Sunday, April 28, 2013

Spring planting season

When I was eighteen I moved off the farm. I decided I would never live on a farm again. No more chores, animals or plants that required my undying and regular attention. Eventually I couldn't even keep a houseplant alive.

When I was in my late thirties I moved out to the country, but the fashionable a nice house surrounded by acres of nothing. The only reason we had a large yard was because my husband wanted it enough to spend days each week maintaining it. Anything I planted around the house had to withstand my complete and total indifference to it's survival. For the first few weeks they all got attention and water, then I sort of lost focus and things inevitably died. Those that lived through the initial trial by fire thrived beyond my wildest expectations.

No plant should look this good after the treatment I gave it.
Which is to say I ignored it on a regular basis.
Except to say "Oooh, pretty!"
Now in my fifties I've moved back to the city, but this time a big city in Italy, where green space is relegated to parks and terrace envy runs rampant among neighbors. At first the fact that we even had a terrace didn't impress me. It wouldn't impress you either. It's only a little deeper than your average American clothes closet and about twelve feet long. It's not big enough for a table and chairs so there is no dining al fresco. And we can't fill it with stuff because it's also where we hang our laundry to dry.

Our neighbors downstairs, however, have tons of space and they fill it to the max with flowers and vegetables and fruit trees and olive trees. They have a complicated system that waters everything with the turn of a knob. I've been watching them now for two years, planting things and watching them grow. Suddenly, this year it isn't enough for me to just watch.

I have a practically uncontrollable urge to get my hands dirty and plant something that next week I'll remember and actually care whether or not it lives or dies. I want to be cooking at the stove and think "Gosh, this dish needs something," and walk out to the terrace (conveniently located right outside the kitchen) and pick something to add that makes our dinner special.

Actually, this urge started slowly a couple of weeks ago. I bought flowers to decorate the table for a dinner party and when they didn't die immediately I thought they looked lonely so I bought rosemary and basil to keep them company and because we use them to cook all the time. Well, when I haven't killed our rosemary and basil plants I use them to cook, so yeah, a couple of weeks out of the year we have fresh rosemary and basil. The rest of the time I just call them artisan hand-dried herbs.

My little starter garden.

I've spent these last few weeks feeling all Julia Child by walking out to the terrace and cutting off a snip of this or that for our meals (this being rosemary and that being basil), but lately I've felt like we were lacking variety. So I snuck home a pot of thyme. It's really livened up the dinner table.

And now the point of this whole story. Every spring and fall there's a plant show at one of the parks and they have the most beautiful and abundant displays of plants for sale. That's right, for sale. I was practically giddy with excitement.

I left this morning with a set amount of cash in my wallet (we don't have charge cards) and the knowledge that anything I bought had to be carried 1.9 kilometers back home. A brilliant plan if I do say so myself. (Actually, I had no idea it was that far till I checked it for this post. I may never walk there again.)

I spent over an hour wandering around oohing and aahing (silently of course, I was by myself) and debating the flowers vs herbs decision as intensely as the Supreme Court considered Roe vs Wade. You would think these plants were going to live forever the way I carefully considered which to bring into our home and which to leave for some other family to have.

First I desperately wanted a yellow climbing rose. Absolutely gorgeous, almost as tall as me and would consume my entire plant budget. Then I saw lemon trees. Don't judge me. I figured in a couple of years (OK, maybe more) it would produce enough lemons to make my own limoncello. Everyone around here seems to make their own and I think it would be awesome to wow guests with my own limoncello. These were significantly shorter than the roses but the same money. I hadn't ruled either one out yet, but I kept looking to see what else there was to see.

My favorite (flower-less) stands had herbs. Who knew there were so many different kinds of mint or thyme? Who knew that people would stand and discuss the merits and aromas of each one like they were contemplating the purchase of a new car? Who knew there was a mint that had the aromas of cheese and meat, or pineapple? Certainly not me. But I could buy quite a few of these on my budget and exponentially grow my cooking repertoire. And none of them were taller than eight inches making them easier to lug all the way back home. In fact, I got chives and mint and oregano there and still had half my budget left. Naturally I continued to browse on my way out of the garden.

And there it was. Just waiting for me. Not the yellow roses I was so enamored with at the beginning but a shorter, white and pink version of climbing rose at the perfect price. Unable to resist I picked them up and waited far too patiently for someone to notice that I was actually ready to buy something, unlike all those other pushy people who just wanted to know how much so they could roll their eyes and move on. Honestly, I didn't care. It was mine. Nirvana, right there.

