Life in Lucca

I often get (and appreciate!) the compliments on my blog posts where we visit cities, churches, events, etc. and I post lots of pretty pictures. But I also get questions about day-to-day life in Italy. That’s a bit tougher to capture in a blog post, so this one includes a series of “vignettes” that I’ve collected over the last month to give a sense of the what it is like to live in Lucca.

Free coffee at our favorite bar!

Our favorite bar is across the street from our apartment; we often have coffee there in the morning or a Spritz in the evening. BTW, a “bar” in Italy is mostly for coffee and small snacks, but this one does serve wine and some cocktails in the early evening. It opened a year or so ago and we have been very impressed with Alessio, the young man who opened it. He is a hard worker and is very friendly to us and everyone else. He speaks little to no English. Over time, we are building a friendship – a few sentences at a time. My first fun outing after knee surgery was to his bar for a Spritz and he surprised me with sparkly candles with our snack. Fast forward to last week…  we noticed that Alessio was gone for several days and the young woman who also works there seemed to be covering all of the hours. On Tuesday we saw her opening around 8:30am and closing at 7pm. That’s a long day to be running a busy bar by yourself! This morning we had coffee there and was pleased to see that the Alessio has returned. I told him that she had done a great job while he was out and had been working very long hours. He was very pleased to hear this and explained that he had been away for his birthday. When we finished our coffee and Jim’s breakfast pastry, Alessio informed us that it was his treat. Not sure why… because we gave him feedback on his staff or because it was his birthday or something else? But it was a very nice gesture and makes us feel like we truly belong here. (23 June 2022)

Italy or America?

Today I spoke to a woman from TurboTax as I am finishing up our American tax returns and I wanted her to review my Foreign Tax Credit form. I explained that I live in Italy now and she asked a question that I get asked quite often – do you like living in Italy better than America? People ask it with much curiosity but I struggle to answer the question. Part of me wants to say with a big grin “Of course!” But it really feels like such an unfair comparison. When we were living in America, we worked 40-60 hours per week. Now we are retired and living in Italy. How can I compare the two? (23 June 2022)

Around the wall on my bicycle

This morning was my second time to ride my bicycle around the wall after my knee surgery. There is a long ramp to ride up onto the wall and I walked my bicycle up it for the first time. Today I was able to ride up the ramp. It felt good to know that my quad muscles were up to the task. I felt much more confident on my bicycle this time. Until I realized that Jim wasn’t behind me. I waited patiently and he finally appeared. Then stopped again. Clearly, he was having problems with his bicycle. I walked my bicycle back to him; he was having a problem with the chain. Not only had the chain fallen off of the gear, but it had gotten wedged between the gear and the bike frame. He was trying to get it sorted out and a police car slowly drove past us. They pulled over and walked back to help us! They had all the right tools – gloves and a key to push the chain out of the stuck spot. Lots of grazie’s later, they slowly pulled off. I always wondered why the police patrolled the wall. (24 June 2022)

Help from the Police

The Gas Bill

Gas is expensive in Italy and it takes a lot to heat a 500-year-old building. Our palazzo has a central system and so the cost for heating is included in our condominium fee. We also get a gas bill every two months that covers the gas used for cooking. Of course, we don’t use much so the bill is low – around €20 or €30 for two months. We have it set up to be paid automatically, so frankly I didn’t really pay attention to it. In March Jim noticed that it was €90! How could that be? Turns out that for the first year or so, our real estate agent was “self-reporting” the actual amount used each month. She stopped doing this and we didn’t realize it. So, the gas company estimated the usage. And their estimates increased substantially for every bill! Jim figured out how to check the meter and we went to the website to “self-report” but our actual was so different from their estimate that they didn’t accept our “self-report” actual value. A few emails later everything seemed to be fixed and we received the next bill with €0 due and a negative balance. And we added a monthly task to our calendar to “self-report”. But we were still out of sync and the website wouldn’t take our actual values. This morning, Jim checked the value and I entered the actual reading into the website and it accepted our “self-report”. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Just one more example of the Italian bureaucracy that can drive you crazy… (26 June 2022)

