Belated birthday trip: Florence

Our final stop was Florence, Italy. Since we had already done a quick tour of Pisa the same day, we arrived tired… but still had a long walk to reach our airbnb (due to a [not-so-slight] miscalculation). Our little suitcase rattled long-sufferingly along behind us.

We had to wait for our host to come with the keys. In the meantime, we met some friendly Italians who were curious what we were doing so far out of tourist territory.

We spend 3 1/2 nights in Florence. During the day, we ate, napped, met a few nice people, and browsed the city. Since none of us are touristy at heart, we were less impressed by the normal touristy places and more impressed by the food.

street in florence, italy
white vintage car in front of house with wooden door
florence countryside
florence cityscape
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo.
corner of duomo
The Duomo was more impressive from the lookout where you could see more than just a corner of it at a time.
flowers in windows with green shutters
bridge over the arno river
We spent a lot of time strolling along the Arno. This bridge is the Ponte Vecchio, known for being lined with little shops (and too many tourists).
crowded marketplace
The market place was not our favorite stop. We unanimously decided we didn’t need souvenirs after all and headed home.
plate of gnocchi
Give me rice over pasta any day… unless I’m in Italy. The gnocchi and bucatini were so amazing that we have yet to recover.
pasta aisle of grocery store
The pasta aisle in an average grocery store. And these are only the dry pasta options.
elderly man standing behind gelato counter
We read up on what makes gelato worthwhile. This man had nailed it… and his shop was close enough for us to swing by more than once.
cup and saucer with italian coffee
And the coffee was always worth our while, even when we sipped our cappuccino after 11 a.m. like the ignorant tourists that we were.

We left Florence at 3:30 a.m. and spent most of the day racing from one mode of transportation to the next, with several heart-stopping moments when we thought all was lost (hello, train to Bologna). We made it back to Almería by 10:30 p.m., exhausted. No one seemed interested in brainstorming for our 40th birthday trip. 🙂

Belated birthday trip: Pisa

We were flying through Pisa anyway, so joining the teeming masses of tourists was logical.

Being thrifty (or downright tight) we shared one Ryanair carry-on among the three of us. However, since Pisa wasn’t our final destination, the carry-on rattled along with us, whithersoever we went. Talk about looking like amateur tourists.

After getting off of the shuttle train from the airport, we stopped for pizza in Pisa. That was my idea. I’m not much of a pizza fanatic, but pizza in Pisa sounded like fun. It wasn’t just fun; it was delicious. And see that leafy rucola pizza? Go ahead and make fun of me but I ate all 30+ centimeters (except the slivers I traded with the others). Meanwhile, the suitcase hung out under the table while we tried to be local, practicing “grazie” until it slipped from our lips with relative ease.

three colorful pizzas on restaurant table top

We came up to the Leaning Tower from the back. In fact, we didn’t realize how close we were until we rounded the corner and there it was, serenely waiting for us to notice. As if it didn’t have enough to do posing for all of the geography textbook photographers and snap-happy tourists.

We constantly had to remind ourselves that the iconic building was indeed before our eyes. And yes, it’s still leaning, even more so in real life than the pictures we were snapping with the other tourists.

the leaning tower of pisa
tourists posing on posts

We enjoyed watching tourists trying to get the perfect pose with the tower from across the lawn.

It was a slow walk back to the train station (or should I say “slow rattle” on behalf of the poor suitcase?), where we caught a train to Florence, our next and final stop.

Lose your life for my sake: Remembering Grandpa

What does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake?

I was sitting on a park bench, feeling the warm sun just under the gentle breeze of a perfect day.

Florence, Italy. My sister, my friend, and I had been planning this trip for months. Flights, buses, trains, shuttles, airbnbs, tourist sites.

But there in the park, I was thinking about losing life. Because while we were still in Madrid, Grandpa had passed from this world to the next.

“Dad, should we cancel our trip?” I would not have been able to travel back for the funeral anyway, but being on a belated 30th birthday trip while my family mourned…

“Absolutely do not cancel your trip!”

So here I sat in Florence, pondering Matthew 10 on the day of Grandpa’s visitation. Have I found life by losing it? This familiar passage wasn’t making sense anymore.

The late cappuccino (we had defied the culture by sipping our cappuccino after 11 a.m.) was still taking effect. Just over the mesh-lined fence, tennis players swung rackets at a yellow ball. I could barely see them, but I heard them. Grunt. Thwack. Grunt. Thwack. “Out!”

Am I worthy of Christ? Do I love Him more than family? Have I taken up my cross?

In Italy—in a world so different from the one I grew up in—it was hard to understand that Grandpa was gone. But I let my mind drift through memories.

Hours and hours of reading “Burn-stin Bear” books and “Dead-Eye Dick.” Patiently teaching us grandchildren (his “coochtie boochties”) to play 42. “Honda” rides. Issuing drivers’ licenses for the golf cart. Constantly wanting to tape record his little grandchildren singing songs. Sketching maps that directed us past where this or that “used to be” as if we had been born in his generation. Chanting “Cumbine coorn and cumbine be-eans,” as we pulled ourselves up to sit with him in the combine. Giving us “bubble gums” from the door pocket of his F-150, the one that had the automatic window buttons in little blue and red bubbles that I would run my fingers over while I waited for my gum.

Letting Grandpa serve you something from the shop was always exciting because it was fascinating to watch him prepare something from his stash of snacks. (Did you know you can make hot chocolate from microwaving chocolate milk? Or a “roastin’ ear” by microwaving an ear of sweet corn wrapped in a wet paper towel?) Sunday night at Grandpa and Grandma’s typically included helping Grandpa get the ice cream out of the “shed” and hiding a pickle or an olive under the heaping scoops in Dad’s ice cream bowl.

And then Grandpa began to get older and frail. Some of his stories came out confused. His tall body began to shrink. His blue eyes got watery. But those watery eyes always brightened when he talked about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When I told him goodbye last summer, I wondered if he would remember that I was going back to Spain.

Grandpa had dozed off while Grandma and I were chatting. “Touch his shoulder,” Grandma said.

I touched his shoulder and his blue eyes opened. Instead of watery, his eyes were clear as they stared up at me wordlessly.

“I’m going to go Grandpa. And I wanted to tell you goodbye.”

The clear, blue eyes continued to stare for several long moments. Had he heard me?

And then, “Kiss on the cheek!” So he remembered that my goodbye was longer than a “see you later.” I leaned over to hug him, kiss his cheek, and let him kiss mine.

My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you here again, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

He smiled. I cried. He was silent as I hugged him again.

That goodbye felt like a closed chapter in my life. It was one that I mourned, not only that day but also when Grandma passed away in November. And now again while sitting on that park bench, trying to register the reality of Grandpa’s death.

Death is real. It’s ugly. It hurts.

But what does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake? My mingling thoughts that late Florence morning brought me here: It isn’t until you die that the greatest potential for life is set before you.