Fields of flowers – or not!!!

Tuscan summers are a bit too hot for me but for a field of flowers, I will grab my camera gear and face the fiercest summer sun. They always seem to lead to adventures as well…

Update on 1 August 2021 – Ilene has posted about flowers in Tuscany with pictures from our joint trips. Be sure to check out her blog called “Our Italian Journey” and the posting about the flowers. If you’ve ever considered an extended trip to Italy, you could learn a lot from Gary and Ilene!

Massarosa – lotuses and lavender

This small town is about 30 minutes from Lucca and has several farms that grow flowers commercially. Visitors are encouraged to discover these locations, take photos, and enjoy the spectacular scenes. Jim and I set off one Saturday morning for Massarosa to find lotuses, lavender, and sunflowers. I was very pleasantly surprised when this gorgeous lotus field was less than five minutes down a paved path from the parking lot!

Then we head off to find sunflowers using their published map. We found two fields, but we were toooo early and none of the sunflowers were blooming yet.

Next stop… lavenders. Well, this also proved to be a bit difficult. But after driving down impossibly narrow streets and across fields (that I THINK that we were allowed to drive through), we discovered a most wonderful field of lavender.

I was so excited about our new discoveries that I returned with Ilene, a friend from Lucca, just a few days later. She was wowed by the lotuses, then we set off to find the lavender again. This time, I would turn before “those greenhouses” that Jim and I saw and he was certain that we would easily find the lavender farm again. We wandered through even more backroads and across another field, had a few close calls with parked and moving cars until I declared “There will be no lavender today!” When I returned home, Jim informed me that I should have turned AFTER “those greenhouses”. Perhaps we will try again…

Castelluccio di Norcia

Ilene’s landlord told her about this very small town in Umbria that also has fields of flowers. I was blown away at the pictures posted on this town’s website. I left one picture on the screen and Jim thought that it was a painting, not a photograph.

I recognized that these are professional pictures, most likely taken during the very best year from the best vantage points at the best time of the day. But if I could see these fields and get a few pictures – even if they weren’t quite a beautiful as the published pictures then I would be very happy. (To be clear, I did NOT take the pictures above. They are from https://www.castellucciodinorcia.it/fioritura-castelluccio-di-norcia/)

So plans were made to travel to Umbria with Ilene and Gary. The drive would be about four hours and we would stay at a town nearby for one night. The first afternoon/evening we would find the fields of flowers and enjoy the flowers with the afternoon/evening light. The second morning, we would return to the fields of flowers to see them again in the morning light. And of course, we planned to stop at a few quaint towns for our lunches.

We set off on Wednesday morning on time. The ride was pleasant, driving through Tuscany and into Umbria. We stopped in Montefalco, a small town that specializes in a wine called Sagrantino. We wandered through the town, ate pizza and sipped on Sagrantino. Along the way I spotted a field of sunflowers, Jim stopped, and Ilene and I popped out of the car to snap a few photos. I finally got my sunflowers!

We arrived in Norcia, the nearby “larger” town, where we would be staying for the night. We drove to the hotel using Google Maps, only to learn that the check in was at a different location and our rooms were at a third location. The town was small, so it was just a small annoyance. We checked in, relaxed for just a few minutes, then we were heading to these picturesque fields of flowers. I knew that the drive would take about 30 minutes and we would be going through mountains. It was quite a challenging drive, but Jim seems to take the crazy driving in stride. We saw many beautiful scenes, but no where to stop along the narrow roads. At this point, I was hoping that the drive was worth it!

We finally arrived and Ilene declare “This can’t be it!”. We got down into the valley, near where the other visitors parked and walked into the field. Here’s one of my first pictures:

Yep… a few poppies and a few purple flowers and lots of brown/yellow/greenish grass. We wandered around a bit and found some nicer areas, but we were all disappointed. We chatted with an English-speaking visitor and she confirmed that this year was just not as beautiful as other years. I tried to stay positive that it would be prettier in the morning light.

