Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in the South

On Sunday, December 20th, I found myself on the EuroStar train heading south from Florence to Napoli. A last minute change in holiday plans allowed me connect with Giancarlo Rizzi in Napoli, with whom I spent a splendid two days taking in the endless energy and beauty of this most dynamic, antique, stimulating city. It is easy to understand why I revel so much in the feeling of my Napoletan roots....this is a people who are always smiling, singing, dancing, with a swing in their walk, whose eyes are vibrant and whose passion is expressed in their endless love of life, loving and friendship. To me, this is the sexiest city on earth

Christmastime in Napoli is something special...the presepi, the outdoor music, festivals, the lights, the fireworks...the profumo of cibo everywhere, the parades, the rituals, the masses., the sfougliatelli! All of Napoli comes out for days before and after Christmas to delight in the passion that swallows up this city of diverse contrasts.

Giancarlo, along with his mom and friends, welcomed me with open arms. Together we took in several museums, the underground excavations, numerous churches and castellos, as well as having dined with his mamma, whose food was something out of my grandmother's kitchen....brasiole, panzerotti, carcofi, melanzane, meatballs and.....her true work of art.....struffoli! On the second night we dined with his friends...4 couples with whom I made an instant connection. The next day, we visited his beach house in Pozzuoli and had mussels and wine on the sand before dropping me off at the ferry which I would then take to Ischia....where I would spend my Christmas with Maria, Franco, Celeste and William.

Christmas in Ischia
As Giancarlo saw me off at Pozzuoli, I boarded the ferry to Cassamicola, Ischia, where Maria was to meet me. I spent the hour ferry ride re-living every moment of that day last September when I first traveled to Ischia in search of my great-grandparents' birthplace and birth records. Ischia has drawn me back to its shores, to its sea, to its people. I was on my way back again to Ischia to celebrate the festivities with the family of Maria, who I met in Lacco Ameno during my search last September.

To Be Continued (just haven't had time to write)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Visiting the Medico Sportivo

Today, Lorenzo, the captain of the bike racing team, drove me to the Medico Sportivo (Sports Doctor) to undergo tests that would enable me to obtain my racing license. Italy is very strict in its licensing requirements, not like in the U.S. where anybody can buy a race license just by paying a fee. Here, the USIF (the national organization that governs cycling racing) requires that in order to obtain your license, you must pass a stress test and a drug test, and be in overall good health. If you have any health issues, impaired vision or history of illness, you cannot get your license. Joining the team and getting my license must mean that I am staying here in Firenze. I never really thought it out strategically, and like everything else, all the pieces are falling into place by themselves. I am building a new life without even thinking about it. Well, going for my license is definitely a commitment, at least in Euros! We drove south of Florence for a half hour through country backroads and arrived at the doctor's office. The doctor looked like an Italian Albert Einstein.....he had long, curly gray hair and he stared at me in a wondering way. After all the tests, I got a clean bill of health, and should receive my official Italian racing license within a few weeks. Viva la squadra!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Dinner with the Bike Club

Tonight I shared an animated celebration of the Christmas season together with new cycling friends in this little trattoria on the back streets of Santa Croce. It was heartwarming to feel so accepted in this intimate group of local riders with whom I've been sharing so many new cycling adventures. What's really hard to believe is that here I am, so different from every one of these men....they have all shared decades of cameraderie and friendship together...none of them speak English....and yet I am accepted, feel comfortable, and am loving every minute of it.

Much of the conversation tonight focused on the squad's program for 2009, including an organized trip to climb the Ghisallo in early May, as well as trips together to follow several of the stages of this year's Giro d'Italia.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

L'Elisir d'Amore

Going to the opera here is a double treat, as the audience is almost as entertaining as the opera itself. Tonight's audience was a much younger crowd than usual, since this is one of the more playful, light and romantice operas, senza drama. It's very refreshing to see Italian teenagers enjoying the opera, so tastefully dressed alla moda. The performance was excellent, but everytime I see L'Elisir, I reminisce back to the greatest one I ever saw, in '94 starring the best Nemorino of all times, Luciano Pavarotti.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time in Chianti with Cynthia

