Sweet Stay in Rome

Believe it or not, that is the name of the B&B I am staying at in Rome. And I think I described it a little bit on my post about arriving in Roma. The entrance was not what I was expecting – but then this is not a big fancy Americano hotel! This is the real Italy – and it is right in the heart of things.

This morning I got up, took a shower and made my bed (which I never do at home!) and went to the breakfast room about 8:30 am. Piotr and Paola were there waiting. Pioter had asked me yesterday if I preferred an Italian breakfast or something like eggs and I said eggs if they could get them. Of course!

Piotr was all worried because he hadn’t been able to find bacon – only pancetta – and I said I love pancetta! So Paola and I chatted while Piotr cooked up breakfast. I had brought along the sketchbook (it was requested – I didn’t just spring it on them) and Paola began to peruse the one I just finished. That, of course, started a lively conversation. We talked about my trip, their B&B, my plans to go to the Vatican today – and I told them about my alter-ego, Mrs. Potato head – which they found hilarious. Little did I know it was an omen for the day…

After breakfast I caught up on my blog because it was pretty cold and rainy out. All I wanted to accomplish today was spend the entire afternoon at the Vatican Museum. No better place to go in the rain.

Finally I put on my raincoat and ventured out. Once outside, I immediately realized I had forgotten my umbrella. Drats! But I was not going back up in the lift to get it. I put my hood up instead. Wrong move…

ImageWhen it rains in Italy, the Africans selling umbrellas come out of the woodwork. And I don’t mean just a few here and there. I mean THOUSANDS of them. Literally. Every 10 feet. It’s like running a gauntlet and you can’t get away from them. And they’re not subtle. Even though I don’t make eye contact and immediately shake my head no, they stick the darn things in your face or they walk along side you chanting the price.

They stand right in the crosswalks or block your path if they can. And even when they are in a direct line of sight of each other – and you have refused 25 of them in a row, the next one is just as aggressive. As though you are suddenly going to give in and somehow think, “hey I need an umbrella!”

It is beyond annoying. And you can spot those who bought them because the first high wind turns the cheap thing inside out and blows it away!

So I made my way through that almost to the Vatican and did have a thought – but not about buying an umbrella. No, I remembered I needed some lunch to go to the museum all afternoon and there were no cafes in sight. Drats again.

Backtrack in the rain. Find a cafe. Order a glass of wine and a bowl of soup. Pay 15 euro! Ouch!

Back to the Vatican through the Africans. Geez o Pete – did I already say beyond annoying? And even in the rain I see a HUGE line winding through some ropes ahead. Oh no – is this the line I have to get in? There is a girl standing in the entrance and I ask. She informs me that the Vatican Museum is closed today and tomorrow but she can get me special tickets for Friday with a guide for 45 euro. Hmmm.

Well I happen to know that a ticket to the museum is 15 euro so I start asking questions. Turns out she is scalping and if you buy you get stuck in a big group with others. No Grazie!

Now the wind is blowing and people’s umbrellas really are turning inside out, so I figure I better head back to the room for a break and a new plan. But I had spied a bancomat on the way so I get undercover, get out my bank card while my back is against the wall and keep it in my hand while I walk.

When I reach the bank, I put in the card but the screens are different. This bank only gives cash advances. Uh oh. sounds expensive. I get my card back and walk on. I’m sure I saw another machine somewhere.

Well evidently not. I got clear back to the room and was soaking wet. And when I went in the door I noticed my bank card was no longer in my hand. Had I put it in my pocket? I immediately went to the room and checked. No card. I dumped out my purse. No card. I dumped out my sketch bag. No card. I searched my coat pockets. No card. And I just had it!

Paola called me from across the hall to see if I wanted coffee. “yes” I replied, “but I have to run back downstairs. I think I dropped my bank card.” She looked alarmed and I took off without even a coat on. I retraced my steps for two blocks – I knew I had had the card at that point. I didn’t find it and by the time I got back, Paola had come down in the lift to help me look. We didn’t find it.

Well, I’m sure a gold bank card lying on the street in Rome didn’t last long so there was nothing to do but call the bank and get it cancelled. At least I had the numbers with me to do so. Paola lent me her phone and even offered to loan me some cash! I said “you don’t even know me!” And she just said, “yes, I do.”

So I got the card cancelled and we had coffee and I went to my room for a break. I wrote to Ellyn and asked her to call my other bank and get that card cleared for use in Italy. I no more than sent that message than I heard the B&B buzzer ring downstairs. Then came a knock on my door. There stood Paola holding my card! Someone had found it and brought to the B&B! Well, I think that’s mighty fishy since no one here knows me – and we had both just been downstairs looking for it and didn’t find it. They said they found it on the floor in the hall by the elevator. Hmmmm…

So I called the bank again but it can’t be un-cancelled. Which is just as well. AND they told me this can also be a scam… someone returns your card hoping you un-cancel it and then they can use it too! Who knew???

So I was embarrassed to have told Piotr and Paola how lost I got yesterday and then how I lost my bank card today, but they were very helpful – way beyond what they would have had to be. So it IS Sweet Stay in Rome!

ImageAfter that I really did take a break. It was raining hard so after I laid down for a while I got out some sketch paper and made a small drawing for Piotr and Paola. It is the view from my room, which I photograhed yesterday when the sun was shining. The colors are a bit off in this photo that was taken in room light.

And yes, I did decide to go back out again. You can only stay in one small room for so long, so I bundled up. When I was going out the door, Piotr was standing there. “Give me your cards so you don’t lose anything,” he said. I laughed and handed him the drawing. “Take this instead,” I replied. He looked at it amazed and called for Paola.

“Now we have to get Starr a gift!” he told Paola. “No – this is for helping me!” (And they have already invited me to have dinner with them on Friday evening.) Then it was funny because they both got concerned and asked where I was going. “Not far, that’s for sure” I said. Just out for some wine and dinner.

