December 2009: family status-check [of trivialities, faves and hobbies]

Things simmer in my mind, tiny little things I want to remember never to forget. It occurred to me to take a snapshot of our lives, not of the photo variety but more of a mental, emotional, geographical freeze frame. So I set out to check-in with our family of four: of where we are with regard to current reads, favorite foods, recent memories and more. This is a quick-list, far from exhausting, but a good start:

Nicknames. What was your nickname in school? We didn't have a lot of nicknames, but this trip and circumstance seems to be fertile ground for upgrading names and attaching new ones. During our summer of cycling from Amsterdam to Paris, we called Anthony 'the cat,' and Caleb 'grease monkey.' Anthony's bike would catch a rut and throw him---on occasion---and we have multiple stories of him somehow flying off his bike and landing, uncannily, on his feet. After a day of cycling, Caleb would often have greasy proof of our day's ride. Somehow the back of his calves and his greased up bike chains had an affinity for one another.

Italy provided an entirely different proposition: new first names. Because Caleb and Janelle are a difficult to say in Italian, we have since adopted new names. We knew 'Caleb' was a mouthful in the Italian language, so we told him he could use his middle name instead. He became Francesco at school and on the soccer field. He has since gained two more nicknames: 'Franchi' (pronounced Frankie) from his soccer buddies, and 'Maio' (pronounced /My-oh/) from his coach---obviously a shortened version of our last name. Janelle is tough to say, so James started calling me Gina... and seems to get a royal kick out of it. James is Giacomo---an easy translation from English to Italian; Anthony is Antonio, with the added bonus of his mom regularly calling him 'Anto'---a common nickname for Antonio.

That was long-winded, these are not:

current favorite cereal: Anthony Miele Pops (think honey Kix) and Caleb cocoa pops. There are a LOT fewer options here!).

current hobbies:
Caleb is enjoying painting, guitar, collecting gems/minerals and sketching/researching cars.
Anthony is busy making ornaments, house design, reading, and researching Fantasy Premier League (our family of four compete online in fantasy soccer); he is also looking into fantasy stock exchange(s).
James and Janelle are into touring Florence, tasting wine and food, researching business opportunities and blogging/journaling/collecting souvenirs. Oh, and Janelle loves loves loves cooking Italian food!

fave souvenirs:
Caleb: gems
Anthony: tiles from Orvieto, San Gimignano, Florence and Pisa
James: Poggio Amorelli wine box (plus contents)
Janelle: metal chef (handcrafted metal wine-bottle holder, made to look like a chef); Christmas sangria pitcher (James just bought for me!)

current read:
Caleb: Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates by Sean Cullen
Anthony: The Firm by John Grisham
James: The Firm by John Grisham
Janelle: Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook

favorite store:
Caleb: Mineral Shop (Florence)
Anthony: unknown
James: Oibo (actually a cafe, but we buy our morning espresso and pastries there...)
Janelle: euro store for inexpensive decor and dried goods, and Pep Bizzarrie in Castellini in Chianti---easily my favorite ceramic shop.

current favorite meal:
Caleb: "I have had too many great meals in my life, I could never ever decide which one was the best."
Anthony: Thanksgiving (esp. raspberry balsamic sauce, turkey, squash risotto and wheat rolls)
James: wild boar sauce on soft polenta
Janelle: wild boar sauce on soft polenta (aka polenta and cinghiali ragu)

favorite Italian cities:
Caleb: Volterra, Sienna
Anthony: Bologna, Sienna
James: Lucca, Orvieto
Janelle: Bologna (due to best meal ever), San Gimignano, Orvieto


frolicking fridays, round 8

This Friday was unique, since we had James' parents in town. The fun of having guests is that you look at your 'own' city with new eyes. Which means you retrace steps of your favorite streets, share your favorite sites, and have reason to revisit special cafes, museums and galleries.

We rolled out of our home late morning and en route to Palazzo Pitti walked along the Arno. We had the timely fortune of seeing a production of skydivers dropping from the sky... only to land on platforms---or should I say float docks---located sporadically in the Arno River. We watched, photographed and were impressed when 4 out of 5 jumpers landed on their small-time targets. After feeling fortunate for our timing, we scooted toward the Ponte Vecchio and shopped, stopped and photographed our way across this singularly famous bridge.

We popped into a little cafe James and I had been to before, and grabbed a carafe of house wine, slices of meats, cheeses and a pile of olives. After topping off our bellies, we walked to Pitti Palace (aka Palazzo Pitti) and enjoyed 3 hours of strolling and gawking before famous upon famous works of art. We witnessed Raphael, Titziano, Lippi, Van Dyck, Boticelli, Granacci and my favorite was from Allori...

With all the amazing art I find it helps to stroll through, find the famous pieces, then find what else you are drawn to and ask why. I loved the Allori, for example, because it was a nearly disturbing and profound painting of Judith, holding the head of Halofernes (captain of an enemy army)... the emotion and her eyes were grounding. She was strong, sad, deliberate, wise in her youth, determined, successful, profound.

The amazing thing is you could say so many such things about so many paintings. The Medici family (this was their collection) had so many famous works from so many well-regarded artists...

My other favorite was the large room dedicated to Hercules. It had huge frescoes highlighting points in his life, and it was poignant. We left the Pitti mentally tired but soulfully brimming.

We went home to greet Caleb just as he was finishing school (Anthony would be home 2 hours later, due to soccer practice). Our evening was full of good wine, lively chatter and competitive card-playing.


frolicking fridays, round 7

Thank God for Fridays.

From Monday through Thursday James and I are working on business ideas, blog posts, photo updates, resume building. But on Friday, we take the day off for a self imposed day of touring.

