Sunday, 21 October 2007

Today was hard for two reasons. One, we had to leave Vernazza, it is a beautiful place. Two, we had to do school. But, Benji woke up feeling just fine with a good appetite, so it was a good morning after all. I have dreaded having a sick kid on a travel day, but we were spared this time. While we munched on bread from the bakery, we sat amongst our crumbs on the floor and did some school until it was time to leave for the train station. My foot wounds were still painful, but the biggest gouge is beginning to scab over a bit, and I knew we wouldn’t have nearly as much walking this day.

We got on the train, headed to Pisa, where we would check out the leaning tower and then pick up our car for the next couple of weeks. On the way, we were joined by a slightly inebriated man who seemed to be speaking Spanish, though we couldn’t be sure. Our kids were doing their school, and this man came and sat beside Nate, across from Benji and me. He shoved his Corona bottle in the tiny trash can beside us, encouraged Benji as he carefully practiced writing his letters, and wrote his name in cursive on Nate’s math paper.

He seemed harmless enough, and gave a piece of candy to each of the kids (a mint, probably something he uses to mask the smell of alcohol on his breath. “Let’s not eat those right now, okay guys?” We had to remind them later of that well-known bit of wisdom, “never take candy from strangers”). It was another face in the street, and while not as appealing as Francesco on the train to Vernazza, equally interesting. Where was he going on this train? Did he have any family or friends? Did our boys remind him of his own kids? We’ll never know, but his bleary red eyes and indistinguishable speaking won’t be forgotten. The kids asked lots of questions. Why was he drinking a beer at 10 in the morning? What do you mean, addicted?

On arriving in Pisa, we hustled onto a bus and got off at the Field of Miracles, where we found the Leaning Tower of Pisa, along with Pisa’s Duomo and Baptistery. We took lots of goofy pictures of the kids holding up the tower, along with almost every other tourist, each of us taking turns to get our typical tourist shot. Scorned by some too cool tourists who scoffed at our “imaginative” pictures. They were just jealous because they didn’t have the guts to do the obvious! This was probably our most unabashed tourist stop. We didn’t even go inside the Duomo or Baptistery, though we admired the bronze relief doors and picked out the scenes from the Bible. We gave the kids a tiny bit of history, how they tried to fix the tower different ways, but it was really all about seeing it lean.

It was cold and windy, and we made our chilly way back to the bus and the train station, where we had stored our bags. We got back on a bus and went to the airport to pick up our car, a nice roomy station wagon that our duffels fit in quite nicely (though we’re still determined to lose that thirty pounds. We’re well on our way, one duffel is almost full of things to ship home once we find a post office and some boxes).

The drive to our home for the next seven nights (sigh, heavenly) was fairly uneventful. The scenery was classic Tuscany, just what you’d see in any movie or painting of a typical Tuscan countryside. Tall cypress trees, grape vines, rolling hills. The house we’re renting is on the outskirts of a town called Monteroni d’Arbia. It has wireless internet, a kitchen, a small loft for the boys and a bed in the living room for Alayna, Clay and I have our own bathroom attached to our room, and the woman who cleans the rooms does laundry. I feel like I’ve died and gone to Tuscany.

It was too late to stock up on food to cook, but Filippo, the owner, recommended a good restaurant not five minutes away. While we waited for a little more time to pass and the restaurant in town to open (most restaurants don’t open until 7 here), the kids frolicked with the owner’s dog, Sofia. She is four months old and is a special breed that hunts for truffles. Unfortunately, they didn’t get enough rain here and there aren’t many truffles to hunt this year. She is adorable, with short curly hair and a sweet personality. She “plays” soccer by chasing the ball around the back yard, and loves to play tug-o-war with Benji, who holds a long stick while she chews on the other end.

Filippo has a seven-year-old son named David, and the kids all played soccer in the backyard for a while. Our house is only part of an enormous estate, owned by Filippo’s dad. There were once 25 buildings on this land, including the large castle we can see in the distance. They grew wheat and tobacco, had 300 workers that lived on property and worked in the fields, lots of cows, thousands of chickens, horses, etc. Much has changed, Filippo now runs a bed and breakfast, renting out rooms in his own house and our separate house. His brother lives in a different home on the property. More details to follow after our walk of the property in a couple of days.

Dinner was very good, but even better was coming home to our own place. Settling into our own cozy spots, unpacking suitcases and knowing we’ll be here for seven lovely days.


