Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Italian Bus Incident #67

Well, I have had rather a mess to deal with: my wallet was pinched out of my purse Monday afternoon around 2pm. For whatever idiotic reason I went to inquire about a job opening for which I was totally unqualified since I DON'T SPEAK ITALIAN! (in my defense, they asked only about madre lingua English which of course, I am/have/can/do/whatever.) So I was on my way home on the #6 bus and it was really jammed and well, you know. But I was in a hurry because I had an appointment with a plumber to fix my caldaia because it shut off on Friday afternoon - when it snowed 2 inches - so I was without heat or hot water all weekend so I slept on Janie's couch rather than brave the 12 degrees in the apartment. I was out of cash and had no money for the plumber so I hurried to the bancomat and that's when I discovered the theft. I screamed and swore and attracted undue attention (screaming old lady, nothing to see here, move along). And the fucker cancelled anyway! So I called Sonia (la proprietaria) who was not pleased because I have had to call her 4 times about this and she thinks I'm an idiot because it is usually just the pressure has gotten low (except none of the people I know have this problem with their heating equipment) so she called the tecnico but said he had "un sacco di chiamate" because of the minus one cold so I lose hope. But when I get home the first plumber calls and says he's arriving so I call Nikkie to translate and front the cash. He comes, pushes one little button (WHICH I PUSHED!! ah, but not long enough) and voila, hot water and heat. Curses. I am an idiot. And then we wait until Nikkie arrives with the cash and translates my million questions while I'm making a list of who to call to cancel all the cards and get info about a new passport. And then the OTHER guy calls twice but my phone is dead and the charger is at Janie's but she's waiting in line at the quaestura in -1 degrees (the twit!) because she just HAS TO HAVE her permisso di soggiorno, and I can't get my charger. And then the tecnico actually arrives and we have this awkward two plumbers dance until Nikkie learns that the second guy is really a caldaia specialist so plumber number 1 (P#1) gets 20E and goes away and the other guy tears the boiler apart for an hour and Nikkie goes home leaving a dinner invitation for later. Eventually plumber number 2 (KB: "Tutto bene?" P#2: "Speriamo!" = let's hope) goes away planning to mail a bill (WHICH SONIA WILL MOST DEFINITELY PAY!) and I spend the next three hours calling everyone I need to to keep from having my credit ruined and a billion bad charges on my cards. So I eat with Luca and Nikkie and regale them with the Karma of Kimberly stories and they lend me 50E so I am not totally green. Yesterday at 8 am I went to the consulate (Ma signora, aperto alle nove) with filled in forms and documents of all kinds (thank dog I had copied all the cards in my wallet before we went to Poland) but am sent home to make an appointment online for today, which I do. And then in the afternoon I went to UniCredit to cancel the bancomat card and get 300E out of my Italian bank so I can feel normal and buy coffee. Almost. I still don't have any ATM or credit cards. Today I hit the consulate at 9, am nearly stripped naked, relieved of anything sharp or shiny to stand in line while hapless Italo-Americans plead for succor over lost/stolen/incomplete/forgotten/whatsits. Eventually I submit my supremely efficient materials and learn that I will get a fully valid passport which will save me at least $850 because I won't have to change flights or shovel out cash for an expedited passport which is fundamental to the whole stupid reason I'm going back. And this adventure only cost me $100. Today I went to see the Carabineri to make a "denuncia" (sounds like some Emile Zola j'accuse! thing requiring black balls and pointing). I managed the whole thing in Italian without sounding too stupid, (well except for getting ripped off on the bus for god's sake) Great.
As for Christmas: I am invited to dinner with Nikkie, Luca at Gabriele's who is squatting at the home of Birgitta (she's in Burkino Faso. Burkina Faso?!!?) We will have traditional Christmas Eve fare: tortelloni in brodo. On Christmas Day I will have The First Annual Orphans' Christmas Feast and Gift Exchange. If they all leave on time, I am invited to Fawn's for family Christmas that evening at her Mother-in-law's and I will have a party on 31st here. I am grateful for my friends and hoping to see the ones in Berkeley when I get back. Can I camp at your place occasionally?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Italian Snow

It's snowing in Florence. The weather service has been threatening us with snow all week but tonight it finally arrived. I went to dinner with Nina, Kathy and Janie in the center and after a lovely long meal we emerged to find a squishy storm in progress. It is wet and sloppy and turns to mush on the streets but the car tops are white and the blobs fall slowly to the pavement. The Ponte Vecchio, set up for, of all things, a golf driving event (they hit ‘em into the river?) provided a lovely view of the bridges in the strange light that snow provides. We skated and slid to our neighborhoods. In mine I was assaulted by snowballs from the local hangers-out who destroyed my umbrella completely with several well places missiles. I wandered through the piazza wondering at the snowy trees and shrubs which no doubt look much more fabulous in the dark than they will in the cruel daylight. The frequenters of the bar downstairs were admiring the collapsed umbrella over the outside seating, finding it the source of ammunition for another round of snowball attacks. I made it inside in time to remain mostly dry.
It doesn’t snow often in the city itself so the inhabitants are mostly incompetent in the snow. But in the suburbs, especially those in the ridges around the city and further out in the real hills, the snow can be really deep and the equipment to cope is often not adequate. So things kinda slow down or even stop when it snows. Not unwelcome by me, but I suppose if you have to work, it’s misery. When dawn breaks we will see what the world looks like with this new application. Last time there was a good snow storm, the hills were really beautiful.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Knee Repalcement, Part 4

