Thursday, October 2, 2014

Trafalgar Tours Italian Scene Review

The Italian Scene Tour by Trafalgar is a great way to see different regions of Italy and in a short time: Rome, Sorrento, Assisi, Venice, Italian Lakes and Florence. It's a whirlwind tour criss-crossing Italy with stays of mostly one night in the cities visited. Our tour director, Federica was amazing and teamed with a skillful driver (Salvo) they made our tour run smoothly.

Plan to spend 15-20 euros for dinner on the nights that it isn't included (included dinner at the hotels was not impressive) and around 10 euros for lunch. Buffet breakfast is provided every day. Also, hotels are on the outskirts of the towns listed so if you want to do any additional sightseeing, you will have to pay for a taxi or if time allows take a local bus.

Many in depth local tours are optional and an added expense (you'll get a list of these with your travel vouchers).

Another additional expense is the airport transfers. Although these are offered. There are few times that you can take them to and from the airport. If your flight doesn't coincide with these you will have to pay for a taxi (around 50 euro). As we were in Rome a day earlier transfers weren't available to us.

Tour Day 1 -  Travel Day
We chose to arrive a day early in Rome and what should have been a travel day was our first day in Rome. The hotel allowed us to check in as soon as we arrived (8:30 a.m.)  We headed to the bus stop and found our way into city. I would highly recommend doing this and making the most of your time in Rome.
As with most of the hotels on this tour the Ergife is not close to the city center (over 8km). Coming from the hotel, we turned right at Via Aurelia and walked until we came across the McDonald's sign (about 20 minutes). We found public transport relatively easy. The Metro is a good place to get tickets for both bus and subway. (You will need to take 3 or 4 escalators down to get to the ticket machines). The 46 bus takes you to Piazza Venezia (make sure you take the bus going in the right direction).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

George Clooney Wedding

We were in Venice the day before George Clooney's Wedding, and although we didn't see him, I found out later he was staying in  a hotel on Giudecca Island where we went for a tour of a glass factory. The following day the tour we were on took us to Lake Como (Bellagio). Apparently, he has persuaded the local government to fine anyone coming near his lake home by either road or boat and tours are no longer allowed to take tourists past his house in Laglio. (Local swimmers are also banned from swimming less than 100 meters near his house).

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Train

If you've read The Monuments Men or seen the film, then you may be aware that Rose Valland played a big part in preserving art and artifacts in Paris. A 1964 film, The Train, staring Burt Lancaster, was based on Ms. Valland's book, Resistence at the Museum covering the theft of many national treasures which were on board a train heading for Germany. I found a copy of The Train DVD at the library.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter

The Monuments Men book by Robert Edsel (recently released as The Monuments Men Movie) was an interesting look into not only how The Monuments Men preserved and cataloged works of art, but the war itself and its twists and turns across Europe. Often fighting with their own forces to limit destruction of artifacts and precious historical buildings, the men were also trying to recover stolen works of art being hidden by the Nazis or shipped to Germany (The Greatest Theft in History). Degenerate works that Hitler hated are still being uncovered. There were many people who helped them with their cause. Rose Vallant spied on the Germans during their time in occupied France and was instrumental in uncovering thousands of works of art.

My thoughts:
The book was full of facts and stories about the WWII, but was easy to read and not dull by any means. The dedication of the Monuments Men (the story follows eight men, but there were over 300 men and women) was impressive. Their efforts, without any clear authority and some with lower ranks, saved many a cultural treasure from destruction or theft. The death and destruction throughout Europe was immense and so many landmarks were not saved although the Monastery at Monte Cassino has since been restored. 

This would make a great book club read. You can find more about the Greatest Theft in History here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stealing Lumby by Gail Fraser

Stealing Lumby is the second book in the Lumby Book Series by Gail Fraser. The first book, Lumby Lines is also the name of the local newspaper for this town of quirky characters. The story follows a number of the townsfolk and I did have trouble keeping up with who's who in the beginning. It was a cozy story, in a delightful setting with interesting characters and I found it somewhat similar to the Mitford series.

