But of course, first there is Thanksgiving… Most years, we stray quite far from the traditional feast. I suppose that we wanted more normalcy this year, so went with the traditional foods of Thanksgiving. However, purchasing and preparing the foods was not so traditional. It is difficult to find the typical ingredients, so we had turkey parts instead of a whole turkey, made the dressing from fresh bread, etc. I made my first ever green bean casserole, but completely from scratch. And 99% of the people around us weren’t celebrating! Normally the American Expats would gather, but not this year. We still spent the day focused on what we are thankful for and had phone calls and messaged with several family members.
On Thanksgiving Day, Lucca turned on its Christmas lights. The streets are beautifully lit and several of the piazzas have special decorations. Each year they pick a different theme for the special decorations; this year it is the poetry of Dante Alighieri.
You may be wondering if the town has any Christmas trees in the piazzas… One is up, but not decorated yet. The Italian tradition is to wait until December. 8th. Most of the shops are stilled closed because of the coronavirus, but they should be reopening on December 3 or 4. An article in a local news site said this about the uniqueness of this year:
“The light – comments the councilor for economic development of the Municipality of Lucca Chiara Martini – is the symbol of hope, we are in a difficult moment for our country, but we did not want to give up Christmas lights to the warmth they can give. The Municipality of Lucca has given its support because even the symbols of tradition are important for a community affected by suffering and economic difficulties and commerce is the living heart of our city: we support our traders, especially small businesses, our restaurants, our bars, our artisans. Never as this year is it important to make our purchases at zero km to help local businesses and reach a spring in which we hope to definitively overcome the health emergency “.
We have been minimizing our Amazon orders, shopping at the local stores that are still open, and waiting for others to reopen soon.
We also set up our tree in our altana, which can be seen from Lucca’s wall. Jim has enjoyed lighting the tree and putting up special lights for Christmas in the altana.
It’s not only beginning to look a lot like Christmas, it’s also starting to feel like Christmas. Our hope and prayer are that you will have a special Christmas and will reflect on God’s awesome power and His amazing love!
But first a few pictures of the churches and streets illuminated for the Santa Croce festa on 13 September. Normally there is a long procession with people in medieval costumes, religious artifacts, and many local groups. Due to the coronavirus, much of the festival was cancelled or scaled back, but I loved wandering through the streets.
We arrived in Lucca on March 9th, so have now been here for more than six months. It feels the time has flown by, yet this now feels like home. While walking the familiar streets, I recognize many locals and even occasionally run into friends or acquaintances. But I still discover new streets, piazzas and stores. I’m now able to communicate as needed, although my pronunciation and grammar have lots of room for improvement. Phone calls are still tough. We are planning to buy a car within the next month or so and I now feel comfortable driving here.
But things aren’t exactly perfect here. We’ve run into a few glitches recently and both can give you a sense of the crazy bureaucracy here:
Permesso di siggornio: Getting our visa was challenging and took a long time, but it only gave us permission to enter the country. To stay, we need to get our permesso di siggornio (PDS). We applied in March, shortly after our arrival. We got the forms but of course all of the directions were in Italian. I googled and found some instructions on how to complete the non-intuitive forms, lists of documents to include, and tax stamps to attached. We turned them in and waited until the end of August for our appointment at the Questura (immigration office) to get our fingerprints. In the meantime, a local American friend introduced us to Tony, who helps expats and others through the crazy bureaucracy. A day before our appointment he checked on the status of our applications and that is when he discovered that I had made a mistake. A big mistake. I filled out one form because I had convinced myself that the form covered both of us. Nope… I was supposed to complete one form for each of us. Bottom line, I had only applied for Jim. So, Tony helped me fill out MY form, we submitted all of the documentation again, bought new tax stamps and now I wait until December for my Questura appointment. My visa is valid until the end of February, so I should be OK. Ugh!
For Jim’s appointment at the Questura, we arrived before they opened per Tony’s instructions. There were about 20 people waiting for it to open, all wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Then the door opened and everyone rushed to the front. Tony was there to maintain our spot and got Jim in for his appointment. That alone was worth the prices we paid for his services!
And no, the Questura appointment is not the end of the process. There are more appointments to finalize the PDS, get the identification card, and sign up for the national health insurance. And a slightly easier version of this is completed annually.
We also need to do several activities as part of an integration plan that we commit to. We are required to take training about the Italian government (a few hours of boring recorded training at a Government training location). Then take a test about the content a few years from now. Why wait two years, you ask? Because that’s how it work. We also need to take a test to show that we can speak and understand basic Italian. There are other activities as well, but those are the key ones.
