Monday, February 28, 2011

Is it bedtime now, or time for dinner?

Friday, February 25
I am not a night person, which is another hindrance to my quest to become more Italian. Tonight we ride in San Salvatore for pizza at what seems here to be everyone’s favorite pizzeria, Bar Grazia. In reality, there are only two restaurants here, but Bar Grazia also seems to have about five times the number of customers as the other restaurant. It is 6:30 p.m. Friday, and a popular pizza place would be packed at this hour in the state, but not here. A handful of customers come and go, picking up pizzas to go, but we are the only customers dining in.

Two weeks ago, we came here at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, and the place was overflowing; we had to wait nearly an hour to get a seat, and it was still packed when we left at 10 p.m. We might not have been inclined to wait so long had it not been so entertaining to watch the people. One family in particular made Lucy’s eyes tear up. The group consisted of ten people of various ages, including two or three women in their eighties. We could surmise, by the relaxed familiarity the group enjoyed, that these women were an important part of this family. We couldn’t tell if this was an ordinary night out or a special occasion, but we were impressed by how normal it seemed for the young, old and middle-aged of this group to relax together. Lucy couldn’t help but think of her parents, who moved far away to retire in Arizona but missed out on these familiar interactions with children and grandchildren—and likewise how the children and grandchildren missed out as well.

We stood waiting with other groups of Italians, and there was no hostess to take our names so that we could be seated in the order that we arrived, and we wondered if we would be overlooked among all these people who had probably been here before and knew what they were doing. We felt a little intimidated among such a throng, but we decided to wait it out, watch the crowds and see what would happen. We were there not just to eat but to learn. It was also fascinating to watch the slim thirty-something waitress moving rapidly between the kitchen and the tables. She moved with remarkable alacrity and grace, stopping only to take orders and share a smile with customers. Despite her frenetic pace, she never seemed frazzled or impatient, and after we stood waiting for thirty minutes, she came over to us and took our order so our pizzas could be made while we continued to wait.

Once we had been seated and tried the pizza, we could see why the place was so packed. Italian cooking is supposed to be simple, but that shouldn’t mean skimping on pizza toppings, as some pizza places here do. Our toppings were abundant and flavorful. Ten years ago, when I ordered olives as a topping, I received maybe four green olives, whole, with pits still inside. I had to scrape off the olive onto the pizza myself. At Bar Grazia, the olives were cut up, spread out and of satisfactory quantity.

Tonight, though, there are few people to watch, and we linger and have a dolce called mattonella, a delicious triangle of partially frozen panna cotta with pine nuts and drizzled with chocolate and strawberry syrup.

We leave at 7:30 p.m., and the place has picked up a little, but the big crowds will not come for another half hour, just about the time many Italian restaurants in America are closing. I remember going to a bowling alley with some friends in Padova. We met at the alley at 10 p.m. Friday, and the place was empty. I made a comment that it didn’t look like American bowling had caught on in Italy, but I was wrong. When we left at midnight, every lane was full and many more people were milling around at the bar or playing billiards. I just wasn’t accustomed to how much later in the evening Italians do things. Now I know, but that doesn’t mean I am not still sometimes surprised or amazed.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We find our very own Seghieris!


Friday, February 25
Today starts as an ordinary day, taking the train to Lucca going to class, buying three really scrumptious chocolate fritelle that I am fast becoming addicted to and riding home on the train while munching on my fritelle. Actually, I get off one stop early, Altopascio, to see if I can obtain a birth certificate for my dad’s uncle Roger, but the Municipio is closed (it is only open 3.5 hours a day).

When I get home, Lucy suggests we take a walk, and as always, I’m glad I listened to her, because what happens during the walk fulfills one of my goals for coming to San Salvatore, making this day one of the very best since we arrived here! We walk past what we have come to call the Seghieri house, the one that kept getting added onto and once had 42 Seghieris living in it, according to Libero Seghieri. We hear the voice of Ivo Seghieri talking loudly to someone, and we greet him. He waves his hand at the man he is talking to and tells us, “Lui e anche Seghieri.” He looks to be about my age, and he introduces himself as Fausto Seghieri.

“Do you live here?” Lucy asks in Italian, pointing to the Seghieri house.

“No, but I was born there,” he says. “Now my father lives next door. He is Mario Seghieri.”

Ah, the bright yellow new-ish house next door. We have seen that it has the name Mario Seghieri on the gate, and I have been wanting to meet Mario ever since I met Francesca Seghieri at the shop where we bought our bicycles. Francesca had told me that her grandfather’s name was Bruno Seghieri, which interested me because there was a Bruno in our family tree, the nephew of my great-grandfather Torello. But she didn’t know the name of Bruno’s father or any of Bruno’s brothers and sisters, so there is no way to confirm if her Bruno is the one I am looking for. She suggested that someday I should meet her Uncle Mario, who would know more about the family history, but I have not had time to follow up on this, and I am not even sure that the Mario Spadoni who lives practically next door to us is the same one Francesca was talking about.

Now I ask Fausto if his dad is the uncle of Francesca, the one who sells bicycles. Yes, it is the same one. Francesca is Fausto’s cousin.

“Will you still be here in five minutes?” I ask, explaining that I want to get my family tree info.

Certo,” he replies.

When I return with my documents, I hit the jackpot. Fausto recognizes some of the names on my tree, and he takes me next door to meet his dad and mom. Mario confirms even more names. Yes, his father was Bruno, and his grandfather was Natale, who was the brother of my great-grandfather Torello. Siamo cugini! We are cousins! We have found the missing link.

So Bruno and my grandmother Anita were first cousins. That would make my dad and Mario second cousin, and Fausto and I are third cousins. Put another way, Fausto and I have the same great-great grandfather, Seghiero Seghieri, born in 1818.

Mario shocks us when he tells us he will be eighty-seven in two weeks. I would have guessed he was in his early or mid-seventies. He appears to be in excellent health, as does his wife Loretta, who looks five to ten years younger than Mario. I hope I inherited the same strong genes. Fausto says he will write down additional information about Bruno’s family for us, and I hope it will lead to further discoveries of how the other Seghieris we have met fit in to our family tree.

We talk for about ten minutes, and when we leave, we say we will see you again.

“Certainly,” says Mario. “We are always here.”

Moving along the wake of the propeller


Wednesday, February 23
Whenever I look at the Ellis Island records, I am impressed by the boldness of the emigrants who left everything to come foreign lands full of strange people who don’t welcome strangers. Today we go to a special exhibit at Lucca’s Palazzo Ducale called Lungo la Scia di un’Elica, or along the wake of the propeller. It tells the story of the massive exodus of Italians during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The country lost 26 million of its most ambitious citizens, with 5.7 million coming to the United States. Another 4.5 million went to Argentina and Brazil. Many took an easier route and went to France (4.4 million), Switzerland (4 million) and Germany (2.5 million). In the 1800s, South America was more popular, because people there spoke Spanish and Portuguese, easier languages for Italians to learn than English. Then because it was cheaper and closer, the focus switched to North America, and it was during the period between 1890 and 1920 that thousands of Lucchese came to the United States, my grandparents and other relatives included.

