Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ciao Italia; Hello Oakland

We went to Florence with some guests, and I must say, Florence the end of October, is a delight.  The level of tourism is manageable for the city.  Store keepers actually greeted people as they came in the door. I love to walk around these big Italian cities.  Churches, museums, art everywhere, but still what draws me is the smells, and sights and sounds of human beings experiencing one of the most civilized cities in the word.  The Florentines are a very special breed.  Natural money people with a sense of style and an eye for the world around them.  We saw many Italians on holiday and naturally Americans.  I think most Americans are more comfortable in the larger cities where they know and understand tourism.  The food, like the city, is quite sophisticated.  The wine of course is excellent, and I must say that the bread is better than in Umbria.  Hate to say it, but I just have not been able to get used to that no salt tough Umbrian bread, torta al testo, not included in that evaluation.

We had a nice hotel with this view out our window; the Hotel Lugarno.  It was a good transition to hear everyone speaking English.  Florence is so much fun when it isn't a hassle.  The Stoic One bought a Swiss (Ulysee Nardin) watch he has been wanting for years.  I had never heard of the brand, but he found it on the Ponte Vecchio.

We still have not closed on apartment number 2 what with Max dying and all....sigh...more lessons in patience.  The attorneys say it will all happen, they just don't know when....

I will start back on this blog when I return.
Until that time.  Arrivederci and thank you for your interest to accompany me along the path.
I miss Italy already.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making Italian Friends

Many people warned us that it would be very hard to make friends in Italy.  They said that Italians were standoffish and it was unlikely we would be invited into any one's home for a meal.  This has not been our experience.  My biggest problems with our Italian friends is that they are constantly trying to feed us, and as you can see from my photos, I am hardly underfed!

Antonietta has become my best friend.  She is so cute.  She is like a little bird, and she reminds me of my friend Lorraine.  So much so that whenever I see her, I grab her, and hug her, and kiss her.  Initially she seemed taken aback by my enthusiasm, but she seems to have gotten used to me.  Now her face lights up when I walk by her window, and she makes the constant gesture of "let's eat" as I pass by her window.

 When we go to town, she tucks my arm through the crook of her elbow and introduces me to all of her friends as the "americana." I have been introduced to her people at the market place, the shoe store, the butcher store and the "forno" or the bakery.  Everyone knows her, as her family has lived her for 300 years in the same house, if you can even imagine that!

She adores Gary because he rough houses with her grandsons, and because he is a good eater.  I told her Gary did all of the cooking so she made him come up to the kitchen to help her make "torta di testa" which is a type of bread that is made in this part of Umbria.  Gary had a ball, and Antonietta told me he was "bravo" to help.

When I look up at her window, I always hope that she is inside.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Umbertide?

This is the question that people from Umbertide ask me, not people from the U.S.  There are several things that trouble the people here about our impending move.  There are those people who can easily imagine moving, leaving everything behind and going on an adventure.  These people, however, yearn for an AMERICAN adventure.  The city that calls to them over and over is San Francisco.  They cannot imagine why any one in their right mind would exchange San Francisco for Umbertide.  Ask any Italian what city in the US they would like to live in and I would bet 90% say San Francisco. Don't you think you will be bored in Umbertide, they wonder.

Then there are those people who love Umbertide.  They can never imagine leaving here.  They do not want a foreign adventure. They can never imagine abandoning friends and family and leaving Umbertide, the place of their birth, for any where else. But what about your family, they ask?  

There are those who understand intellectually that living in a place is not the same as visiting and that maybe they wouldn't love living in San Francisco but then again maybe they would love it.  Then there are the Americans who are already here. Let me tell you about all of the problems in living here, they say.  Like what?  The bureaucracy, the inefficiency, the rigid social and institutional systems.  It is not like being on holiday to be here. Would you leave, and go back the U.S. I ask?  No...

To all groups, I say you are right.  Yes San Francisco is a vibrant and exciting place to be.  Yes, I may be bored in Umbertide.  Yes, I will miss my family and friends. Finally, yes I know that Umbertide will be different once we are married rather than when we are only having an affair of the heart.

We are fickle creatures.  Always in love with the fantasy of something other than what we have.  It is hard to explain what draws me to this place, this culture, this language.  The Stoic One could list his advantages, mainly financial and life style.  For me, it is harder to put into words.  Some deep longing from my youth.  A feeling of being loved and being special.  That is why Italy.

As for Umbertide, to me it is the most beautiful, unspoiled of places.  I love that my window looks out over the Tiber River and over the busy Piazza.  I can be in the city and in the deep country in footsteps.  The light here is remarkable.  It makes the colors of the trees stand out agains the horizon.  There is a sense of peace and mysticism that soothes my soul.

Why Umbertide?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Charity Event Italian style

The Stoic One said, "I don't know how you are even going to begin to describe what happened last night."  Here is my best shot:

In our town, there are 2 bars, Bar Mary and Bar Centrale. (Mani told me there have to be 2 bars otherwise it isn't a piazza!)  At the Bar Centrale, there is a very nice woman who welcomed us from the very first day.  She has long blond hair and, as far as I can tell, speaks no English.  She has been very good at speaking Italian with me and pretending that I make sense.  One day, she came up to me with an envelope with my name on it (how she knew my name I have no idea) and invited me to an event that would take place at the Teatro dei Riuniti on October 20th.  She said that the tickets were free, but it was very important to tell her if we could not make it as the seating was limited, and if we couldn't make it, she would invite other people.  We told her we would be delighted to attend, and we marked Thursday, Oct. 20th at 9:00 on the calendar.  That was last night.

