Italy

John, Mark, Pat, and Jeanne celebrate their parents’ 80th birthdays

Earlier this year Mark’s parents both turned 80 so to celebrate we rented a house in Tuscany and got all the kids, spouses, and grandkids together. It was honestly a wonderful experience. With the families spread out from California to Virginia to wherever we happen to be we don’t all get together very often. It’s great fun to watch the grandkids grow up and renew their friendships. And on top of all that the villa a bit outside the little town of Gavarrano was fabulous, big enough for all of us, lots of spaces to hang out alone or with others, a pool for playing in. All that and two women, Anna & Rosa, who cooked and cleaned. It would be a challenge to think of a single thing not to have loved about the week.

And rather than trying to describe it all, we’ll just let the pictures tell the story.

Meals were a major event during the week. We were a few miles out of town so we had dinner every night at the villa, with Rosa cooking most of them. The food was great and I was crazy about this semi-outdoor dining area in a passageway between the two buildings that made up the old farmhouse. Big enough for all 17 of us, with cool breezes blowing through, it was just about perfect.

And since we were celebrating birthdays, here’s Mark’s mother blowing out the candles

Our villa was a mile-and-a-half up this dirt road at the top of a hill, which meant it was incredibly private and quiet up there. And beautiful, with what seemed sometimes as all of Tuscany laid out in front of us

We did a few day trips around Tuscany, the first to Siena, our favorite spot in Tuscany

Siena’s Duomo

The ceiling

Then there was Pisa with the cathedral in the foreground and that crazy leaning thing in back

One day was a trip to the beach at Castiglione della Pescaia, a nice beach area with what looked like a beautiful town behind it

Jeanne is always the one taking the pictures but is never in the pictures. Here she is with her kids Jamal & Leigh

A little excursion was a hike up to some castle ruins just a little way from our house. In retrospect the ruins weren’t interesting enough to justify the climb (and the unsafe conditions up there) but we did at least get a good picture of Nico.

The excursions were fun but the best part was all the time hanging out with each other. Here’s Mark with a few of his nieces & nephews

Me and Ava

Ava, Alma, & Jasmine

Jasmine, Ava, and Leigh

Jasmine & Leigh

Jeanne & Mumpy

Love this picture of Pat & Jenny!

And just Jenny

Just Mark, looking very serious

And peering over his espresso

Me & Mark with Jamal & Leigh

Lydia, Jamal, Leigh, & Molly

Alma & John

And John, our purveyor of great wines

Early in the trip John and Alma drove up to Massa Marattimo, an impossibly cute hill town with a great wine store. After that he went back pretty much every day – this time with Jamal – to pick out wines for the evening meal.

Mark & Leigh

Jeanne wanted to read Irving Stone’s classic fictional biography of Michelangelo “The Agony & The Ecstasy” but had trouble finding it in print. Here in Tuscany, though, you can still find it on the bookshelves.

And finally, the food was great, as you would expect in Tuscany. And having your own cook and cleaning staff for most of the meals wasn’t all bad….

Our lovely nieces Molly and Lydia grace the Trevi Fountain

From the Seychelles we caught a long flight through Istanbul to Rome to kick off our late summer in Europe. We’ll be seeing lots of family and friends in various parts of Europe over the next few months. After two days on our own in Rome we welcomed the first arrivals: my mom and dad. And then my brother Pat, his wife Jenny, and Pat’s twin daughters, Molly and Lydia.

The eight of us had two days together in Rome before heading up to a rented villa in Tuscany for the week, where we will be joined by my other two siblings, their spouses, and five more nieces and nephews. But first we got to have fun running around Rome showing the top sites to Molly and Lydia.

While we were still on our own we had dinner at a place with a wine cellar down below dating from 50 A.D. Very atmospheric!

Grappa in the ancient wine cellar

Jim managed to find a fairly artful steak tartare. It was supposed to be “French style” though it wasn’t quite as French as he likes them. But it was pretty.

We don’t always make time for sites as touristy as the Trevi Fountain, but we couldn’t NOT take the girls there. And it is beautiful, despite the tourist hordes.

July afternoons in Rome are ridiculously hot, but mornings along the Tiber are so lovely and pleasant.

