Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Honestly, today I don't care if I write at all. Yesterday I had a headache and today I just don't feel like myself. I don't know who I feel like, but it for sure isn't me. At least not the me I have come to be here. But writing like this has become a good habit for me, so here goes.

I think I am just a little...hmmm, depressed isn't the right word. I don't know how I feel. I realized yesterday that in this same week I celebrate (maybe not the right word) the beginning and the end of my marraige.

I got married on April 1st. Hey, I let him pick the date! I was in love: I didn't see it as prophecy, just an adorable quircky choice. (feel free to roll your eyes, I am) I didn't choose March 28 as the end of my marraige, it was thrust on me by the judge representing the state of Minnesota in the dissolution of our union.

And the eighteen years in between? Some were good, some were bad. I don't regret a single one. They made me the woman I am today. I can find the silver lining in just about any situation, because I was reminded daily just how terrible the world was, that disaster waited around every corner and that I wasn't prepared for it. He is what every wanna-be pessimist aspires to be.

He wanted me to be with him. It's not that he had anything specific he needed me for, he just didn't want me to spend time with other people. He didn't even really pay attention to me. I sat in my chair and watched him while he watched TV, played solitaire on his computer and talked to other people on the phone.

He figured (to the penny) how much I cost him, and not just for the divorce. He kept a running total during our entire marraige. Sounds strange? He did that with everyone in his life. His ledger had only debits though, no one seemed to bring anything of value into his life. I can earn my own money, thank you very much. The people in my life are valued because of their integrity, honesty and love. Period.

When he chose to be he could be loving and supportive and very nurturing. He encouraged me to start college. When I became unhappy at work he helped me to start the job search. He's not a bad person, our relationship just didn't work anymore and he didn't want to try. He was the one who recognized that and left.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was married. It has only been three years. So much has happened in those three years. I left a desk job and became a baker and currently I am, well I don't know yet.  I graduated from college. I left a small town for the big city of Minneapolis, then left there for Florence, Italy. Surrounded by my family and loving friends I have found a life that I had never in my wildest dreams believed existed.

Guess what? I feel better.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Riding Solo

Today I went for my first solo ride on my bike. Well, mostly solo. Leif rode with me till we got to the park, then he left for his own ride up a hill somewhere cuz that’s what he likes to do. Crazy. He rode with me to the park because I am not yet sure that I can get there on my own. It is a labyrinth of bike lanes that end suddenly, one way streets and cross walks that I don’t quite have the hang of yet. It looks so easy on the map but I think the map lies.

In the park I knew where I was going. I took the path we have been riding east out of town along the Arno River. It was a pleasant day. The sun had finally come out and it was suddenly warm. Once I got a little concerned about a Great Dane without a leash. He seemed to be looking at me like lunch. I was torn. Do I stop and so become less interesting to him, or do I speed up and hope he can’t catch me? Thankfully I didn’t have to do either. He lost interest in me when a butterfly flew by his nose. The sheep that seem to live here have figured out that there is no grass on the gravel and so it was easy to keep moving by them. It was a very pleasant ride out. I turned around when the path ended to head back into town.

What had been a pleasant roll through the countryside became just a little harder as I was now headed into the wind. Ok, I'm lying, it got hard. And of course, because I was alone I had no one to talk to. This left me plenty of time to start worrying about the what-ifs. I’m riding alone in a foreign country, you know. What if I get lost? What if I collapse from exhaustion or get hurt? What if the bike breaks down?

Naturally it didn’t take long before I started to hear all kinds of weird noises that I was certain were trouble.


The sensible me chimes in: No, it’s just that I’m not listening to someone talk. They always sound like this. (after stopping to check I continue on…no flat tire)


me: no, I am wearing a nylon raincoat and as my legs move the phone in the front pocket slides from side to side. See? Hold the coat still? Do you still hear it? I didn’t think so…

Once I made it to town I figure I was safe. I made my way through the middle of town. This is the part where there are cobblestones and people everywhere. There’s this one piece of road where I go the wrong way against one way traffic on a street wide enough for only one small car and one slim pedestrian.


Me: Don’t be silly, that’s impossible, they aren’t…wait, wait, WAIT! Why are my brake handles and shift levers hanging from the bottom of the bars? I can’t reach them that way! Hmmm, and the bars sort of sway left and right too. That can’t be good…(it’s pretty hard to ride on teeny tiny cobblestone streets with loose handlebars. Just take my word for it.)

Thank goodness this is the moment that Leif called to find out why I wasn’t home yet. He brought tools and we tightened everything up again. OK, this wasn’t my most shining moment, but I survived it. From now on I will think only positive thoughts during my rides.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Counting Pennies

I don’t know which is worse: waiting for the person ahead of you in the checkout line to find the three pennies they need to complete their transaction, or being the one digging down to the bottom of your purse for those three pennies as the line grows more restless behind you. You keep digging because you just know they are there, the bag weighs, like, ten pounds and the cashier won’t let you go without the three cents.

That hasn’t happened to me in Italy. Today at the supermarket my total was 15,05 Euro and the cashier politely told me my total was 15,00 Euro. Even though they mint a penny AND a 2 cent piece , they seem to dislike using them (they also have a 20 cent coin. They are prepared for any change emergency.) They aren’t too fond of 5 cent coins either, but they will round down to the nearest 5 cents. Restaurants tend to price things so that your bill will come out to an even Euro amount, or at least the price you see has already been adjusted so that they don’t need to deal with coins smaller than 1 Euro. There is a place we used to lunch at frequently and she would make us keep the cents no matter how many there were, because what’s change between friends?

