Jottings from Jacquelin

Musings on travel adventures.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Italy Jot #4, September

Because I didn't have a place to stay in Milan in September, I went on vacation--the homeless take to the roads!

Since everyone thinks living in Europe is like being on vacation anyway, I've entitled this trip: "The Vacation from My Vacation." I must admit I started out rather reluctantly. I never went on vacation before because I had no place to live! But, as it turned out, the trip was absolutely magnificent.

I started out on the coast of Liguria, stopping in little towns--first Camogli, a cutesy-poo fishing village, and then Santa Margherita Ligure, a beautiful waterfront town. I then went down the coast and stayed in Levanto, right on the beach. From this point on, the kind of luck I have when I travel (that I wish I had all the time) started kicking in.

The next day, I did the “Cinque Terre" on foot. These are five, seaside towns linked by a cliff-side trail that sort of looks like Big Sur in California. The views from this rather strenuous trail are breathtaking.

Five minutes into the hike, I came to a locked, chain link gate that blocked the rest of the trail. A large sign said: “Caution. Do Not Proceed. Dangerous Road Ahead.” As I stood there considering the options to get around it--climbing up sheer rock face on one side or stepping off the cliff edge while hanging on to the gate for dear life--a very lively Italian couple in their early 5Os arrived on the scene. They were avid hikers and, after a few minutes of discussion, we chose the cliff hanging option to get past the gate. After this bonding experience, we spent the rest of the day together going from town to town.

As far as l was concerned, the “dangerous road ahead” was the safest part of the trip. The path was wide and there was a safety fence and sometimes a stone wall on the cliff side. The rest of the trail--not considered dangerous--was absolutely hair raising.

The path was just a stone ledge, not more than a foot wide. The views out to sea were truly spectacular but I spent most of the time looking at my feet for fear of falling off the edge. The trail zigzagged back and forth and up and down the 400-foot‑high cliff.

Each segment, between towns, took about an hour and a half to two hours. Maybe these towns wouldn't have seemed so special on the open road. But after risking life and limb to reach them, they appeared awfully quaint and charming!

The next day, I headed off to the legendary island of Elba. On the train, a little 92-year-old man sat down next to me. He kept talking to me in his Elba dialect. Even though my Italian was pretty good by then, I told him I couldn’t understand what he was saying. “You look smart, so just keep listening; you’ll figure it out,” was his reply. Since he was from Elba, he guided me through the train-to-ferry process and insisted I come to his part of the island. (In fairy tales, the good witch often appears in another form such as an old hag. Thinking he might be a good witch in disguise, I went along.)

He found me this wonderful, inexpensive place to stay right by the beach. I had a room with a balcony and shared a large communal kitchen and bathroom with other guests, making things very convivial. The next day, he had a taxi driver friend take us for a tour of the island. This was quite nice but when I refused to go back to his place, he became decidedly unpleasant. Not a good witch in disguise after all, just a horny old goat!

The next day, a Dutch woman who had been living in Italy for 30 years, took a room where I was staying. She made and shared delicious vegetarian meals and showed me how to get to a beautiful secluded beach. We walked through a forest and edged our way down a cliff to reach this stunning, deserted cove which is where I spent the rest of the week. Otherwise, I would have been very disappointed about going to Elba--the island isn't all that gorgeous and it's completely overrun by tourists. No wonder Napoleon was chomping at the bit to get out of there!

The Dutch woman, Bianca, had first come to Elba with her Italian fiancé when she was 17 years old. On that trip, he drowned in the surf. She comes every year to pay homage to his memory. But, she wasn’t sad; wistful perhaps and very aware of life’s many unusual events. After a week of shared meals and memories, she invited me back to her knockout country house in the middle of a fig tree orchard on a hilltop in Vinci, near Florence. Over the weekend, with a bunch of her friends, we made a side trip to Urbino. It’s a walled town and considered by many to be the most beautiful in all of Italy. In keeping with my travel luck, we were standing in the middle of town trying to decide where to eat lunch when a friend of Bianca’s came by. This delightful man invited us back to his spectacular apartment and served us lunch on his terrace.

