Friday, August 3, 2012

Grazie Mille

We started this blog with a long list of thank you’s to all the people who helped us get to Italy.  Now that our time has ended we want to thank all the people who made our time there so meaningful.

First and foremost grazie mille to our friend and former Italian teacher Federica.  It was her suggestion that we visit Arezzo.  Without this encouragement, who knows where we would have ended up!

Federica and Henry at Lago Trasimeno

We needed visas to go to Italy for nine months.  To achieve this we needed to find a place to live and have a signed lease BEFORE we got there.  We accomplished all this with the help of the internet and a real estate agent we found by chance.  Clotilde did everything possible (and more!) to make sure we were perfectly situated.  Thanks to her we ended up with a wonderful apartment and a great friendship.

From the very beginning our landlords, Daniela and Giancarlo, welcomed us more as guests than tenants.  Not only did they provide us with a fully furnished apartment (including bathrobes!), but they immediately took us under their wings, introduced us to their friends and family, invited us to their home for meals together, taught us about Arezzo, and converted us into avid followers of the Giostra del Saracino.  We are very grateful for all they did for us and for the friendship we now share.

Daniela and Giancarlo

A huge thank you to everyone at Cultura Italiana.  Monica was our incredibly patient, supportive and just plain wonderful teacher.  We already miss not having class with her and are deeply in debt to her for all that she taught us.  Paola has run the school for the last 10 years, and as of March is now the owner.  She has created a very friendly, open atmosphere where students from all over the world come to learn Italian.  If you want to go to Italy and learn the language, and have a rich and meaningful experience of the city and the culture, you can’t do better than enroll in a class at Cultura Italiana Arezzo.  We can’t speak highly enough about the school.

Paola and Monica

To really learn to speak Italian you have to practice actually speaking.  When we realized this fact, we found Cristina and Gino with whom we did a language exchange.  We helped them with their English and they helped us with our Italian. What we didn’t expect was that they would become dear friends.  Our experience of Italy and Arezzo was so much richer because of them.  The one thing that made our leaving a little easier was knowing that Cristina will be coming to visit us in Seattle in August!

Cristina and Henry in Chianti

Gabriella and Gino in Castiglion Fiorentino

One of the things we wanted to do while we were in Italy was to help with an olive harvest.  We somewhat randomly selected a farm near Arezzo where we could volunteer.  The gods were watching over us on this one.  The family at Il Bellini welcomed us with open arms and hearts.  As we’ve already written in earlier entries we have now been informally adopted as part of the family.  As a farewell gift they prepared an elaborate multi-course meal for us, and invited the entire extended family to come say their good-byes.

The whole family was so generous, including their son Alberto who surprised us by inviting us to visit him at his studio where he makes gold and silver jewelry.  He spent an entire morning showing us the complete process of producing a necklace, from the conceptual design through the various stages of production.  Then, at the end, to Gabriella’s great astonishment, he presented the resulting work of art as a gift to her.

Gabriella (wearing her new gift) with Alberto (the artisan)

Then there’s Eva, Simone, Sofia, and their dog Tosca.  Eva and Gabriella met during our first outing with the school and immediately bonded.  It was a few weeks before we met her husband, Simone.  We both loved Eva already and were curious to know what he would be like.  We had dinner at their place and it was a love fest from then on.  Little did we know that Eva was pregnant.  Our 9-month permanenza (stay) exactly coincided with her pregnancy.  We carefully monitored Eva’s growing belly over the months until we were able to welcome Sofia into the world and hold her in our own arms. 

Our deep gratitude also goes to Alberto and Lidia Mazzoni.  Three weeks after we arrived in Arezzo we entered their store looking for lunch and a bathroom.  Signore Mazzoni was kind and patient and curious about us.  Even though his store and osteria were at the far other end of town we were so grateful for his kindness we went back regularly to buy groceries from him or to eat in his restaurant.  Over time we developed a deep fondness for one another.  Signore Mazzoni showed his affection by refusing money for many of our purchases, thrusting wine and cantucci into our grocery bag, and inviting us to eat with him in his restaurant sharing a meal of foraged mushrooms his son-in-law had just brought back from the forest.  The night before we left we went to say good-bye.  We shed many tears together, and as we left he said (more as a command than a suggestion) “I recommend you call us at Christmas.”

