Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Try Montecarlo for a lively yet uncrowded Tuscan hill town

During the final 10 years before I retired from teaching, Lucy and I visited Italy almost annually, looking at different places we might want to live. Each time, we stayed in a different city or two. We wanted a hill town with a view that was near a train station and small enough to compel us to learn Italian (we’re still working on that part). We didn’t want some remote town in the mountains that was losing population and services.

We settled on Montecarlo, which met almost all our criteria and had the added bonus of being the comune where my grandparents grew up and married before leaving for America. We’ve never had a moment of regret.

I’ve recently been doing some freelance writing for magazines, and when I pitched the idea of an article on a lively and picturesque but largely unknown city near Lucca, Chicago-based Fra Noi magazine gave its approval. My article on Montecarlo was published in the January 2020 issue and can be seen below.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Retired American tech researcher shares why he chose to live in Italy

One of the first things people assume when we mention that we have a home in Italy is that we must use it as a jumping off point for travel around Italy and other European countries. While we have done some exploring in Italy, traveling is not the reason we bought a house here. We prefer the sweet and peaceful rhythm of daily Italian life. We are happy just to be.

I recently read a post by another ex-pat who seems to feel the same way, and hes given me permission to reprint it here. It’s not flowery or profound; in fact, it’s quite simple—much like the rather ordinary pleasures that compel us to live in Italy.

Ted Wobber is an ex-New Yorker who has worked for Xerox, Google, Microsoft and Digital Equipment Corporation, but he and his wife recently left that behind for life in a small town in Le Marche.

Ted wrote:
“Folks often ask us why we moved to a relatively unknown part of Italy. Here’s part of the reason.

Linda DeMelis and Ted Wobber
Today we woke up late having been out until 1 a.m. at a jazz guitar concert the night before. Finishing breakfast, we prepared to go out to do the shopping as we often do. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and lots of folks were out preparing to look at this weekend's Mercato Antiquario (antique market).

We first stopped off at the open-air vegetable market, picking up some artichokes, broccoli, romanesco and cavolini (brussel sprouts) on the stalk (rare here). We then ambled over to see Emidio and sons at the bar where we usually take morning coffee. Fully caffeinated, we headed off to finish shopping at the local grocery.

Soon we ran into an American friend who visits Ascoli for a month or two a year, and we had a lovely conversation about the magnificent buildings along the main drag. Not long after, we ran into two expat friends of ours who were excited about a new type of pasta they made the night before.

Ascoli Piceno
After picking up some dinner for tonight, we met Franco, an engaging gentleman I met working with the Angeli del Bello—a volunteer organization that cleans up graffiti and other ugliness. He was happy to point out that my picture was in the local paper this morning from our most recent project. I’m a bit taller than most other folks in our group and so am easy to recognize.

Finally, we ran into my commercialista (accountant), who was most happy to introduce his wife, whom we had not met before. After all this, it was almost time to go home and make lunch! A typical morning in Ascoli!

So none of this is world-shaking—but I do think it is typical of a lifestyle that didn’t exist for us in the US, a lifestyle where moving slowly and meeting and talking to all sorts of people is really the essence of living.”

Ben detto, Ted! Well said, indeed.

Monday, November 25, 2019

A joyful encounter with a musically talented Spadoni angel

The gospel choir that Lucy and I joined several years ago, Joyful Angels, presented a concert yesterday in Lucca, and a Spadoni earned special mention at the end for outstanding performance. All of this is true, I swear, but it’s not the complete story.

We did join the Joyful Angels for a few months in 2016 and 2017. We attended practices during our three-month stays, but the group never had a concert during the time we were members. Eventually, we realized that it was too difficult to continue attending rehearsals during our limited months in Italy, and we dropped out but kept in touch with some of the members by Facebook. When we saw there would be a concert only 20 minutes from our home, we jumped at the opportunity.

We enjoyed the nostalgia of hearing people we knew singing gospel music in English, with their slight Italian accents still coming through on certain words. It was especially noticeable on “Oh Appy (Happy) Day,” because the letter h is silent in Italian, and choir members had to make a concentrated but sometimes unsuccessful effort to make the h sound. We sometimes quietly sang along during the numbers we had once practiced with the group.

