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.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Maestre Anna Marie and Agatha

Several posts past I wrote about the Italian classroom and the many differences between here and the technology rich classrooms in San Diego--discrepancies that have not altered--nor will they for the predictable future.

But now I share a little about Casey's teachers and instructions as the poverty of glitz does not always tell the whole story and in this case it doesn't.

Maestre Anna Maria and Agatha care about their children just as Mrs. Hanna, Mrs. Kang and other committed teachers at Marvin Elementary School in San Diego do. They want their students to learn, to be good citizens, to be prepared for the future that lies ahead, to be happy and successful. They want to influence and impact lives for the good.

The children have hands-on, exploratory learning experiences--they leave the confines of the school ground to take walks, studying the leaves and foliage and then return to the classroom to learn about photosynthesis. They bring needle and thread and ribbon and red socks to school to make Christmas gifts. They walk to the nearby cinema to see a movie and just have fun during the school day. They take field trips to far away museums to learn to appreciate art and creativity. They are taught all those things that are important in developing an educated person--math, geography, science, literature, history, art, music, etc.

For a while I was quite upset--in fact, very upset, because Casey was expected to participate in English language instruction--What color is the sky? What are the days of the week? One, two, three.... Clearly, this was a major waste of his learning time. He asked the teacher if he could read one of his English story books and was told no. Finally, I wrote a note, explaining that Casey would be returning to the United States next year and that it was important that he continue to develop his reading skills. Now he is allowed to read; although, more often, one of the teachers takes him during that time and works with his italiano--which is "va bene" or a good use of the time. The children have English instruction just two times a week and so fluency isn't much of an issue.

Math is difficult which comes as a real surprise. Since math is a universal discipline, we thought that Casey would find a lot of success in this area--particularly as he had a perfect score of 600 on last year's California Achievement Test in math. But--we have learned the theory that a rose is a rose is a rose does not apply to math. Processes for getting to answers are very different and, to us, unnecessarily complex.

Since the philosophy in Italy appears to be conformity and didactic instruction with minimal allowance for variation or creative thinking, there is more focus on process than result. Casey is finding this difficult as he has been taught to think independently and inductively. Actually, we agree that process is important; the problem lies in the reality that more than one process can be used to reach an answer. Casey uses processes he has learned which are logical, clear and successful. He is finding it hard to learn new ways as he finds it difficult to follow the formal italian used in instruction and because, he expects himself to do well, he gets very emotional and distraught over this. Currently he is very discouraged because he is going to get "sufficiente" on the upcoming grading period. This is not a good grade--at all.

Another big difference, again due to the focus on structure and conformity, is seen in the current science test--the measurement for the grade report. In the US Casey loves making reports and standing in front of the class to give them. In fact, he usually has more "up front" time than other students. Last year he was even teaching his classmates an italian vocabulary word a day.

For this science test, students are expected to memorize a rather lengthy description of photosynthesis which they have written in italiano in their notebooks (2 pages worth). They then are to stand and recite it to the class. Casey is devastated as he cannot memorize the assignment because the words and syntax are totally unfamiliar to him. He literally began to shake when he told us about it--again, demoralized because of fear of another "sufficiente." In English he can give a very thorough explanation of photosynthesis using his own words so he clearly understand the concept and can apply it.

Today he is going to ask Signora Anna Maria if he can read it rather than recite. If she says no, then we will need to go in and see what can be done. We can't let his self-concept or motivation be damaged just because we have put him in this situation.

In our minds, the teachers should be making allowance for the fact that 3 months ago Casey spoke no conversant Italian and that today he can chatter away--not always grammatically correct but he's getting there. Unfortunately, it may be that the standard for him doesn't deviate from the other students--which would very much be in keeping with the insistence on form over substance here. So, next week when we have our parent conference--which is the way grades are communicated--we will find out if his fears are justified or if Signora Anna Maria and Signora Agatha are more flexible than we anticipate. I certainly hope so!!!!