At the exhibition, we first see photos and displays showing the extreme poverty faced by peasant farmers of Italy—primitive farming tools and household furniture, animals living inside houses among the people, families gathered inside their large fireplaces to keep warm and children without shoes in crowded and chilly schoolrooms. Then we see the advertisements that lured the foreigners to pull up their roots—promises of land, wealth, opportunity and adventure. For those who followed the lure of adventure, we see samples of documents such as passports, ship logs and booklets instructing emigrants how to survive in the various new worlds.

We then walk through a narrow hallway/gangplank into the lower decks of a simulated ship, where we see how the third class passengers lived. Rows of roughly built bunk beds are packed tightly together. Personal possessions are stowed in gunny sacks, as few emigrants could afford the luxury of a suitcase or trunk. The lights have been turned low and we hear the throbbing of a ship’s engine to give us an idea what it must have been like to sit below decks with nothing to do for many weeks. Fortunately for us, the exhibit does not try to replicate the odors of stagnant water and sweaty bodies, and we don’t see any rats, but we do see photos of passengers sitting in near darkness on boxes and makeshift chairs, looking utterly bored and unable to find comfortable positions in which to rest.

After arrival in the new lands, the paradise that was shown in the brochures takes on a different look. Those who are too old, too young or too unhealthy are examined and sent back to Europe, sadder and even more impoverished than when they started. Those who survive the examination start at the lowest levels of society, often selling cheap items in portable stands, much like the African and Eastern European immigrants we see all over Italy today. The newcomers also faced discrimination and ethnic stereotyping. One painting shows bullies smashing the statues that a Italian boy was selling on the streets. Newspaper editorial cartoons sometimes depicted Italians as looking like rats or monkeys being dumped out of ships onto the streets. But of course they banded together to not
only survive but to thrive. And some of
them, now that their families are well established and secure, want to return to this remarkable land that their grandparents left behind. This last observation is not part of the exhibition, but here I am, almost as if I were a part of the show, drawn back to Italy by some unseen force.

----------------------
More pigs. This one is inside the house.




Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Pazzi by any other name . . .

Big Bellies butcher shop.
Tuesday, February 22
While cruising through Italian streets and alleys, I love to look at and say aloud the names on the doorways. So many Italian names have a beautiful sound, and while not all of them have a meaning in today’s language, many of them do have meaning, or at least sound very close to words that have meaning. It is true that in English we have our Millers, Smiths and Sawyers, but Italian surnames are a hundred times more diverse, and I find them fascinating.


Even in America, people of Italian descent gain attention for their names. Texas Rangers catcher Jerrod Saltalamacchia has the distinction of having the longest surname in the history of Major League Baseball. And it doesn’t take Google translation service to figure out the true meaning of pitcher Antonio Bastardo’s name (although his may be of Spanish origin). I once had a student named Salsiccia, which translates as sausage.

The Corriere della Sera reports that Italy has more surnames than any other country, around 350,000, many more than China, though China has 22 times more people. Further, the ten most popular names in Italy account for only 1 percent of the names.
Some of the names I have personally encountered on the streets or in books, with translations provided:
Malfatto—Badly made
Pazzi—Crazy people
Mezzadonna—Half woman
Grassi—Fat people
Ciechi—Blind people
Pancioni—Big bellies
Mangiaratti—Eat rats
Bugiardini—Little liars
Lunatici—Moody people (not lunatics)
Quattrocchi—Four eyes


Of course it is easy for me to laugh at strange surnames, because I have pretty much the coolest one of all, Spadoni, which not only sounds great but means big swords. My grandmother’s name was Seghieri, which the family believes mean sawyers, not quite as swashbuckling but at least very normal. However, there was a branch of the Seghieri family with the hyphenated last name of Seghieri-Bizzarri, which means pretty much what you would guess, bizarre people, or perhaps bizarre sawyers.

Many names are not so much insulting as they are cute or silly, such as these that I found online:
Malinconico—Melancholy
Tagliabue—Ox cutter
Bellagamba—Beautiful leg
Caporaso—Shaved head
Falaguerra—Make war
Acquistapace—Buy peace (perhaps a neighbor of the previously named)
Mezzasalma—Half cadaver
Mangialaglio—Eat the garlic
Pelagatti—Skin cats (wonder if he knew more than one way)


Apparently, there is an entire book, Mal Comune Mezzo Gaudio, written about strange Italian last names. I think the name translates something like “trouble shared is trouble halved.” The author has perused phone books to come up with some bizarre but true names. I have not seen the book, but according to online sources, some of the names are quite insulting and others downright obscene. So before I continue, I must warn you that this next section is rated R for mature audiences only.
Inutile—Useless
Fanciullacci—Bad children
Culetto—Little ass
Tetta—Tit
Troia—Slut
Chiappe—Buttocks
Cazzoni—Big penises
I guess the only thing worse than being called Cazzoni would be to have the name Cazzini.

So where do these crazy names come from? How could people give themselves such names, and why don’t they just change them? The story I most often hear is that many people didn’t have last names until the time of the Napoleonic occupation, when a census was taken and everyone had to have last names. The census takers could assign last names to people as they wished, and if somebody ticked off a census taker or didn’t pay a bribe, he could end up with a rotten surname. This sounds logical, and I’ve heard it from several sources, though not from any official historians, but it makes the most sense to me.

I have also heard that the Italian judicial system makes it very difficult to obtain a name change. The webmaster of the website beginningwithi.com states that he had a friend “who worked in the office in Rome where name changes are (rarely) approved. He told us the most egregious case he ever came across was the name Ficarotta. The change was allowed.” Rotta means broken. Fica is a crude word for female genitalia. Sorry, I warned you this section was R rated. And even though the change was allowed, there are still large numbers of people with the original, unchanged name.

It is ironic that Italy not only frowns on name changes but also has laws that restrict boys from having girls’ names and vice versa. And there was a famous case of a child born in 2006 in Genoa whom the parents wanted to name Venerdi’, Friday. The courts disallowed the name because it would be “uncomfortable for the child and future adult, easily exposing him to a sense of ridicule, because of the appeal to the literary character (a subservient native in Robinson Crusoe).” Interestingly enough, most Italians seem to agree with the court ruling, which would probably not be the case in America. Perhaps Italians have a greater sense of decorum, or they are more used to submitting to government red tape.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A chance encounter with Ivo

Monday, Feb. 21
Much of our time is taken up with commuting to Lucca, going to our lessons, and then engaging in school activities in the afternoon. Today there is no afternoon activity, so we do some grocery shopping. I am able to get an EsseLunga “fidaty” card, similar to what all the grocery stores in America have. It allow us to get discounts on some items and also to build credits towards reduced price special products such as some crystal glasses that we see pictured on a sign in the store. I needed to have my codice fiscale (like a social security number) to fill out the form for my fidaty card, and I still don’t have an actual card with my codice fiscale. However, there is an Italian website that can tell you what your number will be, because it is all based on a formula related to your date of birth, place of birth, etc. Since I know that I will be registered in Pescia, I was able to input my information and get a number, which is almost as good as having the card itself.

Just before dark, we take a walk on our street, via Mattonaia, and go past the long house where we had earlier hoped to rent a room. For the first time since we moved here, we see Ivo Seghieri, whom we had met last spring. He is feeding his chickens, and we are delighted to see him, because of all the older people we met here last year, he was the friendliest and easiest to understand. We talk to him for five minutes and do OK, understanding a large part of what he says, but we are disappointed to find that he doesn’t actually live here. We have seen his car parked here often, but that’s because he has chickens and a garden here. His brother Fabbio, whom we have not met, lives in one of the apartments. Ivo’s wife is visiting their son in Moscow and will be gone for another month, Ivo thinks.

