Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I Do Believe

Yesterday, another beautiful gift from the weather-person, my friends Jack, Marie and I, strolled down for their first visit to my beloved San Damiano. I never tire of being there and always find comfort and wisdom from the things I witness at the tiny place where St Clare started her order.  I
enjoy sharing this experience with those who have never been but always warn them that as we descend the hill, please keep in mind that we will eventually ascend.  Never do I venture out without this in mind and without the gentle reminder.

On our way back to Assisi Center, after the ascent and the requisite observance of the olive picking in the grove that lines the road,  we neared the top of the road and I just knew what my friends were thinking.....another set of hills.  It is always at this juncture that I take great pleasure in telling the first timers "I have a wonderful surprise for you!!"  I don't let on until I drag them through a parking lot where tour busses park for the day.  We continue to make our way alongside the paved lot and then  the big reveal happens.....a double set of escalators!  You'd have to be a rock to not be pleased at this sight at that time.  The Italians are clever in that they rarely will waste anything, not least of all, electricity.  So, the escalators appear to not be working until....you step onto the first step and then, magically, the steps start to make their happy movement upwards.

Yesterday, as I, Pied Piper I have turned out to be, led my tiny pack, we took on another member. If you know me, you know I talk to strangers.  An erstwhile friend found that to be one of the things she didn't like about me but instead of ditching the habit, I said farewell to the friend.  New Friend of the day, it turns out, was a lovely American woman from Long Island, formerly from Manhattan.  Okay, game's on!  She quickly joined us in our trek and was just as eager as Jack and Marie to find out what the big deal of the day was going to be. She was equally delighted to learn about the escalator and as we chatted about her Italian visit. What usually happens when women start chatting,  we quickly revealed facts about our lives. Duh, it's me talking here.

I told Joan, my new pal, all about my visit to Assisi in 2012 and found out that she also had been here during that time frame.  She was mourning the death of Erik, her beloved husband of thirty years. I was mourning the death of my mother as previous blog posts attest.  Needless to say, I had to tack on the story of why I am now here for an extended stay.  I gave her the whole Nine Yards about how my father was falling into disrepair slowly (like the church in the 12th Century!) and the time had come for his next step,  an unwilling entry into a nursing home. I elaborated about how difficult it would have been had I been on the scene each day, with his constant pleas to take him home.  (Lynn's coming tomorrow to get me OUT of here!!).  So, my next words after my little diatribe were...."but Joan, it's all good".  Without missing a beat, she rolled up her sleeve and revealed a little white rubber band type of bracelet upon which was printed the words


She removed the bracelet, we embraced, and in that instant, the tiny token became mine.  It sat on my wrist when I returned to my little apartment and got the news that my dad had fallen in the nursing home earlier in the day and had broken his hip.  Surgery will be this morning.  My darling husband, our adorable nursing assistant friend and helper, and my brother who has been more than generous with his time and understanding, have all told me not to worry, that it's all covered.  He's in good hands and now will know, beyond a doubt, that he belongs in the care of professionals, something he had great difficulty understanding.

Before our jaunt to S. Damiano, we three attended Mass at the Basilica of St. Francis, one of the most sacred places on Earth, and I made my intention - I asked only that my father find peace in the decision we had to make in placing him in a nursing facility, that a way be found to convince his demented mind of this need.  It was my only prayer for the entire day.  As a nurse, I know, and have told numerous people over the years, that a hip fracture in a person of advanced age, usually starts them on the road to change.  Rarely do they return to their homes and nursing homes become the inevitable next step.

It's out of the hands of the family now.

It's all good.

The angel, Joan, told me in no uncertain words, what I longed to hear. I am, and will be for a long time, wearing the little white bracelet as a constant reminder.

I believe in angels.  This place is LOADED with them.  You just have to open your eyes and in many cases, your mouth.  It's my story, and I'm not changing it.

Monday, November 12, 2018


The start of a beautiful day. A crostata and cappuch at Nonna Nini, a cafe owned by a former NH resident!

The bell tower on Santo Stefano, the bells rang on their own when Francis died

The Garden of the Just, built in 2015 at the Bishop's Residence in Assisi
The description of the Garden, the one I found serendipitously and joyfully!

It was Sunday and the first full day I have had on my own since arriving here.  It was lovely sharing my time with my friend Jenny but when it was time for her to depart on the SULGA bus to Rome on Saturday afternoon, we both were ready for some independent travel.

My day started with Mass at the tiny church of San Stefano, Chiesa di Santo Stefano (say it this way..KEY-A-Sa DE Santo STAYfano), The Church of Saint Stephen.  I made a special intention to honor our friend Steve who passed away a week ago today.  The tiny church, built sometime early in the 13th century, is typically Umbrian and rustic.  The interior has maintained much of the original medieval appearance.  According to the Franciscan tradition, the bells of Santo Stefano were heard to ring on their own accord at the moment of the saint's death on October 3,1226.  I thought it a fitting setting and perfect way for me to pay my respects to Steve.

