This past week I visited the ancient walled city of Lucca, just west of Pisa, in Tuscany. It was an amazing introduction to Tuscany. The weather was mild, the leaves were turning, and the roosters crowed every morning on the hills just outside of the walls of town. A climb up hundreds of very narrow stairs led to the top of Torre Guinigi, or known as the Treetop Tower, that provided a well earned vista of Lucca and the surrounding hills, hence my new photo header for this phase of the blog. Apparently, the tower was originally built for the Guinigi family, who once ruled over Lucca and protected the city against the Medici of Florence. It’s 44 meter high rooftop garden sprouts Oak trees that can be seen all over the city.
A fly-by stop in Pisa, on the way to the train station, offered a lovely view of the leaning tower and Duomo, no less impressive in real life, after years of only seeing pictures. I will have to go back when there is more time. Although the swarms of cheap-goods-from-China peddlers who get insistently in your face and don’t seem to want to take ‘no’ for an answer, were a bit of a turn off.
One also has to be deft at dodging the hoards of tourists stopping suddenly to snap photos of each other cutely ‘holding up’ the tower. I never understand this behavior. I can only imagine what it’s like in August. But wandering far down a side street, sufficiently away from the center of the action, a gem of a restaurant was found which yielded mounthwatering gnocchi with white fish cooked with I-can’t-even-begin-to-describe spices, Osso Bucco that fell off the bone it was so tender, and equally delicious and tender wild boar.
On the home front, homeschooling was resumed this week. I could not find an equivalent to Borax here in Italy so sadly, our science experiments thus far have gone splat, rather than pop. I tried replacing it witih copious amounts of baking soda, but clearly this did not work.
The struggle over math continues. This perhaps has been too painful to even mention previously. It might not be an understatement to say that L would rather endure having a filling without novacaine, or maybe even a week without the PS3, than math homework. After throwing up my hands and deciding to give it a rest for a while, a friend suggested the Saxons Homeschooling math series which, as a vetern homeschooler, she swears by. It moves incrementally, with lots of built in repetition, before moving onto the next concept. Perfect for someone to whom math doesn’t come easily. Although it is easy to get caught up in the worry of L falling behind, I am trying not only to keep in mind the macro picture, but also, remember that not everyone’s brain is ready to learn math at the same time. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part. There has been some research to suggest that kids who are either homeschooled or in some form of progressive education and are able to postpone math until the middle school years, are able to grasp the concepts much more quickly than their younger counterparts, and move through it with much greater ease and competency.
On a final random note for this week, I have discovered that in Italy, you can have your pizza and salad all-in-one, thereby eliminating any lingering guilt for eating yet more pizza in the first place. It's called The Breruga at our local pizzeria, and is cooked with the usual tomato sauce, mozzarella, topped with bresaola ham. Then once out of the oven, it is thoroughly covered with fresh arugula and roughly grated parmesan cheese. The result is pure heaven!
Venice at dusk, on the way to station.
There is a well worn truism that every parent knows, and possibly those who have chosen not to become parents: if you want to come face to face with the deepest, darkest, and ugliest part of your soul – have children. For through parenting you are forced to view yourself anew, and often those parts of yourself you would rather not contend with are reflected back to you through the eyes, and behavior, of your children.
Of course, it’s not all sturm and drang, there are occasional pinnacles of great joy, with a more common peppering of cozy, contented moments. I believe this same truism can be applied to the light that is shed upon yourself from the experience of travel. My friend Scott, a journalist among other things, conducted an interview with the well known travel writer, Pico Iyer, who said that “[Travel] confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home.” I couldn’t agree more.
a Prosecco Aperol outside at La Piccola Osteria
This is one of my favorite places in Vicenza. The perfect little Enoteca, or wine bar, where I can sit and write, and be familiar yet anonymous. Italian tumbles around me. The servers and owners know me by now. I am an island with my notebook and neon-looking Prosecco Aperol, yet I greet enough people as to not feel marooned. I watch the regulars and wonder whether my observations of their characters are as spot on as I think they are. I enjoy the sweetness of the apertivo against the saltiness of the complimentary bowl of chips they give me, against my far better judgment.
The 1980’s disco tracks provide just the right slightly ironic ambiance. The ceiling is framed by wooden beams, wine bottles line the walls, along with cobbled stones. The glass case by the bar displays all the mouthwatering tapas-style bites – or spunciotteria – available to pad your alcoholic intake. The door stays open no matter the weather so people can sit or stand outside or in.
