The Ex-Pat Community

Expatriate (Merriam-Webster): living in a foreign land.

When I think back at how I envisioned my life to be while staying in Italy for months at a time, “people” never played a particularly big part in any of my mental scenarios. I’m sure I expected that this many years out, my Italian would be MUCH better than it is, and I would have more Italian friends than I now have. And that might have been true had I chosen to live in a smaller town in a more remote area where if I had wanted to communicate with anyone, I would have been forced to learn their language. But Orvieto is close to just about everything, making it a great place for stranieri (foreigners) to hang out. And let’s face it:  1. fortunately for me, the most common language for all travelers these days is English; and 2. everyone automatically defaults to the language they can most easily use to discuss whatever topic they choose. (I tell anyone annoying enough to whine when the message “Presione dos para el espanol” comes on an American voice system to stop being so ethnocentric and mean-spirited, because I’d be in heaven if Telecom Italia offered that service.) The result has been a diverse array of friends and acquaintances who are much more fun than I could ever have imagined 9 years ago.

The most unifying thing we all have in common (other than English) is that we’ve chosen to be here. Usually people are where they are because they were born in the town, or moved there because of jobs — their parents’, their spouse’s or their own — or want to be near someone else who’s living there – like children and grandchildren. The closest thing I’ve seen in the US to expat life here is a vacation community, where people have decided a geographical area suits them and they move there.

What sets apart living in Italy (and probably any foreign country, for that matter) is that the stranieri are not all Americans. Here I have friends and acquaintances from England, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Cameroon, New Zealand, Australia, India and Canada. While some still work, most are retired. The Orvietani are not known in Italy as particularly friendly people and can consider anyone from 5 miles away stranieri. So there are also Italians who fall into the expat classification – from Rome or Venice….or the village 5 miles away….and we can add them to the mix. Stir these different origins, life experiences and perspectives together, and you really have to look hard and long to find boring conversations. In fact, if you do find one, you probably brought it with you.

True — from an international standpoint we only had 1 English and 2 Italians at this particular dinner, however the chef was from Holland, his wife was Irish/Australian and they, along with the Italian restaurant owner, were presenting us with a Thai dinner.

And again – size plays an important role in making this very pleasant social scene. Towns around our size are large enough to have attracted a critical mass of expats without being overrun by them, but are not too big to prevent the mass from ever reaching that all-important critical stage, as Rome and Milan might be.

But how do you find people to hang out with?? Well – our particular expat community is very adept at passing people along. I can trace all the people I know to one particular incident that happened in 2006 – before I even thought about living here – and the generosity of one couple – Candace and Frank – who had been introducing people to each other for years before that. All you need to do is get into a conversation with someone who looks like they know the town, and they’ll perhaps tell you about a group aperitivo gathering that evening, where someone else in the group might suggest heading to dinner after, at the end of which someone who just joined the table might suggest plans to get together that weekend for a meal in a nearby town close to the sea, after which………  You get the idea. And then one day you’ll be having un caffe and some English-speaking people — who could be from anywhere — will sit next to you and you’ll start talking and find you enjoy them, and you’ll invite them to an aperitivo gathering of friends that evening……………  And it starts all over again.



Parco Sculture del Chianti

I absolutely ADORE sculpture gardens – the idea of very creative people making something none of the rest of us could ever imagine, and putting it in a setting that opens their idea to all that nature has to offer. So when Alan came across a past New York Times “36 Hours in Chianti” article that mentioned the Parco Sculture del Chianti near Siena, I immediately put it at the top of my “To Do” list for our short visit to that area.

I was not disappointed. It’s FABULOUS!!!! What is disappointing, though, is that no one we talked to knew much about the park…..including the people around Chianti….even though the National Geographic had it as one of “The 10 Best Sculpture Parks” in the world. I presume those in the art world are familiar with it, but since I think it deserves a MUCH wider audience….an audience I’ll call “everyone I know”….I now consider it my duty to tell you, as well as anyone I might meet, all about it. In fact, I was able to start spreading the word the night of my visit, describing it to strangers at the table next to ours during dinner, even though they were heading back to Scotland the following day. No one will escape my enthusiasm!!

First — all the background I know…..which, lucky for you, isn’t much. The park is on 17 heavily wooded acres – a parcel that was bought by contemporary art lovers Piero and Rosalba Giadrossi for the express purpose of turning it into a sculpture garden. The land was absolutely perfect because it had been a wild boar farm, and therefore was already completely fenced. Although not a large property, the 1 kilometer path meanders down a hill, over a bridge crossing a small ravine, and up the other side…..the perfect distance for even non modern art lovers to enjoy a nice walk with wonderful surprises tucked among the trees.

