A Year in Florence

From July 2008 to July 2009, my wife (then fiancee) and I lived in Florence, Italy. We wrote many updates to family and friends. Below are the ones I wrote. If you would prefer to read them individually, please click on the different updates under the ‘A Year in Florence’ tab above.


Culture Shock

(August 2008)

Melanie and I have had an ongoing debate in our relationship. She contends the world is designed for taller people, and it is almost always an advantage to be taller. While I admit there are times when it’s good to be tall, I’ve argued that height can also be a disadvantage. My classic example has always been airplane seats. Melanie can stretch her legs and even sit cross-legged in her seat. I get to eat my knees. Here in Italy, I’ve got lots more evidence. Everything here is smaller, built centuries ago before refrigeration, proper nutrition and good medical care. I guess people got used to tight spaces and smaller things, and haven’t changed things much since.

The first example is the doorways. Most of the outside doors to buildings and apartments look big, but they are split in two, like the cupboard doors in your kitchen. That means I have to turn sideways to go through. And here in our first apartment in Florence, I have to duck to go through our bathroom door.

The streets are smaller, too. They were built for foot and horse traffic, not cars and scooters. The scooters, or motorini, rule the streets. Tiny cars fit into tiny parking spaces, almost always on only one side of the street, leaving a narrow space for traffic. All but the biggest streets are one way. Sidewalks, added after the advent of the automobile, look like an afterthought. They have no uniform width, and are often cluttered with locked up bicycles or parked cars and scooters hanging over them. Rarely can you walk side-by-side down the sidewalk, never if someone’s coming the other way. Usually I just walk behind Melanie or in the street. My ears are now quite good at distinguishing if a car is driving up behind me or just passing on a side street.

People are smaller, or at least much more slender than in the States. They walk everywhere, eat better (or at least less), don’t have nearly as much work stress, and don’t live in the body-building culture of America. Their bellies are smaller, but so are their muscles. It’s rare to see a yoked Italian dude (someone with large muscles, for the slang-impaired), but of course when you do, he’s showing off the guns.

But that’s not all. Chairs, beds, glasses, plates, pots, pans are all smaller. Shops and cafes sometimes only have one narrow aisle to walk down. (I almost knocked over a whole rack of glass spice bottles when I turned too quickly in one store.) Furniture is smaller, too. Many hotels or apartments advertising bedrooms for couples simply have pushed two double beds together. If it’s a bed that fits two people (about a full size), they call it a “French style” bed. I wonder why.

But the smallness of things is not the only change we’ve had to adjust to since we moved here. There is also the lack of vegetation. Several years ago, some friends of mine from Spain were planning a visit to the United States, and they asked me where they should go. They were thinking of visiting lots of different cities. I told them they should see places like New York and San Francisco, but to see something truly American they should visit our national parks. There is almost no wilderness left in Europe since it is so developed. They followed my advice, and were amazed at the beauty of our country.

Having just driven across our country and visited many national parks ourselves, the almost complete absence of vegetation here is difficult to get used to. Aside from a handful of parks scattered throughout, there is almost no attempt by the city planners here to incorporate green things in the city. In America we have lawns, gardens and trees lining the streets. Even malls have planters.

Here there is nothing. You may find a courageous resident trying to grow flowers in a window box, and as you leave the city center there is more of an attempt to green the streets, but not much.

There are the lucky moments as you walk through the narrow streets when you catch a glimpse of the rolling hills beyond and realize you are in Tuscany. The hills dotted with olive trees aren’t exactly wilderness, but they are green and beautiful. For now I’ll continue to get my green fix on my runs along the Arno, and remind myself that while I don’t get to paddle on the ocean or camp in the wilderness, I do still get to live in Florence.


Our Favorite Night in Florence

(August 2008)

Florence is situated in a river valley. The Arno River cuts east-west through the city.  The neighborhood south of the Arno is the Oltrarno (“beyond the Arno”).  On this side, the hills rise quickly from the banks. North of the river, where the main part of the city lies, the land is flat. In the summer that flat part is like a giant frying pan whose edges are the surrounding green hills dotted with trees and houses. With temperatures usually above 95 degrees by 9 a.m., humidity around 50%, and virtually no breeze or vegetation to cool things off, it is hot.

The heat made our first days in Florence a lot harder than we thought they would be. Our main priority was to avoid the heat, followed a close second by avoiding the tourists. Add to this situation our instinct to make our money last, and we found we weren’t really going to see the sights (we hadn’t yet discovered there are tons of wonderful things here that can be seen for free). Our apartment was no respite. We kept the windows closed most of the time to keep out the mosquitoes. We sweated out our days in the apartment studying Italian on our computer, reading, and watching bad Italian television. In the early evenings I would go for a run along the Arno and Melanie would do yoga in the apartment. She joked it was like doing yoga in a sauna (aka Bikram yoga). We needed an escape.

Our Lonely Planet book has been our guide on this trip, so we looked for ideas of what to see outside of the city center. South of the Arno is Piazzale Michelangelo, which affords excellent views of the city, according to the book. You climb up a steep and winding hill to find the piazzale crowded with many tourists and souvenir peddlers, but they do not compromise the view. You get a 180-degree view of Florence.

A bit farther south and higher up sits the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church whose construction began in the 11th Century. That looked like just our spot. We wanted a sunset view of Florence, so we headed out after dinner. As we ascended the green slopes above Piazzale Michelangelo, the air cooled.

Despite the throngs who make the uphill trek to Piazzale Michelangelo, few people feel like walking ten minutes further uphill to get to San Miniato. We were glad they don’t. Only a few other couples were there. The church was closed, so we sat on the steps overlooking the city and watched the sunset. The air was cool, the view spectacular. We could see all of Florence: the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, the bridges spanning the Arno. After the sun had set, the bells of San Miniato pealed over the Arno to the city, the bells of the Duomo returning their call. As we were experiencing sights and sounds countless people have experienced for centuries, one thought came to my mind: we have arrived in Florence.


Our New ‘Hood: San Lorenzo

(September 2008)

After five weeks at our old apartment, we have moved. Via Alfani, where our old apartment was, is a major east-west corridor in downtown Florence. We discovered this early on by the amount of noise coming through the windows of our apartment. For those of you interested in maps, if you follow Via Alfani west it turns into Via Guelfa (like any street in Florence longer than one block, it changes its name.) About eight blocks east of our old apartment (Via Alfani, 7), you will find yourself on Via San Zanobi. Go north, and we are about halfway up the block on the west side, at Via San Zanobi, 33.

Despite the constant noise coming from motorini (scooters), bambini (the children of the owners of the Indian market were constantly crying about something), and ubriaconi (our drunk neighbor was either playing music at 100 decibels or in shouting matches every night), we liked our old place. It was a great introduction to the vibrant energy of a city and it was close to many of the historic sites. That said, we absolutely love our new place.

Da Crib: You walk through the front door of the building into a wide foyer, then through an iron gate to get to our front door. The building has a cool, quiet feel that is in stark contrast to our old building’s dark, narrow entry corridor that smelled of cigarettes. Enter our apartment through a large double door and you find your eyes moving up, and up and up. The ceilings are high, my guess is about thirteen feet. In this part of the apartment they are made of dark wooden planks supported by wooden beams. They remind me of the ceilings we saw in the Palazzo Davanzati, one of the first palaces we visited in Florence.

The floor is old cotto tile, and it takes you past not one but two bathrooms on the left, and two desks and a bookshelf on the right. Keep going, and on the left is the bedroom, again with high wooden ceilings. There is even a mosquito net above the beds. Melanie loves the peace of mind that comes from draping it over us every night.

