Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Only 365 more shopping days!...

So Christmas 2007 is in the books...whew! I have such a love/hate relationship with the holidays. I'm a total grinch as they approach, knowing that there is so much to do and so little time to get it done, but I do enjoy Christmas Day, sharing our gifts and then lolling around the house for the day with no other obligations. We each enjoy the day in our own way. Meredith revels in staying in her pajamas and watching the "Christmas Story" marathon, Brendan spends the day in the kitchen preparing the traditional Roast Beast (aka Beef Wellington), and Isla hangs out in front of the fire. This year she got a new bed and she thought she was in heaven when we put it down on the living room floor. She lolled in it all day like a movie star, flipping over onto her back occasionally and snoring like a drunken sailor. She even ignored the bags of treats sitting just a few feet away. She LOVES her new bed!

The house looks great. Meredith supervised the decorating when she got home so everything was positioned perfectly. We had a beautiful day to go up to the mountain to get the tree.

It fit perfectly in the living room (unlike other years when we have grossly misjudged size and ended up with a tree behemoth or a puny Charlie Brown tree.)

And with the ornaments in place, it was stunning!

Even Isla got into the spirit...sort of.

That was NOT one of her favorite holiday moments, to be sure.

I got in a few hours of delicious, uninterrupted knitting, putting a few more inches on Meredith's DNA scarf...

...and finishing the first "hooray for me glove" (complete with GI-normous thumb that will most definitely need some tinking!)

I mentioned the love/hate relationship with Christmas earlier. Here is the part that I hate. It should be about the joys we find in our time together, sharing family traditions, and being thankful for all of the graces that God has granted us. Instead we become saturated with materialism and greed. It becomes about receiving the perfect gifts and the disappointment that ensues if we don't. The media whips us into a virtual feeding frenzy of "gimme, gimme" starting earlier and earlier every year. Somewhere in the chaos we lose all sense of joy and serenity. The holidays should be about finding peace and contentment and instead it ends up breeding resentment and anxiety. There isn't enough time or money or energy to make it the "perfect" experience we want it to be. We end up exhausted, angry, disappointed and broke! And next year we get to do it all over again. My suggestion: No gifts for anyone and instead we donate the outrageous amount of money spent to the Salvation Army, the Animal Refuge Shelter or some other needy cause. Or we specify that we will only exchange handmade gifts and limit it to one apiece. I'm ready to declare war on the commercialism and self-centeredness that has replaced the true meaning of the season. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Make a snowflake!!!

This is so cool! (Yes, I amuse easily, I admit...but try it anyway!)

Need a Snow Day?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In December It's a Winter Wonderland...In April It's a Pain in the Ass...

We got our first snowfall on Monday. And that gave us our first Snowday (hooray!). That gave me a chance to go out and walk through some gorgeous fresh snow and take pictures with my new camera. I'm still learning how to use it but I'm hoping it will give me more pictures like the one above. I like taking pictures but have never had a really nice camera that allowed me to experiment successfully. I've had some good (accidental) shots in the past but it has definitely been hit or miss.

You're in trouble if you live in Maine and hate winter. We get a lot of it and it lasts a LONG time. Hopefully my new camera will give me another way to enjoy our longest season! Stay tuned...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

And now, a word from the dogs...

This video speaks for itself...enjoy!

Not to belabor the point but you wouldn't find many cats getting involved with a worldswide movement to end hunger. They're too busy yowling to get themselves fed. (see previous post)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ok, about this cat thing...

I have gotten some "feedback" about the comment about my sister's cat in my shawl post. Let me clarify something. They started it. I wasn't born disliking cats. We actually had a cat when I was young who earned my respect and admiration. Puss was a champion hunter, a no-nonsense "doing my job so leave me be" kind of creature. My only complaint about him was his tendency to leave his trophies just outside the front door where a moment's inattention meant a squishy step on a dead rabbit, mole or mouse. One summer my sister and her little friend Debbie thought it would be fun to dress him in doll clothes and carry him around like a baby. He tolerated it for a day or two but clearly was not amused. He finally made his feelings known by planting his front claws in Debbie's face, barely missing her eye. For this little episode of "kitty road rage" he earned himself a trip to the local animal shelter. Grossly unfair? Yes...but the trip probably saved my parents a messy lawsuit and cancellation of their homeowner's policy.

