Sunday, October 31, 2010

Last day in Florence

It rained all day today, so my poncho came in handy once again.

This morning we went to high mass in the Duomo. It was the first time I'd been to mass since a funeral several years ago. We've seen so much religious art and architecture in the past two weeks it seemed appropriate. It did feel weird, though. The printed service was in Italian, but most of the mass was in Latin!

Our last museum was the Bargello - with Donatello's David which is, according to Rick Steves' Italy guidebook "the very influential first male nude to be sculpted in a thousand years", plus works by Michelangelo and other artists. We had no tour guide for this one, so most of it was as unimpressive to me as other art I've seen. That's all me, though.

Tomorrow we leave for four days in Rome before we fly home.

You've probably noticed I'm a fan of Rick Steves. I logged on to his website yesterday and read that his company is looking for a copy editor to work on revisions of their 30 guidebooks and phrase books. His office is two towns over. I may apply for the job just for fun.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Getting comfortable with Florence

We had a couple of destinations today: the Galileo Science Museum, to the side of the Uffizi Gallery near the River Arno, and the Accademia, on the other side of Old Florence.

Art has been patient during our multiple museum/church tours during the last couple of weeks. So it was my turn during our time in the science museum. I listened to a Rick Steves podcast while Art read about the various instruments and gadgets from previous centuries.

This afternoon we arrived at the Accademia at 4 p.m., by which time our tour guide said there would be no line. Wrong. Art in his white jacket marks our spot after half an hour.

We did get in, though. After buying our ticket, we rounded the corner of the first room and there he was. Michelangelo's David. I'd seen pictures, but they didn't do justice to the real thing. I must have stared at the sculpture for 20 minutes. I'd never known David had a slingshot strapped across his back. Or that his hands and head were oversized because he was supposed to be on top of the Duomo, 200 feet or so above the ground, where his proportions would have seemed more natural. Or that for nearly 300 years he stood outside. Or that, from the side, his eyes are full of fear as he looks at Goliath.

The really cool part was that I'd given Art my iPod to listen to the podcast about the Accademia, which he did while we were standing in line. Then, when we went inside, he explained the place to me.

There are four incomplete statues in the space leading to David. They've been called The Prisoners because they look like humans trying to emerge from rock. That happened because Michelangelo didn't finish them. But it looks intentional. The man was a genius. I've already ordered "The Agony and the Ecstasy" to reread when I get home.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day trip to Siena

I am learning a lot about art in spite of myself. I found out that frescoes (essentially watercolors done on wet plaster) get dirty from burning candles in churches over centuries, so eventually they fade but can be restored. At the cathedral in Siena there was a room full of frescoes that was closed off for hundreds of years because it was never used. Eight years ago the room was opened up to the public, and the frescoes are as fresh as they were at the time they were painted. Here's a shot of part of the ceiling.

I've also learned about how two-dimensional art gradually yielded to three dimensions in painting and sculpture, but it took a while. This 13th century pulpet in Siena was revolutionary for its time. Part of the purpose of the art in churches was to teach the people, who were illiterate, the message of Christianity.

I have a new camera and haven't figured out how to turn off the flash, which isn't allowed inside the museums and churches, so these shots were taken by my husband Art. I've included them here as proof that we are, indeed, visiting the great churches and museums of Italy.

Siena was a big city in the Middle Ages, as big as Florence. Siena was located on the primary road to Rome but not on a river or coast. It was a banking city with a population of 60,000. After the Black Death ravaged a third of the population, Siena slept for several centuries. Today it is thriving - again with a population of 60,000.

