Well... It's a week since we flew back into Sydney, and a few hours since Marthese and Elias and Beth did likewise. I've been back at work for a week, and Anne has been fully occupied (and preoccupied) with looking after her mother. We have more or less settled back into the house, are becoming accustomed to proper breakfasts again, are tuned back into Aussie accents and are catching up with the cricket. It's time to wrap up this blog.
The journey from Ho Chi Minh to Sydney was uneventful, except that, oh joy, oh bliss, we found out in Hong Kong that we had been upgraded to premium economy. The extra centimetres of space and genuinely attentive service made a world of difference on that leg of the flight.
Other than having to wait some time for our luggage, we moved reasonably smartly through Sydney customs and immigration and were whisked back home to Northmead, to be greeted by the faithful hound, a house that had been left in tip top shape by Alicia and Beth, a neighbour who dropped by to give us some food, and domestic finance and correspondence all up to date and smartly organised by Beth. It was good to be back!
How do you capture an experience like the last few months? For me it had two parts - the study leave and the holiday. The study leave was a wonderfully enriching experience, all the more so because of the generosity of colleagues and friends who shared their time and expertise so generously. A big thanks to Jerry Starratt, Nancy Tuana, Jackie Stefkovich, Paul Begley and Barbara and Mike McMorrow in particular.
The long service leave was a real blessing. It was great, first and foremost to be able to spend so much time with Anne, uninterrupted by the press of our respective jobs and the usual distractions of every day life.
Still on the family front, we were able to experience again the gift of linking back up with beloved cousins, uncles and aunts in Canada and Malta. As the years pass and the older generation gets still older, each time we see them holds the very real possibility that it may be the last, making it all the more special. (A: So wonderful to see them but so hard to say goodbye again.)
Italy was always going to be the focal point of this trip, and it lived up to all our hopes and dreams. The chance to spend a good piece of time in a few cities, to get a little familiar with each of them, to read the papers and see the news, to shop, to explore the riches of the culture, to be bemused by the politics, to catch up with old friends like Nives and to meet new ones like Massimo and Davide and Paolo and experience their kindness and get some insight into their lives, and of course, to eat and drink - these are the experiences we will treasure.
For me meeting Elisabetta and Umberto after hearing about them for so long was a lovely experirence. The three cooking courses we did -in Florence, Verona and Ho Chi Minh City- were a real highlight for me. They were all so well organised, lots of fun and with the added bonus of us being able to eat the food we prepared. Of course this was accompanied in Florence and Verona by beautiful local wine.
Having the great joy of greeting Marthese, Beth and Elias in Verona, after so long apart, and then spending two weeks including Christmas and my birthday with them and sharing all the laughs and the fantastic food and sights of Venice, Bolzano, Padua and Mantova as well as the cooking class is something I will never forget. The laughter coming from the other end of the flat every evening as the three of them chatted together about the day's events, was infectious. And it was the best birthday ever!!
Some other highlights included singing "Strangers in the Night" with Nives' friend Augusto on November 19th of all days was incredible. Also meeting up with Father Owen Mason in the Catacombs was a lovely coincidence and it was also really good to meet up with Doris and John in Malta.
Along the way we learned a few things - some technical and practical, and others attitudinal. First of all, the more of the language you can get the hang of, the more you can access the riches of the experience. Without the Itaian we would never have really had the same experience with Davide and the Sicilian puppets, or San Nicolo' parish in Verona, or Nives' friends, or Paolo at Riomaggiore or Silvio at Manarola. Without Vietnamese, we always felt on the outer in Ho Chi Minh City. Secondly, be open to opportunity - be prepared to explore interesting options. If we hadn't pursued hiring a bike in State College (seen as a bit odd by some), or whale watching in the pouring rain in Victoria, or the puppets in Catania, or Etna in the fog, or the narrow slippery path to the hillside presepio in Manarola, or Dar Poeta in Rome, or ..... the trip would have been so much less.
Probably half way between the practical and attitudinal - staying in one place for a while and using it as a base for exploration is the way to go. We saw plenty but still felt settled.
And it was great to be able to make each apartment feel like home and to cook for ourselves even in small spaces such as the kitchen we had in Florence. We became used to creating the shopping list which had a sameness about it of course! And if I had eaten a typical Italian breakfast every morning I would never have been able to squeeze into that tiny shower in Florence. Thank goodness we were able to find cereal, especially in Rome, that was healthy enough. I have no idea how the Italians stay so slim. The only large people we saw in Italy were Australians and Americans we think.
On the practical front, we would like to thank Tripadvisor for all the advice on accommodation, sights and places to eat. Thanks to 28 Degrees for saving us a fortune using international ATMs. Thanks to the Trenitalia and local bus websites for timetable and itinerary advice, the Roma pass for saving a fortune on admissions, and Rick Steves for the most useful of the many travel books, and particularly for the travel app with the podcast walking tours. Another useful Italy site was Slow Travel. Oh - and Off Exploring for a very user friendly blog site. If only I had put each set of photos in a different album .....