Thursday, 30 April 2015

April in England

Is it spring? 


Do we really live in England? 

Are you sure?

Why am I asking such silly questions?  Because of the crazy, awesome, beautiful, sunny weather we’ve been having here.  Except for yesterday.  It rained yesterday.  But no biggie because it was actually a welcome change from the crazy, awesome, beautiful, sunny weather we’ve been having here.   

This is not the English weather I was expecting, and definitely not in the spring, and definitely not in April which back in Indiana seems to be the month the nasty storms like to roll through the state over and over and over again.  In England, there are no thunderstorms in spring, or any other time of the year for that matter.  I love not having to worry every time the sky darkens, turning on the TV to check the weather report, staying glued to the TV for a few hours if there are storm warnings and even worse, tornado warnings.  We have heard thunder exactly once since moving to England back in September.  And by once, I literally mean one clap of thunder and that was all she wrote.  And lightning – what the heck is lightning?   

Last week on the way to school, my neighbor asked about the twisters we have in the US.  Twisters - her word, not mine.  Is that what they call them here?  What a weird thing to hear here say because twister seems like the slang word for tornado that only an American would use.  Then it dawned on me - the movie!  That's why she's calling them twisters.  Most people in England and most of Europe for that matter do not know much about tornadoes because they don't have them here.  They've had an extremely rare tornado here and there a few times in Europe but that is it.  Twisters, tornadoes - whatever you call them, I don't have to worry about them here in England and I am digging this weather.  That is something I never expected to say when I moved here.

April in England may not be the proper title for this post because we actually weren’t here for half the month.  We were in Italy for the first couple of weeks during the girls' two-week break from school.  The school year here goes into July so they get a longer spring break.  And it was a much needed break from school I might add.  We were all getting burned out on the same old routine before we left, but the trip to Italy and the break from school seems to have recharged our batteries.  Bring on the school lunches, homework, and loads of laundry that need to be done trying to keep those school uniforms clean!

Sunset over Florence, and quite possibly the best photo Eric has taken yet!
And Italy was everything we had dreamed of and more, but I don't think I need to share too much about Italy with you in this post.  I've covering all of that in my Italy posts - my many Italy posts.  I hope you are ready for them.

While we were in Italy, Ellie turned 10.  

I can’t believe it.  
I don’t really want to accept it.  
I had a harder time with her turning 10 than I did when I turned 40.   
My baby girl is growing up.   
How exciting to have spent her birthday in Italy.  I may have been more excited about that than she was because she is only 10 after all.  But she was awfully excited when we arrived in Cinque Terre where we were met by Sergio, the man who owns the amazing guest cottage we stayed in (and incidentally built by hand himself which I will share in a future blog post so check back), who showed up with a beautifully wrapped Italian birthday cake for Ellie.  Well, not really a cake per say – I’m not sure what the correct name for it is, but rest assured, it was flaky and custardy and chocolaty and delicious!  

When we arrived at the guest cottage early in the afternoon that day, the first thing we did was have lunch outside on the patio and then enjoy some of Ellie’s birthday cake with the sparkling blue Mediterranean off in the distance.  What a place for a birthday lunch.  AMAZING!!!  Just like Ellie!

Back in England, the star of the show in the countryside during April is definitely the rapeseed fields.  The countryside looks like a patchwork quilt of brown, green and vibrant yellow.  The fields are beautiful anytime of the day, but first thing in the morning as the sun slowly peaks over the horizon and again in the evening as it’s getting ready to set for the night is when the fields really shine, or maybe glow is a better description.   

There’s a rapeseed field right across the street from our house and every morning when I walk into Ellie and Leah’s rooms to wake them for the day, the vibrant yellow field seems to call out and greet me.  I stop for a few moments and just gaze at it, mesmerized. 

We’ve watched this field across the street since we moved into our house in late September.  Back then, there was just a little bit of green peaking out of rich brown soil and we had no idea what was growing there, but over the fall and into the winter, the green grew taller, and by March, the growth seemed to accelerate.  When we left for Italy in the end of March, it was a bed of green.  When we returned two weeks later, the field had transformed into a stunning sea of yellow.  This field of rapeseed will be turned into canola oil when harvested.  It’s a winter crop and I’m not sure when exactly it will be harvested, but it probably won’t be too long now. I'll be sad when it goes.  It seems like anything that could be planted in the field will pale in comparison to this beautiful bright field of yellow.

