Thursday, December 30, 2010

Buon Anno Nuovo

Perdonami, ero pigra....sorry, I've been lazy these past few weeks. Caught up in baking and the falderal of Christmas. Now that Christmas is over, it's time to prepare for the coming year and think about what I hope to accomplish in 2011. I've been reading The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone's biographical novel about the life of Michelangelo, and it reminds of the hard work and effort that goes along with creative inspiration.

At the end of each year, I plot out the coming year's goals, and outline what I hope to accomplish. Mind you, these are not resolutions, but commitments I make to achieving specific goals. For the most part, I am able to accomplish most of the things that I set out to do. I won't bore you by reporting on my goals: instead, I encourage you to consider doing the same thing. It's a powerful exercise, and depending on your motivation and will power, it's possible to achieve the goals that you envision.

Once I returned from Italy, I was surprised to learn that I won't have any work projects until February. I usually have a 2-week project in December and an 8-week class to teach starting January 1, so it's strange to imagine doing no work at all until mid-February.

However, it frees me up to focus on other projects here at home. Reading, writing a book proposal, learning to cook....I'll return to more regular blog postings in the spring.

Wishing everyone a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Caos con la neve

Piazza della Signoria


Firenze was blanketed with 30 cm. (11 inches) of snow within 4 hours on Friday, creating major chaos throughout the city. In fact, all of Tuscany was affected by the snow, and airports in Florence and Pisa were closed to all traffic. Trains could not run due to ice on the tracks and streets were jammed with cars, causing major traffic headaches. Though a snowfall of this size is not rare, the city was unprepared to deal with it, even though an alert about the snow forecast was posted on December 13th, several days in advance.

I talked with my friend Patrizia in Florence yesterday; on Friday night when she was returning from work in her car, it took 5 hours instead of the usual 40 minutes to get home. Mamma mia! Tall trees were falling over from the weight of the snow and there was general chaos. She heard on the radio that cars would be allowed to drive through the city center, which is usually only open to taxis and residents of that area, to allow Florentines to get home as quickly as possible. But when she drove by the Duomo, her car was the only one in motion.

Now the streets have turned to ice, and large portions of le autostrade outside of Florence are closed. Residents have been warned to stay home and off the streets. Accusations of responsibility are rampant: how did it happen that no pre-blizzard precautions were taken?

On the other hand, many are enjoying the snow and the beautiful photo opportunities that are possible. I'm wishing I were there to see it myself. Well, not the ice. Instead, the temperatures in my town are expected to reach 50 degrees F (10 C) tomorrow. As long as there's sun, I can dig it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Firenze sotto la neve



I received an invitation to a Christmas dinner tomorrow night in Firenze with the Meetup Group I joined while I was in Florence; they'll be eating at a restaurant just down the street from my apartment. Wish I could go! I'm keeping up with the news in Firenze, and today i giornali italiani (Italian newspapers) are filled with stories and images of the snow that is blanketing Italy, from the North all the way south to Calabria. Even Sicily, and the islands of Capri and Ischia have snow this week! Che bella! After nearly two months of rain, now Italy is being blanketed with the white stuff.

Since I'm unable to see the snow in real life, I've found some photos of the snow in Florence to share.

la neve: photos

Here's a video with interviews asking what people think of the snow. Most people seem to enjoy it: Che bello! (Howbeautiful!), Mi piace tanto! (I love it!), but a few say "L'odio!" (I hate it) or Non mi piace (I don't like it). And in the background, Dean Martin sings the playful tune, Let it Snow!

la neve: video

In the end, snow makes everything more festive for Christmas, and I'm hoping it snows here next week!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Staying warm

My experiences with il riscaldamento (heating) in Florence helped me to learn some new habits that are coming in handy during the Kansas winter. I'm able to keep the thermostat turned down by wearing a sweater and a scarf...it's as simple as that.

While living in Tokyo, my son was used to living without central heating. He used a kotatsu to keep warm. A kotatsu is a low table with a heater attached underneath the table top. A blanket is placed between the two panels on the top of the table, and then you sit under the blanket to stay nice and cozy. He lived without heating while I was in Italy, and has influenced me to keep the thermostat turned below 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. At night, we turn it down to 58 degrees, and perhaps we'll go down to 55 soon. No sense in wasting resources when we are already warm in our beds.

Last night the electricity was off for several hours in our neighborhood. Instead of freaking out, we merely switched gears. I lit some candles, and Jesse got out the head lamp he uses when camping. He continued cooking and washing dishes in the kitchen, while I read by flashlight, then took a bath by candlelight. We were both content to live without our electronic gadgets for awhile.

