Monday, February 28, 2005

Second week

Class began an hour late this morning – in fact it always begins an hour later on Monday as the new students arrive and need to be tested and placed before lessons can begin in earnest. (Recall when we started last week we had to arrive at 8 AM.) But no new students joined our level (and in fact one student, a sweet Japanese woman, found the going too difficult and opted to drop to the beginner level) so now we are down to just four: Susan, myself, Irene from Holland and Marlisa from Switzerland. One must admit this smaller student-teacher ratio is the way to go and our learning seemed to pick up as a result. So it’s just the four of us at least this week anyway.

It’s very cold here today and this morning in particular the wind was quite brutal and remained so all day. It would come roaring down the small streets inside the walls, which apparently were designed to serve as wind tunnels, and just tear into you. In addition, they turn the heat off in the school over the weekend and so it takes quite a while for the rooms to get warm on Monday mornings so it was also a bit chilly in class.

After class we checked email, and found the solution to a couple of technical problems we were having (OK Steve was having) with getting images uploaded as well as sending email from our normal addresses. Everything is fine now it seems – although I need to work out a glitch with the blog archives.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

What a weekend

Words, at least my words cannot begin to describe what Susan and I saw and heard this past weekend, but I’ll give it a try.

Our friend Roberto Bechi from Serre di Rapolano picked us up at about 8:30 Saturday morning and the three of us set off on one of the grandest adventures Susan and have had yet. Before we left the US Roberto and I had arranged to interview a dozen or so people in Tuscany, from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds, as part of a project to capture the voices of modern Tuscany on videotape, voices not often heard in today’s mass marketing of the Tuscan “brand”.

So on Saturday we headed for our first interview, which was in Prato, with Renzo. Now into his 80s during WW2 Renzo had served in the Italian Special Corps, and was taken prisoner by the British in North Africa, spending three years in a prison camp (he said he would have much preferred to have been imprisoned by the Americans since they were much kinder to their prisoners), and now he spends most of waking hours painting, painting and painting, and in fact every inch of wall space in his home is covered with one of his pieces of art.

From Prato we drove into Florence to our next interview, with Romano, also well into his golden years, who along with his brother run the last true “bottega” in the shadow of the Duomo in Florence, a fabric shop. I will not even begin to describe this truly Renaissance man who has so much passion in his heart for Dante, love in soul for the Etruscans and grasp of what is truly important in the nature of man and can find such a way of expressing this through his eyes. The videotape does not even begin to capture the fire of the eyes.

From Florence we drove for our final interview of the say to meet with Mauro in Col di Val d’Elsa. Mauro and his brother run a tiny little operation where they blow glass at a nearby cooperative and then return to their shop to create fantastic glass etchings which Mauro does in a workshop next door. We felt so privileged to see and hear such wonderful stories and to have met these three men. The Etruscan zest for life and indeed their understanding of what is truly important in life is patently obvious in the words, actions and eyes of these three men. And this is just the beginning.

On Sunday we drove to meet Roberto near his home in Serre di Rapolano and from there drove to our first of four interviews for the day, Elise, a former attorney who lives who now runs an agriturismo operation near Serre.

Roberto, Susan and I then went to Rigomagno where we interviewed Ilaria, a lovely woman who worked for many years in the publishing business in her native city of Milan, and then on to Lucignano d’Asso, a remote hilltop village of only 15 souls today (from more than 450 a half century ago), where we interviewed a wonderful elderly man named Araldo, who was born and raised in the village. For decades Araldo ran the local grocery store and after our brief chat with him he played a couple of songs for us on his harmonium (?). Although they had quite a few bottles of Brunello di Montalcino in the front of the store for sale and in the café (part of the store) we opted for an unlabeled 2-gallon (?) 15 euro “vino sfoso”(open wine, since it is not bottled), from a large stack in the very back of the store – the wine from Montcalcino that the locals drink and which we had for our lunch after the interview.