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

My relationship with cats went downhill from there. Our next cat, Romper, declared me the enemy from the get-go. My shoes mysteriously filled with catshit. She chose me to yowl at in the wee hours. My stack of freshly washed clothes was her bed of choice. We got off to a bad start and things only got worse. Ok, I wasn't totally innocent, I'll admit. One evening when she wouldn't leave me alone as I was trying to study in my room I dropped her down the laundry chute...but I knew there was a stack of clothes at the bottom to cushion her fall. My departure for college and subsequent apartments finally gave us the "time-out" that we both needed from each other.

Living on my own I switched to dogs, a mutt named Ralph and a Golden Retriever named Molly. I fell hopelessly in love with the canine species, enjoying the way they gave so much to our relationships, always wanting to please.

Then when Meredith was about three she asked for a kitty. We were "between pets" at the time so we cautiously agreed to give it a try for her sake. Brendan felt the same way I did about cats but she was so insistent. Enter Wilbur, a small Maine Coon kitten, cute as a button but with a huge attitude problem. No warm-and-fuzzy cuddle sessions for him. He entered the house in the attack mode and set his sights on making our lives miserable. I was his special target. It was as if Romper had come back to finish the job of tormenting me begun so many years earlier. Ambushes from under beds and tables were part of the morning routine. I resorted to putting panty hose on in the car each morning to ensure I had a pair without rips. His favorite technique was to wake me up about 3AM by climbing on the bed and trying to separate my big toe from the rest of my foot like a piece of the toughest beef jerky...and through three layers of blankets! I wasn't about to turn the other cheek. He loved to jump on the side of the bathtub as I was drawing Meredith's bath to watch the water come out of the faucet with intense fascination. With a little pop as I walked by he suddenly found himself in the tub, staring up at me with an evil glare. I knew I would pay for that moment of temptation and I always did. The war between us kept escalating at a dizzying rate.

He went to work shredding our furniture, earning him a trip to the vet's to be declawed. We had him neutered on the vet's advice, both to prevent him from passing on his orneriness but also to "calm him down." HAH! That only seemed to make him madder! His nastiness earned him the nickname "Wilbur, the demon cat from hell." But we held on in deference to Meredith's wishes. Then came the night she told me to shut her door at bedtime because she was afraid of Wilbur. That was all I needed. The next morning the ad went into the paper and by the end of the week he had a new home. We all breathed a sigh of relief... and went out to get a puppy. Lady, that puppy, was with us for 16 years, a treasured, loving member of our family.

Some people are cat people. We are dog people. A lucky few are both. Just as the world needs right-brained and left-brained people, visionaries and realists, Red Sox fans and Yankee fans, it also probably needs cat people and dog people. We know where we stand on the issue. I respect that some people have loving relationships with their cats. I probably never would. Cats always seem to me to be very two-faced...all over you when they want something but otherwise acting as if they can't be bothered with such inferior creatures as we humans. Even my sister who has always worshipped cats admits that her current cat is an ungrateful, nasty creature who only shows any interest in her at mealtime. She volunteers at a cat rescue shelter to get her feline affection. I once suggested that she make her own aloof and nasty cat part of the adoption process she works on, a suggestion she chose to ignore. I guess that's what makes her a cat person...and me NOT a cat person. I'll take my goofy, affectionate, tongue-lolling dog, thank you very much. She loves me no matter what, with food in sight or not, totally unconditionally!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bite Me, Blogger!

Pee On The Whole World by Dug Nap

So I spent most of the day today putting together a post about our trip to the Wadsworth-Longfellow House yesterday, complete with pictures from the website and some pictures I took walking through downtown. I even found a copy of "My Lost Youth," Longfellow's poem about his memories of Portland and wove it into the post. It was a great post. Then Blogger ate it. Swallowed it whole and belched in my face to rub it in. I hate you, Blogger. You really suck!

Friday, October 12, 2007

The End of the "Never Again" Shawl!

