18 December 2011

Dark Days, Light Heart

We are only a few days away from the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, which also means we are well into the holiday season.  In America, the Christmas holiday season officially begins with Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, and that offers sales galore for shoppers.  In Italy, the Christmas season officially begins the day of Immaculate Conception, December 8. The streets are lit with Christmas lights and decorations. Christmas festivals fill piazzas. Stores here also are busy with holiday shoppers.  The hustle-bustle of the holiday season has taken hold.

This time of year can be emotionally challenging and stressful for many of us. Many people can grow disconsolate, even despondent.  I am one. I find the holiday season to be especially trying, as my family and long-standing friends are scattered around the world with the greater majority in California.  I am in Florence, Italy.  My newer friends here have mostly all returned to their "homes" wherever those might be. An Italian family has yet to adopt me.  As a result, this time of year can feel very dark, just like the winter solstice.

In a time of gift-giving and romance and great cheer and spirits, it is unnerving to be alone and apart no matter how beautiful and memorable your surrounding environment.  Florence is that beautiful and memorable.  The choice is clear, even stark:  We can focus on what we do not have or lack rather than what we do have. 

I choose to be grateful for what I do have this season.  Though my situation is not exactly how I envisioned it would be this year at this age, I make the most of what it is.  In addition to my general good health is where I live.  And I have work.  I moan and whine about having to work. (At my core, I am a lazy slug.)  But having work not only earns some money, it keeps me involved in my career and it makes me accountable to someone somewhere and helps keep me out of trouble.  I have people in my life that matter to me, and I know I matter to my family and friends.  This year I stick to my routines and rituals, which ebb and flow. However, the last couple months I am in the flow.  It feels good to do some of the things that support my emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

In only a few days we will be on the other side of the solstice, and the days will begin to get lighter and brighter and so will the spirit.  During some of the down time during the holidays, I make it a practice to reflect on the year now past and map out where I want to go and what I want to accomplish for the year ahead.  I note my specific and clear intentions on paper.  I look forward to that project, which requires my attention and diligence and is positive in direction and result.

What holiday / year end / new year rituals and practices do you engage in?

02 December 2011

Along the Arno River, Florence, Italy

An everyday autumn day with light so spectacular I have to be outdoors.

View of the Duomo taken near Ponte alle Grazie, Otrarno
Ponte Vecchio

Santa Croce 
I admit this foto was not taken from alongside the Arno, but I like the light.

27 November 2011

Florence Marathon 2011 / Firenze Maratona 2011

I devoted 12 years of my life to long-distance running, which feels like another life ago. Sometimes I ran marathons, which surprises new friends because I am not now in my best physical condition, shape, nor weight.  I do not miss running.  I always had a love-hate relationship with it anyhow.  As with many past relationships, I stayed in this one too long. 

Despite the time invested and my efforts, I never was the level of athlete who stood a chance of winning the race.  I trained hard, yes, but I also made a point to have fun with my training and the marathons. While training on the weekends of long runs -- 16, 18, 20 mile runs -- it took me close to double the time of the fastest runners.  Now that I think about it, that makes me more of an endurance athlete than those winning the purse.  Don't you agree?  Elite athletes today finish a marathon in just a little over two hours, whereas I finish in about five hours.  Think of how much time I spent on all those long runs.  Do you see my logic?  I trained double the time the elite athletes do.  They might be elite athletes, but I am the endurance athlete.  Okay. Somehow I think I have not convinced you. 

The sky today was crystal clear and bright blue in Florence, Italy; the temperature barely 60 degrees Fahrenheit, at its warmest, and dry -- an ideal day for a marathon race.  I raced to the start line of the Firenze Marathon to watch approximately 11,000 marathoners take off on an all-new, completely flat course.

The new course

I watched every runner cross the start line.
 At the start

The very last person to cross the start was one sole racewalker.  

Lone racewalker

I could have been the second racewalker. I considered it a few months back, researched to see if they even had a racewalking category.  Nope.   When I quit running many years ago, I took up the Olympic sport racewalking, which I love.  I even completed one half marathon as a racewalker, which was satisfying for me because after the halfway point and all the way to the finish, I passed many joggers who were envious that I walked faster than they could run.  I would love to get back into this sport and prefer to train with friends. Please contact me, if racewalking interests any of you local readers. A heads-up, though: racewalking is a funny-looking sport and does draw a bit of attention.