With the thermostat already at 65, it only dropped down 2 degrees in that two hour time frame. If we were used to having the house up to 68 or even 70, we might have suffered the loss of heat. But since we've both acclimated to a cooler house, we were both comfortable, and I'm content to continue living this way. We will consume less of the earth's natural resources and have lower heating bills. Now I'm quite thankful for the lessons I learned about surviving with less while living in Florence!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Biscotti

Cranberry-Pecan Biscotti

In Italy, biscotti is a general term used to refer to many types of cookies, but in the States, we use this word for a specific type of hard cookie that is eaten with, or dipped into coffee. The word itself means "twice-baked," and biscotti have a long history in Italy. The city of Prato has the first documented recipe for biscotti, discovered in the 1800's, and Prato is usually credited as being the locale where biscotti originated. However, others say that a form of these cookies originated during Roman times: because they are very dry, biscotti can be stored for long periods of time and thus became an ideal food for soldiers, farmers and sailors, who were often on long journeys away from home. Regardless of where they originated, there are now many regional variations of biscotti in Italy.

I am making biscotti for the first time this week. I bought several packages of them at the store last week, and thought they would make an interesting gift. However, the flavor was so poor that I decided to try making them myself. Making biscotti has turned out to be much simpler than I had imagined, and the results are not only tasty, but it's very satisfying to be able to make my own gifts. I've now made enough for several gift baskets, and my son has asked me to make a batch to share with his co-workers.

While in Italy, I often bought cantuccini, a small almond biscotti that is usually served with Vin Santo, a sweet dessert wine. However, many kinds of biscotti go well with Vin Santo, and I was hoping to pair bottles of wine with the biscotti in my Christmas gift baskets. Unfortunately, I've run into some road blocks, as Vin Santo is not readily available here.

After calling around to many liquor stores in my town, I tracked down only two bottles of the wine, and each one cost more than $55! YIKES! In Italy, I could easily get a bottle of Vin Santo for less than 10 euros. They even stocked it at the mini-market near my apartment. I can order it online from New York, for about $20 per bottle, but I won't have time to do that for the baskets I'm delivering this week. Instead, I will add packets of coffee and hot chocolate to complement the biscotti in my gift baskets.

Now that I've had good luck with a few batches of biscotti, I'm eager to try more recipes, which are plentiful on the internet.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parco Ducale, Parma

Parco Ducale, Parma

There are many contrasts between my home in Lawrence, KS and my home in Florence, Italy. One difference I've noticed lately is that very few people in Lawrence take the time to walk anywhere, except to take their dogs out for a stroll. Some people walk for exercise, like me, or to get to a nearby store, but pedestrians on the whole are few and far between in my town. I want to continue my daily habit of walking 1-3 hours, as I did in Florence, but it's more of a chore here because it's boring and very lonely.

Today I walked for nearly an hour along a bike path and I only came across one other person walking, and a group of 6 runners. I've walked downtown several times this week, which is about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from my house, and did not see anyone else walking, except when I was near stores in the downtown area. It's no wonder that I usually find winter to be a very lonely time, as people keep to themselves in their houses and the only time I see anyone is when I seek them out. It's not as lonely this year, however, since my son is living at home: at least I have someone to talk to when he's around.

So even though I enjoy being home, and having sunshine nearly every day, I miss the sense of community that I feel in Florence. Whenever I go for a walk (fare la passeggiata), there are always people around, and I never feel lonely. In Florence, it's common to see people walking at all times of the day and night. It's also necessary, especially in pedestrian areas where few cars or buses are allowed.

I also enjoy the way people gather in the piazzas in Italy, or sit together on benches in the park to chat, which is rarely done here. Even in warmer weather, I rarely see people sitting in the parks in Lawrence, unless there is a special activity going on. Americans don't have the habit of gathering in the piazzas that Italians do, and I miss that aspect of the Italian culture.

One of my favorite parks in Italy is the Parco Ducale in Parma. I had the good fortune to stay in Palazzo Ducale, once the home of Napoleon's second wife, Maria Luigia, for several weeks in the fall of 2007 and 2008, as one of my friends is the commander of the carabinieri (Italy's military police force) for the Province of Parma. The park surrounds the Palazzo, which is now a carabinieri compound and off limits to the general public. But the park itself is open and widely used by the Parmense.

Palazzo Ducale, Parma

Many of the rooms of the Palace have been turned into offices, while others lie vacant, especially the formal rooms with frescoed walls. Other rooms have been made into flats for 15 of the carabinieri and their families, including my friend Paolo. There are also 3 guest rooms, referred to as “La Foresteria,”, where I stayed. My "room" was actually a suite of rooms, quite elegant and comfortably furnished, though very inexpensive. Then last year I spent a few days in Parma at the flat of another friend, and made sure I spent an afternoon in Parco Ducale during my stay.

Parco Ducale, Parma

I spent many hours in Parco Ducale for three years in a row, and found great solace in the expanse of trees that surrounded me there. Parma has free wifi spots in many areas of town, including Parco Ducale, so it was an easy place to catch up on email with my netbook. There are many other reasons I like Parma, but Parco Ducale is the main one. It's the first place where I began to notice how Italians use parks in a different way than most Americans do, at least in my town.

