Sunday, May 21, 2017

Further Linguistic Considerations: or, My Mind Has a Mind of Its Own

Today I finally got to be the parent to accompany Victor to Mondobimbo, which reasonably sounds like some sort of bordello, but in Italy it is Baby World, which is not at all insulting for boys and girls under the age of ten who want to go to a repurposed-ice-rink-meets-Denver- International-Airport with no air conditioning and lots of stored gardening supplies behind the trampolines, and various other OSHA violations liberally strewn about the place.

It was the birthday of a little girl named Giorgia who is in Victor's class, and a fair number of his classmates showed up to toast her in the ball pit, playing air hockey, and jumping on assorted inflated furnishings.

The Spanish family from his class is leaving Florence early next month for reasons related to Fiorentina's season finish (this is a European football [soccer] thing). The dad, coincidentally also named Victor (I LOVE THIS NAME FOR OUR KID), must now look for coaching work elsewhere as the entire coaching staff has been let go in a fit of fan-fuelled community pique.

The parents are lovely people, outgoing and lively, and I am sad to see them go. But every time I try to talk to them my brain shorts out. It happened again at Mondobimbo with each of the four of them in turn. I think I would like to see a neurologist because there is so much language in my brain at this point that my mind can't keep it straight.

I was explaining to Victor-dad a variety of things about our schedule here, when we moved here, what we think of the school etc., and words were spilling forth from  my mouth, but in alternating sentences between Spanish and Italian, without conscious effort. Like, it is just happening on a software level.

I recognize that Here Is a Spaniard, Engage Spanish, but also the awareness level for You Are In Italy is permanently switched. My brain is not reaching for Spanish in a fumbling way. I know how to explain any of this calmly in either Spanish or Italian: basic conversational discourse.

So I am laying all this out to the catalán football coach, and our conversation is smooth and he is understanding me just fine, until a third message flashes on the marquee of my conscience which says You Idiot What Are You Doing Pick a Lane and Stay In It.

After this linguistic buffet of a conversation that bizarrely also inserted some English here and there, I am running after Victor yelling at him in Mondobimbo in Spanish, ¡Victor! Ya hemos terminado, ¡ven pa'ca porque nos vamos pronto! ¿Me oiste?

The Italian parents are looking at me curiously trying to figure out what just happened, isn't that the American mom, why is she yelling, ¡Victor, mi amor escúchame! like a Spanish lunatic?

The short answer is: I just don't know. I have no idea. I miss my Spanish, receding on the horizon, lost on the Italian sea.

This never happens with French here in Italy. Yet I remember when I was in France as a student in 1995 and 1996, I routinely (and inconveniently) experienced something similar with French and Spanish, happening most often and embarrassingly with prepositions as I subbed out "avec" ("with") for "con" ("with" in Spanish, but "bastard" in French, as in "t'es gros con.") In that year also my Spanish came as quickly in the service of expressing my thoughts, as my native English always does.

But alas, Spanish is much more erratically attending me here, when I am able to rouse it from its dreamy lazing and felt impressions tied to gut memories.

My mind has a mind of its own.

In other observations, however, this is great news for my writing. I am 43 and getting real sick of my own thoughts. How wonderful that I can have small chapters where I just can't even control intellectually what goes on upstairs, or in the attic, or the storage unit.

Victor on trampoline, while the part of my brain that controls language is doing something similar.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Italian Language Considerations

In language class last week, Marco had us reading an article about modern art, full of specific vocabulary and scientific terms. "The glass-emulating plastic deteriorates over time, meaning the art is not only impossible to preserve, but is so by design." My retired Austrian classmates squinted at the words.

Martin, the retired economics professor from Vienna, raised his hand. He speaks slowly but deliberately, with impressive vocabulary and hesitating conjunctions. "Spalmare?"

"Oh, yes," said Marco. "To spread, like butter or jam, or fegatino for crostini neri." A further digression followed about spreadable cheese as a snack and its relative merits.

"And ... palmare? What does palmare mean?"

Marco's generous eyebrow furrowed. "Palmare?"

"Yes, palmare," continued the dogged Austrian. "The verbs that are created by adding 's' to mean their negation."

"But what would 'to smear' or 'to spread' be the logical negation of?"

Now Martin's brow furrowed. "To not spread? To unspread?"

"Yes," said Martin firmly.

I thought of unspreading a bunch of peanut butter off of a piece of bread and putting it back into a jar, crumbs and all.

I thought of the negation of spreading, and its related adjective, and the inherent logic of language. I spread it. I unspread it. It is spreadable; it is unspreadable. What is the nature of something unspreadable? This is unspreadable cheese.

I suppose it's solid, or crumbly. But solid cheese cannot be spread, so - there's no verb for the negation of the action.

I love language class.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Certaldo: Boccaccio, Sagra del Cacciatore, and More!

We've been on such a sagra roll, to everyone's pleasure, that we began late last week to sort out the sagra excursion for Mother's Day. There were a few to choose from, all short drives, and featuring, to briefly review, strawberries, woodland pests, wild bear, and mushrooms. And more fried dough balls.