So, we returned the next morning and the light was better. We walked to a few different areas and saw a bit of the beauty that we were expecting.

We also enjoyed watching a shepherd command his sheepdog to move the sheep across the road. Once the dog got started, it took only a few minutes to move the entire herd. Fun to see in “real life” – not an exhibition or show, really moving sheep around!

Mandatory selfie in field by Ilene… We had a lot of fun!

Norcia, as described by Jim

When JoAn told me that we were going to visit Norcia in Umbria, it did not register that this was the one of the cities that was almost complete destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. I remember seeing the devastation in the news and thinking how can they recover?

On arriving in Norcia, we were following JoAn’s directions (with the aid of Google Maps) and we ended up driving through the city looking for our hotel. Not thinking about the earthquake, I was surprised by all the new construction work going on. Later as we walk around the town the realization that we are walking on streets that were completely filled with rubble five years ago started to set in. There are still many buildings boarded up and reinforced. There are parts of town that are fenced off. Outside of town there many temporary buildings for shops, restaurants and homes. In town we see the remains of the cathedral where restoration is years away from completion.

But to my surprise, I did not sense despair. The atmosphere is one of survival and hope. Even with COVID, the resiliency of the people is evident. Many shops and restaurants have reopened in the city. There are streets where the restoration is completed. In the main piazza next to the ruins of the Cathedral there was a big screen setup to watch the Euro 2020 soccer tournament.

When we see news stories of similar destruction around the world it often seems far away. But this visit brought the reality of physical and human impacts into focus. I would like to visit Norcia again to see the progress and support the people in a small way.

Mini-vacation to Florence

With the Covid pandemic coming under control, the Government has relaxed some of the restrictions. We wanted to visit Florence for several reasons, so we decided to head there for Saturday and Sunday (May 8 & 9, 2021).

After our first trip to Italy, Mike M. asked me if I had been to Piazzale Michelangelo. It sounded so wonderful, but no… we hadn’t visited it. I vowed that I would visit it in the future and we have now done so many times now. On Saturday, it was our first stop of our mini-vacation. From this grand piazza, you can see all of the gorgeous city of Florence. And we even listened some live blues music while enjoying the view.

I had read that the Irises were in bloom and so we searched for this special garden and found it (along with a lot of other people). The Irises were spectacular!

We enjoyed a nice lunch at the restaurant right next to Chiesa Santa Croce (with brown umbrellas in photo below). This is one of our favorite piazzas in Florence, so it was nice to return. We’ve been trying hummus whenever we see it on the menu and especially appreciated all of the fresh vegies as dippers. Although hummus isn’t considered a traditional Italian dish, chickpeas are used in many different dishes here. My favorite is cecina.

We walked around some of the main sights of Florence and were pleased to see that there were more people now on the streets and around these sights. Here’s a few pics of the unique and beautiful Florence duomo. Gotta love that dome – no one still knows for sure how it was built and why it is still standing!

I wanted to spend some looking at and reading about the sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi so was a bit disappointed that people are still being kept from this open air exhibit. I suppose too many people could gather in the area… It was built between 1376 and 1382 and the various sculptures have been exhibited in the space since then. I like the two lions on the steps: the one on the right dates from Roman times, the other on the left was sculpted by Flaminio Vacca in 1598 and was originally placed in the Villa Medici in Rome before being moved to the Loggia in 1789. The history here is mind boggling!

For dinner we ate at Cantinetta Antinori, our favorite restaurant in Florence. Antinori is one of the biggest wine producers in Italy and the restaurant is located in the family’s Palazzo. Because the COVID rules allow only outdoor dining, everyone was sitting in the Palazzo’s courtyard. It was a delightful setting, great food, and tastes of many of their less well-known wines.

