Sunday, September 25, 2016

Rick Steves: "Travel changes people"

Lucy and I have gone on short-term mission trips to Mexico, Liberia and Bolivia. Lucy has also gone to Brazil, Ethiopia, Zambia and Uganda—I was not able to go on the latter excursions because of my job. These trips were made at our own expense. Wouldn’t it have been more helpful to the people of these countries if we just sent them the money instead of spending it on our travel expenses? We’ve also traveled to Italy more than a dozen times, and once lived there for as long as 10 months. How can I explain our travel fascination and the satisfaction and feelings of growth and that we feel?
Lucy--the elephant whisperer--in Zambia..

In preparing for a coming tour of Southern Italy with Rick Steves tour company, I read a passage in one of his travel guides that eloquently discusses both benefits of travel while also giving advice about how to get the most out of each experience. I like what he said so much that I will repeat it here verbatim. Thanks for advice, Rick!

"If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen. If you don’t enjoy a place, maybe you don’t know enough about it. Seek the truth. Recognize tourist traps. Give a culture the benefit of your open mind. See things as different but not better or worse. Any culture has much to share.

"Of course, travel, like the world, is a series of hills and valleys. Be fanatically positive and militantly optimistic. If something’s not to your liking, change your liking. Travel is addictive. It can make you a happier American as well as a citizen of the world. Our Earth is home to six and a half billion equally important people. It’s humbling to travel and find that people don’t envy Americans. Europeans like us, but, with all due respect, they wouldn’t trade passports.

"Globe-trotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Regrettably, there are forces in our society that want you dumbed down for their convenience. Don’t let it happen. Thoughtful travel engages you with the world—more important than ever these days. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Rather than fear the diversity on this planet, travelers celebrate it. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character."

Taken from Rick Steves’ Rome, 2009, page 16.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ironically Facebook has de-activated me for pretending to be myself while reporting other fake accounts

Facebook has de-activated my account because I was pretending to be myself, which “goes against the Facebook Community Standards.” That sounds a little weird, but that’s exactly what has happened.

My downfall started earlier this year, when a Facebook user from France contacted me to tell me that someone with an account using the name Robert Spadoni (my middle name) befriended her, using some of my photos in his profile. Robert convinced her that he was a trustworthy family man, she said, and then he defrauded her out of a lot money on a fake art deal. She realized that I had nothing to do with the scam, but she said she wanted to make me aware of what had happened and hoped that I could help her get the scammer’s Facebook account shut down.

I wrote to Facebook, and the reply said I should contact “Robert Spadoni” and ask him to stop using my photos. Nothing in the reply spoke to the woman’s claim to have been scammed. “Robert” gave a very short reply saying he would remove my photos. I didn’t elaborate on the French woman’s claims because I didn’t think it would help, and she really hadn't given me any details on how the scam had worked. But it did prompt me to do a Facebook search for other people who might be using my name or photos.

I found 11 profiles using my full name, Paul Robert Spadoni, and all of them had every indication of being fake. They had few or no friends, they had either no photos or few photos in their albums, and most had no posts or comments. They did have profile photos and list occupations, but a quick check showed that the organizations they worked for did not actually exist. Two of them were supposedly in the U.S. Army. They showed head and shoulders shots of nice looking men in a military uniform. I did an image search of the men and found that one was actually Aaron Ramos, who is described in a youtube video 
as “the most abused U.S. Soldier on the Internet about stolen identity and abused pic.” The poor guy has had his photos used in hundreds of fake accounts that attempt to befriend and then defraud people. The other is Harold Greene, a general who was killed in the war in Afganistan in 2014.

I assumed that the person or persons who created all the accounts eventually intended to use them in the same way that a scammer had used the Robert Spadoni account but just hadn’t gotten around to adding more photos and soliciting friends. Finally about two weeks ago, I had some free time while sitting in front of my computer and decided to report nine of the accounts using my name. I left out the two that had no profile photos or job data.
I received the following auto reply from Facebook:
"Hi Paul,
We'll let you know when we've reviewed the profile you reported for pretending to be someone they're not. If it goes against one of our Community Standards, we'll remove it or follow up with them.
Thanks, The Facebook Team"

Three of the fake accounts have been removed, but six are still there, including the ones with the photos of Aaron Ramos and Harold Greene. Then, two days later, I tried to log in to my Facebook account and received this message: “Your account has been disabled for pretending to be someone else. If you think we made a mistake, please reply to this message with a government-issued ID so we can confirm that this is your account.”

I laughed at the irony and sent a scan of my passport and driver’s license, thinking that all would soon be cleared up. Three days later I received a reply: “Thanks for sending your ID. To complete this ID verification, we need you to reply to this email and attach a photo of yourself holding your government-issued ID. Please make sure that we can clearly see your face in both the photo and the ID. Thanks in advance for your understanding of this security policy. Luca, Community Operations”

I took a selfie while I held up my drivers license and sent it to Facebook. Four days have passed without a response. I’ve now been off Facebook for nearly two weeks, and I do miss seeing new photos of my grandkids, neighbor Sherrie’s sunset photos and other status updates from friends. I can’t communicate with some of my friends in Italy because we use Facebook to message each other. A couple of times Lucy has said something like, “Oh, did you see that so-and-so had her baby,” or “You saw that post about the Smiths in Italy, right?” Then she sees my scowl: “Oh, that’s right, you’re not on Facebook any more. I forgot.”

