Friday, September 30, 2011

The Italian Job

I promised a bit more of a general breakdown of my Italian escapade when last I blogged... something that wasn't restricted to any life lessons and that just gave an overview of what went on. Some points drift off into the cryptic... but as I said in my last post, some of what I'm reflecting on is for my more private blog. As I have gone on writing this... it has taken on a life of its own and has become something of an epic. You may want to read it in small doses.

Thursday 8th September
Got up early and burned rubber all the way to Kent. I was blessed in that I beat a rather nasty snarl up on the M40 that was reported on my radio about 30 minutes after I passed through. The M25 was a doddle. I met up with some of the people who were going to be my stalwart companions for the next week or so and boarded the coach... destination mainland Europe via my very first trip underneath the English Channel in the Eurotunnel. We emerged into the drizzly light of rainy France and raced the inclement weather into Switzerland. As we tried our best to settle into the night for some much needed sleep, I was awestruck by the silhouettes of the mighty Alps set against the backdrop of a curtain of starlight.

Friday 9th September
As we passed from Switzerland into the northernmost parts of Italy, the warmth of the sun greeted us in all it's intensity. We stopped for breakfast where I was astounded to discover that the game "the three cards" or "three bells" is sternly frowned upon in Italy... carrying an €80 - €500 fine for participation. In my tired state I also mistakenly thought that the Italians were obsessed with eating cod... as all the dishes were marked with COD. In fairness I was only looking at breaded white meat... but still, what a plonker I was! We made our way further south until we reached our first hotel. The town we were staying in was a bit of a tourist trap, but very pleasant. I went for a stroll on the beach with my first roomies on the trip - Michael & Tom. We narrowly avoided being conned into buying kites by posing for photos for each other while the persistent vendor impatiently hovered. Michael, Tom and I decided to go to the local supermarket to stock up on food and drink for our foray into Venice... but on our way back we overshot the hotel by about a quarter of a mile and had to trudge back shamefaced and swearing one another to secrecy. After our first evening session (held al fresco on the beach), we wandered up and down the main street and listened to a local couple singing British easy listening tracks in Italian at a local restaurant.

Saturday 10th September
This was it... the first real day of action. We were dropped off at a ferry terminal and cruised into Venice Harbour. I spent the journey there getting to a know a couple of the girls, sharing out my binoculars to anyone who wanted to take a peek at the city from a distance... and wondering if we'd spot anything/anybody connected to the Venice Film Festival which was reaching a climax that day. Nope... didn't run into any celebrity type creatures (not that I particularly care). We docked in the shadow of an immense cruise liner, toured St. Mark's Basilica together and then having reached the Rialto bridge, we fanned out and went off on separate adventures. Michael and Tom had no plan of action... so I somehow managed to get appointed as the tour guide. Having no better idea about where to go than the others, I fell back on my geek credentials and did what any self respecting nerd would do.... I came up with a hare brained ambitious quest to locate the chapel that was used to film the library scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (incidentally I miserably failed... it wasn't anywhere near our route). It was a privilege to stumble across a newly-wed couple as they emerged from church and boarded a gondola for their first trip together as man and wife. Having reached the furthest point (Venice's car park), we made our way back through narrow passages and back streets and were highly disturbed by all the masquerade costumes. We stopped off for a gelato (which gave us all brain freeze as we had to eat them very quick to avoid them melting in the heat). It was at this point that I saved Michael and Tom from a nasty bout of Weil's Disease, as I chastised them for washing their hands in the canal of all places... and got them to wash their hands in a fountain. Having extensively toured the canals and chapels on two of the adjoined islands, we made our way back to the rendezvous point on Tatooine at the harbour. Many of us were dehydrated and exhausted in the heat and took shelter in the shade provided at a local restaurant/hotel. That was until the grumpy steward shooed half of us off. So. If you ever find yourself in Venice, you may wish to reconsider dining or staying at the Hotel Gabrielli. A smaller but more speedy ferry picked us up and I had a particularly pleasant voyage back thanks to some friendly company and good banter.

