It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

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!

6 months in Italy and some glitches!

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. 

More directional signs than an international airport!

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!

Spring flowers & shopping for food

Friday morning, May 15th, Jim was in the altana and he called for me to come upstairs quickly. I panicked and rushed upstairs, ready for any kind of emergency, and he pointed to this beautiful double rainbow. The lower one ended on the Lucca wall. How beautiful is that!

The beauty of LuccaSpring Flowers!

undefinedWe’ve been allowed to walk on the walls of Lucca since May 4th, so we’ve had a chance to enjoy the spring flowers across town. Before May 4th, my goal was to get in at least 3000 steps per day; now, most days go well over 10000 steps.

I’ve been enjoying taking pictures, so this blog post will be a lot of pictures with a description for each.

These decorated balconies are in the Anfiteatro, one of the famous piazzas of Lucca. And you can also see a few signs that say “Andrà tutto bene!” meaning “Everything will be all right!”. Very encouraging during these days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another decorated balcony; this one on Piazza San Michele. Soon the businesses on the ground floor will be open and the piazza will come back to life!
Beautiful roses next to one of the many old churches.
Horse chestnut trees are clustered in several locations around Lucca’s wall. This picture was taken on Festa della Mamà (Mother’s Day) with many families enjoying their time on the wall.
Palazzo Pfanner “is a palace and a garden in Lucca, Italy, now converted into a museum of art and artifacts. The building dates to 1667, and is notable mainly for its fine garden.” This wide view is from Lucca’s wall and I especially like the large tree on the right side; I think that it is a Stone Pine tree. The benches on the wall near Palazzo Pfanner are highly sought after!
And here is a closeup of Palazzo Pfanner’s fountain surrounded by statues, lemon trees in big pots, and lots of other flowers. You can also see the Guinigi Tower with its oak trees planted on top of the tower!
From the wall, we can also see Lucca’s Botantical Garden, including this pond with lots of water lilies. One of their prized specimens is a Cypress tree from Florida. There are about a zillion of these near my son’s house. Nice to see one here!
And a closer picture of some of the flowers in the Botanical Gardens.
This view from the Walls show one of the Liberty-style homes that are commonly found right outside of Lucca’s walls. This picture was taken near one of the gates which has lovely pink roses lining the road.
Beautiful flower garden on the wall
This is the back of Palazzo that we live in. It has a small garden with beautiful white roses. You can’t see our apartment from this view.
Behind our Palazzo’s garden and parking lot is this carriage house. It used to be horse stables but now is one or maybe two beautiful large apartments. I love all of the flowers on the windows. You can walk or drive through the brown doors to get to our parking lot. And the whitish tower with windows (next to the green tree on the right) is our apartment.

In past years, there have been several flower festivals/events. I’m disappointed that they weren’t held this year, but am looking forward to them in the future. And are enjoying all of the signs of Spring throughout Lucca.

Everyday life in Lucca… shopping for food

Everyday life in Lucca is different than in the United States. Some things are much better (plentiful fresh food available daily), some are worse (the bureaucracy!) and some are just different. Part of the reason that we moved to Italy was to experience these differences… In this and upcoming blog posts, I’ll talk about some of these differences. Last month I talked about the trash and recycling; this month, it’s shopping for food.

In Virginia, Jim and I had adopted some Italian food shopping habits. We went almost day to get food and purchased mostly fresh and unprocessed food (fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses, etc.). We typically went to Harris Teeter with an occasional trip to one of the other nice supermarkets – Wegman’s, Giant, or Balducci’s when we wanted something special. We especially appreciated that many of the stores were open 24 hours and usually at least one open on holidays. It’s different in Lucca.

Some larger cities in Italy have everyday markets, such as the Central Market of Florence or the smaller and more authentic Sant’Ambrogio. Lucca has several weekly markets, but most of them haven’t been active during the coronavirus restrictions and aren’t very convenient to where we live. So we have found a set of small markets that we frequent regularly. On a given day, we may go to a few of these shops. Not very efficient, but the food we buy is local, fresh and delicious!

Coronavirus Update

The coronavirus infection rates have been under control and reducing for
several weeks. On May 4th some of the restrictions were lifted and more changes are expected on May 18th. At times it can be confusing to understand the rules and how they all interact. There are decrees set at the country level (i.e., for all of Italy), rules at the regional level (i.e., for all of Tuscany) and further clarifications and interpretations at the commune level (i.e., for
Lucca). Oh, and they keep changing… I belong to several Facebook groups for English speakers in Lucca and we all try to hash out what this all means for us. So here’s my summary of past and upcoming changes:

·        Never closed: food stores, pharmacy stores, gas stations, and other stores that sell true essentials (like wine stores!)

·       May 4th: parks opened, restaurants could begin carry out and delivery (including gelato and coffee!)

·        May 18th: most other stores that sell merchandise can open

·        June 1st: restaurants for dine in, hairdressers, barber shops, etc.

