Day 9: Tirana to Ventura via Vienna and Washington D.C.

The trip home was a grueling I’m-too-old-for-this 27 hours of traveling that began at 2:30 am. The first flight departed at 4:30 am. This meant a 3 am taxi to the airport. The driver we hired did not speak English, but we could communicate through our AirBnB host who was in the US. Then there was the issue of the time change. We clarified that it would be the new time. What we didn’t know is that the time doesn’t change at 2:00 am in Albania. Our phone alarms rang at 2:15 am. But our watches also said 2:15 am. Wait! Wasn’t the time supposed to change? What if there really wasn’t a time change? Would our driver come one hour late—thinking that there was a time change when there wasn’t? The problem was that if he didn’t show up, we didn’t really have a way to get to the airport. We didn’t have the language skills to call a taxi and none be out on the street at that hour. It was very confusing and stressful. We threw a party when we saw him parked outside our building when we came down.

Everything else went fairly smoothly, but I think I’m getting too old to take the cheapest level of flights anymore. I would rather pay more and have fewer stops and shorter travel time. By the time we had taken our first two flights and arrived in Washington D.C. 18 hours into the journey, I was completely exhausted and we still had another five-hour flight and a one-and-a-half-hour drive home to go! You know those PETA videos of the male chicks going into the grinder? No? Maybe I’m exaggerating, but that’s the image I come up with when I think about how tired I am. 

This is the Vienna airport. Don’t you think more airports need these lifesaving bed/chairs?

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Day 8: Tirana

We are happy to have a few more days with our Albanian friends. Last weekend there was a crowd of people and special group events for the 25th anniversary. This weekend it’s just Jim and me, and it’s been really fun to meet with people and talk on an individual and deeper level. This morning we had breakfast with Pastor Zef’s family. His wife, Edita was just back from spending a few days in Barcelona, so we traded travel stories. (I LOVE Barcelona.) We talked politics, Albania (200,000 people apply to leave each year!), raising children (wonderful and difficult!), and about some past misunderstandings from his last trip to California. (Cross-cultural ministry can be a minefield of misinterpretation. Fortunately this time it wasn’t ME who caused the issue. But I think we were able to  explain why people in the US behaved the way they did. Zef knows us well and loves us anyway.)

We had coffee with other friends and laughed and laughed together.

One nice part about this trip is that we didn’t get any financial support from the church to go. In the past we might have felt guilty about whether we were doing enough “ministry.” Like somehow the church wasn’t getting their money’s worth if we spent time laughing and drinking coffee or even relaxing in the afternoon when the Albanians were working.This time we were free to do what we pleased, and I think valuable bonds between the churches were deepened anyway. I believe there is real value in flying a long distance just to share our lives and say “I love you.” Both sides feel encouraged and enriched by the relationship. I’m really thankful for these wonderful people in Tirana who despite the language, cultural and economic barriers choose to be my friends.

Jim made friends with a homeless man and gave him groceries. Who knows? He might really have eight children.img_1633

This is the old mosque, but they are building a new one in the center of town that is huge-many times the size of this one. img_1626Our old favorite crêpe place was gone–but we found another. This crepe is dark chocolate, with cookie crumbs and bananas, and yes, it was amazing. img_1637

The Pyramid was supposed to be the a mausoleum for Hoxia, the dictator. It’s been in ruins, but they’ve added this quirky ramp. IMG_1631.jpg

There are a lot of quirky things around Tirana. IMG_1623.jpg

IMG_1624 (1).jpgThis is a new art piece. It’s huge, but I’m not sure how I feel about it–does it have meaning or function? Does it match the mishmash of the rest of the city? IMG_1628 (1).jpg

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Day 7: Florence to Tirana

I really was not ready to leave Florence, and certainly not eager for a day of travel. Six am taxi to the Florence train station. Wait at train station. Train to Bologna train station. Taxi to Bologna airport. Wait at airport. Fly to Tirana. Wait in passport lines. Taxi to our apartment.

In Bologna, the passport control agent asked us where we were going. “Tirana, Albania.”

He paused, thinking,  and then asked quizzically “As tourists?”

“Yes.”

