Friday, December 28, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: Back from vacation

I was going to title this Back in the saddle again but that was just too obvious, and then I'd have Gene Autry singing it in my head the whole time I write. I'm just not up to that.

If you've been keeping track, I've been either out of the country, sick or working for most of the last month and a half. The rest of the days it's rained. Those were the days Leif and I took turns standing at the patio doors with our noses pressed up against the glass trying to decide if there was any chance of riding that day. There were a few days where the weather wasn't absolutely horrible and the roads mostly dry. Those always seemed to happen on days that I worked so Leif got to ride while I spent time with kids.

But today.....oh today. Sixty degrees (F) and sunshine everywhere. Instead of cushy grey clouds and mist everywhere there was that incredibly blue sky. Even the breeze was warm.

We didn't even really have to ask if we should ride, it was assumed that we would. All we had to do was  plan the time (before or after lunch, we chose after) and just how long a ride is appropriate when one of us (me) is basically starting from scratch. We left all the dishes in the sink after lunch and hurried into our riding clothes. Weather can turn on a dime here, and even though the forecast was no rain we've learned not to trust any forecaster completely.

In another bold move, we dressed for fall, not winter. No shoe covers, no warm gloves, no rain jackets. Just long pants and a light jacket. It's been so cold and wet lately that going out without the heavy warm stuff felt strange. Like going out practically naked.

Only five minutes into the ride I decided I was glad that I was dressed lightly. It was absolutely beautiful out. The sun and wind on my face made me feel like I was five years old again, running outside in the spring. Everything smelled like wet dirt and wood smoke and being in motion again after so many weeks of forced stillness was wonderful. It was like my body was coming alive again.

So we rode about 20 miles today on mostly flat roads just to get me warmed up again and used to being on my bike. I rolled along behind Leif (I still have no clue where I'm going here, and the view is pretty nice) lifting my face into the sun and wind, casually nodding to the other cyclists as they passed us in the other direction (there were LOTS of guys out today, dressed for the possibility of a sudden winter snow), and singing to myself a few little reminders...

My  left foot is stuck to the pedal, don't stop without taking it off....
It's not a bad thing being stuck to the pedal, they even say it's a good thing, just remember to take your foot off. (This alternated with "right foot" as I was practicing feeling trapped with both feet, but not at the same time. I'm not stupid.)

The big ring's for riding flat and fast, the little one is for climbing....
Check where you are before the hill, before the hill, before the hill.
Check where you are before the hill so you can keep up.

I probably don't need to tell you that I sing these under my breath. I'm trying to exude confidence and just a hint of "don't mess with me" as I ride the mean streets of Tuscany. I'm operating under the delusion that the only person who knows I'm completely clueless is Leif and that anyone seeing me out there assumes I've been riding for years. It's a nice fantasy anyway.

The forecast is for three more days of the same beautiful weather. I already have a date to ride with a friend tomorrow and will ride with Leif the other two days. This is the best Christmas present ever.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

My first Italian Christmas

This is the first time I was actually in Italy for Christmas and it's our first Christmas together after getting married. So all in all a pretty exciting time for us both. To continue the "first" theme our friend Barbara invited us to her home for Christmas dinner; her first time hosting Christmas since moving here four years ago.

I probably don't need to remind anyone what Christmas is like at Mom and Dad's, but for my friends who have never had the privilege of an invitation I'll summarize. There is always tons of food, and once that's been cleared away the table is refilled with desserts and sweets. Getting the table ready  for dinner involves a certain amount of logistics. Kind of like Tetris with food. Careful placement of each platter and bowl is necessary so that everything fits with space for people to actually eat as well. It may in fact take longer than actually eating the meal. Something is almost always forgotten in the kitchen or the breezeway or the garage. We use every available space for storage, depending on the ambient temperature outside and the allowable.temperature for the food to be stored. Dinner is a noisy affair (there are lots of kids of various ages, but honestly, even as they grow up the conversation remains fairly loud) and no one sits still. After dinner activities include groaning, napping, some more groaning and discussions about which physical activity will best relieve the groaning this year followed by an enthusiastic or reluctant participation in said activity. Then there are games and supper from leftovers. All in all a great day.

This Christmas was quieter and less frenetic. It was bilingual and since there was only one mother tongue Italian speaker all the conversation was slower. After dinner we watched an Italian film and talked about going for a walk but never actually did it. Instead of a table filled with all the food at one time we served each dish at its own time. We started with saffron risotto and the second dish was a beautiful pork roast and salsiccia with potatoes and carrots and fennel bulb side dishes and some smoked salmon, finishing with the traditional pannetone (Italian Christmas cake) and a chocolate polenta cake with candied oranges. It took almost eight hours to get from the aperitivo to the dolce (dessert) and every moment was a joy. Just like at Mom and Dad's. I'm so lucky to have wonderful friends and a wonderful man to celebrate life with.

We arrived on our bikes carrying
most of our kitchen on our backs
and in Leif's saddle bags.
So pretty much the usual,
just on bicycles instead of a car.
I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot to take very many pictures. Merry Christmas to you all. I love you and miss you but don't worry. I've found friends and family here that make missing you less difficult.
Leif and Diane, the
from Canada.

Our beautiful and gracious hostess Barbara.
Fast becoming my best friend.
Barbara's neighbor Giuseppe.
A wonderful man from
Sicily who knows almost
everything about Florence.

Barbara's beautiful tree and apartment.
Me making saffron risotto.

The candied oranges. I forgot to
get a picture of the cake.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

I started a very bitchy post a little earlier today, prompted by my discovery that currently there are more people reading my blog in Latvia than in the US. Well, in the last few days, anyway. Which shouldn't matter because I should just be grateful anyone finds anything I write interesting. So I'm sorry for mentally writing a slightly biting and catty post that will never see the light of your computer monitor.

It's just been such a weird holiday season and I don't quite know what to do with myself so I think I overreacted a bit on the Latvia thing. I spent four weeks away from home with only a backpack's worth of necessities, then arrived home a week before Christmas only to be attacked by the most recent "bug  that's going around." It's just been a little difficult to get myself in the mood. I haven't shopped at all, barely even walked around town to see all the pretty lights, and have been forced to listen to Christmas playlists on YouTube because I haven't found a radio station that plays enough Christmas music for me. Disco, reggae, country, bad home films of concerts complete with heavy breathing and (creative) covers by non-English speakers singing in English who should probably consider a career other than singing. It's been tough.

I suppose it didn't help that I took not one but two jobs on Christmas Eve day, a day historically geared towards finding a way to leave work early and hang out at my parents all night eating food and drinking in front of the fireplace. One job is during the afternoon and the other job for Christmas Eve. I did it mostly because we'll be celebrating big on Christmas Day with friends and the family will make it worth my while to miss midnight mass and basically continue my wandering ways by celebrating the holiday in homes other than my own.

To cheer myself up I spent the afternoon making candied orange slices in dark chocolate. I'm pretty impressed with myself. And tonight I'll be going to a concert in a theater built in the 17th century. There's no snow and it's not even freezing cold. I'll still have a Christmas with great friends and my love.

Maybe most importantly, I get Christmas 7 hours before my family. I win.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Blue Christmas? I think not.

I've been feeling a little strange lately. Out of sorts. Apprehensive. Possibly even a little blue.

I thought it had something to do with Christmas. Yesterday I started writing a post about how different my Christmas is going to be, like it was a bad thing. I was boo hooing that I have no idea what Christmas will be like, never having spent it in Florence. A friend told me (with great love I'm sure) to remember the beautiful Christmases past and enjoy the beautiful Christmas present. Good advice. You'll never get to read that post. It's terrible. Trust me.

This morning I woke up and the air was, if not technically warm, at least warmer than the last few days.. The sun was threatening to shine. The animals were acting like themselves instead of like mopey teenagers. My first thought when I woke up all I could think was "Tomorrow I get to go home!"

And that's what's been wrong for all these weeks. I'm homesick.

I've been living in other people's houses, eating their food, and sleeping in their beds for the last four weeks. Half of that time I was also living in a language I barely understand. All my clothes are varying degrees of dirty having been worn anywhere from two to twelve times. All my clothes. Which isn't saying that I have mountains of laundry with me. I've been living out of a backpack for these four weeks. Things have been rinsed and things have been hung outside to take some of the dirty out of them. (For future reference, that "clean" you get from hanging them outside bit only lasts about five minutes.)

I read Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country five times and a single James Bond novel six times because they were the only English books we had. In the first two weeks I watched more hockey than any American will get to do this year. I've also watched cross country, biathalon, and down hill skiing, and horse dancing. I've watched probably hundreds of nightly reports on these sports as well as soccer, hand ball, floor hockey and bowling. All in Swedish. Which worked for me because I really don't enjoy watching sports news in any language.

