Seriously, MORE Festivals?!?! (yes, but this time there’s cheddar!)


It’s hard to believe this is the second holiday season since we returned from Florence. Now that the newness of being home has worn off a bit, the rose-colored remembrance phase has set in. Florence truly was a wonderful place to be during the holidays – the lights, the festivals, the food…. This blog post reminds me of that unique mix of excitement for Florence and longing for home that is still palpable as I read it. Happy Holidays to all!!!

Originally posted on New Mexico to Italy:

Ciao Readers!

Okay, if you’re tired of hearing about all of the festivals here, this is not the post for you.  Then again, if you’re a festival junkie like me, read on…

It’s almost hard for me to believe how many festivals there are here in Florence.  I think I’ve just decided that festivals are a part of everyday life – like little food markets, the passeggiata and cappuccinos (and, “purtroppo,” the post office).  Seriously, I can’t remember a weekend in the past several months where there wasn’t at least one festival or festival-like happening.  And now that it’s the holiday season…well, you can do the math!

This past week marked the start of the German Christmas Market which runs for about 3 weeks in Piazza Santa Croce (recall this is where the European Food Festival was held).  It’s a little like that festival (complete with wurst), but with more…

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Balloon Fiesta Fun!

Hola Readers!

It’s been quite a while!  As you know, we’re back here in the Land of Enchantment…and one of the most enchanting things about New Mexico (and Albuquerque in particular) is the International Balloon Fiesta!  This morning the weather was perfect and there were hundreds of balloons aloft, so I had to share some photos.

For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, hundreds of hot air balloons (many in “special shapes”) from around the world take off every morning from the festival grounds throughout the 9 day event (always the first 2 weekends of October), and then in the evenings stay tethered to the ground while lighting their burners for the “Balloon Glow.”   Since the balloons take off at about 7:00 a.m., you have to leave your house very early (we got a late start today – 5:45) and then sit in traffic to park – but once you’re there, there are balloons, food and merriment galore!  (I love hearing the excitement in the voices of first-timers – sometimes, like this morning, in several foreign languages.) And, in honor of the gluttonous pleasure of American festivals, yes, that is me eating a giant turkey leg at 9:30 a.m. (YUM)!  Enjoy…


A Photo-Filled Foodie Farewell to Florence!

Ciao Readers!

Well it has been quite some time!  I didn’t think I could leave Florence without one “farewell” post to say goodbye to all of things we have enjoyed about our temporary home.  And what better way to end our stay (and my blog) than with a cooking class!  Specifically, a hand-made ravioli-making class!

But before we start cooking, a quick update and “goodbye”…  Over this past month, we have been trying to enjoy all of the things that drew us here to begin with (in between trips to the post office, the vet, etc.).  As the weather has been way too sweat-inducing (much like Hell, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity) to enjoy the (non-air-conditioned) museums or the gardens, this basically leaves us with…FOOD!   We have been going back to all our favorite spots and eating WAY too much – in the form of pizzas and pastas and pastries and bruschetta with fagioli & lardo, and…well, you get the picture!  It has also been a time to say “goodbye” to folks we were just getting to know, and to thank those who have helped us during our stay (you know who you are).   In an effort to go out on a positive (and delicious) note, we indulged in a one-day cooking class….

We took this class from Food for Friends, which provides small in-home cooking classes (our class was us and two friends from Oslo and London).  The “home” is part of a magnificent Palazzo owned by the Chef, Francesca (pictured with Steve, below) and the course is run/translated by her friend Jacqui (originally from England).  For our course we made two too-yummy to describe ravioli – a traditional spinach and ricotta with butter and sage sauce and a more modern radicchio and burrata.  The class was great fun, especially because Steve put me to shame.  After all my boasting to the chef (in Italian, no less) about all of the cooking courses I have taken, my first batch of dough was so rock-like I had to start over!  In contrast, Steve’s dough and ravioli were so perfect that Francesca actually put some of his away for herself for dinner!  (Lucky for all of us there were only a few of my dense ravioli in the mix).  Throughout our cooking session Francesca would whip up little snacks, and there was plenty of prosecco to boot.  Overall, a good (and scrumptious) time was had by all!   Since there still is no smell or taste-o-vision, you’ll have to make do with the photos (which walk you through both pastas as well as the snacks)…

With these yummy photos from our class, I leave you, Dear Readers, as the Italy chapter of our life comes to a close and the next chapter begins….  It has been a pleasure.  Enjoy:

A Trip to the Italian Emergency Room

Ciao Readers!

Well, as at least one of you predicted, experiences continue to happen that warrant (scream out) to be blogged about.  Today was just such an adventure.  Lest you worry, everyone is (basically) okay.

You may remember my blog about “The Gaudí House” – a unique looking house not too far from where we live.  Well, my parents arrived for a visit two days ago, and today we set out to see the sights.  On the way we passed the house, and of course my mom had to take photos.  Well, not realizing that the very large dog that lives there is territorial, my mom stuck her camera (and thus her arms) through the front gate (pictured below) to get a better shot.  The usually docile (i.e. asleep) dog immediately sprang into defense mode and promptly bit my mom’s arm.

Long story a little bit shorter – no one at the pharmacy minded that we cut in front of everyone in a panic (there was visible blood dripping) while the pharmacist bandaged up my mom’s arm well enough for us to walk to the emergency room.  The emergency room was a bit of chaos and I did the best I could in Italian (and also learned the irregular past participle of “bite” – “morso”); they cleaned and bandaged my mom and then sent us to the waiting room to wait for her to get various shots.   In the waiting room we met another American with a broken finger (an illegal street vendor pushed her down running from the police) and another American tourist who wasn’t paying attention while walking and fell and broke her leg and ribs.  There were many Italians and other foreigners in various degrees of distress – your typical emergency room waiting room, except with more languages.   The lady with the broken finger was apparently low on the “emergency” list as we got there several hours after her but got seen before her (she actually took photos of my parents for me on her iPhone, which she’ll e-mail me later).  We were all glad for the company to chat with and pass the wait.

In any case, after several hours my mom was seen and I actually had a conversation in Italian with the doctor (or nurse, still not sure) about what shots he was administering, possible side effects, etc.  We even joked around (he said that Italy gave my mom a little gift –  “regalino”) to bring back.   My mom was a trooper, though I had to look away during the shots.   We were pretty sure the dog, who we see every day and never leaves the yard, doesn’t have rabies, so the doctor(?) seemed satisfied about that.  After we were done it was time for the bill…

Now, how much do you think a trip to the emergency room complete with bandages and shots would be in the U.S.?  500$, 1500$, more?  The total bill came to 30 euros (about 39$)(plus another 4 for a prescription I had to pick up at a pharmacy).  Pretty impressive, yes?  You’re a foreigner with no health insurance and they take care of you and send you on your way for next to pocket change.   Funny, I had asked Steve where the hospital was just in case before his mom visited, hoping I would make it till August without ever having to find out how the health care system here is.  Well, the best laid plans…but overall, my mom will be okay and feels that she had a “very positive experience” with the healthcare system here.  So kudos to Italy where kudos are due!

Until the next (hopefully less blood-pressure-raising) adventure….

gaudi house

A “Secret” Garden!

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking you on a outing to the most peaceful place in Florence (which ironically enough is mere yards away from one of the more touristy) – The Rose Garden!

Now a friend of mine who I met here last summer told me about this wonderful place and I am sorry that I waited this long to follow her recommendation.  I guess part of me wondered how great can a garden right below the famous Piazzale Michelangelo lookout point be?  I mean the view from the piazza is great, but it’s also covered in tourists and hawkers (boxers depicting the bottom half of David anyone?).  Well, was I wrong!  Just by walking down some stairs off the piazza, you make your way into a beautiful and peaceful (and free!) garden.  It seems that from the lack of tourists and tranquil atmosphere that this garden must not be touted in/by many tour guides…

The garden was created in 1865 by Giuseppe Poggi, who also designed the piazzale.  In 1998 a small Japanese garden was added through a gift from Florence’s sister-city, Kyoto.  I’ve read that there are about 350 varieties of roses in the garden!  Unfortunately, the roses at this time are mere buds, so I’ll have to return in a month or so to see/photograph those (all of the green flowerless bushes you see in the photos are full of buds).  However, there were plenty of other wonderful plants in full bloom, including the pictured wisteria, as well as many varieties of fruit trees and more.  There are also 11 modern art statues by Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon.  And, maybe the best part of all is all of the benches scattered throughout so that you can sit and relax and take in the beautiful scenery and quiet from a variety of vantage points (or, as the man pictured, read a book).   Even the neighbors seem to be in the spirit – notice the house literally bathed in flowers you can see from the garden (below).  Overall, this garden is a wonderful oasis in a usually chaotic city!  Enjoy…  (sorry, I always seem to take photos when it’s overcast, and this past week it was actually mostly sunny for a change!)

A “Dear John” Letter to Italy

Hello Readers!  And Happy Spring!

Well, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t blogged in a bit.  That’s because I’ve been composing this “Dear John” letter to Italy (okay, in all honesty I wrote it in about 10 minutes and have been mulling it over).  I was trying to remember if I’d ever actually written a “Dear John” letter before and I don’t think I have.  I prefer face-to-face when it comes to serious subjects.  However, in this case, this is as close as I think I can get.


New Clet Street Signs!

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Passover!

As you may recall, there is a “guerrilla” artist here – Clet Abraham – a French dude who has been living in Florence for years and creates street sign art by applying adhesives to the signs (you can really see the adhesive on the blue arrow sign, below).   Since I already wrote an entire post about him, I won’t repeat myself here.  (I included photos of many of his ubiquitous signs in that post if you want to check them out.)

Well, it seems like after many months of the seeing the same signs all over town, new signs have started to appear.  Now, I can’t swear all of these are new, and not just ones I missed somehow, but I know the policeman in love with a big check (I think) is, as I pass that sign every day and this just appeared.  I am pretty sure the “walk like an Egyptian” sign is new as well; and while I have never seen the “Pieta,”  the fact that other stickers are on the sign makes me think that maybe it is not as new.  In any case, they are always a fun treat:

A Look Inside Santa Maria Novella (the church, not the train station)

Ciao Readers!

Today we take our first look inside Santa Maria Novella Church.  It’s taken us this long because the last time we went to visit we were put off by the 5.50 euro ticket price, as I feel that entry into churches should be free (as they mostly are in Italy).  However, after reading the community’s website in Italian, I learned that residents of Florence enter for free.  So, with our official letters of residency in tow (a completely separate process than the Italian immigration/permesso process I have mentioned), in we went!  (After entering and realizing how big the complex is and that part of it is considered a museum, I understood the entrance price better.)

Santa Maria Novella (started in the 1200’s) is fairly well known as it is right across the street from the main train station which shares its name.  Therefore, most visitors to Florence have at least seen it from the outside (pics below of the front facade and folks outside the walls – and yes, it IS raining!).  I know I have often said how amazing the churches all over Europe are – and this one is no exception.  As a matter of fact, it is even more amazing because not only is there an enormous church decorated to the hilt, but an entire complex, complete with a cloister, smaller chapels and lots of tombs.  There is so much art and detail and interesting tombs that you could literally spend days exploring every nook and cranny of the complex.   There are the famous pieces – like Giotto’s Crucifix (1288-1289) and another Crucifix by Brunelleschi (1410 – 1415).  But even the not-so-famous stuff is pretty cool.  There are frescoes all along the walls in the cloister, as well as frescoes and tile work and more in all of the little prayer spaces and chapels throughout.  It’s pretty overwhelming how much work went into this place!  (Every time we see one of these churches we always marvel at how it was all accomplished before the days of forklifts and electric drills!)

Here, take a look inside yourself:

Thank you for coming along and have a wonderful weekend!

Italian Culture (as seen through an amusing Italian video)

Ciao Readers!

Well, I think I am about done showing you around Paris and Amsterdam (for this trip).  So, it’s back to Italy we go.  I have been trying to find a way to humorously explain how aggravated I felt at coming back into Italy and again having to fight for my life getting on and off the train, breathing in all of the smoke (in Paris there are no smoking signs on the platforms and I saw them being enforced!) and just feeling all around less civilized than I had in Paris and Amsterdam.

At the same time, I have also been trying to find a way to incorporate this very funny video (produced by an Italian) which explores exactly these issues.  So, instead of listening to me being grumpy, I share with you a very funny look at “Italy v. Europe” (and I agree with all of it except the coffee part).  It’s worth the few minutes, really!  Enjoy….

