Living in the Moment

Image“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
A.A. Milne

The thing I like best about traveling, or being on vacation, is that you are able to live in the moment much more easily. You’re away from the routines of home and the motions of everyday life and you are aware that you need to savor new places, new experiences, new friends.

This evening, 5 of us ended up at the house having dinner “alone.” Our hosts had to go out for the evening, so they set us up with a small buffet of salad, soup and homemade bread and we were on our own. It turned out to be a delightful evening.

There was talk of the day’s painting, the week so far and how knackered we all are. I fully intended to eat and run back to my room for some solitude, but soon the mood began to mellow. The afterglow of a day of living in the moment had set in. It’s not a thing you can create – you just have to be there when it happens.

The five of us are very different people from very different parts of the world. We each think the other has an “accent” and mannerisms that are a bit different than we’re used to. And so far our meals together – usually with one or both of our hosts – have been nice but more of a matter of making conversation. We are polite and ask the obligatory questions and pass the bread round and round. Then we say goodnight and think, “well, that was lovely. I really should meet new people more often.”

Tonight wasn’t like that.

Somehow, as the evening went on and we chatted at the table, a veil was lifted. The accents were gone, the mannerisms were invisible and 5 strangers became connected. As I looked around at the others all I saw in each one was the person underneath radiating through. It wasn’t the British ladies and the South African ladies and me – it was 5 souls who look and act very differently, but inside they are all the same. For this evening, our commonalities were much stronger than our differences.

And no, I hadn’t had too much wine. In fact I was so tired that I had less than usual – not even a full glass.But the buzz in the room was more warming than the buzz of alcohol. It was my favorite evening of the trip so far. One to be savored and remembered. As Pooh said, it was today… my favorite day.

The Devil’s Bridge

ImageToday we drove about 20 minutes to Borgo a Mozzano to paint the Ponte della Maddalena, otherwise known as Ponte del Diavolo – the Devil’s Bridge.It spans the Serchio River.

There are a number of “Devil’s Bridges” in Europe with a similar story. This one was built around 1100. The legend is that the builder was distressed because he could not finish the bridge in time. The devil came to him and offered to complete the bridge in one night in return for the soul of the first person who crossed it.

The builder agreed and the villagers were elated to have the bridge ready. The builder told the people not to cross the bridge until sunset while he rode his horse to Lucca to consult a priest about what he had done. The priest advised the builder to go back and send a pig across the bridge. Thus the devil was outsmarted but is still lying in wait for a soul to claim.

The painting class found the bridge devilish on an entirely different level. It was a lesson in learning to draw proportions and we were told that if we could draw this bridge, we can draw anything. So we spent a lot of time working out the lines on paper and recording the reflected image in the water. It was a tiring day as we all chose spots along the wall in the direct sun. Who knew you could wear yourself out drawing a bridge?

I was still tired from yesterday’s trek up and down the hills of Barga so by the end of the day I was dragging. I was the first to pack up because I just had to retreat to the car and sit in the front seat with my head back for a few minutes. Everyone else hung in there and got some color on their paper over some pretty nice drawings.

Packing and loading up was another challenge. All the big drawing boards are heavy and then we have easels, folding chairs and lots of supplies. Getting everyone in the van with all that stuff is a process,,, load the boot, the 3 smallest agile people climb in the far back (we’ve begun calling them “the little ones”)… hand them chairs to squeeze in… fold back seats into place… 3 more people in back with their gear… hand them more chairs to slide in front of their knees…slam the doors shut… hoist me into the front passenger seat and hand me something to hold or balance… and off we go down the narrow mountain roads like bats out of glory.

I’m getting used to the traffic and the rock walls along the mountain roads and the game of “chicken” everyone plays to pass each other in the narrowest spots along the way. But I am surprised that anyone has side car mirrors that are intact because there are often only inches to spare. If you had your hand on one while riding you’d surely lose your fingers at some point.

So that was our third full class day and tomorrow is a free day. The others are all leaving in the early morning to go to Lucca for shopping and lunch. But since I will be visitng Lucca in the near future, I am staying here to paint in the studio. I can’t wait to just hang out in there and spend a day painting on my own. The Italian dream continues…

Wine and Cheese Tasting

ImageIt was a beautifully clear day here and you could see all the colors of the mountains without any mist or fog. This is a shot of the landscape when we came back to the house after the day in Barga.

We had made a full day of it and got back about an hour late, so supper at 7:30 pm came quick. I jumped in the shower and changed clothes and went to the house for a glass of wine. Me and my wine habit are perfectly normal in Italy – I love it!

