If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

31 March 2007

My name is Viaggiatore, and I'm a blogaholic

Ahem. Well, there, I've said it.

The Tuscan hilltop chapter of my life has ended, and this here blog is only here for posterity and memory.

But new chapters in life have opened, new adventures beckon, and my fingers are itching to write about them.

And, geez, I've gotten FAN MAIL! Saying Nice Things! From people who Miss Reading! People who are Not Blood-relatives! (A sucker for a compliment, am I!)

And so, if you need help falling asleep at night and want to read the next chapter as it evolves of this choose-my-own-adventure novel of a life, drop me a line at tuttivabene@mac.com, say something nice, and I'll send the link along.


13 February 2007


To borrow a phrase, 'I came to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.'
And live deliberately I did: I found my soul here on this Tuscan hilltop, a peace of spirit that I cannot find words adequate to describe.

I also found a clarity of voice.
An ability to articulate Things That Matter.
The magnetic power of love.
The transformational power of nature.
The importance of Being Genuine.
How to let go.
How to feel again.
How to laugh again.
What I really care about, what's worth fighting for.
The elegance of simplicity.
The importance of building a life that is sustainable and respectful.

All good things must come to an end, as the cliche goes, in order to make room for great things. Sometimes good is good enough, and sometimes ... it's not.

I have learned that sometimes the fairytale of life on an Italian hilltop... isn't always a fairytale when seen from close up. From 5000 miles away my perspective changed enough to see that the REAL fairytale is found in an extraordinary human connection: wrapped in the guise of an otherwise ordinary-looking life, curled up on a couch giggling, nestled in the strongest and kindest of arms.

Because I believe THAT version of the fairytale is real, if we both have the courage to let it be. Prying open my heart has been the hardest lesson I have learned in the last 2 years. I also learned that the overwhelming electricity of connection can be scarier than bats and bites; that the language of love is sometimes more cryptic than Italian; and that running TO something is far, far scarier than running away from something.

But I know I must do it: to run towards possibility - which for me, today, is back in the US, in the arms of The Man of Many Nicknames. And if I make a fool of myself for believing in love against the craziest of odds, then so be it ... I can't think of anything more worthy of being a fool over.

And so, surrounded by the dearest of Italian and American friends, I bid a fond farewell to my Tuscan hilltop a few weeks ago. You may have sensed that changes were underway: I was intentionally cryptic, not writing more specifically about it until now because I wasn't sure what to say.

I'm still not sure.

I came to Tuscany to find my soul.
I leave here to follow my heart, back 'home' - to the midwest, where my heart is.
To try to learn to speak yet another language.

I know that a chapter in my life has closed, a chapter that I have dearly loved writing. Most good writers tell you that they don't know when they start how the story is supposed to end ... they wait to see where the characters take them.

As both author and protagonist, I am conflicted as to how to end.

Because this was never my dream, I do not leave with dreams unfulfilled.

I do know that it was exactly as it was supposed to be. 20 months later, the door to my Tuscan life has closed, and another has opened. And while open doors are intimidating, I steady myself by taking a deep breath, reminding myself that everything - everything - happens for a reason. God does have a plan.

I started this diary on February 15 2005, to communicate with friends and relatives about my Italian adventure. In the intervening two years, our little corner of the blogville has grown by leaps and bounds, as like-minded Italy lovers stumbled through, friends of friends referred to read my random ramblings. I am honored you have taken the time to share my adventure, to leave a comment or send good vibes. You encouraged me and buoyed me when I faltered, you made the cold dark nights seem warmer, and friends seem less far away on my empty 20 acres of hilltop forest.

All of that is why this is so hard: though there are hundreds of stories still untold to you, I find I need to stop writing 'If not now, when?': to focus on the doors that are open in front of me. To look forward, not back. Life lives only in one direction, and today is all we can be sure of.

My next adventure, taking me from the Tuscan Sun to the Frozen Tundra of Minnesota, may eventually be worthy of writing about. (Perhaps subtitled 'Love in the Time of Frostbite?!') But for now, I need to just live it.

And so it will come to pass that Spring will blossom on my Tuscan Hilltop without me this year. But I do know that I will pass that way again; a piece of me will always live there.

Italians don't say goodbye. They say, as you know - 'arrivederci.' Literally translated, the verb vedere is 'to see' Rivedere, to see again.

And so, for now ... I raise a glass, and my eyes simultaneously sparkle and fill with tears as I offer a reverent toast: Arrivederci: To the re-seeing of us, whenever and wherever our paths may cross again.

17 January 2007

The Vortex of Love

I met a man this month who sucked me into (his words!), "the vortex of love."

He is almost 70 years old, if my calculations are correct. And he is the most brilliant artisan, hand-hammering copper pans in his workshop in Montepulciano, a stunning hilltop town about 45 minutes south of here.

It was a blustery, foggy January day. The visiting Rosmarino and I drove up to the tip-top of Montepulciano and had a lunch of pici all'aglione and mindbendingly delectable linguine with white truffles, accompanied by a lightly beautiful Vernaccia. Should you find yourself in Montepulciano, you must visit the Mamma in the pearls and white apron at Osteria del Conte, at the top of the Piazza Grande.

Tongues dancing, we headed back out into the rain on our errand-of-the-day: to find Signor Mazzetti. Everyone knows that if you want to buy a copper pan, you go to Mazzetti. You spend more than you'd planned, but you buy a history, a piece of art, and the most beautifully hand-crafted copper you can possibly imagine. I have, I admit, coveted his work for years, and I had decided the time had come to invest.

As luck would have it, he was in his workshop. I poked my head in the door, telling him cheerfully (in Italian) that I was surprised he was in - it being January and much of the town ghostly deserted, in vacations. He waved me in: "it's a work day," he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, 'of course I'm here.'

I explained that I was so happy ... that I had wanted for years to buy a pot from him, and I was ecstatic to find him in the workshop, because I wanted my friend to see it. I know the actual store is 2 streets down, but I love the workshop -- the 'patina of age' of it all. The craftsmanship.

