Saturday, April 30, 2016

Want to see a verified da Vinci sculpture? No problem! No lines!

Historical documents attest that Leonardo da Vinci created many sculptures, but few works existing today can be verified to be the results of his skilled hands. However, in Pescia, a city of 20,000 inhabitants (and only 10 minutes from Montecarlo and Montecatini), rests a verified sculpture of da Vinci, one that can be seen almost any day of the week, at no cost and with no lines. The statue, however, is by Pierino da Vinci, not his uncle Leonardo.
The da Vinci sculpture is on the left side. The reclining Baldassarre Turini in the center was probably done by a pupil of Michaelangelo, Raffaello di Bartolomeo Sinibaldi of Montelupo. A twin statue on the right side was probably completed by Silvio Cosini after Pierino's untimely death.

I came across this interesting information while researching another nearby statue that key art historians believe to created by Leonardo. They have to base their beliefs on stylistic comparisons with Leonardo’s known works, because no documents have been found to prove his authorship. But that’s not the case with the work by Pierino da Vinci.

The sculpture is part of the mausoleum of Baldassarre Turini. It is located in the cattedrale di Maria Santissima Assunta in Pescia’s Piazza Duomo.

Ample documentary evidence exists to
attribute this sculpture to Pierino da
Vinci, the nephew of Leonardo da Vinci.
Very few people are aware of this,” said Emanuele Pellegrini, director of the Journal of Visual Arts ( and associate professor of art history at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca. “But it is proven to be work of Pierino da Vinci. We have the payment documents to show this, but if you search on the Internet, you’ll see that you will find very little about this sculpture.”

Pierino, the grandson of Leonardo’s father, ser Piero da Vinci, was well on the path to fame as an artist, but he died of malaria in 1553 at age 23. Pierino, born Pier Francesco di Bartolomeo, received a payment for all of the sculptures on the tomb, but he died after he completed the first one, which is on the left side. A statue similar to Pierino’s but on the right side of the mausoleum may have been started by Pierino, but it was probably finished by one of his friends, Silvio Cosini, Professor Pellegrini said. Raffaello di Baccio Sinibaldi da Montelupo probably did the reclining figure of Turini in the center.

While he finds it unfortunate that the da Vinci sculpture has received little attention, Professor Pellegrini doesn’t find it particularly surprising. “It’s quite common in Italian provinces to find many masterpieces which are relatively unknown,” he explained.

He pointed out that a crucifix on display in a chapel in Padova went largely unnoticed for 500 years before someone realized that the author was Donatello.

“Sometimes you have masterpieces right before your very eyes, but you don’t see them because you don’t pay attention, or someone finds some documents that show who the artist was,” he said.

The duomo which holds Pierino’s sculpture has its origins in the fifth or sixth century and has been rebuilt several times. It was consecrated in 1062 by Pope Alexander II, who, according to tradition, was the parish priest of Pescia before becoming bishop of Lucca. The church was entirely rebuilt after a fire in the city in 1281.
This well done copy of Raphael Sanzio's famous work hangs
in the duomo of Pescia, near Turini's tomb.

At one time, the church also held a 1507 masterpiece by the illustrious Raphael Sanzio di Urbino. However, the Madonna of the Baldachin was sold to Turini, who removed it to his private chapel. In 1697, a high quality copy was painted by Pier Dandini, and it was placed near Turinis tomb in the Pescia duomo.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Long-lost French Seghieri families coming to Montecarlo for a reunion

It is not only Italian Americans who seek to reconnect to their roots by returning to Italy. In a few days, some distant cousins from France will also be in Montecarlo, looking to visit their ancestral home. They are connected to me on the Seghieri side, and we have only met electronically—through e-mail, Facebook and my blog.

They read about my Seghieri research on my blog, and in the past year, they also contacted Elena Benvenuti to enlist her help in learning how they are connected to the Seghieri families of Montecarlo. Elena is fluent in French, English, German and, of course, Italian. There are at least two distinct branches of the Seghieri family who live in Marseille, and both branches will be represented.

Jean-Paul (far right) and other family members.
I am Facebook friends with Jean-Paul Seghieri and Marcel Seghieri, and I have also corresponded with a second cousin once removed of Jean-Paul, Claude Guillan Romaine, whose mother was Huguette Seghieri. Jean-Paul and Claude trace their Tuscan roots back to Carlo Olinto Seghieri, born in Montecarlo in 1840, and Maria Pasqua Ulivieri, 1847, Montecarlo. Carlo and Maria moved to Marseille prior to 1868 and had 12 children there. Carlo Olinto was the ninth cousin of my great grandfather, so Jean-Paul and I are 12th cousins.

