End of November

10 weeks down and less than 2 to go. That’s my time in Italy. I guess time flies whether you’re having fun or not – and I am definitely having fun.

lites2The days have gotten much cooler and it rains a lot now. And surprisingly, I have adjusted. At home I tend to curse the gray Ohio days. But here, where everyone just keeps going, I don’t seem to mind. It’s so interesting to look out the window and see the streets still full of people no matter the weather. And when you go out, it is “Battle of the Umbrellas” in the narrow streets. Also, the city has been putting up lights for the past couple weeks. Today was the first I saw them lit and they are quite festive.

I usually keep to one side of the street and tilt my umbrella or lower or lift it as needed. Italians do not. They keep moving and give no leeway. They may be on the phone, or riding a bicycle, or pushing a stroller, and they maintain their space, umbrella and all. Even when cars come along, too bad. An Italian never looks sideways at anyone – just full speed ahead and everyone else can get out of the way.

No problemo. However, I must be looking more local. Lately I’ve been stopped a number of times by someone asking directions or a question in Italian. All I can say, of course, is “non parlo Italiano” but it is nice to see that they actually look surprised! Me – passing for a local – who knew?

I still go out to walk and explore a couple times a day, although I’ve been catching up on some work lately. Mostly now, before I go out, I try to have a mission in mind. My time left is limited and I want to make sure I cover everything I want to do. I shop at the markets and cook more, but I still like to seek out some cafes I haven’t been to. But mostly for lunch to keep the cost down, and to be back inside in the evening as it is getting dark here quite early.

ImageYesterday I sought out a place in Lucca listed in the Rick Steves book, Osteria Via San Girogio. It is not far from me, so I walked right to it. And in nicer weather the outdoor courtyard would be lovely. The inside was equally as nice and the menu was more than just pizza and pasta, which I liked. I tried something new – a poached egg with truffle creme. I love poached eggs, and I’ve never had truffle anything, so it was a great appetizer for lunch.

ImageI didn’t know what to expect of the truffle. All I’ve ever heard is that it is an expensive delicacy. Well, the egg came out with an oily sauce drizzled over it and a couple pieces of toast. The sauce had finely minced pieces of something in it – which must have been the truffle. I carefully took a bite of just the sauce. Mushroom-y. Very good.

Now I don’t know if it was real truffles in the sauce or if the oil was truffle oil to justify the name on the menu, but it just tasted like mushrooms to me. Nothing heavenly or divine. Quite good, but not to die for. Still, I enjoyed the place and the 1/4 litro of wine was only 4 euro.

Then I did a bit of window shopping and made my way back to the apartment to finish up some work. But you know what? I don’t mind working at all from here. It’s rather nice to know that as long as you have a laptop, you can take your office with you and work from anywhere!

Today was more of the same. Raining again and for the first time, a good bit of wind. I worked for a couple hours and then was dying for something to eat. And nothing I have in-house was appealing. I checked the Lucca restaurants online to see what I haven’t tried and I came across a couple rave reviews for a Chinese place. Wow! Chinese! There’s very little here that is not traditional Italian because there are actually laws to keep ethnic restaurants out. But, Chinese sure sounded good!

I looked up the address and it was just outside the walls over near the train station. I bundled up and took off. The wind was really blowing and I got a good preview of winter coming on. And my feet quickly got cold, but I made my way out the San Pietro gate. When I arrived at the address a few blocks later, it was boarded up. No Chinese anymore! Drats!

180 degree turn and back inside the walls. I actually feel like I’m living in a cacoon. Every time I go outside the walls I can’t wait to scurry back in! Now I was really hungry. And I know all the restaurants in my own neighborhood, so I took off down a different street.

Well, my goodness, the beggars were out in full force today. How is it that in the worst weather, they are thick as can be? Must be a plot to make them look even more pitiful. One little girl with frizzy hair and very crooked teeth, who seems to pop out of nowhere like an elf, has approached me at least a dozen times in the past few weeks. She speaks very rapid Italian, which sounds like gibberish, and I always shake my head no. On she goes, disappearing as fast as she arrived.

Then there was a man on his knees in the rain, hands outstretched, pleading for coins. I couldn’t even look at him. And an Indian girl with a bag full of something I didn’t look at. She came at me twice. Another man followed me from behind for a full block, chanting something in my left ear. I never even turned and looked at him.

All this in the space of a few blocks – plus the Africans with the umbrellas! They seem to come out of the woodwork in the rain! Are they sleeping under a rug somewhere in nice weather? I can’t imagine where they all come from, but believe me, you need to be carrying an umbrella if it even hints of rain to ward them off!

ImageAlong the way I saw some postal deliveries. There are regular postal trucks of course, but then there are more specialized vehicles. I see this guy near my favorite pizza place all the time.

postalAnd today I saw this other nifty little transport for the first time! I’m so fascinated by the ways they adapt here!

Finally I ended up at a restaurant I had seen but hadn’t tried, da Nonna Clara. I had not stopped there before because a large sign outside says “pizzeria” and I already have my favorites of those in town. But their menu looked a bit more extensive, so I went in. Boy am I glad I did!

I settled in and ordered some wine. Always the first step. Then I took my time looking over the menu. I wasn’t hungry for anything in particular so it was hard to decide. After talking with the waitress, I finally chose maccheroni broccoli e salsiccia. I had to ask what salsiccia is – it is sausage. And I already knew that maccheroni will be some form of pasta, but not the elbow macaroni of America.

ImageThe restaurant is very nicely decorated and there is a large saltwater fish tank right in the middle. It must be someone’s hobby because it was very clean and brimming with huge goldfish.

ImageSomething interesting in this restaurant was being able to watch the chef prepare the dishes. He is right behind the counter with everything laid out to cook with. Notice the pasta on this top shelf? When he gets a pasta order, he pulls a handful out of the container and drops it into a pot on the stove. Totally fascinating. I really enjoyed watching him cook Such a great setup!

tomato soupI took a few photos, poured myself a glass of wine and got out my book to read. Then the waitress brought me “something to taste while waiting” – tomato soup with bread. Wonderful! Warm and comforting. I am a soup kinda girl.

