Saturday, December 5, 2015

How to make Zuppa Inglese Americana agli Spadoni

This has more pastel colors, more like
authentic Italian zuppa inglese.
About two years ago, I accidentally discovered the true Italian name of what our Italian-American family has always called Easter cake: It is zuppa inglese, which in Italy is often served only once a year around Easter time, or for some families, at Christmas. I had the privilege of sampling true zuppa inglese emiliana at the home of Stefano and Nancy Mammi (Read: It’s the real thing: I find the true Easter cake made from an ancient recipe). This sumptuous recipe has been passed down in the Mammi family for more than 200 years, so it is safe to say I enjoyed the real thing.

Zuppa inglese americana (with the colors much too vivid, I'm afraid)

However, my family always loved my mom’s Americanized version, so I’d like to share her recipe. It is much easier to make than the original Italian dessert, because the ingredients are readily available and don’t take as long to prepare, so I am calling it zuppa inglese americana. I looked at about 20 recipes online in both Italian and English, and each one was different, so I realized that there is no one correct version. I don’t have Mom’s recipe written down, so I am going by memory, and thus it may not be perfectly the same – but that’s how family recipes are passed along anyway.

The most basic ingredients are cake and custard, but true Italian zuppa inglese contains both rum and a colorful red liqueur called alkermes or alchermes. The cake is usually spongecake (pan di spagna) or a type of ladyfingers called savoiardi. It is filled with custard (crema pasticcera), some of which is also set aside and mixed with unsweetened chocolate before using it in a layer.

Mom’s adaptation used lemonade instead of rum, white cake instead of spongecake, food coloring instead of alkermes and no chocolate – perhaps because lemon and chocolate don’t go well together. Mine is basically the same as Mom’s but I noticed that many recipes added fresh fruit, so I include that as well now.

First, mix up a white cake following directions on the box. Divide the batter into both a 9” x 13” pan and an 8” x 8” pan, so the cake doesn’t come out as thick. You will have to cut about five minutes from the listed cooking time so the cake doesn’t burn. This will result in two cakes that are only about a half inch in height. When the cakes cool, take them out and cut them into strips about a half inch wide.

Take a can of frozen lemonade, which you have allowed to thaw, and divide the contents between three dinner plates. Tint each with food coloring. I use red, blue and green (traditional zuppa inglese was only red and white, but since coloring is more readily available now, why not make it brighter?)

Dip the cake strips briefly into the tinted lemonade and use the strips to line the inside of a 2.5 liter clear Pyrex bowl, with the colored sides facing outwards (or color both sides). It is a good idea to coat the inside of the bowl with butter so the cake comes out more easily at the end. You can use a larger bowl to increase the number of servings, but you’ll have to mix more custard.

Now mix up two 2.9-ounce boxes of Jello “cook and serve” custard pie filling. Custard may be difficult to find at the grocery store, but you can buy it online at Amazon. If you don’t have the time to find a real custard mix, you can use vanilla pudding and add two eggs per box of pudding (or use a 4.6-oz. box of vanilla pudding and add three eggs). It is important to follow very carefully the directions that tell you to “stir constantly” when making custard.

Pour a half inch layer of custard into the cake-lined bowl. Then add a shallow layer of fresh fruit such as raspberries, blackberries or sliced banana or strawberries. Build another layer of lemonade-dipped cake strips. Alternate layers of custard, fruit and cake strips until the bowl is full. I like to end with the colored cake strips, but pudding topped with strawberry halves also looks great. However, the top layer doesn’t matter that much, because before you serve it, the top layer will become the bottom layer anyway.

Now chill for 24 hours. Invert the bowl onto a plate, remove the bowl and serve. Mamma mia, che meraviglia!

Postscript: My sister Linda has much more knowledge about Mom’s traditional cake than I do, so I asked for her comments. She said that the bright colors I used were not normal. Mom “never used bright colors, only pastel pink, yellow, and green, and she made a picture or fancy design as the bottom layer, like Easter eggs or an Easter basket, or a flower, which is probably why she also said it was important to use a pan with a flat bottom.”
Linda also commented: “Another difference is that the cake mixes back then didn’t have oil to make them extra moist, so the slices were easier to handle. She used less water than called for also. She used a sharp knife to trim off the brown edges on the ends and bottoms of the slices, and of course she peeled off that top layer.”

Friday, November 20, 2015

Authentic cappello makes it way from Venezia to the Gig Harbor Gondoliere

John Synco, the Gig Harbor Gondoliere
If you live in and around Gig Harbor, you may have seen John Synco, the Gig Harbor Gondoliere, cruising the Harbor with happy customers thrilled to experience an authentic Venetian gondola ride without having to leave town. Since Synco started serving the Harbor with his new service in September, he has been featured in numerous print and online news outlets, including KOMO TV, The New Tribune and several Gig Harbor newspapers.

Although his gondola came from Venice, and John has more than 10 years of practice and training in piloting Venetian boats, until recently he lacked one final touch of authenticity – a true “cappello da gondoliere.” He wanted a straw hat made by Giuliana Longo, a renowned specialist who supplies the gondoliers of Venice (Venezia in Italian). She has a shop near the Rialto Bridge and is vice-president of El Felze, a cultural association in Venezia “founded to protect the ancient crafts related to the construction of the gondola and the clothing of the gondolier.”

