Saturday, December 30, 2017

We’re hoping that our stairway to heaven—and by that, we mean, our attic—will be divine

In a last-minute decision before we left Italy in November, we authorized our friend and neighbor Juri to oversee the construction of a new stairway to our attic. We had planned to install a stairway in a year or two, but Juri suggested that if we did it now, the permit he obtained last summer for repairing the roof would also be valid for the stairway installation.

Our attic with open west-facing skylight.
I’m not sure how that could work, but Juri said he has a friend in the comune who said it would be okay. It seems a little risky, but if anyone knows how to get things done here, it seems to be Juri. In the last two years, he’s been completely remodeling his substantially sized ground floor storage space (which we were under the impression can only be used as storage space) into new bedrooms and living areas for his growing family—seemingly all without permits and inspections.

We live only a few steps from the comune, so it would seem his extensive renovations must be known to the officials there. One can’t help but notice the large trucks coming and going with building materials. Does it make a difference that Juri and his dad are doing almost all the work themselves? What will happen when the property is put up for sale someday and his floor plan is entirely different than what is on file at the comune? However, since homes in Italy are passed on from parents to children ad infinitum, perhaps that day will never come.

In any event, I have transferred the needed money from our bank account to Juri’s. I’m not quite sure if he’s acting as our general contractor or he’s just passing the money on to his muratore friend who’s acting as supervisor. Either way, it’s an act of faith in Juri’s abilities and honesty. We had received a bid from a stairway manufacturer and installer in Lucca, and Juri said he and his friend could do the work better for the same price.

Since we need Juri to be there to open the place for the workers anyway, it made sense to hire him and his friend. Juri is an electrician by trade, and he’ll also install some lights in the attic. And he’ll find a plumber to run our kitchen sink drain into the sanitary sewer system (see The junkyard outside our house . . .).

Our old stairway is a squeaky fold-down contraption that completely blocks the hallway to the bathroom when in the down position. The fold-down stairs also enter the attic right under a low beam, forcing one to enter the attic on hands and knees. The new stairway will start in the front entryway and access the attic at the roof’s highest point. We’ll see what it looks like when we go back to Montecarlo in March.
Ingr. stands for ingresso, or entrance. That's where we want the stairway,
instead of in the dis. (no, I don't know what that stands for, but it's a hallway).

We hope to use the attic for storage, to hang the laundry and as a game and reading room. We could even pull out mattresses and use it as a sleeping area when we have too many guests for our bedrooms. When we open the three new skylights installed last summer, it will allow air circulation on hot days, new spaces to stand up and nice views both east and west.

Speaking of the skylights, while I was in the attic with Juri talking about the stairway, I finally got around to asking why our skylights had been installed differently than the drawing I had left him (see Roof with a view). Structural integrity of the roof wouldn’t allow skylights the sizes and locations I wanted, he said. I’ll have to accept that answer, mostly because its pointless to disagree at this point. It would cost a small fortune to make any changes now.

Installing new stairs won’t be the end of our renovation plans. In fact, we’ll still need some railings inside the attic to prevent someone from accidentally backing into the stairway opening. Then we’ll need more insulation and better flooring. Juri also pointed out that we’ll need to seal off any small holes between our attic and those of the houses that adjoin on the north and south, because rats can pass from attic to attic—and now they’ll have an opening to welcome them into our main house.

All in all, it probably would have been less expensive if we had continued to rent some place during our three or four months abroad, but what price can we put on the feeling of being part of the community of Montecarlo? We have no regrets.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Genetic diversity in DNA testing of Italians should be expected

To people of Italian – and especially Sicilian Italian – descent who have had DNA tests and are bothered that results didn’t show them to be 100% genetically Italian – don’t sweat it. In fact, if anything, these results could just be proof of how Italian you really are!

Before I explain, first of all let’s establish that when most of us say we’re Italian, we mean that either we, our parents of our ancestors came from Italy and that we embrace the Italian culture. DNA tests are an entirely different measurement. They try to trace where all of our thousands of ancestors came from in the past 2,000 years. By the standards used, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to test 100% Italian—or for someone with one Italian parent to test 50% Italian.
Sicily actually has more Greek temples than Greece. That's Alfio di Mauro on the right, with our tour group in Agrigento, Sicily.

While on a tour of Sicily in 2015, I interviewed Alfio Di Mauro, whose family roots go back centuries on this beautiful island. Di Mauro has a science PhD and was a researcher at the University of Catania, but now he’s a guide with Rick Steves. He pointed out that a true Sicilian or Southern Italian would have to be a blend of diverse genetic origins.

‟Sicily was in the center of what the Romans called the Mare Nostrum – Our Sea – the Mediterranean,” he said. ‟It was important first of all because it was a fertile land, a garden-like island of the Mediterranean. And second, it was a natural stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Between the western tip of Sicily and Tunisia is only 80 miles.

