Monday, February 29, 2016

I can fully understand Italian only in my dreams, or if spoken by sloths

If only everyone spoke like a sloth, we could understand them. Lucy and I went to the Disney movie Zootopia Saturday night at the cinema in Altopascio. I’m pretty sure we were the only adults there who didn’t bring children. We are still having trouble understanding rapidly spoken Italian, so adult movies with lots of dialogue confuse and exhaust us. We missed many of the subtle jokes common in animated movies, but we could easily follow all of the important dialogue and of course the visual humor.

We loved the scene in the Department of Motor Vehicles office, which had both visual and verbal humor. All of the characters in the movie were animals, and the DMV employees were sloths, who moved and spoke with agonizingly slowness. At last we could understand every word! My problem is not that my vocabulary is too limited to understand Italian. It’s just that the my old brain still processes spoken words with the speed of an old Intel 386 processor while the rest of the Italy speaks with . . . well, whatever kind of processors they put in computers today.

At home, we watch used DVDs that we’ve purchased at the outdoor antiquities markets, and they offer the option of subtitles, which we always use. If I keep my eyes trained on the sottotitoli, I can follow the dialogue reasonably well, though I sometimes miss out on the action because I am intent on reading. I know I am making progress, and Ive come to accept the fact that it will be very gradual. Still I sometimes find myself longing for a miracle cure. I have dreams that I am speaking and understanding Italian with no problems. When I wake up, I wonder how I can do that in my dreams but not in reality.

Still, I should not complain. In one sense, I’m in a dream world already, since I have realized a life-long ambition to live in Italy. And if that dream can come true, hopefully the one about speaking fluently will follow in time, if I can just live long enough.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Despite widespread reports, Italian government is NOT limiting access to the popular Cinque Terre

If you have travel plans to visit the spectacularly picturesque Cinque Terre in Italy’s Liguria region, you may have read that you need to get permission from the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre, starting this summer, to enter the area. That’s according to an article in the The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, which translated and repeated news printed in La Repubblica and several other Italian news sources. However, the park president, responding to outcries and criticisms from other government officials and tourism agencies, has since backtracked and stated that no limits will be put into place.

Vittorio Alessandro, president of the Cinque Terre national park, initially stated that some restrictions would be instituted this summer, but now he says only that the park is studying the problem and seeking solutions. This is not surprising, since it would seem to be a near-impossibility that the park could exclude visitors who have already booked tours and hotel rooms. While the area is part of a national park, it also contains five working cities, and one can hardly deny people access to the businesses and homes there. While many other news sites picked up and repeated the story from The Guardian, most Italian news sources are telling people not to be concerned.

However, it can’t be denied that tourists are over-running this once unspoiled jewel, creating tangles of foot traffic that snarl the small roads and trails. It is obvious that measures are needed to preserve the environment and the ambiance. People live there year-around and they have for centuries. They have a right to move around freely on their own streets. If tourists chase the residents away, the area will become a Disneyland or Epcot Center, a facade where the only real residents are employees of the tourism industry.

Our aim is to reduce attendance,” Alessandro said in the controversial interview printed in La Repubblica. “Normally the tendency is to try to increase tourism, to fill the beds and rooms. The flow of crowds must be managed in a more sustainable way. People will criticize, of course, but the park must also have a pedagogical (educational) mission.”

He said that 2.5 million people visit the Cinque Terre each year, and that is a million more than this fragile area can sustain.

According to Alessandro, the since-withdrawn proposal had two parts: One was to limit the number of tourists allowed on the Via dell’Amore at one time, and the other was to allocate separate trains for tourists and residents. Tourists would have to buy a special train ticket that would include admission to the Cinque Terre area.
Via dell'Amore

Part one, Alessandro had said, was already in place: “We installed pedometers on the trails to the Via dell’Amore . . . in order to calculate with the geologists, the maximum load. It’s also a safety issue. By the summer, we’ll have all the data, and the number of people who can access each trail per day will be established, according to the weather and course conditions. If the trail is sold out, the visitors will postpone the visit to the next available date.”

As expected, the plan had many critics, and they quickly exerted pressure to see the restrictions nullified or at the very least postponed and modified.

“Limiting the number of people at Cinque Terre is inappropriate and unworkable,” said Rita Mazzi, provincial director of a confederation of tourism businesses. “The Cinque Terre are and will remain the driving asset in the future of tourism development for the entire La Spezia province. They must be protected and defended. We must aim for quality tourism that is sustainable with the environment. But to speak of a ‘closed number’ is harmful.”

