Wednesday, November 26, 2008

sign from pigeon

So my funny sister sent me this photo with my face cut and pasted in. I kind of like the haircut...
Happy Thanksgiving to all my family and friends - you have all been so good to me and I appreciate every little thing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Dream House Revisited

I had a restless night last night - you know how life-thoughts seem more sinister and dire in the wee hours of the night and I wonder how we ever take on some challenges in the light of day without thinking twice about it? Well, the dark thoughts didn't invade on the crazy idea of the house in the country-

Yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day so we decided in the late afternoon to take the hour and a half drive to "our" house in the country that I wrote about last month. When a house like this is listed with an agency, it is called a "ruin" because it needs so much work and when we saw it yesterday, the railing of the rickety deck had fallen off so it appeared to be even more so in that category. However, the views surrounding it were even more beautiful with all the leaves off the tree, and I felt so peaceful and as I sat on a rock, the warm, setting sun so healing. (These photos are from our visit during the summer.)

There just so happened to be some people who drove up to the church parking area next door who turned out to be locals who came to enjoy the air and the views. Andrea found out from them that two weeks ago the house had been on the auction block for a ridiculously low price that we would have jumped at (Paula, your comment was right on last posting) and we don't know if it had been sold or not. These folks even broke into the cantina and gave us a tour of the ground floor that included a large fireplace (a perfect study and music room, and storage for wine). I told Andrea he had to call the priest today to inquire. Interesting myth: there is evidence that there was once a castle built under the house and church which makes sense as it sits on the very top of a hill.

So, last night I was restless and kept thinking how crazy we would be to take on such a huge project - it would be an ongoing thing that perhaps we wouldn't even begin for another year or two and could go on for the next twenty. But the challenge felt only positive and exciting, so if it turns out that the timing is right and the house is still available and we can convince the church to pick us to sell this little ruin to, life will be much more interesting in the coming years. I will keep you posted.

Update: the house indeed is for sale, but for about 25% more than we expected. With the current exchange rate, add another 25% and there you have a price that is just too high. However, it does include five acres of land - more than we expected. But we will meet with the person in charge this week and see what he has to say - he did say the price was not negotiable but this is Italy, after all (maybe I need a sign from a pigeon like Diane Lane got in "Under the Tuscan Sun"...).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Summer plans

I have my tickets in hand (well, since they are ticketless tickets, I should say that I have tickets sitting in my e-mail box) to return to the US for 6 weeks this summer. I am soooo excited. Yesterday, I also booked the Montana leg of the visit. So the deal is Ray and I will be in NY/NJ from July 1 to 16th, then to Montana for the next three weeks, then back to NY/NJ from August 6 to 16th unless we decide to throw in some time in Florida before heading back to Bologna. Andrea will join us at some point if he can.

I know it is ridiculously far off but as it has been almost two years since I last visited and by the time July arrives I will really be jonsing for all those things I miss about the US: family, friends, ethnic foods, competitive consumer shopping (Marshalls), a truly wild landscape (Italy is a small country that has been settled for so long there is no real wilderness even though there are lots of landscapes), beer at Triumph (with a couple of my favorite PU economists among others), 20 ozs. of take-out coffee and attending the theater and movies in ENGLISH. And seeing my mother after the death of my stepfather and my dearest aunt this spring is long overdue. Also can't wait for Ray to experience a lot of things Americana: bbqs, cousins, the NJ shore, NYC, Sesame Place, fly fishing, cowboys, and on and on.

So now with these plans in place, I can concentrate on Christmas and the short wish list of one little boy that is starting to grow a bit longer - it is quite simple, really - anything that has to do with Spiderman, Batman, and Gormitis. Oh yes, if he is a really good boy, perhaps a pint-sized guitar and (more) Legos.
Here is one of my favorite holiday photos - Seb and Evan bringing home the Christmas tree in Montana a few years back.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I wasn't going to post this article I wrote that was published last week in a local newsletter (the theme was people and their pets), but I just received an email from my friend, Susan, at Princeton who is going through a difficult health spell with her lab, Chelsea. I know that a pet becomes a valued family member and I am sorry, Susan, that you are going through this. Thinking of you.

Grace, Love, Speed (A spoof on the title of the popular book that is circulating around the book clubs: Eat, Pray, Love)

He appeared to be an elderly dog at the tender age of three. His racing name was “Spuds”. I was told that I could find his identification number tattooed on the underside of his floppy right ear. His eyes were unfocused and panicked, his ribs stuck out and his long tail represented a snake skeleton covered with paper-thin skin. Only his back was covered in thin fur flecked with scars, and the muscles on his bald, upper hind legs swelled enormously under its bright red skin, reminding me of ham loins. His mouth with its pale, heavy tongue hung open and his brown, tartered fangs were visible. He was the ugliest dog I had ever laid my eyes on, and he had just been shipped in the belly of a plane from a racetrack in Florida to be delivered to his first-ever home in New Jersey. I had waited two weeks for him and it was love at first sight.

