Malta: The Old

January 28, 2011

So in addition to hiking every day, we also visited some of the oldest standing structures in the world. Older than the pyramids! Older than Stonehenge! The temples on Malta and Gozo are big, old, and beautiful. These megalithic structures are a bit mind boggling, especially since there are so many sites and they are all strategically placed with stunning vistas and precise relationships to the seasonal equinoxes. And there are still plenty of mysteries surrounding their existence. I kind of like the fact that despite all of our fancy modern technology and knowledge, there are still some unknowns in this world. 

We visited Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Ggantija. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra can be seen together and there is a nice, little museum at the entrance to these sites. They are in a stunning location and if it is a nice day be sure to leave some extra time for hiking around the area. The only disappointing aspect is that both of the temple areas have recently been covered with a protective awning. I understand the need to prevent erosion, but it wasn't quite as picturesque as the images presented in the guide books.  Ggantija is located on  the island of Gozo. It is a smaller site, but still quite impressive and not covered. Also, if you are traveling with kids there is a small playground and soccer field just before the entrance to the Ggantija temple. When we return to Malta we hope to visit the Hypogeum (and we'll be sure to buy our tickets in advance). Prior to our visit, I had no idea Malta had such an ancient history, did you?

Malta: The Wild

January 27, 2011

Here's the amazing thing about Malta that we didn't really grasp until we were actually driving on the opposite of the is a super small island. This means that everything is within a very short driving distance. We couldn't get over it. Within fifteen to thirty minutes we were able to travel through quaint towns, go around a couple of round abouts, and end up at a beautiful hiking spot. And that's pretty much what we did. We hiked every afternoon that we were in Malta.
On our first day we traveled back in time and hiked around the temple sites of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra . Taking in the striking vista, I can see why those temples were built there, but good grief, how did they do it?  On our second day we ventured (via short ferry trip)to the island of Gozo where we scrambled up and down a rocky cliff path surrounding the sandy, red beach of Ramla Bay. And on our third day we were treated to a dramatic sunset over the clay slopes of Ghajn Tuffieha Bay.

For such a small place, Malta has a surprising number of wild and wonderful spots and we can't wait to return for more. On future trips to Malta we'll be sure to print out a few of these walking guides. We'll get in contact with Malta Outdoors and perhaps get even more adventurous. And we'll also be bringing along this fabulous little book. We bought it while visiting Gozo and it turns out that it is actually a wonderful resource for Sicily, too, since we have many of the same plants and wildlife. And here's one more "wild" place we enjoyed visiting while in Malta: The Malta Falconry Centre. It's a small, but well maintained facility and the birds are amazing. We essentially had a private tour on the morning of our visit. We got to check out some baby hawks, see some of the larger birds in action, and even hold a beautiful barn owl. Be sure to call ahead to confirm the hours of the daily demonstrations.

Fragoline di Bosco

January 25, 2011

 Camille and I got up early this morning and made a trip to the Catania market. There are lots of small town markets near us that are closer and easier and held on certain days of the week, but Catania is my favorite. I love the pulsating energy of the market beating daily in the center of the city. I enjoy the jostling, the singing, the cajoling, and the vibrancy of it all. And ofcourse, I love the overflowing displays of seasonal offerings from the land and the sea.

Today's trip to the market prompted Camille to squeal with joy when she saw the stands with strawberries. She was especially eager to sample the fragolini di bosco...strawberries from the woods: wild strawberries (although I have to wonder if these  berries were actually grown in local green houses or if our unusually sunny winter has prompted them to be ready "in the wild" a bit earlier than usual?). As you can see, they are tiny little treasures full of flavor and they can be found topping some of the beautiful pastries in local pasticcerias.  

But no matter where we are in the world or the size of the berries, when strawberrry season hits, I aways start the season with good intentions of making fabulous strawberry creations. Like my on-going fantasy that I will finally make strawberry shortcake. Did I ever mention that my sister's wedding "cake" was actually individually made strawberry shortcakes? Made with freshly picked Louisiana Pontchatoula strawberries, it really was one of the best wedding cakes I have ever had (I also loved our chocolate hazelnut wedding cake, too. Nancy really is amazing. She made both of those memorable wedding confections). Anyway, back to fresh strawberries...they never stick around our house long enough to get made into anything! Perhaps that will change this season, but probably not. Camille and I have already gobbled down most of this morning's strawberries (a mix of tiny and big ones). Guess that means we'll be heading back to the market again very soon.


January 24, 2011

it just feels so good to pick up a big rock and hurl it over the edge of a cliff. 
Sunset hike 
Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, Malta

From Voles to Zombies

January 23, 2011

I thought voles were bad, but zombies in the garden are even worse! Several of you have asked about the vole situation. So here's the update. I wasn't able to get my hands on any chocolate laxatives (yet), but we did try chewing gum and that didn't seem to make any difference. The destruction continues. The holes are mutiplying. And yet, I spent the past week ignoring it all. 

