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.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Safeway--You Can't Compare!

There exists a myth that the American supermarket has no equal--particularly in Italia. Maybe the charm and convenience of the nearby green grocer, pasticceria, macelleria, gastronomia and other small shops accounts for this misconception--or maybe it's because the super store is a relatively new presence here.

Whatever the reason, it has arrived and offers an incredible shopping experience--unlike any in California--which surely is the supermarket capital of the U.S. One caveat to this is that these mega stores exist only in large metroplitan areas and require distance driving from villages and towns--which accounts for hundreds and maybe thousands of COOP or Conad groceries throughout the country. These stores range from very small to large enough to meet daily needs, making drives to the big stores unnecessary if one is satisfied with limited products and options.

When we want to do a big shopping for staples and basic supplies such as paper goods, cleaning products, packaged foods and whatever else we would buy at the small COOP in Greve, we head to Firenze which has 3 of these elephantine stores--COOP, Esselunga and Panorama. Yesterday was the first time we went to the Panorama and it dwarfs the other two already huge stores.

We still do shop at the traditional family run shops for most of our produce and meat needs as:
  1. I abhor the demise of "mom and pop" stores here and in the U.S.
  2. The products are wonderful fresh and the service is as personal as you could possible want.
  3. These shops in someways symbolize what Italy was and is--a land that is its people.
I had thought to make this a picture essay--but, taking pictures in a grocery store appears to be a cause for concern as I was told rather impolitely--language definitely was not an issue--to put the camera away. Without hesitation I complied as I was concerned that my Sun Disc would be confiscated and destroyed right on the spot if I didn't. Perhaps I was a spy from Esselunga? A terrorist? Or maybe, it is that they protect the privacy of employees and thought I was taking people pictures.

So--the photo essay has only a few pictures which don't begin to show the magnitude of the stores or the beauty and extent of the different displays. They really are works of art. Each speciality section--bakery/pastry, cheese, delicatessen meats, fish--takes up a huge amount of floor space. Tomatoes alone have a display as big as most entire produce sections at the stores I shop at in the US--well, almost anyway. I suspect that each variety has its own purpose but I am not fluent in the fine points of Italian produce.

These are some of the tomato options--not all by far.

Then there are apples--and apples--and apples

And potatoes

And other good stuff!

There are more varieties of cheese than I knew existed and I wish I knew how to use more of them than I do. I think you need to be born in a land of cheese to understand all there are and the vast number of permutations. For instance, pecorino, which is part of the Tuscan soul, comes in innumerable tastes and types and aging. We bought some at the wine fair in Impruneta a while go that was aged in hay for a long period. It was absolutely, totally delicious -particularly when used with fig and spicy mostardi. With our love for hot foods, we really like the pecorina piccante--Casey is always asking for it when we bring out the cheese.

Strangely--with all this, it is impossible to get chedder cheese in Italy--for American and British ex-pats this is a frequent lament. How can we have tacos or our favorite scalloped potatos without chedder or queso fresco? At this point we still have some that we brought with us, but soon it will be gone--alas.

This is a small portion of the deli and cheese section at Panorama.

One corner of a vast display of fresh, fresh fish

I would love to have shown you more--maybe next time we go I can try again.
The fresh, out of the forno, bakery area assaults the senses--a true delight to behold--as is the section with freshly prepared foods that makes one think how easy it would be to not prepare dinner--just bring the meal home with us. Gourmet dining from the grocery store!

And--how could I forget the meat counterS--yes, with an S. Not just one counter but whole rows of them with a zillion different cuts and kinds. In fact, I plan to do an entry sometime on the meats of Italy--in one word, superb! I will sorely miss them when we return as the quality and freshness here in Italy is totally different than the long-haul meat in the states--even at my favorite meat market, Iowa Meat Farms--let alone the packaged stuff in most supermarkets.

Along with these speciality areas, stores have such things as three long, long double isles of cookies, crackers, and other packaged bakery type things, aisles of pasta (of course, this is Italy), and whatever else you expect to find in a supermarket. And, then, of course, there are the mundane things such as toilet paper, soaps, etc., etc., etc.. And the unexpected--computers, office supplies, full comestic sections, housewares, toys--and there must be more...