Monday, 22 October 2007

We have decided to do school with the kids for just a little while each morning. Math one morning, grammar the next, in an attempt to establish some sort of schedule, finish our lessons before the next batch arrives in Spain, and squelch the inevitable complaining that seems to accompany each school session. Maybe if we just do a little each time, it won’t seem like such a bitter pill.

We woke to a cloudy sky and a gusty wind that whistled around our little house and made us want to don our long johns. In fact, some of us donned our long johns. One of the merits of our home is a Jacuzzi tub, and the kids took extended baths with nobody telling them to hurry up.

Except for a little foray into town for provisions, we stayed inside most of the day. I’m sure Filippo was puzzled. This is the Tuscan hill country, there are dozens of tiny towns to be explored, not to mention Siena and Florence. You could spend weeks and not see all there is to see in this beautiful countryside. Treasures await on the other side of each rolling hill. And yet we wasted an entire day holing up inside.

Only we did not waste it. We read books and drew pictures and cooked our own meals (hot dogs for lunch, gnocchi for dinner), made a fire, and ventured into the backyard to play with Sofia and compete on the ping pong table. We played games on our magnetic game board and the kids had a little computer time.

They are having some sort of cold front, only the week before everyone was in short sleeves. The wind was so strong it whipped the door out of our hands when we tried to open it, and the trees danced wildly all afternoon. In the morning, we have plans to tour the property with Filippo, but today we stayed inside. It felt like a Texas winter, and we enjoyed our little hibernation.


Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Filippo came to our door at 9:30 am for our tour of the property. The weather cooperated, the sun was out and the sky was blue. We took Sofia along as we began our hike. We kept our eyes open for feathers, collecting mostly pigeon feathers but a few female pheasant feathers as well. We passed a porcupine’s house, a wheat field that had been left unharvested so the pheasants could have something to eat, and a large building once used to dry out tobacco leaves and make cigars. While we walked Filippo told us all sorts of stories.

His father bought this estate when he was just a boy, and he told us about how he used to come out here in the summer and during holidays. He loved to hunt, mostly pheasant. He would terrorize the workers, his hunting dogs killing a few chickens each time he ventured down the dirt lanes on his motor scooter. He was once blamed for shooting another hunter on the other side of a pheasant-infested forest, but Filippo insists it was the fault of the Russian diplomat sitting beside him. Filippo was full of stories, talking about how times changed when the socialist party came into power. The farm lost half of their workers, his dad lost his company in town when it was taken by the government, and their profitable cigar-making couldn’t compete with the Cuban cigars that began to be imported.

It was a great chance for us to talk to our kids later about capitalism versus socialism, the merits and disadvantages of each. Filippo’s father still comes out to the property now and then, staying in the castle that is still impressive despite the farm’s hard times. The tower of this castle was actually built almost a thousand years ago by the king of Naples. He wanted a place to “take a bath and wash off the travel dust” before arriving in nearby Siena. It was used for defense as well. There were once a whole series of towers that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean, and when someone landed on shore the towers would communicate with each other, either by flags or fire or even mirrors, and Siena would know ten minutes after the boat landed that a potential enemy was afoot.

The tower on “my father’s castle” (as Filippo proudly calls it) has very thick walls on the bottom, so thick I couldn’t touch both ends with my arms fully extended. They once kept their wine in giant oak barrels at the base of the tower, but the farm doesn’t produce as much wine these days and the cellar has fallen into disrepair. It is a lovely, echoey, spider-webby place, which stays the same temperature all year long because of the thickness of the walls.

The wine San Fabiano (the estate’s name) produces is excellent, Filippo handed us a bottle upon arrival and we enjoyed it. We’ll have to bring another along with us to Rome. We’re bringing another thing along with us, a new word. We first heard it when Sofia tried to eat some poop on the dirt road on our walk, and Filippo called out “Basta!” (rhymes with “pasta”). He said it again when David was getting too wound up. “Basta, David!” We haven’t asked, but assume it means “stop!”, and enjoy using it on the kids. It is quite a satisfying word to say. “Basta!”

We got back from our walk, made some lunch, and played around until 4:30, when we met in the main dining room for a cooking class. It is a long room with a giant wooden table down the center and benches on each side, and a simple kitchen along the edge. We were joined by some other visitors who were from Israel, and we all donned aprons and washed hands in preparation for our cooking adventure. What we prepared, we would eat for dinner that evening.

On the menu was bruschetta, ravioli (homemade pasta) stuffed with spinach, pounded veal with cheese and spinach all rolled up, and tiramisu for dessert. We started off making the pasta for the ravioli, mashing together flour, oil, salt and egg. Benji and I shared a butcher block, but Alayna and Nate held their own with the rest, and eventually made some fabulous ravioli. I volunteered myself to help with the tiramisu, but was rejected when my whipping of egg white was found lacking and was consigned to lining the baking dish with little cookies. I ate some to make me feel better.