Now to be fair to them as teachers and persons--they both make it very clear that they enjoy and like Casey, but then, who doesn't? They write "bravo" on papers. They pat him on the head. Signora Anna Marie even gives him little hugs and kisses. So we are not talking about unfeeling, cold people--it is the system that seems not to have made room for the motivation and learning techniques that the American system recognizes and uses. As I have said before, I would love to offer training in teaching techniques, motivation and class management and I am pretty confident that it would be well received by the teachers.

Now--for those of you who do not visit Casey's blog, this video will give you an idea of how he tries and what he is accomplishing--and what he can do when given some leeway. This is his story in Italian. The translation into English follows the video Enjoy.
The Ghost of Viticcio

In 2006 I was at Viticcio in my room when the ghost arrived in my room. He was funny.

At a certain point the lights went out in my house and the window opened and a big owl entered my room and I was scared.

I turned all the lights on and then there was nothing left and the window was closed.


Viticcio is where I live.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Artist's Palette

Once upon a time, for six brief years, I lived in upstate New York (a quite different country than NYC-by the way.) As a grown up girl from Southern California, I was transported into a wonderful fairy land of exquisite, unbelievable color and seasons. Even today I am in awe of the spread of God's creation in that part of the land.

Etched into my eternal memory is that first October when we drove to the Adirondacks and I saw leaves in maybe thousands of shades of gold, yellow, bronze, orange and green. I remember thinking that if I had been looking at an artist's painting, I would wonder why she had created something so garish and unnatural. It was simply breathtaking.

Now, here in the Chianti, I am again drawn into this scene--not quite as majestic and overwhelming as that of the Adirondacks--but still wonderful and awesome. A simple drive down the Chiantigiana or further afield through Empoli and Vinci over to Pistoia or a drive to anywhere else is almost visually assaulting. I wonder who can doubt the creator when there are things like this to be seen. Something as impersonal and unfeeling as a "big bang" certainly could not create this beauty or offer such a gift.

So--here are some pictures--they don't do justice to the reality--I need a better camera for that. But, perhaps you can feel it anyway.

Along the Road--Any Road

Vines in Vinci

Red, White and Blue

Our Tree All Dressed Up

Our Tree--No Clothes Now
Look Closely for the One Leaf

Memories of Grapes
Now the Vines Begin to Sleep

And His Majesty, the Olive Tree,
Stands Sentry Over all

Now winter comes and we will wait for the buds of spring. I remember the thrill of newness and sense of hope when they appeared each year. I am sure it will be the same here in lovely Tuscany. But we have the this season to watch and feel (brrrrrrrr) and love and absorb. As with Spring, Summer and Fall, it, too, will supply us with memories and joy. Life is full.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Slow Travel Friends

This is a special post about very special people--people who are dear to me and an important part of my life--even though it may sound quite strange to many. This is an ode to cyberspace where it is possible to have friends all over the world whom you know only through the keyboard and uploaded pictures--what a wonderful invention the digital camera is!!

For lovers of Italy, there is one and only one website to plan a trip, make friends, learn about wonderful restaurants, marvelous accommodations, the latest things to see and do--basically the place to find answers to whatever it is you are wondering. Slow Travel and its companion message board Slow Talk are the ultimate source for the serious traveler to Italy. Pauline, the talented lady who runs it, has been a friend of mine for years. She developed a fledgling idea born in 2001 into a resource that has now been promoted in Time Magazine, USA Today, Travel and Leisure, British publications, other magazines and many-many newspapers.

Slow Travel is a community of like-minded people--literally thousands of people who enjoy travel, are congenial, generous with information, respectful and fun. And--our being in Italy for a year offers the perfect chance to meet many of these people whom I call friends--both ones who are living here and those who come on much anticipated vacations. So, it is not surprising that when the opportunity to meet face to face arises, it is eagerly arranged.

The month of October was rich with these experiences and so now I introduce to you my cyberspace friends who have become face-to face, in body, friends. The truly amazing fact is that not one has been a disappoinment; each has been so much more than I had anticipated. What a testimony to marvels of the Pauline's creation and the type of people who are attracted to it.

