Sunday, December 25, 2016

Buon Natale 2016

Images of Christmas from Verona:

May all of you be safe, healthy and surrounded by people and animals who love you.

California through Italian eyes

The month of November, the Stoic One and I were in California and Arizona on a trip with the Florentines. We started out in Pasadena, the high school town of the Stoic One, where we rented an adorable craftsmand style cottage from VRBO. I think it was the favourite of the Florentines. The house was small enough for them, that they did not feel intimidated by the space, and I think it matched their idea of an "American house." We all loved Pasadena and can imagine living there if the circumstances were right.

It was Halloween, and our friends were quite interested in how Americans celebrated this holiday. We were with the Stoic One's family, and went off to a local haunted house that was decorated by the owners and attracted hundreds of people. They had cops monitoring traffic and had closed the streets. Unbelievable. I had forgotten how much people in southern California got into this holiday. They even decorated their mail boxes to get into the spirit.

After visits to the Botanical Gardens of the Huntington Library, which they loved, we headed east to stay at Flagstaff in order to get to the Grand Canyon. Crossing the Mojave Desert our friends kept saying "enorme" or enormous. They also came to understand the English expression "in the middle of nowhere." As Ms. Florentine said, "In Italy every where is somewhere. There is no nowhere in Italy."

Another lovely house rental through VRBO, but it was a little too large for the Florentines. I think they felt uncomfortable in the house and nervouse about following all of the many rules that the owners had laid out for us.
The next day we had a guided trip to the Grand Canyon, one of the main stops of our trip. The weather was magnificent and the scope of the Canyon is breath taking. According to our guide you could see all the way to Utah on this clearest of clear days. The Canyon is 277 miles long and at its widest point it is 18 miles across.

That is Mr. Florentine in red standing on the edge of the canyon. What you can't hear is all of us yelling at him to come down and not fall off!

If you look closely, you can see the river down there that created all of this on the right hand side of the photo about half way up.

We then went to Palm Desert to stay with our good friends Dorothee and Mike. The desert was sunny and warm and the friends were the same.  The weather was perfect mid 70's and sunny. Another place we could live if the circumstances were right. Sunny in November. We loved it.

We then traveled to San Diego and again had perfect weather. Then on up the coast to the Bay Area to visit with friends and then down the coast.

Some observations by the Florentines:
They found Americans to be open, friendly, and down to earth.
The food, which they had heard terrible stories about, was delicious. They particularly enjoyed guacamole and chips, which they had never eaten before! They also loved mole and hand made tortillas, as well as American steaks.
The found American spaces to be huge, or "enorme". The people, the houses, the portion sizes were all a little over the top for them.
Finally they absolutely loved California and understood the American dream in a totally different way.

Buon Natale a tutti!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Voting Italian Style

We are now coming to the end of this year 2016. It has been a memorable year for us in many ways. As an Italian citizen, I was eligible to vote in this country, once I attained citizenship. In prior elections, I did not vote, feeling that I was not informed enough to make thoughtful decisions. This year I read a lot about the referendum, talked to my other Italian friends, read both Italian and English newspapers and finally made my decision. I went to the commune to get my Tessera Elettorale, which gave my voting location and I went to the voting polls and voted for the first time. It was actually quite exhilerating, and I very much felt part of this community. I received a stamped booklet that marked that I voted. I need to keep this booklet for future elections to show my eligibility. I will be issued a new card once I pass my 16th election!

Otherwise the voting process is quite similar to that in the U.S. The Renzi referendum was clearly not popular with the Italians. They thought he put too many things in one amendment and did not trust him not to turn into another Mussolini. They have experience with this so I appreciate their point of view. As you can imagine, the Italians are riveted by the American elections. Trying to explain Trump to them is as impossible as trying to explain it to myself. Democracy is a messy thing.

Friday, September 16, 2016

September 2016 update

It's been a while since I have posted. I suppose that I am like other blogs that after a few years, the "newness" of things wear off and the posts start to diminish. I am facing the same situation. After 3 years here, it is becoming harder and harder to see Italy with "new" eyes. The Stoic One and I have assimilated into life here and now feel part of the fabric rather than an observer. Traveling outside of Italy gives me a jolt of perspective, or having guests will also cause me to stop, observe and comment.

