Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Researching dead people makes for some lively in-person activities

I spend a lot of time with dead people. Lucy pointed this out recently when I told her I was off to the archives to find more dead ancestors and relatives. But sometimes all these dead people come in quite handy when we want to meet some very live and fascinating people.

One of the reason we come to Italy is to interact with Italians, and it’s true that we do this to some extent on a daily basis. Usually, though, our encounters are pleasant but fairly superficial. We know some of the Montecarlo and San Salvatore store and restaurant owners, and we always exchange friendly salutations. I have relatives that we sometimes see and greet at the bank or grocery stores. But often our conversations are short and insignificant, owing both to our lack of language skills and shared experiences. It doesn’t help that we only live in Montecarlo for three months a year, or that Lucy and I are both fairly quiet by nature—but even nomadic introverts get lonely.

This is where the dead people come in handy. Because my genealogical research has made connections with so many other distant relatives, it’s become easier to find live people to talk to. We’ve been visited here by previously unknown English-speaking Italian-American relatives, and we’ve also made contact with Italian relatives that have resulted in some great conversations.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Rita Spadoni and her fidanzato Giulio. We shared some antipasto and dolce while having a great conversation at a sweet shop in Montecatini. Both of them speak some English, and of course we speak some Italian. The great thing about having friends who speak some English is that we can start talking in Italian (and we always need practice in that), but when the proper words escape us, we can continue in English and still be understood. And our friends can do the same—speak English but switch to Italian at any time—without losing any flow of the conversation while still being understood.


Selfie with Giulio and Rita at La Pasticceria Sweet.
Rita is an distant relative, connected so far back in time that some would say we’re not really cousins. But sharing the same surname and ancient family history proved to be enough connection to draw us together. We left our encounter with Rita and Giulio very happy, and I also found a recommendation for a physical therapist who is helping me with my sore back.


Enrichetta, Italo, Francesco, Marco.
Last Sunday after church, we also renewed our contact with Italo Cortesi and his wife Enrichetta and son Francesco, age 24. Italo’s nonno is the famous Italo Spadoni after whom an important street in Ponte Buggianese is named. We knew that Francesco loves his tractors, and last summer we were given a John Deere calendar by Washington Tractor in Sumner. We also bought a John Deere polo shirt. We dropped by Italo’s house in Ponte Buggianese to give these to
Bistecca alla fiorentina roasting
on an open fire.
Francesco and say what we thought would be a brief hello. The hello turned into a lunch invitation. Francesco’s friend Marco, who speaks some English, was also present. After a while, Italo’s friend Andrea joined in. After three hours of conversation and constant eating (various antipasti, bistecca alla fiorentina, fruit, gelato) and drinking (vino bianco, vino rosso, spumante, vinsanto, homemade limoncello), we could barely move to drive home.



Italo carves the steak into strips.
Italo and Francesco are farmers, planting mostly corn and sunflowers, and it means working from dawn to dusk during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons. They are proud of their business, their tractors, their land and their profession. Although Italo is 66, he has no plans to retire.

‟I can still work 14 hours a day,” he said. ‟Maybe I could sell everything and stop working, but what would Francesco do? When I get home after a hard day’s work, I have a good dinner with my wife and son, I visit with my friends, and I feel completely satisfied with my life. Because of that, I don’t feel the least bit tired. I just start all over again the next day.”
Italo and one of his classic tractors.

Italo proudly showed us the bio-furnace he uses to heat his home. It uses dried corn from his fields as fuel. We saw his six tractors, some of them restored and certified classics that will be part of a special church mass and parade next weekend near Pisa to celebrate the planting season and give thanks for the abundance of the Tuscan soil.
A classic John Deere restored by Francesco and Italo.