I arrived at The Hyatt Residence ( on the Saturday following my surgery. I had a nicely decorated private room with TV, armoire, visitors chair, carpets and drapes and a lovely large bathroom (including an accessible shower). It was much more like a hotel room than any hospital room I’d even been in. The requisite adjustable bed was there with call button, reading light and that panel with connections for tubes and wires as a headboard. The whole place was carpeted and nicely decorated with pictures and real flowers. There was a TV room for meeting with visitors and a patio and garden that were beautifully planted. This facility was the ultimate level of a four level senior residence. Most of the other patients in this building needed fairly high levels of care. But there were also several like me who had just had a knee replaced and needed help for a week or so. One of my fellow victims had had BOTH done! That’s brave!
We got vitals monitored and medications delivered and mobility assistance and physical therapy and pretty good food delivered (until you can make it to the dining room). The first full day, Sunday, the OT got me into the shower which was a blessing even if it was strictly forbidden according to the doctor’s instructions (they are REALLY concerned about infection because it is the worst problem). We wrapped me up good and I shampooed and felt completely renewed. On Monday PT began and I was really surprised and pleased at how well it went and how fast I could progress. I used a walker most of the time because you really don’t feel confident about where that new knee thing is going at first. BTW, you don’t use a walker like a shopping cart with it pushed out in front of you as you see most of the time; it’s supposed to be right next to your hip so you can walk upright normally.
The hardest part of the rehab is trying to lift your new knee leg with the muscles of your thigh. It hurts and even if it doesn’t, it’s nearly impossible. Also, no heroics with the meds. Take the pills!!! People don’t get addicted to these things if they are just trying to keep the pain away. And pain relief is critical if you are going to work hard enough to make PT pay off. After my PT sessions I was strapped into an electric contraption that bent my knee for me for a couple of hours to keep it from stiffening up. And of course they ice the knee frequently to reduce the swelling.  I could go up and down stairs the first day and took a walk around the garden the second. I looked for a place to use my computer right away and found to my delight there was wireless in my room. I was urged and had no trouble taking a walk around the facility several times a day. People came to visit and I watched a lot of TV. (Italian TV is just gross so it was kinda nice to watch news and stuff without wiggling floozies.)
By the end of the week I was fully capable of fending for myself so my brother and his wife came to get me and I went north to stay at his house for the rest of my recovery. I used the walker to get in the door and except for a few trips to the bathroom, never used it again. Terry lent me a cane and I was able to walk three blocks home from the first session of PT in the clinic near their home.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Knee Replacement, Part 3

Waking up was not fun. When you come out of the anesthetic, I think you aren’t fully medicated since you aren’t awake to let them know when it kicks in so they must wait until you are awake to apply enough to keep you pain free. Also they need you to wake up and make you breathe. Always important. I also tend to shake rather seriously after anesthesia. So I had a short time of really intense pain but I have no idea how long it was because soon after I was medicated quite heavily and stayed that way for the next two days. After a few hours in recovery, I was moved to a regular room. This is the Gulliver part: I had surgical pressure hose on both legs, a pair of inflated cuffs cradling both my lower legs, an inflatable bed pad under me, both of which inhaled and exhaled every time I moved, more IVs, an oxygen nasal tube, a drain from the incision, a urinary catheter and a giant dressing on my new knee. Felt a bit tied down. I was quite swollen with fluid but dry mouthed. Dilaudid was the main pain reliever I was given but there were others in the mix. Dilaudid makes me quite nauseous so I was in a quandary about using the self administering system to keep the pain down. I found if I didn’t move much and slept a lot, hardly difficult, I could use the button less often since I was really nauseated when I dosed myself. After a day’s worth of retching every time I took a dose, they switched me to oral medication to reduce the nausea. It worked. Thus I passed the first and second post op days.
I felt more alert and focused on the second day. I still was unable to eat much but didn’t miss it. I could sit up a bit and greeted the various gangs that came through: the catheter gang (not that one) took out the nerve block after about a day, the pain gang wanted numbers more than once (Is it a 3 or a 5 or a 7?), the doctor looked in with his fellas (fellows?) and I had hot and cold running nurses. I got flowers and phone calls. I was way too stoned to answer the phone which made my family a bit anxious. No phone calls before day three seems a good rule. Toward the end of the day, or first thing in the morning I had first my catheter and then my wound drain removed. Bled like crazy.
The morning of day three (Friday) I got my first visit from the physical therapist who got me to try to sit up straight and even move my legs toward (but NOT over!) the edge of the bed. She came back in the afternoon and got them over the edge and me standing, for a minute. Then when I needed to go to the bathroom I could use the walker she provided at the edge of the bed. By that evening, I could make it. Food seemed a reasonable concept by now, so I ate my first food on day three. The clouds began to clear and I could answer the phone and talk to people although I have no idea what I told them.
My next stop was arranged by an efficient woman who told me there might be a place in a skilled nursing facility nearby where I could stay for the next few days while I was unable to really care for myself. This is standard practice for many people who don’t have a good situation at home: no one able to be there all day, or not strong enough to pick you up if you fall down, or too grossed out by staples in your knee, or so on. Indeed there was and Medicare covered it and they would take me tomorrow!
So Saturday am, after a slow but resolute walk 30 feet down the hall of the hospital corridor, I took a special taxi to the Radisson Suites Healthcare facility attached to a senior housing complex less than 2 miles from Stanford Hospital. I told someone that the taxi was special because they need to tie you down. Then I saw a look of horror on her face and realized she saw me strapped to the floor of a van! No, they tie the wheelchair!! It cost $65. And that is the total amount this entire adventure has cost me. Medicare for everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Knee Repalcement, Part 2

