Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in Italy

A little over a month ago I began noticing quite a bit of activity in the piazza below my kitchen and office windows. Men were pouring a concrete pad and I found out it was to support a huge Christmas tree that was being delivered very soon. Everyone was talking about how exciting it was going to be because the tree ornaments were made of hand-blown glass from Murano, Italy.

Murano is a little island near Venice where many beautiful glass products are made. I visited Murano in 2000 and found out the glass used to be blown in Venice, however, after a huge fire that destroyed most of Venice, all glass production was removed to Murano.

I decided that I wanted to capture the development of the tree by taking photographs of each stage/day so I could share it with my blog readers. I positioned my camera out the office window and took the first shot.

A few weeks after the pad was poured, electricians begin to add wire all around the amphitheater and in long covered tunnels which led directly to the tree. My excitement grew as I envisioned a lovely traditional Christmas tree with beautiful glass ornaments. I kept wondering how they were going to prevent people from removing the ornaments and how long it would take to decorate it.

I heard a lot of cranes and large trucks drive in to the piazza one morning and saw some huge metal cylindrical objects in tow. In addition, there were many very large boxes with colorful tubes in them. I couldn't imagine what was happening.

The cranes began to remove the cylindrical pieces from the truck and men below positioned them into place. After the first piece was secure, the men had to ride in a hydraulic lift to position the top two pieces. The first night, they hooked up the electrical and all I could see when they turned on the light was a bright, very tall metal protrusion coming from the ground. It is about 100 feet high!

The next day they began adding the ornaments which ended up being various colored glass tubes. First they added the little curlicue pieces to the top (via the hydraulic lift) and then started adding different lengths of the glass to the different sections (smaller at the top and gradually getting larger at the bottom). When they completed it the following day, I wasn't sure if I liked it or hated it.

I went down to walk the dogs and saw the men who had been working on it all looking at it with complete satisfaction and awe. I stood there for a few minutes and said "bello" (beautiful) for a lack of a better word. One of the men pointed out a man who was supposed to be the artist. They explained to me that the tree had been in Piazza San Marco the previous Christmas and Lucca was special enough to be able to have it this year. That made it more intriguing to me.

I told the artist that I had been taking photographs of it and would be happy to send him copies if he gave me his e-mail address. He promptly handed me his card and a special invitation to a Spectaccolo that was to take place on December 6 during the official lighting of the tree. There were to be acrobats, fire-breathing and sword-swallowing performers and all kinds of other wondrous things. I was thrilled and asked him to sign the invitation for me since he was such an important person.

A few months ago, I began a Meetup group in Lucca so I could meet fellow expatriates and friends who might be interested in joining English-speaking friends for social events. I added the Spectaccolo to the calendar and on December 6 we waited patiently for the big event.

It had been raining all morning and apparently, the circus performers and other activities had been cancelled. The rain had stopped mid-day but by that time, it was too late to ask them to return so we heard a very short speech (in Italian) followed by the official turning on of the light switch. No hooplah - nothing, nada, niente!

I saw the "artist" standing next to the tree and went over to say hello to him. He introduced me to his son, Simone Cenedese, who was actually the real artist. It's so fun trying to comprehend things when you aren't fluent in the language...

I gave a CD of the photos to a representative of the artist a few days ago, and they were so pleased that they gave me several complimentary gifts in return - one of which was a beautiful necklace made of Murano glass.

Now, for a few other details and such. I saw and experienced a wide range of things/events this past couple of weeks.

First and most important - I got a job as a Business English teacher! I completed my TEFL certificate and it paid off! I met a wonderful American woman who hired me and have five students. After my first very intimidating day, I relaxed and now I thoroughly enjoy it. I have many other private students who want me to teach them beginning in January.

I will be returning to America this week to get my work visa stamped by the Italian Consulate and preparing for that has been a huge drag. I have been working non-stop on completing my certificate, preparing lesson plans, gathering documents and finding pet sitters that I haven't had time to breathe. I think it's all coming together though and hope everything works out well in America with the Consulate.

I saw two movies this week - one on television and one at the cinema. I am very proud to say that I understood the majority of what was being said - thanks, Ada, for being such a wonderful Italian tutor!

After a hectic few weeks of paperwork and craziness, I was delighted last night when a friend asked me to go to Pisa with her to see a movie. Pisa was so beautiful with Christmas lights everywhere. I didn't realize the Arno River flowed through the city and was frightened and amazed at how fast it was flowing due to all the storms we've been having. I had a terrible experience in a river (rafting) one year and it brought back bad memories.

We had a wonderful pizza and glass of prosecco each before watching the movie and it was great to take a break. Now, I can look forward to spending the holidays with friends and family in America.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving in Lucca

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Thanks to everyone who has been concerned about me missing this American holiday, however, a day of giving thanks is becoming very popular in Tuscany, too. In fact, my friend Margherita asked me how to cook a tacchino a few weeks back. I thought she said “taquito” and I asked her how on earth she knew what a taquito was. She laughed for the longest time before she corrected me and said “tacchino” which is Italian for turkey.

She told me she wanted to make a traditional holiday meal like we have in America. Surprised, I said, “you mean Thanksgiving?” She nodded and explained that in Italy they call it Ringraziamento which my friend Serenella translated to a day of giving thanks - La Festa del Ringraziamento or Il Giorno del Ringraziamento. Italians love to celebrate holidays and especially love to cook so it gives them one additional day in the year to have a reason to do both. And, of course, they have many reasons to be thankful as we all do for our health and loving friends and families.