We felt privileged to share our Sunday afternoon with a modern Italian contadino, a distant cousin who makes his living from the same soil that supported and sustained our shared ancestors. While looking online for information about the celebration Italo had told us about, I found this fitting quotation from one of the event organizers: ‟The Day of Thanksgiving is a joyous time to find ourselves and be together but also to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the farming sector. We entrust our lives every day to the providence that decides our crops and the fruits of that which we prepare, but we must not forget that the soil, the earth, are non-renewable resources and thus must be protected. Citizens need to defend and protect our agricultural heritage and the availability of fertile land from the advance of overbuilding in the cities and the abandonment of marginal areas. The road that Tuscany is taking now is the right one.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

A visit to the impressive villas of Lucca worth adding to one’s Tuscan itinerary

Our tour group: Else, Eduard, me and Lucy.
For anyone drawn to lifestyles of the rich and famous, Lucca has something for you. More than 300 historical country villas were built in the hills of Lucca during the 16th and the 17th centuries by rich merchants. Most of them were summer residences of noble Italian families and are vivid examples of different architectural styles in Tuscany.

We had the privilege to visit two of the the most famous this weekend: Villa Torrigiani and Villa Reale. Lucy and I, along with Lucy’s cousins Eduard and Else (visiting from Amsterdam) were escorted by Lucca native and tour guide extraordinaire Elena Benvenuti and her husband Davide Seghieri.
If you are touring Italian villas, don't forget to bring along knowledgeable native Italian
tour guides like Elena and Davide to enrich the experience.

Villa Torrigiani is an amazing 16th century estate in which baroque ornamental elements have been harmoniously added to the more simple original architecture. The main alley makes an impressive initial impression, with huge cypresses directing the eye to the multicolored baroque facade. The facade alternates stone grey, tuffa and yellow pillars and arches. It is adorned with marble statues of white, ochre plaster.

Lost in a secret passageway in the
gardens of Villa Torrigiani.
Inside, we toured the first floor, covered with vibrant frescoes and expensive oil paintings. Beds with silk canopies, marble tables and costumes of the servants allow an authentic glimpse into the lives of the wealthy families who have occupied the villa. Thick walls provide a nearly constant temperature year around.

The first mention of the villa dates back to 1593, when it belonged to  the Buonvisi family. It later passed to family of Nicola Santini, who rebuilt the south facade in baroque style at the end of the seventeenth century in imitation of the architecture of Versailles, where he was ambassador for the Republic of Lucca. In 1816 Victoria Santini married into the Torrigiani family, who uprooted the existing garden to make an English style park. Now the villa is owned by Fabio Colonna of Stigliano.

Grotesque art and unpredictable sprays
of water were provided to entertain and
surprise visitors at Villa Torrigiani.
Outside is equally appealing. Fountains, garden grotesques and hidden tunnels and grottos provided amusement and cool places for social gatherings and lovers trysts. Villa Torrigiani obviously was the place to be for a party a few hundred years ago. While sitting in an grotto decorated with grotesque tuffa statues, guests might be surprised and refreshed by a sudden spray of water. Elena said it even happened to her while she was giving a tour not long ago.

Teatro Verzura, the Green Theater (verzura is old Lucca dialect for verde).
We happened to be in the teatro at just the right time to
witness a solo musical performance by our singing tour guide.
While visitors are not allowed inside Villa Reale, it is most notable for its extensive grounds with take up most of the 16 hectares (nearly 40 acres). Home in the 19th century to Napoleon’s sister and Duchess of Lucca Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, the villa includes numerous refined gardens and botanic rarities, as well as majestic buildings created over centuries. It features a splendid world famous Teatro Verzura, or Green Theatre, where the composer Paganini often performed for Elisa Baciocchi. The garden pathways are lined with camellia flowers and it is enriched by a lemon garden with a group of marble statues depicting Leda and the Swan, and a Spanish garden in art deco style. Several historic buildings add to the experience, including the 16th century Villa del Vescovo with its nymphaeum (sacred place of he nymphs), named the Grotto of Pan, and the elegant 18th century Palazzina dell’Orologio with its panoramic loggia.
The impressive Grotta di Pan.