Have a great weekend!

Paris Foodie Wrap-Up

Ciao Readers!

In the next post I’ll be taking you on a very cold boat ride along the Seine, where we’ll be passing some famous sites until we just can’t take the cold anymore!   But before we go on that tour, we’re going to eat breakfast at a local patisserie, stumble upon a Parisian street market and then take the Metro to Lafayette Gourmet to get some picnic supplies for later (and to just generally ogle the food). (Since we’ve already talked about all of the foreign food available here, today we’re sticking with French goodies.)

We discovered our little local patisserie on our first full day in Paris.  While I wish I had photo-staged it better, the quiche I had (pictured below) was seriously the most delicious quiche I have ever eaten – the crust was perfectly buttery and flaky and the filling was pillowy and savory – heavenly!  I was so enamored with this quiche that I decided I would eat one (with different fillings) every morning for the next/last two days of our stay.  Little did I know (until the next morning) that this patisserie is closed on both Saturdays and Sundays (I said “awwwwww” for an inordinate amount of time after seeing the place shuttered Saturday morning).  Well, at least for one day I enjoyed the perfect quiche and Steve a great baguette (I still don’t understand how water, flour and yeast in one country can end up with such a different result than water, flour and yeast in another, but French bread is so much more chewy and substantial than the bread here).

While Saturday left us disappointed upon discovering the patisserie closed, we were happily surprised to see a street market setting up right outside our hotel window.  Paris has these wonderful little street markets that pop-up on specific days of the week in every neighborhood.  While there are also some “bric n’ brac” markets, this was a quintessential Parisian food market – complete with produce and meats and fish…and, of course, cheese!!!  As we didn’t have a kitchen, all we could really do was admire the food (okay, confession – we did later buy some cheese at the grocers and kept it on our window sill overnight [can you imagine storing Camembert inside your hotel room?!]).

So, instead of quiche we “made do” with some buttery pain au chocolates from another local patisserie we passed on the way to the Metro.  We took the Metro to Galeries Lafayette, or, more specifically to the foodie floor, know as “Lafayette Gourmet.”  Not only is this market filled with upscale French and foreign groceries, but there are numerous counters selling freshly prepared food as well as little mini-restaurant stalls with tables to boot.  There’s all of the French food you can picture – from cheese to pastries to foie gras, and even a fish market/restaurant (as well as the foreign food I mentioned in a prior post).   Since you’ve probably figured out I’m a foodie and watch too many shows about food, then hopefully you won’t be too appalled when I tell you that hearing about foie gras all these years had gotten the best of my curiosity.  While I was photographing the foie gras stall I noticed that behind the counter there were very small samples on crackers….I spontaneously felt compelled to ask for one – this is Paris after all and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   So, how was it you ask?  Since I grew up eating chopped liver, I’m used to and like the taste of liver (and hence Tuscan crostini which is topped with it)….it had the taste and consistency of liver-flavored butter (which either sounds delicious or disgusting, depending on your point of view).  While I was happy to have tried it, it’s nothing I ever need or want to eat again, so please no one gorge a duck on my account.

I did buy two treats at Lafayette for our hotel-room picnic that night – some salmon terrine and a mini bottle of Bordeaux.   Add some cheeses and a baguette from the local grocer, and voila – dinner!  (Well, add some pastries, too….).   As always, sorry they haven’t invented taste-o-vision yet, but enjoy!

A Tasting Tour of the Albert Cuyp Market

Ciao Readers!  (Or should I say “Hallo,” as we are in The Netherlands…)  And Happy (early) Birthday Ryn!

Today I am taking you on a tasting tour through the Albert Cuyp Market, a century-old street market running for several blocks throughout the De Pijp neighborhood in Amsterdam.  Albert Cuyp is up and running every day except Sunday, and sells everything you can think of – from books to clothes to all sorts of local and exotic foods.  (Since I have a broken toe, we’ll get to the market via one of the many handy electric trams that run throughout Amsterdam.)

To be honest with you, I can’t really tell you much about what the market sells other than food, as we arrived with empty stomachs and the intention of sampling the local specialties.  As most of the local specialties seem to come in the form of fried foods (there’s an entire wall of fried food vending slots at the train station!), we felt super healthy by starting off at the herring stand.  In the picture below, Steve is being served the traditional herring on a bun by Puck Jansen, the owner of the “Vlaardingse Haring Handel,” who has been working at the market for 44 years!  (Okay, confession time – maybe after reading the name of the stand you will forgive me when I admit I did not even attempt to speak Dutch while in Amsterdam.)  The herring was delicious and eased the guilt of the fried poffertjes that followed (little pancake-like fried dough bathing in butter and powdered sugar), as well as the requisite frites (seriously, it’s a legal requirement that you eat fries in Amsterdam – well, maybe not, but it is a crime if you don’t!).  Having about as much fried deliciousness as we could stand, we decided to pass on the stroopwafels for the time being (thin waffles baked with a caramel-like syrup in the middle), as there were some in the kitchen in our B&B in case we felt the need (we did, later – they were good, but I bet the fresh ones are even better).

While our craving for local treats was sated, we wandered the market still, encountering just a few more things we (okay, I) couldn’t pass up.  In the wonderful nut and candy stand pictured below I was surprised and delighted to discover…roasted pecans!  Well, as you may recall from a previous post, pecans are among the groceries of my dreams, so of course I had to treat myself to a small bag (and they were roast-y and pecan-y and yummy!).   The final culinary triumph happened at the spice market.  There were so many spices hanging in bags on the many racks that I was certain that I could find ground cloves (an ingredient I’ve been missing and searching for here).  The only problem was everything was labeled in Dutch and I couldn’t seem to find anyone to help me.  Undeterred, I started smelling all of the bags that looked liked they might be cloves.   I found one that I thought smelled right – “Kruidnagel Poeder” (which I confirmed later is indeed cloves).  (Dutch is seriously a difficult language!)

I wish I could add smell and taste to these photos to give you an even better sense of the scrumptiousness to be had….

A Visit to the Concertgebouw (and the joys of Dutch queuing)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Birthday Honey!!!  (and Michelangelo back in 1475)

Today I am taking you to one of the great concert halls of the world – The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  And, as an added bonus, we’ll get to attend a free lunchtime concert (offered every Wednesday at 12:30 from September until June).  The construction of this lavish hall began with an idea in 1881 and culminated with its grand opening in 1888.  It is considered to have some of the best acoustics in the world – usually ranked among the top three music halls worldwide.

The Concertgebouw is home to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, also considered to be one of the world’s best orchestras.  Oftentimes (like the first time we visited), the free Wednesday concerts are short practice runs for the orchestra’s full-blown evening concerts taking place the same week.  Sometimes (as we learned on our recent trip), the concerts are completely free-standing venues for new and upcoming artists.  But before we get to enjoy the concert, there’s the matter of that long line out front….

When we got to the hall at about 12:00, the line was already ridiculously long (sorry I didn’t take a photo) and it was about 30 degrees out (from extrapolation of seats available [a little over 2,000], there were at least 1,000 people in line before us).  Now, I guess I have become jaded from Italy, because upon seeing the line I immediately assumed it would take us hours to get through, people would be pushing and shoving and cutting (and I’d likely get my broken toe stepped on in the process), and we’d never get through the line fast enough to make the 12:30 concert.  I was discouraged and suggested we just give up; Steve, who is more patient than I, suggested we wait it out a few minutes and see what happens, which we did.  And lo and behold, about 10 minutes later they opened the doors…and literally about 3 minutes after that we had all filed into the hall in an orderly fashion and were taking our seats!  I think I was so excited about how fast and orderly the line went (and how unscathed we were) that  it took several minutes for me to begin to look around and appreciate how amazing the hall itself is.

Okay, now that we’re in our seats we can enjoy the concert.  While we just showed up knowing it was a free concert day, we had no idea what concert it was.  While we were expecting a practice run for Bach or Beethoven, we actually stumbled upon a full-blown performance of the group Jazzmania Big Band – performing music from various crime movies and t.v. shows.  It was pretty unexpected, especially considering the surroundings, as you’ll see below, but was a great time.  Here’s the playlist from the concert:

  • Newborn – Theme from The Naked Gun
  • Mancini – Theme from Peter Gunn
  • Shumann – Theme from Dragnet
  • Barry – Theme from James Bond
  • Barry / Bricusse – Goldfinger
  • Theard – Let the Good Times Roll

Now, just imagine that music playing as you sit and enjoy from your seat in this amazing hall (photo of outside courtesy of the Concertgebouw website):

Concert hall

Thank you, as always, for letting me be your tour guide!

Ode to Van Gogh (and the Orsay)

Ciao Readers!

I was trying to decide whether to do a separate post on the Orsay Museum in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and realized it’s all about Van Gogh to me, so I’ve decided to combine the two (plus I have no pictures from inside the VG museum).  I’m not sure I can articulate the reasons why, but Van Gogh is my all-time favorite artist.  His paintings just speak to me.  I like him so much I have waited in line for an hour in Albuquerque to see a single tiny Van Gogh on temporary display, and have been to the Orsay twice and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam three times (well, to be accurate, on this trip the Van Gogh Museum was temporarily housed in the Hermitage Museum as the actual museum is undergoing renovation).  So, do you get how much I dig him?  I even brought back a puzzle from the VG museum so I could continue to enjoy the experience!  (If you’d like to read more about Van Gogh, who failed to sell a single painting while alive and committed suicide in 1890, here’s a link.)

Before we get to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, though, we need to take a trip to the Orsay in Paris (Musée d’Orsay to be precise).  Not only because it has a decent Van Gogh collection itself, but because to my mind it is one of the nicest museums in the world (well, the parts of the world I’ve seen).  Why is the Orsay so great, you ask?  I’ll tell you.  First off, it’s beautiful.  Take a look from the outside, and then inside from the 2nd floor balcony:

the orsayinside orsay

The Orsay used to be a massive train station (complete with fancy hotel) that became obsolete back in the 1930’s (though the hotel remained open) and was scheduled for demolition back in the 1970’s.  However, some bright person(s) in the French Museum Directorate had the idea to collect all of the art from the 1800’s displayed throughout the city and house it here (keeping the restaurant from the fancy hotel and adding a casual cafe to boot).  Great idea!  The Orsay opened as a museum in 1986, with the beautiful clock from the train station remaining as the focal point of the museum….

orsayclock2paris through orsay clock

Not only is the museum beautiful, but it is well-arranged and the art is well-lit (often by natural light).  This stands in stark contrast to some of the museums here in Florence (especially the Uffizi), where you have to squint to see the art in extremely low light.  In addition to being wonderful to look at on its own, its art collection is the largest in the world focusing on impressionism and post-impressionism – my two favorite art periods!  Here you can find masterpieces by many familiar names, including Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Whistler and, of course, Van Gogh.  I can’t say enough about what a worthwhile experience a day at the Orsay is.

As this time the “no photos” signs were very pronounced, and I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out, I can only share a picture of me and two of the Van Goghs taken here in 2008 (this was shortly after I unwittingly had my head nearly shaved at a salon in Barcelona):

hope and vangogh

As for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, it is what its name implies – the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings anywhere (he was Dutch after all).  The actual museum, which is under renovation, is a modern marvel and not only houses Van Gogh, but some impressionist and post-impressionist paintings of his friends and contemporaries (for example, Gauguin, who lived with Van Gogh for a bit until Vincent chased him with a razor blade).  While not everything is on display at the temporary location, the Hermitage Museum, we were pleasantly surprised at what a nice job they did basically recreating the Van Gogh section of the actual museum.  We walked the entire museum very slowly (only partly because of my toe), and then just for good measure went back to re-admire some of our favorites (including works inspired by Japanese paintings).  If you like Van Gogh, or think you might, I would definitely put this museum on any “must see” list!

Thanks for coming along on the museum tours!

A Canal Tour of Amsterdam (A Photo Anthology)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to take you on a photographic tour of Amsterdam as seen through the window of a canal boat (and on a mostly sunny day no less!).  If you’re not familiar, the canals in Amsterdam (the Netherlands’ capital and largest city) were man-made, mostly during the 1600’s, and take up about 25% of the city’s space.  Many of the wobbly-looking houses with interesting shapes you’ll see on the tour also date back that far.  (We’ll also pass some of the even-more-wobbly 2,500 houseboats docked along the canals.)  To me, a boat tour is the most picturesque (and lazy) way to see this incredible city.