ImageWhen the “maccheroni” arrived, it was a beautiful dish. At first I couldn’t spot the broccoli, but it was part of the sauce. Very finely diced. It was so tasty I kept moving everything around to find the pieces of broccoli. Alas, I could only eat a small amount and as usual, the waitress thought I didn’t like it. “No!” I protested. “Fantastico! Please, vorrei take-away!” She looked dubious and I tried to explain that I only eat a little at a time. But she wrapped it up while I returned to my book and finished my wine.

Well, that was just long enough for things to settle, so I asked about dolce – dessert. The waitress told me the options and I couldn’t decide. “What is your favorite?” I asked. “Tiramisu,” she replied without hesitation. Well, since that is my all-time favorite dessert, I said to bring me some of that.

ImageI watched as she went to the service station, picked up a plate and loaded it with a cream sauce. Then she drizzled it with chocolate and inverted a prepared tin of tiramisu right in the middle of the plate. It was in front of me in no time and I dug in.

ImageOh my. I have never had tiramisu like this. MB and I had a version that was absolutely light and dreamy – but this one was different. It was quite cold (freddo), almost icy. I’ve never had one like it. But it had a lot of flavor and combined with the sauce and chocolate, it was perfetto. Probably a tie for one of the best I’ve ever had. I rarely eat a full restaurant portion of anything – but I ate every bite.

ImageThen, of course, I had to order caffe to stay awake! I was ready to lay my head on the table for a nap! And caffe means espresso in Italia. Just the “shot” you need after such a rich dessert. (Costs 1 euro!) And yes, I did dump the packet of sugar in it. Most Italians do (even though I’ve always been bully on black coffee – but now I know that’s Americano coffee) and I am converted. Love these small cups of caffe! (Italians do not understand the concept of large Americano travel mugs of coffee. Caffe is a meant for a quick boost several times a day!)

Then it was back out in the rain, past the beggars, and back home to work and paint. But I did take a break with my book. My landlady has a nice collection of paperbacks to choose from and I’ve enjoyed reading again in the past few weeks. First I read a huge novel, The Seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith. Several years ago I had listened to his Egyptian series on tape and loved them. This book was a followup to that series, so it was fun to read the sequel.

Now I’m into The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. An oldie but goodie I haven’t read before. And let me ask you, is there anything more wonderful than coming home on a rainy day, making a cup of tea, and snuggling up under the covers with a good book – then dozing off for 30 minutes? I think not. It’s even better after a brisk walk in the rain in Italy and having lunch out in a cafe.

So I guess you can see that I am not suffering at all here. I am making the most of each day as I can because this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I am treasuring every moment.

Just a few moments ago, my sister-in-law, Mary Beth sent me a photo. It is of the drawing I did for her while she was here visiting me in October. She had a great fascination of “doors” so I took one of the photos she shot and made a sketch for her. Now she has had it matted and framed. What I love is that she took the photo and I was able to do a drawing from it. Great collaborative effort!

MB door

And yes, I am painting now with the end of my trip in mind. But the paintings will stay under wraps until further notice. The painting part of my trip is a very personal journey and I’m not sure how they are going yet, so they will be shared later, if at all.

Thanks, as always, for checking in to the blog. Ciao for now…

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Time is Ticking…

It’s hard to believe, but my 3 months in Italy is almost up. It is a Monday evening here and two weeks from this coming Wednesday, I will be back home. I’m not quite sure how to feel about that!

I know I will be overjoyed to see my family. I’ve had a couple small bouts of homesickness – nothing major – and I had to quickly just put that out of my mind. I want to enjoy every minute here and I have. So these days when I go out to walk, which I do 2-3 times per day, I stop and look around and try to memorize the sights and sounds and feelings of it all.

San Michele Square is so beautiful that I usually stop there and just take it in for a couple moments. Every day the light is different, but every day the people are coming and going like crazy. I love to sit on the steps for a few minutes and just watch the bicycles go by. Everyone here has bikes. And oh the things I’ve seen on bikes! I wish I could have gotten photos! But they go by way too fast.

There are almost always musicians in the square, so music is a constant. And the cafes have put out their “winter” versions of the outdoor setup. Some have glass partitions, but most have just put out fewer tables and kept them closer to the buildings in the cooler weather. I’ve been told, too, that come January and February, a lot of them will close down altogether. I’m sure they make up for it when the tourist season starts anew. And they deserve the break after the long hours they keep the rest of the year!

I did find a new supermarket right here within the walls that is every bit as cheap as the big market I was walking out to. It is not quite as big, but very convenient. And it is the place to buy wine. I got a bottle of Spumante for 1.79 euro! Even Prosecco was only 4.25! You can get red or white table wines easily for under 4 euro a bottle. And when you see the folks checking out – they have plenty of it!

The funny thing today was the young girl cashier. I’m always annoyed by the young cashiers at home. They don’t know a pepper from a potato and if the register didn’t tell them what change to give, they couldn’t figure it out. Well, guess what. It’s just the same here. My bill was 8.56 euro and I gave the girl a 20 euro note. The register did not print out the change amount and she didn’t know what to do.

She got out a calculator and couldn’t use it either! She kept putting in the amounts but I noticed she wasn’t using decimal points. So the figure didn’t make sense and she kept hitting the “equals” button, which made things worse. Finally, I gently eased the calculator away from her and put in 20.00-8.56. It came up to 11.44. She was very relieved and thanked me profusely. And I got the correct change. But I think that is pretty amazing…

Meanwhile, my Sunday sure did not go as planned. I walked to my friends’ house in the morning and after the meeting we had lunch. It was pasta with some ground meat, which Edgardo told me is not traditionally Italian. It is really a combination of the first and second course. Italians don’t normally combine the pasta with the meat course.

After that we sat and talked for a while – and a young couple had joined us for the meal – so we had a bit of fun trying to communicate. I thought the meal was over, but then a plate of fresh mozzarella was passed around. I cut off a very small piece since it is bland and unseasoned for my taste.

Again, I thought we were done and out came a very pathetic bowl of wet lettuce. I don’t mean to complain, but it was brown on the edges and very colorless. Everyone took some and drizzled it with a little olive oil and vinegar. Then we had a bowl of hot peas! They were actually very tasty!