Past the bedroom is the main living area. Just when you thought the place couldn’t get any cooler than wooden ceilings, you are greeted with something that makes you feel like you are really in Italy: arched ceilings. The arches are as high as the wooden ceilings, and made of brick. This room stretches the length of the apartment and has a small living room, dining area and (IKEA) kitchen. Windows throughout the whole apartment brighten the yellow walls decorated with eclectic artwork.

As if all this wasn’t enough, our favorite part may be what those windows show us. After all my whining about no vegetation, guess what we have: a garden! There is a back porch, a small storage room, and a gravel walkway with geraniums, an oleander, and several other unidentified plants all in clay pots. I get to water the plants every morning, and we can sit and drink wine among the plants. We share a fence with the trattoria next door, where two cats (one black, one white) hang out waiting for scraps. The people who run the trattoria seem very friendly, and we hope to have a meal there soon.

Da Hood: When we first started looking at this apartment, Melanie was worried about the noise because she lived in this neighborhood before. Since the Mercato di San Lorenzo and Mercato Centrale are so close, many of the vendors keep their carts close by. At the indecent hour of 5:30 am, the sound of roll doors opening and carts being wheeled down cobbled streets wakes even the soundest sleeper. Still the apartment looked very nice from the website, so we decided to risk it. To our delight, the apartment is very quiet. The first night my ears were ringing from the absence of sound.

Being in an apartment removed from the street helps a lot, but that street is also quieter. The old city walls, now a ring of boulevards (viale) that border the city, are generally considered where downtown ends and the more “suburban” Florence, with wider, quieter streets begins. In many ways, Via Alfani/Via Guelfa is the dividing line. As soon as you are north of it, even half a block as we are now, the city changes. The high density of businesses and narrow streets gives way to slighter wider, quieter, more residential areas. There is mixed zoning throughout the city, so there are no truly commercial or residential zones, but the concentration of businesses decreases just north of Via Alfani/Via Guelfa.

We are still close to the Duomo and everything downtown, but are enjoying more tranquility in our new neighborhood. Also, I am really excited since I discovered an actual supermarket north of us during a recent run, with much more selection and cheaper prices than the cheapest market downtown, so I am excited to show it to Melanie.

We love our new place, our new neighborhood, and love being in Florence.


Autumn’s Arrival in Florence

(September 2008)

Usually it starts with the tourists. Every year around the end of August, the swarms of people buzzing around the Duomo and clogging the city streets start to thin. As they return to the States or Germany or Japan, the Florentines return from the beaches and hills to reclaim their city. This annual rite of passage even has a name: the rientro, or re-entry. Shops that are closed for part or all of August raise their roll doors, dust off their merchandise and re-open for business. Italian once again becomes the dominant language on the streets, save for the pockets where American students live. As summer moves into autumn, Florence becomes itself again.

Apparently this year the sun didn’t get the memo. The oppressive heat it beat down on the city for half of July and all of August did not disappear in September. Hazy heat and humidity hung heavy in the air, softening the lines of the surrounding hills. Since our arrival on July 18, there had only been one light rain shower. The hills still held on valiantly to their green hue, drawing moisture from the dew that blanketed them each morning. Yet it still did not rain, and summer’s heat still clung to the moist air well into the second week of September.

That all changed in one weekend. On Wednesday, September 10, the clouds gave a warning, a heavenly harbinger of the change to come. Cloudless virtually every day before that, the sky turned white then gray then dark gray. We received our first precipitation in a month, but it was only a fleeting afternoon shower. Those clouds left, but like children running ahead of their parents they were followed by increasingly larger clouds.

By Friday we still had not received more rain, but the sky was growing darker, the air heavier. Anvil cloud armies with their great towers of moisture were descending from the north. Rain was definite; the only question was when it would arrive. On Friday afternoon I was in the internet café two blocks from our house while Melanie was at home. I was catching up on email before a 6:00 pm lesson, and not heeding nature’s warning, I had taken no raingear or umbrella. While I was there the rain started.

It gave no warning drops, no gentle transition into the heart of the storm. Having announced its arrival two days prior, it felt no need for additional ceremony. These clouds had decided to empty the air of summer, and they wanted to waste no time. Fat drops of rain plummeted onto unsuspecting pedestrians who ran for cover. In one minute the streets went from bone dry to drenched.

I had to head home to change for my lesson, so I ran as fast as I could. It did no good. By the time I had reached our apartment I looked like I had gone swimming in my clothes. I hung my wet clothes and changed into dry ones, put on my raincoat, grabbed the umbrella and headed out. My shields against the rain worked for my top half, but my bottom half quickly got soaked. The momentum of large, fast raindrops caused them to bounce off the pavement and halfway up my legs.

As I made the ten-minute walk to work, the streets were empty except for a few brave, foolish or hurried individuals: an unhappy-looking woman with a poncho riding her bicycle; a tourist couple already too wet to care. The storefronts were filled with people seeking shelter and watching nature’s show. Hail fell briefly, pure white popcorn that pinged off cars and scooters. With gutters unable to contain the downpour, rivers of rainwater flooded the streets.

The rain poured steadily through the night, becoming intermittent mid-day Saturday. It continued on and off through Sunday. Nature was trying to scrub itself clean, and it worked. The stones of the streets and sidewalks were polished to their original colors. Moisture was gone from the air; the hills now sharp photographs instead of the impressionist paintings of summer. The individual pine trees that dot their slopes were clearly visible. The Arno River that runs through the southern part of the city carried away this moisture and grime, and for several days after the storm its normal dark green color was light brown. Its waters swelled up the banks, submerging tree trunks and low-hanging branches. Yet the rain took away more than dirt. On Friday it was summer; by Sunday it was autumn.

The air which was still as pond water in the summer is now kinetic, blowing scents of wood smoke down the mountains and along the Arno. The annual northerly wind carrying Arctic chill, called the tramontana, is a month early. Temperatures are twenty to thirty degrees Fahrenheit lower. Now there is a chill in the morning air, and I walk to my 8:30 lesson with a jacket on. The warmer afternoon temperatures are pleasant, pale reminders of summer. The nights are cold, and we shiver under layers of blankets and comforters until there is enough heat trapped underneath them. Midnight forays to the bathroom are few and swift.

We feel more attuned to the seasons here, and not just because this transition was so dramatic. Stores reflect the shift with changes in inventories and prices. White onions have been absent in our local market for two weeks. The price of bananas doubled overnight. Yet these are not the only signs. Despite my earlier complaints of lack of vegetation (as irony would have it, we now have a backyard garden and a park a block from home), Italy is still very attached to its agrarian roots. This time of year, harvest festivals abound, and people gather in different towns across Tuscany to celebrate the earth’s annual bounty.

One such festival is the Chianti Classico wine festival in the town of Greve (pronounced greh-veh) usually held the second weekend of September. This year it was the same weekend of the heavy rain, so Melanie and I postponed our planned Saturday excursion to Sunday in hopes of staying dry. We will talk in more detail about this once we have visited all the wine festivals, but for now I will say we had fun sampling wine and food from the Chianti region (including a porchetta sandwich and schiacciata con l’uva, a sweet bread studded with grapes) and talking to vintners about the process of making wine. We even bought some sausage and salumi di cinghiale (wild boar salami) from Macelleria Falorni, a foodie pilgrimage site.

