Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — October 2009

A friend with a view

The duomo in Barga sits atop the hill.  The stone paved roads wind up and around the hill, through brightly colored buildings, past rotting doors and gated gardens.  If you walk up amost any path, eventually you will reach the duomo.  Every 15 minutes it gently announces its primacy with the ringing of its bells.

I spend time there, sitting in silence, observing the mountains, the workers repairing its walls, the tourists who come for the view.  The view.  The view is fantastic.

Duomo view

Looking out you see the alps.  Jagged, expansive and beautiful.  You can see other towns nestled in the valleys, and perched on the ridges.  Maybe it sounds cliché, but it’s a majestic view, one that makes you feel the grandness of the landscape.

Looking down, you see a beautiful, well maintained, piazza, children playing, and Frank’s house.  I’ve been sitting in the piazza for the past week, writing, talking with my family and just enjoying the beautiful fall air.

A couple of days ago, when walking up the hill to the studio with Deb, we were hailed.  A couple of men were talking and called us over.  They had a familiar look and feel about them, but I wasn’t sure if I knew them or just felt like I knew them.  (I’ve had this happen several times here, and so far it’s been more the feeling of knowing that washes over me.)

“I think I’ve just been reading your blog.”

“What?  My blog?  Really.  How?  I mean that’s great!”

The surprise of being addressed immediately and directly in English was enough to throw me off a bit, let alone being addressed about my blog, in a foreign country, by a stranger.  I’m afraid I wasn’t at my most eloquent.

Keane, immediately recognizable by his full, graying beard, boldly colored cardigan and paint-stained Birkenstocks , is, like many, an import to Barga:  An artist who, among other things, manages the online magazine, “barga news”.  My instinct that I recognized him was correct.  It turns out that I had seen pictures of Keane on the site, and that he, in a funny way, was partly responsible for my trip to Barga.  Keane was instrumental in the gnome liberation movement.  A misread article led my family to visit Barga in search of the nani.  It was that visit that turned my world upside down.  Cheers Keane.

Standing in the street with Keane was another man.  “Oh, so you’re a bloggist?”  Frank presented a stark contrast to Keane.  Dressed in a button down shirt, with a neat, dark beard, Frank’s gaze was incisive and matter-of-fact.  And he had the most excellent glasses.  I’ve long made it a practice to compliment often, and immediately if I am struck by someone.  Why save it?  “I love your glasses. They’re really great.”

His modest discomfort with the compliment was charming.  Or maybe it was that he really didn’t buy it.  Or maybe pretty girls make him nervous.  It happens to the best of us – believe me.

I left the brief conversation hoping that our paths would cross again, and sure that they probably would.  It’s a nice feeling to know that I’m here for a while.  It changes the dynamics of conversations.  There’s no sense of hyper-immediacy that comes when you know you might not see someone again, and that you need to pack as much in to an interaction as you possibly can.  You can let things unfold.

Yesterday, after my second cappuccino of the day, I was making my way up to the duomo when I saw some friends of Deb’s sister sitting outside a cafe.  I went over to sit with them and chat a bit.  After a while, another friendly face appeared.  Frank!  “That’s a terrible book.”

I had just been telling the others how helpful I found the Rick Steves guide book when travelling to places like Florence and even Lucca, the walled city.  We were heading to Lucca that evening, and we were discussing museums and gelato shops.  “It’s really awful.”

I had a feeling I knew what Frank’s beef might be with the book.  While at Caffe Lucchesi for my second cappu, I had opened up my atlas and guidebook to put together the itinerary for the rest of my time in Italy.  When I opened to the map in the front of the Rick Steves book to locate Calabria (way in the toe of the boot), I saw that southern Italy and Sicily were cut off.  My family is from Southern Italy, so I found this mildly irksome, but had had good luck with the book, so I soldiered on, noting that I’d need to consult a friend in Calabria anyway, so it would be alright.

Frank’s family is from Sicily.  He took the book from me, “see, this is his all Italy book, right?  Well, look at this map…”  Bingo.  This book, along with being a touristy flag waiving for all to see, was a direct assault on his heritage.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a fair point.

