Sunday, December 23, 2012

The End of the World

I have a confession to make.

For one entire year, I fretted about the last round of doomsday predictions.  When I say "round" it is because this was not the first "scare" that I have lived through.  There was that big one in 1960.  Kids on the school bus talked about it, I honestly lost sleep over it.  To a twelve year old, fears of death were just starting to ripen and all this talk from the older and wisers, the eighth graders, resulted in abject horror, too great to even share with my parents.  I held it all in and when I woke up on January first, my new life began and I was just as carefree and certain as I had been taught, that there would be no warning, that the thief would come in the night and that we should live our lives ever-ready for that night.

Then came the big promotion for the newest prediction.  This one had some teeth to it.  Not only was there Nostradamus, but now there was the Mayan calendar.  The Mayans, uneducated, unsophisticated, they did not even have a pencil......yet, it was they who were going to tell us that the world was going to end on the exact date of December twenty first, two thousand and twelve and not a day before or later.  Who could possibly argue with them? First of all, there was not one Mayan around to question and then, well, they did such a great job building an entire civilization without Sears Roebuck at their Mall.  Amazing feat by infallible people, skilled mathematicians, who eventually made calendars after completing the civilization project to a tee.

Supermarket check out lanes were lined with news proclaiming that the time would soon be upon us.  Books were written.  Movies were made.  Time was ticking away.  Each hurricane, typhoon, earthquake and disaster, natural or made at the hands of mad men, affirmed my own belief that things were getting worse and worse and surely those Mayans were dead accurate.

I actually started taking comfort in the thought that soon, it would be curtains for all of us.  No worry about bills, no fear of chronic disease.  Travel, live it it all before December of 2012.  I even took some comfort in thinking that soon I would see my mother again.  I went as far as telling my friends and they were starting to believe me.  I became a regular Daughter of Doom and I was ready for the big day.

But, the day came and the day went and nothing happened.  Slowly, I began to recall that those who had tried to give us hints and let us know that the Mayans did NOT intend for the world to end, might be right.  Did they simply run out of chalk?  No more stone tablets?  Did they have other great objectives for a new calendar style after December twenty first.  Perhaps the Calendar Management team got distracted?  A strike in the village?  One can only guess and take a deep breath.  We can all sleep better now....or can we?

Mayan calendar be damned.  December twenty first, it will come again and again but there is some truth here.  It is the end of time as we have known it, especially if one is considered a Baby Boomer.  We had our time and it was magical.  We had very few cares or fears.  Our parents did all the scary stuff just a few years before when they bravely lived through a world war but our time, it was post-war and we thought it was pure bliss and we feared nothing other than the stern discipline of our parents who were determined to keep our world safe and beautiful as they climbed toward prosperity.  We played on the streets in our neighborhoods, went trick or treating with our friends, went to the movies on Saturday afternoons.   Our world was amazingly simple and we thought everyone was perfect.  It was years later that we learned that our friends parents had drinking problems, gambling addictions, unfaithfulness, depression, abuse or hosts of other imperfections.  Well-hidden.  What we didn't see, did not exist and we would never have looked beyond our Ginny dolls and Schwinn bikes.

It is the end of time as we knew it and we all know what I'm talking about.  The world ended a long time ago and it keeps on ending and we keep on thinking that we can blame it on a bunch of innocent early civilizations.  But we can't.  They didn't have airplanes to fly into towers of buildings that they also did not have.  Nor did they have guns or wars or simplistic solutions to big problems.  People in schools with guns, good guys ready to turn bad to shoot bad guys who thought of simple solutions to their own complex problems.  Brains, in the wrong heads, weapons of mass destruction.  They kill us, we kill them back.  Dumb.

All the Mayans had was a calendar that became a weapon of mass hysteria.  Perhaps, the days they ran out of should have stayed run out.  They knew we didn't need a calendar to end our world. Smart.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Phoebe, Just Phoebe

It isn't hard to understand why I have been so focused on my two granddaughters this particular week.
In the aftermath of this nation's most horrific tragedies, we hear and see stories and photos of the twenty beautiful children who became the latest victims at the hand of the child of another mother.

The tiny victims were so close in age to my sweet and innocent grand babies, most of them we're told, no older than seven, the majority, only six years old, first graders.

But this is not about sadness and horror.  That has another place in my heart.  This little post today is just about Phoebe.  Phoebe Grace Colket.  Sweetness in a tiny package.  My own Velcro Monkey.  Our family Baby.  The Second Child who is preparing herself for her very own place in life, living in the shadows of the First Child, her sister Lucy.  Two children of the same parents, amazingly different in looks, spirit and personality yet both very capable of totally stealing the hearts of grandparents and great grandparents, not to mention their own parents.  Youngest member of the Abraham Lincoln fan club.  Ask her anything about him and you will be amazed and fall in love if you haven't already, when the discourse begins and the tiny mouth and big bright eyes reveal wisdom beyond years. Kiddie puzzles outgrown a long time ago.

Again, I'm back to Phoebe.  Tiny wonder.  Blonde hair.  Blue eyes that will never be anything but true blue.  Blue eyes that are the only trace of her Italian heritage.  Eyes she acquired through a strong gene that has come to her from the beautiful mountains deep in Abruzzo, Italy. When I look at those plates of blue, my heart skips a beat, knowing that there was a great-great grandmother who would have cried with joy each and every time she saw our Phoebe, wearing her eyes.  A brilliant mind. Always thinking, way ahead of everyone else. Kind and considerate, that's Phoebe.  We already have a catalog of precociously kind words that she has used at the exact right times in her life and she's still only not quite five.  Kisses on the telephone.  Delicious.  Phoebe. Easily bored with the mundane.  Never tired of the brilliance.

I often think that Phoebe is a direct descendant of a high-order angel.  Both babies were sent from Heaven but this one.....she remembers being there, I swear she does.  She's a lightweight but a true heavyweight in the spiritual world.  How could she care so much about her great, great grandfather who she affectionately calls "Louigi Porco".  She knows where he is and she knows that one day, she'll find him first.  He must be thrilled when she talks about him as if she has sat on his lap.Maybe she has. She tells us that it is very sad about Louigi because he is "dead".  The secret is hers.

Merry Christmas Little Phoebe and an extra special hug from Louigi.  He wants you to know that you don't have to worry, everyone there is okay and smiling right back at you. xxxooo  

Monday, December 17, 2012


Every year at Christmastime, my mother, who was an executive in her company, hosted a Christmas party at our home.  It was always a great event, something that we all looked forward to and enjoyed because her party usually marked the real start of our Christmas and we knew that very soon, the Big Day would be arriving.  Our home was ready, our plans were made and both of my parents had a very, very nice time at the party.

In addition to all of the festivities, there was another big part of this party that I grew to enjoy.  My mother, despite the fact that she was the "boss" to many of them, had a host of wonderful girlfriends at her place of work and it never was it as evident that they enjoyed each other's company as it was on the day of the Christmas party.  I grew up with such an appreciation for girl friends, just by watching my mom and hers.  She loved them and they, her.  Rarely was there a week that would go by that would not include several good times spent with good friends.  Bowling clubs, church dances, coffee and cake get-togethers, you name it, it happened and it was always a good time.

As the years went by, my parents had fewer friends.  Folks moved away.  Friends retired.  Illness and eventually, deaths, one by one, broke up their friendships until, at the end of my mother's life, there were no more.  My father has outlived all of his friends and now has only memories and even those, he selectively recalls.  It must be a mechanism employed by the very old - they screen out memories and drop from their thoughts all that are too painful.  It's hard to believe that my father, who once shared so many of those good times with my mother, is totally alone now.

I love my friends.  I've always had a great number of them.  I inherited that from my mother and have also enjoyed many good times with great people. I have categories of friends, old and new, here and there.  My oldest friends have been with me through every phase of my life.  I call them my own Cemetery Club.  In fact, we've been together since before we were all in the fourth grade.  We've shared milestone birthdays, weddings, births, divorces, deaths......just about everything thus far.  It's a sad reality that one of us will be the first to die.  We never discuss that but we do discuss other things and we laugh a lot, a lot.