Marcel’s ties to the family are much more distant—so distant, if fact, that we may never discover them. His ancestors lived in Livorno and spelled their surname Sighieri instead of Seghieri. Around the time Marcel’s grandfather moved to Marseille in the early 1900s, the family changed the spelling to Seghieri. I enlisted one of the foremost genealogists in the area, Andrea Mandroni, to see if he could find a Montecarlo connection for Marcel’s family. The earliest ancestor he has found to date is Ranieri Sighieri, born in Livorno about 1763. Before that time, we don’t know how the family spelled the name or from where they came.
This collage was sent by Marcel Seghieri. I haven't met any of these people yet, so I can't name them!

From what I have learned, the Sighieri spelling was more common around the Pisa and Livorno areas, while in Montecarlo and Altopascio, Seghieri was used. Another variation sometimes found in Altopascio is Sevieri. I don’t know when the various different spellings originated, but it could have been prior to the 1300s. If so, it is doubtful that any records exist to tie these long-standing lines together. Prior to the 1300s, there are some documents that list people of importance in Pisa who had the Latinized name Seghierius. Montecarlo historian Sergio Nello states that the Seghieri name has Germanic origins from the occupation of the Longobardi between 568 and 774.

Elena has met some of our French cousins and says they are a lively group, enthusiastic about their Italian heritage and history. They’ll arrive Saturday afternoon, and we’ll go with them to dinner at La Terrazza pizzeria in Montecarlo, along with Davide Seghieri, Elena and their daughter Flavia. My sister Linda and her daughter Corina will still be here, so they’ll get to meet the cousins as well. That evening, Flavia plays in a concert in Montecarlo, which many of us will also attend.

Sunday afternoon will be the biggest event in this informal reunion, when we share a potluck style lunch at Davide and Elena’s house. Beside the contingent from France, several other Seghieri families from Montecarlo will attend. It should be interesting trying to communicate, since I don’t speak any French, and it’s already a challenge for me to get across everything I want to say when I have to speak Italian. The French families don’t speak much Italian or English. I think Davide and Flavia know French, but Elena will probably be exhausted before the reunion is over, since she’s the only one who can speak all the languages easily.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Going to community market is a weekly experience not to be missed

Lucy buys a pillow for the couch
Shopping at the open air village markets in Italy is one of our favorite experiences. Each community has a market once a week. Our visits combine people-watching, fresh air, historical town centers and fresh food—the best parts of living here. In previous years, we went to the little Wednesday market in San Salvatore, but our favorite fruit and grocery seller, Grazia, no longer sells at that market. We can catch her in Borgo a Buggiano on Tuesday or Porcari on Wednesday, but this year, we’ve usually gone on Friday to the market in Ponte Buggianese.
Our favorite produce venditori at Ponte Buggianese.

Cheeses of many types and cured meats, all made in Italy.
Although the Esselunga supermarket here is excellent (it recently received recognition from The Boston Consulting Group as one of the top small chains in the world, behind only Trader Joe’s and Wegmans), we like to get our produce from the small market vendors when possible. We also like knowing that markets such as these have existed for millennia; we are shopping in a long-standing and traditional Italian way. The produce is extremely fresh, the prices are great and the sellers recognize and greet you upon your return. Food just harvested tastes ten times more delicious than its out-of-season counterparts, but be warned: It is best consumed within a few days of purchase, because it is already ripe when sold.
Colorful fabrics, drapes, blankets and tablecloths are beautifully displayed.

I’ve learned not to buy from the first vendor in the row. These are prime positions, but sometimes the prices are a little higher than the ones in the middle. We also note which vendors have more customers, because the locals know who has the best produce. At the Ponte Buggianese market, we had a half dozen vendors to chose from, but we ultimately picked a stall run by a friendly middle-aged couple because the man likes to sing about his produce when there is a lull in sales. Not exactly songs, but he will call out the names of his fruit and veggies in a lilting, musical voice, adding the price: “Belle, belle mele, solo un euro al chilo.”

We often buy roasted chicken, turkey or ham , taken straight
off the spit, from this booth from this man.
In general, the venditori prefer that shoppers don’t handle the produce. This is an issue of good hygiene. Instead, we tell them what items we want, and they place them in a bag and weigh them for us. When ordering something easy to count, like apples or oranges, it’s easy to explain how much one wants. Otherwise, when ordering something like string beans, we can just say, “Per due,” for two people. Sometimes we are handed a bag, which is an invitation to go ahead and pick out our own fruit and vegetables. We usually get Italian parsley (prezzemolo) and celery (sedano) thrown in as a freebie, per sapore (flavor).
We don't buy much seafood, but it's always interesting to see it displayed.