Larry, Jill and Adorable Daniela Friends from Seattle

Casey--Babysitting Daniela

Santa Claus
from the Volunteer State

Jimmy and Tina

Barb and Art
True Transplants
Have moved to Umbria
From Kentucky

Jerry from Canada
He brought delicious maple syrup
and Captain Crunch for Casey.
Castello Verranzzano

Ellen and Chris
from the Great State of New Jersey
Osteria Passignano
And some treasured Baggies

Colleen and Jim
Fruit Loops for Casey
Grappolo Blu--Montalcino

All the way from Australia
just to buy handbags!

Liz from California and Roma
(in the beret)
and Tina and Jimmy
Dinner at Solo Ciccia

Another Jersey Girl
and Trix for Casey
(actually this was November)

Now you know some of our special people and what a rich month we had in October. Each and every occasion was delightful and added immeasurably to our year here. I suspect that there won't be another 30 days like these but that's just fine. Ken and I have plenty to do just being here in Italy--things to see, people to meet, places to go, restaurants to find and dreams to live.
What a life this is!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Where Etruscans Roamed

Italy has always been Italian and Rome has always been Roman. But you're wrong! Long before Romulus and Remus nursed from the she-wolf, the Etruscans produced a proud and accomplished civilization--as told by an abundance of pottery, tombs, funerary objects, metal works and frescoes left behind. Unfortunately, there is scant written record to address curiosity about these people who tantalize us with clues about what and who they were.

Throughout much of Italy, particularly in the Tuscan region, there are many Etruscan archaeological areas that have been uncovered and explored--and many still left to find. From these there is emerging insight into the people and customs, but understanding still remains both elusive and limited.

As you drive along the roads between villages, it is not uncommon to see little brown signs pointing up a hill or down a white road indicating somewhere in that direction can be found the remains of an Etruscan tomb. But--after chasing these signs a few times, you know that when you find it, you will probably be disappointed. Often what is at the end of that rainbow is very little--a mound, a small dirt enclosure, a gate that is locked--you are denied your quest after the journey. Once in a while though you are rewarded by a rare treat that makes you feel special for having seen it and then all the blind roads you have taken become worth it.

However--if you do your research, read your guide books, check the vast resources of the internet, talk with people, you will be able to plan time and itinerary to explore the special places where there is more to see and ponder. Such are the areas around the medieval hilltop towns of the Fiora valley in the Maremma hills of Tuscany--Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano.

Pitigliano is by far the largest of the three towns. It is an incredible site as you approach it and see it towering above you--seemingly a carved extension of the rock on which it is built. Once there you find a warren of lanes, blind alleys, curving narrow streets and steps. And, perhaps most interesting, are the structural remains of a medieval Jewish community.

This community was established in
the 16th century because of persecution within the papal states. Today there are remains of several buildings, including the refurbished synagogue,the ritual baths, the Unleavened Bread Bakery and the
wine cellar. There is also a small museum of Jewish culture in what was the first school and religious center.

Sovana and Sorano are very small villages that have periodically flirted with extinction but somehow have survived and now are destination places with hotels and restaurants. They, too, are interesting villages to explore--neither requiring much time.

In Sorano there is a very old fortress which has had little outside restoration but has one wing that has become small hotel. We stayed there Halloween night and found it fascinating and fun --particularly as we were the only guests and the entire staff went home at 10:30. Our room was lovely and the view over medieval Sorano from our window was beautiful--even more so at night.

Sovana, unlike Pitigliano and Sorano is flat and small and easy to walk. The Church of Santa Maria in the main piazza has an incredible altar piece from the 8th century and some lovely frescoes. At the other end of town is the fascinating Il Duomo which really should be visited. And past that are some Etruscan ruins

The Marble Altar in Santa Maria

In Sovana there is now a beautiful 4**** hotel for those who like to splurge--or for those for whom such a place is not a splurge--Sovana Hotel and Resort. Part of the structure is medieval but much of it has been recently built. There are exquisitely manicured grounds to stroll and a pool. It would be a nice place to stay for a couple of nights while exploring the Fiora Valley towns; however, my choice would remain the Hotel della Fortezza in Sorano just because it is such a different experience. Resorts are anywhere -- fortezzas are few (ask for room 16.)

