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.


Orvieto, Italy

Day trip. Nov 07, 2009.

What we loved:
  • the views. Hands down, the views were breathtaking, and around every turn. Whether looking beyond the city gates---from a castle's precipice---or peering up all the little streets, our eyes were brimming over.
  • the church. Easily one of our favorites, the decor and stature were impressive. If a church can be 'easy on the eyes,' this one certainly was.
  • finding food. We had an early train and it was all we could do to find food before we left town. Cafes are generally open from 12:30 -2:00 for lunch and don't open gain until 7:00 or even 8:00 for dinner. We found a restaurant that let us sit at 6:30 (darn tourists) and the service and food were both delightful. Look for Trattoria "La Palma" on Corso Cavour (apparently they have an in town B&B as well).
What we did:
  • Saint Patrick's well. We descended the well, some 248 steps down... and back up.
  • visited the Duomo.
  • combed the city for places to eat dinner; picked out a hidden gem for our next visit.
  • walked through Porta Rocca (a park with walks along the city walls).
What we learned:
  • if the city is over an hour away, stay overnight. Though we had good intentions of seeing everything in a full day, it would have been better split into two. And most importantly, restaurants don't open their doors until after 7pm at night. We were hard-pressed to find a restaurant to feed us prior to our 8pm train departure.
  • Orvieto has a lot of beautiful Italian porcelain.
  • you can pretty much walk the city in a day.
  • the city is populated with more Italians than tourists.
  • the streets were full for la passegiata---everyone walked about and all the shops (not restaurants) are open from 5ish to 8ish. People chatted, window-shopped and kids bummed around with their friends.
  • while we walked up to the city in the morning (gorgeous foot path), we took the tram back down at night. It was so easy, and only 1 euro each.
What we bought:
  • slingshots. When you think: touring an Etruscan city in Umbria, isn't that the souvenir that comes to mind? Me neither. It was absolutely random, but perfect at the same time. We bought two for the boys, and Caleb is already mapping plans to buy more for his cousins---when we return to Orvieto.
  • did not buy the ceramic sangria pitcher. I saw a one I liked, but resisted. I am trying to be snobbish about what pitchers I buy. I don't want to buy very many---just a small handful or so. So far I bought one in Sienna.
  • Anthony bought a tile. He has some money left still, that he earned last fall and spring (before our trip), and is determined to buy items reminiscent of this trip. He played around with ideas, bought some models along the way (of London Bridge, Notre Dame, etc.) and has finally decided to collect artisan tiles from various cities (think 4-5 inch tiles that you hang on your wall, each specific to a city). The Orvieto tile is gorgeous; we envy his purchase.
What we ate:
  • for lunch we grabbed paninis (meh); the boys ate nutella on waffles and gelato for a treat.
  • snacks on the train: pistachios and olive oil crackers.
  • for dinner: chicken (Caleb), ricotta/spinach ravioli (Anthony), boar sauce on polenta (Janelle) and boar tagliatelle (James).
Next time:
  • stay overnight---to enjoy the evening life and meals.
  • buy more slingshots.
  • Janelle: might go back and buy a sangria pitcher I liked...
  • the caves. Visit the caves under the city; called the Orvieto Underground.
  • the tower. Climb the tower in the heart of the city.
For more pictures, see our familyfrolics Orvieto album on Facebook.


Top 5 Memories from September 2009

Okay, now the fun begins. Though we had just completed cycling across central Europe, little did we know how many new adventures awaited us in Italy. After searching intensely the last 2 weeks of August for our permanent residence, we finally moved into our new abode on September 1 (between Santa Croce and Palazzo Signoria), right in the heart of the city.

From our central location, we have access to everything that Florence and the surrounding cities can offer. Here are my Top 5 memories for the month of September 2009:

5. Touring the Bargello. This small museum is just around the corner from our apartment and a delightful gem in the city center. One of the things that our family enjoyed the most about this museum was the scale and scope of its displays. The Bargello offers a great mix of fantastic sculpture (Donatello and Michelangelo), ceramics (Della Robbia) and other ancient wares, which could be digested in about 2-3 hours.