That was all the invitation that he needed. He launched immediately into the story of his family's business, operating since 1857 - gesturing overhead to the copper pots his grandmother had cooked in. He showed us the hammers and the large anvils, and multiple large-scale design sketches he had worked with. Displayed proudly in his shop doorway is a photo of him presenting one of his works of art to the Pope, who commented, "you are such an artist". Mazzetti corrected him, "I am an artisan, not an artist. An artisan has a history behind him."

The next hour tripped by on copper-colored wings, with him showing off details of his work and telling us his family's story, while he hammered for us little personalized 'pensieri' - souvenir copper discs to take with us. He looked at Rosmarino's platinum hair and dark, flashing eyes and called her a panther, a tigress. He looked at me and told me that my face was shiny and smiling and that, with a face like that, it was clear that I must be in love. I blushed, actually.

After more than an hour of stories and photos and eager translation of questions and answers, the lament of an artisan in a dying craft ('the young people don't want to do this,' listening to the hammering and stamping of copper, we parted cheerfully and eagerly, off to the actual store, to see his wife about my coveted pan purchase.

It's a deep, double-handled copper pan, larger and deeper than an average skillet. It can fry sausage, bake a dutch baby, handle risottos, stews, oven-baked chicken, perfect pork chops, or pastas. It is beautiful, a pan I will own for the rest of my life and eventually hand down to the next generation, my neices or nephews. A century from now, I would hope that someone still remembers the story of how it was found. When Blogger loves me again, I will post pictures for you.

The first meal I made in my pan-of-a-lifetime was my grandmother's stew recipe. I think that would have made Cesare Mazzetti very happy, I know it felt like absolute culinary perfection to me.

Tonight, I am cooking a spicy sausage and golden raisin risotto. Signor Mazzetti's 'vortex of love' (how he described it when he met his wife) will live on, through relationships that matter, and simple food prepared lovingly in his pan.

You have 10 months. If you love cooking, put something from Mazzetti on your Christmas list; you won't be sorry.

PS: the risotto turned out less-than-spectacular. But I don't blame the pan: overly broth flavored. But we recovered and had sex-in-a-bowl olive oil popcorn for a second course - all's well that ends well.

14 January 2007

It's not just about oranges.

Girls weekend out, Beatrice and Rosmarino and me. Kicking around in the fog and the windy country roads. On our to-do list: Shop for food for tomorrow night's party. Refill wine bottles. We were very busy.

On our way home, we stopped at the local restaurant. It was crazy early, 6pm, and though they were closed, their door was open, taking deliveries. Since it was a Saturday night, I wanted to make sure we could get a reservation.

As I shook off the cold, there was a small group of people standing at the desk talking to the manager. I hung back so as not to be intrusive.

"Aaaaah! Where have you been for so long?!" A man turns around and says to me, kissing me on both cheeks - the standard greeting.

I hope that I only feel (but do not look) briefly confused.

"I have looked for you, but you have never been at home."

"Aaah, yes, well ... I'm mysterious that way," I respond.

Somewhere during this brief exchange, I realize that the handsome bespectacled man with the sparkly smile speaking to me is the the fruit and vegetable man, who makes deliveries every other weekend in the area ... whose acquaintance I have made before.

We chat briefly, courteously: "did you have a good holiday?" "yes, me too."

Franco, the restaurant manager, greets me - I ask him about a table for 830, tell him we will see him later. As I go to leave, the a-ppealing (pun intended!) Fruit Man says to me ... 'come with me ... "

Out the door, he gestures to me and I follow him to to his open truck, sitting in front of the restaurant. As I walk past, I flash a smile at my girlfriends in the car ... (as had he before me, they informed me later).

He jumps up into the open back of the box truck, and grabs a plastic bag, putting in handfuls of the freshest and most beautiful of oranges and clementines that have come up from Calabria, in the south of Italy.

He tells me that he would love to offer me dinner sometime, when he is 'cleaned up' and not working. I laugh and gesture at my own sloppy hair and jeans and say that I have also been working today... and I respond enigmatically that I'm sure we will see each other around soon.

I smile brightly and am effervescent in my appreciation for the gift of fruit. I giggle a moment, as I have always been worried about getting scurvy. Today there is no danger.

I jump in the car, and the girls are already giggling at me. "I KNEW you were working some sort of magic!," exclaims Rosmarino

"I think I just got us dinner, breakfast AND a date," I joke in reply.

"I was just asking Beatrice what it says on the side of his truck...", says Rosmarino

The response became the punchline for the evening ...

"it says he has a good salami".

I may never see him again, but we're still sitting here laughing.
Damn, the girl's still got it.

07 January 2007

So many stories

I know, I know. It's been a few days. I'm sorry. Trust me that even in the hustle of the first week of the year, there are stories backed up against stories in my brain, all clamoring to be told to you: Christmas day lunch at Il Cavalieres! Wine Tasting with the Cutest Farmboy In all of Tuscany! The Befana - the 'witch of the epiphany' who brings stockings for all the boys and girls on 6 January, officially ending the holiday season ....

but, alas, they are all photo-stories. And for reasons totally bewildering to my technological peabrain, for DAYS now, cranky Blogger website does not want to accept my photos. So, for now, I must regale you with the only non-illustrated story I have:

The Efficiency of the Italian Medical System.

(I don't blame you if you've just clicked over to someone more interesting, really.)

Actually, though - last week was a FASCINATING experience. Without making this into the 'blog sharing too much information about my medical woes,' let it suffice to say that I had no other choice than to go to the Siena hospital last week.

I had called the doctors office and explained - in awkward Italian - my issue. The secretary said, "oh, no. For that, you need to go to the hospital. Let me transfer you." A woman at the hospital answered the phone and made an appointment for Friday at 930 am. I asked her where I should go. To the best of my understanding, she said, "Building Eight-Four? Floor Minus Five. Room Number 7."