It does seem possible that limited traffic on the trail could be attainable, because it would just restrict access in a particular area, and residents of the Cinque Terre could be given passes allowing them to bypass any barriers. Part two, however, is filled with complications and would require the cooperation and participation of numerous governmental agencies, including the national train company, the regional government and that of the various cities in the area. This cooperation and coordination will be much more difficult to attain.

The President of the Liguria Region, Giovanni Toti, has stated on behalf of the regional government that he is totally against limited access to the Cinque Terre: “Limiting access in a country that must count on tourism is a contradiction and a way to abdicate responsibility. We will work instead to increase the quality of tourism services.

Toti mentioned the need for enhanced transportation systems and the development of other means of reducing congestion, problems which previous government administrations have failed to address.

Liguria’s regional assessor of tourism, Gianni Berrino, also spoke against the plans put forth by Alessandro: “The position of the regional government is clear, and we want to confirm this strongly in order to prevent inaccuracies like this which spread internationally at lightning speed these days. This non-news will inevitably undermine the upcoming tourist season, not only in Eastern Liguria but with domino effect on the entire region.”

A frequent forum participant on Rick Steves’ website, Roberto, from Fremont, California, weighed in with his insight as well: “Unfortunately once in a while you hear public officials, such as the head of the CT National Park, who has no jurisdiction on this matter, making statements just because they like to hear themselves talk.”

My own advice is that if you want to visit the Cinque Terre, do it in the early spring or late fall, when the weather is still mild and the number of tourists is low. Summers are hot and crowded here, so that advice pretty much goes for any place in Italy you want to see, but it is especially true for the more popular attractions. However, if you must come in the summer, don’t worry. It is in the best interests of the Italian government and tourism industry to accommodate you.

2017 update: The park service has responded to a written inquiry about the coming season: No, non ci sarĂ  nessuno limite turistico.” No limits this year.


Friday, February 19, 2016

"Relax home banking" not all that relaxing yet, but it's very secure

I spent nearly two hours in the Banca di Pescia yesterday, applying for a bank card and learning how to use my online “home banking” account. That’s what they call online banking in Italy—not “banca da casa.” They use the English words, perhaps because they only have a word for bank (banca) but not for banking. My bank has partnered with a service called Relax Banking, and it should be convenient to use an online account, because I will then be able to access my account when I am in the States.

Security at Italian banks is taken very seriously. To enter any bank, one must pass through a machine operated glassed-in entryway, often a revolving door, that only allows one person at a time. Presumably, if a thief tried to rob the bank, he would have to wait in the revolving door to get out, and then an alert bank manager could lock him in and call for the polizia.

Online banking also has extra security features. I essentially have to use four different user-name and password combinations to log in a pay a bill. This caused some confusion the first time I tried it at home, because the initial log-in page only has fields for three entries. I had meant to try this out last fall, when I was in Italy for two weeks to finalize our home purchase, but I ran out of time. When I tried it in Gig Harbor, I wasn’t able to get in. The first field was for user name, which was clearly marked on my instructions. However, which of the three passwords that I had should I enter in the next two spaces? I tried various combinations but didn’t get it right, so the program locked me out.

How could I get a new temporary password to try again? My Italian banker said he could ask online services to send me a new password, but it would come on my Italian cell phone, which didn’t work in the United States. I decided to wait until I came back to Italy so that I could get some one-on-one help.

Cell phone in hand, I met with Sara, a clerk at my bank, who showed me which three codes went in which three fields. She also told me that all letters must be in capitals, which is probably the reason my earlier attempts failed. The fourth password, the password disponitiva, is only needed when I actually make a transaction, such as paying a bill or transferring money. We tried it out by paying two of the utility bills which I had found in my mailbox, and even Sara came up with an error message when she entered the password disponitiva.

She tried several times and then called online services. After some time, the technician on the phone said he would send a new temporary password to my phone, and we could start from the beginning. I had to come up with new passwords, but this time it worked. I was glad to see that I was not the only one who had trouble using the system. I took careful notes, so I think I can do it all myself when the time comes again.

