Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring has sprung in Lucca...

First, let me say that if you are not on my blog e-mail distribution list, you won’t know that the girls and I were not affected by the tragic earthquake that hit L’Aquila, Italy a few days ago. As of this date, there are over 250 dead and tens of thousands were left homeless. The death toll continues to rise and the aftershocks and weather aren’t helping the situation. No matter which religion (or not) that you believe in, please keep the survivors and family members in your thoughts and prayers. If you would like to assist those in need go to this website: Abruzzo/NIAF Relief fund.

Now for the blog:

If you ever want to kick your brain into high gear, move to a foreign country. Since I’ve moved to Italy, I’ve learned: to be totally immersed in and speak a new language; how to live my everyday life in a totally different manner and lifestyle; how to ride my bicycle through traffic and round-a-bouts without getting hit by crazy Italian drivers, and, things the hard way.

For example, I recently went to the larger market in town, Esselunga. I decided that I would try and fit in like the rest of the shoppers and grab a scanner to keep tally of my purchases. When you use this little gadget, you get a discount off your total bill. I very carefully scanned each item and proudly went to the cash register.

The cashier started ringing up my items and I held up the scanner to let her know I had used it for the first time. She became very irate and yelled on the loudspeaker for someone to assist her on aisle 15. I, being totally confused as usual, waited to see what I could possibly have done wrong.

Well, I guess I did plenty. When a customer uses the scanner, they can only go in one aisle to check out. I had gone in the wrong aisle and the manager not only took my scanner but told the checker to continue checking out my order. I didn’t get credit for using the scanner and got humiliated to boot. I know if I knew the language better, I could have argued the fact, but I decided to live and learn – again the hard way.

I also found out early on that you NEVER, and I mean NEVER, try to return an item after you’ve purchased it. The first week I moved here, I bought a cooking timer so I wouldn’t overcook my pasta. When I used it the first time, I couldn’t get it to work.

I took it back the very next morning to the store where I purchased it and the woman behind the counter began yelling at me. Her husband tried to explain to me how to use it and, thank goodness, a customer who spoke a little English came to my rescue. He informed me that I had to turn the dial all the way around and then back again to the time I wanted in order for it to work. I left the store feeling ashamed and confused about what I did wrong.

Later, my Italian friends informed me that we can’t return things the same way in Italy as we do in America. I remember returning a pair of shoes to Nordstrom that I bought six months earlier and they took them back with no arguments. To this day, the woman behind the counter won't acknowledge me when I go into her store and it's been six months! Needless to say, I rarely go in there anymore.

Last week (as if I hadn’t already learned my lesson), I tried to return an item to a store that I frequent at least once a week. The sales clerk is always very nice and patient with me because I am a regular customer. I had purchased a coffee pot part and it was for a smaller unit than I had. When I tried to exchange it for a larger one, she informed me that they didn’t have the larger size. I asked if I could exchange it for something else and she became the Wicked Witch of the West. She yelled at me for at least a full minute and I just stood there in shock. I told her that it was impossible for me to use the part and asked what I could possibly do with it. She finally conceded and let me exchange it for something else, but I will know next time to purchase the exact things I need.

I’ve also begun doing some new things since returning from America. I am listening to Italian radio stations so I will know the music the next time I go dancing and I’m getting my drinking water from a natural spring fountain in the center of a piazza.

I noticed many Italians filling their bottles up with water all over town but didn’t realize that many of the fountains have fresh water that has very little calcium and minerals like the water that comes from our taps. It’s not every fountain, mind you, but several.

When I arrived home from America, my pet sitter Daniele showed me a huge glass jug that he had left in my kitchen and told me to go to a fountain in San Corcordio to get my water. I rode approximately two miles each way to get it and my friend Vali told me I could get it in a piazza a few blocks away. She informed me that Italy is the one of the few countries that has these wonderful fountains. The water is amazingly fresh and delicious and I don’t ever spend my money buying bottled water anymore.

One thing I’ve yet to learn: how to ride my bicycle while holding my umbrella or cell phone in one hand and steering with the other. I don’t know how the Italians can do that. The first time I tried to ride my bike and talk on my cell phone at the same time, I almost ran into some tourists! I have learned to steer in and out of pedestrians and traffic, though, and have yet to hurt anyone or myself.

On a different note, spring has sprung in Lucca. The weather is beautiful and fresh flowers and trees are in bloom everywhere! Lucca, as a very important historical city, is being overrun by children from neighboring cities who come here on annual field trips during the weeks prior to Easter.

The older, teenage boys are showing off to the girls all around the piazza and streets. They have this macho thing where they try to impress the girls by picking them up and carrying them around in front of their friends. The girls squeal in delight and chase after the boys after they are put back on their feet. It’s really quite cute. During their breaks from the tours, they always have a soccer ball in tow and practice passes and kicks in the Anfiteatro.

My neighbor continues to have her regular late-night visitor – the visits seem to be occurring more frequently since the weather has warmed up a bit. Ever since I took her the brownies a few weeks ago, she comes down to my door offering fresh desserts at least once a week. Last week, she came down with a slice of birthday cake. She just celebrated her 86th birthday! I aspire to be just like her when I get that age…sigh…on the other hand – I aspire to be like her now!

Now for your Lucca tidbits...these were actually taken from the April issue of “Grapevine,” a monthly English language magazine written by fellow Lucchese expatriates. The author was asked to reflect why she missed Lucca during a few months spent in her native country and this was her response…I couldn’t have said it better:

Good coffee. You just can’t beat a hot, freshly made, stand up cappuccino. You don’t get the same atmosphere anywhere else in the world. And Italian coffee is always made with style.

The wall. Where else can you walk a 16th century wall every morning for exercise? The trees, the people, the history. It’s a one off.

Good produce. Italy has some of the best produce around. The tomatoes taste like tomatoes, the onions are full of juice, and the garlic has kick. Somehow the rest of the world hasn’t got it quite right.

Wine and cheese. A bottle of real Italian vino from a nearby vineyard, a round of cheese from the local shop, fresh bread. It makes the mouth water just thinking about it.

Speaking Italian. There’s something satisfying about being able to speak some Italian. The language is musical, alive, and vivacious. And who cares if you get the odd word or two mixed up. The locals are incredibly gracious and understanding.

Cycling. With the rest of the world on some sort of mission to wipe out cyclists, it is so refreshing to be able to hop on the bike and ride. Cars politely give way to you. Life is good on a bike at last.

Festivals. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that has more festivals – Comics and Games, olive oil festivals, Volto Santo, Summer Music Festival, chocolate festivals. You name it and Lucca has it.

Bumping into people you know. Let’s face it, Lucca is like a village and you always seem to bump into someone you know. It’s old-fashioned and it’s nice.

Music. The place oozes with music. Puccini’s home town for heaven’s sake. Teatro del Giglio has wonderful opera, churches have recitals, choirs seem be singing everywhere. Even the likes of Elton John, Eric Clapton and Massive Attack have gotten into the act.

Wine bars. Everyone has their local, but it’s hard to top some of Lucca’s best hangouts for sitting and sipping among the bottles and snacks.

And, you wonder why I was eager to return to Italy...