Thursday, July 27, 2006

New food, new bank, old duomo

OK the food first.

Wednesday night we met up with Melinda and Dave for dinner at Trattoria Cibreo, on via de’ Macci (right near the corner of Borgo La Croce). Back in the winter Susan and I had eaten at the Ristorante Cibreo with Nan and Jay who were traveling from Virginia. The four of us had such a great meal at the ristorante that night that Susan and I were determined to try their trattoria right next door – the same great food out of the same kitchen but significantly less expensive -- all of which by the way is true. In addition, they also have a Caffe Cibreo across one street as well as a dinner theater across via de’ Macci. (photo: detail from one of the doors at the front of the Duomo.)

Melinda suggested we get there early since they don’t take reservations and the trattoria only seats maybe 30-40 people max so we arrived at 7:00 pm just a few minutes after Melinda and Dave. After we sat down the waiter/maitre’d/head guy/only guy came to our table and handed us menus and we ordered prosecco all around. A few moments later they brought us four large white wine glasses filled with delicious sparkling wine and we knew we were off to a great start.

Throughout the evening we noticed that the majority of the clientele were tourists, or at least people of non-Italian extraction: French, British, Americans, lots of tourists to be sure. Yet the simple menu was in Italian only and the fellow who handled the entire room superbly with just one staffer to assist him, patiently explained each item on the menu to those who required it: in French, in English whatever; pretty impressive.

Our food was delicious: the first course (“primi”) of polenta for Susan and Melinda was creamy, buttery and ever so smooth and tasty, while Dave and I had a sformato of potato, rather like a soufflé I suppose and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. For the secondi or second course, Melinda’s pureed salt cod on toast was scrumptious and Susan’s cod stew was equally delicious. Dave and I both had veal but prepared differently. His was more of a roast while mine was thin slices with a tuna sauce with capers (“vitello tonnato”) and served cold. Outstanding.

The waiter suggested a wine from the producer Il Grillesino in the Maremma in southwestern Tuscany, a wine similar to Morellino di Scansano which was well-paired with everything.

The portions were perfect as well and the prices reasonable indeed. Food and wine came to a total of €114 for the four of us. Not bad, not bad at all, particularly for Florence.

After dinner the four of us strolled for a bit and said arrivaderci – hoping to catch up with each other either in Paris or maybe back in Florence. It has been great being able to meet up with these guys, to talk about food, wine and travel and surviving as independent travelers. Such relationships are the hallmark of independent travel in fact and one could hardly survive otherwise.

Now the bank.

It turns out that while we were gone to Puglia there had been a fire on the ground floor of our apartment building. It had apparently started at one of the computer workstations in the bank there and gutted the suite of offices but fortunately remained contained to just the bank and since it had happened when no one was there were no injuries. But, and we’re not sure of this, we think the bank was the source of our WiFi connection ever since we’ve lived here since our connection is now gone totally. Coincidence perhaps.

But what has us most amazed is the speed with which the bank is being readied to reopen. They have been working almost round the clock to clean and remodel the bank.

Meanwhile . . . if you were to be here in Florence right now you would find much of the Duomo and the baptistery across the piazza both in serious scaffolding – with virtually no work being done on either structure, or at least none we’ve ever seen.

Go figure.

Still hot here in Florence.

Wish you were here.


Monday, July 24, 2006

L’ultima volta a Siena

Well of course we hope yesterday wasn’t our “last time” in Siena but we did want to get back to our favorite city one more time before we headed off into the unknown of northern France amidst the uncertainties waiting for us among the wilds of the Frankish kingdom. That and of course we had some work to do as well. (photo: Aimone of the Cantina in Piazza enoteca.)

We had at last been able to schedule a time to do some voiceover taping with Patti and Roberto – they had arranged for a friend of theirs who has a pretty good grasp of English to help us out in our quest to move the Tuscan Voices project further on down the podcast road at least. After some double checking with Patti about schedules we decided to take the train to Siena instead of the bus so we could arrive a little earlier and accomplish what we wanted to for the day.

Roberto picked us up at the train station and we headed off to his home outside of Asciano, among the clay hills south of Siena. But today the clay hills were a complete golden yellow hue due to the recent haying that had just been completed. Huge rectangular and round hay bales were scattered everywhere. Anyway, the drive alone was worth the trip, and we realized we had not seen this particular view of the Sienese countryside before, never having been there in July or August. It made us aware of how much we were going to miss this very special part of the world and how soon as well.

We got to The Bechi home and after a few minutes Patti took the kids into town to play and leave us to tape in peace and quiet. Patti had had the foresight to spend some quality time with our voiceover person Sandro all morning, going over the transcripts so he could familiarize himself by actual reading his lines out loud. (He had already been given copies so he knew the dialogues already.) It was also a perfect opportunity to do some last minute editing and get the pronunciations ironed out.

