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Without a long time to spend in St. Petersburg we had to ensure we’d pack in as much as possible into a handful of very brief days. Fortunately, just a few steps from our apartment we found this simple structure inviting our gaze and adoration.

And gaze we did! This Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood (one must imagine it doesn’t translate well) was the perfect antidote to grouchy airport personnel (oh, that cello! The girl should take up harmonica!) and a stifling apartment.

Inside are hundreds of gold-leafed icons of saints and other important men (!), a marble mosaic floor, and frescoes on the domed ceiling. Stunning.

 

 

 

 

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The next morning the city welcomed us with a noisy blast of horn and drum, right outside our window.

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Such rigidity and solemnity. So formal and professional.

 

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Or maybe not.

These blue-striped specimens of manliness, many toting cans of beer, formed a long mass of humanity that went on and on in the parade.

 

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Mothers, children, wives and girlfriends walked along with the men who sang and shouted out to the crowds lining the streets.

(See the little girl’s feet?)

 

 

 

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We gathered from the flags and then later from a newspaper that there was some kind of recognition of the country’s paratroopers.

So we couldn’t determine if these fellows had themselves served in the army or if they were commemorating others who did.

 

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Watching out for rabble rousers at the rear, I guess.

 

 

 

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And for a complete change of pace, we attended Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro later that night at the magnificent Mariinsky Theatre, built in 1860.

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Outside in the mezzanine and in the hallways were photos of Rudolf Nureyev and Anna Pavlova, whose careers were launched here.

 

 

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And a peaceful walk home, with a stop for ice cream, as we contemplate the many facets of our good fortune.

As for the name of this place, I have no idea. But to be fair, there’s a gold topped dome every couple of kilometres.

Some serious navigation is about to start.

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Our home and native land

Well, one of our native lands, anyway.

Just a few hours after leaving Milan at the end of our music program in beautiful sunny perfect rural Italia, we touched down for a few days in Poland.

First time anyone of my grandfather’s direct line of the family has gone to the land of his parents, since his own visit there in the early 1970s.

A rather powerful feeling to set foot in this land, and even more so when, at the airport, I recognized the smiling face of my cousin, not seen in person since his 1977 trip to Canada. (Ah, the wonders of Facebook!)

As we’d left our little B&B at 5 a.m. (preceded by a  delightful four-hour nap), arriving in Warsaw at 7 p.m. with a three-hour drive to our cousin’s home in Lublin, we were, frankly, famished!

Dear Jerzy (pronounced Yurek) took us to a tiny in size but magnificent in flavour traditional Polish restaurant.

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Oh my.

Kapusta — cabbage. Grzybami — mushrooms.

Miesem — with lentils.

Ruskie-style —  Sweetened cottage cheese, served with slightly sweetened whipped cream.

So amazing to eat this food, so long a part of our family’s culinary traditions, at a little eatery in the middle of our long-ago homeland.

The magic was not lost on my travelling companions.

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The next morning: The magic we’d all been waiting for.

This little piece of property, tho’ not the house nor anything on it, is the ancestral land of my grandfather’s parents, my mother’s grandparents.

According to Jerzy, in the late 1800s the land in this area and the people farming it, were the poorest of Poland’s poor. Leaving behind the little they had and arriving in Canada with nothing could not be any worse than the life they already were living.

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My grandfather was born after his parents arrived in Canada but four siblings were born in Poland, with one dying on the boat coming over.

The fellow in the picture talking to Jerzy didn’t seem as awed by the history as we were. Jerzy, however, was so so proud of having found this property and being able to take us there.

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There, but for the bravery of Andrew and Katerina Ilczyna, stand two little punks whose lives would have been extraordinarily different from all they know today.

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Just down the road and walking distance from the house was this old wooden church, sitting where it was built 277 years ago.

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What a moment to think that this would most likely have been where they married, baptised their children and gone to church every Sunday.

All so very amazing!

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These following pics are of no particular significance other than that they show some  family names via marriage.




