25 December 2007

buon natale

Christmas morning in Firenze• a hanging Babbo Natale • Ponte Vecchio to the Duomo • Nativity on Lake Como

BUON NATALE from Italia! Firenze is beautiful today...we took a stroll around the streets before video-chatting with my parents online during brunch and gift time! Last night we enjoyed a children's pageant and Christmas Eve service at a church in town followed by a small dinner and Christmas movie with friends. The bells around the city were so loud and beautiful around the midnight hour, signaling the start of midnight masses and also the dawn of Natale! It's much different having Christmas away from our families...but technology is helping out quite a bit! Thanks to Skype for calls to friends and Chris' family, and video iChat for sharing with my family, who sat their computer camera in the living room so we could see the tree, and also eat brunch with them around the table. We also opened gifts together as everyone put their new item up to the camera to share across the ocean.

I dedicate the rest of my post to a lovely story from the Christmas of 1914 during WWI. This excerpt is from Jim Wallis at Sojourners:
With the ongoing conflicts raging during each passing year, this story remains tragically relevant.

Silent Night, by Stanley Weintraub, is the story of Christmas Eve, 1914, on the World War I battlefield in Flanders. As the German, British, and French troops facing each other were settling in for the night, a young German soldier began to sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." Others joined in. When they had finished, the British and French responded with other Christmas carols.

Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been "no-man's-land." And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides.

The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other's names and seen each other's families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless enemy.

So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered - a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.

Folksinger John McCutcheon wrote a song about that night in Belgium, titled "Christmas in the Trenches," from the viewpoint of a young British solder.

Watch this video for the song and poignant images.*those receiving through email will have to click into the actual blog site to view*

23 December 2007

my 12 things of Christmas :: part 2

Here is the last half of the Christmas game I was "tagged" with to list 12 things about Christmas (memories, traditions, etc) that I began yesterday.

6. Getting Up Together :: One rule we had in my family my whole life, is that on Christmas morning, no one can even set foot in the living room (where the presents were) until everyone is up to go in there together. Also, this couldn't happen before 7am. Most years, my sister and I would watch the clock tick from 6:59 to 7:00 and then run into our parents' room yelling "Merry Christmas!" and hustling them out of bed!

5. Advent Calendars :: I loved getting the calendars with the little doors to open up everyday during advent. Then those were upgraded to the even better calendars with little doors that opened up to pieces of chocolate instead of just pictures. Then even those were upgraded by the family of, Tina, (a German exchange student we hosted when I was in elementary school, and who we just visited in August) when they gave my sister and I a big string of little stockings. Everyday we'd open up a small stocking with a trinket or candy!

4. Late Night Readings :: Several years on Christmas Eve my sister and I would be so excited when we went to bed (of course one of us would sleep in the other's room for that night and sometimes in a homemade tent of sheets) that I would convince her to let me read the entire book of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. By the end, my voice would be scratchy - but it would be late enough that we were finally sleepy.

3. Home Videos :: Oh, you've gotta love the family home videos on the holidays. We never owned a video recorder, but on a couple of Christmas mornings, we borrowed one from a friend. The horrible morning hair, awkward pajama gowns, auto-focus, scratchy noises on the microphone as the camera would get moved from the couch, to Dad's hands, then wobbling again as it was balanced on a stool. One of our favorite moments that we laugh at still today (and one we didn't even notice until several years ago) is during a Christmas morning when I was about 8 and my sister was 5. We had a tradition to go around the room in order and everyone open up one present at a time. My sister went just before me and opened a doll (one where you cranked her arm to make her hair grow) and was SO excited that not all the paper was off the box before she threw it down and started making her way around the room giving thankful hugs and kisses...when she got to me, you just see me anxiously awaiting my turn to open, look at her with raised eyebrows and say "Don't kiss me! I didn't give it to you!" (oh, I hang my head in shame :) )

2. Christmas Garb :: Christmas somehow turns into an excuse to wear costume-like outfits for an entire month. Oversized sweaters with the strangest designs (ice-skating teddy bears, penguins and swans drinking eggnog), knit turtleneck shirts with hanging charms sown on the front, long necklaces with bells or lights, Santa hats, reindeer horn headbands, and even plastic pointy elf ears! Last year we had a party to commemorate this phenomenon!

1. Nativity :: There is a plastic nativity set that my family has had since I was born and even though it's quite worn and even ugly...it's still my most favorite one because it reminds me of all the Christmas times growing up. Years ago, it was demoted to the extra bathroom countertop decorations (and we bought a nicer, more presentable set for the living room near the tree), but I still like the old ugly plastic set the best. We've happened upon many small, intricate nativity villages in the churches around Italy...and I love that it's one of the main decorations that people put time into here. And, afterall...it's the most important part - and it's a lovely quiet abode for reflection on the season away from the bustling streets.


22 December 2007

my 12 things of Christmas

I was tagged with a "Christmas Meme" from Katie last week. The Assignment : to share 12 of your favorite Christmas things (memories, traditions, songs, presents, beliefs, whatever it is about this season that you love). I chose to accept...