Pianist Eva Spadoni
The choir is now directed by an old friend from Lucca’s Valdese church, Andrea Salvoni, who formerly was the Joyful Angels’ pianist. When the name of the new pianist, an accomplished and stylish young lady, was announced to applause, I did a double-take. Her name is Eva Spadoni.

Naturally, we went up to meet Eva afterward, and I asked where she was from. Lucca, she said. And does she know if her ancestors came from the Valdinievole, where I’ve traced the Spadoni line back to the early 1400s? No, just Lucca. We are probably distantly related, I told her, but I couldn’t be sure. To connect her to our family tree, we’d have to know if her ancestors once lived in Stignano, Ponte Buggianese or Borgo a Buggiano. If they didn’t, then the connection could still be there, but it would be too distant to trace.

Anyway, as usual, the thrill of meeting another Spadoni is usually much greater on my part. Eva knows that Spadoni is an ancient name in this section of Tuscany, and it’s probably no big deal for her to encounter someone else with that surname. For me, it always adds another sense of connection, a feeling of belonging to this land. Pleasant surprises like this continue to pop up in my life, and I truly feel blessed by God to have had still another.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Caught by the "IRS." The slow pace of Italian life has its pros and cons

The Italian IRS has caught up with me at last! And I have surrendered without a fight.

For those who have followed my story, in 2017 and 2018, I had received letters from the Agenzia delle Entrate claiming I owe taxes on a car and phone that had been used by an unknown person who had fraudulently claimed to be me in 2014 (see A high stakes challenge I must fight). I had filed a denuncia with the Carabiniere in Altopascio and gone to the AE several times trying to explain that I was not even in Italy during the months that these events occurred, but no one wanted to listen to my story. As far as I know, they still think I owe money, so I wondered if I would receive any more letters this year.

A few days ago, the postman rang our bell and had me sign for a registered letter—from the Comune di Montecarlo, claiming that I owed 89 euro to the Agenzia delle Entrate. But this time there was no mention of car and phone taxes. As best as I could make out, they wanted me to pay back property taxes on our house for November and December of 2015.

We had gone to an accountant every year since we had made the home purchase to pay our taxes, but since we had made the purchase in late 2015, perhaps it was true that no taxes had been paid for those last two months. We assumed that the notaio would have done this as part of the purchase process, or our accountant when we paid taxes in 2016. Apparently not, and it certainly wouldn’t be worth the trouble to dispute this relatively small charge (the actual tax was only 59.01 euro, but the fines and interest added another 30 euro).

I immediately went to the Ufficio Postale and paid the bill, a very simple process because Montecarlo has its own tiny post office, and there was no line when I arrived.

So what has become of my other supposed fees and fines? Maybe the Carabiniere investigated my complaint, found the crook and reported this all to the AE, and my debt was immediately canceled. And, no doubt, they sent the report via flying pigs, and the tooth fairy made sure the AE took swift action.

More likely, I’ll get another letter next  year, or the year after, and perhaps I’ll even try again to explain my innocence. We’ll see. With the famed slowness of the Italian bureaucracy (four years have passed since my apparent failure to pay property taxes from 2015), I may be dead before they write again (I know, I know, it’s bad luck to say that, but I’m touching metal right now to cancel the misfortune).

As for a couple of other things I was anticipating learning about upon my arrival in Montecarlo this fall, I was grateful to find that the concrete asbestos vat is no longer in our attic (see Unfinished business).

Our kitchen sink drain, however, still flows into the roof gutter and empties into the field behind our house. However, my neighbor says that he knows how to connect it to the sewer, and if the plumber does not come back to do it, the neighbor can do it himself. And, after all, it’s only been two years since I paid for this. In Italian time, that’s apparently not long at all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Two previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci sculptures displayed in Tuscany

The angel Gabriel in San Gennaro. Photo
by Paul Spadoni
A few years ago, I “discovered” one of the few remaining sculptures of Leonardo da Vincia four-foot tall statue of the archangel Gabriel. Of course, it wasn’t I who really discovered it, but I was one of the few Americans who knew about it. This fortunate circumstance led to an article I wrote being published in Ambassador magazine this fall. The article is most likely the first announcement about the statue in a major American publication.

