Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Back in Texas doing the 'time out' required by Schengen Treaty limitations

DIL Lynn and newest granddaughter Rose Annette Rouse
Christmas Day at home.
On 3 December 2014 we flew from Rome to Frankfurt to Houston to begin our mandatory 90 days out of the EU Schengen area.  Looking backwards 180 days (the requirement on any given day for Americans and most other foreigners visiting most of Europe), we had been within Schengen territory for a total of 87 days on the date of our departure in early December.  It was a good thing we did that little week trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, in October for our friend's wedding or we would have been a couple of days over the 90 day Schengen limit.  I thought we were being very careful about keeping the total number of days below 90 but we must have miscounted somewhere along the line.  But all is good that ends good, and our final count was 87 days in Schengen countries during the previous 180 days; so we were legal. The officials at the Frankfurt airport where we were officially stamped out of the EU did check my passport for dates during which I had been in EU.  I do not know if Bill's passport was also checked or not as we were in different lines and did not clear out together.  Europeans honestly have no idea how stressful this nonsense is for people like us who strive to always obey laws, even the silly ones.  I am so tired of dealing with and worrying about this.  It will be wonderful to say goodbye to the Med later this year and be done with it.

Us at the Texas Navy Admirals Ball
So we are in Texas until sometime later in the spring.  Not sure at this time of our exact return date to Sicily.  We had originally planned to return as soon as our 90-days out was up and then do some land travel around Italy or other places in Europe.  But after our Rome trip both of us have kind of lost all interest in doing the previously anticipated land travel.  Rome was fabulous and we are thankful for having the opportunity to visit that famous city.  But flying to Venice or taking the train around to various cities has just lost the appeal that it once held for us.  Guess we are just getting tired.  After all, we have been doing this for almost 9 years.  We are both really looking forward to a year from now when we will once again be back in cruiser friendly Caribbean.  With things like pot lucks and Mexican Train games and friendly socializing.  Something that does not happen in the Med with so many people who are not actually cruisers but more like local sailors.  After all, a Brit or German sailor in Italy is like a Floridian or Texan sailing to Maine or Maryland. Not real cruisers in my opinion. It is a different attitude entirely.  Merely sailing in an area of their home country.  Since the EU is supposed to be a country these days and those 'countries' we previously knew as countries are now merely states of the EU.

A few of the dancers in front of band at Admirals Ball

Bill has had numerous medical appointments the past month.  Gratefully, he continues to remain 100% cancer free.  We were not worried about a recurrence but it is wonderful to have confirmation that he remains healthy.

Me, towering over 2 of the other guests.  The woman
on the right also is an Admiral in the Texas Navy.
I celebrated another birthday a few days after we arrived home.  Unlike some of the folks back in the marina where we left BeBe for the winter, I have no hang-ups about getting older.  As Bill's step-mother was fond of pointing out, there is only one alternative to aging and it is not desirable.  People who think getting old is a bad thing need attitude adjustments.  As part of my birthday celebration we decided to attend the Texas Navy Admiral's Ball.  As some of our readers and friends might or might not know, Bill was appointed by the Governor to the position of Admiral in the Texas Navy several years ago. Each December there is an annual black-tie ball which is held in Galveston.  This is the first opportunity that we have had to attend one of these balls.  As Bill said, we were celebrating my birthday, Christmas season and breathing -- and not necessarily in that order.  We stayed the weekend at Moody Gardens Hotel.  A lovely weekend vacation.

Bill on left chatting with fellow Admirals.
Did I hear someone say: "Texas has a navy?"