‟Also, Italy’s long shape divides the Mediterranean from East to West. Sicily is at the end of it, and it’s like the cork in the bottle. So if you were controlling the 80 miles of sea, plus the two miles between Sicily and the Italian peninsula, you were controlling any trade routes between East and West, and North and South. For thousands of years, Sicily was THE island to control. It was considered the center of the civilized world.”

And so the invaders came, saw and conquered, leaving behind traces of their languages, traditions, favorite foods, superstitions and genetic footprints.

‟We’ve had more than 17 invasions in 2,000 years,” Di Mauro said. ‟No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions! You will never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which is the country with the highest diversity? It’s Italy! What is the region that has the highest diversity? It’s Sicily! It has the highest genetic diversity in Europe.”

What Di Mauro didn’t mention but easily could have: Sicily’s status as a multi-cultural hub of travel and trading also drew many outsiders interested in establishing businesses. When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, for example, many found Italy a safe haven with prospects for making a healthy income.

So if your ancestors came from Italy, don’t expect your DNA results to show anything other than a blend of civilizations. It’s actually additional evidence that you truly ARE Italian.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Distinctions that make a noun male or female made perfectly clear

Which language is easier to learn, English or Italian? Some may say Italian, because every letter has the same sound every time. In English, letters can have vastly different sounds, and one has to learn how to pronounce each word. One famous example that advocates of English language reform like to cite is ‟ghoti,” which can be defined as ‟a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water.” That’s right, un pesce. How could that be? ‟Gh” can be pronounced as ‟f,” (enough). ‟O” as ‟i” (women). And ‟ti” as ‟sh” (motion).

But then, one has to consider those pesky masculine and feminine nouns in Italian—and many other languages as well. For English speakers, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of language learning. In addition, it sometimes seems that grammatical gender doesn’t match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described. In Portuguese, the word mulherão means “voluptuous woman.” However, the word itself is masculine. In Italian, a woman’s breasts are seni, a masculine noun. Virilità, the Italian word for “manliness” is feminine (as is also the case in Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi).

However, sometimes the logic is clear, as in the situation with some of these newer (and a few older) words.

FREEZER BAGS: These are male. They hold everything in, but you can see right through them.
PHOTOCOPIERS: These are female, because once turned off they take a while to warm up again. Also, they are effective reproductive devices if the right buttons are pushed, but pushing the wrong ones wreaks havoc.
TIRES: Male, because they easily go bald and are often over-inflated.
SPONGES: These are female, because they are soft and squeezable and they retain water.
WEB PAGES: Female, because they’re constantly being viewed and frequently get hit on.
TRAINS: Definitely male, because they always use the same old lines for picking up people.
HAMMERS: Also male, because in the last 5000 years, they’ve hardly changed at all, yet it’s sometimes handy to have one around the house.
THE REMOTE CONTROL: Female. Ha! You probably were thinking male, but consider this: It easily gives a man pleasure, he’d be lost without it, and while he doesn’t always know which buttons to push, he just keeps trying anyway.
GPS DEVICES: Gender neutral. They are a perfect blend of male and female. They’re always positive they know the best way, yet the voice giving instructions is infinitely patient when we make a wrong turn.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Care for the ‘Innocenti’ born in Tuscany established a nurturing pattern of enduring tradition

During the many hours I’ve spent poring over church archives in Pescia, I occasionally stumble across a child baptized with the designation ‟genitori incerti” or ‟padre sconsciuto.” This indicates that the parents or the father is unknown. I also find many parents with the surname ‟Innocenti,” or ‟degli Innocenti dell’Ospedale di Firenze” –of the innocent of the hospital of Florence, the place orphans were taken to be cared for, educated and adopted. Our Spadoni family tree contains almost a dozen persons with the name Innocenti, and I recently found one in my nonno Michele’s direct family line, Bibbiani Degli Innocenti, born in Tuscany around 1735.

The ‟Hospital of the Innocents” also known in old Tuscan dialect as ‟Spedale degli Innocenti, is a historic building designed in 1419 by Filippo Brunelleschi, the same man who later designed the famous Duomo of Firenze. According to Lawrence Kahn, writing in the journal Pediatrics, the Ospedale in Florence is the oldest known institution continuously devoted to the welfare of children. It has provided care of infants and children continuously for more than five and half centuries. Although the Ospedale as an organization ceased to exist in 1875, the building still serves as a child care center and provides community child welfare services, including placement in foster care. It also houses a small collection of Renaissance art as well as a museum honoring the hospitals history.
L'Ospedale degli Innocenti, Firenze

According to historian H. Saalman, the concept of ospedali in Florence dates back to the 13th century. Although the name may suggest a facility related to our modern hospital, it was closer to a hospice for the sick poor or a sanctuary for the abandoned or dispossessed, both young and old. Revenue came from bequests of money and land.

