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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saying Goodbye

This is a difficult week for us. The apartment looks forlorn and not ours anymore. Our “stuff” is either packed away in duffels awaiting their trip to the airport, strewn around the floor seeking a place in an unfilled duffel (hard to find), in boxes being left here for next year, in piles to give to friends or in bags to take to the Catholic charities.

But—the hardest part of the week is saying goodbye--to people, most of all, but also to places, drives, things we haven’t done and wanted to, the piazza, our favorite restaurants and a pace of life that suits us well.

Tears are being shed or held inside wet eyes. Hugs and kisses and inadequate words spill out with friends and shop keepers, with waiters and cooks, with grocery checkers and the gelato ladies. And we say parting words with the dear people with whom we have lived every day—Alessandro and his family, Sara who really runs everything, and all the men who work here, making this a lively, exciting place--making it our home.

And then—there is our tree. The one we have watched through the seasons when it was rich with leaves and when it was barren except for that one brown leave which stayed to welcome the new buds. Now the tree is just as it was when we arrived a year ago—green and full and the perfect landing place for new baby swallows leaving their nests in the eaves--testing their wings. Soon those nests will be empty--just like our apartment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Photo of the Week

Click on Picture

Memories of Casey and Camilla throughout this past year.

The first picture was the first day and the last was taken last week. The others are just jumbled.

Casey gave this collage to Camilla so she can remember their year together.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Meeting of Friends

Thursday was a special day for us as we went to what on Slow Travel is called a "get-together" or GTG. These are held frequently in venues all over the US and other countries as travelers find they will be in the same place at the same time.

This one was unusually rich as somewhere over 35 people came--travelers, ExPats and Italians. It was held in a lovely villa on the slopes right below Assisi. While many of us already knew each other, others we were meeting in person for the first time. But, as with all our Slow Travel relationships, we had "known" these others for long periods of time via conversations and sharing on the web.

It was incredible fun to get together with so many friends during our last days here in Bella Italia. We were able to say goodbye to many people we had spent time with here and meet new friends from the United States here on vacation. Many of these we will see again as they pass through San Diego or we go their way--and at future GTG's.

Of course, there was lots of good Umbrian food specially catered for the event--porchetta, prosciutto, stuffed vegetables, grilled peppers, pastas etc. etc. etc.--oh so good. Friends from Naples brought a mountain of bufala mozzarella balls. And then there were the desserts--of course, not a calorie in them.

Being Italy, there was a lot of wine but the day was so terribly HOT (+42ºC/+107ºF) that the beverages of choice were water and juice. The pool served as a welcome diversion for Casey and a few of the "bigger" people but since it was in total sun the rays beat down on the water and bounced right back up causing most of us to stay under the sheltering Italian style large umbrellas-- which, by the way, I would really like for our pool area at home. They would be quite nice with our Italian ceramic table being shipped to us sometime in August.

Casey showed a streak of entrepreneurship as he went around offering to fan people while holding out a hat for contributions--clearly he has seen too many street performers this year. Part of me was amused by his industriousness borne out of his desire to buy more Dragonball Z cards while the other part of me worried that he was being too pushy. When we returned to the hotel that night, I was nonplussed by the fact that he had €5.20 in his pocket. It seems a friend who lives here in Italy explained to him the concept of running a tab and so at the end of the night he went back and collected €3. To Valerie--I offer a public apology!

Grazie mille to Corinna and family for opening up your beautiful villa and providing a wonderful time with wonderful food. It was the kind of day and night which make memories. Thanks also to Janet who was staying at the villa and shared it with us and to Pauline, the brains behind Slow Travel and the person who makes all of this happen.

Because this was so close to Assisi, we went over a day early so Casey could visit the St. Francis Basilica with the Giotto and Cimabue frescos and to see the city where St. Francis was born. Casey has been fascinated by St Francis ever since we went to La Verna, the mountain top sanctuary that he loved. Casey's relating of that trip makes a pretty entertaining read-- My Time at Poppi. Among other things he explains why he does not want to become a monk.

His strange for a 9-year-old attachment to Giotto and Cimabue is a gift given to him by his friends at La Cantinetta di Rignana. At the basilica he particularly wanted to see Giotto's fresco of St. Francis "receiving the stigmata", a concept that has puzzled him since seeing another fresco at La Verna.

This was the final outing for our year in Italy and it was a good one--Casey visited a new place for his memory bank and we laughed, played and ate with friends--what a perfect ending!

My apologies to good friends whose pictures I did not get-particularly, dear Judith.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A New Love

Dear Toscana,

I have loved you but perhaps the time has come to move on. Piemonte, maybe I am yours!

