Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sharing the road

We biked into Lucca this morning – to tour the old city by bike rather than on foot, to eat breakfast at a sidewalk café, to check out the bus schedule to Pisa. Our route takes us across typical country roads, across railroad tracks, through heavy city traffic. A trip of roughly 15 miles round trip.

You may think we are doing something unique by biking as much as we do. But we’re not unique. Not in the least. Not in Italy. Bicycles are everywhere. In small towns. In the country. In the cities. Our landlady keeps a collapsible bike in her car just for getting around easily in Lucca.

I realized as I was pedaling along that my thighs didn’t burn and that my lungs had plenty of capacity. More important, I realized I was no longer afraid of being run down by a car.

In the past three weeks, I’ve come to realize a significant feature of Italian roads and drivers. Everyone shares. It’s not that drivers tolerate bikers. It’s that everyone grants to everyone else an equal right to the road.

Nowhere was this more visible than at a railroad crossing this morning. The crossing guards were down and traffic was backing up. Cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. Cars lined up for a block or more on either side. A dozen motorcycles and bicycles crowded up right next to the crossing guards, spread across all lanes of traffic going in both directions. The longer the rails were down, the more bikers crowded up front.

There is logic to this approach. As the guardrails rise after the train passes, motorcycles and bicycles can slip under and get across before cars are clear to go. It is better for everyone for the bikers to get going and get out of the way.

The amazing thing about this is that no one cursed, or blew their horn, or gave the finger to the bikers. The bikers had just as much right to be there as the cars.

I wish I had a photo to share of the railroad crossing, but I don’t. I was paying attention to getting through the crossing safely.

That’s another thing about Italian drivers. They drive fast, but they pay attention. And that’s another reason I feel safe biking on Italian roads.


Monday, May 30, 2011

It's every day in Italy

We realized this morning that we’ve stopped taking pictures of every door, every flower, every traditional Tuscan tile building we see. What that signaled to us is that we’re settling in, beginning to live the every day life in Italy.

Our neighborhood is familiar. The neighbors know us. We know them.

We stopped to talk one night to the elderly couple who have the beautiful roses we stopped to admire – and take pictures of – every single day for the first two weeks we were here. I fed their dog the last bite of my gelato cone. Now we wave to them as we pass by. Usually they wave first.

I successfully talked with the owner of a store today, telling her in Italian that I have two granddaughters who are, respectively, two years and two months old.

We’ve made friends with the clerk at the grocery store. In the first weeks he was a little grim when he saw us. Now we greet him, ask how he’s doing – in Italian. He responds. Asks us how we’re doing, where we’re from, what we’re doing in Italy. In Italian. He picks up a few words of English. We get more comfortable with Italian.

That's not to say our Italian is perfect. Far from it. But, it’s not so strange any more. Not so new. We're not so self conscious using what we know. It’s every day.

Living the every day life has its downsides. We discovered maggots in our garbage this morning. Holy cow! Maggots! I swept the floor. Mary washed out the wastebasket. Guess we know we have to tie up the garbage a little more often in Italy.

But that’s just every day living.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

We remember them all

The stories we can know from reading cemetery stones are brief but often poignant. Read a stone marking the death of a young man in 1918 or 1942 or 1969 and you may guess this person died in the service of their country. And you wonder about the family they left behind, the life they didn’t get to live, the lives they hoped to ensure others could live.

This Memorial Day is poignant for me, being so far from home. But I’m thinking about all those who have served and are serving our country.

Last Memorial Day, I went home to Jackson County, Iowa. The Spragueville Cemetery, where my folks are buried was dedicating a memorial recognizing all veterans who’d served in all wars.  My dad served in World War II.

It was as pretty a day as you could hope for – blue skies, a breeze that kept the flags waving, peonies in full bloom. My cousin who served in Viet Nam and his wife joined us. Veterans listed on the memorial dated to the Civil War.  I was glad to see so many of my family's friends and neighbors come for the tribute.

This month, we’ve been visiting Italian cemeteries.  We’ve seen many memorials to Italy’s soldiers who died in WWI. Today we saw our first memorial to soldiers who died in WWII. I felt a momentary conflict. Did these men take up arms against the Allies?

And then I realized it didn’t matter. These men left family behind. They didn’t live a full life. They died trying to ensure others could live.

It is Memorial Day. We remember them all.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

'Connection Lost' - a month of Skype frustration

Everyone told us how great Skype was. I have friends who happily chat away between states, in other countries, across oceans and time zones. My husband and I really thought it would be cool to be able to see each and talk in real time while I was in Italy writing and he kept the home fires burning in Iowa.