This Friday in Florence, we hit the big one: Michelangelo's David. James and I (and Anthony) read The Agony and the Ecstasy---a biography of Michelangelo's life. It was brilliant, and we highly recommend it (p.s. I just read that Seattle's Art Museum has 10 original sketches from Michelangelo). If you have read the book, you have read the description of Michelangelo's David: the process of making it, the intent in the sculpting, his study of the human body and his portrayal of youth-becomes-man through David. It was remarkable. We circled The David, trying to memorize every vein, and envisioned the artist covered with marble dust while he aggressively and deliberately placed each muscle and bone and tendon.

It is humbling and surreal to be in a city whose artists created so many works, defined history and reinvented art, dedicated their lives, sweat and sanity to their passion...

... it makes you visit and revisit your own passions and talents. What are we contributing? Sigh.

Besides a visit to The Academia, which houses Michelangelo's original David (a copy of The David stands in the Piazza Signoria---where the original used to stand), James and I had a splendid lunch at a nearby cafe. A bottle of wine, some rigatoni with rabbit, white fish baked in tomato sauce... long Friday lunches are key to our touring success.

You will note a photo of me in Piazza Signoria, mimicking a statue by Giambologna (ironically, this Piazza has the copy of Michelangelo's David, and this original Giambologna; and in The Academia is the reverse: the original David and a copy of Giambologna's statue). It is a little nuts, but once you have been here long enough, gone to the Bargello and Gardens, toured the Uffizi and visited the many churches... you see originals and copies and copies of copies... it take great concentration to keep it all straight!

We cut it a little short this past Friday: by 2 we had to jet home, as I had an Italian class (taking a few hours to push some of the lingo into my brain... just to keep up with the boys). All in all, a day well spent.

Top 5 Memories for November 2009

Now that we are safely in the New Year (2010), I need to catch up on my chronicles of top memories from the preceding 2 months. I’ll start with November.

After spending much of October in the United States, we returned to Florence in the midst of the Fall season (which was well under way). Warm summer days were gone, replaced by brisk temperatures, constant showers a blustery winds; winter was just around the corner. Notwithstanding the weather, we had some fantastic experiences. Here’s what I recall as my Top 5 Memories for November:

5. A day trip to Montefiascone and Pienza. We had an out of town soccer game in Acquaviva and decided to take advantage the remainder of the day to explore two neighboring cities: Montefiascone and Pienza. We were particularly lucky to arrive at Montefiascone in the mid-afternoon when San Biagio was still open. A high-renaissance pilgrimage church, situated below the city at the end of a Cyprus tree-lined drive, San Biagio is one of my favorite churches in all of Italy. The church boasts a Greek-cross plan and a simple, stark interior (highlighting the altar and a few pieces of art). It was lovely. We trekked into Montefiascone’s city center, walking along the “spine” of the hilltop, arriving at the main piazza and an old castle (converted into a park). We sampled wines at a local vinoteca (and bought some to go) – it was delightful. Thereafter, we made our way to Pienza, arriving just in time for the “passegiata”. The city was filled with locals, walking down the main corso, babies dressed and on display, and all the shops were flooded. The artisanal pecorino cheeses were out and available for sampling – splendid! Pienza is famous for its Pecorino (and rightly so) – many of the cheese-wheels were aged in hay, chestnuts, sunflower seeds, rosemary or other local scents and flavors (imbuing a unique flavor to the cheese). Hard to describe; I suggest doing it yourself! Read more.

4. A day trip to Castellina in Chianti, Panzano and Several Wineries. Probably one of the loveliest days in Italy thus far was a day trip that Janelle and I took to Castellina in Chianti (while the kids were at school). Whenever going out for wine tastings, we’ve learned to initially drive to the furthest destination, and then meander your way back home. Janelle conveniently had a meeting in Chianti (for some freelance travel writing; an impetus for the trip). After her meeting, we briefly explored the town, including a beautiful ceramic shop and a couple of tasting rooms. We also made our way up the hillside to some Etruscan tombs (yippee!). Thereafter, we drove through the Chianti region stopping at several wineries along the way (Castellina, Poggio Amorelli, Fantodi and Panzano). The most impressive, by far, were Fantodi (a major winery in Chianti with loads of accolades) and Poggio Amorelli (a small family-owned winery, producing sub-25k cases annually). In addition to tasting several great wines, Janelle and I had a fantastic day just tootling about Chianti in a yellow Fiat Panda wherever our noses took us. And, we got lucky too – finding a family-owned olive orchard and frantoio at the end of our day (above Florence, outside Impruneta). We received a personal tour by the owner’s daughter, including a walk into the olive orchards, tastings and witnessing the harvest. Janelle detailed the entire adventure, but you must do it yourself – in November only.

3. Thanksgiving Dinner Prepared by Janelle. While being overseas is a fantastic experience for our entire family, traditional holidays and events are difficult to miss. Unlike Christmas, Thanksgiving day is not recognized in Italy (no surprise, then again in America we don’t celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany with a day off from work). Janelle made up for it with her own efforts to recreate Thanksgiving in Florence. She could not find a “whole” turkey to purchase, but did manage to find 2 huge turkey legs and breasts. She assembled them together with stuffing in a manner that resembled an entire turkey. It was great! More importantly, Janelle also prepared many of the traditional accoutrements (cranberry sauce, potatoes, apple pie, etc.), which satisfied all our nostalgia for Thanksgiving. The entire meal was delicious, and in many ways, I think each one of us were more thankful for the United States this year, than in years past.

