Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas 2010

Christmas. As a child, Christmas Day proved to me that there was magic in the world. Growing up, my family was not active in any religious organization, although my research has uncovered a strong Catholic presence in the family histories of both my maternal and paternal ancestors.

I suspect our family Christmas was orchestrated by my father, who, at the age of 6, had been abandoned in Boy’s Town, Nebraska by his mother. Perhaps it was his way of trying to create the perfect day. We always had a fresh tree, setup the first week of December. It was laden with lights, delicate glass ornaments and crinkled lead tinsel.

 As young children, we were allowed to place only one or two of the less delicate items on the tree. We watched as my parents put up the tree. When the lights were turned on, the magic began. Our three felt red stockings, with our names stitched on the cuffs, hung over the fireplace. Brightly wrapped packages were added under the tree, which always had a plain white cotton sheet acting as a tree skirt.

Our Christmas was not religious and it was not commercial either.  It was a time of peace in our household and this was the gift I treasured most.

On Christmas Eve, we would leave cookies and milk for Santa. It was so hard to fall asleep. The anticipation was almost too much to bear. Each year, in the middle of the night, I took slow motion, stealth-like steps from my bedroom out into the darkened living room, to have the first look, alone to feel the magic. My father never heard me, even with his radar super hearing.

On Christmas morning, my brothers would tumble out of bed before day-break and the day would begin. In the darkness, by the lights of the Christmas tree, we opened our gifts from Santa. Each of our stockings, had been removed from the fireplace and placed on the hearth. The stockings were stuffed full, with small toys, a slinky, tangerines, pecans, walnuts, filberts and hazelnuts. Next to each stocking, were stacked gifts. Santa never used wrapping paper which had already been seen under the tree. I was able to keep Santa’s secret for a long time, even though the years after my last brother was born.

Christmas Day continued with a simple breakfast and a family gift exchange and then a trip to a relative’s home, where we had more gift exchanges. A traditional ham dinner in the evening was always proceeded by an afternoon snacking feast. A large table was laid out with h’orderves of delicacies we only had for Christmas: pickled herring, green and black olives, sweet pickles, cocktail onions, goose pate, smoked oysters and clams, cheeses of the world, tiny meatballs, sliced salami, crackers, maraschino cherries, fruitcake, See’s candy, homemade fudge, ribbon candies, British jelly-filled raspberry hard candies, eggnog and any other unusual food item my father could find.

When my two children were at home, I tried to carry on the traditions, in hopes to create the same wonderful memories.

Marina asks me each year, why Francesca do you come to Italy when it’s so rainy and cold? The answer is simple. Christmas! I plan my trips very carefully to coincide with the Christmas season in Italy. When I arrive around Thanksgiving, Christmas lights, while not turned on, have already been strung over the streets. Shop windows are decorated with holiday scenes.

I especially love the candy shops, with their creative displays of chocolate Santas and animals, Panettone cakes elegantly wrapped in cellophane and trays of brightly colored marzipan fruit.

Not even the rain can dampen my Christmas spirit, which is rekindled in Italy. In my walks around Firenze, I come upon Nativity scenes and organ concerts.

Each year I attend the European Christmas Fair in the piazza in front of the church, Chiesa Santa Croce.  This year it was extra special with my friend Laura.

I enjoy wandering from stand to stand, admiring Christmas wares from Europe, Sweden and Russia. This year I ate strudel from Austria, sauerkraut with grilled ham shanks from Germany and gingerbread cookies from England.

On the last Sunday of November, all the Christmas lights in Firenze are switched on and the season officially begins with all stores open for full day of Sunday shopping.
During the first weekend of December, Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) arrives, with snow (from a hidden snow maker), at the “Florence Noel” Christmas festival in Stazione Leopolda, a gorgeous retired train station, opened in 1844, but now used only for exhibitions.

In Cremona, if I’m lucky, the city and its outdoor Christmas trees are brushed with snow, at least once during my November/December visit. I peek in at the enclosed outdoor ice skating rink. I enjoy watching the matrons of the city as they take their slow evening walks, stylishly dressed in their fur coats and hats. I collect these magical moments. This year, in our neighborhood church, I saw the lumber stacked, ready to build the Nativity scene. The large golden star was already in place over the entrance to the church.

I’ve only spent one Christmas in Italy with my family in Cremona. I had bought a wooden Nativity set at a small store in town and set it up in the dining room. Marina, always helpful to educate me, exclaimed…”Oh no Francesca, the camel and Wise Men need to be moved away from the manger. The sheep can stay, because they of course were there in Bethlehem. Place the camel and Wise Men over there. They won’t arrive until January 6th.” So, the camel and the Wise Men waited on another table.