While we cooked Filippo played some opera, and the Israelis, who spoke not only Hebrew and English but also some Italian, sang along with the arias and danced around the kitchen. We pounded and rolled our veal around spinach and cheese, chopped tomatoes for the bruschetta, drank some more of Filippo’s delicious wine, then were sent home to wait while dinner cooked. It had taken over two hours to prepare, but it was well worth it when we finally sat down to feast.

The bruschetta was the best I ever had, though I think it had something to do with really good tomatoes sliced by Alayna, Nate and Clay. The ravioli had no sauce, it was just drizzled with olive oil and cheese, also tasty, as was the meat. But the crowning moment was the tiramisu, which wasn’t like the stuff I’ve had in the past. It oozed all over the plate, more like pudding, and it was rich and delicious. I’ve got all the recipes, we’ll see if I can make it all again when we get home!

It was a lot of fun to cook with the others. One of the women, who lives close to Nazareth, was an expert at rolling her dough very thin. She is a nutritionist, and said that the Italian diet is a healthy one, so we all felt better about eating large and plenty. One of the men, a former pilot, is a film director and he told us about the film he just worked on, and a project he is thinking about doing. This man wore a short sleeved shirt and a scarf, which I thought very director-ish of him. It turns out his suitcase was lost, so he was probably just cold! Meeting so many people from so many interesting places is such a thrill, to just see the world through their eyes for a while.

Filippo turned on some great music, this time in English. “This is the song they played when we came to the reception after our wedding,” he declared, trying to lure Nate into a Conga line. “Daaaay-oh. Day-ay-ay-oh. Daylight come and he want to go home . . .” Nate would have no part of that, though he admitted later that he really wanted to bust a move, but he was too embarrassed. We listened to Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, jamming and jawing and having a great time. We rolled on home after dinner, very satisfied with ourselves and our cooking abilities. I will dream about that tiramisu.


Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Today we drove to Siena, bringing along our rain jackets since the weather had once again turned rainy and chilly. First stop, after finding a parking space in a garage and walking down to the main piazza, was lunch. We got some great sandwiches at a bar, sitting on a covered porch and watching everyone scurry by with their umbrellas and rain coats. The bread was so hard Benji spent half the time just trying to take a bite, so we squished that sandwich, and eventually just took it apart and handed him some ham. He’s got a loose tooth, and I’m sure that sandwich helped it along a little.

After lunch we happened upon some singers in the main square. A group of maybe twenty girls in purple sweatshirts that said something about a choir tour. They were singing “The Sun Will Come Out, Tomorrow” from Annie, pretty cute, and then another song we didn’t recognize. They were from England, and their harmonies sounded so pretty ringing out across that square. I think they must take it for granted, the ability to sing so well. If I could sing like that, I would embarrass the heck out of the family by busting into song all the time. We passed a group of four of them later, standing outside some store, just singing their hearts out and having a ball.

We had gelato. We had to have gelato! The rain was coming down strong and steady, so it wasn’t as much fun as I had hoped, just wandering among the old buildings and narrow streets. My rain jacket is like blinders, I turn my head but my hood doesn’t turn so I just see the inside of it. It also muffles everything, so for Clay to be heard he has to really yell at me. This is not conducive to good discussions. The kids were excited about seeing a film of the Palio, a horse race that takes place in the downtown square every summer, but the film was gone for the summer. They were showing Resident Evil instead, with lots of big, scary posters. Creepo.

We did see the big Duomo, which was beautiful. I was able to take off my rain jacket hood and saw it all just fine. There were some beautiful sculptures and paintings, it had mosaics all over the floor and there were stripes of different rock on the walls. It was really pretty over the top, all sorts of colors and patterns everywhere.

I want to come back to Siena on a sunny day. It is the sort of place where you want to just walk around and soak it all up. We were just soaking. We made it home in time to cook some dinner and dry out. Clay made a fire, and we all snuggled up and read Dragon Rider (our read aloud) before bedtime.


Thursday, 25 October 2007

We got up early to leave for a Florence day trip this morning. We had an appointment with David (the statue by Michelangelo at the Accademia) at 10:30, and we wanted to make sure we made it in time. If you aren’t there by your appointment time, you lose the appointment and stand in line for hours to get in. Driving there wasn’t hard, but once we got into Florence we hit a major traffic jam, and by the time we found a parking lot, we had about 45 minutes. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, only we parked really far away from our final destination. As we began our trek into the city, we noticed the motor scooters lined up along the roads. There would be rows and rows of them, sometimes forty or fifty to a row, their windshields practically touching they were parked so close together. We arrived at the Accademia by 10:40, and with our 15 minute grace period we breezed right in. Whew!