Which I'm sure, to anyone who had BEEN to the hospital and spoke Italian, would have been crystal clear. I was in a fog. But I vowed to just set off early and get it figured out.

The Siena Hospital is HUGE. And you can't park anywhere remotely close to it, even if I knew where it was that I needed to be. (A small prayer of thanks sent up to the heavens that it was a sunny clear day.)

After wandering vaguely, quite of my own accord (nod to A.A.Milne!), I realized my error... It turns out that it's "LOTTO four" - which I guess means, Lot 4, which I had interpreted as L'otto four -- meaning The Eight Four. And LOT four means, apparently, building four. So, okay. Building four. I'm in. Elevator, Floor Minus Five. And I see a sign marked 'secretary' for the department - so I go in, to make sure I'm somehow in the right place. Indeed! All I have to do is sit outside door number seven, and at my appointed hour, magically, they will call my name.

And they Do! And I enter! And it's a closet-sized room (think, dental exam room). With three people - a Dr. and two nurses - already inside, the Doctor sitting at the computer.

"Where is your request?" (they ask).
"Pardon? My what?"
"Your request" (waving a red form at me.)
"Oh, I'm sorry - I don't have one. I'm a foreigner with private health insurance, not the state system." (hoping that makes it all better.)
"But how did you make your appointment?"
"I called???"
"Well, we'll do the exam the same, either way. Take off your clothes."

(no pleasantries, no inquiry about what SPECIFICALLY I was there for, no polite - "go ahead and get undressed and I'll discreetly leave the room, the dr. will be with you shortly". Just - "take off your clothes, now, and make it quick, this system runs on time...")

And so, I disrobe in front of them quickly. And while I'm laying on the exam table, the Dr. begins the exam, and the nurses are barking questions at me: "Birthdate? City? Local address here? Family history of problems? Any medications? Last menstrual period?"

(THAT one threw me for a loop and sent me into a giggle fit. I didn't know the word for 'menstruate' in Italian. So the nurses asked the Dr. to translate into English. He didn't know the word in English, so he started to explain it to me, and then ... PANTOMIMED to be certain I understood. Oh, the hysteria of it ...!!!) Then he made idle chatter about how he had family in San Diego, he had been there once for a month.

Exam over, not 10 minutes. Despite the speed, the doctor was kind, spoke slowly, patient, reassuring, explanatory. Everything I've ever wanted in a doctor. I got dressed as he returned to the tiny desk with his computer and printer. He printed a copy of my ultrasound photo, printed a page with a descriptive diagnosis, signed it all with a flourish, and it was packaged into an envelope for me. And he handed me a red form and a 'questionnaire for foreigners'.

"Go with her to the payment booth, to make sure it's okay" he instructs the nurse.

At the payment booth in the hallway (something like a tollbooth, with the teller behind bulletproof glass), after waiting in line behind three people, I am told I need to go to the office of foreigners, floor minus one.

But when I get to floor minus one, there is nothing. I ask a secretary there. She has no idea. I retrace my steps to the tollbooth and say I must not have understood. She says, as if I am mentally retarded: 'It's the big ticket payment place! At the entrance! Near there! Go to floor Zero, Follow the orange line."

(I would like it noted for clarity that the previous directions I got were 'floor minus one' and said nothing about ORANGE LINE)

Elevator: Floor Zero. Sure enough, there's an orange line painted on the floor. Following it leads me through a rabbit warren of TWO AND A HALF BUILDINGS, down hallways, across suspended walkways. It ends at a door. I go through the door, and ask the first kind-looking woman I come across, "Foreigners' Office? A woman named Sabrina? Can you help me?"

Oh, yes. (bless her!) She takes me down a set of dark stairs. Past a bank of 10 bank-teller windows with digitized numbers flashing above them and a crowd of people clamoring waiting to win their turn at the bulletproof glass. We go out the door, into an underground tunnel/parking lot, and around the corner where there is a glass doorway with closed blinds and a tiny buzzer marked 'Ufficio Stranieri'.

She pushes the buzzer, and we're in. Down another 2 hallways, where the fabled Sabrina sits in a four-desk shared office the size of my tiny kitchen.

I wait 5 minutes for Sabrina to get off the phone. She looks at my papers, and says, "I don't know why they sent you here, you just need to pay."

"Okay, where do I pay?"

"Just outside the door, the ticket windows".

Aaah, YES. The DMV-come-inefficient bakery system. With easily 70 people crammed into a glorified hallway waiting for their Keno-esque numbers to be called, for the privilege of paying their medical bills.

I sigh deeply, and push the button to generate my automated number. A laser-printed ticket tells me I am 589.

I look up at the call board: We are on 542.

oh, nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

My crowd-hating self in enclosed spaces is already starting to itch. I have my diagnosis, my reassurance, in my hand. (YES, this is the third time I've debated just walking away - what would they do to me?!?!?! How would they find me??)

I cannot stand here for an hour waiting to pay my bill.

So I take a deep breath. Retrace, as if by feel, my steps two-and-a-half-buildings away, back to the original tollbooth, where I had seen her collecting red forms and money.

I wait in line, still three people long, but better than 40! There is a prominent sign on the tollbooth - "THE OPERATOR WILL TAKE A MANDATORY 15 MINUTE BREAK DURING OPENING HOURS". (and I'm *sure* that it will come to pass, just as I step up to the window, she will close for break, perhaps out of spite.)

Which would have made the story funnier - but, no coffee break. I tell her that I hadn't actually *needed* to go to Sabrina in the Ufficio Stranieri, and she had sent me back to pay. She is nonplussed. She punches my red form magically into the system, and ... voila ... a bill for 54.75 Euros. I pay in cash. She prints and signs the receipt with a stamp and a flourish (flourish abounds here.)