Both of them walked me to the door and ushered me out like worried parents. “Don’t get lost!” said Paola. “Don’t lose anything!” said Piotr. I just had to laugh. If I do, I do…

Sweet Stay…

Roman Holiday

ImageWell, I’m really on holiday now. In Roma! Where else in the world can you walk out on the street, look across the bridge and see this…

Everywhere you look it is history come to life. Art, architecture, traffic, crowds, cafes – the energy is incredible. I can hardly walk in a straight line with so much to see.

But map in hand, I take off for Piazza Navona. It looked to be the easiest thing to get to from where I am and something I can visit that is not a paid sight. It is just a very famous square.

ImageI immediately get turned around but I’m not worried. I know I’m headed in the right general direction. And soon I see a sign that confirms it. That boosts my confidence a bit. But I didn’t realize until I downloaded this photo later where I made my mistake. See the arrow for Navona pointing to the right? In my excitement, all I saw was the arrow ABOVE it and I went straight…

Oh well, par for the course. I ended up stopping and asking where I was again and had to adjust course. I get in a lot of walking that way!

Eventually I came out right in the middle of Piazza Navona and what a surprise! Can you imagine walking up on this…

Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain depicts four burly river gods who represent the four continents that were known in his day – 1650. Absolutely magnificent…


The square is filled with more artists and entertainers than you’ve ever seen in one place – a perfect location for some people-watching. So I found a front row seat in a cafe and got a half bottle of white wine. I decided not to eat here – even a bowl of soup is 12 euro! So time to just sit and take in the view for a while. Fantastico!


yes he’s a real man…


always some music…


lots of art…

From there I walked to Campo Fiori, another neighborhood, and got turned around again. But I just kept stopping and asking shop owners to tell me where I was on the map. Sometimes it was surprising to see how far I had gone in the wrong direction, but it is a nice tour! And eventually I stopped to eat and take my advil. By then it was dark and there was a full moon. Here’s a few shots of the walk back to the room…


magnificent bridge entrance


so many birds!


full moon in Roma



I did make my way back to the room. I was amazed at myself, walking the streets of Rome alone at night, but there were plenty of people around and I was back by 9pm. Amazing first day in Rome. And it’s only the beginning…

The Day I Went to Rome

Today is another one of those Red Letter Days of Life for me – I am now in Roma! I think I need to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming…

The trip from Lucca was a bit nerve-wracking – me alone on the train was a challenge. I was somewhat nervous but walked to the station with my rolly bag, got my ticket and checked to see which platform to go to. I was relieved to make it that far without incident and turned to look at the big clock to check the time.

What the???

The clock read 8:10 am. And I’m thinking it is 9:10 am. This can’t be right.

I asked a girl who was standing there if this was the right time. She looked at me strangely and shook her head yes.

Well how in thee devil did I get to the station an hour early? I made a detour to a coffee shop to check what time they had. Same. All I can figure is when I set my alarm the night before I somehow changed the time on the clock as well. Good thing I didn’t make it an hour later!

So I had coffee and waited. And waited some more. I felt like I was in a time warp. Finally I went to the platform and the train was already there but I wasn’t sure it was THE train. I sat on a bench to ask the next person who came along. No one came. Am I the only one getting on this train? Eventually a crew member came off the train and I asked “Firenze?” Yes, he replied, so I got on the train. Alone…

Soon a man came and punched my ticket so I figured I was ok but no one else got on the train for many stops. Seemed strange. But I ended up in Firenze at the right time and had to switch to a fast train to Rome. I didn’t have long so I trekked as fast as I could to the front of the station and over to track 12 just as the train pulled in. I hurried on and it was only a few minutes before the train took off again. I don’t think it was in the station more than ten minutes! Phew!

It was a relief to get to Rome but as soon as I got off the train I could tell I was in one heck of a big place. Big European cities are frantic I tell you! I was accosted by private drivers as soon as I came out of the station. “Quanto costa?” I asked one persistant man. He looked at the address I had and said 35 euro. “NO!” I said – “it should only be 10 euro!” He waved me away. Then I found the real taxi line and got a ride. I had debated about trying to save a few euro and take the bus, but thank goodness I didn’t. Just the taxi ride was harrowing. But the female driver was very friendly and took me right to the door of my B&B. And good thing – I wouldn’t have found it alone.

ImageImageI was expecting something like a hotel entrance but this was just a plain big double wood door with a row of buzzers on the wall. I pushed the one that said “Sweet Stay” and a voice came on. “I have a reservation,” I said. “hrrmmmm phhrrummm fourrrrr floor” came a muffled reply. I stood there perplexed and the door clicked open. I came into a barren looking entrance and noticed a frightening elevator – the type with a big screen on the front – and decided to take the stairs. Oh boy… fourth floor…

I was on the second flight when Piotr came rushing down saying “You didn’t take the lift!”

“It was too scary looking,” I replied. He grabbed my case and said he’d show me how it worked. So that got me to the right place. Sweet Stay is behind yet another large set of wooden doors on the fourth floor and just has a few rooms. My room has a large window overlooking the street and a private bath and is very nice. Again, I’m right in the heart of things but with a local flair. I love it!

ImageImageLooking down from my window I can see a bridge that crosses the Tiber River. And get a load of how the little cars park on the street! And it is noisy noisy noisy – very Roma chaotic.

So I had a nice little chat with proprietor Piotr and I had him mark on the map where I am so I could get oriented. Then I took a break and studied the map and the Rick Steves book and decided where I wanted to go.

When I got ready to leave the room, the other proprietor, Paola was in the kitchen across the hall and offered me coffee. I said no thanks and said I was going out exploring. She and Piotr walked me to the door and watched as I awkwardly got on the lift. Paola looked a little alarmed and asked if I wanted her mobile number. I think they were afraid I might get lost and not find my way back.

Well, indeed that is always a possibility with me when I’m alone, but I knew if all else failed I could get a taxi. So I waved and put on my bravest face and went back outside.

