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Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Tuscan Christmas

Last year I spent my first Italian Christmas close to my ancestral roots in the south where I felt most comfortable...in Naples at the home of Giancarlo and with Maria's family who lives in Ischia. It was there in Lacco Ameno, Ischia, only months before, where I miraculously discovered the home and birthplace of my immigrating great grandparents, and the 150 year-old birth documents that enabled me to become a dual American/Italian citizen a few months later.
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The Christmas culture of the south is unique and completely different than anywhere else in in Italy and it was specifically these southern traditions that were handed down through the generations to my family. It is a dramatic, vivid, elaborate tradition of physical, ornamental and spiritual expression, brought to emotionally elevated levels. The overall cultural differences between Northern and Southern Italy can be clearly discerned just through an observation of how Christmas is celebrated. As my family dispersed out of NYC over the last several years, these traditions were lost. I had craved the feeling of celebrating Christmas again the way I knew it. Last year going to Ischia and Naples I found it once again. It was a trip back into the Christmas's of my past and it evoked a million different nostalgias and memories of the traditions that were familiar to me as a child.
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This year I wanted to experience Christmas here in Florence, because this is where I have chosen to live my life in Italy. It started with the Vigilia on Christmas Eve, which I attended at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori . For 2 hours before midnight, the congregation stood silent in the enormous cathedral observing the solemn Gregorian Chanting of the bishop and his priests, as we all awaited the birth at Christ at Midnight. When midnight struck, the priests delivered a statue of the Christ child and stood it up in the front of the church, rather than laying Him down in his crib, which was curious. The church bells resounded and lasted for minutes.
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As compared to the Vigilia in the south, it was more abstract and solemn. There was no presepie or ornamentation. It was emotionally subdued. Most everyone wore brown or black. The dampness of the basilica left me with a bone-piercing chill and the magnitude of its size made me feel like an observer rather than a participant. Rather than rubbing shoulders with the person crammed next to me in a wooden pew, we were separated by aluminum folding chairs which made me feel a little distant from the congregation.
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Midnight mass was solemn, recited in Latin and the Bishop's sermon was hard to understand because his voice echoed multiple times off the infinite walls, serving to muffle his original words. It was exhilirating and exhalting to experience Midnight Mass at the Duomo.
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It was raining as I left the Basilica at 1.30AM. I wrapped a plastic bag around my saddle and rode back to my apartment in the quiet stillness of Christmas morning. There was not a soul on the streets.
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Christmas Day On Christmas morning I awoke to the sound of bells chiming from every church in Florence. I looked out the window to see that all the snow had melted and it was a cloudy day in Florence. I packed up all the gifts and the Scudieri panettone that I had bought for Nicola's family, got on my bike and headed for the train station, where I boarded a train to Siena. The landscape looked different today, a little more surreal, wrapped in a cloudy mist that I could observe from the windows of the train as it transversed the Tuscan countryside.
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Awaiting me at the train station was Nicola, Cosimo and Costanza. We drove through the backroads of Siena until we came to an ancient isolated country villa which dated back to the 15th century. There we spent a typical Tuscan Christmas day, mostly in the kitchen, feasting on Nicoletta's lasagne, cinghiale and an abbondanza of vegetables and deserts to keep me warm for days to come. The children loved the gifts I brought and opened them with sparkling eyes. After dinner we took a long walk through the countryside until it got dark. We returned to the villa for Nicola's tiramisu and then I took the train back to Florence.
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It was a great Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Baccalà...A Christmas Treat

My grandmother used to buy it in stiff, salted sheets in the summer and she stored it in large baskets in the basement where it would await the holidays. It was the cheapest fish you could buy, but today it has become a refined delicacy. What a tradition! On December 22nd, grandma would start soaking the baccalà so that it would be ready to cook on Christmas Eve. She preparted the fish in a great big pot with a soupy sauce consisting of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, black olives, parsely and peperoncino. This we would eat on Christmas Eve along with an abbondanza of at least 10 other varieties of fish including shrimp, frutti di mare, crabs, clams, mussels, scungelli and stuffed calamari. This tradition is still the way Christmas Eve is celebrated in many parts of Italy, but especially in the south.

In Tuscany, baccalà has become more popular over the years, but it wasn't always that way. Here in Tuscany, fish is comparatively unpopular, due to our inland geography. But the one fish that has stood the test of time is baccalà. In the old days, the only way to transport fish to Tuscany without spoiling it, was to salt it. That's why baccalà is just about the only fish that has taken on a tradition here in Tuscany. On Fridays, baccalà is eaten in Tuscany with beans or potatoes.

But all over Italy, baccalà is asscociated with Christmas Eve. As a kid, I did not care for baccalà because it had a tough texture and even after soaking it for days, it was still quite salty and dried out. Today while I was in the Sant'Ambrogio market, I wandered through the bancarelle (merchant stalls) to see what looked different and fresh. I started talking with one of the merchants, Umberto, who sells great salami, fresh eggs and crispy bread. He was the only merchant who was selling baccalà and he had enough to feed all of Florence. I remember as a kid there was only one kind of baccalà. But now there are four. Dried with the spine, dried without the spine, already soaked with the spine and already soaked without the spine. I couldn't understand why the baccala with the spine cost more than without the spine. Umberto explained that it's the same concept as Bistecca Fiorentina....it's better with the bone, and therefore it costs more! Theoretically it's a sharp pricing philosophy, but I won't pay more to find bones in my fish! So, I bought some bright white already soaked baccalà without the bone. I took it home and bought some parsely and made the best baccala that I ever had. I am surprised that this fish is not more popular. Here's what it looked like when it was ready to eat! Some crispy Tuscan bread, a little Christmas music, and I was in heaven.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Concert at Basilica di San Marco

The feeling of Christmas is straordiaria in Florence. The snow has added a glorious, heavenly feel to this magnificent city. Lights and snow everywhere, the echo of Christmas hymns emanating from every church that I pass, church bells ringing constantly, chestnuts roasting on street corners, music playing everywhere, a brisk cold snap in the air. The bars are filled with people keeping warm with caffè and cappuncino. Baccala, panetone, struffoli for sale everywhere. The streets packed with a feeling of joy and anticipation and sensation the likes of which I haven't felt since pre-2001 New York. And even better.

This morning I went to the piazza to see how my bike was surving the weather. It was covered with snow and a sheet of ice covered my saddle. I cracked off the ice, dusted off the snow, and all bundled up, I enjoyed the cold ride to the market, where I bought artichokes, clementines, and broccoli rape.

This evening I rode to Piazza San Marco where I attended a spectacular Christmas Concert at the Basilica, which was packed. Good thing I got there early. The church was quite cold, but thanks to several heat lamps that were added, it gradually warmed up. The program included a rich variety of Christmas music sung by the church's choir, a solo soprano and tenor, and included classic Latin hymns, a selection of Neopolitan Christmas Carols which were hot, Florentine pop Carols, and Italian Gospel Music....what a unique blend of vivacious energy! The night was topped off by a playful group of little girls who sang and danced and lifted everyone's spirits even higher.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Snow and a Wedding

More Snow......Last night it snowed so heavily that my cycling team had to cancel our annual Christmas Dinner, which was supposed to take place in the hills north of Florence. While it was a disappointment, it gave me the chance to meet up with my friend Roberto for dinner right here in my neighborhood on the spur of the moment. We walked to the piazza as the snow fell onto the cobblestones, lighting up everyone's spirits and making Florence sparkle like I have never seen it before.
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I was lucky to experience the rare opportunity of witnessing snow falling on Florence....especially during the height of the Christmas season. It was spectacular to watch the flakes falling at night, beneath the millions of tiny Christmas lights that are sprinkled high over the streets.
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The instant that I opened my eyes this morning I darted out of bed to open my window to see the snow that had fallen last night. Awaiting me was a magical winter wonderland in Florence that I never thought I would see. I dressed up quickly and spent the day walking for miles and miles, observing every possible inch of Florence under the snow. I am glad that I did, because knowing how rare it is to snow in Florence, it could melt just as fast, and I did not want to miss it, as it could be all gone tomorrow.
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The Little Old Man in the Market .....The market was vibrant today, being the last Saturday market before Christmas! There were merchants who came from as far as Naples and Sicily, selling their specialty foods. I spent alot of time talking with the Napoletans, and bought some frisselle, mozzarella di buffala, salcissa and Auricchio provolone, and got some great recipes from them. While talking to one of the ortolane (vegetable merchants), a short old Florentine man noticed my English accent and he started asking me questions about America and President Obama. He was very energetic and talkative and he was easily over 80 years old. He was carrying an old leather attache case that seemed to be full. He asked me if I had a minute, and opened up his attache case to show me the long letter that he had proudly written to Obama regarding his Nobel Peace Award. He told me that he has spent the last few weeks writing the letter, but that now he needs to have the letter translated into English. He was so cute!! He wanted to know if I would be interested in helping him to translate the letter. I told him that I would be glad to try! I gave him my phone number and I hope that he doesn't lose it, because I am really curious to see what he wrote! His little old wife and daughter were so happy that he finally found someone to help him with the translation. I sure hope to hear from him.