Our last interview of the day was with Giordano, at the Etruscan museum in Chianciano, where he works as an artist restoring and reproducing many of the archeological discoveries, which are then put on display in the museum. The museum itself is wonderfully laid out and very user friendly. Through the work of the local amateur archeological clubs as well as professional archeologists the museum is able to bring together a large number of fascinating discoveries, which in turn can help to explain the fascinating history of Etruscan civilization.

Friday, February 25, 2005

First week

Our first week of school is over -- every month, on a Friday, groups of students who have completed the longer course series put on short sketches and the school provides drinks and food in the school snack bar. Afterwards Sue and I came to the Internet Train shop on Via Panteneto where we could use our laptop and here we are talking to you, well sort of, right now.

Big weekend planned. We will be gone all day Saturday taping two interviews, one in Prato and one in Florence. Can't wait!

We'll get back to you we hope early next week.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

In the groove

Another great day at school – overwhelming at times but everyone seems to enjoy themselves immensely. Pretty unusual for most educational systems, I think.

The Vandenberg family will get a kick out of this: in class we often play word games to help us remember words, concepts, etc., and today we played a game where there was a list of categories and then we were given a letter and had to find words beginning with that letter for each of the categories. That’s right it’s the age-old Bernice game which as some of you may recall Steve does not usually play but which he had no choice but participate in this time! Anyway it was a bit different in that we were broken up into teams and instead of a set time to think about the answers, we began whenever one team was ready. We all had a lot of fun and there was plenty of laughter all around – in fact much of our day is usually spent in laughing and just having a good time.

After class we stopped at Conad supermarket in the city center for a few groceries, and then went to a little wine shop nearby where we had been once before and bought a few bottles including a vin santo dessert wine. Afterwards we walked to the central bus office where picked up a few more bus tickets to get us through the rest of February. Come March 1 we hope to start using our monthly bus passes – assuming they arrive on time.

And speaking of arrivals. the first of our two boxes arrived while we were at school and a call to FedEx informed us that the second will arrive tomorrow (each apparently cleared customs on a different day). The good news is that I have all my blank DV tape, my blank DVDs and my sound equipment. The one thing I don’t have for this weekend’s tape sessions are my tripods, which are in the other box.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Snow day!

Began snowing early this AM and turned to a very unrelenting storm about 7, very heavy and wet snow. Traffic was rather chaotic in our apartment complex, probably indicative of everywhere else, those few folks who had chains and could get them on were fairly successful in getting out but it seemed the majority stayed in. We left at 8:15 to catch the 8:23 bus, and found several locals waiting as well. Bit by bit the others drifted away from the stop as no bus showed up. We waited until about ten till 9 and then headed back home and checked with our landlord to see what was happening in town. (We could tell from our apartment window that there was very little traffic moving on at least one of the main roads around Siena.)

Alva, our superintendent, said that nothing was running so we decided this would be a snow day – in Italy of all places. About 10:30 we got restless and decided we would try to walk down a shortcut we thought we had seen the day before from the bus. Sure enough we found it and it got us down the hill and onto a main thoroughfare but the snow was really coming down, and to get to the city would have meant walking in the street with the trucks and the snowplows so back home we went. On the way we saw our bus and then decided to try and catch it the next time around which we did. (The first time I’ve ever seen city buses with chains.)

We got to school and found that only three instructors had showed up but one of them was Egina our instructor and we had a great last hour of work. After class we stopped at a local Osteria for soup and this is one place we can certainly recommend. The food was creative, delicious and very reasonably priced: “Boccon del Prete” (Via S. Pietro, 17, ph & fax: 0577-280388). Since this is near school we will certainly be returning for lunch occasionally.

We then headed back to get the bus home, returning to our apartment about 5. While we were doing homework (that’s right kids, homework, “comptiti”) Roberto called to ask if our boxes had arrived (they have my tripod and sound equipment). We have two interviews scheduled for Saturday, one in Prato and I believe one in Florence, the second being an interview with an organic farmer whom we will join afterwards for a trip to watch another organic farmer give him a lesson in how to prepare sausage (“salsicce”) in the old style and will film that as well.