...so here we go...

12. Breakfast Casserole & Russian Tea :: My family doesn't have a tradition with a big lunch or dinner on Christmas since we normally have so many leftovers and holiday snacks to munch on through the day. Instead, we have brunch with 2 Breakfast Casseroles (1 normal, and 1 vegetarian-friendly with veggie sausage and added spinach) which I help Mom put together the night before so all we have to do is put them in the oven in the morning. Also, throughout the weeks around Christmas, there is always a pot of Hot Russian Tea on the stove. The smell of either of these dishes makes me immediately think of Christmas.

11. Christmas Movies :: It just wouldn't feel like Christmas without watching the same movies over and over again. The list has grown through the years, although I'm picky at exactly which "new" movie will make the cut. So far these are what are on a continuous loop on the TV starting the day after Thanksgiving (along with our favorite quotes):
A Christmas Story - "ooohhhhhh fffuuuuuuuudge"
Home Alone 1 & 2"When I grow up and get married, I'm living alone!"
Elf - "You stink...You smell like beef and cheese, you don't smell like Santa."
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - "You eat what you like and I'll eat what I'll like."
A Charlie Brown Christmas - "Don't you know sarcasm when you hear it?"
• Honorable Mentions: Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause, The Grinch, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, It's A Wonderful Life

10. Bells & Radio Towers :: I'm sure that I wasn't the only kid out there who looked at the night sky on Christmas Eve and convinced themselves that the town radio tower just had to be Rudolph. I would even make up a story as to why his nose kept blinking (since that wasn't part of the story) like it was a modern upgrade to better "light the way", as airplane wings had blinking lights as well (which must have said something about it being a necessary addition). Also, one Christmas Eve, when I was 5 we were at our next-door neighbor's house and I was getting anxious because it was getting late and I knew that Santa "would skip your house if you weren't asleep when he passed by" - and there was no way I was going to miss him. So I convinced my parents to get going, and just as we walked out of their house we heard jingle bells extremely close! Like, next-door close! I thought I was going to experience my first Christmas without Santa...I don't think I brushed my teeth or even took off my clothes before jumping into bed. Luckily I must have fallen asleep in time because my stocking was full the next morning.

9. Early Present :: Every year after we would get home from the church's Christmas Eve candlelight service, Mom would pass out hot Russian Tea and my sister and I would get to pick one present to open up early!

8. Candlelight Service :: On Christmas Eve we always went to the candlelight service at church. Sometimes I went with excitement and other times with a "here we go again" attitude...but there were always memories and I look back now at all the years with nostalgia and laughs. I always liked singing the carols, and then when we'd get to hold the candles I'd always play with the wax and make designs. Of course, there was always the same people that played the Nativity characters (b/c there was always one guy in church that looked most like a bible character) and also the person that would sing the same solo each year, so you knew what was going to be sung without looking at the program. The entire congregation would always make a big circle around the room at the end for the final carol (usually a slow one like Silent Night) and a prayer. My sister and I would normally watch around the circle and find the people who were peeking during prayer and then try to make each other laugh.

7. Santa Snacks :: Right before bedtime most years on Christmas Eve, we would make sure that we put out a snack for Santa. I always wanted to leave cookies and milk (since that seemed only right, and it's what all the stories said to do)...but Mom & Dad would always convince us that "Santa would probably prefer this homemade shrimp-spread with multi-grain crackers" or "You know, with all the cookies Santa will be eating, he probably needs a low-fat yogurt and fruit juice instead"! This still makes me laugh and whenever I see shrimp-spread, I think of Santa!

(part #2 coming soon)

21 December 2007

Lake Como :: final part

continued from previous post...
...we were walking up the alley to Caterina's house and were greeted by a very loud, "Venite!" (Come in!). She immediately started talking excitedly and telling us about 10 things at once with a huge smile. She grabbed our coats and scarves and when they wouldn't fit on the coat rack, she literally chucked hers into the hallway to make room for ours. She said that the saw us pass the first time and yelled (because she heard the train whistle and knew we'd be coming so she was watching from her window), but we didn't hear her. But we told her that we went to our apartment first to drop some things off. She showed us her small house and hustled us into the dining area where we had hot tea with lemons from her garden, biscotti, and panettone (Christmas cake). She grabbed a 2008 calendar from a nearby cabinet and began to go through each month showing us photos of the region and quickly going to the next photo like she was so excited to be telling us about it. When we were done looking at the calendar she said for us to keep it because she could go to her bank the next day and get another one!

Sometimes she would get a little flustered because it seemed she had so much she wanted to say or show us that it couldn't get out all at once. And then sometimes she'd cover her mouth and laugh a little because she would get going and say a completely dialect word that we would never know. She'd then say, "E' difficile per spiegare" (It's difficult to explain) but would then find an easier way to say it to us.