I left the garden feeling wonderful and probably looking ridiculous. My purse hung from one shoulder, my long umbrella hooked onto the purse, one hand holding a blue bag overflowing with aromatic greens while the other hand carefully held the bag carrying a three and a half foot tall blooming rose with itty bitty thorns. Close to the garden all of us loaded down with bags shared sheepish but triumphant smiles....the closer I got to home the more people started looking at me curiously, probably wondering just how far I thought I was going to carry all those plants. If they had asked I would have said "As far as I need to! Look at them.....beautiful!" with one of those slightly crazed smiles that makes people back off and shut up. It should be obvious that I'm a woman on a mission.

Doesn't it just make you want to cook something?
I already know that this isn't enough. I mean, it's perfect for the life we live now, this tiny potted garden. But we both know that someday we want to be out in the country where our garden isn't limited by square meters or just how many kilos the terrace will hold before crashing down. I want to move back to the farm, or at least the Tuscan version of a farm. We want to have olive trees and grape vines and entire hedges of rosemary (yes, they do that here.) We want to have a place where people come to taste the things we have in our garden....a place to enjoy life. This little garden on our terrace is just the beginning.

Random pictures from the show

FYI the sign says now also in Italy you can grow
the North American cranberry!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Sunday rider

In Minnesota we have a term for people driving slowly looking at everything except the road while traffic piles up behind them. We call them Sunday drivers, and naturally you would encounter them mostly on on their way to church checking out all the other farmers' fields and comparing them with their own. Dad would say "Would you look at that!" and we would all obediently look out whichever window he was pointing to and see just another corn or bean field. But he would tell us what we should be seeing and when we got older we'd nod sagely and my brother would throw in a comment or two (just one of the many reasons he's the favorite) and eventually we'd get to church.

This Sunday was another day to ride by myself, because Leif's team was holding their raduno, which is a kind of practice race that teams from the area all participate in. He was super excited, in part because it was his birthday but also because it was an absolutely gorgeous day and he would be riding in it. Being alone allowed me to be the consummate Sunday rider; stopping whenever I felt like it to take pictures or just rest in the sunshine.Cyclists passed me regularly, but it was too nice to rush through my ride. I was momentarily engulfed by a large team riding in my direction. Each rider passed me with a boungiorno or ciao and a smile. Actually, everyone on the road was smiling and happy. How could they be anything else on such a beautiful spring day?

So this is my version of driving slow and pointing out the window. Don't be surprised if you don't see anything fascinating or pretty, it's part of Sunday riding.

Would you look at that?
Vineyards waiting for leaves to start popping out.

Words can't make this more beautiful.

Look at that!
(points dramatically to the right)

Quiet streets....a little too quiet for Sunday at the church.

The piazza is so clean today.

Would you look at that?
Things are getting green....see there?

No, over there!
(again, points dramatically, this time to the left)

Roadside shrine,
All those flowers make one wonder what happened here.

One of those cute and terrifying streets
where two full size cars can't pass.

And yes, the poppies are out.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Acceptance.....sort of

So my excitement level is pretty high right now. This week I think I've finally broken through that invisible barrier between me and some of the Italians in Florence.

Every time I babysit near Ponte Vecchio, which is in the touristy center of town, I go early enough to have a coffee. Maybe I should say that differently. I get there early because I was brought up with "early is on time, and on time is late."  Which really doesn't work in Italy at all, as their on time has a full half hour leeway built into it and even if you go beyond that no one holds it against you. I'm working on being less rigid about time, but it seems to be such a primeval urge with me that it's almost impossible for me to ignore it. I feel I've begun to live a slower life because I'm only five minutes early most days. One of these days I'll even set my phone clock to the actual time instead of five minutes early. See, it's a sickness.

That's probably enough about my weirdness. Of course if you've read any of this blog you already know I'm probably walking a thin line between normal and crazy.

So a couple of days a week I end up at a fairly elegant cafe bar for a little caffeine bump before becoming one with my inner three year old. They have beautiful pastries and a long, curving marble bar where all the neighborhood swells come to have their breakfast before heading off to work or for their morning constitutional. (side note: many in fact bring their dogs and sneak them in. If it's possible to sneak a golden  retriever into a room so narrow two people have to turn sideways to pass each other) They're all dressed beautifully and talk together like they're old friends, subtly turning their backs towards anyone vaguely resembling a tourist, ie me. The barista eventually deigns to take my order and deliver it without actually being rude, but darn close.

This has been going on for months. I'd come to accept that I would always be something of an outsider there, even if they were becoming a little warmer with their Buongiorno's. Then, on Tuesday I walked into the bar and the woman behind the counter said "Good  morning! Cappuccino?" Trying to act all casual, like we've been doing this for years I replied "Yes please." (I hope I don't have to remind you that this was in Italian) We exchanged genuine smiles and she told the barista  my order. He turned and smiled at me and when my coffee came there was a heart on it. Now every time I go there they know my drink and there's always lovely pictures in the foam.