We have just returned from three too short days in the hills and countryside of Piemonte--a land where snow covered Alps serve as backdrop to vibrant vineyards and rich green fields, where sun flowers nod and wave at the passerby. It is truly a land of unspoiled beauty--when away from Milano, Genova and the autostrada. We were awed by what we saw.

Unfortunately, my camera battery died dead, really dead--and so I have no pictures of the countryside. However, a quick web search brought up hundreds of beautiful shots--far better than my little camera could capture. Pictures of Piemonte. I want to go back for weeks.

We stayed at the Baur B&B (where I was able to get some photos before the dead camera) created by friends of ours--Diana and Mischa, who left high stakes international corporate existence to settle into the role of innkeepers. Together they have created a beautiful new life that tells of risk taking and following a dream.

The word created is perfect because that is what they have done--created a place of beauty, fantasy and serenity, encapsulating a sense of joy. Diana is a potter and an artist. She has used quietly vibrant colors to turn the walls, inside and out, into art. Splashes of flowers cover century old wooden barn doors. Breakfast (more accurately called a feast) is served on her own pottery designs.

Misha has learned how to use powerful equipment to do such things as cut down 300 trees to open a view that encompasses Liguria and far away mountains. All that happens there is a partnership.

And--there is a third member of the family--Max. Max is the dog you want to take home with you even though he is large. Like his owners, he adds ambience and affection.

One night, a couple from Norway who were also guests prepared a wonderful dinner for all of us. She is a chef and so the meal was quite special--much better than what I can do--trout baked in mountains of salt, roasted vegetables, pesce crudo. We sat outside on the mountain side, drinking in the view; enjoying wonderful food and stimulating conversation. A memorable evening.

Below are a few pictures of the B&B--taken before the dead battery.

Already we know that next summer, when we return for 6 weeks to allow Casey to use his italian, we will return to Piemonte and Diana, Mischa and Max. But, dear Toscana, we will save some time for you.

Tua Amica

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sheena, Cracker and Palma

Now you wonder who or what these three are—right? So, I’ll tell you about them—three of my special friends.

This is Sheena.

This is Cracker AKA Mary Pace.

This is Palma.

And, with them are their chauffeurs—Terry, Tommy and Brad. In Sheena's picture, Terry is standing next to me--we switched men for a while.

But, first, a diversion: I have mentioned my favorite travel website before—Slow Travel and its companion message board Slow Talk. This duo was started by another friend of mine, Pauline, 6 years ago as a fledgling hobby. Now it has become the premier website for people planning trips to Italy—a source where travelers help fellow travelers. This means the information is honest, on-track and reliable—hard to find in these days of hype and hyperbole.

Because of Slow Travel, our year here in Italy has been enriched immeasurably with opportunities to meet people whom I have “met on the boards” —people who became my good friends without ever having met in the conventional sense—live and in person. The astonishing fact is that not one of these real life meetings has been a disappointment. Ken and I can honestly say that we have found enjoyment and camaraderie in each meeting—which usually includes enjoying a fine meal together—lunch or dinner. I have written of several of these people in the course of the last 365 (well almost) days..

Sheena, Cracker and Palma are the most recent treasures. With each of them, conversation and laughter came easily—just as I anticipated they would. We were “old friends” who finally met—a paradox isn’t it? Each of us shares a love for this country with which we have no real ties.

We return here after trips to other places—this is our kick-back, “I’m at home,” corner of the world. Is it the food? (well, yes), the culture? (by all means), the people? (most definitely), the shopping? (ask Palma), the unmatchable beauty and its diversity? (absolutely!), its history (of course.) The lure of the ancient draws those of us from Canada, Australia, the USA—new countries with little history. We become mesmerized by a land that counts a 250 year old structure as new.

But, my friends carried with them touches of the new world—taking precious suitcase space to bring treasures—Trix, Fruitloops, Skittles--and vanilla for cookies. Yes indeed, our countries are making cultural and cuisine contributions to the world and history marches on.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Beaches--Italian Style

Written June 28
Maremma—the beautiful coast of Tuscany. We had our own lounge chairs and umbrella in true European style. Vendors patrolled the beach, selling purses, jewelry, towels, fresh coconut and massages. It was picture perfect and just what one seeks when wanting to kick back and let the world roll by. The water is shallow enough that kids can play easily; there are no stones to pierce delicate feet; lifeguards patrol making sure bambini stay within safe territory. Each night the beach is combed and cleaned and so the next morning there is a pristine scene awaiting a new day.

