Sunday, August 30, 2015

“A long way from Paris” entertains while exploring the challenges of making cultural adaptations

EC Murray
I like coming to Tuscany to experience the culture, the people and the climateand to challenge myself to adapt to a new environment. Tuscany and Languedoc, France, are only about 800 miles apart and roughly on the same latitude, so they have a number of characteristics in common. Thus it was with great interest that I picked up a copy of “A long way from Paris,” a memoir published last year by Gig Harbor author Elizabeth Corcoran Murray. In the early eighties, Elizabeth spent a half year in a remote part of Languedoc—and speaking of challenging oneself to adapt, she went from preppy high schooler to hippie college student to French goat herder all in a decade. The latter adventure is the topic of her book, and it’s a page-turner for anyone interested in immersing themselves in foreign lands and unusual occupations.

She went to France with uncertain goals and ambitions. In fact, she had no idea at the time what she wanted to do with her life, other than a strong but unfocused desire to be a writer. She bungled around Paris for a bit before going to visit a cousin in a mountainous, remote and rural area in the south. In a mix of naivety and desperation to find a purpose for her trip to France, she accepted a job as a farmhand, despite the fact that she had never been on a farm, spoke only a few words of French and suffered from an admitted lack of self-confidence.

She is refreshingly transparent about her insecurities, struggles, passions and growth. She gradually became more confident and self-assured while living a simple goat herder’s life, experiencing the hardships of a bitter winter looking after the animals and her adopted family. Her struggles to understand the language and the realities of mountain life will resonate with anyone who has ever been uprooted. She vividly and honestly expresses her roller-coaster ride of emotions and doubts, but she also describes the peace and stability that can be found in a simple life of hard work and fresh air while living close to the land.

Ms Murray writes simply, clearly and descriptively while keeping a proper focus on the narrative events that shaped her life both before and during her farming adventure. Not all of us have the freedom to plop ourselves down in a completely different culture, but at least we can experience it vicariously through her fine travel memoir.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Home purchase passes milestone

Italy is still in my veins. The reason I haven’t been blogging is that we have entered our most work-intensive time of year, and all of our energy has been focused on our road maintenance business. The only reason I’m not making phone calls or sending business-related e-mails right now is that the power has inexplicably gone out, right in the middle of a warm weekday evening. But before it went out, we received an e-mail from Italy that our house purchase passed a major milestone today.

Our kitchen
Our friend Angelika, representing us in a meeting between the sellers, real estate agents and our notaio, signed our preliminary contract and made a large payment on our behalf, almost half the price of the house. The sellers have agreed to meet all of our conditions, and our geometra has confirmed that the house meets the city’s legal requirements. All that remains is to make a final payment of 76,000 euro and sign a few more documents, and we’ll get the keys. We have already booked a flight to Italy in October to take possession.

We will only be in Italy for two weeks in the fall, but next February through April, we plan to spend our usual three months in Montecarlo. Although this will be our sixth extended stay in the community where my grandparents were raised and married, we expect that it will be different actually owning a home instead of renting. We will miss Luca, Roberta, Enzo and Gilda from the Casolare dei Fiori, and we won’t see our other friends from San Salvatore as often, but living on the main street in Montecarlo will challenge our language skills more, allowing us to meet new people and further integrate into the community.

Although the house is about 75 percent furnished, Lucy has already been shopping to fill the other 25 percent—and now we won’t have to pack everything in boxes when we leave as we had to do when staying at the Casolare.

“I’m very content, because it just feels like home,” Lucy said. “I’m glad for our time at the Casolare, but this is home, where our kids and grandchildren can come and stay. It will be a heritage.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Esveldt family history is already exceptionally well documented

For anyone who enjoyed my recent blog about the early years of my grandmother, Jeannette Esveldt Wagoner, I should mention that her family’s history has been told in much more detail by some of her brothers and nephews. I was aware that her brother John and his son had published a book recounting early tales of the family, but I hadnt realized that more information has been added, and—even better—the book is available for free online.

Second cousin Terry Esvelt sent me a link, and during two recent evenings when I had planned to do other work, I couldn’t stop reading the stories, titled “Historical Accounts of the Esveldt family.” Even those who aren’t part of the family will find it an interesting tale of an immigrant family’s early years in Eastern Washington. Here is the link:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Origins of the Esveldt family in Eastern Washington, as told by Jeannette Esveldt, my grandmother

While I have regrets that I didn’t ask more questions of my uncles, aunts, cousins and parents before they passed on, I did one thing right. I interviewed my grandmother in 1977 about her life, and later I recorded and transcribed the results.

Jeannette Esveldt was born Aug. 14, 1892, in Spokane, Washington to Jan Pieter Esveldt and Hendrina (Henrietta) Munnik. Her five older siblings were born in Uithoorn in North Holland, where her father operated an ironworks business that manufactured parts for ships.

“It was during the great, almost worldwide, depression, the early 1890s,” she said. “So Dad’s company had suffered very much because there were people that couldn’t pay him, the ones that he worked for.

“His brother George had come over ahead of him as just a kid of 18. And George wrote and said there were more opportunities here in this country and would be in the future. Dad had three boys already, and so there would be more opportunities for them.”

The family departed from Rotterdam and arrived in New York on May 31, 1892. Henrietta had five children—Cornelia, Maartje, Pieter Jan, Jan Pieter and Gerardus “George”—aboard to look after, and another, my grandmother, well on the way. After her birth came four more—Henrietta Marie “Mae”, Fred, Harold and Virgil.

As for the five born in Holland, Jeannette said, “The folks insisted on their learning English as fast as they could. When that is done, they don’t have any accent because they were still young. The oldest one was 10. And they had absolutely not a trace of accent of any kind.”

Her parents could not escape having a Dutch accent. “Of course, Dad had had English in high school,” Jeannette said. “He could speak French and English and Dutch. Mother hadn’t, so she had to teach herself. She just began with the primer and taught herself.

