Sunday, April 29, 2012

Picture perfect

This week has been a little slow. It's been raining and cold. But suddenly on Thursday the sun came out and it was warm. So naturally we went for a ride.

This was a ride with a purpose, though. A Swedish magazine is publishing an article about Leif-the-sommelier and they want some pictures to accompany it. I think this is the fourth time since I've come here that he's gone through everything in the apartment looking for photos for an article someone is writing. "Good pictures, Michele. High resolution. With me (insert activity here, whether it be cycling or tasting wine, or tasting wine while out cycling...) I know I have some somewhere." He never finds them.

I would naturally be really weirded out if someone were writing an article about me and even more so if they wanted to publish a picture as well. He seems to be pretty accustomed to the attention. He just has a lack of appropriate pictures to send off to people when they ask for them. So when he (again) couldn't find pictures I told him that we should just pack up my cameras, a bottle of wine and a glass and go take some pictures.

So we rode off into the beautiful sunshine of Tuscany to take some photos. We decided to start at Piazzale Michelangelo, a small climb of less than 300 feet with a fantastic view of the city. I figured I could do that and still catch my breath and hold the camera steady. And actually the climb was pretty good. As a flatlander I have a healthy love/hate attitude  towards hills. I love to look at them. I hate to think about climbing them on a bike.

Piazzale Michelangelo
We got to the piazza pretty early and so had a great piece of the railing looking out over Florence set up before the crowds got there. I'm not a real photographer by any stretch of the imagination...but I think we managed to get a few good pictures that included Leif, wine and the landmarks of Florence like the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio. Leif in casual clothing. Leif in his cycling outfit and helmet. With a bottle, without a bottle. And my direction was brilliant..."Do something winey. Sniff, swirl....whatever it is that you guys do, just keep doing it till I tell you to stop. Drop your shoulder, lift your chin." And my all time favorite (but I don't think his) "Smile like you mean it!"

The cycling sommelier
We finally stopped when I couldn't find any new places to stand him in front of. He complimented me on doing a great job. I should have suspected something was up. Then he casually said, "Should I call a vineyard and see if we can take some photos there?" Sucker that I am I said "Sure," and after a short conversation we were on our way to a farm somewhere south of Florence.

Florence sits in a river valley, kind of a bowl. Anytime you go out of the city you have to ride uphill. I even asked how bad it would be. "Just a few hills," he assured me. Maybe he really believes it's just a few little hills. Maybe he's trying to help me by not telling me how many and how big the hills are. Sometimes he acts like his inability to adequately prepare me for the hell that is to come is a language thing that he has no control over. Wait, did I say hell? I meant hill. I'm sure I meant hill.

Maybe he just has far more confidence in me than I do. He's never taken me anywhere that I couldn't handle. I should be more trusting maybe, huh?

We did reach the vineyard. I climbed the hills without a problem. Not without effort naturally. I'm not a "cyclist." But I didn't collapse at the top and I wasn't wheezing like an asthmatic bulldog with a head cold either. And I consoled myself with the thought that the way home would be mostly downhill.

At the vineyard
We took more photos (without the bottle or the glass) among the new vines just sprouting their leaves. Even though Florence has quite a few parks and green spaces it was so lovely to walk through the tall grass and smell the aromas of green and earth and flowers that the warm sun was lifting off the ground. Above it all was the sky looking impossibly blue and clean. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to breathe in the spring that surrounded us till I felt as green and blue and warm as the grass and sky. I had to be satisfied with walking slowly back up the hill to the cellars for the last photos.

I have to say that when you've climbed up high (No, I don't know how high. Not sure I want to know) the trip back down is fast. Exhilarating. Frightening. Windy. I loved it. Made climbing the hill worth every meter.

Now he has 150 pictures to choose from. Some pretty good, some not so good. There's gotta be at least one that will work for this particular article and hopefully for future ones as well. I can now say that I've climbed a few hills in Tuscany on my bike. Some pretty good, some not so good. As for future hills, let's just wait and see.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Today I sat down at the table, looked yet again out our balcony doors towards Fiesole sitting on top of its hill, took a deep breath and started filling out my application for a permesso di sogiorno, my long term stay permit here in Italy.

I don’t know if I ever described the application for my short-term study permsso, but it was over ten pages long and required copies of everything from school registration to insurance coverage, letters from my landlord to bank statements, and every single page in my passport. I mailed almost a half inch tall stack of papers to the Questura.