We took a pass on the fried dough balls - no sense in unnecessary repetition. The strawberry sagra appealed, but was a bit of a drive toward Pisa.

We saw that the woodland pest sagra (la sagra del cacciatore - of the hunter) was being held on its final day in Certaldo, a moderate and scenic drive from Firenze.  Also, Bocaccio's hometown. The die was cast. (For those unfamiliar with Jason's professional specializations, when he is not talking about Dante, he is taking about Boccaccio, Dante's contemporary). I invited our friend and Jason's colleague Aileen, who also maintains a strong professional interest in Boccaccio, and we all agreed to pile into our used station wagon with Victor and Eleanor on Sunday morning at 11 am.

Featured woodland creatures who slip down from the hills and into Italian vegetable gardens often include hare, boar, and deer. This sagra had no deer on the menu, but the other two would be.

We met at 11 am in front of our palazzo. The drive was every bit as fresh and green as anticipated.
Victor lobbed questions from the backseat toward our panel of experts:

  1. Who is in Boccaccio's house now? (A: Petrarch's cat.)
  2. Does the ATAF 1B Boccaccio go all the way to Bocaccio's house? (A: No.)
  3. Where is Boccaccio now? (A: In a marble box in a church we are going to see - what's left of him.)
Eleanor: Panel, panel!

We arrived in Certaldo approximately 15 seconds after Eleanor fell asleep in her carseat, parking in front of a warbling carousel which Victor of course immediately wanted to ride. Rousing Eleanor from her reverie, we made our way to the funicular station to inch up the steep hill to Certaldo's medieval urban hilltop.

The funicular was charming and alarming by turns. Victor liked the automated gates and the ticket turnstile, but everyone was startled by the Blitz-like shrieking alarm, upon liftoff and landing as the car moved up and down, up and down, on its expeditious round trip. It creaked and squeaked and featured a slatted wooden bench along the perimeter of the wall, which reminded me of a Carson McCullers train.

We ground to a creaking stop at the hilltop. The town was of a sort we've often seen in Italy, but which never fails to please - sunny, flagstones underfoot, Roman bricks and romanesque churches; walled up windows evidencing where buildings have been made and remade for centuries.

The back of la Chiesa di SS. Jacopo e Filippo

Where Boccaccio swigged his espresso, surely.

We walked up the main street leading to the Palazzo dela Podesta, stickered with ceramic coats of arms, and stopped in at the church of Sts. Jacopo and Filippo, where Boccaccio found his final rest. Victor lit about 5 candles and was careful to not step on the marble slab atop Boccaccio's tomb, but commented on the carved marble pillow under his marble head. Eleanor did tread on the slab a bit, to Victor's hissed horror. Victor begged to light more candles, after he saw that there was a rack of actual candles next to the shine to Beata Giula di Certaldo, but I was out of change. We watched a caretaker dispose of the used tealights and straighten up the iron candle rack, then showed ourselves back out into the mid-spring sun.

The sanctuary of SS. Jacopo e Filippo
Up at the Palazzo della Podesta we admired a few large paintings of lions which appeared to have been bayoneted (after our year in Arezzo, I am a bt of an expert in enduring wartime damage, but when did these ones happen? Napoleon or Kesselring?), and counted the shields on the outside wall. The medieval prison was not open, to Victor's disappointment, as it was undergoing renovations. Eleanor ran a few cobblestone hills (the same one, numerous times) and we meandered back down the steep street to the funicular station. We saw a portly black and white cat that we claimed was Petrach's, but he quickly disappeared into a shaded alley as we approached.

The line to board the funicular was long, due in part to not one, but two groups of tourists with guides needing to creak their way back down the hillside. I watched the first two trips from the side with the kids. When we got back in to the waiting area, Victor said he hoped that we'd have it to ourselves. Then we saw the Russian bride whom we'd seen up by the palazzo, followed by two photographers. "Oh!" Victor exclaimed. "Pretty people." And she was, a tall, slender redhead with her hair up in a simple cream dress, with a rope of red coral at her neck.

We quickly realized, after a chat with two Italian red Cross nurses who were closing up a booth remaining from a morning festival in the borgo basso (lower town), that we would have to get back in the car to arrive at our sagra.

We pulled into a gravel lot in an industrial area surrounded by fields, and also the site of two large bouncy slides, which the kids immediately wanted to jump on. The people running the sagra were initially perplexed that we had not reserved for Sunday lunch, but it is not the way of Italians to ever refuse food to anyone for any reason if food is at hand. After a short wait we were seated in a hall with about 200 other people. We marked off our choices on a small list that would be familiar to anyone who has ever ordere sushi. And then we waited. And waited.

The wine and bread and water came out.

We waited. The kids were hungry. Eleanor's allergies literally went haywire. Vic disappeared into iPad world.

Hungry Victor

Eleanor successfully moves straight to gelato course.
We waited. And waited.

The nonni must have been tired; the kitchen was swamped.

We waited.

Our pasta finally arrived. It was delicious, but wow. Even by Italian standards it was a long wait, because the nonno apologized and said we'd been too patient.

Jason went to the gelato bar to get the kids their gelato. We were still waiting.