Opera students in Lucca

Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini, who is one of Italy’s most famous opera composers. There are several music schools in town: a high school focused on music, a world-renown school that attracts students and professionals from around the world to study classical music, and many more. The Opera Lucca program brings young people (17 years old to almost 30 this year) to Lucca for the summer to study the Italian language and opera (singing, piano, and even composition). This group has been practicing across the street from our friend Theresa and she has been quite an advocate for them. They held a concert in Lucca in a lovely garden tonight at 7pm. We headed out the door about 10 minutes before 7pm because it is only a 3-minute walk from where we live. But on the way, we found a bunch of our friends sitting at our favorite bar, so had to stop to chat. Several of us then wandered to the venue, assuming that they would start at least 20 minutes late like normal. Oops! This program is led by Americans and so the concert started promptly at 7pm! We were a few minutes late, but sat down trying not to disturb the others. There were about 50 people present – locals, expats, and staff from the Italian school. It really was a lovely concert. (1 July 2022)

Summer Heat

It’s usually very hot here in July and August – like the 96°F expected today. This year the heat started at the end of May and hasn’t let up. We have air conditioning in our apartment, but it is not “central air”. Our apartment has 5 units, scattered among the bigger rooms. And it costs a lot to run them. Many people seldom run them, either because of the high cost or the fear of getting sick from the cold breeze. Jim and I have settled into a routine during these hot days… head outside in the morning for exercise and errands… stay inside with the air conditioning during the hottest part of the day…  back outside after sun down. We turn on the air conditioning in the rooms that we are in and turn it off when we leave the room. Hence the apartment has cool and warm zones throughout the day. No wonder people think that they cause sickness…  (3 July 2022)

Celebrations with friends

So how to celebrate the Fourth of July when living in Italy? We were invited to Gary & Ilene’s house for a BBQ on their terrazzo. Barbara, a visitor from the USA, had mailed us a bunch of Red, White, and Blue party products so we were set. Hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs and all of the fixins. It was a lot of fun to celebrate with a group of Americans and one Brit! The next day was Ilene’s birthday, so we gathered at Vinarkià for a birthday celebration. We share many of these kinds of celebrations with local friends, given that our families are so far away.  (4 and 5 July 2022)

Learning the Language

A few months ago, a friend from the United States asked if I was fluent yet. Sadly, the answer is no. So, I did some research – how long does it take to get fluent or “fluent enough”? The US State Department figures that it takes 600-750 classroom hours to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in Italian. My back of the envelope estimate says that I’ve had about 300 classroom hours, so I guess that I’m half way there. I think that a better gauge is my ability to converse with Italians that I know that don’t speak English. They tend to speak slowly with me and probably use simpler sentence structure and vocabulary. I can usually understand 80% of what they say and they understand me – despite my imperfect grammar. I’m back to studying with Elenora, my online tutor, whom I worked with during lockdown. We are meeting once per week, but I plan to increase that to twice per week once her schedule frees up. I made slow but steady program working with her. I also plan to return to the Lucca Italian School for a few more weeks this year; at LIS we spend about 4 hours per day listening and speaking only Italian and the immersion is very helpful. (14 July 2022)

Is life perfect here?

Nope, but it is pretty darn good! We are loving day-to-day life in Lucca and haven’t regretted the move.

Chiesa Di San Salvatore in Mustolio, Lucca

Lucca is known as the city of 100 churches. The bigger ones are opened frequently and welcome visitors most days. And the rest seem to be opened at random days and times. When we see one of the smaller churches with an open door, we take the opportunity to step in and see what’s inside.

Yesterday, the door of Chiesa Di San Salvatore in Mustolio was opened and we popped inside. It is a smaller church made from simpler materials (brick instead of marble, two colors on the windows, etc.). I came home and read more about the church THEN had an opportunity to visit again today. I always find it more meaningful when I understand the history and context of what I am seeing.

