The Rest of Venice

There are lots of odds and ends about Venice that didn’t fit in with the broader travelogue narrative I’ve created.

Like, how on earth do I fit in a mention of the ‘Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World”? Especially because . . . well, it isn’t. It’s certainly the most touristy bookstore I’ve ever been to.

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They only sold used moldy Italian-language books, but the shelves were almost all constructed out of old boats and gondolas.

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And in the back was a stairway back up to the street made of stacks of encyclopedias. FOLLOW THE BOOK STEPS CLIMB!

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And . . . I’m not even sure what a person would do with a basked of plaster mini-masks. They aren’t even concave, so you can’t use them to do a Finger Puppet Phantom of the Opera.

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I also couldn’t think of a seamless way to bring up this:

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This is a bowl of pasta with a sauce made from squid ink. It turned Brian’s teeth black.

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It was one of our favorite meals from the trip, eaten outdoors on a plaza. Lots of seafood, nummm.

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This is the plaza. There were lots of people selling roses on the plaza that day because it was St. Mark’s Day, which is a special thing in Venice since he is the patron saint of the city.

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It is customary to buy your sweetheart a rose on St. Mark’s Day. Apparently another custom of St. Mark’s Day is getting drunk and wearing a giant Venetian flag as a superhero cape, which I personally observed a number of times.

Also, we went on long walks through the city and kept wondering if they had water-ambulances for the canals. Turn a corner, and behold!

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There’s more . . . like the restaurant proudly declaring itself as the place to buy “Pizza Hot Dog Toast” (I assume they meant toasted sandwiches, like panini) or how we discovered a toy store with a whole slew of minifigs from the LEGO Movie and we snapped them up as presents for the boys. (They are hard to find in the U.S.A.)

Altogether a delightful if exhausting beginning to our trip. Little did we know that the next destination would be even more fun . . . onwards to Florence!

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Venice Crash Course

Our train from Venice to Florence didn’t leave until the early evening, so we decided to spend our last day touring two of the city’s most famous sights, the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica de San Marco, which are conveniently side by side.

And which you are not allowed to photograph from the inside. Rats!

Pro Tourist Tip: 90% of people prefer to sleep in when on vacation. Therefore getting up early usually pays off. The Plaza de San Marco was relaxing and serene. The morning light coming in off the lagoon reminded me why so many artists painted this place.

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The Doge’s Palace

Yes, here are the few exterior shots of the Doge’s Palace we were allowed to take.

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Our guidebook described the giant statues at the top of the stairs as “Moses and Paul Newman.” In reality, I think it is Neptune and Apollo, but don’t quote me on that. Note one more winged lion at the top of the arch. It’s all about the mascot, baby.

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See this slot in the mouth of this head carved into the wall? That was where snitching Venetians could secretly accuse their neighbors of crimes. The amount of secret-police espionage and creepiness in old-world Venice was kind of terrifying.

Here’s what I learned: Venice was kind of a democracy, with the Doge being elected out of a select group of landowners (kind of like the House of Burgesses in colonial-era Virginia).  There were special cabinets devoted to holding the volumes and volumes of pedigree charts to keep track of whose descendants get to vote and be eligible for the Doge-ship.

My favorite feature was the Map Room, with Renaissance-era maps painted all over the walls. Brian and I stared at this one for a long time before we figured out what it was. Go ahead and take a guess, I’ll put the answers below.

doge upside down map

The land mass on the right is upside-down Southern Asia (note India at the top) and the land mass on the left is the New World, i.e. Mexico.

And yes, we got to go through the prison next door and walk over the Bridge of Sighs, etc. There were depressingly detailed carvings on the windowsills made by prisoners. You can see the bridge in the background of this picture:

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Still not nearly as frightening as the Tower of London.

Oh! I forgot to mention! Did you know that this palace also has the world’s largest oil painting? Yes, indeed. Because Tintoretto was a brilliant artist but perhaps just a leetle bit crazy. This is it, a painting of the End of the World, etc.

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There are over 500 figures in that painting, and they are all life-sized. Kind of dizzifying.