“When Dad came over here, there were no ships to build, so he was just a blacksmith. But they were especially fine people. They were real aristocrats, is what they were, though they didn’t belong to the aristocratic caste in Holland.”

When Jan Pieter left Holland, he bade his mother, Neeltje Blom, good-bye, but he had no other immediate family except aunts and uncles left to see him off.

“His mother was the only one that was living,” Jeannette said. “He had no other relatives then. He was from a family of 10 children. Most of them had died from diphtheria. In those days, when diphtheria struck a town, it’d just wipe the kids out like . . . just like mowing hay, and so she had lost a lot of her children, and so when he left, why, there were no children of her still living (in Holland). The only ones that were living were John and George, that came over. So she came out, too, soon after.”

She lived with George, who was a bachelor; he never did marry, so she lived with him. But she died very soon; she wasn’t here but just a very short time . . . and strangely enough, I was a darned homely little kid, but I was her favorite. And I can remember going up to her house, and she’d seat me on a big chair that had a book on it so I could reach, and she’d butter up and sugar up a slice of bread and cut it in little squares. I was only three when she died, but I still remember her quite vividly.

Neeltje Blom died in Dartford, near Spokane, in 1896, at age 69.

“I was only two when they left Spokane; they came out to Dartford, and George, who was working with Dad, the two of them built a house and a blacksmith shop,” Jeannette said. “They went to blacksmithing for the farmers that came through town, and they’d shoe horses. And Dad was quite inventive. He invented quite a number of things, but he wasn’t familiar enough with what you had to do if you needed a patent, so he never made any money out of his inventions, but he did invent three or four things.

“We lived in Dartford until I was 17, and during that time Mother died, and we had just a streak of terrible luck, and poor Dad was just about to give up, I guess. Anyway, then we moved up to Cheweleh to a farm, and Dad, never having been a farmer, wasn’t very successful at that either.”

Starting a farm proved difficult, but through hard work and persistence, it paid off. “I don’t think we ever really went hungry, not even when we first came to Spokane in the depression . . . oh, they didn’t call them depressions then, they called them panics,” Jeannette said. “It was on, and it was hard to get work, but dad and uncle George managed some way. Of course, they had money from Holland, too, for that matter. Dad had sold his business, you know, so I suppose the first few years they probably lived on that. I don’t know. But when they got out to Dartford, usually they’d try to pay in money, but if they couldn’t do that, they paid in produce. That’s what people did in those days.”

The bad luck she spoke of consisted mainly of deaths and illnesses.

“Well, mother died (1906),” she said, “and Nell, the oldest one of the girls, she was married and had one little boy, and her husband at the time was living with us. Mother was sick then, and Harry, Nell’s husband, went over to the sawmill one morning before anyone else was there, and he was trying to do something he shouldn’t have tried to do, something beyond his strength, and a log rolled over and killed him (1908).

“And George, who was about 16, he had pneumonia, and he had to be operated on. And Margie, the second girl from the top, had what we now would call rheumatoid arthritis. And Mae, who was next younger to me, had a virus that they called in those days St. Vitus Dance, but it’s only a virus, and she was sick all one winter. So all of that just within a couple of years, so Dad was just devastated.”

The farm had been owned by Jan Pieter’s brother George. “Dad bought it from him, and we had a rather hard time up there for the first year or so,” Jeannette said. “And up there, Dad raised strawberries and we picked strawberries and Fred would take them downtown and sell them. They did quite a bit of selling wood.”

A large family from Indiana moved to town in 1910, and their coming had a significant influence on several members of the Esveldt family. The Wagoner sisters inspired Jeannette and her sister Mae to become teachers, and two of the brothers married Esveldts—including my grandfather John Ernest Wagoner, who married Jeannette in 1918.

(to be continued in future posts)

Friday, May 1, 2015

A satisfying visit to the birthplace of my Esveldt and Munnik ancestors

Windmills in Amsterdam (photo by Lucy Spadoni, May 2015)
Today I had the unbelievable opportunity to visit the small cities in Holland where my great grandfather Jan Pieter Esveldt and great grandmother Hendrina Munnik grew up.
While my genealogy hobby has focused almost exclusively on my father’s side of the family for the past five years, that doesn’t mean I have forgotten my mother’s family. I grew up next to my grandfather John Wagoner and grandmother Jeannette Esveldt, who had a strong influence on my life. Both were teachers, and so were my mom and her sister. I believe my love and skills for that profession, along with a passion and respect for the written word, came from them.

By a huge stroke of Gods grace, I received a personal tour of the cities of Uithoorn, where my Esveldt ancestors hailed, and Mijdrecht, birthplace of both Hendrina Munnik and Neeltje Blom, Jan Pieter’s mother.
Jan Pieter Esveldt
The chance visit came about when Lucy and I decided to spend a few days here in Amsterdam before heading home from Italy. Lucy’s great grandfather Nathan Bonnist was born in Amsterdam, and she is still in contact with his brother Abraham
s two grandchildren, Eduard and Else.
These three buildings may be the last old buildings that remain in Uithoorn from the time that Jan Pieter Esveldt lived there.

After hearing of my family connection to Holland, Eduard volunteered to take Lucy and me on a personal tour of Uithoorn and Mijdrecht, which are located about 15 miles south of Amsterdam. He drove us in his car on a scenic route along the Amstel River, and as we drove first into Uithoorn and then five minutes further into Mijdrecht, we realized what a golden opportunity had fallen into our laps. These are not cities on the beaten tourist track, and while we conceivably could have reached them by bus along a main highway, it would have taken much longer, and we would not known exactly where to find the historical centers of the towns. More importantly, we would not have had a bi-lingual native of Amsterdam to help us interpret the scenery and historical significance of the places we were visiting.