She told us about living in Varenna her entire life and how she still lived in the house where she was born, how the town is mainly older people because the young ones have left, how she and her late husband would take the train to Lecco everyday for a while for work when they were younger, and how she gets to see other places in the world now only through photos, stories and TV. It was so interesting to hear about the time during WWII, and how she remembers the American soldiers protecting the area and when there was almost literally nothing left, soldiers would come and bring bread, chocolate, and soap to them. She spoke with such clarity of her memories and I could see her looking in her mind's eye about these events as if they were yesterday. During this time, when surviving was more important than education, she worked instead of studied and thus has a hard time writing even today. She began to write her complete address for us in cursive, but had to quit as she laughed and scribbled it out and reverted to uppercase letters. We promised to send her a postcard from Florida when we get back and she gave us a postcard from Varenna.

We were in the middle of a conversation about how her granddaughter was told that babies are bought at the market, when the post-woman walked in and visited for several minutes. When we were packing up to leave, she made me pick out a lace doily that she made by hand for a Christmas gift and then even wrapped it quickly in a piece of paper and tape. She also packed up our calendar, postcard, and a box of polenta (a grits-like cornmeal mixture typical for the region), and more panettone for breakfast on Thursday. She gave us double cheek-kisses and then tried again as she said that she would kiss us like her figli (children), and then gave me 5 kisses on one cheek. We thanked her over and over and she said that she loved the company, and made us promise to come see her if we were back in Varenna...then added "forse saro' morta! (maybe I'll be dead) with a nonchalant laugh. We were a little shocked, but she smiled and said that her dad died at 82 and her mom in her early 70s, and that she is 75 now - so you just never know! She seems to be in great health, so we'd love to visit again! We left with several waves goodbye down the alley...it was a night out of an Italian storybook (not to mention that not a word of English was spoken!) and left us with smiles and a lovely memory of our first trip to Lake Como.

Lake Como :: part 2

Lecco center • lake front • water friends

By Wednesday morning we had visited the same bar in town 3 or 4 times. When we first arrived, our host pointed out this small cafe to us and mentioned that (besides being one of the few places open) if we wanted to have a caffe' with the locals - this was the place. Oh how true this was. We were always surrounded by about 5 old men (the same ones everytime) who looked like they just came in from fishing or working on the mountain side somewhere, plus the barista and middle-aged cashier lady (who seemed to play a very maternal roll for all the customers). People began to recognize us...we were the only people in the town under 60 years old...and we hoped to maybe strike up a conversation. We never did get to talk too much, but enjoyed listening to the chatting around us, and again heard such clear Italian (only once with a hint of German accent thrown in since the area is so close to the Swiss border).

We also visited a pizzeria and another cafe in the center square and met very nice people everywhere we went. Several times we were complimented on our Italian and most people seemed to go out of their way to speak to us. We commented many times
during the trip at how nice people were in this area. It was such a pleasant change. Even though it was wonderful getting to chit-chat, we always have this secret wish inside that we'd somehow find an opportunity to experience and get to know a true local and learn more about the culture and language...well, our wish came true on Wednesday morning.

We went to the small Varenna train station early that morning to catch a ride to Lecco (the larger city at the south point of the lake) for the day. We were standing alone in the cold air when about 5 minutes before the train arrived, an older lady walked by and (as we always do to be polite) said "Buongiorno". She smiled and said a confident "Buongiorno!" in return but continued to walk past us and into the sala d'attesa (waiting room), which we hadn't noticed before. We followed her in to get out of the cold, and were all 3 waiting in silence. When the bell sounded for the approaching train, she turned around and said something to us about hearing the bell but we'd wait until we saw the train to go out again into the cold. Somehow this led to a quick chat about the cold, us learning Italian (since obviously this wasn't our first language) and that we lived in Florence. The train came and we climbed aboard. Hoping that we could chat more, we picked the seats across the isle from her (in an otherwise empty carriage). One minute later, she was handing us pieces of candy from her purse and thus began a 20-minute conversation all the way to Lecco with a lovely 75-year old, Italian grandmother.

She told us that she didn't know any other language and would sometimes give a higher pitched giggle when we had a quick lapse in comprehension. She was headed to the dentist in Lecco and said that her 3 grown children lived there as well - so now she only ventures out from Varenna to Lecco and back. She mentioned how she loves dolci (sweets) and eats them all the time now since they were too expensive when she was young. We told her that we could understand clearly the speech in the region and that people were much more open and nice. Then she added, "and you hadn't even met me yet!" (with a giggle). She proceeded to give us a piece of paper on which she wrote her name and address - and told us to come over to her house when we arrived back in Varenna that evening. Her name is Caterina, and when we told her our names she said that mine is easy to remember since it fits inside hers (catERINa)! As soon as we all stepped off the train in Lecco, she waved goodbye and was off with speed. Chris mentioned how different it is to see older people be able to hop on and off the stairs and walk down the street with such brisk. It must be the years of movement around the mountainous areas that keep them in shape.