So we bought a lot of stuff, all of course, things we need, including the toy for Casey whom we just found out scored 600 out of 600 on the math portion of the California achievement test he took last May. It seemed like something that should receive some form of recognition and what better way than a B-Damon game set?

Papa having fun.
The consolation for us yesterday as we left with a bank account €199 lighter was the incredibly, sinfully good gelato right outside the registers. All other thoughts receded into the background of consciousness as we savored every last drip of sweet goodness. And--it will be true next time as well.

Tomorrow we are going on a little 6 day excursion to Montalcino for a colorful medieval sagra and then on to Orvieta and Pitigliano. You can share in it when we return. Ciao!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Fa Freddo and the Wood is Burning

Summer is now a memory. The sandals are packed away along with the shorts and swimwear, waiting to reemerge next spring--or summer. The pool has on its winter coat--and autumn is upon us, in all its glory and color. And our old wood burning stove does its job and keeps us warm as the chill of late afternoon sets in.

A new chapter in our adventure has begun, enticing us with the hope of experiences it will bring. The vines are empty of fruit--their leaves turning gold and orange and yellow and red--the colors of fall. The maple tree we watch through the window of our door, the one you saw dressed in green two months ago, now recalls the lovely Adirondacks in the fall--colors almost too garish to be real--but they are. Colors which could only be made by the great creator and given to us as precious gifts.

The tourist season is over (well, almost) and the piazzas and restaurants and shops and stores once again belong to the people of Greve. Italiano has become the dominant language once more--tedesco (german), inglese, and the hodge-podge of other sounds is noticeably missing. Things are settling in for a long winter's nap.

Restaurants cut back their hours, some opening only for weekends, many will open for dinner only or lunch only and then close early. Umbrellas have found their winter homes and patio seating is traded for the warmth of cozy interiors.

Yesterday Ken and I ate at a lovely little restaurant in Panzano. Just us and one other couple were there whereas it would have been full of laughter and talk just two weeks ago. In talking with our waitress, we found that she and her husband are the owners. They will soon cut back to weekends only and hope that they will have enough business to justify that. If not, they will close for 2-3 months. This is difficult for them as they still have rent and other costs to maintain during a closing.

It is raining now and my wash is on the line. Fortunately, it is sheltered and so unless a gale comes up things won't get any wetter than they already are but--for sure--they aren't going to get any drier either. When there is a break in the rain, I will rush down and retrieve them, set up the clothes drying rack and see what happens indoors--which won't be much until later when we start the fire again.

Casey is upstairs watching Pinnochio 2000--again. Ken is cleaning the dishes after we had combination chimichunga/burritos in flour tortillas for lunch. Sadly, we are nearing the end of the chedder cheese we brought with us and the tortillas won't be around much longer either--both have frozen quite satisfactorily. But the bag of dehydrated refried beans is still pretty full as is the bottle of El Pato hot sauce. This has been Mexican food weekend as last night we had tacos--with good corn tortillas! So good.

I think this will be a family time Saturday afternoon. Last week some friends from Santa Monica whom we met here sent Casey the ET video and so we will watch it together as the rain decorates the windows. It doesn't seem as if it has been 30 years since we first enjoyed this charming alien. I hope that Casey finds it as enchanting as the children then did.

Below us in an open field the traveling circus is set up--a big top tent, a Piranha show, and more intriguing little things. It came to town earlier and has spent several days getting ready for its two day stand--and now it rains. We may still try to get there as it would be fun to see what it is like--it seems to harken back many years when children were mystified and entranced by the simple things life brings.

It is fascinating to see these huge rigs maneuvering down little streets that are really no more than alleys with tight turns along the way. If I hadn't seen this be done, I would have known it was impossible. For me sometimes getting down these same roadways is a challenge--but, then, I am not Italian and part of a magic show.

