When Mt. Vesuvius blew its top in 79 AD, it buried the nearby city of Pompeii in 20 metres of ash. Archeologists have since unearthed buildings, streets, and even people that were essentially frozen in time. We saw the gladiator barracks, several bakeries and fast food shops, and even a wealthy family home with original frescoes and flooring. Then there were the plaster molds of the people who died—there are over a thousand such body casts, though only three are on display. All in all, it was pretty cool.
After feasting on bread with olive oil, caprese salad, and pizza, we set out to climb Vesuvius itself. The hike was steeper than we’d been led to believe, and we were huffing by the time we reached the rim of the caldera, but the views were incredible. It’s not every day you get to stare into the cone of an active volcano.
I was genuinely surprised at how much the boys enjoyed going to the Vatican today. We aren’t Catholic or anything close to it, and while I thought they might get a kick out of stepping into the world’s smallest country, I wasn’t sure a church would really hold their attention. But the instant we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, they were both captivated.
The basilica is, of course, absolutely stunning. Built over the tomb of the first pope, St. Peter, the place is full of gold, marble, mosaics, and exquisite sculptures. It’s also incomprehensibly huge: the building covers six acres and holds up to 60,000 worshippers. The nave is two football fields long and the main altar is seven storeys high. Michelangelo’s famous dome is 430 feet from top to bottom. Unreal.
I’d had everyone download an audio guide that explained what we were looking at, but the kids had no patience for that. I was afraid they’d be bored, but the most incredible thing happened: they wandered around on their own, reading plaques and taking photos. I’d been here a couple times before, but I didn’t know about a staircase Brayden found that led down to an area filled with the tombs of past popes. The beauty of independent discovery.
It was amazing. Or as Brayden put it, “This place is dope as ****.”
The number one thing Brayden was looking forward to on this trip was our tour of the Colosseum, and it didn’t disappoint. We started by going deep underground and exploring the complex labyrinth of cages, tunnels, and mechanical elevators under the arena floor. Our guide told us about the different types of spectacles that took place and showed us how animals and gladiators were held below and then raised into the arena to entertain the masses. (Interesting origin story: the word “arena” is Latin for “sand;” the modern definition comes from the fact that sand was used in the Colosseum as a flooring material to soak up the blood.)
We also stood on the arena floor and even climbed up another level for a bird’s-eye view of the entire structure. It was a much more interesting and informative experience than the one Chris and I had 20 years ago, when we just walked around the main level on a self-guided audio tour.
The tour also took us to the Palatine Hill, where the richest Romans once had their palaces, and the Roman Forum, which was the commercial and political centre of ancient Rome. We were pretty tired by that point, but the kids did perk up a bit when the guide pointed out the original Senate house and the temple that holds Julius Caesar’s ashes.
Afterwards, we wandered down a side street and found a taverna for lunch. This place did not cater to tourists (meaning no spaghetti and meatballs…Romans NEVER serve those together) so it was more of an authentic experience. We all loved it!
I wouldn’t have believed it could be so easy to a) get to Rome from Kelowna and b) conquer jet lag. Our flight schedule gave us only one hour to connect in Toronto, but everything went like clockwork and we basically walked off of one flight and onto the other. Amazing!
The next miracle was how we all got some sleep on the flight and managed to convince our bodies that an eight-hour time change was no big deal. We landed in the morning, had a quick nap at the hotel, and headed out to explore the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. I really feel like we’ve adjusted, but I guess time will tell.
We’ve been trying to get the kids to Europe for the past three years—so thankful we finally made it!
Our Vegas-themed murder mystery party got off to a bit of a slow start due to a combination of confusion about the meeting time and a raccoon that was scaring people away from our front door. But everyone did eventually make it, one of us killed another one of us, and we all had a blast. This was the 10th anniversary of doing these parties, and we commented on how things have changed over the years: more elaborate costumes and decor, no need for babysitters, more need for reading glasses.
