Monday, October 16, 2017

Home again

Originally published on: Oct 27, 2008 

It's been an awkward adjustment to come home, while my thoughts are still focused on the people and places I visited in Italy. I'm already thinking ahead to next year, hoping I can figure out a way to stay longer. One way or another, I'll make it happen.

Sono molto grata...I'm very grateful to the many people who made my journey so rich and memorable, especially Haruko, Domenico and his family, Luigi, Roberto and Michela, Paola, Monica and her family, Paolo, Giovanna, Miwa, Valerie, Bryan, and Melinda. And also to Peter, who provided transport to and from the airport, and Laura, who kept watch over my house while I was gone.

For those of you new to my blog, this was my fourth trip to Italy in the past two years. I've visited more than 25 Italian cities and villages, learned the language and have made numerous friends. I travel cheap, going by train and bus, with a focus on culture immersion rather than the usual tourist route. I'm rarely identified as an American, so I must be doing something right. Though my lodging is inexpensive, I always manage to find comfortable, sometimes even quasi-luxurious accommodations. 

If I can do, so can you!

É finito!

Originally published on: Oct 17, 2008

Ponte Vecchio in the moonlight.

My last few days in Firenze were poignant, as I visited my favorite haunts and spent time with Haruko. I also met with another blogger, Melinda, who moved to Firenze four years ago and has been blogging about life in Florence since that time. Melinda took me to a great cafe, Caffè Giacosa, where we could sit without being charged extra, and we talked for several hours while waves of Italians came and went, quickly sipping their morning espresso and eating dolci, sweet pastries.

Melinda, in front of Caffè Giacosa.
In the afternoon, Haruko and I met up and went to visit a profumeria (perfumery) near the church Santa Maria Novella. We tried many of the scents, which have been made in the same way, from flowers and herbs, for centuries, but I couldn’t bring myself to fork over 70-80 euros for a small bottle of the heavenly scents. Maybe next time!

We walked around town and eventually ended up near the Santa Croce church. While Haruko made a stop at an internet point, I scouted around for a trattoria where we might have lunch. I found one that offered a good bargain: primi e secondi piatti, l’acqua e vino, (first and second course, water and wine) for only 10 euros. Once we entered the restaurant, we both realized it was the same restaurant where we had our final meal together two years ago. Only the decor had changed, and later we learned that the trattoria had changed hands this past August. It’s named after Dante, the famous Florentine poet:¦a name I’m not likely to forget. (I’ve followed Dante’s trail in and around Florence, and then to other cities where he traveled after he was exiled from the city, including San Gimignano, Lucca and Ravenna, where he died.)

In addition, the food was even better than last time. For my first course, I had zuppa di fagioli, a typical Tuscan soup with beans, and Haruko ordered gnocchi, a small dumpling-like pasta. For il secondo, she ate Trippa Fiorentina: a tripe dish that was quite delicious, and I had an exquisite beef dish, Peposa dell’Impruneta. When we left, we told the waiter we had been there two years earlier, and he kissed our hands and wished us a speedier return to his restaurant.

After another visit to a favorite gelateria, we wandered around to our favorite haunts, along the fiume Arno, to view the Ponte Vecchio in the moonlight, Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo one last time. Haruko suggested I just not go home, that I could forget about getting to the plane and just stay in Italy. If only! But at least we both feel certain we’ll meet again, and certainly in Italy. Perhaps it will be sooner than either of us thinks possible.

The next morning, I was up at 4 am to catch the shuttle to the airport at 5:30 for my 7 am flight. A woman saw me standing at the bus stop and informed me that the shuttle no longer stopped there…the stop had moved across the street to the train station. I would certainly have missed the bus if not for her warning: once again I had the sense of being looked after.
I easily made my flight to Amsterdam, and endured the transition from the warm, playful chaos of Italy to the efficient, cool reserve of Amsterdam. The contrast worsened when I arrived in Memphis and was bombarded with smells of barbecue and the sloppy attire of my fellow Americans. Already, I missed the sensual, vivacious approach to life that comes naturally in Italy. Life is certainly more voluptuous in Italy, and I feel certain it’s where I belong, if only to learn more about la dolce vita: the sweet life.

