Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Our home has been blessed by the Montecarlo parish priest

We experienced a first today: We had our home blessed by the parish priest of Montecarlo, don Lorenzo Battioli. I had read that this was an Italian tradition during Easter week, and a letter from don Lorenzo had been put in our mailbox about a week ago with a schedule stating that he would be offering blessings to homes on via Roma this afternoon.

I had neglected to note this on our calendar, and it was only because of the providence of God that we were home. We had scheduled an appointment at the massage parlor for Lucy this afternoon, but because of some confusion about the time (our fault—we don’t want to talk about it!), I had just called to reschedule it for the next day.

Don Lorenzo
(photo from
At about 4 p.m., our doorbell rang, and Lucy looked out the window. Below was the priest and another man, probably a lay volunteer. I had been reading on the couch and had dozed off. Lucy asked me what she should tell them. I fought a brief internal battle with my innate shyness and the adventurous side of my nature that had compelled me to buy a home in Italy. The latter side won out, thankfully.

We went down to greet them, introduce ourselves and invite them up. The man with don Lorenzo introduced himself as Claudio Donatini, and as is a common experience, he said he was related to a Spadoni through a marriage between a Capocchi and a Spadoni. I told him my great grandmother was a Capocchi, so we undoubtedly have a common ancestor somewhere. This is not at all unusual here. Indeed, I’d estimate more than half the people in Montecarlo are related if only we had complete records dating back 800 years.

We bowed our heads, and don Lorenzo recited a short prayer and sprinkled holy water before he shook our hands and went on his way to the next house. He and I have passed on the street several times, and while each of us knew who the other was, we had never formally met, so this was another small but important step in our slow integration into the community.

Now fully awake, I suggested to Lucy that we take advantage of the remaining daylight and take a walk on a trail that I had noted last fall. It had looked a little too rough to negotiate on my bike, but I had kept it in mind. We drove to the cemetery and then walked for 10-15 minutes down the hillside, first past tall oaks, then groves of olive trees, and then more oaks. We found an open grass field with benches, where we sat and enjoyed a view of the hills on the other side of the Valdinievole. One of the towns clearly visible was Stignano, where my Spadoni ancestors lived from around 1490 to 1630. We filed this away as a great place to come for a picnic lunch during warmer weather. Anybody want to meet us here?

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Back to the slow life of Montecarlo--just the way we want it to be

It’s been about two weeks since we arrived back in Italy, and only a few things have happened worth writing about.

For the first time, we were asked by the police for identity documents in a random check while we were sitting on a train. I had heard that this sometimes happens, and we showed our American passports. We could have used our Italian carte d’identità, but I’m always a little self-conscious about identifying as Italian because of my lack of fluency. I’d rather be complimented for speaking Italian well considering I’m a foreigner as opposed to coming across as a poorly educated Italian.

Piazza San Marco, Venezia
Every time we arrive in Montecarlo, I hold my breath while checking the mail, wondering if there will be a new letter from the Agenzia delle Entrate demanding I pay taxes incurred by someone who has assumed my Italian identity. As far as I know, the AE still thinks I owe nearly 1,000 euro in auto and phone taxes for purchases that took place in other cities almost 10 years ago. I filed a police report, called a denuncia, denying responsibility for these taxes, and I haven’t heard from the AE since. Whether this is because they actually received, read and believed my denuncia or whether my supposed transgression has been buried in a blizzard of bureaucratic inefficiency I may never know. In any event, there was no new letter demanding payment, and I tend to lean toward the latter explanation.

We found our home here to be in great shape after being away for almost four months—no broken water lines, no strange odors, no mold on the walls, all appliances working fine. Even the cold water tap in the bathroom had somehow healed itself. During the previous year, only small drips of water came out when we turned the faucet on, presumably caused by a buildup of calcare—calcium—which is a common problem in Italy. For some unknown reason, now it flows perfectly. This just validates one of my life philosophies learned while reading Peanuts in my childhood. Linus once said, “Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.” However, I should add a disclaimer that I only apply this to the minor annoyances of life. I once shared this concept with my son Randall when he was in grade school, and he used it as an excuse for not starting a major project—and then he told his teacher that he learned this from his dad!

