Sunday, October 19, 2008
Original plans for Saturday had us leaving Siena for Chianciano Terme. Because we so loved Siena and Palazzo Ravizza, and to be able to attend a Saturday night concert (part of the Siena Music Festival), we added an extra night in town, cutting the first night from Chianciano Terme.
Cortona was on our must-see list, so we set out early in the afternoon. First big surprise of the day was finding a shop fully dedicated to truffles: truffle cheese, truffle pasta, truffle honey, truffle butter, truffle oil, and - of course - truffles. We became fast friends with Francesca, attending the shop, who let us taste some truffle products and helped us with our Italian. We also bought an extra suitcase to bring home everything we bought.
We sat in the Cortona town square for a drink. Immediately, we were approached by an American couple asking if we had just gotten married in Siena the day before. They had seen us walking the piazza for pictures after the wedding, and even showed us some pictures they'd taken.
Despite her exhaustion, Nancy wanted to get a few photos in the garden outside our room. In her wedding gown, but barefoot and without her veil (which took 10 minutes and 5 waiters to get out of her hair), my bride stepped outside.
Two couples in a group were enjoying some wine in the garden. They offered to take some pictures of the two of us together. Turns out they were Norweigan, as was my grandmother on my father's side. We exchanged some pleasantries, and the husband of one couple asked who I thought was going to win the U.S. presidential election. He was hoping it would be Obama, and he reminded me that we were a superpower and should act carefully because of that. His wife quickly shut him down, chastising him in Norweigan for talking politics with us on our wedding night. While they were arguing, and under cover of darkness, we slipped behind the gate to our room and disappeared for the night.
We walked down to Osteria della Logge, just off Piazza del Campo to the left of the town hall and just a block from the now imfamous Tratoria la Torre (in fact, we'd caught sight of "Signore Torre" earlier in the evening watching us with our post-wedding pictures ... we waved).
Ben introduced us to the gentleman who would be taking care of us for dinner and got us settled. Final pictures were taken and our friends departed. Ben had made special arrangements with the owner, ensuring we had a 2004 Chianti and a dish specially prepared with white truffles that evening (as our love of both was already well known to Ben).
We were asked if we wanted to pick specific dishes, or to just have a tasting menu. The tasting menu sounded harmless enough ... we would just be "tasting," not "gorging" ourselves. It also appealed to both of us, since we were both feeling a bit exhausted at this point, and happy to have someone else making the decisions for us. The first dish was quite reasonably portioned, leading us to expect to escape the evening without gaining 10 pounds, particularly if they stuck to the four-course structure we'd come to expect. Our wonderfully prepared and delicious white truffle dish was course #6 (or was it #7?), and - guaging from their surprise at our suggestion to move straight from course #6 to dessert - we believe we were possibly only about half-way to completion. Our host graciously responded, bringing us only one dessert to split between the two of us, and it was fantastic. We thanked our host, gathered our belongings and official documents and special coins, and we made our way back into the piazza, still crowded and busy, but now dark (the picture above).
By now, Nancy's feet were screaming to get out of her shoes. She walked barefoot for a few moments of relief, but forced herself back into the shoes for the rest of the walk back to our Siena home at Palazzo Ravizza.
Leaving Piazza del Campo, we walked up the street we'd grown to know best in Sienna, as it connected la piazza to our home in Siena, Palazzo Ravizza. As we walked, Stafano and the videographer stayed ahead of us as we walked up the crowded street. Again, as we walked, well-wishes of "auguri" came at us from ristorante windows, shop doorways, and folks on the street for the evening's passagiatta. Again, as we walked, tourists snapped photos (as in the photo above, when we turned from our familiar street onto a side street up to the Duomo).
By now, Nancy's shoes were letting her know they were design for sitting, for lying down and for being removed, not for walking the carved-stone streets of a medeival city. We reached the Duomo, and Nancy got to sit on the Duomo's steps and lean back on me for some of the shots.
On the way back to la piazza, ladies walking by started correctly observing that her feet were probably killing her. When we reached the steep grade down into Piazza del Campo, she stopped and could go no futher. I gently picked her up and carried her down the slope. The crowd parted as we descended and applauded us on the way. Nancy wiggled her toes and kicked her feet as we passed the videographer.
Once down in the square, I put Nancy back on her feet, and we walked a short distance to a cafe on the piazza to join Ben for a drink and a toast.
We chatted with Ben while we rested, drank, and waited for dinner. We discussed art, families, daughters, personalities and language. We seemed to cover a lot of ground in a short time, and it became clear Ben is a deep soul with genuine warmth and a good heart.
I chatted with Stefano about Nikon cameras, as we both grew up shooting Nikons.
Soon enough, it was time to walk to the Osteria for dinner. At the Osteria, final pictures were taken, and we said our farewells to good people who were such an important part of making this such a magical and easy week .....
After leaving the town hall, we walked into the center of Piazza del Campo for pictures. Everywhere we walked, people snapped pictures of us and young locals called out "auguri!" an Italian word of well wishes for the marriage. With every "auguri, we called back "grazie mille" (a thousand thanks).
Both the photographer and videographer preferred casual shots of us walking naturally through the square, talking, rather than posed shots. The shot above follows Nancy spinning around on the square, looking like Mary Tyler Moore just before she throws her hat up in the air (strains of "you're gonna make it after all" running through my mind). Then they had me take my jacket off and throw it up in the air (perhaps it's a common Italian thing at weddings). What they failed to tell me was that I was supposed to catch the jacket on the way down. A bad launch angle combined with a slight breeze took it away from me, landing with a hard thud on the dusty bricks. It took several minutes for them each to recover from the laughter and recompose themselves. After brushing of my jacket, one more picture of me picking Nancy up and spinning around with her in my arms (done without dropping my bride on the dusty bricks), and we left the square for more pictures in the streets and on the steps of the Duomo ....
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Nancy and I processed into another beautiful room with frescoed ceilings and down the aisle. At the end of the aisle was a long table, behind which stood Ben and the mayor. In front of the table were four chairs, two together in the middle for us, one off to the left and one off to the right for each of the witnesses. In the corner to the right sat the harpist behind her harp. We reached the front and both sat.
The mayor spoke, we listened, then Ben translated. The mayor of Siena apologized for his late arrival, which we graciously accepted, of course. He was dressed - I am not making this up - in blue jeans, garden clogs, and one of those khaki shirts one wears out into the jungle. He really was gardening before his arrival. On top of it all, he wore a sash across his chest, with the colors and symbols of Siena along its length, offsetting the casualness and making him look very official on top of it all. Frankly, I think not enough people in the world wear sashes. Certainly, it would have made for a simpler day if we'd just donned our jeans and t-shirts and tossed on sashes that said "bride" and "groom" on them. Everyone would have known who we were and could have still wished us well. Then, after the wedding, we would have had these great sashes to take home with us.
Well, we continued with the wedding, sashless. The mayor asked of our intentions to marry and we both responded "Si. Lo voglio." The music was beautiful, and included some Bach for an interlude. Nancy loved the way Ben read our text, especially the part following the distinction of "falling in love" where he said "any fool can do that!" with particular emphasis. Unbeknowst to us, a crowd of tourists, touring the torre had gathered outside the door during the service and applauded when I put the ring on Nancy's finger and kissed her. We took the time to sign all the official documents, and the mayor presented us with two of the first coins ever minted in Siena, minted from the original centuries-old molds. These coins are now only given to couples getting married in Siena. The wedding concluded with everyone congratulating or thanking everyone else. We stood and listened to the harpist play her next piece and proceeded into the next three rooms for pictures, before descending the stairs and stepping out into Piazza del Campo for more pictures, well-wishes from locals, a drink with Ben, and a wonderful, special dinner ......
We arrived in Piazza del Campo right on schedule. We gave Ben the wedding rings, so that he could place them in the right spot for the wedding. He gave us Nancy's bouquet and my boutonnière, and introduced us to the videographer and photographer for the night. I was happy to find our photographer was Stafano, the photographer whose work I'd seen on Ben's ItalyWeddings.com website. I was already a big fan, and we discussed his work and what we liked.
We had found out on Wednesday that the witnesses would not be an 80- year-old couple from Siena, but we were honored to find our witnesses were to be Ben's assistent at ItalyWeddings, who we had already met and liked a lot, and Ben's wife, who we hadn't yet met, but who had beautifully handled Nancy's wedding bouquet and my boutonnière. Ben was to be the translator, and would also be reading our selected text for the wedding.
Then, we waited. And we waited.
We talked with the photographer and Ben's assistant, and Ben. Tourists and locals in the square took notice and took pictures and wished us well.
Five o'clock came and went and we waited. Then the news came that we were waiting for the official to show up. There was some discussion that things like this are often delayed in Italy, but we all started speculating that perhaps the mayor forgot, joking that he was doing some gardening in his backyard, and didn't realize the time.