So I've been bored out of my skull, aimlessly wandering around my temporary homes and occasionally lifting my nose into the air and wondering " that me?" followed quickly by "No, it couldn't be. Must be an overweight mountain goat passing by." I've been the perfect guest, but even the perfect guest can get a little restless sometimes and start to long for home.

That's where I'm at right now. I'm ready to go home and start this Christmas thing in earnest. Also laundry...I don't even know where to start there. I think I'll get a library card. I need to watch White Christmas. So much to do and Christmas is only a little more than a week away!

Friday, December 14, 2012

IKEA: The Musical

Truly Invar: A Musical Tale of Furniture, or as I call it IKEA: The Musical, is a show everyone should watch. Even those who think musicals are stupid. Even my ex-stepson who once said while watching Paint Your Wagon  (for all of five minutes) "No cowboy is going to randomly burst into song. This is stupid!"

We watched it on TV while staying with Leif's father. I happen to see it listed one day while I was pretending to read the newspaper and remembered that we'd seen commercials for it. It was definitely a "must see" even with the language barrier.

Accompanied by a violin and a pump organ on stage left, it's all dancing and singing (no speaking at all) AND it's educational. Seriously, watching a man who resembles Lurch on the Addams Family sing and play  the organ while basically running as fast as he can (reminder: pump organ) for almost 2 hours is worth the time alone.

I learned all about IKEA. How it started (mail order), how it grew, and how it became blue and yellow (to prove just how Swedish the company really was). I was reminded that Sweden gave us dynamite and ABBA, Pippi Longstocking and Vikings (although I disagree with this. Norway gave us the Vikings, but this is an ongoing debate between Leif and myself. What the larger intellectual community has to say means little to us.) I learned that dynamite funded the first Nobel prizes but not from the show, from Leif. I hypothesized that IKEA is responsible for the abundance of cafeteria style restaurants in Sweden, and Leif didn't tell me I was wrong. Then again he didn't tell me I was right either. As depicted in the show, Swedes were aghast at the thought of customers getting their own food and paying at a central location, just as they were at the idea of customers finding their own things in a warehouse and bringing it to the cash register themselves. Obviously they've gotten used to the idea.

I learned all this from a bundle of dancing dynamite, a singing meatball and a host of other characters. I was particularly enchanted with a Viking sporting the traditional horned helmet, knee length braids AND a beard ala ZZ Top. Ingvar himself danced with a midsummer pole in a way that reminded me of Fred Astaire dancing with a coat rack. This really was an entertaining way to learn about Swedish history and culture, capitalism in Europe, politics and Swedish musical theater. Oh yeah, and about IKEA. Almost forgot that!

Of course at this point you'd have to watch it in Swedish, which makes it somewhat of a challenge but worth your personal struggle and the stress on your trusty translator. I think early next year they're coming out with an English version. I'm guessing it will lose something in the translation but I still recommend seeing it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Canine defication supervisor

I'm back watching dogs poo. How exactly would one put this valuable skill on a resume....and make it sound like a coveted business skill that not everyone has? That's right. You don't. You bury that skill so deep no one would suspect that you've ever seen a dog or cat. Of course, if during the interview you happen to spy a picture of a dog or cat prominently placed feel free to mention it in passing as something you've done in the past. Could be a foot in the door, if that's a door you really want to open.

I guess I don't have to tell you that we're back up in the mountains, watching dogs poo. This time in the snow.

I've never been up here in the winter. In the summer all the doors are open and everyone comes and goes as they please and the only time we're all in one place is at dinner time. Now they're underfoot constantly (I'm sure they're thinking the same thing about us) and when we're all in the kitchen it's kind of like being on Noah's ark, if Noah had a twelve foot aluminum Larson rowboat with one oar and a slow leak. With both dogs laying on the floor there's no room left to walk. The cats take up residence on the chairs, usually the ones we would like to sit in.

Once we finish cooking a meal and get seated the dogs sprawl around our chairs, dog legs tangled with chair legs and Siri always has one foot touching me. This means getting up during the meal is impossible to do without making everyone get up and mill around the room for awhile. Tails brush the tabletop, someone inevitably trips over a dog, the cats start spitting and swiping at each other and general mayhem ensues till everyone gets back in their chairs. It's like running a Chinese fire drill in a closet. All in all meals are exciting and challenging here at Casa di Poo. (In Italian I believe we would call it Casa di Caca. If it were a fancier place perhaps Palazzo di Escremento.)

The pet owner spent a lot of time telling me how it was impossible for the cats to be outside overnight at this time of year. It was just too cold for them. They should go outside, she stressed, just not at night. Needless to say I let one outside early in the evening that first day and it didn't return for twenty four hours. Just to drive me crazy, I'm sure. She came back looking warm and invigorated, not freezing and pitiful. I blame my first sleepless night here on that cat.

Their owner had said that she was feeding the cats an extra time in the winter "because they need it" whatever that means. The day after I lost one of them they didn't bug me for food in the middle of the day so I didn't feed them. Possibly my stupidest point of that day. Later they showed me their displeasure by peeing and pooing in inappropriate places. I blame my second sleepless night on both the cats as I spent it hoping I had fed them enough before bed so that I wouldn't have to sterilize the entire house when I got up.

The third day we took the dogs out for a long walk around the property as we had all pretty much been in the house watching it snow the day before. It was lovely. The sun was even shining part of the time. The dogs were running and playing in the snow and Leif and I were walking hand in hand, smiling at each other and enjoying the day. Suddenly Leif said "Is that Molly?" and pointed to the other side of the fence. The wrong side. He was right. That was our (for now) dog looking happily confused to be on the wrong side of the fence. After a little panic and brainstorming at high decibels Leif found a place to climb over the five foot fence and sweet talk the collarless, obedience school drop out back along the fence, down the road and into the gate. Meanwhile I stayed with the other dog inside the fence worrying that they would both disappear and I'd have some explaining to do. Needless to say Leif did a perimeter check and plugged any holes he found as best he could. I slept that night, only because I figured nothing else could go wrong.

The other day I heard a hissing sound. I looked through a doorway and saw,  in Matrix-like slow motion, one cat floating backwards across the doorway with ears flattened, tailed bushed out, and claws and teeth bared. After she disappeared from the door the other cat floated by going forward....same configuration of ears, tail, claws and teeth. As she disappeared from view I heard growling that grew into yowling and suddenly stopped. One by one they both sauntered through the door looking completely innocent and carefree. I guess problem solved. I lost no sleep whatsoever over the two cats not getting along. They never get along.

So at last count we've had one disappearing/reappearing cat, one failed escape attempt, random acts of pooing and peeing and ninja cat performances. Things should slow down a little as it started snowing again today so the cats and dogs have re-entered hibernation mode. Which means everyone's getting along and not straying far from home. For now.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Swedish coffee

At one time in my life I drank over twelve cups of coffee every day. When I found I couldn't function without it I quit cold turkey. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone; on the other hand I probably couldn't have done it any other way. Eventually, years later, I started drinking again, but in reasonable amounts. I even worked at a coffee shop and managed to keep myself down to about two cups a day.

One of the joys of living in Italy is the coffee. It's strong and small and delivers caffeine without muss or fuss. I spent two weeks in Sweden having coffee with breakfast, at elevens, sometimes after lunch, afternoon coffee and coffee with dessert after dinner. Sweden is definitely a place where the culture around coffee is just as strong as it is in Italy. I wish I could say the same for the coffee itself.

It's taken me five visits and endless gallons (or liters for those more metrically minded) of coffee in Sweden for me to figure out just what it is about it that doesn't work for me. This trip I made a concerted effort to really understand; to analyze the coffee and my reaction to it.

My conclusion, after hours of drinking coffee in multiple locations and accompanied by a variety of goodies, is that Swedish coffee is simultaneously tasteless and incredibly harsh. The grounds are only mildly aromatic, the kitchen doesn't fill with the smell of warm coffee while it's brewing and even when I stuck my nose in the cup (yes, I did this over and over. This is science, after all!) I could barely detect the faint aroma of coffee. It didn't taste like coffee in my mouth. In fact, it didn't taste like anything unless I added milk and sugar. Then it tasted like warm, sweet, watered down milk.

You'd think with all that lack of flavor going on that the experience would pretty much be over when I swallowed, wouldn't you? I did too. We would both be wrong. Five seconds after I swallowed the inside of my mouth felt like leathery wrinkled elephant skin and tasted vaguely like soap. Every time, without fail. It made me wonder why in the world they even drink the stuff. I have to assume that generations of exposure to Swedish coffee has rendered them immune to the after shock.

Then I had an epiphany. Maybe this is what makes Swedish coffee so Swedish. It's not too anything. It's not too strong, it delivers caffeine reliably and it will never compete with the flavors of the cakes and cookies. In fact, the cakes and cookies are essential as they mask the aftertaste. And because of these qualities it can be consumed in copious quantities giving Swedes as many chances to come together over a cup of coffee as they can stand.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


This picture has nothing to do with  Thanksgiving or Christmas.
It's just pretty.

