Guess what these are

On one of our first evenings in Florence, we came across these beautiful, lighted objects near the Ponte San Trinità. They weren’t here last time we were in Florence and I was just delighted by them. Can you guess what they might be?

On closer inspection, we discovered that they were olive trees wrapped in some sort of white cloth and then lit from below. They were my favorite new addition to Florence, but then we went back to see them again a few days later and they were gone. We wondered if maybe they were holiday decorations. I guess I’ll have to come back to Florence again in the winter and see if they are here around the holidays.

Il Nostro Appartamento

Since we’d been vagabonds for the first few weeks of 2012, settling into our apartment in Florence felt a lot like coming home.  We chose the same Florence apartment that we lived in three years ago, a sweet two-level, one-bedroom place on the fourth floor of a traditional Florentine building one block from the Arno River and a five-minute walk from the train station.  As an added bonus, the appartamento comes with a clothes dryer, an appliance that, for the most part, Florentines seem not to believe in.  It does come in handy this time of year when clothes left overnight on our rooftop clothesline require de-icing in the morning.  The apartment also has a dishwasher, a full-sized stove and oven (in Florence one sometimes has to settle for a hotplate and a microwave), and a refrigerator that is gigantic by Florentine standards, although still only about half the size of the normal American monstrosity.  Here is a photo of part of the kitchen.

The bath comes with a jacuzzi tub, the closest thing to a hot-tub in these parts.   The apartment has a vaulted ceiling with massive wooden beams supporting rows of roof tiles visible from within the apartment. There is a half-bath adjacent to the bedroom upstairs.  When they say “half-bath” they literally mean half-bath; only people who are half the height of normal people may enter.  This is a very Catholic country, and at least in our apartment, it’s necessary to genuflect to enter the master bathroom, which is difficult to remember in the middle of the night when staggering groggily to the loo.  I’ve attached a picture of the opening to the master bath.  Notice the thick beam above the entry to the bathroom, battered and dented from 100’s of years of abuse by the foreheads of impenitent residents.

The apartment also has a state-of-the-art security system.  In order to access the building an intruder would first have to buzz in to request entrance.  Then they would have to climb three flights of stairs, lose a great deal of weight, climb a spiked, locked iron gate barring the fourth flight, and squeeze through a 5 ” space above the spikes.  All of this would have to be accomplished while carrying a battering ram and chainsaw in order to penetrate our door, a four-inch thick slab of wood secured by five thick, iron locks.  (I am occasionally prone to exaggeration; so I’m including a photo for skeptics.)

This is the reason why Italians generally don’t pack guns in their apartments (mafiosi excluded, of course).  A burglar would already be dead from bleeding and hyperventilation by the time he gained entry.

I promise that I’ll comment on some of the amazing basilicas, palazzos and works of art we’ve been seeing in Florence and beyond, culminating in our fabulous tour of Ikea, but it’s late and the school program starts tomorrow morning.

Buona notte.

Ribollita – Tuscan bean, bread, and vegetable stew

Howdy, foodie fans. Several of you asked for the recipe and a review of the homemade ribollita, so I am complying with your wishes. It turned out really, really good, but I must admit, not as good as what I had in the restaurant. I think mine needed more salt. I made it from the same recipe 3 years ago and I loved it. I will definitely make it again, but I will make a few adjustments – more about that later.

Ribollita is a traditional, hearty Tuscan bread stew, usually made during the winter months. It’s name literally means “reboiled”. It was made by reheating the minestrone from the day before, and adding stale bread to the mix to make it heartier and thicker.  It is part of the cucina povera (poor kitchen) style of cooking; peasant dishes that have rustic, rural roots.

When I had this stew in the restaurant, they assured me that it was vegetarian. The recipe in my cookbook, however, calls for “guanciale” (gwan cha lay) or pig’s cheek. If you can find pig’s cheek and you don’t mind having it in your stew, by all means, throw it in. You can use any type of meat or vegetable stock that you have on hand.

