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.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Part With €198 or $256

Driving in Florence--or Avoid Driving in Florence
Tomorrow, Monday, we drive into the outskirts of Florence to one of Italy’s huge grocery stores where we can buy anything from a new printer to 200 types of cheese to fresh eel.

We will drive to the store because:
  1. We know how to get there.
  2. There are no one way streets or pedestrian or resident only streets between here and there.
  3. There is a large, free underground parking structure.
  4. We don't go on a toll road.

Tuesday we will take SITA into Florence's centro storico—SITA is the usually comfortable, always on time, streamlined, dependable bus system that services big towns and little villages of Tuscany. We do not drive into Florence unless we can stay on the Oltroarno side—there we know how to safely get to our parking lot of choice--or when we take Casey to the orthodontist which is not in the centro storico.

Florence is a city of cameras--not just those carried by tourists. The city has hidden them everywhere--who knows how many candid shots of each and every tourist are on file somewhere. These evil eyes will without fail snap your vehicle license if you are on a street you should not be on--and since these seem to arbitrarily change mid-block, you will get caught.

Unfortunately, you will not know you did anything wrong until 6 weeks later when a ticket arrives in the mail (or you find a charge on your visa bill if you were using a rental car). You will then learn that you have been fined €82 for being somewhere you should not have been (figuring out exactly where that was will probably be difficult.) If you live here, you will take your ticket to the local customer friendly post office and pay the fine--in Italy, everything is paid at the post office.

So far, we have received two of these mail surprises for a total outlay of €164/$211.88. The only consolation being that born and bred Italians are as mystified as we are about how to "drive" Florence and they get their share of tickets, too.

Autostrada Nightmare

In the future we will be exceedingly careful with the ticket from the A1 toll both. It is expensive to drive the autostrada under any circumstances, but, try losing your ticket to learn just how expensive it can be. In our humanitarian effort of 2007, we have experientially researched this question in order to share the knowledge with you.

After almost having a toll ticket float out the window one day, we learned to always put the ticket in a very secure little nook on the front of the dash board. And that is where Ken insisted he put it as we drove to the booth at Valdichiana on our way to Montepulciano. But--it wasn't there.

Pulling over to the side of the far lane, we casually looked on the floor and under the seats, sure the ticket had simply fallen out of its little perch. When we didn't find it quickly, we began the process of tearing the car apart--still certain that it had to be somewhere--we hadn't even had the windows open during the drive. After 10 minutes of frenetic searching, we faced the fact that it just didn't exist anymore--maybe it never had. Did Ken just push the button and neglect the ticket-but the arm wouldn't have gone up then. Did it drop on the ground when he took it? Was he imagining putting it in "the nook?" Whatever--we were now facing the toll both without a ticket.

Ken walked to one of the booths--which amazingly had no cars in line--and communicated using his limited Italiano to the toll taker with limited inglese our predicament. The very nice man told him to pull the car up to the booth. He then charged the toll amount it would have been from the point we entered the A1 to that gate. Then--he gave us a long form that in reality was a ticket for having lost our ticket.

The fine was the toll cost from Milan to the Valdichiana. So-- Ken made another trip to the post office--where we are now known for more than buying stamps. And--the next day he discovered the home of our lost ticket--it is lodged somewhere in the heater vents. We can hear it fluttering around, making an aggravating sound while it reminds us of €34/$43.92 lost.

I wonder if we can get our money back?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Our Favorite Italia

Does everyone have a most favorite place--anywhere? I do--it's right here in Bella Italia but, strangely enough, not where we are living. My favorite place is the hill town of Montepulciano -- well, not exactly the town itself, but its environs--the green and gold gentle rolling hills flowing from one farm house to a distant other--the stately, towering cypress
trees that line a winding path leading to a winery, a villa or just to the top of a hill. The utter simplicity of the beauty overwhelms and seems to provide a restorative calm and peace. I always feel renewed after just a day or two in this part of God's country.

And--we have very special friends in Montepulciano, friends whom we treasure and enjoy. When we arrive there, it is like coming home to family. Nico and Elena are younger than our children but this is one of those situations where age does not seem to enter into the friendship equation, perhaps because with Casey we have the child thing in common.

