Friday, December 23, 2011

Natale in Calabria

Christmas lights in the Piazza
Maybe “northern Italian/European” traditions are slowly creeping south.  The TV commercials here related to Christmas are tame and not many. We do laugh every time we walk past a mechanical Santa on the sidewalk that is putting out holiday music in English (at least 3 in Scalea). Another sight that brought a chuckle was a young Pakistani lad in Santa suit, without beard, playing jingle bells from some a fake keyboard and asking for cash.  If he had donned a beard, I might have donated.

Nunzia offers much holiday cheer

Decorations and light have slightly increased in our village, but it's still by far more traditionally centered on the family and food. Please enjoy these images of Christmas in town, and an introduction to more of our village. We’ve never compiled a list of the businesses here, so ecco: 5 alimentari groceries (2 are also butchers); 2 clothing shops; 6 bars; 2 pizzerie; 1 flower shop; 2 tabacchi; 2 small casalinga shops; 1 electric/appliance shop; 1 restaurant (summer); 1 shoe store; 1 hardware; a sporting shop for clothes & air guns that we have not been in; and the largest retailer in town is a farm/construction equipment place that also has done most of the ironwork for our apartments.  Lastly, the ESSO fueling station.  Not bad for a town of 1300.

It is a wonderful village with the greatest people, and we are fortunate to live In Santa Domenica Talao.

Cooler weather, but still no killing frosts here
Myriad Christmas cakes (panattone) on sale in Scalea. Doug has watched people take 6-8 boxes thru check-out for weeks.  Each box contains more sugar than Doug could eat in a year! Also lots of sweet sparkling wines and chocolates on sale.  Christmas is sweet!!!

Our 2005 tree in Oregon
We have noticed, and English friends agree, that there is slightly more going on here in advance of Christmas than we have seen before. We refer to more Christmas decorations for sale in stores and an increase of outdoor lighting by families and towns.  We think the locals have done alberi di natale (trees) inside their homes (a lovely one next door) for some time. We, however, have downsized Christmas considerably. On the left  is our 2005 tree at Rainshadow Farm, and on the right our current albero di natale:

 2011--smaller and not real
A festive farmacia

The flower/plant shop with fish pond

Two generations of same family staff the store

Local fischio (mistletoe) that grows on the oaks

Buon Natale & Buon Anno Nuovo,

Di and Doug

Friday, December 16, 2011

Renault Redux

Di groaned at my idea to do a car blog this week.  As long as I make it more about Italy than about the car I'll be OK says my editor. As you may know, you cannot buy a car in Italy if you are not a resident. We bought the Alfa Romeo before moving here from English friends knowing it would take 6-8 months to gain resident status. If not for that deal, we might have spent €7,000 for hired cars. The Alfa was very handy and served us well. It was, however, built for “handling” and not comfort and we and our kidneys wanted something else. There are about 8 used car dealers in Scalea and one actual car dealer. We went to 3 places before finding the dealership Mondoauto that sells Renault, Nissan and Dacia cars. Small, compared to an American car dealer, there is the owner Franco, a secretary, 2 mechanics and a cleanup person.

We found what vehicle specialists tell you to buy – a slightly used car with low use on the odometer after the depreciation is done. We found a Renault Scenic with only 25,000 km and one year remaining on the guaranty. Yes, the French make nice cars too and probably 1/3 of the vehicle population here is French. 
Similar in outer dimensions to our Subaru Outback in the US, this car is taller and much more roomy.  The rear compartment actually has a couple pop-up seats so you can carry 7 people. Amazing leg-room in the rear seat. My old friend Dave Peterson is 6 ft. 4 in, 114 kg and he would fit inside this car with his big cowboy hat!