Ingredients, as listed in the cookbook I found here in the apartment

  • 10 oz (300 g) dried cannelini beans
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 zucchini
  • 3 carrots, rough chopped
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • a few sprigs parsley
  • 1 bunch kale, cut into strips (See Note 2)
  • 10 oz. (300 g) potatoes
  • 8 oz. peas
  • meat or vegetable stock
  • stale Tuscan bread, sliced (See Note 3)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Note 1: If you don’t know how to cook beans, you really should learn because it is very easy and very cheap. However, it is time consuming so if you don’t have the time to cook beans, you can substitute canned beans. I would guess that 10 oz. dried beans translates to about 4 cups cooked. Somebody help me out here. Is that about right?

Note 2: The recipe actually says “black cabbage.” When I went to the market and asked for cavolo nero (black cabbage) the guy handed me a bunch of kale. I thought maybe I said it wrong, but the little sign next to the kale did indeed say “cavolo nero”. This makes sense because when I had ribollita in the restaurant I thought it had spinach in it and the recipe didn’t call for any kind of greens, so kale must be the correct thing.

Note 3: After making this with sliced bread, I would use cubed bread next time. It was a little difficult cutting the slices of bread after the whole thing was cooked.

Note 4: Since this is a stew, you can customize according to your own tastes or what you happen to have on hand. I couldn’t find peas, so I just left them out. I’m also a little suspicious of a recipe for a traditional winter stew that calls for zucchini and tomatoes since they aren’t in season until summer, but I put them in anyway. I bet Italian peasants didn’t use out of season vegetables.

Ok, back to the recipe. Here’s what you do:

Rinse the beans, soak overnight, and then cook them in the same water over a very low heat. Meanwhile, chop the zucchini, carrots, celery potatoes, tomatoes, and half the onions, (also put in whatever pig parts you might be using) and fry them in olive oil in a large pan until softened. Add the peas, kale, and parsley. Moisten with the bean cooking water and some stock.

Small rant at this point. What the heck does moisten mean? How much cooking water? How much stock? If this is a soup/stew, shouldn’t it be more than just moistened? I put in about 3 small ladle-fulls of bean cooking water and 1 cup of stock. I admit that I didn’t have stock on hand, there wasn’t any in the store, and I didn’t have time to make it, all of which led me to do something I never do – use bouillon. I won’t do it again. When we had ribollita leftovers a couple days later, I did actually make the stock from scratch.

Ok, so after some experience I would recommend adding about 6 cups of liquid. Maybe more. You want it to be soupy because you’re going to add bread later.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 1 hour. Puree some of the beans in a vegetable mill (or a food processor, if you don’t live in the middle ages) add to the soup with the whole beans. Apparently I do live in the middle ages since I had neither a vegetable mill or a food processor and I had to mash my beans with the back of a spoon and add a little water to make a sort of paste.

Arrange the bread (slices or cubes) in the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Pour the soup over the bread and leave to cool. (I skipped the cooling step and I can’t figure out why they want you to let it cool. Maybe it’s just that if you’re cooking this early in the day and you want to have it for dinner, you just get it to this point and leave it until you’re ready to stick it in the oven for dinner.) Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C for you, Heather, and anyone cooking in Europe).

Finely slice the remaining onion and add it to the soup with more oil. Bake in the oven until the oil simmers and the onion forms a golden crust. This was a little vague for me. Since the soup was already on top of the bread, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to try to mix it in a little or make it a topping. I opted for making it a topping. I drizzled the whole thing with olive oil and that worked out pretty well. The onions don’t ever make a golden crust, but they were an extraordinary addition to the stew. I found some fabulous red onions in the local street market (I think they were torpedo onions) and they were really sweet. Next time I make this, I think I will toss the onions in a little semolina flour, fry them, and add a little salt. That would be great on top of the baked stew.

I cooked about half of this in the oven and put the rest of the vegetable stew in the freezer for later. We ate about half of what I cooked the first time. It was a little dry, but still yummy.  On the day we had the leftovers, I made vegetable stock from scratch. The extra is in the freezer with the extra stew. When I reheated the leftovers, I put a little extra stale bread in the bottom of two oven-proof bowls, topped it with the leftover stew, poured in the veggie broth, and topped it with aged pecorino from the farmer’s market. I cooked it in the oven, as before, and the texture was perfect. The addition of the cheese was fantastico!

This is one of those dishes that could have endless variations. It’s a great one to remember when you have leftover soup and leftover bread. Since I have more in the freezer, I’d love to hear your ideas for additions that might spice it up a little.

Buon appetito!

Italiano

Well, we did make it to Italy, as you know from Lois’ posts, despite pre-flight conversations with friends about airplane misadventures.  Being a nervous and fairly frequent flyer, I’ve experimented with a number of alleged sleep-inducing pharmaceuticals on a variety of flights, this time Ambien.  Five hours of sleep — a record for me.  Unfortunately I awoke for the landing, always my biggest challenge.  I’ve heard it described by experts as a “controlled crash,” which is sort of the way it felt as we bounced onto the tarmac like a basketball.  Still, I was grateful that we did not experience what is sometimes officially termed “uncontrolled contact with the ground.”  Actually I’m getting better about this flying thing if only because I haven’t had a lot of choice over the past several years. I’m much better about this than my brother Tony, who, after acquiring a good deal of knowledge about what actually happens on planes during his 4-year stint in the Air Force, refuses to set foot on one of the contraptions.

Since arriving in Florence, we’ve spoken quite a bit of Italian, often to the bewilderment of Florentines.  Generally, though, they do tend to be able to piece together what we are trying to say.  The trick, I think, is to continue trying to speak it despite the pained expressions on the faces of the folks on the receiving end, whose English is often much better than our Italian.  There is risk to this strategy though, as our friend Bill discovered years ago when he pronounced himself to be God Almighty at a Tuscan bistro.  I’ve developed tremendous admiration for folks who are able to become fluent in a second language.  I’ve worked on my Italian on and off for four years, taking classes, listening to CD’s, watching Italian movies, even experiencing brief periods of immersion on several trips to Italy, and I’ve begun to conclude that fluency will forever elude me. When I hear of people who are fluent in four or five foreign languages, I’m fairly sure they’re just making this up.  It’s impossible — too many words.

Adesso andiamo alla Galleria dell-Accademia.   Ciao.

Up and running

We finally got out for a run. It was bright and sunny and freezing. While I’m running I always wonder why I do it, but after I run I’m always glad I did it. Running alongside the Arno and out to the far reaches of Cascine Park was beautiful and quiet at 9:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. Closer to our street, I did my best to ignore the strange looks from Italians prompted by my choice of running gear – white running shoes, black leggings, grey running capris, a grey t-shirt, a lavender jacket, and gloves. Ok, I did look a little strange, but I’m running after all. Maybe I’m going to have to invest in a cute little running outfit from the Cascine Market next Tuesday.

Ged, our work-a-day director of the AIFS program, is organizing a running group for students every Tuesday evening. I intend to join them. There is a half marathon in April, which I have no intention of doing, but it also has a 10k, which I am hoping to be ready for. It took me just over 3 weeks to complete “week 2” of my Ease into 10k program – not bad since I moved to a foreign country right in the middle of that. If I stick to the program, running 3 times a week, I should be ready by April. Somebody wish me luck.

Tonight’s dessert

I just can’t seem to get away from the food theme.

Tonight we had leftover pasta al tartuffo (pasta with truffle cream sauce), salad and crostini, but the real highlight was dessert. We had Vin Santo and apricot biscotti, which was absolutely heavenly. Vin Santo (holy wine) is an amber colored fortified wine liqueur. The apricot biscotti were a little soft, which I greatly prefer to the super-hard ones we often find in the U.S. The biscotti is dipped in the Vin Santo before consuming. So delicious.

Generosity

Lois has already sent her second blog post, and I’m still trying to understand what exactly a “blog” is.  I’ve heard that it’s a contraction of the words “blab” and “log” but I may be wrong about that.  We’ve traveled to the birthplace of the Renaissance.  There was no blogging in the Renaissance.  Still, I promised myself I’d do this, and I’m guessing that when teaching begins in early February, my opportunities to blog off will diminish.

Disclaimer: the first sentence of what follows is terribly misleading.  This blog-post is not about Italy.  Also, as my students would say….. it’s sort of wordy.

It’s Sunday, January 22, and I’m sitting in our apartment in Florence, Italy listening to the bells of Ognissanti, a lesser known church in our neighborhood in Florence whose walls are, nonetheless decorated by Botticelli paintings and a famous fresco of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio.  I’m thinking about the last few weeks leading to the flight that brought us here…..and the generosity of friends and family.  The morning after Christmas we were wrestling our tree to the ground, removing all the ornaments, and stripping the rest of the house of its ornaments and furnishings — with a very generous portion of help from our children and our dear friend Carla in order to help us begin a year-long adventure that would leave a large hole in each of their hearts.

On December 31, we left our house in Forestville in the hands of our new friends Heather and Rob and their irresistible son Jensen and became vagabonds, making our home in four different places before leaving for Florence on the 18th of January.  When we had first announced our potential three-week period of homelessness, we were overwhelmed with incredibly generous offers from friends — from  Shaun and John, from Shelley and from Larry and Diane (aka Madame Zinfandel).  Some of these were offers to have us share their homes with them for three weeks.  Not wanting to impose or to expose others to our dirty laundry (literally and figuratively), we settled on two very generous offers, the first of which came from our choir friend Denise and her husband Michael who proposed a gig housesitting two very substantial lap-cats for a week in Denise’s and Michael’s beautiful home in Two Acre Wood, a co-housing community near downtown Sebastopol — the first stop in our world tour.  We’ve co-owned property for years with our friends Robin and Bill, but this still hadn’t prepared us adequately for experiencing Denise and Michael’s approach to co-housing.  As though giving us free reign over their home were not generous enough, it was soon clear that any number of folks in the neighborhood were also beneficiaries of their generosity.  Although I’m from the 60’s, I never did quite get used to the fact that that at any given moment naked strangers would appear unannounced in and around Denise’s hot tub in the back yard.  Passers-by would enter the front door at will (knocking was optional) and come in to use Denise’s internet or borrow the keys to Michael’s truck.  The thought did cross my mind that I should be making some effort to protect their possessions, but I think I might have had a pre-revolutionary definition of that word.

The next leg of our trip brought us to the southern fringes of Sebastopol, a home in the country next to our good friends Mike and Pat, who were so touched by the prospect of our homelessness that they generously offered us the use of their neighbors’ home.  Actually it was a second home, owned by a pair of doctors from San Francisco who found it too cold in the winter, and had extended a standing offer to Mike and Pat to use the home as necessary when family and friends came to visit around the holidays.  And so we came to “depend on the kindness of strangers,” Doctors Moyra Moi and Clare Siu.  Apparently their home in South Sebastopol has an insulation system that actually prevents warm air from entering the home, because when we entered the house it was 10 degrees colder inside than outside, but Mike fired up his little tractor and hauled a load of wood to the house, which kept us fairly toasty.   Currently in retirement from the non-profit world, Mike is an entrepreneur, inventor, naturalist, frisbee golfer, bartender, Red Sox fan, singer/songwriter, chicken rancher and shepherd.  Pat, his wife and sometime accomplice in these endeavors, described for us all, with more enthusiasm and detail than I deemed appropriate, the process of castrating a sheep.  Mike’s newest venture is the creation of a four-hole golf course in his back yard.  He was mowing the “green” while explaining the challenges of the first hole to us.  The first hole was a tin can buried in a tiny clearing of weeds flanked by a dense thicket of poison oak and blackberry bushes.  In order to guide the ball into the clearing, the golfer would have to hit the thing over a 60-foot oak with enough backspin to hit the postage-stamp-sized green without allowing the ball to roll into the forest of thorns.  Mike told us that he’d hadn’t yet found any of the golf balls that he’d hit toward that hole, but remained hopeful.  He thought the rigors of the course would be likely to attract the biggest names in the golfing world and he’s beginning to devise some marketing strategies.  The course, by the way, doubles as a frisbee golf course and a baseball diamond, on which Mike’s grandson Morris nearly tore our heads off with a whiffleball, and where we were treated to a guest celebrity appearance by Mike and Pat’s daughter Chivas Regal, roller derby queen.

Mike and Pat had us over for dinner two or three times; the precise number escapes me because alcohol was involved.  I do remember at least the early stages of one post-dinner limoncello drink-off, in which we were comparing the merits of Lois’ and Mike’s excellent home-made concoctions.  We talked a lot about travel.  Mike and Pat have been everywhere; Pat has even been to New Jersey, and she spontaneously breaks out into exotic tongues and accents with ease.  After the third shot of limoncello the rest of us had funny accents as well.  Singing was also involved.  Mike and, as I discovered later, his son Joe are terrific songwriters.  Both of them treated us to original works, one of which was apparently composed on the spot.  Until I heard Joe’s piece I hadn’t realized the great potential that exists for a new genre of music combining post modernism with country-western.

Our good friend Glenn invited us to meet him at Harbin Hot Springs where he offered to treat Lois and me to a “Watsu.”  To my surprise it did not turn out to be a sushi roll, but rather a blissful hour of weightless floating in a heart-shaped pool of 98-degree water as Glenn massaged and relaxed every muscle in two bodies that had locked up from moving virtually every one of our possessions out of our house a week earlier.  Glenn said he just wanted to give us a glimpse of what he did in his professional life and to explain why his license plate reads, IWATSUU.  I’ve read the Daodejing, and tried Transcendental Meditation, gestalt therapy, philosophy, vegetarianism and even Holy Communion, but this was the first time I’ve had anything approaching a mystical experience.  It is, as the sannyasi say, “ineffable, unnameable, beyond all reason or explanation, and like totally groovy.”  After returning from our travels, my retirement plan is to create a new aquatic religious cult called the Watsubaptists with Glenn as high priest.

From Harbin we drove over the hill to Fallon, Nevada, home of a famous U.S. naval station, placed there, as best I can figure, in the event that Antarctica and the north polar ice caps both melt into the sea.  We had a lovely visit with Lois’ spry 87-year old father who was about to head off to Oregon to visit his brother, a mere side-trip after having hauled a house trailer from Nevada to Alaska to Missouri and back again with his kid (83 year old) brother-in-law the year before.  After sharing puns and goodbyes-for-the-year over plates of chow mein and some sort of fish I was reluctant to ask Lois’ dad to identify, we headed up for a couple of days to tidy up our digs in Tahoe before returning to our new hood in South Sebastopol.

The Saturday morning before our departure to Italy was devoted to a meeting at the college in which we oriented all the students who were about to embark on the trip to Florence.  As I looked out at the (very) young faces in the auditorium, I was struck by how much and how quickly they would all change.  After a lunch with my fellow instructors and the study abroad staff, we drove to the home of one of our favorite couples, John and Shaun, who, with the aid of our friend Carla, were generously hosting a traditional West Sonoma County celebration to wish us “buonviaggio” and and to congratulate me on my impending retirement.   The food was abundant and tasty, and given that this was a West County shindig, vegetarian dishes and wine were permitted….. as was singing, including an original song composed by our beloved Carla and sung along with her sweet daughter Ali, (home from Smith for semester break) and the irrepressible and golden throated Shelley Berman whose vocal chords have been honed by years of heckling the players of visiting ballclubs at the Oakland Coliseum.  All of this was followed by guitar wizardry by my son-in-law Arif, sweet songs by our good friend Clay, words of congratulation/encouragement, hula dancing of course, and an attempt by Lois and me to sing a song of farewell, proving that amnesia follows close on the heals of retirement. Revelers were particularly entertained by John and Shaun’s gumby faucet that could be bent and twisted into overhand knots whilst still delivering water for a banquet serving 60.  In a feeble attempt to thank the two for their amazing generosity, I made an attempt to fix the faucet, urged on by Lois who is apparently tremendously and unjustifiably proud of my plumbing prowess (and who believes that a kitchen faucet should probably not double as a yoga practitioner).  I was able effectively to dismantle the contraption, but alas…. all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty together again.  Apparently, Shaun and John, there is just no way to thank you adequately.

The following days were so filled with last minute preparations that we abandoned our promises to get together with other cherished friends to say goodbye, and at this point I’m afraid that this blog is the best I can do.  Mi dispiace.

On the day of our departure, having abandoned, stowed and surrendered the keys to our vehicles, we were driven down to that venerable West County center of a.m. cuisine, “Hole in the Wall” where we dined on loxalicious, biscuits and gravy, omelettes and Dutch Baby (no Scandinavians were consumed), and talked about rain, Italia, Rhode Island reds, and…. in order to create the proper mood for departure…. terrifying experiences in airplanes.  It was time to leave our beloved Sonoma County.  Mike and Pat drove us to the airport shuttle bus.  Mike left us with some words that seemed to capture what all of our friends and loved ones have been feeling.  “We’re absolutely pissed at you for leaving us, and we hope you have the most wonderful time.”   Such amazing generosity.  Thank you….thank you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bag full of happiness

Fare lo spese – to do the shopping

I thought we had escaped jet lag, but it caught up to us at 3 am. We got to bed at around 11 pm and we both woke up at 3:00. We were awake for about 3 hours, and then fell back asleep at dawn, when the garbage trucks started making lots of noise. Go figure. We slept another 5 hours. That should do us for awhile.

One of today’s big adventures was going to do the grocery shopping. (The other was a protest rally that passed underneath our apartment window, but that will have to be another post.) I love foreign grocery stores. It allows you to see where each culture places emphasis in the food realm. After ample sleep and caffeination, we set off with fellow teacher, Diana Bennet, for the Esselunga Supermarket. It’s a sweet 3/4 mile walk from our house, mostly along the river. Of course, laden down with food on the walk home it was much, much longer.

Saturday afternoon at one of the largest markets in the area was a real slice of Italian life. Most everything is closed on Sundays, so on Saturday, Italians are doing their shopping for the big Sunday meal. Inexplicably, this was also the time that shelves were being stocked, so it made for tight maneuvering. I found that a smile and a “Scusi” got me a long way. I have been very brave about using my italian, imperfect as it is, and people seem to be understanding me! Yay!

We agreed on the walk over that we would stay aware of how heavy everything is and buy accordingly. But when you are confronted with a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a lovely sounding wine from one of the most respected wine regions of Italy for only €5, it seems you must buy it. Ditto for the €2 bottle of everyday chianti.

The first aisle we encountered was produce. I promised myself I wouldn’t buy too much, but it was all so beautiful! I remembered to get my disposable plastic glove on before touching any produce. Heaven forbid you should fondle the tomatoes with your bare hands with an italian nonna nearby! I chose bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, and a little bag of mixed savories for making the ribolitta (celery, parsley, onion, and carrot). I also remembered to place each item in its own plastic bag, weigh it on the scale, choose the appropriately corresponding picture from the panel on the scale, and put the sticker on the bag. What will I do with all that plastic? There really is no way around it in Italy, at least not at the grocery store. I will pick up more fruit at the huge street market in Cascine Park on Tuesday.

Next was the staples of butter, eggs, milk, etc. Butter comes in a big block wrapped in waxed paper. Eggs come in packs of 6 or 10 with ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging. We selected 4 kinds of cheese including truffle cheese, gorgonzola, fresh mozzarella, and swiss. It took real self discipline to limit it to four kinds. We selected some orange juice with great trepidation, since we are used to the “not from concentrate” kind and this didn’t appear to be anything like that.

Then it was around the corner to the pasta aisle. Oh my! They devote 3/4 of an aisle to pasta of every shape and color, and that’s just the dried pasta. There is another whole section of fresh pasta. There are only about 8 aisles in the whole store, so that gives you some idea how much emphasis is placed on pasta.  It is even cheaper here than it is at home. I selected one dried pasta and one fresh, along with a jar of pesto for €1, and a small tub of truffle cream pasta sauce for €2.50. We got a big jar of sun-dried black olives for about €3. We stopped to marvel at the gallon of red table wine for €1.10. I found a couple of specialty items like soy sauce and worcestershire which were remarkably inexpensive. Our apartment came stocked with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, so I didn’t buy those this time around. It was difficult to pass up the good sized jar of red wine vinegar for €.50, but I did it. They’re not big on mustard,  mayonnaise or ketchup here – only one very tiny section for Americans, I think.

We also got some white beans for the ribollita stew, a jar of olive tapenade, and some jam. We couldn’t leave without a bottle of limoncello. I got the authentic stuff from Sorrento for €9.50/litre (about $12) and a 1 liter bottle of alcool purissimo (95% grain alcohol) for making my own limoncello. Our friend, Diana, got the cheap limoncello at my urging (€7($9)/litre) so we could do a taste comparison and see how we liked it. I almost bought a bottle of myrtle berry liqueur from Sardinia but decided we had enough bottles to carry this trip. We each selected some chocolate (with hazelnuts for George and with chile peppers for me) and some biscotti.

I worked out the italian words for conditioner and deodorant and toothpaste (well, the shape of the container helped, too.) What I wasn’t sure about was the small print on the deodorant bottle. One brand promised “effeto sedutionze” or “effeto energia” depending on the fragrance. I guessed that meant effective seduction or effective energy. We looked it up when we got home and as near as I can tell it means to bring about or make one seductive or make one energetic, so I was pretty close. In the end, I opted for a brand called Infasil (not sure what that’s about) in a scent called “doccia fresh” (doccia means shower).

On the way home George said that it was great watching Diana and I shop because we just had big smiles on our faces the whole time. As I tucked all my treasures into my backpack, I commented to my two companions that what we had in our possession was bags full of happiness. Tonight we will tuck in to some of our goodies and give thanks for this plentiful fare in a beautiful land that really loves its food.

And They’re Off!

Although we officially began our round-the-world travel in Sebastopol, California, we left Sonoma County on Wednesday afternoon as the first rain drops were beginning to fall. Our flight from San Francisco to Zurich took about 10 hours, but thanks to a remarkably decent serving of lasagna, a glass of wine, and modern pharmaceuticals, we slept for about half that time. We were awakened at about 5 a.m. California time for a buttered pretzel and a glass of orange juice before disembarking in Zurich.

We sailed through customs – no lines and no questions about our travel plans. We anticipated a bit of hassle here because we were traveling on one-way plane tickets. We assumed they would want to know the nature of our visit, and when we planned to get the heck out of Europe, but they just stamped our passports and sent us on our way.

This was a very, very short day since we arrived in Switzerland at about 3 pm their time. By the time we boarded the plane for Florence, it was already dark. We arrived at the Amerigo Vespucci airport in Florence where we collected our luggage and headed for the airport shuttle bus in record time. We took the shuttle bus to the main train station in Florence and walked 5 minutes to our apartment.

We were afraid that our landlords wouldn’t have arrived yet, but they were here waiting for us. Mary and Fabio greeted us warmly in English and Italian, respectively. Mary, an American woman, has lived in Italy for 15 years and is married to the oh-so-Italian Fabio. We had met Mary before, but this was our first time meeting Fabio. Unbelievably, after nearly 20 hours of travel we were able to understand and respond to Fabio in Italian. Although we ran into vocabulary problems here and there, we actually didn’t embarrass ourselves too badly in that conversation. (That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!)

After our re-orientation to our apartment (we lived here in 2009 for 3 months), we realized it was 9 pm and prime dinner time for Italians. We headed out to our first Italian meal at Osteria delle Belle Donne (Cafe of the beautiful women.) I had ribolitta, a white bean, spinach and bread stew, which may not sound all that appetizing but it was fantastico! George had the pasta al tartuffo (pasta with truffles) which was also delicious. I’m planning to make some ribolitta at home in the next few weeks, so I’ll share my recipe and some instructions.

Now it is 3 pm on Friday. We missed breakfast, but had a lovely lunch and a nice stroll around the city. I thought I had escaped jet lag, but I’m getting sleepy now. No nap for me, though. I shall press on until dark and get myself into a truly Italian rhythm.

Perhaps we’ll go grocery shopping this afternoon. How can I always be thinking about food? …