February 26, 2011

This is the cup of tea I had this morning. A simple cup of Earl Grey tea with a swirl of milk and a spoonful of sugar. It was perfect. 

I have always been a tea drinker. I can actually break up chunks of my life into different teas: herbal tea obsession in college; lots of earthy green, twig, and buckwheat teas during my year of teaching in Japan; chai tea during grad school and our years in Seattle; back to green tea with our move to Okinawa; a love affair with Turkish fruit teas that started during our trip last year and continued until this year when my stash dwindled and I am now left to rationing off the final bags; and every winter no matter where we are I return to my roots with Earl Grey tea. 

Earl Grey is the tea of comfort and long standing tradition in my family. As a result of my grandmother's English roots, Earl Grey is the tea that is offered during family visits or if someone is feeling poorly or sad or overwhelmed or just in need of a pick-me-up. It is also the tea that is served during the Wednesday Night Tea that is held each week in my grandmother's kitchen. Every Wednesday night the women of my family (have I ever mentioned that my mother is one of seven girls and that I have lots of girl cousins?) gather in that yellow kitchen to sip tea, eat cookies, laugh, share family news, swap family pictures, listen, laugh some more, and then head back home for bed. I love that weekly ritual and I wish I lived closer to take part in it every week. 

Are you a tea or coffee drinker? 

Florence Museums with Kids

February 25, 2011

It was a museum-heavy weekend in Florence. We knew that visiting museums would be a large portion of our trip because there is so much art and history to see in the famous city, but also because we knew the weather would be chilly and possibly rainy. In preparing for the trip, I once again got books that I hoped would bring the artists/scientists and their work to life for our kids. I also tried to dig up web resources, but there just weren't many nitty gritty sites or posts about doing the Florence museum scene with kids. So here are our experiences and lessons learned along the way. 

The Uffizi
This is a biggie in Florence.It's one of the must-see spots and I am glad we did it, but it did take some active parenting to initially entice the kids. One of the things that hooked them in was to point out the evolution from two-dimensional painting to three dimensional. It was also interesting to notice the different ways Mary and Baby Jesus were portrayed. In some paintings,  Jesus appears to be a little man in a baby's outfit, in others he is a  chubby, blonde babe, and in one he is quite oddly proportioned. Mary also had a wide array of presentations: blonde,magestic, serious, adoring, stoic, formal, less formal, and even with a long neck. Our Jewish kids are becoming quite adept at identifying the Holy Family thanks to our life in Italy! It also helped to have the free Rick Steve's audio guide to the Uffizi because we were able to locate specific paintings and listen to the commentary (we brought along our I-touch and I-phone). Favorite paintings included Botticelli's Birth of Venus and his painting of Spring, and  Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch.

A few of the highlights beyond the artwork included the stunning view of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge from the statue gallery; the roof top terrace which also has a unique view of Florence and a tiny little cafe (good for a morning snack or light lunch); and last but certainly not least: the bookstore. Don't be fooled by the first bookstore near the exit of the Uffizi, continue on into a larger space where we were delighted to find a very big selection of children's art books in English, French, and Italian. And speaking of books, here are the ones that helped us before and during our visit to the Uffizi:

Katie and the Mona Lisa (Botticelli's Primavera painting)
Getting to Know Botticelli
Getting to Know Giotto

We reserved tickets in advance but once we arrived, we realized that there really wasn't a need for that in February. BUT, if you are traveling with kids at any other time in the year, do yourself and them a big favor by reserving tickets in advance.

That famous naked boy with a sling shot,David, has a magnetic pull that draws crowds even in February. We didn't have to wait in line or buy tickets on-line (although you really should do that during peak seasons), but this was the only place we encountered a bit of a crowd during our time in Florence. He is worth seeing up close and personal. Really amazing to see that beautiful piece of work from all angles. The kids had a good giggle about his nakedness but then turned their focus to sketching him. We usually bring along sketchbooks and art supplies on museum visits, but on that day it was raining and we weren't carry much beyond umbrellas and jackets. That's when the I-touch and I-phone came in handy again. Handed one to each kid and had them sketch with their fingers. I love what emerged. In addition to David, it was also interesting to see the series of statues which were works in progress for Michelango...they gave us all a greater appreciation of how blocks of marble can be transformed into human forms. The Accademia is small and doesn't take much time to see.  Books to read before or during a trip to The Accademia:

This was the smallest museum we visited during our time in Florence, but it was by far the kids' favorite one. It is basically three rooms filled with working models of DaVinci's incredible inventions and machines. On a rainy day in February we had the entire museum to ourselves, which was wonderful because the kids just kept running from one machine to the next (it's all hands-on). It would have been nice to see a bit more information about Da Vinci and the science behind the machines, but it was nice to see the kids having so much fun. Don't go expecting a fully fleshed out Da Vinci experience, but if you have kids and it's a rainy day or if you have kids with an interest in science keep this in mind while visiting Florence.  Also, there is a great little Turkish Kebab restaurant directly across the street. Good kid reads about Da Vinci include:

Getting to Know Da Vinci

The Galileo Museum
This was our biggest mistake of the trip and it was all my fault. I saved it for our last day and kept telling the kids they would love the science museum. Let me say this in a very loud and clear voice since we learned this the hard way:  "It is not a kid-friendly, hands-on museum". It is a museum about the history of science. I made the mistake of assuming it would be a hands-on science museum and I failed to fully research it before our trip. There are some interesting displays (including a few relics of Galileo's fingers) but after building it up for my kids, it turned into a sad and whiny experience for all of us.  This is a museum best for older kids and adults.

Having done the above museums with the kids, I have to admit that Adam and I both said on several occasions that Florence would be a city worth visiting without kids so we could spend more time really seeing the art and history that seem to be around each corner. Don't get me wrong. We love traveling with our kids and having family adventures. But the reality is that none of the museums we visited in Florence are especially kid-friendly. You won't find exciting kid activity guides, scavenger hunts, or cool little backpacks filled with art supplies like we have experienced at other museums in Europe. If our kids were just a tad bit older, I would probably have spent the extra money and hired a private guide like the ones at Context to help us experience it all more fully.
But here are two kid activities that don't need any special books or guides to enjoy: Grom Gelato (seriously delicious and seasonal) and the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica.

February in Florence

February 22, 2011

Golden buildings, elegant arches, naked statues, stark winter branches against bright blue skies, museums, and lots of gelato: we took a chance and decided to spend a long weekend in Florence. It felt risky because the weather forecast called for rain and I dreaded leaving the Sicilian sun for a cold, dreary, and wet weekend. I am glad we took the chance. We only had one rainy day and even that wet day turned out to be a good one.
We never waited in any lines. We got super cheap airline tickets and had our pick of apartment rentals at low season rates (we loved Casa Caterina). The only tour groups we encountered were friendly Japanese tourists. In fact, I think I spoke more Japanese than Italian all weekend which was kind of surreal. We slept late, we wandered, we ate well, and then we came home. It turns out that February in Florence can be quite fun.

Faces of St. Agata

February 18, 2011

These are two of my favorite shots from this year's St. Agata Festa. There is the youngest candle bearer that I saw all evening. Look at him covered in wax. He was so serious, so intense and seemed wise beyond his years. And then there was the friendly,beaming man selling his homemade St. Agata statues on a rickety table on a sidewalk. He was so proud of his handiwork and really how could I pass up the Saint in all of her glittery glory? St. Agata now has a place of honor on the bookshelf in our living room.

I find myself drawn to faces these days. I have overcome some of my earlier hesitation about asking to take stranger's photographs. It's an odd and intimate exchange: stopping a stranger, chatting, peering through a lens, adjusting, taking another shot, thanking them, walking on, and later re-examining the image and remembering that moment in time with them.

Birds, Birds, Birds

February 17, 2011

It's Bird Week at The Magnifying Glass! Head over to win cool stuff, learn about birds, and take part in The Great Backyard Bird Count. You can also read the interview I recently did with Kimberly Hosey. I promise she will make you think, laugh, and want to pick up a camera. Her photos of birds are what prompted me to contact her. I have often admired (and been a bit jealous) of her ability to capture so many amazing bird shots. 

If you have been reading this blog for awhile or if you know us in person, then you know that we love birds. Which is why I get so frustrated with my lack of success in photographing them. I know that I really need to just break down and buy a telephoto lens, but I have been putting that off. Partly because of expense, but also because I worry  that it will be so bulky that I wouldn't carry it with me and I'd miss the shots I wanted in the first place. Ugh. If you are like me and want to get better bird shots, read Kim's words of advice and use her images for motivation. Also, be sure to read her story about wearing a hundred black widow spiders. Trust me; read it. If you have advice regarding telephoto lenses or bird stories (or black widows, too), please share. And if you live in North America, don't forget to do the Bird Count. It starts tomorrow.