We had wondered if bargaining is expected in the marketplace, but we’ve learned that it is not done when shopping for food. Also, don’t expect to use a credit card at a market; they are almost always cash only.

We sometimes also buy clothing, fabric, tablecloths, cheese, kitchenware, scarves and hot food such as roasted chicken or fried vegetables. Larger markets have even more items, and then there are specialty markets held less frequently for used merchandise, antiques and hand-made items. Beyond that, there are sagras and festas, which feature foods with special names that have historical significance for the region. Believe me, one doesn’t have to visit all the great historical or artistic sites in Italy to enjoy la dolce vita. It can be done without leaving the neighborhood!

Monday, April 25, 2016

A delicious Spadoni rinfresco

Last month we had a little gathering to show my Seghieri relatives our new house. Today we had a second open house, timed to coincide with a visit from Linda and Cori, for a few of our Italian Spadoni relatives. Lucy made a bunch of sweets and we enjoyed a couple of hours of conversation with Enrico and Enza, Loriano and Gabriella, and Claudio.

Claudio, Paul, Loriano, Enrico, Enza, Gabriella, Linda, Cori.
Overall, it went great. We shared information on family and activities and gave them a house tour. They are always very gracious and patient with our limited language skills, and of course we Americans always end up vowing inwardly to re-double our efforts to learn Italian so we can better communicate (even if we usually don’t follow through). I understood most of what they said, but the words came to me slowly when I spoke. I was able to translate a little for Linda and Cori, but for the most part, they were on their own.

“Everybody seemed happy and energized and had lots to talk about,” Linda said. “I understood what the subjects were but couldn’t really follow the details. It made me feel like a child again, because that’s how it was when dad and his sisters and brothers got together. They would be all gathered around and talking loudly all at the same time. They would start out in English and sometimes switch to Italian. I didn’t understand any of it, and tonight brought me back to my childhood.”

When I first came to Italy in 1996, I stayed with Enrico and Enza for about a week. I couldn’t speak much Italian and was treated as a special guest, enjoying huge meals and being taken on sight-seeing expeditions. Now I feel like our relationship is on a more relaxed and informal basis, which is what I had hoped it might be someday. Having cousins is truly a blessing.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Burning of olive branches an ancient tradition in Mediterranean region

Lucy adds branches to the fire. Piles of burning olive
branches is a common sight in Tuscany.
All through February, March and April, I see them—men and women out in the olive fields, trimming branches, piling them up and lighting them on fire. Thousands of trees and millions of branches fuel fires on every hillside. I’ve counted as many as a dozen fires visible from a single vantage point.

Considering the environmental impact of so many open fires, I’ve wondered why the branches aren’t hauled away for chipping and composting, or even chipped in the field with portable devices. I’ve been told that the burning must be completed by May 31, but a lot of smoke and ash is generated before that deadline.

Dorothea and Eberhard worked along side us.
I now have some ideas why burning is preferred to chipping, as Lucy and I had a chance this week to participate in the gathering and burning process. Our friends from Germany, Eberhard and Dorothea, invited us to their home in the hills near Viareggio, and we spent an afternoon and the next morning helping them clean up branches that had been cut for them by a local olive farmer.

Even though the branches had just been cut, they burned extremely quickly. Eberhard told me that we had to keep the burn pile small, and I soon saw why, as even a four-foot by four-foot pile created an intense heat. The leaves are full of oil, and they sparkle and flame up quickly, like dry fir tree needles, or small firecrackers. A larger pile would burn so hotly and quickly that you couldn’t go near it to add branches, and the heat would damage any nearby trees. The piles require near constant attention, though, because if left to burn alone for about three minutes, they will burn down and go out. The hot ashes can be rekindled fairly easily, but not without putting a lot of smoke into the air until they blaze up again.

Almost done!
Our conclusion was that a lot of branches can be burned in a short time, making burning more economical than hauling away or chipping. I’m also not sure that the chemicals in the oil-filled leaves and branches would make good compost anyway.

