All posts for the month August, 2019

Vic & Karen enjoying Venice

We like Italy. I’ve liked it since I first experienced it in 1973 and we spent more time there than any other country during our five-plus-year round the world adventure. So when we had a chance to take my brother and sister-in-law to Europe we weren’t surprised at all that they chose Italy.

Vic & Karen had a tough 2018. That was the year their little grandson Dex lost a nearly four-year battle with cancer. A couple months later we took Dex’s surviving brother Mat to Europe and this time it was their turn. Karen had never been across the Atlantic and Vic’s only experience was when he was in the Army in the 1970s, so this was going to be new for both of them. I’m pretty sure they had a good time, and even more certain we did.

First stop was Venice. And then you have to do a gondola ride, right?

Their choice – as it would be for most people – was to see Venice, Florence, and Rome. I mean, who wouldn’t? Since Mark and I have been to all three places lots of time there wasn’t a lot new for us to see or much to say about it here, for that matter. They are all beautiful cities with stunning art and history, but they also all suffer from massive tourist crowds. It just seems worse and worse every time we go and, to be honest, I don’t think Mark & I will go back to Venice or Florence again. Rome is big enough to handle the hordes, but Venice and Florence are just swamped. Both are incredible and beautiful, places you need to see, but there may be a limit as to how many times you need to go.

Along with those three must-see cities, we added a couple brief stops in central Italy. After Florence we drove to Casole d’Elsa, a tiny town in the province of Siena. No real reason except to experience a little of rural Italy in a beautiful hotel. And it gave us the opportunity to take day trips to Siena (beautiful, as always) and San Gimignano. We hadn’t been to the latter in over 20 years and while you’d like to say that these old Italian towns with histories going back many centuries don’t change, they do. A little more upscale than we remember, certainly more tourists.

The towers of San Gimignano

Speaking of day trips, from Casole d’Elsa we were heading to Assisi in Umbria. En route we stopped to visit old friends and former classmates Sarah & Eric. They both joined the foreign service after graduate school and after their careers in various spots around the world they’ve settled on an olive farm in the tiny, tiny town of Paciano. They made us lunch, gave us a tour of their 200-plus olive trees, and, before bidding us adieu, gave us a little can of their homemade olive oil. Fabulous!

The view from Sarah & Eric’s olive orchard

Assisi was another of those “haven’t been there in over 20 years” places. Beautiful, peaceful, historic, slightly off the standard tourist route, and needless to say great food. Then it was off to Rome and more of the tourist hordes.

The beautiful medieval streets of Assisi

And thus we spent two weeks with my brother and his wife. To our surprise, we found ourselves eager to get back to New York; that whole nesting thing seems to have taken hold. And of course the prospect of returning to the city where we had finally closed on our dream loft the day before leaving was exciting. I mean, now that we had closed we should be able to start construction pretty quickly, right?


Karen and the Grand Canal


Artsy Venice

Who says we don’t know how to be good tourists?

Mark documenting our gondola ride

Vic & Karen enjoying Florence

We might be a little jaded about Florence but I never tire of this view of the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River

Mark in Florence

The fabulous Mary Magdalene could be reason enough to return to Florence some day

The Arno River

A nice little walk outside Casole d’Elsa … and a rainbow!

On the way to Assisi we stopped for lunch with old friends Sarah & Eric. Great fun!

With Sarah

For a couple years we would come to Rome and the Trevi Fountain was closed off for renovations. Now it’s clean, beautiful, and unbelievably crowded.

Hyde Park in the spring was a colorful place

We spent the last two weeks of April and the first few days of May on our first foreign trip since landing in New York last January. The main goal was taking my brother and sister-in-law to Italy, but we decided to tack on a few days in London at the start of things. Oddly, in our 68-month adventure around the world (and around and around) we never once set foot in England. And since we have a friend there we wanted to visit, this was as good a time as any to stop by.

First, the friends. The first night we had dinner and drinks with Matt, a former employee who had since moved to London. Forgot to take pictures while we were talking and catching up, though, so nothing to see here.

Mark & Natasha

Next up was a day with Luba and Natasha. We met them when we biked in Japan back in April 2017. A native Russian, Luba lives in London now and we’ve been eager to visit. She was joined on the bike trip by her childhood friend Natasha who was then still living in Moscow. Fast forward two years and Natasha has moved to Germany but entirely coincidentally was, with her six-year-old son Maxim, visiting Luba the same weekend we were there. So we got to see both of them!

And Mark & Luba

You never know with something like that if the fun we had in Japan was a one-off deal, something about the bike trip or whatever, but we just had a fabulous time with the three of them. Little Maxim was cute; he didn’t speak English nor could he understand my very rudimentary German or Mark’s more accomplished Russian. Still, somehow we got along just fine. And visiting with Luba and Natasha – walking around, hanging out in a park, dinner – was just total fun. So that was good.

And, needless to say, there are some great museums in London. We managed to spend a lot of time in the British Museum and the National Gallery, both great museums, along with a shorter visit to the National Portrait Gallery for a good refresher course in post-Tudor England.