From the book cover:
Back in the 1950s, Lumby had a brief moment of fame when renowned artist Dana Porter made two of its picturesque barns the subject of his greatest painting. In Stealing Lumby, the town is jolted from its comfortable obscurity once again when the famous painting disappears and the national media comes a-calling in an effort to solve the mystery. Things go from bad to worse when one of the barns itself goes missing; some see dollar signs in all the attention but others just want to get things back to the way they've always been. There is, after all, the Summer Solstice Moo Doo Iditarod to plan for. All of Lumby's quirkiness comes alive again in this delightful sequel to The Lumby Lines. Faithful readers will recognize old friends, enjoy meeting new ones, and relish all the antics as the story unfolds-as pieces of the stolen barn show up in the strangest of places, a schooner goes sailing down Main Street, and the famous artist considers recreating his masterpiece in a way that amazes all.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Cane River by Lalita Tademy

Cane River by Lalita Tademy is the saga of a family born into slavery on the banks of the Cane River in Louisiana. I found it particularly interesting because a few years ago I visited Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches (pronounced Nak-a-tish) and could imagine the lives of Elisabeth and her descendants who lived in the same area.
But this isn't just any family saga, Lalita Tademy has uncovered her own family history and painstakingly researched historical records and family documents to put together this wonderful story that covers slavery, the civil war and eventually freedom. (The book has many pictures and copies of documents). Each of the women depicted were strong willed and determined to keep their family together. Although many children were lost to disease that was prevalent at the time, only one child was sold and later in life reunited with the family. Most of the family was kept together despite tremendous obstacles and eventually became free. It's difficult for me to understand that these women had no choices and were used at the whim of their owners and sometimes their owner's friends, who slept with whomever they chose, producing multiple children. But each of the mothers fought for their children's future, and managed to secure a home and land for the family.
One little tidbit I learned was that when slaves were freed  they could choose their own last name which I'm sure must make genealogy study difficult.

You can read an excerpt here.

This would make a great book club read.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Health Care Insurance Subsidies - Affordable Health Care Act

Like many Americans who were told that "If you like your health care coverage you can keep it" I thought I wouldn't have any problems, but apparently my plan didn't cover everything required by the Affordable Health Care Act and it was cancelled. I liked it - Obamacare didn't!

Apparently, all plans have to cover maternity and newborn care. Even if you are over 60 or a male, you still have to purchase a plan that covers maternity and newborn care!!!!!!!

So here's where the problems start if you lose your individual insurance.
You have 60 days to find new insurance otherwise you will have to wait until open enrollment which begins on November 15 for coverage beginning January 1, 2015. Aetna, whom I had insurance with and cancelled it without any notification, said they would be happy to offer me another plan at twice the amount of my previous one without loss of coverage. (They stated they sent out letters in April which I didn't receive.) Also, for coverage by the 1st of the month, you have to enroll in a plan by the 15th of the previous month or wait an additional month for coverage. i.e. If you apply by September 15, your coverage will start October 1. If you apply after September 16 your coverage will start November 1.

There are subsidies, but those are complicated too. You can read more about those here and there's a handy calculator on the Kaiser site where you can put in your income and personal information to see if you qualify. Subsidies for an individual are available for incomes between $11,490 and $45,960. Ironically, in some states, if your income is below that amount and below the poverty level you won't get any help. The Affordable Health Care was set up to encourage states to widen the requirements to qualify for Medicaid (Texas is one of the states that chose not to.) If for instance your annual income is $10,000 and below the poverty level you will have to pay the full amount of insurance unless you qualify for Medicaid in other ways (with a dependent). You can apply directly for Medicaid on the site.

To find out what is considered income you can view Questions and Answers here

On the Healthcare.Gov site you can also ask to view plans for your state and see what you will have to pay before and after subsidies if you qualify. Subsidies aren't available if you don't go through the Marketplace but don't let that discourage you from finding an insurance agent. They can offer advice, walk you through the process and answer any questions you might have. When you sign up through the Marketplace ( enter the agent's NPN (number) to show you have an agent working on your behalf.