2. A Bologna weekend trip. We took advantage of a weekend “off” from soccer and visited Florence’s major rival and neighbor to the north: Bologna. Whereas Florence is known for its wealth of great art, scientists, philosophers and politicians, Bologna is known primarily for its food. Referred to as “la citta di grasso” (the City of the Fat), Bologna did not disappoint our gastronomic quests. Read more. However, the joy of this trip was not limited to restaurants, but also encompassed the journey and our explorations as well. En route to Bologna from Florence, we simply set the GPS on “avoid highways” and stuck entirely to back roads (including gravel roads too!). We tried to follow along on the map, but we were soon off track and simply trusting the latest in satellite technology to navigate us to our destination. Along the way we went through the source for “Panna” water, discovered embattlements from World War II (foxholes and gun mounts still stand just a 100 meters off the road), and we were dazzled by spectacular views. After arriving in Bologna and settling into our hotel (a disappointment), we were soon wandering about the city and its myriad of arcades. Bologna was decked out in preparation for advent, a holiday festival has been set up in city center (including an ice rink), and the streets were filled. After dinner we strolled back to our hotel (almost rolling after 4 courses), and then slept off gastronomic delight before embarking in the morning to further explore the city. Like Pisa, Bologna offers its own version of a leaning tower (2 in fact); one of which we climbed (485 steps). Altogether, a weekend in Bologna was not enough time – I wish we had a week to eat, shop and further explore the city. I strongly recommend it if you are eager to uncover culinary delights or want to see a real Italian city without the tourists. Read more.

1. A day trip to Orvieto. The most memorable family experience in November was surely our day trip to Orvieto. I had previously stayed in Orvieto as a college student almost 20 years prior and loved it. My family similarly fell in love with the city. Arriving in Orvieto by train from Florence, we trekked on foot up the original path to the city (from the valley below). Thankfully my entire family is gung ho, because soon we were traipsing through the bush on an old cart path, below the imposing 200-300ft cliffs/walls of Orvieto. It was a dramatic experience and well-intended for my kids to understand just how difficult and impenetrable this city was during the middle ages. The weather held off and we made our way up and through a succession of the city gates, stopping at each one to study where the archers, gates (hinges still present) stood, and buckets of tar and boiling water were dumped on attackers. Cool! Finally arriving at the top of hilltop, my family was stunned by the magnificent views afforded from the old castle (now park). We walked the walls, explored the S. Pietro Pozzi well (dug into solid rock!) and then made our way up and into the city. Notwithstanding its small size, Orvieto has a great variety of shops and artisans (including ceramics). The crown jewel of Orvieto is its cathedral; a magnificent gothic church evidencing an Arab-Norman influence (striped black and white courses) and boasting the most stunning fa├žade in Europe (a jeweled mosaic of gold, lapis lazuli and other precious gem stones). The church was built to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, including a shrine holding the famed altar cloth where the Eucharist was said to have bled in front of the congregants (at Bolsena). Regardless of your faith, if you appreciate church architecture, the Duomo of Orvieto is a must-see. Afterwards we walked around the far side of Orvieto, further exploring city walls and its embattlements. At the end of our day, we made our way down the corso and stopped by a family-owned pizzeria for dinner (prior to embarking on our return journey to Florence). Altogether the day was fantastic, but too short. We intend to revisit when family comes to Italy. Read more.

Other honorable mentions from the month of November include the following: going to olive oil tastings almost every weekend in November in the piazzas of Florence; touring Museo del Duomo and seeing a Michelangelo pieta; visiting private Florentine gardens; touring the Laurentian Library and Medici Chapel; discovering Esselunga online (home grocer delivery in Florence); enjoying a private tour and visit at Castell Verazzano; going on a "secret passages" tour of Palazzo Vecchio; watching soccer games all over Tuscany; and the arrival of “lights” in preparation for Advent.

By the end of November, Florence had transformed from Fall to Winter. The cold and darkness set in, and the rains increased, but Florence came alive in anticipation of Christmas. On the last weekend of November, the first Sunday of Advent was celebrated and city was awash in lights down every corso – the nights became magical. The passegiata took on new meaning and we experienced the warmth of Florence in an unexpected way.

And lastly, the Santa Croce Christmas festival had arrived. More to come…


Coca-cola Christmas ornaments

It tickles me this time of year, whether we are home in the states or [like now] living abroad. Christmas fills the air. We have a little tree with blinking lights, I bought a few little votives from the euro store, and we started an 'ornament making initiative.' Because we are far from home---without our boxes of Christmas decor, and with no intention of spending lots of cash on decorations---we decided to make our own ornaments this year.

A few years ago, Caleb did just that. I still have his slinky-green crepe paper-inspired wreath ornament. And we prize the ornaments from James' mom---the hand-painted wooden ornaments she made for us over 10 years ago. And I have a few token ornaments from wise preschool teachers, who knew my sons' tiny photos encased with glitter and ribbons would bring tears to my eyes every year thereafter. And although we made the decision to make ornaments based on our offshore predicament---we are quickly realizing it was a better idea than we ever imagined.

The boys are using wires and soda cans to make ornaments (and consequently drinking more soda than usual... hmmm). Anthony made a gorgeous Santa Claus and employed coke cans and green paperclips to fasten his red boots and green
gloves. We have soda can globe ornaments, ribbons, copper wire art ornaments and a coke squiggly as our stand-in tree topper. Inspiration comes in waves, and even James has gotten in on the act.

I love that being in this different situation---pulling ourselves out of our stateside routines---makes for funny little opportunities such as this. Christmas? Where do we find a tree? What about ornaments? How to do it on a budget? And we come up with a new plan, for how to address this novel set of circumstances.

Don't get me wrong. We have had novel circumstances rubbing up against us our whole lives... it is just that we selected to be in this one (for better of for worse!). And we don't always get to choose what life hands us (hmmmm, rarely?). So we soak up the times when we can choose... though I think there are always serendipitous moments waiting to be found.

All of that to say this: regardless of circumstances, we hope your holidays are shaping up to be full of twinkling lights and peaceful moments, well-wishing cards, merry music, loud laughter and loving friends and family.


