Monday, September 26, 2022

A visit to France while living in Italy

Our Washington friends in Paris
Lucy and I are just wrapping up a 12-day sojourn in France, our first time here since we started coming to Italy regularly in 2001 (save for a half day trip just across the border in 2002). With France being relatively close to Tuscany, what has kept us away all these years? After all, France is the most visited country by tourists (Italy is number five). And what are our impressions now that we are here?

Lucy in Monet's garden, Giverny

We hadn’t traveled to France before because my interests have been focused on Italy as my primary ancestral homeland (we’ve also taken shorter trips to Holland, England and Germany, where Lucy and I both have roots). My dad’s parents were raised and married in Montecarlo, between Lucca and Montecatini, so I wanted to renew ties with relatives and gain an understanding and appreciation for what my grandparents had left behind when they moved to Washington for good in 1909. We’ve invested quite a bit of time and effort learning Italian and trying to fit in with the culture, and we don’t even travel much now when we are in Italy.

We were serenaded on the Paris
metro by this guy.
We would not even have taken this trip to France had it not been for a group of long-time friends from Washington who were coming here on a two-week vacation. Since we were already in Italy, we decided to fly from Pisa to Paris and join them on some of their explorations. It has been well worth the while, mainly because they are such amazing people and dear friends. Some we have known for as long as 50 years. One of them, Greg Heath, is an experienced traveler and born planner, so  we basically had the services of a free sweetheart  tour guide to lead us.

And what about France? Well, we can see why so many people come here. The countryside is beautiful, the food exceptional, the cities lively, and every place is packed with history and amazing architecture. In these respects, it is a lot like Italy, which is one reason we had no strong desire to come. We still have a lot of places we haven’t seen in Italy—and at least we understand Italian and can pronounce the names of the city, something we struggle with in France.

Of course we had
to see La Gioconda.
But to state the obvious, there are poignant places in France that one can’t see in Italy. We visited several of the battlefields of Normandy, sobering reminders of the valiant soldiers, airmen and seamen who gave their all to free the world from Nazi occupation. We saw the home and garden of the brilliant impressionist painter Claude Monet. The Louvre, L’Orangerie and other museums overwhelmed our senses with brilliant art.

We observed other obvious differences between the two countries. Black people are much more fully integrated into French society than they are in Italy. France has many more people of Italian descent than the opposite, and this was obvious as we saw many stores and mailboxes with Italian names. In fact, I recently read that France is home for 4 million people of Italian descent as well as 460,000 Italian citizens living abroad.

Utah beach monument
We also encountered more people in France who speak English than we normally do in Italy, though this could be skewed because we spent much of our time in heavily touristed areas. We had heard that French people can be impatient or even rude with Americans because of our ignorance of their language and culture. Instead, we were always treated with the utmost kindness and respect.

All in all, it was a great experience. While the best part was just being with our friends, France is definitely worthy of its high ranking as a tourist destination. But as we head back to our Montecarlo home, we look forward to a few days of rest before heading out to our next adventure—South Africa.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Luigi Spadoni, the founder of Spazio Spadoni, an extraordinary man

If you read my recent blog about Spazio Spadoni, you may be wondering—as I did—who is Luigi Cesare Pizzi Spadoni? Where does he fit in our family tree? And what kind of a man is he, to do what he is doing now?

Luigi Spadoni, with Carlo and Paul
Luigi was born the same year as I, 1953. He does not exactly fit in our family tree as it stands presently, but both Carlo Spadoni and I are convinced Luigi is a descendant of Francesco Spadoni, born around 1455 and the father of two sons born in nearby Stignano in the late 1400s. Francesco is the common ancestor of pretty much every Spadoni family in the Valdinievole.

Luigi knows only that his family comes from Fucecchio, but he can’t trace that back further than his grandfather. Fucecchio is about 13 miles south of Stignano, and I have never checked to see if the baptismal records for the churches there are available to the public. However, from legal documents that Carlo has obtained, we’re aware that several Spadoni families from Stignano owned property in Fucecchio, and it is likely that Luigi has descended from one of these families. His family could also have moved there in later centuries.

Without hunting down the documents or doing a Y-DNA test, we’ll likely never know with 100 percent certainty if Luigi is a descendant of Francesco, but the likelihood is high, given the geographical realities.