Throughout the day, I raced around to various points on the course ... and eventually ended up at the finish line.

I love seeing the elite athletes and am proud to see the woman in the lead on the course (known in Italy as the "prima donna").

But the athletes who most excite my interest are the ones like you and me, average, and the athletes with physical challenges, who, just by running the race, remind me that anything is possible if we choose to believe.

 A man and his posse

I saw miracle after miracle cross that finish line today.  And I choked up with tears many times.  I know from personal experience the many emotions runners experience during the hours of running a marathon.  Seeing the runners as they turn that final corner and can see the finish line just 100 or 200 hundred meters ahead provides a surge of adrenalin that gives the power to sprint home with all you have got -- all you have left -- head held high, across that finish-line tape.  Some runners in sheer pain and anguish; some overwhelmed with triumph and victory; some crossing arm in arm with someone who gave them strength to keep going not only today but during their training; some with their child or spouse who supported their run; one hopping on crutches.  

They spent all their energy
My hero.  Very young man ran his first marathon in 4:20

Perhaps next year I will volunteer for the Florence Marathon 2012, or perhaps I will be  racewalker No. 2 to compete and go the distance 42 kilometers and 195 meters (26.2 miles). Wanna do it with me?

31 October 2011

Day After Day in Florence, Italy

I hope the day never arrives when I take Florence for granted, that it becomes ordinary. Because Florence is not ordinary, it is not plain, it is not just another city.  I never want to stop noticing this city's beauty. Florence, for me, is magical.

  Costa de' Magnoli

This morning I attempted to capture, in a photograph, that feeling of magic Florence inspires in me.  The scene above is one I walk past several times each day, and each time its beauty takes my breath away. 

In the morning light, a patinaed wall takes on a softer shade of orange, the brilliance of pink bougainvillea stretching towards the sunlight and groping an ancient wall, the curves of an ancient cobblestone street, the bombardment of light just beyond the tiny, dark tunnel....  Simple, I know.  Perhaps it is unordinary in an ordinary way, and so extraordinary. See what I mean?  The total effect equals beauty. Spectacular.  Magical. 

Perhaps you agree.

24 October 2011


Beans of all kinds are a staple of the Italian diet.  Today I was in the mood to experiment with a different vegetable.  At Mercato Centrale, I asked my fruttivendolo (greengrocer) the difference between the string beans and the serpenti beans, which look like a skinnier, longer (~18 inches long) version of string beans. He explained that the serpenti beans are much more flavorful and a Tuscan specialty this time of year. Sounded precisely what I was looking for.

He then taught me how to prepare them, and now I will share with you the simple instructions for these delicious beans.

one bunch of serpenti beans or green beans
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
an abundance of ripe cherry tomatoes
sea salt

Break off and discard the tips of the beans.  Then break into semi equal size in thirds.  Wash the beans
Boil a pot of water with sea salt.  Throw the beans in the boiling water for about 20 mins.

In another pot, with a little olive oil, place the tomatoes cut in half into the pan.  Add sea salt.  Add garlic.  In this case, crush the garlic with your hands and break the cloves into four or five pieces instead of mincing or chopping it. Add chopped onion.  Simmer.  To allow the tomatoes to reduce, I let it simmer while the beans were boiling.

Drain the beans but reserve some of the water to add to the sauce as the liquid evaporates.

Add the beans.  Simmer five minutes with another clove of garlic if you, like me, can't get enough garlic.  Add some of the reserved water, if necessary.

Enjoy.  I just did.  Yummy.

I would also steam brown rice or add a protein of my choice if I wanted to make this into a healthful and complete meal. A friend from San Francisco visits Firenze, and we will eat out tonight, which made this small meal a fun experiment in my kitchen. Now I have another yummy vegetable dish for the winter months.

23 October 2011

Romeo and Juliet (Verona, Italy)

"O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?"
"I am Juliet. Are you Romeo?"
I am no Shakespeare scholar -- I was not even an English literature major -- but I do know that, thanks to William Shakespeare's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is known as the city of love and romance.  I am told that Shakespeare never even visited Verona, and yet his imagination was so vivid that people flock from all over the world to the house of Juliet and her infamous balcony.  So, too, did my friend S and I.  