This particular evening there is the dandy man in his silk suit and nearly wing-tipped black loafers sitting next to me who, after studying his iPhone and waiting for 45 minutes for his date to arrive, moved to the bar to make his eventual exit a bit less noticeable, or so I imagine. Then there is the couple – work colleagues perhaps – safely flirtatious, sharing a drink and smoke just outside. A house painter stops by on his way home from work to have a glass of wine and small plate of fresh anchovies.
The other night I attempted to go to an English-speaking networking drinks-do at a bar in downtown Vicenza while L was at soccer practice. Apparently, my interpretation of ‘Happy Hour’ – when it was supposed to take place – needs an Italianesque revision. I showed up at what I thought was a respectable 7:15pm to find the place utterly empty. I found out today that it didn’t get started until nearly 9 and went until after midnight. Since I decided not to hang around waiting, looking like an adrift tourist, desperate to speak English, I left. My motive for the whole outing was to hopefully meet some other expats in Vicenza who either might have a lead on private Italian lessons, or even better, might have kids L’s age. But it was not meant to be last night, and I rode my bike back to the neighborhood where I stopped in at Piccola Osteria before heading home. It was of course, warm, bright, full of people and welcoming. The bartender poured me a glass of a new Montepulciano, which I savored, along with my own plate of fresh anchovies, before biking the rest of the way home.
Piccola Osteria, Via Alfonso Lamarmora, 147, 36100, Vicenza, Italy.
Some weeks I just don’t know what to write. It’s not that nothing is happening, but that what’s happening just doesn’t seem blog worthy. In the scheme of things, I’m still pretty new at this. And I have some old fashioned hesitation about ‘over-sharing’ my personal life and thinking that anyone would find that worth reading about amidst the information overload that is already every day life.
Our adventures have plateaued for the moment, as we are staying put in Vicenza for a while. I am trying to navigate the Italian bureaucratic requirements in order to enroll L in school while we are here. I’m also trying to sort out more insurance requirements so he can practice with the local football club and we’re both studying Italian.
I have found a wonderful indoor pool just down the road where I can swim laps while L is at football practice or with his new friends. I have continued to swim my laps (my personal sanctuary) in whatever country we have been in. So it is with this cross-country perspective that I do just have to note how much I have been struck by the fact that the majority of both men and women I see at the pool – of all ages – seem to be incredibly fit. The difference between what I have observed in Germany, the UK and of course, the US, is stark enough to make one pause and ask, “Where the hell if all that pasta going? Because it does not seem to be sticking to most Italian’s thighs, ass, hips, etc.!
It really is quite astonishing. I am tempted to attribute it to all the cigarettes that most of them still smoke. At a dinner the other night of 10-12 people, at one point I noticed I was the only one in the room not smoking – I am not exaggerating.
More likely it comes down to portion size. Italians will have a small serving of pasta of some various form, followed by a meat and vegetable. Bread is available but never served with butter or even olive oil, like some trendy American restaurants like to provide, for dipping. Or maybe it is still the relative scarcity of fast food available. It’s there – even in Vicenza there is a McDonalds (but no Starbucks) – but good, home-cooked food is still deeply embedded in culture and tradition here.
However, the highlight of the week for me was a lazy Sunday lunch at a trattoria on a hillside outside of town. Gnocchi with shrimp and porcini mushrooms, followed by an assortment of grilled meats, and of course, plenty of prosecco. For L, the highlight was a guided tour of my friend’s pharmaceutical factory (see above and below) where they make, package and ship everything from suppositories to high end skin and beauty products. It was a treat for L to get to see up close how everything works. Meanwhile, for me it’s back to the pool to work off the gnocchi as I am not so confident I am going to absorb the Italian’s Teflon girth-fighting ability!
Beautiful church on the way to Da Vittorio
And now for a little food diversion. Yesterday we went to a pizzeria here in Vicenza that lived up to its reputation as serving the best pizza in town. With L being a veritable pizza addict, we have already had a fair bit here to compare it to, and Da Vittorio did not disappoint. L and I mapped out its location and rode our bikes to the south end of town, down near the steps leading up to Monte Berico. It was on a non-descript little side street that I would never have found without knowing about it.
As soon as we walked in, I knew it was going to be good. The checkered tables bunched closely together were filled with Italian business people on their lunch breaks. The menu was simple – only Neopolitan pizza on offer and the prices were great. From 4 Euros for a Margherita to 7.50 for a Siciliana, this was a deal compared to the more touristy places near the center of town.
The walls were decorated with old photos and drawings from Naples and various kitschy memorabilia. The guy making the pizzas in the kitchen, half visible to the dining area, seemed to know most of the customers. His young son delivered cokes to the tables that ordered them.