I try to imagine my American accountant friend dealing with this kind of attitude…I don’t know that he can envision a world where pennies don’t matter. Where “close” is good enough and books don’t exactly balance. I think for him it would seem that chaos is eminent. I would like to meet an Italian accountant (there must be one) and find out how they deal with this…

No one here seems to concerned about it. Life is too short to worry about pennies so keep them, please. I wonder how this idea would go over in the States?

There you have my two cents for the day, but this is Italy, so I guess it’s really free.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sharing Assisi

Yesterday Leif and I took a day trip to Assisi. I was very excited about it. Assisi is the place where I learned that the feelings I had about Italy were real.

For those who don’t know the story, I traveled to Italy in May of 2009 to take two courses offered at my university. We studied drawing as a spiritual practice, the lives of Claire and Francis of Assisi, and developed personal spiritual practices for three weeks. We spent time in Siena, the Umbrian countryside, Assisi and Rome. It was in the mountains of Umbria that I met Leif (he was our guide there), and in Assisi that I began to understand more about myself and to use that knowledge to make some big life decisions.

I remember wishing that Leif were sharing our experiences in Assisi like he had in the mountains. I know the whole group felt that way. It was like we had left one of us behind on the mountain, and we experienced grief and loneliness even as we explored a beautiful city and culture. To this day, none of us can speak about our experiences in Italy without sharing our affection for Leif; they are intertwined in our memories and hearts to tightly that there is no separating them.

I fell in love with him there on those mountains. It took me until Assisi to fall in love with Italy. A week after we returned to the States I started making my plans to return to Italy to live. It took a little longer for Leif and I to give in to our fascination for each other. The rest, as they say, is history.

 Augsburg is once again offering this amazing trip to its’ students and this time the company Leif works for is planning the whole trip. He is going to be spending more time with the group and our trip to Assisi was part of his research. And so I finally got to share Assisi with him. For me it was as if no time had passed. I was able to walk him to each site on the itinerary without hesitating. We looked at churches and hotels and restaurants, I showed him my favorite drawing places and we explored new things as well.

One of the best parts was getting to walk through the castle, something we hadn’t done during our visit two years ago. Up and down tiny stone staircases that spiraled through the middle of towers, walking a tunnel through the outer wall to the turret at the edge of the mountainside up so high that we were afraid to step close to the edge for fear of falling. But, oh, the views! Mountains behind us even higher than we were and in front of us the city of Assisi clinging to the mountainside while below in the valley the dome of the church S. Maria delgi Angeli rises above the city. Yup, takes your breath away.

We walked down the mountain as the sun went down and caught the train home. That day we shared more than memories of the practical things like how to get from point A to point B and where the good restaurants are. I could say, in this spot I spent two hours on the drawing that is in our living room. In this spot I meditated and understood things about myself that I couldn’t have done in my life in Minnesota, it could only happen here. Being there helped him to understand me a little more.

And in May he will take a different group of students through the mountains and then join them in Assisi. My hope is that this group can have a small portion of the amazing experience that we had when we were here two years ago. Because if they do, their lives will be changed forever.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Oh, What A Beautiful Morning

Spring has truly arrived here in Florence. This morning we repeated our ride along the river. It went so much better for a couple of reasons. First, I felt better today than I did the last time we rode. It’s surprising how tiring pain can be, and how it so completely changes how I experience a day. In addition I have had my bike reworked a bit since the last ride.  I had a couple of inches cut off the handlebars and now I can ride comfortably for a much longer time. An added benefit has been that I no longer feel that I am the size of the Queen Mary as I ride along the street. No more fears that pedestrians on either side will be jabbed in the ribs and no more worrying about catching the handlebars on fences, walls, hedges, etc. I can slide through the smallest gap now. Which is good, because that’s the only size gap there seems to be in Florentine traffic.

But to get back to spring…today reminded me of the first few days of spring in Minnesota. You can never be sure what you will see. Today I saw people bundled up as if snow were imminent. Stocking caps, scarves and puffy down coats are still out there but in between all those sensible people are the school kids in their shorts, flip-flops and t-shirts. Then there are those who stick to the middle of the road. Men in wool sports jackets and women in lighter hose and shoes instead of boots. Makes me want to shop for new spring clothes. I have my eye on this great pair of lavender cowboy boots…

Spring is also the season of love. OK, granted, here it seems to always be the season of love, but I think they take it up a notch during the spring. Couples stroll through parks, sprawl on the grass, and yes, kiss everywhere. Today was especially sweet I think. As we rode through the park we saw two people being pushed in their wheelchairs down a path. As they rolled along they held hands and waved at everyone who passed. The smiles on their faces were the brightest, purest love light I have seen in a long time. If I weren't already in love seeing them together would make me wish for it.

The ride was as beautiful as last time except the sun has more heat in it now. Everything is coming alive. The trees are sporting their pale green new leaf fuzz, the grass is soft and filled with little flowers. Makes you glad to be alive. And just before turning back to Florence we stopped for a snack and coffee. We had focaccia fresh from a wood fired oven, all soft and salty on top and crusty on the bottom. We had our bread and water (poor me!) sitting in the sun on top of a wall along the river. Sometimes we watched the water flow by, other times we lifted our eyes to the hills beyond, dotted with villages and cypress trees.