In 1294, the General Council of the Florentine Population delegated responsibility for the care of the “innocenti” to a powerful guild in the city, the “Arte della Seta,” or Silk Guild. For more than a century, the guild had had substantial experience in providing sanctuary for foundlings. In 1419, they requested and obtained the right to a bequest of 1000 florins to build a facility entirely for children. The Silk Guild planned to present the Ospedale degli Innocenti to Florence as a grand demonstration of their beneficence to the city. It also reflected the importance they assigned to the care of abandoned infants “deserted by their parents contrary to the law of nature.”

La Ruota degli Innocenti in Firenze, the wheel
where babies could be left anonymously.
Children were sometimes abandoned in a basin which was located at the front portico. However, this basin was removed in 1660 and replaced by a wheel for secret refuge. A door with a special rotating horizontal wheel brought the baby into the building without the parent being seen. This allowed people to leave their babies anonymously, to be cared for by the orphanage. This system was in operation until the hospital’s closure in 1875. Writer Pier Paolo Viazzo quoted an epigraph written on the occasion of the closing by a distinguished Florentine, Isidoro Del Lungo: “For four centuries this was the wheel of the Innocents, secret refuge from misery and shame for those to whom charity never closed its door.”

La Guardia alla Ruota dei Trovatelli,
Gioacchino Toma (1846-1891)
The “Innocenti” policy established foundlings as individuals deserving the respect of society, Kahn observed. ‟Care sometimes continued for several years,” he wrote. ‟Typically, an infant was nursed at the facility until it was feasible to transfer him or her to a wet nurse in the countryside. After weaning, the infant was returned to the ‘Innocenti,’ where he or she might remain until ready for transfer to a foster home. Often they were placed with a family where they might learn a trade. Girls might stay at the ‘spedale’ until they could be provided with a dowry from a donor or public source. For others, it became a training school to prepare children for their future occupations.”

Similar hospices for orphans were created in many large Italian cities, but the children were given different surnames, including Trovato or Trovatelli (found), Esposito (exposed), Proietti (cast out), Abbandonato (abandoned), and Casagrande or Dellacasagrande (of the big house). It may seem like these names could be stigmatizing, but orphans were quite common, and it seems that the names were not considered at all derogatory. However, there was some sensitivity to the possibility that such names could be a source of dishonor, and so some ospedali later began using the name of the city, or sometimes the month the child was born. As an interesting side note, this means that the famous New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio probably had an orphaned ancestor, for DiMaggio means ‟of May.”

According to Kahn’s research, the disposition of many unwanted children had been erratic prior to the founding of ospedali. ‟Sometimes a foundling was left in a public place where chance alone decided his or her fate,” he explained. ‟In addition to those who were illegitimate, there were many infants whose parents were unable to provide their care. As soon as 1467, the ‘Innocenti’ was caring for 600 children and housing 200 orphans, foster mothers, or wet nurses and men.”

Viazzo noted that in 1647, records show that “there were 1091 children in foster care, 28 nursing infants in the hospital, 21 wet nurses, 642 infants, children and mothers of all ages, 98 other children, 40 priests and other ministrants, the prior, and an additional 25 infants sent to San Gimignano” Throughout its history, he said, the ospedale accepted 375 000 infants and young children.

Kahn, who was writing for a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, explained why the Ospedale has a special significance to the AAP.

The della Robbia's bambino that inspired the AAP logo
When people looked at the building during its early years, they saw 10 blank roundels, concave circular frames set within the spandrels, the spaces created between the arches. Then in 1487, four decades after Brunelleschi’s death, the 10 ‘bambini’ by Luca della Robbia were mounted in the roundels. In 1845, two additional pairs of ‘bambini,’ reproductions of some of the originals, were installed at either end.”

Each of the originals is unique. Seven are fully swaddled from thorax to toe, and two are depicted with the swaddling clothes still tied but sagging below the waist or knees. In 1939, the AAP chose a slight variation of a baby with swaddling clothes untied for its insignia.

What della Robbia had in mind with this one variation is hard to say,” Kahn continued. ‟Perhaps the loosened swaddling clothes represent liberation from the constraining stigma of the foundling origins of the ‘bambino.’ Modern pediatricians might consider it a symbol of emancipation from health care practices based on ignorance. Some might consider the unwrapped swaddling clothes as liberating children from illness. In any event, this ‘bambino’ is robust and free. Ultimately the AAP chose this ‘bambino’ for its insignia . . . the AAP chose well.”

For more on the Innocenti at the Firenze ospedale, read

Thursday, November 23, 2017

An American Family in Italy: Living la dolce vita without permission

Imagine suddenly leaving a comfortable and successful job in exchange for a year of living and working in Italy. Further imagine taking your wife and two distinctly unenthusiastic teen daughters with you. You book a flight with no definite idea of where you’ll live or work, no visa and no work permit. Your colleagues begin to doubt your mental balance, and you can’t blame them.
American Family won a Bronze Medal in the
2019 Readers' Choice Awards contest.

