Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween

Saturday

As we had planned we went back to Castelvecchio for dinner Saturday evening. Although located not far from the more frequented areas such as the Duomo and the Campo this is in fact one of the oldest parts of the walled city of Siena and even its name attests to the fact that at one time a very old castle stood on this hill. The food was very good, wines delicious and all very reasonably priced. One that we recommended after having lunch here last March and can certainly recommend after having dinner now as well.

Sunday.

Another beautiful warm and sunny day in Siena, although Susan chose to stay in for much of it and work on her herbal DVD course while I went out to take pictures. The city is literally crawling with tourists right now – and most of them Italian. Monday is Halloween, a US festival that is starting to take some root here apparently although trick or treating I don’t think has caught on yet if it will at all. No it’s the costumes for the kids and the partying, which is the central attractive feature. And to top it all off Tuesday is All Saints’ Day, a major national holiday in Italy so it plans to be a rather quiet time for us I’m sure.

Monday.

Notwithstanding all the festivities we had arranged with the Patti and Roberto Bechi to take the train to Asciano Monday to have lunch. We took one of the new “mini-train” which look like some sort of bullet train but much smaller (they have a driver’s cab at either end) and the entire train is essentially one car with flexible joints, a variety of seating arrangements, very nice WCs and quiet as well. Pretty cool. Another cool thing was we could see the Bechi’s house from the train just as we were entering town. Originally we thought we might grab something in town but when we got to Asciano and Roberto picked us up he said why not just go to their place where we could also talk business. So we headed north out of town and met up with Patti who had prepared a tasty lunch of salad, chicken sandwiches, fruit cheese and wine. We then spent some time hammering out additional details on the video interview project. Now that the Italian interviews are in transcript form we can get a much better sense of the editing approach to take, specifically in what particular threads or themes we want to emphasize as we put this thing together.

As Roberto had to come into Siena he was kind enough to drop us off. Before we said arrivaderci he asked if we would like to join him and Patti on Tuesday in scouting out a couple of possible new locations for their tours. We said YEAH and later Patti sent us a text message saying they would pick us up at the Porta Romana gate (about a 10 minute walk for us) at 9 am.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Big news at the end of week two




Monday.

We took the 12:20 train to Asciano where Patti Bechi met us and took us to their home about 7 kms outside of town in the beautiful “clay hills” (crete) and about 25 kms southeast of Siena. Patti had prepared lunch and we spent the afternoon talking about a number of things, although we focused most of our conversation on the ongoing video project.

We also spent some time going over a couple of the tape transcripts, which she is finalizing and we also discussed the possibility of adding several more interviews. Susan had brought along one of her teddy bears and spent the afternoon working on that. Meanwhile their youngest child Michele, who had worked very hard at playing after we arrived too a much needed rest and slept most of the afternoon.

At about half past 4 Patti and I headed into Asciano, leaving Susan to stitch and watch Michele. Patti had left her daughter Francesca at a friend’s house for the afternoon and picked her up and then after a couple of quick errand stops headed to the dentist. I was in first and out in probably four minutes ready to get back into the eating game. Impressively high tech equipment and just made me wonder how different are the dental practices in Italy than in the US. Anyway, Francesca then went in for her first meeting with the orthodontist and then Patti had her teeth cleaned so it was sort of a one-stop dentist day all around. We then headed back to their house to pick Susan up and by that time Roberto had come home. We said a quick hello to him and he took us both back into town so we could catch the train to Siena. We then took the bus from the station into town and went to the Cantina in Piazza where Aimone gave us each a plate of his wife’s pasta and homemade ragu, washed down with a glass of Montefeltro wine (barbera-syrah grapes). Sue and I then went to our gelato hangout where you can sit out on a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campo.

We had a pretty good day all around, I’d say, although we’re still no nearer a decision about the future. So be it.

Wednesday.

Well today is a repeat of yesterday at least as far as the weather goes. We woke up to serious fog both mornings, and which did not burn off for most of the morning and even then we got very little in the way of blue sky.

We had an interesting meeting with a local real estate broker, Sr. Lucarelli. His office is located very close to where we are renting and he had some interesting properties for sale. Anyway he was very kind and helpful, of sorts. It is clear that living in the historic center of Siena, or even close for that matter, is out of the question. The prices are astronomical, running upwards to 5,000-10,000 euros per square meter. But it was good for us to talk with someone who could give us clear and down-to-earth information.