Finally our french fries (standard) and mixed grill (superb) and fried artichokes (ok) came out. We ate them and quickly packed up. Everyone working at the sagra looked exhausted as it was the last Sunday of a three-week fundraiser.

No getting out of town though until the bouncy slides were conquered. Thirty minutes of that, and we were truly on our way home with the two little sweatballs, back to Firenze and the 1B Boccaccio.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Firenze: Torno a scuola/Back to class

I have been on a six-week hiatus from my Italian language classes. They'd originally asked me, at the end of my initial ten weeks, if I would mind taking a break. Of course not, I said. You have been more than accomodating to me.

And so they have been, in a language school whose model is dilettante tourists with euros, Argentine pesos, and roubles to burn (there are hardly any Americans), I am a total outlier.

An American professional with a full-time job, settling in as an expat, who does not wish to take 6 hours of intensive Italian a day, who is reluctant to be charmed by the earnest weekly cooking classes in the school's tiny kitchen at the end of a dim corridor whence emanate various scents, who smiles tolerantly at itinerant tour guides hawking weekend trips to Chianti or Cinque Terre or Siena. Whose children enroll in Italian schools and speak fluent Italian at home, whose husband is practically Tuscan,; she who moves, if awkwardly at times, through centro and its many shades of Florentine, Tuscan, Italian, Euro culture. I have made that risotto before, I know ravioli, I have been to almost every possible side trip in Italy, and if I haven't, I am so annoyed by hearing about it all the time that I'll let you know when I feel like going.

[Disclosure: I have never been to Cinque Terre, or Urbino, or, properly, to Naples. Worse, within Firenze, I have never been to the Accademia, or the Palazzo Vecchio, or inside the Battistero, or up to the cupola of the Duomo. As for those last two, they seem easy enough to do, and boy, do they run the numbers on the gathering tourist throngs. These places locally are now all, from the outside, part of my daily circuit and commute; I no more think about paying money to enter them than a lifelong DCer would think about scheduling a tour of the White House.

I could write another piece about all the places I have never been to, in cities where I lived or frequented, including Paris (Louvre, Tour Eiffel), New York (Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty), Barcelona (I moped around the outside of the Sagrada Familia in 1995), Seattle (Space Needle, EMP). Bookmarking for later.]

Finally, the week before last, as I paid my monthly fee for use of office space, I asked the business office staff, what if I want to take more class?
They looked at me with surprise.
I want to take more classes, I persisted. Is Franco teaching?
Well, yes, he is, they hedged, but my dear, he began the new course two weeks ago, and in any case it is too basic for you. Would you like to try Marco's class?
Of course, I said, when can I try?
Leonardo looked at me for a moment, then said, we owe you one more class from your last package, is that right?
I was floored. Even I only figured that out after a lengthy calculation on paper while consulting a calendar. We rarely signed in, and I had missed a few classes at the end due to schedule disruptions, sick kids, and the like. Franco felt that the sign-in sheet was a sort of affront to in-country civil liberties.
Sure, I said, You do. When can I go?
This Thursday, they said. Same time as Franco's class. Come at the break to do the second half of the morning.

Marco is about my age, perhaps a bit older, trim, always well turned out in a suit, Elvis Costello glasses, but his defining feature is a shock of hair so black it looks blue, and which appears to be one giant cowlick even though the front must be at least two inches long, waves like seagrass when he talks in his high-animation state. Groucho eyebrows wiggle above his frames. He is full of energy and very well-humored, and spends a lot of time with a handful of change in front of the espresso vending machine in the lounge, being happily harangued by Leonardo.

I already liked him, so I was well disposed to enjoy his class.

Thursday morning, I took my seat at the break. The other students slowly filtered back in. A retired Austrian couple sat next to each other on the corner of the conference table, and a young Colombian woman named Daniela sat on the same site as the husband.

Marco asked me to introduced myself. I pattered on about my family and job for a few minutes, while Marco made notes on a whiteboard about various verbs I was throwing around. I stopped talking.

Why are you in this class, the Austrian wife said in a monotone.
Yes, your Italian is very good, the husband added.

Well, there's always something to learn, I said. There is a lot I don't know.

They looked at me skeptically. The Colombian maintained a very diplomatic expression.

We continued to talk and introduce ourselves. The Austrian wife was a retired schoolteacher; her balding, bespectacled husband had been a well-placed functionary in Vienna, also now retired. They did not like their apartment in Careggi. They had one grandbaby and another on the way, which they hoped would be a girl because the wife already bought all the gifts for it.

The Colombian woman was in a gap year from university and aspired to be a child psychologist. She explained her career choices, as well as the cultural differences between Italy and Colombia (few, minus a torrent of comments about the bland food here), and Italy and the UK, where she had also lived (many), and how she anticipated with pleasure her upcoming sojourn in Nice. I was delighted to hear her Spitalian - it was so easy for me to quickly grasp. We covered:

The noise level in Florence
Italians: distracted or focused?
Commuting to Firenze
Public transport in Firenze
Trying to get Wi-Fi fixed in Firenze
Italian food: bland
Colombian food: tasty
Top Indian takeout restaurants

Marco started in on the familiar Italian refrain of how hobbled and backwards Italy is, which I listened to with what I hoped was a straight face. I didn't want to appear judgemental, but ...