The view of this old farmhouse shows how the river level is actually from 2 to 4 meters higher than the surrounding land.
The area between Amsterdam and Uithoorn consists of breathtakingly beautiful lush green pasture lands. Cows, sheep and goats graze in this unbelievably flat land, most of which is below the level of the Amstel River, which is kept in check by levies that have been expertly constructed over the centuries. Most of the rich farm fields have been converted from marshlands by first channeling the rivers and then using windmills to pump water from the lower fields into the river. If water is needed for the fields, it is a simple matter to let it flow back downhill from the river.

Dutch Reformed Church in Mijdrecht.
Unfortunately, Eduard told us, we have come too late to see what the little cities looked like when Jan Pieter and Hendrina grew up. Modern shopping centers and buildings that house light industries have replaced most of the historical homes and stores. However, knowing the area as he does, Eduard was able to take us to some of the neighborhoods where older buildings still exist, and we were still able to leave with a reasonable idea of what the old country must have been like. It’s strangely significant to gaze at buildings that you know your ancestors must have seen 150 years ago.

The few historic buildings in Uithoorn are on the right. Travel on the Amstel River is still quite active.
The area in old Uithoorn where we walked around is right on the river, and I believe it quite likely that Jan Pieter often boarded a boat there in his travels to Amsterdam. He is said to have owned a blacksmith business that made iron parts for Amsterdam’s huge fleet of ships. In those days, river travel would have been the most direct and efficient way for him to commute.

Eduard Bonnist and Lucy Bonnist Spadoni in Mijdrecht.
Mijdrecht had even fewer historical buildings than Uithoorn. Lucy and I walked around what is probably the oldest structure in town, the Reformed Church, which dates from the 1500s, although it was a Catholic Church when first built. We also looked in the small cemetery next to the church, but all the headstones were of relatively recent origin. Likely the ancient graves had to be removed to make way for newer arrivals.
These old houses in Edam show what houses of wealthy
 people would have looked like in Jan Pieter's time.
However, homes in Uithoorn would have been simpler.

While it’s amazing what a person can discover about one’s ancestors by researching online and viewing photos and videos, there is still nothing that can match the emotional satisfaction of a personal visit to the historic towns from where they came. Today I was fortunate enough to feel that thrill.

From this unique view in the canals of Amsterdam, one can see seven bridges in a row from one location.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Is the Tuscan surname Spadoni tied to wealthy Spada family of Lucca?

Was the first Spadoni actually from the family Spada? I first heard this idea proposed when I received a document from Alberto Spadoni of Ponte Buggianese in 2011. The document was prepared by an unnamed Italian heraldry company that researches the history of one’s family name for a fee. Alberto didn’t remember who gave his family the document.

I originally gave the document credence because it cited specific names and titles of famous ancestors, and their dates of birth. Also, since it was in Italian, that seemed to give it more authority. But I came to have some doubts when I realized that the famous ancestors cited were not of the family Spadoni but of the family Spada. The document didn’t exactly lie, but it was deceptive in what it omitted. It said that the surname Spadoni was a derivative of the Spada family, and then it listed the first name of famous ancestors without giving their surnames. It turns out that all the famous people listed had Spada for a surname, and absolutely no evidence is given that the Spadoni line is actually related to the Spada line. Maybe such evidence does exist, but the document makes no mention of it.
I came to believe that the research company made an assumption of connection based on the linguistic similarity of the names, and that the company just wanted to cash in on a client hoping to hear that his family had once been noble and notable—which seems to be what most people hope to discover. I even wrote an article about this that was published on my blog and later in a genealogical magazine.

Recently, however, I began to have some doubts about my doubts, if that makes any sense. I found some indirect evidence that the Spadoni family could indeed be a branch of the Spada family.

The first two items of evidence are not very strong. First is the claim of the heraldry agency, which is unconvincing, since it gives no sources or explanations. Second is the geographic proximity of the two lines. The Spada family has a long history in the province of Lucca, according to the web site, which cites documents found in archives of the city dating back to 1010. A man named Ildebrando or Brando had the nickname Spada, and he and his sons Gerardo and Gottifredo possessed considerable property in Picciorana, just outside the east walls of Lucca. They had more property in Colognora, about 18 miles north of Lucca. The family went on to become one of the most important in Lucca, with many civic leaders, scholars, lawyers and high officials in the church.

This great photo to the Torre was taken
by Andrea Traversa. The tower has
since been restored.
It is a third fact that I find most interesting. Just south of Lucca is a tower, said to be built around 1500, that is known locally as the Torre degli Spadoni. Significantly, though, it is located on Via dello Spada, which likely is named for the Spada family. Which family, then, built the tower, Spadoni or Spada? The Spada family, wealthy, noble and highly placed in the government of Lucca, seems to be the most likely choice. But it also seems plausible that the member of the Spada family could have been nicknamed “Big Spada,” either for his particular wealth and status, or for his physical size. Spada means sword. Spadoni means big swords, so it could be that one branch of the family changed its name prior to 1500. In Gubbio, according to Casatospada, Bernardo Spada of the 1200s became known as Spadalonga because of his unusual height, and his branch of the family continued to be known by that name.

Fairly accurate records of the Spada family line exist between 1010 and the mid-1300s. Casatospada notes, however, that many historical documents are missing and presumed to be destroyed from the era that Pisa ruled Lucca, 1342 to 1369. Sources also suggest that many families fled Lucca during those years, which could be the reason that Spadoni families are currently spread north of Lucca through the Garfagnana valley and also east in the Valdinievole. It is possible that after Lucca overthrew Pisan rule, the main branch of the Spadoni family returned to Lucca and built the tower, while other branches remained in the outlying areas.

Villa Spadoni, which unfortunately was destroyed in WW 2.
This could also explain the origin of an important branch of the family which settled in Reggio Emilia and built a large palazzo called Villa Spadoni. Alessandro Bondi, an Italian genealogist and descendant of this family, said that Spadonis have roots in Borzano di Albinea and Viano from at least the end of the 1500s. At one time, they owned as much as half of the land there, more than 860 acres. Bondi said he has come across some evidence in his research indicating that the family came to Emilia-Romagna from Tuscany, and only 100 miles separate Lucca from Borzano.