A Surprise Wedding! Then, after going to a spin class (of which I was the only participant) on Borgo Pinti, I passed a hidden 13th century convent and church, the Convento Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi that is set behind a wall which makes it very unnoticable. You could pass it and not even realize it is there....Like so many other amazing finds in Florence! I've never had a chance to go in, and decided that this would be the perfect time. I was taken by surprise as I opened up the gigantic 13th century door, to see that the church was being prepared for an imminent wedding. The organ was playing and a tenor and baritone were practising the Ave Maria. I was struck by the beauty of this church, which was very different than most of the other churches I've seen in Florence, more ornate and not as grey and cold.The overall style is Florentine baroque, which is much more colorful and ornate, but more uniquely, included a mixture of styles representative of the 13th, 14th 15th and 16th centuries..Several altars were designed by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi e Raffaellino del Garbo. After admiring the art, the church started filling up with wedding guests, who all wore the same thing....black or mink coats, black dresses, black stockings and black boots. As I observed, I got more excited to see the bride, so I waited and eventually stayed for the whole Mass. It was a beautiful and very uplifting celebration. I can't believe what an emotional whimp I am.....I cried even though the bride is a complete stranger. I think my tears fell partly because I'm just so happy to be in Florence, being blessed by so many spontaneous and unexpected joys that I seem to find everywhere.

Back to the Library..... After the Mass I headed for the library where I exchanged some films and then went to its caffeteria which has a knock-out view of the Duomo, where I sipped a cup of ciocolatta calda con panna. I am not really a hot-chocolate lover, but Italian hot chocolate is to die for.....pure melted chocolate topped with a deep layer of the lightest whipped cream I've ever had. It was cold outside....only 21 degrees. I gazed out of the window with the Duomo directly in front of me, feeling the winter spirit in a way that I haven't felt in years.Walking home with the streets all lit up for Christmas, feeling the energy of the holidays in the air, was a great feeling of joy. For dinner I made artichokes and bruschetta, while watching a very funny Christmas film that takes place in Napoli on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Snow in Florence

Florence has been waiting for this for years. It doesn't happen often. This evening I witnessed my first snowfall in Florence. After an evening cooking with Roberto, we opened the living room window to look at the Duomo, and it was snowing!

Silent, in the night it started to fall, transforming everything. Florence stopped and became still, quiet, peaceful. It was as if time had stopped. Everything slowed down. The snow continued to fall. As I was went to bed it was still snowing and as I closed my eyes, I felt the same way that a child feels when waiting for Santa Claus. The anticipation, the dreams of waking up to a winter wonderland the next day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lucia Ducci... Political Scientist, Teacher, Author

Lucia Ducci is one of the first people who touched my life when I first came to Florence as a student in September 2008. Besides being my language tutor, she has been a great coach and supporter.

Tonight I was proud to attend the presentation of Lucia's recently published book, L'Unita Debole which was given at Palazzo Strozzi by the "Gabinetto Scientifico Letterario". Lucia's book represents the results of her 3 year research study that examines the political and social condition of Italy, and it's relationsip with the U.S. shortly after the Risorgimento, as seen through the eyes of George Perkins Marsh, the American Ambassador to Italy during Florence's brief reign as capital of Italy. Through her discovery and interpretation of private letters and documents, Lucia filled in a piece of missing history through the authorship of her book. It was an enlightening experience for me to learn how book presentations are given in Italy and to learn about the difficulties that Italy faced in the years following its unification in 1864.

The presentation took place in a mangificent hisortically singificant library and was presented by an elite panel of political scientists, historians and professors who eloquently and fervently discussed various significant aspects and perspectives of Lucia's book. I was very proud to be at this presentation because it helped me to understand Lucia more profoundly, and I think our language lessons and friendship will be all that more better because I admire Lucia even more now than I did before.

Visiting the Medico Sportivo

Today I went to Soffiano, a suburb of Florence, to the Medico Sportivo, where I took the annual physical exam that is required to renew my racing license for the 2010 cycling season. The test includes a physical exam, a drug test and a stress test. I was glad to get this over with. It seemed like just yesterday that I first joined my race team and had my first exam. That was a whole year ago. Hard to believe.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Christmas Concert with an American Friend

This was a fun evening getting into the Christmas spirit with Roberto, who is also a private student and common admirer of Lucia, my language tutor, who introduced us at an event that she organzied for her students last week. Roberto, who lives in Massachusetts, works in Florence several months a year. After meeting for an aperitivo at Natalino, we strolled across the Arno to Piazza Poggi and climbed the winding road up to Pizzale Michelangelo and Chiesa di San Salvatore del Monte where we saw a Christmas concert sung by a female choir. A cool mist covered the city and the feeling of Christmas is starting to fill the air. We walked to Ristorante La Giostra, a cozy, candle-lit restaurant in my neighborhood which I have admired from the outside. The conversation and food was excellent. The waiter decanted our bottle of Barolo with a unique, rapid, swirling technique that I had never seen before. It was refreshing to connect with a fellow American and to share our perspectives on living in Italy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Treasures in My Backyard

What a brisk, sunny, buzzingly beautiful day. The streets were alive with conversation, local couples stolling slowly, merchants looking happy...there was a big smile in the air. My neighborhood feels more intimate than usual. One of the things that I enjoy about Florence is how its personality constantly changes with the seasons. Right now it feels cozy and happy and very non-touristy. I like it this way. Locals are out Christmas shopping, arm-in-arm, gazing in boutique windows, taking a caffè and just enjoying the Christmas ambience that is all around the city today. We're all wearing scarves, hats and boots, but the cold doesn't seem so cold when the sun is shining and the smell of roasted chestnuts fills the fresh air!

While absorbing this energizing spirit in the air, I was on my way to exchange some films at the library, when it occured to me that right now would be the perfect time to visit the museum "Firenze com'Era" which I've been wanting to see. I pass by it all the time, but never went in. I am waiting for just the right time to finally absorb each museum here in Florence, but have been wanting to do it spontaneously. The museum was open and empty, so I had the museum curators all to myself, and after answering some of my questions, they ended up taking me on a private tour.

This museum is particularly interesting to me because it demonstrates what Florence looked like as it evolved from Roman times, through Medieval times, to the Renaissance, to the present. It houses a striking collection of city maps, paintings, photographs and a model of what the city looked like in Roman times. I was particularly struck at the old 1472 painting of Florence which shows the infrastructure of the city as it existed 600 years ago. It's amazing to be able to see all of the main piazzas and monuments as they existed then, and to even be able to see my street and building and what it looked like back then, when the city walls and towers still existed. The city, before motorized traffic was much cleaner then, the Arno looked more blue, and the homes more quaint. The rest of the museum shows roadmaps and city plans developed by Giovanni Poggi after the Risorgimento. I feel richer and more attatched to my city after having observed a bit more of its history and how the infrastructure evolved over the centuries. I feel more like it really is mine.
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Then I went to the library to exchange some books and films. This library is open until midnight. The terrace on the top floor has a stunning view of the duomo and has a caffeteria/bar where you can sip a hot chocolate or have an aperitivo in the evening while listening to a jazz trio. As I was browsing through some films, a presentation was just begining in the adjacent room which I stayed to watch. Then I borrowed some Italian films and books, and went out on the terrace where I did some reading with the very inspirational panorama of the Duomo in the background.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Getting My Library Card

This morning I met Massimo for a caffè at Così, the buzzingest pasticerria in my neighborhood. The scent of pastries emanating from their ovens attracts passers-by from blocks away. I pass here day in, day out, and find it hard to resist the temptation to grab a quick caffè while on the run.