They just don't get it, I always think. They love to talk about how things don't work in Italy. Everything here seems pretty functional to me, and when it doesn't work well, there is always commisseration, espresso, pastry, a solid sense of humor, a fresh lunch and delicious dinner, apertivi, omnipresent aesthetics in general ... what can we reasonably expect to function smoothly atop more than 2000 years of infrastructure, and the unseen infrastructure of history and government and shortcuts?

Daniela said something about the hardships of being a child psychologist, and Marco jumped on it: disagio. What is a disagio?

Matrimonio, moaned the Austrian. Il matrimonio e un disagio. 

Marco looked at me. You understand here is here with his wife?
Why is he explaining this to me? It is very clear to me.

We portaged through that very awkward moment and continued on.

Midway through the class, a knock at the door announced the arrival of a new student. Wow, I thought, so they just drop them in like this.

Our new friend was another retired Austrian from Vienna, this one a former professor of Economics. When Marco asked him to introduce himself, he labored on in decent if halting Italian whose speed I attributed to his advancing years. His introduction was strictly monologue, and when Marco asked him politely if he was finished, he responded with a sincere, "No," and kept on. We all looked at each other from across the conference room table as he meandered and fumbled for words.

He finally finished, and class was done.

There was a moment in there too at the end where the Austrian wife commented, Everything is easy for Monica. I do not know what we were discussing that prompted such a remark from her. I awkwardly replied, No, c'e molto che non e facile per me, but she looked totally dubious.

I'll be back. There's always something to learn.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Firenze: Update + Sagra Report/Notizie

Some quick updates.

I'm back on Instagram. You can follow me there, if you like, because I take far more pictures than I could ever possibly use in my blog posts, which, due to vagaries of hardware, Google logins, and my daily and weekly routines, prove themselves increasingly difficult to regularly post. Some of my pictures have contextual comments, but most of them speak for themselves, since I am spoiled for beauty in Firenze.

No one's been sick at our house, and I can't remember the last time someone has thrown up on me, which is saying something when you have a two-year-old and a five-year-old traversing the commute between home/preschool/daycare. Caveat: I had a sinus infection two or three weeks ago, which we caught immediately and blasted with steroids and a Z-pack.

We've been in a work-travel lull, which starts again next week as Jason heads to Rome, then Assisi, with the Gonzaga group of summer students. I've taken a page out of Cory and Fran's book (my brother and his wife in SFO) and have been scheduling all manner of birthday parties, open houses, bus rides, and more. Provided, as outlined above, that no one is actively throwing up on me, this will be just fine.

The sagra is on its way tobecoming a standard fixture of our weekends. We'd been to one or two when we lived in Arezzo, four years ago. But now with two kids, they are the sociable family lifesaver. Sagre are a huge thing in Tuscany: part fundraiser, part social event, part excuse to eat a lot, part wondering if those waitstaff aren't maybe breaking some child labor laws, even though they are volunteers?

Pre-sagra hunger, before we found Monteloro.

Seasonal irises.

They are often in picturesque locales, and if you're lucky, REALLY picturesque locales that feature an impromptu playground is a fresh-mown pasture, and an outdoor coffee bar, and a mercantino (little market). We have most recently been to the Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar ragu and stewed meat and whatnot), in Monteloro (insanely perfect, nestled into the hills high above Firenze, and featuring all optimal add-ons).

Feasting in Monteloro

Monteloro playground action.

Burning off some more calories after a decadent lunch.

A couple of weeks later, we hit the Sagra della Ficattole (fried dough balls) in Borgo San Lorenzo, which was more rustic but none the less satisfying. We did not understand the menu, and so WAY overordered our fried dough balls. No one so much as said, that is a lot of food for a family your size with kids those ages ... is a fifteen-year-old boy joining you soon? But it was all under 40 euros, and who were we to say that their fried dough balls were not super special in some mysterious Italian way?

Multiple muddy puddle trips in Borgo San Lorenzo.

After we sat down, they delivered 16 fried dough balls (accompanied by strips of pig larg, ham, and full-fat strachino cheese), and two plates of ravioli, and a plate of grilled ribs and sausage, plus a half-litre of wine.... the waitress did proactively bring us a to-go bag with a knowing smirk.

A grandpa across the aisle at another table watched us closely, then offered us a room at his hotel in Florence. A young couple at our table regarded us sympathetically.

Jason and I took multiple turns running around outside with Eleanor, who found puppy after puppy to coo over. It was a cloudy day and the playground and its surrounding grass was too wet to play in.

Eleanor fell asleep again on the roading winding back down the hills through Vaglia, which Jason knows well from his cycling.

Sagra publicity

Work is going well - I'll be on the ground in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks for work - the NAFSA conference, to be exact, that international education extravaganza.

