Saturday, October 20, 2018

We love the serendipitous pleasures of simply existing in Italia

The events of today are a great reminder of why we like coming to Italy. In the past, we’ve seen plenty of churches, paintings, sculptures and amazing architecture. Now we just like to be, to experience the slow life and to meet people, whether it be Italians or stranieri like ourselves.

Our charming waitress Carme.
We started out planning to eat lunch and take a passeggiata in Monte a Pescia, a little settlement we had seen from afar many times and had never visited. but the restaurant was closed for the proprietors’ vacation. It was already 1 p.m. and we were too hungry to take our walk without food, so we cruised down the hill and drove in the direction of Collodi. There we saw a sign for a trattoria that was five miles north, into the foothills of the rugged Alpi Apuane. Driving into Villa Basilica, we stopped instead at a little ristorante called Vesuvio that was almost hidden from view and is not listed on either Google maps or Tripadvisor.

It had no printed menu, but Carme, our personable and lively waitress listed all the possibilities, which included a good variety of first and second courses and pizza. Lucy opted for pizza, which she found to be ottimo, and I had penne pasta with a perfect pesto sauce—all for a reasonable price. As is often the case, small restaurants known mainly to locals are usually delicious and affordable. They also allow one to experience authentic everyday Italian culture up close. We chatted with Carme after the meal, and she said she lives next to the trattoria and used to work there, but changed jobs so she could have more free time. The trattoria is just another half kilometer up the road.

A warm fall day, a wooded trail and a
bella donna bionda in Tuscany.
What more could I ask for?
From Carme’s colleague, we learned that from the parking lot we could access a nice hiking trail that led us across a stream and along a hillside trail, and we took a half-hour stroll in the woods. We rarely see wildlife on our hikes, other than birds, lizards and insects, and this time was no exception. However, it is hunting season for cingiali—we often awake to early morning rifle blasts in the hills around Montecarlo—so we keep our eyes open whenever we enter a forest. At an
opening in the trees, we found a couple dozen loaves of day-old bread scattered on the ground. Most certainly they were left there to lure the wild boars out of hiding, and we imagined hunters setting up watch-posts in the predawn hours, hoping for a harvest of ham.

A typical piazza in Pariano di Villa Basilica.
We had accomplished our goals for the outing—lunch and a short hike—but we decided to go a little farther up the valley to visit the trattoria for future reference. And then we found that the bar attached to the trattoria had gelato, so we extended our outing for another 15 minutes. As we were about to leave for the return trip home, we noticed a sign pointing up the hillside for Pariana. Surely there would be an ancient village with a great valley view awaiting us at the top of this road, and so we continued our journey another three miles up a steep, winding road.

As expected, we found a town with mixed stone and brick homes, a maze of uneven streets of varying widths, with a great variety of flowers and shrubs flourishing in pots and protruding from walls, with a nice view of the valley and far hillside. In other words, a typical remote and quiet village, and as always, breathtaking and evocative. A few of the residents, mostly elderly women, were sitting on porches and patios, enjoying the solitude or chatting with friends.

Lucy remembered that she needed to buy a bag of sugar to make some cookies, and she asked one of the passing residents, a smiling lady probably in her 70s, if the town had an alimentari where one could buy sugar. Si, si, she said, but it’s closed now. “But don’t worry,” she added. “Come with me and I’ll fetch you a bag.”

We tried to refuse, but she was insistent, ushering us into her home and inviting us to sit on her couch. We spent a pleasant 20 minutes learning about her family, which had come from Romania to Italy 15 years earlier. A widow, Didina lives with her grown son Vasi. She also has a sister who lives in Florida. There were more family details, but we couldn’t absorb them all. Besides the sugar, Didina also gave us a sack of chestnuts that she and Vasi had gathered, along with instructions about how to prepare them. Hill towns here have a long history of dependence on chestnut trees for survival, so a gift of chestnuts has special significance.