The Easter weekend was coming, and we had covid credits to burn, so a quick family getaway to Toronto seemed like a solid plan. It would never have been worth it if we were paying out of pocket, but since the flight and the hotel were already covered, going all that way for three nights wasn’t totally crazy.
Plus, you know what they say: you’ll never regret spending money on experiences rather than things.
Our credits got us a deluxe room at the venerable Royal York Hotel, which was far too classy for the likes of us. The lobby was full of well-dressed, well-moneyed people with stacks of luggage, and there we were in our track pants and backpacks. Kind of felt like the Clampetts. That said, we did get the royal treatment on account of being “preferred customers” (we signed up for their loyalty program a few days beforehand) which was pretty cool.
We spent our first full day on a bus tour to Niagara Falls. It was a long drive to look at some waterfalls, but it was one of those landmarks you just want to say you’ve seen (like Stonehenge). We spent a few minutes taking pictures, then went for an incredibly expensive lunch at the Rainforest Cafe. Cheesy, I know, but we had fond memories of that restaurant from our first trip to Disneyland (c’mon, the thunderstorm is cool) and we were willing to splurge. Afterward, Justin and I played some mini golf while Chris and Brayden looked at souvenirs. A good day.
Sports was a major focus of the trip, since Toronto offers attractions that can be found nowhere else: the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Blue Jays. We’ve toured a few other sports halls of fame, but the kids had never seen anything like the room that showcases the Stanley Cup along with every other major hockey trophy. Very cool.
The highlight of the trip was getting to see a Jays game in Rogers Centre. We don’t get too many opportunities to see pro baseball–I’ve been to a Mariners game and Chris and I saw the Jays in Boston, but it was amazing to be part of the home crowd. The only downer was that the roof was closed, since it was about -5 outside…but we still enjoyed it immensely.
This was our first in-person murder party in two years, and I was almost afraid to look forward to it in case it didn’t actually happen (we postponed it a couple weeks so people could have a chance to get their boosters, plus we had everyone take an antigen test the day of the party…if anyone had come up positive, we would’ve been screwed!)
But it all worked out in the end. I went all-in on decorations, as usual, which this year meant getting Justin to spend three hours helping me put up stone walls. The overall effect was so amazing that I’m seriously considering painting that whole room a darker colour.
I managed to repurpose some items, too. The long table with the burgundy tablecloth, greenery, and candles is exactly what we used for both the Roman party in 2018 and the farytale party in 2013 (yes, we’ve been doing these parties for that long!) The wall banners with the shields were originally from the Roman party, too; the opposite sides feature a gold laurel wreath design.
Food was great: chicken drumsticks, cabbage, beef bourguignon, bread, and a delicious apple-cinnamon type dessert. No one seemed to mind that we didn’t have forks (in true medieval style). We got by OK with just knives and spoons.
Over the years we’ve set a pretty high bar for costumes, and this year was another showcase of awesomeness. One of the knights teaches at a high school that has an actual medieval armoury class, and he was able to scam some authentic armour. It was impressive, but seriously heavy, and he could only get out of it with the help of two people. Guess that’s why knights had squires.
With no one allowed to share breathing space with other human beings, I knew there was no way I could have my traditional murder mystery birthday party. And that was seriously depressing, since the party is often the one bright spot in what otherwise tends to be a very bleak month. But hope was restored when a friend of mine told me about some companies that offer virtual parties led by professional actors. The concept was intriguing and the price was reasonable, so we gave it a go.
We didn’t really have much of a theme; I was just told it was a modern-day twist on the movie Clue. So a bunch of characters were being blackmailed by an unknown individual. Finnish-American relations played a surprisingly large role.
I gotta say, it was nothing like an in-person experience. A few technical glitches got in the way, and to be honest I’m usually more interested in the theme and decor than the details of the mystery. But it was still fun to dress up and have a few laughs. Certainly better than yet another night of Netflix.