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Bella Vacanza

My good friend, Todd Hansen, has graciously agreed to allow me to post his reflections and pictures from his recent trip to Italy! When I’m unable to get much beyond the confines of home, sharing armchair travel with friends is a breath of fresh air that satisfies the wanderlust — at least temporarily.  I hope you enjoy! And thanks again, Todd, for sharing your beautiful experience with others.

I have to tell you about a beautiful vacation to Italy that my girlfriend and I took this summer! It was way better than we anticipated and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and many boats.

We had a beautiful room on the island across from Venice (Giudecca) for 2 nights. Of course, this is where the boats come in: boat from airport to hotel, frequent shuttles to Venice, and a very nice gondola ride.

The view from the hotel at Giudecca. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

We both love the classic Italian preparation of Seabass (traditional Branzino) the whole fish, de-boned and looking at you, with lemon and herbs. So I ordered it 3 times on the trip! Each time was different, one being so lightly breaded, you could call it “dusted”. Each preparation was a savoury delight.

Then, a high speed train out of Venice to Rome was a great idea. There, we picked up a rental Fiat for our drive to Sorrento, 3 hours South. It was a wonderful drive that took us right around the base of Mt. Vesuvius. My driving skills were tested coming into the sloping cliffs of Sorrento on a busy weekend. I didn’t hit one scooter!

The Sorrento Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

I was treated to a perfect birthday dinner in Sorrento overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The next day we jumped on a large ferry to Capri for a daylong excursion of even narrower roads (with a great taxi driver), molta bella views of the Tyrrhenian, and a dip into the ancient waters.

Back at the Sorrento hotel lounge for a drink, we found ourselves devouring a complimentary plate of olives (one of many bar snacks). Seems they had a perfect blend of fennel seeds, peppers, and olive oil, one we would never be able to re-create on our own. And it gets better! The 30 year veteran bartender, Gemmaro, served me the best cocktail I’ve had in recent years: an Alexander — my first experience of the drink & also my girlfriend’s last name.

On our way out of Sorrento, we thought we would swing over to Positano for lunch. This is the famous Amalfi Coast where the homes and buildings are built on sloping, rocky hills right down to the water. It is a must see. And I recommend doing so from a nice little restaurant overlooking the coast with a plate of Pasta Carbonara in front of you — Scusi, more pepper please!

The Amalfi Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Next stop: Pompeii. Not an easy park to find, but once we did our luck improved greatly. After walking around a bit, we asked a worker for advice and he proceeded to give us a quick guided tour of the highlights that we would never have found on our own. We saw a beautiful fresco, an ancient grape crusher, and to my amazement – actual human remains from that fateful day in 79 AD.

Once we got back to Rome we were quite exhausted from the long, hot drive. But our hotel was another pleasant surprise, with a wonderful balcony for 2. So we relaxed with some local olives and wine. Now we had to try to give Rome it’s due respect in one day! We set out for the Colosseum early the next day and again we stumbled upon a group tour that worked out for the best. The 2 guides were very informative about the Colosseum and nearby ruins.

The Roman Colosseum. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Even though it was a national holiday, we thought we should go to The Vatican to push our good luck. Now, I’ve seen a lot of big Italian churches from my previous trip to Italy, but St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the biggest — OMG! Luckily, Lorna begged a scarf for her shoulders so that we could witness the magnificence of the Pope’s home turf.

After such a grand display, I needed a drink. So we hoofed it over to Trevi Fountain for a sip of water supplied by an ancient Roman Aqueduct (working almost continuously since 19 BC!) and some Italian Pinot Grigio. It was amazing to me how there are remnants of Roman Aqueduct all around the city. These are very old structures, proudly secure amongst buildings of steel and glass, quick moving autos, and time itself.

Todd and Lorna at Trevi Fountain, Rome. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

So you can see we did a lot in a short amount of time thanks to my girlfriend’s expert planning. We both agreed on the highlight of the trip: the food. It was all so flavourful and fresh, inventive and classic, and yet you knew you were eating healthier than home.

Want to sample Todd’s authentic Alexander cocktail? Here’s the quintessential Italian how-to.

This post is dedicated to my friend, Ruth Nina Walsh, who has a great love of travel and art and who has always wished to visit Italia. Buon Viaggio!

There Are No Coincidences

This absolutely isn’t a political/editorial blog, so please bear with me as I share what may seem to be unusual thoughts. I can’t believe that I am the only person stunned by what seems to be an obvious connection to the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday (May 1) and the two significant events Catholics around the world were celebrating that same day: the Feast of the Divine Mercy and the beatification of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. It also happened to be the first day of the month devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isn’t it amazing that, after 10 years of searching for this elusive terrorist who wreaked such extreme havoc on 9/11 and who has continued to threaten America and the West repeatedly through Al-Qaeda, he should suddenly be found, isolated, and subsequently killed by U.S. forces on Divine Mercy Sunday, and on the day when the “mercy pope” was beatified? It is beyond the realm of coincidence in my mind. It seems to be clearly in the realm of divine providence. It is a sort of justice, also perhaps a gift of grace, but it is also a reminder and an opportunity to pray.

