Sunday, May 29, 2011

Firenze: Wild and Wonderful

Me with Walt, a friend from Kansas

When in Florence, I usually stay in a hotel near the train station, but after living in the centro storico, I wanted to find a hotel closer to my old neighborhood. My friend Haruko suggested one that her sister had stayed in, close to Piazza Beccaria, called Orti di Cimabue. I was very pleased with the hotel, the location and the price. As mentioned in my post about my birthday surprise, a young woman at the hotel played violin in the orchestra for the performance that night. Not only that, but when I told her it was my birthday, the next day I found a red rose in my room, along with birthday greetings. I've already decided to return to Florence at the end of my stay this year, and hope to return to this hotel.

Orti di Cimabue

Villa La Petraia

Medici Villas: Villa Castello, Villa La Petraia

One of my adventures while living in Florence last fall was to visit some of the Medici villas outside of the city, and I decided to return there this week, to see what was blooming. When I was there in the fall, there were only remnants of the flowers that had bloomed in the spring, and I envisioned a bountiful display in the right season.

I got up early and took a bus to the train station, where I caught another bus to Castello. (Number 28 and 2 will get you there, but the latter one has fewer stops.) I asked the driver if he stopped at the Villas, and he said yes, but neglected to let me know when we arrived, so I had a good walk back to them when I did get off. To my surprise, the parks looked much the same as they had last fall. I had missed the spring flowering season, and very little was in bloom that day. It was disappointing, to say the least. And since I have such a lovely landscape where I'm living in Zagarolo, I don't have the same craving for parks that I did while living in Florence last year. On the way out of the Villa Castello, I asked directions to the nearest bus stop, and discovered it was right near the entrance, which saved me a lot of unnecessary walking. For more info and photos on the parks, here's a link to the post I wrote last fall:


While in Florence, I decided to do some research on gnudi: by that I mean that I went to several restaurants where I had eaten gnudi before, to see how it compared to the recipe I've been using. At the first restaurant I tried, I was appalled...only a bland taste of spinach was evident in the green blobs on my plate, along with heavy shavings of parmagiana cheese. The gnudi lay in a pool of butter, but there was no evidence of sage that should flavor the butter. The dish was so tasteless, I should have complained and sent it back. When I'd tried gnudi at that same restaurant last fall, it was very tasty.

Table settings at BRAC

The next day I went to my favorite restaurant in Florence, Libreria BRAC, which is actually a vegetarian restaurant in the vicinity of Santa Croce. The place also serves as a library, where one can read, write or use the wifi service. I'd first eaten gnudi there last fall, and it was exquisite. This time it was good, but not as good as the gnudi I've been making. SCORE! The ambiance at BRAC is creative and playful. This time they had a display of growing seeds on the tables, to smell, touch and taste, and when you paid your bill (very low prices!), you were given a sample of seeds to take with you.


San Lorenzo Market

When in Florence, I always find time to stroll through the San Lorenzo market, one of the best shopping markets in the world. I have several "favorite" vendors where I usually buy gifts, and get a discount each time for favoring them.

Babbit family on Ponte Vecchio

On Sunday, just before I left Florence, I spent a few hours with some friends from Lawrence who had come to the city for the day. They were spending a week in Italy and it was an odd coincidence that we would be in Florence at the same time. We only had a short time together before I had to catch my train back to Rome, but it gave me a rare chance to share my favorite city with friends from Kansas.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Florence: Elegant and Creative

Artemesia Gentileschi
L'Inclinazione, 1615-1616, detail

One of the main attractions in Florence, of course, is the art. Creativity surrounds you in this city: it's inescapable. One of the things I most enjoyed about living in Florence last year was the endless variety of creative activities going on all over the city, all at the same time. This visit was no different, and I tried to use my time wisely to indulge my creative interests. First, I went to an art exhibit at Palazzi Strozzi, entitled Picasso, Miró, Dalí. Angry Young Men: the Birth of Modernity
Though not usually attracted to modern art, I found this exhibit to be extraordinary, as it was a collection of their early works, and explained how the three artists influenced each other during a crucial time in the evolution of modern art. For more information, here's a review:
art daily

Next, I went to visit Casa Buonarotti for the exhibit, THE SCHOOL OF THE WORLD: Drawings by Leonardo and Michelangelo in comparison. The museum is located in the Buonarotti home.

Michelangelo Buonarroti Battle of the Centaurs: 1490-1492

This is one of Michelangelo's first attempts at sculpture, completed during his adolescence. I first visited the museum in 2006 to see a painting done by Artemisia Gentileschi, located on the ceiling of one of the rooms. Here's the entire painting:

Allegory of Inclination

Other places I visited:
Basilica of Santa Maria Novella:
Which houses works done by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Brunelleschi, Lippi, Ghiberti, and others. Though I've often walked by the church, I'd never visited it, and it was well worth the 3, 50 euro entrance fee.