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I love cemeteries and while the lettering is long since eroded on the family stones, such that even Jerzy couldn’t find them (although they’ve been found in the past) to think, again, that our history was right there beneath our feet, gave a sense of reverence for the actions of our ancestors.

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Interestingly, when Jerzy came to Canada in 1977 he told us if his father wanted to own a car he would have to save his salary for ten years. Now Jerzy and his wife each have one. They take none of this for granted, despite living a style so desperately different from that of their parents.

And as we drove off again in Jerzy’s car and  looked out at the countryside, we could see how easily coming to Canada would have felt like coming home.

Just as we felt at home by completing the circle for them.

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Here we go!

Our last week in Sunny Italia was an all-hands-on-deck series of concerts, lessons, classes and eating!

So much to sample, so little time!

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This little one had a couple of amazing opportunities with some top teaching talents. She and her brother had prepared, over the course of the past year, a challenging duet which they’d hoped to have ready for public performance.

Prior to the public performance, however, there was a ‘check in’ (aka an audition) for all the performers. Well, turned out the piece wasn’t up to the festival’s public playing standards and while the two were allowed to play other pieces, this one was out for various but very understandable reasons.

While the violinist was relieved, the cellist had some tears.

“But we worked so hard!”

There were some motherly and relatively unheard words of consolation and we all carried on. A couple of days later, my princess bravely approached a serious cello talent and asked if she might have a lesson.

Following the lesson, in which she’d made some mighty progress and conquered a couple of stumbling blocks, I asked her why she didn’t play like that all the time.

She smiled. “I didn’t know I could.”

She also said she was wondering if she could regularly travel to London for more lessons with this professor.

Very funny.

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A couple of nights before the end of our time in Casalmaggiore, our lovely B&B proprietress Barbara prepared a dinner for all her guests based entirely on the traditional dishes of her hometown, Modena.

She’d wanted to take us there for a little day trip to her parents’ place in the country and where her father makes his own legendary batches of balsamic vinegar (two wee bottles in my luggage; the stuff is 34 years old and tastes like everything good).

Here she’s showing packages of pasta produced and available only in Modena and which we — of course! — sampled later.

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Cooking pasta and, for reasons not clear to me, transferring pasta from one pot of hot water to a second.

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These other tasty babies (I was told the name but have forgotten) were rolled and rerolled to perfection on this electric pasta maker. Nice gadget.


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Cut and then left to rest beneath a tea towel while the rest of dinner was prepared.

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The perfectly cooked tri-colour Modena pasta with a bologne sauce (tomato and meat).

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For the non-meat eaters, quattro formaggio. His life will never be the same.

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And these tasty bits are the piece of dough seen above, dropped into hot oil until puffed up.

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And then opened, stuffed with a very creamy (although with a different texture than you’d call ‘creamy.’ The proper word escapes me and I will seek out this cheese — I promise! — on our return. After stuffing with cheese and arugula, one could also add some parchment-thin transparent slices of home-cure prosciutto ham or salami.

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Happy happy kidlets. They ate and ate and would have eaten more had the Princess not been part of a so-lovely ensemble, playing music in the town cathedral for a mass in remembrance of all the dead children known to the parishoners.

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This pic is before the Mass began and you may just be able to see a couple of heads above the railing to the left.

The list of children’s names went on for such a long time. So much heartache, even if now old pain.

But the music was exquisite, enhanced by the indescribable acoustics.

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The feeling on the walk home was like sunshine.

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Ooooooh, big day in the tiny town.

Or at least, big day for my little chickens.

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All squeaky clean and garbed in concert black, walking two long blocks from the B&B where we’re staying, then across the piazza, then two more long blocks up to Santa Chiara.

Nervous and joyful energy. They knew they were well prepared and that the performances would be strong and so were able to relax.

All the students here at the festival have an opportunity to perform at public events and we’ve attended concerts most afternoons and evenings, some here in Casalmaggiore, others in neighbouring towns and villages.

Some of these attendees, I’ve learned, are of such a level of excellence they already have managers back in their home country.