In Cremona, a Christmas tree had been setup in the dining room, but there were no gifts beneath it. On Christmas Eve, we had an elegant family dinner, seated at Nonna’s long dining room table around 8 pm. Then, just before midnight, we all walked to church to celebrate midnight mass. As we climbed the steps to enter, I saw a large golden star, hanging over the church doors, but it was not lighted. Rosa told me at the stroke of midnight, it would be illuminated, to proclaim the birth of Baby Jesus. As we walked home from mass, the church bells began to toll and the man-made star was lighted! The next morning, we drove two cars through sometimes thick fog to Piemonte and had an afternoon dinner with Marina’s family, in their restaurant. I saw a only few gift packages exchanged.

Returning to California that year, I re-staged my Nativity scene and moved the camels and Wise Men over to join the others, on the correct date, January 6. This day is celebrated around the world by the holiday called, The Epiphany, Three Kings' Day, Twelfth Night or La Befana.

I’ve never experienced a Christmas Day with Leo. I try very hard to accept the things I cannot change, but at Christmas it is not easy. Leo writes to me every day and I have many letters which have arrived from him on Christmas Day. For over a decade, each Christmas has reminded me of Leo’s commitments in Italy, which he will never break to be with me.

I believe the magical Christmas days from my childhood triggered something in how I approach living. I saw there was hope to live in a better way. An angry teenaged son once shouted at me “You never see the dark side of life!” Oh, that is so not true. I know firsthand that life can be difficult, unfair and disappointing. We each have choices to make on how we survive the hurt inflicted upon us. We must love and nurture ourselves before we can love and accept people who come into our lives.

I believe it’s necessary to find magic and goodness as often as possible, not just once a year. Every day, we need to be aware of the beauty, wonders and goodness which surround us. We cannot wait for others to bring us happiness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Day Trip from Longarone to Trieste

The next day Leo and I took a day trip up to Trieste. I love visiting these places and Leo always gives me some historical background.

Trieste was one of the oldest parts of the Habsburg Monarchy from 1382 until 1918. It was a prosperous seaport under control of Austria. It was considered Austria's "Riveria." After WWI, Trieste was occupied by the Italian army and Slavic and German names were "Italianized" by the end of 1930. At the same time, Slovic residents were persecuted and many immigrated to Yugoslavia or South American. During WWII, again Trieste was involved. In 1947, Trieste was protected by the United Nations and it was divided into two zones, A and B. In 1954, Zone B was ceded to Italy and Zone B became part of Yugoslavia. Other parts were divided among the Socialist Republic of Slovenia and Croatia.

The Adriatic Sea was on our right side, as we drove down the Italian coast to Trieste. Our first stop was at the Museo Storico del Castello di Miramare  (Miramare Castle Museum), home of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium. Maximillian had supervised the construction of the castle, along with the 22 acre park (Parco di Miramare) surrounding it.

In 1864, Maximilian sailed to Mexico, where he was appointed Emperor. In 1967, in Queretaro, Mexico, he was shot and killed. His wife Charlotte suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to Miramare. She later returned to her native Belgium.

In 1955 the castle was designated a museum and grounds opened to the public. We parked outside the grounds and walked in. A local man offered to let give me food and have some of the wild birds land on my hand to eat. I was sure there was a small fee involved so I declined his offer.

A circular driveway was surrounded by porticos draped with blooming wisteria, in various shades of violet and purple.

We paid an entry fee to enter the castle, which is furnished with its original paintings and furniture. We toured the gardens and encountered some very aggressive swans! The patio of the castle ends right at the cliffs edge, with a spectacular view of the Adriatic.

We planned to spent the night in Trieste but had no reservations. Leo found an adorable hotel which was very beachy. It was off-season and the rates were reasonable. As usual, I needed to give my passport to the hotel desk clerk. I tried not to stare at her. She was young, blond and extremely tall with very Slavic features. I held my comments until we were alone in the room. Leo told me we were just a few blocks from the border to Slovania. There was a bit of unrest in Croatia at that time and Leo felt it best if we just stayed in Italy. We had a wonderful fresh seafood dinner, seated near a warm fire in the restaurant's firepit.

In our room we found an advertisement for the largest underground cavern in the world: "Grotta Gigante." We went there the next day.

One must descend wet stairs, down down down. A brochure showed that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome would fit inside the main cavern. It was cold (11 C) and dark down there! Little lanterns lighted the way. I had a great time.


We were starving after our underground adventure. Leo has such a good instinct on good places to eat. We had fish at a trattoria in downtown Trieste. Leo had a plate of French fried baby fishes...sardines? We splurged that day and tried every kind of fish appetizer on the menu.  We spent a lot more than usual on our meal, but we split the cost.

We walked around the pier area of Trieste. Leo told me this used to be a popular port for cruise ships.

I noticed here,  just as in other cities on the Italian sea, there were no barriers between people and water. In Italy, one is expected to see the obvious danger and not tumble into the water.

Longarone disaster

In the morning, downstairs, in the 'bar' portion of the restaurant, the nice proprietor, steamed some milk for me and made me hot chocolate. Italians generally only have a light breakfast of a croissant or bakery item and coffee or hot milk. The proprietor also prepared two prosciutto panini (ham sandwiches) for Leo and me to take with us, for lunch.