By now, we really had no sense of time and were just waiting to step into the flow of the wedding & get carried away. Then word came that all was ready. We entered the town hall, turned and proceeded up a long, wide stone stairway followed by another. We entered a beutiful hall with frescoes ceilings and leaded glass windows. We were told to stop here and wait until the videographer and photographer were in place. Following the first strains of medeival harp music emanating from the wedding hall, we turned and started walking down the aisle ....
Friday, October 17, 2008
Once back in the room, we started the long process of getting Nancy into her gown, which was tied up in the back by a long ribbon. Once done, I shaved and showered to get myself ready in time for the wedding (it doesn't bode well to miss your own wedding - brides tend not to forget those details).
Ben arrived with my tie right when he said he would. Nancy went out to meet him. In fact, he didn't arrive with a tie ... he arrived with SIX ties, giving us a full selection of colors and patterns. This is an excellent illustration of how well Ben took care of us at every step in the process. With all seriousness, if anyone reading this plans a wedding in Italy without calling Ben first, I will be deeply offended. Remember, ladies, it's http://www.italyweddings.com/
At 4:30 - five minutes before we'd asked her to be there - Atilla the Hun arrived from the Salon to help with Nancy's veil, so I sent her out to the lobby to give me the chance to dress. Nancy handed her the veil, but Darth Vader had no interest in doing this in the lobby. "No! Camera!" ("Room!" for those not yet fluent, despite my help)
Nancy and the juggernaut showed up at the door before I could get a stitch of clothing on. The hairdresser was clearly annoyed I was there, and even more annoyed that she had to wait at the door while I dragged my tux and accessories into the bathroom.
Once in, she looked at the comb attached to the veil with disdain, uttered a quick "No!" and ripped the comb from the veil, using only her teeth. She preferred using the 10,000 hair pins she'd brought, instead.
During this operation, I realized I'd left my studs in the closet and had to slip into the room with them. The hairdresser let loose with a stream of Italian, wrapped in "Sposito!" Having heard enough, I grumbled "Si! Si! Si! Si! Si!" like an old married Italian man. I actually got a chuckle out of the battleaxe with that. Moments later, she was gone, and we were alone for our final steps of preparation.
I called the front desk for a cab, and we left to arrive at Piazza del Campo for the wedding .....
While sitting with my pigeon & panther friends, I received a text from Ben that he did indeed get a tie for me. At this point, it seemed I'd sat long enough to feel we were running out of time, so I stepped back into the shop just as the ladies were releasing my bride from her prison. She looked stunning, beautifully made up, small white flowers in her hair ... a vision of beauty.
The Marquis de Sade (the owner of the shop) indicated she would come to the room to put her veil on. I turned to my bride who - apparently afraid to anger her captor - didn't seem to object, so I told her I would call her with a time, and we departed.
On the trip back to the hotel, Nancy filled me in on how difficult her appointment had been. Really, the one girl in the shop who had handled her nails was quite kind despite the pain, but the owner had been quite willful and unbending, and had only begrudgingly given in to Nancy's demands on the Drew Carrie makeup and any hair-cutting beyond her bangs (and only because Nancy eventually grabbed her hand before the scissors had reached cutting range). This had all occured in the exhausting environment of crossing a language gap. My bride was tired, with no time to rest before the wedding. I got her back to the room as quickly as I could, and we quickly began to get ready for the wedding ...
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Apparently, my faith in Google was premature. Each shop I tracked down was listed as "formal wear," but was merely a bridal shop, selling wedding gowns only. I grabbed a panino and a drink, made my way to Piazza del Campo, and sat down, a beaten man ... tired and hungry.
After finishing my sandwich, I took the other sandwich to my bride to be at the P.O.W. camp. At my appearance, the ladies quickly moved to cover tanks, warheads, and my fiancée. I asked if she was hungry or thirsty, but they insisted not and they again shooed me out the door, so I slipped around the corner to a bench by a fountain with a pigeon- covered statue of a panther to sit, and knock out a long overdue blog entry while I waited .....
Well the Internet did not lead me astray. A quick google of "formal wear" in Siena turned up three places within walking distance of Palazzo Ravizza. I don't know why I didn't turn to google first?
I stopped by the hairdresser to see how my beautiful bride was doing. I popped my head in, saying "Ciao, bella!" which the ladies in the shop loved! I asked them what time she would be done. They didn't know. I told nancy about my predicament, but she didn't seem concerned. Turns out, she was a prisoner of war, but gave no indication of the torture they were inflicting. No wadded up note in my hand, begging for help; no plaintive cry for help; no blinking "t-o- r-t-u-r-e" in morse code with her eyelids; nothing. I thought she was fine. I didnt find out until later that they had stuck sticks deep into her cuticles, had temporarily made her up to look like Mimi from The Drew Carrie Show, and had cut her bangs short, even though she had specified no hair should be touched. The whole transaction was a war of wills, hand-grabbing and hair-pulling, done without a common language. The ladies couldn't understand why Nancy wanted to be married in Siena, and Nancy couldn't understand why these ladies wouldn't conform to the acts of the Geniva Convention.
It was at this moment that the ladies realized I was the "sposito." They immediately covered Nancy, shooing me out of the shop. Little did I know this was just their way of avoiding scrutiny by UN inspectors, lest their WMD become known to me. Not knowing any better, and having a quest on my mind, I left "la mia fidanzata" in the hands of the terrorists and was on my way to follow up on my goodle leads .....
With Nancy safely in the hands of her captors, I was off to my first location to buy my tie. I stepped into the place, knowing only the words for "necktie" and "bowtie pasta," which I hoped would translate into "formal bowtie." I steped in and asked the gentleman for "un crevate", making the motion of straightening a bowtie, although, I'm not entirely sure I didn't ask for "una cintura" (or belt) while making the motion of straightening a bowtie, likely leading him to think I was looking for a leather dog collar. Either way, he looked at me like I was insane, so I asked if he spoke English, which he did, only to find that they carried nothing like formal bow ties.
With one location gone, I went to get the car and drive to the second location to get a tie, still not worried.
I drove to the second location, only to be reminded of a scheduling quirk neither Nancy nor I would ever quite get the hang of ... the sosta, or afternoon break during which all stores close from 1:00 until 3:00 or 3:30 or 4:30. The store I'd found was closed until close to wedding time. It didn't matter in this case, however, because this store had nothing close to formal wear.
It was time to call Ben, who was always ready to assist. He answered promptly, and offered his own tie, which was one I would need to tie manually, which neither Ben nor I knew how to do, but which I knew I could find how to do on the Internet. He also suggested that he might now the right place in Siena in which to pick up a tie. I thanked him and returned to Palazzo Ravizza.
Although Ben had put my mind at ease, I was concerned that (a) he wouldn't find a tie on his way and (b) that my hand-tying skills might be so lacking that my bowtie might end up looking more like a tired bug on my neck than a bowtie. So I looked to the Internet again to search for Formalwear stores within walking distance of the hotel (as a backup to Ben ... not that I didn't have faith Ben would come through ... I just wanted to make every effort to ensure I didn't get married in a tux with an open shirt-collar and no tie). The Internet showed me the way ...
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Wedding day morning started out innocuously enough, as we walked down to Piazza del Campo for breakfast and cappucini. We only had two main goals for the day (one goal for each of us), before dressing and leaving Palazzo Ravizza to arrive at Piazza del Campo and the town hall by 4:45. Little did we know how much these two simple tasks would take out of us before the day was over.
Nancy's task was time consuming, but simple to achieve. The hotel had made an appointment for her to get a manicure, pedicure, hairstyling & makeup at a nearby salon at 1:00 PM.
My task was simple enough: find a formal black bowtie, since I had somehow arrived in Italy with every part of my tux, except the bowtie. How hard could it possibly be to find a formal bowtie? The hotel had given me two shops in town where I was sure to find one. I would wait until I was certain Nancy was settled in for her appointment, then I would set out, quickly tackle my task, and take the rest of the afternoon to relax.
Nancy grabbed a bath before her appointment, so I propped my feet up in the garden, and started to catch up on some blogging while I waited & relaxed (picture above). After all, I had all the time in the world for a 5-minute task.
Soon enough, we were on our way to the salon, at which none of the ladies spoke a lick of English. I made sure she was settled, and started out to buy my tie.
On Thursday morning, with a full day ahead and nothing scheduled, we enjoyed our room and had breakfast delivered while we planned our day's drive. We picked the destination on our list that was farthest away, Pisa.
The drive was long but beautiful, and we arrived in Pisa hungry (which is the way we arrive in most towns, it seems). We bought tickets for admission to the tower later in the afternoon & found a streetside pizzaria in view of the tower.
Like when first visiting Venice, in 2006, this place seemed like a dream. I've seen so many photos, drawings and paintings from more than a hundred years that it seems this place only exists in pictures, not in reality. To see it in person was surreal.
After enjoying our pizza, we basked in the sun on the grass surrounding the Duomo, and we enjoyed some gelatto, while waiting for our scheduled entry, which came soon enough.