I have to admit that my practical side prevented me from fully enjoying some aspects of the morning. As the owner of houses in both America and Italy, the issues of maintenance are never far from my mind. It’s the perplexing dilemma of having just enough money to buy a house but not being wealthy enough to hire other people to fix the crumbling plaster or leaky roof or to water and trim all the plants. But I tried to put my own issues aside and enjoy a vivid glimpse into this living history. And I’d sure like to add some of those beautiful grottos and fountains to my yard.
Our guides for the day, Davide and Elena, in front of a refreshing and surprisingly beautiful waterfall at Villa Reale.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Permesso di soggiorno in hand, but we take little time to celebrate

One month and two days ago, Lucy underwent her finger- and hand-printing at the Polizia Scientifica and Questura di Lucca. We paid with our marca da bollo and left with an officially stamped receipt. And we were told that in a month, we’d get a phone call telling us to come in and get her permesso di soggiorno.

Lucia in Lucca
We watched the calendar carefully. Saturday marked four weeks. Monday was 30 days, Tuesday 31. Surely one of those dates should have been the benchmark signifying one month, but we’d received no phone call. And so, tired of waiting, we drove to the Questura this morning to ask in person.

Sportello 1, the window for permesso documents, had no line at all. But it also had no one at the desk. The other three windows, used by refugees, all had long lines, and we didn’t want to wait in one of them because after a long wait, we’d only have been told we were in the wrong line. But where was the nice lady from Sportello 1?

‟There’s her glasses on her desk,” Lucy pointed out. ‟She’s probably taking her morning break at the local coffee bar.” And indeed, after standing alone in the line for 10 minutes, we were rewarded by her appearance. And further, when she want to check in the back of the office, she quickly found Lucy’s permesso di soggiorno. There was no pounding of drums or singing by angels, just ‟Here you go; that’s all.” Lucy signed, and we were done in one minute.

And so concludes satisfactorily a saga that had begun 15 years earlier, when we unsuccessfully tried to get permessi for all four of us in Padova. But we took no time to celebrate, because this is only step one. We drove straight back to Montecarlo to present Lucy’s documents to the municipio. Now we wanted Lucy’s residency documents.

Once again we had to wait, this time about 15 minutes for an absent clerk. But when she came, we had everything in hand: permesso, passaporti, codice fiscale, estratto di matrimonio. The signora took nearly a half hour to enter everything in her computer, make photocopies and carefully stamp every form and photocopy. Then we were sent upstairs to the office of protocollo for more document checks, computer entries and stamping of documents.

Now the police will come to make il controllo anagrafico, the official check to make sure Lucy lives at via Roma, 49. Knowing that this can take a month or so, we stopped by the police office on the way out of the municipio to let them know we will soon be having a lot of guests and want the check to take place as soon as possible. We settled on either Tuesday or Wednesday morning. When this takes place, Lucy can go back to the municipio and get her carta d'identit√†, and we’ll be done with step two. We’ll waste no time starting step three, which will mean another trip (most likely many trips) to Lucca for her citizenship. Can we squeeze this in before we leave in barely more than a month? As Lucy likes to say, the chances are 50/50; either we will or we wont. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We have stumbled across our church home in nearby Altopascio

I deeply appreciate my upbringing and roots in the Catholic Church—but I am more comfortable with the music, informality and overall approach of certain Protestant churches. Lucy and I are long-time members of an independent church in Gig Harbor, but finding a similar church in Italy has not been easy.

From 2011 to 2015, we took the train to Lucca and attended the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese. The train ran on a limited schedule on Sunday, and we would have to stay in Lucca until mid-afternoon before we could return to San Salvatore. We often had to ride our bikes to and from the train station in the chill and rain in the winter.