After that, she filled out the forms so I can get a bank card, and I withdrew money to pay for some electrical work Lucy and I had done on our house. It’s a time-consuming process to establish all the services needed for living in another country. Living here is definitely not all dolce vita. But I did all the banking and contracting for the electrical work without the need for an interpreter, so I can mentally allocate the hours I spent as language lessons, making it seem like a more worthwhile use of time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rain and a new routine as we settle into our "normal" Italian life

Lucy hiking in Uzzano Castello
I see from the news that Western Washington has been getting plenty of rain, but we didn’t escape it by coming to Tuscany. Every day here is probably just as rainy as it is in Washington, so life is much the same as it would be for us in Gig Harbor. We are spending more time inside than usual, but that has its benefits. We have started again on our language lessons, using Rosetta Stone, something that we have long neglected.

Yesterday we walked a couple of blocks to the public library to use the free wifi and check out some children’s books. I’m now reading the book “Holes,” by an American author but translated into Italian. It’s written for children ages 9-12. I’m feeling pretty good that I can understand it. I have to look up one or two words per page, but sometimes I just skip over the few words I don’t understand, and it doesn’t interfere with my overall comprehension.

A little torrent just outside Uzzano.
Our transportation problem has been easily resolved, at least for this year. We’ll be able to use the car of our friend Simone’s dad while the latter is in Brazil for a couple of months, and when that arrangement ends, we’ve been offered the use of Eberhard and Dorothea’s car. We pay them about half of what it would cost to rent from an agency. Thus we won’t be looking to buy a motorino at all this year.

Since we don’t ride our bikes much now that we live on the hilltop, we’ve decided to take some nice long walks three days a week for our exercise. It doesn't rain the entire day, so we are still able to fit this in between showers. We walked around Uzzano Castello on Monday, and today we took a walk along the river bank in San Salvatore. One of the run-down old houses by the river that we had looked at five years ago has finally been sold, and the new owners are moving ahead quickly on re-construction. It’s going to be a real beauty, and we wish them well, but we are far happier living in the middle of Montecarlo, where we can interact with the natives.
The rustico in 2016

It could be some time before we get wifi in our house, so for now we have to go elsewhere to use the Internet. The library is only open a few hours a day. The visitor’s center also has free wifi, but it’s rarely open in the winter. We have been going to the local bars and the gelateria to buy hot chocolate or gelato just so we can use the Internet. Well, if that’s our only complaint, then we must be pretty content overall . . . and we are.
The rustico in 2011

Monday, February 15, 2016

Almost ready for dolce far niente mode

After two days and nights without heat, and weather outside in the 40s and low 50s, we finally warmed up just before bedtime Thursday night. The heating tecnico said it was the electrician’s fault. The electrician said the tecnico had shorted out the electrical circuit. We will never know what actually caused the problem, but we were thankful just the same that after three service calls, the heater finally fired up just before we went to bed.

We spent most of Thursday driving to Maranello to see our friend and former exchange student Simone. We drove off from the visit with his dad’s car, which we are renting for a couple of months at a bargain rate while his dad is out of the country. This temporarily solves our problem of how to get up the long hill to Montecarlo. The car came in terribly handy today, when it rained for long periods of time, as we needed to go grocery shopping. On the drive back, I recalled the times we once had to carry backpacks and bike baskets full of goods while riding in the pouring rain. We love riding our bikes in Tuscany, but not so much in February.

We haven’t figured out what we’ll do when the time comes to return the car, but that’s a problem for another day. Friday I also had to return the other car that we had rented at the Pisa airport and then take a train home. Lucy picked me up at the San Salvatore train station. With our unpacking and arranging for heat, cars and groceries, we haven’t fully slipped into the dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) mode yet, but that should come soon.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why we are in Italy – a tell-all interview with Lucy Spadoni

File photo: Lucy on the day of the Festa della
Donna, 2012.
The focus of this blog is to relate our experiences in Italy, but most of it is seen through my (Paul) eyes. Lucy reads what I write and makes suggestions, and she is the one who came up with the title. However, her voice is heard all too rarely on these pages, so today I have decided to feature “the broad” herself in an Q&A interview.

Why do you live in Italy for three months of the year?
Well, the first answer is because it’s my husband’s interest and heritage. He has long been drawn to Italy. But of course he doesn’t force me to go against my own wishes! It’s a lovely thing for me as well. We get to rest, and he gets to pursue his hobby. When we first began going to Italy, we were tourists, going to see the famous sites, and that was marvelous. Now we are going to learn how to live as Italians.  