Well, yes.  Yes, we do.  Because when Texas was a sovereign country prior to joining the United States, the country of Texas had a navy.  When Texas joined the USA, that navy was never formally disbanded.  Therefore, it continues to exist today.  It has no ships anymore.  And is not supported by taxpayers.  Today it is a volunteer organization which strives to educate about the Texas Navy and its importance in Texas gaining independence from Mexico to form the Republic of Texas in 1836.
"The Texas Navy...It's no exaggeration to say that without it there would probably have been no Lone Star Republic and possibly the State of Texas would still be part of Mexico."
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. 1936

More info here:

The first afternoon we just drove around Galveston revisiting memories and enjoyed good seafood.  Checked on the house we purchased last year and leased.  We did not bother the property manager or the tenant; just drove by to confirm it looked okay from the street.  We learned a few days ago that the tenant has decided to renew his lease for another year.  Yay!  One less thing to think about while we are off cruising.

The next day we toured the tall ship Elissa once again and visited the Seaport Museum.  Before we began cruising Bill volunteered and crewed about the Elissa.

If one volunteers a certain number of hours each year, then that volunteer crew member gets to sail on the Elissa when she goes out from dock into the Gulf of Mexico, usually once per year.  At least that was the program back when Bill crewed on that 1877 barque and climbed those old masts to bend square-rigged sails.  Again, fond memories.

The board of directors held the annual meeting for the Texas Navy at the Seaport Museum.  It was our first time to attend one of these meetings.  It afforded us a better understanding of the organization and how it is operated.  During that board meeting we also learned of a museum in Austin with which we were not familiar.  It is a museum honoring Texans of various military forces.  We hope to make a trip to Austin to visit this museum soon.

The ball was fun, good band for dancing, delicious meal, enjoyable conversation.  I got a kick out of some of the 'admirals uniforms' worn by a few of the men.  Each admiral can design a uniform to his/her liking and some of them were eye-catchers!  There also were a number of men in Naval or Marine formal uniforms.  Bill wore his regular tuxedo, like most of the other guys present.  It was a nice evening chatting, eating, drinking and dancing. 

The man seated to my left at the dinner table was a Marine officer.  I am terrible about not remembering military ranks and remember neither his name nor his rank.!....did he get hot under the collar when the flags were presented by the local branch of the Coast Guard cadets.  One of the event organizers told the 4 flag bearers to change positions for some unknown reason.  The flags were presented with the Texas Navy flag to the right, with the Texas flag to its left; with some other flag to the left of that; and then the US flag on the far left.  Oh boy!  That is wrong!!!  No flag is EVER supposed to be presented positioned to the right of the American flag.  Never.  Under no circumstances.  Anywhere.  Period.

And, oh, did those seated at our table hear the venting from this Marine officer about this breach of protocol.  He was very upset.  Later, he sought out the cadets who presented the flags and dressed them down harshly.  Then he sought out the organizers for the event and vented further.  I would not be surprised if he did not follow up the next week and contact the commanding officers of the 4 cadets who presented the flags.  He made it his mission to make sure that everyone involved in this faux paus never does something like that again.

Admiral Nick Ricco performed the formalities for the 'Table for One' ceremony.  This is touching ceremony.  It is also called the Missing Man Table Ceremony.  Here is a link which provides an example of this ceremony.

Sunday morning after the ball there was a brunch for the members of the Texas Navy which was held at The Artillery Club in Galveston.  Oh my!  Of course we had to go to that function too!  The Artillery Club is the oldest private club in Texas.  It is oh-so-exclusive!  Only 100 members are allowed.  I do not know if one also must be a BOI but would not be surprised if that is a requirement for membership.  For those unfamiliar with eccentricities of Galveston, a BOI means 'Born On Island' --- one is inconsequential if one is not a BOI.   At least in the eyes of all the other BOIs.  Obviously, we are not members of The Artillery Club.  That is another world from our lives.  Scroll down in this link and read the marker text for an explanation of this exclusive club.

Brunch was good; not at all what we expected.  They served cheese grits (delicious!!!) and a type of steak and gravy dish, accompanied by various types tiny biscuits and fruits and a few other things.  I do not remember ever being served cheese grits and steak with gravy for a brunch.  We were seated next to a nice couple from Houston who had lots of funny stories to tell.  The brunch surprisingly turned out to be more fun than the ball the previous evening.