Last April I asked my sister what she wanted for her birthday in May. She said she wanted a shawl like the one I made for our other sister last year. When I agreed to do it little did I realize that I would be embarking on a freaking SIX MONTH project! This WIP (work-in-progress) took on a life of its own, traveling to Europe, taking trains, buses, and airplanes and sharing lattes and cappuccinos with me...don't worry I washed off the the evidence. It went to Boston twice, once on the train and once on the bus, accompanied me to Central New York State in July for my family reunion, took two trips to Burlington VT as I got Meredith set up in her apartment and took her back to school in August, celebrated our anniversary with us on a day trip downeast for a leisurely day in the sun and a great seaside lunch and went to work with me each day as I spent a few minutes at lunchtime adding a row or two. It also went to knitting group with me each week and was my TV buddy most nights.

Last Friday I FINALLY finished the last stitch in the car on our annual fall foliage trip somewhere between Fryeburg and Brownfield, Maine. My husband said he was getting tired of seeing me working on the shawl. I think what he was REALLY saying was that he was getting impatient for me to finish the socks I started for him last March.

Ok, so here is a brief pictorial history of the project.

Here is the shawl as it looked on July 13th:

Summer heat took its toll on my efforts. Some days it was just too damn hot to think about wrapping yarn around my fingers so progress was slow during July and August and even into September. With cooler weather, my speed increased. Here is a picture from the end of July:

And here it is in late September:

At this point the image of an albatross kept crossing my mind. I wanted nothing more than to just finish and move on. Each day I did a few more rows and measured to see how much longer it needed to be. I cut the fringe and had it ready for the final step and followed my pattern. (More on that in a bit...)

After the final row, it was time to wash the shawl. Six months of handling had left it a tad funky. I zipped it into a pillowcase and washed it in cold using the gentle cycle. Here it is drying:

So now for the unveiling...drumroll please!.... TA-DA!!!!

It is sooooo soft and cuddly. If I hadn't just put six months into this gift I would be tempted to keep it for myself.

But I'm already five months late for her birthday so off it goes in the mail tomorrow. I'll enclose some care instructions and a stern admonition to KEEP IT AWAY FROM HER F-ing CAT! If I hear that I just spent six months constructing a fancy scratching post for her she-cat from hell, I will hunt the critter down and personally drop her off myself at Uncle Wong's Chow Mein palace in time for the all-you-can-eat buffet! (Have I ever mentioned that I don't like cats?)

About the pattern... there really isn't one. This was a completely self-designed project. I used a fingering weight yarn I found on ebay. It is a blend of merino wool (45%) cotton (40%) and silk (15%) that came on a cone. I used #9 24" circular needles and about 12 ounces of the yarn (about 1.5 cones).

I cast on 169 stitches. The first and last 20 stitches were always knit into the back and the first stitch was always slipped as if to knit. That formed a garter stitch edge that made a nice shawl collar when it was done. The middle 129 stitches were knit in a variety of stitches I took from the 365 Knitting Stitches a Year Perpetual Calendar. I divided that center section into three individual sections of 43 stitches apiece, separated by stitch markers and found 18 stitches that could be worked on 43 stitches. I did eight rows of each stitch, separated by eight rows of either garter or stockinette stitch. At the mid-point (3 feet) I reversed the order to make the shawl symmetrical. Some of the stitches I used were: Staggered Eyelets, Little Arrowhead, Open Twisted Rib, Lacy Zigzag, Pique Rib, Hourglass eyelets, Lacy Diamonds, Slipped Rib2, Double Basketweave, Feather Lace, Garter Drop Stitch, Herringbone Lace Rib, Ridged Lace1, Crocus Buds, Lacy Rib, Zigzag Openwork, and Simple Lace Rib. I started and ended the shawl with five rows of garter stitch which provided an area to insert the fringe. I cut 432 12" lengths of the yarn which I separated into 36 bundles of 12 putting 18 at each end, spacing them equally along the edge and then trimming them to ensure they were even.

The finished length was six feet plus the fringe and the width was about 36".

I'm pleased with the result with a few little exceptions... the stitch markers left a kind of "run" down the length of the shawl, not a major flaw but more of a "personalization." I really hope my sister likes it and gets a lot of good use out of it! She had better or I'll kill her! (just kidding...sort of!)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Fruits of our Labors...

Aren't they GORGEOUS?!! And so sweet and juicy. The best part is that there are many more where they came from, assuring that we will be enjoying tomatoes in every form for the next couple of weeks. My favorite way is sliced with some fresh mozzarella cheese, basil on top and drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil. Mmmm-mmm-mmm! The cucumbers have been wonderful too although the squirrels have been "testing" them for us, taking a bite or two and then deciding they don't like them. Not the brightest batch of squirrels either because they haven't figured out they don't like them and keep biting off the ends. As usual, growing zucchini has been an adventure in excess. As fast as we pick them, there are tons more coming along. Occasionally we "miss" one in our evening garden check and, before we know it, there it is, big as a dirigible and now good for nothing other than some zucchini bread.

