Monday, November 22, 2010


As compensation for all of the rain I've had to endure for the past 3 weeks, the regional food producers have brought their wares into Florence for tasting festival. Specifically, olive oil makers have the first press of their oils, bright green, piquant and utterly surprising to my palette, used to supermarket or even just bottled brand from Sonoma County. This bears no resemblance to even extra, extra virgin oil. I was told that Toscanos love their olive oil fresh, bright, and spicey ... saturating bread, eaten before meals, during meals, between meals. There were white tents set up in the piazzas with tables full of the stuff from dozens of different orchards and producers, each slightly different, but all very different from what I expected. During the last weekend there was a new twist; some of the producers were putting salt into the bread soaked with oil; this made it more palatable to my mouth ... just as I was getting used to the delicious freshness of the pure oil....

Last weekend the vintner came into town. At the Pitti Palace 250 wineries from around the Chianti area brought reds, whites and a few prosecos to a happy crowd for tasting. 10 euros bought you a glass, a bag and supposedly 10 tastes, but very few stamped the counting cards, so one could really sample as many as one liked. I did not sip a chianti that I didn't like and I was introduced to a few whites that I'll look for when I get home.

Other treats in the market were fresh cheeses of all sorts (peccorino may be a generic Italy cheese), salames, and for one fleeting day, truffles. When traveling, never pass up an item you think you will want the next time it comes around ... it won't come around again. The truffles were there; I saw them; I smelled them (can't possibly describe the smell); and they were gone the next day. I content myself with a small jar of chopped truffles in paste...

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Reincarnation: a movie in Florence

Last night I went to a film at the Odeon Cinema. Florence is hosting a 90 day film festival and for a week there will be internationally produced documentaries presented at 5 venues. I saw a film made by American, Jennifer Fox, called "My Reincarnation", a coming of age story of a young man whose father is a Rinpoche of the Dzogchen sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The father had to leave Tibet during the Chinese invasion and came to Italy to live, marry, raise a family and start a Buddhist Center in Tuscany. His son, Yehsin, was believed to be the reincarnation of his dead uncle, and it was hoped that he would return to Tiber to take on his responsibiity. Yeshin wanted none of this as the movie starts. The filmaker followed this family for 20 years and Yeshin finally did come to recognize the calling of the teacher, visited Tibet to be "installed" in his body, and became a teacher like his father.

Dzogchen masters: one's nature is like a mirror which reflects with complete openness but is not affected by the reflections, or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed. In the practice of Dzogchen one is not distracted by thoughts, i.e. one does not let thoughts lead onself. This allows thoughts to naturally self-liberate without avoidance.

Three weeks tomorrow

Three weeks into this trip and I know I planned it right (notwithstanding the weather, which I was prepared for). I've gotten to know the gelato and snack places I like best, I don't get lost in the angled streets anymore, and I've met some great companions at the class I took. I don't have to get up early, and get to eat when and what I want, like a bowl of oatmeal in my own kitchen. In fact, most of my eating is at the apartment ... truffle spread on crostini, goat cheese and pesto with pasta, new greens in my salads, and a cup of espresso every morning. I search for new flavors of gelato and now, semifreddo is on my radar. Patisseries still are my favorite shops to peek into.

If I have any criticism of Florence it's that there isn't enough greenery around. There are huge, beautiful gardens, to be sure, but they're mostly private (as in museums) or outside of the centro storico. I love the magnificent piazzas, but how much more beautiful they could be with grass or shrubs around them. During the movement of The David statue, a grass field was moved in front of the Duomo to mimic what it looked like in 1510. I was told the grass turf came from the city's soccer field, so it had to be returned ... and it was. But what a different feel there was, walking on grass instead of stone for a few days.

I love not getting lost as often as I did when I arrived, but am still finding new alleys to explore and surprise me. Yesterday, returning from a destination, I went up one street which looked like it was built for only pedestrians, and found the entrance to a public library in a crevise. Across from it (about 6 feet) was a civil office and ahead the stone path narrowed to yet another office and a stairway. All stone, all probably 600 years old or more.

The sense of the very old is around the corner from a colorful and gleaming shop full of modern shoes or colorful gloves. These sensory surprises are one of the joys of traveling.

