26 December 2012

A Real Italian Christmas

This year represents my fourth holiday season in Italy, and tonight, Christmas Eve, is the first time I spent it with an Italian family. Many similarities, a few differences. The real joy of the evening, for me, were the 7-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy who believe in Babbo Natale (Santa Clause).

The tradition in Italy is Santa Clause arrives at mezzanotte (midnight) of Christmas Eve to bring the gifts. Christmas Day is a day to relax and have another large meal. (More food!)  No TV, no calcio (Italian soccer), and no football (American-style) is watched on the 25th.  Fat old Santa, I thought, would never fit down the chimney because the flue is pretty narrow and Santa's bacino (pelvis) is a bit wide.  It turns out, Santa rang the doorbell at right about midnight. Babbo Natale arrived with armfuls of gifts.  The little girl is rather furba (clever, smart, sharp), and she immediately called Babbo Natale on it.  "E'  babbo!"  (It's Dad!)  "It's Dad's face, Dad's shoes!"  And then she commented, "Your belt is made of paper.  It's not a real belt."

I do not know if these kids believe in Santa or have already learned how to play the game, but all those doubts about Babbo Natale were soon replaced with the excitement of the gifts.  Just like everywhere, the wrappings and ribbons did not last long while the children clawed to get at the hidden treasures.

Meanwhile, the evening proceeded.  Good food was prepared and eaten.  Lots of Italian was spoken.  I tried to keep up.  I even tried to joke in Italian. Everyone said my Italian is very good.  I believed none of them until Andrea, the 9-year-old, piped in and said, "E' vero" (It's true). For me, the ultimate compliment is for a child to tell me my Italian is excellent. Finally, I believe and accept that my Italian just might be better than I think. I value kids' opinions (especially in this regard) because kids are usually straight up. I have often wondered what do children not necessarily old enough to "understand" that Italian is my second language think when they encounter someone like me.  It was the way Andrea piped up with "E' vero" that convinced me.  It was as if he knew better than anyone else, and his compliment was not patronizing like often the adults who say I speak well might be.  My Christmas present.

After the festivities -- the food, the conversations, the smiles, and the gifts -- I descended the 89 steps back to the street with a belly overstuffed from too much indulgence, where, to my surprise, I saw many people out on the street with perhaps no real purpose but to amble about with everyone else.  And then it hit me.  Inside or outside, everyone was with someone...even if they were with everyone.  During my short walk home, I overheard many kids speaking with their parents about Babbo Natale and observed the knowing smiles of their parents as they replied.  A few winks here and there, and I finally understood.  English is my mother tongue; Italian, my adopted language.  But universal is people.  Even if we do not speak the other person's language well or at all, we still (can) communicate.

The kids taught me that. Christmas suddenly took on a new meaning.  A fun evening to see it through the eyes of young children and their parents. And what presents I received!

Merry Christmas

-- Giosalina 
    Firenze, Italia

05 October 2012

Museo di San Marco and Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, Florence, Italy

San Marco is a 15th century church and convent, previously the home of two medieval convents.  The convent is now the Museum of San Marco.  In 1436 the Dominicans of Fiesole took over the convent.  Fra Angelico from Fiesole moved into the convent, had his own "cell," and painted the majority of the freschi you see there today.

Museum of San Marco
Buildings are always being restored

A year later Cosimo de' Medici took on the financial burdens for the reconstruction of a new church and convent, which were desiged by Michelozzo.  Even Cosimo de' Medici had his own private cell here even though he lived just down the road at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.

Many of the freschi we see have been removed from their original location and placed in museums elsewhere and are often severely damaged from the elements and time.  Most freschi at San Marco are still on the wall and in near-pristine condition.

 The Miracle of the Lost Key Found Inside the Belly of the Fish

 Various rescued freschi

Looks almost Salvador Dali-ish  to me
Juxtaposed? Blindfolded? Crystal ball? Free-floating hands? 

 Fra Angelico's "Annunziata"

Girolamo Savonarola also had a cell at San Marco.  He gave many of his speeches during his brief reign of power from the pulpit of San Marco.  He was first hanged and then burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria in 1498 not long after Savonarola ordered the second Bonfire of the Vanities.

