Life lessons from living in Italy...
Living in Italy taught us more than the beauty of Tuscany or Umbria, Italian culture, Italian cooking... enjoy life lessons through our original stories and images at
Life lessons from living in Italy...

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Where did you go Joe DiMaggio?...

italy / italian — looking heavenwardI started to experience some rather severe abnormal computer behavior (delayed read and write failures, unwarranted computer resets, memory errors, etc.) so I decided that it was critically important that I move everything over to the new system I'd been putting together. So, I've been moving and organizing everything (six terabytes of stuff) to this new computer which has kept me off-line (hence the missing posts).

In the mean time our Google search rankings have slipped a bit. What does any of this mean?... who knows! The vast majority of visitors to this Italy blog come from links from other sites and not from Google searches. Still, I was pleased when we started migrating up the rankings (we started on page 127) and especially pleased when we landed near the top of page one (for several high-traffic key words/phrases) in a relatively short period of time and without spending a dime. I wonder how long this ranking can remain without daily postings—an interesting experiment in SEO (search engine optimization)
. Well, back to the grindstone!

Rebel with a cause...

italy / italian / culture — no pictures hereDon't take pictures here the sign says. So what did I do... I took out my camera and took a picture of the sign that says no pictures. Sometimes it's a concern over flash photography... other times it's a protected image (like the David statue)... other times it's just to annoy. Nevertheless, if you see this sign you'd better turn off your flash and/or conceal your attempt to take that picture or be prepared to have someone speak to you sternly in really fast Italian while making animated hand gestures. By the way, they're not really angry... it's just their way (you rebel you).

A wife and mother's view of life in Italy...

italy italian life living tuscany toscanaI decided not to leave Anne-Marie out of the mix so I asked her the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are her responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: Getting to know the Italian people and the beauty of the Italian countryside.
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: How complicated it sometimes is to do simple things.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Yes!... tomorrow.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: It's not possible to say one... there are so many things that I like... strangozzi con fave e pancetta, bruschetta, pecorino cheese (from Piensa), bread, olive oil, lentils... basically (other than pizza), everything we ate at Osterìa del Trivio in Spoleto.
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Walking the little girls to and from school and saying "Ciao!" to our friends in the shops.
Anne-Marie's Italian language skills blossomed when we moved to Spoleto (since there were many more opportunities for her to speak with Italian natives). The Italians just loved her. And, according to my ever-so-true "trickle down love" theory, on many occasions I was the beneficiary of that love because I was nearby.

A first-born daughter's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living  — RebeccaI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Rebecca's (almost age 24) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: The people, the culture, the small shops, the small streets... and definitely gelato alla nocciola (hazelnut) and inexpensive pizza (that tastes incredible).
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: It's hard to find a legal place to park.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: What kind of question is that?... PREGO!.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: That's a hard one... all of it... but especially tagliatelle with Mom's special red sauce, or Mom's lasagna al Ragù, or Mom's... OK, all of it.
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Driving around Tuscany in a beat up car and "sledding" on garbage bags in the snowy mountains.
Before moving to Italy, Rebecca had visited a number of countries in the Americas and Asia. She was not only delighted to experience Italy (and the rest of Europe) but also to learn Italian. She worked as an English tutor, a babysitter, and from time-to-time at the local pizzerìa where Craig worked.

A first-born son's view of life in Italy...

I asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Craig's (almost age 21) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: A chance to see what life is like outside of the United States and the opportunity to learn a new language.
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: It was hard to make friends again.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Without thinking twice.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Bistecca di maiale and tagliatelle dei Pini.
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: My job at the local pizzeria (especially when people would ask me where in Italy I was from and how I learned to make pizza).
Craig had the best Italian of all of us. And, like Hannah, Craig used his innate sense of humor to break down barriers and build lasting friendships with sometimes the unlikeliest of people. I couldn't believe it when he scored into the third year on his Italian university entrance exam (never having studied Italian)... the kid is bright.

A young man's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living — trevorI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Trevor's (now age 18) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: The pace of life... it's slower, more relaxing and gives you time to enjoy life.
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: The pace of life... it's slower...
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Heck yes.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Gnocchi, pizza diavola, and any pasta with tartufo (truffles).
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Camping & boating at Lago Trasimeno with Brendan (Trevor's Australian friend).
I was proud of several things that Trevor did in Italy, not the least of which was how he stood up for his values and beliefs when many around him were lacking in some pretty core areas. And, during the summer when he tested out of an entire year of scientific high school by passing the year-end exam in each course... impressive!

A teen boy's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living — andrewI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Andrew's (almost age 15) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: The sights, the food, the people, and the culture.
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: Feeling ignorant when I didn't understand.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Sure.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Spaghetti alla carbonara and anything with seafood (but not too salty).
Andrew is an unbelievable trooper. In the face of adversity (a congenital hearing loss that made learning Italian more difficult), this kid just plugged along and was a friend to everyone (he was especially loved by his teachers). Andrew has a heart of gold.

A teen girl's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living — hannahI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living Italy and here are Hannah's (almost age 13) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: The food—especially gelato.
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: People smoking in my face going in and out of buildings and on the sidewalk.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Yes, because it was fun seeing different things and being with the people (but not as a tourist).
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Gelato, tagliatelle dei Pini, and pizza con wüster.
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Living in an Italian farm house with a pool in the summer.
Hannah has a real facility for languages. She not only learned to read, write, and speak Italian but also some local dialect as well. She demonstrated a great sense of humor in Italian and easily crossed social and cultural boundaries (which is not the easiest thing to do).

A young girl's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living — paigeI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Paige's (now age 6) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: Gelato, the swing set and castle toy (at the farm house), and nebbia (farm dog)
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: When Luca killed the pigs.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: Yes and I like to talk to the people.
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Spaghetti al ragù, pizza margherita, kebab, and pizzette (mini pizzas).
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Going to the Tebro pasticerìa after school, making biscuits with grandma, making pizza with Paolo, winning the gummy art contest, traveling around and seeing so many places.
Paige would melt the heart of any store owner she spoke to and was constantly being asked if she and her little sister would like a treat. Her Italian language skills were developed purely by speaking with others so she has no accent... fruciatta!

