2.27.2010

Why it is WORTH living in Europe!

Many of you who have lived overseas could readily relate to my prior post - It is a PAIN to live in Europe! Trust me... However, I did get some rebuttals and a few friends questioning our decision to live in Italy and asking, "If it is such a pain, then why stay?" I am not going to gloss over the PAINs that we have experienced, but as I reiterated, much of it has been self-imposed.

I've learned that I should not set expectations but rather look to experience local culture. That simple adjustment makes a world of difference in terms of reducing frustrations (not necessarily eliminating them) . More importantly, when I find myself concentrating on the cultural experience, then I can better appreciate what this local culture values (versus what I am looking for). Additionally, it provides fabulous introspective opportunities to gauge the lessons learned.

Here's my Top Ten reason why IT IS worth living in Italy:

1. Pace/Rhythm. Italy is a Mediterranean country and naturally the pace of life is more laid back. For someone who consistently worked 50+ hours per week, putting the brakes on and adjusting to a slower pace of life was a welcome relief. More importantly, the Italian pace of walking, conversing and appreciating things made me more cognizant of the different rhythms of days, weeks and seasons. All of sudden, I was paying more attention to the light at different times of the day, the best weeks of November when new olive oil is harvested, and enjoying the subtle changes at vendors and streets for different holidays and events. In Italy the pace is imposed. It is not a personal choice, but rather a cultural shift - you must slow down. And, I've come to realize that is a good thing; life is not going anywhere. Non c'e fretta.

2. Artisan Food/Wine. Americans are consumed with quantities of calories, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, blah, blah, blah! We eat food that is shipped to us from all over the world, without any appreciation of seasonality (bananas in February?). The Italians are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Italians are consumed with the quality of good food and wine, which means local, artisanal foods and wines made by certain families for generations and only available in-season (when flavor is at its peak). Ironically, artisanal food and wine is local and organic - thereby more sustainable, supporting local producers, and reducing environmental impacts of shipping. And, it simply tastes extraordinary! Tomatoes ripened on the vine under the Tuscan sun, olives bursting until the point they are harvested in late Fall, and Chianti wines uncorked when they are 'ready' (NO preservatives either!). Seasonal variety necessitates natural diversity in our eating habits, while also inspiring and challenging the cook as well! (Note, I got lucky here - Janelle is a fantastic chef!)

3. People/Vitality. Being 2nd generation Italian, I am biased: the Italians live thier lives with vitality (I think this is true across Europe generally). Attend just one professional soccer match, calcio, anywhere in Europe (or at a pub) and you will see just how passionate and emotional Europeans can be about kicking a ball. Ask any Florentine their opinion about which Italian city makes the best Cinghiale Ragu and you will get multiple opinions. Our hometown, Seattle, is always politically correct (rule #1: do not offend anyone); Italy is at the opposite end of the spectrum (rule #1: express yourself).

4. Art/Design. Florence is known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. Many of the great painters, sculptors, architects, poets, philosophers, mathematicians and political thinkers are from Florence and its surrounding communities. A few you may have heard of: Michelangelo, Dante, Da Vinci, Galileo, Fibonacci, the Medici, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Lippi, Brunelleschi, and countless others. Italy's influence in terms of art and design are far-reaching. However, beyond the obvious and priceless works, Italian artistry and design permeates throughout their daily lives in ordinary places: a basket display of vegetables, a collection of scarves, a stone pattern for a walkway, a wrought iron gate, a sculpted garden, and, of course, beautiful florentine paper. All are simple, elegant designs that are timeless works of art in their own rite. It is a pleasure to soak it up on a daily basis.

5. History/Timelessness. Intrinsic to European culture is a sense of history. As an American who was born and raised on the West Coast, our concept of "old" is entirely different than the Italians. In Italy, most buildings are centuries old and foundations in historic centers date back several millenia (e.g. 400 BC for several Etruscan hill towns). The timelessness of the Italian cityscape is evidenced in the ammalgamation of buildings, twisting streets, archways, windows and stairways. It is a constant reminder that many, many, many generations were living here before you. Life is always moving ahead and the sun will rise tomorrow (despite your problems, real or perceived). As a result, this historical context naturally inspires a degree of introspection (at least it does for me!).

