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Castel Campo

Trying to keep track of the moments that take your breath away at Castel Campo is hopeless. Tasting the first spoonful of homemade risotto, hearing Saya exclaim ‘cock-a-doodles’ when she’d collect fresh farmhouse eggs, or simply turning potatoes over in a vegetable patch made my heart swoon. The sheer beauty of the week could be found in Fiavé’s green fields and in the generosity of our friends. No doubt this was the best place to be on our first vacation as a family of four.

Saturday started with a 3am wake up call to make a very early flight. Corey’s efforts to get everyone to take a nap at each leg of the journey were foiled by the sheer excitement of the many types of transport we’d take today: taxi, air-train, airplane, and rental car. While a couple naps were finally had on the drive from Verona’s airport to Fiavé, no one could get over how every turn in the road revealed an even more pristine rock formation, brilliant valley or clear stream. The cyclists were getting the best of the valley by riding the hills and curves and resting at local wineries dotting the road. We arrived mid-afternoon to a farmhouse with a cool tiled floor, and devoured a late lunch of piadinas (I hope it’s ok to refer to these as Italian quesadillas). Adventures began straight away with a visit to the ‘cock-a-doodles’ in the henhouse, and then a stroll to the dairy farm, and donkey pad. Our friends toured us around their barn, cottage and the surrounding fields. Seb made us dinner so we didn’t lift a finger in the evening before calling it an early night.

Sunday’s early morning sunshine warmed our faces as we collected eggs from the henhouse. We followed the route again for the dairy farm where Corey was getting braver by the minute reaching out to pet the ‘wildlife’.

We had lunch off of a winding road between two tunnels so if you didn’t know the restaurant was there, you’d completely miss it. Those who find it are treated to a menu where every single dish is delicious. Every. Single. Thing. For me, it felt like magic with the scenery, the food, the wine and the company all in cahoots with one another. The lunch tasted like vacation.

And then we had our first dinner at Castel Campo! The drive through the wooded forest keeps the castle hidden, and when we arrived at the stony walkway, we still were in disbelief that we were at a literal castle. The castle is a sight to behold and unlike anything I’ve experienced, but those two Adirondack chairs in the center of the green brought tears to my eyes because those felt like home. The first thing I did was nurse both Sachi and a glass of wine in those chairs. I needed this moment of gratitude: for the family camp tradition that raised me in those chairs, for the current memories I was making with my own kids, and the future adventures we’d build together. All of these thoughts flooded into my tear ducts while I took that moment for me.

I composed myself, made sure Saya and Sachi put on another fleece for the evening’s al fresco gathering and hovered around the makings of a Florentine steak dinner. Nonna Mina’s friends brought a feast for the grill, and the kitchen was serving up the best summer had to offer: zucchini and salad and a cheese plate for the masses! Can’t believe this is still only 24 hours into our trip.

On Monday, I felt confident to take Saya out in the early morning for the ‘chickens routine’ on my own. We made eggs together, and then while Sachi and Corey slept in, we met Lia for some swinging at the barn. Our girls playing between meals and naps and glasses of wine…I got a jog in today and found myself perfectly content with intermittent wifi. After Neri’s risotto lunch at the castle, I made a promise myself to cook more Italian food when I returned to London. Then, an evening of garden soup at the barn and a fireside hangout under the stars– how do I say “this is the life” in Italian?!

Tuesday was the lake trip. I’ll say two things: one, I understand the definition of aquamarine now, and two, I thought a unicorn would come out from behind the brush as we walked down the pebbly path. What a postcard! The water was cold yet refreshing, and swimming out to the small island on my own felt freeing. We snacked on the banks and helped the kids dip their toes into the shallow waters. In the evening, Neri made polenta in copper pots that he then wrapped in a towel to serve. It was coarse and perfect with a melty beef stew. I added a shakshuka (made during the kids’ three hour naps!), and Nonna Mina added kale chips from the garden for another wonderful al fresco dinner.

We finally got the official Castel Campo tour today. It’s easy to grow comfortable being in the courtyard, kitchen and garden that we realised on Wednesday we hadn’t had a proper tour. Nonna Mina first shared how the castle’s architecture has changed over time due to renovations, erosion, and keeping it up to date for large numbers of guests. There is family artwork all over. Sculptures made by Sof’s great grandmother, wall-sized portraits painted of members on both sides of the family tree, and Nonna Mina’s own creations which she won’t point out unless you ask. There is also a lot that isn’t theirs but it’s all remained even as the castle has changed hands over decades. The biggest surprise was the self-playing piano with Fats Waller sheet music that we all danced to in a large sitting room. Nonna Mina keeps the grounds herself and shared the hardest time is getting through freezing winter in a drafty castle as a party of one.