We still have the Florence Wine Event and the grape harvest festival in Impruneta to visit at the end of the month, and now that there is more rain, porcini mushroom season will soon be upon us. We hope to go to the harvest festivals for porcini and tartufi (truffles) soon. Those will have to wait until another update.


Ode to the Grape

(October 2008)

September is grape harvesting season here in Tuscany. Since there are many events here dedicated to the grape and its most divine form, wine, Melanie and I decided to wait until we had attended all of the wine events and festivals before telling you about them. We attended three distinct events in three different locations, and enjoyed each one for different reasons.

The first one was the Slow Food Firenze Wine Championship held in Fiesole, which looks down on Florence from its perch atop a hill north of the city. Fiesole was founded by the Etruscans long before Florence was a glimmer in the eye of Caesar, or Caesar was the glimmer in his mother’s eye for that matter. We took a fifteen-minute bus trip up the hill to the town, toured the sites (a church, a museum full of Della Robbia terra cotta pieces) before entering the archeological park where the wine championship was to be held. There we toured the various museums and ruins (including Roman baths), had lunch in a Roman amphitheatre still used today for concerts, and bought our wine glasses.

Despite the name of the event (Slow Food Firenze Wine Championship), we had nothing to do with the judging of wines, or even the viewing of the judging of wines. That took place in an enclosed area far from the rest of the activities. No matter. We came to sample some wine, and got much more. There were butchers and bakers (but no candlestick makers), as well as makers of cheese, chocolate, olive oil and wine. For six euros you got a wine glass that allowed you unlimited tastings of wine. In addition, all but the chocolatier were giving away food samples for free.

Without going into too much detail, the Slow Food Movement promotes seasonal, regional cuisine made from traditional methods. All the producers at this event used Slow Food practices, and came to market their gastronomic wares to their philosophical brethren, people like us. In addition to some excellent wines we sampled cheese, olive oil, sausages and Melanie’s new favorite cookie, cantucci from a baker called Il Cantuccio.

We also learned some basics about Tuscan wine. The Sangiovese grape is the dominant grape of the region, and is used to make all sorts of wine. Chianti (from the Chianti region of course) can be Classico or Riserva (reserve). The Riserva is typically better quality than the regular, and contains a higher percentage of the Sangiovese grape. Super Tuscans are a heavier wine because to make them vintners mix Sangiovese grapes with Cabernet grapes. The top wines in Tuscany are called Brunello di Montalcino, which also have a high percentage of the Sangiovese grape. After several glasses they all start tasting the same, but they all taste good so it doesn’t matter.

Mostly Americans and other English speakers attended this event, which was somewhat disappointing although not surprising. Wine tourism has become big here, and local vintners are taking advantage of the increased interest through events like this one. Still, it was a little sad to watch one of the men who was pouring wine. He kept asking everyone if they were Tuscan, and when they said no he looked disheartened. Hopefully the locals will realize what Americans already know: drinking wine in Tuscany is fun.

The event in Fiesole helped prepare for the next one, the wine festival in Greve in Chianti. Greve in Chianti is a small town south of Florence in the heart of the Chianti region, and every year it holds the Chianti Classico, afestival dedicated to wines of the region. This took place on the weekend of the big storm that swept across our section of Italy, but by the time we went there on Sunday the showers were intermittent. That allowed us to taste wines in a relative state of dryness.

And boy was there wine. This event was much bigger than the one in Fiesole. After a half-hour bus ride south, we walked from the bus stop down a street lined with food vendors. We took mental notes of what we would eat later as we headed toward the wine. The whole thing was set up in the main piazza of the town, the triangular Piazza Matteotti.In it there was a large tasting bar with over a hundred wines to choose from, plus booths set up by individual wine makers. For ten euros you got a glass (much bigger and nicer than the ones at the wine championship) and a card that gave you twelve tastings. Melanie and I bought two glasses and headed to the maker booths first, and continued to “educate” ourselves about Tuscan wine. (Translation: We were here to drink.) It was fun to talk to vintners about growing grapes, types of grape, making wine, and how things like weather affect the process.

Most people working the event spoke English, although we did get to practice some Italian. Almost everyone attending the event seemed to speak English, and most of those were Americans. Seeing these people made us realize how fortunate we are. The people traveled thousands of miles to tour and taste Tuscany for a few days; we get to spend a whole year here going to events like this.

The last event we went to was in Impruneta, a town south of Florence but closer than Greve in Chianti. It was called the Festa dell’Uva, or grape festival. It was different from the other two events for several reasons. First, we were accompanied by my parents who had come to spend a week with us. Second, although this festival was dedicated to the grape, very little wine drinking actually took place. There were only a couple booths selling wine, usually along with whatever food they were selling. And third, while the other events were dominated by Americans, this was truly Italian.

Every year on the last weekend in September Impruneta hosts the Festa dell’Uva. Throughout the weekend people sell all kinds of food from booths set up in a park. While many people sold Tuscan cuisine, others sold things from other regions such as Puglia or provinces farther south. We sampled porchetta sandwiches and various Italian torte (cakes) including apple, chocolate, walnut, and our personal favorite, torta di nonna, which is a custard-filled cake. Yummmmmmy! After getting our fill we headed to the main drag to get a good seat for the parade.

Now, I’ll be honest. You know that saying “everybody loves a parade”? Well, I don’t. That is, I didn’t until this one. I used to think nothing could be duller than watching a bunch of slow-moving floats covered with slowly moving people slowly waving to the crowd. Maybe I still think so, but this parade was nothing like that. There are four neighborhoods in Impruneta. In Italian they are called Rione. They are Sante Marie, Sant’Antonio, Pallò and Le Fornaci. For the parade each neighborhood builds its own float and stages its own production with the residents of each neighborhood.

At its infancy this event may have been a small affair, with neighborhoods engaging in friendly competition for the best floats and performances. The competition is still friendly, but if it was ever small it certainly isn’t now. Giant floats thirty feet tall are painstakingly constructed and decorated. Some of them had mechanical moving parts. All of them used tons of grapes, either in bunches or individually placed. We wondered at the amount of work that must have gone into the grape application alone, especially considering they would rot quickly. We estimated many of the people had an early morning the day of the parade.

The parade had two stages. The first, where we were, was the smaller performance piece. People of all ages danced and acted out the stages of wine production in front of judges. The second stage was a bigger production involving the floats and a stage. We couldn’t see that part very well since you needed a ticket for a seat in that area. We liked our seats better anyway, since it allowed us an up close view of locals celebrating life in Italy.

The first neighborhood was Le Fornaci. Every neighborhood seemed to have its strengths, and Le Fornaci’s was the performance. They went for the cute factor as well, incorporating many kids into the performance. Melanie especially liked the ant and bee costumes with big butts that on the smallest kids dragged on the ground. This performance took us through the whole cycle of nature and how it affects grape growth and harvesting. People represented sunlight, plants, rain, wind and wine, with all the process acted out to music.

The next neighborhood was Pallò, and its strength was float construction. Their performance wasn’t quite as good (or as cute), but did feature scarecrows on stilts encircled by flying crepe paper crows, and fifteen-feet-high Grape Queens with fifty-foot fabric trains flowing from their skirts to represent wine being poured. Even more amazing was their stage production that included floats with giant moving parts. Like I said, this was no small production. Keep in mind, this is a small town of a few thousand people.

And that’s what we liked about this whole day. This was a local affair on a beautiful day in a small town nestled in the hills of Tuscany. While much of Florence and the surrounding area feels inundated with tourists, this event was refreshingly native. Don’t get me wrong; I know we are tourists ourselves, albeit slightly more permanent ones. Still, it was good to see something that hasn’t been influenced too much by outsiders, an event created by Italians for Italians. Next time you drink a glass of Italian wine, know that it was prepared with care by people who love their region. Better yet, come visit and see for yourselves.