All in one weekend: the leaning tower of Pisa, touring San Gimignano, dining in Volterra

Loved our touring blitz. I call it that because we have been renting a car and taking a day out of our weekends to explore cities other than our own. Three weekends ago we skimmed Montepulciano and Pienza, two weekends ago we soaked up the festivities in Bologna (see Anthony's post), and this past weekend we fit in Pisa, San Gimignano and Volterra. No worries: the boys actually had Monday and Tuesday off this week, so blitzing some cities over the weekend wasn't a complete loss of sanity---we had two days for putting up our throbbing feet.

And these are all cities that we have been meaning to visit.

Pisa's leaning tower was insanely expensive to climb... but we are here, so we bit the bullet and bought tickets. And how weird: climbing the stairs of the leaning tower felt awkward. While climbing, we were adjusting our bodily angles, putting our hands on the walls for extra support and 'vertigo' crossed my mind more than once... but the views were beautiful. Although it is early December, we enjoyed sunny, clear vistas for our Pisa experience (FYI travel in non-tourist months. Little lines, fewer tourists, no boiling hot sun. Add a coat and you are free to roam and enjoy at a pace all your own).

One other must-mention for Pisa: the cathedral was stunning. Just stunning. We all remarked that it was one of our favorite so far in Italy---an unexpected surprise.

In Pisa we also toured the Chagall museum (temporary exhibit). WOW. I want to go back and stare some more. I wish I could own one of the paintings, so it was permanently affixed in my abode and I could stare at length.

San Gimignano is famous for its towers. If I remember correctly there were near 100 and 17 remain intact (unusual for towers to retain their height; with all the fights and family feuds, towers were regularly lopped off). Because it is touristy, we dared not expect authenticity. But in fact, it was quaint and we were wowed by its streets (esp. San Matteo), markets and stores. The boys scored: Caleb found a store with gems where he purchased an amethyst gemstone, and Anthony bought a city tile (he is collecting hand-crafted small tiles from different cities). I bought a small ceramic pitcher and a 10 euro brown knitted hat from a market vendor, James bought wild boar and wine-cured salami---plus 2 bottles of Vernaccia white wine.

The Vernaccia wine is quintessential to San Gimignano; it was the very first wine in Italy to receive the DOCG quality stamp of approval. Stamps of approval, geography, grapes and processes are all very important in Italy. We went out of our way to taste Vernaccia, and bought 2 bottles of reserve... not to be opened until grandpa's birthday (Janelle's dad) in late January. (I wrote about Chiantis, DOC and DOCG labels on my other blog, talkoftomatoes).

We were running out of time (admittedly, it was hard to leave San Gimignano, as we were enjoying it immensely), but jetted to Volterra for a quick peek at the city and for dinner. It was dark upon our arrival. What you should know: Volterra is a hilltop city with amazing walls and stairs leading to the top. The stairs weave back and forth and incorporate a park---which was closed this time of night. We mean to return to better see the city, enjoy the park and visit their Etruscan museum---we had a great first impression of Volterra.

Volterra is seemingly synonymous with Alabaster (every other store sold carved and molded stone and gems). Who knew? We walked the streets long enough to find a place to eat, and were fortunate enough to find: Da Pina. We found this adorable restaurant by walking through a store and down into a wine cellar---full of cozy tables and barrel-made bookcases. I couldn't resist having my family experience tartufo: central and northern Italy's infamous white truffle, available just during the fall and championed at many a festival... We enjoyed tartufo salami, tartufo pork, tartufo honey and bacon fat smeared on bruschetta... tartufo pecorino... it was unforgettable. Our main entrees included pasta (James), wild boar (Janelle), meat in wine sauce (Caleb) and gnocchi (Anthony).

I have a hunch we will eat there again someday.


frolicking fridays, round 6

This past Friday was the beginning of a long, full weekend. The boys had Monday and Tuesday off (Dec 7 & 8), so we made plans to travel and rest. Friday James and I tackled a bit more of Florence, Saturday we buzzed to Pisa, Sunday we landed in San Gimingano and Volterra, so Monday and Tuesday we aimed for days lazing about our home (with regular visits to our nearby piazza, now filled with Christmas vendors).

Though we are all big fans of seeing as much of Italy as possible, we are also strangely possessive of our 'free time' at home. Down time is in high demand. No doubt much of it has to do with all that we absorb on a daily basis---Anthony and Caleb especially (e.g. Italian immersion at school).

Friday James and I had grandiose plans to visit Santa Maria Novella, a church full of famous paintings and artifacts---a must see when you visit Florence. Upon arrival, we found the church closed (closed every Friday, actually). Luckily, there is much to do, see, discover and explore in Florence. We pushed off to yet another church on our short list: Ognissanti (home church to Amerigo Vespucci, burial to Boticelli and canvas to frescoes by Ghirlandaio). Again our plans were foiled... it is also closed on Fridays. Naively hopeful, we swung by to peak at some of Ghirlandaio's frescoes in Santa Trinita---also closed.

Three strikes, but far from out. While skipping from church to church like frogs on a series of lily pads, we found a few 'flowers.' First was an outlet clothing store on Santa Maria Novella's piazza. No, we didn't buy anything, but it was fun to browse and mentally bookmark a store for future indulgences. We walked through Palazzo Strozzi, learning more about this formidable family. Inside the Palazza ticket office, there was a little room with a model of the original palazza and background information and inspiration re: the Strozzi family (free!).

Other Friday highlights included a visit to Dante's house---a museum that we had walked by what feels like a hundred times. This time, we finally went in (James is actually reading Dante's Divine Comedy). Truth be told, we wouldn't recommend it. If you are a Dante aficionado and/or family-line history buff, perhaps. But otherwise I would skip it, mostly because there are so many impressive museums and artifacts and sites in Florence that would be a better use of your time.

