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.
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.
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.
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.

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 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?


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 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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cycling to Castello di Brolio

In my furthest dreams I never would have imagined myself going to a "business meeting" at Castello di Brolio, in the heart of Chianti country. And on a bike. And on a day as beautiful as today.

It's days like this that make all the excrutiating growing pains so bearable. It's days like this that make me feel so gutterally, so umbilically attached to this land. It's days like this (and I have to admit there are plenty of days "like" this) that have crystallized my decsion (or my "call") to settle here.

Leif is my good friend, my mentor, my coach, and has become kind of like a partner. He's been like a guardian angel to me ever since I met him a year ago. We've become good friends, great friends, nothing more, nothing less. Leif is the one who "noticed" me, took me under his wing, opened up the doors for me, took me on the road, introduced me to all the local people in the touring business, and we've spent thousands of kilometers together on the road. Today he took me to Castello di Brolio, where he had an appointment with their marketing folks to collaborate with them regarding some 2010 wine tastings and castle tours that he is organizing for his next year's tour clients.

It was an all-day, 90 mile adventure on the bike, at a time of year when Chianti land really shines. Most of the vineyards have already finished their vendemmia (grape harvest) and many of the vineyards are sending their grape skins and seeds to the grappa distilleries. What does this mean? It means that if you're on your bike, you get blasted with an intense smell of wine permeating the air all day long!! And you see these tiny little miniature vechicles, reminiscent of Matchbox trucks, bringing grapes to the grappa factories all day long! It's a pretty special and intersting time of year. The tourists are all gone and Tuscany starts feeling cozier. Being the start of my second year living here, it is begining to feel more and more like home. I've seen the seasons change once, and I am seeing them change again. I am feeling more established, and less like a newcomer.

It was pretty cold out this morning when we started. I even had to wear a neck warmer and face mask. But by 11am, it was already in the low '50's and the sun was shining over a bright blue sky. We went by way of Galuzzo to Ferrone, where we had a cappucino and then on through Greve to Panzano, where I told Leif that I didn't think that I was going to be able to continue the fast pace to make it to the meeting on time, and I was really wondering if I would be able to do the whole 90 hilly miles. The cold weather was draining my energy and I've been "out of condition" over the past couple of weeks while my bike was in repair, and while I was busy having fun in Capri. But, instead of letting me turn back, he called the castle and asked them if we could be an hour late. You don't usually have to ask permission to be late for anything in Italy, but he did. Anyway, this took the pressure off, and we were even able to stop in Radda for a quick lunch where I accidentally mistook the sugar for cheese which didn't go too well with my tagliatelle. Poor Leif did a "monkey-see, monkey-do" and dispensed a spoonful of sugar over his ravioli di tartuffe. It was an expensive mistake!

The pasta hit-the-spot. I am becoming more conditioned to doing things like eating a real meal during a ride, and actually relaxing. When you're a bike tour guide, you have to do things in a very different way, because most bike tourists don't come to Tuscany just to zoom by all the magnificent scenery and not see anything. They come to taste the culture, to be coddled, entertained, and to be fascinated by the wine, the food, the scenery.

I had read about the 1,000 year-old Castello di Brolio in my casual studies of Florentine and Sienese history, and knew a little about it being the home of the Ricasoli family, who produces Tucany's best and oldest Chianti wines, and who established the original formula that forms the basis of what is known today as Chianti Classico . As we approached, I was pretty startled by its enormity and its commanding position on a promontory in the southern Chianti hills. Now I understand why it was such a strategic stronghold, having been possessed and re-possessed by so many kings, monarchs barrons and popes of Italian history.

Upon entering the winery, we were greeted by the reception staff and guided into the main tasting room, and then to the marketing offices, where Simone, the sales director, Leif's contact, greeted us. Leif introduced me and we engaged in a dialogue regarding how they can customize some wine-tasting tours that Leif is planning for next year. Then Simone announced that she is pregnant, and introduced us to the woman who will be taking her place. I was astonished to meet Jamie Biagi.....who also worked and lived in NYC at JPMorgan Chase. We had alot in common to talk about. It was indeed a surprising encounter. We exchanged contact information and will surely be seeing each other again in the future.