It’s relatively easy to find dates of constructions and renovations, but I like to get a better sense of the story of the churches that I visit. The Wanderer’s Guide to Lucca by Brian R. Lindquist describes a period of colorful history of the church and its interactions with two larger churches in town: San Michele and San Frediano:

“During the early 1100s San Salvatore was a source of conflict between the churches of San Frediano and San Michele. At that time the canons of San Frediano were becoming a powerful group. They built a magnificent new church and began acquiring widespread property, in the process alienating not only the officers of other churches but at times the Bishop and even the Pope. At the same time San Salvatore was available and had acquired sufficient wealth to be worth a takeover. It was located between San Frediano and San Michele, but closer to the latter and, therefore, the Canons of San Michele saw themselves as the rightful proprietors. In the traditional method of negotiating such disputes, street fights broke out between the two claimants. Stones were thrown, holy services disrupted. The dispute went on for years. In 1140, his patience at an end, the Pope issued a bull granting the church to the monastery of San Frediano. Popes come and go, but grudges live on. The dispute drew the censure of successive popes, until it was finally settled in favor of San Frediano, which had established firm ties at the Vatican; the prior of San Frediano would soon after be appointed a Cardinal.” (Bold is my emphasis)

So, the next time that there is a disagreement in your church, be thankful that there aren’t street fights, thrown stones, and disrupted church services to resolve the differences!

Today the church is the under the care of the Confraternita di Misicordia (Fraternity of Mercy) that provides ambulance service (free of charge!) and other services to the Lucca community. The church has an active congregation and the only non-peaceful interruptions are the ambulance sirens.

The Lintels

The most treasured pieces of artwork of the church today are outside. Above two of the doors are lintels, carved horizontal supports of stone across the top of a doors. These are considered “narrative lintels” as they each tell a story, both related to St. Nicholas. Most of these narrative lintels have been removed and placed in museums. There are only nine remaining on churches in western Tuscany and this church has two of them! These lintels are more than 800 years old and are still in good shape.

The lintel on the right front door tells a story in three episodes:

  1. A pagan king sat at a table with his queen and others. He is being served a drink by a young man whom he had captured and enslaved. St. Nicholas appears and grabs the young man by his hair.
  2. St. Nicholas delivers the young man to his mother and there is a lot of celebrating.
  3. Similar to the first episode, but this time the young man’s father is at the head of the table.

The second lintel is considered to be even more valuable, but I couldn’t find it on my first visit. I wandered around the church with Google Street View and found it on the side of the building…  today there is some construction materials in front of it and an ambulance next to it. Oh boy…  The carving on this lintel represents “the miracle of the washing” of the newborn St. Nicholas who stands up in the tub where two women are washing him.

Two crucifixes

There are two wooden crucifixes in the church from the 1300s. Both of have been restored and repaired several times.

We have probably visited a dozen churches in Lucca – some large and grand and others much simpler. Each one is filled with beautiful artwork that was created to be placed in this (or another) church. Beside admiring the artwork, architecture, and contemplating their history, I take a few minutes to pray for those that serve and attend church there. I am thankful that I have the time to stop and explore them as we wander the city. And that I can share all of this with you.

A rather plain church but… oh, the history!

I’ve heard that you can see parts of Lucca’s Roman Wall inside of the Chiesa della Rosa (Church of the Rose) but it is seldom open to visitors. So I was excited to be able to go into this church for an evening service. The façade is so simple and the building is so low that it does not even look like a church. But this little church is just bursting with history!

First the legend that explains the name… During Roman times, shepherds would bring their sheep to this area outside of Lucca’s wall to rest and get water. One young shepherd who could not speak was surprised to find a bright green bush in the middle of winter. He went to investigate and found a beautiful blooming rose. He picked the rose and brought it to his father – and miraculously he could speak! News of the miracle spread and a wealthy family built a small private chapel here so that they and others could always remember the miracle that occurred here.

In 1309 (yep… a long time ago!) a request was made to the city to expand the chapel to make a small church. The document said that there was a beautiful fresco of the Madonna and Child in the private chapel and that it would be moved to the altar after the church was built. The fresco was called “Madonna, holding a Rose, and with St Peter and St Paul“. When it was moved (very difficult for frescos!), St Peter, St Paul, and parts of a few angels were lost, but the fresco is now on the altar of the Chiesa della Rosa. This fresco is now believed to the oldest piece of art in Lucca.

One of the walls of the church is the original Roman Wall of the city from the first century BC. This was a common practice at the time that saved the cost and work of building one wall. You can easily see the original stones, huge blocks of limestone, on the left hand side of the church’s interior. Several small portions of the walls have been discovered throughout Lucca, but this is the only substantial portion that is available to be seen today.

As is common, the church has undergone multiple renovations over the centuries. The interior is a delightful mix of styles with very intricate windows on the right hand side.