I am by no means convinced that the the Spadoni line from Lucca came from the Spada family of Lucca, but I recognize that it is a theory that should be considered. I wish I had more information about the history of the Torre degli Spadoni, because that could provide more evidence one way or the other. However, it is not easy to find 500-year-old documents, especially for someone who doesn’t live in Italy or speak Italian fluently. However, I have been lucky in the past, and maybe some day I will stumble upon the information.
Another way to show if there is a connection would be to compare DNA tests between members of the Spadoni and Spada families. However, DNA testing for genealogical purposes is still a relatively new concept, and as far as I know, only two people with the name Spadoni have been tested, and no one from the Spada family. In fact, we don’t even have enough evidence to know if all the Spadoni families around Lucca are connected. DNA testing is becoming more routine and less expensive, and a day may come when it will be possible to determine who is related to whom. Until then, well, it’s just fun to speculate the possibilities.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Will we buy electric bicycles, or maybe a Vespa (in Lucy's name) instead?

I tried out two electric bikes this week with 24-volt motors to assist with the hills. Unfortunately, the 36-volt bikes from Fanini Cicli did not arrive; they are on back order from the factory, so I had to settle for test-riding two 24-volt models.

I rode one in Lucca, where the only hills I could find were the relatively gradual slopes from the centro up to the city walls. It went up those short hills easily. I pedaled with about the same amount of effort it usually takes to move on flat ground. Then I tried out another model in Pescia, which is only a few kilometers from Montecarlo, so I was able to mount an attack on the true enemy, the 480-foot climb up the hill where we will live next February.

I made it to the top without having to get off and push, but not without considerable sweat and effort—and often I was not moving much faster than I would have if I had walked. This would be acceptable if we wanted to use our bikes for a good workout, but more often we will need them to do our shopping and for other daily business. I don’t want a workout every time we need to go outside the city, so these bikes won’t work for us. We won’t be able to try a 36-volt model until we come here to sign the final documents for our house in October, or maybe not even until next February.

Meanwhile, we have found out that we can also buy a used 50cc or even 150cc motorino for only around 1,000 euro, a little less than a new 36-volt electric bike would cost. One of these could carry both of us up the hill, so if we buy a motorbike, we will save both money and sweat.

The only problem, as I previously mentioned, is that only residents can own motorbikes. We can become residents next February, but then we would be expected to get Italian drivers’ licenses. However, I may have found a way to skirt this problem. We could buy a motorino in Lucy’s name. I would be the driver and she the passenger. If we are stopped by the police, I would pull out my American drivers license, and I have been assured by the police chief of Altopascio that it would be valid in Italy. I would state accurately that I am an American citizen. If we are asked for the documents for the motorbike, we can show that it is owned by Lucy, a registered Italian resident.

Will this work? My only fear is that if we register a vehicle in Lucy’s name, she will be asked to show an Italian license. I went to the Yamaha store in San Salvatore and asked the proprietors for their opinion. They consulted with each other for a few seconds and announced that my idea would work, because one is only asked for proof of residency, not a driver’s license, to register a motorbike. They even complimented me on my very Italian solution to the problem. “You’re already becoming Italian if you can come up with an idea like that,” one of them told me.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Gigia’s kittens are alive and well

Roberta gave us the good news that she has found Gigia’s kittens, and they are doing well. There are three of them living in a rolling bin that the personnel at the Casolare dei Fiori use to hold and move floral displays. Roberta found them a few days ago when it was raining and wheeled the bin under cover inside one of the greenhouses.

The bin makes a purrfect (sorry) home, because the walls are about two feet tall, and the kittens can’t wander, but Gigia can easily jump in. That’s probably why she seems so much at ease when she comes to visit us, knowing that her babies are completely enclosed and safe. Now I have to reconsider my previous belief that she was kitten-less and had found another human family to watch over her. Since her kittens are here at the Casolare, I can only speculate that she may have found other people willing to feed her, but she still is basically living on her own.

Roberta showed us where the kittens are living, and Gigia watched us warily as we parted the plants and peaked down inside. We could only see them from the top, but I poked my camera down lower and tried to snap some photos, with limited success. Two are dark and one is mostly white. Roberta also filled us in one Gigia’s previous motherhood. She said Gigia had five kittens last year, all of different colors. I forgot to ask if she knows where they are now.

We will miss our little visitor when we move out next week, but she made our time here more pleasant, and we were able to help keep her nourished during her pregnancy and the last few weeks while she has been nursing. Now she in one of the greenhouses that is right across from the office and is often used for arranging, packing and storing, so we know she and her little family will be watched over well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A (mostly) happy outcome for our friendly visiting cat, Gigia

I reported a few weeks ago that Gigia, a nice but partly feral cat had adopted us, and that she was pregnant. She disappeared about three weeks ago, and we figured she had gone off to her hidden den to give birth. After about three days, she came back around, no longer pregnant, but without any kittens in tow. We thought maybe she just left them for a short time to get some nourishment, but in the following days, we realized that there were no kittens. For reasons we would rather not think about, they didn’t survive.

Gigia started coming around more and more often, and we realized that her behavior had changed considerable from our first weeks here. She is now very relaxed. She no longer jumps when we first touch her, and she rubs against my face if I am low enough. She sometimes used to bite my hand unexpectedly after I petted her for a minute, not hard, but not something I appreciated. She never does that any more.

In the past week, though, she has come less frequently, and she seems very content to just visit and be petted. She does not come to eat but just to say hello. We feel quite certain that someone else has adopted her, and that makes us very happy. We will only be here another week, and we would feel bad if we didn’t know that she had someone with more permanence to feed and love her.