I suppose Facebook has more important things to do than look at my messages and restore my account, since they have some 2 billion active users. I’ve also read that Facebook itself estimates that 83 million of its accounts are fake. But I have to wonder why they took the time to de-activate my account, which had hundreds of family photos, status updates and comments from friends. And why they would allow a profile that uses a photo that is already famous for being used fraudulently. I know Facebook is a sophisticated service with complex algorithms lying below the surface to govern how it works, but even if it operates pretty much on auto pilot, you’d think the actual pilots would look up once in a while to see that its real customers and fans don’t get run over.

Update: After 17 days, my account was restored, with no explanation or apologies. The fake accounts are still there.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Tripped up by a "technicality" in our search for Lucy’s citizenship

Through the wonders of modern communications and transport, we received all of our documents on time for Lucy’s citizenship appointment at 11 a.m. today. The most amazing event was receiving the apostille for her FBI report, which was picked up in Washington DC yesterday morning and given to Federal Express in the afternoon. Somehow it made it to our hotel lobby this morning at 7 a.m.

Lucy at the Consulate
I went over each of the 26 pages of documents (or 52, if you consider that we must provide a copy of each page) several times to make sure I had everything in order. I re-read the directions, which gave the requirements. I had a money order in hand ready to make out to the Italian Consulate. I re-checked the address and route. We arrived an hour early.

And then, because of one tiny little digit, we failed to receive Lucy’s citizenship. One tiny little but all-important digit, a seven instead of a six. It seems that correct digits are vital when they are used in the year of one’s application appointment, which turned out to be August 2, 2017, not August 2, 2016. We were exactly one year early! The lady in charge of the citizenship by marriage was not even at work today, and there was no possible way an exception could be made.

What the heck? How could I have been so incredibly stupid! In looking back at the website where the appointments are booked, I saw how I made the mistake. Back on May 23, when I made the appointment, the first month that showed on the calendar was June, which I assumed was the next month. It was full, and so was July, but there was one open date in August. That’s a busy time of year for my business, and I also thought that might be too short a time to get all our documents together, so I clicked ahead month-by-month to the following June. I found that every other day was booked for a year ahead of June, so I clicked backwards to August and reserved the only date open.

What I didn’t notice in all this clicking was that the calendar program had taken me to June of 2017, not 2016. I had just assumed that I was looking at this year’s calendar, but not so. It seems that the Consulate staff is incredibly busy  (they serve seven states), because now when I look at calendar, I see that it starts with August 2017, and every date between then and August 2018 is already reserved. It’s not yet possible to make reservations for September 2018, so essentially there is not a single open date for the next two years.

Looking at it from this perspective, I’m still fortunate to have an appointment only one year away. If I had waited until I had every document and then tried to get a date, I would have had to check back regularly just get an appointment at least two years in the future. Yes, I wasted some money on express mail delivery, and we took a somewhat pointless trip, but hey, it’s still San Francisco. We’re having a good time, and this is kind of an anniversary celebration for us, since we worked right through our 42nd anniversary on July 13.
At least we're in San Francisco . . .

I probably would be less embarrassed if I hadn’t written that blog on the train two days ago, because then fewer people would have been aware of my incredible blunder. Oh well, everyone who knows me already is aware that I can be absent minded, and now all my blog readers know the same thing.

After the shock of learning we were there a year early, Lucy and I walked to the North Beach, the city’s large Italian district. We drowned our sorrows in substantial bowls of gelato while we walked around pretending we were in Tuscany. We’ll fly home tomorrow afternoon and have a whole year to plan our next vacation in the City by the Bay.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Will Lucy successfully become an Italian citizen? Maybe so . . .

When I obtained my Italian citizenship in 2010, Lucy automatically became eligible to become a dual citizen as well, since we already met the requirement of being married for at least three years. But with no compelling reason to do so and a list of somewhat confusing requirements, we put it off. Now we have a compelling reason, and we’re currently on a train to San Francisco to try our luck at the Italian Consulate.

Outside our home in Montecarlo, 49 via Roma.
The compelling reason is to avoid property taxes on our Italian house. We put the house in both of our names, not realizing the tax ramifications. Italians are allowed to own one house tax free, so I pay no property taxes on my half, but Lucy must pay on hers because she is a straniera, a foreigner. Besides that, there will be other benefits in the future, including medical care when the need arises. So we went to the website of the Italian Consulate in San Francisco to read the requirements.

They didn’t sound too difficult. We needed to get a copy of Lucy’s birth certificate from Detroit and an extract of our Italian marriage registration from Pescia, Italy. We weren’t married in Pescia, but that’s the home city I chose to hold my documents when I became a citizen. We also needed statements that Lucy had a clean criminal record from the local police, state police and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Each of these documents, except the one from Pescia, had to be accompanied by an apostille to verify its authenticity. We had obtained apostilles from Olympia, our state capital, for my birth and marriage certificates and other official documents for my dad and nonno when I submitted my citizenship application. We knew that we could mail in the documents or pay an extra fee to get them done immediately in the secretary of state’s office, so that would be no problem.