Speaking of guests, we have had some delightful company, that caused us to look again at our life here in Umbria.  I also recently made a trip back to the US for a work project. It was fun to be back in California, and it is always delightful to be home.

Many people have asked us about the earthquake. Umbertide was quite lucky and had no damage. The Stoic One and Luca slept through the entire ordeal, and had no idea anything had happened until I called them at 5:00 am to wake them up! Other towns have not been so lucky, and the awareness of earthquakes in this region, like California, is always in the back of our minds.

The town is in a subdued frenzy getting ready for their annual '800 festival. Even as I write this, I can hear them hammering outside my window, building god knows what. Will try to post some pictures later once their building sets are done.

Hunting season also started the first of September. For one week hunters are forced to stand in one spot and wait for the birds to fly overhead. Needless to say that does't happen that often, and does not have a very high yield for the hunters. The following week, the hunters get to walk around the fields and shoot at the birds which fly overhead.  The third week the hunters are finally allowed to take their dogs out in the field and hunt. I'm not sure the reason for this controlled opening. Maybe it is to give the birds a head start? Anyway, we hear lots of gunshots, which in a stone town reverberates like heck, but we haven't seen any dead birds appearing on our door step. Thank heavens. Our neighbor did kill all of her chickens, telling me their hour of death was at hand. New chicks had arrived, and so the old ones were killed to be eaten later. Not much sentimentality here about life and death.

 We went to our neighbor's youngest son's confirmation (la Cresima)  on Sunday. The church was jammed. They had 40 young people being confirmed and family and friends were there for all of the 40 participants, including yours truly. Apparently you can not be married in a Catholic church in Italy unless you have been confirmed, so this is a guarantee for admittance to the next sacrament, marriage.  Let's hope that is a long way off for the boys.

The Bishop from Gubbio officates this ceremony, and like last time, he was late. The empty chairs are for the young people who process in once the Bishop is "in the house." We spent our time chit chatting and looking at all of the ladies in their high heels and lovely dresses. Finally, every thing was in place. Then mass, then finally we are all released to have a lovely pranzo.

It was more fun to be outside with the kids and watch them draw the outfits of all of the ladies.

Someone told me that Italians practise Catholicism but they didn't believe in it. So what is a "practising" Catholic? Here is one list. I would say most Italians do number 3, 4, 7 and 8. I guess that means they are "semi-practising."

1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.  

2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.

3. You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.

4. You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.

5. You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.

6. The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities

7. You shall marry according to the laws of the Church.

8. You shall raise your children in the Catholic faith and provide a Catholic education for them ( this can be in the parish school, or in CCD) 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bassano del Grappa, Italy

This is my final post from this trip. When we left Austria and crossed over into Italy, my spirits lifted. As we crossed the border there was confusion, the autogrill stop was a mess, things seemed mildly chaotic, the drivers were maniacs. Home! Strange isn't it, what we bring into our heart that feels like home. The Stoic One said I would be happy once I got to the "home of my people" and he was right. Italy is far from perfect, but for me it is real, the good and the bad mix easily. I'm not afraid to look under the covers in Italy, all the mess is right out there in the open to see.

So Bassano del Grappa. A sweet little town. Here are some photos.

A twenty four hour clock tower that was originally built in 1430. It has had a few updates in the last 600 years. 

The town has the look of some of the buildings in Venice, and indeed its history has been strongly influenced by Venetian culture.

The Ponte Vecchio, not the one in Florence, is the symbol of the city. It goes over the Brenta River. The bridge was originally designed by Palladio in 1569. It's been destroyed and rebuilt several times. We saw bullet holes in the buildings next to bridge a remnant of one of the wars.

A bit of Italian patriotism as you walk across the bridge.

And what would a return trip to Italy be without some food shots.

And finally, the grappa museum. Fun place to wander.

And there you have it folks. A fascinating trip. One of the things we wanted to do when we moved to Italy was to explore nearby countries, and yet it has become harder and harder for me to leave Italy, for I have fallen deeply, madly in love with this chaotic, mess of a country. Yes, it isn't perfect, and yet......

