Trang's blog: When in Rome, don't be surprised if you see the pope - - The News for South Mississippi

Trang's blog: When in Rome, don't be surprised if you run into the pope

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By Trang Pham-Bui – bio | email

"Do you have an audience with the Pope?" my teenage son asked me teasingly.

"Yeah, right. We'll be lucky if we catch a glimpse of him in his window," I responded sarcastically.

We had that conversation as my husband Ngoc and I prepared for our first big overseas trip together. Our dream vacation to Italy was filled with the usual jitters: How would we get around? What if we can't understand the language? And what about all those warnings about pickpockets and purse snatchers? Then there were worries about leaving our 16-year-old son in charge of running my husband's grocery store, taking care of his grandmother and shuttling his three siblings to work, piano lessons, church and so on.

After a long, rough flight, we landed in Barcelona, Spain, and immediately went sightseeing. We walked through the downtown area and happened to run across a spectacular water fountain display. The gushing water came complete with synchronized lights and music. We wanted to try out the local cuisine, so we found a tiny cafe. Over there, fries are smothered in mayo. We opted to dip ours in boring ketchup.

We didn't have any communication problems at all, because quite a number of people spoke English in Spain. That helped us a lot, because we asked around and found a tram to the Sagrada Familia, a Catholic church that has been under construction for the last 150 years. The masonry, architecture and artistic details were quite spectacular!

The next day, we boarded our ship and started our cruise along the Mediterranean. Our first stop was Monte Carlo, Monaco, where magnificent yachts lined the harbor and gorgeous homes graced the water's edge. Ngoc and I didn't bother visiting the usual sites, like the cathedral where Prince Ranier married Grace Kelly or Cannes, known for its movie festivals. We just sat in front the famous Monte Carlo Casino and marveled at the luxury cars and extravagant lifestyle of the rich and not-so-famous. When we tried to enter the casino, the guards told us the tour would cost 10 euros. No thanks. We have our own casinos in south Mississippi.

Our second port-of-call was Livorno, Italy, where we took a bus to Miracle Square. We stood in amazement in front of the leaning tower of Pisa. The structure is under restoration right now and it looked more beautiful in real life. While there, we met two couples from San Jose, California, and became instant friends. We spent a lot of time together the rest of the cruise, and they've already invited us to visit them in California.

Being Catholics, Ngoc and I really looked forward to seeing Rome. When the day came, we boarded a bus for a two-hour ride to the Vatican. Our guide told us that the day was a Roman holiday, so some sites and streets were closed and traffic would be heavier than normal. What a big disappointment! When we arrived at St. Peter's Square, we suddenly noticed a huge crowd. There must have been about a million people.

Then Ngoc exclaimed "Look, there's the pope mobile!" To our surprise, Pope Benedict XVI was arriving for an outdoor service. We managed to snake our way closer to the VIP section and watched in amazement as the pope delivered a homily and gave everyone a blessing.

When I was in college, I saw Pope John Paul II in New Orleans. I never imagined that I would get to see another pope in person. Being in the presence of his holiness was definitely the highlight of our trip. Wait until the kids hear about this!

We also wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, but the line was too long...we're talking Disney length. A young man stopped us on the street and offered to give us a tour of the Chapel for only 30 Euros. We took the risk and gave the stranger our money. The risk paid off. The price not only covered our ticket to enter the Chapel, our female guide bypassed the long line and took our group straight inside.

She explained every detail of every painting from Raphael to Michelangelo. When we entered the Chapel, we just stood there in awe. The famous ceiling painting was absolutely stunning! It was so surreal standing in the same place where Cardinals would gather to decide on future popes. We even saw the Cry Room, where the pope would enter after being chosen.

The rest of the trip had its share of surprises. At Naples, we woke up to a lovely view of Mount Vesuvius. On shore, we had to try the pizza. After all, Naples was the birthplace of the famous dish. It was the best pizza we ever tasted. Our waiter Antonio told us the secret was buffalo mozzarella cheese, only available in Italy.

When I mentioned that my husband sells pizza (the frozen variety) in Mississippi, the waiter shook his head and said "No, no, no. You need to make REAL, fresh pizza." So he wrote down the recipe. I have yet to try it at home. (I have been known to burn cookies, remember?) And when I asked him if his chefs actually toss the dough into the air, he told us in that wonderful Italian accent, "No, that's only for show offs. We do it if the tourists ask."

Our final stop was Palma de Mallorca, Spain, an island known for its famous pearl factories. Ngoc and I decided to just tour the historic Gothic Seo Cathedral, with its large collection of fine paintings. The landmark took 300 years to build. It was designed by the famous Antonio Gaudi, who also designed the Sagrada Familia church I mentioned earlier.

As we were leaving, a priest came up to us and started sharing stories about the church's history. His personal reflections were much better than any description in those tour guide books. He even gave us a special blessing as we said our goodbyes.

Ngoc and I have never walked so much in our life. At home, I barely made it halfway up the Ocean Springs-Biloxi Bridge. The walk was worth it, because while we were heading back to the ship, I bumped into a television news crew. I was so excited to see a foreign news team at work. The photographer didn't speak English, so I couldn't understand what story he was covering. The reporter told me she was too busy to take a picture with me. You know how those broadcast journalists can be.

Speaking of news, I watched the news in our cabin every night to keep up with the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf. My thoughts and prayers were constantly with my kids and the people of south Mississippi. Even though I was thousands of miles away, the news kept me in touch with home.

We spent our final night in Barcelona. Our hotel was right across from the Cathedral. The timing was perfect. We celebrated Sunday mass in Spanish, then toured the grand structure. When we emerged, we noticed a large crowd had gathered outside. Yet another surprise! There was a street parade, complete with giant dancing dolls, music, miniature floats and loud cannons. Talk about ending our trip with a bang!

Needless to say, our European adventure began with all sorts of anxieties and uncertainties, but it turned out to be the best experience ever. The journey opened our eyes to a whole new world outside of Mississippi. It made us respect other countries' efforts to preserve their history, because we've lost so much of our past in Hurricane Katrina.

We loved the people, architecture, and the food. However, the cramped living conditions and hectic traffic in certain places really made us appreciate our life in the U.S.

We also learned that when it comes to overseas trips, it's best not to plan too much. When in Rome (or anywhere else in Europe), just go with the flow. It's the unexpected encounters along the way that will give you endless, amazing memories to share.

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