Breaking news! the June 1st openings have now been moved to May 18th. Not sure what I’m looking forward to most – dinner out or a haircut! And we can finally start decorating our apartment. 

Jim and I remain healthy and are vigilant every time we go out. 

Coronavirus update, Lucca walls and the trash

Coronavirus update

Several people have recently asked me about the status of the coronavirus emergency here. The worst is over now for Italy and the restrictions are slowly being lifted. A few examples:

  • Restaurants have been allowed to deliver food to your house. Starting today, we can pick up food at the restaurant but need to pre-order and they will tell us when to pick it up so no crowds form. Rumors are that we’ll be able to go to a restaurant starting May 18, but all tables need to be at least 2 meters apart. Traditionally they are only inches apart, so the restaurant capacities will be far decreased.
  • Food stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other true essentials have never closed and we are experiencing very few shortages. Starting this week, book stores, stationary stores and children clothing/shoe stores could open. Apparently, the kids are running out of clothes that fit and supplies needed for online school! Rumors are that most other stores will be opened by May 11th. Yesterday I saw many storekeepers preparing their stores for reopening.
  • Moving about is quite restricted today. When we leave our house, we need to fill out a form stating where we are coming from, where we are going, and why. Police can stop anyone to check the paperwork and we see police patrolling every time we go out. Legitimate reasons include going to work, shopping for necessities, health care, and taking trash out (see below!). We can now take walks with a dog, small child, or by yourself, but need to stay within 200 meters of our house. Fortunately, the area around our apartment is gorgeous and I have enjoyed these walks. I expect that these restrictions will be relaxed over the next several weeks. One rumor is that we’ll be able to travel freely within our region starting May 4th. That would mean all of Tuscany is open to us… but I’m not counting on that!

We get daily updates of the number of people infected, in intensive care, recovered, and deaths – for all of Italy, the region of Tuscany, the province that we live in and the city we live in. In the city that we live in (Lucca, population 88,000 in the city and surrounding areas), there have been 202 people diagnosed with the virus, 13 are currently in the hospital and 14 have died.

So, it is around us but not too bad. Neither Jim nor I have been sick since we arrived. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t get it, so we wear masks when we go out in case we are carriers and don’t realize it. And masks are now required for anyone outside of their homes.

The Beauty of Lucca… its walls!

Lucca is one of the many “walled” cities of Tuscany. The walls were built to defend the city from warring parties, generally other cities such as Florence and Pisa, and occasionally other countries. Since the days before the Roman Empire, Lucca has had multiple walls to address the city’s expansion and changing threats. This aerial map shows how Lucca expanded since the Roman Empire days:

Lucca Expansion since the Roman Empire

The reddish square represents the Roman town of Lucca, laid out in a very orderly grid fashion. The Roman wall was about 7 meters high and 2.5 meters wide. There are few traces remaining of the Roman wall; only one portion is available to see above ground.                              

The greenish area was surrounded by a wall during the medieval period, which was finished around 1270. This wall originally had several gates, two remain today. Porta dei Borghi is close to our apartment, so I’ve enjoyed taking pictures of it on walks and from our apartment. Wouldn’t it be cool to live above the gate?

Porta San Gervasio originally had a drawbridge and moat, but both are gone today. Fortunately the starry design underneath the archway and some of the artwork remain. I took this picture in 2019 during one of our visits. It feels odd to be walking through the town and see a gate in the middle of the city!

Porta San Gervasio at dusk
Porta San Gervasio at dusk

The yellowish area of the map represents the expansion of Lucca during the Renaissance era. The walls built during this era still go completely around the historic district of Lucca today. They are 4.2 km around, 30 meters wide at its base, 18 meters at the top, 7 meters in height, and were completed in 1650, after over 100 years of constructions. These walls are so wide because they needed to be wider than a cannon ball could be launched. Fortunately, the walls were transformed into a public park in the late 1800s. Today, the Lucchese people and tourists walk, bicycle, picnic, exercise, and relax on the wall. As I mentioned in my last post, the walls are now closed because of the coronavirus. Too many people were gathering on the walls as they have done since the 1800’s. These walls are one of the biggest attractions in Lucca. I’m sure that future posts will include lots of pictures taken from these walls.

Everyday life in Lucca… the trash and recycling

Everyday life in Lucca is different than in the United States. Some things are much better (plentiful fresh food available daily), some are worse (the bureaucracy!) and some are just different. Part of the reason that we moved to Italy was to experience these differences… In this and upcoming blog posts, I’ll talk about some of these differences.

Where we lived in Virginia, we kept 2 very large bins in our garage. Twice a week, the garbage truck came to pick up trash from one of the bins and once a week, they picked up the recycling in the other bin. It’s different in Lucca.

They are very serious about recycling and we need to separate all recycling into four categories: paper, multi material (including plastic and metal), glass, and organics. Because there are no garbage disposals here, any wasted food goes into “organics”. This can get smelly quickly! There are long lists that tell you exactly where to put every kind of waste. Whatever remains goes into the non-recyclable.