The most meaningful part of the day involved our interaction with Vasi, a simple man with huge smiles and frequent outbursts of infectious and genuine laughter. Everything we said and did made him outrageously happy. He roared with pleasure when Lucy took his picture with Didina and showed him the results on her phone screen. He hugged us, kissed Lucy’s hand and spoke with animation and enthusiasm about hunting for chestnuts and mushrooms, though between his speech impediment and our incomplete grasp of Italian, we understood only a few words. We promised to send them some photos and return in a week with some of Lucy’s chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps Vasi is often lonely, but as we walked away to return to our car and Montecarlo, we agreed that during our short visit, Vasi was perhaps the happiest man on earth—and no doubt that happiness rubbed off on us. It is a feeling that no classic painting, sculpture or building in Italy can match.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Witches, puppets and Nazis, oh my! Quercione near Collodi inspires wonder, mystery and legends

We’ve lived in Montecarlo part time since 2011, yet it wasn’t until this year that I realized we live just 10 minutes away from a 600-year-old oak tree that has been named the most beautiful in Tuscany by the cultural association Amici Degli Alberi (Friends of the Trees). I had heard mention in passing of the Quercione, but I didn’t grasp what a rare and beautiful sight we have been missing, nor how close it is to Montecarlo. Not only is it a delight for the eyes but it has an intriguing history.
The Quercione and Lucy.
Fake news? Or was this really taken at the oak of the witches?
In centuries past, local streghe—witches—used the Quercione (which means big oak tree) as part of their witchy rituals and incantations. In either dancing on the tree or using parts of it for their magic, they broke branches off the top of the tree and are responsible for its unique shape, or so the legends say. It is a species (Quercus pubescens, or downy oak) very common in central Italy, but these trees normally grow taller than they are wide. The Quercione, instead, is about 50 feet tall and has a crown of more than 130 feet in diameter. Its lower branches alone are larger than many other oak trees found in the surrounding woods.

Photo by Lucy
It is not unusual that witches would get credit for the shape of the tree. Italy, although the cradle of Catholicism, has a strong history of belief in the occult, originating from the folklore of the Etruscans and Greeks, indeed probably even from prior civilizations. And in Italy, not all witches are evil. Consider the Befana, the witch from whom expectant children still receive treats on the eve of Epiphany.

The tree has yet another claim to fame. Author Carlo Lorenzini spent a good part of his childhood in Collodi, which is about a mile and a half from the Quercione. He would later take on the pen name Carlo Collodi and, while living in Collodi, write The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet. Published in 1883, the book describes the mischievous escapades of an animated marionette and his father, a poor woodcarver named Geppetto.

Some sources maintain that Lorenzini wrote part of the book under the branches of the Quercione, and furthermore that the oak is included in the story. Pinocchio, with four gold pieces hidden in his mouth, was pursued by two assassins, a cat and a fox. They caught up to him and tried to force him to open his mouth, but he refused. Here the story reads:

“There is nothing left to do but to hang him,” said one of them to the other.
They tied Pinocchio’s hands behind his shoulders and slipped the noose around his neck. Throwing the rope over the high limb of a giant oak tree, they pulled till the marionette hung far up in space.
“Tomorrow we’ll come back for you and you’ll be dead, and your mouth will be open, and then we’ll take the gold pieces that you have hidden under your tongue.”
Perhaps Carlo Collodi sat here
when he wrote Pinocchio.
It takes only a glance at the Quercione to see how easy it would be to tie a rope to its numerous and hefty horizontal branches. Given that the tree had already achieved local fame and that the author grew up nearby, it’s obvious that Lorenzini would have seen it, and it’s easy to believe that he had it in mind when he wrote Pinocchio.

Because of its ties to witches and Pinocchio, the Quericione is often referred to as the Quercia delle Streghe and the Quercia di Pinocchio, and, because of its location, sometimes as the Quercia di Capannori. It is relatively healthy, although it has suffered some damage and threats during its lifetime. Vandals broke some of its branches while sitting in the tree more than 100 years ago, and an even greater threat came during the Second World War. Nazi occupiers planned to use it for firewood, but the inhabitants of nearby San Martino in Colle mobilized to thwart these efforts. In the 1960s, lightning struck the Quercione, causing significant damage, and in recent years its roots have been threatened by the trampling of tourists. It is also colonized by insects that nest in its truck.