In Italy a 'bar' is not a 'bar' in the American sense. It's a place where one can get cappuccino, pastries, hot chocolate, water or an alcoholic beverage. Often a 'bar' is attached to a restaurant and serves simple sandwiches and snack food when the restaurant is closed.

For an hour, Leo and his colleagues had their materials spread out to discuss their work strategy for the day. The team consisted of four technical people from Leo's office and another group from an outside vendor. I tried to stay invisible but observant, as I always am.

Around 9 am, we all drove to the offices of the Comune where the project business was conducted.

Before lunch, Leo drove me to the Longarone cemetery. It was there that I really understood the full magnitude of the 1963 disaster. I saw graves of entire families. I saw that 350 families had been entirely obliterated.

This is what happened, as told to me by Leo. I also later watched the 2001 film "Vajont, La diga del disonore" to better understand, even though Leo warned me, it would be a heart breaking experience.

The village of Longarone was scattered in the Piave Valley. The town is enclosed by a tall brushy slope/hill to its backside and a mountain range with Monte Toc to its front side. A small river runs down the center of the valley.

In 1959 the Vajoint dam was built at the top of Monte Toc. The dam, when filled, was planned to create a nice artificial lake area and transform the village of Casso into a waterfront resort.

A structurally sound dam was built and completed in 1961. There had been some testing on the dam and pressure had been released as engineers on site conducted tests. Concern about the possibility of land slippage had been debated. Villagers in the Longarone area had been feeling earthquakes in the months before October 1963.

On 9 October 1963 at approximately 10:35pm, while the engineers were on site, suddenly the side of the Monte Toc slipped into the lake behind the dam.

The force of the slippage of the side of Monte Toc caused several things to happen, simultaneously. A strong wind burst into the valley below. A huge wave bounced up and over the small town of Casso. The 250-metre (820 feet) high wave then continued to fall over the top of the dam. All of the basin water was displaced by the falling earth and fell onto Longarone. Note that an American football field is 110 meters (360 feet) in length. A total of 50 million cubic meters of water! Damage was also caused by the air displacement caused by the gigantic splash.

That night, almost 2000 people were killed within moments.

Leo took me to the new Longarone town church, where artifacts from the disaster are on display. A broken statue of Mary indicates the force which was unleashed that night. Mary, as well as other victims were washed far away in a sea of water and mud. This statue of Mary was retrieved in the waters near Venice, 100 km (62 miles) to the south.

Leo drove me up to the Vaiont Dam. There is no water behind the dam now but instead it appears that the mountain moved right into the basin of the dam.

According to Leo, the little town of Casso never fully recovered from its losses. The village appears to be quiet normal and quaint, until one realizes that many of the homes are missing their roofs.

We parked the car in Casso and bought bottled water from a small market. Leo and I followed the foot path toward the top of a hill, eating our lunch halfway, seated on the path's low stone wall. When we reached the mountaintop, we had a full view of the valley below. We stood silently, imagining what it might have looked like that terrible night.

I asked Leo about the Innkeeper and his wife. Had they lost family too? "Yes," he answered. "Did you notice the family pictures on the wall last night, in the restaurant? Everyone in this valley lost someone."

It was a sobering day, feeling the spirits of 2000 lost ones and the courage and determination of those left behind.


"On September 17, 1963 the engineers turned off the incoming water for seven days. Even though the water level remained the same, Mount Toc continued to slide. The water level inside Mount Toc was the same level as the water in the reservoir. The mountain had become inert, without water resistance, just like at Pontesei (see above). Removal of water would be catastrophic and leaving it there would be catastrophic. None of this information was provided to the residents of the towns in the Piave Valley. Instead, Biadene left for Venice and wrote a letter to Penta in Rome that said: "May God grant us good fortune." (p. 87)

The police were instructed to notify all people in Erto to remain alert. When the peasants asked, alert to what?, they were told nothing was wrong, but to sleep with one eye open. Then roadblocks on the state highway were placed, according to Paolini, "apparently so as not to disturb the landslide". At 10:39 p.m., "[t]he last thread of the spider web holding the massive rock to the rest of the mountain [broke]." Not everyone in Erto was killed by the tsunami wave that moved upstream (residents of Casso were spared). Downstream in Longarone, however, people, who had received no warning or instructions to evacuate, were taken by surprise. A roaring wind that preceded the foul-smelling water-wall killed almost everyone. The wind supposedly had a force or pressure two times the bombs dropped on Hiroshima. (p. 94) People's clothes and skin were blown off and their internal organs blasted to death. What the wind didn't destroy, the water did. It sloshed against one side of the Piave Valley and then the other and back and forth until it was able to make its way downriver, like a mouse in a snake's gullet. The water-wall scoured and flattened everything (see photo)."