He was renamed “Shiro” which translates to “white” in Japanese, a name I had chosen when I received the call from the adoption program that this “sweetheart of the kennel” was available in Florida and was I interested? Though I was told he was pure white, in reality he turned out to be white with freckles and a brindled face and back (hence the name Spuds - the little Budweiser beer dog that was the fad-of-the-day). He was on the taller side for a greyhound, and had a successful racing career of more than two years. The plight of retired (or non-qualifying) greyhounds had just begun to make the news and the day the adoption program was featured on TV was the day I called for an application.

The National Greyhound Adoption Program was founded in 1989 by a man named Dave, who gave up his construction company to focus full-time on greyhound rescue efforts. I recall Shiro being one of the first 100 dogs adopted through this program, and now, almost twenty years later, thousands of dogs have been placed in loving homes by their efforts ( On the Humane Society’s web site, it is stated that “in the 10th century, King Howel of Wales declared that the penalty for killing a greyhound was the same as that of killing a person—death. In the days of the Egyptians, greyhounds were valued by the pharaohs for their grace, beauty and mild temperament. But in the 21st century greyhounds in the racing world are prized for only one thing—speed. In 2003 alone, an estimated 7,500 to 20,000 greyhounds were euthanized simply because they couldn't run fast enough.” Shiro was unique in that he had a racing career of two years, a very long and successful one in the world of greyhound racing. Most of the dogs never see their first race as they are euthanized when failing to display superior speed in the trail runs.

Life with Shiro was remarkable, to say the least. This zombie of a dog that came off the plane that day went through his puppyhood at the age of three. With a healthy diet, he began to fill out and thicker fur covered even the track scars. He had to learn to play with his toys, how to go up and down the stairs, to not be alarmed at the sound of the doorbell and telephone, even how to go for a walk. Shiro perfected sleeping on the sofa with all four legs straight in the air (in this case, the name Spuds would have been appropriate in that he became a real couch potato). As he had never bonded with a human before, he suffered from a tragic case of separation anxiety whenever left alone at home, and I had to resort to sedatives and even introduce canine prozac for a period. (One day I left him outside and he jumped through the upper sash of a window to get into the house - through the screen. Another time, left indoors, he was so frantic he knocked framed paintings off the wall.) I will never forget those afternoons when the garden gate was left open and I had to sprint off after Shiro down the sidewalk in whatever I was or was not wearing - the neighbors gleefully shouting “there she goes again!” and even the township police telling me where he would eventually be sighted (greyhounds can run up to 72 kph). I have to admit that we even bought a new home on a large tract of land to give him more running space (he always ran in wide circles throughout his life - never able to break the habit of the track). We were rewarded with pointy-nosed kisses and that ever wagging snake of a tail.

I had the pleasure of Shiro’s grace and companionship for almost ten years. The day he was scheduled to be euthanized, I returned home early from work to lie on the bed with him in my arms, a block of sunshine through the window settling over us like a warm blanket. Shiro had bone cancer, and a prior hind-leg amputation - unfortunate for an animal that is prized for his speed - had failed to stop the progress. I have had a number of adopted dogs throughout my life, but watching Shiro’s metamorphosis from a gambling commodity to a sweet, gentle, soulful companion has touched me to the core. I won’t ever stop missing him.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November Various

We are finally completely immersed in our routine for the school year. Ray wakes just before I have to leave for school at 8.15 (it takes me less than two minutes to get there via Vespa), and Andrea is left to make certain he has breakfast, change him into his clothes, and drive him to school by 9. I then leave my job at the International School by 4, scooter home to drown a quick cup of hot tea then take the car to pick up Ray at school as soon as possible before 5. Ray has completely changed this past week - he kisses me good-bye in the mornings whereas even ten days ago he clung to my leg, weeping, as I tried to escape through the door in the mornings. My friend Sogand told me that every 6 months he will exhibit some major transformation in behavior, and it is strange how predicable this has been as Ray will be 3 and a half next week.

The day after the U.S. elections, the 5th and 6th graders invited me to their classroom for a 5 minute skit - there were two t.v. commentators who discussed the Presidential election, and then a line of students each read a few lines of President-Elect Obama's speech. I was really touched as none of them were Americans, and again illustrated how much the international community has a vested interest in this election (the students pictured are from Australia, France, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Italy). Rachel, the vice-principal here, is a good friend (and she hired me) who hails from England.

Here is a photo of me in the classroom, trying to explain to the first graders how we can determine when a toy is old or modern. I am enjoying my job, I am happy to admit.

It has been pouring rain these past few days. Tomorrow's forecast doesn't call for any improvement so the damp, moldy days of the autumn are definitely here. Bologna's old buildings are famous for mold and everyday I can hear at least one conversation on how to get rid of it in one's home (it grows even behind the sofas and drapes). This afternoon I did my annual bleach spray on the walls - it is really amazing how fast the stuff grows.

