The Malta Experience

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View From Valletta

A well kept secret, one of only a few mini countries in the world, and it is truly a wonderful place to visit.

Sacred, historically medieval, and beautiful, we arrived from Rome met the kids at “Popeye’s Village” for a rigorous round of miniature golf and it’s been non stop ever since.

How wonderful to see such a magnificent Island through the beautiful eyes of our progeny. 

We love their energy and all of the probing questions reminding me of my childhood, including the insatiable passion for ice cream. 
 

Bernie and Tiffany Home Schooling the girls around the world for a year is developmentally invaluable for them. 
Hands on Geography, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Language, Economics, Art, and Time Management, quite a course load.

 
It’s been said that you’ll be the same person in twenty years that you are today except for: 
“the people you meet and the books you read”. A side note is that Devin is reading, “The Brother’s Karamazov”  by Fyodor Dostoyevsky on this trip (obviously a Philosophy Major), you gotta love this kid.
 
On our visit to the Mdina Cathedral of St. Paul, amazing, Eleanore had the most numerous and complex theological questions, 
our own little inquisitor.
 

 
I predict that my four granddaughters will all be beautiful, articulate, and fascinating women.
 
To have the whole family together for this Thanksgiving is absolutely wonderful.
However it won’t be a Turkey this year, it will be lamb at the Golden Sands, Golden Bay, Malta
since we are in the Mediterranean: ” When in Rome “.
 

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Back Row Left to Right: Bernie, Devin, Scarlet, Tiffany, Brenda, Greg         Second Row: Eleanore and Grace

We’ve found the most important thing in life, is that you stop and get together sharing time with your loved ones wherever they may be.

Black Friday will be gold and white for myself and Brenda as we voliamo via Alitalia tomorrow to Vatican City, 
another mini country, for the weekend on our way home with a stop in London.
 
Happy Thanksgiving to All ! 
 
Ciao
R/ Greg and Brenda

 

Arrivederci to Sicily, Italy…for now

Thursday, November 17, is our last day in Balestrate, Sicily which is located in the Palermo Provinciale. We have spent 15 days in the ‘baglio’ (Italian courtyard farmhouse) which is surprisingly the longest that we have stayed in one place since starting our journey 2-1/2 months ago. We now have visited 4 countries (Portugal, Spain, Germany & Italy). Living out of suitcases with a relatively small allowance of space for each of us + school supplies has been challenging and exacerbated by the fact that we are acquiring more things to pack every time we visit a new place. Girls like to shop after all! As many of you know who have traveled, there are certainly no shortage of places to spend your money wherever you find yourself in the world. In order to maintain the delicate ‘balance’ and to avoid buying more suitcases to ‘lug’ our stuff around we have had to send items back home in every country so far. This would seem to be an easy task, right? Just go to the local post office, get some boxes, paste an address label on the box and off it goes! Not quite so simple as we have found out. The post office in Italy (Poste Italiane) has not been an exception and was actually the most challenging so far. We originally set out to find the nearest DHL service center after using the website ‘store finder’. In Germany, DHL (international package courier service) is now aligned with the German post office (Deutsche Post DHL) and we found it very easy and affordable to mail several packages. So we figured that DHL would be our best option in Italy as well.  We were unsuccessful in finding any of the DHL stores in the addresses listed on the website (which I suspect has outdated information).  On one of these adventures (yes, every simple outing is an adventure when you are a ‘stranger in a strange land’), we stopped at a neighborhood café in the local

village of Alcamo to use the WC (toilette) and to get a snack. The proprietor had not heard of DHL (at least not in the vicinity) of the café but offered to check on his smartphone. Everyone in Sicily (or so it seems) has a smartphone. He found a ‘pack and ship’ nearby – about 600m. He tried his best to give us directions but our limited Italian and his limited English was just not enough. Meanwhile, the girls who were eating on one of the café’s outdoor tables spied a playground across the street.  I accompanied the girls across the street to the playground while Tiffany continued the ‘conversation’ with the friendly café proprietor. A couple of local residents stopped in at the café and had an animated conversation about the ‘pack and ship’ store. The cafe’ proprietor then offered his companion (compagno) Louis to us, he would ride in our “macchina” (car) and walk back. A series of complicated directions with many hand gestures were offered on how to get to the nearby ‘pack and ship’ store. We were not parked nearby so we felt that this was not our best option. Notwithstanding the fact that our car only had room for five and Louis looked like he had just walked off the set of the Sopranos. I came back to extricate Tiffany from this exchange and was relieved to find that she wasn’t being held for ransom.