But--for the adventurer in search of mystery, it is outside of Sorana that holds the intrigue. It is in the valleys, crevices and hills surrounding these villages that you discover the Etruscans. Here you find ancient pathways carved out of mountains--barely wide enough for one person to traverse--with high straight walls covered with moss. You can only marvel and ask "how did they do it?"

The Hildebrand Temple Tomb

In the Sovana area there are examples of the different types of Estruscan tombs--some of them very elaborate indicating the high degree of sophistication and artistic capabilities of these people who survived for 10 centuries--beginning somewhere around VIII BC--and who taught the Romans much. And, because all the major types of funerary architecture of the region can be found here---chamber tombs, facade tombs, niche tombs, burial ditches and incredible temple tombs--,it is quite unique.

A Facade Tomb
In some of the Etruscan burial chambers which are carved out high on the mountains are found Christian crosses and, even in one case, a Madonna and Child fresco. These were carved by hermits who used these chambers as homes in medieval times.

Niche or little cave like tombs are numerous throughout the area and would have been the most common type. As you can see, Casey had fun with them.

We had time to explore just a little of this wonderland and so have plans to return. Many of the objects found by the archaeologists are now located in museums in Orvieto, Siena and others in the immediate area, as well as Etruscan museums throughout Tuscany--Firenze, Fiesole, etc, etc., etc. We feel fortunate in having visited many of these museums over the years. We had a better understanding of what these tombs had held and an appreciation for the people who had created them. Seeing the tombs without that background would be less meaningful. So.........our recommendation is that you hit the museums first and then explore.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sagra del Tordo

Sagra del Tordo--The Festival of the Thrush

Along time ago, in the days of castles and fortresses and dreadful fuedalism, skill with the bow and arrow was essential not only to war but to survival for it was with them that hunters brought food to the table--and to their masters.

And so--the Sagra del Tordo was born--the celebration of the successful end of the hunting season. Today in Montalcino that celebration continues albeit with noticeable distortions of the severe, cruel class distinctions that existed back then.

The sagra was reborn in 1957 as an emotional contest between the four quartieri (neighborhoods) of Montalcino-- Borghetto, Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio. Archers train all year to be worthy of being chosen to represent their quartiere. Little boys dream of the day they can pull the strings of the arrow in front of the huge crowd that gathers to watch--when they can bring honor to their quartiere. Women cook for days preparing food for the many banquets that will be held. The town stops all else--nothing else matters--the universe is the contest.

This year we were a part of this extravaganza. Arriving Friday afternoon, it wasn't long before we were swept up in the excitement and the electricity of the anticipation. The young people could be heard chanting--proclaiming the superiority of their part of the town. Visitors were arriving--although nothing like the bus loads that came in on Sunday. Shops were full, selling olive wood cutting boards (to me), high-end clothes (not to me), tacky souvenirs, ceramics, jewelry (to my friend Colleen), shoes, whatever the tourist wanted--and, of course, bottles and bottles of their very famous wine--Brunello (to everyone).

We stayed in the heart of the town at the beautiful Palazzina Cesira, a noble's house built in 1275--this made it even easier to make the step back in time. Walking out the door of the Palazzina, we were immediately thrust into the life of the town and with a little imagination, we could see it 700 years ago--well, really, with a lot of imagination.

The owners of the Palazzina are quite special people who have created a lovely home filled with treasures from around the world. They have restored the palazzo as close to its orginal configuration as possible--including a very old, authentic floor in the room we had. Roberto is a professional photograph whose work has been in Conde Nast and many major publications.

Every building in the village flew the flag of its quartiere. And since there are no clear demarcation borders at the points of convergence, many streets had one flag on one side and a competing quartiere on the other. After the contest, all flags were removed but those belonging to the winning quartiere--Borghetto, which happened to be our part of town.

Friday night we went to dinner with friends from Slow Travel, my favorite travel website. Colleen and I have communicated many times via cyberspace and so were thrilled to finally "really" meet. She and Jim and Ken and I and Casey were old friends immediately and, beginning with dinner Friday night, spent a great portion of the rest of the weekend together. It was quite difficult to say goodbye when that time came.

