Saturday, June 27, 2009

Un Viaggio Imprevisto

A spontaneous change in plans has me and Carol traveling independently for the next several days. Carol is headed for Venice, Rome and Pisa. I will depart tomorrow to visit my friend Claudio (See post of October 18, 2008) who's invited me to cycle in Piemonte, where he lives part-time in his hometown of Arquata Scrivia.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thunder and Rain

The electricity just went out. The thunder is furiously crashing as the rain pours in endless torrents. The lightening is cracking so close, so sharply, that I shut my windows immediately. The earth shakes. It feels like the world is ending. Where are all those swallows? Are they really hanging out under the eaves in this downpour? My internet connection is down. I watch out my window, observing the old ladies opening their shutters trying to save their hanging laundry from becoming drenched, but it's too late.

I've never enjoyed the rain like I enjoy it here in Florence. It is part of the drama, part of the magnificence of this place. The rain complements Florence. They go together so perfectly. They are both powerful, electric, earth shattering reminders of the majesty and vulnerability of life.

I wonder how long it will take for my internet connection to recover. But it's not important. I thank God for allowing me to experience the seasons again, in all of their sheer power.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Days with My Sister

I've been spending the past week with my sister, Carol, who lives in Houston. She is staying with me for one month. I've spent weeks anticipating her arrival, making space for her clothes, refreshing the house with fresh flowers and linens. I haven't seen her since our mom died 5 years ago. We are very different people and have lived very different lives since she left New York 25 years ago. Some highlights of the last week:
  • We are having a blast together, renewing our sisterhood. I bought her a used bike, so we can tour Florence together more casually. She's never been to Italy, and she's overwhelmed with excitement. She's especially anticipating our trip to Ischia next week, where she will discover as I did last year, our family roots and history.
  • We enjoyed the perfect weekend in Chianti together with Cynthia. We took Carol for a visit to Impruneta and Greve, and enjoyed an exquisite "Super Tuscan" lunch accompanied by two beautiful bottles of Bolgheri at the outstanding Ristoro di Lamole. We then proceded on to Castellina and Barberino. We stayed in the beautifully restored Villa Tavolese and attended a local Mass which was followed by a church pizza party. We spent the next day with Cynthia's family in Tavarnelle. She cooked a wonderful typical Tuscan meal and we took a walk through the vineyards and olive groves around her home, which is a restored medieval tower.
  • We celebrated my birthday together on Monday at Semolina in Santa Croce.
  • Yesterday was the feast day of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Florence. This is a very special day for the Florentines. Everyone has off and life stops to celebrate this day. Most stores and attractions are closed. It is a day that is celebrated with more spirit and intimacy than Christmas. We participated in all the festivities to celebrate this feast day, and in the process, I gained a better understanding of the Florentine family culture and history. We attended the procession and Mass in the Duomo, which was the most spectacular spiritual celebration of the Eucharist that I've ever attended. Before following the parade, we visited the Convento di San Marco, where I was mesmerized by the frescoes of Fra Angelico and the relics of Savonarola. We also spent time studying the sculptures and altars of Orsanmichele, which is becoming one of my favorite representations of Florentine history. We capped off the day by attending the spectacular fireworks displayed over the Arno from Piazzale Michelangelo with Leif. After escaping the crowded streets on our bikes, Carol seemed overwhelmed by the excitement of the day, so she escaped back to my apartment while Leif and I had a late-night pizza in Santa Croce.
  • Carol is starting to feel the vibe of Florence and she is spending less time calling back home. Her biggest impression is that "there's no sense of urgency" here in Italy.........ah.....!!!
Over the past week I have realized how much more well-acquainted I have become with Florence since I first came here in September. And I am also starting to wonder if someday, I may want to move further into Chianti country. But there is so much to learn and to absorb here in the city. I think it would take a lifetime to accomplish it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another Day in Training

It was a fascinating day on the bike, training to be a bike tour guide along a route that starts in Florence with a destination to the villa of Fattoria Torre a Cona, a sumptuous Tuscan wine and olive estate. Not only were my cycling and leadership skills tested today, but also my mechanical skills....I had to fix a flat almost immediately!...Along the route we paused for some local history at vineyards and olive groves to tell the story of Chianti country. At each stop I gained more technical knowledge about local wine and olive oil production. I took some serious notes, since I'll be responsible for telling this story in the future! It was an outstanding learning experience. At the villa we enjoyed lunch, including 3 varieties of wine that are produced at the estate, took a swim and had a private tour of the estate's wine cellars and olive mills. We then cycled back to Florence, and I agreed to take the job!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Gran Fondo Ciclotour Mugello

Today's Ciclotour Mugello was another phenomenal cycling experience with 8 team members,which started in Scarperia, in the Mugello region of northern Tuscany. Lia and Lorenzo organized the transport of people and bikes, and made it possible for me to be there.