A young child's view of life in Italy...

italy / italian / life / living — savannahI asked each of our children the same five questions about our family adventure living in Italy and here are Savannah's (now age 4) responses:
  • Q: What is your favorite thing about living in Italy?
  • A: Fragola (or strawberry gelato).
  • Q: What is your least-favorite thing?
  • A: I broke my tooth.
  • Q: Would you do it again?
  • A: What?
  • Q: What is your favorite Italian food?
  • A: Pasta.
  • Q: What is your favorite memory of Italy?
  • A: Night stories.
Savannah was fearless in Italy. Whether it was playing with others her age (initially not understanding a word) or approaching people seated at a restaurant, she was at home. I was surprised by how well she sang Italian songs from the local Catholic preschool.

The good, the bad and the ugly...

taly / italian / life / living — paige squish faceLast night I was watching an Italian epic spaghetti western "Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo" (filmed in Spain, directed by Sergio Leone and starred Clint Eastwood). What does this have to do with an Italy blog and our family adventure living in Italy? Let's see...

The good...
  • Life in Italy is amazingly beautiful but many times you have to slow your pace to appreciate (or even see) it.
  • Italy is filled with art and culture that dates back forever.
  • Italians are not only friendly but are good friends.
  • The Italian language is fun to learn and speak.
The bad...
  • School that's six days a week.
  • Cost of living is expensive.
  • Too many people smoke.
The ugly...
  • Anything to do with the infrastructure of Italian life (government, schools, utilities, etc.) is unnecessarily and overly complex.
  • The all-to-often "passing the buck."
Is it worth it, you might ask? The answer is a resounding, "Si, certamente!"

First Spitaliano then Itilish...

italy / italian / language — cancun mexico beachToday Anne-Marie and I returned from a week-long vacation in sunny Cancun, Mexico... OLE! When we first arrived in Italy, I was the only member of the family that was fluent in another language (i.e., Spanish—having lived in South America for three years). Italian and Spanish are pretty close (the roots of words, grammar, and pronunciation are substantially similar). I was surprised by how much Italian I could initially understand because of my Spanish.

Those early days in Italy were filled with a lot of Spitaliano (i.e., Italian sprinkled with Spanish). It wasn't long before my Spanish disappeared entirely as my mind became completely consumed with Italian. I remember more than a year into our sojourn in Italy calling to Spain because both Rebecca and Craig would be serving voluntary missions for our Church there and I needed to make a few arrangements for them... I could barely construct a sentence in Spanish (how is that possible!).

Last week's vacation was somewhat the opposite. At first I spoke a lot of Itilish (i.e., Spanish sprinkled with Italian). Within days, however, my Spanish returned and this time I didn't loose the Italian. I now find it much easier to go back and forth between the two languages. YEA!

Italian fashion gone wild?...

italy / italian / religeon / travel — vatican cityNo, this is the uniform of the Swiss Guard in Vatican City. Vatican City (formally the "State of the Vatican City") is the smallest independent state in terms of population (approx. 800) and area (approx. 110 acres) in the world. Unfortunately, you can't see the majority of Vatican City (other than St. Peter's Square, St. Peter's Cathedral, and the Vatican Museum) because it is closed to the general public.

Anne-Marie and I met an older gentleman and his wife at Fonteverde
(an exclusive health & beauty spa in Tuscany) who was from Milano. He invited our entire family to come stay at his house for a week but we were never able to get our schedules together (when the children weren't in school, he was always vacationing). I only say this because he casually mentioned to me that the previous week he had had an audience with the Pope on some matter and that if we wanted to see the "closed" portions of Vatican City he would be happy to arrange for and accompany us. I thought he was kidding but others who knew him said that he was serious. Later, he mentioned that he was the owner of the world champion German shepherd (which I verified on the Internet). I guess you never know who you're going to bump into.

Stufato alla Gió con Tre Carni...

italy / italian / food / recipes — stufato all giò con tre carniThis month's second is really a meal unto itself (and it's a good thing since the preparation takes a little time—but well worth it!). Stufato all Gió con Tre Carni means Gio's three-meat stew (in honor of Giovanna, it's creator).

  • 3 TBL olive oil
  • 2 TBL butter
  • 3 medium yellow onions
  • 2 bunches parsley
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 2 15 oz cans tomato sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 lb 2oz Italian sausage (mild with no fennel)
  • 1 lb chicken breast (2 breasts)
  • 1 lb 8 oz beef stew meat
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 lb 2 oz potato (peeled and cubed approx 1 inch)
  • 8 oz carrot (peeled and cut 1/4 inch diagonally)
  • 6 bell peppers (2 green, 2 red, 2 yellow cut into bite-sized pieces)
  • 1 lb zucchini (quartered lengthwise then sliced into bite-sized pieces)
  • 5 oz eggplant (peeled and cut like zucchini)
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  1. Mix onion, parsley, and garlic in a food processor on slow speed.
  2. Combine result with 1.5 TBL olive oil and 1 TBL butter in a 6 quart stock pot and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes stirring occasionally.
  3. Add meat pieces (lightly salted) and cook an additional 5 minutes stirring occasionally.
  4. Increase heat to medium high, add tomato sauce and water and cook until mixture begins to boil. Reduce heat to low and cook semi-covered for 1.5 hours.
  5. While cooking, add 1 TBL butter to a fry pan and cook chicken (lightly salted and peppered) over medium heat until golden (turning once). Reduce heat to low, add 1/2 cup chicken broth, and cook for an additional 10 minutes turning occasionally. Remove chicken (and any juice) and set aside. When cooled, cut chicken into bite-sized pieces.
  6. While chicken is cooling, wipe fry pan with a paper towel, add 1.5 TBL olive oil and cook sausage over medium heat turning occasionally until well cooked. (While cooking, poke sausage with a fork to remove excess grease.) When complete, remove sausage (and any juice) and set aside. When cooled, cut into diagonal bite-sized pieces.
  7. After 1.5 hours, add potatoes and carrots to stockpot and cook for an additional 10 minutes.
  8. Add peppers, zucchini, and eggplant to stockpot (add salt and pepper to taste) and cook 10 minutes.
  9. Add sausage (with juice) and chicken (with juice) to stockpot and cook 10 minutes. (If stew is too dry, add remaining chicken broth.)
  10. Serve immediately. Buon Appetito!
  • Although this dish is a complete meal, bread and wine are always welcome (if you're Mormon you can drink grape juice).