David was amazing. He stood, fourteen feet tall, all by himself (and a hundred tourists), under a skylight that bathed him in natural light. If only he had a loin cloth! Alayna and I agreed, most of the statues could do with some clothes of some sort. Still, it is an amazing statue. After admiring him, and a few others, we headed out to find some lunch. And gelato. Got to keep the stamina up!

Later that afternoon we had an appointment to get into the Uffizi, but we had about five hours in between. We admired and marveled at the Duomo, another striped and domed cathedral adorned with statues and colors and over the top fanciness. We found the Baptistery doors by Ghiberti, and attempted to find the Bargello and its statues, but it was closed by the time we found it. We passed a man making amazing little insects by twisting and weaving reeds together. We would have bought one, but it only would have gotten crushed in our luggage. Women begged on most busy streets, bowing low to the ground with their foreheads touching the ground, a tin can empty in front of them. Each time someone dropped something in their can, they would quickly slip it into their pocket so it would be empty again. Some of these women carried a can into the crowds that gathered around the Baptistery doors or other crowded places, walking right up to your face and rattling the can, pleading with their eyes and voices for a coin. I saw one woman later, a wine bottle in one hand and a container of some sort of soft food in the other. She sat on some steps, ate the entire container of food with her finger, taking big swipes and licking it off, then hid the wine bottle in her coat, picked up her can, and headed back to the crowds.

I’m not sure what to think of these women. Part of me wants to give them a coin, part of me is irritated with their aggressiveness. When we stopped to talk to the man who was weaving insects with reeds, a woman hurried over, realizing we might be on the verge of taking out our wallets, and rattled her can loudly. They are all large women, none of them is starving, and yet none of them are happy either. I know we’ll see many more beggars as we continue around the world, some more needy than others. For some reason it is much easier to give the old man playing the guitar on the corner a euro, or the one playing violin on a quiet street away from the crowds. We saw many performers as we walked across the city, mimes and musicians and craftspeople. We went across the Ponte Vecchio, a really amazing bridge that has mostly jewelry shops lining both sides. We wandered and meandered around until the Uffizi time was at hand.

The Uffizi has some amazing artwork by big names like Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo. The kids recognized several from books we had looked at before the trip, and it was gratifying to see them point one out. Alayna gets really irritated when an adult steps right in front of her while she’s looking at a painting. “They think that since I’m a kid I don’t care about art,” she huffs. She’s really become quite the artist these past few days. Peggy and Maurice sent her a Drawing for Dummies book, and she’s been devouring it, filling a sketchbook with picture after picture. She’s impressed by ¾ views (in between a profile and a straight-on view) and points them out in all the pictures. One of the things I enjoyed most about the museum was the long corridors lined with windows with views of the city. While we were in the museum the sun set, and we had some magnificent views of the city out the windows.

I’d have to say my favorite part of the day, better than David or da Vinci, was meeting some friends for dinner that night. The Runn’s moved from Austin to Florence last year, they have a boy close to Nate’s age named Davis and a girl a grade older than Alayna named Courtney. It was a wonderful chance for Alayna to talk, in English, to a girl her age. It was so nice to talk to Gary and Carrie, their work here with college students, and what life is like, living in such a different country. Where teachers go on strike and doctors make house calls.

We had a long walk after dinner to get back to our car. The Ponte Vecchio was all lit up, and the rain had begun to fall. Poor Benji did a lot of walking that day. We all did, but since Benji’s legs are half our size, he half runs, half walks to keep up. The kids all fell asleep in the car on the way home, while Clay and I strained to see through our smeary windshield (the wipers were not so good) all the way home. It was 11 by the time we pulled into our driveway, we were all so tired, and it felt good to pull the covers up to our chins, knowing the next morning we’d all sleep in.


Friday, 26 October 2007

This morning we woke to rain on the roof and a low, growling thunder in the distance. We had a lazy morning, a lazy day. The sun came out in the afternoon, the boys ran outside to play while Alayna devoured an Agatha Christie book. I took a walk into town to the grocery store, but it was closed for siesta so I walked on back. Past two old Italian woman out for a stroll. Past a man walking his four squatty, bow-legged bull dogs. Past a creek swollen with rain.