Oh--just looked out and the rain is in hiatus and the sky is clearing. Time to gather the wet laundry and maybe take a jaunt down the hill to the show of shows. Ciao!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

KZ in Toscana

For those of you who have suggested and encouraged such an endeavor, Casey has now started his own blog KZ in Toscana. I suspect it will be added to in spurts and will probably follow his current model--very short and sparse on information--but, at least, it gives another outlet for him when he finds time on his hands--which isn't very often. In case you wonder about the KZ--that is the way his name is pronounced in Italy as opposed to KC in the US. Oh--and he does read his comments.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Casey the Italiano Ragazzo

Well--not really. Becoming what you aren't is difficult, even at 8. Sometimes I think that we have asked too much of Casey--spending eight hours a day in a classroom when not understanding the language expects a lot of a child--even a very bright one. The amazing thing is that he does not seem to be discouraged at this point. Although tonight he did talk about how hard it is to not understand anything that is being said--and some tears did fall. It was as if things have been building up and needed release. I only hope that what I have been told by many people who have traveled this road before is true--that by Christmas things will begin to fall in place. I fervently pray for this!

Actually, last night I had a taste of his day and, I must admit, came away with a new appreciation of his experience--which is probably why I hurt for him tonight. The equivalent of the Back-to-School-Night tradition in the states was held and so for almost 2 hours I sat at his desk and listened as his two teachers talked non-stop--and I had no idea what they were talking about. While listening, I tried to make some sense out of the sheets of paper hanging high on the walls with math examples, language lessons, etc. And I wondered how Casey copes with any of it. Not only is the language strange but math is done entirely differently than the ways he has learned--so even in a subject in which he excels, he struggles. I look at the work he brings home and just turn it over to Ken as I can't figure it out.

I do know that we will have an increased appreciation for schools in the United States when we return--how well they are equipped, the training our teachers have and the opportunities that children have for diversity in instruction. Casey's classroom has one small black chalkboard--not a room with large clear white boards for colorful markers. There is no equipment in the room--televisions, vcr or dvd players, tape recorders, math manipulatives, etc. etc. etc. There are no computers in the room and only 8 working ones in the "computer lab" which the children go to once a week. There is no classroom library, no activity centers, no........

Teachers here have not had the training that is deemed so important in the US--training that takes advantage of what we know about how children learn. Such as--we know that to be as effective as possible, it is important to change teaching focus and activity every 20 minutes or so. In Casey's class, at least according to him, they can spend up to 2 hours on a single subject. I am pretty sure the whole time is spent sitting in a desk, listening and practicing rather than participatory, hands-on learning designed to address varied learning styles.

Now--I do want to clearly say that teachers do care and that the instruction is purposeful and ultimately effective as Italian children do learn and grow and are successful. It is just that the joy and fun in learning is missing and that the process makes learning harder than it needs to be. As an educator, I did a significant amount of teacher training and spent many hours observing classrooms and so I itch to offer some of the same training here. I could tell last night that both teachers have a heart for what they do and truly like the children--they just need to be given opportunities to develop and grow their gifts and skills. They need the tools of classroom mangement techniques and they need to learn the advantage of having a partnership with parents in the educational process.

Update: I wrote all of the above last night and need to tell you that this morning Casey jumped out of bed when the alarm rang, was dressed in 2 minutes, had his bed made in 4 minutes and was sitting at the breakfast table while I was still just climbing out of bed. With smiles and laughter, he was ready for another school day. I truly do believe that in spite of the difficulties, God is doing what prayers have asked--keeping Casey positive and helping with the challenges he faces. He talks with God and has a little devotional each day before school--this is important to him and he doesn't want to leave the house without this being done. His faith is inspiring to me.

But--school is not all that fills Casey's hours--which turn into very long days. Twice a week he takes karate at the local sportivo. He had a hard time choosing between soccer and karate as he has done both back in the states. He tried both here and ended up choosing the karate which I think was a good choice for him. He has three incredibly outstanding instructors. One has been a 4 times world champion and Olympian; another has been the national champion and the third has some championship background but I'm not sure what. Casey loves the moves and seems to do quite well. He should have moved up the belt level quite far by the time we leave.