The Basilica de San Marco

Tourist Pro Tip: if you go straight to the church’s bag check-in around the corner, you get a special token that allows you to skip! the! line! Which was fortunate, since by the time we emerged from the Doge’s Palace, the line stretched across the plaza and almost down to the water.

Anyway. You can see Venice’s long trading history with the Middle East through this cathedral’s Byzantine-inspired architecture.

 

There are domes! Lots of domes. And the ceilings inside are decorated with golden mosaics instead of the standard paintings. All of which I was not allowed to photograph, but this is where Google Image Search is once again my friend:

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Voila! There you go! I’d say more, but I think it’s kind of obvious that Brian and I didn’t find this cathedral terribly interesting. Beautiful, though. I especially liked the mosaic of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders (you can see it on the left side of the photo). It’s one of my favorite saint’s legends, having read a retelling of it in The Secret of Green Knowe.

The Plaza de San Marco

We walked through the plaza multiple times through our stay. It floods when the tides come in, which is kind of cool at night. The city erects little walking platforms so people can still get where they need to go. The lights were reflected in the water, it was beautiful if inconvenient:

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If you look closely, you can see an orchestra performing in the background behind me. There are multiple outdoor cafes on the plaza that do this every night. The cafe behind me has been around forever and served famous people from Lord Byron to Woody Allen.

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In the day, the plaza was so crowded it made me positively claustrophobic. We avoided it during the day whenever possible.

The Rialto Bridge

After the palace and basilica, Brian and I found we still had plenty of time on our hands. Why not traipse up to the Rialto Bridge and a few more sights? So here it is:

It’s a famous bridge with shops on it. All of the shops sell touristy junk. It’s a beautiful bridge with a long and storied history, I’m sure, but I am personally unaware of the long storied stories. But here’s what it looks like when you’re standing on it. Can’t beat that view:

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Huh. I just realized that Brian and I were both wearing green shirts that day.

The Frari Church

This is a Franciscan church that I wouldn’t have taken the time if my mother-in-law hadn’t gushed over it. True enough, it had my favorite Madonna-and-Child that I saw on the entire trip (and considering that this is Italy, that is really saying something). Here it is, courtesy once more of Google:

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

 

This image really fails to convey exactly how vibrant and three-dimensional the figures look on the triptych. It’s a very dark gothic church, and these little paintings nearly glow. It’s just an impressive feat of craftsmanship.

And so, with a hustle back to the hotel for our bags and back to the train station, thus ended our three days in Venice. I’ll do one more Venice post to capture all the random little bits that aren’t Major Tourist Places, so stay tuned.

 

 

Island Hopping

One thing we noticed in Venice is that all the buildings have thick wooden shutters painted a dark forest green. No slats, just solid wood. It seemed unusual to us at first, but then we discovered the benefits: total darkness in our hotel room.

Which allowed us to sleep off the jet lag in one fell blow: eleven straight hours of snooze time. I don’t think we had gotten so much sleep since the kids were born. One hour for each year of parenthood.

Brian had become disenchanted with the idea of aimlessly meandering the tourist-crammed alleys of Venice the day before, which was great, because I was able to talk him into doing what really wanted to do: hop a vaporetto to the islands of Murano and Burano.

Here, just to orient you:

murano-and-burano-map

These are both very touristy islands; you’ve probably heard of them before. Murano is the island known for glassmaking. This is because glassmaking was considered such a fire hazard that glassblowers were banished from the main Venetian islands to keep the city safe . . . but still be able to call the finished products “Venetian glass.”

And if you were a difficult-to-get-to Italian island with no other kind of industry, you’d totally capitalize on this, right?

So there are streets lined with shops selling all kinds of glass trinkets (we purchased a tiny glass turtle for Eleanor) . . .

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. . . and interesting architectural features depicting glassblowing . . .

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. . . and big glass public sculptures . . .

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. . . and even a blown-glass madonna shrine on one of the walls.

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The Museum of Glass was fairly interesting, but most of the exhibit was closed due to construction. I especially loved the miniature glass garden, complete with glass fences and glass bouquets of blossoms.


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There was also a fascinating display about how the Venetian glass industry had a boom in the 20th century by selling glass beads to tribal Africans. And the display copy was written in a way that was . . . shall we say, free of the historical baggage that an American museum might have. Wow.