I came upon the statue by accident in 2014. I had learned that my great grandfather Torello Seghieri had been director of the Philharmonic Choir at a church in the small hillside town of San Gennaro around 1900. Lucy and I went to see the church, and there in the back was the statue, inside a protective glass case. We picked up a brochure in the church which stated the sculpture had been attributed by art experts to Leonardo.

The church in San Gennaro, Tuscany. Photo by Lucy Spadoni
How could it be that this town, virtually unknown to the outside world, could contain one of the very few sculptures attributed to the famous master? With a little research, I found that since 2008, the statue had been well known to art experts in Italy, but almost nothing had been published about it outside the country. Over the next few years, I interviewed several Italian art experts and then pitched the story idea to the editor of Ambassador, a publication of the National Italian American Foundation. He accepted the story and it was published in the fall edition of this year.

Mary with a laughing Jesus. Photo
by Lucy Spadoni
By coincidence, earlier this year another statue, The Virgin with the Laughing Child, was announced by art experts to be the work of a young Leonardo. Only 20 inches tall, it is made of red clay and depicts the Virgin Mary, with an enigmatic smile reminiscent of Mona Lisa, looking down at a smiling baby Jesus on her lap. Lucy and I saw it last spring in Firenze as part of a special display showing works from the laboratory of Andrea del Verrocchio. We’re not art experts by any stretch, but we could see similarities in style between the two statues.

Below you can read my full story. Well, almost the full story. A few paragraphs had to be cut because of space limitations, including one that I thought important in establishing the credentials of the primary expert who first attributed the angel statue to Leonardo, Dr. Carlo Pedretti—an amazing man in his own right. Here is the dropped paragraph:

Carlo Pedretti
Pedretti himself acquired his own share of fame in Italy. Historian Kenneth Clark—writer, producer and presenter of the BBC Television series Civilisation—described Pedretti as “unquestionably the greatest Leonardo scholar of our time.” By his 13th birthday Pedretti had taught himself to read and write left handed and backwards as Leonardo did. Pedretti’s first articles about Leonardo were published in 1944 at the age of 16. An article about Pedretti in 1952 in the prestigious Italian newspaper Corriere Dell Sera, said, “At the age of twenty-three he knows everything about Leonardo.”

Click on the page below it to read it without the sidebar on the right overlapping it.

For more information about the town of Vinci, read Visit to Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo, one of Tuscany's best day trips.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Israel trip evocative because of its strong ties to both faith and family

Our home in Italy is only about four hours from Israel by air, and Lucy and I decided to take advantage of this proximity to visit the Holy Land last week. We chose a highly rated tour called “Roots of Our Faith,” by American Israel Tours, and it lived up to its enthusiastic reviews.

Behind us is one of the caves where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

This twisted olive tree in the Garden of
Gethsemane is more than 2000 years old.
Both Lucy and I have Jewish roots in our family trees, and of course our lives have been greatly influenced by our Christian faith, so it was only natural that we’ve long had an interest in seeing Israel. We visited many significant locations from both the Old and New Testaments, including Joffa (Joppa), Mt. Carmel, Caesarea, Megiddo, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Capernaum, Tiberias, Caesarea Phillippi, Masada, Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and Jerusalem. We took a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee, swam in the Dead Sea, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and at the Western Wall, and waded in the waters of the River Jordan. Many in our tour group took the opportunity to be baptized in the river as a sign of re-dedication to their faith.

On the banks of the Jordan River.
At most of the sites, someone in the group would read from the Scriptures about some historical event that had taken place there. We also shared communion at the site of the Garden Tomb, one of the two most likely sites where Jesus may have been laid to rest before his resurrection. Along the way, we also saw many ruins from civilizations that have occupied the region throughout the years, including the Canaanites, Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Turks.