Because the hats are delicate and expensive, Longo does not ship them, so John needed to go to Venezia to get one – or he needed someone to get one for him. That’s where I came into the picture. John related his problem to Don Dosa, an officer of the Tacoma Sons of Italy, of which I am also a member. Don knew that I traveled to Italy regularly, so he let me know of John’s need. By good fortune, I had already planned a two-week trip to Tuscany in early November, so I contacted John to see if I could help.

John already knew exactly the type, size and ribbon color that he wanted, and I was able to use my Italian bank account to transfer the money to Giuliana to pre-order the hat. We were told it would be ready by Nov. 1. Then came the issue of how to get the hat from Venezia to Toscana. Lucy and I have close friends, Steve and Patti, who live in Strà, between Padova and Venezia. Their son-in-law, Neemias, works at a hotel in Venezia, so we contacted him to see if he could arrange to pick up the hat. Then we would drive to Strà Nov. 9 to help celebrate Steve’s birthday, pick up the hat and leave the next day,

Neemias makes the hat exchange at Steve and Patti's house, just in time.
It sounded like a perfect plan, but it almost fell apart when we found out Neemias works the night shift at the hotel, and he couldn’t get to Giuliana’s shop during its open hours. However, he found a way around that problem, calling Giuliana and asking if she could deliver it to the hotel where he worked. The hat made it to the hotel in time for Neemias to get it and bring it to us just before we had to leave on the morning of Nov. 10.

From Strà, the hat went in our car with us to Montecarlo and then to the airport at Pisa. It went on-board as my personal carry-on item to London, Newark (where we slept overnight in the airport) and Seattle. I brought it home to Gig Harbor Friday, Nov. 13 – unfortunately not in time for John to take it with him to the gondola national competition in Newport, California, on Nov. 14-15. However, Lucy and I met John for the first time today, and we were able to deliver his well-traveled hat. When he put it on next to his gondola, Nelly, with the water and boats of the harbor in the back, he looked the part of gondoliere perfectly.

“Now I have to retake all my publicity photos,” he said. He has been rowing hat-less this fall because he didn’t want to wear anything but the authentic cap. “I was using a fake hat for about a minute. I am Facebook friends with Giuliana, and she saw me wearing it and commented that it was ‘non bello.’ ”

It was a crisp November day, and John had Nelly partially covered with a tarp, but we could see that she is bellissima, a true Italian beauty. Although John gives gondola rides year-around, Lucy and I decided we will wait until warmer weather to take our first Gig Harbor gondola ride and see the hat, and John, in action.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

And now our life has become mundane again -- and for that we are thankful

Saturday, November 7
Our slim lavatrice fits just right in the bagno.
After several false hopes, we finally found an idraulico who could come right away to make the connections needed for our washing machine, stove and dishwasher. And just in time, because we were almost out of clean clothes. I celebrated by cooking a big pot of minestrone using vegetables I had purchased from the outdoor market at Chiesina Uzzanese. Lucy spent almost all day organizing the kitchen and running four loads of laundry.

This sounds pretty mundane, but what it actually means is that we now have a normal life here. I had expected we’d need more time and effort to put the house in order, but we are done, for the most part. Everything is unpacked. Everything works.

We had looked at many houses in the past five years, and most of them needed a pile of work. Certainly a rustic ancient farmhouse can spark the imagination and fill one’s mind with endless possibilities, but fixer-uppers also occupy my mind with thoughts of sweat and headaches. We are here to experience culture and to relax. In our lives, we have done our share of house building and furniture shopping already.

As for my concern about the bathroom’s odious odors, that turned out to be a false alarm. I looked again in the attic and found that the space above the bathroom is vented after all, and cleaning the bathroom ceiling and floor with lots of ammonia has worked wonders.

We took some time out today to stroll up and down via Roma to experience the Sapori di Autunno, a small festa to celebrate the making of new wine and olive oil. We shared a glass of vino novello and bruschetta with new olive oil. The bruschetta had been sprinkled with so much salt that we couldn’t finish it. This is our second Montecarlo festa in less than two weeks, and it’s events like this that we usually miss because of our habit of coming to Italy in the winter. Maybe we’ll have to come again next fall during one of the bigger festas.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Troubles in paradise, but hopefully our problems will soon be forgotten

Wednesday, November 4
First with the vacuum and then with lots of ammonia,
I attack the smell in the closet above the bathroom door.
Even paradise has its problems. At least, our Tuscan paradise does. First it was the riscaldimento (heating and hot water). Then there is the issue of the odors in the bathroom and the hallway that leads to it. We were aware of a mild stink before we bought the house, but it was stronger when we came back this fall, and it has not gone away with a few days of fresh air from open windows. Add to this some electrical and plumbing issues that have surfaced in the last two days. And this week, we spent close to $2,000 to buy a washing machine, range with an electric oven and gas burners, dishwasher and clothes dryer. Will we really be saving money by not paying rent anymore?

The problems with the riscaldamento solved themselves pretty easily. Before I even had time to call Rachele, our real estate agent, she saw us passing by on via Roma during the Halloween festivities. She and her husband were enjoying the festa, and so was Pierluigi – one of the sellers – and also Juri, our downstairs neighbor. They are all part of the same family, actually. Juri’s wife is a grandchild of the deceased nonna whose home we now occupy. So is Rachele’s husband.

When we mentioned that we had no riscaldamento, Pierluigi and Juri came up right away. It seems there is a second on/off switch that we had not been told about, and they turned that on and said we should have hot water soon. We all went back to the festa, but when we returned home, we still had no riscaldimento. Luckily, our first night was fairly mild.