I arrived in SF on 1st July to spend a few days with my brother who will put me up during my recovery. But since he and his wife both work every day, I rented a car and a hotel room and took myself to Palo Alto for my surgery. I had a preliminary appointment with my surgeon and another with anesthesiologists and still another with my personal physician who cleared me for my surgery.
On the night before surgery, I did not sleep well despite the elegant hotel room in Palo Alto. Woke about 5 and being NPO, no eating or drinking, I read and paced until 6, then showered again with the special soap. Completely germ free for at least 30 seconds. Began to see all surfaces as crawling with bugs! Paid my bill and exited just as my cab arrived.
As I strolled into the main entrance of the Stanford Hospital, I had the strange sensation of not really being there. I walked comfortably, no pain, no problems. What am I doing here? I don’t need this! This is for OLD PEOPLE! But I moved obediently toward the check-in desk where I had been only a few days before. Smart to get you oriented in advance. I was checked in and tagged (both wrists this time) and led, still obediently, to the surgery prep. I undressed and donned the famous backless gown. They’re bigger and more complicated now. And then was settled into a corner to wait to be prepared for surgery.
At least 3 nurses attended me: one added two bright red allergy tags to my wrist décor and the others asked me the same 10 questions I had answered for the last 10 days. A pretty child doctor from anesthesiology came with questions about previous surgeries. Another pretty one came in as the lead of the “catheter team”. Catheter team? It takes a team? God. It seems they will install a catheter in the femoral nerve bundle that numbs the whole leg from upper thigh to mid calf. More team mates arrived pushing an ultrasound machine which was used to locate the appropriate nerve. In a bunch they install the catheter without even a stick. Go team! In 10 or 15 minutes it feels as if someone has left a large dog in my lap. My leg has departed me.
More visitors: my doctor signed my leg; anesthesia angel again; vampire brigade (lab techs seeking blood); porters to take my goods away to my future room.
Finally, around 11.30am (original time was 10.15) I am laid flat and rolled into the OR. It is seriously cold!! Seems the surgeons must wear a lot of protective gear (they look like the boy in the bubble of TV fame) so they like it cold. It’s ultra bright. The room is crammed with shelves of tools. It looks like a clean bright hardware store. I avoid looking at the scary stuff. There’s a traffic jam of people: several nurses, three or more greened up doctors, orderlies. I am shifted like luggage to the table and set upon. Egg crate foam under the other leg, arm supports, more wires, another stick, wrap this, cover that, and then a mask and orders to “breathe deeply, it’s only oxygen.” I am bid sweet dreams, arms wide, eyes clenched, shaky and cold.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Well, I’m back. I have been gone for three months and then here for 6 weeks just in time for a whole passel of visitors: sister Melinda, cousins Fred and Takaya, friends Bob and Kate. Each visit was charming in a different way with hiking, eating and culture leading the list. But now I’m nearly back to normal with only one of me to manage. So of course, I came down with something! A sore throat at the moment and I hope that this is all I get given the horror stories about flu all over the US. No one here is as crazy as the anti-government “Don’t get your flu shot from those commie/fascist/totalitarians” wing nuts in the US. The media here are urging everyone to get shots and stay home if you are sick, but then they have this socialized thing called sick leave, so they might just do it.