What's most striking about entering the tower is not the vertical lean ... It's the angle of the floors, which seem to be at a sharper angle than the walls (although that can't possibly be right). Climbing the circular stairway just inside the outer wall feels a bit like being drunk, as your walk leans from right to forward to left to back.
Reaching the top is a bit of a surprise as the bells hung in the archways are more prominent and beautiful than any picture ever showed. The light and shadows of the bells and arches playing across the inner top floor are beautiful, and I've never seen that in pictures or paintings.
Nancy - who has never been a big fan of heights, particularly heights leaning 5 degrees off center - did incredibly well, ascending the final spiral staircase to the top-most level, held back from certain death only by a thin iron railing. Soon enough, our time was up, we descended the tower and walked back to our car just as our parking expired.
After a quick stop in Greve for dinner & to scope out a winery for our next visit, we returned to Palazzo Ravizza in Siena, where we crashed to rest and prepare for our wedding day.
Next up ... um ... the day of our Siena wedding!
- Brent (& Nancy)
Wednesday night, after returning to Siena from Volterra, we sought out one of our recommended restaurants, Trattoria La Torre, just off Piazza del Campo, right under La Torre on the left side of the town hall (hence, the name). You've already seen the interior of the place, a simple vaulted hall with a beautiful brick ceiling and the kitchen just off the dining area. The exterior is just a doorway, very unassuming and easy to miss (which, in fact, we had done the night before when first looking for the place).
We walked in, asked for "un tavolo per due," and were shown to the table for two in the corner.
A Trattoria tends to be a family-run business, with all members playing some role in running the Restaurant. A son may be the cook, another son handling the bar and the cash, and the mother or daughter hosting. The woman who had shown us in was either the daughter or the mother in the family. She had an ageless quality about her; she had the young beauty of a 30-year old woman, but the calm and compassion of a woman much older. She took our drink order, each of us reaching past our language barriers, and the evening was off to a pleasant start. She brought a mezzo-litre of the Vino de Casa in a Chianti bottle with the typical old straw wrapping around it (a bottle style no longer used in the production of most Chiantis).
Then came the moment for ordering dinner. Our charming, ageless hostess was replaced by the father of the family, and clearly the owner and ruler of this establishment. The man looked a bit like Nancy's father (who I never had the privilege of meeting, as he passed away two decades ago). This man - as Nancy described to me - had the same commanding, quiet pressence, and just like Nancy's father, when he spoke, it was important and you listened and you didn't ask questions. There was no menu, nothing to mull over or point to, only this man. He started to speak in a voice both quiet and commanding: "La minestra, ravioli, lasagna, ..." the list went on. We had to decide, and this man either knew no English to help us, or felt it unnecessary for the transaction at hand. Nancy liked the sound of the ravioli, and I was thinking about the soup. We started to order, as noted, but he stopped us and either suggested La Minesrtra was a dish for two, or that it was his call that we should both get La Minestra. Either way, Nancy felt a bit scared and I was working feverishly to stay on his side of the language barrier, so we both said "si," and moved from ordering "i primi piati" to "i secondi piati." we could see many of the other tables were having a small chicken dish, which interested Nancy, and I was suddenly in the mood for some red meat. Again, he droned through the choices, "il pollo, bisteak toscana, bisteak firentine, ..." the list went on. We expressed our interests, and he told us we would both be getting the bisteak firentine. We both said "si." Somehow, he asked us how we would like the meat done. Somehow we indicated it should be done as the chef thinks best. He then picked up the edge of the red tablecloth lying under our white table cloth, pointing to it and asking, "si?" Again, we returned to scared and said "si." He then turned towards the kitchen, shouting out in a booming voice the order he had just selected for us. I had a feeling that the yelling was all just for show, as I suspected that he had decided long before we entered the Trattoria what we were to have, and it was already on the grill, which was why he was so forceful about our choices.
Well, after eating the mixed salads which had been selected for us, la minestra arrived, and it was delicious and different from anything we had eaten thus far. It was only then that it crossed my mind that a Trattoria this small and wonderful might not take credit cards, and I had already spent the cache of cash I'd gotten the day before. I leaned over and whispered my concerns to my beautiful fiancée. Her eyes got really big (a pretty good trick for a girl with such big, beautiful eyes to start with), and she asked how I could have forgotten. She conjured up pictures of us working dinner off in the kitchen. I told her I had to go find a Bancomat now, rather than wait for the end of the meal and reveal my mistake to "Nancy's father" ("Signore Torre"). I started to get up, but she stopped me. "You can't leave me here!" she said through her big eyes. "He will come ask me where you went and I won't know what to say!" Then came the threats ... "If you don't come back right away, I won't marry you." I looked at her. She was serious. I laughed. She didn't. I looked her again. She was still serious. I made my vow to return and hoped for the best; then I rose and departed, mumbling "un momento" to "Nancy's father" on the way out. He looked concerned and turned to go ask Nancy where I was going. I got as far as the door, spied the Visa sign in the corner of the doorway, turn on my heel, and made my way past "Signore Torre" before he made it to Nancy.
We relaxed, received our bisteak firentine (which was deliciously seasoned, perfectly cooked, and nicely crispy on the outside), and thoroughly enjoyed the best meal of our trip so far. Despite all the fear and loathing, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Trattoria La Torre to anyone coming through Siena, and suggest you just let "Nancy's father" order everything for you. He does seem to know best.
Next up, Pizza in Pisa, and a very tall bell tower leaning at an alarming angle.
- Brent & Nancy
Monday, October 13, 2008
For the first time since Positano we had time with no destination or deadline, and we had no itinerary other than the dozen or so places on our list of locations we wanted to visit.
I had picked up our rental car Tuesday evening after our return from Firenze. On this evening, in two short hours, I received a week's worth of typical Italian experiences. I took a taxi from the hotel to the Hertz office near la Stazione (hoping I could learn how to get back to the hotel by watching the Taxi driver, but he took us directly through the historic center of Siena where normal cars are not allowed to go, so it was no help). When I arrived at Hertz (during published operating hours), the doors were locked, no one was home, and there was a note on the door that they were out making a delivery, and would return shortly. In the 24/7 Kwikymart world of Etatsiuniti, you'd never be left standing for 45 minutes waiting to pick up your car, but there I was. When the proprietors did return, we started the laborious process of renting the car (which turned out to be more effort than signing papers for a marriage, but I didn't know that yet). I had learned through the mistakes of others and by reading my American Express contract that normal rental car coverage did not apply in Italy, so I picked SUPER COVERAGE for the car. When we walked out to get the car, it was covered in grey crud of an unknown origin. The guy pointed and said, "no scratches," which is a statement no sane man could make after seeing the crud, in fact ... I was struggling to identify that there was a car at all under the crud. What makes it even funnier is that there was a shop vac next to the car, so this was the car *after* someone had made an effort to make things better. I circled the car pointing out to the man a scratch on the door and another on the bumper. Neither one significant, but I wasn't going to let this guy pull the crud over my eyes. He refused to write down the scratches. I feared I'd insulted him now, but I persisted. He told me, "it doesn't matter, you have SUPER COVERAGE." Apparently, at that very moment, I could have grabbed the keys from the guy and driven the car directly into the city wall, and it would have been okay, because I have SUPER COVERAGE.
I didn't know it at the time, but when I would return the car six days later to a different Hertz location, the proprietor would point out the scratch on the bumper, and a wad of gum stuck to the side of the car, near enough to the scratch that it distracted him from seeing the scratch on the door. He returned to his desk, and informed me of these blemishes, preparing me for the bill I would receive weeks after my return home. I noted the Siena man's refusal to write down the scratches because I had SUPER COVERAGE! At that, the Chiusi man's demeanor changed completely. "Oh! You have SUPER COVERAGE! OK! No problem. You may go!" And that was it ... I was on my way.
Flash-back to the Tuesday before ... I laid out my map of Siena on the passenger seat, studied the maze of confusing streets and names, started the car, and drove my tiny Fiat with SUPER COVERAGE onto the streets of Siena.
Now, when driving from town to town, traveling in Italy is quite simple: when you get to a roundabout, just scan the dozen or so signs of town names for the town between you and where you want to go, and turn where that sign tells you to do so. It's hard to get completely lost in the Italian countryside because of this. However, upon entering a town, finding a useful street sign is like reading the entire Where's Waldo collection from cover to cover without finding Waldo once. For five or six turns, I seemed to be doing fine, until I found myself on my way to Firenze. A quick turnaround & two more wrong turns later, I started to find my rhythm with Italian driving. I really liked the way these folks drive! It's very fluid and graceful and aware, and it all seems to work well, particularly with these tiny, nimble cars. The 4-lane highway is even better, with cars actually driving on the right and passing on the left. The A-1 Autostrada is even better, feeling not unlike the PA Turnpike, but with most cars driving 130-150 KPH!