On the other hand, I was also quite taken by Slovenia. I was suprised at how great all the roads were on our trip, except for the dreaded E45 in Italy. The rest of the roads were very good. We stayed on the main highways and had no problems.

I was surpised at how much you can learn about a country by their road signs. In Austria, a very common highway sign was "Be Fair Take Care". It must be an effective admonition for the Austrians to drive safely, as it is used frequently.  I can't imagine it having much effect in the US, and I doubt it would even be seen by Italians zooming by. 

It was a fascinating trip with good friends. Can't wait for the next one.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Durnstein, Austria

We drove through Poland, and the Czech republic in order to get to Austria, about a 5 hour drive. Now a word about "vignettes". No, not the literary device. I'm talking about a road tax that you must pay, and then put a little slip of paper on your windshield as you drive through Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria. Additionally, if you are driving through Switzerland, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania, which we did not, you also have to pay. It is not always obvious that this toll is required, so be attentive when you cross borders and see if people are pulling over for some type of sticker. Our friends Dorothee and Mike were subjected to a big fine going through Austria so be attentive.

So we arrived in Austria to the little town of Durnstein in the Wachau area which is part of the Danube Valley. There are many wineries in this area, and some of the best white wine that I have had in Europe. Nancy picked this town for us because it was a five hour drive out, and she knew the area. It is picturesque and peaceful.

Durnstein's major claim to fame involves Richard the Lionhearted. Barbarossa, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1188 had promised the pope that he would participate in the third crusade to retake Jerusalem. As luck would have it, Barbarossa died on the trip and infighting broke about among the leaders as to who would get the loot and who would be in control. Richard tore down the Austrian flag and this ticked off Duke of Babenberg from Austria. On the way home back to England Richard was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy. He tried to get home through Germany but was recognized when his servant attempted to pay for food with a "suspicious" Byzantine coin. He was taken prisoner and imprisoned in.....Durnstein. (You knew there had to be a point here somewhere, right?) His imprisonment wasn't too bad as he could have visitors and troubadours to amuse him. The English paid a king's ransom for him and he was returned to England in 1194 after a 2 year stay.

Richard's mother was Eleonor of Aquitaine, one of my favorite historical figures. She was strong, smart and determined. Here is a placque about her.

These plaques were used throughout town and always explained the characters using the first person which I thought was quite creative.

We again stayed in a lovely, historic hotel, the Hotel Richard Lowenherz, which was a former Augustinian monestary originally built in 1340.It was later repurposed to a tavern, and then the current owners, the Thiery family, bought it in 1884 and have managed it as a hotel since then. This is the back of the property which shows the remaining monestary wall.

This monastery, called the Durnstein Monastery was built in 1720 on a site of an older building form 1410. I loved the blue color. It was recently cleaned last summer and is like an exquisite piece of sculpture.

This is the clock tower. Lovely isn't it?

.We took a river boat cruise down the Danube to Melk. Very tranquil trip inspite of the storm.

Tomorrow, we return to Italy!


Will, a good friend of ours, told us to see Auschwitz as the last site we visited in Poland because of the trauma of it. In retrospect, this was good advise, but it didn't work out that way. The heavy feelings generated by my experience at Auschwitz stayed with me. My sadness probably colored my experience of Krakow, although I was still able to experience Krakow as a charming city with great food.

The city is going through a restoration period of the old part of town. Note the difference in these two buildings. The one on the left has been rennovated and the one on the left is still waiting for someone's tender loving care.

Beetroot soup. The color is a bit off putting, but it was surprisingly delicious.

In Poland we are back to the Roman Catholic church, which in Poland is socially conservative which puts the church at a bit of odds with the current pope. Poland is deeply religious. It has more church parishes than it does hospitals or schools, and unlike Italy, people in Poland still attend mass. As you may recall, Pope John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland. Being socially conservative the church struggles with Pope Francis's attempt at inclusion, as well as his edicts about a humble life style. According to one article, the Polish cleric are particularly sensitive to this as some Polish clergy have a very lavish life style.