A quilt for Suzye. Photo taken at Casolare dei
Fiori, San Salvatore, Italy
What do you see as some of the benefits of this lifestyle?
They say that Italians live a slower pace of life. In truth, they are probably just as busy as anyone else, but they do spend more time together. Workers and students get long lunch breaks, and they may go home to eat together. For us, it’s definitely slower, because if we were in our American home, we’d find other things to do besides resting. We have more friends, family and obligations, so being in Italy forces us to slow down. It’s good for our marriage, because we spend more unfocused time together without distractions. We walk and ride our bicycles more here, so it helps us keep fit. We have the mental stimulation of learning a new language. I’ve learned to cook differently, and I’ve learned to quilt. I’ve made five quilts in the last two years, and I hope to do two or three more this year.

We wish for more visits from family, like this. In the background
is Marliana in the hills of Tuscany.
What are the main drawbacks?
I always miss my children and grandchildren. I wish they could come to visit with us while we are here. I miss our neighbors, friends, church home groups, and our dog and cat.

What is something surprising you have learned about Italy?
It surprises me that many Italians ask us so sincerely why we would want to live here. Sometimes they are incredulous that an American would prefer to live here. They’re having a hard time with their economy, and their houses and streets are old and small. It’s hard to drive in the cities and find places to park. Maybe they see America as more modern and spacious. I’m also amazed at how fresh the vegetables and fruits are, and how much better the meat is. It’s leaner and tastier because it’s grown in natural environments. The frogs here speak a different frog language; they make two distinct sounds. One is a little like ducks quacking, and then they make a soft, raspy whir like a dog’s low growl. And I’ll never forget how beautiful it is to hear a nightingale’s song at midnight.

What is something surprising you have learned about yourself by living in Italy?
I’m definitely less stressed and my blood pressure is lower when I’m in Italy. It’s good for me to be forced to slow down and do less.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s important for me to be a good representative of my county and my Christian faith. I’ve seen some tourists who typify the image of the ugly American, and I want to give Italians a better impression of both Americans and Protestant Christians. Sometimes I may not give the best impression because of my ignorance of Italian customs, so I have to discover what is expected, but it also seems that I’d have to have lived most of my life here to understand everything that it means to be Italian. So to some extent I just have to accept who I am and what I can do.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

My foolproof plan for a long life

Maybe I'll finally learn to speak the local dialect well enough
to join this group of Altopascio anziani.
I think I got this life expectancy thing figured out. The average life expectancy for a male in the United States is 76. Italian males average 80 years. For females, it’s 81 in the States and 85 in Italy. If we continue to live in Italy for a quarter of each year, that should add one year to our lives, but that’s not much. So here’s my new plan: When I turn 77, we’ll move to Italy, full time, which should then add three more years for both of us, right?

And from our house in Tuscany, it’s only a few hours to San Marino, where men live to be 83, so before I reach my Italian age limit, it wont be too tough to move to San Marino. The only downside to this plan is that San Marinese women only live to 84, so Lucy is going to have to stay behind in Tuscany. However, she’s almost a year older than I am already, so if she moves with me, we could die at the same time, saving some grieving and reducing funeral costs for our children, assuming they can find a buy one get one free coupon.

One other possibility I’m exploring is a move to the Italian town of Falciano del Massico, which in 2012 adopted an ordinance prohibiting its residents from dying (Not only is life beautiful here but death is now hereby forbidden). However, Italian laws are so numerous that the authorities dont have time to enforce them all, and I’ve heard that this law has been flouted several times with no consequences, so I’m a bit skeptical. I think I’ll stick with plan A, which, after all, has science to back it up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Forecast: Cold, windy and wet. And we aren’t even going outside

Isn’t one of the reasons people come to Italy for the warm weather? Instead, our first night back was windy, cold and wet – both outside and, unfortunately, inside. For reasons unknown, the light in our methane heater was out, which left us without hot water for our radiators and sinks. I was able to make a run to Trony, an electronics store, just before closing time to get a little electric space heater for our bedroom, but with the wind howling all night and the house poorly insulated, the only place really warm was under the bed covers. Since it was already late afternoon and we were tired from the long journey, that didn’t prove to be an immediate problem.