The next day, however, a cold wind blew all day, and we were getting chilled during daylight hours. Night would be difficult. However a phone call to Rachele and then Pierluigi resulted in the latter coming to our house and fixing the problem – by turning on the gas valve outside the house. We also had to climb inside the attic and push the restart button on the pump, which had gone into safety mode when we tried to use the riscaldimento without having the gas on (at least I think that’s what he said). Heat is a beautiful thing!

The electrical problem is minor and can easily be solved by paying Juri, who is an electrician, for some modifications. A few old outlets need to be changed, and we need an outlet with more wattage for the bathroom, where we are putting the washer. He will run this down the wall from the attic, hopefully in the next few days.

We bought the appliances from our local Trony, and we paid extra for delivery and installation. However, because of a slight misunderstanding, the two young men who brought the appliances were not able to complete the installation. I was certain that Trony salesman said the appliances would be installed by an “idraulico,” a kind of combination plumber and gas line mechanic. I knew that our plumbing in both the kitchen and bathroom would need some modifications that wouldn’t be covered by a normal installation fee, but I had hoped that I would be able to pay the idraulico extra for the additional connections. Nope, these guys were not qualified for that, they said. They were able to install the dishwasher with the drain just going into the top of the sink for now. They attached the range to the electricity, so we have an oven but no stove, because the gas line also needs some additional copper tubing and a valve. The washing machine needs water lines both in and out to be attached to our bathroom sink.

The dryer is ready, but poor Lucy can't wash
any clothes yet.
So the only things that we can actually use are the dishwasher and oven. Oh, and the clothes dryer, which we bought from Mercatone Uno. It only cost 12 euros and I installed it myself – what a deal! Of course, it is an Italian clothes dryer, which is really just a foldable metal rack.

So tomorrow I will call an idraulico recommended by Luca. Hopefully he can come while we are still here.

The odious odor is probably going to be the most difficult and expensive problem. There is a storage space in the hallway above the bathroom door that stank badly, and I removed some old linoleum that had been used as shelf paper, and that helped a bit. Tomorrow I will take some bleach or ammonia and scrub the plaster shelf, and that should help even more.

But now that the hallway odor has improved, I am better able to smell the foulness of the bathroom ceiling, and that is not so easily resolved. By looking in the attic and then outside the house, I have come to realize that there may be no way for air to get in the open space above part of the bathroom ceiling. A few years back, we were told, the roof had some leaks when a satellite antenna was installed for Juri’s family. We can see some staining on the ceiling in several of the rooms. The roof has been repaired, and the attic is vented, so everywhere else has dried out – except for the space over the bathroom that appears to be unvented.

Realizing that this could be a major problem, I sulked for an hour and then asked Angelika to set up an appointment with our geometra, Fulvio, at a time when they can both come. I don’t want to have any problems understanding what Fulvio recommends. We will meet Friday at 6 p.m.

Since then, I have been trying to figure out how to avoid taking out the entire bathroom ceiling. From the outside, I see a place where we could install a fan in the crawl space, and once it is aired out, maybe a sealer can be put on the ceiling to keep the smell from the moldy plaster from descending upon our noses. Perhaps the problem won’t be as bad as I feared.

In any event, all of these issues are costing some extra dollars, but Lucy and I still marvel at how much we have, about how liveable this house is compared to nearly every other affordable house we looked at here. If we had bought a more modern house (which would have been either more expensive or smaller), it would still have been completely unfurnished. Sometimes Italians even remove all the cabinets and light fixtures before selling. And it’s unlikely that any place would ever match our location, with the main street of Montecarlo on one side and a quiet private terazza with a spectacular view on the other. Furthermore, even if it proves that owning a house costs more than it would to continue renting at the Casolare, we didn’t buy with the purpose of saving money. Our hope is that by becoming true Montecarlesi, it will eventually become possible for us to become part of the community here.

No, we are facing some bumps in the road, but still there is nothing close to remorse for our choice. And once these issues are settled, they will become vague memories in the coming years. “Remember how we had no heat our first day here, and our bathroom used to stink?” “Oh, I had forgotten about those things.”

Monday, November 2, 2015

First day of Italian home ownership confirms our choice of house, location

Saturday, November 31
It’s moving day, and one might think that we’d want to get up early and get working right away, but it was not so. Our apartment at the Casolare is clean, tidy and toasty warm, and it has one of the best showers we’ve every encountered. Moving means disorder, stress and back strain. We knew we would have no Internet access in our new home, until we could figure out how to get wi-fi installed (and we’re not sure we want to do this yet, since we are only here for less than two weeks until we come back for a longer stay in February), but we had a good connection at the Casolare.

One of our wooden wardrobes and beds.
Dresser with knickknacks.
Also, we had turned on the heat in our new home last night and nothing happened, so we feared it was going to be cold until we could ask our real estate agent for help. Maybe it just takes a few hours for the hot water to get to the radiators, and the house will be warm when we get there, we speculated. Anyway, we took our time to get the most of our last few hours of relaxation before checking out at noon. We said good-bye to Luca and Roberta, though it was not a permanent good-bye, since we will bump into them occasionally at the supermarket. We already know that we have friends coming in the spring who will be staying at the Casolare, so we will surely be dropping in for some visits.

Hutch with dishes and glasses.
As we drove down via Roma to our house, we found no parking spaces available, but I was able to quickly unload our suitcases before any other cars came along. Then I moved the car outside the city walls, where there is usually parking available. Luckily, our home is only a hundred meters from the Porta Nuova (well, it was “new” in the 16th century), the archway leading out of via Roma, so even if there is no parking on via Roma, we won't have far to walk if we have to park outside the walls.