Sunday 11th September
Our following day was spent in transit as we headed for the eternal city - Rome itself. Unfortunately at one of our stop offs, one of the girls had her purse snatched in the lavatories. This put a bit of dampener on our journey but we tried to keep one another's spirits up. Upon reaching our new hotel, I parted company with Michael and Tom as I was paired up with my new roomie, Ross. We quickly struck up a rapport and did some serious male bonding while watching the US version of Total Wipeout in Italian in our room. I was tired and beginning to procrastinate on a couple of things I had realised... so it was good to have some light relief both in terms of company and random entertainment. At the evening session I felt like a total utter nerd because I recognised the Voyager 1 image known as The Pale Blue Dot that was being used as a backdrop for the evening talk.

Monday 12th September
Today was the day we actually hit the centre of Rome...but not before playing a game of sardines by riding a train from an outlying station close to where we were staying. We were on the lookout for pickpockets (we had been warned about them operating in Rome), yet little did we realise that whilst we would have no incidents in the city itself... while we were away, the coach would be broken into and raided. Today I decided to hang around some of our colonial cousins led by Dan (a teacher from Australia). We made our way out to the Spanish Steps, where local vendors cheekily gave women roses "for luck" and then tapped up male members of the party for payment for their "gift". We then turned south and headed for the Trevi Fountain... it was an amazing sight to behold. Wonderfully crafted marble spouting water that glistened beautifully as it gushed and trickled through the stonework.

En route to the Vatican museum, we took a trip round the Pantheon... which had a mystical feel to it as you watched the sun slowly move round the central chamber through an aperture in the roof. I was sorely tempted to buy a replica Gladius sword from a local souvenir shop. It was real metal and a snitch at €81. However I was unsure of Oak Halls policy with regard to ancient weaponry... let alone the nightmare of getting a sword through customs on the way home!  We realised at this point that we were short on time and so we ploughed on... determined to keep our appointment at the Vatican. Once we reached our destination, we were not to be disappointed. We navigated our way through seemingly endless halls containing sculptures, relics, maps, tapestries and frescoes. It was sensory overload. Fortunately for us there was a chamber of slightly less impressive modern art that gave us opportunity to recuperate and prepare ourselves for the Vatican's crown jewel... I am of course referring to The Sistine Chapel.

Words can't express the feeling of being there, they really can't. I stood there moving around the entire chapel with my head craning up and my mouth agape. It was a sardine tin again... as the place was crammed. We were also not supposed to take photographs... but I really didn't mind that. It was just an absolute privilege just to be in the place. I could have stayed there forever it seems.

Upon return to the hotel, I decided to take a private walk to the beach in the dark... wrestling with a few thoughts and some antipodean germs that were affecting my throat. I made it back for the evening service and had a long chat with someone who needed a bit of advice and a friendly ear. As a result of this my mini tour group was bolstered by one for the next day's visit to Rome. For some reason I holidays don't seem complete to me unless I'm actually contributing in some way to others.

Tuesday 13th September
We visited Rome again and it was my turn to play "Sherpa" once more. We stayed with the main group early on for a tour of some of the more subtle sights of the city. However upon reaching the Forum and resting in a gardened area (where incidentally, I managed to discover a truffle), we split up again and after a pit stop for pizza in a back alley and a bout of haggling over some maps with street vendors, we headed over to the Colosseum..... Oh you should see the Colosseum, Spaniard. Once a place of death and blood lust, it now bears a cross at its centre and is used to commemorate the memory of the martyrs who perished there. In fact the Colosseum is one of the monuments that lights up on the international day against the death penalty in October. It also lights up whenever a death sentence is commuted or a nation abolishes capital punishment. Like the cross... a symbol of death has become a symbol of hope and life. I wanted to have a look at the excavated monuments in that area but the other lads had not had opportunity to see the Trevi fountain and so... feeling I'd seen what I most wanted to get out of Rome and not wanting to deny my companions the opportunity of seeing something they really wanted to see, we yomped off down the road towards the fountain. Having reached our objective and run into some of the girls coming back the other way, we tarried a few moments, taking pictures and resting... before heading back to St. Peter's Square at pace in order to make the rendezvous. We missed the took a different route back to everyone else but it afforded us a better view of the Tiber so we didn't complain. We were utterly exhausted and dehydrated and so we stopped off for a drink and gelato. I was so hot and bothered and lost in thought, that I completely missed the playful flirtations of the waitress who served me... it's always the way isn't it?