It gave me time to reflect on why I have such a hard time slowing down. Being the mother of three children you’ve got to be busy, active and sharp. A planner, there’s always something going on and if you don’t keep up you’ll miss something important. It’s like being an athlete, you need to be sharp. Italy is making me soft. I’m trouble when I get home, to schedules and deadlines and times to be here and do that. A calendar.

I guess there’s time to worry about that. After. A. Little. Siesta.


Saturday, 27 October 2007

Just in time for Halloween, Benji lost his second tooth this morning. Who needs a jack-o-lantern, we’ve got Benji! It wasn’t his loose tooth, it was his snaggletooth, the one that’s been at a weird angle ever since his first gargantuan grown-up tooth grew in. Apparently Nate knocked it out with his knee while they were wrestling around. I think a similar incident occurred with Benji’s first lost tooth. Nate’s going to start taking a commission from the tooth fairy!

We woke up to sunshine, so I pulled on my running shoes (which are also my walking shoes, in fact, right now they are my only shoes!) and went for a run. Down to the castle and back again, I passed a stout Italian man riding in a funny little three-wheeled car. Before today, I had only seen these in city centers where no cars were allowed. Today, we saw several of these little things, the size of a golf cart, all inhabited by elderly Italians. I guess it’s a good way to get from here to there, the grocery store and back, short little errands and visits to the neighbors.

As I ran I admired the skyline, the trees punctuating the horizon like green exclamation marks. Many trees here in Tuscany are like statues, standing by themselves, their foliage thick and dense. They either point straight up, or form interesting, blobby shapes. I passed men who called out “Buon giorno!”, and a male pheasant flying across a harvested field, squawking like it was very irritated at me. Once the fields are plowed here, the rows are bordered by huge clods of earth. It isn’t like Texas soil, where harvested fields are lined with delicate rows of dirt. It’s as if something huge was growing under that soil, and when it was dug up, if pulled great gobs of dirt up with it.

After I returned we did some school, washed some socks and undies, and hopped in the car to explore. We definitely wanted to take advantage of the pretty, sunny day. We stopped in Buonconvento for lunch, passing a large outdoor market. These markets are almost like portable Wal-Marts that get set up in parking lots each week in tiny towns. Wal-Marts with live chickens. They sell meat, cheese, and vegetables. They also sell tablecloths, clothes, gloves, purses, umbrellas, toys and dust brooms.

This tiny town was charming, we explored their thin, traffic-free streets after lunch, discovering a pretty garden surrounding what was once a well. We passed the market which was being disassembled, and noticed a man sweeping with what appeared to be a Nimbus 2000 (Harry Potter’s broom). It looked just like a witch’s, and we thought about asking the man how much he’d take for it. But, it wouldn’t pack well. Clay made a trip into town this morning and we mailed 25 pounds worth of things home. We’ve got at least another five pounds going in a Fed Ex box when we get to Rome. Let’s hear it for the Davises!

We carried on to the hill town of Montalcino, climbing up a winding road that offered beautiful scenery of the surrounding hill towns. The slopes were lined with grapevines, we are definitely in wine country. Lots of those exclamation point trees and groves of trees filled with yellow leaves kept me busy with the camera, trying to capture it all. We finally saw the sign for our winery, and carried on up a steep, muddy, slippery, narrow, clliffside path for the final quarter mile. Clay was very agitated and we were all hysterical as he screamed “This car is not four wheel drive! I can’t slow down, or we will get stuck! Ack!” He totally hammed it up, unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the video going in time to capture his show. We ended up at Fattoria dei Barbi, where Clay and I tasted four different wines and asked Simona all sorts of wine questions. She is a friend of Filippo’s who was nice enough to open the cellar up for us on her day off.

Wines get their different flavors from different kinds of grapes grown in different environments, from the specific kind of wood it is stored in (at Fattoria dei Barbi, they use Croatian oak trees, and they make very large barrels, so the wine absorbs less of an oak flavor), and the age of the vine. Older vines still have the grapes picked by hand, while newer vines are planted farther apart to allow machinery to pick them. Yeast is used to turn the sugar into alcohol, and when making red wine, yeast is added twice. We learned all sorts of interesting things. The kids found some doves outside, and we learned the family that owns this particular winery has a last name that means “small white dove”, and they have built a row of homes for their white doves to roost in, up near the roofline.

After tasting our wine, and shipping some home, we headed back to San Fabiano, marveling at what a difference a day can make. Yesterday was gray and wet, today was beautiful. When we got home we got on some bikes and took a ride down the dirt road. The kids played around on the squeaky swing set out back, and we all spread out to enjoy our last day in Tuscany.