There are lots of pigeons in St Mark’s square in Venice and there are still places where you can purchase feed for said pigeons. And you can pay someone to take a picture of you feeding the pigeons while the pigeons swarm all around you in search of food. Feeding the pigeons is not for the faint of heart, or those with absorbent clothing. If I were to attempt this I’d don a hazmat suit with level 4 bio hazard filters. I do not need a case of bird flu. Or a shoulder full of bird poop.

The screams of the pigeon feeders echoes across the square. There is a woman, dressed in a mini skirt and boots that has pigeons roosting in her hair and all over her expensive looking jacket. The man of our party manages to have a quick conversation with a pigeon who is either shy about feeding frenzies, or is slow in the head and can’t figure out where the food is.

Milan is where the trip turns more real. The weather changes to Portland weather, dark, wet and cold. Good for us we have our honorary webbed feet and Goretex. We wander the streets of Milan in comfort. It’s a big, big city. Or it seems that way because we have been driving around in the suburbs with my Sweetie’s friend C. C apologizes for the rain and I keep explaining that it’s just like home, we are used to it. I don’t think she believes me that it’s really that awful anywhere else.

In the foreign films of my youth there were always shots of itty bitty European cars driving in madcap fashion around the streets of the city. The roads are narrow. The traffic signs a formality only. The heads of the passengers in the cars swaying to and fro as the car darts through traffic. There is always some funny music playing in the background to add to the madcap air.

I can tell you, that it seems a whole lot more madcap on screen than it does in real life. C is not a bad driver, and the car is not small. But there are Oldest, Youngest and me swaying from side to side in the back seat wishing for some funny music to distract us from the idea that death is imminent. But we survive to see the sights.

First, the Milan cathedral, whose gargoyles spit rain water at us. It’s also where I almost strangle an Asian couple for trespassing into the “Do Not Enter” area of the sanctuary, and then almost certainly earning a lightning bolt and quick trip to hell by sitting down in the confessional and taking a picture. God is merciful and ignores the trespass. That’s why God is God and I’m just me.

Next we visit a castle. A real castle that is in perfect condition. It has turrets and a MOAT. It’s too cold for alligators in the moat, but it’s the coolest thing anyway. Then we head off to a church that has been in the same place since 349 AD. Yeah, three millenia. It makes my little art history geek heart beat wildly. Milan is new territory for me. I’m as new to it as the others and it’s the sort of stuff I love.

We spend Thanksgiving with C. She makes tasty food whose name I can’t pronounce or spell. We stop at a supermarket to pick up the makings before hand. I’ve seen signs for the store in almost every city. I’ve been calling it Eye-purr-Co-Op (Ipercoop). C pronounces it Eeepercoop like some adorable Italian hiccup. The cheese aisle is mind boggling, the bread aisle even more so. The deli counter is the size of Rhode Island and has at least 4 million kinds of cured meats and olives. Across the top of the counter hang whole cured pork shoulders in case you need to feed half of Italy for a party. Oldest convinces me to buy some of the ricotta cheese which she eats with a spoon straight out of the container. Want ultimate proof that the food in Italy is stellar. I eat sardines, on bread, more than once.

We are sad to say good bye at the end of the evening, but we have a long journey ahead of us, which gets a little bit longer. In Italy you leave your room key with the front desk. When we arrive back at the hotel, the key we dropped off when we left after breakfast has gone missing. There is a front desk printer that has jammed and is merrily beeping away as it tries to print on the roller. A gentleman shows up behind us to check in – but there is no reservation under his name.

To say the least we are worried. I send the girls – who have a key – up to their room. I then begin speaking toddler Italian to the night desk man. I ask him about un’altra chiave (the other key)? He brightens up like I’ve just told him how to meet the girl of his dreams. He peppers me with questions about where this other key is. I realize I’ve made a tactical error. Eye-O no-know-o where-o el keyo is. I explain that I can speak some Spanish, and I do. I let him know that we left the key this morning after breakfast and can he please call someone to ask about where a spare might be. The lights go on, the printer beeping mercifully stops. He makes a phone call and pulls out spare keys one and two. We won’t be sleeping in the lobby tonight.

The next morning I see the gentleman who had no room. My magic Spanish must have worked for him too. He looks rested and not at all like a man who slept in his car. We have breakfast and speak about Hillary Clinton with the hotel manager. It’s a sobering conversation and one I think about over the next few days. That exchange serves to bring us back to reality. People have the same struggles in Italy that we do in the US with jobs, and not enough time to enjoy life and bad leaders. I’ve known this, but it really sinks in.

Tomorrow it’s a train through the Alps to Zurich and then home.