The fact that it is currently not included in many tourist guidebooks and that the signage directing visitors to its location is poor may be blessings in disguise for the Quercione. It’s located on private property, but it is beside a little traveled public road. From Montecarlo, head north on SP31. After about two miles, turn at the sign for San Martino in Colle. Follow signs for Alloro (a bed and breakfast). Shortly after you pass Alloro, you’ll come to a T in the road, where you will instantly see the Quercione.
Photo by Frank Frattaglia of Villa Basilica.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Are new algorithms ignoring northern and central Italians?

What is wrong with’s new algorithm for determining a person’s Italian ethnicity?  The company offers few explanations as to how data is compiled and decisions are made. However, it seems that people who live in central and northern Italy are now barely considered of Italian origin, while those from the south are regarded as more Italian than they were previously.

My dad was born to Italian parents from Tuscany, so I’ve always loosely considered myself half Italian. When I first had my DNA tested in December of 2016, my results showed 27% “Italy/Greece.” In 2017, Ancestry changed the Italy/Greece designation to Southern European, and my percentage was unchanged. I had no problem with this, since I understand that people who live in Italy share DNA with people from many other countries, and probably no Italian citizen would test at 100% Italian.

But in September of 2018, I received notice that Ancestry had updated and improved its algorithms, supposedly to make its designations more precise, but as far as Italian ethnicity is concerned, the effort is problematic.

My ethnicity has changed from 27% Southern European (SE) to 16% Italian and 15% French. My brother has been changed from 37% SE to 5% Italian and 27% French, and my sister from 31% SE to 9% Italian and 12% French. One of my cousins changed from 40% SE to 0% Italian and 45% French.

OK, I’m sure you are thinking that since Italy is a melting pot of ethnicities, I’m just unaware that my grandparents or other ancestors immigrated relatively recently from France to Tuscany. I would probably have accepted this hypothesis—if I hadn’t done the genealogical research to know that this is untrue. I’ve spent many weeks in city halls and parish archives in Tuscany developing a paper trail of my genealogy. I’ve traced my grandfather Michele Spadoni’s line back to the mid 1400s, and the Spadoni family never moved more than 15 miles from Stignano, a tiny city in Pistoia. Every single marriage was to a local family with deep roots in the same small area.

On grandmother Anita Seghieri’s side, the family has lived in the same rural community of San Salvatore (a suburb of Montecarlo and about five miles from Stignano) since the 1200s. Once again, every marriage I’ve found has been to a local person, judging from the familiar surnames that date back hundreds of years in the neighborhood.

I’m fully aware people grab different sections of DNA from their parents and that siblings will always have different results. I know that borders change, and that Italy has been invaded dozens of times in the last millennium (I’ve even written articles on this: How Italian is the average Italian).

But the borders of Tuscany have not changed significantly, and most of the invasions left our little neck of Tuscany untouched. We are not near the sea, nor near a large city or a major trade route. Quite likely, most of my Tuscan ancestors have been in the same area since the time of Christ, and some even before that. After all, the name Tuscany is derived from Etruscan, a culture that flourished there from 700-100 BC. Sergio Nelli, noted Tuscan historian and author, and my next-door neighbor in Montecarlo, has traced his family line back one generation at a time to the year 300. His earliest known ancestor is from Tuscany.

One could point out that Napoleon successfully invaded Tuscany and gave his sister Elisa the title of grand duchess of Tuscany from 1809 to 1814. Could it be that my more recent ancestors married some of the French nobility that moved down to run the government? This is unlikely, given that my ancestors, all farmers, were relatively poor and would not have intermixed with wealthy French rulers. Indeed, during the short period of French domination, records show that my ancestors continued to marry people with names common to their region.

And consider for a moment that even if one of my great great grandfathers had married a French woman during the time of Napoleon’s rule, my generation would receive only 6% of those French genes. For me and my siblings and cousins to be from 12-45% French (and only from 0-16% Italian) would mean that most of the people living in Tuscany are actually more French than Italian, and I can’t buy that. While I have no doubt that some people of French descent have settled in Tuscany, surely the native Tuscans would vastly outnumber the French.

I find it more likely that Ancestry’s confusion between French and Tuscan genes is the result of vast numbers of impoverished Tuscans moving to France in the 1800s and early 1900s. World Population Review states: “At the end of the 19th century, Italians and Greeks began immigrating to Marseille, with about 40% of the city’s population being Italian by the 1950s.” With that in mind, it is no surprise that our family’s genetic makeup is similar that of people currently living in France, but that doesn’t mean that we are actually of French origin.

