Tuesday, November 29, 2016

DNA testing can show distant connections—it’s true

I sent off my Ancestry DNA kit today, and the paperwork included says it will take six to eight weeks to get the results. But meanwhile, I’m entertaining myself by comparing people of Italian ancestry who match my brother’s DNA test. A few days ago, I found another Chicago Spadoni family that we’re related to and have established contact with Donald Spadoni, my fifth cousin once-removed (and he is the third person I know named Donald Spadoni). I hope to find out more about him and his family through continuing correspondence.

Archbishop Anthony Burns
But today I found another Italian connection, and the distance of the relationship really surprised me. The database showed we were related to Anthony JM Burns, archbishop of an offshoot of the Catholic Church. His Ancestry account showed a family tree that went back to Pietro Dini (1844-1918) and Gioconda Spadoni (1848-1925). My prior research in the archives in Pescia, Italy, shows the genealogy of Gioconda. I was surprised to click back into her ancestors and find that our common ancestor was Francesco Spadoni, born in Stignano around 1455, a time-span of more than 500 years.

I’ve read some forums complaining about the supposed false claims that the DNA testing companies make about finding one’s relatives. In actuality, the tests find many relatives—but the real problem is that most of them don’t have well-developed family trees connected to their online profiles, so it’s not possible to find out how they are related. However, some of them do include family trees, like Archbishop Burns, my 12th cousin twice removed. His went back to the mid-1800s, and that was enough for me to make the connection.

I had read that autosomal DNA testing could reveal relationships beyond 500 years, but I don’t know if I really believed it. Well, now I do. The lucky thing is that I’ve done so much research in Italy and built a broad Spadoni family tree. Without that, I never could have made the actual connection to Archbishop Burns.

I was able to look him up on Google and Facebook and was about to write him a note when I discovered, sadly, that he had passed away in June of this year at age 49. One of his brothers posted a note on Anthony’s Facebook page explaining that this would be the last entry because of Anthony’s death. Perhaps I can make contact in the future with this brother or someone else in the family. It’s amazing to me that through genealogy websites and DNA testing, we can find cousins with common ancestors dating back to the Middle Ages.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

How Italian is the average Italian?

I recently read an article published by AncestryDNA stating that the average person in the United Kingdom is only 37 percent British (Anglo Saxon). He is also 22% Irish (Celt) and 20 percent Western European (mostly French and German).

My brother’s DNA test showed that he is 37 percent Italian/Greek and 34 percent British—so he is almost as British as a person in the U.K. But the article makes me wonder, how much Italian DNA does the average Italian have?

My brother and half a dozen cousins have been tested, and their results show an average percentage of Italian/Greek DNA at around 30 percent. At first this surprised me, because we’ve always considered our generation to be half Italian. I’ve traced our Spadoni line back to the same rural location in Tuscany to the early 1400s, and the Seghieri line (our grandmother) to the late 1200s. All of their marriages seemed to be to people with regional names as well: Marchi, Cinelli, Tognarelli, Galli, Mariani, Di Vita, Capocchi, Montanelli, Petrocchi, Bellandi, Del Tredici, Iacomini, Notari. All of these names have had long histories in the Valdinievole community.

Note that the categories are, of necessity, pretty broad. Great Britain
crosses over with Western Europe. Italy/Greece includes parts of Western
Europe and continues east to include much of the former Yugoslavia.
So why wouldn’t we be 50 percent Italian, or at least close to it? The answer lies in the fact that even people who have lived in Italy for centuries are not 100 percent Italian, just as the people in the U.K. are not all British. None of my relatives in Italy have had their DNA tested, so I don’t know what their percentages would be, but I do know one of my Facebook friends, Florian, is 100 percent Italian by genealogical standards, and his proven family roots go back to the late 1500s. Yet his DNA test showed him to be 72 percent from Italy/Greece, 10 percent Ireland, 7 percent Great Britain and the rest a mixture of other places.

Another Italian Facebook user, Giuseppe Pallucchini, wrote that he was initially surprised to find that his Italian/Greek DNA showed up at only 80 percent. He also said the explanatory material he received with his test explained that ‟a typical Italian native has 72 percent Italian/Greek.”

Italy has been invaded and colonized by Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Spaniards, Catalans, Longobards—and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Being centrally located in the Mediterranean, Italians have traded with numerous civilizations and even imported slaves to mine metals and marble, build towers and cathedrals, and fight in their armies and in gladiatorial battles.

