Saturday, December 1, 2012

Risk or Die?

"When you take a risk, you may lose;
When you don't take a risk, you always lose."

Tonight I watched an inspiring movie that takes place on the French island of Corsica, about a chambermaid who discovers a passion for playing chess, which transforms her life. I love this kind of French movie, with beautiful scenery, minimal dialogue and maximum impact. There are some lovely scenes of Helene, the main character, riding her bike along empty roads, with majestic views of mountains and the Mediterranean Sea in the background. The French title is Joueuse; the English title, A Queen to Play. I highly recommend it! For more information, here's a link to a splendid review:

Queen to Play: A Tale of Chess in Corsica

In the background story that's included as an extra on the DVD, I learned that Corsica is known as "the land of chess." Out of 260,000 inhabitants on the island, there are 4,500 members of the Corsican chess league. In Corsican elementary schools, chess is so common that it's almost considered a subject. For the first time in my life, I'm curious enough to consider learning to play the game myself! Planning a trip to Corsica is also a possibility.

But the main point of the film is that risk is necessary for growth, and without taking on a challenge now and then, our lives become stagnant and dull. As the winter months loom ahead, I'm seeking new ways to challenge myself, and movies like this help to inspire me. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Learning Adventures: Free Online Education and MOOCs

I challenge you all to try a new learning adventure!

I'm back in the States now, in fact, I've been here since the end of October. As usual, once I get home, I find myself swamped with work from my two online jobs. One of them, being an adjunct professor for an online university, required me to attend a month-long online workshop during November, which focused on building community within the classroom. I found the workshop to be a rewarding experience, as it introduced me to many innovative strategies to get students more involved in their education. It was also stimulating to share with more than 70 of my colleagues all over the continent who were taking the same workshop.

One of the things that came up is making the classroom more engaging for the students. Our students are located all over the world, so there's no real-time connection between student and teacher. And since my classroom is designed and set up by the university,  I can't alter the content of it. But I can tweak things here and there to improve how the content is being delivered.  One way of doing this is to add videos, so the students have a visual representation of their teacher.  I'm excited about learning to make videos for my classroom, as it will be a creative outlet for me, and will give me a skill to use in other areas of my life, including this blog. I'm eager to see what I can implement to engage students more in their learning experience.

Another thing that I'm currently learning more about is MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are fast becoming a trend in online education. Many top universities around the world offer courses online that anyone can take, absolutely free. By taking some of these courses myself, I can learn more about the online environment from a student's point of view, as well as the technologies that are being implemented. Here's a New York Times article that explains the possibilities:

College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All

I'm excited at the prospect of interacting with other students from all over the world! For more information about MOOCs that are currently offered, check out these links:




Before my son left on his bicycle trip to South America, he decided to study Physics during his journey. He found numerous sites with video lectures that he could download to his handheld computer, to view at his convenience. Here are his recommendations:

Khan Academy

Learners TV

Community Video

Another great resource for stimulating and free educational videos can be found on TED, which offers "Riveting talks by remarkable people."

TED: Ideas worth spreading

And finally, here's one from Britain, The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which has great lectures on video, and an innovative way of presenting ideas through animation:

RSA Animate

Okay, you have the info, now here's the challenge: Learn Something New!!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the road to Mexico

Back in Kansas, a momentous event occurred on November 4, when my son Jesse departed on a 3-month journey on his bicycle. He will journey west from Kansas, across the United States to California, then travel south to Baja California in Mexico. In total, he'll go 3000 miles, or four times the length of Italy!

Jesse and I before his departure
While I've been traveling in Italy more often over the past two years, Jesse has been working to save money for this trip, and he took care of my house and yard while I was gone. His presence at home was a big factor in my ability to stay in Italy for months at a time. Now it's his turn  to travel! He's giving himself plenty of time to explore the areas he plans to visit.

Loaded bicycle, ready to go!
Some people think Jesse was inspired by my travels, but it's actually the other way around. Jesse has lived in Georgia, San Francisco and Tokyo, Japan. His interest in languages and exploring other cultures inspired me to travel in Italy and learn Italian.

On the road
He'll be writing about his adventures on his own blog:

Fireflies and Snow

Buon viaggio, mio figlio! Divertiti!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Museo Ferragamo, Marbled paper and Brac

Ferragamo shoes (only 450 euros for the pair!)
One of the fun museums that I enjoy visiting often in Florence is Museo Ferragamo, which I introduced last year in another post:  Firenze Ancora

Salvatore Ferragamo was a Florentine shoe designer who first became famous while creating unique shoe designs for American film stars. I've been to three exhibits in the past few years, and each once has been entertaining and a creative inspiration. This year's exhibit was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, on the 50th anniversary of her death. There were hundreds of photos, videos of interviews, a book of her writing, clips of her movies, and displays of the clothing and shoes she wore during her film career. It was a nostalgic look at  an American icon. For more info, here's a link to the museum:   Museo Ferragamo

Il Papiro

While strolling the streets of Florence one day, I walked into one of the Il Papiro stores, where they feature handmade marbled papers, using a 17th century technique. I watched a demonstration of the process.