Afterwards, I continued on to Pisa somewhat reluctantly, because I thought it was going to be too touristy. But, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Even to a jaded New Yorker, the leaning tower is an impressive sight. In fact, the whole piazza with its gleaming white buildings and glistening, green grass is dazzling. Thousands of years ago, Pisa was a seaside town. Depending on how the wind is blowing, you can still get a whiff of salt air.

On the train from Pisa to Lucca, I met an American woman who works here as an Italian English translator. She invited me to have lunch with her and her children the next day and took me on a guided tour of Lucca. (Travel luck.)

From Lucca, I went to Bologna. The next leg of my trip was totally inspired by that song from “Kiss Me Kate”--Ravenna, Padua, Montagnana, Mantua and on to Verona.

After all this touring, I decided I didn't want to see another church, museum or palazzo. All I wanted to do was sit and stare at nature, so I went up to Riva the farthest point on Lake Garda and spent a week detoxing from sightseeing. Riva del Garda is so beautiful, right at the foothills of the Dolomites. After a week of sitting, looking out at the lake all day, I decided I was sufficiently recovered and headed back to Milan and my new apartment.

Where I live now, is right in the heart of downtown, a five-minute walk from The Duomo. I liked my old neighborhood and the other apartment better, but freelancers can't be choosers, so here I am.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Italy Jot #3, mid August

In August, things shut down here. Last week 60 percent of the stores in my neighborhood were closed, this week it's about 99 percent. But the supermarket is open (and air conditioned!!!) and there's a series of free, outdoor concerts held in various attractive courtyards around town that I've been going to. And, my language school is open, so I'm surviving.

Language wise, I'm now chatting away in Italian. I still make lots of mistakes and supplement my sparse vocabulary with various charade like gestures but--I'm talking! My school, Il Centro di Lingua, is very nice and the teachers are good, so, hopefully, my progress will continue.

Friendship wise, I'm getting to know people in my language class so, I'm not feeling so friendless anymore. Of course, they're all foreigners like myself. What I'd really like is some Italian friends but, right now, with everybody on holiday, it's hard to make much progress in that area.

I'm going to have to give up this gorgeous apartment pretty soon. The owners are coming back from vacation at the end of August. But I've become so attached to it, and this neighborhood, that it's going to be hard to give it back and move out.

Although I've already got another apartment starting the month of October, I haven't yet found a place to stay in September, so I'm thinking about going on a road trip!

Italy Jot #3, early August

I got locked in the cathedral (Duomo) in Arezzo, a small town in Tuscany.

The town sits on a hill and the cathedral (Duomo) is at the top next to a lovely park that overlooks the beautiful, surrounding countryside. I was walking through the park when, all of a sudden, it started to pour. First, I ran for cover in a little shed, then I made a dash for the Duomo. By the time I got there, I was completely drenched, like the wash before the spin cycle.

I went in but didn't want to sit on a nice, wooden pew in my dripping wet condition. Also, I really didn't want anyone to see me because they're very fussy here about what you can wear into a church--no shorts, no sleeveless dresses, no this, no that. So, I was pretty sure soaking wet clothes were on the “Don't” list.

I walked around like a mouse, staying very close to the wall, until I found a small alter and a chair hidden by a huge potted plant. (Now that I think about it, I've never seen a plant in a church before). Anyway, I sat down to dry off and began reading the tourist brochure. I dozed off for what seemed like five minutes but must have been a half hour. When I woke up, it was all very quiet--too quiet. I got up and walked around. All the candles were still flickering away, but there were no people!

I went around calling out “Hello, anyone home?" But, no, no one was home just “io ed Dio” (me & God). So, I tried opening doors. There were about six, all locked. I was trying not to panic but I really didn't want to spend the night in the cathedral. So, I went back to the front door.

I could hear people outside, so I started calling out “Aiuto me!, Aiuto me!” Help me!, Help me! An English couple heard me and I told them how to ask for help in Italian and sent them off to find the police or somebody. However, it was lunchtime. And lunchtime in Italy means you could fall to the ground and lie there gasping for breath until about 3:30pm, if you were still alive, that is.

