Monday, November 26, 2012

Peculiar Stories: Mail

I just finished reading "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern.   It's a fable really, a fairytale, full of dark and light and magic and love.   And it was just right.  I was in a place where I was ready to be carried away.  To be taken to a fantasy land.  And a circus at night?  Even better.  Perfect for those long and lonely shifts at work.  I highly recommend this book should you have a propensity for reading and even if you do not.

As I am wont to do, once finished with the book, I went to explore the author's website.  And to read her blog.  She has these amazing little snippets -- Flax Golden Tales.  They are ten sentence stories written to accompany a photograph. The tales are a collaborative work as the photographs are taken by Carey Farrell.

Ack!  Now I find myself inspired to do the same though I know I can not limit myself to a mere ten sentences (although today, somehow, I managed it).  I'm an avid photographer and thus the photos will be my own.

Without further adieu I present to you the first of my new series; Peculiar Stories.  I will not promise them on a time table as for now I am simply playing.

This particular story is dedicated to The Night Circus with its black and white and red.

*** *** ***

The piazza was empty save him and I and the gruff woman who’d come to open the Tabacchi.  Soon the sun would be up and the square would fill with tourists.  They’d push and shove, elbowing each other for a chance to see an ancient building that wasn’t going anywhere. 

But he wouldn’t be there when push came to shove.  He’d have already been and seen and would've disappeared with the rising sun.   

“Please, don’t go.” I begged.  But I knew it was inevitable.  

“Write to me.” he said. 

“Where?” I asked.  

“You’ll know.” he replied and turned and walked away.  

*** *** ***

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fire Station 15's Favorite

I need to finish blogging about our trip.  I've been meaning to since we've been back.  But my mind is in other places.  So, for now,  I'll just let my mind be.  Someday I'll finish up my travel notes and daily life will be interspersed with snippets from Italy.

But not today.  Today I'm thinking about my Grandmother.  I've got a little project in mind and asked my mother to send some of my Grandmother's handwritten recipes.  They arrived this afternoon.

My favorite recipe is one written on plain paper.  It's a recipe for green bean casserole, the kind found in just about every household on Thanksgiving; two cans of string beans, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a 1/4 can water chestnuts and a can of french fried onions.

I remember this recipe well.  My grandmother made it, my mother made it, I make it.  I've altered it a bit.  I add a squeeze of lemon (I think my mom does too) and I use the whole can of water chestnuts.

But what touched me today was not the recipe itself but the title "Station 15's Favorite."  You see my Grandfather was a fireman.  I suspect he spent many a Thanksgiving serving his community. And I can just picture my Grandmother delivering her casserole to the firehouse; a little something special for the men working the holiday.

I, too, had to work on Thanksgiving.  And I realize that, though our service is different, I am following in my Grandfather's footsteps with my holiday schedule.

At my Grandparent's house we always celebrated Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the actual day.  My Grandfather was retired by that time so I don't really know why Thanksgiving was scheduled as such.  But I do know it was special; family, food, gathering.  The day didn't matter.  The act did.

This recipe reminded me of two things.  First -- it is gratifying to serve.  Though I might moan and groan, working the holiday is good for our community.  Pets do not get sick on schedule and they need medical care.  I'm glad I was there to help them.

And second --Thanksgiving is important.  Gathering friends and family.  Taking time to be grateful and enjoy each other's company.  Solidifying memories for generations to come.  The day doesn't matter.  The gathering does.

This year our Thanksgiving was quiet.  The five of us around our table (a rarity indeed).  And yes -- I served green bean casserole.  I'm glad I took the time to cook and to gather my family. My Grandparents were at the table with us, their spirits wrapped up in green beans and soup.  You see it's not just a simple casserole.  It's family and community.  It's the past, present and future.  It's everything there ever was and everything ever to be.

Oh the humble green bean.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Day for the Boys; Modena, Italy and the Ferrari Showroom

Now you didn’t think we could go to Italy with a teenaged boy and a man (who rather thinks he’s a boy) and not spend a day looking at cars.  Italy, after all, is known for its cars.  

Now me?  I’m not a car person. I’d like a contraption that reliably gets me to and fro, keeps me dry and, ideally, doesn't use too much gas.  Beyond that I could care less; much to my boys' consternation I can’t tell a Porche from a Hyundai. 

So I did not plan for a factory tour or showroom visit.  But we had some open days while in Tuscany and the Boy figured out that the Ferrari Factory was a mere two hours away.  

I had housed our family on goat farm with an attached knitting shop -- pure Mama nirvana.  As such I could hardly deny the boys their automotive pleasure.  After cappuccino and croissants we ventured forth. 

The factory was near Modena which is a balsamic vinegar and olive oil hub.  I’m told it's a beautiful city.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to experience that beauty as the city was completely smogged in.  

Oh how my heart was broken to learn that Italy (particularly Northern Italy) had a smog problem.  In my mind this is the country of slow food, cold pressed oils, carefully cured meats and aged wines.  And Italy is all those things.  But it is also a country of people and cars;  people + cars = smog.  