I’ve also noticed that many Italians show a high percentage of Western Europe DNA, and that Ancestry doesn’t try to distinguish between the various Western European countries because the people have intermingled there for so many years. With all this movement in a small geographic area, it makes me wonder what the geneticists consider a true Italian to be. I’m sure it comes down to a somewhat subjective judgment, even if the criteria is based on scientific statistics.

It is certainly more than DNA that makes a person Italian, since Italy is a culture as well as a geographical region. We’d like to believe that science will make everything simple, that we can know that a person from France is French, a person from Ireland is Irish and a person from Poland is Polish—but that’s not how it works. Boundaries change, people move and intermarry. Centuries pass, and countries change names and rulers. Cultures inherit characteristics from the people who live nearby. All these factors should be considered when viewing one’s DNA results.

At best, DNA testing is a way to investigate one’s roots and spark a greater interest in history. It’s a complicated world, growing ever more diverse, and while knowing where one comes from is important and interesting, ideally it should help us to live better lives in the here and now.

DNA testing has helped me add to the Italian branch of our family tree

For the past six years, I’ve been passively searching for more relatives who descended from the brothers and sisters of my great grandfather Pietro Spadoni. Up until 2011, I didn’t even know Pietro had any siblings, since he died in 1904, and my closest living cousins in Italy were born much later and knew almost nothing about him.

In 2011, I discovered, by researching in the state and church archives in Pescia, that Pietro had had four brothers and five sisters (although at least three died in infancy). I found that three of them—Francesco, Angelo and Gioconda—married and had children. I knew that names of their children, and in a few cases, even their grandchildren, but most records after 1900 are not available to view for reasons of privacy, preventing me from finding any living descendants. In 2014, I managed to hunt down third cousins Silvano and Emo Celli, the great grandsons of Gioconda Spadoni (I finally have a talk with cousin Leino), but I had no success finding any descendants of Francesco and Angelo.

My technique for finding cousins in Italy consisted of looking up Spadonis near Ponte Buggianese in the white pages and dropping in on them unexpectedly. This is not something I do well, since my Italian is not great, nor am I particularly outgoing or extroverted. Nevertheless, I managed to meet various Spadonis: Leonello, Fausto, Ilio, Lara, Mauro and Bruna. All of them except Leonello proved to be extremely distant cousins, and even Leonello’s ties dated back a generation prior to Pietro.

Recently, though, I have found a great number of descendants of Angelo, through the unlikely resource of a DNA test that my brother Roger took. DNA testing has become both affordable and popular in recent years. It is primarily used to show people their historical ethnic backgrounds, but it has the added benefit of making it possible to contact other people who share one’s genetic history—relatives who could be as distant as eighth cousins.

Roger’s test showed up more than 4,500 cousins, and the number grows each week as more people undergo DNA testing and the database expands. Two of his first cousins have been tested and show up in the files, and several known second cousins are there as well. A vast majority of the relatives—at least 4,350—are in the category of fifth through eighth cousins, and likely we’ll never actually find out how we’re related. Most of these cousins don’t have family trees that extend back more than a couple of generations, and many don’t have trees in Ancestry.com’s database at all.

However, one match caught my attention, and when I clicked on the person’s link, I saw an ancestor named Quartina Spadoni listed. We have a Quartina in our tree, a granddaughter of Angelo Spadoni. The dates of birth and other information matched between the two trees.

Ancestry doesn’t give out any contact information for the people who share your DNA, but it does allow you to contact them through Ancestry’s messaging system. I contacted this cousin, and we have since shared family information and become friends on Facebook. Now I have filled in considerable information about her branch of the family, including names of relatives in both Italy and the United States. I’ve also become Facebook friends with some her close relatives who are in Italy. One of them is a hair stylist in Chiesina Uzzanese, and we intend to meet in person next time I’m in Italy.

We’ve also been contacted by a few other people who noted that we are probably related by common Italian ancestors. The specifics of our connection are yet to be determined, but as we expand our family trees, we hope to come across the common ancestor. This is part of the fun of ancestry research—finding new puzzle pieces and trying to properly locate them.

In the days leading up the Christmas, popular genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and Family Tree DNA usually have sales on DNA testing. Even without sales, the cost of a basic ‟family finder” test is now under $100. The test will show general areas from where your ancestors hailed. It will also give you a long list of likely relatives who have already submitted their DNA for testing.

