Friday, November 25, 2011

Farming runs deep in family roots

Friday, November 25, 2011
I just read a column in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in which the author describes how he has discovered numerous famous relatives while doing his family tree research on It appears he may be related to Bob Hope, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mamie Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Booker T. Washington and Judy Garland.

I also have been researching my family tree on the same website. And what have I discovered about my own famous relatives? So far, that most of my descendants were farmers, not a profession that generally gains mention in the history books or tabloids. In Italy, the death certificate of my great grandfather Pietro Spadoni lists his occupation as colono, which translates as farmer or tenant farmer. His sons Enrico, Michele and Eugenio learned farming from their father, but only one, eldest brother Enrico, could inherit the family farm, so Michele, my nonno, set off to America in 1903. His occupation on the ship’s log is listed first as “peasant,” but then, perhaps as an early concession to political correctness, this is crossed out and the word “laborer” is written over the top.

Enrico Spadoni and wife Eufemia in
the Spadoni home in Italy.
Enrico was my grandfather's older
brother, who inherited the family
Michele did not farm as a profession in America, but he had a large vegetable garden and orchard for the needs of his wife and seven children, and the family also raised chickens and sold the eggs. On my mother’s side, both her grandparents were farmers, one in Eastern Washington and one in Carroll County, Indiana. The only one of my great grandparents that may not have been a professional farmer was Torello Seghieri, who is said to have been a musican. However, I spent three months this year living on a large Seghieri family farm in San Salvatore, so I know the Seghieri family is steeped in the farming tradition.

While I have found evidence of some Spadoni family members in antiquity who were distinguished (an ambassador, a cardinal, a lawyer for the Pope and various city leaders in Lucca), certainly none were household names that are still known today. However, I am proud to know that my ancestors worked diligently with their hands and with the soil to produce the fruits of an honest day’s labor. I believe that they would endorse The Farmer’s Creed, as do I.

The Farmer's Creed
I believe a person's greatest possession is their dignity and that no 
calling bestows this more abundantly than farming.
I believe hard work and honest sweat are the building blocks of a person's
I believe that farming, despite its hardships and disappointments, is the
most honest and honorable way a person can spend their days on this earth. 

I believe farming provides education for life and that no other occupation
teaches so much about birth, growth and maturity in such a variety of ways.
I believe many of the best things in life are free:  the splendor of a
sunrise; the rapture of wide open spaces; the exhilarating sight of your
land greening each spring.
I believe true happiness comes from watching your crops ripen in the field
and your children grow tall in the sun.
I believe my life will be measured ultimately by what I have done for my
fellow man.
I believe in farming because it makes all this possible.

-- Author Unknown

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To pay or not to pay . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011
So now comes the time to figure out how to pay my traffic fine. Unfortunately, the only way to pay, according to the notification letter, is by an IBAN bank transfer. This is a common and inexpensive way to make payments in Europe, but U.S. banks do not participate in the IBAN system, so it will cost another $35 for my bank to wire the money. I do a web search to see if there is an alternative way to pay but come up empty.

I also find some forums where people have argued against paying the bill for traffic tickets received in Italy, but they are countered by even more people arguing the other side. It seems the arguments are split about three to one in favor of paying. Reasons for paying given: It is the law of the land and should be obeyed. Nobody wants traffic snarling the city centers or people driving at unsafe speeds. The fine nearly doubles if you don’t pay on time. Non-payers might be pursued by a collection agency and be reported to credit rating firms, or they might have trouble re-entering Italy or have their cars impounded if they are stopped again. Some simply said they considered it part of the tourist experience—there are always unexpected expenses on a trip, and this is just one of them.

Those in favor of not paying state that the fines are excessive, they discriminate against foreigners who don’t understand the traffic signs, and many said that they never even saw the signs. Non-paying advocates also say that the tickets come anywhere from six to 18 months after the infraction, an unfair delay that makes it more difficult to appeal, not to mention that appeals must be written in Italian. Some cite technical reasons, such as a law that the ticket must be delivered within a year of the infraction. Another pointed out that the tickets are sent by registered mail, but the directions are written in Italian, so the U.S. postal carriers don’t make the receivers sign, and thus the Italian police have no proof that the ticket was received.

A number of non-payers commented that they never heard another word from the police after throwing their tickets away. No more letters. Nothing on their credit reports. No word from collection agencies. One official admitted in an interview that it was probably not worth the trouble of pursuing a non-payer unless he or she had five or more tickets. (Note: I have more information about a non-payer in a later blog: What will happen if you don’t pay your ticket for a traffic violation in Italy?)
So, knowing that there will probably be no consequences for not paying, and also that my postal carrier didn’t have me sign the receipt, I have considered joining the non-payers. In the end, though, I have decided to pay. I was speeding. I knew I was speeding. I agree with the concept of law and order and speed limits. I should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, a quotation which takes on extra meaning when the fine comes from Italy. In addition, I have the family name to uphold. How can I hold my head high in family gatherings if they know I am an outlaw? Besides, as Lucy points out, my cousins Claudio and Marco Del Terra are both police officers in Toscana, and if they read my blog, then I’ll be in trouble with my family and the cops at the same time!

Next: Final chapter in traffic ticket story?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Traffic cameras a common complaint

Thursday, November 17, 2011
My traffic ticket misadventure looks mild today in comparison with what other foreigners have gone through. Yesterday I talked to Rick and Debbie Gerke, who had to pay their Lucca parking ticket twice. After receiving a ticket on their windshield, they went to the post office and paid it. Several months later, they received a bill for the same parking ticket in the mail, but by that time they had tossed the receipt and were back in the states, so they paid again rather than take the time to try to dispute the second bill.