Tonight, back in Florence, Art and I successfully navigated the city streets and found a restaurant recommended by a friend in Seattle. We've learned enough about the Italian language and menus to be able to order exactly the meal we wanted: a shared caprese (slices of tomato and cheese), individual bowls of Tuscan vegetable soup (base is black cabbage), and a shared chicken dish with lemon. Sounds like a small accomplishment, probably, but we've come a long way since our first meal in Italy ten days ago. We feel almost comfortable here now.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A full day in Florence

We had a fabulous local guide today for our time in the Medici Chapels and the Uffizi Gallery. He's an American teacher, an art archivist. Walking through the art in these buildings, he stopped at selected pieces and provided us a historical and artistic perspective. I never took an art class in high school or college - always went for the music and drama instead. I'm tempted to spend a few months in Florence and take every class he teaches! It makes a huge difference to understand what I'm looking at.

Between tours, we explored the public market - a lively place with the most tempting offerings. We decided against flowers, fruits and vegetables, but did pick up dry ingredients for pasta topping and a jar of truffles.

We enjoyed a rooftop lunch with friends. We laughed and chatted, most likely annoying the perfectly coiffed and dressed Italian women around us. Of the six of us, no one ordered a meat dish. We were ready for salads.

For dinner our group had big bowls of soup, stuffed artichokes(!) and custard tarts. It was the lightest dinner we've eaten in over a week. I asked someone in the group why we haven't seen any fat Italians. They said, "They're at home, eating." A good laugh. But my goodness, the food!

Florence, touring

Usually when we travel, we spend most of our time in small towns and in the countryside. When we were in the UK a few years ago, we spent a week 60 miles from London but only saw the airport. With a group, though, we go where the group goes.

So we're in Florence now. Beautiful city. Old. Famous paintings and sculpture and architecture. Gorgeous shop windows and interesting, tiny restaurants.

But also noisy, with motorscooters and buses and pickpockets.

Yesterday we walked with the group. With the day's theme "Florence in the Middle Ages", we visited San Miniato, a Romanesque church that stands atop one of the highest points in Florence on the south side of the River Arno. Quite a climb! We walked back down through the Piazzale Michelangelo, with its panoramic views of the city, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, and strolled through the city to the Piazza Santa Croce, where we had a guided tour of the church where we saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and assorted other famous souls.

I think I might be all cathedraled out!

Last night we had dinner "on our own", and we chose a little Chinese place next door to the hotel. Not exactly like our familiar place in Washington State, but good enough. And we don't gather with the group in the morning until 10:30, so we'll have plenty of time to sleep.

I love Italy and am glad for the city opportunity. But so far, my heart is still out there in the countryside of Umbria.
Just outside the walls of Florence

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Assisi to Florence

On the way to Florence, we took a ferry to Isola Maggiore, the only inhabited island on Lake Trasimeno, with a current population of 35. St Francis lived on the island as a hermit from 1211. Today it looked like an off-season place.

On the way back from the island, we mingled happily with a classful of Italian teenagers on a field trip with their mathematics instructor. They sang to us, we sang to them, we all sang together on "Yellow Submarine" and "Volare". Love the serendipity of travel!

We'll be in Florence for six nights, I think. The Strozzi Palace Hotel is a boutique hotel situated right in the oldest part of Florence historical center, in a lively pedestrian area. Art set out to do the laundry and I went looking for an optical shop to fix my glasses, which got sat on back in Orvieto. I got lost and ended up at the laundromat, where Art was holding forth with other English-speaking travelers while he waited for our two loads to be done. I went back to the hotel, took another look at the map, and found the optical shop.

Our group took a short historical walk on the way to dinner. There's a richness in this city we'll be exploring all week.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Francis and Assisi

For some reason I never knew St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy man and, in his youth, was a "bad boy". At a certain point he narrowed his goal: "to walk in the footsteps of Jesus".

Today we visited the basilica built two years after his death to honor him. One of the finest tour guides I've ever experienced - knowledge of Francis' life and of art. All delivered in a low voice into my ear via headphone. I converted to Catholicism as a young woman and left the church 20 years later after a divorce. Today I was reminded again of the simplicity of the original message of Jesus.