This car has good windows and visibility, ride, comfort, etc. Some things like Blue Tooth for phones and cruise control will never or seldom be used.  Maybe in Puglia we could find a calm enough highway to use cruise control. The auto parking brake is weird, but works OK. The auto wipers are doing well in the rain that has arrived.
xSpecs: 1.5 liter diesel engine; 81 kilowatt engine; 110 cavalli (horses) engine; 6 speed transmission. It officially is rated to get 55 – 63 miles per gallon efficiency. Since Italy increased fuel prices by 13 cents last week to raise more tax money, diesel in the village is up to €1.75/litre = $8.94/gallon, so this efficient car will be welcome. The Alfa was getting about 40 mpg.  In comparison, Scenic is a more spacious car than the Toyota Prius -- cheaper and without the need to replace a hybrid battery. Europe builds incredible little diesel engines. Maybe with FIAT running Dodge, the US will get some efficient engines/vehicles there even for pickup trucks.

So what’s the downside? That would be Italian auto insurance.  The 10-year old Alfa cost €800/$1200 per year. This nearly new car is €1500/$2505 per year.  Imagine insuring a brand new Audi, Alfa, Mercedes, etc.  A Ferrari??  Better be friends with Berlusconi.
We shipped the money for this purchase when the euro was selling for $1.35.  Of course today it is $1.29, the lowest we have seen since 2005. But at least it was all done in euro and not lira – which still could happen in this EU crisis.

Oh, the Scenic is 10cm closer to the ground at the rear hatch, so Vince will have an easier time jumping in and his space behind the rear seats is larger also.

What did we NOT get with this car?  this sexy Peugeot logo. Maybe I can get one from a junkyard and wire it on.


Thursday, December 8, 2011


I can't describe life in Santa Domenica Talao as quiet because southern Italians don't live life quietly. There is life in the town nearly every night and firecrackers from the hands of little ones announce the arrival of the many festas--too many to list... Although it's not quiet, we have always felt quite safe. There are no wierd neighborhoods or the uncomfortable feeling you might get walking around at night elsewhere. So we were very surprised at the news that our very own post office was robbed at gunpoint!  Doug was able to snap some photos just as the Carabinieri arrived.

It seems two robbers showed up on a motorino and managed to make off with 60,000.00 euro from the post office just as it was stocked with money to deliver to pensioners (Italians get their pension money in cash from the post offices). They left the post office and escaped on foot--leading to suspicion that they might be locals or know someone local.

The crooks pistol-whipped some poor guy in the post office who ended up in the hospital. Apparently no one could identify them because they left their helmets on. The U-Tube story says that Santa Domenica Talao may have been attractive because we don't surveillance cameras in the post office. 
Utube Report (in Italian) 

I have to admit that part of the reason (other than pure newsworthy-ness)
for posting this story is the fabulous job Doug did capturing the essence of the Carabinieri. These inspectors look so elegant...let's just hope they also are smart enough to catch the bad guys. 

Whatever happens, there will be enough to talk about in town for awhile!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Autumn in the Misty Pollino

The fall color really was beautiful.  The landscape reminded us of the Columbia River Gorge with nicer architecture
We live in the Province of Cosenza – a province being equivalent to an American county. In the middle of the province is the largest park in Italy. Our home is actually within the park on the northwest side.

For a long time, I've wanted to drive a certain road that accesses the deeper recesses of the Pollino National Park. This road, SS105, starts in Belvedere on the coast ½ hour south of here, and meanders thru the mountains to the city of Castrovillari. From there you can hop on the A3 Autostrade for a short run to Mormanno, then back west down SS504 to S.Domenica Talao where we live.

As we did the drive and when I was thinking of it after, my mind was comparing things with Wasco County Oregon where we lived. So here’s some stats: Wasco County is 6203 km2 and Prov. di Cosenza is 6650 km2. Wasco County has a population of 28,000. Cosenza’s population is 733,000. Both places have lots of open space and rural countryside. Here, we just happen to have large cities like Cosenza, Paolo, Castrovillari and others. In Wasco, the largest city is 13,000 people. 

SS105 has miles and miles of stone guardrail.  One of the Italian roads that inspired the Columbia River Highway...
The park map shows some summer trails and some winter cross country skiing NW of Castrovillari that are accessed by good secondary roads into the center of the park. Our 6.5 hour drive didn’t allow for an excursion there.  prossima volta (next time).

