Tag Archives: Italy

Breakfast in Milan

Green tea and almond cake
two cappuccinos and a cream-filled croissant
ordered in broken Italian
among the bright white cosmetic lights
of the Milan airport

Breakfast before our flight back home

Your happy-go-lucky smile
trumping my usual pre-flight nerves
I ordered you another brioche
and they understood.

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A Space for Travel

Cleaning my kitchen back in Florida I am reminded why I love traveling so. Even in the nicest of destinations you are stripped away from your comfort zone. And your routine, whether mundane or solid, is put on hold.

I just got back from 16 days in Italy, accompanied by my 13-year-old son, who had never been out of the eastern U.S. This was my third time to Italy, staying with the same beautiful and gracious people I met there so many years ago. Three different trips, all unique. Each during a different phase in my life.

It’s quiet here now at my desk. The usual Florida summer humidity holding steadily outside. The weeds in the cracks of the lanai having grown a foot in my absence. There is laundry to be done, floors to mop, bills to pay. There is work to go back to, alarms to set, exhaustion looming in the distance. Although I helped out in my Italian host’s kitchen (they cooked, I cleaned) it did not feel like a chore. Their lack of air conditioning use drove me insane a few times but my open window was a gateway to sounds I do not usually hear. The cooing of pigeons, lively conversations in Italian, the undeviating church bell song– became welcome melodies to my late nights and early mornings.

The back of the row of flats and the open window which carried sounds joyously.

And those early mornings. Determined not to come back with extra wobble, I jogged with every sunrise. In the peace of dawn a little world was at play– feral kitties hiding in the long grasses on the edge of fields of lavender and tomatoes. Hefty black and white magpies sitting stately on top of hay bales. Jackrabbits as big as raccoons scurrying across the skinny roads and farm landscape.

Good morning sunrise. 

The meals we shared will forever be etched in my memory, both the company and the food itself. Believe me, I have a photo of every dish I ate! There was the torta fritta, an appetizer of lightly fried pockets of dough wrapped with the freshest prosciutto, so good all our Italian friends tried to either duplicate it or find it at various restaurants and markets. There was the pasta of course, not really my favorite because it blows up my belly, but the way they cooked it with various fresh sauces, like real carbonara with egg, and spinach and pumpkin ravioli, melted in my mouth. I had to refrain from gulping my wine and coffee as the Italians are sippers. Plus you can’t really gulp espresso, not if you want any dignity.

My son finally experienced what the fuss was all about regarding real Italian pizza. He even requested it as our last meal there. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him finish a plate of food like that. And the few desserts we did have were totally worth the carbs—lemon, rich chocolate and tangy yogurt gelato, a pastry called a Susanna with ricotta cheese and dark chocolate surrounded by a biscotti type crust, a pistachio cream-filled flaky croissant.

Oh, Susanna!

Spaghetti Carbonara accompanied by Lambrusco

Fresh local yogurt from the happiest cows on the planet.

Two of my very favorite meals happened at restaurants we hiked to, enjoying the views and meaningful conversations and laughs along the way. And ah yes, the views! Everywhere my eye rested during those sixteen days there was something amazing to see. Medieval castles dotting the hillsides, Romanesque paintings on cathedral ceilings, vineyards and fields of wild flowers for miles, and white, rugged mountaintops against a clear-blue sky.

The baptisery in Parma

Lavendar and vineyards 

Castello di Torrechiara

Cremona Cathedral 

Pozza di Fossa and the Dolomiti

Possibly our favorite part of the trip occurred in a little town called Sesta, which really deserves its own story here. It’s the tiniest coolest town I’ve ever been. Nestled in a hillside surrounded by the mountains there are only 12 full time residents. Winding cobblestone streets take you past their mortared walls, which are elegantly and eerily marked with various paintings, some chipping away from weather and time. An old fountain rests at the edge of the houses, flowing forth cold, fresh drinkable mountain water. At night the paintings are softly illuminated and the neighborhood children play hide and seek among the shadows. I sat on a wooden chair and watched them as my Italian host’s father tried to communicate with me in broken English. We only stayed there for a night but that town will always be with us. Neither of us wanted to leave it behind.

Nighttime in Sesta.


