Here we are with Mary Beth atop Guinigi Tower with great views of Lucca and Tuscany. Built in the 14th century as a status symbol by Lucca’s ruling family, it has trees and a garden on the top.

The plan was to spend two weeks in Lucca, a Tuscan city of about 90,000 people that lies 50 miles west of Florence. In his quest to master all the languages on earth Mark would study Italian for two weeks with his old college friend Mary Beth while I would hang out. Mark & Mary Beth kept their end of the deal but I took the opportunity to spend most of those two weeks back in Minnesota.

Lucca is an interesting city, but perhaps better for my four-day stay than Mark’s two-week sojourn. There is some interesting history: Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus met here in 56 BC to reaffirm their triumvirate that ultimately led to Caesar taking sole power (and then getting killed). The city was, for several centuries, and independent city state and, after Venice, the second-largest city state with a Republican constitution. And one of the city’s most notable features is that the medieval walls remain intact and today are topped with a great elevated parkway for walking and running and reading and hanging out.

Mark on top of Lucca’s city walls, now a great two-and-a-half mile parkway

Today Lucca is a major tourist destination for those passing through Tuscany. Mark and I had been here twice before, but both times just on day trips so we figured this time it made sense to linger a bit. The problem for Mark was that apparently it’s a little small to justify two weeks. The old city walls encase an area of narrow, winding streets with some good restaurants and lots of fancy shopping, but ultimately there’s not a lot to do or things to explore. I had the notably strange experience of arriving in Italy from Minnesota feeling strangely “at home” here – I’ve spent more time in Italy in recent years than in Minnesota, I guess – but Mark was ready to get out.

The elegant – and hot – living room in our apartment

Part of his problem was that he didn’t like the apartment we rented for two weeks. It was a huge flat – entrance hall, big kitchen, massive living room, three bedrooms, servants quarters (seriously), and a small balcony with access to a clothes line so you could feel like a real Italian hanging clothes to dry – but a little shabbier than it appeared in pictures. The big deal, though, was that there was no air conditioning. With daytime temperatures up into the low 90s and night temperatures in the low 70s, that meant it was just too hot in there. I suspect that’s extremely common in Lucca’s many older buildings but that didn’t make it any better. It was just too hot.

While I was in Minnesota Mark and Mary Beth hosted a few guests. She was in Italy largely because her 13-year-old son Luca (crazy coincidence, huh), participates in an annual summer music festival in nearby Garfagnana so during the weekend Luca and Sven (the father/husband) came to visit. And entirely coincidentally another old college friend of Mark & Mary Beth’s, Lisa, was in Italy too so she stopped by for a couple days.

Old college friends – Mark, Lisa, and Mary Beth

Lucca: nice old town surrounded by intact city walls, good tourist infrastructure, Italian classes, and good friends. All good. But too hot without AC if you’ve become spoiled. As we have.

Mark, Luca, and Sven hanging out

Luca in Lucca. While he was up in Garfagnana for his music competition Lucca has some music chops of its own. Puccini was born here and the city hosts a summer-long music festival that attracts stars like Eric Clapton and – later this year – the Rolling Stones. Yes, they’re still alive.

Isn’t that just attractive?

Some great food in Lucca

Mark is having vitello tonatto, his favorite Italian dish, while I discovered steak tartare on the menu. Pretty much a perfect lunch sitting out there on the street.

On a summer day in Europe, there’s pretty much nothing more refreshing than an Aperol Spritz. It’s not low carb, but sometimes you just have to.

Lucca’s San Michele in Foro, built over the ancient Roman forum. The fa├žade dates from the 13th century.

The first day of school is always exciting!

Here we are back up on the Guinigi Tower with those crazy trees way up in the air

Mary Beth is fun, smart, and stunningly photogenic. Oh, and the mother of four great kids. You try to find something to fault her for, but it’s hard.

And one last shot from our apartment. This is part of the servant’s quarters. Not bad!

What’s a family reunion without a family portrait? Here’s my mother with five of her six children, two daughters-in-law, eight grandchildren, one sort-of grandson-in-law, and two great-grandchildren. If the Alaska crowd had made it down this would be a much bigger picture.