Assisi is a hill town, built on rock. The hills are mostly steep and, it seems, mostly up. We walked four miles today on a self-guided walking tour suggested by our Rick Steves guide to Italy.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant two alleyways away from the central square. The proprietor noticed my Rick Steves book, brought me eight business cards in a torrent of Italian I didn't understand. Except I did. She wanted me to get one of those cards to Rick Steves. If a business gets visited by him or someone in his organization, and gets included in a subsequent edition of the guidebook, the business will thrive. I told her I would take the card to him. And I will. His office is two towns over from where we live.

Tomorrow we leave for Florence and a laundromat!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Olive picking in Agello

Our tour guide Stefania lives in Agello, a tiny hill town in Umbria. She made arrangements for our group to pick olives and then take them to the mill for the oil to be extracted.

Before the olives are picked from a tree, a large net is laid down around it - kind of like a Christmas tree skirt. Then the olives are removed from the tree.

Branches can be shaken, or the olives can be picked by hand, or a special rake can be used. The laborer is my husband Art.

The olives fall into the netting and are then transferred into baskets for transport to the mill.

We watched the milling process and each participant received a bottle of brand new olive oil.

Usually when we travel, after five or six days I become so relaxed I feel boneless.

I am there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Travel day - Orvieto to Assisi

Traveling through Umbria today, we saw miles and miles of countryside that photos can't do justice to. I wanted to doze but didn't want to miss a single glorious scene out the window.

Our first stop was at a 12th century monastery converted to an Alice in Wonderland type place by an eccentric architect, owned for the last 22 years by a couple of men who reconstructed it, who now live there and give tours of the place. The architect had talent, but the outpouring of his creativity went into a place he never expected the public to see. It was a tribute to vanity and oddly disturbing to me.

Lunch was at an agritourismo place. The Italian government, seeking to save farms from being abandoned and falling into ruin, offered 150,000 euros to people who would move to the countryside, fix up the farms and develop some kind of business that would create jobs and contribute to tourism. This place was an idyllic restaurant. We had our usual multi-course meal: antipasto, first course pasta, second course meat dish, and dessert. This week I've learned to eat only what I really want of each course so I have room for the next. Even then, limiting my intake is a challenge.

We arrived at Assisi around 5. This is the place where St. Francis was born and is buried. Born to a wealthy family, he renounced the material and lived to serve the poor. Now, the entrance to the city is lined with tour buses and souvenir stands. The steep streets invite visitors to drink and dine and buy. I remarked to a fellow traveler that many have benefitted materially from Francis' presence in this place in the 12th century.

Our hotel is on a steep hill, midway up a flight of stairs. In all our travels, we've had only one hotel room smaller than this - in Dublin in 1999. We were also disappointed to learn the town's laundromat is closed until Monday, so we're washing the necessities in the bathroom sink. Add to that inconvenience the fact that I initiated conversations at dinner on both politics and religion with a couple of conservative fellow travelers. I should know better.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Field trip to Civita

We got on the bus today and took the slow backcountry road to Civita. Here's how Rick Steves describes it: "Perched on a pinnacle in a grand canyon, the traffic-free village of Civita di Bagnoregio is Italy's ultimate hill town....Civita is connected to the world and the town of Bagnorego by a long pedestrian bridge." The soft volcanic tufa stone is eroding, and sometime in the not-too-distant future the town will probably crumble into the canyon. In the meantime, though, it's a lovely destination.

I crossed the bridge by paying no attention to the canyon below me.

Once within the village, I didn't want to get too close to the edge.

Today we also visited Lake Balsena, Italy's largest lake formed in the center of an extinct volcano, and ate an extravagant dinner at La Bodia di Orvieto, a converted convent. A memorable day, our last in the Orvieto area.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Another day in Orvieto, Italy

Our first group activity this morning was a stop at La Bottega del Tortellini, a small pasta shop where the locals come to buy for their households. Three ladies work all day to keep the town supplied with a fresh product.

Then, off to the traveling market which spends Wednesday in Orvieto from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. We wandered among vegetables, household sundries and clothes. Scarves, it seemed, were the order of the day - five of my fellow travelers and I purchased these colorful accessories, draping them for each other and admiring the results. I am not a scarf person, but yielded to the serendipity of travel.

Our luncheon pizza was a thin, crisp support for fresh mushrooms, olives and beef - unadorned by the tomato sauce we see in the States. We ate it with a big bowl of bean soup. Delicious!

In the afternoon we walked to the other end of town and descended into St. Patrick's well. This multistory structure has two staircases in a double helix pattern - one for descent and one for ascent. Hundreds of years ago, donkeys and humans could go about their water-gathering activities with increased safety. The stairs are wide and shallow, the semidarkness now augmented by low wattage lighting.

Art then attended a cooking class while I took a nap.

Our multi-course dinner featured truffles sliced thinly over pasta, singing and laughter. Our group has coalesced quickly!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

First days in Italy

After a long day of travel and another long one of recovering from lack of sleep, we are participating in life again. We're in Orvieto, Italy. The medieval section is built on a volcanic outcropping - the land around it has eroded away, leaving this place with a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside.

Today we walked five miles, both within the town as we got the lay of the land as to how the city was laid out, visited its cathedral, and descended to a path that encircles the town at the base of the cliff. In his book on Italy, tour guru Rick Steves says this path is mostly level, but we found it a challenging climb in some places - and good exercise to hopefully walk off our first gelato.

Italian food is very, very good. I've learned already not to eat everything that's placed in front of me - servings are large and quality excellent, but unless I pace myself I'll outgrow every pair of pants I packed.

I'm glad I brought my laptop - way more convenient than descending to the hotel lobby to use the in-house computer. I don't want to keep a journal, then rekey it when we get home. And I find that I'm not thinking about when I'll have the chance to get to a computer. Whenever it suits me is a better arrangement.

We have 20 in our group and have learned each other's names. The usual collection of folks trying to get along, some more successfully than others. But by and large we're a congenial group.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My long week

So we're leaving for Italy on Monday. And I, a jeans and t-shirt person, had to figure out what to wear. It has been a long week.

First, I'm between sizes, so some of my travel possibilities don't fit right. I placed two orders to Travelsmith and four to LLBean. By yesterday I had returned everything except a thermal shirt. I won't tell you the cost of the return postage.

Then, the temps in Italy are going to be in the mid-60s next week, dropping to the upper 40s at night. Not shorts weather. But not wool either. That in-between place where "you just wear layers". And that means more packing, to make sure you get all the layers. And maybe warm weather stuff too, in case it warms up the week after next.

I finally found stuff at Chico's - a couple of shirts, a pair of pants, and a vest. That, combined with two pairs of Not Your Daughter's Jeans, a pair of cropped pants and a few other shirts that still fit, should do it. I may also throw in a light fleece hoodie I found at Goodwill (my first purchase there) and a heavier fleece hoodie I found in the hall closet. Especially now that I found out - by calling Delta, our carrier - that the first checked bag for international flights is free.

The shoes. Old shoes that, when I put them on early this week, weren't comfortable any more. They made my legs different lengths. Two trips later to the shoe store where I purchased them, I got a couple of lift adjustments and walked three and a half miles to make sure they'd be okay. I wish I could wear my walking shoes, but they're white, and I don't want to look too much like a tourist, even though I am one.

I can't believe I'm doing this. I am not a clothes person. I am not a shoe person. I hate to shop. But this issue kept me awake for two nights this week. And that is very embarrassing.

In the larger scheme of things, I know I am profoundly lucky. My biggest problem this week was my packing list for a trip to Italy. I'm very, very grateful.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Rainy night

I believe the rainy season is upon us. When I was still working it gave me the blues. So far this year, it sounds lovely falling out there as I sit, inside, in the warmth and light.

I spent the day at my first Habitat for Humanity build. Working for Habitat as a volunteer is one of the goals I set for my post-work life. I have no experience in construction whatever, but they were glad to have me. It drizzled most of the day and when I got home my hoodie was wet and so was the shirt underneath, and my face and hands were dirty. And I felt just fine, thank you! Tonight I'm a bit stiff, but I'll live - and I'm going back next week.