But before we begin our tour, a little housekeeping….  As you may recall, I had said we were going to travel to 3 countries; as you also may recall, I broke my little toe a few weeks ago.  It was originally our intention to go to Paris, Amsterdam and Brugge (it was also originally our intention to do this as a 2 week trip in December, but Italian immigration bureaucracy got in the way).   After arriving at our hotel in Paris (with me hobbling still) at about midnight on the first day of our trip, it was obvious we had too much planned for such a short trip during which I couldn’t do much walking.  While giving up the fabulous chocolate in Brugge was a tough call, both Paris and Amsterdam have much more to offer in the way of sights and food.  And, as an added bonus, they both have hop-on, hop-off boat bus services that let you see the city and major sites from the comfort of a boat, with little walking required.   So, I did some quick re-arranging, and with only minor financial consequences was able to alter the trip to stay in Paris and Amsterdam the entire time.  Okay, whew, now that the explaining’s out of the way, on to the tour…

Canal Bus has three different lines traveling throughout various canals and you can get on any of them whenever you want for the duration of your pass.  Between the three lines you can see most all of the main canals and disembark near most of the major sites (Van Gogh museum, Ann Frank House, and more).  We took a long boat ride on our last day, happy to be in a well-heated boat (it had been about a high of 30 degrees the entire time in Amsterdam) and relieved to be off my toe for a day.  We were actually the only passengers on the boat at the end of the day (the Captain called it our “private tour”), so we got to listen to music instead of hearing the pre-recorded tour tape for the third time that day!   Without further ado, here is what Amsterdam looks like from the vantage of a canal boat:

Thanks for coming along on the tour!  Stay tuned for upcoming posts about Dutch and French food, culture and art, as well as reflections on Italy….

The Puppetinos Move to Italy (the movie trailer!)

Ciao Readers!

So, it appears I broke my little toe last week and, while this is not a life-threatening injury by any means, it does make getting around (or even to school) pretty unmanageable (remember, 4th floor, no car).  This means I haven’t really gone anywhere or done anything of note, unless of course “going stir crazy” counts.  Yesterday, in an effort to ward off the urge to hop out of the house, in addition to baking the lemon-almond cake yet again (it is seriously good, you really should try it!), Steve and I started goofing around with our earlier “Puppetinos” idea.  (You may recall, when we turned down being on “House Hunters International,” we acted out a smart alek-y episode with puppets.)

So, dear Readers, without further ado….here they are, starring in their very first movie (well, trailer)……. The Puppetinos!!!

Easy Yummy Lemon Almond Cake (and why I miss my kitchen)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to share a delicious lemon almond cake I recently baked (well, figuratively speaking).  A couple of weeks ago we were watching Nigella’s cooking show and the cake she was baking looked so good I had to immediately get off the sofa and go in the kitchen and bake it.  While this used to be an almost weekly occurrence back in Albuquerque (seeing something on a cooking show and then getting up to cook/bake it), this was the first time since arriving in Italy that I’ve tried it here.  The reasons being that back in Albuquerque, unlike here, 1) I had a pantry full of ingredients, 2) I had a kitchen in which I was inspired to cook, and, most importantly, 3) I could turn the oven on without fear of tripping the breakers (which happens here if the oven and anything else is on at the same time). (And, well, maybe also because I watched more t.v….)

In any case, the reason this cake is so delicious is because instead of flour, its base is entirely almond meal and polenta, and in addition to lemon zest in the cake, it is soaked after baking in fresh lemon syrup.  YUM!!!   While I didn’t have almond meal on hand, I did have almonds (and a hand immersion blender); and while not exactly “polenta,”  I still had an entire bag of corn meal I had bought at Vivi Market (foolishly thinking I would make my own corn tortillas).  I cannot say enough about how delicious this very easy to make cake comes out (recipe here); try it and impress your friends with a scrumptious Italy-inspired creation!  While I tried to plate it all fancy-like, the photo doesn’t do its flavor justice:

lemon almond cake

This photo is actually from the second time I baked the cake (today as I write, probably two weeks ago as you read).  I decided to bake the cake today, but forgot and started a load of laundry.  I have no idea why, especially since the machines here are tiny (it’s next to the stove, pictured), but it takes at least 2 hours for a load to finish.  I have to admit, I was feeling a little grumpy for those 2 hours – I am still having a hard time getting used to (and understanding why) our little “easy bake oven” takes up so much electricity that everything else has to be off in order to turn it on.  It’s weird – it takes more electricity than the washer, than the air-conditioner unit, and even than my hair dryer.  And it’s tiny – and all the coils don’t heat up (which all adds to why it’s not much fun to cook here).  Since I’m on a roll venting about my current kitchen – the counter space is also tiny and most of the cabinet space is too high to reach (and while the counter looks like granite or nice synthetic granite, it’s plastic).  The stove top is so small I had to take the back/lid off in order to fit more than one pan on at a time (still can’t fit 3 pans on at a time).  And, while intellectually I understand that these are small complaints and people all over the world would kill for my current kitchen and the food therein, I’m only human and that thought does not change the fact that I get bummed out cooking here:

present kitchen

On the other hand, this is a kitchen in which I am inspired to (and have, and will again) cook up a storm:


So, I suppose today’s lessons are 1) appreciate what you have when you have it, and 2) Nigella bakes good cake!  Have a nice weekend!

A Trip to Pisa (complete with kitchy leaning tower photo)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking you on a trip to Pisa.  And, as a very special treat, I am taking you on a sunny day (yay!).  We took this trip the Saturday before last in order to catch the Kandinsky exhibit there before it was over.  Of course we weren’t going there to do the cheesy tourist thing and see the leaning tower – we were going there for intellectual/artistic pursuits.  But ya know what…the leaning tower is cool!  And the Kandinsky exhibit…not so much.

Pisa is about an hour train ride from Florence and also sits on the Arno river (so the photos of the buildings along the Arno may have a familiar look to them).  Since you can read more about it online, and I took a ton of photos since it was finally sunny out, I’ll just point out the highlights of our trip.

As with many of the smaller cities in Italy, Pisa was pedestrian friendly, though it didn’t have quite the charm of Lucca (it has a large University, so more of a college town).  The famous leaning tower sits in a piazza with several other buildings, including the Duomo (cathedral), pictured.  Entry to the church (unlike the other buildings) is free, though you can’t just enter – you have to walk across the piazza to the ticket office to get a free ticket (it wouldn’t be Italy without some unneccessary hoops to jump through).  The inside of the church is amazing, as with most old churches in Europe (I commented to Steve how the first time we saw one it was awe-inspiring, but now that we’ve seen at least 20….).  The tower itself (started in 1173, completed in 1350 though it had already begun to lean) is very cool.  I’m not sure how it looks in the photos, but in person, it doesn’t look a little tilted – it looks like it might fall over at any moment!  (It was actually closed for a time in the 90’s so it could be stabilized).  And, what visit to the leaning tower would be complete without an obligatory photo of me pretending to hold it up?!

We stayed and enjoyed the piazza and took a walk along the Arno as this was the first sunny day we’d had the pleasure of experiencing in…. (so long I forget).  We enjoyed a typical leisurely Italian lunch and when it started getting later/cooler, we decided to head to our original destination – the Kandinsky exhibit at Palazzo Blu (pictured).  Honestly, it was the anti-highlight of our trip.  First off, the museum was hot (while Italians have an aversion to air-conditioning, they have no such aversion to heaters) and packed with tour groups blocking most of the artwork.  Also, while there were a few pieces we found interesting (pictured), the truth is….  Have you ever been to a museum and you know the art is famous and you know you should be impressed and “understand” it, but what you’re actually thinking is “really?!?!?! any 5 year-old could have done this” – it was like that (my apologies to any hardcore Kandinsky fans).  (I would have taken photos of some of those, but as usual, I got yelled at taking pics [though I actually thought it was permitted].)

The more interesting piece of art we got to see was a mural (“Tuttomondo”) by Keith Haring, painted in 1989, just a few months before he died in 1990.  We had no idea before going to Pisa and looking at our tourist map that it was there, so it was a nice surprise ending to our visit!

Since the sun was out I went a little bit photo happy….enjoy!

Eating Out on a Budget in Florence

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking a little different approach (hey, it’s my birthday, I can do what I want!).  I am going to attempt to play real “tour guide.”  If you don’t know, back when, I bought the domain name “” (I could not believe it wasn’t taken), with the idea that one day I’d know enough about this town to offer tour services.  So, to test the waters, instead of just telling you about places we’ve eaten without any useful specifics (address, hours, helpful hints), today I am going to try and give concrete info for those who may be interested in trying out my recommendations.  Now, if you are not planning a meal out in Florence, have no fear, I will add some fun facts (and photos, of course) to make it amusing nonetheless.

While I’m going to point out a few specific places, overall I can say that the best way to enjoy an affordable meal out in Florence is to make that meal lunch.  The prices of food, oftentimes the same exact food as dinner, are markedly cheaper at lunch time, and since here a 2 hour meal with wine is a very normal lunch, there’s really no need to wait until dinner to enjoy the dining experience (plus, if you’re like me, the thought of just starting a large meal at 8:30 p.m. doesn’t “go down” well).  If you do want to enjoy an evening out, though, I will have future recommendations for you as well.

Italian Lunch Specials – Many of the local restaurants have great lunchtime specials, which gets you a complete meal for a set price.  There are many touristy places that also have “fixed price” lunches, but you can spot those a mile away because 1) the sign will be in English, and 2) the price will be way more than you should be paying for lunch.  Here’s an example of a good lunch deal from one of our local finds….

I had written about Le Stagioni (Via Capo di Mondo 10/12 r, closed Sunday lunch) in my earlier pizza review, and after the enthusiastic comments by a reader, we decided to both give their pizza another try and to go there for lunch as well.  Turns out their pizza since my initial post has been cooked to perfection and they have a good lunch special to boot.   As with most Italian places, the lunch special only applies during the week.  Here you get a beverage of your choice (which includes a tiny beer or a 1/4 liter of wine), a choice off a list of pizzas and pastas, and the requisite after-lunch cafe for 7.50 euros (you can add an appetizer or dessert for another 2.50).  Since this is a lunch special, there is no “coperto” (and of course no tax or tip), making lunch for two exactly 15 euros total.  This is a pretty typical lunch deal and you can find them at many local places.  (For example, La Luna has a similar offer, except with more choices, for 8 euros.)  Here’s Steve’s and my lunch special:

pizza lunch

Foreign Food Rosticceria – Since I already devoted an entire post praising the virtues of these hole-in-the-wall foreign food places, I won’t repeat myself here.  However, I will provide some details.  First off, unlike Italian places, these are almost always open for lunch on Sundays and open every evening by 5:30 or 6:00 for dinner; so if you can’t wait until 8:00 to eat, this is the way to go.  They also have the same exact menu and prices for lunch and dinner (since they are not technically restaurants), so another good budget tip.  (Drinks at these places are usually 1.00 euro for bottled water, 1.50 for sodas; we never have wine with our foreign food, but I’m sure it’s inexpensive.)