Massimo is a native Florentine who is seeking to improve his English, and we connected through a language exchange program. We are helping each other with our individual language goals. As we explored topics of common interest, we got talking about local language resources and he asked me if I had been to the Biblioteca delle Oblate, a library right around the corner from me, which I've passed by a million times but never went in.
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How do I explain this negligence? Florence has become the backdrop of my life. I have spent this past year of my life establishing the fundamentals of a whole new way of life, adapting to my new culutre. I can only experience the myriad treasures around me a little at a time. In the meantime, to be here, to know it's here, to be inspired by its energy, has been enough to plant me. As I start my second year here, I find myself at a new stage of my developing life in Florence, all ready to examine the contents of this paradise that I have found. ....And here I go.
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Massimo led the way to the library, where he took me for a tour of this gem that is hidden among the now-usual palatial facades of the streets that surround me. He then brought me to the desk where I applied for my library card. The library was originally a 13th century convent which was recently restored. Underground are tunnels that lead from the convent to the adjacent Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. In these tunnels, Leonardo da Vinci conducted medical research. The structure is historically rich, yet it houses a contemporary collection.
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The three levels include a floor dedicated to multimedia, where one can borrow CD's, movies and DVD's, and use their wireless internet and computers. There, I was particularly pleased to browse through their collection of Italian films which I will certainly be taking advantage of. Fascinated I was, to browse through their assortment of American music CD's. The ground floor houses a history collection dating from the Risorgimento and the top floor is dedicated to a children's collection. It also houses a section dedicated to opera that was also pleasing. Equally rich are its collections of art and literature.
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This library was a real find for me. The interior courtyard's peaceful garden is a perfect place to read or study, but the 3rd floor loggia clearly offers the most silent, dramatic vantage point of the Duomo. As you approach the outdoor loggia, you are hit with an unexpected, striking close-up view of the Duomo which dominates the atmosphere, creating a powerful sense of inspiration, rendering this the ultimate spot in Florence to read a book, study, sip a caffè and gaze at the Duomo while listening to it's bells....a constant reminder that I am lucky to call this place my home.
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For my first selection, I borrowed a classic Italian neorealistic film "L'Oro di Napoli", a real treasure, and watched it tonight at home, in a corner of my living room, where I can gaze out of the window to look at the Duomo and take in the inspiration that it always gives me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Singing with Gigi

Last June, when tickets to the Gigi d'Alessio concert went on sale, I was probably the first buyer. I bought the two best seats in the house.

So, I had a whole six months to find a sincere, passionate man who also likes Gigi D'Alessio who would enjoy the concert with me. I figured this would be an ample amount of time.

Little did I know that everyone over 30 years old who lives north of Napoli has an instinctive hatred for Gigi d'Alessio. Why? Is he too romantic? Too melodic? Too dreamy? Too Napoletano?

As the countdown approached, I realized that I would have to invite someone who is neutral on Gigi D'Alessio, let loose at the concert, have fun and enjoy.

Which I did. I invited Leif, my good friend and fellow bike addict. Speaks Italian well, but isn't. I made dinner at my place first and then we rode our bikes to the Nelson Mandella Forum.

Gigi was great. As I sang my heart out, I thanked God for my passion. It's what saves me. Let it never end.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Running High in Florence.....The Marathon

The thunder of 10,000 runners rocked every single street and piazza of Florence today with an energy that was felt from Piazzale Michelangelo to Santa Croce. This spectacle distracted every pedestrian, every tourist, every resident, and overwhelmed the city with thousands of cheering spectators who were eager to catch glimpses of this dynamic event which flaunted the very best of Florence's monuments, art and culture in the background. If I were a runner, today would have been a dramatic event for me. I can't imagine what an emotional stimulation it is to be inspired by the great history and architecture and natural beauty of this stunning historical city and to draw your adrenaline from such powerful images as the Palazzo Vecchio and its scupltures and the many spectacular monuments and basilicas that deck every square inch of this city-

My idea of watching the marathon worked perfectly for me. I was able to observe many diverse perspectives by following the marathon as I rode my bike from piazza to piazza, following the marathon throughout it's whole 42k course, catching the best glimpses of the runners as they journeyed through this fascinating city until reaching their arrival at Piazza Santa Croce.

I would love to be able to run a marathon, and can imagine the high sensation that runners experience being a part of a an energy greater than themselves, as I have experienced on a bike, but it would be wonderful to be able to do it on my own 2 feet.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

At this very moment, millions of turkeys are roasting in America's ovens.
But not here in Florence.
Thanks to everyone for the unique role you have all played in being a part of my life and my destiny.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Concerto in Memoria di Fausta Cianti

When I found my new life in Florence a year ago, fate and fortune collided at the very same time. I found the perfect apartment in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect landlord. My landlord Nicola, his wife Nicoletta and children Costanza and Cosimo have become good friends who watch over me like family. Sometimes I go to their house in San Casciano to linger, eat, nap and "fare una passeggiata" (take a stroll) on a quiet Sunday afternoon. This was such a day.

San Casciano stands out like a crown among the Tuscan hills. This is where Machiavelli wrote The Prince during his exile in 1513. Some of its walls are still standing. It is situated just outside of Florence at the top of a tranquil, winding 4 mile climb surrounded by the vineyards and rolling hills of the Antinori estate, dotted with castles and churches. The road to San Casciano is part of a standard course favored by cyclists. So, usually I pass right by Nicola's house on my bike with a group, without stopping. Today I took the bus, to spend the day with his family and to attend a concert with them in the evening.

Recently a very dear friend of Nicola's family, Fausta Cianti, a famous Florentine musician and pianist, lost a long battle against cancer. I had heard so much about her vivacious personality and her entertaining flair. She had a commanding presence and was always at the ceter of attention. When she sat down at the piano, she would mesmerize the audience. Her husband, Cesare Orselli is a famous opera critic, author, music and linguistics professor. Nicola has been wanting me to meet Fausta and Cesare for a long time, but Fausta had been suffering from cancer, and the time to meet her never materialized. She died two weeks ago.

I was really honored to spend this important day with Nicola's family and the now widowed Cesare, who is brilliant, fascinating. I could listen to him talk about opera for hours on end. I was stunned to browse through some of the books that he wrote, which are in Nicola's library. Nicoletta prepared a "simple" meal starting with the lightest, most delicate "white" lasagne that I've ever had, followed by "Peposo", a typical Tuscan dish of peppered beef that is simmered for hours in Chianti and herbs, accompanied by peppers and zucchini. It must have taken a whole day of cooking, but Nicoletta cooks like this everyday!

After a long lunch, I played with the children for a while, and then Nicola summoned everyone to take their naps! I napped in Costanza's bed and she napped with her brother. After our naps, we headed back to the table for desert, coffee and Vin Santo. We then headed outside for a Sunday stroll. The whole town was doing the same thing.

Then we headed for Florence to the Conservatorio di Musica Luigi Cherubini, where we attended the memorial concert, a splendid performance of Mozart's Requium, in honor of Fausta Cianti, Cesare's wife. Two hundred people attended this very impressive event and I was honored to be there, and to meet so many fascinating musicians who have been a part of Cesare and Fausta's life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My Italian Dreams

There are still so many Italian dreams that I have yet to fulfill, but they are all in the process, developing little by little, day by day. Some of these dreams are: to achieve an optimal level of fluency in the language, to study Dante in-depth, to gain a deeper comprehension of Italian politics (said to be impossible) and history, to be able to vote in the next election with a full comprehension of the issues and parties, to be able to read any Italian book or newspaper cover-to-cover, to be able to negotiate and litigate in Italian, to be able to go to a soccer match and really know what's going on, to speak the language without an American accent, to know the origins and shape of every existing pasta design, to be able to select the best prosciutto and to know exactly where it comes from, just from looking at it, to broaden my knowledge of Italian wines, to become more knowledgeable about Renaissance history and art, to get up-to-date on Italian cinema history and current releases. It takes so much time and studying, but I enjoy the process. After all, isnt't that what life's about?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A New Palestra and Some New Friends

After being ill for such a long time, I realized how out-of-shape I am. Now what? The winter is almost here, and this isn't the time to start training on my bicycle.