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A pretty painted boat we saw in the Murano canal. Nothing special, just pretty.

Can you tell that it was one of the first sunny days of the year? I nearly tripped over those sunbathers.

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To tell the truth, there has been such a surge of interest in glass art here in the U.S. (especially in the Pacific Northwest) that the stuff I saw in Murano didn’t nearly impress me as much as I thought it would. But it was still fun to see things like glass ballerinas and animals and hot air balloons and even a complete glass symphony orchestra. (Most shops requested that no photos be taken of their glassware. Fair enough.)

We then hopped another very busy vaporetto for another, longer lagoon ride. (Fun fact: did you know the Italian Boy Scouts have a camp on one of the lagoon islands? Cool.) Onwards to Burano!

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This is a vaporetto that was arriving as we were departing.

 

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There are scads of little lagoon islands that are privately owned, or abandoned, or both.

Burano is the island known for making lace. BUT — it doesn’t have a too-long history for the craft. Venetian lace has been famous for centuries, but it only became associated with Burano in the 19th century. A lacemaking school was opened in Burano at that time as part of an effort to preserve the craft (which was beginning to be lost with the advent of machine-made lace).

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This island oozes charm, mainly because there is a local custom for using bright shades of paint on the buildings. It felt a bit more like Mexico than Italy.

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Brian and I wandered off the main tourist drag and found the streets totally empty. Why more people don’t do this, I’ll never understand.

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It was a sunny day, so lots of people were hanging out their clothes . . . and sometimes more than clothes:

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As my friend Libby put it: “you don’t wash all the stuffed animals unless something bad happened. There’s a story there, and it ain’t pretty.”

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Yes, we did see an elderly lacemaker plying her trade in one of the shops, but I was too shy to take her picture. We did pick out a lace bookmark for Eleanor, though. She adores it.

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The Museum of Lace was one of my favorite museums on the entire trip. Women’s history + handmade textiles = yeah, this is going to be something I love. Even Brian was blown away by the intricacy of the Renaissance-era lace samples.

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We especially liked this one because you can see little cherubs and animals hidden in the design.

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This is a painting of women using lacemakers’ stools, and in front are a collection of stools from the old lacemaking school. I love the wall color, the whole feel of this room.

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Brian’s main question is if this has inspired me to learn lacemaking. Whoa, absolutely not. I haven’t even mastered knitted lace yet. Traditional lacemaking looks like the kind of thing that would turn me blind. Or crazy.

As I’ve stated before when people ask if I’m going to take up new hobbies (birdwatching, CrossFit, fruit propagation): I’m Eccentric Enough.

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Venice is Like Disneyland

Eleven years of graduate school. Finally over, right?

Brian and I had planned for years to take some kind of special trip to celebrate the end of the M.D./Ph.D/residency/fellowship slog. Something far away, without kids.

So, after throwing darts at a globe for a while . . .

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. . . and investing in a little blue roller bag . . .

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. . . we decided to take a trip to Italy. (That’s the Alps in the above photo.) It was either this, or Japan, and we decided that Italian was a lot easier to learn than Japanese. Ha! Fooled you! We attempted to learn Italian but never had the time. Fortunately, with my high school French and Brian’s rusty Spanish, we figured we could bluff and cognate our way through. Plus, we had our trusty copy of Rick Steves’ Italy at hand, which we referenced as fervently as the Bible. We could manage our way around, right?

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Or to at least walk around in circles our first day in Venice. Hey, we managed to get on the airport shuttle to the train station okay. And then on the vaporetto (water bus) without any incident. (Except I had forgotten how that whole “standing in line” instinct isn’t as strong in Italy. Time to be more ruthless with my crowd-surging!)

The first vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal was lucky — we were able to squeeze in the open-air seats in the back.

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Venezia is easy to appreciate — the beautiful architecture gave me a false sense of my photographic skills — but ho boy, disorienting.  On that first day, we were forcing ourselves to stay awake until at least 8:30 p.m., which didn’t help. (Our waiter at the restaurant that first night kept offering us coffee, since we were visibly drooping into our food.)

