Thursday, May 26, 2016

Starting Down the Home Stretch!

Wow, it’s been over a year since either Suzanne or I have posted to our Italy blog.  In fact, we have only posted 5 total entries since the start of 2014.  A big part of that for us has been due to our shift from a written journal to more of a photo journal to which we continue to contribute hundreds of photos every month.  Part of that is due to time constraints of course.  Truth be told, part of that may also be due to the worry that we have exhausted the curiousity that our friends and family have had about our life here.  Despite all of that, we expect to have 6-12 months left on our tour, and I hope Suzanne and I will be able to write a little more often “down the home stretch”.

Certainly, there continue to be stories, travels, and adventures to write about.  There is also the perspective of having lived here 4.5 years now and the shifting mindset we have as we look towards returning to the U.S.  Maybe this last series of posts will be interesting in comparison with posts we made at the start of this adventure.  It seems like yesterday when we started this blog in early November 2011 during an anniversary weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with all the anxiety and excitement.  Maybe writing about this last year will be something the kids look back upon years from now and enjoy reading.  Maybe it’s just about writing the final chapter to the best book I could have ever conceived for our family.

So in the theme of continued discoveries with some historical perspective, I offer you the following….

We bought our house in Arcugnano, Italy just over 4 years ago.  Within days of signing the settlement papers and moving into the house, my parents arrived for what would be the first of their four (soon to be five) 3-week visits.  One day after they left, Suzanne’s parents arrived for a 3-week visit.  Days after they left, we flew out to circumnavigate Spain for 3 weeks including too many highlights to revisit.  Days after returning from that, Chase and Annie arrived for their visit that summer.  And somewhere in all of that, we started to unpack all of our belongings, prepare to send our children to Italian schools not knowing a word of Italian, and oh, then there was me and Josh planting a 50-plant vineyard in our backyard.  How on Earth did we manage to pull all of that off that first summer?!?  

I really need to take this moment to thank Suzanne for not only tolerating this crazy dream adventure, but to add to it and thrive within it.  Back to the story....

At several times along the past 4.5 years, there have been construction projects in our neighborhood, not unlike any other residential neighborhood.  One of the early projects we noticed was a rehab of the fortress/castle/villa-looking property on the opposing hillside from us.  Then, at some other point, we heard a bunch of rock-drilling at a property just down the hill from us.  We couldn't see what was going on, but it continued for a long time, and we kept wondering what the heck was going on down there.

One day early last Spring, we learned that the fortress/castle/villa on the opposing hillside was also a commercial winery.  Me being me, I walked over one evening to investigate, saw the gate open, and decided to go in and stroll up the very long driveway to introduce myself.  Turns out, the property owner was conducting a wine tasting with his Norwegian guests, who were staying in one of their newly renovated B&B-style rooms for rent.  The owner’s name is Misha, and he is truly one of a kind. 

Misha has a small frame and a big personality; he is stylish, embarrassingly hospitable, middle-aged, and is impeccably fluent in at least 3 languages.  His attire is high-end casual chique that looks great on him, but would like like costume attire on me.  He's witty and well educated, and he sports a curly-que mustache that rounds out his Great Gaspy character.  If I remember correctly, his mother was a heiress to some Russian nobelity, who escaped or was exiled or some exotic thing like that.  His Dad was from a wealthy Italian family, who become wealthier after becoming some notable physician/scientist/something-or-other.  Misha spent many years living in Paris and had come back to the family’s Italian estate only recently.  It was maybe 10 years ago that his father planted part of their estate with vines and now Misha was running their modest wine business.

Misha insisted I join his guests and sample his wine, to which I dutifully obliged.  It was a spectacular Spring evening out on his large terrazzo, with great views in every direction, and  I remember shaking my head in disbelief of yet another ‘how did I end up here’ moments.  While surveying the area, I looked across the valley that separates our properties and saw our own house for the first time from this perspective.  One thing that stood out to me was the fairly major construction project that was underway not too far from our backyard.