After Patti left with the kids we turned to taping in earnest and before long we had finished the two interviews, which had been our target for the day. Sandro left and Roberto fixed lunch for the three of us (some of Patti’s delicious flatbread, marinated tomatoes with mozzarella and a delicious fruit cobbler).

Just as we were preparing to leave Patti returned with the kids and we chatted for a few minutes, talking about when we might be able to move forward on the remaining 9 interviews. We said arrivaderci and Roberto took us back to Siena, dropping us off at the Hotel Duomo in the centro storico.

We freshened up, and then strolled off to see Aimone and Alessandra at Cantina in Piazza.

We spent a nice afternoon talking – mostly in Italian – about the usual things: food, wine, Italy, Florence (dirty), Siena (clean), wine and food of course. Aimone asked if we would be willing to try an experiment and naturally we said yes – knowing that with him such a question always involved food and/or wine. In this case it was food: gelato to be specific but gelato with a twist, or rather with “aceto balsamico” (“tradizionale” which is aged at least 12 years in barrels). Aimone went to a nearby gelateria and came back with a Styrofoam dish with four flavors of gelato in it: vanilla, cherry, pistachio and stracciatella (chocolate bits in vanilla). We tried each flavor one by one, and each with a few healthy drops of the” balsamico” on it. Contrary to what you might think not only were they edible but they were delicious, and the cherry and pistachio in particular were outstanding with the balance of the acid from the “balsamico”. (photo: Susan sampling gelato with aceto balsamico.)

We soon found the courage to get up and choose some wines to take home with us. After saying goodbye we headed off to the hotel, where we dropped our wines off and then headed back out, this time to the Piazza del Campo, where we found a comfortable place to sit and sip some cold white wine, drink plenty of water and watch the world walk past.

After a couple of hours we returned to the hotel, showered (an hourly necessity in this heat) and relaxed in the room and read until it was time to go out for the evening.

We strolled leisurely past some of our favorite spots and ended up at Nannini’s for an aperitivo: negroni sbagliati, made in half-gallon glasses by the indomitable Lorenzo. We sipped and sipped and sipped until at last the red nectar was gone and it was time for dinner. We decided to try a new place for a change, somewhere we had never been and so we walked over to Le Campane, on Via delle Campane, just a stone’s throw from the Campo. Although it was pretty full when we got there and we didn’t have a reservation they seated us anyway and we had s superb meal, ravioli stuffed with asparagus and duck breast in a chianti sauce.

Just after we sat down I got a text message from our friend Daniela, a German woman we had met last year when we were all students at Dante Alighieri in Siena. She had sent us an email a couple of days back saying she was coming back for three weeks of classes and would be arriving in Siena on Sunday, the 23rd. I sent her a note saying well guess what? So are we!

We arranged to meet her after dinner on the Campo and so we did – her hair was shorter but still with a great smile and after we caught up on the news from both of our lives – her husband is now out of the Army and back at home in Reno where she will soon join him – we arranged to meet together in Florence next Saturday.

We said buona notte to Daniela, and on the way back to the hotel stopped off at our favorite spot for gelato.

A fine day all the way around.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

“Fa caldo tremendo”

It’s terribly hot here; in fact I think it’s safe to safe that it’s beastly hot in Florence – again. More than 100 degrees today and the same ultra hot weather is predicted for tomorrow, and for Saturday and on into Sunday and Monday and until who knows when.

But it was beautiful in southern Italy, in Puglia at any rate, and we had a grand time visiting the Tampone family as they celebrated the18th birthday of their youngest child, Antonio – they have two other children, both daughters, Angela and the oldest Luisa. The air was cool and fresh and the wind just right, with virtually no humidity. (photo: Antonio Tampone.)

We left Florence on a late morning train Tuesday, picked up our tickets at the station from one of the self-service machines (we had ordered them online) and connected in Rome for Foggia. After an uneventful trip of about 6 hours we found ourselves at the train station in Foggia at a little after 5 pm. Foggia is located at the northern end of the region of Puglia, which is a long strip of Italy that makes up the “heel” of the boot. Luisa and her father Peppino and grandfather Vito were all there to meet us and after hugs and kisses all around – the only other men I’ve ever kissed besides my father are Italians oddly enough – we piled into Peppino’s Pontiac (!?) van and headed out of the city for the drive to Cerignola which is about 35 kms away.

After we arrived Rosa fed us and we talked and caught up on all the little details of our lives as we sat out on their balcony of their new apartment, which has a lovely view of the city and its large Duomo.