However, we were welcomed by like-minded and friendly people, many of them our age and older. The structure of the Sunday services reminded us of denominational American churches of the 1960s and earlier. Songs were from an old hymnal, accompanied by a pianist. A few individuals would read Bible passages. Pastor Domenico Masselli would make some announcements and then preach a sermon. He spoke clearly and supported his lessons with numerous Bible passages, which we could read in our English versions to aid us in understanding the messages. Then we’d all go up front to celebrate communion. We’d recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, and everyone would disperse.

We were happy to encounter kind people who shared our beliefs, but we still found the experience lacking. The songs were taken from old English hymns that had been translated into Italian. Forcing verses from English to Italian and attempting to maintain the rhythm and rhyme made for some odd and hard to understand wording—definitely not conducive to meaningful worship. We would hang around after church to greet people, but our lack of skills in Italian meant that conversations were short. The only invitation we ever received to share lunch came from an English-speaking German couple.

We had done web searches for Protestant churches that might be closer to Montecarlo but came up empty. And then one day in April of 2015, we were walking in a residential area in Altopascio and passed a house that had a sign outside: Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica di Altopascio. It listed 10:30 a.m. at the time for the Sunday meeting. Could this be real, or was this an old sign of a church that once had existed but was no longer active?

A Google search for the church revealed almost nothing. The church had no web site. An old newspaper article mentioned a concert that had been held there in March of 2009. We had our doubts, but we would have to go on Sunday to find out. And so, during our last week in Italy in 2015, we drove our borrowed car 10 minutes to Altopascio and parked a few blocks from the house. Almost immediately, we heard it—loud singing accompanied by various musical instruments. This church was—is—alive and active, and we have been attending it ever since whenever we come to Toscana.
Some members of the music team at the Chiesa Evangelica di Altopascio.

We found about 50 or 60 people gathered in the home of the pastor. A large room had been custom-made for the meetings. Sunday school for children is held in a side room. It’s an independent church, founded and led by Italians, though certain characteristics remind us of the the Italian version of the Assemblies of God church we attended a few times in Padova.

The music is our favorite part of the gathering; we actually prefer it to that of our church in Gig Harbor. The songs are relatively new. The lyrics, written in modern Italian and taken from Scripture verses, are projected on the wall behind the music team. The leader plays a guitar and is usually accompanied by a keyboardist and sometimes a drummer. Three or four vocalists with microphones assist. But it’s not so much the melodies, words and instruments that appeal to us as it is the sincere and worshipful way in which the music is presented. Fervent prayers are offered between songs. Eyes are closed. Some people raise their hands. There is a strong shared feeling that God is present.

Pastor Giuseppe
We also like the fact that the culto—Italian name for a Sunday service—relies heavily on sharing from the congregation. Some 20 minutes can be taken for members to share verses and lessons they have learned. On one Sunday, the sharing went on so long that the pastor didn’t even give his message. We only regret that we still can’t understand all that is said during the sharing and sermon. For some reason, we were able to understand more of the sermon at the church in Lucca.

Breaking bread for the Lord's Supper.
We are gradually learning peoples’ names, and this winter for the first time, we were invited to dine at the house of two of the church members. Getting to know Silvio and Anna has been one of the highlights of our first month here in 2017, and we look forward to further developing this friendship. Silvio is one of the elders in the church, and I have approached him with an offer to create a free web site. Hopefully, this will help us become more involved with the community. And, more importantly, maybe it will also help a few more stranieri can find the way there.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Lost in hills of Tuscany not the worst thing that could happen—far from it!

Sometimes the best memories come from the things you find while being lost. Lucy and I were discussing this with our friends Kjetil and Laila while we drove in the Pescia Swizzera hills north of Montecatini. What brought up this subject? We were lost, naturally.

Red persiani (shutters) in stone building at Vellano.
We had taken a hike around the scenic town of Vellano, admiring the typical haphazard arrangement of the stone houses and alleys that we love so much. The plan was to continue north in the car to a restaurant near Castelvecchio for a lunch, but no one had brought their GPS devices or even a good map. I had a general map of the area, but it didn’t contain enough detail to show that one couldn’t drive north of Vellano and still reach Castelvecchio—even though that’s the way any crow with good sense would go. Because of the mountainous terrain, however, the roads didn’t connect, and then we gradually drifted to the west without realizing it until we saw a sign for Avaglio and I located that little town on the map. We were way off course, and starting to get seriously hungry as well.

