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A Reason to Give

The season of giving is upon us, at least in western cultures, and we’d like to take a moment to promote some charities for their work in the developing world.

UNICEF

The first is UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. UNICEF believes that all children have a right to survive, thrive, and fulfill their potential to the benefit of a better world. The organization started in 1946 to help ease famine in Europe after the second World War has continued to serve the children of the world. The organization does more than supply food relief, it also helps educate kids, believing that a minimum of elementary education for all children makes children healthier and better citizens. UNICEF also runs immunization programs against common childhood diseases, believing no child should suffer from preventable illnesses. 90% of all donations go directly to children’s programs.

African Wildlife Foundation

The African Wildlife Foundation is a well-respected charity that focuses its attention on preservation and conservation efforts of some of Africa’s most iconic species. The organization helps people and wildlife get along, or at least coexist. The people of these regions are often scraping out a living using the resources in front of them and the foundation provides training to help them avoid conflicts with native species and education on the ways preserving the species can be a benefit to them as well. Africa is home to a multitude of amazing animals, like the elephant, lion, and mountain gorillas. AWF helps train rangers and empowers local communities through education. AWF knows that poverty and a lack of education hurts individuals, the land and wildlife.

RIF: Reading is Fundamental

The first adventure many of us took on as children came in the pages of a book. A book can transport us anywhere and spark our imagination, kindling a fire to explore the world around us. I grew up in a modest household, but considered very middle class for my community. Many of my classmates in elementary school weren’t as fortunate. We were a RIF school, which stands for Reading Is Fundamental. We would have RIF days when a selection of books would be laid out on a table in class and each student could pick two books to take home. The books they chose were theirs forever. I am almost certain that those were the only books many of my young classmates owned. I look back and wonder at what an impact those books may have made on them. RIF brings reading and learning to children in need of help across the country by providing books and resources to reach children. If you would like to inspire learning with a charity that makes a direct impact, you can donate to the national Reading Is Fundamental Organization or find a local chapter to donate to directly.

We recognize that when we have the means to travel, we have the means to give. Please give to a charity cause dear to your heart this holiday season.

 

 

 

 

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Electric Art Outside Our Window

Energy Flow is a public art display by Andrea Polli and Ron Gdovic of WindStax, a Pittsburgh-based turbine manufacturer. We understand that of all the places in Pittsburgh a bridge named for Rachel Carson, an environmentalist who was decades ahead of her time, was the most appropriate. The installation of more than 27,000 multicolored LED lights hang from the bridge’s suspension cables. The lights correspond to the direction and speed of the wind. The power for the lights is supplied by 16 wind turbines attached to the arches of the bridge.

The Rachel Carson Bridge is very close to our apartment in Pittsburgh and in the evening we can sit on our couch, look out the window and see the graceful yellow suspension bridge reflecting the evening light. Now imagine that calm, relaxing sight dressed up in all those multicolored lights flashing and dancing in the distance. I, in my 100% personal opinion, find it a bit obnoxious. Amanda thinks it’s kind of fun; she crosses the bridge on her walk home.

I understand it is for a limited time and they want to make a point about renewable energy. I would just make that point in a less gaudy way. We leave you this short video to make up your own mind about this unique art installation. The video doesn’t really do justice to the brightness of the lights or how flashy it looks.

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Expatistan: Cost of Living Index

We think it’s pretty safe to assume our readers tend to be dreamers who are curious about the world. Maybe you, too, have dreamt  of a day when you can leave your life in the US behind and immerse yourself for an extended period of time in another place. If you already have, lucky you. Those of us who remain stateside and haven’t yet had the opportunity to make a long-term commitment to a new home abroad may not only have a lack of opportunity, but a little anxiety about moving to a foreign country. The first requirement you’ll probably need to tackle is a job. And while we can’t help you with that, figuring out how much you could live on is something we can help with (or at least show you to a website that can).

We came across Expatistan by accident and it was eye-opening. It’s easy to navigate and gives you the real information you need to estimate how much you need to make to live somewhere new. You can do a cost of living search that gives you data on what staples cost at the grocery store — e.g. milk, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, wine and bread. The cost of living section also covers rent, broken down by size and location, and they even have a line item for utilities.

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They also have categories like transportation (e.g. gas, monthly rail pass and taxi), personal care (e.g. medicine and toilet paper), and entertainment (e.g. movie tickets, dinner out, cup of coffee, gym membership). The costs are adjusted based on the current exchange rate and new input from site contributors.

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You can also do a cost comparison by inputting the names of two cities. We decided to try two big cities, Tokyo and New York City, and the result was rather shocking. The data points are clear: Tokyo (left) is cheaper than NYC, 17% cheaper. The common thought for most of us has always been Tokyo is super expensive to live in, and yet it’s cheaper than a place a few hours drive from our current abode.

The chart also breaks down the categories like food, housing, clothes, transportation, personal care and entertainment and tells you the cost difference for each.

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Sample Citation The chart also tells you how many people have submitted data and how consistent the data is and how many data points the system uses, to give you a little more faith in the numbers.