Luigi, Paul, Carlo at the Convent
of San Cerbone, near Lucca, the
headquarters of Spazio Spadoni.
This leaves us with the question about what kind of man he is, and since I only met with him for a dinner and tour of the convent in San Cerbone, I have only a few immediate impressions. I know that in 1988, he and his father Giuseppe founded Spencer Italia, now one of the largest suppliers of emergency medical equipment in the world, a company that is committed to “take on the difficult challenges that the delicate and dynamic EMS market throws up every day, putting in commitment, passion and quality.”

The company’s website further states that it provides “a range of more than 1,700 products, efficiently covering the emergency, medical and funeral sectors. When it comes to safety, quality is not an option; it is the minimum requirement of any performance intended to last. Every project at Spencer is born to set new quality standards. Constant interaction with customers and operators is how quality can be moved to its highest limits. This is how the true soul of innovation is nurtured.”

I also know that for much of his life, Luigi has been an active member of the Misercordia, which gave him regular opportunities to see his products put to use, and which also kept him in close contact with other users of medical equipment. Since Luigi did not marry and has no children, when he sold the company about two years ago, he decided to invest his money and time in a new organization with ambitious goals.

Luigi, second from left, at the recent 
convention on courage at Spazio Spadoni
In my brief contact with Luigi, I quickly concluded that he’s a man of vision, action and compassion. When asked why he didn’t marry, he told me that no woman would have been able to put up with him. Spazio Spadoni, though it works with organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church, does not seem like an overtly religious organization. The website states: “With a view to being at the service of the development of mission processes of mercy, the foundation therefore makes itself available to host individuals, groups, and organizations that wish to use the convent for personal or group moments where they can meditate, study, discuss and plan.”

Realizing that my brief time with Luigi would not be nearly enough to give me an accurate picture of who he is, I asked his chief administrator, Selene Pera, to collect some statements from people who have known Luigi through the years. Here are the results.

Alberto Di Grazia: “He’s a person in perpetual motion, with interests in different fields, even apparently distant from each other but united by passion. He’s a friend you can count on, who does not back down when a hand is needed. He’s an entrepreneur, a volcano of projects, which—most importantly—he regularly succeeds in carrying out; and with his own abilities, not by exploiting others, as often, unfortunately, happens. He’s a practical dreamer; a characteristic of him is tending to think outside the box; he uses so-called “lateral thinking,” always aimed at the concreteness of the result.”

Lucia Anghinetti: “Luigi is not just a man but a universe capable of creating worlds—worlds so distant and yet connected by the tenacious threads of intuition, concreteness, dreams, courage, instinct, generosity and passion for challenges. His achievements are numerous and recognized in all the areas in which he has expressed himself, yet this is not what makes him an extraordinary individual. His main talent is never losing sight of wonder. His eyes are always alight with wonder at life, at sunsets, at blossoming trees, at hugs, at flowing river water, at the hues and colors of the soul that make his persona. He is a Person.”

Nino Savarino: “Luigi is a man of deep faith and in love with God. He combines the beauty of inner silence and communion with God with the concrete action of the works of mercy. A missionary of working love, Luigi has succeeded in bringing together confraternities of mercy and religious congregations scattered throughout the world for the offering of the heart to the poor and men of good will. Luigi knows how to take your hands and pray together.”

Andrea Del Bianco: “Luigi is truly a ‘great soul.’ It’s incredible how such a busy person always finds time to think about everyone. He’s “un Grande,” a “Big Person,” but he is always able to smile and be amazed at even the smallest things. When you need him, he is there. Always. Often before. Luigi is a true entrepreneur, giving off endless energy, almost restless, but always capable of combining a great sense of doing with a depth of being.”

My own final observation: “Luigi is a credit to the Spadoni name . . . and the human race.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Now the Spadoni name is associated with an amazing international charity

Just when I thought that nothing could match other surprising discoveries that I’ve made about the Spadoni and Seghieri families, another revelation smacked me in the face the week after our family reunion this May—one almost too amazing to believe.

Selene Pera, Paul Spadoni, Luigi Spadoni, Carlo
Spadoni at the entrance of il Convento di San Cerbone.
Who would have guessed that the Spadoni family has its own version of Bill Gates working in Italy, and indeed all the world, to help needy individuals with his own foundation. Obviously, he is not quite as rich as Mr. Gates, but Luigi Spadoni, age 69, is doing his part to spread love and compassion, and for me to discover that his mission center is centered within view of my home in Montecarlo left me momentarily stupefied.

I can’t take any credit for this discovery. That was all the doing of cousin Carlo Spadoni, who himself was surprised when he heard there was a retreat center located near Lucca called the Spazio Spadoni—Spadoni space—in the Convent of San Cerbone.

Il Convento di San Cerbone, near Lucca.
Carlo contacted Luigi to find out more about Spazio Spadoni, and Luigi invited Carlo, Lucy and me to share a dinner with him at San Cerbone, where we toured the facilities and learned more about his organization. We were joined by Luigi’s chief administrator, Selene Pera, and we shared a simple but tasty meal prepared and served by the resident sisters.

Lucy and I look out from the convent. We can
see Montecarlo in the distance.

The location is stunning in its own right, nestled among oak and olive trees and overlooking the plain of Lucca, but it is the facility itself that really impresses. It is a mix of ancient and modern, and it contains dozens of rooms for meetings, prayers, study, dining, fellowship and contemplation. It also has more than 50 dormitory rooms for guests as well as several outside courtyards for soaking up the sun while enjoying the company of others or for individual meditation.

Luigi rents the convent for his nonprofit organization, and it is a place where religious groups, misericordia* and other groups with a desire to improve the lives of the poor or needy can meet to pray, plan and receive inspiration. But Spazio Spadoni is much more than just a convention center. Luigi envisions the mission of the organization as one that can touch the world in many diverse ways. Here are statements from the Spazio Spadoni brochure.

Spazio Spadoni was born on 11 September 2020 to foster creative collaboration between people with interests and experience in volunteerism and social commitment and female religious organizations that have social, community, and humanitarian experiences in third world countries, particularly in Africa, South America and Asia. A sense of mission is the common theme that connects all projects of Spazio Spadoni. To make this virtuous process sustainable, Spazio Spadoni supports existing missionary organizations involved in works of mercy and promotes new initiatives and activities to nourish the rediscovery of volunteers and support their interest in missionary experiences. Spazio Spadoni will foster and encourage:
• training for executives, young people, and parish groups
• organization of hospitality and spiritual exercises for voluntary associations
• development of publishing, study, and activities that deepen understanding and spirituality
• structuring of moments of action, education and social planning
• meeting and collective study through “Making Space,” the convention center of Spazio Spadoni.

Attendees at the recent conference
on courage learn about Progetti 
At the heart of Spazio Spadoni is a project called HIC SUM, a Latin phrase that can be translated, “Here I am.” Luigi wants to activate 72 HIC SUM mission projects around the world, and he explained to me how this will work.

“Spazio Spadoni gets in touch with an association and a Catholic woman’s missionary organization,” he said. “A nun comes to Italy to receive training and she is supported by a tutor from the Spazio Spadoni staff. They make a coordinated plan, and then she returns to the mission land and carries out the plan.”

His goal is to activate 72 HIC SUM projects around the world, and each is encouraged to operate a service called “Il Pane di Misericordia (The Bread of Mercy),” which will produce foods or agricultural products common to the local community such as bread, rice, chocolate or other specialties. These products can be sold to generate income aimed at self-sustenance and social promotion, but a portion must be donated to the poor, according to the needs of each community.

Spazio Spadoni will provide guidance and financial support for each project for the first five years, but the goal is to have each mission become self-supporting with little outside leadership needed to continue.

The organization has a number of other aims as well, including its function as a cultural workshop where groups and individuals can obtain funding and support to study and develop media and events for the betterment of society. The brochure goes on to list a wide variety of philanthropic and charitable activities that the organization proposes to support.

Photo taken at the recent conference at
Spazio Spadoni
Last week Spazio Spadoni held a conference on the theme of courage as it relates to worldwide works of charity and good works. The conference was attended by members of charitable organizations from Italy, Philippines, Congo, Kenya, Germany Buenos Aires, Argentina, India, Mexico, Ruanda and several other African countries, according to Hna Angie Valle, a missionary in Mexico City who participated. Lucy and I had hoped to attend a dinner and evening concert at San Cerbone during the conference, but we are living without a rental car to save money, and the convent is an hour and a half from Montecarlo by bicycle—too long a trip for us to take, especially after dark.

What is Luigi’s motivation for the organization, and how is it funded? This is where my earlier comparison to Bill Gates comes into play. In 1989, Luigi founded Spencer, which grew to be one of the world’s largest suppliers of medical equipment for emergency services. It is obvious that Luigi was a hands-on owner who cared very much about the quality of his equipment and the people it served. He was also active as a volunteer in the Misericordia, a lay confraternity which is active in practically every city in Italy, providing emergency care and a variety of other charitable services. He recently retired and sold his company, and, having no heirs but maintaining a strong interest in helping the needy, he used the proceeds to found Spazio Spadoni.

I must confess that I don’t fully understand the scope and activities of the organization, but I am impressed by Luigi’s vision and vibrant personality. He is obviously a man with a big heart, but he is also a man of strength and action. While Spazio Spadoni will be working closely with groups affiliated with the Catholic Church, he said he is not enamored with some of the bureaucratic aspects of the church. “I admire San Francesco,” Luigi told me. Saint Francis is known for his simple lifestyle and charitable works, and he once wrote, “I consider myself no friend of Christ if I do not cherish those for whom Christ died.”


In the short time we spent with Luigi, he made a strong impression on us, and I asked Selene to give me more information about him. You can read more about who Luigi is in this blog entry: Luigi Spadoni . . . an extraordinary man.


*Explanation of Misericordia
It is difficult to find an organization in the USA that corresponds with the Misercordia groups in Italy. Founded in 1244 by Saint Peter the Martyr, the Misericordia (“Mercy” in Italian) performs acts of charity such as transporting the sick to and from hospitals, providing burial to the poor, feeding those in need, servizi sociali (social services) such as transporting dialysis patients between hospital and home and servizi d’emergenza (emergency services) on an ambulance. The Misericordia's ideology is simply: “It is our duty as human beings to help those in need whenever we are able to do so.” During the years of the black death, the Misericordia had the task of aiding those infected with the disease and helping them through their suffering. During these times, members of the Misericordia wore black, hooded robes to hide their identity while performing services; they believed that one should do good for the sake of doing good and not to receive recognition or thanks.



Sunday, September 11, 2022

Paolo meets Paolo: An encounter with Italy's famous chef to the stars

Paolo Celli & Paolo Spadoni
It seems that every city has given birth to at least one famous—or at least semi-famous—person. I’m sure that if I knew my history better, I would know who the most famous Montecarlesi are. But for now, I’m satisfied to know that I have met at least one of the top candidates—for last Friday night I attended a presentation given by Paolo Celli, known as the Chef to the Stars. After he and local author Giampiero Della Nina spoke, I purchased the book Della Nina has written about Celli.

Paolo and I first encountered each other two years ago on Facebook, when we discovered that we had several things in common, including long family histories in Montecarlo and an abiding love for the place. For a short time, we thought we might be related, as I have documentation of a marriage between a Cesare Celli and Gioconda Spadoni (sister of my great grandfather Pietro) in Pescia in 1886, but we determined that Paolo came from a different branch of the Celli family. Still, given that our families have deep roots in the Valdinievole, it’s quite possible that somewhere back in time we share at least one common ancestor.

Giampiero Della Nina and Paolo Celli in Porcari.

Paolo was born in Montecarlo in 1941 in the middle of World War 2, and his dad tried unsuccessfully to find an apprenticeship for Paolo that would lead to a productive livelihood. Paolo tried his hand in the workshops of a blacksmith, a carpenter and a tailor. He worked in a theater, a gelateria and as a delivery boy hauling coffins. His dad tried enrolling him with a local music master. None of these professions suited Paolo, and at age 12, he left Montecarlo to work in a Tuscan trattoria in Torino. And this move opened his eyes to his true calling.

His big break came when the restaurant where he worked hosted a group of some 20 theatrical celebrities and stagehands for a number of days while they were performing in Torino. On the first night, the head chef called in sick, and the restaurant owner, in desperation, had no choice but to appoint Paolo to the position. Fortunately, Paolo had been watching the chef carefully and had memorized his recipes. Every night, the group applauded and complimented the owner and asked to meet the chef. The owner kept stalling, until finally on the last night, the patrons pushed their way into the kitchen, where they were flabbergasted to find their cook: 13-year-old Paolo, weighing about 85 pounds and standing on a box so he could more easily reach the countertop.

Paolo as Garibaldi

Fast forward to many years later; Paolo became a cook in Rome and then Hollywood, where he also became an actor and stuntman. While he had parts in more than 60 films, his real success was as a chef who gained the confidence of a plethora of movie stars, including Claudia Cardinale, Liz Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Charles Bronson, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef,
The real Garibaldi

Frank Sinatra, Omar Shariff, Romy Schneider, Alberto Sordi, Totò, Dustin Hoffman, Liza Minelli, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, Al Pacino, Richard Gere, Marlon Brando, Talia Shire, Aristotle Onassis, Maria Callas and many others. He has also won worldwide recognition as a chef and has traveled to both Hong Kong and Russia in his role as chef and restaurant adviser. Paolo is also well known as an impersonator of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Verdi, both of whom he resembles.

Paolo & Nino Benvenuti (world champion boxer)

I met Paolo in person at the Bistrot Chocolat & Coffee in nearby Porcari. Paolo and author Giampiero Della Nina were presenting Della Nina’s recently published book, “Paolo Celli: Istrione e Chef delle Stelle,” which translates as actor and chef to the stars. The book is only available in Italian, but that’s good for me, as I need the practice, and I am now slowly making my way through it. The story above about his first years in Torino came from the book, and I’m looking forward to reading about his further adventures in the coming days.

Paolo’s brother Riccardo still lives in Montecarlo, and as Paolo’s life has slowed down, he often returns to his hometown, renewing old connections and making new ones. Hopefully our short meeting in Porcari will not be our last one.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Our first Festa del Vino makes us proud to be from Montecarlo

The famous Montecarlo Festa del Vino: We’ve heard about this event ever since we started coming to Tuscany in 2011. Finally, finally, we are able to experience it! It started Sept. 1, the day we arrived, and runs through Sept. 11. Normally, we would be working in Gig Harbor in September, but since we sold most of our business last summer, we were able to wrap up our work activities by the end of this August.

Dinner in the open air in Montecarlo's Piazza d'Armi--an exquisite event.

Is the wine festival everything we expected? Hard to say, since we really didn’t know what to expect. The posters, photos and news clips from previous years don’t list or explain all the activities. We had seen photos and videos showing crowded streets and people tasting wine, but what else would there be to do? The websites don’t say. Since we are not passionate about wine, would this really be an event for us?
One can order a variety of crostini to
enhance the wine-tasting experience.

After experiencing it for a few days, I think we’re ready to say that we love the festa, and we’re happier than ever that we chose Montecarlo as our hometown. It is a small hill town, but it’s lively, with festas, concerts, plays and cultural activities taking place throughout the year. But the Festa del Vino is definitely the crowning event, and now we’re starting to understand why it is so anticipated and well attended.

Here are some comments from Lucy: “It’s a great community event, well organized. People come with their families, they sit and talk and really enjoy it. I was surprised that so much of it is put on by charities. The dinner we went to Saturday was sponsored by a blood donation society, and we were served by teenager waiters and waitresses. Actually, we were served by a really cute 9-year-old girl.”

Sharing a meal with friends multiplies the
pleasure times 8.

We had the opportunity for a full dinner outside that we arranged to eat with four other couples from Gig Harbor who are visiting Lucca. We had made reservations the evening before with Michele, one of our neighbors in Montecarlo, a fortunate circumstance because we were able to skip waiting in line to order our food. It is also possible to order just aperitivi (appetizers), drinks, snacks and ala carte selections at other booths. Several booths offer wine tastings, one with full bottles and another with sipping glasses.

Lorenzo Cecchi entertained
both children and adults with
"magia, giocoleria, fuoco e
bolle di sapone."

Beyond the food and wine, though, we find many other entertaining diversions, such as art exhibits, open air musical and dramatic performances, medieval games and circus-like performers such as jugglers, comedians and magicians. Some of the local businesses have set up displays of their goods on the streets, and the restaurant tables both inside and outside on via Roma are nearly always full. We also took our friends on a tour of the city that included the Fortezza di Montecarlo and the exquisite Teatro dei Rassicurati, built in the 1800s.

Our visiting friends took advantage of the chance to play some medieval games, shooting arrows at targets for a chance to win a bottle of vino.

“It’s nice that they have entertainers for both adults and kids,” Lucy said. “It’s well policed and had an ambulance on site. You don’t feel any fears that there will be pick-pockets or any kind of danger.”

The Orchestra Filarmonica di Montecarlo performs in the courtyard of the Istituto Pelligrini Carmignani.

All in all, it makes us proud to be Montecarlesi, and especially to have a house right on the main street so we can zip back to use the bathroom or get a sweater if the night air becomes chilly. Yes, it’s likely we will try to come here often in September, and we’ll proudly show off our town and festa to any visitors who care to join us.