Friday, 24 June 2011

Buon Giorno from Spello 23.6.11

I started writing this email while sitting on a park bench in a small piazza in a gorgeous little Umbrian town called Spello.  Umbria is the Region next to Tuscany.  I had a beautiful garden bed of flowers in front of me; a lovely fountain on my left; and I could hear the couple who were sitting on the park bench on my right chatting away in Italian.  The weather was a perfect sunny day and I was sitting there contemplating when I was going to have my first Spello gelati!!!  Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I have decided that it is my duty to taste test the gelati’s in each town. I then headed off in search of my now favourite flavour, Niccola. And that was as far as I got with the email!!  Actually I did write out a few pages, but when I just re-read it, I realized you would have needed a whole bottle of wine to dull the pain, so I have started again.  I think I had been sitting on the park bench in the hot sun for too long!!! 
I arrived in Spello yesterday and after seeing what a gorgeous little town it was, I decided to stay two nights instead of one.  It certainly made the decision easier when I saw my lovely Hotel.  My wonderful spacious room has a queen bed and a window which opens up to a view of the valley.  It is three times the size of the cupboard I stayed in, in Perugia!!  Oh, and the staff are so friendly.  The woman at the front desk even insisted on carrying my luggage up the stairs for me.  Don’t worry…I helped. 
I do feel that soon I am going to have to put a big red sticker on it saying “Warning. Shopaholic Abroad. Bending knees when lifting is recommended”.  I am getting quite used to seeing the look of grimace (then horror), on taxi driver’s faces when they start to lift it into the back of their taxi.  First they try and lift it with just one hand, and upon realizing that they can’t even budge it, they then search for the second handle, and steady themselves before the big heave ho into the boot. I’ve learnt to say, “Si, e’ troppo pesante”, which translates to “Yes, it’s too heavy”.   They then give me a look as if to say, how the hell did you get it this far??  It wasn’t a pretty sight, let me tell you!!  They should be grateful they weren’t carrying it up and down the steps of the train station, not to mention attempting to lift it up into the train.  The other day, I managed to lift it up onto the first step of the train, to then realize that the doorway wasn’t wide enough to fit me and the suitcase.  So here I am standing on the platform, with my luggage blocking the steps.  For a split second I thought my luggage was going for a train ride without me.  I then used all my strength to lift/push/shove it up the next two steps and then climb on just before the train doors closed. I think I need to start giving clothes to charity!!!
Okay, where was I…Spello, that’s right.  There is a competition on in the town at the moment, which is a bit like a ‘best garden’ competition.  Except, the houses here rarely have yards, so instead they hang gorgeous flower pots around their windows, front doors and front steps. Some streets are just lined with these gorgeous flower pots.  So lovely!!!  The people are also buzzing about a flower festival which is on Sunday.   Most of the town folk work all night Saturday night to line the streets with artwork made from flower petals.  Today I saw heaps of elderly folk pulling apart shrubs in preparation for the event.  I had a chat to one old man sitting in the street doing it (after which he proudly posed for a photo)!!  He told me that they usually get about 50,000 tourists coming through the town to see it. While I won’t be here on Sunday, I went to a similar festival in Sicily and it was truly amazing. 
Okay, I just realized that you are probably wondering what happened between my last email and arriving in Spello? Or maybe not, but you should know me by now.  I’ll tell you anyway!! 
You know how I keep referring to the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie I am living, well I saw an English copy of the book sitting in the front window of a book store in Siena last week. So I decided to pick up the book and read the last few pages because I couldn’t remember exactly how the book/movie ended.  Okay…well… appears that my movie version will have a different ending!!!!  While we will always remain good friends, Mauro and I will not be driving off into the Tuscan countryside to live happily ever after!!!  Well, not together anyway. Sorry Mum if you had got your hopes up!!!
It was however a wonderful holiday romance and I am indebted to Mauro for making my four weeks in Siena four of the best weeks of my life.  And I do have some nice photos of myself, compliments of Mauro.  As I was taking photos of the Tuscan hillside, Mauro was taking photos of me!  Apparently I get this cute (his words) little expression on my face each time I get excited by a photo opportunity.  I’ve seen those particular photos of myself, and ‘cute’ is not a word that springs to mind!!  It was more a look of deep concentration, while contorting my lips as if in some bizarre ritual???  I will give it to Italian men though, for saying all the right things at the right time.  He was an expert at it!!! 