The police reports were the most daunting part. I read the websites for all the agencies and started the process. Lucy had to go to an office across from the County-City Building in Tacoma to get fingerprinted and obtain a statement that she had no criminal record in Pierce County. They also gave her two sets of official fingerprints, a lucky thing, we would find out later.

We also sent a form to the Washington State Patrol to get another good citizen statement, and we sent one set of fingerprints to the FBI to request their clearance statement. In addition, I e-mailed the comune in Pescia to request the marriage extract, which I received about a month ago.

It then occurred to me that since we had set all these document requests in motion, I should find out how to make an appointment at the Consulate. I saw it was possible to do this online, but I was shocked to find that every day for the next 14 months was already booked – except for one day, August 2, 2016. Probably someone had booked it and then canceled, so I quickly grabbed it. Surely we could get all the documents together in the three months we had before the appointment, I reasoned. We booked a train trip down to San Francisco and a flight back, and Lucy arranged to stay at the San Francisco Worldmark for two nights.

We had obtained a letter from the county police on the spot, and the WSP letter came within a few weeks. We also had obtained Lucy’s birth certificate. We just needed the FBI statement and then we could take all the documents to Olympia for the apostilles. Or so I thought. Days, weeks and months passed, and still there was nothing from the FBI, with only a couple of weeks before our appointment. How does one call the FBI and complain about poor customer service?

We went online and found an agency that assists in obtaining FBI clearance and promised fast service. Lucy called the number and was told that people who send in requests on their own typically must wait three to four months. We had sent in our request in May 24, so the soonest we could expect it back would be August 24, three weeks after our San Francisco appointment. However, if we used the agency’s services and paid extra for express mail, we could get the report back in a week, leaving us another week to spare. Luckily, we had that extra set of fingerprints, or we would have had to send Lucy back to Tacoma for more. Then we could take all documents to Olympia at once for apostilles. We thought.

I went online to read more about the apostille process, and to my dismay I found that Lucy’s birth certificate could only receive an apostille from the state of Michigan. Lucy bought two overnight express envelopes and I dashed off a letter to the Michigan office imploring speedy processing and enclosing the express return envelope. We received the apostille back on Friday, two days before our train trip.

Meanwhile, Lucy took a trip to Olympia to get apostilles for her Pierce County and WSP documents, only to find that she had been sent the wrong documents. They had to be notarized letters from the county and State Patrol, not just statements. She drove back to Tacoma and then to the WSP and was able to get the notarized letters, and then she drove back to the capital and get the apostilles. She successfully did all this in one full and exhausting day.

I read even worse news about the FBI report, which we didn’t receive until a week before our trip to San Francisco. We would have to obtain an apostille from the State Department in Washington DC, and we had only five business days left to do that! We overnighted it to Randy on Monday, counting ourselves lucky to have a son who works in downtown DC. He received it Tuesday and took it to the State Department on Wednesday. They could get the apostille back in three days, which would be Monday—the day our train would arrive in San Francisco. Since Randy would be leaving for Myanmar on Friday, he arranged for a courier to pick up the apostille Monday morning and overnight it to us at our hotel in San Francisco. Whether it will arrive in time for our 11 a.m. appointment on Tuesday is our next drama.

We also paid for a professional translation of all the English language documents into Italian. I scanned them and sent them off for a rush translation that arrived three days ago.

I am a little worried that someone will ask why we don’t have a document from the Gig Harbor police, since our address says we live in Gig Harbor. The police wouldn’t issue a letter because we don’t live in the city limits. We did get them to write a letter explaining this, but we didn’t translate it and are not including it unless we are asked. No use muddying the waters needlessly.

The Consulate website had some contradictory information about how much the appointment will cost and how to pay the fee. We’ll try to get that clarified before our appointment. We also have to have copies of our passports and Lucy’s drivers license, and we need a utility bill that will help prove her residency in Gig Harbor. All the bills are in my name, so we had the Peninsula Light Company write a letter saying that she has been a long-time customer. We didn’t have the letter translated; hopefully, that won’t cause a problem. I didn’t read anything about the utility bill needing to be in Italian.

We have done about all that we can do, and now we’re relaxing on an all-day, all-night trip down the coast. Trains are pleasant and relaxing, so much nicer than air travel. We can walk around, get off at the major stops, eat in a dining car, enjoy the scenery and sleep with our legs stretched out. We would gladly take a train back if it didn’t mean missing another day of work.

A lot of things can still go wrong. It took me more than 10 years to get my citizenship, through a combination of my own errors and the slow pace of bureaucracy. However, I’ve learned a lot since then, and I feel the odds that we got things right this time are in our favor. But with the Italian government, one never knows.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How to entertain yourself while visiting us in Tuscany's Montecarlo

We’ve been inviting friends from the United States to pay us a visit while we’re in Tuscany, and each year a few people take us up on the offer. Now that we have our own two-bedroom house in Montecarlo, we expect more people to visit in the coming seasons, so I’d thought I’d write down some ideas on what one can do while here.

Lucy welcomes you to Lucca, our favorite and nearest large city.
We love to share our passion for this place, but it’s important for everyone to know what to expect during a visit. Some people want to use our house as a home base for exploring Tuscany, and it’s well situated for that purpose. From Montecarlo, you can reach Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, Cinque Terre, San Gimignano, Viareggio, Volterra, Carrara, Livorno or the Chianti wine region in less than two hours. Therefore, you can easily take day or overnight trips and then return to Montecarlo to rest, regroup and plan your next expedition. We’ll be glad to give you travel advice and listen to your travel stories.

