Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Last week our friend, Bill from Seattle, came to visit for a few days.  We spent the time wandering around Arezzo showing him the sights and introducing him to our daily routines.  It was great to see his enthusiasm and interest!  It gave us renewed appreciation for our town and the sights, sounds, and smells that by now have become normal to us.  Bill had read every entry of our blog and had done his own research about Arezzo before arriving.  He came fully prepared with questions and observations, and he even referred to things we had written about that we ourselves had forgotten.  He was an exceptional guest!

One of the unique food items in the area is Bistecca alla Fiorentina.  This is a thick T-bone steak, lightly grilled (very rare) with olive oil, salt and pepper, that comes from a special breed of cattle here in Tuscany.  It’s something Henry has wanted to try since we arrived.  In restaurants the minimum size you can order is usually one kilo, way more than one person can eat, so Henry had not yet had the opportunity to enjoy one.  Bill, being a fellow carnivore, was quite happy help. Needless to say they were both quite pleased with their meal.  Gabriella, of course, abstained.

Partway through the meal

Bill was also on a mission to take lots of pictures.  We realized that we haven’t yet posted any street shots of Arezzo, so we want to share some of his photos with you to give you a better idea of what Arezzo looks like. 

Dawn in our neighborhood

Corso Italia - One of the main streets

Piazza Grande

Arezzo rooftops

Old & New: In the foreground, the Roman Amphitheater, right in the middle of downtown.
Piazza della Porta di Crucifera - our piazza with our building on the right
Our street
At our front door- Welcome!

Friday, February 24, 2012

We're Legal!

In order to be able to come to Italy for nine months we needed to get visas.  In order to be able to stay in Italy we needed to get our permessi di sogiorni – i.e. government id cards.  From previous visitors to Italy we had heard that this bureaucratic process can take anywhere from one day to two years to complete.  This can make life complicated, because technically a permesso di sogiorno is required in order to get an apartment or to set up an account for utilities.   Fortunately for us, our landlord didn’t need this documentation from us (she is infinitely accommodating and flexible), and had arranged for the hook up of the utilities before we arrived.  We’ve been very happy with our supply of water, electricity and heat! 

There are several steps to getting this document.  The web of forms, offices, and procedures would be confounding enough even in English!  Fortunately we had the help of our realtor, Clotlide, who accompanied us on several of these visits.  Even she found it hard to understand everything that was involved.  Following her lead, first we went to the ufficio postale to get the required packet of forms.  Then we went to a special attorney who filled out the forms for us (for free!).  Without Clotilde’s help we would never have known of this resource, nor where to find him. It’s like his office appeared out of nowhere - it was back behind another building - then disappeared again when we left.  There’s no way we could find it again. 

From here we made a trip back to the ufficio postale to pay fees and submit the documents.  Over the next 3 months we visited the questura (the police headquarters) twice to submit more forms and get fingerprinted.

In the meantime, we had to get our codice fiscale (fiscal code, the Italian version of our social security number) which was surprisingly easy with the help of Clotilde.  This number, like our SSN in the US, is required for any interaction with the legal or medical systems. 

Finalmente we have our permessi di sogiorni!!  Given that we’ve already been here for four months (hard to believe!) we’re not entirely sure why we need these permessi, but we feel better knowing we have them.  At this point we’ve got everything it takes to be an Italian…except, of course, for actually being Italian.

Outside the Questura with our Permessi hot off the press!

Food on the Go

Perhaps as an antidote to the rich cultural tradition of carefully and lovingly prepared food, the Italians also offer this:

Dual vending machines in Pisa

Yes, for the same price as a piece of pizza from any of the hundreds of places offering it hot from the oven you can get it “fresh” from a vending machine.  No, we didn’t try it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Saturday Market

Every week we go to the Saturday market to buy groceries (see below for the footnote!).  It’s not that we can’t get fresh groceries from the fruttovendoli (small grocery shops selling fruit and vegetables), it’s just that we really enjoy the experience of going to the market.  The market takes place on Via Giotto and is about a mile long, with bancarellas (booths) on both sides of the street.  It’s always packed with people, who come not only to shop but also for the inherently social aspect. Only about 10% of the market is food related.  The rest is devoted primarily to clothing, shoes and household items, all of it sold at very cheap prices.  There’s also a separate section with potted plants and fresh flowers.

By now, we’ve established a rapport with the merchants we return to each week.  We always go to the same stand to buy a roasted chicken and sausages for Henry, and fresh mozzarella for Gabriella (this is the stand at which Henry is featured in the video above).  We presume the vendors are a family and the mother always smiles warmly when she serves us.  We get our bread from another vendor where huge loaves are cut into smaller pieces and sold by weight, and hunks of cheese from another.   Gabriella strolls longingly among the vendors selling plants.

The men at the stand where we buy our vegetables are not necessarily welcoming, but they seem to recognize us and one of the guys actually smiled the last time!  On a recent visit they tossed a couple of clementines in our bag.  Whether this was an offering or an advertisement we’re not sure, but they were delicious and now we buy about a dozen every week!

The Saturday ritual of going to the market is one of the things we look forward to every week, and it provides a glorious opportunity to be part of the life of the community.

Footnote:  Except the past two Saturdays. Perhaps for the first time ever, the market was cancelled because of snow and ice on the streets and temperatures relentlessly below freezing.  We shot the video before the snow and cold arrived.

Even the pigeons had cold feet!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Shall We Dance?