Oh my. The streets were teeming. I can’t think of another word for it. Teeming…

So I’ll end this post for now and tell you how the afternoon and evening went in the next post.

A presto!

My Apartment is a Happening Place!

I don’t think I could have been more fortunate in getting a good location when I reserved this apartment in Lucca. It’s not for everyone – there is a LOT of noise all the time. And I was a bit taken aback by it at first. But now I just feel like I live in the middle of a busy, vibrant slice of Italy where there’s a lot going on.

ImageBeing right next to San Paolina Church means that many, many tour groups come by. This past Saturday morning I opened the window to take some photos of the view in the rain and the street was bombarded with tour groups!

ImageAt one time there were three different groups viewing the church. Two from the steps and one from the street. As those filed away, more took their place.

All in all, I counted 7 large tour groups in about 10 minutes time. Saturday must be a big day for Lucca tours. And I’m still glad I’m not in one! I just don’t like being part of a crowd like that.

I went out for a walk a bit later – without my camera – and wouldn’t you know there was a marathon going on! The finish line was just two blocks down the street in front of San Michele Church. It was all set up just like an American marathon. There were food and drink stations and medics on hand at the finish. It was so cold and rainy I didn’t stay to watch, but I got my walk in. Can you believe I am walking even in the rain?

ImageAnd of course my little neighborhood is always hopping due to the cafe right across the street. They have live music about four nights a week and young people literally line the church steps to eat and drink and visit. You often hear a lot of shouting and cheering and singing along. It is a very lively hangout. But so quiet on Sunday morning that you can hear the pigeons cooing…

But today might have taken the cake…

I was sitting in my front room browsing on the computer and I heard a large crowd noise on the street even though it is cold and all the windows and doors were closed. There were periodic cheers and it sounded big, so I went to the window to check it out. All I could see was people staring in the distance and the shopkeepers were hurriedly moving their postcard racks indoors. Something was coming…


“Crisis in Banks… not in Schools”

I ran to put on some long pants and a coat and grabbed my camera, but before I could get outside the noise was approaching my bedroom window. Back to the window I flew and I was glad I hadn’t made it outside. My view was perfect.

First was a few polizia, casually walking with hands behind back. The demonstration was led by a couple young men waving Italian flags. They were already past my window before I could get their picture. Then came students chanting and carrying banners. It was orderly and lively and full of energy.


Stop filing… the school is not for police… (this is) artistic mobilization

I leaned out the window and watched in amazement as the crowd just kept coming and coming and coming…

There were so many young people – and I think they were having a very good time but were also passionate. I tried to get photos of the signs so I could translate and see what the commotion was all about.


Eventually someone looked up and saw me and they started waving.

That drew even more attention so I snapped photos and the kids were shouting “post on facebook!” I grinned and gave them a big thumbs up. Then even more of them noticed me and cheers went up. Like kids everywhere they were thrilled to be noticed and mug for the camera.



The crowd stretches forward for blocks…


Polizia bring up the rear

The pics got a bit blurry because the kids were really in motion, but I was glad to see it. Then of course I had to finish getting dressed and run downstairs to ask Annamaria what all the fuss was about. She explained that the public schools in Lucca do not get the same funding as the private schools and as a result they cut various programs, number of teachers, etc. (Sound familiar?)

The government, however, bails out banks and when the schools complain, a police presence is sent in to deter any sort of protest. These kids were from all over Lucca, not just one school, so that took some organizing. And I think they spent a good bit of time going round town. An hour after I saw them I walked to the market and they were in that neighborhood as well. Probably too much fun to stop.

So I guess I’m right in the thick of things here. Lots going on everyday.

Later today I will be packing up as my time on this phase of the trip is up. In the morning I take the train to Roma. I am excited to have an art infusion. I can’t wait to see more of the things I’ve only ever seen in books. I know it will be a tremendous experience for me.

Stay tuned! Italy is a happening place! A presto!

Real Life in Lucca

That’s what I’m living now.

Yesterday, when I posted “ho hum” I was feeling a tad despondent and homesick. I sent a message home and promptly got a barrage of support – so all is better now. And life in Lucca is wonderful. Sometimes new, sometimes ho hum, but that’s the beauty of it. If you are fortunate enough to stay for the newness to wear off – like I have – then you get down to living real life.

ImageThis morning started with the much-anticipated pick up of the new custom-made sketchbook. I purposely waited until late morning so I didn’t look so geek-y anxious, but Annamaria was ready for me when I got there. O.M.G – the thing is a gorgeous piece of artwork in itself.

ImageThe color of the leather is perfect (I love red!) and the cotton rag paper is to die for. The matching pencil case is wonderful. I actually took my colored pencils with me to the shop so Annamaria could see how they fit. Their normal case is about 5 inches less in the overall wrap and it just wasn’t big enough. So now I think they will be making more of my two items because they are the size an artist is looking for…

And each of my pieces are monogrammed – which was a gift from Annamaria to me. I am thrilled and just love seeing my initials on these gorgeous items.

And then a funny thing happened. Our talk turned to pizza (don’t know why) and Annamaria told me she goes to Napoli (Naples) at least once a year to visit her grandfather, who is in the pizza business. And Naples, of course, is the birthplace of pizza and supposedly the source of the greatest pizza in the world. They actually license vendors throughout the world to produce authentic Neopolitan pizza – Ellyn and I had some in Florida last year and it was fabulous!

Anyway, I asked Annamaria where her favorite pizza place in town was and she directed me to a small shop near Piazza Frediano. Then she said her parents have lunch there every Saturday because it is the closest to Napoli pizza you can get and they love it! Well, today is Saturday and I wanted to meet the man who made my custom sketchbook, so off I went.

ImageI would never have found this place on my own. Bella ‘Mbriana is down a side street that looks totally residential, so it is not somewhere I would have ventured. It is also “self serve” which means you place your order at the counter and they put it in the window when it is ready. You go and get it and take care of yourself. When finished, you take your dishes to a spot up front before you leave.