Riding back home I got a second wind and never bonked like I thought I would. We stopped in Panzano for another shot of espresso. As we rode, I kept on thinking about how much I would really like to take more photos of the magnificent scenery, which I never seem to be able to get enough of. But, as any cyclist knows, by the time you stop to take the photo, the angle, the perspective, the opportunity to capture the moment that you just saw through your gone. You can't take photos of this. You are riding through a multi-dimensional panorama that is impossible to capture in a photo. But the memory is permanent and could never be explained or appreciated by anyone who isn't there, sharing the vision and the experience with you at the very same moment.

In one way, I regret this being true, because others cannot understand. And in another way, I just have to thank God for giving me this special, if not solitary, perspective.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Panzano with Leif

Today I did a bit of training with Leif, who is another tour guide and sommelier who has pretty much taught me the ropes of bike tour guiding. He's been working here as a professional bike and wine tour guide for 5 years. He's one of those cyclists who has a special sense of "radar"....he knows every inch of Tuscany's roads. He's been a great teacher and has taken a special interest in me. He's helped to orient me and has taught me not just the roads, but the best places for wine tastings, gelato stops, and has introduced to me to the owners of many B&B's, hotels in places like Radda, Castellina and Siena. He knows all the hot spots that tourists want to see, and where to take them for special meals, tours of vineyards and olive farms, etc. It has not only been a great education, but how could you not "love it"? I feel like a tourist myself...but wow...this is my work!!!

We rode south to Greve, where we refueled with a panino at Le Logge and then climbed further south to Panzano, where I was hoping the Conca d'Oro would be open, so that I could introduce Leif to the owners, who are friends of Gianluca. Unfortunately, they were closed, so we headed back for Firenze. It was pretty cool today, I had to wear panatloni, manicotti and a giacca antivento. Tomorrow we are heading further south, where he has some business to do at Castello di Brolio, (near Gaiole) where he's arranging a private wine tasting for some future clients. Next week, Leif and I will be working a tour together.

Capri from the Inside

I never wrote about my very special trip to Capri in September. It was such a stunning experience that I couldn't find the words. I still can't find the words.
In early September, Costantino, my very good Italian friend from Laguna Niguel invited me to Capri, to celebrate his 50th birthday. He and his wife Carol spend a month in Italy every year to visit his family in Capri, and to travel around. But this year was special for Costantino, because he was celebrating his 50th.
I hadn't seen Costantino since my last trip to San Clemente, where, 4 years before, we had met and became good friends and cycling buddies. By pure chance, we had met each other on the road in San Onofre, on our bikes. After a year of always passing each other going in the opposite direction, we finally both spontaneously slowed down, introduced ourselves and that was the start of our friendship. We spent alot of time riding together through Camp Pendleton, and eventually his wife Carol joined us, and she eventually became a cyclist herself.
Costantino was born and raised on Capri, the island next to Ischia where my family is from. So we share a common heritage, and this was the real thing that bonded us. We come from the same seriously crazy (totally nuts ) Napolitano blood, traditions and personality. Questo è qualcosa di molto particolare. Only an Italian would understand what I mean.
I, like most travelers, had only previously seen Capri from a tourist's perspective in all its fantasty and glamour.....too many years ago, with my ex. But this trip was very different and very special because this time I had the opportunity to see Capri from the perspective of a person who was raised and lived there for the first 21 years of his life.
I spent many special moments with him and his family, met many of his cousins, aunts and uncles who live there and own/manage some of the most celebrated hotels and restaurants on the island. With his wife, mother and sister, he took me everywhere and showed me everything. Like the soccer field that he played on as a the church that he was baptized the cemetery where his father is buried. I learned many secrets of his past and met many of his childhood friends who never left the island and still remain there today. I saw a Capri that nobody gets to see.
For me, the highlight was the many wonderful meals prepared by his graceful, vivacious mother at her house, and the nostalgic fish dinner at his aunt's house. Not to mention his elegant birthday dinner at one of the top restaurants on the island. and dancing in a seriouis VIP nightclub afterwards until 4am. I enjoyed some surprises.....for instance.....I never realized just how "famous" Costantino is.....we were followed and photographed by Paparrazzi who jumped out of nightclubs, restaurants, piazzas....When Costantino told me what to do when we saw them, I laughed and thought he was kidding...but he wasn't seemed that he owned the island. I was amazed! I was so honored to be the only "outside" guest who he invited to his magnificent 50th birthday celebration. Love you Costantino!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Today's Therapy