Exam time: 10 minutes.
Miles walked: easily 2.
Number of times I was going to just bail out and leave: 4
Number of times I wondered why I'm so compliant: 3
Time spent waiting in payment or question lines: easily 45 minutes. Could have been doubled if I had actually stayed in the "ticket window" system like a good sheep. I've decided that Italians aren't lazy or patient - they're just -- resigned that 'this is how it is'. At the end, I fought the urge to follow the orange line back over to the mystery ticket windows and tell them all that the tollbooth in Building Four, Floor Minus Five, had no wait - like Elliot in the movie E.T. with the frogs he released --- "ESCAPE! Go Now!!"
Clean bills of health: 1: Reassuring. Priceless.

01 January 2007

Just one

I had given a lot of thought to the idea of making resolutions this year, and decided against it.

Resolutions can get overwhelming, too many intentions and not enough action. Recycle more! Be more patient! Go to the gym! Call my grandparents more often! Leap, the net will appear! This year, maybe it can be enough to live every day as if it were the last. Asking about everything - "do it now, what are you waiting for?" ... or, "is that really so important"? It seems like all those other resolutions and intentions would work themselves out if I really truly valued each day like that. That was the spirit with which "if not now, when?" became my motto, many years ago, and it is truer than ever today.

And yet, as I sat late last night (well, okay ... early this morning) with champagne-induced tears streaming down my face - swallowing hard, reflecting on change and fear and putting one foot in front of the other, which is sometimes all we can do ...

I did make a resolution.
Just one.

It is a response to a wish from The Man of Many Nicknames - whose quiet, gentle voice calms me when I am anxious, encourages me when I am uncertain, challenges me to think, teases me when I am pouty. It was he who said to me softly, kindly: "I just wish more people could see the side of you that I know."

He's right: what I love most is that I am a better person with his influence, and ... more people should see that side of me. This year, I resolve to do just that.


When we were kids, New Year's Day and Superbowl Sunday were the two days in the year that football was ALWAYS on in our house. That's not to say that it wasn't on at other times, but without fail - those two days it was the absolute center of activity.

Mom would magically produce a giant spread of enormously fattening food, including 'snippets' (buttery sesame toasted triangles of goodness), scoopy fritos with warm homemade chili cheese dip, sausage & cheese balls, spinach dip in a bread bowl ... and we would eschew any sort of proper meal for the day in favor of snacking our way through the spread. For two kids whose life revolved around the five fruits and vegetables a day and well-balanced meals eaten at a dining room table, these 'food-holidays' were eagerly anticipated, and I know as adults both my sister and I have carried those food traditions forward.

Dad, for his part, would spend the morning putting together a large grid on posterboard of 100 squares, a pool for the games. The board would get passed around, and we'd all initial our random boxes before the drawing of the numbers. Strategies varied - some spread out their initials deliberately, covering as much space as possible. Others flung caution to the wind, decorating more artistically the board with random initialing.

There would be a big flourish of drawing the random 0-9 numbers for the top and bottom, and which team got which side of the grid. The number-picking was always split evenly by the children. I'm sure there are five different ways to work football pools, but that was always the way our family did it. Prices were put on the squares (I vaguely remember it being $.25 when we were younger, and increasing to $1. as adults?) There was a smaller pot for the score at the end of the first three quarters, and a larger for the final.

Even if we didn't care a whit about who was playing, we'd all pick teams to cheer for in each of the games. None of us, in childhood or adulthood, had ties to a school that ever made it into one of the major bowl games ... (Hell, I graduated from a school that didn't even HAVE a football team!!) and so for those of us who didn't know a damn thing about football, decisions were made on totally arbitrary criteria: my friend went to college there! I've been to that town before! I like their mascot! Purple is my favorite color!

There are 365 days in a year, and yet some of my very happiest memories of my family's home were made during those two days a year.

I find myself spending New Year's Day 2007 in a country that thinks 'football' is soccer ... and where a good spicy bloody mary is hard to come by. So instead, I haul in more firewood, and use the first of the year to clean out stacks upon stacks of old files (why does the bank feel it necessary to send me a SEVEN PAGE STATEMENT every month for an account that has 200 Euros in it?!? Better yet, why did I feel obligated to keep them?!?!). I take advantage of the quiet to finish cleaning and storing the last batch of sun-dried fennel seeds that I harvested earlier in the fall. I cook lentils, even though I don't really like lentils, because lentils on New Years' Day is a good luck charm here. And I wear red underwear. (I'll take all the good luck I can get.)

But today, truth be told, I know that I would trade absolutely anything to just ... be curled up on a couch, watching the Rose Bowl game. And I'm not really even a that much of a football fan, but ... Hey, I have friends who went to Michigan!

Thought for 2007

“We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.” – Marian Wright Edelman

31 December 2006

The stuff New Years' Dreams are made of

(If you've seen it, you know the scene. The scene that, every New Year's Eve, gives the soft, mushy side of me hope that the 'big romantic gesture' is still alive in the world):

Harry: I've been doing a lot of thinking. And the thing is, I love you.

Sally: What?

Harry: I love you.

Sally: How do you expect me to respond to this?

Harry: How about you love me too?

Sally: How about I'm leaving.

Harry: Doesn't what I said mean anything to you?

Sally: I'm sorry Harry, I know it's New Years Eve, I know you're feeling lonely, but you just can't show up here, tell me you love me and expect that to make everything alright. It doesn't work this way.

Harry: Well how does it work?

Sally: I don't know but not this way.

Harry: Well how about this way: I love that you get cold when it's seventy one degrees out, I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich, I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts, I love that after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the life to start as soon as possible.

Sally: You see, that is just like you Harry. You say things like that and you make it impossible for me to hate you. And I hate you Harry... I really hate you. I hate you.

And the clock chimes midnight.
And they kiss.
And they live happily ever after.

And so, here I am on New Year's Eve: wearing the traditional red underwear (Italian good luck charm!), and wishing each and every one of you a very very Happy 2007.

