Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Villa di Vorno will soon be helping travelers on the pilgrim trail—and hopefully we will too

With Shandra at the future Villa di Vorno
During our years of living in Toscana, we’ve heard countless references to the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route running from Canterbury, England, through France, Switzerland and Italy to Rome. The route has particular relevance for us because it runs through both Lucca and Altopascio. One of its many variants actually passes through Montecarlo.

I could, and probably will, someday devote an entire blog to this important trail, but what has me particularly excited at this moment is that Lucy and I could be involved in future years in helping modern day pilgrims on their journey through our section of Italy. An old friend, Don Mansfield, recently called to let us know that an organization Lucy and I were active in during our college years is purchasing a convent in Vorno that will be used to host travelers walking on the Via Francigena.

“No way!,” I said to Don. “I can see Vorno from here, on my terrazza.” On the west side of our house, we look out across the plain of Lucca, where we can see the mountains that separate Lucca from Pisa. Vorno is on the hillside, near the source of the Aqueduct of Nottolini, the main water source for Lucca. “Way,” Don replied, and he gave us the contact information for the person in charge of arranging the purchase of the convent, Shandra Galloway.

Shandra has been a long-time staff member of Cru, and she is currently in Lucca working on the many steps that will be required to arrange the purchase. Cru was founded in 1951 by Bill Bright as Campus Crusade for Christ, and it has a branch here operating under the name Agape Italia. Shandra took us on a tour of the grounds of the convent, which is named the Casa di Preghiere Sorelle Dorotee—the house of prayer of the sisters of Saint Dorothy. The villa, once a vacation home of the wealthy Mansi family of Lucca, was donated by the family to the sisters. It is now primarily maintained by only two elderly nuns. They have offered to sell to Cru at a very reasonable price because they know that the property will be used to offer hospitality in the name of Christ, Shandra said.

The villa is a 17,000 square foot, four-story home with 20 bedrooms—each with a private bathroom—a professional kitchen, several great rooms, two chapels and an expansive terrace. It sits on four acres, including an olive grove, fruit trees and a small vineyard, and when the purchase is finalized, it will be known as the Villa di Vorno Pilgrimage House. Excerpts from the Cru vision statement describe how the villa will be used:

Most pilgrims arrive in the afternoon. They will be greeted by a group of volunteers who have been trained to welcome people into the Villa, give them an orientation of what is available to them during their stay, and show them to their room. The greeters will be like Porters in the Benedictine Tradition—welcome people, offer them a cup of cold water, an espresso, or tea, and show them the place. In their room, there will be a short description of who we are and a free Bible with some highlighted “travel narratives” that they can take along with them. They can rest and shower before dinner, take care of any physical ailments, connect with other pilgrims, or spend time reflecting on their journey.

There will also be an opportunity for prayer and a brief voluntary chapel service before dinner. Dinner will be prepared and served by volunteers at around 7 pm (a little early for Italians, but pilgrims tend to rise early to walk in the cool of the day). At dinner, one of the volunteers or staff will share their own spiritual journey. The staff and volunteers will offer to stay around after dinner if anyone wants to talk further about their faith or questions about faith. Staff and pilgrims will be trained on how to enter gentle conversations and share their faith.

Each of the pilgrims will be given some stationery, a pen, and a poem template. They will be encouraged to write an “I Am From” poem before they leave and post them on the guest-wall so other pilgrims can read them (there will also be a wall on the Villa di Vorno website where they can post their poems.

In the morning, there will be a light breakfast (pastries & coffee) and a blessing given to the pilgrims as they set out on the next leg of their journey. When pilgrims leave, the staff and volunteers will clean and prep for the next group; and they will have the opportunity to walk a short leg of the trail or explore the cities of Lucca, Pisa, and on longer breaks, Cinque Terre or Florence.

This courtyard could be used to 
welcome travelers or serve as
an outside dining area.
Shandra said that Cru is already operating a similar and very successful guest house in Spain, and there is already a waiting list of volunteers. She foresees that church groups will be eager to sign up to spend a week in Italy to serve as hosts. Shandra and her husband are American, but both lived in Florence for many years and speak Italian, so they will likely live on the site and direct operations. The ministry will also need a few other full-time staff members for ongoing operations and to train each group of volunteers.

Lucy and I will very likely be among the volunteers, and until the sale is completed, we’ll also try to help in other ways. We introduced Shandra at our church in Altopascio on Sunday, and that could open some valuable relationships. We also introduced her to Luigi Spadoni, who operates a vital organization that ministers to the needy around the world. By coincidence, the headquarters of Spazio Spadoni is only 13 minutes by car from Vorno. Luigi gave Shandra some vital tips based on his experiences and expertise, and no doubt he will be a valuable resource in the coming years. He has a broad background in both business and charitable services.

Luigi Spadoni & Shandra meet at Spazio Spadoni
for an exchange of friendship and knowledge.
The earliest the Villa at Vorno could open would be the fall of 2024, perhaps on a trial basis. At this point, Cru does not have all the 3 million euros needed to close the sale, and the organization is still looking for more donors. Cru could possibly rent the villa while fund-raising continues. However it works out, it’s going to be fun to watch as this exciting ministry develops further. For additional information, photos and a chance to contribute to the cause, you can check out the website for Villa di Vorno.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

We are among 21 montecarlesi at a sublime evening of masterful music

Featuring guest author Lucy Spadoni
Did you ever hear the story about a violinist playing in a subway? People would pass by, a few staying to listen for a while before busily moving on. The violinist is revealed to be a world-famous musician with an equally great violin, a master that people would pay hundreds of dollars to hear? Well….