Duane, Lauren, Trey, Theo's back, John, Boyd, David.
With Zachary barely visible on other side of Theo.
And Bill seated in chair on far right.

Christmas came and went.  

Once again we had 26 people gathered for a too-loud, too-crowded, and too-quickly-over holiday dinner celebration.  There are still children in the family so Christmas still is a magical time.  This was first Christmas for our 7-month-old granddaughter, Rose Annette Rouse.  

Duane, Lauren and her mom Teresa

It was over too fast and I did not get to visit with everyone as much as I would have liked.  Maybe we can get together with a few of the people on a quieter, less crowded, level before we return to Sicily in the spring and enjoy visiting and catching up on each other's lives.

Bill's brother John.  My brother Boyd and his wife Cheryl

Last weekend we once again went to Galveston, just for a night to get away by ourselves. Yesterday we attended a memorial service for one of Bill's lifelong friends.  He was a high school classmate who will be missed.  One of those people who everyone loved.  A special guy who died far too young.

DIL Kristina on right.
 Her sister Krystal on left.
With their mom Keena in center.

Abigail on left.  Her mom Krystal in center.
And granddaughter BeBe (Elisabeth) on right.

Our elder son Trey
carving beef roast

Grandson Sebastian.  All grown up and almost finished
with that college degree!

Grandson Zachary as
They are all fascinated by something on that TV or computer.
Younger son Aaron, grandson Zachary, grandson Damien.
With Daniel, Zachary's maternal cousin, standing behind them.

This weekend our brother and sister-in-law are hosting several of us at the Houston Symphony for a Mozart operetta.  Bill detests opera but he is going to placate me.  And the early teen-aged grandkids have never attended an opera, although they both enjoy symphonies.  I'm looking forward to this event.  

And that sums up the first 6 weeks of this visit to Texas.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rome trip continued; Colosseum and Forums (warning--too many photos)

Us in front of Colosseum

Weather did not cooperate during our little Rome trip in early December.  Almost every day while we were in Rome it rained, some days all day long and most days off and on with the sun showing its face for an hour or two between drizzles.  At least it was warm!  All that gray and drizzle would have been unpleasant if it had also been cold.  Misty rain we could deal with without discomfort.
As always, click on any image for larger view. The third day of our brief trip was misty and drizzly all day long.  But still warm so that did not hinder our exploring. The 3 of us walked the neighborhood for awhile, but John's legs again were causing him pain so he returned to the apartment to rest.  Bill and I set off on a mission to find a nativity as a gift for our daughter-in-law.  She had said last year that she would appreciate a nativity from Italy.  We eventually did find a unique one in a small shop on the Via della Conciliazione (Road of the Conciliation) right in front of St. Peter's Basilica. This nativity had been manufactured in Naples.  There were only 2 nativities in the shop that were unique enough to excite me to purchase, and the other one was too large to transport in our checked luggage when we flew to Houston.  This one is made from stone and fairly heavy.

We shopped for souvenirs of Rome or Italy for others, especially grandchildren; but did find anything.  Not a thing.  The tee-shirts labeled as an adult size 'extra large' looked like would be too small even for our granddaughter who is only 13 and very thin.   Made for miniature people? 

Castel Sant'Angelo, a/k/a Hadrian's Mausoleum

We walked once again around the Castel Sant'Angelo and down around St. Peter's Basilica. And all along the very long wall that connects Castel Sant'Angelo with the Papal apartments in the Vatican -- that famous escape route for the Pope to run along the top of that wall to safety within the castle.  Crowds were less dense this day; thanks to the rain, no doubt. 