Since returning I have traveled to Spoleto, Assisi, Feltre in the Dolomites and Venice with Melinda, Siena, Orvieto and Rome with Fred and Takayo and roamed the back streets with Kate and Bob. Had a big dinner party and went to eat big meat with Paolo and friends. Looked at naked men at the Accademia (that would be David and the Mapplethorpe photos). Reappeared at the Uffizi to continue my data job in the best work space in Europe. Ran off to Pisa to look at clearly the best Chagall exhibit in Europe. Had a happy reunion with Angelika and dinners and lunches with all my lovely friends. But first I need to fulfill my promise to document the most amazing knee replacement experience ever. Next post.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

My adventure in Osteoland, part 1

I have been having pain and stiffness in my knees for many years. My right knee threw a bone chip in 1979 off of my femur and I had an open surgery to have it removed. I actually kept the piece in a jar for quite a while. Part of the cartilage and a bit of the bone at the end of the inside knob of the femur, about the size of a peach pit. The doctor told me then, “Well, you’ll probably need a knee replacement in 15 years.” But he also told me after the surgery, when asked about rehab, “Well, I suppose you could do some exercises.” No program, no planning, no recommendations, no nuttin’. Three years later when pain and limping began to really bother me, I called the 49ers and asked, “Who does your knees?” I figured if they could get a 300 pound football player back running full tilt down the field, they could help me. “All our surgery is done by Doctor Dillingham’s SOAR Clinic” they told me. I called right away. I saw Doctor Gary Fanton, a charming, no nonsense enthusiastic young guy who said “Let’s scope your knee!” BUT! I had to promise to do 6 weeks of rehabilitation: fours hours a session, three times a week. And it worked great! I had an arthroscopic, same day surgery in 1983 and the knee (right) was mostly trouble free for almost 20 years.
Cut to 2003ish. The knee began to bother me. I couldn’t walk right after sitting for an extended period. Had to swing it back in forth several times until it would hold weight. So in October of that year I began a no-carbs diet and took off 50 pounds. This helped. In 04 on a trip to Italy, I had some problems; mostly I couldn’t/wouldn’t stand for long periods of time. (The Elderhostel tour usually took us off the bus, zoomed us though the town and then left us on our feet for a 45minute lecture. Three times a day! I orbited mostly.) To try to extend the life of the original part, I had my right knee scoped in 04. Some improvement. In 05 while I studied Italian in Firenze for a month, I had significant trouble going down stairs. In 06, my friend Angelika insisted I must do something about my gimpy status. I saw a doctor who diagnosed sciatica in the right leg. I was happy since I knew there is treatment for sciatica but little to do for the knee short of replacement. Got better. In 08 in Italy the sciatica moved to the left side and that knee became seriously painful. Lots of pain especially at night. Finally after months of mobility decline, I saw Dr. Fanton in Nov. 09 and he said “I wish you’d let me replace your left knee.” This was the first time he said that. I was referred to a surgeon since Fanton had become the head of the Stanford University Orthopedic Clinic and was not doing this procedure. I couldn’t get an appointment before I had to leave for Italy where I now reside. So I returned in April 09, saw the new doc, Huddleston, and was urged to get the replacement done. I stalled, planning on doing it in the winter of 09-10. But the Greek chorus of coffee friends insisted: “Nobody stays here in the summer, it’s hot and crowded and full of tourists. Do it right away. They convinced me and I made an appointment for 15 July and a plane reservation for the 2nd.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Beefy Countryside or Texas on the Arno

My friend Nina invited me and a guest to dinner in Chianti. We were going to a restaurant that is renowned for its Bisteca Fiorentina, a two inch thick monster T-bone from the huge white Chianina cattle that they grow around here. She was entertaining another friend from the US. Since I don’t have a car and the gimpy knee won’t bend enough to ride safely on my friend Riccardo’s motorcycle, the four of us went down to Nina’s countryside location on the regional bus. The bus route winds along narrow country roads (motorcycle ready!) to the hillside vineyard where she stays with Paolo, her Italian cowboy, winemaker boyfriend. We got off right across the street from the his traditional country villa: big gate, long allee of cypresses, two story squareish, yellow-stuccoed, green shuttered house, probably built in the 19th century. The house needs redecorating, the garden is very bare and view would be spectacular if the overgrown shrubbery were pruned. But it has a lot of potential. Nina chafes at Paolo’s conservative reluctance to change things. We drank his very nice wine under the cypress trees at the front. (Next time: the back side with view!!) Off to the restaurant, but not before I got a brilliant shot of the countryside as the sun set over the Apuan Alps, where the marble comes from.

The name of the restaurant, Da Padellina, means from the frying pan, although I think the steak is cooked on a grill. They bring it to the table for dissection allowing each person to get their choice of doneness, as long as you want it incredibly rare. I got two pieces, one just right, the other too rare for me. I asked for 30 seconds more on the grill but they murdered it. This meat is so tender that even barely cooked it melts in your mouth. I was told that the supplier is Dario Cechini, the famous Rock and Roll butcher from Panzano. In any case, it was wonderful, tender and flavorful, even the part that they overcooked. We drank Paolo’s wine and had salad and fabulous oven roasted potatoes utterly soaked in fabulous olive oil.
When we had finished our meal and were nearly the last people in the place, the owner, a big enthusiast for Dante who had greeted Nina with hugs and kisses, came to our table and began to talk Dante. Riccardo and Paolo knew the comments and then the recitation, of course, because it is a fundamental Italian grade school requirement to learn Dante. He spoke the lines as if he were telling us a recent anecdote. I heard Dante recited in the streets a couple of weeks ago and was charmed but this was quite captivating since it was so intimately directed to us. Very late, we were driven back to Santo Spirito, I with a package of bones for broth.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Civaie