In searching the web, I found that we have joined a large club of foreigners who have been ticketed by camera. A discussion thread on has 243 posts, many from foreigners complaining about getting caught and fined by the ubiquitous cameras. Some are confused because they think that when they pay the car rental agency that they have paid for the traffic violation; then they don’t understand why they get a second bill for a greater amount months later.

A ZTL sign in Pisa
“Citman” from England writes a typical post: “Hi to all fellow victims. We went to Pisa on a short break end of May 2007, booked into hotel in centre of Pisa, asked hotel staff where to hire a car, hired car. Only warning that anyone gave us was to ensure that car was moved from outside hotel by a certain time in the morning. The hire car operator and hotel staff gave no warning of potential traffic violations caused by driving within the city. Last October we received the notification (in Italian) that we had committed three offences and that the hire company had debited our credit card for three separate amounts. Yesterday we received three separate letters from the Municipality of Pisa informing us of three ZTL violations, each carrying a 113 euro fine.

It's not easy for someone who doesn't know Italian traffic
regulations to understand what this means.
But that’s nothing compared to the misfortunates of Brian Appleton of San Jose, California, who reported on a discussion thread that he received 11 tickets during a two-week trip in the summer of 2007. His fines amounted to well over $1,000, and he was also charged by the car rental agency to report his information, presumably another 11 times. I also read that a Europcar clerk told someone that about one out of every three or four calls they receive concerns complaints about traffic tickets.

A number of the 243 posts on the TripAdvisor discussion argue, rather vociferously, the fairness of the traffico limitato zones, and I can see both sides of the argument. It is a good idea to limit traffic in crowded city centers, and it is often the foreigners who don’t understand the signs and customs, so they get many of the tickets. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. However, some people feel it has spoiled their vacation, that the police and car agencies are in collusion to scam foreigners, and the overall result will hurt tourism, Italy’s largest industry. It also seems that the car rental agencies are making a nice profit charging 36 euros for looking something up in their computers that probably takes about five minutes.

While it may have a small negative effect on tourism, it doesn’t appear that Italy is having problems attracting tourists. And the tickets are huge money makers, surely offsetting any potential loss in tourism money. The Florentine, February 12, 2009, reports: “Traffic police (in Florence) issue approximately . . . 1,253 tickets a day. The fines on these tickets average out to about 140 euro per year, per motorist, and they bring about 52 million to city hall each year.”

Florence and Pisa seem to have the most online complaints, but readers were reporting tickets from all over the country. And it is not just Americans who are nabbed. The Guardian newspaper cites the agency Euro Parking, which reports: “Six out of 10 foreign-registered vehicles don’t cough up. The Germans, it seems, are the worst. There are nearly 30,000 unpaid congestion charge notices against German vehicles, followed by Poland (15,376) Italy (11,846) and Spain (9,493).” It looks like I have joined a very large club, indeed.

Next: To pay or not to pay . . .

Busted for speeding in Italy

Thursday, November 10, 2011
This misadventure really started May 3, when I was taking Randall, Lela and Micah to the airport in Pisa in our rental car. The roads to the airport were well marked, but getting back to Lucca led to an hour of utter frustration. Coming out of the airport, there were signs directing me to Firenze, Pisa Centrale, Livorno and a half dozen other places, but none to Lucca, which was not in the same direction as any of these other cities. Okay, there was one sign, but it came with absolutely no warning and it is located exactly at the exit, giving me no chance to get into the exit lane. I can verify this because during the hour I was wandering around, maddeningly, I passed the same spot twice!

Yes, I should have brought a map or had GPS, but I had checked the map before I left and saw that it was relatively easy to get to the airport, and I assumed getting back would be the same, which it would have been if I could have started out on the correct highway. Anyway, I didn’t, and I got lost in the early morning darkness and mist, and I became especially frustrated when I realized I had passed the only Lucca exit sign I had seen in the last hour, for the second time. By this time, I had a pretty good idea how I could get back to that same spot, and with mounting anger, I sped up. That’s when I observed what seemed like a flash of lightning, only very close and not nearly as bright as lightning, and my frustration reached a new level, because I knew what it was—a camera flash. I had just been photographed by an automatic traffic camera for speeding.

I knew about these traffic cams because I had read about them while researching car rental agencies online. I had read reviews of the Maggiore rental agency, and people had generally had decent experiences with the agency, but some had complained about getting charged twice for traffic tickets. First, Maggiore charged a fee a month or so after the camera-recorded infraction for the administrative costs of giving the traffic police the names and addresses of the driver on the day the ticket was issued. Later came a ticket from the police. Doing a little more reading, I found that this was standard practice for all auto agencies in Italy, so I rented from Maggiore and overall had a good experience.  I also read that most of the tickets came from automatic cameras in large cities, Firenze and Pisa included, for driving in lanes that were for buses or in a zona traffico limitato, where one has to have a special permit to drive.

I hoped I was wrong about the flash, but it seemed pretty likely that it came from a camera. And sure enough, on July 10, two months later, I received a charge from Maggiore of 36 euros, or $50.81, on my credit card. No explanation was given, but I asked the credit card company for documentation, and a month later I received a document showing that Maggiore had received a request for information from the police, so my fears were confirmed. Now, six months after the camera flash, I have received my speeding ticket. It states that at 6:11 a.m. May 3, I was near Pisa and going 121.6 kilometers an hour in a 90 kph zone, or 76 mph in a 56 mph zone. It further states that I must pay 240.27 euros within 60 days of the fine notification. Otherwise, the fine will be 454.27 euros.