How were the pieces on display chosen, you might ask.  Well, the goal was to have works from artists in countries not usually associated with large sculptures, and who, though known in their country, were not particularly well-known outside. So while many came from the US and Europe, they also have artists who call Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, S. Korea, Turkey and Singapore home.

Another consideration to the decision process was that the materials be different, resulting in pieces made from rough stone

Keel -- a self-explanatory name

Keel — A self-explanatory name

and rust-coated metal


Chianti — Think wine barrel without the barrel, and with wine making miscellany suspended inside

to highly polished stone


I don’t know the name of this one, and I really can’t explain it except to say that I was in a narrow space where the outside is reflected in the stone.

and finished metal,

Off the Beaten Trail

Off the Beaten Trail



Teak — This one had even me scratching my head. It’s pieces of teak tied to the indigenous oaks. Perhaps it’s meant to represent “2 diverse cultures tied together”.  Still….as a work of art, it’s certainly not going to have the same longevity as Keel….meaning at some point in the future, it will represent “2 diverse cultures disintegrated by time”.



Energy — This was by far my favorite, and there’s no way a photo can do it justice. Think of it as a glass cypress tree. It had to be constructed on the spot, with its central pole being buried over 6 feet in the ground. Its only problem: it’s impossible to clean.


Rainbow Crash

Rainbow Crash — After all the pieces that blend into the woods, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon this.

and combinations of all of the above.



The Giadrossis live across the street from the park in a gorgeous home/museum/gallery built out of a former terra cotta factory. Each artist came to stay with them to visit the park, soak up the atmosphere for inspiration and decide exactly where they wanted their piece to go. I was lucky enough to speak with Dr. Giadrossi when I visited the museum/gallery and he said there were very few of the artists’ ideas he and his wife turned down. He also mentioned that while the artists were completely different from each other, the one common thread they had was that all 25 enjoyed drinking. He didn’t exactly say that it was a requirement, but I got the impression that he felt inspiration was considerably enhanced when sitting around the table enjoying a glass or 2 of Chianti Classico.

I asked how the pieces were installed. Some were built back in the artist’s own studio and shipped whole to the park, while others came in pieces with explicit directions for assembling. I picture this as bringing home a box for an Ikea cabinet, but with a vastly more interesting finished product. In several cases, the artist had to come back to supervise the installation, and in a few (like Energy), the pieces themselves had to be produced on the site.

The whole point of a sculpture garden is that the setting itself is an integral part of the artist’s work. So while I have shown you photos of a few pieces, a photo can never represent more than about 1/8 of the actual experience. Imagine walking up the drive to the museum/gallery and coming upon this:

The Milk Factory

The Milk Factory

or this in the back yard of the house:


Of course, it’s nice to have a “back yard” that’s big enough for these giant peppers….

The Chianti region of Italy, between Florence and Siena, is one of the most iconic and most visited, and since you need a car in order to enjoy its lovely small towns and drop-dead gorgeous countryside, plug Parco Sculture del Chianti into your GPS. I’m betting that night at dinner even those of you who normally hate regular museums willl be pestering the people at the next table….telling them that they simply MUST go.


Wiring Medieval Italy

When you get off the elevator that takes you from the parking lot on our side of Orvieto up to the town itself, this is what you see:


And you’re so focused on the totally confusing map on the wall, trying to figure out how you can get to the Duomo (NOTE: The map will not help you get there) that you would never think to give attention to the wall itself, and even if you did, there’d be no reason to notice what else is on the wall other than the map. But look more closely at the photo. See the wiring? It’s everywhere. It connects this building with the one next to it as well as the one across the street. And then who knows what wires connect those buildings to others nearby. It’s like a web woven by a spider who spent too much time in Haight-Ashbury during the 60’s.

These wiring webs are to be expected in a town whose buildings often have walls a meter thick. In fact, the wall in the photo and the building we live in are both part of the same former religious complex, which according to the sign on the front, was built in the 13th Century. (Those who know me well are no doubt amused at the irony of my ending up in a former religious complex.) You can see in this photo of one of our windows


that the there’s quite a bit of distance between the edges of the outside and inside walls – in this case just over 3-1/2 feet. I don’t know why the discrepancy, but the back wall of our apartment is only 2 feet thick. If the walls were built for defensive purposes, then perhaps they didn’t think the enemy (or since it was a religious building — the devil) would come from that direction.