6. Prayer/Peace. In the US prayer is something deliberate and personal, which I, admittedly, must remind myself to do regularly. In Italy prayer is a part of the daily routine, integrated into the fabric of the society when walking to work or during the evening passegiata. Chapels, statues, crosses and other religious symbols are everywhere. For some, it is numbing (I am sure). For others, myself included, it is a constant reminder of thankfulness. On our routine morning walk, Janelle and I stop by a chapel on the Arno each day - a brief opportunity to give thanks for our blessings. However, what often moves me in that little chapel is the continuous stream of individuals who stop on their walk to work to pray and light a candle (perhaps for a sick relative, a lost job, or a thanksgiving for an answered prayer). Regardless of your personal religious views, an opportunity to be quiet and peaceful on a daily basis is healthy.

7. Natural Beauty. Coming from Seattle, we were already spoiled to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Seattle has a crisp, raw and rugged beauty that reminds you that nature is powerful. Italy offers a completely different sort of natural beauty. Italy has a more serene, tranquil and alluring beauty that breathes of romance and history (certainly an aphrodisiac!). The rolling hills, cyprus trees, vineyards, and olive groves bathed in Tuscany's golden sunlight are simply indescribable.

8. Culture Mashing. Europe is proximate to many diverse cultures: the world is literally at your doorstep. People from Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia all flock to Italy. In fact, we could fly to many of those destinations in 2 hours or less! While Seattle is a small cosmopolitan attracting a variety of visitors; it is a stark contrast to Europe. During our travels, we have enjoyed listening to the diversity of languages, including those who can readily speak 3 or 4 languages (the Dutch!). It reminds us that English, while pervasive, is not the only language on our planet. Investing in another language and culture is an exercise of learning and respect. I am so pleased that my entire family is learning such a useful language - Italiano!

9. Festivities. Europe does seem to have a constant succession of holidays throughout the entire year. In addition to religious traditions (All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter), there are a multitude of festivals to celebrate the seasonality of different foods (wine grapes, olives, truffles, chocolate) and historic events (past battles among city-states, unification of the country). Because our apartment is literally down the street from Piazza Santa Croce, we have been near the pulse of all Italian festivities in Florence. The Italians do live with vitality and they do know how to celebrate (until 2:00am+). This ongoing calendar events is enticing to any outsider who wants to experience Italian culture. In addition, many festivals are educational and further connect you with the local community (churches, farmers, artists and history). I love it!

10. Carpe Diem. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of living in Italy is the sense of seizing the moment and enjoying life to its fullest. Our lives are short! While it is important to educate, invest and plan ahead; Italy has reminded us that it is wise to slow down and taste, smell, observe, laugh and enjoy.

Janelle and I recognize how fortunate we have been to live in Europe. Granted, it did take a lot of planning and required many sacrifices to facilitate the opportunity (selling our home, cars, etc.), but we have NO regrets.

Living in Europe has been WORTH the effort: it has been a life-changing experience for our entire family, it will forever shape our sons' perspectives of the world, and better inform all of our decisions as we move forward with our lives. I am 100% confident that neither Janelle or myself will ever miss a nickel when we are elderly and look back with affection on our European experience together. You only live once. Carpe diem!

2.22.2010

It is a PAIN to live in Europe! Trust me...

Okay, let's set aside all the glamour, ectasy and orgasmic pleasures that Italy has to offer. Yes, unbelievable experiences do abound in Italy making it all "worth it". Worth what you ask? Worth the pain. Yes, pain in the arse! At times living in Italy (and most other EU countries) is painful. Our American expectations in terms of service, efficiency and responsiveness are simply incongruent with European lifestyles at times.

Here is just a trivial sample of what you might experience when living abroad in Europe (especially Italy!):

1. "Not possible" - get used to the phrase all across Europe. Whether asking for a "free" glass of water out of the tap, or simply a small plate (for the bread and oil). This is the most common English expression we heard across the European continent. It has since become a joke for our family, but an ongoing reality too.

2. "Come back later" - in other words they elected not to do the work, don't know the answer, or simply forgot about it while they were on their smoke break, coffee break, or lunch break (or any other "break" they elect to take randomly during the day). The best part about it, is that an entire public office will take a "break" at the same time, instead of rotating in an orderly fashion. As a result, all work comes to a grinding halt when everyone decides to have a smoke and cup of espresso at 1000a, 1200p, 200p and 400p. ;)

3. "Take a number" - means start the waiting process for countless hours of sitting in line after line after line, only to get one or both of the responses above. This is particularly humorous when the Italian consulate in the USA has been so efficient, completing, processing and stamping things (like VISAs) in a matter of days, contrasted with months of waiting in Italy for a permesso (permit to stay). Oh yeah, we had snow 4 weeks ago, that caused a back up! (Honestly, we heard that one too!).