The server tantalized L with arriving pizzas that weren’t yet for him, by passing them under his nose on trips by our table. He also tried hard to get me to order a beer, but as I contemplated the bike ride back in the hot sun, I safely opted for the Coke Light. The pizza arrived quickly and met L’s exacting pizza criteria: a thin, almost bubbly crust, with just the right amount of cheese and sauce, comprising the Margherita. I went for the Siciliana pizza. I should really branch out, but I never seem to get tired of the combination of anchovies and capers. This version came with fresh, lightly cooked and sliced plum tomatoes as well. Two pizzas (quite large), two drinks, and an espresso came to 15 Euros. Definitely my idea of a great value for money and a little bit of pizza heaven. Da Vittorio, Via Borgo Berga, 52, 36100, Vicenza, Italy.
One of my favorite things to do in any foreign country is to go food shopping at a local supermarket. I thoroughly enjoy pouring over and deciphering the every day food options that I can take home and attempt to perform some sort of alchemy with. It is sometimes more successful than others. Yesterday my friend Marta took me to the Auchan to buy food for the week. Auchan is actually a French supermarket chain, which has expanded into Italy and probably far beyond.
It is as overwhelming as any American megastore chain and they sell everything from houseware products to foodstuffs from Croatia. It was also a late Saturday afternoon when we arrived and we were both quickly overwhelmed by the number of shoppers. Marta informs me that it is now considered trendy for Italian husbands to go and do the weekly shopping. They make ‘shopping dates’ with their friends and go for a coffee or apertivo after the groceries are loaded into the family car. So nice to know that progress in the world of domestic duties must come with a little back end bonus.
The view from our apartment
The first thunderstorm we’ve experienced in weeks is raging this morning. Early October winds are blowing the wooden shutters back and forth on this grand, old Italian house. We are living in the top floor flat of my friend’s father’s house in Vicenza, Italy. Her ninety-something year old aunt lives in the ground floor apartment, her father on the next level, and now, L and I, on the top. My friend and her family live next door in their own house, yet to be divided by family needs. And then there is Ralph, the young, enormous and slightly scary German Shepherd, who belongs to her father and lives mostly in the front garden and his doghouse. We use the side entrance to avoid being overcome by his….er….affections.
A few days ago we said goodbye to Berlin, earlier than expected, and entered into Phase 2 of our journey by arriving in Vicenza, Italy. Sad to leave Berlin, but some opportunities came up in Italy, both for living and working, that were too good to pass up at the moment. Vicenza is in the Veneto region, about an hour west of Venice, at the foot of the Dolomite mountain range. The architect Andrea Palladio, considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of western architecture, put Vicenza on the map with the many formidable buildings he left behind here and in the region. It is an extremely lovely and navigatable small city. The remains of the city wall the Romans built snake throughout the town, which now leaks far beyond its original borders. To get here, we took a high-speed ICE train from Berlin to Munich, and then what was allegedly another fast train, from Munich to Verona. In reality, it chugged through the Alps, making every conceivable stop, as the train emptied out on its way down. Not that I’m complaining. The scenery was of course stunning and we sat in the dining car, sipping an overpriced Fanta and the last German beer.
We have mostly spent the last few days just getting settled, gradually finding odds and ends with which to further kit out the flat that hasn’t been occupied in many years. My friend’s 11-year-old daughter comes home from school at 2pm, eats her lunch (they don’t feed them at school here), does her homework, then she takes L with her out for the rest of the afternoon – down to the gelateria or to one of the nearby soccer pitches. Having a built-in friend here for L is a very good thing! He has been meeting kids and once again, the lack of Italian is not a barrier to a pick-up game of soccer. And there is my friend’s daughter to translate for him as necessary.
Since I first came to Italy when I was 15, to this very house and very friend in fact, I have long nursed a dream to live here. For many years I put that dream to bed, as nothing but the overly romantic idea of someone too young to know any better. After all, I knew well enough that the reality of living in another country was often quite different. And Italy, of all places, was a land full of mindless, archaic bureaucracy, bad, glitzy TV, and men who spent their lives living with their mothers or visiting their mistresses before coming home to their families, right?
Yet, and perhaps because I have returned several times over the years, it feels both comfortable and familiar to be here. Like I could stay awhile. And somehow I find myself almost surprised to be back here again. I can’t help but think that sometimes, when you are almost not looking, life has a way of granting your wishes. Or else you make those long held dreams happen behind your back. Because now, indeed, finally and for however long, I am living in Italy. And I may just be cursing my son with a long love affair with this country of his own. Allora, adesso dobbiamo imparare l’italiano!
writer-director-actress, author, improviser, mother, traveler, digital nomad