Okay, so how do I pay, and what happens if I never pay? How is Italy going to collect from all the foreigners who are accumulating traffic tickets under these relatively new traffic cameras? Right now I am too busy to look into this, so the bill sits on my desk while I take care of more important issues, or at least less unpleasant ones.

Next: Traffic cameras a common complaint in Italy

Finalmente! Ho il passaporto italiano

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
After a futile attempt to obtain my Italian passport in Italy last spring, today I have an appointment in the Italian Consulate in San Francisco to try again. I am encouraged by the fact that the Consulate has responded promptly to my email requesting an appointment for me and daughter Sandra. They will see me at 10:30 a.m. and Sandra at 11:15 a.m. Yesterday Sandy and I went to Walmart to have our passport photos taken, and then we went online to fill out the two-page application and print it out.

I show up at the Consulate around 10 a.m. and check in, and am further heartened to notice that the line is short and the lobby is not crowded. When I came here in 2000, I had to wait in line for almost an hour, and I remember some of the people ahead of me having long arguments with officials who seemed to be low on patience. Apparently, much has improved procedurally since then, and I hope this impression will soon be confirmed.

However, I wait for nearly an hour until I am called into the office of Sr. Giuseppe Penzato, and when I do, he tells me that the computer system appears to be blocked. He was able to process the passport application of one man earlier today, but when he tried to process the man’s wife, the system refused to respond. He will enter my data and hopes that the problem has been resolved. He collects my cash fee of $113.10, makes copies of my American passport and drivers license, takes three imprints of each of my index fingers and enters my data into his computer, which operates extremely slowly and has to be restarted once. The problem, he explains, is that the data has to be sent electronically to a computer in Rome to be authenticated and approved, but there is no response from there. He can’t call to find out why because it is nearly 9 p.m. in Rome, and the offices are closed.

After nearly a decade of stumbling through this process, I am mentally prepared for more obstacles, and I am not in a hurry, so I take this latest delay in stride. Sr. Penzato explains that he has entered my information, and he can finish the process later today or tomorrow and mail me my passport, which is fine with me. He can do the same with Sandra, who is next in line.

We are left with one more curious encounter with the Italian bureaucracy: I must provide Sr. Penzato with a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the mailing of our passports. The receptionist gives me the address of a stationary and mailing store about five blocks away, and when I arrive there, I meet the lady who had the passport appointment before me. She is in a hurry, she says, because the Consulate will close for lunch in a few minutes, and then we will have to wait at least an hour to give our envelopes to the receptionist. I sprint back and make it with three minutes to spare. Meanwhile, Sandra has had her fingerprints and data entered, and we are off to enjoy the rest of our week-long trip to California. (Additional note: When we arrived home, the passports were in my mailbox!)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

To be continued . . .

Saturday, May 7
Sadly, our three months plus a week comes to an end today. We have been in Padova this week, catching up on rest and re-living memories of the year we spent here when I taught at the English International School of Padua. I have also used the time to catch up on my blogging. I wish I had kept a blog in 2001-02, because we had some great adventures then that we still remember and I will someday put into writing, but I’m sure I have forgotten some of the best details. I have about twenty pages of notes, but I was too busy teaching fifth grade for the first time to keep up the way I have during this trip.

We fly back to Seattle Sunday, and then I have to get back to work in Gig Harbor. We exceeded our budget for this adventure about two weeks ago and have had to borrow for the first time, but we certainly have no regrets. The story has not ended, but it is on pause until late January 2012, with perhaps a few updates in between on the Italian passport issue. Thanks for reading and encouraging me to continue writing. Arrivederci a tutti!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Language blunders embarrassing but, from distance of time, amusing

Wednesday, May 4
For the most part, I have given up being shy or hesitant about my stilted Italian. I know I make lots of mistakes, but then so do some Italians when they speak English, and that doesn’t bother me. In fact, some of the mistakes that Italians make are downright endearing. When Suzye and Lindsey’s friend from their Italian school days would call our home on the phone, she would say, “I am Erika. Is there Suzye?” This was an exact translation of what is perfectly acceptable to say in Italian, and it actually taught me how to phrase these statements when I speak Italian. I thought about telling her that it is more appropriate to say, “This is Erika. Is Suzye there?” but I loved to hear her say it this way, so I kept quiet. Someone has clued her in now, and she doesn’t say it in the Italian way any more, but we still keep the memory.

I am probably still clueless about many of my own misstatements, though I do remember a couple fairly vividly. In 2001, I was carrying three large suitcases and a smaller carry-on, riding a train from Rome to Padova, where I was about to spend ten months teaching at a British school. Getting the suitcases aboard took a major struggle, because I had to leave two on the platform while I put the other two onboard, and then go back for the others. After I took my seat, I had a short conversation with an Italian seat-mate. Very short, because my Italian was extremely limited then. As the train neared Bologna, where I had to switch trains, I decided to ask him for help getting my luggage off the train. So after telling him I had “quattro valigie,” I asked, “Posso auitarmi con le valigie?” He paused for a second and then said, “Certo.” I sat for a minute, pleased that I would have some assistance, and then I reviewed the conversation in my head. That’s when I realized that I had said, “Can I help myself?” instead of “Can you help me?” I tried to correct myself, but he said something like, “Don’t worry about it. I understood what you meant anyway.”