In May 2019 we rented a small apartment for a month that was on the same street. I stopped several times to look at these windows from the street and couldn’t make sense of them. The building just doesn’t look like a church from the outside – too small, no grand façade, etc. This evening with the lights on inside of the building, the light shines through the beautiful blue glass and it clearly looks like a beautiful but small church.

When you look closer at the exterior carvings, you see many beautiful carved roses at this Church of the Rose.

Every time we go down this street, I will remember the stories, art, and Roman walls that are hidden in plain site.

Our first visitors from America!

At the end of September 2021, Derek, our son, and Dani, his girlfriend, came to visit. It’s been 18 months since we’ve seen Derek or any family member, so you can imagine that we were quite thrilled to see them. We had a wonderful time with them and visited some new sites and some familiar ones.

Pickup in Rome. Derek and Dani flew into Rome and were set to arrive early in the morning. So Jim and I drove down the day before and stopped at Tarquinia, an hour north of Rome on the coast. The city is known for their Etruscan tombs and Etruscan Museum. I’ve seen a lot of Etruscan stuff, but I was surprised at the beauty and quantity of these tombs! In this necropolis there are 22 different underground tombs that you can look into with beautiful painted walls. Each tomb has a modern building covering the tomb with steps going down. Lighting was not good (to protect the paintings), so I’ve included one from the town’s museum, which was moved for accessibility and protection. I’ve also included a picture of a decoration from one of their temples. Keep in mind that these are from the 4-6th centuries BC!

The next morning Derek and Dani arrived on time. After more than a few hugs we were off to Sorrento where we planned to spend 5 nights.

Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, and Capri. None of us had ever been to this region so we were excited to explore the cities, the views, and the sites. While approaching Sorrento Jim stopped for a view of the city… the view was a great first impression, the traffic not so much!

We headed to Capri Island the next day… joining a boat trip from Sorrento, went around Capri, a short swim break and then a stop at one of the marinas. We visited the town of Capri, filled with shops selling beautiful (and overpriced!) souvenirs. Jim and I enjoyed wandering through the small streets while Derek and Dani headed to another marina to check out some of the boats. The wait to see the famous Blue Grotto was over an hour, so everyone on our boat agreed to skip it. Instead the captain stopped at two of the lesser known, but equally beautiful grottos, and Derek, Dani and many of the others jumped into the water to check them out.

The next day we headed to Pompeii where we spent hours wandering through the city. “Pompeii is a vast archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of the Bay of Naples. Once a thriving and sophisticated Roman city, Pompeii was buried under meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The preserved site features excavated ruins of streets and houses that visitors can freely explore.” (from Google) I was struck by the size of the city and how well preserved everything is. There were so many details here and there that really gave you a sense for life in an early Roman city. I definitely want to spend more time here.

And the next day we had another boat trip planned – leaving from Sorrento and going along the Amalfi Coast. My knee was too sore at this point, so Jim and I opted to stay in Sorrento while Derek and Dani headed back to the boat. They had a great time, seeing several small towns and popping into the water at a few swimming spots. Each evening of our trip, we had dinner at one of the restaurants that featured local delicacies and a good wine list.

Chianti. We had planned for one more day in the Sorrento area, but we were all ready to move along. So we headed towards home, stopping for a night in Castellini in Chianti. This small town holds special meaning for Jim and me. In 2016 we stayed here and used it as a base to explore this part of Tuscany. One evening after dinner as we wandered through the town, we paused to look at the available real estate in one of the realtor’s window. That was the evening that we realized that living in Italy would be affordable for us and planted the seed to “retire in Italy someday”. At the time, we expected that to be a decade or so away, but why wait???

We were in Chianti, so naturally we visited a winery and some of the nearby towns.

Next stop, Lucca! Derek and Dani were likely tired of hearing us talk about what a wonderful city Lucca is to live in and they now had an opportunity to check it out. They stayed in Lucca for a week… we spent quite a bit of time in town, but also used it as a base for day trips. I’ve included some photos of our time with them, but they also visited a nearby cave in the mountains, took a cooking class, and visited the Irish Pub (in Lucca???) multiple times. You’ll need to ask them if Lucca lived up to the hype from Jim and me…

Derek and Dani then left Lucca and wandered around Europe for another two weeks, visiting Prague, a small German town, a few places in Switzerland, Chamonix, and Milan.