OK, I promised a report on what I had for Thanksgiving dinner, so here it is.

I can't exactly remember.

I wish I  knew how to type in a whisper. How awful of me. I'm sure you were expecting something a bit more wordy here. Possibly you wanted a lengthy description of a home made Swedish meal complete with riveting commentary on presentation and taste. Perhaps you were thinking that I would at least have set aside a moment while eating whatever I had to remember what I'm thankful for. Well, I did do that, but it's a daily ritual so Thanksgiving day just doesn't stand out among all the rest. Sorry.

In lieu of describing Thanksgiving dinner I will instead regale you with all the things Christmas that I ate or drank during the two weeks we spent in Sweden. It's not a short list as Swedes seem to enjoy making everything taste different for Christmas. I don't know why. Maybe it's because they don't have the Winter Carnival like we do in Minnesota and need some distraction to keep them from going stir crazy. Maybe they're tired of coming up with new ways to use beets and herrings. I just don't know.

First there was Christmas beer which we had the first night we were there and almost every meal we ate at home in the following days. Leif's dad has a favorite called Pripp's Jul. I'd like to report that it had a festive flavor with hints of gingerbread and candy canes but in truth it just tasted like beer. Maybe I would need to drink the everyday Swedish beer, every day, to find the finer points of Christmas beer. That's never gonna happen so I'll just take Pripp's word for it that it tastes like Christmas, if Christmas tasted like beer.

Then there is a Christmas soda called Julmust. Coca-Cola puts a picture of Santa on the can and calls it Christmas soda. Still tastes like Coke though. In Sweden Christmas soda tastes different. I can't really put my finger on what it tastes like. Sort of like a less sweet cola with a maple syrup taste at the end. Like having Christmas ham and coke in your mouth at the same time. Not unpleasant. Just different.

Christmas bread arrived in the stores a few days after we got there. Sometimes it has raisins, sometimes not, and the bread is more dense and dark. It tastes just slightly sweet and seems to go with everything from meat to cheese. I assume it also goes with caviar because I watched Leif and his dad eat it for breakfast (!), but it will have to remain a third hand report as I really don't enjoy caviar. FYI I didn't spot any Christmas caviar while I was there. I can't imagine that they would leave such an icon of Swedish food unmolested by Christmas spirit, but maybe this is where they are showing great restraint and I'm just not appreciating the effort.

Christmas is also the season for exotic sweet breads like Lussekatter. These are very traditional Swedish sweet buns made with saffron and raisins that are usually twisted into a figure eight shape. Since they all taste pretty much the same, marketing demands that there be a variety of shapes. Long coffee cakes, little saffron squares, big and little figure eights either looking perfect, like they came off a production line or so "hand made" that you'd swear they were fashioned by a team of four year olds on a sugar high. Every time you go to someone's house for coffee they hope that they're the first ones to serve you  lussekatter. Of course they all couldn't be first, but I could honestly say I'd never see one shaped quite like it before.

Then there's the mulled wine called glögg. Every year the municipal liquor store releases a special, limited production flavor of the year in addition to the traditional glögg. All are served warm with raisins and almonds (in the cup so the raisins can soak up some alcohol) and there are alcohol free versions for drivers and kids. This years offering is in a white bottle and has the flavors of Japanese yuzu, ginger and mandarin oranges. I had to look yuzu up as it's a mystery food to me. According to Wikipedia (information source for the discerning) it is a strange looking sour citrus from Japan that is surprisingly frost-hardy. It probably doesn't taste like much on its own, but it's very good in glögg.

One night we had dinner with Leif's brother and his family. We had Christmas sausages called prins korv. Translated directly those would be prince sausages. They are halfway between a hot dog and  a sausage in taste and size, and very good with beet salad and mashed potatoes. Tomas' wife Karin commented that the sausages didn't taste much like prince this year. Never having tasted a prince myself I couldn't argue; I'll just take her word for it.

I actually got to make gingerbread cookies with Karin this year. Pepparkaka is more than just a cookie I found out. It also goes well with cheese....strong cheeses like Gorgonzola and cheeses with garlic or herbs added. Incredibly yummy, in fact. Everyone should try it. You can buy the cookies at IKEA if you must, throw your favorite cheese on it and enjoy. I was skeptical but now I'm a firm believer. It was also fun to be part of a family tradition. It's not easy to do that from hundreds of miles away.

And finally, Christmas candy, represented by the ubiquitous Julskum. I've described this before I think. Really sticky, kind of marshmallowy candy shaped like a Swedish Santa (kind  of like a slightly scary looking gnome in a red suit.) Like glögg, there is a limited edition flavor of the year. This year it's something that roughly translates to wintergreen apple. I was not impressed. I like the regular flavor best, especially the way we had it this time. Karin made homemade chocolate sauce for the vanilla ice cream. That's right, made with real ingredients like cream and butter and cocoa and sugar. And when you dip the julskum into it, well, it's pretty much heaven. Sugar covered in warm, creamy chocolate. I'd suggest waiting till the kids go to bed so you don't have to share.

Leif tells me that while I think of salmon as a solid year round Swedish dish, many Swedes feel it's a very Christmas dish. We had it twice. Once baked in what Karin called an ordinary way and a (I suppose) typical sauce made with creme fraiche or maybe yogurt, dill, lemon juice and red caviar. I really love salmon made this way. The second time we had it Leif's sister used a recipe that she's had for years but never actually tried. Salmon baked with blue cheese inside and a sherry/dill cream sauce. It smells like old socks when it's cooking but tastes great.
Before the big storm hit. Already lots of snow.

In fact, I thought I was smelling me (and desperately trying to remember when I last showered) while the salmon was baking as I was cooking tiny pancakes called plättar. These aren't Christmas either, but I was pretty proud of my little pancakes. I'm so good, in fact, that Leif's niece Rebecka thinks I should live with them so that I can make them every day. She's seven and probably easily convinced of things but I'll take the compliment in the spirit it was given.

We didn't have an actual Christmas dinner so there was no ham, or bread with the ham water, or herrings of many flavors, or beets prepared five different ways. But I think I've managed to give you just a hint of what it means to be Swedish at Christmas, at least while you're eating.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Happy birthday to me

This is the third birthday I celebrated outside the United States and the second one here in Italy. It was without my family, but spent with people who are quickly becoming like family to me. It was everything I could have hoped for and nothing like I thought it would be.

First, because I'm the most awesome wife ever, I told Leif to ride with his team in the morning. I stayed home and got the house ready for our lunch guests and did some baking. He came home happy and ready to do anything at all to make my day perfect.

Our good friends Katarina and Biago came to lunch with their daughter Sofia. We had two first dishes: pasta with pesto and couscous with curried  shrimp. Both turned out perfectly and I'm happy to say that the only leftovers is about a cup of couscous. For dessert we had an Orange Olive Oil cake that I made. Right here and now I'm giving credit to my new friend Christine for the recipe. It's a hit with my Italian friends.

I know it seems that I write about food and meals a lot for someone who isn't a professional cook or food critic. It's not even really the food that's the great part of these stories. (but the food's great) It's the time spent at the table with friends while eating that great food. There was no mad rush to finish the meal so we could all sit around and talk. We talked while we cooked the pasta, then while we ate it. We talked while we made the couscous and shrimp, then continued while we ate that. We talked over our cake and coffee. And when we stopped eating we sat where we were and talked some more.

We talked about the food, yes. But we also talked  about work, and families, and told stories about growing up. We shared ourselves while we shared the food. And even  more exciting is that two years ago we spoke almost exclusively in English. Now over time we have a friendship language that freely moves between English and Italian, with the occasional Swedish thrown in for fun. All those languages has made our friendship richer and deeper because we don't just state a feeling, but use every word at our disposal to define it completely for everyone in the group.

They left almost three hours later and in true Minnesota fashion we were still trading stories as they walked down the stairs. We had just enough time to clean up from lunch when our friend Ola stopped by to pick up something from Leif. This sweet man apologized to me as he gave me my birthday kisses because he had tried to find a flower shop open but of course it was Sunday and so they were all closed. For me the thought was gift enough.

After Ola left we had just a few minutes before P-O, another friend, showed up to take us to his house outside of town for dinner with him and another friend, Claudia. I was starting to feel pretty special.

His house is high above Florence and the silence is like a blanket. There's a big fireplace with a little fire; just enough to make it smell woodsy and warm and throw those great lights across the room. Most of the rest of the light came from candles. They were everywhere: on the mantel, on shelves, on the floor, in the massive chandelier above the table. The flames flickered all around us as we toasted my birthday with champagne. The man knows how to create an atmosphere.