It took a dozen trips up and down the stairs to finish moving all of our possessions from the storeroom to our apartment. As we slowly unpacked, we kept getting pleasant surprises, kind of like being on an Easter egg hunt.
Light fixture in the living room.
We had known that the furniture included a couch, two beautiful wood and iron framed beds, hand-crafted wooden dressers and wardrobes and numerous other old-fashioned wooden nightstands, bookshelves, cabinets and hutches, but we hadn’t fully noticed the dozen area rugs and the 14 hardback wooden chairs that were spread throughout the rooms. And then, we would open a drawer or look on a shelf and find some other useful item that the previous owners had left: a little nightlight, several clocks, abundant cleaning supplies, a blender, a toaster, two Moka coffee makers, dishes, cups, glasses and many, many knickknacks that helped make the place look homey. There was also silverware, sheets, tableclothes and couch pillows. I’m sure we still haven’t found all the little treats.
Wooden bedstead, night stand with lamp and knickknacks.

Wooden wardrobe.
Outside was sunny and warm, probably 70 degrees or more, so we opened all the windows to let in the fresh air. As we feared, the heat didn’t work, but we weren’t worried because of the warm outside air and the fact that the sellers had just installed a new pump and had promised that it worked. The new-looking thermostat had an on-off switch on the bottom, and it was definitely on, but there must have been a main switch somewhere that we couldn’t find.

After a couple of hours, hungry and tired from the exertion, we drove to Altopascio for a late lunch and found a cozy and reasonably priced trattoria. We had to wait 15 minutes for a table, but we regarded this as a good sign; the local people know where to find the best restaurants, and we concurred with their choice. The red sauce on the gnocchi that I ordered burst with flavor, and Lucy, who is a gourmand when it comes to spaghetti alla carbonara, gave her meal a hearty thumbs up.

Rather than go back to work – after all, we would be here for two weeks – we decided to check out the prices for two appliances we badly needed, a clothes washer and an oven, and a third that we could definitely appreciate, a dishwasher. We looked at Mercatone Uno and Trony, two franchise stores with branches all over the country. Both were having sales, but Mercatone’s sale only involved store credit that must be used from Nov. 16-30, which wouldn’t do us any good. Trony was offering a one-day sale of 20 percent off on the three items we wanted. They also offered a reasonable price for installation, so we hurried home to take some measurements of our kitchen and then returned to complete our purchases minutes before the store closed.

This will put us way ahead of schedule as far as home improvements go. The other items on our agenda are much smaller: put up a mailbox, fix our doorbell, find out why the hallway to the bathroom smells bad and, of course, unpack our old belongings. I may also have time to test ride a 36-volt electric motor bicycle to see if it is powerful enough to boost me up the Montecarlo hill without having to take a shower immediately afterward.

We were having too much fun looking
and forgot to take pictures.
That evening – or maybe I should say night, since Italian events usually don’t start until at least 9 p.m. – Montecarlo celebrated Halloween with a huge festa called Montecharloween. Via Roma was closed down for auto traffic at 3 p.m., and food and arts and crafts booths started going up. All we had to do to be in the midst of the festivities was walk out our door. Right outside our house were a group of masked adults organizing games for children, and the laughing and shouting went on until nearly 1 a.m. We took several strolls down the crowded main street at various times during the event to view the booths and games and just people watch. A young woman performed dances with various flaming batons, ropes and even a hula hoop, and a nearby booth had a display and performance of live owls and a large raven. The line for the haunted tunnel was a little too long, so we passed that up.

The main difference between Italian and American Halloweens is that here the event is much more social and less oriented towards candy, costumes and games. Fewer than 20 percent of the people wore costumes, none of the kids were carrying bags of candy, no prizes were given out after the games and socializing among all the participants seemed to be a main activity. It actually seemed not much different than the normal evening stroll that Italians habitually take. However, the costumes, games and larger than normal volume of people made it seem like a passeggiata on steroids. Although Halloween has only become popular here in recent years and is most an idea imported from America, it still has a unique Italian flavor. And that is what we have come here to experience, so it took only one day for our choice of home locations to be resoundingly confirmed.
Sunset from our terazza on our first night.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A new chapter in our explorations: We are literally at home here now

Friday, October 30
We met with our notiao, geometra, real estate agents, our friend Angelika and the sellers today in Montecatini. We all signed the atto di compravendita during the final ceremony of house-buying in Italy. We have bought and sold houses and property in the United States, and we were interested to see the similarities and differences in the Italian procedures. Our experience here, however, may not be completely typical, because of some peculiarities in the behavior of our notaio, whom I had chosen on the recommendation of cousin Simone with the suggestion that this notaio’s fees would be reasonable.
Lucy signs for our house under the vigilant direction of our
notaio, Signor Simone Monaco. Meanwhile the geometras
are discussing whatever it is geometras talk about.

Lucy and I arrived for our 3 p.m. meeting a few minutes early and were the first to file into the waiting room. Within minutes everyone else had arrived as well – except for our notaio, Signor Simone Monacò. His secretary came in an informed us that he was out of the office and would return at 4 p.m. Perhaps something important had called him away, but this was only one incident in a series of strange behaviors on his part.

