Monday, January 30, 2012

By Weight

We’re having trouble getting used to the fact that here just about everything is sold by weight.  That combined with the fact that we’re still not used to the metric system has occasionally gotten us into trouble.  Henry had his first experience with this on one of our very first trips to Italy several years ago when he went to buy some biscotti (cookies) in a pasticceria (cake shop).  This was BEFORE we knew he was having trouble with his blood sugar.  He ended up with un mezzo kilo dei biscotti mista (about a pound of assorted cookies).   Even sharing them with our friends Vicki, Dana, Tina and Vic, with whom we were travelling, it took us days to get through them all.

We’re used to buying spinach by the bunch.  When we went to the vegetable stand to get some the other day they asked us how much we wanted and we said “one.”  Because the vendors typically select, weigh, and bag the produce for the customers, we ended up with their version of “one” – which was one kilo of spinach (about 2 pounds).  Rather more than we intended to eat!

Speaking of weight, Henry is probably the only person ever to have visited Italy and lost weight.  Really, he’s lost at least 5 pounds since we arrived.  We found a public scale on the street
(why these are scattered about we don't know) and we confirmed our suspicions.  Henry
is under strict orders from Gabriella to EAT MORE!!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kind Vendors

We find that we are drawn to the stores where the owners/employees are friendly, kind and patient with our stumbling speech.  This matters more to us than the quality of the products themselves.  We’ll happily buy bruised onions or limp lettuce in exchange for an uplifting experience.  Unfortunately, this is not always easy to find.  Many shopkeepers are at best indifferent or at worst surly when dealing with us.  It has been reassuring to note that most of them are also equally curt with their regular customers.

Fortunately we’ve met several shopkeepers to whose stores we happily return.  Since we don’t know most of their names, we have our own nicknames for them – “the grumpy guy” (the man who runs a wine and specialty food shop); “the older couple” (an elderly couple who run a small fruit and vegetable shop who always smile when we come in); “the two guys” (two men who run a small grocery store close to our apartment) and “the newspaper guy” (who runs the newsstand where Henry buys his newspapers).

Even though “the grumpy guy” is indeed grumpy, he has been attentive and helpful when we have gone into his store.  We rely on his advice for wine and cheese, and so far we’ve always been pleased with his suggestions.  One of the last times we went to his shop he gave us one of his canvas bags as a gift.  He had remembered that we always bring our own shopping bag with us, and apparently he figured we could use another one.  It was a nice gesture and it felt good to have been not only recognized but also acknowledged by him as a regular customer.

We have also had charming interactions with people selling their wares at local fairs and festivals.  At one booth we sampled some home-made vin santo.  It was so good (and incredibly inexpensive) that we promptly bought a bottle.  In situations like this we often send out little “testers” – we say an extra sentence or two to demonstrate that we actually can speak Italian, and to offer a subtle invitation to discuss more than the price of what we’re buying.  In this case we said something relatively intelligible and complimentary about the wine, which was apparently all we needed to get the ball rolling.  Before we knew it we were discussing recipes, language, travel, and the joys of living in Italy with the family running the booth.

As far as local shopkeepers go, Alberto and his wife are far and away our favorite.  The first time we went into their shop we had only been in Arezzo for a couple of weeks and we were still feeling rather timid.  We did our best to communicate and Alberto was patient, kind and encouraging, and he showed a genuine interest in finding out more about us.  We vowed to return regularly.  Even though their shop is all the way on the other side of the city, we make a point of going there at least once every 1-2 weeks to buy something.  Next to their shop they also have a trattoria (informal restaurant), which we have now been to twice.  Alberto oversees the grocery store side of the business, and his wife oversees and cooks for the restaurant.  The two of them always smile broadly when we come in and greet us with warm enthusiasm.  When we went to the store at Christmas we brought them a small gift, and Alberto gave us a bottle of wine and refused to take any money for the groceries we had come to buy.  We were touched and stunned by his generosity.

The newspaper guy is our newest friend.  Henry buys newspapers generally once a week – one in English and one in Italian.  Recently we were looking for a copy of a previous day’s newspaper.  Henry asked him if he had a copy.  He said no but to come back the next afternoon and in the meantime he would talk to his other customers to try to find one.  We were doubtful, but when Henry went back sure enough he had the paper.  The next day Henry took him a little gift of chocolate to thank him for service above and beyond.  Now Henry won’t go to anyone else.  This is why we love living here.  These moments of kindness and generosity mean EVERYTHING to us.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Fearing what we had heard was going to be an expensive and elaborate affair, we postponed getting our hair cut for as long as we could stand it.  Gabriella even entertained the idea of not getting her hair cut at all while we were here and instead returning to Seattle looking like Rapunzel.  But then that would have meant missing another opportunity for adventure!  So off we went - Gabriella to a relatively low-budget parrucchiere (hairdresser) across the street from our school, and Henry to a barbiere (barber) just down the street from our apartment. 