In any case — back in 2011 when I told you about our new kitchen (, should you care to refresh your memory), I explained how difficult it was to move a light fixture or electric outlet from one wall to another, and if it was that difficult inside, it would be pretty much impossible outside. Hence, wires strung everywhere.

Here’s a photo I took from another window, looking at the inner convent courtyard.


You can see wires bound to other wires, wires resting on wires, conduits that might or might not have wires running through them. And if you think that’s a lot of wires, here’s the front of a building on the main street of town:


I considered this one of the top finds in my wiring “collection” because of the incredible jumble — just out there… to the elements….exposed to vandals….exposed to whatever evil might befall such vulnerable threads of technology. Can you imagine this passing any kind of building inspection in the US? In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t pass an inspection here for a more modern building.  And yet, I’ve not heard of one case of any kind of damage being done to property or people due to the entire infrastructure being, in effect, stapled to the outside walls. I don’t know how old this particular building is, but considering ours is well over 700 years old and has probably endured at least 100 years of electronics, I’m not going to worry about the frailty of Medieval buildings; I’m just going to enjoy my new hobby of seeking out more pieces of wiring artwork.

And as for finding the Duomo – forget the map; it will just give you a headache. Better to ask a real person for directions. And then you can enjoy your stroll around town, discovering your own favorite wiring masterpieces to go along with all those guide book “suggestions”. You can now use “wiring” as still another excuse for visiting Italy’s beautiful Medieval towns.


My Annual Question

It seems that every time I return to Italy after a few months in the US, I can count on something new in town that leaves me asking, “What the hell were they thinking?????” This year’s “something new” is that the mysterious “they” – in their infinite wisdom – decided to put an electric car recharging station in the Piazza della Repubblica.

To refresh your memory – 2 years ago I wrote about the fact that “they” had managed to do away with traffic in this poor piazza, while at the same time, making it much LESS inviting. When I wrote that piece, it never occurred to me that in 2015, it would look exactly as forlorn as it did in 2013. The best that can be said for “them” during the intervening period is that “they” have at least managed to water the few sparse plants they’ve scattered around, rather than having their planters full of dried twigs.

As you can see, lots of space, very little in the way of comfort or greenery.

As you can see, lots of space, very little in the way of comfort or greenery.

And now, rather than doing some small thing to enhance this poor Cinderella of Orvieto’s 4 main piazze, they put in an electric car recharger.

I asked friends if somehow during the short time I was away, Orvieto had been swept up in the electric car craze, but no – none had been spotted in the area and an Italian friend estimated that there were probably less than 1,000 in the whole country.

Someone suggested that the government was just being pro-active…..anticipating the day when electric cars will be as common as cell phones. This was amusing for several reasons:

First — being pro-active does not come naturally to Italians in general (you only go to the dentist when you have an excruciating tooth ache….and it better be REALLY excruciating), and pro-activity in the government is for all practical purposes totally nonexistent.

Second — politicians always claim the treasury has no money, so if they were ever going to start being pro-active, why would their first attempt be something that is so uncertain and so far in the future.  It’s like putting money down on the venue for your daughter’s wedding the day she’s born.

Third — by the time electric cars enjoy any kind of popularity — assuming they ever do — this particular recharging station will be an unrecognizable pile of rust.

Years from now, this will be proof that at one time, the recharge station was bright and clean.

Years from now, this photo will be proof that at one time, the recharge station was bright and clean.

OK — then perhaps the electric company, ENEL, funded the installation. Hmmm…..I still have to go with the rust and disintegration taking over before they ever see 1 of the Euro Zone’s equivalent to a penny.  Besides — they certainly would have had to get permission from the town, so at most, they would only deserve half the blame.

But let’s move on from why this was done and look at the logic of placing it in the Piazza della Repubblica.  Traffic can only go around a small edge of the piazza. To their credit, they did have the foresight to put the recharging station in the line of traffic, but the station has only 2 allotted spots. What happens if – miracle of miracles – electric cars really DO take off. What would you do if you pulled up and the spots were being used? You can’t park and wait your turn because this not a parking piazza. There are, however, 2 other piazze that you can get in and out of much more easily, that do have parking available and that would be much better places to put recharging stations…….IF one is ever needed in the town center.

The 2 parking spots, right in front of the bank.  You can recharge while getting money from the ATM,

The 2 green (get it????) parking spots, right in front of the bank. You can recharge while getting money from the ATM.

So as of now, my conclusion is that this decision to put the station in Piazza della Repubblica was misguided whether electric cars are the next smart phone or a quickly passing fad. Which gets me back to my original question: What the hell were they thinking?????

Cultural Differences

It’s always helpful to participate in a few of the cultural differences you’ll find when visiting another country — particularly if they’re easy to do…..not something like having to cheerfully eat sheep eyeballs. Here are just a few easy-to-adopt suggestions for Italy.

Actually, this first one is for both Italy and France: Acknowledge the shopkeeper when you enter her/his shop. Unlike in the US, where you’ll probably never see the person waiting on you again, most of the people behind the counter are the owners — particularly in the smaller towns — and they’ll be there day after day. It really is their second home, so be as courteous as you’d be if you were their guest, and give them a hello when you enter and a goodbye when you leave.

Restaurant etiquette #1: Don’t just sit down. Wait for someone to direct you to a table.

Restaurant etiquette #2: The first question you’ll be asked is what kind of water you’d like. They do not ask IF you’d like water. The answers are naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling). (You could also say gassata, which means the same thing.) Since these are both mineral waters, acqua minerale is not a helpful answer. Unlike in Germany or Switzerland, where we’ve paid up to $10 for a bottle of water, you seldom pay more than $2 in Italy. I suppose you could always say you don’t want any water, or just a glass of acqua di rubinetto (tap water), but….well…’s not often done…..and aren’t we talking here about cultural differences you want to practice?

Restaurant etiquette #3: Just like the shops in the smaller towns where the owners work all the time, the restaurants are also mostly family-run. You will often see 1 person doing the job that would be done by 3 or 4 people in the US. So be patient. The same goes with the food. Mamma or nonna might be alone in the kitchen churning out all the meals. Good as she is – it’s impossible for her to have the plates for a table of 4 come out at the same time……

Restaurant etiquette #3-A: ……And since you should eat your meal at the proper temperature, it means people should start as soon as the food arrives and not wait for everyone to be served. I know it seems impolite to us, but to Italians, it’s even more impolite to disrespect your meal by not eating it as it should be eaten.

Restaurant etiquette #3-B: When I said “proper temperature” in the previous paragraph, I should point out that Italian food is normally neither very hot nor very cold. You MIGHT burn the roof of your mouth on pizza cheese, but that would be the only real possibility. Even coffee will be served so you can drink it now rather than having to wait 5 minutes to let it cool down. And as for chilled foods – I’ve seldom had either my white wine or my acqua frizzante as cold as I like them….not that I’m complaining. “Moderation” is the key word when it comes to “proper temperature” for eating…..

…..And “moderation” is also the word when it comes to drinking. If someone is loud and drunk, there’s at least an 80% chance the person is American, and a 99% chance they’re not Italian. Italians have been drinking since they were children tasting Uncle Giovanni’s homemade wine at family dinners. It is a part of everyday life, and they respect it as such. With our history of restrictive drinking laws, our young people often go wild once they hit Italy. If there’s a broken bottle in the street, there are probably American fingerprints on it. While American youth often look at drinking too much as being the measurement of how much fun they’re having, Italians learn early that being drunk is brutta figura, which loosely means appearing in a way that will be looked down upon – and that’s something NO Italian wants.

Last on today’s list is Lane Discipline. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but it won’t hurt to remind you that on the road, you pass on the left, drive on the right. You should NOT get in the left lane and clog traffic for miles behind you. If you aren’t actively in the process of passing someone, stay on the right.

So — I don’t think any of these nods to Italian culture fall into the eating-sheep-eyes category,  In fact, now that I’ve re-read them, I see that it’s more like saying “please” and “thank you”.  Maybe your mother really was right:  it’s all about good manners.




Fiumicino (the airport, not the town)

Landing in a German airport after the chaos of Rome’s Fiumicino airport is like going from a crowded, humid, sweaty subway up into the fresh, clean countryside. I always fly in and out of Fiumicino, so perhaps the other Italian airports are havens of calm and comfort…..but I wouldn’t bet on it.

To give you a bit of perspective on Fiumicino, there are 3 main interconnected terminals where you catch your flight, cleverly named Terminal 1, 2 and 3. And then off to the side – away from those, in a separate building — is Terminal 5, which is only for US and Israeli airlines. It has an extra layer or 2 of security.

Terminals 1 and 2 are for airlines from the rest of the world outside of Italy, and the only times I’ve used them was to take an Air Berlin flight to either Munich or Hamburg. Needless to say – everything was very organized, the people were friendly and helpful, and it was a pleasant experience – except for the fact that Italians in general do not like air conditioning, the result being that the airport is kept at a sultry 80 degrees in summer.

Terminal 3 is just for Alitalia, and you can count on there being at least 3 times as many people as the authorities would deem safe. So in addition to the 80-degree setting on the thermostat, you also have the heat generated by giant herds of very frustrated people. Italians have this reputation of being incredibly friendly, but those friendly Italians do not happen to work at the airport. I think you have to pass a sulking test to be hired. The employees all give off vibes that their lives would be so much better if it weren’t for these needy tourists flocking into their terminals…..expecting help…..if you can imagine such a thing.

When I used to take my beloved cat Orson back and forth, I had to fly Alitalia from JFK — 2 hours away….traffic willing. Philadelphia airport is only 20 minutes from my house, but USAirways – the only non-stop to Rome – in an effort to endear itself to pet owners worldwide, does not take any animals anywhere it flies at any time. But at least when I got there, New York’s Alitalia was surprisingly well-organized.

Fiumicino’s Terminal 3 Alitalia, on the other hand, gives you the same calm feeling you might have if you were stuck in the middle of Time Square’s New Year’s Eve crowd. To be honest – I do occasionally exaggerate a bit, but this really is the procedure I had to follow when bringing Orse back to the US: Let’s think of Terminal 3 as one of the long New York City blocks….say between 5th Avenue and 6th Avenue. After we entered at 5th Avenue, Orsie, luggage and I had to muscle our way through the tightly packed swarms of people to check in for the JFK flight, which was, of course, on 6th Avenue. When they saw Orson, they would give me a slip of paper acknowledging that I had a cat, which I had to take back to a counter just inside the entrance at 5th Avenue to pay for his “ticket”. This could not be done when we were originally passing by that exact counter; I had to get the paper from the check-in counter first. So I would go to 5th Avenue, pay the extra money, go back to 6th Avenue, and only then would they give me my boarding pass and put a notification on Orson’s cage that he was official. I would then have one final trip to 5th Avenue because that’s where the station was to drop Orsie off to be taken to the plane.

When coming to Rome, you come through Terminal 3 Arrivals, because it has the custom and immigration people who have never looked at either me or my bags.  The very first time I took Orse to Italy, I had no idea where to pick him up, and the “friendly Italians” whom I asked had me running from one baggage claim area to another because Italians have a difficult time saying “I don’t know”, and they’d much prefer to give you a wrong answer than no answer at all.  I finally found him tucked away in a dimly lit corner. On the other hand, I saw this in the Munich airport:

Munich airport

Munich airport

And if you should miss this highly-visible, easily-understood sign, I’m pretty sure that any of the smiling airport employees would know exactly where you could find your pet or bicycle.

After Orson died, I went back to the convenience (not to be confused with comfort) of flying USAir, which means I now have much less legroom, and I leave Rome from Terminal 5. The first time I was there, I thought it was a bit creepy to enter the huge entrance room and see machine gun-armed guards patrolling above us on a catwalk just below the ceiling. Now if you see someone up there, they’re probably changing a light bulb. Because this terminal serves so few airlines, it’s relatively calm and orderly, and has the added benefit of being cooler than 80 degrees.

Since Terminal 5 is set away from everything else, they have a shuttle to take you to the plane-boarding area, which is fairly new and has shops from a lot of the high-end names – Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, etc.   It’s a somewhat pleasant way to say arrivederci to Italy. The last time we were there, we were standing at a counter having our final caffe`, and we could hear rain pounding on the roof. Suddenly, water started pouring out of one light fixture after another, as you can see in Picture #1.


Picture #1

Picture #1

Picture #2

Picture #2


Picture #2 gives you the over-all scene. Everyone scurried away from the seats, there was water everywhere, and someone thoughtfully placed one very small red pail where it would definitely NOT catch any of the rain. The high-end shops were not immune from the leaking roof, either, as I saw the sales person in Gucci manning her mop. This is the showcase terminal for one of the world’s most important cities.  As we were snapping our photos, we noticed that the others doing the same thing were all non-Italians. The Italians? They just shook their heads and wandered off to find a dry seat, muttering “e` cosi`” — which loosely translates as “that’s just the way things are…..”  I don’t know what the equivalent phrase would be in German, but my bet is that they seldom need to say it and if they ever do, it would definitely not be in one of their airports.

Olive Oil Season

My favorite seasons to be in Italy are Spring and Fall. The weather is usually (but not always) wonderful and the countryside is (always!!) gorgeous.

Another important factor is that there’s enough daylight to see and do the things you’ve always dreamed of seeing and doing. That changes at the end of October when the clocks Fall back. 20+ years ago I was on a bike trip with a truly terrible touring company where daylight savings time ended in the middle of our trip. Had it been a better company, the guide would have been prepared and the routes would have been changed to accommodate less daylight. But this guide had been used to even the slowest of bikers finishing their rides in plenty of light, and he was totally unprepared for people straggling back in the dark. And believe me – there were some VERY unhappy stragglers!

So when I hear people planning a trip after the time change, I’m somewhat less than enthusiastic. How can they have the long, leisurely lunch that’s such an enjoyable part of any Italian vacation? They’ll be finished just in time for the sun to go down and won’t be able to see anything on the ride back to their hotel.

But I changed my mind after I stayed a bit longer one year, and ended up in Orvieto for the olive pressing. I have to admit right up front that I cheated. I did not participate in the olive harvest. I’ve heard it’s much more arduous than the vendemmia for grapes, and our friend Liz’s first-hand-experience blog will tell you all about the harvest part (

I was there to reap the benefits of others’ hard labor. Our friend Brian told me about a frantoio (olive press) in Monterubiaglio, a very small town outside Orvieto. It was early November and the olive harvest had just started. All I wanted to do was buy a few cans to take home, but once I saw the pressing process, I had to hang out there for the rest of the day.

As Liz says – the olives are brought in (by appointment), weighed and crushed. In picture #1,


you can see the bin of olives on the right, going up the chute to the rotating crushing stones. If you look at the metal cylinder sticking out from that blue thing between the 2 men, you can see the crushed olive paste coming out to be placed on a round fiber mat. The mats on the left have already been squeezed. The men discard the olive residue in the wheelbarrow in front of them, spread another helping of paste on now clean mat and pile it on the cylinder on the right. At regular intervals, they put a heavy metal disk between the mats. When the stack finally gets impossibly high, they wheel it over to a hydraulic press (pictures #2 & 3).



IMG_0036Even before they move it, the oil is starting to seep down the sides because of the weight of the mats and metal disks. The press takes about an hour to compress that tall stack into something a few feet high (photo #4).


The oil is pumped through a centrifuge to get rid of all the stuff that’s not oil, and then this heavenly day-glo green liquid comes out for us mere mortals to enjoy (picture #5).


Since the oil is unfiltered, after a couple of weeks, the particles begin to sink to the bottom of the can and the neon green color starts to fade. So I’m not saying it’s impossible to get this in the US, but it would be difficult to find and very expensive because it would have to be shipped immediately after the pressing and not wait around in a warehouse somewhere.


You can buy excellent oil — both filtered and unfiltered — produced by the same method; the label should say “first cold pressed” in addition to “extra virgin”.  Yes — it will be delicious, but it won’t have the same pure taste you’ll experience if you’re right there.

My afternoon ended with the head of the frantoio inviting me to sit at a table overlooking the operation while he toasted several pieces of bread. Normally, bread in Umbria and Tuscany is not very tasty because tradition dictates that it not have salt (a centuries old grudge about a long-forgotten salt tax), but drizzling a bit of this gift from the gods over the warm toast transforms it into one of the best things you’ll ever eat.


Why am I telling you about this now when the harvest is 3 months away?  I’m simply trying to provide a reason why you just might want to put a November trip to Italy on your calendar.  And you won’t mind your drive home in the dark one little bit.


You know how you can have a really good friend, and they have another really good friend, and it seems like you would also be friends with their friend…..but it just doesn’t quite turn out that way, and you never really enjoy being with your friend’s friend? Well – that’s what happened to us with Palermo.

This was Alan’s first trip to Sicily, and while it was my third trip – I’d never been in Palermo, so we were looking forward to discovering it together. We’d heard good things about it. We both love big cities.  And you might remember how enthusiastic we were about Napoli* – the town most often compared to Palermo in terms of its chaotic disorganization. But whereas Napoli’s confusion seemed to have a sense of joie de vivre mixed into it, Palermo’s just seemed mean-spirited.

As everyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows – museums are not our thing, and food definitely is. Palermo came at the end of our Sicilian trip, and up until then, I had eaten perhaps better than I ever had on vacation — anywhere. Our hotel was in what appeared to be a delightfully restaurant-intensive neighborhood, yet our meals – even at the restaurant that was recommended by a knowledgeable local — turned out to be mediocre at best. Lunch, aperitivi, dinner…..the only things that were even half as good as things in the rest of Sicily were a few of the pastries with morning coffee.

The “warm, friendly Siciliani” that you always hear about were all outside the city. Customer service? No sign of it in Palermo. Pride in the city’s buildings and monuments? We saw none.

The center of the town is a crossroad called the Quattro Canti, which has matching buildings on the 4 corners representing Palermo’s 4 districts. You would think the roads radiating out from this important intersection would be at least marginally cared for. But just a few blocks away are the remnants of what looked like World War II bombed buildings. We had heard there were still some around, but we certainly didn’t expect them to be in the town center.