Haruko and I in front of Santa Maria Novella, 2009

Santa Croce

Cenacolo di Santa Croce (Santa Croce's Last Supper)
On my last night in Florence, I came across another unexpected event: a free concert of Gregorian chant in the Santa Croce church. I was told to go several hours in advance, as there would be limited seating room for the concert. First, I had a simple meal of risotto with mushrooms and a glass of red wine at an outdoor cafe by the church. Then I waited on the steps of the church, as told, but it was unnecessary, as there was no line until shortly before the concert started at 9pm. The concert was performed by a lay chorus and was pleasant, but not outstanding. The best part of the evening was being able to sit in a room that is usually off limits, surrounded by a largely Florentine audience.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Firenze: A Birthday Surprise!

Florence: Battistero, Duomo, Campanile

I went to Florence for a few days to celebrate my birthday. I'd planned to meet up with an Italian friend, but when that didn't come through, I let fate choose my activities. As usual, fate had wonderful plans in store for me.

I arrived at the Campo di Marte station, near the hotel where I was staying. It's not far from my old "neighborhood," and my friend Haruko had recommended the place to me. I got a 40% discount on my train ticket from Rome for using this station (across town from the main one) and buying it 2 weeks in advance, so I saved about 30 euros on my round trip tickets. I had a pleasant 90-minute ride on the high speed FrecciaArgento (silver arrow) train, and during the ride, I learned about several museum discounts I could make good use of in Florence from the free magazines that were provided in the train.

Arriving in Florence was like stepping into a furnace, and a blast of hot air greeted me. Traffic and the sound of sirens was also an active presence, a contrast to my quiet life in Zagarolo. Before I got my bearings, I'd wandered in the wrong direction, so it took longer to locate the hotel than expected. A young Japanese woman met me at the hotel and showed me around, then left to prepare for a concert. (She plays 2nd violin in an orchestra that would be performing Verdi's opera, La Traviata, with a full cast and chorus, that night in Piazza della Signoria. It would be the perfect way to celebrate my birthday!)

Mercato Sant'Ambrogio

After getting settled in at the hotel, I was eager to get out and about in my favorite city. I stopped by the Sant'Ambrogio open market to buy some fruit and decided to have lunch in a cafe there that is frequented by locals. I was seated with others who were eating alone, and was curious about what they were eating, so I asked the young man across from me about his salad. He offered me a taste of the insalata di lingua (beef tongue salad), saying it was quite delicious, and when I had a bite, I agreed! He was a friendly young Florentine, and we had a lively conversation in Italian while we ate. When he learned that I often spend time in Italy, he asked why, as many Italians do. Their perception of their country as flawed makes them wonder why foreigners want to live there. When our meal was done, he wished me Tanti Auguri for my birthday and Buona Fortuna for my life in Italy. A warm welcome, indeed!

Mercato Sant'Ambrogio

After lunch, I strolled over to Piazza del Duomo, along my usual walking route through the centro storico, and stopped in at the Paperback Exchange store, hoping to find a few good books in English to take back to Zagarolo with me. I'd looked in Rome for a similar bookstore with used paperbacks a few weeks ago, but the only one I'd heard of had closed, apparently some time ago. Last fall I often frequented the store in Florence, and this time I came away with three good reading choices, costing me only 4,50 euros for the lot! More info can be found at this link:

Paperback Exchange, Florence

That evening, I arrived early to Piazza della Signoria, as there was a seating area cordoned off and I wanted to be able to claim one of the seats, knowing the opera would be several hours long. Otherwise, there are no other places to sit in the large piazza. While waiting, I stopped for a gelato, a mainstay of my diet while in Florence.

A view of the stage from my seat in the piazza

As soon as they opened the seating area, I located a spot with a great view of the performance area, located inside the Loggia dei Lanzi, where many famous sculptures are located. It was my great good fortune to be there: if I'd not heard about the concert from la violinista at the hotel, I would not have known of the event. I'd seen the opera once before, a university performance back in Lawrence, and I was familiar with the story. But it could hardly compare to the quality of this night's performance.

However, the mood of the evening was mixed, as the event was planned to commemorate la strage dei Georgofili, a massacre that took place on May 27, 1993 in front of the Uffizi gallery, a bombing attack perpetrated by the Mafia after the arrest of a Mafia boss. In fact, the first hour of the evening was devoted to impassioned comments about the loss of lives that day, and how the Mafia continues to trouble the lives of many Italians today.

By evening, the air had become cooler, making me wish that I'd brought a scarf along with me. The opening comments began at 9 pm, followed by the performance at 10 pm, and ending at 12:30 pm. I had a long walk back to the hotel, but the air had grown cool, the pedestrian-only streets were well-lit and it was a pleasant walk, amidst others out late that night.

La Traviata performance: May 26, 2011

For me, many different kinds of emotions were in play throughout my first day and evening in Florence, and one of the strongest was a sense of homecoming: there, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I feel at home. And now I have a beautiful memory of a very special birthday, grazie a Firenze.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zagarolo vs. Firenze

The view I see on my daily walks in Zagarolo

I'm getting ready to go to Florence for a four-day stay, and I'm curious to see what it will be like, after living in a completely different kind of setting. Now that I've been living in rural Zagarolo for a month, I've been able to evaluate how life here contrasts with my life in Florence last fall.