After one commenter asked for the address of the Sri Lankin place, I thought “why didn’t she just google it?”  After I took my own advice I discovered you can’t actually find it on the internet, so here’s the scoop:  Eagle Food Centers is located at Via Del Moro 67/r (not far from the train station) and is open 7 days a week.  The lunch plate special (white rice, curries and a popadum) is 3.50 euros vegetarian (and maybe with chicken) and 4.00 if you have meat (vegetarian plate pictured).  From their flyer I’ve discovered that they actually have a Sunday special which includes the above, plus fried rice and desserts for 5.00 euros.  We’ll be trying that out soon!  Speaking of not being able to find it on the internet – the Chinese place I’ve spoken about is called Rosticceria Casalinga (Via Del Leone 53/r, closed Monday lunch).  This place actually does have a few reviews on Tripadvisor, but would do much better business if 1) their name gave some indication that it was a Chinese place (it just basically means “home-cooked”), and/or 2) they had a website (I made these polite suggestions when the owner asked me how I had found out about the place, which was pretty empty).  Their prices for typical dishes range from 3.50 – 4.50 (with rice being extra).

sri lankin food

PinGusto Wok – We ate lunch yet again last weekend at PinGusto, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet (right across from Sant’Ambrogio Market at Via Petro Annigoni 11, open 7-days, Italian hours; you need reservations for dinner).  Now, as with most “Japanese” restaurants in Florence (there aren’t many to choose from), this one is not authentic in the sense that the cooks are from China, not Japan.  (As an aside, Japanese food is so uncommon here that your place-mat at PinGusto actually explains to you what wasabi is and how to use it, pictured).  And, no, they don’t have the biggest variety of fish on offer (almost all salmon).  But to us PinGusto has so many redeeming qualities that we really enjoy our lunches there (admittedly, I’ve talked to others who disagree).  First off, lunch is only 10 euros (even on the weekend) for all-you-can-eat (drinks extra; dinner is 20), and for those of you who know Steve, you know he can do some serious damage (okay, I can also do my fair share).  While there is an entire cooked food buffet as well (pictured), we pretty much stick to the sushi.  One of the great things about the sushi (served conveyor-belt style) is that, unlike every other all-you-can eat sushi place anywhere, they actually send out plates of sashimi, so if you are picky/patient, you can eat tons of fresh fish without getting filled up on rice.   While there are many things we wish they served (tuna, eel), for 10 euros I’ll take a never-ending plate of salmon and seaweed salad any time! (And their lemon gelato isn’t a bad palate cleanser afterwards).  Helpful hint: this place fills up fast and usually has a line – we have found that if we get there about 12:35 (they open at 12:30), we walk right in at the back of the line that’s been waiting since 12/12:15, avoiding that wait and the very long line that follows by about 1:00.

Thanks for letting me be your guide today!

A Plethora of Pasta (A Photo Anthology)

Ciao Readers!

A couple of weeks ago in my dream grocery post I mentioned the countless varieties of pasta they have here.  I thought it would be fun to underline my point by taking my camera into the two grocery stores in our neighborhood (COOP and Conad).  Mind you, this is the pasta at just regular ol’ smallish groceries – not the big fancy groceries and not the foodie markets (where you can find pasta in every shape and color).  The idea is that there is a perfectly shaped pasta for each and every individual sauce out there (the right nooks and crannies to hold sauces of differing densities/viscosities).  I haven’t counted, but I’m guessing you could find at least 100 varieties of pasta in each of these groceries (hey, if you’re gonna eat 51 pounds of it a year, ya need variety).  Notice that there are 3 types each of just the store-brand penne and rigatoni (each just a slightly different size)!   Every store has at least one entire aisle side dedicated to pasta, as well as an entire section of inexpensive refrigerated pasta, then a separate section of various types of locally made “fresh” pasta.  Just a sampling from a trip the grocery…  Boun Appetito!

(If by chance you are thinking “hmmmm, this post seems a bit thin,” you’re not off-base; I started back to Italian school last week, and for reasons I will explain in a forthcoming post, ended up in level 6 of 6, so my brain capacity and blogging time are seriously hampered! I will likely only be posting 2 times/week for a while.)  In any case, there are pics of cute little mini pastas, too….

pasta isle

“Lo Hobbit” (or “going to the movies in Italy”)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to give you a peak into the local theater here in Florence – the Odeon.  While not entirely dissimilar, going to the movies in Italy is a bit different than going to the movies in the States.  First off, the theater here is located in a palace that was built in 1462 (Palazzo Strozzino) – a far cry from a theater in a shopping mall, to say the least!  The inside of the palace was renovated into a theater in 1922 and decked out in the art nouveau style.  (My pics weren’t coming out good inside, so the nice photo is taken from their website).  You can take a virtual tour of the Odeon here (if you do, check out the ceiling).

On Mondays, Tuesdays and (some) Thursdays, the Odeon has its “Original Sound” program, where the films are shown in their original language (whatever that may be), with Italian subtitles.   A few weeks ago The Hobbit was here for only a couple of days, so we went to the movies on a Monday night (we are such party animals here!).  Well, there was one big difference we noticed immediately (after noticing the amazing building we were in) – no fresh popcorn!  I have to admit, my heart sank a bit as a bucket of movie-theater popcorn is an indulgence I learned from Steve, and one to which I have grown accustomed.  We settled for a bag of popcorn from the snack counter (pictured).  On the other hand, had we wanted (we did not) a lovely glass of red wine to bring into the theater, that of course was available.

Another interesting thing was the not quite complete “originality” of the language.  For those of you who have not seen it, in The Hobbit both Elvish and Orkish (is that a word?) are spoken.  Since most of us don’t speak those made-up languages, subtitles are provided.  However, as with the rest of the movie, those subtitles were also in Italian, not English (as the subtitles are in the original movie), requiring me to do my best to translate out-loud for Steve (not that Orks have anything very intelligent to say).  I thought it was an interesting glitch in the “original sound” idea.

One very cool thing about this movie-going experience was that the movie started right away at the time scheduled – no previews and no ads (yay!).  (I actually have no idea if this is because it was in English and all the ads/previews would be in Italian, or this is the way all movies here are – if anyone knows, please post a comment).  Other than that, the movie-going experience was fairly similar.  The prices were about the same (a far cry from the 36,000 yen we unwittingly paid in Japan to see a second-run matinee!), and it was seat-yourself (also unlike Japan where you get assigned seats).  The only other surprise was that, unlike the 2 other movies we had seen in other theaters in Italy, there was no intermission.  We enjoyed the movie and were treated to a caught-just-in-time bus-ride back home.  Thanks for coming along!


A Town Called Lucca

Ciao Readers!  And Happy (early) Birthday Selma!

The last weekend of Steve’s break we took a trip to Lucca, a little less than an hour and a half by train from Florence (thanks again for the spare ticket, goal42). Lucca is a lovely little Tuscan town, completely encircled by a wall (built for defense purposes in the 1500 – 1600’s), and laid out in its original ancient Roman street plan (rectangular grid).  You have to walk through one of the cool “portas” (gates) to enter the town (the one we walked through is pictured).

As with many of the smaller towns we’ve visited in Italy (Orvieto, San Miniato), Lucca had a much friendlier and more relaxed vibe than Florence.  I can’t help but think that if we were living in one of the smaller towns we’d be having a different (i.e. less stressful) experience.  Part of the charm of Lucca is its wall, the top of which has been turned into a tree-lined park, complete with running trail.  More of the charm of Lucca comes from its nearly car (and dog poo) free streets; you can actually take a leisurely stroll without fear of being either being run over or of taking your eyes off the sidewalks to admire the amazing architecture.  Ahhhhhh…..

Of course, it never hurts adding a fabulous lunch into the mix.  I had found Piccola Osteria Lucca Drento online, and it had glowing reviews in both English and Italian.  While it is a tiny place (hence the name), the quality of food was suburb and we had a long, relaxing and delicious meal.  Below is a photo of our gorgeous salumi and cheese antipasti (which came with the first multi-grain bread we’ve been served in Italy).  Now, I’ve had my share of pork products since we arrived, so believe me when I tell you the charcuterie on the platter was exemplary – even the two prosciuttos had completely unique flavors from one another.  Add in a couple of secondi (pork with mushrooms for Steve, baccala [cod] with ceci [garbanzo beans] for me), some vino, and finish with the requisite cafes – YUM!

After lunch we strolled the town for a while, encountering winter festivities including an ice-skating rink, and happening upon several interesting churches (every town in Italy seems to have these cool old churches, Lucca just seemed to have more than usual, and they are really old – 11th through 13th centuries).  Notice the interesting detail in the columns and the mosaic (both created in the 13th century!)…. (as usual, it was cloudy/hazy, so forgive the flatness in the photos):

As always, thanks for coming along on our trip!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ciao Readers!

Today I delve a bit into cultural differences (though hopefully in a humorous and entertaining way).  While the title is meant to grab your attention, I’ll try and be a little less judgmental as I explore the things I appreciate about living in Italy as well as the “things I have yet learned to appreciate.”   As one commenter has pointed out, people in other cultures have been doing just fine for millennia – it’s our own perspective from a different culture that creates our discomfort.  So, when you hear my surprise/dismay (usually indicated by “seriously!?!!?!?”), please understand, as I do, that this is just one person’s attempt to understand a culture not her own.  (However, it is my blog, so enough with the disclaimers already!)   Onward.


  • Of course, the food (the Italian food) and the art (which are both fabulous and really big deals here).
  • The fact that I can walk the streets by myself at night and feel safe.  This is pretty darn cool.
  • My health card.  This is truly amazing – I’m an immigrant without a job and yet I have this nifty little card that entitles me to free/cheap health care.  I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t speak to the quality/wait times, but I can say that compared to the 450$+/month we were paying for employer-subsidized health insurance back in the States (not to mention the very high co-pays) it’s pretty darn civilized.
  • The fact that prices are what prices are.  For example, when I signed up for the basic 19 euro cable package I just naturally assumed that (like in the States) with the added inexplicable fees and taxes we would be paying about 31 – 33 euros/month.  Nope, every month I am equally surprised to see exactly 19 euros on the bill.  Not sure if it’s just Italy, or perhaps part of the Euro Zone strict financial laws, but I like it!
  • Not having to tip.  Almost everywhere we eat here we’re served by the mom & pop owners themselves, or, if there are employees, waiting is their real job for which they are paid a minimum wage.  Now I know your guide books may encourage you to at least round-up and leave the change, and maybe that’s expected in touristy places, but I promise you, I have never seen an Italian leave a tip and if you try to leave one they will yell at you (a habit I have adopted when dining with visiting Americans).  The only tips I have ever seen here are left by American tourists.  Which brings me back to my previous point – as long as you pay attention to whether there is a “coperto” (cover charge) listed on the menu (usually 1.50 – 2.50 euros per person), then you will know exactly how much your meal will cost as there is no adding tax and tip (exception being super touristy places like Venice where there may also be a “service charge,” though always listed in the menu).
  • Not waking up to news about another local or national shooting.  Since we’ve been living in Florence I haven’t heard of a single murder occurring here (In Albuquerque it is statistically a weekly occurrence).  There was apparently a murder of two African immigrants in 2011, but overall violent crime here is rare.  It’s hard to get exact numbers, but Italy has at most 1/7th the violent crime of the States.
  • The festivities.  It really is a treat to be able to walk out your front door and happen upon a street market, festival, musical performance and more just about any weekend year-round (and some weekdays as well).  I do believe the festivities (and the food and art) are what keep people (mostly) non-violent amidst the things in my next list….


  • To quote the Grinch – “All the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE.”  Seriously – people here are loud.  They yell.  And they honk.  And not the little quick tap of the horn to get someone’s attention, I mean the loud, incessant, you’d-be-too-embarrassed-to-honk-that-way-back-in-the-States (or too scared of starting a road rage incident) honk.  My latest theory is that all the honking and yelling is folks’ way of releasing pressure (as everyone seems friendly and happy a minute later), and when combined with the festivities, explains why the violent crime rate is so low.
  • The inefficiency of offices (post, government, bank, etc.).  You usually have to wait between 30 – 90 minutes to accomplish most things (much more for big tasks like immigration – I have heard stories from folks who waited 7 hours at that office), due to the fact that everything is run like a mom-and-pop operation without any thought for efficiency and other folks’ time.  For example – if it’s someone’s turn at the post office and they are trying to send mail in some special way, there will be 3 forms to fill out, but instead of having them stand off to the side while they do this, the worker will have them remain there at the window the entire time (I once clocked one person at a post office window for 25 minutes).  I suppose it would be too complicated to let the next person come up because then the “take a number” system will get out of whack – but seriously?!?!?!  Of course, when it is finally your turn, you will get to spend as much time as you need accomplishing your task, which may help deescalate all the “ARG” you’ve been building up watching those before you.
  • The fact that I have to be careful not to get run-over on the sidewalk!  I have seriously almost been hit by a car several times as I walked down the sidewalk, never mind the number of times by motorini.  This goes back to my “Sure, Park There” blog post where I shared that just about anywhere is fair game for parking here.  I can’t tell you how many mornings there’s been a car literally parked in the middle of the running trail (which is several feet off the street).   Trying not to get run-over crossing the street is a whole other level of challenge (think “Frogger”), though we’ve learned the secret – people here are very gracious to folks with baby strollers – if you cross the street with one you’ll likely make it to the other side unscathed.
  • And speaking of the sidewalk – the fact that there is dog poop all over it!  It really cuts down on my ability to appreciate the beautiful architecture as, should you take your eyes off the ground for a minute, you will surely step in it.  Between the dog poop, the traffic, and the fact that folks just stop suddenly and chat on the sidewalk, a leisurely “stroll” feels more like an obstacle course test for some very demanding military assignment.
  • Smoking.  I honestly don’t know why everyone here doesn’t just keel over from lung cancer.  Smoking here is so prevalent (though not quite as much as in Japan).  You can’t walk down the street without inhaling second-hand smoke (add that to your obstacle course), and even your own home will eventually succumb due to all your neighbors who smoke, including in the hallways.  Maybe pasta and wine counteract nicotine and tar….