It seems that most Americans go to the park to "do" something for a special occasion, while Italians often just go to the park to "hang out" - to sit and chat, read, stroll with babies or elderly parents in tow, or have discussions. Sure, they also go there so their children and dogs can play, but I've seen more use of the parks on a daily basis in Italy than I ever see in my town, even in warmer weather. Reminiscing about Italian parks reminds me of what I have to look forward to when I return to Italy next May.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Power of Focused Thought

One of the things I’ve loved about my work as a personal coach and teacher is helping people understand the importance of our thoughts. I’ve been amazed by the events that have taken place in my life over the past few years, and feel I can attribute much of it to the fact that I have become more focused on thinking about what I want, and I am acting on opportunities that come up in relation to those thoughts. I’ve been blessed with a life that gives me time to think, and I make good use of it. In this way, I can stay truer to being guided by my heart.

But along with new opportunities that have come my way, I’m noticing that I have less time to think about what I WANT to think about. I’m making more money teaching other people’s ideas instead of my own, and though this provides me with the means to travel more, it interferes with the thinking time that helps me create future opportunities. Still, even in the midst of everything, synchronicity continues to happen.

I recently found a book at the library that is a continuation of a story I read and loved a decade ago, that takes place in Florence. When I read the first book, Italy was an unknown world to me. Now it is a familiar presence, and this new book reminds me of many places that I visited just weeks ago…so much that it’s almost like being there again.

I need to remember that even in the midst of life’s busyness, it is essential to take time and stay focused on thinking about the things that matter most: staying true to ourselves, our beliefs and our integrity. We should also think about our relationships and love; about happiness, joy, and good health; about making the most of our talents; about creating peace in our world. We need to take time to imagine a future filled with these things. We must be the first to believe that our dreams can become reality, and it starts with our thoughts. It’s that simple.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Home again

When I arrived at the Kansas City airport, it was nearly empty. The flight landed nearly 30 minutes early, so my son was not there yet. I had time to retrieve my bags and was waiting by the curb when he drove up. I was happy to see the wide open blue sky, and we witnessed a lovely multi-colored sunset as we drove home.

We drove around looking for a store to buy wine, and it took so long that by the time we reached our house, we decided to wait until the next day to have the Thanksgiving dinner that Jesse had planned for me. On Friday, he roasted two kinds of cornish game hens (teriyaki and traditional) with cornbread stuffing, green beans and new potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie. He's a stickler for fresh, organic food, and it was quite delicious!

There are certain advantages to being at home in Kansas. First, it's been sunny almost every day. No cloudy skies or rain to deal with...just cold weather. But my house is warm and comfortable, so I don't mind the cold.

It's nice to have my son around, even though he's gone most of the time. He's working overtime hours to save money for his next adventure, in Argentina! He hopes to take his bike and ride around South America once he's saved enough money.

Jet lag hasn't been much of a problem this year, and I'm not sure why. Usually I'm in a daze for a week or two after spending a month in Italy. I was also relieved to find out I'd only gained a few pounds while in Italy...I worried that it would be much more.

So it's back to mundane reality for awhile, and oddly enough, it feels good to have a break from the constant stimulation that I enjoyed in Florence. It may work out best for me to live part of the year in Italy and part of the year in Kansas; perhaps in this way I can have the best of both worlds. It's not exciting here in Kansas, but for the winter, that's fine with me. I can focus on studying Italian, making money and getting revved up for my return to Italy in the spring. Oh, and getting back to Zumba classes so I can lose the weight I gained!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Foulup at Fiumicino

When I stepped into the taxi at 4 a.m., I thought to myself, "this is more like it!" Lidia had arranged the early morning taxi ride through a private company, which was not only punctual, but quite comfortable. Transportation to Rome's Fiumicino is difficult to arrange between midnight and 6 a.m., and taxi fares can run high: this one charged 48 euros. However, the car was not the usual service-type vehicle: instead, it was more of a luxury car, feeling more like a limousine than a taxi. A handsome, well-dressed young Italian drove quickly through the empty streets of Rome, and it seemed a lovely way to end my soggiorno (stay) in Italy. Uh, hold that thought.

When we arrived at terminal 5, the terminal designated for departing American flights, we found it was closed. The driver told me I was there too early. However, my flight was at 6:30, and the standard advice for international flights as to arrive 2 hours early, so I was right on schedule. He said he had to pick up another fare, then left me standing outside the terminal with my baggage. Terminal 5 stands apart from the other terminals, and I could not see them or even guess where they were. I had my cell phone, but had no idea where to call for information.