I love the big shady plane trees that drape over the walkways along the Tiber

The beauty of Rome is walking into one of the gazillions of random churches and discovering The Redeemer by Michelangelo

Touring ancient Rome with Mumpy and Lidd

Once the hard core touring is done, we got to take people to our favorite spot in the Campo de Fiori for aperitivos. Here is Jenny and Mumpy.

The best part of drinks in Campo de Fiori is being watched over Giordano Bruno

Then on to dinner close to Campo de Fiori

The antipasto plate. Italians do cold cuts very, very well.

Who doesn’t love the Colisseum?

This is what it was all about: Mark, me, Todd, Chris, and Mary Beth in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria

This is going to be a quick summary of a two-week trip through Florence, Tuscany, and Rome. They’re all places we’ve spent time in recently and, unlike nearly all our travels, the purpose was not to see stuff or explore anew or even just to luxuriate in familiar surroundings. In this case the purpose was to introduce friends to part of the Italy we love.

It all started last summer when Mark and his old college friend Mary Beth spent a month in Lucca, Italy, to study Italian. Mary Beth explained how the plans of our mutual friends Chris & Todd (Chris was another old college friend; Todd his partner) to go to Italy had fallen through. As Todd has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative muscle disease, it would be impossible for them to travel on their own. So we thought, “Heck, you can never spend too much time in Italy. We’ll be their support group.”

And so we made it work. Four days in Florence, five in a hillside villa in Tuscany, and five in Rome. As we’d discovered in our brief two-night stop in Rome before meeting them, October is a fabulous time to travel in Italy. The crowds are somewhat reduced – a distinctly relative notion in intensely touristy Florence – and the weather is perfect.

Gorgeous views on a beautiful evening along the Arno River

Traveling in a group like that – Mary Beth was part of the support group, too, so there were five of us – introduces challenges. Getting from the airport in Rome to catch the train up to Florence was a little sample of what we would face; we’ll just say that our friends travel with more luggage than we do. And with extra chores like scoping out restaurants to make sure they were not just places we wanted to eat, but that they would have room for five and were accessible for Todd’s wheelchair, I decided to leave the blogging for later and just enjoy the time we had with friends.

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge was maneuvering a wheelchair through the ancient streets of Italy. For me, it was a distinct learning experience. I remember having a friend back in the early 1980s who was an advocate for people with disabilities and the need for public accommodations, long before Tom Harkin succeeded in pushing the Americans with Disability Act through Congress. While there have been huge strides in the U.S. since then, much of Italy is still difficult. Lack of curb cuts, impassable sidewalks, inaccessible restaurants, elevator doors that are too narrow, limited sensitivity in even large institutions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Papal Museums.

Not surprisingly, great meals were always a highlight

Notwithstanding a variety of obstacles, we made it work. In Florence we saw David in the Academia, toured the Duomo, and went through the Uffizi on Mark’s guided “Here are the Highlights” tour. Chris & Todd & Mary Beth loved shopping for souvenirs, something utterly alien to nomads like me and Mark who live out of their suitcases. The best parts, for me at least, were just watching Chris & Todd see it all for the first time.

From Florence we rented cars – two to accommodate five people, luggage, and wheelchair were cheaper and much easier than one huge van – and drove maybe two hours to a villa not too far from the town of Cortona, made famous by the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. The three-bedroom place was very comfortable, isolated on a hill with views of vineyards and wineries off in the distant. Close enough to Siena, Cortona, and Castiglione del Lago for entertaining day trips. A perfect place to slow down, relax, and just drink in fall in Tuscany, except for one problem: the host.

Before we get to our crazy host in Tuscany, I figured I would emphasize the beautiful views and serenity of the place

It was a little crazy. From the start Marguerite was a little hostile, ridiculing the amount of luggage we had. Maybe it was excessive but that’s for us to decide, right? The real weirdness started our first day, when the four of them drove to Siena while I stayed home to read, rest, and do laundry. She showed me how to use the washing machine and then, while I was hanging the clean clothes out to dry, suggested that if we had a lot of laundry we might be happier taking it all into the laundromat and doing it all at once. Well actually, I was happier doing it at the house and hanging it to dry while I enjoyed lunch and my book.