4. Day trip to Fiesole. An ancient Etruscan hill town just above Florence, Fiesole is the perfect day trip (accessible by city bus from Piazza San Marco in Florence). We had a splendid time walking through its ancient Roman ruins (including a well preserved amphitheater and baths), traversing across stunning hilltop streets, and exploring its churches and monasteries. Fiesole offers respite from the Florence hustle (dodging tourists and scooters), and splendid vistas to soak up the sunshine and appreciate the magnificent Tuscan colors.

3. Touring the Uffizi Museum. Like the other great museums of Europe, the Uffizi is overwhelming – it holds too many fantastic treasures to appreciate in a single trip (particularly with adolescent boys). However, we set the right expectations for our family when we casually toured this museum in September, concentrating our focus on the evolution of art from medieval (10–12 c) to the early renaissance (13-14 c). Because we have been fortunate to tour many of Europe’s finest museums this past summer (Rijks, Van Gogh, Louvre, Orsay, and British), we were able to readily appreciate the development of art in this period: moving from flat, idealized pictures (2d) to those with depth (3d perspective), the movement of bodies and turning of torsos, and most importantly, art that evoked emotions (rather than idealized portraitures). The Uffizi also boasts a fantastic roof-top cafĂ© that offers the most splendid views of Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Signoria; albeit expensive, a couple of glasses of wine, sodas for our kids and a cheese plate was a perfect break mid-way through our tour. Don’t miss it!

2. First Day of School at Sacro Cuore. Our boys’ first day of school at Sacro Cuore is one of the most vivid memories from this fall. Not only does it represent our efforts to put down ‘roots’ in a Florentine community, but it is also the culmination of our dream to move abroad as a family. This beautiful school set in an olive grove on a hillside of Florence and run by 17 nuns, promises to offer our kids a unique cultural experience in Europe. Ultimately, we hope that Sacro Cuore will offer a different middle school experience to our boys (than what is prototypical in the US) – so far so good. At a minimum, we know their daily routine of cycling along the Arno, soaking up the Florentine cityscape and immersing themselves completely in the Italian education will open their minds.

1. Weekend Trip to Siena. By far one of the best memories in September was our weekend trip to Florence’s rival in Tuscany – Siena. The city has invested heavily over the centuries in its public spaces, infrastructure and churches. Siena is a classic Italian hill town, perched above the neighboring valleys, with fortified walls and gates, and picturesque streets that traverse across the ridges. The city is spotless, boasting well-maintained building, streets and no graffiti (unlike Florence). The pride of Siena’s neighborhoods culminate in the annual Palio race around the Campo, but is also evidenced year-round in the quarterieres by their respective artwork, flags, colors and street lamps. The Duomo is also quite impressive, both architecturally (a fine example of Arab-Norman influence) and artistically (amazing floorscapes throughout). The hotel where we stayed was also fabulous, Palazzo Mignanelli: located right in the center of Siena, just one block from the Campo with fabulous views of the campanile. We will definitely return for a longer stay.

In addition to the above memories in September, there were several runner-ups: settling into our Florentine Apartment, touring the Borghese gardens, routine soccer practices at Campo di Marte, touring Palazzo Vecchio, and the open tours of private Florence gardens (we walked all over the city).

One other collection of memories that stands out for me (personally) is the number of lines and bureaucratic agencies in Florence that I have stood in for countless hours. Since we are “Elective Residents” of Florence (versus short-term tourists), there is a mountain of paperwork to complete. We are still ‘in process’ so I will spare you the details. Once we are official, then I will detail my travails separately with Italian bureaucracy – believe me it is appalling.

Guess we have to take the good with the bad (yin-yang).


arts, crafts & games we

I actually wrote a post about the card games we played all summer---a good travel size game to fit into panniers while cycling Europe. Cards provided countless hours of fun and entertainment for our family.