ImageImageWhen everyone was finished, Edgardo brought out a tray of beautiful cream-filled cakes. Now those were really good. But eating the meal in definite courses is something to get used to. However, I am glad to see how it works in Italy. They didn’t even notice that I was perplexed! And then, Francesca brought me out a gift! It was a tin of colored pencils that you can use with water. I was so thrilled! Bellisimo!! I especially like that all the printing on the tin is in Italian. I can’t wait to try them.

After lunch, Francesca and I got in the car to go to Mariposa’s house for our ceramic lesson. I was quite excited. Until she started driving. OMG – it was a frightening trip across town. I honestly do not know how these people survive the streets. But Francesca was singing “My Way” by Frank Sinatra and plowing through the traffic at full speed. I tried not to flinch as other cars passed within inches and no one stopped to yield for love nor money.

When we got to Mariposa’s house (whose real name is Michaela) we went in and had coffee. She made a delicious espresso from Illy ground coffee – I think it is the best I’ve had in Italy so far. Then we went down to the studio in the garage below the house. I couldn’t wait to see what we would be doing.

However, M was not very prepared. I think she mostly works in her shop and not in the home studio. She got out big buckets of ceramic mix in water and tried to stir it up. It wouldn’t stir. Hard as a rock. Soon M and F had their heads together on how to solve the problem. They got out an electric drill and attached a big mixer to it. But all that did was shoot dirty water out of the bucket all over the place.

From there it was a circus. M would disappear back upstairs and reappear with some ridiculous weapon. She came back with all manner of butcher knives and huge drill bits which were used with no success. I tried to help a couple times, but it was scary business. The two of them were bent over the buckets, stabbing and punching and spraying water everywhere. I was sure someone would lose a finger or an eye at any moment. In fact, I ended up going outside to keep from getting blasted. Every once in a while I would peer in the door and they were chatting away in Italian, oblivious to any danger.

ImageFinally they decided that they were beaten and Francesca looked at me and said “We go home now!” I was fine with that! But I had done a small sketch for Mariposa to thank her for the ceramic lesson – which we didn’t have. So I pulled it out of my bag and gave it to her. I know she appreciated it. She had loved the one in my book, so I did one like it for her. Maybe we’ll still get to have that lesson, I don’t know!

Then F and I were launched into the mess of traffic and I tightened my seat belt while Francesca broke back into another stanza of “My Way.”

I asked F to drop me at a gate closer to my apartment, which she did, but I had to take my life in my hands to get out of the car. She stopped dead in traffic, which just diverted around her leaving no room to spare. Every time I moved the least little bit, F would yell “Wait! Danger!” and I would lean back from the door. Finally the traffic let up for a moment and she shouted “Now!” I bolted from the car and ran across the street with my heart in my throat. F honked and drove off with a cheery wave.

I was glad I had a few blocks to walk to get home – I needed to get my bearings. And by the time I got back to my neighborhood, the cafe across the street from me was filling up for the Sunday night music session. I was just happy to get inside and pour myself a glass of wine.

ImageBut soon there was killer blues drifting my way and I had to go to the window and look out. The music was awesome so I opened the window to hear better. Nothing like a free concert. And you know what is great about these Italians? They don’t hide indoors when the weather turns. Nope, they just put on hats and coats and scarves and do what they always do. This wasn’t a very big crowd – and there were a lot more people inside – but they were out there chatting long into the wee hours. The fog was setting in, but it was a lovely sight from my window.

So today was another Monday in Italy – I only have a couple more of those left. I worked during the morning and then got my usual craving for da Felice. I put on my coat and walked over there and ordered a slice. They weighed it and the grand total was 1.20 euro. AND I remembered to ask the question on my mind. I pointed to the 1960 photo and asked how much a slice of pizza cost back then.

Well, they didn’t rightly know, but there was a framed price list from 1965 hanging on the wall. They delighted in showing it to me. A slice of pizza was 80 lire. I had no idea how much that would have been, but the girl told me it was probably about 4 cents. Coca cola was 100 lire, so that must have been a nickle. And a compari and soda, the “Americano” drink, was 100 lire as well.

So yes, my time is ticking here. I’ll try not to get too sentimental on y’all, but I have a feeling it is going to be hard from here on out. I may be blogging less and wandering more. Don’t know at this point. But every day or two I do have to write it all down. Just can’t help myself. And that’s the way it is right now…

No Ordinary Days

This is a catch-up post for the past couple days, which were pretty ordinary, and then again… not. Because while it may seem to be one excitement after another in Italy, that isn’t always the case.

There are lots of ordinary moments and plenty of real life going on here. It’s just that I AM a writer and I choose to tell the best stories I can. I like to think I could bring a bit of mystery to making toast if called upon to do so.

But there’s no need for that kind of stretch right now. The last couple days have been ordinary, but with much still going on. And as I grow older, which I am fortunate to do, I find that taking pleasure in ordinary things is quite the key to contentment. So let me fill you in on some mundane satisfactions…

Thursday here was just another day – not Thanksgiving. So the streets were full of people on their way to work and school and whatever errands they do. And I went out for my version of the perfect lunch… a slice of da Felice pizza and small glass of red wine. 2.44 euro. Delicioso.

ImageThis place has such history. It is a small “hole-in-the-wall” but it has been there for quite a while. Here’s a photo taken of the family/owners in 1960. I wonder what a slice of pizza cost back then? Geez, it just occurred to me to ask the next time I go there!

ImageAnd here they still are, 50 years later. Same family, same pizza, same pride of the business. And the line of customers is out the door all day every day. I think that is beyond awesome. Because if you go here, you’ll see that they are slinging pizza from daylight to dark. And they’ve obviously been doing it for over half a century. That’s dedication – and I am going to FIERCELY miss this pizza when I go home!

So that was lunch, but it didn’t stick with me all day, so I started wondering what to do for supper. Believe it or not, I’m worn out on pasta, which is something I never thought I would say. I decided to go out to the market and see what looked good. Now here’s the beauty of neighborhood markets… Within less than two blocks I picked up half a chicken and a bottle of wine from the butcher, some lettuce, artichokes and potatoes from the produce market, and a fresh roll from the bakery. And even though I was on foot, I was back home in under 30 minutes, firing up the stove.

Now you could do the same at Kroger, but it just isn’t the same. I was frequenting – and supporting – long-time family businesses. With unmatched quality products.