We cooked together, the four of us. We cleaned and sliced artichokes and onions and zuchini while Claudia made the beer batter for a kind of Italian tempura. After these starters we moved to the dining room for Swedish shrimps. A huge bowl of fresh Swedish shrimps in all their leggy, mustachioed glory sat squarely in the middle of the table. I probably don't need to remind anyone that I'm from an inland region where the shrimp comes cleaned and washed and most likely frozen. I'm not squeamish, thank goodness, but my shrimp stripping talents didn't impress anyone else at the table. They took pity on me and started tossing cleaned shrimp onto my plate.

The shrimp were followed by cheeses and more of my orange cake. Cheese is another one of those foods that are a pleasure to explore here. So many ways to make it, so many different stages of maturation. Pecorino aged in beer, gorgonzola made with goat milk and with cow milk just to taste the difference.

We had eight different wines we tried over the course of the meal, from all over Italy and right outside his door. There was a beautiful Brunello and a Chianti from 1999, both of which I enjoyed. There were some lovely fresh whites and then of course, dessert wines with the cake. I had a tough time keeping track of the four or five glasses I had in front of me as we moved from white, to red, to after dinner drinks.

Again, the food was only a backdrop for the conversation we shared in front of the fire, This conversation was less Italian and more Swedish, but just as deep and fulfilling for me. I'm learning, slowly, the art of friendship.

A wild ride down switchbacks into Florence was an exciting (and slightly dizzying) end to a birthday I will never forget. I feel loved.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thanksgiving is coming

I figure I better talk about something besides cycling or people will start to think I'm a very one dimensional person. I have plenty of other dimensions to talk about. Like the fact that this is the third Thanksgiving I'll miss at my brother's house. Or the fact that I have yet to come up with some kind of personal holiday tradition on my own. Oh well, there's always next year.

Thanksgiving is approaching quickly. I won't even be here. I'll be in Sweden and since we're staying with his dad chances are I won't be eating turkey, stuffing, smashed taters and gravy, cranberries, sweet potatoes, Parker House rolls or pumpkin pie on that day. No candy corn, pickles or jello salad either.

With my luck Thanksgiving will be the day my husband decides to take me up on my offer to try one of his father's favorite foods. It always appears in his fridge the day before we are scheduled to leave, in large quantities. Like he's been just waiting for me to leave so he can eat normally again. So I said, casually in other conversation so he might forget about it but he probably won't, it would be considerate of me to try blood pudding. That way his dad doesn't have to wait till I leave to enjoy his meals again. I have a feeling it will definitely make me thankful for other foods.

All our American friends in Florence are feverishly preparing for the holiday. They're combing the grocery stores and local markets for those "must have" items. Some of it's easy. Potatoes, corn, zuchinni....most any vegetable they can get here. But there are other things that commonly grace the Thanksgiving tables in the States that have to be approached differently here.

For instance, turkey is a common meat here. But no Italian would think of buying an entire turkey and cooking it. In fact, if you want a whole, uncut turkey you have to order it in advance from a small butcher shop. And endure the looks and the comments about (crazy) Americans.

Pumpkins are plenteous here, but pumpkin pie filling or solid pack pumpkin is only sold in some stores and like my experience with Cream of Mushroom soup, be prepared to pay through the nose for it. I think one friend paid 4-5 euro for a single can. I can't say that I love love love pumpkin pie enough to pay that much.

I have another friend who is currently scouring the area for fresh or frozen cranberries to make her own cranberry sauce. So far no luck. All my sources say the only cranberries they've been able to find are the canned ones. And we all agree that those are awful. Or maybe I should just say they're not everyone's cup of tea. My son loves the darn  things. Italy appears to be one of those countries that doesn't really grow cranberries or consume them.

I also haven't seen sweet potatoes here. Or marshmallows. Now I know that half of you are reading this and gagging at the thought and the other half are thinking "Oh yeah, just like mom used to make." It is entirely possible that they may be available in cans next to the pumpkin and cranberries. I've never taken the time to look. Actually, I've never seen these canned items in the stores myself. I've just seen them in other people's houses.

The bread will have to be Italian. Unless you buy the tiny sandwich loaves, some of which boldly state on the label good for 30 days! Who wants to buy bread that will still be fresh in 30 days? Even Wonder Bread doesn't throw that kind of boast around. So the bread will be salt-less Tuscan bread or focaccia. Unless they bake it themselves.

Once they have the food they'll have to worry about the guests. Because Thanksgiving isn't a holiday here. Anyone who could make it to their house will have to eat and run so they can get back to work. I imagine that most people, like one of my friends, has pushed the actual meal to Saturday so that her Italian family can come. Others will probably move Thanksgiving "dinner" to dinner time here, which is around 8-8:30pm. It's a scheduling nightmare, especially with children.

There are a few local restaurants that have a Thanksgiving dinner menu planned and a few others that offer take out food or baked goods. I have no idea how well attended those are. The first year I was here I was still in my "OMG I'm in Italy" fog of happiness and felt grateful to find a restaurant with pumpkin soup. Last year I was in Sweden and honestly can't remember what I had to eat.

I promise to report on what I actually have on Thanksgiving. Don't blame me if it's blood pudding. Thank my parents for teaching me good manners and consideration for others. And my husband for having a long memory.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: On being unfaithful

I feel like I'm being unfaithful. At the very least like I've been fickle with my affections.

Not from today, but typical of the views I was
forced to look at during the whole ride.
Terrible, I know.
Today was a perfectly beautiful November day. The kind that hardly ever happen and when they do invariably there are a hundred other things to do that steal the day away. But I don't have that problem very often, so I went on a ride with Barbara. We rode up to Fiesole. Pretty much the same ride Leif and I took with Lucy the triathlete and her fantastically in shape for the shape he's in husband.

Barbara is another super athlete, but this time I have ALL my gears so the ride was....not easy, but not terribly hard either. It was a perfect day. Bright sunshine and cool breezes under those impossibly blue Tuscan skies surrounded by green mountains slowly changing their colors to yellows and reds followed us along the winding roads outside Florence.

We rode for three hours, stopping at the top to wander through an outdoor market where Barbara learned about properly preparing chestnuts and yet another older man touched my bike without asking and made small talk with us for awhile. Then we got to throw ourselves down the mountain. My favorite part.

I got home and felt energized by the whole morning, looked at the sunshine and tried to decide what I should do with the rest of the day, because it was too beautiful to waste sitting inside. [That's the northerner in me, by the way. We chase the sun during the winter months. It's a habit that's almost impossible to break, but I'm working on it.] I thought I might go draw at a church I haven't visited yet. It's a ways from our house and I thought I could just hop on my mountain bike and ride over.

My companion through thick and thin.
Even though she threw me once and broke my elbow.
The very next thought was "Oh, I wish I could take my road bike. That mountain bike is just so heavy." Then I practically slapped my own hand for even thinking a thing like that. Even though it's like driving a Suburban it's been my companion for almost two years. It gave me my freedom here.

See: fickle and unfaithful. And now I shall go down and make it up to her by checking the tire pressure and maybe wiping off a layer or two of dust. And never, ever let her know I'm secretly yearning to fly like a bird instead of rolling over everything in my path like a tank.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I think God* approves

I've been here in Florence now for two years. I'm sure that there are lots of people who never thought I'd last this long. Probably just as many people know how determined (although some might mistakenly substitute the word stubborn) I can be when I decide to do something.

It's been quite an adjustment for me to live here. More than just language and culture. More than food. My days no longer revolve around work in a desperate way. I don't have a to-do-list that stretches weeks into the future. I've stopped using other people's definition of success to judge my own life. It hasn't always been easy.

I've spent two years learning to live in this moment. It's been hard, because it's the complete opposite of how I was raised. It's taken me a long  time to appreciate living in the moment. But I've learned that it's important because once a moment passes it's gone forever. I don't want to miss anymore present moments that are real because my attention is on a future that is only a possibility.

Some days I still need to remind myself that this way of living is as valid as the way I used to live. True, we don't have a lot of stuff. In fact, hardly any stuff at all. But what we have gives us great pleasure every day. We never go hungry. We have amazing friends who are generous with their time and friendship. We have each other and share a respect and love for each other that will guide us not just through this moment but through the rest of our lives.

Sometimes I still feel the pull of my old life and values. I question my sanity. In those times I remind myself that when God* wrote those ten commandments work was mentioned only to support the importance of keeping the Sabbath for God only. Not how many hours, not any pay scale, nothing about how much was enough. All God wrote about stuff was that you should be happy with what you have and let others enjoy their stuff in peace. It's my personal opinion that God didn't intend for us to spend our entire lives working so hard we don't enjoy the life we've been given.

God doesn't care if I work or play. God doesn't judge my life based on my income, my possessions or the value of my 401K.

God only asks that I treat others with respect and give each person I meet the very best of me so that they can in turn give their best to others.

Any other ideas about how I should be living my life have been given to me by people. Good people....honest people. But people whose experiences and their reaction to them are different from mine. My experiences tell me that the life I'm living is a good one. One that I could and have recommended to dear friends, knowing that it can only make their lives richer.