Wednesday 14th September
I rose early and ascended to the hotel roof where I watched the early morning flights crossing the sun as they made their way to Rome's main airport, before joining several others in prayer. We bade farewell to the hotel owner who was really friendly and ran out into the road to wave the coach off... what a lovely guy! I was kind of spaced out on this day but I really appreciated our tour of the catacombs, seeing places where early Christians worshipped and were laid to rest in the times of persecution. I had an epiphany about St. Sebastian. He was supposed to have been miraculously healed of arrow wounds when he was condemned to death by archery. If this is true, then I believe the real miracle was what followed... you see Sebastian's survival gained him an audience with the Emperor Diocletian (who reigned during what was known as "The Great Persecution"). He was martyred shortly after this (permanently this time), so I believe it was an act of God's grace to give even the despicable Diocletian a chance to hear the gospel.  We travelled north and made our way into the Tuscan countryside. When we arrived at our new hotel, I went for a reconnoitre around the area... gathering my thoughts, stretching my legs and looking for somewhere to chill out with the others later on.

Thursday 15th September
Today we travelled to Siena (hot on the heels of James Bond in Quantum of Solace). Although we didn't find any secret cabals or terrorist organisations, we did find a whopping great bell tower in the centre of the town off the Piazza del Campo. As we split into groups again, I bought a map,consulted with Michael, Tom and Sam about they wanted to do. We agreed we all wanted to get to the top of the tower (what was I thinking... I should have known better after Rome! No in all seriousness, I love climbing towers... I love getting a unique perspective of the world below). We decided to queue for that first as we knew it was a popular  thing to do. It's a good job we did that because we ended up waiting for about 40 minutes... it seems they only allow a maximum of 25 people in the tower complex at any one time. It was a gruelling climb... I smacked my brains out in the first few feet on a low hanging stone, Michael was exhausted with the climb, Sam struggled with the heat and Tom started coming down with vertigo. The view from the top was worth it all though... you could see far across the Tuscan countryside and right down on the tiny ant-like people way below us. We realised we needed to get down from the tower as we were denying others the opportunity to go up.  Tom shot off like a bull at a gate (I suspect the vertigo had something to do with it). I kept between him and the others. Pretty soon we were all at the bottom and we yomped off out of the maze-like back streets in search of a statue of Garibaldi. Along the way we were enjoying such scenes as the ruined medieval fortress  and err... the car park we started out from (nice going Nick). When we got back into Siena, we sat down for a lasagna and lemonade at a local restaurant where we were joined by James and Fiona. Major embarrassment loomed as the guys wanted to split the tab... which was something the staff weren't used to when they game back, everyone realised it would have been simpler to stick to paying the single bill. At this point we had 5 minutes left before we needed to move on... and everyone did the noble thing and shoved all the money in my hand before promptly legging it. In I went to sort things out with the management with my pigeon Italian vocabulary... by the grace of God I somehow managed to pay the bill without being lumbered with the washing up... and I beat a hasty retreat in order to rejoin the others.

We moved on to rendezvous with the coach which was about to escort us to San Gimignano... an old town of medieval skyscrapers, on the way we paused at a covered ornamental fish pond where we cooled our feet in a freezing overflow... sublime. Once in San Gimignano, I just wanted to chill out... so I made my way to some museum steps where Kate, Rachel and I had great fun people watching and pretending we were invisible. I say pretending... but the really strange thing was that other people from our party were staring in our direction or passing within metres of us and yet bizarrely we remained hidden from detection. On the way I scoffed another mint/melon gelato and thoroughly worn out with the heat... chilled out for the rest of the day.