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I had read about how “there are no roads” in Venice, but I didn’t fully comprehend what that meant: the islands are so heavily built up that it’s just little alleyways and footpaths squeezed in between for walking. And yes, canals.

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The full implications of this means: no north-south directions, landmarks that disappear and then reappear in places you don’t expect, dead ends and bridges that you can see but somehow can’t make your way towards. Google Maps was nearly useless. Shop owners must be bombarded with “where am I?” questions because they would often display maps of the city in front windows, with a giant “You are Here” arrow.

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What I also hadn’t comprehended was how insanely touristy this place is. The local population has halved in the last 20 years; there are only some 50,000 people that live in the old city, and pretty much all of them work in the tourist trade (on average, there are 200,000 tourists in Venice during the peak April-October season). It felt more like Colonial Williamsburg than a real city.

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And yet the history of the place fascinated me. It’s really difficult to comprehend the reality of Venice: where a group of swampy islands in a sheltered lagoon — where fresh water is scarce and all food must be imported — would be the ideal place to set up an empire that reigned supreme in Europe for 400 years. (How scarce was the fresh water? Before plumbing, all of it had to be collected in rainwater cisterns like this one:

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The water drains through holes in the piazza, then is filtered through a layer of sand to purify it before being drawn up through the cistern. There were laws on the books to prevent water waste: aristocrats were only allowed to wash their heavy Renaissance-era clothes on one designated day a year, and that had to happen off-island.

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I suppose the real lesson to be taken away from Venice is this: if you want to have a super-powerful empire, then it’s important to have a kickin’ city mascot. Which Venice certainly does: a winged lion holding a book.  You can see it over the door of the Basilica de San Marco:

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This lion pops up pretty much everywhere in the city. The words on the book say “Peace be unto you, Mark my Evangelist” in Latin, referencing the prophecy made to St. Mark in the Bible that he would find eternal rest. Since the bones of St. Mark are considered to be in Venice’s main cathedral (aforementioned basilica) then Venice gets to say that it is the city that fulfills the Biblical prophecy.

But back to the travelogue. This where we stayed: the Hotel Locanda Silva. We were lucky enough to get a room with a view of the canal.

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The canal intersection was a popular route for people taking gondola rides, and we would often hear the gondoliers calling out as they turned a blind corner. It was fun to stand on the bridge and watch them go by, one after another. Alas, the romantic image of solitude with a loved one in a gondola is a fantasy: seeing the boats drift by one after the other was more like the log flume ride at an amusement park. (I was still impressed by the one-oared skill of gondoliers.) We didn’t bother taking a ride ourselves.

The view to the left

The view to the left

The view out our window looking to the right

The view out our window looking to the right

During one afternoon, we saw a gondola with a wedding party aboard — bride and groom plus in-laws. Cute.

Frequently a motorboat would come the other way and the gondolier would shout a warning to NOT TOUCH THE GONDOLA.

Frequently a motorboat would come the other way and the gondolier would shout a warning to NOT TOUCH THE GONDOLA.

I Am a Special Person, and Therefore Deserve Chocolate

At Katie’s preschool, the older kids get to invite mothers to come to a Mother’s Day Tea Party. But the younger kids have what they call a “Special Person’s Tea,” in which they can invite any adults they like. Dads, grandparents, aunts, friends, etc. Since all of our extended family now lives far away, I was the only Special Person around to come to Katie’s tea party. Sigh. We got spoiled with this kind of thing in Utah, where both grandmas and often dad could come to things like preschool events and school plays. Not so much anymore.

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But I absolutely adored coming to this with Katie. As her Special Person, I got to eat lots of chocolate. There was a truffle at each place setting. And then one of the parents had brought homemade fudge for the snack buffet. It was the best possible outcome, snack-wise.

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Katie was oozing adorability from every pore. She wore this flower hat she made in class, and sang songs. The adults were seated first, and then the kids were brought into the room in a line from their classroom. When Katie saw me, she broke away from her class, shouted “Moooooom!” and ran across the room to hug me. So much for staying in line.