So I decided to treat myself to a one-month membership at the Four Seasons Hotel Spa & Gym. The only acceptable alternative to an Italian Palestra. Quite American. An oasis in the middle of Florence. Just what I need to recover my body and my soul.

It is indeed the most luxurious gym I have ever seen, with views that can't be imagined. Here I spent a few hours today, enjoying the beautiful and relaxing ambience and trying out all of the machines, equipped with T.V.'s, USB connections...the latest and the greatest. This doesn't feel like Italy, but the views are definitely Tuscany.

I luxuriated in the spa, surrounded by magnificent marble and plush robes, towels...everything you can possibly need. Gorgeous lockers, individual make-up tables, hairdryers.....

Oh my God, I better not get too used to this!

In the evening, I joined Lucia and some of her friends and students for an aperitivo and met an interesting guy, Roberto, who works for Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, out of Florence. Afterwards. we had dinner with an Italian Conversation Meet-Up Group where I made some interesting new acquaintances.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Would It Take?

I have sometimes wondered what it would take to make me want to move back to the United States. Is there something that could ever change my mind about living in Italy? Would I one day overdose from Italian living? Would I ever come to think that this was all just a childish fantasy? Would I find the system too beaurocratic to deal with? Would I be unable to overcome the language barrier? Would I find the technology to be impossibly ancient? Would I get sick and tired of hanging my clothes out to dry on a clothesline? Would I find the healthcare system to be inefficient? Would I one day discover that this was only meant to be a pause, an adventure? Would I one day miss America so much that I would yearn to go back? Would I find out that I've made a destiny mistake?

This question has been a fleeting thought that comes and goes every now and then. But I never pay much attention to it, because I am so distracted by living every moment and appreciating every day to its fullest. It's a question that doesn't need to be answered at all.

But recently the question has, perhaps by chance, perhaps by fate....been answered. The experience of being sick here has been just another, if not, the ultimate test. Maybe my illness was perfectly timed by destiny.... to give me even more clarity....to answer that question that didn't need to be answered. If I could get through this, and still feel so happy and enchanted with my life here, then there would be no other reason to turn back.

In the past 2 months, I've been very sick twice. All in all, I have actually been "down"for 24 days. First with a common 10 day influenza in September, and then I was diagnosed with the H1N1 Swine Flu accompanied by acute bronchitis. For 2 weeks I was wiped out. I fought to recover, I fought to understand and navigate the Italian healtcare system, and I spent endless days alone, isolated, sick, feverish and unable to breathe, wondering if this was going to be the end of my life in Italy.

Now that I am well again, I am delighting once more in the beautiful life that I have found in Florence. When I walked out of my apartment for the first time in 2 weeks, everything looked like a dream. My piazza, little Giovanni selling flowers, wondering where I had gone....walking the city again and feeling the vibe, observing the precious little slices of Italian life that pass me with every step. I walked to the outdoor market and bought some beautiful zucchini, some chestnuts for roasting, some rapini, and a handful of basil. I stood on line at the pescheria and bought a whole orata. I walked down to Piazza Signoria just to stare in awe and connect once again with my town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. I felt overcome with passion and happiness. After 2 weeks of missing all these special places in Florence, I rejoiced in being back. I was so happy to be out there again. I appreciated it again like it was all new.

Now that I know how to deal with being sick in Italy, and what to do if I am, I have come to realize that there isn't anything that could tear me loose from Italy. I've gotten through the worse of it. There are challenges to come, but I've survived the most difficult stages and feel happy to be here, for better or worse, in sickness or health, till death do us part.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Seal Beach Meets Florence

This is a photo of my good friend Heidi from Mission Viejo, California. About a week ago she called to tell me that 2 of her colleagues, Annmarie and Darcie, were coming to Florence for a day and she asked me if I could help give them some advice on where to go and what to see. Heidi is one of my very best girlfriends in California, who I met about 3 years ago through my Renegades cycling team. We hit it off from the start and became very dear friends. I attended her beautiful wedding 1 1/2 years ago in Laguna Beach and she is one of my girlfriends who always reads my blog and keeps in touch on a regular basis. She knows that I have found my place in Florence, but this has not kept her from keeping our friendship going. She has remained a loyal and true friend and I love her to death. She is one of those golden friends that you keep forever, regardless of distance or life's distractions...she is always there. She is a court interpretor in OC, a hard serious worker and she is an impressive competitive cyclist and triathlete. She's sweet, unpretentious and just a very honest and natural person. For this, I love her. And I miss her.

So, after 10 days of being deathly ill, I was praying that I would feel well enough today to meet Heidi's colleagues at the train station, and to bring them for a tour of Florence. I felt ready, and ventured out this morning to meet Darcie (from Seal Beach) and Annmarie (from Huntington Beach) at the train station. We had a GREAT time, and I am definitely better, though not 100%.

Spending time with people from back home is a real treat for me. We started off at the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella , then to the Duomo, Piazza Strozzi, Piazza della Reppublica, then on to Orsanmichele, Piazza Signoria, the Ufizzi, the Ponte Vecchio and then on to San Niccolo for a quick caffè, then on to Piazza Poggie, Piazzale Michelangelo, San Miniato, Santa Croce, San Ambrogio Market, then I showed them my apartment, and then we headed for lunch in my favorite spot on Via San Antonio.

After lunch, they were supposed to board a train to Pisa, but they decided they were having such a good time in Florence....why go to see the Leaning Tower? They cancelled Pisa in favor of continuing our beautiful day in Florence. So we hopped a bus and went to the Accademia to see David, after which we boarded a bus up to Fiesole and walked up to the Convento di San Francesco for a stunning view of Florence. They then departed for Rome from the station.

When people come from out of town, it renews me. It makes me see Florence from someone else's eyes and it makes me love my city and love my life here even more. It is not only fun sharing with others the great passion that I have, but it makes me delight even more in the love that I have for Florence.

Ok, Heidi....next year you and Ken are coming here with your bikes for a tour across Tuscany and Umbria. We will rent a villa or farmhouse and invite a few others to join us. Start thinking of who you want to bring. We will cycle throughout Tuscany, hire a chef to cook our dinners and give us cooking lessons and we can visit all the major wine estates and castels in the region. I have a great itinerary that takes in the very best of Tuscany. Plan on spending the best week of your life here!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Il Farmacista....The Italian Pharmacist

With much care, endless hours of sleep and very little of anything else, I am starting to feel like I am in fact going to live.

My lungs are clearing out and I am able to walk. This morning I saw my doctor again. Even though there was a long line of people, she took me first. She listened to my lungs and took a blood saturation test. The saturation test came out "perfetto". Which means that I do not have pneumonia. I have acute bronchitis. She gave me a prescription for an x-ray. She told me to take the prescription to the pharmacy. The pharmacy makes the X-Ray appointment for you!

The pharmacy does everything for you. No wonder people in Italy like to live near a pharmacy. The pharmacy is kind of like the church. And the pharmacist is like God. The neighborhood pharmacist plays a prestigious, high-visibility role in the Italian culture. He's like the ROCK of the neighborhood.