But now we have landed in Florence, and have started to settle in. It seems to me that when you extract yourself from your life (in our case Seattle, WA), and plant yourself somewhere else (say Florence, Italy), you are armed with more down time. You have yet to ante up for volunteer at school, you don't know anyone so dinner dates and play dates are slow in coming. You don't attend as many meetings---because you aren't on committees. Carpools are gone (especially in our case, since we have no car); so is administering them. The boys now bike to and from school---and to and from soccer practice.

Beyond soccer, school and homework, the boys have some solid time off. Granted, we take them to tour museums, walk the bridges and visit outlying cities, but during the week when homework is done, they have some idle time. Time for their minds to linger and their creativity to be summoned.

It has been sheer joy to watch the boys organically come up with games. By virtue of the fact that they are tired of cards? Perhaps because we don't really have much in the way of gadgets or games (though Caleb bought an Italian glass chess set for Anthony's birthday---very cool).

There are many street vendors here in Italy, usually with paintings or jewelry, a pile of sunglasses or mechanical cars. Every so often we see a gentleman making birds from reeds or bicycles from wire. The latter has served to provide countless hours of inspiration and ideas for the boys. We bought wire and pliers, and the boys formed bicycles. They cut up soda cans and added them for adornment. This recently morphed into wires and cans and wooden marbles and a rule-infused shooting/hockey type game. (Note: cans are either Coke, Sprite or Fanta. They are the tall skinny cans; these are the common soda options here---that or iced tea). The wooden marbles came from Sienna, each painted according to the neighborhood. Very cool souvenir.

Besides wire models and made-up games, [on our visit to Orvieto] we found hanging inside a pottery shop, a small pile of sling shots---easily our favorite purchase from Orvieto. They work well, and small white erasers (cut in two) make perfect 'bullets.' A few cardboard circles on the wall for targets, markers on the ground for distance... and the entryway for our apartment finally serves a function.

Then there are the army men. At the Euro store there are cheapish, plastic toys. One of these little bags hanging on the wall, is a mixed bag of red and green army men. We bought four (cheap entertainment: that is about $5). They have scaled books, formed ranks, strategized attacks and bombed troops (with a functioning catapult pencil sharpener/key chain---yes, really. Caleb bought two at a souvenir shop at the Tower of London).

Beyond the antics of new games and wire art, the boys also spend some of their spare time painting, sketching, walking to get gelato and scouring souvenir shops... for the next inspiration.


fabulous fridays, round 2.

A few things: there is no round 1 so don't bother look for it. Also, I considered titling this post 'Florentine Fridays' but am not sure the location of each given Friday will be, in fact, in Florence.

What are fabulous Fridays? Well, now that James and I are less likely to be standing in a line or sitting in a chair holding a number, or scooting to the third recommended building in a row---we figure we better get down to the business of soaking up Florence [and its nearby towns].

It is a priority to see as many paintings, famous statues, museums, churches, bridges, etc. as we possibly can. We have tours to take, markets to visit, sites to see. And because we need to spend a hunk of our time massaging our remotely managed writing/consulting/legal careers, we have appointed Friday as our official day to tour. Think of it as a self-imposed 4 day work week---and consequently a self-designed 3 day weekend.

Round 1 of 'fabulous fridays' was over a week ago, and included our serendipitous tour and lunch at Verrazzano winery in Greve (Greve is south of Florence by about half an hour). We were invited there after attending a field trip for Anthony's class (for a Q&A with the town mayor). It was amazing, the colors of Tuscany were brimming, the day sunny and the wine and company warm to the soul.

Round 2, then, was just this past Friday: our first official Friday in Florence. The boys have a long day at school that day (Caleb come home around 4pm, Anthony leaves school early and fits in soccer, which puts him home at around 6pm).

So we plan our tours, take a long lunch and do what we mean to do this year abroad: soak it up.