Traveling, being away from home and away from all the things you think you have control over, is a lesson in self-reflection. There are things you come to both revere and loath about yourself and/or surroundings, as well as learn about yourself and other people, cultures, places. I appreciate American coffee and air conditioning and strangers who smile and wave. I revel in my goofiness, independence, and sense of adventure. I do not appreciate the loneliness I sometimes feel when the house is quiet and empty. Or the loud suburban noises reminding me of consumption and perfectionism and competition.

I do love my own neighborhood and my comfortable living space and my sometimes mundane yet solid routine. But I am mourning the flat and mountain houses back in Italy where my son and I could casually hang in that small space together without distractions or the pressing of time. Lazy moments reading. Dinner being cooked for us. Spontaneous games of Frisbee. Conversations with old friends making new memories. The promise of another day of adventure and enrichment and relaxation and effortless bonding. We must go back. Soon. And until then make time for such moments within the realm of our working days and fleeting weekends.

I am ever grateful for the space in time and circumstance in which we have to travel. Whether across the globe or down the road, everyone should have that space, too.

Take the trip, breathe it in. 

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Dumb-ass Things I’ve Done as an American in a Foreign Country

So I’ve spent the last 8 days in Italy with my son and some dear Italian friends of mine. 

The last time I was here was in ’95 and before that, ’89. I did some dumb-ass things back then. Like burping aloud whenever the urge arose, even at the dinner table as the respected elder sat at the head, grimacing in disgust.  I was young, had never been to a foreign country, and being from Antioch Tennessee not the most worldly person on the planet. 

Coming back 22 years later I have life experience and maturity on my side, despite the fact my country’s president is an embarrassing bafoon. But the Italians laugh about it and say, “Well now it’s your turn to have your Berlusconi!” 

That aside and maturity and being somewhat of a world traveler and all that, there are still things I just don’t get. Being in a foreign country you find out real fast you’re not as smart as you think you are. 

Keys
I have always had a battle with keys (and Saran Wrap and ironing) but with my condo’s simple door lock and keyless entry into my Prius I haven’t had to battle it out with these little demons of metal in years. 

When my Italian house hosts casually showed me the three keys I would need to enter their home I listened carefully and confidently, all the while knowing a screw-up was on the horizon. 

The next day after my morning jog not only did I fail in opening the first gate but was unsuccessful in reaching any of the housemates. So like some weirdo creeper I jumped the gate (which really is only waist-high) and successfully opened the next entrance. But trying to use the ages-old style key into their door was like watching, well, an idiot American girl trying to open a European lock. There was clicking and clacking and cussing for what seemed like hours. Finally the man of the house opened the door from the other side as I nodded apologetically, mumbling, “Me and keys do not get along.”

A similar incident happened the next day with the garage door. I had to go back downstairs and open it because I’d left my phone in their car. They handed me the garage door key and I happily took it as if there would be no problem opening the kind of garage door I’d never used my entire life. I’m sure the neighbors were shaking their heads as I clicked and clacked and shook and banged and cussed. 

On the fifth day of my visit I finally opened each and every lock with one try, patting myself on the back as if I’d won a major award. 

Espresso machines and other European-style kitchen gadgets
The only time I ever owned an espresso machine was in the ’90s and the one time I used it I turned the kitchen into a caffeine and milk froth murder scene. So imagine my hesitant attempt at making an espresso on my own as a guest while the rest of the house slept. Except for my son who was nervously sitting at the kitchen table. “Oh god Mom you’re gonna blow up the house.” Thanks for the confidence, kid. 

Well I did NOT blow up the house. But as usual there was clicking and clacking and cussing. This also happened with the gas stove (which I’ve never owned or used) and the microwave (which in my defense is a special one made by Barilla and only available in Italy). 

I am now able to use the stove and make an espresso, although I still seem to spill water out of the base of the thing every time. And I gotta be real. I miss my big ass cup of American joe. 

Bathrooms
I’ve popped a squat in some odd places in my days, especially on camping trips and traveling and outdoor concerts. I’ve done the peeing in a hole in the floor thing in Japan, watching the flushed toilet water go the opposite direction in Australia, and held my nose in various Port-o-johns around the southern U.S. But nothing quite prepared me for the embarrassment of honestly NOT KNOWING WHERE THE HELL THE TOILET FLUSHER WAS. 