Oh, those rapeseed fields!  When I saw this picture, I thought of the Wizard of Oz.  Maybe because it looks like the setting in a fairytale.
Bike riding – a sure sign that spring has arrived.  The only problem – we had no bikes here.  This bothered me because the girls had just started riding bikes right before we moved to England – and for Leah, I mean she literally learned right before we moved.  The week before in fact.  How sad would it be if she has to wait two whole years to practice some more and get past the wobbly, I still don’t know how to use the brakes, phase.  And then Eric came to the rescue.  He came home the other afternoon after being gone for two days on a business trip (to France and he drove – you can do that when you live in England – drive to France for a business trip) with a surprise in the boot of the car (boot is the trunk here in the UK) – two bicycles!  The girls were thrilled, even if they weren’t the pretty bikes they would normally choose.  They also needed some TLC since Eric had rescued the bicycles from a coworkers cluttered garage.  He and the girls didn't waste anytime getting them cleaned up and ready to go and by that evening, we took them out for their first spin here in England.

We have the perfect bike riding trail just down the street from our house and that is exactly where we headed after dinner.  Ellie jumped on and away she went.  Leah was a little rusty.  After running into me, and then Ellie, daddy gave her some help.  

At one point, she was stopped on the trail trying to get herself started again when Eric passed by and started walking down the trail ahead of her.  Leah says, "Daddy, I don't think it's a very good idea to walk in front of me."  Good advice!  

She didn't need help for long.  She knows how to ride a bike, the problem was just getting it to go straight. 

Still a little wobbly.

Oh, trying to hard to just go straight.

Aaaaaand - she got it! 

We've created a monster.  She wants to ride bike all the time now.  That's my girl!

We finally visited a farmers' market in England.  Every third weekend of the month they have one in Ashby, a town not far from here.  April was the first month we've actually been at home on the third weekend or I would have gone to the farmers' market earlier.  It's basically the same as the farmers markets in the US:  vegetables, meat, fresh fish (the salmon we bought was melt in your mouth delicious), cheese, lots of breads and pastries, homemade doggy biscuits, a coffee truck so you can get a cup of coffee to go with your pastries.  What's different about the farmers' markets in England?  Well, for one you can get scotch eggs - a hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage seasoned with a variety of spices, coated in breadcrumbs and either baked or deep fried.  They're delicious!  I'll have to take a picture next time because I forgot this time.  The second thing that is different about the farmers' market in England is the backdrop, or at least the one in Ashby as they all probably can't make this claim - it sits in front of a castle, or what use to be a castle anyways as it's more the ruins of a castle now, but still very majestic.  

After purchasing some food, we sat in the sunshine by the castle enjoying our coffee and pastries.  What a way to spend Saturday morning.

Friday nights are pizza night here in the Engebretsen household, and I don't mean takeout pizza (because there isn't anywhere near here to get takeout pizza).  I mean the good old made from scratch variety.  I saved some of our farmers' market purchases until the following Friday so I could wrestle up a good pizza with some fresh local ingredients.  There have been a lot of Fridays since we moved here and henceforth, a lot of pizzas, but never one this good.  Please let me introduce the Carmelized Red Onion, Spinach and Bacon pizza.  Oh yum, yum, yum, this was goooood!

And that my friends, was pretty much our April in England!  And Italy!  Where are we off to next month?  Well, I'll give you a little hint and see if anyone can figure this out.  Ha det bra!

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Italy - The Medieval Walled City of Siena

Siena – a breath of fresh air after Rome.  Oh, I loved Rome, but is was just so very busy and crowded and we had spent three days being full-fledged tourists seeing as much as we could see, walking until our feet hurt, and dodging traffic every time we crossed the street.  We were all ready for a change, to explore a different part of Italy, and Siena has a peacefulness and simple beauty about it that was just what we needed.  Life feels slower here, more deliberate - this was the Italy I had hoped to find.