The Sprachcaffe staff continue to treat me like family. More about that in my next post as I am off the language class hiatus and back in a course again, with a new teacher.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Firenze: Quando l'Italia mi sembra più spagnola/When Italy Seems More Like Spain

Florence in spring - a spring that has tended to be wet, and chilly, but bursting forth with cool green spaces. Weeks like this, I feel like I am in plena Galicia, that equally damp northwest corner of Spain which sealed forever my loyalty to the northwest corners of countries (under certain circumstances, northeastern corners also accepted).

I wonder at this subconscious cultural affinity. On the one hand, it definitely puts me at ease and makes me feel more at home and relaxed, which can only be a good thing for an expat. Yet, on the other hand, in a way it also prevents me from fully perceiving my environment as uniquely and particularly Italian. I am sure that 99.99% of people in Firenze today are not walking around saying to themselves, this feels so gallego. Am I perceiving Italy, or simply straining my Italian perceptions through my subjective, autobiographical Spanish filter? There is a depth and poetry to this, and yet I feel like Italy is always a bit at arm's length to me, for this reason - una braccia spagnola. 

Oh, you know, just our 600 year old garden. A bit neglected, actually.
Gardens are green, gravel damp. Terra cotta statues are brushed darker by the rain. The air is sweet.
Even inside the buildings, like the kids' school, I am whisked back to Spain. The androne (foyer) is dimly lit, and the marble terrazza, though elegant, could use a good scrubbing. Sectional sofas in leather and metal from the 80s are set about in nominally thoughtful ways. The way the front desk person sits there, looking both bored and busy at the same time.

Eleanor and I woke up late and made the mad dash to daycare in less than half an hour, from bouncing out of bed to walking into the classroom. These are the days that I know she is my daughter through and through ... quick as a wink that one. (Reminds me of a time that my younger brother Cory told a mutual friend, "Our middle name is fast. I'm Cory Fast Sharp and that's Monica Fast Sharp.")

I stopped in to Caffe Cavour to fortify myself with a macchiatone and a cornetto alla marmellata, then walked home along Via Venezia, which runs along the back of the University of Florence College of Architecture.

I always love their garden, but on this morning, it was especially beautiful, and beckoning.

Odd little statues of peasant women.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Firenze: La Madonna di Giglio

Today is May Day, the day of workers and rights. I was working, but took a lunch break with our friend Vicky, late of Washington D.C., now in Firenze since 2015 and here another 2 more. Her daughter is close to Eleanor's age; we've traded birthday parties and tips here and there, and today, a load of books from Celeste's case!

Today we contrived to find ramen, or some form of it, for lunch. But because I was totally off my normal circuit and routine, I was a bit confused. We wound up making a huge circle from our house, to the Duomo, to the Arno, to Santa Croce, and boy, did I get a lot of steps in. I have  an app on my phone - it's not cool, but boy, is it effective. Step step step.

On the early leg of the holiday circuit, we were on Borgo Pinti, passing by la Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. It's not the famous Pazzi chapel of Santa Croce, but it is often enough written up in Hidden Florence or the subject of arty fundraisers or unveilings. I am often speeding past it on my bike of a mid-morning, muttering to myself as I head to Repubblica to take up my rented workspace for the day.

On this cloudy early afternoon, the huge gates were open to reveal an expanse of lawn so green it seemed CGI, with a smattering of lazy tourists seated under the cloister arches, and a group of mostly women all waiving madly puffing censers. 

At first glance we thought it was perhaps an Asian tour group come to use the church for a wedding, but after a few minutes realized that this celebration was wholly indigenous. A priest's voice could be heard droning in the sanctuary behind the open doors. The incense grew ever stronger and thicker in the enclosed courtyard as the women waived their metal censers, quietly joking and laughing.

Finally, a large litter with a statue of the Madonna began to squeeze its way out of the front doors. It was huge, white and gold. We saw it would soon be slowly inching toward the street and so scurried in that direction ourselves. Vicky found a flyer on an old-school bacheca (bulletin board) that indicated this was the Madonna di Giglio. Perhaps a patron image for Firenze?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Firenze: Sunday Vignette/Vignetta di domenica

Pedaling into centro late this afternoon on my way to sing at St. James for a requiem eucharist. Piazza del duomo is packed. Sun's out today finally - it's been overcast all day - and the tourists are rejoicing with selfie sticks and gelato cones.

I hop off my bike and begin to walk it around behind the apse (still unsuccessfully looking for the marble plaque where the golden ball struck when it was knocked off the dome by a bolt of lightning in 1600), weaving between hastily arranged art knockoffs for sale on the pavers by nervous maghrebs. I heard some live music floating over the crowd, and as I had a spare fifteen minutes to myself before I was due to be at church, I moved toward it.

At Via dei Martelli an older busker was plying his trade, with guitar, amp, and open suitcase for toursts to flip euro coins into. Also, CDs for sale.

This corner.

He looked a bit like Johnny Depp if Johnny Depp had slept rough for decades as an Italian street musician. But he sounded super. I mean, just superb. So I stood holding my bike and watched him for a bit. Who was this stealth Zucchero? who knew? No one else was really stopping to watch him besides me.