Gemelli al Gorgonzola con Mandorle...

italy / italian / food / recipes — gemelli al gorgonzola con mandorleThis month's first is Gemelli al Gorgonzola con Mandorle (which translates to gemelli pasta with blue cheese sauce and almonds). It's quite good and easy-to-prepare.

  • 1 lb gemelli
  • 4 TBL butter
  • 5 oz bleu cheese (creamy and not too strong)
  • 4.5 oz heavy cream
  • 1.5 oz sliced almonds
  • white pepper
  1. Boil water for pasta (include 2 TBL salt and 1 TBL olive oil in water) and cook pasta al dente (not soft). Drain water and set aside.
  2. At the same time, combine butter, blue cheese, cream and a little pinch of pepper in a large skillet over low heat stirring constantly until creamy.
  3. Add almonds and cook for 1 minute stirring constantly.
  4. Add pasta and stir until well combined. Transfer to a serving plate. Buon Appetito!
  • Short pasta like gemelli, farfalle, and rotini should be stirred with a wooden spoon.
  • If you want, you can freeze this sauce for later use (refresh with a little milk when warmed).

Uova alla Mimosa...

italy / italian / food / recipes — uova all mimosaIn each of the last three months we have presented three recipes from our Italian chef friends for each of the three main categories of Italian dishes (i.e., starters, firsts, and seconds). I purposefully left out the dessert category because that's Anne-Marie's specialty (and will be presented by her at a later date). This month, I thought we would offer one dish from each category. Here is a delightful starter—Uova alla Mimosa (or stuffed eggs).

  • 10 eggs
  • 1 tsp anchovy paste
  • 1 can tuna (smaller can with oil removed)
  • 2 tsp capers (squeeze to remove liquid and set on paper towel)
  • mayonnaise (to make creamy)
  • parsley (finely chopped and small bunches)
  1. Boil eggs (10 minutes), cool with water (and ice), remove shells, and dry/place on a paper towel.
  2. Cut crosswise and remove the yolk and place in a small bowl (set aside the yolks of two eggs).
  3. Slice a small amount from the top and bottom of the egg so that the halves can lie flat on the serving plate.
  4. Pass tuna, egg yolks, capers, and anchovy paste through a wire mesh strainer using a spoon to force accomplish the task.
  5. Add mayonnaise sufficient to make it creamy (but not too soft).
  6. Spoon mixture into egg halves. Cover each half lightly with mayonnaise. Grate remaining egg yolk on top of egg halves and sprinkle lightly with parsley. Buon Appetito!
  • Instead of using a knife, use sewing thread to cut the eggs in half.
  • Don't mix the ingredients with a food mill or Cuisinart.
  • To sprinkle the parsley, place the parsley in one hand and cover with the other. Move hands back and forth evenly over serving plate.

Some things can drive you crazy...

italy / italian / life / living — Telecom ItaliaMany of you may not know that the Devil referred to by John in Revelations (that's in the Bible for you heathens) is actually Italy's Telecom (phone/Internet service provider). Now here's a company that hasn't learned (or probably ever heard of) the term customer service. In fact, I would never have believed that a company could be so bad at it. Silly me... I thought they would want me as their customer. Oh how naive I was as to think that I could simply call them, that they would establish my service (phone and Internet) in the "up two weeks" they said they needed, that the service would actually work (after two months of waiting), and that it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg (I'm now paraplegic). Sadly, when it comes to Telecom Italia, you need to set your clock back 50 years and then go to sleep.

Now you hear it, now you don't...

italy / italian / culture / life / living — bell towerWhen we first moved from Città della Pieve to Spoleto, one difference we noticed immediately was the noise of living in the historical center vs. a farm house in the country. The bell tower ringing (on the hour and half hour), the vehicles driving by, the conversations (and sometimes arguments) of people walking by, the workers tearing down stage/seating from community events at nearby public squares, etc.

At first, it was difficult to sleep (as it seemed we could hear everything). Within weeks, however, the sounds dissipated and we slept comfortably through the night. My grandmother (who lived to be 99 years and 10 months) had a house near the railroad tracks and the same thing happened to her. The mind is an interesting thing. Now, if I could only consciously control which sounds to block out!

How much with the American discount?...

italy/ italian / life / living — shoppingOne of my favorite things to do when told how much something cost in Italy was to respond saying, "È con lo sconto Americano?" (which basically means "And, how much with the American discount?"). Since I would speak in Italian and pause before smiling, the facial expressions I would get were priceless. The thing is that in many instances the response was a discounted price (and sometimes a significant discount). At the end of the day, who doesn't want a discount?

Shopping in Italy can be both beautiful and frustrating... strangely, for the same reason. The Italian way is so different from what we were accustomed to. I often found myself repeating the words of my father (when our family was living in South America)... "Isn't this great!"