My eyes have been saturated with amazing paintings, sculpture and architecture--I feel awash in color, form, structure, religious iconography--and my brain has been taught a new way to comprehend it. The classes at the British Institute have been great. We've had 3 different lecturers ... two are American (both working on their dissertations, one with a Fulbright grant) and one an Englishwoman who's lived in Italy for 30 years, teaching and administering at university. They've covered the big three--Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael--in words, pictures and on tours (we're only about 12 students in the class so it's been really easy to get around), also discussing history, influences from others (artistic, religious and political) and the structural, philosophical and aesthetic developments of Renaissance art.

In a nutshell, it seems that with the rise artists' of power (because there was financial success in Florence, there was a demand for art) distinct and strong personalities (beginning with Leonardo da Vinci and Brunelleschi) started writing and thinking about art. Scientific (i.e., observational) skills helped art and architecture make monumental discoveries. The integration of math and science led the self-taught Leonardo into using perspective and then new structure (the triangle form) which led to the depiction of natural, active and engaged subjects. It also led Brunelleschi to engineer the fantastic domes of Rome and Florence. Leonardo's philosophy that the artist had power to create whatever he had the ability to imagine, and Michelangelo's idea that the form existed within the piece of stone and the artist had power to take away the dross to reveal the perfect, divine essence. For me, this enhanced the spirituality, even if it took away power from the church.

Friday Morning

I'd hoped to alternate between writing blogs and posting pictures on Facebook. So far, the Facebook posts and pictures have been lots easier and frequent, and hence I've neglected the writing. Part is this electronic medium, which tends to throw off/delete what I've written without warning (The gods of computing are not always with me.) even though there's an "automatic save" at the bottom of the page. So be it.

Second excuse for not writing is that what seem at the time to be the most profound and coherent thoughts come to me when I'm in bed, trying to sleep, or having woken up in the wee hours (the hour of the wolf). No way am I going to get up and sit at the computer when I could be churning thoughts under a cozy down comforter. So my blog readers must be content with the more mundane and consciously formed thoughts of mid-morning, after coffee typing.

Today it's raining again, and there's hasn't been heat in my apartment since day before yesterday. The agency I rented from must contact the owner who must then contact the building supervisor since heat (from hot water radiators) is regulated for the whole building. I get the feeling that in Italy some things tke more time than they should, while other things get done before you know it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

THE DAVID ... he's so fine!

7:30 p.m. Walked home tonight after a lecture at the B.I. from a film maker who's doing a documentary on the life of Alice Walker.

Feeling a little like Juliet of the Spirits as I walk rather fast in the rainy dark, with my Asian umbrella above my head, glancing at people quickly/a little, getting impressions of the Italian chic, the Italian unique, the young men with semi shaven jaw, thin hips and long legs; a dark haired woman with black eyes glancing at me over a man's shoulder as I walk by; a grey haired man walking too slow in front of me, so that I cross the street and see a young man walking even slower in front of him; they both cross the street after me and I wonder ... the shine of the Arno and a dark passage that I've never taken which leads me out just at the Uffizi collonade.

Maybe it's just the right mixture of espresso and wine that makes me feel the excitement of Italy. Two espressos, one glass of wine this afternoon ... not much... Maybe it was the exquisite visit to the Accademia Gallery where Frank Nero gave an amazing lecture about Michaelangelo's David.

This morning thunder, lightening and hail had me staying in til noon. Ventured out to the Casa Buonarotti where I was treated to two of M's first works ... an exquisite bas relief of Madonna and child (Madonna of the Steps), and a sensuous full relief called The Battle of of Greeks and Centaurs. A friendly docent loved telling me some of the stories I'd already heard from our lecturers, made much better because they were told with an Italian accent.

Then a walk the long way round to the Accademia, a pick-me-up espresso at a friendly bar and meeting first Debra, friendly fellow student from Australia, and then the rest of our class. I'll write up the notes of the talk later ... just let me say that in the long room with the Michelangelos one first sees the unfinished sculptures Bearded Prisoner/Slave and Awakening Prisoner, intended for Pope Julius II's tomb . In them you can see the process--the figures not quite free; the marks of the single fork chisel and the triple fork chisel, and even M's fingerprints on the marble.