One of the reasons we came to this particular spot was to get to know people like Ivo, and so far we have not made much progress. But we also know that before we can do this, we have to be able to speak the language much better than we do now, so we must be patient and continue on our present course.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A parking lot and another big bad pig


Saturday, February 19
In the morning, I ride to the train station and meet my cousin Monica Spadoni Freshley, who lives in Washington state but is studying in Firenze with Gonzaga University. We go the bar and I order my usual, cioccolata calda, while she has a caffe' latte, which comes in two parts, a class of milk and a shot glass of espresso. It is different than the cafe latte she receives in Firenze, but she pours the espresso into the milk and seems satisfied with the results.

I have brought my laptop along because it has four scanned photos that American cousin Roland has given me. The photos were taken in 1969, when the casa of my nonno still existed. Monica and I peruse the photos and compare them to existing buildings in San Salvatore. A key landmark in the photo is a service station, which also no longer exists but was once very close to the Casa Spadoni. We figure out that the very bar we are sitting in was formerly the service station. That means that the casa should be right . . over there . . . where there is now a parking lot. Monica takes a photo, but the parking lot is so non-descript that I have no interest in doing the same.

After taking Monica on a short tour of the sights of Montecarlo and San Salvatore, we go back to the agriturismo and have a marvelous multi-course pranzo that Lucy has been working on all morning. Then it is off to Lucca, where the three of us take in a children's play, I Tre Piccoli Lupi e il Grande Maile Cattivo. It is actually a one-man show done with marionettes and hand puppets. It is very well done and entertaining, even for the adults. The best part is, we Americans can all understand it because the Italian words are basic and expressed dramatically. It makes me feel like we are making some progress with our language learning. The show is a take-off on the Three Little Pigs, only this time the pig is big and bad, and the wolves are small. But I don't want to spoil the story for you; you'll just have to come to Lucca and see it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Barga and Borgo a Mozzano: Attack of the devil pig at Ponte del Diavolo!

Friday, February 18
After class today, we stay in Lucca for a language school trip to the Garfagnana city of Barga. We stop along the way at Borgo a Mozzano to see an amazing medieval stone bridge across the Serchio River called Ponte del Diavolo. It was begun around 1100, and it is said that the man contracted to build the bridge was in despair because, despite his many days of feverish toil, the project was far behind schedule. He had promised the people of the village it would be completed on time, and now he faced shame and discredit for his failure. The devil appeared to him and promised to complete it in one night in exchange for the soul of the first person to cross the finished bridge. The builder accepted, and the stunning bridge was completed.

The builder told the people of the village not to cross the bridge until he returned, and he set off to Lucca to seek the advice of the bishop, St. Frediano. Returning with the bishop’s wise advice, the builder sent a pig across first. The devil, furious at having been tricked, threw himself into the waters of the Serchio and he
has not been seen in the area since.


A good story, though this bridge really doesn’t need any embellishing. How did they get the top of this arch bridge to stay upright during the construction phase? I understand that an arch bridge, when completed, is very strong because the bridge deck pushes against the river’s banks, which can’t be moved. But when the bridge is only partly completed, what holds it up? I suppose some kind of scaffolding, but it’s a long way down to the river bed.

In any event, we go up on top to take a better look but are chased off by an onrushing enraged pig and have to beat a hasty retreat to the car. Where did that come from? OK, just kidding about the pig.

Barga is just your typical gorgeous Italian hillside village, complete with intricate stonework, narrow alleys, arching bridges, ancient plane trees, weathered wooden doors, a towering duomo and quaint shops. Also typical is the public bagno that is troppo sporco e puzzo for the wo-
men in our group to use. In order to use a clean bathroom, we go into a bar and order some capucchino and hot chocolate and rest for a moment.


We find an interesting sign that reminds of our family trip in 2002 to Finale Ligure. As we walked up and down the steep stairs there, we saw signs that said, “Se sporca il tuo cane, pulisci per favore.” Previously we had only known the word sporca to be used as an adjective that meant dirty, so we all initially thought the signs were saying, “If your dog is dirty, clean it please.” This seemed like a strange request to put on a sign. After further thought, I figured out that sporcare must also be a verb, so it meant, “If your dog dirties, clean up the remains, please.”

Here in Barga, they don’t want any misunderstandings from stupid Americans who keep bathing their dogs in the street every time they pass the signs, so they created a graphic, which has to be seen to be appreciated. This artful sign will undoubtedly soon become the international symbol for clean up your dog’s poop!


Saturday, February 19, 2011

The little train experiment

Thursday, February 17
It seems that every train trip we take, we have a different controllore, train conductor. After my morning experience with the gung-ho controllore who explained all about tickets for bicycles, followed by the afternoon controllore who didn't even want to see my bike tickets, I have decided to do a little experiment. Whenever a controllore comes through asking to see biglietti, I will show my regular ticket but won't show my bike ticket unless specifically asked. So far not one has asked.
Of course we only get asked to show our regular ticket maybe once every five trips, probably because we are only on the train for 20 minutes. The train goes between Lucca and Firenze, which takes about an hour and a half, so they might check tickets only during the middle of the trip.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Citizen Spadoni

Wednesday, February 16
Ari took me to the Questura in Pescia this week to see if I can get an Italian passport. The Questura is a branch of the police that deals with permits and documents for foreigners. I have vivid memories of the Questura in Padova, because in 2001-02, Lucy and I made six fruitless trips to the Questura in a vain attempt to get a permesso di soggiorno, permission to stay in Italy for an extended time. I will write about this struggle on another day. Today begins a new battle.

About ten days prior before we came, I received the welcome news from the Italian Consulate in San Francisco that my application for Italian citizenship had been approved, after more than ten years of efforts—again a long story that I will save for another day.

Today I have in my hands a letter stating that my citizenship has been recognized and my documents have been sent to my nonno’s birthplace, Pescia, to be recorded. The letter further states that I can go to San Francisco to obtain my passport, which will require a photograph and fingerprinting. I don’t have time to fly to San Francisco, so I decide I will see if I can get a passport in Pescia.

I already have an American passport, of course, so why do I even want an Italian passport? Well, I could now work here legally, unlike ten years ago, when I was paid under the table. I have no plans to get a job, but someday maybe my children or grandchildren may want to, so I have obtained my citizenship partly to benefit them. But it would also make it easier for me to buy property or a car here, and those are things that I may want to do some day. And then there is the inner satisfaction of feeling that I belong here, that I am more than just a visitor here, that I am of here. I know I will never speak Italian without an accent, never understand all the figures of speech, hand gestures and customs—but for some reason, deep inside I have always been fiercely proud of my heritage. I don’t really know why, because my dad never made a big deal of it. If anything, it might have come from my sister and brother, who spent their early years living in my grandparents’ house with Nonno, Dad and Mom. Linda and Roger were proud to be Italian, and they had a relationship with Nonno that I had missed out on, which could have increased my longing for this connection.