Saturday was preparation day for all the participants in Sunday's festivities. There was a parade with each quartiere dressed in full medieval regalia followed by a practice archery contest in the soccer field below the fortessa. The practice was so exciting that it was hard to believe that the real thing on Sunday would be more so--but, it was.

On Saturday night each quartiere holds a dinner to toast its two archers, to socialize and celebrate--singing and chanting of bravery and invincibility and superiority over the other three quarteri. These are private celebrations which for the most part are closed to visitors. But---Roberto, our host at the Palazzino, was able to score tickets for us for the Borghetto dinner. So we went and absorbed the fun and watched and ate and cheered. Of course, we understood little of what was actually said but the the universal language of excitement is easily transmitted and understood. It was a very fun experience and added immeasureably to the total Sagra experience.

And all of this led into Sunday, the day that would determine the winning quartiere of 2006 and whose flag would be left to decorate the streets and buildings of Montalcino.

The day began with street dancing and a general sense of celebration. Crowds had grown--bus after bus of tourists from Siena poured in--mostly Italians coming to witness an Italian moment. We wound our way to Piazza Cavour where the animals and people were gathering for the grand parade through the medieval streets and into the fortessa at the other end of town where ceremonies would take place and proclamations read.

We found a perfect spot to watch the parade go by and then scurried through the back streets to arrive at the fortessa ahead of the parade. There we watched the formal activities and traditional folk dances. Warriors with cross bows stood high on the ramparts, watching for invaders from the Montalcinesi ancient enemy, Firenze. While the Royal Court, surveying all their subjects below, sat majestically on the royal chairs.

It was a very warm day and I am certain that the heavy velvet clothes became quite uncomfortable before this part of the festivities was over.

In the afternoon before the awaited contest, we joined Colleen and Jim for lunch under the Borghetto tent and then, realizing that we needed tickets for the archery competition, Jim and Ken went to buy them.

By the time Colleen, Casey and I made it to the field, Ken and Jim were in and had secured some of the best seats in the house--right on top of the wall where no one could block us and we could watch all the joy and pathos going on below where the people of the quartieri shout, cry, moan and hug as their archers make target or don't. Some can't bear to watch the suspense and so cover their eyes or stand with their backs to the field. It is almost impossible to convey the depth of emotion that is invested in this event. It is anything but a game or simple Sunday afternoon diversion--honor and prestige are at stake.

The competition involves making the targets--which are large cutouts of wild boar--from increasingly distant ranges. Each quartieri has 2 archers and each archer uses 5 arrows for each distance. After the first set of archers completes their pulls, the judges determine how many of the arrows hit their targets and then the second archers step up and shoot 5 arrows. At the end of each round, there is a possible total of 10 points.

In the first round,
Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio hit all 10 but Borghetto missed one--at the easiest range. The members of the other three quartieri were ecstatic as that is who won the practice competition on Saturday, thus, had become the common enemy. So--the tension mounted until by the 5th and final round, the crowds at the fence were silent, afraid to breath, watching with closed eyes. And then, when the 8th arrow was shot, Panello, Ruga and Travaglio knew it was over and that Borghetto reigned supreme--in the ten rounds of the weekend, it had a score of 49--it had missed the target only once.

Borghetto began climbing the fences to get onto the field to hug and manhandle their archers--shouting and chanting their victory. Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio silently left the stadium to return to the streets and begin the sad and lonely task of removing all their flags from public display. So, by the time we walked back, only the Borghetto flag proudly flew and reigned over ancient Montalcino. Until next year, they are the champs and must be acknowledged as such.

The Borghetto church bell rang through the night, chants echoed through the old, narrow streets with their high buildings, joy was complete for this year.

That night we had our final dinner with Colleen and Jim and it was a sad parting. Although we had just truly met, we were old friends not knowing when we would meet again. Hugs and kisses on the street and we went through our respective doors. They were getting up at 5:30 to drive to Rome and catch their plane home. We were off in the morning to another adventure--Orvieto and the Etruscan cities of Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana. The magical weekend of the Sagra del Tordo was over except for our memories.

Enjoy a short video giving a little bit of the flavor of victory as Borghetto marched back into town.

More reading: KZ in Toscana An eight year old's version of the sagra.