Soon enough, I was back to Porta San Marco, driving into the narrow lanes of Siena, and parking in the Parcheggio below Palazzo Ravizza's garden.
On Wednesday, after our meeting with Ben, we hit the road for San Gimignano, the town of towers. Before being conquered by the local bullies in Firenze, the town had more than 30 tall defense towers, with narrow doors (too narrow for a man in full armor to enter) 30 feet above the ground and only accessible by a ladder lowered from above. Today, only 7 of those towers remain. The town square (Piazza Cisterna) had some terrific restaurants, one with delicious small pizzas, which we enjoyed (picture above), and a well to the town cistern into which people toss coins for luck (also in the picture above, on the right ... behind the guy with the big pasta gut). Nancy tossed a handful of "monete" in to the well for a good wedding & good weather on Friday. We relaxed in the town before seeing the Duomo with its story-telling frescoes and taking off for the city of alabaster, Volterra.
In Volterra, we did what all tourists do ... we bought alabaster. We also saw the park with it's ruins of the Etruscan acropolis. We circled a large castle at the top of town, hoping to get in until we realized it had been converted into the state penitentiary.
Next up: We return to Siena to find Tratoria del Torre (recommended by a friend), near Piazza del Campo, and find ourselves frightened into the best food and most memorable dining experience of the trip.
- Brent (& Nancy)
Sunday, October 12, 2008
After leaving the town hall, the three of us proceded to one of the many restaurants, bars & cafes lining Piazza del Campo and facing the town hall. We sat with Ben to work out the final details over Cappuccini, which - by the standards of weddings planned in the States - seems kind of late, but which felt just right in our laid-back Italian "la dolche vita" wedding.
We had already given a basic outline of what we wanted for flowers (now selected and handled by Ben's wife), and music (which was now in the hands of the harpist).
Ben drew out the basic floorplan of the room, showed us where everybody was going to stand or sit, and told us where to go and when.
Then came the big questions: vows, statements, and readings. There are no official vows in Italian civil weddings, only articles of law stated in the wedding and on the marriage certificate.
The articles of law are actually pretty wonderful. They state that husband & wife both have the same rights and obligations. That we have a mutual obligation to total fidelity and to work together in the interest of the family & home, and that we support each other in our professions to contribute to the needs of the family. That we establish a residence together to support the family. And lastly that we are obligated to instruct and educate the children in the family according to their wishes.
So the statements, vows and readings were entirely up to us. We had thought we would learn enough Italian to be able to write vows in Italian ... but you know what happens to good intensions like those.
For the statements, the official (who in this case was going to be the mayor of Siena) would ask (in Italian and translated by Ben) if it was our intention & wish to marry. After a few suggestions of answers by Ben, we decided on the phrase "Si. Lo voglio." or "Yes. I want this." which we both thought was a much stronger statement than "I do."
For vows, we again took Ben's suggestion of a statement of commitment, respect and honor, the words of which escape me, but are now permenantly captured on video.
Finally, we picked a passage from Louis de Bernieres' novel "Captain Corelli's Mandolin": "Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being 'in love' which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and an unfortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen away from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two."
Following that, we covered the little details of timing and arrival, then we thanked Ben a few thousand times for making this such as easy and enjoyable experience, and we parted company until Friday's wedding.
Next up: driving in Italy, an amazing but terrifying dinner, Pizza in Pisa, and getting ready on the wedding day.
- M. Brent (& Nancy)
Wednesday morning, we met Ben, again, this time in Siena in Piazza del Campo. We walked down a narrow alley to a door at the back of the town hall, and into the records section. This was quite the contrast to Firenze (where it's thought - after signing, stamping, and filing all the official documents - they put the records in a wheelbarrow, cart them to records storage, and dump them in a big hole). Right in front of us was a huge climate-controlled storage mahine with well- organized shelves of bound documents that roll back into the inner recesses of the building. The shelves in front showed rows of bound death records from 2000 & 2001. Siena has well organized records going back several centuries. It's nice to know the record of our marriage will be archived for centuries to come. If you ever doubt Nancy and I are married, just fly me over to Siena with you, and I'll show you.
We sat down at a desk with Ben (above right, for those of you anxiously waiting for their first up-close glimpse of him) across from a woman whose name I did not catch amidst all the Italian being thrown around (above left, for those of you anxiously waiting for their first up-close glimpse of a nameless woman in the Siena town hall). There was more paperwork to be completed.
Before you're allowed to get married in Italy, there are 4 sections of the law you must not have violated, and must swear in writing not to have violated them. You cannot have been declared insane (although if you're in love enough to get married, isn't that a form of insanity, anyway?), you cannot currently be married (stands to reason), if either was previously married, you cannot have been convicted of killing or attempting to kill your former spouse or that of your intended spouse (so if you're planning to do so and want to be married in Italy, the order of these actions is important ... Italian Wedding first, stupid unspeakable crime second ... don't mix them up), and last - if coming from abroad to get married in Italy - you cannot get married if you are or have ever been an Italian citizen (I'll get back to you when I figure that one out). We were good with all four of those, so we signed everything and were quickly done. Somehow, this all seems a bit too easy, but I'm not complaining.
Next up, finalizing details with Ben in Piazza del Campo.
- Brent (& Nancy)
Friday, October 10, 2008
Siena Wedding - October 10th, 2008
Obviously, I'm a little behind with my blogging as I'm working on Wednesday's update on Friday. I'll continue to update the story through Friday, because there's lots to tell. Wednesday's meeting with Ben, Thursday's trip to Pisa, and on Friday, Nancy was held hostage by a sadistic hairdresser while I went on a quest for the holy bow tie.
But for today's quick update, I wanted to let everyone know the wedding went very well, the photographer and videographer ran us ragged after the wedding, and the Restaurant Ben picked for us tried to kill us with food. All in all, it was a fantastic day, and we're both very happy to finally be married. Nancy and I will work together over the next few days to fill in the gaps.
Thanks to all who've sent their well-wishes.
Ciao! - Brent (& Nancy)
One secret of touring Firenze is that if you don't have time to wait in long lines and tour the Firenze Duomo, the Duomo's bell tower gets you the same beautiful view with no wait. Granted, you don't get to see the inner layers of the Duomo's dome, or the inside of the Duomo, but you do get to see the Duomo from on high & up close.
When we stayed in Firenze in 2006, we tried to do just that late on the afternoon of September 7th. We arrived at the tower 5 minutes too late. No problem; we have tomorrow, still. That's when we saw the sign: Bell tower open every day, except: Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, ... , and September 8th. All the other days had names & reasons ... but Sept 8?! Was this some kind of conspiracy? We hung our heads, walked away, and vowed to ascend the tower our next time in Firenze (only years later did we learn that Sept 8th was the religious holiday celebrating -- I am not making this up -- the "Girdle of the Virgin Mary").
This time in Firenze, after lunch with Joe, we tackled the tower, and no girdle, no matter how important, was going to stand in our way. The day was grey, but the view was beautiful.
Ciao! Brent (& Nancy)
Thursday, October 9, 2008
We got a seat at the very front of the SITA Bus, making for a better ride into Firenze than the ride out the night before. With another bout of bad traffic, we had to move quickly to make our 8:30 appointment.
We reached Piazza Della Signora with just enough time to grab a capucino before meeting Ben. Now, I know how to say "to go" when ordering, but the Italians have a phrase they use for "to take with you" that I haven't fully picked up, yet. So I developed a new routine with them: I say "andarre;" they say "something something something via;" I say "che?" they say "to take with you?" I say "si," and I get my coffee. Well, this time, after my routine, the gentleman put what looked like a fine ceramic coffee cup in front of me. I protested only long enough to look like a dumb Americano & to see it was a plastic cup moulded over to look like a thick ceramic cup. We grabbed our cups, and started across the Piazza, immediately seeing Ben standing under the statue of David (the replica, as the original is in la Galleria dell'Academia). Although we didn't know what he looked like, I'd read the travel blog of another couple previously getting married in Italy with Ben's help [help getting married ... Ben wasn't helping me read the blog], and they mentioned him smoking a pipe while waiting outside the US Consulate. Since he was the only man smoking a pipe while standing under the statue of David at 8:30 on a Tuesday, it was safe to assume it was him.
We made quick introductions and started catching up. For those friends of Nancy who've been following the story and asking if Ben was a hot young Italian hunk, I hope you won't be disappointed to learn he's not. I'll leave judgement of hot or hunky to the fairer sex, but I will say he's a charming cordial gent, with a great sense of humor, originally from the U.K., who moved to Italy on a lark 15 years ago, as an artist. He's been planning & coordinating weddings in Italy for 10 years, handling 70 or so, every year. For us, Ben's made the planning of this wedding a complete joy, and I feel lucky that Nancy found & selected him. If anyone reading this is currently planning a wedding in the States, take my word for it ... scrap all your plans right now, call Ben and immediately relocate your wedding to Tuscany. You may alienate some friends or family, but you won't be sorry.