4. "You don't want that" - what do you mean? It is right here on the menu, I would like to have this glass of wine with this entree. Regardless of your pleadings if the Italian waiter doesn't want you to have a glass of Pinot Noir with your Pork, then guess what, they will bring you what they decide. Really! Remember in Europe, all the cultures have a "right" way of doing things, and a "wrong" way of doing things. If you are American and make the "wrong" selection, they will simply correct it for you. (But, what if I like Pinot Noir with Pork? Too bad.)

5. "Che sara sara" or "What will be will be". All the Italians complain about the incredible bureaucracy and complacency of government at every level. Yet, all of the Italians seem to play an instrumental role in actually upholding and maintaining their part of the bureaucracy. "What can I do?" they'll plead; I say "do your part, be more efficient!" "Why, Giacomo, there is no rush?"

6. "They are on holiday." This was my favorite response from local street vendors when I asked why certain shops were closed mid-week in January. Well its holiday of course! What holiday you ask? Well in addition to the 1-month that Italy shuts down for August, and the 20+ other paid holidays, saints' days, religious festivals and ceremonies, there is another 1-month holiday in Italy for January-ish to February-ish. Not so much business then, so why not shut down? Really!

7. "You can't drive there!" - and oh by the way, they're sending you a 150 Euro ticket in the mail. What!?! Really, it is true. The concept of ZTL (or zona traffica limita) exists throughout much of Europe for many cities to curb traffic in the inner cities and reduce congestion. A great idea - if they were MARKED! The problem is that too often what the "locals" know, is what the guide books and namely your GPS does not - the actual boundaries and hours of the ZTL. Even if the boundary of the ZTL is marked, then the hours may be incorrect (as is the case in Florence). Thus, if you drive at the times marked on signage, you'll still get a ticket (because you didn't know better). Ugh! (Note, one of our American friends relayed he received almost 600 Euros in fines for 1 circuituous trip through the ZTL). Watch out!

8. "Take a photo with me!" - but it will COST you money! Even though the characters, mimes and medieval soldiers all over Europe at major destinations are clearly standing in PUBLIC places, there is an unwritten rule that if you take your picture with one of them, then pay up! Seriously. Otherwise, expected to accosted and ridiculed by all the play-actors on the street.

9. "It's not time to eat." - this is perhaps my favorite response midday when traveling with 2 teenage boys. American concepts of restaurants being open during the day simply don't apply across much of Europe. You eat lunch between 1200p - 200p. Dinner is from 700p - 1100p. That's it. If you stay too long at a museum, try to look at one more church, visit one more shop, or stroll along just one more street, THEN you may just miss prescribed dining hours. If that happens, you're hungry and out of luck. Your best bet is a limp sandwich at a bar or street vendor. Ugh!

10. "That's a cover charge" - okay, thank God we are not required to TIP in Europe, because if you sit down anywhere, then expect to pay up to double the price for whatever you eat (coperto!). Sit down you ask? Yes, sit down and it will cost you 2x the price of standing at the bar to have a cup coffee ($2 v. $4), a croissant ($1.50 v. $3), or a Coke ($3 v. $6). Yes, that is $6 dollars to sit down and have a can of Coke!

For what it's worth, the above experiences sum up the most common misconceptions, mistakes and challenges that we have as Americans. As a culture, we Americans are generally pretty wound up and get agitated over little things. Myself included.

Somehow, most Europeans (especially the Italians) don't seem to be bothered by all these little nuances and challenges. They just go with the flow. Remember they are living within these same constructs too, so they're also dealing with ravenous teenage boys. It just requires a little planning ahead, street smarts, and a bit more care-free attitude.

Whereas I have had a tendency to get frustrated with non-compliant waiters and businesses closed midday, my wife has adapted incredibly well to this laissez-faire culture. Unlike myself (who has demonstrated too many Ross-like outbursts on Friends!), my wife Janelle has shed her Type-A tendencies (aka Monica on Friends!) to become a bit more cafe-free (aka Phoebe on Friends!). What a shift, but a healthy one at that.

Life is short she reminds me. Che sara! Sara!