A link to the theater

We walked down our 65 steps and went out into the lamp lit piazza and down one of the side streets. It was raining slightly and the pavers were wet and slippery.  I had on good solid boots, which I had just bought, and I wondered what the Italian women would wear.  The event was supposed to start at 9:00 so we got there at 8:45 not knowing exactly what we were supposed to do.  As we approached the open doors, there was a man in a suit who greeted us, but didn't ask us for anything so we said "buona sera" and entered.  Naturally, there was food just inside the entryway. The food was on cookie trays and was different types of cookies, and pastries. There was another couple there who were also waiting and some other people milling around in the back.

Clementine, (I found out that is her name) greeted us in a floor length red satin dress. She had a hairdo that the Stoic One said was a Betty Rubble/Wilma Flintstone, bone in the hair type of do.  I thought she looked lovely.  She told us we were "bravi" or good for showing up.  She gave me the cheek kiss and moved on. We later found out that she was the organizer of the event and plays a large role and the amateur theater.

At 9:00 I said to the Stoic One, let's go inside.  So we walked into the little theater.  There were private boxes on both sides two levels up and "orchestra seating" of about 12 rows.  The first 5 rows had extra padded seating, so we decided those were probably for "special guests."  Clementine said the theater sat 100 and that looked just about right. We sat in the first row of normal padded seats and looked around.

It was a good mixture of young adults and older people.  Thankfully, no children were in the audience. Most of the men had on jeans and fancy sweat shirts.  What does that mean?  OK, picture a zipped white sweat shirt, not a hoodie, with fancy English writing that makes no sense. The older men had on jackets, most of the men had on scarves artfully arranged around their necks.  The women did have on stilettos, but in boot form...mama mia how they walk in these is beyond me. All of the women seemed to have some kind of sparkles on, either in the form of jewelry, woven into the fabric of their clothes or in their hair.  They had on pants or jeans.  I had on my black sweater and slacks.  Next time I have to bring over my sweater with sparkles.

So we sat, and sat and sat.  The Stoic One remembered that when we attended an opera here they were still working on the set as we arrived.  The audience was calm, chatting, not expecting a 9:00 start to a 9:00 event.  I have talked to you before about the Italian sense of time and my sense of time.  As a consultant, I live in the space that "time is money".  I am sure this does not translate into Italian. I asked Mani about this and he said, "Yes we have this. It is called time and money." "No, I said, "the expression is time is equal to money."  "no, susannnn" he responded,  like I'm making it up.

To me time is something that is managed, controlled, predictable, then parceled off for planning purposes.  I don't know that I am that different from other Americans, maybe a little more compulsive, but not that much.  :)  Anyway, Italians and time.  They don't have any idea about controlling it, so they are very patient about it. (The Stoic One wants to point out that none of this is true when they are driving.)  Most Italians have no expectations of things being on time, so there are no frustrations. They stand in line, because they know that is what you do in the post office or grocery store or wherever.  They don't start clapping at an event to get something started because they don't expect it will start on time.  It is interesting to think about how culture has acclimated us to time.  60 minutes, one hour....what does it really mean, in Italy, not much.

I later told Mani that we went to an event that was supposed to start at 9:00 and we got there at 8:45.  He put his head down on the desk as if to say, why haven't you learned anything yet.  He asked me what time it actually started.  I said 9:35.  He put on a big smile and said this was excellent.  He would expect an 11:00 start for a 9:00 event.  He then launched into a long explanation as to why this was true.  To sum it up, according to him, it is all the fault of the women who take 2 hours to get dressed while it takes a man 20 minutes.  Add to this the fact that no woman wants to arrive first because that will look like she didn't take much time to get ready and if she arrives last, all eyes will be on her....could be.....

Back to the event. There were two older Italian men sitting behind me in the theater.  I started eavesdropping, to practice my Italian, right, and they were talking about food.  One told the other what he had eaten as a primi, first dish, the other one discussed the pork loin that his wife had fixed.  I asked the Stoic One if when American men were alone they discussed what they ate for dinner the night before, and he just looked at me.

At 9:30 we were hopeful because we heard some piano playing behind the crimson and gold curtain. People, including Clementine, were walking up front and back stage, passing nervously.  At 9:35 the curtain finally came up.  The back drop was black, the colors for the evening seemed to be black, white and red, except for the men on stage who wore whatever they wanted.  There was someone at the piano, who was later introduced as Beppe Carletti.  (He is a musician from the 60's and had a band called "Nomadi"; never heard of him.)  Anyway, Beppe was at the piano and a very beautiful blond was beside him.  She had on an overly tight black dress, a small red necklace, and red platform shoes. The shoes were a little weird with the black stockings and dress, but she probably couldn't manage stilettos on stage. Her dress in the back looked like it belonged in the front with an open v-shaped white collar and a zipper. Her platinum hair was up on one side and falling down in curls on the other. We waited expectantly, and then she started to sing.