The medical system: One of my goals for this year is to gain an understanding of the medical system. What better way to do that than needing some out-patient surgery!
It turns out that Jim had a hernia… We aren’t yet on the National Health Insurance so we have private insurance for at least the first year. We went to a local general physician who speaks English. He confirmed that Jim had a hernia, ordered some blood tests, and referred Jim to a surgeon. He is a doctor in the National Health system, so he doesn’t have a way to accept money from us. The doctors are paid a salary; they aren’t paid by the visit or the patient. Bottom line, the doctor appointment will cost us a nice bottle of wine. The doctors don’t have nurses or staffs. Before the coronavirus if you needed to see the doctor, you went to the office and waited for your turn. Now, you need an appointment. So you call or text the doctor to get an appointment – and they tell you when to come in. No nurse, no staff, just communicate directly with the doctor. To give the doctor the blood test results, Jim put them in an envelope and took them to the pharmacy by the doctor’s office. The doctor picks up results there and leaves info for patients there too.
Getting Jim an appointment with the surgeon was a challenge for two reasons – I really struggle with speaking on the phone and it was August. Nearly everyone takes vacation in August: some for the entire month, most for a few weeks, but at least for a few days. I got the contact info of someone who could help me get the appointment and we communicated via WhatsApp. We had an appointment for several weeks later. Once we found the location for the appointment, we were pleased to find that the surgeon spoke decent English. He examined Jim and confirmed that he needed surgery, which would be done at the large hospital in Pisa. This would be out patient surgery, likely done via just a few small incisions. Next step is to meet with the anesthesiologist and do some pre-operative tests.
When someone says Pisa, you likely immediately think of that leaning tower. I think of IKEA, Pisa University, and Cisanello Hospital (one of the best in Italy!).
We arrived at the hospital for the pre-operative testing and followed the directions to Building 10, the Orange area, followed the G route, then went down a floor to search for area 14. There was a long line outside of the pre-operative testing room and I tried to ask a question. They quickly realized that we couldn’t speak Italian well, whisked Jim inside and told me to stay out of the room. After about 3 hours, Jim came out to say that he needed a chest Xray and someone would lead us there. It was so confusing getting around that the “guide” asked 3 people for directions! Jim said most of the people spoke decent English. After about 4 hours total, we left. We walked around the city of Pisa and found a wonderful place for lunch. We got a glance at the tower; it’s still leaning.
The next day, the surgeon called me. (No, not his assistant or nurse… the surgeon). He said that surgery would be Monday and we were to arrive by 10am. He gave us directions to the place to come for surgery and asked Jim to take a COVID-19 test on Sunday at 9:55am and asked that we pre-pay before the surgery. We had talked to our insurance agent and they will cover 80% of the cost, but we needed to pay up-front and they will reimburse us for 80% of the total.
We decided to pre-pay for the surgery on Friday so that we wouldn’t need to worry about it the day of the surgery. Boy, am I glad that we did that! After going to a few different buildings, we found someone who could help us. Because we aren’t using the National Insurance, no one seems to know how to deal with us. At one point, there were three people helping us and two people were called. After about an hour, they finally took our credit card.
Next step… the COVID test. We were told to go the hospital, parking lot A1, and look for an orange building with a tent next to it. Jim didn’t wait too long to have a swab in the throat and one in the nose. He also learned that we were essentially quarantined until he went to the hospital the next day. They said that they would call if it was positive, otherwise we were to come to the hospital the next morning.
Surgery day! Next problem… because we had paid on the Friday before, the date on some of the paperwork showed surgery on that Friday. Yikes! After lots of phone calls and a 1.5 hour wait, we were brought to Jim’s hospital room. The nurse showed us the room, including the bathroom and two beds. They said that I could sleep in the other bed. For outpatient surgery??? Surgery was scheduled for 1pm, but nothing seemed to be happening. Then they asked me if I wanted lunch and dinner. Of course, I was confused because I’m not the patient and Jim can’t eat. They ended up bringing me a decent lunch and dinner will come for Jim and I. They finally said that the surgery would be later than planned, probably around 2pm. Piano, piano… This “out-patient” surgery was going to include a night in the hospital.
After a few hours, Jim was returned to the room. The surgery was a success and his recovery has been very quick.
Bottom line, the medical care received was top notch. The administration and bureaucracy was very challenging!!!