Happy buyers, sellers and real estate agent.
We had met with him twice before, once in March to discuss his fees and ask him about how the sale would proceed, and then in April to sign the preliminary real estate contract. A short, balding, neatly dressed and scholarly looking man, Sr. Monacò seemed to know his business well enough. His interpersonal skills left something to be desired: He had a weak handshake, did not make frequent eye contact and did not seem particularly welcoming or friendly, but perhaps those skills are not so important for a notaio. We did have some difficulty determining what his fee would be, as he quoted us estimated costs for the entire project, which included all government filing fees and taxes. I had to ask him to break out his fee from the other expenses, and it came out to something less than a thousand euro. Of course, it would depend on how many meetings we had and their length, but this seemed reasonable at the time, and we knew we didn’t have the time, experience or language skills to interview other notaios, so we hired him.

Our next meeting with him went well enough, and we had Angelika and a bilingual real estate broker along to translate. Most of the discussion took place between Fulvio – our geometra – and Sr. Monacò about technical details that should be included in the contract.

The second scheduled meeting, however, was somewhat of a disaster, although we didn’t find out the full extent of it until today. Since we had to wait an hour for the notaio to come, we had plenty of time to socialize, and it was during some spare moments that Angelika filled us in. The meeting had been in July, and since we were in Gig Harbor and busy with our summer business then, we had given Angelika power of attorney and also authorized her to draw checks from our bank account.

She had gone to the meeting with four cashiers’ checks, one for each of the shared owners of the house. However, she did not have any extra blank checks, and after everyone gathered for the meeting, Sr. Monacò asked Angelika to write a check that would cover his fee and the government filing fees. When told she didn’t have another check, Sr. Monacò abruptly canceled the meeting, sending home the eight people who had gathered for the document signing.

“He has 20 days to file the documents,” Angelika said. “I could have brought him a check the next day. I asked Fulvio about it, and he said he had seen it happen before that people forgot to bring a check for the notaio, but they were always able to continue with the meeting and bring the check in later.”

Angelika had told me this in an e-mail, but the severity of the inconvenience had not hit me until now. Did Sr. Monacò think we were going to bring in checks worth 76,000 euro for the sellers and then not go through with the sale, forfeiting that money just so we could stiff him for his fees? That would be inconceivable. Maybe he had not prepared the documents needed for the meeting and welcomed an excuse to postpone. We’ll never know why, but Angelika also vented a little more in an e-mail after the second meeting had actually taken place: “I sent him a lot of e-mails, called and left messages asking what to bring, but they never responded. He asked for documents today that Fulvio and the real estate agency had sent him weeks ago. He had not read anything before we arrived. Good luck that Fulvio is really good; otherwise it would be a big problem.”

Well, now we were facing the final meeting, and nothing could be done about our choice of notaio. We used some of the waiting time to get to know the sellers, and that went very well. They consisted of three brothers and a sister who were about our age, all of them very friendly and accommodating. They had not been born in the house, but they had moved there in their teen years. When they became adults, they all moved to nearby neighborhoods. We thanked them for having left the house with so much furniture and supplies and in such a tidy condition.

We moved to the conference room at about 3:30 p.m. and took some photos. Sr. Monacò entered a few minutes before 4 p.m., but he greeted no-one and made no announcements or apologies for his tardiness. He spent the first 10 minutes silently looking at his computer and his file folders and reading various documents while the rest of us continued to converse. Then, still without any preliminary words, he began reading the act of sale out loud, very quickly. I had heard that Italian law required that the document be recited, so I was not surprised by that, but I had expected a little more formality and some explanation of what was taking place. A couple of times during the recitation, he had brief discussions with Fulvio and the sellers’ notaio, and he made a few notes on his papers and changed the wording on his computer. It took about 20 minutes to read the act, and then he got up and left the room without a word. He returned promptly, though, with a freshly printed copy of the document, which we were then given to sign.

Another strange moment came when it was time to pay. Angelika and I went into Sr. Monacò’s office. He took out his calculator, pushed some buttons and showed me the figure: 2,600 euro, I wrote out a check and we went back to the conference room. I realized as I sat down that I had received no invoice or any kind of itemization breaking out the fees and taxes – nor had Angelika received anything when she paid in July. It seemed an incongruity that in a country where the shopkeepers insist on giving a receipt for a gelato that cost 2 euros, my notaio offered no proof of payment besides my canceled check.

After everyone finished signing the atto di compravendita, Sr. Monacò announced that we were done. I had expected more documents to sign and more explanations, based on closing ceremonies I have experienced in the States. However, I realized that this was the third of three meetings; any potential issues had already been resolved before, and there were no issues of a mortgage to discuss. But wait, I still had the checks for the sellers, and they still had the keys for the house. Apparently that exchange wasn’t part of the notaio’s responsibilities, so I just reached across the table and handed each seller his check and one of them gave us a bag with three sets of keys.

During the times that we had been waiting for Sr. Monaco, the sellers and real estate agent had prepared a list of people to contact if we had problems with plumbing, electricity or heating, and they gave us a packet of documents on the appliances and utilities. Angelika said she would help us next Monday to get all the utilities transferred into our names. All that remained was for everyone to shake hands, and then we walked out with our keys. Despite the eccentricities of our notaio, we had such positive feelings for the sellers, Angelika and our geometra and real estate agents that we left the meeting very satisfied.

Lucy and I celebrated by splitting a full course meal at our favorite restaurant, La Trattoria di Montecarlo, which is just a couple of hundred meters from our new home. Afterward we went to the house and started the process of carrying our belongings up from our closet on the piano terra (ground floor) to the piano secondo (second floor, which in America would be called the third floor). We only took a few loads up, because it was getting late. We would spend that night in the Casolare dei Fiori, as planned previously, to give us more time to set up the new house before sleeping and eating there.

