Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nipping my influenza in the bud . . . . . or should that be in the butt?

2002, Padova
When I took a teaching job at the English International School of Padua, Lucio had promised he would provide health insurance for my family, but he hadn’t realized just how expensive that would be. After checking into the costs, he asked me to buy travelers insurance and then reimbursed me. Since my previous plan had been to forgo insurance for the year, I was happy to take what he offered, and I shopped around to find the best coverage at a reasonable price.

The insurance had a high deductible, but we would be covered for serious illnesses or injuries. As it turned out, we never had to use it. However, I did come down with a bad case of influenza that really wiped me out. I knew some antibiotics would help me recover more quickly, so I decided to try my luck at the urgent care room in the hospital. I could have asked Lucio to accompany me, but he was a busy man and I didn’t want to bother him. My Italian was improving, and I figured that some of the hospital personnel would speak English.

I didn’t know if I would be required to pay, but that was not my foremost concern. I just wanted to be get rid of the fever and aches and get back to work. I made it through the first round of inquiries and form-filling, and within an hour I was given directions to a waiting room, which is where my language skills failed me. After nearly two hours of waiting, I realized that the original dozen patients waiting with me had all been called, and the others around me had all come after me. I checked with the receptionist and she didn’t have me on the list, so she got on the phone and determined that I had come to the wrong waiting room. So much for my improving language skills! I was escorted down a long corridor to the right place, and I was seen almost immediately. My diagnosis was the flu, and I was given a prescription to fill at the farmacia across from the hospital. I was never asked to pay for the services received at the hospital itself.

Aren't you glad this is the only picture I'm
using for this post?
When I got home and took the prescription out of the bag, another cultural difference slowly dawned on me. My medicine was not to be taken orally but rather injected into my posterior. Of course I previously had received vaccinations this way from my doctor, but I had also learned to focus my concentration elsewhere so I could receive the needle without noticing the pain. Actually sticking myself with a needle in the butt seemed an entirely different matter; how I could focus on something else while taking care to put the needle in far enough and then squeezing in the medicine? Suddenly I had a new respect for the courage of the Italian people, who apparently received their prescriptions this way routinely.

Lucy somehow knew this was going to happen. She had read something somewhere in one of the tourist books that Italians sometimes use this method of medication, but I must have skipped that chapter.

“You could have asked them for oral medicine and they would have given it to you,” she said. “You could probably go back to the pharmacy and get a new prescription filled.”

Well, too late for that now. I would probably have to pay again for the new prescription, and I didn’t like that idea. But how could I go up the pharmacist and tell her I didn’t have the courage to inject myself. What kind of aspiring Italian citizen says that? If I was going to live like an Italian, I would have to buck up and . . . ask Lucy to give me the injections.

She didn’t like that idea at all, but fortunately, she loved me so much that she did it without complaining. I gave her lots of encouragement and brave talk about how it wouldn’t hurt me at all, and I always kept talking away and managed to avoid flinching when she did the deed so she wouldn’t feel traumatized. I’m sure if I had screamed like a girl, she would have been too shell-shocked to continue the series of injections day after day, which she faithfully did, bless her loving soul. Thankfully, the medicine worked very quickly and my flu retreated rapidly. Now I can say that I can’t believe those wimpy Americans who only take their antibiotics orally, not like us manly Italians who fear no pain.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Free wine tour nothing to whine about

Thursday, March 28, 2013
Martin Luther is attributed as saying, “Beer is made by men, wine by God.” I am not one who enjoys theological arguments, nor would I presume to refute one of history’s greatest religious scholars. So when given the chance to sample the goodness of God’s creation, I choose to jump at the chance. Lindsey and I spend much of our day on a wine and oil tour with Elena Benvenuti and some of her tour guide colleagues.

Yes, once again I get a free ride, with my only responsibility being to document my trip with photos and text. Elena thinks I am doing her a favor, but I came here to experience Italy and write about it anyway, so these little jaunts fit right into my plans and my budget. The tour is not typical, though, as the main purpose is for the tour guides to touch base with the farm management, and most of the conversations are in Italian about schedules, prices, group sizes and products the farms offer. Still, we get to see how the wine is made and we get to sample it, so we have absolutely no complaints.

Our first stop is not a winery, though, but at a bed and breakfast in Montecarlo whose new owners have put together a fantastic museum in their cellar. We are fed espresso rather than wine, and then we get a short tour of the historic Antica Dimora Patrizia, which dates its origins back to the 1300s. Alessandro and Norina bought the place last year and closed it down for some refurbishing, and now it looks very inviting. The furnishings are antique, but they are clean and shiny, so it retains the warm charm of times past without any touch of shabbiness.