Two other couples were filing paperwork that same day, one couple from New York (Mike & Ann) were working with Ben and getting married Thursday in Firenze, the other couple were working with Ben's assistant and we didn't get a chance to chat.
Ben led us down some back alleys to the records building, then up an elevator and down countless winding hallways lined with filing cabinets. Only in Italy, does a long hall with grey metal cabinets still look ancient and interesting with vaulted ceilings and open windows. On the whole, it did not look terribly organized; apparently Firenze doesn't have a reputation for archival accuracy. We finally ended in a room w/ several people working at tables, where we reviewed for accuracy and signed paperwork stating all the important facts of who we were. I expected more pain & grilling from public officials, but the process was quick & pain-free.
Immediately the 8 of us filed downstairs, into taxis, and sped off for the American Consulate, to fill out and file more paperwork. Since 9/11, only U.S. Citizens and Italians seeking travel visas to the U.S. are allowed inside the Consulate, so Ben and his assistant leaned against the wall above the Arno River, while we ventured in, one at a time. Once inside and reunited, we filled out the paperwork. This time, we needed to make a sworn statement in front of an official. When he arrived, after noticing we were from Maryland, he asked Nancy what we thought of the Liutenant Governor. Nancy panicked. She thought this was a test and if she failed it, they wouldn't believe she was from Maryland and she wouldn't be allowed to marry me. She would become one of those urban legends with a lesson that you should always know who the Lt. Governor was if you have a prayer of getting married abroad. Turns out the Lt. Gov'r (Brown, for those who follow State politics as well as we) was this guy's college roommate. We had a nice chat about Maryland & Philadelphia, he took our sworn statements, and we were on our way.
We met up with Ben at the Arno, handed over our paperwork, reviewed arrangements for Wednesday in Siena, and went our separate ways.
Nancy and I wandered down the Arno to Il Ponte Vecchio, walked back to Piazza Della Signora, and grabbed lunch at a cafe on the square. During lunch, we struck up a conversation with Joe, who *was* a hot young Italian hunk, who designs Italian leather clothing and has a girlfriend in New Jersey. He invited us to visit his shop any time, promising to have a glass of expensive local wine with us, when we do.
- Brent & Nancy
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Tuesday morning came extra early, as we needed to take an 80 minute bus ride from Siena *back* to Firenze to meet Ben by 8:30 to file paperwork at the Siena town hall & US consolate. We also needed to get some breakfast before boarding the bus. As hoped for, a "pasticeria" was open at 6 AM near the bus stop, but - according to the janitor - "la bigletteria" did not open until 6:30. This was early enough to get a ticket & catch the 6:40 bus to Firenze, and it gave us time to crash in the waiting room to enjoy our Sienese doughnuts (above).
Next up: Firenze (or as they say in Maryland, Florence)
Ciao! - Brent (& Nancy)
After leaving Ristorante Il Biondi, and hoofing it through the dark streets of Siena, we found our way to the front door of Palazzo Ravizza. We checked in and were shown to our room ... in the basement? I'm not quite sure what happened with our reservation or who we ticked off in the process, but being in the basement didn't seem so nice for our stay surrounding our wedding. Then, the door was opened and we stepped into a room with heavy wood beams in the ceiling, red tile floors, a brick archway opening to a room with a big fireplace and ample seating, and a door opening onto the garden, this being the only room on the property which opens onto the property. Inlaid in the wall are sparsely placed tiles, one a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (whom I've always admired), another of a Roman chariott & horses, a nook in the wall with Madonna & child, and Ave Maria written under it (santa Maria seems to have become the patron saint of this trip). It all seemed a bit too perfect. Because of that, and for a Scarlotti concert we found on Saturday night, we immediately extended our stay in Siena for an extra day through Sunday, & cut a day from our stay in Chianciano Terme.
Like I said before, Siena likes Nancy, and now I think the town's got a thing for me as well. Hopefully it's more than just a little crush.
Next up ... yet *another* SITA Bus ... back to Fierenze to meet Ben & start filing paperwork for the wedding.
Ciao! - M. Brent (& Nancy)
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Monday afternoon, after our long train ride from Napoli, we arrived in the Firenze train station. A quick stop in the information booth let us know the SITA Bus station was just around the corner. Minutes later, we had our bus tickets like clockwork, found the bus right outside the door, threw our bags under the bus, and were ready to board. Before boarding, Nancy suggested she needed a quick trip to "il bagno." I questioned the driver on our time of departure. He indicated "now" as he slipped the bus into gear. I sheepishly looked at Nancy, she unhappily stepped onto the bus, and we were on our way. Unlike the U.S., Italy does not allow "i bagni" on their busses. We were in for a long 80-minute ride. Nancy came through like a trooper, but not a terribly happy trooper.
On our arrival in Siena, I was looking for any "bagno" available anywhere, but Nancy appeared to be on a mission. I stepped in behind her and followed, but started pulling up a map on the iPhone, to see if I could find a good nearby Restaurant. Nancy decided she could do better without the iPhone and continued her progress. Two strategic turns later, she landed next to Ristorante Il Biondi (above), with outdoor seeting and room to stack our copius baggage. I set us up at the table, Nancy found "il bagno," and we ended up having a terrific dinner. It seems Siena likes Nancy and she has developed an instant rapport with the town. It suddenly feels very right to be here, and feels very right to be getting married here.
Next up: our room at Pensione Palazzo Ravizza
- Brent & Nancy
Nancy recently read the book "Eat, Pray, Love," in which the author opines that Italy has the best pizza in the world, and that Napoli has the best pizza in Italy. The author then goes on to reveal the pizza joint with the best pizza in Napoli. By logical reasoning, this pizza joint in Napoli made the best pizza in the world.
We didn't go there.
That's why this post isn't called "the best pizza in the world."
We did, however, eat the best pizza we've ever had. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On Sunday, we rescheduled our car rental pickup from Monday to Tuesday, to allow for more travel flexibility in our Monday trip from Positano to Siena. If you've been following along up to now, you know we would crawl over the mountain, in shorts, through flaming broken glass to avoid another SITA bus ride along the Amalfi coast. Well, maybe not in shorts.
Monday morning we checked the weather, and it appeared we would be able to get to Napoli by the water, avoiding the SITA Bus and the flaming broken glass. We boarded the Metro del Mare traghetto and made our way to Napoli, only stopping momentarily at Sorento (in the picture above), just long enough to realize we'd picked right by staying in Positano (not that there's anything wrong with Sorento. I'm sure it's a perfectly nice town. We just really loved our villa down by the ocean, and didn't think being perched on a cliff would feel quite the same. Hey, if Rick Steves likes Sorento, it can't be half bad.), before landing in Napoli.
The ferry ride took longer than scheduled as we made an unscheduled stop in some fishing village along the way, so we had just enough time to make it to the train station in time for the next EuroStar express train to Firenze, in normal traffic. The traffic in Napoli that day wasn't even normal for Hades (of course, I'm assuming there's traffic in Hades; perhaps they're all stuck driving Ford Escorts on the verge of breaking down with the windows up, the window cranks broken, the heat stuck on 'high,' and the 8-track tape stuck in the player permanently playing ELP's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' and fading out right at the best part without switching to the next track before repeating the current track all over again). Well, we prepared ourselves for a proper fleecing as the driver indicated he could get us there faster without the meter on. It was nearly worth the 20€ fleecing (plus 5€ tip since he "drove so fast and opened the door for my lady") as we had the most thrilling taxi ride of our lives, cutting through parking lots, slipping in front of speeding trucks, and weaving between speeding scooters. If we'd had our tickets in advance, we would have made it onto the train before it left. Instead, we were left with an hour to kill in Napoli Centrale station before the next EuroStar train to Firenze. We spotted a pizza place right next to the McDonalds. I grabbed a table and stacked our luggage while Nancy got the pizza.
This story will end disappointingly as I cannot possibly describe this pizza or why the pizza was so good, only that it was the best pizza we'd ever had. Ever. Anywhere. Ever. You're just going to have to take our word for it, or you'll need to come to Napoli for your own fleecing and pizza experience.
Soon after that, we were on the train and on our way to Firenze to catch yet another SITA Bus to Siena.
Next entry: We loooooooove Siena
Ciao! Brent & Nancy
Monday, October 6, 2008
With Thursday being the brutal travel day it was, we (some might say) squandered a calm and sunny Friday relaxing and wandering the lanes of Positano, rather than setting out for other towns by water. Saturdays weather left nothing but the biggest "traghetti" servicing the largest & busiest ports (i.e., not Positano), so we were stuck with another day in town, or subjecting ourselves to the toture of the Amalfi Coast roads (see http://sienawedding.blogspot.com/2008/10/ravioli-in-rain.html ). On Sunday, the weather returned to "warm and friendly," and we finally got out on the water for a trip to the island of Capri.