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And lining up was necessary for what the kids did next: sing songs. I just about melted, especially when Katie decided (about halfway through) to put her necklace up on her face and then keep singing. That necklace is one my parents gave me when I was eight or nine. It’s fun to see it so beloved by my daughter (she wears it almost every day).

 

Give Me All the Candy and Eggs You Have

Easter was a low-key affair this year. Brian and I were leaving for our trip to Italy just a few days afterwards, so we were reluctant to plan a big dinner that would result in lots of leftovers. In fact, that’s exactly what we did have for Easter dinner: leftovers. It did a great job of cleaning out the fridge. The kids didn’t even notice that Easter was different from what we’d done before.

Because of course we had already had our Easter Tea Party on the last day of school before Spring Break. (Inspired by the Christmas Tea Party we’d had in December. You may think I’m some hot-shot mom for doing this, but the truth is that I just really like an excuse to buy scones.)

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Because of course we already dyed eggs.

Easter was pretty much a done deal.

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And we went to our usual neighborhood egg hunt. This was the first year that Jeff, Ella and Wim were pretty much self-sufficient. Brian just kept an eye on the older three from the background, while I followed Katie around in the toddler section.

Katie decided that all she wanted this year were purple eggs, her favorite color. She did a bang-up job.

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Meanwhile, Jeff found one of the special golden eggs, which he could trade in for a goody bag. He treated this as seriously as if he’d found the One Ring. Check out his face in this photo:

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Since Eleanor had found a golden egg last year, my reaction was, “Oh, great. Another giant chocolate crucifix to deal with.” Because, yes: giant chocolate crucifixes are de rigeur for Easter goody bags.

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In fact, my kids were so certain that we’d end up with another golden egg this year that I tried to cushion the blow of possibly not getting one. “Our family won a goody bag last year,” I explained. “So it’s okay if we don’t get one this year, right? It’s another family’s turn.”

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William took this so much to heart that he actually found his own golden egg and then didn’t pick it up so that someone else would have a chance to find it.  Geez. Maybe I went too far with the blow-cushioning. What an altruistic guy. He didn’t seem upset in the least over it.

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And while we only ate leftovers for Easter dinner, we did make a “special” dessert: Resurrection Rolls. This is where you bake a cinnamon-dusted marshmallow inside of a Pillsbury crescent roll. The marshmallow (body) disappears inside of the roll (the “tomb”). Hey, it’s an Internet recipe, and we had the ingredients. Don’t look at me like that. Plus, it’s something Eleanor and Wim could make by themselves, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

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Niner

I really don’t want to face the fact that Eleanor is nine years old. Nine is the best year of childhood, in my opinion. You’re old enough to start having a taste of independence, but still too young to have any real responsibility. But I still think it’s dangerously close to becoming all grown up. I haven’t gotten nearly enough snuggles from my Ellabelle-girl to permit her to grow up. It’s just not time.

Eleanor chose to have a “backwards party” to celebrate her ninth. When the guests arrived at the door, we cheerfully waved and said, “Goodbye! We’re glad you’re leaving! We hope you have a dreadful time!” This caused all the kids to crack up.

And they were all delighted to find the tablecloth and dishes set up underneath the table.

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All of them dove right under and spent a good twenty minutes chatting, giggling, and trying to say each others’ names backwards. This was genius, probably the easiest party we’ve ever thrown. For the future: just come up with a concept that encourages kids to play on their own, then step back. Easy-peasy.

When the girls finally emerged from under the table, we casually suggested they play “Seek and Hide,” and when they grew tired of that, “Silent Chairs.” All we really had to do was suggest it, and they played on their own. Eight and nine year olds are so easy to entertain! Brian and I just sat back and sipped cold glasses of Diet Coke while the girls entertained themselves.

There was one structured activity — we took “backwards portraits.” Using facepaint, we drew lips, teeth, and moustaches on the kids’ chins, then hid their real mouths with a bandanna. The result:

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Much giggling and guffawing ensued.

After we ate upside-down cupcakes (with candles stuck through the wrappers) . . .

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. . . . we opened presents with “Heavy Heavy Hang Over.”

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Katie was especially thrilled to “bonk” her sister on the head with a present. So goes the cycle of sibling affection.