On the way back along the path we ran into (literally) a herd of sheep. For those who don’t know, they are picturesque animals. Soft bundles of wool with big dark eyes and bells around their necks meandering along the path munching on grass while their lambs amble alongside. Too bad they are dumb as a pile of rocks. (I can say this because I grew up on a farm and we raised sheep. I think rocks might in fact be smarter than sheep are.) They see a bike coming toward them and they don’t move. They just look at you and wonder where you came from. You weren’t there a moment ago. Eventually they moved enough for us to get our bikes through and we left the herd behind us as we finished our ride.

And all this before lunch. Can't wait to see what the afternoon brings...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No Ordinary Day

Today I had plans. I was going to do some research on jobs, maybe check on some volunteering opportunities, go to the market, recharge my phone, and possibly even more. Instead Leif talked me into going with him to the Florence by Bike shop and watching them film a video about the bike team he is a member of and about cycling in Tuscany. This film will be shown on Italian television so it is important for the shop and the team. From the moment I said “Sure, I’ll come along” my day became anything but ordinary.

First, Leif was the only team member that showed up. It’s hard to film a team with only one person, so a long time customer of the shop offered to help out. Good! Two people, creatively filmed, can be a team. They wanted some shots taken in the city before heading out to the hills, so they asked me to ride along to help make the group look bigger. I’m pretty sure I look like some alien being dropped into those scenes, since the guys are in their spandex and special shoes while I was sporting my Levi’s, Puma’s and pale green spring jacket. With any luck at all they will masterfully crop me out of the shots of the whole crowd (yes, 3 is a crowd) riding into the square, asking the police for directions and riding into the sunrise.

After this Leif and Vincent rode out of town while I got into the car with the shop owner, Andrea and the photographer, Francesco. I knew better than to try and ride with the bikers longer. I was more than a little nervous about spending the day riding around the countryside with two men who had limited English but I understand quite a bit of Italian now, so it wasn’t too bad. We drove out into the hills of Chianti under the most beautiful sun that ever did shine. The hills are absolutely beautiful, covered in grape vines and olive trees just coming to life above new grass and wildflowers (OK, we all know they are weeds, but they are so pretty right now) while other fruit trees have started to blossom pink and white and yellow. Lines of cypress trees follow the ridges of hills and driveways. All this was the perfect backdrop for a film about cycling the hills of Tuscany with good friends, finding great food and wine along the way.

Yes, there was lunch. Small break here for a commercial. We went to a farm called Corte di Valle, where they have a wine cellar and grow saffron. They also rent rooms and have a restaurant. You should go. Lunch was a fantastic pasta with saffron sauce. It didn’t just taste good, the saffron gave it a lovely pale yellow color that made the whole dish look very pretty too. I keep thinking that every meal I have couldn’t possibly be improved on, but almost every day there is another dish that is more amazing. Add wines from their cellars to the pasta and we had a meal that won’t be easily forgotten. After the meal we got a tour of the cellar, with a special taste from one of the barrels. I can hardly wait the months needed for this Chianti to finish…it’s beautiful now. And what’s more fun than having your glass filled with wine lifted from a cask with a long glass tube and poured directly into your glass by a most charismatic elderly Italian gentleman who is reverently referred to as Signore Marco?

Outside in the courtyard the bees were buzzing around and the birds were singing. Views of vineyards, olive groves and saffron gardens were all around us. I am trying not to make this sound like some sappy, too good to be true kind of day, but the truth is, it was beautiful and warm and happy and not at all the kind of day I planned and certainly not the kind of day I would ever be able to have in Minnesota. Especially as I hear you got 6 inches of snow overnight.

I don’t have a single picture from this wonderful day, because I decided to go with Leif about 5 minutes before we had to leave, but I’m sure the film will make it to youtube at some point and then you can all see the day I had, professionally shot by a real TV photographer. How many of you can say that?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Write Like Someone Is Reading

It occurred to me last week that writing as I have been doing here has been good for me. I started this blog because I needed a way to keep my friends and family informed about my life here in Italy. I don’t consider myself a writer, in fact I think I am pretty bad at it most of the time. I also feel like a very ordinary woman…maybe a woman doing an extraordinary thing, but at heart a very ordinary woman. This blog has got to be some of the more boring reading out there. But I am trying to be disciplined about it for a couple of reasons.

1) Obviously because writing this way is simpler and more efficient (that’s the German in me) than writing personalized accounts to each person who matters to me. I love to tell people about my experiences, and I hope that I find a way to share with each of you the things you want to know most. But if I tried to write to each of you I would never get to leave the apartment and have those great experiences. That’s right, it would be a blog about writing e-mails to the world. Not great reading in my opinion.

2) It’s a great way for me to remember what happened and when it happened. Let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger. I know that my memory doesn’t always work the way I want it to now, so it will only get worse. I’m kind of curious to see which part of my memory goes first…will I forget Italian or English? Where I am or where I am going? Who you are or who I am? If I get lost in a place that I don’t really know, am I actually lost? So yeah when Alzheimer's hits I will not know where I am, where I am going, or how to tell someone this important information. Maybe I'll get a tattoo with my address and phone both languages, just to be sure.

And 3) Probably what has become the most important function of this blog is that it allows me to really consider not only the things that happen to me, but what those experiences mean. I don’t just shop for groceries. As I am trying to find the things I need, all the while dodging shopping carts driven by tiny women who can barely see over the handles, I am trying to remember everything so that I can describe it in a way that everyone will understand. I don’t just walk somewhere, I make mental notes about sights, sounds, smells, and feelings, and then write them down so you can share the experience with me. I am “present in the moment” (Augsburg just will not go away, will it?) often during my day. What a great gift that has been. My days are filled with experiences. I choose different activities, I listen harder, I enjoy experiences more thoroughly, I nearly swoon with joy at every meal. If you don’t believe me, ask Leif. He just watches me and smiles when I sit back from my last bite, probably with olive oil dripping from my chin, and sigh.