So, for all those who are interested in what I did for the holiday – let me remind you that I can’t stand poultry so I didn’t really miss the traditional Thanksgiving fare at all. Of course I missed my family and friends, but I was lucky enough to be invited by the owners of my apartment to the most wonderful traditional Italian meal I have ever experienced. Filiberto and Antonella are two of the nicest people I have met since I arrived in Lucca. Antonella is not only nice but one of the most beautiful, sweet, intelligent and hard-working women I have met anywhere. And, she’s a fabulous cook!

Filiberto and Antonella own a working farm in Garfagnana which is north of Lucca. They have been going every weekend to harvest the olives before the bad weather set in. In addition to olives, they grow pretty much every type of fruit or vegetable that is native to this area. Antonella told me that everything we ate for dinner came from their farm except for the carrots.

I experienced this bit of artistry on Thanksgiving Eve. Yes, in Italy, people don’t just cook…they put their heart and soul into their food and it is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it just how wonderful it was.

Prior to the meal, Filiberto showed me around their lovely home which is filled with antiques. As antique dealers and collectors, there house is completely filled with things that would make your jaw drop. Their main collection was of little, tiny Carrara marble dishes that were used for holy water in old churches. They also have a collection of the little boxes that you drop coins into after lighting a candle. Carrara's marble quarries are where Michelangelo got his marble to make all his beautiful works of art.

They have some amazing furniture, lots of original large clay pots, and a concrete slab above one of their fireplaces that has a date chiseled into it that is well before A.D. They also had lots of beautiful large Carrara marble angels that used to adorn the interiors and exteriors of churches. They have an original Roman Carrara marble tub sitting in the room next to their kitchen and a huge old concrete slab-type sink in the kitchen. I’m not sure if it was originally in a villa or if it was one of those sinks where the women used to wash their clothes in but it was so beautiful. They explained that they had been collecting these items for well over 30 years.

So back to dinner… It was a traditional Italian dinner in that there were several courses. The table was beautifully set and a very nice warm fire was blazing in the fireplace. Antonella had insisted I bring my dogs so they curled up in a comfortable chair next to the fireplace and promptly went to sleep.

The wine was excellent and Filiberto explained to me that they trade a nearby farmer potatoes for his wine. I was there to help them celebrate the completion of their olive harvest and to experience their very fresh olive oil. I can’t even begin to tell you how yummy it was. I’ve never had such “green” olive oil before in my life!

We started with a local zuppa (soup) called Frantoiana. It had bread, spinach, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, several herbs and I’m sure many other things. We, of course, had to pour their fresh-pressed olive oil on top before we ate it – yummy!

We then had a dish with two kinds of calamari in a tomato-based sauce served side-by-side with amazing polenta. Once again, Antonella used the corn from her garden to make the polenta and had ground it by hand. She said it only took her about 40 minutes and waved her hand in the air like it was nothing when I look shocked that she would go to so much trouble.

We then had some very large scampi (heads on) with a delicious dressing of olive oil, orange juice and lemon juice drizzled over the top. The flavors in the dressing were perfect.

This was followed by something totally new to me – crudo carciofi or raw artichokes. Antonella had already trimmed all the leaves off and had them sitting in one of her old large clay pots. They were the small type with purple-leaves. She offered me one and I said it would probably take too long to cook. She just smiled, handed me one and told me they eat it raw. She poured some olive oil on a plate and had me peel off the leaves and eat it the same way we do cooked ones. They were delicious and not at all tough or hard like the ones in America.

Following that, we had some of the most amazing mussels I’ve ever eaten. I believe it had to be my favorite dish of the evening. She had flash-baked them and each one was drizzled with an olive oil, garlic, pepperoncini, and herb mixture. We made sure to get every drop of the sauce with chunks of fresh Italian bread!

Finally, for dessert, we had an amazing tart of fresh apples, raisins, and pinolis (pine nuts) dusted with powdered sugar. Since apples are one of my favorite fruits and because they were fresh off their apple trees, it was truly amazing!

Oh, one more thing…Filiberto pulled out the topper of the evening which was an elixir of his own fermented maraschino cherries. They, of course look nothing like our bright red ones. They were really tiny and very pungent with the flavor of liquor. He only had a small amount left and explained that he won’t be able to make it again until June when their cherries are ripe. I told him I felt honored that he would share his last few drops with me.

And, in case you’re wondering how I could possibly eat such a feast, it took us well over 3-1/2 hours to complete and every portion was small compared to what you think it may have been. Each course was prepared with love by Antonella and my only regret is that you couldn’t share this experience with me.

Oh, and I got a large bottle of their olive oil with a label on it with their names and the year to bring home!

Don't worry, time is all about the Christmas tree!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Love is in the Air...

It's been fun and interesting getting used to so many new things this past six weeks: a completely different language, interesting and very old architecture; a totally different way of life; and life in general. But one thing that has been very much in the forefront is the difference between Americans and Italians in public displays of affection and love in general. I will try and keep this very clean since my children, grandchildren and mother read it…

Love is in the air everywhere. Couples have no qualms whatsoever in passionately kissing and embracing each other anywhere and at anytime the urge strikes. It’s almost winter…I can just imagine how it’s going to be in spring! Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining…just stating an observation (and maybe being a little envious).