Last night we experienced one of the real disadvantages of living inside the city walls – and made us further realize our money is better spent on a more tranquil location. Not far from where we are staying is the Piazza Mercato, in fact it is located directly behind the Siena city hall, which fronts the Piazza del Campo. Well beginning about 9 or 10 last evening (Tuesday) there was a rock band playing there and the noise was most annoying to say the least. Odd we thought. Why not have this in the soccer stadium at the other end of the city but of course that would be too close to the larger hotels. Well I think you get the drift here.

But this is probably just another indicator of how the Italians spoil their young – indeed one cannot help but fell during the evening passegiata or anytime certainly after dark that the young, and we’re talking about teenagers here, are oblivious to anyone else or anything else but their own immediate need and gratification. Not unlike teenagers everywhere else I suppose, at least in the West.

Thursday was a very BIG DAY for us but for Susan in particular. It turned out to be a beautiful day after the fog burnt off and we took the bus to Florence where we revisited Apicius, the Culinary School of Florence and where Susan enrolled for the next semester's professional baking and pastry program. Now we have to make work of getting a student visa and looking for an apartment in Florence for next year. I will commute on the bus/train to Siena as needed next year to work on finishing the video project. In the meantime we are enjoying Siena immensely and do not look forward to the move north but the opportunities are there I’m afraid.

We then strolled over the Santa Croce to pay our respects to the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini. Strolling through the Piazza della Signoria we came across a pretty interesting and oddly coincidental art display – statues of cows, which had been painted by various artists, much like what they have been doing in Vermont now for some years. Who knows who got the idea from whom but it was actually pretty cool.

Anyway Friday was another gorgeous sunny day with temps still in the 70s. Another night to cook at home – Thursday evening we ended up having soup and antipasti at Cantina in Piazza and had an impromptu tasting of locally produced digestive, most made from a variety of herbs. We hope to get out to Osteria Castelvecchio near where our old language school is located this Saturday. We had lunch there this past winter and it was very good so we thought we’d give it a try for dinner.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Week one

We’ve ended our first full week back in Siena and it seems as of we have been here for months. So much has happened or rather seems to have happened as we grapple with what we want to do with the rest of our lives.

I gave my first digital workshop on Sunday afternoon and then all day Monday and we spent most of the day traveling to a couple of my favorite photo locations: the “crete” (clay hills) southwest of Siena and then to the abandoned abbey at San Galgano southeast of the city. Although the weather cooperated both days we lost the sun on Monday. Still it was a good day of shooting all around. Meanwhile Sue spent much of her time walking, working on her two bear orders and continuing her herbal DVD course. So it was a pretty busy first part of the week for sure.

On Tuesday morning we got in the car – I had moved it to a parking space near the fortezza – and drove to Florence Vespucci airport to drop it off a day earlier than we planned since we no longer needed it and in fact it had become a liability with parking at such a premium in Siena.

We took the shuttle into downtown Florence since we wanted to check out the facilities of Apicius, the Culinary School in Florence. Before we left the US Susan had mentioned to me she was interested in finding a school in Italy that had a pastry program. I went online and discovered Apicius, which in fact has a year-long program just in pastry and baking (Click here to learn more about this particular program.)

Afteer we had a good (surprise) lunch near the Duomo we headed over to the school’s main office (it’s in two separate locations) and got a tour of the administrative and wine expertise program facilities. We then walked to the pastry and cooking facilities about ten minutes away. It was a gorgeous day and we had a very nice stroll through the backstreets of Florence. The school is impressive and the facilities certainly appeared up-to-date and serious indeed. The woman who we needed to speak with however was not available so we decided to return next week and meet with her. After we left the school and then took a late afternoon bus back to Siena, a trip of just about 75 minutes or about half the time the train would have taken.

During the week we also renewed our relationship with Aimone, owner of the Cantina in Piazza, a wine bar and enoteca just a few steps off the Piazza del Campo but a world away in many respects. The Cantina is one of the best places in the city to buy wine and to taste wine– the selection may be the largest outside of the official state-run enoteca in the fortezza, Aimone, who is in his 50s, along with his wife, son, daughter and staff Valentina and Alessandra are not only serious about wine but they are kind and generous as well. In fact, click here to read my lengthy review of the Cantina on my Siena website.

