Il Penultimo Giorno

I have to say that I have found a whole new community of friends here at Il Sasso. Today we had Alberto in the morning, and Costanza told us in the afternoon that he thought we had done very well with the congiutivo. During the first pausa, Sara Czech, Henrietta, and I walked as fast as we could al mercato. It’s only on Thursdays, so as soon as I got my fiori di zuchine e pomidori, we had to rush back to the school. 

This afternoon we met at the school to go on an excursion to San Quirco and Bagno Vignoni. I’d been to San Quirico before with Kurt and Sandra, and I’d been to Bagno Vignoni twice before. San Quirico was very hot, and it was during the pausa, so it was very dead. Still, Sara, the teacher Sara (troppi Sara!), is an art history expert and led us through the town, two churches, and the park. Next we drove five minutes to Bagno Vignoni, the hot springs famous since Roman times. Sara led us down the path to where the water falls over the cliff into a beautiful aquamarine hot spring with white clay.  Of course I didn’t wear my suit, but I jumped in anyway, unable to resist. It felt wonderful, and Sara (Czech) brought her suit, and thankfully lent me her towel for afterwards. We walked up to the Roman piazza, and then most of us ordered an Aperol spritz at a cafe. We had a wonderful time. Il Sasso attracts the most wonderful people. 

Bagno Vignoni hot springs. On my third visit, I found them!

Sara e Sara!

Czech Sara

Italy is for lovers!

This is my “art shot”

San Quirico is on the Via Francegina or pilgrimage trail

In a small, obscure church, who is this knight?

In a 12th century church in San Quirico

Henrietta took this of Montepulciano at night!

A Della Robbia Madonna from the Renaissance

Vincenzo makes his signature cappuccino but is sad to return from vacanze with Sandra and Kurt gone

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Il Fine di Mese

“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel


Sara e sara: Alberto said my belt looks like the type Cardinals wear!

I’m taking the last few days to put together this final post.

At home, conventions define or frame us a certain way. For example, I’m a librarian, I’m 57, a wife, a mom….  People assume things about us from their encounters with us in the past, and those assumptions turn into expectations to which we unconsciously adhere.  When I’m alone in a new country and culture, where no one knows me, I can step outside the frame, color outside the lines to discover new parts of myself.

The Italians are metaphorical thinkers. They seem so much more in touch with daily pleasures, details, and joys. They live at a slower pace and seem to appreciate more what really matters: to live in questo momento, which they are often saying.

Most of all I feel young and a little in love with everyone: young, old, male, female. It doesn’t matter. It’s as if my feelings are fountains.

Wednesday: Stasera I’m having cena with Marina, the Russian video artist, and piccola Sara, the other Sara from the Czech Republic in my current class.  At any rate, I ran into her last night on my walk and invited her to our dinner at La Pentolaccia, my favorite restaurant here tonight.  Montepulciano reminds me of Langley because everyone walks everywhere, and you’re always running into people you know. For example, tonight I went for a walk when it cooled down a bit at 5:30 pm. First I ran into Giovanna, the caretaker of Politian Apartments. I made the mistake, initially, in speaking pretty good Italian to her, so she assumes I’m fluent. But tonight, as we walked down the Corso, I realized there was a real difference! Not only were we communicating well in Italian (she will not speak any English), but it wasn’t just the usual: I went here, I ate here, I would like… type of chat I usually engage in. We talked about which months were her favorite here and how I want to return in the spring. Then she told me she had a funny dream that she ended up sleeping in the living area of my apartment! She wondered, why am I here? And looked at the view and was embarrassed! I understood her, and we laughed. THIS is what I’ve been wanting: to have a real exchange and not the boring “how do you do” exchanges, although those are fun, too. I never tire of calling out: “Buon giornata o Buona serata!” when I leave people here.  I had some of that talking with Alberto, but it was combined with performance anxiety and not the same in a classroom setting.