The couple came back to report that there was no one to be found--the police station, tourist office and just about everything else was closed for lunch. There was light in the Duomo from the stained-glass windows, but not by this main door which was enclosed by a vestibule. In the dark, I started to feel around on the door (a huge door--remember we're talking about a cathedral not some dinky church!) And I found bolts, so I started pulling on them. There were about five and each one opened in a different manner, but I kept pulling this way and that until finally the enormous cathedral door swung open and out I popped!

While I was in there, it was pretty frightening. But it makes such a great story in the re telling, that I'm kind of glad it happened!

The reason I was in Arezzo in the first place was because of one of my new acquaintances, a guy named Paulo. He, along with 20 other "families,” is restoring an abandoned village in Tuscany near Arezzo. They're using all ecologically correct materials to do the reconstruction. And, when the village, called Upacchi, is restored, they'll grow their own organic produce. (*See article below.)

So, I went there this past weekend to see the village for myself. Since all the houses are under reconstruction, I stayed in a gorgeous farmhouse in Anghiari, a nearby town.

The farm was on a hilltop overlooking the Tuscan countryside and the house was one of those old, stone beauties with a burnt orange, tile roof. The woman who owns it is an organic farmer, so everything I ate for three days was homemade from her own produce. I had yogurt, milk & butter from the cow that slept right under my bedroom; home made bread and jam made from fruits grown on the property; vegetables, lettuce & tomatoes from the garden.

It's been so hot in Milan, like Africa, that it was wonderful to get out of town for awhile. I must admit, I'm not as wild about Italy as I was when I first arrived but, I keep finding myself in these dream like settings.

* ARTICLE FOR: “YES PLEASE” - a magazine for expats living in Italy (1992)

“A Brave New World in Tuscany” by Jacquelin

This year, Paolo Vantaggi, 42, is changing his entire life. He's leaving a good job in Milan as an electronic components salesman, giving up his apartment, and moving lock stock and barrel to Paradise. And, he's not the only one who's going. A group of twenty one "families" has bought an abandoned village in Tuscany, an hour outside Arezzo. They're reconstructing it using natural materials and farming the land with organic methods.
Upacchi, this "villaggio ecologico," puts a nineties spin on a sixties theme that's actually based on how life was lived a hundred years ago. Once upon a time, villages were self contained, unspoiled outposts where people worked closely together and lived off the land. This "experiment in living" is an attempt to replicate those wholesome values with the added caveat of environmental concern.
Upacchi, a farming community, was last inhabited some twenty five years ago. Its current reincarnation is the brainchild of Elmar Zadra and his wife, Micky, in their early thirties. After the birth of their daughter, Giulia, five years ago, they decided to explore the possibility of living closer to nature. But it wasn't just a question of leaving big city life and moving to the country. What they had in mind was an environmentally-aware community in which to raise their child. They believed the idea would appeal to other young families, and so began a period of research and instruction.
With Giulia in tow, they traveled to Australia to study organic farming and observe how various organic villages functioned. They went to California to learn about alternative methods of heating, water conservation and building. When they returned, they launched a six month search through Italy from Genoa to Rome--to find the right spot to start their community. Although there are several abandoned villages in Italy, not all are for sale and not all meet the criteria Elmar and Micky thought were important for a successful foray into organic living. They wanted somewhere rural with ample land and a good water supply but near enough to a city to sustain the needs of a burgeoning village. This search resulted in the acquisition of the village of Upacchi and 600 acres of land ten minutes from Anghiari in the Tuscan hills.
The three overriding principles of the community are:
* Homeowners must live in the village (the houses cannot just be used as holiday homes)
* All reconstruction and building must be done using organic materials
* All farming must be organic.