The Rosetta Stone is a highlight of the British museum. It is inscribed with a decree issued by the Egyptian Pharaoh in 196 BC in hieroglyphics, demotic script, and ancient Greece (as the Ptolemaic rulers of the time were Greek). Thus historians were for the first time able to decipher hieroglyphics. Some people think it would be more appropriate in an Egyptian museum.

One of the interesting things to observe in the British Museum is their (appropriate) sensitivity to the issue of whether some of the items there – particularly the “Elgin Marbles” acquired (looted?) from the Greek Parthenon in the early 19th century – belong there. Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, claimed that he had permission, an official decree, from the central government of the Ottoman empire, who then occupied Greece. That document has never been found, though, notwithstanding that there are a wealth of documents from that period.

Meanwhile, the British Museum is careful to point out that other pieces from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, the National Museum in Copenhagen, and of course the Acropolis Museum in Athens. They explain that the sculptures that remain are “divided roughly equally” between London and Athens and that in fact they “cannot for conservation reasons be returned to the temple. Even those that have until recently remained on the building are now being removed to the New Acropolis Museum.” Umm, the issue is returning them to Greece, not to the elements on the Acropolis. And the fact that other museums have very modest collections of these sculptures is a very different issue from having fully half of the remaining sculptures. To put it mildly, the Museum’s justifications didn’t convince me.

Okay, so some controversy. Nevertheless we definitely need to make London a more-frequent destination.

Emperor Hadrian and his favorite boy-toy Antinous. Some museums are discrete in the descriptions of Antinous, but not the British Museum. They say simply “Antinous was Hadrian’s lover.” Okay, then, that’s settled.

A portrait of Queen Anne

And the current queen

And a fabulous piece that showed Dame Zaha Hadid, one of the great architects of the modern era, in constantly changing colors

Here we are enjoying spectacular spring weather in London

Hanging out with Natasha in a park along the Thames

Maxim & Natasha

I loved the architecture in the Mayfair neighborhood where we stayed.

We stayed at a hotel right across the street from Hyde Park and spent a lot of time wandering around it

Pink & purple, my favorite colors

London sure knows how to make a boy feel welcome!

Sven, Ajay, Fiona, and Mary Beth celebrating our new condo with us

A chunk of the early part of April was spent waiting and waiting for word on going to closing on the Cooper Square condo we were trying to buy. The unit we were buying had previously been part of a larger unit before being split off on its own. Because the occupancy permit stayed with the rest of the unit – which was in fact occupied by the owner – we had to wait for a new occupancy permit before closing. Wait and wait and wait. Of course, all that waiting saved us plenty of money; she was paying property taxes and condo fees while we were using the time to develop the floor plans that we would submit when we finally owned the unit.

And then, when the occupancy permit finally came through – Hooray!! – the owner wanted to delay the sale even longer. The purchase agreement had said we would close within a week or 10 days of issuing the occupancy permit, but her lawyer thought it would take longer than that and she wasn’t going to be in the city until the end of the month and on and on. And then there were questions about building permits she had taken out that were still open. The purchase agreement said that they would be responsible for ensuring they were closed, but her lawyer basically said “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.”

The tiny New York Marble Cemetery, quite near our temporary apartment, is the oldest non-sectarian cemetery in the city.

Frustrating, ugly, nasty … what a process. The night before we were scheduled to close it looked as though the whole thing was going to fall apart, at least for a few weeks and maybe even months. Finally, that night, frustrated and angry, we accepted her lawyer’s position on the work permits, agreed to take responsibility ourselves (since our work was going to be a total gut job renovation anyway) and we went to closing. Frustrated and angry instead of joyous, but we closed. And then held a little champagne lunch party with 10 friends to celebrate.

With that behind us, the next steps would be just as challenging. Our architect had to put the final touches on the plans to submit to the condo board’s architect who has to approve them to ensure we are not doing anything that would affect the building’s structure or that would be too disturbing to current residents. After that we go to the city for permission. In other words, it could still be a while.

The south view from our condo in what will be the living room

Meanwhile, while not spinning our wheels waiting or working with our architect on the plans, we tried to enjoy spring in New York. There’s a lot to like about the city in April, including an early visit to the Botanical Garden out in the Bronx (we’re getting around, even leaving Manhattan!) where they had a stunning orchid exhibit.

And then, the day after closing, it was off to London where we were to spend a few days before meeting my brother and his wife for a two-week tour of Italy. To be honest we weren’t too keen on leaving so soon after getting the keys to the apartment, but, well, it is Italy, so how bad can that be?

Here Mark is with the keys. Finally! Now it’s off it Italy.

Toasting our new condo with fancy champagne glasses, a gift from our realtor (who did very well on the sale…)

Mary Beth and Mark celebrating our closing, standing in what will be the dining room. That drop ceiling towards the back will be removed during demolition giving a much better view of downtown when it’s done.

A beautiful spring day in the New York Botanical Garden up in the Bronx with Mary Beth

Orchids the likes of which we’ve never seen

Feels like spring!

Mark had to go to a hospital for a fairly routine medical exam … and was greeted by this large portrait of David Koch, one of the most vile libertarian/Republican funders. On the good side though the hospital was really nice and everything checked out fine for Mark.