Flying Solo Again

It’s hard to believe I have been in italy for over a month now. For me, time is suspended and I am living a different life. But I think it is happening in stages…

First there was the overwhelming rush of just being in an unfamiliar culture. Everything from the environment to the language is jarring and unsettling. There’s nothing to grab on to as customary and routine.You have the feeling of being on vacation.

Then, after a while in one place, you start to recognize landmarks and little driveways where you turn to go “home” and you get into the pattern of things. It doesn’t feel normal, of course, but every few days you become more accustomed.

Now, after a month, I don’t really understand much more italian but it isn’t so strange to my ear. The lilt and cadence seem warm and welcoming and not so “foreign.” And I am much more willing to try out my few words on waiters and shopkeepers – many of whom actually speak english. No matter – I want to absorb la bella lingua as much as I can.

Yesterday was Sunday (Domenica) – Mary Beth’s last full day here. It was a bittersweet day as we decided what to do.

ImageThe first decision was easy. We had putzed the whole morning and were starving, so we went back down the street to our friend, the pizza maker Michele. MB ordered the same mushroom pizza again and I got the lasagne. Both were delicious. And MB would have eaten her whole pizza but she saw me staring at it and saved me a piece! Michele spent a lot of time chatting with us – and wants MB to find him some real estate in the US where he can open an authentic Italian restaurant. He seemed to know a lot about market conditions and locations, so I think he is really interested!

Since we were only a block from the apartment, we ducked back in to drop off leftovers and re-group. We had heard there was an “antique fair” near Napoleon square, so that was our next destination.

ImageWe found it right away and it turned out to be quite massive. It went on for blocks and blocks and the dealers did have a lot of antiques. If you were wanting to furnish an old residence with authentic pieces, (and had the funds!), it would be a treasure trove.

But really, I would call it more of a flea market – and the prices were pretty high. I had thought it would be fun to pick up some small piece that you could take home and later say, “oh that? I got that at a flea market in Italy…”

ImageWell, I actually did find one bargain just when I thought I wouldn’t. We were at a textile booth and I had been drawn in by the sweetest baby dress that would be gorgeous on my youngest granddaughter – but it turned out to be 65 euro. Drats. So when I saw a pretty old table linen I didn’t think it would be in my price range. MB saw me admiring it and took it over to the dealer.

“Quanto costa?” she asked. “Cinque” was the reply. I looked at MB in amazement. “50?” I asked. “No – 5!” replied MB. “That can’t be right,” I retorted. “Ask him again.”

“Cinque” he said. Well I ’bout broke my arm getting my change purse out. Holy smokes! 5 euros for this little beauty? It’s mine! Now when I come back to Ohio and I have it casually draped on the table and someone says, “oh, that’s nice” I can say… “Oh that? I got that at a flea market in Italy…” (like that’s something I do all the time!) And I know that of everyone I know, Nicole will appreciate it…

At any rate, I was having a time getting around. Usually it is my feet giving me grief, but today it was my middle back as well. I stopped, I stretched, I stood in place and rotated my shoulders until everything cracked repeatedly. I stood it as long as I could and finally told MB we had to do a wine and advil stop – but this time for my back. She obliged.

ImageThis time, however, we had wandered to an area of Lucca we hadn’t seen before and landed in a wine bar. On the menu they had several tastings available: wine, olive oil, cheese and/or honey. I’ve never seen a honey tasting before! We decided to taste the pecorino cheese varieties and have a glass of wine each. (With advil for me.)

The cheeses were surprisingly fresh and good. The walnuts and grapes were a nice palate freshener. And then the honey… MB tasted it first and almost gagged. I was shocked at her reaction and thought she surely must be exaggerating. Honestly, how bad can honey be?

Well, it’s a good thing I took a very small taste based on her feedback. It was smooth and thick, like the texture of honey you are used to. Then the taste settled in. I almost gagged, too. How can honey taste like gasoline? And coat your taste buds like a cloak?

Geez o’ pete it is one of the worst things I ever tasted in my life! What the heck was it? I told MB we had to find out just so we could be sure never to taste it again by mistake!

When the waiter came back I asked. He had to go check. It turned out we were randomly given one of three honey choices they carry: Orange Blossom, Chestnut, or Lime Blossom. This was Lime Blossom, also known as Miele di Tiglio.

Now I can’t imagine Orange or Chestnut being objectionable, but I’m almost glad we got the Lime. Now we know to stay far away from it. Far, far away…

After that break we wandered through a lot more of the antique fair and made our way back to our own neighborhood. Things were very lively. The locals all seem to come out on Sunday evening to stroll and the crowds were shoulder to shoulder in the streets.