I started to write because people asked me to. I am going to continue to write because it has changed the way I experience my life. As if moving to another country wasn’t change enough…

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Escaping the City

Yesterday I rode with Leif outside the city. We rode through town from the northeast corner west to where the Arno River leaves Florence on its’ way to Pisa and the coast of Italy. It was overcast, but there was no rain and the air was warm. A perfect day to ride, really.

The ride through town wasn’t exactly fraught with danger (it was still a little early on a Saturday morning) but it can be quite an obstacle course if you ride through the center of town. There are pedestrians focused on their camera and not watching for others, entire families with strollers and shopping bags (the strollers hold the bags while the toddlers who should be in the strollers make a dash for freedom), barricades made of metal or stone posts and logging chain, and the taxis who watch out for no one. Now avoid all that while bouncing over cobblestones...doesn't sound so simple anymore, does it?

Once we got off the streets and onto the trails in the park the only traffic we had to watch for were joggers, dog walkers and other bikers. The park is beautiful. There are wide paved roads and gravel paths. After the slow ride through town it was nice to open it up a bit and just ride a straight, smooth path for miles without having to stop constantly for others. The river is beautiful (for those from Minnesota, it is about the size of the Mississippi north of St Cloud). It isn’t a deep valley, just a short drop from the flood plain we rode on to the surface of the river.

Kinda Disney…the birds were singing, the air was warm, the grass and trees were showing their new pretty green colors and flowers were blooming. No, the trees didn’t sing, the sun didn’t smile down on me, birds didn’t make a wreath of flowers and drop it lightly onto my head. But that’s kind of how I felt. For the first time since I came here I had the chance to use my muscles like I am used to doing. I celebrated the wind in my face (yes, I believe I was a dog in a former life).

Have you seen new lambs, colts or calves on the first warm days of spring? They jump and run and simply enjoy their new bodies. I feel that way a lot. When I was young I rarely walked from point A to point B. I would run, skip, cartwheel, whatever, but walk? Why, when there are so may other fun options? But as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to hide that feeling, because it just doesn’t seem to go with a grown up life. Yesterday, I gave in to that feeling a little. It was fun.

We rode to Signa and had lunch…FYI if you are coming to Italy be prepared to eat when restaurants are open, not necessarily when you are hungry. They aren’t kidding when they say they are closed, even if they haven’t locked the door. It took us a while to find a pizzeria that was open. It was a great pizza.

Then we rode home. Sounds very anticlimactic…sorry. We had to dodge raindrops on the way home, but didn’t get very wet. I discovered a lot today. I can ride (at least on the flats) a distance without dying, Italian men hate being passed by a woman, my bell works and I am stronger than I think. I also think it’s time to start acting the way I feel instead of the way I think is “appropriate” and stop holding back from my joy because someone might feel differently about me. I may not cartwheel around Florence, but chances are I will run and jump and dance and laugh…and kiss.

PS Thank you to Leif for making me feel like I could ride forever…

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Wearing of the Red, White and Green

While all of you in Minnesota were celebrating St Patrick’s Day, we were celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy. Well, we really started the evening before, and the 17th was more of a “sleep in and relax” kind of holiday. And we needed to sleep in a little as the festivities on Wednesday evening lasted well into Thursday morning.

Florence celebrated this event in a grand way. Everywhere you looked there was the Italian flag (nope, I don't have one yet, but believe me, the next holiday will not find me without my flag!) Some stores had so many flags in their windows that you couldn't see the merchandise anymore. That's pride! Three of the most popular piazzas in town were dedicated to the celebration. In the piazza by the Duomo there were tents where local artisans displayed their works. Mosaics, glass, ceramics, wood and metal were demonstrated and people crowded around to see their work.

At the Piazza at Santa Croce there were readings of Dante’s works, hot air balloon rides and a presentation of photos of Florence and Italy from before and after the Unification. Colored lights created an Italian flag on the store fronts and the front of the church.

In the Piazza Signoria you could see dancers and hear several different orchestras while gazing at the many statues that are permanently on exhibit there.

This was also one of those evenings where Florence throws open the doors of its’ museums and galleries and lets the public in for free. We took advantage of this and visited Santa Croce, the oldest Franciscan church in the world. Many famous Florentines like Michelangelo and Galileo are buried there, and many of the frescoes were done by Giotto and his pupils. I expected that we would simply be allowed to enter for free and look around for ourselves, but the city arranged for guided tours that evening. We spent an hour touring the church and listening to a guide who really loved his work. He told us not only about the church, but about the history of Florence and the people who lived here. I don’t know what was more exciting for me, seeing the church again or realizing that the entire tour was conducted in Italian and I understood most of it!

And it isn’t a celebration without fireworks! We made our way through the crowded streets back to the Piazza Signoria to see the fireworks. The piazza was so packed with people it was almost impossible to move. (imagine the MN state fair exhibitors buildings) I think everyone in Florence; residents, tourists and students alike, managed to squeeze into that space. Thousands of people stood together waiting for the big event to start. They weren’t interested in the music, they wanted excitement and noise. Finally, sometime after the promised 12:30 start, the firework display burst into the sky from the top of the city hall. It was a celebration of the Italian flag. Bright lights of green, white and red chased around the top of the building and leapt high into the sky.