After I got off the phone with Roberto I called FedEx to check the status of our boxes and was informed they should be delivered tomorrow. We’ll see,

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Snow

It snowed much of last night with thunder and lightening while we were eating, around 8 PM. Snowed again this AM as we headed into Siena for another day of school, the roads were very slushy and slippery as well and briefly heavy snow while we were waiting for the bus to go home. Still the sun always seems to return quickly and the snow doesn’t really last long on the ground here. Anyway, we are taking the bus pretty much every day now and it works out great – no jockeying for the diminishing number of parking spaces (or so it seems to us) and it’s pretty stress free and gets us right into the city and back home again in a flash.

After class we returned home and had antipasti and a glass of wine, did our homework and then it’s back into town for a 5 PM lecture at our school on the historical rivalry between Siena and Florence.

Dinner at home with leftovers and we tried a type of flat bean from Morocco. Very good and quite like the Italian flat beans which we used to see in New England some years back.

Monday, February 21, 2005

School begins

First day of school began on the heels of our very first ever snow in Tuscany. We woke up a bit after 6 AM since we had an early call for class, and after coffee and a light breakfast headed to the bus stop to catch the No. 1 bus into the city’s centro storico. Usually school begins at 9 but since this was the beginning of a new session, new students had to arrive by 8 in order to get oriented and of course to deepen our general confusion.

After taking our placement tests we found ourselves with a lively group who had been together for at least three weeks, so we jumped in apparently at week four.

Anyway, the class is made up of three Japanese women, two Australian girls, one Swiss woman and a young Dutch woman whose last name is "VandenBurg", and of course Sue and I. Our instructor for most of the day’s lessons is Egina (named, she says, after the small island directly across from the Greek city of Athens) and for our one-hour afternoon session we have Serena. One nice surprise came when we saw one of our two great instructors from 1999, Chicca, married now with a little “bambino”. She still has one of the prettiest smiles you’ve ever seen, and a personality to match. But then one of the first things you might notice about nearly all of the instructors here is just how friendly, genuinely friendly people they seem to be – and it must take an enormous amount of patience to do this kind of work for sure.

Anyway, the two Australians and two of the Japanese finish this week and, presumably, next week, we will a new group of students who have been assigned to our “level”.

Like most other language schools in Italy Dante Alighieri school (“scuola”) uses the immersion technique, wherein the only language spoken, even for beginners, is Italian. And since there is very little deviation from this approach one must focus intensely on what is going on in class all the time. Aside from the first day’s placement exam there are no tests and no grades. One just has to keep up since you are after all in Italy and cannot escape the language even if you were so inclined.

After an intense and head-empting first day we headed back to the bus stop after a stop at the UPIM department store and grocery to pick up a few additional items for the apartment and for dinner (like “carciofi alla romana”, artichokes in the Roman style). One positive note: they ran out of textbooks so no homework for us this evening.

Ciao for now.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Day one

We woke up to our first full day in Siena at about 9:30 AM and by 11:30 we are on our way to the COOP (pronounced, we are told, “cope”), Siena’s largest supermarket, which has changed quite a bit in the last six years. Parking is all under cover but now they also have a parking garage located above the market as well as the original one on the lower level (below the store), and there are a number of other small shops scattered on the periphery of the market itself. You get the shopping cart in the garage using a 1 euro piece to unblock the cart. They also have two sizes of carts to choose from as well, and we chose the larger (double or doppia) rather than the singola (single). I just thought you should know.

Since the COOP is not open on Sundays just about everyone in central Italy was there this morning but we enjoyed the madhouse effect since we were in no hurry. In fact by the time we left about an hour or so later, the garage was half empty (or half full for you optimists) and the checkout lines were noticeably shorter as well. One small glitch however is that the COOP does not accept non-Italian credit cards – or so we learned from our cashier when we tried to use our VISA card. (In the centro storico next to UPIM, a large department store chain in Italy is a good size Conad grocery store, also part of a chain and they do take credit cards. We will come to use this one often I think.)