Friday 16th September
Today was the day we hit Florence. My initial plan was to go and see the David at the Accademia and then move on to the Uffizi Gallery... but I was reliably informed that this was liable to be impossible due to the intense queuing at both and the the sheer amount of time it would take to get round the Uffizi Gallery. Having acquired yet another map, I took my trusty crew and headed for the Accademia (now bolstered by yet another companion as the lovely Rachel opted to come with us). We queued for about 25 minutes (not bad considering the estimated time was 45 minutes). The Accademia was built specifically to host the statue of Michelangelo's David... as you gaze upon the statue, you can see how the light plays on all the statues musculature... it's a masterpiece. It pretty much blows everything else in the entire gallery away. A couple of other discoveries were made in the Accademia... Sam could knock out a decent tune on a 3 note harpsichord... and I appear to be a virtuoso on the Singing Fountain Bowl. We decided to grab some lunch from the supermarket over the road; however, while we were still waiting for Tom to finish buying food and Michael to exit the Christian bookshop... a strange man came up to Sam, Rachel and myself and started spouting German gibberish at us... but we did understand one word that he uttered... "hashish". Rachel and I kind of did a double take as we realised what he'd said... and with the others rallied together, we decided to beat a hasty retreat to a nearby piazza. I swear in all my born days... that's the first time anyone's offered me anything illicit/illegal. What a sheltered life I've led!  You might have thought out troubles were over, but as we sat eating our lunch... we were pestered by a Roma beggar. I kind of felt it was wrong to give anything out as we'd been warned about Roma gangs and stuff like that. I did think for one moment that one of our party (mentioning no name lol), was going to give her a handful of Pringles... which I don't think would have gone down well at all.

We spent a little time in a cathedral at the centre of the city... and I loaned everyone the use of my binoculars so they could try and make out what was painted on the dome's fresco. We then reunited with several others and moved onto the main city bridge where lots of strange stuff happened. Firstly, Dan decided to grab a random stranger from behind (in the mistaken belief that the lady was one of our group) and totally embarrassed himself. Then, whilst I was window shopping with Rachel... Michael decided to chime in and ask if I was shopping for a ring! The temperature in Florence went up by about 30 degrees thanks to the glow from my cheeks.

Rachel then decided there was a basilica (Santa Croce) worth checking out further along the road... so the five of us made our way there. We discovered that there was an entry fee and so Michael, Tom and Sam decided they'd sit it out and get a gelato. Rachel informed me that the stained glass in this basilica was reportedly so impressive that a notable visitor once fainted as they walked in. Alas as we entered the building we discovered that the window was not visible due to restoration work. However I found the church to be very special in many other ways. It is the resting place of several notable people including Michelangelo, Gallileo, Machiavelli and Rossini. There was also a small altar commemorating Maximilian Kolbe (a personal hero). It seemed to me to be a nexus of things that mattered to me. It was a place of worship that paid tribute to the fields of reason and high culture... how wonderful. I'll never forget that place.

Rachel and I exited the church but the others had already cleared off, so we headed back together to the rendezvous point... unfortunately the coach was severely delayed though, so we spent time as a group chilling out by the river and watching the dodgy street vendors running from the police.

Back at the hotel, I really benefited from that evening's talk. It was all about God's divine providence... it really stirred me up and reminded me personally about what he has spoken to my soul in the past. I felt encouraged and restored in many ways... I didn't fully understand why until later, but I turned in on a very positive note that night. I had a very good chat with John  as we sat in the corner waiting for Ross to crawl in with Arianna. Ross being slightly the worse for ware was hilarious.

Saturday 17th September
I think this was the day I struggled the most... I really did have a lot on my plate and what with the talk the previous evening, I didn't feel like I'd "finished cooking". I was still processing a lot in my subconscious and it made me feel a little withdrawn. Nevertheless we checked out of the hotel and started out for Lake Maggiore... via Pisa. I was feeling quite down on approach to Pisa and for the most part I kept myself to myself as I wandered around the leaning tower and church buildings.

As we made our way back to the coach park we were defended from the fake goods salesmen by an Italian touring band who burst from their coach and triggered a spontaneous song and dance celebration. It was wonderful - we danced, we laughed... they boarded our coach repeatedly and though we were utter strangers, our serendipitous meeting brought much jollity on both sides. It was just what I needed at that time. It was one of those timely random encounters that just lifts your day in a magical way.

We drove through a fierce squall as we neared Lake Maggiore.... a proper Mediterranean storm.That night I had another long chat with John, Jamie and Tammy in the bar. I spent the night tossing and turning with thoughts in my head and the chuntering, laughing and sighing of Ross as he slept in his bed next to mine. Any hopes of getting any sleep that night flew out the window when at 3:20am, a bunch of rowdy Germans checked into the hotel in the rooms opposite ours. Honestly... all the shouting and slamming of doors made me think the Gestapo were coming to get us!