The touch of a master's hand...

italy / italian / cycling — master mechanicThe plane trip to Italy wreaked havoc on my bicycle (even though I took it in a hard-shell container specifically designed for airline travel). I asked a group of cyclists who was the best local bike mechanic and was told that the guy in Aquaviva (meaning living water) was a "maestro." So, I traveled the 30 minutes to Aquaviva to have the "master" give my bike the once over. He complimented me for having purchased a bike made from all Italian parts. I waited somewhat impatiently for the three days that he requested and when I returned to collect my bike I couldn't believe how it looked. More importantly, I couldn't believe how it rode. The shifting was flawless, the wheels were true, it was better than new. The professionals who race in the grand tours are lucky to have master mechanics fine tuning their bikes all the time.

I usually have to have my wheels trued (think of it as an alignment) twice each riding season. In the two years and more than 6,000 miles I rode in Italy, I never had to touch those wheels... they stayed true the entire time. Talk about the touch of a master's hand!

Don't change the color of your hair...

italy / italian / life / living — grembiuleSchool uniforms didn't do much to make our blond-haired girls look Italian. Kids and adults alike were always wanting to touch their hair. I'm not sure Paige or Savannah appreciated this until I told them that their special blond hair was probably one of the reasons why shop owners were always giving them treats. This they understood!

Our children are all pretty social in their interactions with others. I was glad for their blond hair because it made them easier to keep track of (or spot when one would wander out of our immediately view). For what it's worth, we always felt safe in Italy (day or night). That's pretty amazing when you consider the number of places our family has visited in Italy.

Pull over—you've been randomly selected...

italy / italian / government / travel — police blockadeThe Carabinieri (or state police) and Polizia Municipale (local police) are well represented in Italy but you won't find these individuals citing drivers for traffic violations. What you will find is the well known "posto di blocco" (or police control/blockade). If they hold out the red circle paddle, you've been randomly selected and must pull over. Then, for the next five to fifteen minutes they review your documentation (e.g., ID card, drivers license, vehicle registration, proof of insurance) and ask you questions.

Shortly after moving to Italy, we were visiting Rome and thieves broke into our VW transporter shuttle and removed all of our personal articles from the back (including Craig's and Rebecca's international drivers licenses which were not replaceable from Italy). From then on, we traveled with color copies of all our documents and left the originals at our apartment. The one time I was pulled over I was informed that copies were not legal documents. Oh well... they worked fine for two years!

I saw that the Carabinieri have a Lamborghini interceptor... I also saw the Polizia Municipale in a Smart Car (as long as the width of a normal car so it can park perpendicular to the curb). Obviously, the Carabinieri have a bigger budget than the local police.

Moving violations in Italy...

italy / italian / government / travel — autoveloxMoving violations (speeding, no turn on red, local traffic only, etc.) are captured by cameras and the resulting fines are sent to the owner of the vehicle in the mail (sometimes taking six months to arrive). My university students were caught/photographed entering a "zona traffico limitato" when they couldn't yet read the signs (which we reluctantly paid). I got caught once turning right at a red light (which is not allowed in Italy).

I figured since I had success with the local police on my parking ticket, I would try my luck with the traffic court. I asked to see the local judice (judge or magistrate) and explained that it was an honest mistake (i.e., that in America, it is permitted to turn right at a red light unless there's a sign stating otherwise). He had me write down and certify my statement in a formal document that would be presented in court (like a deposition). He said that because this was my first violation the ticket and fine would be waved. However, since we moved before the actual court hearing took place, for all I know I have a nice fine earning penalties and interest.

It's more complicated than you think...

italy / italian / government — documentsPurchasing, licensing, and insuring a car in Italy as a non-Italian is more complicated than you may think. First, you must have a "codice fiscale" (the Italian tax ID number) to purchase/license the car. To get a codice fiscale, you need to establish residency with the local city registrar. To establish residency, you need to obtain a "permesso di soggiorno" (or permission to stay) that you get from the Questura (oh my heck!). To get the permesso di soggiorno, you need to have a valid visa, a verifiable address (e.g., rental agreement), pictures, fees, and about a hundred other things. The smartest thing I ever did was take chocolate chip cookies and brownies to the gal who was helping me at the Questura. Talk about greasing the skids!

All vehicles (whether driven or not) must maintain insurance. And, proof of insurance must be displayed in the front window of the vehicle at all times.
Finally, since there's not much of a used-car market in Italy, selling a car is also an adventure.

Can I please buy a car?...

italy / italian / culture / life / living / way — carsWhen we arrived in Italy, the first order of business was to get a car. I thought to buy (rather than rent or lease) since we'd be staying a minimum of two years. I didn't realize was what I was getting myself into. Let me explain...

In hindsight, I should have surmised how this experience would play out by the lack of interest I received when I visited the local VW dealer. I
n America you are usually greeted by one or two salespeople before you can even get to the dealership's front door. In Italy, I had difficulty finding someone who would actually talk to me. When I asked for a sales person the receptionist asked if I had an appointment! I responded, "No, but I'd like to buy a car today... is there someone who can help me?" She said that she could set up an appointment for the next day or the day after. Finally, some young guy came over and told the receptionist that he would speak to me. (That guy deserves a posting all by himself.) When I told him that I wanted to buy a car that day he said please come with me and then sat me down in front of his computer. There he presented the various models and when I selected the model he said, "Let's choose the color and package and the car will be delivered in a couple of months." Are you kidding me?... Can I please buy a car today?