Before we started shopping I noticed that there was a TIM (Telecom Italia) store right there so we could purchase additional minutes for our phone (our phone uses a TIM SIM card) since the instructions given us by Telestial before we left the US did not in fact seem to work to allow us to recharge our phone’s minutes. And neither did their instructions work for changing the voice prompts to English. And speaking of Telestial they failed us yet again. After I purchased 50 euros of minutes the fellow at the store told me – through the not-so-impenetrable language barrier – that it would take about 5 minutes for the new minutes to show up when I dialed the customer service number to check on my account. Well I called about a half later, before we left the store and nothing had changed. So I went back to the TIM guy after we checked out and before we left and he told me the phone was not registered. Now before we left, Telestial had sent us a packet of information, and one was a notice that we needed to email them with a copy of my passport to register the phone, which I did and assumed everything was fine. My words to you: never assume anything when traveling. Come to find out Telestial did not register the phone.

In any case the TIM guy registered the phone for us and we are now set.

So after the COOP outing we headed home and unloaded the groceries. We got a voice mail today from FedEx with a number we need to call probably – we hope – to schedule delivery of our boxes. Good news in any event that we’ve heard from FedEx at last. But now we need a fax number for them to send us a form which we fill out, sign and fax back to them, apparently so we can arrange to get our boxes. (In fact as it turned out we only needed to fax a copy of Steve’s passport as well as the tracking numbers. We did that Monday afternoon but as of late Tuesday we have not yet heard from FedEx.)

We had dinner with Roberto Bechi at Antica Osteria Da Divo (Via Francese), a wonderful ristoranti which we discovered back in December of 1999 and which, as it turns out is Roberto’s favorite place to eat as well. We met Roberto at 7:30 and spent most of the evening going over the details of our upcoming videotape sessions of local Tuscans. The general theme here is to show a side of the Tuscany few people get a chance to see, the folks who make up this wonderful country, who are behind the shops, the stores, behind the salespeople and promotional materials and marketers, the people who are the true heart and soul of this land, who are a very real slice of the history of Tuscany.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Arrival

We were met at the gate by a representative from Renault and after we signed a few more documents for our brand-new Laguna, “Johnny” gave us a quick tour of the car and we were off. (Short-term leasing is certainly the way to go if you are going to be using a car for more than two and a half weeks.)

We thought about taking a leisurely drive north from Rome to Siena by going up the coast (A12) instead of the Autostrada but in the end we opted to take the quickest route largely as a consequence of feeling somewhat tired -- plus we had to stop and get gas soon since Renault only provides enough petrol in the car at pickup (for safety reasons) and it was suggested that the nearest petrol station was on the ring road around Rome near the exit from Fiumicino so we off we went. After filling up we naturally got snarled in rush hour traffic – there is also major construction going on widening the ring road and we were pretty much in it up to our necks until we got off onto the A1 heading to Firenze.

We stopped at an Autogrill service plaza where we had a couple of panini’s and caffe and then stopped at another service plaza about a half hour later so we could take a short nap – really only a stretch and eye closure ceremony but it served to renew us for the final stage.

The A1 is in great shape, we made great time (of course the Germans and Austrians in their large German cars made even better time as they whizzed past us) and cost a little more than 8 euros for the trip; overall it took us three and a half hours but that was with three stops, two of which were perhaps about 30 minutes each.

We got off at the Sinalunga-Siena-Bettole exit and followed the signs to Siena. This section of the road has been widened to 4-lane since we were here in June of 2001, although a couple of short stretches are still “in process.”

We found Le Meridiane with no problem – the streets and turns came back to us rather quickly and as it turned out we had directions – and were met by Alva, the caretaker. She speaks virtually no English but is a very kind and amiable soul. Our packages from FedEx had not arrived but we set about unpacking what we had brought with us and then crashed for a couple of hours.