At the end of the room stands the statue of The David, as he's always referred to, breathtaking. The facts are well known: he's 17 feet tall, carved of one piece of marble (unlike most, even smaller, sculptures which are pieced together after they're finished) and he truly exemplifies Michelangelo's aim to pull the soul out of a piece of stone, not by creating the form, but by releasing the form from the stone it's in. Hard not to rhapsodize a little, and Frank, though American, has the personality and passion for it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


10 a.m. Second try on this blog. Something I hit on this tiny computer seems to knock everything out ... and the 'automatic' save isn't worth a damn. But I don't give up easily so will try again.

The rain was heavy yesterday morning (like today) but let up around noon so I got out and headed for the Mercado Centrale, near the train station. The walk took me through the higher end antiques area and upper end hotels. The centrale is so small that everything is within walking distance, so neighborhoods are not all that distinct.

Looks like it will be easy to take either a bus or a train to Siena ... one or the other leaves every 30 minutes or so and the 2 stations are next to each other. I've been advised that bus is easier. If it's sunny on Friday I'll spend the day there (or two).

The Central Market is mostly tourist stuff. Leather belts and jackets, silk (?) scarves and trinkets. So far I've resisted ANY buying of items I'll have to carry home, but a wooden Pinocchio for Noah and a gift for the soon to be born babe are in order. Not yet.

Inside the market was a lot more interesting, although the door I entered put me face to face with dead animal parts that I wouldn't want to touch, let alone eat. Ghoulish shade of white intestines, stomach, ears and whatever reminded me that I didn't intend to eat Florence's trademark dish, tripe stew. The shops with olive oil and vinegar beckoned and I found an airport size (according to the clerk) bottle of 47 year old balsamic vinegar for only 45 euros. No thank you. The cheeses, truffles, breads and multi colored and multi shaped pastas were a lot more attractive.

Still, I left without buying and headed to the gelato store for a pick me up before class. Rome is still the winner, hands down, for gelato with the chocolate chip delight, but chioccarancia (chocolate with bits of orange ) and cafe mixture was pretty close!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday museums and rain

Love walking around this city. Everything is different, so everything is compelling to look at. Doorways, grafitti, walls, pavement, bridges ... and on top of that there's the sculpture.

Just back in time as it's pouring out now. It's Sunday and museums are closed tomorrow so I took the opportunity to go to the two closest to my apartment ... Museo di Galileo and Museo Bargello. The first full of scientific treatsures from the first navigation instruments, to Galileo's telescope to machines first used to demonstrate electriticity. Beautiful workmanship and I kept thinking that Dad would have loved to see this stuff. Maybe his old slide rule will someday make its way into a museum?

The Bargello is Florence's sculpture museum and I only saw about 1/2 of it. Donatello seems to be my favorite sculptor after Michelangelo. Just wanted to get that on the record.

Lunch at the Sun Cafe, which is near my piazza. Decided that I need to eat one meal out at some kind of restaurant, even if it's just a snack. Gives me the chance to taste the cuisine, and to get some kind of balance. Cooking here is good ... I'm eating well ... but even a bruscetta with loads of tomatoes and tuna tastes good if someone else makes it for me. Expensive, though. The cappucino was almost $5.00!

Walking back to the apartment, I decided to check out the ornate building I saw from across the river yesterday. It's the Florence Municipal Library and I will come back when it's open and hopefully be able to get in. Rain started coming down in earnest as I turned around. I'm getting good at finding the best way back home and , though my sandals are soaked, the apt is nice and cozy warm as I listen to the rain and watchthe leaves on my plane tree quiver and fall.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tour of the Piazza della Signora

8:30 am Went out last night with some ladies from the British Institute for pizza, pasta and wine. Guess the wine is catching up with me, as I slept badly and woke up groggy. Ruined the espresso, and can't seem to focus. It's embarrassing how little wine it takes to make me feel this way.

There's a man in the courtyard sweeping the leaves away again this morning The large golden tree is shedding leaves for the fall, so I'm sure he'll be there again tomorrow. Except it's Sunday tomorrow. The church bells ring frequently, but I haven't figured out the schedule. I think I just heard the 9:00 bells. Sometimes they ring on the 1/2 hour, and always at noon. Don't know where they are either, as there are so many churches around here.

No classes today and I don't feel like leaving town just yet, so I'm going to walk in a different direction today and see what I find. Was told last night about an open market ...