The chips, however, might be a good energy source. Olive pits are now being used in fireplaces and energy-producing incinerators. The website reports: “Olive pits don’t just burn; they burn well. In fact, pound for pound, olive pits produce more energy through combustion than hardwood, according to the not-for-profit engineering organization ASME. Musco Family Olive Co., for instance, generates about half of the electricity needed for the company’s olive processing plant to run simply by burning the olive pits that it once paid to ship to the landfill.” I would think that fuel from chipping olive leaves and branches would also be a good heat source.

Aside from that, we appreciated the chance to participate in an Italian tradition, a task that my ancestors performed for thousands of years.

“I loved being with our friends and doing something that we see Italians doing every year,” Lucy said. “It’s interesting to know that people have been doing exactly the same thing we did throughout the centuries.”

Our family ties with Ilio, Lara and Mauro Spadoni et al resolved

Ilio Spadoni
After some initial frustration, I found the link that connects the family of Ilio Spadoni of Ponte Buggianese to ours. The problem was that Ilio didn’t have quite the steel-trap memory that I thought he did. He had given me the wrong birth date for his grandfather Francesco and the wrong wife for his great grandfather Virgilio.

Lara Spadoni
When I stopped by Ilio’s house to ask for additional information, I talked to his sister Lara, because Ilio was out working in his fields. She looked at the info that Ilio had given me and said that the wife of great grandfather Virgilio had been Emilia Benedetti, not Annuziata Foderi. The latter had instead been married to one of Virgilio’s brothers, she said. Once I had this information, and the correct birth date for Francesco (which I found in the baptismal records of Ponte Buggianese), the clerk at Buggiano found the documents I needed to connect Ilio and Lara’s family to our tree.

Mauro Spadoni
Once again, though, the tie is distant, as it has been with many of the Spadoni families I have found here. Our nearest common ancestor is Francesco Spadoni, born around 1455. I had hoped to find that they had descended from one of the brothers of my great great grandfather Pellegrino Spadoni.

Yesterday I went back and met with Lara, Ilio, their brother Mauro, and Ilio’s wife Rosanna. I gave them a detailed line of descent dating back to 1430, showing all the names and dates I have for their ancestors. Ilio and Lara argued briefly over whether their great grandmother had been Emilia Benedetti or Annuziata Foderi. In the end, Ilio realized that he had remembered poorly and that Lara and the documents I had found were correct.

I also explained how the first Spadoni family of Stignano had probably been land owners and somewhat wealthy, because one of the three tombs beneath the floor of the church of Stignano is for the early Spadoni family. Ilio said that likely some of the first Spadoni families to move to Ponte Buggianese had been land owners, but in the passage of time, they had met with economic problems and also had to divide the land among their many sons. His nearest ancestors had been tenant farmers, as had most of the Spadoni families I’ve found in the region.
Lucia Spadoni x 2

When Lucy and I went to the weekly market in Ponte Buggianese today, we stopped at the hairdressing salon of Lucia, one of Ilio and Rosanna’s daughters. Lucy said that if she hadn’t already made an appointment with her regular hair dresser in Gig Harbor, she probably would have had Lucia cut her hair—one Lucia Spadoni cutting the hair of another.

Monday, April 18, 2016

I take on the challenge of a new and large Spadoni family puzzle

I had only meant to take a minute to drop off a family tree for Bruna Spadoni and her family, but I ended up with much more. I visited Bruna and her family two weeks ago (Back on the pleasant trail of distant cousins in Tuscany) to see if I could find out how I was related to Bruna. After finding the connection, I made up a family tree and drove over to drop it off yesterday afternoon.

Mario Nottoli, Bruna’s son-in-law, greeted me as I drove up, and he quickly explained that he had another Spadoni family that he’d like me to meet. Would I like him to take me there now? I had no camera, no notebook with family records, not even paper, but I’ve learned to seize the moment when a chance comes along, so I said, “Perchè no? Andiamo.” And we were off on a 10-minute drive from Chiesina to Ponte Buggianese to meet the large extended family of Ilio Spadoni.

Ilio lives on a farm on the edge of the Pescia River on the south side of Ponte Buggianese. Another eight members of the family gathered around the kitchen table to meet me. I didn’t even try to take down peoples’ names. I told them right away that I wanted to come back with my notebook and camera, and they said I would be welcome any time. Instead I borrowed some paper and began asking for information about family history.

Ilio thinks the farm has been in the family for a couple of hundred years. He said his family had moved from Stignano to Ponte Buggianese at some unknown time in the past. He also said (I think) that at one time his ancestors had been guards for a jail that had been located nearby. I did notice that his farm was located on Via Ponte alla Guardia, so that would fit with my understanding.