Instead of ordering coyote urine or boiling vats of mint leaves to pour down the holes (that's another on-line suggestion), I spent every free second consumed with protecting a virtual garden from zombie attacks. I ignored my children. I ignored the laundry. I stayed up late and got up early intent on beating those creepy jerks. My neck hurt, my fingers cramped up, and my wrist started aching...who knew excessive screen time could have such negative physical consequences? All of this time I have been worried about the impact of too much screen time on my kids' brains and now I know from personal experience that there are physical ramifications to consider, too. I blame my friend Angi for getting me hooked on the stupid game of Plants v. Zombies. I lost an entire week of my life obsessed with pea shooting plants and when I finally completed all of the levels, I hooted, I hollered, I jumped around the house and made a victory phone call to Bulgaria. Here's to hoping I get the same level of satisfaction in the war against the voles. I'll keep you posted.

Waffles and More

January 19, 2011

Plates sticky with syrup, heart shaped waffles, lego creations, fresh ricotta mixed with powdered sugar and fresh lemon juice(so simple and so delicious), laughter, warmth, and new friendships... all around a kitchen table in Malta. 
One of the highlights of our weekend escape was meeting Juniper, her lovely family, and a few of their welcoming friends. It is funny meeting someone in real life after getting to "know" them through their blog entries. It's not the first time we have met other families via the blog world (like Karen and Emily when we moved to Sicily), but each time still brings up a flurry of feelings in those anxious and anticipatory moments right before knocking on the door. Happily, our Sunday morning in Malta was wonderful. Everyone, kids and adults, quickly gelled into one laughing, chatting, waffle-eating group and it felt as if we were with "our people". It is so good when that happens, isn't it?

Maltese Escape

January 18, 2011

We snuck away to Malta. It was a very spontaneous decision. We hopped on the ferry and landed in a tiny island country and it was fabulous. The sunny weather, the colorful boats, the friendly locals, the intriguing mix of history, cultures, and languages...they all worked their magic upon us and we can't wait to return.

Etna Eruption

January 13, 2011

Last night we had quite a show in our backyard! Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the beautiful mountain, really is an active volcano. It is actually the most active volcano in all of Europe and last night it erupted. A neighbor banged on our door and we ran outside to join the rest of our neighborhood watching the fiery display. One of our neighbors pulled out his telescope so we were able to see the action even more closely. As the night wore on the show got even more dramatic. We were all asleep when another neighbor took these photos at about 1 am. Makes me very glad we live in the valley and are able to enjoy the Etna's fireworks without the anxiety that would come from living closer to the top.  Want to see more? Check out this video clip and this update

Pickles, Prostitutes, and Smiles: Bulgaria

Our recent trip to Bulgaria was actually a return trip for me. During my senior year of college, I leaped at the chance to be a part of small student group that traveled to Bulgaria to study at the newly opened American University. It was fairly soon after the fall of communism and Bulgaria was not a top tourist destination. In fact, we never came across any other foreign travelers except for one brief encounter with some missionaries in line at what was probably the only KFC in all of Bulgaria at the time. My memories of that trip are a bit fuzzy now. 

We stayed in student dorms which only had hot water at certain times of the day. We learned to shake our heads for "yes" and nod our heads for "no". We ate a lot of cucumbers mixed with yogurt. We were overwhelmed by begging children as soon as we excited most buildings. We were impressed by the fact that we could use e-mail at a time when e-mail was just being introduced in the States and we had never really used it before. I was also impressed and a bit scared by the fact that one of the Bulgarian students was easily able to access the U.S. Naval Academy's computer system  and track down Adam's e-mail address. Our Bulgarian tour guide proudly announced that Bulgarians are very bright and some of the world's most talented computer hackers are Bulgarian. 

We traveled throughout Bulgaria and were awed by the beauty of the mountains, the monasteries, the Black Sea beaches. We traveled to Turkey and Greece and were equally impressed by those exotic spots. During those road trips, there weren't any public rest stops so our bus driver would periodically pull over on the side of the road and a gaggle of female students (did I ever mention I attended a women's college?)  would climb out, crouch down, and pee on the side of the road. I was glad that I packed several long skirts...much easier to pee in public in a long skirt than in pants. The cost of that month-long trip was about $800 for everything (flights, food, road trips, hotel and dorm stays). It was a strange, but good trip.