“But will you also see the rest of Europe?” They must not get very many Americans going from Italy to Albania. Clearly he couldn’t understand why we would go there when we could see Italy or even Germany and France!

Surprisingly, I found the Italian trains to be more tourist-friendly and easier to understand than the French trains. In France we were often on the wrong platform and even the locals didn’t know where to stand.

Albanian are such warm, welcoming friendly people. The low standard of living leads to an emphasis on what I believe are even more important values. We had coffee with Zef’s English class, but Zef wasn’t there. At first they were timid about speaking, but by the end their confidence had grown and they were using their beginning English to tell us what they loved about Albania and where their struggles were. Jim pulled out his map and I had my Google images and they were like proud grandparents telling us about beautiful lakes, waterfalls, bridges and places we should visit in their country.

For dinner we were with Etleva and Gino and their children. Their son had just come from a physics study session and their daughter from a private guitar lesson where her music was a complicated classical piece. Gino is an OB/gyn and Etleva is an endocrinologist, and both lamented the nonexistence of malpractice insurance in a country that is just learning to sue. Doctors earn very little here, but take huge risks in a profession where not everything goes right every time. I’m so thankful for these dear friends, but a little frustrated that we made it clear dinner was our treat when we invited them, and, yet, they wouldn’t let us pay.

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Day 6: Florence

Venice is darling, but I love Florence better. Venice is like a Disneyland copy of itself. It is so expensive to live there that most locals have been priced out. The city exists almost solely for the tourist industry. Florence is a real city with students, and workers, and people who shop at the open markets. It feels more authentic. During tourist season (which, I think now is almost all year), 30,000 people per day come to Venice via cruise ships. This is damaging the culture, the environment and the economy, so it feels like a decaying city that once was very beautiful. I would love to see the Venetian government limit the number of tourists as they have other places, in order to preserve what they have left and t0 allow the locals to continue to live there. Florence is different because is has a life apart from the tourist industry. The city goes on about its life integrating the tourists into daily life, and welcoming them. Prego! In the neighborhood where our Airbnb is, one hears almost exclusively Italian spoken. The gifts I bought were from shops filled with Italians buying items for their own homes or children. (They weren’t separate tourist shops.) The open-air fruit and vegetable markets still exist, and the coffee bars are full of lively conversation punctuated with phrases like “Va bene!”, “Ciao, Bello,” and “Si, si, si.”

We left early via city bus to take pictures from the panoramic viewpoint, Piazzale Michelangelo. It was quiet and beautiful, and we had a lovely walk home.

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Florence Cathedral

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It was a good choice to walk home instead of walking there!

Then we weren’t quite sure if the gelato we had yesterday was as amazing as our former  favorite gelato (the gelato place in Durres, Albania), so, of course, we had to go back and try more here to make a determination. Still not sure. Needs more testing.

In the afternoon Jim spent time taking pictures and buying stuff. I took a fascinating free walking tour that followed the history of Medici family. They grew so rich (through their banking business), that they had the audacity to try to buy Christ’s tomb and transport it from Jerusalem to Florence. (A huge building next to the Duomo was built for this purpose.) Also cool was the indoor corridor that stretched on the top floor of buildings, for connecting the Medici palaces. It goes from the Uffizi Gallery across the Ponte Vecchio and all the way to the Piti Palace-a distance of over a kilometer! I love history and walking, so it was fun to wander around having someone tell me interesting facts and stories.

Another amazing dinner at a casual restaurant, Que’Ganzi, in our neighborhood with amazing food.

 

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Day 5: Florence

We are essentially doing some sightseeing and other activities while we wait for the next eating opportunity.

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Spaghetti with artichokes and tomatoes.

IMG_1557.jpgAt mid-day we took a free walking tour. We’ve done this in many cities around the world and it’s always been an extremely positive experience. It’s like the Uber of tour guiding. You get a knowledgeable guide who is full of interesting information and fun facts, who walks you around the city telling you the history and showing you the art and architecture and other landmarks just like a paid guide. The deal is you pay what you think s/he’s worth. Usually they have a degree in Art or History or both. They are always informative and fun and a lot cheaper than paying a traditional guide. Today’s guide was especially great. I loved hearing the history of what began as a Roman city with a real colosseum and hippodrome. I also liked seeing the homes of people like Michelangelo, Carlo Collodi, (the author of Pinocchio), and Gucci. The architect of one of the churches put in Hebrew writing and a big star of David causing arguments among Florentines for years. (He said “But Jesus was Jewish, right?)

