Monday, December 22, 2008

Famous Bielecki

Above is a video of Mateo in the Combatives course he took in July-August 2007. This is what gave him a certificate, an award, and a dislocated shoulder, which ended up giving him a new job in the Army, too. This is a commercial that's been featured worldwide on the AFN network cable that pipes through every service member's TV in Europe and on post in the States.

Below is a picture of Mateo's group in the Army. Gosh, he's gonna kill me for not knowing the real word to describe that group. I think it is Command, or something. The HSC SETAF Command. He is in the second row from the front; the third one from the right of the flag (the tip of the flag points to the guy next to him). They took this picture when they switched their berrets from maroon color to black. Click on the picture to enlarge.

AND, the famous guy also has a spot on the radio wishing his family a Happy Holiday. Some of you have reported to me that you've heard it already on the radio in your cars and at work. Awesome! You can listen to it here: Just click where you see "Army Sgt. Jeffery Bicknell & Air Force Senior Airman Diane Berthiaume & Army Sgt. Matthew Bielecki" written.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Verona at Night

  • Dec. 19th, 2008 at 4:55 PM
My first impression of Verona was good, but not excellent. This evening changed my mind. I love Verona. Fantastic!

Aside from getting pulled over by the police and having major communication issues with the ladies, we got to Verona in time to watch the sunset from the top of the Arena (Verona's Colosseum).
Of course, we were having a dandy time in the Arena: taking pictures, freaking out over my sudden vertigo at the edge, admiring the view, "running" up the seats, testing the acoustics, etc. Finally, the cold breeze at the top got to me, and I wanted to move on, which turned out to be more difficult than expected. First, we had to remember which door we came in.
"Here it is!"
"It's closed."

Perhaps I was mistaken?
ALL of them were closed. locked.

We got locked into the Arena. We walked along the edge, the bottom, we even pushed past barriers and got an interesting, albeit panicked, look behind the scenes.
"I'm breaking down this wooden barrier!" Mateo says determinedly.
"Well, you try that. I'm going to bang on the metal door and scream for help through this rust hole," I said (thinking it was a decidedly better idea) "AUITAME! PER FAVORE! AUITA!"
None of that worked to our unpleasant surprise. I was about to bust into the fire hose and pull the alarm, when a couple enters the Arena. They snuck in... through a wide opening cleverly marked in large letters: "USCITA" (exit)
Oopsy. Everyone had gone home. They locked all the doors, except the large can't miss it EXIT door, which neither of us seemed to be able to see for the last 45 minutes.

All that excitement, panic, and final relief brings hunger, so we stopped at a market food stand and got Fritelle con Nutella. Yum! Orange scented dough, fried in a disc shape, dipped in sugar and smeared with Nutella, folded in half: Sweet Italian tacos. We enjoyed those listening to a Peruvian flute and avoiding an angry, drunk man on a cell phone.
We also shopped around in the square for a hat and moved on to stroll the decorated streets.
How romantic everything was! And, the cold, but not bitterly so, weather was clear and perfect.

Thirst over came us, and this wine & grappe store/bar was too intriguing to pass up. Enoteca Dal Zovo. Fabulous. Mateo bought a bottle of absinthe. You should check the guy's website out for some amusing pictures of the owner who tended to us and to get an idea of what the store looks like inside. It's crammed with dusty bottles, liquors, magazines, bags, and knick knacks. He's even got a naked chicks calendar at the counter. The clock is a large spider and he seems to really enjoy the nautical themed items.
When I was sitting in one of the only two clear spots in the store, I picked up a magazine. The first picture I looked at in the magazine looked familiar: It was the store we were sitting in! This pleasant little bar/shop was featured in Bell'Italia. Alongside it, there was a review for an osteria not far away. We decided the article was spot on about the bar, so we ventured over to the osteria for dinner.