If you order a kit, you’ll be sent the testing materials needed, along with a return mailing envelope. You either take a swab from inside your mouth (Family Tree DNA) or provide a sample of your saliva (Ancestry). Results are usually ready in about two months. Since Ancestry began offering genetic testing in 2012, more than 1 million people had been tested by 2015; by June of 2016, the number exceeded 2 million. A day will soon come when knowing one’s ethnic makeup from a genetic standpoint will be as commonplace as knowing one’s blood type.

I just ordered ‟family finder” testing kits from both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA for both myself and Lucy, taking advantage of the pre-Christmas sale prices (I had previously had my Y-DNA test, but that doesn’t indicate overall ethnicity, and it only tests the male family line). It is our Christmas present to ourselves.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is Italy a safe and healthy place for young women (and men)?

After having interviewed my daughters a few years ago after they had lived in Italy for a year during their teen years, I concluded that I was not afraid to leave my daughters and wife alone in most places in Italy. I wrote about this in Do Italian males live up to reputation for their persistent and flirtatious behavior? Now I have additional confirmation and statistics to support my thesis.
Italian girls and boys receive lots of practice in interpersonal relationships during the Italian passeggiata, one reason they may be more skilled socially than American young people. 

I’m reading a fascinating book, Amore, by cultural sociologist Roger Friedland, who is imminently more qualified than I to speak on the topic. Friedland studies and teaches on love, sex and God, and he has worked in universities in both the United States and Rome, Italy. During his seminar classes, students in both countries freely shared their encounters with members of the opposite sex. Friedland also brought his wife and two coming-of-age daughters with him to Italy, giving him additional first-hand accounts and insights.

He observed that young women frequently walked alone at night in Rome’s city center, waiting near midnight for the last buses home. Were they harassed or afraid, he asked the women in his class. They told him that boys routinely made unwanted remarks, came too close and sometimes touched them where they didn’t want to be touched. However, the women were not afraid.

Friedland discovered that American and Italian women were equally likely to endure harassment. “But,” he continued, “there is a difference, a big one: American men are much more likely to commit rape. One-quarter of female college students in America will experience either rape or attempted rape. Twelve percent of high school girls have already been raped. The real numbers are likely much higher, because many women not only don’t tell the police; they don’t tell anyone.”

Friedland’s Italian students were stunned to hear these statistics. Fewer than 5 percent of Italian women between the ages of 16 and 24 have ever experienced rape or attempted rape. Most of that—about 70 percent—was committed by their intimate partner.

“The question is, why?” Friedland asks. “It’s not because Roman men don’t look. They are voracious with their eyes, savoring the bodies of women as they pass. After all the time I’ve spent in Rome, I’ve come to think that part of the reason rape is so much rarer in Italy is that Italian men love women more than American men do. Beneath all the sexual jest, the lusty looks and suggestive remarks, Roman men respect women.”

Friedland’s daughters were subjected to this harassment as they entered their teen years, but they learned to cope along with the Italian girls. He said that Italians accept that flirting is part of human nature but is not a precursor to rape. Girls in Italy are free to “swear at the boys, to berate them, hit them on the heads or in the face, belittling them for their pathetic antics.” His girls didn’t regard the advances as dangerous.

“Roman women who grow up in the system learn to maneuver, to parry and resist the verbal and visual predations of men, because they feel relatively safe from violation,” he writes. “Roman girls learn early not to be afraid of boys. They grow accustomed to walking alone to the square to fetch olive oil or pizza bianca for their mothers.”

Friedland also contrasts Americans and Italians in their beliefs about marriage. The American students he surveyed while teaching at UC Santa Barbara wondered whether love is real; they seemed afraid to believe in love and lifelong marriage because they had witnessed so much disappointment in their parents’ relationships. Only about 60 percent of the UC students said they wanted to marry and stay with one person all their lives, and less than half said they actually expected to.

And why should they? Of American couples who married in the first five years of the 1990s, 42 percent divorced within 15 years. By contrast, only 8 percent of comparable Italian couples had separated. In the United States, close to half of all marriages are remarriages. In Italy, 95 percent of all marriages are first-time ventures for both parties.

Friedland also found that Italians are—to put it delicately—better lovers. To put it less delicately, he said that “young Italians—especially females, but also males—have more frequent orgasms than young Americans. Love makes for pleasure. Love radically increases the probability that a woman will have an orgasm. Italians still revere passion. Because the men love the women, they are more likely to care about giving them pleasure. And the women they love take pleasure from that love. Men’s love works.”