Emotionally, we were not particularly giddy. We have had so many months to digest the idea that we would be becoming true Montecarlesi. However, we have not had even one second of buyer’s remorse. For the past six years, we had looked at houses and considered the idea of buying one here, and this home has everything we wanted and more – it is even about 90 percent furnished. So even if we don’t seem outwardly thrilled, we are happy – make that deeply contented – to be here. We will take the next couple of weeks to unpack, decide what improvements we should make and just enjoy our new surroundings. The Seghieri family (my grandmother was Anita Seghieri) has roots in Montecarlo that date from at least the 1200s, and the Spadoni family came from a nearby town (which can be seen from Montecarlo). So when I say that I’m going to my home in Italy, it now has double the significance.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

In which we learn how to minimize high and hidden foreign money exchange fees while buying a house

We arrived at Pisa yesterday around noon, rented a car, drove to San Salvatore, bought a few groceries, and then went to bed for 12 hours in order to make up our sleep deprivation from the journey. I went to our bank in Pescia this morning to assure that the bank transfer needed for our final house payment had also arrived safely, and I not only confirmed the success of the transfer but also obtained four cashiers’ checks (called assegni circolari) to give to the four owners of the house after we sign the final papers tomorrow.

It’s always a bit stressful for me to have to do new things like going to an Italian bank when I still haven’t mastered the language, but in truth, such challenges are among the reasons I like coming to Italy. It helps me relate to the struggles that my grandparents must have faced in immigrating to the United States, and it furthers my goal of learning the language. It would have been easier to have had a bi-lingual Italian friend accompany me, but I need to stretch myself and put my lessons to practice.

And speaking of learning, I’ve discovered much about how to move money from one country to the other. We had to transfer an earnest money payment in April, and then we had to pay the balance in two even amounts in July and October. It’s not inexpensive to do this, but I did discover a new service that has saved me more than $5,000, so it’s worth mentioning in case anyone else reading this has to do something similar.

The first step involved opening a bank account in Italy. I am told that the normal procedure for this involves obtaining an introduction from someone who already has an account at the bank, a long-standing tradition in Italy, where word-of-mouth recommendations are still highly valued. Being an avid “do-it-yourselfer” when it comes to my Italy hobby, I first tried going to a bank myself last spring. It was the bank directly across the street from the house we are buying, so I sort of figured that the house itself was my source of introduction. I was offered the possibility of starting a bank account there, but the cost was about 100 euros a year. While considering this, I also tried to sign up with the online bank ING Direct, but I learned that I must be a resident of Italy to qualify as a customer there. Then our friend Elena Benvenuti offered to introduce me to her banker at the Banca di Pescia, a credit union. Besides having the advantage of Elena to translate, the fees were much lower than the first bank I had tried, so I signed up for an account.

Then came the issue of transferring the money. I first called my bank in Gig Harbor to ask about the cost of a transaction. It would only be a flat fee of $50 for an international transfer, I was told. Wow, what could be wrong with that? Let’s do it. But not so fast . . . I discovered that after the money goes from my bank, it hits an international bank that tacks on about 3.5 percent more than the actual dollar/euro exchange rate – all without actually mentioning this to the customers, who may never realize this is happening if they don’t compare the rate quoted by the bank with the actual exchange rate. I noticed this right away because I was checking the mid-market rate on Google almost daily so that I could do the exchange at a time when it was more favorable. I knew how much I needed to send in dollars to make the first payment in euros, but when my bank told me how many euros would be deposited into my Italian account, something was wrong with the math.

Well, my banker explained, the international banks use a different exchange rate. They don’t call it a fee, but basically they skim about 3.5 percent off of each exchange, and they do it so seamlessly that most customers either don’t realize it or don’t think there is any other way around this. We are paying 160,000 euros for our house, plus another 15,000 or so in taxes and fees to our real estate agency, notaio and geometra. Translate 175,000 euros into dollars and then add 3.5 percent, and that comes to around $7,000 I’d be paying in exchange fees. The same is true for Western Union, which says transfers have a fee of zero, but the exchange rate they use is about 10 percent higher than the actual mid-market rate.

After doing some research on the web, I found many people complaining about the hidden dollars that international banks are collecting on money transfers. I also found that there are new alternatives available that technically don’t involve changing currencies and thus avoid the international bank exchange rates. The first and best known of the new currency conversion companies is TransferWise, founded in 2011 by two Estonian men who were living and working in London when they hatched the idea. One was being paid in pounds but had bills to pay in Estonia, and the other was being paid in euros but needed pounds for his living costs. They came up with a way of sending money into each other’s accounts, which meant they didn’t have to pay extra fees for the exchange.

Soon they converted this concept into a service that everyone can use. From the customer's point of view, money transfers with TransferWise seem no different from conventional money transfers: The customer chooses a recipient and a currency, the money to be transferred is taken from his or her account, the transferring company charges for the service, and a few days later, the recipient receives the payment in the chosen currency. The difference lies in how TransferWise routes the payment. Instead of transferring the sender's money directly to the recipient, it is redirected to the recipient of an equivalent transfer going in the opposite direction, and vice versa, thus avoiding currency conversion. There is an fee for the TransferWise service, about $1,400 for moving $200,000, but this is far less than the unstated surcharge of around $7,000 that I’d pay to send the same amount through the banking system. I also had to pay my bank $25 to make a domestic transfer to TransferWise’s bank in New York.