Claudia and Sauro cut and colored Sandy's hair

After a leisurely week recovering from jetlag, we took a two-day trip to Venezia to enjoy some explorations with Dan and Sandra and their kids, who were on spring vacation from school in Nigeria. March is the perfect time of year to be in La Serenissima, as the crowds are low and the weather just starting to warm up. A few days later, we all enjoyed some time together in Montecarlo. Sandra, Clara and Juniper got haircuts from Magic Hair and cousin Sauro, and we picked up Italian citizenship documents for Josie and Ferhan in Pescia. We also took a nice drive into the Apuan Alps to Pizzorne for a picnic lunch and short hike.

We played football and threw the Aerobie in the Altopiano delle Pizzorne.

In a stroke of good fortune, our former exchange student Simone and his dad Luciano offered to loan us Luciano’s car for the next two months. We had planned to get around only on our electric bikes for most of the time, but even though spring is drawing near, it’s still chilly and rainy here about half of the time, today included. We wouldn’t have gone to church this morning without the car.

Clara & Junie at the park in Pizzorne
Now we’re settled in and have no specific plans for the next month. We’ve said many times that we don’t come to Italy to be tourists. We are just here to be. We want to be as Italian as possible, living the slow life, enjoying the cuisine, learning the language, mixing with the locals. We know that we will never be anything close to truly being Italian, but that won’t stop us from trying, from enjoying the process. Norman Vincent Peale once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”



Monday, March 6, 2023

A fun but non-scary suspension foot bridge in the province of Pistoia

After having crossed the frightening 227-meter long and 120-meter tall swaying Ponte alla Luna in Southern Italy in the fall of 2021, Lucy and I jumped at the chance to cross another narrow pedestrian bridge closer to home this winter. I recently read online about a bridge located about an hour north of Montecarlo, in the comune of San Marcello Piteglio, and we knew right away we had to experience it. The fact that it was free made it even more appealing.

Compared to the Ponte
alla Luna, the Ferriere
is not at all scary.

We had flown into Firenze on Thursday and had a rental car reserved for four days, so there was no time to waste. We left early Saturday morning on a brilliant sunny day, choosing the most winding and scenic route of the three options offered by Google maps. Weaving back and forth on the almost single-wide roads of the Appennini mountains, we passed deep forests of chestnut trees still bare from the winter. We stopped briefly to watch parents and children sledding in a large, sloping field of snow not yet completely melted.

The Lima, as viewed from the bridge.
A few kilometers from San Marcello, we saw a sign directing us to the Ponte Sospeso delle Ferriere, which passes over the Lima river, and we easily found a parking space right next to the entrance. The bridge was only a five-minute walk. Since this is still the low season, we encountered only one other couple on the bridge.

We learned from the interpretive signage that the Ponte Sospeso for many years had been the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Italy. It had been built in the early 1920s not as a tourist attraction but as a way for metal workers to reach their factory more easily, saving them from what otherwise would have been a six-kilometer daily commute. To cross the bridge takes less than 10 minutes, though for us it took 15 minutes, as we paused to enjoy the scenery and take photos.

Looking upstream at the Lima and beyond into the Appennini mountain range.

Though the bridge is 227 meters long and reaches a height of 36 meters (118 feet), it is not frightening to cross—at least not compared to the modern Tibetan-style pedestrian bridges being built in other mountainous areas of Italy as tourist attractions. Its floor is a continuous grid, and the sides are high enough that there is no possibility of falling off. The Ponte alla Luna, on the other hand, has undoubtedly been built to attract tourists not only by its height but also because it seems dangerous (although it really isn’t), with open sides and floor rungs separated by large gaps.

When the Ponte Sospeso was built 100 years ago, it had wooden flooring, but now pretty much every part has been replaced and improved, making it completely safe. It doesn’t even sway very much, so it’s not particularly exciting for thrill seekers. However, the setting and view are very pleasing, and the price is unbeatable.

Chestnut forest in the Appennini.

On the return drive, we couldn’t resist stopping at a bar in Prunetta with the appealing name Crema e Cioccolato. Yum! I had a slice of chocolate and cream pie and a cappuccino, and Lucy enjoyed a chocolate covered donut washed down with a thick and creamy Italian hot chocolate. Literally, la dolce vita!

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Bike riding in Tuscany opens up new cultural sights and experiences

I was not born to be a runner, swimmer, weightlifter—and especially not a tri-athlete—because I really don’t like any activity that causes me pain or discomfort. In high school, I tried out for the wrestling team—for a single day. And then the same for the swimming team. My comment after quitting both was something like, “If I’m going to work that hard, I at least want to get paid.” On the other hand, I love playing baseball, basketball and volleyball, for the simple reason that I get lost in the joy of competition, camaraderie, teamwork and a focus on the required skills, so much so I don’t even notice that my body is being tested to the limits of its endurance.