On a good day I could throw a baseball from our backyard to this construction site, but despite its proximity and noise, we never had any idea what was being constructed.  Misha informed me that it was the work of some eccentric retired music conductor who was building an open-air amphitheater.  An open-air amphitheater?  Yeah, and when it’s done, he intends to host concerts and operas and events like that.  Concerts in our neighborhood?  In an open-air amphitheater?  On the hill just below our yard?…uh, ok.  How funny would that be, right?  Little did we realize what was actually going on...

A year goes by and this Spring, one of our other neighbors tells Suzanne what this project is really about.  This guy is not building anything new, he’s excavating an ancient, marble amphitheater that they discovered some years ago when doing some soil testing.  Apparently, the valley below our house used to be a lake, and apparently there was a naval passage from Venice to the former lake below our house.  Apparently, some 700 years ago or so, boats would pull up and dock, and then the nobility of the day could stroll up the hillside to attend the opera or theater performances here in our little town of Arcugnano.  Go figure!

Now, there is a big excavation and restoration project happening on site, to include the amphitheater itself along with what is apparently a number of ancient marble statues.  And when they’re done, it will become a venue for performances and concerts.

Apparently, the ancient Italians know what they’re doing when it comes to such things, because we have always marveled at the acoustics of where we live.  On a cool summer evening, the town will have little parties  maybe ½ mile down the valley, much further away than the site of this amphitheater, and you can hear people talking almost as if they were in our backyard.  It reminds me of the acoustics on Stoney Creek back home where you could hear the watermen in the early mornings as if they were in your living room, even though they were crabbing clear across the creek.

How cool.  Now I have visions of Suzanne in an evening gown, strolling with me from our house to our neighborhood amphitheater on some stary-sky summer evening for the Wednesday night opera series.  Heck, maybe we won’t even need to go anywhere.  Maybe we’ll pull out the yard chairs, pour some mohitos over ice, and listen to the concert from our own backyard.  Better yet, maybe we’ll pour some of our own TaylorMade Vino and listen to the concerts overlooking the vines in our backyard that produced the very wine that we are drinking!  Why not?!?

Check out more at this website if you’re interested:

Always more to learn and experience.  Always more to discover.  Not an endless amount of time left though.  Better get back to it.

Ciao for now.  Ci vediamo!


Sunday, March 29, 2015

21 February 2015 – Stammtisch

We have recently become friends with a new family to our neighborhood.  They have two kids who are about the same age as our kids and we all get along well.  The wife is American, the husband is German.

The husband recently suggested we start following a German tradition called “Stammtisch”.  This is when the men of the village get together at the local pub or biergarten, have a beer, and discuss important (and unimportant) matters of affairs.  Do I want to participate in an old German tradition of drinking beer with the guys?...Uh, ok, that kind of seems like a no-brainer.

The taverns in the little German villages and towns set aside a specific table for just the occasion.  This table, the “stammtisch”, is always left open for the locals no matter how busy the place might be.

There is also a kind of unwritten protocol about who participates.  You don’t just sit down and declare yourself “a regular”, you have to be invited or maybe “accepted” as such.  Often, the group is comprised of the 60-and-older men of the town, who have probably lived in the town their whole lives, probably just as generations of their fathers before them.

What is discussed at these important gatherings of the “tribal elders”?…..women.  (Shocking, right?Also local politics.  The weather.  Property disputes.  Old family grievances.  Beer.  Local sports teams.  Planning for local town festivals and fundraisers.  Status of their children.  Etc.  I don’t know if this is fact or not, but I strongly suspect that what is discussed at stammtisch, stays at stammtisch.

I looked up the translation of “Stammtisch”.  “Tisch” translates to “table”.  “Stamm” has many translations eg. stem, root, trunk, tribe, clan, regulars, regular patrons.  It’s interesting to me that the same word can be used for those different meanings and connotations.  I think that probably says a lot about the meaning of the “stammtisch” tradition.

This tradition is more common in Southern Germany, where it seems most traditions are more commonly found.  The same type of thing is seen in a lot of Italian towns and villages too, although it seems like it’s usually more a couple of benches in the central piazza, or maybe a small table at the local coffee bar.