To be kind, I remember Simon Cowel on American Idol saying that people sang "sharp" when they were nervous.  She was very nervous.  Beppe was extraordinary on the piano and as her pitch got higher, his playing got louder.  There was no program, so I can't tell you what she sang as it was one of the few songs in Italian.  They finished and then the announcer interviewed Beppe who seemed irritable, what with the blond singing off key and all.  They talked about how important the charity was, "Bringing smiles to children...a charity for dentistry".  He left, the curtain went down, and then the blond was back.  This time with a band.  There were 2 back up singers, percussionist, xylophone, guitar player and piano.  They were good and the blond was oh, so much better.  She got better and better as the night went on.

It turns out that the main star of the event wasn't the blond.  It was Fabrizio Vendramin, the winner of the program "Italy's Got Talent 2011." What hair Fabrizio had was graying and pulled back into a pony tail.  He was wearing a yellow painter jump suit and a matching yellow sweat band.  Having no idea who he was, I also did not know what he did.  After his introduction, he left the stage.

The blond came out again, this time accompanied only by an acoustical guitar player who was very good. Then Fabrizio came out.  First they put down a paint cloth across the stage.  Then they brought out a huge canvas about 6'x4' that was mounted on wood so it could be flipped over.  Suddenly the song "Angie" by the Rolling Stones comes blaring out of the speakers.  The Italians are all happy now moving to the beat of the music.  In the meantime Fabrizio is up front with large paint strokes painting something that looks like nothing...we are all squinting, listening to the music, trying to decide what the heck he is painting.  Suddenly I realize the painting is upside down.  I think the whole audience realizes it at the same time, except those who had watched the show and knew what he did.  He steps back, flips the painting over, and it was a caricature of Mick Jagger.  We all oohed and ahhed over this.  It was actually really amazing to see it. The painting was slowwwwwly auctioned off.

After the auction, the blond sang some more this time accompanied by young dancers from the town.  They dancers were around 12-14 and danced in a languid, modern style to the music of the blond and the guitar player.  Then the painter came back.  This time the music was "Imagine" by John Lennon and the painting was of him.  Painting auctioned off.  More singing, more dancing.  Bob Marley "Jamming for the Lord".   Painting of him auctioned off.  Then someone from the audience gets up and does an impersonation of Louis Armstrong singing "It's a Wonderful World".  This was my dad's favorite song.  I sat there thinking about my dad, and I started to laugh.  I thought if he could only see me in this small town in Umbria watching an overweight blond Italian do am imitation of Louis Armstrong, he wouldn't believe it. I barely could control myself.  Anyway the guy was actually pretty good, face contortions and seizure like gestures aside. Then the painter comes back and Ray Charles' "Georgia" came over the speakers. Painting of Ray Charles was auctioned off, and then you would think it would be over, but wait.....

OK, one of the things I have noticed about Italians is that they take forever to say good by.  They stand, you stand, they say good by, you say good by, they talk about how much fun they had, you say how much fun you had, they say....this goes on forever...Little did I know they would close a performance in the same way.  We clap, think they are done, no...they don't do encores, they keep talking, thanking people, lots of thank yous go on.  At midnight, as if by magic, it is over and we walk home, through the rain, up the 65 stairs.  Our apartment lights are on, we walk back into our little world and watch the ending of an episode of "Prime Suspect" the latest BBC series we have brought over.  It is with Helen Mirren and it is excellent.

Hope you enjoyed your night at the theater as much as I did.  Here are photos that we took of the paintings that were done. Apparently he won the contest with the Bob Marley painting. (Mani told me this and was most annoyed he wasn't invited to the show.) You can see how large they are.  You need to remember he did each painting in one song's worth of time, and upside down.  I can see why he won.

Me and my new best bud Clementine

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

MiniMetro, Perugia and Chocolate


 For those of you who love chocolate, Dorothee, this post might just possibly drive you crazy.

We went to Perugia this week to visit the Eurochocolate exhibit.  Amanda Knox has left town, so what else is there to do but have a street party with every imaginable type of chocolate on display.

We took the Minimetro to arrive into the old center of town.

 For the first time we found the right parking lot and station. The MM has 6 or 7 stops and goes from the bottom of town up the hill to the middle of the centro storico in Perugia.

This is a wonderful invention for me because Perugia is the closest major city to us, about 30 min. drive, and the Stoic One hates to drive there because the traffic is a series of ever diminishing one way streets.  He gets stressed and grumpy, not a good combination.  So we were told to take the Minimetro, easy to drive to and easy to park and hop on.  It is a fully automated system, similar to our BART but the cars are tiny, 8 fold down seats and about room for 20.   The cars come by about every minute, turn around at the top and come back down.  To get to the minimetro you should exit on the Madonna Alta exit and follow signs.  It is farther off the road then you would expect, so keep going.

Once we arrived downtown, we were in a chocolate lovers' paradise.

This is where I bought chocolate. Ciocoloto del re

Chocolate and amore

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Alpaca farm

Me looking at alpaca fur  Notice my sweater.

Happy alpacas

One of the great things about living in Umbria is visiting various artisans.  I think Umbria is still this magical place because it has nothing the modern world can exploit.  People do things the old way here and the old way still works.  This has drawn other people who want to preserve the old way and so the cycle continues.  Umbria has no natural resources except beauty.  There is farming, a lot of tobacco, but there is no oil, no mining no manufacturing.  The farms are all small and family owned.  Most of the grapes are grown for individual use or small boutique wineries.

