Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Buon Natale!

We've packed up the presents, bagged a few bottles of bubbly, and stuffed a small suitcase. We're just about ready to hit the via Salaria, one of the famed, ancient roads that lead to Rome, where we'll light up the New Mexican luminarias and spend a couple days feasting with friends.

But I couldn't leave without wishing you a Merry Christmas! I hope you have a very happy one.

Tante belle cose, my friends.

photo by Bryan Schneider. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Random Christmas Thoughts

Over the past year I 've seen a meme going around titled Seven Random Thoughts. I have lots of those...random, seemingly senseless thoughts that pop into my head. But then I had an actual idea (!) - which probably has already been done, but what the heck. Since it is Christmas time, I am listing Seven Random Christmas Thoughts. Feel free to play along!


1. We are going to festoon our friends' house in Rome with luminarias, the traditional New Mexican Christmas Eve splash and wonder. But we'll call them by the Northern New Mexico name of farolitos, since "luminarie" in Italian is used to signify twinkle lights.

2. I miss decorating a Christmas tree. I have a huge collection of ornaments, no two alike and each one special in its own way. I left them in Ohio, where maybe my sister is using them to adorn her tree.

3. When I was a kid, we always went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I liked the candlelight and the smell of incense, but could never stay awake through the whole thing.

4. My brother, sister and I would wake up at the first crack of daylight and troll downstairs to scope out the gifts. We were allowed to open our stockings, but nothing else, and woe unto the one who woke up Mom before 7:30 a.m., especially if coffee had not yet been brewed for her.

5. Bryan made breakfast of Eggs Benedict every Christmas morning, until we moved to Italy. No Candadian bacon, no English muffins.

6. The Christmas fiera here is one full day of unbridled consumerism filling half the centro storico and the main piazzas with booths where vendors sell crafts, kitch, and some pretty cool stuff that they demonstrate right out there with mobile kitchens and microphones strapped onto their heads.

7. I hate the song Silent Night. Hate it! Maybe because we had to sing it repeatedly during my Catholic school years, but I think it's insipid. Besides, Bethlehem was packed to the gills with no room at the inn. No stinkin' way it was a silent or calm night around there!

What about you? Had any random thoughts lately?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gift of Friends

So do you have your shopping done? Getting the gifts wrapped and the cookies baked? I've not even started baking yet. That's because I have been a little tied up, in a good way. I had an early Christmas gift that came in the form of a visit from friends.

Maria and Bob are passionate about Italy, so when they said they wanted to come and see Le Marche we were thrilled. Such good friends who love eating, exploring, wine-tasting, and gazing upon gorgeous scenery are a treasure, and we enjoyed toting them around to some of our favorite spots. We spent time cooking and talking together in their vacation villa. We caught up on the news from New Mexico. We laughed a lot and ate a lot and just had a wonderful time together.




But I'll let Maria describe their visit. She put it eloquently in an email to her friends back home:

From our perch in the country there is a visual feast: a perfect patchwork quilt of rolling farmland, all in fall colors - a square of soft gold, a triangle of dusty orange, big patches of earthy corderoy that are tilled fields awaiting the next plantings of greens and grains, staples of the local diet. Small towns and villages drip off the hillsides. Their names roll off our tongues - Ripatransone, Offida, Aquaviva Picena. We've ventured up into the narrow stone streets to get a closer look. We watched an old lace-maker woman blissfully at work in the old tradition which will likely end when she does. I promise you we've left no food uneaten, no coffee unsipped, no wine untasted. Today I will complete a 40 year circle. I will reconnect with my cousin Elia (Elijah) after 40 years of not having seen or spoken with him.

Maria's father came from nearby Abruzzo and she spent many summers there as a child. She chummed around with her cousin, Elia, during some of those teenager times, then lost contact with him for many, many years. We witnessed Maria and Elia's family reunion, which had me choking back tears. Forty years later, to see them talking like no time had passed. What an experience. What a gift...for them, and for us. It was beautiful to behold.

As for us, we last saw Maria and Bob two Christmases ago in Assisi. Don't you just love the friendships that don't allow time and distance to interfere? Where you can go a few years without seeing them but then pick right back up as if you'd just seen them last week?

So, my Christmas gift came early. Friendships. We are so grateful for each and every one of them in our lives. We need no other presents...we have the presence of friends. And that is one of life's most precious gifts, don't you think?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gifts That Really Give, Part III

I'm wrapping up my gift-giving series (pun intended) with a listing of charitable gifts. For those impossible-to-buy-for folks or just for your own sense of Christmas spirit, you may want to consider giving charitable gifts - they really do keep on giving. While they're less traditional, they're no less tangible. They will make a difference in the lives of others, and will make you feel good in the process.

Smile Train
This Christmas make someone smile...for a lifetime. Smile Train provides free cleft surgery for children worldwide to give them confidence, health, and a smile that will last forever. A simple surgery and $250 can change a child's life.

Shopping List for the World
Alternative Gifts.org brings together several worthy organizations, and provides you with a shopping list to let you choose where your donation goes. Want to provide water wells in Sudan? How about helping recently freed slaves? Or neonatal training in Romania? A gift card will be sent to your friend detailing the gift and the program.

Give a Goat
Or seeds, or emergency aid...and more. World Vision.org is committed to meeting all the most basic human needs of the most impoverished and war-torn locations of the world. One goat ($75) will provide a family with milk, cheese, and yogurt (as well as baby goats and organic fertilizer!) Clean water and sanitation, medical supplies, and soccer balls (because kids still need to have a little fun) are all in their gift catalog.

Changing The Present
You can make a difference now...and in the future. Changing the Present is another gift site that brings together worthy causes with a user-friendly giving site where you choose your cause and how it is used. From blankets for children to demining fields and micro-loans, there are lots of great opportunities to make a difference. They also offer a gift registry and host a Hall of Shame of the stupidest gifts out there. Boggles the mind, some of those dumb trinkets.

Support the Bell Ringers
The Salvation Army is an evangelical organization that provides emergency relief world-wide. They are famous for their red kettles and bells during the Christmas season, but unfortunately many stores have banned the bell ringers. Bah humbug, because they've been around for more than 100 years and are working in 117 countries. If you'd like to support disaster relief, war-torn family tracing, or other social services, donations can be made online.

Before you give, check out your charities. Charity Navigator evaluates charities based on criteria such as efficiency and administrative expenses. You can see how well, or how poorly, the organizations function, allowing you to make better choices about where you donate.

Now start crossing things off your shopping list!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Gifts That Really Give, Part II

Last time I told you about a few unsual gift sites where I am sure you found some really cool stuff. This time I'm focusing on sites where a portion or all of the proceeds from your purchases go to charitable organizations. You get nice gifts, along with the added gift of giving to others while you're at it!

LUSH
I like their style. Breezy, fun site with quality, eco-friendly cosmetic products. Soaps, scents and lotions that are 100% natural, never tested on animals, minimal packaging, and fresh-made by hand. Cool, huh? Plus, if you buy the Charity Pot Body Lotion, 100% of the proceeds go to charity (and they list the charities they give to on the site).

What's Your Bag?
At whatsurbag they sell flashy, flexible, fun shopping bags so you can avoid the old "paper or plastic" dilemma. They come in a candy-store array of colors and patterns. They are not just fashionable; they're made by Hurricane Katrina survivors in a rebuilt factory in New Orleans and 5% of the profits go to a New Orleans charity.

Museum Shop
The Greater Good Network operates a host of "click to give" sites, where your clicks are funded by sponsors who donate to the organizations, such as The Rainforest Site, The Literacy Site, and The Animal Rescue Site. Now they also opeate Museum Shop, a neat outlet for great goods. You get a nice selection of pretty gifts, and each order feeds a family of four and also garners a donated book to the literacy campaign. Plus, shipping is only 1 penny.

The Smithsonian Store
I love the Smithsonian. It's one of our true treasure troves, the ultimate repository of art, artifacts, history and culture, and the largest museum in the world. The 19 museums and National Zoo that comprise the Institution were established for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge".