I had once arrived at the Florence airport around the same time, only to discover the airport didn't open until 5:30 a.m. to accommodate 6:30 a.m. flights. With that in mind, I assumed it would be the same in Rome, and I just needed to wait. I saw a few people entering nearby buildings, but no one came near terminal 5. I wondered why there were no other passengers showing up: did they know something I did not?

I waited outside in the cold for 45 minutes, when two Americans, father and son, arrived for their 7 a.m. flight. By now it was 5:20 a.m. I noticed a woman going towards the employee entrance, and asked her what time the terminal opened. Her answer: 6 a.m. "But my flight leaves at 6:30!" I was starting to feel a bit panicky. She found another employee who spoke English, and he told me that we were at the wrong terminal. Terminal 5 is only for international flights, and since I was flying to Amsterdam for the first leg of my journey, I should be at Terminal 2. Likewise the other Americans, whose first flight went to Paris.

I asked how to get to Terminal 2? There were no shuttles at this time. I could call a taxi, but didn't know what number to call. The Italian man was no help. His comment: "I don't know the number. Italians don't use taxis: only the tourists." (Not true, but no point in arguing.) Then I asked him if we could walk there, and how long it would take. "Yes: 15 minutes." And so, lugging our baggage behind us, we three began our trek along the street leading back to the main terminal complex. The panic was building, but what could I do but keep moving forward?

It was a bit hairy walking along the street while cars and buses whizzed by, but thankfully, there were only a few so early in the morning. I was thankful to have some company, though the two men were of little help to me. When we arrived at Terminal 2, there was no evidence of our airlines. Exasperated, I flagged down several carbinieri (military police) who were in the terminal chatting. They informed me that we should be at Terminal 1. By now, I was beyond panic, but not yet ready to concede to defeat.

At Terminal 1, all the counters were the same: Alitalia. The Americans wished me goodbye and good luck, and I made a tour of the counters, looking for one with a Delta/KLM flight, finally finding it in the last row. By now, it was after 6 a.m. and I still had to check in, go through security and find the proper departure gate. But somehow, I made it, and just in time.

My error was in assuming that I needed to go to Terminal 5. My previous flights at Fiumicino have all been international, to or from the U.S., so it didn't occur to me that things would be different this time. When I bought my ticket, I had arranged for a flight from Rome to Atlanta. But Delta changed the flight plan, adding an extra connection in Amsterdam.

Once on the plane, we had to wait 30 minutes for other delayed passengers to arrive...wouldn't you know it? I was just thankful I 'd made it and was settled in my seat. The connecting flights in Amsterdam and Detroit were uneventful, though time-consuming. In Amsterdam one has to go through Passport Control, an interview and then a Security check; in Detroit, it's necessary to claim your bags, go through Customs, recheck your bags and go through another Security check. It was more of a hassle for me than most passengers, as I had two computers to pull out and put back into my carry on bags. On the flight to Rome, I'd only had to go through security once, so it was a much simpler process. With each country you pass through, another security check is necessary. But it's for everyone's safety, so I have no complaints.

Since I was traveling on Thanksgiving Day, the airports in Detroit and Kansas City were nearly empty. The flight to KC arrived 20 minutes early, so I had time to retrieve my bags and was ready to leave the airport when my son arrived. As we drove west to Lawrence, blue sky greeted us in all directions, and a vivid, colorful sunset welcomed me home. And truly, I was thankful to be in sunny Kansas again.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roma: Sunshine and Van Gogh

My departure from Firenze was uncomplicated. I took a last stroll around centro storico about 9 am and left the apartment about 10. I caught the 23 bus at Piazza Salvemini, literally due passi (a few steps) from the apartment. Several people helped me lug my two bags onto the bus, and 15 minutes later, I arrived at the train station, Santa Maria Novella. Again, I was helped with my luggage by a sturdy young man, and settled in for the fast, 90- minute trip to Rome on the Eurostar.

Carlo met me at Termini, Rome's train station, and we drove to the EUR district where he and Lidia live. It was a warm and sunny day in Rome, and I was happy to be there. It felt like a good transition between my two worlds: Florence, Italy and Lawrence, Kansas, USA. After eating a quick lunch, Lidia and I headed out to an interesting museum called Centrale Montemarini, where we saw the exhibit Gli Dei e Le Macchine e (Gods and Machines).

Statue of a Muse, 2nd century B.C.

The exhibition is located in the former John Montemartini Thermal Power Station, which was converted into a museum in 1997 when hundreds of sculptures were moved there during the restructuring of large sections of the Capitoline museum complex. It was a striking contrast to see sculptures in this setting, but I enjoyed it.

Roman statues, modern machines

Lidia also took me to the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura, (Saint Paul Outside the Walls), a magnificent and unusual church near their flat. Monks were singing vespers when we entered the church, and it added another dimension to the experience. You can get an idea of the place by visiting the following site, which has a virtual tour, complete with the sound of the monks in the background. This was by far my favorite of all the churches I visited this fall.

basiclica di sanpaolo virtual tour

The next day, both Carlo and Lidia had other engagements, so I was on my own to explore the city. I rode the metro with Lidia into town, then took a bus to Piazza Navona, one of my favorite spots in Rome. It was sunny and the piazza was filled with artists, street performers and several musicians, entertaining the tourists strolling by.

Piazza Navona

The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or "Fountain of the Four Rivers," by Bernini, stands at the center of the Piazza, and commands everyone's attention. I spent more than an hour walking around the Piazza, enjoying the sunny weather and the talented musicians, and I shared the experience by phone with my friend Luigi. It was delightful being in a sunny piazza listening to music on my last day in Italy.

Fountain of the Four Rivers

I strolled over to the Pantheon, another favorite spot, and then visited the Fontana Trevi (Trevi Fountain), always crowded with tourists.

Piazza della Rotonda, with the Pantheon in the background

Trevi Fountain

In the afternoon, I went to several art exhibits. The first was I Grandi Veneti (The Great Venetians), which included works by Bellini, Tiepolo, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, Gaudi and Veronese and other famous Venetian artists.

However, the second exhibit was even better "Vincent Van Gogh: Campagna senza tempo e città moderna" (Vincent Van Gogh: Timeless Countryside and Modern City). 70 works of art were on view, including paintings, watercolors and sketches on paper by Van Gogh, as well as 30 works by artists who inspired him, including Millet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin and Seurat. This exhibit is by far the best one I have ever seen. In addition to the paintings, one can view letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, which often included sketches of his ideas. Books that inspired him were also on view, as well as newspaper articles that were written about Van Gogh during his lifetime. This was a truly amazing and powerful exhibit, and I'm so thankful I had the chance to see it.

While I was at the Van Gogh exhibit, the weather changed: storm clouds blew in and there was a good downpour while I was in the museum. But it blew over by the time I came out, and I strolled down via dei Fori Imperiali toward the Colosseo.

Foro Romano

Viewing these Roman ruins is impressive, even from a distance. I went on a tour of them with Carlo last year, so I was content to just pass by them this time on my way to the metro. It's always a thrill to see the Colosseo, an immense tribute to the Roman empire, providing an unusual contrast to modern city life. While cars whiz by, buses queue up for passengers across the street, and people rush in and out of the metro entrance, the Colosseo stands solidly serene in the midst of it all. Though I'm happy to visit Rome, and enjoy knowing my way around the Eternal City, it doesn't affect me as Florence does, and after a few days, I'm ready to leave.

A view of the Colosseo amidst the Marine Pines

Back at the Spighi flat, Lidia prepared dinner, and I packed my bags in preparation for my departure early the next morning. Little did I know what an adventure it would be getting to my flight! I'll explain in the next post...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Magic


A parting thought: life can be magical
when we let go of daily habits and fears
and reach for the stars.

Let the magic begin!

Monday, November 22, 2010

L'ultimo giorno

Ponte Vecchio

It's my last day in Florence, and it was a pleasant one, with hours of sun, which encouraged me to spend most of the day walking around town.

In the morning, Nic came from the rental agency to check me out, and I discovered that the utilities were not as bad as I anticipated. In fact, I could have easily been more comfortable if I had used more heat and electricity. Since I had no idea what the cost would be, I was extremely conservative in my use of water, gas and electricity. I'd paid a 300 euro deposit to cover the utilities, and received half of it back! That means I spent an average of only 50 euros a month on all my utilities. Brava! Next time I'll know better and make myself more comfortable while I'm here!

The Duomo reflected in puddles in Piazza del Duomo

City workers were checking out the lights on via Corso today, so I got a glimpse of what they will look like, though it was too light to really see them well.

via Corso

With the money I got back from the agency, I was able to do some more shopping, and enjoyed being out and about again in the city. Even with intervals of rain, I had a pleasant time shopping and walking around.

A view of Ponte della Trinità

Tomorrow morning, I leave for Rome, where I'll spend a few days with my friend Lidia before my flight home on Thursday. It will be a bit warmer in Rome, and chissà (who knows), perhaps we'll even see some sun while I'm there. Speriamo! (let's hope so!)

Tonight the sky is clear, with an almost-full moon, and I'm wishing I didn't have to leave! But I'll be back in the spring, for more adventures. I still haven't made it to Verona, Volterra, and I'd love to see Venezia again. And to be here in spring...that will be an adventure of its own.

I'm not sure I'll have a chance to post again until I get home. Stay tuned for more stories of my adventures in Italy. Since my old blog seems permanently lost, I plan to recreate some of my previous travel stories on this blog while I'm in the States. It's one way to stay connected to life in Italy.

ciao a tutti!

p.s. The rental agency told me my apartment might not be available in the spring, which was a big disappointment. However, a friend has offered me an apartment that she rents to university students during the year, as it will be free from May through August. It's twice the size of the one I've had this time, has 2 bedrooms and a large yard with trees. It's not as close to my favorite places, but the price will be the same for much more comfort, and I can plant a vegetable garden. This is good news on my last night in Florence!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Melancholy evening

Christmas lights, 2006

It's a melancholy evening as I stroll through the wet streets, one of my last evenings in Florence this year. For the moment, it's not raining, but few people are out and about, and most businesses are closed. It seems quite unusual at 8 pm, but the rain and the cold weather has chased everyone indoors this weekend.

I walk the "square,'' as I call it, from my apartment to the Duomo, then along via Calziuouli to Piazza Signoria, down Borgo dei Greci to Santa Croce, and back to my apartment along the vacant side streets. It hardly takes 30 minutes along the empty streets. It's odd to see the piazzas devoid of people, and hard to believe that just last weekend this same route was crowded with people late into the night.

City workers have been putting up strings of Christmas lights on many of the streets; I'd hoped to see them before I leave, but they remain still and lifeless in the dark. Purtroppo, the Christmas season won't be initiated here until next weekend, after I'm back home in Kansas.

I'm eager to leave the cold and rain, but leaving Florence is another matter; it's become like a second home to me. And even though I'll return in the spring, I hate to think of all that I'll be leaving behind, especially the friends who have opened their hearts and their homes to me. Fortunately, by way of Skype, we can continue to share our lives every week. Only a few days left of my stay here...che peccato!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Modena

Piazza Roma

Earlier this week, I took the train to Modena to visit my friends Marco and Marvi. I met Marco through a language exchange website, and I had dinner with them last year when I was in Parma, about 30 minutes from Modena. This year they invited me to stay in their home for a few days so they could show me around their city. I had been to Modena in 2008 for a day trip, but really didn't know much about the city, except that it's famous for its balsamic vinegar and it is the birthplace of Pavarotti.

Marco is a busy man, even in retirement, so I felt fortunate that he was able to carve out a few days of his schedule to give me a tour of Modena and the nearby towns of Nonantola, Vignola, and Borgo Serravale. He picked me up at the train station and when I arrived at their home, Marvi had prepared colazione (breakfast), with homemade marmalade-filled pastries and cafè.


Marvi, la buona cuoca

While Marvi stayed home to fix lunch, Marco took me on a tour of downtown Modena. One thing I love about Modena is the colors of the buildings: various shades of ochre. After walking around the town center, we visited the Duomo. It was a rainy day and dark inside the Duomo, so I didn't take any photos: instead, these are from my visit there in 2oo8.

A photo showing the apses of the Duomo

Mosaics inside the Duomo

An extraordinary pulpit, carved out of marble

For lunch, Marvi prepared a wonderful feast that include lasagna, cotoletta (meat cutlet) and zuppa inglese, a dessert made with chocolate and vanilla pudding, and a layer of red flavored with the liqueur Alchemes. (I read on Wikipedia that this dessert first appeared in Italy during the 16th century as an effort to recreate English Trifle.) For an antipasto, we had slivers of parmagiano-reggiano cheese dipped in the family's 30 year-old aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar), a truly delicious combination. We drank Lambrusco, the local sparkling wine, and Nocino, a liqueur Marvi's aunt makes from walnuts.

Nocino, Zuppa Inglese e Lambrusco

When I have eaten in the homes of my Italian friends, I forget that that pasta is only one of many courses. Marvi's lasagna was delicious (made with bechamel sauce rather than a tomato sauce), prompting me to eat too much of it, and by the time the meal was over, I felt uncomfortably full for the rest of the day.

That evening we drove to Nonantola, a nearby town. The main sight in Nonantola is the Abbey of San Silvestro, a Romanesque basilica from the eighth century that was part of a Benedictine monastery. It was unusual in that it was very large, but also very empty of decorations and statues. Back in Modena, they took me to one of their favorite trattorias, one that features typical Modenese food. I'm afraid I wasn't able to enjoy it much, as I was still full from lunch. I hope I'll have another chance in the future!

The next day Marco drove me into the hills south of Modena to Vignola where we were able to visit a well-maintained castle called Rocca di Vignola. As we arrived in Vignola, the sun came out and we had a lovely view of the countryside from the towers of the castle. Other than one other woman, we were the only visitors to the castle that day, and we took our time wandering through every room of the expansive structure, including the prison cells!

Rocca di Vignola

Marco admiring the view

A view of the countryside

We also stopped at another small castle called Castello di Serravale. We could only see it from the outside, as it is privately owned. The wind started picking up as we made our way back to Modena, and it was cloudy again when we arrived back at their house. Marvi had fixed another wonderful meal, a risotto followed by a Modenese meat dish and pureed (mashed) potatoes . This time I was careful to pace myself with each course, instead of eating too much of it.

After the meal, Marco went to university for his Latin class, and Marvi and I took a walk in Ferrari park. The park began as a landing area for small planes and gliders. The area was also used as a race track, until 1976. Along the walking path, there are busts of famous piloti, race car drivers. I learned that Modena is also known as Terra dei Motori (Land of Motors), because it is the home of not only Ferrari automobiles, but Lamborghini, Maserati and other sports cars were either founded, headquartered or built within a few kilometers from the city.

By the time we got back to their flat, it was time for me to head to the station to catch my train back to Florence. I had a good visit with Marco and Marvi and hope to see more of them next spring.

For more photos:

Modena 2010


Modena 2008

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Slow Food vs White Truffles in San Miniato

The view from San Miniato

Last Saturday I took a short train ride to San Miniato, a small town west of Florence, near Pisa. On the last three weekends in November, San Miniato hosts their annual Tartuffo Bianco (White Truffle) Festival, and people come from all over Europe to buy these parasite-like funghi, considered the pinnacle of gourmet eating. It is only in Northern Italy and Umbria that white truffles are found, and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The area around San Miniato produces 25% of Italy's annual white truffle crop.

Once I arrived in San Miniato, I had to take a bus from the train station to the town at the top of a hill, a 15-minute ride. I arrived in the town itself by 10:30 a.m., but not much was going on and few people were in the streets. Quite a contrast to the sagra in Marradi of a few weeks ago. The town itself, described as "picturesque," was not impressive, except for the views of the countryside.


Another reason I was interested in San Minitao is because of its desgination as a Slow City, described by Wikipedia as:

"Cittaslow (literally Slow City) is a movement founded in Italy in October of 1999. The inspiration of Cittaslow was the Slow Food organization. Cittaslow's goals include improving the quality of life in towns while resisting "the fast-lane, homogenized world so often seen in other cities throughout the world" – as the official slowmovement.com description puts it. Celebrating and supporting diversity of culture and the specialties of a town and its hinterland are core Cittaslow values."

Here is the Slow Food information booth. There were also vendors selling some SlowFood produce, including meat, cheese, breads, etc. Again, Wikipedia offers an explanation:

"Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader Slow movement. The movement has since expanded globally to over 100,000 members in 132 countries. Its goals of sustainable foods and promotion of local small businesses are paralleled by a political agenda directed against globalization of agricultural products."

A view of San Miniato with vendor tents filling the piazza.

From SlowFood to White Truffles provided quite a contrast! More similar to the Eurochocolate festival than the Marradi Sagra, there was a line of booths selling expensive food items; mostly meats, cheeses and chocolate. There was also one tent where vendors sold truffles and truffle products at one end, and wine at the other end. I'm not a big fan of truffles, but bought a small jar of Crema di Carciofi e Tartuffi Bianchi (an Artichoke and White Truffle spread), for 5 euros. There was also a tent where one could eat truffle dishes, but at 20 euros an item, I passed on the opportunity.

Truffles, anyone?

By noon, the town was starting to fill with people. Unlike the Marradi sagra, it seemed that the majority of participants were non-Italians: many Germans and Brits, even French people were in abundance. Most people came in cars and were well-dressed. This was more of a "posh" affair, frequented by people who could afford to buy the expensive products on sale. (FYI: White truffles are selling this year for $160 per gram (or $72,575 per pound), down from last year's high price of $180 per gram.) Definitely not my style. But I'm glad I had the chance to check it out. Now I know that I prefer sagras to fancy festivals like this one. Funny thing....when I arrived back in Florence, there was a "fancy food" fair going on in Piazza della Repubblica, with many of the same food products I'd seen in San Miniato, including truffles!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

David strolls through Florence

Il David
 
Today, the replica of Michelangelo's statue of David took a stroll in Florence, from the Piazza del Duomo through the centro storico to Piazza della Signoria. The procession was lead by a cavalcade of men in medieval costumes, and I was there from beginning to end. It was quite spectacular!

The event started in the morning, but it took all day for the statue to travel from Piazza del Duomo to Piazza Signoria, as it was slowww going. I can usually walk the same distance in five minutes. 

First, they created a stand for him to ride on, then stabilized the statue with wooden scaffolding.

A view from behind

Mayor Renzi arrives (the young guy in the middle), along with crowds of onlookers.

Then the parade started. Step by slow step, they accompanied David on his journey.
Arrival in Piazza Signoria. The crowd goes wild!
A memorable night in Piazza Signoria
It's hard to describe the impact this event had on me. In fact the entire weekend was an experience I will long remember as a call to creativity and finding the courage and determination to follow your heart.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

David, seconda parte

Last night, while most people were tucked away in their beds, a miracle happened here in Florence. Or so it seems: overnight, the area between the Duomo and the Baptistery became a field of grass. As the second part of the exhibit David: The Force of Beauty, city employees worked through the night to transform the street into a field of green. That is to say, they laid sod over the stone pavement: real grass! And they did such a good job, you would never know it wasn't there to begin with: the placement was seamless! They also relocated the replica of David, moving it from the top of the Duomo to the front steps.

The idea behind the event recalls the miracle of San Zanobi: it is said that an elm tree near the Baptistery flourished after coming in contact with the hearse that carried the mortal remains of the saint. I didn't get a photo of the tree, but it's shown in one of the albums below. The first collection of photos offers some great shots of the area from above, and offers a wonderful perspective on the enormity of these buildings.

This kind of event is one of the reasons I love Florence. At any given moment, phenomenal - sometimes outrageous - creative exhibits are going on: mind-blowing events that seem to pop up out of nowhere, the kind of events that lead one to feel AWE and JOY at being able to witness them. What really excites me about this is that having studied creativity for many years, and knowing its power to transform people - both those who create and those who appreciate the creations - I know that these events are transforming the lives of millions of people who pass through Florence every year. Is it any wonder that so many great artists have flourished here over the centuries?

One can only wonder where David will show up next!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

David, the Force of Beauty

«David, la Forza della Bellezza»

One of the events going on this week is Florens 2010, with many exhibits going on around the city. One of the most interesting is the «David, the Force of Beauty», which has a replica of Michelangelo's famous sculpture, made from the same Carraran marble as the original statue, being placed in four different spots on succeeding days, to highlight the controversy over the years about where the statue should be placed.

The goal is to make visible what Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Giuliano da Sangallo had envisioned with the location of the work in different places.

I'll write more about it after Il David has made his rounds of the city, but in the meantime, you can watch a video of how the statue landed on the Duomo, or view photos of that process. The video is in Italian, but it gives you an idea of the streets that I walk each day, as well as the immensity of the Duomo and the wonder of tourists as they view it. (Just watching the first few minutes will be sufficient.)

video of David on the Duomo

photos of David on the Duomo



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Il Cielo Michelangelesco

One of the many perks of my apartment is that I have a great view of the sky, and today I watched the clouds roll by throughout the afternoon while I was working. Great heaps of clouds marched across the sky, as if they were in a hurry to pass over the city as quickly as possible, eager to reach the sea. Every so often, a patch of blue would appear, but within a short time the sky would be dark again with ominous-looking clouds. At times, there were rumbles of thunder, and it even hailed tiny bits of ice all over the terrazza for a while.

I was mesmerized by the cloud formations, the different levels of them, and the many colors that were visible. While I was talking to my friend Marco in Modena on Skype, I was trying to describe my view of the sky out my window. He said "diciamo il cielo Michelangelesco" (we call that a sky by Michelangelo). Perfetto! Che bellissimo! Sometimes il maltempo (lousy weather) creates beautiful visions that makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rain, rain, go away

It's raining....again. Heavy rain, for hours at at time. Uffa! I feel sorry for the folks who have come here for a special vacation and have to deal with pouring rain most of the day. When there's a lull, I grab my umbrella and hit the streets for an hour or two to see what's going on in the city. But the steady rain has certainly put a halt to any traveling plans I might be doing. Instead, I'm working more hours as a way of passing the time. I'm doing an online project that allows flexibility in how many hours I work, so I can work more hours than my original commitment (5 hours/day) if I want, and the more I work, the more I earn. The project ends this week, so it's a reasonable solution while I'm stuck indoors. And the weather forecast does not look promising for the next few weeks. UFFA! Not sure when I'll be able to do laundry again, either.

I've been making good use of the termosifoni (radiators) to heat my clothes in the morning and my pajamas at night before putting them on. I also use them to warm my towels before using them. But laundry is another matter. Without the sun, or a stendino (drying rack), it's pretty impossible to dry clothes in this apartment. I will probably hold out until I leave, only washing the necessities that dry quickly when the heat is on.

All too soon, I will be leaving Italy, heading home for the winter months, then returning to Firenze in the spring for another long stay. My apartment here is drafty, and spending the winter in Florence would be costly (to heat the apartment) and very uncomfortable. With the weather as it is, it's helping to ease the pain of leaving...I'm looking forward to my warm house, my bathtub and sunny Kansas skies.

acero (sugar maple)

My son has been sending photos of the trees in my yard as they change colors. I have several sugar maples that are stunning in autumn and a tiny Japanese maple that he gave me as a gift last year. This is its first fall season, and I'm missing the transformation.

acero giapponese (Japanese maple)

But then there's the reality of leaving what now feels like my new home. Only two weeks left in Firenze. Sob! I'll be flying home Thanksgiving day. Jesse has planned a welcome home meal for me...a thoughtful gesture!

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to have a few more adventures before I leave, to Modena and Cremona and then to San Miniato for the truffle festival. If only it would stop raining!