To go off on a brief tangent......Today made it so much more clear to me why South Brooklyn ADORED my "Grandpa Doc" (my mother's father....his name was Vincento Buono) Even the local Mafia didn't mess with him. He was the one and only pharmacist in the Italian section of Brooklyn when my mother was a kid, and until he died when I was in my 30's. Those who didn't call him "Doc", called him the "mayor". In fact, he was very involved in local Brooklyn politics. He was a short, adorable chubby little man who was always giggling and laughing, with a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He always wore a vest and suspenders, with a precious gold chain watch hanging from his belt. He had a thick moustache and even thicker bifocals. He would sit at the dining room table with a 1/2 glass of wine that he made in the basement, diluted with an equal part of water. He was always mixing some kind of formula. On the middle of the dining room table was always this huge bottle of Brioschi, (the Italian equivalent of Alka Seltzer), which he would often add to this wine potion, to help him digest.

He received his pharmacy degree at the University of Bologna. His pharmacy, which was named "Buono Pharmacy", was located on Court Street in Brooklyn. I remember as a child, being so proud of him. He was a prestigious figurehead in the neighborhood, knew everyone and everyone knew him. He cured everyone. He loved everyone. He was everybody's God. During the war, (before my time) he used to give food away to the poor. People would line up around the block in front of his store, and my mother used to help him to give out food to those who needed it.

Today, the pharmacist, who I am getting to know well, asked me for my "Tessera Sanitaria" (my national health care card). It is kind of strange to "learn as you go along". So this is the way they do it. Then he entered my magic identification number into the system, and made my appointment for me.

The first available appointment for a lung X-Ray is Wednesday afternoon. Today is Friday. Maybe by that time my bronchitis will be gone. Maybe that's why everyone here just goes to the "Pronto Soccorso" (emergency room). And maybe that's why there are so many hospitals.

This experience has taught me alot about the Italian healthcare system. It taught me that everyone in Italy is truly created equal. Meaning like you are a number. You have no control of your outcome. No choice. You cannot earn your way to good health. Money buys wine, food, necessities and fun. The rest is decided by the government and the state of the economy. Not you. You are at the mercy of the system. La Dolce Vita.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Swine Flu is Not Fun

This is a photo of my doctor's waiting room, where I've been spending alot of time this past week. In this photo the room is empty, because I got there bright and early. Again today the doctor checked on me and she says that my lungs are improving. I,m afraid of pneumonia, and that's why I keep on coming back. My doctor says it's not pneumonia, but an acute bronchitis. She'll give me a test for pneumonia on Friday, but now she is treating me for bronchitis and wants me to keep warm, take extra Vitamin C, drink alot of fluid and not exert myself.

She said that I definitely had Swine Flu, but the symptoms have gone and unfortunately the bronchitis is a consequence, but no longer contagious. I will go back to see her on Friday.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Think I Have Pneumonia

After sleeping for 11 hours, I woke up this morning feeling a little better. I was able to make it out of bed pretty easily. I spent the day at home and realized that the phlegm is starting to look more healthy. This evening, I took a walk to the store, about 2 minutes away and felt like I could breathe a little better. Definitely an improvement.

But then I went to climb the stairs to my apartment and could not breathe well. My heart started racing and I could feel the coldness and tightness in my lungs. I started coughing again and I sound terrible.

I really think I have pneumonia and will go to the doctor tomorrow to get a prescription to get an x-ray.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Have H1N1 Swine Flu

I just got home from the doctor to learn that I have H1N1, or better known in Italy as "La Suina". Many people in Florence have "La Suina", but mine is a severe case that has worked its way into my lungs and has caused my lungs to nearly close down. Not being able to breathe is a very frightening feeling.

The fever persited for 2 days, so I could do nothing but lie down. I was very disoriented and lost track of time. I was lucky to have some Ambien, without which I could never have slept, with my lungs being so congested and my cough being beyond painful. Over the past few days I've been feeling like I'm going to die, but this was the first day that I've had enough strength to walk to the doctor. I've never had such weight on my lungs and never have been this paralyzed.

I don't know how I am writing this. It's just mind over matter, I guess.

Yesterday I spent hours breathing in the steam from a pot of boiling water, trying to break-up and spit out all the fluid in my lungs. I've been in a daze. I can hardly breathe. I've wanted to go to the doctor, but when you can't move, you can't move. I couldn't make it from the bedroom to the bathroom without losing my breath. It feels like emphazima. Can't breathe.

After 4 days of this, I finally had the strength to walk to the doctor's office today. I dressed real warm and put on an extra scarf, gloves and down vest. I've been so afraid of getting pneumonia....I've been trying to keep my lungs real toasty. I walked slower than a snail, just taking one step at a time, feeling at times that I was just going to fall onto the ground. Breathing is difficult and it feels like there's something lodged in my chest.

I just got back.

I planned to arrive at the doctor's office an hour early. I did. But there were already about 20 people sitting in the waiting room, with no receptionist. The building, which is a palace in Piazza Santa Croce sure didn't look like a palace on the inside. It felt like my grandmother's house on 94th Street. Everyone was coughing. It sounded like a TB Ward. I couldn't believe it. There were no seats left. I wondered if this was a good idea. I'm already deathly sick. How could this evironment ever make me better?

If there wasn't a receptionist, then how would I know when it was my turn? I asked one of the waiting patients how this works, and she told me that I would have to verbally make an announcement to the whole waiting room to find out who is "l'ultimo" (the last person in line). I got up the nerve to yell out my question "Chi è l'ultimo che aspetta la dottoressa Ventura?" An old man raised his hand. This was the only way to know the "pecking order".

While I was waiting, I browsed the library of books on the shelves in the waiting room. Most of them had bindings that were worn and yellow. There was a medical encyclopedia from 1964 and the most recent medical book was from 1994. This was just the confidence I needed.

Doctor Lucia Ventura is the doctor that I chose to be my doctor when I was accepted as a citizen into the "Azienda Sanitaria" (Italian healthcare sytstem). I wanted to visit her for months, just to introduce myself and set up my medical history in her files, get a check-up and get myself established with her. I sure didn't want to wait to be sick to see her for the first time. But I have been procrastinating my visit for months. Too bad, because this was going to be a very comprehensive visit.

After 2 hours of waiting, my turn finally came up. I had no idea what to expect. I was praying that she spoke at least some English, but she didn't. So I was anxious. But I aced it. I did good. I was able to explain everything and have a productive visit. I told her all my medical history and felt like I had taken another giant step in adapting more to my new culture.

Dr. Lucia Ventura was one of the most compassionate doctors I've ever had. What she might have lacked in sophistication, she sure made up for in her maternal disposition. I couldn't help feeling protected by her. I sure could use a bit of mothering.

As I introduced myself, she immediately said "Dio, che brutto bronchite che tu hai". (God, what a brutal case of bronchitis you have.) I responded "Davvero? Lo può dire?" (Really? You can tell?) After I explained the symptoms and how long this has been going on, she lifted my blouse and listened to my lungs and asked me why I waited so long to come to her. I told her that I couldn't have come sooner because I was unable to move until today. "Hai la Suina". (You have the Swine Flu). She asked me why I didn't call an ambulance. I told her that I didn't know if it was bad enough to call an ambulance. She said it is.

We discussed my medical history and she typed notes into a program on her laptop. In order to emphasize what a healthy person I am, I showed her my "Libretto di Idoneità Sanitaria Per Attività Sportive" (which is this special booklet that is stamped by the Istituto di Medicina dello Sport di Firenze showing that I have passed the medical exam that you have to pass to be considered an athete and to get your cycling racing license). She understood very well and was impressed. We had a long discussion about all the medications I take and the reason for them. When I go back on Friday, she is going to give me prescriptions for all the medications from the U.S.

She explained what I should expect, she told me to stay inside, keep drinking water, rest and gave me a prescription for some antibiotics and told me to come back to see her on Friday morning. She laughed gently when I asked her if I might die. I guess not.

Before I left, she asked me how I chose her as my doctor. I told her that the Department of Health gave me a list of about 500 doctors and I just picked the one closest to my house with the most visiting hours.

I slowly walked to the pharmacy, got my antibiotics and came home. My lungs feel so heavy. Just sitting up is difficult. Now I understand better the pain of emphasima that killed my mother. Perhaps God is just reminding me of the suffering that she endured.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Viene L'Influenza

The dreaded influenza has hit Florence. Everyone has been talking about this for 2 months. It's the great topic of conversation in Italy. In the streets, on the news, in the schools. Everyone has been afraid of "L'influenza". And now I am sick as a dog and afraid this could turn into pneumonia.