We were optimistic. We were enthusiastic. The reality has been very different.

Here’s how it goes.
  1. Our connections show we are both on line. Yeah! 
  2. One of us hits the call button. Ringing. The other answers. A ‘Connection Lost’ message pops up. 
  3. We hit the call button again. Ringing. The other answers. A video shows. Connection Lost 
  4. Upon occasion, a connection is made. A video window opens and you get to see your loved one. For two seconds. During that time the conversation consists entirely of: ‘Can you see me? – Hit your video button. – Can you hear me? – I can’t hear you. – I can hear you but can’t see you.’ Connection Lost. 
One time – ONE TIME – we connected for about four minutes. I was delighted. He looked fabulous. I carried my laptop around to show him our house and garden. Hearing his voice made my day. Connection Lost.

Mary has had more success with Skype than I, but I know the above conversation so well from hearing her go through the exercise time and again. And it is a bit of a numbers game. Since she tries every day – multiple times a day – it stands to reason that she connects more often.

I have put my whole effort – along with my heart – into once or twice a week calls. Tonight I sent an advance email to my husband telling him I was not overly optimistic of our chances for success because Mary had not been successful early. He responded, “I’m underly optimistic.’

So sorry. Connection Lost.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cinque Terre - Cultural fusion

My last two blogs about Cinque Terre have been ‘off the beaten track.’ In fact, the area is a delightful fusion of traditional Italian architecture where buildings climb hills and cling to cliffs, where life is in, on and from the sea, where you enjoy excellent food,  and art, and where tourism abounds.

Here is a montage of sights of the five villages of Cinque Terra.

My recommendation? See it if you can!

In Cinque Terra, you'll see:
Every day life in the midst of tourism.

Eat amazing food.

Sample Limoncino made from from local lemons.

Appreciate arts that reflect a maritime history.

Find religion at every turn - and at the top of every mountain.

Enjoy tourism based on the most incredible blue sea.

And if you're lucky, find your true love. After all, what would Italy be without love?


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Look at the snow!

As we plotted our trip to Cinque Terre, I noticed that Carrara, Italy, known for the white marble quarried there since Roman times, was right along the way. This is the same area that produced the marble Michelangelo used to carve his famous ‘David.’

I thought it would be fun to stop in Carrara and pick up a piece of marble to add to the cairn in my garden. Yes, I know about the weight limits on checked baggage. But it wouldn’t have to be large. Nothing like the wheelbarrow of granite we hauled back from New England. Mary agreed and we added Carrara to our itinerary.

The further north we drove on our way to Cinque Terre, the bigger the hills became until they crossed into the category of mountains. From time to time, we’d see a peak in the distance still covered with snow.

In the moderate Tuscany climate, – where the temperatures rarely drop into the low 30s – would there even be snow on the peaks, especially in late May? It’s fair to say we were not putting two and two together on this.

As we left the Autostrada (Italian interstate) and drove closer and closer to the mountains, we came to realize that what we thought was snow was actually the marble quarries and centuries of marble dust. At the base of one mountain, with a quarry further up the side, it was easy enough to pull over, hop out of the car and grab pieces of marble to add to my collection.

I don’t know which quarry produced ‘David,’ but it may have been the very quarry that produced the stones I picked up. Wouldn’t that be cool?


Cinque Terre - The sound of heaven

We’re spending two days in Cinque Terre – five villages along the Italian coast. These little towns have the charm of every Italian village we’ve seen, with the added benefit of clinging to hills and cliffs that dip down into the Mediterranean Sea.

While we came like most others for the sunshine and the beaches, we’ve found we’re drawn to the churches.

Though we didn’t set out in this direction, churches have become a theme for us this month. And we were delighted to find several open in Cinque Terre. The church elders may recognize how welcome a cool place for quiet reflection can be to tourists.

When I saw a small sign pointing the way to the Cappuccini Church, I was intrigued. Did they serve coffee? We veered off the main drag to go see. How far could it be?

The trail went up. And up. The path turned narrow and rough. It curved around bends. Always up. This church was not for the faint of heart. Instead of biking to heaven, we truly felt this might be hiking to heaven!

Finally we received a sign – well two of them actually. One was the statue of a monk with a dog. Another sign on a wall that looked a castle armament provide some history. Around another two bends – up only another hundred yards or may be two hundred – there it was. Chiesa Cappuccini. And it was open.

We walked in, closing the door tightly as the sign requested. And then we heard it. The sound of men singing. We had stumbled into an enclave of Capuchin monks. We sat and listened. We could not see them, but their voices filtered into the sanctuary, spreading peace in that space.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What food do you crave?