Noise: Here in rural Zagarolo, tranquility is a constant. No sirens, buses or the constant sound of foot traffic and late night revelry to deal with. Instead, I hear birds singing throughout the day, roosters crowing, dogs barking, the wind in the trees and the music of wind chimes. Lawn mowers, weed whackers and tractors can often be heard. But mostly, it's quiet here, and I love it. The sounds I miss most from Florence are the chiming of the church bells, and the sound of bicycles rattling along the streets.

Walking in Florence

Nature: I'm also surrounded by nature here, in all her glory. Verdant green and rolling hills provide a backdrop to a way of life that is still largely agricultural. One of the things I found most painful about living in Florence was the lack of green space, and the difficulty of finding a place to enjoy the sun, due to the closely built, tall buildings. I feel more at home when I'm in a natural setting, and can't imagine living in a city for long stretches of time due to that fact.

People: In Florence, I often saw more tourists and stranieri (foreigners) than I did Italians. Here, I never see tourists, sometimes see foreigners, but mostly, I'm surrounded by Italians. And though the Zagorolesi are not openly friendly, they readily respond to my "buon giornos." I've seen many an elderly person's face light up when I greet them on the street, and their pleased reaction is always welcome.

Culture: In this respect, Florence wins, hands down. There is little culture here, but Rome is in close proximity, with culture galore, if I want to partake of it. However, I prefer the Florentine brand of culture: it's more creative and elegant. I miss having easy access to unusual, often spontaneous creative events that occur daily in Florence.

Clothes: Out in the country, there's no great need for elegant clothes, and in that way I feel more at home here. In Florence, I was more concerned about my appearance when I went out walking. Here, dress is more casual, and less creative, but more comfortable! I've noticed that long pants are the norm, and my capris always seem to stand out when I go into town. But I miss seeing the elegant, creative style of Florentines, and will enjoy having the chance to view their spring and summer attire this week.

Driving: In Florence, I enjoyed living in the centro storico, amidst the main events going on. I had no need of a car, and could easily get around via public transportation, when necessary. I routinely walked for several hours a day, which was both good exercise and a social outlet for me. Here, my walks are more enjoyable due to the scenery and the serenity of the setting. I've also come to enjoy driving the winding roads, and being able to explore nearby towns.

Temperature: A big plus of life in the country is the fact that it's cool and fresh at times when the city is uncomfortably hot and the air is polluted. I'm so thankful to be living in a setting where it stays cool. In Florence, temperatures are already in the 90's, and with no AC, there's no way to escape the heat, except to leave town.

All in all, the life I have here in Zagarolo is probably more suitable to me for a long-term stay than living in Florence. If I could have live in a country setting closer to Florence, that could be the perfect solution. But for now, I'm eager to be in Florence again and see what's new.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ospiti! Vino!

Guests and Wine
Now that I’ve become more habituated to life in Zagarolo, I’m ready to have some guests. Marco, a friend from Modena, expressed an interest in coming to Rome while I’m here, so I invited him and his wife, Marvi, to spend some time in Zagarolo. I’ll meet up with them in Rome in a few weeks, then bring them here to spend a few days exploring some of the hill towns in the area, perhaps even go to Tivoli. Bolstered by that plan, I also invited Lidia and Carlo, a couple from Rome, to spend a day in Zagarolo with me sometime soon. Another friend who lives in Ostia, on the coast west of Rome, invited me to visit him in June and wants to come here to visit the nearby winery. This gives me more incentive to check out more of the area before my guests arrive.

The other day I drove to Colonna, another hill town that’s about 10 minutes by car. Unlike Castel San Pietro, I wasn’t too impressed. Oh well, there are many others still to see. I have found several roads that have lovely scenery alongside them: one is the road to Tivoli, which only a 15km drive from here.

When I got back to the house, I noticed that the gate to the winery across the road from the house was open, and decided it was the perfect time to meet the owners. A man was driving up to the entrance just as I arrived, and he went looking for the owner, who was out in the vineyard. Then the wife of the owner came out, and I introduced myself. Deborah had told them that I would be staying here for several months, and that I was interested in learning about the growing and making of wine.

Entrance to winery

In fact, I’d met Claudio and Mariela in 2009 when I was in Zagarolo the first time, but I didn’t expect them to remember me. The other man turned out to be a restaurateur from a restaurant in Tivoli, one of the towns on my list to visit. Bottles of wine were brought out to sample and enjoy with bread, olive oil and cheese while we talked.