A blue, blue sky and warmth from the Umbrian sky set me off on a day in which I walked several miles.  After treating myself to my beloved cappuccino and the most heavenly apricot crostada (it was a special day!), I wandered and wandered and wandered some more, discovering pathways and short cuts that in all of my previous walks, I had not yet found.  My goal for the day was to walk to every one of the ten gates to the city, knows as the "porte" or "portas".  The city is surrounded by walls, so there had to be entrances and these also surround the city.  I am sure that I have already seen, passed by, passed through and under, in addition to having photographed from every angle, each and every one of these already but, I'm still working on those checklists that I started right before my big birthday.  

I got as far down as the beautiful little Piazza Vescovado and the Casa Papa Giovanni, the bishop's residence,and entered a small courtyard to get a better look at the statue that was so obviously yet another bronze of St. Francis. Adjacent to the statue was the description of the garden. I had entered the "Garden of the Just" and was standing before the first of these gardens to have been inaugurated in Umbria.  The Gariwo, I read, is an international network of Gardens of the Just, created by
Gabriele Nissim in honor of those who "still today spend themselves for the good of the others".  This was the reward to the people of Assisi who, in an extraordinary page of history, hospitality and brotherhood, saved three hundred Jewish people during the years 1943-1944.

The story of the "Assisi Underground" is one that is familiar to me.  In fact, I kind of have a weird fixation with it ever since I last spent a block of time here, in an apartment that was mentioned in the book as having been the office of an Italian official who became key to this story.  A few steps away from the garden, and I entered the Museo della Memoria, Assisi 1943-1944 exhibition, there, just waiting for me.  I can't think of too many things that would have made me quite as thrilled.  Had I planned this, it probably would never have happened.  It was a gift.  The museum is small and quiet, I, the only visitor at that time.  After viewing a video, I toured the rooms filled with stories and photos of the people I had come to know from reading the book a few times.  I cried.

In short, the city of Assisi was occupied by the Germans during the war.  Col. Valentin Muller, a doctor by profession and a devout Catholic by good fortune, headed the operations.  It was he who set up Assisi as a hospital city, one protected from the ravages of war. Not one life was lost here and not one area bombed as a result of this decision.  Instead, hospitals cared for those who had been injured in combat.  

During the years between 1943 and 1944,through heroic efforts on the part of the local clergy and citizens, and the never-before or after, opening of the cloisters which housed the nuns of Assisi, Jews seeking safety found it and not one of their lives were lost.  It's a great story, one that should be read before visiting Assisi.  In the story, one finds the names of Padre Rufino Niccacci, Monsignor Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, Don Aldo Brunacci, along with Luigi and Tretno Brizi, the brothers who printed up new identities for each and every refugee.  The Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali who transported documents between Assisi and Florence is honored alongside the brave who never once broke their silence as they cared for and transported to safety the families and individuals in need.

Fitting, that I should have found myself in this place on this, Veteran's Day.  Thousands of American lives were lost during the war, the Italian Campaign lasting from September, 1943 through May 2,1945.  Many older residents still remember that.  I'm proud of my country.

My day was perfect in so many ways and I ended it appropriately, with a visit to the cimitero, probably THE quietest place in Assisi.  A visit to the local cemetaries is always on my list, those and supermarkets.  I found time to reflect and to pay homage to a whole lot of people yesterday.  I gave thanks for their lives and for my own and very special thanks for the feet that carried me from sacred place to sacred place.

Today, it's back to the supermarcato.  I'm going to walk down to Santa Maria degli Angeli. It's a short one, only about 3 miles, where I will visit a brand new market and meet my friends Jack and Marie who are due to arrive on the train at 12:27.  

A presto!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Nun Like No Nun I've Ever Known

As we drove from the airport, my friend and current landlord, Pietro, made me PROMISE to use his discount at the local wellness spa, located a short walk from the apartment.  He said that he offers this to all of his renters but they never use it. Most likely, visitors to Assisi don't want to take the time away from sightseeing and, I understand that.  They have limited time in the area and Umbria has so very much to offer, especially on sunny days.  What they don't know is that the spa experience is VERY Italian, and if one really wants to get a handle on Italian life and culture is all about, supermarkets and spas are high on the list of to-dos.

So, yesterday, Jenny treated us to an afternoon, fulfilling the promise.

Spa Nun Assisi is attached to a Relais (AKA, hotel).  It is part of a careful restoration of an ancient (2,000 year old) Roman bath.  On the site, the peak of the historical center of Assisi, sat the monastery of Saint Catherine, originally constructed in 1275 for a community of Benedictine nuns. Put that thought out of your mind and think of Romans in togas please.