(January 2009)

Like many cities in Europe, Florence once had walls around it. In the nineteenth century the civic leaders decided that, with the threat of invading barbarian hordes at an all-time low, it would be better to tear down the walls and replace them with wide viale, or boulevards, that encircle the city. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. Indeed, many of the things we dislike about Florence (noisy traffic, narrow sidewalks, people who use the streets as their trash can), might not exist here if there were still a decent set of walls around the place. Fortunately, the towns we visited in the Sienese countryside did not make such a grievous error.

On a cold, clear day just after New Year’s, we rented a white Fiat Panda just big enough to hold Melanie and me plus our shared suitcase, and drove south from Florence through the Chianti hills toward Siena. Navigating the route was not too hard, but trickier than it should have been. Driving directions in Italy are difficult for several reasons. First, street names change every few blocks. This can be confusing, maddening or frightening depending on your familiarity with the system (or rather lack thereof). Perhaps because of these constant changes, street signs with actual street names are nonexistent. The only signs are those indicating the next town.

Google Maps gives directions the American way, complete with right turns, left turns and street names, which are nearly useless here. Thank goodness for roundabouts; I’m convinced they exist so people can drive around them several times before they figure out which way to go, and so drivers can reverse direction after the inevitable wrong turn. Despite all these potential pitfalls, we managed to make it to Siena with only a couple slight detours and stops to check the map.

Built on the tallest hill in the region to deter invaders from places like Florence (Siena’s historical rival), Siena enjoys 360-degree views (once strategic, now simply scenic) of the surrounding countryside. While Florence’s golden age was during the Renaissance, Siena had its heyday in the Middle Ages. Its art and architecture reflect that, and its Medieval flavor is preserved by ancient walls that completely encircle the city. These walls mean that parking and driving in the city are vietato (forbidden), so we had to find one of the several car parks placed around the city and leave the Panda behind.

Once we parked the car we had to find a way to go up a steep incline to the nearest portal through the walls. Melanie said she spotted an escalator. I thought she was joking, but in fact there was one, or rather a series of five escalators, leading straight up to a portal. We grew hopeful; this kind of thoughtful planning is nonexistent in Florence. Perhaps the interior of the city would show evidence of care as well.

We were not disappointed. Siena’s streets are clean, cobbled and without sidewalks since pedestrians rule the streets. The air was clear and fresh, the cold wind carrying the sounds of people walking and window shopping. The ubiquitous buzz of motorini (scooters) in Florence is noticeably absent in Siena. Even the people seem happier here, smiling while strolling arm in arm and gazing into stores. No games of Sidewalk Gladiator here.

As with most of our trips (indeed, most of our life), one of our main focuses in Siena was food. After checking into our room we headed toward a restaurant called Papei that was recommended by the man at the front desk. There was a long line of people outside—usually a good sign of quality, but a bad sign since we were hungry and it was cold outside. Luckily they had a table for two. We were led up a narrow staircase to a small seating area that looked out over the rest of the restaurant below, with four tables placed under vaulted brick ceilings. The host tucked us into the corner and gave us menus in German. Uh-oh…we have been living in Italy long enough that we are mistaken for Europeans. My high school German didn’t help much, but luckily our culinary Italian is good. Melanie ordered Tagliatelle con coniglio (with rabbit), and I ordered the Pappardelle con cinghiale (wild boar—I now order cinghiale every chance I get, and am currently trying to convince Melanie to serve it at our wedding). Both were excellent, but the highlight of the meal was dessert. Here we discovered ricciarrelli, an almond cookie native to Siena. It is light and airy, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside with a slight almond flavor and topped with powdered sugar. The three we were given were not nearly enough. With our bellies full and minds still on the ricciarrelli, we headed toward the main attraction of the city: Il Campo.

Siena is most famous for two things. The first is its scallop-shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (aka Il Campo), considered to be the most beautiful piazza in the world. The second is Il Palio, a bareback horse race which has been held in the Piazza del Campo every year since 1283. Each of the seventeen contrade, or sections of the city, has its own horse and rider festooned in the contrada‘s colors. The winning contrada has bragging rights for the year, and as a result much bribing, fixing and tampering occurs every race. Before coming to Italy Melanie and I had contemplated seeing Il Palio in person. After we were living here we watched it on television. With all the drunken revelers crammed into it, we are glad we came in the off season; the piazza is much more beautiful.

The curved part of the piazza is lined with restaurants, and at the bottom of the shell lies the Palazzo Pubblico with the tallest tower in Siena: the Torre del Mangia. Since we arrived late, we decided to save the tour of the Palazzo and climb up the Torre for the next day. We snapped a couple pictures and headed toward the city’s main cathedral, also called the Duomo, and the smattering of museums connected with it.

I’ll be honest. After living in Italy for six months, the constant parade of religious art can get a little tiring. I understand why people continued to use the same subjects century after century, but it is difficult to look at the same themes of Jesus, Madonna and Child, lives of saints and the like. I have learned to appreciate the skills of the artists and the differing techniques through the ages, but still; it’s like seeing the same movie over and over again, only the director and actors change. Having said that, Siena did offer some treats. There was an inlaid mosaic floor in the cathedral, beautiful frescoes in a library in that same building, and my personal favorite: a giant stained glass window perfectly preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Easily thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, its colors unfaded and undamaged by time, weather and wars, I was amazed someone was able to create such an intricate, delicate work, much less do it with the technology available hundreds of years ago. Though the word is overused, in this case it holds true: it is an absolute masterpiece. We also climbed the unfinished nave of the cathedral (an ambitious plan abandoned in 1348 since the bubonic plague had halved the taxable population), which offered beautiful views of the town and surrounding countryside.

After that we headed back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We decided on a restaurant called Il Carroccio, or the Broken Carriage,just south of Il Campo. The restaurant radiated the warmth of an authentic Tuscan restaurant: wooden tables, walls and ceilings of earth and wood worn with time, bricks and beams steeped in smells and sounds of meals past. Little things told us we were off the well worn tourist trail. Although the menus had translations, no one in the restaurant spoke English. We were greeted and seated in Italian. The décor was nothing fancy—framed family photographs hung haphazardly on the walls. The kitchen and wait station were visible from the dining area, and the employees’ attire was indistinguishable from the patrons’. These were all good signs.

When we arrived only a few people were dining there, but it very quickly filled up. Soon people were coming in and getting turned away immediately. After telling many people the restaurant was “completo” (full), the manager simply locked the door to prevent the steady stream of hopeful pedestrians from entering. Since Melanie and I were seated right by the door, we were grateful for the reduction in traffic and cold air. There was more to the man’s gesture than this, though. Unlike American restaurants where waiters smile at you pleasantly and tell you to take your time as they leave the check but really mean get the hell out of here, Tuscan restaurateurs make the guests feel like, well, guests. Most restaurants are family-owned, so the families want to make customers feel like they are eating in someone’s home, not a business. Here you never feel rushed, never feel like they need the table for anyone other than you.

