Monday, February 25, 2019

Fresh ears bring relief to our Montecarlo neighborhood

Leadership consultants recommend that organizations need fresh eyes in order to see things that longtime employees have been living with for so long that they don’t even notice.                                                                                                                                        
In our case it took fresh ears to make an improvement in our Montecarlo neighborhood. We have a bank right across the street from our house, and its bancomat has emitted loud piercing beeps whenever anyone uses it, 24 hours a day. It sometimes wakes people sleeping in our east bedroom and is a mild but persistent source of annoyance in our living/dining room.

We accepted it as part of the neighborhood. It’s the only bank in town, and it is convenient to have a bank machine so close. Visiting son-in-law Dan just happened to walk by while one of the bank managers was locking up at the end of the day. “I asked him if he worked there,” Dan said, “and he didn’t really understand my English, so I pointed and asked again. When he said he did, I pointed to the bank machine and said it was really loud, covering my ears and making a pained expression, and then pointing to our bedroom. He just smiled and walked away.” A few days later, Dan saw a female employee coming out of the bank, and he repeated his sign-language message.

We thought nothing of it, until we realized a few days later that customers were using the bancomat—and we no longer heard the annoying high-pitched beeps, and we haven’t heard any since. Jesus once said, “You have not because you ask not,” but I never once thought of applying that to the bancomat. Nor, apparently, did any of our neighbors, all of whom could have made the same request in easy to understand Italian. It just took some fresh ears—and the gentilezza of the management of the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca—for our own tired ears to gain welcome relief.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Did Miss USA of 1966 really save Montecarlo's teatro from destruction?

The Teatro dei Rassicurati is a pearl of Montecarlo, one of the smallest theaters in Italy but profoundly elegant, with its graceful oval shape and richly textured wooden panels covered with geometric floral motifs. While its exterior is unassuming, a tour of Montecarlo can’t be considered complete without looking inside the charming Teatro, first commissioned in 1795.

A translation of the inscription in the upper left could
read: To the antique theater of the Academy, dear
to Giacomo Puccini, best wishes for your rebirth.
While its history is largely documented, on the walls of the lobby is a mysterious framed and signed photo of Maria Remenyi, Miss USA of 1966. Surely the reason for this photo was once well known, but now few people know how and why the photo came to be affixed there. Chiara Boldrini, a part-time guide at the Montecarlo tourist information office, said that she has heard unsubstantiated “legends” that Miss Remenyi “saved the theater” when it was marked for destruction in the mid-1960s, but Chiara seemed skeptical about this.

It is true that after World War I, the theater underwent a period of decay, so much so that it was designated by the mayor to be torn down and made into a parking lot. It was unused, crumbling and dangerous, and no one had the money or will to restore it. Official sources in Montecarlo credit the rescue effort to the intervention to Professor Mario Tori, who roused the populous to the cause. Tori also enlisted the help of Italia Nostra, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Italy’s historical, artistic and environmental patrimony. After a period of restoration, the theater re-opened in 1973.

So what part, if any, did Maria Remenyi play in the intervention? Did Miss USA truly visit Montecarlo? Does her family have roots in Tuscany or somewhere else in Italy? Two local tour guides I queried couldn’t answer these questions. Neither could they provide me with any details about her life and relationship to Montecarlo.

It was not difficult to find references on the Internet to Maria Remenyi. Articles about her winning the Miss USA title provide Maria’s background. She is a native of Hungary but was born in Denmark in 1945 while her father was in the Hungarian military. After World War II, the family moved back to Budapest, but in 1954, Maria recounted to the press that her father was imprisoned as a “political undesirable.”

“It was like a bad dream,” she told newspaper reporter Don Royal in 1967. “We lived together—my mother, my sister and two other relatives—in a tiny one-room apartment. There was no bath or toilet in the house, not even hot running water. Food was scarce. When I had an egg or a glass of milk, I thought it was a holiday.

“Once my mother took me to visit my father in prison. He’d been a big husky man. Now he was so thin I hardly recognized him. He leaned over to let me kiss his cheek, and a guard pushed him away.”

Maria’s father was released in 1956 and promptly made himself even more undesirable by participating in a bloody rebellion in Budapest. When the uprising was quelled, the family knew they would have to leave their homeland. Hiding in barns and farmhouses by day and traveling by night, the Remenyis made their way to the Austrian border. After stopovers in detention camps near Vienna and Munich, the family was flown to the United States. They decided to settle in California, where her father’s sister had lived.