Our family did this and found a way to survive and thrive in a foreign land while stumbling our way through the delicious process of learning to live like Italians. Along the way, I impersonated an Italian cousin, got our family lost innumerable times and met my own personal version of the godfather—the man who hired me and gave us an apartment. Our teen daughters struggled to find themselves while attending school by day and exploring young adult nightclubs into the early morning hours—while we all struggled to work out our differences. Our travel memoir appeals to families of all ages seeking adventure, challenge, a fresh start or a chance to embrace their inner Italian.

An American Family in Italy can be purchased in print or e-book: Click here to order.

What others say about An American Family in Italy
An American family spends a year in Italy–a dream, a disaster, laughter and tears, an unforgettable memory. Warning: this book may cause you to book a flight to Italy. Enjoy!”
Maria Coletta McLean, author My Father Came from Italy

A captivating page-turner about a family’s adventure in Italy, narrated by a witty and self-effacing dad who, though supported by his wife, contends with two reluctant teenagers as he fulfills a lifetime dream. A fun and fascinating read sprinkled with humor, history and the conundrums of living in a foreign speaking country.”
E.C. Murray, author, A Long Way from Paris

As invigorating as a glass of cool wine sipped in the shade of an umbrella on a Tuscan hill town, this travel memoir delights, informs, entertains and refreshes.”
–Tony Bisceglia Anderson, Washington past president, Order Sons of Italy in America, currently National Financial Secretary

With wonderful humor about the pitfalls of uprooting your family to live in Italy for a year, Spadoni's genuine love for the culture and shrug of the shoulders to the crazy bureaucracy make this memoir a heartwarming joy to read.”
–Lizzie Harwood, Amazon bestselling author of Xamnesia

Anyone who has Italy in their blood, either literally or figuratively, should read this adventure. It will take you here vicariously until you have time to come in person.”
–Elena Benvenuti, private tour guide, Discover Lucca with Elena

If you’re feeling at all cynical about your workaday, escape into this sincere, sweet tale and realize the best things in life really are the simple things—good food, friends and family.”
Sara Ost, senior vice president, Group Delphi

Journalist Paul Spadoni’s An American Family in Italy has the vitality, humor and need-to-know details of jumping off the deep end to follow your dreams—a sparkling adventure done well.”
–Judy Ferguson, Voice of Alaska Press, author of Alaskas First People

Thursday, November 16, 2017 and similar services can be superior to hotel stays—if you take a few precautions

Hotels and hostels have traditionally been the preferred resting place for travelers in Europe and elsewhere. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to sort out the various options, with multiple competing sites available to seek out, review, compare and reserve accommodations. And now the advent of sites such as (air bed and breakfast) and is moving the accommodations from larger buildings to private homes, with great success—better prices for travelers, income opportunities for home owners—and new risks.
Photo courtesy

In a recent post, I analyzed the benefits of staying in an agriturismo, and now I’d like to examine the much newer option of booking a room or an entire house through Airbnb, HomeAway or other similar services.

Saving money and meeting authentic residents of the country being visited seem to be the main benefits, and many guests at vacation homes express great satisfaction with the experience.

Brian Fanciulli
I’ve rented mansions in Italy for a pittance,” said Brian Fanciulli of La Crosse, Wisconson. ‟I’ve stayed on a five-acre property on the side of a volcano in Hawaii for a week for the average nightly rate of a room at a resort.

You have a wide variety of amenities to choose from and aren’t restricted to the boiler-plate hotel rooms. You can have a house with a full kitchen to save money on meals. A garage. Privacy! A place that is more amenable to having guests over. You can get character and charm. You get variety. You can stay in places you might never be able to own yourself. You get to immerse yourself in the neighborhood.

Often the owners of these places are very engaged with their renters. We stayed at a beautiful apartment in Ortigia and were welcomed by a lovely family who owns the building. They offered to walk us around town and show us some if their favorite places, introduce us to some of the locals, and they even offered to help us track down relatives, as I mentioned my family emigrated from a nearby town 100 years ago.”

Craig Moyle from Tigard, Oregon, has found the services of Italian Airbnb owners to be exceptional.

Craig Moyle
Our hosts often times end up being our friends and act as concierges,” he said. ‟They give specific directions or meet us to guide us to their property. They orient us to points of interest and restaurants, call for reservations and sometimes obtain discounts. They explain bus and metro directions and schedules, print boarding passes and arrange for that early morning cab ride to the airport. Many of our hosts have been classified as ‘Superhosts’ by Airbnb. These folks go the extra mile. They even step in to help when a translator is needed at the pharmacy or to deal with other bumps in the road that we may encounter.”

Anthony LaMesa at the Cape of Good Hope.
However, it is imperative to approach a stay at an an Airbnb armed with words of advice from seasoned travelers. Anthony LaMesa from the Cape of Good Hope is a frequent traveler all over Europe and much of the world, and he often stays in hostels, hotels and Airbnbs.

Airbnb can be a great option in Italy,” he said. ‟It is helping a lot of people to secure a livelihood in small villages and less-touristed cities—but you also have to be careful.”