After a nap we changed clothes and headed into the centro storico (the historical center) of Siena for the rest of the evening. It was chilly but clear and we couldn’t help but comment on how at home we felt. Although it had been nearly four years since we were even in Siena and nearly seven since we had spent any time hear everything came back as it had been yesterday: the streets, the alleyways, the shops and ristoranti (some new some changed, some gone), it felt, feels wonderful.

We found an Internet café, part of the Internet Train, a chain of Internet shops throughout Italy, near the Piazza del Campo, (on Via Pantaneto, 54 (ph 0577 247 460) and after speaking with one of the very friendly and helpful staff purchased a user’s card (as students we received a discount as well) of two hours’ time (and which we could use throughout the country) and sat down to send off a few emails. Internet Train also has a bank of computers at Via di Citta, 121 as well.)

We then stopped at the Consorzio Agrario Siena (one of the two largest market inside city center) where bought some water, some bananas and some ricciarelli cookies to take home with us; tomorrow, Saturday we will do our major shopping. We then headed to an early dinner -- it was only about 7 PM-- at Osteria Le Logge (Via del Porrione 33, 53100 Siena, ph 0577 48013, email is osterialelogge@tin.it). We had eaten at Le Logge twice before, in 1998 and again in 1999 and not only has the food gotten better but the service was in a word, superb. All the dishes were very creative and well prepared.

We had a quiet walk back to where our car was parked, near the fortezza. Walking through the silent streets of Siena reminded both of us why we come back here again and again, you can almost feel your peace of mind. For myself, of all the places I have ever lived or visited, large city or small, I have never felt as comfortable or as safe as when I am in Siena. It sounds like a cliché but there you have it.

Travel day

We left early Thursday morning for Providence train station and after about a forty minute wait boarded Amtrak’s regional service 171 for Newark Intl airport where we arrived a bit before one o’clock in the afternoon. Although we were about 30 minutes late we still had plenty of time before our flight and it was a stress-free way to get to the airport. We had lunch, got checked in and went through security—which was also smooth for us since we were not one of those chosen at random for what appeared to be thorough examination, if you get my drift.

We boarded Alitalia flight 645 nonstop to Rome at 4:45 and took off about 5:40. (They only fly non-stop Newark to Rome on I believe Thursdays and Fridays at present.) A bit bumpy in places but we arrived on time at 7:40 Friday morning in Rome, and were greeted by sun, slightly overcast and warm temps, in the 50s. (We have got to start using metric on this trip and stop translating everything back into our former frame of reference.)

A word about Alitalia, more of a question really which someone reading this might be able to answer. Why does a major airline like Alitalia originating from a country noted for great food and wine and warm and friendly people, have what in our opinion is by far and away the absolute worst wood aloft – not to mention the plonk they pass off as being so-called wine? And mind you in our experience this is certainly not a recent development for the airline. And they hire such surly, unhappy attendants, who were, curiously nearly all men, nearly all of whom came across as if they should have been playing soccer for Milan or Roma rather than catering to a bunch of cattle shuttling back and forth over the Atlantic.

OK I’ve got that out of my system. In fact all that was just a minor annoyance and could in no way lessen the impact of where we were heading and what we soon going to be doing with our lives for the couple of months.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Today is the day

It's here at last. The day we begin our sojourn to Paradise -- well perhaps that's a bit strong but then again I'm not sure.

Every year millions of tourists flock to Italy in wave after wave seeking something, peace of mind or to touch a bit of the ancient past with which they are somehow curiously very intimate. Maybe, just maybe, a few (or more than a few) of those "lost souls" find that "something" in the form of a place which seems to embody the essence of Italy, the history, the people, the food, the spirit of the country and they cannot let it go at just a wonderful bit of entertainment for two weeks, eventually coming to the realization that they must go back again and again and again.

We feel comfortable there, in Italy, and even though we know very few people those few have been generous, gracious, warm and hospitable to a fault, and even though we have no family there and can barely speak a few words of Italian, in fact

"just to enough to keep the locals amused/
and ourselves confused."