Lucy at the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, where Jesus called Simon,
Andrew, James and John to be his disciples.
On our only free day, we went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, an indescribably evocative yet disturbing experience. I made it about three fourths of the way through it before I just couldn’t handle my emotions and had to leave. I can’t imagine the strength it would have taken to survive the prison camps, and I also felt a flood of sorrow when I saw the looks on the faces of the young American soldiers who first came upon the emaciated survivors and had to remove the piles of dead bodies.

However, we also had the privilege to visit a much more hopeful, positive part of the museum, a memorial garden dedicated to compassionate non-Jews who assisted Jews during the horrific years of Nazi rule. In particular, we saw an olive tree planted in 1984 to honor Mathilde “Tilly” Smith Bonnist (1918-2015), the wife of Lucy’s cousin the late Ernst Bonnist.
Lucy at Tilly Bonnist's olive tree.

Tilly was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem organization, having been nominated by Maurits Hoek, who survived the Holocaust with Tilly’s help. We learned only recently about this honor from her son Eduard and daughter Else, who live in Amsterdam, and we were thrilled to see Tilly’s tree thriving in a large olive grove, along with hundreds of other trees. In all, more than 27,000 people have been honored, although the tree plantings have been discontinued for lack of space.

We were also given a description of why Tilly was selected: “Mathilda Smith was the secretary of the textile firm owned by Mr. Hoek (the father of Maurits), who was Jewish, working out of his house in southern Amsterdam. In August 1942, after the extensive summer razzias, Mr. Hoek gave Mathilda a proxy to act in his name in matters related to the firm. Shortly afterwards, as the situation for Jews grew more and more precarious, the various members of the Hoek family—parents and three grown-up children—decided to go into hiding and hid in different places. Mathilda knew where they were all hiding and agreed to act as the intermediary between the family members, keeping them in touch with one another. From that time on and well into 1943, Mathilda made sure the Hoeks were safe in their hiding places. Each time one of them had to move for one reason or another, Mathilda, who still lived with her parents, hid them temporarily in her house until she found them an alternative address. She also arranged false identity papers for them. Unfortunately, only one member of the family, the son Maurits, survived the war. The rest of the members of his family were caught. Mathilda and her parents also hid another Jew, Ernst Bonnist, and his mother in their house. Mathilda and Ernst married after the war. Mathilda considered it her human duty to help the Hoek family and others, and never asked for any remuneration for her acts of bravery.”
Tilly is shown below planting the tree in June of 1984. Today this hillside is covered with mature olive trees. Photo courtesy of Else Bonnist.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween: Italian and American versions definitely not the same

Celebrating Halloween is still something relatively new for Italians. This is the fifth time we’ve been in Montecarlo for Halloween, and we’ve seen a few gradual changes in how it is celebrated here.

Death on stilts. I think these people had
the plague. They were ringing bells, and
some small kids were truly scared of them.
They’ve got the costume part down well. Italians love dressing up and have an affinity for both uniforms and costumes. They make some pretty good haunted houses. They know how to go out at night and socialize, in fact much better than we do in America. The kids are just starting to go trick-or-treating, but this is an area that they still don’t get very well.

The first few times we were in Montecarlo for “Montecharloween,” we just walked around, admired the costumes, went through the haunted house and looked at the booths (face-painting, a few games, some crafts and food).
More nice costumes.
Last year after walking around a bit, we went back home, and our doorbell rang a few times. We live on the second floor and could see from the windows that some kids had come to the door. We didn’t have any candy to give out, so we didn’t answer, but sometimes our downstairs neighbor responded and passed out some sweets.

This year we were prepared, thanks to Lucy, who brought a pile of American Halloween candy. I waited downstairs by the door. Little happened at first, partly because I was too early by Italian standards, where nothing really starts until around 8 p.m., and partly because going door-to-door for trick or treating is just not an Italian custom. They are adopting it, but it’s a slow process.

Our first trick or treaters.
I asked Lucy to make a sign and place it outside our door, but it wasn’t complete enough to get the message across. It said, “Aperto. Trick o Treat.” Aperto means open. Maybe it would do for kids familiar with the American custom, but most are not, we discovered.

