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:

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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

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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 (https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/la-cucina-nuova/, 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.

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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:

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I considered this one of the top finds in my wiring “collection” because of the incredible jumble — just out there…..exposed 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?????

Customer Service – Italy vs US

I’ve mentioned this topic in several different pieces, but I think it’s important enough to have its own blog.

To reiterate:  Most of the businesses we see in our area are small, family owned and run…..whether they’re restaurants or clothing shops or the little grocery stores called alimentari that were surely the inspiration for our 7-Elevens. Even most of the hotels in the smaller towns are family owned.

If you go to a hotel regularly in the US, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see the same face twice. In Umbria, you would become alarmed if you didn’t find the person you expected behind the counter because it could only mean that they were dead. You would probably know them by name, as well as the names of their children. They would have your passport information on file and know which room you preferred. The closest we get to that in the US are our B&B’s.

The same goes for restaurants. The waiter in the first restaurant where I ate in Orvieto 21 years ago is still there. It’s not a place we go to often, so I’ve never gotten friendly with the man, but I’m sure that when we do eat there, it clicks in the back of his mind, as it does in mine, that we’ve been seeing each other for an awfully long time.

The service people in Italy have pride in what they do; it’s a respected career, not something to fill the time and wallet while waiting for “real” life to begin. Whether or not they are a family member, they still treat you like a guest in their home, because where they work is their home. And like a good guest, you should give them the courtesy of a greeting when you enter, and patience if they can’t get to you immediately.

Occasionally, however, you will run into a family member who truly should NOT be in the service business. We have one near us who is legendary for his lack of hospitality. Anyone reading this who has spent time around Orvieto knows this man well. Upon entering, he will immediately make you feel like an unwelcomed guest who has ruined his day by your very presence in his restaurant. His body language lets you know that he considers you totally unworthy to eat the delicious food that comes from his kitchen, and if he could, he would return to watching TV with his back to you in hopes that when he turned around again, you would be gone. Fortunately, the rest of his family members are incredibly nice and the food is so good that the restaurant warrants the return customers and packed house that it has most days.

While this man is the exception to the nice-people-in-small-business rule, his ilk can be easily found in the larger chain stores – particularly those in the shopping malls that seem to have mysteriously appeared along the autostrada recently. I’ve never found the kind of department store in Italy that I’ve seen in the US, England, France or Germany, but the closest is a chain called Coin. I’ve been to Coins from Torino to Palermo, and not once have I ever gotten the correct information about whatever I was looking for. If they are out of something, it would never occur to them to see if more might be coming in at some future date, or if they have an alternative. It seems their training stopped right after: “We’re out of those”. In the US, department stores have a disarming number of people whose only job is to ask if they can help you. At Coin, as soon as the sales people see customers, they scurry away to an agreed-upon hiding place, where they stay until the customers get tired of waiting and leave.

Large grocery stores are the exception to the big-store rudeness; people there are always helpful and they know what they’re doing.

So….what’s the bottom line on all of this?

– Smaller places are more fun than big ones.

– Be courteous to the people in small businesses. They work long hours in their shops and appreciate a greeting and patience.

– You will probably be disappointed in a large store, so if you must go, set your expectations low.

– You can raise your expectations up if the large store is a super market.

– It is possible to overlook rudeness, but only if there’s REALLY good food at the end.

Which just goes to show you that somehow, whenever you’re talking about Italy, it almost always comes down to food……

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 (http://www.myvillageinumbria.com/2012/11/the-fruits-of-our-labor-olive-harvest.html).

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,

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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).

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Changes – 2014

Thought I’d fill you in on the changes I found when I returned to Italy this year.

First the Rome mime/living statue update:  You might remember from past pieces, we had:  perfectly still Statues of Liberty; golden Egyptian mummies; and the guy who looked like he was dashing to catch a train, with his coat and tie flying back, his arm with the briefcase swinging forward. I don’t think I told you about last year’s team statues. Picture a swami sitting cross legged on the ground in a long orange robe, with one arm held straight out, holding up a thick pole at the top of which is another swami dressed in the same kind of robe, sitting up in the air in the same position. Very dramatic. They’re still around this year, but have been joined by the headless men in suits and ties. The tops of their real heads are hidden just below the shirt collars, and above is a thin metal wire framework made of line-drawing-like features of eyes, eyebrows, hat, etc., which jiggle as the man moves. We actually saw a group of the headless men, and I think they must have been in training, because one of them was having a difficult time breathing through his shirtfront. I’m not sure he’s cut out for the mime business…..at least not in Rome, during the summer.

As for Orvieto – there were only a few changes that I could see. First would be that there is now an overabundance of underwear shops on our version of Main Street – 3 within about 100 feet. There was a shop front being redone within that 100 feet, and everyone was hoping it would sell something other than underwear. It turned out to be a gelato shop, which now makes 3 good ice cream shops within 100 feet. I think we can all agree, however, that 3 gelato shops are much more meaningful to everyday life than 3 underwear shops.

And speaking of stores – awhile back I wrote a piece about the possible future effects from a large new grocery store that had opened in one of the 3 little towns at the base of Orvieto. Well, we returned this year to find that our favorite grocery in another of the towns, the Coop, had opened its new store in our area’s first “mall” complex. As malls go, it’s not particularly impressive, but it pretty much has 1 of everything – women’s clothes, men’s clothes, children’s clothes, shoes, jewelry, coffee shop and a fairly large electronics store. The problem for the mall employees is that when they were individual stores, they closed during the afternoon – just like most small shops still do up in Orvieto proper. However, now that they’ve joined the mall concept, they have to stay open all day, which certainly must take a huge toll on their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, back up on the rock, Sidis was our only full grocery store up until a year ago. Since it was the only game in town, it could choose to close from 1:30 to 5:30 every day, and all day Sunday. Last fall another grocery, Meta, opened – staying open all day and till 1 on Sunday.  Sidis had to follow along.  You can definitely see where all this is leading. If ever I see a 7-Eleven and can get milk anytime I want, I might just have to reconsider my choice of where to spend half the year.

I was looking forward to trying a new restaurant people were talking about that had opened after I left at the end of October, and was surprised when it closed before we got the chance.  To go to the trouble of refitting a beauty parlor to open a restaurant during the winter when business is notoriously slow, and then close it in the spring, before it picks up again seems….to say the least….odd.  I’ll leave it up to you to try to come up with a scenario where that makes good business sense.

The biggest change for us, however, is that we got a new bed. For 6 years, we’ve been sleeping on what could be the most uncomfortable bed this side of a bed of nails. Calling it either “firm” or “hard” would be overly generous. It was much less comfortable than sleeping on the tile floor, and you always woke up with something hurting….your back, your shoulder, your neck, your hip. There was no such thing as making it through the night unscathed.

As you might remember from my 8/17/11 blog (“La Cucina Nuova”) – the first thing we did when we moved into our rental apartment SIX YEARS ago was put in a new kitchen. We don’t cook. But we do sleep – or at least try to. And yet it took SIX YEARS to finally have the light bulb go off above our collective heads with the idea that perhaps a new mattress and bed might help to make us a bit more perky and less grumpy in the morning. So while I hate to be selfish, the most important change as far as I’m concerned is that we sleep soundly, smile more, grumble less….and we don’t need nearly as much Advil.

 

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:  https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/siena-palio-participation/?preview=true&preview_id=672&preview_nonce=4efddfc7cc&post_format=standard

 

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.

Pull-offs

Back in the days when hilltop towns were built, the word “picturesque” did not play a role in the urban planning decisions.  Defense was the name of the game, and it was a very deadly game if your enemy from the next town over broke through your barriers.  Being up on the top had the advantage of making it difficult for them to sneak up on you from a visual standpoint, as well as from a physical standpoint.  It’s tough carrying a battering ram uphill, and since the marauders’ efforts would probably be accompanied by the telltale sounds of loud grunting and grumbling, their evil intentions would have been announced before they’d gone 50 feet.

Today’s invaders of Italy’s hilltop towns come by car, bus, bike, and in Orvieto’s case, a funicular……and rather than plundering, they leave money in exchange for goods and services, and frequently use the word  “picturesque”, as well as “beautiful”, “well-preserved”, “magical”…..and will often throw in witty, original phrases like “they sure don’t build them like they used to”.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Iconic Sites in the countryside (https://halfyearitalian.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/iconic-sites/), and in that piece I mentioned what my friend Lou considers absolutely necessary when you’re in Italy:   getting THE “Chamber of Commerce” photo of those towns lucky enough to have had forefathers who weren’t afraid of heights when they started building.  Today’s smart town governments, wanting to entice tourists to come and “invade”, know — just like beautiful women know — which is their town’s best side for a photograph.  Some are thoughtful and make it easy for you to get a great shot.

For instance, several years ago Orvieto installed a paved pull-off to allow people to safely park their cars so they can take THE perfect photo of the family with Orvieto in the background….or perhaps just THE perfect photo of Orvieto….without the family.  The picture in the masthead above is from this lookout.  Once you’ve taken the photo, the town hopes your next step is to visit and drop a few euros here and there.  A beautiful view can be a great marketing tool.

The Chamber of Commerce photo of members of my particular family with the ever-beautiful Orvieto in the background.

The Chamber of Commerce photo of some of my family members with the ever-beautiful Orvieto in the background.

Lou knows his “Chamber of Commerce” views.  His beloved Pitigliano has a great pull-off, and you can’t imagine how much it annoys him if someone sneaks in and out of town on the “wrong” roads so that they miss getting the perfect picture. I’ve included a lot of these Chamber of Commerce photos in my past blogs, but just as a refresher:

THIS is Pitigliano's correct side.

THIS is Pitigliano’s correct side.

Lake Bolsena, near Orvieto, has 2 paved pull-offs along the road leading down to the town and the lake. With views like this around every corner, 1 just wasn’t enough.

Cindy and Stephen (who had gorgeous weather) at the lower Lake Bolsena pull-off.

Friends Cindy and Stephen at the lower Lake Bolsena pull-off.

While some towns haven’t gone to the trouble of helping their tourists with an official pull-off, over the years, discerning travelers have worn away grassless, gravel-covered spots next to the road.  VERY GOOD ADVICE:  Pay attention to these unofficial pull-offs because they quite often mean there’s a photo waiting to be taken.

Montepulciano looks good from several sides, so I guess that’s why the town does not have an established view.  My favorite is this one with the characteristic San Biagio church below on the right.  Others must agree with me, because there are at least 3 gravel pull-offs along this road.

Montepulciano

Montepulciano

You can see in the picture of Pienza below that I wasn’t the first person to think this was a good spot.  Just in front of where I was standing is proof that enough people wanted that particular shot that they’ve made a small unofficial pull-off just big enough to get their rears out of the road on the curve.

Pienza

Pienza

And then there’s San Gimignano with its trademark towers.  Like Montepulciano, there are several beautiful approaches, but all of my pictures are like this one…..way off in the distance, over fields or vineyards.  I don’t have any close-ups.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

And the oddest thing is that if you take the most direct route from the main highway, you don’t get a view at all; you just go around a lot of uphill turns and suddenly you’re there. If I’m in the car, I always make sure my friends arrive via the less direct route. Yes, it takes a bit longer, but the back roads are so sparsely traveled that you can safely stop almost anywhere and take a photo.  After all — as Lou has taught me — friends don’t let friends go home without proper Chamber of Commerce pictures.

Expectations

Often you don’t think about a topic until someone asks you a specific question and they expect a reply.  For instance, I’ve had people ask if spending half the year in Italy has lived up to my expectations. In trying to come up with an answer, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t had a lot of expectations, and most of the ones I did have somehow got all switched around.

For instance – I thought my Italian would be MUCH better by now.  Of course I’m slightly better than I was 5 years ago, but my rate of improvement is at the same pace as a couple of corals getting together and becoming a barrier reef.  If I keep going as I am, I’ll be 160 before I can easily hold a real conversation.

The switch to my expectation, however, is that I really enjoy the process of learning Italian.  I absolutely adore Eva, my teacher at I Love IT, and learn at least 4 things that are interesting….though not necessarily linguistically useful…. in every class.  However, it’s all at the “theory” level.  I even enjoy doing the homework and am really disappointed when she says there is none (my classmates hate me).  I can see myself taking lessons for years to come.  On the other hand, if I truly wanted to learn the language, I’d be out there in the street with Italians, talking to everyone I could, engaging in conversations just for the sake of speaking, listening to practical, real-life Italian.  This is what Alan does and the end result is that he’s always given the Italian menu in the restaurant while I’m politely handed the one in English.  This doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it should IF my true intention had ever been to speak fluent Italian.

The whole social aspect of being here is something I had never carefully considered. I did not expect just how active the life has turned out to be. Since I thought my Italian would be better, it stands to reason that I probably also thought I’d have more Italian friends than I do.  However, there are a lot of English speaking people around Orvieto, and it’s an incredibly warm and welcoming group — probably due to the fact that they’re here because they’ve chosen to be.  They weren’t born here, they don’t have family here, they’re not escaping from anything; they’re here because they love Italy and want to spend time absorbing whichever part of the culture they find interesting.  As a result, this group is comprised of people with a much broader range of interests and expertise than my friends at home, who tend to fall into a range very much like my own.  And perhaps most important, here we make time to enjoy each other’s company.  I don’t know what it is about life in the US, but it seems to ALWAYS be much busier, and I don’t see friends nearly as often as I do when I’m in Italy.

We haven’t taken advantage of Orvieto’s central location to travel as much as I thought we would.  There are still so many parts of Italy we want to see, and as for European countries — we seem to return to the old standbys: France and Germany.  We did hit Slovenia this year (FABULOUS!!!!), but that still leaves about 2 or 3 lifetimes’ worth of other places to try.  When my elderly beloved cat Orson was with us, I could blame him for our not traveling more….not wanting to leave him in the care of the only kennel in the area.  But now that he’s been dead for 2 years and all we have to show is a couple of trips back to Germany and a few days in Slovenia, I have the feeling it was somewhat unfair to blame him in the first place.  I would like to believe that in 2014 we’ll get slightly more serious about branching out a bit more….although I thought the same thing about 2013. I’m not sure if this particular reality of our life in Italy can be labeled “unrealized expectations”; more likely, it’s just plain procrastination.

Of course I expected that I’d like living in Italy for longer periods than just a vacation, or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of setting up camp an inconvenient 9-hour flight away from home.  I’m happy to report that in this case, my enjoyment is MUCH more than I ever expected it to be.  I never dreamed that I would feel as “at home” in Orvieto, nor miss it as much as I do when I’m back in the US.

The only downside to this back and forth is my ever-deteriorating relationship with US Air.  My expectations of them were never lofty, and unfortunately, they were right on target:  cramped, uncomfortable seats that get more cramped and uncomfortable with each trip, along with inedible food that somehow manages to become more inedible as the years go by.  Yet as the plane descends and I catch my first glimpse of the Italian landscape, the pains leave my joints, and I can almost taste the meal I’m planning to eat at my favorite restaurant that night.  I’m able to put my abusive USAir relationship behind me and get back to good friends, gorgeous countryside, my lovely town and Eva’s homework.

Dinner with good friends.

Dinner with good friends…..

Gorgeous countryside you can see right from the parking lot.

Gorgeous countryside I see right from the parking lot……

The always lovely Orvieto....

The always lovely Orvieto…..

The I Love IT gang.

And the I Love IT gang….waiting for me to return to more homework.

25 Years of Changes

It’s been 25 years since my first trip to Italy, and 19 since I first visited Orvieto.  I, of course, have not changed AT ALL during those years, but I started thinking about some of the ways Italy has changed.

First of all, there was almost no English spoken – at least not where I went 25 years ago, which was to Venice and Capri.  I was in that “uber-American” mood, so I didn’t enjoy those 2 beautiful places nearly as much as I should have.  For instance, there were NO cruise ships in Venice.  It was peaceful and elegant, and I should have taken advantage of being able to wander alone through its quiet streets, because now it’s almost impossible to avoid the hordes of tourists who get dropped off every day.

My friend Lou was along on my second trip, and he quickly whipped me into shape as far as appreciating Italy for being Italy, instead of expecting it to be America with an accent.  It’s been love ever since.

By the time of my first trip, Lou had been visiting for 20 years, so he really knew his stuff.  He told us where to stay in Capri, and the reason he chose that hotel was because it had the best air conditioning he’d ever run across in all his visits.  To us, it was only slightly better than being issued a hand-held paper fan.  But at the time, it qualified as “best ever”.  Today, hotels have wonderful air conditioning systems, where you can have your room as cold as I have my home in the US – the “meat locker” setting.  Many stores and restaurants are still back in the paper fan days, but hotels have come a long way.

And speaking of hotels – both their beds and showers have changed.  25 years ago, most mattresses were soft and saggy, and you almost always woke up with a backache.  Now they tend to be so firm that I often wake up because whatever part of me is next to the mattress is numb.  In general, numb is better than a sore back, however, so I score another point for Now.

Showers could have been a lot of things back then.  Some were hand-held nozzles in a bathtub that had no curtain around it, meaning water was pretty much everywhere by the time you rinsed off.  The very worst were shower heads in the ceiling or wall, a drain in the floor, but no lip to hold the water and no slant to guide it down the drain.  The success of this arrangement is based totally on the how good the drain is, and even now Italian drains tend to be sluggish, so there was almost no chance of taking a shower without having several inches of water covering the bathroom floor and seeping into your bedroom.  The next step in shower evolution was the VERY small stall.  You still see these occasionally.  Some were so small you would have to step outside to retrieve your soap, should you drop it.  Still….it was an upgrade and your bedroom stayed dry.  Today, stalls are normal size and if you have a tub, you usually have some kind of water shield – even if it’s just a glass panel that protects only half the length of the tub.  Today is DEFINITELY better than Yesterday.

Sticking with the bathroom theme – one thing that has not changed is that almost no hotels have face cloths.  I know that many people do not use them for bathing, but I do. It’s one of the top 3 things I tell people when they say they’re coming to Italy for the first time:  If you use a face cloth, bring it!!!!

A huge change is that many homes, and even some restaurants and hotels – particularly in the countryside – now have screens on their windows.  This was totally unheard of 25 years ago.  Our apartment has large windows and it would be very difficult to install screens, so in effect, I still live in the past.  I’d like to modernize, but I’m sure we’d miss all those fluttering insects that like to gather around our lamps at night.

As I’ve mentioned, my first trips were all bike trips, so the roads were of utmost importance.  Here I have to give points to 25 years ago.  Financial crisis, government indifference, corruption…. probably all of the above…. have led to a deteriorating network of back roads.  The other day, I drove on a road where I used to bike, and while the views are still gorgeous, now the only place that wouldn’t be like riding on a washboard is the center of the lanes.  It is one small step up from being a dirt road.  On the other hand, the Autostrada – which, as you might recall from my last blog, I despise – has a surface that is in much better shape than any of the major highways around me in the US.  It’s not cheap – almost $20 round trip to go to Rome (an hour away) – so you pay for that great road surface while the free back roads turn into gravel.

Italians adore grumbling (don’t we all???), and I think that when it comes to what’s happening with their economy, they have the right to grumble.  However, things look much more prosperous than they did 25 years ago.  Italy did an enormous amount of restoration and clean-up work prior to the Year 2000 Jubilee celebration.  Buildings black with age suddenly had their golden stone revealed.  Frescos that had been abusively touched-up over the centuries were expertly taken back to their original colors. There’s been an increase in flower boxes adorning houses and businesses.  And the piazze are more user-friendly (…….except for our Piazza della Repubblica, of course, which is still human-hostile).  When we first settled in Orvieto, we had good friends who would describe their house to newcomers as the only one on the street with clean stonework.  Now they have to give first-time visitors additional directions because several other houses are looking well-cared-for also.  

A photo of a shop on Piazza del Duomo, taken in 1994.

A photo of a shop on Piazza del Duomo, taken in 1994.

The same shop in 2002, with the soot removed.  Today there are more flowers, but no photo.

The same shop in 2002, with the soot removed. Today there are more flowers, but unfortunately, no photo.

+++++++++++++++

So while there might be a few differences, from a tourist standpoint it seems that most of Italy’s changes have actually enhanced the things that bring people back time after time.  Certainly for me, this relatively quiet evolution has kept me returning for 25 years ….and I have my fingers crossed that sometime in the next 25 years, those back roads will be returned to 1988 standards.