How could it be Thursday and our last full day together? We tilled potatoes, cut cavelo nero kale and plucked a few tomatoes from the garden. I went on another jog in the morning, and we had a dumpling soup for lunch. From what I remember, the dumplings are a country dish using old bread and leftovers like cured ham to flavor them. The broth was divine and filled our tummies before another lazy afternoon filled with naps. We ate apericena tonight- a remix of aperitivo that flows easily into ‘cena’ or dinner. That’s one compound word I won’t forget for future Italy visits. We ended the evening with gelato made from the milk of sixteen local cows down the road. I found I didn’t even know what flavor to order Saya since we don’t take her to eat ice cream or gelato. I let her pick her ‘color’ and she selected elderflower. She devoured it all.

Friday was the last day of vacation. We’d pretty much mastered the morning egg collection except this time when Saya went to reach for an egg, a chicken was still in the coop and scared the crap out of her! I would have run too. Sof suggested local lunch at a cute sandwich shop right next to a playground. Sachi had her first swing, and I took a few rides on the zipline. I savored the last three hour nap from our girls before we shared our final castle dinner of risotto with Neri and Nonna Mina. The girls basically tucked themselves in while Corey and I packed up, both of us reflecting on how easy it felt to make this our home for the week. Yeah, it’s a castle.

Gratitude really pulls me through on Saturday morning when we wake up at 3am to do the drive back to Verona airport only to be met with a delayed EasyJet flight. I’m also not mentally prepared for the arrival into London. The masses on the train are out for boozy brunches and I have to bat away the hands that want to pinch the cheeks of my beautiful girls. We’re still in a pandemic, people! But the drive, delayed plane, air-train, and taxi are all over and we’re napping as a family, just happily exhausted once we get home. We started the trip abuzz about visiting a castle. We admit we returned home spilling stories about the castle. Yet, I also returned home knowing it’s not actually all about the castle. It’s the change of pace in the outdoors. It’s rejuvenating to be on zero schedule. Campo, like Toulumne and Samuel P, holds space to recharge and to find joy in family tradition. For that experience, I was simply grateful to be in a new location that brought me back to my roots.

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Corfu, Greece

A Corfu Escape Amidst Covid19

Corey was the motivating force in planning a trip beyond England. Though he booked everything last minute, he was researching family travel abroad on various websites, and through numerous colleagues and friends who’d also been on a recent trip abroad. I needed reassurance, and a clear concept of what the steps would be for each leg of the journey. I purchased water nappies, snacks, and ‘items that stick’ for Saya’s airplane activity kit. Then we posted our out of office messages, and left at 5am for Heathrow on Thursday morning. Saya was an excellent traveler on this leg of the journey. She babbled in the cab, and ate to her heart’s content on the flight. We got her for a short nap as well so she’d be ready for the Greek sunshine when we arrived.

It was clear many British families had the same plans as we did! The majority of the resort guests were from the UK- like 99.9% I’d estimate. We checked into our room, explored the grounds, and found a perfect sized playground for Saya, right outside the main food hall. It was 30 degrees and we couldn’t wait for the sunny adventures ahead.

Each day started with an early breakfast buffet that was followed up by a morning swim at the pool. We’d break for a snack (usually dried fruit or a banana that I’d lifted into my purse from the breakfast buffet), and then hit the playground for swings and slides. We’d be the first family lined up at the dining hall for lunch. This was so Corey could score an al fresco table with a highchair, while I loaded up plates for lunch that always included a Greek salad. We discussed the important point of whether or not a Greek salad was actually called a ‘Greek salad’ now that we were in Corfu. Corey mentioned that the staff all seemed responsive when we pointed and named the salad amongst others at the salad bar, so we concluded we didn’t need any further digging into the topic. We’d have a family nap in our room after lunch before our afternoon swim in the sea. Corey and I decided that we liked the sea compared to the pool, though Saya’s stamina was much shorter than we expected for both. After 20 minutes, she’d want to explore the shore, the rocks, and the little wave pools along the sand. Corey reported that his main highlight of this trip was taking Saya into the sea for the first time as the water was clear enough to see small fish, and warmer than the resort pool.