The gifts in the store reflect the vast variety of the collections in the museums...rare finds, unique and inspired gifts. And 100% of the profits go right back to the Smithsonian, making it a wonderful spot to shop.

Global Exchange Store
A Fair Trade online outlet where you can purchase coffees, teas, chocolates, jewelry, and more...and where the artisans who make them get a fair and decent profit from their labors while engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. You get nice things, while knowing you're not exploiting sweat-shop laborers in a far-away land to get them. Original Good is a similar store with cute housewares.

Shopping on sites like these help put the "merry" in Merry Christmas, and just let you feel good about your purchases.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gifts That Really Give

The madness that is known as Black Friday has passed, officially kicking off the Christmas shopping season. Unfortunately, the world financial situation has induced our own local shopkeepers and comune to go alla Americana, bedecking the piazzas and shop windows a lot earlier than normal this year. I admit it's disappointing; I liked the respite and shorter season that we've experienced here the past two years.

I'm not a "mall person". I definitely dislike the "canned" feeling, and prefer the open-air atmosphere of the mercato, and the personalized experience of small, individually-owned shops. But shopping and shipping gifts to the States can be a hassle; I mean, who wants to subject herself to the Poste Italiane if she doesn't have to? Offering prayers for Christmas miracles that the gifts will arrive at their intended destinations takes a lot of faith.

We have also decided in recent years to scale back our gift-giving and refocus our thoughts, energies and resources on the true spirit of the holiday. The gifts we are giving we sanely opted to order online.

In doing so I came across some great sites where you can buy fun, meaningful, or pretty gifts...many of which will keep on giving. Over the next few posts I'll share my finds with you. Today we'll start with "normal" gift sites, whose goods are anything but ordinary.

First off...sites for Traditional Gifts

Sometimes you just want to give something pretty and unusual. That's why I love these sites:

Elizabetta
My friend Elizabeth scours Italy to find these gorgeous scarves in luxurious fabrics. Every hue, texture, length and style are just waiting to be snuggled into or draped upon you. There is something for everyone's taste in her offerings. Call me funky but I *love* the silk number with suede fringe!

Nambe
I couldn't consider myself a good New Mexican if I didn't spread the word about these beautiful and yet practical housewares. The original metal alloy molded into inspired shapes for bowls, platters, candlesticks and vases are perennial favorites (in case anyone is wondering what to buy me, look no further! ;) But the crystal designs are striking, too, and they've recently added porcelain to their line-up.

1000 Markets
I love this site! It brings together independent, talented artists and artisans to market and sell their hand-produced, unique wares. There is so much variety and inspiration here that you could easily spend half a day perusing the offerings. Don't say I didn't warn you.

La Cucina dello Zio Giorgio
I've talked often about my friend Giorgio. He is a chef who owned a restaurant in Rome for many years. Now "retired" (I put it in quotes because he just can't stay out of the kitchen and can't keep himself from concocting new recipes), Giorgio started a private label to produce and distribute foods made from his own recipes. Everything is produced in small batches to his standards. You can order them to be shipped from Rome to your door. Particularly tasty is his Pesto alla Romana and Crema ai Noci e Tartufo.

Postscript:
In the "great minds think alike" category, Texas Espresso compiled a nice gift list, too. Check it out!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Evviva Maria!

I want to give a great big shout-out to my friend Maria Berry. Maria, you may remember, guarded the nest as a guest blogger (here and here). She is one of my dear friends- a wonderful, vibrant, upbeat person who is fun-loving, witty, and very intelligent. That she has overcome hurdles, crises, and difficult situations while maintaining all those qualities is amazing. She is involved in her community, is a consummate encourager of everyone she knows, maintains a vineyard, and just recently retired from her second (or maybe fifth?) career as a personal trainer.

Sound a little bit like a super-woman? Well, actually she is. Or maybe more like Woman of Steel. You see, Maria recently competed - at the age of 61 - in a heavy-duty bodybuilding competition known as "The Rocky". This is no lightweight affair; according to the organizers it is the "largest and most prestigious amateur bodybuilding, fitness & figure organization in the USA" and is also "the only avenue to the IFBB-The ultimate in Professional bodybuilding, fitness and figure". Yes, I was impressed by that too.

She garnered a write-up and photo spread in a magazine section of the Albuquerque Journal.



Gorgeous, no? She makes 61 looks pretty damn good. You can read the article here.

So Maria...complimenti! Sei bravissima! You have stared the animal of Aging in the face, and given him a good swift kick in the teeth!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Roman Holiday

My sister departed yesterday. It was sad to see her go, and two weeks whizzed by like nobody's business. Our time together was entirely too short and passed entirely too quickly. Our last few days were spent in Rome, connecting with friends...but I'll save that story for next time.

We returned from our mini-holiday in Rome to the news that the new DVD of Roman Holiday has been released! I'm so excited! I was asked to participate in the production of one of the special features on this new release, and am very thrilled to have played a small part in it, since I *love* this movie.

I'm always amazed at how many people sheepishly admit that they've never seen the film. People! Audrey Hepburn. Gregory Peck. Rome. What's not to love?

*Filmed in 1953, entirely on location in Rome
*Ranked #4 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Romantic Comedy".
*Garnered Audry Hepburn an Academy Award. The film won 3 Oscars, and was nominated for 10.
*Audrey Hepburn ranks third on AFI's 50 Greatest Screen Legends (female). Gregory Peck ranks twelfth on the same list for male Legends.
*Peck met his wife Veronique, a French journalist, during a stop in Paris after filming was completed, while promoting Roman Holiday. They were married for 48 years.



If you've not seen it, go! Go now and rent, buy, or download the film! And if you happen to buy the new Centennial Collection edition, be sure to watch the special feature entitled Rome With a Princess. You'll get to see my name in lights ;)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Views From the Motherland

My sister is here for a visit! Hooray! As I've said before, the main thing that I miss from the US is family and friends...and my sister belongs to both of those groups. It's been great having her around to laugh with, eat with, and bumble around with.

We spent about a week in the motherland of Basilicata so she could get acquainted with i parenti (relations) and see the gorgeous landscapes our family came from. We showed her the splendors of Matera where we had the Sassi all to ourselves. The off-season meant reduced numbers, but so did the rain. We made the discovery that the steep stone streets that are so beautiful to behold and wander in sunlight turn to rivers and waterfalls in the rain! Oh well; so we got a little wet. It was still a magical place despite it.


After a few peaceful nights in a mountain-top agriturismo and food-filled days in town connecting with friends and relations, we somewhat regretfully left our home away from home to return to Ascoli Piceno.

I'll be away from the Pinon Tree for a few more days while we continue to show her the fabulous things around here before heading back to Rome to meet up with friends there. See you again soon!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Come Mai Ascoli?

Why on earth did you move to Ascoli Piceno? This question is frequently uttered incredulously by locals, and curiously by visiting Americans or would-be expats. The locals don't understand why Americans would leave the perceived splendors of the US for Italy ("ma, the whole world wants to live in America and you come to live in Ascoli?!") Despite their protests that "Ascoli e` piccolo piccolo" (Ascoli is such a little town), there are nearly 60,000 inhabitants with lots of stuff going on all the time, even if many of the Ascolani say "there is nothing to do here".

Fellow Americans are generally curious about our decision to move and how we picked a fairly unknown city. Since I've been receiving quite a few more emails relating to the topic, I thought now would be a good time to recap the decision and reasons for you.

Our first impressions of Ascoli:
Ascoli Piceno

Our decision to move here:
A Place to Call Home

The exciting things to do:
Men in Tights and Sleepless Nights

Ascoli isn't a tourist town:
Tourists and Trinkets

And finally, why we moved to Italy in the first place:
Dreams Do Come True

Not enough? Bryan has some great photos posted on his blog:
NM 2 Italia

Now you know -probably more than you ever wanted to-about what made us decide on Ascoli.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Just Do It!



Today is The Day! Go to the polls and vote! It just feels good to cast your ballot. It's your right and your duty! So Just Do It!