* I use God because I was raised as a Christian. Replace God with any other word you like....goddess, universe, collective consciousness, or whatever you might acknowledge as that power that holds us all together.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: All clipped in

Cleats are one of the last big hurdles I have to clear before I can call myself a cyclist. If in fact I want to be called a cyclist. That's a question still to be answered. Regardless, if I want to ride with Leif I'll need to start using cleats or accept his gracious ability to ride slowly without sighing every ten seconds. I still know he's riding differently for me.

Last night Leif and I screwed the cleats into my cycling shoes. This isn't some kind of commitment, really, because I have pedals that are flat on one side and set up for cleats on the other. A pedal that can go either way and I can decide from moment to moment whether I want to be semi-permanently attached to the pedals or just rest on them. Which is perfect for me, because while I might think that it's the right time for me to try cleats my body and mind may think otherwise. I've been warned by more experienced riders that it's definitely one of the most difficult things to learn on a bike but one of the things you really need to learn if you want to ride with more confidence up hill and down. And we definitely have hills. It remains to be seen if it will increase my confidence.

So we put the cleats on the shoes last night and I sat on my bike in the living room (which remember is our bike/wine/map room, we don't even let company see that room) and held onto a bookshelf as I clumsily tried to clip in  and out. It's supposed to be one graceful movement out and a simple push in. I looked like I was stuck to the pedal with bubble gum and couldn't get myself unstuck. It wasn't pretty. Leif had a very concerned look on his face. I'm sure he was thinking that he got me all trained this far and it would all be for naught because I couldn't figure out the cleats.

He kept saying "It'll be different when you're actually riding," but I'm not sure if he was saying that to give me confidence or to comfort himself. I desperately wanted to believe him, because I truly sucked in the living room. Truly.

I was already set up with Barbara to ride today. Note my brilliant planning...I asked her to ride with me before we ever attempted the clips at home. No turning back once you've confirmed a riding date unless it's pouring rain. Which I fervently prayed for. I guess more people were praying for nice weather than for rain and today dawned, if not brightly, at least not damply.

So I headed out to meet Barbara and we rode to Cascina Park where on Saturday mornings the masses go to ride, roller skate, skateboard, walk and run. They also go to socialize, read the paper and walk the dog, often simultaneously. Sounds like the perfect place to learn a skill that requires focus and concentration and has the very real possibility of physical danger to yourself and others, right?

She was great, explaining the finer points of getting in and out of the cleats without (hopefully)harming myself or others and then we did a few trial ins and outs while standing still. I chose the cleat-on-one-foot-only method, so basically I had one foot attached and one foot free. Sounds safe, doesn't it? We rode for a little way then she signaled a stop and this is where I was supposed to simply put my free foot down on the ground and stand still.

I did that perfectly. And all hell broke loose. I don't know how it happened but suddenly I was flat on my back on the road. I fell like a giant redwood. Caboom. And like moths to a flame, every male rider and runner within 100 feet of me turned and started to come to me asking if they could help. I was laying flat on my back underneath my bike laughing so hard I could hardly talk. I sat up and waved everyone away, shaking my head and laughing even harder. Because Barbara was next to me with both hands waving in the air shouting (in Italian) "First time using cleats! First time!! First time using cleats!!!!!!" Anyone who hadn't seen me fall heard her yells and turned to see a crazy blonde woman laying under her bike laughing her fool head off while her friend held off potential offers of help like a traffic cop moving along gawkers at the scene of an accident.

Truly one of the most embarrassing moments of my life and that's saying a lot. I'm quite good at embarrassing myself.

I got up and made sure nothing was broken, bruised or bleeding. I was a little dirty and I sort of scuffed up the tape on the handle bar and the seat was definitely listing to one side, but other than that everything was OK. Somehow I managed to be gracefully clumsy and not actually hurt myself, other than a little scratch where my keys poked into my back when I fell. I must have perfected my falling technique since I broke my elbow. I forced the seat into a more central location and got ready to go again. Because damn if I was going to let the bike win. Besides, I had the dreaded first fall while using cleats behind me. No more worrying what it would be like, because it's done.

That was the highlight of the ride. We spent the next couple of hours riding around the park while I practiced stepping in/out, stopping/starting and being clipped in left foot/right foot/both feet (gasp). And we talked. It was a great morning. Even with the fall, which as I explained was going to happen sometime anyway so why not right away. Get it over with and move on. Now to try them in traffic.....

Friday, November 9, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: When it invades your dreams you're hooked

I've been enjoying learning to ride. As of today I've ridden my road bike ten times. Which isn't a lot and at the same time is about ten times more than I ever thought I'd be riding one. My body is definitely changing and lately there's been a change in my thinking too. Slightly disturbing to say the least.

Two days ago when we were riding I found myself thinking that my feet were wandering around the pedals a bit much on the downhills and it would be nice to have them firmly attached......then I gasped (silently, or at least behind him so he couldn't hear it) and promised myself I wouldn't tell him about that thought because then he'd get all excited and tell me I'm ready for the clips. Which I'm not.

Last night all my dreams happened on bicycles. Everyone was on a bike. No one walked. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to have everyone on bikes. I decided not to share that with him either.

Today as we rode I kept saying (to myself, no need to let Leif know I was struggling) "What doesn't kill me can only make me stronger." Then I realized that I'm already stronger than most of the women I know or pass on the street. I asked myself "Do I really want to be stronger than all these Italian women? They seem to be doing just fine without riding, why kill myself?" Then I caught a glimpse of the smile on Leif's face as we flashed downhill and felt the same smile on my own face and knew the answer.

So I shared the thought I had two days ago and the dreams from last night and (I'm sure you saw this coming) tonight we'll put the clips on my shoes and tomorrow I'll ride with Barbara. She'll be a good friend and not laugh as I learn to get on and off the pedals. Or she'll be a better friend and laugh with me. Because chances are probably 99% that I'll fall and 100% that I'll laugh about it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

(sort of)Revolution of a cyclist: The secret to moving to Italy

There are hundreds of books and magazine articles written about moving to a foreign country to live. They're filled with often useful, but just as often useless ideas for how to make the transition from your home country to your host county less stressful.

I read a couple of books and numerous articles. I read blogs and talked to people. Not one of them came close to being as useful as what I learned lately. I discovered the secret to building a life in Italy. One not mentioned in any book or article. One that I would never have thought of on my own. It's practically fool-proof. All you have to do is ride a road bike.

It's like some kind of secret society. For two years I have been here, riding my little heart out on my mountain bike, and no one has shown any interest in riding with me or even doing anything with me socially. Suddenly when I get a road bike I get invitations from everyone to come and ride with them. Not complete strangers, but people I know and have done the occasional dinner or aperitivo with in the last couple of years.

So now I'm going to give you my probably 100% guaranteed way to connect with the people you need in Italy.

  • If you don't already, start riding a road bike at least a year before you make the move.
  • One of the first things you should do when you get to Italy is get on your bike and ride to the nearest bike shop and ask the person behind the counter if they know of any bike teams you could ride with or someone to show you around the area.
  • In less than 10 seconds you'll probably have at least two or three offers to ride with various individuals or groups who just happen to be in the store at the time. And the names of several others who don't happen to be there right now.
  • Ride with everyone you can and that, my friend, is how you build a life here.

In any given group of riders you are bound to find lawyers, doctors, architects, hotel and restaurant owners, electricians, plumbers and many other professions that will make your life here simpler.. And you in return can do whatever it is you do for them.

You'd think something this simple and therefore so profound would be in every book and article ever written about moving to Italy. Obviously they were written by non-cyclists. Too bad, they're missing out on one of the best ways to meet people here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Florence shouldn't look like Minnesota

I have a friend who once said to me that every time she used one of those emoticons or a texting shortcut spelling that a little piece of her soul died. Today I was walking in the historical  center and walked by a new Subway restaurant. I had to look again to be sure I was seeing right (sadly I was) and I swear a little piece of my becoming Italian soul died.

I've accepted the McDonald' was here before I was. I was saddened to hear that the Hard Rock Cafe was going to open; I was dismayed to discover a Burger King conveniently open across from the train station and on the same block as McDonald's. Seeing the familiar Subway sign on a street that should only be lined with local restaurants and businesses just broke a little piece of my heart.

I don't know if I'm angry with Florence for allowing these restaurants to open, or if I'm just abysmally disappointed that American companies are exporting businesses who's crowing glory isn't that their food is outstanding; their only redeeming quality is that their food is predictable and bland. It isn't enough that they've spread their homogenized version of American cuisine to the four corners of North America, oh no.