The ferry ride out was a joy. We got to see the Amalfi coast out to the point, and then could see Napoli and Mount Vesuvius in the distance, before turning into Capri Porto.
The port is a tourist pit, and it begged us to leave quickly. We saw a sign that innocently pointed around the corner to "Capri Centro," or the center of Capri. I mentioned to Nancy this would be the real Capri, with nice cafes and a Duomo. Without a moment's hesitation, we were on our way. We walked. And we walked. And we walked and walked and walked. When there was no more "up" left, we were still going up! We kept walking. Up. When we were done with that, we walked some more. You get it?! We walked a lot!!
Finally, we reached a street, crossed it, and the path opened up into - oh good googly moogly - more steps and more walking. Abrupt cut ...
INTERMISSION - Hum quietly to yourself "per tre minuti."
... back to our story. During the break, our heroes reached Capri Centro, and it was all that was promised. We grabbed some panini to regain our strength, and ducked into the Duomo for the end of Sunday Mass. The words and music were foreign, but the rhythm of the service was completely familiar to anyone who's sat through a couple thousand Roman Catholic services as Nancy has. Even to me, evil Protestant that I am in this country of near-monopoly by the Roman Catholic Church, with mere dozens of masses under my belt, I picked up the "e anche con voi" at the right point.
Back in the square after Mass, we slipped up a lane labeled "Belvedere," knowing there was a beautiful view at the top.
As in Act I, we walked and walked and walked. Along the way, we stopped at a beautiful overlook (*a* beautiful view, not *the* beautiful view) for pictures, and were offered help taking a picture of us together by two lovely Australian women in their early 60's. They were traveling together and were at the end of their two week trip. One grew up in Tasmania (although she exhibited none of the characteristic grunting, drooling, snorting or random spinning around that I've noticed from every other being from Tasmania I've encountered along the way ... she didn't even pop a whole rabbit or passing cat into her mouth during the entire duration of our lengthy conversation), and - having grown up surrounded by beautiful views all her life - she had no interest in a hotel room with a beautiful view, but wanted a spacious room. Her travel partner wanted the beautiful view, which generally came with less space for the money. Despite the battle, the room with a view generally won out, and they both seemed okay with that outcome. The ladies indicated we were the fourth couple from abroad they'd run into who had come to Italy to get married. I'll take that as a good sign, or at least claim we've started a trend, true or not.
Some more walking, and we reached *the* "Belvedere" and it *was* a beautiful view of ... those three cool rocks ... that the boats drive between ... with names that I would recall and share with you ... if I had been paying attention when reading about Capri ... but I don't remember, so I will call them Manny, Mo, and Jack, and come back years from now to correct this blog, lest this fact end up in Wikipedia as the true origin of the names of the Pep Boys. Well the photo above shows the view, made even more beautiful by "la mia fidanzata." We lingered a bit to relax as we had the terrace to ourselves, then we left and walked some more.
This brings me to my second subject: why Italians are either very thin or very fat (see footnote below #). Many of Italy's towns - whether big or small - have narrow lanes, lots of steps, and little room for cars. Capri, Positano, Ravioli, Venice, and the Cinque Terre are all different in their own ways, but all have a similar feel, as if you've just glued your feet to a stairmaster, surrounded by a gorgeous but colorized Fellini film. Every trip to and from dinner is a workout. Every jaunt to the corner store is aerobic. A voyage to a "belvedere" is like running a 10K. Add to this the favorite evening activity in many small Italian towns, "la passagiata": an evening spent strolling the streets, visiting with neighbors and measuring each others calf muscles with a metric measuring tape.
This - I am convinced - is why a full Italian meal is so big and involved. For all the walking, they need to compensate with food, just to keep from starving to death. Dinner has a minimum of four parts, each part - if done right - is accompanied by a different wine. The Antipasti are the appetizers, and an Antipasto dish can be a meal unto itself. The next course is "il Primo Piato", or the First Plate (not entirely accurate as I'm certain the Antipasto was served on a plate, but I believe it's more of a warning that there are more plates to come than it is an actual plate count). The "Primo Piato" is generally "Pasta" (or as we say in the States, "Pasta"). You might think by the name that "Antipasto" would cancel out "Pasta," making for a calorie-free meal, but this is apparently not the case. Next up, if everyone is counting it right, is "il Secondo Piato" or the Second Plate. This is usually a meat or fish dish and will finish you off for sure if the first plate didn't. After all this, you are expected to order "il Dolche" or the Dessert. If you don't order dessert, a woman claiming to be your Italian grandmother will bring you dessert, and no amount of arguing will stop her. It's also worth mentioning - in case you think you're clever and can get away with eating only a portion of each dish - if you leave so much as a morsel on your plate for any of the four courses, the waiter will start grilling you asking what was wrong with the food. You will swear the food was fine, but he will continue with the inquisition. Soon other waiters will join him, pointing to your plate and asking similar questions. Eventually your Italian grandmother will appear at your side and pinch your cheek and ask if everything is okay at home. It's usually safest just to walk in, claim you ate on the plane and order only dessert and an espresso. You'll still walk away full.
There is a constant battle between the walking and the eating. There never really is a balance in the battle; both sides are too strong. In the end, one side or another starts to win and to draw you to its own dark side. Two years ago, walking won out. This year, it appears to be the food. That is why we walked back to the boat. I didn't even mention the Funicular, when it caught my eye. We walked to the boat, and walked from the boat to our hotel, and again walked to an enjoyable dinner before retiring for the night.
In the end, as much as I like the food, I hope the walking wins.
Tomorrow: Our trip from Positano through Napoli (where we had the best pizza we've ever tasted) to Firenze and Siena.
- Brent & Nancy
# - for the record, I would like to state that I do not condone the use of stereotypes or generalities when describing the people of any nationality or ethnic origin, particularly a country of people so beautiful, charming and diverse as I have been privileged to enjoy here in Italy. There are fat Italians, skinny Italians, Italians who climb on rocks, big Italians, little Italians, even those with chicken pox. I merely focus on the thin and fat of it all because I am quickly making the transition from skinny obnoxious American to fat obnoxious American.
- M. Brent
Sunday, October 5, 2008
On Saturday, the memory of Thursday's ride on the SITA bus still fresh in our minds, we decided to hire a private car for our trip to Amalfi and Ravioli (Ravello to the locals). We met our driver, Donatello, in the small square at the top of our street. He didn't speak English very well and we speak Italian poorly, so we spent much of the drive to Ravello saying 'eh?' and 'huh?' to each other, these apparently being the most common Italian words we hear, now. Donatello suggested that we start in Ravello and to have lunch there. We agreed, assuming we all understood each other.
The ride in the private car wasn't a whole lot more pleasant than the ride in the SITA bus; we're beginning to suspect it's the road that's the problem.
Soon enough, we were in Ravello and stopped in a tratoria that Donatello recommended. Once inside, we asked for "un tavolo per due" (a table for two), and Donatello looked hurt. I didn't realize we were supposed to feed him or hang out with him. Well I spent the next 5 minutes inviting him to join us and he spent it telling me no problem and that he would wait dejectedly in the rain. We finalized that as our arrangement, and he left.
Since we were in Ravioli (Ravello to the locals), I thought it made perfect sense to order Ravioli (Ravioli to the locals). The meal was great, as it seems to be in every restaurant here, and we were ready to head out. The owner of the tratoria - an Italian grandmotherly type who any person would love to have as his Italian grandmother, whether he was Italian or not - was talking to the people at the next table who were arguing over a misunderstand with their order. I was looking over as my Italian Grandmother gave me a sideways glance and a smile. After calming the family at the other table, she turned to me and muttered to me under her breath, "Momma mia!" I smiled and she asked us what I would like for dessert. I told her in Italian the we only wanted the check. She would have nothing to do with that. I then told her in Italian again that I was full (I figured it's a phrase that few tourists know and use). My Italian Grandmother smiled, pinched my cheek, and told me she would bring me a small slice of dessert. I gave in. She brought us the best small slice of chocolate cake; we inhaled it, paid our check and were on our way.
We met up again with Donatello, who introduced us to his friend Antonio, who ran a wine shop. I know the drill ... he had us taste a special local wine, offered to sell us a case of wine we hadn't tasted, and we bought a bottle of the wine we had tasted so Donatello could save face.
At this point, we left Donatello behind to make our way across town to Villa Cimbrone, with the most beautiful view above the Amalfi coast one could possibly see in the pouring rain (I'm sure it's quite nice in clear weather as well). The grounds of the villa are stunning (including the structure on which Nancy's doing her best Gene Kelly imitation, above) and I have to put it on a must-see list for anyone coming close to Amalfi.
On the way back to the town square, Nancy spotted a ceramic outlet, and we struck up a conversation with its most charming shopkeeper (originally from Ravello). We butchered each others languages beautifully, covering weather, religious symbols, the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, and our wedding plans. It's simple connections with people like this that really make my day.
