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


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 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, 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.