I spent most of the morning anchoring the ladder for a 20-something paralegal so she could use the palm nailer on the sheetrock. By the time she finished the job she trusted me - that I would stand there below her for however long she was on the ladder, and not get distracted.

In the afternoon I helped put up Tyvek - which I'd seen before but never knew about - by hammering nails into the midrange height. My ladder partner said, "Way to go, Linda!" Yes, I do know how to do nails. It's been a while, that's all. I'm married to a construction type guy, and whenever he sees me doing something like that, he takes over and finishes the job. So I'm glad he was home today reading the paper and taking a nap.

On the ESL front, I got an 89 on my latest lesson plan. In the olden days, this achiever would have considered an 89 a failure, but now I'm glad I passed the unit. I've got renewed enthusiasm for this course now that I've clarified that my goal is to tutor ESL rather than teach a class.

I had my annual physical yesterday, and my doc was delighted by my excitement over my new life. He has a patient who comes in at 80, still wears a tie and goes to the carpet store for a few hours a day because he doesn't know what to do with himself in retirement, while his wife sits there quietly and shakes her head when the doc asks her why they don't travel.

I was chagrined to realized that six weeks of eating what you want results in a six-pound weight gain. I asked the doc if it could be the low-dose hormones I started taking and he said yes, that could be. But that's rationalizing, I think. I'll see how I do over the next week or so when I'm paying attention to what I eat. I have choices in the food area as well as in how I spend my time.

We've ordered a weekly box of fruits and vegetables from a farm north of here - part of my new interest in community-supported agriculture. This week they delivered four carrots, two peppers, two plums, four apples, four pears, a head of lettuce, a cucumber, a zucchini and some kiwi berries. We left it all out on the counter in a virtual cornucopia, so we'd remember to eat it all, and tonight I broke my no-cooking rule and fixed stuffed peppers using leftover wild rice and chopped tomatoes from our garden and old swiss cheese from the crisper and black beans from a can. Wonderful, healthy and virtuous.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A simple day

We walked 1.75 miles this morning to an hourlong exercise class, then took a shortcut home and stopped for espresso. I drove to my old workplace to give blood, as I have done for years, and saw half a dozen people in the bus that I know. They all look stressed. My blood pressure was 108/68 and my pulse was 64! Sounds like no stress to me. I'm going to reduce my bp meds a bit and see how that goes. It would be lovely to get off them.

Stopped by my favorite shoe guy and left off the shoes I'm taking to Italy so they can be tuned up.

Finished up Module 5 of my ESL class and sent it off to my instructor, finally unstressed about the class now that I've clarified my goal of tutoring ESL rather than teaching. Weeded the garden for half an hour. Talked to my neighbor Jennie (the chicken lady) about a box of vegetables being delivered tomorrow from a nearby farm - we'll be splitting a box each week - and about the freezer we found on Craigslist now being installed/wired by Art, which will store the half grain-fed beef we're buying, also with the neighbors.

Looked at a couple of timeshare rental bargains. $229 for a week in February is a good deal, especially if it's in a place that's not raining.

Feeling the fall air, watching the sun go down, thinking about Chinese for dinner.

I had no idea, when I was working, how sweet a simple day can be.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Getting ready for the trip

Today it feels like autumn in the Pacific Northwest. I spent some time in the yard this morning, assessing what pruning and maintenance needs doing. The weather forecast calls for three days of sunshine - a big deal in these parts! - so Friday will be the day I harvest all remaining squash, tomatoes and green beans, pull up the greenery and divide it between the neighbors' chickens and the compost bins, and throw some winter crop seeds into the garden. On my to-do list for the next week or so is a half hour of weeding each day. I actually enjoy weeding from time to time, and this is one of those times. The lady who does our pruning will be over next week to tidy up the yard for the off season.