There's a reason this church looks a little unusual. But it will
take some research or a good tour guide to tell you its story.
Some people, however, say they just want to come and chill in Montecarlo and enjoy the surrounding little cities—like we do. We’re glad to welcome you for this experience as well, but I should warn you about two things. First, our lives here are not all that exciting. We eat at home, we take walks, we go shopping. Lucy makes quilts. I write. We live the slow life. You may say that’s fine for you too, but my second point is that this is a bit of a waste of money, because there are a lot of wonderful things you can do without going far from home. It costs a lot of money to go to Italy, and you should go out and experience the place.

Now we’d love to lead you to all the cool places near Montecarlo, but we’ve already done them a few times already. As special as these places can be, we don’t want to visit each one again and again every time friends come to visit. Therefore, we’ll make a list and post it here so that anyone who is coming to visit will have an idea of the possibilities. We’ll probably join you on some of your adventures, but don’t be disappointed if we sometimes just stay home.

We enjoy a festa in Pescia, only 10 minutes from our house (and the birth city of my nonno and bisnonna).
Before we start, though, we should talk about whether you need to rent a car or not. The answer depends on how long you’ll be here and where you want to go. You can easily reach Lucca, Pisa, Montecatini, Firenze, Pistoia and most other large cities by train. One minor problem is that we live in a hill town, and the train only stops at the bottom of the hill. Walking down the hill may take 20 minutes, but going back up can take twice as long. However, we usually have a car, and we’ll be happy to take you to and from the train station.

There are some places on our list that do require a car, however, so you’ll have to decide if you want to spend the extra money in exchange for the freedom to go anywhere you want and at any time. Having a car certainly makes you less dependent on train and bus schedules.

OK, here is the list, in no particular order:

The funicolare to Montecatini Alto.
TAKE THE TRAIN TO MONTECATINI TERME. It’s only a 15-minute ride for a couple of euro. Walk through the town (which is a fairly modern town popular with Italian tourists). It has a permanent street market every day. But the best activity is to take the cute old funicolare (funicular) up the hill to Montecatini Alto, the old town center. Stroll around the outside of the city and enjoy the views (you can see Montecarlo from there, as well as the hills leading to the Alpi Apuane mountains). Then go to the central piazza and enjoy a lunch or dinner, outside, if it’s a warm day. To read about one of our own forays to Montecatini, you can read this earlier blog: Montecatini Alto beautiful to visit, would be a great place to live.

TAKE A TOUR OF LUCCA AND MONTECARLO WITH A PRIVATE GUIDE. Yes, it’s nice to just walk around these towns, but a guide can make your stroll so much more meaningful by putting everything into a historical perspective and explaining the significance of the sights. You won’t remember all the dates and details, but you’ll get a feel for the events and characters that have shaped these important cities. I happen to be a personal friend of the very best guide in the land, who was born in Lucca and lives just down the hill from us in San Salvatore. Elena Benvenuti has been voted on Tripadvisor as the number two attraction in Montecarlo (the Fortezza of Montecarlo is number one, and she can take you there, so you’ll get the best of the city in one tour). You can easily visit both cities without need for a car. For more on this topic, read Good personal guide well worth cost.

Lindsey, right, enjoys a sampling of fine Montecarlo wines.
GO ON A WINE AND OIL TOUR, OR TAKE A COOKING CLASS. Again you’ll need a guide like Elena to make this happen, but you can easily arrange these without need of a rental car. When you get back home, you’ll find that your most memorable times in Italy had nothing to do with what you saw but everything to do with whom you met and what you did with them. Talking, cooking, eating and drinking are all experiences that involve multiple senses, and you’ll enjoy and remember them much more vividly than all the sights you’ll see. It will be well worth a little extra expense. You can also read Free wine tour nothing to whine about and Cooking class, Italian pranzo both enjoyable and special experiences.

TAKE A TRAIN TO LUCCA AND WALK OR BIKE THE WALLS AND CENTRO. This is best done after you tour the city, so you’ll have a better idea of the history and design of the city. There may be places you saw on the tour where you wanted to spend more time, and this is a large city that deserves more than a few hours to experience. One of the best features of the city is its incredible wall and bastions. The city is very level, so bikes are a great way to get around. You can rent them at several places, including just outside the train station. See The incomparable city wall of Lucca and Lucca took the advice of Machiavelli seriously.

The amazing marble mountains of Carrara.
BOOK A TOUR OF THE MARBLE MINES ABOVE CARRARA. We did this a few years ago, and it may still be our all-time favorite day trip. You’ll need to contact a tour company in advance to make an appointment, and it’s best to split the cost with another couple, but even if you’re single, it’s still worth the cost. You can get there by train, but you’ll need to change trains in Lucca or Viareggio, and figure it will take as much as hour and a half each way (we can show you how to use the website). If you’re not convinced it’s a worthwhile trip, read Going inside the marble mountains of Carrara is an unforgettable journey.