Tips for traveling in Italy by train...

italy / italian / travel / way — trainsYou don't need to go to the window (or sportello) to purchase tickets (especially if there's a line). We found that using the automated ticket machines (touch the British flag for English) to be very straight forward (but usually we researched what we wanted beforehand using the Trenitalia website). Either way, you need to know what day you want to travel, the approx. time you'd like to leave, the departure station, and the arrival station (use the Italian name like Firenze not Florence). From there, you can usually choose from a number of alternatives based on the type of train and trip duration. (Here's where we found the automated ticket machines to be more useful because the attendant at the window may not be interested in presenting alternatives.) The most common train types are:
  • Italy trains - Eurostar (ES) (Eurostar)—high speed trains that stop at major cities and some larger towns,
  • Italy trains - Intercity (IC) (Intercity) or Italy trains - Intercity plus (ICplus) (basically Intercity with newer trains)—trains that stop at major cities and most larger towns, and
  • Italy trains - Regional (R)(Regional)—trains that stop at every station.
There are other types of trains (e.g., Eurocity, Interregional, International, etc.) but basically all you need to know is the trip duration, the cost, and if there is a change of trains in order to evaluate which option is best for you. Make sure you reserve your seats (for Eurostar, IC, ICPlus). Important tip: if you forget to stamp/validate your ticket before boarding the train (using the yellow date/time stamp machines at the tracks), I suggest doing the following:
  1. When the ticket collector (in the green jacket) asks for your ticket, smile and say something complimentary in English, like "Italy is very beautiful" when you hand your ticket.
  2. If this person says something to you about the missing stamp (many times they won't say anything at all), smile and reply "I'm sorry... I don't understand" (if they speak in Italian or broken English). If their English is pretty good, smile and say "I'm sorry... I didn't know... I will do this next time."
I've been told that recently Trenitalia has been much more strict with tourists. However, I have persoanlly forgotten to stamp my ticket more times than I can remember but I have never been required to pay a multa (or fine). Of course, in these instances I don't speak/understand Italian.

When in Rome...

italy / italian / art / history / things to do — vatican museum romeAround the corner from St. Peter's square (10 min. walk) is the Vatican Museum. Here, you will find a plethora of artwork displayed (another must see when visiting Rome). Make sure you block enough time to see this (the wait in line can be up to 4 hours long).

Travel experts will tell you to go first thing in the morning (before the lines are too long) and when you enter the museum to bypass everything and go straight back to the Sistine Chapel (so there's not such a large crowd); then circle back when you're finished. Unfortunately, many know this and other than in the winter months a crowd in the Sistine Chapel is usually unavoidable. Also, if you can't go first thing in the morning, I suggest trying your luck 60 to 90 minutes before closing (all you need to do is get in before closing time and you'll have time to see things... unless you're an artist or art history major).

A moment preserved in time...

italy / italian / culture / history / things to do — pompei columnsThe remnants of ancient columns can be found near the main pathway in the residential center of the ruins of Pompeii (at the base of Mount Vesuvius). I never knew that columns were constructed of brick laid in a circular pattern with a plaster/cement exterior. For some reason, I believed they were solid stone (silly me).

About 20,000 residents were killed by falling ash, pumice, rock, and intense heat when Vesuvius blew its top in 79 A.D. It's quite sobering to see the remains of a mother and child who were killed in an instant. Interesting possible fact (this means that it sounds true) is that generally there is a cloud above the volcano created by
escaping hot gases.

The brightest star...

italy / italian / art / life / living — school christmas programIf you've ever wondered whose star shines brighter?… here’s your answer! Paige’s School Christmas program was held in a beautiful but small community theater that's centuries old (only 10 rows of 8-10 seats with three levels of balconies). At one point, the MC (the daughter of a famous Spoleto architect and upstairs neighbor of ours) asked me to sing "Oh Happy Day" (the audience had been trying to sing the song between acts). I teased her by asking if I could sing the song using the proper words.

Spoleto has been under significant restoration due to the 1998 earthquake. There's scaffolding everywhere. Shortly after we moved into our apartment, a large piece of stone fell from underneath the balcony and the city cordoned off the area for weeks. (I don't think anyone ever fixed anything though.)

Fresco is not a food or beverage...

italy / italian / art / culture / history — frescoesOur daughter, Rebecca, took a few art classes in college and was very excited to come to Italy and see all the paintings, sculptures, etc. that she'd only seen illustrated in books. She was even more excited to discover that in Italy you can find art treasures around every corner (i.e., you don't have to go to a museum to see beautiful historic art).

One type of painting that we saw everywhere were frescoes (murals on walls and ceilings). A painting "buon fresco" is accomplished by applying pigment mixed with water onto a thin layer of fresh plaster (the colors mute as the pigment is absorbed by the layer of plaster during the drying process). As such, you can only create as much of the overall image as you can paint in 7-9 hours. When you're done, the painting needs to look like a single image (and not a patchwork of smaller images) so this type of painting is very difficult. The sad thing is that through time, sections of the thin layer of plaster fall from the wall/ceiling (and along with them portions of the image). Of course, the most famous (and probably well cared for) fresco painting is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (which took four years to complete).

Here's a tip―don't tip!...

italy / italian / culture / life / living / way — change trayI read on a travel website, "tipping in Italy is NOT done by Italians... people who give advice about tipping in Italy do not live there!." Well, that pretty much sums it up. However, I will say this. Tips at restaurants in the more heavily touristed areas like Rome, Florence, or Venice are becoming more common place. Why, because Americans are so used to tipping that they feel strange not leaving a tip (and who doesn't want money). Whenever family or friends would visit us in Italy, we'd inform them about tipping. Restaurants have a "coperto" (or cover charge). If they don't, the service charge is built into the menu prices. There is no expectation of a tip. Leaving a bit of extra loose change (or "spiccioli") is seen as quite normal. But (and let me say this again to my brother Steve), the American-style tip is way over-the-top!

One more thing... the money tray at the register. When you pay for something, you put the money on the tray (don't hand it to the person). The cashier puts your change back on the tray (don't hold out your hand like you're an orphan wanting more). Grazie mille!

100 posts and still going strong...

italy / italian / life / living — thebishopblog.comAt first I wasn't sure how often I should or could post to this "Life lessons from living in Italy" blog (never having blogged anything before). I eventually settled on daily postings (all-the-while wondering "will I get two weeks out and have nothing more to say?... what about after a month, two months, three months?...").

So, after 100 posts I hope you find the content worthy of your time.
I really love sharing what our family learned in Italy (it's another way of giving back). One has to wonder, though, if anyone reads this stuff. Truth-be-told, I guess it doesn't really matter!