There were still tourists in this lovely city, but not in the abundance as Rome.  After all, the historic center of Siena has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site and it wouldn't take us long to see why people are drawn to Siena.  While Rome has sites dating back to the Roman Empire mixed in amongst a bustling modern city, walking through Siena transports you back to medieval times, the architecture very Gothic in style.  

As we walked the streets, if I had suddenly heard the sound of horse hooves pounding against the cobblestone and a group of shiny silver knights emerged around a corner and raced past on their sturdy white and black steeds, I wouldn't have been surprised.   When you enter Siena, the gray and brown stone and bricks wrap around you like a warm embrace and you could easily think you had traveled back in time some 500, 600 or maybe 700 years ago, if it wasn't for the signs of modern day society, like a scooter parked on the side of the street,

or a boy rushing past in Nikes and jeans,

or a colorful hydrangea nestled in a neon green pot decorating the street.

Even laundry hanging out to dry in Siena makes a postcard picture, and yes, they really do hang laundry out there windows here.

The mix of old and new even extends to a street worker simply sweeping up after the tourists and locals.   

The brilliant orange of his uniform is what first attracts your attention to him, the color looking so out of place against the medieval backdrop.  But then you notice his broom.  If there were street workers in this city 500 years ago, they may very well have been using a broom just like this.   

Our travels to Siena started early in the morning as we waited for the train in Rome.

 We would ride many trains in Italy, every one of them lulling Leah to sleep like a baby.

When we arrived at the Siena train station, we decided to make our way to Hotel Italia on foot, the place where we would be spending the next three nights.  And how did we find the hotel exactly?  With the help of some garbage cans.  I'm serious - garbage cans.  They pointed the way.  As we stood in front of the train station turning in circles trying to figure out which way we were to go, there is was - a garbage can with two simple words written on, "Hotel Italia," and an arrow pointing up and back towards the train station.  Siena, you see, is built on a hill - well, actually it's built on three hills - three high hills.  And the train station was built into the side of one of those hills - down at the bottom to be more exact.  The garbage can was telling us to go up, but how?   "There had been escalators going up inside the train station," I thought to myself.  "I think we need to use them."  Eric wasn't quite convinced but reluctantly he followed me up the first set of escalators, and then a second set.  There we found a doorway into a long tunnel and another escalator, going up.  

And then another after that.  

And yet another one.  

This went on for some time and after the ninth escalator (or maybe tenth - there is some internal family disagreement about just how many escalators there were), we arrived at another set of doors leading outside.  As we exited the long tunnel pulling all our luggage behind us, we could see the walls of the old city to our left, behind us was an incredible vista of the Tuscan valley, 

and directly in front of us stood another garbage can.  Again, it simply said "Hotel Italia" but this time the arrow pointed to the right.  We turned right and headed down the street and a mere five minutes later, we were standing in front of the Hotel.  Hotel Italia - whoever thought up the idea to put directions on the garbage cans - brilliant!

This hotel room was much smaller than the one in Rome, but just as unique with bright colors, a red brick arched ceiling overhead, and terrecotta tile under our feet.  It was cozy and welcoming.  The girls each had their own beds pushed to one side of the room, 

and Eric and my bed sat in front of a set of tall french doors we could open to let in the fresh Tuscan air.

Eager to explore Siena, we headed out right away towards the historic center of the city.  To get there, you need to pass through one of the gates that will let you side its medieval walls.

 Once inside, we twisted and turned through the narrow winding streets,

and saw some interesting sights along the way.  Like this little alley with a parking sign above it, but apparently, there's only parking for one, and it better be a tiny car.

We noticed the unique horse rings mounted on the stone walls.  I wonder how long this guy has been hanging there?

And the doors - some inviting and some not so much.  Like this one.  It's beautiful, but those faces.  They are huge door knockers, but they look as if they may bite your hand off if you try to use them.

We walked downhill,

 and up stairways that led to different streets.

We apprehesively stuck our heads through open doorways, not sure if we were allowed to enter, only to be met with magnificent sights like this:

And sometimes, you would pass by a little opening between buildings and be met by a view like this:

Some of the narrow winding streets were lined with small shops selling beautiful Italian made merchandise - like the colorful ties pictured below.  