Creative Crisis?

February 16, 2011

This is just a quick post to collect a couple of things that have been bouncing around in my head and in my e-mail box. First, "the monster bag" which was a collaborative Christmas gift for my mom. Camille's monster is on the left and Noah's is on the right. They drew directly on the canvas bag and I embroidered over them. I have to admit it was pretty hard to part with it and maybe one day I can commission my little monster artists to work on another one just for me.

And now onto other creative topics. Like this. Please, take a moment to let your Representative know how you feel about this issue. And if you aren't certain about the need to preserve funding for the arts, read this article about the creativity crisis in the States. Studying creativity, measuring it, teaching it, and looking at ways to foster creativity in the classroom with project based learning...all very interesting stuff, but this section really stood out for me:

Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.
I want to print that last line out and post it around the house. It's a good reminder for all of us, isn't it?

De-constructing and Consuming Pikachu: A Pokemon Party

February 13, 2011

 There were cupcakes,balloons, six giggling boys, Pokemon charades, and the beating of Pikachu (oops, I meant to say a Pikachu pinata....why do we take kids' favorite characters, turn them into a paper punching bag, and encourage the kids to beat the thing to pieces so they can eat the innards?). Our first big sleep-over party was a success and remarkably we all actually got some sleep. Hope you had a good weekend, too!

Exploring: Bosco di Santo Pietro

February 9, 2011

This was how we spent last Sunday. Basking in the sun, eating excessive amounts of delicious food, and hiking through Bosco di Santo Pietro where I learned that cork trees don't really have corks hanging from their branches like in the Ferdinand illustrations. Usually, my favorite part of our Sunday adventures  are the hikes that we take, but last Sunday our lunch was the highlight of the day for me. 

As we ventured further and further into the countryside, I began to worry that our adventure would soon turn into a very hungry one. And then we saw the little white sign: "Antichi Sapori Mediterranei"(ancient Mediterranean flavors). We backed up and pulled into one of the most delightful meals we have had since moving to Sicily and that's saying a lot since we had many good meals in Sicily. Freshly grilled artichokes, fava beans, broccoli, couscous, ricotta cheese, salami, pumpkin, sauteed greens, bread hot from the oven, olives, roasted chickpeas, another bean dish, caponata...those were just the appetizers which took us nearly two hours to eat. We ate so much of the antipasti course that we wimped out on the full meal which would have meant two pasta dishes, a meat dish, salad, and dessert. Sunday lunch in Sicily is a very good thing.

In Praise of Pokemon

I never thought I'd be singing the praises of Pokemon, much less writing a post about it, but this is a post that has been percolating in my head for quite awhile. Those baffling little cards entered our lives nearly two years ago and continue to be a source of near daily entertainment, discourse, and serious study for Noah. He researches and reads anything related to this alternate universe. In many ways, I credit those early Pokemon readers and the cards for igniting his desire to read to himself. Forget "Hooked on Phonics", just buy packs of Pokemon cards.

In addition to the "academic" benefits of Pokemon, there are the creative aspects. Noah and his friends act out elaborate sessions of "pretend" that center around catching and training various Pokemon. They have even created their own language and character names. To be honest, it is kind of an annoying language, but I have to give them credit for persistence and endurance.

And then there are the drawings. Not too long after Noah got into Pokemon, he also started becoming a bit resistant to drawing. He got upset and frustrated when drawings didn't turn out the way he wanted. Trying to re-engage him in drawing, I began carrying around a small bag with blank index cards and colored pencils. Whenever we were waiting in restaurants, I'd whip out the bag and we'd all start drawing our own Pokemon characters. The freedom to create crazy looking characters with funny names proved to be just the thing for getting Noah to ease up a bit on his anxieties about drawing perfectly. During those early days of Pokemon, Noah was happy to add these homemade cards to his collection. I would laminate them with clear contact paper and he'd proudly stick them in his binder. These days things are different. These days he has been studying the cards and books more carefully and he has begun to fill up a blank sketch book with his renditions of actual Pokemon characters.