Boy, the osteria was indubitably an excellent choice for people watching, fine wines, and fabulous food. Our waiter wouldn't stop smiling in this hilarious and endearing manner. The menu is written on a small sheet of paper for the night. The list, you can imagine, is not long. I got carrot soup and Le Crespelle. Mateo got the first thing on the menu. The owner said something about it being horsemeat. He was all IN on that. The food was great. My Crespelle turned out to be crepes stuffed with ricotta and radicchio. It was incredibly rich and divine. His horsemeat was a stew with a side of polenta. We got out of there for under 45 euro, which, considering the quality and amount of wine and food we had (including an appetizer and small apertif, we were stuffed nicely) was not a bad deal. The crowd arrived just at the end of our meal. I can imagine the menu sells out nightly.

Then we went onward for sightseeing in the dark along the river.
Around a dark corner I heard commotion. Apparently the traveling German Christmas Market was in town (this side of town). So we bought a tin robot and more wine: gluhwine. The square was one of the best finds. The architecture around there was great: variety and detail and colors. The frescoes on the walls were disappearing, but enough remained that you could easily imagine how fanciful it looked when it was a new neighborhood.
Around the corner from THAT square I fell in love with a building. It was like a set from some play I'd dream I was the lead.

More pictures:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Colli Euganei

It’s rare that both Mateo and I have the same entire day off, let alone three days in a row! But it’s been happening lately, so we’ve been taking advantage of our time together to explore the area and towns around our house.

This weekend (yes, we actually got a WEEKEND off at that!) we explored the Colli Euganei. The hills take their name from the Euganei, a semi-mythical population who inhabited the area before the Venetians.
It’s actually a volcanic region that initially was completely submerged, then was an archipelago, and finally a hilly region as the entire regional “plate” rose and emerged from the ocean in the Quaternary period, a time when recognizable humans existed. On a side note, the Quaternary period was a really interesting time geologically speaking. During this period, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea switched from salt to fresh and back again to salt water because of flooding due to changes in the ground level around the area. The English Channel and the Bering Strait were also occasionally flooded (as we experience today) and dried up so that at some points there was a land bridge between Britain and European mainland and another land bridge connecting Asia and North America.
Today these volcanic hills continue to be active, creating thermal hot springs and hot therapeutic mud. Despite the whole area being a regional park, there are many hotels and touristy sites nestled here and there amongst nature.

It is also a great place of wine production, a denomination of controlled origin to be exact. That means that most, if not all, wine produced from this region will have a DOC stamp or indication on the bottle. This means that the wine not only comes from a special region in Italy, but that it also meets stringent requirements including: certain soil composition, standards of grape variety, and alcohol content, but most importantly that it is created following the historical and culturally important process unique to the area. When you drink a DOC wine, you are drinking what the families of that region have been drinking for many, many regions. That glass of wine was created the same way now as it was generations ago. In some way you are helping to preserve the unique culture of that region.
While the DOC Euganei wine was on our list of things to explore this Sunday, we first wanted to work off some of the calories we stored up during our relatively uneventful summer.

First, we headed to the Valsanzibio garden. This place is beautiful! It’s supposedly named The Most Beautiful Garden in Italy, and quite possibly the oldest. Click on the underlined name, and it will direct you to their website for more pictures and information.

Throughout Europe, there aren’t very many trees. Not old ones anyway. The whole European region was covered in trees long ago that today would be impressive for their size and beauty. Unfortunately the most of them have been cut down through the years to make way for farm land and cities. This garden had some of the biggest, oldest trees I have seen in Europe. It also had a lot of water features and a maze, all done in a classic Baroque style. I can’t believe that some young girl grew up with this as her entire world. I felt like I might almost be content to stay within the boundaries of my parents’ yard forever had I a garden like this.

The garden was planned as an allegory of man's progress towards his own perfectibility or salvation. Well, we are both in need of salvation, so we started at the maze…
I must say now that Mateo is one of the worst people when it comes to directions. He can’t give them. He can’t follow them. He can’t read a map to save his life. I have a few embarrassing stories about him getting lost. (And he’s in Army!! How does that work out?) BUT, stick him in a maze and he can almost directly lead you the exit. It’s amazing! So while I might get a little angry and hopeless when we’re lost in Milan, I wouldn’t hesitate to have him as my navigational guide under weirder circumstances.
Then we navigated through the rest of the garden, stopping off for a view of Rabbit Island, which houses lots of frisky rabbits and a large birdcage. The island symbolizes The Sphere of Immanence (yeah, I had to go look up that word, too) Then we went onward to the Villa, past a statue of time and playful fountains.

