Thursday, September 16, 2021

Can we survive in Montecarlo without a car? We’ll find out in October

The unpleasant discovery that the cost to rent a car in Italy has skyrocketed in the last two years has prompted me to once again consider buying e-bikes for our Montecarlo lives. I had anticipated a process of research and comparison shopping, but instead—uncharacteristically—I went home after a short conversation and medium-long test ride with a (nearly) brand new e-bike.

I had test-ridden an e-bike five years ago. An older Italian man had purchased it and didn’t like it, and he asked Franco Natali to help sell it for him. Franco let me ride it from Pescia to Montecarlo, and when I arrived dripping with sweat at my home, I knew immediately this bike was not powerful enough for me. It did get me up the hill, something our old mono-speed bikes could never do, but we were looking for something that we could comfortably ride from home to the Esselunga in Pescia or to our church in Altopascio. And, of course, back again, which is the real trick, since Montecarlo, as the name suggests, is a hill town 100 meters higher in elevation than Altopascio.

But technology has advanced, bike prices have dropped, and renting a car for two or three months will now cost us from $2,000 to $3,000. I figured that if we buy one bike this fall and then another next spring, we could save around $5,000—more than enough to buy two decent e-bikes.

A bike shop in Lucca that we used previously to rent bikes for guests has received high reviews, and the co-owners are very simpatici. Laurie is a transplanted American married to an Italian, Mauro. Both formerly raced bikes and have a ton of knowledge. Laurie is friendly, chatty and the kind of person who immediately inspires trust. She said we could easily buy a bike that would get me up the Montecarlo hill for around 1,500 euro. The current problem, though, is supply, as Covid has resulted in a shortage of parts for the factories, she said.

Laurie did have in the warehouse one 2020 Italwin, though, that had only been used as a rental a few times. She would sell it for 1,300 euros and throw in a helmet, and it would include a five-year warranty on the battery and a free tune-up when we come back in the spring. I took a test ride and came back with my mind made up.

Mauro said he would clean it up and check over all the components, and I could pick it up the next day, which I did. I took it on the train from Lucca to Altopascio, and then came the real test—Marginone to Montecarlo. I set the power to the highest setting and found I could easily surmount the incline, averaging between 17 and 23 kilometers per hour while pedaling easily, as if on a flat plane.

On via Roma, Montecarlo

For the ultimate test, I decided to ride up the wrong way on the one-way street leading to the Porta a Firenze, a steep incline, and from there try the even steeper grade up to via Roma. I made it most of the way, and to do so, I did work up a decent sweat in the 80-degree weather. Though I had to walk the last 20 meters or so, I was satisfied with the results, because I hadn’t really expected the bike to climb the steepest and roughest streets of an Italian hill town (I tried it again the next day with fresher legs and a bit more initial momentum, and I did make it all the way up).

Since we still have a car for the next few weeks, and two friends from America have just arrived, the bike won’t get a lot of use for the next few weeks. But when the guests leave, we’ll be turning in our rental car, and the bike will be thoroughly tested for the last three weeks of our current stay. If it passes, we’ll be getting a second one when we return in March.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Challenges mostly complete, we can truly relax and anticipate peaceful days

After a week of trouble-shooting, Lucy and I have begun to truly relax and experience what we love about being in Montecarlo—slow, simple and delicious food, warm weather, friendly people, creative and fascinating architecture, relaxing and uncluttered days, and the challenges and rewards of learning another language and culture.

One by one, obstacles have fallen by the wayside: parking permit obtained, utilities bills paid, gas turned back on, toilet flushes, Italian cell phones working, lost luggage delivered, house (mostly) cleaned up, flowers planted on our terrazina.

Waiting for missing suitcase.

Of these, the most frustrating was waiting for the missing suitcase. We arrived on a Friday, and the suitcase arrived on Saturday and was picked up by the courier service. Each day, we were promised delivery, and one of us had to stay home almost constantly in case the courier arrived. We didn’t have our phones working yet. Our old phone numbers had been reassigned to other people because of our long absence, and for our preferred phone plan, we had to wait until a new shipment of SIM chips arrived on Tuesday.

The courier service gave us the run-around. “We’ll check on it and call you back in 10 minutes.” No return call. Next day: “It will come today.” At 5:50 p.m. I called again. “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes.” No return call, and the office closed at 6, so there was nothing else to do but wait for the next morning. I called at 7:50 a.m., but there was no answer. I called 10 minutes later. By now, I didn’t have to give them the ticket number. They knew who I was and hung up on me. It was time to bring in the heavy artillery: Elena Benvenuti, a true force of nature.