After the grand finale, we walked back home. Yes, walked. This was not a time to take a bike into the city. It was almost impossible to walk through some streets. Trying to navigate a bicycle through the crowds would have been impossible. We did make it home without incident and were in bed at a respectable 2 am.

That was our public celebration of the anniversary of the unification of Italy. The next day (the actual holiday I believe) we had our own private celebration that included sparkling wine, good food and lots of kisses. This might sound less exciting than the night before, but in fact, this day was the best celebration for me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Music of the Streets

I would like to take a moment to talk about street musicians. Here in Florence there are quite a few street musicians. I have only seen a few in Minnesota. like the man playing saxaphone in front of the habidashery(yes, it is called that) near the St Paul Hotel. They are hardy souls and are usually only seen in the summer for obvious reasons. Here they are less affected by the weather because, well, it doesn’t snow. Cold is somewhere in the thirties (F) and rainy. You would think it would be impossible to play the violin or accordian in that kind of cold, but they are out there wooing a few Euros out of the few remaining tourists.
It’s surprising where they are, it seems now every time I turn a corner there is someone playing an instrument. No corner is too out of the way, no spot too small, no place too busy to discourage these musicians from playing to an audience. For instance, there’s an older gentleman with a violin who has staked out a corner spot next to the Duomo. The space is acoustically perfect for him. He doesn’t have to play loudly to be heard as the sound bounces off the Duomo and the buildings of the side street behind him creating a sort of surround sound. He plays very dramatic and romantic music and has the most beautiful brown eyes which he uses to draw people closer to him (and his violin case where, if you choose, you can drop a few coins.)

There’s a three piece band that sometimes plays in the Piazza Santa Croce, which is a huge open area offering little help from surrounding buildings for sound but lots and lots of foot traffic. They can play in this large space because they bring their own sound system with them. All they need is a plug in and a spot where the wind won’t tip the stands over.

There’s a duo of accordian and harmonica that plays in a tunnel under a major intersection that is on my way to the market. You can hear them as soon as you enter the tunnel system, even though they are nowhere near an entrance because the accordian player has only one dynamic level…loud, and with great feeling. Between the music and the vibrant graffiti it is quite an entertaining walk. They never have to worry about rain, they always have a big sound and everyone passes by on their way to the market.

Not everyone who owns a musical instrument in this town plays well. Like musicians the world over, some approach their instrument with great enthusiasm but little actual talent. What they lack in musicianship they make up for in sheer guts, determination and smiles. Remember, this is how they support themselves so it must be working for them. Others are musicians who love to play because it satisfies that part of their soul that needs to express itself musically. They are fortunate to live in a place that they can play nearly year round and make a living; playing basically for themselves and allowing those passing by to eavesdrop on what can sometimes feel like a very personal moment.
Street performers aren’t the only musicians in Florence. Florence is a town that loves its’ arts, and music is high on the list. People come from all over the world to study with teachers here or to participate in a particular school. It is not unusual to see someone riding a bike down the street with a guitar, trombone case or cello on their back. As the weather becomes warmer and windows are opened it is common to hear rehearsals in progress. Voice, piano, solo instruments and ensembles are heard through windows on nearly every street.

I am excited to hear what Florence sounds like over the next year. Concerts, festivals and street musicians will certainly be part of the experience, but so will churches and hopefully even an opera. Who knows what this summer will bring?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I live in Florence, Italy. My family and most of my friends live in the US, primarily in Minnesota. That’s a seven hour time difference (8 for my friend in CO and 10 for my aunt in CA). This has led to some pretty interesting conversations about appointments for phone calls or messaging.

Mom would send an e-mail saying “Can you talk at two tomorrow?” If she sends this late in her day, it is probably already tomorrow for me by the time I read it. I get confused, not only about which day but then there’s the added confusion about two. Two her time? Two my time? Two AM or PM?

FYI-it’s really easy to confuse me sometimes. Date and time math feel like upper level college courses to me. Crazy, but there you go. NOW I live in a 24 hour clock world…seriously, subtract 12 without a paper and pencil? I think not. I have devised a (nearly) fool proof system of subtraction combined with keen observation and intuition to come up with the correct time. This may only work for me. Maybe I need a chart or  somethig.

We finally agreed that any appointments would include the day (and date if possible) and in which time zone the appointed hour resides. I am happy to say that for most of the people I Skype with there is no longer any confusion about when to have the computer on. Of course, this will all change during the two weeks when the time changes in the US but doesn’t change here for another two weeks. Will I remember? I guess we’ll see…

Facebook is another matter. Now, I have a hard time coming up with snappy replies and comments at any time. They usually occur to me hours later. I have learned to accept this about myself. One of the things I liked about Facebook when I was in the states is that I could take a few hours and still sound like I was part of the conversation. The problem now is that I am a often a whole day behind. While you all are busily posting on Facebook during the evening I am asleep. By the time I read anything, the perfect moment has passed. By the time I think of something really witty to say, it has probably been more than a day and you are wondering if I have some sort of mental illness or have been kidnapped.

I sometimes feel like the last comic to go on during a show, listening to every one of her jokes work so darn well for someone else. Leaving me with not a whole lot to say…so if you don’t hear from me it’s not because I don’t care. I may be deep in the middle of a complicated time equation to figure out if you are awake yet. It might just be that I am still waiting for inspiration to hit, and when it finally does either someone has stolen my perfectly witty response or it just doesn’t seem like the right moment anymore.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fine Dining

I have always loved food. This is why I am not a size 0 super model. Well, that’s not the only reason, but one of the biggies. Here in Florence I get to indulge my appetite. Let’s just say it’s a lot of fun. I get pasta and bread everyday. Fresh fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. Lots and lots of olive oil and garlic. Parmigiano reggiano, pecorino, mozzarella and provolone cheeses (to name a few.) And wine with lunch and dinner, all chosen specifically for each meal by Leif, who knows his stuff when it comes to wine and food.