We’re 2 ½ weeks into our Italian adventure. Enjoying the scenery, feeling productive with our writing, and reveling in the ability to have such an experience. And we love the food. Trying new foods is one of the best parts of visiting a new country. The sights, the tastes, the smells - sauté garlic in olive oil, add a little pepper, serve over pasta with truly fresh vegetables … Wow!

The Italians are dedicated to eating fresh and local. We’ve eaten fresh asparagus 2-3 times a week ever since we arrived. It is fabulous and we savor every bite. The asparagus was just coming on in our patch in Iowa when I left. To be able to satisfy that spring craving here (knowing my husband is freezing what he can’t eat) is the best.

We ate real tomatoes (not hothouse) on our salads yesterday and today. Real tomatoes. In May? Believe it. If we knew how to fix fava beans, we’d be eating those, too.

But by 2 ½ weeks, we’re far enough removed from our normal fare that we start to crave. That was our discussion as we made dinner tonight. What foods were we craving.

Mary wanted Jarlsburg cheese. There is cheese aplenty in our markets, but it is all sheep’s milk cheese. Tasty, but very different than cow’s milk or goat’s milk cheese.

We have the most amazing gelato each night when we take a walk – but I crave my AE vanilla ice cream with a dollop of peanut butter and a squeeze of chocolate syrup.

We’re just sitting here wondering. What do you crave?


Monday, May 23, 2011

A matter of size

The first time I saw a Smart Car, I was charmed. How could a car be so darn cute? I wanted to put it in my pocket and take it home. Maybe I’d even get a set of six. They’d fit in the same space as my current mid-sized car.

In the U.S., Smart Cars are a novelty. As the price of gas rises, people may see the fuel efficiency as more desirable, but even then, given the size of our roads, the distances we travel, will these little jewels ever really be mainstream?

It’s a different case in Europe. Roads built hundreds of years ago to let two horses pass are no wider today. The streets of Massa Macinaia narrow as they round curves, requiring drivers to beep their horns as they approach, lest they run head on into someone coming from the other direction. The Roman aqueducts run right through towns and cities, so two-lane streets go to one lane to accommodate the arch. Traffic lights in the walled city of Lucca regulate traffic going in and out because the old city gates are only wide enough for one vehicle at a time.

Smaller cars are the norm. So are small trucks. When the garbage trucks hit the streets on Monday morning, I stood on our patio and watched. The truck was proportionally as small as the Smart Car, navigating the same narrow gravel lane Mary and I use as a shortcut to get to the grocery.

How does the truck accommodate all the garbage? Not to worry. The garbage is also smaller. The recycling bins accept everything except organic matter. Imagine how small your bag of garbage would be if it only included banana peels and coffee grounds! Does that make the recycling bins huge? Nope. Smaller. Less food packaging all around. Except for our wine bottles. Those are the same.

The truck equivalent of a Smart Car is the three-wheeled utility truck our landlord drives. This morning we met him as we walked. He was taking a load to the dump in his little Piaggio truck. It’s easy to handle, hauls just enough, and doesn’t take much gas.

I wanted one. I bet my husband would like six.


Finding God in Italy

I attended mass at our local church, yesterday. Since I didn’t understand most of the words, I was left to absorb the experience. The tone of the voices, the architecture of the building, the hard, angled straightness of the pews, the faces and actions of the people.

It was a special day. Two babies were baptized. I knew this even before the service started because large family groups entered the church together, most of the women in these groups dressed up, and they tried several different pews before choosing seats closest to the baptismal font. Just like in my home church.

Elements of the baptismal ritual were interspersed throughout the service, but the part that was most touching was the actual baptisms. When the parents took the babies to the font, children piled out of the pews and down the aisle to get close enough to see for themselves. Even more interesting was that many of the adult men followed the kids. Everyone crowded close up to see two more children of God anointed into the family.

The voices of a very small choir filled this large space, carried up and magnified by the curved walls and arches.

When a father and daughter left toward the end of the service, the little girl who was maybe 10 years old, stopped and lit a candle at a small altar. Her father was already out the door, but she stood there for several moments.

Much has been written about the decline of organized religion in Europe. Maybe so. This church was far from full, and its numbers yesterday were bolstered by the baptisms. A noon mass on another day attracted only three women.