Riding a bus in Padova during the school year, I embarrassed myself again. A lady got on the bus and sat in the empty seat next to me. Then she said something with “posto” at the end of the sentence. One of the lines in my Italian textbook had the phrase, “É occupato, questo posto?” which means, “Is this seat occupied?” Thinking that must be what she said, I said, “No.” She gave me a funny look and then spoke to a man standing next to her, saying essentially the same thing. He said yes, and she got up and went to talk to friend a few seats ahead of us. Then she came back and sat in the empty seat next to me, and by this time I realized that she had said, “Puo salvare questo posto?” I had rudely but unintentionally refused to save her seat for her. I was able to apologize and showed her the vocabulary flash cards that at that moment I had in my hands because I was “imparando Italiano,” learning Italian. We were both able to smile at my blunder, and I was grateful for the chance to explain myself.

Australian Chris Harrison, in his entertaining book Head over Heel, tells how he wanted to rent a paddleboat, but instead of asking may we rent a pedalò , he asked to rent a pedofilo. Just two little extra letters made a boat into a pedophile and him into a laughingstock among his new Italian friends.

My friends Steve and Patti tell me a couple of stories about friends of theirs who made similar mistakes. One lady was asked at a restaurant if she wanted bottled water, and she said no, she would just like water from the rubinetto, the water faucet in the sink. Well, that’s what she thought she said, but the waiter seemed shocked. What she had actually said was that she wanted water from the gabinetto. That would be from the toilet.

My all-time favorite language blunder was made by their friend Terry, a fellow missionary who was with them in Rome, taking Italian lessons at the time. Before I can explain his mistake, I need to give a mini-lesson. To say that you like something in Italian, you should say, “Mi piace” or “Mi piacciono.” Piacere means “to please,” so saying “mi piace” really means “it pleases me,” and “mi piacciono” means “they please me.” To say you are sorry for something, you simply change piace to dispiace, meaning “it displeases me.” Please note that “mi piace” and “mi dispiace” sound very similar. As Steve tells the story, Terry was riding on a very crowded bus, which made a sudden lurch, causing him to stumble headfirst in the chest of a very buxom Italian woman. And you can probably guess what the poor flustered American missionary said: “Mi piace, mi piace!” Well, of course that’s not what he meant to say. Or maybe it was, but if you were really paying attention during the Italian lesson, you should realize that in that case he should have said, “Mi piacciono.”

Leaving a home, returning to another

Monday & Tuesday, May 2 & 3
It is taking us a good part of Monday to pack. Since we have decided to come back to the same place for another three months next year, we are leaving all our household items here at the agriturismo. Luca has told us to just pile the boxes into his van and he will take them to store in their warehouse. We had considered looking for a less expensive place to stay next year, but less expensive could mean we might be without wireless Internet, without adequate heat, without warm and strong showers and without the convenience of having absolutely no worries or extra bills for maintenance or utilities. We also love the fact that right outside our kitchen is a patio with a large umbrella that we can put up or down so we can eat in the shade or sun, whichever is preferable at the moment.

Perhaps even more importantly, we feel at home in this place and in this neighborhood. We have started to develop some relationships that we hope will grow stronger in 2012, and in years to come, if we continue coming here, which appears likely at this point.

By midnight, we have not finished packing, but we go to bed to catch a few hours of sleep before we have to take Randy, Lela and Micah to the airport in Pisa. I take them in the rental car at 4:15 a.m. while Lucy gets up to finish the packing. I find the airport with no problems, but I miss a turn on the way back and find myself in the little town of Cascine, wherever that is. I find a sign to Lucca at one intersection, and then there is nothing about Lucca at the next four intersections. If I had a map, I would be fine, but I thought I would just be going from one autostrada to another. I missed the first turn because there was no proper advance warning, just a sign right at the exit, actually about 20 feet after the exit. I am sure of this, because, to my utter frustration, I pass the same exit for a second time a little later.

Once back on track, I am soon in San Salvatore, where we finish loading the car and head to Padova. Suzye has taken the train to Padova the day before, and after we unload our suitcases at Steve and Patti’s house, we meet Suzye and continue on to Venezia to return the rental car and have lunch together. Venezia, as always, is fascinating, intriguing, mysterious, not to mention expensive and full of tourists. The restaurant where we dine charges both a coperta and a service charge, adding 10.31 euros, or $15. Two bottles of water contribute another $3.62 to the bill. Luckily my ancestors came from the Tuscan countryside, not Venezia. Otherwise, we would have been out of money in a month.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Passeggiatas, panoramas and prizes

Saturday, April 30
In the winter of 2002, Lucy, Lindsey and I participated in a memorable half marathon/passeggiata near Asiago in the Veneto with the Bertrand Russell language school that Lucy and Lindsey were attending. While some people actually ran, most of us just walked through the rolling scenic hills and admired the beauty of the vineyards and olive groves.

Shortly after we hit the trail, we reached a fork where we had to choose the six-kilometer route or the nine-kilometer trail. Lindsey had been walking slightly ahead of us and came upon it first, and she harkened unto the famous words of Yogi Berra, who advised: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Actually, she didn’t even look up and notice there was a fork. She just followed the people walking ahead of her and ended up taking the long route. The rest of our group came to the fork and reached an agreement to take the shorter route, and we could only hope that Lindsey had chosen it as well and would eventually stop to wait for us. She did stop later to wait for us, but of course we never came, leaving her wondering if we had somehow passed her without her noticing. Then she spent the rest of the time trying to catch up to us. We didn’t see her again until a good half hour after we had finished the course, and naturally we tease her about her solo passeggiata every time the opportunity presents itself.