Il Zucchero Vero

A young couple stopped to listen - mid twenties, maybe. The girl was slim with long dark hair; her boyfriend, fashionably coiffed a la 80s with a shave up the back and a mole on his cheek. They both wore white t-shirts. She started filming Zucchero Falso with her phone. I was astonished. The nerve! buy a CD people!

After Zucchero Falso finished his set, the couple approached him. A short conversation took place, and soon the young man was taking the guitar from Zucchero Due and slinging it over his shoulder. Young Zucchero clearly knew what he was doing. He suddenly started owning that mike and the guitar.

But what language was he singing in? Romanian, as best as I could tell. His delighted girlfriend was now filming him. A crowd started to gather. I felt kind of sorry for Zucchero Due. He was a better music man - Romanian Zucchero wasn't bad, but he was not at the level of Zuccero Due - but here was proof, like we needed any, that a handsome young man with mediocre talent will quickly draw a larger crowd than an older master who might could do with a shower and some laundry but who could carry a tune perfectly withut even trying.

By the time Romanian Zucchero finished, about 50 people were standing around to watch him. As he let his last chord finish I let out a little yell for him, startling the Germans to my right on the street.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Firenze: Villa Bardini

Today we met our friends from Amsterdam at the Villa Bardini, which is located along the Costa San Giorgio. The coste, or ribs, refer to the narrow streets that snake outward from the Arno and up into the hills of Oltrarno to the south of Firenze.

We snaked and snaked, staring in disbelief as the road became narrower and the voice of "the lady" (as Victor calls her) ever more laughable as she pronounced all the place names worse than an undergrad fresh off a plane at Peretola.

Most unbelieveable of all, we arrived in a parking lot atop the hill, shaded and clean, between the Boboli and the Bardini gardens. What was this alternative universe? We tried to ask fewer questions and hastened to park more expeditiously.

After snaking in the car, we disembarked and wiggled down a narrow flagstone street and up a stair into the biglieterria. I do not have my residence card yet because I STILL do not have my permesso di soggiorno (a topic for a different day; refer to the January post about our day in the Questura). This resulted in a conversation between Jason and the biglieterrista, who made a few phone calls before confirming that Jason and the kids were free, but the wife would cost 6 euros. The city parks are free of charge for residents. But you gotta prove it. The legacy of a stickler bueacracy - again, grazie, Napoleon.

Che bella vista!

Il Canale di Drago - but where is the dragon?

We entered into a fantastic gardenscape of greens, flowers, statuary, gravelled paths, and ponds and streams, with views over the river and the medieval skyline of Firenze. We picked out all the landmarks and set to eating our snacks. The kids enjoyed a disused marble horsetrough as a lunch spot. Oh impecunious nobility...

Noble trough
Our friends arrived and we staked out a table for popsicles, snacks, and coffee. Vic and Eleanor know both of their girls from school so the fun began immediately. In fact, so much fun that soon a garden official came over and asked us to stop sliding down the stair rail.

Get off the stairs, kid.

Garden view into Firenze.
The glicine (wisteria) are blooming in profusion, so many locals and tourists were taking tons of pictures of the purple clouds. We learned that "wisteria" in Dutch is "purple rain" ("paarse regen). (Perhaps Prince only wanted to see his darling in the wisteria? Wisteryah, wisteryah....) I guess wisteria is a thing in the European springtime. Our kudzu-like mess in Oklahoma never looked this pretty.

We were up there a good three hours. It was perfect.

Prince homage.

Springtime Firenze at her most fantastic

Jason and I agree - if anyone asks us when the best time is to visit Firenze, our response is - the first six weeks of spring. All the color, fresh breezes, no heat, tourist crowds not yet at maximum capacity.
Old dude, young female, noble art.
Maybe it's Zeus and... someone...

Every concrete fruitbowl was different along the ledge. Here featuring: persimmon.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Firenze: Caccia Uova/Egg Hunt at the Museo Stibbert

I am barely on Facebook these days, instead preparing my inner revolutionary by rereading all the Owell we covered in junior high in Oklahoma. (To think of it!) But by chance I spied an event as I quickly scrolled through my newsfeed on Thursday morning. After mentioning it to Jason, I called the number on my Italian handset (which represents less than 1% of my phone usage here) and spoke with a woman who has a lovely Aussie twang to get us all signed up for the Egg Hunt at the Museo Stibbert.

Frederick's trellis.
Victor had been before, because he is quickly becoming an urbane man-about-town here in Firenze, personally visiting many museums and civic attractions with his preschool class on gite (field trips). None of the rest of us had been yet, though, and Vic talked it up a great deal. The bizarre post-colonial-threshold museum houses rooms of lovingly restored full body armour, shark teeth, shrunken heads, and the like. Miraculously, we all piled into the car with our various accoutrements at a good hour. Vic is now big enough to regularly carry a backpack without too much complaining, so Eleanor's diaper bag is now contained in one of his. We provisioned a picnic lunch, having split the list with our local friends Court and Tommy, who were also attending with their kids, who are the same ages and Vic and Eleanor.

The event host was International Babysitters (I'll plug them since they put on a lovely event). We walked up the hill past the Villa Fabbricata to the Museo Stibbert. Kids got their wristbands, we paid the nominal fee, and walked through the gardens to the lawn where the egg hunt was to be held.