Make it a community affair - check to see if your friends or elderly neighbors need a ride to the polls. Now Go!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Autunno

The grapes have been harvested and pressed. New wine is already creeping up in the cantinas and some of the stores, though the official debut of vino nuovo isn't until the feast of San Martino on November 11. Bryan has already taken his bottle to a local winery to have it filled up for an early taste; he enjoys the fruity, grapey flavor as a change from the norm. The olive harvest is getting underway.

Now that the vines are barren of fruit, the leaves are changing color. Driving along the country roads we noticed the vineyards are speckled in hues of yellow and red. I'd never realized that grapes, like trees, change color in the fall. Just never thought about it, I guess. It's a pretty sight, the ordered rows of autumnal tints.

But the clearest sign of fall is seen in the local sagre. The focus has shifted from summer fare and grilled goodies to heavier dishes like polenta and fall foods like mushrooms and truffles, foraged from the local mountains. The main event this time of year is the chestnut. They are being proffered from roadside stands, in the weekly mercato, and and the grocery store. Sagra events are focusing on the versatile humble nut.


I admit, I'm not a huge fan. It's a very starchy nut with a flavor reminiscent of a sweet potato. Unless it is fresh off the roasting pan, I can only eat a couple before I've had my fill. But Italian ingenuity brings the chestnut into play in many different ways. It can be dried and ground into flour (which makes a rather tasty sweet bread); it can be roasted and turned into a sweet paste that is used to fill sweet ravioli, usually in conjunction with cocoa (now we're getting closer to my taste!); and it can be used to make gnocchi (good with a gorgonzola sauce!) or polenta (not so yummy, though I've never tried it with gorgonzola, hmm). I also rather like me a helping of marron glace` when topped with a bit of whole-milk, honey-sweetened yogurt. The best marron glace` are the ones that have been carmelized in the sugar syrup and then soaked in booze.

Something I've noticed with the chestnut vendors is that they are careful to keep a distinction between castagne and marroni. My dictionary translates both simply as "chestnut" so just what is the difference, I've often wondered. Especially when marroni can cost quite a bit more. For the answer, I asked a grower/vendor at a sagra in Castignano, a town whose very name derives from chestnuts (castagno means chestnut tree). I figured if anyone knew the diffence it would be a Castignanese.

He kindly and patiently informed me that castagne are just your common chestnuts which grow wildly and naturally all over the place. Anyone can go into the woods and forage for these run of the mill babies. They grow three to a pod, encased together in their furry outer shell. Marroni, instead, are a cultivated hybrid...the Cadillac of chestnuts, if you will. The nut inside is shinier, sweeter and plumper than a common chestnut. They also peel out of their skin much more easily once they've been roasted.

So how can you tell the difference when they're piled up on the vendor's table? Simple, he said. The "white" of a marrone is elongated, narrow and oval, almost rectangular. The castagna has a rounder, darker-colored marking. Now we know.

I love autumn, and I like the change in food focus, too. Just when you start to tire of the summer fruits and "same old" veggies, the season brings a new harvest to enjoy and vibrant colors to behold. Viva autunno.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Quick Note

I know. I have been a delinquent blogger. Truth is, I've been unusually busy this week, and have also been without an internet connection for several days of the busy week. I'm sure things will be back to normal soon.

Meanwhile, I ran across a link to this funny video reminder to vote. Send it to yourself to view it. Then - if you have friends who say they are not going to bother to vote - send it to them to prod them into turning out at the polls. It's very clever!

Buon weekend tutti!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ventidue


It's a little hard to believe, I know. When I say "ventidue anni," it's always met with an incredulous, eye-widening gaze. At first they think that with my accent or lack of fluency in Italian that they have either heard me wrong, or I've somehow managed to screw up my numbers. Si, si, I assure them. Venti-due. Twenty two years.
Today is our anniversary, and even for me it's sometimes hard to believe that it has already been twenty two years since our wedding day. I mean, sometimes as we look back we can count the happenings and the memories and we realize we've needed that many years to fit it all in. But other times it seems like not so long ago. Dreams are fulfilled, sorrows mingle in, days blur together...life, and love, happens as the days and months slip by.

We were young when we clasped hands and went out to face the world...maybe a little dreamy-eyed, certainly filled with enthusiasm, always finding common goals, common faith, and ready to work together, love together, and grow together. So, here we are...further down life's path,
able to count dreams we we have fulfilled and mourn the losses...together.
Ventidue anni. Hard to believe, but oh so sweet to celebrate.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Signed, Sealed and Delivered

Well...sealed and sent. My absentee ballot didn't require any type of signature or validation, as Bryan has already pointed out. I assume that the bar-code type of hashmarks along the edge of the sheet provides the bureau of elections with the proper information to ascertain that I am a registered voter and have not photocopied a wad of the ballots to skew the results (as tempting as that may be ;)

As far as "delivered" goes, it was with great faith and fervant prayers that I dropped the envelope into the letter box, because that, and an 85-cent stamp, is what is required for mail to depart Italia and hopefully reach its intended recipient. Me and the Poste Italiane are not exactly best buds, as you know.

Voting just feels good. Filling in the little ovals on the sheet to mark my choices, to select which bond issues I thought were worth supporting, which state consititutional amendment proposals should be confirmed and which should not be...it just feels good to participate even though I am far from home. If you are a citizen, you *need* to vote! It is a right that people fought and died for you to have; apathy is not acceptable. If you think it's a hassle, remember that in many places around the world, people are still dying to try to gain this right that we so easily take for granted.

I encourage you to arm yourself with information. This seems especially important this year with the amount of mud-slinging, half-truths, manipulated sound bites, and outright lies that are flying fast and furious. (How glad am I to not be there to suffer the constant barrage of TV attack ads?) There are numerous sites for you to easily find information on the issues and compare the candidates' stances. A little time perusing them will help you decide who deserves your precious vote. A few to check out:

Smart Voter

Fact Check

Select Smart

CNN's Campaign Issues page

Vote411.org gives information on state-by-state requirements and polling places.

No candidate meets my ideal. I had to weigh the issues, examine their words and positions, and picture each one in the Oval Office. Neither fits my ideas on every issue, so I had to choose the one who came the closest. (In case you're wondering, my ballot was cast for Obama.) I urge you to take some time to check facts, peruse the above links, and weigh their words and ideas for yourself. And then get out there and vote.

My stepdad, John, is a Republican but here outside the Obama headquarters in Alexandria, VA he seems pretty comfortable. He took a little nap...and hoped for better days.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

I just *love* the old style Vespa. You know the one, like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn tooled around Rome with in the gorgeous scenes of Roman Holiday. The new ones are pretty cute, too. They come in vibrant colors and look hip and breezy. But there is something about the old original that makes me smile whenever I see one. Maybe because they're such an enduring presence; or maybe its the pretty pastel colors. Perhaps it is because I am hopelessly addicted to Roman Holiday. Either way, sighting them is one of my favorite things.

Are you a Roman Holiday fan? Stay tuned for details about a new release of the classic film, due out soon. It contains new special features, including one that I consulted on. ::proud grin::

Sunday, September 28, 2008

When Bad Service Results in a Great Meal

It was hot. Very, very hot. The sun was intense and the heat was scorching, surprising for the elevation. We had just visited the fascinating castle of Lagopesole, one of the hunting lodges built by Frederick II during his reign. He used Puglia and Basilicata as his stomping grounds and playground and littered the landscape with unique, even odd, castles. Lagopesole is well preserved, though only a portion of it is open to the public. There are secret passageways and ornate stone work, and its sheer mass occupying the top of a crest makes it an enticing stopover. Bryan is very enthusiastic about fortresses and castles, so it was on the list, even if it hadn't been a convenient locale.


We left right at lunchtime and made our way to an osteria in the town below the castle. Chiuso. That's the problem with Mondays. It is a crapshoot if you'll find things open, especially museums and restaurants. We followed a sign to another restaurant, which was open and proudly proclaimed itself as climatizzata, air conditioned. Great!