We see this activity on nearly every street in the fall.
Bike riding might seem similar to those more painful sports, but against the odds, it has become one of my favorite activities during the months we live in Italy. It’s not that I’ve changed, because I haven’t, but riding on my e-bike in Tuscany requires so little effort and offers so many rewards that I scarcely consider it to be exercise. Because so much of the area surrounding the hill of Montecarlo is level, it was not even very difficult to ride on our old mono speed bikes. Indeed, Lucy and I often rode around just for fun during the years we lived at the Casolare dei Fiori in San Salvatore. But in 2015, we moved up the hill to Montecarlo, and after that we rarely used our old bikes because it was impossible to ride them back up the hill, and it took nearly half an hour to push them up. We just rented a car and left our bikes to gather dust in the closet.

Collapsing houses are a common sight, as it
is often less expensive to build a new house
than it is to remodel an old one.
A year ago, we bought two gently used electric boost bikes, and now I want to go riding pretty much every day. I can fly down the hill at 45 kph, ride for a couple of hours and then make it back up the hill at 15 kph, all the while barely breaking a sweat. Once down on the plains, I find a plethora of little used country roads leading in all directions. Pescia and Altopascio are just 15 minutes away. This week I rode all the way to Lucca in 45 minutes. Google maps said it would take about 70 minutes by bike, but apparently their formula didn’t take into account that the first six kilometers were mostly downhill, or that I would be going on an e-bike. I’m sure it would have taken longer to return, but I took the train back as far as Altopascio, so I’ll have to wait for another day to test the return time.

What do I love about riding in Tuscany? Well, first off, it is Tuscany, and that word alone should be self-explanatory. Just tossing out the word Tuscany sells books, wine, cheese, steak, ham and of course vacation bliss—all for good reason. It’s one of the most beautiful and famous regions in one of the most visited countries in the world. The weather this fall has been unseasonably warm, even for Tuscany, so I have continued to go riding almost every day.

Today is sunny with a high of 68f/20c, a little colder than the previous month but still ideal. Lucy has been busy all week making a quilt, so I took off by myself in the direction of Capannori, with the idea that I might make it to the Torre degli Spadoni. It was almost 3 p.m. when I left the house, and it gets dark now around 5 p.m., so I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way, but the destination was not as important as the ride itself.

An almost unknown--and underfunded--park
that I rode past in Capannori 
In my younger days—much younger—I used to love riding motorcycles. I started on a Honda 150, moved to a Ducati 350 and then upgraded to a Triumph 650 Bonneville. None of these proved very useful once I married and had the pleasure of raising four kids, so these bikes are only fond memories now, but riding an e-bike is helping me make new memories. A bicycle is almost soundless, so I can hear songs of the birds, the whir of the olive harvesting tools and even catch snippets of conversation among the families working in their fields. I see abandoned, ruined and collapsing farmhouses, signs that farming was once the backbone of the local economy. It still is, to a lesser extent, but I also see many factories that produce paper, plastics, textiles, machinery, fertilizer, glass, chemicals and a variety of other industrial age products. I also see numerous orti—backyard vegetable gardens—and, of course, endless fields of grape vines and olive trees, as wine and olive oil are still important industries.

I didn’t make it to the tower, but I made two discoveries along the way that proved even more interesting. The first was an archeological site called the Park of the 100 Roman Farms, basically in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have time to explore it, but later in the day I looked it up online. The excavations were begun in 1987, and in 2004 the first of many Roman farms was uncovered, with intact tools for making wine and olive oil. However, I also found an article on the website “Toscana Nascosta” explaining that promised funding for continued exploration and displays for visitors never reached the archeologists, and the site, which could be a valuable “economic and tourism resource” was nothing but “a waste of money.” The article also says that a unique oak wood temple of Dionysus was also found in the same general area, but plans for a museum focusing on this discovery have also stalled for lack of funding.

I may go back to see the ruins of the farms on Monday, though I don’t hold hope that I’ll find much worth seeing. Hopefully in future years, funding can be allocated and further explorations will be made and displayed. It’s part of an ongoing problem in Italy, because historical ruins are abundant, but money is not.