The ride started in a fascinating location, on the Mugello Circuit, the Autodromo Internazionale di Mugello, which is is one of the most famous motorcycle race circuits in the world, and is used for Formula One testing. Cycling on this circuit was a unique and exhilirating experience. There were more than 500 participants.

Riding through this region gave me an opportunity to experience an area of Tuscany that is relatively unvisited. The Mugello has a striking natural beauty and a diverse landscape, which goes from rolling plains to hills and to mountains. It was a very hot day, which ended with a final killer climb in the exhausting heat. However, immediately before the climb...what else....a rest stop....which offered panini, prosciutto, formaggio, pane, fruit....and just for the heck of it....a power drink. Che bella vita!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ride to Panzano

Today I met Rebecca and we cycled to Tavarnuzze to meet the squad for a ride to Panzano, Mercatale and San Casciano. This has turned out to be my favorite route so far! Everyone stuck together and enjoyed a great ride, and exceptional weather.

Tonight I made reservations for me and Carol to spend 3 nights in Rome and 4 nights in Ischia in early July.

Tomorrow I'll be joining the squad for a Ciclotour in the Mugello Appenines, just north of Firenze.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A Day in the Van

Today I joined Melissa and Hilary on a "day" bike tour from Florence to Torre a Cona. I spent the day in the van, observing the route, taking notes, and following Hilary, the bike tour guide, and their clients, to learn how they operate and what's expected from their tour guides. The clients are tourists who are looking for an escape from Florence into the Chianti countryside. I learned alot, and I'm looking forward to joining them again on Monday, this time with the tour guide, on a bike, to further explore the opportunity.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Couple of Opportunities

Today Cindy and I had lunch together at Open Bar, which overlooks the Ponte Vecchio. This was the view from our table.

Later, I met Leif for pizza and a stroll around Firenze.

I am also busily preparing for my sister's arrival next Thursday. Carol, my youngest sister, will be spending one month with me. We're very close, and she's never been to Italy, so this will be a special experience for the both of us.

Tomorrow I will be "training" with another bike tour company to explore the possbility of guiding bike tours for them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Another Change

I've had to make some changes that you would think are easy, but they're not. For example, when I opened up a bank account here, it was very complicated because I had to learn a whole new way of doing things. Here, checks are cleared and reconciled in a slightly different way, and they don't have account numbers on them. Interest rates and fees are applied differently. I had to research the system of deposit guarantees. At first I was afraid to make a decision because it all seemed so intimidating. I had to translate pages of account terms and conditions, compare bank products and learn the Italian accounting terminology. Interpreting the monthly bank account statements was confusing. At first, I was so intimidated by the bank's online banking website that I just didn't use it.

Nicola, my landlord, has been encouraging me to use my online banking website so that I can pay my monthly rent with a bonifico (money transfer) instead of a check, but I've been too afraid to affect the transfer online, because I was afraid of making a mistake. Here, they provide a small hardware device that must be used in order to authenticate a bonifico. I've been reluctant to use it, because the whole process is so new to me.

But today I decided that I had to overcome. I went to the bank and talked to a bank employee who patiently allowed me to ask all my silly questions, which helped me to gain the confidence that I needed to affect the bonifico online

I feel good because it's done and I've made another little cultural adjustment. All these little changes aren't as hard as they seem on the surface. They're just psychological challenges that need to be overcome.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One of My Favorite Songs and Italian Singers


Morning Fun and Afternoon Reflection

This morning I joined Leif for a ride through the southern Florentine hills, where we passed through San Donato and the stunning mountaintop villa of Torre a Cona. Leif is becoming a dear friend.

On the way back, we passed by the bike shop and I signed up for the Gran Fondo Mugello Ciclotour, which takes place this Sunday.

I spent the afternoon taking care of chores, defrosting my refrigerator, watering my plants, and dreaming up some business ideas. I feel so inspired living in is the perfect environment for the nurturing and development of my thoughts.

