Thursday, February 24, 2011

Finding Worth

Spring was very definitely in the air last week...
We decided that our Nile cruise is on--after a month of waiting the "deal" requires us to make a decision, so we did. This post isn't about Egypt though, it's about traveling and why people do it and what you can expect if you visit us in Calabria. We are going to a very famous tourist area in Egypt because we have never been there before. When you have never been to a country, you feel you must hit the "high" points. Ergo, when we first came to Italy we crammed in Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Siena, and Rome. We did all the usual tourist things, except we didn't go to as many museums as is probably the norm, preferring people watching. We are very glad we made that trip--you don't want to live in Italy and have to tell people you've never been to Rome--but I reflect on that trip and realize that it's just not like us to visit a whole bunch of places making them notches on the belt. What do we enjoy when we travel? It seems to boil down to what Doug said he enjoyed the most in Venice. He would get up very early (as we do) and go down to a bar to get us both some coffee. He watched the locals getting their children off to school, their stores open, and taking their coffee at the bar around him. 

It's fun to go somewhere new and watch life unfold--be an observer--not someone with a stake in what unfolds. It's relaxing to watch without accountability. It's not the same as living in a place and meeting people with whom you will share accountability for how life unfolds. For this style of travel, it's best to be somewhere reasonably devoid of other tourists.

If you relate to this type of travel, you will enjoy coming to Calabria. It's part of the last of the old Italy, the way you think it is in Tuscany (but it's mostly not). There are few museums and the ones that are here are likely to be unadvertised. If you were to look up our area in the Lonely Planet, you would be told to pass it by because there is "nothing" here.  Yes, I say, go ahead and pass us by. You are leaving it all to those of us who can see what is here and what it's worth.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Full Year in Calabria

Yes, 18 February is the one year anniversary of our move to Italy. To honor the occasion, I’m putting together a few comments and answers to some questions we hear a lot.  First though, we extend our congratulations to the people of Egypt who have peacefully changed their lives--hopefully for the better. Di and I protested back in 2003 trying to stop the war against Iraq, but alas, Bush prevailed. 
Peace Rally against War in Iraq--Portland, Oregon

Having said this, please, please Egyptians, keep the lid on things because we are meeting friends there in May for a cruise on the Nile! 

The simplest way to start this first year anniversary discussion is to say that yes, we are very happy with the decision to pack everything up and come to a lovely little village in Calabria. It would be a long while before we could start taking our morning view across the terrazzo for granted. 
Today is going to be one of those perfect ones. A deluge of rain last night and this morning it is clear as a bell and the temperature is 19.5 before 10.00. It promises to be good afternoon for reading in the sun and boosting the body’s vitamin D level.

Tomorrow we are celebrating with Italian friends from our village, and our good American friends from Praia a Mare. We’re doing lunch at Ristorante Vigri’. It will be fun and I’m sure there will be some laughs over our Italian-speaking (especially mine).
Vincenzo and Angela from Vigri' Ristorante
Learning Italian is proving the biggest challenge of the move. Bit by bit (piano, piano in italiano) we’ll get there. Based on the experience of other English expats, we can expect to work 3 years before starting to get the hang of it. At least we now joke with the neighbors that when they rib us about not speaking Italian, that they too need to drop the dialect and speak more Italian around us if we are to improve. I chatted with a Pakistani chap in class last night who speaks his native Urdu, a little Arabic, a little English, some Persian and some Italian. I cannot whine about learning just one language.
Do we miss anything from the States? Not a lot really. Our friends and family stay in touch and our families are used to seeing us only every 2-3 years anyway. Speaking for myself, the things I miss involve my stomach. As much as I am wrapped-up into cooking and eating an Italian diet, I occasionally have pangs for good cheddar cheese (Canadian or Tillamook), cilantro for salsa, and maybe good coffee for home use. Yeah, there are dozens of super cheeses here, but when Irish friends smuggle down a couple packets of sharp cheddar it is a special time. I make my coffee remark because we come from the coffee capital of America in the Pacific Northwest. We became coffee snobs there. The coffee in the stores here is okay, but not super. Maybe I need to get beans from one of the 4 bars in town. Maybe we can grow the cilantro.
This winter we are feeling the first touch of culture shock.  It is not about a new country and culture, but simply that which comes from retiring. It was a busy summer with construction and fun-in-the-sun and now we are adjusting to a slower pace. I know many American pensioners are busier in retirement than before and I want to be careful about that.  We can’t get tied-down by anything that might affect the ability to travel and play! Di plans to get involved in some sort of civic duty when her Italian is up to snuff.
I must mention driving. Many Americans are horrified by driving in Italy. My first time, I had white knuckles for a week. I’ve grown used to driving here, although I still get passed by many German cars, I keep up better with the turbo diesel. We believe the Italians are very good drivers. Just remember, Italian driving requires your body to be moving all the time. Your hands especially so you can steer the wheel, shift, smoke a cigarette, honk the horn, talk on the mobile and gesture if talking on the phone or to a passenger.
Oh, I do miss DMV (Division of Motor Vehicles in America). DMV offers easy written exams. As an Italian resident (and not an EU citizen), we Americans are supposed to get an Italian drivers license (patente di guidare). It will NOT be an easy thing and I’m told that very few Italians pass the test their first time. My lucky day, they did away with an English version of the exam this past January. For the privilege of taking the exam, I get to pay 450€. I’m posting two versions of practice exams you can try. You can get no more than 4 wrong out of 40 on the real test. The first one allows you to switch to English. Skip the sign in and click “inizia”.   I was able to pass that one about 20% of the time! We’re now focused on the second test as we can print the results, translate the Italian more and study. Good luck.
On the people side, we have made many friends here.  Local Italians, British and American expats and other “foreigners” that have holiday homes here. They all make for a tremendous variety of personalities and experiences from around the world. Pretty danged cool. Now, shall I cook lunch today or go out again? So many decisions, so much time…….. Guido