 Inside one of the courtyards

Another, smaller courtyard

After leaving San Marco and having a hearty soup for lunch, my friend and I strolled back in the direction of  home when we decided to pop into the Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia.  I have passed by the nondescript building dozens of times but never felt a pull to visit.  The term "cenacolo" originally referred to where the monks and nuns ate meals; today it refers to "The Last Supper."  Leonardo da Vinci is not the only artist who painted a famous cenacolo (located in the church in Milan). There are more than a few around town. The cenacolo located in this building was painted by Andrea del Castagno in 1447.  It is an important piece of work for Florence because it was the first Renaissance cenacolo in Florence and represents a fundamental moment in Florentine painting with his expert use of perspective.  I saw immediately, even to my untrained eye, that the table linen looked three-dimensional, and I wanted to reach over to touch the linen.  My friend commented that she wanted to "pull the wrinkles out of the tablecloth."

 The room in which "The Last Supper" is housed

 Close-up sectional

 Another section of the cenacolo

Just what is this bimbo reaching for?

You know how you visit places only when on holiday, but never your hometown?  (Even though other people come from elsewhere to see the things you never get around to seeing?)  We all likely believe that those sites will always be there, and eventually we will get to them, but usually we never do make the time to go.  I have visited Florence, Italy, many times over the years -- and live here for the past three years -- and still there are many places I have yet to see.  Today, though, I finally made my way over to the Museum at San Marco in Piazza San Marco and to the Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia. Each is a lovely way to see a little more of Florence, learn a little more of this town's history.  And with an Amici Degli Uffizi membership, you get to visit each site for the best price, free.

21 September 2012

Market Days, Market Ways in Florence, Italy

The fast pace of the modern world has caught up with Italy, home of the Slow-Food movement, and created the need for convenience and supermarkets. The traditional way to food shop is still the norm here.  In Florence, the two main markets are Mercato Centrale and Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio (both open daily, except Sundays).  Both markets supply the daily goods to most of the local restaurants and the majority of homes. Those restaurants and households that do not buy from either of these two markets buy from the neighborhood fruttivendolo (greengrocer).  And then, from pure convenience, we all sometimes end up at the modern-day grocery market.

I ventured to Sant'Ambrogio this morning to see what we have to look forward to in the way of local fruits and vegetables as we move into the autumn season.  I found a feast of colors -- rich, vibrant, and abundant -- which means plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and prana.  

Walk with me through the market...  

 Love these peppers

 Have you tasted fried zucchini flowers? Mmmm...

 Root veggies (above and below)

At Sant'Ambrogio, outdoors is where you will find the fresh fruits and veggies... 

 When you order a "pepperoni" pizza in Italy, you will end up 
with a pizza full of "peperoni" instead of spicy sausage.

 The last days of summer fruits

 Happy to have broccoli and cauliflower back in season

Indoors is where you buy meat, fish, chicken, grains, and baked goods.  You can even take a break for a caffé or have lunch.

 "Schiacciata dell'uva" is a Florentine specialty this time of year.  The tiny grapes used are in season only a few weeks.

 Many fresh homemade pastas to choose from

 Grains and legumes are bought at the "civaio"

Gianfranco's honey

In our fast-paced world, convenience counts for something.  But look again at my photos (click to enlarge) and ask yourself, "Which would I choose to buy today?"  And perhaps the more important question: "Where would I choose to buy -- the local farmers market / greengrocer or the supermarket?"

23 July 2012

Dim Sum and Then Some

I love Italian food, which is only one reason I live here.  Sometimes, though, it is nice to have a choice in cuisine.  

A brand-new restaurant named Dim Sum opened Saturday (two days ago) in Florence, Italy. They serve delicious, fresh food prepared in a fusion style - Chinese, Japanese, Saigon, Thai, and even Tuscan - and plenty of dim sum choices.  Even the noodles are made in-house.  With the open kitchen, we were able to watch Tiao prepare our dim sum.

Tiao making dim sum

Here and below, a variety of dim sum

We were happy with each dish ordered, full of flavor and freshness.  Max, one of the owners, was very attentive to our needs.

Fresh noodles and veggies

There is a small coperto (cover), but water and tea are on the house and the prices are just right.  Tell them Josslyn sent you.

Open daily from 12:00-3:00 and 6:00 to midnight.  
Via de' Neri 37/r, Florence  

20 July 2012


Panzano, Italy, is at first glance another typical Chianti town (a region of Tuscany). You know what I mean:  the vineyard-studded rolling hills, the blue skies, the many stores that sell the local vino (wine), the cute piazze (squares) in the center of each town where locals sit and chiacchierata (chat and gossip). Chianti is just so cute and particular.