So here I am at the Questura with Ari, who has lived in Italy since he was thirteen and knows the officers personally. He has brought me here in the late afternoon because he knows they will not be busy, and together they pore over my letter from the Consulate. After a ten-minute conversation, they determine that I am in the wrong place. I must first get a certificate of citizenship from the Comune before I can apply for a passport. The Comune is closed now, but Ari will go there tomorrow and make some inquiries and give me a call. His wife used to work there and he assures me that he knows almost everyone there.

Some of the discussion at the Questura I am able to understand. I find out it will cost about 100 euros to get a passport, and then about 50 euros per year to keep it active. This is why Ari, who is also a dual citizen, only has an American passport. In Italy, he just uses his Italian identity card. Hmm, this sounds like a good idea to me. Can I do this too? Maybe. But to get an ID card, I must have the dimora, proof of residency. An agriturismo is a place for tourists, not residents, so our current address won’t do for our dimora. Do I have some cousins here, one of the officers asks. Maybe I could use their address. Yes, there is Enrico and his family. I don’t truly live there, but if that will be good enough for the Questura, it sounds fine to me. I am definitely in favor of saving money, and the only real advantage of a passport instead of an identity card is that I could go to Cuba with a passaporto italiano. Admittedly it would sound cool to say, “When I was in Cuba last year . . .,” but the reality is I have no desire to go there.

Ari takes me back to my apartment. I have come up empty on my first effort, but it is what we expected—it will take time. The next morning I get a phone call from Ari. He is at the Commune, they have located the documents from San Francisco and it will take about ten days to enter everything into their database. Ari will call me again when that is done, and we will go from there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The train that wasn’t

Tuesday, February 15
We have an afternoon activity with our school today, a visit to a museum to see a show on emigration. When our language class ends at 12:15, we decide to head home for lunch and then take the train back at 3:00 for the activity, which starts at 3:30. But at 3:05, the loudspeaker announces that our train is cinque minuti in ritardo. We wonder where the person is who is making this announcement, since our station has been closed and locked for quite a few years. Perhaps in the nearby station in Pescia, or maybe in Lucca or Firenze. Five minutes later, the same announcement comes on. It is already 3:10, so it looks like the train will be a total of 15 minutes late. But at 3:15, we get the same announcement. We try to call the school to let Angelo know what is going on, but I can only speak to the segretaria telefonica, an answering machine. I don’t have a cell number for Angelo. Then at 3:25, the announcer says the train has been cancellato, canceled. “Mi dispiace per il disagio,” he says. Sorry for the inconvenience. We could wait another half hour for the next train, but by the time we get to Lucca, our activity will be nearly finished. This is our first real disappointment in more than two weeks, and it is minor in the grand scale of life. We love the fact that in our tiny town, we can catch a train to go all over the country, even all over Europe, but the reality is that not even the usually reliable train service is perfect.

We head home and drown our sorrows in a scrumptious full course dinner that Lucy cooks up, thanks to the extra time she now has. Meno male. Not really so bad.

Shopping in a different style

Monday, February 14
We go to Lucca early today so we can go to the negozio di sport that we saw last week near the Coop. We need to buy a second bike helmet, and this store looked promising, based on some of the items we saw in the window. It had been closed after we finished shopping at Coop last week. Following normal Italian business practices, it closed from 12:30-3:30 in the afternoon. This is something I think I will never remember, but Lucy has it down quite well. I will say something like, “We can always go there after lunch,” and she will remind me that stores close here at 1 p.m. Most then re-open at 3 or 3:30 p.m. and close again anywhere between 5 and 7 p.m.

Another difference is that stores and restaurants are not big on names. There may be a large sign that says Pizzeria, but the actual name of the pizzeria is usually small, if it has one at all. Our favorite pizzeria in Padova we called “Sempre Aperto,” because that was the only sign we could see on the outside other than the word pizzeria. We later noticed on the menu that it said Pizzeria da Nadia, but by that time it was too late; it will forever be Sempre Aperto to us. And in case you are wondering, sempre aperto means always open, even though it wasn’t really. It had normal pizzeria hours, except that it was open seven days a week.

The negozio di sport is not the real name of the store we are going to today either, but we have been calling it that because we saw sports items for sale in the window and have been trying to plan our schedules for the past busy week. Now we see that it is called, as we ride up on our bikes and chain them to a post, Mercatone Uno, Big Market One. To our surprise, it lives up to its name quite well. It looks small from the front, but actually it is a large department store with an unusual design. It consists of about 10 different rooms, each attached to the next, and each room has one large entrance and one large exit. As you exit one room, you enter the next. We pass about 30 brand new motorcycles in the first room, and then rows and rows of power tools in the next room, followed by a large electronics section, where I try to pick out a DVD as a Valentine’s Day present for Lucy without her noticing, but she sees me and helps me pick out the right one, or rather ones: Eclipse, and You’ve Got Mail. These will have been dubbed into Italian, which will help us learn the language, and we will be able to turn on subtitles in either English or Italian. Then there are some household rooms, where Lucy buys a water purifier, and a laundry basket.

I have just about given up on the bike helmets by now, but wait, there is another room, and here are bikes and accessories, and we get a helmet and some bike lights. Now it is time to check out, but where? There were people back at a counter by the entrance, in the motorcycle section, so we walk back there, but there is no cashier. We walk all the way back to the household section, all the time looking for a checkout station. None. We ask the clerk who had helped Lucy earlier with the water purifier. “La cassa, dov’e?”

Al fondo, poi a destra,” he says. So we walk back past the bikes, which we thought had been the very end of the maze, but no, there is another opening, leading into still more rooms and still more products. By now we are so focused on finding the checkout counter that we don’t notice what is in these last two rooms. We finally find the checkout counter and exit the store at a point only about 30 feet away from the entrance. What we have been through is a grande mazzino, a department store somewhat like a K-Mart, but it has been designed so that customers will pass through every section, and each room seems more intimate, like a specialty store for just a certain type of product. I have not been in an IKEA, but I have been told the floor plan in IKEA stores is something like this, only IKEA stores have shortcuts to the end. I don’t think this is a typical Italian store, but it still says something about Italy, where style and design reign supreme. In America, every department store has very much the same basic design. If an architect suggested something like Mercatone Uno in America, it would be dismissed as an interesting thought; no executive would dare approve a store this radically different, and indeed, American customers are accustomed to a certain sameness in their stores and probably wouldn’t tolerate such a design.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our new church home: the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese in Lucca


Sunday, February 13
Where to go to church? Though I grew up as a Catholic, I made a personal commitment to God when I was 17, and since then I have preferred churches that emphasize personal prayer and Bible reading--overall a more personal relationship with God. Since then I have attended mostly independent protestant churches. Lucy’s experience has been similar. That being said, we gave serious thought to attending the local Catholic Church here, partly for the convenience of not having to take a train, and partly to become more a part of the local community. However, considering that we want to continue coming here for many years, we felt we needed to find a community where we could worship and learn in a way that met our spiritual needs instead of attending for social or convenience reasons.

So off we go today on the train to one of only two protestant churches we are able to locate in the entire Lucca area, the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese, or in English, Waldensian Evangelical Church. We found this church on the Internet and were interested to see that although it is classified as a protestant church, it actually predates the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther. It has existed for around 1000 years, centering mostly in Northern Italy and Southern France.