Others have mothers.

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An early arrival in the Aula Magna, the big hall, to tune instruments and get into ‘the zone.’

You’ll please indulge my iPhone photos. I dutifully videocam’d with one hand and attempted to snap with the other. A day for memories, not photographic excellence.

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The first movement of a piano trio by Haydn. Blurred in the background is the page turner, a critical job, one I nervously held two nights ago.

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Oh, a mother’s dream to see her two little chicks up on stage. No arguing, no bickering, just lovely tuneful music.

They played the third movement of the same trio. For some reason the organizers swapped out the cello parts, likely as the Princess is again playing in a large cello ensemble in a couple of nights, and they needed to share the fun!

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And here, a Beethoven trio, with a cellist from Shanghai. In the small world department, this girl is taught by the mother of the Princess’s teacher. Got that? Jeuwen, also 12, is very sweet and arrived with her father. She and Liliana have gotten on very well, despite the language barrier. It’s very sweet to see them giggling and gesticulating together.


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Well, whew! Wasn’t that fun!

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And now, off to the ‘watermelon party’ in the cortile, the courtyard downstairs.

These are precious moments indeed. The other day I remarked as we ambled along the Po River, “Sometimes I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world.”

Homeboy replied, “Oh, Mummy. You always say that.”

I guess I do.

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Pity the poor violinist.

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Up at the crack of mid-morning, having been out late the night before, concertizing and gelato-sampling with his amicis in the piazza. The latest in gelato fascination, I am told, is three flavours of gelato in the middle of a croissant-textured flaky circular bun. More gelato, more food, and nothing to waste at the end of it all.

I’ve not yet seen or tasted this concoction, but they seem to fuel well the Ever-Growing one.

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Upon arrival at Santa Chiara, the building where the lessons and some evening concerts are held, the students work by themselves for a while, reviewing music, preparing for lessons with the professors (as they’re referred to here), or preparing for some chamber pieces, ie group work with other players.

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Homeboy here is working on a Beethoven Trio — which includes a piano and a cellist — in this case, not his beloved sister but a girl from Shanghai. They’re all about the same age and fiercely intense in their desire to make this little number ‘work.’ It’s been a good growing experience.

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After their independent morning practice the students occasionally have private lessons with various professional musicians.

While here my boy has had the tremendous experience to work with some remarkable violinists, particularly Patricia Shih. In the small world department she hails from Canada (Vancouver, in fact) and is the lead violinist of a popular quartet.

Patricia played Carnegie Hall when she was 15. Even if you’re not into this stuff, that’s pretty impressive.

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Of course a brilliant musician does not necessarily a great teacher make. However, my boy positively lights up when she’s in the room. She stops him every couple of notes, “That’s good, Nicholas, but what about playing it like this, Nicholas?” And she takes his violin, dances with it a bit, evokes a beautiful sound and then hands it back.

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He takes it back, models precisely what she says and then — whoosh! He’s done it. If he were a puppy he’d be sitting quivering on the floor, tail wagging furiously, absolutely focussed, waiting for the next command.

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Woof!

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Cultural assimilation is one of the great hallmarks of the clever traveller.

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Take, for example, the evening we spent in the tiny but culturally mighty town of Cremona.

Cremona is the birthplace of the stringed instrument as perfected by Antonio Stradivari in the 17th century. The Latinized form of his name, Stradivarius, as well as the shortened Strad, refer to his violins, cellos, viol de gambas, and others.

Many luthiers, makers of stringed instruments, still call Cremona home and the town still produces fine violins.

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We were fortunate to attend a concert in Cremona this week as it’s just a half-hour’s drive from where we’re staying in Casalmaggiore. Arriving about thirty minutes before the concert gave us a bit of time to wander and to get a bite to eat.

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All these little towns have duomos or cathedrals and they’re really quite spectacular works of architecture. In Casalmaggiore there are at least four churches in addition to two duomos and they’re all within walking distance of one another.