We started our little stammtisch in our local town of Arcugnano.  Just up the street from where we live is our local birreria/pizzeria.  It’s a 2-minute walk for both my new German friend and I, even though we are coming from opposite directions.  We come home from work, have dinner with our families, do the kid-nighttime routine, take a quick walk up to the top of the street for a beer or two, and then walk home.

I say that like we’ve been doing it for awhile – we just had our first stammtisch the other night.  And it was a pretty modest one at that, being just the two of us and all.  {Since writing the first draft of this post, we’ve met again and have started to expand the circle with some new blood.}

Also, as I write about the proximity of our local birreria, it dawns on me that having “a bar/restaurant” in a residential community could be seen as a detractor in the U.S.  Here, it’s a really nice benefit.  It’s clean, smoke-free, and quiet.  It doesn’t generate tons of new car traffic, people don’t leave trash in the street, there are no neon signs out front, there is no graffiti, and there are no piles of cardboard boxes anywhere to be seen.  It’s a family-run restaurant where we’ve come to know most of the people there.  One of the sisters who works there has children who go to school with Isabel and Josh, so we often see her at school-dropoff in the morning.  It’s not uncommon for some of the neighborhood kids to go there on their own to play cards, grab a gelato, or pickup their family’s carryout order of pizza.  It’s just a chilled-out place that serves good food, offers good beer, charges family-friendly prices, and has a very ‘part of the neighborhood’ feel to it – the perfect kind of place to host Stammtisch.


Josh's Asillo Class Jan'14

I love all the names.

2Mar2015 – Lunch at Da Angelo’s

It was one of my favorite trattorias when I lived here from 1995-1998, and it is one of my favorite trattorias today.  The place is virtually the same, with only some recent renovations including a few new fresco-type paintings on the wall.  The food is the same – delicious, authentic, and awesome.

The people are all the same.  The same family who ran the place then, runs the place now - same women working the coffee bar, same guy preparing meals in the kitchen (one of the owners/brothers), same guy working the pizza oven (another one of the owners/brothers), same guys serving the tables (the nephews).  There are three generations of “Angelo’s” working there.

The family is from Amalfi and they are very, very proud to be from Amalfi.  Of course, Amalfi has the best food, the best sea, the best life.  And oh, mamma mia, if they ever have anything on the menu “al Amalfitana”, order it.  Trust me.

Like a lot of places in the area, they offer a fixed lunch menu for 11 Euro.  For 11 Euro you get: ½ liter of bottled water (natural or frizzante), ¼ liter of house wine (always a bit more for me, because they know me), a basket bread, a first course (usually pasta), a second course (usually meat or seafood), a side (which can be a large mixed salad, cooked/roasted seasonal vegetables, or potatoes prepared different ways), and an after-lunch coffee (Italian style, of course).  No tip, no tax.  Total = 11 Euro.

Now, let me try to explain what that really means.  Yesterday, I ordered one of my favorite pasta dishes, penne alla arrabiata.  It comes out on a huge plate, perfectly made pasta (not too soft or chewy like too often in the U.S.), plenty of sauce with actual chunks of cherry tomatoes and a healthy amount of olive oil, and piping hot.  It’s served with freshly grated parmigiano – not the uniformly-grated supermarket stuff, but the fresh stuff that has little chunks and flakes of cheese in it from being grated by hand.  And because they know me, they automatically bring me some of their homemade olio piccante – spicy olive oil that comes in what looks to be a re-used olive jar, which has been marinating with a bunch of hot peppers still in the jar, where you use a teaspoon to spoon out as much as you want and drizzle it over your plate of hot, flavorful pasta.  So good!  So good, in fact, that it is only natural to take some of that fresh bread and sop-up all of the oil and tomato sauce and essence that’s left behind after the pasta is gone.  Oh my Lord, I am going to miss that simple dish when we leave here.

That’s just the first course.  Also remember that we are still talking about a random, weekday lunch.

The salad is delivered.  It is a big glass bowl of fresh, green lettuce - the kind of green lettuce you’d see coming out of your grandmother’s garden.   Flavorful tomatoes.  Shredded carrots.  No need for a bath of dressing.  Just lettuce, tomato, and carrot with real extra-virgin olive oil and a little splash of balsamico.  Why does a simple mixed salad taste so much better here?