Panzano has at least one item, though, that sets it apart from the other Chianti towns.  Walk up to a building painted outside with red-and-white horizontal stripes and a couple of cow statues on the street, and that is where "typical" ends.  Enter Antica Macelleria Cecchini to the music of AC/DC blasting full volume on the stereo and be welcomed by a man who balances a teetering stack of 10 or 12 glasses in his left hand and a giant jug of Chianti wine in his right.  His pants share similar red-and-white stripes as are painted outside the store, only on him the stripes are vertical.  He smiles broadly with a bit of an impish look on his face.  It feels like a Fellini movie set.  He doesn't say a word, but as he leans in close, he expects you to remove the top glass for him to fill with the local red wine. You can't help but wonder what this man has been smoking. Do not be alarmed:  This fellow obviously loves his work.  He is completely absorbed.  Say hello to Dario.
Dario pinching some "ciccia" (meat, fat, flesh)
Dario Cecchini is a macellaio (butcher) but far from ordinary. Famous throughout Tuscany and beyond, and even in America, especially California since he married a woman from Berkeley a few years back. When you are in the store and welcomed with a glass of wine, there is also true Italian hospitality with salume (cured pork meats) and toasted bread with fresh olive oil and special spreads... Really, you could get away without ever going upstairs to sit down for lunch.  If you are even the least bit goloso (gluttonous, gourmand, tempted by food), all the aperitivi (appetizers) just whet your appetite.
Degustazione (sampling, tasting)
A butcher Dario is, but upstairs is Dario's restaurant. Italians and tourists flock to the place. I have been a handful of times over the years but only at lunchtime when he offers his MacDario menu, a choice of two meals for 10 and 20 euros. The quality of the food is excellent, healthful, and absolutely delicious.  He has his own catsups and mustards and aromatic sea salts, which he sells in the store and we enjoy with our meal as well.  For those of you who do not eat meat, Dario offers a vegetarian meal as well.  See the photo of my friend's vegetarian option, which she said was very tasty.

 Pinzimonio (raw veggies with olive oil and sea salt for dipping)
It may not look like anything special, but IT IS AMAZING!
MacDario Sushi
Vegetarian option (changes daily and is not on the menu)

If you visit Florence, getting to Panzano is one of the few places in the Chianti region easily accessible by public transportation.  By SITA bus, the trip takes barely an hour and drops you off 20 meters from the entrance to Dario's butcher shop.  Eating lunch at Dario DOC is a fun experience and a lovely day trip. And if you can get yourself up and out of your chair after the meal, you can even enjoy the quaint hill town of Panzano in Chianti before returning to Florence.

Good times, good friends
in the sun with a full belly at Dario DOC's

Buon appetito.

22 June 2012

Embracing Uncertainty

Life is full of uncertainty.  The quality of one's life is directly proportionate to the amount of uncertainty one can live with. And yet, for me, uncertainty acts to bring up all the usual fears. Fear of the unknown causes me to waste valuable energy and over time puts a negative spin on my perceptions and life.  I know many people who correctly embrace uncertainty with excitement and take it on as a challenge.  My natural tendency is to focus on what I lack -- that special man, hair that cooperates the way I believe it should, a perfectly sculpted body (according to my ideal); blah, blah, blah -- instead of all that I do have right now.  I strive to change my perceptions to positive from negative.  I'm just saying...

My fears of all the uncertainties keep me stuck.  I might live a more secure, safer life, but how about its quality and richness?

I had planned my move to Italy for 4 or 5 years.  I did all the legwork -- tons of research, extra jobs to reduce debt, hours and hours of dreaming what my life would be like in Italy.  After a few years I had done the research and was debt-free, but I had excuses as to why that moment was not the right time to make the move.  Then one day after a series of incidents, I had a moment of clarity.  I would turn 50 the following year, and I got scared.  But this time I was scared into action.  I did not want to get to the end of my life and wonder what if.  What if I had moved to Italy?  What would it have been like?  How would my life have been different?  What if I went to Italy and changed my mind? What if I decided I prefer Italy as a vacation destination instead of a place to call home? What if I allowed my fears to keep me stuck in a place I didn't want to be? What if I lacked the courage to make the move?