Moving onto the social and cultural benefits of Pokemon: it shocks me that travel books don't have Pokemon cards listed as a must-have item for international adventures. Seriously, these little cards have led to more big smiles and intense cross cultural interactions than I ever would have imagined. They are small, cheap, light weight, and cut across gender, age, and language barriers faster than anything else their size. I highly recommend them for travelers of all ages. Really, I do and I promise that I am not getting any money from Pokemon to promote their products (although maybe I should?).

But the most heartwarming aspect of Pokemon, is what it has done for Noah and Camille. Last summer, I hungrily gobbled up Nurture Shock. One of the most riveting chapters for me, was the one focused on sibling relationships. Two things stuck with me. One is in regards to sibling books and I hope to write more about that soon. The other core message was that siblings who learn to play together despite age differences tend to have better long term relationships. And here's the tie into Pokemon, in the past year or so, Noah and Camille have begun to play more together. I know that part of this is a result of getting older. I think another part of it is all of our recent traveling and chunks of time when it is just the two of them without other kids their respective ages. And the other piece of it is Pokemon. Pokemon appeals to both of them right now. Camille isn't quite as obsessed as Noah, but she certainly has her favorites and she can hold her own in a detailed discussion or an intense session of Pokemon pretend play. I never would have guessed that creatures with names like Jigglypuff and Hoothoot would have the power to solidify sibling bonds, but apparently they do.

It seems very fitting to publish this post on Noah's 8th birthday. My sweet monkey boy who was too embarrassed to wear his number 8 shirt this morning, but was all too happy to bring pink cupcakes (his favorite) to his class. I have a feeling that being 8 will bring with it further tugs between little boy and big boy status. Thank you for introducing us to the world of Pokemon and may we all survive the Pokemon sleep-over party that will be happening this weekend. Happy Birthday, Nofa (that's his name in Pokemon-ese)!

St. Agata: By Night

February 6, 2011

Candles, lots of candles that will be carried through out the night. That also means lots of hot dripping wax and slippery streets. See those big candles in the second pic? Those big, heavy candles will be hoisted onto their backs and they will run through the streets all night long to honor St. Agata, to atone for sins, to express gratitude, and to be a part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old.  

Food. Mounds of candy, including the marzipan olives that are specific to the St. Agata festa. St. Agata cakes in the shape of her breasts (I promise to post pics of them soon). Candied nuts and nougats (third pic). Horse meat sandwiches.  And all sorts of crispy goodies like those balls of fried ricotta cheese (last pic). 

And finally, the crowds. Waiting, praying, walking, eating, pulsating, singing, and pushing to get closer. Viva St.Agata!

St. Agata: By Day

February 4, 2011

 Baby's first St. Agata Festa, Catania, Sicily

Camille and I headed into the city today, curious to see what would be happening on the morning of the second day of the St. Agata Festival. It wasn't nearly as crowded as the night time festivities will be tomorrow which made it a wonderful time for exploring with a five year old. We ate lunch at a sidewalk cafe and spent most of the morning people watching. Lots of families, balloon vendors, and a smattering of street performers. Devotees dressed in white with black caps and their red and green St. Agata medals....poor baby in the above pic wasn't so thrilled with the outfit. We were fortunate to get into the Duomo during a late morning Mass with a beautiful female vocalist. To complete the morning's adventure, we bought a candle and joined a small crowd at an outdoor shrine to St.Agata. It really was a very moving moment and I am glad to have shared it with Camille. Just like last year, I feel drawn to the energy and intense devotion of this festival and I am already looking forward to returning tomorrow night.

I am submitting this post to Photo Friday at Delicious Baby. If you haven't checked it out before, it's the perfect way to travel the world with the just the click of a button. It's also a fun place to show off your own travel pics. And speaking of taking pictures, I'd also encourage any of you with i-phones to head over to FuoriBorgo where Emily has a great guest post all about i-phoneography. I had never heard that term until today, but I have been a long time fan of Emily's i-phone photos and I am now itching to play around with all of those cool apps (poor Adam may not be able to find his phone much this weekend!).

February List

February 2, 2011

For the Birds: Check out these little beauties. And for those living in North America mark your calendars for The Great Backyard Bird Count
For Family Viewing: Ponyo
For Laughing: Simple Times
For Mama Reading: Tigers and Princesses. Anyone read either of these yet? Lots of interesting controversy. Hoping to read them both soon. I'll let you know.
For Playing: Rat-a-Tat Cat 
For Good Music and a Good Cause:  Turtle Island Quartet in Lafayette, Louisiana
For Discovering: Vivian Maier

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