Ciao belli...
non sapete quanto ci manca la bell'Italia... magari avremmo l'oportunità di tornarci presto!

A little piece of home...

italy / italian / life / living — american military basesWhere can you have a hula contest in Italy?... at the American military base, of course. Despite our love for Italy, its people, its culture,... it was nice to visit the American base (the Navy has a support site near Naples and the Airforce has a base in Vicenza and a support site near Pisa). All you have to do is make friends with an American service man or woman and you're in the club! What can you do on base? Well, you can watch a movie in English (hooray!), eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken or Taco Bell (which may wreak havoc on your digestive system), or you can shop (with your host's assistance) at the base's grocery and department stores.

Don't get me wrong, one can be very happy living in Italy and not visit an American base. For us, it was like a vacation... see the latest movie, eat a bean burrito (difficult to do in Italy since there's no refried beans and no cheddar cheese), buy Diet Coke with Lime, a Thanksgiving Day turkey, Crispix, chocolate chips, cake mixes
(wow, this is fun), beef jerky, bacon, cheddar cheese, chips & salsa, GameCube games (that play in an American player), potato peeler, slow cooker, portable ice chest,... should I stop now?

You can pay me later...

italy / italian / culture / life / living / way — shoe repair shopWhen was the last time you heard that from a vendor? Strangely enough, this takes place all the time in Italy (sorry... but not usually for tourists). Whether it was the local specialty food store or the hardware store or the fix-it guy or the man delivering the new washing machine... "you can pay me later" was no big deal.

Often, "you can pay me later" turns into "you can pay me nothing at all." Vendors will not accept payment for small things. The shoe repair guy stretches out a pair of Paige's shoes and won't accept payment, a welder takes 20 minutes to weld extensions on new keys (so they'll fit in the very thick front door) and won't accept payment, the gelato guy won't accept payment for the smaller than normal cone he prepares for Savannah,... I could go on and on. I loved this about living in Italy!

Of course, there's no faster way to get on Anne-Marie's homemade goodies list (e.g., chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, cakes of all kinds) than by performing small acts of kindness... just ask the shoe guy!

Do you know your pasta types?...

italy / italian / food — pasta typesDo you know your pasta types? Take this quiz and see how you do. When we first moved to Italy, I'd say we only knew a handful of pasta types by name (and most were probably English equivalents like bowtie instead of farfalle). It made for interesting restaurant moments because we didn't speak enough Italian to understand the explanation if we asked. At first we learned by asking the names of pasta dishes that had been served nearby. Eventually, we moved beyond pasta types and got to the real meat (no pun intended)... the sauces/preparation (too many to list). Everyone has their favorite pasta. Unfortunately, for me it's usually the one I'm eating at the time.

By the way, I got 20 out of 24 on the quiz. That's only because most of the pasta types I didn't recognize had descriptive names and guess what?... I speak Italian!

Rules, rules, and more rules...

italy / italian / culture / humor / way — rulesNancy Harmon Jenkins, the author of "Cucina del Sole," says: "One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few." Some of my favorite Italian culinary dos and don'ts are:
  • don't cut spaghetti with a knife (even for small children)
  • don't put cheese on a seafood dish
  • don't eat bread with your pasta
  • do eat pizza using a knife and fork
My favorite (and definitely non-food) rule was the "no public urination." Why?... because you'd see cars pulled over to the side of the road all the time with some guy standing next to it (and he definitely wasn't having a smoke). I always said that it would be really hilarious to quickly stop and run over with a video camera and ask the person a question... but I never did. (Not because I was worried or afraid but because I didn't want to drag a video camera around with me all the time). Perhaps, some cable TV station will send me back to Italy so I can do that exposé.

Swarmed by pigeons in Venice...

While Craig and his friend Cody were visiting Venice, they went to see St. Marks Cathedral. In Piazza San Marco you can find vendors selling small bags of bird feed (basically dried corn kernels) for one Euro each. The boys decided to see what would happen if they spread bird feed all over themselves. It's amazing what fun teenagers can have with a couple of Euros.

Medieval bowling balls...

italy / italian / culture / history — medieval warfare trebuchetsBowling in medieval times must have really been something to see (just kidding). Can you imagine hefting one of these balls onto a trebuchet sling? The European debut of trebuchets (a type of catapult invented in China) was during the 12th century in Italy.

Trebuchets were  powerful weapons with a range of up to 300 yards. They were used by all invading armies on fortified cities. Stones were typically used, but there were many objects thrown: dead animals, diseased bodies, beehives, the severed heads of captured enemies, small stones burned into clay balls which would explode on impact like grapeshot, barrels of burning tar, fiery projectiles, or even unsuccessful negotiators, prisoners of war, and spies catapulted alive.
I'm glad I missed out on that period of history.

What do you mean the parents are coming too?...

italy / italian / culture / language / life / living / way — birthdaysBirthdays in Italy were interesting for a couple of reasons. First, American desserts (like chocolate chip cookies, brownies, cupcakes, carrot cake, cheesecake, etc.) are unknown to Italians (so they were always a big hit with children and adults alike). Second, when you invite one of your children's friends to a birthday party, the parents come too. So, instead of having to entertain just the children, you have to figure out what to do with their parents. What's that about?

Anne-Marie's 30th birthday in July came right in the middle of our move from Città della Pieve to Spoleto. I’m not sure I’ll ever get out of the dog house for that one (her birthday cake was a mini Magnum ice-cream bar with a candle in it and no presents… ouch!). Interesting fact: "auguri" is a catch-all word which Italians use for birthdays, holidays, achievements and the like. It means "congratulations!" I guess that's somewhat similar to English!