The museo, though, is the highlight. Alessandro has put together an extensive collection of antique hand tools as well as old photos of men and women at work in some of the ancient trades and professions. As he explains how some of the tools were used, I can’t help but think of my dad and his brothers, uncles, cousins and nephews who were so handy and comfortable with tools. My eyes get a little misty as I picture Dad, Roy, Rudy and Claude all together in this room, absorbed in the amazing collection and all talking animatedly to each other at the same time.

The first vineyard we visit is the Fattoria del Teso, a 63-acre estate
Vinsanto and cantucci
that has documents proving it has been a wine-producing farm since at least the 12th century. We are shown the different steps in the process of making vinsanto, a dessert wine often served with cantucci. Clusters of grapes are set out to dry on straw or bamboo mats in a well-ventilated room that must be kept at the same temperature as the outside. This five-month process of essiccazione concentrates the sugars in the grapes, creating a sweeter wine with a higher than average alcohol level.

Check out the ceiling.
After drying, the grapes are pressed by a centuries-old method and allowed to ferment and age for 10 years in caratelli, which are small oak barrels. The Fattoria del Teso uses caratelli that came from Ireland, where they were formerly used for holding whiskey. After the proper amount of grape juice is poured into a caratello, the opening is sealed with concrete to prevent the introduction of oxygen. Fill a caratello too full, I am told, and you risk an explosion. “Has this every happened here?” I ask. Yes, four caratelli exploded in 2003, and when we enter the next room, I can see the remnants of this event documented on the ceiling. After 10 years, the caratelli are opened, the wine filtered and then it must be tested to see if it merits the coveted DOC label, which certifies it has been properly made.

We also explore the cellar, which is full wall-to-wall with 70 or 80 huge oak barrels. Sadly, a previous owner of the farm left the barrels empty, which allowed them to dry out, and they are no longer usable because they would leak if refilled. The cellar is now used to entertain groups of people, and the barrels add much to the ambiance, so they are not useless. In addition, they are gradually in the process of being restored, I am told, though I have little idea what that process entails.

Big barrels that serve only as ambiance now.
Now it is time to sample a variety of the farm’s offerings, which includes a white, Vermentino di Teso; a red, Anfidiamante Rosso; and Vinsanto del Teso. I am not good at describing the various tastes, but I can say they were all delicious and all quite different. The Anfidiamante is truly like no other wine I have ever tasted. I am told it has a strong, fruity taste because the vines bloom at the same time as the wild fruits and vegetables of the surrounding woods, and cross pollination by the bees contributes to the wine’s flavor. The vinsanto explodes with sweetness and that unmistakable odor of liquor, yet somehow it doesn’t taste sugary.

Now we’re on to the Fattoria del Buonamico, only five minutes away. This tenuta—estate—changed ownership in 2008, and the new owner has invested millions, maybe billions, in the most modern equipment available. It is packed full of shiny steel and aluminum tanks and machines replete with computers and control panels. There is a machine to pick the grapes, a machine to separate the stems and leaves from the grapes and then another for pressing the grapes—softly, at just the right impact and temperature, I am told. The fermentation process is also carefully controlled at the proper rate and temperature for each type of grape. Twelve types of wine are made, including a spumante, a sparkling rosé made with the Italian Charmat method. Elena tells me that finding spumante in Tuscany is kind of like “finding a white fly,” because spumante has typically only been made in France and Northern Italy.
Shiny, computer-controlled wine vats.

As we sample the wines here, it turns out the sparkling wine passes the demanding tastes of imported sommelier Lindsey Spadoni, who ends up buying a bottle. I ask for her expert analysis, and she explains: “It is a little more flavorful while still being light and champagne-like. I’ve never seen sparkling rosé before, so it seems quite unusual. And nothing says celebration like a bubbly drink.”

The last farm is the Fattoria La Torre, which is just below the hill of Montecarlo and has a best close-up view of the church tower. It is not only a farm but also a restaurant and agriturismo, and we peek inside one of the empty apartments, which is spacious, clean and very modern. Perhaps now that I have more experience tasting wine at the two previous farms, I can do a better job of describing the Syrah Toscana Esse that we taste. Here we go: “Aromas of tar, dark chocolate and meat follow through to a full body, with super soft velvety tannins and a long caressing finish. There’s lots of toasty oak, but this is delicious all the same. Best after 2009.”