But evidence of individual and group faith is everywhere in Italy. The women who gather at the chapel on Monday nights. The small shrines on houses adorned with fresh flowers. The men and children pushing forward to see the baptism. A little girl who lights a candle.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Living on Italian time

We’ve adjusted to biking or walking. We’ve adjusted to hanging our laundry out on the patio. We’ve adjusted to buying only enough groceries to last a day or two, because that’s what fits in our backpacks. We have not yet fully adjusted to Italian time.

In our first days in Massa Macinaia, we learned that the supermarket opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. But it closes for an hour and a half after lunch, as do the bank and other stores in that area. Allowing everyone to take a lunch break or an afternoon nap is civilized.

Everything in Italy trends to later in the evening. Restaurants don’t begin serving until 7 p.m. Even an artisanal gelato shop stays open until 11 p.m. We were reminded of this a few days ago when we arrived at a restaurant at 6, only to have the nice young man tell us they could do nothing until 7 … or so.

Complicating the schedule is that businesses vary on days of the week they are closed. Our favorite pizza restaurant, for instance, is only open Thursday – Sunday.

For Americans used to 24-7 access, this has all taken some getting used to. But that’s part of the fun. We thought we had quite a good handle on the time thing until yesterday.

Yesterday, we biked to Guamo for lunch at a pizza restaurant we spotted on our last visit to the town and to take in the local art festival. The festival was scheduled to start at 1 p.m. We figured by the time we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, the festival would be in full swing.

When we biked past the festival grounds at 12:45, only two or three vendor spots were taken. A handful of people milled around a food tent. Perhaps a 1 p.m. start meant: we start setting up then.  Our luck at lunch was no better. The restaurant was open, but pizza was ‘no possible’ until the evening.

At this point, we figured our best bet was to swing by the supermarket deli, pick up something to eat at home and then return at 4 p.m. We biked to the supermarket. Oh, yeah, they were closed for the lunch break.

In a nod to Italian time, I didn’t post yesterday. I am closed for business on the third Saturday in May.


Friday, May 20, 2011

On finding Eden

We’re half way through our stay here in Italy. Can you believe it? I can’t. So it’s time for a shout out to our home and hosts and the way we all came together.

Le Macine, as our house is called, has become our own little slice of heaven. We have the entire house - three bedrooms, two baths, a well-stocked kitchen and living room. Once an old stable, the entire space has been remodeled and made modern while retaining the charm of Tuscan tiles and construction.

Outside, our patio and private garden are bordered by a stream and nestled in hills covered with olive trees and vineyards. Since our goal was to write, we knew we’d need different writing venues. In addition to the kitchen table, we have four tables outside. My favorite place is a large easy chair I’ve positioned in front of French doors that open out to my inspiration – the green expanses of nature.

When we told our hosts we would not have a car, they arranged for two bicycles, which have worked out perfectly. These one-speed beauties ensure I will tear up the roads when I get back to Iowa and my 10-speed. Our hosts have been phenomenal.

Cristina made herself available to respond to our many questions both before and since we arrived. In addition, she takes us to Lucca to visit and to catch the train. On each trip we learn a little more Italian and she learns a little more English.

Her parents – Ansano and Brunetta – take care of bedding, recycling, and the garden, as well as being delightful sources of history on the buildings, local restaurants, and the appealing art on our walls.  What a bonus to be on a creative outing and find ourselves hosted by a family of artists.

To find them, we used VRBO.com, otherwise known as Vacation Rental By Owner. Mary used this service before to find a condo in California. VRBO is a clearinghouse for properties all over the world. Exceptionally easy to use, VRBO lets you search by geography, property type, cost, and amenities.

We recommend Le Mecine – our home – or their other property just across the street – G&G Mill – a former olive and grain press. We also recommend VRBO.com

We hope you find your little piece of heaven.

Buon Viaggio!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The real deal is worth it

We’ve been ensconced in our little house, writing much of the time, making short forays out on bikes to sightsee, shop, stretch our legs. Today we went big. Florence.

Cristina delivered us to the train station where we caught an 8:32 a.m. train. By 10 a.m. we were taking in so much artwork and history from Medieval and Renaissance times that it literally boggled my mind.

We’re back home and it’s almost 9 p.m. A great day, but I am so tired right now I can’t put perspective on what we saw – though the development of perspective in painting was a major advance during the Renaissance. I did learn that today.

What I can say is that I saw Michelanglo’s ‘David.’ And it was definitely worth the effort.

Buona notte!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eating our way through Italy

“I could eat my way through Italy,” a friend enthused when we talked about my upcoming vacation. I presumed she meant in big city restaurants. Or that the food in rural areas would be interesting (in that it would be different than U.S. food), but basic.  I had no idea.