It’s taken me a few days to readjust to life in America: it’s cooler and wetter here, and my body rhythms still seem to be on Italian time. I’m wading through the 1000 photos that I made while in Italy, and will post a few of them on this blog throughout the many entries about my journey.

Firenze, Arcetri

Originally published on: Oct 12, 2008 

For my last train ride, I took the Eurostar, which is more expensive, but it’s more comfortable and faster than other trains, makes fewer stops and did not require any train changes along the way. It proved to be a very relaxing two hours, and when I arrived in Firenze, it took me less than ten minutes to arrive at my hotel, the same one I’d stayed in last month, so I was settled in by 3 pm.

Hanging out with Haruko
While on the train, Haruko and I had exchanged text messages, and had made plans to meet that evening, In the meantime, I spent a few hours shopping at the outdoor market in San Lorenzo, not far from my hotel. I managed to negotiate with the vendors so that I got some good bargains. Since it was Friday afternoon, the beginning of what promised to be a beautiful weekend, I expected to see crowds of tourists swarming into town. At my hotel, the rooms were all taken by Americans, and it was an abrupt change to hear English being spoken more than Italian.

Haruko and I met about 5 pm and walked across town to the flat where she’s staying, the same area of town where we first met two years ago, when we were rooming with an Italian woman while attending an immersion school to learn Italian. At Haruko’s flat, we spent a few hours talking, then she prepared a simple but delicious cena (dinner). After several more hours of visiting, I took the bus back to my hotel late that night.

Walking to Arcetri
Saturday morning I decided to try and find Arcetri, where Galileo lived. I had heard there are beautiful views from the hills there, and I wanted to check it out. After having such easy access to the Parco Ducale in Parma, I was missing the presence of trees, not as easy to come by in a city like Florence. I walked up into the hills along a quiet, nearly empty road for several hours, but the view was obscured by walls on both sides of the road. 

Galileo's house.
I finally made it to Arcetri, got a glimpse of the view, and found Galileo’s house on the way back to Florence. After nearly four hours of walking, I decided to treat myself to gelato at Vivoli’s Gelateria, supposedly the best in Florence because they only serve freshly made gelato. It was good, but costly, and I’m not sure it was that much better than the cheaper places in town I’ve been to.

Saturday evening I was invited to Paola’s house for dinner, but when I arrived, I learned that plans had changed, and instead we were going to a party at one of her friend’s houses. We were picked up by a couple who drove us across town to the party, which turned out to be a feast of food and wines from Puglia, in southern Italy. The husband of the couple who were throwing the party had cooked many of his favorite dishes from Puglia, including meatballs, cavallo (horse), polpo (octopus), pizza with potatoes, lasagna, and many others. With each dish, he also served a different wine, as he is also a wine expert. Naturally, I had to try a bit of everything, and ended up getting stuffed to the gills: uncomfortably so. And after all that, there were desserts and dessert wines to taste as well. After all the food I’ve been eating the past few weeks, I can tell that I’ll need to spend more time dieting once I get home. (addendum: Good news! Instead of gaining, I actually lost several pounds while traveling. Seems like the Italian lifestyle is a good one for me in MANY ways.)

I felt immediately welcome and comfortable in the group of some twenty Italians at the mega cena, including four or five people who could speak English quite well. In the background of the constant conversations going on at the party, there was a video of music and dance from Puglia, which added a nice touch to the evening. This was my first exposure to the food and culture of southern Italy, and I’m thankful to have been included in the festivities.

L'opera a Parma

Originally published on: Oct 12, 2008

Attending the opera in Parma at Teatro Regio was a unique experience, though not one I’m likely to repeat anytime soon, at such an expense ($115). I bought my ticket online before I left, without really knowing how the theater is set up or where my seat would be located. I had seen part of the primo (the premiere) of Rigoletto on la tv a few nights earlier , and I was impressed with the stage presence of the soprano who played the role of Gilda. I was looking forward to seeing her in person, so was disappointed when she did not perform the night I saw Rigoletto. Her replacement was quite good, but she lacked the powerful energy I’d seen in the earlier performance.