Getting ready to make the print: she will lay the paper over the pan of water mixed with paint.

The marbled design

The finished product! Che bella!
For more information, here's a link to their site: Il Papiro

One of my favorite restaurants in Florence, located between the Museo Galileo and Museo Horne on via dei Vagellai 18r, is Brac. It's a bit hard to find, so I would suggest having a good map,or a look on Google maps, before setting out to find it. There's no sign to indicate its location, so you need to look for the number above the door. But it's well worth the effort to get there! Though the food is vegetarian, it is ALWAYS exquisite, both in taste and presentation, and relatively cheap for such an extraordinary meal.

Lonely Planet describes Brac well:

"The latest addition to the Florentine vegetarian scene is also by far the most sophisticated. Set around a bright little courtyard, it offers a serene retreat. The airy dining room is formed by a glassed-in loggia (covered area on the side of a building) painted white and packed with books, and the all-vegetarian menu includes cheesy pastas, grilled or sautéed vegetables, and crunchy salads like a vegan mixture of fresh fennel, blood-orange and almonds. Brac also doubles as a bookstore, while its courtyard is ideal for a relaxed drink."

My 12 euro lunch at Brac

Carpaccio di avocado, con misticanza, pomodori, sedano, sesamo, mandorle, limone
Mezze mancihe mediteranee con basilico, pomodori, melanzane,caperi, origano
Fagottino di pane carasau con spinaci, parmigiano

Avocado sliced thinly with mixed greens, tomatoes, celery, sesame seeds, almonds, lemon
A type of  pasta with basil, tomatoes, eggplant, capers, oregano
Sicilian flatbread-like dumpling with spinach, parmesan


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Santa Reparata

Corteo Storico
History is always evident in Firenze, and its always a treat to stumble upon a historic event going on in the  centro storico. This year, I witnessed a parade on the feast of Santa Reparata. Santa Reparata is the co-patron saint of the city, sharing the role with St. John the Baptist.

Legend has it the Santa Reparata helped the Roman soldiers and Florentine people to defeat the Ostrogoths, who invaded Florence. The people attributed their victory to the divine intervention of Santa Reparata, a Saint with origins in Palestine, that Christians in Florence were devoted to. It is one of the first events concerning Christianity in Florence. The city then became Christian, maintained  its independence and dedicated the most important church of the city to Santa Reparata. Underneath the Duomo, there is the ancient church of Santa Reparata, the old Cathedral of Florence.

Every year on October 8th Florence celebrates its co-patron with the Florentine Corteo Storico (a parade in historical costume), making their way through the streets at 4 pm to arrive at the Duomo. Then at 4.30pm a blessed candle and wreath are placed in the crypt of Santa Reparata underneath the Cathedral. I followed the Corteo Storico as they made their way from Piazza Signoria to the Duomo.
Entering the Duomo

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Siena, as viewed from the Duomo
My first visit to Siena was in 2006, and I’m sad to say that I gave it short shrift. I only spent one day there, which you can read about here. It was raining that day, and there were several other factors that contributed to my unfavorable report. But all that has changed. Siena is another beautiful Tuscan city with a lot to offer. 

Siena's Duomo
When I left for Siena this time, it was raining again! I took a bus from the flat in Florence to the train station, walked across the street to the SITA bus station, bought my ticket, and immediately boarded the direct bus to Siena. I had reserved a room for two nights in Siena, as a friend from Rome said she might be able to join me, and I was hoping to take a day trip to another hill town nearby. Little more than an hour later, the bus driver dropped me off near my hotel in Siena: I couldn’t believe how easy it was this time! However, it was still raining, and much cooler than when I left Florence. I was nursing a cold, so I rested in the hotel before heading out in the rain.

A detailed section of the floor, The Sacrifice of Isaac
I’d come to see a special event at the Duomo in Siena, called La Divina Bellezza. The floor of the church is covered with mosaics that portray many stories from the Bible and other mythological and historical events. Wikipedia states that: "The inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy, covering the whole floor of the cathedral. This undertaking went on from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, and about forty artists made their contribution. The floor consists of 56 panels in different sizes."