When we arrived, our landlady recommended two local restaurants – La Pizzeria and Il Gattino Bianco. The first is known for its excellent (you guessed it) pizza and the second (The Little White Cat) for seafood.  I was open minded, but moderately skeptical. This is a very rural area.

I’m no foodie, but in the past two weeks, I’ve had my eyes opened.

We tried the seafood place first because it was open when we were hungry. Mary and I shared a combination appetizer plate that included a ceviche seafood salad, crab gratine, and eggplant. The flavor was intense, the portions reasonable. The appetizer left me hungry for the main course - pasta with a mix of clams, mussels, and shrimp, with a light yet spicy wine and olive oil sauce. Mmmmm!

The only thing this meal left me hungry for was a chance to try the pizzeria next. Though it was not open until Thursday, it was worth the wait.

Pizza at this restaurant is unlike anything served in the U.S. The menu presents some 30 gourmet pizzas, including vegetarian, meat, seafood, and desert varieties. Other than mushrooms, the ingredients don’t resemble anything from Casey’s or Big Tomato. Speaking of tomato, few of these pizzas include tomato sauce and those that do have received only the lightest touch.

So far our favorites include Gorgonzola and pear on mozzarella, and one called Quattro Stagionati.  We’d seen ‘stagionati’ before in the context of aged cheese, so we might be excused for thinking it was a pizza with four, aged cheeses.  Actually, it was a pizza with four distinct ingredient combinations, ranging from mushroom, to seafood, to zucchini, and cheese. Served with a half liter of wine? Doesn’t get any better than this.

We’ve eaten at the pizzeria twice and are headed back to the seafood place tonight. I now know what my friend meant.

Italian food?  Buonissima!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Taking the road less traveled

We are not going to Rome or to Venice on this trip. We are eschewing most major tourist sites this month in favor of getting to know our local neighborhood. This decision – not so lightly made for me as for Mary who has often left the beaten path on past trips – has yielded rewards.

One day, we came across a very small chapel where an ironwork grill protected an altar with the Virgin Mary. We were able to discern that every Monday in May, at 9 p.m., there is a gathering at this chapel.

Last night, we left our house at 7:45 p.m. – in time to get a gelato before the deli closed – and walked up to the chapel, wondering what, if anything, would happen. Shortly before 9 – as a full moon rose above the hills - three women arrived, opened the gate and chatted as they swept out the chapel.

We could hardly leave without trying to understand – and besides wouldn’t it be odd for us to sit and stare? - so we introduced ourselves and in our scrambled Italian learned that the chapel had been built in memory of one woman’s grandmother. She and her neighbors gather to say a rosary on Monday’s in May.

A local experience that was personal and precious. And I expect our presence will be a memory for our neighbors.

Today, we biked to another village. Only 5 kilometers away, Guamo will host an art festival this weekend.  We wanted to check it out in advance.

After stopping at the church (of course), we took off on what we thought was the way out of town. The road wound higher into the hills, past vineyards, workmen on lunch break, and hikers. Eventually, asphalt turned to gravel and finally dead-ended in private yards. When we turned around to retrace our path, we were looking right at a Roman viaduct that stretched across the valley.

We had taken the road less traveled. And as Robert Frost says, ‘that has made all the difference.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Biking to heaven

We didn’t make it to church yesterday because of the rain. We did penance today, biking half way to heaven to reach a church on a hill.

We’ve been visiting all the churches in this area. Massa Macinaia, San Leonardo, San Giusto. All of these were within easy walking distance.  The one we hadn’t visited yet was one that seemed most intriguing. Built at the peak of a fairly high hill, San Ginese is visible for miles in all directions.

Confined to our house yesterday, we were ready to stretch our legs today, so we mounted our trusty one-speed bikes and headed toward San Ginese. I have not been on a bike with any consistency in years. Getting to the supermarket and back each day this week – a round-trip distance of only a couple of miles – has left my thighs burning. I knew San Ginese would be a challenge.

We asked directions from time to time. The word an elderly Italian woman used repeatedly was ‘lontana,’ which roughly translates to ‘a heck of a long ways.’ And she pointed up hill. She was right.

It took us an hour of riding, pushing, resting and starting again to get the 5-6 kilometers to San Ginese. When I could catch my breath enough to look, I had to acknowledge the views were excellent.

The church was locked, but we toured the grounds to the music of someone practicing the cello in a nearby house. A monument to local soldiers killed in WWI was particularly moving.

The trip back down was much easier – though I should mention that I only have breaks on the front tire so my left hand, as well as my heart, got a workout as I wondered if I’d be able to stop when I needed to.