Sunday 18th September
We spent the morning prayer meeting sharing communion with one another which was a welcome change of pace. After my night of tossing and turning, I'd had a bit of epiphany about the "providence" talk, which helped me come to a personal decision about something I'd been procrastinating about... although fate worked against me doing anything about it until much later. Generally speaking, Lake Maggiore was more about kicking down and relaxing for me... I had no plan of action as to what I wanted to see, so I just tagged along for the most part. I made the severe mistake of not bothering to unpack my raincoat.... to which upon learning, Steve quite rightly called me "a muppet". I wasn't really thinking. Fortunately, Rachel shared her brolly with me and in fact it wasn't that bad... with only a couple of brief cloudbursts to worry about.

Enjoyed a bit of a random barn dance to celebrate our last night in Italy together and we all finished up singing Auld Lang Syne. As we broke up and headed back to the bar/rooms, I realised I needed to act on my decision and found myself unexpectedly doing so with a sense of determination.
Monday 19th September
Today we made preparations to head back to good old Blighty. Being up quite early, I treated Ronnie to a real Italian coffee... which seemed very sludgy. After breakfast, I spent time hanging round the shops in town with John (we did our very best to look straight), before joining up with Arianna and Ross for a coffee. We then shared a pizza together with more or less everyone from the trip. After lunch, we stocked up on snacky foods in the local supermarket... where I discovered that "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" appears to be in the Italian charts at the moment, as it was being played over the supermarket music system. What was that about??????

Sadly we bade farewell to Steve as we boarded the coach for our outward journey as he was flying ahead of us. This time as we hit the Alps, it was still daylight... so we were treated to an amazing transformation in scenery as we progressed northwards. It felt like we were passing into Narnia or the Misty Mountains... it was quite ethereal. When we finally reached an altitude that was level with the snowline, we made a brief stop and had an epic snowball fight. It was pretty surreal having come from sunny climes and wearing thin shirts, running around lobbing snow projectiles at our new friends. As night drew in, we shared a cup of hot chocolate together at the Swiss chalet where those of our number who were remaining on the Europe would be staying. We paid tribute one another (especially to Charis and James and our drivers who had led us in different ways. We then parted in bitter sweet fashion. It was sad seeing new friends faces disappearing into the blackness of night... I can still see Dan's outline as he waved us off illuminated only by the coach tail lights... and then fading into silhouette and becoming one with the background. Those of us on the coach still had one another, but there was a feeling that we'd been diminished significantly and some of us took it harder than others.

We huddled in the back and dealt with things in our own ways. Ross played with James' iPad and tried to excel at Fruit Ninja.  James came and checked up on Ross, Jamie and myself on the backseat and shared some of his observations about our exploits in the week. Some of the girls started singing Grease hits. I didn't think Jamie would appreciate listening to the soppy stuff, so I loaned him an ear on my iPhone and we started singing praise songs... amazingly everyone else eventually  joined in with us.

Eventually as the coach headed for Germany to pick up a spare part, we settled down to sleep (or did our best to). I had an amazing blessing at this point. I nodded off  prostrate on the back seat and had a very powerful Biblical dream that was very relevant to my circumstances. So powerful was this dream that when I woke up it felt like the dream had actually physically happened. At first I thought my brain was playing tricks on me... but it gradually dawned on me that something else was going on and as I settled back into my power napping I trusted in God and just felt so richly blessed. Daylight shone through the coach windows and we were in France. We eventually arrived at Eurotunnel a couple of hours late. I'd managed to go the entire holiday without being bitten by a bug or critter... but as I queued at passport control, a little blighter nipped me on my leg. How annoying!

I enjoyed the trip through the Eurotunnel and got some important clarification on some things that surprised me... but also reminded me of some of the things I'd learned about myself on the trip.

And so as we rolled into Kent on Tuesday morning... we made our final farewells. Sam had missed his coach so I offered to take him home. Upon contacting his father, we arranged to rendezvous at Bicester services which was on my way home. I was grateful to God for his protection on the way home... I hadn't appreciated just how tired I was going to be driving back.  I needed that pit stop in Bicester because I'd felt more than a little in trouble on the M25 and M40 at times.

Saying farewell to Sam was my last point of contact with my holiday... and as I wished him well, I switched on my radio and set course for Alcester with many treasured memories and new friends to think about.

I hope this detailed account hasn't put you off too much. I hope instead to have shared a little bit into what made my holiday such a happy and blessed time... and now I am back, I hope it is more than just business as usual.

God bless


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