During renovation, a host of archeological features were discovered in the lower levels of the site and these have been beautifully used in the design of the present day wellness center. Unique ambience allows for six magestic limestone pillars (original) to reflect in the mineral waters of the thermal bath.

The pillars reveal the Roman ampitheater (site of lots of lovely events - gladiator combats, executions, Judy Collins concerts....you know what I mean.....eesh) that once sat at the foot of Mount Subasio.  Awesome sight to behold.

After we donned our exquisitely soft, white terry robes and our special slippers, off we went to begin our circuit.  Thankfully, I had packed a set of black undies that were a suitable swimsuit substitute.  Black is always appropriate, for any occasion, vero?

The "Nun Path" that one is advised to follow very carefully until one's body and brain get adjusted to the various temperatures, is made up of a jacuzzi, multi-massage mineral pool, a Tepidarium, Caldarium, Sudatorium and Frigidarium.  The rooms go then, from hot to hotter to very cold indeed.

Along the way, stopovers at beautifully placed lounge chairs or visits to the tea room for refreshments (nuts, fruit, waters, teas) make for a leisurely and luxurious afternoon.  After the doing the circuit the first time, we became experts and took full advantage of all that Nun had to offer. At one point, lounging in the refreshment area, overlooking the mineral pool, I felt like a lifeguard in Heaven.

Tranquility, quiet.  No crowds, just a handful of other lucky souls to join us. Quiet conversations with my friend who has had a full and rewarding life.  Her five children, her marriage, her trials and tribulations and my complete and utter admiration for all that she is, all she has done and all she has overcame in her almost 82 years.  Fatta bene, Amica.  Brava!

What could be wrong with sampling la dolce vita?  Not-one-thing.

nunassisi.com.  Don't hate me.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Oh Damiano!!

A 1.4 kilometer walk will buy one a visit to the exquisite site of the church and monastery known as San Damiano.  Built sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries, it was restored by St. Francis in 1205 in response to a message he received in prayer - "Go and repair my church, which as you can see, is in ruins". 

Here, in 1225, Francis composed the beautiful Canticle of the Creatures following a time of personal despair.  Francis, the story goes, spent fifty days at San Damiano, tormented by rodents who deprived him of sleep to say the very least.  He turned his misfortune around, got up one morning, and wrote a beautiful and enduring prayer, praising everything under the sun, moon and stars. One of the more modern rooms that are open to visitors is the Gallery of the Canticle, a "Space of Art and Faith", in which the entire Canticle is laid out in original art pieces that grace the walls.

St. Clare, Francis' best woman-friend, occupied the convent and she, along with her founded order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano (later called the Clarisse), lived there in poverty and simplicity from 1211-1260.  The very spot on which Clare died is preserved as is the refectory where she and her sisters dined (on very little I'm sure).  From 1260, a community of Friars Minor (they were later followers of Francis), was perpetuated.

As you enter the complex, signs direct you through the seven open-for-viewing areas.  On the right side, there is the Chapel of San Girolamo, considered to be part of the original residence of the friars. The Chapel of the Crucifix houses a magnificent 1637 wooden sculpture by friar Innocenzo da Palermo.  It catches your breath and holds it until you reach the courtyard gardens.  Impressions that last a very long time.

In 1983, the convent (here, convents are places where friars live, not necessarily sisters) was sold to the General Curia of the Friars Minor and is currently home to their novitiate. Think brown robes and Birkenstocks and cell phones.

After a lovely visit (not my first, by the way), it was time to walk back up the hill. Story of my life here.  Along the way, I passed an olive harvest underway which is always a treat.  I'm told that the high cost of olive oil (even here) is partially due to the fact that it is difficult to find enough people to do this arduous task.  Basically, olives are hand picked. Shaken from trees in ways that vary between shaking a stick to something that resembles a giant hedge trimmer.  It vibrates, the olives fall onto a big tarp on the ground and that gets scooped up and carted away to a frantoio where the oil is made.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Walk Up the Hill

The rustic road that leads into the Eremo.  Silence begins here.

The Tau, last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Reminded Francis of the Cross and has become his symbol.

Yesterday morning was absolutely gorgeous.  After a week, my body and brain are finally feeling "normal". A perfect time to take the two mile walk up to one of the most beautiful places I know, the Eremo dell Carceri.  "Eremo" translates to "Hermitage" and "Carceri" comes from the Latin, meaning "islolated places; prisons".

The road up to the Eremo starts at the Porta Cappuccini, one of the many entrances to the city. After passing under, I chose the paved road and passed in between groves of olive trees.  This is the harvest time, the season for picking olives and transforming them into liquid gold.  Along the way, there were several racollte in progress (think little groups of people), performing the ancient custom of shaking the fruit out of the trees, getting ready to head out to the frantoio (think olive mill).