The Tufaio winery:
From their website, I learned that “The Winery "Tufaio Cellar," located in the heart of the DOC* Zagarolo, was founded in 1994 by the Loreti heirs to continue a tradition that has its roots in 1881. The cantina was created inside the farmhouse built by Tiberius Loreti, and includes a cave, dug by hand in the tuff** about 20 meters deep. The name "TUFAIO" celebrates the tufa of volcanic residue in the vineyards that give our DOC and the smell of "wet tuff", typical of the best wine in Zagarolo.”

*DOC Denominazione di origine controllata ("Controlled origin denomination") is an Italian quality assurance label for food products, especially for wine and cheese. It means that products are guaranteed to originate from certain areas, and are produced by specific standards.

**Tuff: a type of rock consisting of consolidated volcanic ash.
I'm thrilled with the prospect of having guests coming to stay with me in Italy. Now I've got to get my act together and make it worth their while!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Finding the Treasure

I’ve been reading an unusual and interesting book that Deborah suggested: A Fortune-teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East, by Tiziano Terzani. After being told by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong not to fly for a year, the author, a long-time journalist in Asia, decided to heed the warning and spent the year traveling across Asia by many other modes of transportation. The book is an account of that journey. Terzani was born and lived the first 18 years of his life in Florence, but became fascinated with the Orient in his 20's and lived most of his life in various parts of Asia.
In the book, Terzani writes: “Every place is a goldmine. You only have to give yourself time…and soon, the most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.”

This week, as I’ve settled more into the daily habits of life in Italy, I readily agree with Terzani. For the first few weeks, I was intimidated by many things, but now that I’ve become familiar with the daily chores and activities, the driving, the neighbors and the neighborhood, I’m realizing what a treasure I’ve found.

Terzani also writes at great length about the power of belief, as he visits many cultures that have strong beliefs in magic, and observes that it is one’s beliefs that create, or at least facilitate much of what happens in life. He relates how Christian missionaries, after years living amongst people who use ancient rituals for healing, often find that the beliefs of the people they were once trying to convert make more sense, and have more value, at least in that setting, than their own Christian beliefs.

I have long believed in magic, and for many years have taught others about the power of our thoughts. My journey in Italy has come about by virtue of my beliefs and the use of my mind to create a life that challenges, inspires and fulfills me. Several years ago I began to envision living in Italy near a small village, and here I am. It hardly seems possible, but it’s true. And the more I settle into that reality, the more eager I am to clarify my visions of the future. I’ve fully realized many of the goals that I set a few short years ago. So what’s next? I need to think carefully about what I want to experience, and this is the perfect place to fashion goals for the next five years. Undoubtedly, Italy is in my future, and I will be living in Italy more in the years to come. But the specifics are still vague and unformed. The desire is sufficient to lead me forward.

In the meantime, it is essential to savor my time in Zagarolo, and make the most of this trove of treasure that is currently my home.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Castel San Pietro Romano

A panoramic view from Castel San Pietro

Castel San Pietro Romano is one of the many Castelli Romani ("Castles of Rome") that surround Zagarolo: it's a tiny hill town with 835 inhabitants. It's only a 20-minute drive from Zagarolo, and I've already been to visit it twice. During the week, the town is virtually empty, but it's a popular destination for a weekend jaunt. Starting from ancient Roman times, the Castelli Romani was an area frequented by the noblemen of Rome for its fresher climate during the summer. The area of the Castelli sits on an ancient, fertile volcanic area which has allowed a flourishing agriculture, from ancient times continuing into present day.

A view of the hills of Rome from Castel San Pietro

Its charming Old Town, as well as having interesting streets and squares, features a number of vantage points from which you can see beautiful views of the valley and the foothills of the city of Rome. Another noteworthy feature of this small village are the ancient cyclopean walls of pre-Roman origin, present in one part of the old town.

Il Castello

Street scene

Interesting alley.

Portico to the Castello

Here's a charming little video, which offers more scenes of the town. It's in Italian: basically they talk about the myth that Saint Peter came to preach in the town, and how the town was made famous as the setting for several movies starring Vittorio de Sica and Gina Lollobrigida.

Castel San Pietro Romano

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The peaceful village of Zagarolo

The countryside

Today I got up early to walk along the road by the house. I've done so many times before in the afternoon or evening, when there is usually traffic and activity from cars, dogs, tractors, etc. This morning it was more peaceful, and I even encountered several other women walking for exercise.

Around here, homes are all gated and often obscured from view, but beyond the homes there are vineyards, hills, and a few open fields. A few things that mar the walking experience are the whizzing cars that don't swerve around you (it seems they expect you to get out of their way, and sometimes pass by with only a few inches to spare), and the proliferance of large dogs, which seem to be the alarm system most often used in these parts. The dogs are usually behind gates, but they bark when anyone walks by, and some of them appear vicious.

The street I walk runs north and south (sort of), and the hills are to the east and west (or thereabouts). Directions are a little skewed here, as nothing seems to be laid out in a direct line like we're used to at home.