I didn't believe it could get "me". Because I was already sick for 10 days in September. I thought that was the worst that it gets. After that, I figured that I'd be immune to anything else that's going around.

The country has been offering vaccinations to only the very young, the very pregnant, and those on the verge of dying, because they don't have the capacity to treat the general population.

It started out with a sinus infection, congestion and headcold that I blamed on second-hand smoke. I was at Cynthia's and it was obvious that I was in trouble. I was afraid of infecting her children, and so were they. I feel so guilty and hope that they will not catch this. It then became a cough. The cough got worse. Then the burning sensation in my throat. I tried so hard to make excuses to Cindy "It's just an allergy". But Cynthia knew too well. She got me out of there, back to Florence, and I know that she was only concerned that her children would not become infected.

Then on came the fever. I was delirious and couldn't move out of bed. The congestion made it to my lungs and I could feel my lungs were filled with fluid. At this point I was petrified. The only thing left to do, was to get to the doctor. I threw on some clothes and started walking down my stairs, when I realized I couldn't even do that. It felt like a brick was stuck in my chest. I could hardly breathe, and could hardly walk. I slowly made it back up the stairs with great pain and weakness. I cried and wished that there was someone to make me a chicken soup.

I called a friend who told me "Non ti preoccupare, Barbara" (don't worry). This is a very liberally-used, "cure-all" expression which is the polite way of saying "Shut up, don't complain, stop lamenting, things could be worse, have a glass of wine".

So, I called another friend, who gave me the emergency phone number for "La Guarda Medica". This would probably be the equivalent of the American "Department of Health". They answered right away and asked for my symptoms. I explained. The man told me to go to the pharmacy and to buy "i pacchi aspirina da mille e fluido boiron sciroppo" and to call back in 3 days if I haven't improved. Asprin and a plant-based cough syrup.

I opted for the chicken soup. I just had to have it. If I could make it to the pharmacy, I could make it to the market. So I walked slowly, bought a small chicken, some pastina, carrots, an onion and celery. I came home and made my soup.

So here I am, hibernating and trying everything to clean out my lungs. Rest, patience, chicken soup and a glass of wine.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Finding a New Style

When I packed my bags and moved to Florence last year, I knew that I would have to survive my California wardrobe during my first months here. I knew that if I stayed, I'd eventually develop a whole new me, a whole new Italian style influenced by my new environment. So I prayed that my sporty style of jeans, flip flops and t-shirts would do the job for a few months until I had some time to digest the prevailing fashion and to discover the stylish "me" deep down inside that has been burning forever to come out.

Well, the first thing that smacked me immediately in the face was how Italians make fun of the American sense of style. They think we have the worst sense of fashion. They don't criticize it, they just laugh at it. We are the country at the top of their "Worst Dressed" list and Hillary Clinton leads the pack. After a few months of living here comfortably in my California uniform, I realized that I was being made fun of. My clothes were too sporty looking, too casual, too unimaginative, too American. This is a city of show, of art, of in-your-face fashion, of showing off, of loving the way you look, of being whimsical, of dressing super-feminine. It is a city of dresses, not pants. High heels. Never, ever, ever sneakers.

It was time for me to throw out my old wardrobe and start all over again, the way I did when I dumped my New York suits and that precious mink coat and headed west to California Land.

For months I observed the styles and shopped in the stores here, and didn't buy anything because I've never had a flair for fashion and I cannot figure it out. Unfortunately, I lived in uniforms all my life. In grade school and high school we wore ugly Catholic school uniforms, and even in college the style was boringly collegiate. Twenty years working for JPMorgan Chase made things worse....I wore navy, black or grey Talbots suits 24/7. Weekends didn't matter because there were no weekends. Moving to coastal California was easy, because it too has a uniform. I've gotten away with murder for years and the truth is hard to face. I have a terrible sense of style.

So, here I am living in the most fashionable country in the world, and I'm stuck with a lifetime of ugly clothes and bad taste. I didn't know what to do. I still don't know what to do. I shopped and shopped and was overwhelmed. What looks good? Can I even find my size? Well, I couldn't find my size, I can't, and it does not exist. They don't carry small sizes here. In fact, in Italy, they do not carry petite sizes at all, so almost nothing fits me. When I ask other small women what they do, the answer is that they keep the tailors in business. And everything that does fit me is not my style, for instance, very low cut. I've been having trouble figuring out just what would look good on me.

I bought a few things, but after getting home and looking in the mirror, I felt ridiculous. There is NO such thing as a REFUND anywhere in Italy. Exchange, yes. Refund, never.

So, I've gone into a complete "freeze" mode, waiting for some kind of inspiration to hit me. In the meantime, I am perfectly comfortable in my cycling clothes, probably because it's easy. Another uniform.

Here, you've got to be creative. I won't survive it, if I don't get more courageous. Italians are infinitely artistic, especially in their sense of personal style, while we in America are much more uniformed and boring. Here it really doesn't matter what you wear as long as it's different and accessorized with jewelry, scarves, belts and that indescribable touch of fantasia.

I think I have to spend more time clothes shopping. That's probably the problem. I don't like to shop for clothes because I really don't know how. Short of hiring a personal shopper, I'm still waiting for the inspiration.

Another Home Away From Home

Cynthia was my student when she was in the 5th Grade. This is her husband Luca and her children Dario and Giulia. Cynthia and I have been friends for 30 years.

They live in a tiny hamlet called Noce, in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, smack in the middle of the rolling vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany. I just spent the weekend at Cynthia's to celebrate Giulia's 7th birthday and to have some dental work done. Luca owns a dental prosthetic laboratory and he is making a dental implant and a crown for me. Cynthia runs the financial side of business and Luca runs the operation.

They have a thriving business. Cynthia majored in International Political Science at NYU where she graduated Magna Cum Laude. She spent her junior year abroad in Florence, and decided to stay after she graduated. I visited her in Italy several times over the years and attended her wedding here in '95.
We celebrated Giulia's birthday at home, and the next day, she had a separate birthday party with her friends. This is a photo of Giulia's party, which was celebrated in a restaurant owned by friends of Cynthia.

Having Cynthia's support has made all the difference in helping me survive some of the difficulties of adapting to the culture and getting through the "system".

Monday, October 26, 2009

View of Santa Croce from Palazzo Vecchio

This is a photo that I took on Sunday from Palazzo Vecchio. You can see the Basilica of Santa Croce in the distance on the left. You can't see my apartment, it's a little bit further to the left. This week the weather is beautiful, in the 70's. We are getting a surprise dose of spring!

I am leaving for Tavarnelle today, to visit Cynthia and to celebrate Julia's 7th birthday. It will be beautiful in Chianti land.

No Cars, No Busses, No Noise!

Today I am living in a different world. Florence has literally changed overnight. Yesterday was the celebration of Florence closing its doors to vehicular traffic, and today was the first day living this reality! All of a sudden, my neighborhood feels like a totally different place. I don't know how it could have gotten better, but it did.

This is what it must have been like when there were only horses trotting through the narrow alleys and elegant piazzas. Florence has a completely different feel. It already felt like heaven. Now it feels like heaven plus.

Today I spent a couple of hours riding around on my city bike in the area of the Duomo, just asorbing the new sense of peace, reverence and respect that now permeates the air. The reverence that Florence deserves.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Piazza Duomo Diventa Pedonale !

Today was an historic and exciting day for residents of Florence. Today the city celebrated the closing down of the Piazza del Duomo to motorized traffic. Begining tomorrow morning, cars, busses and taxis will no longer be permitted on the streets within and surrounding Piazza Duomo.

Everyone in Florence is thrilled beyond belief. Florentines are very proud of their city, their heritiage and their rich culture. The closing down of the Piazzza Duomo to motorized traffic was proposed by Matteo Renzi , the sindaco (mayor) of Florence and it was approved by Rome last month. This is part of a 5 year plan to preserve Florence's precious monuments, to revitalize and clean up the city and to make it more inviting to tourists.