Vellano before we got lost.
To go back the way we came and then go south and after that north to Castelvecchio would take a long time,” I said. ‟Let’s go south from here towards Marliana. I know of at least one restaurant there.” Except that one restaurant turned out to be only for members of the Circolo della Misericordia di Marliana. Lucy and I had been there during a festa, and it had been open to the public that day, but normally it was not. And Marliana had no other restaurants.

So farther south we went, and that’s when we started talking about other memorable occasions when we had gotten lost and had serendipitously wonderful experiences. Except by now it was nearing 2 p.m., seriously hungry had turned to ravenously hungry, and we all knew that nearly every restaurant in Italy closes around 3 p.m. I have to admit that not every time we’ve gotten lost turned out to be special, and that thought entered my mind as we drove though more small cities that had no restaurants. Ah, ye of little faith.

By the time we turned into the parking lot of the Antica Trattoria Da Marino in Ponte di Serravalle, we didn’t care that it looked less than promising from the outside, nor that the city had little to offer in scenic appeal. It was about 2:15 p.m., and the place was empty. That didn’t look promising, either, but we had no time to be picky. We chose a corner table with a view of a side alley and got down to the serious business of perusing the menu.

When we left at 3:30 p.m., our faith in the wonders of being lost had been fully restored. The meal and service had been incredibly delicious and memorable. I ordered the pici stirato a mano al ragout di chianina and Lucy, Kjetil and Laila each had the gran fritto mare con verdure. No question in my mind it was the best ragout I have ever tasted. The thick pici noodles were homemade, al dente and perfectly suited for the sauce. The superior quality of the meat and the fact that the beef chunks were a little larger than normal but then melted in my mouth made for a delightful sensation. My dining partners, all seafood gourmets, unanimously agreed that the sampling of fried seafood and vegetables was superb, fresh, tender, among the best seafood plates they had sampled.

Our waiter, Edoardo Innocenti, informed us that the establishment has been in his family since 1920, making it the oldest trattoria in the Pistoia area. All of the food is artigianale, hand made, including the wine. The delicious and unique fragolina white wine served with dessert is produced by the Innocenti family from a variety of small wild grapes that grow in the hillsides of this region. We bought an extra bottle to take home. And speaking of dessert—wow! We had a sampler of the homemade delicacies that we learned have made this restaurant famous in Northern Tuscany. To die for!

Later I learned that this is the number 1 restaurant on Tripadvisor for Serravalle Pistoiese. It’s a good thing we got lost and hungry and ended up here. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but sometimes the best memories come from the things you find while being lost. Yeah!



Thursday, March 9, 2017

The "can't stand in the attic" solution looks inevitable in roof repair plans.

Sometimes on sunny days, we pull down the retractable stairs, climb into the attic, stand on an old wooden trunk and tip up the tiny skylight. Then, taking turns, we thrust shoulders and head through the small opening and gaze at the magnificent view to the northeast. We already have a great western view from our terrazza, but our eastern view is blocked by buildings that are almost as tall as our own. From the attic, we can see over the top of these buildings.

We drool over this northeastern vista. We can take in the rugged snow-capped Alpi Apuane mountains and also see hill villages such as Collodi, Monte a Pescia, Uzzano Castello, Buggiano Castello and Montecatini Alto. We can see Pescia and some of the Valdinievole, the Valley of the Nievole River. We want to experience this view more easily and be able to share it with visitors. And that’s another complication with the repair of our leaky roof.

The roof leaks because some of the terracotta tiles are moss-covered and broken, and the mortar is cracked. Also, it was installed many years ago, when guaina a caldo or carta catramata (insulating paper or tarpaper) was not routinely installed between the layers of brick and roofing tile. Once resigned to the reality that minor roof repairs would be inadequate to stop the leaks, we looked at the condition of the beams that support the roof and hatched an idea. Maybe we could subtlety add a few inches to the height of our roof.