 

The site apparently makes it money by selling personalized Salary Conversion Reports they calculate based on your planned income, giving you a detailed report on how much of your money you can expect to see going out the door and for what.

We loved playing with this tool as we think of planning an escape… we aren’t ready yet but we keep dreaming. And maybe this will help your dreams become reality, too.

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Top 5 Movies for Travel Escapism

The past week has been filled with emotional ups and downs for many American citizens. Here in the Changuris household we don’t hide that we’re pretty liberal, so the results of the election really disappointed us. We, like many others were, looking for an escape. No, not a move to Canada (although Amanda was one of the many people crashing the Canadian immigration site on Tuesday), but more of a mental escape. We like finding our escape in TV and film (and alcohol — if we’re being honest) but we’re going to keep this post to cinema. We took a look at some of the great movies and one TV show that can help anyone escape from an unwelcome reality for a while.

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5. The Endless Summer
A classic documentary from 1966 about two surfers, Michael Hynson and Robert August, who go on an around-the-world surfing adventure. They chase the sun and warm weather around the world across the equator and back again. A instrumental soundtrack and a calm dulcet tones of the narration relaxes you like a day at the beach. You could put it on a loop and do housework; come back to it at any point during the day and just sit and watch the idealistic scenery roll by.

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4.Long Way Down
Ewan McGregor (yes, the dreamy actor with the amazing smile from Moulin Rouge) and Charley Boorman, a travel writer and motorcycle enthusiast, ride their motorcycles from Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa. On the ride-along we get to see amazing scenery and meet some colorful people. The two riders traveled through 18 countries on their trip in this six-episode documentary. You can watch one a night and imagine yourself just leaving everything behind and hitting the road, or many cases the dirt path that has only a fair resemblance to a road.

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3. Eat, Pray, Love
The first dramatization on our list is this adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Julia Roberts stars as Liz Gilbert, a woman who realizes how unhappy she is in her life and decides to travel as a means of self-discovery. She decides that she will travel to three places and have extended stays in an effort to challenge herself into determining what is important to her. Gilbert visits Italy, India, and Bali. The photography of the locations is excellent and is well worth a watch. The story is classified as a romantic comedy, but really doesn’t feel like it. I believe the “love” part is more about accepting one’s self.

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2. A Good Year
A Good Year is the story of Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), a London Banker who returns to his uncle Henry’s vineyard in Provence, France after his uncle’s death. Although he was the only family Max ever had, he and his uncle were estranged. Max decides to he wants to sell the estate as quickly as he can and return to his high-pressure high-rise living life in London. We watch Max take a journey through nostalgia as he remembers that every happy memory he ever had happened while living at the vineyard. The scenery is beautiful and peaceful; the comedic parts are pretty good too. It proves you can go home again, you just have to open yourself to the possibility.

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1. Gravity (I know you thought we’d say Under the Tuscan Sun….)
The story revolves around Earth (Ha! Space humor!). Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) survives a space disaster that leaves her floating in orbit. The story is a tense one and you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat the entire time as Stone faces a series of decisions all of which could lead to her death. We mention this film because of the breathtaking views of Earth. You get to see the Earth from above as a small planet in the vastness, where the political borders on our maps don’t exist.

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Do You Have a Receipt for That?

We put a lot of things in our pockets, especially when we travel.  I find when we are unpacking and getting ready to do a post trip load of laundry that my pockets are particularly stuffed with receipts.  So with that in mind let’s take a look at some of the slips recounting the real cost of things from our most recent trip to Florence.

  1. We stopped at the cafe on the corner of the Ponte Vecchio and Via Bardi, The Bar Ponte Vecchio, a couple of times for a cup of coffee. It’s a little cafe nestled between an old tower and the oltrarno side of the bridge. The cafe was a great place for a little morning coffee (espresso) and people watching.  You could watch locals and tourists getting ready for their days as they crossed back and forth across the bridge. As you can see a water and two coffees cost only 3,40€ ($3.71). All we had to do was find an open table and a waitress served us.
  2. Golden View Cafe was located almost directly below our apartment in Florence. The modern cafe with white walls and grey tables had a window-filled room looking out on the Arno and the old bridge. It was really convenient for a quick morning coffee and a bite to eat when we needed it. The light lunch we got one day, consisting of water, soda, a salad and sandwich only cost us 11,50€ ($12.77). When we just got coffee in the morning, espresso and croissants, the coffee only cost 1,10€ ($1.22) per cup and the croissants were the same.
  3. We visited our favorite cafe on top of the Rennaissente department store on Piazza della Repubblica, Caffe’ La Terrazza.  Along with a great view of the city, the piazza and the Duomo, we had two coffees and two croissants (one chocolate-filled) for a total of 11,00€ ($12.00).
  4. We had a wonderful long lunch on Piazza della Repubblica at Paszkowski, one of the long-established restaurants on the square. We were able to sit outside in the shade at a comfortable table  and watch the pedestrians and pigeons in the square. We even had a rather lengthy conversation with a pilot of a private jet about travel. The meal, of salad, pasta, wine and a decadent chocolate dessert set us back 43,00€ ($47.76), but was well worth the hour or more we had to sit and relax.
  5. The convenience of having a grocery store across the street was wonderful.  We visited it almost every day. The line at the checkout was always long and snaked through the store. But they were just busy; the five registers were always open and moving as fast as they could. The best part of this convenience was the wine. The selection was pretty good, with lot of chianti wines and many from outside the region as well. We got Santa Cristina, a Antinori wine, for 6,76€ ($7.51) and Chianti C. DOCG Peppoli (another Antinori) for 11,65€ ($12.94). Both were rather close to the price you would spend in a U.S. store for those wines. 
  6. Finally, you can’t go to Florence and not have gelato. We love the neon bright atmosphere of Festival Del Gelato down the street from the Piazza della Repubblica on Via del Corso. I had a medium and Amanda had a small for a total of 8,00€ ($8.89) and because it was gelato it was worth every cent, if not more.