Entering school in El Cerrito, Maria described herself as a thin and frightened child who understood no English. Before long, though, she displayed a knack for languages and a genius for mathematics. She graduated high school with honors and studied nuclear physics at the University of California. She worked as a model to earn college money, and her agency encouraged her to enter the Miss Oakland and then the Miss California contest. She not only won those but went on to win the Miss USA title and finish in the top 15 of the Miss Universe competition.

As part of her Miss USA duties, Maria toured the country as a goodwill ambassador in 1966. Following that, she transferred to Columbia University in New York and later moved to Vermont, married and managed a real estate agency and development company. That was about all I could find about her, other than an occasional public appearance at another beauty and talent contest.

As for her relationship to Montecarlo and the Teatro dei Rassicurati, I learned from local guide Elena Benvenuti that Maria was related to Mario Tori and that she did indeed visit the teater, probably in late 1967 or 1968, and that’s how her signed photo came to be placed in the lobby.

During a recent visit to Montecarlo by my daughter Sandra and her family, I took grandkids Clara and Juniper to play in the Montecarlo park. While there, I met another nonno who had brought his young nipote to play, and we struck up a conversation. By fortunate coincidence, this nonno turned out to be Giorgio Tori, the son of Mario Tori, the cousin of Maria Remenyi and current head of the Montecarlo ProLoco (a group which promotes tourism and the good of the community).

Giorgio told me that when his dad returned to Montecarlo after a career as a professor in Roma, he found that the teatro had been condemned for destruction in 1967. Mario immediately began a campaign that included going door-to-door for donations and writing letters to prominent organizations, politicians and celebrities. His cousin Maria had recently become Miss USA, and she came at Mario’s invitation to visit and support the cause, as also did Princess Grace Kelly of the principality of Monaco (also called Monte Carlo). So, as with many legends, there is a distinct grain of truth. Miss USA did help save the teatro, and it is with good reason that her photo remains in the lobby, even if it would be a grand exaggeration to give her the bulk of the credit.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bicycle Runner provides a compelling inside look of war-shattered Italy

As William Shakespeare demonstrated, tragic stories can be quite compelling when well told. For me, this is even more valid when they are true stories about the suffering of Italian citizens during World War 2. I’ve read a number of these and have also personally interviewed former Italian soldiers and civilians who suffered through these dark times, and few have told their story better than Gian Franco Romagnoli in his posthumously published book Bicycle Runner: A Memoir of Love, Loyalty, and the Italian Resistance.

The story covers his life from age 14 to 25 in Southern Italy, during which time he joined the Fascist youth organization Balilla. Living in a middle-class section of Rome, his family sensed the ongoing “masquerade” since Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia several years earlier. As he and his friends became more aware of the realities of the war, they each had decisions to make. Some became fervent Fascists, but Romagnoli and many in his circle began to use their bikes to deliver books, pamphlets and messages for the resistance. They were too young to be drafted or suspected of subterfuge, and they put their status as innocents to good use.

GianFranco Romagnoli and his wife Gwen.
For a time, Romagnoli maintained good relationships with childhood chums who chose Fascism. He recalls a parting scene with a brother and sister who were heading north to answer the call to serve Mussolini’s black shirts. “A sudden chill fell between us . . . we were going to part icily, perfunctorily wishing each other good luck and promising that if we ever met on the opposite sides of a battlefield, we would not shoot at each other. Or at least not shoot to kill.” The sister gave Romagnoli a scrap of paper from elementary school that they had both signed with blood which said, The Best of Friends. “I remembered when we had pricked our fingers, inspired by mafia indoctrination tales. I returned her hug and said that perhaps we should now sign our names on a new piece of paper titled The Best of Enemies.”

As he grew older, Romagnoli had more serious decisions to make. If he remained in Rome, he would be pressed into the military. He chose instead to join the resistance and live in the woods in a rural area in Le Marche, where he had spent many summers living with his aunt. His knowledge of the area proved useful to the partisans and a British intelligence officer sent behind enemy lines to help coordinate the scattered resistance fighters. He helped cook and operate the radio, though he never did quite understand the coded messages he helped to send. In one of the sadder moments, he discovered that a longtime friend (and distant cousin) among his group of confidantes had betrayed the partisans and passed intelligence on their movements to the Fascists and Nazis. However, before the traitor could be confronted and possibly executed, the German soldiers suddenly retreated.