May it bring you hope and love and laughter and big romantic gestures.
May it bring us all a world that's kinder, more responsible, more peaceful, more aware.

"You only get one life to live. And if you live it right, one should be enough. If not now, when?"

30 December 2006

"Come for dinner!"

Is what I said, casually and yet excitedly, to my friend il Cavaliere -- the closest thing I have to a guardian angel here -- my 'adopted Italian father,' as we refer to him. "Come, and bring your wife... we'll have drinks here, then go to Il Cacciatore for dinner, and have a wonderful night, our own version of New Year's Eve. Stay over and make a night of it in the countryside!"

And so it was a plan. Except, when you're the adopted daughter, 'the principessa,' as he refers to me, the plan is mostly out of your hands.

It should be noted at this point that Il Cavaliere is an amazing cook. He teaches! cooking lessons! for a living! No foolin', he knows his way around a kitchen - (like, as I have mentioned before, most Tuscan men that I know do.) And the reason that I invited them to dinner at Cacciatore is because... well, to be honest, the pressure of cooking for an Italian that teaches cooking lessons is just a LITTLE too much to take.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a pretty decent cook. To my knowledge I've never poisoned anyone, and plates usually get cleaned. I'd even say I'm a little adventurous - willing to scratch my head, squint at the fridge and available ingredients, and figure something out. Except I'm an AMERICAN cook. Here, there are specific ways things are done, and ways things are NOT done. And, as a non-Italian (no matter how many years I live here!), there are things that genetically they think we cannot do quite right. Even from region to region, or town to town WITHIN a region, the rules change. What one Italian teaches you may be sacrilege to another.

I heard a heated argument, for example, on whether or not rosemary is used in a traditional castagnaccio recipe. People from the Casentino mountains say yes, Florentines say no. Who can keep it all straight?!? You can see why I don't feel the need to toss *my* humble cuisine into centuries-old arguments.

So, the plan was set. They'd come Friday night.

Having made great time from the city, they arrived at 6, laden down with bags. Bottles of prosecco! Two jars of homemade sugo di anatra! (pasta sauce made from duck), fresh Pici pasta (my favorite!), A silver kettle, filled with traditional white beans that had been cooking all day, and a large butchers' package of the most beautiful pork chops I have ever seen.

Yes, they came for dinner ... bearing ... dinner.

'Ma, e' molto meglio mangiare a casa, e tutto gia' sono pronti' (But it's much better to eat at home! Everything is already ready!) was the explanation I got.

I smiled, hopelessly. Sometimes, it's just nice to be ... cooked for, taken care of.
My week had been pretty spectacularly lousy, though they would have no way of knowing that. And to have friends whirl in and bring dinner - well, sometimes, you don't know what you need until it arrives. And though I was just a little humiliated, I have learned that protesting when someone does something nice, from the heart, for you - even if it is rooted in a total lack of faith in your cooking ... well, to say anything other than a quiet thank you would be more than just a little rude.

And I said to myself, "Self: Say thank you." (I'm getting better at just saying 'thank you' when people do nice things for me.) "Show him where the flour and oil is kept. And shut up and drink your prosecco."

The pici with duck sauce was AMAZINGLY good. (The duck was leftover from what we didn't eat on Christmas day, pulled apart into shredded pieces and cooked with just a little bit of spices and a hint of tomato. Not gamey at all, just delicious. I'm getting braver cooking game, but not quite THAT good yet.) The pork chops - lightly floured, salted, peppered, and cooked in a wine reduction, were yummy - both yesterday AND today.

I sheepishly admit that we absolutely ate better than we would have at the restaurant, or if I had been cooking. Plus, I learned some new techniques, which I can try out on my AMERICAN friends... because I can dazzle Americans with my Italian cooking, but I have learned to leave the Italians to their own devices.

So the next time someone accepts a dinner invitation, and asks what they can bring, I highly recommend you say with a twinkle in your eye, "oh, heck ... Bring dinner! I think a pasta and a meat course would do quite nicely, thank you! Shall we say, six-ish?"

The Chameleon Mouse ponders her nest

Yes, kids, it's time for another adventure of the Chameleon Mouse! So settle in with a glass of something that makes you happy to drink, and sip away while we check in with our heroine. When we left her last, she was pondering what would be on the other side of that impending calendar page-turning. And as you all know, sometimes looking back can help you to look forward:

... 650 square feet, is what it was. The 'garden' apartment (read: half-basement) in a victorian row house in Washington, DC. (Barely out of shrapnel-scatter distance from the White House, she joked.) With original wooden floors, a teensy tiny (mouse-sized!) fireplace and fantabulous dentil molding, coated with years worth of paint and stories. It was a stopping point, a time-biding rental halfway between the suburban planned-community condo (that she had sold when the market was on the upswing) and the swanky urban loft with a floating bedroom and 12' ceilings and a full glass wall overlooking the hip urban restaurant district.

For two years, our mouse lived in that garden-basement, and planned every detail of that new condo: picked out the granite countertops, the slate tile in the glass-half-walled shower, the track lighting to showcase the artwork just-so on the walls, paid extra for the bamboo floor in the bedroom.

And yet, a different adventure pulled her away. By the time she closed on the swanky urban new-build condo that she had waited 2 1/2 years for ... her life was 5,000 miles away on a Tuscan hilltop. Not because it had always been her dream ... but rather, opportunity had knocked, and she answered.

The city mouse became a country mouse, almost overnight. And the house she lives in today, 350 years old, is a lifetime away from the swanky urban condo that she actually owns. And our chameleon is strangely comfortable in both. Two major moves in five years: suburbia to urban, urban to rural... during which our mouse's life has whittled itself down to only thirteen boxes. And it is fascinating that so many of the things that were in those boxes coming from the US to Italy will not be the same things that leave here. No, these 20 months have changed our mouse, irretrievably.

