Archive for September, 2013


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

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Final pigeon day, this time with arms covered!

Final pigeon day, this time with arms covered!

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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…

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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

Austrian Alps

Pre-hike gondola ride

Pre-hike gondola ride

You may recall that we introduced my mom to some pretty cool hikes in the Wellington region when she visited us in New Zealand.  (She, on the other hand, may argue that we converted her holiday into a marathon training session.)  In any case, we couldn’t be in such close proximity to the Alps and let her off the hook on this visit.

After Salzburg, we headed north towards Innsbruck, lunched there after a quick walk around and then wended our way up into the hills, which quickly morphed into mountains.  Our destination was Solden, a popular winter playground in the Ötztal region that is much more laid-back in the summer months when visitors swap ski poles for hiking sticks.  Plenty of last-minute accommodations were on offer so we rented a traditional ski apartment in the heart of the village.

Jonathan spent the first evening perusing the hiking maps for potential routes and the next morning we set off on foot for the gondola to take us halfway up the mountain.  The temperature was brisk (perfect hiking weather), especially after several weeks when we hadn’t experienced a daytime dip in the thermometer below 80 degrees, and the sky was mostly sunny but with a few darker clouds on the horizon.  My  mom’s only protection against the Alpine elements was a jean jacket and a straw hat, so I hoped the weather would hold.

The first hour was a gentle incline traversing the mountain, but then the serious hiking began.  Up, up and more up.  And then, the rain began.  Also, as was typically the case on our New Zealand tramps, we noticed that most people were coming down the mountain just as we were really getting started.  The skies cooperated for a short while to allow for a lovely lunch break, much needed rest break and panoramic views, but once I heard thunder in the distance, I panicked (although I argued it was mostly to get everybody to up their pace).  After a quick consultation, Jonathan and I decided to abort our initial route (which seemed too ambitious and risky) and instead head towards another gondola, from where we could better evaluate the weather conditions. The temperature had decidedly dropped, but Jonathan was staying true to his English roots by claiming not to be cold and refusing to put on his sweater (whereas I was bundled up in a scarf, a sweater and a rain jacket).

By the time we reached the gondola, we were all a bit damp and cold, but we put it to a vote and everybody was game for heading down the mountain on foot rather than taking the easy gondola ride back down to the village.  Fortunately, the sun soon decided to make another appearance and we stopped at a lovely mountain inn for some refreshments and an apple strudel and soaked up some rays.  And because this is Austria, where everything is so clean and well-organized, there was an extensive playground with an enormous tunnel slide and a two trampolines for Zara to expend some or her excess energy (which she always seems to have, even after a long hike).  

The hike down the rest of the mountain was a relentless downhill, but we had it to ourselves, passing only a cow herder and his charges (which chased my mom down a stretch of the path).  By the time we reached our apartment, Jonathan calculated we’d descended 4,000 feet and my knees felt it.

The next day we recovered with a short stroll around town and by going for a swim in the “adventure bath” at the Freizeit Arena.

One of the highlights of the visit was our drive out of Sölden as we headed towards Bolzano, Italy.  We took the Timmelsjoch, which is a high mountain pass that connects the Otzal Valley in Austria with South Tyrol in Italy.  As we climbed the pass on the Austrian side, the road was wide and well-engineered and the route had five stopping points targeted at tourists, complete with stylish architectural displays, where one could read about the history of the region and its geology, learn about the construction of the road, explore a fantastical sculpture garden and breathe in the crisp Alpine air.  We even stopped to share a last schnitzel before leaving Austria at Rasthaus Timmelsjoch on the summit.

The second we crossed the border into Italy, the situation changed dramatically.  The road narrowed, the guardrails disappeared and there were no places to pull over unless one wanted to perch one’s car on the edge of a precipice.  As my acrophobia went into overdrive, I had to have Jonathan take over the steering wheel.  Fortunately I did, because the drive soon started to feel like a rally car race as we sped down the mountain with Italians inured to driving on dangerous roads. Once we read that the road was first built by Mossolini (although it wasn’t completed until the 1960s), “to be Mossolinied” entered the Kirk Family lexicon along with “to be Amalfied”.  Let’s just say that I am not a big fan of driving in Italy.  (Much more to come on that in a later post!)

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No jumper required.

Lunchtime antics in Innsbruck--it's amazing what this kid will do.

Lunchtime antics in Innsbruck–it’s amazing what this kid will do.

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Changeable weather

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Up, up and away

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On the Timmelsjoch

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One of the stopping points on the Timmelsjoch

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And of course we expected to find a sculpture garden on an Alpine pass.

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