This alpaca farm is up the way from us.  When the weather turned cold, I decided I needed a new sweater. We drove back into the hills and discovered this charming man and his farm.  He used to be an economist in Rome, and wanted to get out of the rat race.  In the 80's he bought this property and tried many different ways to make the land produce.  He eventually found alpacas and has been in love with the animals.  I must say they are very sweet.  THey are in the camel family, cousins to llamas but according to him are smarter and sweeter.  They seemed very sweet to me.

If ever you are in the Niccone valley, you should stop in and see them.

Pienza with a confused GPS

I know I told you that rule number one of travel in Italy is to always have a paper map with you, but I never listen to myself.  So, the Stoic One and I decided to just hop in the car and program in Pienza and see the little town, have lunch, buy some cheese and return.  I think the GPS had other plans. (We didn't have a paper map in the car because Pienza is in Tuscany and we only had an Umbrian map).

We started off without problem.  Down E45 to Perugia and then to A1 to FLorence and then we got off, and decided to faithfully follow the GPS, without an additional map.   We were in the middle of nowhere, taking round abouts, small roads and worse, no signs to Pienza anywhere.  But we are learning to enjoy the journey as the destination, as they say,  and we remarked upon the beautiful Tuscan countryside and had no idea where we were. We eventually ended up on a dead end road.  So much for the directions from the GPS.  We reversed ourselves, and eventually found signs to Pienza and turned off the GPS.  I think she was having a bad day.

The problem with these machines is that they provide you with no contextual information.  The directions are at such a detailed level, that it is hard to see the bigger picture of not only where you are, but where you went wrong.  I think this is true about life in general.  Not only do we not get a map of our life but we have no idea where we are along the road.  Are we in the beginning, middle, or near the end?  When I look back over my life, I can see how one thing led to another but at the time it just seems like one more day of living, but enough metaphysical musings, on to Pienza.

So Pienza is known as the "touchstone of Renaissance urbanism"  if you want more information on that, look it up.  Basically, it is a town that was built in the 1400's. Pope Pius II was born here and had great plans for the town, but he died before it was finished. It has a beautiful piazza and Duomo.

It was designated a World Heritage site for being a seminal representation of "the humanist concept of urban design."  Seeing this was commissioned by a pope, I wonder about the "humanist" part, but whatever.  Needless to say, I was not here to see only the lovely piazza. I came also to see and taste the cheese.

That is pecorino cheese in the left window

Pecorino is made from sheep, and it is delicious.  If it is "new" it has a soft, fresh taste, which I prefer. It is is aged, it has a sharper, harder texture.  It is great with pears and honey or munching on as is.  

Pienza is a beautiful, if touristy, town.  The views of the valleys, where we were lost, are magnificent.  It is a beautiful town to walk around and imagine life 600 years ago.  How much have we changed?  How much have we all remained the same?

I love the modern and the old that you find on these streets.  Such a great shade of yellow!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cleaning the apartment

Not a very scintillating topic I know, but it is different here.  First of all, I realized how attached I am to the products I use at home.  I wanted plain old cleanser to clean the porcelain sinks in the bathroom, maybe not ecologically sound but that's what I wanted. Ajax and Comet, my products of choice, were not on the shelf.  Nothing looked familiar.  Finally I found a tall, oval shaped container that looked like cleanser.  Vim? Never heard of it.  That was literally all they had.  One type of cleanser?  How can that be in a country that has over 200 types of pasta?   Ok. As it turns out, Vim looks the same coming out of the can, probably cleans the same, but still I miss my product names.  How conditioned am I by product marketing and placement?  A lot!!

Next about cleaning these floors. As you may recall, the stones on the floors are about 300 years old to match the age of the apartment and the tiles on the ceiling.  They were cleaned with an acid wash then sealed and then a wax was put over them.  (they don't looked like my idea of waxed, but anyway). Since I am supposed to be writing, it now seems like it is time to clean the floors. There was an argument between Mani and Simone about whether or not to get a water vac.  Mani said "no, the best way is to use a mop." Unfortunately the Milanese and I gave in to him.  Mani is very proud of the floors and doesn't want us to do anything to mess them up.  So off I went to look for a mop and pail and detergent to do the floors myself.

 Remember in the old days when we cleaned the floors and we had two pails attached together, one for dirty water and one for clean water?  Whatever happened to those pails, and that system of washing floors?   Naturally, the two bucket system still lives in Umbria. Mani was over and I showed him the product I had to clean the floors.  It looked like the Spick and Span box so I was immediately drawn to it.  It is really weird, when I see a product that looks familiar, it is like greeting an old friend in the market.  I sweep it up and put it in the basket before the Stoic One can ask me what I am going to do with it.  Mani took one look at the Spick and Span box (I was showing off because he thinks I don't do anything since I don't cook or do the laundry)  and tells me to throw it away immediately.  I thought he was going to fall over into a dead heap.  Yikes!  Italians never throw anything away.  He told me to go find his wife immediately and she would take me to a store to buy the right product.  