Melanie was still full from lunch. I on the other hand had no such issues. In the list of appetizers there was something called “Medieval Antipasto,” an easy choice. I’m a firm believer in ordering anything with the word “Medieval” in its name. Melanie ordered a pumpkin risotto (one of her favorite dishes in Italy), and I ordered a meat-and-mushroom dish called polpettone. The Medieval appetizers came and looked rather, um, unconventional. It was a sample platter of crostini and other items, and I knew some of the samples had to be organ meat. Good thing my Italian is really bad. I didn’t bother asking what the stuff was; I just ate it. Most of it was excellent, although some of it I would characterize as “adventurous,” but in a good way. I polished off all the excellent ones, and at least tried the adventurous ones. Our main courses were wonderful, as was the pear and chocolate cake for dessert.

But the meal was only half the reason why we loved the place. The manager (perhaps owner?) had the warm, welcoming Italian spirit of hospitality we have found in many of the people we have met here. He socialized with the guests, even sitting at a table with some diners, and made sure everyone was happy. After our meal he passed by our table and gave us some grappa, a liqueur favored in these parts that is made from the skins of grapes. You could tell he loved making people happy by serving them great food. When we left, I told him we had “una cena perfetta” (a perfect dinner). He responded warmly as we exited onto the cold streets of Siena back to our hotel.

We slept well and awoke to another day of blue sky. After breakfast at the hotel we headed toward Il Campo again, this time to see the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia. The Torre del Mangia served for centuries as Siena’s lookout tower. Now it offers tourists the best views in Tuscany. The climb is a long, steep, spiral staircase that like the outside of the tower is made of brick. It took a good deal of time to enter the staircase (they allow people up in shifts every thirty minutes or so), although the climb itself was not bad. When we reached the top the cold wind blew at us from all sides, but it was well worth it. The views were spectacular in all directions, even if we had to maneuver around the bell that had once served as Siena’s alarm clock, end-of-work bell, curfew bell and warning signal. A thin morning mist still clung to the hills, but the clear winter air afforded views for miles.

From the tower the large piazza below still looks big, although it fits in your field of vision. You can also see the entire old city, buildings straining against the walls that barely contain them. The colors are quintessential Tuscan patchwork quilt: reds and greens and browns and the muted gray of the mist. We wanted to stay up there for hours and take hundreds of pictures, but the cold air eventually forced us into the warmer confines of the Palazzo Pubblico.

The Palazzo had some artwork depicting Sienese life in the Middle Ages, a welcome break from the religious monotony. I’ve always liked art like this since it gives a glimpse of what the world was like back then, or at least how the artist saw that life. An especially detailed one called Allegories of Good and Bad Government shows all the elements of life (farmers and tradesmen as well as city social life) in and around Siena. We wound our way through other rooms, but our empty stomachs and desire to get to our next destination led us to a pizzeria in the piazza. We wisely opted for an indoor table even though some brave souls were dining al fresco. The meal was good, and as we walked back to our car we were sad to leave such a charming city so soon. Still, we were looking forward to our next stops—two more walled hill towns— Monteriggioni and San Gimignano.


San Gimignano

(January 2009)

Any time you move to a new place, there is a period of transition, an awkward, fumbling-around-in-the-dark orientation while you try to figure out where the good grocery stores, shops and restaurants are, how to navigate the city, where to go for nice walks, to work out, to relax. When moving to a foreign country these tasks are greater in number and difficulty, since you have to deal not only with different procedures for simple processes like mailing or receiving packages, doing laundry, or even paying for things, but also because this all has to be done in a foreign language.

Before Melanie and I came to Italy, we tried to learn some Italian using Rosetta Stone, an interactive program on our computer. Unfortunately with all the preparations we had to do (tiling our bathrooms, packing our stuff, planning our trip), we did not study as much as we would have liked. Still, having learned several different languages each (with varying degrees of success), we hoped to pick up the language more once we lived here.

In our first few months here, we made a concerted effort to familiarize ourselves with the city. Early on we set a goal of walking down every street inside the old city walls, highlighting the streets on a map (now tearing at the creases from so many folds and refolds). We are well on our way to completing our quest. In addition, we have used our guide books to find smaller, more obscure museums and buildings often missed in the frenetic two- or three-day tours of Florence done by most tourists. As a result we have found many hidden gems we would not have seen otherwise, such as the Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure and the monochrome frescoes of the Chiostro dello Scalzo.

Our language skills have also improved since our first days of monosyllabic grunts. By no means are we fluent (especially because our computer crashed, preventing us from using Rosetta Stone), but we can wade our way through the necessary purchases of our daily lives without looking too foolish. Since it is so similar to Italian, my Spanish also helps me out on occasion. Unfortunately, that also means that when my brain gets in trouble and can’t find the Italian word, invariably the Spanish one pops out, eliciting confused looks from the person I’m trying to talk to. Fortunately for us, almost everyone here speaks some English.

Our trip to Siena, Monteriggioni and San Gimignano marked an ironic turning point for us. On one hand, it took place around the time of the halfway mark of our stay here, a date we have in some ways longed for. On the other hand, it was on this trip that we started to feel like residents, not visitors, of Italy.

Our journey started at the rental car agency. To my relief, the woman at the counter spoke English to the customers ahead of me. When money is involved, I prefer to use English. Still, over the course of our conversation, I sprinkled my phrases with Italian when I could. Not only does it help me practice my Italian, but also I have found that saying a few words in someone’s language, however badly, usually ingratiates you to that person.

As I progressed in my conversation with the woman, we began speaking more Italian and less English. While many in the service sector here speak English, usually they don’t speak it very well. It felt like a small victory–make that a very small victory–that my Italian was better than her English, but a victory nonetheless. On the rest of our trip we had similar linguistic success with people working in the hotels, restaurants and ticket offices of the towns we visited, ordering and buying in Italian even when the others spoke English. These linguistic connections go both ways, though; when we were checking out of our hotel in San Gimignano, the very cute six-year-old son of the receptionist was singing “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can…” Apparently Spiderman transcends language barriers.

I have already mentioned the minor difficulties encountered on our drive to Siena, but the fact that we arrived there in one piece (Italians are notoriously bad drivers) and more or less on time also speaks to our adaptation to our new surroundings. By the time we were leaving Siena for Monteriggioni, we had no trouble navigating.

Several of my students had suggested we visit Monteriggioni, a small, perfectly preserved walled village between Siena and San Gimignano. There is a restaurant within the walls where we planned to lunch, but having spent more time than we planned in Siena, and trying to get to our next destination before sunset, we simply entered, photographed and left. On another day it may have appeared less touristy and more enticing to us, but it was just as well since we were heading toward the jewel of our trip: San Gimignano.

In some ways San Gimignano is a miniature version of Siena. It is walled and well preserved. Famous for its towers, some call it the Medieval Manhattan. We arrived there just as the sun was tucking itself into the blanket of the Chianti hills, bathing them in a soft gold and rose. We parked by the south gate of the city and walked through it up Via San Giovanni, the main north-south artery of the city. In the summer this street is packed with tourists, but this evening it was rather calm. Since it was early January, the Christmas lights led the way to the town’s main piazza, the Piazza Cisterna. This piazza is named for the well in the center of it, and more Christmas lights were strung from the walls of the piazza‘s buildings to a ring suspended above the well. Our hotel was in this piazza, so we checked in and got a restaurant recommendation, again trying to speak as much Italian as we could.

Since it was one of the colder nights we have had here in Italy, we were glad the restaurant was a stone’s throw from our hotel. (The charm of San Gimignano is that everything is a stone’s throw.) Just inside the door there was a long counter where two women prepared salads, crostone and antipasti. A man lead us to the second floor loft, to a table nestled against the railing, giving us a complete view of the preparation and other diners below. This restaurant is called Osteria del Carcere, and is known for its fresh, innovative approach to traditional Tuscan fare. It did not disappoint. I had a twist on a pork and beans, and Melanie thoroughly enjoyed her faraona (guinea fowl) terrine studded with chestnuts and served with a chestnut purée.