As it is now, a head poked out of the skylight is almost the only way an average sized person can stand in our attic, since the highest standing spot is just under 6 feet, but that’s just in the center; then it quickly slopes down. Our thought was that if we replace the roof, we should also replace all the beams and joists, which are ancient and suspect. They look like they could last another 20 years, give or take 10 years. But then, they look ancient now, and maybe they could survive another 50 years. Who knows how long these things last? But if they do need to be replaced, wouldn’t now be a good time? And couldn’t they be just a bit bigger without even asking for special permission (with such permission being almost impossible to obtain inside a walled, historic city)? And could we put in some large skylights that open up, so we can stand under them and enjoy the northeastern view? Should we not also put in insulation while we were at it?

We told Juri to ask for these extra options when inquiring about re-roofing proposals. We would pay the extra for skylights and insulation. We were hoping that the contractors would say that all the beams needed to be replaced so that Juri would also share in the cost of that.


My beautiful computer art drawing made for the builder, which turned out to
pretty much a total waste of my time. 
And it was because of all these extra options that we had difficulty understanding Juri when he tried to explain what the three contractors had told him when he asked for the preventivi (bids). So Monday of this week, we arranged to have a friend we had met at church come over to give us advice and help us talk to Juri. Silvio speaks some English, and he is familiar with construction projects because he designed and supervised the construction of his own house. He also brought his nephew Giuseppe, who is an architect. If nothing else, we wanted to have some knowledgeable and impartial people giving us advice.

Silvio, Giuseppe and I crawled into the attic and held a high level council. The beams could be replaced, but they are not the cause of the leaking and it’s not absolutely necessary to replace them now, Giuseppe said.

If I were your neighbor,” he explained, ‟I’d tell you, ‘Paul, I’ll pay my share of replacing the roof tiles and putting on a layer of guiana, but if you want to replace the beams, that’s your expense.’ ”

Then we went down and talked to Juri, and that’s exactly what he said. And that would be the 10,000 euro he had quoted me a couple of weeks ago. His family and our family would share this cost. To replace all the beams and add insulation and skylights would be in the neighborhood of 40,000 to 50,000 euro, and Juri would not share in the extra costs.


We were happy that we finally understood the options and that we had received advice from our own independent personal experts. They left us to mull it over, but it didn’t take long for us to realize what to do. We’ll go with the existing beams, but we’ll also pay the extra cost of installing two large skylights on the west side. It’s not worth 30,000 euro or more to be able to stand up straight in a few more places. On warm days, we’ll open the skylights, stand tall and savor the bella vista. In that way, we’ll still have money left over to pop open a bottle of wine and toast our good fortune while dunking our cantuccini in a glass of vinsanto.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

‟Into each life some rain must fall”

Saturday, March 4
Thanks for the warning, Henry Longfellow. We usually only come to Montecarlo from February through April, but last fall, we also came for a month—which turned out to be very, very fortunate, because during that time, our slightly leaky roof turned sieve-like. I don’t mean we were fortunate that the roof leaked but that we had been there to catch the water in our soffita
(attic) before it severely damaged the ceiling.

When we made an offer on the house in the spring of 2015, we had noticed some stains on the ceiling of the west bedroom. The real estate agent told us that the roof had leaked after the downstairs neighbor installed an antenna, but the damage had been fixed. Our geometra examined the roof and pronounced it structurally acceptable, although he said we would have to come during a rainstorm to know for sure if all the leaks had been fixed. In retrospect, we should have made our offer conditional on the roof being watertight, but the geometra didn’t seem concerned, so we didn’t make a fuss.