So, I go to a store with Barbara, Manuele's wife.  The store is called Mark Color.  Have I mentioned that Italians use a lot of English that makes no sense? I told her I had the two bucket system with the drain thingy over one bucket.  She approved of that purchase.   Next, I started looking for a normal floor mop.  You know the kind with the sponge on the end, and the metal fastener that goes over the sponge and squeezes the water out?  Okay, I finally find this type of mop stuck back in a dusty corner, and Barbara shakes her head at me. "Per le finestre" she says...for the windows....(They use the floor mops for the windows?) She gently leads me over to an entire wall of mops, one of which you see below.  It is made up of strips of cleaning fabric. It looks like an octopus. Why is this better than the other mop, I ask knowing this type of question is futile.  Because, she replies, that mop is for the windows and this mop is for the floors.  She then shows me some product I never heard of and I buy it and we leave.

After all of that, I was exhausted and had to take my afternoon siesta.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Blogging has been an entirely new adventure for me.  Prior to coming to Italy, I had read several friends travel blogs, and I found them entertaining and a great way to keep track of their vacations.  This blog has primarily been written for my sister, Sarah, and friends as a way to tell them what I am doing and to easily post pictures. It has been astonishing to me that people in faraway places are reading this. It is both flattering and a little weird. People in Hungary, Turkey, India, are reading my blog.  Really?  Like who would care. The most popular blog by far is the one about the washing machine.  At first I thought it was because that was the funniest blog I wrote, but later I realized people were actually themselves trying to decipher how to work an Italian washing machine.  For those of you out there who wanted factual information, sorry.

Still it is odd to me to know that strangers are reading this. I remember long ago a software engineer told me that people had no idea how public their cell phones were.  (This is when cell phones first came out.  Yes, I am that old).  He said thinking your phone call was private was like taking a shower in public and closing your eyes and thinking that no one is there.  Writing a blog is a little bit like that.

I have had oodles of writing classes, moving me toward writing and finishing a book that is now half way done.  One of the first thing that is taught in the class is to be brutally honest, to scrape through the veneer of pretense and tell the truth.  In a travel blog there is a temptation to only write about how great things are, how happy the Italians are and how much fun we are having.  The thing is we are having fun, the Italians are hilarious to me and some of the things are great but some are not.  (Hearing the fools singing YMCA under my window at 1:30 AM is funny in retrospect but not funny at the time.  I really wanted to throw a bucket of water out my window but was restrained by you know who.)

So, I am aware that this blog is read by people I don't know and that is great.  What is the point of writing if  the only person who is going to read what you write is your sister?  The only way for me to handle this is to continue writing as if only my sister, and friends, Mary, Dorothee and Donna are reading this.  For those of you I don't know, welcome to my trip.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Villa Montegranelli, Gubbio

I have been off line because we have had company.  A couple from California came for a short visit. They wanted to look at real estate in order to buy a place and retire over here. It was a major adventure for all concerned, and took up our time and energy.  More about them and the process of real estate buying in a later post.

On Sunday after they left, we were missing them; so what else could we do but go and find another eating adventure.  

This is for all of you food fans out there.  We ate at this same villa about 10 years ago with friends and family.  There were 8 of us at the time.  At that time, we had a difficult time finding the villa.  It was listed as being in Gubbio, a small hill side town that is close to us, but it was quite a bit outside of the old town limits.  They told us to turn right at the stadio, I was thinking modern football stadium, they meant an ancient Roman ruin of a stadium.  We went around the round about 3 or 4 times with me hopping out to ask directions.  We finally found an old man who literally walked in front of our van to show us the cut off.  When we found it,  the owners were in the process of redoing the villa to make it a hotel, restaurant and site for weddings and other celebrations.

We found the villa this time by accident and memory.  When we saw it in a field up at the top of the hill, without the directions of the old man, and  we looked at each other and we both knew that was it.  We wondered if our memory of the food would match our present day experience.  We walked into the restaurant.  They had done a superb job on the restoration.

Once we pulled into the parking lot a torrential downpour over took us.  We dashed in through the door and were properly greeted and seated in the main dining room.  There was a large family of 8 at one table and at adjacent table 5 children sat and were having a grand old time.  We were seated in the room behind them.  The harried waiter came out and told us they did not have a menu, but would serve us what they had in the kitchen.  That was fine with us, we responded.  We had 4 courses and a wine that matched each course.  Because we are in truffle season, the meal had shaved truffles, (not chocolates but mushrooms) on top of each course.  Here are the photos from the Stoic One.

This first dish is an antipasto...It was a flaky crust, filled with melted cheese and white truffles on top

A type of pasta in parmesan basket filled with pasta ..these are black truffles.

The main course was a veal chop, 4 slices of boiled, sauteed potatoes, and a swirl of carrot.  Excellent.

The inside of the restaurant.

We were not disappointed.  The restaurant, service and food all lived up to a memory from 10 years ago.  I also finally found a white wine that I loved.  For those of you who are interested it is called Baldassarri and is an Umbrian Chardonnay.  It was a perfect match for the pasta.  We had our standard Montefalco red which was matched with the veal.

We came home and skipped dinner.  We re-watched "Michael Clayton" with comments from the director.  The comments were so interesting I might have to watch the movie again.

This week we should hear some news on apartment number 2.  We will be looking at flooring and other things on Wednesday.  The weather has changed here and gotten quite cold.  We discovered that there was more to switching the ac system to a heating system than we originally thought.  Simone came over to help and it seems as if we are now warm and cozy.  It should be heating up tomorrow, so I think this was just a dry run for the winter.