We settled into a table in the depth of the cavern-like room to find that the promised a/c was not on, despite the fact that the temps were soaring in the 90s (fahrenheit). I had sweat streaming down my back while perusing the menu. We were hot and hungry. We were also resolutely ignored. The waitress floated past our table without giving us a glance, despite our best efforts to get her attention. She seated a large table of workers and immediately took their orders, brought them water and wine...while we stewed in the back. Twenty minutes ticked by without any acknowledgement that we existed and might want to eat. No water, no "I'll be right with you".

Poor customer service is one of my pet peeves. It drives me nuts; I mean, you're in a business to give service to people...so serve them! I got good and ticked off and announced to my hungry hubby that we were outta there. He was less than happy with my decision, because as I've already mentioned, it was a Monday and there were no other choices in that town. For me it was a matter of principle...if they don't want to give me the time of day, why should I beg and then dole out money for the "privilege"? I'd rather lunch on the stale potato chips and mealy apples stashed in the trunk.

We huffed off. No clear destination in mind, as we were winding our way north-ward toward home. I drove while Bryan's stomach grumbled next to me. We descended from the castle-town along a windy road toward a green-carpeted valley with the distant outline of Monte Vulture bulking up ahead.

As we curved uphill again toward Filiano with the desperate hope of finding food, I passed a drive with a sign for an agriturismo proclaiming itself a Locanda. Now, it's not a hard and fast rule, but often "locanda" means that food is served. After another couple of turns I found enough space to pull off and yanked a u-turn to go back, hoping for the good of my marriage that the place was open for lunch. We crested the driveway to find two cars in the wide gravel parking lot and a family, obviously the cook and her family, sitting outside polishing off the remainder of their pranzo. They welcomed us warmly and sat us down in the cool interior where a nice breeze was blowing through the window bringing fresh air from the nearby mountains.

Chilled water and local wine appeared as if by magic. The daughter/waitress asked if we'd like to sample the specialty of the house, the antipasto. We know from experience that a Lucanian antipasto is a meal in itself so we ordered one portion of that and the home-made orecchiete which would come topped with the peperoni cruschi that I adore.

Plates started rolling out within minutes. Bryan gave me a warm glance of contentment. I felt a little smug with my decision to walk out of the hovel, but also knew I was extremely lucky to happen upon this heavenly place. We'd gone hungry on more than one occasion while looking for an open eatery. But no matter; we sipped a little local Aglianico and munched the house-cured prosciutto and fabulous pecorino cheeses (soft cheese, aged traditional pecorino, and super-fresh sheep's milk ricotta) along with the other elaborate nibbles that made up the three generous plates of antipasto. Tuna-stuffed cherry peppers, a pretty little frittata wedge, gooey cheese baked in pastry crust, crunchy bruschetta with the reddest tomatoes I've ever seen, and freshly roasted red peppers, and more.

The heaping helpings of pasta- pillowy canoe-shaped cups called strascinati that soak up the sunny olive oil and pieces of the crispy peppers that have been dried and fried (sooo addictive, those!) filled us up. The breeze cooled us down while the attention of the owners warmed our hearts. They were so genuinely happy to have us there, served us so sweetly and presented us with so much delicious food, we were thrilled to have walked out on the surly girl to find this family-run place instead. Sometimes bad service turns out to be a blessing in disguise.

If You Go: La Locanda del Re, located in the contrada of Gianturco between Castel Lagopesole and Filiano in northern Basilicata. Tell them the americani sent you.

Want to Know More?

Castello di Lagopesole, and some nice photos of the Castello

Aglianico del Monte Vulture

Travel Information for Basilicata

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shepherdess in Training

After Bryan's thrilling flight across the gorge at Castelmezzano, we departed utilizing a road with a newly-opened tunnel. It was not marked on the map, but we had a pretty clear idea that this route would take us to our destination much more quickly and with fewer switchbacks than the stomach-churning strada we'd used to reach the lofty mountain pinnacles. (Our intuition proved correct.)

Along the way we encounted a mixed flock of sheep and goats trotting along the narrow road. At first we didn't see the shepherd, but as we got closer we glimpsed this girl herding them along...on her bicycle. She couldn't have been more than 14 years old. She and the dogs maneuvered the flock off to the side just enough for us pass.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Basilicata: Buon Compleanno

While visiting my ancestral town we found ourselves with invitations to a party. Just as we were feeling really and truly flattered, we discovered that everyone in town was invited. The occasion was Carmela's birthday; Carmela likes a party and the comune was only too happy to oblige her. After all, she is Anzi's first centenarian.

Fliers went up all over the village inviting the good citizenry to come celebrate. A stage was erected in the main piazza and a long table prepared off to the side. A special mass was said in Carmela's honor and the congregation presented her with a lovely painting. After a benediction and a prayer of thanks for her presence and devotion, the full-to-overflowing church emptied out into the piazza.

Carmela slowly made her way through the crowd, waving and echoing her grazie to the many auguri called out her way. She walked up to the stage and listened as the mayor sang (well, recited) her praises. He bored everyone, as mayoral speeches tend to do, and we peeked to see if Carmela herself was getting antsy in an "I don't have all day" kind of way. Maybe she was whispering, "Not getting any younger over here, sindaco!" But no, she was listening intently and enjoying the procedings.


Carmela lives alone up one of the steep, narrow streets. She still follows the "early to bed, early to rise" creed of her generation, and still cooks. When she speaks, her voice is still clear and strong. The years have passed quickly, she says.

Bottles of Prosecco were opened and Carmela was toasted (she enjoyed a glass herself). An enormous torta was cut and served around. Under brilliant sunlight the piazza was filled with her family and friends, and her joyful face showed her pleasure in the event and in her town. Children danced together off to the side while adults milled about and chatted amiably while balancing plates of cake.
While it's a small town, it was by far the largest birthday party I've ever attended. Buon compleanno, Carmela!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Basilicata: An Evening With Brigands

Before our trip to the Motherland last fall, our landlord warned us to sta attenti (watch out) because "Basilicata is the land of brigands". Yeah, whatever. We were getting used to hearing rather derogatory comments about il Mezzogiorno so we passed it off as just one more offhand remark by someone who had never bothered to travel "down there" himself.

Turns out our landlord was correct. There *are* brigands in Basilicata, and they put on one helluva performance. Every weekend from the beginning of August through mid-September the era of i briganti comes to life at La Grancia outside tiny Brinidisi di Montagna.

In a huge open-air, natural amphitheatre below town, Il Parco Storico La Grancia is a multi-venue historical theme park with six areas for education, theatre, music and art. There is Il Borgo, a sort of Lucanian frontier-town where artisans in period costumes demonstrate traditional crafts, and -this being Italy-there are several stands and restaurants where you can eat locally-produced delicacies that would have been served during the brigantaggio years, the late 1800s. Music and dance performances are designed to reflect the area's particular history and culture.

But the main event of this park is La Storia Bandita, a grand production dubbed as a "cinespettacolo". It is a beautiful blending of impassioned live performance, dramatically-devised video projection, and astounding special effects, utilizing the bare cliff wall opposite and the ruins of the 11th century castle perched above Brindisi. Seriously, this is one amazing show.


Interestingly, La Storia Bandita means "the history of the bandits" but could also be translated as "banned history". It is a clever word play for the period when many Lucani felt that their culture and history had been marginalized, trivialized and tyrannized. Tired of invasions and overly dominating landowners that kept them poor, oppressed and disillusioned, the period of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) proved to be a flashpoint for many southern peasants who joined together and formed a band of bandits. They became known as briganti.

La Storia Bandita tells a dramatized version of this period, focusing on the charismatic leader of the pack, Carmine Crocco, who was called the General of the Briganti. From events in his childhood and disillusionment with the unification forces, the story shows how and why the briganti took things into their own hands to protect their lands and traditions.