2.19.2010

frolicking thursday: touring the Oltrarno

Huh? Well, I cannot frolic as well on Fridays without my partner in crime. James is in the states, following up on job leads---and so the boys and I are left up to our own devices.

Which means frolicking fridays just aren't the same. So I have replaced them with other-day frolics.

I frolicked thursday this past week. Which in its most elementary form means: I pushed myself out the door and never looked back. If there is one thing I have learned these past few months in Florence: I never regret walking out the door. There is so much to see and experience and notice.  

This is big coming from a home-body such as myself. I adore being home, cooking, being cozy, listening to music, eating a meal, organizing our lives, watching a movie or being online. But here and now, I experience so much and enjoy so immensely every time I step out my door.

This day wasn't particularly monumental. But it was relaxing, and peaceful and interesting. I am grateful for those feelings.

When I left the house, my first stop was my favorite new place for pastries: Rifrullo. It is a bar/cafe in Piazza San Niccolo, and it is always chock-full of people. It has that certain hum. This was a return visit, in which case I ate the same pastry I had enjoyed so much the first time: sfoglia. Blackberry heaven wrapped in puff pastry yumminess. And the coffee divine. I stood, smiled a few times to make up for my lack in language and consumed my pastry. Next up: walking.

I explored streets that I hadn't walked on, fell in love with this little cove in the Oltrarno and aimed for a museum. Which, incidentally, was closed. No matter, I kept walking on new streets and found cute cafes, overpriced pottery and hordes of antiques. I walked by a jewelry design school, peered into windows full of ornate silver pieces, nosed around sandwich shops and made my way to Santa Maria del Carmine. This church has uncannily high ceilings compared to its footprint---and is home to Branacci's chapel. Branacci is the name of the guy who funded the amazing frescoes lining the chapel; frescoes of Saint Peter's life were painted by Masolino, Massacio and Lippi. My favorite part of the viewing wasn't on the walls---it was the humming and sing-songing of a 2 year old french toddler (whose parents kept trying to get him to shush).

After the good pastry, the nose-following walk and fabulous frescoes, I headed home. One last stop for some verdura at a nearby stand (veggies), then I hoofed it back across the Ponte Vecchio and made it home just before the boys.

2.16.2010

frolicking thursday, round 12

I know, I know.  Fridays are reserved for frolicking! But this past Thursday after I sent the boys off to school---and before I got too comfortable---Caleb called me on the phone to let me know he needed 14 euros and a parent signature for a field trip they were taking that day. Can you be here by 9?

So I threw my camera into my bag, placed sunglasses firmly on my face, hopped on my bike and 'made it by 9.' After which, I climbed the hill to Piazza Michelangelo---a famous piazza that looks over Florence, noting the Duomo in all its splendid glory. It has a copy of Michelangelo's David (and around its base, copies of a few of his other statues). On that same hill---well, okay, up just a bit higher---are two churches and a large cemetery.

Built in 1018, San Miniato al Monte (built as a shrine for martyr Saint Minias aka San Miniato) is stunning. Inside are the most intricate marble mosaics I have ever seen, covering the floors, the choir and pulpit. It may sound funny to say this, but if you can imagine a split level home... while standing in the nave, you can simultaneously see the raised choir loft and high altar (with a gorgeous gold mosaic in the apse) AND below you see the crypt. All beautifully maintained. This church is surrounded by an impressive cemetery---opened in 1854---and full of 'family tombs' that look like little cathedrals themselves (the one with the prettiest and biggest one wins---sorry, couldn't resist).

Actually, I like walking through cemeteries. It is humbling, grounding, and a good place to think about life, the people you love and the people you miss.

I also stepped into the church of San Salvatore al Monte---a Franciscan church, so very bare and humble. Although it took a bit to push my bike UP the hill, the ride down was fantastic! On my way home, I hopped into a grocer's, placed the bag gingerly in my falling-apart-front-basket and rode across the Ponte alle Grazie bridge home.

2.15.2010

Top 5 Memories for January 2010

The New Year is the time for new beginnings, resolutions and challenges. We started 2010 in Florence with a BANG! (literally) and, before we knew it, the New Year was well underway. With active and curious teenage boys, Italy is a playground to be explored. Of all our frolicking adventures in January 2010, here are my Top 5 Memories:

5. Touring Epiphany Nativity Scenes (presepe). The unveiling of the Christ-child to the three wise men is known as the Epiphany in the Christian church; today, it is an Italian national holiday and a just cause for celebration. Recognized on January 6, the Epiphany is preceded for weeks by Nativity Scenes (presepe) assembled in every church, town square and city hall across Italy. There are several presepe that captured our attention across Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. Whether located in small towns (paese), unheralded churches, or the magnificent St. Peter’s in Rome, presepe were always a work of art, admiration and local pride. The memory of strolling and viewing presepe during many evening walks (the passegiata), will always be one of my favorite times of family conversation, contemplation and simple appreciation.