One of the 4 corners of Quattro Canti.  Think "shabby chic".

One of the 4 corners of Quattro Canti. You might generously call this “shabby chic”.


This however, is just a few feet away and only be described as shabby -- no chic.

This, however, is just a few feet away and can only be described as shabby without the chic.  And it was one of the better buildings.

There are 2 open-air markets – the Vucciria and the Ballero’. The Vucciria market is known for its street food – tripe, grilled spleen, skewers holding bits of this organ or that –which makes it sound like a very interesting place to visit. The Cadogan guide book on Sicily says of the Vucciria: “The market comes into its own after dark, when it is illuminated by strings of bare light bulbs; the pungent odor of the Vucciria at the end of the day lingers in the memory like no other smell in Palermo.” Perhaps Saturday was the wrong night, because it certainly had not “come into its own” while we walked its winding lanes, and the only memorable smell was of urine, which I kept hoping would not linger.

The Ballero’, on the other hand, really was a very interesting market. Almost all of the other street markets we’ve visited have the various products grouped together. But the Ballero’ – in keeping with the theme of disorganization — had gorgeous fruits next to fresh fish, next to a table selling cigarettes or old CD’s, next to cheap shoes, next to more gorgeous fruits, next to meats, next to……. You get the idea. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the arrangement, but if you looked long enough, you could find whatever you wanted…..although I must say we didn’t see any spleen.

Perhaps if we liked museums we could have found some interesting ones, and we would have felt better about the town. We did find a few nice parks (with the ubiquitous graffiti on their fountains or statues), and a few lovely tree-lined blocks of high-end shops. But they weren’t enough…..not enough to make us forget that we had not one single entertaining personal encounter with a Palermitano…..not enough to excuse the amount of decay that exists, even in the newer construction….

Recent construction across from our hotel, on a very nice street.  Imagine buildings in not so nice areas.....

Recent construction across from our hotel, on a very nice street. Imagine buildings in not so nice areas…..

……and certainly not enough to forgive the fact of not having even 1 meal that rose above Olive Garden standards.

On our final morning in town, we headed for Monreale, a close suburb, to see the fabulous mosaics in its beautiful cathedral. As I was walking toward the church, a pigeon pooped directly on the front of my clean white shirt. I could not stop laughing because it so perfectly represented our stay in Palermo. Never let it be said that I’m one to ignore a sign from god. We got the hell out of there and drove to beautiful, friendly, Cefalu’, where we had an absolutely wonderful dinner for our last night in Sicily.

Next time I’ll tell you all about the great things we found during our vacation. It’s a safe bet that Palermo will not be mentioned…

*In case you want to revisit our adoration for Napoli:

Italian Paranoia

We have friends who have a house in an extremely small hamlet just outside of Orvieto. They wanted to have some carpentry work done, and when they told their neighbor that they were going to use someone from Orvieto, he gravely warned them that they should never trust any workmen from Orvieto.

This kind of paranoia is quite common. People from one town almost never trust the people from the next town over. It’s been going on for so many centuries that it has probably evolved into an actual gene that now gets passed from one generation to the next. A bit of history helps to explain this.

Americans tend to think of Italy as an old country – not realizing that its unification just happened in 1860. The reason for this lack of awareness is we stopped hearing much about it after we got through learning about the Roman Empire (history class), or Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Latin class), or the Italian Renaissance (art history class). But when the Roman Empire fell, the resulting pieces were taken over by a variety of groups. Sicily and the southern provinces were invaded by a succession of foreign entities such as the Arabs, the Normans and the Spanish, to name just a few. In the north, the larger, more powerful cities became city-states – making their own rules and enforcing them with their own armies. Sometimes a few would band together to wreck havoc on a neighboring city-state they felt was out of line.  However, like global politics today, the enemy of my enemy becomes my friend, and the opposite is also true; if my new friend decides to change and become a friend of my enemy, he will automatically become my new enemy. So you could never really trust your neighboring towns since loyalties could easily switch back and forth after the various cities’ leaders had a long weekend of partying together and perhaps passing a bit of money under the table to one side or the other.

Two prominent enemies from antiquity were Siena and Florence. They had many battles over several hundred years, with Florence winning the last one, thereby becoming what I would call The Victor. However, you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to a Senese. All they ever talk about is the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, and the reason they talk so much about it is this was their one major win and they did it through treachery – thereby increasing its story value. (As an aside – my poor Orvieto happened to be fighting with the loser in this particular battle.) You would think that after 784 years, the Senese might give their boasting a rest….but you’d be wrong. Though no arrows and swords are exchanged between the 2 cities today, you will always hear from the Fiorentini how poorly the Senese speak the noble Italian language…..or from the Senese how poorly those Fiorentini drive, etc., etc., etc.