Now the second course.  Normally, I order the mussels.  A big, hot plate of plumb, beautiful mussels that have been perfectly prepared.  Normally, I save room to take a couple pieces of that delicious soft bread and soak-up as much of that lemony, garlicy, peppery, seafoody scrumptiousness of liquid that sits in the bottom of my plate.  Not today.  That’s normally a Friday special and today is Monday. 

Today, my friend and waiter, Pasquale, started given us our choices.  The fixed menu doesn’t come with a menu, but usually 3 or 4 choices for each course given to you verbally at your table.  The first choice he offered was “Pesce Almafitana” which is fish served with roasted black olives, roasted cherry tomatoes, olive oil, lemon, capers, and roasted garlic.  I told him he could stop right there.
What he delivered was a thing of beauty.  It was a plate the size of a small pizza with a large salmon fillet, a trout-like fish served whole (head and tail attached), another large chunk of salmon, and another large chunk of white fish.  The olives were to die for.  The roasted garlic.  The capers.  The cherry tomatoes that just oozed flavor so well-suited with the olive oil.  The fish was perfectly prepared, not over-cooked, but flaky, tender, moist, and full of flavor.   It was a feast.  That plate alone, served at any decent restaurant in the U.S. is at least a $22 entrĂ©e, and I doubt that it would be prepared that well and taste that good.

The table wine isn’t great, but it isn’t awful, and there’s plenty of it.  Then, after lunch comes the obligatory coffee, an Italian style espresso that is believed to be a digestive (digestive), but also serves to coat the palette like melted dark chocolate.

Speaking of chocolate, lunch doesn’t come with dessert.  The strange part, though, dessert doesn’t even occur to me.  It’s just not needed.  In fact, it’s only now that I think about how healthy that meal was.  It was the classic “Mediterranean Diet” meal, but without the label or promotion or trendiness or marketing.

I gave big “complimenti” to Angelo (the elder) and he gave me the wink and the nod and the pinched fingers to the pursed lips sign meaning, “yeah buddy, I hooked you up, didn’t I?”
How many meals do you finish and think, “I can’t let these people charge me so little for what they just served me”?  11 Euro…for everything?  Come on!  The kicker is that for these folks, their real gratification comes not (just) from the profit, but instead from the appreciation of their effort and their craft.  They enjoy serving good food, made in the style of their home region, and have it appreciated by the people who come to their restaurant.  For all of the American in me, it is so nice to have this simple joy of anti-commercialism woven into the day.

And my description of Da Angelo’s cannot be complete without two other side notes:

1.      My friend and waiter, Pasquale – his name translates to “Easter”.  His brother is named Natale for “Christmas”.

2.       Giovanni is the big, loud, ultra-gregarious cook.  He is the prototypical large Italian personality in a family restaurant, who everyone knows and who treats you like a favorite Godfather from the moment he meets you.  With so much love and generosity and Almalfitana pride, you are forced to excuse him for the big, double-cheeked kiss greetings he gives you (men too!) that leaves you a little scratched from the stubble on his face and sopping wet from his sweat.  Summertime is particularly bad with the sweat.  The first time I took my parents there and introduced them to Giovanni, he made such a production out of greeting them, and took my Mom by such complete shock with his bear hug and big, sweaty kisses (it was summertime), that I honestly thought she was about to scream and/or pee herself.  

Monday, March 2, 2015

No Work Talk -15Feb2015

Imagine the scene: Friday night, after a week of work and school, a group of parents from the 1st grade class bring their kids to a class gathering at the local pizza parlor.  Maybe 8 or 10 families are there.  All the kids gravitate to the playroom inside the pizza parlor, the adults sitting at a long table with a beer or glass of wine.  The men generally congregate toward one end of the table, the women to the other.   A random selection of public school parents hanging out, getting to know each other. 