April fools on me?...

italy / italian / humor — brothers wives fatherI waited more than 10 years to pay back my brother, Scott, for an April fools joke he played on me. I remember very clearly having been interrupted during an important meeting in my office by a phone call from the police department. The officer said that my brother, Steve (not pictured), had been arrested on an outstanding bench warrant for an unpaid traffic violation and asked that I come and bail him out. (I knew what day it was but I could hear the police dispatcher in the background so I wasn't the least bit concerned that it could be a joke... I also knew my brother Steve.) I excused myself from the meeting and immediately departed for the police station. Just before I arrived, Steve (who was supposedly in jail) called and asked if I could pick him up an April-fools shake while I was out. What?!

My payback plan was perfect (but I'd need to involve my father and other brothers for it to be believable). I wrote an email to my father and copied my four brothers (including Scott) telling them that Trevor didn't come home the night before and that we thought he'd run off to a girl whose father worked at the American naval base in Naples. A few hours later (since we were eight hours ahead), I sent another email saying that we'd visited the family in Naples and that the fictitious girl was also missing. The plan worked. Scott called me on my cell phone and said that he was on his way to the airport and had booked a flight to Rome (he'd lived in Italy for two years) and would use his contacts in the Naples area to help us find Trevor. I told Scott that we had found Trevor and put him on the phone. Trevor had no idea why his uncle was asking him if he wanted to come live at his house for a while... April fools!

Regrettably, my father (who never checks his email on Sunday) had awoken early that morning and read the original message before he received my "it's an April fools joke on Scott" explanation, and a flurry of emails and telephone calls ensued. Fortunately, my father and brothers all have a good sense of humor... unfortunately, I'm now the black sheep of the family.

It's very particular?...

italy / italian / language — cinghiale"È molto particolare" was the response from a friend when I asked him to describe the taste of cinghiale (wild-boar meat primarily from the Tuscany/Umbria regions). Directly translated it means "it's very particular." However, based on what you may be talking about, "particolare" can mean particular, unique, certain, peculiar, characteristic, special, distinguishing, etc. It takes some time to wade through the possibilities to get the correct nuance (and a dictionary doesn't always help).

An Italian wild-boar
can get quite large (up to 300 kilos or approx. 660 pounds). This photo is of a baby boar we saw off the side of the road in Tuscany and probably weighed over 120 pounds. I remember once when an adult cinghiale crossed a dirt road right in front of the car I was driving. Another second sooner and I would have t-boned it. All I can say is that if that had happened, the car would have been totaled and the wild-boar would have stood up and walked off with maybe a limp. By the way, my friend was right... the taste of wild-boar meat is very particular!

I'm sorry but I didn't quite get that...

Italian music - Radio Italia
The other day I found this website for Italian music, news, and shows over the Internet. I reminisced our life in Italy as I listened to the live broadcast of an Italian radio station. Listening to the radio (as opposed to watching television) is not a very good way to pick up a foreign language because there's no visual context to what is being said. Having learned Spanish (living in South America) and Italian (living in Italy), I can tell you that the last groups of people you will understand in a foreign language are little children, the elderly, and radio announcers.

That being said, the radio can be helpful if you have a basic understanding of the language. TV is best (but what's on TV may not be the best). We found Italian television programming (as opposed to dubbed American programming) a bit silly—especially their spettacoli (somewhat similar to variety shows). Also, shows that are heavy in history or culture are more difficult to understand. Good luck trying to answer correctly the questions on the Italian version of "Who wants to be a Millionaire?"

Lastly, idiomatic expressions (proverbs or sayings) are always tough. For example, in English one would say, "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush." In Spanish one would say, "Mas vale un pájaro en mano que cien volando" (a bird in hand is worth more than 100 flying). In Italian one would say, "È meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani" (better an egg today than a hen tomorrow). Obviously, one who uses this phrase is not talking about birds or eggs so a literal translation doesn't really help. And, you can't reach through the radio or television and ask what in the heck they're talking about.

Would you like ice with your beverage?...

italy / italian / food / life / living / way — San PellegrinoEven in the most touristy of areas, your beverage won't come with ice in the glass. You can ask for it but the fact is that most restaurants don't have an ice machine (just a beverage cooler). I remember initially thinking, "how strange?" However, after having lived in Italy for two years, I no longer want ice in the glass. I still want the beverage to be cold (there's nothing more disgusting than a Coke served at room temperature). Frankly, I now prefer bottled water to soft drinks.

Bottled water (still and sparkling) is commonly served at restaurants in Italy (even when the tap water is completely safe to drink). Sparkling water (or aqua frizzante) is an acquired taste. The kids and I really like it but Anne-Marie does not. Our favorite Italian sparkling water is San Pellegrino. We wanted to visit the main bottling facility for the Società Anonima delle Terme di San Pellegrino (founded circa 1899) but never had sufficient time when we were nearby... a pity.

Mopeds, scooters, and cyclists—oh my!...

italy / italian / culture / cycling / travel — mopeds scooters motoriniOne thing that takes some getting used to when driving in Italy is the number of motorini (mopeds or scooters) and ciclisti (cyclists) there are on the roads. When you stop at a red light, within seconds you can become completely surrounded by these adventurous souls. When the light turns green, a mad dash ensues (similar to the first hundred yards of a motocross race). I learned quickly that it's only my fault if I hit a motorino with the front of my car (otherwise it's their responsibility not to hit me). If you hit a cyclist (or a cyclist hits you), it's always your fault.

People ride mopeds and scooters for various reasons (e.g., cost to purchase, cost to run/insure, ease of negotiating traffic, ease of parking). A
lthough Italian drivers are much more aware of people riding on two wheels, there is definitely a danger factor here. I don't think the cost and convenience factors outway the risks of riding a motorino. However, almost without exception I felt safe riding my bicycle in Italy (over 6,000 miles in two years). I wonder why that is?

