Thursday, March 26, 2009


Allora is Italian for all-righty-then. You have no idea how often the word is used. You are a native Italian speaker about to give directions or to attempt to translate a difficult concept to a non-Italian speaker. You take a deep breath. Allora, you say, and then you explain yourself. You are a judge on the Italian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire (which is a team sport!) and you are about to ask the 10,000 euro question. Allora, let’s get started. You are a waiter in a trattoria. Your pencil is poised above your notepad and you look expectantly at your customers. Allora again.

In Canada we say “So” a lot, but there is something much more satisfying with the Italian equivalent. Allora is like smoothing out the tablecloth before you sit down to do your taxes. It’s a soothing word, a word that suggests whatever is to come can be managed, a word that encourages the speaker and listener to roll up their sleeves and try to sort it out. There may be 1000 blue pieces in this jigsaw puzzle, but, allora, let’s begin.

Try to say the word. Drift for a moment longer than you think you need to on the “o” and don’t hurry the “r” either. The o is the o in the word low.

Italians, they tell me, have lower rates of stress because they mingle business and pleasure. Add the word allora to your own inner conversation, to what you say to yourself when you are about to face a challenge. Use it to replace the four-letter words that come to mind, and watch your tension ease. Allora. Anything is possible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ah, Florence...

I have Italy withdrawal in the mornings and not every morning. The worst was the second morning home, when I went to get groceries at a jetlaggedly early hour and found myself tearing up next to the display of balsamic vinegar. “I was there,” I thought to myself. “And now I’m not.” I held the tears back as I stopped to buy a pair of cappuccinos on the way home but I burst into tears and laughter as I handed one to my husband. “A nun made it,” I sobbed. “She insisted I bring it to you.” There haven’t been tears since that day, but odd images pop into my mind in the mornings – the red rectangular button you press on a Florentine bus to let the driver know you want to get off at the next stop. “If I know how to do that,” I reason with myself. “I should be there, shouldn’t I?” While we were in Italy, we discussed the question of whether we would become one of those pretentious, but utterly correct, people who sigh and say, “ah, Firenze...” or whether we would accept that we really are Anglophones who would sigh and say, “ah, Florence...” We decide to be the latter, but the sighing persists anyhow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things We Learned

Traditional balsamic vinegar is not the stuff we think of as balsamic vinegar. It is thick and is sometimes almost as old as we are. It is made through a long process of transferring vinegar to smaller and smaller wooden barrels. New barrel sets are started with the birth of each daughter. Balsamic vinegar farmers always have a day job because the process is slow and not labour intensive. Many people in Modena and Reggio-Emilia have barrels in their attics.

It isn’t worth driving along the coast of the Mediterranean unless your prime interest is seeing restaurant after restaurant in long narrow lots that obscure ALL VIEWS OF THE SEA!

Italian drivers are surprisingly predictable, if aggressive. Truck drivers are accommodating and stay in the right hand lane. Vespas are scary and I’m just glad we didn’t kill anyone weaving in and out of traffic on the roundabouts.

You can drive through a mountain for two kilometres.

Our kids rose to the occasion of our absence. Our parents were wonderful to the kids. God answered our prayers. We felt home was in good hands.

There are smart, sensible, useful ways to build strollers and bicycles so that they are useful for life in all weather and needs.

The city of Parma is not fond of prostitutes so they stand on pastoral country roads, day and night, waiting for truck drivers. They build little fires to stay warm at night. They keep me awake thinking of them at night.

I am glad it is not my job to dress like a gladiator and wait for people to take my photograph. Seriously. That is someone’s job.

People are kind. Especially Marco, who met us on a scary roundabout, took us on a guided tour of Modena, charted and paid for a fabulous Modena meal, and presented us with bottles of balsamic vinegar.

It’s nicer not to be crammed into the middle seat for a transatlantic flight.

Wine is cheaper than water.

Traveling is not cheap, even when you take buses and walk everywhere. It is false economy to skimp on good food though.

Exploring a country is a lot of fun.

We really like each other. After almost 18 years of marriage.

And we are a great team.

Things We Never Learned

Is tap water safe to drink in Italy? We were always, always offered bottled water.

How to say simple connective words like after and before in Italian

How to use our phone card

How Italian game shows worked. And if they were meant to be funny.

The nuns’ real names

Misspent Youth

It is embarrassing how little I know about ancient history. Really, really embarrassing.

TIP: If you go to Rome, bone up a little on ancient history or you will end up like me saying “Wow! That looks really, really old. Wonder what it is...”

Pathetically embarrassing.

Perfect Day of Pasta

Wherever I go, I love to see how people live, and cooking and eating are among the best ways to be part of someone's ordinary life. Dave and I were excited to go to Italy for the food every bit as much as the art. We decided early on that we were interested in taking a cooking class while we were in Italy - to be able to bring skills and taste home with us. We looked at all sorts of classes in Florence - we could spend our whole time abroad studying how to be chefs (and spending our children's inheritance as we went!) Finally we discovered The Accidental Tourist and it sounded like a great fit: for a very reasonable price, they would pick us up in Florence, drive us to an old farmhouse, teach us how to make pasta and feed us the pasta as part of a Tuscan lunch, before driving us back to the city.

Perfetto, as they say in Italy.

That it would be a great fit was confirmed when I sent an email to book our spaces in a class, and the enthusiastic response was: Canada! We love Canada! If you bring us maple syrup, we will trade it for our olive oil.

Our kind of people indeed!

Majla, the brains behind the operation, picked us up in her car and drove us to an ancient farmhouse ("Most of the house is over a thousand years old, but the kitchen is only 850 years old," she explained, while we swallowed our New World tongues in shock.) En route, we talked about our families, our soccer-loving sons and why she encourages her son not to play soccer ("It's like a religion here - they end up as underwear models!") and what looked to us to be suicidal Vespa drivers. ("Fewer of them die than you would think. And each one dies only once.") She pointed out the lack of suburbs around Florence, how the line between city and country was abrupt. She talked about the care that has been taken by small villages to prevent urban sprawl that could destroy the land they depend upon for their olives. Passionate about preserving a culture and its food, Majla herself returned to Italy after a decade in the United States when she inherited a house with a tower. Now, after eleven years of juggling her business and her family, her enthusiasm has not diminished. She talked about the lower rates of depression in Italy, about how Italians mix work and pleasure - and how her business was an example of that. (She also talked about why she moved to the USA and what she missed about it: opportunities for her children, all-day breakfasts, efficiency, the ability to move around, cruise control.) She told us about real Italian olive oil - how the best of it is hand picked from steep slopes, pressed within 48 hours of picking, never heated (even though that increases the yield dramatically) so that the taste and healthful properties remain intact. She says that the olive oil we will take home with us is never sold overseas, that there is never enough even for the local families. All this we learn while negotiating winding woodland roads where fields and groves fall away from us into beautiful sunlit valleys.

Majla is the first person we have met in Italy who speaks fluent English and we ask her about the weather forecast, so we can plan our next few days. She laughs and says that weather in Italy is always "variable", influenced by the water that surrounds the country and the mountains that climb up its length.

We arrive at the ancient farmhouse and are greeted by its owners and their cat, who pounces each time the wind rustles the grass. Our fellow pasta-chefs-in-training have opted for the full day with the Accidental Tourist and are not yet back from the morning wine tasting. Majla sets us up at a stone table outside where we can watch the clouds stream past the hilltops and trace the road we have come from. She brings us a bottle of fresh red wine, two tumblers and a plate of bread drenched in olive oil and salt. She apologizes for starting late but we have not a single regret as we eat and drink the most delicious simple meal.

Finally the others arrive and we meet Alex, our young teacher. A musician by night, Alex shares tour duty with his father, which enables them both to stay in the region that is home to them. We begin to realize how important place is to Italians, all day breakfast notwithstanding.

We slip into the cool basement of the farmhouse and don aprons. There are ten of us: four Canadians, two British, and four Americans. Alex walks us through each step (I am sworn to secrecy about the process. And really you must go and try it yourself.) with good humour and good teaching. We laugh and make friends. Our first accomplishment is to make spinach-ricotta-parmesan ravioli and then we use the rest of our dough to make fettucine. Alex says we are quick learners.

Majla takes our pasta upstairs on trays to Christiana, the lady of the house and a cook among cooks. (A recipe she sends me later of one of the dishes she made for us says of basil, "For God's sake, do not use dried basil.")We talk and sip more wine from brilliant mismatched turquoise glass tumblers. We find seats around a large oval table that takes up much of this "new" kitchen. Christiana and Alex start us off with a zucchini frittata and a cauliflower dish as antipasti. There is much debate about which one is better - and no clear winner. ("Do people in Canada talk so much about food?" Majla wants to know later. We consider this and tell her some people do, but that our fallback topic is the weather.) This is followed by squares of pizza, and then comes our pasta: the fettucine has been tossed with the lightest tomato sauce, with a hint of olive oil and hot pepper, while the ravioli have been cooked and then rolled in butter melted with sage leaves. We are magnificent chefs - with Christiana's additions. There may be another course before Alex finally clears our plates away and washes them in the sink, but I cannot remember it. He takes orders for coffee and brings us tiny cups of espresso while Majla passes us bowls of frozen tiramisu.

We all bow down to Christiana who smiles. She loves to cook and loves having her cooking appreciated. Majla shows us gifts that have been sent to Christiana by her fans around the world. Christiana may appreciate the rasp the most, but I liked the little statue of Barack Obama.

On the way back to the city, I tell Majla we won't possibly be able to eat supper. She says that everyone always says that, but she suspects we will. She wants to know later, wants me to tell her when I email her some maple recipes (in exchange for Christiana's recipes she promises me). We pick up a couple of slices of pizza on our way back to where we are staying, but that night I am still too happily full to take more than a few bites.

Thinking about Art

A painting around the corner from the David, and surprisingly undistracted by The Rape of the Sabine Woman going on just in front of it, showed a variety of Christian thinkers standing in front of Mary and Jesus ascending to Heaven. The note in front of the painting said it was the artist's visual exploration of various schools of thought on the status of the Virgin Mary.

It got the little wheels in my mind turning. Not a huge fan of didactic work, I was nonetheless intrigued by the possibilities of this painting. Was there a correct answer implicit in the work or was it possible that the artist was simply allowing the different voices to have a place to have dialogue? Too often today works of art - especially art that treats theological themes - are deemed correct or "too edgy." This painting showed me that art could be both beautiful and thoughtful, without having to have all the answers pinned down. That art could create a space for conversation, conversation that just might lead upwards toward heaven.

I'd like to be that kind of artist.

Going to the Chapel

Exactly one week ago, as I write, Dave and I were climbing the seemingly one thousand steps to the church at San Miniato in Florence. It was our last day and we had hours to wait until dinner and San Miniato was right around the corner and up the hill from where we were staying. We went to listen to the Vespers service being sung in Gregorian chant.

The service was held in the dank, dark crypt of the church, below the presbytery. We were probably a third of the audience, who came and went during the service. The music, sung by only seven monks, standing in semi-circle behind bars was mysterious and holy. I felt privileged to witness it. But also conflicted: what did it mean for me as a person of faith to enter into the churches and sacred life of the citizens of Florence?

We had decided we would walk into the Duomo because it was there and we were there and it was magnificently grand. It was hard to picture worshiping there, ever though, and both Dave and I felt the grandeur of the church as impressive but not something that led us to God.

I had woken up early on Sunday morning in Florence to hear the nuns singing an early mass, and I recognized one of the tunes their organ was playing. But I did not join them for any of their services, even though the sign posted in our room said we were welcome to do so.

I wondered about the monks of San Miniato and the nuns of our convent. They were few and mostly older (except for one monk who looked remarkably like our friend Wes and who wore Birkenstocks under his robe.) I wondered about the vocational call to monastic life and whether it was often heard anymore. I wondered whether these monks and nuns tolerated our presence or whether they resented being observed as objects.

Part of me wanted to stay to bear witness to their faithfulness, to sit in the chill of the church and have the faithfulness to stay until the end of their song. I recognized the irony in the fact that they did this faithfully day in and out, and we could not stay to hear them out even once. But then I remembered that they were not doing this for an audience aside from God. I did not have to stay. I was neither confirming nor denying faithfulness by staying or going. I thought too of the Old Order Mennonites of our own area, who are often viewed as tourist attractions, simply because they have continued to live their call faithfully. I wondered what posture faithfulness would take on my part.

We decided we would go to an English church the Sunday we were in Florence. It looked like a street front, but inside was a small cavern of gold and marble, with puffs of incense clouding the air. The mass was sung and it was beautiful. The music director sang Our Father in a way that opened my ears and later sang a song about peace in the Middle East that dovetailed with the sermon (given by the Bishop of Europe, no less) that moved me to tears as I went forward to take communion. But Dave was daunted, put off by the smells and bells of the service, and for the first time since I've known him, he stayed in his seat for communion. He explained to me later that it was too different for him.

What does it mean to be part of this big church? What does it look like?

What We Do Buy

Boxer shorts showing the nether regions of the David, for our son who loves them
Pashminas I choose to believe are made in Italy
Spices to toss into pasta

Traditional balsamic vinegar.
Rose water and violet soap
Tomato paste in a toothpaste tube. Way cool.
Brightly coloured cottonballs for our daughter
A cheap magenta cashmere sweater because it was the colour of Italy
A bouquet of yellow mimosa because everyone else was doing it. (Turned out it was for International Women's Day or La Festa della Donna)
Round dice
Spremuta: blood orange juice
Old lire coins for our oldest son, the money collector
Honey, because we always do
A little, overpriced bottle of red wine

What We Don't Buy

Little sculptures of David
Piselli in the market
A wheel of Parmesan(I asked. $500. Alas.)
Prints from street vendors.
Tickets to the opera (We got lost and ended up outside a jail where we tiptoed away. Quickly.)


The 19th century French writer Stendhal was utterly overwhelmed by the art of Florence to the point of dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations. His experience was not unique.: psychiatrists coined a term for the hundreds of people who have come to Florence and been overwhelmed by large quantities of beautiful art: Stendhal syndrome.

We read about this syndrome in our helpful guidebook and, just as nausea follows someone else being sick or itchiness proceeds from talk of head lice, we instantly begin to imagine ourselves dizzy from art.

But, Stendhal syndrome or no Stendhal syndrome, we will be going to one of the premier art museums in the world, the Uffizi, although perhaps not until after the jetlag subsides.

Many of my most favourite paintings and sculptures in the world hang in the Uffizi. What I am not prepared for is how visually intense the museum is. Even if it were stripped of every painting and statue, it would take weeks to see it properly.

The floor is a marvellous inlaid mosaic, showing off all the shades and colours of marble Italy has to offer. The ceilings are large frescoes, each perhaps twelve feet square, each uniquely painted. The hallways are lined with thousands of portraits of Florence’s leading citizens for the last five hundred years, and dotted with busts of unknown figures and artists. Fortunately there are benches.

There are more than forty rooms of art in the Uffizi, ranging in size from an intimate salon to an enormous triple ballroom. One room is circular, with brilliant red walls and a cupola for a ceiling, covered in mother-of-pearl shells from top to bottom. Another room has world maps frescoed on the walls. Still another appears to have family trees arranged among the tiny portraits that dot its walls.

It is the Botticelli painting of The Rites of Spring that stops me. Here you are, I say. The painting I first knew as a child, the one I studied as a teenager and here it is. How you respond to the Real Thing in art is tricky. It reminds me of the first time I saw mountains and thought they looked almost fake. Because these paintings are so very well known. And what is the difference between seeing a good coloured print and the real thing? The guilty watcher wonders this. The brush strokes are hard to see because many of the paintings have been varnished. And what I like about Renaissance painting is its verisimilitude: they look like real life. It is easy to be seduced into believing they are nearly photographic. I wonder whether photography has deadened our collective appreciation for art. Or whether it’s simply Stendhal syndrome setting in.

I’m intrigued that paintings I don’t like from a distance are very appealing close up, and vice versa. I like being able to sit and look. We are astounded by the size of some of the canvasses. We assume scaffolding was needed to paint many of them. We wonder whether they were commissioned by size to fit a wall somewhere or how the artist decided how big to paint it. We are honestly surprised there is only one Michelangelo painting in the Uffizi and we have to jostle for space with the tour group following the woman carrying a feather on a stick who leads only to the Good Art. But we have to make choices ourselves: we can’t see everything in a day or madness would surely set in. There is an oily smell, something petroleum-like in the room with the Michelangelo, and it begins to give me a headache. But fortunately not dizziness.

There is a sculpture of Venus that is just lovely, and as usual I am afflicted with my own syndrome: Touch the Statue Syndrome. I adore sculpture. I also realize on this visit that I love portraits. The portraits that strike me most are one of a reclusive monk, depicted in deep shadows, and one of Mary and Jesus locked in an embrace that reminds me of my own babies. Neither of them is painted by a painter the Feather Woman will likely stop in front of.

By the time we round the corner into the second wing, we are already flagging, both our feet and our eyes. I am reminded of the Far Side cartoon where the student asks to be excused because his brain is full; in my case, it is my eyes.

The other art galleries we visit in Florence set their works into space – the David stands tall in a space created just for him, where we can circle him, see the veins of marble chasing down his powerful legs, the curve of his hand, testing the heft of stone, the determination in his eyes. These museums allow the visitor to ruminate and ponder. The Uffizi is the Tokyo of the art world. We do not succumb to Stendhal syndrome but it takes a steely determination to see it all and to continue to have eyes to do so. I take my hat off to the older people in the crowd who keep walking and looking. It is the one place that makes me want to move to Florence – simply so I could slow down and drink it in over a year of Saturday afternoon visits.

Our guidebook tells us to stop on the terrace bar for a cup of cappuccino, that it is one of Europe’s great treats. It is a great treat to sit outdoors on a fresh spring day, to glance at the sky which seems peaceful after the embarrassment of riches indoors, but the coffee is lukewarm.

Refreshed, we head back inside and find what is, perhaps, the most beautiful room of all – a glittering sunlit gold and blue ballroom filled with enormous, poignant statues of Niobe and her children, found in a garden. Later we will read that some of these sculptures were damaged in a Mafia car bomb attack nearly twenty years ago, but for now we are enchanted, our eyes refreshed even as they are filled.

Really, cold coffee aside, the only downside to the Uffizi comes on the way out when we are led through a maze of no less than six gift shops. Both Dave and I separately feel the clash between the contemplation of art and the compulsion to spend. And yet, we too part with some cash to buy a guidebook we will look through at our leisure, seeing everything our eyes could not take in at once.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How We Got to Florence

For years we have been planning Dave’s sabbatical, what we will do with it, where we want to go. For a long time, we contemplated a trip to Africa with the kids, but eventually all the doors closed except for one it felt right to fear, and we started to think about what we really wanted to do. Paris, some people said. You would love the south of France. Rome. A Caribbean holiday, just you and Dave. England had some appeal. San Francisco. Then last May, a friend said Florence and something clicked in place. I had forgotten about Florence.

I fell in love with Florence on the cusp of adulthood when I watched the movie A Room with a View - and then I forgot about it. Until May. I remember mowing the lawn last May, throwing ideas out to Dave. Gelato, I said. The David. Coffee. Pasta. The place spoke our language.

We read that Florence was a smallish, walkable town. My main mode of transportation at home is a bicycle and I like the idea of a city that can be explored in the open air. We began exploring the possibilities, thinking of the three thousand and seventeen details that had to be balanced in order for us to go and to find the perfect time. I received an email about a conference held in Florence in another season and something about the place it was held at captivated my interest. I began exploring this Villa Agape, run by the Suore de Stabilite e Caritas. It sounded loving at the very least.

The suore were also stealthy: no website, no email address. They had a fax machine. They were reputed by other conference goers I sleuthed out on the net to speak little English. An Agape meal was spoken of as a highlight of Italy. I saw pictures of ordered gardens. Finally, I found something that did resemble an email address, wrote to them in the simplest English, and heard back a short message of acceptance.

We read that the convent was ten minutes up the hill from the bus that took you directly into the centre of the town. A week before we left, I sat down at the computer to figure out exactly what bus we needed to take. I was devastated: the bus that came to the bottom of our street swooped far away from where we hoped to go. I had pictured a direct route, an easy drop off. How about walking, I thought. It was only a couple of kilometres from our convent to the bridges, but there were about twenty turns we had to take. Suddenly it didn’t seem so simple.

We woke up our first morning in Florence to the sounds of birds singing, chirping, trilling insistently. The sky was brilliant blue and we flung the shutters open like Lucy Honeychurch. We showered, descended the staircase to eat bread and jam and coffee, and then we set out down the hill, directions in hand.

It turned out our little mapquest directions were accurate and far easier to follow than they looked on paper. We walked along a medieval laneway, brick walls covered with moss on either side. We passed a grove of olive trees, saw our destination in the distance, saw a tree – apple? – in brilliant white bloom as we descended down the hill. We found another laneway with smooth orange-stuccoed houses rising above the cobblestone curves, gardens protected by barbed wire, embedded shards of glass and protective dogs. But we kept walking as the lane grew steeper and steeper beyond what cars could manage. We would take the bus home we decided as our calf muscles strained against gravity, stretched after the long flight. We twisted and turned according to the map, checking with the street names nestled in the sides of buildings at each corner. We passed an ancient arch in a high stone wall, turned a corner, passed a shop with a display of gold utensils, saw the park we would meet in a few days later, realized the wall ahead of us marked the boundary of the Arno, walked across the bridge incredulously – we were actually here. And there was the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo, the iconic images of the city. We slipped into the shadows of the narrow, still-cobblestoned streets, walked several blocks, looking in store windows, but not yet ready to shop. Suddenly we found ourselves in the square of Santa Croce where there was a farmer’s market going on. We walked. Dave was surprised that I did not stop and sample everything but the meats looked too marbled, the cheeses too soft and I was dazzled by the sunshine, the reality of being where I had long dreamed of being.

A woman offered us a sample of wine and that seemed like just the thing – the red wine was clean and light. We stopped at a cafe and chose lemon gelato and cappuccino and sat and drank it all in.

Thieves and Magic and Flirting

Beware of pickpockets I am told. And gypsies. And men with roaming, pinching fingers. I decide to zip up my purse, carry it close to my hand, keep a watchful eye out. I will not be like the woman I hear of who has to partially disrobe to pull her money belt from her pants, causing her grandchildren to flee in embarrassment. I hope I will not be like my mother’s friend whose sister got pinched and she didn’t and felt rejected.

I tell the friends who warn me that I will take reasonable precautions and beyond that, I will salute anyone who can magically spirit away the contents of my purse. I think of these potential robbers as magicians. What words can they say to create an illusion? How easily can their hands slip into pockets and purse so that no one is the wiser? If they can do that, I concede they can win.

It is off season but only in the train station do I see potential pickpockets, men who close in slightly, like sharks scenting blood as we emerge from the bus to try to get our bearings. But I see them and instantly fix my eyes on a point beyond them, as if recognizing it exactly, and start walking purposefully. For I also know magic, the illusion of confidence in a strange place. And perhaps my magic was stronger. In any event, it seemed to be all about attitude. The men who loitered in the train station were ready to pounce upon weakness, and all we had to do was maintain our poker face, and hold – not clutch – our purses and packages and we were fine.

Another day, our first, we were walking to the Accademia to see the David and the bound slave sculptures, when we happened to allow our eyes to drift onto the painting prints displayed on the road in front of the gallery. Instantly we were met with a salesman, showing us his wares.

“How much?” I asked politely, stupidly. His answer of 25 euros drops to 10 euros by the time he pursues us to the very door of the museum. He was aggressive, determined not to let us get away, but I was not daunted. I had failed to use my magic, so we simply needed to be firm. (Fortunately we are well practised with telemarketers and we disappeared into the museum.) When we returned, he was still at work, but we engaged in vigorous conversation with each other, maintaining our own unbroken eye contact, assuming we looked too much like every other tourist to be singled out again.

As far as flirting, I was well satisfied. I was neither pinched nor ignored. I have been accused of flirting before when I am honestly only being playful, having fun. It seems Italian clerks and waiters understand this sort of game and they play it happily with me, at their own initiative. No one takes it seriously. It is not flirting. It is enjoying an encounter with another person.

I was wooed in a garden

I was wooed in Florence in a garden. I was wooed with an abundance of wild spring flowers underfoot, warm sun on my face, a cathedral of cypresses lining the aisle for me to walk on a tender green carpet of grass, a good book and a stone table to read it upon. There was no snake in this garden, only a quick green lizard sunning itself on the tiles. I knew I was being wooed, every moment, and I was a happy bride.


There are few smells in Italy in March. This surprises me. I sniff flowers and there is nothing. Dave suspects that perfumerias have stolen the fragrance of every flower, and he may be right. The only smells that stand out from our trip are the rich, red winey vinegar smell at the balsamic achetaia, the thick cigarette cloud that was Rome, the creamy-sharp smell at every Parmigiana shop we stopped at, the rich cedar scent of the cut cypress branches I found and the candy-sweet scent of violets underfoot in the nun’s garden.


It is sheer vanity to say so, but one of the highlights of my trip was when an Italian woman commented how much she loved my shoes and wondered where I bought them and what brand they were. Is there a higher compliment? Especially for a shoe-challenged person like me? I think not. Grazie, I say. Grazie.


We walk into the gelato shop just behind the American girls. Obama has made it hard for me to dislike America, but these girls renew my distaste. All the gelati are labelled in Italian and these girls, frankly, are in Italy. Admittedly the shopkeeper speaks English and is patient with them as they choose the brightly coloured mango and chocolate and ask for it in slangy English. Admittedly too, I have only eight classes of Italian behind me and no doubt sound like Tarzan as I butcher the language. I do not ask that the American girls master the language, but a simple grazie or buon giorno, tacked on would be enough, but never comes. I turn to the gelato. We know that the usual best choices are limone or caffe and we are going to try one of those when I spot a demure little white number nestled among the neon colours. Its sign reads “Crema Buontalenti.” I point to that one and in my limited Italian, ask the proprietor about it. He smiles and tells us it is his signature gelato. I ask for a taste and it slides across my tongue like a song. It is far from vanilla. It is more like sweetened condensed milk, like sweet cream. We ask for a small dish of it. “We’re not Americans,” I feel obliged to add, in Italian. (I am Canadian, was one of our class phrases.) He nods and says he has seen the small maple leaf flag on my husband’s backpack. And, I hope, he sees our gesture of attempting his language as being courteous. Because that is what it is to be Canadian, eh? We are certainly rewarded with the gelato, in any event.

First Impressions of Italy

We missed our connection in Frankfurt after a long nine hours from Toronto. The gate we had to wait at in Frankfurt was noisy and bright, with a ceiling of shiny metal tubes above us, an uncarpeted floor beneath us and people coming and going constantly. For us, it was the middle of the night and yet the sky outside was cloudy but bright. I wanted to create a tent, a safe place, an escape, anything. I thought of Nazis and efficiency and I did not feel safe or home. Three hours later, it was finally time for our flight to leave. We climbed onto a school bus with wings. Dave and I did not sit together on this flight, as we were flying standby. I looked at my seat mate and decided he was Italian.

Buon giorno,” I ventured.

Buon giorno lei,” he replied, confirming my suspicions. He was an older man, slight and grey, in blue jeans. As the plane took off, I realized we were less than two hours from our destination and I felt jubilant. We began to talk, this Italian man and I. He had flown from his home in California, where he lived with his second wife (“the biggest mistake of my life, marrying her.”) and was on one of his five-times-annually flights to see his children and his grandchildren in his hometown on Florence. We talked about Florence – the prices in the markets were soft and could be negotiated, the drive to Pisa was not something he recommended, do not buy products from Africans on the streets of Florence. Then we saw the Alps and it took my breath away and my holiday delight, robbed by the purgatory of Frankfurt, returned.

We descended over Florence and we saw terraced hillsides, a green green world, a snaking river I assumed was the Arno, brilliant sunshine and red tiled roofs. We descended eagerly from the plane, took the mini bus ride to the terminal I had read about, collected our bags, stepped out into the sunshine without so much as a wave from customs, and found a taxi.

Our driver spoke little English but he knew the place we were staying at. We drove across the Arno, through ugly apartment buildings, winding wide streets and roundabouts. We were surrounded by Vespas, darting in and out of traffic, our driver’s nerves of steel. I wondered briefly whether we had traveled thousands of miles only to crash in a traffic accident as our driver drove within inches of a concrete barrier. At first it was ugly and I wondered what would happen if I hated it, if we spent all this money and time away only to find it foreign and unpleasant. But the taxi trip was a microcosm of Italy. I saw two people greet one another with kisses on both cheeks. We saw a couple posing for wedding photos in a park. I saw cafes and stores. We began wending our way up a hillside, along a long avenue flanked by tall trees, that reminded me of Beverley Hills somehow. Dave spotted the Duomo in the distance. We climbed higher and higher and suddenly we were there, on the side of a hill, standing outside tall metal gates, buzzing to receive entrance. Where were we? Had we chosen well?

A nun with a round face and burbling Italian welcomed us as the gates parted and a tall, ochre-coloured villa stood in front of us..

