Welcome back to Have Son, Will Travel – Phase 2! I guess I have some explaining to do. I still have a son and we have still been traveling. Though life has presented some unexpected detours. The past eight months have seen us in New York, Ohio, Nashville, Los Angeles, and now London. I left off with our story in Italy almost a year ago exactly.
The boy and I stayed on in Vicenza through the end of 2012, but writing about it at the time seemed like a needless bummer. I didn't really want to put anyone else through that. I'll just say it: living in Italy was hard. Really hard. I know it's not supposed to be that way. La Dolce Vita, yadda yadda. I'm here to tell you sometimes paradise has its dark side. Or if it doesn't, leave it to me to find it.
Schooling for the boy proved nearly impossible. He didn't have enough Italian under his belt, and so couldn't keep up, and felt isolated and bullied the month of middle school he endured there. Starting middle school can be tough anywhere, but in a foreign language, with no friends? It didn't seem fair to put him through that unless we were really going to be there long term. If I could have afforded a bilingual school it might have been another story.
My son, as I may have mentioned before, is I’m sure a lot like other boys his age (nearly 12) in that he likes to spend as much time as possible doing two things: playing soccer (insert sport of choice) and playing with his PS3 or computer games. Often trying to get him to do anything other than these things involves a form of very slow Chinese water torture (to be endured by me, not him). So it is with some degree of delight that this week I observed that Luc likes to get into the weightiest of topics at the strangest of times – always when we are biking in city streets, usually through challenging traffic, on the way to his soccer practice, which is at least 20 minutes each way.
On the way to practice the other day he posed the question: “Mom, what’s it like to be a woman?” which he has admittedly asked before. But after my initial glib response of “I don’t know because I’ve never been anything else,” he kept pressing for details. Now I know a window when I see one! I will certainly not ever miss the chance to help him grow into the progressive, aware, strong, and good man that I know he will become. So, this led to a discussion of what women’s place has historically been in the world and is today, in some places still.
I have to say it all came as quite a shock to him and in his lovely innocence he couldn’t begin to understand why a woman wouldn’t always have the same rights as a man, why they might get paid less for the same job, or why I have to be more careful going home at night by myself than he will ever have to as a grown man.
On the way back from practice the question was “Mom, what happens when we die?” which sparked a discussion on religion, what some people believe happens when you die, with each of us pitching our own pet theories on what awaits us all eventually, all the while dodging Italian drivers and navigating roundabouts.
I can’t quite figure out this predilection of his for heavy-duty conversations while in motion. It has happened before, sometimes in cars too, anything involving wheels apparently. But all I know is that his curiosity is alive and well and I’ll go with the probably still contrarian theory that gaming makes you smarter!
Check out these great TED talks on gaming:Gabe Zichermann – How Games Make Kids SmarterJane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World
Gondola parking lot, Venice
This week I have been preoccupied with trying to understand the byzantine Schengen Visa laws for tourist travel in Europe. I have spent far too much time on traveler message boards where people with too much time on their hands swap a mixture of advice, warnings, or horror stories of scrapes with immigration authorities in various countries. The Internet can be both a wealth of information and a dangerous place for travelers. Sort of like when you have an undiagnosed health ailment and you decide to google your symptoms. If you’re not catatonic with fear after this little exercise, you obviously have too slow of a broadband connection. The same can be said when looking for travel advice.
As to the Schengen Visa laws, well I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t even know they existed when we started out on this journey. My information was a bit outdated, I admit, as I was relying on past experience from my backpacking through Europe days 20 years ago. At that time, you could indeed spend up to 3 months in each European country and easily execute ‘visa runs’ to another country, then turn around, re-enter and set the visa clock ticking again. Oh, those days are long gone, my friends.
The Schengen Treaty, signed in 1995, now mandates, in simplest terms, a 90-day in a 180-day period rule. This means that you can spend up to 90 non-consecutive
days in any 180 period in the Schengen territory (most of what we consider Western Europe) as a whole
, not per country, after that you must exit the Schengen and remain outside of it for another 90 days before re-entry is permitted. Now apparently, different countries are more strict about enforcing this rule on travelers, than others. According to all the reading I’ve done, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are the toughest. But be careful where you exit to: the UK and Ireland can be tough on Schengen overstayers, either deporting them directly back to the country they left or on to their home country. Deary me. Unfortunately, I’m fairly sure that ignorance of the law is not a defense against violating it. Although it seems like it should be! At any rate, it will certainly mean some readjustment of plans for us.
Meanwhile, back at the Italian ranch, this week we took an afternoon and went to Venice to pay a special visit to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum
which is housed in an old church, la Chiesa di San Barnaba. I know ‘old’ and ‘church’ in the same sentence are rather redundant when talking about Italy. More of an exhibit, than a museum, it was nevertheless fascinating. There were actual reconstructions of many of da Vinci’s machines and many of them you could get your hands on, turn the cranks, and see how they worked. L’s favorite were the flying machines and Archimedes’ screw, which I gather da Vinci experimented heavily with and perhaps improved upon.
We actually walked a hugely circuitous distance to get to the museum, following our noses (with a little help from the smartphone GPS), rather than the map, which requires far too much stopping and studying along the way. The temperatures were frigid as the wind was blowing off the Adriatic. This was alleviated somewhat by frequent ducking into bars for hot drinks, cicchetti (tapas-like snacks), and even gelato. For L, it is never, ever too cold for gelato.