Marie was making drinks and appetizers – it is what they call “appertivo” here. So we had some snacks and chatted and then gathered round that long dinner table again. The table was set with hot Italian bean soup, which was delicious. Then we had a course of chicken with green beans and roasted potatoes. It was the first meal I’ve had with potatoes instead of pasta and it felt like home.

After dinner, Chris had arranged for a friend who is a “sommelier” to come in and give us a wine and cheese tasting course. It was really nice. He told us a lot about wine and let us taste a couple things that are produced on his property. I was too tired to even write it down, but it was wonderful. Then he had three types of cheese to share – one made with cow’s milk, one with sheep’s milk and one with goat’s milk. It was fascinating to compare them and taste the difference – especially with the wine.

Then he had this special bread that is only made here – again I am too tired to remember what it was called. All I know is that it smelled heavenly and everyone eyed the last piece like it would never be seen again. Honestly, how many wonderful local things are there like this in the world that we know nothing about?

So anyway, I am up late blogging because I want to record all of this trip. Everyone else is in bed and I have to sit outside on the patio with a blanket wrapped round me since the wi-fi reception in my room isn’t very good. AND I just saw a fox come out of the woods and steal some food from the dog bowl – and now the fox is drinking water from a puddle in the path to the studio. Time for me to skedaddle! Yikes!

The Day in Barga

Hmmm… I guess I stayed up too laImagete last night because morning sure rolled around awfully fast. But I finally got some real rest since the jet lag from the flight, so I felt (almost) ready to go.

We met in the studio, had a morning pep talk from Chris and packed up our art bags. After a poll, it was determined that I am the only one in the class who has painted with oils before – or ever painted “en plien aire” (meaning outside on location.) Now this is a pretty big deal for someone who has never gotten outfitted and gone outdoors to paint, so I was thinking, “heaven help us” because I knew what we were in for.

So off we headed for Barga. The English ladies, Dot and Renae, are what the others are calling a “comic show” unto themselves. They were cackling and amusing everyone even though they didn’t know it and the 7 of us were crammed in the van with all our supplies, which were numerous. Thankfully, I was given the front seat so Chris and I could roll our eyes at all the shenanigans going on. I told him I felt like I was in that old Michael Keaton movie called the “Dream Team” where a bunch of inmates have a day out of the asylum and all heck breaks loose.

It wasn’t far to Barga and soon we were unloading more supplies than we could carry. All I can say is that Barga is a town built into the side of a mountain. And if you have half a brain, you know you are going to be traversing hills most suited for mountain goats. Alas, this was true…

ImageHere are my classmates walking up one of the narrow streets of the area of Barga we were going to. And yes, cars travel these streets – you just have to get out of the way when one comes by. AND… this was a very FLAT slope. The hills and steps were incredible – I thought my lungs would burst before we got to the top – but the view was spectacular when we got there.

The next thing we did was pick out a spot we thought we could paint from all day, which was easier said than done. I knew I couldn’t stand all day, so the view of the rooftops of Barga was out for me. I also knew I didn’t want to be in earshot of the rest of the group complaining and asking questions because they had never worked with oil paints before, so I hung back to see where they decided to go.

Every single one of them chose the same location – which didn’t appeal to me at all – so it was easy for me to go the other way. I was set up in no time, had my preliminary sketches done and got my canvas ready. I had my underpainting done before anyone else even knew what it was. Now I’m not any smarter than the rest of them – it’s just that I’ve done it before so was able to get a head start.


But I quickly lost my advantage because it was lunchtime by then and we had to walk back down the mountain to a restaurant for lunch. OMG… I did it, but it was exhausting and I was worried about going back up for the afternoon and back down again at the end of the day.

But the best news is that they serve a cheapo version of Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) with lunch and I was able to chill out about it. That and some penne gave me the energy to go on…

Back on top of the mountain we began to paint in earnest. I may have a bit more experience, but it was very challenging. I chose the most simple scene I could but I wasn’t able to complete the painting in the couple hours we had. You can see a hint of it here but it has a long way to go.

All afternoon the tourists came by and many took my picture while painting. Can you believe that? People from God-knows-where will be going home with a photo of an unknown artist painting on the top of a mountain in Italy – and it’s me! I was almost overcome with joy at the thought of it.