Several people have asked about the reactions of the Italians to the Amanda Knox trial.  Apparently there were some journalists who thought anti-Americanism played a part in some of the media.  I have to say I have no experience of that here.  Most people I know are a lot more interested in the soccer scores than the trial.  They were relieved to have the trial over and the media to go home.  The Italians that I know when asked about it, shrug their shoulders and say, "Qui sa" who knows.  They all agree that the justice system here is as screwed up as the American justice system.  And there you have it my friends.

La Dolce Vita

I love this expression.  The sweet life.  It reminds me of how young people use "sweet" to describe an experience. I have been thinking about my life here; now and in the future. It is a sweet life.  I wonder though, how my life will evolve and change.  Knowing that I will return to California in 3 weeks holds me in the tourist frame of mind, and it is a sweet place to be.

We have continued to have extraordinary eating adventures.  The last one was a lunch at a villa in the middle of a growing industrial section of Ponte Patolli, a small town close to us.  The villa and the family has been there for over 300 years. It is a brother and sister who now run it as a catering restaurant. They were lovely people, who spoke excellent English and were very kind to us.

We had been there last winter with our friend Matteo.  We walked in and there was no one about.  Not unusual for lunch.  Many places here serve only dinner.  As we walked into the lobby, lit only by the sunlight with an 8 foot tall fireplace facing us, a woman came rushing is with zucchini flowers in her hand. We asked if we could have lunch, and she said, "Come no?"  Why not.  They bustled about and set up a table for us in the garden.  They were clearly not set up for lunch, but they accommodated us none the less.

The villa would be a great set for an E.M. Forrester movie.

We had a very interesting discussion with them about their life.  The Stoic One thought their life must be hard, trying to eke out a living in this large, aging property.  The sister said, no, life wasn't hard at all.  She was doing what she loved, where she loved doing it and had her family all around her.  She had a garden where she grew the food that she prepared.  She said it would only be hard if you expected to make money, which she did not.

I must say this is such a foreign concept.  It made me realize how much of "American efficiency" is all about making money.  It is only being here in Italy that I realize there are people who are motivated by other things.  I mean I guess I have always known that, but I thought those people only said that because they couldn't make money.  Now, I see that there is a different passion for people than money, accumulation and achievement.  La Dolce Vita is not about making the money.  It is about enjoying the time, spending it the way you want regardless of your financial situation.  This brother and sister exemplified these values.  And yes, the zucchini flowers were sublime as was the rest of the food.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Choosing An Italian Cell Phone

I interrupt this blog to bring you factual information from the Stoic One.  You didn't think I would give you useful information on this subject did you?

Just like many of you who travel internationally for pleasure or business, we use cell phones to stay in touch with home and to make local calls while in country.   Over the years we have gone through many different solutions to having a cell phone in Italy.  We started by renting a European cell phone before leaving the US but eventually graduated to buying an unlocked phone and country specific SIM card through a US company that included an initial small amount of air time and could be recharged, kept and used for future trips.  SIM cards are the little electronic chip that actually makes your phone work, and they are tied to a specific carrier.  This has the advantage of letting you keep the same phone number on subsequent trips but limits the type of plan, and the air time charges, to what the US company offers through their partner.

One of the ways a supplier makes money on the deal is through the premium they charge on the recharges, or top ups, that they sell you.  If you buy your top ups from the US company that sold you the SIM card, which you may need to do if they partner with one of the smaller carriers whose recharges aren't widely available in Italy, you will pay a rather large fee for that convenience.  For example, the last company we used partnered with Uno Mobile in Italy and charged $26 for 10 Euros of air time.  Even taking currency conversion into consideration, that is a profit of about 85% on the air time they were selling.  For the last few years, we have also had our IPhones which work here but are a bit expensive at anywhere from $1.00 to $1.40 per minute of use for both outgoing and incoming calls, not to mention the cost of an international data plan for internet access.  Oh, and then there's the international texting plan that we just can't do without.   As you can see, these solutions weren't particularly low cost.

So, given that we are spending a lot of time here, I decided that it was time for us to get our own Italian cell phone numbers through an Italian carrier and set out to research the various options.  The first thing I learned is that more people rely on cell phones here as their primary phone than in the US.  They are also a lot more comfortable with the "pay-as-you-go", or prepaid, plans than is common in the US.  This allows them to switch between carriers as the mood strikes them while avoiding the dreaded multi-year service contract that we are all familiar with.  Having the latest and greatest phone seems to be less of a driver here, as well, but you can certainly sign up for a contract and get a new phone at a discount just like in the US, if you want.  For example, an IPhone 4 is offered through almost all of the major carriers but it comes attached to a 30 month contract.

There are basically four major cell phone companies here in Italy:  TIM, Vodafone, Wind and Tre (which is Italian for 3).  There are other mobile virtual network operators (like Uno Mobile here or Virgin Mobile in the US), but I wanted to stick with one of the big four.  One of our other considerations was the likelihood that we would be making calls back to the US, so I wanted a combination of low cost in country calls along with the cheapest international calling plan that I could find.  I also did not want to sign up for a contract plan partly because I figured that it would be a problem given that I don't have an Italian credit card, and I just didn't want the hassle.  So, I was left with looking for a prepaid plan with one of the major carriers.  As far as easy recharging goes, they are all about the same with many places to get top ups ranging from the grocery store to every bar in the country to even your local ATM.