A maiden reading.
More mosaics: this reminds me of an image in a child's coloring book!
Most of the time, the floor is covered to protect it, but this year for two months it has been uncovered for the public to view. It was a great place to spend a few hours on a rainy day. In fact, I spent most of the day visiting the Duomo and several museums that were part of a package deal. Many people took advantage of a multimedia guide to help them view the treasures in the Duomo, which included statues by Michelangelo (Saint Peter), Donatello (St. John the Baptist) and Bernini (St. Jerome and Mary Magdalene).

Bernini's Saint Jerome
For 8 euros, you were given a touch screen gizmo, along with an Mp3 player to listen to. You could point to the image you want to learn about, then listen to the description. I usually don't take advantage of audio guides, as they often have too much information for me to absorb and they often cost more than than the admission fee to the museums where they are offered. Instead, I like to soak up as much as I can while I'm in a place, and then study it more in detail when I have time at home, via the internet or books that I have on hand. While visiting the Duomo's museum, I had the chance to climb to a tower for a panoramic view of Siena and the countryside, which was a real bonus, as shown in the first and last photos of this post.

For lunch, I found an osteria that served ribollita, a typical Tuscan stew made from beans, bread and vegetables. I’ve had several versions of this dish, and today’s was the absolute best. Later, I bought some ricciarelli, Sienese almond cookies that melt in your mouth, to go with my afternoon café macchiato (espresso with a "stain" of milk). 

Ricciarelli, Sienese almond cookies
Then I wondered around town, and hung out for several hours at the main piazza, Il Campo, where the famous horse race, the Palio, takes place every summer. 

Il Campo, the grande piazza in Siena
 Instead of a horse race, some East Indian men were filming a movie in front of the piazza’s Fountain of Joy, and they were busy recruiting young adults as extras to hang out in the background. Oddly, they seemed to choose American-looking youth, especially girls with long blond hair. An Indian video made in Italy, with many “American” extras and only two Indian “stars.” Go figure!

Making movies in Il Campo
In the evening, I ate a mediocre piece of pizza for dinner and hit the hay early. Unfortunately, my Roman friend was unable to make it to Siena, due to illness in her family, so I was on my own to explore Siena.
The next day, I got up early and feasted on the hotel’s free breakfast. I was hoping to catch a bus to Montepulciano, a nearby hill town, for a day trip. However, I had so much trouble trying to locate a bus or bus schedule to get there, that I gave up that notion and decided to hang out in Siena again. It was a lovely day, sunny and clear.
A view of Siena from San Domenico, near my hotel
First, I explored the weekly Wednesday mercato (market), which turned out to be one of the largest I have ever seen in Italy. It went on forever! There seemed to be more clothes vendors than anything else, but whatever you might need to find, I’m sure it was for sale at that market! I tend to buy very little when I travel, but I’m always interested to see what’s for sale at these types of markets.

Enjoying the Piazza Il Campo
Next, I headed to Il Campo again, took a seat at one of the outdoor cafes, and ordered a “marocchino,” which is espresso with a dab of milk and a dab of cocoa. 

My marocchino from Bar Il Palio
At this bar, they didn’t seem to mind what you order or how long you stay.  It was a comfortable way to enjoy the day: reading, writing and people watching. Later on, I ordered a bowl of ribollita for lunch, which was was not as good as the kind I had the day before. In all, I was there for several hours, enjoying the ambiance of the sunny day in the piazza.

Another panoramic view of Siena
I enjoyed my short stay in Siena and am glad I gave it a second chance!

Sunday, October 21, 2012


The Neptune fountain, Piazza Signoria, Firenze
October 7
Arriving in Firenze brings with it a sense of "coming home." I've visited the city often and spent nearly half a year living here off and on, so I know it well. This time I'm staying in the Sant'Annunziata quarter, not far from Piazza D'Azeglio, my favorite park. It's one of the few parks in the centro storico, and this year they've spruced it up with new benches, trimmed hedges and mowed grassy areas. Everything is still lush and green, and the park is well-used by children, teenagers and adults.