It was a Sunday night in Montecarlo. We were tired from our day’s excursions, and Paul was suffering from pollen allergies. But we had put on our calendar that there was a free concert nearby, in the old church—really just a large room now—down the street. Maybe we could leave if we got tired. Paul worried he might drift off, as he is famous for doing this during concerts and movies. But we grabbed our books and went to get early seats.

There were only about 25 chairs set up—a fact that surprised me. Only one other person was there so far. In front there was alone a small, old piano-like instrument (a clavicembalo in Italian, harpsichord in English). I ventured up to look at it and take pictures. It had fewer metal wires compared to a piano, wooden keys, and it was painted with pale green and gold paint. Soon a man came in and started tuning it, using his phone app to check the tones. He is Gabriele Micheli, the harpsichord player, a handsome man with an expressive face.

People started coming in and almost filled the chairs. Violinist David Monti, who specializes in baroque (barocco) music. The evening is called Il Mio Viaggio in Musica—My Journey in Music. Maestro Monti introduced the concept of the evening and asked (in Italian) if anyone needed a translator. Paul and I can get by, so we kept silent, though Paul said afterwards that he wondered how anyone who didn’t speak Italian could have understood the question.

The free evening was sponsored by the comune of Montecarlo, which desires to bring diverse European music to its citizens. That night was music from 1645 to 1720 with composers Uccellini, Corelli, Francoeur and J.S. Bach. (At this point I was sorry my Italian couldn’t keep up). The Italian magazine Il Cittadino has described Monti as “capable of combining energy and talent resulting in natural expressiveness. Davide Monti is an all-round artist: director, soloist, accompanist and chamber musician. Critics recognize his ‘incredible freshness’ where ‘everything appears extraordinarily spontaneous and organic.’ ”

Then, for the next one and a half hours, we were taken back in time to what it was like long before electronics, where this room would have been packed with people, where kings down to peasants and civilians and soldiers would have stood quietly to hear these virtuoso musicians flawlessly and with emotion bring to them such music. The violinist did all by memory. Sometimes the violin sounded like many violins, wonderful in this old church’s acoustics. By his eyes and body movements he would coordinate with the harpsichordist the music’s pace and intent. He would rise on his toes, sway, and both men expressed the music also through their eyes and facial expressions. It all was astounding!

After and during, there was clapping and more clapping, standing ovations, and three encores. The 21 people, including Paul, were all amazed that these men had honored them by sharing their lives and their music.

I myself cried, not just for the music but for knowing these men had prepared all their lives for this moment in a bare room, with a small audience—the years of practice, memorizing, concerts, dances, holidays, sharing music with their families. Truly they were demonstrating their life journeys with music woven throughout. Someday they will be gone, as will we, but for that one evening these men gave their hearts to play and play for 21 people. We were so very grateful.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Amazon.it has helped overcome dread of speaking Italian on the phone

I have to chuckle when I see the book we have next to the toilet in the bathroom: Italian in Three Months. Somebody should have written a book more geared to my learning curve. They could have called it Learn Barely Passable Italian in Just 25 Years. It seems strange that I’m pretty good at English—good enough to have been a newspaper journalist, book author, English and journalism teacher, freelance writer for magazines—but such a slow learner in Italian.

It's not something that I let discourage me, but rather I take the attitude of the turtle. I will get there eventually, if I keep moving forward, and what I can do now is adequate for my needs. I’ve long since overcome my fears of making mistakes, which is an essential hurdle in learning a new language. Often I recognize the mistake as soon as it tumbles out of my mouth, but I soldier on, knowing that my meaning was probably clear enough despite persistent grammatical butcheries.

I normally look forward to opportunities to practice and improve my Italian, but there is one context that I’ve dreaded and avoided over the years: speaking on the telephone. Communication without visual cues is different. People can’t see the look of confusion on my face when they finish their torrent of instructions and questions, so after a few moments of silence while I slowly try to process their words, I often have to say: “Non ho capito tutto. Puoi repetire, per favore?”

However, thanks to some high-level bungling by Amazon.it, I recently have received a lot of valuable practice. Looking on the bright side, I thank Amazon.it for forcing me to practice my Italian while speaking on the telephone, as I had to make eight different phone calls to solve a very simple problem. The feeling of triumph at the end of my struggle almost made up for the two weeks of frustration and fist-pounding that my desk had to endure.

I had set up my Amazon.it account a couple of years ago, and everything worked flawlessly. Orders came quickly and efficiently. We could watch movies on Prime, choosing either English or Italian as the language, even adding subtitles to some shows. But between last year and this spring, the company added an extra layer of security: a two-step login process that required me to enter a code that had been sent by text to my American cell phone number.

I have an Italian cell phone that I use here, and I can’t access my American phone, so I couldn’t complete the login. Without being able to access my account, I couldn’t change the phone number, and there was no option to have the code sent to my email address. I did, after some clicking around, find an option to deactivate the two-step verification process, which required me to send a copy of an identification document. I then received an automated email which said my request was being reviewed by the responsible department, and I would hear from them in 24-48 hours.