These classes are from 6-7 two nights a week--Tuesday and Friday. Plus now he is starting tutoring in Italian and help with homework two hours a week--Saturday mornings and Wednesday after school. This is all on top of his 8:30 to 4:30 school day (with time for a gelato on the way home.) Next week, he is going to a friend's house after school and having another friend come here on Saturday. So--his life is quite full.

Casey and His Friend Tommaso
Casey's Play Area

Casey and His Friends Gabriela, Kiara and Little Brother, Leo
Gabriela is "in love" with Casey

When doing none of the above, he may go to the cinema on Saturday, spend time riding his razor scooter around the property--Uncle Jeff sent it to him last week and he was so excited to get it--,

play with Camilla or go on excursions with us-- not usually his most favorite things to do, I might add. Although tomorrow evening we are going to a goat farm to see the animals come in from pasture--which he will enjoy. This is a cashmere producing farm so I may well buy a warm scarf or two--which means I, too, will enjoy the adventure.

This is a small glimpse into Casey's life here in the Chianti--more will come as the year continues to unfold. I understand that there is a classroom somewhere following Casey's adventures and so I hope they have enjoyed this little snapshot of his life. Soon he will start his own blog called KZ in Toscana--but, my hunch is that he won't have the time to update it often. For as you see, his days are quite full!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Little Museums--Great Treasures

Our days seem to be slow but the experiences and adventures seem to be constant--a strange paradox of time.

Many days, while Casey is in school, Ken and I leisurely meander the narrow, quiet roads leading to small villages and towns in and out of the Chianti. This is the pleasure of living rather than traveling in Italy--the luxury of time--we have no need to hurry to the next experience or the next discovery. For us, this year, there is always "domani." On the flip side, I have no illusions that we will have even begun to exhaust all that there is when our time is up--that would take a lifetime.

Today we drove to Montespertoli and Castelfiorentina to visit two museums of Sacred Art which are part of the unusual La Valle Dei Tesori: Mirroring Masterpieces exhibition. Described as the "Little Big Museums" project, this exhibition is scattered throughout six villages and towns in the Empoli Valdelsa area. Each of these local sacred art museums houses a treasured masterpiece of medieval or renaissance art--pieces that on their own attract people to their out of the way locations. During this exhibition "mirroring" masterpieces from more prestigious museums are displayed opposite the home piece. These are very enrapturing presentations made even more so by not being in the mega museums where wonderful art is lost among all that there is.
Museo d'Arte Sacra
Madonna with Child
Filippo Lippi

Mirrored by this
Madonna with Child
Filippo Lippi
Palazzo Medici Riccardi a Firenze

Museo di Santa Verdiana
Wooden Sculptural Group
Mariano d'Agnolo

Mirrored by this
Francesco di Valdambrino
Museo Nazionale di San Matteo a Pisa

We have four more of these "little museums" to visit before this wonderful and unusual exhibition closes in November. So we will travel to Empoli, Certaldo Alto, Fucecchio and Montaione--the most we can do in a day is two as there is other art in each location plus villages to visit, lunch to enjoy, 2-3 hours driving time and back in time to pick Casey up from school. But--we will not miss one, as when we stand in front of each masterpiece, we are not only in awe, but also aware of an incredible appreciation of the unmatchable talent of each of these men from centuries past.

This is so much of what Italy is and why we are drawn back again and again and why we call it home for a year. Already we know that a year is not enough.........

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Tuscan Moment

There is so much to write--this week has been full of special experiences--such as the little shoemaker who insisted we take his big orange squash to use as a pumpkin for Casey. But--right now, I want to treat you to the little borgo we explored yesterday. So--enjoy the picture show!

(remember to click the picture to enlarge it)

Italy absorbs the senses and imagination. There is always something around the bend --but, what it is, you just don't know until you get there. So--you keep traveling the road with eyes wide open and hearts of anticipation.

The Bend in the Road