We peeked into a few stores, hid under our umbrellas and found a quaint little spot for lunch: Enoteca Coquinarius (Via delle OChe, 15r). We took our time. The kind of time chatting and vino-drinking and food-sampling that leads to losing track of time. It was packed, and cozy and we tried braseola and ravioli and dense chocolate cake. Perfectly memorable.

On our way home, James popped into the Paperback Exchange (to buy some books), and I swung by the grocer. The latter wouldn't be so interesting, except I came home with some red wine glasses and a Christmas table cloth. Add a few well appointed candles... and our home is now humming of the holidays.


Bologna: Lights, Porticoes, Food, and Towers.

This last weekend (November 28-29) our family visited Bologna. The main reason we made this trip is because Monday was a national Tuscan holiday, and we did not have school. So our family scheduled a trip to Bologna. We ended up leaving just after my soccer game, where we hopped into a rental car and took the "shortest route" to Bologna. First of all, we did not take the train due to my game timing and train timing to Bologna---we would of had to wait 4 or so hours after my game, so instead we went by car. Second of all, I put shortest route in parenthesis, as this on our GPS meant avoiding toll roads, as in no freeway. So we took a ride in the country, found a WWII memorial, with foxholes---along with a bomb hole or two---and a small hill Santa Lucia, with Mary and Jesus on the crest (which we decided to walk up to). Along with some amazing views, we all enjoyed our trip to Bologna. When we got to Bologna we checked in to our hotel, dropped off our bags and walked downtown.

Now for the first thing on my list: Lights. We left Florence at midday, took the long way around, arrived in Bologna at night---and enjoyed the Christmas lights throughout the city (similar to Florence it has a new style of lights in every street). Almost immediately we were stunned by the curtains, arches, and globes of lights, which spanned across each road. We walked around and shopped at the expansive shops. Bologna is not a really touristy city like Florence, but seems more business oriented, between good food, and actually a lot of clothes.

Second item: Porticoes. The city is known for these, and even though it was rainy while we were in Bologna... we didn't really care. We were always under cover, because every sidewalk had a portico (see picture). Other than the little back roads, every single sidewalk in the city central seemed to have porticoes. It may sound overly costly, and takes forever to put up, but the funny thing is that, this city has been a large city for hundreds and hundreds of years. So the people running it today have not paid for porticoes to be built, they only pay for maintenance. They were amazing, and for me added an entire new level to the city.

Now for the third thing: Food. For the night that we were in Bologna, "The City of the Fat", we went out to a restaurant called "Antica Osteria Romagnola" (ranked number 3 of 147 in Bologna on Trip Adviser) it was amazing. I ordered a delicious Parmesan tortellini for my first course, then a reduced wine sauce pork chop for my second, and a finish of a delicious chocolate mousse, which was great. For me, you can't for wrong with mousse. Overall for me a 5 of 5, absolutely delicious... I might as well have rolled home. The restaurant had a really great atmosphere, and the staff were really nice. Other than that meal, the other food in Bologna looked appetizing, and as it is not a touristy city, the food was not gross, overpriced, and greasy. The sandwiches were a competition, and you could go to many delis and find a good sandwich for lunch.

And then number four: Towers. When you say leaning towers, what do you think? Well Pisa of course, but then you realize towers, Pisa is only famous for the leaning tower of Pisa. Well, Bologna has two large towers that also lean. The taller tower is 8 feet off center and the shorter tower is 12 feet off center. The shorter one actually had its top lopped off so that it would remain standing (48, and 97.2 meters). Anyway, we climbed the taller tower (498 steps) and were constantly foiled by landings that looked like the top, but in reality you still had to keep climbing. Caleb and I made good use of our soccer fitness. After the climb we reached the top, where we enjoyed a stunning view of Bologna. We saw the roads reach out from the towers, to where the ring wall used to stand.

We also saw the church of Bologna; it was huge, and was going to be larger than Saint Peters in Rome but the pope vetoed this notion. Although we have not seen Saint Peters yet, we were awstruck by the ornate church, in all its godly grandeur. Overall for me Bologna: 10 of 10. We hope to return later this year with grandparents, and it is definitely a great place for families to visit. One possible bummer is that we did not see a single ceramic shop, and we often like to browse in these shops---my parents for table ware, me for a tile of the city.


frolicking fridays, round 5

Thank god I write this down. We adore Fridays, but 2 days later are asking ourselves: what did we do again? Don't you hate that? When someone asks what you did over the weekend, and it takes serious concentration for you to revisit the pleasures of down time achieved in the past few days... though you know it was good.

So here we log our frolics. (And already I am beyond the 2 day limit of remembering: wish me luck!).

Friday is the day James and I shove off, venture out and experience Florence (with license to branch out beyond Florence... just not yet). This Friday was a tiny unique, as we have a penchant for standing in lines and thought we might add that onto our Friday 'fun' list.... right. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and we spent the entire day in line at the police station/immigration office. All four of us, waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

And around 4pm we received signature on our permits to reside in Italy. Which really was much to be grateful for (and the reason we took a 3 week segue to the states). And the footnote is: we have receipts, but need to go back again in one month to pick up actual cards. We have stood in so many lines, it was a case of taking it in stride.

Then Friday morning James and I---receipt in hand---went to pick up another official card (you need two, they are distinct yet related... one is permission, one is residence). We took a number, sat in line and waited a mere hour... at which point we set up our appointment to return the following week. So it goes with red tape.

It didn't take much from our day, and we wouldn't have spent the extra time out of our 'day of touring' to stand in another line BUT we are excited about obtaining requisite cards because it gives us license to explore more of Italy. And by license, I mean, literally license. If we are official residents, we qualify for car-sharing, which means for a small fee we can participate in renting a car to go explore cities for a few hours or all day (less expense and hassle than renting a car).