I didn’t think more about it until the next day when Chris went to do laundry and again she said that perhaps we should take our laundry into town. As I learned to say in the software business, this was a feature not a bug; the website from which we rented the villa explicitly said we would have access to a washing machine, and from the start we had planned on arriving with dirty clothes and leaving with clean clothes. Well, fast forward two days and I have another load to do, then Chris has another load and she is furious. She goes on and on about how we’re using too much water and it was costing more than we had paid and that she had told us to go into the laundromat.

In happier moments this was my lunch while the rest of them were exploring Siena: meat, cheese, an egg, rosé wine, and views to die for

Now, I don’t feel remotely bad about having done five or even six loads of laundry for five people over five days. If the washing machine had been off-limits I suspect we would have found a different villa. But the conflict left a really bad taste in our mouths; she lived in half the building and was demonstrably hostile until we left the next day. Including pushing us to get out by 11:00 AM, despite the fact that her website said checkout was at noon. Combined with our experience in Paris where our hosts falsely accused us of breaking their bed – and charged us $800 to replace it – it makes us more reluctant than ever to use these quirky sharing-economy options where they just make shit up.

Finally it was time to leave Tuscany for the drive to Rome. As was our experience in Florence this was a place we’ve spent a fair amount of time. Our stay wasn’t about seeing new things but rather helping Chris & Todd experience as much as they could given the time and Todd’s physical limitations. The Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Sistine Chapel, Roman Forum – we did it all. And of course most of it washed down with abundant wine and good food.

Chris, Todd, & Mark in front of Trevi Fountain. They all threw coins in so they’ll all be coming back.

All in all it was a big success. Chris & Todd saw the Italian highlights and Mark & I got to spend genuinely quality time with great friends. They were so appreciative to the three of us for making it all happen, but in all honesty it often felt as though we were the ones who were thankful for the opportunity to share it with them. And thus the two weeks came to an end; they headed back to Chicago and we’re off to Israel. A whole new adventure for us!

The Baptistry, Duomo, and Bell Tower in Florence. We were just in awe every time we saw it.

Mary Beth & Chris in Siena

Todd & Chris on the Arno

I’ve always been intrigued by this portrait of the toddler Giovanni de’ Medici by Bronzino in the Uffizi, though I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. Then it occurred to me: that bird he’s holding looks like a cigar. Why does it look like a cigar? Because little Giovanni is the spitting image of Winston Churchill!

And the happy couple in Siena

Chris & Mary Beth during a wine tour.

The wine tour included a blow-out lunch with lots and lots of wine sampling. Fortunately the winery was close to our villa, literally within view, so there wasn’t far to drive after the tastings.

My favorite activity in Tuscany: sitting under an olive tree reading a biography of Gorbachev that Mary Beth had brought for Mark. He’ll get his chance to read it someday.

Chris has a fancy iPhone that took this great picture

Before we left the villa we had lunch with a bunch of friends. Our old graduate school classmate Eric lives just a few miles across the border in Umbria and took a break from his olive harvest to come into nearby Castiglione del Lago for lunch

And the same day Mark’s old campaign friend Kate was traveling from Rome to Florence, so they joined us for lunch too. Who knew the Tuscan hills could be so social? The only downside was that while backing up in our driveway John accidentally knocked into one of our host’s flower plants. Detracted a bit from our moral authority while arguing about how much water we were using…

Chris & Mary Beth made some great meals at the villa, but breakfast on the last day was a boffo success. Sauted vegetables, cheese, and eggs baked then sprinkled with fresh truffles. Pretty fancy, eh?

And then there was Rome. Here are Mary Beth and Mark in the Colosseum.

Gelato was a big deal in Rome. In this case Todd met his match.

Another happy couple. Not only did Todd & I both celebrate our birthdays in Italy but Mark & I celebrated our 30th anniversary. Wow!

The Julian Forum with the remnants of the Temple of Venus – Julius Caesar’s ancestor, the family insisted – with the massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy

I’d seen this chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo and admired the Caravaggio on the right. What I didn’t realize until recently when I read a biography of the artist was that he used this painting of the conversion of St. Paul to insult Annibale Carracci, who painted the altarpiece seen here. He thought Carracci’s work was unimaginative – a conclusion art historians agree on – and so had Paul’s horse’s ass prominently facing the painting of the Assumption. Who said art can’t be fun?

And speaking of fun, restaurants and cafés the world over struggle with ensuring that only customers take advantage of the facilities. This place was pretty creative with their message.