But the thing is, this is the beginning of the low season, so I am very surprised at the crowds on the streets on the weekends. What must this be like in mid-summer when the tourists are at a peak? I really don’t think I could tolerate it!

ImageWe see tourist groups many times a day whenever we’re out. And I am always so glad I am not in one!

I’m sure it is a great way to travel, but for some reason it just turns me off. You see the leader of the group walking along with a headset and microphone on and carrying some sort of stick like a drum major. There is a flower or a flag or some chach-kee on top, which looks ridiculous, and a huge group follows behind like a herd of cattle. They crowd around each attraction, listen to a canned spiel, and shuffle on to the next thing.

ImageI don’t know if it’s me or them, but just the sight of those groups makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. I know I am probably missing a lot and I do get turned around when I’m exploring, but I think I prefer that to being so regimented. I’m afraid that all I would think in a group like the one above – who are viewing the Puccini statue – is how I could escape and find a cafe and order a mezzo litro of vino bianco all for myself. And get out my sketchbook and draw the Puccini statue – which I did the other night when MB and I had dinner at the cafe right beside it. Moreover, it is a small cafe – that whole group couldn’t even crowd in there for dinner! What a waste!

This isn’t the best photo of the sketch as it is dark right now and I can’t scan it flat, but you get the idea.

At any rate, MB’s visit to Lucca has come to an end. We had a lovely dinner on her last night and talked about all the things we have done while she was here. We started out asking each other what our favorite thing of the trip so far was, but neither one of us could narrow it down. There’s just been too many different and varied experiences that could only happen in Italy and you can’t pick just one. It’s like trying to say one of your children is your favorite – you simply can’t do it because each one is so individual.

But what a gift it has been to spend the time together. And not just any time any where – time in Italy, which we both feel a particular passion for. Neither of us knows why – we just do. And being here has confirmed it immensely and not dimmed the expectations in any way.

Traveling (for pleasure) in general is always wonderful because it is living intensified. You are so aware of everything around you because it is a new perspective. There’s always a potential adventure – maybe even a disaster – around the corner. You can get a meal that you enjoy and find memorable – or you can taste the worst honey in the world. You just never know – but either option is fine when it is part of the journey.

So MB is on a plane on her way back to Ohio. Now she’ll have jet lag in reverse. And I’m here rattling around in the apartment by myself, flying solo again.

Either way, I’m having the time of my life…

Aside

Another Saturday in Lucca

This is MB’s 2nd Saturday in Lucca and my 3rd, so we’re feeling pretty at home these days. MB will be leaving soon but I have another week or so here and have to make other plans. This morning we got up and putzed around just like we were at home. MB did laundry and I made coffee and cursed at the computer.

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My favorite butcher shop

But I had been up early and made a plan. I figured it was a good day to get painting so we should take a picnic up on the ramparts and I could paint and MB could do whatever she liked. I was out at the markets just after 8 and picked up some parma ham, fresh bread, cheese and fruit. I really wanted some sort of quiche or frittata but didn’t find it. All the Italians like to eat for breakfast is sweets!

The parma ham came from my favorite butcher shop down the street. This older couple work there day and night – speak only Italian – and take very good care of me. What a delight to shop where you know the owners…

MB was all for the plan and helped pack up the painting gear.  By the time we got ready to go we wanted something hot to eat, so we stopped at a shop nearby that advertises the “best pizza in Lucca.” The owner, Michele, was very taken with us and offered to make us anything we wanted to “take away”. MB ordered a mushroom pizza.

Michele wanted to know all about us so I got out the sketchbook and we had a lively discussion about staying in Italy to paint. He told us to stop in the store for anything we need – restroom, directions, help of any kind. And I do think I’ll go back to try his lasagne. I saw it in a pan there and it looked awfully good!

ImageSo up on the ramparts we went and got all set up. I found a spot where I could sit and paint – which may not be the most productive position, but certainly the most comfortable. MB brought her journal and ended up staying with me the whole time. I thought she would take off to roam or walk or shop but she didn’t. I think this reflective Italian lifestyle is agreeing with us both!

ImageIt didn’t take me long to get something down on the canvas. Here’s a quick peek at an early stage…

All was well for a couple hours. We worked on our projects and countless people slowed down to take a look. The farther I got along on the painting, the more people tended to stop. But then, just as I was going to wrap up because the light had changed so much, a man pushing a toddler boy in a stroller pulled up. I greeted him with a smile and thought he would make a comment or two and move on.

Wrong!

Geez o’ Pete, this was a new experience. He wanted to give me advice about the painting but he didn’t speak any English. At first I tried to communicate with him and I quickly knew what he was saying. He wanted me to put the background buildings farther in the background (lantano! he was shouting) and put more strength in the foreground (forte! forte!) And I fully intended to do that, but I wasn’t quite that far along.