These are just a few of the many people we met in Arezzo who now have a firm hold on our hearts.  We have been truly blessed by all the people we met. 

While we are now turning our attention to re-settling ourselves in Seattle we miss all our far away friends dearly.  Non vediamo l’ora di rivederli! 

Un abbraccio grandissimo a tutti!!

Gabriella & Henry

Farewell to Italy (for now)!

What a wonderful experience we had!  Our last month in Arezzo was filled with many memorable events, all of which involved food (surprise, surprise!).  In early June our friends Daniela and Giancarlo invited us to join them for the CamminMangiando (literally “walking and eating”), an event that involved a walk through the countryside with stops for food and wine.  At the start of the trek we were each presented with our own wine glasses complete with a nifty around-the-neck carrying pouch!  The Italians know how to organize a hike!

Giancarlo with his wine glass and carrying pouch

Each stop for food was an elaborate affair.  We dined at tables under awnings at beautiful Tuscan farmhouses.  At each of the four stops we were served successive courses of food: the first stop was antipasti, the second was pasta, the third was grilled meat, and the fourth was dolci.  To our amazement we spent the entire day conversing casually with the other hikers, as though it were normal for us to be speaking in Italian.  Such a contrast to those first few weeks after we arrived in October when we were literally petrified at the thought of having to speak to someone!

On another weekend we had lunch with our friend Anna, the fruttivendolo, and all her family.  We had developed a friendship with Anna simply by virtue of buying our fruits and vegetables from her.  Anna took most of a day off work in order to give us a tour of the surrounding countryside and prepare a huge meal for us.  When she invited us we had no idea what we were in store for.  We just showed up at the appointed hour ready to welcome whatever she had in mind for us.  Nine hours later we returned home.  This is how we ended up having most of our most rewarding adventures: just by showing up!

Gabriella with Anna and her family
Also in June we made trips to Pisa, Perugia and Castelfranco di Sopra to have farewell dinners with friends, and we rooted for our quartiere at the Giostra del Saracino.  

The crowd cheers for the winning quartiere!
Our final weeks included shedding a lot of tears, making cards and gifts for all our friends, and most importantly welcoming Eva and Simone’s new baby, Sofia, into the world.  June was busy!

We had lots of expectations before we began this sabbatical, and amazingly we have found that virtually none of them was met.  For example, it was not a quiet time of just the two of us taking long walks, reading and contemplating.  Almost from the beginning our time was filled with school activities, classes, volunteer work, hosting visitors, meeting people, and organizing social events.  We also thought that we’d be traveling a lot around Italy and Europe.  However after we got settled in Arezzo we realized that we really didn’t want to go anywhere else.  We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to stay put for nine months and set roots.

The biggest surprise for us is that we have formed wonderful relationships with many of the people we have met, all of whom were remarkably kind, generous and patient with us.  We remain dumbfounded by the degree to which we were welcomed into their hearts.  This, above all, is what we carry home with us to Seattle.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facciamo i Ciceroni (Being Tour Guides)

The month of May was filled with important visitors to Arezzo, including our friends Vicki and Dana, Dennis and Lenita, Gabriella’s aunt, and the pope!  Yes the pope came to Arezzo! 

It was very cool to see him in his papamobile, and to witness the elaborately organized mass in the park outside the cathedral with over 10,000 people in attendance.  Unfortunately we were not able to arrange such a grand reception for our friends and family, but we think they enjoyed their visits nonetheless.