Operators of small venues have fewer regulations and less oversight, and they also have less to lose than hotels do if they have major issues. Problems can include mold, damaged appliances, amenities missing, noisy locations and limited check in times. Some travelers have also encountered cleaning fees that are not advertised up front, making the stay not such a great deal after all. One of the worst problems can be insect or rodent infestations.

Search for bed bugs by inspecting the mattress seams under the sheets and looking for any blood- or rust-colored stains on the mattress cover and linens, LaMesa said. ‟It’s very common for bed bugs to infest tourist apartments, because of the high turnover. And it’s really hard to eliminate them if they hitchhike in your clothes or luggage.

If there are major problems with the listing, make sure to report them within 24 hours of arrival to the host via the Airbnb messenger (not WhatsApp or SMS), so the problem is documented. Send pictures, if possible. That way, if the issue isn’t quickly fixed, Airbnb will give you a refund and allow you to leave. If you don’t do this within 24 hours, Airbnb will assume that everything was fine.”

Research by carefully reading the reviews. Most frequent bed and breakfast users agree that’s the most important advice they can give, and read them with a critical eye. Because guests sometimes develop friendly relationships with the owners, they may be more reluctant to be as harsh in their criticisms as they would with a hotel or hostel.

Read between the lines with Airbnb reviews,” LaMesa said, ‟because their reviews tend to be a bit inflated in terms of positivity. Hosts will often find a way to get critical reviews—especially the ones mentioning really bad stuff like bed bugs or rodents—removed. I recently stayed in an Airbnb with bed bugs, and Airbnb took down my review mentioning them, because they said I wasnt allowed to write ‘Airbnb told me to leave for a hotel,’ despite that being exactly what they told me to do.”
A couple can stay at the "Farm of Giustina" near the train station in Montecarlo, Lucca, for only $40 a night, delicious breakfast included, and receive guest services superior to those of a concierge at a fancy hotel.

The protection provided by Airbnb generally prevents travelers from being scammed. All transactions go through the Airbnb website, never directly from the guest to the host (in fact, in-person cash exchanges are forbidden under Airbnb rules). You’ll pick a place you’d like to stay and request a reservation. Once you request a reservation and agree to the house rules, you submit your financial information to Airbnb, which Airbnb will then charge. But they won’t release your money to the host until 24 hours AFTER you check in, which gives time for both parties to agree everything is going according to plan.

If you have a customer service issue with Airbnb, you’ll be assigned a case manager,” LaMesa said. ‟The problem is this case manager could then be ending their shift, so you'll be sent to a new case manager who won’t read the notes from the original ones—and you have a real nightmare on your hands trying to get anything resolved quickly. In this case, be nice, but extremely assertive. And use Twitter’s direct message feature to get Airbnb’s social media people to make your case marked as urgent.

If the host doesn't have a ‘security deposit’ on their listing, they have only 24 hours—or until the next guest checks in—to make a claim against you for any ‘damage,’ and some hosts will invent damage. If they have an actual security deposit on the listing –it must have been there when you booked—they will have 14 days to make a claim against you. If a host does come asking for money for some ridiculous reason (i.e. asking €500 for a broken Ikea table that cost €50 and was already broken when you arrived), make sure you stand your ground when communicating with Airbnb, which will ultimately decide what, if anything you have to pay. The same goes when requesting money from a host for broken or missing amenities, or problems during the stay.”

One other important piece of advice from LaMesa regards extended stays. If you stay for 28 days or longer, you have a special ‘long-term cancellation policy’ applied to your booking, which means you can’t leave early without paying for the entirety of your first month,” he said. This is a big deal. Even if the host has a ‘flexible’ cancellation policy, if you book for a month or more, you’re covered by this more restrictive policy.”

Fanciulli is also well-traveled, using mostly HomeAway (formerly VRBO), and he chipped in with additional advice. It’s important to note that there are major differences in definitions and expectations for certain creature comforts in Italy versus the United States,” Fanciulli said, making the following points:
  • The first floor (1° in Italian) means the second floor in Italy. The ground floor is zero. This can be important for those who are stair-challenged, as elevators are rare and often small and precarious in older buildings.
  • The number of rooms usually refers to total rooms, including bedrooms, living areas, kitchen, etc. Bedrooms don’t necessarily have closets or doors. A living area may qualify, for the person listing it, as a bedroom. Look for clues about things like this in the reviews.
  • The second B in B&B often gets lost in translation in Italy. Unless explicitly mentioned, there will be no breakfast. However, I have found it to be common that if there is a kitchen, they usually leave you well stocked with things to munch on.
  • If you’re driving, parking should be a top consideration. If you’re staying in a city center, forget it or be prepared to park outside the wall or whatever designates il centro.
  • There will be no air conditioning unless explicitly stated. Italy gets hot in the summer. I opt for ground floor rentals in old buildings during hot seasons as they’re usually within thick stone walls and stay naturally cool. Upper floor apartments, while tempting for views, can be miserable in the heat. You’re going to spend most of your time out and about, so opt for practicality and function over views.
  • Quiet’ is a relative term. Bring earplugs.
  • Beds are rarely the spring mattresses we’re used to in the US. A typical Italian bed is foam on a board. I don't think there is a such thing as a box spring in Italy. Spare beds are often futons or something of the like. If this is an issue, ask before you book and look for clues in the reviews.”