Romagnoli reminisces, too, about his coming of age: his first love, his first sexual experiences, his fear of confession to the local Catholic priest and the warmth of his extended family. These heartfelt sketches and vivid descriptions of a deeply troubling time provide an invaluable depiction of a significant and fascinating slice of Italian history.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Give the Park of Pinocchio a chance; kids and fans of Pinocchio like it!

Il Parco di Pinocchio—overpriced, crumbling rip-off, or an iconic, enjoyable playground for kids and their families? The answer depends on one’s expectations and prior experiences with modern amusement parks.

Juniper in a giant oak.
Though Lucy and I have been coming regularly to Montecarlo—just 15 minutes away from Collodi—for nine years, we had never been to Pinocchio Park until today. Since the park receives mixed reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor, and we’ve not had grandchildren visit us here before, we had no compelling reason to try it. Many reviews say the park is old, run-down, understaffed and boring. But with four children here for almost two weeks, we decided to give the park the ultimate test. What would our American grandkids say after a three-hour visit?

Josie was able to mount the horizontal branches of the Quercione.
We were careful to give them some advance information. Don’t compare it to Disneyland, 6 Flags or other expensive amusement parks with fantastic rides. Think of it as a big playground and a tribute to the original story of Pinocchio. We also read them about half of Carlo Collodi’s book—not the Disney version (with more to be read in coming evenings)—knowing that this would be important for true appreciation of the park. On the way to the park, we first stopped by the Quercione. This is a giant oak near Collodi that the author had undoubtedly seen in his childhood and whom some believe he had in mind when writing the chapter about the assassins who hung Pinocchio from the branch of a tree.

Josie, Clara and Ferhan in the swinging aligator.
Clara finds the assassins: the fox and cat.
After visiting the park itself, Ferhan, 12, and Josie, 14, rated it four stars out of 5. Clara, 6, gave it a 10. “It was great,” she said. “I tried some new things.” Juniper, 2, said that she had fun playing but gave no numerical rating. Their mom, Sandy, said, “I’d give it a 2 if you compare it to Disneyworld without lines. But if you consider that the kids had a great time and it was an Italian cultural experience, I’d rate it much higher. What you compare it to makes all the difference.” One should also consider that the entrance fees, at least during the low season (13 euros for adults, 7 euros for a child), come nowhere near the typical $100-plus for a Disney park.

Junie meets the blue fairy.
It has a few small rides, but since we went in February, they weren’t open. It had some old-fashioned interactive games: a giant chess board and a game where you spin a dial and move players ahead on a trail—with the game pieces being the children themselves. There was a swinging alligator and small zip line, and a maze which the older children and I raced through, with Ferhan winning each time. He named this as one of his favorite parts of the park, while Clara said it was her least favorite. “My brother knocked me over,” she said. “That was cheating!”

Beautiful art taken from descriptions
in the book.
Josie especially liked the Pinocchio trail, where one could see many of the characters and settings from the book, including a giant spouting dogfish (or whale) that the kids could enter and climb to the top on a spiral staircase. There had been a puppet show and some other activities earlier in the day, but we came too late to participate in them.

Money that does grow on trees, which Pinocchio had hoped for.

Clara takes off on the zip line . . .
The last activity, a 10-station ropes course, including a zip line that crossed the small but rushing Collodi stream, was perhaps the best, even though only Clara participated in it. The course was ideal for a bold 6-year-old like Clara to prove her agility and courage, but perhaps too simple for her older brother and sister. We all watched Clara sail through every station with confidence and aplomb. A few kids needed help or turned back, but most completed the course. We were surprised that no adult supervision was provided along the way unless a child called for help or hesitated too long in one place, but we appreciated the informality of the Italian way of doing things.