Next I went to Centofiori, the libreria (bookstore, NOT library) at the end of the town just outside the walls. I had an extended conversation with the proprietor and ended up buying a new, small novel (romanza– doesn’t mean romance but fiction) that he thought would not be molto difficile, and then I ended up getting the Elena Ferrate novel I’ve read in English, but in Italian: I giorni dell’abbandono (they don’t capitalize each word in their titles) and Novecento by Alessandro Baricco. I have no idea what it’s about, but now that I’m learning a new mode, congiuntivo, which has to do with opinions or things that are not definitive, I hope I will be able to read Italian better. As Richard reminds me, it’s the easiest of the four main language acquisition skills: reading then understanding then speaking then writing, although I would reverse the last two. Speaking is definitely the most difficult for me because I don’t have time to check and plan, as I do when writing. I have to improvise, and I feel as if I’m in the spotlight. I think another reason it’s difficult for me is because I’m not used to thinking before I speak, even in English! I also have the unfortunate tendency to get at least one of the letters in my words mixed up. And I always have the feeling that I want to say more than I can.

After my conversation with the bookshop owner, I was walking back up the Corso, and the man I always see sitting outside his negozio called out to me to slow down, that I was on vacation and didn’t need to walk so fast.

Più tardi: As I was walking back down to meet my new friends for dinner, I saw the same man sitting outside his shop. Since it’s so hot, all the shop keepers sit outside and chiachierarano with each other or smoke. I had on my long dress and exaggerated a happy, relaxed stroll, and he laughed and said that was much better. And coming back from class today, he stopped and asked me if I was a student at Il Sasso, that he notices me walking by every day. I told him tomorrow was my last day, that I was going to Rome Saturday. He shook my hand and said to tell Rome hi for him because he’s from Rome.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, says that women traveling over 50 have the advantage of being invisible. Thankfully, we are not invisible in Italy. Men here appreciate all women and don’t ignore those of us who are older. They are charming, in general.

La cena era molto divertente! I love the Czech Sara. She’s working on her fifth language: Czech, French, English, Norwegian, and now Italian. What I need to remember also is that Marina and Sara both have weekly private Italian lessons at home, and they still struggle learning the language. I must keep up my studies at Freestyle back in Austin. Of course, dinner was all in English. It’s so funny to hear Sara swear with an English accent. Both Marina and Sara say the best way to learn a new language is to marry someone who speaks it! When Sara gave me a compliment, and I gently pushed it aside, she said, “You can’t take a compliment, can you?” and we laughed. I feel as if she already knows me. We both get mistaken for being Jewish.

I think one of the reasons it’s so easy to become friends with people here is that by attending Il Sasso, we already have something major in common. We love the Italian language, country, culture, food, wine, art, history, people enough to want to spend time and effort learning to speak the language. And people who set out alone, as the three of us have, tend to share a sense of adventure and independence. It reminds me of making friends with Lisa and Bridget during the two weeks at the Spoleto Writers conference in 1999 (we are still friends) and our friends at St. John’s: Doug Gosnell (RIP), Liz Breckinridge, and Mary Charlotte. Maybe it’s that we want to learn and find learning fun. Because we are en vacanze, we are senza stresso (without stress). I am just so happy here as I am on Whidbey, but here I have a new language and culture to absorb. Even walking down the street, I try to practice Italian sentences in my mind. I will miss that.

I also feel so much younger here. I’m so conscious at home of how much “older” I am than the other teachers at my school, when I constantly don’t get their pop culture references, when I don’t “binge watch” the same shows or know the “latest.” Here, none of that matters. I’m not confined to the frame.

At Caffe Poliziano, Vincenzo returned from il Sud for his vacanza. His face fell when he heard that Sandra and Kurt had already left. Still, we joke every morning. Today he ran out of arancia marmelatta, and so made me a nuovo cappuccino: cappuccino di Sara with caramelle instead. It was delicious. He also played me a song over the sound system called “Sara” by Vindetti. I asked Alberto if he knew it,  and he started singing it. It has nella primavera (in the springtime) in the lyrics.

I love all three of my teachers, so I wrote them thank you notes. I gave Eleanora and Costanza fragrant soap from the shop across the street. Everyone was so warm and friendly in saying goodbye. A group of us went to lunch at Trattoria del Cagnano.  Then Czech Sara and I took the bus to the pool. It’s as if we had the whole pool to ourselves.  I feel as if she’s the Czech that complements my Slovak. She’s twenty years younger, but age makes no difference here. Over here women wear bikinis even if they’re overweight and over sixty. Perché no?

Tonight dinner at Pentolaccia. When Marina didn’t want to go, Sara and I independently asked two different women: Liz and Nancy, both from the US who are taking classes at Il Sasso this week.