Just so you understand…it’s not only the food. It’s the whole meal experience. I don’t know if what we do is a real Italian meal, but Leif has lived here for 6 years, so he has shared a few meals with his friends. Who knows, maybe this is as close as a Swede and an American living in Tuscany can get to Italian cooking and dining. It goes something like this:

The pasta pot goes on the stove to boil while we chop the vegetables, garlic and meats. The person not chopping sets the table and cuts the bread. Leif chooses the wine because I have no idea what I am doing with the wine. Whatever will be eaten with the pasta goes into the saute pan first and once the pasta is finished it gets tossed in there too. Then serve up this first plate with a glass of wine and a short toast to each other.

While we eat the first dish, the meat is put into the saute pan to cook. It usually finishes up about the same time we finish our pasta and viola…the second plate. Once we have eaten our fill of meat, we use our bread (my favorite is schiacciata, a sort of flattened focaccia) to clean our plates and then dip it in olive oil till we just can’t eat another bite.

But of course there’s always room for chocolate (sorry dad, I know we usually say there’s always room for ice cream, but times change) with the last of the wine from our glasses. We spend the whole meal talking and cooking together. I never once worry about having all the food on the table at once. It gets there when it’s time and I enjoy the ease of that pace.

And yes, this is how I eat most every meal except for breakfast. Which as I recall was a specific request from several people when I started this blog. “We want to hear all about what you are doing, but please don’t tell us what you had for breakfast.” So I haven’t, you will have to use your imagination.

PS Last night I had dinner with a new friend who has lived here for 20 years and is married to an Italian. I have discovered that, yes, this is how meals are done in Italy. I love it here!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Tale of (Biking In) Two Cities

Riding my bike in Florence is quite an experience, a very different one from the experiences I had in Minnesota. The streets are smaller, the pedestrians more like to be in the middle of the street than on the sidewalk, and the surfaces range from smooth tar to stones that rattle your teeth (more on those another day). There are a lot of bikes and bikers in Florence, ranging in age from 5 to 85. Yesterday I saw an elderly lady in heels, a jaunty cap protecting her updo, big Sophia Loren glasses and a fur coat regally coasting down the street on her way to the center of town. She would have looked positively royal if it weren’t for the beat up bike she was riding. You just don’t see that in Minneapolis.

I am used to Minnesota roads and drivers…we are a peace loving people until we get behind the wheel of a car. Suddenly we become very territorial about the space we currently occupy as well as the space we are entering. These are the kind of people that will spend five minutes saying "No, you first", " first" at a door but can't wait five seconds for someone to merge into traffic. I don't know if it's all the snow, or our slghtly uptight ethnic heritages that make us snap in these situations, but I have seen people transform like the Hulk from mild-mannered soccer mom to a crazed driver forcing another car off the road. The really scary part is  that you never know when or what will make someone go over the edge. As a biker that's pretty scary.

Two years ago I sold my car and became one of the bikers trying to get around Minneapolis. I didn’t realize till then just how difficult is was to bike there. Yes, there are bike trails and there are bike lanes in some areas. None of these amenities went from my home to, say, the grocery store, or to school, or directly to anywhere that I needed/wanted to go. This has left me literally out on the streets without a strong steel frame, seat belts or air bags for protection. Just my quick reflexes and survival instincts. It’s a miracle I’m alive (see preceding paragraph.)

I have had people try to see how close they can get to me with their mirrors, try to bump my rear tire (I don’t pedal fast enough), nearly door me, and once (this is my favorite) I stopped to let a car go by in a parking lot and the woman spent 2 minutes yelling at me through her closed windows (it was hot people, was she supposed to cool the whole neighborhood?) because I “looked” like I might try to cut her off. I think that’s what she was talking about, as I said, the windows were closed.

Florence has been a different experience for me. There are lots of bikes here. There are also a lot of motorized vehicles here. The traffic is chaotic, there is a tendency to use the horn a lot and they excel at making a space for their car in a moving column of traffic. Here in Florence when the lane enlarges to one and a half cars wide it becomes a contest to see who can fit their car, motorcycle or bike through the hole and gain a one car advantage. When there are multiple lanes it’s more like watching leaves on a moving river than the nice orderly traffic we are used to in Minnesota. They have bike lanes on some streets. Most often they are actually on the sidewalk instead of on the street. However, they also don’t go directly from my home to the places I want to go. Obviously, my needs are not part of the curriculum for any city planning classes.

What’s different about riding in Florence is that somehow these people share the road with each other. No matter what you are driving, you are welcome on the road as long as you understand that you are responsible for yourself. They won’t actively try to run you over. OK, maybe because they have to be somewhere and hitting you would definitely slow them down, but who cares about the motivation when the end result is that I can go out on the road and not feel threatened like I did in Minneapolis? I’m gonna like being here.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I am feeling a little at loose ends today. Leif is in Sweden hosting a wine tasting and visiting his family. I am here in Florence with a lot of time on my hands. Time I am using to think and (yes Augsburg) reflect on the last few months.