Here is a view of the fall colors from our balcony. It can't be compared to the amazing spectacle of the American northeast, but it will have to do (it is rather sad, eh?).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Obama

I am the sole American employed at school and today I was surprised to receive hugs and congratulations from my international friends and colleagues, making this presidential election feel quite personal. There is a lot of excitement in the air. A big party is planned tonight in the centro. It's all good.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Morandi: Bologna to New York

One of Bologna's native sons. There is a decent Morandi Museum in Piazza Maggiore. It seems one either loves or hates his work. I quite like his view.

Monday, November 3, 2008

All Soul's Day

So I recently had another “religious” experience here in Italia. Not in the “church” type (as when the priest knocks on the door every spring to bless the apartment) but in a more “spiritual” one, I suppose. November 1st is “All Saint’s Day” and the day after is “All Soul’s Day.” The first is treated as a national holiday and when my sisters and I were growing up, our father explained to us this was when we honor the saints and then on the following day, our deceased loved ones. Well, okay, to us in America that didn’t mean a whole lot. Well, for those here in Italy, it does.

We went to visit Andrea’s mother in Lugo this past weekend, and on a balmy Saturday morning, accompanied her along with her sister-in-law and her daughter, and her daughter (three generations of daughters) to the cemetery to honor those deceased. Dina (Andrea’s mom) brought a short stack of Mass cards with little strings attached and a bouquet of mums and a potted plant. (Remember the 50 mums we used to plant in the yard around the house every fall? No one plants mums here as they are used in the cemeteries.)

So, the Italians take this weekend to honor the souls by visiting the cemetery, which, unlike those in the US, is a walled in and gated labyrinth full of monuments, small temples, walkways through mausoleums, and row upon row of marble, granite, and concrete tombs. Many of them have glass doors and alters, some with huge, life-size photos of the deceased (usually those who have died young) and smaller, modest ones from the early 20th c. Almost every person buried has a photo of him or herself that is encased in durable glass or plastic. I had visited here in the summer on Andrea’s father’s death anniversary, but on this particular weekend, every single tomb had flowers: in vases, potted, hanging, bouquets, planted, every possible type (orchids, carnations, birds of paradise, MUMS). The cemetery was full of families cutting, pruning, watering (even scrubbing) and praying. It was fascinating to walk through the different sections and to see the faces in the photos; the ones from the turn of the century are stern – the non-smiling women (in what I always thought of as the traditionally Italian black headscarves) and the men in bowler hats. The modern photos are full of smiling faces, some with cigars or a motorcycle, a favorite pet or just walking down the street. Until I viewed the photos, I didn’t realize just how many people die young. Andrea’s father tomb (above right) is in the “highly desirable” area, under some evergreen trees where it is mossy underfoot. Raimondo Ricci has a big smile on his face – his photo sits above the one of his mother, who is buried beneath him. Here is where Andrea’s mother put the fresh mums in two vases attached to the tomb, and then read through the cluster of Mass cards that hung there. Andrea’s mother’s family tomb consists of the four aunts who raised her (four are buried here together - can you see Ray in the photo below?), as well as her mother, Sara, who died giving birth to her brother when Dina was four years old. When I asked about the coincidence of the mother dying the same year as her father (Andrea’s great-grandfather), Dina told us that he was already ill when he learned that his daughter died in childbirth, he then had a heart attack and died the same day.

The Mass cards: one can buy them from the church or one of the local stands outside the cemetery. On the card, you write your name as well as the name of the deceased, and then hang it on the tomb to show the family that you remembered their loved one. I asked Andrea if this was really to memorialize the one deceased, or was it more to gain recognition (and good standing) with living family members? He said it was probably a little of both. Dina hung about 5 cards on various tombs (and put the remaining potted plant in another) but still had a dozen or so remaining. To save her a return trip and a long stroll, Andrea and I returned to the cemetery the next morning to finish distributing her cards so that the living friends and relatives wouldn’t think she shunned their loved ones. We had to call her a few times on the mobile phone when we couldn’t find a particular tomb, but we were successful in the end (“….towards the tall trees, to the left, look for the red marble columns; or, on the wall facing the road, it’s on the upper right corner with one of those eternal candles…”). It felt as though we were on a treasure hunt, and Andrea always had an interesting story to tell me about each person we visited so I feel that we were on target about what “All Soul’s Day” is about.

Andrea's maternal grandfather and grandmother.

All in all, I like the idea of devoting one day a year to celebrate the dead. It must be reassuring to the living to know that one day a year your tombstone and photo will be spiffed up and your loved ones will visit to again celebrate your life. For myself, I anticipate being scattered over a green field to serve as my final resting place so that won’t be in my cards, but for those in Lugo, it is pretty much a sure thing.

A very elaborate family tomb. Beautiful mosaics.