Quote from a Longarone survivor:

«I was awakened by a noise similar to that of jet planes very near. A great wind entered my house, smashing in doors and windows, blowing everything away. Then I saw a thick haze preceding a huge wave of water which splashed my house, carrying away my neighbor's. I thought it was a tidal wave coming out of nowhere» (Besson, 1966: 24)

"In Longarone alone, 1,269 out of 1,348 persons known to be in the town at the time, were killed. At least 158 died in Erto and Casso, villages located on the reservoir. A minimum of 569 other persons in other localities in the comune were also fatal casualties."

"For a radius of almost two miles across and about four miles up and down the valley, the destruction was all but total. Even six days after the impact it was difficult to find any physical sign or feature that a community once existed on what now had the appearance of a very wide but dry river bed, rusty covered with small, round pebbles. The chief exception to this was a handful of only slightly water-damaged houses at the northwestern edge of the devastated, but razed area. This was the tiny section of Longarone on which the mass of water did not land, in part because it was somewhat up the slope. In this cluster of houses, including the town hall, lived most of the 79 inhabitants of Longarone who were not casualties of the disaster."

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Longarone nights

I never had asthma as a child.  But now, allergies and cigarette smoke seem to trigger asthma. 

At the Inn, Leo and I snuggled in for the night in Longarone under a nice down quilt.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night, I could not breathe.  I had detected a faint odor of cigarette smoke earlier, but in Italy it was a normal smell.  (No Smoking Laws have since changed that.)

I got up to open the window, as I normally do in California.  I admired long ice sickles hanging from the eaves of the inverted V shaped roof.   In the Alps, opening the window just a crack lets in cold air and it flows in pretty quickly.  The air was so clean and wonderful.  Breathing easier, I happily padded back to our warm bed.

Leo, feeling the cold air, awoke.  He told me surely I didn't expect to sleep with the window open, in the dead of winter, in the Alps, surrounded by snow covered mountains.  The cold night air would cause sickness.  The swirling waves of air would also cause sore throats. 

I remember having this same night air conversation with Marina in Cremona.  Fresh air is something I've always needed at night.  I explained to Leo that instead of making me sick, the cold air makes me better.

My sweet loving Leo slept that night (and many other nights!) with a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck to protect his throat.  I did get the giggles watching him wrap up his neck.  Our cultural differences only seem to enhance our love for each other.

I slept like a baby

Snow in Firenze and memories of Longarone

It's snowing in Italy this week and I'm so sorry to be missing it. Friends have posted pictures of Firenze covered with a blanket of snow. The city has been silenced! Leo writes that total quiet like this is rare! Pedestrians have full freedom to walk without sharing the streets with buses, cars or motorbikes. Even the trains and airplanes have stopped running. I saw a iPhone video, showing snow boarders enjoying outdoor stairs, which had been transformed into perfect slopes.

I have experienced the snow several times in Italy. This morning I am remembering a special weekend I spend with Leo.

Leo had a work assignment in the village of Longarone. He sent me pictures of snow capped Alps. I checked the internet to learn more.

Longarone is located on the A27 highway, above Belluno, in the alpine area of Veneto, the same region which includes Venice (Venezia). The town is mostly made of up of new buildings.

From Wiki:

"Longarone is a town and comune on the banks of the Piave in the province of Belluno, in North-East Italy. It is situated 35 kilometers from Belluno."

"The village was destroyed in the Vajont disaster on October 9, 1963, when a landslide from Monte Toc forced 50 million cubic metres of water (seiche) over the top of the Vajont Dam. Longarone lay in the immediate path of the wave of mud and water which swept into the valley below. 1,909 villagers were killed."

A few years ago, Leo and I made several trips to Longarone, but the first one was most special. Leo drove. I loved Leo's car. It was a French car with comfortable leather seats. The car had a voice warning system and a woman's voice spoke to us (in Italian) every so often during our many trips together. I loved that voice, although I never understood everything she said.

We picked up a colleague of Leo's one Thursday afternoon, in the Spring. We each brought a small overnight bag. There was work to be done for the comune (county government seat) but in addition, Leo had planned several side trips for me.

It was already dark as began our drive up the two lane mountain road. The signs showed we had passed the cutoff for the province of Belluno. I could feel the change in altitude as we drove but I felt no sign of car sickness. The highway was unlike the mountain roads I had hated as a child in California. Missing, were cutbacks and winding hairpin curves. I was wishing it was daylight, so I could enjoy the scenery. Now I understand something! Leo prefers to drive at night, the exact opposite of me. I feel terrified during dark night drives. I never worried about Leo's driving, but was always concerned about the sobriety and judgment of everyone else out on the road.

It was around dinnertime, (normally 8 pm in Firenze) when we pulled into a tiny parking lot of a small roadside restaurant. When the car doors opened, cold frigid crisp air flowed over me. Luckily, I was wearing my new Italian winter coat, which I had recently purchased with Leo in an outdoor market in Padova.

We left our bags in the car and entered the warm restaurant, already crowded with families. The atmosphere was similar to family-style Amish restaurants in Pennsylvania. Very cozy, homey and non pretentious. The proprietor greeted Leo by name.