I sent Lucy back up and we made a new sign that said, “Dovete squillare e quando vengo, dici Trick or Treat (o dolcetto o scherzetto).” This means “You must ring and when I come, say Trick or Treat.” Many still didn’t understand. I would hear kids come up to the sign and read it out loud, and then say, “Mamma, cosa significa?” What does this mean? And then Mamma would explain and encourage them to try it. A few were afraid. Maybe older sister rang the bell, and little brother waited a few feet back and watched, and then he timidly came forward held out his candy bag.

Face painting booth--essential for any Halloween festa.
Many just held out a bag and were too shy to say anything, so I would ask them, “Cosa dici?” What do you say? Most used the Italian version, but a few bold souls tried it in English: Treek or treat. Then Mamma would prompt them to say either grazie or thank you.

Another elaborate costume.
We probably gave out 30 or 40 pieces of candy, but we still have that many pieces left over. If we’re here next year, I think I’ll be prepared. I’ll get a mask. I’ll write more complete instructions, with a much larger sign over our door. Something like: Instructions in the American custom of Trick or Treat—and then include detailed step-by-step directions.

Lucy suggested that I just keep the door open and hand out candy when kids walked by, but I didn’t accept this. I know it would have been a good way to show ourselves as open and friendly neighbors, but it would cut down on the interaction and instruction. They’d say grazie and I’d say prego and that would be it.

Not your typical Halloween activity. Older kids had a
chance to try out medieval weapons.
Halloween is essentially an American holiday, and I want to impart some of our traditions. Sure, I want to learn how to be Italian, but coming here is a cultural exchange. It’s not often that I have something of value to teach Italians, and I don’t want to pass up this chance. So I may even wear a costume next time, which I really don’t much like doing, but if it means providing an education and becoming more a part of the community, I think I can manage.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Get ready for a spectacular family reunion in Tuscany in 2021

The Spadoni and Seghieri families have deep, deep roots in Northern Tuscany, particularly in the Valdienievole, the valley of the Nievole River. The first Spadoni we find in our ancestral line is Bartolomeo Spadoni, born around 1430. Our Seghieri line has been traced back to Giunta Seghieri, born around 1255.

During the hundreds of years our families lived in the same region, the local culture shaped them—and they shaped their community as well. Historically, most of our ancestors were farmers, although only a few of our Valdinievole Spadoni and Seghieri relatives follow this traditional occupation today. For the most part, our ancestors weren’t rich, noble or famous, but many of them left their stamp on the landscape, and some of these landmarks remain today.

Consider this blog entry your personal invitation to attend a reunion of the Spadoni and Seghieri families to be held in the Valdinievole in late spring or early summer of 2021, with the exa
Group photo from the August 2019 family reunion in Gig Harbor
ct dates still to be determined. We’ll visit sites of historical significance to the region and to our families, and we’ll meet relatives from Italy, France, the United States and possibly other countries.

In the many months I’ve spent in Montecarlo during the past eight years, I’ve uncovered quite a bit of information about our history, and I’ve also traced the whereabouts of many relatives who immigrated to other countries. All of this has been made easier because of the Internet, but some was still done the old-fashioned way of poring over aging and difficult-to-read documents and conducting interviews.

My vision for the reunion is to take a few days to share some meals together, giving people a chance to meet and interact informally. At one of the meals, I can make a presentation on the history of our families and will also explain how various branches are connected through our extended family trees. At least one day will be devoted to touring significant Spadoni sites and another for important Seghieri locations.

Italo Cortese, standing near the cross where his grandfather
Italo Spadoni was killed by a Fascist mob in 1924.
Tentative plans for the Spadoni tour include short trips to Marliana, Stignano, Ponte Buggianese, Buggiano and Pescia, all small towns that our ancestors inhabited. Of these, Ponte Buggianese is the most significant, as Spadonis began moving there in the early 1600s, and some 50 to 100 still live there today. One of the principal streets is named via Italo Spadoni, after a martyr killed for opposing Fascism. His grandson Italo Cortese and great grandson Francesco Cortese still live in the center of town and operate a large farm nearby. The central piazza has a monument in Italo Spadoni’s name, right next to the church our ancestors attended and in which they were baptized, married and eulogized. The cemetery contains numerous grave markers for family members. Mayors of Ponte Buggianese include Emilio Spadoni (1896-1903) and Astolfo Spadoni (1925-1931).

Our own leaning tower
In nearby Parezanna stands the Torre degli Spadoni, a 16th century tower named for a branch of the family. Little is known about the origins of this tower, and over the centuries, it had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. However, the comune of Capannori restored it beautifully in 2013, and we’ll see the results.  Another stop will be San Salvatore, a frazione (suburb) of Montecarlo and the site of the childhood home of Michele, Alfredo and Adolfo Spadoni, all of whom immigrated to Washington state in the early 1900s. San Salvatore is also where Michele met and later married Anita Seghieri in 1908, the first official connection between the two families.

The Seghieri tour will focus on locations in Montecarlo and a neighborhood called Marcucci, named for our ancestor Marco Seghieri, who lived there in the late 1500s. Much of the farmland and many of the homes are still in the hands of various Seghieri families. The so-called Casone di Marcucci is actually seven homes, all attached. Six are still owned by Seghieri families, although two are currently unoccupied (Lucy and I once considered purchasing one of these before settling on our current home in Montecarlo Centro). It is my hope that reunion participants can tour some Seghieri farms still in operation.

At one time, some 50 members of the Seghieri family lived
in the Casone di Marcucci near San Salvatore.
Other important Seghieri locations are the churches in San Salvatore and Montecarlo, both of which bear testimony to the Seghieri family on their walls. Two large homes in the city center once were homes to a wealthy branch of the family, and one still bears the family crest. Another church in nearby San Gennaro is also on the agenda. Torello Seghieri directed the philharmonic band of this church, which also happens to be the location of one of the few surviving statues attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Elena welcomes you to Lucca.
In addition to these special days, tours will also be offered by Tripadvisor’s number one guida turistica from Montecarlo, Elena Benvenuti, the wife of our cousin Davide Seghieri and a native of Lucca. She offers tours of Lucca, Vinci, Pisa, the Fortress of Montecarlo and many other fascinating locations. Elena is also an experienced chef and provides classes in Italian cooking.

The Montecatini Alto funicular
Other attractions may interest your family if you decide to come prior to or stay after the scheduled reunion. I highly recommend taking a walk or bike ride through Lucca and around its massive walls. Children may be interested in the Parco di Pinocchio, and the beaches at Viareggio and other smaller coastal towns are less than an hour away. The marble quarries at Carrara offer both spectacular views and a breath-taking ride in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Riding the historic funicular to the top of Montecatini Alto is another great option. And then there are abundant vineyards and olive groves where you can sample the region’s famous wine, oil and appetizers.

As the time grows closer, I will provide a list of suggested housing possibilities, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, agriturismi and villas. Each family will be responsible for securing its own accommodations.

Don't neglect tasting the famous wine of Montecarlo.
As for the dates, I am uncertain whether to schedule the reunion in early May or mid-June. The weather in early May is ideal, usually in the mid-70s (23 to 25 C), so personally I would prefer this date. June can be blistering hot in Tuscany, and it’s also a busy month for my business in Gig Harbor. However, I recognize that students and teachers will still be in school in May, so they may prefer June. If enough people make this request, I’m open to a June date.

Keep checking my blog and the Spadoni-Seghieri Family Reunion Facebook page for further details. It’s also likely there will be another reunion in Gig Harbor in the summer of 2020, at which time I should have additional information. Meanwhile, here is a poll where you can express your preference for the date: When is the best time for our reunion?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Italy welcomes us back with an unpleasant surprise at the airport

Welcome back to Italy, a land of incredible scenery, history, culture, food—along with tangled bureaucratic snafus and sometimes terrible customer service. Within an hour of arrival, we were questioning why we love this country so much, because the car rental agency Europcar had canceled our reservation, and the agent at the desk couldn’t tell us why.