Meet Nico Pannevis and Elena Falvo

We were there just last weekend-staying in one of the apartments at Sant' Antonio, a restored 13th century monastery which has been transformed into delightful vacation apartments. At this point, we have stayed in several of the units and each one is pleasurably unique. Nico takes great pride in providing quality in all things--from cleanliness to glass and dishware to pots and pans to fabrics and tiles. And then he tops it all off with a personality and charm that captivates.

Casey and Sofia, their daughter, have been friends for several years now, each holding a special place in the other's heart--the kind of friendship that will grow with the years so that time together will always be special and part of their growing up memories. This time was the best because now they can communicate with language since Casey speaks Italiano. Before they simply used whatever language it is that children seem to share with each other--the one that is unintelligible to adults.


Since we first knew Elena and Nico, little Filippo has been added to their family and this year he is old enough to play with the big kids. So, much of the time this weekend was a threesome--particularly because Filippo has molti Gromiti cards--something you need to be a boy and an italian to appreciate--both of which Casey now is. Fillipo is just as cute as his big sister and a real sweetheart of a child.

So, as always, we had a great time in Montepulciano. Ken and I even had time for one of our favorite pastimes-- exploring the mysteries of white roads as Casey played at home with the kids. And then in the evening we enjoyed sitting around the table with friends--good food, good wine, good conversation. Perfetto!!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

House for Sale-In Bella Italia

We have friends who developed a love affair with Italy--which is very different from their Kentucky. They sold their house, uprooted themselves, went through untold frustrations and difficulties buying their perfect home here in Italy in the small Umbrian hill town of San Venzano, renovated it so that it is quite lovely, made many friends, learned how to handle the post office (you need to live in bella Italia awhile to understand this) and settled in for a long and peaceful rest of life in Italy--with a trip or two back to the states each year to cuddle grandchildren, see friends and go to Churchill Downs. They dreamed of having time and resources to travel, visit new places and just "do." Life was good for them and they loved it.

Then........the euro (€)

took over

and the dollar ($) plunged and life changed.

Now our friends are selling their lovely, loved home. They are not sure yet whether they will stay here in Italy and rent or buy an apartment with the profit they will realize from their home or move back to Kentucky and resume life there. If they stay, they can maybe do some of the traveling they have not been able to do and continue living the life they enjoy here. The decision is hard. Fortunately, Barb and Art are people who move on with life and don't look back once decisions are made.

We visited them last week--a 2.5 hour drive from our place to theirs. Barb served a delicious lasagna and her own tiramisu--yummy. They had invited another expat couple from around Orvieto and the six of us had a great time together talking and sharing tales and interests. And--we were able for the first time to see their home. Truthfully, if we were going to stay in Italy, we would give significant thought to buying it.

Not only is the house nice with a great kitchen and big rooms but the outside benefits are wonderful. The village has recently made a park right outside their back door so that it seems to become an extension of their property--and--it is a park that is small and not heavily used, making it almost private. Across the street (a narrow lane really) is another small triangular green space with benches for sitting. The house itself sits on a hill and has gorgeous views of the country side.

So, I told friend Barbara that I would write about it on my blog because one never knows which word of mouth will bear results. If you know anyone house hunting in Italy, send them to Barb and Art's pages. There you will find many pictures which tell the story plus a thorough description of the details and advantages that this house provides--and there are many.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Uffize-Weather-and Witches

Well, tonight I really don't have anything special to write and so will share a few things I have been saving up for just such an occasion.

The Uffizi Gallery--you know, that huge, behemoth, must visit treasury of art from the ages? If you have been there once, you cringe at going again. It is just too much for the mind or the body to handle in a visit. Long before your mind becomes mush and you really don't care if you ever see another painting, your back begins to hurt, your eyes burn, your feet limp and your stomach growls.

Now there is a solution to this for some people--not all. It depends on how long you will be in Florence, how many in your family and the number of museums you wish to visit. This is the Friends of the Uffizi Annual Membership--a very good deal, plus you are supporting some of the needs of this museum that truly belongs to the world but Italy must maintain.

€100 for a family of 2 adults and 2 children under 18 or €60 for a single person gets unlimited entrance to the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Accademia, the Pitti Palace museums, Medici Palazzi in the Mugelo and many other venues for a year. If you do your math, this could be a good investment even if you are just there for a week--again depending on how you will be spending your days.