Anubis will now receive you.
The park is gorgeous, whimsical, musty with old money, follies tucked into many corners: a shabby terracotta statuette of Minerva here, an Egyptian temple to Anubis there. Paths and trees and leaves glowing green - it looked like a movie set, perhaps for Pan's Labyrinth, due to its faintly menacing air, the sun shining weakly through the leaves in thin ribbons.

Mini font of Arethusa.

New tree, old wall.

New tree, old wall #2.

Aslan's stair

Italian pines

19th century glamour

Admiring terra cotta


Oh, Victor.


A number of families milled about on the lawn, and a lone assistant was supervising the art table for the kids. It was quite a mix of Italians and various anglophones. The eggs had all already been hidden, and here was where the cultural clash began. We could see their gold foil and bright plastic winking in and out of stump hollows and tufts of grass.

Cavorting on the path.

Cultural Friction #1

A few of the Italian kids started hunting the eggs immediately with their parents. A pair of British parents in particular got increasingly upset, and began to complain to the art helper. She became flustered and said that there was only one of her, and her hands were full with the ten kids who were busy making rather wet easter eggs out of paper and shaving cream and food coloring.

Brit parents became increasingly upset and began to argue with one another. The father in particular had to retire to go smoke a cigarette very, very fast. Some of the Italian parents noticed that this was not the way to do it, and began to chastise their children to return the eggs to their hiding places.

Eleanor suverys the boomers and sooners of the Italian egg hunt.

Cultural Friction #2

The egg hunt was to begin at 11, but again in a very Italian fashion, it was 11:15, and then 11:30, and no sign of an egg hunt. Parents tried to distract their kids with coloring and the shaving cream (boring) which was pointless next to a lawn of approximately 5,000 pieces of hidden chocolate.

Finally, the kind but harried art help announced it was time to hunt. She blew a whistle for everyone to listen. The anglo childen all listened. You can imagine what the Italian children were doing, and what their parents were doing. I thought the Brit family might have a fit. The helper have instructions in English and then Italian. "Uno, due .... TRE!" she blew loudly, and the kids scattered.

Dutifully listening to instructions.

Cultural friction #3 

The kids were not divided into groups, so the one year olds were attempting to locate eggs behind 5, 6, and 7 year old boys. I will let you picture it.

"Jason! Jason!" I yelled. I practically tossed Eleanor to him. "Take her to the other side of the field! Where we were with Victor!" Jason and Eleanor went in that general direction. Victor was already there, unloading the cache from a few hollows into his receptacle.

A small Italian girl, about 4, cried bitterly in the middle of the lawn while her mother yelled at her. She was clearly overwhelmed by the competitive nature of the whole affair. "Go sit down then!" her mother screamed at her. "If you can't do it, just go sit down!" Fortunately I did see them later, having achieved a filial detante, and she was collecting a few eggs.

Yay we got some!

Culturally Amusing Point #4

Boy, they did not know how to hide those eggs. What did they expect would happen, if they put 20-30 eggs and pieces of chocolate in one place? Yes, an older boy is going to come by and take them all. Smh. I bet Barbara Sharp could have come and shown them a few tricks to hide the eggs in leafy branches and the like.

Victor obtained a respectable amount. Eleanor was jazzed to have gotten five pieces of foil-wrapped chocolate in her little bag. Victor gallantly gave Jason three of his eggs to re-hire for Eleanor behind a different tree. I distracted her, shooed away the hovering older boys, then showed her where to look.

Victor and Eleanor both also ran the Egg Race, with a hardboiled egg balanced on a spoon. Vic must have run it six or eight times, consistently in the rutty lane so kept dropping his egg. He had a ball though. Eleanor ran it once, and immediately gave her egg to Victor for race recycling.

Fine. I'll do it once.

Victor on race 4, 5, or 6.

Cultural High Point

The part where all the families spread their blankets on the lawns and had a 3-hour lunch after the egg hunt. This does not happen in the US. I think it should. That way, parents too can look forward to the egg hunt. Why make it just a kids' affair? In Italy, everything is better with your family along for the ride.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Firenze: Serata in Coppia/Date Night

What do we do when we have a sitter for three hours on a Saturday early evening, and it is a perfect day in Firenze? (Overview: leaves: light green and abundant. Sunshine: glowing, but not hot. Breeze: gentle.)

We don't want to ride our bikes or walk into centro, because the cat is out of the bag about Firenze's beauty, and the three piazze that form the belt of the centro - Duomo, Repubblica, and Signoria - are thronged with tourists on all their connecting streets.

Teeming Corso
Oriuolo, Corso, Borgo dei Albizi, Pietrapiana, Ricasoli, Servi, Calzaiuoli, Calimala, Strozzi, all flow and overflow to the buildings with tight group of tourists, couples in arms, single nonne and nonni and mamme scurrying on errands.