So, that, dear Readers are a few of my (admittedly) ethnocentric thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly about living in Italy.  I have left out many things from both lists, so will look forward to sharing those in the future!

N.b. – after rereading this post about a week after I wrote it, something struck me as interesting that I hadn’t realized at the time…it seems many of the things I appreciate are huge (healthcare, lack of violence), and the things that drive me nuts are small (noise, smoking)….so you would think that the big good things would “make up” for the small annoying ones, but it doesn’t feel that way….hmmmm…….

Venice, Part II (The Peggy Guggenheim Collection)

Ciao Readers!

Today we continue our trip to Venice, specifically to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  As I mentioned, we’ve actually been to Venice twice before (before we moved to Italy), but for some reason this museum managed to escape my attention.  Just when I was pretty sure I’d have to wait for a trip to France to see any art produced post-1600, I discovered this oasis of modern art!

Now, if you’re like me, you may have a vague sense of the name “Guggenheim” and be thinking “isn’t there a Guggenheim museum in…..?”  If you’re more art-savvy, you already know that there are in fact Guggenheim museums in New York, Berlin, and Bilbao, Spain.  You may even know that there have been other Guggenheims that have closed (e.g., Las Vegas), and yet others in construction (Abu Dhabi).  As usual, because you can Google this yourself, here’s the short version: The Guggenheims were an über-rich family (made their money in mining and smelting) of Swiss/Jewish ancestry.  With lots of that money they became serious patrons of the arts.  Solomon Guggenheim started the foundation that now runs all of the museums…. which brings us to Peggy Guggenheim and her collection in Venice.

Solomon was actually Peggy’s uncle (interesting fact, Peggy’s father Benjamin went down with the Titanic).  Peggy was an eccentric socialite and art collector who decided to settle down in Venice in 1949, after her divorce from surrealist painter Max Ernst.  She lived out her days there (until 1979) with her art and many dogs (who are buried next to her [see grave picture below]).  That home is now a museum (run by the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation), filled with all of the (modern) art Peggy collected.  It’s pretty mind-blowing that this “museum” and its contents were just one person’s house and stuff!  As you’ll see in the pics, there are Picassos (larger of the two pictured), a Chagall, a Dalí (I love Dalí), a Kadinsky, and many others not pictured (Pollocks, Mirós, Ernsts, a Warhol, and more).   In addition, there’s a very cool garden with some strange sculptures (a G-rated one [I think] is pictured) as well as the actual burial place of Peggy and the aforementioned dogs.  (There’s also a “wish tree” donated by Yoko Ono in 2003.)

Aside from the art and the garden, the other surreal part of the experience was that you really have no idea you are in Venice, Italy.  When we approached the ticket counter, all 3 ticket-takers were speaking English to each other (in English accents), and much to our surprise, all of the arts’ explanations were written first in English, then in Italian.  The museum’s docents had buttons reading “Ask Me About the Art” (in English).  It felt like we stepped through some secret portal to another (English- speaking) country.  Weird.  In any case, we had a great time in this little secret oasis of modernism in an otherwise ancient city.  Thanks for coming along!

Venice, Part I (The City)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to take you to Venice, though I am saving the visit to its Guggenheim until next time (it was so cool it gets its own post).  If you have never been to Venice, it is definitely one of those “must see” kinda places.  It’s an incredible city, actually made up of 118 tiny islands, linked by canals and bridges.  There are no cars, so the only means of public transportation is by “vaporetti” (boat-buses) – definitely the most fun type of public transportation ever!  The main focus of the city is the Grand Canal, lined with tons of gorgeous palazzos built between the 13th and 18th centuries.  There are only a few bridges which cross the canal, with the Rialto being the most spectacular (and its base being the location of the daily local produce and fish market).  Some of the little islands of Venice are semi-famous in their own right (Burano for lace, Murano for glass-blowing and Lido for its beach).  All-in-all it is a little fairy-tale place which is hard to describe with words!

In a way, I don’t feel like I’m the right person to take you to this amazing place.  You see, I’ve been here twice before (before we moved to Italy), so I don’t have that same sense of “WOW!!!!” as I did the first time (and it really deserves a major “WOW”).  Maybe you know what I mean – once you’ve been somewhere so amazing it is hard to recreate the experience – either because you are no longer surprised or because you have pretty high expectations for what a great time you should have.  The first time I saw Venice, not only was it the first time I saw Venice, but it was the first time I saw anywhere requiring a passport.  We stayed on a little island off of Venice (Giudecca) in an apartment overlooking the water, requiring us to enjoy taking the boat-buses everywhere (pretty hard to top).  The photo of Steve and I, and the view from our apartment (pics 2 and 3) are from that inaugural visit, in 2006.  Jaded or not, Venice is gorgeous and if you have never seen it in person, no blog post could do it justice.

While we weren’t surprised by how gorgeous Venice was, we were surprised that even though Venice is usually a tourist magnet, this time of year it was much less crowded than Florence and it felt peaceful in comparison (some of this is likely the lack of cars and requisite honking of such cars’ horns).  Since there are only 60,000 full-time residents, without most of the usual 50,000+ tourists Venice averages a day, the town seemed almost sleepy (notice the one lone elderly man crossing a bridge in the picture).  It gave us plenty of room to meander the streets and take photos uncluttered by crowds.

We discovered that many Venetians close up shop for the winter, which left us without the option of eating at one of the restaurants I had pre-researched.  Instead we ended up in what seemed like a popular local seafood place (no English menu, usually a good sign), and while the food was fine, it wasn’t the spectacular food I had in mind from our first visit there (so the picture below is of a memorable meal from 2006).  When we entered the restaurant the day was clear and bright, as you can see from the photos; when we emerged after lunch the city was completely shrouded in fog and you could no longer see across the lagoon (notice the solid white behind the row of gondolas).  After the Guggenheim (which was new to us), we wondered across the Rialto Bridge (the fog mixed with the Christmas lights created a cool polka dot effect in my photo), warmed up with some hot chocolate, and headed back to Florence on the train (about 2 hours).

Seriously, you gotta see it for yourself, but here’s a little sample:

(More) Florence Foreign Food Finds

Ciao Readers!

As I mentioned in my New Years’ post, over the holiday break we took time to try out (or re-try-out) the local ethnic dives (Rosticceria).  Also as I’ve mentioned in a much earlier post, Rosticceria are Italy’s answer to fast food.  However, the ethnic food places are a bit different than the Italian ones.  Unlike the spic-and-span take-away-only Italian Rosticceria downstairs about which I have written, these places usually have tiny tables and are total hole-in-the-walls (and are usually more frequented by other immigrants than Italians/tourists).

After reading a sign on the wall of our new favorite Chinese place, I learned that technically Rosticceria aren’t suppose to offer you table service (the sign, loosely translated, said that the tables are there as a courtesy, but by law they cannot serve you at them).  I guess this puts them in some more affordable/less regulated category than a restaurant (and explains why you have to get your own drinks from the fridge and can get an entire plate of Sri Lankin food for 3.50 euros!).  (After I read the sign I also felt better about/understood why when I tried to hand the owner our empty [plastic] plates she shook her head and walked away in a way that made me feel like I had asked her to commit a crime.)  The amenities and service are spartan (putting it nicely), but if you’re willing, there’s a world of delicious and cheap ethnic food to be had (if you can find them)!

For example, we passed the Sri Lankin place on several occasions before daring to enter, the delicious smell finally winning over our fears about its less-than-welcoming appearance (and lucky us – it’s delicious!  kinda like less heavy/more spicy Indian food).  We were even more pleasantly surprised when our entire bill for lunch and drinks was only 10 euros!  Let’s see…we had Indian, Chinese, Sri Lankin (fun fact, Sri Lankin food is customarily eaten with your hands [though we used a fork]), and Peruvian (the last two being foods we had never tried before Italy).  Here are the Sri Lankin and Peruvian Places:

Okay, now I think it’s time for lunch….

Happy Holidays from Florence

Ciao Readers!  And HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

The holiday season is upon us.  Here in Florence that means sparkling lights strung over all the main streets, Christmas markets, strolling musicians and Babbo Natales, and dogs decked out in their holiday attire.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean that shops are any more crowded than usual (if anything less so because the tourists have thinned out).  I have to say, it is a much less commercialized version than the one we’re used to back in the States.  It makes the season feel more festive and enjoyable (objectively, putting aside homesickness).  (Of course, you would have no idea it was also Hanukkah here, unless you ventured to the only synagogue in town [pictured in last row].)

The holiday season also means that here in Florence many things will be closed for the winter break (Steve gets 3 full weeks off – yay!), and that back in the States many of you will be away from work for a bit (though likely not 3 full weeks).  This also means that if I keep posting at my usual rate, your inbox will be flooded upon your return and some posts may go unseen.  So, in honor of everyone’s holidays and work breaks, I’ll be taking a short holiday hiatus and will return in January.  Since we have train tickets to Venice and Lucca over the break, rest assured there will be fun and photo-filled posts come the new year.

In the meantime, whatever your holidays and celebrations, I hope they are warm, peaceful and joy-filled!  HAPPY EVERYTHING!  Signing off with some festive scenes from around town, enjoy!:


The “Gaudí” House

Ciao Readers!

Now, you may be wondering “what does Gaudí have to do with Florence?”  Or, you may be wondering “who the heck is Gaudí in the first place?”  In either case, I shall explain.   Today I am going to give you a peek at my favorite architecture in the world (which I discovered in Barcelona, Spain), through a house right down our very own street.

Since you can Wikipedia or Google him yourself, I’ll give you the short version – Antoni Gaudí was a Spanish/Catalan Architect (and visionary) who lived from 1852 – 1926 (when he was hit by a tram).  He is known for his outside-the-box style – Modernisme (which is, according to some sources, the origin of the word “gaudy”).  It’s hard to explain, but his buildings usually don’t have edges or corners – they look organic – all curvy and flowing and natural (and, in my opinion, surreal).  Both Steve and I fell in love with his work the first time we laid eyes on it (in Barcelona).  He has several amazing houses (Casa Batlló, pictured first, looks like some sort of a sea creature both inside and out), as well as the famous Sagrada Familia church (pictured next, with work continuing on it to this day).  He also designed an entire “gated community,” but it didn’t go over so well and ended up becoming an amazing park instead of a residential area for rich folks (Park Güell)(second/third row of photos).  There really are no words to do justice to how amazing and unique and awe-inspiring his works are – ya just gotta see ‘em for yourself!

Now, you may still be wondering what this has to do with Florence.  I’ll tell you.  There is a house down the street which looks nothing like any other houses in the neighborhood (or any neighborhood in Italy); it looks, well, curvy and organic and a little surreal.  In a nutshell – it looks like the architect channeled Gaudí!  Steve and I both thought so the minute we saw it.  Now here’s a funny side note – we had dinner guests over one night and they started describing this amazing house they had seen on the walk over – we both immediately blurted out “the Gaudí house”!  They weren’t familiar with Gaudí, so we had the pleasure of filling them in and lending them a book about him.  (So, that is how we get to Gaudí from Florence).   The final row of pictures are of the house down the street – ending with a close-crop of one of the weird little webbed creatures that adorn the top (I’ve since learned the house is called Villino Broggi-Caraceni, built in 1910, not by Gaudí).  Enjoy!

Seriously, MORE Festivals?!?! (yes, but this time there’s cheddar!)

Ciao Readers!

Okay, if you’re tired of hearing about all of the festivals here, this is not the post for you.  Then again, if you’re a festival junkie like me, read on…

It’s almost hard for me to believe how many festivals there are here in Florence.  I think I’ve just decided that festivals are a part of everyday life – like little food markets, the passeggiata and cappuccinos (and, “purtroppo,” the post office).  Seriously, I can’t remember a weekend in the past several months where there wasn’t at least one festival or festival-like happening.  And now that it’s the holiday season…well, you can do the math!