A view of the green hills surrounding Zagarolo

A peaceful village

Later, I drove the winding road into Zagarolo, an activity I'm beginning to enjoy. The roads are narrow, but there's little traffic, and it's a pleasant journey into the village. Two small Italian cars barely fit on the narrow road, and there's no shoulder to provide leeway, so if you come upon a tractor or cyclists, there's an art to passing them with finesse. I enjoy the challenge! To and fro, up and down, so goes the road into Zagarolo.

The road coming into Zagarolo

Along the road, every house has its own vineyard, its own olive orchard. The hills are covered with the new growth of grapevines, and it's a lovely sight. Sometimes I can hardly believe I am here! Several years ago I had a vision, a hope of living near a small Italian village, but no real understanding of how it might be possible to bring that vision to life. Ma piano, piano (but slowly), it's come about, and here I am, living the dream.

Il vigneto, the vineyard: a common sight in these parts

In Zagarolo, I stop to buy gas, 10 - 20 euros at a time. Gas is sold by the liter here, and for 20 euros I can get about 12.5 liters, or 3.3 gallons. That means gas costs @ $9 per gallon in Italy. And you thought prices were high in the U.S.! People often buy a few liters at a time and try to make the most of it.

After that, I park the car and walk to the Bancomat and withdraw money to last the next few weeks. I don't need much, as my only real expenses are food and gas, and I earn 40 euros/week helping two women practice their English. I stroll down the main street of Zagarolo, which you can also do by going to Google maps, typing in Zagarolo, Italy, and choosing the street view (click on the yellow man). With a little bit of playing around, you will find yourself on Via Fabrini, or Borgo San Martino, the very streets that I walk along in the sleepy village atop the tufa hill.

I stop in for a cappuccino at Paola's bar, then continue down the street to Porta San Martino, which serves as a gate at one end of town. Then I turn around and walk back the same way, taking time to explore some of the side vicoli (alleys). The anziani zagarolesi (elderly citizens) sit together on new wooden benches that line the street, chatting. Young mothers pass by with their babies in strollers, often speaking into a cell phone as they go.

Porta San Martino and the street beyond, Borgo San Martino

In one of the piazzas, I come upon a smaller open market, with a display of vegetables and fruit for sale. Across the way, a man sells fresh fish from his portable stall. I notice a poster that advertises an addition to the weekly Saturday market: starting on Sunday there will be a weekly market of cibo artigianale (traditional, home grown or homemade food) from Rome. There is also a festival of some kind scheduled this Sunday, so I'm sure to be in Zagarolo most of the day to check things out.

Laundry day

Speaking of artigianale, I stop in for homemade gelato, trying a small cone of melon and amarena cherry (a sour cherry). Squisito! (Yummy!) All too soon, I'm back at the car, and heading on to Palestrina to fare la spesa (do the shopping.) Ah, Zagarolo, a me piace molto! (I really like it!)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I vespi ed i gnudi

Il cancello (the gate) in the alley.

Wasps and gnudi

Well, so much for help with the hedges. A young man had offered his help trimming the hedges, as I'm allergic to wasp stings, the kind of allergic that can be deadly. The hedges are covered with honeysuckle vine and other tasty flowers that wasps enjoy, so they've made nests in the greenery that lines the alley.

The long hedge in the alley that must be kept trimmed.
(The yard extends beyond the 2nd telephone pole.)

I was not looking forward to overseeing Mauro, as I wasn't sure he was eager to do the work. But when the appointed time came, he was a no-show. While I was waiting for him to appear, I started trimming myself, and made it through a third of the length of the hedge. Since it was early in the morning, the wasps were not active, and I had long sleeves, long pants, gloves and a hat on, just in case. I'm usually working in my yard at home this time of year, and I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from sprucing things up. After waiting 90 minutes, it seemed obvious Mauro was not coming. He called an hour later: "sorry, I'm not feeling well, maybe next week I can help you with the plants." I told him that while I was waiting, I started doing the work myself, and I could finish it without his help. And he needn't worry about coming in the future. I didn't enjoy waiting nearly three hours to learn he wasn't coming, and I didn't want to deal with that again. Too bad: he missed the chance to make 50 euros helping me out this month.

By that time, it was heating up, so I turned my attention to another task: making gnudi. I discovered gnudi (naked ravioli) last year at a restaurant in Florence. It was quite delicious and light, an unusual find in Italy, where heavy meals are more common. Considered a Tuscan dish, it is similar to the filling that is often used in ravioli, but with gnudi, there is no pasta.

