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Barbados Bliss

We’ve been “home” for four weeks now and quickly absorbed back into our scheduled lives of school, work and house obligations.  The upshot of this is that I’m finding it difficult to find the time to post about our final couple of months, but have decided it may be easiest to work backwards.

So…I take up our story in the 2nd week of September….

After 3 1/2 months of moving around Europe, we were all tired.  Not unhappy, but just worn out enough from the constant road-tripping to be at risk of having our fabulous year flame out on a cranky note.  It wasn’t difficult to convince ourselves that the Caribbean would be a convenient stopping off point and the last time Jonathan and I had made it there was in October 2001.

The first challenge was that continental Europe didn’t seem to offer many reasonably-priced flights to the Caribbean.  Fortunately, we chanced upon a Condor Air flight from Frankfurt to Barbados, which was half the price of the established British airlines flying out of Heathrow, and were very pleasantly surprised.  We chose Barbados in part due to its British heritage, its high literacy rate, its low crime figures, its beaches and its size–large enough to stave off island fever for a stay longer than one week.

We had three weeks to kill before we were due back home in SF, so in the spirit of ending our journey in style, I booked two weeks at the Tamarind Hotel on the West Coast of the island and eight days in, we extended our stay for the remainder (I really was burnt out on moving!).  With a complimentary kids club open from 9-5 every day except Sunday, free water sports such as windsurfing, waterskiing, banana boats, inner tubes and snorkeling, a lavish breakfast buffet and a location on a top-notch beach, we were won over.  Oh–and we had somehow lucked into the best room in the hotel, which didn’t hurt either.

The days languorously unfolded, storms blew onshore and off, the sun rose and set, we wore bathing suits and only dressed for dinner, Jonathan spent hours snorkeling in the calm sea, Zara spent hours seeing how far she could swim underwater, I soaked in the ambience and reflected on the last 11 months…it was ideal.

And with nearly a month elapsed since our return, these moments stand out:

  • Riding the yellow “reggae” buses to town, as the driver and his team rock out to blaring reggae tunes and race the official city buses down the streets

  • Bajan hospitality – amongst the friendliest we encountered in the 28 countries we saw this year

  • Getting scuba-certified with G, our dive master, at Westside Scuba, and suppressing the feeling of panic when my scuba gear snagged on a barnacle-encrusted metal plate on our first wreck dive

  • Bajan yellow pepper hot sauce – seriously addictive.  Impossible to break my morning habit even when facing intestinal protests.

  • The legendary “original pineapple man”, who has pounded the sands of Barbados’ West Coast for over 30 years selling pineapples (for a mint) and reggae rhymes (for free)

  • Exploring the limestone caverns of Harrison’s Caves, the source of Barbados’ sublime water

  • Seeing the thrill on Zara’s face when she finally got up (and stayed up) water-skiing

  • Swimming with turtles, all fun and games until Zara got her finger nipped while holding some bait for some ravenous schools of fish

  • The kids’ club, where Zara got so much needed privacy from her parents (ah-hem)

  • Discovering tasty Indian fare at Sitar in Holetown

  • Exploring the wild East Coast

  • Discovering a house for sale on the South Coast that had us seriously contemplating a more permanent island lifestyle
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View from our balcony

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Dancing on the balcony

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Relaxed and happy

Sunset view

A sunset I would never tire of…

Pineapple man

The “original pineapple man”

Exploring the south of the island

Exploring the south of the island

Nervous smile before scuba certification dives

Nervous smile before scuba certification dives

Barbados friends (from Spain)

Barbados friends (from Spain)

Finding coconuts on the wild and remote East Coast

Finding coconuts on the wild and remote East Coast

Beach babe

Beach babe

Beach boulders on the East Coast - this one has a bench on top but we didn't find an easy route up

Beach boulders on the East Coast – this one has a bench on top but we didn’t find an easy route up

Heading out to snorkle with turtles

Heading out to snorkle with turtles

Jonathan proved to be a tasty last meal to a mosquito

Jonathan proved to be a tasty last meal to a mosquito

Jonathan waterskiing
Jonathan waterskiing

Mermaid girl

Mermaid girl

Exploring Harrison's Caves
Exploring Harrison’s Caves

Pigeon girl

Pigeon girl

Stocked up on pigeon feed

Stocked up on pigeon feed

Another day, another pigeon-feeding opportunity

Another day, another pigeon-feeding opportunity

Much needed gelato-break.  Venice in August is HOT.

Much needed gelato-break. Venice in August is HOT.

A masked princess and her Daddy

A masked princess and her Daddy

2013-08-18 11.37.54

Final pigeon day, this time with arms covered!

Final pigeon day, this time with arms covered!

2013-08-17 12.46.492013-08-16 20.12.182013-08-16 19.41.292013-08-16 21.48.502013-08-18 17.47.44

2013-08-18 20.54.17

Some people travel to Venice for the romance, for the art, for the canals and the gondolas (or the gondaliers!)…and once upon a time there was a 6-year old girl who had her heart set on feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square.

As we checked into our fabulous Airbnb apartment rental located a stone’s throw from St. Mark’s Square in a sixth-floor walk-up with a view of the Doge’s Palace, Zara was vibrating with excitement about feeding the pigeons, even though I had already mentioned that there may be a pigeon-feeding ban. As our host showed us around the apartment, Zara couldn’t contain herself (and was oblivious to the warning looks I was shooting her way) and started chattering enthusiastically what she would feed to the pigeons.

“It’s illegal to feed the pigeons,” our host said.  And with that simple sentence, Zara’s face crumpled.