Again, the question must be asked, why this difference? Friedland goes to great length to answer this, and for a more complete explanation, you’ll need to read his book. But the heart of the answer has to do with how Italians experience family and family life. Italian families are all-absorbing, involving grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

“Roman kids are deeply invested in their families—forever,” he said. “Unlike middle-class American kids, who leave for college and return home just to rest and refuel, most young Italians continue to live at home while attending university. When Roman kids do move out, it’s to get married and set up their own households. That often happens nearby, even in the very same building their parents live in, frequently with their parents help. And overwhelmingly, they rely on their parents to care for their children when they can’t be there.”

I don’t mean to make it sound like Italian family life and male-female relationships are some kind of paradise. We’ve seen husbands and wives yelling at each other on the streets, families arguing loudly in houses as we pass by, and we read headlines in the Italian newspapers about murder and abuse. We’ve been warned that certain parts of large cities are unsafe to walk in at night. But to fear, as I once did, that Italy may be more dangerous for my daughters than the United States is nonsense—unless I was worried that they might fall in love and have stable marriages.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Forested hills above Stignano prove to make a satisfying excursion

I took advantage of a good weather on a day that was predicted to be rainy by taking a hike in the hills above Stignano—the little hillside town where various Spadoni families had lived throughout the
A great view of Buggiano Castello from the road above Stignano.
1500s and 1600s. Lucy was busy making a quilt for Juniper, so I went on my own, leaving home right after lunch.

I hadn’t really noticed before that a single lane winding road continues up the hillside past Stignano. I also noticed that a similar road goes up the valley between Stignano and Buggiano Castello before turning left and going up into the hills. I figured that since they were somewhat parallel routes into the hills, at some point there must be a crossroad that joins them, and I could take a giant loop. I started at Stignano and had walked about a two kilometers when I noticed a good dirt road that went off to the right—which would be in the general direction of the valley road. Meanwhile, the better paved road looped to the left, away from my destination.

Chestnuts in their fuzzy outer shell, with a tiny mushroom starting to grow
in the center of the one on the left.
So off I set on the dirt road. It’s always more satisfying to go where cars can’t go anyway. And then the dirt road, which by now had become a trail, forked. For the second time, I took the advice of Robert Browning and chose the road less traveled, the one to the right. Thanks a lot, Robert, be
A delicious looking fungo, but not knowing if it was
edible, I left it alone.
cause the trail soon became overgrown and almost impassible—though I soldiered on, sometimes going under, sometimes over and sometimes around the barriers of trees, branches and blackberry vines that periodically covered the trail. No one had taken this route for some time, it appeared, except for the cinghiali—wild boar—which had left numerous signs in their search for edible roots. I even found a mud-hole where they sometimes wallowed.

This one I went under, trying to move aside
the blackberry vines that hung down.
I saw no wildlife, save for a few ducks, but the forest was full of edible treasures—hazelnuts, chestnuts, mushrooms and strange little fruit that I couldn’t identify. I set down my jacket to take some pictures and continued on, accidentally leaving the jacket behind. Eventually my path led me near a little creek, with moss growing densely on the surrounding rocks. I scrambled down to take photos of a couple of waterfalls. I realized that I had descended quite a distance into the forest, and at some point I would have to cross the creek and go up the other side. However, I saw no trail on the other side, and it was also pretty steep. I kept going upstream until eventually the creek disappeared underground.

I would have missed this waterfall had I taken
the more traveled trail. 
I crossed over, thinking that I must be getting close to the other road. But then a tall fence with a locked gate barred my way. I tried going around on the lower side, but the hillside became too steep to pass. I turned back and went up the valley while following the fence. It was around then that I heard a rumble of thunder and saw dark clouds rolling in. That’s when I noticed that I no longer had my jacket. It looked like I was in for wet afternoon. I had to find the valley road, because I didn’t want to pick my way back through the forest and all its obstacles.

This church dates from the early 1200s.
However, I soon realized that the thunder was actually a jet airplane, and the clouds weren’t as thick as they had seemed when I had first heard the “thunder.” And then, after another 200 meters and a steep climb alongside the fence, I came to a trail, went to the right for another 300 meters, and I had found the upper part of the valley road. I soon passed a church with an interpretive sign stating we were in Campioni. It was the Chiesa di Santo Stefano in Campioni, and a sign said mass would be held there on Saturday, November 5, a date already passed. I saw no indication of when the next mass would be.