Elena is a fiercely loyal friend, but if you are not her friend, she is simply fierce. While the lower-level employees tried to put her off, she persisted until she earned the voice of a supervisor. He first said he had been told that the suitcase had been delivered, but when assured that was not so, he turned sympathetic and cooperative.

“You should have heard me,” Elena told me later. “I was very heavy with him.” I wish I had been there, as listening to Elena negotiate is an experience worth paying for.

Lucy rejoices that jam from
Frank & Annette survived the
missing suitcase ordeal.

We were promised delivery by noon of the next day. We called several times ourselves to verify this deadline, and we received the same promise. From 8 a.m. to noon, I planted myself by the window and poked my head out at every passing vehicle. Several vans marked courier drove by. One even stopped for a few minutes and then drove on. At 11:45, Elena called and said she had been told the courier was almost there, and we went outside to wait by the door. As the clock tower was striking noon, an older gentleman in a small car drove up with a single cargo aboard—our red suitcase. I signed for it, and our long wait had ended.

We’ll never know why it took so long to arrive, or why it had been reported to the manager as having been delivered, but everything inside was in order; we were finally free to go wherever we wanted. We celebrated by going to the nursery and buying flowers, and then we took a trip to the used goods market, the cheese store and Esselunga, our favorite grocery store.

Getting the gas turned out could have been even more difficult than the luggage snafu, but once again we have Elena to thank. She called the gas company, and in a rapid-fire conversation that would have left me baffled had I made the call myself, found a quick solution. We had to go to the bank and pay the bill with an IBAN transfer, then photograph the receipts and email them to the gas company. We did that the next day, and the day after that, a technician showed up and we had hot water again—no more cold showers! We also emailed the same company the receipt showing we had paid the electric bill, because—Elena told us—they were just about to shut off our electricity as well.

I did handle the trip to the bank and phone store myself, and also the visit to the Municipio to get my parking permit, all of which required me to speak only Italian. I do much better in face-to-face encounters. Now we have a few days to fully enjoy ourselves before friends arrive on Wednesday. Heaven on earth!

I am ready to enjoy the sunset on our terrazzina with the flowers we bought at a local nursery.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Montecarlo has changed but little since we left two years ago

Dinner at the Festa del Vino, Montecarlo.
Lucy and I have missed two years of life in Montecarlo because of Covid. Well, not really two full years, because our plan for now is to live three or four months a year in Montecarlo and most of the other time in America. But
we missed being in Italy for all of 2020 and most of 2021, and that’s set back our Italian social life. It’s hard enough to develop bonds with people here with our limited contacts and language skills—not to mention that we are both introverts—but it’s impossible if one doesn’t see people at all.

The former bank across from our house.

Of course, it wouldn’t have helped much if we had been in Italy these last two years, because for much of that time, people were shut up in their homes, as we would have been as well. So in that respect, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we didn’t lose any ground by not being here. It’s as if Montecarlo was just frozen in time, while our lives in Gig Harbor basically moved ahead. We worked, we played, we visited with family and friends—outdoors, certainly—but we were never lonely or felt cooped up.

We are sad to see that the farmacia here has closed, and so has the bank and ATM that were conveniently right across from our house. Granted, the bank brought some noise and traffic, but our borgo seems less like a town without these two essential services. We are also down to one hole-in-the wall all-purpose grocery story instead of two, although that happened a couple of years prior to Covid. Fortunately, the women’s clothing store and the regionally famous shoe store survived.

Juri & Silvia outside their negozio.

The most visible change is that new restaurants have opened, the main street has become a ZTL (limited traffic zone) and many more tables for outside dining have been set up. Parking spaces have been reduced, and Via Roma is now a lively restaurant row. Another bright spot is a small women’s accessory store that has opened by the teatro—owned and operated by none other than Silvia Benedetti and Juri Nesti, our downstairs neighbors. Così Fan Tutte will be a nice place to show to our out-of-town visitors. Lucy already bought some orrechini—earrings—there.

The Trattoria di Montecarlo, ready to serve cena.