Everyone paid something like 10 euros to enter, but we also received prizes at the end that were more than worth the entry fee. I can’t remember everything we won, but Lucy says we were given some high quality beach towels that we are still using, and I remember getting a bottle of wine or vin santo, along with a lunch and assorted snacks. As we walked down the hill into the city, our group decided to stop for gelato. I was given the job of watching prizes while everyone else went inside the gelateria. There were about a dozen prize bundles around my feet when a group of Italian men walked by and started picking them up and walking off with about half the prizes. They said something about that being too many prizes for one person, and they would help me out by taking some off my hands. They were smiling and looking back over their shoulders, waiting for me to make some clever reply or plea, but I couldn’t even think of something clever to say in English. So I just stood there with a foolish grin on my face, trying to look tolerant yet a little bit impatient for them to finish their amusing game. What if they take my smile for acceptance and they keep on walking? I can’t leave the other half of the prizes on the street to follow these thieves, and I have no idea what to say, so I remain standing and smiling, trying to look confident in the knowledge that this is just a joke and they will return the prizes any second now. Luckily for me, they did return the prizes, though to this day I still feel foolish for not being able to say anything more than “Grazie.”

In spite of this incident, we came back with great memories and some of the best scenic photos of our ten months in the Veneto, and now we want to reprise some of those memories by entering a non-competitive mezzo maratona in Montemagno, a small town in the Versilia hills near the Tuscan coast. The entry fee is only 2.50 euro, and rewards are promised for the largest groups to enter. We are a group of six, with Micah included, so we have little hope of prizes, but we have come for the experience of joining a truly Italian outing through six kilometers (yes, we took the short course again) of hillside chestnut forests, vineyards and olive groves.

Once again, Micah is a big hit with the Italians, who stop to admire his beautiful eyes or say a few words of Italian or baby talk. Randy takes him in the baby carrier for most of the trip, but he occasionally gets to walk with some strong-armed support. When we reach the finish line, we each get a coffee mug and package of cookies to take home, and drinks and snacks await us. We also find that we have the 35th largest group and are eligible for a prize, a stuffed bear, which we give to our youngest team member. Nobody tries to take it from him.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lucchio: Another random treasure

Friday, April 29
We visit another random hillside village, this one Randy’s choice—Lucchio, near Bagni di Lucca. According to online research, Luccio once was a city with 800 inhabitants; now it has only 50, so it is somewhat of a  ghost town. Isolated hill towns typically lose their young people, who leave for schooling and job pursuits. Once a town starts losing people, the trend continues, because stores close, causing further job losses and more people moving away.

But because Italy’s houses are built of stone instead of wood, empty towns here do not look as run down as they do in the United States. In fact, Lucchio is very appealing, with flowers blooming everywhere, even coming out of the stone walls. This would be a lovely place for a vacation home, with spectacular views and enough elevation to avoid the sweltering summer heat of the lowlands. Many of the buildings are for sale, and the prices are extremely affordable, as one might imagine in a city in decline.

The most interesting feature is a ruined castle on the top of the mountain, just a ten-minute walk up a trail from the town limits. We have a 360-degree view of the surrounding hills and valleys, and the top is flat and grassy, with wild flowers all around. It would be a ideal place to bring a blanket, a book and a picnic lunch. Lucy says she would love to take a sleeping bag and lie on her back at night (next to her husband, of course) and look at the stars, with no light pollution from nearby cities. Photos are not multi-dimensional enough to do justice to hilltop views, so you’ll just have come some see for yourself!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Our family connection to Italian food

Thursday, April 28
My mom was not Italian, but she lived with my dad’s family for about eight years after she and my dad married, so I think she could have fooled a lot of people into thinking she was. She learned to cook my dad’s favorite family foods. Pasta asciutta, fried zucchini, biscotti and Easter cake come quickly to mind. I truly believe that I caught a significant part of my interest in Italy from her. I can't remember any specific things she said about being or not being Italian, but I have the impression that she considered herself at least half Italian by adoption. So that would make me three-quarters Italian instead of half, or at least it would explain why I grew up with a pride in all things Italian.

Since I began coming to Italy fairly regularly in 1996, I have discovered that biscotti is a more general word that covers many types of Italian cookies, and the recipe my nonna taught to my aunts and mom was actually a specific type of biscotti made in Toscana called cantucci, or cantuccini. A dry and hard cookie made with almonds and anise seeds, it has since become popular throughout Italy as well as America. Italians like to dip their cantuccini into a sweet wine called vin santo.

The pasta asciutta recipe passed on from my Tuscan nonna is a meat sauce that is not as moist as most pasta sauces, hence the name asciutta, which means dry. My mom taught me the recipe, and though I am very fond of it, I have not made it for many years. It includes chunks of either rabbit or chicken meat mixed in, usually chicken, since rabbit is hard to come by in the states. Lucy does not share my fondness, probably because the sauce includes ground chicken livers, and so I do not ask her to make it for me.

Easter cake in Italy is called colomba, the Italian word for dove, and it is a dry cake sometimes made in the shape of a dove. It has almonds and sugar on top and raisins inside.The cake my mom learned to make was very different, and we knew it was not actually called Easter cake, but we gave it that name because of the season in which it was traditionally served in our family. I have made this for my family at Easter, as have my sister and brother for their families, and it is the traditional food that I think all of our children most recognize as part of the family culinary heritage. Yet it is the one food on the Spadoni family list that I have not seen in Italy--until today. We are walking together in Camaiore and stop in the Pasticceria Del Dotto to buy gelato, and there they are, behind the glass--cakes that look almost exactly like my the ones my mom made.

We ask the nonna who is obviously the head chef here what it is called. Her grandson helps with the translation. Zuccotto, she says, and it is a special recipe she has been making since 1948, which does not qualify it to be the same as my own nonna’s cake. In fact, it is not the same inside, as zuccotto has a semi-freddo filling. The cake should be kept frozen until an hour or less before serving, she says. I tell her that my nonna made a cake that looked like hers, but it was not semi-freddo inside. Ah, she explains, that would probably be buccellato di Lucca, which is made with bread, candied grapes, anisetta and crema, a custard filling. The bread is soaked in liquor and colored, she says, but she cautions that there are many varieties because each cook likes to add a personal touch.

Even though the zuccotto is not buccellato, because it looks the same as our Easter cake, we buy one and take it home to try out. The outside layer of thin strips of bread or cake has been dipped in a sweet liquor. Inside it seems kind of like whipped and chilled chocolate and vanilla pudding, very rich and filling. Everyone has two helpings, and we agree it is delicious. Then I look up buccellato di Lucca on the Internet and find recipes for a cake that is baked in the oven, and it does not look at all like my mom’s Easter cake. However, as I read on, I find that the pieces of buccellato can be used to make a "Lucchese style soup" composed of cut up pieces of buccellato soaked in vin santo and then put together in alternating layers with cream, sugar and strawberries. That sounds very much like the cake my mom made, though she substituted lemonade for the vin santo, did not add strawberries and used a custard pudding mix for the cream filling. So my nonna’s cake is not really buccellato di Lucca, though it was probably first made using buccellato, but I don’t really know what its proper Italian name is. I will continue to call it Easter cake, I think, and just be thankful to my nonna and mom for passing along this wonderful traditional treat with their own special variations.

Rinfresco, refreshments, reflections

Wednesday, April 27
Our rinfresco, or open house, is tonight, and we started mixing and baking yesterday and continue today, making some truly amazing American dolci. Lucy makes gingerbread, pineapple upside down cake, magic cookie bars, chocolate chip cookies, apple salad and brownies, Randy makes two apple pies and I make two cherry cream cheese pies. We are pretty confident the food will be well received, because as good as Italian food is in general, American dolci is better than some of the gorgeous but dry Italian dessert pastries found in pasticcerias. Of course tiramisú and panna cotta are exceptionally good Italian desserts, as is gelato, but the array of rich sweets we have put together can more than hold its own against the best of Italy.

However, we are not holding a contest but instead hoping to thank people for helping make our time here special, and also to give them a chance to meet more of our family and to say good-bye, as we will be leaving San Salvatore in less than a week. We are a little nervous about how the event will go over, as most of the potential attendees speak either Italian or English, but not both. Now as the guests arrive, we find that it is going about as we expected. Everyone is meeting everyone,and doing the best they can to communicate.

Ivo is one of the first to arrive, smartly dressed and neatly groomed. We have only seen him before in his work clothes—after a mushroom hunt, feeding his chickens, working on his vinyards. He brings a bottle of wine. His wife Ilina speaks both Italian and Russian, and she has a nice conversation in Russian with Lela. Ivo’s sister-in-law Antonella also comes a little later. Luigi the macellaio and his wife and grandson are present, but their son Matteo is in Viareggio with friends, they say. Lucy’s hairdresser Gabbriella is also here, as is Ari, who helped me get my certificate of citizenship and codice fiscale; he is accompanied by his wife. From the Spadoni side of the family, we greet Enrico, Enza, Loriano, Gabbriella, Marta, Gianfranco, Grazie and Claudio. Enrico is carrying his nipote Matteo, Alessandra’s son. Also Raffaello Lazzaroni, son of the late Maria Spadoni, has come. I have only met him once, on my first trip to Italy in 1996. Sergio Seghieri and his wife Silvana and nipote Flavia have come, and of course all the people from the agriturismo are here: Enzo, Gilda, Luca, Claudia, Roberta, Paolo and Giada. Marco, our teacher from San Salvatore, has come with his wife Paola, and it turns out that Marco knows Grazia, Marta and Gianfranco. Francesca Seghieri from the bike shop and her mom, Dosolina Bianucci, make a short appearance. Unfortunately, Francesca’s uncle Mario Seghieri from next door can’t come; he has still not recovered from a leg injury he suffered this spring, and Mario’s sons Fausto and Ivano have to be at work. Our French friend in the apartment next door, Emeline, also joins us.

I decide to make a short speech and ask Ari to translate for me. It is a shortened version of the blog entry I wrote earlier about the value of a good name. I explain how being a Spadoni in Gig Harbor helps me connect when I meet people, and then I add that the same is true here in Italy. All I have to do is mention that my grandparents were Spadoni and Seghieri and I am accepted, sometimes even warmly welcomed.  Raffaello jokes that I am fortunate to have a noble surname while he instead is stuck with Lazzaroni, a name that in the south is associated with beggars and street people.

We receive many compliments on the food, and eleven-month-old Micah makes a great impression. Italians and Americans are able to make baby talk, so at least we all have one language in common.