When we first arrived, the apartment had a container for organics, but we just used separate bags for each. Last week, we purchased our very own fine recycling bin for the kitchen. Much better now!

There are sets of recycling bins on the street that match these categories. The openings are quite small, so trash and recycling goes out daily. To open the bin, you need a card that is registered to us. Our realtor spent weeks working to get our card for us (and lent us one in the meantime). You need to use your card each time you open each bin, so that they can track exactly who is using which bins! I just read that “the citizens will pay for the actual amount of unsorted waste produced and conferred to the islands.” How is that for being serious about recycling???

I plan to continue posting to my blog every few weeks, highlighting something that I find beautiful, a bit about how everyday life is different than in the United States, and some personal updates. Let me know if there are topics you want me to write about!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

The pace of life is a lot slower for us right now. The coronavirus restrictions force us to limit our activities outside of the house. We have been able to use this time to slowly settle into Lucca and our apartment. I feel more rested, peaceful, and content than I can ever remember. Because we are in a completely new environment, it has not been difficult to create new patterns and habits that align with the restrictions.

Other good stuff:

  • Our local church has been meeting online. It’s a very small church and their services are very interactive. So, no Facebook Live streaming for this crowd! We use Zoom. The first 15 minutes are spent saying “Buongiorno” or “Ciao!” to each other. Then the service starts. Various people participate in the service itself. Very cool to see the real sense of community of this church. Jim and I sit with Google Translate open and try to follow the gist of the service. And read the sermon notes afterwards. 😊
  • Jim has discovered two wonderful places to buy wine. Jim visits Ricardo at Vineria Dolce Vita, a great place to buy local and everyday Tuscan wines, and many local food specialties. And Jim visits Pasquale at his restaurant (which is closed) to buy older Italian wines. Both of these businesses have lost most of their income stream so Jim is “helping” by purchasing their wine. 😊
  • Jim and I have been enjoying cooking and eating the wonderful fresh and local food. Artichokes are in season now. Tonight I’m making an Artichoke, Sausage & Goat Cheese Egg Pie. I have all of the ingredients needed except the “soft goat cheese”. I have one more store to check; if not, I’ll use a different kind of cheese. And I bought lots of fresh artichokes for it.  😊
  • We love our apartment. There is a lot of light and plenty of space. There are more than 100 steps to reach it, but there is also an elevator. I’ve been going up the steps at least once per day. No TV yet, but we spend the evenings doing puzzles and playing cribbage or Scopa. A TV is supposed to be delivered on Monday! 😊

The Bad

Our bank! I wrote in my November blog post about how difficult and different it was to open our bank account. Well… that was only the beginning! Upon arrival in Lucca, we got out our debit cards, memorized our PINs and were very pleased that they worked without a problem. Our apartment had furniture but not much else, so we had a lot of shopping to do! The first few days in shops in Lucca, then set up our Amazon account.

After a few days, I decided I better check the status of our account online. I couldn’t get into it and soon locked up my account. The only way to unlock it was to visit the bank. I did so and they unblocked it. I tried a few more times then locked it again. Back to the bank branch… I was taken to the man who set up our account. He wouldn’t let me in his office and told me not to come to the branch again (while the coronavirus restrictions were still in place). I should just send him an email if I had any problems. He unlocked my account again and gave me a phone number to call to get the correct PIN; apparently, I was using the wrong PIN. I called the number four times. Getting through the phone menu is tough when you can’t understand the messages. When I did talk to a person, first my identity had to be validated. I got through that once. I explained my problem with a mix of Italian/English, she tried to fix the problem then suggested I call back the next day. What???

Then the next surprise – our cards stopped working and our Amazon account got closed down. Why??? Turns out that we have a 4000 € per month for certain kind of transactions. We guessed that we hit the limit, but couldn’t confirm because I still couldn’t access the account online. I sent an email to my “friend” at the branch explaining my failures at calling the bank and asking about the limit. Friday someone from the bank called who spoke pretty good English. Turns out that their security app was messed up for my account. She got me online. Our limit was increased to 5000 € per month but we are still trying to figure out which kinds of transactions that it applies to.

And our Amazon account is still closed down. Yep, we tried adding a US credit card. Yep, we tried setting up another account. Yep, we tried to use the chat capability. Nope, none of these worked.

During the times of frustration with the bank, I looked around for a different bank. I didn’t find one that would be better, so we are sticking with this bank (for now).

Next, I could tell you the saga of getting the required trash card or how it took three weeks and four visits by the internet technician to establish our connection, but I won’t…

The Ugly

Italy is a beautiful country. Lucca is a beautiful city. Really… what could be ugly here? But… if you look out one of our windows of our wonderful altana, you see a building that can only be characterized as “ugly”. The front of it is on Via Fillungo, the main walking street of Lucca. The front is beautiful, but the roof and side are ugly. I’ve included a picture just so that I was able to use this title for this blog posting.  However, we really don’t spend much time look at that building because if you look up you see two amazing towers with mountains in the background. Ahhhhh…

Stay home and stay healthy! #andràtuttobene