This is the first time we’ve been to Montecarlo in September, and it’s a perfect time to be here. The weather is like Gig Harbor in August—warm but not at all uncomfortable. Despite Covid restrictions, the town is still buzzing with activity, and for the first time, we were able to experience a little taste of the regionally famous Festa del Vino. Usually, this event occupies the entire town, but it was scaled back to provide more control. It was limited to three piazze, and reservations were required. Juri reserved us a space for a Sunday night dinner that included a sampling of five glasses of local wine (all refillable upon request—but it was already more vino than I have ever consumed at one meal). The exquisite five-course meal, prepared by two local restaurants, lasted nearly four hours and was worth every centesimo of the 35 euro per person cost. The ravioli was particularly remarkable, indescribably sweet and savory, but the antipasto and Italian taco were also memorable.

Check out the gorgeous antipasto!

We had our vaccination cards and temperature checked at the door upon entry. The evening was interspersed with explanations about each wine and dish, along with some guest speakers—including our neighbor, the illustrious Dottor Sergio Nelli—talking up a book on local history that is in the works.

Our progress in becoming more native is slow, and we know it will never be complete, but we feel a smidgeon more montecarlesi each time we are here. Hopefully, our progress will not be interrupted by any more anni pestilenti (years of pestilence) in the future.

Guest enjoy aperitivi during "happy hour" at Carlo IV

Monday, September 6, 2021

Life in Italy has its mundane aspects along with the sublime

What was it like to drive into Montecarlo and walk into our home after being away nearly two years? I felt an odd mixture of euphoria and depression.

Montecarlo looked vibrant and full of life, the streets crowded with tables packed with restaurant clients. The wine festival was in full swing. The weather here is perfect, sunny and in the mid- to high-70s during the daytime, perfect for outdoor dining—which is all that is permitted during current Covid regulations.

Entering our house, it looked the same, and we were reminded instantly of all the improvements we had made since we bought it in 2015—all new electrical outlets and circuits, a gorgeous wooden stairway to the attic, three operable skylights and a floor and walls in the attic, new paint in the hallway and main bedroom. The view from our terrazza is still breathtaking. The once crumbling stucco exterior has been refreshed and repainted. Our roof does not leak anymore. Our downstairs neighbors kindly left a basket of food in our kitchen with a welcoming message.

But then we started feeling weighed down with numerous problems we had to face. Calcium build-up in the water lines meant our toilet didn’t flush and the cold water tap in the bathroom sink didn’t work. The house, especially the bathroom, smelled terrible, the likely source being sewage gases coming up from the bidet drain after many months of disuse. The doorbell was inoperative, which meant we couldn’t open the door for guests without running down two flights of stairs. But we wouldn’t know if we had guests anyway, since the buzzer wouldn’t sound. This presents an additional problem, since one piece of luggage has been lost in transit and will eventually, we hope, be delivered by a currier, but how will we know when he arrives?

Our gas has been shut off for lack of payment, a byproduct of our bank account having been frozen for eight months because of my identity theft issue. Fortunately, the water and electricity were still on despite our unpaid bills (we received notice only two weeks ago that our bank account has finally been reactivated, two months after Simecom told us we were not responsible for the unpaid bills incurred by a fraudster in another city).

What else? Our Italian SIM cards are not longer valid because of inactivity, so we have to buy new SIM cards and will be assigned new phone numbers—but the phone store we use was out of cards for Digi Mobil Italia, and we will have to come back in a few days. We have no internet in our home, so we have to go to the gelateria, the library or a restaurant to make a connection.

However, this is our third day here, and the problems are gradually falling by the wayside. After I flushed the toilet numerous times, it started working properly. The doorbell didn’t work because I had turned off some unneeded circuits when we left the house two years ago, including the ones to the doorbell and oven. Running copious amounts of water down the bidet several times a day seems to have solved the odor problem. Our neighbor Juri says he will have his internet back up soon, and we can use it as we did in previous years.

And so, piano, piano (slowly, slowly), our remaining problems will get ironed out. Hopefully our luggage will arrive today, and Juri will fix his internet sooner rather than later. We will finish unpacking, we will clean our dirty floors, we will get our gas turned back on, we will hire a plumber, we will get our Italian phone numbers, we will throw out the two-year-old food in our cabinets—and we can start living la dolce vita once again. Rome was not built in a day.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Strangely enough, we did not need Covid tests—but our experience would be difficult to duplicate

After studying several documents and listening to advice from dozens of people about what we would need to travel to Italy this month, the answer is still a disappointing and inconclusive mystery. Sorry for those of you who were waiting to see a firm and final answer.