ImageI ordered the “Romantico” – which was simply ham and mushroom and fresh mozzarella. And a half bottle of white wine. I watched as the pizza got made and put in the wood oven. Man I love those wood ovens! How has that not caught on in the U.S.? It’s a crime!

Then I settled down with the new sketchbook and began to draw. I managed to eat half the pizza and then put the rest in my handy dandy take-away container – which no self-respecting Italiano ever has to do!

Finally, a group came in that I thought was the Capuozza family and they were very friendly. When I tried to speak to them, they kindly said “no inglese.” So I inquired, “Annamaria?” “Mi filia” said one of the ladies. So I held up the new sketchbook and she rushed over to me and hugged me. The other lady started shouting for her husband, “Antonio!” and more words I didn’t understand. Soon all four were surrounding me and looking at my sketchbooks, old and new, and chattering like magpies. I just smiled and nodded a lot.

ImageImageEventually they went back to their own table to eat and I finished my meal and got up to leave. But I had my camera ready and motioned to ask if I could have my photo with Mr. Capuozzi and the sketchbook. He was pleased. I couldn’t be more tickled.

And of course I had had someone take a photo of me and Annamaria with the book earlier. Isn’t she just a gorgeous thing? And she’s as friendly as can be. Every time I pass the shop I wave and she shouts “Ciao Starr!” and it puts a smile on my face.

And by the way…

I did ask Annamaria to translate my “letter” from the man in the restaurant last night. She was happy to, but it was a strange thing…

The first thing Annamaria said was that his italian was not very “educated.” He used words wrong, etc, but I explained that he had spent a long time writing the note and really labored over it. Annamaria read it through and got tears in her eyes.

“What does it say?” I asked in alarm.

“it is very sweet,” she replied. And then she went through it with me.

I don’t know the man’s name, but evidently he wrote from the heart. He said that he was born in Lucca and was pretty happy until his father died two years ago. He has remained sad since then and often thinks of his visit to a cousin in Seattle, USA. He thinks that Americans are much more friendly on the street – they smile and return greetings where Italians do not. (Annamaria confirmed this is true.)

He said that seeing me made him homesick for his cousin in America. He found me to be charming and friendly and “gran classe” (very elegant) and it renewed his desire to someday retire to the US with his cousin. When he is done working, he wants to take his dog and his bicycle to the US where he has family that loves him. He wants to learn English and he wants to die in a country where he feels like people are friendly and he belongs.

So both Annamaria and I were choked up after reading that. And all from sharing a sketchbook with a stranger!

Sorry to disappoint those who thought he might be a potential nude model (although he still might be!) but I am very touched by the time he took to write the note. I don’t believe I’ve gotten a note from a boy since 7th grade!

I am going to make a special pocket in my sketchbook for the note so I don’t have to glue one side down and ruin it. It is so beautiful and such an expression of honesty that I want to give it a place of honor.

That’s it for today my friends. Arrivederci for now!

Ho Hum from Italy

Oh how boring! Nothing new to report!

It was raining…

It was gloomy…

I got up early and checked my email. Nothing exciting so I went back to bed…

And that was pretty much it.

Ho hum from Italy. No matter where ya live, it gets boring. Especially when it rains.

But here’s the thing. In Italy – in a city where everyone walks or bikes anyway – no one stays home! That’s right. it was crowded as ever on the streets only you had umbrellas to contend with! If you find yourself on a collision course you simply have to nod and raise or lower the umbrella. The other person reciprocates. And I’m tellin’ ya, these streets were busy no matter how hard it rained. Didn’t matter. Bikers just ride on. Walkers just walk on. And every shop and restaurant and bakery has an umbrella stand by the door for you to park your wet one while you come in and shop. Perfectly normal. Crazy, I tell ya. But crazy as in I love it!

I worked on the computer for a while in the morning and then went out for a walk. Can you believe this is me? Having to go out for walks – more than once a day? Vero! True!

I decided to search for the post office since I hadn’t found it yet – and yay – I now know where it is. So when I need to mail some things home, I know where to go to pay the ransom, ’cause that’s what it will probably amount to..

Coming back I passed the wine bar where I had the tasting the other day. I saw the owner sitting all by his lonesome having a cup of caffe, so I stopped to chat. I told him how much I enjoyed the wine and the book and he was quite pleased. So then of course I had to show him my sketch book. I’m such a shameless fool about my sketch book….

Anyway, he was duly impressed and would like me to do a few sketches of the wine bar that he can BUY! Can do! I did take some photos, but today was so gray and rainy I don’t know if I got anything I can work with. Drats.

ImageThen I headed back home past the fav gelato place… had to stop and get ciaccolata, crema and fiore di latte. Mmm mmm mmm. This place is the best. The stuff literally melts in your mouth. Surely it is mandatory to eat one serving of gelato on any day you spend in Italy!

This is the little stand they put your cone in while you fumble around and get your money out to pay. Now that I know the price I usually get my money ready before I go in, ’cause once they hand you that gelato, it is time to eat!

Then it was back home again to check the internet. Nothing going on for me. Drats again.

So I worked on some sketches for a while. I need to paint as much as possible while here and everything counts. These are the sketches of the day…


Another view of the Duomo


Lion lampost in Firenze


Last page of the sketchbook – the beautiful San Michele…

Finally, this evening I just HAD to go out. I went down to Michele’s taverna – they are knowing me there and will bring me some wine and leave me alone while I sketch. Michele is very attentive (MB thinks he likes me), but I notice he treats all his customers like he does me and we have a good time.

This evening there was another man in the restaurant and he paid particular attention to me. Too bad he isn’t a Witness – or had all his teeth! He seemed quite nice. He watched me sketch for quite a while, so once again I produced my book and handed it over. The man was enthralled! He must have looked at it for an hour. He only spoke Italian but he frequently would flag down Michele and ask him to translate something to me. All very flattering.