My box seat was on the fourth of five levels of boxes (palchi) that curve around the stage. There were three chairs placed near the edge of the box, and two benches behind them. A group of three people were already sitting in the chairs when I arrived, but were instructed to move, since I had paid for one of those chairs. (I got the cane chair, while the others enjoyed the plush velvet chairs that matched the benches: the privilege of arriving early.) The benches were comfortable, but it was impossible to see the stage if one sat there: instead, the third person of that group stood behind us during the performance.

At the first intermission, I was asked where I was from, and once I admitted I was an American, the others were more friendly, even venturing to speak a few words of English. I learned they were from another region of Italy and had traveled to many of the best opera houses in Italy. During the course of the evening, one of the men often sang along with the performers, obviously quite familiar with the lyrics. I was intrigued by the passion of the audience, so eagerly intent during every moment of the performance, and their shouts of bravi and bis (encore) at the end of each act.

I really enjoyed the performance, which was masterfully done by all the performers and the orchestra. Next time I’d like to go to an outdoor performance, like they have in Verona or Rome, where the seats are more reasonably priced. Haruko has been to the Verona arena several times and has raved to me about it. But I’m glad to have had the chance to attend a first rate opera in a first rate opera house.

After the performance, I met up with Paolo and his family, who had also attended, and we were taken backstage, a privilege due to Paolo’s standing in the community. Then we went out for a quick pizza, and it was nearly midnight when we got back to the Palace.

With Paolo at Palazzo Ducale.
On my last morning in Parma, I walked around the centro storico (historic center) and hung out in the Parco Ducale one last time. The park was a comfort, an inspiration and a solace to me during my stay.

in Paradiso: Parma and Modena

Originally published on: Oct 10, 2008

I can't help seems like I'm in paradise, and I don't want to leave. It's that simple.
Parco Ducale
At the moment, I'm in Parco's a beautiful fall day in Parma. On days like this, people come to the park to hang out with each other. Not to do anything in particular...just hang out. Retired men gather in the afternoons at the same bench and engage in passionate discussions. Many, like me, come to take advantage of the free wi-fi system. People stroll by, arm-in-arm, or ride by on old-fashioned bicycles, usually with a basket at the front. Huge chestnut trees are everywhere, shedding not only leaves but their fruit, and no one comes to clear anything away, so the ground is covered with a multi-colored blanket of leaves and chestnuts.

Earlier in the day, I went to the Correggio exhibit that is one of the main attractions in Parma this year. I haven't been to many museums on this trip, but I'm glad I made it to this exhibit. Before going to the main hall, there are two massive churches with Correggio frescoes to view. Elaborate scaffolding is set up to enable people to get nearly close enough to touch the frescoes that are painted on the ceilings of the cupolas of the churches. Hands down, this was my favorite part of the attraction. But after that, I spent nearly two hours more viewing the rest of the exhibit, which included paintings by Correggio collected in museums all over the world and gathered together for this exhibit in Parma.

The Coreggio exhibit.
After this feast for the eyes, I decided to treat myself to a Parmesan specialty, tortelli di zucca. This pasta is somewhat similar to ravioli: it's stuffed with pumpkin and served with a bit of butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, nothing more. Exquisite! I also ordered a quarto (quarter of a liter) of red wine, and had a leisurely meal in an outdoor cafe on Piazza Garibaldi, watching other diners and enjoying the day. Next door to the cafè there's an exhibit of photos from the Verdi opera, La Traviata, and music from the opera easily heard from powerful loudspeakers. For me, this is paradise.

I can't adequately express how different life is in Italy, how deeply this country affects me, or how painful the thought of leaving it is. During these five weeks, I've met more than fifty people, and I can't imagine that it might be another year before I'll see any of them again. It's just not right.