Lecco: church mosaic • Christmas market • outdoor market

Lecco was a beautiful city and much larger (pop: 47,000) than Varenna (pop: 800). The streets were decorated for Natale and bustling with shoppers. We stopped at a Christmas market, walked along the lakeside, visited a church, found another very large weekly outdoor market, and stopped for pizza and caffe'. Again, we found the people to be very hospitable and when we were at the outdoor market, I got into a conversation with a couple who worked the candy booth (where we were buying a small bag to bring to Caterina), and they asked us about our studies, where we'd visited in Italy, etc. I'd mentioned that we'd made it to Perugia for the chocolate festival in October, and when we were leaving, they gave us some pieces of chocolate made in Lecco.

When we arrived back in Varenna around 5:30, we walked past the small road which leads to Caterina's house just to make sure we knew where to go - but we went first back to the apartment to freshen up again and unload our day bag. About 20 minutes later we were walking up the alley to her house and were greeted by a very loud, "Venite!" (Come in!) by Caterina standing on the landing and opening the door for us...

...to be continued...

20 December 2007

city of falling erins

Varenna from the ferry • along the bank outside our room • fisherman

It's so difficult for me to begin to write a summary of several days of wonderful experiences. This happens everytime we go somewhere and I'm unable to write in the meantime...it just becomes overwhelming. It's the same thing that happens when I am in the middle of such beautiful scenery that I want to catch it all on camera - but then I give up after a while because I feel a photo could just never capture. But here goes. At least the first part of my ramblings on our trip to Lake Como...

On Monday morning we bundled up, grabbed our heavy backpacks filled with winter clothes, holiday snacks, laptops and bath accessories, and headed to the train station for the ride to small village of Varenna on Lake Como in northern Italy. Our first train (Firenze - Milano) was late so we missed our final train by 10 min and had to wait an additional 2 hours for the next one. We fought the urge to explore Milano while we had some time and instead found a small cafe in the neighborhood outside the Stazione Centrale while we waited. Finally, on the train again we began to see a bit of snow, mountains, and finally the grand lake on our left just as we passed Lecca (the larger town on the south east of the lake). Next stop: Varenna.

There was an older couple sitting next to us on the train and we noticed how text-book clearly they spoke. I was curious to hear the accent of this region of Italy as I can now distinguish different regional Italian intonations. This was just the beginning of the pleasant language surprises that awaited us on our trip - everyone seemed to talk slower, clearer, and more defined and deliberate than we're used to hearing. It was very refreshing.

lake-side promenade • view north to the Alps • view south

When we arrived in Varenna, the manager of the apartment we were renting met us and welcomed us with a list of tips for the area as we walked along the lake-side promenade and awed at the picturesque town and tranquil lake. The apartment was lovely, complete with a wonderful view of the water, original beams and doors from the 16th century... and a modern bathroom complimented by my #1 vacation request - a tub!

Although the weather was gorgeous (completely cloudless skies the entire time)...it was SO cold! It was a constant battle with wanting to be outside enjoying the beauty, and inside allowing my body parts to return to a healthy temperature. But mostly, the outside urge won - and we were bundled up and by the lake within the first 30 minutes of arrival. *pause for a quick explanation of the title of this post: I read the book "City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt earlier this year about Venice (great read), which inspired me to name Varenna the "City of Falling Erins" being that I couldn't quite stay upright. Either it was the new boots, stiff joints, altitude, or maybe my equilibrium was frozen - but after my first fall on the cobblestone slope by the beach (which broke the lens shutter-protector thingy on our camera), my second fall on a small bridge of the lake-side walkway (which left my knee bruised, scuffed the new boots, and scraped my hand), or my countless other stumbles...but Chris wouldn't let me walk by myself after that on any uneven ground the rest of the trip - especially while holding the camera.*

The scenery was magical: snow-covered Swiss Alps in the distance, never-ending clear water, pastel towns dotting the banks, beautiful green cypress and palm trees juxtaposed along the other bare trees with spidery limbs, a sky that was cloudless for 4 days and constantly changed colors, and clean air. Since it is the peak of the off-season, the town was almost bare...shops, museums and most restaurants closed, very few people on the streets, and only ducks ventured on the beach or in the water.

frozen fountain in Menaggio • along the Menaggio shore • Bellagio palms with snowy Alps in background

On Tuesday we bought tickets for the ferry boat and rode across the lake to the center point (Lake Como is shaped like an upside-down "Y" and we traveled in a triangle around the middle) to the beautiful towns of Bellagio and Menaggio. Our first stop was Bellagio, and it was much more amazing than the hotel in Vegas (big shock). Almost as deserted as Varenna, we enjoyed wandering around sans map through the small alleys and peaking in the store windows. There were quite a few more places open here and we were able to visit a Medieval church, cafe, and pastry shop. Instead of splurging for a big lunch, we just spread our money out for small, frequent stops for drinks and bites throughout the day - it gave us more opportunities as well to go inside and warm up as well. I could picture how bustling this town is in the summer with the upper-class tourists milling about in Prada sunglasses and Gucci swimsuits eating gelati.