Recently, we used our pass to spend three hours in the Uffizi doing nothing but visiting the special Mind of Leonardo-The Universal Genius at Work Exhibition--which, by the way, was outstanding but is now over. If we had been there to visit other parts of the museum too we would never have been able to devote time to this exhibit. It was like being free of shackles so that we could absorb and take-in rather than overload (although, the truth is just this exhibit alone was overload, what an incredible person Leonardo was.) We totally look forward to a new and different way to approach the treasures of Firenze.

Weather--next topic. It is very strange here in Tuscany this year--but, then that does seem to be the story about many places in the western world right now. Cherry blossoms in D.C. and New York and cotton shirt weather here where it should be very cold. Alessandro, whose vineyard is our home, is very worried as the unseasonably warm weather has started the vines on their growth cycle. Now if, and more likely when, the cold weather does arrive, the nutrients that have begun to develop will freeze and the vines will die. I understand the last such disaster was in 1985. This is a very nerve wracking time for the many growers in this region and not good news for those wanting a good Chianti or Super Tuscan in 2008.

January in Greve in Chianti

And, speaking of weather wants--Casey still jumps out of bed each morning and runs to the kitchen window (the only one not shuttered at night) to see if snow covers the ground. He is going to be so disappointed if this is the year of no snow--for some reason he has made this into a big issue in his expectations.

Befana--Question for my non-Italian readers: Who/what is Befana? Woman, man, animal, flower? What? And what does Befana have to do with the Epiphany January 6? Unless you are Italian or have been in Italy during the Christmas season, you are probably stumped. If you are here and have children, then Befana is a household word. Befana (sometimes portrayed as Strega (witch) Befana is to Epiphany what Santa Claus is to Christmas--outside the pale of the religious import of the day but indispensable to children.

La Befana

by Anthony Parente

La Befana is one of Italy's oldest and most celebrated legends. Each year on January 6 the children of Italy awaken in hopes that La Befana has made a visit to their house. This is a significant day to Italians because it marks the end of the Christmas season and the day that the three Wise Men arrived at the manger of the Christ child. Over the years the Epiphany has been a more celebrated holiday for the children of Italy than even Christmas.

As legend has it the three Wise Men were in search of the Christ child when they decided to stop at a small house to ask for directions. Upon knocking, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman was unaware of who these three men were looking for and could not point them in the right direction. Prior to the three men leaving they kindly asked the old woman to join them on their journey. She declined because she had much housework to do. After they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and catch up with the kind men. After many hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child's house to leave those who were good treats in their stockings and those who were bad a lump of coal.

We broke with this a little bit as Befana did not arrive at Viticcio until January 7 (she just had too many other places to go) and filled Casey's stocking at Camilla's house. He and Camilla had hung their stockings at the fireplace before going to bed, left out cookies and milk and a note to Befana telling her they had been good last year. Just like Santa, girls and boys who have been naughty are left garlic, onions and lumps of coal.

In the morning we were all delighted to find that the stockings were indeed filled with candy and little gifts--erasable pens for school, books, a couple of small toys and candy. And--just like Santa, Befana had left a note thanking the children for the delicious snack. We were all relieved that there was no garlic or onions.

Hand Holding in Italy--Everyone Does It: This entry is now too long to bring up an entirely new topic--but, soon..........


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Salzburg Wasn't White

Casey (and, I admit, Ken and I) wanted a white Christmas in Europe. So--several months ago we made arrangements to spend the days between Christmas and New Year's in Salzburg where we were certain streets would be lined with white stuff, the hills would be alive with the sound of sleigh bells and Casey could throw snowballs and make his snowman. We bought snow tires-expensive, used beaucoup Starwood points to stay at the Hotel Goldener Hirsch, packed our long johns, heavy jackets and boots and gleefully set off on our adventure.

Somewhere after Trento and upon entering the stunningly awesome Dolomites, the scenery metamorphosis into Alpine Austria and Germany--long before crossing borders. Stone farm houses make way for wooden balconies and still colorful flower boxes. Churches have strange looking steeples and baroque pinks, greens and whites decorate buildings. "Cute" and "charming" become descriptors. The legacy of centuries of border changes, wars, treaties and intrigue jumps out of textbooks and becomes visually real and understandable. Signs are now in two languages; Italian seems to be the second language--or maybe third behind tourist oriented English. As Sara told us, people "there" think of themselves as Germans first and Italians second. Name tags begin to be Birgit and Erik rather than Daniele and Simone.