When we closed the sale in the fall of 2015, we spent a couple of weeks in the house. During a hard rainfall with some wind, the roof did have a couple of small leaks, but nothing a couple of buckets in the soffita couldn’t take care of. In the spring of 2016, the leaks grew worse, and we needed about 10 buckets during a windy rainstorm

We talked to Juri, our downstairs neighbor with whom we share the costs for our mutually used areas, like the portone (big front door), corridoio (hallway) and tetto (roof). I wanted to hire someone to repair or replace the roof, but he thought we could buy some more time. He had a friend who could make some repairs for little or no cost, and they would work on it during the summer.
OUR SOFFITA: I was going to cook some gnocchi yesterday and asked Lucy, "Where are all the pans? Oh, yeah, I remember."

And then came last fall, when we came back in November and saw some new stains on the bedroom ceiling. We looked in the attic during a normal rainstorm—with little wind—and it leaked in about a dozen areas. A week later, we had a major tempesta—heavy rains and howling winds—and suddenly we had to furnish our soffita with no fewer than 30 buckets, pans, bowls, glasses, trash bins, casserole dishes and whatever else we could find for the newest leaks.

Time for another conversation with Juri. We had agreed last spring that we would wait until the fall to see how the roof performed with the minor repairs, but now we could see that the roof needed to be replaced. It was too late in the year to do anything but make plans. Juri said he would get proposals from some roofers and we could do the work in the spring or summer of 2017. Meanwhile, he would check the soffita occasionally and empty the buckets as needed. I wanted to put a plastic tarp up, but Juri nixed that idea, saying it would be too risky. If the tarp and whatever we used to hold it down blew off, they would probably land in the street below, damaging cars, disrupting traffic and possible injuring people.

Back in America in December, we received bad news from our friend Elena, who wrote, ‟I spoke to Juri a few minutes ago and he reported that you had been effected badly by the heavy rain of last week. The rain came through your apartment and into his, and urgent repairs are needed for your roof.”

Argggh, but what does that mean? Why did I let Juri talk me out of hiring someone to put up a tarp? How can we do repairs in the middle of the winter? And most of all, how badly had our apartment been damaged?

For the next two months, we wondered how bad the damage had been. Juri wrote and said he had mopped up the water and not to worry. But did the water drip on the bed, and was it getting moldy? We also had a spare mattress under the bed that we pulled out to accommodate guests. Had the water run under the bed and soaked this? Would our whole house smell like a swamp when we came back?

Thankfully, when we arrived last month, the slightly off-level bedroom floor had saved the day. The water had all pooled by the exterior wall; the bed and the mattress were fine. The ceiling had some new stains and mold, but nothing that can’t be washed off, repaired with stucco and repainted once the water problem is solved.

Juri told us he had obtained three preventivi—proposals—for the repairs, and he summarized them for us, but for some reason, he forgot that we don’t understand rapidly spoken Italian well. Maybe he was in a hurry to get somewhere, but he summarized everything so quickly that we really didn’t understand exactly what our options were—only that the repairs could cost anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 euro, depending on how they were done and what extra features we wanted to add. I asked him to write down, in Italian, what the options were, because I understand written Italian much better than spoken.

That was two weeks ago, and still nothing has been put in writing, so we’re thinking of meeting with Juri again with the help of an interpreter. We want to get this settled during the quiet phase of our stay here, before guests start arriving and our lives get hectic.

To be continued . . .

Friday, March 3, 2017

An Italian Home is one of the better memoirs about life in Italy

We live in Italy for three or four months a year, the perfect amount of time for us to balance our love of Italian culture with our lives in Gig Harbor. Our family friends and work are too important to us to spend more time abroad. But what would it be like to live in Italy year around? That’s a question that for now I will have to answer by reading entertaining books like Paul Wright’s An Italian Home: Settling by Lake Como.


It’s an honest, entertaining and sometimes humorous account of a couple who moved from England to Italy. Wright makes no secret that learning Italian was not easy for him, something we borderline senior citizens can appreciate. We are taken through the various seasons and learn about the activities that both hold together and divide the little community of Moltrasio. I also enjoyed his inside story about the local football club and its enigmatic and inspirational leader.