This week we are on the northwest coast of Sicily where small beach and fishing villages scatter themselves along the coast. Here black lava rocks spill into the sea, covering what may have been sandy beaches and leafy trees centuries ago. And—here is where people flock on weekends and when the weather becomes unbearably hot.

They bring umbrellas--finding crevices in the lava in which to secure them, inflatable water toys for the kids, coolers of soft drinks and picnic supplies and then lay towels across the hot, jagged remnants of Mt. Etna and sun bathe. It is in such contrast to the shores of Maremma and yet, the water is just as cool and inviting; kids play in the lapping waves; snack stands thrive and everyone seems content and happy. There is a sense of community as people join together for a day at the shore.

Two different styles of beach life, both providing escape from daily life, chores and worries, both rejuvenating the soul. After a day of sun, play, and fun with friends and family, life seems different and tomorrow has a new color. After all, it isn’t the soft sand that matters but the newness that the sea offers, time spent with the greatest of nature’s phenomena.

Whether on the soothing sands of the Maremma or the sharp stones left by a volcano, pleasure is found in equal measure.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Villa Praiola—The Oasis

Written June 24

Today the usually sparkling Ionian sea hides under a blanket of shimmering, undulating heat. It is hot here on the east coast of mystical Sicily. Even dozing Mt. Etna is hard to see except for her smoking top. And—we sit in an oasis of beauty, with large shade trees cooling us after quick dips in the clear, cool pool. Surrounding us are petunias, bougainvilleas and myriad other flowers of all colors decorating walls and stairways. Birds fly from lemon tree to lemon tree and big fat lizards climb the walls looking for a cool corner.

We are at one of our favorite places—lovely Villa Praiola, perched between the Ionian Sea and Mt. Etna. When we were last here, we watched lava flow down the mountain, but this time we are not so lucky. The fire god is quiet for a while—but maybe domani? From the veranda we look over fields of trees—lemon and palms--all the way to the sea.

Today we went early to Taormina to again wander its charm and enjoy its beauty—with thoughts of buying another piece of unique pottery. I am glad we have been there before so that today we could pick and choose what we wanted to see rather than feeling the need to discover it all.

It was not long before we found an air conditioned trattoria before running back to the cool of the villa. I would have really liked to go on up to charming Castelmola but the pool and fans beckoned. I did find the ceramic piece but will give it a day’s thought before buying; it will need to be hand carried home and, after a year in bella Italia, there are already a few other things in that category—but, surprisingly little, actually.

Yesterday we did nothing—except for a short drive along the coast. When we were here before it was in October and the beach areas were shuttered ghost towns. The scene is quite different in June, particularly on a Sunday when people carrying umbrellas and multitudinous other necessities jaywalking streets to get to the beach side.

Plus we either have forgotten or habits have changed but by all appearances most drivers here have clearly not been to driving school—yesterday there were several hair raising near catastrophes —fortunately not involving us. I will say, today wasn’t bad at all-more like what we recall, a cross between San Francisco and, say, NYC.

Casey is now down at the pool with Lucio, the caretakers’ son—his friend from two years ago. The beauty of children is that friendships pick up where they leave off—particularly true of young boys who share the wonders of such things as Pokeman, Dragonball Z and transformers. I think for Lucio having another boy here for a week is a rare treat. And Casey loves being somewhere that offers a break from gramma and pappa.

Villa Praiola is a special place because of Vera and Francesco, its special owners, who take pride in offering strangers a beautiful place to live for a week—or more. It is decorated with marvelous taste but remains comfortable and enjoyable—totally relaxing.

It was a wonderful serendipity event which found us here in 2004 and now in 2007 the property has only grown better—a/c in all the rooms, an old building in the pool area has been transformed into an open air rec room with cooking facilities; the antique traditional winery below the villa has had lighting added which makes it much easier to absorb. Many such places have been long destroyed and so seeing this one, cobwebs and all, is like stepping into the past—huge, decaying wine vats, crushing screws, stone fermenting basins and more—everything but the contadino.

In 2004, when I was still keeping a travel website (which I may resurrect when this blog is finito), I wrote a lot about Villa Praiola and provided many pictures. If interested—check here. This is a 2007 photo update.

Created with
Paul's flickrSLiDR.

Now—I am off to join Casey and Lucio in a swim. And the sea is opening up—the blue shows and glistens like diamonds—the haze has lifted and I see a sailboat. Beautiful!

If you are interested in the villa, their renting agent is Ville in Italia. My experience with them is that they service clients well and are a business which values integrity.

Since I am writing this and whatever follows with no internet connection, it will be several days before entries are posted. So—travel back in time to catch up.