When Vicki and Dana arrived we spent three days with them in Rome where we rented an apartment that was ideally situated in the historical center of the city (well, EVERYTHING is historical in Rome).  Dana had the brilliant idea to use David Macaulay’s book Rome Antics as a basis for exploring the city.  The book is essentially a showcase for Macaulay’s masterful drawings, and the story he creates follows the path of a pigeon carrying an important message from a woman to the man she loves. 

Following the pigeon’s path turned simple sightseeing into an adventure – it was like a scavenger hunt, and it turned out to be a fantastic way to see the city.  As we have learned, everything is more meaningful when there is some purpose or goal connected to it. 

After our time in Rome we all made our way to Arezzo where we spent the next week introducing Vicki and Dana to our lives here, showing them other nearby towns, and then renting a car for a 3-day tour of Tuscany.

The first highlight was our visit to the small town of Lucignano.  Every May the people there celebrate Maggiolata, which is a spring festival that includes a parade of local dancers, musicians, and floats made of thousands of flowers.

We weren’t sure if the parade was going to happen this year because of pending rain.  The folks from Lucignano proved to be hardier than you can shake an umbrella at, because they carried on with the parade despite the cold and wet conditions.  However, the parade usually circles the town four times (it’s a small town) but because of the rain they only went around twice.

We took refuge under the awning of a restaurant where Vicki had spotted an open outdoor table.  This was a great move not only because we had a dry and comfortable perch from which to watch the parade, but also because we ended up sharing wine, stories, and caffé with the people at the adjoining table and the proprietors of the restaurant.  All of this made for an uplifting and unforgettable experience.

The next two days we spent in  Chianti where Vicki took some time to chill out on a splendidly sunny afternoon, while Dana used his paintbrush to demonstrate his wry assessment of this country: “Italy: even our sheds are beautiful!” 

Meanwhile the two of us went into the town of Greve to visit the museo del vino (wine museum) and to sample wine at a large cantina.  This place is one of a kind!

When you enter you purchase an electronic card (like a debit card) that you take around to the automatic wine and olive oil tasting stations set up around the cantina. You insert the card into the machine, select the wine you want to taste, and you receive a roughly 2 ounce taste of the wine.  The cost of the taste, from .60 to 6.00 euros, is deducted from your card.  It was fascinating.  We felt like kids in a candy store!!  Since there was so much to choose from we focused on the really expensive wines that we would never buy, like a €150 Brunello.  We would have tried even more but Henry was the designated driver and the road back to the agriturismo was narrow and windy with many hairpin turns.

After Vicki and Dana’s visit we had the pleasure of spending time with Gabriella’s aunt and our friends Dennis and Lenita.  We spent that time here in Arezzo, where we had our final opportunity to show off our beloved adopted home.  Now that our guests and the pope have returned to their respective homes, we are beginning to say our farewells in the few remaining weeks we have before we return to Seattle. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Travels in the Countryside

Since we don’t have a car ourselves there are many parts of Tuscany that we haven’t been able to get to on our own.  However, by coincidence, it happened that in one week we went on three separate trips to see the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside with friends who have cars.

Our series of adventures began when we went to Perugia to visit Federica, our friend and former Italian teacher.  We took the train from Arezzo and met her at her apartment for lunch, which was a delicious combination of Ribollita made by Federica’s mother, a cake made by her mother-in-law, and a soufflé that she herself made.  When the meal was over she said,“Dove vorreste andare?” (“Where do you want to go?”). We were quite surprised.  We had expected she would be returning to work after the meal and that we would be making our way home.  Instead, Federica said she had the afternoon free to give us a tour of Umbria.  Presented with infinite options, we had a hard time choosing until Gabriella suggested we visit one of Federica’s favorite places, so we went to Lago Trasimeno, about 15 minutes away.  We stopped first at San Feliciano, a lovely little town that doesn’t feel at all touristy even though the whole area around the lake (which is about the size of Seattle’s Lake Washington) is a heavily touristed area.