Still, Melanie and I felt something was missing. In Siena, the restaurant was ideal: food, location and ambiance all meeting at the confluence of a perfect dining experience. Here at Osteria del Carcere, it seemed the restaurant cared about food, but not as much about people. The energy in the air was calm and contemplative, not warm and radiant. The servers were courteous, but not welcoming. The difference was subtle, but distinct. Then again, this might be because of something that happened earlier in the meal. The server brought us our appetizers and said something to me in Italian which I did not come close to comprehending. Ever the gentleman, I deferred to my bride-to-be so she could try to answer. She hadn’t understood either, so said no (it’s usually wiser to say no than yes when you don’t know what was said to you). We found out later that the woman simply wanted to explain to us what we were about to eat. So much for us feeling completely like residents.

But I am picking nits about this restaurant. The meal was wonderful, as was the hotel. We slept soundly and awoke to yet another glorious day, ate a hotel breakfast and hit the streets. After wandering in and out of the ceramics shops along Via San Giovanni, we headed north along San Gimignano‘s well kept streets. They are clean, traffic-free, and show evidence of great care. Beautiful wooden doors, flower boxes and shiny brass plaques are the norm, not the exception. The feel of them reminded us of Switzerland.

Since San Gimignano is known for its towers, it is also known for its views. If it is possible, the views here were even better than those in Siena, from the closeness of the surrounding hills to the distant snow-covered peaks of Abetone. We enjoyed these views from several venues around the city, ending up at a restaurant called Bel Soggiorno with floor-to-ceiling vistas over the farms and hills east of the city. The food was as magnificent as the views, both in taste and presentation, and is featured in the last few photos in the accompanying album.

After lunch we headed back to our hotel. On the way, Melanie spotted a sign indicating a scenic overlook, and took off ahead of me. As I followed her, the inevitable happened. After six months of living in Italy, as I was walking down the street in a town I had never been to, I heard someone say, “Axel!” Melanie was too far ahead to have been the person who called, so I looked around. Sitting at a table in the sun, enjoying the view we had come to see, was one of my students here. Marian was finishing up a meal with her boyfriend Matteo, the two of them having decided on a whim to come down to San Gimignano for the day.

Melanie knows Marian as well from a dinner we had with Marian’s class, so we fell into an easy conversation. We talked with them for a while, walking with them back to our hotel, making plans to hang out again before parting ways. As we left this charming city and headed home to Florence, having spent the past few days comfortably making our way through several cities in a foreign language, running into new friends in another town, one thought kept running through our minds: we are no longer tourists; we are officially living in Italy.


Seasons on the Arno: My Year on the River

(May 2009)

The Arno River divides the city of Florence into two major sections. The northern and more well known section is a collection of neighborhoods known as Il Centro, or the center. The southern section is called the Oltrarno, which means “the other side of the Arno.” Most visitors to the city spend the majority of their time in the center. If people go to the southern side, it is usually for a quick stop at the Palazzo Pitti or the Piazzale del Michelangelo for its amazing views over the city. Very few tourists venture farther than that, and if they do almost no one heads upriver to the east, or downriver to the west. On my two previous visits to Florence prior to moving here, I was one of those people. I visited the major tourist attractions, and enjoyed the picture postcard views of the Arno from around the city; buildings lining its banks, bridges spanning its waters. Despite my lifelong love of the water, I didn’t give much thought to the Arno beyond its aesthetics. Since we moved here, my perspective of the river has changed completely. Having spent many hours paddling a canoe on its waters, I now recognize the Arno for what it is: the indicator of change in Florence. And over the course of our year here, as the river has changed, so have I.

When we arrived in July, Florence was sweltering hot. Everything seemed to hang still in the sticky summer air. Even the Arno barely moved, and its stagnant waters stank like the city it runs through. Just as it was difficult to see the city through all the people slowly moving their way down its streets, so it was difficult to see past the murky shallows of the Arno. The river was in poor shape from lack of movement, and so was I. In the months leading up to our move, I had not exercised as much as I normally do. Yet of course I still ate the same, in some cases even more in the celebrations with friends and family leading up to our departure. So by the time we got here I was in the worst shape of my life.

I wanted to start paddling again, but we were trying to save money. Since we had no jobs and no idea how long we would stay here, a membership at the canoe club was out of the question. Still I needed to move, so nearly every day I dragged myself out of the oven of our apartment and into the frying pan of the city. As I have often done in my life, I headed toward the water, and soon found myself doing regular jogs along the banks of the Arno. It was hot, but its tree-shaded paths offered some refuge from the heat. My runs (more like shuffles) also afforded me my first glimpse of the non-tourist side of Florence. As I ran upriver to the east, the buildings gave way to vegetation. Skylines were hilltops, not towers or domes. On one long run to the end of the eastern path, I passed farm fields and chicken coops. For a nature-loving city dweller, these sights were welcome respite from the gray stones of Florence.

These runs were not easy. They were penance for trying to live the good life without exercising it off, and while they were painful they were also necessary. By the time a big September storm brought fall to Florence, lightening the heavy humid air with torrential rains, my weight had dropped from 205 pounds to 185. The river had also lost weight, and while I can’t say it was healthier, like me it had survived the summer.

The change in season brought rain to Tuscany, and as always the Arno showed it. Water levels slowly crept up the banks, and after a few days of cleansing the hills and streets of filth and carrying it to sea, the waters of the Arno grew less cloudy. The first sweet smells of wood smoke drifted down from the hills as residents stoked their hearth fires. Though the temperature dropped over the course of two days, the mournful molting of leaves took longer. A gradual drop in temperature was mirrored in the foliage, and greens gave way ever so slowly to oranges, yellows and reds. Some of those leaves clung to their branches well into the winter.

Autumn also brought my parents. From my gaunt face in our photo albums from here, my mom (ever the gastroenterologist) feared I had contracted some bowel bug. I reassured her that I was fine by showing my usual appetite when we went out for dinners. The week of their visit I finally got to eat my fill with meals like Bistecca Fiorentina, a two-pound t-bone usually shared by two people. My parents also knew of my desire to return to paddling, and my father gave me the present of a membership to the canoe club here in Florence. Much to my delight, I was back on the water.

The canoe club here is the Canottieri Comunali, or “Community Rowers,” a facility run by the city of Florence, and located on the south banks of the Arno just west of the Ponte da Verrazzano. For those who know where the Ponte Vecchio is, it is three bridges upriver to the east. Anyone from teenagers to retirees uses this facility, although from what I have gathered they are mostly male. Some are competitive kayakers (individually and on a team), and others are simply recreational rowers and paddlers. Other people come just to use the gym. Everyone I have met is very friendly. My favorite custom is that people say hello or goodbye whenever someone enters or exits the gym or the locker room.  You can say “Ciao!” as you walk out of the weight room and get an immediate response of “Ciao!” “Ciao!” “Ciao!” from everyone in it. This is a far cry from the macho stoicism of many American gyms, and since there are usually fewer than ten people in the gym whenever I am there, you start to recognize familiar faces. Indeed, it does feel like a community.

The club houses two gyms, paddling and rowing practice areas, as well as all manner of self-propelled vessels: kayaks, rowing sculls and outrigger canoes. You may wonder why a club in the middle of Italy has outrigger canoes at all. Fifteen years ago, a member of the Cannottieri Comunali encountered them during a trip to New Zealand. He brought canoes home to Florence with him and the club members have been paddling them ever since.