12:30 pm. But instead I went back to bed and slept another 2 hours ... til noon.. so much for the open market. Maybe it was the tough walk yesterday, maybe the wine, but it sure feels good to not have to do anything but treat myself well. And this time the coffee came out perfect.

The group at the B.I. is all ladies but one; all English but one (me); and all in their 20s and 30s but two (myself and Caroline). It's a quiet group and I'm usually the one to ask questions. This is the third part of a 3 month course which started with the early Renaissance, and I don't really know the history ... Other than remembering the Shakespearean plays and their Italian settings, I don't know much.

But back to my classmates. There's a tall couple who look very studious and bookish and who have lots of answers and astute comments (he is the only male in the class); there is Caroline who used to work at the B.I., came to live in Italy with her mother when she was 11 years old, and who has the brightest red/cerise hair I've ever seen close up; there is Monique, a beautiful statuesque brunette who's on 'sabbatical' from a job in London (finance, she said); there are a couple of cute-as-can-be blondes from England who often come in late. There's the twenty-something girl who lives in Africa and who is upset because her parents recently changed their minds about sending her and her brother to Paris for the weekend, "If they said they'd do it, they should do it." Her father, who's paid in American dollars, probably looked at the exchange rate and realized how expensive it would be. Some have been there for the entire course, and yet they are still very quiet and studious rather than talkative and social. Most have heads bent over notebooks, scribbling away at what we're told. In general, it hasn't been easy getting to know these people ... the English seem obtuse about talking about themselves (very polite of them) and there isn't really much time for chit-chat. It's only been a week, however and I'm hoping that an Australian shows up next week.

Friday was the first 'walk about' tour in the Piazza Signorina, a lovely, open space with restaurants around two sides, a loggia full of statues on one side, the Palazzo Vecchio with its huge belltower, Torre d'Arnolfo, and the edge of the Uffizi just outside, on the corner. A copy of Michelangelo's David (moved here in 1873 so that the original could be moved inside to shield it from the elements), is the only true renaissance sculpture here on the square. I learned that when Cosimo I came to power in 1512, he did not take a shine to the freedom, harmony and naturalism which Michelangelo's work represented. This was part of Republican Florence, and the Medicis had come back into power not for liberty, but with dictatorship on their minds. A new style was ushered in called Mannerism which replaced DaVinci and Michelangelo's philosophy of the artists' creativity and individual capabilities showing with more proscibed style, including brighter colors, twisted forms, dramatic light and virtuoso rather than natural expression. Cosimo hired the later artists to complete his work, and Michelangelo, in disgust, went back to Rome to work on the Sistine Chapel.

The statue of Hercules (1515) by Bardinelli, an abomination according to Michelangelo, was built to show the power of Cosimo. Even I could tell that it was flatter, uglier, and less graceful, standing next to the graceful David (1501-04). The fountain of Neptune (1550) was comissioned to demonstrate Cosimo's naval power, placing a likeness of Cosimo in the center. The beautiful block of carrera marble it was carved from was not quite large enough and so the arms of Neptune are somewhat drawn in to his body, to accommodate the size of the marble. Michelangelo, on hearing that the uncarved piece of marble had fallen into the river on the way to the scuptor's studio said, 'the marble would rather be at the bottom of the Arno, than to be carved by Ammannati' (this is the stuff of art historians who know the narrative) Also saw a beautiful Perseus holding Medusa's head (1545) by Cellini; The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581) and Hercules and the Centaur by Giambologna.

Then an explanation of Vasari's troubles in creating the great Uffizi (1560-86) on the banks of a river, and the corridor which became the Ponte Vecchio that Cosimo wanted to connect the government offices of the Vecchio offices on the Piazza with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. Quite an engineering feat.

We heard the story of how the beautiful Santa Trinita bridge was blown up by the Nazis and the Florentines came out and dove into the river hours after the bombing stopped to find the pieces of statuary for reconstruction. Original plans for the bridge were found and it was rebuilt exactly as it was before the war. Only one hand and a foot are missing from the statutes.