ImageThen, as I was frying up the chicken, it dawned on me… I have the ingredients to make noodles! Grandma’s homemade noodles! Well, that might sound like a kissing cousin to pasta, and indeed it is the same dough, but it is a world apart when you are done. I grabbed an egg and some salt and flour and got busy.

ImageNo rolling pin? No problemo… I have a full bottle of red wine that will work just as well. And before you could say “fettuccini” I had the dough rolled out and resting on the counter.

Now I know most of you are not from the same neck of the woods that I am, but in my world, there is no more beautiful sight than a mess of homemade noodles drying on the counter. And they look like this…

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And you know how I’m always slamming the Italians for being so carb-heavy? Well, maybe I’m part Italian after all. Because there’s only one way to eat homemade egg noodles, and that’s on top of mashed potatoes. Yes siree – starch on starch. And there better be lots of butter and milk or cream in those taters. If you don’t go into a food coma after that, you never will.

So here I am in the land of pasta, plating up some good ole Ohio carbs. It was fantastic. And just so I didn’t lose consciousness, I included a salad and a couple of freshly steamed artichokes. What a meal! Here’s a sketch of one of the artichokes before I ate it – and the market right across the street where I bought it.

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Well, that was Thursday, and like I say, nothing too extraordinary. But I sure had a good time having an ordinary day. So I decided to repeat it on Friday.

Thankfully, pizza still sounded good because I wanted to go back to Bella ‘Mbriana to catch up with the staff there. They had let me take some photos of the Pizzaiolo and the wood oven so I could make sketches. And it’s a great place to hang out for a while. Of course you have to order a whole pizza, but I just take half of it home.

Here’s the sketch in my book, which does not look like the pizza chef at all. Sometimes the space is just too small for me to get a likeness. Just the width of the pen line can make a difference, but this sketch IS him at the oven. He is such a nice fellow and I had some good photos of him, so I decided to do a pencil portrait to give him. I like the practice and I knew that Bella ‘Mbriana would get a kick out of it. Here’s Lakbir (I have no idea the origin of that name!)

Well, yes, they flipped over it and I got a mighty fine pizza for lunch. I ordered the “Principessa” which has ham and sausage and mozzarella. But I failed to notice that it is a “white pizza” meaning no tomatoes. And their idea of ham and sausage is a lot different than ours.

However, Lakbir loaded it up and when it was time to hand it through the window, he just brought it right out to me. When he noticed that I had my drawing stuff out, he pushed another table up to mine and rearranged everything so I had plenty of room. Full service in a self-service place! Sweet!

I drew for a while and then packed up the pizza to go. Then I realized it is Friday – and I keep forgetting every Friday what I mean to do in Lucca…

Lucca is the home to opera composer Puccini. And the town is so proud of him that they have arranged the “only permanent festival” in the world. That means you can go to a Puccini concert in Lucca any day of the year. Every Friday evening, the venue is Puccini and Mozart and I have meant to check it out. I don’t know much about Puccini, but I love Mozart, so I figured it would be a good time to go.

This evening I walked over to the Museum where the low season concerts are held and bought a ticket. I was given a program and took a seat. It was a beautiful place, but the time came for the program to start and nothing happened. Finally, an Asian girl in jeans, boots and a parka came in and walked up on stage and behind the screen. A few minutes later another girl did the same.

I was glad I had a book with me to read. It was pin-drop quiet while the sparse audience waited. Then a pianist appeared, dressed all in black, and started to play. The Asian girl strolled out, dressed in a black sheath with a feathered bodice and strappy high heels. It would have been visionary except she had on a raggedy old white cardigan sweater over the evening dress. And even though she had the voice of an angel, all I could look at was that tacky sweater! And I am not a member of the fashion police!

Next the other girl came out. She had on a floor length sequined black number and at least her sweater was a sparkly gold shrug. But elegant – she was not. Her hair was half pulled back in a pony tail and her heavy bangs made her look like a teenager, not a professional opera singer. Again, the voice of an angel, but no image to match.

The program went on like clockwork through the listed songs. I enjoyed the operatic content – it is the first time I ever attended a live opera of any sort. It’s just too bad it was so poorly executed. As soon as the last encore was wafting away, the girls scurried behind the screen and put on their coats. Not 5 seconds had passed. If they had a back exit, they probably beat the audience out the door.

Oh well, it was still a nice Friday evening. And when I went outside, the fountain in the square was very scenic. It was a mild evening and couples were walking away, hand in hand, off to dinner somewhere. So even though I went out for lunch, I figured that the leftover pizza could wait. I have to be my own date – wherever I am in the world, and I wanted dinner out.

There are tons of places left in Lucca I still want to go, and I knew just the one. Gigi Trattoria is a most charming little place. I was smitten with the furniture both inside and out. Whoever owns it decorates with my taste. I had been there once before, but it was the wrong time to eat. So off I went. And this place even has a small taxi service with their own little vehicles. Isn’t this clever? I figured I would order some wine and an appetizer and that would be supper for me.

Ahhh, well. They didn’t have the appetizer I wanted. Va bene. Allora. I looked at the menu again and decided on the quail. That’s something I’ve never ordered before. And fried potatoes. Sounds good. And indeed the quail was very appealing. But it is just a bird like a chicken, which is exactly what it tasted like. And the fried potatoes? Now I know that means french fries. I’m not that big on french fries, but yes, I asked for some ketchup and they were pretty tasty while they were good and hot.

OK, Friday completed. This trip to Lucca is going by fast. And now it’s Saturday again and you know what that means. One hopping town to get out and about in. I had some work to do so I had to discipline myself to get that accomplished before I went out to play.

Later in the afternoon, I went out to find some friends I made several weeks ago. I met them when I went to a meeting at the local Kingdom Hall and then we lost touch. It seems they moved during that time, but they sent me an email with their new address. So I went out in search of it and along the way, I ran into this character on the streets. Only in Lucca on a Saturday!

Eventually I found Francesca at home. She made me a cup of tea and we caught up the best we could considering that I don’t speak Italian and she speaks very little English.

After the tea, we walked to a nearby ceramic shop so she could introduce me to her friend and art teacher, Mariposa. It is a beautiful shop and Mariposa paints a lot of the items there. I shared my sketch book (at Francesca’s request) and we chatted the best we could. And now we have wonderful plans for tomorrow!