Ilio gave me information on the birth for his father and grandfather, including dates, months and years, which I found remarkable. My hobby is genealogy, and I can’t remember my grandfather’s date of birth (isn’t that why we have computers and notebooks?). He also provided the year of birth and name of his great grandfather. One of his granddaughters (I think that’s who it was) wrote out a detailed chart that included 40 family members, both living and dead, with dates of birth for many of them, also very impressive.

I promised to return with complete information on how we are related and with a family tree showing ancestors back to the 1400s, just as soon as I could check my records. Mario took me back to my car, and his wife Mara (Bruna’s daughter) thanked me for the family tree. I didn’t stay long, as it was nearly dinner time.

Back in the house, I met with some frustration when I found that my records didn’t include the birth of either Ilio’s grandfather Francesco, which Ilio had listed as Dec. 12, 1878, or his grandfather Virgilio in 1852. This morning I went to the city archives of both Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese, and they didn’t have them either. Prior to 1883, Ponte Buggianese didn’t have a city hall, so records were kept at Buggiano. I should have found Francesco’s birth there, and the clerk found a couple of Francesco Spadonis born around that time, but not a Francesco of Virgilio.

Virgilio’s birth would not be recorded in the city records because Toscana had only been part of the kingdom of Italy since 1861. However, I have meticulously copied all of the baptismal records from the church into my notebooks, and I found no Virgilio Spadoni born in 1852. I found one born in 1858, but he had a different wife, and his children didn’t match Ilio’s family at all.

I’ve met, either in person or online, nearly a dozen branches of the Valdinievole Spadoni family in the past few years, and I’ve always been able to place them in the family tree if they can give me family names and dates prior to 1900. Some people do crossword puzzles, sodaku, Words with Friends, geocaching and any number of mental exercises. My game is fitting together our family tree and finding new connections, and so I will dig into this. I have a new puzzle to solve, and that just makes the game more interesting. Hopefully I’ll have some results (and photos of new relatives) to show before we go back home in a few weeks.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

We fail to conquer Monte Sagro, but vow to return another time

Hike number two in our book of 50 Tuscan hikes didn’t pan out quite as expected—but it’s hard to have a bad day in Italy. We stayed flexible and still had a good time.
I told her to back up a couple more steps, but she wouldn't do it.

Looking out the window at 7 a.m., the sky was as clear as we have ever seen it in the Valdinievole. We left by 8:30 a.m. for a two-hour drive up past Carrara into the Alpi Apuane to hike above the marble quarries on the trail to Monte Sagro. The vista down to the quarries from the parking lot is unbelievable! Some high clouds were rolling in off the Tyrrhenian Sea, but we still had a clear view of the snow-white quarries and the red-tiled roofs of the city of Carrara. We could see all the way to the coast, although clouds obscured our view north toward La Spezia, Portofino and the Cinque Terre.
The amazing marble quarries of Carrara. Photos
don't do them justice!

We made a couple of mistakes that turned out to be good fortune, though. Following directions in the hiking book, we left our car in the designated parking lot and hiked about 20 minutes up a rough dirt road to the trail head. We saw a half dozen cars parked in a large dirt lot at the trail head, and we realized then that we could have easily driven this section and saved 40 minutes.

Dead end at the cave.
Our next mistake resulted from not following the guide more carefully, however. It said the trail goes “up onto a rocky ridge just above and parallel to the dirt road.” We didnt read that carefully, though, and the dirt road seemed like the most logical path to followuntil we found that it ended at a dark cave. After pulling out the guide book and retracing our path about 15 minutes back, we easily found the trail and had hiked up it for about 10 minutes when we met three men coming down.

The clouds kept coming, dropping lower each minute.
“È una bella giornata,” Lucy said as we passed them. “No, it’s not,” the last man said. “It’s windy, cold and the clouds are dropping down so you can’t see a thing up there. È una brutta giornata.”

We reconsidered for a moment. If we went any higher, we too would be enveloped in fog. We were on a ridge, unprotected from the wind and chill, and the hike is listed as three to four hours long. Did we really want to walk in the clouds for that long, without being able to see the mountains we had come to see? Probably not. So we went back down.