Armed with solid information and by taking a few precautions, your experiences at vacation home can be even better than at a hotel stay.

I’ve actually had more issues with hotels than I have ever had with vacation rentals,” Fanciulli said. ‟Overbooking. Bad rooms. Noisy neighbors. Poor service. Accommodations being nothing like what the website represented.”

If you research a listing well—read most of the reviews, message the host before booking with any questions and negotiate the nightly rate if you feel it’s too high—and are prepared to be an advocate for yourself if things go wrong during your stay, you can have a pleasant Airbnb experience in a unique property,” LaMesa added.

*  *  *
Another great option is to stay in an agriturismo. For more on this, read Staying at an agriturismo can show you Italy up close at its finest.

You can use this link to enroll in airbnb:
I will receive a credit with airbnb if you enroll with this link and stay in an airbnb. Once you sign up, you can create a similar link for your friends.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Staying at an agriturismo can show you Italy up close and at its finest

If you are traveling and want to stay overnight in an Italian city, you stay in a hotel, or maybe a bed and breakfast. But for a country vacation, an agriturismo is often the best choice. Staying at an agriturismo combines the best of Italy’s spectacular rural beauty with hospitality, luxury and value.

The word agriturismo combines ‟agriculture” and ‟tourism” and is a style of vacationing in farm house resorts that was written into Italian law in 1985. An agriturismo is an independently owned farm that the owners have converted into partial use to accommodate tourists. That means that the owners are primarily farmers, and your room is in the farmer’s house or in an old outbuilding converted into guest rooms. With space outside to roam, an agriturismo vacation is suitable for an entire family, although it can also be suitably luxurious or romantic for a couple to enjoy.

They are all over the range of places to stay, from rustic and really funky to posh and good enough for any elegant wedding,” said Kimberly Breeze, a Californian who now lives in Florence, Italy.
Colorful grapevines in Umbria.

An Italian agriturismo will often serve foods to guests prepared from raw materials produced on the farm or at least locally. Despite the rural nature of the lodging, one might expect a rustic experience; yet many agriturismi (the plural form of agriturismo) feature rather luxurious accommodations as well as swimming pools.
The Casolare dei Fiori, where Lucy and I stayed for two or three months a year from 2011 to 2015, near Montecarlo.

If we stay anywhere but our own holiday home in Italy, we always go to an agriturismo,” said Daniela Condon of Bradford, United Kingdom. ‟We prefer quiet places with a pool, off the beaten track, very comfortable, unfussy and unpretentious country surroundings, wonderful food made with local often organic produce, very fine wine and very good value for money.”

Tuscan hills and fields. Photo courtesy of Massi "The Driver" Mori.
The informality can also be a plus. You can often call just a couple of days in advance and still be accommodated. You are usually welcomed by the establishment’s actual owners, not a paid employee, and you get a close-up look at an Italian farm family in action. One of the most memorable aspects of an Italy vacation is the people you meet—and you are much more likely to develop a relationship at an agriturismo than a hotel. At most of the farm-stays we’ve experienced, the owners have been super friendly.
An agriturismo is absolutely the best way to get the complete Italian experience,” said Colleen Lee of Townsville, Australia. ‟I found mine in Tuscany years ago and go one or two times a year.
Ancient grapevines in Umbria.
Another aspect we love about agriturismi is that each is unique—from the products the farm produces to the types of rooms and the meals offered. The grounds and rooms have been developed to match the personal tastes of the owners. Some offer meals and others don’t. Some owners speak only Italian but have found ways to communicate essential information anyway.
We also like the privacy; many times we’ve been the only guests, especially during the off-seasons. Some people have the misconception that because a meal is sometimes provided, everyone will be sitting together at dinner, but this is not so. If there are other guests also dining at the same time, they will generally be at a separate table—unless you invite them to share yours, which is not a bad idea. Don’t forget, it is people that usually prove to be the most memorable part of a vacation.

This is the best way to travel in my opinion,” said Lisa Castrignano of Monte Rinaldo, Le Marche, Italy. ‟They are a good value and it is nice to get to know the owners. We have met good friends this way as we have returned to several for years. We do try and find one that offers meals so we don’t always have to drive someplace.”
Sheep farmer in countryside near the Casolare dei Fiori.
The cost can run about 50 to 70 euros a night for a two-person unit, which often includes a mini-kitchen. Breakfast is sometimes included, but not routinely. Some agriturismi include dinner in the price, while others make it available at a reasonable rate. However, the savings from having a kitchen can be substantial. Excellent homemade Italian food can be purchased at bargain prices at a local rosticceria, macelleria or large grocery store (see How to eat well in Italy), which can help keep your food budget more manageable.
Youll get the chance to discover a different Italy—hidden places, great food , great wines, amazing landscapes,” said Adrian Tudor of Roermond, Netherlands.