To the west of the club, by the small loading dock, sit the outrigger canoes. There is one four-person boat, and one two-person one. The rest are one-person outrigger canoes, or OC-1s, owned either by members or by the club. If the canoe is marked barca sociale, or “club boat,” you can use it. They are all clunkers. After trying several different boats I settled on an old Tahitian-style OC-1 from the 1980s, painted white with pastels dripped on like a Jackson Pollack painting. It has an open cockpit (as opposed to the closed hulls found on most OC-1s, and a metal rudder that is bent in several places. Although most OC-1s weigh around twenty pounds, this one weighs more than twice that; my guess is about fifty or sixty pounds. In addition, its ama (the Hawaiian word for the outrigger part of the canoe) is heavy, creating lots of drag. Still, unlike most of the other boats it was watertight. Plus, I reasoned that if I can paddle a heavy boat that is unforgiving of any lapse in paddling technique, paddling a light, fast boat when I get back to California will seem easy by comparison. I have spent many hours in that canoe, and I have learned a lot from it as I pulled it up and down the Arno. As difficult as it is to paddle, I know I will miss it when I leave.

Usually I’m on the water by 10:30. I see few people. There are two or three men who are regularly out on their kayaks at that time, and the occasional other rower or paddler. Most of the outrigger paddlers go out around 1:30 pm, after I am off the water. I have paddled with them only once, and it was just like back home: as much trash talking as there was paddling.

I do two different “paddles” here. Both paddles are beautiful, but they offer different kinds of beauty. The short paddle is more urban, and as I paddle west I can see the city’s skyline in the distance, the tall tower of the Palazzo Vecchio surveying the land. Streets run along both sides of the river, and I can hear traffic and the occasional ambulance or police car. It is a surreal experience to see old buildings and hear European sirens as I paddle a Hawaiian canoe. The short paddle is along a straight section of the Arno, but the longer paddle bends slightly south halfway through. And while the sounds and sights of the city dominate the short one, the longer one is a more natural experience. Buoys mark shallow rocks on the south side of the river at the bend, and you have to skirt between them and the low-hanging tree branches of the south bank. Mallards and other ducks swim in and out of the trees and all over the river, and while the other ducks flee at the first sight of my canoe, the mallards barely bother to get out of the way. Often I have been able to enjoy from up close the shiny iridescence of the male mallards’ green heads. Other times I see the bobbing butts of the ducks, feet in the air and heads underwater as they feed off the bottom. In addition to the ducks there are gulls and snowy egrets, and even the occasional nutria. Nutria are small river rodents from South America that look like a cross between a beaver and a groundhog. There is even one I have named Ned who normally hangs out right by the loading dock.

While it was still early fall I paddled in short sleeves and board shorts. Then one Sunday morning I went to the club I was suddenly very aware of the temperature. It had turned cold, and the next time out I wore neoprene booties, pants and a long-sleeved paddling shirt. At some point Ned disappeared, and only the birds remained. The weather got steadily colder and wetter, and as the leaves changed and fell off the trees and the water levels rose, autumn blurred into winter.

At this point I was focusing purely on improving my technique, so an endless routine of paddling, analyzing and adjusting took me from the colorful fall into the wet gray of winter. Italy’s winter this year was particularly rainy, and the level of the Arno rose considerably. I didn’t know the Arno ever had a current, and here it was speeding along, cascading over waterfalls. I stayed far away from any hazards, and even stayed out of the water the two times the current was too strong, so for the most part the biggest danger was floating logs coming at me as I paddled upriver. The current was sometimes strong enough that my paddle upriver might take twenty minutes, but back the same distance would take less than ten. At first it was difficult to drag myself out into the cold rain every day, but I soon found myself enjoying the quiet solitude of those rainy winter paddles, when there was nothing out there but me, my canoe, my paddle and the elements. I would paddle toward the eastern hills with nothing but the soft patter of rain and smell of wood smoke, and could imagine myself transported to the same scene several hundred years ago. Some things are timeless, and just as the turns of the seasons are immemorial, so are a man in a boat on a river.

My training continued to mirror the seasons, though I did not do so consciously. Like the trees that shed their leaves and try to survive the winter on little sun, I too merely tried to make it through the winter. Since my focus was purely on form I did not worry much about gains in strength or conditioning. My muscles were tired all the time, and at a certain point I realized that while my technique had improved considerably, my speed had not.

Around the time of this realization the weather had started to turn once again. The first signs of spring were the warm breezes from the hills in the west. They teased me early in February, and still went back in hiding from time to time in March and April as the cold winter winds had not completely relinquished their grasp on the Florentine air. The sun was brighter and showed its face more, and even Ned the nutria made an appearance. The birds were still there, but they seemed to become friskier with each other.

By mid-April I was lean (down to 175 pounds), but I had lost significant amounts of strength. I needed to gain it back, but was worried about regaining my belly. Now it is May. The sun that warms me also causes the plants and trees along the river to sprout new growth. And as the world gets greener and fuller, so am I getting my strength back by lifting and eating more. Thankfully, my belly has not made a return.

We will return to San Diego soon, but the river still has a few chapters left to write before we leave. I am curious to see its transition back into summer. We will leave this city on July 1, seventeen days shy of a full year here, and I want to see the river come full circle. I want to see it return to its slow, stagnant, summer self. And just as I have changed with the river, so will I return to my old life. We will go back to San Diego, to our old house and old jobs and old friends. On the surface things may appear the same, but there have been changes in both the life of the Arno and our own lives. The river has experienced death as trees were swept away in the winter floods, and animals and birds along its banks died from cold or old age. But there has also been birth and rebirth, as trees begin to leaf and ducklings are created by those frisky mallards. We too have experienced death this year, losing both my cousin and one of my closest friends to cancer (both far too young). And just recently, Melanie lost her Nanay, her father’s mom. Yet we have also experienced birth. Some friends back home are welcoming babies into the world, and we have grown so much ourselves from our time here. Our lives, like the river, keep moving on.


The Road Not Taken

(June 2009)

When we first told people we were moving to Italy, some said they were jealous of our adventure. Others remembered fondly similar sojourns they had taken. Indeed, one of the main reasons for our year here was to seize the opportunity while we had the chance, to live life without having to ask, “What if?” As we head into our last weeks here we are trying to soak in as much as we can, visiting different cities and towns almost every weekend. But just as these cities offer pleasant diversions from our life here in Florence, they also leave us wondering about what could be.

One of my students is an anesthesiologist who lives and works in Florence during the week. On the weekends Vittorio returns home to his wife Sabrina and two daughters in Ferrara, about one hundred miles northeast of Florence in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Vittorio always talks about his hometown, and the pride he has for the region is evident. Who could blame him? Among Emilia-Romagna’s exports are some of Italy’s finest and best known products: balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, and of course Ferraris. It didn’t take much persuading on his part for us to accept an invitation to his home in Ferrara.

Another city we have been anxious to see is Bologna. Since the train stops there before heading to Ferrara, we decided to take this opportunity to visit it on the way to visit Vittorio. Bologna is about the same size as Florence, but with a decidedly different feel. Florence’s buildings are made of the large stones known pietre forte; Bologna’s consist mostly of red brick. In Florence one can hear so much English spoken on the street that it seems like an American city. Bologna sounds much more Italian. Florence clings to all things Renaissance; Bologna artfully mixes old and modern. And while Melanie and I don’t like stereotypes, the whole Italian notion that the farther north you go, the more organized things are holds true. Melanie was so excited to see a straight street that she made me take a picture of it.