Flag-throwing sbandieratori can
sometimes be found at local
town celebrations.
ATTEND A LOCAL FESTA OR SAGRA. Every city and town in Italy has some kind of local festival, usually in honor of a traditional food or possibly some historical event. Sagre (plural of sagra) give you an authentic taste of country food and culture away from the artificiality of tourists. Your meal, reasonably priced, will be cooked by locals with a passion for the local cuisine, and you’ll sit at communal tables with locals. Sometimes the best way to find out if there is to be a sagra nearby is keep an eye out around town bulletin boards for posters, but you can also do a web search. You may need a car to get to some of the smaller towns. We’ve been to several sagre, including this one in Marliana: Sleepy Marliana comes alive with sagra in honor of chestnut flour treat.

TOUR A CASEIFICIO WHERE PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE IS MADE. This will engage your senses of sight, smell and taste at the very least, and a good guide will make the experience even more memorable. You’ll definitely need a car for this suggestion, because we’re more than an hour away from the region where this delicious cheese is made, but the tours are very inexpensive, sometimes even free. Of course, you’ll want to buy some cheese or other fresh dairy products at the end, but that’s a small price to pay for this sensuous adventure. See Smells, sounds and flavors of our visit . . .

TAKE A DRIVE TO VINCI, THE BIRTHPLACE OF LEONARDO. You’ll either need a car or a tour guide who has one, because getting there by train and bus from Montecarlo can be complicated and time-consuming. We’ve not done it that way, so maybe some more experienced bus traveler can prove us wrong, but I doubt it. It’s about 45 minutes by car, mostly on the back roads, a fairly pleasant drive. GPS is highly recommended, though, unless you don’t mind doubling your time with wrong turns. The town is on a hillside, worth a trip just by itself, but there is also a museum dedicated to this incredible Renaissance man, and there are more displays and activities at the house where he was born. If you don’t have a tour guide with you (this is one of Elena’s favorite locations), the museum can be a little frustrating, because the display explanations are not translated into English, but it’s still worth it. I recommend reading up on Leonardo before going (we have a book). Also read Visit to Vinci, Leonardo’s birthplace, one of Tuscany’s best day trips. Finally, if you’re a real Leo buff, you might want to take a second trip to see what likely is one of only two known surviving sculptures that he created, located in a church near Collodi.

This view is from the hilltop above Lucchio, in the Garfagnana Valley in the Alpi Apuane mountains.
TAKE A HIKE IN THE ALPI APUANE. This rugged collection of mountains is not far (you can see part of the range from our terrazzo), and we have a book that describes numerous hikes that begin within an hour from Montecarlo. We’ve only completed one of the hikes so far, so if you pick one we haven’t been on, maybe we’ll join you. Hikes range from moderate to difficult. See A perfect day for the first of our 50 hikes in the hills of Tuscany.

EAT A MEAL OR TWO AT THE OSTERIA ALLA FORTEZZA. This is not the top-ranked restaurant in Montecarlo (there are soooo many good ones!), but it’s possibly the most friendly for English speakers. The food is authentic to the region and top notch. They also periodically bake up some homemade cantuccini (we Americans wrongly refer to it as biscotti) that’s to die for! Iris, the proprietress, will make you feel welcome, but it’s her brother Davide who speaks more English and is an especially charming and gracious host (even though he isn’t an owner of the restaurant and has another job). I said earlier that the things you’ll remember the most about your trip are the people, not the sights, and if you eat here more than once, you’ll remember these gentili local Italians. The osteria is right next to the Fortezza.

Poggio: Just another typical hillside town in the Garfagnana.
TAKE A CAR TO THE GARFAGNA VALLEY. It will be hard to take in all the sights of this valley in a day, so an overnight trip would be better. Notable destinations are the Ponte della Maddelena (better known as the Devil’s Bridge) in Borgo a Mozzano, and at the very least the cities of Barga, Lucchio and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. There also a great ropes course with zip lines and the Grotta del Vento (cave of the wind). It’s better to have a car for going to the Garfagnana, but you can get to some of the cities by train.

AND THEN THERE ARE THE MORE WELL KNOWN TOURIST DESTINATIONS. As mentioned before, you’re not far from Pisa and Firenze, which are considered must-see cities and can be easily reached by train. If you’re here in February, you have to see the fantastic floats in the Carnevale parade in Viareggio. You can’t see them all, but it will give you good reason to come back regularly. We certainly do!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Something about our recent stay was definitely different for us in Tuscany

We left Montecarlo last week for another summer of work in Gig Harbor. Our sixth season in Tuscany had a distinctly different flavor than the first five—as it should have, since now we are homeowners instead of guests at an agriturismo. Was it all we had hoped it would be? Absolutely so!

Being able to walk out the door and onto the main street of Montecarlo made an immediate difference. We chatted occasionally with shop owners, checked books out of the library, bought staples at the two small general stores or just strolled around town greeting people we passed. In previous years, we rarely saw anyone when we took our evening walks along the rural roads in the Marcucci neighborhood.

We love our new location in other ways, too. We’re on the top floor, so we have a great western view of the plain of Lucca and sunsets. When it’s clear, we can see the walls and towers of Lucca, and from our terrazzo, we can also see part of the Alpi Apuane mountains. The view side is very quiet and private. I could sunbathe on the terrazzo and nobody would see me. The view from the other side of the house is full of vitality: We can watch from above as tourists and residents stroll down the main street of town, and we can lean out and see all of via Roma, from the Fortezza to Porta Nuova.