We had a wonderful dinner. I choose eggplant, always my favorite in Italy. The waitress/owner described to me how they rolled grilled eggplant slices and filled them, with a local soft cheese, thin slices of ham and then into the oven for a short bake. I wanted to go right into the kitchen to watch its preparation. I was too shy to do this at that time, but now I would not hesitate to make this request.

Because of my beginner's Italian, I had not realized, this place was also an inn. We had rooms booked for the next two nights. We retrieved our overnight bags from the car. I noticed frozen icicles hanging from the outside of the building as we took the back stairs up, to find our room. The simple room had a big Alpine type window, with double shutters, inside and outside.

I opened both shutters and the window to see exactly where we were. By the light of the moon, I could see snow capped mountains nearby. Wow! I was really in the Alps for the first time in my life.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Firenze, departure DRAFT

I had only a few hours of sleep Sunday night, partially because I worried about missing the flight. I had packed and repacked my luggage, weighing and worrying just how accurate was the scale. I should have trusted the scale because my bags weighed in at 21 and 22 K, just below the 23 K limit (50 pounds).
I was up at 3.30 and had my bags at the door. Asumi and Alessio were both awake and waiting for me. They were dressed warmly and they carried the bags down the two flights of stairs.
At 4.55 the 5.00am taxi was already sitting at the outside door. I try to always be early for the taxi, because the tiny cobbled stone medieval street is one-way and one lane. It's impassible when the taxi needs to wait. At 5.00 there's not much traffic, but still ...
Airport ride cost: 24 €
Time: 20 minutes (on almost empty streets)
I was carrying a lot of weight in coins, so I paid him a 10 € note and the rest in coins, mostly 1 and 2 € pieces.
I was second in line to check-in. The bags were under the weight limit but I did have to pay 70€ for the second bag, as I had expected. I was told a third bag would have cost 200€ and an over weight bag, an additional 100€.
I was so tired, but relieved about both being free of the bags and with some money saved. I had tangerines and an English gingerbread cookie with me to eat breakfast at the boarding gate.
I drank my water and approached the airport security check point. It was there that I lost my wonderful olive wood breadboard. I was told wood was not allowed in the cabin .. it could be used as a weapon. I did not argue with the officer, but it seemed illogical. A laptop computer would have weighed more than the board and certainly could have been used to bonk someone over the head.
Once one is stopped for any reason, they check your carry-on bags. After a thorough check, I passed through security.
I hope my breadboard found a nice home!

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday, time to say goodbye DRAFT

It's 4C today. I felt it getting colder here yesterday. Today crowds of Florentines are out walking, warm in their furs, hats and gloves. All the shops are open to start the Christmas shopping season.
Leo has decided to stay in today and I was not surprised. This has been a fatiguing week for him and adding in the coldness, it's best that he not come out.
I walked toward Via Servi this morning and discovered Ben&Jerry's Ice Cream, at Piazza del Duomo, 4. They have an Italian website too:
Something else I have noticed different on this trip. The gypsy girls are dressed in much nicer clothes and shoes. They also seem less interested in begging. They walk quickly by, shaking a little cup of coins and just keep on walking. Before it was difficult to avoid them. They would approach, pleading and begging, pointing to their old shoes or pictures of their babies.
I walked to the Museo degli Innocenti, (Foundlings Hospital) an orphanage designed by Brunelleschi (1419-1424). He also was responsible for the Duomo, which stands as the tallest structure in Firenze.
Cost for entry: 4€ I had not realized the orphanage was associated with an attached church: Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Innocenti. The 2nd story museum shares a wall with the church, which makes it possible to look through the old nave windows to see the original rafters of the ceiling and to look down into the current interior of the church.
I saw Ghirlandaio's 'Adoration of the Magi,' a very large, brightly colored painting. I used a touch screen monitor setup to allow one to zoom into see the detail of any part of the painting.
In this building I revisited some of my favorites: Sandro Botticelli's 'Madonna with Child and Angel,' Andrea della Robbia's glazed terra-cotta pieces and a poignant display of children's identification markers. These small objects were left with abandoned children, indicating the parent's interest in being reunited with their child.
I walked back to the European Christmas Fair, setup in Piazza Santa Croce. I bought cookies from England, the same type which I bought last year.
For lunch I had a German plate of stinco (ham on a bone), fried potatoes, and hot sauerkraut. Cost: 12€ (leftovers are on my window ledge for dinner).
I stopped at the grocery store for milk, more tangerines and Paneangeli brand leavening packets, for making Italian cake recipes. I think I've eaten 30 tangerines this trip. They're never a disappointment.
I've torn apart four or five Italian cooking magazines, to take home only potential recipes. Paper is really heavy and now I'm down to my last night of packing. I'm putting aside (for Asumi and Alessio) or throwing away what I can. My Nutella chocolate spread is just too heavy in its glass jars. Now I wish I hadn't picked out the ones proclaiming +75 grams!
Alessio brought me their scale this morning. I'm not sure just how accurate it is. My luggage allowance is 23 k for each bag and 18 for the carry-on. I have two heavy items I can't leave: Leo's novel (2.3 k) and an olive wood breadboard which about equal to the book.
Alessio has already called a taxi for a 5 am pickup. He assured me, he will be up early to carry my bags down. The flight to Paris is scheduled for 7.20. I'm hoping to make all the connections...without snow. One December, AirFrance had to bus us to Genova due to icy runways here in Firenze.
Leo has called to say his goodbyes. My room shutters are closed to keep out the cold. It's a dark 6pm and I'm in for the night.
Time to weigh these bags and repack if I need to. I'm always so sad to leave. I could easily live here, with a job and some money of course.
Luckily, I have new books and films to keep me company until I can return.
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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday, Firenze DRAFT