As we clean up, Lucy and I reflect that we have accomplished most of our goals during our three months here. We have reconnected with the Spadoni relatives and we have discovered our connection with the Seghieri side. I have dug deeply into the family tree on both sides. We have acquaintances in the community and we feel comfortable shopping like Italians in the neighborhood stores. We have explored the Tuscan countryside and found delightful cities, valleys, bridges, trails and streams, and we know that there are many more waiting to be found.

Lucy and I agree that the area in which we have fallen short of our aspirations is language learning. When we started, we understood about 25 percent of what we heard. Now we are up to perhaps 50 percent, but that’s still far from what we want. I recently sat outside the bar at San Salvatore and could hear the men talking among themselves, but I could hardly understand a single sentence. It’s not going to be much use for us to have friends and acquaintances if we can’t discuss anything beyond the basics of family, work and places we live. This summer we will be too busy with work to study, but we will need to learn more Italian next fall and then continue to take lessons here next winter. We would rather have our days free from study and lessons, but it appears to be unavoidable if we want to improve. More than one person has jokingly suggested to us that the best way to learn is to have an Italian amante, but we both are very happy with the lovers we already have, so we’ll just have to continue our studies the slow and painful way.

Claudio and Suzye, third cousins, meet for the first time.

Dosolina and Francesca

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A little gift from God for Rosa and us

Tuesday, April 26
Fascinating, providential, serendipitous—these words all describe one of the events of the day. First must come a background story, though.

Several years ago, while doing research on the family by using and, I found the names of thirty or forty Spadonis from Ponte Buggianese and surrounding areas who came to the United States from 1900 to 1920. Most went to Chicago, but some to San Francisco, Minnesota and, of course, Washington state. One I noted in particular because, although he went to Chicago in 1911, his draft registration card says he was living on S. Washington Street in Tacoma in 1917. His occupation was listed as car repairman for Northern Pacific Railroad. Both the ship’s record of his crossing and his draft card say he had a wife, Orsola, still living in Ponte Buggianese.

I have always been curious about this mysterious Guido, wondering if my nonno Michele knew him. Michele’s father was born in Ponte Buggianese, and Michele was born about three miles away in Pescia. Tacoma and Gig Harbor are right across from each other on Puget Sound, and Michele worked at the Asarco smelter in Tacoma (technically it was in Ruston, but Ruston is pretty much surrounded by Tacoma). It is extremely likely that Guido and Michele were related, although they may not have known exactly how because of the long Spadoni history in Ponte Buggianese. Anyway, right after 1917, Guido disappeared from the records, and I have always wondered what happened to him.

Now we are back to today. Lucy is cooking in preparation for tomorrow’s rinfresco, but the rest of us take advantage of the fact that we have a rental car and can travel to places inaccessible by train or bike. I use Google maps to find a little city in the hills about 20 minutes above Pescia. It becomes our destination on a drive up a rough, winding and narrow road through a scenic valley covered with green grass, olive trees and multi-colored wild flowers. Of course there are also ancient stone farm houses and arching bridges and terraced gardens.

We arrive in San Quirico and walk around for forty-five minutes, admiring the view of the surrounding hillsides and the winding, narrow and hilly streets. It is a community with only a centro storico; there are no new buildings on the outskirts. The houses, though ancient, are well maintained, and pots of fragrant flowers abound in the streets and courtyards. Just before we are ready to leave, Randall notices a door sign that reads: Dinelli Avio e Spadoni Rosa. I snap a photo and we are about to move on, but Lela has seen a man coming out the door. She greets him with a “Ciao,” and says there are some Spadonis here, motioning toward us. He comes to the gate, and I explain that we are italo-americani and are interested in the sign because we share the same name. I ask for his name, but unfortunately it doesn’t stay with me, only that his surname is Dinelli but he is also part Spadoni.
He immediately invites us in to meet his mother, Rosa Spadoni. We learn that Rosa will turn 100 years old this October, and her husband is no longer living. Her son, the man who has invited us in, grew up here, but he has been in Germany for the last forty years or so. He comes down often to see his mother, especially around the holidays, but apparently Rosa lives alone when her son is not visiting. He explains to Rosa that we are Spadonis and that we are looking for possible relatives. What is her father’s name? Guido, she says. And her mother’s name was Orsola. Guido and his brother Attilio went to America when Rosa was young, but during World War 1, they returned. Guido lived the rest of his life in Italy, but Attilio went to Argentina and the family does not know what became of him.

Suddenly I remember. This is the Guido who was in Tacoma in 1917 and worked for the railroad. “Did your father go to Chicago and then Tacoma?” I ask. Yes, she thinks he went to Chicago and then somewhere else, but he was concerned he would have to fight in the war, so he and his brother returned to Italy. I explain that I have seen records of her father when he was in America, and he was practically in the same city as my nonno. I also tell her my great grandfather was born in the same city as her father, so it is likely that we are distant relatives, though neither of us can go back far enough in the records to prove this conclusively. After fifteen minutes of conversation and some coffee, we are content to go home, but it is obvious that everyone has enjoyed this chance encounter.

As we walk to the car, we can’t help but be impressed by the incredible sequence of events that had to occur for us to meet this super-distant cousin. I picked a city out to visit at random. We walked down the right street, and Randall just happened to glance at the name on the gate. We came by at the exact moment that Rosa’s son came out the door, but only Lela saw him. Thankfully, Lela hung back and said something, because the rest of us were already walking away. And then we find that this is not just any Spadoni, but one who has ties both to Ponte Buggianese and also the state of Washington, and it is a family about which I have some information. I feel as if God has indulged me in my hobby of family research by leading me to Rosa and her son, a little gift to brighten up my day, and I think He has brightened up Rosa’s day as well.