Today all of Florence came out to celebrate. It was an emotional day. I felt such a common bond with the people, I felt such a common pride of Florence. This IS my city. The day opened with an agenda of activities, begining with the mayor driving down Via Martinelli for the last time, followed by a grand, elaborate parade starting at the Duomo, which made its way to the Palazzo Vecchio. There were national and local T.V. crews covering the news. For the entire day, the Palazzo Vecchio invited its residents to enjoy special admission to the palace. It was indeed exciting to be peritted this privilege as a resident. Today I really felt like an integral part of my community. I waited on a line in the palace, with other Florentine residents, for the officials to verify my residency before granting me admission to the palace. When my turn came up, who was sitting at the desk, but Gianni, the man who assisted me in the town hall to get my residency. He looked up at me from his chair and said "Buongiorno, Barbara! Come va la nuova cittadina?" (Hi Barbara, how's the new citizen?) Wow, talk about making my day. Here I am, in one of the most historically famous palaces in the world, and one of the officials knows me! Florence is starting to feel like a small town. I am feeling more and more comfortable every day. I spent the next 2 hours touring the palace, overwhelmed by its history and art. While I was in the Salone dei Cinquecento, I ran into Samanta, my next door neighbor and her baby Giorgio and her mother.

The day was concluded in the evening with a celebratory concert performed inside the Duomo. The concert was scheduled to start at 9pm, so I arrived at 7PM to wait on line, but the line was already about one mile long. The orchestra of the Maggio Fiorentino, conducted by Maestro Seiji Ozawa, was a selection from Bach and Mozart, and the choir which was enormous, was magnificent. One can't help being inspired inside a church so titanically immense and so rich in history and art. I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas mass here.

I am always thanking God for bringing me to Italy and allowing me to feel this strong sense of home and belonging.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Full Saturday

A Morning of Dental Chores
Today I had a full social agenda, preceded by a morning getting my dental x-rays. I rode my city bike to the Centro Odontoiatrico Radiologico (the dental x-ray lab) in Porta Romana, just outside the city wall of Florence. The office was modern and well organized. Although they were expecting me, there was some confusion as to what kind of x-rays I needed, because their system had been "down" for 2 days and they couldn't look it up. So I spent the next half hour trying to contact my dentist, whose phone rang off the hook. Luckily I made contact with Luca, who called me back with the information. He told me that I needed a "panoramica". The receptionist asked for my identification and I gave her my Carta d'Identità. Then I entered into a room that had a very modern looking x-ray machine like I had never seen before. The machine walked around my face, while taking a complete set of x-rays, all in one photo. Then I went back into the waiting room and about 10 minutes later, the technician brought me a large envelope with my own personal set of x-rays. He told me that a digital image would be sent to my dentist, and that this set was for my own records. I thought that was neat, because in the U.S., you never get your own copy, even though you pay for it. The whole set of x-rays cost 45€, which I thought was pretty reasonable.

A Neighborly Visit
Then I pedaled over to the San Ambrogio outdoor market near my casa, where I bought a baby gift for Giorgio, the newborn son of my neighbors, Samanta and Riccardo, who invited me over for caffè and dolce this afternoon. I've been very excited about this invitation, because it is the first time that anybody in my building has invited me into their homes. For me, it's another sign of progress. Samanta lived in this house all her life and then it was passed down from her mother. All 7 families who live in my building are wealthy long-time Florentines whose families have owned these apartments for generations. I am the only renter. They don't accept foreigners very easily. They tend to stick to themselves. But they've seen me coming and going now for a year, and they are finally accepting me and allowing me into their worlds. What a great feeling.

Their home was beautiful, on 3 levels with a terrace that offered beautiful views of Florence, true to its original 15th century character, but the inside was renovated to look more like an upper west side apartment. Riccardo owns a transportation business and Samanta just got her tourist guide license, which requires 2 years of school and the passing of a test which requires in-depth knowledge of Florentine art, history, museums, and culture. She is a bonafide expert and her passion for Florence is obvious. Samanta explained a few things that I didn't know about my own street. She explained to me that my street is a historical landmark because it was Florence's first street. It is called a Borgo instead of a street, because borgo means "the main east-west street that approaches a city and enters its center." So, in the Roman days, there were only two streets, the north-south street and the east-west "borgo", which is why my street is named Borgo degli Albizi. She told me that underneath the street lies layers and layers of Roman and medieval ruins, which is why it is so difficult for the road to be maintained....the city doesn't want to disturb the history that lies beneath.
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Giorgio was sleeping while the 3 of us got to know each other better over a caffè and a pear torte that Samanta baked, which was splendida! When Giorgio woke up, I got the chance to coddle him for a while before he fell back asleep again. I hope that Samanta and I will become good friends. It is a great feeling to have good, friendly neighbors.
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Caffè With Rebecca
I was planning on getting some work done today, but Rebecca called me to see if I would like to take a caffè with her....that she was working too hard and needed a break. So we met at the bar down the block for an hour and caught up with each other. Rebecca is on the same bike team and she is starting her own textile business, but in the meantime, she translates documents from Italian to English to get her by, while establishing her private company.
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Dinner with Angella
Angella and I are becoming good friends, since we met in April. Angella is one of the people who sublet my apartment while I was back in California this winter. Then when I came back to Florence, we connected and have been developing a strong relationship. Angella is Bulgarian by blood but has been living in San Diego, and in the past 2 years has been working here in Italy in the real estate and tourism industry. She enjoys alot ot the things that I do, such as classical music and opera. Tonight we met up for dinner at La Giova, a restaurant in my neighborhood that I've been wanting to try. I've seldom seen a tourist in there, and it was recommended to me by one of my Florentine friends, so we checked it out, and had an excellent meal. Angella had the duck with pomegranates and I had an outstanding baccala which sat on a bed of arugula and a ceci that was very similar to a Sicilian panelle.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Day with Cynthia

I spent a beautiful day together with Cynthia. She picked me up in Florence and we headed for our favorite seafood restaurant, La Trattoria del Pesce in San Casciano. Cynthia and I share alot of the same tastes in food, style and political views, not to mention our common love of Italy. Today we swore that we weren't going to have wine with lunch, but that intention didn't last very long, and it was an excuse to linger longer and really allow ourselves to do some deep talking.

We talked about our friendship and we realized that we've known each other for 30 years! How hard it is to believe how our friendship started as a student-teacher relationship in Staten Island, New York and ended up in Tuscany.

After lunch, Cynthia brought me to the dentist, Stefano, a friend of the family. Stefano is going to perform some major dental work for me. This was a major decision for me. To leave my American dentist behind and to throw all my faith into an Italian one. If I was in America, the dentist would be able to do the x-ray in the office and then do the treatment in the same seating. But Stefano gave me a prescription and made an appointment for me to go to an x-ray lab that is 20 miles away, which means that I have to make two more trips...one to the lab and then a second trip back to Tavarnelle to see Stefano again.

After the dentist, it was time to pick up her 2 gorgeous kids, Dario and Julia, from school, which, right in the heart of Tuscany, is is reached from a gravel backroad lined with olive trees. What a nice little life they have in Chianti country. Here, the children wear a robe-type uniform with a big, round white collar that is worn over their usual clothing. The boys wear blue and white checkered uniforms and the girls wear pink and white. The kids are starting to get to know me, and greeted me with smiles and kisses.

We went back to Cynthia's house, which is in a small and quaint borgo surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. And then we headed out again to take Julia to her gymnastics class. We then had a caffè at the local bar in the piazza. What a charming, story-book town. A Carabinieri walked across the piazza, in full uniform, looking handsome and starched, with a commanding presence and authority.

Before I took the bus back to Florence, we made arrangements for me to come back on Tuesday to celebrate Julia's 7th birthday and to spend the night at their house.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Last Bike Tour of The Season

When dreams come true they aren't a dream anymore. They're reality. And when you live reality, it's a strange feeling to look back and realize that what you're doing now in your everyday life had once been just a wild thought passing by. And suddenly there you are, wondering how you really got here. And can you hold on forever to that feeling of elation and joy that you felt at the very moment when you realized that your dream was actually coming true? Can I save that moment?