Menaggio was a bit larger than Varenna and Bellagio and offered a taste of normal daily actives. We happened upon a school just as the students were hurrying out for break and we had a bite of lunch at a pizzeria while several kids came in for a piece of focaccia bread or slice of pizza. There was a big Christmas tree in the main square and they were setting up for a concert later in the day. We took the ferry back to Varenna just as the sun was setting and the town turned a pinkish-orange as we arrived...and I headed straight for the steaming bath.

...more to come in the next post (one of the best stories so far!)

15 December 2007

something better

So as usual with Christmas just around the corner, the shopping bags, unneeded gifts, advertising, and modern consumerism are out in full swing - complete with colorful lights, sale signs, and promises of a happier holiday! For the past couple of years, we've learned of several wonderful charitable organizations to support - and many that even offer special Christmas gift ideas where the profits go to others in need. I thought that I'd share several ideas for very worthwhile gifts since we still have 10 days until Natale!

gift idea: t-shirts with a cause
price: $25
what it's about: I've posted several times before about this company, which Chris and a good friend of ours helped to start last year. The idea is simple: 1) a person with a financial need is found, 2) a shirt is designed for the story, 3) the shirts are sold until the money needed is raised and then goes out of print, 4) the financial need is met, 5) the process is repeated. read more here

gift idea: camel, can of worms, toilet kit
price: $18-$500
what it's about: This is a creative campaign by Oxfam, which is a charity group that works in 26 countries around the world helping to eradicate poverty and hunger by offering essentials, education, and lasting stability to the poorest of people. You can buy something on behalf of your friend and they get a card that says "I bought you a toilet kit for Christmas" while the kit goes to those in need. read more here

gift idea: flock of geese, water buffalo, knitting basket
price: $25-$250
what it's about: Similar to the Oxfam project... Choose a meaningful gift to give a loved one and help children and families around the world receive training and animal gifts that help them become self-reliant.

gift idea: handmade bracelets from Uganda
price: $20
what it's about: I've talked about Invisible Children before, an organization dedicated to the awareness and help of the war-torn Uganda, and the children left behind. Each bracelet is sold with a video to offer a new perspective, a better understanding of the impact the war has had on the lives of millions. This campaign raises awareness and also currently employes over 180 Ugandans for the production. read more here

gift idea: raffle tickets for AMAZING gift packages from around the world
price: $10 & up
what it's about: This is the 4th Annual campaign supported by a wide range of people from the "blogosphere". Funds raised go to the UN World Food Programme, which is the world's largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they escape hunger for good. A blogger who I read every day brought my attention to this cause and also has a GREAT Italian package up for bids. Check out more from Sara at Ms Adventures in Italy

So, instead of promoting the needless, over-consumerism - that has sadly become the poster child for Christmas, try to remember that He, who's birthday is celebrated at Christmas was the opposite of an over-consumer and taught us to help others...and I'm sure that everyone who reads this post could stand to skip a new sweater this year!

12 December 2007

quanta costa?

Living here is really expensive.

There are several reasons for this fact including that we are living in Florence, which is one of the more expensive cities in Italy, also we've received almost a 30% pay DECREASE since moving here because of the horrific state of the US Dollar now, and also because meeting people/learning the language/getting out of the house and hanging out all (the majority of the time) require money. Every day we throw some Euro coins into our pockets for the caffe' break during school, and try to get out a little at night for a small gelato. But being new to a city and getting settled in requires being proactive at meeting new people, making small "dates" if even inexpensive ones like meeting for a quick espresso. I've found myself turning down many opportunities to hang out just because I can't afford to keep going out - even for cheap apperativi several times a week. Friendships are made (in many places around the world, but especially here in Italy) over food - so that means the first couple times you go out with a new person it's normally over a meal of sorts. But when it's early in a friendship, mostly people meet out somewhere instead of at home...so this means spending more money.

We were so used to having lots of friends around us almost all the time back in Florida - at our house, down the street, at the beach, and a lot of things to do with spending little to no money at all. And now I think that when we get back to Florida it will feel like we are living in an outlet store because things will seem cheap again. I can't help but calculate prices according to USD when I pay for something in Euros because in reality USD is what I'm spending. This makes it even worse though and now nothing (I mean this literally) seems like a good bargain here.

One thing we've found is that because Euro bills don't come in any lower denomination than a 5, the coins are very easy to spend because they are convenient. Plus, coming from the states where coins are so cheap and most of us wouldn't take the time to pick one up if it dropped out of our pocket, I've had to change my perspective and know that here I can be spending up to $3 if I hand over one coin in my purse.