So I thanked him and tried to turn away – and he wouldn’t leave. More italian. More gesturing. He completely ignored the baby in the buggy. MB started groaning under her breath.

Still I was patient, but then he picked up one of my brushes and started to make marks on the canvas. I totally understood what he was saying, but he completely ignored my pleas of “non finito!” Both MB and I were beginning to come unglued.

Grazie! A presto! I implored. (Thank you! See you soon!) No good. He’s still gesturing and shouting. The toddler isn’t making a peep and I’m wishing he’ll start throwing some sort of fit. No such luck.

Finally, after a good half hour or more, the guy went back to his grandson and began walking away. MB and I could not pack up fast enough!

Lord sakes, I’ve never had that happen before and it was almost enough to keep me off the Lucca wall for some time. I sure hope we don’t run into him again soon. I much prefer the pizza guy who was sweet on us and gave us extra mushrooms on our pizza.

After a bit of a break back at the apartment we were quite anxious to get out and going again. It is VERY lively around here on Saturday night and it just seemed like excitement was in the air. We didn’t have any special plans, but we took off to see what was going on around town.

ImageWe came upon a beautiful music store with a row of guitars hung on the wall and a couple gorgeous violins in the window. Eye candy for sure. Seeing the guitars made both of us think of our boys back home so we enjoyed looking at them for a bit.

ImageThen we heard shouting in the street and the store owner rushed outside. But only because the shouting was a rowdy group across the street watching soccer on a big screen in a storefront and they were cheering on the game. The store owner wanted to know the score…

We walked over and joined the crowd for a few minutes just because it was so lively. Yes, they were cheering their game, but some of the guys would just break out in song occasionally – which seems to happen a lot here – and it is just downright fun to watch.

ImageThen it was off to find some supper and walk back home for the night. However, being Saturday night, it is party time at our location. The cafe across from the church steps is a hopping place on weekend nights. So we took our time approaching the apartment to see what was going on. Some local was singing terribly off-key, but thankfully that stopped right away and the hired duo took over. There was quite a crowd and I made eye contact with this guy who was cuddling on his dog. The dog is pretty cute, too, huh!

Italians LOVE their pets and take them everywhere. You see them in shops and restaurants and all over the streets. As long as the animals are well-behaved, no one seems to mind a bit.

ImageFinally, MB looked up at the apartment from the street and noticed the open kitchen window. “I think I’d like to have my picture from up there,” she commented. “Well go on up and I’ll take it,” I replied.

So here is MB looking out on the Saturday night festivities from our Lucca apartment in October 2012.

Things won’t quiet down around here for a while, but we have gotten used to that. It’s such a joy to be in Italy and right in the midst of the life of the city. We are treasuring every moment – which I think you can see right here on MB’s face.

But it is getting late and MB only has one day left here to play. Time for bed and sweet dreams.

Buona notte!

Aside

Firenze Recap

Three days and two nights in Florence went by pretty fast and I couldn’t begin to tell you everything that transpired, but here’s a synopsis of our time there…

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On the train to Florence

Maria Betta and I took the train from Lucca to Firenze and I was sure glad to have her help figuring that out. Sounds easy enough, but for someone who can get lost inside a walled city – on foot – with a map – in the daytime – I have the potential of going a LONG way out of my way on the wrong train! So after going to Florence and back with a companion, I have a much better idea of how to navigate the trains.

From the train station we took a taxi to our hotel and I really felt like I had landed in the Big City. By comparison, Lucca is quite a small town. So the hustle and bustle and even more manic traffic through the narrow streets is quite a rush.

The sheer number of historic buildings covered with figures and cherubs and carvings and gilt is actually overwhelming. The feeling of culture in the air is palpable.

ImageSince MB had been to Firenze before, she planned our walk to the Piazza Signoria so that I would not just stumble right onto Michelangelos’s David first thing. Instead we came upon the Neptune fountain and then “discovered” the beautiful David (“Dah-veed”) in his setting among the other statues and the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi. And I’m sure you read my earlier post about how it felt to finally see him. Absolute bliss.

ImageMB did the same thing with the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Duomo. It was stunning to come around the corner and see the massive building of pink and green and white marble – it literally stops you in your tracks. And then you look up and see that amazing dome that is an ingenious achievement in any century.

ImageOn the inside, the fresco under the dome is an incredible depiction of figures symbolically on earth and in heaven and hell. It took years of painting by many Florentine masters to complete.

And once you’ve toured that much of Firenze’s treasures, it is time to visit another “dome” – which is how they mound the gelato in the cases in this city…

ImageWe LOVED the gelato here – it was so fine and creamy that we stood on the street and hummed in delight as we ate it.