A couple of hours later we pull our over-tired kids away even as they cry bloody murder that they are entitled to five more minutes.  We finally get our kids in our cars, they instantly crash, drive home, piggy-back rides up to bed, pretty typical scene.
Back in the kitchen recuperating in the quiet, a few things dawn on me.  First, the past 2.5 hours of socializing was done in 100% Italian language, for the kids and the adults.  There were 0 other Americans present and most of the Italians spoke little to no English.  There was no hesitation or trepidation from anyone in our family to attend an event like this, knowing it would be all in Italian, which is pretty cool by itself.  It is still pretty exhausting to have to concentrate for that long, especially at the end of an already long week, and doubly especially with so much noise and distraction at the party.  {I lag behind everyone else in the family with Italian language skills and I am far from fluent.}
The second thing that dawned on me is that for the past 2.5 hours of conversation between 7 or 8 first grade fathers who don’t know each other very well, there was not one minute spent talking about work.  As a matter of fact, besides their curiosity of me and my role on “the American base” (which always generates a lot of curiosity among the locals), no one asked anyone so much as what they did for a living.  It never came up…in 2.5 hours of random conversation…ever.  I couldn’t tell you what most of them do for work and not because of a lack of comprehension.  I think one guy worked with the mechanical parts that are used in drilling equipment.  The only reason there was any reference to that is because Italians (most foreigners we’ve met) love to tell you about their travels to the U.S.  This guy had been to several places in the U.S. like Kansas and Texas and Louisiana – not exactly top 3 U.S. tourist destinations – which generated the question of why he went there.  His trips to the U.S. were work-related and I finally figured out the part about the drilling equipment.
There was never any declaration of “no shop talk” either. It’s not as if someone said, “Please guys, let’s not talk about work tonight.”  Nope.  It wasn’t even as if there was an unspoken understanding that this wasn’t the place to discuss work.  Really, it was more as if it never even occurred to them to talk about work.  It wasn’t on their radar.  Imagine that.  That would NEVER happen in the U.S.  There is no way 8 random dads get together for 2.5 hours of conversation without someone asking someone else “So what do you do?”
What did we talk about?  We talked about our kids, the school, the curriculum, the economy, and the weather.  We talked about the differences between Italian dialects and American accents.  We talked a lot about activities in the mountains nearby.  One guy in particular is an expert “powder skier” who spends most weekends in the winter exploring some “off piste” slopes, and was full of interesting information.  He showed us the “avalanche app” he had on his phone that provided up-to-date, detailed information on all of the avalanche conditions in the Dolomites.  I never knew so much about avalanches as I learned that night.  We talked a lot about favorite vacation spots, good food combinations, wine (which everyone here seems to know a lot about), and extended families (who all seemed to live nearby).
When I mentioned this observation to our good friend Eros, he looked at me blankly and couldn’t understand why I thought that was interesting.  Eros is a retired electrician, who spent a lot of time in the past playing soccer and hiking the Dolomites, and who is among lots of other things a regional expert in mushrooms.  He’s been married for over 40 years, spends a lot of time with his granddaughter, and keeps busy with his “honey-do” list from his wife.  His explanation was simple: for most Italians, work is something that goes on in the background to pay the bills.  It is just not such a central aspect of most people’s lives.  Why would it be?  We only have one life, he explains, why spend it so focused on work and money when there are so many other things to be passionate about?
That’s a generalization and I know it’s not true for all Italians.  Everyone falls on a spectrum.  But where most Italians fall on that spectrum is pretty far from where most Americans fall on that spectrum, for good or bad, and it was never so evident to me as our time at the “First Grade Pizza Night”.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

School, Work, Life, and the Stomach Flu

(Written February 25, 2014. Delayed posting due to technical computer issues.)

Life in Italy is beautiful. It is also life, and with that comes work, school, after-school activities, birthday parties, house projects, and the yearly bout of stomach flu. Josh is going on day 4 of it right now. As I am stuck at home with his aching belly, it gives me a chance to catch up on my non-existent blogging. If we still have any readers, I can tell you, you have not been away from my thoughts. When I pass an enchanting scene that is quintessential Italy, only-happens-in-Italy, or only-seen-in-Europe, I think, “wow, that would make a nice blog.” Usually, that’s as far as the thought gets. Sometimes I snap a picture with my cheap, highly-inferior-to-an-iphone/galaxy phone and think about adding it to a blog. I will work some in now!