Next, we decided to stop off in the town of Arqua Petrarca. It is the place where the poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) lived the final part of his life and died, hence the town's name. It’s a very small, beautiful, cobblestone-paved medieval town. While we appreciate poetry, we were most interested in trying a jujube. I had no idea that these dried, red olive looking things were Jujubes (also called red dates, apparently) until an old lady with a wooden roadside cart-stand insisted that Mateo and I try some. Amazing! Certainly not my favorite fruit, but I was happy to say I’ve tried a jujube. I’d pick a candy jujube or a “real” date any day over these things, but they’re quite popular in this town. Almost every house has a tree, and there were many, many products derived of the jujube to be sampled and bought. They had jujube cakes, liquor, candy, and a curious and somehow delightful jujube jello.
Well, anyway, the fruit is touted as a great stress reducer, so we enjoyed as many free samples as possible. You know, for medicinal reasons. (you can see why we had so many calories to burn off in the maze-- we eat everything we can in the name of adventure!)

We also rested our weary feet and satisfied our endlessly hungry stomachs in a small Osteria in the town. We ate sweet & sour sardines (typical dish of the Veneto region), pumpkin lasagna, a bean and faro soup, and baccala with polenta. I was surprised to see that the town had its own dialect, and the menu was written entirely in it…on a chalkboard… outside the restaurant… and nowhere else. I made frequent embarrassing trips outside to read over the menu and walk back inside repeating the word to myself a hundred times so as not to forget it and then forget it.

We tried to finish up the night with mini golf, but got horribly lost. I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere. I only had my prescription sunglasses, so I was no help with street signs. It looked so easy on the map, but in reality, the streets are quite windy and confusing. Of course, country roads rarely are labeled anyway.
So, after some minutes of frustration we gave up on the idea and headed home.
“I’m thirsty. Quite thirsty,” Mateo said.
“I’m dying of thirst.”
So we stopped at the nearest bar: The Blues Brother’s Café.
I grabbed my purse and headed inside to realize a second too late that I still had my sunglasses on… at 9pm. And, I was walking into The Blues Brother’s Café. I’m sure they thought I was a total moron, trying to look “bluesy” with my sunglasses at night. How embarrassing and hilarious!
Then I immediately panicked. Perhaps it was a self-preservation panic as I wanted to avoid sharing the next few hours with people who had caught me walking into a bar at night with sunglasses on. I heard an awful 90s dance track and a couple of men holding hands. This is a gay bar.
I have no problem with gay bars. I spent quite a bit of time in them in Hollywood, but the terrible music and leather pants were going to be too much for me to handle at this point. I was wrong: stepping further inside I see that it was a completely heterosexual family establishment in the back and slightly more risqué out front.
To our complete surprise, a simple “tall beer” order produced a Kwak on tap in front of us. It was quite amazing! It's hard to find good beer in Italy, the land of wine. Kwak is a distinguished beer from Belgium, which is served in a fancy glass.
After his beer and some water, Mateo was less than thirsty and we headed back home to promptly pass out and sleep through all of the next day.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Three Small Towns in Colli Berici

The Colli Berici hills are located just a few kilometers south of our home. It's one of my favorite quick getaways.
The hills are made of mostly of volcanic rock, marine sediment, basalt, and limestone. This whole area, including the Dolomites, was a under sea water at some point. Now, exposed to acid rain which disintegrates limestone readily, the Dolomites and the Colli Berici hills are pock-marked with crevices and caves. Not surprisingly, the area is a fantastic place to explore caves and rock climb.

In the closest town to us, Longare, there is an interesting (although a little creepy) US Army installation that reminds me of something straight out of an episode of Lost. They call it "Pluto." There are 1970's green forts and towers nested in the disintegrating hills, surrounded by barbed wire and overgrowth. The picture shows the state of the overgrowth in 1999 (click the picture to enlarge it, for a better look).

Mateo works in one of the buildings. I have not been able to visit inside his office because I don't have the security clearance to do so, but he says it's just as creepy inside as it is outside. There are microphones hanging from the ceiling!