The production is astounding, with hundreds of participants in an all-volunteer cast and crew. Dance and music reflect the rural Lucanian life at the time. Crocco authored an autobiography and some of his rousing prose is movingly recited. But the effects! When the forces invade, the castle is set aflame. Gunfire echoes loudly in the canyon and the flashes illuminate the mountain formations. Images are projected behind the set on the rock. A waterwall shoots up in a stirring finale.


You don't have to understand much Italian to follow the show. The performances play it all out before your eyes, unfolding in the peasant village, as well as tents and caves, representing how the briganti had to hide out in the hills. The performance was so rousing that Bryan decided he would dress as Crocco for Carnevale next year. This is a show worth seeing.

WHAT: La Storia Bandita, a live performance utilizing special effects

WHERE: Il Parco Storico La Grancia, Brindisi di Montagna (Potenza Province). It is located just off the Basentana superstrada.

WHEN: Every weekend from the beginning of August through mid-September

COST: 18 euro

NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION: The park also contains various areas of attractions and trails, so you can make a day of it. Picnic areas are provided. Restaurants and stands offer locally-produced foods at reasonable prices.

The hundreds of people who comprise the cast and crew are all volunteers.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Basilicata: Flying With Angels

We first heard about the chance to fly with the angels last year when we visited Basilicata with my cousin and her friend, Rhonda. Il Volo dell'Angelo is an open-air thrill ride where you rocket across a 400 meter deep ravine at 120 km/hour. (That's 1300 feet, and 75 miles per hour.) Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that you do this while strapped into a flimsy vest which is attached to a wire?

I admit that when cousin Michele told us about it, Rhonda and I were all over it. Oh yeah, let's do it! Celia and Bryan were less enthused. But it all a moot point anyway; our visit was in October, a few weeks after they'd closed for the season. Still, being a roller coast enthusiast, I was intrigued.

Fast forward a year. Bryan and I finagled a day away from la famiglia to explore the high-altitude towns of Pietrapertosa, the highest town in Basilicata at 1088 meters (3569 feet) and Castelmezzano, a little lower but no less dramatic. Both nestle into the clefts of the fanciful and bizarre peaks of the Dolomiti Lucani. The views are truly breathtaking and the sight of these towns tucked into the rocks is astonishing.
















On the twisty road below Pietrapertosa we saw movement overhead, then *zoom* he was gone. That's when we noticed the thin line and just how deep that valley between the towns really is. And how fast you fly. Omigod! I don't think so! And just as I'm thinking that Bryan says, "Woohoo!" Huh? I have a hard time coaxing onto my favorite coasters at Cedar Point but this he'll do?

After meandering the pretty lanes of Pietrapertosa the moment of reckoning comes. Bryan buys his ticket and is awaiting my final decision. After having seen the sucker in action and walking up to the departure point and looking down -as well as across to the end point- I totally chickened out and said, "nuh-uh". Off we went for Bryan's wingless flight.

That's when things got a little complicated. What they don't explain when you buy your ticket is that this is a round-trip affair. Because of course you have to get back to the point from which you started somehow, but having seen vans marked "Navetta - Volo dell'Angelo" we thought a shuttle returned you. Okay. No problem. A double-header. But what they don't tell you about *that* is the grueling hike to reach the second departure point in Castelmezzano. Bryan would discover this only after his first euphoric flyover. The shuttle takes you only a short distance and dumps you at the foot of a very steep peak, which you must scale to reach the departure station. In 35 celsius (95 fahrenheit) heat. My former Eagle Scout hubby thought it was pretty intense; I would have been calling it a day and waiting for the next bus out of town, whenever that may be.


So was it worth it? He said emphatically, yes. "It would have been a little more enjoyable if they'd tell you the finer details up front, but it was a blast." So there you go. If you want to be strapped in and pushed off a mountaintop to soar like an angel, here is your chance.

WHAT: Volo dell'Angelo, a 1400 meter (4593 feet) long suspension wire spanning two mountain peaks.

WHERE: Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano in central Basilicata.

COST: 30 euro roundtrip

HOW IT WORKS: 1) Purchase a ticket at the biglietteria in town. 2) Walk to the departure point. 3) Let them rig you up in a vest and helmet. 4) Take the heavy metal piece which will hold you to the line. 5) Go to the departure station and get hooked on. 6) Soar and scream.

NEED TO KNOW INFORMATION: Unless you have a friend with a car waiting for you on the other side, this is a roundtrip adventure. You must be in good physical condition to hike to the departure points. Bottles of water are provided at the Castelmezzano station for the trail.

OTHER STUFF: There are a couple of restaurants and coffee bars in both towns but Castelmezzano is a bit more "bustling" than Pietrapertosa.

For hiking enthusiasts there are loads of trails available in this area. Lodging is available in both towns and the evening sunsets and star-filled nights would make this a very romantic destination.

Read Bryan's account of his flight here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Summer Fever

Mi spiace! I know I've left the Pinon Tree with an empty nest lately. After returning to Italy I had an inbox filled to the brim and some commitments to fulfill. When we left so abruptly I had to cancel a trip we'd planned to visit la famiglia down south, so when I got back we rescheduled and went last week. I ended up coming home sick. At first I thought I was having heat stroke; the scirocco from Africa has been bringing major heat to Italy. I chalked up my scratchy throat to dust from said scirocco, or the all-too-present cigarette smoke from my cousin's family and friends, who all puff away a *lot*. But no, I woke up this morning with that distinct knowledge one has when one knows she has a full-blown sick-with-something symptomology. I hate summer colds; I especially hate them when accompanied by fever...I mean, who needs more heat right now?

We were in Basilicata, the Motherland, the remote locale that Carlo Levi wrote about in his famous book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. I don't know about the Lord, but modern communications seem to have stopped at Eboli. We were in deep woods, steep valleys, and mountain clefts wehre no cell signals dare to tread. My handy-dandy cell phone internet connection that I use when traveling was useless. Internet Point? Ha! Not in my ancestral village.


We stayed in an agriturismo up a squiggly road with such tight turns that the headlights had to race to keep up...and lost. We plunged into darkness around every bend, hoping there were no animals or precipitous drop-offs in our direct path. But up in our mountain hideaway we heard only sheep bells and wind. Another guest, from Rome, mentioned at breakfast, "si sente il silenzio." You hear the silence. I was able to relax, and while the days were scorching, the nights were cool and so we slept soundly. Being out of touch was just what I needed at that moment.

Because we were actually able to go off and play tourist this time around, over the next few days I will tell you more about some of the things we experienced laggiu`.

But now I'm taking my hot summer fever back to bed. A presto.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Measurements

525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear.
525,600 minutes - how do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In 525,600 minutes - how do you measure a year in the life?
How about love? How about love? How about love?
Measure in love. Seasons of love.
-Seasons of Love

The anthem song from the brilliant musical RENT keeps rolling around in my mind. I just returned to Ascoli. I was gone three weeks but they felt like three months. Funny how the clock stops and days run together the minute you enter a hospital room. Everything seemed skewed, like I'd entered a parallel universe. All around me Washington, DC went on as normal while life as we knew it seemed to brake and warp, and made me start to wonder, how do you measure moments like this?

Time became measured in three-hour increments as we took shifts tending to my uncle Dean. We didn't want him to be alone, and someone needed to be there at all times to oversee the medical care.

Night was marked by numb fatigue. Early mornings brought clammy awakenings to the sudden rememberance of where I was and why.

Days were measured in hugs and prayers and clasped hands, among the family and the extended familial-like relationships we forged with the employees in Dean's hotel. They all wanted to touch us, to reach out to us as well as to be comforted themselves, to tell us how much Dean meant to them personally, and to have us convey their messages and kisses to him.

We measured the week in countless cups of coffee from the hospital cafeteria. In pounding heartbeats, in hopes held tightly while dismay crowded into the recesses. In the number of well-wishes extended, in meals given, in smiles bestowed.

We lost count of the days and the number of tears, which were broken by jokes to dispel the tension and funny remembrances to chase away the fears.