The Sunday service reminds us very much of the traditional American mainline protestant services that Lucy and I attended 35 years ago at Rosedale Union Church. We sing traditional hymns from bound hymnals, some Bible passages are read, and then comes a sermon and communion. About 40 people of mixed ages attend today. We arrive about ten minutes before the service starts, and several men come up to introduce themselves, as does the pastor, Domenico Maselli. Given our limited language abilities, we can say little beyond that we are Americans who will be living here for three months, but we are made to feel welcome. After the service, we meet a few more people, including Domenico’s wife, Jole, who gives us her phone number in case she can be of any help. I estimate that I recognize maybe a quarter of the words of the sermon, not enough to really understand, but by knowing what Bible verses il pastore is teaching from, we can get a general idea. He also speaks slowly and clearly, unlike the TV news programs we sometimes try to watch, where the announcers speak hopelessly rapidamente. It will be interesting to see how much we'll be able to understand in a couple of months.

One inconvenience of living in a little town is the lack of regular train service. The trains go through our town quite often, but only some of them stop. We can not catch a train from Lucca to San Salvatore until 3:40 p.m., though we find trains that leave for Pescia at 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. We stop at a bookstore in Lucca and Lucy buys some cookbooks, and then we take the 1:30 to Pescia, which passes San Salvatore without stopping. We shop at the EsseLunga for 45 minutes and then take a 2:52 from Pescia that goes back to San Salvatore, arriving only four minutes later at 2:56. As we make the ten-minute bike ride home, we experience our first rainstorm in two weeks. We had bought new raincoats in the U.S. before coming here, but we have been lulled into a sense of false security because it never seems to rain. Now we arrive home cold and damp, but it was not a heavy downpour, so it could have been much worse. We vow that we will be ready next time.
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UPDATE: After attending this church for about five years, we found another Protestant church much closer to Montecarlo and San Salvatore. Now we go the Chiesa Evangelica di Altopascio: http://livingwithabroadintuscany.blogspot.it/2017/03/we-have-stumbled-across-our-church-home.html

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Looking backwards

Saturday, February 12
In previous trips here, I have obtained certificati di nascita, birth certificates, for my nonno and nonna, as well as their certificato di matrimonio. I also have certificati di morto, death, for my bisnonni, great-grandparents. Now I want to get certificati di nascita for my nonna’s brothers and sisters, and two of my nonno’s nephews, all of whom came to America shortly after my grandparents did. This requires a trip to the municipo in Montecarlo, about two miles away, at least half of it uphill. Lucy decides to take a much needed rest, as we have been biking and hiking a lot lately. The last mile is too steep for me to ride, so I arrive in the city huffing and puffing and pushing my bike.

I have written out the names and dates of birth for the people whose documents I am seeking, and I obtain four out of five of what I am after. My nonna, Anita Seghieri, had two brothers and a sister, and I get certificates for her sister Rosa and one brother, Seghiero. In America, Rosa was known to all as Rosina, and Seghiero as Uncle Jim, because there is no English equivalent for Seghiero. His middle name was Giacondo, which perhaps could be loosely translated into Jim. Uncle Roger, whose given name was either Ruggero or Ruggiero, is not to be found here in Montecarlo, and the clerk suggests I try nearby Altopascio.

I also find certificates for Adolfo and Alfredo Spadoni, but with a surprising twist for Adolfo. I had already suspected something unusual was up about his real name because when he came to America in 1913, the ship’s log listed him as Giovanni Spadoni. When I told his son Roland about this, Roland said, “They must have written his name down wrong.” But now I have in my hand Adolfo’s official birth certificate, stamped by the Comune where he was born, and it says his name was Giovanni Alfredo Adolfo Spadoni. Many Italians of this era only have first and last names, so it highly unusual to have three names in addition to the surname. Maybe because he was the first-born male, his parents thought they should use all their favorite names at once, just in case they didn’t have any more male children. But then, two years later, his parents had another boy, and they named him simply Alfredo, with no middle name. In any event, when Giovanni Alfredo Adolfo came to America in 1913, he was simply Adolfo or later Adolf, and not even his own son knew he had two other names.

I have less success trying to run down some other family information. I am trying to find some Seghieri descendent here that I can officially tie to my own family tree. This is not easy, because all of my nonna’s siblings went to America, and I have to find descendents of her parents’ brothers and sisters. I know my great grandfather was named Torello Seghieri and my great grandmother was Ines Capocchi. I have met six Seghieris about my age or older, but so far only Libero Seghieri knows the name of his great grandfather, and he was not one of Torello’s brothers. It seems that the extended Seghieri family has been in this area so long that some of them don’t know how they are related to their own neighbors, even though they share the same surname. In fact, other than Libero, I seem to be the only one who cares to find out.

I give the clerk the name of Torello’s brothers and ask if she has any way to look up their descendents. That isn’t the way the Municipio works, though. If I can give her a name and date of birth or death, she can look up a certificate, but there is not a way to look up a person and see a list of children. Well, there is a possibility, because the Municipio has copied documents from the local church that do show offspring, but not every family has their records listed with the church. She looks up the names I give her and finds nothing. That’s all I can do for today, unless I can give her more information. Theoretically, she could look in her indexes for every year and find every Seghieri that was born in Montecarlo, but she doesn’t volunteer to do this, and I think it is too much to ask, so I leave.

On the way out of town, I decide to take a different road, and I find the town cemetery. I can’t find the grave markers for Torello or Ines, but I find some other Seghieris, including a very elaborate marker inside the chapel for Cavaliere Avvocato Simone Seghieri-Bizzarri, 1811-1880. I do an internet search later and find a Francesco Seghieri-Bizzarri, who is listed in the book Enciclopedia Storico-Nobiliare Italiana as from a nobile family of nearby Pescia, only a few miles east of here.

After this, I zip down the hill and pass through Marginone, where I find another cemetery. This one has a couple of Spadonis and Seghieris, and I do a double-take when I see a marker, with photo, for Ines Capocchi, my great-grandmother. But on closer examination, it is not her. The date of birth is 30 years too late, and she was married to someone else, not Torello Seghieri. This only serves to point out how difficult it will be to track down anyone I can truly prove is a cousin. These families have all been here so long, and they all like to use the same first names. When I was looking at the Ellis Island records, I found four different people named Guido Spadoni, all from this region and all about the same age, who emigrated to America from 1906 to
1911. And that doesn’t include the Guido Spadonis of the same era who stayed in this locale.

I know I should probably just adopt the attitude of Alberto Spadoni, a real estate agent I met here a few years ago.

