Thursday, October 27, 2016

I feel weirdly happy now when I put out right garbage bin on right day

We have surpassed numerous obstacles in our purchase of a house in Italy, including starting a bank account, hiring a geometra and notaio, setting up all our utilities for automatic payment, obtaining my carta di identità and repairing some problems with the electricity. Until yesterday, we had one more nagging problem to solve, one that would seem to be among the easiest—yet it took us almost four months of living here off and on to figure out the proper way to dispose of our garbage.

Don’t get me wrong; we didn’t have four months of garbage piled in our living room. We had found a way around the problem, but we knew it couldn’t be a permanent solution. We had asked our friend Angelika, whose mom actually lives in Montecarlo, what we should do with our garbage. Angelika said her mom, who lives alone, just packs it with her when she goes shopping and puts it in a dumpster along the way or at the grocery store.

We figured we would do the same until we could learn the proper way to do it. We saw that people put out different types of trash on different days of the week, and we started taking notice. Monday and Friday mornings, we saw organic waste bins put outside doors. Since we had inherited a bin from the previous home owner, we could easily participate in this practice.

We did have some problems getting used to the schedule, because we realized that the pickup came early in the morning, and people didn’t put the bins out until very late at night or very early in the morning—logical, since nobody wants to walk past compost bins on the streets all afternoon in a popular tourist town. But about half the time, we forgot to put the bin out, and then we either had to keep the smelly stuff around for another three or four days or take it to an organic waste dumpster somewhere else. We usually chose the latter.

Happy garbage day! Bins, bags, instructions and calendar give me a strange feeling of satisfaction.
Paper and cardboard were picked up on Thursdays, but we didn’t have a bin for this. We would keep it in a plastic bag in the kitchen, and then sometimes we just added it to a neighbor’s bin on the proper day. But often, our bag would be overflowing halfway through the week (or we would forget to put it out), so we often just tossed it in our car when we were going out and looked for a carta recycling dumpster.

Glass bottles were picked up every other week, on Wednesdays, but we also didn’t have a bin for this. For those of you thinking we should just go out a buy a container, I should mention that the bins all seemed to be of the same color, shape and size, yet we had never seen them for sale at the hardware store. It was gradually dawning on us that they may have been issued by the agency that collects the trash.

What really prompted us to seek help, though, was the multimateriale leggero pickup days on Tuesdays and Saturdays. What fell into this category of “light multi-material?” And why did people put their multi-material in special blue bags inscribed with the abbreviation ASCIT? There seemed to be a list on the side of the bags that described what could be placed inside, but it was hard to read. We needed those blue bags, because apparently we couldn’t put out our multi-material—whatever it was—without them.

It would have been nice if the city hall people had told us about garbage collection policies when I received my residency card, but probably this was a different office, different agency. I could try going to the city hall and asking, but I knew the answer could be complicated, and I preferred to have the help of someone more fluent in Italian than I. So we asked Elena, who asked Davide, because garbage disposal is a job for men.

Davide said we had to go to a special office in Montecarlo that was below the library and only open each Wednesday morning and afternoon until 2 p.m. Luckily, it was Wednesday morning when he told us, so we made it there in time. The office was hidden away inside an inner courtyard, in an unmarked room (even though we knew where the library was, we still had to ask someone for directions to the garbage bin office).

We found a man behind a desk who asked if we were enrolled. Yes, I had registered as a resident in the city hall, but that wasn’t the same thing. I had to be enrolled with ASCIT, and for that I needed the bill of sale for our home and a document that showed the size of the house. I had these in my desk at home and returned within 10 minutes. He tapped on his computer for another 10 minutes, and then went into a back room and returned with four bins and several rolls of colored and labeled plastic bags. He also gave me a schedule to post on the kitchen bulletin board and a booklet that describes in great detail what goes into each bag or bin.

I carried my bins and bags down the street to our house—proudly, I might add, because they symbolized another step forward in our attempt to become Italian. I went to work translating the instructions and sorting out our garbage to put it in the proper containers. The translated instructions and lists are complicated and fill an entire page, but it was worth it. No more will we need to carry bags of garbage around in our car. Well, except maybe on the days I forget to put the right bin out on the right day.

The trash sorting is a lot more complicated and labor-intensive than in Gig Harbor, where we have everything picked up once a week with one bin for the non-recyclable trash and another for recycling, with machines separating the different articles to be recycled. I doubt that the Italian program would be effective in the states, because people wouldn’t have the patience to sort and leave out different items each day. Lucy’s not thrilled about the idea of having six separate bins or bags (there is also one for non-recyclable materials) in the kitchen and on the terrazzo. But the Italian people are more accustomed to having to cooperate while living in close quarters while following a plethora of bureaucratic regulations.

For me, I get some satisfaction out of being able to properly sort out the rules of living in Italy. Even when they are demanding and sometimes arbitrary, it’s a little like solving a jigsaw puzzle when we’re able to put another piece of our life in the right place.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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

We continue to blunder our way through the Italian language

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

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

Monday, October 24, 2016

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


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

Monday, October 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, October 14, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

























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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The kitchen in 2014