You know what this is
More Prosecco and snacks at happy hour in the apartment and followed by another stroll through the neighborhood  to select a restaurant for dinner.  After a day of resting John was up for walking those cobble-stoned alleyways and narrow streets once again.  After much 'shopping' we selected a different restaurant and were seated outdoors right in front of an old church crowded near some kind of old stone wall.  Food here was once again not nearly as good as that we had enjoyed so much at Il Fico Ristorante where we had dined on our first night in Rome.  We vowed not to try any more new places and to return to Il Fico the following evening, which would be our final night in Rome.

The following day would be our last full day in Rome and we had arranged a small group tour of the Forums, Colosseum and dungeons, once again through The Roman Guy company.

One of the impressive buildings adjacent to forums
Once again we took a taxi to the meeting point in front of the Colosseum in order to save wear and tear on legs since we would be walking and standing for next 3 hours minimum.  The guide arrived precisely on time and a guy from Voice, Inc. arrived within minutes with the headsets.  These tour companies have set this up perfectly.  No longer is one forced to listen to tour guides speaking to their individual groups; each group gets headsets tuned to the guide's transmitter frequency.  And this guide was wonderful.  She calls herself Tina, short for Kristina, and has a Ph.D. in archaeology.  She also is a professor of archaeology at the 
how that impressive building looked back then
University of Rome.  She was very knowledgeable and we were very pleased with her handling of this tour.

Normally this tour starts in the dungeons of the Colosseum.  But, due to so much rain in the previous 24 hours, those dungeons were flooded.  She led us off to the Forums instead, hoping that the water would recede in the dungeons if we held off and did that part last.  This tour gets VIP entrance access, no waiting in lines. Time is precious when vacationing, which makes skipping entrance queues a great thing.  We skipped the lines and began learning about the various old Forums.

There is no point in going into detail about the various forums, who built them and when. It is sufficient simply to note that there are several forums which were built in varying time periods by different emperors.  

Senate House is tall building in center
The Senate House was smaller than I had envisioned.  In fact, it reminded me of an old 2-story church building one might find in rural America.   As I noted in the previous blog posting, Julius Caesar was not killed on the floor of this Senate House.  He had ordered that this Senate House be enlarged and at the time of his murder the Senate was temporarily meeting in a different location at the Theater of Pompeii. Caesar was assassinated on the floor of the curia (meeting area) of that theater which was dedicated to Pompeii Magnus.  

Plaque Ara di Caesare
Site of Caesar's cremation
Tina pointed us to the Ara di Cesare.  There is a plaque on this site. This is what I found online:  
"Translation from Latin to English -- ALTAR OF CAESAR -- Caesar’s body was laid in the Roman Forum where the ancient seat of the Roman power resided. There the Roman people gathered tables, chairs and any other type of wood that they found. They lit the fire and all the people witnessed the burning of the fire during the night.  In this place they built an altar and then a temple to the same Caesar, IN WHICH HE IS NOW HONORED AS A god." 

Bill listening to guide.  Tiny Temple of Vesta is the
white columned structure in back right.

One thing that surprises some tourists is the tiny size of the Temple of Vesta, or the temple for the Vestal Virgins.  It was very, very small.  

Ground site is where Vestal Virgins lived.
Structures in background are residences on slope of Palatine Hill

A short distance from the Temple of Vesta are the ruins of the Atrium Vestae, or House of the Vestal Virgins. Supposedly Julius Caesar and his wife resided there for a few years when he served as the high priest in charge of those virgins.  This was well before he became emperor for life.  It was impossible imagine what this home must have been like during its heyday but our guide had a nice photo that illustrated what it probably looked like back then. 

And this is what the residence of the Vestal Virgins was
really like back then.

Enlarge to see menorah
Arch of Titus

We walked  past a triumphal arch, one of many we saw throughout Rome.  If memory serves, this one was the Arch of Titus; it is easy to remember this one because of the menorah commemorating Titus' successful siege of Jerusalem.  This arch was constructed by Emperor Domitian shortly after the death of his older brother Titus.  This arch has provided the general model for many of the triumphal arches erected.  It was the inspiration for the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  

Temple of Romulus

We strolled past the Temple of Romulus with its two columns near the entrance door which are made from the invaluable purple porphyry marble that is no longer available.  The huge door is solid bronze and the lock still works -- 1708 years after this building was constructed. Tina said she had the opportunity to watch the door lock work and the door swing on its ancient hinges when there with a selected group of archaeologists.  Not something we regular tourists would be able to see.