According to the Transferwise website: “Banks have been treating people unfairly for decades. They charge you huge fees when you convert your money to other currencies. Then they hide more fees in unfair exchange rates. TransferWise has found a simple way to bypass the banks and make international money transfers transparent and fair. Like they should be. The pricing is transparent, the exchange rate is the real one, the small fee is easy to spot, and we pay out locally in most cases meaning no receiving fees.”

TransferWise is being credited as a digital innovator that is “shaking up the business-as-usual model” by The Times of London, which has listed it on its top 10 “disrupters to watch.” It’s many investors include Richard Branson, co-founder Max Levchin, former Betfair CEO David Yu and co-founder Errol Damelin.

My most recent transfer arrived about a week after I sent it, and since it came in euros, there was no fee added at my bank in Pescia. One added complication is that the bank manager questioned why the money had been routed through Estonia and asked for evidence that it was actually my money. I think this particular concern has more to do with the complicated banking and legal system in Italy, a country that is famous for extensive government regulations. It was an added challenge for me to try to explain in Italian how TransferWise works, and I ended up referring him to the Italian version of the TransferWise website, which he loaded and read while I waited.

Now all that remains is a meeting tomorrow at our notaio’s office to sign the final papers and make the last payment. If all goes well, we will be handed our keys!

Footnote: For smaller payments, we try to use our American credit cards whenever possible. We have two cards that don’t charge an exchange rate. And when we need cash, we use our bank ATM cards at Italian bank machines, which limit our withdrawals to 500 euros per day.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

“A long way from Paris” entertains while exploring the challenges of making cultural adaptations

EC Murray
I like coming to Tuscany to experience the culture, the people and the climateand to challenge myself to adapt to a new environment. Tuscany and Languedoc, France, are only about 800 miles apart and roughly on the same latitude, so they have a number of characteristics in common. Thus it was with great interest that I picked up a copy of “A long way from Paris,” a memoir published last year by Gig Harbor author Elizabeth Corcoran Murray. In the early eighties, Elizabeth spent a half year in a remote part of Languedoc—and speaking of challenging oneself to adapt, she went from preppy high schooler to hippie college student to French goat herder all in a decade. The latter adventure is the topic of her book, and it’s a page-turner for anyone interested in immersing themselves in foreign lands and unusual occupations.

She went to France with uncertain goals and ambitions. In fact, she had no idea at the time what she wanted to do with her life, other than a strong but unfocused desire to be a writer. She bungled around Paris for a bit before going to visit a cousin in a mountainous, remote and rural area in the south. In a mix of naivety and desperation to find a purpose for her trip to France, she accepted a job as a farmhand, despite the fact that she had never been on a farm, spoke only a few words of French and suffered from an admitted lack of self-confidence.

She is refreshingly transparent about her insecurities, struggles, passions and growth. She gradually became more confident and self-assured while living a simple goat herder’s life, experiencing the hardships of a bitter winter looking after the animals and her adopted family. Her struggles to understand the language and the realities of mountain life will resonate with anyone who has ever been uprooted. She vividly and honestly expresses her roller-coaster ride of emotions and doubts, but she also describes the peace and stability that can be found in a simple life of hard work and fresh air while living close to the land.

Ms Murray writes simply, clearly and descriptively while keeping a proper focus on the narrative events that shaped her life both before and during her farming adventure. Not all of us have the freedom to plop ourselves down in a completely different culture, but at least we can experience it vicariously through her fine travel memoir.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Home purchase passes milestone

Italy is still in my veins. The reason I haven’t been blogging is that we have entered our most work-intensive time of year, and all of our energy has been focused on our road maintenance business. The only reason I’m not making phone calls or sending business-related e-mails right now is that the power has inexplicably gone out, right in the middle of a warm weekday evening. But before it went out, we received an e-mail from Italy that our house purchase passed a major milestone today.

Our kitchen
Our friend Angelika, representing us in a meeting between the sellers, real estate agents and our notaio, signed our preliminary contract and made a large payment on our behalf, almost half the price of the house. The sellers have agreed to meet all of our conditions, and our geometra has confirmed that the house meets the city’s legal requirements. All that remains is to make a final payment of 76,000 euro and sign a few more documents, and we’ll get the keys. We have already booked a flight to Italy in October to take possession.

We will only be in Italy for two weeks in the fall, but next February through April, we plan to spend our usual three months in Montecarlo. Although this will be our sixth extended stay in the community where my grandparents were raised and married, we expect that it will be different actually owning a home instead of renting. We will miss Luca, Roberta, Enzo and Gilda from the Casolare dei Fiori, and we won’t see our other friends from San Salvatore as often, but living on the main street in Montecarlo will challenge our language skills more, allowing us to meet new people and further integrate into the community.

Although the house is about 75 percent furnished, Lucy has already been shopping to fill the other 25 percent—and now we won’t have to pack everything in boxes when we leave as we had to do when staying at the Casolare.

“I’m very content, because it just feels like home,” Lucy said. “I’m glad for our time at the Casolare, but this is home, where our kids and grandchildren can come and stay. It will be a heritage.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Esveldt family history is already exceptionally well documented

For anyone who enjoyed my recent blog about the early years of my grandmother, Jeannette Esveldt Wagoner, I should mention that her family’s history has been told in much more detail by some of her brothers and nephews. I was aware that her brother John and his son had published a book recounting early tales of the family, but I hadnt realized that more information has been added, and—even better—the book is available for free online.

