Tales of a wandering lesbian

A mug of her own

Sandra has a problem with mugs. My first night here I noticed this. It’s not like she hides it. When I helped wash dishes my first night here, I spent a good 5 minutes trying to fit all of the mugs onto the little shelf in the kitchen. That was before I noticed the mugs sprinkled across the shelves in the cupboards, displayed decoratively on the bookshelves in the living room, and filling overflowing bags at the studio.

Mug shelf

“I like mugs!” she says with a wiley smile.

Tea time was interesting for the first couple of days. “NO, not that mug.” I had assumed that all mugs were equal while preparing our afternoon tea. “That’s Tommy’s, can’t you tell?” “And that one is Snoopy. Don’t touch it. No, it’s very old, don’t even touch it.” “What about this one, Sandra?” She just smiled, and reached into the sink to rinse one that we had used that morning.

I’m getting better. I’ve had some time to watch which mugs she uses in the morning for cappuccino (and which ones Deb uses), and which ones she uses for afternoon tea, versus evening tea. I can anticipate which ones I can use, and which should be left alone. I haven’t had my choice corrected in maybe a week now. Wait. I just realized that might be because the ladies were on a cruise for the last week. Damn.

While they were away, I spent some time with friends in Lucca. We had a couple of day trips to Florence and Viareggio, and several days in the beautiful city of Lucca. Along the way I’d been looking for gifts for Sandra and Deb. It turns out it’s a little difficult to buy gifts for artists I barely know. Their home is filled with many beautiful things – and mugs. I kept finding lovely mugs, but rejected them all out of principle. There are plenty of mugs in the house and I was sure to find something better.

On my last evening, as we made our way to the train station, Giovanna took me to a slightly unexpected place – a Scottish tea house. Nestled in one of the winding backstreets of Lucca was a white-walled shop, lined floor to ceiling with white tins of tea. Gio and I chose a seat in the back of the shop where a great Japanese-style tea house stood. (I have no idea how they got this thing in through the little tunnel connecting the front and back of the shop. Probably piece by piece.)

Tea house

We spent some time pouring over the tea menu. The shop-owner spent some time talking with us about the differences between Bancha and Sencha, Japanese Sencha and Chinese Sencha, and all manner of tea.


By the time we had finished, there were tea tins littering the little table where we sat, the owner having brought them to us, gently scooping leaves for us to smell. When the tea arrived, it was in lovely little pots with stainless steel covers that sat over the body of the pot. Gio and I wasted no time disassembling the interesting pots. The steel, it turns out, was lined with felt. Sliding smoothly over the white ceramic pots, the liners functioned as built-in tea cozies. Fantastic! I was put in mind of the mismatched teapot that Sandra and Deb use, and how quickly the tea goes cold.

I boarded the train to Fornaci an hour later with my gigantic backpack full of new coats and boots, and a teapot under my arm.

The day Deb and Sandra returned, I tried to make the house nice. I swept, went to the market for bread and flowers, and I actually managed to put all the mugs on the little shelf. It was a triumphant morning. The van arrived and we unloaded the extra bag they’d bought to carry all of their treasures. The dogs were ecstatic to have their moms back. I was happy to have my friends home.

After settling in a little they noticed the box on the table and opened their new teapot. “Bello, bello.”

“We have something for you, too.” They were both grinning. After some serious excavation, a package appeared and was thrust into my hands. How fabulous! A present. Who doesn’t love presents? I pulled apart the wrapping and laughed. A mug.

My very own mug!

“Bellissimo!” We all had a good laugh and the mug, along with the teapot, was sent to the kitchen to be washed and put into service. I’ve used my mug about a thousand times in the two days since it appeared. There’s something wonderfully comforting in having it in the kitchen. I know that now I’ll get at least one mug right when making afternoon tea.