These southern areas were also once
part of Magna Grecia.
While I can only speak knowledgeably of my own family’s heritage, I belong to several Facebook genealogy interest groups for Italians, and there has been much discussion on the new Ancestry designations. Descendants from the southern area once called the Two Kingdoms of Sicily (Abruzzo, Molise, Campagnia, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily) in general now are designated as 70-90% Italian. Inhabitants of central and north regions often test less than 30% Italian. Many of the members of the group Northern Italian Genealogy are irate concerning the changes in Ancestry’s algorithm. Here are just a few sample quotes (names are not used for privacy reasons): seems to regard areas in today's Italy that were once considered
Magna Grecia to be more authentically Italian today.
JP: I went from 33% Italian down to 10%. Then the French shot up from 4% to 35%

LS: My updated results were ridiculous. The old DNA report was at least plausible. No idea how they decided I was suddenly 70% Irish when I have traced thousands of my dad’s northern Italian ancestors at least as far back as the 1400s.

RC: My father is Northern Italian and has lots of French, Italian (32%) German and even British. But I have no French, German or British, and I show up as 48% Italian. My kids have no Italian but have French and German. I don’t understand how this is possible. I understand that Italians can have German and French DNA. But how can I have 48% Italian DNA, and my two kids have 0% Italian DNA? I hope Ancestry explains this eventually.

MG: My mother (with 2 Northern Italian grandparents) is showing 34% France (new to her results) and only 4% Italy. My results now show 0% Italy.

ES: My grandmother was born in Italy to a northern Italian mother and a Sicilian father. I was previously showing 11% Italian DNA and I am down to nothing. My mom is at 37% Italian still and my uncle is at 35%. So, somehow I inherited none of this Italian DNA? I guess it is possible, but something is not right.

AD:  I always thought my Italian was too high (it was 33% and I “should be” 25%) but now they say I’m 0%.

JF: I went from 38% Italian to 1%. My maternal grandparents are from Northern Italy and my ancestors were there for generations.

A major reason for the confusion is that’s DNA testing is currently not available to people living in Italy and France, so the company’s database is relatively limited. The other half of the issue is that Ancestry seems to have designated people of Greek and Southern Italian origin more Italian than northern people. I have no problem accepting that the DNA of Southern Italians and Northern Italians differs. But both areas had indigenous prehistoric civilizations. Both areas suffered numerous invasions. So how did Ancestry arrive at the decision to consider one area very Italian and the other not so much? Most likely, the situation will be resolved in the future, when the database increases and the algorithms are refined enough to divide the ethnicity designations into North and South (and maybe even Central) Italy. Until that happens, many of us from the center and north are going to be unhappy with our results.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Attic anxiety has been put to rest, and now we can rest easy as well

 Lucy is back to sitting under her favorite skylight—reading, relaxing, planning—with no fear of woodworms or mites. Three years ago, our attic was uninviting and difficult to access, to say the least. It was dark and full of junk, dirt and even rat droppings. The roof leaked in dozens of places. Paint constantly flaked off the beams. When sunlight filtered through the single tiny skylight, we could see dust swirling like a mini-blizzard. Tarli and acari infested the ceiling.

Now our roof is watertight, even insulated. Our creaky metal pull-down ladder is obsolete, replaced by a shiny and permanent oak staircase. And as of this fall, our ceiling beams are treated for bugs, cleaned and painted. Our cement floor is covered in faux wood linoleum. The filthy spaces under our eaves are cleaned and walled off, with the walls and ceiling painted bright white. A radiating heater has been installed.

It’s technically still an attic, but previously it was just a cluttered, untidy storage area. Now it’s an extension of our living space, another 250 square feet of home, with a view to both the east and the west.
Eating breakfast and reading Tex to improve my Italian.
When we left Italy last spring, we barely had time to talk to Juri about what we wanted done. We were almost afraid to go upstairs when we arrived this week, fearful that our last-minute conversation and communications by e-mail had been misunderstood and the work would be less than what we envisioned. For the most part, our fears were misplaced. The work is excellent, and Lucy and I look forward to spending many happy hours upstairs together, alone and with family and friends. We can pull mattresses out of storage, lay them on the floor and easily sleep a half dozen people. We can gather around our large wooden table and play games. We can open the skylights to enjoy views of hills and valleys by day and stars and moon by night.
Our new overflow bedroom.
One feature we had asked for we didn’t get. We had wanted one or two sleeping nooks under the eaves, and even though I sent Juri sample photos, these went by the wayside. I didn’t bother to ask why. It would have been nice, but they were not essential. If we want them badly enough, they can be added later. My only other regret is that some uneven parts of the cement flooring were not leveled before the linoleum was placed. I hadn’t communicated this desire specifically, but I had hoped for the best. Still, the uneven places are not centrally located, and they will be covered with mattresses when that area is used.

After a busy summer of work and then four action-packed weeks of travel in New York, Maryland, England and Amsterdam, we’re ready to kick back and relax. We have no specific plans to go anywhere or see anyone, and since the work on our attic was completed in our absence, we’re free to experience that famous Italian phrase dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Our home in Italy awaits us—but what will we see upon our pending arrival?

What will our attic look like when we return to Italy in October? We’ve been wondering that all summer.

We had not intended to do any more major work on our house after we invested quite a bit the previous two years to refurbish the roof, put in skylights and add a beautiful wood staircase to the attic. But nature intervened, because our roof beams had tarli—woodworms—and the tarli had acari—mites which are too small to see but wreak their own brand of havoc nonetheless.

I wasn’t supposed to mention these things because Lucy didn’t want to scare off potential visitors, but I think it’s okay to fess up now, since we have in all likelihood resolved the issue. With the stairway installed during the summer of 2017, Lucy loved sitting under one of the skylights and reading. That is, until she started getting some red and extremely itchy welts on her upper body. They looked a little like mosquito or flea bites, but they persisted for at least a week, and we had not seen any mosquitoes or fleas. I was pretty sure there was some tie to tarli, because I had experienced the same welts the previous year, when I had slept next to a piece of wooden furniture that was riddled with tarli holes. When we threw away the holey furniture, the bites ceased.

You can see the old wood in that holds up our ceiling tiles. It
looks like long ago it was painted white, but most of the paint
has since flaked off.
We could see some holes in the beams above Lucy’s attic chair, so I went online for some tarli research. I discovered that tarli (also called anobiid powderpost beetles) do not bite people, but they are the hosts for a particular type of acari named Sclerodermus, a microscopic and parasitic mite that stings, not bites, people. So not only did we need to rid the house of tarli to preserve our wood but also to prevent further acari attacks on our bodies.

Schlerodermus under a microscope.
My research said we could treat infested furniture by taking it to a specialist who would kill the insects with a microwave treatment. But treating wooden beams in place required periodic chemical treatment with a toxic and foul-smelling product. A more permanent solution would be to clean the beams and then treat and varnish them. Mature tarli lay their eggs on the outside of the beams, I read, and then the young ones bore inside to feed for up to four years before re-emerging to mate and lay more eggs. But varnish prevents newly hatched Tarli from boring in.

The welts from a Schlerodurmus sting. Note:
This is NOT Lucy, who declined to pose. I
found this online while researching our problem
I consulted with Juri, our downstairs neighbor. Since we share costs for the roof, it is also in his interest to kill the tarli. It’s complicated, he said, and he would need to talk to some contractor friends for advice. Just before we left Italy last May, Juri came to me with a very expensive but thorough plan. My understanding of Italian is not perfect, but here is what I think he said. We should clean and treat the travi, the ceiling beams and joists. Probably paint or varnish them. But then we should close in the ceiling and walls with cartongesso—sheetrock. Then we won’t have to retreat the wood in future years.

Sheetrock is not something I’ve seen used in Italy often. Interior walls are often made of bricks and then covered with plaster. However, Juri has been using sheetrock on his own home remodeling with great success, and I think that’s a great idea. While we are doing this, he added, we should cover up the rough-textured concrete floor with some sort of tile. We’ll also have to redo some of the wiring before closing in the walls. And we should move some of the plumbing and electrical conduits which take up floor space. Juri can do the framing, sheetrock and wiring himself, as he’s an electrician and he’s also done much of his own remodeling himself.

It’s not really clear to me who will do what, but Juri is good friends with the muratore and it sounds as if they will work together. Muratore, strictly translated, is bricklayer, and in Italy, a bricklayer is needed for many tasks. Since roofs here are almost all made of tile, it was this same muratore who redid our roof the previous year. He also buried some of the conduit in our cement attic floor, and now he will be needed to bury more.

When I ask about costs, Juri says that a first-class job can be done for around €14,000 (euro). This is way out of our budget, I said. Well, we can do a less perfect job for around €10,000 euro. Still probably too much, I said. Maybe we should just treat the timbers and put sheetrock the ceiling for now, I suggested, and do the rest in future years. No, no, Juri said. Even for €7,000 or €8,000, they could do a halfway decent job.

I received no written breakdown of costs or tasks, but we would be leaving in a few days. Juri was anxious to get started, because the muratore had free time now and he would be busy with other jobs later. Juri asked if they could get started now and just get paid later? Okay, I relented, but I can come up with only €10,000 maximum by the end of the summer, I told him.

We were uneasy about this arrangement. Had this been for our home in the States, we would have received a written proposal with itemized costs, possibly from more than one contractor. However, we didn’t know any contractors in Montecarlo. Juri had supervised all our previous work, and it had gone relatively well. The stairway was perfect, the roof no longer leaked and the skylights were okay, even if they weren’t quite as large or placed where we wanted them.

Our choices were to trust Juri and leave the details to him, or do nothing for another year and go find our own contractor next winter. Doing the latter would require a lot of work and communication skills, and it may offend Juri. He and his family are becoming friends, and one of the main reasons we had purchased a home in Montecarlo was to befriend other families there. Would possibly saving a couple thousand euros be worth turning Juri down? We decided it would not, and we gave him the go-ahead to do up to €10,000 worth of remodeling.

But how much would he be contributing, since some of this work would also benefit his family and house? In addition, in June, Juri wrote asking if he and his wife Silvia could rent our house for part of the summer because they were moving their kitchen and their house would be uninhabitable. We gave permission, and he wrote me in July with a breakdown of costs for our project: “Consider that the total will be €14,000.00, doing a great job, really optimal. I will participate with €2,500.00, and considering that I will be renting your house at €15.00 per day (if we stay 45 days I'll give you €675 plus €100 more because it seems right; you were very kind), total €800, then your remaining balance of the €14,000 (-2,500.00 and -800.00) will be €10,700.00.”

Well, that’s more than the €10,000 I said was our maximum, but the truth is, we were having an unusually profitable summer in our asphalt maintenance business, so the extra money turned out to be available. In fact, Juri wrote me recently saying that our old water heater should be replaced now, and we even sent extra money for that. The company that inspects and maintains it has told us twice that we should think about replacing it, because it’s so old that they don’t think they can get spare parts if it breaks down.

So now we’ve sent Juri more than 15,000 U.S. dollars for these projects, plus a few other little ones (removing a large old asbestos-concrete water cistern from the attic and changing our kitchen sink drain to go into the sewer line instead of the neighbor’s garden)—all on faith that he will oversee these jobs correctly and that the price is fair. But I’m comforted to realize that Juri has his reputation at stake as well. It’s unlikely that he’d blatantly bilk a close neighbor, and if we are satisfied with his work, there will undoubtedly be more in the future. The arrangement is not that different from remodeling we’ve had done on our Gig Harbor home—we had a trusted friend doing the work, paying for time and materials after the fact. It’s a little different because we’re not in Italy to see what’s happening, pick out floor tiles or clarify and answer questions, and it’s unlikely that we’ll be given an itemized statement of the costs.

So one can understand our anxiety and eagerness to see what we’ll have when we arrive on October 10. Juri has said several times to trust him and that it will a beautiful work. In less than a month, we’ll be able to make our own call on that. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Lucca's fascinating past is reenacted by various colorful, spectacular events

This entry is written by guest columnist and Lucca native Elena Benvenuti of Discover Lucca with Elena.

Lucca periodically relives its storied past with colorful celebrations of historical eras and events, most of them relative to the Middle Ages. These events make the city’s history come alive and provide great entertainment and amusement for citizens and tourists.

The most important celebration takes place September 13, the Luminara di Santa Croce. This famous festival is a devotional procession in which the Volto Santo (Holy Face), a wooden crucifix, is carried in a colourful yet solemn parade that starts from the Church of San Frediano and ends at the Cathedral of San Martino. The route follows the historical “miraculous path” of the Volto Santo, a relic precious to Lucca.

The celebration starts at 8 p.m., with praying people marching in medieval costumes along with parish priests and warriers with crossbows, bow and arrows and other traditional weapons. All participants carry a candle or lamp and create a parade of lights, while all the buildings along the procession route are illuminated or decorated with tiny glasses containing lit candles. Also included in the long parade are instrumental bands and choirs, the latter singing variations of a hymn called Lodi to the SS. Cross, Praise to the Most Holy Cross.

Lucca hosts other parades in costumes and lights besides Santa Croce. The Luminaria di San Paolino, named to honor the first bishop of Lucca, is held July 11. This Luminara consists of many events, including a parade lighted by torches and candles, historical costumes worn by members of the “Gruppo di San Paolino,” the firing of cannons, and religious ceremonies to honor the patron saint of Lucca.

The Association Contrade San Paolino (ACSP) with its crossbows, tambourines and actors was founded in Lucca in 1991. The members’ deep passion for the history of Lucca led them to recall and relive the origins and history of the independent city town during the medieval period. The balestrieri (crossbowmen) march in parades during the whole week leading up to the festival.

Lucca has a long tradition with the balestrieri. Written testimony about the crossbow appeared as early as 1169, when the Republic of Lucca asked for help from the friendly Republic of Genoa, and the latter sent a company of balestrieri to defend Lucca from incessant attacks from the Republic of Pisa.

A selected group of crossbowmen was then created, and the balestrieri became a highly honoured profession, entrusted with the protection of the city. The “capitano del popolo,” Castruccio Castracani, who led the town between 1316 and his death 1328, established prizes to encourage the use of the crossbow. Regular competitions were organized to train the balestrieri during periods of peace.

The next appointment with the Association Contrade di San Paolino is coming very soon: The weekend of June 2-3 the public can witness the dramatic work of six different reenactment associations in Piazzale Verdi. Medieval villages will display equipment such as armor, helmets, swords and crossbows. In addition, live performances will be conducted demonstrating the particular skills of fire manipulation, falconry, drum parades, flag throwing, stilt-walking, juggling, dancing and medieval combat. An important and thrilling crossbow competition will take place on Sunday. If you want to enjoy this incredible experience, you can also read more about it at the website for the Contrade di San Paolino:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Beware those deadly (and sometimes humorous) false linguistic friends

Banashree Das art
As I work on making travel reservations for a coming trip to Italy, I’m reminded of a verbal blunder I once made while corresponding with the proprietor of a bed and breakfast. After agreeing on the dates and cost, I asked how I could send the deposit. I didn’t know the word for deposit and didn’t want to take the time to look it up, so I just called it the depositobecause I was pretty sure I had heard that word before in my travels. True, I had heard the word, but it is not used the same way in Italy. It means warehouse or storeroom. The word I needed was quite different, which I soon discovered when the proprietor wrote back with instructions on how to make the caparrawith no mention of my gaffe. Probably he had probably heard it from other foreigners before.

Such words are called amici falsi, or false friends, because they fool you into thinking you know what they mean, but they actually mean something else. Here are just a few other examples of false Italian friends:
Sensibile means sensitive, not sensible
Fame means hunger, not fame
Largo means wide, not large
Fattoria means farm, not factory
Noioso means boring, not noisy
Parenti means relatives, not parents
Preservativi means condoms, not food preservatives

Many, many times the Italian and English words truly are similar, which makes Italian easier to learn than other languages, but one can’t take anything for granted. I have seen and heard some funny stories about false friends and other language blunders that are worth relating.

Of course, the problems go both ways. I once saw a sign in Italian about how a museum was being remodeled and thus was temporarily closed. The explanation ended with “Ci dispiace per il disagio.” Agio means ease or leisure, and disagio means inconvenience, which could be translated more literally to mean a lack of ease. The sign included a complete translation below into English, and it ended with “We apologize for the disease.”