This was a strange trip. The idea was to just go home for a visit, a long week in Duluth. My brother and sister would be working during the week but I’d have time to visit my mother, hang out in the evening with family, and see everyone during the weekend. Mark would be in Tuscany studying Italian with a friend and it would be pleasant.

Then my niece got the news no one wanted: the cancer that had attacked her then-eight-year-old son a couple years ago was back. He’d been declared cancer free just six or eight months earlier, though everyone knew there was a chance it would return. It did, a lot sooner than we’d expected, and this time there was no treatment. He’s fine for now, but his days are distinctly limited. So instead of a week just hanging out in Duluth, we decided to rent a few cabins on a lake near Grand Rapids and invite whatever siblings could make it back to spend the Fourth of July week being family, doing what we could to support each other. In the end it ended up being Al & Anita fresh off our holiday in Greece along with their two kids, my sister Marie and her three adult children from North Carolina, and the whole Duluth gang.

Mom with her four youngest grandkids and two great-grandkids. The young ‘uns have a lot of fun at these family reunions.

Here’s the weird part. Needless to say, there was a lot of pain in the crowd. Dexter’s tumors are still extremely small – microscopic, I assume – so the cancer isn’t bothering him to any measurable extent. But everyone always knows they’re back and at some point in a few months, probably not a lot more, they will start taking over. And so the kids play – and it’s enormously fun watching the youngsters frolic at a lake-side resort – while the adults read and talk and cook and play cards and all that. But every so often you catch yourself having maybe too much fun, forgetting for a moment, recognizing that this is the last time we’ll be together this way without the seemingly unbearable pain of Dex’s cancer. You can ignore the sadness for a while, but it’s always lurking ready to remind you how incomprehensibly unfair life can be.

Still, we carry on. The long week together gave me time to connect with nieces and nephews I rarely see. I spent lots of time with my siblings and the two sisters-in-law who were there but that still leaves plenty of time to walk or find a quiet place to read. My mother’s Alzheimers continues it’s inexorable path, but for now at least it’s just a matter of short-term memory; she certainly knows who we are and what’s going on around her. Ask her who drove her out to the lodge that morning, though, and that’s another story.

Sunset over North Star Lake. If I look at this picture for just a few seconds I can start to hear the loons, a sound I love.

The lake itself is really beautiful, as these Northern Minnesota lakes all are. I’d love the area around Grand Rapids even if I didn’t know it was the birthplace of Francis Gum, better known as Judy Garland. The people here are just always so friendly, like when I went into a grocery store to get quarters to do laundry and the woman just smiles and says “Of course, honey!” (Try that on the East Coast….) My favorite time of the day is early morning when few people are up; I go down to the lake in the quiet and read, watch the ducks, and listen to the loons. Sometimes I wonder why I travel all over the world looking for beauty when it’s really right here. And then my brother Vic is a great cook who apparently likes cooking for big crowds, so we never wanted for good food. All in all a good place to spend a week of mixed joy and pain.

After a week, though, it was definitely time to hit the road again. You could tell the Duluth crowd appreciated having us there to share this sad journey, but they were also happy to see us leaving so they could have their normal lives back. For now, then, it’s back to Italy to join Mark for the last few days of our stay in Tuscany.

The day we left the lodge our tribe – the Fond du Lac Ojibwe band – held their annual Veterans Pow-wow. These are shots from the grand entrance.

My sister Rebecca (the tribe’s assistant attorney) on the right with her daughter Lily in their jingle dresses. If you were wondering, Lily made that dress herself. Pretty impressive, huh?

Lily in civilian clothes

Dex & Jacob being cool in the mottled shade of a tree. He looks healthy enough, right?

My mom knitting. I think I’ve seen that picture a few times over the years…

Mom with eight grandkids and two great grandkids

I get a picture with my mother, too. And if you’re wondering, yes, she knitted that shawl, too.

Finally, one more shot of North Star Lake. It made a beautiful setting for a sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful week. And yes, sometimes both at once.

Al, Anita, & I beside the Erechtheion, a temple to Athena and Poseidon on the Acropolis

After a couple weeks island hopping in the Cyclades Islands we took a brief, two-day stop in Athens. Mark & I have been to Athens a couple times, including just two years ago, but we were eager to show Anita in particular the Acropolis and other great Greek sites. So off we went.