Bookmark and Share

November 16, 2009   1 Comment


The people I’ve met are fantastic. Simply fantastic. It can be difficult convincing them that I’m alright. Yes, I’ve had enough to eat. Yes, I’m happy. No, we don’t need to plan an elaborate day. I’m more than happy to tag along and do whatever they are doing. Really. Here’s why:

During practically every experience I’ve had in Italy, every time something has fallen-through I have ended up having amazing, beautiful, sometimes life-changing experiences. Today, my weekend hostesses, Franca, Giovanna and Vittoria wanted to take me to the sea, but when we woke up it was raining something fierce. Change of plans. So, we went to the bookstore to find a book for Gio. They didn’t have what she was looking for, so another change of plans. We wandered the streets a little, and ended up at an amazing gallery tucked away next to a church. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for Giovanna pointing it out. After Giovanna talked with the owner a bit, he escorted us from the front galleries into the labyrinthine back galleries where some of the more interesting installations were.

One was a sculptural piece that involved a hunk of raw marble – one that had been blasted out of the side of the mountain. The artist took the raw piece and set out to carve a copy. Very, very interesting – and well executed.

Marble art

The place was strange, barely finished, and vaguely reminiscent of a hospital or psych ward from a horror movie, with red painted cement floors and broken black and white tiles adorning the walls in places (although that might have been a sculptural installation now that I think about it). As we wound through the galleries, the sound of dance music got louder. “Push it, push it real good!” ran in a loop. I started to wonder if someone was working with a boom box in a back room, or if the Gio and I were about to meet an untimely end.

When we reached the final room, it was dark. We found a projector sending an image of a middle-aged woman in a brightly colored moo-moo shaking her life-sized money maker.

We chortled a little as the gallery owner explained that the project gave 3 minutes to various people to dance for the camera. He told us to sit and left us. We perched ourselves on a chaise that was against the wall opposite the screen and sat back. First one than another interesting characters came on the screen – a fairly normal looking man, a hippy dude complete with a VW bus and huge beard, and a man in a very proper suit. It became clear after about the third person that they were all being instructed from somewhere off-camera to do the steps they were doing. Waive your arms like this then step to the left. Point to your crotch and swing your hips to the music. Now slap your ass and turn around.

Push it video

As we watched the entire loop of maybe six people, I became more and more engrossed. What seemed a funny, almost silly installation became really quite powerful. This dance, executed by so many different people showed their insecurities, their individualities, and their beauty. By the end of their three minutes, each person was panting, and each person was smiling. Even those who seemed most unlikely to enjoy the experience got into it.

Push it flyer

Check out the artist. She was really great, and by the sound of it has some equally interesting ideas for new projects.

After more time looking and talking with the gallery owner about our fantastic artist-friends Deb and Sandra, we cruised past some of the churches in the area and headed back to the flat.

Lunch brought an excellent pumpkin risotto and turnip greens (we had to go online to see what the English was for turnip).

Zucca Rissoto Turnip greens

For the afternoon excitement, we talked about going to a movie, which was mildly interesting, but just as I was falling asleep on the sofa, Giovanna pulled out a double-deck of cards.

Over lunch, Franca and Vittoria were talking about a card game, Burraco. They said it was fun, but difficult to explain. Not one to miss out on a good game, I jumped up from the sofa to see what Giovanna had in mind. “Burraco!” “Will you teach me?” They all looked at me. “You want to learn?”

And it was on.

For the next two or three hours we played, Franca and I versus Gio and Vito. The ladies patiently taught me the rules, and we exchanged more vocabulary words as we played. They laughed when I shuffled, “Las Vegas” they chuckled. There was a lot of chuckling. Well, at least until I started winning. (I’m sorry, I just can’t give up trash-talking. I’ve tried, and I’m not sure I can live without it, so there it is. Franca and I won, twice. Sure, Gio changed the winning point amount so we could keep playing, but when it was all said and done, Franca and I won, won, won. Both times. Brava, Franca. Brava.)

It turns out that playing cards is a fantastic way to learn numbers as well as slang. I am now fairly confident in my ability to trash-talk in Italian. Deb and Sandra will be so proud.