We made it through the weeks not by taking it one day at a time, but by forgetting what day it was and operating on a different time zone altogether. By leaning on each other, picking up the pieces when one of us fell apart and then getting enough rest to start it all over again.

My uncle Dean passed away on August 6. He had just turned 62 exactly one month before his death. According to my family's scale of longevity, he should have had at least 30 more years to live.

So how do you measure a life? In hearts touched, in spirits uplifted, in opportunities given, in lives changed, in a community bettered. In moments together, in laughter. In love bestowed. Measured in love.
Turn on your sound and listen to Seasons of Love.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Please Recline For Take-Off

We found-somewhat miraculously-available seats on a last-minute flight to the US. Last minute as in, purchased on Wednesday for flights on Thursday. The connection was through London with a five hour layover, but it would at least get us into Washington, DC late on Thursday night. The family had begun gathering together.

Check-in for the international flight was rather confused and chaotic. The British Airways flight was full and probably over-booked. I had booked seat assignments online. Our seats weren't together but a couple of rows apart. When we handed out tickets to the gate agent, she informed me that my seat was changed, I'd now been knocked to the back of the aircraft as they tried to accomodate a group seated together. Bryan, on the other hand, was upgraded to Business Class. What the...? She said, "just get onboard and they'll sort it out."

I won't make a short story long by detailing the trivial aspects; we'll just say that the seat next to the Business Class seat was deemed "inoperational" due to malfunction of the inflight entertainment system. I didn't give a rat's rear about the entertainment system, so I chatted amiably with the flight attendant who needed to rearrange a few more people in the coach section where I'd been assigned anyway, and so she let me take the "inoperable" seat. Inoperable? Not! The pod system worked like a charm...I was able to fully recline to a lay-down position, get some rest, and enjoy the little goody bag they give with eye shades, moisturizers, and truffles.

As the flight was ready to depart, the attendant came and reclined my seat! I had straightened it more upright and played around the lumbar support button. Apparently, in business class you get to lounge a little during takeoff! A decent meal, a glass of wine, and I was feeling much more calm and at ease about the long trip ahead. I had been on the verge of "losing it," fearful at what would be lying ahead and the interminable eight hours of flying while not knowing what was happening in the hospital had me on the verge of going to pieces. The sweetness of the flight attendants and the chance to relax worked wonders.

I am in DC. The whole family is here (or will be arriving here) by tomorrow. It's another bittersweet journey. I'm here for the duration. My ticket is for 2 weeks but I'll extend it as needed to be here to help my beloved uncle and my family who are giving care. I'm just glad I couuld get here so quickly and offer my love and assistance. I'm not sure when I'll return to Ascoli -or to the blog, so please hang in there with me. I'll be back soon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lots of Me to Go Around

I stumbled on this site while doing some genealogical and surname research. How startling to find out that there are 75 of me in the United States alone. Goodness! And my family that one of me was a handful!
I wonder how many Valerie Schneiders there are world-wide? Using my "real" name- my maiden name (which I really should have held on to, as Italians have a great difficulty with all those consonants in Schneider) -shows better odds, only 5 of me. My sister is truly unique...only 1 of her to be had, so if there are any single male readers out there, you had better snatch her up quickly!
How many of *you* are there?

HowManyOfMe.com
LogoThere are
75
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Downsides - Part I

I am frequently asked about moving to Italy. Many find the blog because they are dreaming of making just such a move themselves. A few thoughtful souls also want to know about the downsides up front, which I think is smart. No place is perfect, and there are some frustrations and quirks you'll experience living here. Most are little things, little quirks that are different; others are more serious. I thought I'd expound on a couple of them, starting with the biggest one.

So Far Away

Remember the old Dire Straights' tune? The plunky refrain repeating "You're so far away from me..." That's one of the biggest hurdles to living in a foreign land, the distance from loved ones. Not being able to see family and friends regularly can be upsetting. Especially at a time like this.

My uncle is suffering from cancer. Not a "normal" cancer that can be attacked aggressively with chemotherapy or that can be removed with surgery, but a very rare type known as GIST (Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumors). He is currently in the hospital with pneumonia and other problems and nearly died this week. My mom is with him and keeping on top of things, keeping him company, and keeping us informed. But it's hard to not be able to "be there now".

This uncle is my mom's younger brother, and he has always been like a brother to me, too. He's one who has always been there, always a stable force in my life, and I hate to see him suffering without being able to offer tangible comfort or a visit and a laugh. Because his condition is currently so serious, phone calls are minimized to let him rest. With tubes up his nose and oxygen pumping, he can't really talk well, anyway. Naturally, I'm worried and upset. So far away, so far I just can't see, as the song goes.

One of the decisions we made when we moved was that we'd always be available to go home at a moment's notice whenever necessary. Our families are too important to us to trifle around, and we'll spend the bucks and move heaven and earth to get there if we need to. If I have to catch a flight, I'll do it without quabbling. This is something that should be considered if you're thinking about moving overseas.

We were fortunate to have already been in the US when my grandmother died, but these are contemplations that merit thorough thought. It really is the biggest drawback.

More light-hearted aspects about life here will follow. What do you consider drawbacks to living in a foreign land?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ma Che Successo?

So what happened? There was a stunning upset at the Joust. We didn't attend the July edition, opting to attend a sagra in a hill town instead. We returned home and sat on our terrazzino to listen to the cheers and loudspeaker announcements which were intermittently arriving on the breeze. We live a short walk from Lo Squarcia, as the stadium is called where they hold la Giostra della Quintana.

It was rather rhythmic. A tornata by a cavaliere with the pause as he rode the course, followed by applause and then the announcement to broadcast his score. Suddenly the crowd went wild. Long, enduring cheers and shouts. Drums and trumpets. Something was amuck.

We walked down to the corner outside the stadium and joined a large crowd that was lining the entire length of Corso Vittorio Emanuele to see the results. The sestieri march out in the order of placement, just like in the Middle Ages, so all the good townsfolks can see how their heroes fared.

Following the civic procession, out come the exuberant representatives of the sestiere of Porta Tufilla. Porta Tufilla? They haven't won a Palio in twenty-two years! Everyone on the street was shocked, looking at each other...Porta Tufilla? Ma che successo?

The answer to that question is...I don't know. The morning newspaper wrote of the victory and gave a tornata by tornata recounting of the events...up through the seconda tornata, that is. Then, apparently out of space and not wanting to continue the story onto another pagina, the article simply ended there. The all-important, decision-making terza tornata was not reported on at all. The so-called competing newspaper said only that a problem with Piazzarola's horse decided the match and led Porta Tufilla to their joyful victory.

Such is the way of Italian journalism. We have discovered that the standards of reporting are vastly different here than in the States. First of all, a story is long-winded - meaning long on flowery speech but short on actual information. A recent article about an upcoming festival talked about the "beautiful and atmospheric events and gastronomic delights that are sure to evoke near euphoria in the eyes of the beholder who partakes," but failed to say the particulars about when, where, and at what time these inspiring events would take place. Other articles are circular, meaning they repeat themselves several times over...but basically say nothing of importance. Then there are the public notices...the "articles" that are actually announcements placed by proud parents to tell the citizenry that their daughter just graduated from college with a degree she won't be using as she is currently employed in the local underwear shop; or little blurbs to say the Enrico and Lilli have been married thirty years and will celebrate with a massive feast in a local restaurant. Other such tidbits announce births, promotions, or new jobs, usually for so-and-so's kid.

A good one-third of every newspaper is devoted to lo sport. Every sporting event known to mankind is reported on, complete with photos and tabloid-like gossip about which model each sports figure is currently embroiled with (or has split from). Yawn.

And as if that wasn't enough to drive out any space for actual news, now that summer is here several pages are always devoted to photos of women in bikinis, always in groups of three or more, either lounging in the sun or embracing each other with drinks in their hands showing what a fun, party-hearty time they are having on the beach. No men are pictured. Ever. And yes folks, trees are razed to make paper to print this stuff.