Now you can take a vacation and never leave home, so to speak. You can have your Big Mac in any big city in nearly every country on the planet. The same probably goes for the Whopper. I'm sure Starbucks has their own plan to replace the beautiful culture and flavor of coffee here by sticking a store smack between the McDonald's and Burger King and conveniently located at the transportation center of the city so that every traveler finds something familiar as soon as they arrive and never has to venture out and try something new.

I will now step off my soap box and make myself the most intensely Italian meal I can think of. It won't make the fast food industry close those stores, but it might make me feel better. At least till I see the next American export and marvel at the absurdity of it all.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: Riding with the guys

First, don't worry. I won't be writing about each and every ride I take. It's just that for now it's all very new and I'm constantly surprised by my ability to survive my own ineptitude on the bike. Really, the last line of each post should always read....and she lives to ride another day. If she really, really wants to.

After the climb up to Fiesole Leif decided that I needed a new cassette if I was going to continue to enjoy riding so he got that put on and as soon as he did that the heavens opened up and it rained. For three days.

Friday the sun was (mostly) shining and we had an appointment to ride with one of Leif's team mates. So I got myself dressed and we headed out of town for a not too hilly ride south of Florence. Of course, knowing that 1) I'd be riding with an experienced cyclist and 2) he was a man (before all you feminists get angry with me, at this point men are just stronger riders than I am. Hopefully that will change.)and 3) he's from Colorado where mountains and hills are what he rides all the time made me totally nervous about riding that day. Add to that the fact that, for unknown reasons my seat was just a little too low, and it's no wonder I worried and worked too hard.

It was still fun, but I hated that I felt like apologizing all the time, when in fact I'm doing pretty darn good for someone who only started riding a couple of weeks ago. Except for one awkward moment when I realized that I was barely moving because I was on the wrong front ring for climbing I managed pretty well. I still don't go all bonzai on the downhills because I'm not clipped in and it's hard to keep a grip on the handlebars and my toes curled around the pedals and my butt glued to the seat so the bike stays under me. It will be both awe-inspiring and frightening when I manage the clips and can throw myself down the mountains without worrying about losing the bike. It really will be like flying.

The most exciting part? Aside from the downhill, that's a given. This is where my mom should stop reading. Well, not stop, but just skip to the next paragraph. Please. We managed to come home in the rain during Friday lunch rush hour through one of the most chaotic roundabouts in town. We wove through traffic in a way that was very non-Minnesotan. Three little bikes in the middle of 4 lanes of traffic slowly winding our way around every obstacle to reach our goal....the bike lane on the other side of the river. Why a hill can scare the crap out of me but sitting unprotected in the middle of hundreds of moving vehicles doesn't faze me is a question that may never be answered. But living where I do being able to ride in traffic is an asset, not a death wish.

And that's it. Ride #6 done and I didn't completely embarrass myself or Leif. Mission accomplished. And she lives to ride another day. If she really, really wants to. Which apparently she does, because as soon as I got home I sent a message to a girlfriend and asked if she wanted to ride the next day.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The second most important piece of paper to have in Italy

I thought there was only one piece of paper absolutely necessary for living here in Italy....the coveted Permesso di Soggiorno but yesterday I found out that I was wrong. Or at least, not totally right.

The Permesso simply gives me the right to stay in the country with Leif. The Tessera Sanitaria is a medical card that all Italians have that opens the doors to quicker care, discounts at the pharmacy and other exciting advantages too numerous to mention. According to Leif, it's as important (if not more important) as the Permesso because this is like an identity card that everyone recognizes. It basically confirms that you're here legally, with all the rights and responsibilities that implies.

We thought that we'd applied for it back in August but nothing has come in the mail so we headed over to the office to find out why.

I've described the whole get-a-number-and-wait process often, because everywhere you go you take a number and wait. It was the same yesterday, except that it was the day before a holiday and everyone decided to go to this office at the same time. There was one young woman at the counter trying to find out something but she only spoke English and the woman behind the counter only spoke Italian and the next woman in line started commiserating with my on the absurdity of English speakers even attempting to get the services this office offered. I nodded wisely because I was pretty sure if I opened my mouth she'd roll her eyes and I would be instantly put into the same category as the young woman. All three of us moved towards the second counter, which normally you are only allowed to approach after you've checked with the first counter, but as you heard that counter was tied up with a non-Italian speaker and looked to stay that way for some time.

[for those Minnesotans out there wondering why I didn't come to the young woman's rescue I have a very good reason. Italian government offices have a very long and very good memory. Make them angry and anything you try to get done for like the next ten years can end up at the bottom of the stack or lost forever or flatly refused. I was blatantly selfish. I admit it.]

Considering the number of people in the waiting room we didn't have to wait long for our number to flash on the screen. We went to desk number fifteen and smiled at the man behind desk. Who actually smiled back. Leif explained that we had applied for the card in August but haven't gotten anything in the mail. He asked for a few papers, looked stuff up on his computer and said that nothing had happened because when applying for the first time we have to go to a different office, which the guy we saw in August neglected to tell us. He told us what kind of office to go to, but he wasn't sure where the one in our residence area was.

We went home and Googled it, which gave us a location neither of us felt was right, but it wasn't far away and it was a good place to start. Leif said "Let's go!!!" He pretty much hates to wait once he starts on a project. So we went to the address Google showed us, which was totally wrong. But again, having started on this project he wasn't ready to quit just yet. We went to a pharmacy nearby thinking that they would know where this place was. (repeat number process....I told you they do this everywhere) After a short wait Leif got directions to the office we needed. He said he knew where it was so we started walking again.

Turns out this is an office in a hospice. I would never have found it on my own. Once again we took a number, although this machine didn't have any options we really understood so we just picked the first one and hoped. Things really moved along at this office. With only six desks they took care of business quickly and efficiently. Our number popped up and we dashed over to the door shown on the screen and walked in.

The woman behind the desk asked what we needed and when Leif told her I swear she turned whiter than the papers on her desk. My opinion is that she's pretty new. She's sharing an office with another woman and the whole time she helped us her hands were shaking. It's possible that she was cold....she was wearing her full length down coat at her desk.....but she asked her colleague so many questions that I think she just never had to deal with a "foreigner" before and the whole thing scared her.

She looked over my application (the first I've ever been able to complete without making numerous mistakes) and the copy of my Permesso, using them to fill in all the little blanks on her computer and without asking for another scrap of paper or giving us another office to visit printed out my brand-spanking new Documento per l'Assistenza Sanitaria and a paper copy of my Tessera Sanitaria to use until my real card came in the mail.

She heaved a giant sigh of relief as we all said "Arrivederci" and we walked out of her office. I imagine she immediately went out for a smoke break to celebrate our departure. As we left Leif said "That went surprisingly well,"and I couldn't agree more. When we consider the number of times we've been told we just need one more piece of paper from some obscure office we feel incredibly lucky to have done this all in one visit. That is if you don't count the first visit in August when we should have been sent here instead of told to wait for a card in the mail that was never going to come. But I'm not gonna hold a grudge.

Slowly I'm building the foundation of living here, creating my Italian identity one piece of paper at a time. I have no idea what comes next, or what kind of hoops I'll have to jump through. What I do know is that whatever it is, I can do it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: What do you mean, climb a mountain?

For Ride #5 my most adorable husband said "Sure Lucy, Michele and I would love to ride with you and John up to Fiesole tomorrow!" We need to have a discussion about when he can and when he can't speak for me.

Innocent sounding words, aren't they? And yet, they made me start sweating and working on my "I can't go for a ride because...." reasons. These reasons, in no particular order are:

Lucy is a triathlete. I swear Leif doesn't know any women who aren't triathletes or your garden variety super athlete in only one event. Her husband claims to be a non-athlete, but I think he's really saying in comparison to his super-wife he's not an athlete.

Fiesole isn't at the top of a small hill. It's at the top of a mountain and the route they chose is a loop that climbs the mountains behind it as well. I haven't climbed an actual mountain with my road bike. For all I know, it's impossible. I'm just getting the hang of riding it on the flats.

I still only have half the gears I should because they are worn and the chain won't hold in most of them. It takes a lot of experimentation sometimes to find the gear that won't slip but is right for the incline, and mostly I end up in a gear that's slightly too difficult and I look like a cartoon cyclist trying to ride up a cliff. Or I can't move the bike at all and I look like I've frozen in place till I start to tip over. It ain't pretty.

I've only ridden with one other person besides Leif and while she's a cyclist she's also a good friend and I don't mind totally sucking in front of her. In front of complete strangers that Leif respects and likes? Um, thanks but no thanks. This was bound to be one of those situations where a perfect storm of physical limitations, bike malfunctions and Italian traffic would converge to make me look and feel like the rankest of amateurs. I just wasn't sure if my self-esteem would survive an entire morning of saying "oops, wrong gear," and "sorry."

Maybe most importantly, it's only my fifth time on this bike and I kinda thought I'd get to practice a bit before tackling a ride that experienced riders choose when they want to really work a bit. You know, a couple of weeks on some fairly flat rides followed by a couple of weeks in those "rolling hills of Tuscany" before attempting to climb a mountain.