 DRAFTIt's Saturday and this morning I got an early start out, around 9. Leo is teaching today and we planned to meet around 11am. I checked Piazza Santo Spirito and found the normal early morning mercato. I thought I might go to Piazza San Marco to visit Fra Angelico's angels.
But, as I headed through Piazza della Republica where the merry-go-round is located, a food fair was taking place. I had plenty of time to visit each stand. The fair was setup in the shape of a large rectangle. Instead of strolling up and down aisles, one could just walk uninterrupted in one direction and not miss any of the vendors.
I am so sorry my bags are already at their weight limits with my books and DVDs. I would have bought little of everything: biscotti with dried fig or apricot pieces in their centers, chocolate biscotti speckled with bright green pistachios, freshly pressed olive oil, cheeses, dried meats, fresh black and white truffles. All the vendors had free samples. I ate my way around the entire food fair.
The truffle table was really interesting. I used to not care for the taste of truffles, but that has changed. The vendor had pictures of his two truffle hunting dogs. He also had a canvas sack the size of a large grocery bag, filled with black truffles. He opened the bag and urged me to enjoy the fragrance. The smell is earthy but not a dirty odor. I bought a tiny jar of truffle condiment for our Christmas brunch. Cost 5€. I also bought a jar for my friend Debbie, who gifted me with my first Truffle (Oil) many years ago.
I reluctantly left the market and walked toward Piazza della SS Annunziata. The university's computer science classroom and faculty offices, are located nearby.
As I passed by the Museo degli Innocenti (old orphanage) I took a brochure for the Ghirlandaio Exhibition, now taking place. I'll go see it tomorrow.
Leo drove up around 11.15 still not feeling well. He has a lot of new pain in his back. Luckily after a short hour together yesterday, he was able to sleep better last night.
Once he got into the classroom today, he was in his element. He stood for 90 minutes, drawing on the white board, lecturing, and interacting with the students.
Afterwards, we went into the faculty offices, where he visited with a colleague. As we left the building, I told him, 'You really have three things you need to take care of: your body, your mind and your heart. Getting out of the house may be difficult, but once you've arrived at the university, the atmosphere is good for maintaining a healthy mind.'
He felt well enough to have lunch with me. We decided to return to the same place we had eaten with Laura on Wednesday. As Leo and I were trying to get him into a comfortable position, we did not notice two complimentary glasses of white wine had been placed at our table settings. And, after we ate our lunch, the waiter surprised me with a slice of chocolate torte (cake). They let us sit and talk, even though they had closed. I'm going to miss Italy and its hospitality. Wherever Leo and I go together, people see the specialness of our relationship. It's a bit of a paradox that in Italian culture one needs to give up everything for family, yet lovers are treated with special affection.
I could see as he drove away, Leo was really fatigued. The extremely cold weather today also exasperated his back pain. We sort of said our goodbyes today. He may need to recuperate and rest tomorrow.
I walked to the Florence Noel Christmas Fair, held each year inside the old train station, Stazione Leopoldo, which is just outside the old city gate at Porto al Prato. Babo Natale (Santa Claus) and his elves are in residence, taking Christmas wishes from the local children. An area near Santa's throne, is filled with child sized tables and chairs where they're provided with writing materials and a tiny post office.
I made one final purchase tonight at the Christmas show. As usual, food vendors were present. I bought two giant sized authentic (from Napoli) Baba pastries to take home on Monday.
I am pretty sure one bag is now overweight...but I have no regrets.

