Thursday, March 26, 2009


Read all the way through for an important announcement.

It seems so long ago that my former landlord declared us vagabonds because of our frequent travels with family and friends. Not long after we arrived in Ascoli we had a rush of visitors and found ourselves sempre in giro to show them around, a not unwelcome task, I might add. Dorina told us that we should just invest in a camper instead of paying rent to her. Now I sort of wish that we had taken her advice.

This past week we departed The Villa that we had been so hospitably offered and arrived in Rome a couple days ago. Unfortunately (for us, fortunate for our hosts) the villa had a last-minute booking for the week of Easter, and the owners needed to complete some work in a hurry to get it all prepared for the season. It will be fully occupied with weekly guests until the end of October. We had to vacate a couple of weeks earlier than originally planned, but we certainly can’t complain.

Besides, I was getting very homesick for Ascoli, and the timing works out well, with the arrival of Bryan’s sister and her husband for their first visit to Italy. We will be spending a week near Ascoli showing them our adopted hometown and are excited about introducing them to the beauties, flavors, and fun in our corner of the country.

But after that…boh! You see, we will be vagabonds for some time to come. When we lost our lease and left Ascoli for our house-sitting gig, we had fervently hoped for some change of fortune and brighter bank statements. Unfortunately, la crisi economica that has plagued our homeland has hit home here, too. While I continue to hold out hope for some sort of work opportunity (hey, I believe in miracles!), we are, in all practicality, having to plan for a return to the US, barring divine intervention.

I don’t want to go. Really. Don’t. It has been an extremely emotional decision. My heart went into denial mode for a while, until it could no longer ignore the reality of the little drips of water pinging in the nearly-empty well that is our savings account. The well needs replenishing and the current drought is filling it up none too fast. We considered becoming briganti, but sort of figured that highway robbery would void our visa.

Facing these facts also made us realize that we want to spend the next couple of months seeing a lot of the places we had been putting off, always assuming there would be time to get there, so we will truly be vagabondi as we cruise around the southern regions.

Our vagabond status will follow us “home,” if you can call it that, since we don’t *actually* have a home in the US, and don’t know where we will end up. But as Scarlet said, “Tomorrow is another day!” and we will cross that ponte when we reach it. This will be a temporary repatriation; as soon as we can kick-start the coffers, we will be high-tailing back to Italia; you can count on that!
For now, and the next couple months, we will wish for that camper Dorina recommended we buy as we roam around and explore points south.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Benvenuti Primavera

Yesterday ushered in Spring but apparently the calendar forgot to inform the clouds. While it turned windy and cooler with some rain here in Cilento, our drive into Basilicata transported us back to winter. In Brienza we were welcomed with about two inches of the white stuff. Follow lunch, we exited the agriturismo to find fluffy flakes falling steadily.

What a far cry from just a few days ago when we explored Amalfi and sat outside jacketless, enjoying lemonade and conversation with Laura (who is just as smart and sweet as you'd expect from reading her blog). After the rollicking ride along the infamous, twisty road, we found bright lemons the size of melons and the air profumed with an intoxicating blend of citrus, flowers, and sea air. While wandering the stepped streets we saw dozens of people enjoying gelato, taking in the sun, and even saw one woman swimming (obviously not Italian!), and thought surely Spring had settled in.

So while the calendar says Spring, the wind and cold tell of a different season and my winter coat is not being relinquished quite yet.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Are The Foreigners?

Bryan and I were able to sit on the other side of the table (metaphorically speaking) last week when we made a trip to the Motherland. We hadn't been to my ancestral village for a while, and my cousin was anxious for us to come for a Sunday pranzo.

We had a nice visit and a nice meal (always yummy down there). Following the feast, we sat at the restaurant urgently trying to fend off Michele's unyielding insistence of "grappa, more wine, just a little more dessert..." when a group of ten arrived. They exchanged customary buongiornos, milled about deciding which table in the nearly-empty restaurant to occupy, and started inquiring about local specialties. Obviously not locals. Even if their ignorance of the food hadn’t clued me in, the fact that they weren't acquainted with with my cousin sealed it. He is the only cop in a town of 2,000 souls and everyone knows him.