Gnudi production

Basically, it's a mixture of spinach, ricotta, parmigiano, eggs, and spices, formed into balls and then boiled. It can be served with a tomato-based sauce or sage butter. There are many recipes available online, and I'm still learning the process myself, so I won't include the ingredients here. If you're curious, here's a basic version:


I'd tried making gnudi several times at home, but both times they turned out too heavy, due to an excess of flour. Today I used ultra-fresh, locally made ricotta (from a dairy down the street!), and the mixture turned out much fluffier than before: a good sign. I only added a little flour this time and though the gnudi turned out nicely formed, they were a little bland. I'll remix it tomorrow, add a few more spices and see what happens. I'm hoping to master this dish while I'm here, so I can serve it to my Italian friends with confidence.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Roma : Art and Pincio

Pincio, a park in Rome

Yesterday I ventured into Rome again, eager to see an exhibition of the art of Tamara de Lempicka. I'd never heard of her name before, but I had seen some of her paintings, in the Art Deco style that she's famous for. In 2006, there had been an exhibit of her work in Milan while I was there, but I didn't go, and wanted to be sure to catch it this time. De Lempicka had an interesting life, and is known for her emancipated images of women, painted during the 1920's.

There were 90 paintings, 30 drawings, 50 photographs and 2 short films on view at the Vittoriano complex in Rome (Via Di San Pietro In Carcere) from 11th March to 10th July 2011.

Here's a link to a website that has images de Lempicka's paintings, along with a link to her biography:

Another site that highlights her paintings:

To get to Rome, I drove to the train station, locked the car up in a nearby parking lot, and waited for the train. I bought a special pass, called a BIRG ticket, which should allow me 24 hours of use of trains, la metro (subway) and buses, at a cost of 6 euros. It seemed like a good deal at the time, as taking the train back and forth alone would cost 5, 40 euros.

I looked at the list of the upcoming train departures to check which binario (track) the train would be on. There was a crowd of people waiting at one track, so I joined them, oblivious to the fact that I had looked at the arrival screen instead of the departure screen. Once I was on the train and we had gone a short distance, I realized the train was going in the opposite direction of Rome. I asked someone about it, and sure enough, I was on the wrong train! It's the first time it's happened to me in six years of traveling in Italy. I got off at the next stop, and waited 30 minutes for the next train going to Rome. Okay, so I wasted an hour, no big deal. I arrived in Rome at 9:30 am and started walking toward il Complesso del Vittoriano, near Piazza Venezia and the huge white monument toVittorio Emanuele II, often called "the birthday cake" due to its imposing size and structure. The Complesso, or complex, is behind the monument, and houses several exhibitions.

this photo by Nina Aldin Thune
Two years ago I took an elevator to the top of the monument, where there is an incredible panoramic view of Rome.

The Colosseo is in the background, and the ruins of il Foro Romano are visible on the left.

I spent several hours in the exhibit, then walked across town to Pincio, a huge park near the Villa Borghese.

A scene in Pincio.

By this time, it was getting warm (80 degrees F, but it seemed more like 90) in Rome, and crowded. Walking around Pincio was the perfect antidote to the heat and the crowds. I intended to ride the subway back to the train station, but when I tried using my BIRG ticket, it didn't work in the turnstile. When I asked a subway attendant about it, he looked briefly at the ticket and said it should have been validated, then he went back to playing a game of cards. The ticket HAD been validated in Zagarolo, but I didn't feel like arguing with him. Instead, I decided to catch a bus. But I had to walk a long ways, back to Piazza Venezia, to find the right bus. I waded through the increasing crowds until I found the bus stop I needed.

By this time I was eager to get back to my oasis of tranquility in Zagarolo. I made it to the train with 15 minutes to spare, but then we sat on the tracks for another 20 minutes before finally leaving Termini. The house was peaceful and cool when I arrived home, and I was happy to be there. But I'll head back to Rome again next week...there's still a lot I want to see!

Sunday, May 8, 2011


entrance to the house


Saturdays will be a busy day for while I'm here this time. Why? For one, the weekly open market happens every Saturday morning in Zagarolo. I get up early to feed the cats and then drive into town, hoping to beat the rush of cars that jam the street near the market. People park every which way, so it's best to come early or late to the market. Not only is produce sold, but there are also meat, cheese, bread, honey and flower vendors. In another area of the market, vendors sell a wide variety of goods: clothes, toys, yarn, gadgets of all kinds, chandeliers, curtains, shampoos, kitchen ware, shoes, jewelry, etc. Yesterday I bought several used knit tops for 4 euros each that are warmer than some of the things I brought with me.

At 10 am, my first student, Valeria came to the house, to have two hours of practice speaking in English. Valeria is 25, a striking beauty and a young Roman professional. She's only been living in Zagarolo since last fall, when she moved in with her boyfriend. Together they are restoring a flat in a villa owned by his family. (Villa often refers to a building of 3-4 flats, where various members of the same family occupy all the flats.) Valeria has a degree in Economics and works in Rome for a large utility company. Speaking English is still an awkward challenge for her, so she is quite exhausted mentally after two hours. I know the feeling: it often happens to me when speaking Italian for several hours. Valeria commutes to Rome each day, works out 3 evenings a week, and often does not eat dinner until after 10 pm. Yet she still finds time to practice English for two hours every week.

