Thursday, June 27, 2013

A visit to Matera

When I looked at the weather for Italy in May, it looked like rain everywhere, so I wanted our guests to have a good time and not sit around in the rain.  We decided to go south to the city of Matera.  The city is known for the caves or the Sassi stones.  Sasso means stones in Italy, and the town is made up of
very soft stones called Tufa.

There have been inhabitants in Matera since prehistoric times.  Many people believe it is the oldest human settlement in Italy.  It is said it has a resemblance to Jerusalem, which many film directors, including Mel Gibson, have taken note of.  We had a tour with a very knowledgeable guide who was born in the town but went to University of Bari for his degree.

The view from the parking lot up toward the houses.  They were built in caves and then built out as fronts to the cave insides.

This was the inside of the restaurant of our hotel.  Beautifully designed, and very cool!

The view of Matera at night.  

See the little caves lined up on the hill?  Originally people lived in there, but they moved across the ravine and abandoned these caves.  Can you guess why, our guest wanted to know?  We guessed water, vegetation, defense...all wrong...this side was too shady and the caves were gloomy. They moved across the way because the caves got more sun and they were not so moist.

People lived in these caves until after the Second World War when the Italian government made the people move.  If you look past the purple striped bed spread you seen our friend Ben looking into the cave.  They rolled win barrels down there to store them.  The beds were raised high so that the chickens could stay safe under the bed at night and eggs would be easy to find.  I can only imagine the smell.

They had to move because they were dying off from malaria because of the unsanitary conditions.  Carlo Levi wrote about the cave people in a book called Christ Stopped at Eboli.  It is a fascinating read if you are interested in this area.  
Matera is in a competition to the the EU Cultural Capital for 2019.  They are very enthusiastic about it and trying to reclaim the caves to get the tourists to come.  I doubt they will win, but it is definitely worth a stop, even a trip out of your way to visit this place from long ago.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Top 10 things for Guests who visit homes in Italy

Between ourselves and our American friends, we now have had many different types of guests.  We just had some great guests, and they just had some not so great guests. We started discussing what was it that made some guests fun and others difficult. Here is my top ten list of things to know if you are coming for a visit in someone's home in Italy and you want to make the hosts' life easier.

10.  This is your hosts' home.  We are not on vacation when we are home; we actually live here.  This means that sometimes we need to do errands like grocery shopping, go to the dry cleaners, the pharmacy, etc.  This is just like doing errands in the US except we are in Italy.  These trips, which may seem foreign and exotic to the guest, as they did for us in the beginning, now are everyday occurrences. As we are Americans, not Italians, we want to do these things as quickly and as efficiently as is possible in this country.  We know which checker at the co-op is quick, which is somnolent, and which is just plain nasty so we may go in a line that seems longer, but will be faster in the end. We have learned how to protect ourselves from the 3 foot tall little old ladies who use their shopping carts as bull dozers to cut in line and we stand our ground even if it seems rude. If we say we just want to run to the grocery store for a minute, it pretty much means we want to go alone to get it done quickly. Sometimes it is fun to watch the new guests wrestle with the little plastic gloves that we use to choose fruit, but sometimes we just want to get in and get it done. If we ask you to come with us, definitely come if you are interested, but if we say we need to run some errands, that is code for we need to dash around to get things done before everyone takes the "pausa" at 12:30!

9.  Plumbing.  Most of us expats have chosen to live in ancient buildings.  This means the plumbing is ancient as well, and certain things can not be put in the toilet that we could put in at home, i.e. dental floss and other things you can imagine...toilet paper only...otherwise trouble.

8. Use of utilities....the utilities in Italy are 4 times as expensive as they are in California.  Dryers are a huge consumer of electricity. This is why everyone puts their clothes on lines and racks to dry.  If we suggest we take your clothes to a wash and dry place go along with us.  They wash the clothes, dry them and fold them for 8E. for a HUGE load.  This is a good idea especially if you want to wash and dry jeans.  If you are expecting your hosts to drive you around, be aware of the high cost of fuel for the car.  For us, it costs us $130 to fill up the gas (diesel) tank.  Be aware of this expense and if being driven on a long trip, offer to pay for some of the fuel.

7. We are not tour guides.  Think if a someone visit your home town.  You could recommend restaurants, points of interest etc. but how knowledgeable are you about the topography, the birds, the plants, the history, the politics etc.  Some of you are probably knowledgeable, some not so much.  In other words, do your own research of the place you are visiting and tell your hosts what you are interested in experiencing and then they can guide you.

6.   Everything takes longer in Italy than in the US.  I repeat, EVERYTHING takes longer in Italy than in the US. In spite of the stereotype, Italians are very patient with things that drive us nuts.  Standing in line is an Italian pass time.  If you are going to any popular sites, know that you WILL stand in a long line unless you have made prior arrangements to get special reservations.  Also know that the lines in Italy are not like in the US.  I just got back from an office that required everyone to take a number and the "now being served" number over head was 88. OK, seems pretty normal.  An hour later, the number was still 88 but the Italians watch who is supposed to be next not what the numbers say.  Pay attention to what the Italians do, it is not what Americans are used to doing.  

5. Be aware of fact of the "pausa".  In Italy most people still drive home for lunch, if they possibly can. Offices close at 1:00 and do not open again until 4:00, 4:30, 5:30 who knows.  If you are not at the place you want to visit by 10:00 you will not be able to visit until late afternoon or early evening. It is too hot to be out and about anyway.  As luck would have it this rule still applies in the winter.  Am unsure what the reason is for the "pausa" then but they still do it.  This rule is not so strictly applied in the big cities.  However, if you are in Umbria, trust me, things will be closed at 1:00 and you better stay off the roads as everyone zooms home.

4. Leave your cynicism at home.  There are some Italians who are trying to rip you off but no more than in the US.  Use your good sense and judgment.  Many Italians are people pleasers.  If they see someone who is struggling or in the need of help, they will jump in to assist you.  They do not expect payment for this.  It is a "piacere" a favor or a pleasure to do.

3. If you are staying for more than a week, give your host a break, and go off by yourselves for a day or two. You will appreciate your independence and the hosts will appreciate the break.  Italy is about coming across the unexpected pleasures.  If you are always led and protected by your hosts, you won't experience the joy of discovery.  One of my greatest pleasures is to have guests who come back to the house and recite their adventures, discoveries, etc.  It is a joy to hear and I often learn new things about my area!

2. Try not to complain to your hosts about things in Italy.  We know, we know, but having our guests tell us makes us think you want us to fix it which is not possible.  To us your complaints feel like we are not being good hosts.  We want you to have the best experience possible and love Italy as much as we do.  If there is something we can fix for you, please tell us.  If you want to complain about how Italy is different from and less than the US, share it with your fellow travelers, not your hosts.

1. The most important thing for me is for our guests to enjoy themselves.  Italy is a place of wonder, the food, the culture, the art, the people.  When my guests experience that wonder, that is the only thank you I need.  I am thrilled to have people visit and to experience Italian life different from the tourist Italian life.  This is such a crazy place.  It is not everyone's cup of tea, but we hope everyone finds something to love here, even if it is only your hosts.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gubbio Redux

When friends come to visit, we love to take them to Gubbio.  It isn't that far, about 40 minutes drive, and we know how to park and enter the city without finding ourselves in the city center.  When you drive a car the size of a beast, it is very unfortunate to find yourself on a street that was meant for a donkey and a cart!

So about Gubbio.  I wrote about it before when there was a wedding there. Gubbio has a very long, turbulent history.  They were up on that hill before the Romans.  As a hill town, it is a great place to visit.

You never know what you are going to see. There are shops, restaurants, art, everything you would like for a Sunday afternoon.  We were there and came upon a medieval practice of flag throwing.  We had seen this before in Siena.

The next act was a young boy in training.  He was adorable!  He dropped the flag on the ground and everyone broke out in applause as encouragement.

In Umbria, in the summer time, you can not tour the province without running into some colorful spectacle.  They love to dress up in colorful clothes, eat and hear music.  What could be better?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Back in Umbertide

We arrived in Italy on Thursday and it has been a bit of a whirlwind since.  We have been blessed with beautiful weather, temperature in the 70's and no rain to speak of.  Rome is eternally beautiful and frustrating.  Too large to put my arms around but every little district greets me like an old friend welcoming me home. The hustle and bustle is like New York without the organized grid and behavior of Americans.

Our good friends Ben and Barbara are with us.  We grew up in business together in the world of Apple Computer.  For years we would dissect our time there, commenting on this or that leader's foibles, but with time our experience there sunk into a true background of life experiences and now we just enjoy spending time.  They have been to Italy before spending one month in an apartment in Venice, so they were prepared for the ups and downs of Italian life.

Our Italian friend Simone met us with our car at the train station in Foligno and drove us into town. It is so wonderful for us to return.  People say "Benritornati" which means welcome back.  I realize I hardly ever here that in the US.  Usually we say "Where have you been?  I haven't seen you in a while."  A different mind set.

Umbertide at night is a special treat.
Speaking of treats, summer is the time for gelato.

If I keep eating like this, I will really blend in with the older Italian block women!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Susan's 2013 Farewell Tour

The word "good by" English is very unsatisfying. It implies one "good by" and then I am gone. That is not what is I am experiencing. I am saying "good by" every day to something. "Good by" to my house.  "Good by" to my car.  "Good by" to my work. It all became too much with the "good by's". I decided to change my mindset from saying good by to saying farewell. It seems more cooperative; there is more back and forth. I am leaving and I wish you well. I love this word.

So this week I tried to say Farewell to my friend Jenny. She has been my writing partner for 13 years and we shared each others' stories in the deepest way. We decided to have our farewell in San Francisco, at the Cafe Samovar, and make it a special day. We usually meet at her house because her house is wheel chair accessible. Our Farewell lunch was to be a big outing for us.
The day in San Francisco was beautiful. It was warm, and sunny and the sky was a special blue.

I waited and waited, but no Jenny. Here she is.

I went inside gave a cursory look, and went back outside to wait. My back was to the entrance as I was enjoying the view. I ordered lunch, thought of Jenny, hoped she was ok.i didn't have her cell number and she didn't have mine. I emailed her and left a message on her home phone. I had a lovely lunch alone and realized I felt perfectly fine eating alone. A first for me.

I later found out that Jenny was inside the restaurant waiting for me while I was outside waiting for her. Neither one of us wanted to say good by so we shared the same space and said "fare thee well" to one another.