After a nice walk along the lake and up into the old part of town, we went to Passignano, which definitely felt more touristy.  It also has a beautiful centro storico (historical center) and a nice park alongside the lake. We found a beautifully situated bar where we had a drink together before Federica took us to the train station.  We arrived back in Arezzo feeling contentedly full after an afternoon of delicious tastes and spontaneous experiences.

Three days later we took the train to Montevarchi where we met our friend Cristina.  She picked us up at the station and drove us to her house in Montegonzi, a tiny village of about 100 people.  After a short tour of the town we went back to her house for lunch, which included Ribollita made by Cristina’s mother (do you detect a theme here?  We’re becoming like the Italians who always talk about food!), ample cheese, wine, bread, and sausages (which Cristina got specifically for Henry - he was in Carnivore Heaven!).  To our amazement, Cristina cooked the bruschetta and meat over the coals in the fireplace.  

Afterwards we went on a drive through the countryside to Gaiole, one of the main towns in the Chianti region.  It poured with rain in the afternoon, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the lush greenery of the countryside.

Our heads still swimming with images of Chianti and Lago Trasimeno, the next day we went with our friends Lauro and Angioletta to Pienza and Montalcino.  They had wisely organized the day so that we could eat lunch in Montalcino, which is the home of Brunello wines, reportedly Italy’s best (and most expensive).  We found a restaurant where when you order a glass of wine, instead of bringing you one full glass they bring you two half-full glasses of the same type of wine but from different vintages or wineries.  This way you get to sample more wine, and, presumably find it harder to resist the temptation to buy a bottle (or more).  As a result of this clever scheme we were able to taste 6 different wines and they were all delicious.  Believe it or not we didn’t actually buy any to take home!  After lunch we battled the wind and rain for a brief walk through the town, a stop at the Abbazia (Abbey) di Sant’Antimo and then headed back to Arezzo.

We feel very, very fortunate to have such wonderful and generous friends.  It is these great friendships that make it hard for us to contemplate our pending departure at the end of June.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Italian Poetry

Paola, the manager of our school, had her birthday recently and we wanted to do something special for her, so we planned a surprise party.

Often to celebrate a special event we compose a series of limericks.  For Paola we decided to challenge ourselves by writing one in Italian – a feat we never imagined we would be able to accomplish! 

There were some aspects that made it easier:  most Italian words end in vowels that are relatively easily rhymed.  And there were some aspects that made it harder: most Italian words have many syllables – so many that one word alone can take up a whole line!  We can’t say the process was easy, but it’s not easy in English either.  Here’s what we came up with.  Suffice it to say we’re quite pleased with ourselves.

Ad Arezzo c’è una scuola
Il capo si chiama Paola
La gente che viene
Si troverà bene
Grazie a tutto quello che fa.

C’è tanto da organizzare
Ma Paola lo sa come fare
Il telefono squilla
Lei è sempre tranquilla
Un sorriso a tutti da dare.

Nuovi studenti sempre arrivano
Paola li mette a loro agio
Le lezione ed i libri
Anche gli appartamenti
Un buon benvenuto qui si troveranno.

Proprio oggi festeggiamo
Belle cose le auguriamo
Con i dolci e vini
Ed i grandi sorrisi
Le diciamo “Buon Compleanno!”

Here’s the translation in English – without the rhyme and the meter.

In Arezzo there is a school
The "boss" is called Paola
The people who come
Find themselves well situated
Thanks to everything she does.

There's a lot to organize
But Paola knows how to do it -
The telephone rings -
She is always calm
With a smile to give everyone.

New students are always arriving
Paola puts them at ease:
The lessons and books
And even the apartments -
They find a good welcome here.

Precisely today we celebrate.
We wish her good things.
With sweets and wine
And big smiles
We say "Happy Birthday!"