My "Italy as a perfect country" bubble was burst.  Of course I already knew Italy wasn't perfect but this smog issue really saddened me.  One thing is for sure -- I have no interest in living in the smog. 

Anyway, we made it to Modena but missed our exit to Maranello which is where the factory resides.  It was lunch time, we were hungry and subsequently grumpy.  After some consternation we found our way to the factory.  

Outside the factory we were approached by an attractive woman decked out in Ferrari gear.  She offered to let the Mister drive a Ferrari -- a mere 60 euros for 10 minutes.  You could see his wheels turning.  Could I? Should I?  Finally he declined (thank goodness) and we went to tour the showroom.  

The showroom had a family discount. The normal entry price would’ve been 9 euros per person (for our family of five).  However the showroom was under construction thus the price was further discounted to 7 euros a person. 

The lady at the desk told us our discount was because “we would find some confusion.”  Both the Mister and I looked at each other and were thinking the same thing ... discounts for confusion?  Nobody told us there were discounts for confusion?!! We are owed some money (hello Vatican I'm talking to you).  

In addition to touring the showroom you can take a bus out the entrance of the car track and the bus shows you the front of the Ferrari factory.  But you don’t get to go inside either the track or the factory.  We didn’t do this part of the tour as it didn’t sound worth the 9 euro per person price tag.  Now a tour of the actual factory?  That would’ve been more interesting.  Alas they didn’t offer that option.  

There was a small cafe just before entering the exhibits.  Hungry as we were we indulged in cappuccinos and pastries thinking we’d have lunch later.  Not the smartest of plans.  Turns out it would be quite a while before we ate again ... 

The showroom was, well, a showroom full of cars; both old and new.  If you are car fanatic you are going to hate my description; the cars were neat.  And after fifteen or twenty minutes the girls and I were ready to go.  We retired back to the cafe to wait for the boys who were still oogling.  

When the boys finally emerged from the showroom I queried them -- was it worth it?  They enjoyed the tour but admitted that, perhaps, it wasn't worth the two hour drive, especially since Modena was a disappointment.

Tour complete we decided to head home and find someplace to eat.  We had a little Osteria in mind that Papa and I had eaten at five years ago.  It was on the way home and sounded just right.  

Of course we got turned around on the freeway and, once again, took the wrong exit (I’d like to think this is mostly because Papa was driving -- the one day Mama drove we didn’t get lost.  But, hey, I guess we’ll never know).  

We got off the freeway and tried to get our bearings.  We turned a corner and bam -- there it was.  The restaurant.  This was a place that Mama and Papa really liked. Papa had carried their business card in his wallet ever since we ate there -- it was that good. We were hoping it was still that good. 

We were quite happy and relieved to have found the place and all piled out of the car only to find it closed.  Closed, that is, until 7:30 pm.  That’s Italy for you -- they eat late.  Lunch from 1 to 4 pm.  Dinner from 7 to 10 pm.  

Of course we American’s, who’d stupidly skipped lunch, were ready to eat at 5:30 pm.  Dagnamit!

We elected to drive through the countryside until places opened up.  The countryside was beautiful and the drive was lovely.  But the kids had been in the car most of the day and, due to our lack of planning, were even more hungry and tired than before.  

Finally we happened upon a little, nearly deserted, hill town (which was really a suburb, if you will, of Pazano).  In this little town we found a restaurant that opened at 7:00 pm. We were hesitant to eat there as nobody else was around.  But one look at our forlorn kids and we decided to take a chance.  At this little restaurant in this quiet little hill town where we were the only customers we had one of the best meals of our trip. 

The kids tried, and ate, everything we ordered; crostini with liver pate, tagliatelle with wild boar ragu, thick crusty bread, tender sweet meats, rich local wines and delectable tiramisu. The waiter/owner was terribly sweet.  The whole experience was well worth the hunger and the wait.  If we ever go back (when we go back) we’ll eat here again.  I’ve got their business card tucked safely in my wallet for when we return.  

And then home to bed after another long day.  Mama had plans for our final day in Tuscany.  We were going to see some pigs -- and indeed we did; both wild and domestic.  


Friday, November 2, 2012

The Land of Twigs and Berries; Florence, Italy

After some debate we decided to take a day trip to Florence.  We’d done enough research to know we didn’t want to drive into the city.  Instead we drove to Greve, parked in a free lot, and took a bus to Florence.  

It took about 20 minutes, give or take, to drive to Greve and about an hour to get to Florence; it’s only 22 kilometers from Greve to Florence but the bus had several stops and the roads were curvy. 

Our bus tickets cost 3,30 euros or approximately $4.25 per person each way.  And, no, I didn't make an error using a comma instead of a decimal point; for some reason many European countries use commas rather than points.  Believe you me it can be confusing.  