Two days later, still unable to login, I repeated the process. Two more days later, I bit the bullet and called the help line. The rest is a bit of a blur. I do know that I explained the situation to eight different people. One of them put me on hold and then hung up on me in the middle of my explanation, but the other seven were extremely kind, patient and sympathetic. They spoke slowly and repeated themselves when asked. However, over the course of the conversations, it became clear that they did not have the power to deactivate the two-step login process, no matter how many security questions I answered correctly. In the end, the best they could do was send me a link to the department responsible for this procedure, which did not include the possibility of actually sending a message. I just had to enter my login name and then send my identity document, with no chance to say I had already done this twice with no result. Nevertheless, I did send my identity document for a third time. First, I used my passport. Then, I sent a photo of me holding my passport up by my face. Then my American drivers license, and then a photo of me holding it up. And finally, my Italian carta d’identita’. Surely five consecutives submissions would draw someone’s attention!

Many automated emails resulted, but two days later, still no results, and I saw no route to get a progress report other than calling again. Then, in a stroke of uncharacteristic brilliance, I wrote out everything that had happened in English, translated it into Italian, and saved it in jpg format. This allowed me to send a personal message:

For the fourth time, I ask you to deactivate the two-step verification because I can’t access my Amazon account. Please. I beg you. I’m not able to receive messages on my American cell phone number, and therefore I can’t access my account with the two-step process. Otherwise, you can let me do the verification on my Italian cell phone number, 3533986899. Or at least do me the courtesy of explaining why you refuse to help me.

After sending this, I decided to try one more message of an unusual nature, thinking that it would surely draw attention to my plight and might even appeal to someone with a whimsical sense of humor. I had a photo of myself that Lucy had taken just as I had awoken after nodding off while waiting during a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt. I looked disgruntled, though I swear I was just tired and in truth was perfectly gruntled (I know that’s not really a word, but I’ve always wanted to find a good place to say it). Above the photo I wrote: “How I feel at this moment about my amazon.it account.”

The usual automated email came. Two days passed. More silence. I’d had enough. I made one final phone call, closing my account. After that, I opened another using Lucy’s email address. To celebrate, we watched a movie on Prime. Thanks, Amazon.it, for helping me overcome my fear of speaking Italian on the phone!

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Lucy has a meaningful experience at the Montecarlo Catholic church

We flew down the stairs to get our bikes ready to do what we usually do on Sunday in Montecarlo . . . go to the chiesa evangelica (protestant church) in the nearby city of Altopascio. We turned in our rental car last week, so now we’re dependent on our e-bikes. Even though we rode a long way to Pescia two days before with no problem, we discovered Paul’s front tire was flat—and then also the back one, too! Plus we discovered the electric battery had not charged, and he would only be at half power. Strange. I suggested that Paul take my bike and I would stay.

Awfully quiet upstairs alone. I heard the bells of the Catholic church of Sant'Andrea down the street ring a call to worship. I remembered that I usually go to some church no matter where I am, and then I realized I rarely have the opportunity to go to this church. So even though I don’t understand every custom and nuance, fellow Christians are all over the world, and we will spend eternity together. I decided to go.

I arrived to a packed house as I came in at the back. It’s a beautiful place, with brown and golden marble, matching walls, lit paintings, nicely arranged flowers and candles, wooden pews—it’s a calm place. A group of families with babies were coming down the center aisle from the vestry in the front towards the back. I took a seat in the front third row. Everyone quietly stood and looked back, and the priest came down and led them up to the altar area, dividing the group to rows of chairs on either side.

It was the Sunday of the Good Shepherd and a time set for baptisms. Most of the babies were dressed in white. Grandparents were included in the family groups.

Then began the worship songs followed by the priest reading a part and the congregation responding with their part conveniently written in a bulletin (which helps me, too). Then came the sermon about the good shepherd tending His sheep, which these children will become.

Happy churubs watching from on high
The baptism, I think he said, will take care of the problem of the children’s original sin state, through Christ’s sacrifice for them. The babies were prayed over and anointed twice with something from bottles, and then each was taken to a basin, surrounded by family, and the back of their heads were rinsed three times with water. A girl about 7 years old was also baptized. Towels were provided. Families beamed. The priest was gentle. After that, the girl and a baby who weren’t dressed in white were dressed by the priest with a white apron over the baby and a white frock over the girl. I read afterwards that “the white garment shows that the newly baptized have put on Christ and have risen with him. To be clothed in the baptismal white garment is to be clothed in Christ’s protective love.” The sign of the cross was made on all the foreheads with perfumed oil. Then the fathers came forward and all were given long candles which they lit from an Easter candle, signifying the light of Christ is in all their lives due to Easter and reminding them that they are to be lights for the world. The fathers (and seated grandfathers) beamed with lovely smiles.

More prayers about Mary and lots of saints, and the “peace” was passed among the congregates. Everyone was blessed by the priest and dismissed.

Tranquil church with baptismal font.
I saw long tables reserved in the restaurants, I’m sure for these families. Adding to the festive atmosphere, it was also the Spring Fair in Montecarlo that day, the thunderstorms of the day before forgotten. Vendors lined the street, and there were entertainers for both children and adults.

I hadn’t brought my phone to church, which is good—for I kept “seeing” scenes to be photographed during the service. But it was better to observe, getting the camera after and catching the beauty before everyone left.

I had taken communion with them, for I have been a Christian for 54 years and am in good standing with my God. Even before that I’d been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church, but then after I’d accepted as my grown self what Christ did and does through His Spirit, I was baptized again. That’s my journey, and perhaps in Heaven I’ll meet these babies baptized today and learn what their journeys with God had been. Then there will be more times to rejoice and be thankful. And maybe I will ask God how He made two tires go flat so I could go today.


Monday, April 22, 2024

Strangely named places in Italy

For some reason, I love looking at maps of places I’ve visited or might visit, and in following this predilection, I’ve noticed towns near our Montecarlo home with some unusual names, including Malocchio and Femminamorta (translations would be Evil Eye and Dead Female). Finding these has prompted me to search for other towns in Italy that could rival these two for their peculiarity.

I quickly found a few that were mentioned in an Italian newspaper, including Strangolagalli (strangle the roosters), Belsedere (nice butt) and Purgatorio (purgatory). The article also named some unusual but complimentary places, such as Donnadolce (sweet woman), Buon Riposo (good rest) and Occhiobello (beautiful eye). However, many of the other names were, in my opinion, quite ordinary, barely deserving of mention. There was capracotta (cooked goat), golasecca (dry throat), povoromo (poor man) and others of that nature, but I wanted names even more unusual.

Since every little neighborhood in Italy has a name, I’m sure there are other equally strange ones, but they are not easy to find. One must enlarge the map to such a degree that only a very small area of land appears, and it would take weeks, maybe months, to scroll across the entire country. I’ve only given this project an hour of time, but I still found a few fascinating names.

Ponte delle Tette
Italians over the centuries have been close to nature and fairly earthy in their sensibilities. Thus names referring to body parts are not uncommon, starting with La Vagina (no translation needed). There is also the Ponte delle Tette in Venezia, and this is the only place where I have found an explanation of an unusual name. Sources say that this ponte (bridge) was historically a place for topless prostitutes to solicit clients. However, Venezia has another bridge with a saintlier name, the Ponte Ca’ di Dio (house of God).

Fellow members of a Facebook group helped me add to my list, finding Purgatorio in Sicily, Troia (slut) in Apulia, Scannacapri (slaughter goats) in Campagnia, Sesso (sex) in Reggio Emilia, Omo Morto (dead man) near Firenze and Bastardo in Umbria. My favorite of those sent to me was Ramazzano le Pulci (they sweep up fleas). There's also the well known but strangely named airport Malpensa in Milano. It doesn't hold up as completely grammatically correct, but Google translates Male pensa as thinks badly and DeepL as evil thinks.

It seems there are quite a few places that could refer to a person’s posterior, perhaps because of some geographic features. There are Chiappia, Chiappe, Chiappona and Chiapponi (butt, butts, big butt and big butts). And only about 10 minutes from Chiapponi is Varco di Chiappe (crack of the butts). I’m not making these up! You can verify it on Google maps.

Sadly, Google maps street view only
shows the beginning of the Via del
Cielo, leaving the rest for us to discover
on our own, I guess.
God, the devil and the afterlife have also inspired some interesting names. Venezia has a Corte di Cristo, and in the province of Perugia is a town named Casa del Diavolo (devil’s home), though it’s interesting to note that this town has a church ironically named Chiesa di Casa del Diavolo. Only 16 minutes away is a street named Via del Cielo (heaven), though one can see from aerial photos that it’s very small and narrow, perhaps in recognition of Matthew 7:14. I can’t tell if it has a gate or not. Meanwhile, the city of Firenze has three connected streets in the same neighborhood dealing with the afterlife: Via dell’Inferno, Via del Purgatorio and Via del Limbo. Nearby San Miniato, smaller than Firenze, has only a Vicolo (alley) dell’Inferno, whereas Napoli has the Valle (valley) dell’Inferno. Judging solely by the numbers, it’s much easier to find a road to hell than it is the road to heaven! There are no ands, ifs or butts about it.

Intersecting streets in Firenze. Take your choice: Purgatorio, Inferno or Limbo.





Saturday, April 20, 2024

Did I naively pour a thousand-plus euros “down the drain”?

I’ve avoided writing about this topic for a few years because I don’t want people to think I’m crazy. But what else could you say about someone who pays for a construction service and patiently waits nearly seven years, without complaining, for its completion?

You see, in 2017, we discovered that the kitchen sink in our Montecarlo home was not connected to the sewer system. The sink outflow—the scarico—just drained onto the roof of our downstairs neighbor, ran across the surface and then flowed into the rain gutter. A downspout attached to the gutter dumped soapy water and food bits from our dishwasher into another neighbor’s field.

Our beautiful stairway to the attic.
Fortunately, the neighbor who owns the field is an absentee owner, the field is completely private, and the small amount of water Lucy and I put down the drain is absorbed quickly. The food bits are usually hidden by a healthy growth of grass that is watered regularly by rainfall even when we aren’t present. As far as we know, the field has only been used a few times during the nine years we’ve lived in Montecarlo—and we were away during these times and thus not using the sink. Still, I don’t need to be perfectly fluent in Italian to know that the city codes surely prohibit dumping gray water onto a neighbor’s property.

The pink plastic tube was added in 2019, but the water from
our sink still ends up in the rain gutter.
Knowing this, I got a preventivo—a price quote—to attach the drain to the sistema fognario—sewer system—as soon as I became aware of the situation. The price quote included several other projects, including adding a stairway to the attic, bringing our electrical wiring up to date, and adding walls and flooring in the attic. The itemized price quote listed the drain project as slightly in excess of 1,000 euro. All of the other work was completed in 2018 and 2019, but all that happened with the kitchen drain is that a plastic tube was added so the water didn’t run across the roof. It still runs into the gutter and ends up in the neighbor’s field.

So why hasn’t the drain work been finished? Maybe because the plumber friend that the contractor worked with has retired. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been given, but surely there is more to it than that.

The field below our house is completely
private and almost never used.
But just as relevant is the question: Why have I put up with this situation for so long without making a fuss? It’s because the contractor is also my neighbor, who lives just below us. All of the other work he has done for us has been of high quality, and he has also supervised our joint projects of painting the exterior of our house and replacing the roof. These projects involved obtaining permission from the city, something that would have been difficult for me to do. In summary, he’s been an invaluable resource, and I don’t want to alienate him and damage our relationship. I’ve brought the topic up a half dozen times over the years, and each time I am assured that he will complete the work as soon as he can, and that he knows it has been paid for already.

I can’t simply ask for my money back and use it to hire a different plumber, because connecting the drain is undoubtedly going to impact the neighbor’s home in some way. Our floor and his ceiling are obviously connected, so unless he can somehow connect the drain directly to the sewer line, he’s going to have to cut into a floor, a ceiling or a wall, at the very least. Having the neighbor’s cooperation is going to be essential, whether he hires the plumber, or I do.

An additional factor—perhaps the most important—is our friendship with the neighbors. One of the prime reasons Lucy and I come to Italy is to establish connections, to become part of the community, to make friends—and we are on the path to becoming friends with these neighbors.

Most people are familiar with the saying: “To have a friend, you must be a friend.” So I considered my choices—treat the neighbor as if I’m his customer, or as his friend? I chose the latter, even deciding that I’d rather end up trusting him and eventually getting ripped off than souring our relationship just to get the work done more quickly.

Having faith in someone can be powerful, as is illustrated by an anecdote in the memoir “The Cross and the Switchblade,” by David Wilkerson. Called to minister to gang members in Brooklyn, Wilkerson rents an auditorium and invites the young people in his neighborhood to attend a series of meetings. A raucous crowd shows up, including members of rival gangs. Not sure how to get their attention, he decides to take up a collection, and he selects Nicky Cruz, a leader of a prominent gang, to supervise passing the collection boxes. When Cruz and the other five young toughs reach the back of the auditorium, Wilkerson asks them to pass behind a curtain before coming to the stage to bring him the filled boxes. At this point, the crowd realizes that the gang members can easily just slip out the door and never return, cash in hand.

But they don’t. Impressed that someone has shown faith in them, they bring the money to Wilkerson—to the amazement of the crowd. Later, Cruz explains his reasoning:

“There was the door. It was wide open. Back in the arena some of them were laughing. They knew what we were pulling. My boys were watching me, waiting for the word to cut out. But I stood there. I didn’t know what it was; I had a funny feeling. Suddenly I knew what it was: That preacher trusted me. That never happened in my life before.”

I’m not trying to compare my neighbor to a gang member, but the message is clear. Wilkerson took a chance. He could have lost both money and face in front of a large crowd. Instead, Nicky Cruz responded to the trust Wilkerson showed. That same evening, Cruz answered the altar call and gave his life to God, later becoming a preacher himself.

I could also lose the money I paid for the drain, but by showing a bit of patience and restraint, the growing friendship between the neighbors and us will become stronger. The last time we discussed the work, about a month ago, the neighbor said he would be doing some remodeling of his house this summer, and as part of the work, he will attach our drain to the sewer system. And I trust that he will.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Living and learning in Tuscany: Keeping it simple can be sweet!

Looking at birds & turtles in
the Padule di Fucecchio.
Most Americans who visit Italy move at a frenetic pace. They make a list of the must-see places and hustle from city to city, absorbing as much beauty and uniqueness as possible in a short time. We know, because we have done this—but never again. We live in Italy now for about four months a year, and sometimes people ask us what we do there. Well, we just live there, for the most part.

We no longer travel much, unless the purpose is to explore with friends. Otherwise, we just try to live a quiet and slow Italian life as active retirees. So what, precisely, does that entail for us?

On the bridge over the Pescia.
We usually start our mornings by practicing in Italian on Duolingo, reading the news online and playing Words with Friends. For the sake of our health, we each have a morning exercise routine, and during the afternoon we take either a walk or ride on our e-bikes—maybe even a combination ride and walk. We prefer walking in nature rather than in cities, so we have our favorite places: The Padule di Fuchecchio, the Lago di Sibolla, the banks of the Pescia River, and the woods in the surrounding hills.

All that remains of one of the 100 farms.
We recently went to a rather strange archeological area called 100 Roman Farms of the Plain of Lucca. It is a flat area where there is almost nothing to see, because it’s covered with grass, but it runs along the Auser River, which was filled with huge carp splashing and thrashing in the water while mating. The area was used extensively for farming some 2,000 years ago, but all that remains are the outlines of farm-related buildings. Any farming tools found during excavations presumably have been removed and archived. On Friday, we’ll go with some friends to one of the 10 castle cities above Pescia just to walk around and explore a city built mainly in medieval times and largely unchanged since.

At the Padule di Fucecchio, a huge wetland preserve, it’s mating season for egrets and several types of heron, and for some reason, they all build their nests in the same general place. Thus, we saw about 500 birds, squawking and screaming and jostling for the prime nests in a row of trees next to the water. It really must be seen to be fully appreciated!

Picnic lunch at a hillside fortress.
We don’t eat out very often, as that would be expensive, but we do shop for food regularly, which is part of an Italian lifestyle of buying produce and meat that is fresh rather than frozen. Of course, there are the usual chores involved with keeping up a household—washing clothes and dishes, cooking, cleaning and so on. But we purposely bought a home that was, for the most part, already finished, because we didn’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time on remodeling. We have painted a few walls and railings, and in the next few weeks I’ll probably sand and paint the outside surface of our door to the terrazzo.

We could be doing a lot more than we are doing. I could still be writing and selling magazine articles, or even working on a second book. Lucy has made several quilts in previous years, but she doesn’t feel motivated to make them anymore. We could be working harder to improve our Italian, for example by watching more movies or television shows in Italian instead of English. For most of my adult life, I’ve been driven to achieve—in my teaching career, in my asphalt maintenance business, in sports, and even in my church and family life—but now I’m learning to cut back and enjoy the foundations I’ve built upon.

Italians have a phrase, il dolce far niente, which means the sweetness of doing nothing. Maybe I am still driven to achieve. One of the reasons we come to Italy is to learn how to adapt to and assimilate into another culture. So now I’m just doing my best to apply this new principle in my life!

Monday, March 11, 2024

A tribute to my late friend Melody, who played a vital role in my life

Disclaimer: This entry has nothing to do with Italy. I posted this message on a memorial website to honor an old friend who recently passed away. Now I want to post it here for posterity, since it describes one of the most important events in my life, a decision I made as a teenager. Skip it if you are reading this blog to learn about our experiences in Tuscany. But read it if you want to know more about what makes me tick.

I still remember sitting in the pews of our local Catholic church with my dad in 1969. Mom rarely went to church, so growing up, it was Dad, me and my brother and sister who sat together pretty much every Sunday. By then, my older brother and sister no longer lived at home, and they no longer attended church. I was 16 years old, and I gave God an ultimatum: “God, I have two more years of high school, and then I’ll be on my own. If this is all there is to you, then I’m quitting church too when I go to college. If there is something that I’m missing, you’ve got two years to show me.”

One year later, God sent a radiant girl named Melody Givens to answer my prayer. In August of 1970, a friend and I took a road trip to the Oregon coast in my 1959 Chevy, blasting 8-track tapes of Steppenwolf, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night all the way. At age 17, Kelly and I really thought the song “Born to be Wild” was written just for us, though in comparison to other teen guys during those tumultuous years, we were pretty All American.

The trip was mostly uneventful, until one fateful day when my Chevy’s fuel pump gave out in Cannon Beach, shortly after we had parked at a campground. We took a walk through the town and immediately noticed that there seemed to be a lot of other teenagers hanging out. Two girls in particular caught our attention. I was painfully shy around girls then, but fortunately Kelly was much bolder. He struck up a conversation and asked them if they wanted to go for a walk on the beach that evening.

To my surprise, they said yes. However, there was a condition. We’d first have to attend the chapel service with them at the Cannon Beach Conference Center, where they were attending a Christian camp retreat. We accepted and showed up at the agreed upon time. The sermon at chapel struck a chord with me, as the message basically said: You can’t meet God on your own terms. You need to surrender to His. I realized that for most of my life, I’d been making half-hearted promises to God—I’ll try to be kinder, I’ll try not to cheat on my homework, I won’t shoplift, I’ll go to church. Besides the fact that I wasn’t very good about keeping my promises, I didn’t feel that this was bringing me any closer to God.

After the chapel service, Melody and I walked and talked for another couple of hours. She had just committed her life to God a few days before, and she said that decision made all the difference. Now she had a personal relationship with God. Her prayers had purpose and meaning, and she had the definite feeling that God was present with her at all times. As she spoke, her face looked radiant, almost glowing.

Some time during our conversation, the realization hit me like a ton of bricks: This was God’s answer to my prayer. He was explaining what I needed to do for Him to become real in my life, and frankly, this scared me profoundly for three reasons. First, I worried what my friends would think if I became some kind of religious fanatic. It seemed that all Melody wanted to talk about was her new relationship with God, and I’d probably lose all my friends if I became like her. Second, what if I submitted my life to God and he sent me somewhere crazy, like Africa. I had other plans for my life. The third frightening thought is that if I said no to God now, this would be a turning point in my life. I had asked Him to show Himself to me, and now He was answering. Previously, I could claim I was seeking but didn’t have enough information to make up my mind. But if I walked away now, I’d unquestionably be rejecting God, right after He had specifically answered my prayer.

As our conversation came to a close, Melody asked me if I wanted to pray, and I remember feeling such inner turmoil that I was in danger of vomiting. That feeling went away after I said yes. I remember almost nothing about what I said, but I had no doubt that I was giving my life to God, whatever He had in store for me, and suddenly I felt radiant too, as if I was floating a foot above the ground. As I walked back to my car, my mind raced with thoughts about my future. I didn’t fully understand what had happened to me, so I didn’t try to explain it to Kelly at the time, though I did at a later date.

During my senior year of high school, Melody and I exchanged quite a few letters, and I visited her in South Bend, Washington, a few times. I purchased a New Testament and read through it, slowly starting to understand what my commitment meant, with additional help from some Christian books and tracts and Melody’s gentle guidance. On the campus of the University of Washington the next year, I became involved in Bible studies in my dorm and became active in Campus Crusade for Christ, and that’s when I began to fully understand the ramifications of my faith.