I never did find out what happened to Piazzarola's horse, who was supposed to be so promising and who would have likely won a Palio if something hadn't occurred. Whether he fell, turned an ankle, got skiddish...I guess I'll never know. Nobody of my acquaintance attended the giostra this time around. Apparently the newspaper reporter didn't stick around for the end, either.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Pray For Peace - Then Go to War

No, this is not a post about politics. As the events of La Quintana continue to unfold, this week's most unique ceremony was a gorgeous affair that was sparsely attended. For some reason the word hasn't really gotten around about the tradition that took place yesterday, Il Saluto della Madonna della Pace.


The Salute to the Madonna of Peace takes place in the little Piazza of Sant'Agostino. Regal representatives of each of the six sestieri marched in, always to the rhythmic drum-beats of the musicisti, their distinctive banners waving in the breeze. Once they were solemnly assembled in front of the Romanesque church of from which the piazza takes its name, the smell of incense reached our noses. It grew stronger, and we watched as the church's masterpiece and source of great veneration among the citizens of Ascoli was brought to the door. The painting, the Madonna della Pace, is said to be the source of peace for this area. In ages past when the city-states were constantly at each other's throats, this painting was said to have brokered peace among warring factions.

The participants bowed and saluted the painting, asking the Madonna for continued peace as the priest gave a benediction over the horses and riders who are to participate in the giostra. Then a serious-faced child, intent on performing his duty well, came forward to present a bell to the church. In return he was given a framed print of the all-important painting. The official statutes of this event, written into the charter of La Quintana and dating back to the 1300s were read aloud from a city official on horseback. Then a plumed hat was inverted and small scrolls with the names of each of the sestieri incribed were placed inside. The mayor extracted them one by one, reading them off to determine the order of participation for the joust.

The woman standing next to us showed her displeasure immediately. Her sestiere of Porta Tufilla was drawn second. "No! Che schifo!" Showing my ignorance I told her that I would have thought going second was a good thing, but she explained that you want to be third or fourth. If you go first, you have nothing to gauge yourself on, no time you must beat. If you go last, the cavaliere could get too nervous watching the time and performance of everyone else. Best to go in the middle, she said. She should know. She's been attending these events for forty years.

She taught us the ultimate insult to yell out to the sestiere you despise most (in her case, as with many people we know, it's Porta Solesta`). Because the participants march out of the jousting arena after the event in the order of placement, those with the lowest score go last. "They must close the door after them," she said. Giggling, she says that she yells out to the potential losers, "Hey boys...do you have the keys?" Emotions run deep in this competition.

Tonight, following the grand parade, is the giostra. The six city districts will be battling it out for the Palio and bragging rights. I guess that is why they beseech the Madonna for peace...right before they go to war.

(In case you're wondering, my money is on Luca Veneri, the cavaliere for our old 'hood of Piazzarola.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Knight Time

Suddenly, walking around Ascoli is like a stroll through the days of old, when knights served the city and the different sestieri were each responsible for the defenses of their sections of town. La Quintana, Ascoli's medieval games which have been carried out since the 1200s, has kicked off with a bang...or more accurately, with a trumpet blast. The piazzas are brightened with vibrant splashes of color and are filled with the differing drumbeats and trumpet tunes unique to each sestiere.

Last night, I found my knight in shining armour. These three fine fellows do the city proud, wouldn't you say? If the clothes make the man, then armour makes them absolutely striking!


This new musician was beaming with pride to be a part of the civic band heralding the event and leading the sbandieratori to the piazza for their competition. What a cutey!


The flag-throwing competition is my favorite event, particularly the grande squadra. The sestiere's musicians move in perfectly-choreographed formations among the flags which are being launched in all directions. They demonstrate a mastery of skill and precise timing. We now reside in Porta Maggiore, so we rooted for our underdogs, who put on a beautiful performance. Their choreography was the most complicated and intricate, but unfortunately they didn't bring home the Palio. (They placed third overall.)


Following the competition, the winners are announced, the Palio is awarded, and the teams parade out of the piazza in the order of placement, a long tradition which allows the citizens to see how their teams fared.

This is just the beginning. We have a month of contests and events to look forward to, giving us lots of opportunity to be a part of these gorgeous traditions still being carried on. Not to mention the chance to hang out with the knights. Viva La Quintana!

More about La Quintana:
Men in Tights
Wanted: A Palio Winner

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Sagra and i Soci

As you already know, we're sagra enthusiasts. We love the home-spun events that bring people together over plates of good, cheap food and music that is usually the equivalent of a B-movie. Like has-beens from the 80s that are now touring the State Fairs, we've noticed that many of the bands seem to make the rounds, playing the 'sagra circuit'. But hey, it's free entertainment and for us, it's all about the food. And the cameraderie.

In our sagra experience, we've found that people are generally congenial and at nearly every festival we've attended we've had someone chat with us and offer us wine from their pitcher. "E` troppo," they tell us. I have too much wine for just the two of us, take some. Since Italians don't feel a meal is complete without wine, they always buy a liter. Since most of them drink only a glass or two they know they'll not consume it all, so it's customary to offer some to whoever happens to be sitting nearby.

Such was the case Saturday at the opening night for the sagra in the Porta Romana district. Their annual festival centers on mezze maniche all'Amatriciana and those little grilled critters I like so much, arrosticini. Mezze maniche is a type of pasta I'd never seen in the US, at least not under that name. Short sleeves is the literal translation. Turns out they are basically your run of the mill rigatoni. This particular sagra makes good renditions of both specialties, but we've found the kitchen to be rather slow. It didn't help that we arrived on opening night while they were still trying to get organized.

As we sat at our table stewing at the slowness (as well as from the heat), we noticed an older man next to us doing the same. He was alternatingly fanning himself and bouncing his right hand up and down with his finger drawn together...a classic Italian gesture that indicates "what the hell is the hold-up" and such-like sentiments. He got up and talked with someone behind the counter. He threw his hands up in the air and came back to sit and wait. He had his eyes resolutely set on the kitchen area and didn't give a sidewards glance in our direction. We noticed this only because there were not too many people yet and because the wait was- as I mentioned- rather long, leaving us rather bored.

Finally a few numbers, including ours, were belted out over an insanely-loud microphone, causing everyone to jump. We retrieved our food and dug in. Our neighbor went for his meal and returned with a liter of white wine. That's when he gave us some notice and was horrified to see that we not only hadn't ordered any, but sitting there on our table was a glass of beer. Beer! Mah! Pour that out and give me your glass, he said. We passed him the plastic cups we'd procured to hold water. He filled them up, saying he had a friend behind the counter who had given him the wine. Drink some...it's much better for you that beer. Piu` leggero, it's lighter. Better for the digestivo.

Naturally we got to talking as we dined. He was stunned to hear that we are Americans, that we live in Ascoli and that we're appassionati about sagras. He's lived in the Porta Romana district for years and years. This became evident as people entering the tent would call out his name and greet him. He kept pouring wine we didn't need, and at the end of the meal he ushered us up to the counter to introduce us to his benificient friend (who, it turned out, was actually his son-in-law). He bought us caffe and wished he had his own home-made liquore to make them corretti. He continually cursed the fact that none of his cronies had bothered to show up for opening night. He wanted them to meet us, could we come again for dinner together...his treat? Ma certo! we said.

We rode our bikes home, bumping through the cobbled streets ringing our bells madly for no other reason that it was fun to do so. The bell on Bryan's rickety-sounding but sturdy bike makes a hearty bring-bring type of tone. Mine is a wimpy little ping. All the way across town we echoed out the little chorus. Bring-bring. Ping. Ciao amici, a friend called out as we rode by. Bring-bring. Ping ping.


Tuesday we had a sagra encore when we met Ezio and his friends. We had an evening with lots of laughter and too much food, too much wine, too much gelato (yes it's possible to get too much!).  He and his friend Guido both uncorked bottles of home-brewed mistra, that fire-water concoction that will burn a hole in your stomach. I had to pretend to taste it, but no way was I going to swallow that liquid inferno.

