Leaving Italy

Posted on: Thursday, November 23rd, 2000
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  • Tolfa, Italy.

If you’ve learned to love Italy, you hate to leave Italy.

The place is unusually human—despite its spiritual obsession. And the country seems so enlightened—despite governmental disorder that makes America’s look minor. We awoke to blue skies the day we left, naturally. We slurped one last cappuccino, raced for Rome’s airport, and used our sunglasses for the first time in a month. It was also the first time we were able to take off nearly every layer we’d brought. A cruel joke? Yes, and no one laughed. But in our minds, we saw God winking as he touched our fingertips like he does in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel—as if to say, “Come back soon; but next time, not in November.”

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From Tuscan Storms to Tolfa’s Warmth

Posted on: Wednesday, November 22nd, 2000
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  • Tolfa, Italy.

When we left Tuscany—where we could not finish this web site because the storms blew out our phone—at least live people near us were missing and presumed dead after their home had been washed into the Serchio River.

Sirens rang regularly. Highways were closed all over. And the locals were seriously upset. We received lots of impassioned advice about how to get to Rome to catch our plane. In the end, we drove (or should we say hydroplaned) along the tempestuous coast. It had been a bittersweet stay.

Our last night was in Tolfa, a village in the Lazio region an hour north of Rome. A rugged area where mountains meet coast, we loved the change of place. We stayed in a rich Roman’s summer villa, which a local family rents to tourists who come for weeklong activity holidays. (If you’re visiting Italy soon, check out what this industrious family has created on their website, Although the home could accommodate a dozen, we were the sole guests. So we dined for hours with the family (including their children) and enjoyed a royal sendoff.

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Scenes from Sommocolonia

Posted on: Tuesday, November 21st, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

Our Headdquarters in Italy is the stunning mountain village of Sommocolonia, which was sunny this one Sunday.

There’s not much to do here—no bar, bakery, or shop of any kind. Meanwhile, the population has dropped from 97 to 65 in the ten years we’ve been visiting. Nonetheless, for a dose of “la dolce far niente,” Sommocolonia can be just about perfect.

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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Time

Posted on: Monday, November 20th, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

We adore fresh herbs, and were thrilled when U.S. supermarkets finally began offering them some years back.

Of course, those herbs come in plastic packages holding a fraction of an ounce, and cost about two bucks for those five leaves. Here, herbs grow like bushes, if not trees. And when the rosticceria man says the chicken is stuffed with rosemary, he means a small shrub’s worth. The distinction produces not only tastier food, but a lifestyle that asserts that the time it takes to tend gardens, prepare meals, and serve others is not only time well spent, it’s priceless.

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Wild Weather Wild Weather Wild Weather Wild Weather

Posted on: Saturday, November 18th, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

We don’t mean to sound so Minnesotan—where people relentlessly talk about the weather—but here we go again.

The weather here has been amazing (we mean that in a bad way) and it’s brought out the Paul Douglas in everyone. They’re calling it “the storm of the century” from Scotland to Spain to Austria to Italy. They’re discussing global warming and cow flatulation. After 26 days in Europe, we’ve seen two days with sun. Rain has fallen by the foot, not inch. And destruction lurks anywhere and everywhere: Landslides, washed-out roads, fallen trees and homes (and people), and more. Such gloomy conditions certainly compromised our visions and pictures. But it also produced a few sights of its own.

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Traveling with Children

Posted on: Friday, November 17th, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

So here we are, going around the world in some fantasy temporary retirement. There’s only one (for now) thing distorted with this picture: We’re toting a 3 1/2 year old.

He’s been a great sport so far—sleeping better than us on planes and trains, and oblivious to time changes. He may not “get it,” though, and sometimes asks about a faraway sandbox, or when we’re going home. He misses his playmates. He carries his baseball glove around as if he yearns for Italy to suddenly embrace that sport and, then, himself. But that prop here elicits more stares than smiles

He’s hard work. And some of us aren’t used to 24/7 parenting (he’d likely say the same thing). Yet he spots lizards and slugs where we see only a sculpture, and he’s picking up Italian like the rest of us do—through food, friends, and faking it.

He may not remember much of this trip; certainly my remaining images from being three are more formed by family photos and stories than actual recollection. I felt downright guilty when, in Lucca, he began to chase after other children on the sidewalks. They just don’t do that kind of thing in Italy, although the children (and mothers) were quite understanding. It had been days since the sun had shined—or he’d played with little people—and they could see it in his eyes.

Yet when I think back to his first trip to the ocean, to Ixtapa, Mexico, on his first birthday, travelling with children seems right again. He could barely walk, never mind that he was strong (willed) as a bull. And he loved that ocean. Something awakened. He attacked the water like a salmon swimming upstream; salt and sand in his face only strengthened his resolve. And as for waves, well, he had no fear of drowning and saw them as mere rides on a playground.

He’s a good inspiration that way, since the waves are everywhere. I do wish he had a better idea of where we’re going, and why. But then I’d want him to explain it to me. And at this point, perhaps the point is not knowing.

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Trying to Adapt

Posted on: Thursday, November 16th, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

We could go on and on about the challenges of international technology and connectivity—and we have before.

But for now, check out this sculpture of adaptors. And consider that mastering them was nothing compared to getting e-mail hooked up. (Which was nothing compared to the fact a lightning bolt that shook our stone house blew out phone service for more than week.)

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A Day in Lucca

Posted on: Tuesday, November 14th, 2000
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  • Lucca, Italy.

Lucca is this area’s sparkling center, packed with wealth and style inside its mammoth walls, and showing fewer small-town overtones than most of the many villages in the Garfagnana.

We spent a few days there—taking a break from watching the clouds. The rain falls there too, but one’s spirits are brightened considerably by the city’s many inviting diversions and timeless sights.