The Dolomites are simply and massively breathtaking. Peak after peak of solid stone shooting high into the air--some snow covered but, this year, many bare. This absence of snow started our first worries about what we would find at our destination--but, being optimists at heart, we held to the belief that Austria would have snow and once we crossed the border, our dream would be fulfilled. In the meantime, we felt privileged to be dwarfed by the scenery that surrounded us on all sides--reminding us of the imagination and gifts of The Creator.

The drive between our home and Salzburg takes about 8 hours and so we decided to spend the night in Bolzano--a lovely little town that is very picturesque and fun to stroll around in--definitely Austrian in architecture, foods, clothes and just general atmosphere. We kept reminding ourselves that we were really still in Italia.

One of the reason's we chose Bolzano is that it is the home of the 5,300 year old
"Ice Man, Otzi". In 1991 two hikers found an amazingly preserved frozen body in the Alps around Bolzano. Today Otzi is viewed through a small window into a room that sustains the temperature and humidity of where he lay undisturbed for 5000 years. In the adjoining room there is a full-size mannequin, clothed as he was on his fatal last day The original clothes, hunting implements and other items Otzi had with him as he set off on the day's hunt are in display cases around the room. It is truly an eerie feeling to see this remnant from days of so long ago. I think Ken and I were more fascinated than Casey who doesn't quite grasp the enormity of the find.

Crossing the Brenner Pass our hopes lifted as there was snow--not a lot but enough to turn things white. As we started down the mountain, though, green grass and clear skies made it seem as if winter has been bypassed and spring had come. We knew then that snow tires could have stayed with the gommista--at least for this trip.

Fortunately, Salzburg is a delightful destination even without snow--but it has changed since we were there in 1985. The rather quiet, quaint, little alleys and shops have become a shopper's mecca. As more and more people become aware of the pleasures of travel, it is difficult to find places that truly retain what they were and remain uniquely different.

Thank goodness there are nooks and crannies within Salzburg and storefronts and passageways that provide the sense of yesteryear and some of the old, old establishments do still exist. Chess continues to be played on the big chessboard in Residence Platz. And, along with MacDonalds, it is still possible to enjoy pastry and coffee at
Café Tomaselli, which has been serving since 1760--Mozart, himself, sipped here. Of course, Mozart was everywhere and anywhere in Salzburg--one wonders what would have become of this little Alpine town if there had been no Mozart.

With all this said--the truth is that we had a wonderful time. There was a skating rink in Mozartplatz which, of course, drew Casey. He had not skated before but was fearless in going out by himself. At first he was doing wonderful imitations of a windmill with arms flailing and legs doing things I didn't know could be done without falling but eventually he got the knack and sailed along--well, sort of. As kids do, he made friends with other children--English and Italian speaking--and so had a great amount of fun. It is really gratifying to hear him become quite bilingual in such a short time. By the time of his second session, he was gliding and doing circles--not ready for the Olympics yet but.............

We enjoyed several museums, particularly the special Mozart exhibit which had been created to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth. It was an interactive presentation with several unique presentations. It was such that even children could enjoy the experience and learn some things about the composer. Casey enjoyed it--but, ice skating was much better.

We took the cable car up the Untersberg on a startling clear day making the view of the surounding peaks spectacular. Casey was able to pitch some snowballs at us and slide on his belly down slight inclines which sort of made up for no snow below.

Stopping at Brenner Pass on the way home was even better for him
as he ran between trees pelting us with "surprise" balls of snow. But he was never able to build the snowman that he had his heart set on doing.

On the advice of a friend, we make a day trip to St. Gilgen which is a quaint little village on the shores of Wolfgansee. Now it is really a town for tourists and vacationers but Ken and I remember it 20 years ago when it was much smaller and there was just one little dock for the boats that plied the spectral lake. It was fun, though, and we took a horse drawn cart ride through the village with bells jingling and hoofs clapping as we trotted along. After a nice lunch on the waterfront we headed back to Salzburg.

New Year's Eve was a somewhat raucous affair as noise makers, firecrackers sounding like canons and fireworks seemed to face no restrictions. There were food booths set up in Residenz Platz and entertainment of various forms spread out through the town. After dinner we walked around for a while but Casey didn't like the noise and so we just went back to our room and waited until midnight and then all said good night. Amazingly, all noise ceased once the magic hour hit.

All in all, we had a good time, ate well, enjoyed the atmosphere of Salzburg and did some fun things together. As Casey says, we're a happy little family.

New Year's Eve Street Entertainment