The portone (big door) to my building is between two businesses: on the right a bar/restaurant now named Cabiria (it was different when I arrived last summer) which serves very nice B quality food – a step up from the C- before – and provides music to a lot of casual drinkers in the later hours. But on the other side is the Civaie Morganti. There is really no direct translation of the word civaie into English but it is a traditional seller of grains and legumes. Giovanni also sells an assortment of spices, olives, oils, garden seeds and, of necessity, a lot of tourist items: baskets, hats, vin santo & cantucci, those cutsie wrapped colored pasta that no Italian would touch. But the original focus was the grain/seed department. He has red, black, and wild rice along side several kinds of Italian risotto style rice, plus several kinds of lentils, even quinoa! I buy things from him whenever I can but as a single person, using a pound of lentils can take a while. We greet each other every day as is the custom here. Even the somewhat inebriated hangers-out say, “buon giorno, signora.”

But the best part of this vendor for me is the atmosphere of tradition that it adds to the piazza with local folks dropping by to chat and the elaborate, gesture filled conversations held either in front of the store or with those locals taking a drop in the outside seating of the restaurant. The talk is always energetic and often boisterous confusing the uninitiated into thinking of disputes, but it’s only Italian enthusiasm.

Giovanni’s store is only one of many traditional vendors in my neighbourhood: there is a frame shop, a shoe maker (very pricey), a pharmacy that originated in 1508, a bakery with some non Tuscan actually good bread, several furniture shops (mostly repair and restoration), a book seller, a candy/pastry shop, at least a dozen tiny grocery stores, and a fiaschetteria, a wine shop that sells bulk wine. You bring the bottles and they fill them up with one of six or seven types – red or white, Brunello or Rosso or what have you - for about 3.50 €. I think it is quite possible to live one’s life here and rarely leave a three block radius. Here’s a link to some of the traditional vendors around Firenze:

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Coffee with friends

I have established a pattern of having coffee each day at 10 or so with various friends: Nikkie, an Italian, born here, raised in Canada, living here since 71, married to Luca, a Fiorentino, teaches Italian to foreign students, son Gabriele; Charles, retired NY city defense attorney, one time novelist, determined Italophile and perennial student, one daughter in US; Faith, an American living here for 35 years, with her sister from Maine; Brigitta, Swedish translator/interpreter also resident here for many years; and me. We buy cappucios and briosh and shoot whatever shit wants shooting. Currently the American economy is topic A. We met Luca for the first time at dinner da Nikkie. An elegant intellectual who is a publisher of small circulation, "giallo" (mystery) books, now he joins us from time to time when he isn't off to the the seaside to play tennis. We greet others as they pass by: the director of the British institute, Vanessa of the red specs; Sam, American student of Nikkie’s, now doing an internship here with an English language newspaper; Carol, painter, teacher, and long time expat. More seem to turn up everyday. I think if we sat there long enough, we would meet all the expats in the city. To paraphrase Claude Rains: "Everybody comes to Ricchi's". And there is crowd watching: the Godfather of the square, Signore Marini who always wears a red scarf and tie and who inspects the whole piazza daily, the camo capped rotund fellow who picks up trash and circles all day keeping an eye on things. We part around noon to do our separate adventures: Nikkie to teach, Charles to learn, me to write or converse in English. We only sometimes see each other in the evenings. But we are always back again the next morning for coffee and always seem to have a lot to talk about.

There’s food here.

I’ve been trying to eat mostly at home to save a few €s, but that can be boring so when guests arrive there’s usually an opportunity to splurge and eat in a restaurant. Over the holidays Matthew and I tried out the Borgo Antico which lives two doors down from me. During the summer it is normally packed. Oddly the newish spot immediately under my lefthand window is mostly empty even when BA has a line of folks waiting. Food is indifferent it seems. But Borgo Antico after 4 visits meets spec. I’ve had pizza, gnocchi, risotto, and bresaola with rucola. They make their pizza in a wood oven (which may contribute to the nice level of warmth in my apartment upstairs) and the crust is thin and mostly crispy. I think it must be an insurmountable physics problem to get crispyness in the center, but the toppings were fresh and not a heap o’stuff layered with too much bad cheese as in USA. There is some kind of dispute about risotto: the proper doneness is just AFTER the stuff stops crunching and sticking in your teeth but I have had it more rare than that. I have made it to the express satisfaction of my own Italian foodie expert but there are those who covet the crunch. BA made me a risotto with artichokes (alas not fresh) and it was lovely, albeit a speedy meal. I underestimated the time the dish would take to chill in the 40 degrees in the outside seating. Well, it looked like a nice day! More rationally, Matthew and I sat inside for the salad. Bresaola was once made with horsemeat. Possibly still, depending on the location. Or the economy. And the center is piled with arugula and topped with big flakes of parmesan cheese. I had it in Siena with white truffles, as well. The moon rose over the Torre del Mangia and I had a lovely white wine. Major swoon. This time it was more down to earth but tasty.
The secret of the simple dishes like this is oil. Olive oil. Americans don’t really seem to get olive oil. Everything I’ve been told there is the opposite of what they do here. Lovely golden clear color? Nope. As green as grass. Clear? No way. The more meat in the oil, the better. Put it in tiny dark bottles? Not the way they use it here. Salad is dressed with oil only. And then they rub their bread in it. But that may have more to do with salt free bread. Bleeh. I bought a liter of “new” oil in November and it is almost gone. I was given a huge bottle at Christmas time and only just began to use it. It will be gone by the end of the month maybe, depending on what I make. We don’t cook with the stuff. It is the ketchup of Italy, poured on almost everything, especially in the soup. Oh yum.
My best meal so far was at the opposite corner of the piazza in Antica Osteria. After the Ikea festival, I took the Frenchies for lunch and we ended up there since it was late and not everyone stays open in the afternoon break. We six ate fantastic food, including a risotto with HUGE gamberoni for me and a magnificent meat festival for Matthew. I must take care because I don’t have the budget for a new wardrobe.

The Party

After a very nice dinner at Charles’ apartment, he suggested that we have a party and each of us invite our friends and generate some cross fertilization. So we did. We held it at my apartment because it is very conducive to partiness being open and furnished with objects of derision. I started with my usual absurd thematic vision: a Tu B’shevat party since it is about that time of year and nobody knows what it means. No costumes. That was quickly shelved because it frightened the Italians. The idea was a California style open house from noonish to darkish so as not to exclude those with either jobs and or families. This was also shocking to some of the Italian persuasion. “What will we do all that time?” asked Andrea. Well, just come for a part of the time, I said. In fact they did. We had about 45 people here over the span of time. Everyone from the waiter at Charles’ favorite restaurant to the director of the British Institute to my Fiorentini pals and their expat partners and various musicians and writers. I made masses of food as always, some of which was more successful than others. I was asked for my recipe for meatballs at least twice. I ate the leftovers for a week. I met Gloria, a local with a fabulous fashion sense and a wardrobe from the resale shops that I would die for. And Riccardo, a genteel former journalist, now freelancer on his way to research an article for a motorcycle magazine in Yemen (Yemen?). And chatted with Stefano and the adorable Simona, he of the ancient merceria two steps from the Mercato Porcellino, and David and Patrizia, the British expat former butcher, now businessman and his beautiful wife, who made me a feast of wonderful Italian food at Christmastime. Affef from Tunisia and her talented husband Francesco, Edward, Padraig and Andree of the Irish contingent, and of course, my lovely wacky coffee drinking friend Nikkie and her husband Luca, a scholar and a gentleman. New friends Faith and Suzanne and old, Fawn and Andrea. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I heard lovely compliments for weeks afterward, but of course in Italy complements are a de rigueur, so I only hope it was as nice for others as it was for me. I aspire to create a salon, but I think I need more decrepit furniture for swaning around.

The Mayoral Race

By chance I read in the Florentine, a great little newspaper for the English speaking community (there are 40,000 in the area covered by the local consulate!), an advertisement for a candidate running in the mayoral primary. He was reaching out to the English speakers for support in the election by having a meet and greet at the Four Season’s Hotel. Newly opened after decades of renovation, the FSH is in a cloister, garden, office, whatever, once owned by a faceless corporation which let it all go to hell. So of course it needed years of restoration. I wanted to go just to get inside! Fawn came with. We arrived by taxi, a rare treat, and proceeded into the main lobby: an interior courtyard which had been roofed over so that the brilliant frescoes and bas relief frieze wrapping the inside could be protected. Eye poppingly beautiful. We were escorted through a maze of gorgeous rooms, luxuriously draped and furnished with renaissance and baroque art and furniture and paintings and cabinets full of books and silver and floral displays as from an old master. And comfy chairs. When we reached the interior garden (4 – four – ACRES!) they shuttled us across in golf carts enclosed against the rain. The far building was smaller but just as well appointed. Around a corner and into what seemed to be the chapel of the former convent: thirty foot high ceilings, painted vaults, a gallery with a frescoed face and in the apse, two painted saint in niches. Knock your eyes out gorgeous. And hardly ever open to the public. But I’m sure you could get married there. Well, we sort of did. The food on display was bountiful and arranged like a dutch still life. Free everything. We noshed heavily and greeted what seemed to be all of Fawn’s friends, some of which I knew from the cocktail party of last fall. They showed a very skillfully made video of Florentines being asked what they wanted from the next mayor, followed by our candidate, Mateo Renzi, promising just that. A bit in English, most in Italian and very well received by the upper crust audience. And two weeks later when the primary was held, Renzi came first, with a percentage sufficient to insure that he will be the next mayor. Firenze is a one party town, all genetic leftists. I liked his energy and youth, because the grownups here are way more jaded than is reasonable, often just to seem chic. I hope he succeeds since his program is a good list of things to do, but I was thrilled just to be in that fantastic venue.

I join the chic set (well for an evening anyway)

Fawn called me in the afternoon one Tuesday in the late fall to ask if I would like to go to a wine tasting. Naturally I said yes. So I met her in Piazza del Carmine, the next over from where I am. [This is the one with the church with the Brancacci Chapel, which you would all recognize from the figures of Adam and Eve being tossed out of the garden: she’s wailing piteously and holding her nakedness and he’s head down and wretched.] The Piazza is rather unglamorous at first sight, with cars filling the middle. We met at the bottom of the square in front of a glassed in lobby with guardian. Inside was a huge, extremely elegant space: a huge, long narrow room with a similarly long narrow gravel floored tent beside and all decorated with orchids since this was the release party for a wine called Orchidae. The furnishings were white couches and trendy accessories, bar stools and stand up tables, with three bars serving the wine and white and champagne and fizzy water. Tiered plates held big hunks of parmigiano. We were there early with only a few others. As the crowd grew, I was introduced to all of Fawn and Andrea’s friends and quite a few business associates. I was the “dear friend from America who has just moved here.” I remember only a few of the names but they were uniformly attractive, well dressed and often spoke English. I met at least three American women who had married Italians. There were restaurant and hotel owners, fashion designers and retailers, wine biz folks and often all three in the same couple. We were almost all in black which made the white fuzzy couches off limits but a few trendy types wore soft colors and one charmer sported vintage Pucci harem pants. They served cute food which was also quite yummy and drat that large lunch! The whole event lasted from 7 to almost 10 by which time you could have been stuffed with food and tanked with wine. No one seemed to be. We managed to kiss everyone and leave, me toting a leaden collection of magazines which will serve me for at least a week. As I walked home – it was only three blocks – I felt I had been quite privileged to rub elbows and cheeks with the upper crust.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Uffizi Library

Well, unless they take it back, I have been accepted as a volunteer at the Uffizi Library in the Museum of the same name. I don’t exactly get paid but they will enroll me in an insurance plan for 30€ and give me a pass to the museum which works for all the others, so it’s not exactly slavery. We actually spoke in Italian and they seemed mollified by my pronunciation if not my grammar. The director is a charming gentleman and his associate Luciana who will supervise me is warm and friendly. The work they are interested in having me do is data entry but I do lots of this at home. I call it writing but WTH. The library is a very large two story room with a catwalk like balcony around three sides. Naturally there are frescoes above and around the shelves. The visitors, researchers all I suppose, sit at tables with lamps but there is a large window which lights the place in the day. The floors are tiles that show the centuries of wear and the corridors frequently open up to vaults or pillars or in one case, the old foundations that Vasari built the place on. I feel honored just to be allowed in and they are thanking me for being willing to help out. Pinch me.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

January musings

While I am very busy I can’t always remember what it was that made me so, and it’s not the wine. Or the gin. Last night I was escorted by a lovely tall Romanian beauty Nicoleta who volunteered to show me the way to a jazz club where a new friend Tiziano would be playing. I am fully capable of finding anything in Firenze, armed as I am with maps of all scales and content, but a companion on a passegiata seemed a fine idea. So we walked, she with her bici and I with my limp, the five or so blocks (the only blocks actually here are the stones that make up the buildings and streets but there is no other way to describe the distance since I’m metri impaired.) to the piazza where we would find the venue. Italian all the way, even if she would like to learn some English. The club was in the bowels of a pizza restaurant not unlike the lower levels of the churches: arched ceilings and small bricked up proto windows, refectory style tables and benches for seating. More Italian again. And because they are very polite they told me my Italian was fine. Should be fined is more like it. After some time waiting, surprisingly free of demands that we buy drinks(TG), the musicians arrived with kisses for all including me since I was “a friend of the band!!” No backstage privileges. No backstage. The group was pure geezer rockers with either no hair or more grey than me. Six pieces: drums, bass, piano/organ, 3 guitars trading the lead and rythym. All good players. Typical west coast style. All Italian lyrics. LOUD! Glad I brought my ear plugs. Played for two hours + without stopping. Tiziano is lovely, speaks fine English. (I’ve told the ones who will listen that an Italian accent is an American aphrodisiac but some still won’t speak even if they do better at an alien language than I) The crowd was mostly middle to my age with a few young groupies including one who seemed to know all the words to all of the songs. Too loud to talk which was sort of a relief at least for the first hour and a half. Having never been a concert goer and stayer-up-later-than-12 type, I faded at the end and made for home around 1.30 texting Nicoleta that I was off. She’s adorable and I hope to see her soon again, this time for English.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Pretty Nice Holiday