My family has an agriturismo in Sicily, and I can say that staying in agriturismi is getting more and more popular,” said Dora Moscati of Siracusa, Sicily. ‟But if you really want to meet the family or take part in activities, you can’t book just two nights. You have to stay at least a week to share cooking, making marmalade or limoncello or visiting the orchard. Only with slow traveling can you really enjoy an agriturismo experience.”
Old buildings in the remote hilltop village of Lucchio.
Agriturismi are everywhere in Italy. Just go to Google maps and type in the name of a city and then agriturismo if you don’t believe it. They won’t all have the word agriturismo in the name. Some say farm, fattoria, podere or tenuta, which all mean pretty much the same things. However, because they are farms, they are often not located near train stations, so it is easiest to be traveling by car. Otherwise, it will take some searching to find the few that can be easily reached by public transportation.

‟Read the info really carefully, Breeze cautioned, to see how far they are from any services and what is open seasonally, such as restaurants, bars, pools and other features—especially determine the distance from the nearest town. E-mail them directly if you need more info. My biggest beef is the pool in the photos is usually only open June to September.”

Some agriturismo owners will pick you up and take you to the train stations, but then you are dependent on both the schedules of the proprietor and the train. Lucy and I have done this in our earlier years of Italy travel, but we don’t like to be so restricted and now almost always go by rental car. Some farms are extremely remote and must be reached on long dirt roads winding into the hills. If your vacation plans include frequent day trips, avoid these, but if it is peace, quiet and isolation you seek, they are perfect escapes.
You can reserve an agriturismo on most of the popular booking sites. The website has a good filter to help narrow down the amenities. You can also just find them on Google maps and contact the owners directly Most of them have their own web sites.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

See the world through the talented eye of cousin Stefano Lotumolo

Stefano in Rome, Italy
When I first met Stefano Lotumolo in the spring of 2012, he was 24 years old and a farmer, working in his family’s fields, as have countless members of the Seghieri family through the centuries. The family grows flowers and shrubs, common crops in San Salvatore, where Stefano lives with his parents Michele Lotumolo and Fiorella Seghieri and three sisters. Fiorella is my fourth cousin. Her nonno Bruno Seghieri and my nonna Anita Seghieri were second cousins, born only four years apart in San Salvatore.
Stefano at his art exhibition.

I could sense some restlessness in Stefano’s soul five years ago. He wanted to work in Spain, or maybe the United States, or maybe Australia. We talked about the possibility of him spending the summer working with us in Gig Harbor, but that didn’t work out. In the next couple of years, he did take trips to the U.S. and Australia—but that didn’t get the travel bug out of his system. It only made him more eager to see the world.
This photo, taken in Indonesia, was part of Stefano's gallery exhibit in Altopascio in October.

Two years ago he took a leap in the dark and struck out on a long journey, traveling mainly on his own to 24 different countries on four continents. He bought a single lens reflex camera for his travels and now has an collection of photos that rival those of National Geographic. He put them on display at a gallery in Altopascio in October with the goal of sharing his experiences with his home community and also to obtain donations for an orphanage in Tanzania that he visited during his voyage.

I’m super happy to show people how I’m seeing the world,” he told me. ‟This way people can know a new culture while staying on their couches.”

While Stefano’s main passion is to travel, experience new cultures and grow as a person, his wanderlust spawned a new hobby of photography.
This photo of Stefano was taken just a few hours before his exhibit opened to the public.

A display at the entrance to the gallery explained Stefano’s motivation: ‟Almost two years ago, exactly on November 2, 2015, my life changed. I left the security of my home for the rest of the world, knowing little what to expect, accompanied by a tingling in my chest and a shiver in my legs. I had read in a book that when you upset your own life and leave your mind free, the limits disappear and you are able to do anything; in this way, my passion for photography emerged. I had never before held a single lens reflex camera in hand, and today I’m not able to imagine going anywhere for more than three days without my faithful traveling companion. I hope that you will notice this connection in my photos. Photos serve to freeze a moment of life, to carry the five senses and perceive all, with the eyes, with the nose, with the mouth, with the hands—to capture it all in one’s pocket. I hope I am able to transmit to you my emotions, to make you travel with me in streets unknown, countrysides you’ve never seen, other cultures, infinite colors . . .”

The places he visited were Tanzania, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Holland, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Malta, Greece, Morocco, Poland, Czech Repubblic, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Madagascar, Reunion Island, Mauritius, South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya. He also went back to Kenya and traveled within Italy.

Stefano in Tanzania
He earns money for his travels by working on the family farm and saving all he can. He sold photos at his show, but that money is going to the charity Associazione Onlus Impruneta Africa, an organization dedicated to HIV-positive orphans which operates ‟The Village of Hope” near Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania.