As we gazed over the rooftops, most of which are certainly new in the past 30 or 40 years, Susan and I couldn’t help but wonder about the fact that when her father was in Cerignola in 1944, would he ever have imagined that his children would come to visit this place? We thought it odd in a curious way and certainly more than coincidental that not only have we found friends here in a place few tourists and even fewer Americans visit but in a place which had such an impact on the life of a man who at the moment he was here had no idea where his life was going to take him.
We slept well that night and the next morning had a leisurely breakfast outside on their balcony, enjoying the fresh air and morning sunshine. If you can believe it this was my first taste of Nutella, the Italian version of peanut butter but made with hazelnuts and chocolate. Rosa spread it on bread for me and force fed me – not against my will I might add – and even put the remainder in my coffee, which is pretty much my favorite way of ingesting Nutella.

About 11 am Luisa, Angela and Susan and I left for the beach. Peppino was at work – he and Rosa are both nurses as are several of their siblings as well – and Rosa opted to stay and prepare lunch. So the four of us headed off for Margherita di Savoia beach (“la spiaggia”) and after a drive of about 20 or 30 minutes were at the Adriatic Sea.(photo: Susan catching the rays on the Adriatic Sea.)

The beaches in Italy are by and large free and open to the public, at least here in Puglia (and at least according to Luisa). However many Italians choose not to use the wide open free beach areas – which are not always well maintained or easy to get to – and therefore choose the “lido”, or semi-private beach. For a small fee you get an umbrella (which is permanently affixed) and nice lounge chairs and then you have your own little spot on the beach – among 10,000 other folks of like mind of course. But what we saw was very nice and well maintained, and of course there are bathrooms available and some places we saw have an almost theme park like atmosphere to them, with games and playgrounds and all sorts of things for the young and the young at heart. And Margherita was no exception. (That’s right, she’s the same Margherita for whom the pizza was named.)

Our particular lido, “Lido Reale”, was quite nice, and we had a spectacular view not only of the sea but of the enormous Gargano peninsula (the “spur” of the boot) which stretches out eastward into the Adriatic. After we settled in – Luisa’s future mother-in-law Tina joined us for the afternoon – we all headed off down the beach for a passegiata. It gave us a very nice opportunity to see exactly how these beaches are set up – and it was pretty slick too. Long lines of large rocks and cement blocks were set in place at intervals to make superb breakwaters which in turn formed narrow tidal pools ideal for walking and wading as well as areas for swimming. Pretty cool we thought. We also got to see what has to be one of the world’s largest phlegm-like creatures, some snail sort of thing sans shell which was trying futilely to move around in the sand, but likely to become food for something else real soon. We also saw a Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish wash up right near where we were lounging.

After our stroll we had a bite to eat and then all of us grabbed some lounge chair space for a siesta and snoozed away the early part of the afternoon, as the breezes swept in off the sea; quite idyllic really.

We packed up about 3:00 in the afternoon and headed back to the Tampone apartment where Rosa had a baked pasta dish waiting for us. We then all took a nap (!) until the family started to rouse later in the afternoon – OK actually earlier in the evening - to get ready for the big party.

About 9:00 Angela, Luisa, Susan and I left Rosa and Peppino – Peppino was getting over some pretty horrible dental issues from earlier in the day – and the four of us headed over to the ristorante where the party was to be held. We were about the first to arrive but shortly afterwards the rest of the various extended family members began arriving- aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, vertical cousins, horizontal cousins, all sorts of family members were in attendance for the occasion. The food was outstanding – it seems most Italians are fairly intolerant of mediocre food being served to them anywhere – and we enjoyed the local wines as well: a white and a rose (“rosato”) from the area near Castel del Monte, which also happens to be one of the coolest places to visit in Italy by the way and a fine mystery to boot. (The mystery lies in the fact that it is a “2-storey” castle, octagonal in shape, nearly bleach white, built by Frederick II more than 700 years ago, each room of which is identical in size and shape to the one next to it and the one below it. No one knows for certain why it was built or what it’s purpose may have been. The thing they do know is where the toilets were though, and they are a curiosity in and of themselves.)

After we had a round of toasts and gifts were given to the new young man – no more “ragazzo” but now an “adulto” Antonio’s friends from school began arriving as did a number of young ladies, among whom were of course Antonio’s girlfriend Christina and her two sisters (an incredible-looking threesome).

(photo: Christina in between her two older sisters.)

There was much gaiety and laughter throughout the evening and on into the early morning. Susan and I left with Rosa and Peppino about 1 am and headed home and to bed.