And have we got herbs! The basil and parsley has been amazing. We now have enough pesto to feed a small italian city for a week and my friend Jeannie who makes amazing tabouleh stopped by, stocked up on parsley and gifted me with some of it.

And there is more to come. We have some bee-yoo-tiful butternut squash for some great fall soups and some pumpkins that promise to be GY-normous. Yay, garden!!!! We think this wonderful growth is due to some great compost and mulch that Brendan bought from a small greenhouse with a curmudgeonly old owner. It truly has been like a magic potion for the garden! DEE-licious!

On the knitting front, the shawl that never ends is actually about 75 percent finished. Not bad for a birthday present due last May. I figure it will definitely be done by her half birthday in November! Then I can get on with the rest of my life.

Monday, August 27, 2007

This I Believe

It's hard to believe that it has been almost a year since Michelle's senseless death. This short film, based on one of her last essays, is a wonderful tribute to her dream for a gentler world.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

So, what about the knitting?

The trip of a lifetime is now officially over. I think it took me so long to blog about it because it was a way to keep it going in my mind. But now it's time to move on. Life has been happening. I've been knitting all along. My current project is a shawl for my sister Lynny. She wanted one like the one I made for my other sister Betsy two years ago. This was Betsy's shawl:

I was able to find the same yarn, a beautiful silk/wool/cotton blend and cast on back in April. The pattern for the first one was made up as I went along so I decided to be a little more "planful" on this one. Using the 365 Stitches calendar, I picked out 12 stitch patterns to use on 169 stitches. I did 20 kib (knit into back) stitches, then 43x3 of the pattern, then 20 more kib stitches. The pattern stitches were 12-16 rows (depending on the pattern...usually two repeats) followed by eight rows of either garter or stockinette and then the next pattern. It has been a tedious knit, going VERY slowly, partly because of so many interruptions but I am almost at the halfway point (about 36 inches). Here is my progress to date:

As usual, I'm not 100% happy with it. It is too wide, the divisions between the three middle "panels" are too distinct, there are mistakes, yadda, yadda... But at this point I am just determined to finish it for her. I hope my yarn holds out. I hope to put some fringe on it and would be REALLY unhappy if I can't do that. Her birthday was in mid-May but she knows it will take me a while to get it done. I showed her the very early stages when we had our sister's weekend in April. During that weekend, Betsy saw the bag I made for Lynny last year (the Constant Companion) and oohed and aahed so I think that will be her request for HER next birthday in February. She mentioned how much she liked the evening bag I made for her this year and Lynny perked up and said, "Evening Bag? Ooh, that sounds nice." So, I guess the lesson I have learned is to make the same thing for both of them.

It reminds me a little of the stories that my friends with two children tell about having to duplicate what they buy to keep both kids appeased. I never had to worry about that, having an only child.

I have been home from Europe for eight weeks and it already seems like an eternity since I was there. It didn't take long to get back into the groove (or rut, depending on my mood) and I have tried very hard not to start every sentence with "When I was in Europe..." but it is so hard avoiding the temptation to tell EVERYone about the trip. Meredith is SO over that, tired of my telling the same stories she has heard a million times by now. My new resolution is to keep my mouth shut when we go anywhere together and someone asks, "So, how was your trip?" I need to let her answer and tell people about her entire semester. Things have been a little...shall we say...strained since we got home. She clearly does not want to be home this summer, thinking of it as just an unpleasant pit stop between her glorious time in Milan and her impatience to get back to her friends in Burlington. She is working a lot of hours on her research internship and taking a (shudder) Physics class in a compressed semester...and it has all conspired to turn her into little miss crankypants a great deal of the time.

Ok, enough on that topic...I had better stop before my natural tendency to say how I really feel gets me into trouble.

We've had an interesting summer since I got back. The heat arrived just in time for the annual Bike Trek Across Maine on Father's Day weekend. That meant my crew and I were not only busy keeping the refreshments going for the 1800 bikers coming through but also keeping an eye out for anyone in distress with possible heat stroke. We were lucky this year and only had a couple of people who needed extra assistance from us. It was a gorgeous weekend with perfect weather until the very end.