We only had a few hours to explore Bologna, so from the train station we headed straight for the city’s main square, Piazza Maggiore. We visited the cathedral, enjoyed lunch there, then headed for the Torre Asinelli, which affords views of the whole city. From there everything was a sea of red.

As we walked the streets we got the feeling that this is a real European city. It felt international, yet also retained its own local flavor. There was a university area, nice parks tucked away in various corners, and a smattering of monuments. Many of the buildings’ bottom floors are arcaded, creating stylish walkways with real sidewalks (not like the afterthought raised pavements here in Florence). We found ourselves asking what it would be like to explore this city more, but sadly we only had a few hours before we had to catch a train to Ferrara.

Ferrara is decidedly smaller than either Florence or Bologna. And while those two cities are nestled into valleys surrounded by green hills, Ferrara is in the middle of the plains of Emilia-Romagna. Our friend Vittorio had to pick up his two daughters from school before meeting us at the train station, so we waited for him. I was a little worried that four-year-old Chiara and seven-year-old Francesca would be afraid to talk to us since we didn’t speak Italian very well, but that fear was dispelled as soon as Vittorio pulled up. The two girls hopped out of the car and greeted us, and it took approximately 1.4 seconds for them to befriend Melanie (she is always great with kids). I of course took the sarcastic teasing approach with them, really the only way I know how to relate to kids (or anyone else for that matter). Since their father does the same thing, they instantly saw through me. Immediately we felt like we fit right in.

Ferrara is an incredibly charming place. It is small enough that people are friendly, and seem to recognize each other as they pass in the street. Yet it is large enough that there are plenty of things to do. The city places an emphasis on bicycles, and they dominate the streets. Its old walls surround the city, and you can ride your bikes all around them.

Our first night we ate at the Pavoni family home, a third-floor apartment in the old city. After playing with the Legos we had brought the girls (they seemed better at figuring out the pieces than we were), we had an aperitivo on their terrace. As we ate we watched the rondini (swallows) dart and dive among the rooftops. Then we moved into the kitchen, where we were treated to local Ferrarese cuisine, including coppia bread and Pasticcio alla Ferrarese, a delicious pie filled with pork, macaroni, pumpkin and about a hundred other ingredients. Ferrarese cuisine focuses on blending salty and sweet flavors, and this dish did that perfectly. We then moved into several different kinds of gelate and cakes for dessert, all of which we fantastic. The parents sent the girls to do their bedtime ablutions, which took a long time because the girls wanted to stay up late with the grownups. Still, they gave in to sleepiness, and the four of us stayed up a bit longer, talking about important things (like politics) and really important things (like food). I even had my first semi-conversation in Italian with Sabrina, although I had to turn to Vittorio on numerous occasions for a translation. We bonded very quickly with these two despite growing up in different parts of the world and speaking different mother languages. Vittorio and Sabrina are exactly ten years older than we are, and we imagine our lives will be very similar to theirs in ten years.

The next day Sabrina (also a doctor) had to work, so we all took the girls on a bike ride. Chiara is a little kolohe (the Hawaiian word for mischievous), and refused to ride in the seat of Vittorio’s bike. If we were riding, so was she. For the most part she did very well, although cobbled streets are not easy for a four-year-old who recently removed the training wheels from her bike. Still, both girls are incredibly good natured, and they loved being able to ride around town with their bikes. Chiara went a little more slowly than we did, and she only fell once. When I asked, “Stai bene?” (Are you okay?), she replied, “Non molto,” (Not very).

We visited a few historic buildings, and had a nice lunch at a restaurant in a garden. The girls recognized cherries on the tree we were sitting under. They ended up picking the cherries and eating them (even though their father insisted they weren’t ripe). We rode our bikes some more, stopped for gelato, then headed home to get ready for dinner. This night Vittorio and Sabrina dropped off the girls at Vittorio’s parents’ apartment just one floor below (talk about convenient!), and we headed out to eat at a restaurant with Vittorio’s sister and her husband. The conversation was in a mixture of Italian and English, the Ferrarese food was again excellent (this time we had various cappellacci, a stuffed pasta), and the quiet nighttime atmosphere was broken only occasionally by the pizza delivery boy whizzing by on his scooter. We returned home where we talked some more, playing guitar and singing songs into the night. Vittorio and I alternated between Italian and American songs. Our new friends did what Italians do best: make you feel welcome.

And that is really how we felt about Ferrara. If we were going to live in Italy longer, it would be in a place like Ferrara. The friendly people, the good food, la bella vita, all the best that Italy has to offer is available there. Still, no matter how tempting it is to explore more towns and seek yet another adventure here, this year here has helped us realize how happy we are to live in California. As much fun as this year has been, there really is no place like home.


A Country of Cities

(June 2009)

Italy is called a country of cities, and any history of the region will tell you why. Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire various cities, duchies and minor kingdoms have laid claim to parts of this peninsula. Even the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy completed more or less in 1871, was a series of wars waged to bring the country together. After centuries of independence and battles with each other, all these disparate parts were supposed to function as one entity. To anyone who has spent more than a few days in Italy, this explains a lot..

The twenty-first century manifestation of this history has notable downsides. In Italy organization is a foreign concept, locals are often oblivious to outsiders, and Italians cling to ancient stereotypes. (Florentines are stingy and rude! Don’t go to Naples, you’ll get killed!)But there is also a good side to all this. Whereas Spain’s violent history has led to the current bloodlust of separatist bombings in the north and romanticized slaughtering of bulls in the south, Italy’s past has prompted a different reaction. It was as if the people decided to stop fighting over their differences and start celebrating them. The result has been the eternal quest for the dolce vita, and the preservation of each town’s unique character. Nowhere are the benefits of this turbulent history better packaged than in Cortona.

Cortona is a tiny hill town tucked into the southeast corner of Tuscany. It was made famous by Francis Mayes in her book Under the Tuscan Sun, but despite the increase in tourism brought about almost entirely by its newfound literary fame, its personality has remained unsullied.To get there we took a train to the nearby town of Camucia that hugs the rails running through the valley called Valdichiana. A short bus ride takes you uphill from the station to Cortona, where the first thing we noticed was the spectacular view of the valley below. After checking into our hotel, we ventured out for more views of the city and surrounding countryside, and everywhere we went there was either intentional or unintentional beauty. Typical Tuscan patchwork quilt farmland below, forested hills above, manicured parks, houses decorated with flowers and stores filled with high quality art and foodstuffs. At night we dined at the excellent Osteria del Teatro tucked away on some side street, and everything was superb. When I ordered one dessert and the waiter told me to get something else, I trusted him. Of course he was right.

Cortona’s uniqueness among Tuscan towns lies not so much in doing something different (although sadly we just missed the annual crossbow competition for which it is famous). Rather, it seems to do everything better. The air is fresher and filled with the sounds of birds instead of cars and motorini. The streets are cleaner, the buildings more charming, the views more stunning, the food more delicious. Granted, the day we walked around had perfect weather, but the town was even beautiful the next morning when the sun was hidden by a bank of low-lying clouds. As we descended from Cortona back to the train station, I was sad to leave.

Soon we will leave this country entirely. There are many things I will not miss about living here, but I will miss being able to discover hidden treasures in the towns that dot the landscape. Each place offers something new, something different, or in the case of Cortona, something better.

Here’s hoping your discovery of the dolce vita is as easy as a train ride away.


Copyright Axel Schwarz



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