4. Day trip to Sarteano and Cortona. Every weekend, one of our sons has an “out-of-town” soccer game (calcio); sometimes the games are close and other times they are 1-2 hours away. For those games more distant from Florence, we have made a habit of turning it into a day trip across the Italian countryside. This particular weekend, Anthony had a game in Sarteano, a paese that was off-the-beaten track. It was a cold January day and the game was in the clouds (literally); the water density penetrated every layer of clothing (what happened to sunny Italy)! Fortunately, Anthony’s team prevailed and the rental car heater worked well. We descended from one hilltop, traversed the plains alongside Lake (lago) Trasimeno, then eventually ascended and arrived at Cortona (an Etruscan hilltown). Given the time of the year and bitter cold, Cortona was ours alone (a stark contrast to summer when throngs of tourists arrive, inspired by Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun). We climbed and explored many of the staired streets, piazzas, shops and churches; the visit also featured a warm meal together in a local trattoria. Time necessitated our departure (at dusk), but my entire family was ready to return to further explore Cortona; the city is a gem.

3. Celebrating Grandpa’s 70th Birthday / Climbing the Duomo in Florence. Since we knew Janelle's dad would be celebrating his 70th birthday in Florence, Italy, we aimed to make it a very special day for him: the David, the Duomo and Dinner (the “Three-D’s” he says affectionately). Along with the Michelangelo’s Four Prisoners, the David is on permanent display at Villa Accademia. The work embodies the confidence, faith and determination of David at the moment he made the decision to attack Goliath. Appropriately, the David was adopted as the symbol of the Florence Republic (when it was a young, independent city-state). Following a lunch celebration at a local restaurant (including sparkler), we tackled Brunelleschi’s Dome of Santa Maria dei Fiori (the Duomo). Climbing endlessly up stairs and arriving at the underside of the dome's frescoed ceiling is an amazing feat by itself; but, climbing further at an angle inside the dome to the cupola is breath-taking (particularly given my father-in-law is 70!). The cupola offers astounding views of Florence, inspires appreciation for Brunelleschi’s engineering genius, and reminds one of the great potential of humankind. And, lastly, what better way to cap off a fantastic day, but with a memorable Dinner (prepared by Janelle) and shared with your kids and grandkids (followed by a game of cards and dessert!). I think that Orv’s 70th birthday celebration was a success!

2. New Year’s Eve in Florence. The word “mayhem” doesn’t quite capture New Year’s eve in Florence – it was more like casual chaos. Unlike a prototypical American city, Italy is made of stone and tile, so fireworks are unlikely to burn anything down. More importantly, the casual “live and let-live” attitude of the Italians (and the police), combined with their penchant for festivities and boisterous celebration, made New Year’s eve in Florence one of the most memorable (and dangerous) experiences of my life. The scene in the piazzas at midnight included crowds of people lighting fireworks, firecrackers, M-80’s, and what I believe were ½ sticks of dynamite (followed by wine bottles thrown through the air)! The explosions were unbelievable. My teenage boys were in their element with the other Italian youth (ragazzi!) and were smiling ear-to-ear. To make the mood more festive (aka dangerous) – there was no organization, no designated areas for lighting fireworks, and no crowd control. The Italians just make it work, while being fashionable at the same time (jackets, scarves, boots and stilettos!). It was great. About 1am we made it back to our apartment, located one-story above a major thoroughfare. Instead of going to bed, our boys proceeded to join neighbors and shop owners who stood at their doors and windows throwing firecrackers at the feet of pedestrians (really)! Nothing dangerous, just good clean fun! By 4am, the noise finally died down and people went to sleep; at the same time the street cleaners went to work. By 8am, the city was back to normal, completely scrubbed and pristine as if nothing happened – just another normal New Year’s Eve in Italy. Astonishing!