They were all so very sweet, inviting us to partake in horseback riding and a grape harvest. This is so typical in Italy...we just met them, yet they were so immediately accepting because their friend said we're okay.

By the end of the evening they declared us soci, members of Porta Romana, even though we live in a sestiere across town. By this definition, they tell us, we will be included in other events because we are soci in their circle. All because we sat down to dine and accepted a glass of free wine. And people wonder why we love the sagras?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Goodbye to Grams

When I returned from the States, I'd promised to write more about my grandmother. As I started working on a blog entry about her, it turned into a longer article. I decided to dedicate my monthly column on Slow Travel, Living Slow in Italy, to her.

My tribute to my grandmother, Bittersweet Journeys, is now posted online.

I had also previously written about her here and here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Vivo Ancora!

Yes, I'm still alive! The chickadee is back in the nest, recovering slowly from the nasty cold that befell me while visiting my hometown. Why is it that I get sick each and every time I set foot in Ohio? Boh.

I have had a hard time getting motivated since my return. With the virus thing going on, my energy level has been low...and the sudden slap of summer hasn't helped that any. The day after we returned the cooler-than-normal temps fled for the hills and the muggy air descended like a hot blanket. Brilliantly clear skies mean plenty of scorching sun...which as a former desert-dweller I can handle, but it's the humidity that kills me. If the actual heat itself wasn't enough to signal to us that summer was officially here, the deserted streets this weekend would have tipped us off. We walked into the piazza on Sunday at high noon, which is usually the absolute height of the passeggiata, to find...oh, maybe ten people, tops. Everyone had turned tail and ran for the beach. Except us and a straggling of foreign visitors.

The other sure sign of summer is that sagra season is upon us! Hooray, because I love me a good sagra. We've already been to two. The Festa della Sacra Spina seems to kick it off, so we made sure to attend and procure another bottle of private label vino. We have our sights set on a couple more that will be taking place over the next few weeks.

I am still catching up on sleep, feeling zapped. I've had several writing projects that I should be working on and have been lazily putting off (but really need to get cracking on them this week). And I worked on a very exciting project for a Hollywood production company for a special DVD release of the film Roman Holiday. (Exciting, huh??)

That's what's been happening in the ol' Pinon Tree. Life is slowly getting back to normal.

A special thanks to you all for your kind words of consolation sent through your comments and emails. They were very sweet and comforting, and I appreciate your thoughts, prayers, and friendships. Bloggers rock!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Wedding and a Funeral

I had good intentions. I had written several posts that I was going to slip in during my absence. I brought some photos that would have cleverly juxtaposed with scenes here that I planned to post, too. That was before I left Italy.

While our primary purpose in coming to the US was to attend a wedding, we ended up also attending a funeral. My beloved grandmother passed away on June 5.

I was blessed to spend time with her before she died, to see her and let her know how much I loved her. She was much declined but still quintessentially Grams, and being with her before she died set my mind very much at peace. I had a little time to adjust to the thought of life without her here. I was very close with her and already miss her tremendously.

I've written about Grams several times before, and I will write more about her when I've had time to process it all and gather my thoughts. It's been a whirlwind of activity with far-flung family members arriving and departing.

We leave this evening to fly back to Italia. I'm exhausted and drained emotionally. It will be a few days before I get reacclimated to my life, renewed and readjusted to the European time zone. I'll be back in the nest again soon, but I also need to get over the nasty cold I'm fighting and get caught up on sleep before returning to the blog.

Until then, I want to share this poem I found among my grandma's clippings. It sums up her life (and life philosophy) beautifully.

CHARITY
Do something today to bring gladness
To someone whose pleasures are few
Do something to drive off sadness-
Or cause someone's dreams to come true.
Find time for a neighborly greeting
And time to delight an old friend;
Remember-the years are fleeting
And life's latest day will soon end.
Do something today that tomorrow
Will prove to be really worthwhile;
Help someone to conquer sorrow
And greet the new dawn with a smile.
for only through kindness and giving
Of service and friendship and cheer,
We learn the pure joy of living
And find heaven's happiness here.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Where I Hang Out

Ever wonder where I hang out when I am lurking online? Oh sure, I spend a lot of time reading blogs. Waaay too much time, in fact. But I also have a surplus of sites to visit in my downtime, purely for entertainment value.

SAGP (Self-Appointed Grammar Police). Geeky it may be, but my inner editor adores this site. In case you're wondering, I think tickets should be issued for offensive grammatical offenses online. I see far too many of them, even on high quality websites. I want to take a red pen to them, if red ink could reach through cyberspace.

Continuing with the language geek theme, the Etymology Dictionary is fun and educational. Fun being relative, of course. Bryan would not enjoy this site in the least.

Travel is a passion around the Pinon Tree so I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the trip reports and travel notes on Slow Travel. I also enjoy the vacation rental reviews and the message board so this site is sort of like my neighborhood coffee bar.

JibJab. There's nothing like a little dose of political satire to start the day and these guys dish it up nicely.

Tecnocasa. A girl can dream, can't she? Back home I used to visit builders' model homes and housewares megastores; now I peruse the online market looking for a bargain. Hey, you never know; I just my see cute cottage for a song.

When I have a hankering, I scope these sites for recipes: New Mexican (when I have a stash of green chile); Lucanian (when I want a taste of the Motherland); Turkish (when I'm craving those Middle Eastern flavors); and Sandwiches (because sometimes I still want a quick, easy lunch).

Because I'm rather bookish and love to read, I spend a great deal of time on Amazon. If you want to peek at some of my favorites visit my A-Store.

In an attempt to keep current with and make sense of what is going on in this fast-paced, constantly-changing world I seek out (relatively) unbiased news at EuroNews, the Christian Science Monitor, and NPR.

I also still take a peek now and then at the HGTV site. Can't help myself. And who can't use tips on blinging a bath or kitchen back-splashes?

So what about you? Where do you hang?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Are You Dreaming of Italy?

A trip to Italy usually renders first-time visitors giddy in an "I can't believe I'm here" kind of way. Every view is stupendous, every historic sight incredible, and every bite of food amazing. A second trip usually brings on the "maybe I could live here" thoughts.

In the two years we've lived in Italy, we've both received numerous emails from readers who are dreaming and scheming a move to Italy, too. Many don't know where to start; others are in the throes of bureaucratic madness and in need of encouragement. We've been happy to offer what insight we can, having walked the road ourselves.

Here is the advice I generally dole out:

*Start at the beginning. Before giving any serious thought to making a permanent move, cash in all your available vacation time for an extended vacation. Spend as many weeks as you possibly can in one location. Rent a vacation home, stay put, and settle into life in that town so you can see what it is really like to live there. Vacationing in a place and living there are two very different things. Get your hair cut. Endure the lines at the post office. Learn the quirky local hours and rhythm. Experiencing daily life may firm your resolve or cause you to realize this isn't your dream after all.

*Take the first step. Seems obviously, but start with the first step, namely bureaucracy. It's infamous, slow, and frustrating...but necessary. If you plan on staying in Italy for more than three months, a visa is required. Start with the website of the Italian consulate you'll need to apply through and research their requirements.

*Stay the course. After you've determined the basic visa requirements, keep researching and reading for ways to work through the system. Some consulate agents delight in discouraging you. Others will require paperwork particular to that office (nothing you can do about it but obtain the necessary records). Keep at it; visit Expats in Italy for requirements and advice.

*Follow the footsteps. Get encouragement by reading Expats' success stories. Talk to others who have gone before you to learn how they did it, what they'd do differently, and see where they are today.

*Picture yourself here. Even if you're not making an immediate move it pays to gather information, read memoirs and blogs, watch movies set here, and look at images of Italy to see yourself in your new environment. The Sorrento webcam helps by giving you a window on daily life. There are loads of photo sites that offer up everday scenes, too.

*Keep dreaming. Hold onto that dream! Keep working toward it, envisioning and refining it, and generally stoking the flame to keep it alive. I found The Dream Giver by Bruce Wilkinson to be encouraging; I'm sure you'll find other books, websites and message boards to support and inspire you.