I’ve probably read 20 or more memoirs about living in Italy, and this was well worth adding to my collection. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

We're thankful for quiet, uneventful, always enjoyable days in Montecarlo

Playing tombola with a cup of beans
Sometimes it seems a little strange that we come all the way to Italy just to sit in our house and read, write, sew and study Italian. It’s been a pretty uneventful three weeks here, and all of our actual cultural experiences probably could have been accomplished in a couple of days.

Tombola players (Lucy's back, far left)
The Misericordia of Montecarlo—a group of volunteers that help with medical emergencies and provide a broad range of other social services—held a tombola night at the old church. Tombola is a lot like bingo, but the rules are slightly different. Lucy and I each paid 10 euro for six tombola cards and played for about an hour. That’s about all our heads could take of trying to distinguish between numbers like quarantacinque, cinquantaquattro, cinquantacinque and quarantaquattro—or sessantasette, sessantasei, settantasei and settantasette. While our ancient
Our neighbors win a prize.
brains were converting the words into numerals and trying to scan all six of our game cards, the tomboliere (or whatever one calls the volunteer who pulls the numbers from the bin and reads them out) just kept on going.

After a few games and with the kindness of some players close by, we got the hang of the rules and were able to keep up. But just barely, and only with maximum mental focus. Shortly after we started the game, our neighbors Juri and Silvia, along with two of their daughters, joined in. They won a prize basket in a short time. When we left, we donated our cards to them, and I think they won another prize, but we had already walked the two blocks home and gone to bed.

Probably the most enjoyable encounter in our three weeks here was with friends from church, Silvio and Anna. Silvio speaks about as much English as we do Italian, so we mixed our languages together and had a long lunchtime conversation in their home. Anna grew up mostly in America but moved to Italy years ago after she married Silvio—thus anything that we weren’t able to easily communicate, we could say with Anna’s help.

I’ve also been going to the parish archives a few hours each week. Just when I think I’m fed up with this genealogy hobby, some new challenge will present itself, and I get obsessed with solving it. I’ve discovered many more relatives through my DNA test, and once I know someone is related and that their ancestors came from the Valdinievole region, I want to hunt down the paper connection.

In the past few months, I’ve connected online with Judi, a fifth cousin who lives in California (common ancestor Petrocchi); Eileen, Robert and Alfred, third cousins from Illinois (Spadoni); Gregg, a 15th cousin from Oregon (Spadoni); Karen, a 5th cousin from Puyallup (Montanelli); and John Steven, a third cousin from Illinois (Capocchi/Montanelli). I also met in person a couple of weeks ago Sauro Spadoni, a third cousin who is a hair stylist in Chiesina Uzzanese.

It may be strange, but somehow making connections with people from both past and present lives who share a bit of history and DNA is moving. When I gave Gregg information about his ancestors, he wrote back: "I just cannot express enough my gratitude for this. How incredible! My mother was in tears when I shared this information. Thank you so very much, truly."

We know the pace of our lives will pick up drastically when we start receiving visits from friends and relatives in a few weeks, so right now we feel quite comfortable just living our lives as normal Italians. A few days ago, a funeral procession, complete with a band playing a lugubrious melody, walked down the main street and passed below our windows. Lucy and I walk to the library regularly to use their free wifi to do our online Italian lessons. We watched Hacksaw Ridge at the cinema in Pescia.
One big difference between our two homes is the view out of my office windows, this being the one in Italy. Lucy has a view on the opposite side, which looks out over the city wall toward Lucca. Her view is the one we usually show, with the trees and sunsets, but this side has its appeal as well.

So for now, life in Italy is not much different from life in America—until we look out the windows, walk down the street or drive to the market. We’ve grown comfortable, but I don’t think we’ll ever grow so accustomed to this place that we’ll forget what a blessing it is. It’s a great feeling to be so at home in both Montecarlo and Gig Harbor.