Of course, it's all been worth it to us and when it's just Chris and I hanging out, it's been fun to find things to do around the city for little or no money. Every weekend that we are in town, we look through the paper for any cultural festivals or markets going on around Firenze (which more often than not, there are); and even if none are listed in the paper, we'll take a long walk around the city and normally run into some sort of happening anyway. Several people have asked us what our favorite restaurants are around the city and even though for a second I feel like I'll have a lot to say - we end up not saying much. We can tell you all about the best places for a caffe', gelato, or sandwich...but other than that we've only had about 3 dinners out at restaurants. It has been fun being able to find smaller cheaper places for date-nights out where we can stretch our (ever-shrinking) dollar. Also, we would choose a dinner with friends or an Italian family most days over a ristorante, and we've been able to have several wonderful authentic Italian meals this way from generous invitations by others!

Just to give an idea on what things cost:
• 1 litre milk: €1,25 = $7.33/gallon
• 6 eggs: €1,53 = $3.62/half-dozen eggs
COOP grocery store just outside the city center, very low-moderately priced for Florence
• 1 litre gasoline: €1,33 = $7.79/gallon
luckily we don't have to worry about this for a car here...but it will show up for us in bus/train/airline costs

...but at least we can get some great deals on:
• wine: (a high-quality DOCG certified bottle of Chianti) €3,50 ($5.40)
• 1 litre olive oil: €4,55 = $3.52/pint (and this is fresh!)

*side note: check out Chris' post today about the current state of our grocery store

We were just talking yesterday about how it would be great to go to a Marshall's about now and load up on the pieces of clothes that we still need. I can't believe I used to find really cute shirts any day of the week for under $10 (€6,45)! Here, a "great deal" on clothing is around €30/shirt ($46.50)...and this is at a normal "bargain" chain store. We have better luck at the outdoor markets with the barrels of clothes for €5 (plus it's more fun to shop this way for me...I enjoy the hunt). Needless to say, we only go shopping for necessities - except for a couple fun extras since we moved...and our Christmas gifts to each other will consist of our trip to Como next week and probably another "outing" around town. We enjoy saving for "experiences" rather than "things"...and we have many "experiences" here everyday for free!

10 December 2007

the winner is...

So last week I wrote about trying to decide where we will be going for a little Christmas holiday! ...and we finally reached a decision! ...we are going to...*opening the envelope*...the beautiful area of...*drum roll*...Lake Como!

Varenna from the lake

We are staying in the lovely little village of Varenna on the central east side of the lake. This will be our first time to the Lombardy region of Italy, and being that it offers a view of the snow-capped Alps, it felt more of a "winter" retreat than an island in Souther Italy. After going back and forth with the decision of which town on the lake in which to stay (Como, Bellagio, Lecco), we finally choose Varenna because of the many pleasant reviews I've read and also the beauty of this small town. Even though it's more of a "get away from it all" village, Varenna does have things to do and see, and the other towns are just a ferry ride away.

our room is in the orange building

We are staying in a small apartment on the waterfront and hope to have a relaxing time with not much to do but wander. One thing I've been craving for months is a long bath...and since we only have a shower in our apartment in Florence, I made sure that we'd have a tub on our small holiday! So besides wandering around, I will also be finding a good book, a water pillow, and settling in for a long stay in the vasca da bagno (bathtub). There is a wonderful lakeside prominade and cute little pedestrian streets in the town to see, as well as a couple historical mansions and gardens to visit.

I hope that we'll get to take a ferry ride across the lake to the nearby Bellagio, nicknamed "Pearl of the Lake"...and in some circles considered the most beautiful city in Europe. It will be nice to see the true, upscale town of Bellagio in contrast to the Las Vegas hotel of the same name which we saw last year! (I personally can't stand Vegas- as it's just a big, fake, knock-off of a city. Nothing in it is original, but just copies of the true beauties that are other places in the world. It feels like being stuck in a cheap nightmare. But I did enjoy a Cirque du Soleil show and the Bellagio fountains). Ok, back on the subject...we booked the apartment on Friday, and bought train tickets this morning - so it looks like we're on our way next week! I'm really looking forward to it...maybe we'll even run into George Clooney (who has a house just up the lake and is said to frequent the restaurants in Varenna)...you never know!

08 December 2007

dogs, flags, & opera

albero di Natale • "little people" dogs • church that hosted the gala

This weekend we dog-sat for 2 long-haired toy chihuahuas. I can hold both of them in with one hand...they are under 3lbs each. They are very cute, and very much not like dogs. We call them "little people" because they rarely make any noise (except for the bells on their collar so we know where they are in the house and don't step on them), and in general seem too small to be cani (dogs). Because they grew up in the French countryside, and only moved to the concrete Firenze center about a month ago, couple of days before we got them, we brainstormed where the best/closest place to take them potty was. Their "mom" told us that they will not go on the pavement like all the other dogs here, because they are used to the grass...so we've been taking them a couple blocks away to a small triangle of a park, full of gravel and lots of leaves that fell from the trees. They seem to prefer the leaves...but we are going to a large "real" park tomorrow to give them time to run around in the erbe (grass).