Two riders doing a wheelie.
I was probably only 10 minutes away from reaching the Spadoni tower when I took a wrong turn on a route that Google maps showed to be a through street when in fact it was blocked by fences from a factory. However, I found something equally interesting on the dead-end street. About 40 young adults and teenagers had gathered in a parking lot, many of them with scooters and motorcycles. They were taking turns buzzing along the unused street pulling wheelies and performing acrobatic stunts. Mesmerized, I stopped to watch and take photos for about 15 minutes, astounded at the skills of these riders. They could ride the length of the street with their bikes in a vertical position, a delicate balance requiring just the right amount of acceleration to keep them upright without flipping over backwards. Some of them were actually standing on their bike seats while doing the wheelies.

I found this very friendly and talented "gang' of bikers just
hanging out, socializing and practicing their tricks.
I was approached twice by a couple of guys, who asked me, “Ti diamo fastidio?” Are we annoying you? “Ma dai, ragazzi, siete fantastici!” I said. You’re amazing! I told them that I once had a Ducati when I was young. I also used to stand on my seat, but there is no way I could have done the tricks they were doing. I asked if this was an organized group. They said no, it’s just a group of friends, male and female, who gather every Saturday, weather permitting, to socialize and show off their skills. I could have watched for another 15 minutes, but I was worried about getting home before dark. I hope to return some Saturday next spring to enjoy the show again. This is something you’ll never find in a tour book—it can only be found while riding quietly through the Tuscan countryside.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Still more good news about future plans for the Tower of Spadoni

Breaking news! The Spadoni/Spada/Sandonnini tower is going to get a second makeover next year. After falling into disrepair for hundreds of years, the tower received a much-needed facelift in 2013—and now the Comune di Capannori has decided that was not enough and is set to spend another 150,000 euro.

According to an article published in the online newspaper Luccaindiretta, the tower—which is referred to by city officials as the Torre dello Spada—will have its exterior refinished and repainted again. But beyond that, lights will be installed below and above, and best of all, a spiral staircase will be installed to permit visitors to climb the three floors and enjoy the view from the top. All of this was announced this month at a public meeting of the municipality of Capannori.

Me at the tower in 2015.
“We are satisfied with the great participation registered in the meeting, because this confirms that the Torre dello Spada is truly recognized as a symbolic monument of our municipality and an element that characterizes the Capannorese rural landscape,” said city planning councilor Giordano Del Chiaro. “This project is part of the process of enhancing the identity of the territory and its most significant places and monuments that we are carrying out in view of the Bicentenary of the Municipality, which will occur in 2023. The tower was subject to interventions on the outside a few years ago, but the new project provides for a complete redevelopment. The goal is certainly to preserve it, but also to make it accessible to citizens and tourists. The installation of a spiral staircase inside will allow visitors to climb to its top.”

The tower is owned by the family of Umberto Borgioli, and he enthusiastically endorses the project. “We are satisfied with the synergy created with the municipality for the presentation of the redevelopment project,” Borgioli said. “Although the Torre dello Spada is owned by us, we consider it a monument of great symbolic value for the territory of Capannori and for its rural heritage and therefore of the public. Our family has always had great affection for Parezzana and for the tower, and therefore it is important for us to preserve and enhance this monument. On our part, there is the utmost willingness to undertake a path with the municipality and associations to ensure the opening of the tower at least on some days of the year to make it open and accessible.”

Historian Nicola Laganà also spoke at the city meeting, explaining that the tower was built between the 1400s and 1500s. I had hoped that he would be able to shed further light on how the tower acquired its several names, but the article only said he believed it to have been built by the Sandonnini family and that it perhaps later came under the ownership of the Spada family. Both of these families had wealthy and noble branches in the Lucca area during the middle ages and beyond, and the tower is located on via Dello Spada. Where the Spadoni name enters is not mentioned, but my own personal opinion is that Spadone was the nickname of a member of the Spada family tied to the tower, and that his heirs took on the surname Spadoni. I have written more about this theory in Is the Tuscan surname Spadoni tied to the wealthy Spada family of Lucca?

The tower is roughly in the northern area of
what once was the Lago di Bientina.

Laganà did offer some hypotheses on the original function of the tower, though that too is still a matter for debate. He said some maintain it was born as a lighthouse in a swampy area, others that it was a watchtower to guard the territory from the incursions of the Florentine army, and still others maintain it was an agricultural depot. Looking at old maps of the area, I believe the lighthouse theory to be most likely, as the tower is in an area that ancient maps show as the Lago di Bientina (also sometimes called Lago Sesto), a lake that no longer exists, though the land around the tower is flat and becomes swampy during heavy winter rains. An extensive series of ditches and canals rendered the lake extinct several hundreds of years ago.