However, around 8 in the evening, water started dripping from the attic through the bedroom ceiling, and that meant me climbing into the attic while Lucy passed up buckets and pans so I could catch the drips coming through the roof tiles. At the same time, she discovered that the rain, driven sideways by the wind, was beating against the double doors outside the kitchen and finding gaps under the doors to pour onto the kitchen floor. Lucy mopped up the water and I placed about 10 pans and buckets in the attic. Although the rain and windstorm continued throughout the night, the water assault lasted less than half an hour. We think it must have taken a freakish blast of wind and rain to cause the temporary flooding, because the bedroom and kitchen had shown no fresh signs up water damage last fall or when we first arrived yesterday. With that in mind, then one could say we arrived at just the right time to stop any damage. However, we will have to figure out what to do to prevent any re-occurrences, since we won’t always be here to clean up.

Ah, the joys of home ownership. Two years ago, upon arrival at the Casolare dei Fiori, the heat didn’t work, but all we had to do was huddle under blankets for a couple of hours. Roberta sent for a technician, who came out immediately, even though it was evening, and he fixed the heater. Now, we have to figure out what to do ourselves.

I called a heating technician this morning, and he came out about an hour later. The problem, though, was not with the heater itself but rather a lack of electrical power to the heater. This would take an electrician to fix, the tecnico said. Our neighbor immediately below us, Juri, is an electrician, and last fall we had hired him to upgrade our electrical outlets, install some lights in the kitchen and put in a doorbell. He did the work while we were in America. Chances are that something he installed had interfered with the power to the heater, so I called him at his work in Pistoia, and he spoke with the heating tecnico. Juri said he had to work late tonight, but he will come early tomorrow to check on the circuitry. It looks like we will spend at least one more night without heat. The high temperature today will be in the low 50s, and though it is clear now, winds of 20 mph are expected to continue all day. We may spend a quiet day in our semi-warm bedroom.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Our continuing efforts to make a home in Italy – and write about it

We’re back in Montecarlo! In our own house this time. With lots of stuff to make it homey—we brought four checked suitcases each weighing the maximum 50 pounds and two carry-ons that probably weighed just as much, since we put the most dense items in them, knowing that they wouldn’t be weighed.

Why, you might ask, did we need to bring so much? Don’t they have stores in Italy? I’ve pondered this issue as well, but only once, because Lucy didn’t appreciate having her expertise called into question. And then I kept quiet, because two points are absolutely clear. First, Lucy knows far better than I how to make a house a home. And second, a happy wife is a happy life.

I figured that if I’m going to drag my wife to Italy for three months every year, I should gladly make some concessions to her desires as well. Making a home, being a wife, mother and grandmother—these are all things that give her pleasure and that she does extremely well. So I kept any doubts to myself, and now we’re both happy and looking forward to new adventures.

And what will we be doing for the next three months? Good question. In the five previous trips, I have done enough genealogy to satisfy most of my curiosity, though I will continue my gradual efforts to find more dead and living relatives and expand my knowledge of the family tree, just for the heck of it. Hopefully, we’ll get a little more proficient with our language skills. Now that we live in Montecarlo proper instead of the three miles outside the city, we will be able to integrate a little better into the Italian lifestyle. We’ll stroll around the city, meet shop owners and neighbors, eat gelato, drink espresso and cioccolata calda, and find new ways to appreciate Italian culture.

I also have another goal that I have told a few friends but never mentioned in my blog: I want to publish a book about our adventures in Italy. Over the past three years, I have written a 141,000-word manuscript and had some friends read it and help with the copy editing. Last spring I made some efforts to find a literary agent but came up empty. During the summer and fall, I made zero progress on refining the manuscript or searching for a publisher because of the demands of my work schedule. That and the fact that I want to live a normal life and see my family in the fall and early winter has given me little time to think about my book project.

But now here I am, with little possibility of working on my business, my yard or seeing my American family and friends. I need to figure out how to get my book into print, or at the very least, on Kindle, and now I have time to develop a strategy and work on it. It’s not an easy project, and I think I havent mentioned it in my blog previously because there is always the chance that I won’t succeed. I could fail quietly, with few people knowing I even tried. By making my plans public, I risk some embarrassment if I don’t succeed.

But it would be cowardly to keep quiet, and I think the story of my quest might be informative and entertaining, so from now on I will include some details of my book publishing efforts. For those of you who follow my blog, I am open to suggestions, encouragement and any other help you can offer. More details about my plans will be set forth in the next few months.