So we head out today, stay with family in Massachusetts tonight and then fly out for Rome tomorrow. The bags are pretty much packed, the house is getting put in shape for our departure and we cannot wait to go.

Checked with FedEx this AM and our two boxes of household goods have arrived at Malpensa airport in Milan. If all goes well they may in fact be delivered tomorrow or Friday, but almost certainly before we arrive at Le Meridiane Friday PM. If all goes well.

And you know if it doesn't go well, it the packages get hung up in some bizarre customs thing or whatever, SO BE IT. It's a small thing really, annoying yes, but in the scheme of things and compared to what we are about to undertake really very inconsequential.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The school

In June of 1999 we took a 2-week Italian language course at the Societa Dante Alighieri Comitato di Siena and had a wonderful time. The method of teaching was very intense but equally fun as well. No tests, no grades, we just had to be prepared every day for class (which ran from 9-1 M-F) or we would have been hopelessly lost. We had to be very focused because from the very moment we walked into class no English, or any other language was spoken but Italian. And all of us were beginners, some 12 students in the class: 3 Aussies, 2 Swiss, 1 German, 1 Japanese, 1 Brit and 4 North Americans. The results of just 2 weeks of work were pretty amazing; we could certainly understand a great deal of the language, although our conversational skills were still woefully inadequate. It just whetted our appetites.

Anyway, we enoyed ourselves so much that we decided to do it again but we wanted to spend far more time learning the language so that we felt more comfortable in everyday, casual conversation as well as honing our reading skills. That meant looking for a program that was longer and would give us the skills we were looking for, in the right location (for us that meant Siena), and that didn't cost an arm and a leg.

In Siena there are two major universities: the Universita di Siena and the Universita per Stranieri di Siena (the University for Foreigners). While the latter school does provide significant language instruction, we wanted the more relaxed, easy-going atmosphere of a private language school -- no tests, no grades, no pressure just performance in the classroom. There are several smaller schools in Tuscany, such as the Cultura Italiana in the Maremma (they also have schools in Arezzo and Bologna as well) and Il Sasso in Montepulciano, but we wanted to be closer to the city so our choices narrowed down to essentially four: Dante Alighieri, the Scuola Leonardo di Vinci, Saena Iulia, and Center for Study Abroad.

Well we opted for Dante Alighieri. We have such fond memories of those two weeks in the summer of 1999, largely because of our two instructors, Chiara and Chicca were absolutely fantastic and made the experience truly memorable.

So it's off to the old school for us. The program we have enrolled in is a long-term intensive program of 20 hours per week (4 hours per day M-F), for 8 weeks. Afternoons and weekends are free. The school is located very close to the Piazza del Campo and have upgraded their facilities in the bargain, adding a snack bar and Internet access terminal as well.

If you are looking for programs in Italy and haven't yet quite decided where you might want to be located, consider starting with the Study Abroad website. They have an extensive listing of schools, including North American university study abroad programs, with very brief descriptions and links to their respective websites. Most importantly they do provide locations to help you narrow your choices. Also take a look at Shawguides for language study.

As for study materials you might want to check out Multilingual Books where they offer software for your computer to help in studying Italian, and there's Transparent Language who also offers a wide variety of software as well.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Details, accommodations

Staying in Italy for three months presented us with quite a challenge. On the one hand we were fortunate to be staying in one place, in this case in Siena for 8 weeks, but that meant it would be doubly difficult to find a place we could call home and yet not pay the normal tourist rate.

While there are a great many rentals generally available for the tourist in the Siena area – it is after all on the very edge of Chianti – the cost for two months of a modest apartment would have been astronomical. We were not privy to the local classifieds, and we did not attempt to go through a local broker. Even brokers in the US were unable (or unwilling) to help us find a place to fit our needs at a discounted cost for such a long rental period. So, given our limitations both in language and units available in the area we quickly became aware of the hurdles facing us in our search.