Packing up for the day was another ordeal and I tried to get a head start because I knew it would take me a while to get back down to the car. Off I went, down myriads of stairs and slopes, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, and I made it without incident. All the way down I kept thinking I was doing well because the group never caught up to me. BUT…

When I got to the entrance gate, there they all were in the car! They had taken a shortcut back, which no one told me about because it is very steep, and they were waiting for me! Oy vay! Oh well, at least I am now known as a pretty good artist and they don’t really care if I can’t walk so fast.

The ride back to Val di Pozza was eerily quiet. The English ladies were swooning with fatigue and everyone else was in a bit of a daze, including me. I looked at Chris and told him it must be quite an accomplishment to silence the loony van in less than a day’s time and we had a good laugh.

So, it’s back to the room for a shower before supper – we’re all so tired I don’t know if we can make it!

Italian Dream ComingTrue

Chris and Krysia Bell

Well, I still don’t have any paintings or sketches to show yet although I have been busy. Today was our first day of class and it was wonderful. Truly, I did not know what I was getting until I got here, but it has literally been a dream come true. This teacher, Chris Bell, is one of a kind. Usually when I take a class, the instructor will come in, do a demo and then set the class up to repeat what he did while he goes ’round individually. Not here.

Chris is actually taking the time to talk to each of us, draw us out and stress the importance of “seeing” things with objectivity. Now that will sound strange to those of you who are not painters, but the truth is, everything you look at in life is colored by your own perception and experience. If you got hit in the head with a swing when you were a kid you never look at a swing again the same way. But as an artist, you have to get yourself out of the way as much as possible to portray something accurately. (Unless you don’t want to…)

Yeh, I know, it’s a bunch of touchy-feely mumbo jumbo, but we are eating it up here. Then we did some really great expressive drawings in the studio today. And believe me, I’ve taken a lot of art classes over the years and almost no teachers put this much of themselves into it. It’s just too much work!

Image Meanwhile, this family is feeding us out of their house several times a day. It is really amazing. We had breakfast, then class, then coffee break, then class, then lunch (sit-down – with wine!), then break, then class, then break – and finally we were taken into Barga – a small village about 3 km away – for supper. This photo is of Barga. (and in case I didn’t mention it – you can click on most of the photos I post to enlarge them.)

Barga is a typical Italian mountain town. Very narrow streets… I mean I don’t even know how they navigate! Someone always has to pull over for someone else to go by. And everyone accelerates until the last possible moment and then hits the brake like a lunatic and glares at the other driver! Maybe if I live here long enough I will stop gasping for air every time this happens.

The village buildings are very colorful and good food and wine is everywhere. It’s hard for me to believe how many people are out and about so late in the evening – walking around town, eating out, etc – because this is nothing I ever see in Middletown Ohio. Maybe it is true in all big cities of the world, but this is not a big city! It is a small little burg of people living like they always have and it is ALIVE! It is fascinating.

So we had another wonderful supper. I got the ravioli made with chestnut flour and filled with ricotta. Chestnut flour is a tradition here so I wanted to try it. It didn’t taste any different than regular pasta, but it was very good and it is gluten-free for those who need it.

And by the way… all these British, Aussie and South African people talk differently than I do. They constantly use words like “brilliant”, “clever”, “stunning” and “divine.” So if I come home talking like that, you’ll know when and where it started…

Tomorrow we are going to Barga to paint for the day. We will be painting “plein aire” and I hope to get some great photos of this beautiful mountain village. And of course everyone in the class is “bonding” and sharing their life stories. I know from past experience that it won’t last once we all go home, but it is part of the fun. I love meeting these people from all over the world and discovering how they live. While we are here we are our own tribe.

Hopefully I have something arty to share with you tomorrow. For now I have to sign off but I doubt I can sleep yet – this is just too exciting for me! It’s my dream of a lifetime coming true – there’s no time to sleep!

Going To Art Class

Today has been a delightful day. I got up in Pisa this morning and Signora Due Borghi had brought in some fresh green figs from their country house to add to breakfast. I had never had one before so I had to be shown how to eat it. Evidently they are not something you see in the markets because they are hard to store. You can only get them in season and if you have your own tree. They were small and delicious – I ate two!

Then it was back to the Pisa airport to meet Chris Bell, the artist who is giving the workshop this week. He picked up two of us there and then we drove to Lucca to pick up two more. From there we drove quite a ways into the Appenine Mountains. The landscape reminded me of the Appalachian Mountains along the Pennsylvania or West Virginia turnpike except that all the little villages of houses have red tiled roofs.