. . . and crosses the rushing Collodi.
It’s true the park is old and lacking in modern technology, but we appreciated it as a kid-friendly playground that requires participants to stroll, play, imagine and interact with each other rather than be entertained by computer screens, flashing lights, special effects and high velocity rides. With a modicum of preparation, realistic expectations and an old-fashioned spirit of adventure, Il Parco Pinocchio can be a great choice for family fun.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Our attic--ready for nipotini to play, sleep and learn of Pinocchio

I don’t usually post mostly photographic blog entries, but after we furnished the attic with beds in anticipation of a visit with Dan, Sandy, their four kids and Mili, Lucy asked me to snap some photos. I though they were worth sharing here, if for no other reason than posterity. Our attic has come such a long way from when we first moved in three years ago.

One of the first things Lucy said in 2015 after she mounted the shaky fold-down ladder and crawled in under the low overhanging beam is that we could clean this up so our grandchildren—nipoti in Italian—could sleep up here. If you had seen the attic then, you would know her statement showed some vision, and we can’t be more pleased to see that the dream has become reality.

The roof is still a bit low for the adults, but the attic is cozy, clean, bright, dry and warm. One of the rooms has flooring with roads and a small town on which the kids can drive their toy cars. Every bed has a reading lamp. There’s a small padded chair just the right size for children from age 2 to 8, and other larger chairs and tables. Skylights can be opened to let in breezes, which will be important to overcome the summer heat.

For some perspective, here's our once leaky attic in 2017.
Now the family has arrived, and Mili and four nipotini are soundly sleeping as I write. Before they went to sleep, Lucy and I read them two chapters from The Adventures of Pinocchio—the real book, not the Disney version. Pinocchio is an important figure here in the Valdinievole, since author Carlo Collodi grew up only a few miles away, and if you open the skylights on the east side of the attic, you can see the town of Collodi on a nearby hillside. I’m sure that if the late Carlo Collodi could look back from there and see inside our attic, he’d be pleased to see that his tale, written in 1883, is still being enjoyed by today’s children.

Friday, February 8, 2019

A warning from personal experience: Avoid those limited traffic zones!

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the police station yesterday. Funny for those who appreciate a good dose of irony, anyway. But first, bear with me for some background.

Lucy points to a ZTL sign in Montecatini Alto. It is
up high like the one in Altopascio that I didn't see.
About two years ago, I received an automated traffic ticket in Italy for accidentally entering a limited traffic zone with a rental car in Altopascio. The sign was up high, and I didn’t see it, but the camera next to the sign saw me, or my auto license plate, anyway. As typically occurs here, first a charge showed up on my credit card from the auto rental company. This is an administrative fee for the rental company to look up my address and give it to the police. A month or so later, I received a letter telling me of the violation and giving me details of how to pay the fine. I should also mention that in 2011 I received a traffic camera ticket for speeding in Pisa and another in Altopascio last year for being stuck in an intersection when the light turned red. These incidents prompted me to research and write about traffic camera tickets in Italy, and my blog entries on these topics are approaching 20,000 page views.

In my research about speeding violators in Italy caught by what Europeans call autovelox  cameras, I found that Italy has far and away the most autovelox machines in Europe. According to Coyote, which describes itself as Europe’s leading real-time traffic information service, Italy has more than 7,043 fixed and mobile speed detectors on motorways, followed by France with 3,324 and Spain with 1,800. But it’s actually not the speed detectors that most foreigners complain about but rather the huge number of fines which are issued to drivers who stumble unwittingly into ZTL areas. ZTL stands for zona traffico limitato, or limited traffic zone, a concept with which I have a love-hate relationship. It’s wonderful that Italy has restricted traffic in many of its historical centers, reducing noise and air pollution and making life so much more pleasant for walkers and people on bikes. But I’m also a nervous wreck when driving in any city in Italy because of all the stories I’ve heard—and my own experiences—of the risks of wandering into a ZTL.

So back to my ironic experience. I pitched the idea about me writing an article for an American magazine, warning travelers about driving in Italian cities and explaining the meaning of those ZTL signs. I found an editor who is enthusiastic about the concept, and with the help of my cousin Claudio Del Terra, a police officer in Altopascio, I set up an interview with Comandante Domenico Gatto of the much larger nearby city of Montecatini Terme. I put the address of the police station into my GPS, and I took with me Simone Torreggiani, a bilingual friend, to help smooth communications during the interview.