Yesterday, my first born granddaughter was in her dance school's production of the Nutcracker Suite..  It is always a joyous event for the family, a rather new ritual. After all, she is only six years old.  We love watching her and are always in awe as we think back to her babyhood and realize that it has passed and she is growing into a little girl, no longer a baby.  She has a life that, each day, becomes more her own.  She makes decisions, has opinions, and now has her own little friends.  Her friends who came to see her perform yesterday.  Her friends who, hopefully will go through life with her just as mine and her mother's and her great grandmother's.  It was a great joy seeing Lucy with her friends, three beautiful girls, bursting at the seams with love for each other.  I hope and pray that they will have the opportunity to stay together.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Opera Museum

Joe and I have a little policy that allows us each to be free to say to the other....."go do your thing, I'll meet up with you later" when we are traveling.  He tends to be happy visiting museums that house military artifacts or heavy works of medieval art, moving along slowly, reading captions under objects or on walls, while I have an intense dislike for "shuffling" and anything that requires a good attention span.  So, on one of our beautiful days in Verona, we parted company for a few hours in the morning and met up later for lunch.

The poor dear man, I honestly cannot remember what it is he did with his time....although he did tell me, because I was so intent on bringing him to my "find" of the day, knowing that he would be utterly delighted and that we could comfortably share an afternoon of museum visiting.

While Joe was busily shuffling along, doing his diligent museum tour, I was walking briskly around the fair city of Verona, window shopping, people watching, and generally enjoying my day.  We had decided to meet up at the German Christmas Market and I knew he would not be there at the appointed time, so I had lots of free time and I used it well.  I use my camera as if it were a body part.  In fact, on this trip, I have taken over three thousand photos which will take me the entire winter to edit.  Snap, snap, snap.....I twist and turn into alley-ways, I sneak up on people and snap their faces or their backs should they turn before I catch the moment I was aiming for.  In other words, I'm always looking for something unique and I use my great little Canon as if it were a gun, tracking down something I really want.

As I cruised along the streets of Verona, gasping at each new sight, I spied yet another courtyard.  This one held the promise of something truly unique because there, a few meters from the sidewalk entrance, stood a huge sphinx, just begging me to come further.  As I entered the quiet courtyard, I found gigantic statues of red roses which kept me snapping and exploring further.  Where am I?  Why is there a sphinx from Aida here?  What's with the giant roses and the other signs of eccentricity?  I followed the path that led away from the courtyard and just as I  discovered that this was a museum, a young woman exited the building and greeted me.  "Would you like to come in?  This is the opera museum".  Be still, my heart, " I'm going to find my husband and I will return this afternoon"...and so, we did.

The Arena Museo Opera is brand new.  It opened in June, 2012 in the Palazzo Forti, the former home of the Museum of Contemporary Art, once inhabited by the Forti family and then used as a home by Napoleon for his visits to Verona.  In fact, there is a mirror in the museum that has a crack in it, made during a Bonaparte visit and never repaired.  Each room in the Palazzo is ornately decorated with gorgeous high frescoed ceilings, original tile floors and marble fireplaces. Surely, this was not as suitable a home for the contemporary art collection as it now is for the collection of precious, rarely seen anywhere else, opera artifacts. This was THE place for the collection and it was getting itself ready for the biggest opera celebration Verona has ever seen, the 100th anniversary of Aida, in all its glory, promising to bring dedicated fans from all over the globe to Verona's ancient Arena for a performance to end all, this summer. The multimedia presentations housed in the museum added to the growing excitement about this event.

The Vernonese take their opera seriously.  Each summer, from June through September, they have a full season of performances in the death-defying open air arena that dominates the center of the city.  It very much resembles the Colosseum in Rome and has not changed since ancient times when it was used for less bloody assaults and more cultural entertainment.  No handrails, no elevators.  When we toured there, ascending layers and layers of hard rock seating, we wondered how the senior citizens or for that matter, anybody over age forty, safely get to and from their seats but apparently, they do, thousands at a time..  The museum bears testimony to this in photographs and videos of past performances.

We were the only visitors on that afternoon. Thus, we were assigned our own personal guide who brought us through fifteen rooms, each one dedicated to a component of an opera. We studied seven sections ranging from the libretto through to the representation (performance) stages.  We viewed original scores, librettos, sketches, gorgeous costumes and massive props, all from Aida, each with a commentary in writing and in the words spoken by our lovely and knowledgeable guide who clearly loved her work.  Together, we listened to and viewed videos of five major arias, each performed at one time at the Arena.  This, we did in a quiet room with a huge screen in front of us.Two rows of music stands, sheet music cleverly covering a button which, through the wonders of modern technology, turned on the aria, accompanied by beautiful videos were at our disposal.  Pure joy.

Now, if you have been reading my blog lately, you know that I am convinced that my recently deceased mom sent me to Italy this year, followed me everywhere I went, and oftentimes, was accompanied by my grandmother.  I'm sure they delighted in my reflections and gently pushed me in all the right directions along the way.  So, having said that, it will be of no surprise to learn that opera was very much a part of my childhood.  In fact, it is the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, that figures into one of my earliest and clearest of childhood memories.  His name was Milton Cross.  He broadcast live, every Saturday afternoon, from the Met and on countless Saturdays we listened to his radio show.  Our background music.  Comfort food for our ears.  Beautiful music with commentary at intermission and always an introduction to the day's performance.  Years later, my parents purchased one of the first Hi-Fidelity record players and I'm almost certain, the first LP album that was played by my mother was "Madame Butterfly".  I still melt when I think of it.  I still lose my breath when I hear anything from " La Boheme" and take enormous pride in the fact that my own daughter inherited an appreciation for the genre and that my first granddaughter was born with a Puccini aria playing in the background. The first thing she ever heard in the outside world.  A joy, beyond joy.  Both of my granddaughters seem already to have a sense for the beauty of the opera and have their own recordings, now on CD's, the Hi-Fi, something antiquated that they will laugh about one day.

It makes me smile when I think that one day, I too, will be looking down on my own little legacies, two beautiful little girls who will become exquisite women, living their lives in ways they have chosen.  I'm sure that they will continue to have an appreciation for things like music and art, and I hope that they will travel and see the world and I know that I will be with them, every step of the way, perhaps leading the way as I have been taught to do.

Go back to a much earlier post....the one about the "teachers"'s all making sense now.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Journey, Well Ended

When I was in high school, I had the very good fortune of attending a small, private school for girls.  Nestled on a gracious campus in the heart of the City of White Plains,  The Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel provided me with not only a very fine education but an introduction into the world of tradition and gentility that could only have come from the Sisters of the Divine Compassion.  The sisters lived on the campus in a convent that held many of the rich traditions and was always a source of wonder to we students because in those days, they were semi-cloistered and the convent, the beautiful chapel (in which I was eventually married), and the "ladies" of GCA, were their whole world.  They were beautiful examples of piety and they were very different, as a group, from any other set of vestal virgins known to me at that time.  My impression of nuns was tainted due to my earlier scary and negative experiences, so when it was time for high school, my parents were shocked and waited with baited breath every moment for my demand to change schools....but it never came.  My four years at GCA flew by all too quickly, bringing with them a deep love of the sisters, the school and its traditions and rituals, so many of which I recall to this day.  It also brought my very best friend into my life so I was blessed and fulfilled as a result of my decision.

Throughout the years at GCA, we honored the patron of our school, the Madonna, in our case known as Our Lady of Good Counsel.  Her beautiful picture was everywhere, not simply in our chapel.  We sang to her every First Friday as we attended mass, little lace chapel caps on top of our 60's styled hair.  Following Mass, we returned to class and had milk and freshly delivered crumb buns, breaking the requisite fast for we had all received Communion during Mass.  I enjoyed this ritual and still can remember those fresh buns as if it were yesterday, over fifty years ago.

Years later, my daughter, Sara, chose GCA and entered into the world that, while it still had its traditions and rituals, had changed so much from "my day".  Some things did not change.  The nuns, no longer in their mysterious garb, were now in simple habits or street clothes.  There was a new gym and some other modern additions to the high school and campus.  Rules were relaxed and uniform skirts were rolled up to reveal teen aged knees without fear of "detention".  Friendships were formed and still exist, just as in my case.  On her graduation day, it was I who handed her diploma and hugged her so tightly for so long that she had to remind me that she was to return to her seat and could not remain in my proud embrace for the rest of the program.

The year before I started high school, the campus chapel, shared by the sisters, the high school, grammar school and Good Counsel College, had undergone a complete renovation.  It still stands today, exactly as it did the first time I entered.  No further renovations were necessary.  The chapel is beautiful and the highlight is the lovely altar and the painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel.  It's an iconic painting, flat and softly colored, taken from its original fresco. It shows a mother, cheek to cheek with her baby, his arm stretched to the top of her head and his other hand, softly holding on to the top of her garment.  Its an intimate picture of a mother and child, the child perhaps about to nurse.  It is the picture that gave meaning to all of the things we were taught and the sisters were proud of it and all it stood for.

Perhaps because I am of Italian heritage, I remembered all these years later that the sisters told us many times that the original painting, the one attached to a great miracle, was located in Italy.  Oh, how they wished they could see it for themselves, but they did not travel at that time, rarely off the campus and then only for doctor or dentist visits.  So, they dreamed, and once in a while, they heard from alumni who had taken the time while on holidays, to visit the town of Genazzano, Italy, to see for themselves.

I've returned from my five week journey, accomplished all that I set out to.  During my stay in Assisi, I was living a semi-cloistered life in that I rarely stepped out of my personal time zone.  Instead, I used my time alone to reflect, to look for teachers, to listen and to live, if only for a short time, in a culture foreign to me but not to my spirit.  I know that my own mother, now in Heaven with her own mother, planned my journey and guided me along the way.  Many times, I had the feeling that I was channeling both Mom and Grandma, that they were showing me parts of a life lived long, long ago and that I was fulfilling a dream that my own mother had, to spend time in the homeland of her own parents.  She never did get the opportunity so she allowed me to.  I felt her presence every moment of every day and was comforted and confident.  My spiritual work was completed and it was time to move on with the arrival of my husband Joe.

Before we left Umbria, I had one more inspiration.  We had some time, we had a car and we had an internet connection which allowed me to locate the story of Our Lady of Good Counsel and her miraculous arrival at a little church in a town, little known to tourists, called Genazzano.  The love of a great man made the excursion happen and off we went...

Located about an hour south of Rome, Genazzano Italy has its origins back to the times of Roman emperors.  You can find out so much more about its history here:  The purpose of my story is not to fill in the blanks but the history is interesting and Genazzano, a beautiful little walled town that allows one to step back in time and understand better what an Italian town and it's inhabitants truly consist of.  No Disney Wold Italy here.

Because it is a walled town, Genazzano, as most of the others, allows only residents to drive in beyond the tall walls that lead, naturally, up a steep hill.  The church I was seeking, Santa Maria Maggiore would be, I assumed, in a piazza at the very top, typical of all walled Italian towns.  We could not drive in.  Nor could we, savvy travelers that we are, leave our car with luggage exposed.  We found a parking lot at the base of the town and Joe waited as I made one more excursion on my own, into the world that was being revealed to me by my most beloved dearly departed's.....despite the promise that I had made when leaving Assisi of "no more major climbs up stairs".  Up, up, up, I went.  My legs allowed me to keep going.  My desire to get to the top, climbing countless cobblestone steps, past doorways to private homes which were perched on small landings.  The path upwards twisted and turned. One more flight, no, another....don't give up, you can do it!!! And finally, as I rounded the last corner and climbed the remaining steps, I saw was a the light of the sun in a piazza and there were people there, enjoying a little Christmas fair, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of Italy's biggest religious holidays.  A few inquiries, a simple set of directions, and I was off to the next piazza and there before me stood the object of my pilgrimage.....Santa Maria Maggiore, her doors open, a baptism just ending, the chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel, open for the family of the newly baptized baby.  Was it luck?  I took full advantage of whatever it was and there, before my eyes, in a glorious setting, surrounded by flowers and total beauty, was the glass enclosed Our Lady of Good Counsel.
The original. The very one that was delivered to the church, according to the legend, miraculously, and to this day, the eggshell thick fresco rests on a very small ledge, unattached to the wall, floating on air.

I won't go on about the miracles prayed for, the prayers answered, the adorations and the truth versus the legends, but I will tell you that for me, this was a moment to remember.  Fifty years later and still going strong in my mind.  Our Lady of Good Counsel.  How fitting for me to be here now, asking for all the help I need to give my own good counsel to my father, mother in law, my children, my grandchildren.  Good counsel.  Good words of wisdom in a world that is becoming more and more confusing.  Here was I, enjoying one last gift from my own mother, remembering the words to the hymn.....

Oh, Virgin Mother, Lady of Good Counsel, sweetest picture artist ever drew.  In all my doubts I fly to thee for guidance, Mother tell me, what am I to do?

To the people of Genazzano who allowed me to enter their home town for a few moments, to the family of the baptized baby who I am sure wondered who the strangera with the camera was, to the nun who opened the chapel for the baptism and to the husband who patiently waited in the car for my return and who made the visit possible, thank you for helping me to close circles, to accomplish what I set out to and to give me yet one more story.  My mother told me what to do......

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Romeo, Romeo......

It might very well have been a scenario in his imagination but if the fair Juliet and the handsome Romeo had existed, they surely would have lived in Verona.

Known as piccola Roma (little Rome) for its importance in imperial days, this little gem of a city became more important during the 13th and 14th centuries when the Della Scala family led it through its golden age.  It was during this time that there were family feuds and thus, the idea for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was born.

Verona is, without a doubt, the most beautiful city I've ever, ever visited.  When our friends from Padua heard we would be visiting Verona, they told us that it is considered to be THE most beautiful city in all of Italy but even then, I was not prepared.

Each piazza outdoes the next.  Beautiful architecture, once privately owned palazzos that still stand proudly, Italian colors, cobblestone streets, flowers......if it is a thing of beauty, it is found in Verona.  And, the approaching Christmas holiday makes it extra beautiful.  Tastefully decorated shop windows and entrance ways are but a small part of what is happening in preparation.  Right now, there is a huge German Christmas market and everywhere, festive touches, happy and prosperous people.

The retail life in Verona is alive and well.  Narrow streets that traverse the city, decked out for Christmas, sell expensive and gorgeous articles of clothing, jewelry and accessories.  The women are all very well dressed, head to toe and the gentlemen, dressed like gentlemen of a forgotten era.
Couples walk arm-in-arm and everyone carries a shopping bag or two, holding a recent purchase from one of the fine stores that line the vias that lead down to the famous via  Cappelo where Juliet's house is found.

Juliet's house, of course we know it is fictitious, but for one moment in time, it becomes the very home that the two star-crossed lovers put on the map for all of us to enjoy.  Yes, there is a balcony and a courtyard and it is in the courtyard that the statue of Juliet gets her rubs.....legend has it that if you rub her breast and make a wish for a lover in your life, your wish will become a reality.

I already have my Romeo.  No need to rub Juliet.  But let me tell you, if I were in the market for a nice life, Verona would be the place for me and I would be there in the courtyard, looking dreamily up to that balcony, rubbing and wishing for a man like Joe.

The next time you find yourself in Italy, find your way to Verona.  I'll meet you there.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ci Vediamo

Have not forgotten to blog...just busy getting from Bologna toVerona to Fabbri and the warm, welcoming arms of good friends.

I'll be back here soon to write about Verona and the lovely Museo d'Opera.

Until then, hold us in your thoughts

Monday, December 3, 2012

Full of Bologna and Loving it

I don't have anything clever to say and haven't written in this blog in a few days and that is husband arrived in Assisi on Thursday night and we've been busy together ever since.  Thursday was an excruciatingly long day for me.  I knew that Joe had left Boston in the afternoon of Wednesday and that he had a Boston to New York to Madrid to Rome journey and that his plane landed safely in Rome but beyond that.....I knew nothing but the fear and anticipation that comes when there is no communication.

Years ago, this would have been the norm, wouldn't it?  A person would tell another the day of arrival and magically, without the assistance of a GPS, iPhone, iPad, text message or pay phone, that person would show up and everyone would simply be happy for the safe arrival.  Well, times have changed and everyone is plugged in, tuned in, messaged and beamed up in some way. So, when Joe arrived in Rome and picked up his rental car, we entered a dead zone.  His phone does not work in Italy and I had the Italian cell phone.  All we had was an agreement.  He would arrive at our friend's place of work and they would call me when he did.  But it felt so strange.  Joe, off my radar.  Me, off his.  All I had in between was my faith that he would arrive safely and when he did, I offered a prayer in thanksgiving.  Safe and sound.  A bit tired but very happy to see me and to be back in Umbria.

We spent two days visiting our favorite places in Assisi, a visit to our favorite trattoria and a Sunday lunch to a new favorite place with an old favorite friend and then, we were off on what I call "Joe's Vacation" to a new place, together, in our rental car, side by side with our GPS mounted on the windshield and our cell phone tucked inside my purse.  Bologna was the next stop and as we drove away from Assisi, we knew we were ready for a new adventure.

Bologna is a lovely, lovely city.  The old and very large university of Bologna is responsible for the culture here.  Thousands of students and educators everywhere.  The average age of the person on the street seems to be twenty.  Everyone has a dog.  You would never have to ask a shop clerk if any item comes in black.  Its all you see, everywhere.  Even the kids, all who are well behaved and happy, wear dark colored clothing.  Its lively, and alive, every minute of the day. A medieval city, without walls, with all the stops pulled out.  It looks dangerous but it is very safe.  It looks gritty but it is genteel and pretty.  It makes me think I'm in Barcelona, not in Italy until I pass yet another cafe or bar, all of which have the distinctive smell of coffees that can only be found in Italy.
And, while this is THE food capital of Italy, no, the world, I haven't seen any seafood so it can't be Barcelona!

If there is a custom that makes Bologna even more special, it is the "Aperitivo".  The Italian version of "tea", the meal between lunch and dinner.  Aperitivo bars are everywhere and always full in the early evening.  Some come, enjoy a drink and a snack and move on.  Others come, drink and snack for hours.  Bar owners use the finger foods that they serve along with the drinks as their competitive edge.  The guy who has the best, wins.  So, two drinks, a mini-meal that can be called "dinner" will set you back all of fourteen euros if that much.  So, why aren't these people fat?   Why are young Bolognese women all slim and nice looking?  It remains a mystery.  Or is it that they eat and live like Italians, not like Americans eating Italian food like Americans.  The women wear more make up than I've seen in any other part of the country and everywhere, you see couples embracing and kissing.  They all seem to be in love all the time.  Maybe that bears truth to what I was told by my new Danish friend Elna.  If you love yourself, you take care of yourself.

We're loving every minute.  We've walked, taken a tour bus through the city and had a walking tour graciously offered by three of our best Italian friends, Giorgio, Cinzia and Cristina Luxardo, who met us for Sunday lunch yesterday at a very local trattoria.  They gave us a good overview of the city. Two of them lived here as university students.  They told us about the quirky things that make Bologna what it is.  They shared their love of this city and when we parted, we knew so much more and had so much more to learn.

We leave tomorrow but for now, its time to digest and rest up because tomorrow, we're off to what has been described as THE most beautiful of all the cities in Italy.

We're starting to sound very Shakespeare or is it "Kiss me Kate" that's running through my mind..... We're off to Verona.......

Thursday, November 29, 2012

First Shall Not Be Last

As my time in Assisi is coming to an end, I can't help but reflect back upon my first time in Assisi and what a wonderful time that was, almost seven short years ago.......

As a gift to my husband for his 60th birthday, I rented a house in Tuscany, and invited four of our friends to join us in our 800 year old farm house which was buried in the woods of Radda in Chianti.  It was one very authentic home, barely modernized but charming and fun to be in for a week.  On the first morning, we all reported on how we managed to shower in what is known as a "hip" tub.  There were two of them in the house, each equipped with its own thin shower curtain that flew away and stuck to the body of the user as soon as the water pressure built up.
Jay and I were just reminiscing about that during his stay here last week in fact.  Each of us confessed to a different style and it was fun making mental pictures.

And so, back to Assisi Prima Volta....first timers.

Before I left for that trip, a friend at my place of work recommended that I contact a friend of hers, a nun from a New York convent who had been assigned to a few years in Assisi.  An older Irish lady who was here, along with eleven other sisters, to run a children's mission.  I emailed sister Catherine and told her we would like to visit and she emailed me back and the plans went on from there.  So, on the appointed day, along with our fellow travelers, Lynette and Rob, we set off for Assisi and the Saint Anthony Guest House, located at the convent, run by the sisters, somewhere in the center of the town......somewhere where we were not supposed to be driving.  The police in Assisi do not appear to have very much to do in the off season but in season, they are incredibly busy and this was the beginning of the season so how, in a nanno-second, it was determined that our car was not one that belonged here, still amazes me.  Buh...that's what the parking lots are for and park and walk we did....right up the hill to the most serene spot we had yet seen.

The sisters awaited us, two of us traditional church goers and the other two, fallen Catholics, we sat in their reception room and had the best cappuccino we had ever had.  I guess nuns take a class in how to make cappuccino because it sounds so much like a religious experience.

After a few very pious moments, our tour guide, equipped with umbrella, joined us and off we five went on our tour of every major church in Assisi.  Sister Catherine was a lively and personable guide.  She knew the ins and the outs.  We wove through narrow passageways, we climbed stairs, mounted hills and ran through rain showers.  It was a day to remember.....for two especially good reasons.....

Our tour was perfectly timed.  It was getting to be lunch time.  In Italy, if you don't have lunch between twelve and two, you get "snack", not lunch with that requisite glass of wine that you know you need.  So, somewhere in between Santa Chiara and San Francesco, we found ourselves on an off-the-beat route, walking right by a little restaurant on Via Metastasio.  From the Heavenly lips of Sister Catherine came the most exquisite description of the "view" offered by this restaurant and how she always walks by and sees through to the big window that overlooks the valley and wishes she could go in......Duh.  We were in like a flash, sister's dream coming true.  Who needs confession or absolution?  We were taking Sister to lunch and plugging up the hole in her list of unfulfilled desires that could have caused a few extra months in purgatory.  Didn't know until then that sisters drank wine but this one sure did.  She was a world-class expert.  God blessed us.

From there, we went on to the ancient "Temple of Minerva" which a very, very long time ago, became a Catholic (what else?) church and stands right smack dab in the middle of the Piazza Comune, not far from the scene of our car crime (you can't drive here!!!).  As in so many of the churches in Italy's small towns, the padre, dressed in his black robe (as opposed to the monks who dress in brown garb, carry back packs, wear Birkenstocks and woolen ski hats), stood outside HIS church, surveying the Gomorrah that his world has become, a way of inviting some of the lost souls into HIS church.  I have a feeling that this practice gives Father a better vantage point as the penitent Mammas walk by his front door......

Father, spotting Sister Catherine and her little entourage, beckoned us all in.  He was proud of the church and his assignment to it.  He gave us a personal tour of this beautiful treasure, built in the first century BC, restored in 1539 as a church dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  Wow.
He spoke volumes before we left and sister was delighted and cordial throughout.
As soon as we had descended the steps of the remarkable portal, much of it today underground, sister had to share her little inside story.  In her sweetest little Irish brogue, and with a little look of the "deevil" in her twinkly eyes, she told us......"I've been coming to this church for Mass and confession for the past seven years and this is the first time that Father has let me know that he speaks English!!!".  That little Deevil.

Since that time, Joe and I have returned to Assisi for visits twice and we were unable to locate that little restaurant with the view.  Sister Catherine has returned to the states.  Her plum assignment in Assisi is over and it's now some other sister's turn to be here.  Father no longer hangs out in front of the Minerva.  It's off-season when we come and very different from the in-season scene so he must be hibernating or maybe he too was reassigned, perhaps to an even prettier place, the deevil that he is.

So, it's my time to leave now.  I'm ready.  The Assisiani want their town back.  They don't want to see stranieri on their streets.  The woman in the Information Center makes that abundantly clear. She's had it with answering dumb questions.  They need their time to perform their rituals and to get ready for their winter. There is a sign in the window of the Restorante Metastasio that tells that they are closed now, for their own vacation. As soon as the winter ends, they will once again lose their town to thousands of thoughtless tourists who march through as if this were Disneyland Italy.  Tourists who drive through town, ignoring the signs, thinking they will be unnoticed......until.

Rest in Peace Assisi.  They'll be baaaaaaaaack.  And so will we. Thank you for your patience and your love.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Tribute Across the Sea

Via Padre Giovanni Principe starts at the base of Assisi, a few feet off of the Piazza San Pietro.

The first time I walked the 4 kilometers from the old comune of Assisi to the lower service town, Santa Maria Degli Angeli, as I looked down onto the terra cotta path, my breath was swept away.
From almost the very beginning of the path, each rectangular paver bore the name, age and home of what I quickly realized were World Trade Center victims.  The sober finding had me walking slowly, brushing fallen leaves aside with my feet to reveal each one until I became dizzy from the experience.  New York, New Jersey, Connecticut......strange names, "stranieri", strangers in this town.  How did they get here?  Do their loved ones know that they are here?

The path goes on as far as the eye can see and eventually, after thousands of names have been passed, older pavers bearing names of thousands of others who are remembered, continue to line the way to Santa Maria.  Are they war dead?  There aren't any signs telling what or why these pavers bear names.  One can only wonder and one can only feel that each had a life of meaning once upon a time, in their own countries, their own cities and towns.
But none were as precious to me as the names of the innocent loved ones who gave their lives in a war that they were totally unaware of.  People, who from the information on their paver were young, perhaps at the start of a career.  Some who might have been looking forward to a retirement soon.  Some who were related, perhaps two or more leaving parents with heartbreaks running so deep that they will never mend.  Wives, husbands, children left behind only to remember a day in history that shook the world and changed all of our lives.  Pavers now, bearing witness to the life that no longer exists on this Earth.

I've made the trip to Santa Maria on foot several times.  It's a long walk.  I love the walk. I feel that each time I am doing it, I am honoring all of them, the people on the pavers.  I stop, brush leaves, notice more people from my home town, my birth place, my current home.  They're all very real to me.  I remember that day.  I was in New York City, working on that day.  I am sure that some of those very people passed me as they exited trains in Grand Central Station on their way to work for the very last time.  Perhaps some rode the train into the city with me.  It was the right time and place for such a coincidence.

But, here they rest in memory now and it is so fitting that they are here.  Really, no explanation is required for they rest in peaceful memory in Assisi. A place of honor, in the city of peace and goodness, just the way Saint Francis intended.

Rest in peace, you are not forgotten.     

Monday, November 26, 2012

Well, Well,Well

In a few short days, my stay in Assisi will be coming to a close.  It's hard to believe.

I came to Assisi with an agenda.

I came to close a hole in my heart, or at least to mend the frayed edges left by the memory of my mother's illness and death.

I am still profoundly saddened by my loss but I have learned that my relationship with my mother was deeper than I had ever imagined.  That she is still so very much alive in my heart and mind and that she was truly instrumental in my decision to come here and to get something special out of every moment here.

I know that my mother sent me to Assisi this time as a present in appreciation.  I know she sent me because she still loves me and wants me to live a life of meaning and she wants me to be well.

Wellness is not simply the absence of disease.  Wellness has parts to it, parts that when integrated become a whole that sustain us as human beings.

To be well means to have a spiritual life.  I have been surrounded by a spirituality that I could not escape, even if I tried.  I came to Assisi last year, knowing that illness in the family was inevitable. I came to pray, not for a mother's return to good health, but for the strength to be the person who I needed to be during the time that I knew would be physically and emotionally the hardest time of my life.  So, my prayers were for that strength and the spiritual guidance that would allow me to be the best of me in the months ahead.  And my prayers were answered.  Again, I came with new prayers, that I would find peace and that peace would bring me patience and understanding, especially of my role in the life ahead.  A father and a mother-in-law who are both in their nineties, both depending upon Joe and I for our assistance in the not-too-distant future.  And, now, I understand their loneliness and accept my role in their lives.  I understand that, just as in the past, my prayers will be answered and I will be spirited on with the strength required for doing a job well.

To be well means to have social contact, to be part of a community.  I have been blessed over and over with companionship since I arrived.  Friends, here, waiting for me.  Friends, new and old, who have shared time with me and shown love and understanding.  Friends who made me feel connected and part of their communities, their lives.  Friends who, if they don't hear from me, take the time to call or email, just to "check in", no strings attached.  Friends at home who show that they care and understand why I chose to come here.  Friends who are waiting to hear my stories and rejoice along with me in the good that has come of this time.

To be well is to be physically active.  I must have walked a hundred miles since I got here. I quickly adopted a little mantra....."what goes down, must also come up" as I approached stairs and roads.  I never took the easy road or the easy way out.  I am so proud of the fact that I met these challenges.  I may not be a thin or trim person, but I am a fit person, healthy and capable of meeting physical challenges, at times simply offering up my discomfort as I took on a new set of stairs or a new hill.  If people who are living with the everyday challenge of cancer can do it, I certainly can.  Please Lord, accept this and ease suffering.

To be well is to be emotionally happy.  With the exception of a few dreary days, I have been happy and have let my happiness spill over into everything I have done here.  I have not allowed myself to have a bad night's sleep and have only done things that have made me happy.  I have learned that it is not a bad thing to say "no" and that I only have myself to please.  If I keep myself happy, so I will keep others happy.

Being well is an active process. It has so much to do with making choices and keeping sacred what is meaningful to one's life.  I am so much "more" well now but I still have so much more room to grow, so much more to learn.

I'm readier than ever to be weller than I've ever been and this has been an incredible journey.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

To the Home of a Friend........

After a very long but beautiful day, my friend Jay finally arrived in Assisi.

Imagine ME, giving directions to Assisi via train from Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Fiumicino!

When I set out three weeks ago, three weeks that now feel like a lifetime ago in fact, I was scared, uncertain, and overwhelmed with the fact that the directions given to me by my good friends here, actually brought me to my final destination.  I arrived at the exact same spot at the exact right time, into the loving arms of Giselle and Mark Stafford.  So, when it came my turn, I mapped it all out.  Over and over.  Emails.  "Do this Jay" no, "Do that Jay" no, "Ignore everything I've told you so far Jay and do it this way......."  JUST-GET-TO-ASSISI and I'll be at the station.

The appointed time came, the train Jay.  The anxiety poured out of every one of my veins like bad wine.  Quando??  My little lifeline, Helen, begged me to calm down, relax.
"He'll be on the next train.  The train schedules have been mixed up all day" offered this sweet little wonder woman pal of mine.  Breathe, relax.  Breathe, relax.  Feel much like being in labor?  Yeah.
What if he got on a train going in the wrong direction?  Breathe, relax.  "Another train will be along at 5:15.  He'll be on it."

When my kids were young, I held the world title for Worrying Mother.  I made sure that they were equipped with our names, our phone numbers, their address, the name of their doctor, his phone number, the name of who to call if these numbers were busy, the name of our lawyer who kept a copy of our wills.....all within easy spotting should someone find them on the side of a road.  When Sara went off on her first adventure, to London at the tender age of not quite 13, she calmed my nerves by telling me that "there is no way I can get in trouble in an airplane Mom".  The Jody Foster film in which she loses her daughter during a long distance flight, had not come out yet so Sara sweetly put my mind to rest if only for a short time.  Subsequent to that successful away from home escape, she's made lots of trips across the ocean and until she became an adult (okay, until she was married), I sat up all night, glued to the T.V. knowing that should there be a plane crash, the Johnny Carson show would be interrupted for the news.

So, the arrival of one of my other most precious possessions, my alter-ego, friend for life and beyond, Jay Shemwell, signaled an episode of expectation mixed with anticipation.  Jay and I have spent time together in Italy before, we've also spent lots of time together in other wonderful places where we have had fun and made memories by the ton.  But, I've been alone here for the past three weeks, thinking about life, beauty, friends, family and the absolute,rock-bottom beauty of Umbria and most especially, Assisi.....and I can't wait to share it all with someone who has many times over passed the test as the second-most easy to be with friend.

So, the second train arrived, just as Helen, honorary "labor nurse" more push and out popped Jay and the wonder of watching a kid on Christmas morning has begun.
Next week, Joe arrives.  Thankfully, he will come via car with me in it from the airport to Assisi and I can't wait, simply cannot.  He loves Assisi but will love MY Assisi even more.

I'm so happy now.  Delighted in fact, to have Jay here.  It's an honor to share a highlight of one's life and he has honored me in a big way, proving again what he has so well in the past that


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks


It's early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day.  I'm thousands of miles away from home and my loved ones who lie still sleeping so the hush that time and distance have afforded me is time that I can now use to reflect and give thanks.

I have so much for which to be truly thankful and I think about these things every day, not just on the national holiday.  Sometimes, when I have trouble falling asleep, I really do count my blessings.
As I grow older, I recognize that not all blessings are what some might consider happy or joy-filled.
Some blessings are simply opportunities.  To learn. To grow. To appreciate. To understand. To be able to live a life filled with "moments".  Blessings come in many forms and sometimes we miss or don't recognize them.  Sometimes, they are obvious and sometimes, we just don't accept them.  But, they are there and I have many of them and for that, I take joy in making this little list of those things for which I am personally thankful.

So, I am thankful for......

Parents who were always present.  Their ears and eyes were open to my heart and while I may not have always liked the answers, they were there.  Lifelines were thrown, tears were mopped up, joys were shared.  A father who is grief stricken with a heart that will remain forever broken...a blessing for those of us who are privileged to help him through the rest of his life.  A mother who, as she struggled to transition from this world to her next, took precious moments to tell my father that he was the bravest man she ever knew and to her son in law, the words, "I love you Joe". A mother who, during her life, took the time to teach us tolerance and acceptance of all people at all times, good or bad. She was a woman of substance, a woman way ahead of every curve.
Blessings, even in our darkest hours as a family.

A husband who loves me but more than that, a husband who is all who meet him.  I know I have been blessed in a very special way.  Oftentimes, I wonder why I have been so fortunate.  We met in college and have been together ever since.  A good father.  A good man.
A loving son to his own and my parents, one who has always done the "right" thing and never failed his family.  A proud man who never boasts but holds in his heart every accomplishment, large or small, that his family makes.  A strong man, a role model for all of us. My dearest friend in all the world, now and forever.  The only husband I will ever have. Blessings, too bountiful to bear.

Two children who have grown to adulthood.  Two adults who have a sense of self-esteem that has been their guiding light.  Two beautiful bodies and two amazing brains.  Each with talent, each with wisdom, each with their own personality, vastly different but strong and free in their expression.
Two lovely children-in-law, each perfect for each spouse.  Productive, proud of their accomplishments, supportive of their mates and loving extensions of our family.  Lifelines to our own children, time and again.  Blessings, thanks to their parents.

Two of the world's most incredible granddaughters.  If there were such a thing as "perfection" these children would certainly personify it. But, alas, perfection only exists in God.  Healthy.  Smart. Compassionate already.  Wise.  Full of grace.  Each has already contributed to my list of things to be grateful for in too many ways to possibly count.  Thank you Sara, for the highest point in my life after the birth of you and your brother, the invitation to be present for the birth of your first child.  Blessing beyond compare, burned into my memory, still vivid as if it were yesterday, almost seven years ago.  Bless you.

Sunsets on Cape Cod. Sunsets in Umbria. Friends here, there and everywhere.  Beach days with my Joe at my side.  Seashells. A brother who understands.  My feet that take me wherever I need to or want to be.  My best girlfriend, Cam.  My best other "girl friend" Jay. Unconditional loves. My blue bathrobe.  Lavender.  Glitter. Knowing Saint Francis, walking in his footsteps. Doctors who listened to me and helped me find peace. Dr. Jones, a special gift from God.  Dr. Gleason, who totally "got it". Hospice and the angels who guided us and our mother on her journey to the other side of life.  Tau.  My writing class. The Cape Cod Playhouse.  The Chat Room. The Cultural Center. My Cpap machine.  Benadryl. My Jetta. Hundreds more........

I fill in the blanks with every breath I take and never take a breath for granted.
My faith.  My faith. My faith.

Pax e bonum.

 Buona regrazimento a tutti!

Cuppa Joe

Today I started speaking Italian.  Not very, very well, but I did it.  Full conversations!!!  This is a banner day.  All those classes, tapes, books and when the time came, I would freeze, total shut down.  But today, I met Sandra, born and raised in Calabria, and my mouth opened and my ears opened and I spoke Italian.  My Calabrian grandfather is smiling in Heaven.

I feel like I imagine my granddaughter Lucy felt the day she stopped playing with one of her favorite toys, looked at me, pointed to herself and said "Lucy!!".  It was a moment I will never forget and today, thanks to Sandra, her big smile, her sweet face and her willingness to teach me and learn from me,  io parlavo Italiano!

Now, don't misunderstand me.  I am not exactly what you would call "fluent".  I have years to go before that happens if it ever does but, I am learning that the only way to recall all that I have learned is to relax, get over my fear of making a mistake.  After all, the Italians who speak English make mistakes and mis-pronouncements and we forgive them!  There are so many other things to get upset about in this world.

Later, our mutual friend, Jack made a major contribution to today's little learning session as we sat around drinking American coffee......

"Sandra, do you know that Lynn's husband's name is Joe?"

"Do you know what they call coffee in America Sandra?"

"Cuppa Joe"


Si Sandy, si.  Ci vediamo amica.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Italy.....

Yes, Virginia, there is something called "boredom" even on a holiday in Italy.  Can it be true?

I've been here since November the fourth.  I arrived on a Saturday, part of an Italian holiday weekend.  People were everywhere, it was festive and I was thrilled.  Since my arrival, I've been on field trips, overnight visits, social gatherings where the food was to-die-for and have had lots of lovely time to myself with no one to feed, quarter or talk to if I did not care to. Lovely, especially after the recent months of having to be on a schedule, worrying about so many people in my family, and caring for a dying mother.  And now, here I am in the land of Pace e Bonum, all by myself.  No matter where you go, there you are.....

There are a lot worse places to be alone in.  Most people I know would cut off a hand to be in my situation now.  "Oh, to be in Italy", I think that's the phrase.  Well, I can tell you "Oh, I AM in Italy" and, yes it is the stuff that dreams are made of but, and here's the Big One, time is so much nicer when spent with another person or persons.

I'm sure my daughter would like to challenge that idea at this point in her life.  I can remember, as if it were yesterday, how I longed to be alone.  Two children, constantly in my presence, rarely a moment to myself made me utter these words more than once...."I've changed my name from Mommy and I will not tell you the new one".  But those days quickly passed.  The early days of parenthood fly very fast and leave us strangely wanting more when it is too late to get more.  I never thought that would end.  I never thought I'd be a senior citizen.  I never thought I'd have this much time to be alone, alone in Italy.

There's a point to all of this.  First of all, it does not take long for the glow of something new and exciting to die down to the reality of everyday life.  In Italy, especially in Umbrian hill towns, everyday life isn't easy.  La Dolce Vita was a movie, far, far from the reality of today.
There is a pall over this country, a feeling that is deep and somewhat disturbing.  They're in an economic crisis and it does not look good for the future.  Goods and services are not cheap.  The business owner must pass on the rising costs to the consumers.  The consumers are hanging on by threads with job losses and failed businesses becoming common concerns.  The price of fuel for their cars has impacted on their ability to do some of their favorite things.  With a gallon of gas costing ten euros, one thinks twice or thrice about extra trips to visit friends, all who live miles from the centers of their towns.

I've met a number of new friend since my arrival.  Most of them are ex-pats.  Some came because they married Italian men and others, because they were seeking adventure, escaping something or, for the beauty of it all.  Not all have remained blissful as they were when they arrived.  Those who have purchased houses are having a rough time of it.  The costs of maintaining their homes are escalating and the fees that the government demands of them as "immigrants" are enormous.  A driver's license costs a thousand dollars or more and is not easy to come by even at that price.  There are taxes, fees, penalties and threats associated with home ownership and the right to live in the country.  I was at a dinner party shortly after my arrival when an Australian woman who I had only just met implored me..."please promise that you will never consider buying a home here!"  She has been through the ringer and does not want to see that happen to anyone else.

So, what's left after one realizes that wine is no longer inexpensive, cappuccino is part of the "let's suck the life out of the tourists" and there are very few "made in Italy" items to be found in shops?
What remains is what one sees when not looking at things as a "tourist".  Times here, as at home, are tough and uncertain.  Italy is not the adult Disneyland that the travelogues portray it to be.  It still has its charm, its beauty and its spirit.  It was a land that was blown to pieces in a war.  The people here remember that and it has fortified them.  They've risen from ashes and have found sources of pride in doing so.  They are and have always been brave people.  It's just sad that they have been turned into frightened people once again.

I've had time to think, to study people a bit, to make some good observations.  I'm ready to come home but before I do, I have to host a friend from the states who has spent only a short time in this country on a previous trip.  I'll happily show him the sights, some that can only be found in small Umbrian towns.  We'll drink the wine, the best we'll ever have.  We'll eat the food and remember those meals for years to come.  When he leaves, the best part of this journey will be meeting my husband at the airport.  Together, we'll travel for a few days and we'll savor all the beauty and goodness of this beautiful country.

I'm not bored, I'm just waiting.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Raining Men

I came back this afternoon after an overnight stay at the home of an American friend who has made her home in Italy for the past seven years.  A brave woman, she sold her home on Cape Cod and packed it all in for a three hundred year old Umbrian farm house.  Her house is located in a small village called Pesciano di Todi, miles into the hillside from Todi.

During our weekend together, we discussed at great lengths the present Italian culture as well as the past.  I had many questions about her house, it's original owners, its current owner and her impressions of life, Italian style.

I returned to my apartment for early afternoon and took my usual afternoon passagatta.  This being a Sunday, there were many more people in town, most of them I observed were Italian families.
It was time for me to personally observe "the culture" of today, first hand so I sat down on a bench on the side of the busiest of piazzas in Assisi, the Piazza del Comune, and had a look.

There were young couples with babies, fathers pushing baby carriages, not strollers.  Here, babies are "babies" until they are bigger babies.  Infancy is the time when a baby looks, acts, and is dressed in soft pastels, not "Baby Gap".....more like Baby Nonni.  The young moms, all fit and healthy looking in their skinny jeans, make up perfect, walk alongside with Papa proudly pushing the pram.  Never a peep is heard from the Bambini.  Everything seems under control.

The next group I noticed were the little groups of "older" couples, out for a day trip with friends or family members.  Walking, talking and shopping together.  Nothing I've ever seen at the mall....,  Here, it seems to be a normal event on a normal afternoon for normal people.

As I watched the constant parade, my eyes met a sight that was totally unfamiliar to me.  A large group of men, backsides toward me, listening attentively to a tour guide.  For the longest time, they seemed to be paying attention to every word.  Not a woman in sight.  From my vantage point, I noticed their uniformity....their "uniforms".  All had jackets that were exactly the same length.  No hats,  White hair.  Strong looking legs.  Sturdy shoes.  Interesting.  The Italian man.  I bet these never pushed baby carriages.

Times have changed and are changing more rapidly than ever.  Italian women have become liberated.  But there's something about those Italian men that I hope will never change.......

Let's hear if for the men!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Venerdi and All I Can Do is Cry


I have to start this day with a blog.  Nothing special, just a series of thoughts.  I've chosen to be here, alone, in think.  I'm also here to observe and to react to what I see and feel.

My friend Cam questioned my reasons for having to come to Italy to work on my transition from grieving person to "My Old Self".  "Why Italy, why not somewhere in the U.S.? "  She's a practical person, and practical people think of things like "being so far in case something happens" and "why not spend less money by not losing it in currency exchanges".  But then, she spends countless hours working on her plans for retirement and her retirement funding while I don't and never did.  Blind faith.  I'm not going to live forever.  Complete stupidity.  Feel free to place whichever label you'd like and stamp it on my forehead.  So far, I love living in the world of freedom from all of this planning.

So, I've come to Italy this year to learn things.  Every day, I look for new learning experiences and try to better understand how and why a culture such as this one works so well for its inhabitants and defies the laws made by the Retirement Planning Association.

My husband has long said that he is truly amazed that Italy "works".  Even the Italians say that they have no idea of why and how things eventually get done.  It always seems that chaos prevails and that there are laws and rules that only "sometimes' apply and nobody seems to know to whom they actually do apply.  For instance, my landlady posted a sign on the front door of this apartment, advising that it is a private residence and therefore, there will be no parking in front of the door. I'm thinking that she probably did that as a courtesy to me.  There's a never-ending construction project going on right next door and of course, since she posted the sign, a car or a truck is parked right in front of the door steps each and every day, all day.  Frankly, I would rather she had called the owners of the construction company asking that they don't start work until at least 8AM but that would be so far removed from the realms of possibility.  Forget about the "getting a rest" part of why I came to Assisi!

So, why? how? what? come it doesn't all fall apart at the seams and how come the culture goes on its beautiful way, untouched by the stress of ridiculous rules and regulations, total disregard for some things and total regard for others?  The big "others" is actually an "other".

The Italian regard for family, la famiglia.  That's what makes it all work.  Complete, absolute, total loyalty and esteem for something that is and always will be there for them.  Mother is the keyword.  Father is the husband of Mother and therefore has a special place in the heart of every child, no matter what age.  Family ties that bind it all together.  That's what I see.  That's what I miss.

I came here to mourn the loss of my own mother.  I am asked often by  people I meet about why I am here, why alone? As soon as the word "mother" comes out of my mouth, an instant understanding and a wave of compassion and understanding arrives.  Sometimes, mutual tears flow, sometimes it's simply a hug, but it is always acknowledged.  I'm not alone.  Just yesterday I met a lovely friend of a friend of a friend who came all the way from Australia on a two month journey as she mourned the death of a dear husband.  Another friend spoke of her own mother's death and said that it was the MOST profound and difficult of all the emotional work anyone has to do.  Different from any other loss.
I agree.

I am in the right place at the right time.  My own husband would be heartbroken were he to hear me crying as I still often do.  No, not sniffles.  Childlike, complete breakdowns as babies do.  I allow myself to wail out loud, fearlessly as ancient thick walls and marble floors provide my barrier from the judgement of neighbors.  I would never have been able to do this at my own home. Concern for the feelings of others would have thwarted me. I need to keep doing this until I have done it all.  I miss my mother but so much more.  I miss my own children.  I miss the fact that I am not part of their lives.  I hardly know them any more.  I knew my mother, I knew her very well. And that is why it is so hard to get to the other side of grief.  I am sure she would not want me to be as sad as I am, but I am also sure that she would be comforted in knowing that her passing made me sad, that her life was that special and that I miss our daily conversations, as trivial as the topics might have been in her later years. Somehow, I doubt that my own children will spend as much time in mourning my passing and that idea adds to my daily tear flow.

For now, I will continue to allow myself the time and the energy that it takes to complete this journey.  So much good has already come of it.  I speak to my father every day and he's always so happy to hear my voice.  I know it comforts him and makes him feel secure and that is a gift in itself.  My husband has been able to spend time with his own mother since I have been away.  They are completing two weeks of time together, something that they would not have had.  I know it has been good for both of them, another gift.  Joe was and still is supportive of my parents, a loving son to them, especially during my mother's illness and death.  His own mother should be proud of his conduct.  He's a fine Italian Man.  He lives the tradition.  His mother, and mine, were right up there with the most important things in life.  Together, he and I are a Family.

And that's why it works.

A.B. Cheese-Man

Brent Zimmerman is an American, born and raised in Michigan.  Now, he's a goat farmer, living on his farm "Valle Di Mezzo" in Anghiari, Italy, not far from Arezzo. Today, along with a group of fellow cheese lovers, I visited his A.B. Cheese (ahem, play on words for the first 3 letters of the alphabet in Italian) Company.  Yes, that is correct......I actually left Umbria for a day out in Tuscany and it all worked out fine.

Brent is one hard-working but incredibly happy man.  He raises goats (geese, rabbits, cats and a dog too) on this beautiful farm in the middle of the most gorgeous countryside and he gives tours of his farm, explaining the life cycle of a chunk of cheese.  And what a cycle it is.  He now has 65 goats from whom he gets the milk for his cheese.  But, this is only one tiny piece of the story.