Lots of words in this blog post, but I wanted to convey the complexity of life in Italy when dealing with organizations and government. Be sure to consider that very few of the people that we deal with regarding medical care, immigration, home repair, car purchasing, etc. speak much English. These conversations are typically a mix of Italian and English, with use of Google Translate when needed. But it is all worth it!
We took a day trip to Siena a few weeks ago with Brian and Victoria, an American couple that lives in Lucca. All of us had been there before, but Siena is such a lovely town we all wanted to return! There were some tourists in town, but not nearly as crowded as our earlier trips. My favorite church in all of Italy is the Siena Duomo (Cathedral) so I’ve included pictures from this trip and earlier ones. Here are a few pics of the exterior taken in pre-COVID 19 days:
It’s sounds rather odd, but one of the most striking elements of the Duomo is the floors. The floors consists of 56 individual panels, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. This picture shows how the original designers planned out this masterpiece:
I took pictures of the earliest panel – number 2 in the above diagram. The She-Wolf of Siena (center) with the emblems of the confederate cities probably dates from 1373 (then restored in 1864). And one of those confederate cities is Lucca!
The pictures below are of the Piccolomini Altar. Piccolomini was a very wealthy patron of the church, born in Siena in 1439. The original intent of this altar was to serve as his tomb. But by the time that he died in 1503, he had become Pope Pius III (for less than a month!) and was buried in the Vatican. When the altar was being built, Michelangelo was a rising star, so was contracted to do 15 statues for it. However, he then received much better offers (including sculpting the David), so was only involved in the 4 larger statues at the bottom. And, out of the four, he only completed one of them himself. I’ve included closeups of all four statues. Which one do you think that he completed himself? (The others were completed by his students.)
Unfortunately the most beautiful room of the Duomo was closed during this visit due to coronavirus. It is the Piccolomini library which was built in memory of him and to conserve the rich collection of manuscripts he had lovingly collected. The “books” in the library are illuminated choir books, but it’s hard to notice those books with the brilliant frescoes on the walls and ceiling. Here is a picture I took from an earlier trip:
One of the original stained glass windows is now in the museum next door, where you can see the detail close up. The window was made between 1287 and 1288 by Duccio di Buoninsegna and in considered one of the most important windows in Italy. “The stained glass window depicts the Death of the Virgin (bottom), her Assumption (center) and Coronation (top). On the two sides of the Virgin of the Assumption , the 4 patron saints of the city of Siena are depicted , namely San Bartolomeo and Sant’Ansano on the left and San Crescenzio and San Savino on the right. The 4 corners of the stained glass window depict the 4 evangelists seated on the throne and their symbols (the eagle for Saint John, the winged bull for Saint Luke, the winged lion for Saint Mark and the angel for Saint Matthew ).” Only 4-6% of the glass has been replaced over the centuries, so this really is THE original!
So that was a lot of info on one church, but I did say that it is my favorite in all of Italy. And I didn’t even talk about the incredible pulpit and the artwork of Donatello!
Everyday life in Lucca… learning the language
Both Jim and I are working hard at learning to read, talk, and understand Italian. Understanding the spoken language is the hardest. I started studying the language in 2017 but started and stopped multiple times since then. I took a 12-week adult education class in America, used the Memrise app for vocabulary building, had several weeks of full-time classes at the Lucca Italian School and have used several tutors via Verbling and now in person. This patchwork of methods and starts/stops has brought me to a point where I can communicate with shopkeepers, ask simple questions to people on the street, and have casual conversations with friends from our local church. However, I still have a lonnngggg way to go.
We watch one show on TV several times a week called “4 Ristoranti“. The host takes the owner/chef of four restaurants to visit each of their restaurants, they all judge each others’ restaurants and then select a winner. VERY formulaic. Perfect for learning the language. I know when the host will describe how the restaurants will be judged and try to understand more of it each time. I know when they will all guess the amount of the check and I listen for the amounts. And we get to see restaurants all over Italy. 🙂
Our primary studying method is using online tutors. We started during the lock down because that was the only available option. Eleonora, my tutor, is Italian but now lives north of Jerusalem in the Palestine State. She teaches German there! I meet with her twice a week for an hour each time. We are reviewing some of the grammar that I studied earlier, but it sticks with me more the second time – and when I have opportunities to use it on a daily basis. I’ve also started meeting with a local tutor for an hour a week for more conversation practice in person. So to prove that I can speak a bit of Italian, here is the request that I made to my tutor to get the photo below: “Scrivo nel mio blog sullo sto imparando dell’italiano. Posso fare uno screenshot della nostra lezione?”