Guess who went to which place!
We were trepidatious about going not only for fear of what we would look like afterwards, but also for how we would manage the roughly half hour of sitting in the chair trying to make some kind of conversation with the person who was cutting our hair.

Gabriella’s experience was exactly as Monica, our ever reliable Italian teacher, had predicted.  The hairdressers persistently offered various hair products and services (each of which would have added significantly to the cost); were eager to offer a fancier and shorter cut than what she wanted; and seemed determined to blow dry (fry!) her hair in an attempt to make it as straight and rigid as rebar.  An entourage of three women tended to her using pictures from magazines to clarify unfamiliar hairdressing vocabulary (Gabriella doesn’t even know some of these words in English, let alone Italian!).  Despite the moments of anxiety and bewilderment, by the end of it all Gabriella was almost looking forward to going back again.



Henry had no intention of going to a fancy hair place, so when he noticed the barbershop down the street, he was very happy.  Every time he thought about going in the shop, though, it was either closed or the barber was engrossed in conversation with other elderly men from the neighborhood.  He was too intimidated to go in with other people there.  Finally one morning, when Henry looked in the window, he found the barber was alone.  At last his chance has arrived!  It turned out to be a great experience and one of the best haircuts he’s ever had!  When he told the barber he was American, the barber asked if he knew this other American who had been in his shop a year or so ago – as if the US were a small town like Arezzo.


Obviously, after

Getting our hair cut turned into a perfect metaphor for our time here.  Whenever we feel fearful or timid about trying something new, if we just make ourselves do it, generally we are rewarded with an unforgettable, enlightening, enriching experience… or at least a good story.  On to the next experience!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Street Art, Part 2

In our previous posting on street art we wrote that we had found some wonderful guerilla art on local street signs.  About a month later as we were thumbing through an Italian magazine we happened to find an article about Clet Abraham, the artist who did them.  He’s a French artist who now lives in Florence.  When we went to Florence Henry was keeping an eye out for his work, and by complete coincidence (che sorpresa!) we stumbled upon his studio.  As you might expect, many of the street signs in that neighborhood had been “modified”.

In his studio there were post cards, posters and t-shirts with his designs on them.  A case can be made for the unfortunate commercialization of art, as well as for the fact that artists need to make money.  Either way, we didn’t buy anything.  But now Henry’s on a mission to find all the existing “modifications”.  Darn, that means more trips to Florence.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Trip to Florence

A couple of days after Christmas we went on our first trip out of town…by ourselves… just for the fun of it.  We simply hopped on a train and went to Florence for the day.  It’s only a 45 minute train ride so it’s an easy trip.

We thought we’d have the city to ourselves but we were very surprised to find the streets PACKED with tourists – mostly American and French.  Florence is a stunningly beautiful city, but we could never live there because of the throngs of tourists.  It’s a wonderful place to visit, however, and we’re already planning to go back.

We made our way to our favorite museum (in the world?), Museo Galileo, which for better or worse is not listed in most guidebooks.  Tucked in behind the Uffizi Gallery, it’s a collection of all kinds of scientific instruments from the 15th through the late 18th century.  The pieces are not only precise scientific instruments but also exquisite works of art – this perfect combination of art and function made Henry tear up with joy.  An example is this precise depiction of the solar system built in the 1550s:  They don’t make stuff like this anymore.

After the museum we ambled across the Ponte Vecchio (so named because it is the only bridge that was not destroyed by bombing during World War II), watching the other tourists and ogling the very high end jewelry shops that line both sides of the bridge.   

Henry with the Ponte Vecchio in the background.

On the other side we found a small enoteca (wine bar) for lunch – we each had a delightfully fresh open-faced panino and a glass of Chianti, all of which was quite tasty.  From there we hiked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, which provided us with a beautiful overview of the city.

 As you can see the Duomo (cathedral) dominates the landscape – and we headed straight for it.  It is a huge and breathtaking masterpiece.  

This very brief video will give you a quick overview of the front of the duomo.

After admiring the majestically adorned exterior we made a quick tour of the inside (which is really rather plain in comparison) and then climbed to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) – all 414 steps.  From there we had another stunning view of all of Florence and the surrounding hillsides.