Today as I was hanging the curtains I bought in the market I realized that I have begun nesting. These curtains are the first thing I have purchased for our apartment that hasn’t had a definite use. We don’t need curtains in the kitchen, but it is the room we spend the most time in and so I want it to feel a little cozier, a little more personal. I surprised myself with this…I didn’t realize till I was hanging those curtains that until now I have sort of held back a bit and acted more like a visitor than a resident of Florence.

I came here in October to discover some things about myself. I needed to know if the connection I felt to Italy during my class in 2009 was real, or just a romantic feeling about someplace that is so very different from Minnesota. I’ve seen people come back from vacations convinced that they need to go back, and often when they do their experience wasn’t the same and they agree that it’s a nice place to visit, but…

So I came here to see if that feeling of serenity would still be with me, or if it was just a part of that particular trip and group of people. I needed to know if my body and mind really did flourish here, or if it was just something that I wished for. After four months here I now know that for whatever reason, I feel comfortable here. The rhythms of daily life really do match the rhythm of my body. I have that totally relaxed feeling you get on the second day of vacation, when you are finally unpacked and know you don’t have to do anything for the next week. Except that I never have to go back home because I am already here.

I also came to experience love with a very special man. I met him on the same trip that I met Italy and I have been unable to forget either of them. One of the instructors told me that she saw our attraction for each other grow from the moment we met. I don’t know if that’s the case, but as the days went by we did spend time in conversation and found that there was a lot in the other person to like. When I returned to the states we kept in touch and soon our talks were a regular part of our week. That’s when he started to become as much a reason to come back to Italy as Italy itself was for me.

He’s loving and kind, very intelligent and thoughtful. He’s physically fit and incredibly sexy. He loves to kiss and hold hands and do other mushy things. He knows wine and food so every meal is an occasion. He’s not perfect of course, but neither am I. (sorry Mom, it’s true) For instance, I need to speak Italian so that neither of us has the advantage of our native tongue. It will be an ugly, messy massacre of the Italian language for awhile, and I will embarrass myself more often than I will make myself understood, but it will be good for the relationship in the long run. It's worth a little embarrassment, after four months together I can’t imagine life without him. I know, that’s a big statement to make, but I feel I can do this. I have had more love in my lifetime than most people get. I know that. I’m not taking this one for granted. I hope I have the strength and the courage and the wisdom to make this relationship as great as it promises to be.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Way to Belong

Today I walked to what has become my favorite park in Florence called Parco di Villa Ventaglio. Isn’t that a beautiful name? Well, I find it much more romantic sounding than, say, Munsinger Gardens or Barden Park. I’m sure if I were Italian I would find the name Parco di Villa Ventaglio pretty boring, whereas Munsinger Gardens would maybe sound like some kind of paradise.

I like this park for several reasons. It is fairly close to my home here in Florence so getting there takes little time. On the way (there or back) I can take a slight detour and hit the outdoor market at Piazza della Cure where there are fruits, veggies, meats, fish, cheeses and flowers plus clothing, shoes, fabric, jewelry and things for the kitchen. The walk is easy, and I can window shop to my heart’s content.

Another reason I like this park is that it is a little refuge of quiet in a busy city. Just one short climb up a little side street and you enter the park through a beautiful concrete and wrought iron gate, wave to the people sitting in the little guardhouse next to the entrance and suddenly it seems as if you have stepped into the country. The wide gravel path winds its way up the hill. Broad expanses of green grass interrupted by stone benches are situated within the first loop. There is a small pond (safely enclosed by a split rail fence and chicken wire) that ducks visit regularly. Each loop in the path takes you higher up the hill and into less groomed parts of the park.

There is little traffic noise here. There are very few people here. Time slows down, no one is in a hurry. It is truly a neighborhood park. Grandmothers bring their toddler grandchildren to play in the grass and watch the ducks. Depending on their age lovers either sit in a tangle of limbs on benches or stroll arm in arm along the path. Old men walk together talking politics. It is fascinating to watch these people enjoy their morning sunlight.

One couple is especially interesting to me, as I have seen them every time I go to the park in the morning. They are a study in contrasts. A very tall and fit younger man escorts a very short and thin elderly woman slowly up the hill towards the top. As they walk he reads the paper to her, slowly and with great expression. I have never heard her comment or question him, all I ever hear is his patient reading of the news for today. I have no idea what their relationship is or why they do this, but it’s kind of comforting to see them every day.

The best part of this park for me is the fact that here I am accepted as part of the neighborhood. If that seems like a strange statement I guess you have to understand that Florence is a tourist town. They are used to people from all over the world coming here, but someone who looks like me and continues to show up on the street and in the shops far away from the tourist attractions kind of confuses them. They don’t know what to do with me. So when I walk into that park and some little old white haired lady says hello to me, when a couple of old men stop their heated discussion to say good morning, well, I just want to sit down and cry. For them, if I am in this park then obviously I belong here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nothing and Everything to do with Italy

I read the beautiful story of The Velveteen Rabbit yesterday. If you haven’t read it you must. And because lately I have been thinking a lot about love found and love lost and the price we sometimes pay for love (by myself and friends) I wanted to share this thought with someone.

This is a story about love. In the beginning of this story a hobby horse and a stuffed rabbit discuss the process by which toys become Real. “It doesn’t happen all at once, like being wound up,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams Bianco)

We have really been sold a bill of goods about love. Books, movies and music create an idea of love that doesn’t exist. Love is not the endless romantic journey that we have somehow convinced ourselves it should be. For such a long time I didn’t get that. It has taken me years to understand that love is a very messy thing. It is possible to love someone wholeheartedly and still hurt them. It is possible to love someone and still know that you shouldn’t be together

I know what I want. Like the rabbit in the story, I want to become Real, with a capitol “R“. And I am well on my way. I have loved hard, and been loved. I have caused unbelievable pain and I have been hurt. I have lost my way so many times, yet I have never been truly lost. Through all of this I have become strong, I hope I have become wise and I know I am capable of loving and being loved beyond my wildest dreams. All the dents on my heart and the scratches on my soul make me beautiful in a way that could never have happened in a fairy tale kind of love.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A simple pleasure...