In a little more than two months, Gigia has changed from a half-feral scared and nervous animal into a friendly, relaxed and nearly domesticated pet. We are happy for Gigia and glad that we were able to play a part in making her more desirable for some neighbor to adopt.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Buying a home in a hilltop town means that we must . . . go up a hill

Now that we are buying a home in a hilltop town in Italy, we are faced with the question of how we will get from the bottom to the top. We did fine our first four trips here with bikes and trains, and the very rare rental car when we had multiple family members visiting. This year we rented cars part of the time from friends who were out of the country, which really helped on rainy days and when we had to take numerous trips to Montecarlo, Montecatini, Lucca and San Miniato to make arrangements for our apartment purchase. Without a car, we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it all.

But our future home in Montecarlo has an elevation of 531 feet above sea level. The train station at the bottom of the hill has an elevation of about 50 feet, and it’s only one and a half miles away, meaning the grade averages 6 percent. Some sides of the hill have longer and slightly more gradual slopes, but the fact is, we have mono-speed bikes, we are 60-plus years old and we are, when it comes to stamina and athleticism, very average individuals.

Going up the hill to Porta Fiorentina in Montecarlo.
We have taken our bikes up to Montecarlo before, and we have had to push them almost all the way. An average person walks at 3 mph, and a person pushing a bike uphill maybe 2 mph. It’s not hard to figure that it could take us almost an hour to go from the train station to our house, and thus we have concluded that we must come up with a new plan.

Obviously, we could rent a car for the entire three months that we plan to live here each year. That would be the easiest but most expensive option, costing around $3,000 each time. For that price, wouldn’t it eventually be cheaper to buy a car? Maybe, but don’t forget we would also have to pay for licensing, safety and emissions test and insurance. And an even more difficult issue is where we would park it for the other nine months, since our house has no garage and not even a driveway. Besides, only Italian residents are allowed to own cars. Yes, strangers can own houses in Italy, but not cars, or even motorcycles.

We could become residents, but then we would be faced with another issue. We would have to obtain Italian drivers’ licenses. Italy does not have a reciprocal agreement with the United States to exchange licenses. We’d have to go to driving school and take both written and practical tests, all in Italian. This is an expensive option which can cost nearly $1,000, and our Italian is probably not good enough yet to pass the tests anyway.

So we are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. If we rent a car, our American licenses will suffice, but it will be costly. If we buy, we have a year to obtain Italian licenses. After that, if we are pulled over—and Italian police frequently set up road blocks for routine documentation and equipment checks—our auto documents would reveal proof of our residency, and the police will want to know why we don’t have Italian drivers’ licenses.

There could be ways around the problem. Perhaps we could find an Italian friend who would put the car and the insurance in his name. Maybe we can continue to find less expensive long term rentals from acquaintances. Maybe we can put the car in Lucy’s name and I can keep using my American license because the car documents will not betray me as a resident.

None of this has to be decided upon immediately, as we will be leaving Italy in a week and not returning for an extended stay until next February. But that doesn’t stop us from continuing to research our options, and later this week, we will go to the Fanini bicycle shop in Capannori and try out a promising option, bikes with an electric assist motor. No license and no insurance will be needed, and they will fit in the ground floor storage room of the home we are buying. Check back in a few days for a full report . . .

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ubaldo Bartolai holds no rancor after losing two years in concentration camp

In previous blogs, I told the stories of Mario Seghieri and Gigi di Meo, Italian men who served in the army during World War II and narrowly escaped being imprisoned by German soldiers when Italy abruptly quit the war and soon after changed sides in 1943. They managed to slip away before the Germans had time to tighten their controls of the trains and roads.
Ubaldo Duino Bartolai of Borgo a Mozzano wasn’t so fortunate. After serving as a border guard in Croatia and the Balkan mountains from 1941-43, he was captured by the Germans in the Veneto region on Sept. 9, 1943, the same day that General Pietro Badoglio announced that Italy had withdrawn from the war. Ubaldo remained imprisoned in the German work camp of Furstenberg along the Oder River before finally being freed on May 8, 1945.

Ubaldo, born Nov. 2, 1921, said he rarely speaks about his time in the camp now. He was reluctant to speak to us as well when we interviewed him in the kitchen of his sister-in-law, Nida Giusti
the topic of a previous blog. Fortunately for us, Ubaldo was surrounded by family members who encouraged him to share his experiences.

“I can say that those were sad times in Germany,” he said. “We didn’t know if we would ever return.” Food in the camp was scarce. “The soup we were given was only fit for pigs. We ate what we could. We reached a point where we would go through the garbage and fight over potato skins that the Germans had thrown away.” Sometimes an older German man who operated heavy equipment in the camp would give Ubaldo a little piece of bread in gratitude for a hard day of work.

It was a work camp, and Ubaldo and his compatriots were compelled to break stones into sand that could be used to make concrete for the German war effort. He remembers the extreme cold of the winters, when the Oder River was completely frozen over.

He recalls two incidents that helped him persevere during the dark times. “Once we were visited by an Italian priest, who encouraged us to have courage, to not to give up, to trust each other,” he said. He also received a post card from his fiance at home that somehow made it through to his prison camp. Knowing that she was doing well even though bombs were falling in Italy gave him hope for the future.

He was captured in uniform and wore it every day until he reached home two years later. He was released from prison by Russian soldiers, but the Italian prisoners slipped past the watch of the Russians and made it through to the American-controlled portion of Germany. Both the French and Italian prisoners felt they would receive better treatment there. “The Americans were more organized,” Ubaldo said.

After they were processed and disinfected with DDT by the Americans, they were given transportation back to Tuscany. “When we reached Italian soil again at Brennaro, everybody got down and kissed the ground,” he said. About two years later, he married his fiance.

Now he has no hard feelings toward those who held him prisoner. “It was war and they were just doing their jobs.”

Around 2003, he went back to visit the places where he had served and was captured. “I expected the land to have changed,” he said, “but everything was pretty much the same.”
Ubaldo received a Medaglio D’Oro, a medal of honor, from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on June 2, 2011, during celebrations for the 65th anniversary of the Republic of Italy held in the Palazzo Ducale of Lucca.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Visit to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, one of Tuscany’s best day trips

If you like to combine outdoor scenic beauty and picturesque hill towns with educational visits to museums for your Italy sightseeing, the Tuscan town of Vinci may be a perfect fit. Centrally located about 50 minutes from Florence, Pisa, Lucca and the Chianti region, it is best reached by car, but it is also possible to arrive by using a train-bus combination.