ImageFinally he handed the book back over (I thought he was gonna try to take it!) and got very quiet for a while. I didn’t really notice as I was drawing. Then… he approached me and handed me a note. It was all in Italian – written very small on both sides of the paper – and he wanted me to read it. Well, I tried my best, but I got very little of it in actuality. I’m not sure he knew that by the grin on his face…

So if you can read italian – don’t tell me! I really don’t want to know. But I will file it in the sketchbook as a precious memory because it is.

And that was my day today.

How was yours?

You can always leave me comments here, you know. I love hearing from everyone and I think I am actually getting just a tad homesick. It’s been almost two months now and I have been out of touch with the people I love most in the world. So please, leave me a message!

Love to all, and ciao for now…

New Things

My month in Lucca is almost up, which is amazing! Next week is the annual Comic Fair here – a comic book extravaganza that I am told the Italians flock to in droves. There isn’t a room to be had so I am going to Rome for a few days. It is the one other place on my must-see list so it is booked.

Meanwhile, Mary Beth had left me a Rick Steves Italy travel guide and I picked it up to read about Rome. But I stumbled on Lucca and decided to see if I’ve missed anything. Seems I have…

ImageThere are still a couple major sites in town I haven’t made it to, but I’ll do those when I get back. The other thing I hadn’t even heard of (but MB did mention it) is cecina. It is a flat pizza-like baked snack made of chickpea flour. It is quite the rage among the locals and the place listed in the book is Pizzaria da Felice – which is just a few blocks from my apartment.

So I took off there for a late lunch and it was packed. It isn’t very big so you just have to squeeze in. I stopped to adjust my bag and two people jumped me in line! No fooling around here!

ImageWhen you get to the counter there’s a guy baking pizzas in the wood oven as fast as he can and every once in a while he throws in a cecina to bake. It doesn’t take long. I ordered one slice of pizza – which I got a quarter of a pizza cut in two, so I’m not sure if that was one or two slices – and a slice of cecina and a glass of red wine. (hey, Rick Steves says that is what you should wash the cecina down with…)

It was so crowded inside that I went out front and sat on a bench to eat. And the bill? Get this… the pizza (which was delicious) was 1.50 euro. The wine, 2.50 and the cecina, 80 cents. I ate one slice of the pizza and the topping off the other piece because I can’t eat a lot of bread. But boy was it good. That char from the wood oven is the best – how am I ever going to get a good pizza again in Ohio?

The cecina was ok. I tried to take my time and taste it. It is probably best hot because it wasn’t as tasty when it cooled off. And I do like chickpeas, but it didn’t really wow me. Maybe you get a hankering for it if you eat it more often. And I’m sorry we didn’t find this place when MB was here because she wanted to try it. We did walk right past da Felice because it is a little hole-in-the-wall shop. But sitting there outside for a while I was amazed how busy it is.

ImageAfter that, I did some walking around. MB and I had a joke that if I don’t walk enough during the day to need an advil, then I haven’t walked enough. Well, I made an effort to walk for a while and I worked up to a one-advil walk. I decided I needed a gelato but I had to make myself get something different than my favorite chocolate and vanilla.

I went with fruit flavors. When you get a small cone you can choose up to 3 flavors. I got melon, pineapple and pear. As I walked down the street with it, savoring the pear, I thought of Ellyn (who likes pears and I normally don’t) and stopped to take a pic. I already ate half the pear, but so what. The fruit flavors were a lot like sherbet or sorbet but fresher. Still, I’ll probably go back to chocolate and vanilla (and cherry!)

Then it was back to the room for a break. A half hour flat out after an advil does wonders.

Then I worked in the sketchbook for a while and Paola, my landlady stopped by. She was picking up MB’s towels and linens and helping me make plans for Rome. According to both her and the Rick Steves book, Rome is a city of thieves. I am going to pack very light so I can keep my wits about me on the train and while navigating around Rome by myself. I really don’t want to get pickpocketed – or out and out robbed – and I know I look like the perfect target. Paola even said to keep a small amount of decoy money in your purse (and the rest hidden under your clothes) so you can hand it over if someone demands it. They won’t hurt you – they just want some money and they know you have some on you. I think I need to take my new big umbrella and be very forceful with it!

Anyway, after finishing a few sketches in my book I decided to go back out. Paola said we are due to get a lot of rain for the next week to 10 days and that will keep me in more. So I went out walking again and took some drawing paper with me. My sketchbook is now full and I am waiting for the new one from Annamaria on Saturday. But my favorite thing to do is sit in a cafe and sketch – it keeps me occupied for hours.

ImageAfter walking for a while I scouted out a cafe I hadn’t been in yet. There are so many here you could go to a different one every day! And again I decided to try something new. There is a drink called an Americano – which was originally made at the Cafe Camporino in the 1860s and was called the “Milano-Turino”. It is made with Campari – a bitter alcohol from Milan and sweet vermouth from Turin. It is topped off with club soda. It was such a popular drink with American ex-pats in Italy during the prohibition that it was re-named the Americano. It is a classic Italian drink.

I had read about it in one of my fancy gourmet magazines so it was on my list of things to try. I expected it to be bitter and it was. In fact I couldn’t drink it all. But there I was, in front of San Michele Church, sketching away at the San Michele Bar and all was well with the world. And I think I would have almost liked the drink if it had a bit more soda in it. In fact, I bet if I tried it a few more times, I might even acquire the taste.

That’s what’s is all about you know. Acquiring taste. No matter if it’s food or music or art, you have to try things. And try them again. Who likes a sour pickle the first time? Or broccoli? Or classical music? Or Picasso? Or bitter chocolate? It’s all about acquiring taste and not being a spoiled baby and spitting it back out and saying “I don’t like that!”

