Tales of a wandering lesbian

Molto Gentile

I just got back from dinner with two of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met. We met two weeks ago on my first night here. Giovanna and Franca live in the city of Lucca, a wonderfully beautiful city that lies within an ancient wall. They live near the base of the Guinigi tower in a beautiful flat that overlooks a giant clock-tower and piazza.

I am spending the weekend in their home – an extra adventure from my day-to-day in Barga and Fornaci.

The day started with my figuring out the train schedule from Fornaci to Lucca, packing for the weekend, and seeing Sandra and Deb off for their own adventure on a family cruise. Sandra’s mom, Albertina, and I waved goodbye as the van pulled away, and then headed back into the house, as she mumbled about how I don’t speak; shaking her head and looking concernedly at me.


I pulled out a couple of words of Italian, and it seemed to make her feel a little better about me. I went upstairs with the dogs and she went downstairs to bustle around the garden.

As I finished up packing, Berti came by to say “ciao.” In Italy, you don’t just say goodbye. You say ciao, and then you talk for a while. Then you say ciao and talk for a bit longer. When you finally say ciao, it’s more like “cia-ciao,” or as Deb says on the phone “cia-cia-ci-ci-ci-ci-ciao”. The problem is that Berti and I can’t chat so much, so she came in, kissed me on both cheeks and then said ciao, looked at me, shrugged, said ciao, shook her haid, said ciao, smiled and said ciao, and then left. I took that as a good sign. I think it was a breakthrough for us.

As I went to grab my gear, and get ready to leave, I noticed it had gotten substantially darker in the house. The dogs were both firmly inside, as well. About 10 minutes before I was set to walk to the train station, the rain came. Cazzo!

Not to be daunted, I grabbed my rain pants and pulled out the rain cover I bought for my backpack. Why not test everything to its fullest on its maiden voyage? I mean seriously, why not. Everything fit beautifully.

Rain Gear

I rounded up the dogs, picked up the keys, locked the door and headed out. The first stop was the “New York Cafe,” a nice little shop around the corner from Deb and Sandra’s that serves all manner of pannini, pizza and paste (pastry). (Update:  evidently the name of the shop is actually “Pasticceria De Servi”. “New York Cafe” is the brand of coffee they serve.  Of course.) I had been instructed in my first days in Italy that you can never go to someone’s house without bringing something. So I stopped for a bite of lunch and paste. After picking out a fantastic egg sandwich and a plate of paste, I gently packed the lovely pastries in the place I’d saved in the top of my pack just for them, and struck out to find the station, egg sandwich in hand.

Paste PackEgg Pannini

Sandra and Deb had told me that the station was at a “T” in the road with big trees lining the street, and pointed in the general direction . There are a lot of big trees in Italy, and a lot of forking roads. So, after a short, slippery walk on not so wide shoulders of the wrong road, I made my way to the stazione, figured out the ticket machine (I even managed before a local could work it out), remembered to validate my ticket, and even got on the correct train (with the help of the same local who couldn’t work the ticket machine).

After a beautiful and thought-filled train ride with a load of apparently commuting high-school students, I reached Lucca, where Franca and Giovanna picked me up. Two hours and two cappuccini later (neither of which I was allowed to buy), we had attended a conference on prostitution (as in violence against women, not a how-to course), gone shopping with another friend, Vittoria; and I finally had my first Italian copy of Harry Potter e la pietra filosofale. (I am 100 percent – cento per cento – convinced that this is how I will become fluent in Italian.)

Harry Italian

Then it was off to dinner at the house of yet another friend. It is amazing to me how open people have been with me. Not only do they open their homes for dinner, preparing vegetarian meals for a stranger, but they open the houses of their friends and families as well. A woman I met for the first time tonight asked me if I’d like to spend a few days with her daughter. Then she bought me a macchiato. Seriously, she asked Giovanna to send my phone number so we could plan the trip. Amazing.