1. Touring the Vatican Museum’s Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel / Climbing St. Peter’s. At the top of my list for January, was the full day we spent at the Vatican: most notably viewing its famous artwork, and then climbing St. Peter’s dome. We took a city bus to the Vatican from our apartment near the Pantheon and arrived at opening hour of the museum – a good idea considering the boatload of tourists (even in the “off” season). The Vatican museum collection is simply astounding – home to the most impressive Renaissance masterpieces. The stanze of Raphael (aka the papal apartments) were awe-inspiring and captured significant moments in the history of the Catholic church (interlaced with all kinds of symbolism and sometimes funny nuances). With respect to the Sistine Chapel, words cannot quite capture the magnificence of Michelangelo’s Creation and Last Judgment – simply put, he was divinely-inspired. Personally, I could have spent hours in the Sistine Chapel, but-for developing a sore neck! After lunch in Vatican museum, we made our way to St. Peter’s and prior to entering, we climbed Michelangelo’s dome. It was fantastic. Our teenage boys bounded up the stairs with energy and enthusiasm, while we carried up the rear. At the top of the first level, we stood along the inside of the dome looking down upon the Crypt of St. Peter and Bernini’s Baldachin, while gazing up at the jeweled mosaics (awesome!). We climbed the final ascent of the dome (at an angle) before arriving at the cupola; for our efforts we were rewarded with a stunning view across Rome. We took pictures, identified the famous Roman hills, and explored the rooftops, before descending to enjoy the treasures inside of St. Peter’s (including the Pieta). To commemorate our Vatican visit we purchased a special crucifix for our home, which will always remind us of this memorable day.

Other honorable mentions for my Top 5 Memories from January 2010, include: running across a wild pack of Cinghiale while driving in the hills above Greve in Chianti; a day trip to Certaldo and San Gimignano with Grandpa/ma; touring the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, the Campodoglio and Roman Forum; driving the windiest road of my life from Poggibonsi to Castellina in Chianti; enjoying the evening passegiata in Rome; throwing coins in Trevi Fountain; sharing a scrumptious meal with Grandpa/ma at Chianti’s in Rome; playing cards at a sidewalk cafĂ© in sight of the Coliseum; climbing the Spanish Steps; surviving the Boca della Verita (hand intact); sharing a splendid meal with my family at a local Florentine Osteria; and, of course, a multitude of amazing meals prepared by Janelle (aka mom/wife/personal chef).

Some memories that I will always selfishly cherish were shared only with Janelle (hence it didn’t make the family list above): late night walks across Rome with the love-of-my-life (sans kids and grandparents). I had lived in Rome as a college student for about 5 months and fell in love with the city then; sharing it with Janelle was delightful. Though we only had a few hours each night, Janelle and I toured the Eternal City arm-in-arm walking through many districts, backstreets and corridors. We simply talked, enjoyed the sights, and soaked up the splendor of Rome; of course, we ended each walk with a late-night glass of wine at a local bar or restaurant. How fortunate I am to have a best friend who shares my passion for life! Thank you!

Thanks again to my in-laws (Grandpa/ma) for making the long trip to Italy and sharing so many of these memories with us!

It is great to be alive!

2.14.2010

Happy Valentine's Day Mio Amore

Giacomo
Mi dispiace siamo a parte, mi manca molto.
Sei l'amore della mia vita!


2.10.2010

if you were in florence for an hour...

Today I blogged, researched for our upcoming Tuscan-inspired road trip, caught up on email, did the dishes, laundry... yep, all the normal routine daily stuff happens no matter where you live.

But I promised myself---and James---that I would step out today and soak up Florence. If just for one hour, for one ogle at the Arno River and a walk to a nearby butcher.

Wednesdays here mean the boys have school, are home for a few hours, then cycle to soccer. So this morning I tacked my way through the internet and at noon: pushed myself out the door. In just one hour I:
  • stopped by a ceramic shop and bought an olive oil pouring top (for this great olive oil pitcher mom bought me), 
  • had 'lunch' (really a gathering of a few bruschetta and a glass of vino) at a cafe I had passed too many times without stopping...
  • studied Italian (during lunch!); and
  • bought some veggies from a frutta e verdura stand---one of my two favorite to frequent. 
Mission accomplished! The boys come home at 1:00, and I was home in time to hang laundry on radiators, assemble their lunch and put out a bowl of chocolates. Salute!

2.08.2010

chocolate. oh yeah.