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Picture courtesy of Wikipedia–mine didn’t come out.

I laughed at how modern worship  was put in an old Roman temple. (See the white Apple Store logo on the left side?)

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Modern day Mecca on ground floor to the left of the arch.

His tip on a place with a good view to have coffee, was invaluable. Here’s the view:IMG_1551.jpg

We spent the day without an agenda–eating, shopping, drinking coffee, and poking around. We rode the public bus twice! IMG_1534.jpg

We had dinner at an amazing place (Pandemonio di casa Brogi), recommended by Pastor Mark, whose daughter spent a year in Florence. It was one of the most outstanding meals of my life. I know Florence is famous for beef, but I had no idea a steak could taste like that. The taste was beef, but the texture was like butter.IMG_1565.jpg

Please don’t make us leave!!

 

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Day 5: Florence

My first thought when we saw our little apartment in Florence was “I never want to leave here.” It’s the nicest Airbnb we’ve ever stayed at, and the owner/architect/designer is so darling. Look at this cool blend of ancient exposed brick and modern recessed lighting!IMG_1490.jpgWe love traveling with our kids and friends, but we can’t remember the last time we took a vacation with just the two of us. It’s fun, too! This is our third trip to Florence, so we don’t feel a need to do the art museums or see the David. We’re happy to have a slower pace with no itinerary.

We were at the Ponte Vecchio at sunrise in order to experience it without the crowds.IMG_1510.jpgIMG_1505.jpg

We meandered as the city came alive and grew increasingly busy and noisy.IMG_1528.jpg We love experiences that happen before the real tourist hours, like seeing a shop owner arguing with the police: “How can I fix my gutter if I can’t put the scaffolding here? I’ll be done in just a minute.” IMG_1520.jpg

The river was full of egrets, herons and rowers.

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We love the little side streets. IMG_1533.jpg

 

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Day 4: Tirana to Florence via Pisa

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Our apartment is two blocks from this. There are fewer tourist at night and the cathedral is really beautiful at that time.

One plane, one train, two automobiles, lots of walking and a bus today. Travel days are stressful. I can see why people take cruises or tours. It’s nice to just be delivered painlessly to the next destination. I would make a terrible communist. I have no patience for being in a big group waiting for something, and public transit is a lot of this. However, transition days are also rich in overcome challenges and interesting interactions with locals. For instance, I love the darling young architect who owns our AirBnB. She’s done such a beautiful job restoring the medieval building to make it a modern and artistic place to stay. I loved hearing about her favorite restaurant (where the owner is so nice), and favorite gelato place (the others are famous, but this is the best.) and hearing her story. 

I bought my carryon suitcase two years ago, and at that time I invested in the new smaller size of 21”.  At LAX I was told my suitcase was too big. OK. Fine. Today they told Jim his new teeny tiny suitcase was too big. The requirements keep shrinking and it’s really frustrating! We know the suitcase will fit in the overhead bin. They just want to charge passengers for the checked bag. Grr.

We’re flying through Pisa partly because it was much cheaper, and partly because I had never seen the Leaning Tower. It was an adventure taking the city bus to town from the airport. Yes, I COULD make myself understood in Italian, but it’s so much easier and faster to speak French or Spanish when I just want to get the information. Everyone speaks either English, French or Spanish, and they speak it better than I speak Italian. Although I know using my Italian is the only way to make it better, it’s hard to be in this toddler language stage, when it’s easier for the other person to just speak to you in not Italian. Po, oui, sí!

The tower was…exactly like you would think it would look. Tall. Leaning. Lots of tourists taking pictures of themselves “holding up” the tower. It was pretty and fun to see…once. More fun was wandering the little streets of Pisa, taking pictures at the beautiful River Arno, figuring out how to get the train to Florence, and hearing the beautiful language everywhere.

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