This is the bell tower as seen from the ground.  Yes, we really did climb all the way to the top!
We took this photo while standing at the top of the bell tower.  To get a sense of the scale, note the people standing at the top of the dome.  Yes, those are people up there!

[N.B. from Henry: Seeing the dome of the cathedral from up close like this reminds me of the book Brunelleschi’s Dome, about the building of the dome, the politics involved and the revolutionary techniques that were used to build it. A fascinating book if you’re interested in that type of thing.]

After wandering around and admiring the festive displays of Christmas lights we stopped in a little bar for something warm to drink.  In big tourist areas, like Florence or Rome, when a foreigner tries to speak Italian in a store or restaurant it’s common to get a response in English, which for us is very frustrating.  So when the cameriere (waiter) spoke to us in Italian we were delighted.  As we made our way to the station to catch the train home, we both commented that this final experience at the bar was a nice end to our wonderful day in Florence.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

La Feria Antiqueria

It was a cold, damp, grey day here in Arezzo - it felt just like Seattle!  Also just like Seattle, the bad weather fell on a weekend.  This is too bad because this weekend, as on the first weekend of every month, the center of town and the Piazza Grande are taken over by La Feria Antiqueria.  This is the largest antique fair in Italy and one of the biggest in Europe.  With over 200 antique dealers from around the continent, it’s become a world-renowned event.  As a collector of anything antique or historical - furniture, art, old keys, tools, ceramics, books, corkscrews, watches – anything, you’d be in heaven.

You never know what you’ll find.  Every month we wander through the fair looking at all the stuff for sale with no intention of buying anything. This time though we found these two small glasses for our evening vin santo (a sweet dessert wine).  Having the proper glass for this post-dinner treat makes it all the more delicious!

The fair was started in 1968 by Ivan Bruschi, a local antique dealer and collector.  He started out in the business at his parent’s antique shop in Florence when he was 15. His home in Arezzo was his shop as well as a showcase for his very eclectic collection – ranging from the prehistoric to the early 1900’s. After his death a few years ago, his home was turned into a museum, which we visited with our school recently.  The collection covers 3 floors and is truly amazing.  One could spend days in there examining everything.  The website  displays some of the collection.  It's a bit challenging to navigate but it’s worth the effort just to sample some of the stuff.

One of the coolest pieces we saw was a wooden vote counter (unfortunately they wouldn’t let us take pictures).  At first no one in our group could figure out what it was, but when it was explained to us we were all amazed and impressed by its simple ingenuity.  It’s a hand-held device made from wood with one opening at the top and two compartments below.  Picture a large tin can on its side with two longer, more narrow containers (roughly the size and shape of a Pringles can) affixed to the back side of the can.  You stick your hand in the opening at the top and inside you find it divides into the two longer compartments.  Depending on whom you’re voting for you drop a pebble into one side or the other. With your hand hidden from view you are assured the privacy of your vote.  When everyone has voted the two parts are taken off (they unscrew) and the pebbles are counted.  The one with the most pebbles wins.  You probably had to open your hand before you voted to show that you only had one pebble.  They wouldn’t have wanted anyone to fix an election, right?  Hmmm!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Holiday Festivities

As part of our Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations we spent a lot of time walking through the city and visiting the piazzas just to see what was happening and to feel like we were a part of the festivities. One night we discovered a beautiful spectacle in Piazza Grande.  There were over hundred people of all ages gathered there, mostly families with children.  Most of them were holding what looked like large red paper bags.  We stood watching for a long time waiting to see what was going to happen.  We presumed that soon Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) would be arriving with treats for everyone.  We were stunned and delighted to discover something completely different.  These “bags” were actually miniature hot air balloons.  At the direction of a man with a microphone, everyone lit something like candles that were affixed to the openings of these balloons.  As they filled with hot air, they were released and floated luminously up into the night sky.

On New Year’s Eve we went to another piazza (Piazza S. Agostino) where there was a stage with comedy (we were happy that we actually got a couple of the jokes), music and fireworks.  There was a huge crowd, and many of the people had the same balloons we saw at Christmas.  At midnight these were again set afloat into the night and soared overhead, carrying thoughts of the past year with them.

At one point close to midnight we met up with some of our fellow students from the school.  We were cheering and dancing with them and some Italians who were nearby.  The man who was next to us generously poured some bubbly drink for each of us in plastic cups he had brought along in a backpack.  We’re not sure what was in the bottle, it was probably Prosecco, but we didn’t care, we were glad to take whatever he was offering, it was New Year’s Eve after all!  The consumption of alcohol, open flames and fireworks in a public setting (the fireworks were going off all around the crowd) reminded us that this was definitely NOT an American celebration!