The biggest players are TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) and Vodafone (London based and part owner of Verizon in the US), and I decided to concentrate on them as they also offer landlines and in house internet services.  They offer similar plans and pricing is about the same.  With the prepaid plans you usually trade off a lower per minute charge for a connection fee that you pay each time you make a call.  For example, the typical in country call would cost 8 to 10 cents per minute with a 16 cent connection fee or 18 to 22 cents per minute with no connection fee.  The typical charge for calls to the US was about 50 cents per minute.  Both TIM and Vodafone offer international calling plans that include a good price on in country calls with a reduced cost for calls internationally.  TIM's was the most straight forward at 16 cents connection fee per call, 8 cents per minute in country and 20 cents per minute to the US (and most of Europe).  Strangely enough, Vodafone offered an international calling plan that did not include calls to the US.  Their plan for reduced cost calls to the US required that you sign up for a prepaid plan and then activate the international calling feature.  At least that's what they said on their web site.  I did look at the other two carriers just for comparison and discovered almost the identical plan to TIM's with the addition of an additional small monthly or semi-annual fee.  So, armed with all of this knowledge I set off to acquire two SIM cards for the two unlocked cell phones that we had brought with us.  Here is where the real fun begins. 

There are only two places in Umbertide that sell mobile phones and SIM cards.  The first is Formica, which is a general electronics and home appliance store and Telefonomio, which specializes in cell phones.  They are almost directly across the street from each other and represent almost the same carriers.   Formica represents TIM along with the other three major carriers and Telefonomio no longer represents Vodafone, despite the sign over their door, and does not represent TIM.  I set off to Formica with my translator, Simone, in tow.  There is only one person in the store who handles cell phones and there is always a line of people waiting to speak with him.  There were 3 people in front of us when we arrived at about 7:00 on Wednesday evening.

Formica - Appliance store in Umbertide
Telefonomio - Cell phones in Umbertide

We patiently waited our turn and told him what we wanted.  He immediately told us that TIM was the best option and explained that Vodafone's international plan did not include calls to the US.  As I knew that TIM was the lowest cost option, I was OK with that and told him that I would like two SIM cards.  He told me that I could only have one because they only had one in the store.  He figured that he would have more in the next day or two.  If the warehouse had them in stock.  OK, welcome to the reality of shopping in a small town that doesn't sell many international SIM cards.   I gave him my passport, my codice fiscale (tax ID number) along with a local address and proceeded to buy the one he had for Susan's phone.   I figured I would come back for the other one later.

So, for the next two days I walked down to the store and waited in line only to be told that he didn't have another SIM card.  I think he finally told me that the program was finished, so I went back to looking at Vodafone and the other carriers.  As it turns out, Vodafone had just come out with a new program that did include the US but required a two step process to get it (as previously described).  I set out to find a Vodafone store that could help me and turned to their web site to find the closest store.  Interestingly enough, they did not list Formica when I input Umbertide as my location on the Vodafone search page.  They listed several stores in Perugia and a couple in towns north of us.  Susan and I set off to one of the Perugia stores that was located close to the autostrada and, most significantly for me, not in the centro storico.

Imagine our surprise when we walked in and discovered.....A MALL!  Yes, a real Italian mall with a McDonald's, a Timberland store and a Media World store (think Fry's) that sold cell phones and SIM cards for all the major carriers.  This was the store that the Vodafone web site had directed us to and had identified as one of their full service locations.  We quickly located the correct counter and found a salesperson who spoke some English.  I told her what we wanted and she told me that my options were TIM and Wind.  For a moment there I thought I was back in Umbertide talking to the guy in Formica.  I told her that I had seen an international calling plan on the Vodafone web site.  She then went to a computer and explored the Vodafone web site only to return to tell me that in deed Vodafone did not offer a plan.  Oh, and by the way, she didn't have any Vodafone SIM cards anyway.  She did, however, have a TIM SIM card for the very plan that I had gotten Susan and for half the price (10 Euros vs 20 Euros) that I paid in Umbertide.

The Mall

So, we both now have our very own Italian cell phone number complete with a reasonable calling plan for calls within Italy and back to the US.  It took longer than I would have thought before I started the process, and I went down more dead ends than I would have in the US, but I wound up with exactly what I wanted in the end and we have the extra benefit of having discovered the mall.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More food

I woke up this morning feeling bloated.  This meant it was time for us to go on a diet.  The Stoic One thought we were doing fine, so I went out and bought a scale.  I decided that we were eating way too much, and the scale would prove to the Stoic One that he needed to cut down on our noon time eating orgy.

He was not happy.  "We only eat one meal a day", he says.  That isn't really true. He always eats his weird gruel for breakfast, don't ask, and I either eat a little yogurt or skip it.  For lunch we eat whatever we want.  Following the Italian plan, we first decide which courses we will order.  I must say we never order all of the courses.  We usually start with an antipasta and then decide if we will have pasta or a secondi, which is generally grilled meat. Sometimes we have dessert.  I was sure we were both turning into porchettas, hence the scale.  It is a very nice modern scale that weighs in pounds as well as kilograms.  So, he gets on the scale first and has LOST WEIGHT!!!!! Argh! He is so happy.  He is dancing around in his undies telling me he can eat whatever he wants.  Great!  Then he tells me that I need to weigh too.

With great hesitation, I get on the scale.  I had previously lost about 8 pounds in preparation for my eating fest here.  I look at the scale, and I weigh exactly the same as I did when I arrived 3 weeks ago....Whoah!.  How could this be?  It must be going up and down those 65 stairs 4 times a day.  We were so happy that we had not blimped out that we went out to lunch to celebrate.  You will now have to continue to endure more stories of lunch time meals and their rhapsodic descriptions of the dishes.

One of my plans in exploring our area is to have lunch in a different little town every day.  Today we explored a hill town of Bettona.  It is another of the Most Beautiful Towns in Italy.  We had been here previously but the 2 restaurants were closed.  One for the holiday and the other because they were having a christening and the family had booked the entire restaurant.  I decided that was the restaurant for us. It is high up on a hill with a beautiful view of the country side.

I ended up having one of the most unusual and delicious fish dishes I have had anywhere.  It was sea bass with diced tomatoes and tiny diced potatoes wrapped in a cabbage leaf and baked.  OMG.  The fish was perfectly cooked as were the vegetables.  I am sure the Stoic One could learn to fix this.

We ended up at this restaurant in Bettona. Lovely view and food

He had lamb chops

I had Sea bass wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Note the crispy leaf.

Unwrapped and ready to eat.

Shared dessert Catalan cream...unbelieveably delicious

After this meal, we decided we definitely had to take one of our longer walks.  This is the country side outside of Umbertide.  It is like a painting.  We walk along the Tiber River.

Just outside of town. It goes from city to country side in just footsteps.

The walk leaving town.

Others walking off lunch.  Where do they buy these clothes?

Monday, September 26, 2011

5 things to do to drive an Italian waiter crazy

It has finally happened.   A foursome of American tourists discovered our Locanda today while we were sitting by ourselves having lunch.  It is a lovely spot with a terrace and "typical Umbrian food."

Here are some photos to prove the point
Me sitting on the terrace before others arrive 
Caramella a new type of pasta for me


Vegetable timbale

Okay.  So a young Italian couple come in and sit at the other end of the terrace.  Then 2 couples of American tourists walk in.  They are about my age and are wearing biking clothes.  Ok, you have the picture.

Rule number 1 to make the waitress crazy.
1.  Talk to your waitress in English in a loud voice even though she has addressed you in Italian.  Here's the thing.  If someone speaks Italian to you it is because they don't know English!  They know you are not Italian.  Trust me, they know.  If the waitress is young and doesn't know English she will be embarrassed because she thinks she ought to know English.  If the waitress is older, she may be defensive and rude because she thinks you should know Italian. Speaking to them loudly in pidgin English won't help either.  The waitress will just look shell shocked and not know what to do.

What you should do is ask, "Parla Inglese?"  If the waitress does not, she is more likely to find you someone who can.

2.  Order items out of order.  Italians may look like there is no order or system in their lives, but it isn't true.  It is just different from Americans.  Italians are very ordered around food.  They are very serious about food.  To them, eating is not just putting calories in your system that will later be burned off.  So, there is an order in giving your order.  You will first be asked about water.  Do you want water with gas or natural.  This question needs to be answered first and then the waitress disappears while you look at the menu.  If someone shouts out beer, and someone else shouts out spaghetti, the waitress will get the same shell shocked look and god knows what you will get.  Probably the owner.  So allow the waitress to take your order in her manner.  People should go one at a time and stay on the same course.

3.  The next things that will drive her crazy.  At a table of 4 have one person order an antipasta, one person order a primi, the other person order a secondi and the last person orders a salad, which oh by the way is not on the menu.  So the American asks, "Do you have a mixed salad?" to the owner.  (The waitress has now high tailed it to the kitchen.) The owner says, "Yes, of course."  The American says, "Where is it on the menu?"  The owner says, "It isn't on the menu."  The American says,"What's in it?"  The owner says, "We make it for you what do you want in it?" The American says how many Euros?  The owner says 3.  The American says, ok my husband and I will split it."  Now everything is out of order.  The salad, which usually comes last, is expected first.  The antipasti which should arrive first is now matched up with the primi and the secondi.  There is confusion everywhere, and everyone seems unhappy.

4.  Walk into a ristorante that offers "Typical Umbrian food" and expect a full menu of things you would eat in the states.  Oh by the way, Umbrians do not think their food is Italian.  It is Umbrian. It is different from the food in Tuscany, way different from the food in Rome and Naples.  It is generally grilled meat and meat sauce with pasta.  Very little tomatoes and very little butter.  Cheese is big.  It is usually made in house.  It is good, but unless you are at a large city, like Perugia, you are going to see pretty much the same thing on the menus because Umbrian food is pretty much the same thing, if you get my drift.

5.  The final thing to do to make your waitress crazy is to order a pizza at lunch.  Italians eat their pizza for dinner and it isn't available at lunch.  Why is this? The wood pizza ovens are too hot to heat up during the day. There are some places that sell pizza by the slice at lunch, like in the grocery mall.  Need I say more?  One last thing once if you order pizza for dinner, ask for your left over pizza to go home with you.  The Italians are horrified by this.  Why?  Because they think warmed over pizza is disgusting and why would you do that to a food you can go and get fresh.

How do I know all of these things?  I have done everyone of them.