I almost got a fine in Montecatini, but I was saved
by the small print. Can you read those hours?
We drove to Montecatini and exited a roundabout onto the curved street of via Sansero. Simultaneously we saw the police station and—you guessed it—up high, a ZTL sign with a camera behind it. I hit the brakes and turned around in the middle of the street—probably another violation, if anybody saw it. We parked the car and walked over to the sign and camera, We noted the angle of the camera and realized that I had undoubtedly not stopped in time. So here I was, heading into an interview warning people about how to avoid ZTL violations, and I had just blundered into one myself.

Ah, but then we looked up again and read the fine print! The ZTL was only in force from June 1 to October 2, and then only during the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. (perhaps to help people sleep). I was off the hook! We still laughed at the irony, not only about the close call but also how it was impossible to come around the corner, read the sign and stop in time. Even more impossible would it have been for us to read the small print about the time and date while seated in the car.

Here's a ZTL in Montecatini that can't be missed!
We continued to the interview, and I can say that Commandante Gatto was extremely helpful, informative, friendly and gracious. He explained that one can look up maps that show all the ZTLs in Italy, along with the hours of enforcement. When it’s necessary to drive inside a city to reach one’s hotel, there’s a procedure for the hotel to provide the tourist’s license number to the police so no infraction is incurred. He recommended that one use an up-to-date GPS device, which can find routes that don’t lead you into a ZTL, and he provided many more tips about driving in Italy which I can use in the article. Equally as important, he helped me set up a photo shoot with two of his officers, because good visuals will be needed to draw attention to the story.

Comandante Domenico Gatto and me.
Update: The article has now been printed in Ambassador Magazine, which can be downloaded in its entirety here: Or you can just read the pages with my article below. Hopefully, I’ll not have any more unfortunate personal examples to include as research in the meantime.

Other posts on traffic tickets in Italy:

Monday, February 4, 2019

Changes in our Montecarlo home hard to notice, but still important

Each of the last four times we left our house in Montecarlo, we made arrangements with our downstairs neighbor, Juri, for improvements to be made. The first time, to repair the roof and add three skylights; next, to add a staircase to the attic; the third time, to install walls and flooring in the attic and paint and treat the roof beams for insects. Each time, we returned to Montecarlo to see dramatic and pleasing changes.

When we left the last time, in November, we made more arrangements for improvements, but the changes this time are much subtler, even if no less costly. We asked Juri, who is an electrician by trade, to completely rewire the house, adding more circuits, more outlets and a circuit breaker panel with separate circuits for lighting, kitchen appliances, the washer, the dryer, the water heater and the furnace. We had been operating with wiring that had been installed in the 1960s, and we could only operate one appliance at a time without tripping the main circuit breaker and plunging the whole house into darkness. To turn it back on, I had to go down two flights of stairs. In addition, the house suffered from a severe lack of outlets, forcing us to run extension cords in numerous places.

Our new electrical panel, now with multiple circuits, installed in our attic.
If the lack of circuits and outlets weren’t enough reason to order the work, Juri had informed us that our old outlets had not been grounded. We had wondered about this, as we occasionally received mild electrical shocks when loading the dishwasher or using the range.

We arrived back in Montecarlo last week to find the wiring all complete, with an abundance of electrical receptacles. Last fall we had purchased a used clothes dryer, and now we actually have adequate power to use it. This should come in quite handy, especially next week, when Dan and Sandy and their kids come to visit, along with their au pair Milagros. We’ll have nine people in the house in the middle of a rainy winter, when it can take several days for clothes to dry by hanging on racks or on the radiators.  So while the house doesn’t look much different than it did when we left, we realize that it would have looked quite a mess with wet clothes constantly hanging in every room.

There is still one hurdle to overcome, as Lucy and I have both been shocked when touching the dishwasher and range, so something is wrong with the grounding system. We don’t expect this to be a major issue, because we are confident that Juri can find the problem and fix it as soon as he has the time. I should also mention that during our last absence, the plumber finally got around to correcting the drain on our kitchen sink so that the waste water goes to the city sewer instead of the neighbor’s garden.

We’re hopeful that this will be the last major expense for some time, because frankly we’ve spent way more money fixing the house in the last three years than we ever expected. It turns out we were lucky our business didn’t sell, because we needed the earnings from the past two summers to pay for all our home repairs. Hopefully, this will be our last summer working full time so in the future we can have the option to come to Montecarlo in May, June and September (but still not during the insufferably hot days of July and August), when most of the sagre and feste are held, not just in Montecarlo but also in the surrounding Tuscan towns.