In any event, and for obvious reasons, I prefer the name Torre degli Spadoni, and I’m delighted to see that it is being further restored. It has the potential to become a popular tourist attraction and is certainly an important part of the area’s history, even if we don’t know for certain exactly how that part played out. Maybe I just need to make up a good story about how my Spadoni ancestors saved the city of Lucca by turning off the watchtower light at an opportune moment, thus drowning an invading army from Pisa. I suspect that history already has a number of heroic stories that never truly took place, so what harm can one more do? File it under future projects?


Sunday, October 16, 2022

Credit where it is due: The Spadoni tower has a new, more detailed sign!

Here’s some happy news about the Tower of Spadoni. When I included a visit to it during our family reunion activities in May of 2022, the plaque on the outside wall referred to it only as the Torre di Parezzana—this despite the fact that all the newspaper articles about its restoration referred to it as the Torre degli Spadoni, Torre dello Spada or Torre di San Donnino. Well, guess what? Thanks to the encouragement and positive actions from a number of relatives, the sign has been updated. Now it gives credit to the historical names as well as its location near Parezzana.

I won’t go into detail here about how that came about, but I will say that the solution was not nearly as complicated as I had previously believed it to be. Thanks, cousins, for your support.

And if you are hearing about our tower for the first time, you should read this blog entry that I posted in 2015: The Tower of Spadoni has been restored to its former splendor.


Saturday, October 15, 2022

Is there a Seghieri family crest in Pescia? It seems to me there is

It’s pleasant to feel a sense of belonging, of having roots, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of living in Montecarlo. I am constantly being reminded that my dad’s ancestors were from this area—and recently I made another surprising discovery: I found what I am almost certain is another Seghieri family crest.

We stopped by to visit cousin Grazia in the morning and then to see Enrico and Enza in the afternoon, though unfortunately Enrico was not home. Between those two social calls, we went to the centro storico of Pescia to enjoy some pizza and gelato and just appreciate the ambiance of one of the cities where my grandfather Michele Spadoni and great grandmother Maria Marchi were born.

Palazzo del Vicario in Pescia
We walked past the Palazzo del Vicario, the central office of the municipality, an attractive ancient building. I had been there before to request birth certificates for some ancestors, but I never took time to admire the building’s interesting exterior. It is covered with stemme, crests of wealthy or noble families placed on the walls around the year 1600. Certain that my branch of the Spadoni family was not wealthy or noble and had no true family crest, I had zero expectation of seeing something I would recognize. I did find a crest on the side of the building facing Piazzi Mazzini that has two crossed swords, though, which potentially could have some connection to the Spadoni name. Regretfully, I neglected to snap a photo because I figured the probability of a connection was low, and anyway I would have no way to know what family it represented.

Does this stemma in Pescia look like the
Seghieri family crest in Montecarlo?
Then we walked to the side of the building facing the street, and wow! Doesn’t that one up there look a lot like the Seghieri crest found in Montecarlo? Lucy agreed, yes, it does. I took a photo and compared it to a photo I already had of the crest that is above the door of the former Seghieri house near the Porta Fiorentina in Montecarlo. They are not 100 percent identical, but very close. There is a lion—a symbol of strength—with a saw crossing it diagonally. The crest in Pescia is older and more worn than the one in Montecarlo, so the saw teeth in the former are barely visible because of weathering. The lion’s tail is positioned differently, and there is some other unknown symbol in the upper right of the Pescia crest. Could that be the tail? It seems out of place and unattached, but perhaps so.

I knew that the noble branch of the Seghieri family had ties to Altopascio and Montecarlo, but this is the first indication that a branch of the family also resided in Pescia—or at the very least contributed to the construction of this palazzo.

The Seghieri-Bizzarri stemma in Montecarlo.
We went into the building to see if someone had a key that would identify the various crests. We were directed to the city cultural office in Piazza Mazzini. The gentleman there said he was not aware of any key to identify the crests, nor did he know anyone who might have more information. I asked him if I could have his email address in the event I had any further questions. At least I could send him photos of the crest in Montecarlo in case he found someone interested in identifying the crests. Really, I find it hard to believe that there is not a history buff around who has already tried to do this, and if there is, perhaps he or she would be interested in my observations. The official gave me his address, and then I asked also for his name, which gave me another sense of connectedness. He is Luigi del Tredici—almost certainly another distant cousin. My great great grandmother—the mother of Torello Seghieri—is Maria del Tredici. I will mention that to Luigi when I send him photos of the two crests later.