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Thursday, December 2 (Firenze) DRAFT

I received a text from our friend Laura this morning. She was at the Arezzo train station and it was snowing. She will arrive at SMN (Firenze) on the 11am train.
I haven't seen her since before Leo's illness began, 18 months ago. When Leo was first hospitalized in June 2009, Laura and I were in shock and cried together during on-line chats.
Leo's students, Laura and Sara, came one summer to California and we made an amazing trip into Death Valley, Yosemite and Mammoth Lake. Later, we were invited onto the Morongo Indian Reservation near Palm Springs, where the girls interviewed Indian-Italian families. We were invited to attend the Rodeo and a special spiritual singing ceremony.
Laura and Sara were not friends before that trip, but they bonded on the we all bonded.
I have so many memories -- the girls singing in the back seat as we drove and picnics in the desert. We packed plenty of food and water and briefed the girls on the importance of drinking plenty of water and of the buddy system. Traveling in the summer through Death Valley can be dangerous for those who are unprepared for the 125 F heat. It was a real responsibility taking two college students into the desert.
When we greeted each other this morning, nothing had changed .. Desert friendship endures. Within minutes, we had Sara on the phone too. I brought both girls Ghiradelli chocolate bars and a small authentic Navajo dream catcher. Laura will mail Sara hers. Laura bought me a CD collection from her band: l'alternativa. Laura sings like an angel!
Leo had asked if he could have lunch with us and Laura agreed it would be wonderful to see her 'Prof.'
I saw Leo was early, waiting and watching for us outside, as she abd I walked toward the meeting spot. Laura was prepared. We decided, no tears allowed. We will be strong for Leo.
The reunion was good for Leo. He had wanted to see Laura but with her busy singing schedule and his illness, it's not been possible.
The afternoon went too quickly for all of us. We talked and talked over a delicious lunch. Leo ate a first and second course and even had a tiny after lunch glass of limoncello liquor.
We left him around 4.30 and Laura and I window shopped our way back to the train station.
We hugged our goodbyes with promises to keep in touch.

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Friday, Firenze DRAFT

My day started with a beautiful surprise! I like to take pictures of Ponte Vecchio every time I cross over my bridge, Ponte alle Grazie, to visit the Santo Spirito area. I had just snapped a picture and when I turned around, to see the most amazing sight of my life! Spanning the sky was a full rainbow. I really hope I captured it on film.
Unbelievable that no one else seemed to even notice. Those on the bridge with me, seemed blind to the amazing beauty which was gifted to us by mother nature.
I watched the rainbow until it had completely faded and continued on my way. Still not yet at Piazza Santo Spirito, I saw something in the window of an artist supply store. Perfect for a Christmas gift for my son. As the clerk took her time wrapping the small gift, I noticed another customer very patiently waiting her turn to pay for her purchase.
An orphaned red glove sat on the counter. The patient customer made a comment about the glove and the clerk answered as she wrapped, 'it was left by a girl earlier. Let's leave it there and hopefully she'll be back to fetch it.' Just as I departed, I saw a college student, pulling on a pair of red gloves. I was glad for her. I've been lucky in not permanently losing my gloves this trip. Three times, I've dropped one and someone has called out to me.
The early morning Santo Spirito street market was still set-up. On weekdays, one can find fresh produce from 4 or 5 vendors. There are a few other stands setup. Yesterday I looked at the wares of a copper-brass vendor. Today in his place was a shoe seller. I've often wondered how these stand setups are co-ordinated. The produce stands seem to be the same vendors, while the other 10 spots vary, between book sellers, shoes, kitchen supplies, handbags, men and women's clothes, underwear, curtains or woolen items.
I took pictures, then headed to the Galli Fornaio (bakery). On my list: 1.5 liter bottle of water, a liter of fresh milk and a medium sized piece of focaccia with sausage for tonight's dinner. Cost 4.80 €
Carrying this heavy bag of liquids, I made the next two stops on my list. Last year in 'The Florentine' English newspaper I read and saved an article about 'Mama's Bakery,' which sells American bagels, brownies and cupcakes, on Via della Chiesa. With the article and map in hand, I walked a few blocks and I found Matt Reinecke, busy preparing something behind a glass partition. He looked just like his picture but he seemed to have a British accent.
I only wanted to say, 'I'm happy to see someone who has been able to follow their dream.' I suppose he's interrupted by tourists often during his day. He was told me he was too busy with bagel making to talk. He was just a tinny bit rude, but I still bought a brownie. Cost: 1.5 € The brownie was good.
Still circling back to the hotel, I walked past Palazzo Pitti on Via Romana to pickup a book. The owner apologized the book (to accompany an audio book) had not come in as he had promised me. Not to worry. I found it at another bookstore on my way to the hotel. At the hotel, I put my milk on the windowsill to chill and left to find lunch.
I wanted Artichoke Sformatino, drizzled with gorgonzola cheese sauce, at a trattoria named Cesarino (Via Giovan Battista Niccolini, 16r)
This trattoria is located in a neighborhood where I have stayed in the past, while attending school. I've eaten here several times before with Leo.
But when I arrived, their outside menu only showed Salmon Sformatino with curry sauce. I knew it would be delicious also, so I entered. After being seated, I asked the waiter, if by chance, they had Artichoke Sformatino? He checked with the cook and they had one left! Lucky me. It was served with a bit of fresh arucola greens and as yummy as I knew it would be. Cost: 6€ + 2€ for cover charge. The real spring water was free.
On the table, was a basket of fresh bread and a bottle of fresh olive oil from this season! Olives have just been pressed in November. The bright green color of the oil is a indication that it will taste ... fresh. Sort of spicy and wonderful. This is one of the many reasons I come in the autumn. I'd much rather carry an umbrella and enjoy the seasonal treats of fall and the street lightings and window decorations for Christmas.
Leo texted me that he was not feeling well. I wasn't sure if he would be up to coming out so I walked about ten blocks to the English Cemetery, hoping as I have for 11 years, that it would be open. In the movie 'Tea with Mussolini' a scene was filmed in this cemetery to honor Elizabeth Browning, who is buried here.
As I approached, I saw the gates to the cemetery were wide open. I hurried my pace, not knowing how much time I would have to visit.
At the small gatehouse I saw a basket containing guide books. A perky nun with a British accent came out to greet men and asked me to sign the guest book. There is no entry fee here and the guidebook (printed in 1981) was available for a donation. I left 5€ and she gave me a receipt. Very very quaint and charming.
From the guidebook: 'There are no scheduled visiting hours, but the custodian is available to give you some pointers. The impression is one of bright disorder, and as you climb farther up the shadows of the cypresses, the sounds from the boulevards grow faint, and the charm of the place casts its spell.'
Nothing has changed here and the comment still holds true in 2010!
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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday, Rome DRAFT