Dinner was lovely. We spent an hour in an extended vocab lesson. I find fascinating the usage of words that sound similar – probably because I’m listening all day, trying to identify words, and noting the sounds that I hear repeated most often. This seems to be very endearing, because every time I ask a question like “is ‘fiore’ ‘outside’ or ‘flower’” I find a new person who is willing to spend a ridiculous amount of time talking with me about the language. (By the way, fiore is flower and fuori is outside or out.” They sound super similar when spoken by the people around me.)

Then we spent another hour or so eating – eggplant, zucchini, peppers, garbanzos, bread, rice, and a fabulous pair of torte, one made of apples and one made of vegetables. Eight of us sat around the table by the end of the meal. We had decided that, even though most spoke better English than I spoke Italian, it was important for me to learn. So the talk was almost exclusively in Italian. I don’t have my verb tenses sorted out yet, but everyone was super kind and super helpful as I muddled along. We shared vocab words for each and every item on the table (and some on the floor, including a fabulous doormat that had a 3-D Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

Snow White et al

We left with hugs, kisses and more vocab words hurled back and forth on our way out the door.

Back in Lucca, Giovanna and Franca showed me to my private suite complete with an amazing Italian bathtub (very deep and luxurious). Then, with sly grins, they pulled out a bag of clothes. O dio! Time for a dress up party. Evidently, after my last visit to Lucca – one week ago – they put aside some clothes that they thought would fit me and suit me. I was more than a little skeptical, but after Franca put the first jacket on my shoulders, all doubt went out the window – into the beautiful piazza below.

Tomorrow when I go to Viareggio – a city on the Mediterranean sea – with Franca, Giovanna and Vittoria, I’ll look less like the American visitor in my fabulous long wool coat. And the white and navy jacket that Franca says is for summer is going to be worn long before it’s warm out. Maybe just around the house – when I’m practicing my Italian vocabulary.

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November 8, 2009   5 Comments

The art of giving

Usually, I wake up in the morning, make a cappu (or have one made for me by one of the wonderful women I live with). I catch a ride with Deb into Barga and spend the day writing, walking, eating and repeating.

This morning, when we reached the studio, I changed my plans. The studio, which is full of beautiful, passionate art, is an unqualified mess. The studio consists of four rooms. The front is a great cavern of color and shape, the place where tourists and locals can wander in and view the paintings and photographs that Sandra and Deb have on display. Through a curtain to the right is the back room where the artists work: studying figures, editing photographs, consulting with clients. Bright overhead fluorescent lights and photographic equipment dominate.

Behind the workroom is an alcove that has been walled off with drywall – something completely strange in this ancient space. The alcove houses a workbench, paint, mats, shelves of paper, drawers of miscellaneous hardware, and a collection of years of partial drawings, sketches and paintings.

A small ground-level window opens onto a lovely garden, but is obscured almost completely by a side-table crammed with more papers and mats.
The fourth room is a bathroom, hidden behind a plywood door, and completely unexpected.

Along with the toilet and sink, this room houses boxes of plates, forgotten frames hanging from the pipes, a baker’s rack full of baby-food-sized jars of paint, and the cups liberated from cafes and restaurants in the town.
I remember the first time I walked into the studio. I was blown away with the power and beauty of the images in the space. The passion of the women who own the studio washed over me as I sat on the small sofa against one wall. I was excited to think that these women could make a living with their art – that they had carved a little space in the world where beauty and passion were primary and sufficient.

Things are rarely that simple, but this studio gives me hope.

So, today I changed my plans. “Will you let me clean up the studio today?” “Assalutamente, si,” came the response – almost before I had finished asking.
I spent the first hour just walking from room to room, assessing the situation; snapping pictures, sweeping, taking stock of the stacks. After that, I started rearranging. Sandra is prolific. I was totally amazed at the variety of subject-matter, style, and materials. One moment I was sorting through canvases, then wood panels, then round wooden boxes, then pottery, and even a piece of marble. There are probably 100 pieces in the 20×20 studio, hanging from the walls, stacked in the corners, leaning against furniture.

My marketing background kicked in, and I started by rearranging the intimidating entrance from one flanked by huge bins of prints, to one that beckons to passers-by to come in and look at the beautiful postcards that feature the works of Deb and Sandra. On the little table in the middle of the room, I arranged information about their wedding photography business.

The studio began to open up. I really enjoy arranging spaces, whether it’s furniture or artwork, it’s therapeutic for me. While I’m often unable to do this for my own space, I’m able to help clear the physical surroundings of others. I’ve found that when I’m arranging a space, it will talk to me, letting me know what color or shape should go where. The gallery talked to me today, but it also fought me a couple of times: once when I tried to hang a painting of a flower too high, and then when I moved from paintings to begin hanging photographs. That’s when the studio kicked me in the gut.

The workspace houses some of the most striking works, in my opinion. A bold, large painting of a nude hangs high in one corner, while the opposite wall is covered in photos of partially nude figures portrayed as angels. Among these photographs is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I don’t say that lightly and it’s not meant as flattery. It’s simply the truth. I was so stuck by it last time I was here, I wasn’t able to look at it for very long.
This photograph was propped against the wall where almost nobody saw it. So I made a space, found a chain, and hung the beautiful figure high on one wall where it could be enjoyed by all.

Yes, I know the walls in the gallery are old. Yes, I know large photographs with glass are heavy. Yes, I know. However, it wasn’t that heavy, and the chain hung on three nails – for about a minute. It was quite beautiful for that one minute. Fortunately, I had cleared the area below so that when it came crashing down to break on the marble-tiled floors, the other beautiful photographs were out of the way.

Evidently, the gallery wasn’t ready for the photo to hang there just yet. As the glass shattered and scratched the beautiful image, I wanted to scream. This great tribute to my friends. My contribution to the display of their passion – broken and scratched. (Okay, I know it’s really dramatic, but it sucked – big time.) I seriously wanted to hide and cry. Instead, I got the broom and Deb found a box for the glass. There are people who make you feel horrible when you break their junk. And there are people cheer you up when you break their art. I really do prefer the second kind of people. Whether she knew it or not, Deb made an effort to cheer me up over the next hour.

Yes, we’ll get the picture reprinted. Yes, I’ll finish cleaning the gallery. Yes, these things happen. I’m not so sure I’d have been as generous and kind, but I’ll remember to try next time.

When we got home, we found Sandra in the kitchen cooking dinner. Vegetables. And soup. I’m pretty sure that before I got here, there was a good deal more meat eaten in the house. But Sandra worries every night whether I will have enough to eat and cooks accordingly. Tonight we had a fabulous mixture of baked fennel, potatoes, carrots, peppers and onions, prepared lovingly by Sandra. Her mother made the soup (fabulous as well). Her mother, it turns out, also took care of my clothes. She brought them in from the yard where they were drying and folded and ironed them – even my underwear. For real.

Then, as we sat down for dinner, I saw something out-of-place at my setting.

Kiwi wand

Tommy, who knows I like Harry Potter, spent the day carving a legitimate kiwi-wood wand for me. Evidently, he’s not very handy, but he did a great job with this thing, even carving my initials in the handle.  Wow.

After dinner we all sat down for a game of Italian Pictionary ®. We use this as my vocab lesson, me guessing in English and Sandra, Deb and Tommy guessing in Italian, explain the words as we go.

It was a very full day. More than usual I am struck by how giving the people I am staying with are. They have a person they met for one day six months ago sleeping on their floor and sharing their table. It’s amazing how well it has worked for the last 10 days. We all give what we can and it works.  What more can you ask, really?

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November 3, 2009   2 Comments

I don’t read.

Sometime after law school, a few years after law school in fact, I answered the door to a newspaper vendor.  He wanted to sign me up for a subscription that had lapsed.  I looked at him and said simply, “I don’t read.”  He gave me a pitting look, thanked me for my time, and walked away.  It wasn’t until after I closed the door that I realized what I’d said.

The truth is, sometime during law school, I stopped reading for pleasure.  I think it happened somewhere between picking up my first syllabus and reading 500 pages for my first class.  Yeah, that’s probably where it happened.  I guess when I was required to read hundreds or thousands of pages each week, the desire to read anything else drained from my body.

It’s not that I was an avid reader before law school, but I enjoyed reading.  I enjoyed the idea of reading.  But, since I entered law school (10 years ago!!!!!!!!!! oh shit, I just had a little meltdown), the thought of reading is intertwined with late nights, failing eyesight, hours of outlining, and memorization. And, although I enjoy outlining and memorization more than the average duck, it’s not something I want to do at night before I go to bed.

Recently, I’ve mentioned this phenomenon to friends from law school.  It seems I’m not alone.  Maybe we should start a support group for lawyers who can no longer read for pleasure.  We’re a sad bunch.  At least I enjoyed law school.  I feel sorry for all my classmates who suffered through 3 years of torture, only to find that they are now deprived of the pleasure of reading.

There is one notable exception for me.  For whatever reason, both during law school and pretty much every day since then, I’ve been obsessed with Harry Potter.  I refused to read the books until after the third one had come out – the hype troubled the non-conformist in me.  Once I started, though, I couldn’t stop.  I can’t tell you why.  But it means that I’ve read each of the books probably 10 times.  My ex, Leigh, who is also a lawyer, has probably read the series 3+ times.  At least I’m not alone.

So here’s the Public Service Announcement:

If you are considering entering law school, you should know that law school will very possibly sap your desire to read for fun.  It  also has the potential to create a powerful obsession with a boy wizard.

Someday I hope to be able to pick up a book and make it more than 50 pages through.  Maybe I’ll try the Twilight series…

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August 5, 2009   6 Comments

The Harriest Potter

I love Harry Potter.  A lot.

At first, I refused to read the books, because of all the main-stream hype.  That is until one Christmas break when I was home in Idaho.  I picked up the first book, and didn’t stop reading for the entire trip – until I had finished the first 3 books.

Since then, I’ve been a complete Harry Potter maniac.  It might border on creepy.  I’m not totally sure at this point.

I haven’t dressed as Harry in a couple of years, but I did.  Every year.  In law school.  When I worked at the Oregon Court of Appeals.  I was a good Harry.

Harry Kristin

This week, with the opening of the 6th movie “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” I considered whether to dig my costume out of storage and wear it to the midnight opening, or to dress as a muggle and wait until Friday afternoon and pay the matinee price.

My recent ex-girlfriend, Leigh,  and I decided to go Friday afternoon, sans costume, though I may have frightened a child dressed as Hermione when I ran up to her to ask whether she liked the movie.  Usually, kids are much more fun to talk with about Harry Potter.  Usually…

Saturday night, though, at a summer BBQ, I was reminded of one of the great things about my ex.  During a story I was telling about answering the door for Jehovah’s Witnesses while reading a freshly-released Harry Potter book, Leigh interrupted me.

“It was the 5th book.”

I had just stated that I was reading the 7th book at the time.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,”  she said simply.  “We’ve been together for two books.”

Excellent.  Not, we’ve been together for 4 years.  No, “we’ve been together for two books”.

Leigh has asked me before why I love her.  It can be hard to put into words why I love a person.  The why isn’t that important to me.  In that moment, however, I knew this is why.  There are certain people in  my life that share a language – a shorthand – for how the world works.  Measuring our relationship in terms of Harry Potter books was a powerful reminder for me of how important funny little things can be, and how wonderful it is to share that kind of shorthand with someone who isn’t afraid to sit next to you when you have a stuffed bird on your shoulder.

Those are the friends you’ll have forever.

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July 19, 2009   5 Comments