Fortunately, the Venice police didn’t make enforcement of this ban a high priority — their primary targets were the birdseed sellers, not the enthusiastic tourists who gather to be pecked at and accosted by these flying rats.

Thus, one of our daily rituals became passing through the square so that Zara could feed the pigeons while hundreds of Chinese tourists made her the focus of their photo shoots.

Warning:  Pigeon-feeding requires appropriate attire–wear long sleeves. Zara’s bare arms were covered with pigeon scratches after a particularly long feeding session and I spent the rest of the day worried about whether the scratches had broken the skin and infected her with a pigeon virus. (I’m relieved to report that three weeks on there have been no worrying symptoms.)

When we weren’t feeding pigeons, we were sweating as we jostled our way through crowds and eating overpriced, mediocre Italian fare.  And of course we took a gondola ride (the day after an unfortunate German tourist had been crushed to death in front of his family when his gondola collided with a vaporetto in the crammed canals).

We also spent a couple of hours at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, viewing the heiress’s modern art collection, which is housed in her former home on the Grand Canal, although there were at least a few contemporary pieces that had Jonathan literally crying out in disbelief at the “art”.

The Rose (but you'd be forgiven for calling it mistaking it with graph paper)

The Rose (but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for graph paper)

On the positive side, the heat provided a convenient excuse for Aperol Spritzes, although Italians never seem to need an excuse to drink (wine before noon is a common sight).

I’m not sure that I would choose to visit Venice again in August. The crowds were like locusts swarming every popular site and the heat was, well, HOT.  On the plus side, it didn’t smell as “ripe” as I’d feared and we didn’t have any flooding.

In all seriousness, I love Venice, just maybe not in August.  I think that this applies to Italy generally.  At least I didn’t have to drive in Venice…

Austrian roots

For as long as I can remember, I’d heard the story of my mother’s youth in Großraming, Austria (a name that summoned the same giggles from Zara as they did from me 35 years ago) and had pored over the handful of black and white photos she had from this period, where her family of six stood somberly dressed in home-made clothes against the backdrop of Großraming’s verdant and rolling hills.  It was a part of my heritage I was eager to explore and as I entered adulthood, I dreamed of one day being able to visit it with her.  And yet, life happened, years passed and we never seemed to find the time.  So when my dream of this year of travel first took root, one of my priorities became to finally take my mom to Austria.  And in the end, the long delay was worth it, as being able to share this heritage with Zara and Jonathan made the experience even more memorable.

My mom was born in Upper Austria, in the throes of WW II, to parents who had been driven out of Yugoslavia after Hitler invaded (first sent to Poland and then to Austria).  She grew up speaking Serbo-Croatian at home and learning German at school, until her family finally had the opportunity to immigrate to Los Angeles in the mid-50s.  Life for them after the war was difficult (as it was for most) — they lived in former army barracks with one bedroom shared amongst the six of them and a communal bathroom down the hall, yet my mother’s memories of that time were fond as I suspect her parents shielded her from the real worries.  I knew several of her relatives had stayed in the region and raised their families there, but contact with them over the years had been very limited.

After picking up my mom in Vienna, we drove the back roads into Großraming on an unusually hot afternoon, through rolling hills and other small villages and across the river Enns, to the family-run guesthouse in the village where we’d booked a room for two nights – Kirchenwirt Ahrer.   It was located across the street from the church were my mom had her first communion and as we sat in the hot sun enjoying a refreshing beer in the outside garden, Zara grabbed my mom’s hand and dragged her across the road so as to the the first to explore the church cemetery and locate the Gabaldo family plot.  

The next two days were filled with strolls down memory lane, getting to know family I’d never met and sketching out a complicated family tree on Jonathan’s iPad.  My mom’s cousin, Tomislav, was our primary tour guide, and his 17-year old granddaughter served the dual (and equally critical) roles of translator and companion to Zara.  We were invited into their homes for dinner, where we shared plenty of laughter even when divided by a language.

We visited the site that had housed the former army barracks they lived in (now a power plant), the hydroelectric dam where my grandfather had worked, the tiny train station from which they departed for the boat that would take them to America and the site of her old school.  And Zara formed her own ties to Großraming by getting her ears pierced at the jewelry store where Tomislav worked and buying an authentic Austrian dirndl which she insisted on wearing even in the 90 degree heat.

After Großraming, we drove 30 minutes north to Styer, where some of our other relatives lived.  Helga, my second cousin, went out of her way to show us around and we were invited to a lovely barbecue at her brother’s place one evening.

Before we visited, I’d been so excited about the sites I’d visit from my mom’s youth.  Once we were there, however, what became most meaningful was connecting with this long-lost side of my family, hearing the stories of our shared history and better understanding the tapestry of my own life.

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

My mom (girl on left) and her family in Grossraming, Austria

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Christmas, 1948, in Grossraming

Grossraming!

Grossraming!

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Location of old barracks where my mom lived

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Train station from which her family departed Austria for America

Zara playing with my mom's cousin's granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

Zara playing with my mom’s cousin’s granddaughter, Theresa, our trusted interpreter

With Mom's cousin Tomi and wife Anni
With Mom’s cousin Tomi and wife Anni

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

The crowd that accompanied Zara to her ear piercing.

In front of Kirchenwirt

In front of Kirchenwirt

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

At the Gabaldo family plot in Grossraming cemetary.

More Grossraming

More Grossraming

Barbecue at my mom's cousin's son's house in Styer

Barbecue at my mom’s cousin’s son’s house in Styer

My mom and Helga
My mom and Helga

My mom's cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

My mom’s cousin, Mira, and her daughter, Helga

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