My apartment faces a long, large Florentine courtyard, laced with plants, terracotta rooftops and with a view of the Duomo perfectly situated in the distance. Not too close and not too far. Just the perfect distance away. It is such a peaceful little niche, that hundreds of swallows have chosen it as their home. When home during the day, I can hear their sweet songs right outside my windows...they are so close, I think that one day they will fly right inside my apartment. I feel like they are a part of my life. In the morning, the sound of the Duomo bells wakes up the swallows and they start singing, flying and rejoicing the new day. Then they take off and fly around the city, just to return to their nests, right outside my window, at sunset, when again, their songs echo against the sound of the Duomo bells as they say goodnight.

Even though I love being outside on a beautiful day like today, I also enjoy relaxing in my apartment, hanging out my laundry, having an occasional caffe', studying and reading, while listening to the songs of the swallows, and reflecting on my thoughts and my future, which is evolving towards something big.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sheryl's Visit

My girlfriend Sheryl arrived from San Diego a few hours after I arrived back in Florence from Sorrento, and before I could even unpack, we headed to dinner at Semolina in Santa Croce, had a gelato at Vivoli and then took a walk through Piazza Signoria and the Ponte Vecchio. Sheryl recently obtained her dual Italian citizenship too! We became good friends 2 years ago, when I met her in an Italian language class at the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego. Sheryl's family is from Naples we share a common passion, a common connection with Naples, and the Campania region of Italy.

Sheryl and I had a great time catching up with each other since she arrived on Saturday night for a 2 day stay with me. We spent most of our time together re-visiting the usual celebrated art galleries, churches and monuments of Florence. Our time together passed quickly, and Sheryl departed for Rome tonight, and her final destination, Sorrento, where she will be studying and spending time with her family in Naples.

Just like New York City, you could live here forever and never be able to absorb even an iota of what this magnificent city has to offer. With an agenda of friends and family visiting me from the U.S., I have tended to wait for them to come, in order to enjoy Florence's art together, because it is so much more interesting to share the perceptions and reactions of the experience from a new point of view. There is so much to learn.

Life feels more infinite here for me in Florence than it has ever felt, anywhere that I have lived before.

In the past 2 weeks, Florence has become so flooded with tourists, that it is hard to ride my city bike in the streets. It is a little annoying, but it's not fair for me to think this way. I know how it feels to be in their shoes. I'm learning to get all my outdoor chores done early in the morning, at lunch hour and after 6:30pm, when they're sleeping and eating.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Work or Play?

I just returned from the Amalfi Coast, where I guided my first official bike tour for Best Tuscan Tours. Everything "clicked". Roberto and I made a great team, the weather cooperated, and everything went as planned. Our clients, Mark and Rene were fun, fit, and had an excellent experience. It was gratifying to share with them my love for Campania, the land of my roots, and to guide them along the roads of this most romantic, spectacular part of Italy. It felt like a privilege, not a job. But more than anything else, it was rewarding to hear their "oohs and aaahs" as they gasped in awe at the views, the seaside villages of Positano, Amalfi, Ravello, while climbing these spectacular cliffs. There are times when I have to "pinch" myself, because I really can't believe that this is happening to me. I couldn't be happier, and I love sharing my passion and happiness with others.

As we departed from Naples, Roberto pulled off the autostrada to take a quick diversion to his favorite mozzarella factory, La Contadina. According to Roberto, this place makes the best mozzarella di bufala in Campania. He bought several kilos of mozzarella of every type and called his wife Patrizia, to let her know that he's got dinner. He also bought bocconcini (small mouthfuls of mozzarella) for us to eat in the van during our drive back to Florence.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Becoming a Bike Tour Guide

Tomorrow I will start my first bike tour guiding job. I've been hired by Best Tuscan Tours, a company that designs custom luxury tours. For my first job, I'll be spending three days guiding a tour along the Amalfi Coast for a couple from Washington, DC who are enjoying a 2 week honeymoon in Campania. Last night I reviewed the itinerary and details with Leif. Today I met with Dominick, the owner of Best Tuscan Tours. We made an instant connection and have much in common! He worked as a middle market trader for Merrill Lynch, in the WFC, right in my neck of the NYC woods, just yards away from where I lived and worked by Wall Street. And he's from New we had alot to talk about.

I am studying maps and getting all my supplies and tools ready for tomorrow's trip. Roberto, the van support driver will pick me up, and then we will pick up the 2 bikes for our clients, and drive down to meet them in Sorrento. I am so happy that Roberto doesn't speak any English....we will have many hours together in the van to get acquainted and I hope to develop a good rapport with him, as we will be a team! And what a great opportunity for me to practice my Italian.

Next Friday I will be training for another tour company, Pers Bike Tours. For this company I will be guiding one day tours out of Florence. It looks like I'll be very busy working this summer and fall.