There were art shops selling paintings and prints, textiles, gorgeous bowls and dishes.  There were tiny little boutiques, each with their own style, selling clothing, purses, jewelry, and scarves - oh the Italian made scarves!    Even the men's stores all had scarves.  I tried talking Eric into it each time we passed a handsomely dressed Italian man sporting one, but he wasn't buying it.  

And there were lots of shops selling delicious food - oils, vinegars, colorful pasta noodles and sauces, bread and pastries, coffee - and they were so hard to resist.  We didn't have the facilities during our stay in Siena to make our own meals, and it was still the first week of a two week trip.  Hauling around all of our luggage was exhausting enough.  We really didn't need to add bottles of olive oil or bags of beautiful pasta - but boy was I tempted!

We kept running into this odd and, please forgive me for saying this, but I found it be be a somewhat disturbing sight.

I don't mean to belittle this statute because it's actually extremely important to the Sienese.  It's just that whenever I saw it, it struck me as.... well, look at the picture very closely.  How does it make you feel?  This statue is based on a myth that Rome was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who it is said were thrown into the Tiber River as infants when their grandfather was overthrown by his brother (their great uncle) who wanted to kill all the potential male heirs.  A she-wolf saved them, suckling them until they were found by some shepards who took them in and raised them.  As adults, the brothers discovered what their great uncle had done, they killed him, returned their grandfather to the throne, and then went on to found Rome.  Siena is said to have been founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus.  In fact, some claim the name Siena is derived from Senius.  And that folks is the story and why we would see this interesting but very symbolic sight all over the city.

It would be fun to live in a city with such a story behind it, but maybe I would rather have this porcupine as my symbol.  He seems a bit more lighthearted and almost comical compared to the she-wolves and the suckling babes. 

We would see this porcupine around Siena as well, but never figured out its significance here.

As last we reached the heart of the old city - the Piazza del Campo (the town square).  As with the rest of the city, the Il Campo as it's also know had a very, very old feel about it.  It's regarded as one of Europe's greatest medieval squares.  Unlike the many other city piazzas we've seen in Europe, this one was shaped like a great shell, the large open area surrounded by buildings, some of which date back to the 13th century, sloping down towards the Palazzo Pubblico (the town hall) with it's bell tower, the Torre del Mangia, towering overhead.  

The bell tower was built back in the 1300s and designed to be taller than the bell tower in Siena's great historical rival, the city of Florence.  Sitting in the back of the square is the Fonte Gaia, or Fountain of Joy.  The original design dates back to 1419, although some of the sculptures have been replaced since then.

We would be drawn over and over again to this alluring Piazza, the sloping ground beaconing us to take a seat as if we were in an old theater to watch a show.  The entertainment?  The architecture, the history, the people around us speaking different languages so we could only guess at what they were saying. And the pigeons.  Yes, we watched the pigeons too.  Remember, it's springtime and those boys were strutting their stuff trying to attract the ladies.  

The girls loved running around the square, chasing the pigeons or just each other.  

There were less people and they could stray farther from us as there was no concern here about them getting lost in the crowd. 

Late one afternoon, we even got to participate in a balloon release in the great Piazza.  A group of children showed up in the square holding bundles of blue balloons that they started to distribute to the crowd.  Ellie and Leah ran over and each nabbed one.  We weren't sure at first what the intent was, but slowly we realized that those with the balloons were gathering into one of three groups.  

We were part of a huge smiley face spread across the cobblestone Piazza, and high up in the bell tower someone was taking a photo of it.  After standing in one of the eyes for a few minutes, we heard the countdown. 

"Dieci. Nove. Otto..."

As we heard "Uno," the crowd released the balloons, everyone cheering as they slowly rose up above the rooftops of these ancient buildings and disappeared into the sky that matched their color. 

This balloon release was sponsored by the local rotary club, but we aren't sure what they were celebrating.  That was okay - it was just fun to have been a part of it anyway.

We stayed in Siena for three nights, spending one of those days driving around the Tuscan countryside and the other two days exploring Siena itself.  We did do more than just wander the beautiful tranquil streets of this city, and in the next post I'll share some of those activities with you.  Although really, I loved visiting this city so much that just wandering the streets would have been perfectly fine with me.