This last Friday we visited the Duomo floor (we saved the climb to the top with all its terraces for another time when we tour with the grandparents and boys). We also visited the Duomo Museum, a beautiful museum with original [Duomo] works including Michelangelo's Florentine Pieta (he did 3 Pieta's in his life, the most famous of which is in Rome), extensive works by Luca and Andrea della Robbia, models and drawings by Brunelleschi and bronze and marble sculptures and reliefs by Donatello.

I recommend a visit, if you come to Florence. The artists and sculptures represented in this well-appointed museum are worth the euros. It is also where you purchase tickets to climb the stairs to the top of the dome and campanile (in case you wanted to know).

We were tuckered out from absorbing great art, and took a 2-block leave to a rooftop cafe. In a previous post, I told you to visit this cafe. It is on top of a Rinascente department store. You access the store in the Piazza Repubblica. Go all the way to the top floor (home section: linens and dishes), walk through all the seasonal paraphernalia toward the registers, and there you will see nondescript stairs that lead to the cafe. Once in the cafe, look again for stairs leading up. Aha: you found the roof and views of the Duomo, Piazza Repubblica, the hills across the Arno and more. We bought just a pastry and espressos, since the views are figured into the price, but it was worth it.

(Okay, we actually went to the museum first, then coffee on the roof, then back to the Duomo floor). After our visit to the Duomo it was time for lunch; we picked a wine bar called Frescobaldi, a name not uncommon to this region. Frescobaldi is a large stretch of land through Tuscany, including 9 properties and countless wines; if you type it into Google, the listings are piled high with reviews from wine magazines and options to purchase their wine online. They have done well for themselves and with good reason.

I ordered rabbit, that had been seared then braised; James ordered pasta with boar sauce (I made this at home last week, so we consider this research for future homemade boar sauce). They were both lovely, as was the company.

Next Friday? We haven't firmed up plans, but have a scheduled tour of Vasari's corridor---the 'secret' passage above the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge---used by the Medici's for safe, unadulterated passage. Oh, and stay tuned for our road trip on Wednesday (Mercoledi); James and I plan a day of driving and touring since I have an interview for a writing job in Castellina in Chianti (a town about an hour south of Florence). Better hit some wineries along the way, don't you think? Before or after the interview? Hopefully not in lieu of it...


random details of this past week.

I have been meaning to write. It amazes me how time whizzes by, and it makes me cringe to think of all the details and memories that I fail to capture. Granted, life cannot be one big archive of each puny little event, BUT when you want to remember special walks with your kids or a serendipitously discovered market or romping in the rain... well, it might be nice to reflect on it some day in the future.

For the last week, James has been a bit sick. And even Caleb has had a head cold. Which means James and I didn't go out on our usual morning routine 'walk, chapel & macchiato.' We have been more home bound, which if you like your home really isn't a bad thing.