But back to the trip.  We purchased our bus tickets at the tabacconist in Greve. Fortunately for us the tabacconist was right next to the local bar (aka cafe).  Thus we got bus tickets, cappuccinos and pastries all in one fell swoop.  The bus tickets were open ended (assuming we made the last bus back to Greve).  

As I said the bus trip took about an hour.  Once in Florence the kids had to go the bathroom.  This was the perfect excuse for Mama and Papa to indulge in another cappuccino.  We went into the first bar we passed which looked a little suspect -- there was graffiti on the wall and the exterior was nothing to write home about.  I wasn’t sure we were in for a good experience.  Boy was I wrong.  

Inside was the most enthusiastic barista I’d ever met.  He was playing it up to the hilt and flirting with all the women.  And let me tell you, they were buying it hook line and sinker.  And then the art, coffee art.  Each and every beverage had wonderful designs - a face for the mister, a heart for me, and sunshine for the kids.  

The barista was so much fun to watch we ended up ordering two additional cappuccinos. 

It was one of those moments when you realize it doesn’t matter what you do for a living so long as you do it well.  This barista, this man, left joy in his wake.  What more could one ask for?  

Of course the children were not interested in my pontifications on coffee and life.  It was time to see Florence.

We used this Trip Advisor walking tour as a guide and headed for the Duomo.  What this tour doesn’t tell you is to plan on walking a LOT.  And not only walking but hiking to boot. 

Our first stop was the Duomo.  How to describe the Duomo?  I can’t even begin.  It’s huge and majestic and ornate.   It takes up a whole city block.  Photographs (at least my photographs) don’t do it justice (I should probably learn to take panoramic shots).  

The inside was shockingly plain compared to the exterior (though still beautiful to see).  There was a line to climb to the top (and a charge of 8 euros a piece).  We opted to forego this part of the adventure (and thank goodness too because we had quite a bit of hiking ahead).  

From the Duomo we walked to Palazzo Vecchio.  Now I must pause.  If you are traveling with children and you have not had “the talk” with them, if you are not up for discussing the finer details of intimate human anatomy then don’t go to Palazzo Vecchio.  Just don’t.  

Fortunately our children have been educated in such matters and were therefore not too shocked to be face-to-face with a replica of Michelangelo’s David (the real one is tucked safely in a museum).  

My son blurted out, “Hey!  Look at his twigs and berries!”  And, indeed, the twigs and berries were in full view; not a fig leaf in sight.  

The square, the Piazza Della Signora, also holds Neptune’s fountain (more twigs and berries), as well as many other statues.  We spent some time wandering around and marveled at the age of things (this piazza had been in existence for over 500 years!)

Okay.  Now we were tired.  We should’ve stopped for lunch.  But we didn’t want to get stuck in a tourist trap and therefore clamored on.  The thrill of male anatomy was a thing of the past and the kids were hot, tired and hungry.  Add to that a misstep in our walk and mile long detour a pied. Needless to say people were not pleased.  

Finally.  Finally we stopped to eat on Via San Niccolo once we regained our bearings.  I sat down at the table and my heart sank.  My purse was open (something I’d been very careful about).  I panicked and pawed through it.  My wallet isn’t here, my wallet isn’t here, shit, *^&$# my wallet isn't here ... oh, wait, here it is! 

My wallet was safely tucked in the dark recesses of my bag.  Turns out I’d left my purse open when Little handed me her scarf.  Bad Mama!

Now the Boy, at this point and time, was tired of Italian food and jonesing for a hamburger.  The restaurant had a hamburger on the menu, complete with fries. How is a teenager to resist?   The waitress gave a little snigger and wrote down his selection.  

Our food was delicious (and I can’t even remember what we got).  But the Boy?  He was treated to a meat patty on a bed of lettuce.  No bread. No bun.  And the burger? It was more or less raw.  Lesson learned: hamburgers and Italy are mutually exclusive (that is unless you go to McDonald’s and we certainly were not going there).    

I must say, however, the fries were delectable.  

Mama and Papa shared a bottle of wine over lunch.  This soothed our increasingly frazzled nerves but also made our upcoming hike all the more daunting.  

After lunch we were headed up to Piazzale Michelangelo, our chance to view the city.  We bribed the children with promises of gelato once the hike was complete.  And indeed  bribery worked.  And the view was worth our while.  

We then chugged a little further up the hill to the San Miniato Church.  I could have stayed forever meandering through the graveyard.  But we’d promised gelato ... 

So back down down down -- down the hill we went.  We marched past the Ponte Vecchio with little fanfare making a beeline for the gelato shop on the corner of Ponte Santa Trinita.  

And with that we concluded our tour of Florence.  We made our way back to the bus station (getting a bit lost on the way) and caught our ride home.  

Once in Greve we stopped for snacks the CoOp (the local grocery store); Middle, for the longest time, thought it was called the “coop” and couldn’t figure out why all the grocery stores were named after chicken huts.  

Then back to Radda to rest and sleep.  

Next on deck?  Fast cars and smog-filled skies -- Modena, Italy.