Last, we went into the Santa Felicia church which in the 2nd century was the settlement of an influx of christians from Armenia and Syria. Excavations of the site found tombs and columns from this earlier church even though another had been built on top of it

This is a great way for me to remember and reflect on some of what I've heard and seen. It may be tedious for you all to read ... I wish you could experience the smells and sounds around me as I hear this. Listening to tour guides talk is not my favorite thing about traveling, but there's so much history and gorgeous information here that in some ways the art is richer knowing the stories. The sheer expanse of time that's gone by since these works were made and the power that they still exude is the greatest part of the experience. Since arriving I've felt that the Italians are a patient people, though emotional, and living around this history and beauty may be one of the reasons why. They've been conquerors and they've been conquered, but the stone is still here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Uffizi and Beyond

I've downloaded and lost yesterday's photos, so this will be a literary blog, at least for now. Probably just as well, since photos are difficult to manage here.

The rain stopped and Florence emerged shiney and bright a couple of days ago. The skies were clear most of the day and when a few clouds did appear, they looked something like those seen in the paintings I've been soaking up.

Tuesday I became an Amici delle Uffizi, which means that for 60 euros I can visit any of the state museums (major ones include the Uffizi, Pitti, and Bargello, and there are about 20 others) for free for the rest of the year. Since single entrance is 8 euros, I'll surely get my money's worth. An American couple was in the office when I signed in and when I found out they were from Nevada (previously Calif). The woman at the desk smiled and remarked that most of their "Amici" Americans were from California. Museum supporters unite! I felt proud.

It's a long proceedure to get into the place. First the lines (although I get to skip them now) are usually long. Wednesday 11:30 wasn't too bad, but Tuesday 1:30 ... awful. Then there's a scanning machine for bags and people, then a turnstile to wait for, then 4 large flights of stairs, and finally, your ticket is taken. The museum is essentially 2 very long corridors with rooms off to one side, more or less chronologically organized and grouped by artist(s). In two visits I've managed to get through about 1/2 of one corridor, though I hope to revisit the Botticelli room some time when there aren't 100+ people in it looking at the Venus and Primavera with their tour guides. I've finally bought a little guide book, but I rather like just looking at the paintings and maybe only finding out who painted them and when rather than knowing too much about any individual cherub.

Though I'm taking a course in High Renaissance art, the 13th and 14th century art is what I'm loving just now at the Uffizi. The Annunciation paintings (where Mary is first hearing that she, a virgin, is pregnant) are amazing in that they have a formulaic positioning of the figures, but with variety of expression on her face and props around her. One by Filippo Lippi is a knock out as is another by Leonardo. Then the coming of perspective to the Adoration of the Magi by Fabriano looks like one of those pop out cards where each layer lays in front of the other. The characters practically jump off the panel. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, later Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi ... these are new names to me...

Florence is a city of tourists (at least here in the centro storico) and while they're not too obnoxious to me yet, think of Fisherman's Wharf in the summertime and you'll get the idea. Old Florence extends out maybe a 30 minute walk in any direction from the central piazza. You can take little side streets to get where you're going but if you go near the Ponte Vecchio (the goldsmith's bridge) or the Duomo, or the Uffizi, you're going to find crowds. I've gotten lost at least once a day taking an angled street that didn't end up where I thought it would.

Prices for food are high in this area, but if you shop around, you can get a delicious panini for 3 euros ($5) or a huge slice of pizza for 5 euros. Less if you're determined and get off the beaten track. Cappucino, standing at a bar for 1 euro, vs 3 euros if you sit and sip it while people watching..

The British Institute, where I'm taking a month long class in High Renaissance Art, is perfect for me. Classes are held across the river from the Center, in part of a building just on the other bank. The quintessential old English club feeling, 4 rooms of books stacked from floor to vaulted ceilings on Romas art and history, quiet rooms with magazines and newspapers, comfortable chairs, friendly receptionist, hushed and polite voices from Europe and America and Asia. A 90 minute lecture 3 times a week; tour 2 times a week; so far only an introduction and a discussion of the definition of artist from ancient Greek slave, to laborer, to guild member to free agent intellectual (via Leonardo and Varsi). There are about 20 in the class, mostly British, mostly young, college aged, a few of us retired folks, all friendly, if reserved (the definition of British).