It has been our experience thus far that when asking for help from the locals, one needs to exercise the necessary patience and see the process through to avoid being labeled a “rude American”.  We graciously thanked everyone for their help and left the establishment still unsure as to our next move. I decided to walk the entire surrounding neighborhood determined to find the ‘non-existent’ DHL store while the girls played at the park. I was unsuccessful. Meanwhile Tiffany had struck up a conversation with a mother in the park on the topics of homeschool and world travel they were conversing with limited Italian and English. After a few minutes it was established that both women spoke Spanish. She and her 5 year old son, Christiano were playing at the park as well. Tiffany explained our dilemma and failed attempt to find the DHL center. The woman Liliana had not heard of DHL either which really puzzled me. She suggested using the Poste Italiane (Italian Post Office) to ship the packages. The local post office was only a few blocks away. We had actually been there a couple of hours earlier to mail some postcards. We incorrectly assumed that we could just go the counter and buy stamps (like we have done in every other country so far). Not the case in Italy.  The post cards are weighed and stamps electronically applied. The cost was €2.20 per post card. Not cheap compared to the states!. At this point, we kind of dismissed the idea of using the post office to ship anything home since we figured the cost would be exorbitant and communication impossible. Liliana convinced us that the post office was our best option and offered to take us and translate, to inquire about pricing, boxes, form, etc.  Tiffany while extremely grateful for this offer felt like this was an imposition on her time. Liliana thought nothing of helping us and spending whatever time necessary to help us accomplish our task. So off we went.  Tiffany went inside with her new friend, Liliana  and came out over an hour later with several bright yellow boxes and a fistful of forms (€14.50 for 3 boxes) to fill out (all in Italian, of course) while the children played outside on the Lion Statue.

Girls and Christian in Front of Poste

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Liliana and Tiffany in Front of Poste

Tiffany thanked our new friend for her gracious and unsolicited help which required her to translate from Italian to Spanish (which Tiffany could understand) and then to English (for me to understand it). It was not done…yet but we were making progress. We headed back to the car and Tiffany proceeded to fill the yellow boxes and to fill out all the paperwork for shipping from Italy. I headed across the street to get a couple of cappuccino’s to go and a potty break (in Europe, the expression is take-away). We have made many improptu stops at countless cafes in every country whenever we hear “I have to go the bathroom” to use the WC (toilette). Most cafe’s don’t post that the bathrooms are for customers only, but we always tried to be respectful and usually ordered an espresso or a pastry. At the café while waiting for my coffee, a gentlemen at the counter engaged me in conversation. Between his English, Italian and a bit of German, I figured out that he was offering to buy me a drink (a local specialty?). I thanked him politely and declined. He gave me a few lessons in Italian anyway and 20 minutes later I was on my way with the cappuccinos. Tiffany was in the car because it was raining still working on the shipping paperwork. She had a fierce determined look on her face. We waited for a break in the weather and trudged back to the post office with the boxes filled but not taped as the might require inspection. The Poste Italiane uses a queue numbering system similar to the DMV where you have to wait…patiently. As this was our third trip that day we were ushered to the appropriate line.  Soon it was our turn at the counter. Some of forms had not been filled out correctly and the very helpful postal clerk also opined that the value for the enclosed items was too high which would be a high VAT tax in addition to the shipping cost. So, Tiffany diligently filled out the forms again, again, and once again. After about 2 hours +, all the packages finally had been weighed and the shipping forms affixed. We paid the fee (€165 euro) for three packages and just to be clear, these packages are not filled with foreign treasure rather miscellaneous crap. I was satisfied that this was a fair amount all things considered and actually less than I had expected. Tiffany was unexpectedy presented with a signature yellow Poste Italiane coffee mug after she explained (not complained) that we had spent ‘all day’ in the post office. The mug was given to her by a very helpful gentleman who appeared to be a supervisor who must have appreciated her determination in successfully navigating the bureaucratic morass.