We made our way back to the town square and Donatello just as the skies opened and the wind picked up. We decided we'd had enough and Nancy was "fredo e stanco" (that's "cold and tired," not "cheesy and stinky"), so we bypassed Amalfi altogether and returned to Villa Flavio Gioia to warm up and relax.
Next up: our trip to Capri.
-- Brent & Nancy
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Positano has been wonderful and relaxing, and we've had our share of beautiful warm weather ... however we are here during the rainy season & received a reminder of that last night. After a warm, calm, sunny day, rain and wind moved in. We wandered the town's narrow passages between showers and ended at a hidden place on the quieter public beach side of town which seemed a bit more bohemian than the places on the larger private beach. We enjoyed a bottle of Vino Rossi grown in near-by Ravioli (the locals call it Ravello, but after a few glasses, it turns into Ravioli for us), and scampered back on a barely lit passage along the Sea to our room to relax & retire. All was calm ...
... at least until about 1:30 in the morning when a storm blew suddenly in from the Sea. It seemed to go from dead calm to torrent in seconds, although having been in a deep sleep, it's really tough to tell if it was all that sudden. All I know is that I awoke to a sound like the building was collapsing ... it was just the awning convulsing in an intense wind moments before the skies opened up and lightening started striking all around. I threw upen the shutters, ran onto the balcony half-dressed, tripped over the chair on the way to the handle to retract the awning, and started cranking it in as quick as possible as the torrential downpour had already begun. Nancy ran to the door to assist, but didn't see me, since I was hidden in the corner where the handle was. I was gone. All she could think was that I'd been sucked up into the clouds like Dorothy, and the Carabinieri would find my battered lifeless half-dressed body on the beach below.
After a moment she realized what I was doing and quickly recovered, helping me bring the chairs in so they didn't knock about in the wind, out there. Once inside, it became clear how upset she had been, although I still haven't been able to get out of her whether it was from the thought of losing the love of her life, the thought of trying to explain to the Questura what I was doing on the balcony half dressed, or if she simply doesn't like to travel alone. I think it's option A, although she keeps trying to tell me it's C. Regardless of the reason, I'm glad not to have been sucked up into the storm clouds ... I've gotta figure there are several hundred more dramatic and adventurous ways to go that won't sound quite so lame or embarrassing when printed in the Baltimore Sun.
Next up: a rainy day in Ravello.
Ciao! - Brent & Nancy
Friday, October 3, 2008
Today can only be chalked up as a "travel day." I say that because, all we did was travel for 18 hours straight.
Given the uncertainty of the day (no train ticket, no boat or bus schedule), and despite some travel delays, things turned out pretty well.
Our flight out of Philly left late (of course, it's PHL, where the 1st flight of the day is scheduled to be late, and the rest never catch up), so we arrived in Rome late, which makes it a good thing I hadn't bought that train ticket in advance. Since we're getting married and have to carry all the wedding clothes and trappings, we have an extra large suitcase and had to check it, against the most fervent advice of Rick Steves. There's a reason Rick gives that advice ... it took a full 45 min for our giant suitcase to appear on the baggage belt.
After grabbing our bag, we made it to the airport train 2 minutes before the express to Roma Termini left. I found "la bigletteria" and conducted the ticket transaction entirely (and successfully) in Italiano (without accidentally ordering a horse). The doors closed as we boarded the train and we were off, arriving at Roma Termini with minutes to spare before the intercity express to Salerno was leaving. Again, I completed the transaction (this one more complicated as it involved travel class, time schedules and destinations) entirely in Italiano (Nancy was starting to be impressed), and we found our platform, boarded and departed. The train trip was long and the airconditioning in our carriage was not working well, and we stopped to let some sheep cross the tracks or something, so we arrived in Salerno three hours later, tired and sweaty, little knowing the toughest part of the trip was ahead of us.
THE ROAD TO POSITANO
A quick e-mail sent from the train to Christian, at Villa Flavia Giaio in Positano confirmed that we would (given all the flight/baggage/ sheep delays) now miss the last boat leaving Salerno for Positano (the long boat trip along the coast being our main reason for going through Salerno). Bus (or a €120 cab ride) was our only way to get there now. Little did we know what bad news that was.
There is no direct bus from Salerno to Positano, so we have to take the SITA bus from Salerno to Amalfi, then another SITA bus from Amalfi to Positano. After some scheduling confusion where I was reading schedules from Sorento instead of Salerno (hey, jet lag, broken AC, sheep delays ... I was tired and entitled to a mistake or three), we recovered from the mistake by luck of the 3:30 bus arriving 20 min late. We loaded our bags and hopped on.
The road from Salerno to Amalfi is hard to properly describe. It was built hundreds of years ago, and made just wide enough for maybe 1-1/2 or 2 Fiats or chariots to pass each other. Somehow, the bus drivers manage to twist the properties of space and time and get two full-size city busses to pass each other. A ride in one of these busses is even harder to descibe. If you've ever ridden the Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, it's just like riding that for an hour and 15 minutes straight, but with speeding busses coming towards you and lots of cursing in Italian. The only difference between the Hulk and the road to Amalfi is that you don't feel every turn brings certain death when riding the Hulk. The Hulk also has fewer inversions and less cursing in any language. After 45 minutes, we didn't want to go to Positano. In fact, if Positano was anything less the Disney World, New York City, and a surprise birthday party all wrapped up in one, it couldn't possibly be worth this journey.
After arriving in Amalfi, we evacuated the bus to wait for the next bus from Amalfi to Positano. When that bus arrived, it was clear a few folks getting off had lost their lunches in transit. The road from Amalfi to Positano was similar, but narrower than the last, but somehow, less terrifying. Forty minutes later we hopped off the bus in Amalfi, lunch intact, and started the long but beautiful walk (the picture above) down into Positano to Villa Flavia Gioia, just above the beach. We were shown to our room which looked out on the church square at the bottom of the town and had a perfect view of the beach and the Sea. It was now 6PM, and a gentle Italy-induced calm washed over both of us. Suddenly, we couldn't even remember the horrors of the Sita Bus. We freshened up, wandered to the beach, found a tranquil restaurant built in a castle-like building, polished off a bottle of local San Rocco wine with a terrific dinner, and walked on the beach before retiring for the night. It seems the trip here was worth it ... although neither of us is inclined to step on a bus or leave this town any time soon. If we never return and you never hear from us again, you know where to find us.
Brent & Nancy
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
In my last entry, I promised upcoming tales of planning, packing, learning Italian, and stranding the waverunner.
Since then, my life has been filled with the woes of a difficult financial market, packing, and making the worst meat pies in London for Halloween, complete with fingers and bones sticking out of them.
Because of that, I'll be cramming the remaining stories into one abreviated blog tapped out on my iPhone keypad while waiting for our plane to arrive.
I have to tell those of you getting married for a second time, that we've discovered the near-perfect solution for wedding-planning simplicity ... hold the wedding in a foreign country.
We've hired a wedding coordinator - Ben Singleton of ItalyWeddings.com - to help with all the gory details. He's been helping us gather and translate all the appropriate paperwork and he'll be driving us at break-neck speed through the streets of old Florence, next week, to all the various agencies and consulates to file a myriad of papers. He's arranging the Siena town hall, the official, the witnesses (we're picturing an 80-year old couple who've been married for 100 years who attend all of the weddings, christenings, and funerals in town), the translator, the photographer, the videographer, the harpist, the flowers, and a dinner at a fine local restaurant with enough food to kill us. Ben has been terrific to work with, and he's left us with few worries short of showing up.
I'm not condoning those of you happily married friends leave something good for the experience, and I think the first-time wedding planners owe it to themselves to go deeply into debt to hold a ridiculously big wedding with 17 bridesmaids and 500 guests and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, just for the shear right of passage, but the rest of you ... give it some thought ... you won't be sorry.
Packing stinks. I hate it. But I do have a cool new camera bag. I like the camera bag.
This is an area where I will happily report that Nancy's skills are vastly superior to my own. She was fully packed three weeks ago. I have escaped the Trostle curse of not being able to begin packing before 9PM the night before the flight, but I will admit to leaving a few too many details to the end. This time, I blame my friends Freddie, Fannie, Lehman & WaMu. It's not really their fault, but it makes me feel better when I blame them
COMPETITIVE ROSETTA STONE (TACKLE ... NOT TWO-HAND-TOUCH)
Last time we went to Italy, we took a community college course in speaking Italian. We learned how to say "what a dirty old man" ("che vecchio porco"), and "I would like a room with a bathroom" ("voglio un pizza con pepperoni"), but we really didn't learn the language beyond the phrases.