Another leisurely morning of fresh air and warm sunshine greeted us – or me rather since I think I was the first up and about. After coffee and breakfast we talked a bit about our return in February for Luisa’s wedding – she and Elio are getting married on February 8 and we’ve been invited so of course we are trying to figure out how we’re going to get to Cerignola from Paris. We can’t wait.

We said arrivaderci to Rosa and Peppino, and since Peppino had another appointment with the dentist in the morning Luisa drove us to the Cerignola train station where we caught the local train to Foggia and connected with our Eurostar train to Bologna, arriving there about 5:20 pm. The train took us straight up the coast of the Adriatic all the way to Rimini, stopping in Ancona along the way. Along the way we got wonderful views of the sea and a general idea as to where the Italian tourists are going that’s for sure. So many of the cities and towns along the coast are little more than havens for sunbathers, and one wonders what they must be like in the wintertime. Some cities like Pesaro and even Rimini looked very nice from where we sat, reminding us of other ocean front communities in other parts of the world – such as the southeastern US.

We made our connection to Florence with time to spare since it was about 15 minutes late coming from Milan -- and after a quick stop at the ATM at the train station were back in our apartment by 7:30. It seems that the day we left there was a fire on the ground floor of our building that destroyed the bank office there – fortunately no one was injured and it had little impact on any other part of the structure. But the smell was pretty nasty. And it seems we also lost our WiFi access as well – so my assumption is that it apparently came from the bank. Odd timing to be sure.

So we unloaded our bags, turned the AC on and stepped across the street to the OK bar where we sat outside in the heat but with a very nice breeze and drank cold white wine while we contemplated the nature of the universe and, more importantly, what I was going to fix for supper. Once that was decided we paid the bill and went back home, had dinner, relaxed and talked for a while and then slept soundly once again.

It’s great to be alive.

Wish you were here.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

An aversion to toilet seats

Now that I’ve got your attention I want to pass along just a few quick observations about Italy, culled from our recent outing to the cools hills of central Tuscany.

Yes there seems to be a clear aversion throughout much of Italy to toilet seats and no I have no idea why but it seems patently obvious from the fact that so many commodes in public bathrooms lack the seat. Or perhaps there is an epidemic of toilet seat thievery in Italy. In any case, this presents an odd and uncomfortable state of affairs for at least half the population, that particular half that needs to sit down on the commode, thus giving one pause to think who is it exactly who makes the rules governing the purchase of seat-less commodes in the first place (men most likely). Anyway it’s not a pretty picture in those dank, airless, half-lit closet-like rooms. Be prepared. (photo: this has nothing to do with toilets.)

There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of skin on display here in Italy, male, female, young or old, it doesn’t seem to matter. Lest you think I’m talking only about women and only about their midriffs or the “double cleavage” look that has become popularized among young females throughout the world, the male side of the population is not to be left out here. Clearly things are changing, at least as far as styles and perceptions of formality go: five years ago one would have hardly ever seen an Italian male in his 40s or 50s in shorts. Now they are everywhere. Of course the weather plays a part here; with temps in the 90s and above it is no wonder that so many people are wearing less fabric on their bodies. Still perceptions of formality and the attending relationships must be changing right before our eyes.

Saturday was a fairly typical July day: sunny and hot, real hot. But that didn’t stop us from getting out of town and take a short day trip south to the land of wafting breezes; sweet zephyrs blowing throw the clean, cobbled streets strung out along and atop three sharply defined hills. That’s right I’m talking about Siena.

Susan and I walked over to the bus station – on via Santa Caterina di Siena (rather coincidental don’t you think) and while I ran inside the office and grabbed a pair of tickets (“andata e ritorno”, round trip) Susan got aboard the bus and grabbed two seats. Which as it turns out was a smart move since it was standing room only. We sat and waited in an airless bus, packed like the proverbial sardines, for about 10 minutes when the driver shut the luggage compartment doors, got on board and turned on the air conditioning. And we were off.

After a quick trip of about 75 minutes we stepped off the bus on the Piazza Gramsci in Siena and then strolled over to Via di Citta which of course led us to our favorite café, the “Quattro Cantoni” (Four Corners) where we had a “caffe” of course. We then paid a quick visit to Lisa at the bookshop around the corner. We had noticed a significant change in personnel at QC and Lisa informed us that in fact the business had recently changed hands. Things change. (“Cose cambiano.”)

We left the bookshop and strolled back down Via di Citta where a pair of musicians were playing in front of the Chigi palazzo, down to the Piazza del Campo, and what a view – we still do not tire of this fantastic place to hang your emotions and let your mind slide sideways for at least a few moments. Since we were returning to Siena between the two Palios (July 2 and August 16), we didn’t know what to expect to see on the Piazza: although one could still see some of the dirt between the stones on the Piazza the grandstands were gone, at least for the moment. Undoubtedly leaving the bleachers in place would have cut into tourist traffic in a really big way so I suppose they had no choice but to pull them up and then turn around and bring them right back again in the next few weeks.