Melody in the Canyonville choir
I did drive to Canyonville Bible Academy twice during the spring of 1972 to see Melody, once for a social event and once for her graduation. I remember she received some kind of award at graduation, though I don’t recall what it was specifically. The following year, Melody came to see me at the UW. We were planning to go skiing together, but it was raining in the mountains, so we canceled that idea. Not too long after that, she stopped writing, and I learned that she had married in June of 1973.

We only saw each other maybe two other times after that, but in the early 1990s, she sent me a manuscript and asked me to read it and edit it. It told of health struggles she and her young daughters faced. I think it covered maybe about four or five years of their lives together. I’m ashamed to say I never finished reading and editing it, and she never inquired about it. I’m not sure what she had in mind to do with had I returned it. I did make it about halfway through, and I realized that the only way it could possibly be worth publishing anywhere was if the two of us worked on it together. It had gaps that could only be filled by Melody. There were passages I didn’t fully understand, where I just wrote things like, “elaborate,’ “explain what you mean,” or just put a question mark. It wasn’t poorly written. It was well above average, but it was not professional quality, and I didn’t know what else to do, as both Melody and I were leading busy lives at the time, and we were separated by geographical distance. I believe I still have the manuscript, but I’m not sure where it is. Probably it’s in my storage warehouse with some of my old school files. When I find it, I will let one of her daughters know.

I have written this to let people know what a profound and positive experience Melody had in my life. I became a leader in Campus Crusade during college, and I’ve been an active member of my churches ever since. I’ve taught adult Sunday School and led the junior high school youth group for a couple of years. I’ve spoken in our church and in Young Life groups, and gone on mission trips to Mexico, Bolivia, Liberia and Ethiopia. Lucy and I have four wonderful grown children and nine grandchildren. Our children all have strong families and fulfilling careers, and Lucy and I have supported children around the world with organizations such as Compassion, World Vision and Food for the Hungry.

About 20 years ago, during a church home group meeting, the leader encouraged each of us to write a thank you letter to a person who had strongly influenced us. I wrote to Melody then, but I am writing this now with tears in my eyes to let others who loved Melody know what she meant to me, and how grateful I am that she led me to the Lord. From the depths of my heart, thank you, Melody, and thank you God for sending her to me.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Why do Americans often call their Italian grandmothers Nonni?

Is your Italian grandmother supposed to be called Nonna, Nona, Nonni, Noni or even something else? This is a frequent point of debate in many of the Italian and Italian American discussion groups to which I belong. Well, I’m here to give you the definitive and final answer!

That’s a joke, because there is no such thing in such a hotly debated discussion, especially when Italians are involved! There can only be a reasoned and educated opinion, which is what I hope to provide, a voice from experience.

My own Nonna, Anita Seghieri
I’m a citizen of both Italy and the United States, with homes in both places, and I have a strong respect for the culture of both countries, and also for the Italian immigrants who made new lives for themselves in American 100 years ago and earlier. I’m aware that the correct answer, strictly speaking, is Nonna, but there is also a very good reason that many Italian Americans called their grandmothers Nonni or Noni instead—and it doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignorant or poorly educated.

One possibility is that immigrants sometimes called their grandmothers Nonnina, which is an affectionate and diminutive form of Nonna. My dad had an aunt named Rosa, but everyone in the family knew her as Rosina. It could be that some people started shortening Nonnina to Nonni.

However, a much more likely answer is that these early grandmothers had come to America, and they and their families started adopting the American custom of using the “i” “y” or “ie” ending as a term of endearment or affection. In American, children often change dad to daddy, mom to mommy, aunt to aunty, and grandmother to granny or grammy. The same is true of dozens of Italian given names: Antonio became Tony, Vincenzo to Vinny, Francesco to Frankie, Salvatore to Sally or Solly, Roberto to Bobby, Giovanni to Johnny or Gianni, Paolo to Paulie.

Another possible reason could be that some children found Nonni easier to pronounce than Nonna. Stephanie Beddia, now of South Carolina, notes, “I was supposed to be Nonna, but when my first grandson started to talk, he just kept saying, ‘Nonni, Nonni, Nonni.’”

Obviously, the Italian grandmothers knew the correct term, but most did not object to being called Nonni instead of Nonna, understanding that it was a term of endearment in America. My given name is Paul, but I don’t mind if Italian Americans call me Paulie or Italians call me Paolo. In a way, it is flattering, because it signifies that they accept me as belonging in their communities.

Grandmothers accepted or even embraced this American version because, well, they were now in America. If that’s the way people spoke in America, then Italian grandmothers accepted the slight change. Kids were already taught to say Daddy and Mommy instead of Babbo and Mamma, because it was important to be considered American. President Theodore Roosevelt said, in 1915: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. A hyphenated American is not an American at all.” He was speaking to persons who referred to themselves as Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. Thus, it’s not hard to see why Italian immigrants were willing to adopt American customs.

One final comment on this: Whenever this topic is discussed, it will provoke comments such as, “Using Nonni to refer to an Italian grandmother is a bastardization of the language and just shows the ignorance of Americans. This would never be accepted in Italy.”

This kind of arrogance troubles me. Yes, I know that Nonna is the word of choice in Italy, but Italy is a land full of dialectical differences. The Italian spoken in America by our immigrant forebears is also a dialect, and it should be respected as such and not denigrated and regarded as inferior to other dialects.

In the words of New Yorker Amber Preston: “It’s a grandparent’s prerogative to be called by any name they want by their grandchildren, period. It’s not a choice for anyone else to judge.”