I think that it is time to address one of the things I fine most interesting about Florence. It could be a nationwide phenomenon, but I really only know Florence. It’s not the amazing architecture of the city, even though some of the greatest European structures have been built here. It’s not the large collection of historical and contemporary art (it can’t compete with the Vatican, but hey, who can?) or the vibrant artists’ community that thrives here. It’s not the religious rituals that every tourist can experience. It’s not the great food and wine, although this does make the top two favorites. (I’ll save the food and wine for another day.) All these things are plentiful and evident here in Florence, but not the thing that fascinates me most.

It’s the kissing.

People of all ages do it everywhere. Yes, there’s the kiss on both cheeks when meeting or parting from someone, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Yes, Italy is a romantic country and tourists are occasionally overcome and kiss, but that’s not it either. It’s the young parents who sit on a bench in the park on a warm day and kiss like their baby is in another room, not next to them in the carriage. It’s the teenagers who kiss at the bus stop waiting for the bus. It’s the younger adults who while away the time waiting for the street light to change by kissing. It’s the older married couple who stop to kiss before entering a restaurant for dinner.

Whenever this much kissing happened in the Minnesota I grew up in, there were stern looks all around. Someone would get a talking to. Here in Florence it is a little different. Those who aren’t actually participating in their own love fest seem happily amused by those who are. They respond with tolerant smiles and a gentle throat clearing when lovers are blocking the way.

I probably don’t need to say that I thoroughly enjoy kissing and being kissed. It is, for me, the simplest and most enjoyable way possible to show someone that you love them. And so I have kissed my love in as many places in Italy that I can. Yes, in parks, at bus stops, traffic lights, and restaurant doors. Also at almost every door we have entered together, inside restaurants, on the sidewalk, in the street, on bridges and buses and trains. We have kissed each other from the banks of the Arno River to the top of the bell tower to the hills above Florence. All this kissing and not a stern look to be had anywhere, just little smiles and the occasional cleared throat to let us know we should perhaps move to the side of the street. I am one lucky woman.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Winds of March

March entered Florence like a lion yesterday. The wind coming out of the mountains is fierce and still cold and seemingly inexhaustible. Walking can be perilous as buses lift dirt off the streets, which is then picked up by the wind and thrown at the unsuspecting pedestrian (me) at what feels like a hundred miles an hour. It gets in my eyes and my nose and my mouth and my hair and, well, everywhere. I imagine this is what it would feel like to be sandblasted.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night to a terrible noise. A loud and irregular banging noise that sounded suspiciously like it was on our balcony. I guess I was the only one worried about it, so I headed out to the kitchen to take a peek out the French doors.

Our apartment came furnished…along with the essential things inside the apartment came a variety of non-essential items stored on the balcony. A broom, clay flower pots with bamboo sticks buried in the dirt, an electric oil-filled heater that we are afraid to plug in (but would really love to use), and a plastic jug (oh, about 2 gallon size) half filled with what I assume is water are lined up against the house wall. Good thing too, because only one of the outside door shutters can be anchored to the wall. The other is held in place by the combined weight of the heater and water jug. A piece of plywood bungee strapped (with a strap that dates to the Medieval period I’m sure) to the railing is supposed to stop the wind from blowing everything off the balcony.

Well, last night the wind managed to wiggle the plywood out of the bungee cord. As the bottom of the wood slid along the balcony it moved the plastic jug and heater(which is on wheels so isn’t the perfect choice for a door stop anyway) away from the shutter. All it took was one good gust of wind for the shutter to fly away from the wall and swing over the door, bounce off the frame and crash back against the wall, repeatedly. Unfortunately the broom was leaning against the shutter. When it moved the broom started to fall, and through some cosmic miracle ended up between the shutter and the door. It’s still a broom , it’s just that the handle has been reconfigured a little. This is the sight that greeted me when I opened the balcony doors

I felt like a sailor in a gale force wind. I didn’t pick anything up, I slid things along the floor. I was afraid the wind would take anything I picked up out of my hands and throw it to the terrace below. I tried wrestling the plywood back into place, but decided it was just too risky so I brought it into the kitchen. With this windbreak gone I figured I should clear the balcony of anything weightless. The only thing the wind had left there was the broom, and that only because it was wedged between the shutter and the house. I yanked it out of the gap and put it on the kitchen floor. I unhooked the other shutter from it’s anchor and pulled them both shut. Okay, I should probably have turned the light on to do all of this, but I wasn’t wearing a whole lot. So, of course, I kind of crushed one finger trying to figure out how to close and fasten the shutters. Once that was accomplished and the bleeding stopped I was able to go back to sleep.

Really, the only thing that makes this a truly Italian experience is the shutters. Everything else pretty much sounds like a summer storm in Minnesota. Who hasn’t run the gauntlet of legos, hot wheels and barbies to shut windows against a storm that blows rain sideways? Who hasn’t sat up in bed and thought “Did I close my car windows?” or heard the cover of the Weber grill fly into the patio window? The only difference now is that I am mentally trying to descibe what's happening (to myself) in Italian. Which is probably why I hurt my finger.