To be honest, I never thought I would have the chance to return to Bulgaria. I had those hodgepodge of student memories, but they didn't hold as much emotional weight as my time in Oxford, and I never felt a strong desire to return. But when our friends announced they were moving to Bulgaria, I eagerly convinced Adam that we needed to make the trip. And here are my impressions of Bulgaria fifteen years later. Once again, my impressions of the country are mixed.
 The roadside pickles in Bulgaria are divine. Seriously, I can't stop thinking about them. The woman who sold me the pickles (and apples) was welcoming and she had an easy smile. The two prostitutes standing across the road also smiled at me. Prior to the return trip to Bulgaria, I listened to a Rick Steve's podcast on Bulgaria. He proclaimed his long-time affection for the country and raved about the friendly locals. I remember being a bit puzzled by his comments, because I didn't remember too many overtly friendly or smiley Bulgarians during my first visit. That's not to say we didn't meet friendly Bulgarians, we did, but the more prominent feelings seemed to be distrust, disinterest, and puzzlement. So after hearing Steve's adoration, I was curious to see if there had been a major shift. I didn't see one. Smiles in Bulgaria are still a precious comoditity which explains why I was so touched by those smiling prostitutes on the side of the road between Sofia and Bansko. 
 The traffic in Bulgaria is more packed than before, but part of that is because there are still horse drawn carts. Yes, there really are. On major roads. Traveling long distances and creating frustrated drivers or crazed passengers like myself with a camera trying desperately to capture it all. Modern and old world co-mingling and surrounded by big, strong mountains.
 My strongest visual memories of this most recent trip to Bulgaria are in direct contrast to one another: religious icons and nude women. I loved all of the religious icons and road side shrines/churches. Truly beautiful. But I wasn't such a big fan of the numerous nearly-naked women that seemed to be on billboards advertising everything from dish liquid to car parts. The naked women on magazine covers. The grating music videos with naked, gyrating women that seemed to be playing non-stop in stores, restaurants, and even in the quaint ski lodge where we tried to sip hot chocolate with our kids. Another example of modern and old worlds colliding.
The biggest difference between this trip and my previous trip to Bulgaria, is that I now feel a desire to return. I want to venture back in the spring or summer time to hike around those stunning mountain areas. I want to visit more of the smaller towns where the locals really do smile more. And I want to get some more of those roadside pickles.

Chocolate Laxatives, Kitty Litter, and Chewing Gum

January 12, 2011

So the vole post continues. My cousin sent an e-mail suggesting I try chocolate laxatives since she had recently read this funny post about the unusual solution. Apparently, you stuff them in the hole. Just to be super clear on that point: stuff them in the voles' holes. That laxative search lead me to a whole new round of googling and reading which brought up the additional recommendations of filling the holes with used kitty litter (doesn't that sound like a fun job?) and sticks of chewing gum. There seems to be an ongoing debate on one gardening forum as to whether fruit flavored gum is better than mint flavored gum. I know most people have this image of gardeners as mild, mannered little old ladies in sun bonnets, but if you spend any time in those gardeners' forums, you will know that is not the case, especially in regards to garden pests. There is a fair amount of cursing,angst, desperation, and acts of violence when vegetable predators are involved. This desperate gardener is now off to see if I can track down laxatives and gum. I am holding off on the kitty litter, for now...

Pass the Coyote Urine, Please

The garden situation has gone from bad to really bad pretty quickly. Upon our return from Bulgaria, I discovered that our back vegetable garden was essentially decimated... a little pile of onion tops were the only evidence left of the dozen onions that had been standing proudly just a week earlier, broccoli and cauliflower were pathetic little nubs, and there wasn't one sign of the huge thriving clump that had been parsley. Our raised bed was a muddy, lumpy disaster and it left me wanting revenge. 

A few days ago a friend and I started poking around in the numerous holes trying to figure out exactly what we were dealing with. Within a few minutes we detected movement at the bottom of the raised bed and then a darting furry body part was sighted at other side of the bed. We stepped inside and as I frantically tried to pull up more information on shrews because that was my original thought, my friend stood by the door and excitedly noted that there was now one in plain sight on top of the bed. And then another. And they weren't shrews. They were voles. Fearless, hungry voles and that was not good news.

A quick on-line search and the bad news got worse. Turns out that voles are baby making machines. Reproducing and multiplying at a speed that would make any rabbit envious. Suddenly, it began to dawn on me that we could be dealing with a serious number of voles. In one month they had essentially destroyed our largest vegetable bed and they had dug up an impressive area of our front yard, I hated to think about what the second month of vole invasion would bring. 

Further internet searching led me into a gruesome area of spikey traps, poisons, and repeated warnings that voles are voracious. You wouldn't believe how many desperate and angry posts there are on garden forums about these little critters. And then there was coyote urine. That is one of the most popular recommendations for deterring voles and preventing future colonies. Never thought I would be comparing the costs of coyote urine or spend time pondering how coyote urine is collected. Can you train a coyote to pee into a cup? To save you google searching time click here or here (the names of these sights are at least worth a peek).