Beware - If your income changes it could affect your taxes next year  if you have under-estimated or over-estimated your income and received higher subsidies than you are entitled to. Read an article about subsidies and the IRS here

Subsidies are actually Advance Premium Tax Credits and a way to get tax credits before you file your taxes.

And to add insult to injury, if your insurance company chooses to cancel your plan, and you can't find affordable coverage, you will have to pay a penalty for that privilege!

More useful information here with a chart showing poverty levels.

If you have any information that you can add to help others, please let us know in the comments section.

Below info. from site

Health Insurance Premium Tax Credit

Starting in 2014, individuals and families can take a new premium tax credit to help them afford health insurance coverage purchased through an Affordable Insurance Exchange (also known as aHealth Insurance Marketplace). The premium tax credit is refundable so taxpayers who have little or no income tax liability can still benefit. The credit also can be paid in advance to a taxpayer’s insurance company to help cover the cost of premiums. On May 18, 2012, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS issued final regulations, which provide guidance for individuals who enroll in qualified health plans through Marketplaces and claim the premium tax credit, and for Marketplaces that make qualified health plans available to individuals and employers. On Jan. 30, 2013, the Department of the Treasury and IRS released final regulations on the premium tax credit affordability test for related individuals. On April 30, 2013, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS issuedproposed regulations relating to minimum value of eligible employer-sponsored plans and other rules regarding the premium tax credit. Additionally, Notice 2013-41, issued on June 26, 2013, provides information for determining whether or when individuals are considered eligible for coverage under certain Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, TRICARE, student health or state high-risk pool programs. This determination will affect whether the individual is eligible for the premium tax credit. On May 2, 2014, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS issued final regulations on the reporting requirements for Marketplaces. On July 24, 2014, the Department of the Treasury and the IRS issued proposed, temporary and final regulations providing further guidance on the premium tax credit. In particular, the regulations provide relief for certain victims of domestic abuse or spousal abandonment from the requirement to file jointly in order to claim the premium tax credit. In addition, the regulations provide special allocation rules for reconciling advance credit payments, address the indexing in future years of certain amounts used to determine eligibility for the credit and compute the credit, and provide rules for the coordination between the credit and the deduction under section 162(l) for health insurance costs of self-employed individuals. Rev. Proc. 2014-41, also released on July 24, 2014, provides methods for determining the section 162(l) deduction and the premium tax credit for health insurance costs of self-employed individuals who claim the deduction under section 162(l).
For more information on the credit, see our premium tax credit page and our questions and answers.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough

I just started reading The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough (you may remember her from her well known novel, The Thorn Birds). At over 800 pages this is by no means a short read and added to the lengthy book are hand drawn portraits, maps (all by Colleen McCullough), a glossary and pronunciation guide.

The First Man in Rome begins on New Year's Day in 110 B.C. where Romans are celebrating the new year and two men have political ambitions to become The First Man in Rome. Hop on over to a blog review here.

Colleen McCullough's painstaking research is evident in the book where she gives details of life in Rome and the underlying battles for political recognition.

This is the first of a series.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

RIP Rosco

After 14 years with us, at age 16, our sweet dog Rosco passed away on Thursday. Anyone who has had a beloved pet knows how heartbreaking this can be. Rosco arrived on our front porch one day after wandering the streets for months and decided this was where he was going to live.

I hadn't wanted another dog after already taking in my neighbor's dog that they no longer wanted and being a single parent was worried about the cost of pet food and vet fees. Everyone else felt differently. My son pointed out that Rosco played with him and could even play soccer. My neighbor said he could sleep on the back porch and wouldn't have to be an inside dog. She offered dog food. Then one of the attorneys where I worked (a dog lover) offered to give me his monthly contribution, that he usually sent to the animal shelter, to help me pay for vet fees. How could I refuse? Of course Rosco was soon sleeping in our living room on a comfy bed next to our other dog.

A dear friend sent me this lovely poem and I picture Rosco crossing the Rainbow Bridge where his friend Sandy is waiting for him.