When United Airlines called a month ago to say our flight had to be changed, we opted for an overnight stay in Switzerland. While we enjoyed a nice afternoon in Zurich yesterday, I think it invalidated the chances of our situation serving as an example for other people. We were not asked to show our Covid vaccination cards when we boarded this morning in Switzerland, and to our surprise, we were not asked for ANYTHING at all when we landed in Florence. When we went to pick up our checked luggage, one piece was missing, and it took us about 40 minutes to fill out forms to have our luggage delivered to us later. By this time, all the other passengers had exited the airport, and thus we don’t know if they were asked for any documents. We just walked straight out of the airport and took the shuttle to the rental car offices.

Montecarlo, our Italian home town. It's about 20 minutes from Lucca.

It’s quite possible that the Florence airport is not following all the rules of protocol because of its small size. It only has a few direct flights from the United States, and our Swiss Airways flight was probably just considered a domestic flight from one European country to another. I really don’t know why it was all so easy, but you cannot compare our experience with other flights, especially those that are direct from the United States to one of Italy’s large airports. Don’t assume that our experience was in any way typical.

So in the end, we didn’t need Covid tests to enter, but the peace of mind we had knowing we had every document possibly required in hand outweighed any inconvenience we experienced to go get the tests. I am writing this from the sidewalk outside one of our favorite Montecarlo restaurants on a gorgeous sunny and mild Tuscan afternoon. Two months of “dolce far niente” await. Siamo contentissimi!

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

On our way to Italia . . . with negative Covid results now in hand

Waiting in San Francisco United lounge.
We’re finally on the way back to our Montecarlo home after nearly two years of forced exile because of Covid-19. When we made the reservation, Covid seemed to on its way out. We were double vaccinated in early spring, confident we would be able to travel in the fall. Having sold 90 percent of our summer asphalt maintenance business (Hurrah!), we decided to leave September 1 so we could attend the last weekend of Montecarlo’s wine festa.

But just two days before our flight, headlines and our Facebook group discussions were full of information about how Italy is now requiring a negative Covid test for entry. However, we were confused. After seeing the headlines about tests being needed, we read further down in the text, and the stories seemed to say that people who had been fully vaccinated were exempt.

I posted on one of my favorite Facebook groups, “Traveling to Italy,” that we did not have time to get a Covid test and would be going with our vaccination cards and would use our Italian identity cards as backup, but the majority of the comments said we would be denied boarding if we had not been tested. We made an appointment for free King County tests and altered our schedule to drive 45 minutes to Tukwila. The tests would be administered just 24 hours before our departure, but the website promised rapid results.

Meanwhile I filled out contact forms required by United Airlines, the Italian government and the Swiss government, since we would be spending a night in Zurich. The Switzerland stopover came about when United changed our reservation about a month ago because of a problem between United and Lufthansa. After filling out the form and reading the links from both United and Swiss Air (United put us on a Star Alliance flight with Swiss Air), the information seemed to say that we were supposed to have a negative test . . . but there were exemptions, and one was for people who were fully vaccinated no more than 12 months before arrival. This exemption applied to both Italy and Switzerland.

We were not able to check in online because of the new requirements, but when we reached the United desk at Seatac airport, check-in went fairly smoothly. The attendant looked up the requirements for Swizerland and Italy and asked for our negative test results, but when I pointed out the exemptions below the mention of the test requirements, she agreed that the vaccination cards we had were sufficient. We were given our boarding passes without showing our test results—good thing, because our negative results did not come to our cell phones until we were actually in the flight waiting area.

We are currently in the United lounge in San Francisco, with a three-hour layover before our Swiss Air flight. We expect to have to show our vaccination cards again for Swiss Air, and now we have negative Covid tests to show as well.

Had I known how easy—and free—it was to get our Covid tests, I wouldn’t have hesitated when the news of the new requirements came out. It’s just that we had so many things to do before our flight—packing, preparing for our house sitters, finishing striping a few parking lots—that I considered bypassing the swabs. We might have faced having to quarantine in our home, and we wouldn’t have minded that. But I’m thankful for the warnings I received from my Facebook group, even if they weren’t completely accurate. I don’t like leaving things to chance, and now I feel completely secure that the rest of our travel will go well. We won’t have to face getting Covid tests in Italy or any additional red tape we might have faced.