Apparently I was tired of taking pictures, because I have none for Sunday! But it was a lovely day… We went to Mosaico, an English-speaking church that we’ve visited before. Then visited a friend that has recently opened a store/bistro that sells Italian and French (yep, French!) cheese and wine. We enjoyed visiting with Rebecca, savoring many new and interesting cheeses and buy several items from the shop. When you next visit Florence, be sure to stop in at Formaggioteca Terroir.

Coronavirus Update

Tourists are now allowed back into Italy! Yay! We are still waiting for some of the specific rules, but generally tourists will need to prove that they don’t have COVID before entering. We are still wearing masks in public (inside and outside) and haven’t heard much discussion of the relaxation of these rules. Restaurants are opened for outdoor dining but starting June 1st, we can eat inside, at least for lunch. This is important because we’ve been having lots of rain, so the restaurants have hustled to get tables available outdoors with umbrellas.

Italy got a slow start in distributing the vaccines, but the pace is definitely increasing. I have received two doses of Pfizer and Jim is scheduled for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine on June 7th.

Despite the improvements, we have a conservative travel plan for 2021. We plan on exploring various parts of Italy in 2021 and then to visit other European countries in 2022.

If you are planning to visit Italy, please let us know. Lucca is a great city to visit and to use as a base for many days of exploring Tuscany (Florence, Siena, wineries, hilltop towns, beaches, etc.) as well as Cinque Terre. If you can’t make it to Lucca but will be spending some time in Florence, we can come for a drink or a meal. Italy is looking forward to the return of the tourists! We are looking forward to visitors too!

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!

Yellow, Orange, Red but when White???

Each week Italy assigns a color to each region based on the latest coronavirus data… the colors identify the set of restrictions that will be in place for the week. We felt quite fortunate that Tuscany (our region) was Yellow for five weeks. We used the time to do a bit of exploring in Tuscany, including a morning of birdwatching in a nearby park, a visit to a beautiful Abbey, and a wonderful lunch with friends in a nearby town. But then we moved to Orange – meaning no travel outside of your town (except for essential activities), restaurants closed (except take out and delivery), and all museums closed. The rumors have been flying that we would move to Red this week… and so we asked the question that we’ve asked before “What do we need to do before we turn Red?” BUT… we stayed Orange for at least another week. Whewwww! We have a new Government in place (sorta like a new Administration for the US Federal Government) so I’m expecting some of the baseline rules to change in the next few weeks. And dreaming of becoming a White zone.

Vaccines are now being given throughout Italy and Tuscany is doing a great job of getting them into people’s arms. The Government has published a multi-phase approach to distributing the vaccine and we are in the second phase. It will start when the first phase is done – and they are not yet predicting when that will be. So we wait… Execution of the plan has been slower than expected due to delays in the distribution of the vaccine.

Abbey of San Galgano

I have been looking forward to visiting this Abbey for several years. Before moving to Italy, I joined a Facebook group called Paradiso…Toscana that is primarily used for posting beautiful pictures of Tuscany. I kept spotting this Abbey and dreaming of visiting it one day and taking pictures of the wonderful architecture of the ruins of this Abbey. It is about a two hour drive from our home… we zipped down the coast then through very twisty roads to find the Abbey in the countryside.

We visited this Abbey with Brian and Victoria Rice, American friends who have been living in Lucca for a few years. They have learned to expect a bit of a history lesson during the drive to each destination… This Abbey was built during the 13th century. Saint Galgano lived and worshiped in a nearby hermitage, so when the Abbey was built it was named after him. In the 1500s some people removed and sold the valuable lead roof. Hence we have a beautiful and unusual ruin today! Brian took a very cool video that gives you the sense of the building without its roof. I particularly like the carvings that were scattered across the ruin. The head is thought to be a likeness of the last architect in charge of building the Abbey.

Above the Abbey is the Hermitage of Monte Siepi. At the center of the round chapel is the stone where San Galgano stuck his sword as a sign of having definitively left his weapons to start a new life faithful. Archaeologists have confirmed that the sword is of the style and material used during his lifetime. Scientists can’t say the age of the metal for sure, but there are no indications that the metal is not from that time period AND they have confirmed with ground penetrating RADAR that the handle and blade are intact. Yep! Another Sword in the Stone!