Lines aside, Friday we managed to visit: the Buonarotti house (Michelangelo plus family line), the Medici Chapel (see dome photo) and Laurentian Library (top photo), and a lovely little cafe---Mangiafoco Caffe---to enjoy wine and a pile of cheeses, salami and prosciutto (plus truffle honey and reduce chianti glaze...). Although I love absorbing the rich tiles on the floor of the library, there is something about closing your eyes to truffle honey and the lingering notes of Chianti that cements memories in my brain...

Anyway, the Medici Chapel (including a room with works by Michelangelo) is on the backside of the famous San Lorenzo Church (the church has an unfinished facade---a sort of tribute to Michelangelo, who had grandiose plans for the front of Lorenzo the Magnificent's church). There are basically 3 different entrances around this large church complex (with separate entrance fees): 1. the church and old sacristy, 2. the Library (which includes a famous staircase designed by Michelangelo), and 3. the domed Medici Chapel (includes sacristy and Chapel of Princes with 'mini-me' dome similar to that of the Duomo).


Nov weekend: long meals, soccer, friends' party and Montepulciano

Last weekend was a very full weekend, one that left us a little too tired come Monday morning... but in a good way.

Thursday was Caleb's birthday, which we celebrated by giving him little gifts during the day, special cookies and dessert, steak dinner, balloons for balloon fights and a new guitar. He is 13. Am I really old enough to have adolescents? Yikes---time flies. Which is why we are here, in Florence, to soak each other up before time gets away from us.

Saturday night Anthony went to a birthday party, at the home of a classmate some 30 minutes from Florence. James drove him there, and memories include long conversations for James in Italian, dancing and itunes for Anthony and fabulous hosts who sent them home with wine and olive oil. Caleb and I stayed home, set up our Christmas tree with lights, relaxed and watched a movie.

James and Anthony were in bed just shy of midnight and up again just after 6am. (Somewhere in here, we need to appreciate James riding a bike back and forth around town to rent a car. And I really do mean 'around' since you cannot drive a car in the city without a special residential permit... if you do, months later you will find unkindly tickets in your mailbox---compliments of the electronic police cams). James dropped Anthony off at an early bus, so he could ride with his team to a game in Montepulciano.

Caleb, James and I drove to Montepulciano for Anthony's game, then went out to lunch with the team. It was a classic Sunday dinner, where you sit and receive course after course until you are absolutely bursting. We did not anticipate this long meal and bursting stomachs... I felt like I had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner. No the Italians don't eat like this every day, but sometimes they do on Sundays. And we ate and ate and ate; I reached for my TUMS as soon as I hit the car.

Wine and water (coke for the kids) were the beverages; the meal started with bread and oil, then rounds of bruschetta: 5-6 different varieties served with a token slice of salami or prosciutto. I thought: this is nice, some bruschetta (tomato, white bean, artichoke, olives, another pate-like paste), sliced meat and wine. Perfect for lunch. Because that would have been just about the right amount for one or our midday meals. How wrong I was---and how I would have paced myself: bruschetta was followed by pici (pasta well-known in this region) with meat sauce, then ricotta and spinach stuffed ravioli with mushrooms, roasted chicken, sliced pork, potatoes, fries, salad... and espresso and tiramisu. And people finished whatever was on their plates. Halfway through I noticed whatever people took on their plate, they finished. So I began declining full portions by the end: too little too late. Wowza, Thanksgiving came early this year.

Aren't you full just hearing about it?

After the long lunch, we departed to take quick peeks at Montepulciano (a brisk walk around the city, inside the cathedral and a perfunctory purchase of 2 bottles of wine). We snapped some twilight pictures and promised ourselves we would return. We took [typical] narrow, curvy roads to Pienza, just 10k away. A tiny little town, with narrow stone paths, piles of stores offering tastes of Pecorino, a humble church and a restaurant recommendation (for next time: Bucca della Fate). It was late, so we bought some cheese, salami and bread and hopped in our car to go home (we were still far from hungry!).

Today really is Thanksgiving. Although celebrating with just our family of four, our table will be appropriately bursting with turkey, potatoes and gravy, rolls and apple pie. I will make a little stuffing and roasted brussel sprouts... and because we are in Italy, I am adding: squash risotto, wine from Montepulciano and fennel into my stuffing. We will no doubt, be bursting. And not just with food---but with thanksgiving. We feel so fortunate to have this opportunity abroad, to have all this time together, and to be filling our minds and hearts with countless memories.


frolicking fridays, round 4

For our Friday frolics (Nov 20), James and I took advantage of the late autumn sun and toured outdoor gardens. We were actually aiming for a late morning visit to Piazzale Michelangelo (the one up on the hill, that looks back at the city); but we changed plans. We were walking up a long stone-paved road toward Forte di Belvedere (which we later discovered was closed), when we saw an impressive entrance to what turned out to be Giardino Bardini. I was tickled, because every morning James and I take a short get-our-coffee and chat-a-bit walk---and peek across the Arno toward a beautifully terraced garden... and I had always wanted to take a closer look.

Friday turned out to be my lucky day. Not only was it sunny, but the ticket fare for the Giardino Bardini included entrance to the more-famous Giardino di Boboli (yes, we went there in late summer with Anthony and Caleb; this time we entered from a completely different angle and saw even more, including the Porcelain Museum and Rose Garden). The ticket fee (7 euros) also include entrance to 2 of the [less famous] exhibits inside Palazzo Pitti: the Galleria del Costume and Museo degli Argenti. In other words, fancy dress and expensive artifacts.