“We’re all related in some distant way,” he said about the local Spadonis, “but there are so many of us, it’s impossible to keep track of how.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sweet water and sweat




Friday, February 11
Whenever we pull into the stazione at Lucca, we see a sort of round tower on the south side, but it is not a normal tower with windows. It is larger than the average tower and looks a bit like a concrete silo, but fatter, and it has pillars around the outside, so it also looks something like a temple.
“Someday we’re going to go over there and find out what that is,” Lucy says.
It turns out that today is someday. The language school has planned an excursion this afternoon that will start at the stazione and will take us past the tower. We are told that we should bring a snack and be prepared to walk for several hours, and that we will see an acquadotto, an aqueduct. We could have asked more questions in advance, but we have determined to go on every activity the school offers, so we figured we’d find out more when we showed up. The afternoon activities are free and have already included a tour of the walled city and a viewing of the Italian movie “Io, loro e Lara.”
We meet Angelo in front of the stazione and he takes us and four other students under the train tracks to the south side, where we walk down a trail called Via del Tempietto, leading us straight to the fat tower. In fact, it turns out that a tempietto is translated as “a small, circular building resembling a minature temple,” and it once was a reservoir marking the end of a towering aqueduct that extends almost unbroken from Lucca into the mountains of Pisa. We had not been able to see the aqueduct from the train because it was hidden behind the tempietto, but it is spectacular and still in very good condition. We hike the length of it, more than three kilometers, which takes about an hour and half. We stop at the top for a snack before heading back.
We learn that the water for the city still follows the same path, but now it is underground. Along the way are many water faucets where we can sample the water. Where the trail crosses a road, cars pull over and Italians hop out with three or four demijohns and fill up with the cool acqua fresca of the mountains. Angelo also tells us that even within the city, there are fountains where people can drink or stock their demijohns for free, which is a rarity for Italian cities.
How does it happen that the aqueduct is still in such good condition? Well, it is not a Roman ruin or even an artifact of the Renaissance. After more than 100 years of planning, good intentions and at least one false start, it was built between 1823 and 1851 under the direction of architect Lorenzo Nottolini. The water passes through layers of stone and gravel at the top to become pure. An unfortunate side story, told to us by Angelo, is that the project bankrupted Prince Charles (Carlo Ludovico, Charles II), the popular ruler of the region, and in 1847, he had to sell Lucca to the province of Tuscany.
About two-thirds of the way into the return hike, Lucy and I realize that if we hurry, we can still catch the 6:39 train. I start to jog so I can unlock our bikes and get them ready to put on the train, while Lucy steps up her pace as well. At the end, she runs too, and we make the train with a minute to spare, albeit dripping with sweat. And then they announce that the train is in ritardo, late, so we wait on the tracks. It turns out to be only five minutes late, so we make it to San Salvatore at seven, tired but very happy we didn’t have to wait an hour for the next train.

Trains, feet and bicycles, part 2

Thursday, February 10
How could I have forgotten this? Italy is the land of bureaucracy, a carry-over from the days of Mussolini, when everything was regulated in order to make the country orderly, proud, magnificent. Italians have so many laws that the government can’t possibly enforce them all, so Italians learn over the years which laws to ignore and which must truly be followed. The rules about bikes on the train, it seems, are mostly ignored on the regionali, but probably strictly enforced on the intercity and Eurostar trains. So what did I forget? That some Italian officials love their laws and want to see them all enforced. We met one such official today, the controllore on our train from San Salvatore to Lucca.

He pulled out his book of regulations and spent 15 minutes of our 20-minute ride explaining the rules about biciclete on the train. It’s not his fault that it took so long, because we made him repeat everything twice so that we could understand it, but he did clear up our confusion and advised us what kind of ticket to buy.

First of all, it really does cost 3.5 euro for a 24-hour bike ticket, as stated on the web site. But if you travel on regionali and outside of l’ora da punto, the rush hour, you can buy the 1.1 euro ticket, as long as you use it after the morning rush hour and then again before the afternoon rush hour begins, so only 1.1 euro per day. Another possibility, he explained, is to buy an abbonamento mensile, a monthly bike pass that costs 27.50 euro and I think allows you to extend into the rush hour, though I’m not completely clear about the hours. In any event, since the first train out of San Salvatore isn’t until 9:02 a.m., we’re definitely good for the morning, and we almost always come back before 5 p.m.

Now that we have seen how great it is to zip around Lucca on bikes, we decide it is well worth the extra expense and we buy our bike tickets when we get to the stazione. When we think about how much it costs to operate a car (and pay for parking in the city every day), it is still a bargain to commute by train and bike.

In the end, the controllore doesn’t make us pay anything today because we tell him we will buy our tickets next time. We do not begrudge him for making us follow the rules, because that’s his job, and he did it very nicely. And besides, it gave us a chance to experience one of the challenges of being Italian, which is a big reason we came.

Ironically, on the trip back this afternoon, we are asked by another controllore to show our tickets. I show him our monthly pass, and then try to show him my new bicycle passes. He makes a little wave motion with his hand and says, “No.” He doesn’t want to see them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Coop is not just a place for chickens

Wednesday, February 9
Our bikes go on the train today with ease and great success! In fact, today marks our ninth and tenth trips on the train, and we have only been asked to show our monthly passes one time so far. After our class, we are able to ride about a mile outside the city walls in just a few minutes to visit Coop, a supermarket even bigger and more modern than EsseLunga. Even though Coop is short for the Italian co-operativa, the Italians all pronounce it cope, with the “o” sound a trifle extended because it is doubled. We tell our language teacher that we would call it a co-op, but it is spelled like the place we keep our chickens in America.

We have shopped at various Coop stores in years past, but we are surprised to see some advances, including a huge section where one can purchase already cooked food, as we are used to seeing in our Gig Harbor Safeway and most other large grocery stores. We also see many foods that we had a hard time finding during our year in Padova. In fact, other than the language difference, Coop looks almost identical now to American supermarkets, which makes becoming an Italian a whole lot easier than it was when foreigners had to shop in one tiny store to get bread, another to get fruit and vegetables and another to get meat. It is strange that Lucy and I come all the way here to experience the uniqueness of the Italian culture and to see what it is like to be Italian, but instead we rejoice when we find a place where we can buy everything at once and much more cheaply than at the individual stores. Coop is packed with Italians, as are all the grocery stores, so not by a long shot are we the only ones choosing convenience and cost over charm and atmosphere. What will happen when all the old ladies in San Salvatore die and no longer shop at Luigi’s macelleria? Coop and EsseLunga sell huge varieties of bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables, too, so who will need the panificio, the fruit vender and all those other little stores that give Italy its special character?

They won’t die out completely, as location, tradition, personal service and charm will still have their appeals, but Italy, just like the rest of the world, is changing, and I have only been coming here for fifteen years. I just count myself as fortunate to have come in time to see a little of what the old country once was like.

Trains, feet and bicycles

Tuesday, February 8
We have been locking our bikes behind Luigi’s macelleria in the morning and then catching the 10:02 train to Lucca and arriving about 10:25. From the stazione in Lucca to our school is twenty minutes a piedi (now that we know the best way), just in time for our 10:45 class. It would take less than ten minutes if we had bikes in Lucca, but the lady at the Pescia stazione told us that we would have to buy a special ticket for a bike, costing 1.1 euro, each way and for each bike, or about $5 a day.

This is different from the information I had found on the official TrenItalia website while still in the states:

Regional trains
On the Urban and Regional trains, marked in the timetables with a icon of a bike, travellers can choose to take their bicycle.
You can buy:
• a ticket of 3.5 euro, only for the bike, which is valid 24 hours from stamping
• a 2nd class ticket for your same travel .
you can carry your bike for free in the appropriate case.

Too expensive and a bit confusing, so I did some searching to see what some real people who actually take the trains in Italy said, looking at forums and blogs. Several people said it didn’t cost anything to take bikes on the regional trains. But now I had asked an official train clerk, in person, the same person who had just sold us our monthly ticket, and although the cost was not as bad as stated on the website, it was too much for our budget.