The party broke up, and talk turned to mushrooms.  I enjoy collecting mushrooms, and have been hoping to find someone to take me into the hills.  Only I don’t want to get lost or shot, and nobody really wants to share their secret mushroom beds with anyone.  As we stood there, talking about how Frank, who grew up in Detroit, came to be in Barga, another of his friends walked in.  By the sound of him, a Scotsman.  After a bit of friendly banter, we all headed over to another restaurant where we found Keane.

I love sitting and listening to others speaking Italian.  I’m beginning to understand a little better the patterns of speech.  The ebb and flow of the words.  I can’t fully understand, but I am beginning to hear and catalogue the frequency of certain words; to hear fillers that are used often, and to begin to understand the why and how of each of them – at least sometimes.

Realizing that I had someone who might be able to explain the usage of filler words in the context of American English, I seized the opportunity and started peppering Frank with questions.  “how is allora different from ecco?” “ and if ecco means then and poi means then, which is temporal?” “and to look and to look for?  Which is which?”  Patiently, Frank went through his paces, answering the questions that have answers and explaining that much what I was asking is dictated by loose rules that give way to regional idioms.  Great.  Super-helpful.

Frank, it turns out, is quite an interesting guy.  He spent his career as a correspondent in war zones.  A journalist of fantastic pedigree, Frank has a tidy (not to be read as simple), well-rounded view of much of the world.  (Of course, this is my assessment after spending a couple of hours, so take it for what it’s worth.  In reality, the guy could be a psychopath.  Which is funny, because Sandra and Deb and I joke every so often about how any of us could be murderous thieves, but after meeting for one day, we were willing to merge our lives – even if briefly – with virtually no concern.  Crazy.  And beautiful.)

Frank also wrote a book (well more than one, actually).  Great!  My first question was “what is it about?”  I really couldn’t have anticipated the answer.  As Frank explained it, his grandfather had always said that the family moved from Sicily because his great-great-grandfather (I think) had been assassinated.  Before his death, his grandfather whispered the name of the assassin to Frank.  So Frank returned to Sicily to find out what happened.  Seriously.  I’ll be putting the book on my sidebar so that you can purchase it from Amazon.  I know I’m going to.

As the shops closed down yesterday and people headed home for lunch, Frank invited me to see his place.  Like so many others, Frank fell in love with Barga when he visited.  He ended up buying his house, which sits atop a 900 year old nunnery directly below the duomo.  (I’ll let you know if he rents rooms.)  We walked around the corner, and he pointed it out.  Stacked on top of each other, the houses on that side of Barga are layered like an archeological dig, newer on top of older, dug into the side of the hill.

“Come on up and I’ll show you around the place.”  Yes, yes, I think I’ll follow a strange man into his home in a village in Italy where nobody knows where I am.  Brilliant idea.  Mom would totally approve.  But, he had the stamp of approval from Deb and Sandra, so I accompanied Frank into his beautiful home to see the view of the mountains.

The view, says Frank, is the same as that from the Duomo.  It’s about 50 yards away from the duomo’s steps, but I found the view about 3 times more beautiful.  While the view from the top of the hill, shared with the stark face of the impersonal marble is expansive and striking, the view from Frank’s terrace was warm, welcoming and friendly.

Frank's view

Frank went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and I stayed to join him.  While he prepared bread, cheese and fruit, I wandered through the ancient garden of olives, grapes and herbs.  Over lunch, Frank taught me to eat sheep’s milk cheese with honey, and brought out the most amazing persimmons that dissolved into spoonfuls of marmalade.


While we ate we talked about Frank’s time in China, Italy and elsewhere, and considered my Italian itinerary.  The conversation skipped from the cultural and sociological differences between China and India to the importance of social dialogue and the raw sensuality that lies just above the surface of nearly every Italian interaction.

I sat in shirtsleeves in 80 degree weather on frank’s terrace for an hour and a half and I felt something I have felt very rarely in my life.  While I really enjoy learning, I rarely am able to learn from others.  My ego gets in the way, and I charge forward, knowing I’ll blunder along, wanting to make my own mistakes.  But, I would have sat for the whole day, asking questions, and learning from this man I had just met.  I’m interested to see what this might mean – whether it’s a new time in my life where I will be able to better accept contrary opinions as proffered rather than wielded, or whether it’s a mentoring friendship that can be built.  Or whether it was a beautiful day on a hillside with a stranger.  Either way, it feels a beautiful gift.

And makes me wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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October 31, 2009   15 Comments

A walkabout

Today was another good day.  I started a little moody, probably because I haven’t really worked out in a couple of months.  So I decided to go for a bit of a walk.  Deb had pointed out a beautiful hike from back above old Barga into the town.  I started out at the studio and walked the opposite direction than I usually go, out through the downtown and into the more residential parts.

I honestly don’t know how to use words to describe how gorgeous it was.  Here are some pictures.

Grapes and parapetBarga GateBeautiful old Barga door

As I snaked my way further and further away from Barga, along the inside of the hills, so that I was directly opposite the backside of the Duomo, I was treated to more and more beautiful views.

View from BargashinglesDuomo backside

I picked a place on the side of the road to meditate a bit.  I thought the quiet stillness would be good.  As I cleared a space in the grass and went to sit down, I saw a strange movement in the grass.  I almost brushed it aside, when I realized it was a praying mantis!

Meditating mantis

How fantastic!  I have really early memories of seeing these.  We don’t have them in Idaho and Oregon, and I always heard they were good luck.  So, I sat down close enough that I could watch this little guy, but far enough that I wasn’t stressing him.

Together, we sat and looked at the world.  He watched the aunts walk around him and shuddered in the little breeze.  I stared at the amazing views of Barga and the mountains behind, and tried to concentrate on my breathing.  It wasn’t easy today.  I was very easily distracted by things like the olive tree next to me and the brilliance of evolution (I know, gasp!).

I’m quite sure I’ll have more walks around Barga.  There are so many beautiful little places that make me tear up with their sheer beauty and possibility.  But I might have to stick to meditating downtown.  The beauty of the countryside is too distracting.

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October 30, 2009   2 Comments

No capito, ho conosco

There’s a comfort in not knowing the language that’s spoken around me.  A liberation of sorts.  When I’m in a room of English speakers, I have a compulsion to know as much as possible about what is going on, about what is being said.  It’s like pieces of my brain are assigned specific tasks, gathering, analyzing, condensing and reporting back so that I can make an assessment of everyone else’s lives and actions in comparison to my own.  What a trap.  It’s quite exhausting really.

When I came to Italy in May, I noticed that my mind was more at ease.  In a room of rapidly speaking Italians, what I heard was a lullaby.  Stripped from the need, or even the ability to understand the conversations around me, I was able to relax, bathed in the emotion of the experience.  I came to regard the random English conversations of tourists and ex-pats as intrusions into the place I had found for myself.

During that trip, I had the experience that people would often speak to me directly when my family had Italian language interactions.  It was probably because I was the youngest in the group, and there was an assumption that if anyone knew Italian, it would be me.  But that was misguided, as my dad had spent a fair amount of time studying the language before the trip.

As these experiences happened, I found that trying to understand the words – to take apart the sounds and make sense of them – was not that useful, even with the college conversational Spanish I had.  What worked much better is what I call the “magic ear” method.  You remember those books “Magic Eye” from the 90’s?  The ones where you look at a seemingly random image of blurred dots, and by unfocusing your eyes, a 3-D image pops out?  I was never really able to make them work, but when it comes to understanding the conversations around me, I find that unfocusing the ear, and just feeling the experience leads me to a much more accurate understanding than trying to understand the words.

Of course, it’s not an exact science.  I met a lovely woman last night whose energy was gentle and powerful at the same time.  I just wanted to sit near her as she spoke with Sandra and Deb.  When I met her, I introduced myself and told her it was a pleasure to meet her.  Then she said a number of animated things, followed by a smile and “va bene.”  I know those words!  So I repeated, “si, va bene.”  She chuckled a bit and Sandra interjected to let her know I didn’t understand what I was responding to.  We all laughed and went to sit down.

Later that night, in a conversation about how Puritan Americans can be, Sandra told me that Fabiana had told me it was nice to meet me, but I needed not to be so uptight.  Within 30 seconds of meeting me.  Funny.  I guess it’s true.  If I’d been practicing “magic ear” I might have gathered as much.  The beginnings of conversations with new people, just the act of meeting them can be full of tension for me, full of potential, yes, but full of judgment as well.  Adding the element of a new language is a whole different thing.  There’s a twinge of the old tension, but it’s mostly overridden by the twinges of fear that I might say the wrong thing, or hear the wrong thing, or make someone else uncomfortable with my slow ability to communicate.

I guess maybe it’s time to practice “magic brain” or “magic heart” and let some of that go.  Okay, maybe all of it.  Eventually, I will understand the language, and the bliss of being able to hear the language around me as a beautiful song and to experience the emotions of the people in conversation as more pure, without the labels that speech brings, that will change.  I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, when that happens, I will find that I have changed a bit too.

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October 29, 2009   2 Comments

Nel Forno a Legna

My first adventure in Fornacci di Barga was to find a wireless internet drive.  It’s just a crazy little jump drive that has a place for a micro card and a sim card.  Plug it in, and you get internet.  Lovely.

I asked if there was anything I could pick up while I was out.  Yes, some bread.  Seems easy enough, right?  Not so much.  On the way from the airport, the first day, we stopped at the grocery store.  My one task was to grab some bread.  “Brown bread” said Sandra, “cooked in the oven.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but when my family picks up freshly baked bread, we give it a squeeze to make sure it has a good crunch with a nice soft center.  I searched the bread bins (you can’t believe how many different kinds of bread there are) and, after rejecting a flat, tough loaf, I found a nice soft one.

Wrong.  I went back to the bread area with Deb to see what, exactly, I should be looking for.  Well, first, you go to the bread counter, not the bread bins.  Second, you have to know what you’re ordering.  Then they just cut off how ever much you want from these foot-and-a-half long loaves of flat, brown bread.

When I squeezed it, it was clear I had no idea what I was looking for.  Never would I have selected this bread.  However, it makes some of the best toast in the world!  And is great with cheese!  And is just yummy!

So, today when I asked what I could pick up, I wasn’t so excited to hear, “pane cotto nel forno a legna.”  I tried to memorize as much of the phrase as I could, and headed out.  I scoped out the bread shops on the way to the internet place.  There were two.  On the way back, I would pick one and stop.  After success with the computer guys, I was excited to see if I could work out the bread.  I got a good feeling from the first shop, so I stepped in.  Oddly enough, there was almost no bread in the bins.  Perhaps it’s a little late in the day.  I have no idea.  However, these lovely ladies responded brilliantly when I apologized for not being able to speak well in Italian and asked them for “pane cotto nel forno…” – “a Legna,” they supplied.  Si, si!  I was so excited.

“No, non aqui.”  Not here.  Really, in a bread shop.  Maybe it’s because there’s no bread in the shop.  “Dove?”  Where could I find this elusive bread.  One of the women came out from behind the counter and spirited me outside the shop, pointing across the street and telling me to go to the meat shop.  Mind you, this was all in Italian, so I’m fairly sure that’s what she was saying.

I headed across the street, but couldn’t see the meat shop.  I looked back at the bread store, and both women were now standing outside their door, waving me on to the meat shop.  As I entered the shop they celebrated with me.  I had found the Pane, cotto nel forno a legna!

Now, let me just say that, as a vegeterian – even one who isn’t that principled about the thing – the smell that comes out of these meat shops is horrifying to me.  It’s seriously like death.  The case is filled with beautifully presented slices of meatiness, but the smell is tough for me.  Regardless, after another apology, and another request for pane cotto nel forno… “a legna,” came the response, I had my half-loaf of lovely, hard bread.

When I came out of the shop, the bread ladies were still there, waiting to celebrate my success again.  We waived and shouted “CIAO!” across the street at each other.

When I got back home, I relayed this story to Deb who laughed at me when I asked why the bread shop wouldn’t have this type of bread.  Apparently, this is bread cooked elsewhere and brought in.  It’s cooked in a wood oven.  The other bread at the bread shop is not.  That’s a good tip.  So, if you’re looking for hard, flat, brown bread, try the meat shop.

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October 28, 2009   2 Comments

Monday in Barga

My first Monday was spent in Barga.  Sandra went off to teach art to middle-school kids, and I tagged along with Debbie to Barga. Mind you, each of these little snippets merits its own full post, but that will have to wait until a bit later.  The days are so full that I’m settling for recaps at this point.  More to come.

I spent the first while exploring the gallery, and then joined her, her mother and Andre for the second cappuccino of the day.

Monday cappu

The gallery is great.  Even more abundant and beautiful than I remember.  The warmth of the women whose work hangs on the walls emanates powerfully throughout the space.

Arteimmagine sign

Coffee with Deb’s mom and Andre included an instructive session in how to run from the police.

Running with Andre

And a terrific mess.

Breakfast Mess

It seriously looked like a tornado had hit by the time we left.  Tornado Andre!

The rest of the morning consisted of some sitting meditation at the duomo, and a great deal of wandering and picture-taking.

Steps to DuomoDuomo DrainBarga Duomo

Lunch was with Deb’s mom and this time her eldest nephew, Luigi.  Luigi was doing his homework, if a bit reluctantly.  Excellent!  The night before, Sandra gave me some preschool books of Tommy’s, so that I can improve my Italian language.  Sitting with Luigi was wonderful practice.  Sadly, he started in September, so he’s quite far ahead of me.  In fact, the dogs know more Italian than I do.  Talk about humbling.

While I’m totally thrilled to be practicing vocab, Luigi isn’t super excited to be teaching me.  When we left, his grandmother was standing guard to make sure he got his homework completely finished.

Homework time

What Luigi doesn’t know is that I’m set to be his babysitter when needed.   I’ll be using the axe.

We then headed to the next installment of the photo shoots for Deb’s humane society calendar.  This time, we ended up at a beautiful villa overlooking the river.

Italian Menageria

The owners had quite the menagerie, including:

Brown catFluff catWhite cat

a cancerous cat, an overly vocal cat, and a cat who had been run over (note the not-quite-right jawline), as well as two dogs (both shelter) a stray donkey – and they had recently relocated a stray chicken.  Wow.  Oh yes, and these people are also from England.

After the photo shoot, it was back to Barga where Deb met with a friend from the “Equal Opportunity Commission,” an engaging woman (in Italian only) who pored over the computer with Deb for several hours while I ventured out again.  This time, I headed to the Vodafone store, to pick up a wireless internet drive.  I was able to speak enough Italian to tell the woman I was sorry that I didn’t speak well and find that she spoke perfect, Scottish, English.  Bonus.  Unfortunately, they were out of drives.  Bummer.  So, it’s another week, maybe,  but that’s alright, really.  I hear the library has free internet access, and it looked like there was a pretty nice internet café across from the Vodafone store.

On the way back to the gallery, I realized I was in need of a mid-afternoon pick-me-up and had never gone to the Barga Gellateria when I was here last time.  Due to my extensive wandering early in the morning, I knew right where it was.  So, I gathered my euro and my vocab words and headed there alone.

I’m pretty sure the woman behind the counter could speak English, but she was kind enough to humor me as I asked her what went well with “amorena,” winter cherry.  She rattled off a list of flavors, and the only one I really heard was ricotta.  “Ricotta?” “Si, con figgi.”  Figgi!  I learned that word last time when we had the most amazing fig tart ever.  So, I ordered a cup of amorena and ricotta con figgi.  My first fully Italian interaction.  I even understood the cost as she said it to me the first time. Brava!

Gelato number 1

Mom, this one’s for you.

I cruised on up the hill to the memorial for some dude (Deb told me his name, but I can’t remember, but he must be important, because he has a park and a statue.  Together, we enjoyed gelato.  I think I enjoyed it more than he did, frankly.

Once back at the studio I sat down to write a bit.  After maybe an hour, Sandra appeared on her way to a “political reunion.”  She asked if I wanted to go with her, and after a moment’s hesitation, I jumped up.  More politics?  Perhaps.  More politics where I really don’t understand the language, and don’t have any requirements?  Absolutely.  The women who had run in the last election were getting together – from two opposition parties – along with the head of the library and the head of culture for the reason, to talk about ideas for recognizing violence against women day.  This meeting really will need its own post.  Suffice it to say that it was fascinating to watch and listen.

Deb joined us toward the end and the three of us headed home for a lovely meal of homemade minestrone, beans and more.  Climbing into bed, I saw that Sandra had rearranged my sleeping quarters, decorating my bed with cozy pillows and making more room.  Va bene.

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October 27, 2009   5 Comments