Needless to say this past experience makes me suspicious of the single page application I have for a permesso that will last far longer than a student permit. All they want is a typical form with name, address, reason for the permesso and my personal info from my passport. Supporting documents are just as easy: proof that the marriage is registered in Florence (check), translations of the marriage certificate and stamp from the Secretary of State (check and check.) Just in case we also have a translation of the registery of the marriage in Sweden. Slap on a Marco di Bollo worth 14.62 euro, which seems to accompany every transaction in Italy, and we’re good to go. It seems too easy. Too streamlined and efficient. Too….something.

There was one additional line on this form that I didn’t have on the student application. They wanted a reference here in Italy. No problem, I thought. I’ll just call a friend who lives here and then I’ll be done with the application. I was surprised when she got a little flustered and started suggesting other people like my neighbors (yeah, the ones who avoid me in the hall.) She was starting to sound desparate so I quickly told her that I would try someone else and ended the call.

That’s when I realized…I’m not in Minnesota anymore. Because, in Minnesota if I called a friend and said “I need…” most of them wouldn’t let me finish the sentence before interrupting with “Yes, I’ll help you any way I can.” Family, close friends, new friends, or acquaintances have all been and continue to be willing to help.

Leif told me to think of it not as an indicator of our friendship, but as an example of how much people distrust the Italian government. True, I’ve heard horror stories of the long memory of the government and their ability to make lives difficult but I hardly think they will even call her. I tried not to be hurt by her refusal, but it’s hard to not take it personally when I know that if she asked me the same question I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.

So after I calmed down I called an American friend who lives here and as soon as she heard what I needed she said “Of course! Anything you need!” No hesitation, just an immediate and very warm response to a friend. And now I know that here in Florence I can find Minnesota whenever I need it, it’s just a phone call away. Thank you Barbara. For a New Yorker you make a pretty good Minnesotan.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Romantic getaway

We took a trip last weekend to Casentino with Leif's tour guide class. I know, so far it doesn't sound so romantic, spending the weekend with a bunch of strangers most of whom speak only Italian. The weather wasn't exactly romance novel stuff either. It  was cold, like winter cold at times and wet.

But Casentino is a magical place. Tall mountains covered in tall (I do mean tall) trees and deep valleys where rivers and lakes hide. This is where we met in 2009 when I was taking a study abroad class and Leif  was our guide through the mountains. He walked with us, ate with us, drank with us. He found friends there in our group that will probably be life-long, if long-distance friends. This is where we became enchanted with each other.

And that is what made it romantic...walking the same paths we did three years ago, this time holding hands and remembering our friends.


OK, had enough of the sappy stuff? Because while emotionally it was a beautiful summer day, physically it was hell, if hell is wet and cold (nearly freezing) and poorly lit. And no one speaks English.

We got to spend Saturday inside a museum so we stayed dry, but there was no heat so looking at dried leaves and flowers, and (poorly) taxidermied animals in a vignette that made them all look rabid wasn't as pleasant as it might seem. Even the squirrels and deer looked carnivorous, while the badgers and fox looked positively mangy and foul-tempered. The best  part of the whole thing were the birds placed carefully into the faux trees still attached to the round bases for placing them on tables. That was sarcasm.

Dinner was fabulous. A minestrone just shy of boiling did a lot to warm me up. Our second dish arrived. We had asked for beef. We got two ginormous steaks straight from the grill. Wow. For dessert we had almond ice cream with a coffee/amaretto syrup. Again, wow. There is no sarcasm in this paragraph. It was the high point of my day.

Our hotel, in a burst of economy, had also turned off the heat. They did give us a space heater to use, but we couldn't leave it on overnight because it's the kind that radiates heat from coils that lit the room up with an orange glow that (once again) seemed hellish. I accidentally drowned the toilet paper while showering. I was too busy trying to get warm under the spray to worry about toilet paper. We put every blanket we could find in the room on top of us and turned off the heater, comforted by the knowledge that we were being watched over by an early 1900's picture of Jesus holding the heart thingy (I'm not catholic, sorry) in one hand and holding the other hand over our heads. Nothing bad can happen when Jesus is on watch, right?

You've already heard about Sunday. It rained. And rained. Sometimes it stopped. Then it started again. We would hike quickly up (I kid you not) an incline and stop at the top to discuss (in Italian) various trees, plants or the region at great length. Then another mad dash up, or possibly only sideways, to the next fascinating tree, or mushroom, or pine cone for another lecture, at great length. Basically we spent the day working up a sweat, only to stop and allow the bitter cold to penetrate to our very bones. Repeat, repeat, get the drift.

The ride home (like the rider there) was a rollercoaster-like event. I just closed my eyes and tried to go to my happy place. Which is warm and dry and where Leif holds me close. Which was exactly what the ride was like, but my happy place is stationary, which the car definitely wasn't.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Riding in the hills

First, Easter was a bust for me because it rained most of the day. What I mean is, I was going to try to see the cart blow up but I didn't feel like getting wet so I didn't even step out the door. It was a little frustrating, but there's always next year.