The SS105 (SS = stradale stato – a national road) is wonderful. It takes you thru some gorgeous mountain areas at a slow speed, and when we drove it last Saturday, there was almost no traffic. So relaxing to watch scenery instead of doing fulltime defensive driving. I wager our average speed on that very windy road was around 40-50 km/h. 

Early on, as we entered the forested area, we stopped to let Vince, err...stretch his legs. You can see the white fir trees. It did not dawn on me till I looked at the images that these are some of the bigger trees we’ve seen here other than pine.  

It's unusual to this old forester to drive into the woods and mountains and then come across fair sized towns. S.Agata was the first and is known for a big castagno (chestnut) festival. Lovely city and square.  

S.Sosti and S.Donato followed. These towns are all along the border of the park, or in it. 

Most of these eastside towns have a strong Italo-Albanese culture. The few people we spoke with on the drive spoke Italian, but at one photo stop above guys harvesting olives I heard a very foreign tongue that must have been Albanian or a form of it.  

The road stretch between S.Donato and Aquaformosa is very windy and scenic. It reminded us of driving in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon USA. (SS105 turns). Again, the lack of traffic was just great. I could stop almost anywhere for a Kodak moment without fearing a collision.
Olive Harvest below Saracena
San Agata
San Donato
If you ever follow this route, remember that you have left the tourist zone on the coast and most of the villages have no restaurants, hotels, etc. Bars aplenty for caffe and snacks. We found an eatery in the town of Lungro. L’Oasi del Viale Hotel Ristorante Pizzeria. One thing about the mountain towns is they have a slightly different menu than coastal Calabrese. Here you can get soup which is a wonderful find on a cool fall day! I also had one of the finest grilled meat lunches ever. We found soup in Mormanno during a previous jaunt, so it seems to be a mountain dish.

The mountains of Southern Italy still amaze me with their rugged nature and that there is still so much undeveloped land. Remember I said the province has 733,000 people! The hill city of Saracena is spectacular and demands a return trip because it also has a smaller road giving access to the interior of the national park. 


Finally, we came to a misty overlook of Castrovillari which I guess has 20,000 people or more. 

This one-way street in downtown Castrovillari surprised us.  

Di was the first to notice how wide it was! Not very often we see streets like this in older Italian towns. And there were open free parking spaces all over the place. Very pleasant.  The city might be a good base with overnight lodging from which to explore further into the park. I now realize that a day trip for cross country skiing is questionable since Castrovillari itself is slightly over an hour drive from us, then off onto very slow windy roads with snowy conditions??? We no longer have an all-wheel drive car and spending €100 for chains (and having to put the bloody things on whilst crawling in the slush etc)??  Maybe we’ll stay home and read about skiing on our Kindles!

It was a 6.5 hour tour. We all liked it. Vince had a short time when a 2 litre water bottle was rolling back and forth in the curves, smacking him, but he didn’t complain. I still like driving-for-pleasure. Di is not there as much anymore. It used to be America’s top form of outdoor recreation. Even when we drove 140 miles to and from work each day, I enjoyed the scenery. It’s ironic that I took the Italian nickname of Guido (my middle name is Guy) so my neighbors could call me something easier to pronounce in Italian, because when using the verb "to drive" (guidare), to say I drive = "Io Guido". 

Sono Guido e io guido...

Ci vediamo, Doug

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks Again

Our hosts MaryAnn and Gordon at the head of the table
I wonder how long I will feel moved to mark our time in Italy with Turkeys Eaten on Thanksgiving. This is our second Thanksgiving in Italy. We cooked last year and had Americans, Italians, and Brits present.  This year we were invited to the home of our American friends and a quartet of British expats. Our holiday has morphed into an international celebration of Friendship. Not too shabby. 
Arthur does the honors
I can't help but think of family Thanksgivings past. Our families are for the most part thinning out rather than growing (lack of plentiful offspring combined with deaths and lack of marriages).  This makes us especially thankful for a growing circle of friends. Thanks again Italy.  It's always interesting this life we have here.
And Furthermore...
Thank you MaryAnn and Gordon for a great dinner!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mare Tirreno to Mare Ligure

Life goes on after floods in Cinque Terre 
We decided to revisit Cinque Terre before the fantastic weather we've been having changed. The plan was to see the flood damage left from the recent deluge there. Suffice to say, we should have been watching Italian TV to learn that the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza were off-limits to tourists and outsiders. Even a woman at our hotel in Levanto said that Monterosso was open via road or train. We quickly found the road blocked by polizia and the train agent told us we could not get off the train there either. The latter proved correct when we spotted the polizia at the train station making sure people had a reason for exiting in Monterosso. I suppose if we were more brazen we might have found a connection but we simply obeyed and enjoyed revisiting the towns that were undamaged and still open. If you haven't been following our Cinque Terre posts, these 5 towns are a very famous tourist attraction on the Italian Riveria south of Genova and just north of La Spezia. They are connected by hiking trails, a rail line and some very tight windy roads. To donate to a fund for helping Monterosso and Vernazzo residents re-build click on CINQUE TERRE AID.
Doug's only blurry pic taken of the flood damage in Monterosso--from the train!
Maybe we could have found a shovel and blended in...

The region of Liguria and the town of Levanto are heavily influenced by foreign tourists including many Americans.  While there, we came upon an international surfing contest that floundered a little given the glass-like surface of the Ligurian Sea. 

The Levanto Surfing contest site--note the impressive surf

We were here six years ago but now we were seeing it through the eyes of Italian residents. An advantage for the whole Cinque Terre zone is that they have managed to adapt to modern tourism while hanging on to their treasured cultural heritage. What we notice when we go “north” is the obvious influence of money. Clean tidy towns, handsome well kept buildings and people speaking Italian with only the rare dialect discussion–-a real treat for us. Those businesses connected with tourism have morphed into a 6-month season vs. the 6 week season we experience in Calabria. This is because they have learned to cater to foreigners who take vacations in months other than just August! Restaurants were opening for dinner at 7:00 which was also a treat!
Doug noticed though that the people on the streets of Liguria, Toscana and Lazio were not as open or eager to converse. For a while on the trip he doggedly greeted folks in our Calabrian fashion with a good morning or good afternoon and only one old guy of maybe a dozen responded at all. Are northerners more cold as the southerners claim? Are they sick of tourists?
Anyhow, it was a lovely day for a walk on the beach!
This somewhat impulsive trip was bound to be a long one going much of the length of Italy, but we really didn’t know. Turns out to be 870 km and 10 hours from home to Levanto, Liguria via mostly the autostrada. In our old days in the American west, this would have been easy. But throw in traffic, Italian/European autostrade driving, and a car with poor suspension and it was a long day.
Since the two towns were closed in Cinque Terre, we elected to leave there a day early and sight-see on the way home down the coast of Toscana and Lazio. We actually spent two days, 8 hours each, making our way south on highways, small roads, various towns and cities--a 1845 km total trip distance. The backroads of Italy offer some interesting landscapes you cannot see from an autostrada

Have to mention that we’ve driven in a lot of Italy this year and the worst roads are right here in Calabria so far.  The SS 18 has awful expansion joints on bridges and the A3 autostrade is the roughest motorway we’ve experienced in the republic. AND the roughest spots of the A3 have been built in the last 6 months to 2 years!  

Any ANAS engineers out there with an explanation?