This past week marked the start of the German Christmas Market which runs for about 3 weeks in Piazza Santa Croce (recall this is where the European Food Festival was held).  It’s a little like that festival (complete with wurst), but with more permanent and holiday-adorned stalls, as well as more non-food gift items (pictures below).  There’s also the addition of a cold-weather treat we sampled – mulled wine (pictured in Steve’s hand) – we could not put our finger on what gave it its unique flavor (wine, spices, and….varnish?).

While all of that was fun enough, the festival came to an exciting crescendo when we came across the gentleman from England and his wondrous booth of… CHEDDAR CHEESE!!!!  (I actually yelled out-loud, in English, “OMG, he has CHEDDAR CHEESE!!!”)  Okay, now those of you reading this back in the States may be thinking “huh, what’s the big deal?”  I’ll tell you what the big deal is – it is the first time in 4 months we’ve had a taste of real cheddar cheese (and we used to eat this stuff by the pounds back in ABQ)!  (You may recall I have said you can get [very expensive] cheddar at Pegna, which is true, but the taste is not spot-on).  Not only does the English chap (pictured) have cheddar cheese, but he has a mind-boggling array of varieties (with jalapenos anyone?).  I think we were too overwhelmed by excitement (and taste-testing) to make coherent choices, but we did come home with two blocks (some of which will make its way into enchiladas tomorrow night; while we have no green chile, I did bring dried red).  We’ve agreed it’s worth the splurge, so before the festival ends we are going to go back and get one of the flavor assortment wheels pictured.  Woo Hoo!!!  (I actually had to e-mail another expat who I know stays on the lookout for cheddar as well – she responded with similar enthusiasm [“Yuuuuuum. How totally exciting!!”]).

I know it’s been a blog-post-filled week – thanks for reading and have a great weekend!!!

A Tale of a Good Day (Complete with mini-tour of Bargello)

Ciao Readers!

I have shared with you many stories of woe and culture shock, so today I thought I’d share a tale of a very good day.  To me, this was yesterday; but since I have already written about 2 weeks worth of blog posts, to you it was probably a couple of weeks ago. (Lucky for you you’re not reading about actual yesterday (Dec. 4), or you’d be reading about my being wet and cold and homesick and about my wait at the post office.)  In any case….

The day started off with a necessary trip to the Questura (where you do most immigration-related things).  Now, you’re probably thinking “that doesn’t sound like the start of a good day” – but the sun was out for the 35 minute walk there and the lines were faster than usual, with the lady who’s helping me already through by the time I got there (yay!).  With so much of the beautiful morning left (this was a Friday; I don’t have school on Fridays), I decided to just stroll.

Somewhere during my leisurely stroll I came upon the Bargello (lesser known museum); with my Uffizi card in hand, I walked right in (love this card!).  While I’ll provide the educational tour part below, the Bargello was also cool for two reasons other than the art – 1) it was almost empty and soooooo quiet and peaceful – I sat in the courtyard and relaxed (and watched the woman pictured below sketching one of the sculptures) and 2) I bumped into one of the women from the charity organization meeting I had attended and it made me feel like this is really my town (bumping into acquaintances has that effect).

After the Bargello I decided to stroll around “my town” some more, soon realizing I was less than a mile from Steve’s school and it was almost his lunch break; we met on the hill and sat in the sun for a bit – nice!   After Steve got home from work we decided to fight the urge to be lazy and go out for (yet another) stroll.  First, to see if a Korean grocery store my new Italian teacher (she’s originally from Mexico and now studying Korean!) told me about really exists (it does – tiny but cool).  At this point Steve needed to find a restroom, and as you may or may not know, this isn’t the easiest task anywhere in Europe and usually involves paying for the privilege.  Since we were close to the Uffizi and I was thinking they might still be open (about 5:30 p.m.) and we have that card that gets us in for free, we checked it out – at first we thought they were closed because it was deserted, but the sign said “aperto” and in we went (good tip for visiting the Uffizi sans crowds)!  So, how amazing/surreal is this – I waited for Steve in front of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”!?!?!   Seriously – taking a bathroom break in the building with some of the world’s masterpieces?!?!?!  Unreal.  In any case, we still had an hour before the museum closed, so we strolled around and appreciated the museum.

By this time we were getting hungry, but being Italy it was still about 1 – 1.5 hours too early to think about dinner…but NOT too early to think about the aperitivo buffet at Serafini (which I wrote about and posted photos of here)!   We had a lovely time at the aperitivo, and not having stuffed ourselves on what was not meant to be dinner, stopped by our favorite pizza place (which opens at 7:30) and got a margherita pizza to go.   All in all, it was a very good day!

As for the Bargello, it is a sculpture museum, which used to be a prison.  As I mentioned, the courtyard (row 1) is very peaceful (I didn’t know until researching later that they used to execute prisoners here – gasp!).  The museum has a few lesser-known pieces by Michelangelo and (almost) an entire room dedicated to Donatello.  There are also lots of tiny sculpted works such as vessels and combs and more.  Photos are prohibited, but now I’ve learned in the less-populated rooms, if you ask nicely they sometimes let you take a no-flash shot (much better approach than when I did so without permission in a different gallery and promptly got yelled at and kicked out of that room).   So, below, following the courtyard shots, are a few more shots throughout the upper rooms (notice the cool grotesques on the plate), ending with Donatello’s “David” as well as another artist’s (Verrocchio’s) version of David (seems like they had a contest as to who could make David look the “least intimidating,” no?).

It was a lovely stroll (I google-mapped as much of it as I can remember and in total I walked about 10 miles) – thanks for coming along!

Our Favorite Local Pizzeria

Ciao Readers!

I have talked about a pizza-review post for a while, but have failed to deliver.  I think the reason is, there are some things that they just do right here (like gelato, olive oil, wine, pasta….), making it really hard to pick the “best.”   What it really comes down to is that there are several places that do things very well, and you end up picking the one where the folks are the nicest.  Such is the case in our pizza quest. (But in case you’re wondering, we both prefer thin-crust pizzas, more crispy than not.)

Now don’t get me wrong – not everyone does pizza well.  There are tons of pre-made pizza places in town where you just pick the kind you want from the display case and they heat it up for you (barely).  In my humble opinion, these pizzas are really inferior (not only due to being tepid in temperature, but also in flavor), and with so much good pizza in town, why eat this stuff?!  (Okay, one answer is real pizza places don’t open till 7:30 at night, while these heat-and-eat places may be open all day, but still…)  “Fast-food” pizza:

“Real” pizza is made on-the-spot in a super-hot brick oven – it only takes about 90 seconds for one to cook, so it’s worth the “wait” for the real deal.   We’ve only tried places in our neighborhood so far, as ya want the pizza hot when you get it home.  The two runners-up in our neighborhood are La Luna (pictured first) and Le Stagioni (pictured next).  La Luna actually makes pretty yummy pizza, but they are the most expensive and least friendly (not unfriendly, just comparatively less so), so lose for subjective, non-taste-related reasons.  The folks at Le Stagioni are very friendly and their pizza is good, but just a little undercooked for my taste (notice the crust color), so they come in a close second (sorry for the pics – sorta like apples and oranges as the first was a specialty pizza and the second was a plain margherita):

Our “winner” is…… Fuori Piazza Restaurant (nope, not a type-o, piazza, not pizza).  Their pizza tastes great (and is nice and crispy) and they are super friendly.  The restaurant itself looks like a cozy local joint and next time (if we can wait that late), we’ll probably actually sit down instead of ordering pizza to go (they also have pasta and risotto dishes).  Here are both their margherita pizza as well as one with ham and zucchini:

Thanks for coming along for our pizza-taste-testing!  Bon appetit!

The Best Truffle Festival EVER!!! (In San Miniato)

Ciao Readers!

Okay, my mouth is watering just reminiscing about this festival and I am still smiling thinking about the fabulous little town it was in – San Miniato.  Apparently for the last 3 weekends of November every year for the past 42 years this little town has had the largest truffle festival in all of Tuscany (truffles as in fungi, not chocolate, though there was some of that as well).  It was so much fun (and soooooo delicious [if you like truffles])!

Now, for those of you paying extra close attention, you may remember that San Miniato is the name of the church on the top of the hill overlooking Florence (and supposedly where San Miniato brought his severed head).  Contrary to what I first thought, this is not where the festival was – there is actually a separate town (requiring a 40 minute train ride, then a bus ride into town) called San Miniato.  While it is a very ancient and historic city (which you can read about here), it also had a very modern and relaxed feel (complete with a “peace” restaurant and funky musicians, pictured).   It is also on top of a hill, so it has great views.

The festival itself spread throughout town – with various booths selling both truffle and non-truffle-related food specialties (and providing tastes) as well as full-fledged food stalls serving many truffle-based dishes.  Anywhere you walked in town you bumped into another section of food stalls (as well as all-around good cheer).  Pictured (row 1) is some of the truffle pasta we had (okay, not tons of truffles, but it really was yummy and truffle-y tasting) as well as the makings of our truffle-infused porchetta sandwich (YUM!) and our non-truffle infused pistachio cannoli for dessert.   The next photos are various shots taken at the festival, followed by shots of the very cool town (including one of Steve looking content) and views.   I can’t say enough about what a lovely day and festival this was.  If you’re ever in Tuscany this time of year, it’s a “can’t miss”!  Thanks for coming along…

When it Rains in Florence….

Ciao Readers!

It’s been raining here – lots!  You may have seen on the news how Venice was recently under water (more than usual).  Pretty much all of the northern half of Italy was drenched.  So, I decided to share some of the rainy day activities we have undertaken (seeing as we have no car and no mall to drive to)…

When it rains in Florence….it’s a good excuse for an extra-thick ridiculously rich cup of “cioccolata calda” at Grom (think hot chocolate/pudding hybrid):

When it rains in Florence…it’s a good time to go to the laundromat to use a clothes dryer and be amused by the lost-in-translation signs (here they are trying to tell you to empty the washer when it’s done washing):

When it rains in Florence….it’s the time I stare at our ceiling and think about how much I hate the “chandelier” that hangs where a perfectly functional ceiling fan should be.  (In order to make my gripe more humorous I actually tried to write a haiku about a ceiling fan; the results were pretty pathetic.  I then tried to write the song “Oh Ceiling Fan” to the words of “Oh Christmas Tree” – complete failure).  Maybe the picture is amusing enough; behold:

When it rains in Florence….I try (half-successfully) to see the glass as half-full and take photos of the lovely rainbows that follow:

Thanks for sharing a rainy afternoon with me!  P.S. – if you enjoy the blog and are so inclined…you can click on the “top blog” logo on the upper right of this page and review my blog for some possible virtual kudos.  Grazie!

Ambling Along the Arno in Autumn

Ciao Readers! (And happy short-work-week to those of you back in the States; Thanksgiving post to follow Wednesday.)

In addition to the joy of even more alliteration (thanks for the “ambling” idea Steve), today you get to go on my morning run with me (you’ll have to add the ipod playlist on your end)!

Fall is here and the leaves are starting to change color (while the grass remains that amazing shade of green).  As I’ve been going for my morning runs along the Arno, I have been thinking “wow, this is really pretty, I should bring my camera sometime.”  So, last week I did just that.  Instead of running, I walked (but still in my goofy American running clothes) and carried my camera.

Below are some shots in the park I walk through to get to the Arno and from the trail that runs along the river.  On my usual run I go east – headed out of town – those are the majority of the shots – where you don’t see much but trees.  But for you I also went west towards the center of town to get some cool building reflections on the water (I usually don’t run that way cause the trail is full of tourists blocking the path [of course, with that view, you can’t blame them]).  If you recall from my “Sundays in the Park Revisited” post, this is the same trail along which, should you decide to take a break from running, you can sit at a cafe on the river and have a cappuccino (or other beverage of your choice).  Thanks for coming on my walk with me!

Florence Fall Food Festival Photo Fun!

Ciao Readers!

Yes, the alliteration and food festivals continue!  There have pretty much been non-stop festivals since September, but apparently November is the month for even more festivities.  There is a month-long ongoing food and cultural festival in town – complete with lectures, art exhibits (stay tuned for a future blog), and of course – food!  It’s not only wine and olive harvest season, but the season of my most favorite delicacy – truffles!