In my host’s flat it is fairly simple. There’s a big “button” on top of the toilet tank that is pushed on the right to flush and a ‘stop’ to push on the left when I suppose there’s been enough water and force to expel whatever it is that was just, well, expelled. I felt pretty smart for figuring that out on my own the very first time. 

But then fast-forward a couple days in un bano in a very nice restaurant. We’re talking white table cloths and errything. After doing my biz, and thank god it was only number 1, I searched the top for the flusher. Nothing. The sides? Nothing. The floor. The ceiling. Niente. But wait a minute… What’s this cord dangling down from that box on the wall near the ceiling? 

The intelligent part of my brain told me that was not the flusher. The dumb and impatient and desperate part said, “pull it”.

A piercing alarm began ringing throughout the bathroom and into the entire restaurant. I hurriedly washed my hands and shamefully scooted past the kitchen where one of the chefs looked at me knowingly. And I’d never seen him before in my life. Needless to say I did not go back to that bathroom, even after countless glasses of water. 

One day we took a day trip to the seaside. Seems as though they also adopted the hole in the ground toilet philosophy. No worries. Been doing my squats. But then this happened…


What the frick? I’m waving my hand. Why isn’t the water coming out??

Oh yeah, there’s this…


A pedal. 

Dumb-ass.

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5 Amazing Songs

As per request (and writing prompt) from one of my dear readers and a fellow music devouter, I’d like to share 5 amazing songs that build up emotion in my chest, take me to happy and far away places, or just leave me whirlishly dancing on the chipped-tiled kitchen floor.

Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds

This song of course is married to the ever-universal teen angst classic The Breakfast Club, making it even that much more endearing. That last scene when the song smacks in and John Bender gives a requited fist pump in a freeze frame forever is one of the best movie endings.

Don’t You Forget About Me reminds me of precious 80’s nostalgia, the innocence and simplicity there regarding music and hand-written letters and Walkmans and trips to the mall sans security personnel.

And the meaning: Don’t you forget about me. We all want to be remembered. We cannot let time or circumstance or distance allow the brain to turn us into static and the heart unforgiving or worse, ignored.

This one is for belting out fearlessly and dancing feverishly.  My students have seen me do this. On my fortieth birthday this is the song I boldly requested at the skating rink among all the preteens and their Taylor Swift enthusiasm. I’ll be singing and dancing to this one when I’m an old, old lady.

Don’t you forget about me. I’ll be alone, dancing, you know it, baby…

 

Us and Them by Pink Floyd

I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon on a constant loop along with The Cure’s Disintegration on a summer stint in Italy in my early teens. I know Roger Waters was talking about war in his lyrics but to me the “us” and “them” represented both the subtle and not-so-subtle differences I experienced between Americans and Italians. We spoke different languages, ate at different times of the day, looked different, but in the way we were different we were also the same. Just people trying to make it in the world, experience life, try not to trip on pebbles.

To this day, every time I hear that keyboard intro I feel the welling up in my chest. I am completely transported back to that balcony in Sardinia, back to that innocent 15 year old taking in everything never witnessed back in Antioch, Tennessee. I’m reminded of all the people I met and their cultural and nurturing influence on me.

Us, and them. And after all, we’re only ordinary men…

 

The Fool on the Hill by The Beatles

The Beatles were a big part of my growing up. They were not forced on me but rather gently introduced as my parent’s record collections included many Beatles albums and 45s. My brother and I would sit on the shaggy carpeted floor of our basement-turned-playroom and listen to them on our Fisher-price turntable. We fashioned ourselves as rock singers, belting out tunes as the grated vinyl spun round and round.

But when Fool on the Hill rolled along and into the tiny speaker, we would quietly sing together. Never looking up, frozen in that moment with lyrics and melody I swear brought welling up in my goofy sibling’s eyes.

That is one of my strongest and most fond memories of us together as children. Later in our teens we traveled to Lexington, Kentucky with a group of like-minded friends to see Paul McCartney in concert. I was enthralled to be in the presence of a Great. And to enjoy it with my bro at my side.

But the fool on the hill, sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head, see the world spinning round…

 

A Forest by The Cure

This haunting song is one of the reasons I will forever be a Cure fan and Classic Alternative junkie. I was first introduced to the Cure when Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me came out. During this era I was blown away by this sound which at the time never reached the local radio airwaves.

