rewarding to get away with a dangerously good time without getting your nose rubbed in it by your mother.

Death by Stick Shift: Day 06

For the last two years, I've had a reoccuring dream. I have just arrived in Florence, Italy with my parents in tow, and I can't recognize a single landmark. Highways in the sky suspended over modern buildings and massive tomato sculptures - sort of a 'paved paradise' situation which makes me cringe. Today's early morning bus boat through the Grand Canal next to a Grecian cruise ship was no big deal. Speaking with the train ticket seller in perfect Italian was cause for a mini 'cha-ching' motion. But to return to that city of concentrated culture and passion, one my heart would gladly withstand the greatest amount of hardship to be in, had a moment of a sweet release for me yet also one of over-waited deja-vu. My memory hardly lost a street corner over the past two longing years. The perfection of the moment also came with the realization that we had a perfect Tuscan villa to get to. It's cliche for a reason. But first we had to reach the driveway.

Stall...a little movement...stop sign...and stall...confusing street...hit a few pylons...a hideous/hilarious curse word or in the wrong way on a one way...stall...wrong turn...and finally, smoke billowing from under the hood of our 2009 Alfa Romeo. Dad's face grew as red as the Chianti of his dreams and his mouth became that of a sailor's. And when comedy or therapy couldn't help his 30 year rusty stick shift skills, he threw up his hands and flipped on the hazard lights.

Since Mom was busy burying her head in the backseat luggage, I very reluctantly got behind the wheel for the first time in a new country. Zooming past me were the weathered Florentine racers who enjoy testing your next move and leaving you to quiver in their dust. I was scared to the point of pre-scheduled vomitting and moments of terror that produced songs and humming from the depths of my most primal being.

When you can only expect failure from yourself but seem to slip by unharmed, it feels like pure joy while running through an active and unpredictable minefield. Once I escaped the pee-in-your-pants phase of Florentine traffic, I reached the organically lain backroads of Tuscany. Steadily crawling to each small town in second gear, I waited for the imminent, drunken fool to fly into my lane and send my Italian car flying into tree after olive tree. Foliage-covered death cliffs taunted me on one side throughout the country weave. But once I was no longer blocked in on all sides by Ferrari-red hot-blooded Kenevals, I began to enjoy my drive on the wild side. In fact, awe-inspiring views spread around us in 360•. I threatened the parents to encourage their enjoyment of the sights a-plenty because this drive, which was giving me crow's feet, needed to have some worthwhile benefit.

And with driving instructions only dictated from irrelevant starting points for us, the game plan was to use street signs and just smell our way there. After all that time searching on mapquest and identifying our little street on my phone map, it seemed like a do-able task, especially with the help of our palpable anticipation. Giorgio and Lizzi at a nearby bar had to ultimately steer us in the right direction after lending us a WC and our first Birra Morrettis.

Pure luck of our aimless wander and I stalled in front of Poggio al Pipi. It felt like the end of a relentless pilgrimmage, even though it included flying across the ocean, training and ferrying around Lake Como, and a €200 per night Venetian hotel from a National Lampoon movie. I'll skip over the obvious part about our patrons being gems with a darling bambino and a loveable little Dachshund. I'll also skip how perfect and authentic our villa turned out to be - surpassing the most lofty expectations with the charm of burning wood barbeques and 110 organically grown olive trees. I don't know how else to say, without using regurgitated and expected vocabulary, that whatever sense of Italy this place recalls, those moments are presently ours. I can only hope that the price we pay to live like a Tuscan allows us complete rights of every basil infused moment of this experience. I sauteed some vegetables as my parents chugged Italian beers and sopped up juicy olive oil with their crispy bread. I think the air of rural Tuscany brings out the full aromatic colors of garlic and basil.

Pages and pages scribed without a moment to rest my tired hand while others read up on their most recent Italian inquiries. And as I relish in the retrieval of my first (of many) obligatory foot massage, I can only believe we have interpreted the meanings of our own dolce vitas and lived them fully within these first few hours. Tuscany waits untainted and unaware we are here, and my laughable aspirations to run the gravel roads or imbibe the sweet, sun-ripened air of the morning still have an inch of possibility...mi scusi...a centimeter. Where's my Bella Tuscany book?

This Is How You Make Italy Ugly: Day 03

Mountains near Lake Como

Bellaggio, where are all the cruise ships? This city screams of elderly tourism and unfriendly locals. It may have been the crowd on our ferry over from the ever-pleasant Lenno - and I hate to be ungrateful - but it pains me that such a view, such mountain and lake air, such green and flowering beauty is witnessed and exploited by so many, like a young prodigal musician. Such visual noise and distraction causes the natural music of the Alps to be muted as I sit here on the boardwalk.

It's the view of my bedroom painting, and from now on, the experience of just looking at it will also be an audible one, bringing back memories of grandeur and unpleasantries. It seems one cloud is slowly growing from within, beginning a slow and steady reach toward my bench, like a flower toward the morning sun.

Ugh. I just witnessed the brutal homicide of a winged insect by an inquisitive finch. In his dance to impress me, he found the poor thing resting on the iron railing, without thinking, grabbing him completely in his beak and brought him to the gravel where his wings were ripped from his body. It sort of pleased me to find the tiniest smidgeon of nature and life in this city supposedly screaming with it. This is a Great Wall moment.

Where is my dormant passion, the flutter that feels nothing like indigestion but of utter joy. Tiny increments of hope arise more and more each day, and I hope they continue. But I worry the death of a student has produced the most unaware adult - at least temporarily. A little girl and a monster tulip - a good image, maybe I'm getting closer to my heart.

Unattainable Tuscany: Day 02

Lake Como Cruise

Purple teeth, full belly, numerous moments of complete contentment... Multiple times today, I worried I was dead inside. I had yet to feel the heavy weight on my heart that was supposed to come with my exit from the Western hemisphere. I was hardly nervous, a little apprehensive, but didn't feel any fluttering of the heart. I had no idea what this meant.

I do, however, know that I have felt many a deja-vu today when I thought of how close I was to Florence but couldn't get there yet. It's like so many of my dreams in the past two years; I don't recognize where I am, running in circles, unable to find the loveable sights of my memories.

I look forward to the heartfelt moment of realization that I am in the country of my heart's desire. The sights and lifestyle feel so right to every cell in my body, besides those of my gastro-intestinal tract since they've already purged themselves of their firsts tastes of Italy.

My dry hand scribbles the forced words out of my head, as my head lamp illuminates the blank slate. My journey has begun, and I can only concur that the lack of true understanding of this trip is only because of its lengthy duration. It's too much to fathom.

My furthered linguistic skills have yet to do me wrong here in Lago di Como. La vita e' dolce e bella e spero che stia sempre stessa.