In addition, the village plans compost toilets, solar heated water and communal facilities including a laundry, a library, a meeting house and a huge oven for community bread baking.
Right now, Upacchi is not much more than a woodsy enclave of stone houses in various stages of disrepair. A few are in reasonably good shape, but most are virtual ruins. The dilapidated church is from the 13th century, but the other houses date from the early 1800s. The plan is to reconstruct them all from scratch. In accordance with the town's guiding principles, this reconstruction will be done using the original stones, supplemented with other natural building material--cork for insulation; a special type of brick and cement, devoid of the metal scraps that are now routinely mixed into these products; wood beams for the houses which will he cut front trees in the area and coated with natural varnishes. All in all, ten reconstructed houses will provide twenty one living "units" for the adventuresome bunch who've chosen to inhabit this brave new world.
Conceived as an international community, Upacchi residents include Italians from many regions (Trentino Alto Adige, Lombardy, Lazio) along with Swiss, Austrians and Germans. But Paradise is not for the faint hearted. To successfully get this village up and running requires an incredible amount of work and determination, not to mention a substantial financial commitment (see box). Yet most of the people who chose to come to Upacchi did not sit down with an accountant and contemplate the financial pros and cons of such a move; they simply fell in love with the place and wanted to be part of an innovative community. Although there is no religious premise here, all the future inhabitants have a common zealous belief in the benefit of this "alternative lifestyle" project.
Martina and Markus, a young German couple in their early twenties with a two and a half year old son, point out that most Upacchi residents are here to change their lives, not just their addresses. It was this spirit of change and renewal that attracted them to the project. Biologists with an interest in organic farming, they also wanted to live in a community of like minded people with environmental concerns. Although fully-functioning, organic-farming villages exist in Germany, Martina and Markus wanted to join a community that they would help create. For them, the exciting part is realizing the dream.
An older German couple, Anita and Frithjof, decided to settle in Upacchi after looking for a place to retire in France, Portugal, Great Britain and Greece. For them, the only important criterion was to feel "at one" with the place they chose. The beauty of Tuscany and the "good vibes" in the village made them sign up on the spot.
Doriam and Elisabetta, in their late forties, are architects from Como. They felt their high pressure jobs had made them part of the rat race and they wanted to put a halt to it before it was too late. Betty says they were spending all their time working and coming home exhausted, too tired to think. As vegetarians, they were always interested in organic produce and decided to take that interest one step further with a move to Upacchi. An older daughter will probably not come along, but their young son, Luca, is raring to go. Betty and Doriam are now thrilled to be working on their own house design and helping plan the village.
But even in Paradise, people need to earn a living. Some residents will work for the cooperative. Paolo, for example, a skilled carpenter and electrician, will help with the reconstruction. Others will farm the land. Some will find jobs in neighboring towns while others want to start up a crafts and "agriturismo" industry in Upacchi.
Since this is just the beginning, it is hard to predict how things will turn out. The amount of work that needs to be done to breath life into these ruins and take the project from concept stage to bustling village is enormous. Some people have already dropped out--one couple split up, another preferred a similar project in South America, and a third couple decided that it was too expensive for them after all.
However, the enthusiasm of the group that has evolved is impressive and the components are right for a successful community. There is a nice mix of ages and professions and a good balance of couples and singles, young families and older folk. The sheer beauty of the setting and the excitement of bringing a village back to life in such a novel way might just carry the day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Friday, July 28, 2006

Italy Jot #2, July

After getting settled in Milan, I decided to head down to Florence and Rome for a quick visit.

Unfortunately, I arrived in Florence at the height of the tourist season. Therefore, I am probably the only person in recorded history to despise the center of the art world. It was completely stifling. There were so many tourists and souvenir sellers that the place looked like a tacky, overcrowded resort town and not at all like the birthplace of the Renaissance! I'll have to come back in the fall when all the tour buses have pulled out.

But, while in Florence, I finally met up with Niccolo. His family has lived in the same palazzo on the Arno since the 12th century. They were pals of the de Medicis. But what a tragedy he turned out to be!

A complete anachronism, he's a very sweet person but like someone from a prior century. He's lived at home his whole life (like a lot of other Italian men, I might add). In fact, this phenomenon of 35+ year-old men living at home, with Mama still cooking their meals and doing their laundry, is so prevalent in Italy that there’s even a word for it—“mammone.”

Niccolo has never had to pay rent or a phone bill in his entire life. And, although he's very intelligent, I don't think I could fall in love with someone who's never had to pay rent!