I could go on and on but I won’t. Instead I’ll show you a few sketches…


View of the Duomo from Pitti Palace, Florence Italy


Magellano Leather Shop (this is the sketch in the book, not the one I gave to Annamaria yesterday)


a few thoughts on “personal space” etcetera…

And that’s it for today. I’ve tried my new things, taken a one-advil walk and need to think about getting some writing work done tomorrow. And plan more for Roma!


A Little Wine Tasting…

Today was an ordinary day. I really am a local now. I go to the market and buy a few potatoes and one gorgeous porcini mushroom. Then off to the bakery for one roll – venti cinque (25 cents). I had already picked up some burro and latte (butter and milk) so I was able to make…. heaven help me… mashed potatoes!

If you had asked me anytime in the past 30 years what my favorite food is I would have replied, “pizza” or “pasta” or “lasagne” for sure. But now that I’ve been away from home for more than a month, all I want is a POTATO! Believe it or not, I miss potatoes! Must be an Ohio thing…

So I made mashed potatoes and cooked up some leftover roast beef. I had gotten the beef in a restaurant. Not once, but twice. Florentine beef is a specialty here so I figured it would be good. And because I’m anemic, I CRAVE beef.

Hrrmpphh. It did no good for the waiter to ask me how I liked my beef. I said “medium” but that is not what I got – either time. What I got was RARE, RARE, RARE. I’m talking just go out in a field and stick a fork in the cow because this stuff was still on the hoof. Not rare… it was BLUE, which I know (thanks to watching Food Network) means RAW!!!

So both times I ate around the edges and took the rest home. And I stuck it in the oven for a while to actually cook and it came out wonderful – especially with mashed potatoes. I am a happy camper!

So after my lunch of beef and potatoes, I did a bit of drawing and time on the internet (yes, I’m totally hooked) and then had to go out for a walk. I thought of the wine bar MB and I had stopped at last Sunday and decided to head there with my sketchbook.

The bar is Enoteca Calasto, just across from San Giovanni Church, and only serves local wines. They are so passionate about it that they also offer for sale the book “Lucca Wine Treasures” – which is the winner of the Gourmand Book Award 2010 for Best Wine Book in Italy. They even offer a copy of the book to look at while you taste the wines, so I asked for one to peruse.

I ordered the 3-wine tasting and asked if it was white or red. “Neither,” replied the waiter, “we usually serve a white, a rose and a red.” “Well, that’s perfect,” I replied. “That’s just what I would like to try.”

ImageAnd so the white came out. Along with a small tray of chips, green olives and red pepper stuffed with a tuna pate. Yum.

The waiter showed me the bottle and directed me to the chapter in the book that dealt with this wine. How wonderful to read about the history of the vineyard and the winemaker and the varietal itself!

This is “Malie” from Valle del Sole. It is a white composed of 40% grechetto, 40% vermentino and 20% malvasia and chardonnay. At least that’s what the waiter told me and I took a photo of it in the book for reference. Supposedly it has “vegetal sensations of holly, sage and chamomile followed by green apple and exotic fruit.”

I don’t know about all that, but it was light and refreshing – and very apple-y – so I liked it.

ImageNext was the rose. This varietal was from the local vineyard Buonamico. It consists of the local sangiovese grapes blended with caniaolo and syrah. It is a “rose pink with ruby hightlights and an intense bouquet of cherry notes.”

Hmmm. That’s not what I got. I thought it was completely tasteless. There was no aroma when you lifted the glass to your nose and although it had the taste of alcohol, it was bland and lifeless to me. After I read the description I slurped some more and tried to imagine cherries. I almost got them – but only to the degree that if you took cherry koolaid and watered it down about times ten. That’s all the cherry I could taste. And I was imagining pretty hard…

ImageFinally, the red. A Bernicchi from vineyard Maria Theresa. This one had fragrance and taste to spare. The aroma when you held it to your nose was deeply fruity – like the most purple delights available. I tried to narrow it down in my mind, but I’m not all that good at this. All I could think was black currents, but that didn’t seem right.

But the bouquet was wonderful and that tannin taste (which I am always aware of in a red) was sitting well. So I turned to the page in the book that described this wine.

It is a combo of cabernet savignon and cabernet franc (whatever that means). It has an intense ruby red color and a bouquet of blueberries, prunes and spice. I immediately could sense the prunes and spice. But blueberries? Hmmm…. need a few more tastes. I swizzled and held it in my mouth to explore it, but it took several more sips to imagine blueberries. Possibly they add a bit of sweetness to the mix? Not sure – and I am heavily influenced by the description. But it was a lovely red and one of the best I’ve tasted while here. MB might want to try it!

ImageSo that was part of my late lunch. I came back to the apartment and had some leftovers and got back on the computer for a while. Then I did a few sketches and tried to get something accomplished art-wise. Here is a sketch of my favorite leather store which is right below my apartment. Anna Maria, the proprietor, is one of the first people I met in Lucca. She is as sweet as they come and her family has been in the leather business for many years. After a look around, I have decided it is the best leather shop in Lucca. It is isn’t cheap – but it isn’t expensive either.

So they are making me a custom sketchbook and pencil case with my monogram on it. It will be ready on Saturday morning and I can’t wait! My current sketchbook is now full and I wanted to get one from Anna Maria. But all the ones the right size did not have the right paper in them. So they are making me the size I want with the paper I want. Fabulous!

Anna Maria loved the sketch and has already uploaded it to her facebook account for the business. How fun to be part of the life a business in Italy!

Ciao, everyone! More later!

Flying Solo Again

It’s hard to believe I have been in italy for over a month now. For me, time is suspended and I am living a different life. But I think it is happening in stages…

First there was the overwhelming rush of just being in an unfamiliar culture. Everything from the environment to the language is jarring and unsettling. There’s nothing to grab on to as customary and routine.You have the feeling of being on vacation.

Then, after a while in one place, you start to recognize landmarks and little driveways where you turn to go “home” and you get into the pattern of things. It doesn’t feel normal, of course, but every few days you become more accustomed.

Now, after a month, I don’t really understand much more italian but it isn’t so strange to my ear. The lilt and cadence seem warm and welcoming and not so “foreign.” And I am much more willing to try out my few words on waiters and shopkeepers – many of whom actually speak english. No matter – I want to absorb la bella lingua as much as I can.

Yesterday was Sunday (Domenica) – Mary Beth’s last full day here. It was a bittersweet day as we decided what to do.

ImageThe first decision was easy. We had putzed the whole morning and were starving, so we went back down the street to our friend, the pizza maker Michele. MB ordered the same mushroom pizza again and I got the lasagne. Both were delicious. And MB would have eaten her whole pizza but she saw me staring at it and saved me a piece! Michele spent a lot of time chatting with us – and wants MB to find him some real estate in the US where he can open an authentic Italian restaurant. He seemed to know a lot about market conditions and locations, so I think he is really interested!

Since we were only a block from the apartment, we ducked back in to drop off leftovers and re-group. We had heard there was an “antique fair” near Napoleon square, so that was our next destination.

ImageWe found it right away and it turned out to be quite massive. It went on for blocks and blocks and the dealers did have a lot of antiques. If you were wanting to furnish an old residence with authentic pieces, (and had the funds!), it would be a treasure trove.

But really, I would call it more of a flea market – and the prices were pretty high. I had thought it would be fun to pick up some small piece that you could take home and later say, “oh that? I got that at a flea market in Italy…”

ImageWell, I actually did find one bargain just when I thought I wouldn’t. We were at a textile booth and I had been drawn in by the sweetest baby dress that would be gorgeous on my youngest granddaughter – but it turned out to be 65 euro. Drats. So when I saw a pretty old table linen I didn’t think it would be in my price range. MB saw me admiring it and took it over to the dealer.

“Quanto costa?” she asked. “Cinque” was the reply. I looked at MB in amazement. “50?” I asked. “No – 5!” replied MB. “That can’t be right,” I retorted. “Ask him again.”

“Cinque” he said. Well I ’bout broke my arm getting my change purse out. Holy smokes! 5 euros for this little beauty? It’s mine! Now when I come back to Ohio and I have it casually draped on the table and someone says, “oh, that’s nice” I can say… “Oh that? I got that at a flea market in Italy…” (like that’s something I do all the time!) And I know that of everyone I know, Nicole will appreciate it…

At any rate, I was having a time getting around. Usually it is my feet giving me grief, but today it was my middle back as well. I stopped, I stretched, I stood in place and rotated my shoulders until everything cracked repeatedly. I stood it as long as I could and finally told MB we had to do a wine and advil stop – but this time for my back. She obliged.

ImageThis time, however, we had wandered to an area of Lucca we hadn’t seen before and landed in a wine bar. On the menu they had several tastings available: wine, olive oil, cheese and/or honey. I’ve never seen a honey tasting before! We decided to taste the pecorino cheese varieties and have a glass of wine each. (With advil for me.)

The cheeses were surprisingly fresh and good. The walnuts and grapes were a nice palate freshener. And then the honey… MB tasted it first and almost gagged. I was shocked at her reaction and thought she surely must be exaggerating. Honestly, how bad can honey be?

Well, it’s a good thing I took a very small taste based on her feedback. It was smooth and thick, like the texture of honey you are used to. Then the taste settled in. I almost gagged, too. How can honey taste like gasoline? And coat your taste buds like a cloak?

Geez o’ pete it is one of the worst things I ever tasted in my life! What the heck was it? I told MB we had to find out just so we could be sure never to taste it again by mistake!

When the waiter came back I asked. He had to go check. It turned out we were randomly given one of three honey choices they carry: Orange Blossom, Chestnut, or Lime Blossom. This was Lime Blossom, also known as Miele di Tiglio.

Now I can’t imagine Orange or Chestnut being objectionable, but I’m almost glad we got the Lime. Now we know to stay far away from it. Far, far away…

After that break we wandered through a lot more of the antique fair and made our way back to our own neighborhood. Things were very lively. The locals all seem to come out on Sunday evening to stroll and the crowds were shoulder to shoulder in the streets.

But the thing is, this is the beginning of the low season, so I am very surprised at the crowds on the streets on the weekends. What must this be like in mid-summer when the tourists are at a peak? I really don’t think I could tolerate it!

ImageWe see tourist groups many times a day whenever we’re out. And I am always so glad I am not in one!

I’m sure it is a great way to travel, but for some reason it just turns me off. You see the leader of the group walking along with a headset and microphone on and carrying some sort of stick like a drum major. There is a flower or a flag or some chach-kee on top, which looks ridiculous, and a huge group follows behind like a herd of cattle. They crowd around each attraction, listen to a canned spiel, and shuffle on to the next thing.

ImageI don’t know if it’s me or them, but just the sight of those groups makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. I know I am probably missing a lot and I do get turned around when I’m exploring, but I think I prefer that to being so regimented. I’m afraid that all I would think in a group like the one above – who are viewing the Puccini statue – is how I could escape and find a cafe and order a mezzo litro of vino bianco all for myself. And get out my sketchbook and draw the Puccini statue – which I did the other night when MB and I had dinner at the cafe right beside it. Moreover, it is a small cafe – that whole group couldn’t even crowd in there for dinner! What a waste!

This isn’t the best photo of the sketch as it is dark right now and I can’t scan it flat, but you get the idea.

At any rate, MB’s visit to Lucca has come to an end. We had a lovely dinner on her last night and talked about all the things we have done while she was here. We started out asking each other what our favorite thing of the trip so far was, but neither one of us could narrow it down. There’s just been too many different and varied experiences that could only happen in Italy and you can’t pick just one. It’s like trying to say one of your children is your favorite – you simply can’t do it because each one is so individual.