How perfectly cool: we are increasingly aware that we lucked out with regard to our Florentine home-location. We had a long list of things we were hoping for (2 bathrooms, a dishwasher, good internet, a washing machine)---when looking for a place. And location was a big priority; little did we know that we landed next to the hottest piazza in town. Piazza Santa Croce is where the festivals land. Sure there are other piazzas and buildings that fill up with with well-organized tents and important meetings... but if you are aiming for the 3 week Christmas festival, the doubled up weekends for tasting autumn's just-pressed olive oil, artisan foods and chocolate fairs---look no further.

Just a hop, skip and a jump and there you are: looking at the next fair. We adored the Christmas festival, even went away with metal sculptures and a German wood-crafted nativity set (not to mention the Glogg, pretzels, gems/minerals, candy, apple strudel, Dutch wooden shoe shaped slippers...). And now this past weekend we engorged on chocolate.

Seriously. Picture a chocolate faucet to cover your marshmallows on a stick. And monstrous size loafs of soft, layered chocolate. And perfectly bedecked truffles, with flavors like balsamic, tiramisu, pepperoncino, almond praline, hazelnut.... ooooooohhhhhh and the chocolate liquor!

We sampled, we splurged, we tasted and tried. What a feast for the eyes. I tell you, since day one we have been sampling chocolates in Florence, be it from festivals or the grocer, chocolate shops or otherwise. It is our job after all, to become chocolate connoisseurs. Here are two of our favorite finds:

OLIVA---over the holidays the stores were well-stocked with chocolates. We of course, sampled many and the OLIVA brand kept landing on the top of our list.

SNOEPIE---of all the stands at the chocolate festival, this one was hands-down my favorite. Belgium chocolate to die for.

(Sorry, couldn't find websites for the chocolates!). But if you want to see more chocolate festival pictures, those I can supply: facebook chocolate album.

2.04.2010

Gemstones, Crystals and Minerals in Florence.

It took a little effort to push away the guilt one has from being a home-body when Florence is on your doorstep. But we relaxed nonetheless; this past weekend the boys and I took the weekend OFF.

Anthony and Caleb are doing a great job getting their homework done early in the weekend, so they can relax guilt-free (great job guys!). Relaxing: Caleb did some sketching, Anthony caught up on emails, I made food. We watched a few movies, played cards and stayed cozy.

Lest we feel like we are becoming the cushions on the couch, we decided around mid-afternoon on Saturday that we best walk out the door, if only for a walk around the block. A last minute plan came into focus: we decided to visit the Mineral Museum in Florence, something we had been meaning to do for some time. Caleb is very taken with rocks, gems, minerals and crystals.  (There is a fabulous mineral store right near the Piazza San Annunziata, which he frequents).

So we walked up past the Duomo, past San Marco and entered the Museum. Well, one of the museums (associated with the University of Florence). We found out that you can buy a super cheap pass that gets you into a pile of exhibits/museums and gardens. Good from now until mid May!

So Saturday and then Sunday: we found more minerals, crystals and animals (see highlighted 'visits' in RED below), ate lunch out and played cards at a nearby cafe. All in all a good, restful weekend.

Here are the details for the cards (I paid 10 euros for myself, and only 4.50 euros for the boys, aged 7-18. If you are over 65, a student or a family you earn an even more reduced fare):
  • called the FIRENZE SCIENZA CARD, it is good until May 9, 2010.
  • Entrance into Palazzo Medici Riccardi
    • including entrance to the Chapel of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli, Luca Giordano's Hall and Filippo Lippi's Madonna.
  • Entrance into Science and Technology Foundation---Physics Cabinet.
  • Entrance into Museum of Natural History 'La Specola' and Zoology section. (Sunday we visited the zoology section, but will need to make reservations to visit the 'La Specula' aka Observatory).
  • Entrance into Museum of History of Science (includes some of Galileo's instruments; is about 1/2 block from our house!).
  • Entrance into all sections of Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence. THIS includes:
    • Anthropology and Ethnology
    • Mineralogy and Litologia
    • Geology and Palaeontology 
    • Botanical Garden
  • discounts at some hotels, restaurants and shops.
  • special day of free visit (on March 14 only) to research labs plus activities hosted by University of Florence by Openlab (Science & Technology dept).
  • reduced fares for:
    • Orchestra della Toscana
    • One performance from Association of Florence Theater
    • Art and Illusions (Palazzo Strozzi, temporary exhibit); Anthony and Caleb both visited this exhibition for a class field trip.
    • Crystals. At 'La Specola.' (amazing).
    • for these museums: Palazzo Vecchio, Bardini Museum, Stibbert Museum, HP Horne Foundation, 'Paolo Graziosi' Florentine Museum and Institute of Prehistory.
You can buy tickets at many of the above mentioned places, or online at www.firenzescienza.it

2.03.2010

not so fabulous friday, round 11

Today I forced myself to roll out the door and frolic---even if it meant I had to crawl.