A quilt Lucy made for Micah.
We also have about four times more space, which allows us to spread out and do our projects—Lucy made three quilts, and I worked on my genealogy and writing. At least equally important, the space allows us to host visitors, which we did on half a dozen occasions.

But it’s more than just a matter of space and location. It’s our house, and knowing that fact makes an important psychological difference. We are more than visitors now. We are committed, we are part of something, we are Montecarlesi. And we will be back.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What started as Seghieri Day extends into a week of family activities

Seghieri Day soon extended into Seghieri Week as the festas continued. I met with Jean-Paul and Marcel on Monday to share some genealogy information, and on Tuesday we enjoyed a scrumptious feast at the Poggio restaurant with Seghieri families from Italy and France, and, of course, we two Americans.
Elena offers a brindisi to the Seghieri families of the world while we dine at the Poggio.

Marcel offered a brindisi (toast) to me Tuesday evening, noting that my research had brought together Seghieri families from three countries, showing everyone how they were connected. It was only then that I fully realized how well my humble six-year-old dream to reconnect with my grandmother’s Seghieri roots had come to such grand results. I had truly found a group of relatives that shared my feelings about the importance of family history, connections and pride.
Marcel, Jean-Paul, Sergio, Elena at the state archives.

Then on Wednesday, Jean-Paul, Marcel, Hervé and I met with Montecarlo historian Sergio Nelli at his work in the Archivio di Stato di Lucca. He gave us a thorough tour of the facilities, and we looked at room after room of weathered books and parchments. The documents are divided into sections: diplomatic, concerning the Republic of Lucca, Napoleonic and notarial. The archives are the results of a 1804 decree that all of the papers from the governments of the suppressed Republic of Lucca be brought together at a single institution.
It was awesome to see so many old books and scrolls in one
place, and to be able to open them and look inside.

The documentary material in the diplomatic section includes 19,855 parchments ranging from the 8th to the 19th centuries. They are arranged in chronological order and by provenance: from monasteries, from families of the nobility and from the secret archives of the city-state. The documentary material on the Republic of Lucca, conserved organically from the beginning of the 14th century, includes statutes, the proceedings of the elders before the liberation, the proceedings of the elders after the liberation, public amendments of the papers of the general curia and the papers of the Guinigi government.
We must have looked inside at least a dozen rooms like this, filled from floor to ceiling with old documents.

From the archives of the Napoleonic government of Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte and of the Bourbonic duchy come the civil list and property list of the princes, the senate, the council of state and council of ministers; ministries; secretaries of the governments; prefecture of Lucca; registry office; public health and hygiene; education, arts, industry, commerce and food office; water, roads and buildings; militia; police; the mint and public treasury; state property; register, mortgages and public debt; tax collectors. The notarial archives include the records of the nobility and private individuals, as well as special collections including documentation on congregations in the city and the territory, brotherhoods and hospitals.

The archive is impressive in its volume and depth, which speaks to the respect that Italians have for their history. However, it is also a bit overwhelming, because the texts are in Latin or old Italian script, both of which the average person can’t read. It’s great that all these documents are being preserved, but it would take a lifetime just to read through the books contained in a single room. And given that most of the documents are technical accounts of legal and political acts, one might die an early death from boredom. However, I’m thankful that there are people like Doctor Nelli, who have a passion for reading and noting the details of our shared past.

For my part, I came with the primary hope of discovering more about the family tree of the Seghieri family, but most of our time was spent on the tour. However, Doctor Nelli agreed to drop by the agriturismo where the French Seghieri families are staying to share more Seghieri genealogy, and he was true to his word.

Just a few of the fine cheeses we enjoyed.
That evening was our last in Montecarlo for this season, as we started on the return to the United States the next morning. But we left in high spirits, as the French Seghieris treated us and the Italian families to a dinner featuring champagne, wine, bread, meats, gelato, biscotti and a large assortment of fine French cheeses from various regions of the country. As each cheese was served, Jean-Paul explained where it was from and a little about its production and flavor. We started with the sweeter cheeses and moved to ones which were strong in both aroma and flavor.

France boasts from 350 to 450 distinct types of cheese, grouped into eight categories. There can be many varieties within each type of cheese, leading some to claim closer to 1,000 different types of French cheese. In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle was famously quoted as saying “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?” (“How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”) We didn’t have that many, but definitely enough to appreciate the variety and quality of the country’s choices.
A toast to Dr. Sergio Nelli, who was indispensable in bringing us together.

Doctor Nelli showed up with his Montecarlo genealogy books, and I took photographs of about 20 pages that provided partial or complete Seghieri family trees. This will give me days of work adding these names into the computer database that makes up our already huge family tree. Before I left, I offered a brindisi to Doctor Nelli for all the help he has provided this year and in previous meetings. I ended the toast by explaining that I wanted to find more members of the family, because the more Seghieris I find, the more festas we can have—an explanation that met with widespread expressions of approval.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Parties and music with lively Seghieri families from three countries

The family shield, taken outside the house
in Montecarlo with the shield over the door.
It’s always interesting to find old family records—names, photos, places of birth and occupations of deceased ancestors—but it’s 10 times more fun to meet living relatives, especially when they are as lively, gracious and cheerful as our distant Italian and French Seghieri cousins.

This weekend has been a celebration of the return of two Seghieri families who immigrated to France from Italy in the 1800s (see Long lost French Seghieri families . . .). Two of the families from the Marcucci neighborhood welcomed the seven French visitors with a pizza dinner at La Terrazza pizzeria in Montecarlo Saturday night. Linda, Cori and I also attended, while Lucy remained at home to prepare food for the next day.
Pizza dinner at La Terrazza.

Since Linda and Cori had to return home early Sunday morning, Elena presented Linda with a copy of the Seghieri family shield painted on concrete. Elena had the shields hand-made by a craftsman from Lucca especially for the French guests, but Linda and I each ordered one as well. The rest of us received ours later.
Our song leaders.

We met again in the yard of Davide, Elena and Flavia at 11 a.m. Sunday for a potluck lunch that included many of the other Marcucci families: Sergio and Silvana, Celestino and Antonella and their sons Matteo and Diego, Ivo, Sandra, Nicola and Laura, Rita and her mother Nicoletta (her son Dario and his fidanzata Federica came to the pizza dinner but not the potluck). There was even a brief appearance from Emanuele, Dante’s grandson, whom we met for the first time.
And the chorus . . .

We were also blessed with the presence of Andrea Mandroni, who was well qualified to join the party. Like me, he had a grandmother who was a Seghieri. He is the top genealogy researcher in the area, and he helped Marcel Seghieri trace his ancestry back a couple of generations further than Marcel was able to do on his own.

Our accompanist
The fact that we represented three different countries and languages didn’t slow us down too much, although the conversations made me think of the Tower of Babel. Only a couple of people spoke any English. I could understand the Italian most of the time and the French once in a while. However, some of the French cousins knew some Italian, so we conversed in Italian as best we could. However, they might start a sentence in Italian, but lacking the vocabulary to continue, they would finish it in French, leaving me with only half of the meaning. Or it’s possible that they said the whole sentence in Italian, but with a French accent so thick that I couldn’t tell if they were speaking Italian or French.

Two events left me quite emotional. The first was when Marcel directed the entire party in the singing first of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero,” and then in the Italian national anthem, “Inno di Mameli.” I was touched to see how proud the French families were of their Italian heritage. Flavia accompanied on clarinet for the anthem, Elena and Marcel did a great job of getting everyone involved in the singing, and after some initial feelings of embarrassment, everyone smiled and laughed through the rehearsals and then the final production. A few people recorded the performance on their phones, so eventually I may get a copy to share.

Then the French group sang the French national anthem. At that point, I hoped that everyone would forget that Lucy and I were there, but no, we had to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Our food expert, Ivo
The other memorable event came when Marcel pulled out some photos of his family. One of the photos (I think it was of one of Marcel’s uncles) greatly resembled some members of Sergio’s family, both his brother Pietro and his grandfather, also named Pietro. This provoked one of those special Italian moments where everyone is talking at the same time, saying things like: “They look almost the same, it could be they are the same person, it can’t be the same person, even if it’s not the same person the resemblance is surprising, etc.” All of this in Italian and French at the same time, and it went on for a good 20 minutes.

After the potluck, the party continued when we went up the hill to see the concert of the
Società Filarmonica Giacomo Puccini at the teatro of Montecarlo. Although the community is small, the band is incredible, and we enjoyed it immensely. We filled an entire row of seats and then some, applauding enthusiastically, especially for our favorite musician, clarinetist Flavia Seghieri. Lucy and I walked a few blocks home, contentissimi to be part of such a grand family and community.
The whole gang! Actually, more people came later and didn't make it into the group photo.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Want to see a verified da Vinci sculpture? No problem! No lines!

Historical documents attest that Leonardo da Vinci created many sculptures, but few works existing today can be verified to be the results of his skilled hands. However, in Pescia, a city of 20,000 inhabitants (and only 10 minutes from Montecarlo and Montecatini), rests a verified sculpture of da Vinci, one that can be seen almost any day of the week, at no cost and with no lines. The statue, however, is by Pierino da Vinci, not his uncle Leonardo.
The da Vinci sculpture is on the left side. The reclining Baldassarre Turini in the center was probably done by a pupil of Michaelangelo, Raffaello di Bartolomeo Sinibaldi of Montelupo. A twin statue on the right side was probably completed by Silvio Cosini after Pierino's untimely death.

I came across this interesting information while researching another nearby statue that key art historians believe to created by Leonardo. They have to base their beliefs on stylistic comparisons with Leonardo’s known works, because no documents have been found to prove his authorship. But that’s not the case with the work by Pierino da Vinci.

The sculpture is part of the mausoleum of Baldassarre Turini. It is located in the cattedrale di Maria Santissima Assunta in Pescia’s Piazza Duomo.

Ample documentary evidence exists to
attribute this sculpture to Pierino da
Vinci, the nephew of Leonardo da Vinci.
Very few people are aware of this,” said Emanuele Pellegrini, director of the Journal of Visual Arts ( and associate professor of art history at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca. “But it is proven to be work of Pierino da Vinci. We have the payment documents to show this, but if you search on the Internet, you’ll see that you will find very little about this sculpture.”

Pierino, the grandson of Leonardo’s father, ser Piero da Vinci, was well on the path to fame as an artist, but he died of malaria in 1553 at age 23. Pierino, born Pier Francesco di Bartolomeo, received a payment for all of the sculptures on the tomb, but he died after he completed the first one, which is on the left side. A statue similar to Pierino’s but on the right side of the mausoleum may have been started by Pierino, but it was probably finished by one of his friends, Silvio Cosini, Professor Pellegrini said. Raffaello di Baccio Sinibaldi da Montelupo probably did the reclining figure of Turini in the center.

While he finds it unfortunate that the da Vinci sculpture has received little attention, Professor Pellegrini doesn’t find it particularly surprising. “It’s quite common in Italian provinces to find many masterpieces which are relatively unknown,” he explained.

He pointed out that a crucifix on display in a chapel in Padova went largely unnoticed for 500 years before someone realized that the author was Donatello.

“Sometimes you have masterpieces right before your very eyes, but you don’t see them because you don’t pay attention, or someone finds some documents that show who the artist was,” he said.

The duomo which holds Pierino’s sculpture has its origins in the fifth or sixth century and has been rebuilt several times. It was consecrated in 1062 by Pope Alexander II, who, according to tradition, was the parish priest of Pescia before becoming bishop of Lucca. The church was entirely rebuilt after a fire in the city in 1281.
This well done copy of Raphael Sanzio's famous work hangs
in the duomo of Pescia, near Turini's tomb.

At one time, the church also held a 1507 masterpiece by the illustrious Raphael Sanzio di Urbino. However, the Madonna of the Baldachin was sold to Turini, who removed it to his private chapel. In 1697, a high quality copy was painted by Pier Dandini, and it was placed near Turinis tomb in the Pescia duomo.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Long-lost French Seghieri families coming to Montecarlo for a reunion

It is not only Italian Americans who seek to reconnect to their roots by returning to Italy. In a few days, some distant cousins from France will also be in Montecarlo, looking to visit their ancestral home. They are connected to me on the Seghieri side, and we have only met electronically—through e-mail, Facebook and my blog.

They read about my Seghieri research on my blog, and in the past year, they also contacted Elena Benvenuti to enlist her help in learning how they are connected to the Seghieri families of Montecarlo. Elena is fluent in French, English, German and, of course, Italian. There are at least two distinct branches of the Seghieri family who live in Marseille, and both branches will be represented.

Jean-Paul (far right) and other family members.
I am Facebook friends with Jean-Paul Seghieri and Marcel Seghieri, and I have also corresponded with a second cousin once removed of Jean-Paul, Claude Guillan Romaine, whose mother was Huguette Seghieri. Jean-Paul and Claude trace their Tuscan roots back to Carlo Olinto Seghieri, born in Montecarlo in 1840, and Maria Pasqua Ulivieri, 1847, Montecarlo. Carlo and Maria moved to Marseille prior to 1868 and had 12 children there. Carlo Olinto was the ninth cousin of my great grandfather, so Jean-Paul and I are 12th cousins.

Marcel’s ties to the family are much more distant—so distant, if fact, that we may never discover them. His ancestors lived in Livorno and spelled their surname Sighieri instead of Seghieri. Around the time Marcel’s grandfather moved to Marseille in the early 1900s, the family changed the spelling to Seghieri. I enlisted one of the foremost genealogists in the area, Andrea Mandroni, to see if he could find a Montecarlo connection for Marcel’s family. The earliest ancestor he has found to date is Ranieri Sighieri, born in Livorno about 1763. Before that time, we don’t know how the family spelled the name or from where they came.
This collage was sent by Marcel Seghieri. I haven't met any of these people yet, so I can't name them!

From what I have learned, the Sighieri spelling was more common around the Pisa and Livorno areas, while in Montecarlo and Altopascio, Seghieri was used. Another variation sometimes found in Altopascio is Sevieri. I don’t know when the various different spellings originated, but it could have been prior to the 1300s. If so, it is doubtful that any records exist to tie these long-standing lines together. Prior to the 1300s, there are some documents that list people of importance in Pisa who had the Latinized name Seghierius. Montecarlo historian Sergio Nello states that the Seghieri name has Germanic origins from the occupation of the Longobardi between 568 and 774.

Elena has met some of our French cousins and says they are a lively group, enthusiastic about their Italian heritage and history. They’ll arrive Saturday afternoon, and we’ll go with them to dinner at La Terrazza pizzeria in Montecarlo, along with Davide Seghieri, Elena and their daughter Flavia. My sister Linda and her daughter Corina will still be here, so they’ll get to meet the cousins as well. That evening, Flavia plays in a concert in Montecarlo, which many of us will also attend.

Sunday afternoon will be the biggest event in this informal reunion, when we share a potluck style lunch at Davide and Elena’s house. Beside the contingent from France, several other Seghieri families from Montecarlo will attend. It should be interesting trying to communicate, since I don’t speak any French, and it’s already a challenge for me to get across everything I want to say when I have to speak Italian. The French families don’t speak much Italian or English. I think Davide and Flavia know French, but Elena will probably be exhausted before the reunion is over, since she’s the only one who can speak all the languages easily.