Back in Portland, I spent a beautiful Saturday morning at the Rose Garden in Deering Oaks Park, one of my favorite places. Here are some of the pictures I took:

Just looking at those pictures relaxes me! Then I went home and took some pictures of our great masterpiece by comparison but there are some pretty flowers.

We even have some tomato, zucchini and cucumber plants that are doing very well this year.

These pictures were taken in late June and the plants are now twice as high as they were then. We will be picking our first zucchini any day now. And then look out everybody! I'll be breaking into cars to leave them in there just to get rid of all of them!

In mid July we celebrated Anniversary number 31. It wasn't the big deal like last year at the Franconia Inn but we took the day off and took a nice ride up the coast to a beautiful area called Bailey's Island. Here are some pictures from that day:

We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the outdoor deck of a local restaurant and indulged ourselves with some steamers...

which we made short work of...

and a wonderful seafood platter.

It was so nice to just sit and relax, take our time with lunch, chat and enjoy the seabreezes. A perfect day.

I'll miss not going up to the cottage for my usual two weeks in August but my trip was well worth the sacrifice. Besides, now I can go to my wild and wacky family reunion in mid-august instead. That will surely be an event worthy of a blog entry or two. My family definitely puts the "fun" in "dys-fun-ctional"...the challenge will be paring down all of the information to keep the entry from getting too long!!!

So, it's back to knitting the shawl-from-hell so I can give it to my sister at the reunion... I KNOW she'll be asking for it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mas de Madrid y Adios!

Day two in Madrid was another beautiful but hot one. We had really been lucky throughout our trip, having gorgeous sunny days every day but one. We got up early to maximize our last day in Spain and headed over to the Plaza Mayor to start off with a leisurely breakfast in one of the many plaza's outdoor cafes. We settled on the Cafeteria Magerit and ordered pastries, coffee and some delicious peach juice.

Zoom in on those glasses and see if you can pick out something that was a surprise... yes, there are not one but TWO ice cubes in each glass!!! We were astounded! Meredith seems to be staring in disbelief. It was a delicious breakfast. Shortly after it was served we were joined by a visitor.

He was very cute...

...very tame...

...and VERY persistent

but we reluctantly opted not to feed him since there were other sparrows very nearby and we were concerned about causing a "sparrow riot." He was not very happy with us.

The morning was so gorgeous and we felt so lucky to be enjoying it in such a beautiful place. We even had a very friendly waiter who actually seemed to be enjoying chatting with us!

This was the view from our table into the center of the Plaza.

After breakfast we took a walk around the Plaza, starting with the majestic statue of Felipe III in the center. The origins of the plaza go back to 1581 when plans were drawn up to build a central plaza to replace an older, smaller plaza. Construction did not begin until 1617 and finished in 1619. A series of fires nearly destroyed it and it was completely renovated in 1790. The statue of Felipe III dates back to 1616.

Hanging with Felipe

The Plaza Mayor has been the scene of a wide range of events: markets, bullfights, soccer games, public executions, and, during the Spanish Inquistion, "autos de fe" against supposed heretics and the executions of those condemned to death. The Plaza Mayor also has a ring of old and traditional shops and cafes under its porticoes. Celebrations for San Isidro, patron saint of Madrid, are also held here.

Along one side of the plaza is the Real Casa de la Panaderia, named for the Royal Bakery that was built here in 1619. The current building was done in 1673 after one of the many fires and now houses the Madrid Bakers Guild.

The frescoes were added in 1992.

We left the plaza through one of the nine archs that are placed symmetrically around the plaza.

It took us out onto some quaint old streets, so narrow and winding, and filled with very interesting old shops and buildings.

This cookware shop has probably been there since the middle ages.

We walked past a beautiful small church and found ourselves at a wonderful indoor market, not as opulent as the one we had visited in Barcelona. This one was obviously frequented by the locals rather than aimed at the tourists. The merchants seemed surprised to see us. One of them declared Meredith to be "muy bonita" (very pretty) and embarrassed her completely. As with the other markets, the best and freshest were on display.

Who knew there were so many different kinds of eggs?

These little piggies went to market...and probably wished they hadn't!