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

"Discover Lucca with Elena" tourist services now better than ever

Well, the best tour guide in Lucca has upped her game. Elena Benvenuti recently fulfilled a long-time dream of buying a house in Lucca that serves as a second home and doubles as a workshop for her cooking classes, an office and a place to sleep when she needs to stay in the city overnight.

All right, full disclosure: Elena is our friend and is married to my cousin Davide Seghieri, so I could be accused of some bias. But consider this. Out of 137 reviews on TripAdvisor, she has 132 5-star reviews. TripAdvisor also lists her as number one out of 14 “things to do in Montecarlo.” Elena and Davide live in Montecarlo, but she grew up in Lucca, and a large share of her tours take place there, so it has been a goal of her to have an operational base in Lucca.

Now if she works into the evening and then has another tour the next morning, she can save driving time by staying overnight in the second home. Another important benefit is that she no longer needs to rent a kitchen for her cooking classes. I can personally attest that these classes are fun and informative, and the money she saves by using her own property allows her to offer classes below the rate charged by other chefs.

Custom made
book shelf made
of old pallets.
Lucy and I were able to see her house today and we were impressed by all the custom work that she and her brother and husband have done. Reportedly, it was in pretty rough shape when she bought it at a bargain price, but now it is freshly painted with new fixtures, soundproof windows and a sparkling new kitchen. She is gradually adding new furniture, some custom-made, as well.

In my humble opinion, a trip to Lucca is not complete without at least one tour and a cooking class with Elena. You can find out more about what she has to offer on TripAdvisor or on her website: Discover Lucca with Elena.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

South Africa is truly a treat, but are the benefits worth the travel time?

Outside the lighthouse at Cape
of Good Hope, South Africa.
Why would someone in the northern hemisphere want to take a vacation in South Africa? Flying from Rome to Cape Town takes 14 hours, even though both cities are in the same time zone, and it would take much longer if one first had to make it to Rome. In our case, we took the slow and cheaper regionale train from Pisa to Rome, then flew to Ethiopia before transferring planes and arriving in Cape Town. Add in that we first had to walk down the hill from Montecarlo and take a train to Pisa, and finally that we had to drive from the Cape Town airport to Simon’s Town, and we were in transit for about 30 hours.

Simon's Town viewed from a hiking trail.
This was all worth it primarily because we were able to spend a week with Dan and Sandra and (most of) their family. The destination makes more sense for them because they are already stationed in Africa (Ethiopia but in transition to Nigeria). For us, it was feasible because we were already in Italy, and despite the hardships of travel, we have no regrets because of the time spent with family.

These penguins were in the aquarium, but
we also saw some on the beach and even
crossing the street in Simon's Town.
But beyond all that, what are our impressions of South Africa? For sure, it is the most modern and comfortable African nation of the many we have experienced. The roads are wide and smooth. English is the primary language, at least in the urban centers we visited, and we found everyone to be friendly and welcoming. We were entertained on several occasions by street singers and dancers. It was also refreshing to see so many different ethnic groups mixing comfortably together now—the polar opposite of a situation that South Africa was infamous for in the not-so-distant past.

“I was pleased by how beautiful, peaceful, calm and uncrowded it is,” Dan said. “Pollution is not a major problem, and the dollar is doing well, so that also helps.”

“If it wasn't so far away, it would be a nice place to live,” Lucy said. “It has a really complicated history which is so recent that you’re not really sure you want to be part of that. You feel like some of the comforts you enjoy are not really okay considering the cost to some of the populations here.”

Admirals Waterfall near
Simon's Town.
We stayed all week in a three-bedroom Airbnb about a five-minute walk from False Bay in the Indian Ocean. We were only a half hour drive from the Cape of Good Hope and dozens of beaches on both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. We saw penguins, guinea fowl and lots of baboons. We visited a beautiful aquarium in Cape Town, a lighthouse at the end of the cape and took scenic hikes to waterfalls and small mountains. We saw new constellations and the man in the moon upside down. And we relaxed, talked, played games and shared meals together—the best part, in my opinion.