Of course, we can’t expect to hear anything about this connection in the secular media.  At the very end of his formal address  from the White House commenting on the operation that led to the death of bin Laden, President Obama at least alluded to the fact that God may have had some small role to play in the success of the mission to defeat bin Laden. But this was somewhat buried in the greater emphasis of the address on acknowledging the pride of our national identity. Clearly our success in this effort is attributed to WHO we are, and we are not a people beholden to anyone, not even God. To his credit, the president also asked that God bless the people and the nation of America. Indeed, we would all hope and pray that God would continue to bless America and her people. Let me be clear: there is no moral exoneration for the choice of evil as exhibited by bin Laden and other terrorists. However, in spite of everything that makes America great, our culture continues to deny the very existence of God through it policies and practices. It is no secret that our culture is anti-life. Amidst the devastating holocaust of abortion and its effects, the victimization of our children and families, as well as the increasing challenges to life at all levels in our nation, it is difficult to hide from the hypocrisy of standing before God and asking him to bless our nation and our people. As proud as I am of our servicemen and women and their selflessness, sacrifice, and courage in doing their duty, it is also difficult for me to be proud in general of our country and to hold my head up as our leaders assert that we are an example to be followed and emulated. In our ideals, this is most certainly true. But so often the ideal and the reality are diametrically opposed. We walk a very fine line on a very slippery slope…….

Our Lord told St. Faustina that “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy” (Diary 300) On the feast of Divine Mercy, on the day of the beatification of the “Apostle of Mercy,” the death of Osama bin Laden is a reminder to me that our country needs God. We need to humble ourselves and acknowledge that every good thing and blessing we have here comes from Him and Him alone, not from who we are as Americans or from our prowess and determination. Perseverance and determination in the face of injustice and evil are positive and necessary traits; but they are God-given traits, and cultivated apart from humble faith and trust in God, they become simply another aspect of pride. Without God’s benevolence our country and our people would be nothing. In our time, when the machine of the culture of death is so hugely prevalent, that God should grant us release from the extreme threat of this terrorist on the day when we are called especially to venerate and glorify His mercy is extremely significant, perhaps miraculous. 

My 9-year-old son came home for the first time on 9/11, after spending a week in the NICU due to his premature birth. We couldn’t even get to him as the freeways near all airports were closed. It was the most frightening  experience of my life, and one of the most painful, to be helplessly separated from my son. Along with everyone else in the country, I mourned the loss of life from the horrific events of that day, and shared the intense stress and fear terrorism is specifically designed to instill in its victims. While I was happy to be a new  mother, I have to candidly state that I also wondered and worried about what kind of world my son had been born in to. My trust and confidence were shaken. The shadow of the devastating effects that clouded the day of my son’s homecoming have continued to haunt me over the last 10 years. Still, I did not feel happy when I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I felt sober, like something had been finished, and just as immediately I saw the connection to the Feast of Mercy on which he died and was filled with a quiet, prayerful  awe. A sense that something significant had happened and that I needed to pay attention.

The Vatican’s official statement on the death of Osama bin Laden is a careful, sober, and pointed reminder of our collective responsibility: “This morning, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, P. Federico Lombardi, issued the following statement to reporters: Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose. Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

As a nation, we need to beg God for mercy, both for ourselves and for those who would do us harm. We need to pray that the many gifts we have been given as a country will be shared and used to show the light of truth to a world starving for beauty, mercy, and love. It is no coincidence that this much-hated and feared terrorist died on the Feast of Divine Mercy, for John Paul II also died on that feast day, six years ago. The great mercy pope — who publicly forgave the man who tried to assasinate him, who offered us all an example of mercy in action, and who spent his pontificate proclaiming the message of Divine Mercy — and the great unmerciful terrorist, who — as hard as it is to imagine or believe — was and is also beloved by God.

And that is the gift of beauty in the Divine Mercy message — God’s mercy is for all of us, no matter who we are, who we have been, or what we have done. It is for the most hardened sinners, whether they be individuals or entire nations. His mercy and compassion are inexhaustible, endless, without limit — an unfathomable abyss of love awaiting an encounter with each and every person, if only each one asks, acknowledges her need, for that mercy. Only God knows if Osama bin Laden was open to this gift of mercy at the end. May this event be a reminder to pray that God “look kindly upon us, and increase His mercy in us, that in difficult moments, we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence, submit ourselves to His holy will, which is love and mercy itself.” (Diary, 950)