 

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And with piazzas everywhere you turn, the mind can’t help but turn to the stomach for help.

Hello, Stomach. Brain here. I see a bit of cobblestone with tables and chairs. What do you say?

Stomach: Mangiamo!

 



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Some fresh bread, my delicate one?

This ristorante looked fairly inviting and as it was filled primarily with locals out for an evening stroll we thought we’d get a taste of the city.

A massive bowl of  calamari fritti, some gnocchi Siciliana (with tomatoes and cheese), pizza quattro formaggio, insalata mista, ample bread and olive oil and some bruschetta.

My tall one has been sampling pizza quattro formaggio every other time we eat in a restaurant, in a search for the perfect combination and layout of formaggio. Sometimes the cheeses are in four triangular quadrants, sometimes they’re laid out in a perfect spiral evocative of a spotted flower and other times, it’s sprinkled on à la Kraft-style Four Cheese Family Pack.

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Eet ees, ‘ow you say….

 

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Mamma mia, eet ees soo goood!

 

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Eet ees, ‘ow you say…

 

 

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Italia, ti amo molto!



 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ode to the hazelnut

At our house, along with garlic, seaweed and a few other oddities, Nutella is a food group.

Of course, I know about the sugar, the sugar, the polyunsaturated fats and the sugar, but as just about everything else stocking the cupboard shelves in our place is about as wholesome as kale — including kale — a little chocolatey nutty indulgence is allowed. And we would never ever eat it straight out of the jar.

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Now where did that come from?

Anyway, imagine our great tail-wagging delight when, wandering down the aisles of the local grocery store what should we find but  the mecca of all things Nutella.

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First of all, emergency packs. Perfect for the car, the knapsack, the first aid kit — anywhere you need a quick supply of Nutella when you’re far from home.

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Secondly, small jars, perhaps for the light eater who doesn’t wish to overindulge. I don’t know if these jars would make it safely back to the cupboard from the table. Might be a case of, “Well, there’s such a tiny bit left and I wouldn’t want it to go to waste… Why don’t I just finish it off?”

No, these jars would not fare well in our house.

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So here’s a better option for the undecided. Top row — for the delicate eaters. Second row, for those less shy.

Third row — well, this is 630 grams of goodness, my friends. More than an ample supply for your family, don’t you think?

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But what’s this? Stacked up at the back of the store, over by the summer section of plastic sand pails and instant iced tea? Another size up? Eight hundred and twenty five grams?

This is some serious Nutella happiness. Jars by the caseload, and neatly stacked next to the crackers. A heavenly match. Could anything be better?

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A kilo would be better. That’s what.

One kilogram.

Two-point-two pounds.

Oh my.

And the best? Only €6,25. That’s about $9.

If you’re not a Nutella shopper, let me please share with you that this is a very. good. price.

And I’ll share something else:

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As I said: It’s a food group.

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Shakespeare brought Verona to the attention of the English-speaking world almost a half-millennium ago, even if he never actually visited the place and even if (***spoiler alert***) the story of Romeo and Juliet is pure fiction.

I’m sorry to break this to you, my friends, but the story of the star-crossed lovers was, as they say in the best Disney tradition, “inspired by a true story.”

Two real families, the Montecchi and the Cappellos, were indeed feuding and were the models for the Bard’s Montagues and Capulets. And that’s where it stops, despite the fact that there is in fact a tiny courtyard, with a balcony where you too can enter for €6 and blow kisses to your loved one below.

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It’s a beautiful balcony, for sure, and credit goes to a clever tour guide who started it all in the early 1970s to attract visitors to Verona.

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The courtyard walls are now covered with amorous graffiti and there’s a Juliet Club that receives letters mailed from around the world and addressed to “Juliet, Verona, Italy.” Each year the club awards the author of the sweetest letter with a free trip to Verona.

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As well this wall of padlocks enables lovers to spend money prove their hearts are locked up forever. The shop that sells the locks also thoughtfully sells pens with which to write on the locks.

 


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Our guide Monica while most informative may have spent a bit too long talking about the fictional elements of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy.