Thursday, January 25, 2024

It's wins all around for people and their happy, smiling doggies!

A win-win situation is generally acknowledged as the best possible outcome, but when you throw some dogs into the mix, there is something even better: a win-win-win situation. How does this situation come about?

Lucy and I have 12 acres of beautiful, wooded property in Rosedale that I walked on maybe five times a year. We’ve kept it mostly untouched because we love nature and the peace and quiet of walking in the woods, combined with the knowledge that these woods have been in my family since 1945. However, keeping this land intact has been a drain on our budget. In 2023, we paid $5,468 in property taxes, up from an average of $5,000 over the previous five years—meaning that each walk we took essentially was costing us $1,000 in taxes alone, not exactly what a person would consider a “win.”

The only people really getting a good deal were my neighbors. We saw no reason to restrict them from taking quiet strolls or riding their bikes, motorcycles or horses, or even building an occasional tree house. We didn’t begrudge them these pleasures, so we kept the land unfenced and unposted. And, of course, it was always in the back of our minds that we could one day sell the land to fund our retirement—though this would be a painful last resort, as it would ultimately lead to the end of the forest as I had known it since infancy.

Then along came a man named David Adams, who changed everything five years ago when he invented something he named Sniffspot. He and his fiancé were having a hard time finding places to let their dogs roam free without interacting with other dogs and humans, so David created what he calls an Airbnb for dogs. It is basically a website that lets dog owners search for land owned by other people who are willing to rent their yards, field or woods for private visits. The website handles the reservations, payments and advertising, provides liability insurance and allows for both customer and client reviews.

I signed up to be a Sniffspot host in the summer of 2020, calling my spot The Woods at Spadoni Hill, but I averaged only about three customers a month. And then I had to shut down about six months later because too many neighbors were accustomed to using the property for free. I had about a dozen great reviews, but a few terrible ones where customers had reserved the site and then encountered other people walking dogs or picking berries. One of the main attractions of Sniffspot is that “reactive” dogs will have free reign without the possibility of encountering other people or dogs, and I realized that despite my best efforts to explain this situation to neighbors, I couldn’t guarantee this exclusivity. The main problem was that I had way more neighbors than I had imagined, and I had never met many of them; some didn’t even live in my neighborhood.

In the fall of 2022, I spent about $5,000 on fencing and signage and reopened in December. Ever since, I’ve been amazed at the results. Perhaps it’s because more people have heard about Sniffspot, or maybe it was the increased fencing, but visits increased exponentially. Now I’m making enough to pay the property taxes, with some extra beyond that has helped us add new trails, picnic tables, a covered shelter, trail signs, and a portable toilet. In addition, my daughter Suzye and I have planted more than 1,000 cedar and fir seedlings and started a process to reduce or maybe even eliminate invasive non-native plants. She and I both love the exercise, tranquility and satisfaction we gain while working to improve the site.

This is definitely a win for our family, and whereas before maybe 30 neighbors were using the trails, we had more than 100 visitors in 2023, so it’s a win for the community. We’ve now decided we will never need to sell the property, so it will remain a wooded paradise for as long as I live and probably much, much longer, another plus for the community.

And as for the third win, just look at the smiling faces of the doggies who have the rare opportunity to run free and use all of their senses to explore. The accompanying photos were just a few taken by the dog owners and posted along with reviews telling how much their pets enjoyed our property. These dogs can’t verbalize, but I think they say a lot with their flopping tongues, wagging tails and toothy grins. Just looking at some of these photos is enough to make my day brighter, and if that’s not enough, then I can read some of the reviews. Like this sampling:

Jessica K.:  It’s like a hiking trail. Well marked parking instructions and they even put out printed maps of the trail. I thought it was really special.

Rowan D: My dog had an absolute blast in the woods.

Lynn G.: Wonderful, clean, safe place for pups. Has everything that you could want: trails, trees, lots of sniffs and water available for pups.

Caelyn C.: My dogs were over the moon—plenty of space to run and explore and even play fetch.

Christine N.: We took our two pups here for the first time today and it was incredible! They loved all the trails, and it was a great place for recall training.

Jannnine C.: This is a great setup for those fur babies who prefer solitude without other 🐕 My Max was so happy to have great walking trails where he could roam and run.

Rebekah J.:  A lovely, peaceful forest walk, as always. This Sniffspot has become an absolute treasure for us to visit and explore. The host is always adding new features for the sniffers and the humans to enjoy.

Casey P.: Big enough to really explore, let your dogs off leash, and practice recall without being so huge you get lost! Made for a fun afternoon for us and the fur babies!

Rachel W.: Our dog loved being able to run on the trails and jump over the rocks and trees and branches.

Teri K.: This Sniffspot is my dogs’ favorite. Trails, exploring, lots of smells. Running, jumping, forging through ferns. It’s our go-to!

Kara S.: We had a blast exploring the trails and loved how there was a printed map at the entrance. There were different spots along the trails that had seating and water for the pups.

Keri H.: Super private which was great since our dogs can be picky about strangers. Tons of trails and things for the dogs to sniff, run around, and burn the energy. Extremely clean, water at various different locations, just an overall great place.

Susan C.: Doggy people nirvana!!!! As always it was above and beyond. I brought a friend visiting from California and she didn’t want to leave!

Brittany G.: Amazing spot! Our two dogs had the best time sprinting on the trails. Can’t recommend this spot more. The many water bowls with containers of water next to it was such a nice touch.