Our Maine trip is over, photos saved and thank you notes written, and we're now preparing for a trip to Italy. We leave two weeks from today. I just got back from Rick Steves' travel store, two towns over in Edmonds, where we bought two Continental electrical converters, a daypack, a raincoat in a pouch, and a set of packing cubes. I have two lists going: one "packing for Italy" and the other "to do for Italy". The shopping was first; next is making arrangements for a housesitter, having my walking shoes tuned up, and reading the Rick Steves guide to Italy so we have some ideas on what to do in our free time in Orvieto, Assisi, Florence, and Rome. Otherwise, being a timid traveler in places where English is not the native language, I'd be tempted to take a nap or read. I'd like to be a braver explorer on this trip.

The days are getting shorter, and usually at this time of year I turn on my bright light and start taking a homeopathic supplement so I don't get the blues during the winter. For some reason, this year I haven't done that yet. Part of the reason is that we'll be in Italy for 18 days. But part is that I don't have that trapped feeling this year. I wonder how much of my winter blues was because I was sitting in a cubicle at work looking outside at the rain. Or, if the sun did come out, I couldn't go out in it except at lunch, which might not be the sunny part of the day. I'm curious to see how this winter goes for me.

I'm grateful today for those of you who have commented recently that I seem to be on the right retirement track. It's very good to know I'm doing some typical things!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I'm getting it

During our two-week stay in Maine, I was without internet access most of the time, and I was without my to-do list. For the first week I was on a schooner, with other people around me. For the second week, I was in a quiet island house, where my biggest concern was keeping the laundry done, since I hadn't packed for the right weather.

My biggest concern was the laundry! That's a shift for the woman who went to work for the last time on June 25 and had a list of goals to start working on right away. In Maine, I had nothing but time. In spite of myself, I used that time to slow down and consider where I am now, three months into not working.

Here's where I am now. I still have a to-do list, but the only things I do - unless I feel like it - are what absolutely needs to be done: pay the bills, file amended tax returns, and reread my writing group's collaborative piece in time for our Tuesday night meeting. The rest of my time is open for whatever I say "yes" to.

For some reason, I'm surprised to be doing more writing. It wasn't on my list of goals on June 25. I've been writing for years, doing not much with it, so I hadn't given it any thought when I was setting my goals. However, I am committed to saying "yes". And the writing is coming up more often in my list. (1) Blog today (2) Work on the piece about the schooner crew - which idea came to me when I had no intention of doing any writing (3) Look into self-publishing the Vietnam memoir written in 2006, which I spent a year and a half writing and then never sent out because it didn't fit any writing market I could find.

Maybe it's because writing requires chunks of time, and I never had that before. Or because writing is hard, and working on spreadsheets is easy. Or because productivity looked virtuous.

One of my goals on June 25 was to learn to teach ESL. Since starting my online course, I've been procrastinating, which I don't usually do. I've now realized it's because I don't want to teach. I just want to help learners. I'm finishing the online course, but there's no fear now, because I've more accurately assessed my ESL goal. I probably don't ever want to stand in front of a class again. But I do want to sit at a table with someone who wants to learn. See, I'd misstated my goal. Multiple friends, both online and face to face, have made that gentle suggestion. When I was in Maine, I got it, and I feel much better.

Another of my goals is to work with Habitat for Humanity, and I'm participating in a build on October 9 and October 16. I knew I needed to get in shape, and I had ideas for a rigorous exercise program. What's actually happened is that, when we were in Maine, we used our feet and public transportation to get around. Last week we walked 32 miles, but it wasn't to get the exercise - it was to get to town or the library or the farmer's market or the LLBean outlet or the Apple store at the Maine Mall. And we carried our luggage a bunch. So, in the course of my life I got my exercise. Not in the course of going to the gym. This seems more sensible to me, but of course I didn't get it before because my time was taken up with all the things I had to do when I was working.

I have a retired friend who said, "Don't squander your time." I used to think that meant to keep busy. Now I think it means use the time well - whether that means taking a nap when I'm tired, spending time in conversation with friends and family, or playing a game of Sudoku each morning. Or taking time to slow down and consider where I am now.