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 √® 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 Snopes.com 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!



Saturday, April 11, 2015

We survive the “Run with Paolo” course, an annual Montecarlo event

Halfway through the course, with Montecarlo in the background. I should add that we are standing on a hill, with me on the uphill side. Our friends are not really midgets.
Every April in Montecarlo, we see signs that encourage us to “Corri con Paolo,” and we finally did it. Today we joined hundreds of locals on a six-kilometer jog/stroll through the hillsides surrounding the city in a fund-raiser for juvenile cancer victims and their families.

Young Paolo Pieraccini lost his battle with cancer in 2010, and a group called Amici di Paolo started the annual event the next year. Local businesses donate prizes for the participants, who can chose to walk or run three different non-competitive courses of 2, 6 or 10 kilometers. No times are recorded. A small gift bag is given to every participant, and the largest groups receive an additional gift. We also received water or tea and a variety of snacks at the five-kilometer mark and again at the end.

Our "prize" hats for entering the raffle.
We were entertained before and after the event by clowns and musicians. The entry fee was a ridiculously low 3 euro. Obviously this encouraged a high participation rate, but in my opinion, they could have easily doubled or tripled the fee without losing anyone.

We were joined by a couple we had met in February on our tour of Sicily, Michael and Donna Pilletere, who live in Lucca. Like me, Michael is a dual citizen, and he and Donna chose last year to make Italy their permanent home. Having friends accompany us doubled the enjoyment.
At the 5-kilometer point, it's all uphill.


Montecarlo is a hilltop city in an area of Tuscany famous for wine and olive oil, so if you think that the hike would be quite a feast for the eyes, you’d be correct. 
During the first five kilometers, we trekked downhill on winding paved roads and then dirt trails, seeing Montecarlo from angles that were previously unfamiliar to us. The first five kilometers were a piece of torta, so to speak—all downhill. The last kilometer—well , you can figure it out for yourself. What goes up must go down, and the reverse is also true. That’s why they offered refreshments at the five-kilometer mark and not halfway through the course.

The sign was not encouraging.
Nonetheless, we made it back to the top and worked our way through the throng to receive our gift bags and more drinks and goodies. We also entered a raffle for a chance at more prizes, but the only things we won were collapsible nylon hats given to everyone who bought at least five raffle tickets. We hope to make this an annual event for us as well, only next time we will try to involve more friends so we can qualify for a group prize.
Balloons and cheering admirers greeted us at the finish line. Well, we cheered for ourselves, at least.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A growing Gigia replaces Pepe as our home-away-from-home gattina

During our first four years at the Casolare dei Fiore, we were adopted by Pepe, a cat who would come around a few times a day and ask to be petted and fed. Unfortunately, Pepe died last April, shortly after I posted a blog entry about her. I commented to Lucy that I missed Pepe when we came here this February, and a couple of days later, Gigia showed up.

She is more cautious than Pepe and at first wouldn’t let us touch her, but now she loves to be petted. She is still a little jumpy, though. If I reach down to pet her and she doesn’t realize what I am doing, she jumps away. But if I crouch down and wait, she comes back and rubs against my legs, waiting to be petted. And then the purring starts.

She is much younger than Pepe, and I even like to speculate that she could be one of Pepe’s offspring. She is on the small size, like Pepe, and also gray in color. Initially, she didn’t have a name. I asked Luca, and he said that since she was a new arrival at the Casolare, no one had named her yet. He said he would give that job to his twin daughters, Melissa and Matilde. After a few days, we were told that our cat was Gigia, (pronounced Gee-gia), because the word sounds similar to grigia, which in Italian is grey.

She was kind of skinny when we first arrived, but we noticed that she quickly filled out. In fact, too quickly . . . because it now has become obvious that Gigia is quite pregnant. Chances are she will give birth before we leave at the end of April (a cat pregnancy lasts about 65 days), but we have no idea where she will go when the time comes to deliver. She usually only hangs around our apartment for about a half hour each day, sometimes less, so she obviously has other houses she visits. We hope that she will bring her kittens to meet us before we leave, but it is possible that we will not see them this year.

I realize feral cats can become quite a problem, but in this case, there is nothing that we can do to help. We will continue to enjoy being Gigia’s friend and provider while we are here, but after that, she and her family have to depend on Gigia
s other semi-adoptive homes and their own wits to survive.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Minestrone makes a souperior meal

Veggies on the griddle, water and concentrated vegetable cubes on the back burner, minestrone blend legumes on the right.
I wrote a blog last year about the vegetable soup I usually make each week, and I really don’t have much to add to that. It’s just that my minestrone looked so beautiful as I was making it today that I had to take some more photos. I just love the blend of green, red, purple, yellow, orange and white.