It's rumored that nuclear weapons used to be housed inside the hills on this small installation. I found online some references to nuclear weapons still being housed there as late as 2002.

The annual sagra (small fair) held in the grounds of the town's church is great! They serve pig spine and polenta as the specialty of the night. Yes, sounds gross, but it's actually not bad. You can also sample numerous local wines inexpensively with an animated bartender whose actually a civil engineer the rest of the year. Last year Mateo and I bought a sketch of the area from a local artist. We have yet to get it framed, of course.

The next town over from Longare was a serendipitous find for me one afternoon: Costozza. Its main road is narrow, winding, short and packed with photo opportunities: the clustering of imposing villas, an old icehouse which has been converted into a wine bar frequented by locals, a large garden, trees, a public washing area, a sign that says "Galileo slept here," and some kind of shrine.

A stop at the icehouse, which is now a wine bar

called La Botte del covolo (The Barrels of the Cave), is an absolute must for us any time we are in the area. The dome shaped building used to house the town's ice for the year. Snow was shoveled in the opening at the top, which now acts as the perfect vent for cigarette smoke.

There are caves below the icehouse that cool the bar to a consistent temperature year-round. The caves or caverns reach back far into the surrounding hills and connect to many of the oldest and grandest villas.

Inside the caverns, called cavoli, the temperat

ure doesn't drop below 43 degrees in winter and doesn't rise above 59 in summer. Central air ala 19th century!

The numerous caves in the area provide the perfect climate (cool, dry, and consistent) to age wine and grow mushrooms! And, you can get a tour below into the caverns from one of the owners! One of the tunnels/caves reaches far back into the hills of the area and is connected to the Army Installation (Pluto) which I mentioned earlier. (It's off-limits, naturally.)

Quick Italian lesson:

Due bicchieri di vino locale rosso, per favore.

Translation: "Two glasses of the local red wine, please."

Price per glass at La Botte del Cavolo: about 80 cents.


A quick jaunt down the road and you'll reach Lumignano. Their main attractions are the rock climbing routes housed behind the town church. I am certainly not Sporty Spice, and rock climbing, while it looks really impressive and somewhat appealing, is simply NOT for me. I can't do a push up or a pull up to save my life, and I would think those skills would be required minimums for successful rock climbing.

I like the area because on the first Sunday of the month, you can take a short hiking trail along the side of one of the Berici Hills and reach an old hermitage. The building is impressive. It's built right intothe side of the hill. Inside you can see its back wall is the unpainted side of the hill! It's pretty amazing in my opinion.
I don't exactly understand who originally built it and for what reason, but there is a

sign that warns you that under the floorboards there lie the bones of 8 unidentified bodies.

So, those are three small towns near our own, that are a part of the Colli Berici hills. They're just what you'd expect and hope from an Italian town: quaint, full of history, beautiful, and welcoming.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Venice, winter (part 1)

This weekend, Matthew and I went to Venice to celebrate his birthday (January 25th). His birthday happen to coincide with the first night of Carnevale!! I found a one-star hotel close to the Rialto, and we caught a 4 euro train to Venice on Friday afternoon.
The ground was already covered in confetti, but we had to wait until Sunday before we saw many costumes and masks.
That night we got terribly lost and hungry tracking down an Indian restaurant. Once we got there though, things brightened considerably and the festivities for us officially began. The cook came out after we finished our HUGE meal and chatted with us a bit. She (we think) spoke English very well, wore salmon colored corduroy pants, and was so delighted to find that I was from Hawaii.
"I was just talking to my friends at t
he other table about how much I want to go to Hawaii this year!"
She apparently is an avid windsurfer, and has a friend who grew up on the island of Maui.

The next day we caught a water bus to the unappealing island of Murano. Thankfully, that wasn't our final destination. During our 10 minute layover, we hurriedly looked in the windows of a few shops and figured the island was probably more interesting when it is warm in the summer and all the shops were open.
BURANO, our final destination for the day, was positively delightful! It's a small, fairly untouristed fishing island about a 40 minute water bus ride away from St Mark's square in Venice. What makes Burano so interesting is that every house is painted in different bright colors. The colors of the houses follow a specific system originating from the golden age of its development; if someone wishes to paint their home, one must send a request to the government, who will respond by making notice of the certain colors permitted for that lot. This practice has resulted in the character of the island today.
Burano is also famous for lace.