Giovanna in Modena
Yesterday I took a day trip with another new friend, Giovanna, to Modena, renowned both for its balsamic vinegar and as the birthplace of Luciano Pavarotti. I'd heard that Giovanna had recently moved to Parma from KC, and called her earlier in the week to see if we might meet. We spent the next two afternoons together, and I enjoyed having someone to travel with for a change. Giovanna's husband is a native of Parma and they decided their three kids might benefit from living near their grandparents and going to school in Italy.

Piazza Grande, Modena
Modena is thirty minutes from Parma by train, and proved to be a good choice for a day trip. It reminds me of a smaller, quieter Bologna. We wandered the streets, visited the main sights and had a leisurely lunch. You may have gathered by now that in Italy, meals are eaten leisurely more often than not. Businesses close for 3-4 hours and one can easily spend two hours at lunch, chatting with friends, never hurried along by waiters to eat and run, as is usually the case in the States.
Tonight I'm headed for the opera, my first experience with this Italian tradition, on my last night in Parma. Tomorrow I leave for Firenze and a few days to visit friends before heading back to the States.


Originally published on: Oct 7, 2008

When I arrived in Parma, it was a nice sunny day, and I easily made my way from the station to the Palazzo Ducale, familiar with the route from my stay there last year. I stopped at the Carabinieri Commando station to get the key to my suite, and quickly got settled. I have the same suite I had last year, comfy and spacious. My friend Paolo tells me that the mayor wants to relocate the Carabinieri headquarters so the Palace could be open for public use, so this will probably be the last chance I’ll have to stay here.

Palazzo Ducale
After settling in, I walked down to the tourist information center to find out about internet options, and learned there is a free wi-fi system in Parma, the first I’ve come across on my travels this year. The only drawback is that you have to be willing to sit outside in order to use it. As long as the weather stays nice, that should be no problem. Today I read my email while sitting on a bench in the Parco Ducale, surrounded by chestnut trees that are shedding not only leaves but chestnuts. It was quite pleasant. After four weeks without much internet access, I’m almost unwilling to have it again, it’s been a relief to be oblivious to what’s going on in the world.

Parco Ducale.
The next day, Paolo invited me to attend la partita di calcio, an Italian soccer game. Why not? It was between Parma and Modena, who are bitter rivals, but Parma performed poorly, so I didn’t get a chance to see the kind of brawl that often develops during these games. What I enjoyed most was hearing the steady chanting of the fans, quite musical and strong, that went on throughout the game. Paolo said that those same fans can become quite brutal when they are enraged over a game’s outcome.

Calcio a Parma.
After the game, I went to the Piazza del Duomo, where the preliminaries to Parma’s Palio were going on. People were strolling the area in medieval costumes, serving samples of foods, demonstrating creative skills and playing instruments from that time. It was quite festive, and the streets were crowded with people out for their weekend stroll. It was quite a contrast to the quiet day at the beach of a few days ago,

The Duomo.

The next day, there were hours of parades, as the five different quarters of the city strolled through town in medieval costume as a preliminary to the Palio, which turned out to be a short competition between three groups representing the five areas of the city: men, women and donkeys. Due to the crowds lining the street, I never got to see the men and women running the course, but I had a quick glimpse of the reluctant donkeys being pulled by ropes to compete in their portion of the event.

I’ve spent the last few days exploring the parks in Parma. The weather has been lovely, and people really enjoy the parks here, not to do anything specific, but just to hang out in. I enjoy observing this pastime, which seems quite different than the American habit of being in the park to do something specific, like going to the playground, playing frisbee or having a picnic. Here people just hang out together: talking, strolling and enjoying the weather.

Today I’m meeting with an American who recently moved here from Kansas City, and later in the week I’ll attend the opera Rigoletto. It’s the real deal, and my first time to see an Italian opera, so I’m looking forward to that experience. However, I was sadly disillusioned about my capacity to be stylish in Italy: there are too many beautiful, young and effortlessly stylish people everywhere I go! I might be making progress in the art of wearing scarves, but that’s about all I can manage this time around. I watched the primi (premiere) of Rigoletto on tv last night and am thankful I wasn’t in that crowd: they were really dressed to the nines! I’ve been told casual dress is also acceptable, but fortunately I brought some dress-up clothes that should suffice.