Sunday, April 29, 2012


When we initially set out on this nine month sabbatical we were anticipating spending a good deal of time traveling to other parts of Italy and even other parts of Europe.  It seemed logical to take advantage of the proximity and the free time to visit places we’ve never seen.  However, now that we’ve set up our lives here in Arezzo what we really want is to stay put.  The whole point of coming here for a longer period of time was to deepen our experience of living in a foreign country.  Now that we have meaningful relationships here we want to enjoy them for as long as we can.

However, there are a few places we really wanted to see, and on the top of our list was Venice.  We’d never been and after hearing from everyone how beautiful it is we had to go.  Thanks to a direct train from Arezzo it was easy to plan our trip.  We packed our bags, hopped on the train, and four hours later we were in Venice.  When we walked out of the station we were blown away - the view is stunning!  We felt like we’d entered another world!

This is the first sight you see when you walk out of the train station.
While riding the  vaporetto (Venice’s equivalent of a bus – it runs on the water) to our hotel we were nudging each other and pointing out some of the amazing buildings along the Grand Canal.  As many of you know we are not inclined to take lots of pictures, but we made an exception this weekend - our camera got more exercise than ever before.  We kept being amazed at all the bridges, the little canals, the boats, and the buildings.  Every 20 steps or so one of us was stopping to take pictures. 

We spent the better part of one afternoon sitting in a large campo (piazza in Venetian dialect).  There was a caffe nearby with several family groups sitting outside finishing lunch.  All of their kids were playing in the campo, climbing on the well (it was covered!) or just running around, while the parents talked.  It was delightful to be in a “real” part of the city and not in the “centro turistico.”

One evening we went to a concert featuring the music of Vivaldi, a native of Venice.  The performance that evening was exceptional, and the concert hall (a deconsecrated church) was beautiful.  After the show we felt like real Italians going out for dinner at 11pm!

The next day was cloudy and rainy as predicted, but being true Seattleites that didn’t deter us from getting on the vaporetto and going off to Murano. 

Venice is really a collection of islands, and the island of Murano is famous for its glassmaking.  After our trip to the island and back, we realized that the best part was the vaporetto ride, which was a complete circumnavigation of Venice.  It was very interesting to see the city from the water.

It was fascinating to learn that Venice was born under dire circumstances.  During the 5th-8th centuries the people who lived on the mainland fled to the marshes to escape the invading Huns and Goths.  Because they had no other choice, they were forced to build their homes there.  Necessity being the mother of invention, they figured out how to erect structures above the level of the water by driving wooden pylons 100 feet into the silty ground.   Over centuries the beautiful city we know today was developed. 

Because the risk of flooding is en ever constant threat, the Venetians keep measures at hand to stop water from pouring into doorways and to help people walk the streets without getting their feet wet.  We saw metal gates about shin high on most doorways.  At first they looked like some kind of baby-gate, but we realized that in Venice the likelihood was that the gates were for keeping water out rather than for keeping children contained.  Though unsupervised children and unaware adults certainly run the risk of getting an unwanted dunking if they are not careful.

It took us a good while to figure out that these stacks of steel and wood were impromptu boardwalks, ready to set up at the first sign of high water.

We were equally fascinated to find that- of course! - everything coming into and out of Venice has to be carried by boat and by hand.  Transporting carts full of produce, mail, recycling, and refuse over the pedestrian-only bridges (they all have steps) is very labor intensive. 

The mail truck
Some sell their goods directly from the boat!
No wonder things are more expensive here!  Restaurant prices are about double what they are in Arezzo.   For example, caffe and a pastry in Arezzo cost 2. In Venice they cost 4.50 (if you stand at the bar), or 7 (if you sit at a table).   Or maybe the reason for the high cost of the food is the gold they sprinkle on their bruschetta

Henry's golden lunch
Seriously. This dates back to the 1400s when it was believed that gold was good for one’s health.  Also the nobles couldn’t miss an opportunity to flaunt their wealth.

Despite the tourists and the costs, Venice was absolutely everything we had heard it would be – an extraordinarily beautiful city with a remarkable history.