During one of our first walks after we arrived in Arezzo, we noticed a sign at a local community center that advertised dancing twice a week.  We’ve been meaning to go ever since.  After 3 months, Henry finally got up the gumption to go… by himself.  He arrived shortly after the dance had begun and he found about 30-40 people there.  He, at 59, was by far the youngest among them.  The music was provided by a guy who sang and played an accordion with an electric piano for percussion and accompaniment.  He mostly played Italian pop songs and Henry was surprised by how many of the people there knew the words and sang along.  Henry sat and watched for a long time before he got up the courage to ask someone to dance.  He got turned down three times!  Nobody wanted to dance with some strange guy!  Completely dispirited after the third try, he left.

When he got home he reported his “failed” attempt to Gabriella who promptly pointed out: #1 he went to a dance BY HIMSELF in an unfamiliar setting in a FOREIGN COUNTY where the language is still difficult to navigate; #2 he actually ASKED SOMEONE TO DANCE!; #3 after getting turned down he ASKED AGAIN!  Overall that makes three winning points and a tremendous achievement!!

But Henry really wanted to dance so Gabriella agreed to go with him the next time.
 What a difference arriving as a couple makes!  The woman running the place greeted us warmly and everyone was very friendly.  We danced and had a great time.  There were two couples sitting near us and we chatted with them a bit.  When Henry left to find a bathroom one of the men there, a bold, gracious, grandfatherly type, immediately asked Gabriella to dance.  We felt very welcomed!

At the end of the afternoon a local city councilman who was there came and talked to us. Apparently he wanted more than just the chance to say hello.  He was eager to invite us to a special presentation the following weekend.  He explained that having more people in attendance meant a larger “contribution” to the community center.  We weren’t entirely sure what the presentation was going to be about, or why the community center would be getting a contribution from it, but we figured it wouldn’t hurt to go (it’s all part of the adventure!), so we agreed.  

The following weekend we arrived for the mysterious presentation.  There was a woman in charge of checking off everyone on her guest list, and, since they didn’t have our names, we had been included as “two Americans.”  They were expecting us!  We recognized everyone in attendance from the dance the previous weekend and they once again greeted us warmly.  As we suspected, the presentation was designed to try to sell a product, in this case, an orthopedic bed.  We sat through the 1.5 hour presentation and marveled at how much we actually understood (including many of the jokes).  In fact we were almost convinced to actually buy one of the beds!   

After the presentation everyone was rewarded with a buffet of food and drink (including bruschette, crostate and vin santo), and a raffle.  When the two winning numbers were called, Gabriella had one of the winning tickets.  She was presented with an electric massage device that looked perversely similar to a vibrator!  For someone who prefers not to be the center of attention, this was not a high point in her day!

Afterwards we spent some time chatting with the other people there and sampling the buffet.  It didn’t take us long, however, to realize that we were being befriended primarily by the rather more odd members of the group, and so we quickly made our polite escape. 

We’ll probably skip the next sales presentation but there’s another dance on Thursday nights that we’ve been told draws a “younger crowd”.  That’s next on our calendar. 

Our dance hall

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Our Community

Before we arrived in Arezzo we were determined not to spend all our time hanging out speaking English with other ex-pats.  We wanted to come to Italy to be with the Italians.  Life, however, has a funny way of giving you the unexpected.  As it turns out we have developed a wonderfully supportive community with our fellow students at Cultura Italiana where we take our language classes twice a week.  The school offers so much more than “just” language classes.  With field trips, movie screenings, cooking classes, and various social gatherings, the school has become our home away from home.    

We learn from our teachers how to construct intelligent Italian phrases, as well as answers to cultural enigmas.  For example, we were perplexed by the fact that all the signs for the tobacco shops say Sali e Tabacchi (Salt and Tobacco).  Why the salt?  Thanks to our teacher, Monica, we learned that this is because until about the 1960’s salt was government-controlled merchandise (who knew?!?).  Even though salt is now readily available in grocery stores, Monica’s grandmother still goes the Tabacchi to buy her salt, because that’s what she’s always done. 

The students at the school come from all over the world to study here.  We have been surprised to find that Americans are rare among them.  We’ve met people from South Africa, France, Slovakia, Ireland, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Holland, and Germany.   Some students come to study for a full year, taking intensive classes 5 days a week.  Others come for a shorter period of time, anywhere from a week to a couple of months.  Each person leaves a strong impression and becomes part of the family for the time we’re together.  The one thing that binds us all together is our passion for the language and culture of Italy, and an eagerness to try something new.  Recently we’ve begun getting together on our own outside of the school just to hang out and practice our Italian.  Usually at a restaurant – this IS Italy, after all.

Naturally we get closer to the students who have been here longer.  When Eriko left in December after her stay of several months, we were all sad to see her go, and still pine for her return.  This week another student, Felipe, left and even though he was only here for one month he made a strong impression on each of us with his curious, open and charismatic personality.  We arranged a good-bye lunch for him, and he invited the two women (mother and daughter) who were his hosts during his stay. 
photo courtesy of Masae
After lunch we all accompanied him to the train station.  Because it was a day that the train employees were on strike we didn’t know when a train would actually arrive.  To pass the time we told stories and jokes (in Italian), and played the “tell-a story-in-a-round” game in which each person contributes a part of the tale.  When a train finally arrived we were amazed to see we had been at the station for over 2 hours.

Our dearest friends are Eva and Simone.

He’s an Aretino (someone from Arezzo), she’s Slovakian.  They met in Spain and they arrived here about a month before us.  Eva was taking classes at our school when we first met her.  We bonded immediately.  Since then she and Simone have become close friends.

We feel so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by this community of supportive, like-minded people – learning the language and culture together.  It turns out that we’re hanging out largely with other ex-pats after all, but we’re not speaking English!