Second cousin Terry Esvelt sent me a link, and during two recent evenings when I had planned to do other work, I couldn’t stop reading the stories, titled “Historical Accounts of the Esveldt family.” Even those who aren’t part of the family will find it an interesting tale of an immigrant family’s early years in Eastern Washington. Here is the link:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Origins of the Esveldt family in Eastern Washington, as told by Jeannette Esveldt, my grandmother

While I have regrets that I didn’t ask more questions of my uncles, aunts, cousins and parents before they passed on, I did one thing right. I interviewed my grandmother in 1977 about her life, and later I recorded and transcribed the results.

Jeannette Esveldt was born Aug. 14, 1892, in Spokane, Washington to Jan Pieter Esveldt and Hendrina (Henrietta) Munnik. Her five older siblings were born in Uithoorn in North Holland, where her father operated an ironworks business that manufactured parts for ships.

“It was during the great, almost worldwide, depression, the early 1890s,” she said. “So Dad’s company had suffered very much because there were people that couldn’t pay him, the ones that he worked for.

“His brother George had come over ahead of him as just a kid of 18. And George wrote and said there were more opportunities here in this country and would be in the future. Dad had three boys already, and so there would be more opportunities for them.”

The family departed from Rotterdam and arrived in New York on May 31, 1892. Henrietta had five children—Cornelia, Maartje, Pieter Jan, Jan Pieter and Gerardus “George”—aboard to look after, and another, my grandmother, well on the way. After her birth came four more—Henrietta Marie “Mae”, Fred, Harold and Virgil.

As for the five born in Holland, Jeannette said, “The folks insisted on their learning English as fast as they could. When that is done, they don’t have any accent because they were still young. The oldest one was 10. And they had absolutely not a trace of accent of any kind.”

Her parents could not escape having a Dutch accent. “Of course, Dad had had English in high school,” Jeannette said. “He could speak French and English and Dutch. Mother hadn’t, so she had to teach herself. She just began with the primer and taught herself.

“When Dad came over here, there were no ships to build, so he was just a blacksmith. But they were especially fine people. They were real aristocrats, is what they were, though they didn’t belong to the aristocratic caste in Holland.”

When Jan Pieter left Holland, he bade his mother, Neeltje Blom, good-bye, but he had no other immediate family except aunts and uncles left to see him off.

“His mother was the only one that was living,” Jeannette said. “He had no other relatives then. He was from a family of 10 children. Most of them had died from diphtheria. In those days, when diphtheria struck a town, it’d just wipe the kids out like . . . just like mowing hay, and so she had lost a lot of her children, and so when he left, why, there were no children of her still living (in Holland). The only ones that were living were John and George, that came over. So she came out, too, soon after.”

She lived with George, who was a bachelor; he never did marry, so she lived with him. But she died very soon; she wasn’t here but just a very short time . . . and strangely enough, I was a darned homely little kid, but I was her favorite. And I can remember going up to her house, and she’d seat me on a big chair that had a book on it so I could reach, and she’d butter up and sugar up a slice of bread and cut it in little squares. I was only three when she died, but I still remember her quite vividly.

Neeltje Blom died in Dartford, near Spokane, in 1896, at age 69.

“I was only two when they left Spokane; they came out to Dartford, and George, who was working with Dad, the two of them built a house and a blacksmith shop,” Jeannette said. “They went to blacksmithing for the farmers that came through town, and they’d shoe horses. And Dad was quite inventive. He invented quite a number of things, but he wasn’t familiar enough with what you had to do if you needed a patent, so he never made any money out of his inventions, but he did invent three or four things.

“We lived in Dartford until I was 17, and during that time Mother died, and we had just a streak of terrible luck, and poor Dad was just about to give up, I guess. Anyway, then we moved up to Cheweleh to a farm, and Dad, never having been a farmer, wasn’t very successful at that either.”

Starting a farm proved difficult, but through hard work and persistence, it paid off. “I don’t think we ever really went hungry, not even when we first came to Spokane in the depression . . . oh, they didn’t call them depressions then, they called them panics,” Jeannette said. “It was on, and it was hard to get work, but dad and uncle George managed some way. Of course, they had money from Holland, too, for that matter. Dad had sold his business, you know, so I suppose the first few years they probably lived on that. I don’t know. But when they got out to Dartford, usually they’d try to pay in money, but if they couldn’t do that, they paid in produce. That’s what people did in those days.”

The bad luck she spoke of consisted mainly of deaths and illnesses.

“Well, mother died (1906),” she said, “and Nell, the oldest one of the girls, she was married and had one little boy, and her husband at the time was living with us. Mother was sick then, and Harry, Nell’s husband, went over to the sawmill one morning before anyone else was there, and he was trying to do something he shouldn’t have tried to do, something beyond his strength, and a log rolled over and killed him (1908).

“And George, who was about 16, he had pneumonia, and he had to be operated on. And Margie, the second girl from the top, had what we now would call rheumatoid arthritis. And Mae, who was next younger to me, had a virus that they called in those days St. Vitus Dance, but it’s only a virus, and she was sick all one winter. So all of that just within a couple of years, so Dad was just devastated.”

The farm had been owned by Jan Pieter’s brother George. “Dad bought it from him, and we had a rather hard time up there for the first year or so,” Jeannette said. “And up there, Dad raised strawberries and we picked strawberries and Fred would take them downtown and sell them. They did quite a bit of selling wood.”

A large family from Indiana moved to town in 1910, and their coming had a significant influence on several members of the Esveldt family. The Wagoner sisters inspired Jeannette and her sister Mae to become teachers, and two of the brothers married Esveldts—including my grandfather John Ernest Wagoner, who married Jeannette in 1918.