The best way to get them around the center, since there are so many people, is to put them in a bag and each of them poke their head out the sides and just enjoy the ride. We do get quite a bit of looks and people stopping to pet and baby-talk...Chris said it's a great way to practice our "impromptu" Italian! At least Florence is a very dog-friendly city...I've seen owners with their dogs in stores, salons, cafes, and even restaurants.

Friday evening, we spent about 3 hours of language exchange with an Italian who is learning English. Part of the "lesson" was spent walking to Piazza della Repubblica for the lighting ceremony of the big albero di Natale (Christmas tree)...complete with thousands of lights, a kids choir, balloon artists, Father Christmas, hot chocolate, and LOTS & LOTS of people.

charity toy drive • drummers • flag-throwers

One of the things I will miss most of living here is the fact that everyday I can look up plenty of cultural events to participate in around the city. I found out today at 10am that there was a charity toy sale in Piazza della Signoria and at 11am there was also a "flag" parade of sorts with male drummers and flag-throwers in traditional Florentine costume. There are several festivals in Italy during the year with the flags, and it was one of the events I really was excited to witness. We were able to catch the spectacle as they walked through the piazza and end at the charity event tents. I was so anxious to get close and take photos that my forehead got brushed by a waving flag!

Later in the evening we went to a lovely, smaller church about 10 minutes away from our apartment which was holding an Opera Gala, followed by a local wine tasting. From November to February, there are so many holiday events taking place organized by a non-profit cultural group in Florence. I visit their website regularly to find out what things we can participate in around town. Many events are free of charge, as was this Gala! It was so nice to get (mildly) dressed up, and enjoy an evening out - and the music was absolutely wonderful...selections from La Triviata by G. Verdi performed by a soprano, tenor, and pianist. I could even get a general idea of what was being sung in Italian. I have on my "birthday wish-list" in February for us to attend a proper opera in Venice! Maybe by then, we will be able to understand almost every word.

07 December 2007

seasonal fare

roasting chestnuts at home • some of our favorite holiday finds*

Yes, I talk about food a lot. Several people have said to me that a lot of our experiences here seem to revolve around food. Yes, this is true...I mean, it is Italy! One of the things that I've really come to enjoy is "eating with the seasons". Of course, in the states we did this as well...but only to a certain extent. Because the big chain grocery stores had most produce in at all times, and selection is almost unlimited...and also because the "field-to-table" timeline is much more removed than in Italy...the seasonal foods are much more defined here.

I've been collecting a list of my favorite late autumn & holiday foods.

Castagna (Chestnuts)
We've been enjoying these quite a bit for the last month since the vendors around town set up small stands on the streets and sell bags of roasted chestnuts to passerbys who are drawn in by the tempting aroma. We even bought some at the market and roasted some of our own on a type of "stove toaster" - but it worked out just fine. It's funny now because many of the restaurants are displaying baskets of this fruit/nut in their windows and we even passed a gelateria with the whole fruit outside as well to advertise the flavor of the month, and Chris commented, "Oh, they're serving hedgehog icecream!" (Because when still in the shell, this food does resemble a small pet). We've also seen many Marron Glace' (candied chestnut) in several of the specialty cafes'.

This is the ultimate in citrus fruits. The perfect amount, All the sweet with none of the sour. And the best of all...no seeds.

Tartufo (Truffle)
I had only heard about the legendary funghi before moving here - but never tasted this delicacy until a couple of months ago. As one of the most expensive food in the world (as was just proven here in Florence last week, as a 3.3lb truffle sold for $330,000), I don't enjoy it too often (and Chris can't stand them). Dug up in the woods around Tuscany and neighboring regions, the black or more rare, white truffles are found by trained hunt dogs or pigs. And they are GOOD! Very unique taste. Nothing like anything else.

• Pears
I never was a pear fan back in the States, but the bosc pears from the market here are one of the best fruits I've ever had. They taste like perfume.

Vino Novello (New Wine)
We started seeing handmade signs placed in the windows of wine shops around town at the beginning of November announcing the first day of Vino Novello season (Nov. 6 through Feb). This wine is a younger, more grapey-tasting wine with a lower alcohol content. It's becoming more and more popular - and we've definitely found some good ones. It's a nice, different, lighter flavor that goes well with the heavier foods of the season.

This is one of the holiday dolci that can be found in almost every food shop window (from bakeries, cafes, grocery stores, and markets). It has the description (kind-of) of fruit cake, but doesn't seem to be the national joke of the brick that gets "regifted" through the season. It's actually quite good...although I have my sights set on another famous Italian holiday dessert which I'll have to save for later.

There are many sagre (food festivals normally held around a certain seasonal specialty) being held around the region almost every weekend. People take it quite seriously - and it's wonderful being able to experience it. I haven't mentioned the "new oil" season which is still upon us. Everywhere we go, we see ads for the cloudy, new olive oil sold by the gallon. We already have some of our own from our picking last month!

Tonight the big Christmas tree is going up in Piazza della Republica and I'm sure we'll get to do some window shopping, and maybe even some tasting of more holiday goodies.