ImageThen it was on to the bridge known as Ponte Vecchio. It took us a while to get there as we got just a bit turned around and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. But we did and it was something to see. There’s no car traffic on the bridge. It is packed with people and both sides are completely lined with upscale jewelry shops. It is literally dripping with precious stones and metal. (As always, please click on any photo on the blog to enlarge.)

ImageBy the time we got to the other side of the bridge I was in pain from the walking so we looked for a cafe. We had to go on for another block, which I was resisting doing because all I could think was that would be another block to walk back. But we were soon in a cafe and got a glass of wine and MB doled me out some advil. I sat and rubbed my feet and thought about just lying flat out on the ground. But after a while I mellowed out and we started back. It was getting dark and the view from the bridge was fantastic.

MB promised we would get a taxi to go to dinner and we did. The ride TO the restaurant was the usual crazy. The drivers are so used to the small space and the people walking so near that they go full speed ahead and brake as needed. We just bounced around the back seat and tried not to look.

But then, after dinner and a bottle of wine, we took another taxi back to the hotel. This time we got an out and out race car driver. Immediately we could not stay upright in the back seat and we kept falling back and forth onto each other. I was wide-eyed but MB had the giggles and started shouting “go Mario!” Well, that tickled Mr. Driver and he obliged. Next thing I knew I was laying in MB’s lap and she was laughing hysterically and speaking more Italian than usual. At least I think it was Italian. The driver seemed to be answering her in Italian as well.

By the time we got to the hotel and I propped myself back up, MB was saying “let’s go again!” “No!” I intervened. “But it’s Mario!” she exclaimed. Driver flashed her a big grin. I looked at the meter and our fare was a full 2 euros less than the same trip earlier. I paid the guy and gestured that I was going to kiss the ground. He laughed and sped away.

I swear, the streets here should be littered with bodies and I can’t imagine why they’re not!

Anyway, we spent another two days roaming Florence with periodic wine and advil breaks for me. We saw a lifetime’s worth of designer shops, art and architecture. We enjoyed good food and wine. And MB did make it to the very top of Boboli Gardens. Check out this view. I’m so glad Mary Beth was here for the big city visit. I’d like to go to Rome at some point but I’m almost afraid to without her!

And of course when your companion is an Italian Barbie doll, the service we get is amazing. All she has to do is say “boungiorno” and turn on her smile and people rush to take care of us. On the last morning when we were checking out of the hotel, a very handsome Italian man came up to the counter. When he saw MB, he said “if all American women looked like this I would have to move to your country!” She smiled and said “grazie” but he continued to say she looked like a female version of David by Michelangelo. Now how’s that for a compliment!

Ahhh, Firenze. A beautiful time in a beautiful city.

Aside

Getting Back to Normal…

ImageHmmm… I guess I shouldn’t call it “normal.” I am in Italy after all. And at the sea coast at that. So have a look at this photo I took this morning… isn’t it glorious? I was totally shocked when I saw it downloaded. The real scene didn’t look nearly so dramatic, but you never know when the camera will be a bit smarter than you are and bring it all home…

So, yeh, I walked on the beach this morning after the rain cleared. It was fabulous – the beach is wide and flat – and very controlled. All of the umbrellas and chairs are owned by one enterprise or another and you cannot rest your bum unless you pay. The hotel I am at has an “agreement” with the beach club called Nuovo Italiano – and for a mere 20 euros a day you can have your very own chair and umbrella and swim in the pool! I may do that later in the week if it warms up again just because I love the whole beach thing…

Now, I want to quickly flash back to last night. I went out of the hotel and went the opposite way – toward the town instead of toward the beach – to see if I could find a local population and regular things like a supermarket that is not for tourists. I did find it, but along the way, I was enchanted once again…

About 2 blocks from my hotel, in the opposite direction of the beach, is a huge, wooded public park. There are joggers, walkers and cyclists everywhere. ImageBut when I was walking by, I noticed a row of ponies tied up in a clearing. I had to investigate. And then I saw the most amazing thing… children were riding the ponies… and taking rides in the carts they pulled!

Now mind you, this was an ordinary Tuesday evening – not a weekend or holiday. And here were families in the park, walking, riding bikes, and giving their children pony rides!!!

And of course I spotted a group of a dozen old men circled round each other jawing the fat. I would have taken a pic but they saw me and it wouldn’t have been kind.

BUT… I mentioned getting back to normal. Well, it has to happen, I guess. The thing is, I DO have some work to do and I might as well get busy. The biggest perk of my so-called current job is that I can work from anywhere. So why not Italy? I did work a bit today – and at least the internet works in the hotel lobby. It doesn’t work so well in my room, but oh well. I can sit in the lobby of a beautiful Italian hotel and call it my office, right?

Oh aren’t I the funny one???

Aside

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