Half an hour later, we were picking up groceries at the supermarket and for the first time, I biked back to the house without feeling as though my legs would burn up.

Perhaps that is my reward for biking half way to heaven.


If these windows could talk

This blog is a re-post from May 13. 

If these windows could talk

As we strolled the narrow streets of the walled city of Lucca today, my attention was drawn most often to the windows.

In a city where every inch has been built upon over the past 17 centuries, where streets are barely wide enough for one small car to pass a pedestrian or bicyclist, where there is virtually no private green space, windows are invaluable outlets to the world.

Flowerpots brighten the windows. Bars protect the windows. Laundry hangs from windows.

People of European descent have been creating a story in the United States for a few hundred years. Few of the buildings in the U.S. have survived that long. Many buildings in Lucca – churches in particular – have seen 1,000+ years of human activity.

It is daunting to think what these buildings – and the people who lived in them – have been through. On any given day, people looked out the windows and saw Roman legions build an amphitheater or called welcome to pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land or felt fear as Napoleon stormed into Italy.

Meanwhile, these same people lived everyday lives, going to work, buying meat, milk and produce to put meals on the table, chatting with their neighbors in the piazza. Perhaps they stopped to applaud the workmen who were putting the latest addition on the church that was already several hundred years old.

And they leaned out the windows to greet a neighbor who lived across the street and who was also leaning out to hang out her laundry.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doing laundry - Italian style

Sooner or later it was going to rain. Sooner or later we needed to do the laundry. These two rare events both happened on the same day. Today.

Since we arrived in Italy a week ago yesterday, I have watched Italian women hang laundry out their windows and or drape it on little racks outside their back doors. I admired that their laundry was hung out before I had breakfast in the morning and was pulled back in dry by the end of the day. How charming!

I was reminded of doing laundry in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was a point of pride to have your laundry on the line early Monday morning. The later in the day laundry was hung out, the more other housewives clucked.

A new washing machine was a selling factor for our house in Tuscany. Since our only plans were to write today – not even the supermarket is open on Sunday – we thought what a perfect day to wash our small pile of dirty clothes. We even have our own little rack and bucket of clothespins. Under the Tuscan sun, with even a light breeze, our clothes would dry in no time.

Even though it sprinkled from time to time – and rained hard enough to deter us from walking a mile to church – the sun still emerged from time to time. Surely our laundry would dry.

We washed our one load of laundry. It was ready to hang out by 1 p.m. One small glitch – the laundry did not spin dry.  I carried dripping bundles from the washing machine to the patio.

We rung it out and hung it out. Not an hour later, it looked like rain. We moved the rack from the patio to the covered front porch. It has poured off and on ever since.  At 6 p.m., it is still pouring down rain. Our unmentionables are as wet as the moment we hung them out. I can only imagine how our neighbors are laughing.

We are praying for sunshine tomorrow. And we promise to do better next time.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stopping to smell the roses

‘Be sure to stop and smell the roses’ is a cliché. If an author uses the line, readers may feel the writing is trite, that the author took the easy route instead of working for a fresh and original turn of phrase. ‘Stop and smell the roses’ would probably not get past a good editor with a sharp pencil.

But we have in fact been stopping to smell the roses on our walks each day. The Tuscan climate, with its low humidity, bright sunshine, and higher elevation, is well suited for roses, and the bushes produce abundant quantities of stunning red, white, pink, and apricot blooms. Tuscan yards often boast several rose bushes or vines twining along fences. It would be – or should be – a crime to pass and not stop to admire.

The roses are joined by peonies, petunias, and poppies that have come into season just in the last week. People who know me know I love to take pictures of flowers. Tuscany is giving me ample opportunity.

One of my desires for this month abroad is to enjoy each moment. As they demand I stop and admire them, the roses do their best to ensure I achieve this desire.

Each time I stop to look at a rose, I breathe in a little bit of this amazing life. Actually stopping to smell the roses doesn’t seem trite at all.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Finding my way

My internal compass is all out of whack. As a Midwestern farm girl, I'm used to having a clear sense of north, south, east and west. If the sun is shining in Iowa, I know directions and give directions as farm people do - 'Head due south and take the second road going east.' I am my father's daughter when it comes to believing that things should be 'square with the world.'

So Italy presents a challenge for me. The Tuscan hills ensure that roads are a higgledy-piggledy tangle of twists and turns. Houses and towns are plotted at every conceivable angle. Roads have been laid out over the past millennia  along the path of least resistance, probably cow paths.