That was enough for one day. But we will return to Palazzo Pitti to see The Royal Apartments and famous works from the likes of Raphael, Pissaro, Boticelli, Titian and many more (these paintings and more are in Pitti's Palatine Gallery 16c-18c and Galleria d'Arte Moderna, 18c - 20c). But we were worn out from all the touring. I had heard that Pitti is a good place to visit, over the course of 2 days. I feel the same way about the Uffizi Gallery---there is so much to absorb.

We landed---hungrily---at a casual yet lively trattoria near Ponte alla Carraia (2 bridges west of the Ponte Vecchio). Cannot remember the name. Had a boring salad, the service was bleh, the prices good and the wine pours tiny... redemption came with the roasted chicken and rosemary potatoes (yum). We would go again, despite the apparent low marks (cannot remember the name of the restaurant, but note photo).

Until next Friday...


Top 5 Memories from October

It is often said that the best experiences in life are often unplanned – such was the case for us during the month of October. While the month of September was the month when we settled into our Florentine lives, October was the month of an unexpected diversion to the United States for THREE WEEKS. As a result, we were only in Italy for one week during October.

It is a long story, but essentially we had to return to the United States to secure a long-term stay visa (in person from the Italian Consulate). Although other families we had spoke with stayed in Europe indefinitely on a travel visa (traveling between countries) – that loophole was closed by Italy in late July 2009 (while we were cycling across France). As a result, notwithstanding the appeal by our Immigration Attorney in Florence, our request to stay on a travel visa was denied at the end of September. Bummer! (Expensive) Lesson learned: never rely on loopholes. Ugh!

Although we could have legally stayed another 45 days in Italy, we elected to return immediately to the United States to minimize impacts on our kids’ school and soccer. You could read more about our crazy trip in Janelle’s prior post: Segue to the States.

Here are my Top 5 Memories from the unplanned events in October 2009:

5. Swimming with Cousins in Vancouver, British Columbia. During our stay, we made a brief day trip to visit family in Vancouver, BC, where we “soaked” up good conversation, food and the local community pool. Our family has a special affinity for swimming pools; but they are doubly fun when they include cousins, water slides, rope swings and lazy rivers. We made the most of our time at the pool, including plenty of “whoo-hooing” down water slides, flips by everyone off the diving platform (including my lame attempt), and the token game of tag in the pool. A fantastic outlet for energetic kids and fathers who like to think they can keep up.

4. Playing Guitars with Cousins in Yakima, Washington. Notwithstanding several years of lessons on the saxophone and viola, our adolescent boys are developing their own appreciation for music and instruments. During our stay with family in Yakima, our boys’ curiosity was peaked by their cousin when she showed up at dinner with her acoustic guitar. After a year of teaching herself via YouTube! she has developed into a good guitar player (her father, my brother Mark, is also a fantastic guitar player). Needless to say, our boys were entranced as their cousin belted out classic tunes from Boston, Kansas and U2. Awesome! No surprise that one of our boys, Caleb, is now playing the guitar in Florence, Italy (a recent birthday gift).

3. Breaking Ice with Canoes in Montana (to help the Minks!). Montana should be re-named the state of “Adventure” – since it never seems to end. We had never spent anytime at the family cabin during the month of October; this year was our first experience. In stark contrast to sunny summers and snowy winters, October offered gorgeous fall colors (as the larch trees turned golden), relatively warm, partially sunny days and freezing cold nights (that resulted in ice on the lake each morning). We elected to pull out a canoe from summer storage and provided the boys with countless hours of entertainment to “break ice” on the lake. Given that the ice was about 1-2” thick, it took some effort. However, they boys were inspired to carve a path for the resident minks that wanted to travel from a nearby gurgling creek to a swim dock on the lake. It was fantastic!

2. Receiving our Long-Term-Stay Visas back from the Italian Consulate. We were told it would be 2-3 weeks before our visa applications would be issued by the Italian Consulate (hence we planned worst case, and bought airline tickets providing a 3-week layover in the United States). To our amazement, the Italian Consulate turned it around in record time: only 3 days. It was welcome news, since all of my anxiety about any visa hiccups vanished in an instant, and I could simply enjoy the remainder of our time in the United States.

1. Spending time with Extended Family. The most enjoyable aspect of our trip, by far, was spending time with extended family. We both come from big families, with lots of nieces and nephews. Naturally, everyone is busy with work, school, sports and other extra-curricular activities. Nonetheless, we managed to see everyone in Washington, Oregon and Vancouver during this brief stay (with the exception of one nephew, and my sister’s family on the East Coast). It was amazing to see how much everyone had grown and changed in just 6 months since we originally departed for Europe back in May. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time catching up, laughing and playing. Time flies. Fortunately the memories live on (provided they get written down to jog my memory later!).

Other Top 5 memory runner-ups, and strong candidates for a story-telling of their own, include: running in the Rome airport to get receipts stamped for a VAT tax refund before departure, having our jet engine “catch-on-fire” during take-off from London after a 3-hour repair (fortunately, the flight was aborted, and 11 hours later we took off on a different plane that did not require repair), eating American thick-cut bacon, driving over Chinook Pass, Washington on a clear fall day (while my kids sang along to the Juno Soundtrack), playing cards, dominoes and carpet ball, picking apples, submitting paperwork in person to the Italian Consular representative in Portland, Oregon, playing in Portland fountains, painting my brother-in-law’s house, cutting, stacking and burning wood in Montana, and (without a doubt) Janelle’s puking and fainting episode somewhere over the Atlantic on our return flight back to Europe!

Life is a mixed bag. We’re all thankful to be back in Italy (on the ground), healthy and immersed in our Florentine lives. While unexpected adventures are often memorable, routine is a welcome comfort too (wherever “home” may be).