Although the language school we would be attending is located inside the city walls and not far from the Piazza del Campo, we ruled out staying inside the "centro storico”, the historical center, since few long-term rentals were available to us and what we did find were very expensive.

In 1999 Sue and I took a 2-week language course in Siena (from the same school which we will be attending this winter and spring) and stayed in a wonderful apartment just a short bus ride from the city center. The name of the complex is Le Meridiane and we had such a wonderful time that I have actually recommended this place at least once on my Siena website. So we contacted Le Meridiane last summer and eventually negotiated a discounted price for our 8-weeks stay, as it turns out in the very same apartment we stayed in back in 1999: 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a small but nice kitchen (none of the units have ovens) and a wonderful little terrace – great for doing homework and sipping wine in the afternoon, assuming the weather cooperates. They have ample parking and a bus stop not 100 mts from the apartment.

But Siena only accounts for slightly more than two-thirds of our trip, from February 18 to April 16. What’s next?

After school we head south for sunny Sicily! We hope to stay somewhere south of Naples for one night before continuing on to the small town of Villa San Giovanni, just north of Reggio di Calabria, where we will take the short ferry across the Straits of Messina to Sicily. From there we drive west to the other side of the island, to our apartment near Scopello, west of Palermo on the Golfo di Castellammare. We found this place online at Authentic Sicily, run by Gary Portuesi who lives in New York but still has family contacts in Sicily, which he puts to good use. We will be in Scopello from April 17 until April 24.

After a week spent in the sun we head back across the Straits of Messina and have several days to linger on our drive to northern Italy. On April 27 we check into our apartment at an agriturismo (working farm which rents out rooms and/or apartments) called Le Sorgive near Solferino, just south of Lake Garda and a bit west of Verona, just inside of Lombardia across from the Veneto. We found this particular rental in Karen Brown’s guide to B & Bs, like Rick Steves one of the more reliable guidebooks for places to stay in Italy. After a week at Le Sorgive we leave on May 4 head to Lake Orta, located northwest of Milan and just west of Lake Maggiore (where we stayed in September of 2001) for our final two nights of relxation and contemplation at the Hotel Villa Crespi in Orto San Giulio before catching a Delta flight out of Milan on May 6.

But I really don’t want to talk about leaving Italy.


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Details, the car

So we've got the Home Front ready. And we now have an Italian phone number in place and a phone to go with it. Today we just received the documentation in the mail for our car.

Early on in the planning stages we vacillated over whether to use only public transportation or to rent a car part of the time and rely on public transportation part of the time or to have a car the entire time. As our itinerary came together -- a week in Sicily and then Puglia and about 9 days in northern Italy) it became apparent that we were going to be traveling one and half times the length of the peninula. A car for the entire trip won out. Still, we do plan to use the local bus service in Siena. As students in Siena we qualify for monthly bus passes which we will use regularly since the local bus stop is not 100 meters from our apartment. But as Americans and from the midwest to boot we have become spoiled in the belief that we need a car.

As it turns out, however, we do need a car, since we will be spending a fair amount of time traveling even during our 8 weeks sojourn in Siena. We will be teaming up with Patti and Roberto Bechi (they live in Serre di Rapolano not far from Siena) to capture a number of oral histories on videotape. Patti is originally from the US and Roberto was born in Siena and works as a tour guide specializing in small tours of Tuscany rarely experienced by the harried tourist. We first met them in 2001 after reading about Roberto in a Rick Steves' guidebook. (Subsequently Roberto has been in a number of Rick Steves' travel shows for PBS.)

Anyway, the plan is to focus on a small group of Italians: artisans, organic farmers, war veterans, who Roberto has come to know over the years and put their stories together in a collection of Tuscan lives rarely seen by most Americans. A glimpse of the Tuscany little noticed as tourists fly from Florence to Siena to San Gimignano to Rome to Venice and on and on. . . But more of this later.

The fact is a car will definitely be necessary.