Exploring an abandoned house.
By the time we returned to the car, drove down a dead end road to explore a crumbling building that probably once housed marble miners and drove back down the winding road, the heavy fog had dropped almost to Carrara. We had hiked for an hour and a
Same house.
half and experienced a great view of the marble mountains before the clouds came. We realized then that had we not made two wrong moves, we would have been high on the chilly ridge, unable to see any mountains and maybe not even the trail, so our missteps had actually proven providential. We also knew that next time we should drive all the way to the trail head and start on the correct trail. I think Monte Sagro will still be there the next time we come to Italy, and we definitely will be back.
A nice field of daffodils near the parking lot.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Africans in Italy still have many kilometers to go for full acceptance

I have always found it odd that Italy, the European country closest to Africa, has so few people of African descent integrated into its society. We see plenty of Africans, but they are, for the most part, separate. I have never seen a black police officer, government official, grocery store clerk, train conductor, waiter or bank clerk.

Blacks play on the professional soccer and basketball teams, and they stand on the sidewalks and in piazzas selling purses, umbrellas, socks and a host of other household items. People of color usually sit apart by choice from whites on trains and buses. Why this separation occurs undoubtedly has no one simple answer, and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on race relations in Italy. However, lack of expertise has never stopped people from having an opinion or making observations.

Part of it is fear of the unknown. Stefano Mammi told me that immigration from Africa didn’t become commonplace until the 1990s.

So many people started coming then, especially from Nigeria,” he said. “But there weren’t many jobs, and they didn’t learn the language quickly. Many of them saw Italy as a temporary place to earn some money, get their European citizenship and then move on to another country. A lot of them spoke English and wanted to go to England.” Some came from French-speaking African countries, and they hoped to eventually move to France, but Italy was easier to enter.

I recently read a “rant” on Facebook from my friend Alicia Gray Cortes, who complained that “so many Italians are racist.” She noticed that a black man had offered the empty bus seat next to him to some Italian teenagers, but they refused it.

Once on my way home I sat next to a Nigerian man, and we talked the whole hour-long ride,” she said. “He told me that Italians will never sit next to Africans and that he is always treated poorly. He mentioned how it makes him angry and it does not make him want to integrate and be a part of the culture and community. He said that I was obviously not Italian because I was not just sitting next to him but talking to him like an equal. It’s sad and infuriating!”

One of Alicia’s friends followed up with a comment: “I can totally relate. I ditto your sentiments. I am a victim and have personally experienced racism from the Italians. I can tell you countless stories that will bring you to tears; however, they have gotten better. I've seen posters and pamphlets, educating the people on ‘manners and etiquette.’ They are trying, but it still hurts!”

Alicia’s dad, Steve Gray, has been a missionary in Italy for some years and also lived in America for about the same length of time, so he is well qualified to compare racism in the two countries.

I have seen here in Padova that first generation Africans do not integrate well on the whole,” he said. “However, I don’t see this as out of the ordinary with even first generations from several countries, white or black, in America. I think that because this is such a new phenomenon in Italy, Italians themselves are just trying to come to grips with it.

Certainly, the laws concerning jobs are very pro Italian-born-blood favorable. For example, our Albanian young lady friend graduated from nursing school in the University of Padova. However, because she is not an Italian citizen, she cannot work in the hospitals as a nurse. She can only do privatized nursing. For Africans working in the factories, they will never become managers, even though they may qualify, because they are not Italian. However, this may also be true in America, so I don’t know if it is really any different than anywhere else.

The foreign children who are born here go to Italian schools and even the university, though they still have no great future in front of them. However, even Italians graduating from the university here have no future because of the bad Italian economy and ways of doing things that are so archaic.

So, yes, there is discrimination, but I’m not sure if it really is different than many other struggling nations.”

I see other hopeful signs that attitudes can be changed. Migrants who have remained in Italy send their children to public schools, and I see mixed race groups of children walking and talking together. The children often grow up speaking Italian without accents and adopting the values of their classmates, increasing their chances of being accepted into mainstream society.

Members of the Pro Loco Marliana preparing for the sagra.

We recently participated in the Sagra delle Frittelle Dolce in the rural community of Marliana. I noticed right away a young black man working alongside other members of the pro loco (a grassroots group of local volunteers working to promote the community). Members were helping people park, filling a large kettle with oil, setting up tables, preparing food and stoking a fire beneath the kettle. Oumaru wore a Marliana Pro Loco t-shirt and was interacting in a casual and friendly manner with the other men. Originally from Mali, he had been studying science at a university in Syria when warfare forced him to flee first to Libia and then Italy. The Italian government placed Oumaru in a hotel in Marliana, along with dozens of other refugees, so that he could learn Italian and receive the documents he would need to live and work on his own.

Mali is a French-speaking country, and Oumarou said that he had tried to go to France, but they refused to admit him. He has been in Marliana for more than a year, and he has found part-time work at the misericordia, an Italian group that provides emergency first aid. He is also attending a class in Firenze on “how to take care of people,” he said.