Amazingly, I look at a poster on the wall and find this is word-for-word what one of the professional judges at a wine show said about it, proof positive that I have become an expert . . . plagiarist. Anyway, in my own words now, it was good wine, like all the other ones.

Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena.  
A fancy bottling machine first flips the bottles upside down and rinses them. Then it fills them (far right) . . .
then caps them, while two workers wait to remove the bottles and put them in cases and onto their truck.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A journey to Lucca’s Roman roots

Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The original Roman wall still stands as part of the church wall.
I get to make two trips in the time machine today. First I am transported back 16 years, to when I taught fifth grade to Italian children in Padova, because I am traveling with 34 Italian school children on a field trip. Fortunately, though, I do not have the responsibility of keeping them in line, silencing them during the lessons and making sure we stay on schedule. I only have to take photos and notes, so I guess in a sense I have also been transported back 40 years, to when I was a reporter and photographer for The Gateway. I do face an additional challenge: I am not allowed to show the faces of students in any photos to be considered for publication.

Again I have tour guide Elena Benvenuti to thank for this free ride, which will soon take us back more than 2,000 years, to the time when Lucca was a Roman colony. Elena has arranged the trip as a gift to a local elementary school. She is friends with Eleonora Romano, an archeologist who organizes tours and activities for school groups interested in exploring the Roman roots of Lucca, and together they take our group on our time trip.

More signs of Roman construction can
be seen in the door to the Anfiteatro.
Also along are three teachers and my daughter Lindsey, here for a week-long visit. Amid pouring rain, we board the train at the Altopascio stazione and arrive 10 minutes later at Lucca, where we enter under the massive city walls for which the city is famous. These walls, however, are only about 500 years old. During the Roman occupation, which began around 180 BC, the city was much smaller, and the Roman walls were very different. Your average visitor to Lucca may not know that some of the Roman walls are still visible, but we are guided by Elena, who knows all the places to see the original walls. She takes us first to the Church of Santa Maria della Rosa, where we see that largest remaining section of the wall, which makes up the west wall of the church. The large blocks of limestone were quarried from nearby Pisani mountains and show the telltale signs of age and erosion.

From there we move to the heart of the Roman settlement, the Foro Romano, which is now located about three meters below the pavement of Piazza San Michele. The forum was the hub of commercial and government activity for the colony, and it still is home to numerous banks and upscale businesses, although in Roman times it was four times larger than it is today. A Roman colony would not be complete without a teatro, and just a few blocks away from the forum was the Roman theater, built not long after the colony was established to draw in more settlers. Unfortunately, only a few scraps of the
Elena points to the artist's drawing of the theater. The
open space in the center of the city walls shows the
location of the Roman Forum, much larger than
the Piazza San Michele is today.
theater have survived.

In 2010, though, an archeological dig between the forum and the theater revealed the remains of a Roman house, most likely one of a wealthy family, judging by its location. This is our prime destination today, and it is where the services of Dottoressa Romano come into play. She gives us a short multimedia presentation on the history of Lucca from Roman times forward and then explains the artifacts that have been uncovered at what is called the Domus Romana. The fortunate discovery of a coin in surprisingly good condition dated to 14 AD signifies that the house was likely built in the first or second century BC.

Besides the coin, the excavation has also uncovered, among other things, a brooch used to fasten a toga, many pottery shards and several parts of the sewer drainage system. One of the more significant finds—fragments of a terracotta frieze showing two cupids riding dolphins—gives the house its formal name, “Casa del Fanciullo sul Delfinio,” or house of the child on the dolphin. Not all the pieces were found, but enough to allow artists to make a reasonable reconstruction, based on both the fragments and archeological examination of similar Roman art of the same epoch found in Pompeii.

Elena points out an artist's reconstruction of the
terracotta frieze from which the house derives
its name.
The children are then divided into two groups and allowed to perform some hands-on Romanesque experiences. After a brief lesson on Roman inscriptions, each child is given a wax slate and stylus and allowed to make his own inscription, using all capital letters as the Romans did. Another group receives tiles and glue, and each student assembles a mosaic design typical of the Roman style. Other activities for school groups are also possible, but some are for older children, and in any event, we are short of time. We still must move on to see the museum in the Torre Guinigi, the remaining traces of the Roman Anfiteatro and the house where Giacomo Puccini was born, along with a few other quick points of interest along the way. There will also be a delicious lunch at the San Frediani Hostel and a quick stop for gelato.

The making of the mosaics.
Elena is passionate about the importance of such high quality field trips for the Italian students. Of course, it certainly helps to have Roman ruins only a few minutes ride from the school.