A glance around the farmhouse today reveals much about her character:

Utilitarian and well-made cooking implements, close at hand in a kitchen made to cook in. Pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, collections of graters and knives, wooden spoons and cutting boards at the ready.

Expensive, luxurious bedsheets and giant, plush bathtowels.

A small but meaningful collection of books.

Black and white photography and etchings, of places she has traveled.

Boxes and boxes of spare wine glasses and candles; running out of either is tantamount to sacrilege.

Photographs of friends; memories of laughter and experiences and a slightly-disturbing chronology of a lifetime of hairstyles.

Her accessory weaknesses: a few too many pairs of strappy shoes, silver bracelets, and an ever-growing collection of Italian scarves.

Seven pairs of garden and work gloves, and two pairs of workboots.

Bagfuls of suits and 'fussy corporate clothes' and handbags of varying colors, ready to be donated to friends or charity.

An entire shelf of travel maps and guidebooks, two computers.

Yes, a glance around this farmhouse reveals that our chameleon mouse has almost gotten her life down to a size sufficient that she could toss it in a knapsack on a moment's notice and hit the road with it: today, she owns just the things that really matter. We all know that too much baggage prevents mice - particularly of the chameleon variety - from being able to jump when life beckons.

And as she sits, staring at 2007 on the calendar ... she ponders the concept of home:

'home is not a place, it is people.' (L.M. Bujold)

'wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.' (Marvin Gaye) (Paul Young)

'home is where the heart is' (general wisdom)

And she straightens up and looks closely and carefully at her reflection in the antique mirror. When it comes right down to it, her clear, starburst-flecked green eyes cannot lie to her.

Riddle me this, Mouse: If you don't want to be the type of mouse that's always on the roam... then is your hat today really laid where your heart is?


27 December 2006


Pensieri is the Italian word for 'little gifts.' Technically translated, it comes from pensare, the verb 'to think' ... so I always think of them as "little thinking of yous".

When I come back from a trip, for example, I bring a pensiero to the woman who feeds Sisi.

This time of the year, pensieri are everywhere. And what's amazing is that even the smallest of businesses have logo-printed pensieri (usually boxed up/gift wrapped) to give out to their customers.

I went around, a few days before Christmas, with plates of homemade chocolate-drizzled shortbread to give to my friends, the folks in my everyday life who make my life easier, who are kind to me. And in exchange, I was laden down with ... pensieri from them:

A thermometer from the gas station
A lottery ticket from the tabaccaio where I buy my phone cards
A keychain from the pizza parlor
A picture frame and calendar from the coffee shop near the office
A combination lighter AND laser pointer from the coffee shop at the piazza, offered with a glass of prosecco on Christmas eve.
A poinsettia from the florist, "so your table is dressed" (!)
A longstemmed red rose from my friend who runs the gift shop
A tub of conditioner from the hairdresser
A bottle of wine from my local restaurant
A hunk of finocchiona salame from the butcher
2 jars of blackberry jam and 2 jars of porcini trifolata from my cleaning woman
A bottle of homemade vin santo from the man who helps with my yard.

It's rather nice, actually. I have to admit that I WAS a little afraid that Christmas this year, far from those I love, would feel empty. And instead I have a whole stack of 'thinking of mes' given to me from my adopted village family.

Sometimes, it really truly is the little things.

It is a much, much simpler life here, to be sure. And harder in many ways, I will not lie to you. The romanticized version of 'under the tuscan sun' is just that - romanticized. But I came here to become a part of something different, to learn what it had to teach. And ... while it doesn't seem like much, that list of pensieri means more in total than its individual pieces: in sum, it is the gift of being accepted as 'one of them' - although I arrived a complete stranger.

Acceptance. Acknowledgement.

THAT, my friends, is worth more than anything I can think of that would have been wrapped under my tree this year.

PS: speaking of pensieri... I offer a quiet and reverent bow of my head to those of you who took the time to visit here over the past week, who left comments or sent emails -- some long-time friends, other whom I have never met. While I love writing If Not Now, When? for the sake of my own diary, part of the gift of this journey is that people have appreciated what I share about it. Thank you, for taking the time to let me know that it means something to you, that it encourages or entertains you, that it gives you a glimpse into a life that you may want someday or an escape from the life that you have. It was a delightful, unexpected gift to hear from all of you.

24 December 2006

Aspettando per Babbo Natale

English speakers call him Santa Claus, Italians call him 'Babbo Natale' - literally, Father Christmas (I think actually a slightly-more-affectionate, 'daddy christmas' ... which makes sense, I mean, any man sneaking into our rooms in the middle of the night we should be somewhat affectionate with, right?)

It's Christmas eve, and instead of waiting alone for Babbo Natale to appear down my chimney, I decided to take matters into my own hands and give myself a shot of christmas spirit by going to town to stroll and take in the lights. I was pleasantly surprised - even though it's Sunday - to find all the shops open and the town square bustling. The weather couldn't have been more cooperative - a crystal-clear, starry night, with just a bit of chill in the air. I had seen advertisements for a party held in the main street, by the local ambulance squad, for children - face painting, balloon animals - while the entire group waits for Babbo Natale's arrival: 'down the clock tower'.

Indeed, there was a whole gaggle of the town's children gathered, hopped up on all sorts of sugar and anticipation, being led in songs and games by one of the paramedics on a microphone, including plenty of 'have you been good, little girl?' interviews. And at the appointed time (5:30), he had the crowd of little voices count down and then yell up at the clock tower: "come down, Babbo Natale!" and "we're waiting, Babbo Natale" and of course, "we love you, Babbo Natale!" That last one got him, apparently ... and sure enough, Babbo Natale himself he stuck his head over the edge of the clocktower, maybe 6? stories in the air?, and waved and ho-ho-ho'd at everyone.

And then, just as promised ... he came down the clock tower. By rapelling. WITH his present-laden sacks. Sprinkling candy and glitter down at the crowd waiting below as he made his descent. Color me VERY impressed.