The Institute also hosts films and lectures in the evening, and yesterday I heard a discussion abou ancient Roman history. What I didn't know is that Rome may have been founded pre-Romulus and Remus by Aneius (of the Aneid) who left Troy with his father and young son and washed up on the shores of Italy only to become the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. Strong archeological evidence seems to date Rome as a sophisticated civilization way before it was previously thought. Interesting lecture, about 200 people, wine after, good socializing. The theme of the film series is unfortunately War this month, so I didn't stay for The Longest Day, but may go to next weeks, The Great Dictator

Before class today I went to the Museo d'Opera which is difficult to find, but finally there behind the Duomo and which holds much of the statuary of the old church of San Lorenzo. I went because of the Nicodemus Pieta by Michaelangelo which was his last work. I will have to go back since photos are lost. Just to say that it has the majestyand sensitivity of a Michaelangelo, but not the delicacy of the St. Peter's Pieta ... more acceptance in Nicodemus' face, which is the face of Michaelangelo before he died at age 87.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gelato etc. in pictures

The photo with my face in it didn't want to download. This is more or less the view I see when I come out of the piazza from my apartment to the street.
There's a bedroom and bathroom that I didn't photograph, but you get the idea. This is all one room.

All from shops below are within a block of each other ....

And then there's pizza....

I will try to be strong, but what's a poor girl to do ?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Blogging in Florence

Blogging seems to be an art in itself, and another one I haven't mastered. Placing photos and text correctly, keeping hands on the right keys and saving text before it disappears are still mysteries. I'll try again today. I think I can copy this text to Facebook, but I can't copy offline text or Facebook notes here.

This morning I seem to be finished with jet lag. A full night's sleep last night! It's 2:05 PM here now and 6:05 AM in California, so the day and night seemed reversed for about 5 days.

Yesterday it rained all day and I couldn't get myself to go out at all. I'd bought some groceries the day before at a well stocked market around the corner, so I could drink tea and over-eat Nutella and toast sandwiches till I was disgusted with myself. I did have a good salad for dinner, however, so am not totally guilt ridden. Answered email, worked on second day in Rome message, listened to James Baraz dharma talks, and watched Wallender on PBS website. I found that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu don't allow access here due to copyright laws, so I'm limited to some PBS shows. Haven't figured out why some are available and some not, but PBS isn't so bad.

My apartment is fantastic. Great location, and way too much room for just me! There's a big room in front with full kitchen (including clothes and dish washing machines) , 2 couches, two large tables, windows on two sides. Then there's a bedroom and bathroom. The building is set back from the street, 2nd floor, garden view. It's on the Piazza Mentana which is across the street from the Arno River, and about 100 yards from the Uffizi, 200 yards from the Ponte Vecchio.

This morning there was no rain when I woke up and I managed to get out at about 9:00 and headed out to find the school where I need to report tomorrow morning. This took me to the center of Old Florence, Piazza della Republica. After locating the building and the sign saying British Institute, I wandered around a bit, heard organ music and stepped through the open door of a church to listen for a while. Getting hungry I found a little panini shop two doors down and had a "croque monsieur" (grilled cheese and ham) for 3 euros.

Ambling on vaguely searching for another church since this is All Saints Day, I came to the side of the Duomo, the most famous building in Florence, and one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen. Will try to post photo later. Just in time for mass, I went in and sat for an hour. All in Italian and Latin, of course, but the sense was there. And language isn't so important when you're surrounded by such a place. I don't have the statistics, but the echo from the dome and cantelevers was fabulous, choir singing, maybe 1000 people there, bishop presiding. While the altar and the dome (engineered by Brunescelli) interior are ornate, the rest of the sanctuary is not. This area doesn't have dark chapels off the side and frescos everywhere but is painted in soft neutrals (I don't know how to add a Wikipedia link, but that will tell you about all the artists represented).

I actually got a little out of the sermon about how this is Florence, the home of Michaelangelo and how great it is etc. I can't say that I was converted by any of this, but did respond to "the mystery of faith" which is certainly true for me. I was surprised to hear this phrase from a Catholic bishop... the place certainly brings up the question.
After people had taken communion and all of the pomp had left, people filed out into a rainy square. As usual, I was disoriented and turned the wrong way (away from the River) and found myself in a quiet neighborhood with few tourists, few shops and lots of typical italian apartment house facades. Turned right and right again, walked some more and discovered the Basilica di Santa Croce, another stunningly wonderful place. Still not sure, I asked a woman in a doorway "Dov'e il Arno". She, Filipina, told me in English how to get back to the river, and I arrived back "home" only a little wet and ready for a cup of tea.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rome, day 2 ... Money

Settling in. Today's first order of business was changing money. As I must pay for my apartment in Florence with cash, I brought a fair amount of dollars with me, thinking that it would be easier and cheaper to change them to euros than pulling euros directly out of my accounts via ATM. Not so. First, people I talked to, including the B&B owner, did not know of any banks or change agencies that would take dollars. Walking around I found that banks here do not let people enter unless they have an account with that particular bank. There were no large banks with several people waiting for tellers. Rather they were small, cramped spaces where only one person at a time could do business.