Because today James grabbed an early train, a long flight and headed back to the states to follow up on some 'job stuff.'

It was awful to say goodbye, especially not knowing the exact timing of his return (but he will be back, so no worries!). So I stepped forward, aiming to be strong and embrace the situation. Most likely, I made it worse by going about a Friday as if it were normal routine. Because our Friday routine, as you know, is to frolic around Florence---taking in the sites and sounds of the city while spending quality time together. Huh.

But I know that even if I am touring solo, it is a fabulous opportunity to take in what Italy has to offer. It isn't every day you get to live in such a fabulous city. And I have days of absorbing to do.

So I cycled through the cities' stone-worn streets and went to the San Marco Museum. James and I had meant to check it out, but it didn't fit in [this time]. We wanted to go visit San Marco's because it has famous frescoes by Fra Angelico, the cell of Girolamo Savonarola (there is a marker in Piazza Signoria of where he was burned at the stake) and a fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo's first teacher/studio). I have to say, reading the Agony and the Ecstasy has made my time in Florence infinitely meaningful! His life, entwined with so many other artists and politicians has served as a plumb-line with which to absorb this city. Knowing about his life and struggles contextually and historically makes this city make sense.

It only cost 4 euros and the San Marco Museum was much larger than I had anticipated. There were fabulous frescoes, a library, small galleries, two courtyards and the original rooms where monks lived. It didn't have any excerpts to read in English, so at least I had knowledge from Michelangelo's life to better appreciate the context of this monastery, the artists and its patrons. Go if you can, and read a little about it before you do.

(At the little gift shop, I picked up a book for Anthony on Leonardo da Vinci. His next read).

2.01.2010

whirlwind tour with Gpa and Gma, part 2 (of 2).... ROME!

When in Rome...

...follow James.
James spent months in Rome as a student, and visited again as a graduate student and teaching assistant. He is both fond of and familiar with the city. Even better, since he was studying as an architect his homework was literally to study Rome's grid, buildings, map and structures. We all benefited.

He often says a lifetime isn't enough time to explore and appreciate Rome. We only had four days.

So began our tour. We landed in an apartment for a few nights, in the heart of the city. It worked well enough for sleeping six, even with its character flaws (bathroom was through all the bedrooms, the only way to have a hot bath in the bathtub was to boil 3 pots of water---no shower, who should sleep on the very short, single bed in the living room?). The location was fabulous, near a grocer for snacks/breakfast and cozy enough.

The first day we walked around the city with our fabulous guide (thanks James... can you hold that umbrella-marker higher? So we can see you?), and dined in the piazza near the Pantheon. In 3 1/2 days we saw/did the following:
  1. The Pantheon
  2. The Colosseum
  3. Campo dei Fiori
  4. Michelangelo's Moses (S. Pietro in Vincoli)
  5. Spanish Steps (Piazza di Spagna)
  6. Trevi Fountain
  7. The Vatican
  8. Saint Peters Basilica (Michelangelo's Pieta; St. Peter's Square)
  9. The Sistine Chapel (breathtaking! We came home with a puzzle of the Last Judgment!)
  10. DOOR to prison where Peter and Paul were chained (bummer not open, but still cool)
  11. Piazza del Campidoglio (equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius)
  12. Musei Capitolini  (incl famous originals of: the She-wolf, Boy with Splinter)
  13. Piazza Navone
  14. Great meals: near the Colosseum, near the Trevi
  15. Piazza del Popolo (just James and Janelle---late night walk)
  16. Roman Forum

Food treats: pastries, Nutella crepes, breakfast from the Campo dei Fiori market, dinner at Vineria Il Chianti (near the Trevi Fountain).

We also briefly saw the Circus Maximus, the Constantine Arch, the Trajan Forum and La Bocca della Verita (the mouth of truth---see picture of Grandpa with his hand in the infamous mouth!).

Here is a link to our whirlwind tour, part 1. And if you want to see even more pics of our adventures, visit this photo album.
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