I had to go all the way down the valley road to Borgo a Buggiano and then up the Stignano road to my car. Then I drove back up the hill to where the dirt road had branched off, parked the car and went back to retrieve my jacket. I passed some woodsmen along the way, but they were busy collecting firewood and didn’t see me—but as it would turn out, to be providential for me they were there. The little Fiat I was driving spun its wheels as I was turning around and became stuck. Not badly stuck, but since I was only a foot away from a guard rail, I couldn’t take a chance on trying to rock it back and forth without risking having it slide against the rail.

I asked if I could take a photo of the "angeli della macchina,"
the angels of the car, and they consented.
I walked back into the forest and told the woodsmen that I either needed a car with a tow chain or quattro uomini fortissimi, and they looked to fit the bill, or words to that effect. They pushed the car out in a jiffy, no tow chain needed. What a blessing to have found them. As I drove off, around 4 p.m., it started to rain and continued throughout the evening—another near miss. All together, it was a very satisfying hike.

Postscript: The unidentified fruit turned out to be from a strawberry tree. How could I have lived all my life and gone to Italy a couple of dozen times and never heard of this? According to Wikipedia, “The Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree, occasionally cane apple) is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the family Ericaceae. Arbutus unedo is widespread in the Mediterranean region.” Unfortunately, the only one I brought back got squished in my backpack. Not wanting to lick the inside of my pack, I can’t tell you how it tasted.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Favorite statements of love for Italia

Italy is on the bucket list of nearly every traveler. What is it about this narrow peninsula that lures so many people? It’s an intoxicating blend of delicious food, endless culture and history, breathtaking landscapes and invigorating attitudes. Each time we come back, we fall in love all over again with this graceful enchantress.


Tuscany

Numerous people have expressed their appreciation for the bel paese in words both simple and elegant. Here are some of our favorite quotes:

Lucchio
“A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”
Samuel Johnson, English essayist


“The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo.”
Mark Twain, author


“Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.”
Fanny Burney, English novelist


Elba

“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.”
Bertrand Russell, philospher, logician, mathematician

“What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find there that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.”
Erica Jong, author


Padova

“I think people in Italy live their lives better than we do. It’s an older country, and they’ve learned to celebrate dinner and lunch, whereas we sort of eat as quickly as we can to get through it.”
George Clooney, American actor


“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
Truman Capote, author


Lucca
“For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery, back, back down the old ways of time. Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness.”
D.H. Lawrence, English novelist


Comicon in Lucca
“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.”
Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet

“I love places that have an incredible history. I love the Italian way of life. I love the food. I love the people. I love the attitudes of Italians.”
Elton John, musician, songwriter


“Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!” Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet
“I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
And sounds as if it should be writ on satin
With syllables which breathe of the sweet South.”
George Gordon Noel Byron, poet, politician



“Open my heart and you will see
Graved inside of it, Italy.”
Robert Browning, British poet and dramatist


“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
Giuseppe Verdi, composer, musician

“And that is ... how they are. So terribly physically all over one another. They pour themselves one over the other like so much melted butter over parsnips. They catch each other under the chin, with a tender caress of the hand, and they smile with sunny melting tenderness into each other’s face.”
D.H. Lawrence, English novelist



Tuscany

“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Orson Welles, American actor, director and writer

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How to eat well in Italy: some advice from a blogger (and) abroad

Since there are so many incredibly good food establishments in Italy, this may seem like an obvious topic with obvious answers, but there are some Italian terms that can be baffling to the uninitiated. It took us a while to figure all of this out, but you can save some time and learn from our experiences.

La Terrazzo in Montecarlo advertises itself as both a ristorante and a pizzeria.
First, though, an explanation of Italian meals: Formal lunches or dinners served on special occasions in Italy can include many courses, including the antipasto (pre-meal appetizers and drinks), the primo piatto (first course, which is usually a pasta dish or soup), the secondo piatto (second course, usually meat or fish) and then a contorno (vegetables) with insalata mista (mixed green salad). The dolce (dessert) can either be fresh fruit or a sweet pastry or custard. Then comes the caffè, usually an Italian espresso, but you can request your favorite variety. Some restaurants also offer a sweet wine, grappa or limoncello to help digest your meal.