I spent a splendid two days at Cynthia's in Tavaranelle, spent mostly talking about old times in Staten Island, our lives, our families, our loves, and our reasons for being in Italy. Over the years, Cynthia has been one of the many people who have shared this common passion for Italy. Our time started with lunch in San Casciano at La Trattoria del Pesce, where the octopus was especially memorable and the conversation very nostalgic. I spent the night at her house, where I played with her children as I watched her cook gnocchi and a wonderful wine infused lamb. This morning we took a drive to Barberino to pick up Julia from gymnastics and then we re-assembled with her family at a little trattoria in Tavarnelle for a lunch of cozze and orata. Cynthia then brought me to her favorite designer shoe outlet, where I couldn't resist buying a sexy pair of Nero Giardini boots. After driving me back to Firenze, I ended the day at a Santa Lucia feast at Piazza della Republica. Firenze is all dressed up for Christmas...the air is cold, we're all wearing scarves and gloves...and the millions of Christmas lights are a stark contrast to the 1,000 year-old buildings.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Had another great lesson with Lucia, went to the palestra for another dramatic workout, finally bought a metric measuring cup so I can start getting my cooking proportions right, did some Chritmas shopping, studied for a couple of hours, and then Nicola came over with a plumber. I was having problems with the heat....I was freezing, the heat wasn't working. It got me scared because the apartment was so cold. I couldn't imagine spending a winter wearing boots in the house....Well, Nicola and the plumber just left. I learned that all I had to do was to turn up the hot water tank. Phew! Then got a note from Leslie, my friend from Chicago who lives in San Diego during the winter. I met her in my Italian class at the ICC. She knows Erma from Chicago! What a small world. Tomorrow after my lesson I am going to Cynthia's and will spend the afternoon with her and her children, doing some Christmas shopping and then will stay over her place for the night. Time is flying. Can't believe I'll be back in San Clemente in less than a month.

Joining the Bike Team

How can I resist any longer? The bike team leaders have been encouraging me to get my UISP license so that I can officially join them before the year is over, because they have to submit all the paperwork to the UISP. I've been reluctant, as I don't want to race. But I learned that I need the license if I want to participate in Granfondo with the team. And....have I've been wanting to do Granfondo... like big-time! So I decided to go ahead with it. Which means I have to go to a special doctor for a stress test, physical, and drug test. Lorenzo, who heads up the team, offered to drive me to the doctor next Thursday and he will help me fill out all the forms.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ride to Cereto Guidi

Today is a national holiday, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, so the ride was on, despite the cold weather. Today's ride made me reflect about how brave I once was, to ride in NYC weather that was significantly colder than today, all decked out with goggles, electric socks and a facemask. But no more. Today's weather dictated my new limit. Upon leaving my apartment it was only 30F and I don't think it ever hit 40F. The roads were slick, the vineyards were covered with ice, and we had to do a flat ride in order to avoid any dangerous, icy descents. I wore 5 layers of clothes, which still wasn't enough to keep me warm and my feet froze, even with booties on. Even so, we covered 90K, and I bonked and cramped up at around 70K. The guys all took turns giving me a little "push" to get me back home before I passed out. Now, this I didn't mind at all....but sure felt silly....I haven't bonked like this since climbing the Continental Divide in Colorado, or was it Utah with Susan T.? It took about an hour for my toes and fingers to defrost when I got back. There were only 8 riders today. The smart ones stayed in bed.

After eating more pasta than I deserved, I wondered how a country that is so good for my soul could be so bad for my body. I'm sadly out-of-shape and anxiously await the opportunity to ride in San Clemente.

I also received today, a note from Debbie Myers, with photos of the OCW girls making quilts together, in anticipation of Christmas. It was sweet, and made me miss some very special people.

This will be a very new and different Christmas for me. The streets are filled with a wonderful Christmas feeling, which is actually complemented by the cold weather.

I will be back in San Clemente exactly one month from today.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ride to Regello

The number of riders is diminishing as the weather gets's ride started at 32 degrees and only warmed up to about 43. Nevertheless, we counted on a couple of good climbs to keep us toasty, and the stop for an espresso didn't hurt either! It felt great to get out on the bike again after 2 weeks of nasty weather!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Working it Out

My relentless 3 month search to find something that remotely resembles a health club had become a source of frustration and culture shock that I was reluctant to accept. I almost resigned myself to becoming a prosciutto. But after trying every health club in Florence, I’ve finally had to make some big-time adjustments.

I’m finally accepting the fact that a health club is as un-Italian as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The Italian health club is a “palestra”…this is a room filled with slick, shiny, brand new equipment that doesn’t work and machines that are designed for some species other than the human being. These machines force your joints into dangerously contorted angles that can inflict more damage on ligaments and muscles than good. How is it possible that a country capable of producing the genius of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi can’t produce an ergonomically designed machine? I believe…it’s not that they can’t…it’s that they don’t want to.

I've pondered the why's and have come up with a few theories, including the fact that this culture doesn’t see the point in unnecessary pain and sweat, and they don’t like to be controlled by machines. It threatens their freedom of expression, and forces them to restrict the movement of their hands. Asking an Italian to keep his hands on the bars of a machine for ½ hour is like asking an American to put a gag in his mouth.