Today the skies were clear and the sun was shining. After softening me up with a pleasurable and lazy morning in bed Leif told me to get dressed for a bike ride. At some point I must have agreed that I should start learning to climb the hills around here or I'll never get to ride anywhere fun. I don't remember this, but he's sneaky. He probably stuck it onto the end of a question he knew I'd say yes to (much like politicians who attach crazy ideas to sensible bill in order to get said craziness passed.) What he probably said was "Would you like pizza for dinner tonight..." and while I'm saying yes and thinking yummy thoughts about what kind of pizza to get he says under his breath "...and go for a ride in the hills sometime?" And it's too late, the yes has already slipped out.

So we headed out into the far too crisp morning air for my introduction to biking in the hills of Tuscany. I'm from the flatlands of Minnesota, where it's possible to see tomorrow's weather today by simply looking to the west. My definition of hills and his definition are vastly different. For future reference, my definition is realistic, his is insane.

It could have been worse, I suppose. On my first big hill we discovered that my bike doesn't like to switch into the granny gear, so halfway up the hill I was dying and had to walk it up the rest of the way. Humiliating? Perhaps. A few slight adjustments to the shift stuff and onward to the next hill. Which went a lot better, thank you very much.

Halfway up this hill I started to laugh, because I realized that people actually pay him to drag them up and down hills they probably wouldn't even think of riding at home, where ever that might be. Now that's crazy. At least I didn't have to pay him to watch while I sweated and panted and swore at him for dragging me up yet another hill. OK, I might be exaggerating a little bit. It was too cold to sweat.

I've figured out that Leif has a kind of code for the hills when he describes them to clients. Riding to a "beautiful view" means a hill that almost anyone can climb, eventually."Panoramic views" are for real bike riders who don't shudder at the sight of an incline. Thank goodness they're panoramic, you can take endless pictures while you gasp for air and calm your heart."Breath taking views" are just that. Views that can be reached but because you're too busy trying to get your breath back you can't see it. Doesn't help that the air is so thin at those altitudes either. I'm pretty sure the hills today can't even be described as "beautiful view" hills. Chances are they would be best described as hills that get you over the tree tops, but not much more.

My only shining moment was on a hill that he told me I would probably have to walk up. Not only did I ride the whole hill, I passed him up. Just cuz I could, and I'm stubborn. Now that I think back on it, he probably told me that on purpose. See what I mean, he's sneaky.

P.S. We rode 30 kilometers and 250 meters of climbing all before lunch. Pretty sure I can do better than that next time.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Almost Easter

Last night a good friend here in Florence invited us to her home for dinner. We were all looking forward to the evening together..the food is wonderful and the conversation is often wide and deep and always interesting.

Last night was no exception. She introduced me to fava beans, a vegetable that I see in the market all the time but have never been sure exactly what it is or how to serve it. I assumed they were eaten by everyone else because there are baskets piled high with these beans in the market. This time of year when the beans are newly harvested at their peak they are best eaten raw, like we used to eat peas out of the pod straight from the garden. With them we had some young pecorino cheese and some salami and a nice sparkling rose wine.

Our first dish was actually three different dishes. First ravioli stuffed with pear and pecorino cheese with a truffle butter sauce that was truly beautiful. Second was a typical ricotta and spinach ravioli with a tomato and basil sauce. Also very, very good. Finally we had another ravioli this time stuffed with fish and seafood with a light fish sauce. I could have stopped there and been satisfied, but there was more.

Out of the oven came a beautiful Filet Mignon roast wrapped in prosciutto and pancetta with red peppercorns. It melted on my tongue. The salt from the prosciutto, the sweet from the pancetta and the bite of the red pepper danced around my mouth. Just when you think something can't get better, it does. Following each bite with a bit of Barbera wine was heavenly.

But wait, we weren't finished yet. There is still the cafe and dolce. Coffee with just a dash of grappa (who doesn't want to finish a great meal with an espresso and a shot?) to go with the traditional Italian Easter cake called a Colomba. It's a dove-shaped cake made from egg whites and sugar and candied orange peels, covered in more sugar and almonds. Every grocery store in the country has had a pile of these boxed cakes that reaches the ceiling for several weeks now. By tomorrow they'll all be gone.

Four hours after we started dinner we finally finished. We had eaten everything on the table and talked about ourselves and our friends and the state of the world. This, my friends, is part of what I love about living here. For many people here, this is an every day occurrence. At this point in my life, this is something I enjoy.

On our way home we walked by the Duomo because it is an icon of the city and to see it at night is a very different experience from the daylight. At midnight all the bells in the city rang for the first time since Good Friday. Easter day had arrived and every church in town rang their bells in celebration.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Date night.

Last night we went to a local bar and had food and drinks and listened to some great blues and country music by some local musicians. We met a friend of Leif's named Tiziano, who introduced us to practically everyone in the bar. Lovely people who spoke slowly so that I could keep up with the conversation, which had to be in Italian because most Italians my age haven't learned English in school. I'm happy to say that I didn't totally embarrass myself.

It was in a little bar close to our house that, like many apartments here, is made up of a series of rooms that wander a little aimlessly through a building. This bar, if I have it figured correctly, started on the corner of the block then wandered behind the two adjoining stores and ended in a courtyard close to the center of the block. It was almost like spelunking while holding a glass of wine. Each room had a table filled with food: pasta and breads, salads and crostini, cheeses and meats, and on the bar itself bowls of salty snack foods.

The music was good, just short of American blues, but close enough to really enjoy. Three musicians played mandolins, acoustic guitars, a steel guitar, a banjo and a harmonica and really just jammed all night. Naturally, they were also friends of Tiziano and we got to meet them as well.

My favorite part of the night aside from the music was watching the bartender making one of their specialty drinks. It was a very un-American way to make a drink. Each time one was ordered he would carefully slice several fresh strawberries into the bottom of a glass, then crush the berries to the perfect consistency. Then he crushed the ice, cradling one cube at a time in the palm of his hand and tapping it with a small hammer until the glass was filled with perfectly crushed ice. Then, with a flourish, he poured Brut over it all and gently stirred it with a long handled spoon before sliding a whole strawberry onto the side of the glass and handing it to the server. That's right, no one was sitting at the bar watching this (I was on my way to the back myself and just happened to catch the performance.) They were three rooms away sitting at a table waiting for their drink. It was a great performance. It made me wish I had ordered one, just to watch him make it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

There's more to eating than food.

This morning I sat across the table from Leif and realized something. I haven't eaten breakfast with someone on a regular basis since I was young.

Sounds impossible, you're probably thinking. It's funny how things happen sometimes. Work schedules conflict, children are born and sometimes people's internal clocks just don't mesh. I was married to a night person who felt breakfast was an assault on his body for 18 years. An aspirin, a can of coke and a smoke were breakfast enough for him, and luckily those can be consumed in the car on the way to work so no need to sit at a table and pretend to be sociable.

When the kids were little it was easier to eat my own breakfast first, then get them fed. As they got older the habit stayed with us, me eating first and then waking them up. Then, as children do, they grew up even more and moved out, leaving me to eat my solitary breakfast and then have no one left to wake up. Now I have a breakfast buddy every day. I imagine my breakfast manners need some brushing up after years of disuse.

Eating with Leif is one of the great joys of my life here. It may sound a little simple to most of you. But imagine years of eating alone or sitting on the floor (he sat in his chair, I refused to eat on the living room furniture!) eating in front of the television while your companion plays on a computer, reads a magazine, watches the TV and possibly even talks on the phone during the meal. All at once. Talk about multi-tasking.

So it has been refreshing to eat every meal without any distractions. No TV. No reading. No computer. No phones. Just the two of us sitting across the table from each other, eating and drinking and talking. He looks in my eyes, he watches my face. To me it feels as if we are the only people on the planet.

To go all Augsburgian on this...we are both fully present in the moment. I'm sure other people do this a lot, this focus on each other that's almost more moving than a kiss. It's just new for me and I'm enjoying it immensely.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April Fool's..

Today is April first. That great day every prankster waits for, saving up their sick, silly and sometimes cruel jokes with the misguided idea that because it's a day made for pranks no one can be hurt by them.

I just read that. Sounds a little bitter. But I think it's mostly true. Of course my view may be a little skewed. April Fool's day reminds me how tenuous relationships are, and how right and wrong don't matter as much as viewpoint.

I got married on April first, he picked the date. The joke before, during, and every anniversary was that because of the date, it didn't really count. Or that it never really happened. Or that he could change his mind at any time and it would be OK.

So he did. Seventeen years after we got married he left. The best part of his joke, the part I didn't see coming, was that when he left on our anniversary to move up north because of his job was that he waited another six months to tell me that he actually left me. His joke timing is spectacular. Didn't see it coming. I should have, I know that now. A year later, almost to the day, our divorce was final.

And out of that monumentally unfunny joke came the chance to live this amazing life that I have now. Isn't it funny how the worst days of your life can bring you to the best days of your life?