First I will walk to Francesca’s house so I can ride to the meeting with her and her husband (who thankfully speaks fluent English!) Then we will come back for lunch, change our clothes, and go to Mariposa’s house for a ceramic art lesson! I am so excited to do this!

So you tell me – are these ordinary days or not? They seem to start off plain as can be and then amazing things happen. I don’t know if it is because I am in another country and I am looking for opportunities all the time – or if that is just the nature of travel. But it is a wondrous combination of circumstance and curiosity.

I even believe it might be part of a particular state of mind. Kind of like that movie Field of Dreams… “if you build it they will come.” That isn’t exactly my philosophy in life, but I can imagine “if you are looking for it, you might just find it…”

So I hope when I go back home I can keep an open mind for the treasures that lie in wait every day. I’m beginning to think you just have to be of the right mind to find them. And when you are, there really are no ordinary days…

Lucca Street People

There are street sellers here, but since the “season” is over there are far fewer of them. Thank goodness. And there are beggars. Always. They stand outside various shops and greet you like a long-lost friend. “Buona sera!” they chirp as you enter the shop. Then on your way back out, they take on a battered look, hold out their hand and start muttering, “1 euro please. mangiare. 1 euro please. mille grazie senorina. please. mangiare. please…”

Well, sometimes I give and sometimes I don’t. Just depends on my mood and how much change is in my pocket. And overall I don’t like it. So more often than not I shake my head, make no eye contact and keep moving. But that being said, I do fork over a euro or two more often than I mean to…

Then there are the regulars. Now that I’ve been here a while, I see them all the time. They beg like it’s a regular job. And they spend more time on the street than most people do at the office. I see them from my window in the morning. I see them when I’m out walking. And I see them still at it late at night. You have to wonder what they actually take in!

First is what I call the Headband Lady. The first time I saw her, I wasn’t sure if she was a beggar. But now I know she is. She makes her regular stops and is all over town. Sometimes she has small pots of flowers – I wonder where she gets them! Other times she has packets of tissues and other times she has nothing. But she always has her hair pushed back with a sparkly silver headband. I couldn’t get a photo of her from the front and I didn’t want to offend her. And my goodness but she has painful looking feet. All I can think is that they have to hurt worse than mine but she keeps going. I give her a euro every once in a while. And I’d really like to get her a new headband so she can switch off, but I’m not sure she would understand…

And then there’s the Singing Guy. I think I saw him on one of the first days I was here. He is very skinny and always holds his arms at his side like a chicken, but he has a deep baritone voice that really carries. I think he knows everyone in town. They seem to tolerate him well.

From early morning to late night you will see him going from shop to shop and greeting the staff by name. He belts out a line or two of an aria and moves on. Unless he has an audience! Then he will circle about and sing and sing at the top of his lungs. And of course he holds out his hand for donations.

ImageFinally, is Livio, the trumpet player. He, too, spends long hours on the streets. I have seen him at 8:30am and again long after dark. He plays very well and it makes you wonder where he learned. And why is he playing on the street for coins? But he is and I always contribute. And one day, when I had gone for a slice of da Felice pizza, I brought one back for him and put it in his bag. He smiled, as always, and gave me a greeting.

There are lots more street people and performers, of course. These are just the ones I have become most familiar with. They feel like a part of the neighborhood and that, of course, makes a bleeding heart like me part with a euro from time to time…

That Tricky Train

I do not have a case of siderodromophobia – fear of trains. But using them for transportation here in Italy has been rather tricky for me to say the least. And I find that a wee bit strange.

It seems like it should be very straightforward. Trains run on a set schedule. You buy a ticket and get on and off. What could be more simple?

Lots, actually. I have a little anxiety over the unknown but only a normal amount. I don’t know the area well, I worry that I read the train schedule right, and there is a significant language barrier. Not to mention the steps. Lots of steps in the station to get to the correct platform. Awkward steps getting into the train. And not much time to maneuver. The trains come and go fast. They don’t wait for anyone. There is lots of running in train stations!

So with that background, here is my experience getting back to Lucca from Montecatini Terme last evening…

ImageMT is not big and neither is the train station. And since I was a half hour early for the train, I sat on a bench along the back of the building to wait. It was just getting dark but the area was well-lit so I got out a sudoku puzzle to work on.

Since it was between times for trains, the area had cleared completely out and I was alone. Except… every few seconds, a young man would come whipping around the back side of the building, walk past me and go in the back door of the station. I don’t know where they were coming from, but none were too savory looking. And I’m sitting there with my purse around my shoulder and an attractive carry-on bag beside me. A little too prosperous-looking to be hanging out alone behind a deserted train station.

I hightailed it back inside but the only people in the station were two questionable looking characters who didn’t look like they had a ticket to go anywhere. I kept on going into the bar. It was a depressing looking place, but at least there were a few people in there. I bought a pack of Mentos so I could sit at a table and wait for 20 more minutes. But first I took off my coat, put my purse over my shoulder again, and put my coat back on over it. Then I waited.

Five minutes before the train was due, I went back outside. Now there were some people there and I got in the middle of them. I don’t like being on the edge of the crowd when there are men slowly walking back and forth along the platform like they are casing the place. They probably are. And I want to stay far away from them.

And having watched a number of trains come and go during the day, I knew that many of them don’t stop for long. Some are only in the station for about 3 or 4 minutes. I swear one barely stopped for 1 minute and it was off again. So with my agility level, it is best to be standing near the edge of the platform when the train pulls up.

ImageI was so proud of myself for being on time and being prepared. I felt like I am mastering this train business. When the train approached, I stood beside a girl with a large suitcase, ready to jump in front of her and get on board. I am the boss of train travel!

The train came to a stop, I stepped to the door… and it didn’t open. Other doors had opened and people were piling in. The girl and I both reached out and grabbed a door handle. It didn’t budge. She pushed the green button and still the door didn’t open. She gripped the handle of her suitcase and took off running for the next door.

I broke into a hobble-jog right behind her. The rest of the crowd had already disappeared into the train but we made it. I went to the right and down to get a seat. I sucked in my breath and wondered why if there is one non-working door on this train, it is the one that stops right in front of me. Oh well, par for the course. I seem to be a magnet for such things.