Parla inglese?” we asked as we had been taught. But she didn’t. She bustled us into a tiled foyer, gave us a key, led me to a tiny, anicent wood-lined elevator, leaving Dave below and pointed at the weight restrictions as we climbed to the next floor with our bags. I waited on the landing until she came back with Dave and the rest of the bags. Then she led us across the hall and unlocked our room. It was dark and closed, with two narrow single beds and it did not smell like home. Then she threw open the shutters and my breath was taken away: the view out back was of enormous sentinels of black-green cypresses, a grove of olive trees, grey-green falling away down the hill, and just beneath us were sculpted terraced gardens in the early stages of spring. Sunlight infused the whole scene.

The nun left us and we lay on the beds, tempted to sleep or to cry, simply wanting to stop moving. But sleep needed to be resisted and so we decided to walk, to see if we could phone home, to let them know we had arrived. We decided we would retrace the route of the taxi, and we mostly did. We walked for several hours. We saw stores with delicious looking pastries in them and we even went in, but although we were hungry, we were not ready to break the ice of this foreign place by ordering. We saw gas stations, garden centres, real estate offices, stores, confetti on the sidewalk. We had seen an Internet cafe on our taxi route, but after we had walked for some great distance, we decided to turn around before our legs gave out. We stopped on the way back at a tabaccherie and managed to buy a phone card – or more accurately a phone receipt for five euros that had a number and a PIN number on it that we never, ever managed to make work, the entire time we were in Italy. We tried immediately at the phone booth outside the store, and had no luck. We tried entering the number first and then the PIN, then the other way. We tried calling collect. There was something we were missing. I felt very very far away from home.

Halfway up the hill home, under the magnificent canopy of trees, I began to cry. I was exhausted and I couldn’t reach my babies. I worried it was all a mistake. Dave sat me on a park bench, fed me a small snack, said the words culture shock and listened until my tears were through. Then we walked and I felt relieved. My eyes drank in the beauty. “This may be the most beautiful place I have ever been in,” I said and Dave agreed. “Even though I still feel like going home, even though I have culture shock, I wouldn’t miss this beauty for anything.” We made it back to the convent without incident. We asked the nun how to call and she did not know but said the other nun would know when she came later. I began to focus on this.

We walked around the garden, discovered a limonaia, filled with lemon trees in full fruit, settled into our room and took photos of the view. The gravity felt strong as we waited for our supper, which was at 8:00 p.m. We tried to read, to sit, but our eyelids drooped mercilessly. We would fall asleep for three minutes, awaken with a start. We showered, tried to use our phone card, and drooped again. Finally it was eight o’clock and dark outside. We descended the enormous staircase to the dining room and found one woman sitting alone at one table, being served by the friendly nun. There were a dozen tables in the room, but only one other table had bottles of wine and water on it, and we knew it was for us.

The friendly nun served us a metal bowl of spaghetti in tomato sauce. I had felt too tired to eat but suddenly my appetite returned. We ate most of the spaghetti when
she came back with a different bowl of fresh looking lettuce.

“Mangia mangia!
” she urged, insisting we finish everything in the bowl. We christened her Suore Granny, after my grandmother. We drizzled olive oil and red wine vinegar on the salad, and sprinkled it with salt. It was remarkable. There was a basket of bread and we mopped up our salad dressing with slices of bread. Another nun appeared – smaller and wizened, with shrewd eyes and briskness of manner. She was the nun who spoke English the other nun had indicated, the one who could help us sort out our phone card.

Parla inglese?” we asked hopefully.

She shook her head and said she could understand English better but not speak it. We
tried to ask about the phone card, and she offered advice – that we needed to add a zero before we called. (This did not work either.) She delivered a plate of green olives and tomato slices, drizzled with parsley, olive oil and capers. A platter of freshly breaded fish arrived – enough to feed our family of five at home, but utterly delicious – and a bowl of boiled and buttered potato wedges and a bowl of green beans in a light cheese dressing. After we had eaten as much of this as possible (We learned the word “Basta” to explain we had had enough), a tray with two wedges of cheese arrived. One of them was parmesan. We were permitted to cut chunks of cheese, or perhaps to eat the whole thing. We drank fresh light red wine and refreshing bottled water as we ate. I wanted to pocket the parmesan and gnaw it until it was done. Suore Granny brought us a bowl of fruit as well, and insisted that we take some back to our rooms as well.

Full but still wanting to touch base with our family, we tried Suore Mafiosa’s method of adding a zero before deciding simply to call home and hoping the nuns would add the cost to our bill. It worked. We called, spoke to my dad, heard that everyone was ok, and fell into delicious sleep and woke up in a city of beauty.