In addition to this big event, there are small food festivals popping up in different piazzas all the time.  The first weekend of November there was one in the piazza across from Sant’ Ambrogio market, which we discovered totally by accident when we went to do shopping.  This festival (pictured first, with red and blue tables) was off the tourist trail, so the tasting portions were more generous and the truffle guy even took time to “pose” his truffles for my photo (the next photos are from the festival in Piazza della Repubblica the following weekend).  We got this great spicy vegetable spread (pictured wrapped like a firecracker) and munched on yummy sweets from Sicily (also pictured).

Since I think this is definitely a case where a photo is worth more than words, I’ll stop talking and just let you see for yourself.  Enjoy!

Street Sign Art in Florence

Ciao Readers!

Just in case you were beginning to think (as I was) that all of the art in this city was created pre-1600, today’s post is for you!

One day when I was on a tour with my old school, one of the other students pointed to a street sign and asked our teacher about it.  He thought she was pointing at a very old cross on a historical building and thus gave us a 5 minute lecture on its history.  However, what she was really asking about was street sign art (non-sanctioned, “guerrilla”) by “Clet.”  (When she re-pointed and asked the teacher again he just shrugged with disinterest and continued our tour).

Since that day I have learned that Clet is pretty famous here and I have even seen t-shirts with images of his signs.  Clet Abraham is a French artist who has been living in Florence for years and creates his street sign art by applying adhesives to the signs.  He has apparently been fined many times for his creations (but I am guessing the t-shirt sales and publicity cover the fines).  Whenever I see one of his signs in town (and I have remembered my camera) I stop and take a picture.  I know there are several other versions out there I have missed, but below are a sampling of some of the ones you can find all over town (they are repeated throughout the city).  You can find more information here and photos of many other signs here.

Fun stuff!

Cooking Like a Tuscan

Ciao Readers!

Now that my urge to cook foreign food has subsided, I have taken up trying to make quintessential Tuscan dishes!  I knew each region of Italy had its own food history and specialties, but I didn’t realize what an art form eating here really is.  I kinda had a general sense of “Italian food” but hadn’t realized the countless variations (and which ones are and are not native to our new home).  Take for instance basil and tomatoes – NOT Tuscan (found further South, like in Sicily). Risotto?  Nope, go North to Milan.  (Before I ran out of school time, I attended an afternoon class on Tuscan food traditions).

Tuscan food is based on bread.  And not just any bread – thick, unsalted bread (which no one else in Italy likes).  The cuisine is based on bread because that’s what the poor folks back in the middle ages could afford that would fill them up (they used to actually make the plates for the rich people out of bread, then eat the plates with the yummy tastey-bits afterwards – if I understood my teacher correctly….).  The bread is unsalted because…well, it depends who you ask.  According to common wisdom, the bread is unsalted because Tuscan food was heavily seasoned (back in the day before refrigeration it would cover the funky smell of old rabbit and boar, which the rich could afford to eat), and you don’t want salt in your bread to compete with salt in your food.  According to my former teacher (who does seem to know everything about Florentine culture pre-1600), that is a myth and the truth is that there was a high tax on salt back in the 1200’s, so everyone stopped using it in protest and it became a tradition which never died.  You can find both explanations on the internet, so take your pick.

Pretty much all of the food culture in Tuscany (like the art), was solidified by the end of the 16th century (gelato being the exception, soon followed).  The newest “traditional” addition was white beans, brought back by Columbus.  On a related note, one of the Medicis, Catherine, married a French dude (King Henry II) in the mid 1500’s and moved to Paris.  According to my teacher, much of what we consider traditional French cuisine was actually adapted from the Italian specialties Catherine’s cook (who she brought with her) made, such as crepes, bechamel and duck a l’orange.  (When I asked my teacher if Catherine brought any French foods back to Italy he unhesitatingly said “Non!”).

One of the many uses of Tuscan bread includes “fettunta,” – simple grilled bread rubbed with garlic and then covered by another Tuscan staple – olive oil.  But not any olive oil – fresh, newly pressed, unfiltered green olive oil.  Since we are in the middle of olive oil pressing season, this is THE time of the year to enjoy this simple tasty treat.  We bought some of this lovely green oil and made our own fettunta:

Another Tuscan bread staple is “ribollita” (literally “reboiled”) – a soup made with leftover veggies (but almost always carrots and either kale or cabbage), beans, and stale bread.  I had my first ribollita at a lovely lunch with a couple from Boston (who attended my school), so I know the one I made here was pretty darn close to the real deal (bread not pre-soaked for display purposes only):

Since we had all that great bread and olive oil, I figured I’d make a few more-or-less Tuscan (at least Italian) delights.  I made my own riff on caponata (on the plate with the fettunta and some yummy pork-based antipasti) as well as a variety of crostini (green = pesto, less green = artichoke, off white = garlic/bean spread, white speckled = “truffled” cream cheese spread).  YUM, YUM, YUM!!!

A Tour of…. less famous stuff

Ciao Readers!

Today is the final installment of semi-educational tours based on the more educational tours I went to with my school.  Unfortunately, I’m done with school for now (but have heard that once I get through with the immigration process I qualify for free Italian lessons – yay!).  So, today we will visit the oldest church in town (San Miniato) as well as the palace where the less-famous Medicis lived (Palazzo Medici Riccardi).  As an added bonus I have thrown in the Bardini Gardens, which Steve and I toured solo.

San Miniato (row 1) sits on a prime location – at the top of a huge hill overlooking all of Florence.  Since you’ve probably seen one-too-many shots of the Duomo from this vantage point, I won’t add another one here (just look at the main photo of my blog, above).  I learned that it is not only the oldest church in town, but the only one that has never been restored in any way.  It was built back around 1000 a.d. over the shrine of a beheaded martyr from 250 b.c., San Miniato (duh), who managed to carry his head to this spot after his execution (allegedly).  There were additions made up until the 15th century, but everything you see is original from between those dates.  Notice how the colors on the ceiling are still so vivid – never retouched – pretty cool!  Okay, I have to admit that at about this point in the tour I started to lose focus – the group was large and our teacher was whispering since we were in a church and my mind (and eyes) started to wander…to the weird little inlaid serpent and demon beasts (pictured)….

Palazzo Medici Riccardi (row 2) was the semi-lavish home of some of the lesser-known Medici (the more famous ones were living at Palazzo Vecchio and then Palazzo Pitti) and built in the 1400’s.  After a couple a hundred years, the Medici sold it to the Riccardi family, who made some additions, ruining its former perfect cube shape (now it is a museum and government offices).  One thing that struck me in this museum was the amazing fresco “Procession of the Magi” (by Benozzo Gozzoli).  Apparently every January 6th there was a huge procession through town recreating the procession of the 3 Kings – since the Medici were all rich and powerful, they got to play the 3 Kings in the procession and they are the folks pictured in the fresco.  From what my teacher explained, the procession tradition persists to this day, with present-day highfaluting people getting to ride in it.  Somewhere on the top floor of this museum they had a temporary exhibit of 20th century Japanese masks, which I found fascinating (pictured).  My teacher didn’t find them fascinating at all (his interest stops with the 16th century) and I was left behind, missing the rest of the tour (me and my disobedient drummer).

The Bardini Gardens (row 3) are the lesser-known neighbor of the Boboli Gardens.  Like the Boboli Gardens, our Uffizi card gets us free entrance (yay!); unlike the Boboli Gardens, they were not packed with tourists (double yay!).  These gardens were private since they were developed, beginning in the 16th century, all the way up until the last century.  After the death of the last owner in 1965 (Bardini) they were neglected until recently restored and made public.  In addition to being pretty and relatively quiet, they also have an amazing view of Florence….

Thanks for coming on the tour!

Sure, Park There! (A photo anthology)

Ciao Readers!

In light of the upcoming election in the U.S., I had two choices – write about the surreal experience of voting and watching the election from abroad (for the second time; in 2008 we were in France), or post a total “fluff” piece.  As any good party host knows, you should always stay away from politics and religion, so I chose the latter!

In Friday’s blog I made the following statement: “…we have learned that street signs, signals, barriers, etc. don’t mean much here (one day I’ll have to post a photo of the cars parked all over the street downstairs).”  Right after I wrote that, I thought “good idea,” and leaned out a window with a camera.   I also shot a few pictures of cars parked in and around Piazza Beccaria (the end of the main street in the neighborhood).  The thing to keep in mind as you see the photos of cars literally parked in the street, behind other cars, and in front of clearly marked “no parking” signs is that it took NO effort to take these photos – I didn’t have to wait for the shots – this is how people park ALL THE TIME.

Happy Election!

Lunch & “Spontaneous” Art

Ciao Readers!

So, when we first arrived here we had lunch at our local osteria – Cocotrippone; I mentioned that I didn’t take photos as it was the first time we were eating there and I knew we’d be back.  This is a real “mom & pop” place – simple tuscan food (complete with tripe and rabbit if ya want it) at affordable prices, with a complete staff of 2 (the husband does the cooking while the wife does everything else).  We decided to go back a couple of Sundays ago.

I love eating outside in Italy (and everywhere, really) – somehow it makes it even more of an “event” to me and I can spend all afternoon people watching and relaxing.  The weird thing was, the entire street on which Cocotrippone sits was blocked off and deserted (notice the street behind Steve in the picture), as were several other streets in the neighborhood.  We couldn’t figure out what was going on – maybe Sunday street cleaning?  In any case, while it cut down on the people-watching factor, it was really nice to have some quiet for a change (neither of us has ever lived in the middle of a city and still haven’t adjusted to the constant level of noise). I ordered the same bruschetta with fagioli and lardo I described last time (but this time you get to see photos!).  I had a simple but yummy salad with that and Steve had the fresh pasta with radicchio and bacon (pictured below).

While we were eating, someone moved the street barrier and drove their vehicle into the street and parked – at first we thought nothing of it as we have learned that street signs, signals, barriers, etc. don’t mean much here (one day I’ll have to post a photo of the cars parked all over the street downstairs).  But it kept happening.  Finally, we saw the reason – the folks who parked started taking out easels and tables and ART from their vehicles – they were setting up for an art festival!   We hadn’t read anything about this and were totally surprised.  By the time we finished our lunch, the deserted streets had turned into a HUGE crowd (pictured below).  In addition to folks selling art, they had rolls of paper on the ground on which kids could draw – pretty cool!   (A few photos, below).   As I have mentioned before, at times (times you are not in line at a government office) Italy does feel like one ongoing festival…  I wonder what will pop up this weekend…

Foodie Heaven! (Mercato Centrale)

Ciao Readers! (and Happy Halloween!) (and Happy Birthday Henry!)

Wow – I just got back from a trip across town to Mercato Central (the central market) – wow!  I can’t believe we’ve been here almost 3 months and I just “discovered” this (well-known) gem!

So here’s the scoop – in my effort to not be a tourist in my adopted home, I have been going to Sant’ Ambrogio market (which I have blogged about).  It is the “real” market for locals – and don’t get me wrong, it’s great and where we get most of our fruits and vegetables.  The Mercato Centrale, from what I had read, is where the tourists go (it’s right by the big outdoor leather market in the center of town) – so up until today I avoided it like the plaque.  Big mistake!  While some of the food is obviously geared towards tourists (fancy bags of multi-colored pastas at equally fancy prices), the market is a foodie dream and has lots of “normal” amazing food on offer.  (And, compared to the usual “tourists,”  the venders thought my Italian was “benissimo.”)

I actually went in search of yet another weird ingredient to replicate comfort foods (dried cranberries [for granola], which I found in the dried fruit stall pictured), but ended up discovering an entire new food-shopping haven (as an aside – I often write several posts on days when inspiration hits me – I wrote this one before I read the articles about culture shock – no more wild goose chases for now!).  Not only are there all of the beautiful prepared foods pictured below, there are numerous fresh-looking meat and fish stalls.  I had kinda given up hope finding any foodie markets as cool as the ones in Bologna, until today!  YAY!

Bon appetit!

Texbook Case of “Culture Shock”

Ciao Readers!

So here I’ve been – thinking I am so unique and special and all that jazz.  I have witty observations about my new country and I go on wild quests to find ingredients to make comfort foods (or to join non-existent organizations).  I blog about it for your entertainment (and my need to vent).  And, unbeknownst to me, all this time I have just been experiencing a textbook case of culture shock.  Not even a scientific-journal worthy case, just a normal ol’ case.  There are like umpteen million articles out there on this, but I had never read one until today.