Now earlier in the day, I had made sure I knew how many stops I was going. From Lucca, MT was the third stop. I counted. And I listened carefully. On the morning train, every time a stop was coming up there would be a bong-bong sound and a voice would announce the stop. I knew right where to get off. And I could see the station sign as well.

On this train, in the dark, it was different. At the first stop, there was no bong sound and no announcement. Maybe I just didn’t hear it. I strained to see the station sign out the window. Alto-something. Not Lucca. But then it couldn’t be. It’s only been a few minutes. Calm down.

Second stop, no announcement again. I really can’t see anything. This doesn’t even look like a train station. And when I’ve been on the train before, it sometimes made weird stops in the middle of nowhere that didn’t seem to count. Was this one of those? I don’t know…

Before the third stop, people were hopping up and going to the door entrance area. They obviously ride the train all the time and know their stops well ahead. I find it hard to walk on the moving train, but I got up to look at one of the overhead maps. I can’t figure it out. I would ask what the upcoming stop is, but no one seems to speak English.

ImageThe train stops and on either side is another train. I can’t see any signs to know where I am. It looks like the Lucca platforms, but maybe all the train stations look alike. I’m not sure what to do and get up to look at the map again. A lady has just gotten on the train and I point to the map and ask “what stop is this?” She doesn’t understand. I point to the stop I think it is and she shakes her head no. She puts her finger on the word Lucca.

All of a sudden I feel alarm. “This is Lucca!?” I cry. She shakes her head yes. “Lucca???” I say again in astonishment. She sees I’m in a panic and grabs my coat sleeve and pushes me toward the door. It doesn’t open. I push the button and it still doesn’t open. The lady points to a sign on the door that has a circle with a slash through it. This is the same door I had tried to get in from the outside earlier and it doesn’t work!

The lady spins me around and pushes me toward the door at the other end of the car. I try to run but only stumble along the aisle. It has been several minutes and I can’t tell if the train is moving. My brain is thinking, oh no… oh no…

Thankfully, the lady doesn’t let up. She keeps nudging me and reaches from behind and pushes the door button. It opens and the train is sitting still. I am flooded with relief and jump down and turn to thank her. She smiles but she has to think I’m some sort of nut case.

I was so shaken and disoriented I still wasn’t sure where I was. The platform was milling with young people. One boy made eye contact and I asked, “Is this Lucca?” He stared at me blankly. I pointed to the ground and asked again, “Lucca???” He slowly shook his head yes and stepped around me. I guess I should have said “take me to your leader” to prove that I am indeed a space alien. I sure felt like one.

I got in the crush and went down the stairwell. When I came up the other side, I was in Lucca. But I was still recovering from the adrenaline rush as I headed for Porta San Pietro, the gate back into the old city. The street lights were a welcome sight and it felt reassuring to be on familiar ground. And as I passed through the gate, all I could think was, “man, I could use about a bucket of wine right now…”

I mean seriously, these things are not normal. And I am not an idiot. A bit bumbling, maybe, but c’mon. Where were the announcements on the train? Was the sound system off? And how can I get so confused even when I’m paying attention? I don’t get it, I really don’t.

But I’m not gonna let it get to me. I’m not gonna develop a fear of trains and refuse to go anywhere. Even if I had ended up in Viareggio, I would just have had to get another ticket and come back. Not the end of the world.

ImageAt any rate, I was home and I was hungry and I knew just where I wanted to go. I had stopped at a wine bar once before that has rave reviews but I had gone when they were closed. (Naturally!) Well, no time like the present. It isn’t far from my apartment, so I headed straight to Wine Bar di Vinae. I understand they only serve local wines, as well as their own brew. And they’re all on tap behind the bar. They are famous for serving special appetizers with their wine. And, if you bring an empty wine bottle, they’ll even fill it up out of one of the taps!

It is a very small place down a side street. Very quiet. The lady didn’t speak English but I managed to order a mezzo-litro of prosecco. She brought it to the table and asked “mangiare?” (do you want to eat?) When I said yes, she went to the kitchen and brought out two pans of lasagne. One with pomodoro (made with tomato sauce) and one with pesto and pine nuts. I understood that this was what they had for the day so I chose the pesto and said “piccolo” while holding my thumb and forefinger together to indicate a small amount. She nodded.

ImageSoon she returned with a small plate of appetizers. 4 bruschetta with a tomato ragu and 4 with a mushroom ragu. Both were delicious and I didn’t even ask for them. And they did offer me more, but I refused. I would love to have tried a couple more things but I don’t want to order what I can’t eat and I don’t want to offend the owners who don’t understand that I can’t eat very much at once. Another couple had come in and were tasting several things – I wanted to be nosy and see what they were, but I didn’t. So I’ll just have to go back. And I can because it was extremely reasonable. The half-liter of wine was 6 euro and the lasagne was 4 euro. No charge for the appetizers. That’s rock-bottom prices for sure.

I finished the wine, got half the lasagne wrapped up for take-away, and headed for home. It was a great day – even with the traumatic train ride. And I slept like a rock. Too bad Ohio isn’t home to thermal springs. I guess I’ll just have to settle for regular pedicures, an occasional massage – and NO trains! No tricky trains!

Oh – and if you are ever with me and we aren’t sure where we are going – don’t ask me for directions. I don’t mind getting lost alone but I have a feeling it would make other people mad. And I have enough excitement on a daily basis without doing that. Just so you know…

A Sensational Spa Day

Today was a nice long, memorable day. And I’m gonna tell ya all about it while I chill out with my hot broth…

I had discovered a few weeks ago that one of the next towns over, Montecatini Terme, is famous for their thermal hot springs. The town has built up an entire tourist industry around spa treatments and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Especially now that I have a cold.

Honestly, one of the things I truly miss the most is my deep Jacuzzi bathtub in my Hampton House and barely a day goes by that I don’t wish for a hot, hot bath.

So I had tried to book a trip to the spa with the tourist office, but the company they use is being screwy. They have been more trouble than they are worth to deal with so I finally told them to cancel it and I’ll take care of it myself. I sent an email to the spa, and within hours I had an appointment for a pedicure, a massage and directions to the other spa with the thermal pool. Hot dog! Steaming water, here I come!

Of course that meant taking the train again, but how hard can it be to go a few stops? So I checked the schedules, made explicit notes, and took off about 8:30 am this morning.

ImageFirst stop was another al taglio pizzeria I wanted to try. They have an onion bread that looks yummy and lots of cookies to choose from. But when I got there, it was still early and the only savory thing in the case was unrecognizable. When I asked, I was told it was ham, cheese and tomato between two layers of bread. Sounded good for the train.

ImageThis thing was thin as a pancake and quite tasty. I ate half on the train platform. And one of these cookies, which I thought were chocolate chip. They’re actually shortbread and a bit dry, but good enough.

It was a short trip to Montecatini Terme and I had a map, so I walked straight to the spa where the pool is. And since I didn’t get lost, I was an hour early! So I walked around and found a cafe for a cappuccino. My goodness, but the barista made me the most gorgeous cup o’ joe! The milk was perfectly foamy and then he sprinkled cocoa on top. I took it to an outside table and admired it before taking a sip!

Then it was back to the pool. There was a bit of a language barrier, but I muddled through and got in the pool. The water is about 90 degrees, which is warm but not hot, and it was delicious to sink down into. It was also very salty. And thankfully there weren’t many people there because the pool wasn’t all that big.

On one side of the pool were two giant faucets. You could paddle over and push a button and the water would come out of them like a fire-hose! It is hydro-therapy massage. You have to make an effort to stand under them due to the force, but it is terrific beating down on your neck and shoulders. I took a couple turns and loved it. But you are only allowed to stay in the pool for 1 hour because of the water temperature. So it was time to get a shower and go. I was pink as a rosebud and happily water-logged.

The Excelsior Spa was a couple blocks away and I was early again, so I found a place to get a glass of wine and eat the rest of my sandwich. And when I got back, they were ready for me.

ImageWhat a beautiful place! Very historic and this particular area of town was quite grand. It was nice to see because my impression of the town overall is that it is a bit shabby and dated. I was glad I was only there for the day.

But this spa has served some celebrity clientele – like the one and only Princess Grace in 1957…

Well, it was my turn to be princess for a day and I was looking forward to it. I do regularly get pedicures – my feet need pampering and attention. But the massage… well, I’ve had them before, but not so much, so I was a bit hesitant. This IS Europe…

Sure enough, I was shown to a very nice wooden cupboard (not a metal locker!) and given a key to it. Then I was handed a packet containing a big white terry robe, a pair of disposable slippers, and… disposable paper undies. Not granny undies. Thong undies. String things. Oh boy. Well, we won’t go into that too much, but we can safely say that Mrs. P has now had that experience and is still not a convert. She has always firmly believed that there are certain areas you do your best to keep things OUT of and she is once again convinced she is right.

Anyway, I shuffled out into the hall to meet Carmen, a thin girl with a firm handshake, wildly red hair and a husky voice. “We do massage first,” she said throatily. “OK,” I agreed. And we went to a darkened room with a massage table prepared. Before I could discreetly get on the table she held our her right arm and said “give me!” – meaning my robe. Well, that was that. Off it came. “Face up!” she commanded. Okey, dokey.

The little voice in my head just said roll with it so I did. And even though she did use a couple of large towels as drapes, it was not nearly so strategic as in the States. Much more casual with the exposure here. But no big deal – it was a wonderful massage for a whole hour. The music that played in the background was some sort of Indian-Oriental blend that was quite soothing. And by the end I was a fragrant oiled puddle of a thing. Fabulous.

Then we headed to a different room for the pedicure (which they all pronounce ped-i-curr) and to my surprise, Carmen was doing that as well. And let me tell you, this girl can work on feet!

I tried to explain how much my feet have hurt from walking in Italy and she examined them closely under a lighted magnifying mirror. “No problem with your feet,” she pronounced. “It’s your shoes.”

“But I bought special shoes for this trip,” I protested.

“You buy wrong shoes,” she insisted. The she crushed two of my toes on my left foot together in her hand and pushed in on the end of my middle toe. I about jumped out of the chair. “That’s how your shoes feel, no?” she asked.

Well, I was stunned. That is the EXACT pain I have in that foot when walking!

“Toe box on your shoe too narrow, ” said Carmen. “Crushing your toes. You need shoe with wider toe box.” And she hadn’t even seen my shoes, but I think she’s right.

For the next hour she seriously worked on my feet. I think she even did a bit of minor surgery. She had these special little knife blades she got out of paper packets and put in a holder. Then she would carefully trim areas that were rubbing where they shouldn’t. It really was amazing and it relieved a lot of pain and pressure. She suggested I ride a bike instead of walk so much – and I said oh no, that doesn’t work with my knees. Then she looked at my knees and said they aren’t helping my feet any, either. “No,” she said, “swimming is for you!” And I agree.

ImageFinally, when she was finished, she insisted I sit in the Solarium for a while and she would bring a cup of tea. It was another beautiful place with a wonderful view of a park below. And when she brought the steaming drink she handed it to me and said, “no sugar. remove toxins. you like.”

ImageWell, it was so enjoyable sitting there in robe and slippers with fresh new feet that I just had to sneak to the locker and get my camera. And when I did leave to walk back to the train station, I felt like I was walking on air – for a short time anyway.

Montecatini Terme was a bit prettier at dusk. It was a mild evening and lots of people were out walking in the glow of street and shop lights. I enjoyed making my way back to the train and was early enough to stop for one more glass of wine before heading home. I sat and watched people for a while and reflected on what a nice day it had been. Nothing like a swim in a thermal pool and a couple spa treatments to bring out one’s inner princess.

But then there was the train trip back…

What is it about Saturdays in Lucca? (Part 2)

Nope the day wasn’t over so it was on to the other free event the young man at the tourist center told me about. What else in Italy… a food and wine exhibition with samples! Now that sounds fun!

ImageI found it straightaway and walked into the large building. Some girls gave me beautiful literature but it was all in Italian. But no matter. What more universal language is there than food?

I have not been exaggerating when I say that Italians love food and take it very seriously, so you can only imagine the displays in this place! For me, just the visual sights were scrumptious, so I didn’t even taste very much. I think I tried a piece of salami, two small raviolis and some honey. I wasn’t really hungry and I don’t like walking along scarfing up the tidbits when I have no intention of buying anything. But plenty of people were doing just that! Look at these spreads…

Image

Gorgeous cheeses – mostly pecorino

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the amazing and copious pane

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pasta, pasta, pasta!

And then there are at least two other products that Italians can’t live without.. pork… and wine. Not necessarily in that order, but definitely both in abundant amounts.

ImageThis porchetta display was very crowded. I could hardly get in to photograph the well-loved mascots you see here. But it was by no means the only pork booth. There were dozens and every one had a huge old pig leg fastened to something while they carved away and passed out samples.

Somewhere around the middle of the building I came upon a large room devoted to wine. Now we’re talking…

I didn’t understand the posted signs and had to ask what they meant. One sign said you could buy a tasting ticket for 5 euros. The other sign said you had to give a 5 euro deposit for the very nice wine glass to use – and then you get that back when you return the glass. Sold.

I forked over my 10 euro, but then had a major dilemma. I love wine but actually know very little about it. And this is what there was to choose from…

ImageHoly smokes, I might as well start throwing darts to pick something out for all I know! But no one else was in the room at the time, so I just asked this nice man, Luca, for help. We had a lovely chat and he picked out 3 wines for me. First was a local white, a blend that includes the Vermentino grape they grow here. It was light and I could see how it would be nice with an appetizer, or as they say here, “starter.”

From there I wanted to try a couple reds because I want to know more about them and develop my taste. Luca poured me a local “light” red that tasted very fruity and a bit thin. He said it would pair well with turkey or chicken, which are not strong dishes. But even for a “light” red, the fragrance of this wine was very nice. One thing I like about reds is how they burst into your nose as soon as you get the glass to your face. A nice little whiff of what is to come…

Finally I tasted a pure Syrah. And Luca gave me the choice of a one-ticket or two-ticket syrah. You see, when you get your tasting ticket, you get four tickets. Each bottle of wine costs one or two tickets depending on quality. So if you get the cheaper wines, you can taste 4. If you stick to more expensive ones, you can taste 2. Well I had already tried two one-ticket wines. And now I wanted a good one. I chose the two-ticket syrah.

It was very, very good. Rich and deep-tasting – nothing thin about it. The fragrance was delightful – made you want to stand with the glass over your nose like an oxygen mask between sips. And then the tannin. I do know that is the “pucker factor” of red wine. It’s an acidic taste that actually seems to shrivel your tongue just a bit. And so I asked Luca, “do people begin to crave this tannic taste?”

“Oh yes,” he replied, “but it is much more than that! The tannin is what cuts the fat in the meal you are eating. This wine is meant for a very fat steak!” (Which he pronounced stay-ahk) “Wine is meant for food!” he went on. “It is not complete without it!”

And suddenly that little light bulb in my head that isn’t always on rose straight up from my brain and went “ding, ding, ding!”

I have heard countless times about the fine points of pairing food with wine, but suddenly I got it. I was tasting this earthy tannin and feeling my tongue respond and I could just imagine sipping this with a bite of a grilled, medium rare ribeye. It would cut that fat and be the perfect compliment. Like 1+1=5. I can’t wait to try that out.

Even better, when I get back, I’m gonna meet MB somewhere for a real wine-tasting that pairs the wine with food. That really is what it’s all about and I’m just figuring it out! Duh!!!

And on a sidenote, while Luca and I chatted, I was taking photos of some of the wine bottles. “Are you afraid you’ll forget?” he asked. “Well, yes, ” I said, “but also for my sketchbook for later.” And at that he wanted to see the sketchbook. So I got it out of my bag for him.

He was enamored with it and asked if he could take some photos with his phone. “Sure!” I replied. Then he gave me a business brochure from his wine company and asked if I would do some sketches from their website. He said that if I do and send them to him on email, the company might be interested in using them. And then he paid me a very nice compliment… “I have seen such drawings in books and magazines but never originals and never from the artist. It is such a privilege that you have shared your precious book with me!”

I was quite flattered and it reminded me again that people really do love the sketch diaries. There’s gotta be a way for me to capitalize on that! (Note to self – check on that when I get home)

So I finished up at the food fair and headed back to the apartment. I felt very satisfied having had a good dose of art and architecture and fine food and wine all in the space of a few hours. But I had been on my feet for a good part of the day – and not thought to take any advil – so I was a bit gimpy on the walk home. But that turned out to be a good thing!

Saturday evening in Lucca is quite crowded on the streets. Everyone comes out to walk and wander and shop and eat – you can barely move on Via Filungo! Really, on Saturdays it is almost like there is excitement in the air. You can feel the energy.

So I’m going along, feeling a bit wobbly and tired, and am watching the cobblestones as I usually do because they are so uneven. Suddenly I sense something wrong and look up to see an older man on a bicycle careening toward me almost out of control. He has a stunned looked on his face and I don’t know which way to go to get out of his way. We each over-correct in the wrong direction a couple times, like a dance move gone bad, and somehow he brushes by me without mowing me down. It happened in a split second.

And then I realized that the thing that made me look up and see the man coming at me was a girl screaming a few yards away. And just as that sound registered, two young men thundered past me at a dead run. I was already half spun round by the old man and his bike and this spun me around to be looking behind me. In less than a second, one of the boys had grabbed the old man by the back of his jacket and jerked him to a halt. The other boy reached out and grabbed something out of his hand.

Turns out the old guy had snatched a phone out of a young girl’s hand as he went by on his bike and was making a run for it. But dear old Mrs P (who is the one who makes me walk funny when I’m tired) had gotten in the way. It slowed the old geezer down just enough that the boys could catch him before he got up to speed again.

I, along with the rest of the crowd, closed in on the scene. The young boys were nice men. The one who had retrieved the phone held it above his head in plain sight. Both guys raised their hands over their heads to show the man all they wanted was the phone back. They weren’t going to hurt him. And by then the girl had run up, grabbed her phone and confirmed it was hers. The crowd all stared to see what would happen.

The boys backed up another step and the old man rode away. Then the girl’s friends all arrived in a screaming crush at that point. There was much adoration for the boys who were so fast on their feet. And they all walked past Mrs. P without even a backward glance. But that’s alright. Little do they know that as you grow older and slower in this life you still have a role to play. And sometimes it’s not being fleet of foot that matters.

Both Mrs. P and I went on home, grateful for another Saturday in Lucca. What is it about that day anyway?

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