Since we were looking at 78 days a car rental agency was out of the question mainly for one reason: cost. It turns out, however, that Renault and Peugeot (through Kemwel) both have short-term leasing programs where you actually purchase a new car, keep it for a minimum of 17 days (the longer you keep it the better the overall cost though) and return it when your're finished. Insurance is included with zero deductible (very important) and unlimited mileage.

We opted for a Renault Laguna 1.8 sedan for $35 a day. This is a midsize vehicle and Renault has a number of smaller models to choose from which are naturally less money. But we had to keep in mind a number of factors: transporting our bags was one and of course transporting people so a smaller car was out of the question.

That's right. We just got the news today that Sue's brother Dick and his wife Dorothy got a great fare on Alitalia and will coming over to join us for a few days in mid-March. So you see, we need the room!

And speaking of room our apartment will have plenty of that, and it was a place we felt comfortable in since we stayed in the very same apartment in 1999 when we took our first language course in Siena.

More of our accommodation and our language program next time. And our final itinerary.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Details, the phone

The phone came yesterday. It's a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone and according to one source "is the world's leading cell phone standard, which was first adopted in Europe and then spread throughout Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim (Australia, N. Zealand, etc.). This explains why the same cell phone that works in London also works in Johannesburg, Beijing and Sydney. The United States however did not standardize and it was left to the competing wire carriers to create whatever standard they wished." Unlike in the US which requires service contracts phones in Italy are essentially "pay-as-you-go", using SIM cards.

And what, pray tell, is a SIM card? It is a "Subscriber Identity Module card - a small printed circuit board that must be inserted in any GSM-based mobile phone when signing on as a subscriber. It contains subscriber details, security information and memory for a personal directory of numbers. The card can be a small plug-in type or sized as a credit-card but has the same functionality. The SIM card also stores data that identifies the caller to the network service provider."

I have come across at least two companies that can provide you with both an unlocked GSM phone and a SIM card tailored to fit, as well as additional overseas phone service. There is Cellularabroad.com and Telestial.com and both appeared to have good reputations. (I came across their names at Slowtrav.com and in the magazine Transitions Abroad.) We used Telestial to acquire not only the phone but the SIM card as well. After spending some time online researching this whole thing we settled on Telestial since they seemed to have the slightly less expensive program and a better selection of phones. My main concern was to find a phone that had an integrated camera (don't ask me why) and especially Bluetooth wireless technology to help expedite moving my addresses from my computer to my phone. We settled on the Sony Ericsson z600 phone. The Bluetooth worked like a charm and allowed me to easily move any of my addresses from my Apple laptop to my new phone.

You could buy an unlocked GSM phone from any number of other vendors online (unlocked simply means it can be used with a SIM card anywhere in the world without any special modifications to the phone's software) but be careful. You might save a bit of money but, as in most other things, particularly when you're traveling, the key issue is customer service as well as phone availability, so don't be swayed by price. Go with a tested and reputable vendor.

So there you have it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Details, or homeland security

The closer we get to Italy the more we come to realize we are going to be gone for nearly three months -- not three days, not three weeks but three, count'em, three months. OK eleven weeks actually, or just about 78 days.

Still, it continues to surprise me how ready we are. Financial details are pretty much in place. Tax returns will be filed before we go, and we will be paying our bills online and relying on our credit cards and ATM card to cover everything we need while traveling. Our health insurance will cover us abroad, our wills are up to date, power of attorney signed, and the car is taken care of: Sue's brother Dick will drive it while we are gone. Heidi Levins will check on the house regularly and if anything needs to be done she will contact either Dick in Massachusetts or Steve Ballard in Rutland. Steve has done a great deal of remodeling for us over the years and has been kind enough to be the point man in case any home emergency needs to be handled while we are in school in a land far, far away. Our mobile phone service as well as our cable modem will be in vacation mode while we are gone as will our trash pickup. Papers are cancelled and we let just about all of our magazine subscriptions lapse. Mail will be forwarded to Dick and Dorothy and Dick will tackle the chore of keeping an eye out for anything important.

After all we're not going to the far side of the moon.

Next, more details. Of course.