We have become fast friends with Aimone and Alessandra and so we have spent pretty much every evening having our aperitivi at the Cantina, talking and learning about Italian wine and food. This coming week Aimone has promised to show me how to prepare fresh porcini mushrooms – which are available right now – and Susan is angling for help on developing her baking skills in preparing Italian breads, cakes, etc. It should prove to be an interesting week indeed.

Speaking of food we have pretty much gotten back into our routine of fixing dinner at home – although we do have our antipasti at the Cantina. Anyway, with the fresh vegetables available, vegetables such as green beans and fennel and eggplant, it is simply too tempting to eat at home. And Sunday evening Sue fixed her very first dessert: poached pears in chocolate sauce, a Jacques Pepin recipe. And man oh man was that a delicious end to the meal! Bit by bit Sue is adding to her baking larder so that before long she will be ready to start baking big time.

Monday afternoon we will take the train out to Asciano (about a 24 minute trip) to meet with Patti Bechi, ostensibly to discuss our video interview project Roberto Bechi and I began last winter/spring but also so that I can go to her dentist and have a temporary crown re-cemented. Anyway Roberto is busy every day right now with tour groups so Patti and I will hammer out the details of how we want this project to evolve. I had called her Sunday morning to tell her I needed to see a dentist and she said wow her daughter had a dentist appointment the very next afternoon and could we take the train out to meet her and we could also talk about the project’s development? So things are working out well so far.

We have heard nothing on the pending home sale, which is good news, I suppose. And speaking of homes we are scheduled to meet with a real estate agent here in Siena Tuesday at noon to look at property. We need all the information we can get right now in order to help make any kind of intelligent decision about our future.

Right now our future is about as unclear as it has ever been. Each day we talk about where we want to go and what we want to do but no answers seem forthcoming. Wednesday we go back to Florence so that Sue can meet with one of the counselors at Apicius.

Who knows what will happen?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Back home? Well, yes

Friday.

We were packed up by the time we had breakfast and left our B & B a bit before 9 am for the tube station. We took the Piccadilly line to Heathrow but got off at Hatton Cross station just short of the airport where we took a shuttle bus to Terminal 4 to pick up our two bags left there when we arrived in London. We then took the Heathrow Express train to Terminal 1 where we checked in for our flight to Rome. We zipped through security and had a leisurely wait of about an hour and a half before our flight. We boarded on time but had a bit of a delay waiting for a couple to get to the gate – during which time the airline staff was looking for their luggage and the captain said over the intercom that whichever came first the people or their luggage off would be the determining factor in our departure.

We arrived in Rome a few minutes late after a rather bumpy flight over Paris but a beautiful cruise over the French Alps – hey life is full of tradeoffs. Anyway we landed just fine (important in flying) and picked up our car at Thrifty (which of course it ISN’T) and headed north on the A12 to Siena. We soon realized we were not going to make our original scheduled meet of 7 pm so we called Roberta to let her know we were running late. (Roberta was acting on behalf of the apartment owner, her father, who spoke no English.) Anyway right after we spoke to her Patti Bechi called to see how we were doing and we brought her up to date. She was planning on meeting us along with Roberta and her father. We pulled into the Porta Romana about 8 pm and soon met up with Roberta, her father and Patti. We took two trips into the city in Marcello’s car and left our dog of a Nissan outside the walls.

We all met at last at our apartment and what a place! It has plenty of room and the kitchen is absolutely fantastic. We all talked for a bit and they showed us the specifics of the place. I mean after all a space is a space. But of course this space is a BIT different. It happens to be located over the stall (stables) for the winning horse of the 16 August Palio. That’s right. After 44 years the Torre contrada (where we are living) won the Palio and there have been parties nonstop every since, although they officially end the 16th of October Anyway it didn’t bother us in the least and in fact only adds to the fact that we are home at last.

OK it sounds strange but we cannot help but feel that as we went about our shopping chores on Saturday. And not just shopping but visiting our regular spots: like the Bar Quattro Cantoni (4 corners) where everyone still remembered us and where continue to have our regular morning coffee, just like we did when we were in school. And later in the day when we went to Cantina in Piazza and renwwed our friendship with Airone and Alessandra and talked wine pretty -- much all in Italian -- and where Alessandra remembered us the moment we walked in the door. (The wine we tasted and talked about was by Jermann: we discussed which was better their Sauvignon or their Chardonnay.