Having explained all this, a meal like the one above is the exception, not the rule. Feel free to order whatever you want from the menu. As a couple, we often order one plate for two people (dividiamo in due). That way we can sample many items without getting too stuffed to finish. Or we may just order a single antipasto to share and then we each order a primo, or each order a primo and then split a secondo. It’s your meal, and you can do what you want.

On to the definitions:

Ristorante: Of course, this is the word for restaurant. Make an effort to pronounce it correctly: REES/tohr/ahnt/teh, not REST/tohr/ahnt/tee. You can expect full service, with someone to seat you and an experienced and polished waiter who knows the food and wine well. The menu will be printed with fixed prices for all the courses, and the variety will be wide.

You can get a fantastic meal at the Trattoria di Montecarlo.
Trattoria (Trah/tohr/EE/ah): Basically the same as a ristorante, but the different word indicates that it is family owned with a more casual or rustic environment that might be found in a small neighborhood. The menu may be smaller. However, now some trattorie (plural of trattoria) are essentially the same as ristoranti, so you may not notice any difference.

Another of our favorites, Osteria alla Fortezza.
Osteria: These are wine bars that have lately evolved to serve simple but full meals. They may have no menu and offer few or no choices for each course. The offering changes daily, according to the market, and two or three courses are offered for a fixed price, including wine.

Bar or caffè (sometimes caffetteria): You probably think you know what these are because we also have them in America, but they’re not at all the same thing in Italy. They are places to get coffee and a pastry in the morning. Some also serve panini (sandwiches) at lunch. Others will also have wine and cocktails starting in the afternoons (happy hour), with potato chips or nuts on the counter.

You get a lot more than wine now at an enoteca. Here is a
sampling of local treats at the Piccola Enoteca in Montecarlo.
Enoteca: The word literally means “wine repository,” but these have also evolved. Historically, an enoteca gave visitors the possibility to taste local wines at a reasonable fee and possibly to buy them. Snacks could also have been served, and in recent times the snacks have become more varied and plentiful, also showing off local specialties.

Rosticceria: If the place where you live has a kitchen, this is a great way to dine on authentic cuisine for an excellent price. Food here can be compared to “fast food” because it is ready to take away and eat, but it has been prepared with traditional slow methods. At a good rosticceria, the food is restaurant quality. Wine is often sold too, so you can save money and bring home a complete meal. Some rosticcerie go by the label tavola calda.

-eria or -ria: Some eating establishments are
self-explanatory. A gelateria sells gelato. A pizzeria sells pizza. A
Enjoying a gelato at the Chiardicrema gelateria in Montecarlo,
which also sells excellent crêpes and waffles.
birreria is a beer-focused bar. An ending can be added to almost any food to show the specialty of the establishment.
A few final words about paying at the end of your meal. Many establishments will not bring your bill until you ask for it. You can say, “Il conto, per favore.” Tips are not expected and are not normal practice. Many meals will include a cover charge (coperto) that includes bread and service (although some add separate coperto and servizio charges). If you want to show extra appreciation, you can leave one or two euros on the table, but again, it’s not usual.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Montecharloween is a fine example of the increasing popularity of this spooky holiday among Italians

Halloween, not celebrated much in Italy until the past 10 years, is experiencing exponential growth, and we can feel the changes from one year to the next. We were in Montecarlo last year and participated in the city’s festa for Halloween, Montecharloween. Then we went again this year.

This long-legged spider was our
choice for best costume.
It was like a passeggiata on steroids, with be-costumed families and groups of teens walking together, mixing and mingling with acquaintances while watching a few street entertainers and stopping to buy snacks at food booths or even entire meals at the open air restaurants. We had been told that trick or treat (dolcetto o scherzetto) was starting to catch on, and last year we bought a sack of candy to pass out. We ended up eating it ourselves though, as none of the many passing children came to our door.

The face-painting booth was popular.
At Montecharloween 2016, the crowd nearly doubled in size, making it difficult to pass though via Roma because it was stuffed from wall to wall. While we were eating dinner with some friends and then later in the evening as well, trick or treaters rang our doorbell at least a dozen times. Alas, we had no candy this year. The stores sell mostly only hard candies, so we should bring some from the U.S. next time.


This huge dragon welcomed visitors to the enchanted woods, held in the bank parking lot just across the street from our apartment. Lucy took this photo from our window. 