The Palestra is a quiet, empty place that nobody goes to. It’s always empty, with a little old man sitting behind a counter, reading or talking to a neighbor, passing the time away. But today, I discovered a little palestra, hidden in a back alley that nobody knows about except the shop keepers, less than 100 meters from my apartment.

When at lunchtime the shops close down, this Palestra comes to life. As the women boisterously pour into the locker room, the drama instantly begins as the room is transformed into a piazza, where more calories are burned in their furious conversation than in the aerobics class. For a half hour the women noisily exchange recipes, complain out loud about everything… their fatigue, their work and their husbands. Everyone talks at the same time, nobody seems to be listening to each other, yet they are communicating. Everyone is yelling, laughing, lamenting, groaning, crying, talking on their cell phones out loud…you don’t know who is listening to who, you can’t distinguish one conversation from the other…yet everyone knows what everyone is saying. Then at once, they all barge out of the room, and onto the dance floor. The excitement begins.

Party time. The music goes on and the room is transformed into some combination of a 1970's Jane Fonda/Richard Simmons aerobics class....but with a passionate Italian energy that is contagious. I actually had fun, and eventually broke a sweat. When we got down for the floor exercises I was amazed at the sounds, the dramatic grunts of pain, the panting, the superlative expressions of exhaustion, the tears, the groans and sighs. We in America would never let our guard down. We swallow the pain and keep a straight face. But here, no feeling is ever hidden. If they feel pain, they express it, they exaggerate it, they dramatize it. The very essence of the Italian spirit that I've been yearning to reincorporate into my life.

After the class we all headed back to the locker room, where everyone was anguished, gasping for breath, unashamedly exhausted, and as everyone stripped down and took showers, I admired how they walked around the locker room unabashedly naked, demonstrating a shameless acceptance of their imperfect bodies...nothing to be hidden....nothing perfect....and nothing...nothing fake here. There's a certain cameraderie and bond that comes along with being nakedly honest in front of your friends. And one of the things that I love so much about Italy.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Baby Food

Everyday I seek to learn some new vocabulary by browsing the shops and markets, reading labels, and conversing with the shop owners...always picking up new and interesting cultural knowledge along the way. Today I focused on the supermercato, where I spent some extra time browsing the shelves to learn about some of the more unfamiliar food products....when I came upon.... Tuscan baby food! Here it is! They don't have to wait to have a full set of teeth to enjoy their prosciutto! Priceless!!

Just an Ordinary Day

Today marked a milestone for me, as it was the first day in which I didn't utter a single word or think a single thought in English (until now.) It started with a caffe at the local pasticcerria while scanning today's La Republica, followed by a fascinating lesson with Lucia in which I learned il tempo passato remoto within the context of a short biography of Leonardo da Vinci and a study of his "L'Ultima Cena".

Then I met my conversation buddy Filippo and Ksenia, his girlfriend who is visiting him from Russia for the holidays... for pranzo over an animated conversation in a Tuscan trattoria in centro. Ksenia has been offered a one year internship to work for HSBC's London based Private Banking division and the discussion revolved around the the all-too-common female struggle between deciding whether to follow one's career dreams or to settle down with the man she loves....and is there a balance? Can you do both, without sacrificing these sometimes conflicting values? I could feel the struggle they are facing in their new relationship and felt like a counselor, telling my story and hoping that they could get some value from it. My realtionship with Filippo is evolving into a friendship to be treasured...I am truly finding some special people here. I feel blessed.

Then I walked to the government office of the Comune di Firenze, to pick up a very important "Codice Fiscale"... that I've been waiting to receive for 10 weeks! This document is the Italian equivalent of a Social Security Number. I am finally "official" here!

Then I returned to my apartment to cope with a clogged drain in the bathroom which innundated the bathroom with a flood of water. I am definitely "adjusting" to the "system", and getting used to the nuanaces of living in a 600 year old building!

Finally, this evening, I went out with a new friend, for opening night at "Quantobasta", where I danced all night and enjoyed with tremendous gusto and passion, the people, the food, the ambience, and the feeling of being a part of this culture.

My experience living in Italy has been another step towards self-discovery and actualization. I arrived in Firenze 3 months ago. Besides Cynthia, I didn't know anyone or how anything works here.  I was afraid of making this dream come true...some dreams are meant to be dreams....why take the risk of letting your bubble burst? From the moment I arrived, it all seemed so natural.. Tonight I realized how far I've come. And how well I'm just melting into the culture. And how I never expected to meet so many wonderful people who want me to stay.