It was wonderful to spend time with Derek, to really get to know Dani, and to show them some of the aspects of Italy that we enjoy so much. We are looking forward to future visits from our family and friends!

Two quiet months but more freedom now!

It’s been about two months since my last blog post. I’ve thought about writing, but not much has happened for the last two months. The coronavirus restrictions have varied between very strict and strict, so our activities have been greatly limited. But there are a few updates to share.

One year anniversary of living in Italy: We arrived in Lucca on March 9th one year ago, excited to start this new chapter of our lives. COVID and coronavirus were new words/ideas for us, but so was so much around us. The excitement of retiring and moving to Italy sustained us for most of the year and we treasured our opportunity to spend so much time in Lucca and wander around Tuscany occasionally. As we passed a year, I found myself grumbling… second Easter in lockdown, second time we’ve celebrated Jim’s birthday in lockdown, second time for this and second time for that. But I know that we have been so greatly blessed to pass the pandemic here and (being retired) were not greatly impacted financially. I still need to remind myself of this every few days…

Medical care: we now have full access to the Italian medical system. For our first year in Italy, we delayed most medical activities and only dealt with issues that needed to be handled – because of the pandemic and our medical insurance only covered larger issues.  We now have a general physician, are catching on preventive medical activities, and addressing issues that we have ignored.

Eye surgery for Jim: The biggest medical issues was that Jim needed outpatient surgery on his left eye – Epiretinal Membrane (ERM) Surgery. This is not a typical / routine surgery so we had the condition and recommendation confirmed by two doctors in Italy and more confirmation from Jim’s doctor and ophthalmologist in Virginia. After waiting for a few months, he was scheduled for outpatient surgery last week. Everything went smoothly during the hour-long surgery and all indications are that the problem will be fully resolved. The recovery has been a bit more involved than we expected with three different eye drops four times daily AND he needs to keep his head down as much as possible. We have been very impressed with the medical care, with multiple follow-up visits. No cost for the surgery and the eye drops cost about €12 each.

Language study: Jim and I are continuing to study with online tutors. As part of our Integration Agreement with the Italian Government, we need to achieve a competency level of A2 within two years of arriving. Because I started studying the language a few years before we moved here, I was ready and took my A2 test on April 15th and should hear the results soon. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m fluent or anywhere close. That became clear to me after a very confusing episode at a medical clinic when I went for my appointment at 14:00 on April 8th rather than 8am on April 14th. Oh well… 

Driver’s license: I am now turning my attention to studying for the driver’s license test. The test is a challenge even for Italians and is in Italian only. The test has 40 true/false questions drawn from a known set of 7000 possible questions. You can get a maximum of four wrong in order to pass. I can drive with my US driver’s license and an international driver’s permit until January 2022. There is a lot of new vocabulary to learn, including 100 new verbs: to tail, move away, support, take advantage of, compress; squeeze, flow out, avoid, brake, throw/jettison, crack/deteriorate, …

Time with friends: We have been fortunate that we’ve been able to continue meeting with friends, including having two people (and their children) to our house at a time. We’ve continuing meeting with Brian and Victoria for Bible studies and enjoyed Easter with them and their two daughters. We’ve had Pasquale (an Italian friend) for dinner weekly, had a few cooking lessons from Evelin (Pasquale’s chef), enjoyed a brunch at Sharri and Jedd’s house, and visited with Nicola and Rebecca when Vinarkia was opened for takeout. And I have certainly appreciated staying in contact with family and friends through social media and phone calls.

Here are two pictures that I’ve took one evening from our apartment:

A quiet evening in Lucca
Moon rising over San Francesca

San Frediano, a nearby church replaced a bell in its tower and installed a new system that allows their bells to be played by electric motors or moved by string. The changes were announced in the local newspaper and we enjoyed a mini concert from our apartment on Sunday. I’ve included a bit of the audio and a picture.

Church bells from San Frediano
San Frediano, ready to share her new bell with the community

Starting today the coronavirus restrictions have been eased. We now have a Yellow status, meaning that we can travel within Tuscany and other Yellow regions, restaurants are opened for outdoor dining and there are plans in place to start opening museums and cinemas. And talk of opening up Italy for tourist in the months to come! Will we see you in Italy this year?

I am so ready for this!