A Forest mirrored my teen angst, depression, and need for creative inspiration as sheets of rain seemed to fall endlessly in the grey, Tennessee winter. This dirge didn’t exasperate my feelings as my parents agonized. Instead it encapsulated and provided solace. I wasn’t alone in my fervor.

And just the word forest. It conjures images of lush foliage where mystery hides and escape is possible.

A few summers ago I was driving alone in North Florida on a windy road away from friends and family with whom I’d just spent an unforgettable week. As soon as I entered Tate’s Hell State Forest, an unforgiving ominous expanse of swampy woodland, my GPS fell silent and A Forest shuffled on my auxiliary. I don’t know if there’s ever been more perfect timing between song and circumstance.

Come closer and see, see into the trees…

 

The Dead Heart by Midnight Oil

I could write an entire blog post about songs by Midnight Oil but for the purpose of not turning this into a biography I’ll sample this one.

I was introduced to Midnight Oil via the video for Bed’s Are Burning, seen on MTV’s Friday Night Videos. This unique sound from Australia fronted by a bald, passionate giant literally left me gasping in its strum guitar and water tank drum beats. I was instantly transformed. Life would never be the same. And then began a life-long love and adoration for the band, their extensive collection of songs throughout the decades, and their messages about equality and the environment.

The Dead Heart evokes singing and whirling, and to the tune of aboriginal rights in Australia. It’s as serious as it is heartfelt and in the end a hopeful dance. The Oils do a fantastic job of informing while entertaining and this song is no exception. When I hear it I’m in the Outback as well as on my old friend’s balcony (what’s with me and balconies) back in ’87 when all this alternative rock hoopla began voluntarily infiltrating my soul.

Midnight Oil will forever be my favorite band of all time. And The Dead Heart is just one of many that fill me with emotion, the need to research, to help bring about change, and yes, to belt it out and move.

These 5 songs helped shape who I am. What are yours?

 

 

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The Berries at the Bottom

My first encounter with drink was a romantic one.  Picture this:  Bolzano, Italy.  1989.  The mid-summer night air is cool.  A virgin girl from southern America sits in a tent in the Dolomite mountains with a group of people she now considers friends.  In the years to come there will be letters sent to and from old Italia.  One of these friends will visit America several times.  But I digress.  This virgin girl (okay it’s me) has never touched her lips to a sip of alcohol, although she did sneak a biting puff off one of her grandfather’s Winston smokes in his basement back in Tennessee.  Hack hack.  The cigarette addiction won’t start for another four years.

Tent

In this tent after a long day’s hike these friends pass around a bottle of grappa.  Grappa, as defined by Wikipedia, is a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of Italian origin that contains 35-60% alcohol by volume.  As defined by me it was a kind of heaven.

I was hesitant at first.  I wasn’t sure what it would do to me or how it would taste.  I can hear them all now.  “Janifehr!  You must try the grappa!  Is so very good.  Will make you feel quite warm!”  As each one took a sip and passed it I scanned the bottle carefully as it made its way closer.  A homemade label wrapped around the clear glass.  The purple liquid inside was the hue of happiness.  Bloated, wine-infused berries swam at the bottom of this drunken sea.

When it was my turn I took a quick, giggly sip.  Then another.  They all laughed.  “She loves the grappa!  Janifehr we will get you drunk tonight!”

The bottle was passed around until every last sip, every last berry was ingested and absorbed.  I don’t remember feeling particularly drunk.  Just happy.  That could have been partly because I was in one of the most serene and beautiful places ever, surrounded by some of the most engaging and beautiful people ever.  And it could have been partly because of the grappa.  My belly was warm.  My cheeks were red.  And I had a difficult time jumping over the fence surrounding the campsite when we decided to go out for ice-cream.

Mtn in Italy

They let me keep the bottle.  It now sits on the 1920’s buffet table I inherited from my great-grandmother.  I cannot believe it has survived all the moves and balls tossed around.  Whoever shall accidentally break it will surely pay.  I carried that thing all over Italy.  Back home to America.  High school bedroom.  College dorm.  First apartment.  Second apartment.  In a moving truck from Tennessee to Florida for a week with everything I owned including all my non-duplicated poems and stories.  Two more houses.  A villa.