One of the many interior rooms
 of the Imperial Palace
And how that room looked back then

Then we walked up the hillside to the site of the Imperial Palace atop Palatine Hill, one of those famous 7 hills of Rome.  This sumptuous building (or collection of buildings) must have been amazing. 

A stadium within the Imperial Palace

The word 'palace' is derived from the Latin name Palātium, for Palatine Hill, meaning that this structure would have been the first palace in the world.  

Guess the building was so impressive and opulent that vocabulary needed a new word to describe it.

And how that stadium looked back then
This site is too impressive for me to begin to attempt to describe it.  

One side overlooks all the old Roman Forums and the Tiber River.  

The opposite side overlooks the Circus Maximus.  

Another side overlooks the Wedding Cake (huge monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, the man who unified the city states into the country of Italy as we know it today); who knows what was there when the emperors of Rome resided here.  

And the final side overlooks the Colosseum.

Here are a few links to information on the Imperial Palace:

Exiting that fourth side of the Imperial Palace via slippery stone steps down the hillside brought us to present-day ground level of the Colosseum a couple of blocks away.  The guide warned us to be extra careful of the pickpockets in this area and to avoid the young women who gathered in groups on the sidewalk.  She said a common tactic is for one or two of the girls to come up and start talking to tourists (especially men) and distract the tourists.  Then their friends will grab your belongings and run before you can stop them.  We all clutched our handbags and wallets a bit tighter and moved on past all the teenage girls, ignoring whatever they said.  We would refer to these people as gypsies but that is not PC over here.

John, Judy & Bill standing on 'floor'
level of Colosseum

Another 'floor' level view inside Colosseum

This reconstructed representative seating is not how it was

Looking back toward south entrance, side of Tiber River

At the Colosseum  we were once again whisked through a VIP entrance, avoiding the queue lining the sidewalk.  Once inside we were met by another guide (employee at the Colosseum) and she unlocked the special areas we would be allowed to see.  

Looking down at the dungeon level of Colosseum

Unfortunately, the dungeons were still flooded; we would not be allowed down there.  Crud! Oh well; it is what it is.  This flooding sort of exemplified how easy it had been when the Colosseum was first constructed for them to flood the lowest level to hold mock ship battles for the crowds.  Because there was a natural egress from the entrance on the south from the Tiber River.  They could open the waterway and flood the floor of the Colosseum; then open the opposite waterway and empty the water when the spectacle was over.  All by using natural flow of water due to topography of the land.  

Also looking down from 'floor' level to the dungeons
Contrary to what most of us thought, this was done only for a period of about 10 years.

When the Colosseum was only about 10 years old, construction began to enlarge it.  A raised 'floor' was put into place and dungeons were constructed at the ground level that previously had been flooded for spectacles.  Exotic animals were caged and stored down there.  With trap doors and pulley systems to raise the animals up to the arena level where the fighting would take place.  The gladiators also were kept down there prior to their fighting to the death.  Really, all in all, a gruesome place back then.

Drawing of the levels from dungeons up to cages up to arena floor.
This was very elaborate system with pulleys.  Advanced for its time period.
A few areas of the lower section had a few benches or rows of seats reconstructed to assist visitors in visualizing how the entire Colosseum must have looked back in its day.  Tina said that reconstruction really was not correct and she showed us a drawing of what the seating actually had been like.  

Painting of a typical scene of common folk on bench seating.
Note the guy cooking near center right.