From our last week, this is what pops into my mind:
  • Buying new drinking glasses for our kitchen (I adore kitchen ceramics and tools and accouterments... so yes this made me happy), from COIN a very nice department store downtown Florence.
  • Many trips to the grocers and euro store (daily trips in fact, since my means of transportation is my feet and my means of carrying is my two arms). We love the Euro store, it is full of all sorts of things that you need to buy anyway: snacks, paper towels, pencils, detergent and clothespins... the other day I bought a wooden rolling pin for a euro!
  • Oh: stopping by the butcher. There is a great butcher one long block from us, and James and I stopped there to buy chicken and veal and a package of amazing looking herbs.
  • An interview. I had an interview with a travel company here (actually 3 in 1), where I would be in charge of a lot of content (online and off). My day today was a rewrite of a brochure, my means to giving a sample of my work. Jury is still out.
  • Making focaccia. I have made focaccia 4 times this week. It is one of my goals to get really good at making focaccia, pasta, pizza dough and polenta (I am already adept at making risotto, otherwise that would be on the list too). All in good time.
  • Cycling in the torrential rain. Oh man: James normally takes on these tasks because he is a lovely man---but he was sick so I took one for the team. On Mondays, the boys have to go from school directly to soccer practice. Since our only mode of transportation is a bike, this particular event is logistic heavy. Monday morning we pack them up with 1. their backpacks for school (super heavy by the way), and 2. their soccer bags (plus all belongings as they shower at the club). One of those bags goes on their back, the other in a pannier. When they leave school at the end of the day, they put on just their soccer backpacks and leave their school bags at school. Then a token parent cycles to school, pops the 2 [backpack filled] panniers on their bike and cycle home. This dispatch in particular was sopping wet... to a degree of hilarity.
  • Laundry: I do it every day, and since it is getting colder my drying options (no dryer, quite typical) have moved from an outside line to all of our indoor radiators. Clothes are stretched over radiators in every room of our home---now a part of our daily landscape.
  • Standing in bureaucratic lines. Yep, still some of that going on. But moving in the right direction!
  • Last Friday was phenomenal: we went with Anthony's class on a field trip to Greve in Chianti where they met the mayor. Then James and I were fortunate to be treated to a tour and lunch at Verrazzano, an incredible winery and vineyard nearby. Easily one of our favorite memories so far; the hospitality was humbling, the boar prosciutto and Vin Santo memorable and the grounds in autumn were downright poetic. (the estate is the original home of Giovanni da Verrazzano, an early explorer of America's east coast, including New York).
  • Saturday market at Santa Croce. A lovely walk with James on Saturday morning. We like to peak into the varying piazzas, to see what markets have appeared. Often we find artisan markets, full of cheese and meat, wines and some art. One time a few weeks back I found an artists market, full of everything from soap to baskets and wine to ceramics, jewelry, wood toys and paintings. I actually bought one print of Pinocchio. This week's market was smallish, but heavenly: just pressed olive oil. We walked around and tried a few, ultimately falling in love with one vendor's 'home brew.' (I went back the next day and bought another large bottle: I may never see them again!?!?). We also bought green olive tapenade, salami, wine and cipollini jam.
  • Sunday walks. On Sunday James was still recovering, so I took a turn going on a walk with each of my sons. Caleb and I walked north of our apartment, exploring artistic shops with modern clocks and gadgets, and peered into windows; we landed at the Euro store (this is the second time Caleb and I emptied our coin container at the house and went to the Euro store... a fun emerging tradition). He bought army men and I bought paper towels and milk.
Anthony and I walked all over the Oltrarno. The south side of the Arno, over the Ponte Vecchio bridge. On the bridge, which is full of gold smiths, we peered into windows and looked at crucifixes, walked almost to the Porto Romano and peered at the outside of Santo Spirito. He enjoyed his Belgian waffle from a street vendor (it had large chunks of sugar inserted in the dough). For us, that particular treat is reminiscent of Maastricht, Holland. Oh, and Anthony and I returned to the outdoor market to buy olive oil, Vin Santo (from Lucca) and saffron honey. It is so fun to sample!
  • Haircuts. Well we are on a budget and I am not too bad with a clippers and scissors... even though it is a bit daring with two junior high boys. They were super patient and gracious.
  • I feel like I am starting to focus on cooking again: a new chicken recipe, my first round of veal with lemon and capers, pasta with boar sauce, chicken cordon bleu and tonight Branzino baked in salt.
  • Paying homage to Talk of Tomatoes (right up there with 'my other car is a Porsche---my other blog is a food blog, and has been around much longer than family frolics); I had warned readers I would only have posts sporadically all summer, due to our cycling trip. I actually kept up pretty well, right up until August. So it was time to give it the attention it was due. I just put up a post on 'my italian kitchen' and one called 'sangria---and the pitchers they live in.' And I have a few more in the oven...
Okay, that covers the quick update of miscellaneous, random events from the past week. But still, enough to jog one's memory years down the line...


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