Was I supposed to dream this? Was it supposed to come true? Did I fantasize it to be bigger than it was? Will I be disappointed when reality sinks further in? Did I make a mistake? How could I leave 50 years of memories, furniture....a lifetime of "stuff" in a storage room in California and just leave my life behind? Was this supposed to be my FUTURE?

"Yes"

Today was my last bike tour of the season. And while I was leading this group from Gaiole to Siena along Tuscany's bucolic, dreamy and now damp, colorful autumn roads, I looked around and thought how lucky I am to be here. The big plump grapes have disappeared off the vines. Meanwhile, the olive trees are dancing in the breeze, the olives are turning black, on the brink of being harvested. Tuscany is fantastic. Living in Florence is a dream-come-true. A privilege. Like a mother calling its child, Italy called me. And I came.

And no matter how tiring, how difficult it is for me to adapt to Italian technology, Italian healthcare, Italian law....I love every bit of this culture and here I will stay.

Since it was raining on our tour today, we headed for Castello di Brolio for a wine and olive oil tasting. Then the sun came out, so we got on our bikes and headed for Siena, where we had lunch at I Tre Mori. The group was a family of 7 from Houston. They were fascinated, as I am finding everyone is, with the story of why and how I got here. It always seems to become the topic of conversation at lunch. Every time I tell the story, I realize what a fantastic story it really is. It's so fantastic, it almost sounds like fiction. That's how dreamy it is. And that is my life.

We dropped them off at their hilltop villa near Panzano. Francesco and I chatted in the van on our way back to Florence. And as my last bike tour of the season came to an end, I thanked God for letting this happen to me. I know the roads now. And they are mine. This is my home and my country and I am in love with it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Having a Hard Time

I am frustrated. It is 3 o'clock in the morning. I have been glued to my new Italian computer for the last 18 hours and it looks like I will be doing this for the next several weeks. It is arduous and time consuming just loading up a new computer even if it is in your native language and even if you know what you are doing. I am trying to download all of the programs that I used to have on my now-dead-and-buried old laptop. Like all of my contact data, all my backup files, Mozilla, Google Earth, Garmin, Microsoft Office, Vius Software, Spyware software, Blackberry software, software for my camera, I Tunes, etc, etc, etc. I am simultaneoulsy learning over 20 software programs, all in Italian....all at the same time. I'm overwhelmed, mentally exhausted and have a headache. Everything takes much longer to download, the keyboard and how you place your fingers is different. It's like learning how to type all over again from scratch.

I must say, however, that by the time I am done with this (maybe by April) I will have learned ALOT of new Italian vocabulary. I just wish this had happened at some other time rather than now. I would rather be out there, socializing and speaking the language instead of staring at my computer all day long.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hi-Tech Italian

So I gave up a gorgeous day of riding today, to go to one of Italy's largest shopping malls (a relatively new phenomena here) to shop for a new laptop computer. After taking a 1/2 hour bus outside the Florentine suburbs, I arrived at the mall and headed for Mediaworld, an enorrmous computer and appliance mega-store, kind of like Best Buy, but larger and more inviting.

I had asked my Italian friends' advice where to shop for a new computer. And as is usual, everyone has a "friend" in the business. Well, that made me feel real warm and cozy. Until I ran all over downtown Florence seeking out all of these "friends". .Who, as I discovered, either didn't sell computers, didn't know anything about them but can "get you one for a good price" or, here's the best....one of them nearly convinced me that I really don't even need a computer. What I really need is an espresso machine. I almost walked out of the store with a stunning, feature-packed De Longhi with all the bells and whistles. Until I stopped in my tracks, laughed at myself and as I pulled out my credit card, I looked at the cashier and said "Do you know any large stores around here that sell computers?" She said "No, but my cousin can get you one". I said "Grazie, e arrivederci." I left the espresso machine behind.

So I contacted my American friend, Melinda Gallo, writer and author of the best blog about Florence, Living in Florence. She knows every inch of this city, and she recommended Mediaworld. She was right. I should have just asked her in the first place.

I was really pleased by the experience. I had expected to hunt around and beg for sales assistance. But there were twice as many salespeople than there were customers. Available, passionate, animated, endlessly helpful, patient and very knowledgeable. I found exactly what I wanted. I was so welcomed with the atmosphere and assistance, that I decided to stay and shop around for a new camera. My last camera was damaged by water, months ago and I had never replaced it. So, while I was in Mediaworld, I bought an underwater camera that I don't even intend to use underwater, but it was small, light, virtually indestructible, and is perfect for the pocket of my cycling jersey.

I was having such a great time learning about all the Italian appliances, that I ended up spending a leisurely afternoon getting personal demos of espresso machines, vacuum cleaners, and unusual Italian kitchen appliances like pasta machines, pprosciutto-slicing machines, while expanding and practicing my Italian vocabulary. It was indeed an entertaining day and a great learning experience.

I usually hate malls. But I loved this one. I loved the people and the pace. Neither as rushed nor as aggressively chaotic as a New York mall and not as boring and antiseptic as a California mall. Nobody pushing and bumping into you, everyone smiling and yeilding, a very happy energy. It had an uplifting, dynamic, positive feel.

I also loved the salespeople. Except for the small touristy stores in downtown Florence, it has been my experience that Italian salespeople are the best. They are proud of their work, they are inherently passionate about their products, they love to give advice, want to make you genuinely happy, they enjoy talking to you, are not putting on an act, do not expect you to buy, are never pushy or assuming. They are just having fun. I don't know how many times a salesperson and I exchanged personal phone numbers with the intention of getting together socially. And in one case, we did.

Well, today was another milestone for me. Buying an Italian computer with an Italian keyboard with Windows Vista in the Italian language, instead of waiting for an American one. Everything happens for a reason. The more I have to make decisions like this, the more I realize that I have no doubts about digging myself deeper and deeper into the culture. I was really elated, having been able to conduct the whole buying process in Italian, technical jargon and all.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Working On Bike Things

Yesterday, upon arriving in Florence after a 150k ride, I broke my right shifter cable. Luckily it was at the end of the ride and I was stuck in my 12, not a bad gear to be stuck in. I asked Dominick to refer me to a bike shop that could fix this right away. He told me to go to Le Due Ruote which sponsors his race team and to ask for Giuliano.

Le Due Ruote is a mom-and-pop store, located outside of the downtown area and they've been in business for 80 years. As opposed to the bike store that I go to now, which is more of a large scale business enterprise. I got such a warm and cozy feeling when I met Giuliano. He fixed my bike on the spot and I hung out speaking with him and his wife for an hour.

Standing in the shop made me feel like I was taking a trip into the past. There were team photos plastered all over the walls, going back for years. Some of them were so old, they were brown and white. I just think it is so fascinating to see the old classic wool jerseys, the funny looking soft plastic "helmets" that they used to wear, the white socks and black shoes....and oh, those simple steel bikes. No wonder there are so many cycling museums here in Italy. Giuliano proudly showed me photos and trophies that his race team has won over the years. I asked him alot of questions about the origins of the team. A few of their team members went on to be pros. I asked him if there were any women on the team and he said that there are one or two, but that they never really ride. I asked him why Italian women do not ride bikes and he told me the same story that I hear from everyone else. Italian women play tennis and go to the palestra, where they ride spin bikes. They dress very fashionable and they really don't sweat because they don't like to sweat. For the most part, they wouldn't be caught dead on a bike. In a way, I wish there were more women riding bikes, that way I wouldn't feel like a freak. But on the other hand, I got all these guys to myself! Now....If I can only just have ONE. That's all I want. Giuliano invited me to ride with the team on Sunday. I don't know if I will, but it's nice to know that I'm welcome.

Then I rode to the office of Best Tuscan Tours and met with Dominick to review a proposal that I'm preparing for a prospective group tour for next summer. The prospect happens to be someone that I know from San Diego who is developing a summer abroad program that involves cycling. We reviewed the tour itinerary that I developed. He made some different suggestions on the itinerary. He reviewed prices and costs with me. I have alot to learn about this business and I'm happy to have someone who is investing the time to help me learn.