Enter Rosetta Stone. Rosetta stone is a brilliant system in which you learn language like a three-year-old. They show a picture of three plates and you hear or read or select or (eventually) say or type "tre piatti." Soon enough, it all sinks in and you're speaking something that passes for Italian. You also learn a bunch of words you're likely never going to use while travelling (of course, if you know the word for "Horse," you'll never accidentally order "cavallo" on "il menu." The drawback of this system is that it often makes you feel like a three-year-old trying to figure out the picture and phrase and just what it all means. A photo of a kid and his mother looking affectionate with a phrase that loosely translates "I want good for my mother," left me scratching my head. I'm pretty sure the theory is that the more frustrated you get the less chance you'll forget that stupid phrase. Either that, or the Rosetta Stone folks are masochistic jerks who enjoy torturing people remotely.
Well, Nancy - who claims that learning a language doesn't come naturally to her - has taken a shine to Rosetta Stone. She is like 500 sections ahead of me, particularly while Freddie and I have been burning the midnight oil at work. When I do get the time, I have to bodily drag her from the iMac to get my own time learning the language. Hopefully, as her language skills have advanced, she'll be kind enough to keep me from ordering "cavallo" at dinner.
THE WAVERUNNER STORY
I was going to just skip this story, claiming the plane is boarding and I have to go, but seeing that I've put a picture from that day at the top of this entry, I suppose I owe it to you to at least briefly tell the story ... I can't do the story full justice in the time I have, but I'll give you the gist of it ..,
At the end of our August trip to Ocean City, because I was leaving for L.A. the next day, Nancy and I took our only full day alone to put our WaveRunner in the water and plan a big adventure. We decided to make our way down to Chincoteague island, a good 40+ miles from our starting place at Ocean Pines. The wind was like 1 knot, and the water was glass smooth, making for a magical and fast trip down. We stopped at a sandbar, hunted hermit crabs, and had a picnic that couldn't be beat. That's the calm and happy picture above. Then, we decided to head back ... "but not before we take a loop through Tom's Cove," I said ... stupidly (although at that moment it didn't sound like a stupid plan).
Well, long story short, at 20mph, I suddenly noticed the sand was very very close to the top of the water, and the WaveRunner stopped in its tracks ... feeling not dissimilar to how roller coasters feel when they stop at the very end of the ride.
Frantic attempts to free the craft before the tide went out completely were fruitless. The picture looked much like the one above, only without the happy face, and with the WaveRunner 100 feet to the left, in the middle of the sandbar. The Coast Guard Auxiliary (Dale & Warren) came to our rescue, but could do nothing but wait for the tide to come back up, and sit and laugh with me (while I was on their boat) that my Fiancee (who was 100 yards away on the WaveRunner) would not forget this for a long, long, long, long time. So far, they're right.
One hour, 45 minutes later, we were freed by the rapidly rising tide, and made our way through 40 miles of the worst chop from the 15 knot winds.
In the end, it was a fantastic adventure that we both can look back on and laugh about. We arrived safely, and made it back in time for us to make our way home and for me to catch my flight the next morning.
We're hoping for better luck with our trip from Roma to Salerno on the train tomorrow ... we had trouble getting a train ticket in advance (system problems), but I'm hoping and expecting we'll be fine At least we're guarnteed less time stranded on a sand bar this time.
Next entry, from Italia.
Ciao! -M. Brent (& Nancy)
Thursday, September 25, 2008
If you haven't read part 1 of The Story So Far, click here and read that one first, so it's all in order and makes sense and doesn't lose all its drama and suspense.
I've got the ring, but have not proposed.
I'd like to use that Fiancée term, but I don't have a Fiancée, yet.
I'm randomly sprinkling Italian phrases throughout my blog to impress all my Italian friends, of which I have none.
Gradico il bruschetta.
I'm looking for right time / right place to propose.
I pick the date: July 27th. Since Nancy grew up on the water & loves being on the water, I'm looking for a Skipjack or Schooner or Dinghy to make my way out onto the water and a romantic time. I'm thinking sunset cruise, and start trolling the internet for the right boat. I'm thinking the Dinghy might just not be right.
I finally find the right boat. It's the Schooner Woodwind, sailing out of Annapolis for a sunset cruise.
Perfect! What could be more perfect than a sunset cruise?
Wait ... not so perfect. They only have one ticket left. It would kind of defeat the purpose to send Nancy on a romantic cruise for our engagement and not be there to propose to her ("Hey. You look like a nice guy. Right after the boat goes under the bay bridge give this ring to that cute blonde and ask for her hand in marriage. Can you do that? Good." .... "Oh! Wait! Don't forget to mention it's from me!").
Okay, genius, now what? Dov'è il vostro cervello? (note to Nancy, remember that phrase for driving in Italy, next month)
I'm kind of stuck on this boat. I like it. I think it likes me. I look harder. No, still only one ticket. I call them. No, still only one ticket. I look again. Earlier in the afternoon (not so romantic), is a three hour tour (everyone, now, "A three hour tour! A three hour tour!") on the Chesapeake ... with a wine tasting (ding-ding-ding-ding-ding ... we have a winner!!!! ... okay, that is romantic). Perfect. Tasting various Spanish wines on a three hour tour (everyone, now, "Un giro di tre ore! Un giro di tre ore!") ... and I'm allowed to join her!
I call up Nancy, trying to be as nochalante as I can with secret plans like these up my sleeve, and tell her to plan nothing for Sunday (smoooooth ... she suspects nothing). That night, I tell her about the wine cruise. She asks me a few questions, but lets me off the hook relatively easily. She suspects something, but - as always - she's way cooler than I about it.
Sunday afternoon rolls around, and it's the perfect day for sailing: nice and warm with a firm breeze. The time comes to board the boat, and we find we're heading out on the Schooner Woodwind II, the boat Christopher Walken (left) pilots in the movie "The Wedding Crashers." Very, very cool. Nancy is pleased and impressed. I've made arrangements with Captain Ken well ahead of time. While boarding, I give him the sign, feeling like Robert Redford in "The Sting," and he looks at me like I've lost my mind. (again: Dov'è il vostro cervello?) I'm kidding. Captain Ken was great, and he helped me hatch my plan with such nonchalance that it almost seemed spontaneous, or at the very worst unimportant to him.
We set sail. I get to do all kinds of manly sailing things like "hoisting the sails" and "going to the head." Captain Ken (no relationship to Cap'n Crunch ... they spell "Captain" differently) invites me back to take the helm (that's the really big steering wheel in the picture above for those sailors out there who've never "hoisted a sail" or "gone to the head"). Of course I'm ridiculously confident taking the helm, being certified as a level 2 sailor (a "level 2" sailor - for those who have never sailed before - is one level above a "level 1" sailor). It quickly becomes apparent that I can't keep this boat on course. I'm not entirely sure Captain Ken likes the cut of my jib. Nancy waves and smiles at me, happy to just be sitting on a sailboat at sea. I wave her back to come join me. She declines, not having the need to do manly sailor things like I do. I wave her back again. She declines again. I persist to the point of annoyance until she acquiesces and starts toward the stern. Since I'm at the helm, failing to keep the boat on course - able level 2 sailor that I am - the boat's tossing her about on the way back, causing her to stumble over and into people minding their own business and just wishing they'd start opening bottles of Spanish wine, arriving at my side sufficiently annoyed. This is going well, no? Captain Ken asks her to take the helm, which she does, since she's also a level 2 sailor and also smart enough not to beach our WaveRunner on a shoal in the Chincoteague Inlet ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Nancy takes the helm, focusing on the horizon as a level 2 sailor should, missing the fact that I'm now at her side on one knee with a ring in my hand. Captain Ken speaks to her, but Nancy's not quite sure what he's saying. He speaks again. "Pay attention to your man," he says. It's not the typical nautical command, but he's the captain, so she does. As she's turning toward me, before her eyes even get to me or the ring, the rest of the passengers are wise to my plan and let out a long "awwwwwww."
On the Schooner Woodwind II, in front of 30 strangers, I ask Nancy to marry me in eloquent prose that still escapes me. She says "yes," as long as I promise to let Captain Ken drive from now on. I'm kidding. She says yes, and we spend the next 5 minutes recreating the proposal moment while a nearby woman figures out how the camera on my iPhone works.
The picture to the right is proof (a) that the woman taking the picture doesn't know how to operate the camera on an iPhone and (b) that I was on my knee when I proposed. It also shows I'm not wearing socks.
We make our way back to our seats on the Lido deck, accepting congratulations from all the passengers, just in time for the first bottle of Spanish wine to be opened: a bottle of sparkling wine, perfect to start my first moments with my Fiancée, toasting our newfound happiness (the annoyance of stumbling over people to get to the helm far behind us and long forgotten; the annoyance of beaching the WaveRunner on the Chincoteague inlet shoal well ahead of us).
Comparing Nancy's post-engagement smile (below) to her pre-engagement smile (up above), I think I've done okay. It's nearly two months later, and she's still got that smile. I'm pretty deeply in love with this woman. I think I'll marry her.
Beaching the WaveRunner, planning and packing for the trip, and the feirce competition of learning to speak Italian with Rosetta Stone.
Ciao! - M. Brent