We hope this gives you a little insight into the cost of some things in Florence. Until next time, ciao!

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Inferno, Starring the City of Florence

Inferno starring Tom Hanks

Inferno starring Tom Hanks

We know it’s more than evident, especially when reading this blog, we are obsessed with Florence, Italy. So when a major motion picture takes place in our beloved city we of course have to let our opinion be known. The film, Inferno, based on the book of the same name by Dan Brown, gave us one of the two things we had been hoping for in a film based largely in Florence: lots of beauty shots of the city.

We were able to see our beautiful city from amazing angles on a towering big screen. The shots of the Duomo alone are enough to take your breath away. The aerial shots of Piazza della Signoria make the often-crowded piazza look more open and grand than the way it appears on foot. Aerial shots of the piazza aren’t the only unique angles we get to see, the shots over the Boboli Gardens are also unique showing off its grand scale and letting you appreciate the intricacy of the formal garden.

The director, Ron Howard, even made sure to use the actual non-descript entrance of the Vasari Corridor in for an escape scene where our hero, Robert Langdon, enters in the corridor in Boboli and exits the into the Uffizi. Big bonus points for that.

But we were both disappointed when it came to the second item on our Inferno movie wish list — the film’s ending. No spoilers here, but Howard changed it, drastically. The entire meaning of the story changes and Langdon saves the day, again.

While we take issue with the ending, we have nothing but praise for the way our beautiful Firenze appears on film. The star of Inferno is truly Florence, and if you want to read more about the locations in the story take a look at our posts from a few years ago, Walking Inferno and Walking Inferno Part 2.

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A Visit to the Past in Pompeii

On this, our fourth trip to Italy, we started our planning with a mission: to finally make it to the city of Pompeii. The city was famously destroyed in the aftermath of an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was lost, buried under massive amounts of dust and debris, until explorers rediscovered the site in 1748.

So it was high time we paid it a visit.

As we started planning our trip, we found a tour with Walks of Italy (our favorite guides in Italy) that would take us from Rome to Pompeii and Positano and back — all in just one day. We knew it’d be a long day, but it would help us check two must-see areas off of our list (and get us to our favorite place — Florence — for the majority of the trip).

So that’s how we ended up flying into Rome, passing out for a long jet-lag-inspired nap that nearly ran right into the next morning, and then meeting our tour bus for the big trip south. It was a lengthy drive, complete with a visit to an Italian rest stop, but it delivered us as close to the entrance of Pompeii as you could get in a vehicle.

We walked right in and found the city’s famous death casts waiting for us on display. When explorers and archaeologists found empty pockets in the volcanic debris, they’d pour plaster of Paris into the openings to create casts of the organic matter that once filled the space. These famous casts show the final moments of many of the 2,000 people who remained in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The detail is stunning; you can easily see the drape of clothing and straps of sandals.

Amphitheater in PompeiiNext our guide — who was once an archaeologist working on the site — took us into the ancient city. Our first stop was Pompeii’s amphitheater, basically a small version of Rome’s Colosseum. The seating was separated into tiers to keep the wealthy and less fortunate residents from mingling. The upper tier was accessed using a staircase on the outside of the structure.

We walked down the street, noting the ruts left by heavy cart traffic and stepping across stone crosswalks placed so pedestrians wouldn’t have to step down into the filth just off the curb. We saw homes laid out with shallow pools in their entryways and beautiful gardens painted on their back walls to create the illusion of more open space. We also saw Pompeii’s fast food restaurants, which served food out of large jars built right into their marble-tiled counters. And, yes, we saw one of its infamous brothels complete with paintings that apparently served as point-to-order menus.

The forum in Pompeii

The forum in Pompeii

After winding our way down the city’s main thoroughfare, we found ourselves in the city’s forum. The wide open space has a view all the way to the volcano that buried and preserved it. Temples and municipal buildings define its edges.

We could have spent at least a full day in Pompeii — probably several — and been left wanting more. Two hours was an introduction, and a good one, but there’s only so much you can do in the span of a couple of hours. Amanda had done her homework, reading Mary Beard’s “The Fires of Vesuvius” before the trip began. It helped fill in more detail and satisfy our curiosity about the city we had waited so long to see.