I had a perfect ringside seat for the action, sipping a glass of prosecco, at Mauro's cafe - where I sat next to his singing, dancing, automated Santa (he talked and sang in English, birds of a feather, you know). While I'm not much for the Christmas spirit this year, it was pretty sweet to hear all the little voices. One young girl, when asked on the microphone ... "what do you want to say to Babbo Natale?' said very clearly and plaintively: 'Scendi subito, Babbo Natale!' (Come down right away, Santa!!)

Santa then proceeded to call out every child's name, one at a time, and give them their personalized present (no doubt having been provided in advance by their parents, but ... since I didn't see THAT part of the system, maybe I'd just like to believe in Christmas magic.)

2 glasses of Prosecco later, my Christmas spirit suitably reinvigorated, I made my rounds through town, wishing 'auguri' (regards!) and 'buon natale' to my friends in the shops in town.
A stop at the church to light a candle, with a quiet and simple prayer of thanks that my loved ones are safe this holiday, and I headed back up the hill, to curl up in front of my fireplace and spend a quiet Christmas eve.

Christmas eve will find me, where the love light gleams ... yes, I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.

The very best gift

On Christmas eve, when D.S. and I were young, we got to pick a story out of the big Norman Rockwell Christmas book and have it read to us (or, as we got older, to read ourselves.) Being far away from extended family, it was just the four of us ... and so we created our own traditions. The story was one of them. The 'pass the present' during the reading of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas was another, the snow guess competition, the opening of the brown boxes that had come from far away.

Tonight, in a twinge of holiday memories, I sit in front of my fireplace and read one of my very favorite stories: the story of giving from the heart, of what real love means. I wish it for each and every one of you, this Christmas and always.

by O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

23 December 2006

Mmmmm, it must be ... eau de fume

My brand new blackberry/cellphone had a meltdown last week. Though I do generally have a bad aura with all things electrical, 40 days from out of the box to totally dysfunctional is a new record. It MUST have been defective from the start (that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

So I packed it, lovingly, up into a small box, nestled with a bunch of styrofoam wrap, and send it back to HQ at ye-ole-day-job, via FedEx ('when it absolutely, positively, has to be there... in four days, we hope.'), into the hands of my emminently useful tech dude, who we call Doc.

Doc instant-messaged me upon its arrival, to say that when he opened the box, it smelled "all smoky and rustic... "

At which point I realized that either he's got the nose of a bloodhound or ... EVERYTHING I OWN (which isn't a whole lot) smells like I just came home from the Girl Scout Jamboree. This is the danger of the giant fireplace that's used not just for ambiance, but for actual heat. I suppose here, everyone is kind of immune ... every house has an open fireplace or two, burning from dawn 'til well past dusk every day. But if after 4 days in transit, 2 little pieces of styrofoam were still so pungent, then I'm sure every piece of clothing I own has been completely permeated.

On the long list of qualities that Mr. Right should have: I clearly need to add "gets turned on by the smell of campfires."


22 December 2006

Best firestarter EVER

The waxy paper wrapping from the six giant hunks of butter you used to make holiday shortbread for all your friends in town.

I'm just saying: Try it. One at a time, though, if you think eyebrows will be as hip and in-fashion in 2007 as they were in 2006.


Imported goodness

Each time I return from a trip to the States, I stick a few things in my suitcase that are hard-verging-on-impossible to find here in Italy; you've heard me babble on in almost mythical reverence of Bounce dryer sheets and Advil. Often, friends make requests: N.Terza asked for a specific brand of deodorant and REAL orville redenbacher popcorn on my last go-round.

As for me, my secret imports have recently been:
Reese sliced water chestnuts
Lipton beefy onion soup mix
Memphis BBQ sauce
Nestle tollhouse chocolate chips
... and a bag of real pecans (that cost less than an arm and a leg)

That bag of pecans became the fodder for dinner last night. The recipe originally came from Judith in Umbria's "cooking in a rental house" cookbook. She is a world-class chef, and that download is pretty much her equivalent of 'cooking for dummies'... which is right about my level! Some of my favorite staples have come from there.

In America, I never dreamed of all the amazing things that could be done with pasta, I was sort of middle-of-the-road boring red and pesto sauces over there. And so, hoping to inspire you to do something different tonight, here's the recipe... and the best part is that including time to cook the pasta, it shouldn't take more than 15 minutes to fix (once your water is boiling!)

280 g / 10 oz. penne pasta
large pot of water
small handful of salt
1 TBSP olive oil
small onion, finely chopped
couple handfuls of pecans (I went heavy ... surprise, surprise!)
8 oz / 250 g sweet/mild gorgonzola cheese, broken or cut into smallish pieces (important not to get a blue cheese that's too spicy... stay mild/sweet).

Start the pasta water to boil ... when the water is boiling, add the salt and the pasta, stir.

In a heavy frying pan, heat the oil, add onion -- cooking it slowly until softened (I add a pinch of salt here, too.) Add the pecans and stir about to toast and crisp them. Add the broken up cheese to the fried onions and pecans, stirring to melt. Add a ladle of the pasta cooking water ito the pan to make the sauce creamier (pasta should be about finished when you do this, and quite firm.) Drain the pasta, and toss it into the frying pan stirring to coat the pasta with sauce. Taste for salt and correct if necessary - some cheeses are naturally saltier than others, so you can't tell ahead whether you'll need it or not. Serve immediately, steaming hot!

NOTE: this is a fast sauce. You can't make it ahead, and you don't want to cook it too long. It doesn't reheat well.

Judith says this serves three as a main course, though I think she's crazy ... while my measurements weren't quite exact, I'd say that in American portions this serves 2. (Or maybe I just have a bigger appetite than most?!) Double it for a larger gang, obviously!

Buon appetito!


21 December 2006

The chameleon mouse

UBlend mused about 'his' version of the witch on the forest path (which sounded suspiciously something like a character in the Devil Wears Prada ... a black leather-clad gorgeous platinum blonde sipping a martini... wait, UBlend, you have me confused with Virgin Blogger!!!)