I don't think I'll be coming to Rome again. It's just too big, noisy and crowded. I've never seen so many people!
This morning, after arriving on the 7am train from Firenze to Rome, I decided to take the Metro (subway), instead of a taxi, to the Vatican. Cost: 1€ for 75 minutes of travel time. I took the A line and noticed stops for both Spagna (Spanish Steps) and the Trevi Fountain.
It took me about 45 minutes to make the walk to the Museum entrance: all around and to the far back of the thick fortification walls, which surround the backside of the Vatican.
I found the Vatican Museums to be extremely commercialized. Gift shops were at every corner. I wanted to rent an audio guide, but when I reached for my California driver's license, it was gone! Not stolen, but still gone. In its place I found the Internet Train card I purchased on Tuesday in order to print out the Vatican entry ticket voucher. I relaxed knowing it was probably still there. So, I wasn't able to take the video guide. I instead used the (heavy) detailed guide to Rome I had brought with me.
(note: I picked up my Drivers License last night. It was sitting in a lost and found shoe box at the Internet Train shop, along with lots of other lost IDs.)
The Sistine Chapel was worth the trip here. There is natural lighting only. Luckily the rain cleared up before noon and the second time I saw it, the colors were really bright.
Somehow, I missed the Raphael Rooms so I went full circle again, going through the Sistine Chapel twice. On the third try, a sympathetic guard led me on a short-cut and pointed the way up the stairs. Then I saw my mistake. The Raphael Rooms are off to the left before one takes the stairs down to the popular chapel. I wonder how many people inadvertently skip Michelangelo's rival.
It was a real thrill to see so many works of art today, in person. No picture taking was allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but I was able to photograph my favorite works of Raphael. In one picture, he has painted in both Michaelangelo and a self portrait of himself.
I caught the Metro back to the Spagna station and walked to the Spanish Steps. I think there are brightly colored flowers growing in pots on the stairs during the warmer months. Today, the steps were deserted of both people and plants.
I didn't spend more than a few minutes there. I backtracked to the Metro to use my still valid ticket to travel onto the Trevi Fountain stop. But at the last moment, I noticed signs showing it was possible to walk to Via Veneto, famous for shopping. I walked and walked underground, finally reaching the surface, but I found myself at a Parking Garage and Mall entrance.
I decided to go back. I was just too hungry. By the time I reached the automated gate for the Metro, my 75 minute ticket had expired. The ticket purchasing machines are easy to use. I pulled another 1€ coin from my pocket and took a ticket. (This morning I transferred a few coins to my inside pocket to eliminate the need to open my purse in the Metro.)
It was 2 o'clock and I was famished! After exiting at the correct stop, I ate a very good Spaghetti Carbinara at a small restaurant. Very expensive! 15€ for the pasta and an orange drink.
I look a small map from the restaurant and walked about four blocks to the Trevi Fountain. The area was absolutely packed with people!
What a delightful happy place. I saw a sign designating this place as a world treasure. Now I understand why it attracts crowds. It's magical! I hope I was able to capture its feeling in my pictures.
Around 3.30 (15.30) I caught the Metro back to the train station in hopes of fast as possible.
I paid extra to leave Rome two hours early. Moments after having the ticket in hand, the departure time changed from 10 minutes to one hour and ten minutes.
I'm now leaning up against a wall with others waiting for both the 17.00 and the 17.15 trains to Milano. Both have been held up.
Traveling alone in a new place is a little tiring. One has to constantly be attentive to signs and points of reference (to retrace one's steps) while still absorbing the new scenery.
Ok! The train to Firenze via Milano is now assigned a binario (rail platform). I need to stay awake on the train after this long day. I don't want miss the SMN (Firenze) stop and find myself spending the night in Milano!
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