With a great deal of patience, pride, humor and energy, Brent explains how painstaking the process of making goat cheese(s) is and how from the moment a baby goat is born (and there are many goats giving birth all at approximately the same time), it is hard work for the farmers from early morning to late each night.  His goats are bottle fed for several good reasons, all of which go into the making of happy mother goats and equally happy babies.

We started our morning with coffee and gorgeous pasteries.  We ended our tour with a goat cheese tasting.  Gorgeous bits of THE most incredible products were offered for our tasting delight.  Just when we thought we had tasted the world's best goat milk product, we were treated to a sample of freshly made goat milk caramel........You will never find anything like this at Baskin Robbins, or anywhere else for that matter.

Tummies full of cheese?  What could we possibly do next?  Back in the cars and off to lunch of course.  En caravan we drove off to the Castello Di Sorci Locanda in Anghiari for a lunch of traditional Tuscan cuisine too wonderful to describe.  I will say that there were a variety of bruschette, gnocchi, taglietelle with a meat sauce, a selection of grilled meats and potatoes, wine, wine, wine, cake dipped in vin santo and coffee.

Its time to get out and take a walk now.  There is a quiet beauty about Assisi in the evening.  Church bells chime, lights dot the horizon as if they were little jewels.  It's a good time to think and to be thankful for blessings like this day.

Buona notte.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Another Day, Another Surprise (?)

This morning I set out for my daily morning walk.  I'm usually out of the apartment by 10.  For some reason, that time works.  I'm up a lot earlier but take my time getting ready, take a shower, eat breakfast and tidy everything back up again.

I have absolutely no idea of where I had intended to go today.  All I was sure of was that I had a bag of trash that I wanted to put into the local refuti container and from there?  Who knows.

Before I even got to the refuti area on the street, I stopped in to see my new favorite local artist, Josephine, AKA, the "scarf lady".  As we embraced, three women peered into the open doorway of the shop and of course, I could not resist....."come in, see her beautiful work".....which of course, they did.  Three lovely ladies on their way somewhere.  Three ladies who I soon learned were also artists, one of them an American who now lives not too far from the center of Assisi.  We spoke for a few moments about the whole creative experience and I told my little story of why I am here with all of them understanding and supporting me.  This time, I did not cry.  Instead,  I sold a scarf to one of the women.....and, as I started out again on my way to somewhere, I had a new website in my little notebook,  Dana, the sweet American who told me that she saw in me a creative person, is the founder of The Academy of Art, Creativity and Consciousness here in Umbria. I think my "Creative Studio" teacher, Kristy King would have been very darned proud at that moment.

My morning ruminations took me up a steep (what else?) and narrow (of course) set of steps that twisted to the right and then up and up and up and to the left to a little church I have been eye balling since I arrived in Assisi.  I call it the church where the wooden maddonas hang but it is really called Santa Maria Delle Rose.  It's situated in the upper reaches of the town, not far from the Piazza San Rufino.  I had heard about the beautiful collection of hand carved, free formed wooden maddonas and so wanted to see them.  As luck would have it, I was a few weeks too late. The church is closed and is being repaired at the moment. Sooooooo.....I kept on walking.

Until I came to the most beautiful (okay, I know, I keep saying that about all of them) vistas of the mountains and valleys that surround Assisi. A turn to the left and up some more and, to my complete amazement, I was approaching Rocca Maggiore, on foot, alone, without anybody coaxing or daring me......the highest point in the entire town of Assisi.  We have done this by car on previous visits and Joe (my husband, the personal trainer) has done it on foot, but never in MY wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would be making the trip and loving every minute of it.  I passed wildflowers, butterflies, even a fence that I soon realized was completely covered with chewn-up pieces of gum, hundreds of them, until I reached the very top.  Me, guarding the town from enemies, me and my camera.  Brava!

There is a museum in the Rocca Maggiore.  I always take a pass but might return when my history loving friend arrives next week.  Instead, I opted to walk around the inside of the wall, shooting photos through the centuries-old openings in the walls through which anything and everything to do with medieval defense was carried out.  And then, I found what I am sure was the catalyst to my big, tough hike up to the clouds, the resident cat, sitting on the lap of a nice young man who offered that her name was "Camilla"

Ah, "Camilla" does one say in Italian that "Camilla is the name of my best friend"?

Camilla è il nome della mia migliore amica. Lei mi dà la fiducia necessaria per fare tutti i miei viaggi più facile

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ogni Giorno

The Italian day has two very distinctive parts to it.  It at least appears to me that there is a purpose for this.

Mornings start slowly and build up to a crescendo.  Chores get done, people scurry here and there, even if the there is the local cafe or bar where a cappuccino awaits.  The chatter of school children on their way to their early morning start of classes, can be heard as they proceed to the bus stop or their mother's car.  Workmen arrive at their places and start to contemplate what they will accomplish on the given day.  Some actually start their labors early.  Women who are not rushing off to jobs outside the home will use this morning time to begin lunch preparations or to shop for the ingredients for the lunch they will share with their families when the children return from school shortly after one o'clock.

The lunch time breaks the day into the two parts.  The day stops and everyone takes a breath.
Gates come down on the shop fronts, employees exit and go to their homes for a few hours every day, playing out again and again an age-old tradition of pausa.  Very few shops remain open and it is rare to find a small alimentary that has not followed tradition.  After all, despite the fact that the employees are surrounded by food all morning, they need to take leave to be back where the food is at its very best, a casa.  Just like everyone else.  No business at lunch time. Time to rest.

I found it very easy to harmonize with the "day's way", this time more than ever.  It took a few days to get out of the traditional "tourist" way of thinking that every moment had to find me on some sight-seeing route, that I had to collect things to write home about.  When I let that go and simply accepted the fact that my visit here is different in so many ways from all of my previous visits, I found myself naturally embracing the rhythm of the day.  Mornings are very different from afternoons which are very different from evenings.

Shops re-open sometime around four in the afternoon.  La pescheria, l'alimentari, il negozio di frutta e verdura e negozi di souvenir, all of which appeared to be out of business forever, turn the lights back on, uncover the goods and re-open for the second part of the day.  Once again, people return to the streets and employees to their posts.  A new kind of liveliness is in fashion as the best part of the day, in my opinion begins.....sunset.

Ancient oil lamps, now outfitted with electric lights, turn on and a quiet hush arrives.  Locals return to the shops to purchase their fresh ingredients.  They have time. Dinner will not be on the table until at least eight o'clock and it will be much lighter a meal than lunch.  Perhaps they are shopping for the ingredients for an aperitivo....some cheese, fresh Umbrian bread for a bruschetta made simply of toasted slices, rubbed with garlic and topped with doses of fresh olive oil.  Italians never drink wine without a little bite to eat and rarely just sit down to drink a glass of wine without a friend or an occasion, contrary to belief.

In keeping with the flow of the day, I find myself refreshed around four o'clock, ready to take another walk, sometimes to a favorite destination, sometimes to a place I've not yet discovered.  Always with my camera and my eyes and ears wide open.  The sounds are different now.  Pet owners are calling and shaking containers of food as they attempt to coax their charges homeward.
This is the time the older women seem to appear, always in grey skirts it seems.  Not yet time for their passagate, the evening strolls, often taken arm in arm with a husband, a grown child or a good friend. Now its time to return home from an afternoon visit with a friend or to shop.  In all the streets and passageways, you hear exchanges - "Ciao Maria!"  "Buona sera" as friends who have known each other since birth, pass in the street.  Every day, its the same lovely chorus.

I can't stop talking pictures. I already have hundreds.  When I return to the states, I'll sort them but now, I just keep taking them with my lovely little camera.  I have morning shots of  beautiful fall days and afternoon shots of what appear to be jewels everywhere as the sun sets and the Umbrian valley turns into the most beautiful palate of twinkling lights.  And oh, the aroma.  There is nothing that smells better or more comforting to me than that which fills the air when a fire is lit in an umbrian fireplace.

The wood here, it's different and the flames produce the smoke that fills my heart and reminds me that life here is different and the day here is filled with life.