Juliet's balcony
We left Florence early in the morning on the Frecciargento (one of the fast trains) for Verona.  While on the train, we watched the recent movie Letters to Juliet to help set the appropriate mood.

Throughout Italy, lucchetti dell'amore (love lockets) can be found.  In Florence, for example, sweethearts in love write their names on their lockets, attach it to the gate, and throw the key over the shoulder into the Arno River as a symbol of their eternal love.  Be prepared to pay a hefty fine, though, if caught!  In Verona, feel welcome to leave your lockets of love, and even graffiti attesting to your love, at the house of Juliet.
Lockets of Love

I know where my Romeo is, and Verona he is not...
R&J cookie kisses
While S and I found neither love nor romance -- well, not this trip -- we discovered anew that Verona is lovely and romantic, a top destination in Italy's Veneto region:  fantastic food, friendly folks, plenty of historical monuments and museums to visit. And Verona is particularly special to me because it is the first place I visited on my very first trip to Italy.
-- Giosalina, Verona, Italia
    18 ottobre 2011 

13 October 2011

Blogger Meets Reader

An interesting thing happened on our way home the other night.

Mabel and I were out for our evening stroll.  We passed our gelateria, Cantina del Gelato, near home. Giuseppe, one of the two owners, was running into the pizzeria next door, saw me in the distance and shouted that he would be right back.  "Wait for me!" he said.  Mabel and I had no plans to go for gelato, not this evening.  We often stop by just to say hi, though, as both owners are now friends.
 Cantina del Gelato
When Mabel and I entered, a couple were choosing their gelato.  The woman turned around, looked at Mabel, looked at me, did a double-take, and then asked me, "Are you the woman who wrote about this place on her blog?" 

"I am.  How did you know?"

Turns out she recognized Mabel from the photos on this site.  (I tell you, my dog is world famous!)  She told me, "Thanks to your blog post, my husband and I have been here twice a day each day we have been in Florence.  We love the gelato, and we go home tomorrow."  

Seems her Google search for gelato in Florence led to my post.  Not only that, but it was the first on the page. (I am proud to learn that bit of news.)

The entire experience was very cool. Purely by chance I met a reader of my blog -- from Finland! -- in the very place I recommended readers should visit. Thank you, Coppia Finlandese (a couple from Finland), for recognizing Mabel, me, and saying hello. You made my day!  
Mirtillo (Wild blueberries.  Mmmm...)
I even merited a gelato on the house, and that always makes me happy.

03 October 2011

A Delightful Episode of Sensory Overload: Istanbul

One week in Istanbul was not enough time to visit all that my friend and I wanted to see and do. Relaxation time was not in our schedule, nor our vocabulary.  Despite our racing about, I remember well the genuine and kind-hearted people we met.

I remember also sitting on the rooftop terrace at our guesthouse for one or two hours one afternoon under a grapevine canopy overlooking the Sea of Marmara with the sea breeze on my face while sipping Turkish tea, resting my weary feet ... finally absorbing all that touched my senses.  What a wonderful people, culture, city, and holiday.  I must return.

I hope my photos below capture the wonder I felt and help re-create, for you, the magic that is Istanbul, Turkey...

View of Galata Tower from the Golden Horn of the      Bosphorus Strait
Hagia Sophia (first a church, then a mosque, now a museum)
Making bread and Turkish pancakes
How many different kinds of baklava are there?
Another Turkish yummy.  Looks like birds' nests to me.
Selling melon
Passing the church/mosque mosaic
Mohammed and Omed, two new and young friends
Pistachio baklava
A "shish" lunch.
Spice bazaar
Turkish Pinocchio
A young friend anxious to grow into her shoes
Marble Halvah straight from the source!
Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice in abundance in Istanbul
Corn on the cob
Smoking the nargile
On the Bosphorus looking at Asia heading towards the      Black Sea
Nuts, I just like the foto
Selling Simit, which is like a sesame bagel that ran into a pretzel
"Yaya yolu" is a funny way to say "pathway"
Sugar cubes, a necessity for Turkish coffee and tea
Skyline of minarets
Bitter melon reappears even more colorful than before    (See my earlier post)

I know it seems I ate my way through Istanbul, but I really did go to many monuments.

Turkish rugs and kilims

Among my many amazing experiences this holiday was shopping for a rug. I went to Turkey with the intention to buy one, and yet, I just might be one of the few tourists to return home without a rug.