I had a pretty nice holiday, all things considered. Matthew came to visit and we had a nice time together. He had something of an ordeal getting here because his plane was diverted due to fog in Pisa. So it turned into a 36 hours back smasher. And of course, he's already got a smashed back. But then we had a nice Christmas dinner together and the next day my friends from France arrived laden with fois gras and wine and chocolates and cheeeeeese, Grommit. Very nice. Lovely kids 16 and 13 and darling folks. We walked around the city and nearly froze solid, what with an arctic gale blowing. Spent a day in Siena that nearly froze our blood and actually snowed on us!! But we managed to eat several fabulous meals: my famous lasagna with Matt's famous spaghetti sauce and two (2!) restaurant meals. And they volunteered to take me to Ikea and schlep all the stuff I needed to finish making the apartment fully functional, including assembling all the purchases! Talk about good guests! And then they dashed back to France for NYrs Eve and I fell into bed with a stinker of a cold. So for the second consecutive NYE, I celebrated with cough lozenges and gin. It's medicinal. If disgusting. Matthew stepped up big time and made me tea and other hot fluids and DID MY LAUNDRY! A little old lady in the laundromat eyed his careful folding and smoothing and nodded approval so he said "Mia madre es infirma" meaning sick but he speaks Spanish, so it came out "my mother is infirm" not sick. Not infirm yet. Much. Then, as I had made a heroic recovery, we went to dinner Saturday at a friend's and had lovely food and alleged conversation in Italglish. And last night as a parting gift, dinner with another Italian friend, one that Matthew knows, well staffed with characters, mostly musicians. Sent him off to the mysterious west with lots of good stories to tell and plans to come back in the spring when he can visit a pal in Spain who will drive him here which is probably easier on the back. I will look forward to more food fests and this time conversation in Spanitalglish.

Christmas in Italy 2008

The lights are all up across the streets and on the trees of the piazza. Mostly they are tiny white ones, some that move or twinkle, but the ones outside my window are blue and mercifully static. The windows have displays of desperate merchandise – very poor sales this year. Some stores have already put up sale signs. But the passersby are smiling and friendly. For the most part we are not troubled with those vampire Christmas carols that will not die or the cute Santa motifs. This is a Catholic country of course. There are some carols in my café but they aren’t insistent because it’s not common for Italian restaurants and stores to mess up your shopping or eating with bland musak. They prefer the sound of conversation. The number of visitors seems very small but I’m comparing it to what I know of the season when the streets are full. I had dinner with friends the other night and Padraig said that the restaurant we were in should rightfully have been jammed with after-shopping diners. We were the only people in the place. I am enjoying the lack of crowds but I may be the only one in town doing so.
I have been polling my friends to find out what the traditions are here. So far nothing that explodes. (see Easter) The traditional meal is tortellone in brodo (big ravioli in broth) on Christmas Eve with the broth being made from boiled beef. Then on Christmas Day they eat the beef with vegetables and potatoes. In recent years they have turned to turkey maybe from the Norman Rockwell image they get from the states. One family I know always has bruschetta di fegato (toast with chopped liver). I even got a very specific recipe for it, although my liver eating days were mostly over when a Stanford biologist said he wouldn’t touch it. This family also has Guinea fowl which is larger and darker than chicken but not as bland as turkey. The principal gathering is at midday, although you wouldn’t call it a lunch. Old Fashioned Sunday dinnerish meal is what I would call it.
For those who are religious or just traditional, there is a midnight mass in every church. I’m thinking I will go to Santo Spirito since it is 50’ away and I can sit down, I think. The bells have been ringing more this week. It’s a lovely part of the environment here. And over the door to the church is a lit star with a tail like a comet, small and just inside. I like the modest decorations and don’t miss the 10 billion bulb extravaganzas that we Americans are prone to. But then maybe the reason it’s inside the door is the lurkers who haunt the doorways across the steps most nights, Upton O. Goode and his pals.
Most of my friends are going to family or having them here in herds. Fawn and co. are off to Luxembourg to the daughter-in-law’s family. Nikkie and Luca are eating at their son’s house even if she’s bringing the dinner. Then off to the seaside house and supper with their friends there. Andree is driving to France, as we speak, to her brother. Alessandro will make a speedy trip to the Veneto and back in less than a week. Sonia my landlady is entertaining 14 in what I believe to be a three bedroom apartment. When I said I fed a bunch a few years ago but I had patios and decks, she said “Meglio tutto fuori!” (better they’re all outside!)
Matthew will be here tomorrow midday. I’m tracking him in the air as I write. (Better than worrying) We will have a tiny roast beast ala fiorentino (I have no trouble understanding food info in Italian!), oven roasted potatoes with some of that killer new oil and peas with bacon (Nikkie’s special recipe). Then when Mike and Nathalie arrive, I’ve got lasagna, pappardelli with mushrooms and onions, beef bourguignon. We won’t starve.
Sometime in the week between Christmas and New Year we will all drive to Siena and see the gorgeous duomo. And maybe Matthew will convince me to make a whirlwind tour of all of northern Italy. Or not. Time to make egg nog. Happy Midwinter Merchandising Festival from Italia.