Almost every English speaker learning Italian can provide ready examples of awkward misstatements they’ve made. Dianne Hales, author of La Bella Lingua, recounts: I’ve learned a lot of Italian from slips of the tongue. Once we were on a boat sailing to Sardinia and my husband and I invited the two co-captains to join us for dinner in port. They worried about interfering with a romantic dinner, but I assured them that after so many years of marriage I feared my husband was getting bored. Except I said boring. It made for an interesting three days at sea!”

My wife once wanted to tell our hostess how much she had enjoyed a remarkable home-cooked dinner. Lucy hoped to say, “You are amazing” in Italian, and the first two words proved to be no problem—but not the word amazing; it turns out there is not an similarly equivalent word in Italian. Still Lucy had heard something that sounded like it, so she went ahead and said, “Tu sei ammazzata!” When the host looked confused, I quickly chimed in, “Vuol dire, tu sei fantastica.” That is, “She wants to say you are fantastic.” Ammazzare means to kill, so what Lucy had actually told the hostess is “You are killed.”

Delia Simeone, who plans to obtain her Italian citizenship and move from Australia to Italy in the future, said she is “quite proficient at butchering Italian.” She once referred to her home as casino instead of casina (little house). Unfortunately, casino is slang for a house of prostitution.

An entire article could also be written about the many, many words in Italy that have ordinary meanings but also are earthy sexual innuendos. For example, scopare means “to sweep,” but it’s also crude slang for “to have sex.” But we’ll leave the numerous other examples of this genre for some other day—or even better, some other author.

My favorite story comes from my friends Steve and Patti Gray. It involves a British missionary lady who was ordering some work done on her kitchen while she returned on leave to England. She had laid out the plans just fine, until she told the Italian carpenters that she wanted them to purchase and install a cabinet, which she referred to as a cabineto, right here. “Qui?” they asked incredulously. “You want it here? But why?”

“Because that where I want it,” she said. “It’s the most convenient place.”

They continued to question her, but she was insistent: “Mettete il cabineto qui.”

And so they did. There is no such word as cabineto in Italian, so they did what they thought she wanted. When she returned, she found a gabinetto, a toilet, installed in her kitchen.
🔺 🔺 🔺

American confetti
This more extensive list is provided courtesy of author and blogger Michelle Fabio:
Attualmente: Currently, NOT actually (in realtà)
Italian confetti
Camera: Room, NOT camera (la macchina fotografica)
Cocomero: Watermelon, NOT cucumber (cetriolo)
Comprensivo: Understanding, NOT comprehensive (completo)

Confetti: Sugared almond, NOT confetti (coriandoli)
Confrontare: To compare, NOT to confront
Crudo: Raw, NOT crude (volgare)
Educato: Polite, NOT educated (istruito or colto)
Educazione: Good manners, NOT education (istruzione)
Eventuale: Any, NOT eventual (finale)
Fabbrica: Factory, NOT fabric (tessuto)
Fastidio: Annoyance, NOT fastidious (pignolo)
Fattoria: Farm, NOT factory (fabbrica)
Firma: Signature, NOT firm, as in company (azienda) or firm, as in a mattress (rigido)
Gentile: Nice, NOT gentle (dolce or leggero)
Intendere: To understand, NOT to intend
Libreria: Bookstore, NOT library (biblioteca)
Magazzino: Warehouse, NOT magazine (rivista)
Morbido: Soft, NOT morbid (morboso)
Noioso: Boring, NOT noisy (rumoroso)
Parente: Relative, NOT parent (genitore, madre, padre)
Patente: License, NOT patent (richiesta di brevetto)
Peperoni: Peppers, NOT pepperoni, the spicy sausage (salame piccante)
Preservativo: Condom, NOT preservative (conservante)
Pretendere: To expect, NOT to pretend (fare finta)
Rumore: Noise, NOT rumor (voce)
Sensibile: Sensitive, NOT sensible (ragionevole)
Simpatico: Nice, NOT sympathetic (comprensivo)

Stravagante: Eccentric, NOT extravagant (sprecone)