Certainly the churches that we saw were anything but modest, but I don't think that this makes Polish catholic churches the exception.

We did a tour of the city and realized we had not seen most of it. Many of us wished we had one more day, but I was ready to move on.

Auschwitz; Oświęcim, Poland

We arrived in Krakow after a four and a half hour drive from Slovakia. Nancy had made arrangements for us to take a tour out to Auschwitz the next day, so we had a bit of time to acclimate ourselves.

The first thing I noticed was the name of the city. The Germans changed the name of the city from Oświęcim to Auschwitz. The town now uses the Polish name, Oświęcim for the community outside of the camp, but the world still knows and calls this place by its German name: Auschwitz.

As bad as I thought it would be to visit this place, it was worse. A Jewish rabbi friend of mine said that we honor the dead by remembering, and we remember by making these types of journeys. I know that is true, and it is horrific to see and experience this place first hand.

The day of our visit was cloudy and bleak befitting the circumstances of the place. We took a bus from Krakow out to the the camp. I was surprised that the buildings on the compound were all made of brick. For some reason, in my mind, I thought they would have been made of wood. It was originally built to hold Polish political prisoners.

Here are some facts:
* More people died in Auschwitz than all of the combined loses of British and Americans in WWII.

* 1.1 million people died during the four and a half years of Auschwitz's existence.

* Only 144 people were known to have escaped from Auschwitz.

* Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier, volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to gather information, escape and let the world know about the mass murders that were being committed there.

*The camp commandant was arrested in 1946, convicted of murder and hanged at the camp.

People during the war arrived by train on these tracks. A decision was immediately made whether they were fit for work or if they would immediately go to the gas chamber. Old people, children, the infirm were immediately sent to be killed.

They initially entered through this gate with the cast iron sign over it
Arbeit macht frei

Work sets you free.

 Originally the Nazis took photographs of entering people to identify them. There was a wall of photographs that we walked by that was haunting and incredibly sad. Soon the Nazis realised that after three months, the photographs were useless because the people were no longer recognizable as a result of starvation and unrelenting manual labor. They then came up with the idea of tattoos. 

We saw the building where some children were originally kept. Generally they murdered the children immediately since they couldn't work, so I don't know how these children survived for a while.

We saw rooms of shoes, glasses, hair, items that had been carefully saved by the Nazis.. Personal items of the arrivals were stored in a building that the camp people called "Canada" because in their mind that was the land of plenty. It was almost unbearable to go through the exhibits. So many lives lost for no reason. Such deprivation and unrelenting dehumanising behaviours from the guards. 

The question is how do human beings become so disassociated from their better selves that they can do something like this? The Nazis did not view the people in the camp as human. They made the "other" so vile in their own minds that it didn't matter if they were worked to death or starved to death. The purpose of the camp was to kill people. People lasted only about 3 months at the camp. Disease, starvation, and/or the gas chamber killed 1.1 million people in this place. 

It is important to remember that we human beings are capable of doing such a thing.

Even though the Allies knew, more or less, what was going on here, they did not bomb the tracks leading into the camp as had been requested by a Jewish Community to the Assistant Secretary of War, John J McCloy. The Russians were the ones to liberate the camp.

I include this as a piece of reflection.

It is important to remember that we must never vilify the "other" to such an extent that we lose the sense of our common connection with them. No matter how evil we believe their acts are we are all of the same human race.

The next week after we were in Auschwitz Pope Francis was there.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bratislava, Slovakia

Slovakia felt very different than Slovenia. Less playful, more serious, more closed rather than open. It could be because Slovakia is the recently appointed 6 month home of the rotating President of the European Counsel, a political governing instituion  of the EU. According to a Slovakian web site:

"It is not enough for the country holding the Presidency to be merely the 'manager' of the Council and the Council's voice for its six monthis in office. It must also act as an honest and neutral broker, working towards consensus between all Member States and the other institutions of the Union."