Apparently there are 5 stages of culture shock.  Depending on the source, some of the stages vary a bit.  However they all have the same first stage – the “honeymoon” phase.  Now, all I have to do is look back at my own blog and my adoration of the food and the culture when we first arrived to recognize that phase.

Phase two, depending on the source, is either “rejection” or “distress.”  This is where you feel isolated and start getting seriously annoyed by and judging your new culture (descriptions of trips to the post office, anyone?).  I think I am still partially in this phase (I’ve been grumpier than I let on as I realize no one likes a grumpy blog) – but now that I know I am just reacting “normally” I don’t feel quite as badly (though being “normal” has never really been appealing to me….).  Phase three involves regression – such as seeking out food or t.v. shows from home (am I really that predicable?!?!).  We don’t even need to discuss if I’m in this phase (yesterday I spent about 5 hours searching for ingredients and then making California sushi rolls; we already know I caved and got internet access to t.v. from the States)!  It’s weird having yourself described to a tee – especially by some list of common stages.  While having my uniqueness myth dispelled isn’t fun, I do appreciate one theme in all of the articles – “IT WILL PASS.”  And that’s a relief – because I was starting to wonder about whether I will ever adjust (and also because the lame sushi rolls were nowhere near worth the effort I put into them).  Hopefully, I will soon move on to stage 4:

Stage 4 has many variations – “recovery,” “acceptance,” “emergence,” “assimilation” (I like this one – it has a Borg ring to it), and so on.  The main point is that you are adapting and feeling okay about being in your new culture.  I’m glad to hear that that stage is next because the thought of packing everything and 2 cats back up and heading “home” sounds ridiculous (and tiring!).   I’ll worry about stage 5 (reverse culture shock) some other time.

But, have no fear readers, I am sure just enough of stages 2 and 3 will hang around that I will never run out of witty (i.e. smart-aleky) observations about which to blog!

Delicious dinner or cry for help?:

A Trip to Bologna

Ciao Readers!

As you may recall, I spent this past Spring in Bologna studying Italian and traveling to Florence via train to apartment-hunt.  While there I met a lovely couple from New York, pictured below (the husband was in my Italian class).  Not only do I have them to thank for looking out for me while I was in Bologna, but for turning me on to blogging with their own blog (here).   They had the good fortune of being able to travel back to Bologna recently (after a stay in France) and Steve and I went to Bologna to meet up with them (and eat, of course!).

Now, for those of you who thought the pictures of food in my “A day by the Sea” post looked good – truth be told the seafood, pictured below, from Michelemma leaves that lunch in the dust.  This was a restaurant I had eaten at with one of my Italian teachers and it is fantastic!   I had the appetizer of various raw/pickled seafood as well as the rissotto (photos below, though I had already eaten some of the appetizer!).  Steve devoured his salmon pasta before I had the sense to take a photo.  I also missed the opportunity to photograph his whole branzino before the waiter expertly de-boned it for him (pictured covered with tomatoes).  All in all, it was a lovely lunch with wonderful company and delicious food.

After lunch I was STUFFED.  But….everyone insisted that our day was not complete until we took a trip to our mutual favorite gelateria – La Sorbetteria!  (yes, of course I was not going to pass up gelato, I just thought I’d wait a few hours as our return train didn’t leave until 9:00 p.m.).  Below is a photo of my gelato – chocolate and “dolce di ‘mu'” (dolche de leche).

I also accomplished 2 more things while in Bologna (not that visiting, eating and drinking are “accomplishments”).  First, I have been trying to let my hair grow out.  But, as those of you who have known me for a while know, I usually give up every time I try (how is it I can change my home, my country, my language – EVERYTHING – except my hairstyle?!?).  So, when we walked by a cool-looking hair salon I thought “what the heck” and got my hair cut.  (Luckily, this was not a repeat of my experience in Barcelona a few years back where I ended up with a complete army-style buzz-cut, and I now look like me again.)  It also dawned on me that pharmacists can prescribe medicine and instead of having to wait until Monday to see a doctor about one of my eyes (which had been red for days), we popped into a pharmacy, the pharmacist asked me a few questions, prescribed some antibiotic drops, and voila – the next day it looked much better!  I finally found something easier and cheaper in Italy – dealing with minor ailments!

We ended the trip with a stroll around town to see Bologna’s (more “modern”) version of a Neptune statue as well as to admire the shops on the foodie street (pictured below).  After a quick 37 minute train ride we were back…into the throngs of tourists in Florence…

A: Huevos Rancheros, Faux Pho & Chocolate Chip Cookies

Q:  What are three things I made last week?

Ciao Readers!  After my unsuccessful attempts to do something productive, I thought I’d get back to something I know – cooking!   While we have been enjoying all of the wonderful Italian food here, I like the challenge of trying to “recreate” familiar dishes.  So, I set about making huevos rancheros, pho and chocolate chip cookies (not all in one day mind you).

In all fairness, I cheated a bit on the huevos rancheros (pictured in first row) as the New Mexican-made tortillas and green chile sauce arrived in a care package from my folks (thanks!).   The cheddar cheese came from Pegna, and of course potatoes and eggs are no problem.  They were missing the taste of freshly roasted green chiles (as opposed to jarred sauce), but they were pretty darn close!

I also made what I am calling “faux pho” – real pho being our favorite Vietnamese dish we would get back at May Cafe in Albuquerque.  I actually managed to create this dish (rows 2 into 3) entirely from ingredients sourced here (or grown on our roof terrace).  I got the pho paste and noodles (though I picked the wrong kind and these absorbed ALL the soup liquid) at Vivi Market, the small hot chili (was like a cross between a serrano and a jalapeno) and the Sriracha sauce from the lady at Sant’ Ambrogio market, and (surprisingly enough) accidentally came across the bean sprouts at Conad.  It definitely didn’t taste like the “real” thing, but was spicy and yummy nonetheless.

The most spot-on thing I made was chocolate chip cookies (balance of row 3, duh!).  Again, I cheated a bit with chips sent from home, though I have since seen a variety in the stores here.  The rest of the baking ingredients were sourced from various places (and I apologize for the atrocious photo on the vanilla extract, but this is THE only vanilla extract I could find and it took some hunting).  I wasn’t sure what kind of flour to buy and I had to play with ratios (and use walnuts as there are no pecans here, which I usually use), but they came out PERFECT.  They were yummy and delicious and warm and crispy but gooey and all the things chocolate chip cookies should be.  I was so proud I wanted to share, so Steve brought some downstairs to the guy who owns the Rosticceria (he’s always so nice and rounds down, so I wanted to say “thanks”).  When I passed by the next day he went on and on about how delicious they were; I asked him if he had ever had them or knew what they were and he hadn’t/didn’t.  Interesting to think that a regular ol’ chocolate chip cookie can be an exotic treat!

Next time we talk food….seafood and gelato in Bologna, then an Italian meal in at our neighborhood Osteria Cocotrippone (complete with photos)…  Bon Appetit!

A Call from “House Hunters International”

Ciao Readers!

So, an interesting thing happened this past week…

As I may have mentioned in a much earlier post, Steve and I both love the show “House Hunters International.”  We used to watch it all the time – especially when the folks were moving to Europe and had a modest budget – we were curious to see what we could afford to rent if we actually moved here.  So, when Steve got the job here in Florence he suggested we apply for the show.  I sent an e-mail of interest the end of January.   We never heard a word.  Until last week…

It started with a series of e-mail exchanges.  The first one, from the Producer, asking if we’d be interested in talking with her (and could I answer a few questions).  I immediately replied something to the effect of “darn, we already found our place and have been living here for over 2 months….”  I should have listened to the little voice in my gut when she responded with neither surprise nor a drop in interest level, but even I got caught up in the excitement of possibly “starring” in a tv episode (gasp!).

To make the rest of the story short, the following day the Producer called and we talked for quite a while.  From this conversation I began to understand that House Hunters International is actually just a “reenactment” of the house-hunting process, with many details being “massaged.”  In any case, we thought we were still interested and planned to film the short video she wanted to make sure we were both t.v.-presentable.  I made the mistake of asking our realtor if she would be interested and if she thought the owners would let us film (both things I needed to find out).  She seems enthused about the prospect and I feel badly (can someone reading this break the news to her please).  However, we started thinking and talking…

AND….I started google-ing.  Instead of re-hashing what I found, you can check out the blog post here and follow the links to the stories in the newspapers, etc.  In a nutshell (and I have no idea why we believed otherwise) the show purposely picks folks who have already chosen their new homes for production sake and then films another 2 options which may or may not have been real options to begin with (and in at least one case were friends’ houses not even for sale).  Now we don’t think that anyone believes reality t.v. is REALITY, but I guess I thought that that shows like HHI are more real than they appear (now I feel really stupid, but I guess if a semi-intelligent person like me even fell for it…).  We had a long talk about the pros (possible exposure for me to potential employers/opportunities here), and the cons (being disingenuous on national t.v.) and we just could not get over the con (though others feel differently).  Even if no one else believes HHI is “true,” we just wouldn’t feel right going along with the ruse.   So, I am planning on e-mailing the producer back and am trying to come up with the right thing to say to our realtor (who is lovely and would be perfect for t.v.).

In the meantime, we decided to have some fun “reenacting” a smart-aleky version of an audition video for the show (still photo of it):

*Update – the Producer was very nice about our decision and she IS interested in our realtor and e-mailed her about possibly working together, so “YAY” all around!


Sorry all if you got an un-Italy related e-mail.  I just set up a website for my neighborhood association and it got posted to the wrong blog.  If you’re interested in the other one, it’s:

Hope you all are well!

InterNations Magazine Article (featuring ME)

Ciao Readers!  So, I am trying to write this on an iPad as I am out of town and I can’t actually see what I’ve typed (weird)… So I will make this short…. My friend Bobbi, who I met in Florence through her blog, had the idea to write an article about our respective expat experiences, in the form of a series of interviews. She submitted the article to InterNations, an organization that helps expats all over the world (she single-handedly dealt with the editor and all the emails, edits, etc.)….and what do you know, they published our article today!!!   Now, fair warning, you will need to subscribe to InterNations to access the article, but when you get the email confirmation with $ choices, just click “no thanks” in the bottom right corner and you’ll be able to access the article (and more) for free! And, yes, we know it’s long – the intent was a 4- part series….  Enjoy!

I’m not going out like The Fonz

Ciao Readers! And Happy Birthday Mom!

As some of you may remember (and others of you may have heard about from us elders), when I was a kid there was a very popular t.v. show called “Happy Days”  featuring “The Fonz” (or “Fonzie” to his friends).  To my 9 year-old self, the super cool Fonzie was all that and a bag of chips – I actually wanted to be The Fonz, mini jeans jacket and all (not leather at age 9).  So it is with a sad heart that I acknowledge that The Fonz is the unwitting father of the phrase “jumps the shark,” which Wikipedia defines as “indicating the moment when a brand, design, or creative effort’s evolution loses the essential qualities that initially defined its success and declines, ultimately, into irrelevance.”  Just in case you don’t know the actual genesis of the phrase, in an episode in 1977, The Fonz literally jumped a shark (on water-skis).  D’oh!

Which brings us to my blog.  I think we’ve had a good run, yes?  But now I feel like it’s time to end it, before it “devolves into irrelevance,” or “jumps the shark” as the saying goes.  I have actually downloaded a ton more pictures and have drafted several more posts, but they just don’t have the same enthusiastic tone as in the past (whether that be enthusiasm for delicious food or for complaining about lines at the post).  So, instead of forcing out more blog posts at this point, I think I’ll take a lesson from yet another t.v. character, George Costanza, and walk out on a high note.

I thank you, sincerely, dear Readers, for coming with me on this journey over the past year.  I have appreciated your comments, warm wishes, advice and thoughts, and I have enjoyed discovering many of your respective blogs (and getting to meet some of you in person!).  If you’d like to keep in touch and don’t already have my e-mail, post a comment and I’ll send you my e-mail (I can see your e-mail address when I get your comment).

(N.B. – For those of you who haven’t had enough, I am still mulling over the idea of turning this blog and other unpublished thoughts into a book, working title “To Italy and Back Again: An Expat’s Tale” ©.  And yes,  goal42, I am still up for a co-blog post!)

Arrivederci e buona fortuna!!!


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