It was a double decker market. This was the view from the second floor.

We left the market and continued through the streets, reaching the Iglesia San Andres

and a fascinating fountain.

We passed this beautiful little park with the statue of Don Alvaro de Bazan, a 16th century Spanish admiral whose successes included suppressing piracy at sea, conquering the Turks in the Holy Alliance with Austria, and enforcing Spain's claims of land won in battles with Portugal. He also commanded the Spanish Armada which met a disastrous fate against Sir Francis Scott and his British fleet, when, due to delays in supplies, they were surprised in port and destroyed. He was named the first Marquis of Santa Cruz by King Felipe II and was a distinguished naval architect who designed the Spanish galleons which were so instrumental in transporting the riches of the New World back to Spain. He died in 1588 in Lisbon shortly before the Armada was ready to sail after being rebuilt.

It was noon and we suddenly heard a thunderous peal of church bells. Looking through the buildings we saw the towers of the Cathedral.

A few more turns and we were facing the Catedral de la Almudena, the largest Cathedral in Madrid.

Inside it was cool and very dark. I noticed bouquets of flowers on the floor and at first I thought they had fallen or been dropped there. On closer look, I realized that they had been placed there deliberately. It turns out we had entered the crypt and the floor was covered with gravestones. I started doing a kind of hopscotch dance to avoid stepping directly on these graves, much to the amusement of a couple of young priests chatting up by the altar. It seemed very strange to have all of these people buried INSIDE the church instead of in an adjacent graveyard until I realized that in the middle of an ancient city like Madrid, there was no room for any adjacent graveyard. The land was all spoken for. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of those graves must have had to be some very special parishioners to have merited such special final resting places. The Cathedral was built between 1879 and 1993 and most of the available space was occupied. We weren't able to go into the main part of the church but the crypt was most impressive.

The main entrance to the church faced the Presidential Palace...

...separated by the huge Plaza Armeria.

It contains 2800 rooms but only 50 are open to the public. It is used for visits by Heads of State and other Official Ceremonies but is not the official residence of the Royal Family. They actually live in a smaller palace outside of Madrid, a former hunting lodge. I have a feeling that it bears no resemblance to any hunting lodges here in Moose heads on the wall or rocking chairs on a porch.

We walked along the east side of the Palace and crossed the street to the Plaza de Oriente, a large park with meticulous gardens and many statues.

The most prominent one is a large statue of Felipe IV, erected in 1843.

A short distance away we came to the Plaza Isabel II and a statue to the controversial queen. Her father, Ferdinand VII abolished the Salic laws which declared only sons to be heirs to the throne, thus paving the way for her to become regent at 13. Her ascendency to the throne was challenged by her uncle, Ferdinand's brother who declared himself King Carlos V, precipitating a series of wars between his supporters and those who believed that Isabel was the rightful heir. She married her cousin at 16 to insure a continuation of her line and had thirteen children, of whom eight survived. Her husband/cousin probably fathered none of those children since he was gay and very open about his sexual preferences. Isabel was also very open with her many love affairs. She was dethroned in 1868 by reformists and sent into exile to France with her husband and children. She soon divorced her husband and abdicated her crown in favor of her eldest son. She died in 1904 and was returned to Spain for burial.

Adjacent to the Plaza Isabel II is the Teatro Real, Madrid's main opera house.

We were getting hungry and had walked almost 8 miles so we stopped for some lunch and a chance to rest our feet. Since we were close to the main shopping area near Puerta del Sol we did a little window shopping and picked up some souvenirs. It was now late in the afternoon and, once again, the heat was making us drowsy so it was time for a siesta. Fortunately, we were close to the hotel so it made sense to take a break from our travels.

We had decided that our last night in Madrid would be Paella night. We had enjoyed the Barcelona version but wanted to sample how madrilenos prepared this classic dish. We decided to try one of the many cafes at Plaza Mayor so we could sit outside and enjoy the evening while waiting for it to be prepared. Paella is cooked to order so it can take 20-30 minutes or more to be served. We enjoyed a glass of wine and did some serious people watching in the Plaza. It was a truly spectacular night. Despite being close to 9PM, it was still quite light.

The paella was delicious and very filling. We lingered over our dinner until after 10 and then took a leisurely walk through the center of the city for one last time. The streets were full of couples, families, groups of friends and all were enjoying a beautiful early summer evening. I took a couple of last shots of Plaza Puerta del Sol before heading back to the hotel for the final time.