One of the local men, Pablo, explained that the government has sent as many as 40 immigrants at a time to Marliana. “At first, the older people here were scared,” he said. “They were afraid the people had come to steal from us, or at least take away our jobs. Gradually, the community has come to accept and help them. However, there still aren’t any jobs for most of them.”

Oumarou has been exceptionally well received, though. “He’s very intelligent,” Pablo said. “He learned Italian in just a few months, and now he’s like one of us, part of the community.”

The local priest has taken an active role in helping the immigrants, and someone in the community made an apartment available to Oumarou when his government housing allowance ran out. While it seems that he is on the road to transitioning into society, I wonder what will become of the other immigrants who weren’t able to learn Italian so quickly or find jobs.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A triumphant day of living the sweet life in another Corri con Paolo walk

We participated in the six-kilometer division of the Corri con Paolo Saturday, the second time we have entered this benefit walk for young cancer victims and their families. This year we actually won a prize! Sort of, anyway.
Starting the race: Nancy, Stefano, Obi, Lucy, Annette and Frank.

No Italian event can be held without a few words
from the local mayor. 
Last time we walked with two friends from Lucca (click here for story), and this year we were joined by Gig Harbor cousins Frank and Annette Bannon and our friends Stefano and Nancy Mammi from Padova. The entry fee is only 3 euro, and prizes are given based on group size. No times are recorded. Thinking back on the results from last year, I thought it likely that a group of six would be large enough to receive a small prize. In fact, last year, our group of four would have received a prize had we properly entered as a group.
The band passes in front of our house.

I had tried to register as a group last year but couldn’t figure out how to do it. This year would be different, because I had Stefano with me to make sure I didn’t miss any steps because of my mediocre language abilities. He checked us in as a group, and we saw the officials write us on the list with the number six beside the name Spadoni. But it still wasn’t enough, as we would find out at the end.
Pirate clowns waiting for prey.

We pinned racing labels on our shirts, and even though we paid for six entries, we were handed seven labels, so Obi, Nancy’s labrador, got one too. Just then, the city’s band commenced playing and marched the length of via Roma, and we snapped some photos. We focused especially on our favorite musician, Flavia Seghieri, the daughter of Davide and Elena. I even got one photo as she marched right past our house. We followed the band to the end of the street, which was more or less the starting place for the walk.

We were greeted by a cluster of pirate clowns, who wrapped some participants up in ropes and posed for photos with others. Helium balloons were passed out, and then we released them all together, signaling the official start of the walk. We looped through the city and then down the main entrance and out of town heading north. The roads and trails offered great views of Montecarlo, Porcari and the plains below. We received drinks and a variety of snacks at the five-kilometer mark and again at the end. We each received a gift bag as we crossed the finish line.

When I walked over to the prize board to see if we had qualified for a group prize, we weren’t listed, even though a group of three received a prize. When I asked why, I was told we hadn’t filled out a form with a list of our participants, something that hadn’t been mentioned on the poster or by the officials who registered us. I’m sure it is one of those things that everybody is expected to know by word of mouth. Anyway, they gave me a potted daisy when they realized we had been unintentionally slighted, and I carried it through the streets in triumph. But the real triumph was being able to experience a piece of la dolce vita and share it with friends.

Friday, April 8, 2016

New language blunders to add to my collection of amusing stories

Sometimes the Italian teenagers we meet here are shy about trying out their halting English skills, even though most of them study English several times a week. I’m sure they’re afraid to make a brutta figura by mispronouncing words or using bad grammar, a fear I completely understand but have, for the most part, overcome. It is essential for us to communicate somehow, even if only badly. Learning to laugh at oneself is an important life skill!

I recently had an article published in Fra Noi, a Chicago-based magazine for Italian Americans, about humorous blunders I’ve made or been told about. Several of the stories came from our missionary friends Steve and Patti Gray, and when I thanked them for their help, they told me two anecdotes that I hadn’t heard before that are worth passing on.

Both were made by their friend and co-worker Terry Paretti. On one occasion, he was introducing a visiting pastor who had come from Germany, and he repeatedly used the phrase pastore tedesco, which means German pastor. However, pastore means shepherd, even though it can also refer to the leader of a church flock, a pastor. Grammatically, it was correct, but because of the famous breed of dog, a German pastor should be referred to as “un pastore dalla Germania,” a pastor from Germany. Terry’s reference elicited polite smiles from his Italian-speaking audience each time he referred to the wonderful dog who would soon be addressing the people.