Time for the movie came and went, and dinner was prepared in between hands of Burraco. We had a beautiful soup made with broccoli, potatoes and pasta. This was seriously delicious. I’ll ask for the recipe tomorrow, so hold tight and I’ll try to translate and post it.


We also had a selection of cheeses (always) which included a garfagnana specialty cheese topped with faro. This was good. I mean, really good. I’m going to try to find and bring some home, because it was on par with the Rogue Bleu that’s made by Rogue Creamery in Oregon – the cheese that’s wrapped in brandy soaked pinot noir leaves and stored in a cave. Only, it was had in Lucca with friends, so it might even be better.

I’m sure the sea would have been lovely, too, but for today I’m very happy to have learned slang over a game of Burraco!

Bookmark and Share

November 9, 2009   4 Comments

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.

Bookmark and Share

November 8, 2009   5 Comments

The essentials

When I packed for my trip to Italy, I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d end up.  I knew I’d start the trip with my friends Deb and Sandra, but from there, I didn’t know if I’d be in homes, hostels, or five-star hotels.  So, I packed light and deep.  Warm clothes that I could layer and other items that would make life easy.  I agonized over which electronics could share cords, and which jackets to bring (settling on one light jacket and one technical, winter coat).

There are a few things I’ve taken grief over.  Yes, it’s a little strange that I packed toilet paper and tampons, but as I said, I wasn’t sure if I’d be backpacking around.  Plus, I brought a big suitcase to fill with treasures for the return trip, so I had room.

There are other things that really make my friends laugh.  My headlamp, for example, isn’t something everyone would have brought, but it’s dead useful.  It’s good for reading at night, and can save you from being squished when walking at dusk.  However, it also might make your friends act like they don’t know you.

Also, for some reason, only “professional cyclists” – the ones wearing brightly colored team jerseys and riding fancy, fast bikes – only they, wear helmets.  I noticed this last time I was here.  I also noticed how American drivers tend to run cyclists off the road.  Thinking I might like to pick up a nice used Italian bike and ride around a bit, I decided to pack my helmet.

Every day, I assess the weather, select a combination of clothing, jacket, electronics and books that will get me through the day comfortably, and pack up my little messenger bag.  However, when I packed yesterday, it was with the assumption that I would be back at the house before I headed to Lucca that evening.

Bad assumption.

So, I started the day with two layers of icebreaker, my light jacket, sunglasses, my laptop and camera, and an array of books to help me plan my Italian itinerary.  Heavy bag, but lightweight clothing.  Good for bumming around Barga on a glorious day.

After a fantastic, surprise lunch with a new friend, I met up with my ride to Lucca.  Lucca is a really cool walled city.  The walls are hugely thick to withstand cannon fire.  Thick enough to ride bikes on the wide boulevard that sits atop them.  We got to Lucca (which is having a huge, international comic festival) just as the sun was setting.  Fortunately, I had my little wool hat, which I happily pulled on.  The 80 degree day was settling into the high 40s, and my light jacket was not so warm.  It was black, however, as was my hat.  Super.

As it got darker and darker, we stopped to turn on headlights that some of the bikes had.  I reached into my little messenger bag to see if I had my headlamp.  Nope.  But I did have a laptop and about 8 books.  Bonus!  Here I was, wearing black, riding around in the pitch dark cold with no helmet, no light, no warm coat and a bag of books and electronics, through an insane crowd of wandering people who were dressed like comic and video game characters.  Well done.  I probably should have put on my sunglasses and snaked some of the electronics cords through my hair.  I would have fit right in.

When we reached the restaurant after our harrowing ride, we all gathered around the fire to warm ourselves.  It turned out that the adrenaline needed to keep oneself upright through all the twisting, turning, swerving insanity provided exactly the right amount of warmth in the dark city.  Also, books are really quite insulating.

At any rate, the ravioli was some of the best I’ve ever had outside my mom’s kitchen. And I had my camera with me to capture it.  Va bene.

Raviolo con burro i salvia - mmm

Bookmark and Share

November 1, 2009   4 Comments