But he said yes, and by my silence my agreement  was implied so the next morning we got up and prepared to ride. We met them near our house and started off on our adventure.

I've walked this route a few times so I know what the incline is like. Truthfully, my heart was pounding before we even met up with these folks so I wasn't approaching this climb with the calmness I should have. But I did the best I could, which meant that I only had to stop three times on the way up. And then only for about fifteen seconds at a time. Just enough for me to mentally shake myself and catch my breath and make the tingly ache in my legs go away. Because as I said before, the bike doesn't let me use the gears that I need for steep inclines.

The first part was the worst, both mentally and physically. The rest of the ride was just beautiful.....and long......with more hills but not as killer as the first one. We stopped twice for coffee which I really, really needed.

The second coffee stop was in a little town just before we started back downhill. The elderly man behind the counter was sweet, asking about our ride and when I showed him how cold my hands were he held them till they warmed up a bit. Then he showed us his picture on the wall and darn if he isn't some kind of famous cyclist from years ago. His name is Guido Boni and he loves to talk cycling. I'm sure we'll stop there again. Because yes, Leif will probably get me back up there sometime.

After a quick picture with Signore Boni (he managed to get himself  squeezed in between me and Lucy) we got to throw ourselves down the mountain, which as you know is my favorite part and my reward for climbing all that way up. Absolutely fantastic, just like flying. But don't worry Mom, I never got above the speed limit. That's probably not as comforting as it was meant to sound.

Our ride can be seen here if you're interested. I climbed over 2000 feet that day. I kinda rock. At least for today.

I wonder how long he'll wait before deciding I can start using clips. Nothing like being nearly permanently attached to your pedals to make an exciting ride even more fun. And I wonder who he'll have invited along to witness my first (and certainly subsequent) fall as I struggle to tear my foot away from the bike. I can hardly wait.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My first act of civil disobedience happened outside the US. Probably not the best idea I've had lately

I rode in my very first Critical Mass ride last night and I did it here in Florence. I had no idea what to expect. It was probably better that way.

I'm not so sure if Italy is really a tolerant country when it comes to civil disobedience. Also, I'm not sure if gathering a bunch of Italian bicycle commuters (a different category from Italian cyclists, believe me you only make that mistake in conversation once) to ride together is really some kind of bold political move or simply an accident waiting to happen.

City commuters follow a different kind of logic than every other vehicle on the road. Their goal is to get from point A to point B preferably "as the crow flies" which means going the wrong way on one way streets and using the sidewalk when necessary. They maintain a slow and steady speed, run red lights and stop signs and seem unconcerned about the cars that barely miss running them over or the pedestrians they force out into the street. They probably don't even see them as they talk on their phones.

Put about two hundred of these very independent thinking and oblivious riders together and you have a group that ebbs and flows like a river and you never know if you're going to be caught in the current or shuffled off to a little eddie along the bank. Or faced with a giant boulder and have to dive left or right....or collide. How anyone escaped major accidents or injuries is beyond me.

There were kids on their  kid bikes and moms on their mom bikes with a kid in front and a kid in back (no Burleys here). There were twenty-somethings with stereos in backpacks blasting Italian reggae or speakers mounted on their racks playing classical music and others plugged into their ipods in their own little world. There was a proper Florentine lady, about 60 years old, wearing her beautiful tailored skirt, jacket and high heels with her hair and makeup perfect. There were businessmen in sharply pressed suits and ties and even a few tourists in sweatshirts and shorts. There was a man in an actual ringmasters jacket and tophat on a lowrider bike.

The bikes were just as diverse. City bikes, hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes, track bikes, bike taxis and custom bikes.  There was even a quad that served as a rolling bar passing out plastic cups of wine. Some were perfectly maintained, others probably saw their last maintenance years ago. The one uniting feature were the green balloons everyone fastened to their bike and the noise they made. Horns, bells or shouting, everyone made noise as we rode through town.

We hit all the big spots: Piazza Santa Croce, the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, and a ride along the Arno River (and several times over it) to Porta Prato. We stopped traffic. The goal as the organization stated it was to "become traffic". We stopped cars and scooters, buses and trams (twice) and pedestrians just stopped to stare. The group expanded from one lane to four lanes as we rode from the center onto one of the major streets and then funneled back down to one lane when needed.

For the most part the other traffic on the road respected what was happening. Tram drivers took a smoke break, motorists (after the first few seconds; they always honk first and look second) sat back and enjoyed the show, buses waited for the group to pass before moving forward and tourists lined the street taking pictures while store owners stepped out to see what all the excitement was about.

I grabbed my only cup of wine from the bar on wheels under the watchful eyes of the police, which honestly made me so nervous I could hardly drink it. But it's impossible to hold a tiny plastic cup of wine while cycling on worn cobblestones without splashing everywhere so I drank it as quickly as possible and kept moving. Obviously it will take me years to get to the point where I can drink  a glass of wine or a bottle of beer while riding the mean streets of Florence.

It was a great experience but today I'm a little sore. Riding at a walking pace for two hours is tough on the body. Like holding the top position on a push up for over two hours. For you yoga lovers it was like holding plank position while being dragged over a plowed field. For two hours. I'm surprised I can even type. Of course chances are I'll be back on a bike tomorrow regardless of how my arms feel. I'm funny that way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

OSHA would have a fit

I've seen some pretty interesting work site situations here in Florence. If the lack of guardrails on narrow mountain trails and giant holes in the middle of sidewalks with a single piece of yellow tape around it are any indication, Italy is a country where you're free to do whatever you want as long as you remember that you alone are responsible for your safety. Consider every trip out your own front door as perilous from start to finish and you'll be fine. No one is going to go out of their way to warn you of danger ahead or point out the obvious. There shouldn't be any need for expensive railings at the edge of a cliff. Everyone knows that if you fall off you'll get hurt, so use your head. And if you don't you are the one responsible.

The same idea seems to hold true for the workplace as well. I saw three city workers at a stop light. One man was shaking his finger and his head at the woman stopped for the red light while rolling some kind of adhesive onto the road in front of her bumper. The other two guys were furiously rolling out and cutting a wide, long piece of white reflective tape. The man with the roller kept saying "Vai, vai!!!" or what we as Americans would say "Come on, come on, get going!" The woman's eyes darted between the man shaking his finger and the red light, obviously trying to calculate whether or not she could dart through the intersection before they get that roll of stuff in front of her car.

Why the great hurry? Because they were trying to do this during the short cycle of the red light. During rush hour. Without a guy with a flag to stop traffic or to divert it. They weren't wearing high visibility vests or reflective anything. No warning signs to drivers to be careful ahead. OSHA would be appalled.

It was like watching those pit crews during a NASCAR race. The light turned red and they all sprang into action trying to beat the green light. Wet glue flying everywhere as the man in charge urged them to move faster and faster. Struggling with large roll of reflective material that kept trying to spring back into it's roll shape like Christmas wrapping paper.

I think they got it done with only seconds to spare. My only question is how long is a stiff piece of reflective tape floating on an ocean of liquid adhesive going to stay where it was put as hundreds of cars drive over it before the glue actually dries? I'll have to check later. My guess is it's moved about half a block and has about six creases in it and part of it even now is stuck to the bottom of  a car on it's way to Pisa.

Monday, October 22, 2012

More tours up the mountain (boring title) OR Have I got a guy for you

This one's for my sister. You'll see why later.

Torre a Cona
Saturday Leif and I took another group of Swedes up in the hills south of Florence to visit the same vinyard we took the school class to in  May. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the air smelled like spring and fall at the same time. Flower blossoms and fresh cut grass and wood smoke. Amazing.

This time I got a little closer to my ideal group. Just ten guys about my age who've known each other for forty years. The trip to Florence is a kind of celebration for them. As far as I know there were no super athletes. Just middle-aged guys in pretty good shape for the shape they're in. Who like to eat and drink and pretty much act like the ten year olds they were when they met in school.

We got everyone onto a bike. One guy put his in the van and said he was only going to ride downhill on the way back. The guy riding with me in the back (there has to be someone who's last) told me halfway through town that he had a heart condition, which pretty much made my own heart skip a few beats as I tried to figure out how I would handle a slightly overweight Swede suddenly keeling over on his bike in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. Then I watched him ride and realized his heart was the least of our  worries. He was like a four year old who just got the training wheels off. His guardian angel was working overtime Saturday as he narrowly missed parked cars, cars in motion, road signs, other riders and the occasional pedestrian. When the first hill made him stop the bike and lean over it gasping for air I bribed him into the van with promises to release him back into the wild once the tough hills were over. He stayed in the van till we got to the top. Thank God.