The other popular non-toxic suggestion was to get a cat, but with Noah and Adam both being allergic to cats that is not going to happen unless we can temporarily rent a vole hunting cat. Anyone have one of those we can borrow? Or other vole hunting suggestions? Or some extra coyote urine you want to share? This just goes to prove that our life isn't all about magical European travel adventures and sunny Sicilian beach trips. It includes garden-destroying rodents and predator urine.

Sunday at Vendicari

January 9, 2011

 Vendicari is one of our favorite spots in all of Sicily. Today was further confirmation of that:  a balmy January day (Noah wore shorts!); beach ball tossing, bird watching (more flamingos than usual in the marshy, lagoon area); shell collecting; marshmallow fighting (more on that later), exploring a new path with friends and meeting a very friendly American couple (we rarely run into American visitors beyond the typical cruise ship stops of Taormina and Palermo). It really was a very good Sunday at Vendicari.

Photo Resolution

January 8, 2011

So last year I resolved to make my bed every day and guess what? I actually stuck with it. Not every single day, but most days and just that simple little action each morning made me quite happy. This year my resolution is a bit more ambitious. It's something I have been saying I need to do for awhile. During the holidays it came bubbling up to the surface in a more forceful way when I attempted and failed to make and send photo cards. Then during our trip to Bulgaria, we spent part of the time looking at their albums filled with our kids when they were babies together in Japan and I realized I really need to do the same sort of simple photo albums for my own kids. And this past week it appeared again in the form of Noah's family tree photo project. I should get some sort of extra credit for the amount of time I spent viewing each month from the past seven years to find family photos. Instead, I got motivated to finally do something about this image issue. It's a multi-pronged issue for me: printing and displaying photos. 

The first problem is the printing. Why is it that in this age of easy internet access and good quality home photo printers do I rarely print anything? Part of me yearns to return to the age of film when I would spend hours in the high school darkroom, standing in the dark, swishing photo paper in chemicals and waiting for the images to emerge. That was a very tactile and olfactory printing experience.  Or even that "old fashioned" experience of anxiously dropping off a roll of film with twenty four attempts and waiting to see if any of the images came out the way I hoped they would. I guess part of it comes down to my love of surprises. These days the printing process just doesn't have that same element of excitement. I can hit play on my camera and instantly see what I have captured and so I just keep shooting and accumulating and never printing.

And then there is the issue of displaying. It would seem like in this time of digital wonders that our home would be drowning with pics of smiling faces and happy travels, but the reality is that the only thing groaning under the weight of the thousands of images that I take each year is my hard drive. Even my flickr account has been badly neglected, but the most obvious area of neglect is in my home.  We have a few framed baby pics of our kids hanging in the hall near their room and holiday cards from the past two years still hanging up in our kitchen, but that's about it. Isn't that horrible?  It's especially sad since we do live so far from family and friends and pretty pathetic since I come from a family of photographers. For a few years I was good about making annual photo books highlighting memorable moments from the year. But I haven't done one of those in awhile. Really, the only place that gets a regular dose of image display is this blog and the kids don't sit down to read it yet, so I need to get my butt in gear and change this situation in our home. 

So in 2011 I am resolved to  printing and displaying photos (in easy access albums and on the walls/shelves). I just placed an order for 2 photo albums and I have one large hanging frame that can hold 100 images. I bought the frame several years ago with the intention of hanging it in the kids' room and this year it will finally happen. I would also like to complete at least three photo trip books this year. Those are my photo resolutions for 2011. So anyone have suggestions or favorite on-line printing companies?

Sorry this post got so long and wordy. I originally intended to post these cool old family photographs as the most recent motivators for this year's resolution. Those are our grandfathers that we never met and these are the only photographs we have of them here with us in Sicily. The photo on the left is my paternal grandfather.  He died before I was born. He was a documentary photographer in Louisiana during the 1940s. In that photo he is signing one of his books and I am pretty sure that is my grandmother in the background. The other photograph is Adam's maternal grandfather who also died many years before he was born. Isn't that a great photograph of him in his twenties? That was taken one summer when he was playing the saxophone in the Catskills. I found the photo of my grandfather on-line and my in-laws e-mailed us the other image. We didn't bring any older family photos with us to Sicily (they are all in storage back in the States) but I regret that decision. So today I am going to print these two pics of our grandfathers and get a start on my 2011 resolution. Anyone else making resolutions this year?

A Bulgarian New Year

January 4, 2011

Happy 2011! Lots to report from our Bulgarian trip, but for now here is a quick post with a few pics from New Year's Day in Sofia, the capitol of Bulgaria. We got whacked on the back by kids bearing sticks and singing songs for the New Year. We lit candles in the  Nevsky Cathedral. We wandered amongst the vendors in a nearby park and bought a few icons to remember our time in Bulgaria. But most importantly we celebrated the New Year with some of our closest friends on this planet. I think that starting the New Year with laughter, travel, and friendship is a good sign for 2011.

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