We made two trips to Conad for groceries during the early afternoon on Saturday and one trip to the in-town department store UPIM for some household items. We’re settled in quickly and then spent the afternoon renewing a few other old friendships: places we have loved to walk and in whose company we have found many pleasurable moments. After an early evening passegiata and aperitivi at Nannini’s (two negroni sbagliati thank you very much: Campairi, Vermouth and Prosecco sparking wine) we headed back home to fix our very first dinner in our new apartment. After dinner and cleanup it was back out to watch the Torre festivities – their big celebratory dinner was held just a block over from our apartment – and stroll around the city and of course indulged ourselves in some gelato near the Campo.

A little after midnight the grand finale fireworks went off for the Torre celebration. Quite important for these people and gives one pause to remember that sometimes the things most important in life are those right in front of us, those things that are always with us every day, day in, day out. I guess it’s up to each of us to figure out exactly what those things might be, and maybe that’s the hard part.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The London Leg

We left Boston on time Tuesday morning at 8:15. Susan’s brother Dick drove us to Logan airport and we zipped right through check-in and security. Well OK some of the TSA people just HAD to see my apple Powerbook and they spent a few minutes ohhing and ahhing and running their fingers ALL over it. But soon we were free to go. We had a cup of coffee while we waited to board. The flight was actually quite enjoyable. British Airways could teach our airlines a few lessons in what customer service is really all about. Anyway, we enjoyed our flight – which was not full by any means – and in fact had a row of seats to ourselves. The food was good (!) and the time went by quickly.

We arrived at Heathrow a bit early but by the time we picked up our bags and cleared customs it was about 8 pm when we actually walked into the lobby of Terminal 4. We took some cash out of the nearest ATM and dropped off our two largest bags at Left Luggage and then grabbed the Heathrow Express train to Terminal 1. (The train actually goes all the way to Paddington Station, a trip of about 15 minutes.) We met up with Richard who has offered to pick us up and drive us to our hotel in South Kensington. Richard and I were in the same teaching practice group during my course at International House in London just this past September and we had become fast friends. He and his wife Pauline kindly invited me to their house in West Hampstead for dinner twice during school and it was near the end of our course that Richard matter-of-factly said he would come to Heathrow and pick us up.

So after we checked into our hotel – B & B really, the Aster House on Sumner Place – the three of us walked to a nearby Indian restaurant, the Khyber Pass, for a late dinner. The food was delicious and the conversation charming. Richard walked us back to the Aster House and we said goodnight. The plan is that he will return in the morning and give us a bit of a driving tour of central London and then we will be on our own. We also hope to see another friend from International House,, Trevor, later on in the day.

Wednesday.

After a wonderful breakfast at our B & B – in a small conservatory on the first floor of the hotel – we met Richard out front and headed off for a quick personalized tour of the London highlights. We ended up on the southern side of the Thames and parked just east of tower Bridge and near the Greater London authority building where Richard had worked when he “retired”. This structure is one of the more interesting architectural points of interest in London. The building is only about 10 or 12 floors high but is rather circular and each floor appear to be sort of “stacked” on top of the one below it and slanted a bit away from the river, giving one the impression of a building that is going to fall backwards any minute but of course it doesn’t. It is one of those structures you either like or dislike immediately. I seemed to strike us as imaginative, interesting and rather nice to look at. Richard informed us that with few exceptions the interior is all open, no office walls, that sort of thing.

We ate an early lunch at Brown’s right on the waterfront – a popular eatery Richard informed us and if the number of tables were indicative of how many they served at any given time this certainly must be true. Indeed there are a great many places to eat along the waterfront of the Thames, serving some tourists I suppose but it appeared mainly workers from nearby offices.

After lunch Richard dropped us at our hotel and after a short rest we headed back out, this time to the South Kensington tube station where we picked up our 3-day travel cards and then got on the District Line for the Embankment. We were scheduled – so I thought – to meet Trevor at the Starbucks next to the Embankment station at 4 pm. We waited for a half hour and since he didn’t show up I began to conclude that I had gotten the time wrong or something had happened. The weather had since turned rather nasty and Sue and I grabbed our umbrella and went on to Covent Garden, which was rather close by. Originally I had hoped the three of us would have done a southern bank of the Thames walk much like Trevor and I had done my last day in London after I finished the course and before I returned to the States. But since it had been raining steadily pretty much all afternoon – or at least since we left Richard – we opted to keep our traveling by foot to a minimum.