We strolled around the edge of the Campo and headed up Casato di Sotto just a few meters away and to the Cantina in Piazza where we met up with our friends Aimone and Alessandra. We had hoped to see them and chat a bit – and talk we did. For about three and a half hours we talked about food, wine, Paris, life, death and a myriad of other things relevant to the human experience, all over a wonderful lunch taken next door.

At last it came time to say goodbye; but it seemed as if that simply wasn’t going to happen – indeed we might still be standing there in the enoteca talking about one thing or another, with no one able to say the final last goodbye, which signals the moment of actual departure. But at last we left them waving and standing in the doorway of the enoteca as we strolled back toward the Campo, skirting its edge, staying in the shade, and passed through one of the exits.

As we did Susan heard the most extraordinary thing from an Italian (?) couple passing us going down the steps into the Piazza. All she heard were two words: “Roberto Bechi”. That’s it. Now we had hoped to meet up with Patti and Roberto Bechi, friends from nearby Asciano, sometime before our departure from Italy and had discussed numerous ways to try and make headway on our Tuscan Voices interview project but our schedules just never seemed to come together. In fact Patti and I had recently been in email contact over trying to set up some last-minute 11th-hour date and time to do some voiceover work but what with one thing or another it wasn’t going to work out. And then we pass two strangers in Siena when we hear one speak Roberto’s name.

Now that is strange, and indeed I suspect it is more than mere coincidence. But then perhaps we’ve become overly influenced by the attention the Etruscans (and then the Romans and probably modern Italians) gave to such moments of serendipity. Who is to say that some manner of doing a thing, or a way of viewing a thing, isn’t handed down from generation to generation. For example, I’ve often been amazed at the great fondness Tuscans have for anything liver-based in their cuisine; they have so many varying ways of preparing liver and they seem to adore a wide variety of liver: rabbit, pig, beef, whatever.

Now is it just a coincidence that the Etruscans were world famous “hasruspices”, that is well known for their consummate skill at reading the entrails of animals, and the liver in particular?

I don’t know but I just love to think about it, don’t you?

Wish you were here,


Friday, July 14, 2006

Heat, heat and mussel soup

For those of you outside this particular hemisphere it’s been beastly hot here in Florence this past week, although by all accounts it’s nothing compared to the terribly hot temps here the week before we returned to Italy. Still, we seem to spend most of our time during the hot part of the day inside our air conditioned apartment, reading, sleeping, drinking plenty of water and just waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon so we can go outside and scurry around with the other ants looking for gelato, vino, or whatever. (photo: corner of Giotto's Tower.)

And speaking of scurrying, this past Wednesday we caught up with Melinda and Dave. We arranged to meet them at about 8:30 for dinner at Simone’s “ristorante” (a “club really, but more of that later) in the “Oltrarno”, the funky part of Florence on south side of the Arno River (and birthplace of Machiavelli for your poli sci majors).

Now one of the attractions of the “Oltrarno” is that there are fewer tourists around at night – although this time of year pretty much everyone is outside until late in the evening, probably to get away from the inferno inside their apartments. Anyway, we thought we would head over to the Piazza Santo Spirito for an aperitivo before dinner – and discovered – now get this – not only is there live (and free) jazz every night in the piazza but “they” have made a point of declaring it a free Wi-Fi access zone as well! Bring your laptop, surf the ‘Net, sit outside, buy a drink, eat some antipasti and just hang out listening to music. Now is that civilized or what?

Susan and I found a table, ordered a brace of Negroni Sbagliati (equal parts Campari and red Vermouth with a splash of prosecco) and just sat enjoying the warm evening air.

About 8:20 we got a call from Andrea, a woman in Holland who has an apartment for rent in Paris – and a great apartment too. We had been in contact by email and have decided to go with her offer. She just wanted to call and make sure we understood the disadvantages -- well only one really, there’s no lift and it’s on the 5th floor. It’s also more than we wanted to spend but we have come to the realization that in Paris rent schedules are on a wholly different plane than what we have previously been used to. More importantly, the apartment has a dynamite kitchen, a very homelike feel to it, is in a great location, across from the huge Jardin des Plantes (botanical garden), and should be a pretty easy Metro ride for Susan. We talked for about 20 minutes and reassured her that the “liftless” nature of the space was outweighed by the other (vastly more important) considerations. So now we have a place in Paris. Now comes the packing.