Turisti, qui?” I asked Melina. They don’t get a lot of out-of-towners, especially in the winter. But apparently a small, nearby ski slope attracts day-trippers from surrounding regions. “Pugliese,” she said matter-of-factly. After listening to them talk a few more minutes, she stated, “Yep, from Bari.” She pegged their accents. I, sadly, still cannot distinguish regional accents. I can often make out that they *have* an accent, but don’t know one region’s speech patterns from another’s.

One of the guys approached the table to ask where, specifically, they were. The one he chose to address his question to, as apparently looking the most knowing, was Bryan. Much to the glee of everyone else, since Bryan quickly informed the guy to ask the others, as he, being American, couldn’t give him the best advice on directions and road conditions. Word quickly reached the bar area in the neighboring room, and cackles of laughter filtered our direction.

As we walked through to leave, the barista slapped Bryan on the back, still snickering, muttering something about Baresi not being able finding their way out of a paper sack and then asking the only americano within a 100-mile radius for directions. As we left we heard the barista passing the word on to a newcomer, with fragments of the "stranieri" being addressed...towards the Baresi.

I felt a little bad for them; they seemed nice enough folks. But I have to admit, it was also nice to be sitting on the other side of the table for a change, to be the ones *in* on the joke instead of the objects of the jokes and speculations for a change. For this day, at least, the foreigners weren't us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bella Napoli?

On Tuesday we took advantage of the gorgeous day, and our locale and train connections to make a jaunt to Napoli. It is one of those cities that polarizes; you either love it or loathe it. Staunch supporters will fight to the death to sing its praises, like my friend Luciano, who hails from the fair city. He will frequently effuse about the glories of his bella citta`, but when asked why he lives in Ascoli Piceno instead of his hometown, he quickly says, "Well, it's beautiful but I couldn't live there anymore."

I confess that I had been on the other side of the fence. I spent one wretched day in Naples on one of our earliest trips to Italy. Admittedly, the heavy rain did nothing to cast a beautiful aura upon the place and made it difficult to get around to see much of anything. The fact that my stepfather drove into town, got us very lost in less than stellar neighborhoods, where we were nearly killed three times over by red-light defiant motorists didn't put the town or inhabitants into a rosy light. And, while the Archeology Museum that we'd ventured into to town to see was impressive, the addicts shooting up outside of it tarnished it all for us. After that, whenever I saw the requisite pizzeria in every town named Bella Napoli, I would question, "oh really?"

But, living a relatively easy train ride away pushed us to give Naples another chance. We arrived right in the centro and hopped a bus to the seafront castle to follow a sort of self-guided tour that Bryan had staked out for us. We didn't have a list of truly "must sees," but instead had a route that would take us past some of the more important sights and monuments. For me, wandering the streets and getting a "feel" for the town is more important than rushing through museums or churches.

We had a gloriously sunny day. It was warm enough for just a light jacket and the Mediterranean shimmered and rippled. The clear outlines of Capri and the Amalfi Coast loomed. The enormous main piazza saw teens and dogs basking in the warmth while grandmothers pushed baby carriages. I was already starting to see the "bella" part of the often quoted statement.

We visited the imposing castello and the church of San Francesco, which borrowed heavily from Roman monuments like St. Peter's and the Pantheon. We meandered in the districts known as Quartieri Spagnuoli and Spaccanapoli, both of them tight grids of insanely narrow streets brimming with life. Countless rows of laundry criss-crossed the alleyways, fluttering like a boat's regata flags. Motorini rocketed around, even in the areas marked "pedestrian zone," not bothering to slow down for said pedestrians or oncoming scooters, but instead sounding their horns to tell us to jump out of their way. The constant cacophony cascaded through the canyon-like alleys, minging with the shouts of vendors and the din of a hundred TVs and conversations that tumbled out the windows.

We visited ancient ruins, a few pretty churches, and rode one of the famed funiculars (while humming that old song Funiculi Funicula). At one corner, while thrusting ourselves against the wall to avoid being plowed down by a motorino, the vegetable vendor started chatting with us. We asked him for a good place to have lunch, and he directed us to his sister's little restaurant. She happened upon us just then, so we followed her while she told us of their specialties that day. We enjoyed a nice plate of freshly prepared spaghetti alla vongole (delizioso). Before leaving town, we managed to fit in a vera pizza Napoletana and some of the local pastries, known as baba`.