The other instance also involves a famous German, Martin Luther, who was the topic of one of Terry’s sermons. In Italian, Luther’s name is Lutero. However, the accent should be on the second syllable instead of the first, but Terry didn’t know that, so he repeatedly mispronounced the name. This wouldn’t have been worth mentioning, except that there is another almost identical word, l’utero, with an accent on the first syllable. Utero is uterus, so he gave a sermon on Martin the Uterus.

The Fra Noi article is not available for viewing online without a subscription, but I will scan in the pages so you can at least see the fine artwork done by my niece Gina (Spadoni) Lillie. Most of the stories in the article I’ve already published in these two earlier blog entries, and it may be easier to read them there:

Monday, April 4, 2016

Sleepy Marliana comes alive with sagra in honor of chestnut flour treat

About 20 minutes from Montecatini and Pescia, up in the foothills of the Alpi Apuane, lies the little village of Marliana. On most days, it is quiet, with few people on the sidewalks or the piazzas. But if you visit on a day when the local people hold a sagra, you’ll see an entirely different version of Marliana.

Marliana viewed from the street above
Necci batter
Yesterday, we were drawn by an poster advertising the 53th annual Sagra di Frittelle Dolci. A sagra is a local fair, usually a celebration of a local food or a raw ingredient, and there is a sagra somewhere for every traditional Italian food. This one featured a fried dessert called necci, made with chestnut flour.

“Attending a sagra is a way to get a taste of Italian country life and food culture and get away from tourist crowds,” writes Martha Bakerjian, an Italy travel expert for “You order food to be cooked by locals with a passion for the local cuisine, then sit at communal tables with other locals to eat. Eating at a sagra is usually inexpensive as well.”
Adding chestnut wood to the fire
Pouring in the oil
Netting the necci
Chestnuts were once vital for the survival of every family in the Tuscan hills. So important was the chestnut that it was known as the “bread tree” and its fruits “tree bread.” The nuts were collected, dried and ground into flour to make bread and many essential meals.

The sagra was scheduled to start at 3 p.m., but we arrived in town around noon and sat at an outside table in the Piazza del Popolo, where we ate a long, slow lunch at the local restaurant. In so doing, we were able to see the local families involved in setting up the central food booth and the huge kettle used for frying the necci. I wandered into the enclosed area several times to observe the preparations up close and talk to some of the men from the town. People-watching is one of our favorite activities in Italy.
A neccio, with a few bites already taken.

Pablo Luisi, who said his family has lived in Marliana for at least 300 years, told me that the sagra would probably lose money, but the town had a second one in the summer that would attract more people and thus pay the expenses for the spring sagra. It was a tradition important to the long-time residents of the city and a way to honor the memory of bygone times, when chestnut flour was “the only thing available.”

The kettle, filled with palm oil, is heated by a wood fire, fueled, of course, by chestnut branches, and the heat is trapped by a curtain of branches, leaves and sod over which the men periodically pour water to prevent the curtain from catching fire. The batter is made only with water, chestnut flour and a little salt, and it is formed into pancakes which are then deep-fried in the batter and dipped out with a special tool. In smaller-scale productions, necci are fried in pans the same way we make pancakes. Then they are rolled up like crepes and filled with ricotta or Nutella. I choose ricotta for my filling, considering it to be more authentic in holding with past traditions.

And are they delicious? No, not really. Maybe if they added sugar and chocolate they would be more appealing, but with the creamy ricotta filling, I can see why they would have been regarded as a treat for people on limited diets, and I’m certain that they are healthier than the sweet desserts we typically eat today.

Not long after the first neccio came out of the kettle, a band from Versiglia made up of veterans of the alpini—a special alpine unit of the Italian army—treated us to a few songs in the piazza. Then they headed a parade that looped through the town and consisted first of the band, then of alpini veterans from other nearby towns, then local dignitaries such as the town’s mayor, and lastly the town’s citizens and other fair-goers such as ourselves.

Alpini playing in the parade.
The procession stopped in front of a war monument while the band played another patriotic song, and the mayor and a couple of alpini members gave short speeches. If this had been a larger town or a more elaborate sagra, the festivities probably would have continued into the night and included a communal meal. The streets also would have been lined with booths selling other traditional food, as well as jewelry, clothing and knick-knacks. The Marliana sagra had only a half dozen other booths. We left after the speeches, thinking that we had experienced the main events and had tasted part of the true flavor of life in this beautiful village.