As I was talking with Andrea (“Drea”) Susan and I walked around the corner, to get away from the noise and bustle of the piazza. We had no sooner rang off than Melinda and Dave showed up just across the street from Simone’s “Club Canapone”. (The club is just around the corner from the Piazza Santo Spirito.) We rang the buzzer by the side of the “green door” and were let in. (photo: just off the Piazza del Duomo.)

So why “club” and not “ristorante”? Well the way it was explained to us is that in Florence there are far fewer restaurant licenses available and thus it is much more difficult (and far more costly) to open a restaurant where you can advertise your menu outside on the street than it is to open a “club”. Same deal otherwise from what we understand.

In any case, the food is outstanding and Simone does some truly interesting things: for example every Wednesday is Sushi night – Simone brings in a Sushi chef just for the occasion –and Sashimi is also available as well as veggie rolls and superbly prepared fish (Dave had grilled tuna, “tonno” and it was perfectly done).

For Susan and I the “piece de resistance” actually came early on in the evening; it was a seemingly little thing at the beginning of the meal that truly amazed us both. Before we started we were each given a bowl of steamed mussels in a fish broth (not a tomato broth please note). Now some years back I fell under the influence of the well-known Miami humorist Dave Barry, at least when it came to eating “mollusks”, which he described as the in the “phlegm family” of food. But this night we wolfed down the mussels – they were tender and cooked to perfection – of course what do I know about dining right, listening to Dave Barry all these years – and the broth at the bottom of the bowl was sooooo tasty. I just popped a bit of meat out of the shell, dipped into the broth and put in on a piece of the grilled toast which accompanied the “soup” and washed it all down with a crisp Falanghina white wine from Campania. The rest of the meal only got better as it continued the Asian theme: a smoky flavored fried rice that we all thought most unusual and very delicious, and three of us had Simone’s marinated chicken (Dave had the tuna). Wow!

Although the “Canapone” seats maybe 40 people, it doesn’t seem crowded or jammed. Moreover the prices are very reasonable (four courses with wine and water, about €35 per person) – indeed we think “Canapone” is one of the least expensive dining experiences we’ve had since moving to Florence. And they welcome you with a glass of chilled prosecco.

Is this a civilized country or what?

Wish you were here,


Monday, July 10, 2006

Italy wins/Italia vince!

As most of you know by now (Monday morning) Italy won the World Cup last night – and we had the pleasure of watching it on a huge screen set up in the Piazza Annuziata just a block up from our apartment.(See photo.)

We met up with Melinda and Dave at 7 on the Piazza della Reppublica and then walked over to a Chinese restaurant near our apartment for a bite before the game. We discovered earlier in the day that they (whoever “they” are) were setting up a screen on a stage almost next door to where we live so we thought that might be a good place to watch the people watch the game. (We had thought about going up to the Piazzale Michelangelo.)

So we strolled over to the piazza just as the game was getting underway and joined in the fun – Tuborg beer had a huge tent set up so there was easy access to libations. And what fun it was through two periods, two overtimes and through the winning kicks at the end. Man oh man the crowd went wild with each successful kick by Italy and were ecstatic when France missed one, which turned out to be the important one. And of course everyone went absolutely nuts when Italy made their 5th kick and so became World champs for the first time since 1982, a position they will hold for four years until the next World Cup series.

After the game we hung out in the piazza for a while taking in the moment so to speak. We stopped at our apartment for a minute or two and then the four of us strolled on to the historic center of the city to join in the festivities (read “craziness”) that was running (literally) rampant through town. Italian flags everywhere, he streets were packed with people singing, chanting, music, horns, you name the noise and people were making it – it was pure unadulterated fun.

And not a policeman to be seen anywhere. This is truly a civilized country.

We said goodbye to Melinda and Dave and strolled back to our apartment – skirting the Piazza del Duomo where there was an enormous traffic jam of human flesh and took the quiet side streets home.

Wish you had been here.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Big Day in Florence

It’s Sunday and hot here in Florence, although it's a dry heat with very little humidity. Still that hasn’t kept the tourists off the streets, although we have gotten the sense since returning home this past week that there seem to be fewer tourists here than in April or May. We can’t put our finger on it of course but the lines seem to be significantly shorter and the groups fewer and smaller than this past spring.

Anyway, we are back into the groove here after a whirlwind trip to the US. It’s an odd feeling (odd feelings seem to abound here of late), it’s an odd feeling but we just can’t get over how strange it is to “visit” the US and then “return” to our home (what there is of it) in Italy. Mind you it feels good, real good in fact.