After a stroll around Covent Garden we walked through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus and down Haymarket street to Miso’s a noodle bar I found during my school stay ion London. During dinner I happened to check the phone to see if there were any messages and sure enough Trevor had sent a text message – I turns out I had indeed gotten the time wrong and we had missed connecting. He suggested we try and meet up the next day and that too is our hope. Anyway he plans to call us in the morning to fix a time and place.

After dinner we head back to Piccadilly Circus and get on the Piccadilly line to South “Ken” station. That’s when we discover that almost right around the corner from our B & B is the Lamborghini car dealer. The first time I have ever seen a car dealer with a sign in the door saying admittance by appointment only and please ring the buzzer. But the cars are certainly beautiful to look at and probably fun to drive. Susan asked what was it about guys and cars like this. I said, “hey they go fast, really fast and they look good, and did I mention they go fast?” It is a pretty strange phenomenon after all.

Thursday.

We woke up to rain a condition, which remained with us for the entire day. After a leisurely breakfast we headed off for the tube station and went to Westminister Abbey where we saw some of world’s most famous people – dead of course but hey that’s a small glitch. Elizabeth 1. Mary queen of Scots, Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, John Dryden, Keats, Shelley, D. H. Lawrence, Handel, Milton, Chaucer, a whole slew of Edwards but Edward 1 in particular (also known as Edward the confessor who built the Abbey) and Henrys. I don’t mean to sound flippant for surely we were awed by the fact that here were the resting place of some of the western world’s most well-known names, people who have had such an enormous impact on the smallest aspect of our lives though they have been dead and gone from this earth for hundreds of years. It was in fact truly awesome to be there.

Since there were very few places to eat near the Abbey we crossed the bridge to the south side of the Thames and found a wonderful Chinese restaurant in the Saatchi Gallery right next to the London eye (not a great day to be up there). After lunch we took the tube to the Tower of London where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Here was where modern London essentially began. William the Conqueror built the first structure here on Roman remains and of course the tower served as the strongpoint for the kings and queens of England for much of its early history. The place where Lady Jane Grey, Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn all lost their heads is a place of solemn beauty; the site of the scaffold is next to the small chapel where their bodies were once hastily interred. During the reign of queen Victoria, in the middle of the 19th century, the bodies were removed from their original burial spot, some attempt was made to identify them (and were largely successful with Anne Boleyn) and they were reburied under the altar in the small chapel.

The chapel itself harbored more than 1500 bodies in its crypt. We inquired from one of the Yeoman Warders (the caretakers of the Tower, often referred to as Beefeaters) as to where Sir Thomas More was buried in the chapel – Henry VIII had him executed in I believe 1483 – we were informed that he was in the crypt which was off limits to the casual tourist. But the fellow asked if we would like to see his tomb and we said absolutely yes we would. He took us down just a few flights of stairs and there was a wonderful niche in the crypt wall with a large casket toped by a small bust of the author of Utopia. In front were a few chairs arranged in several rows clearly designed for special prayer services.

It was well after 5 when we left the Tower and took the tube back to our hotel. We left the Aster House about 7 pm to head for an Italian Restaurant, Bertorelli’s, in northeast London. Richard and his wife Pauline were coming down from near Manchester and were to meet us at the restaurant for dinner. Their train ran a bit late but we savored a glass of Prosecco while we waited for them. We had a wonderful dinner and enjoyed their company immensely, talking about the vagaries of our lives mostly but laughing pretty much at the whimsicalities of human nature. Unfortunately they had to catch the last train north back to Manchester so we had an early night and said good bye. We will not see them when we pass through London in January since they will be visiting family in New Zealand so we hope to get together in May. But so much will have happened before then, who can say? At this point in our trip – and certainly in our lives as well we can hardly plan for too much – but that’s OK right now.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

We're off

Well we're about ready to go back to Italy -- Siena in fact. We leave 11 October and after a short stopover in London to visit a couple of friends we're off to Siena until the end of the year. Then it's back home to visit family for a couple of weeks and back to Siena for who knows how long or what we will be doing but whatever it is it will be in Italy. Stay tuned. Details to follow.