Red cabbage
I have refined my skills a little, because I have learned to cook it just the right amount so that the vegetables don’t lose their flavor but are still heated enough to be soft. I also received some advice that a red cabbage is the most important ingredient in a vegetable soup, so now I always include one.

The second batch of veggies is sauteed while the
others simmer in the kettle.
The soup was already indescribably delicious, but if possible, it is now even better. And it doesn’t hurt to know that cabbage is incredibly healthy. Men’s Health website says: “One cup of chopped cabbage has just 22 calories, and it's loaded with valuable nutrients. At the top of the list is sulforaphane, a chemical that increases your body's production of enzymes that disarm cell-damaging free radicals and reduce your risk of cancer. In fact, Stanford University scientists determined that sulforaphane boosts your levels of these cancer-fighting enzymes higher than any other plant chemical.”

Of course, if I google just about any of the vegetables I use, I can find similar claims about their benefits. In summary, this soup makes me feel good when I make it and when I read about it, but most importantly when we eat it. It fills us up so effectively that we don’t feel the need for any dessert or between meal snacks. My stomach is happily at work for hours afterward, processing the complex chemicals.


Last summer, I started making the soup in Gig Harbor, too, buying some vegetables at the farmers’ market and the rest at the grocery store. A big pot of soup can last all week, and it’s great to know you have it when you’ve worked all day and don’t much feel like cooking.
It's all together now and just has to simmer for 10-15 minutes more. Test a few pieces to see if they are soft enough, but don't overcook and lose that fresh flavor.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Endearing Italian hand gestures have deep roots in culture, upbringing

Italians are famous for talking with their hands, an endearing trait that likely has its roots in historical necessity. Professoressa Isabella Poggi of Roma Tre Ponti Università has identified some 250 gestures that Italians use in everyday conversations.



“When you are in Italy, you need to go on the street, in the markets, in the square and just watch the faces, the hands and the body of the people,” said film maker Luca Vullo of Caltanissetta, Sicily. “I think the Italian people are more physical; it is in our blood.”

Hand gestures may be more important in Italian culture than in any other, Poggi said in an interview with BBC. “We inherited the language of gestures from the Greeks,” she said. “When the Greeks moved to southern Italy and colonized Naples, the Italians used gestures as a way to communicate without being overheard. The gestures continued to have a tradition as a way of communicating.”

The importance of talking with the hands may have begun with the Greeks, but throughout the centuries, Italy has possibly been ruled by more foreign invaders than any other country. With new rulers came the need to communicate with hand signals. How else could the native Italics have spoken with the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Islamic Arabs, Normans, Hohenstaufens, Spaniards, Catalans and other foreign powers who occupied important parts of Italy?

Italy is the most genetically diverse country in Europe,” said Alfio DiMauro, a specialist in Italian cultural and a tour guide with Rick Steves Europe. “And Sicily is the most genetically diverse region in Italy.” Thus it is no coincidence that Southern Italians, and particularly Sicilians, are known to use hand gestures more than their northern counterparts.

Italians, especially in southern Italy, can’t help but use the voice of the body to communicate,” Vullo said. “The reasons are historical and cultural, thanks to the numerous invasions, but certainly our temperament and our innate histrionic qualities contributed to this magical and articulate language.”

Some also believe that the hand signals were ways that the natives could communicate among themselves without their overlords understanding.
It’s true that Italians sometimes use hand gestures to communicate with each other in such a way that others can not understand the message,” Vullo said, “and sometimes Italians can say one thing verbally and completely contradict it with gestures. The fascinating thing is that (this combination) can only be understood by who know the language code.”

In cities that were so crowded, like those in Southern Italy, there was a type of need to compete to attract attention to oneself,” Poggi said. Over the centuries, languages have changed, but sign language has remained. “Gestures change less than words,” Poggi said.

Italian hand communication can sometimes be dangerous. In 2012, a man making a gesture struck a woman in a piazza in Puglia and was found liable for civil damages by Italy’s highest court, according to the New York Times. “The public street isn’t a living room,” the court ruled. “The habit of accompanying a conversation with gestures, while certainly lawful, become unlawful” in some contexts.”

Vullo earned numerous cinematic awards for his 2012 docudrama La Voce del Corpo, The Voice of the Body (see below), and he also holds workshops on Italian non-verbal communication. Vullo describes the video as “a joyful, instructive perspective on that peculiar non-verbal code of communication that makes Sicilians (and Italians) famous throughout the world. The Voice of the Body is a quintessential ‘made in Sicily’ work: the film crew was composed exclusively by Sicilian professionals, and its soundtrack was realized by Sicilian bands and composers.”
The video below is Vullo’s original, with only spoken Italian. You can see a version on Youtube with English subtitles if you click here.


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Footnote: Vullo will be an artist-in-residence for six weeks in the summer of 2015 at Mills College near San Francisco.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

How does Spadoni’s Market of Eureka fit into the Spadoni family tree?

I have long known about Spadoni’s Market of Eureka, California. Friends saw the store years ago and stopped to snap a photo for me. Some of my Gig Harbor cousins once stopped there and spoke with the owner, and they figured they must be related, because the market owners came from the same general area of Italy as our ancestors.

A link does exist, and I have finally discovered it. However, it is about as distant as it can get and still be within the boundaries of verifiable. The quest to determine the connection started when I was contacted by Richard Hallford in 2011. He is a friend of Leroy “Roy” Spadoni, who grew up in the San Francisco area. He wanted to give Roy a gift of knowledge about his family’s origins. At the time, I still knew little of my own family history and couldn’t offer any help to Rich. But as I continued to travel to Italy and learn how to access records here, I realized that the answer to Roy’s ancestry lay in the parish archives in Pescia, which has the baptismal, death and marriage records for many of the churches in the Valdinievole.

In 2012, I was contacted by Ray Spadoni, a first cousin to Roy, and also by Jeanette Spadoni, Ray’s sister-in-law. Using information from Rich, Ray and Jeannette, I pieced together a rudimentary family tree, but I was led astray by some information that led me to believe that Roy and Ray’s grandparents were from Massa Macinaia, which is about 15 miles west of Stignano, the town where most of the Spadoni family here originated. Last year, I realized that I didn’t have the time and patience to search every church record to find their ancestors, and so I finally paid Andrea Mandroni, a professional archivist, to do the work. It turns out that was a good move, because when he gave me the results, he said it was “quasi un miracolo” that he was able to find the records—almost a miracle.

This photo of Massa is taken from Cozzile.
It turns out that most members of the family were from Massa e Cozzile, not Massa Macinaia. Massa and Cozzile are two picturesque ancient villages in the hillsides above the Valdinievole, only about three miles north of Stignano. Because they are so close together, they have only one comune and are thus often referred to as Massa e Cozzile. Roy and Ray’s grandfather Luigi had five sons. Four were born in Massa e Cozzile, and the youngest in Colle di Buggiano, which located between Stignano and Massa e Cozzile.

And here is Cozzile, taken from Massa.
The father of Ray and his brother James, Jeanette’s late husband, was Piacentino “Peter” Spadoni, born in 1895. Roy’s dad was Ezio Spadoni, born in 1898. Luigi and Maria Vezzani’s three other sons were Nello, 1888; Gino, 1891; and finally Giulio Giuseppe “Beppe), 1904. Gino did not marry, and I haven’t been able to determine yet if Beppe had any children. However, Nello is the founder of Spadoni’s Market, and he has many descendants still living in California.

Nello married Italia Ciabattari, also born not far from Stignano, and they moved to Eureka, along the northern California coastline, where they purchased the Last Chance Service Station in 1927. It was a convenience store and the last gas station that a driver would encounter when leaving Eureka from the north side. Their son Gino, 16-years-old when the family purchased the store, replaced the Last Chance in 1956 with a new building, and he and his wife Sarah renamed it Spadoni’s Market. Gino passed away in 1977, but Sarah continued to operate the store. In 1981, Gino “GJ” Spadoni Jr. purchased it from his mother, and he operated the store in much the same way as his parents had done.

From the Humboldt County Historical Society, I obtained a copy of an article from the Eureka Reporter dated Dec. 21, 2006, which tells of GJ’s decision to close the store after 79 years of family ownership. “I am tired, and it’s time for me to catch up on some things,” he says in the article.

GJ had two sisters, Ada and Virginia, and I found an obituary for Virginia which gave the name of her children. Through that source, I also located one of her daughters, Sheryn McBride, who told me that GJ is “alive and well.”

As to how my clan of the Gig Harbor-based Spadoni family is related to Luigi Spadoni’s descendants, it is an extremely ancient tie. When Francesco Spadoni, born around 1455 in Marliana, moved to Stignano in the late 1400s, he had two children, Michele and Bartolomeo. Luigi and his five children are descendants of Michele. My line of the family comes from Bartolomeo, and thus I am probably something like a 15th cousin of the people with whom I am corresponding.

Unfortunately, I have no idea where the photo I once had of Spadoni’s Market is today. I hope that I can obtain photos from Sheryn and perhaps establish contact with JG. Even if we are the most distant of relatives, we have much in common as descendants of the Great Italian Diaspora.