As I walk along the streets or in piazzas whether it be night or day, couples are passionately expressing themselves at every turn of the corner. Most often, they are standing in the middle of the street as people nonchalantly walk around them as if nothing is happening.

Even the dogs are involved! Ruby and Ginger were playing in a grassy area and a very large dog jumped a creek so he could get a little more familiar with Ruby. She, of course, thought he was playing with her and dashed to and fro as if she were playing keep-away. The more she did this, the more “Rudy” (as the owner called him) became more and more interested. Ginger was barking incessantly because she was scared to death that he was hurting her sister.

I finally realized what the fellow’s intentions were and grabbed Ruby’s leash and started dragging her away as quickly as possible. The owner, who was on the other side of the creek, called Rudy over and over again to no avail. He finally asked me in Italian to stop so he could get his dog as Rudy had no intention of leaving Ruby’s side. Rudy finally joined his owner and he and his friends laughed gleefully at Rudy’s antics.

Later on the same day, I was sitting enjoying lunch in the anfiteatro with my friends and saw another couple walking their male dog. Everytime they stopped, he would jump up on one of their legs (you know what I mean) and they acted as if nothing was happening. They continued their window shopping and he continued his interest around the piazza.

I went dancing with my friend Morena on Thursday evening and it was the same thing. The men are very blatant in their interest and don’t mind showing it. Morena is what we would refer to as a “sexpot.” She is very attractive and has a very curvy shape. In fact some of her attributes are quite pronounced. When we arrived at the dance hall, she was wearing very tight white jeans, stilettos (of course), and a gold puffy jacket.

When we got inside there was a grouping of tables reserved for her. A guy was sitting on one of the little sofas and she picked up the “Reserved for Morena” sign and waved it under his nose and promptly told him to remove himself, which he did in a flash.

About one-half hour after we arrived I noticed she was being ogled by pretty much every man in the place (and there were at least 200 people there). Then, she very deliberately unzipped her jacket and out popped the attributes in an extremely low-cut black lacy top.

Well, I tell you, ALL the men were looking at that point. She had guys come over as if they owned the place and one tried to touch her and she immediately jerked her body away from him and told him to get lost. I swear that I saw him pining over her for about an hour afterward. He looked so forlorn and was leaning against the stage (still staring at her) where the band was and one of the band members stomped his foot next to him to try and help him come out of his daze. He kind of smiled and went right back to looking at her.

Then, she started dancing... At that time (and most of the evening) she was just dancing in the little space in front of our couch area, not on the dance floor. There were actually men who had the audacity to try and walk through the aisles in the couch area so they could be in her presence and she very forcefully shoved cocktail tables in front of the gaps between the sofas so no one could enter and went right back to dancing. A few were brave enough to actually come and sit within 5 feet of her on the couches and just ogle at her for minutes (or hours) on end. Seriously! She just acted like they weren't there and kept dancing.

And, of course, let’s not forget my 70+ upstairs neighbor…

For those of you who have been concerned and asked about my well-being I am doing well. I had my first paying job this week and hope to continue finding new opportunities.

While walking on Villa Fillungo (the main street in town) on Thursday evening, I ran into Susan Sarandon walking with some friends. It took me aback to see her. I heard from some of my friends that there are several celebrities who live here and/or visit often. Jodie Foster lives in Lucca six months out of the year and Sting has a large villa nearby where he records music. Andrea Boccelli lives in Pisa which is about 10 minutes from here and is known to be out and about often.

I am getting used to the differences and new ways and find that I can live just fine in a much simpler way of life and without all the modern conveniences of home. I’ve added some fun videos and pictures of just how different it is.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Living with Little Creatures and Other Interesting Tidbits...

Whoever heard of mosquitos at Halloween?!? Every morning for a few days I woke up with little red bumps on my face. The first day I thought that I was getting zits at my age. Then, when the next day I had a few more, I started wondering if I wasn’t cleaning my face that well…but nope, my routine is the same here as it was in America. Then, when I woke up one morning with four new ones on my face plus one on my eyelid, I thought “what the heck???” It must be spiders.

I went over to “Tutto Per La Casa” as I seem to do every day and asked for something to kill spiders. The sales clerk walked over to an item in a box, called “Vape” and said this will kill mosquitos. I told her I didn’t need to kill mosquitos, I needed to kill spiders and she replied (in Italian, of course), “There are no spiders in Lucca! Only mosquitos.” I asked her how that could possiby be at this time of year and she said it was because it was hot for a few days and then became very cold and rainy, so they’re all coming indoors to keep warm. Geez!

With Vape in hand, I came home and immediately plugged that sucker in. Here, the insecticide comes in a few ways. One is a coil that you light and burn at night which is similar to our citronella candle. Another is a smaller rectangle type thing that you hook on a gadget and light the same way you do the coil. The third comes in the form of a plug, like our Glade air fresheners. You insert the little disk into the unit and plug it in and are supposedly able to get a respite from mosquitos for 12 hours! So far, so good…no new bumps in the morning.

Last weekend for four days, the Lucca Comics & Games came to town. What a spectacular event! I thought it was going to be a bunch of comics who did stand-up and I was trying to figure out how I could attend and actually understand what they were saying.

Well, wrong! My friend Serenella informed me ahead of time that it was a huge event that is scheduled each year for comic book and video/board game enthusiasts. This includes Dungeons and Dragons afficianados.

I was exposed to the strangest bunch of people I’ve seen in a long time. Nothing much makes me drop my mouth in awe, but this did. Out of at least 10,000 attendees (all of whom were inside the Lucca walls), approximately 30% were dressed in outrageous costumes depicting their favorite comic book, video game or super hero. I saw people with extra limbs coming out of their bodies, large groups of people dressed as different cards in a deck, strange “Tinker Toy” characters, people with swords taped to their fingers - similar to Edward Scissorhands, and, of course, princesses and Superman. It was a sight to behold.

The odd thing (in my opinion at least) was that they were very self-controlled and quiet for such a large group. I took the girls for a walk a few times and ended up getting stuck in the crowds and everyone was very polite and well-mannered.

The bad thing was that the anfiteatro where I live was filled with huge tents which housed all the comic book and video game paraphenalia. The attendees had to purchase tickets to get inside each tent. The tents were set up several weeks in advance and were only taken down yesterday. I actually sat and watched for about an hour as one guy with a forklift methodically took apart the entire tent structure and placed each steel beam and component next to each other until everything was down. Then, he methodically put everything upon this large truck until the anfiteatro was completely empty. It was like watching a single bee in action. This was one Italian who knew exactly what he was doing and was very good at his job! I was mesmorized at how efficient he was.

I am lucky enough to be able to see down into the center of the anfiteatro from my office, kitchen and bathroom windows. It’s the ultimate for people-watching. What I found out that is completely different here than in America, is that there is no security or added barriers for construction and de-construction of projects. I was amazed at all the locals and tourists who meandered through the square while the construction crew was dismantling the tents. The guy on the forklift had to wait many times for sightseers or pedestrians to get out of the way so he could continue on to where he was going.

Anyway, the minute everything was cleaned up this morning, someone else began erecting a new structure. I found out later that it is going to be an 8-meter tall Christmas tree complete with glass ornaments from Murano, Italy. Murano is an island off Venice where they make blown glass items that are absolutely beautiful and sold all over the world. I can hardly wait to have that in the anfiteatro! I’m sure it will be absolutely beautiful!

Speaking of security and protection, a really positive thing that I found here (of which there are plenty) is the packaging. Even a toddler can open it!! That was a really big pet peeve of mine in America. They packaged everything so well that you needed a crowbar to open a package of crackers! Here, they open very easily and I am so relieved. I’m sure the packaging is secure for items that would hurt a toddler, but a package of crackers??? Get real!

I’ve been trying every Italian recipe I can now that I’m in Italy and can find the ingredients fresh at the markets or little outdoor vendors. Unfortunately, some of the dishes aren’t that low in calories. For example, tonight I made fried zucchini blossoms. They were incredible, but I don’t think I was supposed to eat them all by myself! I justified it because I went for a walk around the fortress walls again.

I’ve been taking a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate course to try and earn some money in the interim until I get some design work. It’s a tough course but it will help me stay in the country so it will be worth it. It’s been a challenge learning all the parts of speech and how difficult a language English actually is. It certainly makes me appreciate my Italian tutor even more now that I know what I will have to do when I begin teaching.

Speaking of teaching, the woman who lives upstairs from me is quite a character. She jabbers to me every time she sees me and I can’t understand a word of what she says because she speaks so quickly. She was a teacher for years (she’s about 70 years old) and now tutors children in her home every day. The girls are still getting used to all the racket when her students run up and down the stairs on their way to and from her apartment. They are mostly young teens and she seems to have a couple of classes a day.

She also has these routines that she keeps every day. I see bags downstairs from the local market that are full of bread and other groceries and always wondered if someone did her shopping for her and, if so, why they left them downstairs.

Every morning I hear her pounding away. At first I thought she was hanging pictures but I thought her walls must be completely filled already with all the pounding. Then, one morning I looked outside and saw tons of birds flying around. Then I saw debris falling all around my windows and found out she was tossing bread crumbs to them. I now figured out that she’s pounding the bread into small pieces so it will be easier for the birds to eat. It's also why she doesn't mind that her groceries are left downstairs...what a lovely woman.

She also has a suitor that comes late at night to visit. I’ve run into him a couple of times when I’m taking the girls out for their final walk. It’s always a bit uncomfortable because the girls get scared to see someone strange in the stairwell and start barking like crazy. His clandestine attempts are for naught and it always embarrasses me for some reason that I've caught him in the act…

My friend Serenella pointed out to me that she has covered many of the things that I've mentioned about living in Italy and Lucca in her blogs. I read them faithfully but I guess everything slipped my mind during the past few months before I left due to the craziness of getting ready for my move. It was fun re-reading them and seeing that I could have come more prepared for the cultural differences and know more of what to expect in terms of paperwork and other day-to-day activities. She has also written several e-books, one of which is all about buying property here if any of what I’ve written about has you dying to be my neighbor!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Living La Dolce Vita...

Very few things set my heart on fire more than: 1) Scottish men in kilts, and 2) real down-home Blues music. I got to experience both of those things today – right here in Lucca. In fact, as I write this blog, I am listening to the most wonderful Blues music – complete with harmonica and vocals – directly below my window in the anfiteatro. I have to admit, though, that the Scottish guy wearing the kilt and playing bagpipes as he walked down my street was the ultimate! Darn it! I didn’t have my camera with me…sigh…

So, how does one live on a day-to-day basis in Lucca you might ask? I’ve had lots of chances to learn this week now that I’m in my own apartment. I’ve purchased (or tried to purchase) many items that I used at home, shopped at a large grocery store and tried to find items I thought I needed only to buy new ones that looked more interesting, and dealt with conversions and measurements. Also, I forgot to mention a big one – getting used to the plumbing and electricity in a centuries-old city!

The electrical is okay once you get conversion plugs. After reading many expatriate sites, I was smart enough to leave the majority of my electrical gadgets and appliances at home. I had to purchase many new ones here, but at least I don’t have to fear that they will explode on me. The surprising thing that didn’t work was a small alarm clock. It turned on after I found a conversion plug for it and then it went kapoot!

The plumbing’s another story…I told you about the small shower I had in the B&B. Now, I have a much larger shower and bathtub combination and no shower curtain. Rarely does one use (or even own) a shower curtain in Italy and subsequently, the floor gets drenched no matter how much I try to shift the shower head toward the wall. The walls have tile all the way up so I don’t have to worry about getting plaster wet, but my rug is always drenched. I don’t think it will ever dry while I’m here unless I don’t take a shower one day.

The shower is the type that is hand-held with a long metal hose and there’s a catch on the wall where you can hang it for a shower. I thought I’d be smart yesterday and only use the shower as a hand-held, but the floor still got wet.

Did I mention the smell? Okay, I know this isn’t the most pleasant topic, but when it rains, the overflow of the rain goes down into the deep, dark recesses under the city and up comes the most wonderful aroma from your drains…yuck! My landlords kind of waved their hands in the air and laughed when I asked about it and said (in Italian) – that’s what comes with living in the anfiteatro! They said to just run water in all the fixtures with drains in the bathrooms and it would go away. It does go away, but it’s not the most pleasant thing to wake up to in the morning.

Cooking 101 in Italy: Oh my goodness! You have to lift the lid on the stove and push in a button that makes the burner click and then you have to push in the actual knob and move it just so and hold it in until it catches and both buttons can be released. Things tend to cook faster here than at home. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scalded my milk for my coffee in the morning.

I learned how to use a new percolator of sorts for making coffee and it’s stupendous. Coffee and wine can’t be beat here in Italy.

Baking 101 in Italy: I had to read the conversion system online in order to bake some fish last night. Our 250 degrees Fahrenheit is equal to 130 Celsius here so that’s been an interesting adjustment. I thought I’d be smart (once again) and bring my teaspoon and tablespoon measuring gadgets along with my cookbooks with me but didn’t think to bring the stupid cup measurements! I have to weigh everything out to see that it equates to the amount I need and go from there.

I have friends who are coming for dinner and insisted that I make an American meal. Little do they know but most of the meals I prepared at home were Italian! I decided to make vegetarian chili and cornbread. It was really fun finding chili powder, baking powder and baking soda here. Now, if I can just bake it correctly. I found some beans that are very similar to pinto and everything else I need so it will hopefully come out as tasty as at home.

Cleaning 101 in Italy: I thought I’d be smart and get down on my hands and knees and clean the tiles in the bathroom this week. I think I mentioned that the building is very old. I don’t know why I thought I could get the tiles cleaner than they already were. It was if I thought magic would occur or something. They didn’t look any different than when I started even though I used a heavy-duty boar bristle brush and scrubbed like crazy. The good thing is I knew it was “my” clean even though it looked the same.

Shopping 101 in Italy: I ride to the mercato every Wednesday on my bici to get discounted items for my house and fresh fruit and vegetables. Everything is fresh out of the ground and the basilico (basil) I bought yesterday still had the roots on it – fantastico! For the things that aren’t available at the mercato, I buy at EsseLunga or Sidis – the local large grocery markets. I found out the first day at EsseLunga that you get the discounts on items just like you do in America only if you have one of their cards! Darn it! All those things I picked up that were sconto (discounted) were only if you had a card. Yesterday, when I went there, I proudly showed my card like a real local.

Transportation 101 in Italy: I rode the train to and from Florence to be with friends. Needless to say, I didn’t realize the train was a local that stopped at every town on the way back to Lucca so it took me almost exactly two hours to return. I found out later that it’s best to take an express bus that makes no stops.

I took the bus to Viareggio a couple of days ago to get my hair cut by the master Mario and barely made it to the station before the bus left. I couldn’t for the life of me find the transportation schedule in English online and, of course, the bus station (and train station) are on the other side of Lucca so I had to swerve in and out of people on my bici in order to get there.

When I arrived in Viareggio, I found out that I left the address to Mario’s salon on my desk at home. I called the salon to ask for the indirizzo (address) and asked a girl in a local shop the way. She said she had no idea, and when I said that I was going to StudioMario, she pointed in a direction and I quickly went that way. The directions didn’t seem correct for some reason as I’d been to the shop before.

When I got about two blocks away, I asked another woman on the street where it was and she pointed back the direction I came and told me to turn right at the main street and follow it down along the coastline. After about a mile, I found the salon but realized that it was at least the second or third time people have given me the wrong information when I’ve asked directions. It sucks not knowing the language sometimes. I think they must do it to have fun with tourists or something.

Anyway, a mile or so back to the bus station and guess what? The bus was a local and it took me an hour to make it back (30 minutes going). I looked at it in a positive way, though. I got to see some amazing hilltop towns along the way and hear some very interesting conversations between the passengers.

And, of course, Transportation 101 wouldn't be complete without adding a note about my bici. It has been the best purchase I could have made. I ride it around the walls with my dogs in tow, and back and forth to the many mercatos and other modes of transportation to be found in Lucca. It has saved me from missing a train or bus on many occasions. I can even take it on a train if I want (of course we could do that in San Francisco, too). The baskets on the front and back have carried many a parcel and plant.

Still no work, but I have things in the making and have taken the time to get settled and work on my website and marketing materials. I have faith that everything will connect soon. How can it not after experiencing my two favorite things today – right here in Lucca!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life in Lucca Continues...

Okay, so this week I found and moved into the perfect apartment for me. It is in the heart of the city (inside the walls) so I will be able to benefit from the energy and life that is part of Italy and Lucca.

The apartment is in the Piazza Anfiteatro where my friend Serenella had her photos taken by Chico’s magazine a few months ago. It is a really important part of the city and tourists flock to it on a regular basis to marvel at its oval shape and see some of the homes that began to built in 56 B.C. My kitchen, bathroom and sitting room windows all look out onto the piazza.

I was so happy to move out of the bed and breakfast for so many reasons – the main of which is I have finally been able to unpack and have a home I can call my own.

A huge bonus of the apartment is that it is completely furnished. It has a lot of superfluous stuff, but it’s also got some intriguing items in it since the owners also own an antique shop. It has an old bread-kneading trough that looks like a baby crib in the sitting room. I had no idea what it was when I first saw it and have no idea what I will use it for but it makes for a great conversation piece.

I have found that most apartments (unfurnished) are approximately 100 Euros for every 10 mq (100 square feet) and since this one is furnished and 90-100 mq (900-1000 square feet) I am getting a bargain for 800 Euros per month. As the dollar went up in value and the Euro went down this week, it will run me approximately $1065 per month.

The entry door to the building is very old and the inside foyer and stairs are made of very old cement, bricks and metal fittings that were used to keep the formed concrete in place. It’s quite scary walking up the stairwell, however there is plenty of lighting so I don’t have to worry about tripping and falling. Of course, because of the time this apartment was built, there were absolutely no elevators.

To maintain the integrity of the building, all the electrical and heating elements have been carefully placed inside the walls in copper conduit rather than digging into the structure. Many walls inside the apartment have the original brick exposed so as to see the construction. It’s quite intriguing. There are many different sizes of bricks and stones and old mortar. All the ceilings have the original beautiful wooden beams and the ceillings are approximately 10-11 feet tall.

The landlords of my flat are wonderful. Their antique store is a few doors down from the apartment and Antonella, the wife, actually came to the B&B the day I moved to not only pick me up with all my luggage and dogs in tow, but also help me move everything down the three flights of stairs to her truck! She greeted me with a smile, complete makeup and stilettos all at 8:30 in the morning! I don’t know how these Italian women do it…

That has been one adjustment that has been a little difficult for me. Coming from Menifee (and southern California) I am used to being much more relaxed in my attire. I wouldn’t be caught dead now going outside to walk the dogs without my nice shoes, jeans and a jacket. I draw the line at makeup first thing in the morning, though, because the poor dogs would probably go to the bathroom on my floor while they waited for me to finish.

I had an interesting experience a few days ago. I saw what would be the equivalent of our checkpoint. The carabinieri (policeman) actually stood by the side of the street with a stick with a stop sign affixed to it, randomly waving it in front of cars that he thought should stop. He and his partner would then run the registration and information from their vehicle and, if everything was okay, they’d let the driver continue on. At the time, I happened to be sitting in the park with my dogs watching everything happen while enjoying gelato – one flavor with pinenuts, the other with pistacchios.

Last Friday I also got the wonderful news that my remaining boxes arrived with NO EXTRA CUSTOMS FEES! I guess whatever we wrote on the Customs forms was accepted and they delivered them with no questions asked. The first thing I did was get my little dog basket out that fits on the bicycle and Marco helped to install it. I spent the evening riding around the fortress walls with one girl in the front basket and one in the back basket.

It was a little unwieldly at first to ride in a straight line with both girls in tow, but I soon figured it out and was weaving through the throngs of people like the rest of the natives. The girls seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride.

I don’t think I mentioned how loud it is here. I am used to the serene quiet of my Menifee home (with the exception of a few golf balls hitting the house once in a while). Well, the noises rarely stop because I am, after all, now living in a city with all the city noises that come along with that. The girls are having a tough time relaxing because just as they do, along comes a new noise. They’re favorite is the neighbor cat meowing to be let in next door. I’m glad they’re short or they’d probably jump out the window to get at it.

The Italians love children and any kind of pet. I think the Italians love their children to remain children their entire lives as I’ve seen many 5-6 year olds still nursing on a bottle or sucking a pacifier. They all seem to be cuddled and spoiled, yet they are (so far) remarkably pleasant to be around. All of them love the girls and stop and pet them.

My friend John from Menifee happened to come to Pisa for business this week and was kind enough to bring a suitcase full of my things with him. My son packed the things I asked for and threw in a few others he thought I might want. It was fun to open it and see what was included – kind of like an early Christmas. I had dinner with John and his boss that evening and it was nice to be able to speak complete sentences in the correct tense. They seemed to really enjoy Lucca and it was fun to see them experience a taste of what I’ve been able to live the past few weeks.

Most of this week has been spent unpacking and buying food items and things I need for the apartment. I visited another rustico (old villa) in Montecarlo with Luca and Marco that is being purchased by a Danish man who will, hopefully, want me to assist him with the remodel. I’ve also been patiently and quickly trying to complete my permesso di soggiorno which is my permit to stay in Italy. I have to complete it within eight days of moving into the apartment and can only process it through a few post offices in the vicinity. Of course, it is only in Italian so my translation lessons continue…

I posted this blog by using an internet “key” that you purchase from the local telefonino (cell phone) shop. It’s quite handy. You just plug it into a USB port and are in business. After purchasing the key, you pay 25 Euros a month for 100 hours of internet connectivity. At the end of the month, you renew the access again at the store. Thank goodness it’s near my apartment.

I met another woman this week who owns a high-end furniture business and wants to collaborate with me on business. I also visited Elisabetta’s fabric shop again yesterday to see all the new products that arrived. I can hardly wait to begin actively working since I seem to have caught up on my sleep. Now, if my poor feet and legs can just get used to all these hard surfaces…

A presto!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life in Lucca - Week One

What a whirlwind and chaotic ride these past few months have been since I decided to move to Lucca, Italy! Lots of ups and downs but the end result has been wonderful so far.

My son Jeff and daughter-in-law Kandy took off work so they could take me, my four large suitcases and crate with two dogs to LAX on September 29, only to find out the flight had been delayed for two hours. This was actually a blessing for several reasons. The first was that I got to spend more time with Jeff and Kandy and also got to take the dogs out of the crate for a nice long walk to tire them out before our 12-hour flight to Rome. Another reason was that after I arrived in Rome, my layover to Pisa was only two hours rather than four.

After paying approximately $800 extra for the two dogs, two extra suitcases and over-the-limit luggage, I boarded and was off on my new adventure. Thankfully, no one was sitting next to me on the flight from LAX to Rome so I got to lie down for part of the trip. Alitalia, like most airlines, has cut back tremendously on anything considered frivolous, so we went for about 10 hours between meals or even an offer to bring a glass of water. We received dinner during the first hour after take-off and breakfast during the last 45 minutes before landing. The flight was 12 hours from LAX to Rome.

After searching frantically all over the airport in Rome, I found little children petting and loving my dogs over in the large-baggage area. After making sure the girls were okay and taking them to the bathroom and giving them some extra attention and love, I had to check them back into cargo for our next leg of the trip – Rome to Pisa. I wanted to call my friend Samanta to let her know I would be arriving in Pisa on time but could not get any phone to work. Thankfully, a nice young Italian man offered me the use of his cell phone so I was able to alert her to my arrival.

When I arrived in Pisa, I had another handsome young Italian man offer to assist me with my two trolleys of luggage so that I could get out of the baggage area without too much trouble. Samanta was waiting for me with a gorgeous smile and kisses for me and the girls. With much trouble, we were able to pack everything into her little car and leave for Lucca (about a 20 minute drive). We arrived at the bed and breakfast and, of course, since it is in a former palace that was built many hundreds of years ago, we had to schlep everything up three very large flights of stairs to my room.

My room was nice and clean, however, the shower is one of the smallest I have ever seen and I've seen a lot since I've been to Italy often in the past. It has these small wires that fan out and are supposed to hold up the shower curtain and when you try to close them they just keep popping open again. Then, when I took a shower the curtain clogged up the drain and there was water everywhere.

The next day when I returned to the room, it was in the same condition as I left it. I was wondering why they hadn’t cleaned it and saw a sign on the door that said cleaning is extra! I spoke with the young woman who runs the place and she said they change towels every three days and clean the room and change sheets once a week. Since I arrived on Tuesday evening, I had to wait until yesterday (Monday) for clean sheets.

The girls and I got settled in and I slept for 14 hours the first night. The past few months has been a huge drain on my energy and psyche dealing with everything I've had to do and doing it for the most part all on my own. Now that I'm here, I'm enjoying a little rest and relaxation and also running back and forth across Lucca buying electronic things that will work here and meeting people.

Everyone has been very lovely since I’ve arrived. I'm lucky enough to know quite a few friends already and have met many more through my friend Serenella.

I spent the first few days searching for apartments and meeting up with friends and potential business partners. The first thing I had to do was purchase a cell phone so I could be available at a moment’s notice for coffee or an appointment. Then, of course, the beauty items were essential – a new hair dryer and flat iron that work on this electrical current.

On Wednesday, I met with the young textile designer Elisabetta who was thrilled that I had arrived. She invited me to dinner at her home with another friend, Simone (male), and her son Philippo. She asked me to bring the girls along because she really wants a dog and wanted her son to play with them. Dinner was spectacular – a local type of pasta known only in this region topped by my favorite – pesto! This was followed by some sort of fish that was steamed in a foil packet with vegetables and a wonderful white wine. Simone and Philippo left to get three kinds of gelato and some cookies that were out of this world.

The good thing is I’ve been walking a minimum of 5 miles a day since my bed and breakfast is just outside the city walls. That way, I am burning off many more calories than I am taking in.

My typical day is as follows:

* Sleep for at least 10 hours every night (very abnormal for me).
* Take the dogs out to the local park
* Meet someone for coffee and pasticerrie (pastry).
* walk around a lot and meet people or just walk around a lot.
* Come back to the hotel and walk the dogs.
* Return to Lucca for the passegiata where everyone walks around a lot and have dinner (or have dinner before I leave the hotel (unheard of!).
* Return to the B&B to walk the dogs again and have another night of sleep.

Now, this isn’t typical for the Lucchesi. After I find an apartment and a job this routine will definitely change. Most people get up early and are out the door by the time I am waking up. They go to work and if they’re lucky, they have a break in the middle of the day (1:00 to 4:00 or 4:30 when everything closes down) and then back to the city for the passegiata, followed by a dinner that is at least 3-4 hours long. I am still adapting to this schedule and have been trying to catch up on my rest in between meeting people and seeing apartments and other things.

I got to go with Luca (the businessman who has been a godsend to me since I arrived) to see a lovely villa that I hope to be remodeling soon. I pretended that I was a buyer since the real buyer was stuck in South Africa and couldn’t make it. It was very beautiful and was built at least 1,000 years ago and the old farmhouses definitely look it. Nevertheless, they were beautiful and the villa manager had us walk across the planks on the second floor so we wouldn’t fall through to the bottom. The walls were built so amazingly well and I could imagine so many possibilities if I get a chance to help with the remodel. I would definitely keep the exterior structure in place and fill in the walls with a thick glass or something so as to retain the beauty.

The villa itself was a little trippy with all the Trompe L’oleil everywhere. The previous owners obviously had a thing for birds and they were painted on every wall. They also painted draperies on lots of the walls and every room had its own color scheme. I would rip everything out and start over – yeah, I know…you think I’m crazy but really…it was over the top. What was really cool is there was one section that had remained intact that you could open to reveal the original fresco that was painted at least a thousand years ago!

Outside, there was a lovely portico and we got to tour the old kitchen and refrigerator areas of the outbuildings. The refrigerator was literally an old tunnel of bricks that ended in a larger area of bricks where food would stay cool in the summer and cold in the winter. The kitchen included an original pizza oven that was extraordinary. I would like nothing better than to be a part of the reconstruction and remodel of this place. It is the main reason of why I moved here.

Elisabetta introduced me to a young land developer who wants me to work at his architectural firm. Interior designers work for these types of firms in Italy. Luca also introduced me to the architectural firm that he uses and highly recommended me to them. Elisabetta also showed me some beautiful window treatments her company made for the land developer and said she was eager for me to help her with these as soon as possible. It’s so nice to be made to feel important. I am definitely the exception rather than the rule here and am introduced as a “veep” – Very Important Person. Luca said that the Lucchesi are not quick to change their customs but he hopes he and I will be trailblazers in this regard. I hope so, too.

So, back to the apartment hunting. I saw the most ideal apartment ever a couple of days ago. It is on the third floor (with no elevator) and is on three levels once you arrive at the front door. The bottom floor is a beautiful master bedroom with a large wardrobe and full bath which includes a shower, bathtub, toilet and bidet.

The second floor has a really large living room with attached kitchen and dining room. It also includes a very large terrace for my dogs. From this terrace I would have almost a panoramic view of the city. Bellisima! The third floor has another bedroom and another full bath. All these things are unheard of in Lucca. The price tag is also out of my range, however Luca has an appointment with the owner for tomorrow night (Wednesday) to see if he can get her to come down in the price.

I saw another apartment the following day that is on the fourth floor (also no elevator – yikes!). It is in the Piazza Napoleone where just about everything happens in Lucca. I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing but it’s really a nice apartment with a separate bedroom and bath also. Both apartments also have a dishwasher and washing machine (also unheard of). They are also both furnished which would be great for me since I no longer have any.

The rest of the week has been spent having coffee with friends and visiting other villas with other friends. I got to see Morena last night, who is one of the most vivacious Italian women I have ever met. I originally met her back in 2005 on my second trip to Italy. She was our villa manager.

Morena picked me up at the local train station and took me out to a farmhouse she wants me to rent instead of living in the city. The problem with most of the places I’ve seen (with the exception of the two mentioned above) is that in the spring come the tourists and all the prices for places are raised considerably. This would be the case for the farmhouse as well.

There are also the special events that happen in Lucca quite often. The next is a weekend of comedy and all the hotels are booked. I need to find a place before October 25 or I might be on the street somewhere. I have faith that something will happen quickly. I look forward to the day I can put everything away and say I have a home of my own again.

Did I mention I bought a bike? It’s a necessity for Lucca. After walking a minimum of 5-10 miles a day the first few days, I decided to invest in a used one. Luca and Marco (his partner) followed me over the bike shop to make sure the guy (Poli) took care of me and didn’t overcharge me. They also insisted that he include a new basket for the back so I could have one for each dog. What Luca doesn’t know, is Paulie charged me for it when I returned…non buon, Poli!

So, today (Tuesday) on my 7th day in Lucca, I went to the local lavanderia (laundromat). What a unique experience. I rode my bicycle over with all my dirty laundry and since everything was in Italian, I couldn’t figure anything out. It’s very different here and one of the few things that is much more modern than in America. The soap, disinfectant and fabric softener are already included when you wash so you just have to put your money into a central machine (like at our gas stations), push the number of the washer or dryer, and it automatically starts. There’s even a really nice ironing station area where you can iron your underwear (like they do here). I put in one Euro and got to iron for 15 minutes! What was weird is that the ironing board got hot – not the iron. I kept touching the iron to see when I could begin ironing and when I placed my blouse on the board, I realized it was hot instead.

Okay, I think I’ve gone on and on about this week and probably bored half of you to death with my ramblings so I’ll sign off for now.

Ciao dalla Lucca!