The common people would come for the entire day whenever games or spectacles were held.  They would bring food and even cook food on the benches where they sat.  A very casual day watching animals and people kill each other.  (Still difficult to understand how people found enjoyment or entertainment from this.)

Each tour group is allowed a specified time in each of the restricted areas.  Soon we were moved back to the outer rim, still inside the exterior structure walls.  Since John obviously was having trouble with his legs and using a cane to walk, the guides shuffled our entire little group into an elevator to the 'upper' level.  Normally, one must walk up the stone steps.

This 'upper' level is really more of a mid-upper level.  It is open to all tourists, not just the private tours like ours.  But we walked around to another locked section and waited our turn for access to the real upper level.  That is kept locked and the number of visitors allowed up there at any one time is closely monitored.  

View of inside Colosseum.  Photo taken from uppermost level.
When we first entered, we had been on that 'stage' at the far end.  This became the floor level of the arena after it was enlarged when the structure was only 10 years old.

Playing with phone on upper level of Colosseum

The view up there is spectacular!  The clouds had burned away somewhat for a few hours that afternoon.  We were fortunate to be able to enjoy the views of Rome in all directions for a short time before the clouds again gathered and drizzled once more.  

Looking down from top level of Colosseum to site
of largest temple ever built in ancient Rome
While up there Tina explained that the 'thumbs up' gesture used by the emperor's in movies to indicate whether a gladiator should be granted life or death was never used.  They did not do that thumbs up gesture.  Not at all.  That gesture originated in a painting decades after the Colosseum was ceased to be used.  A French painter included the thumbs gesture in a painting and it became so well-known that most people believe that this was how it was done.  There was a thumbs down gesture and it indicated to lay down the swords and let the gladiator live.

Contrary to what is stated in the link above, the Romans did not use that thumbs up gesture to indicate to kill the gladiator.  According to Tina, the highly educated expert who certainly should know which story is true, the gesture used to indicate killing the gladiator was to move the flat hand sideways across the neck.  As if to say "off with his head."  And the thumbs down gesture was to let him live -- lay down the sword.

 Another link about Gladiators

What that large temple looked like back then.
And the Colossus statue was right between it and Colosseum

Walking back down those ultra steep stone steps required holding the handrail for safety. The stones are well worn.  They also are very narrow.  People probably were much shorter back when this was built and their feet were smaller.  I had to turn my feet slightly side-wise in order to place my entire foot on each step.  Not a place to skip lightly down the stairway without risking a broken leg or worse.

Once outside the locked restricted area, Tina collected our headsets and said goodbye to our group and we were left to roam around the Colosseum as long as we wished.  We wandered slowly down the various levels and then back past the Forums to hail a taxi back to the apartment.

Enjoying top level at Colosseum
We enjoyed dinner at our favorite restaurant once again.  The twin brothers working as bartender and waiter again joked around and it was a fun evening with good food.  Early the following morning the Halldis agent arrived right on schedule to check us out of the apartment.  We also had arranged transport to the airport though Halldis and our driver was waiting for us at the end of the alley right on time.  In the rain. was raining still as we drove to the airport.  Early December in Rome was quite wet in 2014.  Unusually warm, but quite wet.

Looking down from top level of Colosseum at yet another arch

Last note about the Colosseum.  When our sons visited Rome with their high school history classes ~25 years ago, the Colosseum was very dark.  The stone was stained by centuries of air pollution.  Cleaning of the structure is now underway.  The areas that have already been cleaned are once again white.  This cleaning is done today with lasers and does not damage the stone, the same process that was used to clean the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica and all those statues on the rooftops there.  It is an expensive process.  The government of Italy cannot afford to do this.  The project of cleaning the Colosseum is being funded by Tod's Shoes.

I had never heard of Tod's Shoes.  Now that I know they are doing a good deed such as this, I will make a point of shopping for this brand next time I am in the market for shoes, although $600 shoes are completely out of my price range.  I am glad to see a successful Italian company give back to the Italians by way of this public work.