We left the post office without any packages and felt very good about our accomplishment. Earlier, Tiffany’s new friend had suggested that we try to visit the thermal hot springs (Terme Segestane) which were near Castellmmare del Golfo, not far from Alcamo. She explained that she spent a lot of time there with friends and family members and was going the following day. We parted company and hoped that we would perhaps run into each other at the hot springs.  The thermal hot springs are reportedly very therapeutic and relaxing. It was raining the next day and it did not look like it would be a good idea to visit the Terme Segestane. However, after a few hours of schoolwork, the weather improved and we decided to set out to find the hot springs. The road is definitely off the beaten tourist path and was a precarious drive down a seriously eroded and rutted dirt road (we were following directions that we had gotten off a website post!). At the bottom of the dubious ‘road’, we found a clearing where there were several cars parked. As we parked, an elderly gentleman acknowledged us and told us that we were at the right place. I picked up a German accent in his speech as he spoke Italian to us and soon found myself engaged in somewhat of a conversation with him in my limited German. He was from Wurzburg, Germany and had been coming here for 10 years to the hot springs. I am not sure what ailment he claimed he had cured but it sounded convincing to me. From where we parked, it was a short hike across a rock filled stream to reach the hot springs. The natural ‘pool’ was actually quite small but it was definitely hot and there was a pervading odor of sulphur which was not entirely unobjectionable (surprisingly). We all really enjoyed the hot springs. The weather turned again and once we heard thunder we knew that it was time to leave. The road was so steep that any rain at all would make it too slick to drive. We got out just in time and were followed by three other cars who also prudently left when we did.DSCN0096

The trip to the Terme Segestane was a good ending to our Sicily adventure. We returned our rental car (intact) and we promised ourselves that we would return to Sicily and Italy as there is so much more that we would like to see and experience in this amazing country.

Onward and upward.

Bernie

 

You can see Liliana’s Art @ http://www.lilianacoppolatrame.com

 

 

Sicilia

Our first impression of Palermo was that this island has immense natural beauty; tall impressive rocky hills contrasted by the blue of the Mediterranean. It was a really easy flight from Nuremburg. While we waited for our luggage, I got the girls a snack at a nearby vending machine. I was ‘over the moon’ about the vending machine dispensing a snack consisting of a tiny brick of parmesan cheese with saltines (I was expecting parmesan flavored crackers).

It was necessary to rent a vehicle as our destination was too remote for any public transportation.  This is our fourth European car rental thus far.  The basic cost of the car rentals has alway been extremely low (€5-8/day) but there are a few cautionary things to note:

  1. Renting a child car seat is ridiculously expensive (€8/per day).
  2. GPS and WiFi €11/ per day
  3. The car rental agency  will charge a damage deposit in the amount of (€500 for a 1 day rental and up to €1200 for a longer term).  This will be reimbursed after the car is returned intact. (Good Luck!)

Despite some very harrowing driving experiences (see driving MAD…rid!), not to mention parallel parking on ridiculously narrow streets between two cars without a centimeter to spare; we have managed to return all of the rental cars unscathed so far (cross your fingers on the fourth).  I  have noticed that when booking an inexpensive car from Travelocity, Ryanair, etc.,  the option to buy insurance pops up. Don’t bother. The car rental agency does not recognize this as ‘legitimate’ insurance and still requires you to put up a significant deposit from your credit card.  It was explained to us at the car rental agency that this is ‘third’ party insurance and has nothing to do with the car rental agency and in the event of an accident you would have to pay for the damage and later try to recover from this third party… total scam. The very lovely car rental agent then tried to sell me more insurance saying that she would throw in the car seat for free thus saving me €80 if I only I would pay an additional €279 up front. My budget deal had suddenly turned into a very pricey car rental.  I refused this dubious offer and opted to take our chances by securing the insurance on the car with the credit card deposit instead.  I recalled that when we were at the car rental in Barcelona, we were waiting behind a French couple that was taking ages to complete their rental. We had no idea what was taking so long. The French woman kept waving her paperwork in the air, saying “we already paid for insurance”. They had made the same mistake that we did purchasing the online insurance which the car rental agent promptly rejected.