We had reserved through Expedia, and apparently Europcar received the reservation, because the agent began to go through the steps of arranging the car. Suddenly he stopped and said that the computer forbade him to rent me the car, but it didn’t give him a specific reason. The best he could do was suggest that perhaps there had been a problem the last time I rented a car, maybe some unpaid fee, but the computer gave no details. It just said not to complete the transaction. Furthermore, he said he could not rent the car to Lucy instead, because he had no cars available. Really, not even the one he was about to assign me?

He suggested I call Expedia, though we both knew that wouldn’t help. He did give me the number for Europcar customer service and even let me use one of the phones in his office, but the agent I spoke to apologized and said her files didn’t even show the reservation number. I asked to speak to her supervisor, and she gave me another number to call. That person was even less helpful. She said I would have to take the issue up with the desk personnel in the Florence rental office. I told her I was standing in their office and they were telling me to call customer service. Isn’t there someone who can tell me what the problem is? If I was at fault for something, I’d like to straighten it out. She hung up on me.

I had no other choice but to try other agencies. Hertz and Budget were all booked up. Maybe they’d have something in another four hours. Avis had one for 780 euros ($868) for 11 days. The Europcar booking we had made through Expedia had been for $171 for the same amount of time. I moved on to Locauto and was quoted a price of 550 euros, or $612.  By now we had been working on the car rental for nearly an hour, all of this after a flight that had begun in Baltimore the previous day and had taken us on stopovers in Boston and Lisbon. We really needed to get to Montecarlo and rest, so I took the Locauto offer of more than three times our original deal through Expedia.

After getting to our home and sleeping a few hours, I used Skype to call Expedia in the United States. This experience went much better. The agent first put me on hold so he could call Europcar. No surprise, he came back on the line in a few minutes and said he received no response. He would start a case file, and someone would email me with more details. Meanwhile, would I give him permission to initiate a refund of the $171 I had paid Expedia? Of course I would! I mentioned that I had a second reservation with Europcar starting Nov. 11, and he said there would be no charge to cancel that.

I’m curious to know what problem Europcar has in its files about me. Could it be someone used my passport identity again to rent a car? I’ve decided not to follow up with customer service, since it is so easy to just rent another car with Expedia, and it was so hard getting an explanation from their agents. I’ve already made a new reservation for Nov. 11 with Budget at essentially the same price as the one I just canceled with Europcar. I will never again rent with Europcar, which I’m sure won’t affect their financial status in any way, but it still seems strange to me that a company can thrive with such a puzzling commitment to customer service.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Unfinished business—some we want done, some we hope never finishes

It’s gap time again for Lucy and me. We’ve finished another hectic, successful and profitable summer of work in our Gig Harbor asphalt maintenance business. But we’re not yet ready to return to that other reality, our totally different life in Tuscany. Instead, we’re now spending three weeks on the East Coast, visiting our son and daughter and their spouses and multiple grandchildren.

So I’ll use my free time to record some details about subjects I touched on in previous entries but never concluded: Lucy’s Italian citizenship, the theft of my Italian identity and some difficulties with our Montecarlo home improvements. The reason for my lack of follow-up is that little worth mentioning has happened in these areas.

Efforts to obtain Lucy’s dual citizenship stalled when we found out that by becoming a resident of Montecarlo, she would no longer have to pay her share of property taxes on our home. Italian citizens or residents currently pay no property tax on their first home. I had already obtained my juris sanguinis citizenship, so my share of the property was untaxed, but we were paying twice yearly for Lucy’s share. This would end if she became a citizen.

Lucy and her permesso di soggiorno.
Her route to citizenship through marriage to an Italian required her to first obtain a permesso di soggiorno and then residency, both of which we successfully achieved in 2016. We were in the middle of confronting the bureaucratic obstacles for step three, citizenship, when our tax adviser gave us the good news that her residency status meant we no longer had to pay property taxes. We know we should continue the process, as some day we are certain to find some other benefit for dual citizenship, but just now our lives are too busy to face this hurdle.

