Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Time travel lets us imagine the Battle of Altopascio fought near Montecarlo during the era of Castruccio Castracani

Castruccio Castracani talks to one of his advisers about his life
leading up to the Battle of Altopascio while standing on the
steps of the Mastio of the Fortress of Montecarlo.
Lucy and I stepped back in time to 1325 recently to view a dramatic reenactment of the Battle of Altopascio, in which the armies of Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli defeated the Florentine army in the plains near Altopascio. We toured the Fortezza di Montecarlo Sunday with our friend and favorite tour guide Elena Benvenuti, who had arranged a dramatic presentation by using actors from Lucca’s Teatro del Giglio and costumed characters from the balestrieri of the Contrade San Paolino of Lucca, an association that helps celebrate and relive historical events.
Who would dare attack this fortress with its imposing walls and alert and well-armed guards?

The show, sponsored by the Banca di Pescia, included guards, soldiers and women dressed in medieval costumes, but the actor playing Castruccio himself took center stage and delivered 99 percent of the dialog. He popped out of the fortress at various times to explain his personal history and deliver updates on the battle, which history tells us he directed from on high at the Rocca del Cerruglio at Vivinaia—now known as the fortress of Montecarlo. The battle pitted Ghibellines (Lucca and its allies) against Guelphs (Florence).

Elena explains the recent history of
the Fortezza as the tour begins.
A small garrison of Castruccio’s forces, outnumbered 17,500 to 500, held out in Altopascio for nearly a month before they had to surrender to commander Cordona in August, but Castruccio held on in Montecarlo and reinforced his position while appealing to leaders in Milan and Arezzo to come to his aid. According to some sources, Castruccio had to pay 25,000 gold florins in advance to Azzo Visconti of Milan in exchange for the services of his army. The historian Giovanni Villani relates that Castruccio sent the most beautiful women of Lucca, including his wife Pina, to deliver the money along with a plea for help.
Those lovely maidens in the garden were sent to persuade other Ghibelline forces to come to Lucca's assistance.

Once the additional armies arrived in September, Castruccio attacked. The first charge failed, but the second succeeded, overwhelming the Florentine infantry in a resounding victory. The Lucchesi regained Altopascio and several other villages. Meanwhile, their cavalry cut off escape routes, capturing Cardona and the surviving Guelph soldiers. Castruccio obtained the title of Duke of Lucca; unfortunately, he died three years later at the age of 28.

Castruccio, from a drawing found in the
State Archives in Lucca.
The reenactment was more history lesson than drama, as the actors had little interaction with each other and Castruccio’s lines basically stuck to the known history of his life and the battle. As usual, Lucy and I didn’t understand all the Italian words, but we enjoyed the atmosphere anyway. A group of soldiers and historically attired townspeople stoked a fire and roasted chestnuts after the performance to celebrate the victory. We also looked at a realistic replica of the crown of Carlo IV, the beloved ruler of Montecarlo, who invested much time and funding to build up the city’s fortifications from 1333 to 1339—and for whom the city henceforth took its name.
Chestnuts roast on an open fire as the fortress inhabitants prepare for a victory celebration.

We continue to blunder our way through the Italian language

After we had enjoyed a sumptuous home-cooked family meal in Sorrento, Lucy wanted to tell our hostess how much she had enjoyed the remarkable dinner. She hoped to say, “You are amazing” in Italian, and the first two words proved to be no problem—but not the word amazing. Many English and Italian words are similar, such as delicious and delizioso, elegant and elegante, but there is not an similarly equivalent word in Italian to amazing. Still Lucy had heard something that sounded like it, so she went ahead and said, “Tu sei ammazzata!” When the host looked confused, I quickly chimed in, “Vuol dire, tu sei fantastica.” That is, “She wants to say you are fantastic.” Ammazzare means to kill, so here is what Lucy had actually told the hostess: “You are killed.”

At least the mistakes we make here are spoken and thus fleeting. I read that General Electric merged with French company Plessy Telecommunications in 1988 and called the new partnership GPT—apparently without consulting the French-speaking partners. GPT sounds almost identical to the phrase “J’ai pété,” which means, “I farted.” The name change lasted less than a year but is still remembered.
Note: For more language mistakes, see New language blunders . . .

Monday, October 24, 2016

Random observations about the last half of our Rick Steves’ tour

  • To visit Positano and Napoli is to renew, to some degree, one’s faith in human nature. The roads on the Amalfi
    Napoli traffic
    coast are narrow and twisting, requiring cars and buses to stop and sometimes back up at hairpin corners. Inside Positano itself, the main street is one-lane and one-way only—yet delivery trucks must stop to unload cargo, buses must let off passengers, large tour groups must cross the street in front of traffic. All of these cause vehicles to back up, but I see few signs of frustration or impatience. People waiting for others know that within a few minutes, others will be doing the same for them. In Napoli, cars, pedestrians and motorcycles move swiftly, seemingly chaotically, through the crowded streets. Large buses sometimes take up two lanes or pull out in the midst of traffic to perform u-turns. Horns are tapped briefly, out of warning but not frustration or annoyance. To see people living together in such close proximity and yet such harmony is encouraging.
  • Even cattle in Italy experience la dolce vita. We visited a farm with bufala italiana (water buffalo),
    Bufala massages -- on demand.
    where mozzarella da bufala is made. The cows live together in clean quarters, and they are able to receive showers and massages whenever they want. They also decide on their own when they want to be milked.
  • On the recommendation of our guide, most people in our tour group used our free day in Positano to take a boat to the larger city of Amalfi, a city packed with tour buses and tourists. Other than being larger than Positano, it is situated similarly on the same coastline, so it has the
    View from Nocelle
    same scenic appeal. It seemed pointless to spend the time and money to miss spending a relaxing day in Positano. Instead, we took a bus up a winding narrow road high up to Nocelle, which was kind of like a ride at Disneyland in itself. Then we had a leisurely lunch at the Santa Croce ristorante overlooking Positano and the coast and islands below. We walked along the hillside trail, and we could have hiked higher into the hills on Il Sentiero degli Dei, the trail of the gods—a five-star Tripadvisor attraction. Not feeling particularly energetic, we took the bus (it runs every hour in either direction) back down after a couple of hours.
  • In Sorrento, most of our tour group took the boat to Capri, and we would have gone as well had we not been
    Lucy wades in the Mare Tirreno in Sorrento.
    there in 2002. I would not recommend skipping Capri if you’ve not been, but Sorrento is a very pleasant city, and since we were nearing the end of the tour, we needed some rest and stayed in town. We found a vine-covered pergola restaurant with shiny floors overlooking the harbor (Lucy’s favorite in the whole trip), and afterward we toured a photo gallery featuring life in Italy in one section and Sophia Loren in another. The gallery had a display of antique but functional music boxes dating back to 1898. We took in the Sorrento Musicale at the Teatro Tasso, which Lucy liked a lot; I, instead, fell asleep while sitting up.
  • Napoli was the final city in the tour, and we had received enough warnings about pickpockets and trash that everyone in our group approached it with various degrees of caution, trepidation even outright fear—most of which had disappeared by the end of our two days. After having been warned repeatedly not to carry purses and bags draped over a single shoulder, I saw many local women who ignored this precaution without any problems occurring. I’m sure there are still some neighborhoods where extra caution is needed, but we felt very safe in the main streets in the city center. We also found the food to be outstanding and yet inexpensive, the streets and train station to be relatively clean, and the Napolitani very proud of their city. We would not hesitate to return.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Lesser known gems of Alberobello and Matera high spots of our Italy tour

Friday/Saturday, October 14 & 15
We may have experienced our favorite 36 travel hours ever. We left the seaside town of Vieste early for a scenic drive along the Gargano coastline before arriving around noon at Alberobello, a city famous for its conically covered houses, called trulli, and then we enjoyed a wine and antipasto tasting at the enoteca Tholos.

Inside a trullo
Gino, the owner, served us three types of his wine and a huge array of snacks, many of them specialties of the region. He also had a large supply of digestivi such as grappa, limoncello and other liquors. We ate and drank as much as we could; I had four glasses of wine, more than I usually drink in a month in Italy and a year in the United States. With my head buzzing slightly, we walked across the street and took a look inside the trullo of Gino’s dad. Trulli are small, so the visit didn’t take long, but it gave us a glipse of family life in bygone days. The city has more than 1,000 trulli; most are occupied and now finished with modern interiors and appliances, but this one had been preserved from an earlier era.

Next, we strolled through Alberobello and admired the construction of the conical roofs that are found only in the Murgia, a karst plateau in the Itria Valley of Apulia, near Bari. Exactly why this construction style developed is not known for certain. It could have been imported from eastern European immigrants. A popular explanation is that since both the walls and roofs were built without mortar, the houses could be easily disassembled to avoid paying taxes to whichever invaders were currently ruling. Historians also note that prehistoric tribes in Italy built small conical structures to bury their dead, so the construction techniques could have developed locally. Certainly the limestone and tuffa common in the region makes ideal building materials for this type of home.

From Alberobello, we continued on the road to Matera, where we checked into our hotel and enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the nearby restaurant Il Buongustaio. All the portions were small, but there were too many courses to count; in this way, we developed a full appreciation for a large variety of local specialties.
Some ot the cave houses of Matera, with a few more modern buildings at the top.

After a sound sleep in the Locanda San Martino, we started the morning taking a walk with local guide Emelia. Matera has fascinated me from afar ever since I read Carlo Levi’s famous book Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli), in which his sister described the deplorable conditions of the cave dwellers in the poorer section of the city during the 1940s. The caves date from a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, and they are thought to be among the first ever human settlements in Italy. After the end of World War 2 and the publication of Levi’s book, the caves became known as the “national shame” of Italy, and the government built new housing for the impoverished residents and ordered the caves to be abandoned. They remained empty until the 1990s, and in recent years they have become a tourist attraction—as well as a setting for more than 25 movies, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2005).

Inside that huge rock, center, two ancient cave churches have been
hollowed out. At the bottom left is the Chiesa di San Pietro.
Although I had read about Matera and the relocation of the residents, it took me some time to truly understand the situation. I had assumed that the cave dwellers had lived in their accustomed lifestyles for centuries and that it may have been somewhat presumptuous for the government to displace them without asking for their consent. However, after touring the town with a knowledgeable guide, visiting caves (in fact, even our hotel was a cave) and watching a multimedia presentation at the Casa Noha, I came to a better
Lucy the cave woman.
understanding of the complex dynamics. Ultimately, the story of Matera, at least for the present, has a happy conclusion. It is now once again a thriving city and a tourist destination that is still somewhat unknown and not yet overcrowded.

Paul & Lucy in Matera.
The latter situation is bound to change, though, as Matera has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2019, beating out Venezia, Roma, Paris and other famous destinations. My advice: Read Levi’s book and get to Matera before the crowds arrive. However, it will still be a fascinating visit in the years to follow. Italians have done an excellent job of combining tourism with a sensitivity for cultural presentation, especially in recent years. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice and years of trial and error at this skill.

We took an afternoon siesta before going out for dinner and then taking in a movie at the local cinema—and it wasn’t just any movie. It was the 2016 remake of Ben Hur, not exactly a box office sensation, but about 75 percent of it was filmed in Matera because the oldest parts of the city still look like Israel in the time of Christ. It was a kick to see the same streets we had just walked through to get to the theater and to know that they were just outside the doors.
A group of teens practice their social skills during the passeggiata.

After the movie, we walked around the Piazza Venezia for a half an hour, people-watching as the locals enjoyed their passeggiata. It’s always a pleasure to view this Italian social ritual, and the vibrancy of the Matera passeggiata showed how much this city has recovered from the abject poverty of the war years, a condition that still existed to a lesser extent as early as the 1980s. As we went back to our cave hotel, we marveled at the mixture of the ancient and the modern that we had seen in the period of a day and half. Alberobello and Matera certainly deserve to be listed among the jewels of Italy.
These fashionable ragazze were exchanging gossip on the steps. I wasn't able to get a candid photo, but I asked if I could take a group photo anyway.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Grottos of Vieste, Gargano Peninsula hidden gems off the beaten tourist trail

I don’t feel much like writing while I’m on a tour (we are touring Southern Italy with Rick Steves’ agency). Beyond the fact that I want to relax and enjoy myself (and writing, for me, is hard work), the purpose of my blog is not to substitute for a travelog or guidebook to Italy. It’s not hard to find plenty of the latter in bookstores and online. However, sometimes I come across something so interesting and relatively unknown to the average tourist that I must steel myself and sit down to write, even when I am supposed to be vacating.

Fishing from a rocky ledge.
Vieste is on the tip of a rocky peninsula in the large Gargano National Park on the east coast of Italy. Traditionally known as a fishing village, now its main claim to fame is as a summer resort for Italian and German vacationers. English guidebooks give it little mention. With its blue waters and sandy beaches, Vieste looks like it would provide excellent relief from the summer heat, though we are here in October, so the beaches are mostly empty because the temperatures only reach the upper 60s. But for us, it’s perfect because we are here mostly to enjoy the everyday pace and culture of Italian living—and the scenic beauty of the coastline.
This experienced Vieste fisherman is pulling in an octopus, which he held high to show us moments later.
It is the latter, especially, which has proved so surprisingly spectacular. Our tour guide booked us a boat ride along the rugged Gargano coastline, where we saw geological splendors such as arches, grottoes and thousands of layers of sedimentary rock that whisper the changing history of the region. We also saw men fishing from the high rock banks and in small boats. One cheerful pescatore slid a squirming octopus out of his net and held it high for our benefit.

No way will this big boat fit in this small opening . . .
The highlight, or so I thought at the moment, was when the pilot approached a small opening in the rocks, seemingly to give us a close-up look. But he didn’t stop, and, accompanied by a few gasps from startled passengers, the boat slipped inside with only a few feet to spare on either side, and we were inside a semi-dark grotta (grotta is the Italian word for the English grotto).

Yet somehow it did.
The gasps turned to ooohs and aaahs—expressions that were to be repeated later when we went inside another four grotte, some of which had openings in the top to let in beams of light. One—the Grotta dei Pomodori—had round red sea anemones that looked like cherry tomatoes growing just below the sea line. Some people commented that
Sea tomatoes
now they wouldn’t need to go to the more famous Grotta Azzurra on the island of Capri. I hesitated to take photos—although of course I did take them—because I knew a two-dimensional image of a single section of a 360-degree splendor couldn’t adequately reproduce the experience of being there.

As for the city itself, we liked the fact that the centro storico, the old city center, was right next to the more modern buildings and also right on the coast. Some of the resort towns I’ve visited on the west shore have touristy modern cities along the water, and the historic centers are a mile or more inshore. We stayed in the Hotel Seggio, which overlooked the coast and even had its own stairway down to the beach. Although we are only in the first few days of our tour, I think the boat trip will be one of the more memorable parts of our 13 days.
Inside the Grotta Dei Due Occhi, the cave of two eyes.

Will we come back to Vieste on our own? Probably not, because though it’s a pleasant town, we feel we were able to experience our favorite highlights in the two days we were there. Of course, if we were living in Italy in the heat of the summer, we might feel differently. However, we can certainly recommend it as a vacation destination that’s less crowded and more authentically Italian than many of the more famous places.
The layers of sediment and volcanic ash would be a geologist's dream field trip.

And not all of the scenic splendors were outside of the boat. I found this striking blonde beauty right next to me on the boat!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Our house of dreams is finished, and we get a look up close with new friends

Two days ago, Lucy and I arrived back at our home inside the walls of Montecarlo. Yesterday we visited one of our former  “dream homes,” a once run-down casa rustica in San Salvatore that five years ago had inspired us to envision buying a house here. It is no longer crumbling, sagging and dilapidated—very much the contrary. It is now a shining example of the splendid transformation that a good portion of tender loving care and money can render.
Lucy standing atop the river levy in 2010.

We noticed last summer that the derelict house, visible from the train tracks and also via Mattonaia, had a construction crew working on it. We felt a certain nostalgia because we had often looked longingly at the place, even though we knew it would never be ours. We had decided that fixing it up would be too costly, or at least too time-consuming. We wanted to come to Montecarlo to relax and mingle with Italians, not work on houses—we already had plenty of work to do on our houses in Gig Harbor.
After a total transformation, Kjetil, Laila and Lucy converse outside the train house.

But we were also content to see that someone had shared our interest and vision for what we sometimes called “the train house,” and we looked forward to seeing what it would look like when finished. We assumed that we would only get to see the finished exterior, but through a happy set of circumstances, we are also able to tour the interior.

We had lunch in Montecarlo with the owners of the train house, Kjetil and Laila, whom I had met online by chance earlier this year. I had noticed that Kjetil had written Tripadvisor reviews in English about some familiar Montecarlo locations, and he mentioned in one that he would soon be living in Montecarlo. I contacted him through Tripadvisor and learned that it was he and Laila who had purchased the train house. I directed him to my old blog entry about his house, and we set up a time to meet.

Laila and Kjetil in front of the remodeled fireplace.
We enjoyed lunch and conversation at the Osteria alla Fortezza, where we learned that Kjetil and Laila are native Norwegians who had worked in Houston, Texas, for two and half years and were currently living in Russia, where Laila works in human resources for an oil company. Kjetil had also worked for an oil company but is now retired. They intend to make Montecarlo their permanent home when Laila retires. They are in their 60s like us, with 15 grandchildren, and we found them molto simpatici. After the meal, we drove down the hill to see what they had done with the place.

An earlier view of the fireplace, as it appeared two years ago.
The freshly stuccoed and painted outside looks almost completely new, with the exception of a few places where the original stones were left to show. The broken, missing and sometimes bricked-over windows have all been replaced. The yard has been mowed and cleaned up. Inside, the transformation is even more striking. Here and there, a door or some stonework from the old house has been re-used or left exposed, but for the most part the interior looks entirely new and modern, designed in a style part Norwegian, part Italian and part American—and maybe even part Russian, for all I know.

It makes us happy to see the house in good hands and looking so beautiful. We wouldn’t have had the patience, time or money to finish it so well. We also feel fortunate to know the couple who did the work, and we look forward to continuing to develop this friendship. When we started coming to Montecarlo in 2010, we wanted to interact mostly with Italians to speed up the development of our language skills. But in the past year, we’ve realized that it’s time to reach out and find more English-speaking friends as well, and it’s comforting to know that we have so much in common with Kjetil and Laila, who will be nearby when we come here in the coming years.
The finished kitchen.

The kitchen in 2014

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. 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 trenitalia.com 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!