Piazza D'Azeglio, Firenze
I've rented a room in a friend's family home, a flat that her mother has lived in since the 60's. It's only a five minute walk to Piazza Sant'Annunziata and ten minutes to the Duomo. I loved the apartment I had on Borgo degli Albizi during the fall of 2010, but it was expensive and lonely. This year my friend's mother and her Peruvian badante (caretaker) offer companionship when I'm in the mood to share a meal or conversation. (They tend to watch telenovelas (Spanish soap operas, dubbed in Italian) while they eat dinner, which is not my cup of tea, but once in a while, I might join them.)

my bright room in Firenze
My room is cozy and bright, with a large window overlooking the street, and an expansive view of the the sky to the north. Several of my friends, from Rome, Parma and Modena, are hoping to visit me while I'm here, but with such a short stay, I'm guessing it will be hard to arrange. I'll be here for three days, then go to Siena for three days, and then return here for only a week before heading home to Kansas again.

the Duomo and Campanile in the clouds
I have many "touchstones" in Florence, places that I always like to visit. Since I've been to most of the museums at least once, I don't often return unless there's a new exhibit that I don't want to miss. And with so little time here this visit, museums aren't a high priority. (Besides, after seeing so many in Paris, I've pretty much reached my limit!) But I do have two on my list: Palazzo Vecchio and the Ferragamo museum. Otherwise, I'll spend most of my time enjoying the Tuscan weather, walking around Firenze, and people-watching in Piazza San Giovanni. Everyday between 4-6 pm I like to sit in the piazza, waiting for the bells to ring in Giotto's campanile, and watch people passing by. And I often meet people that way.

Piazza Sant'Annunziata,  Fiera  delle Ceramiche
One of the main attractions in Firenze is that something interesting is always going on, and I often "happen" onto a festa (festival) or fiera (exhibition), just by visiting my favorite piazzas on the weekend. For instance, this weekend, while walking to the Duomo, I came upon a ceramics fiera in Piazza Sant'Annunziata.

My favorite Florentine ceramic artist, Paola Staccioli
I was impressed by the creativity and colors in the ceramics at this fiera, much more artistic than what I'm used to seeing at home. I rarely buy ceramics, here or at home, as I'm trying to minimize the goods that I own, instead of adding to them. But I found a small bowl that I can make good use of, and bought it as a memento of my stay in Firenze this year, along with a small jar of fig jam from one of the food vendors selling local produce.
A colorful ceramics display
There was also a German food fair in Piazza Santa Croce this weekend, but I only found out about it after it was over. I'd been to this annual fair when I lived in Florence in 2010 with Massimo and his family when they came for a visit. Many Florentines enjoy the German meats, cheeses and pastries on sale at the fair, but I was more interested in the crafts, and the flowers from the Netherlands that were also on sale. I'm disappointed that I missed out on the fair this year!

Some whimsical creations
On Saturday, there was a food fair in Piazza Repubblica, with local vendors offering their fall produce, wines and olive oil. I noticed it, but passed by, thinking I'd go back and peruse the bancarelle (stands) on Sunday. But I was out of luck, as it was a one-day affair.

To be honest, my first weekend in Florence was low key, a way to recuperate after a week of endless activity in Paris and Torino. Besides, I'd caught a cold in transition from France to Italy. Soon enough I'll be off to Siena for more adventure!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Stazione Porta Nuova, Torino
Torino (Turin) was a great big wonderful surprise. I had no idea I would enjoy this northern city so much! It’s elegant yet subdued, grandiose yet simple, and filled with many great museums. Torino is most often known as the home of the Shroud of Turin, the FIAT headquarters  and the city where the 2006  Winter Olympics were held. But it was also the first national capital of Italy, and is the home of some of Italy's finest universities. 

The TVG train from Paris landed me at the commuter train station, Porta Sosta, and it was a short train ride to the other side of town and Porta Nuova. My hotel was a few city blocks from the station, and turned out to be more elegant and cheaper than the hotel I’d stayed in my last night in Paris. The only complaint I had was that the wifi cost 4 euros to use, and in protest, I decided to do without the internet for my one-night stay.

Piazza San Carlo
I’d arrived at the hotel about 5 p.m., and shortly after getting checked in, I took off to explore the city. My hotel was near the central district, and people were already getting out for the evening passeggiata. I stopped into the Tourist Information center to find out when some of the museums opened in the morning. I would only be in Turin until 2 p.m. the next day, so I was limited as to what I could take in during the short time I would be there. I was encouraged to visit the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum), as it’s the second best museum of its kind in the world, only bested by the one in Cairo. Since it opened at 8:30 a.m., I decided to put that first on my list of things to do. 

Palazzo Madama
After walking around for several hours, I bought a slice of Ligurian style pizza, and headed back to the hotel.  I was beat after the long train ride from Paris and walking around for several hours once I’d arrived in Torino.

Casaforte degli Acaja, the back of Palazzo Madama
 The next morning, I was up early, took advantage of the hotel’s sumptuous and generous breakfast spread (no such thing at the hotel in Paris!), and headed for the Museo Egizio.  On the way there, I saw something very interesting in one of the piazzas. A well-dressed young man was getting up from a bed he’d made on one of the benches in the piazza. He had a sleeping bag, sheets and a pillow. He folded everything up, packed it into a plastic bag, and stashed the bag behind a pillar in the piazza. Then he walked across the piazza and entered the public library, as if he were going to work there. Or perhaps it was a place he could freshen up. However, I got the definite idea that he was on his way to work. I didn’t stick around to see if he came back out of the library, but I sure wondered about him that day. 

Stashing a  bed behind the pillar
I was one of the first to be at the Museum when it opened. Another surprise: this museum has some really cool stuff in it! I had been to an Egyptian exhibit at the Nelson Art Gallery in the late 90’s, one that made stops around the world, and remember how pristine the artifacts were: so much gold and other accoutrements of the wealthy from their tombs. 

An Egyptian sarcophagus
In contrast, the Museo Egizio centers around artifacts from the tomb of a couple who were not of the elite class, so one gets a different view of how their tombs were decorated to prepare them well for the afterlife. 

Shoes of various types found in the tombs.
A family sculpture
The museum itself is dated, and most of the displays have only Italian descriptions, but a new museum is being built that will put a shine on this unusual display of Egyptian artifacts.

Mole Antonelliana
After the museum, I headed over the Mole Antonelliana, which is the highest point in the city, and I have a thing for panoramic views from high towers. Fortunately, this one had an elevator, and we were whisked up to the top of the building in a few minutes. On a clear day, one can see mountains in every direction. But the sky was hazy that day, so we had to settle for a great view of the city itself.

View of Torino from the Mole tower
The Mole building is also famous for is National Museum of the Cinema, which looked VERY impressive and extensive. It is the tallest museum in the world. But I was running out of time by then, and had to pass on the museum, which could easily take several hours to view. 

Piazza Castello
Instead, on the way back to the hotel, I stopped in for a quick lunch at an outdoor café. I chose a good one, as it soon filled up with locals on their lunch hour, always a good sign. I ordered agnolotti piemontesi con ragú di carne (agnolotti with meat sauce), which was delicious! Agnolotti is a square-shaped ravioli-type pasta, made in the Piedmont region of Italy, with a roast beef meat and vegetable stuffing. I also had verdure grigliate or grilled vegetables (eggplant, peppers, zucchini) which were tasty, too. Torino made a great impression in a short time, and it is definitely a city I would enjoy exploring during a longer stay. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Life in Saint Germaine, Paris, France

Family fun with Andrea, Tommy and Monica
Though I spent nearly every day touring Paris, each evening I returned to the Ruggeri household in Saint Germaine-en-Laye. With three children, aged 7, 12 and 14, there was always something going on. Homework was done at the dining room table, and lessons were done in both French and Italian. The older girls, Virginia and Camilla, go to Lycée International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye ("International high school of Saint-Germain-en-Laye"), along with about 400 other Italian children. French children do not attend the school, but there are students from many European countries, as well as other countries around the world. Children have language and history classes in their native language, but all other classes are taught in French. The school provides a rich multi-cultural experience, and for Europeans, the school is free. 

Andrea and Virginia discussing her homework
Every evening when I got back to the Ruggeri home, the children were busy doing homework around the dining room table. Virginia and Camilla speak Italian, English and French, and are now starting to learn Spanish. Tommaso, who goes to a French elementary school, speaks Italian and French. He even has a French accent when he speaks Italian. 

Tommy working on English
During my stay, Tommaso and I gave each other a few language lessons: I taught him English, and he taught me French. He was an avid student, and we had fun with it. He was a baby when the family lived in the U.S. for three years, so he didn’t have the advantage of learning English in school as the girls did. However, Italian is the main language used at home, and English was rarely spoken while I was there. Full immersion for me!

Market day in Saint Germaine-en-Laye
I spent one Sunday at home with the family, and in the morning, I went shopping with Monica and Virginia in the town center, where a large market takes place in the main piazza. When we got back to the house, Andrea was grilling meats in the back yard for a sumptuous pranzo, or lunch.

Dinnertime with the Ruggeris
During the afternoon, I stayed home with the kids while Monica and Andrea went to a large antique market, hoping to find a dining room table for their new house. 

More family fun!
When they came back, Andrea had a new treasure, a collection of 3D slides with scenes from the early 1900’s. The device was similar to a stereoscope (which later evolved into the Viewmaster), but its images were mounted on glass rather than cards. It was fun passing around the viewer and making up stories about what was going on in the scenes. I enjoyed being included in the family activities, and always felt welcome and appreciated by everyone.

Monica and Camilla
I’m truly grateful for the warm hospitality I received at the Ruggeri home. Staying with them allowed me to not only experience Paris at length, but to also share their new life in France and enjoy the company of their warm Italian family.