La Passegiata and Cinghiale Bianco (White Boar)

One of the most fashionable times to be out in Italy is early evening, between 500p - 800p. While we reserve this time in the US for dinner, the Italians reserve this time for la passegiata (the walk). Of course, dinner follows after you have worked up an appetite, perhaps ran into friends, and settled into a cozy neighborhood trattoria for a lengthy meal (700p - 1000p).

Last night we enjoyed "the walk" down Via del Corso before landing in Piazza Republicca. The street was packed with families, couples and teens (ragazzi) enjoying the shopping, the flair (Christmas lights strung across the streets), the air (roasting chestnuts), and people watching. Of course, everyone was decked out in fashionable clothing (including babies too!) - it was quite a scene.

Upon landing in Piazza Repubblica we were unexpectedly greeted by an Artiginal Festa d' Agricola (Artisan Festival of Agriculture) - which means local farms bringing out fresh, organic cheeses, wines, salami, honeys and, of course, just pressed olive oils. To everyone on the street - this also means free, tasty morsels of food and drink. We made our rounds through the festival, under the stars and amidst all the Italians, sampling and enjoying the local fare.

All the samples and smells from the festival jump-started our appetites, so we made our way to the restaurant we had selected during our walk on Friday in the Oltr' Arno - Cinghiale Bianco (the White Boar). From, Piazza Repubblica, we walked down Via Santa Maria, over Ponte Vecchio (stopping to enjoy to nighttime view on the bridge and gawk at all the jewelry) and then down Borgo San Giacopo. Cinghiale Bianco is a prototypical Italian trattoria with traditional Tuscan furnishings and ambiance on a tucked away neighborhood street. The owners greeted us warmly and seated us immediately.

Naturally, dinner started with a bottle of wine (a Ruffino Chianti Classico - Sante Dame), complemented by bread and freshly pressed olive oil. At our request, the owners did not hesitate to bring out additional wine glasses for our teenage boys (who should, of course, sample good wine too - this is Italy!). For our meal, we opted for house specialities: Vitello Ossobuco (veal shank), Bacalla alla Livornese (cod fish baked in tomato sauce with white beans), Tagliatelle Cinghiale (pasta with wild boar sauce), and Entrecote (beef steak in chianti wine sauce). The food was excellent, the wine a perfect complement, and the venue and warm service made it a memorable experience.

Following dinner, we walked home slowly, soaking up the sights and sounds of Italy. We were thinking about gelato, but the boys opted for fresh waffles with Nutella, which they enjoyed en route back to our apartment. Perfect!

Altogether, the evening was splendid. Most importantly, I enjoyed the slow pace, conversations and opportunity to enjoy time together as a family in this magical city - Florence.


frolicking fridays, round 3

Ciao! I like the name frolicking Fridays, even a bit more than fabulous Fridays. There is no guarantee of fabulism when one is frolicking. Frolicking is a state if being, of pursuing novelty and adventure---for better or for worse. Fabulous may or may not happen... but it is worth the search!

This Friday, James and I took the day off. We are now trying to be tourists on Fridays---while the kids have long school days. (Mon and Fri they have school until almost 4pm; Tue/Wed/Thurs school only goes until 1pm).

We reserved a tour for this past Friday: the Secret Passages of Palazzo Vecchio. The Palazzo Vecchio is a building adjacent to the Uffizzi Gallery, and is also known as the Palazzo Signoria. This was a tour worth attending; it was about 1 1/2 hours and our tour guide was wonderfully knowledgeable and engaging. You can buy tickets right online, or pick them up inside the Palazzo at the ticket office (biglietti ufficio---which is where you meet to begin the tour).

We walked secret passages in the Palazzo, and saw rooms hidden from the public's eye. The most notable was Francesco Medici's studiolo. It is shaped like a treasure chest, with paintings all over the walls and ceilings. The paintings had specific themes; there were 30 paintings in the room, commissioned by Vasari. Many of the paintings were actually fronts for cupboards or passage-ways.

James and I also tucked into Palazzo Davanzati, a museum of a renovated medieval aristocratic palazzo. They offered guided tours only (in this case: yawn). It was interesting for about 10 minutes, but the tour was over an hour long. We wouldn't recommend it.

We walked about town. We started our day with coffee at Les Amis---a quaint coffee shop on Porta Rossa. We found a great little food shop, full of hand-selected wines and frequented by non-tourists. Also, a good friend of mine was in Florence a year prior to us, and has been sending me lots of little tips of shops and cafes to check out. So we did:

1. Print shop (etchings) called L'Ippogrifo on Santo Spirito. She loved the lobsters (saw them!) and I fell in love with some of the fish prints---and one of Pinocchio. I actually bought a similarly fashioned print weeks ago at an outdoor market. (Picture of me in front of shop).

2. Hotel Lungarno. It is a hotel with multiple venues. She loved the bar on the oltrarno side (cozy white couches); we liked the bar on the florentine side. Hers has a better view, especially for a rainy day. Ours is outdoor and swank---perfect for a sunny day.

3. S.A.D.A. jewelry shop on the Ponte Vecchio; we saw it but I didn't find the exact rings she had found (sorry K!). It is fun to stroll across the bridge, to peak at all the jewelers. Fun fact: the bridge used to have butchers and leather tanners, but the smell was offensive to regular passerbys so at one point they were pushed out and replaced by jewelers.

When checking out the Hotel Lungarno (oltrarno side), we opted to grab wine and olives at the trattoria next door named L' Ristoro (via San Jacopo 48r). I recommend it for lunch or grazing: you very nearly feel like you are in someone's home---in a relaxed cozy atmosphere. It is super casual but the food is just what you would hope to find: wine by glass or liter, with olives, sliced meats and cheeses---or a little lasagna, salad and piled bread if you are hungrier. Share, chill, visit. We did, and it was great.


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