We would return after a couple hours to shower off all the sunscreen, and be first in line for the dinner buffet. By the way, my highlight of the trip was not cooking any meals, and having watermelon served during every buffet. After dinner, Saya would attempt to visit the playground again, and we were do anything to distract her so we could get back to our room for her bedtime routine. By the third night, we discovered that handing her the room key was the best way to get to her go directly back to the room. Being charged with this important task was the motivation she needed to bypass the slide. It’s safe to say that the highlight for Saya’s trip was likely the playground…and probably having the attention of both parents nonstop.

After she’d fall asleep, we’d turn on the baby monitor and sit outside in the warm evening under the sky speckled with stars. I’d usually turn in earlier than Corey, and he’d wander the resort playing the music trivia games, or checking the resort mini-disco.

A fun coincidence on this trip was a colleague arriving in Corfu a couple days after us and only staying a 17 minute drive away. They picked us up in their rental car, and whisked us through olive orchards, and small fruit stands to their private accommodation! We enjoyed the local taverna overlooking the sea with a serious order of surf and turf for our first lunch together. Saya enjoyed her first taste of octopus and calamari and we couldn’t get enough of the souvlaki.

I supported Corey decision to book later return flights so we could have a full last day. My colleague, and her daughter who is exactly two months younger than Saya, kept us busy with a morning swim at theirs. The pool was inhabited by a small frog which kept us all busy as we swam around one another. We finally got a colander and placed the frog in the bushes so we could have less of a wary swim! We couldn’t say no to another taverna lunch and Saya caught a quick nap before we loaded our gear into a taxi for the airport.

Our journey home started with Saya being carsick all over me, but Corey and I worked together to check in, pass through security, and find our gate, with her being as comfortable as possible. The family bathroom was a gem in the middle of the Corfu airport to say the least. The flight activity bag that I’d assembled was put to good use and helped pass the time between snacks, and a couple of attempts for a second nap (which definitely didn’t happen).

By Heathrow Express, we were all tuckered out. Saya wasn’t inspired by the plane, train, and automobile trifecta we planned for this leg of the journey. She let us know this at various points. But we agreed that a full last day was worth it, and she slept as soon as her head hit the crib when we arrived home.

It took us a week to unpack and finish laundry. The warm memories of Corfu sustained us through a rainy week in London. Corey’s mom said ‘we still have to live life’ when we reported we would be traveling out of the country, and that felt very true on this four day adventure. Corey’s motivation to always live this life to the fullest is what I didn’t know I needed at this time, yet I’m clear it was the exact thing for our family this August.

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Brussels, Belgium

Bachan in Brussels

Our first day in Brussels was grey and bright. It was a day for exploring some of the beautiful sights of the city, walking block to block peeking down the small alleys, and catching the art that wraps along the city walls.

The Grand Place was the first place that I wanted to highlight for my mom. It was easy to walk to from the station, and around the corner from our accommodation: the Gallerie of Nail Salons (not the official name, but 99.9% of the shops in this small mall were nail shops, and our flat was right above them).

We walked to Saint Catherine Square, an area that used to have a canal, and that is known for its seafood. There were enticing were fish shops selling fresh smorreboard toasts and soups in outdoor tents, but it was too chilly to have Saya sit in her pram while we munched. We were drawn into Monk. The front section is just for pints and wine, but the small back ‘buffet’ room does one dish for lunch: spaghetti. You select your meal in three parts: 1) sauce, 2) size of bowl, 3) cheese. I got the basic bolognese, regular-sized bowl, with parmigiano. Bachan went for the special bolognese. We wouldn’t have known the difference in the sauce except that the server highlighted/warned us about the special sauce since she knew Americans don’t traditionally eat horse. My mom’s conclusion was that eating horse sounded more intense than the flavor itself. Ultimately, we were happy to be in a place that did one dish, and one dish very well.

Saya was still asleep in her pram after lunch. I wanted to walk around for another ten minutes to round her nap to a full hour before heading into the Bozar Art Centre. Our additional ten minute walk took us to Mont des Arts- an unexpected gem! We found the garden, the look out, the graffiti art, and a gentleman playing an acoustic guitar such a surprise. We felt smitten that we’d come upon the space by accident.