After the opera, I return to Florence to hang out with friends for a few days before my return home next week. Five weeks still seems all too short a time to be in Italy!


Originally published on: Oct 5, 2008

Michela, Michael and Roberto
Before I left Ascoli, I met with Roberto, Michela and Michael again. The four of us walked around the city for several hours, then Michael and I went out to dinner while Roberto and Michela headed for home. Before they left, Roberto took us to a restaurant he especially liked, and told the the waiters to serve us a meal of typical dishes of the region. It was another Italian feast, and quite delicious. Michael and I enjoyed both the meal and the conversation and feel indebted to Roberto for his generous attention during our stay in Ascoli.

The next morning I had my first experience calling a taxi, and managed just fine. I took a bus to Grottammare, and when I got off, Domenico was there to help me find the hotel. After I got settled in and walked around the town a bit, I went to the beach, just a few blocks from the hotel. It was a warm, sunny day, but the beach was nearly empty, and it seemed as if I had the coastline all to myself. During July and August, the town's usual size of 15,000 people doubles, but most of the year it is quiet, and I really enjoyed the tranquility.

On the beach in Grottammare.
Later that evening, Domenico returned and we walked along the Lungomare, a wide path that rims the beach, and is lined on either side with huge palm trees. We always seem to have a lot to talk about, and he helped to encourage my use of Italian while I was in his town by having these evening chats together.

The Lungomare.
The next day I decided to trek up to the old city, where Domenico had taken me the week before in the rain. Not many people live in this part of Grottammare, but it has a rich history. It's perched on a hill overlooking the coast, and the wall and towers built to defend the city were helpful for scouting and warding off pirates who came from the east. I spent several hours exploring the medieval streets that were nearly empty of people. After that, I returned to the beach and spent the afternoon there, enjoying the warm sun and the sound of the waves. It felt like a bit of paradise.

In the evening, Domenico came for another walk and chat along the Lungomare, then we walked to his mother's house, not far from my hotel. His younger sister, Ester, was also there, and the four of us had a lovely meal together, of tortellini and beef, peas, pickled eggplant and artichokes (I happen to like artichokes, which are common and plentiful in Italian dishes). This sweet Italian family made me feel truly welcome and it was a real pleasure to spend a few hours in their home.

Domenico with his mother and sister Cinzia.
The next morning I went out for a coffee, and when I strolled by the house of Domenico's mother, she waved to me and invited me in for coffee. She and Ester bustled around to prepare coffee latte and biscotti for me, though they had already finished their own breakfast. Without Domenico there, I was on my own to communicate only in Italian, but we managed well enough. I feel as if I forged a special connection with this family.

After making so many connections in Ascoli and Grottammare, this is the area I'm most interested in spending more in on my next visit to Italy. Two days by the sea simply wasn't enough. I'm thinking two months might be nice. I inquired about some inexpensive lodging while I was there, and found several options that seem promising.

Later in the morning, Domenico, always the gentleman, picked me up and accompanied me to San Benedetto, a few miles south, where the main train station for the area is located. It was so nice to have help with my luggage, which seems to get heavier as I continue my journey through Italy. I'm really grateful to Domenico for the many kindnesses shown to me while I was in Grottammare, especially since he's quite busy this semester finishing an engineering degree. I felt sad to be leaving the warmth of area: both the people and the beach.

I was warned that the train would probably be more crowded than the previous trains I'd been on, and this proved to be true. I was able to find a seat for the first several hours, but then had to stand once we arrived in Bologna and people with reserved seats claimed their stake to the seat I was in. By this time, the aisles were filled with people standing by their luggage, but I didn't mind, as it only lasted an hour and gave me a better view of the landscape we were passing by. This time I didn't have to change trains, and the 4½ hour ride seemed to go by fast, taking me north and west to Parma.