Our flights back through London from Boston went off without a hitch or delay and both Susan and I as well as our luggage arrived safely in Rome Thursday late morning. We then caught the Leonardo semi-Express into Rome’s Termini station, found the closest fast ticket machine and got our train tickets for Florence. After an half hour wait we boarded our train and by a little after 3 pm we were schlepping our bags to our apartment, which we found to be a bit on the warm side. Indeed, Florence had been suffering from some unusually hot weather earlier in the week and the previous weekend had seen temperatures over 100 degrees F – and so we counted ourselves fortunate that it was just in the high 80s when we got home.

We unpacked, fiddled with getting the air conditioning working and then walked across the street to the OK Bar where we sat outside, had a bite to eat and drank a little white wine. It was so nice to be able to just relax for a change – and in fact we spent the next several days doing just that, relaxing and sleeping late and staying cool. Aside from a couple of trips to the various markets to replenish our larder we did very little. Our neighbors are all gone on holiday – they asked us or rather Susan to water the plants in the hall – and there seems to be no one else staying here right now, which is actually quite nice.

It’s Sunday and the Big Day for football (soccer) fans around the world but particularly for those here in Italy – which is I suppose is just about everyone. This evening Italy and France play for the world championship. Unlike the “World Series” in the US which means just the US (well OK and Canada) the World Cup does in fact involve quite a few countries of the world.

So tonight we will leave the comfort of our air conditioned apartment and brave the heat. We will meet up with friends Melinda and Dave at 7 pm and the four of us will settle somewhere to watch the people watching the game. The word on the street is that there is to be a large screen put up on the Piazzale Michelangelo so we might try there – and what a place to watch the sunset from the hills overlooking the Arno valley.

Sounds like a good deal all the way around.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Our Midwestern tour - updated 7/4/2014

Our first week back in the Midwestern US began quietly – after Stan’s birthday of course – and we started settling into a sort of routine at Susan’s mother’s home in Grand Rapids.

Wednesday we stopped by Martha’s Vineyard wine store in the Heritage Hill area of downtown Grand Rapids; our purpose was to thank Kameel and Peter for being so kind to us during Stan’s birthday celebration Tuesday evening. They seemed to make everyone feel as if we were all just sitting at home, enjoying good food and great wine – two men whose characters are defined by kindness and generosity. (photo: Susan and I sitting outside at Mary's home in Decatur.)

On Thursday we met up with old friends Peter and Cyndi on Thursday at their home. It had been two years at least since we had spent any time together so we had quite a lot of catching up to do – all of us have been undergoing major changes in our lives, changes brought on by fundamental shifts in priorities. It was time to talk.

Early Friday morning we left Grand Rapids and headed south and then west to Chicago to visit family near Elgin. We had checked online to see if we could get a spot on the high-speed ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee but no luck; everything was booked for this Friday. So we hit the road and resigned ourselves to getting around Chicago as best as we could. We opted to skirt south of the city (south of Interstates 80, 90 and 94), which we did and actually found the traffic OK.

We arrived at Greg and Joyce's house near Huntley, just outside of Elgin and spent the evening catching up on that side of the family. On Saturday we drove to Springfield where we had lunch with my Aunt Barb and Uncle Bill – and had a blast listening to my Uncle Bill’s stories and eating aunt Barb’s great food.

We then drove to Decatur to have dinner with our friend Mary and her kids – Mary had been my Dad’s best friend when he passed away and we wanted to stop and say hello. We had a wonderful evening of more good food and wonderful company. We also had the opportunity to meet a neighbor, Heloise and her dog Miss Kitty. The evening was capped off by a visit to my nephew John’s house where we spent a couple of hours talking about why were are seemingly the only normal ones in our family.

We returned to Grand Rapids on Sunday and on Monday went to Stan and Margie’s for dinner –great food and even better company.

By Tuesday morning it had become clear to the two of us that there is nothing quite like good friends, something we sorely miss in Italy. But that is to be expected given the life style we've chosen for this time in our lives. As my Dad once told me you go through life with very few good friends and lots of close acquaintances. This trip has allowed us to renew friendships, at the same time renewing our spirits through contact with our close friends. Most importantly we have come to recognize how truly fortunate we are.

On Wednesday we headed up to Glen Lake to spend the day with one of Susan’s aunts and her husband, two of the most warm, gracious and generous pair of people it has ever been my pleasure to meet: Jack and Betsy. They are two people who simply enfold you into a world where hospitality, kindness and laughter are a package deal, where life is to be laughed at and enjoyed. These are two people who make you want to play along at the fun and simple pleasures of being alive. Their smiles alone make you want  to spend the summer with them but we had to get back to Grand Rapids.

Thursday, our last night in western Michigan, we just hung out and fixed dinner for Susan’s mom and Susan’s older brother William.

Friday we left a little before 8 am and pointed the car eastward for Hagerstown, Maryland (“Hub City”).