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Entrance to the crowded haunted house.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the increasing popularity of the event, because Italians enjoy dressing up and going out in the evening—and staying out late. Montecharloween was scheduled for 6 p.m. to midnight, but many people came early and others stayed late, people still coming in at 11 . I had promised Lucy that we would go in the haunted house (Il Tunnel dell'Orrore) this year, but the line was long from the beginning of the evening until the end, so we missed it again.

Montecharloween didn’t quiet down until around 1 a.m. If the event experiences the same kind of growth in future years, the city may not be able to handle the crowds. However, there are still some quieter side streets, so the organizers have the option to spread out the events and booths. It was for evenings like this that we chose to live in Montecarlo, a town full of life and yet still small enough that one can never get lost in the crowd.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I feel weirdly happy now when I put out right garbage bin on right day

We have surpassed numerous obstacles in our purchase of a house in Italy, including starting a bank account, hiring a geometra and notaio, setting up all our utilities for automatic payment, obtaining my carta di identità and repairing some problems with the electricity. Until yesterday, we had one more nagging problem to solve, one that would seem to be among the easiest—yet it took us almost four months of living here off and on to figure out the proper way to dispose of our garbage.

Don’t get me wrong; we didn’t have four months of garbage piled in our living room. We had found a way around the problem, but we knew it couldn’t be a permanent solution. We had asked our friend Angelika, whose mom actually lives in Montecarlo, what we should do with our garbage. Angelika said her mom, who lives alone, just packs it with her when she goes shopping and puts it in a dumpster along the way or at the grocery store.

We figured we would do the same until we could learn the proper way to do it. We saw that people put out different types of trash on different days of the week, and we started taking notice. Monday and Friday mornings, we saw organic waste bins put outside doors. Since we had inherited a bin from the previous home owner, we could easily participate in this practice.

We did have some problems getting used to the schedule, because we realized that the pickup came early in the morning, and people didn’t put the bins out until very late at night or very early in the morning—logical, since nobody wants to walk past compost bins on the streets all afternoon in a popular tourist town. But about half the time, we forgot to put the bin out, and then we either had to keep the smelly stuff around for another three or four days or take it to an organic waste dumpster somewhere else. We usually chose the latter.

Happy garbage day! Bins, bags, instructions and calendar give me a strange feeling of satisfaction.
Paper and cardboard were picked up on Thursdays, but we didn’t have a bin for this. We would keep it in a plastic bag in the kitchen, and then sometimes we just added it to a neighbor’s bin on the proper day. But often, our bag would be overflowing halfway through the week (or we would forget to put it out), so we often just tossed it in our car when we were going out and looked for a carta recycling dumpster.

Glass bottles were picked up every other week, on Wednesdays, but we also didn’t have a bin for this. For those of you thinking we should just go out a buy a container, I should mention that the bins all seemed to be of the same color, shape and size, yet we had never seen them for sale at the hardware store. It was gradually dawning on us that they may have been issued by the agency that collects the trash.

What really prompted us to seek help, though, was the multimateriale leggero pickup days on Tuesdays and Saturdays. What fell into this category of “light multi-material?” And why did people put their multi-material in special blue bags inscribed with the abbreviation ASCIT? There seemed to be a list on the side of the bags that described what could be placed inside, but it was hard to read. We needed those blue bags, because apparently we couldn’t put out our multi-material—whatever it was—without them.

It would have been nice if the city hall people had told us about garbage collection policies when I received my residency card, but probably this was a different office, different agency. I could try going to the city hall and asking, but I knew the answer could be complicated, and I preferred to have the help of someone more fluent in Italian than I. So we asked Elena, who asked Davide, because garbage disposal is a job for men.

Davide said we had to go to a special office in Montecarlo that was below the library and only open each Wednesday morning and afternoon until 2 p.m. Luckily, it was Wednesday morning when he told us, so we made it there in time. The office was hidden away inside an inner courtyard, in an unmarked room (even though we knew where the library was, we still had to ask someone for directions to the garbage bin office).

We found a man behind a desk who asked if we were enrolled. Yes, I had registered as a resident in the city hall, but that wasn’t the same thing. I had to be enrolled with ASCIT, and for that I needed the bill of sale for our home and a document that showed the size of the house. I had these in my desk at home and returned within 10 minutes. He tapped on his computer for another 10 minutes, and then went into a back room and returned with four bins and several rolls of colored and labeled plastic bags. He also gave me a schedule to post on the kitchen bulletin board and a booklet that describes in great detail what goes into each bag or bin.