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The Way and the Light

Posted on: Saturday, November 11th, 2000
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Sommocolonia’s church dates back to the 1100s.  But it’s been around the chopping block a few times since then, including near-destruction on 12/26/44.  On that day, in these streets, a Resistance army of many nationalities stopped the Nazis in their tracks.  Repairs to the church—including the modern floor—help cement the generations and tell the stories.

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The Latest from Italia (Random Travel Notes)

Posted on: Thursday, November 9th, 2000
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  • Sommocolonia, Italy.

Much has changed since we were here in 1994 and 1996. And a lot hasn’t. Here are some observations and random travel notes.

  • English Spoken Here?

Both the French and Italians seem increasingly willing to exercise their English. Often, it’s hospitality staff who sense that their bad English is more efficient than your bad Italian. But sometimes it’s older folks eager to practice—and tell you about their visit to Chicago. We’re still surprised at how many youngsters with years of English studies can’t handle a “How are you?” But that’s OK; it makes us try our Italian.

  • Fun with Linguistics.

English keeps penetrating, getting cooler. TV shows or segments have names like “Pure Morning” and “Help,” while phrases like “guitar god” and “top model” are common. We’re always most moved by the gibberish on clothing, though, like this motorcycle jacket: “Rare People Only. Bomb Boogie Bomb. Permanent Expression for Rare Jackets. For Exclusive and Personal Flights. One and Only Company.

  • Diversity Rules.

Most European nations haven’t tasted the melting pot like the U.S. has. But advertising (and other) imagery no longer features only beautiful, quintessential Italians. In fact, most ads depict far more skin tone variety than the typical town or piazza.

  • The Sound of Music.

When we first walked into our favorite bar in Barga, an older gentleman was serenading the gang with an operatic aria. Some were enraptured, some were bored. But such still remains routine here, and singing echoes through the streets at any hour. Popular music seems to have improved; Italian rappers have arrived; jazz is hot; and American hits still lead the parade. But they’ve finally quit playing that Cher song that just wouldn’t go away

  • The Sound of C-Phones.

“Telefoninos” are everywhere, and most feature a loud, long signature ring—or make that a shrill excerpt from some musical piece. No one appears to feel any limitations about using them anywhere and thus sharing their lives. The only limitation evident, in fact, is that the talker must now facilitate gestures with one hand

  • Independent Bureaucracy.

Not much changes in the way that business (big or not) is transacted (or not). A fine wine we wanted went up in price twice while we shopped—once when the son sensed our interest and again when his mother rang up the sale. A restaurant owner maintains a full bar without license, but fears no bust since he knows the licensor. Real estate may be sold either through agents that charge hefty fees and mark up properties—or directly from the seller and likely involving suitcases of cash.

  • Toilet Patrol.

Toilet humor aside, there’s noteworthy progress in this arena. The biffies are generally spiffier, which is great news for hygiene-happy Americans. There’s also a growing preponderance of automatic flushers, sinks, and towel dispensers (though they rarely work right). Don’t leave home without toilet paper, though. And ask permission before visiting the loo, or at least announce your intentions, which is more essential the smaller the establishment and the more filthy the toilet is likely to be.

  • Fall Fashions.

These days the Italian kids are more conscious of their personas. Many were sporting hair gels, piercings, tattoos, dreadlocks, and such—especially young men. But compared to our homeboys, their demeanor was demure and tidy. Baggy pants and backwards caps were not to be found. As for the ladies, they’re are dying their hair (particularly in shades of red) and wearing elevator shoes. But a tasteful, understated style still rules the streets

  • Exporting the Wealth Effect.

The U.S. economy has been kind to Americans for years now, and thus consumerism has become the growth engine and national pastime. But we’re not alone. Shopping is popular here too. Big cars and even SUVs are clogging skinny streets. And you may have to book days ahead for a table in a tony restaurant—and that’s during the off-season

  • BYO Sunscreen & Sunglasses.

In the U.S., restaurants and bars tend toward the dark, or at least subtle, lighting. Not so here. Going out means someone else is paying the electricity (which is expensive) so people want it real bright. When guests arrive, proprietors may turn up the lights and smile and point proudly. Preferring dimness, we occasionally found ourselves in request battles over lighting levels with other guests. We always lost, even if the manager agreed with us

  • Where There’s Smoke.

We must confess: We’re from Minnesota, the land of 10,000 anti-smoking laws. Smiling smokers may find us unenthused, though we know to keep quiet. But Italy seems to be clearing the air. We saw smokers outside office buildings. Others stepped away or to an open window. One restaurant (admittedly a pricey one) even had smoke-eaters in the ceiling. There are still plenty of people eager to share nonstop second-hand smoke with you, and places where clean air never existed. But smoking may be becoming a privilege, not a right

  • Got Beer?

Perhaps the most obvious change in Italy is their new taste for beer. It’s cool to shun wine and swill brew—never mind that it may cost five times as much. Taps are proliferating, although holding a bottle is more chic. But whatever you do, think twice about drinking an Italian beer. Go for Beck’s or Bud or something from Bavaria.

  • More Wine.

In the past, spotting a French or Californian wine was more rare than spotting a French Californian tourist. Now, you may find wines from both places—and a few others. We can’t help but notice that the California wines offered with panache and high price point here might be pedestrian in the U.S. But of course, they could probably say the same about the Italian stuff we sip at home.

  • The Waiter Is Always Right.

We know the drill, we’ve spent much time here. But we’re still rattled by the way waiters want your order before you’ve even read the menu, they want all possible courses at once, and they rarely remember who ordered what. As for “when-in-Rome” rules, if you like your coffee with your dessert (like most Americans), fuggetaboutit; your waiter knows better.

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