I'm pretty sure this means I've moved from the possibly-not-tourist-but-definitely-stranger category to someone-from-the-neighborhood (even though it's not my neighborhood) but not quite a regular like on Cheers. It's a good goal to have, even though it will require me to speak a lot more Italian.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Come ride with me

All right. I would love to invite all of you to come ride with me, but I suspect that while everyone would like to, most would be able to come up with a minimum of five reasons why it's just not possible. In lieu of of an actual ride together I decided today to take pictures for you. This is easier without Leif and since he's riding with his team (grrrr, go team!) and I am alone this is perfect.

So to set the stage for you.....this is the second day of sunshine in a row so we're nearly giddy with excitement at riding without winter gear and with sunblock. The sky isn't the summer blue, but a lighter, softer blue dotted with little fluffy white clouds and the occasional grey cloud that I chose to ignore. Things are getting green and other things are flowering. The air is drier (I actually washed clothes yesterday that dried in less than 24 hours) and warmer and heavy with the smell of spring. Cyclists have come out of hibernation and some are even brave enough to wear shorts and short sleeves. I assume they are mostly foreigners or ultra macho Italians. Regardless of what they're wearing on their bodies there are big smiles on every face. Mine too. I hope you enjoy our ride!

After the ride. I forget to take pictures before.
Also I think I should get some kind of
prize for wearing my Augsburg gear
absolutely everywhere in Italy
(an underdeveloped market for the college, I feel)

Thanks for riding with me. For every picture here there were a hundred that I couldn't take either because there was no safe place to stop the bike, or because every kilometer had something worth stopping for and I would have been out till dinner. Also no matter which direction I headed I was pedaling into the wind and I started to get tired. So unfortunately you can't see here the little stone churches perched on the side of the foothills surrounded by green forest, or how some of the hills looked like green quilts with vines planted to take advantage of every bit of sunshine, or how the sun sparkled on the water so brightly that it was sometimes impossible to look at the river without being blinded, or how calm it was riding through streets so narrow that cars pulled their side mirrors in before entering and still had to stop and pull over to let cars pass. I'll try and get those another day!

Monday, April 1, 2013


Finally, after two years of disappointment I was able to see the Scoppia del Carro, the traditional blowing up of the cart in front of the church here in Florence. I realize now that while I've talked around this topic a couple of times, I've never actually described it here. It definitely needs a little explaining.

It's a tradition that dates back (so they say) to the first crusade, when an Italian brought back three flints from Jerusalem as reward for service. A fire is started with these flints in the church where they are kept and then this fire is carried to the Duomo in the center of town in the cart (which seems a little dangerous to me as the cart is loaded to the scuppers with fireworks.) This tradition, in much the same form as today has been happening  for over 500 years.

White oxen decorated with the first flowers of the spring pull the cart from the westernmost city gate to the Duomo in the center of town accompanied by a hundred and fifty people in medieval dress. There's a band and flags and guards and of course the Ecclesiastical party that escorts the holy fire used to light the fuse.

Once the cart is parked in front of the church the more modern activity takes place, which would be using a boom truck to finish putting the fireworks onto the top of the cart. They piped music into the piazza from inside the church to make the process seem a little more almost worked.

There was one break in the drama. Someone missed their cue or the timing was off because there was almost a whole minute of silence between the final "Amen" and the ringing of the bells in Giotto's bell tower but as the first bells started echoing off the walls a fuse in the shape of a dove shot out of the church doors and into the cart, igniting the fireworks and then returned on the guide wire to the high alter in the church. 15 minutes of non-stop action followed. If all the fireworks go off and the dove returns to the alter Florence will prosper that year with good harvests and a stable community. If it doesn't....well, in 1966 it didn't and the city was devastated by flooding. Let's just say whether they believe it or not everyone does their part to ensure that the pageant goes off without a hitch.

The cart has been used for centuries.

Modern equipment make
it possible to add
even more fireworks.
Using what I assume to be the "ancient and
traditional ladder" to place even
more fireworks.

People dressed as medieval farmers
handed out flowers and eggs.

My dad thinks five miles is close enough to fireworks so I've always seen them from very far away. Today I was about 20 meters away from the fireworks. There was plenty of smoke, lots of ash and it was very loud what with the sound bouncing off all the stone walls and cobblestones. It's an interesting combination of ancient traditions tied to the earth and fertility held in front of and with the consent of the church. Completely worth standing in the rain crushed together with strangers to see a ceremony that has been performed for centuries.

Probably more smoke than they intended.

It's quite an impressive display of power
in front of the largest church in town.
As a little side note: I wonder just how many photos my hand and camera appear in? Ha!