The week ended especially well for L, as he got to go on a ‘field trip’ with his school which was basically a day out sledding and playing in the snow in the foothills of the Alps. It was hard, but someone had to do it. Clockwise from L to R: the fate of shoes left in gondolas; a group of cadets visits the school; 'It is NOT a tea cosy mom!'; tired mama; the school; Italian political poster pulls no punches.
This past week I visited the ancient walled city of Lucca, just west of Pisa, in Tuscany. It was an amazing introduction to Tuscany. The weather was mild, the leaves were turning, and the roosters crowed every morning on the hills just outside of the walls of town. A climb up hundreds of very narrow stairs led to the top of Torre Guinigi, or known as the Treetop Tower, that provided a well earned vista of Lucca and the surrounding hills, hence my new photo header for this phase of the blog. Apparently, the tower was originally built for the Guinigi family, who once ruled over Lucca and protected the city against the Medici of Florence. It’s 44 meter high rooftop garden sprouts Oak trees that can be seen all over the city.
A fly-by stop in Pisa, on the way to the train station, offered a lovely view of the leaning tower and Duomo, no less impressive in real life, after years of only seeing pictures. I will have to go back when there is more time. Although the swarms of cheap-goods-from-China peddlers who get insistently in your face and don’t seem to want to take ‘no’ for an answer, were a bit of a turn off.
One also has to be deft at dodging the hoards of tourists stopping suddenly to snap photos of each other cutely ‘holding up’ the tower. I never understand this behavior. I can only imagine what it’s like in August. But wandering far down a side street, sufficiently away from the center of the action, a gem of a restaurant was found which yielded mounthwatering gnocchi with white fish cooked with I-can’t-even-begin-to-describe spices, Osso Bucco that fell off the bone it was so tender, and equally delicious and tender wild boar.
On the home front, homeschooling was resumed this week. I could not find an equivalent to Borax here in Italy so sadly, our science experiments thus far have gone splat, rather than pop. I tried replacing it witih copious amounts of baking soda, but clearly this did not work.
The struggle over math continues. This perhaps has been too painful to even mention previously. It might not be an understatement to say that L would rather endure having a filling without novacaine, or maybe even a week without the PS3, than math homework. After throwing up my hands and deciding to give it a rest for a while, a friend suggested the Saxons Homeschooling math series which, as a vetern homeschooler, she swears by. It moves incrementally, with lots of built in repetition, before moving onto the next concept. Perfect for someone to whom math doesn’t come easily. Although it is easy to get caught up in the worry of L falling behind, I am trying not only to keep in mind the macro picture, but also, remember that not everyone’s brain is ready to learn math at the same time. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. There has been some research to suggest that kids who are either homeschooled or in some form of progressive education and are able to postpone math until the middle school years, are able to grasp the concepts much more quickly than their younger counterparts, and move through it with much greater ease and competency.
On a final random note for this week, I have discovered that in Italy, you can have your pizza and salad all-in-one, thereby eliminating any lingering guilt for eating yet more pizza in the first place. It's called The Breruga at our local pizzeria, and is cooked with the usual tomato sauce, mozzarella, topped with bresaola ham. Then once out of the oven, it is thoroughly covered with fresh arugula and roughly grated parmesan cheese. The result is pure heaven!
Venice at dusk, on the way to station.
There is a well worn truism that every parent knows, and possibly those who have chosen not to become parents: if you want to come face to face with the deepest, darkest, and ugliest part of your soul – have children. For through parenting you are forced to view yourself anew, and often those parts of yourself you would rather not contend with are reflected back to you through the eyes, and behavior, of your children.
Of course, it’s not all sturm and drang, there are occasional pinnacles of great joy, with a more common peppering of cozy, contented moments. I believe this same truism can be applied to the light that is shed upon yourself from the experience of travel. My friend Scott, a journalist among other things, conducted an interview with the well known travel writer, Pico Iyer
, who said that “[Travel] confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home.” I couldn’t agree more.
I have a son for whom the order of the day, if it were left entirely to him, would go something like this: 1) get up, eat, and play hours of soccer; 2) play hours of PS3 games or have other such electronic experiences; and 3) eat, sleep, get up and do it all over again. I’m not meaning to suggest that he doesn’t have other interests, but these are just the overriding ones. He does actually have a vibrant curiousity about the world around him, he loves animals and nature, he is social and makes friends easily. And he is quite a conversationalist – he can hold his own well with adults.
However, when it comes to academics and sitting down at a desk to do school work, the neighbors would think I’m administering slow Chinese water torture, to hear him tell about it. I am really not the strictest parent in the world, nor am I, hopefully, the most lax either. The same can be said about our homeschooling style which is probably somewhere between formal and Unschooling
. I am using the Core Knowledge series (What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know
) as a touchstone. It is a great series and I particularly like this book. It’s laid out well, easy to read without being pandering (to parent or child) and I’m fairly sure it includes more information and knowledge than your average fifth grader in public school covers in one year. No doubt more than we’ll actually cover. There are comprehensive sections on language, literature (excerpts from classics like Huckleberry Finn, Little Women and the Secret Garden), geography, European and American history, grammar, visual arts, music, math and science.