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Last Piece of Wood

The missing last piece of wood is hidden by the top of the sofa in this photo from our Before and After post

Today marks the end of a long and unnaturally interesting "life in italy" type of story. As you may know, we spent the summer and most of the fall waiting for construction to finally finish in our guest apartment. On November 19, 2010, we announced to the world that our restoration was finished even though a small detail still needed to be wrapped up.  The kitchen cabinets lacked a small piece of wood to finish off the corner where wall meets cabinets. Simple?  Not so much. Here is the story (some of the details are unknown such as whether anyone from the store measured the gap or exactly where the cabinet factory may be).
The missing piece of wood took 3 or 4 months to finally get here
Who's counting anymore?

Let me state from the beginning that our relationship with the kitchen design company has always been fairly good. We always had a good time in the store laughing and generally having fun spending the proceeds from selling the farm. This story is meant in good humor although I'm not sure the store would understand exactly what we are laughing about right now.  It's this:

First, it took a month from the time we complained in late October (and denied final payment) for a truck from the cabinet maker to arrive with a piece of wood that the installer brought all the way to our house in November. One look at the wood conveyed to both of us that "mistakes were made".  It was the wrong color.  I made attempts in my bad italian to ask him to at least find out if the measurements were right. He thought I was trying to tell him that it was OK, and he said "no, non va bene". A month later, you guessed it, the new piece of wood was the right color but too short.  

In late December, the person I work with at the store called and apologized  wishing us a Happy New Year (after I made a trip to the store when he was absent). In a phone text message he said it would take another month to re-order the rebellious piece of wood. In case you lost count, that would mean January. I never heard another word until today when the piece of wood arrived at the house and Guido innocently asked if it was the right thing this time. The installer said we would see when he "opened" it.  Yes, they came all the way here without checking to see if it was the right thing.

Many questions come to mind like the following:
  • Is there no such thing as a rush mail order in Italy?
  • Why didn't anyone measure the first time?
  • Why doesn't anyone care if they don't get paid for 3 months? Apparently, this does happen a lot because when I told the store I wasn't going to finish payment until all was complete, I was wryly complimented as being "very Italian".
No major or even slightly important issues were at stake here other than getting a good reputation for doing a great job. I'm not sure what it all means except than I'm not in Kansas anymore (not that I ever was...) Gotta go now, we have to go pay for our kitchen.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sicilia for a Day

We are back at Tramonto (we missed having a name for our new house since we always talk about old Rainshadow Farm--so I'm getting used to Casa del Tramonto--Sunset House). We're enjoying the usual comforts of home...our own bed etc.  Before I unpack and do my pile of laundry, I wanted to share my birthday trip to Silicy with you. You may remember that we were in Tropea for two weeks at an Italian Language school. We planned it to coincide with my birthday on the 29th of January and to include a short week-end trip to Sicily. 

We don't have any pictures of our ferry ride TO Sicily because it was a pretty nerve-wracking experience since we've never done it before. We would have been more nervous than we already were had we known we were the last car to make the ferry. Looking back, it went pretty well. I got out of the car only once to ask some older fellows the way to the on-ramp. They actually understood my Italian and me theirs. A new experience. It's such a quick trip on the traghetto (ferry) that by the time you get upstairs to the deck, it's almost time to go back down again.

Travel ate up most of the weekend, but we had a full day in the city of Siracusa. We stayed on Ortigia, which is a small island and the centro storico (historic center) of Siracusa. 

The Grand Hotel Ortigia

Doug and I spent most of our married life in hotels without stars. In this stage of life we probably will no longer go camping (although it was fun--then) and we won't go on a trip unless we can somehow afford a hotel with a nice view and a great bathroom (all I really care about hotel-wise):

BTW from Guido: Ortigia will have our business again when we have more time. They DOOOO speak too much English around there because of all the Americans visiting Sicily.  They spoke inglese, we answered in italiano!! PS, the 4-5 star status is well worth the 140€ cost, especially in winter when they have heat and real showers!!!!!!

The Grand Hotel Ortigia is next to a small harbor that actually serves commercial as well as subsistence fishing. We enjoyed watching the sea gulls check the boats for potential handouts. We walked a great deal the next day looking at the rich architecture which was a mix of very old Greek and more recent Baroque.  Close to our hotel was a piazza in centro storico dominated by the Duomo. It was open and we walked right in:

This coach was in a municipal building of some sort
The sun at a cafe in a piazza is still one of my favorite things

These are the Greek ruins of a fortification around the ruins
of a city we didn't get to see this trip
Ortigia contains some Greek ruins but most of them are across the inlet in Siracusa. We tried to walk there but my comfortable shoes turned deadly after a whole day of walking around the island. We made it to a small outdoor market in Ortigia. I hope we'll someday see the legendary Palermo markets, but this one satisfied me until we take that trip.

Diana (the Goddess of the Hunt)
I'm named after her and although we don't share a passion for hunting-- I think we may share dispositions

The pictures below show one of three bridges that connect Ortigia to Siracusa:

There was a Marathon in town on Sunday.  It started in the piazza near our Hotel in Ortigia and went on around Siracusa. Doug caught some interesting photos of it:

Doug wanted me to point out the old Greek columns behind the runners

Like these guys, we had to run out of town and catch the next ferry. The Marathon closed the two main bridges so we had an interesting time finding our way out of town. We were about the second car on this ferry but it was a fast trip just the same. We had time for some terrible dry panini and Doug took a picture of Calabria:

We still had a week of language school ahead of us in beautiful Tropea:


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