The roads, of course, are very narrow and you often have to come to a complete stop for someone to pass. Chris said he usually defers since an Italian will not back up for less than a death threat. Finally we got to the house where Chris’ wife Krysha came out to meet us. I had no idea we were going so far or so deep into the mountains.

This place is spectacular now, but it has taken the owners more than 10 years of renovation and they aren’t finished. It was originally a pig farm with chestnut orchards on the property. The chestnuts were a cash crop, but also used to feed the pigs to make them fat and sweet. Very prized!


This building was a barn where animals were kept below and chestnuts were spread out on the top floor to dry. Chris has turned it into a studio on top and 3 private suites for students or guests below. I am in the one by the middle bench. And since the buildings sit right in a small valley, the mountain views all around are spectacular.

ImageThis little building is the pizza oven – which will get fired up for pizza night on Saturday night. I plan to be part of that! The two little buildings in the background on the hill were original pig houses. And earlier today, Marie, the young Italian housekeeper who doesn’t speak English, went up the hill in search of porcini mushrooms. She found some and cooked them with tagliatelli pasta for supper. It was some of the best pasta I ever tasted!

Chris has an amazing week planned for us – I hope I can keep up! There are 7 of us for the week: 2 older ladies from England… 2 glamorous older women from South Aftrica… and a younger woman and her 19-year-old son from Australia. I’m the lone Yank.

So… we had a beautiful dinner around a long table, lit with real candles in the chandelier. And tomorrow…

We Paint!

Pisa Surprise

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Pisa. For some reason I thought it would be a bit shabby and rundown but at least where I was it was very nice. I got my room at Due Borghi Bed and Breakfast over the internet and I couldn’t have been more fortunate with the location. It was right in the heart of the old city and less than a ten minute walk from the Leaning Tower. Restaurants and shops lined all the surrounding streets, which were bustling with people day and night. If it is more crowded than that in the hot, hot summer, I don’t think I would enjoy it then!

The traffic is very typically what you think of as manaical Italian – I really am shocked there are not bodies lying in the streets everywhere. But cyclists and walkers don’t bat an eyelash when a car nearly mows them down every minute or two. Life just carries on.

I particularly enjoyed seeing older folks sitting on benches chatting and people-watching like this group of men. Isn’t that what people used to do for entertainment when they lived in real neighborhoods that were alive and lively?

I love this!

First Stop: Pisa

The trip to Italy has begun! I’ve only wanted to go for 40 years or so, so it’s about time. I left Dayton OH on Saturday afternoon, Sep 15, 2012 and got on an international flight in Detroit Michigan about an hour and a half later.

It was a 7.5 hour flight to Paris – so even though it was only 1:30 am at home, with the 6 hour time difference it was 7:30 am in Par-ee. It was a fast night with daylight coming again so soon. I was stretching (or trying to) in my seat as we flew over the city. And I just happened to look out the window across the plane and there she was – the beautiful Eiffel Tower rising out of the morning mist. What a sight to wake up to!

From there it was an ordeal to get through the Paris airport to my connecting flight to Pisa, but I made it without incident. Unless you count profuse sweating from walking miles through terminals carrying a heavy bag. (Note to self: take more walks and put the wheels on that bag!)

Finally I landed in Pisa… which is in Tuscany… which is near the top of the front of the boot.

I was pretty exhausted and not quite sure where I was and decided I would find that famous Leaning Tower in the morning. I laid down for a rest but soon sat up with a start. It occurred to me that I had seen the Eiffel Tower earlier in the day and now I was a few minutes walk from this famous tower. How many people can say that they’ve seen both – in real life – in the same day?

Well I can because I shoved my shoes back on, grabbed a map and took off. And I have to say that the Leaning Tower is unexpectedly beautiful in person. It might be leaning but the surface has been restored to a gleaming white. It really looks like a lovely frosted cake that is about to topple. Fascinating to see.

My trip is off to a good start!

Hello World

Welcome to The Sketchy Life. I am setting up this blog to be able to keep in touch with friends and family back home.


”Cause I’m in It-ly!

And I’m calling it “The Sketchy Life” because keeping a sketch diary is one of my favorite things to do – especially when traveling. So I’ll be taking photos, but I”ll load in the sketches whenever I can.

If you want all the news this is the place to be. It will take me a while to figure out this blog platform, but I want to send news home as I go. So please bear with me and enjoy. I will be changing things around as I learn to use WordPress. Now I gotta go figure out how to upload a photo so I can get started!

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