Most of the time I was with him, it was hard to keep a straight face because his life is so unreal. He's not a professor but he gives lectures on “The Philosophy of Renaissance Gardens." (This just cracks me up--not a topic you'd pick if you needed money to pay bills!) He told me that the American students don't ask questions after the lecture. I said, “Maybe they're asleep!" His other interests are heraldry and military history (gag me with a spoon!)

On the positive side, he did take me to see wonderful things off the beaten track and far away from the maddening tourist crowd that I would never have discovered on my own. But, it was kind of a bittersweet ending to this particular fantasy.

On to Rome. To me, Rome is more like an open air museum than a city. There are so many things to see, it's hard to know where to begin. I felt like a kid trying to stuff all the bonbons from a candy box into my mouth at the same time.

Also, the sights in Rome are so iconic—from scenes in famous movies—that it’s hard to believe you’re in a real place. Being there sort of feels like being on a movie set.

I wanted to see what was left of the Emperor Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli. It’s just a local bus ride from Rome. Along the way, I helped out a young French couple who were having problems with directions. We spent the day together wandering around the magnificent ruins pretending we were guests of the emperor. Even with just some bare walls and a few colonnades left standing, the long-gone splendor of Hadrian’s lifestyle was still palpable.

Back in Milan, I just got a computer, which is a miracle here, so I'm in seventh heaven. (Some friends lent it to me,) In retrospect, I should have brought a laptop & printer with me, but it was just too hard to know what I'd really need before I left. I looked into renting one here but it turned out to be too expensive.

At first, I thought it was cheap but that was because I didn't understand the system. I had asked the price to rent a computer and was told $30 a week. I didn't think $120 a month was that bad. However, on further investigation it turned out that if you wanted a monitor--kind of hard to use a computer without one--that was an extra $20 a week, and if you wanted a printer, another $30 a week!

Each day, after a quick breakfast, I head off to language class. I'm just going in the morning because I can't afford anything else. Things are very expensive here, especially everyday items such as suntan lotion or stamps for overseas postcards. Developing a roll of film costs a fortune!

I've asked the old couple who run the "edicola" (newsstand) on the corner to save me a copy of “The Herald Tribune” every day because I don't understand enough Italian yet to read the local papers or figure out what they're saying on the TV news. I mean I can tell someone was killed, but I don't know why. I grasp that some politicians were arrested. But what's the scandal about? I don't know! It's so frustrating I have to turn on Voice of America and have them blast me with propaganda and Top 40 hits to get to the bottom of it all!

I'm anxious for my life here to begin.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Ever since I vacationed in Venice as a teenager, I've wanted to return to Italy. Every year I would say to myself, “next year." But, for whatever reason, it just never happened.

Finally, "la forza del destino” took over. I didn't exactly start hearing voices, but some force greater than myself began guiding the course of events. In the end, I simply felt like a migratory animal blindly following an internal, instinctual call.


Now I know why the great beyond was calling me to come here.

We may have the practical side of life down pat--well stocked discount stores and computer shops filled with the latest portables--but the Italians have perfected the aesthetic side of life.

Street after street of majestic buildings; flowers blooming from every window box, on every balcony, along every street. Open air markets bulging with gorgeous fruits & vegetables, glorious cheeses, salamis, and breads--all with superb flavor.

I adore Milan. It's like Paris with friendlier people. The neighborhood I'm living in is called “Porta Venezia" and it's truly lovely.

My apartment building is something right out of a foreign film. A curving marble staircase leads up to my front door. The apartment has marble floors, 30-ft. ceilings and balconies galore. Huge, floor-to-ceiling, French door-style windows with stained glass panels open onto the balconies in each room. My bedroom and the kitchen face an inner courtyard blooming with pretty little pink, red and orange flowers.

The first hour I was here, sitting on my balcony, looking out onto this tranquil courtyard, I felt like I had beamed myself into my own dream setting. This country is my aesthetic homeland.

Every morning, first thing, I get up and open the doors on all the balconies and let the light in and the summer breezes blow through.