The Man from Vinci, a tribute to the Vetruvian Man.
Vinci is located above the swamps of Fuchecchio on the west side of the Albano mountains, and the last 15 minutes of the drive bring you into lush hillsides covered with ancient olive groves, vineyards and tall Cyprus and pine trees. The town and its surroundings are largely unchanged from the days when young Leonardo roamed its stone-paved streets. Just to stroll through the city and drive or hike up the 3-kilometer Strada Verde that leads to his ancestral home would be enough to make the trip worthwhile.

If you need some snacks to refresh yourself, there is a pleasant couple with a variety of locally made products to fulfill your wishes. They offer free samples of brigadini, a sweet flat pasta that is a local specialty. They also sell cold beer, hot nuts, honey, a variety of sweets, cured meats, wine and olive oil.
The hillsides around Vinci

The original fireplace in the house where Leonardo was born.
The top attractions in Vinci focus, of course, on the multi-talented man who was born there April 15, 1452, as the illegitimate son of a notaio, Sir Piero, and Catherine, a peasant woman. Leonardo is often described as the archetypical Renaissance Man, described by author Helen Gardner as a polymath of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination.” He is recognized as painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer.

Holographic Leonardo speaking English.
The Casa Natale di Leonardo, re-opened with new displays in 2012, is listed as the town’s top attraction in TripAdvisor. You can save money by purchasing a ticket for both the ancestral home and the Museo Leonardiano, which is the number two attraction in Vinci. The room next to the ticket office offers a short history of Leonardo as an artist, starting from his entrance into Master Verrocchio’s workshop to his most important works. Probably the best attraction in the Casa Natale is a 22-minute holographic film where a life-like 3-D Leonardo reminisces about his life and accomplishments. The film alternates between English and Italian. Another room is devoted to an interactive display and explanation of the famous Last Supper, which also can be viewed in either language. Depending on your interest in the subject, this display can occupy your time for 30 seconds or 30 minutes. You can interact with the painting projected on a wall through a Wii-like application by just moving your hands, but it’s easier to use the small touchscreen off to the side.

The gentle hills, the wide fields of vineyards and olive trees and the sun itself are integral parts of the museum and of its history,” write blogger Sara Turini. This beauty has doubtless contributed to envelope and influence the fantasy, wits, creativity and genius of one of the greatest men in the world.”

Don't forget to bring along the best tour guide
in Toscana when you go to Vinci, Elena Benvenuti
Back in town, the Museo Leonardo is devoted mostly to his inventions. Engineers from IBM used the great man’s sketches to create working models of his machines, and since then other academics have donated more machines and computer animations to bring to life his concepts. Leonardo had the ideas, but he just didn’t have the technology or time to produce all of them. Included are a scuba diving apparatus, a modern air conditioner, a projection device, a self-propelled vehicle, a machine for making coins, a helicopter, a parachute, a swing bridge, hydraulic machines, a tank, a double-hull boat and a bicycle. Unfortunately, most of the explanations are only in Italian, but by good fortune, I was accompanied by a bilingual tour guide, our friend Elena Benvenuti, who is an expert on Leonardo.

Part of the view from the tower in Vinci.
Il Cavallo, by Nina Akamu, on display in Vinci.
Two other places not to be missed are the church with the font where Leonardo was in all likelihood baptized, and the castle tower, which has a spectacular 360-degree view of the town, hills and valley. Then there are the monuments that recall some of his famous works such as The Horse, created in 1997 by sculptor Nina Akamu, in the likeness of the colossal statue of Francesco Sforza that Leonardo never brought to completion, or The Man from Vinci, a sculpture by Mario Ceroli and inspired by the famous man of Vitruvius . The town has been awarded the Bandiera Arancione, a recognition of quality awarded by the Touring Club Italiano to select small towns for excellence in tourism, hospitality and the environment. I recommend taking at least three hours of free time in the town, plus another hour for a restful lunch or dinner, either outside with a picnic or in one of the restaurants.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Nitty gritty and boring details of our otherwise exciting Italy home purchase

Our rental house in the USA has sold, and we will be changing our conditional offer to purchase the house we want in Montecarlo into an unconditional offer. It’s starting to look like this game is in the bag! That part is exciting. Taking care of all the details is not.

The sale of our house could not have gone more smoothly. I trust the woman who made the offer as if she were my own sister, and, further, I feel as if I have known her for all of my life. In fact, she is my sister. She will keep it for the time being as an investment, so the renter will have a chance to stay put—which he wants to do—and Linda will not have to worry about looking for a good renter. Plus Linda is kind of getting a two-for-one deal, because now that she has cleared the way for our purchase here, she will have a house to use in Italy whenever she wants as well.

We have cleared a few more hurdles in the last couple of weeks. We selected a notaio, on the recommendation of cousin Simone Spadoni. A notaio takes care of all the legal work in transferring the property and recording all the proper documents and paying all the taxes. Our geometra has examined the house for soundness and checked to assure that all modifications made have been done with the proper permits.

Since we want both of our names to be on the title, Lucy and I went to the Agencia Entrate in Pescia to get her codice fiscale, the equivalent of a social security number, something I had obtained with the help of a friend five years ago. Our effort was a little frustrating, as I explained to the clerk what we needed and why, and several clerks huddled together and told us that our notaio would have to be the one to submit the proper paperwork. I failed to see the reason for this, but since we already had a notaio, I went home and e-mailed him copies of both of our passports and told him what the clerks told us. He e-mailed back a letter to take to the agency that basically repeated exactly what I had already told them. The letter on his official stationery and listing his official credentials did the trick, and we were given Lucy’s codice fiscale in about 10 minutes.