I start in the cozy cobblestone streets in my neighborhood, saying hello to merchants and neighbors (I'm sure they think I'm strange, rolling around in lycra instead of high heels, although they always chat and greet me with a smile) and within 5 minutes I'm on the "viale" (a 4-lane road where I am surrounded by the piercing energy of speeding motorcycles, busses and cars). I am pent up, and the motorcylces are so sharp, so sexy, so quick... the energy revs me up. Only moments later, the traffic is behind and I am crossing a little isolated "secret path"across the river to San Domenico. Then I am climbing, climbing, climbing the fanatastic road up through Fiesole, surrounded by ancient stone walls, with the spellbinding panorama of Florence now 1,000 feet below me, and then I reach this stunning Etruscan town where the road levels out for a minute, and then as I pass the chiesa, the Roman ruins, the pasticerria and macelleria, I suddenly enter heaven. All of a sudden, the cypress trees are standing above me, in a narrow lane that goes on for miles. They are always blasting with overpowering smells of pine. It is noticeably 10 degrees cooler up here. There are no cars. With the exception of other cyclists, I am the only moving object on this blessed road. The road becomes increasingly silent and I begin to see chicken coups, old stone farmhouses, endless vineyards and sprawling pastures dotted with bales of hay....quiet, peaceful unadulterated roads. The landscape starts to change and as I climb higher, the temperature falls another 5 degrees, the chestnut tress and pine forests start to appear. Did I really leave my apartment only 35 minutes ago? And suddenly the summit of Monte Senario comes into view 10 miles out in the distance, perched up on a commanding peak that dominates the countryside. My destination. I don't think I will ever stop being stunned by the beauty of the road that takes me there.

Today I was pent-up when I left my apartment, but this particular ride is my cure-all. As I turned up the second climb to Bvigliano where the road is a constant 8% grade, the still-surviving rasperries along the road begged me to stop to eat them. There is nothing like it. Nothing around....just me, the sight of Monte Senario, the endless vistas of rolling hills and vineyards....and raspberries. I saved my Powerbar for another day.

I stop to refill my waterbottle at the top of the climb, under the evergreen and chestnut trees. The water coming from this fountain is mountain-fresh, cool, soothing. And then I cover up my arms with my manicotti (did you ever wonder where that word came from? "Arm warmers") and I put on my windbreaker for the descent. And in another blissful 15 miles I am back in my piazza, saying hello again to the same neighbors and merchants. But I am in a totally different state of mind than when I left.

I savored every single moment of my ride today. Because I know that the weather is changing quickly. It is getting cold. Before you know it...and it could happen ANY day will be too cold to ride up north. The weather really changes fast. We've been blessed with such beautiful cool but not cold autumn weather. So I never know if today's ride up to Monte Senario will be my last of the season. As soon as it gets cold, the rides will be heading south into Chianti country. So, for now, I will appreciate every minute of this fantastic ride.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Getting Back on My Feet Again

This has not been a good month, although I've had some seriously exceptional moments, including a beautiful "insiders trip" to Capri, a couple of fun dates, some fabulous rides and tours, dinners and get-togethers with friends, some interesting (but not as much as I would like) new work, and many golden moments that happen to me every single day without fail, here in Florence. But I've been uninspired and unable to write. Until now.

I know that everyone has been wondering and worrying about me. I'm sorry. Unfortunately, almost everything that can go wrong, went wrong all at once.

In mid-September I was very, very sick with a virus and fever for 8 days. I c
ould hardly move out of bed and hadn't been that sick in decades. I had a knock-out virus, infection, and fever. I went to my new doctor for the first time, and don't know how I even got there. It was strange to go to "my" doctor in the famed Piazza Santa Croce, and yet to have to walk up 3 dark flights of ill-maintained stairs. I cringed before I even arrived at the office. I don't know whether my doctor is representative of all doctors here, (maybe I just picked a bad one?) but I will need to find out, because I really expected a bit more automation and technology. Instead, I felt like I was visiting my grandmother's house. Was I being stunned with a dose of Italian healthcare system culture shock? Or did I just pick the wrong doctor? Instead of continuing into the office, I went home, took some antibiotics that I brought with me from the U.S which finally knocked the bug out of me. The whole neighborhood knew I was sick, and one day my doorbell rang. It was Giovanni (the outdoor florist in my piazza). All cheery-eyed, he announced himself and delivered me a beautiful little bouquet of "get-well" flowers. (No....I am NOT having an affair with Giovanni!)

A week later I broke out into an ugly, itchy rash all over my neck and chest which looked and felt like poison ivy. I was horrified and afraid that it would spread to my face. I was in pain. This time I just went to the pharmacy, where the very friendly and capable pharmacist, who I've relied upon before, suggested a a tube of "Calendula".... which burned the hell out my skin. I found out later that Calendula is a mixture of Marigold flowers and St. John's Wort. The rash lasted 2 weeks.