I also filled the washbasin and let the water settle for a few minutes and then pulled the plug. The water formed a counter-clockwise whirlpool, as I had read that it would in the southern hemisphere. However, this hemispheric gravitational force is very weak, because the first time I tried it I didn’t let the water settle enough, and the whirlpool went clockwise because the water was still moving slightly in that direction after I turned off the faucet.

One of the several groups that entertained us
during our walks around the streets of
Cape Town and Simon's Town.
It is quite unlikely that Lucy and I will ever come here again, but that’s only because of the distance. It might be nice to come here in January, when it’s cold and rainy in Washington but summer in South Africa. Nice, but not nearly nice enough to justify the estimated two days of travel time. Bye, bye, South Africa.

A beautiful peninsula on the rugged Atlantic side just south of Cape Town.


Monday, September 26, 2022

A visit to France while living in Italy

Our Washington friends in Paris
Lucy and I are just wrapping up a 12-day sojourn in France, our first time here since we started coming to Italy regularly in 2001 (save for a half day trip just across the border in 2002). With France being relatively close to Tuscany, what has kept us away all these years? After all, France is the most visited country by tourists (Italy is number five). And what are our impressions now that we are here?

Lucy in Monet's garden, Giverny

We hadn’t traveled to France before because my interests have been focused on Italy as my primary ancestral homeland (we’ve also taken shorter trips to Holland, England and Germany, where Lucy and I both have roots). My dad’s parents were raised and married in Montecarlo, between Lucca and Montecatini, so I wanted to renew ties with relatives and gain an understanding and appreciation for what my grandparents had left behind when they moved to Washington for good in 1909. We’ve invested quite a bit of time and effort learning Italian and trying to fit in with the culture, and we don’t even travel much now when we are in Italy.

We were serenaded on the Paris
metro by this guy.
We would not even have taken this trip to France had it not been for a group of long-time friends from Washington who were coming here on a two-week vacation. Since we were already in Italy, we decided to fly from Pisa to Paris and join them on some of their explorations. It has been well worth the while, mainly because they are such amazing people and dear friends. Some we have known for as long as 50 years. One of them, Greg Heath, is an experienced traveler and born planner, so  we basically had the services of a free sweetheart  tour guide to lead us.

And what about France? Well, we can see why so many people come here. The countryside is beautiful, the food exceptional, the cities lively, and every place is packed with history and amazing architecture. In these respects, it is a lot like Italy, which is one reason we had no strong desire to come. We still have a lot of places we haven’t seen in Italy—and at least we understand Italian and can pronounce the names of the city, something we struggle with in France.

Of course we had
to see La Gioconda.
But to state the obvious, there are poignant places in France that one can’t see in Italy. We visited several of the battlefields of Normandy, sobering reminders of the valiant soldiers, airmen and seamen who gave their all to free the world from Nazi occupation. We saw the home and garden of the brilliant impressionist painter Claude Monet. The Louvre, L’Orangerie and other museums overwhelmed our senses with brilliant art.

We observed other obvious differences between the two countries. Black people are much more fully integrated into French society than they are in Italy. France has many more people of Italian descent than the opposite, and this was obvious as we saw many stores and mailboxes with Italian names. In fact, I recently read that France is home for 4 million people of Italian descent as well as 460,000 Italian citizens living abroad.

Utah beach monument
We also encountered more people in France who speak English than we normally do in Italy, though this could be skewed because we spent much of our time in heavily touristed areas. We had heard that French people can be impatient or even rude with Americans because of our ignorance of their language and culture. Instead, we were always treated with the utmost kindness and respect.

All in all, it was a great experience. While the best part was just being with our friends, France is definitely worthy of its high ranking as a tourist destination. But as we head back to our Montecarlo home, we look forward to a few days of rest before heading out to our next adventure—South Africa.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Luigi Spadoni, the founder of Spazio Spadoni, an extraordinary man

If you read my recent blog about Spazio Spadoni, you may be wondering—as I did—who is Luigi Cesare Pizzi Spadoni? Where does he fit in our family tree? And what kind of a man is he, to do what he is doing now?

Luigi Spadoni, with Carlo and Paul
Luigi was born the same year as I, 1953. He does not exactly fit in our family tree as it stands presently, but both Carlo Spadoni and I are convinced Luigi is a descendant of Francesco Spadoni, born around 1455 and the father of two sons born in nearby Stignano in the late 1400s. Francesco is the common ancestor of pretty much every Spadoni family in the Valdinievole.