We mostly marveled at the place. Naples really is unlike any other city in Italy. It is Europe's most densely populated, and it shows. It is full, and fully occupied. There is little green space, few parks, and unlike many Italian cities, boasts few piazzas. It is dirty - though not from the much- publicized trash crisis, but from millions of people, tourists, buses, cars, dogs, motorini and businesses all converging together in daily life in a compact space.

Napoli is full of contrasts. It is a place that both charms and intimidates. It attracts and repels in the same instant. It is full of beauty and full of chaos. There is daily drama, wafting music and filth occupying the same space. A vast sea and towering mountains define its boundaries yet it is squished in with streets so narrow the sun doesn't penetrate.

So did I like it? Yes. And no. At the same time.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Buona Festa della Donna!

Break out the mimosa blossoms (or some other yellow flowers), grab your girlfriends, eat cake, and enjoy some time out together. Today is International Women's Day, otherwise known as the Festa della Donna here in Italy.

It is generally heralded as girl's night out, a chance to ditch the dinner chores, escape the kids, and spend a few unhindered hours in compagnia delle amiche (in the company of friends). While I have sometimes heard it referred to as "hen's night," with male strippers as the evening's highlight, I have not actually seen this rendition in our neck of the woods. Last year, I was invited to a cena speciale, a special dinner where the restaurant was open only to our pre-reserved group, which boasted a huge feast, lots of laughter, and "girl talk". No Chippendales popped up. (Sorry to disappoint you.)

I think most women just like the having an evening officially sanctioned to themselves. Oddly, I saw a poster in Agropoli announcing a Festa della Donna party with men, "because it's more fun together". Oh, please; every day is man's day! Why can't they have one measly night out, just the women?!

We have friends from Le Marche visiting this weekend, so I'll whip up the traditional mimosa cake and, if the weather is nice, maybe we will take a country walk and snitch some yellow puff blossoms from the wild.

While the cena speciale is nice, I think it is also important to remember and pay homage to those who have gone before us, paving the way for the opportunities, rights, and freedoms we enjoy today...and recall that in many parts of our world, women are still highly oppressed and abused.

There are many example of women who made a difference in their neighborhoods and the world. One I admire is Jane Addams. She championed the pressing, urban social issues of the day, and provided for the poor of Chicago's Industrial Age slums, lobbing for labor reforms, particularly regarding child labor laws, the exploitation of immigrant workers, and safety issues in factories. She founded the American Settlement House Movement and through Hull House offered a variety of training classes, practical workshops, concerts, and cultural events, as well as a playground for the kids. She started it entirely with her own funding until she found wealthy sponsors. A suffragette, Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Want more inspiring examples? Read some of the Biographies of Notable Women, which offers countless examples of awesome, touching, or odds-defying women. Famous Female Firsts is a slide-show presentation of ground-breaking gals.

So, here's to being feminine! Buona festa della Donna! This is your are you celebrating it?

Related posts:
Girl Power - 2007 homage to la festa

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Europe on the Slow Side

As you know, I am a big fan of traveling slow. Since my first trip to Italy ten years ago when I was introduced to the concept of agriturismos, I loved the idea of parking myself in one spot (or two, max) to explore an area more indepth, get to know the local culture and customs, and interact with the inhabitants as much as possible. It was that taste of 'living local' that inspired us to move to Italy.

The availability of agriturismo stays, vacation apartments, and villa rentals has increased substantially since then, with tons of sites offering vacation rentals directly from the owners or acting as brokers.

My friend, Pauline Kenny, took her love of traveling slow and turned her hobby into an informative website; Slow Travel helped popularize this 'new' mode of travel. She and her husband, Steve Cohen, built up the site to a major resource, not only for vacation rentals worldwide, but with indepth information for nearly every aspect of arranging, executing, and enjoying your vacation. It became a behometh site with an active, devoted traveler community. Pauline sold the site a couple years ago.

But vacation villas are in her blood, it would seem, so she just launched a new 'slow site,' this time narrowing her focus back down to vacation rentals in Europe. With Slow Europe, she is going back to the basics: where to find quality, reputable rental agencies that meet your needs; in short, it will be an informative resource site with user generated reviews.

Stop by and give it a look. Find the perfect spot for your next vacation, or contribute your own vacation rental reviews. She welcomes feedback, so submit your comments; or, just say hello...Pauline is a friendly gal!