But what a gift it has been to spend the time together. And not just any time any where – time in Italy, which we both feel a particular passion for. Neither of us knows why – we just do. And being here has confirmed it immensely and not dimmed the expectations in any way.

Traveling (for pleasure) in general is always wonderful because it is living intensified. You are so aware of everything around you because it is a new perspective. There’s always a potential adventure – maybe even a disaster – around the corner. You can get a meal that you enjoy and find memorable – or you can taste the worst honey in the world. You just never know – but either option is fine when it is part of the journey.

So MB is on a plane on her way back to Ohio. Now she’ll have jet lag in reverse. And I’m here rattling around in the apartment by myself, flying solo again.

Either way, I’m having the time of my life…


Another Saturday in Lucca

This is MB’s 2nd Saturday in Lucca and my 3rd, so we’re feeling pretty at home these days. MB will be leaving soon but I have another week or so here and have to make other plans. This morning we got up and putzed around just like we were at home. MB did laundry and I made coffee and cursed at the computer.


My favorite butcher shop

But I had been up early and made a plan. I figured it was a good day to get painting so we should take a picnic up on the ramparts and I could paint and MB could do whatever she liked. I was out at the markets just after 8 and picked up some parma ham, fresh bread, cheese and fruit. I really wanted some sort of quiche or frittata but didn’t find it. All the Italians like to eat for breakfast is sweets!

The parma ham came from my favorite butcher shop down the street. This older couple work there day and night – speak only Italian – and take very good care of me. What a delight to shop where you know the owners…

MB was all for the plan and helped pack up the painting gear.  By the time we got ready to go we wanted something hot to eat, so we stopped at a shop nearby that advertises the “best pizza in Lucca.” The owner, Michele, was very taken with us and offered to make us anything we wanted to “take away”. MB ordered a mushroom pizza.

Michele wanted to know all about us so I got out the sketchbook and we had a lively discussion about staying in Italy to paint. He told us to stop in the store for anything we need – restroom, directions, help of any kind. And I do think I’ll go back to try his lasagne. I saw it in a pan there and it looked awfully good!

ImageSo up on the ramparts we went and got all set up. I found a spot where I could sit and paint – which may not be the most productive position, but certainly the most comfortable. MB brought her journal and ended up staying with me the whole time. I thought she would take off to roam or walk or shop but she didn’t. I think this reflective Italian lifestyle is agreeing with us both!

ImageIt didn’t take me long to get something down on the canvas. Here’s a quick peek at an early stage…

All was well for a couple hours. We worked on our projects and countless people slowed down to take a look. The farther I got along on the painting, the more people tended to stop. But then, just as I was going to wrap up because the light had changed so much, a man pushing a toddler boy in a stroller pulled up. I greeted him with a smile and thought he would make a comment or two and move on.


Geez o’ Pete, this was a new experience. He wanted to give me advice about the painting but he didn’t speak any English. At first I tried to communicate with him and I quickly knew what he was saying. He wanted me to put the background buildings farther in the background (lantano! he was shouting) and put more strength in the foreground (forte! forte!) And I fully intended to do that, but I wasn’t quite that far along.

So I thanked him and tried to turn away – and he wouldn’t leave. More italian. More gesturing. He completely ignored the baby in the buggy. MB started groaning under her breath.

Still I was patient, but then he picked up one of my brushes and started to make marks on the canvas. I totally understood what he was saying, but he completely ignored my pleas of “non finito!” Both MB and I were beginning to come unglued.

Grazie! A presto! I implored. (Thank you! See you soon!) No good. He’s still gesturing and shouting. The toddler isn’t making a peep and I’m wishing he’ll start throwing some sort of fit. No such luck.

Finally, after a good half hour or more, the guy went back to his grandson and began walking away. MB and I could not pack up fast enough!

Lord sakes, I’ve never had that happen before and it was almost enough to keep me off the Lucca wall for some time. I sure hope we don’t run into him again soon. I much prefer the pizza guy who was sweet on us and gave us extra mushrooms on our pizza.

After a bit of a break back at the apartment we were quite anxious to get out and going again. It is VERY lively around here on Saturday night and it just seemed like excitement was in the air. We didn’t have any special plans, but we took off to see what was going on around town.

ImageWe came upon a beautiful music store with a row of guitars hung on the wall and a couple gorgeous violins in the window. Eye candy for sure. Seeing the guitars made both of us think of our boys back home so we enjoyed looking at them for a bit.

ImageThen we heard shouting in the street and the store owner rushed outside. But only because the shouting was a rowdy group across the street watching soccer on a big screen in a storefront and they were cheering on the game. The store owner wanted to know the score…

We walked over and joined the crowd for a few minutes just because it was so lively. Yes, they were cheering their game, but some of the guys would just break out in song occasionally – which seems to happen a lot here – and it is just downright fun to watch.

ImageThen it was off to find some supper and walk back home for the night. However, being Saturday night, it is party time at our location. The cafe across from the church steps is a hopping place on weekend nights. So we took our time approaching the apartment to see what was going on. Some local was singing terribly off-key, but thankfully that stopped right away and the hired duo took over. There was quite a crowd and I made eye contact with this guy who was cuddling on his dog. The dog is pretty cute, too, huh!

Italians LOVE their pets and take them everywhere. You see them in shops and restaurants and all over the streets. As long as the animals are well-behaved, no one seems to mind a bit.

ImageFinally, MB looked up at the apartment from the street and noticed the open kitchen window. “I think I’d like to have my picture from up there,” she commented. “Well go on up and I’ll take it,” I replied.

So here is MB looking out on the Saturday night festivities from our Lucca apartment in October 2012.

Things won’t quiet down around here for a while, but we have gotten used to that. It’s such a joy to be in Italy and right in the midst of the life of the city. We are treasuring every moment – which I think you can see right here on MB’s face.

But it is getting late and MB only has one day left here to play. Time for bed and sweet dreams.

Buona notte!


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