My favorite cheese man where I get the best cheese Saturday mornings. It's the freshest best cheese and so delicious.

Our town's small open air market that is held every Saturday morning. I love it. On any given Saturday morning, I might buy a tablecloth, socks for the kids, a new scarf, and definitely cheese from the guy pictured above and fruit from the stand pictured below.

A typical scene downtown Vicenza. I was walking back to my car after shopping the large downtown market on a Thursday morning.

First, though, I must go back to my last blog from, oh, when was that? Yea, 4 months ago. Actually, it was my second to last entry. I must amend the entry when I talked about school. At the time, the kids had just returned to school from a long summer break where they are mostly home with me and vacationing with the family and it’s all in English. It took a little while for them to get readjusted to Italian immersion life, but like most kids, they did great. By December, when we had Isabel’s parent-teacher meeting, her teacher was beaming and remarked how Isabel had “blossomed”. As she will keep her same teachers throughout her elementary school time here, we should get a true commentary on how she is developing. They will observe the full transformation from the American who started first grade knowing two words of Italian, to the girl who can jabber with her Italian friends and perform with the best of her class.

Isabel's most recent journal entry.

Josh, too, had a good report. It was different, of course, reflecting on the difference in personalities between the more reserved and studious girl, and the vivacious and extraverted boy. Josh’s teachers remarked how he is very good in the classroom when given a task or project. He does his individual assignments well and with accuracy, and he also works well in a group. His only weakness is during free time when he gets together with his group of friends. There is a particularly strong group of boys in his class and he is a part of this group. From the sounds of it, they can get a bit rowdy and don’t always follow the rules. We hear, not infrequently, about pushing, pinching, dare un pugno all’ ochio (punching in the eye – only one time for that one thankfully). It’s playground rough-housing and at this point we’re taking it as normal boy stuff.

The kids playing with a St Bernard puppy on the farm where we stayed in the Dolomites over Presidents' Day weekend.

Josh is in the American equivalent of kindergarten, though in contrast to American kindergarten, it is mostly play. They do lots of drawing and painting. They are working through writing the alphabet in their notebooks and also some numbers. They do not start learning to read at this level. That will start next year in 1st grade. Kindergarten here is mostly fun and getting along and learning rules and fine motor skills. Next year, the pressure will start as they move fast in first grade. He will start learning to read (in Italian) and the homework is impressive.

Josh's coloring of Palladio's most famous Villa Rotonda.

Josh is a bit nervous about starting elementary school next year. His sister has already warned him about all the homework he will be assigned and all the times where he will have a story to read 10 times. That is one of the most common homework assignments: “Leggi 10 volte” (read 10 times). One day I caught them together and Josh was in tears as his sister was really laying on the scary stories of first grade. Poor guy. At least he will be going into it having a good comprehension of the language, unlike Isabel. I asked at Josh’s parent-teacher meeting if he was speaking in Italian in school. They answered, yes, too much. Ok, got it.

Other than school, Isabel continues with gymnastics and she recently started piano lessons. Josh is doing soccer with our local town’s team. Calling it soccer does not seem to really do it justice. It’s Italian football. It’s their most prized national sport and it’s taken very seriously. Josh is the youngest on the team and some of these 6 and 7 year olds play like American varsity high school soccer players. I’ll let Chris expand more on this subject. For now, I’ll leave it like that and say it’s IMPRESSIVE!

Besides school, there is the rest of life. We are trying to finish plans for a new bathroom with frequent meetings with the contractor, which are all in Italian, just to add another challenge to a house project. Chris is dealing with a crazy, demanding schedule at work right now, and we are, of course, trying to plan our next round of travels. Traveling is still one of the most beautiful benefits of being here. We just finished a weekend of skiing in the Italian Dolomites and we are looking towards some great trips to come. Life never stops, no matter where you are. We are rolling with it, and trying to soak in as much of the beauty that is this place where we live, along the way.
Skiing at Alpi di Siusi. February 2014