Our plan was to spend a couple of days with Mannie and Virginia and so we did – sharing in their new lives in western Maryland. Mannie is now a National Park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, something he has always wanted to be, proving to all who would pay attention that you can find your dream if you are willing to look hard enough and take the necessary risks. And Virginia has embraced the world of selling books – which frankly is something a lot of us wish we could do.

On Saturday Susan, Virginia and I drove out to Antietam where Mannie was working and got a chance to watch him give one of his presentations on the overview of the battle of September 17, 1862, when more American’s were killed in a single day of fighting in any war before or since.

In his unique style of blending the simple facts with a storyteller’s feel for drama he had everyone in the room riveted for 30 minutes while he outlined the details of the battle. Afterwards we walked around – trying to keep cool after the heat – and eventually drove over to the Pry House where we witnessed a fascinating contrast with Mannie’s friendly, easy-going storytelling style in presenting Civil War history later in the afternoon.

Earlier we had read in a park brochure that at 3pm there would be a presentation on some aspect of Civil War medicine at the Pry House (where there is presently an excellent exhibit on Civil War medicine). So we headed over there, parked the car and walked into the big barn next to the house (where the presentation was set up). We found ourselves in a very warm space (notwithstanding the two large fans going in the corners) faced with a large screen directly in front of the chairs (rather like a classroom).

Soon after a man came up to the microphone and introduced himself (I make no mention of his name in order not to humiliate his family) and soon begin his “lecture” on something about amputees and a writing contest. Sad to say his Powerpoint presentation consisted mainly of him flashing one letter after another on the screen every one of which he proceeded to read, and after some 50 minutes he (and we) had lost sight of what the original theme of the talk had been about in the first place and thought that discretion was the better part of valor and so we three scooted out of there.

We had a wonderful dinner that evening – Mannie’s pizza in probably the best in Maryland – and of course the company couldn’t be beat.

On Sunday we left late in the morning driving from Hagerstown through the rain – a plague of late on the mid-Atlantic – and stopped for lunch outside of Lancaster to have lunch with Doug Adams and his wife Susie and their little girl. Doug and I talked nonstop about our respective Civil War projects and hoped to meet again in the next year or so and try and make headway in acquiring more Third Michigan pension files.

After we said goodbye to Doug and Susie we continued eastward and made a flying overnight visit to Dick and Kathy in Pennsylvania; the next day we pointed our car north for Massachusetts and made record time getting around NYC as we completed our “oval” around the eastern US.

We settled back into Dick and Dorothy’s house in Douglas, MA, and caught our breath for a couple of days.

On Thursday, 29 June we sold our car, the second to the last tangible “thing” we have remaining in the US. All we have left now is our furniture in storage in Vermont, and frankly we have no idea when we will see that next. Right now our plans go only as far as the end of Susan’s course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris; after that who knows? Anyway we had picked up a rental car (a Chevrolet Cobalt) at the Providence airport before completing the sale and so we had a car for the weekend, one last trip north.

Friday, 30 June we he hopped into our rental car and headed north to Vermont. We stopped for about two hours in Rutland where we ran a few last minute errands and then pointed ourselves westward toward the NY Catskills to spend the weekend with Don and Gloria – Don’s opening a show of his digital art in Windham, NY (just southeast of Albany) and we were invited to join in the opening festivities.

We arrived at Don and Gloria’s home a little after six in the evening and spent the rest of the night catching up on each other’s lives. The following morning I drove Don into Windham to the gallery where his show will be on exhibit through the month of July. (Don has been working in computer art for many years and is has focused primarily on fractal art since the early 1990s. He also manages the Museum of Computer Art.) I left Don at the gallery and returned to the house to help Gloria and Susan prep the food, etc. for the reception. Several of their kids (and grandkids) came in later that afternoon and we all drove to the gallery a little after 3 pm to set up.

We had a grand afternoon – quite a few people showed up, some invited and others just off the street – tourists in town for the holiday weekend. After the reception everyone drove back to the house and fixed hamburgers on the grill, talked and drank wine until ate into the evening. It certainly helped that Saturday was one of the most gorgeous days of the summer so far.

Sunday morning Don and I had a little time to talk about art and MOCA and the future but mostly we just had a great time all of us being together.

Susan and I said goodbye and a little before 9am were back on the road again, this time heading for Providence, RI to drop our car off at the airport there. We made good time – traffic was light – and soon we were rid of our car and officially without a vehicle in the land that Detroit built. And it was a good feeling too.

Dick picked us up at the airport and by early afternoon we were back in Massachusetts, ready to catch our breath and relax before the return flight to Florence on Wednesday.

I’d say we’re ready to go.