I carried my bins and bags down the street to our house—proudly, I might add, because they symbolized another step forward in our attempt to become Italian. I went to work translating the instructions and sorting out our garbage to put it in the proper containers. The translated instructions and lists are complicated and fill an entire page, but it was worth it. No more will we need to carry bags of garbage around in our car. Well, except maybe on the days I forget to put the right bin out on the right day.

The trash sorting is a lot more complicated and labor-intensive than in Gig Harbor, where we have everything picked up once a week with one bin for the non-recyclable trash and another for recycling, with machines separating the different articles to be recycled. I doubt that the Italian program would be effective in the states, because people wouldn’t have the patience to sort and leave out different items each day. Lucy’s not thrilled about the idea of having six separate bins or bags (there is also one for non-recyclable materials) in the kitchen and on the terrazzo. But the Italian people are more accustomed to having to cooperate while living in close quarters while following a plethora of bureaucratic regulations.

For me, I get some satisfaction out of being able to properly sort out the rules of living in Italy. Even when they are demanding and sometimes arbitrary, it’s a little like solving a jigsaw puzzle when we’re able to put another piece of our life in the right place.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Time travel lets us imagine the Battle of Altopascio fought near Montecarlo during the era of Castruccio Castracani

Castruccio Castracani talks to one of his advisers about his life
leading up to the Battle of Altopascio while standing on the
steps of the Mastio of the Fortress of Montecarlo.
Lucy and I stepped back in time to 1325 recently to view a dramatic reenactment of the Battle of Altopascio, in which the armies of Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli defeated the Florentine army in the plains near Altopascio. We toured the Fortezza di Montecarlo Sunday with our friend and favorite tour guide Elena Benvenuti, who had arranged a dramatic presentation by using actors from Lucca’s Teatro del Giglio and costumed characters from the balestrieri of the Contrade San Paolino of Lucca, an association that helps celebrate and relive historical events.
Who would dare attack this fortress with its imposing walls and alert and well-armed guards?

The show, sponsored by the Banca di Pescia, included guards, soldiers and women dressed in medieval costumes, but the actor playing Castruccio himself took center stage and delivered 99 percent of the dialog. He popped out of the fortress at various times to explain his personal history and deliver updates on the battle, which history tells us he directed from on high at the Rocca del Cerruglio at Vivinaia—now known as the fortress of Montecarlo. The battle pitted Ghibellines (Lucca and its allies) against Guelphs (Florence).

Elena explains the recent history of
the Fortezza as the tour begins.
A small garrison of Castruccio’s forces, outnumbered 17,500 to 500, held out in Altopascio for nearly a month before they had to surrender to commander Cordona in August, but Castruccio held on in Montecarlo and reinforced his position while appealing to leaders in Milan and Arezzo to come to his aid. According to some sources, Castruccio had to pay 25,000 gold florins in advance to Azzo Visconti of Milan in exchange for the services of his army. The historian Giovanni Villani relates that Castruccio sent the most beautiful women of Lucca, including his wife Pina, to deliver the money along with a plea for help.
Those lovely maidens in the garden were sent to persuade other Ghibelline forces to come to Lucca's assistance.

Once the additional armies arrived in September, Castruccio attacked. The first charge failed, but the second succeeded, overwhelming the Florentine infantry in a resounding victory. The Lucchesi regained Altopascio and several other villages. Meanwhile, their cavalry cut off escape routes, capturing Cardona and the surviving Guelph soldiers. Castruccio obtained the title of Duke of Lucca; unfortunately, he died three years later at the age of 28.


Castruccio, from a drawing found in the
State Archives in Lucca.
The reenactment was more history lesson than drama, as the actors had little interaction with each other and Castruccio’s lines basically stuck to the known history of his life and the battle. As usual, Lucy and I didn’t understand all the Italian words, but we enjoyed the atmosphere anyway. A group of soldiers and historically attired townspeople stoked a fire and roasted chestnuts after the performance to celebrate the victory. We also looked at a realistic replica of the crown of Carlo IV, the beloved ruler of Montecarlo, who invested much time and funding to build up the city’s fortifications from 1333 to 1339—and for whom the city henceforth took its name.
Chestnuts roast on an open fire as the fortress inhabitants prepare for a victory celebration.