I found a tourist information booth and was told there was one cambio outlet on our side of the River (the Vatican is on one site of the Tiber, while most of the other sights are on the other). I found when I got there that there was a 10% fee for exchange and the rates weren't all that hot either. It was a shock to find out that while Yahoo and other currency conversion tables I looked at said the Euro was worth $1.36, when I got here I found that the Euro cost anywhere from $1.47 to $1.69. Makes a difference in a 1200 euro/month rental. Thinking that there might be more choices across the river, I walked on, and did indeed find the $1.47 price without the 10% fee. Dollars to euros.

Another surprise was the fact that all restaurants and shops do not take VISA or any other credit card. Smart idea, but inconvenient to say the least. Even my B&B owner, while he will accept VISA, would prefer cash. I've done most of my traveling in Asia and Central America, where the dollar has been welcomed. Not so in Europe. The sense of the power of the greenback is diminished.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rome, a vacation at last..

And then, I got to the B&B in Rome after an uneventful taxi ride. It's a lovely city, I try to tell the cab driver. "si" Is this the Vatican? "si" Are we almost there? "si" No one is at the desk at the address I'm given. I call. No one. Finally, Mauricio comes bounding down the stairs, trying to tell me that Cristiano is not here just now, but come, come. Cristiano will be here in a 1 1/2 hours, he says.OK, I say, but my baglio is lost (half Spanish/half Italia) Perdito? Si. Oh. Cris will come soon.
Cris came soon. A tall, friendly looking man; two 10 year old girls off in the other room. One is his daughter; the other her friend. They are shy; Cris is not. He feels like a haven. He calls baggage delivery company and they tell him they will deliver it sometime tomorrow morning. Va bene. I am still awake from the adrenaline and I ask about computer access. He gives me the code, and we work on connecting my computer to the wi-fi. Tutto va bene. The girls interrupt with the bon bons I brought for Cris from Heathrow. It is as if a matter of course that I brought a gift, but they thank me sincerely.

I got to bed and sleep at once. One wake up at about 1:30 and then back to sleep until 9:30. At breakfast I meet a couple from Holland who speak English.

And then I'm off to the Vatican for my 1:00 tour date. I don't usually take tours, but with the amount of stuff I know I'm about to see, this is important. I don't have a camera, because it's in my luggage (dont ask why) so I'm free to soak it all in without the thought of reproduction. For those of you who've seen the Vatican I'll just say "you were right. it's astonishing. I'm really happy that I finally got here." We've all seen pictures of it and read about it, and wondered about the power of popes who could have put together such a collection. Now I wonder more. I guess they were the rock stars, billionaires, atheletes and most powerful, famous people of their day . The popes collected and displayed the most opulent, over the top, and beautiful assemblage of art and architecture imaginable. That it came to them from religion and power and exploitation may be unconscionable, but here it is for us to see (if we're lucky enough to come to Rome).

The tour guide was fantastic. She knew history, art and religion. She knew how much to talk and how much to leave us to wander. She knew how many pieces to stop for and how much to skip. Her voice came clearly to us over remote speaker/ear plug device that we carried in our pockets and in our ears. So I could wander a room or two away and still hear her talking to the group,

I think Rafael surprised me the most. I was moved to tears by the library/office room where the four walls and ceiling were painted to depict the four intellectual treasures of this pope (who's name I can't remember): philosophy, theology, poetry and law. Socrates (whose face was Leonardo da Vinci), Plato, Michaelangelo (a twisted, neurotic figure at the bottom of the wall) and Rafael himself inspired the Pope while he was at work in his office.