Heaven's Doggy Door
My best friend closed his eyes last night,
As his head was in my hand
The doctors said he was in pain
And it was hard for him to stand

The thoughts that scurried through my head
As I cradled him in my arms
Were of his younger, puppy years
And oh . . . his many charms

Today, there was no gently nudge
With an intense "I love you" gaze
Only a heart that's filled with tears
Remembering our joy filled days

But an angel just appeared to me
And he said "You should cry no more,
God also loves our canine friends
He's installed a doggy door"

Jan Cooper 1995

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Murder on the Isle of Capri

Murder on the Isle of Capri by Dr. Karen Donahue and Thomas Donahue is a fast moving thriller which takes the reader through Italy and bordering countries. This isn't the first book in the Ryan-Hunter Series, but I didn't find it necessary to read the preceding books first. As a professor of criminology, Karen Donahue takes us into a world of crime and intrigue. I liked the characters and it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat although the rushing around without necessarily developing the story did get a little tiresome. Of course, a tour around Italy is always a good backdrop for any book.
This was free for Kindle when I read it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A little piece of Italy for around $7,500 deposit

A home on the side of an Italian Hill in Sicily can be yours for $1.50 plus a $7,500 deposit (refunded after the house is renovated). Gangi is situated on the isle of Sicily which is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea. The Gangi Council are selling homes in the hope of restoring the 12th century village. There are a few stipulations, you will also be required to renovate the property within five years and pay legal costs.

The project will bring industry to the village as construction workers will be hired to renovate the homes.
Concerns about Mafia activity? Apparently there is no need to worry in this village:

"The Mafia exists, of course, but they are operating at a different level - they are interested in multi-million euro construction projects, not restorations like this," said Ms Wester. "Some people think that if you come here you'll see them walking down the street with guns, but it's not like that."

You can view a video about the project here

Friday, August 22, 2014

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

If you're interested in reading the classics, most of them can be uploaded to Kindle at no charge. (Books eventually become part of public domain) I had not read Frankenstein before, although I'm sure everyone is familiar with the name and the monstrous figure associated with it.
The book wasn't what I expected. Using the story of Prometheus, Mary Shelley sets her character, Victor Frankenstein, up for dire consequences resulting from his seeking power and knowledge. He tells his tale of regret over creating a monster.  It is thought that Shelley's inspiration for the Gothic novel may have come from Giovanni Aldini's experiments where he tried to revive the body of a hanged man using electricity. Have you read Frankenstein? What are your thoughts?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

1964 The [Beatles] Tribute

Last night 1964 The Tribute was performing at the Bass Hall in Fort Worth. Obviously this band is a hit in our area, as there wasn't an empty seat to be seen, and I can see why. They sounded just like the Beatles and their mannerisms were even similar. Their Liverpudlian accents are very reminiscent of John, Paul, George and Ringo although none of the 1964 band was born anywhere near the Caverns of Liverpool. The band members said they started the band as a lark, but it evolved and they later negotiated an agreement with Apple Corps Ltd. permitting them to perform their show around the world. If you like Beatles music and 1964 The Tribute come to your area, they're well worth seeing. It's a very entertaining show with lots of audience participation.

Friday, August 15, 2014

No Use Dying Over Spilled Milk by Tamar Myers

No Use Dying Over Spilled Milk is an Amish gem by Tamar Myers. Her character Magdalena Yoder is a feisty Mennonite of Swiss ancestry, but with family ties to the Amish community. When a second cousin twice removed dies in a milk vat, she feels obligated to travel to Ohio for the funeral where she finds that this isn't the first death in the past few weeks. Keeping her company is her wayward sister, Susannah who was once married to a Presbyterian. What ensues is an hilarious look at the local customs and events that ensue when Magdalena meddles with investigating a crime which has already been ruled accidental.

My thoughts:
I loved Magdalena and as it was written in first person the reader had a glimpse into her crazy thought process. The plot was well thought out and I also liked learning about the Amish and Mennonite ways. There were lots of quirky characters and many laugh out loud moments. Definitely an author I will put on my TBR list.