The next guy with me in the back had a fantastic camera and told me that this was the first time he'd been on a bike this year. Each time he stopped to walk his bike up a hill I'd slow down and ride behind him to talk. Finally I just told him to try riding the next hill because he was working harder to walk the bike than he would riding it. He looked skeptical but gave it a try and when he was able to ride the whole hill he looked pretty darn proud in a laid back Swedish kind of way.

We had lunch at the villa and I ended up sitting next to the heart condition guy. We had a long talk over the food and wine. At one point he turned to me and said "Do you have a sister? I'm  serious....." When I said yes he made me take his picture and gave me a message for you, dear sister.

"Tell her I'm rich and a pretty nice guy."

I know, that's not enough. But he doesn't live with his parents, although he is currently sharing an apartment with another guy in the group. He's well spoken, at least in English. For all I know he's a boor in Swedish, but somehow I don't think so. He has a job (obviously, if he's rich) and it's one you'd highly approve of.

He's a coffee wholesaler. That's right. You'd get your caffeine straight from the roasters. But you'd probably never really, really get along because (and this boggles my mind) he says that the way coffee tastes doesn't matter. I suppose it doesn't to his bottom line, but it damn sure matters to those of us who drink it.

I've done what I said I'd do.....send you his picture and his invitation to get to know each other. Of course there's a slight wrinkle there. I don't even know his name. We called him Red Shirt all day. If you'd like my opinion, and I'm sure you don't, I'd just let this particular one get away. Even though he can afford to buy you all the coffee your little heart desires.

After lunch and a tour (where Red Shirt asked a million questions) we got to the really fun part. We got to throw ourselves down the side of the mountain. It's like being a bird. Everyone should try it once, without worrying about crashing or road rash or anything. Just feel the thrill of the speed and the wind rushing through your hair. It's amazing. I told the guy who worked so hard to get up those hills to remember that all the downhill he was enjoying now were hills he climbed this morning. He looked surprised, said "Precis!" (for those who speak Swedish I totally trashed that word, I'm sure) and then he looked a little proud. Which he should be. Those aren't small hills.

When we dropped them off again at the bike shop they all hugged me and shook Leif's hand. Pretty warm and fuzzy for Swedes who only met me that morning. Of course Red Shirt had to have the last word.

Seriously, if you want an introduction to my sister,
don't be kissing me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: Getting the clothes right

This morning we went for my second ride on my new/old bike. It's fall now so I'm faced with the challenge of dressing myself for the weather without any real resources to do it with.

Part of the image of a cyclist is the clothes. Let's face it....would any of the super-cyclists look so super if they were wearing cut-offs and a ripped Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt? Probably not. Does the clothing make a difference in a non-professional rider? Meh...some. So the key is to balance just how good you think you are (or could be) against how much you want to (or can) spend. And whether or not you care what the people you ride with think.

Making this a no-brainer for me. I'm almost certain that at my age I should aspire to nothing more than "pretty good" and I would like to do it for free. So for this fall I have to come up with a clothing strategy out of my closet that actually works. Creativity counts and in fact is needed for this. Warm but not too warm, cool but not too cool, comfortable but still fits like a second skin. I'm not exactly comfortable with the whole "second skin" aspect, but then again I don't have to look at myself so I don't worry about it too much.

I think I've come up with a combination that works, although when I bought all these things a couple of years ago I had no idea what they'd be used for. They belong in the category of "clothes that are too on sale to pass up and just might come in handy some day, not today or tomorrow, but someday."

  • Smartwool socks, because they're God's gift to humankind. Everyone should have at least one pair of these.*
  • Cycling shoes. They're actually more like sandals, but with the above socks I was toasty warm.**
  • One pair of actual cycling shorts because I need the cush they provide.*
  • One pair of black silk long underwear from Cabella's.*
  • One pair of black leggings from Target.*
  • One UnderArmour compression turtleneck in black with "Augsburg" tastefully embroidered on the neck. This is one of those things I bought not knowing why, except that it was super cheap and "I might need it someday." A crazy rationalization that actually panned out. I think my original plan was to wear it shoveling snow.*
  • A borrowed Florence By Bike jacket, because every cyclist needs pockets.**
  • A little beanie hat I got from a friend who said I might need it if I'm gonna keep riding bike.**

* bought on sale
** gift from a friend

Honestly, any Real Cyclist out there would probably cringe at what I'm wearing, but on the upside at least it's all black and therefore matches. Only those with truly discerning eyes will catch my fashion faux pas as I whiz by. I hope.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Be vewy, vewy quiet, I'm hunting mushwooms.....

Sunday I went hunting for mushrooms with my little friend Mia and her dad. Because I was supposed to babysit while he went for a ride, but it was raining and he didn't want to get wet so he told me to forget it. Then Mia was upset because she wanted to see me that morning so they invited me along on their mushroom hunt. I'm not sure how he thought walking around the forest with a three year old in the rain would be drier than riding a bike in the rain.....but then I'm not a real cyclist and don't have the mindset yet.

Lest I get into all sorts of trouble, let me clarify a little bit. Legally, to hunt mushrooms in Tuscany you must have a basket (so the mushroom can drop it's spores) and a stick (because you're walking in the hills and you need to move leaves and such to find the mushroom) and a license (because in Italy everything, everything requires a license or a stamp of some kind). We had a three year old along so what we really did was go for a walk in the woods while carrying an optimistic plastic bag and a broken branch we found on the side of the trail and talked about what it might be like to actually see a porcini mushroom. Which he assured me we wouldn't do as we had a three year old girl along and couldn't look properly.

So when he started to explain what I should be looking for and we both pointed at something on the side of the path and he said "sort of like that" and then looked all amazed and said "actually, exactly like that." Then he got a little worked up because he had just finished telling me that I shouldn't expect much because he couldn't remember how many times he went looking before he actually found a mushroom. Like telling someone who's batting for the first time in baseball not to worry if they don't hit a home run the first time because no one does....and then they do. Worse yet, we could still see the car. We didn't even actually get into the forest.

We spent the rest of the morning just wandering around the woods listening to Mia play the harmonica and discussing mushrooms and chestnuts and other woodsey things. They let me take the mushroom home to show Leif. It was a very, very small porcini. About two inches tall, beige and mighty tasty. We had it with pasta that night for dinner.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Revolution of a cyclist: The first real ride

Have I mentioned that my husband is super-excited that I show any interest at all in riding a bike and is practically over the moon that I am willing to try a road bike?
He came to the breakfast table dressed to ride. I was still trying to decide what to wear.

I finally came out of the bedroom ready to go and we hit the road. I'm absolutely certain every biker out there today was totally impressed with my half (real cycling) spandex and half clearance rack at Target outfit. I was stylin'.

Leif took pictures of everything. Me on the stairs inside our building preparing to go out and actually ride. Me standing next to my bike. Me sitting on my bike. Riding my bike. Stopping for coffee. Stopping to rest. Returning home. He took so many pictures I felt like I was training for the Olympics, or possibly creating world peace.

I didn't feel like I would be very photogenic on this ride. Honestly I was kind of dreading it because I've ridden far too many hills with my mountain bike and quite frankly it's exhausting dragging that bike up the hill. I don't glisten becomingly....I glow fire engine red and sweat enough to put fires out. I was hoping this bike would be easier to ride. I also resemble the Michelin Man in my spandex. None of these things make for a photo album that you show to friends and family, much less put out here on the internets for everyone to see and comment on.

Typically on my mountain bike I stick with just a few gears except when climbing the big hills. It's my comfort zone. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to figure out the gears because they're quite different. Only two on the front and I don't know how many on the back. Leif told me that the mechanic said that I was one gear short because my chain is new but the gears are old. No problem since it was one I had no intention of actually using every gear on the bike.

However, once we were making the long slow climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo I  found that the chain was slipping a lot and we decided that I really only had about 4 gears on the big front one (don't you just love my technical language here?) which totally fits into my comfort zone of using only one or two gears. Thank goodness that was one of the most severe climbs we had on this trip.

See how thoughtful he is? He could have taken me somewhere with some pretty tough climbs but instead he took me to Greve in Chianti which has hills but none of them killer. In fact it was very fun to climb a hill without thinking "He's trying to kill me," and without becoming completely drained by the time I reached the top. I'm sure there will be plenty of hills that will try to kill me later, but for today this was perfect.

He was also pretty confident in me to take me that far from home (~40 miles round trip) on my first trip out.

We saw five women this morning which Leif says is a pretty big number. Usually he sees one, maybe two women out riding on any given Saturday. Compare that to the fifty to sixty men we saw and you get a good picture of what it's like to be a woman cyclist here in Italy. You're a curiosity. Sure, they'll flirt with you madly (even when heading the opposite direction at top speed) but they probably don't' take you seriously.

Which is fine with me. I'm looking forward to the first time I pass a guy and when he tries to save face by catching up and finds that he can't. Plus, the small number of women who ride here means I'm part of a pretty exclusive club. That's right. I'm special.