Monteriggioni and some wonderful pasta!

After our visit to the Abbey and Hermitage we headed to Monteriggioni, a VERY small walled town nearby, known for its medieval fortifications and watchtowers. The walls are quite impressive when approaching the town. You can usually walk along the wall’s perimeter on an elevated walkway. And from there, you can enjoy the beauty of the Chianti countryside. The walkway was closed during our visit, so we will need to return in the future!

We ate lunch in one of the wonderful restaurants in town and I had a most unique pasta dishes. It was called “Aperto Raviolo” which can be translated to “open raviolo” – not sealed like normal and only a single raviolo (plural is the more familiar name of ravioli). It was stacked up similar to a lasagne with ricotta filling between the pasta layers and served on pumpkin sauce. Game on! I wanted to make this at home. That day I started my Internet searches and found several similar dishes that gave me further inspiration. So I made a stacked raviolo with ricotta filling and embedded a parsley leaf INTO the pasta; I served it on top of asparagus sauce with crushed hazelnuts and parmigiano reggiano. Time consuming (like 3 hours!) to make but surely a lot of fun!

Anniversaries

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of Jim’s retirement. March 9 is the one year anniversary of our arrival in Italy. Not what we expected, but still no regrets.

End of Year Reflections

At the end of the year, I think that it is natural to reflect on the year that is finished and look forward to the one just about to begin. I think that we all agree that 2020 is a year like no other in our lifetime. We watched movies and read stories about pandemics, but none of us had experienced one. Each of us experienced it differently, depending on our circumstances, our nature, our faith, and those around us. We had the additional unique experience of retiring and moving to a foreign land. So, how did we manage? Here are my reflections of our first ~10 months living in Italy during a pandemic.

Fireworks over Lucca

Our new town: We had visited Lucca three times before we moved here, so we had a good idea of what to expect. Yet on a daily basis, I still see beauty that I missed before. The walls, the streets, the churches, the museums – none are world class (well, except maybe the walls) but all dazzle me! And they are right outside my door! There are some aspects of Lucca that are “on hold” because of the coronavirus, such as concerts, celebrations, shows, and most street performers. We are definitely looking forward to them restarting!

Our new home: We are very thankful to have a beautiful apartment in a 500-year-old “palazzo” with amazing 360° views of Lucca. It’s on the third, fourth and fifth floor, and thankfully we have an elevator. But within the apartment there are still four sets of stairs! The layout is sorta odd, undoubtedly due to the multiple renovations that have taken place. But we use every part of the apartment and it is serving us well. It was renovated about 12 years ago but we have experienced several problems, such as leaking windows, leak in bathroom leading to some mold, steam heat & hot water that stopped and started every few days, and electricity that would shut down if we used too much. We continue to work through the problems; each time learning more and more about how to get things done in this culture.

View from our apartment, looking South

Our residency status: Before coming here, I generally understood the steps needed to become a permanent residence, but I underestimated the time needed to go through the steps and the number of times that I would need to copy our documentation (passport, codice fiscale, bank statements, birth certificates, …) and present it to a person who would painfully take us through the next step. Thankfully we were introduced to Tony, who helps us each step of the way. He tells us what the next step is, what documentation to bring, gets in line early for us, and talks to the person. For this, we give him €20. A very low price to pay for this valuable service! Jim has finished the process but I am still in the middle (due to an error that I made days after our arrival here). But it is nearly time for Jim to start renewing his “permesso di soggiorno”!