Jim studied for a few weeks at Lucca Italian School and then quickly forgot much of what he learned. He now studies with an online tutor three times per week and is making a lot of progress quickly. His tutor is Italian but currently lives in Helsinki.
Within a few years of becoming a resident, we will need to take a test to demonstrate that we can speak basic Italian. But we want to be ready much earlier than that… in order to really become part of the community, we need to be read, talk, and understand Italian!
The Beauty of Tuscany… gardens, sunflowers and beaches
Yes, we made a few more day trips from Lucca. 30 minutes from Lucca is a town called Collodi. Carlo Lorenzini, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, is from Collodi, so there are LOTS of Pinocchios in the shops, restaurants, streets, and even a Pinocchio amusement park for the kiddos. This kiosk sells two different Pinocchio designs: Italian and Disney!
There is also a beautiful and historic garden in Collodi, considered to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Despite the heat, we explored many of the paths and wandered all the way to the top.
Our church had a going-away picnic for one of our families. Naturally there was lots of food. We stayed through sunset and after dark; singing songs, sharing stories, and even a short skit. The Poot family will be missed by our church! On the way to the picnic, we passed a beautiful field of sunflowers and Jim stopped to let me take a few pics.
Everyday life in Lucca… setting up our apartment
We rented a beautiful furnished apartment in the center of town. It had all of the basic furniture, such as beds, kitchen table/chairs, couches, tables, and lamps. But it was far from “move-in” ready. We needed to buy lots of household items, like dishes, pots, pans, linens, TV, etc. As we did that, we slowly morphed the apartment into a home that really meets our needs. So here are some “before” and “after” pictures of our apartment.
The TV Room: The website description of the next room says “A long corridor, furnished with a sofa to be a warm and cosy reading-corner”. We weren’t quite sure how to use this space with a low & slanted ceiling and consider many options. Our current setup is one of the most useful rooms of the apartment – a reading-corner, bookcases to separate the room into two parts, and a very comfy TV view area. And Jim had lots of fun lighting this area… One “before” picture and several “after” pictures for this space!
The Altana: Our favorite room… up the steps in the kitchen leads to a square room with large windows on each side, giving us a 360° view of Lucca and the surrounding mountains. We mostly moved furniture from other parts of the apartment to set up this room. And bought a great piece of art from a local artist… Jim again had fun with the lighting. One “before” and one “after” picture:
We still have a lot of decorating to do. We visited the local antique market a few weekends ago and found some fun items. They are held monthly so more treasure hunting ahead for us. There are also lots of local artists here that we are discovering. Italians say “piano, piano” which means slowly, you’ll get it, don’t rush. We are trying to learn this concept!
When we arrived in Lucca in March, we planned to rent a car for a week to buy stuff for our new apartment and pick up wine we were storing in Florence. Three months later, it finally happened. And we were able to take some fun day trips as well. This blog post will describe our adventures with plenty of pictures. And give you a bit of insight into the fun and challenges of driving here.
The Beauty of Lucca… so many nearby day trips!
You probably aren’t interested in our trip to IKEA or stocking up on heavy and bulky foods at the supermarket. So, I’ll focus on our day trips to Florence, Bolgheri, and Cinque Terre.
Florence: Jim and I walked through the biggest tourist areas in Florence: the Duomo/Cathedral, Palazzo Vecchio/town hall, the center court of the Uffizi museum, and across the Ponte Vecchio/old bridge. I estimate that the tourist crowd was about 5% of the usual size. Many stores were closed and museums are starting to open, but with limited hours. It was a great opportunity to take pictures of some of Florence’s great sights, but it was also quite sad. For example, there are usually big crowds in front of the gorgeous Gates of Paradise and you could never expect to get a picture without bunches of strangers… not now. Ponte Vecchio is usually packed with tourists looking at overpriced gold jewelry in the shops that line both sides of the bridge… not now.
We had lunch with Rebecca of Grape Tours. We met Rebecca and Pierre, her husband, in September 2014 when we went on their four-day Tuscan Wine Tour. And we’ve stayed in touch since. We are signed up for their Sicily Wine Tour in October. There is still room on the trip for you to join us! We had lunch at Le Volpe e Uva, a great place for wine and food, one block off of one of the main tourist areas. Seek it out!