We had a relatively easy drive from the airport as our Airbnb host had emailed us impecable directions. We arrived too early to check in so we drove into the neighboring village to buy groceries.  This is when we first saw it: THE TRASH.  Yes, it was everywhere…not litter but entire garbage bags strewn on both sides of the road like a landfill, except on the road.  It was an incongruous and disconcerting contrast to see this gorgeous landscape with the huge piles of trash along the roads.

Bernie read a few online posts and found out that the trash problem is not just confined to Sicily but exists pretty much everywhere in Italy. There is a lot of finger pointing in the government, disgruntled employees, graft and corruption and yes, even local mafia that share the blame for the huge trash problem. Even though the residents pay a lot for trash collection services, the actual collection is infrequent and sometimes does not happen at all. So they throw it out on the road.  I witnessed this happening on a Saturday morning as a station wagon pulled over to the side of the road and unloaded several bags of trash.  It seems some people burn their garbage as I have seen small fires from a distance and smelled the smoke.  At our Baglio, there are labeled bins and very specific instructions as to how to separate the garbage, leading me to believe there are those who are conscientious about the rubbish situation.

The Baglio is situated amidst olive groves five minutes south of the Mediterranean. From the upper sun terrace you can see the Sea and the Mountains.  This is my favorite Airbnb thus far ($49/night). A baglio is a building (usually stone and masonry) that encloses a large courtyard with one point of entry typically a large wooden door that can be secured.   Baglios were originally built to defend against pirates and other criminals. Half of our Baglio has been renovated. The remaining half is home to several cats which the girls have befriended. The renovated farm house has stone tile flooring, exposed log ceilings and a lofted second floor. Substantial tall doors open out to an enclosed walled-in patio. You can reach the rooftop terrace through the lofted second level. A perfect blend of the old and new. If you are curious for more pictures you can see them at this link: https://abnb.me/EVmg/6LybmUFJ0H

After an intense lightening storm which knocked out the electrical power and the WiFi (a generator and emergency lights kicked in); we decided to take a few days and explore Palermo the capital city of Sicily.  Bernie read a few blogs concerning the manic driving in Palermo, and we opted to park at the airport and shuttle bus it in, having learned our lesson in Spain.  This plan all worked out rather smoothly as we had visited the airport the previous day to connect to Wifi.  We were becoming quite familiar with the Palermo airport by this point. We checked into this underwhelming hotel (Hotel del Centro).  It was adequate, but somewhat less comfortable than our Baglio.  We walked around a bit and ate local desserts on our first rainy night. The next day we had a reprieve from the rain and took a horse carriage ride around Palermo taking in the sights and sounds. See video below.

I picked up a brochure at our hotel listing several high end stores at an outlet mall somewhere near Catania.  When I asked at reception how to get there the plump and somewhat surly concierge told me It was too far I couldn’t get there from here an that I should go to a different mall, which he proceeded to pull up on his desktop.  To look at the screen I had to pass a little door and step up behind the counter, Elle followed me in the man loudly said “attenzione”, as Elle bumped his security screen, I rushed her out of there and again she bumped the security screen and received another “attenzione”. We are not sure Elle realized she was being admonished in Italian. Bernie would not be detoured by this lack of information. He found out how to travel by bus and we set out the following day.  I had some trepidation about the bus station since I had read a post describing the dangerous crossing from the bus drop off to the street. The post read:

“Via Roma is dead ahead of you when you come out of Palermo Central Railway Station main exit. From here, you are can only escape by playing chicken as you dash through the middle of The World’s Fastest-Moving Taxi rank, The World’s Craziest Coach Station, and then Italy’s Most Dangerous Roundabout which is adorned with Italy’s Longest Zebra Crossing. Honestly, it is 40 feet long and actually divides into two separate black and white stripy ends forming a giant Y-shape. Whoever designed this place scored Null Points for road planning, as they entirely forgot the bit about humans needing to get in and out of railway stations. You have to go through this ordeal if you want to get out of the station and into the city. I advise you to do as the locals do, and buy a string of rosary beads to twirl while running, all the time praying loudly to the Madonna for protection and guidance.” https://siciliangodmother.com

We walked to the train station having  no trouble at all crossing  Via Roma, we have become very adept at crossing busy streets, in Europe. Purchased our pricey tickets (€18/person roundtrip, €90 for our family), and settled in on our very comfortable, lightly perfumed Mercedes Bus for the 1hour 40minute journey to PRADA. It was a very scenic along ride along the northern Mediterranean coast, including  countryside, mountainous roads, cows, sheep, sun.  The children hardly complained a bit.  We had 4 hours at the mall and a mission. I headed straight to PRADA and purchased a gorgeous pair of seriously discounted black high healed leather boots, which are completely impractical for my Maui lifestyle, but make me feel young. After the first stop, PRADA, I visited Versace, Gucci, Dolce and Gabanna, just because I’m in Italy and why not?  The girls were playing at the playground during this time. Right next to the PRADA store was this really opulent Italian children’s store called MONNA LISA, this place was over the top, opera style princess dresses, high heeled glitter shoes and faux furs. The girls each came out with an outfit, Elle got the rainbow glitter high heels, she preferred the gold, but they did not have her size. We went back to PRADA, so Scarlet could try on a pair of ballet flats but she didn’t like them, so we left and went to lunch next door. After lunch I went back to PRADA (third time) the sales associates were all smiles and as I checked out with my score €100 Miu Miu sunglasses the woman who sold me the boots smiled gestured 3rd time and made a heart with her fingers. For my first time at PRADA it was worth the effort it took getting there.

We love to read your thoughts and comments.

Tiffany

Germany’s not so final… resting place

As some of you may know who read my recent blog post, I intended to take my family and visit the local village of Roβtal (Rosstal) which is located very near to Nuremburg (about 20 minutes by train). There is a cemetery in Roβtal where my grandfather (my father’s dad) is buried. Before I left for my German high school trip in 1971, my father gave me a little hand-drawn map that showed where the headstone was located within the cemetery. My German host family (their last name was Schwarzbach – I can’t believe that I remember it after all these years!), was kind enough to drive me to the cemetery. From my father’s map, I was able to readily locate the headstone of my grandfather.

We decided to travel to Roβtal for our little pilgrimage on an overcast gray day (perfect, I thought for a visit to a graveyard) the day before Halloween. I had pre-planned our outing to Roβtal a couple of days ahead and thought I knew which subway and bus lines we would need to take. We took the subway (U-bahn) to the Hauptbahnhof (main train and bus station) where we would catch the “S4” bus directly to Roβtal. After 20 minutes of looking in vain for the right bus stop, we finally asked for directions and I was told that the “S4” is actually a train (not a bus). We were directed back to the train station (across the street) and located the right train platform 22 (there are 23) just minutes after the train had left the station. Since the next train was over two hours later, we decided to go back to the Altstadt to do a bit more shopping to kill time. The next two days (October 31 – Reformation Day and November 1 – All Saints Day) are both German holidays where all stores and many restaurants are closed and this would be our last opportunity to do any ‘real (Tiffany) shopping’. After the successful shopping trip (including pillows and jewelry) and a stop at a sumptuous ice cream parlor, we headed back to the subway station and were again distracted by a street musician. After a few minutes we realized that we were cutting it very close if we wanted to catch the next train to Roβtal. We ran thru the train station (no exaggeration) and got on the train as the doors where closing. We were headed to Roβtal.