•sorry about the photo sizes - I'm in the middle of finding out the best way to link to hi-res photos...we ran out of bandwidth on our personal site. Anyone recommend something else? Any luck with Flickr?

05 December 2007

where to go & what to say

I'm really looking forward to a break. We only have about a week and a half left of our classes before we get a 3 week Christmas vacation! It will be a nice change of pace and switch up of our normal daily routine. Since we're in Livello 4, we are reaching higher levels of the complications of the Italian grammar...and my mind is a little unbalanced. I have so many language rules that I've learned, but I feel that my chances to actually use these rules in everyday speech is so limited that I need a break from learning more so I can use and get comfortable with what I already know. It's really frustrating more days than not, when I want to say something but nothing right seems to come out, or I stutter through a sentence that sounds like a kindergartner, or when someone asks me a question and I immediately see the car coming towards me as I give the 'deer in the headlights' wide-eyed expression. This is especially true when I know what they are asking, and even know everything I could say back...complete with proper prepositions, pronouns, and verb conjugations...but still, nothing.

I started going to a private conversation class for an hour per week just so I can get more words to flow freely from my mouth...but like the Italians say, "piano, piano". One thing that is nice is that my comprehension is steadily improving. We watched an Italian film at school last week with Italian subtitles and I understood almost the entire thing...being able to hear and reinforce it with reading as well is really good practice. Our school offers this once a week, so I'm planning on going regularly from now on.

This week I've been doing a lot of research into a small trip Chris and I can take during our 3 weeks off. I'm having a hard time narrowing it down...and time is slipping by, especially for finding transportation deals and booking a place to stay. So far, there is a sustainable community village in the Rivera near the French border, a small secluded b&b with "cook with the family" courses in the Piedmont mountain region, a thermal spa near Milan, or a holistic b&b in a medieval pedestrian-only mountain top village in the central mountain chain just east of Rome. We originally had thought to try to get to Sicily, but waited too long and now the flights are too expensive. With how quickly time is passing here, and how we have to pick our trips with care (to save money), we'd like to get to the areas of Italy that we haven't seen (still on the list are Lake Como, Sicily, Sardinia, Ischia, and Puglia). The problem is that none of the options we've picked are in these places, but I'm sure we'd enjoy the areas where our options are...but with the wonder of the Internet, I find new options everyday. Then days and days go by and prices go up...but I want to pick the best place...see, this is why I can't decide!

Ok, since I wrote that bit of info, I think we've decided on going to the Lake Como region because the train tickets aren't outrageous and it seems more of a "winter" place with the snow capped mountains than the coastal areas...we'll save those for springtime! I think this will be a fun, relaxing, and low-key area for a break (since it's in the dead of low-season) and it will be nice to explore a new area of Italia. ...I'll keep you posted

02 December 2007

christmas is coming

collection of trees from various store windows and sidewalks

Ok, as promised (from a couple of requests back home) I'm finally reporting on some of the holiday festivities that are going on around Florence! (complete with photos as usual!) Just after Halloween we began to see the stores putting up new window displays and the toy store that is next door to our apartment has a great display with a snow machine and miniature village that attracts crowds throughout the day. A couple times I've even had to push my way through just to put my key in our outside door. Then about 2 weeks ago we started seeing city workers with their large ladders putting up Christmas lights across many of the streets in the center. I kept wondering when they would finally turn them on, and then last weekend when our friends were visiting we saw the first ones lit! The major streets were not turned on yet, but at least it was a start. Then mid-week this week we saw Via Calzaiuoli (the main shopping street between the Duomo and Piazza Signoria - *see photo) finally gleaming with thousands and thousands of little sparkles. So now our evening walks are filled with beautiful Christmas lights, holiday store windows, and the occasional Christmas song coming from a street musician or cafe.

Piazza del Mercato Nuovo • upscale shopping street (Prada, Gucci...) • just outside center • Via Calzaiuoli

Also this week opened a German Christmas festival in the square at Santa Croce, one of the most famous churches in town. It is full of sausage, pastries, cheeses, candy, toys, and lights! We went one evening and had a fun time browsing at the stalls, but because this market will be held for another week or so, we will definitely return because I had my eyes on some tasty-looking donut things! There is even a cafe on a merry-go-round (that, fortunately for those stuffing big Wurstel in their mouths, doesn't move!)

German Christmas market at Santa Croce

We haven't decorated in our house yet, but I do think that we'll be shopping for some lovely Fiorentine paper this week to make a string of paper snowflakes for our livingroom. It's crazy to me how the time really is flying by here, and I'm forgetting how close Christmas really is...it's different not being around family and our friends from Florida. Today we played Christmas music for most of the time just for a reminder. We only have 2 weeks left of classes until we are off for a 3 week holiday. This week, there are several to-do's on my list, including getting Christmas cards made, deciding on where we want to go for several days during our break (we've narrowed it down to about 4 Italian excursions), and buying a couple of small gifts for exchange parties coming up.

...lots more to come, including the best tree we've found so far in the city!