With children running home for lunch, throwing their backpacks around, and a man sawing wood in his backyard, we got a sense that this is where the real people of Venice live.
We found a vacant picnic bench at noon, overlooking the Venetian lagoon and an adjacent island (Mazzorbo). There we enjoyed a beer we bought from a small grocery store in Venice: La Putena (the whore) from the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. It was a perfect afternoon.

80% of the Venetian lagoon is mud flats, tidal shallows, and salt marshes; 11% water (canals), and near 8% land. It's the largest wetland in the Mediterranean basin. It is, however, fairly artificial! It developed naturally 6-7 thousand years ago, however, if it were not for man's continual intervention beginning in the 15th and 16th century, the whole of the lagoon would be marshland, completely absent of canals or habitable land. The island we were on, Burano (0.21 km²), is kind of special. The peculiar position of Burano in respect to winds and marshes, saved it from the decadence and from the destruction that happened to other islands. It's being detached from the mainland, Burano avoided the plague of malaria quite normal in the lagoon islands which killed hundreds. Its position was also a natural defense from invaders. The inhabitants, century after century, consolidated and raised the ground, dug canals and built bridges, transforming a swamp into a lovely island which now holds 7,000 residents.

The sun was setting by the time we returned to Venice. Exhausted from the afternoon sun, a large lunch, and long walks on Burano, we fell fast asleep at the hotel room before dinner.

above is a short video.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Driving in Italy

Italy truly does take the cake for world's worst drivers. And you thought it was the Japanese!
1. Parking car in middle of one lane road to pop into a store for a few minutes, during rush hour. "Hey! My emergency lights are on!" There is no way around them.
2. Cars driving on the wrong side of the road to pass traffic and then not be able to merge back into the correct lane of traffic when oncoming traffic approaches. So that in the middle lane there will be two cars at a stand still facing each other flashing their brights and honking.
3. Dumb, dumb DUMBass scooters.
4. Passing ME in the middle of an intersection.
5. Cars driving on sidewalks (and mopeds too).
6. Cars parked in all sorts of configurations (facing traffic, half on sidewalk, and always double parked)
7. SmartCars driving 110 MPH.
8. Driving on freeway with lane line directly under middle of car.
9. Passing on a curve.
10. Passing a passing car.
11. Driving on opposite side of median to avoid rough road on their lane, requiring me to stop until there was a break in the traffic to allow me to continue on my way.
12. Knocking down all the standup reflectors at construction site within a few days.
13. Right of way? EVERYONE has the right of way!
14. Attempting to pass on the right to only have to potential passee speed up and then you play "insistent passer-speed along the pedestrian lane and run pedestrian Coral off into the ditch."
15. Tailgate with your brights on.
16. Often times there won't be any traffic lines on very wide streets approaching large traffic circles.

I learned the following "rules" for driving in Italy before obtaining my license:
Flash your lights to let someone know you are letting them into traffic.
Flash your lights if you want the car in front of you to pull over and let you pass.
Turn on your left blinker in the fast lane of the autostrade to insist that all traffic in front of you immediately depart from lane to let you through.

On Gas:
First of all, in Italy you have three choices for gas: unleaded (mid-grade), leaded, or diesel. They are all at the same pump, so beware!

Matthew and I can buy government deal gas coupons that make it $3.48 a gallon. They are a pain in the donkey-butt to use because not all gas stations take them, and you have to go to the gas station at the correct times (not during lunch break, not on weekends, not at night).

Without the gas coupons it is $10.97766 a gallon for unleaded gas, mid-grade. How nice is that?
There is a limited number of gas coupons we can get a month.
All gas stations are 24 hour by self service. There is a machine that you insert euro into and then select which pump and ta da! I love the 24 hour machine. In fact, you get a 2 cent discount for using the machine at any hour as opposed to paying inside. Also takes credit cards.