And so we walk in Lucca, which for the most part is OK inside the walled part of the city, but outside the walls, distances to conveniences such as large supermarkets and malls can be quite far.

But today on the regionale, we see a ragazzo in the little compartment between the train cars holding on to his bicycle.

Costa qualcosa a portare in treno la biciclete?” I ask.

No, niente,” he says.

And once again I have encountered the pain and beauty of the Italian system. It may indeed cost money, or it may not, but it doesn’t matter, because even if it does cost, the controllers on board the train either don’t know or don’t care. Maybe some day I’ll find out the full truth, but the important thing for us is that we can now zip around Lucca about four times as fast. Tomorrow, anyway. We hope.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fried rags and a naked populonia

Monday, February 7
Before we came here, I looked online and found four language schools in Lucca. All of them offered classes for about the same price, and the hours were very similar as well, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., give or take a half hour. Then I looked at the train schedule and found that the first train from San Salvatore to Lucca did not arrive in Lucca until 9:25 a.m., unless we took a train going the opposite direction at 7:16 a.m. and then waited nearly an hour in the Pescia station to take a train arriving at Lucca at 8:30 a.m. I'll pass on that idea. Buses were a possibility, but the bus website proved difficult to navigate, and after a couple of hours of fruitless searching, I decided to write the language schools to see if they ever offered afternoon classes. None did, but all offered private lessons. Then when The Lucca Italian School came back offering us a discount from their stated prices, we accepted. This also allowed us a chance to set the lesson time to match the train schedule, and we decided that having lessons only an hour and half in duration would be more suited to our attention spans.

We head to our first lesson today, riding our biclete usate through the chilly winter morning and past fields of chaff left over from last fall’s harvest. We pass six piles of steaming straw mixed with the harsh odor of chicken manure. A few farmers have started to till their fields for spring planting, but most remain as they were after the harvest. The chaff and manure-coated straw will be tilled in to enrich the soil. The odors here are a mixture of overturned dirt, decaying vegetation and mildly stagnant water. The soil has more clay than my garden at home, and when it rains, the water stays on the surface in some places for many days. The fragrance is both pleasant and foul at the same time, but the knowledge that this combination of dirt, fertilizer and water is going to produce flourishing crops in a few months makes it seem like the fragrance of life.
In Lucca, we meet our teacher, Laura, and talk about ourselves for a bit so she can get an idea of our ability level, and then we review the passato prossimo for the rest of the class. Just as our brains reach the full mark, the class has ended, so the time seems about right.

Instead of heading home, we stay after because the head of the school, Angelo Giannini, is leading a tour of Lucca for all new students at 3:30 p.m. We have three hours to kill, so we find an EsseLunga in Lucca and do our shopping and then sit outside in a playground and eat some lunch while watching three dads and their preschoolers playing on the swings and merry-go-round.

On the tour, we stop at a panificio and then a pizzeria and try some typical Luccese food: cenci di carnevale, torta di verdura, cecina and castagnaccio con ricotta. Cenci we have already been snacking on throughout past week, because it is featured prominently in every panificio during February. It is a Tuscan tradition and is especially popular during the carnevale season. Lucca is only 20 minutes from Viareggio, which has one of the most well known carnevale celebrations in Italy. Cenci is a crunchy and delicious fried bread dusted with sugar. Angelo says that cenchi literally translates as “rags,” so the name comes for the appearance of the folded and fried bread. The torta, also called torta coi becchi, is the typical flat and dry Italian pie with a thin layer of filling. In this case, the filling includes swiss chard and spinach, but it is a dessert rather than part of the meal. It is tasty but not something I would order on my own. The description of cecina is written in English on the blackboard inside Pizza Da Felice: chick pea salted cake. It is made with garbonzo bean flour and olive oil, salt and pepper. It is probably a great health food and at one time provided a lot of protein for the meat-poor contadini, but again it is not something I would choose other than for sentimental reasons. Probably if my nonna had made it, I would want to continue the tradition, but she probably didn’t have ready access to garbonzo bean flour in America. Next to the cenci, my favorite in the sampling is the castagnacci, made with chestnut flour and ricotta. I usually like my dolci soft rather than dry, and the ricotta is probably the ingredient here that appeals to me the most.

Other than the unusual food we sample, the most memorable part of the tour is when we find out that Piazza San Salvatore is known to the locals as Piazza della Populonia, which in the Luccese vernacular translates as piazza of the breast. When we ask why this is so, Angelo points to the statue in the square of a woman who has one breast uncovered.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dolce vita, o vita dura?

Sunday, February 6
Man, the family that runs the agriturismo here really flies in the face of the Italian stereotype of taking life slowly, savoring every moment, enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing. These people have three jobs at one time: renting rooms to guests, farming the flowers and running a restaurant. During the week I was waiting for the wireless to get fixed, I would sneak (with permission) into Luca’s office to use his computer while he was meeting with clients. While I checked my mail, I could overhear him engaged in detailed discussions about what foods the clients wanted at events that were coming up. The discussions continued after I left.

On Wednesday afternoon, Luca’s mother and sister Roberta spent a long time in the kitchen, which is one door away from our apartamento, cooking, frying and baking. Luca and a variety of helpers moved tables and chairs into the smaller of three covered piazzas, and then between 8 and 9 p.m., the traditional time for an Italian dinner, diners came drifting in. It lasted until around midnight. Then last night, another catered meal took place in one of the large piazzas, this one about the size of a basketball court. It went on until at least 1 a.m., probably longer. This morning, Lucy and I went out to look at the piazza. We thought we would find the remains of last night waiting for a clean-up crew today, but instead it looks the same as it had earlier in the week. Not only has it been cleaned but tables and chairs are gone, put back in storage. How long did that take?

It is very quiet here now, as the farm workers have the day off. During the week, we have seen Luca’s father, Enzo, cutting branches into firewood and transporting various items around on puttering tractor. He seems to be in charge of the flower farm, while Luca and Roberta manage the rooms and catering, Enzo’s wife, whom we only know so far as Senora Seghieri (married women in Italy retain their maiden names), is the head cook. Without the workers around, we feel comfortable to take a look at the flower farm. It is impressive in its size and the amount of greenhouses it contains—a half dozen at least, each about the size of a soccer field. The sides are composed of translucent plastic and are entirely closed in for the winter, with doors closed, so we can only peak in a few places. We see a lot of fuzzy green plants, but no flowers now. In fact, we find out by reading the web site that not all of the plants are grown for their flowers but many are bushes raised to be transplanted.

We go back to our room, marveling at the amount of work it must take to maintain all this, and decide to see if we can find more details on the agriturismo web site.

The Casolare dei Fiori is run by the Pasquinelli family, the owner of the homonymous farm. The Pasquinelli family take care of the cultivation of flowers, which has been one of the most important business in the Valdinievole area for two generations. The Pasquinelli farm was established in 1954 by Enzo, the father, who started to cultivate only carnations in summertime. After building some heated nurseries it was possible to cultivate flowers throughout the year. Year after year cultivated products have increased, so do the arable lands and the available nurseries. Now the firm is cultivating about 40 different species: flowers, ornamental plants, decorative branches, and potted plants, spread over a total surface of 20,000 square meters of nurseries and 10,000 square meters outdoor.