I have since read conflicting reports that a new law in Italy will also require prospective citizens to pass a difficult language test. Some sources say yes, some say this law would not apply in our case. It’s not something we’ve had the time or inclination to explore yet. Hopefully when we get around to it, Lucy’s Italian will have improved enough that the test, if required, will not be so difficult. One fine day, we’ll continue this project, but not this year.

As for my identity theft, I have not heard from the Agencia delle Entrate for more than a year. They had written me in 2017 and 2018, claiming that I owed taxes on a cell phone and a car, both of which were owned by an unknown person claiming to be me and using a copy of my Italian passport. I filed two denuncie with the Carabinieri in Altopascio, but the people at the AE had no interest in my offer to give them copies.

The dreaded Agenzia delle Entrate office.
I resolved that I would write a letter to the AE, detailing my whereabouts during the months of the phony phone and car ownership (I was working in the United States during these times), but I still haven’t done it. I’m torn between the idea that sending such a letter would only call attention to the unfinished business of my case, and the competing idea that such a letter would provide convincing evidence of my innocence and cause someone to close the case file. However, it is easier to do nothing and hope that the slow wheels of progress will work in my favor. Maybe my file will be forever buried in the vortex of Italian bureaucracy.

The third non-event has to do with unfinished work on our home, projects we paid our friend and neighbor, whom I'll call Franco here, to perform two years ago. At that time, we discovered that our kitchen sink did not drain into the sanitary sewer system but flowed across Franco's roof, into the rain gutter and then into another neighbor’s little-used garden. Shortly after that, Franco informed us that an empty and obsolete vat in our attic was made of concrete asbestos and should be removed for health reasons. We paid him to arrange for the sewer connection and vat removal, and we were led to believe that both projects had been completed prior our stay in Montecarlo last winter.

I had written to Franco in January of 2019 to ask if the kitchen drain had been fixed, and he wrote back that it was being worked on at that moment. When we arrived in February, I saw that a tube had been added to the kitchen sink drain so the outflow no longer ran across the roof, but because we have no access to the neighbor’s garden, we couldn’t see what happened to the water after that. I finally succumbed to my curiosity, crawling to the edge of the roof and peering over the side—and discovered that the 1200 euros that I had paid resulted only in the addition of a 15-foot long tube that still drained into the gutter.

Around the same time, a technician who came for our annual hot water heater inspection pointed out that a second hot water tank we were paying to keep heated served no purpose because it had no outflow, a relic of time’s past when Franco’s home (which is below us) and ours were shared by a single family. He recommended we turn it off, which we did.

But I made another discovery while hunching down in the space behind the walls of our attic to look at the unneeded water heater: The vat was still there, hidden behind the new sheetrock that Franco had installed for us last year. We had assumed that he had removed the vat prior to building the walls, and I was dumbfounded to see it still intact, moved only 20 feet from its earlier position.

Rather than go directly to Franco to ask what was going on, I enlisted the help of cousin Davide Seghieri to intervene. While technically I had the language skills needed to point out the problems, I knew that our conversation would require a subtlety of expression that was beyond my abilities. On the one hand, I suspected that Franco may have hoped I wouldn’t realize the work was unfinished and thus it would remain that way indefinitely. Yet I didn’t want to accuse him of this and damage our rapport. One of our reasons for living in Italy is to develop relationships, and this is one of our more important friendships. We’ve attended birthday parties for his children. We share the same building and have worked together on improving common areas.

I told Davide that the best possible outcome of our discussion would be for Franco to maintain that the projects were in progress but unfinished, and that Franco had tried to explain this to me, but I hadn’t understood. I said I would accept that answer wholeheartedly and without question. And that is exactly what happened. In fact, Franco was very complimentary of us as neighbors, and he explained that the projects required the work of other contractors, so he had no control over the timeline, but he would make sure that they were completed soon.

So when we arrive in Montecarlo in a few weeks, we’ll be hoping to see these projects finished—and no new letters in our mailbox from the Agenzia delle Entrate.