The next challenge is getting money transferred to our Italian bank to make the first payment, which is due April 25. I spent almost a day trying to figure out how to do this in the fastest way, because after we told the real estate agents that we were ready to move ahead with the purchase, they set up a meeting with the notaio for next Monday, giving us only a week to get the money here instead of almost three weeks. Our bank in Gig Harbor, which had initially said the transfer would be no problem, now said we needed to be present to sign and set up an agreement with the bank in Italy before any wire transfer could be made. Us flying to Gig Harbor was out of the question.

Then I worked with Western Union, and I was told on the phone that I could transfer only $5,000 at a time, though I could do multiple transfers in a day. When I went online to try this out, the website said I could only transfer $2,999 and only one time a day, unless I set up a business account. Doing this required filling out some forms and e-mailing some documents. One of the documents required a guarantor from the United States to verify that I was who I said I was, and only people in certain professions were qualified. I started the process but continued to look at other options.

A new business called TransferWise looked promising, so I set up an account and started filling out an online form. Then I received a message that the company was not yet authorized to operate in the state of Washington. A TransferWise representative told me that Washington was one of three states where they were still waiting for all the paperwork to be approved. Could I use my Capital360 account, which was in another state? No, because my address was in Washington.

I could have my son Randall make the transfer from Washington DC or Maryland, but the problem would be getting him the money quickly. It would take perhaps three days to get the money to his account, and then another four days to get it to my bank in Italy. I needed it there faster.

After initially giving up on TransferWise, I realized that daughter Lindsey is living in Oregon, and my name is still on her bank account, so I could instantaneously transfer money to her. TransferWise operates in Oregon, so I asked her to set up an account and do the transfer. She started the process, but it will still take at least three days for the money to get into the bank account of TransferWise. We hope the process will take less than a week.

In the meantime, we met with one of the real estate agents Wednesday and found out that the sellers want some minor changes in the way the paperwork is put together, so we now don’t need the money by next Monday after all. The deadline is back to April 25, so the pressure is off. I’m sure the transfer will take place by then. Now it is back to a waiting game, because we have done about all we can do for now. We will meet with the notaio on Tuesday to sign some papers, but otherwise everything looks like smooth sailing. We will make the final payment and get the keys to the house in late October, and we have booked a flight already to come here for a couple of weeks. After that, we will continue to come for about three months a year, as we are doing now—but with the possibility to come any time we want with a guaranteed place to stay. And a guest bedroom for friends who want to visit!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Beware the malocchio, especially this week on Friday the 17th: Italy and some of its pervasive superstitions

This little village is found in the hills above Pescia. The reason for the name has been lost in history.

If bad luck befalls you this coming Friday, it could be because of an ancient Italian curse. In America, Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, but in Italy, the day to avoid is Friday the 17th. This is only one of numerous beliefs that are specific to Italy.

Non รจ vero ma ... ci credo!” This often-used phrase—it is even the title of popular Italian play—sums up the role that superstition still plays in the daily lives of many Italians. It means: It’s not true but . . . I believe it. Some beliefs come from Renaissance times, others from the middle ages, and still more have their roots in Roman culture. Many of the superstitions we have heard while growing up in America—for example, breaking a mirror will cause seven years of misfortune, or a black cat crossing one’s path brings bad luck—came from Italy.

Most rituals and superstitions are shrouded in the mists of mystery and time, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to explain the reasoning behind them today. Multiple explanations exist for every belief, but most begin with “some believe that . . .” or “one possible reason for this . . .” For example, the reasons given for the 17th being unlucky include that the great flood of the Bible started on the 17th day of the month, that the 17th Roman legion was destroyed in a decisive battle in 9 AD and that the Pythagoreans believed that because 17 lies between the perfect numbers of 16 and 18, it was a disgrace. Another reason often given is that 17 in Roman numerals is written XVII, which can become the anagram of VIXI, or
vissi, a Latin word often inscribed on Roman tombs. It means “I lived,” with the implication that “now I’m dead.”

As for the background story of the broken mirror, the urban legend website gives one theory: “Many sources tie the amount of bad luck brought about by breaking a mirror to the Romans, who are said to have believed that life renewed itself every seven years.” It’s even quite likely that this Roman belief was inherited from the Etruscans, Greeks or Phoenicians.

When it comes to black cats, possibly an entire chapter could be written on all the possible explanations that have been advanced. The fact that these superstitions have endured is testimony to the strong need for people to explain the incomprehensible forces of luck, prosperity and chance, even in today’s world.

“Superstition is generally defined as an irrational belief that magic, luck or supernatural forces have the power to influence your life, or that actions that aren’t logically linked to an outcome may have an effect on it,” said Chloe Rhodes, author of
Black Cats and Evil Eyes. She explains that many rituals started out as folklore and folk medicine and have come to be regarded as superstitions only as our understanding of the world deepened.

“If you carried a rabbit’s foot to ward off digestive troubles in Roman times, you did so because it was what your physician recommended,” she said. “If you carried one in the 1600s . . . you might have done so because although you knew it was mere ‘fancy,’ it had worked on a respected friend and seemed also to have the desired effect on you.”

The law of averages being what it is, often times superstitions are given credit for being useful when one has a successful outcome after following them. The Historian Pliny the Elder tells of Consul Mucianus, who suffered from a fear of losing his eyesight and sought to prevent the loss by carrying with him a live fly in a white cloth. Pliny reports that this successfully kept Mucianus from going blind.

While Friday the 13th is not unlucky in Italy—in fact it is considered lucky—13 is considered an unthinkable number of people to have seated at one table, and most Italians will shuffle the arrangement to make two smaller tables if this is about to occur. The reason usually given for this is that 13 was the number of table guests for the Last Supper of Christ.
This could be an example of an acceptable religious reason being superimposed over an older heathen tradition, something that occurs quite often in Italy. National Geographic magazine says that “in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.”