“We have such a rich history, and we have a responsibility to pass on this knowledge to our children,” she says. “We are proud of our history and our schools, which give children a chance to take trips like this at least once a year. At this age, they learn quickly, and I believe to have a better society we must have a good education.”

When she gives tours to people from other countries, she must explain the historical events at a much more elementary level, because the visitors have so little background on Roman society. “I get myself in trouble, because they don’t understand,” she says, “and I have to go back and give more background.”

Artist's conception based on archaeological evidence, with
the house in front of the theater.
The Italian children are well behaved and respectful. They chatter loudly when they can, as most children do—and as Italian children usually do more enthusiastically than those from other countries. However, when it comes time to be quiet and listen to Elena and Eleonora, the children quickly become silent, answering questions asked by the guides and asking questions of their own.

Though I have no responsibilities for supervising the children, it is possible that my presence contributes a little to their model behavior. Elena has introduced me as a writer who is there to observe and document the typical educational activities of Italian schools. The children seem duly impressed, since they are blissfully unaware that my blog only records about 70 pages views a day.

Eleonora and Elena
At lunch, the teachers’ complaints sound similar to those of American teachers: Budget cuts are forcing cutbacks everywhere. However, with the Italian economy doing poorly and the government involved in a leadership stalemate, I’m inclined to believe that their school budget problems are more severe than in the United States. I do note one small but interesting cultural difference—we are served wine at the adults’ table, something that would not happen on an American school field trip.

The rain has finally stopped as we make our way back to the train station. The rain and chill have forced Elena to make some adjustments to the schedule, but they are done so seamlessly that the children probably haven’t even noticed. “Did you enjoy yourselves?” Elena asks. “Si,” they all respond at once. “Yes, definitely,” Lindsey and I say.

Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena. 
Simona Velardi, architect and director of the Domus Romana, looks at the work of the children.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lindsey arrives after much travail

Saturday, March 23, 2013
Poor baby. Poor Lindsey. She finally arrives in San Salvatore on the train after a long series of misadventures. First her Wednesday flight was canceled because Lufthansa workers went on strike. No thanks to United Airlines for not telling her until she arrived at the airport, even though she had checked in online. United re-scheduled her to fly on Saturday and arrive on Sunday, but because she and I had made reservations to go to the island of Elba on Saturday and Sunday, I spent four hours on the computer looking up alternate flights and Skyping with United to see if they could get her on an earlier flight.

Finally I found one that United could arrange. I called Lindsey and told her she could leave Thursday morning and arrive in Milano around noon on Friday. But then she overslept and arrived at the airport frazzled and in the clothes she had slept in. Even so, she missed her flight by an eyelash. United re-routed her, though, and she still made the final leg of her scheduled Paris to Milano flight.

Unfortunately, her troubles were far from over. Her checked luggage didn’t make it through, and she had to fill out a form at the airport and have her suitcase sent to our agriturismo. Then she took a shuttle to the train station and found that the train schedule I had sent her wouldn’t work because of a regional train strike on one of the legs. She was given an alternate route, but she misread her departure time and missed the train—and it was the last one of the day for the route to our little San Salvatore station. Now she was stuck in Milano, without luggage, tired from 19 hours in planes and airports, and stressed out from all the close calls.

Discouraged, she found a hotel near the station, called me to report in, and finally got to take a shower and get some sleep. Her ticket would no longer be valid for the next day, the clerk at the station had told her, but she went to another office and found an employee who took pity on her. Some people are suckers for crying girls. “Oh, the computer made a mistake,” he told Lindsey with a wink. “We’ll just have to correct that.” Ah, Italy!

She made the rest of the trip without incident and found me waiting for her at the San Salvatore station at 1 p.m., praying that she was on the train and would get off. She almost didn’t, because it’s such a small station and she couldn’t see the name. I had waited about 30 anxious seconds that seemed like five minutes. Finally I saw a door open near the end of the train, and Lindsey stepped slowly down the stairs. I called her name and then she ran down the platform to a happy reunion, and all was well, even though we had to cancel our Elba reservations.

What a feast! OK, I admit I was so overjoyed to see Lindsey
that I forgot to take a photo. This one I swiped from her
Facebook page, but you can see she loves good food.
I had brought Lucy’s bike, and we rode back to my apartment, made easier by the fact she had no suitcase. I fed her lunch and she took a nice nap. Then we went back out on the bikes for a short shopping excursion, after which we worked together to make a feast for dinner. Luckily for me, Lindsey loves cooking, so I will be eating well for the next week.