Slovakia as established as a country in 1993, has a population of 5.4 million, more than twice the size of Slovenia. It joined the EU in 2004, and like Slovenia, its currency is the Euro. Slovenia was part of the ex-Yugolsalvia and Slovakia was part of the ex-Czechoslovakia. George W. Bush, remember him? got the two confused when he was president, so try hard not to follow his example! Bratislava is in Slovakia. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia. Ok, back to Bratislava. It was HOT, HOT, HOT while we were there so not too many photos.

The main square with surrounding embassies.

This is a picture of Michael's Gate, which is the only city gate that has been preserved from the medieval fortifications. It was built around 1300.

On to the food...Well the national dish is dumplings, cheese and bacon. What's not to like with that except 10,000 calories?

I must say it was very delicious, but one was enough for a day's meal.
We had lunch in a gastropub that reminded me of a place I ate in Oakland, Ca.

We stayed at a very nice hotel in the Old part of town.

The airconditioning worked great, and the service, once again, was outstanding.

Conclusions on Bratislava. I was glad we visited, but the old part of town lacked the charm of Ljubljana. Probably would not return unless there was a special reason to go.

Next stop....Poland.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana was an unexpected delight. I fell in love with this young and vibrant city. Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia, and the home of the University of Ljubljana. The university has a population of about 54,000 undergraduate students in a city population of only about 270,000 people.  Considering the fact that Slovenia itself has only about 2 million people, young people play a large part in Slovenian society. The population is composed of 58% Catholic, 2.5% Muslim, and about 2.2% Orthodox Christian. Interestingly to me, 38% do not identify with any religion. The country is bordered by Austria, Italy, Croatia, Hungary and the Adriatic.  The north western part of the country is quite mountainous.

According to Slovenian Facts, there is also one winery or brewery for every 70 people! It became an independent country in 1991 and became part of the EU in 2004.

Hugging the sides of the Ljubljanica river, Ljubljana boasts a cafe society where most people are not only young but also speak English. People were friendly, professional, and seemed genuinely happy to have visitors.

I love this photo with the "Petit Bateau" on the sign.

The population seemed so young to us that we were making jokes about what they did with all of the old people. At home working? In the fields? Died off? I don't know, but compared to Italy, Slovenia seemed very young.

Tivoli park provides a large green space in the heart of the city. Ljubljana is serious about their "green" reputation of sustainability.

Okay. You may think this photo is weird, but I thought it was so cool that they give away trash bags in their park! Not just dog poop bags, but actual trash bags. I might add that there is no trash on the streets or in the park. It is a remarkably clean city for its size.

The hotel we stayed at, was quite lovely, although an odd combination of Victorian and Communism. You'd have to see it to get it.  The service was excellent. Many other famous people had stayed there, including the Dali Lama and Bill and Hillary.

The city is known for its 3 bridges, and indeed Melania Trump, who was born in Slovenia,  supposedly hung out at one of the cafes near here, just to give everyone equal time.

This is a photo of the dragon from the Dragon Bridge. He is made of copper. I love this photo by the Stoic One. The tail of the creature is great.

Now, a minor lesson in theology. Many of the churches we saw on this trip were Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split in 1054...a bit of a time ago. The Eastern church has been centered on the Greek language while the Western church on Latin. The differences get more arcane, and if interested you can research it, but one of the noted differences, at least to a protestant, are the use of icons in the Orthodox church. These are more than just a painting. True believers posit that it is a window into heaven.

The rules about sacred icons are strict. The iconographer must fast and pray before beginning the painting. The icon will never be signed. Everything about the icon is predetermined based on history. The colours, facial expressions, poses are all predetermined. The purpose of the icon is to convey a divine reality.

Here are some photos from the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Cyril and Methodius in Ljubljana .

As ornate as the church is inside, the outside is very plain. When you walk in and see the colours and the intricacy, it literally takes your breath away.

A few more facts about Slovenia. The prime minister is Miro Cerar. He has been in office since 2014. It was the the first new EU member to adopt the euro as currency in 2007. It has a highly educated work force and has minimum foreign investment. Those of you who might be looking for a place outside of the US should look at Slovenia. The prices are good, the people are friendly and it has great beer and good wine. What more could you ask for?

Next up....Bratislava in Slovakia.