In that moment of clarity, I realized that I did not want to be on my deathbed and look back with regret for not having followed my heart, my dream to live in Italy. Wherever you go, there you are.  So here I am two and a half years later.  Each new day brings with it new experiences. I still marvel over the beauty that surrounds me:  the art, the food, the culture, the people, the pazza ("crazy" -- I am being polite using the word for crazy) language.  Yet life in Florence, Italy, is far from perfect. Some of my experiences are not how I imagined they would be. There are many life lessons still to be learned. My work in Italy is not yet finished; therefore, I intend to stay.

Letting go of some control, I packed my bags and moved to Italy.  I had so many questions unanswered.  (Not the way I used to do anything.  I had to have everything figured out first.) I moved here with faith that, in time, everything would fall into place, doors would open, I would survive.  That faith in my future redeemed my decision many times over.  Of course, money remains scarce.  I wonder whether I will have the means to survive this month, or next month, but somehow I do. And then I go through that fear all over again the following month.  (Hmm, I wonder when I will  learn that lesson.)

My progress and growth are slow.  Sometimes so slow that I do not recognize my forward movement, that things do come together, doors do open, life here does work out.

I began to teach yoga classes two months ago.  Yoga is important to me and has been an integral part of my life for several years.  The teaching, though,  is new to me, and I am aware I have much to learn.  But this opportunity to share something about which I am passionate excites me. Even more than that is the precious gift of students who like my teaching style ... and return for the next class. Together we laugh, we sweat, we stretch, we build strength, we do partner poses, we open our hearts, we Om, we unite.  Two Sanskrit words come to mind when I reflect on the hour or so I teach: sangha ("community") and samadhi ("complete absorption, bliss"). I get lost in my teaching.  By "lost" I mean I get in a zone where my head shuts off, mostly, and I teach from my heart. I realize later when I reflect back that I have lost sense of time, I am completely absorbed and enraptured in something I love. During that brief hour or so, my world is perfect.  I have no problems.  I am completely full, fulfilled.  I am love.  I realize that what I experience is a state of WHOLENESS, a form of meditation, bliss.  Fully charged, not lacking a thing.

What surprises me is that had I not embraced the uncertainty and my fears -- leave the USA, come to Italy, settle in Florence, and reach out to everyone, friends and strangers alike -- this opportunity to find myself, to be happy never would be mine. So perhaps peace and serenity can be found in not controlling every last detail, instead letting go and embracing uncertainty.

08 April 2012

La Dolce Vita - Palm Sunday in Florence, Italy

Today, Palm Sunday, is a busy day in Florence. Those people who carry neither palm nor olive branch after church services instead participate in an "Avon Running" event on the streets of Florence.

Meanwhile, I awakened to two messages that notify me of a heavy workload that begins today and must be completed by Friday.  The nature of my work is feast or famine, and recently it has been famine. Today, this beautiful spring morning, it seems, begins the feast.  I suppose it appropriate, though, as it is spring.  So begins anew the cycle of growth.
And yet I find it a challenge to stay indoors when the outdoors calls me to come out and play.
With work to be done, I may not be able to play, but I have chosen a compromise. 
You can find me in Giardino Bardini -- once the backyard of the Bardini family, now a public garden (my recent post) -- doing my work, but outdoors in a gorgeous setting.  A gentle cool breeze keeps the warm sun from becoming too intense. When I lift my eyes from my work, right in front of me are dozens of yellow butterflies that fluter about on the spring flowers in bloom.  I have a rooftop view of the historical center and Brunelleschi's Duomo.  And in the distance I can see the hills of Fiesole and Settignano.  The music I hear is a surround-sound medley of melodic birds, church bells each quarter hour, and the calm, tranquil sound of two fountains just off to my left. Sure beats being indoors!
There is a kind of sliding scale between polar opposites, and finding the right balance is like hitting a tennis ball on the sweet spot of the racquet. Although the work must be done by me, today I find a way to compromise and still reap the benefits. Sometimes we must make the best of what is.  And sometimes when we surrender to what is, we come to find out it's not so bad after all.  In fact, it can be pretty good. Today proves one of those days. Today I experience that balance of steadfastness and ease-filled relaxation while I work and still enjoy this special day.

Such is the beauty of life in Italy.  La dolce vita!
[Written Palm Sunday, posted Easter Sunday, and I met the work deadlines.]