Valeria told me of her wedding plans, and how they must save to pay for the elaborate dinner that is a main part of the Italian wedding celebration. It will cost @ 100 euros ($145) per person, and with at least 100 people in attendance, that comes to 10,000 euros ($14,500) just for the meal!

sidewalk leading to the house

At 3 pm in the afternoon, I drive to the home of Anna, a podiatrist, who needs help translating scientific articles about research in her field. Though Anna is already a doctor, she needs two more years of study to be able to teach at university, her ultimate goal. She has one year to go. Since most medical research is published in English, Anna spends a great deal of time wading through the long and complicated articles, then she summarizes the articles in Powerpoint presentations that she shares at conferences. She does not speak much English, but seems to understand it well enough to get a sense of the information in the articles.

Yesterday, our meeting went like this: I read a section of a scientific article in English, (on a particular type of nail fungus), then she read the same section back to me in English. Then she read the section again, translating it into Italian, to make sure she understood all of the English. At various times, her mother came through to get the laundry, her nephew Andrea came into to ask that Anna print him a coloring book page from a web site, and later he returned to ask for some of his Easter candy. We spent two + hours in this fashion, and only made it through two pages of the article.

I enjoyed the time spent with both of these women, and it humbled me to realize the struggles that many Italians go through to get ahead in their careers. Many of my Italian friends are very dedicated to improving their lives despite the challenges it entails. Neither Valeria or Anna have much free time in their lives, yet they are devoted to doing what they can to move ahead in their careers. I salute them, and am pleased to be able to help their journey in some small way. In addition, I earned 40 euros in the process! (@ $57). But in comparison to them, I feel both lazy and spoiled. It's almost embarrassing to say that I work online for my income! I know, I had my own struggles for many years, raising my son on my own. But now I'm able to travel and work online, which is a wonderful luxury. In any case, because of the life I now have, I can help them to improve theirs. Basta! It's a good thing!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Il paese di Zagarolo

The village of Zagarolo, high atop a tufa hill.

The house where I'm living is in the countryside outside of Zagarolo, which is about 20 miles southeast of Rome. Actually, I'm house-sitting for a friend who went to Canada for two months. She has a large yard, vegetable garden and 7 cats that need looking after, so I agreed to stay while she pursues her own travel adventures in British Columbia. The house is a 10 - minute drive to the village of Zagarolo, population @ 15,000 people. Many people who live here work in Rome, and have easy access to the train for commuting. Unfortunately, I'm unable to walk into town, as I'd hoped. The roads are narrow, winding, and hilly, with no shoulders and speeding cars. So instead of trying to walk into town, I drive to a city parking lot at one end of town, and walk to the other end and back again for a pleasant hour's stroll. As you can see from the above photo, the town is on a hill, surrounded by a forest of trees below.

Zagarolo is located in an area of Italy called Castelli Romani, which translates literally to "Roman Castles," but actually refers to a group of hill-towns located along the slopes of the Alban Hills, an area created long ago by volcanic activity. Home to many civilizations before the Romans, the Alban Hills became a rural summer retreat for Rome's wealthy residents.
Although fairly popular as weekend day trip destinations, the towns aren't touristy. They maintain a sense of the Italian small village life. While I'm here, I'm hoping to visit a variety of the 20-some villages that make up the Castelli Romani.

A street garden.

A charming view down un vicolo (alley)

A view from il giardino publicco (city park).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

La vita quotidiana a Zagarolo

An olive tree and rose bushes frame the path to the house.

Daily life in Zagarolo

Now that the sun has been out for several days, I find that I have a little slice of paradise in my new home. For instance, while I write this, I'm sitting on the patio in the sun, listening to a variety of birds that are hanging out in the numerous trees in the yard. There are fig, plum, olive, cherry, hazelnut, and almond trees, along with one tall pine, of the variety that produces the expensive pine nuts that are used to make pesto. Wild rose bushes are in bloom throughout the yard, and several varieties of wildflowers are scattered here and there in the grass. Numerous wind chimes play a variety of melodies in the breeze. There must be a good acre of land here, as it's easily three times the size of my yard in Kansas. In the background, I can hear a rooster crowing.

A fig tree up close; an olive tree, a cherry tree and the orto in the background.

There is also a small orto, or vegetable garden. Tomatos, red lettuce, arugula, and artichokes were the only plants started when I arrived, but I added about 20 basilico plants, bought at the Saturday market for 1 euro. Not one euro apiece, like they would be at home. No, there were about 30 small plants in a container that cost one euro. In addition to basil, there are huge bushes of sage, rosemary and thyme. Now if only I were a better cook! But I'll soon have two of the main ingredients for making pesto: basil and pine nuts.

More of the yard, with the pine tree in the background.

I've discovered that the sun shines on the southeast side of the house and patio for several hours in the morning, and comes around to shine for several hours on the west side in the late afternoon. So I try to take advantage of that time, sitting in the sun to write, read, or just savoring the ambiance of the setting. In the evening, if I walk down to the end of the yard, I can see lovely sunsets over the hills of Rome. It's lonelier here than it was in Florence, but at least I have the cats for company, and all of nature. Somehow, it feels more satisfying to be in such a peaceful, lush environment.

Monday, May 2, 2011

First Days in Zagarolo

This post is out of order: see post below for a more recent entry!!

My flight to Rome was uneventful, and I arrived at the Fiumicino airport early on Wednesday morning. I found the express train to Termini, Rome's main train station, where I located the regional train to Zagarolo. Unfortunately, I just missed one of them, as I was unable to get my ticket validated in time. (If you don't validate your train ticket before boarding, you could be liable for a hefty fine!) Three of the machines I tried were broken, and the train pulled out before I could locate one that was working. This meant I had more than two hours to wait for the next train. With my luggage in tow, and my energy low, I could do little more than sit on one of the two benches available and wait.

Once I arrived in Zagarolo, Deborah met me at the station and drove me back to her house, about five minutes from the station. After I got settled in and met the cats that I'll be in charge of during my stay, we drove into town to begin my initiation into the life I'll be living over the next two months.

To be honest, I'm unsure of the sequence of events that occurred during the 4 days of my "orientation," as I was involved in a whirlwind of activities. But here a a few highlights:

I practiced driving Deborah's car, a standard - shift Renault Twingo. It was intimidating at first, but after a few days, I got the hang of maneuvering the winding roads, the roundabouts and the speeding Italian drivers. One day we got a flat tire from a nail in the road, so I learned about the "gommista," the guy who fixes and changes tires. Sure am glad it happened while Deborah was still here!

I made the round of meeting some of her friends and colleagues, including Silvia, the cats' vet, and Paola, who runs one of the caffè bars in town. Paola's son Mauro will come to trim the hedges at the house, since there might be wasp nests and I'm allergic to wasps. I also met some of the neighbors and an English couple, Ken and Maria, who live in the nearby town of Gallicano.

I also met Valeria and Anna, two professional women who have been working on their English with Deborah, and would like to continue their weekly conversations with me. So, for 3-5 hours a week, I'll have two paying students to talk to, and will make enough money to cover my weekly expenses while I'm here.

I know I'll be writing more about the people I've met and all that's going on at the house, so I won't go into details yet. I'm swamped with online work this week, so I don't have much time to write.

However, one thing that continues a theme from my stay in Florence: it's cold here! And once again, I didn't pack enough warm clothes. Fortunately, Deborah has some things to ease the discomfort until things warm up, and I'm making good use of the bathtub at night. Soon enough, I'll probably be complaining about the heat!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day in Rome

a view of St. Peter's Basilica from the Tiber River

I spent Sunday, May 1st in Rome. Deborah and I caught an early train into the city, and parted ways at Termini train station. She was headed for her flight to Canada, and I was curious to see what May Day would be like in the Eternal City. I arrived at 8 a.m., and it was relatively quiet in the streets.

I'd planned to take the Metro to the Vatican, but the entrances to the subway in Termini were closed. Everywhere I looked, there were all kinds of policemen: security had been stepped up to accommodate the large crowds expected that day. Not only was it Worker's Day (a national holiday), but Pope John Paul II was being made a saint at the Vatican. People had come from all over the world to attend the beatification. Many state museums, including the Pantheon, were open free to the public for the holiday.

Polish pilgrims in native costume, who came to honor their Pope

I hopped onto one of the shuttle buses going to St. Peter's Square, but it dropped us off instead at Piazza San Giovanni, quite a distance away. A crowd was accumulating there to watch the festivities on a Maxi-Screen. And later in the day, it would be the site for an annual free concert, with many big name stars performing live for the Romans. With no interest in watching a big screen, I moved on.

I continued walking along the Tiber River towards the Vatican. It was a warm day, but very few people were walking in that part of town. Many streets in Rome had been closed off for the day, and it was eerily quiet. However, by the time I was nearing St. Peter's, Mass had already started, and there were so many people it would be impossible to actually get into the Piazza.

A million and a half people were in attendance

Since I'm not one of the faithful, I hung around on the fringes of the crowd, and observed their vigil.

Crossing Ponte Sant'Angelo, a bridge across the Tiber,built in 134 A.D. by
Emperor Hadrian. Often called "the pilgrims bridge," it leads to St. Peter's Basilica.

After I while, I decided to move on, and headed back across town to Piazza Navona, one of my favorite places in Rome. I wanted to visit the nearby church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where there's a famous Caravaggio painting. However, a big screen had been set up in the church, and it was filled with people watching the festivities at the Vatican. I ambled down to the Pantheon, only to find it was closed while Sunday Mass was going on. So I walked over to the Spanish Steps instead. I'd been there several times before, but always in the fall. This time I was able to see it decorated with flowers in full bloom.

The Spanish Steps

I doubled back to the Pantheon, and this time was able to go inside. It's always amazing to see this ancient temple, built in 126 A.D. by Emperor Hadrian.

Its dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.

By this time, I'd been walking for nearly 5 hours, so I caught a bus back to Termini, found a train to Zagarolo, and drove back to Deborah's, on my own for the first time. All in all, a good May Day!