Piu tardi:  We had a wonderful “la ultima cena.” (When we said that in class, Alberto mimed the crucifixion).  We sat at a lovely table outside, and thankfully the seats are benches because Marina showed up after all, and Liz brought her friend Lisa, and then Henrietta sat for awhile on her way to the opera, and then Ira, the fellow from New York, joined us just to visit. And the lovely Zoe was with us. Every time Cristiana came out to our table, she feigned surprise, and we laughed that our table had grown! When we were walking to the jazz club afterwards, we even ran into Kathryn. We took in the lovely view, but the jazz band was on break, so we went for a final gelato and said goodbye to that other Vincenzo and to each other.

“If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in our love of someone from another culture, one ambition may be to weld ourselves more closely to values missing from our own culture.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

One last full circle story. One month ago, when I met Vance and Laura in Roma, I bemoaned that my taxi driver from the airport couldn’t understand a word I said in Italian! Yesterday, and again this morning, I had an extended conversation in Italian with my taxi driver, and he said: parli italiano bene! I do think my accent is better. I love to roll my R’s when I say: vorrei!

And now for the grand finale of photos!


Who needs un costume di bagno?


Con Alberto

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Uomini vecchi giocano le carte nel bar


Love this sky blue Vespa


Con Sara, Henrietta, Costanza



Le piscine delle fonte belleze!  Everything is “bello” here.


Vincenzo with his new creation: cappuccino di Sara


Daniele, il mio professore al Caffe Poliziano, con Vincenzo


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La Dolce Far Niente


La mia camera di letto

My avventura is winding down. Three more days of class, and then I take the bus, then train a Roma and then the Leonardo Express to the airport B&B.  After the whirlwind of Florence, even this extreme estroversa needed some alone time. Oh, I’m not the only one in my class anymore. Another Sara, without an h, and a Danish woman who’s name I missed, are in my class.  The Danish woman went to school for a year in Iowa and knows English as does most everyone. You really get a sense of shame at how monolingual most of us in the US are. Sara without an H is originally from the Czech Republic, has lived in Oslo for ten years, and before that, five years in Paris. She’s working on her fifth language! Still, I feel a bit gratified when Alberto corrects her grammar as well. I’m no longer alone in the spotlight.

We are going over indirect and direct pronouns, and I studied more than usual so I could be “una studentessa brava,” and then Alberto adds two more layers, where you combine the direct and indirect pronouns and then how you combine them in the past tense in a completely different way. Sometimes my head swims. Still, he’s intuitive, and even if I’m totally lost, he can somehow communicate the right answer to me so that I’m not completely humiliated. Except, towards the end of long grammar sessions, I just tell him, “Ho bisogno di una pausa.” I need a break! We also have another teacher in the afternoon, Costanza, who taught me with Eleanora during the first week. I feel like I’ve lived here for a year instead of just three and a half weeks. Why does time seem so drawn out, attenuated when we travel? Is it because we’re doing new things every day and have escaped our routine? And why does my facility with the English language not translate to Italian? Okay, these are my thoughts for the day. Sorry, Paul. Too much text! Tomorrow Marina and I are having dinner at my favorite restaurant here, La Pentolaccia. I would have gone to the pool this afternoon, but by the time I walk to bus station, and then wait for the return bus and walk back up the hill in the heat, well, it’s not so appealing.

Some photos I haven’t added before.

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Il mia cucina e la mio salotto

Il mio studio, which I hardly ever use except to dry my laundry, following in Kurt’s footsteps

Local boys play calcio in the heat against medieval walls

An albergo on the Corso with vines

Another ceramic shrine

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Firenze Giorno Tre

È troppo caldo oggi, but we’re making the best of it. We stopped for a couple of hours in a hotel lounge of Lungarno Albergo to relax in the air conditioning and look at art books. This morning facciamo spese. Marina and I bought beautiful dresses from a local boutique of clothes locally designed and fatto di mano (handmade) in Italia, and then Zoe found teenager clothes at Brandy Melville. It’s one size only in the whole store, and the clothes all fit either prepubescent girls or anorexics. Don’t know how this can be a successful business plan, but apparently it’s popular.