But, yes, that reminded me that there IS this crazy dichotomy in my life:

I am equal parts urban chic, globetrotting, corporate, martini-sipping professional, and bluejean-and-bandanna-wearing, firewood stacking, simple-pasta-making, local-wine-sipping, hiking in the hills, wilderness girl. Part country mouse, part city mouse, as the fable goes.

18 months ago this city mouse moved to the country, a hilltop in the middle of nowhere - where I neither spoke the language nor knew another person - not at all certain what I would find. And I was as shocked-to-my-socks as much as anyone that what I found was a part of my soul, one that had been missing for a long time. And with that piece in place, my spirit is truly at peace; perhaps for the first time in my adult life. Sometimes, you don't know exactly what's not right until a missing piece arrives and nestles in, making itself quite at home in your heart: Stealthy, how life sneaks up on you while you're making other plans.

And as my giant Tuscan fireplace crackles behind me, and my neighbor's delicious 1.80-a-liter 'table wine' Chianti sloshes in my glass, I know without a doubt that the country life suits me quite well, better than I myself could have ever even expected. I did 'come to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,' and that, I am. There is an inexplicable comfort that I have found here in the deliberateness and purposefulness of life, as both a stranger and a local simultaneously on this hilltop. And it has changed me, forever. This "pioneerwoman" side of me shocks the hell out of my DC corporate friends, I imagine, who wouldn't recognize me in my old barn coat, workboots, and leather gloves.

No, I haven't lost my taste for swanky martinis and sassy high-heeled shoes, and I do still love a fabulous day at the spa... or being waited on hand-and-foot at a 5-star resort. Except, well... that was usually someone else's money and influence, never my own. And I have to admit, it all seemed a little hollow, even then.

Here, in the countryside, it's just me. My own sweat and tears. My own kindness and energies. My own generosity of spirit, my own honesty with myself. My own cleverness or fortitude or stupidity. My own fear and anger. My own planning - or failure to do so, self-reliance is equal parts frustrating and rewarding. My own ability to learn to ask for help, to know where resources can be found and use them wisely. The life lessons here are astounding, when you can be still enough to listen to them. Once I 'got over myself' and stripped away the years of well-hardened veneers that prevent connection; opening myself to lessons and possibility.

It's amazing what you can hear when there's no background noise of chaos.

I find now that I am a chameleon of sorts - a little bit country mouse, and a little bit city mouse. I know it is in-between where my "disagio" (imbalance) arises: I am NOT, by any measure, a suburbanite mouse (not that there's anything WRONG with that!)

And so I stare down the path into the unknown: the daunting annual page-turning on the calendar, and I can't help but wonder ...

Where will our heroine mouse's next adventure lead?
(And more importantly, what will she be wearing?!?!)
Can she find a life that will balance the two?
Is she brave enough to try??
Is there a trap ahead?
Does she find another like-minded mouse?

The crystal ball is foggy ... (or maybe that's the wine talking?)

Tune in next week - (same bat-time, same bat-channel,) for more Adventures of the Chameleon Mouse!

Yes, 2007 should be veeeeeery interesting. There's a vicious wind whipping the hilltop tonight. I suspect it's the wind of change.


20 December 2006

Oh, the horror of it all...

Italy has a notably less-commercial approach to Christmas than the US. Of course, there are sales and promotions and all that, but they don't start at Halloween ... (rather, after the Immacolata). All the towns seem to be decked out in holiday finery (pics of my darling, lit up town square coming when the sun comes out) ... but generally, I would say things are more tasteful and traditional here: Live trees. White lights. Simple mistletoe and holly bunches. The houses are all a bit ... spartan. With the cost of electricity, it's mostly a random string of lights or two to indicate festivity but frugality (noone would want to appear to be 'out of step' with their neighbors!) My own house has one very sweet string of white lights, swagged decoratively across the front porch. Generally, a very old-fashioned holiday feel, by comparison to the loud displays I have seen in American yards and stores.

And then, driving into Siena last week for lunch, I saw it:

A GARGANTUAN INFLATABLE SANTA, opening his sack, on a rooftop. And it was clearly an Italian invention; as his sack had "Buone Feste" written on it.

My eyes are burning.

It was, to be fair, sitting atop a hotel catering to tourists. But STILL. Agony.

18 December 2006

On Fate

There are magical places in my life that hold special memories; places that I love to return to and feel ... content. Like my life is as it is supposed to be, that things make sense. They are talismans, these places, and they weave together the as-yet-unfinished story of my life, following possibility. Going where doors open, learning to listen to my heart.

To name a few of these places: my fireplace here in Tuscany. The fainting couch at Weavers' Cottage. The island of St. John. My mother's balcony. A diveboat on the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland. A bowling alley in Kentucky. The block I grew up on and the playground at my old elementary school. A cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Behind main stage at my hometown's summer festival. The crazy hotdog stand near my old highschool...

And the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. For all its stuffiness and crazy over-priced drinks, some of my favorite Washington memories were made in that bar: Martinis with the girls. Bourbon with Mr. Big. Bloody Marys on Sunday mornings. Sitting with Beamer, when he looked at me and said, "oh my god, you're in love with him, aren't you?" And New Year's Day 2005 with UBlend, when he threatened to make the entire bar sing 'The Hills Are Alive'.

UBlend returned 10 days ago to that same bar, and penned this poem ... which he sent to me today, an early Christmas gift, reminding me that life just ... is. Choose it, embrace it, live it to the fullest: you get only one.


Fate happens,
Sometimes unnoticed,
Many times unassuming,
Always for a reason.

It can be overwhelming,
With a rush,
Almost with a tinge of fear

It can be overlooked
With no thought,
All together a non-event.

It is real,
With unexpected consequences,
Never with full disclosure.

Fate happens,
We can see it or we can ignore it,
It changes our world,
It changes our lives.