Italian Stone Pine - Pinus Pinea

 There was an unexpected highlight during our coastal tour. We had planned to stay the night in Anzio, the famous landing site during WWII. It was getting dark and we knew we didn't want to search for a hotel in the dark. As the shadows lengthened, we came upon a frankly seedy section of beach located right after the toney Lido di Ostia. What a contrast! We had just gone through hordes of Romans enjoying the beach and drove through (very slowly) hoping for hotels on the edge of town. No luck there so we drove on to find this deserted place frozen in time (1960's). The only hotel was the Albatros, right on the beach with let's just say frayed accomodations. However--the family that owns it is funny and friendly and just the kind of people who should be running a hotel. It will be a good if funky memory.
We made it to Anzio the next morning--an exceedingly lovely day. We easily found the Anzio museum and the famous beach. There was a picture of the American landing at a memorial near the beach. Check out the comparison of the old photo with Doug's new photo of the beach. Look for the two domes in the upper left of the historic photo. Very interesting--interesting history too.  Apparently the landing went smoothly but the general dug in rather than push on and gave the Germans time to cause quite a loss of life. The goal of the landing was to push on to Rome but the first guys didn't--better stop there, we aren't war historians:
Historic WWII photo of the Landing on the beach at Anzio--note the round domes in the upper left of the photo
The beach at Anzio today--some of the same buildings 
This trip answered one question for us. As we watch the drama about the Italian and European economies unfold, we wondered how Italy could really be the 7th or 8th largest economy in the world as the news has stated. Living in Calabria one would wonder! Well, when we drove into Florence the other day, Doug flashed back to travel in the American midwest. The drive from Florence to Lucca and Pisa was non-stop factories and thriving industry. For some reason we never saw all that from the train in 2005. Yes, the north has a strong industrial base and we have yet to see the “real industrial zone” of Milano!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Il Cliente Ha Sempre Ragione-The Customer is Always Right!

I’d like to bring up customer service because we Americans are a bit spoiled. I (Guido) have refused to return to only one business around here after they ignored me a couple times.  Normally when we walk into a shop we immediately hear something like buongiorno, dimi which equates to “good morning, tell me how I can help you”.

But without further rambling preamble, I am pleased to introduce my friend Domenico Maiolino who is the winner of my Customer Service Award – 2011.

Domenico is an auto mechanic (auto officina) with a small 2-man shop in Scalea. I first met him a year ago when I needed a couple of tires and have since bought more tires, puncture repairs, oil changes, etc. A couple times he dropped what he was doing to help me and since has always been a great man to work with and he and his assistant are both very good mechanics. Domenico is patient with me – he repeats things or tries another way of saying something until I figure it out! I can also roam under the lift, look at work in-progress and ask questions. I like him and recommend him to all.

Domenico’s shop is on the southern edge of Scalea, Via Fiume Lao 164, Tel 0985 939686.

Not far away from Domenico’s garage on Via Lauro is Ranch Motori where I have the car washed.  Again, very courteous folks that work hard and aim to please. I like to roam around looking at farm implements and remembering a past life!

The service that has been the most difficult to adjust to is that from the government. Our experiences with immigration and the national healthcare system have been “interesting”.  Di hit it on the head saying the medical and immigration folks are not nasty or incompetent, they are just under-staffed and given poor resources to work with.  Poor, outdated computers, obsolete systems all around.

One thing we have learned is that quiet wallflowers will quickly be overlooked. The squeaky wheel gets the grease and Italians know how to squeak!! Just this week, we might have spent all day waiting for someone to get us in the hospital waiting room and take us to the doctor Di had an appointment with. They have no receptionists or nurses to come find you….. you basically get into the hall and grab someone to say why you are there and/or snag the doctor himself.

It’s just a new and strange system to us and we are learning. This medical trip was done to try a private doctor instead of one through the health service, so when done I asked him where to go to pay. He took the money himself. Oh. The docs and techs are good, but the other part of this system is strange to us. We don’t know if all of Italy is this way or just Calabria.

We’ve spoken before about queues for everything. Whether government healthcare, immigration or taking a driving test – everything requires a wait. The good news is that if there is not a bar next door, you can be sure the building will have a good vending machine for a caffe.

A cute village story is my visit to the comune (city hall) to drop off our census form. I figured 30 seconds to run inside and drop it at the clerk’s desk. No. The guy inside (hired special to process census forms) spent 20 minutes going over the entire long form, doing some corrections and erasures so it looked nice, then gave me this very official receipt (completely stamped of course) so I would have perfect documentation to prove I had completed the form. In case the Carabinieri come asking?? I think Italians use any excuse to bang a stamp.


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