The Sistine Chapel... the more I looked at it, the more beautiful and amazing it became. The perspective and sheer brilliance of the ceiling design was astounding. He had to incorporate the curve of the ceiling and did so by using a system of triangle and two different sizes of rectangular shapes. The figures of the prophets leap off the ceiling in tromp l'oeil technique. Three of the paintings of creation were especially amazing to me ... the separation of light and dark, the creation of the sun and the moon, and the creation of man. These three have distinctly dual form .... light and dark; sun and moon (with a light and dark background), and man and god reaching for each other on a light and dark background. When the serpent enters the garden, the dualism ends. The center becomes the tree of knowledge and after that man becomes the center of the canvas.

A Tale of 5 Airports

SFO-O'Hare-JFK-Heathrow-Fiumincino(Rome)/. It started out pretty copacetic as friend Robert picked me up and deposited me at BART. No delays, BART goes directly from about 15 minutes from Benicia to the SFO. No crowds, check-in was a breeze, as was security. Flight smooth, landed almost on time at O'Hare. Nice hotel, country-like setting, comfortable sleep. And then, a storm came in overnight, and I woke to wind, rain, and news that a tornado had touched down in or near Chicago. Still, my flight was not to leave until 1 pm and the weather was supposed to let up.
Arrived at O'Hare in plenty of time, again, easy check in (things are going too smoothly), and boarded early. On the tarmack, Captain Mullins (in a lovely, thick Boston accent) says, "JFK tells us that they don't have space and ability to let us land there, so we're going to have to park here for a while... will let you know when I hear more". Ten minutes later, calm as an ocean breeze, he tells us (again I'm charmed by the accent) "They say we're going to be here for about 2 hours. But in 25 years of flying I can tell you for sure that this can change in a minute." Murmers about connections in NY to Frankfurt, Madrid, Milan, and Mumbai. My flight to Rome leaves NY 1 hour after we were supposed to arrive. The flight attendant quickly senses danger. "I'll just go check and see if he's kidding."
We drive to the holding area for sad, unwanted planes. The wind buffets us about. The captain tells us that they've decided we need to go back to the gate before the plane is torn to bits by a tornado or something. We are told we can de-plane but be back in 30 minutes. No information about connections or what will happen to us in NY. Perhaps we'll be put on another flight (maybe first class?), or put up in a hotel. I'm thinking that maybe I should change my plans and spend a month on the east coast instead of going to Italy. The leaves are beautiful at this time of year, aren't they?
I practice mediation and equanimity now. In the universal sense this is not a problem, it can be overcome, getting upset will only serve to raise my bloodpressure, and who's to say that it might not be as bad as I expect. A "service" agent is at the gate, and a woman standing in front of me is raising her voice, "but that's 24 hours from now!!" My turn and he says, "I'm afraid it's the same for you. You'll be diverted to Heathrow and then take a flight from there to Rome." Equanimity now.
On the flight to Heathrow I was surrounded by Brits. I love their calm, show no emotion, slightly humorous from above take on things. Suddenly, I felt better, know that the empire would prevail, no matter what, and the only thing to fear was fear itself, man the torpedos, full speed ahead, and laugh if they laugh at you. And I managed to sleep about an hour on that 7 hour, overnight flight.
Arrived to a 3 hour wait at Heathrow. Thought I'd change some money, look for a pre-paid mobile phone that would work in Europe (didn't find one) and get breakfast. The STarbucks looked tempting, but egad! I'm in England .. forget about STarbucks!! Pret's Porridge looked like British fast food and who doesn't love porridge, the ultimate comfort food? Warm, creamy bowl of rice porridge with some nice grapes on the side cheered me right up, and I waited calmly for my flight. Emailed Rome to let them know when I'd arrive; prayed that my luggage (which was still foolishly check --more about this another time) would arrive also, I sat quietly, cooling off from hot flashes and/or nervousness.
Last leg uneventful. One quiet young Italian man sitting on my left, very apologetic when he needed to get up to use the bathroom; another very loud, nervous, demanding Italian man sitting on my right, irate that the flight was 10 minutes late getting off the ground and letting me know that there was no excuse for the British to run an airline this way. I gave him a cough drop and he fell asleep.

Arrived Fiumincino 8 hours later than expected on time, called the hotel, waited for luggage, waited for luggage ... how could my bag have possibly made it from Chicago, through all of those changes, when I barely made it myself? Polite service agent let me know that they knew where the bag was ... it was left behind at Heathrow, as he put it, and it would be coming in at 8:00 that night and delivered to my hotel. I felt good, knowing that it was there, traveling, like me, sola. We would be reunited soon.