After shopping, we walked over to the Oltrarno for lunch at Quattro Leoni. In the restroom I ran into a woman from Austin whose parents live in Italy as her father is Italian. It ends up I know her daughter from when she was at O. Henry because we used to talk about our love of Italy! She’s now 22, and we hugged.  The mom said she’d love to meet with me in Austin to practice our Italian. She gave me her business card, but I’ve lost it and can’t remember her name! È un piccolo mondo. Oh, we also went to La Chiesa del Carmine to see the Cappella Brancacci. Can’t spend a day in Florence without an art fix. I’ve seen the frescoes before, but they are among my favorites by three different artists: Masaccio, Massolino, e Fra Filippo Lippi (Filioppino Lippi). The frescoes are wonderful, and it’s a miracle they’ve been saved from both a Baroque renovation of the rest of the church and a fire in the 1700s.

Tip: If you click on any photo in the mosaic, it will give you the caption, or at least I added captions to most of them.


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Firenze Giorno Due (updated un po’)

Ceiling in the Ufizzi

Zoe’s first visit to the Ufizzi

Life imitates art # 1

My favorite Raphael painting but ignored by tourists

Life imitates art #2

Life imitates art # 3


In between the Uffizi and Davide, we went to a video art show by Bill Viola, a video artist and colleague of Marina’s, in Palazzo Strozzi. It was so interesting, and the movement in each presentation was mainly in slow motion. It really tested your patience so that it was almost uncomfortable, butbin a good way. He also uses lots of water elements, and each presentation was juxtaposed to a piece of classic art which inspired it.

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Andiamo a Firenze

Zoe (16), Marina, (45) from Russia who lives in London, and I took the bus and the train to Florence yesterday afternoon. Zoe has never been. Our apartment is one block from San Lorenzo and one block from Mercato Centrale on the third, which is really the fourth floor.  We each have our own bed, although Marina is up in the loft. We got a great last-minute deal with a superhost on Airbnb. Last night we had dinner at Trattoria Zaza, Caroline’s favorite spot from 2010, and then walked past the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, and all the way over to Piazza del San Spiritu. Lots of people out on a Friday night, which was an immediate shock after the tranquility of Montepulciano. Troppi turisti ma bel’ arte! 

Zoe’s first glimpse of the Duomo!

Marina e Zoe alla Trattoria Zaza

Mengere pasticceria per la prima colazione

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This is my favorite word in Italian. It’s a little like my favorite word in German: Lebenschmittelgeschaft, which means grocery store. This one, chiachierrarebbero means: they would chit chat. Chiachierrare is a great verb because it sounds like what it means: to chit chat or have light conversation.

Had so much fun last night. I invited the donna, Donna, who is a 50-year-old teacher from Florida, over for a spritz in the garden and then dinner across the street at Gattavecchi. It’s one of my favorite restaurants here, but the family only seems to open up when they feel like it. We had a wonderful meal outside on the terrace, the best pici (local pasta) with funghi I’ve ever had and split a wonderful bottle of their wine. The family also owns a cantina. When we were paying, I saw Maurizio, the son/server we met four years ago. I showed him his picture on my phone from back then, and he couldn’t believe it. It was so fun!

Today I survived two more hours one-on-one with Alberto. I worry he thinks I’m dumb because I keep making so many mistakes. But he’s really funny. He makes me speak SO much and ONLY in Italian. When I get the gender wrong, he motions an O with his fingers for masculine and for femminile, he mimes a woman’s curvy form. When I do get the tense, form, case, verb right, he shakes my hand or gives me a high five. But sometimes I get a brain freeze. It’s really embarrassing.

Okay, so I went to the market after class and then rode the bus to the pool, swam a mile, and rode it back. It’s getting REALLY hot here. I cringe that it will be 99 in Florence on Saturday, and it’s not on a hill, so we won’t get the cool Montepulciano breezes in the morning and evening. Oh well. There are worse things than being in Florence, and we DO have AC! I don’t have it here, but it’s not a problem.

Tonight Maria (owner of the apartments with Giacomo) picked me up for dinner at this lovely Agriturismo, Podere Il Casale, with an amazing view, outside of Montichiello. We had a panoramic view of Pienza, Montechiello, Bagno Vignoni, and another town on another hill. We had a lovely time. Maria is so interesting and loves to talk about the history of the area.

View from Podere il Casale

Maria and I enjoy a cheese plate at Podere Il Casale

Views from Podere Il Casale

Podere Il Casale Agriturismo

Donna with Maurizio

We split the recommended “Fantasia”

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