Postscript: While going through the parish archives in 2014, I found out how I was related to Rosa. We had a common ancestor Lorenzo Spadoni, born in 1723 and married to Caterina Mariani. Rosa descended from their son Francesco, and my family came from another son, Leonardo. Counting down through the generations, that would have made Guido and Michele, both in Tacoma in 1917, third cousins. My dad would have been a fourth cousin to Rosa, so she is my fourth cousin once removed.

Suzye finds a very large grasshopper and uses it to entertain us all, Micah included.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Festa with family at Pescia

Monday, April 25
Easter Monday is a special day in Italy when people go on picnics with their families and take walks in the country or though the cities. Pretty much everything is closed, so we spend a relaxing morning at home. It is very quiet, since the agriturismo owners and workers have the day off. In the afternoon, Lucy and I drive to Pescia to pick up Suzye, who is tired but happy to be here. She arrived in Milano early this morning and then took a bus to the train station and then a slow regionale train to Prato. She transferred there and arrives at Pescia at 3:10 p.m. We take her home to eat and wash up, and then we all go back to Pescia for a community festa.

The festa features several bands and a group of jugglers parading around and performing in the large central piazza. At the same time, there are booths selling antiques, and we buy two framed prints, one on silk cloth. I also buy some Tex comic books to help practice my Italian reading skills. One of the nice things about these small events is the opportunity to get up close to the performers, and, as always, we enjoy people-watching; in this case, we see lots of Italian families enjoying themselves together, and there are many older people, faces lined with character.

The gelato at our favorite gelateria is a minor disappointment, but only because it is nearly sold out and we don’t have the usual large array of choices. What is left, though, is still delicious, as is the whole evening. We return home and find that Bar Grazia is closed for the holiday, but we try out for the first time San Salvatore’s other pizzeria. It is slightly more expensive, but the pizzas are roasted directly over wood coals for added flavor. We carry the pizza home and find it to be a satisfying conclusion to a very pleasant day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Driving in Italy can be an adventure

Saturday & Sunday, April 23-24
Most of Saturday is taken up with traveling from Georgia to Latvia to Rome, and then back “home” to San Salvatore. We have reserved a car in Rome, because now we have Randall, Lela and Micah with us. It has been three months since I have driven, and it takes me a few minutes to feel comfortable, but I have driven in Italy before and am not apprehensive. We did not pay extra for GPS, because we will be on main highways almost all the way, and these are well marked. We have ridden our bikes all around the local area and I can find my way around here just fine. However, if we had planned to go to a number of new cities, I would not have hesitated to pay the fee for GPS.

A few years ago, we had to maneuver through cities such as Roma, Milano, Prato and Modena, and we wasted a good deal of time getting lost and asking for directions. We had printed out online maps with driving directions, but in many cases they were useless. It’s not that the directions were faulty, but Italian streets can change names multiple times in a single mile, or they fork off into two parallel streets that run side by side, and you must decide which fork to take before you have a chance to see any street signs. And speaking of street signs, that is probably the worst problem with using online directions, because the directions might tell you to turn right on via Carciofi, but there may be no sign for via Carciofi at your particular intersection. Actually, they may very well be a sign, but it is thirty feet above your head, engraved in aging stone on the side of a building, and you will never see it because the cars behind you are urging you ahead with honking horns.

Now as we drive up the coastal highway from Fiumicino to Pisa, I am reminded of the trait that most stands out about Italian drivers: They drive at very different speeds. I am driving at about 115 kilometers per hour, and I am passing about two thirds of the other motorists. The others are passing me, some at speeds that that must be around 150 kph. It is growing dark, and the roads are generally well lighted and the edges marked with reflectors, but there are some dark spots and unexpected twists and turns. I want to find someone who is going my speed and follow his taillights at a safe distance, but everyone is either going faster or slower. Once in a while I find someone going at my speed and follow until he exits, and then I search again for another leader.

Drivers in Napoli know how to maneuver round-abouts
without slowing down unneccessarily and causing traffic jams.
I have driven mostly in Central and Northern Italy, but we did rent a car in Roma two years ago and spent most of our time in the narrow streets of the Amalfi Coast. This was challenging, but I learned by watching other drivers to manage the tight and sharply curving streets. I confess that I was among the slowpokes during that trip, however. I think the only place I would be hesitant to try would be the streets of Napoli, where drivers have a different set of rules. I have watched the traffic there, and it is scary, but it actually flows amazingly smoothly. If two cars are approaching the same intersection at the same time at 90 degree angles, it looks like a collision will occur because neither car is slowing down. However, as they get closer, it will be apparent that one car is about five feet closer to the intersection than the other. The car that is behind will brake just the slightest bit, allowing the other driver to enter the intersection first, but then the second car will continue at almost the same speed and zip just a few feet behind the first car. It will look like a narrow miss, but both drivers understood the rules and the traffic flow continued with only an imperceptible interruption.

In America, both cars would have slowed way down, and then one driver would signal the other to go ahead, in a very safe and logical way, it would seem. However, the Italian drivers have caused much less disruption to the flow of traffic, and since the roads are crowded, traffic would be at a perpetual standstill under American rules. Nonetheless, old habits are hard to break, and I don’t know if I could handle this style. In any event, it is almost impossible for me to figure out the parking rules in most Italian cities, so I will continue to avoid cities whenever possible, and Napoli in particular.