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That bottle reminds me of my sense of adventure.  My love for wine.  My youth.  Friends I don’t hear from anymore but at one time were there to share a most magnificent summer.  The Dolomites and all its green, goat-pastured, dandelion-covered, dreamy landscapes.  It reminds me that some things don’t get broken.  Memories clear as the glass they were drunk from.  Experience rich and sweet and full like the berries at the bottom.

And thank God that first encounter with drink was not Mad Dog 20/20 on someone’s basement floor.

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NaNoNoMo

So November 1st was the kick-off of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where writers come together virtually and in coffee houses and wherever else to start, pick-up, or finish a novel.  The goal is to have 50,000 words by November 30th.  Well I knew going in there was no way in hell I would ever be able to meet that goal.  I may be a dreamer but I’m also a realist when it comes to knowing my own strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was in grade school.  Short stories began to formulate in my repertoire soon after.  I was the queen of scribbling it all down on a piece of notebook paper in one fury of creative inspiration/explosion.  Even though I dreamed of being the next great American author I did not have the patience, focus, or commitment to sit down and hammer out pages and pages of a coherent novel.  And re-writes?  Forget it.  When I was done I was done.

The trip that started it all.

The trip that started it all.

I wrote for a community newspaper for a few years and even wrote and self-published a children’s book.  All of these endeavors I am very proud of.  But I’ve always been in awe of those that can write an entire novel.  This has been on my bucket list since I was fifteen and actually started a novel after a life-altering trip to Italy.  I started the thing three times and haven’t touched it in ten years.

Flash-forward to my late thirties and yet another life-altering experience leads me to start another novel.  This time I was for real.  Got an editor and everything.  I was scared of the process of writing dialogue.  Didn’t think it was my thing.  But after my editor told me to visualize the scene in my mind like a movie, I ended up being ok at it.  So I worked on it, some days for hours, some days for ten minutes.  Some days I didn’t sit at the computer at all.  This went on for a year and I had nine chapters and a few later scenes diligently hammered onto Word.  I was compelled to tell this story and I thought about it on my bike rides, while brushing my teeth, and in my nightly dreams.

What HAVE you been typing all this time?

What HAVE you been typing all this time?

Then I took a month or so hiatus when the dreams became disturbing.  I started this blog, which was another writing venture I’d desired for a while.  And wow have I been enjoying it– the writing, the thinking about the writing, the reading and connecting with other bloggers, the taking of photographs and editing them for my posts, the feedback from friends and strangers, the laugh-out-loud moments and those that grab the heart and twist it.  I can’t believe it took me this long to discover this incredible, unfastened world.

But the poor little novel sat untouched, wondering why it was being neglected.  Then came NaNoWriMo and I decided that was a sign to get it back out again.  November 1st came and even though I didn’t get to the computer until 9pm I finished one chapter and started another.  Yay!  I was back in the novel-writing game again.  Each day I took time, no matter how hectic it was around the house, to sit and work on my novel.  I did what was suggested:  I didn’t go over and over what I’d written like usual.  I just wrote.  I didn’t think about perfection or even bang my head on the desk.  I just wrote.  I thought, “I’m gonna do this.  I’m gonna write every single day of this month no matter what.”  Well then came day seven.

Even God took a day of rest on day seven.  In my defense I had the opportunity to spend the day with a dear, old friend.  By the time I got back home and had dinner with my family I was exhausted.  I figured skipping one day was no big deal.  But then I’ve skipped every day since then.  In my defense I have written 3,353 words including this post on this blog during that time.  I had some posts I really wanted to write and publish.  The novel was already starting to feel like work.  It was drudgery and it wasn’t calling to me.  I figured why push it just to get some sort of a word count or because I think I have to do this lest the gods of NaNoWriMo shake their heads in disapproval.  I didn’t want to go crazy like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.  All Work

So here it is, almost the middle of the month.  But I am not giving up!  Hell, I might even write some in my novel this afternoon.  I’m just being honest about my journey and I don’t feel bad about it.  NaNoWriMo got me started on it again– got me over that hump.  I do love the story I’m now struggling a bit to tell.  Perhaps one day I’ll even revisit that Italian tale.  My short pieces are a speed boat; my novel a slow-chugging ship.  Either way, I get to look out and see golden sunsets over a tranquil sea, with a crew of passengers sharing the voyage with me. Sunset Voyage

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