In my piece about Siena’s Palio*, I mentioned that in the hierarchy of Italian relationships the family is always first and foremost.  Second would be the town IF it’s a small town. If you’re in a larger one, your loyalty is to the neighborhood that lays within the sound of the bells from your particular church.  This is call campanilismo  — from the word campanile, meaning bell tower.  Third is the larger town itself, followed by the region and at the very end – the country. A French person generally thinks of him/herself as being French; Italians think of themselves as being Napolitani or Lucchesi or Veneziani. Their only time for nationalism is during the World Cup. This means that those of you coming to Italy this summer will find a lot more Italian flags around than you would have last summer or will next summer.

So you can see how centuries of never being able to count on anyone outside your family or close neighborhood would breed a form of national distrust. I mean after all — everyone in Umbria knows that those people from Perugia have always been thugs……

*If you’d care to refresh your memory — here’s the link:


Building Materials

For years I’ve been fascinated by the different building materials used in the historic places I’ve visited.  It makes sense that the villages and towns would have been made of the most convenient materials laying around.  If you’ve got a forest handy, you’ll have log cabins; if you’ve got rocks littering the field you want to plant, why not pile those stones into shelter; if you’ve got clay-based soil, bricks would be your material of choice.

My interest was originally peaked on my first bike trip to Europe many years ago.  It was in the Cotswolds — not too far from London, and known for its warm, golden indigenous stone.  EVERYTHING was made out of Cotswold stone.  I have no idea what the rules are today, but back then, I believe you had to use Cotswold stone, even if you were only building a doghouse.  So the overall effect is seriously harmonious.

The great thing about bike trips is that you see a smallish area very well.  So I started noticing that the stone got darker as we made our way from south to north.  Our last hotel was in the definitely darker-golden town of Chipping Campden, and on a free day a couple of us decided to bike further north to Stratford-upon-Avon.  There was no sign designating an official border, but suddenly EVERYTHING was red brick.  It was almost an assault to the eyes after having spent so many miles surrounded by warm gold.

Since that trip, I’ve tried to be more aware of the differences in buildings.  And Italy has some prime examples….starting with my beloved Orvieto.  It’s made of the same tufa rock that the town sits on, so when you look at it from afar, as in the masthead photo above, the buildings seem to rise out of the soil.  Here’s a photo of Lou’s town of Pitigliano — 32 miles away:

Lou's Pitigliano

Lou’s Pitigliano

I have always thought that it looked like Orvieto’s little cousin – first because of the building material and how the houses grow from the base, and then the fact that for hilltop towns, they’re both pretty flat. Since Orvieto is in Umbria, however, Lou constantly tries to pooh-pooh this comparison between my town and his little “Tuscan jewel”, as he thinks of it.

Other nearby examples:

About 25 miles from Pitigliano is Saturnia, with its decidedly gray stone.

Saturnia walls

House fronts in Saturnia

Todi is only 23 miles from Orvieto, but look at their pale golden stone versus our darker golden tufa:

Cindy and I in Todi

Cindy and I in Todi

You can see Assisi from Perugia, 15 miles away, but Perugia’s stone looks just like Todi’s, while Assisi’s is a warm pinkish gray/tan that is by far the prettiest in the neighborhood….or maybe any neighborhood for that matter.

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Getting out of my immediate area – towns at the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily have more than their fair share of volcanic rock.  Here’s a church in Randazzo utilizing it.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of a building that dark, but I do see the practicality in using what’s readily available.

Randazzo, Sicily

Randazzo, Sicily

And finally – a story to demonstrate the difference in mentality between what Europeans expect of their buildings versus how we look at ours today:

I was in the Loire Valley region of France, visiting the Abbey de Fontevraud – notable for having the tombs for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband, who – surprisingly — ended up being King Henry II of England (ah…..those were the days……).  A young guide was showing us around, and when we commented on the beauty of the abbey, he said how distressing it was that it had been built of stone that required a good bit of upkeep.  He made it sound like the original builders had used a water-soluble mortar that needed to be redone every year.  But here are the facts:  the building you see below is the abbey kitchen, which was completed in 1160.  Now I’m sure there have been numerous repairs done over the last 854 years, but nevertheless – it has been 854 years!!!

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

I wonder what people will say of our buildings when they visit them in 2868.