Why does this matter? Because I am used to being able to find my way. And I like the comfort of knowing where I am. I do not like to be lost.

As we headed out to walk this morning, Mary asked, 'Right or left?'  I wanted to say east or west, but could not. I struggled to finally say southeast. After making two turns, I was convinced we were going south. Mary knew we were going north. She graciously did not say I was an idiot.

She pointed out that you are only 'lost' if you have somewhere you are supposed to be. Either of us could find our way back to the house, and we had no appointments to meet, therefore we were not lost even if I did not know in which direction we were going.

Even at 'home,' I lose my bearings. Taken in isolation, our house and garden appear to be a logical rectangle. When we brought a table out to the yard, we placed it squarely under the tree, the long edges of the table parallel to the hedgerows bordering the garden. But when I looked up at the sky, something felt off.

This afternoon as I sat at this table and worked on my novel, I tried again to get my bearings. It has taken me the better part of a week of disorientation to realize the table, placed as we had it, was not 'square with the world.' I got up and moved it.

Now the sun is setting over my right shoulder - in the west - just where it's supposed to be.  And I am looking straight south, toward the Mediterranean Sea.  I am happy to be square with the world once again.


P.S. It appears Blogger has had a little trouble getting square with the world today. Hopefully all will be better with them again, soon, too.

Compass image courtesy of FreeFoto.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The talk of the town

Massa Macinaia, Italy, is no different than Preston, Iowa – at least in one respect. People notice newcomers. Who are they? What are they doing here? How long will they stay?

Mary and I stick out, for sure. We carry our cameras and stop anywhere and everywhere to take photos – street signs, flowers growing out stones, church towers, cemeteries.

Like most of us, these folks may not realize how beautiful their hometown is, especially to new eyes. Of course our limited grasp of Italian is immediately obvious. We use every word we know and many that we don’t, but we’re trying. We pick up new vocabulary daily, by reading signs and figuring out meaning from context. We also have Mary’s handy iPhone with Google Translate.

But most of all, we stick out as the two women who came to write. We hauled a table out under a tree in the garden and sit for hours each day staring at the screens, typing away. We see our neighbors watching us from their upstairs windows.  They look at us as though we’re exotic animals – you came all the way to Italy … to write?

I hope they also notice I stare just as often at the Tuscan hills terraced with olive trees and vineyards and that either one of us may look up at any moment and exclaim, “Is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?” They can’t see it, but I wish they also knew I relax, rejuvenate and am inspired by sitting under the Tuscan sun, breathing in country air, absorbing this beauty.

I am beginning to recognize our neighbors. This morning a woman we saw at the deli the first day we were here called out ‘Buon giorno!’ as we passed her home.

Our neighbor across the street knows we are studying Italian and he is helping by cheerfully and enthusiastically refusing to speak a word of English to us. He also shared his newspaper.

Our landlord seems a little anxious we won’t really see Italy. When he came to adjust the seats on our bicycles, he said we should go to Pisa and Florence. Having heard that we write, write, write, he may have thought we intended never to leave our yard. We will put him at ease.

Tomorrow morning: Lucca. There we will check out the trains. This week, we’re giving locals something to talk about.

Next week? Maybe we’ll be natives.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who tells your story?

A maxim of the public relations business is ‘tell your own story or someone else will tell it for you. And you may not like what they say.’

Anyone who has written a memoir has chosen to tell his or her own story. Readers make their own interpretation of those stories. I couldn’t help but think of memoir writing as we walked through Tuscan cemeteries this week.

Each grave is a small bit of personal history – some attempt to tell a story. These graves are all above ground vaults, each decorated with large, fresh, floral bouquets and often an eternal flame. The names and dates of those interred are engraved on the top of the vault. Frequently, religious statuary also tops the grave.

The stories cemeteries tell are cultural, familial and personal. The most personal aspect of each grave was a framed picture of the deceased. It’s these pictures that had me thinking.

Almost always the faces reflected the person near the age that they died. So there was the incongruous image of a 40-year old man with his 70-year old wife. This would not have seemed so unusual except that the images had been merged – not Photoshopped, but very close to it - to appear as though they were taken at the same time. The result appeared as though the man was posing with his mother.

Sometimes, the pictures depicted people of like age, even when the death dates would have indicated images quite different. I imagine the person who chose the pictures – the surviving spouse or the children? – wanted to remember a time when the two were alive. Together. And younger.

Some graves also departed from religious icons. One replaced a religious statue with a set of organ pipes. The picture showed the deceased playing an organ. His story of a life love of music is clear.