The Bozar Art Centre was buzzing. Students were milling about and studying Keith Haring, while the staff were briskly setting up a variety of evening events. It felt similar to the Barbican centre in London with a lot going on at the same time. Saya slept the entire time so we wandered through the exhibit as well as the gift shop.

We ate at Taverne du Passage for dinner, a recommendation from my friend Marta. It’s a cosy brasserie inside a luxury gallerie hall. The stick-to-your-ribs chicken stew was a great order, and Saya enjoyed the buttered bread, and salmon from Bachan’s plate. We capped off the evening with a Belgian waffle covered in Nutella and dark chocolate. It was a wonderful start to our 48 hour trip.

On Wednesday, we had a usual morning with Saya: early wake up, breakfast, playing, and nap. We planned our daily itinerary during her nap so we knew the first stop of the day would be the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. It resides in a Victor Horta building that was originally a clothing manufacturing warehouse for its first seventy years. From 1980-1989, it was reinvented into the comic strip centre, giving life to the art nouveau staircases, sprials, and stained glass. While the comics were artistically impressive and unique, it was a bit too complex for Saya, so we made our own fun out of the extra large puzzles on the second floor. (The only element to avoid is the horrible lunch in the museum cafe. Looks are unfortunately deceiving with this one.)

With Saya sleeping in the pram, we took the opportunity to shop at Melting Pot Kilo, a vintage-type store where you pay 15 euro for every kilo of clothing you purchase. My mom’s wool fisherman sweater and my scarves “weighed” about 9 euro. My mom also caught a local art show where creatives molded and shaped various natural objects like bone, stone, and fish scales.

We found seats that Delirium cafe for a taste of Floris Wit, the Campus Lager, a Guillotine brew, and the original Delirium Tremens. I wanted my mom to experience a variety of flavors since the Delirium campus holds the Guinness World Record of over 2000 beers in one pub. Saya enjoyed the atmosphere of beer banners and coasters, and my mom sipped until her cheeks turned rosy.

We returned to St Catherine’s Square with the expectation of a fish dinner, but the first restaurant was too noisy, the second was closed, and the third….well, we found Les Filles, and that made us forget about a fish dinner. Finding the restaurant is like searching for a speakeasy, and once buzzed upstairs, you are welcomed into a toasty dining room that feels like your family friend has cooked you a holiday meal. There are three dutch ovens steaming with treasures within. I selected a vegetarian option, while my mom went for the roasted chicken tagine. The middle pot has a side dish that complements both menus. You serve yourself what you want, when you want. Saya ate some pumpkin and mashed potatoes before she started throwing food on the ground. I embarrassingly brought out a pre-made food pouch to quell her enthusiasm. The dessert area was equal to the mains, and my favorite was the homemade vanilla yogurt that accompanied the fruit tarts.

Our final day was a rainy one. We created an itinerary that included sites as well as a tick list of Belgian foods: frites, chocolate, beer, waffles and mussels (which we had to avoid in case my mom was allergic). The chocolate was the only thing left on our list! I had a plan.

The Musée des Instruments de Musique featured so many instruments, all shapes and sizes, and various materials. It was the first time I noted how horns have so many metal loops and swirls, and how recorders are an instrument of the ages. We bought Saya a musical shaker that she rattled throughout the first floor, drawing smiles from the other guests.

Le Perroquet is an institution for pitas. The biblical menu is accompanied by a separate card with English, Spanish and Dutch translations. Being overwhelmed with options, I opted for the restaurant’s namesake pita and was not disappointed.

Saya’s afternoon nap for Saya meant it was time for chocolate wandering/tasting. We hit up Wittamer, Corne Port-Royal, Pierre Marcolini, and Neuhaus. Pierre Marcolini was the tastiest, and Wittamer was a close second. But as a new mom, I’d say all chocolate tastes more delicious when your baby is sleeping through your chocolate treasure hunt!

Our Eurostar was on time, and Saya tuckered herself out climbing up and down on the tray table for half of the trip. Corey gave us a warm welcome with a Zaffrani dinner when we arrived home from our delightful trip to Brussels.