No wonder all this wine. I'm conviced that drinking wine everyday here is a cultural necessity. It is the most effective and beautiful drug in the world. But, don't spill it on your computer.

Yes. After spending 4 blissful days in Capri at Constantino's and Carol's house (friends from San Clemente, Calif....he was born and raised in Capri and his family lives there for many generations)... I spilled wine on my computer. My jaw dropped and my body shook as I slowly watched the LCD screen fade away and my computer gasping for its final breath of air.... and then the lights went out. Spento. Morto. That was 2 weeks ago, and it took 5 days of pure panic to find somone seemingly worthy of trying to save it. No authorized Sony service centers around here. Today I got the dreaded "dead motherboard" diagnosis.

No, I'm not that stupid so as not to back-up my data. The last time I backed it up was only a week before it died. So I'm ok. But being without a computer is starting to make that rash come back again!

So, I have to succumb. I've started shopping around for a new laptop. I am asking everyone I know....what do you think of the ACER Aspire? That's what I'm thinking of buying. I really need an Italian tastiera (keyboard) anyway. Writing without the correct Italian characters and accents makes me look pretty stupid. Learning Windows Vista in Italian will be frustrating at first, but hey, if I'm gonna live here, I gotta "go for it".


Making the final decsion to buy an Italian computer or to have my brother ship me an American one from Best Buy......well.....I guess that's the "second stage" of adapting to my new country. Reality is really sinking in. I'm really giving up all of my American "stand-by" cures. It's scary. Not the Italian computer. But the realization that I'm really here. And I'm really staying here. The first year was bliss. This year is really going to be a killer year. I thought my guts had already been tested. But it's only just begun. I guess I must feel as though it's worth it.

And it is.

You think that's it? No. I didn't get to the good part yet. So, what I didn't mention, is that while I was sick, my bike was also sick. It was sick in June, and just kept on getting sicker, until I finally had to admit that my 2nd chainring was worn out. Living with a champion cyclist for so many years, I got used to having someone take care of all those mechanical things. Now I'm just an old female American sucker trying to look like a cyclist and I'm realizing that maybe I'm just not taken seriously. Bottom line is that I couldn't ride my bike for 3 weeks, instead of what would maybe have taken 3 days in America. Renting a bike in the meantime was a killer... because it didn't fit me right and hurt my back.

And that's not all. I almost swallowed my dental bridge while I was eating calamari in Capri. So I am missing 2 teeth. Then today, while finally renting a computer, I took my serious prescription eyeglasses out of its case to look at the invoice, only to find that they are broke.

So, I'm toothless, blind, without a computer, and until yesterday, was without my bike. I've been seriously challenged and just trying to cope day by day.

I'm spending 85% of my time trying to manage everyday living, trying to figure out which fire to throw water on for just a few minutes.

It's during moments like this that most people would give up and just want to go back to America. But I don't feel that way. I will somehow try to figure out how to navigate the healtcare system, I'll find out how to buy and use an Italian computer, and I'll savour the beautiful moments that I would never be able to find anywhere else.

Luckily, yesterday one of the problems was bike was finally repaired. I rode up to Monte Senario and found my peace in the stillness of this sacred spot. Along the way, the vineyards were starting to change colors, the chestnuts were falling off the trees, and there were still many bushes bursting with rasperries along the road. Just enough to keep me smiling. As I rode through Bvigliano, there was a chestnut festival going on. For just a few hours I was able to forget all these problems.

I hope the inspiration to write again will come back to me. In the meantime, I am spending virtually all of my time being inducted into the Italian world of healthcare and technology. It has not been fun, and I am just hoping to survive with a clear mind.

By the way, to all you Italian film lovers out there, you've got to see the new film "Baaria" which was nominated as Italy's hopeful for a 2010 Oscar award. It's coming out with English subtitles next week. It is outstanding.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Work and Play

Today I worked in the morning for Florence by Bike for a group of tourists who were renting hybrid bikes for a morning through Florence. Then after returning to the shop, I found that my Colnago was finally repaired, so I took it home and rode up to my favorite place, Monte Senario. It was good to have my bike back, after it being in the repair shop for 3 weeks. I guess it's hard to get Shimano parts over here, because it took a very long time for the shop to receive the part and get it installed on my bike.