More than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious, according to a recent Gallup poll. But do modern Italians and Italian-Americans still hold to the superstitions of their grandparents? Not to the same extent, but old habits are hard to break.

“I always say not to be superstitious, but thanks to my maternal grandmother, there are precautions that I used to take, just to avoid the ‘bad luck,’ ” said Laura Bandoni, a language teacher at Lucca Italian School. “Don’t open the umbrella in the house. I don’t know the origin of the superstition, but I refrain from doing so out of habit.”

Laura Bandoni
It could be a way of connecting to one’s past. “When you spill some salt, you might think of your mom or your grandmother giving you a warning to throw some over your shoulder,” Bandoni said. “You may not believe it’s necessary, but you feel like you are honoring the memory of your grandmother.”

Belief in the malocchio, or evil eye, is so pervasive in the Mediterranean basin because it far predates the Roman empire. It could have been exported by the seafaring Phoenicians, originally from Syria, who traded extensively with indigenous peoples and established colonies as far west as the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco, past the Straits of Gibraltar. They began their westward expansion as early as 1550 BC.

Every culture seems to have its own version of the evil eye and its own ways to fight it. One thing they all have in common is the malocchio is caused by jealousy and envy. A person eying you with envy can even curse you without actually meaning to.

“All it takes is to pay someone a compliment while feeling jealous or envious,” said Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, author of Orphan of the Olive Tree. “Babies are the most vulnerable to the curse. After all, who receives more compliments than a cute child? For this reason, Italian mothers are always vigilant when someone pays their baby a compliment. They will make the fig sign to ward off the evil eye. If you want to compliment a baby, add the words ‘senza malocchio,’ or ‘without the evil eye.’ ”

The grandmother of Justin Demetri, writer for the website Life in Italy, told him how his aunt was once cured of an evil eye curse.

“My aunt got some type of ‘sleeping sickness’ where she could hardly stay awake,” Demetri said. “Grandma took her baby to a local woman who could foresee the future and ‘diagnose’ the evil eye by dropping olive oil in a bowl of water. The oil formed one large drop in the middle of the bowl, a sure sign of the evil eye, but after chanting the right prayers (that only women were allowed to know), the oil broke up into tiny droplets and spread out. The ritual broke the curse of the evil eye and my aunt, at least according to the tale, got better immediately.”

Some methods of warding off evil spirits or a curse are not as complex. Touching iron can protect you, and some say this is why Italian men may cup their genitals for luck—this has the dual purpose of deterring evil and attesting to their masculinity. A woman, on the other hand, may cup her left breast for the same protection.

Berlusconi behind Spanish foreign minister Josep Pique.
Another possibility is to make the symbol of the horns, il corno or il cornetto, with the index and little fingers. It is best not to point at another person, though, because that could pass the curse along, and making the sign while swiveling the hands back and forth can also be an insult to a man; it means that his wife is cheating on him. Some people wear amulets with the corno around their necks for protection. Giovanni Leone, who was President of the Italian Republic in the 1970s, shocked the country while in Napoli during a cholera outbreak. He shook the hands of patients with one hand, while he made the corno with his other hand behind his back. What he perhaps didn’t realize is that the journalists behind him were documenting his actions.

Politician Silvio Berlusconi was once photographed giving the corno behind the back of the Spanish foreign minister. When asked about it later, he said, “I was only joking.” Many Italians would say that Berlusconi himself is a joke, but I digress. It is reported that the foreign minister and his wife were not amused.

Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath.
A final note about the corno: It became a kind of unofficial salute of heavy metal rock musicians in America when Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath began using it at concerts. “It’s an Italian thing I got from my grandmother,” he said. “It’s to ward off the evil eye or to give the evil eye, depending on which way you do it. It’s just a symbol, but it had magical incantations and attitudes to it and I felt it worked very well with Sabbath.” The sign would later be appropriated by heavy metal fans under the name “maloik,” a corruption of the original malocchio.

Other common Italian superstitions include:

Don’t put a loaf of bread on the table upside down. This is said to come from a medieval fear of touching anything associated with death, a fear so pervasive that bread made for the executioner was always placed upside down to keep it separate from the other loaves. Now it indicates impending death. However, another common explanation of this taboo is that bread is the symbol of Christ, and placing it upside shows disrespect.

Don’t pour water or wine back-handing, that is, with the back of your hand facing the table. You might be secretly putting poison in the drink from your ring.

Putting a clothes hanger on your bed means you won’t have sex. Putting a hat on a bed is a sign of death, as this was something a priest would do when he came to give last rites.

Don’t light three cigarettes with one match. This wisdom is said to stem from the trenches of World War I. On the first light, the enemy spots you; second light, the enemy aims; and third light, he shoots.

Don’t cross your eating utensils on the table. It is disrespectful to the cross of Christ. The same goes for crossing shoes.

If you receive a broach, a penknife or any other kind of sharp object as a gift, prick the person who gave it to you, or give them a coin as a token in return. If you don’t, you risk ruining your friendship (although one would think the former action might run the same risk). Some farsighted people tape a coin to a sharp object before giving it as a gift.

Don’t wish good luck to an actor before a play, an athlete before a race or a student about to take an exam. Instead, say “In bocca al lupo,” literally, “In the mouth of the wolf.” The correct response, by the way, is to say, “Crepi il lupo,” or “May the wolf die.”

If you say the same word at the time as someone else, touch metal or your nose. Otherwise you’ll never get married.

Only ever give flowers to someone in odd numbers, and never more than 12. Even numbers of flowers are for the deceased.

If you find a coin on the ground, spit on it before you put it in your pocket.

Don’t wish someone a happy birthday before the actual date.

When you give someone a wallet as a gift, you should put a coin in it. Otherwise you send a message that you wish the recipient to remain impoverished.

If someone brushes your feet by accident with a broom, you will not get married.

All right, I could go on and write an entire book, which some people have done, but this is enough for today. I hope this is enough to give you a long life—touch iron, and in bocca al lupo!