Quick links:

Restaurants:

Les Filles – best dinner we had, and we hear there host a great brunch as well

Monk– if you like spaghetti, head here for lunch

Le Perroquet– an institution…and the pitas are great, too

Taverne du Passage– Belgian food brasserie

Sites:

Bozar Centre

Mont Des Arts

Belgium Comic Strip Centre

Musée des Instruments de Musique

Grand Place

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Oakland, USA San Diego, USA

Holiday Happiness Part 2: West Coast Edition

I snuck in a trip to San Diego before making my way home. We hung out with the Anings first, jumping into their daily routines: pick ups from school, ordering burritos, dressing up and dancing to Whitney Houston. Cole and Nina are bright, imaginative, kind, and giggly sweethearts. I’m so glad Saya got to soak up their attention, and I was able to soak up the parenting pointers from two of my favorite friends.

Tim and Carlyn’s wedding was full on McKellogg DIY which is what this crew does best. Flowers, wedding tent, pre-wedding lunch– even our accommodation was built just two weeks prior by Uncle Ken. He remodeled the laundry room into a mini-airbnb for Saya and me! During the wedding, Saya was watching the ocean waves with Uncle Len or dancing with Grandad, so I was able to catch up with cousins over a couple glasses of wine. Carlyn’s speech welcomed everyone to make the most of the evening…to celebrate and be themselves…anything goes 🙂 Grandma Claire led the way into the memorable evening with a two-step surrounded by her kids.

Once in the Bay, we scheduled all the playdates. Auntie Grandma, Takeo and Erica had us over for lunch, and we had dinner with Carrie and Julie Anne. I met Roux for the first time with Lindsey and Diane, and Brian, Meggie, and Paxton had an open door policy whenever we were walking through the neighborhood. Jen came by after work, as did Eric. Miho treated us to pastries at La Farine. Auntie Jo showered Saya with handmade gifts and frequent visits. I used Cafe Zocolo as a frequent date spot. Krismin and I lunched as moms for the first time. On another afternoon, we set up the inaugural Gosei generation’s first meeting with Cal NSU alum.

On a surprisingly sunny day in the West Bay, my dad and I drove to San Rafael to meet Ginny, Finn, and Uncle Jamie. We drove early to ensure Saya would fall asleep for her mid-morning nap on the ride over. Once we crossed the bridge, Grandad’s eyes twinkled as we drove in the opposite direction from San Rafael. With Saya settled into her nap, he took us on a beautiful drive into Tiburon. I could see we were on a road popular with cyclists, but it felt like only my dad knew the magic of driving this scenic route in a car. What a beautiful showcase of SF in the sun! Having Finn and Saya meet at Uncle Jamie’s for the first time was a great plan. His home was always a wonder to me as a child, so having Saya explore his flat made me smile. Plus, an Indian buffet for lunch didn’t disappoint babies or adults.

December 19th was the start of the holiday extravaganza. It’s Miya’s birthday. It’s also the day the Forrest Ramirez clan and the Scott Bynoe clan arrived into Oakland. We had a semi-surprise, burrito birthday party at Jamie Lynn’s apartment for MFF. Semi-surprise because Miya knew there was an event for her birthday, but didn’t know who was attending, and didn’t have to coordinate logistics with anyone but her family unit.

This 19th also kicked off the birthday celebrations for all December babies, and the family affairs leading to and through Christmas. Daisuke’s birthday tradition is an ice cream dinner at Fentons, and this year, Bachan’s birthday was a dim sum spectacular.

In between play dates, grandkids and grandparents were inseparable. Mamo and Grandad’s circuit consisted of toy bins, Macky dog, feeding the fish, and a couple of Mamo’s musical mornings! Bachan hosted make-believe gatherings with stuffed animals, baking sessions, and fort-building. Books and bathtime were a highlight at both houses!

We stuffed ourselves at our annual Nishi/Diamant Christmas. This year, Madler and Dang were witnesses to how we do family gatherings right with this crew. We also discovered that a Berkeley brewery could be a surprisingly ideal locale for our Cousins Christmas gathering with my dad’s fam.

Christmas eve and day arrived bringing more smiles all around. Grandkids basically ran circles around the adults until it was time to break for food– and then they were back into their games and new gadgets. When I could, I sat back to watch small moments between our kids. I am feeling all the feels during my first Christmas as a mom.

Saya was an absolute trooper being on the road for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas! Upon reflection, I’d pat myself on the back for using maternity leave to the full extent, too. Saya was introduced to the influences that have shaped Corey and me, and we recharged on love and support from our friends and family before heading back to London to start 2020.