Bruschetta al pomodoro...

italy / italian / food / recipes — bruschettaCan you have more than one favorite? When it comes to good Italian cooking, your favorite is usually what you're eating at the time (it's no wonder I gained weight living in Italy). Today's dish, Bruschetta (pronounced brus'ket'ta—please get this one right!), is a classic Italian starter with many variations (toppings). It originated in the 15th century in central Italy (Lazio, Marche, Toscana, Umbria). The most popular preparation (with tomato) is presented here.

  • bread (Italian or French style loaf)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves (whole peeled)
  • olive oil
  • 6 roma tomatoes (diced)
  • 4 basil leaves (sliced crosswise and then in half)
  • salt
  1. Cut the loaf of bread into 1/2" slices.
  2. Grill (or toast) each slice of bread.
  3. While still warm, rub a clove of garlic over the surface of one side.
  4. Push down on the bread slice so that the oil will penetrate the surface.
  5. Drizzle (or brush) olive oil over the surface and place on a serving plate. Repeat for each slice.
  6. At the same time, dice tomatoes (by hand) and place in a small bowl.
  7. Add basil, 2 TBL olive oil, and salt (to taste).
  8. Cover each slice of bread with a large spoonful of diced tomatoes. Buon appetito!
  1. The classic preparation is with no topping (just salt). However, variations may include toppings of red pepper, vegetables, beans, cured meat, and/or cheese. The most popular American recipe involves basil, fresh mozzarella, and tomato.
  2. The amazing tastes of Italian cooking are all in the freshness of the ingredients. For example, when the recipe calls for olive oil, it means a good quality extra virgin olive oil grown and produced in Italy.

Prosciutto e melone...

italy / italian / food / recipes — prosciutto e meloneThis starter, prosciutto e melone (or Parma ham and cantaloupe) is one of my favorite antipasti because of the fine duet of sugar and salt it creates. It's a classic seasonal Italian starter (since cantaloupe is not found during the winter months). This dish is very simple so I like to add a little flare in the presentation with olives.

  • cantaloupe (ripe but not too soft)
  • 12 thin slices of prosciutto (Italian Parma ham)
  • 36 pitted black olives
  • 36 pitted green olives
  • 6 toothpicks
  1. Cut the top off the cantaloupe (like you would a pumpkin for Halloween). Cut the exterior skin off and place the piece (inside up) in the center of a serving plate.
  2. Cut the cantaloupe in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.
  3. Slice the two portions in half again and then each piece into thirds. Remove the outer skin of each piece.
  4. Wrap each portion with a piece of prosciutto and place it on the serving plate (see picture).
  5. Place 6 olives (alternating black and green) on a toothpick and place the resulting olive skewer in the center piece of cantaloupe on the serving plate. Buon Appetito!
  1. There is no substitute for prosciutto (imported from Italy is not required but preferred).
  2. You may want to trim the amount of fat on each piece but don't remove the fat entirely.

Insalata Caprese...

italy / italian / food / recipes — insalata capreseThis month's great Italian recipes will concentrate on starters (or antipasti). This classic starter, Insalata Caprese (or Capri style salad), is a simple salad from the Italian region of Campania (originally part of the Greek colonies of southern Italy). The main ingredients (like Pizza Margherita but uncooked) represent the colors of the Italian flag.

  • 14 oz mozzarella (fresh buffalo mozzarella in water)
  • 4 tomatoes (round, firm, and ripe)
  • 8 leaves (4 leaves thinly sliced crosswise)
  • 2 TBL olive oil
  • salt and white pepper
  1. Remove mozzarella balls from liquid and dry with paper towel.
  2. Cut mozzarella balls into 1/4" slices and set aside.
  3. Wash tomatoes and cut into 1/4" slices crosswise and place slices on a paper towel.
  4. Place 1 TBL oil in center of serving plate.
  5. Place one slice of mozzarella on the serving plate. Dip the center of one tomato slice into the oil on the serving plate and place on top and to the side of the mozzarella. Continue until serving plate is full.
  6. Drizzle remaining oil over serving plate.
  7. Salt and pepper (to taste).
  8. Sprinkle sliced basil over serving place and place remaining basil leaves in the center. Buon Appetito!
  1. This dish should be prepared just before serving. If necessary, the ingredients can be prepared and placed in the refrigerator before the final preparation but not for too long.
  2. Unorthodox variations of this dish, include: oregano or arugula (rucola) can replace the basil, onion slices can be added, balsamic vinegar can be added to complement the olive oil, pesto can be added, artichoke hearts or capers can be added to complement the fresh mozzarella.

Built to last the test of time...

italy / italian / history / way — construction steel barsIf you look closely at older buildings in Italy, many times you will see these bars stuck to the sides (at various angles). I asked our friend Rudolfo (who was restoring the city theater in Spoleto) what was the purpose of these bars. He explained that older buildings were constructed before the use of reinforced concrete (or concrete reinforced by steel bars). When an older building is restored, they drill a hole from one side of the building to the other (where the wall and floor meet) and then insert a steel bar. The bar is then anchored on each side of the building with these visible cross bars. This process shores up the points in the building which are most at risk of structural failure (e.g., during an earthquake).

For important historical buildings, they go one step further by drilling down in the ground 30 meters (approx. 100 feet) at various angles and inserting bars that are then anchored to the exterior foundation of the building. This keeps the building moving as a solid piece in the event of an earthquake.

Taking a bath during Easter mass...

italy / italian / humor / religeon — easter massWe visited the Cinque Terre during Easter break and attended Sunday mass at the cathedral in Santa Margherita Ligure (next to Portofino). When the priest came around to sprinkle the congregation with holy water, he got carried away when he flung the aspergillum towards Anne-Marie and completely soaked her face. She just stood there dripping. I had to stifle my laughter because I knew the children would follow (and I didn't want to interrupt the service). Still, I laugh about it now.

Catholicism is the state religion in Italy and is taught in public schools (although one can opt out and study another subject during religion class). It seems that there's a Catholic church every 10 feet in Italy. (I guess that's similar to the perception of the number of Mormon 
church houses in Utah.)