Our health: One of my goals for this year was to “Learn about the Italian medical system”. Well, I nailed that goal! Italy has a highly rated national health program that is generally covered by the taxes paid by residents. But in order to move here we need to get private medical insurance to have before we were able to sign up for the national program. We have been to the doctor several times each, gotten Xray’s, MRIs, blood tests, and Jim had a minor operation. So, yeah, I’ve learned a lot about the medical system…  The best parts have been finding good doctors that can speak English (easily or with some difficulty), pharmacists who are really very helpful and relatively low price for services and medicines. But we are still waiting for reimbursement for that operation that occurred at the end of August. In general, our health is probably a lot better than in the past. We walk more, ride bicycles again, and eat fresh & healthy food every day. Just still too much food & wine, so we plan to work on that in 2021…

Our friends: Despite the coronavirus restrictions, we’ve been able to develop friendships with several Italians and American expats. There was an active group of English-speakers that would meet each Monday afternoon in Lucca. Given the coronavirus restrictions, they aren’t so actively currently, but we look forward to engaging with them in the future. So far, all of our Italian friends speak English fluently (or nearly so). I know several non-English speakers, but relationships develop slowly when the conversations can’t go very deep!

Our church: Lucca is sometimes called “The City of 100 Churches” but they are nearly all Catholic… Our faith is very important to us, but we are not Catholic. So, we were thrilled to find a protestant church in one of our early visits to Lucca. Once we arrived, we started attending regularly via Zoom or in person, depending on the coronavirus restrictions. The church and people are wonderful, but frankly we really struggled with the language. A few months ago, we decided that we would attend an English-speaking church in Florence (about an hour drive from here) once things re-open. In the meantime, we watch various church services online and share a Bible study with an American couple here. Maybe one day there will be an international church in Lucca. We are looking for volunteers to come to Italy and help start it!

Our language skills: We consider this our full-time job. I’ve been studying Italian off and on since 2017. I’m currently working with an online tutor two times per week and a local tutor once per week. I can comfortably talk with people in stores, ask for desired items, and pay for my purchases with a bit of chit-chat mixed in. Phone calls are still challenging but I was very pleased that I made a follow-up doctor’s appointment last week with no major problem. As part of our “integration agreement” to become permanent residents, we need to pass a language test at the A2 level. I hoping to complete the test this Spring or Summer. Jim essentially started over when we moved here. He works with an online tutor three times a week and I think that he is making great progress. His biggest challenge is that he depends on me to communicate in challenging situations!

Our transportation: We mostly stay in town given the coronavirus restrictions and our primary mode of transportation is walking and riding bicycles. But in late December we purchased a car, making local trips to doctors, supermarkets, and home improvement stores easier. We look forward to the time when we can drive around Tuscany and Italy. We can use our U.S. driver’s license with an International Driver Permit for one year after establishing our formal residency here. Then we need to get an Italian driver licenses. The test is difficult for everyone AND is in Italian. It typically takes expats 3 months of intense studying to pass it. And because we will be considered “new drivers”, we will get provisional licenses and can only drive cars with very small engines. Really… with 45 years of driving experience…

Our finances: We are doing ok, especially given that we retired several years before we expected to. We have a great financial planner who is guiding us through new situations for us. I’ve learned to deal with our bank better but we are still adjusting to managing our cash flow, utilizing debit cards, an Italian credit card, and occasional trips to the bank for withdrawals. Some of their rules still don’t make sense to me. The exchange rate dropped a lot but fortunately our planner suggested that we transfer several months of money before the big drop. I’m hoping for better exchange rates before March! I’ve also started to prepare for the Italian and US tax activities that we’ll tackle in early 2021.

Our retirement: I still can’t believe that we don’t have to go to work on Monday… or next week… or next month…

And what about 2021? Jim gave me a funny look when I said that we ought to come up with goals and objectives for 2021, but all of those years of annual planning cycles have trained me… I won’t bore you with all of the details but two that we are really looking forward to are:

  • Travel within Italy, including Sicily wine tour and regions that we haven’t visited before
  • Welcoming visitors, and helping them learn about the beauty of culture of Italy

We hope and pray that the coronavirus will come under control in 2021 and we will all have a good and healthy year!