God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Grapes and More Grapes

A vineyard is a lovely, glorious, beautiful farm--but, it is a farm. So, as with any crop based industry, the pattern of seasons never varies and never loses predictability--only reliability. Some years are vintage years and others are flops. Alessandro says that the grapes this year "hold the promise of becoming the wine of the century." I hope that this is a prediction destined to come true.
(You can click on pictures to enlarge them)

Here at our home at Fattoria Viticcio, the 2006 harvest has begun. These grapes will become the table wine, Chianti Classico, Riserva, Super Tuscan of 2007-2009. And-- Alessandro Landini, the hands on owner of the Viticcio vineyards and winery, dreams of again being named to the Wine Spectator's top 100. Just now the October edition has included Viticcio's 2003 Beatrice Chianti Classico Riserva in that august list--not the first time this small winery has been so recognized.

Last week they begin picking the merlot grapes, this week the San Giovese and in two weeks will be the Cabernet Savignon. Here it is done by hand--no large conglomerate machinery. There is a crew that methodically and meticuously cuts each cluster, loading baskets which will be emptied into the carts awaiting them at the edge of the rows.

Once a cart is full, it is taken to the building housing the de-stemmer.
No--the stems are not patiently pulled off one by one nor are they ground up to become part of the brew that eventually becomes wine. This machine is ingenious as it spits the stems out, sending the grapes on their way to the big vats where barefoot contadini happily crush the grapes while belting out arias from La Traviata.

Actually, after the destemming, the grapes are skinned and crushed in another machine and the juice is sent on its way to very large vats where the transformation from grape to wine begins--a process that is intricate and to the winemaker for the next many months and years emotionally absorbing. For grapes do not just "become" exceptional wine. They arrive there by the knowledge, decisions and expertise, of the wine maker and his enologist (chemist.) And--maybe a little bit of good fortune along the way.

No part of the grape is wasted. Even the skins and pulp become something special and unique--grappa!

This picture shows one of Alessandro's crew moving the skin/pulp to a smaller container where it and juice will be sucked up into tubing connected to a vat where it will ferment, ultimately transforming into the grappa--for the uninitiated, grappa is a formidable after dinner drink which is very strong and powerful.

The second part of this simple story will document the grapes' journey from the vats to the day when trucks arrive for the first step of the wine's journey to Canada, Australia, Japan, the USA and more--and to the next edition of Wine Spectator.

A Side Note:
At the front of most rows in this vineyard and many others are found lovely rosebushes. When we first came, I thought "How pretty that is. What a nice touch to add roses amidst the grapes." But--now I know that there is a much more important purpose for these flowers. Roses and vines have similar constitutions and so are subject to the same diseases but the roses will get the disease first. So--by watching the rose, the vines can be saved.

And beauty has a purpose.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Vines and Scuola

Two big events this week. Can't decide which to write about. So, guess it'll be both. OK?

Freedom is spelled S-C-U-O-L-A: (Ken and I now have a life of our own for a few hours Monday through Friday--hallelujah!)

The first full week is behind us so let's all give a big sigh of relief because:
No tears
No not wanting to go in the morning
No pleas to go "home"
No "I can'ts"
No giving up.

He has friends--male and female. In fact, there seem to be some little girls competing for his attentions. He has exchanged phone numbers with Tomasso.

He had a great time at Niccolo's birthday party which also gave him a chance to connect with the other kids in a normal kid way--not at school. We could tell the difference in his relationships the next day at school--he was now one of "them."

He loves lunch. A sample day: pesto pasta, some kind of wonderful chicken, salad and fruit dessert. He describes these feasts in great detail--ingredients, color, taste. All of this is freshly made shortly before it is served. Quite different from the food mills in San Diego.

He had to sit out a recess because he and two (girl) friends--Nubia and Gabriela-- were throwing bread at each other--a sign that he belongs. Of course, we had to be very incensed by this and let him know in very certain terms that it is NOT to happen again. He dutifully said that it won't.

He takes karate after school two days a week. One of his instructors is a 4 times world champion and Olympian. The other was a national champion. Since Casey had karate in San Diego, they have been pretty impressed with his skills and put him in one of the more advanced groups.

He goes from 8:30 to 4:30 and has homework most nights--but seems OK with this.

His Italian is coming along quite rapidly. He wrote his first paragraph in Italian by the end of the week.

He does not like:
That Maestra Anna Maria hollers a lot. (Maybe I will offer a workshop on classroom management.)

Having PE only one day a week and it is inside a room about the size of a tennis court.

He doesn't have a tutor yet so nothing is in English--except the English class where they are learning colors. This will be a great opportunity to see the benefits and results of total immersion.

There is a major difference in curriculum when compared to home and I am not yet sure what that will mean. It seems they spend hours a day on any one of several subjects rather than covering them all. According to him they spent two days doing nothing but math--but I think that is not quite true. When I checked his notebook, it seemed he did do some Italian language reading and writing each day. His science and English notebooks still look like Mother Hubbard's cupboard.

Basically, things are looking good and we are encouraged. As I have noted before, God is good and prayers are answered.

Well--it is now late and I do need to watch the news to see what is happening at home. On our TV service--SKY--the only United States news we get is FOX! Now, I know that some of our friends watch this religiously, but, I am also sure you are not surprised to know that we avoid it religiously. But--desperate people do desperate things so we watch FOX and then CNN, Sky News from Britain, BBC and CNBC Europe for world coverage.

All this means that Secondly... won't happen until domani. It'll be fun to share with you what living in a vineyard during the grape harvest is like. And why Alessandro says this year's wines may well be "the wines of the century" --stay tuned.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Scuola in Greve-Terzo Elementare


Ieri--yesterday--was the big day! Il primo giorno della scuola and we all survived --even Ken and I!

The night before, Nicoletta helped me prepare Casey's backpack and other bags of "stuff" that are required of each student.

Backpack: Two pencil cases with their required contents--scissors, glue, marker, blue, green and red pens, erasers, colored pencils; ruler; pencil sharpener; diary--for assignments (I think); two small notebooks whose purpose I am not yet sure about; daily snack; water; the summer workbooks.

Cloth Shoe Bag: Gym shoes to be kept at school.

Plastic Bag #1: Two rolls of paper towels, liquid soap and a ream of copy paper.

Plastic Bag #2: 17 notebooks (that's right--17), 7 plastic covers for notebooks, plastic glass, umbrella and a 3 ring binder for his "personal story." The children add to this autobiographical record each year--narratives, drawings and pictures, family information, etc. By the end of the elementare years, each child has a personal record of life. Isn't this a great idea?--a real gift that can be treasured forever.

So--all was set for the coming morning. Bath was taken, prayers were said, a few fears shared and lights out. We kind of expected that sleep would come hard for him, but it didn't. That was a good sign!

In the morning we--Casey, Camilla, Nicoletta and Ken and I piled in the cars and headed for school.

When we arrived (2 minutes down the road), we joined the milling throng of parents and children outside the locked gate in front of the school. Promptly at 8:30 it was opened and the procession into school started amid squeals, laughter and a general buzz of excitement.

On the way up the stairs to the second floor classrooms, two boys, (Tomasso and Matteo), who either knew Casey from the picture that had been in the classroom last year or from soccer tryouts (not sure which,) saw him, and, with sparkling eyes and big grins, motioned him to follow them to the room. He had friends already and some of the ice broke. I could almost hear the happy heart sound inside Casey's little heart.

We got to the room where the kids were jabbering away and the parents were saying good-bye to children and greeting the teachers--Maestre Agatha and Anna Maria.

Tom and Matteo saved a seat for Casey at their table--right in the front row--so Casey had a home. But--before he could sit down, another boy, Niccolo, ran up and handed him an invitation to his festa del compleanno (birthday party) next Monday in Montefioralle. Now Casey really felt he belonged. We were quite overwhelmed that Niccolo and his parents had already thought of and provided for Casey's inclusion.

This weekend we will go to Snoopy's or the Grog Shop and pick up a perfect boy present for this new friend. We could not have asked for a better beginning! Again, prayers (ours and those of many others)were answered in full--God is good and gracious.

Because the first two days of school were half-days, we picked up the kids at 12:50. The procedure is very different from what we are accustomed to--the maestra stands at the open doorway. As a child joins her, the parent, who is standing outside the open gate, signals that is her child and then the boy or girl is released. This naturally takes a little bit of time.

When Casey's turn came, he looked quite bewildered by this process and didn't look too happy about being held back, but soon he and Camilla joined us and we were on our way home.

The report of the day was typically child sketchy. According to him all he said all day was "non capisco" but I suspect he did manage a few other things--I hope. He did not bring home his homework notebooks as he was supposed to do because he didn't realize that was the expectation--even though he had written the homework in them. So--he and Camilla worked together on it under Nicoletta's supervision. Nicoletta says that Casey's pronouciation--even sounding out new words, which most are--is outstanding. He has no accent, rolls the r's and pronounces the syllables perfectly. Of course, whether he understands what he reads is an entirely other question.

Today, on the second day, he and Camilla walked hand-in-hand down the sidewalk to the gate and paraded in together. What joy that brought to nonna's (grandma's) heart!

Soon he will be home. Alessandro is picking up both children and so we must wait until they arrive to find out how it went. Hopefully it has been another day to help vanquish fears, that he said more than "I don't understand", brings his homework and has made even more new friends. We are off to a new and good beginning.

Now, a special thank you, grazie mille, to my many friends on ST who have sent good wishes to Casey and have taken him to their hearts. You are a special group of people whom I value and appreciate!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Casey and Michelangelo

Firenze, as always, exudes excitement, activity and a sense of wonder. Even though today the streets are full of banner carrying tour guides, a multitude of languages, expensive stores and sidewalk imitations, the mystic of the middle ages and the Renaissance dominates. We were there for three days, exploring and experiencing.

Ken and I have been in this city before, spending days wandering alleys, museums, palazzos and piazzas--as well as dining in simple trattories and elegant ristorantes. So this time was for Casey, with one of the big attractions being Michelangelo's David. Little eight your old that he is, he was properly impressed with all aspects of this spectular statue--including being "grossed out" by seeing the "privates"--as well as all the naked lady statutes. We were impressed by Casey because he spent a long time just staring and paying attention to the details of the statue--the large hands, the detail of the veins and nails, the abs, the sling--all of it. This was at the Accademia Museo where David reigns but then several times Casey wanted to return to Piazza Vecchio to see the replica outside the Palazzo. Of course, he came home with a little plaster of paris statue to add to his collection of treasures.

Speaking of the Palazzo Vecchio--we took a special tour designed to appeal to children but also interesting for adults. There was only one other couple on this tour so it was like having a private guide. The intrigue is that you get to go through secret passages which is fun. Other tourists would see the door open out of the map cases, etc, as we went through and you knew they were all wondering why we got to do this and they didn't.

At the end of this journey we had an audience with Duchess Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo I who royally sat with "the savages from the New World", asking us questions and allowing us to question her. Perhaps--no definitely--the most entertaining part was when Eleanor's servant brought out a mannequin of a young prince to show what a codpiece was and explain why and how all the males wore them. Just take a moment to imagine the reaction of an 8 year old. It was priceless--and continued to be last night when he went to sleep still giggling about it.

One of the highlights of the excursion for Casey and for Ken and me, too, was meeting a family that I have known via the internet ever since we began planning our adventure in Italy. Ellen, Anthony and their two girls preceded us by a year on this same journey and so have been an invaluable resource. Many times I have e-mailed Ellen asking her about this and that detail and she always provided the answers.

They settled in Firenze and have now extended what was to be a year into at least one more. Daughter Jane is 8 and in the terzo elementare (3rd grade) just like Casey and Alice is a couple years younger. The three children became immediate friends--running around Piazza Santa Croce while we were having lunch at one of the restaurants on the piazza. Since they had lived on the piazza last year, they know all the store keepers, sidewalk artists, and waiters there and so we felt perfectly safe letting them just enjoy themselves without our constant supervision. Ken and I enjoyed Ellen and Anthony and look forward to spending more time with them.

After lunch we all enjoyed the obligatory afternoon gelatos and then Casey went to the girls apartment to play for a while. Ken and I actually had time to ourselves--and then couldn't figure out exactly what to do. We wanted to go to the Orsanmichele but it was closed. So we settled for a table on the Palazzo Vecchio, sipped soft drinks and watched the parade pass by. It was a nice interlude for us. And we really appreciated Ellen's offer to give us some time alone.

The girls and their parents now have an apartment in a very old palazzo behind the Uffizi Museum. This allows them to be a real part of the frenzy that is Firenze. We enjoy the quiet of the Chianti but in some ways I think the experience of living in the city (this city) would be unbeatable--maybe next year????

We ended the time there with Casey's first visit to his Italian orthodontist who seems to be very nice--but costly. Dottore Floria is working with Dr. Hirsh in San Diego to continue with Casey's current treatment--an appliance to move his lower jaw out in preparation for the braces to follow.

So--we had a good time introducing Casey to a special city and hope he will always remember his first time there--good food, delectable gelato, museums, cod pieces and naked statues.

Today Casey is at his first day of school--I will report on this in tomorrow's installment.

A Presto!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Night in Greve

Let me share last night as it was special--not spectacular, not noteworthy, not a blip on the world scene--but special when value is placed on new experience and new insights into culture and people.

In Italy festivals, sagras, and celebrations are a part of life--everywhere, all year, for multitudes of reasons. They reflect the gregariousness of a nation and people who have for centuries valued relationships, traditions, family, community and simplicity. They spring from a time when villages were small and knowledge of the world measured in a few kilometers; when celebrations were the joy that allowed laughter and pleasure to off set the drudgery and hard work that defined life. They were a way for villages to share with each other.

In the Chianti region, September begins the grape harvesting season when big and small wineries move from the quiet, relaxation of summer to the dramatic and emotional activity of wine making--the soul and heart of the region. To those of us who visit, to the photographer who comes from across the world, to the film maker who finds the perfect location, Chianti is the beauty of vineyards lining the hills and valleys, the perfect patch work of rows of vines, color and romance. But---to the people of the Chianti, these lands are the reason for existing, their love and their livelihood. They are passionate about the lands, the grapes, the harvest, their wine. Chianti exists for its vineyards and all else exists because of the vines.

Which brings us to the festivals of September--in Panzano, Impruneta and, most of all, in Greve--festivals that pay respect to the grape in all its varieites. Festivals where big and small producers display and promote their products.

This is the weekend for Greve's Festival--which is the largest of the group. For several days the piazza is closed while booths are set up, entertainment stands built and merchants along the arcade rearrange their wares to maximum advantage. Then from Friday night until Sunday night people come to participate in the events and activities. There is a separate venue with entertainment appealing to the young crowd--the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Funky Monks (I must admit that I am not familiar with either of these groups--but then, I am a grandmother.) This auditory assault is quite a ways away from the piazza so that the "older folk" can have more sedate entertainment.

Addionally there is a special exhibition at the Museum of Sacred Art which is housed in the former convent of San Francisco and other dramatic and dance productions. The finale is Sunday with a concert in the piazza featuring The Dark Blues which evidently is a well-known and enjoyed band from England. Unfortunately we will be in Firenze that night and will miss this. The publicity says that the female singer has a range that allows her to emulate Areatha Franklin and Tina Turner and so it should be quite good.

Last night we went in to the piazza for dinner and some "product" sampling. It was a lovely evening, meant for strolling and enjoying the ambience of the region--an extended and enlarged passeggiata (for those unfamiliar with Italian ways--passeaggiata refers to the early evening ritual when people come out of their homes to spend time strolling the sidewalks and pedestrian areas--greeting and talking with friends, socializing, seeing and being seen.) We shared much of the evening with a couple from Monrovia whom we met a couple days ago and enjoyed very much.

Taken by Photographer Casey

Deciding to eat early, Ken, Casey and I went to dinner at our favorite restaurant in the piazza, Il Portico. They now save the "best" outside table for us when they know we are coming-- right on the edge of the piazza so that we can watch all the happenings while we eat. Of course, the reason we are known so well is because of the charm of Casey, who this time spent much of the meal sitting with our friends--who assured us they were thoroughly enjoying him.

This is not a good picture--but the best I have--sorry!

A side note: One of the great things in our little community is the sense of safety. For instance, Casey finished eating before we did and then was able to leave the table, go by himself to the gelateria, get his ice cream and then just wander the arcades. This is not to say that we didn't keep track of him but not as we would at home in the states.

When we finished eating, we, along with Susan and Rick, began our own passeggiata--walking up toward the church at one end of the plaza, following what seemed like a different type of activity. That's when we learned that it was Greve's Patron Saint Day. Gathered at the church were priests, altar boys and girls in their robes, musicians with brass instruments, and a growing gathering of people.

At nine o'clock the bells began tolling--long, rumbling and loud. Then the parade started, eventually marching down the main highway--The Chiantigiana (route 222). Parishoners carried candles and a priest's recitation was projected over a portable loudspeaker carried by another priest, women took turns carring a large display with relics of the saint and other tributes . The mood was somber and respectful.

The procession wound slowly along its path, causing a long back-up of cars in its wake as this is the main road through Chianti to Florence. But, that was just the way it was; this was Greve's procession and its portion of the road and so all else was subservient.

What we soon learn as we become part of another culture in a new country is that these are things that go on day in-day out, year in-year out and yet we exist in ignorance of each other in our isolated cultures. So--last night is just one of the reasons why we are doing what we are doing; why it is so special and worth whatever inconveniences have gone before and will walk with us. All that becomes insignificant when measured by the learning and opportunities and the life-long understandings that Casey will gain and carry with him. And for Ken and me, we appreciate and are thankful that we can spend a portion of our retirement years still learning and growing. We are blessed and fortunate and praise God for his goodness to us--in all ways.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Little This...A Little That...

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to write as the options are many--so think this will be a little bit of a bunch of stuff.

School in Italy: Casey starts next Thursday--the 14th, a little later than San Diego. The first two days will be for just 3 hours which is probably good as the trauma of school in a language that is the proverbial Greek to me will be emotional, I'm sure. After that he goes from 8:30 to 4:30--long days.

We are finding some differences here. Although school is free, there are many out-of-pocket costs. Yesterday was €33 for required notebooks and covers. Registration was €40. Lunch is €4 a day--always fresh and good but costly. There is not the option to bring lunch from home. Previously we spent close to €50 on other requirements such as a ream of copy paper, glue sticks, two pencil cases, colored pencils, pens, liquid soap, kleenex, a daily diary, a plastic glass and stuff I now forget. And--remember every euro is $1.30 in the US weakened currency.

Permisso di Soggiorno: This was our good news this week. You might think that the visa which caused so much aggrevation in the getting allows us to live in Italy long term--since it is called an elective residency visa. But, you would be wrong--logical but wrong. All the visa does is allow a person to enter Italy for an extended time. Then once here, you need to apply for a Permesso di Soggiorno (Permission to Stay.) This is done at the Questura (police station) in Florence. We applied last month and were told to return yesterday to pick them up--each of us needed to get one, including Casey. We were happy that after our 40 minute bus trip into Florence our PdiS were ready; it is not uncommon to be told to return again and again and again. Friends of ours who applied in May still do not have theirs. God is being very good to us.

Now tomorrow we will go to the Comune in Greve and apply for residency and our
Carta d'Identita--and then we will be as official as we can be without actual citizenship.

Shopping: Well, today we drove into Florence to go to the very large COOP Supermarket there. We wanted to stock up on many items as the selection is considerably better and the price better at the big stores than at our little one. So--we piled our basket high with toilet paper, paper towels, pasta, water, cereals, plastic ware and much more and rolled up to the check out counter with our trusty credit card in hand (if you have the right kind of credit card it is the best type of money transaction--better than ATM even.) Were we surprised to find that the store does not take credit cards or debit cards with less than a 5 digit pin!--even our little place here in Greve takes them. So--there we were with over €150 worth of stuff, not enough money and speaking inglese to a checker who naturally spoke italiano--after all, we are in Italy. Fortuanately there was an ATM machine right in the mall and it worked!--which is not always the case here.

In Italy, when you shop, you must bag your own groceries plus, if you do not bring bags with you, you are charged for as many as you use--which is OK with us as it is one of the way's Italy is being eco-conscious--the country is seriously into recycling and other eco-friendly processes. But the problem with bagging is that it is impossible to bag as fast as the checker checks and so the race is on to try to bag your stuff before the next person's order starts coming down the chute. I haven't yet learned how to do this; consequently, by the time we get home, the bottles of water have crushed the potato chips and the fruit has big gashes in it.

Maremma: The Maremma area of Tuscany is lovely--it includes beaches, beautiful incredibly blue waters, typical beach cities, wonderful natural parklands with hiking and camping, charming medieval villages, vineyards, remnants of the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization, and farm lands. We saw little of it in our three days and so plan on returning. This time we were only in a small portion of the Livorno province. Our hope is that in the future we can explore more of that area and the parks and villages of the Grosetto area.

We did wander three charming, well-perserved medieval hill villages: Campiglia Marritima, Massa Marritima, and Castagneto Carducci. Of the three, I enjoyed Campiglia Marritima the most--although each of them was unique and interesting and well worth saving time to visit. We did have memorable pizza in Castegneto Carducci. Well seeking out is Il Cappellaccio at Via Vitt. Emanuele. The pizzas are beyond huge, the selection extensive and the quality outstanding. The menu includes pastas and other offerings but I can't imagine going there for anything other than pizza.

The easiest way to help you see this area is to offer you some pictures. Now--you only need to pretend you are in each scene and you'll be here.

Casey Enjoying The Tyrrhenian Sea

Campiglia Marritima

Campiglia Marritima

Massa Marritima

Campiglia Marritima

Etruscan Ruins--Burial Structure

Massa Marritima Duomo

One more thing: Today one of our computers crashed! What a royal pain computers are!! Fortunately, I religiously back up on external drives (3 of them to be sure--one of them safely tucked away in San Diego) so no data will be lost but, the thought of reloading programs borders on nightmarish. The computer and Windows opens in safe mode and so I am hoping the guy working on it can save it all. I think if I were home with Geoff, my computer guru, there would be no problem. But--it's a long way back.

The very worse that can happen is that our connection to the TV and router at home through the Sling box will be ruined--which means Ken can not keep up with local news (no real problem for me.) And--it is good that we travel with two computers so this little work horse I am on now can keep us connected.

Ciao until next time.