(Sorry about the blurriness...I almost didn't post these but then I thought they had kind of a cool, kinetic feel to them much like the atmosphere on the street.)

The next morning we packed our bags and checked out. We hadn't been on Madrid's subways yet so we were expecting a repeat of our Barcelona experience with steps everywhere. To our delight, the subways were very "wheel" friendly, extremely clean and efficient. We purchased a special ticket that allowed us to take the train directly to the airport where we were scheduled to take a short flight back to Milan on one of Europe's many smaller discount airlines, Easyjet. We didn't know what to expect in terms of the time it would take so we gave ourselves plenty of time. It turns out we gave ourselves WAY too much time. We were at the airport in no time at all, leaving us with almost four hours until our flight. We checked in at the gate, had lunch in a small restaurant at the airport and waited to board.

Easyjet does not give assigned seats so you basically take whatever empty seat is available once you board. That could have been a recipe for disaster, given the European decided aversion for waiting in line in an orderly fashion. I had visions of being mobbed and elbowed as everyone jockeyed for prime boarding position. It turns out that they do have a system after all. We were allowed to board based on our check-in time. Having arrived so early gave us a decided advantage. We were among the first group allowed on the plane so we had our choice of seats. We watched as people who boarded later got more and more agitated and frustrated, especially groups of people who wanted to sit near each other. Finally everyone was aboard and seated and the two hour flight to Milan took off. We were served a soft drink and, before we knew it, we were on the ground.

It was cloudy in Milan and still beastly hot. We took a bus from the airport to the train station, instead of the Malpensa express train which I had taken when I first arrived. Our hotel was near the train station, one of the hotels we had stayed in before we left for Naples nearly two weeks earlier. It was the swanky one with the suite and the ballroom-sized bathroom where we had been able to store Meredith's large suitcase and a couple of other bags from her four month stay. This time we didn't get the suite but rather a smaller room but still very comfortable and with the highly prized free internet. We hungrily caught up on emails and checked our favorite websites, feeling as if we had been exiled to Siberia without that contact.

Meredith got in touch with a couple of her friends from the Collegio who were still around and we arranged to get together for a final dinner before we left for the US the next day. It started to rain as we left the hotel, the first real precipitation we had seen since I arrived fifteen days earlier. It cooled things down a little and felt very refreshing.

We met Kyle and Aleyna and had dinner at a great restaurant in the Porta Genova area of Milan. We followed it up with some wonderful gelato, including my first-ever Chocolate with Pepper gelato...a-may-zing stuff!!!! Truly good times!

The next day we packed up everything and headed back to the train station where we boarded the bus to Malpensa Airport. It was time to come home. I was sad to see my 15 days in Europe ending and I know Meredith was feeling even sadder about seeing her four month adventure in Italy come to an end. The flight home went smooth as silk and, before we knew it, we were in Logan airport. There was a bit of an uncomfortable moment as we went through Customs. As luck would have it, we had a tough female customs agent who found it hard to believe that Meredith had spent four months in Italy and had not purchased more than she declared. Meredith just looked her straight in the eye and said, "Everything was much too expensive. College students can't afford Georgio Armani!" The woman smiled, knew she had been bested, and let us go on through. It was a priceless moment.

We boarded the bus to Portland and headed home in a torrential thunderstorm. A very different weather picture than we had been used to the previous two weeks. Brendan met us at the bus station, gave his baby girl a big hug, packed our many bags in the car and we went home to recover from a wonderful vacation. We both hope to go back someday but this trip will always be a special one since it was our first taste of travelling abroad. So many wonderful memories.

Here are some things that made it so successful (in no particular order):

* Chris, our wonderful travel agent at AAA
* advance reservations for hotels and museums on the internet (I particularly would recommend for hotels and for museums)
* Lonely Planet travel guides (
* Streetwise Maps (
* Eurail passes and reservations (Again,thanks to Chris at AAA)
* A digital camera
* Good luggage on wheels
* Space-saver bags to help with compact packing
* A sense of humor and an adventurous attitude
* A flexible agenda and a willingness to change course for something interesting
* Using a smile as a universal language
* Knowing when to ask for help
* Patience

Armed with the above things, your journeys are bound to be successful!