Luigi knows only that his family comes from Fucecchio, but he can’t trace that back further than his grandfather. Fucecchio is about 13 miles south of Stignano, and I have never checked to see if the baptismal records for the churches there are available to the public. However, from legal documents that Carlo has obtained, we’re aware that several Spadoni families from Stignano owned property in Fucecchio, and it is likely that Luigi has descended from one of these families. His family could also have moved there in later centuries.

Without hunting down the documents or doing a Y-DNA test, we’ll likely never know with 100 percent certainty if Luigi is a descendant of Francesco, but the likelihood is high, given the geographical realities.

Luigi, Paul, Carlo at the Convent
of San Cerbone, near Lucca, the
headquarters of Spazio Spadoni.
This leaves us with the question about what kind of man he is, and since I only met with him for a dinner and tour of the convent in San Cerbone, I have only a few immediate impressions. I know that in 1988, he and his father Giuseppe founded Spencer Italia, now one of the largest suppliers of emergency medical equipment in the world, a company that is committed to “take on the difficult challenges that the delicate and dynamic EMS market throws up every day, putting in commitment, passion and quality.”

The company’s website further states that it provides “a range of more than 1,700 products, efficiently covering the emergency, medical and funeral sectors. When it comes to safety, quality is not an option; it is the minimum requirement of any performance intended to last. Every project at Spencer is born to set new quality standards. Constant interaction with customers and operators is how quality can be moved to its highest limits. This is how the true soul of innovation is nurtured.”

I also know that for much of his life, Luigi has been an active member of the Misercordia, which gave him regular opportunities to see his products put to use, and which also kept him in close contact with other users of medical equipment. Since Luigi did not marry and has no children, when he sold the company about two years ago, he decided to invest his money and time in a new organization with ambitious goals.

Luigi, second from left, at the recent 
convention on courage at Spazio Spadoni
In my brief contact with Luigi, I quickly concluded that he’s a man of vision, action and compassion. When asked why he didn’t marry, he told me that no woman would have been able to put up with him. Spazio Spadoni, though it works with organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church, does not seem like an overtly religious organization. The website states: “With a view to being at the service of the development of mission processes of mercy, the foundation therefore makes itself available to host individuals, groups, and organizations that wish to use the convent for personal or group moments where they can meditate, study, discuss and plan.”

Realizing that my brief time with Luigi would not be nearly enough to give me an accurate picture of who he is, I asked his chief administrator, Selene Pera, to collect some statements from people who have known Luigi through the years. Here are the results.

Alberto Di Grazia: “He’s a person in perpetual motion, with interests in different fields, even apparently distant from each other but united by passion. He’s a friend you can count on, who does not back down when a hand is needed. He’s an entrepreneur, a volcano of projects, which—most importantly—he regularly succeeds in carrying out; and with his own abilities, not by exploiting others, as often, unfortunately, happens. He’s a practical dreamer; a characteristic of him is tending to think outside the box; he uses so-called “lateral thinking,” always aimed at the concreteness of the result.”

Lucia Anghinetti: “Luigi is not just a man but a universe capable of creating worlds—worlds so distant and yet connected by the tenacious threads of intuition, concreteness, dreams, courage, instinct, generosity and passion for challenges. His achievements are numerous and recognized in all the areas in which he has expressed himself, yet this is not what makes him an extraordinary individual. His main talent is never losing sight of wonder. His eyes are always alight with wonder at life, at sunsets, at blossoming trees, at hugs, at flowing river water, at the hues and colors of the soul that make his persona. He is a Person.”

Nino Savarino: “Luigi is a man of deep faith and in love with God. He combines the beauty of inner silence and communion with God with the concrete action of the works of mercy. A missionary of working love, Luigi has succeeded in bringing together confraternities of mercy and religious congregations scattered throughout the world for the offering of the heart to the poor and men of good will. Luigi knows how to take your hands and pray together.”

Andrea Del Bianco: “Luigi is truly a ‘great soul.’ It’s incredible how such a busy person always finds time to think about everyone. He’s “un Grande,” a “Big Person,” but he is always able to smile and be amazed at even the smallest things. When you need him, he is there. Always. Often before. Luigi is a true entrepreneur, giving off endless energy, almost restless, but always capable of combining a great sense of doing with a depth of being.”

My own final observation: “Luigi is a credit to the Spadoni name . . . and the human race.”