I briefly looked at a map of the village (online) before we left and was sure that I could locate the cemetery from memory. We headed toward a church (kirche) where I assumed we would find a cemetery in the vicinity (which is often the case). We found the church and a school with noisy children playing in the yard but no cemetery. Tiffany coaxed me to ask someone for directions.  We found a gentleman who was picking his child up from Kindergarten who spoke enough English to point us in the right direction. So we headed off in the general direction that he gave us. A couple of minutes later, a car pulled over on the road and the same gentlemen gave us a bit more specific instructions (he must have assumed and rightfully so that we could not find it on our own).  We finally found a small church and cemetery after an arduous trek up several narrow winding streets. The cemetery looked vaguely familiar to me and actually wrapped around the church. We headed off to find the headstone of my grandfather (Wendelin Stroh). To our surprise, virtually all of the headstones in this cemetery were almost new and the dates inscribed were all fairly recent and most of them were family burial plots. There were no headstones dating back to the time period (early 1900’s) when my grandfather would have lived and died in this village. I was disappointed and confused as to where the old headstones would be. I asked a middle-aged woman that was walking thru the cemetery if there were any other cemeteries in Roβtal. Her English was not very good (about as good as my German), but I was able to learn that there was another small cemetery near the train station stop. So after a quick stop for a bite to eat at a local bakery, off we trekked to find the ‘other cemetery’. We walked and walked and finally found the other cemetery. It happened to be across the street from a pleasant little florist shop. The girls wanted to buy some flowers to place on the grave of their great-grandfather and they each picked out a single rose that they thought to be special.

The experience at this cemetery was the same as the first one that we found. All of the headstones were very new. I even approached a gentleman that was working in the cemetery and specifically asked about my grandfathers headstone but had no luck. As it was getting late in the day and we were all very tired of walking (cumulatively  – almost 3 hours), we decided to head back to our apartment in Nuremburg. Needless to say, I was sad and disappointed that we had failed to find my grandfathers gravesite. It certainly was not for lack of trying! When we got back our apartment, I went back on-line determined to try to find out what happened to the old cemetery that I had visited almost 46 years go. I must admit that what I discovered next really surprised me! By German law, cemetery plots are actually leased for a period of 15 to 30 years. The fee varies from town to town and is approximately €1,000-3,000 there may be a possibility to renew the lease. Many plots are reused after the lease expiration and the remains along with headstones and any markers are removed.  This is apparently a very common cycle in Germany due to limited space. Basically, it is impossible to find any gravesites that are older than 25 to 30 years since they have been ‘reused’ for the more recently deceased souls. It is very likely that during our arduous search of the cemeteries in Roβtal and reading all the names that we did happen upon the ‘former’ gravesite of my grandfather and were just unaware of it at the time. Learning that the burial plots in Germany are ‘reused’ did offer me some consolation that our search was not in vain.

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Digital Screen Albrecht Dürer

On the German holiday of Reformation (think of the famous Martin Luther and the 95 theses – basically propositions for changing the Catholic Church doctrines that Luther disagreed with), we went to visit the Albrecht Dürer Haus (House) and museum. The house is where Durer lived and worked with his wife almost 600 years ago. The museum does not actually have much of his original artwork since his coveted drawings, woodcarvings and paintings are in permanent collections all over the world. Instead it contains digital screens with images of his art and reproductions made by  German artists. I have personally had a fascination with some of his art work (especially the fine line drawings) since I was in high school and first visited Germany on the 500 year anniversary of his life.

We feel as though this trip has been a success as we shipped back two large boxes via DHL filled with Chocolates, Lebkuchen and Sausage for my mother.  My mother said to me during our summer visit to North Dakota “If I could I would fly to Nuremburg buy Lebkuchen and get on the plane and go back home again.”  I must admit this was largely part of our decision to fly into Nuremburg specifically, to fulfill this wish. We have already decided to come back and see more of the country, we hope on our next visit to Germany we will persuade (kidnap) my mother to accompany us.

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photo credit: Grace Stroh

 

Bernie