We were leaving on Friday, when you an see the forecast high was 111 degrees. Definitely eager to get out before that but needless to say the heat on Wednesday & Thursday was oppressive.

The first thing we observed was that in late June when we were there (yeah, I’ve gotten way behind in my posts here) it was hot. Seriously hot. We’d been here in August 2015 and thought it was hot then but this was on a whole new scale. Our strategy was to wait until 6:30 PM before heading up to the Acropolis when it was “only” in the low-90s. Made us pretty reluctant to do a lot of outdoor touring.

Still, even if you’ve seen it before the Acropolis is just a remarkable place. As a common noun, an acropolis is just a citadel built on high ground, typically with steep sides, particularly for defense. As a proper noun the Acropolis is the site of the Parthenon, the ancient temple to the goddess Athena built by the great leader Pericles in the mid-5th century BC during the city’s golden age. It’s faced a lot of challenges in the 2,500 years since then – ravaged by time, blown up by the Venetians in the 17th century when they hit it with artillery fire while the ruling Ottomans used it to store gunpowder, vandalized by Britain’s Lord Elgin in the 19th century when he convinced the Ottoman Sultan to let him remove the best remaining statues – but it remains one of the world’s great sites. So yeah, it was hot, but I still loved it.

Near the Acropolis is the Acropolis Museum, a modern – and air conditioned – building with great displays of Greece’s ancient greatness. Again, we were here two years ago but this time was different for me. I had, you see, recently finished a Anthony Everett’s The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization. Suddenly stuff I’d seen last time but didn’t really understand leapt to life, now seen in a context I just hadn’t understood before. Last time I saw rocks and broken statues; this time I saw a story. Who says an old dog can’t learn something new?

Four of the original Caryatids, female statues taking the place of columns, supporting part of the Erechtheion

That was it with Greece, then. The plan had been that after saying goodbye to Al & Anita, Mark and I would fly to Rome and then catch a train to Lucca (in Tuscany) where Mark would study Italian for a couple weeks. After making those plans, though, I decided to take advantage of Mark’s stationary plans to go back to Minnesota to see my family. Given the flight schedule I would have to spend one night in Rome so Mark decided to spend the night there with me and enjoy the briefest of Roman holidays before he headed north.

It was definitely brief – we arrived in the afternoon and my flight out was at 6:30 AM the next morning – but we made the most of it. Needless to say, there is something cool about leaving the center of one great center of Western history to go to an even greater historic center. We stayed at a very cute hotel just off the Campo de’ Fiori, one of our favorite Roman squares and a short walk from Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s great squares. So there was good food, a big church or two, and a spin through the ancient Pantheon. Not bad for less than 20 hours in Rome.

Our three favorite Italian dishes are saltimbocca ala Romana, vitello tonnato, and eggplant parmesan (clockwise here from upper right). So when we saw all three items on the menu at a restaurant just steps from our hotel, it was a no-brainer.

For me, then, it was a 4:00 AM alarm to catch a 4:30 taxi to the airport. Except that for whatever reason my alarm didn’t go off and I didn’t wake up until 4:18, still needing to shower and pack. It felt a little rushed but by 4:32 – yes, I was late – I was in the taxi, off to Minnesota. Mark got to sleep in before taking a high-speed train north to Florence and then the local to Lucca. Those stories are next.

Mark in front of the Parthenon

Al & Anita up on the Acropolis

Mark and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple was started in the 6th century BC, and Athens’ great builder Pericles tried to finish it in the 5th century BC. It was of such a massive scale, though, that even in the city’s Golden Age they couldn’t complete it. In fact, it sat unfinished until the second century AD when the Roman Emperor Hadrian – a noted Hellenophile – finally finished it. And to be honest, this picture doesn’t exactly belong here. I took it two weeks earlier when we passed through Athens en route to the islands. I forgot to include it in a blog post back then, so I figured this is close enough.

We only had a few hours in Rome but that was still enough to walk through a few grand churches

The view from our great little hotel near Campo de’ Fiori

And Rome’s Pantheon, today a church but originally a temple to all gods. This was also built by Hadrian early in the second century AD. It has been in continuous use since then which I assume must make it the oldest building in the world still in use.