We also picked up that wine that had been stored for a few years at an enoteca by the train station and bought a few more bottles to show our appreciation. Our wine cellar is growing again, but it will NOT get too large!
Bolgheri: Bolgheri is a small coastal town about an hour from Lucca with numerous wineries that make some of the best and most expensive wines of Italy. The two “biggies” are Ornellaia and Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia). Several years ago, Jim and I visited Ornellaia; this week we went to Chiappini, a family-owned organic winery that is next door to Ornellaia. We went with Pasquale, an Italian friend of ours, who knows many of the family of these small & great wineries. The wines were delightful and just being at a winery was wonderful. We tasted several wines than bought a few bottles. We ate lunch at a local enoteca and enjoyed some yummy gelato with views of Bolgheri out to the sea.
Cinque Terre: When planning vacations to Italy, we often considered visiting Cinque Terre, five fishing villages perched high on the Italian Riviera. In fact, we even did a puzzle of one of the villages. But each time, we concluded that it would be too crowded. Those villages are packed with people coming to see some of the scenic views in Italy. Well, they aren’t too crowded now! So, off we went with our friends Victoria and Brian to visit two of the towns – Manarola and Vernazza. They had been several times before and talked about how nice to visit without the heavy crowds. There were tourists visiting, but not too many.
Our first stop was Manarola. We wandered through the city, then ate lunch at Nessun Dormire and enjoyed a slow meal of bruschetta with pesto, salami, cheese, melon with prosciutto, and a local white wine – with THE most incredible view.
After Manarola, we jumped on the train that goes between the five villages and we got off at Vernazza. Typically the trains run every 20 minutes, but now are running one per hour. We wandered around Vernazza and stopped for some delicious Italian gelato. We visited the town’s main church and wondered if it would be difficult to concentrate on the service with such spectacular views out the windows!
Everyday life in Lucca… car rentals and driving
We don’t have a car in Lucca, so get around town via walking and bicycling. Plenty of food stores, restaurants, clothing stores, pharmacies, etc. are very close by. But after staying in Lucca for 3 months, I was ready to wander a bit further.
So, we rented a car for a week, starting June 8th. We requested a standard SUV through the local AVIS office so that we’d have plenty of room for some furniture that we plan on buying. Jim walked about 20 minutes to the car rental place, was given a mid-sized crossover, and returned to our house.
Our apartment building has a parking lot and we are allotted one space – quite an unusual feature inside the walls of Lucca. To get to our parking lot you need to drive through a ZTL, a zone that is tightly restricted to residents and others with specific needs. Because of the coronavirus, the rules have been relaxed through the end of August, so we didn’t need to get any special permission to drive through our ZTL. On our second trip to Italy we got two tickets in Florence for driving through the ZTL and did not want to have to pay the big fines again!
Jim has driven a lot in Italy and is quite comfortable doing so. I’m the navigator and am quite comfortable in that role. In fact before last week, I had never driven in Italy. But I drove around the outside of the Lucca walls (lots of traffic circles and relatively heavy traffic) and once to Pisa on the autostrada/highway. I would say that the drivers are more aggressive here than in Virginia, the lanes are narrower and there are traffic circles everywhere! Oh, and if you are looking for the pictures of that tower, we went to Pisa for the shopping – there is an IKEA there! After our first (of several!) trips to IKEA, the car was stuffed with furniture, household goods and more stuff!
For now, we plan on renting a car as needed. We can use our International Driver’s License for one year then will need to get an Italian driver’s license. The test is MUCH harder than in America AND it is in Italian. Most ex-Pats study a lot for 3 months to take the test, then end up taking it a few times before passing.
In the town of Lucca, there was one new case of COVID-19 for the week ending June 14th. We are learning to live with the virus. In town most people have masks on, around their neck (to allow quick replacement) or stashed on their arms (???).
Stores are very careful to follow the rules. Masks and hand sanitizer are required and many stores allow only one customer at a time, so queues on the street on common. Some stores take your temperature before letting you enter; a nearby supermarket even uses an infrared sensor! In more open area such as the Walls of Lucca, about 25% of the people are wearing masks and the others only put them on as needed. There are a few areas of town where young people gather during the evenings and they not do proper social distancing. ☹
Our church met face-to-face for the first time on Sunday, being very careful to leave lots of space between family groupings. After the service, we went outside to chat with each other. It felt great to be doing something as normal as going to church!
And one final picture from Lucca… the moon next to a church’s bell tower: