Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sardegna (Sardinia) - Departure

The November before Leo became ill,  I made a quick trip to Cremona for just a few days. Leo was teaching in Sardegna and was free for the weekend, with a rental car. We made plans to meet in Cagliari on Friday night. Before I left the states, I booked a flight on Meridian Air.


This morning everyone in my family was up at 6.30 to see me out the door. Marta and Mattia took me and my now famous bags to the Cremona train station. Marta drove. With a bag in each hand, Mattia carried them down and then up the stairs to the binario (platform. I told him he had saved me about 30 minutes.

Mattia keeps his bicycle at the station. After helping with the luggage, he gave me a kiss and hug, retrieved his bike and rode off to work. Marta always waits to see me actually board before she leaves.

I validated my train ticket (biglietto treno ordinario da convalidare) by slipping it into a yellow time stamp meter. These meters are found inside every Italian train station, but not on the binario (platform).

When I first started traveling by train in Italy, I was under the impression that the ticket needed to be stamped at both the destination and departure stations. I wanted to be sure I'd done it correctly, so sometimes I’d stamp twice, just to be doubly sure. The controllori (conductors) do check these tickets, often more than once. I remember startled looks at my multi-stamped tickets. Now I know better.

One needs to pay a fine directly to the conductor if the train ticket has not been stamped. The stamp invalidates the ticket after the current trip. Once or twice I have seen people hiding out in the tiny bathrooms to avoid the conductor. It was clear by the furtive look in their eyes.

It's possible to buy a ticket from the conductor. My family once told me if there is a train strike, it is usually a strike of the ticket sellers. In that case, it's all right to get on the train without a ticket.

The Eurostar comes through Cremona every morning at 7.45 from Bergamo to Rome. The station is always crowded with energetic students as they arrive from nearby villages to attend high school.

The years spent attending Italian high school are divided into two parts. The first two years are for general studies. This is followed by three years of optional specialized studies. The university bound student will attend the academic liceo, while those wishing to learn a vocation, choose the istituto or vocational school.

On this trip, I discovered another secret of taking First Class to Firenze-Refreddi. When the train pulls into the station, the first class car is positioned right at the handicap ramp. I noticed all those disembarking with me went straight to the ramp, wheeling their luggage effortlessly. I think of all those times I struggled with the stairs! I looked for a point of reference. The stairs are at least 10 cars away from the ramp. No wonder I never saw the ramp before.

I wheeled my bags to the taxi stand. At this station, one needs to be a little aggressive to catch a taxi. The taxis swoop in with a quick u-turn and accept whoever can make it off the sidewalk first.

At the Firenze-Santa Maria Novella train station there is a strict orderly line of taxis and patrons.

I asked my taxi driver to take me straight to Ferragamo, which is just a few steps from my hotel. There was traffic blockage due to construction and we were diverted twice. The driver was upset it was taking too long and suddenly off we went, down the wrong side of the street on the Santa Trinita' bridge to arrive right in front of Ferragamo....with his profound apologies for being late. I love Italian taxi drivers! I try to always practice my Italian with a few phrases to test my accent.

It was just before noon when I rang the entry bell for Hotel Cestelli. Sweet Alessio carried my bags up to my room, as he always does. I left the luggage and immediately ran right back out. I wanted catch the shops on the side streets near Palazzo Pitti and Piazza Santo Spirito, before the afternoon riposo.

In August I had purchased a fantastic just published book named "The Piazzas of Florence" written by Lisa McGarry. Her rented apartment is just opposite Palazzo Pitti. She describes all sorts of wonderful shops and local historical facts of Firenze. I was anxious to follow her footsteps.


Last night I repacked my two big bags to leave here at the hotel. I packed a smaller bag for Sardegna. The commuter plane has a limited luggage allowance.

I read more of the Piazza book. I raced out early this morning in light rain to Piazza Santo Spirito to catch the daily morning street market. I got several great pictures as the lighting was perfect.

I arrived at the Galli Forno (bakery) (Via Sant'Agostino 8r) and bought fresh milk and two still warm buns, which were made with raisins and rosemary, for breakfast. Oh so yummy.

I took a picture of my treasures and headed back to my hotel to enjoy breakfast.  It's raining hard again.

I left all my bags with Alessio's wife, Asumi at 10 am and checked out. I walked just down the street to Palazzo Strozzi to see the exhibit: Caterina e Maria De' Medici: Donne al Potere. (Women in Power).

The cost was 10 Euro for entrance plus 4 E for the audio tour. I amazed myself. As I was struggling with a wet umbrella and trying to get out my money, the ticket seller was telling me I needed to leave my driver's license, etc.etc.etc. Without a thought I understood! Brava for me. I'm not always this lucky. I suspect their accent helps...when the speakers are Florentine like Leo I have an easier time.

Double "Brava" for me. Several local matrons next to me asked for and received beautiful little "exhibit passport" booklets. The attendant quickly and discreetly retrieved these gems from under the counter. Using my best "formal" Italian, I very nicely asked for the same little book for myself. The surprised attendant handed one over. With a grazie mille to thank him, I entered the exhibition. I felt like skipping with happiness.

I've been in this Palazzo before. It housed a fantastic exhibition on my favorite painter Sandro Botticelli several years ago. This show today was small but very interesting. There were paintings of Caterina and Maria DiMedici and many tapestries made during that time period.

For me the highlight was a room which had little looms setup for children to make their own bracelets. Also there were costumes---some lovely tot sized caps, crowns, armored masks and cross bows.

I observed a tapestry in progress. I had no idea the artist draws a "cartoon" on the strings, just as they do for a fresco and then the weaver fills in the background and colors for the design. The backside of a working tapestry has many many small wooden bobbin spindles, all dangling down and overlapping each other. I read that tapestries have always cost much more than frescoes to commission.

I love the way Italians always welcome children into these shows. They do live in a giant art gallery and it nurtures love and appreciation of the city.

Thursday evening, by phone, I made arrangements to meet with one of Leo's students, Irene (E-rain-a). She met me at the University today at 3 pm. It's been raining hard all day so it was nice to get into a nice warm, dry place.

Irene was distressed she had no car. She had taken the train into Firenze, from her home in Pistoia. She was horrified I had to find my own way to the airport. She promptly called a friend, who then called her father, to find out where I could catch the bus to the airport this evening: cost 4.50 Euro versus 21 Euro for a taxi.

Irene's concern for me was so sweet. She brought me a cheery pink gift bag, tied with a ribbon. It contained a nice hot sauce from the South (for pasta), Vin Santo and a tiny panettone. So thoughtful of her. Last year, Irene stayed with a family in Newport Beach for six weeks, teaching their children Italian. After our meeting today she will attend a wine class, where she will soon earn a certificate showing she is a wine expert. She is a smart girl with many interests.

At 5 pm Irene and I walked to my hotel and retrieved my travel bag for Sardegna. Luckily the rain had stopped. She insisted on walking from the hotel to the train station with me. It's a 15 minute stroll, if one knows the local shortcut. Near the train station, we found the Sita bus which departed at 6 sharp. The ride to the airport took only 20 minutes.

My flight with Meridian Air to Cagliari was delayed 30 minutes. It's been pouring buckets of rain for the last hour and finally it has stopped.

Marta called from Cremona this afternoon. It's been snowing all day. I'm sorry I missed it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

La Verna and Debbie

Debbie’s dream came true. I booked the same flight as Debbie and her husband Gareth less than 18 months after her surgery. As thrilled as Debbie was, her husband was a bit lukewarm about traveling.  In the end, he had a wonderful time in Italy.

Leo had become friends with Debbie here in California and planned to show her La Verna. He met us at the airport with a special hug for Debbie.

Later that weekend, the four of us drove to La Verna. We stopped on the way to buy panini (sandwiches) in a small village shop. Gareth bought a bottle of wine. Debbie was fascinated, as the shop keeper hand cut prosciutto and cheese, then carefully placed each slice onto the fresh bread. I remember Gareth wondered out loud about mayonnaise. I told him mayonnaise was nowhere to be found here, thank goodness.

We ate our picnic lunch at the base of the mountain top which hosts La Verna. Everyone agree the sandwiches were delicious. Debbie was glowing.

It was spring, but the ground was wet and we felt the cold dampness. Wispy fog floated across the air, making it hard to see La Verna clearly.

We drove up up, to the top of the mountain, parked and made our way on foot into the main building. Debbie was anxious to see the tiny chapel which I had described to her. We waited for the chapel to empty of a small group and entered by ourselves.

Leo took my hand as my quiet tears flowed. Debbie's tears were silently streaming down her face. Gareth looked startled at his own feelings.

After a few moments, we all joined hands and Leo quietly said the Lord’s Prayer, in Italian. It has the same cadence as the English version. Debbie and Gareth both felt the same specialness which I had sensed during my first visit. Debbie had not been disappointed.

After a short time, we took a stroll outside, toward the rear of the property, which is densely wooded. The trees were alive with the sound of happy birds, enchanted by the spirit of San Francesco. We all agreed the day had been magical.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name;
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Padre Nostro

Padre nostro che sei nei cieli
sia santificato il tuo nome
venga il tuo regno
sia fatta la tua volontà
come in cielo così in terra.

Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano
Rimetti a noi i nostri debiti
Come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori.
E non ci indurre in tentazione
Ma liberaci dal male.