The statue on another grave was a bust of the man deceased. His bust looked exactly like his picture. The grave commemorated him. But what about his wife? He had one. There was a small photo of her.

I could not help but recall the graves in my hometown cemetery for Ed Black who was the editor of the local newspaper for 50 years. His tombstone includes his full name and dates of birth and death. His wife’s tombstone is smaller and says simply: Mrs. Black.

Monday, May 9, 2011

At home in Italy

Today was all about getting to know our Italian neighborhood. Our landlady Cristina gave us a driving tour of our village, Massa Macinaia – pointing out the supermarket, bank, restaurants and a deli famous for its gelato – and arranged for bicycles we can use the rest of the time.

Anselmo (Cristina’s father) is hesitant about us biking to Lucca, though he says around the neighborhood is okay. Even the neighborhood seems dicey to me. The roads are narrow and bike paths nonexistent. Even with very small cars, there is not room for two cars to pass if we are walking on the roadside. So far, everyone is gracious and we are still alive.

Our house – Le Macine – was formerly a horse stable and hay barn for the mill next door. Angled tiles maximized circulation and kept forage from rotting or spontaneously combusting. Now they serve as a quaint reminder of times past.

Our home is completely remodeled and modern. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen. Many Italians are converting properties to meet the interest of tourists. We found Le Macine on vrbo.com. If you want to see more, go to vrbo.com and search for www.vrbo.com/150280.

After a wobbly start with our new wheels, we biked to the deli where we bought a “savory,” which means anything with bread and meat, as our breakfast. We also bought ‘due mele’ in homage to our Rosetta Stone language program that relied so heavily on apples. We ate the savories at outside tables and watched our bicycles blow over. It was quite windy all day, though the sunshine was bright and the temperature perfect. Then on to a well stocked supermarket.

Since we were carrying everything, we were mindful of weight. A bottle of wine. A loaf of bread. A chunk of cheese. Plus enough eggs and vegetables for an omelet were enough. I made it home without breaking the bottle of wine, the bottles of tomato juice or the eggs. Applause is in order!

In the afternoon, we walked another part of the neighborhood, checking out two churches that share a priest, windy streets that dissolve into home courtyards, and a cemetery that either is a family plot or a village cemetery for a berg populated only by Lucchesi’s or Franchesini’s.

We did tuck in a little writing today. I worked on my newest project – an e-book on book promotion. Mary waded into social media promotion. Heavy lifting on our novels begins tomorrow. Wish us well.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Leaving on a jet plane

As we drove to the airport, I said to my husband that it felt as though with every step I was leaving my comfort zone, moving steadily into the unknown. This Italian writing retreat would be a real adventure.

My writing buddy – Mary – and I spent the first day on airplanes. Des Moines to Chicago to London to Pisa. In the course of 18 hours, we flew over the U.S., England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Amazingly, every plane departed on time and landed on time. The weather was perfect. Are we blessed? I should say so.

In Heathrow Airport, I got up close and personal with airport security. I beeped going through the scanner. Very soon, I had the full body pat down. Twice. Then a wand scan. Followed by a trip to the full-body x-ray scan. The culprit? My underwire bra!

Now I can say I’ve experienced the latest security screening. I didn’t find it particularly intrusive or embarrassing. But it does demonstrate the inconsistency of screening equipment. My bra has never been so offensive before. Perhaps overnight on the airplane caused it to be so?

Also at the screening booth was a young woman who ranks as the most interesting person of the day. I spotted her earlier in one of the queues (Brit for lines.) She wore a torso brace attached to her leg, causing an awkward gait and uncountable stares. Turns out she is with the circus. When her comrades used her body as a jump rope, she fractured her back. She was quite good humored about it all.

Even cruising at 37,000 feet, the sights were impressive. Midwest farm fields – tidy, square, and even contrast with English and French farm fields – all different shapes and sizes and all bordered by trees or bushes. Morning sun reflected off the white cliffs of Dover as we crossed the English Channel. I was in awe of Switzerland’s snow-capped peaks, where villages follow the highways through mountain creases. The Mediterranean Sea is as blue as advertised – reflecting the cerulean skies and dotted with sailboats. Descending into Italy, we saw the Mediterranean coast lined with resort hotels, the beaches packed with lounge chairs. Ready for the season.

Our good luck continued. We made it through immigration checkpoints and bought bus tickets from Pisa to Lucca (only 3 Euros) with 10 minutes to spare. Our host met us at the Lucca bus station. She and her father welcomed us to our home for the next month with a picnic of meat, cheese and wine.

Do we need anything else? I think not.