That translates into about five acres of plants, about the size of five football fields. We know that to qualify as an agriturismo, the proprietors must maintain a working farm that sells its products. During our other travels here, we have seen some agriturismi that seem to barely qualify, where the accommodations are nice but the farms themselves have grown meager, and the so-called farmers live in the city and only work the land part time, but here the farm is thriving. I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Perhaps everyone in the Pasquinelli family skipped school (to help with the harvest, no doubt) during the lesson on dolce far niente.

We skip going to church our first week because of uncertainty about where to go. We had thought about going to a Wednesday evening service of an international church in Firenze, but now that we look at the train schedule and prices, we think that’s out. It will take more than an hour each way, cost us $20 round trip for two, and, worst of all, the train doesn’t stop at our little city at night. We would have to get off at Pescia, about four miles away, and then figure out how to get home at 11 p.m. Maybe bus or taxi? No, this is just too much already. We could try one of the several local Catholic churches, which would have the advantage of possibly meeting some of the locals, but we don’t feel we would get the spiritual nourishment we are seeking. So we will look up the address of the Valdese church in Lucca and will try it again next Sunday. We went there during spring break two years ago and found it reminded us of a Methodist church service in America from the sixties or seventies: old hymnals, a traditional agenda and sermon, with the congregation mostly on the older side. And of course we had trouble understanding the all-Italian service, but we are here to learn the language, so the more exposure we get, the better.

Polpetta e ragu'

Saturday, February 5
Our first real weekend begins, and we explore a couple of the nearby communities on bicycle. It turns out there is a discount electronics store, Trony, only about a mile away in Ponte Alla Ciliegia, so I am able to buy a printer. We also stop at a macelleria in Chiesina Uzzanese, where Lucy buys some polpetta and ragu', and we have them for dinner tonight. Wow, what flavor in those meatballs and meat sauce! Lucy has always been a great cook, but now she is even better, simply because the ingredients are somehow more pure and robust. Fruits and vegetables are always ripe when picked, so tomatoes, apples, Brussels spouts and so on burst with zesty taste.

Connected

Friday, February 4
Today we take a more relaxing trip to Lucca, just to walk around and get a feel for the town. When we return, we find the wireless has been fixed, and we enjoy catching up with news from home. I try to order a printer online and am stymied when I find that a required field of entry is the codice fiscale, roughly the equivalent of a social security number but used even more widely here. I had tried to obtain a codice fiscale ten years ago and was turned away, but I think now that I could have obtained one if I had been more persistent. It has become obvious to me by now that just because one Italian official tells me I can’t do something doesn’t mean that the official next door won’t tell me the opposite. The fact that I don’t have one is still a bit of a sore point for me, but it will be another challenge that I will overcome.

Losing our way in Lucca

Thursday, February 3
The next morning we ride our bikes into San Salvatore to pick up our pane integrale. We want to ask Luigi if there is a safe place to chain up our bikes, because this afternoon we want to take the train to Lucca and walk to our language school to confirm our lessons for next Monday. We have been advised by Luca not to park our bikes at the station. Luigi is quite busy cutting meat for his customers, though, so we decide to walk over to a nearby bar. Maybe if we park the bikes right by the bar windows, thieves would not dare cut the chains. The whole business section of San Salvatore consists of a main street about six American blocks long. There are a couple of bars, two small grocery stores, a fruit and vegetable store, a pizzeria, a gas station, a hair salon and a half dozen other small businesses. At the bar, we order two hot chocolates and sit down. Across the street, we see a bike rack in a parking lot, but knowing how quickly a thief can cut through a bike chain, we don’t think anybody would even notice if someone pulled up, cut our chains and loaded up our bikes. There is not a bike rack in front of the bar, and the young lady at the counter is not from San Salvatore and doesn’t know where we can park the bikes.

We try one of the grocery stores and find a young man working the counter whom we had also seen the day before at Luigi’s macelleria. In fact, this store also bears the name Bianchi, and it is owned by the same family. We suspect this is Luigi’s son, but we will wait for another day to ask him that. Meanwhile, he invites us to park our bicycles behind the macelleria whenever we take the train. Another problem solved.

After exploring the town a little more, we return for a siesta and then plan to ride back into town to catch the train to Lucca. At the agriturismo, there is still no wireless, so I borrow Luca’s computer and jot down some directions for the Lucca Italian School. Ordinarily I would have studied the map carefully and written down more detailed directions, but I am in a hurry and don’t want to take up more of Luca’s time.

The train ride takes 20 minutes through flat farmlands. It would cost 1.1 euro each time to take our bikes on the train, so we plan to go a piedi in Lucca. It should take about 25 minutes to walk to the school, according to Google maps, but then, we don’t actually have the map with us, just some scrawled notes on a piece of scrap paper. After having visited Italy almost yearly for the past ten years, I should have known better.

The thing about Italian city streets is that they almost never travel in a straight line. However, the curve is so gradual that you hardly notice it. Countless times I have started walking north on a street, only to find that six blocks later, without having any idea of the change, I am now walking west. To make matters worse, many streets change names every couple of blocks, and when the street name changes, the house numbers start over; therefore house numbers have no correlation with where you are in the city. Even using Mapquest or Google maps helps only a little, because it is often nearly impossible to find out what street you are on. Street names are sometimes etched on the sides of buildings, but it is no easy thing to find the names when you travel by car, as there is no standard placement for the name. If you plan to rent a car in Italy, GPS is a necessity.

However, because it is so difficult to find one’s way in Italy, the macho American stereotype of men never asking for directions does not exist here. Everyone asks for directions, and the locals are always willing to help.

I lead us to within three blocks of the school before making a time-consuming error. I have found a four-way intersection I am looking for. One of the streets should be via Pisano, and there it is. Now we are almost there. What I don’t realize is that straight ahead is via Pisano, but also 90 degrees to the right is via Pisano. Who would have thought that here where street names change randomly and for no reason, at this intersection a street made a 90 degree turn at a four-way intersection and does not change its name? And unfortunately, this happened to be an exceptional street in still another way: the via Pisano I choose goes on for at least a mile, and who knows how much longer, because that’s when I stop to get directions. After retracing the last mile, coming back to the four-way stop and taking a left, we find the school within a few blocks, via Sant’Anna 14, a street that is so short that none of the various people we had asked during our wanderings had heard of it.

Once at the school, our fortunes improve. Our lessons are confirmed, and one of the teachers, Daniela, tells us what bus to take back to the Lucca station. The bus will be leaving in five minutes, and the last train to San Salvatore for the day departs in half an hour, so we must hurry. Without the bus, we would have had to run all the way on foot, and another wrong turn would have left us stranded.

We had chosen San Salvatore in part because it was small and isolated. We knew people there would not speak English, and that’s what we wanted. We also chose it because it has a train stop, although the actual station has been closed for some time. Trains from Firenze to Lucca pass regularly, but only a half dozen a day are regionali that stop at small stations. We will have to time our trips carefully when we take trains.

As it is, the bus returns us to the Lucca station in plenty of time, and so despite our minor misadventure, we accomplish something important today. Still on my list is to purchase a printer for my computer and get our Italian passports, but neither item is as urgent as the other things we had already taken care of.