I sold a lot of photos during the exhibition,” he said. ‟I don’t have a web site for my photos yet, but I’ll arrange that next year after the next big trip that I’m going to start next week.”
Stefano's next route, beginning in Iran and hopefully ending in Japan.

Yes, Stefano is about to embark on another grand voyage of five months that he hopes will take him from Bologna to Iran (for 15 days), Nepal (one month), India (20 days), Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Brunei, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, China and Japan. He will ocassionally be posting photos and updates on

Monday, October 30, 2017

The junkyard outside our house has been transformed into a courtyard -- and a gray water sewer?

We saw the west side of our house for the first time Friday. Really. We bought the house two years ago, we’ve lived in it for eight months, and until now, we never saw the west side. We also never knew that our kitchen sink drains directly into the downspouts straight down into someone’s garden—the garden that now hosts Montecarlo’s biggest celebrations, such as the annual wine festival and the haunted house for Halloween.

These are things that sometimes happen when you have a house that was built in the 14th century.
Our house, in the middle, viewed from the courtyard on the west side. That's our terrazza, with the laundry out, on the top floor. Note the downspout that goes down from the roof just below our terrazza and exits directly above the ground.

The east side of our house fronts on via Roma, the city’s lively main street. We can walk outside and within a minute we can be sipping an espresso or ciocolatta calda, dining at Italy’s finest trattorias, restaurants or pizzerias, savoring gelato, sampling wine and stuzzichini (appetizers) or shopping for groceries, shoes or fine Italian clothing. It can be a little loud outside our windows during a festa, but it’s a happy noise.

The west side is a totally different world. From our terrazza, we look over a renaissance-era brick city wall and see the plain of Lucca—groves of grapes, olive trees, rolling hills, the jagged Apuane Alps, the mountains that separate Lucca from Pisa. We can see Lucca in the distance, and the beginning of the Garfagnana valley. Because of the city wall and our position on a hilltop, no one can see us because the nearest house with a view over the wall is a mile away.

Between us and the wall is a private garden, which, when we bought the house, actually was a junk yard. It is owned by a wealthy family that is slowly renovating a huge house that borders on the garden, possibly to make a hotel—we don’t really know. Juri, our downstairs neighbor, said the work has been going on for years. Two years ago, the garden contained piles of bricks, scrap metal and wood and trashed appliances—not a pretty sight, but then we could just raise our heads and look over it all if we wanted. And there were periodic signs of construction on the house and a gradual rearranging and removal of the junk.
The garden/courtyard in October of 2017

We came back this fall to find every scrap of rubble removed and the entire area leveled. A dead tree in the middle had disappeared and gravel had taken the place of the patchy, scrubby weeds. It’s not exactly a garden yet, but it’s definitely a neat and tidy courtyard, It has large scenic photos on the walls of some of the area’s best vineyards, and we were told that it had been opened to help host Montecarlo’s 50th annual wine festival in September.

In the last few days, we’ve seen workers bringing in the metal framework for the house of horror for Montecharloween, and that’s how we finally got a view of the west side of our house. We walked by and saw that the entryway open for the workers, and we went inside with them. We were pleased to see that our house stood out among the half dozen others adjoining the garden, because we had collaborated with Juri’s family to paint both the east and west sides a cheery bright yellow. We enjoy the fresh look of the east side each time we approach from the street, and it was nice to get a few minutes of pleasure and pride by looking at the west side.

The enjoyment was tempered, however, by the discovery the previous day that our sink—including our dishwasher—was draining directly into the garden. Juri had come up to ask us not to use the little sink outside on our terrazza to wash dishes, because it drained into the garden right outside the ground floor of our shared house. We were confused, because we never use that sink. We knew it drained directly into the gutters. Why would he be telling us not to use something we already didn’t use? And then it dawned on me. What if the kitchen sink did the same thing? It only took a moment for all of us to discover, with horror, that it did.

How long has it been doing that?” Lucy asked. ‟Always,” Juri said. ‟We just didn’t know it, because the garden has been overgrown for years. Now I put a sidewalk outside the house, and the garden has been all cleaned up.”
This view from the ground of the courtyard shows the large house in the middle that belongs to the family which owns the courtyard. It may not look like it from the outside, but gradually it is being refurbished.

Fortunately, the soil is fairly absorbent, and the water drains straight across Juri’s sidewalk before forming a small puddle that dissipates fairly quickly—but I see a few grains of rice in the puddle, residue from our dishes. Now I’m thankful that we weren’t here for the wine festival and that we’ll be gone before Halloween. Imagine what a brutta figura this would have made if our kitchen scraps had coming pouring out among a crowd of celebrating tourists and city officials.

Juri will have his idraulico—plumber—see what needs to be done to join the kitchen drain with the bathroom drain (which, we are certain, properly flows into the sanitary sewer system), and it will be fixed by time we come back in the winter. The next time we’re in Montecarlo and the garden is opened for a festa, we’ll be able to enjoy the event and the view of our house proudly.