Two hours later, I reached my destination, the entrance to the place where St Francis came to pray and where his followers established their first home.  The entrance way signs remind visitors that this is not an amusement park, that picnicking is prohibited, and that silence would be very much appreciated.  This is sacred space, and has been since 1205 when Francis first arrived.  At the time, the only building was a 12th Century oratory.  He lived alone, in a cold cave, on the side of Mt. Subasio.  Soon after, other men followed him to the mountain, finding their own isolated caves in which to hang out and pray.

In 1215, the site was given to the Benedictines and remains as a small monastery.

It was the perfect time and place.  The evening before, Joe called and delivered the sad news that our friend Steve died suddenly on Monday morning.  I felt frustrated and helpless, unable to comfort my dear friend Nina.  Her loss is profound.  Steve was in her life for a short but sweet time and his death, tragic.  All I could do is pray for both of them and, leaving behind a crudely structured version of a cross, laid at an outdoor altar, I prayed again on the walk back down.

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Braccetto

Six years ago,when I did a solo visit to Assisi for a month, I met Josie Comodi.  In an earlier post (geesh, have I really been blogging that long?), I referred to her as my "Scarf Lady" because it was my admiration of her handcraft that led us to the beginning of our friendship. I was window-shopping and we started our conversation, one in which I told her of my mother's recent death and of my decision to come here as part of my grieving process.

Yesterday, we met at a cafe in the center of town.  It was the same cafe that we had visited many times together in the past.  This time, it was my turn to listen and to open my heart as she recounted the story of her own mother's death, two years ago.  She seems to still be very raw in her grief, tears flowed quickly and freely as she spoke.  I told her that I understood and I certainly did.

We talked about a lot of other topics over cappuccino and pastry.  It was wonderful for both of us.
Following our coffee, we walked at least a mile to get to her car, parked outside of town, on a hill, naturally.  With the town of Assisi fading in our view, arm in arm, we continued to talk and to share our not only that view but a host of others on life, the changes in the Italian culture, the recent hardships realized by business people in a failing economy, and so much more.  We lent each other support all the way up the hill. 

It is not unusual to see two older women strolling together, taking a "passagetta" in Italian towns at some point in the day. I've seen them, arms locked, slowly ascending hills, and I've wondered about their conversations, where they were going, where they has just been.  I always thought of them as "old ladies", needing to physically support each other and saw that as perhaps something in my future, my golden-older days. 

Suddenly, I realized.....along with my friend Josie, I have joined the ranks.  The secret is out.  It is not about physical support.  The arm-in-arm stroll, "a braccetto" is much more than that.  Much, much more than that.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Yesterday, Jenny and I put our big girl pants on and left Assisi for the day.  Our friend, Pietro, dropped us off at the mobile phone store where I was able to get a SIM card put into my phone.  I know ABsolutely nothing about the technology and hope that it can be reversed when I return to the states but for now, another bit of getting settled has been accomplished.  The darling young man who fitted the card into my phone pointed us to the bus stop off we went to the train station. With a few more angels pointing the way, we eventually arrived in Perugia where we hopped on to the MiniMetro and......like magic,  we arrived in the center of this lively city.  The last time I visited Perugia, I was with my Italian friend, Josie, who was  born a Perugina.  Somehow, being with her was a whole lot easier.  For starters, we traveled by car rather than trains and busses and all I had to do that day was fall in love with her city.n

All of Italy is in preparation for the holidays.  Only here,  there are more of them.  Sure, Christmas is on its way, but first, the olive oils and new wines have to be celebrated and now-is-the-time.  Outdoor markets, huge in Perugia, are alive with aromas that simply won't quit.

After a very local and nice little lunch, Jenny and I parted for the afternoon.  For the next few hours, I wandered, finally finding myself at the edge of the city.  The views were breathtaking as the Umbrian valley stretched out underneath a rim of pure white cloud.  In the same area, I found a lovely park, complete with flower and fountains (naturally). A set of festivals for the eyes. In an instant,  I was reminded of the Robert Frost poem that I have loved since my youth,"The Road Not Taken".  Looking out at the valley gave me one perspective - the beauty of this country, the Umbrian valley so peaceful, serene and verdant.   Looking at the statue centered in one of the fountains, a naked woman, arms gracefully stretched behind her head, a totally different perspective came to mind. My lady in the fountain reminded me of Anita Ekberg's portrayal of Sylvia, the temptress in "La Dolce Vita", as she indulged in the waters of the Trevi Fountain.  Sylvia, her carefree approach to living, so symbolic of the way life is perceived by most Italians, dressed in a low-cut black gown, casting her fate in the waters.

At the end of the day, it's all about perspectives.  Mountain view or fountain view, the spirit of Italy spirits me and I am reminded over and over again that life is beautiful and sweet. La Dolce Vita.
And now, for another perspective....it's time to try another gelato.