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When last I checked, Lord and Lady Montague were not amused.

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Now you know we’d love to have each and everyone of you here with us, sharing the morning cappuccinos, the fresh fruit and yogurt, the garlicky tomato sauce, the tender gnocchi, the late night gelato, the stunning music…

But as we can’t, how about a few pictures?

Better yet, boil up a pot of pasta, pour yourself a glass of wine and come on a walking tour for just a few minutes.

I promise not to talk about food.

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The former 17th century convent of Santa Chiara is home to all the classes and afternoon recitals. It’s mostly modernized although the thick stone walls prevent any access to wireless internet which, when one thinks of the cloistered life of the hundreds of nuns who would have silently wandered these halls, the imposed quiet is rather appropriate.

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Looking to the right, the convent ends at the large entrance beside the brown building. The upper shutters cover the windows of the nuns’ former bedrooms, now used as dormitories.

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Inside the building are all the little nooks and crannies one would hope to discover in a structure of its vintage and history. Through these doors, for example, is the tiny Cappella di Santa Chiara, the convent’s chapel.

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The room is quite small but the frescoes, while having experienced some damage are still impressive, with the colours holding up over the centuries.

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The upper halves of these frescoes have disappeared to both environmental damage and to the unfortunate locating of some shelving, I was told.

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But the frescoes tell more than just a story of misguided renovations.

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Here, for example is a story of a pretty bad day.

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Oh, that Salome.

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But I’ve got to wonder…

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… about the peacefulness of prayer when surrounded by this kind of imagery…

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… even after one had already committed one’s life to monasticism and spiritual betterment….

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Best perhaps to take in a peaceful evening break in the softening light, enjoy some of the benefits of modern technology, and listen to one’s friends and classmates send beautiful music toward the heavens.

And to decide which of the forty flavours of gelato will take centre stage tonight…

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And hello you lovely German Alps!

Late this past Friday afternoon three of our foursome settled into a trans-Pacific airline seat and prepared hearts and bellies for three weeks of la dolce vita in beautiful rural Italia.

 

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A three-week music program awaits the two bambinis where they will (oh joy! say they) have to  get to practice their stringed instruments for about, oh, four hours a day, an addition to pedagogy courses, Italian lessons, music lessons, twice daily concerts in and around the little village where we’ll stay, and, to be fair, well lured with ample quantities of pizza, gnocchi, and gelato.

But first we had to get there.

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A few hours in Frankfurt, a few hours in Bologne, successfully navigating our way to the stazione, finding the proper platform, boarding the first train going in the correct direction (always nervous-making),  disembarking at the appropriate train switch — in this case, Parma. Beautiful little Parma, late at night, pretty vacant Parma, what-do-we-do-if-we’ve-missed-the-last-train Parma.

There was, of course, one final train consisting of about four cars, and we boarded, in the dark, trusting instinct.

Where was your guide book, you ask? Of course we had a guide book. We’re experienced travellers. Sheesh.

But some towns are just too tiny to make it to guide books or maps in general. Back in the homeland we’d looked many times at the little town of Casalmaggiore but hilariously, it took so many magnifications to actually have it show up on the on-line maps, one was never quite certain where it was.

So it was an educated guess: Bologne is south of Milan, Parma is north of Bologne, Casalmaggiore is east of Parma. Got it.

And if I may add one element to your imagined picture of us traipsing around airports and train stations: We had our luggage, six weeks (there’s more trip to come) and two temperate zones of clothing and footwear, pages (ie pounds) of sheet music, two music stands, a violin and, that most delightful of portable instruments, the cello.

This will not be your usual European backpack vacation.

 

 

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And so we arrived, late in the evening, with the sun setting on the River Po. The air was warm and sweet with roses.

The delightful proprietress of our B&B pointed our weary but suddenly famished selves toward the local pizzeria where we learned what Saturday night pizza is supposed to taste like.

Smiles all ’round.

This music stuff might be worth something after all.

 

 

 

 

 

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