We ask our weekend sitter Emily, an Ameritalian high school student who lives in Oltrarno, where she would go.
"Mmm, my parents like to walk in Bellosguardo," she replied.
We are usually looking for a place where we can grab an aperitivo and a light dinner. "Where is it exactly?" Jason asked.
"Oh, it's above Tasso," she replied, referring to Piazza Tasso.
"I think I can get us there," I said. We headed downstairs to our car parked on our piazza, its laminated ZTL B placard skittering back and forth on the front dash. Our other idea was to go to Poggio Imperiale, where our friend Kim was part of a local fiera/mercato selling some of her crafts. After that, we had no further ideas, beyond a glass of wine.

Heading over to the other side of the river, we meandered through Piazza Ferrucci (helpful, since I always wonder where it is, as it is a capolinea for the tiny D city bus) and around toward Tasso, then up, up, up a hilly narrow lane. And up. We saw a couple of signs for Bellosguardo, but then nothing but crumbling walls and vigneti, the tufts of green grass already thriving between lines of vines slowly coming to life. We lost our 4G signal, no map. We kept turning right, going up, turning right, going up, along what I took to be one of the famous "ribs" (coste) that run up through the hills surrounding the city, perpendicular and outward from the sternum of the Arno.

Is Marignolle like Mary Knoll? anyone know?
We finally stopped, having no idea where we were. I got out to sniff around in the chiesa di Santa Maria in Marignolle, and admire the villas at the end of long lanes carpeted in last winter's cedar fronds. It was calm. Florence was nowhere to be seen. The wind gently shushed through the tops of the trees, and the avian choir was nonstop and cheerful. The plaque on the church indicated that the Medici and Capponi, among others, maintained their country homes in the area, and I could believe it.

We decided to try to find Poggio Imperiale, where Kim was with the fiera. My phone was back on grid, so I pulled up instructions, and we began to wind our way down the steep hillside again, hemmed in on both sides by stone walls bordering vigneti and oliveti. Halfway down, Jason said, "You know, can we just go to the certosa? I'd really like to go." I had no objections, and so we changed course to follow the way to the Certosa di Firenze, in Galluzzo. We'd seen it many times from the road, but had never been inside it. The monastery was in the news even in the US a few years back for closing and relocating the few monks left.

Certosa di Firenze

We parked, and were greeted amicably by a man missing most of his teeth doing a crossword puzzle laid across his knees.
"You here for the guided tour? They left at five, you might be able to catch them," he called.
We walked up the path to the entrance. The certosa was deserted. It was hewn out of solid rock, as is the Franciscan shrine in La Verna. The high walls glowed golden in the evening sun. Gates were locked. The group was somewhere touring. We hadn't really planned to be part of a guided tour, so not much lost, but it would have been nice.
Just past the distillery was an open shop with another very old man in it. I couldn't tell with the sunlight streaming in from the window behind him, but he seemed to be wearing clerical vestments. "You missed the tour!" he called out from behind the counter. The shelves were lined with bottles of chartreuse, wild honey, and various liquids described only as "elixirs," with saint's names prefixed.

We took a few pictures, admiring the quick peek of the soaring steeple through a courtyard arch, and went back down to the car.
"What year was this established?" I asked Jason.
"1341," he replied instantly, and rattled off some amusing historical facts about the letters of Boccaccio and Boccaccio's poor appraisal of the establishment to his Acciaiuoli patrons. "The building was in the middle of nowhere, no one would ever come there, it was crumbling," Jason laughed. "He was really mad."
I wasn't too sad to have missed the tour after all.
"Did you miss the tour?" crossword man yelled.
"Siiii," we said.
"Well, next time!" he called.

We ambled out of Galluzzo and tried in vain to locate Poggio Imperiale, winding up again at Porta Romana, where the traffic always spins too fast to read the signs.

We parked the car at Jason's office and walked into centro. Where for the glass of wine? We skirted the outside chancel at the eastern end of the duomo, breathing easy in the cool shadow. Dove? We found ourselves on Proconsolo, and both thought of the fish restaurant with the frescoes we've been meaning to eat at. Said fresco in question features the fourth crown of Italian literature, Zenobi, who was deleted from history by the other three crowns, who are recognized today as "le tre corone." It wasn't really a frescobombing as Zenobi was prominently featured in the central foreground.

We did not take our own picture,
but this is the best I could find online,
and I think might I know who took it and posted it!
We stopped outside Fishing Lab to review their offerings and went in.

Soon we were each holding a crisp white in a stem. Jason ordered the croquettes, and I ordered a pan of what was described as "street food." I will tell you now, the literal hot mess of fried tiny seafood in waxy newsprint was something I have not seen since Pontevedra, Spain, in 2005. Tiny squid, calamari, bitty shrimp, and assorted other pescaditos, tossed in impanatura, then fried in very hot clean oil. British style chips on the side. Housemade rich lemony mayonnaise, fat with egg yolks.

We walked home. The kids were tired from their nonstop play in the last 24 - two different playdates, mass hours in park on swings and scooters. Eleanor fell asleep before 8, which is why I am able to give you this account now.

If anyone comes to visit, I will take you for the fried seafood pentola with the mayonnaise and the white wine. Certosa tour will probably feature Jason. No promises on Poggio Imperiale.