HHhmmm, although maybe not all Italian men.  Last week I was walking back to my apartment when the gentleman walking beside me asked for the time.  I replied in Italian and he then excitedly started chatting to me as we walked along.  When he found out that I was there studying Italian he asked if I wanted to go for a drink so we could ‘practice’ my Italian.  If you picture in your mind what a sleazy, yet well dressed Italian looks like (all inclusive of dark sunglasses and gold chains), you wouldn’t be far off the mark.  Anyway, I thanked him for his kind (?) offer and found an escape route in a nearby shop. 
Well, three days later, I was standing in the piazza in Siena when I saw the same gentleman about to walk past me.  He stopped and then turned back towards me.  I thought, “Oh no, he’s recognized me”.  But nnnoooo!!! He asked me for the time again!!!  I was about to say, “its time you bought a watch”, but instead I just tilted my watch towards him and said nothing.  This time he quietly walked away.  I’m thinking it must work for him as a pick up line or surely he would have thought of something new???  Maybe I will put it to the test one day and let you know if it works!!! 
My third and final week of Italian lessons went way too fast!!  But I can proudly say that I have learnt heaps and am able to hold a reasonable (although somewhat disjointed) conversation now.  When I went to my ‘parrucchiera’ (yes, very strange Italian word that stands for hairdresser) I was able to chat to her for an hour while she put foils in my hair. Again at times it was a bit like multiple choice.  I would say a string of Italian words and she would then repeat three possible sentences that I may have been trying to say.  She was just lovely and the colour turned out fine!!!
It was very sad saying good-bye to my flatmate Hilda.  She was quite the character and I loved her philosophy on life.  She believed in Destiny and that we all have a certain path in life that is already mapped out for us.  She said that if you stray from the path, then the universe will present things to you to try and get you back on track.  She even drew me a diagram during breakfast one morning to explain “il destino”.  I can’t wait to find out what is on my path.  I hope there are lots of shops that line each side of the path???  Surely if I am going to give some clothes to charity, they will need to be replaced at some stage!!!
Hilda also introduced me to a friend of hers, Vincenzo.  As fate may have it, Vincenzo lives in Tivoli, which is a town just an hour outside of Rome that is full of famous fountains & gardens.  My cousin Rosaria had recommended that I go there and I had planned to do that when I next returned to Rome.  Well, guess who is lined up to be my tour guide of the gardens in Tivoli this Saturday!!! 
Well, after a last good-bye dinner with Mauro Friday night, I had to say good-bye to Siena Saturday morning.  I made my way to the train station (yes, by one of those poor taxi drivers), and off I went to Cortona for 2 days.  Cortona was the setting for the other fabulous movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”.  Hhhmm, come to think of it, Diane Lane ended up single at the end of that movie!!!
Cortona is one of the oldest and most scenic hill towns in Tuscany and was just lovely!!! I was staying in a beautiful old hotel right in the centre of the historic town.  And I can assure you, it is not called a ‘hill’ town for no reason!!!  I walked up and down so many hills I’m sure I wore off all three of the gelati’s I ate while I was there!!! Um… am not so sure about the whopping big pizza and pasta dish I ate…. ..
Oh, that’s right, I think I wore those off in Perugia, which was the next town I stayed in for 2 nights.  And probably just in the hotel itself!!  I was very happy (?) to find out that I was on the 2nd floor and had to carry/drag my suitcase up 5 flights of stairs to get to the 2nd floor!!!  I remember thinking just before I got there that I would need to ensure that I did a lot of walking.  Well, careful what you wish for!!  I did 2 trips to take my luggage up (as my day pack weighs almost as much as my suitcase).  Then found out the toilet didn’t flush, so walked back down to reception to tell them.  I was then given a password for internet access and when I got back to my room it didn’t work, so I walked back down to tell them. Yes, I did try the room phone, but that didn’t work either. Then as I was walking back up the stairs, the hotel key tag fell off the key ring and rolled…yes, you guessed it… all the way back down the stairs.  I almost had to have a kindy nap before I saw any of the town!!!  And of course, there were 500 flights of stairs to get from the hotel to the centre of the town.  But I did buy a lovely new (very lightweight) top in one of the shops in Perugia, so I have fond memories of the town.
On the second day in Perugia, I took a bus trip out to Assisi.  Assisi is a beautiful medieval town and is the burial place of St Francis.  He is buried in the amazing Basilica di San Francesco which is the huge feature of the town. The church walls are lined with frescoes (artwork) depicting the life of St Francis.  You weren’t allowed to take photos in the church, so there were young artists everywhere sitting down sketching the paintings.  I actually contemplated doing it myself, but realized that stick men in robes probably wouldn’t quite capture the beauty? There were priests and nuns walking around the town everywhere, not to mention all the shops being full of Christian memorabilia.  I felt like a little pilgrim myself walking from church to church. Note, I didn’t say from shop to shop!!! Okay, maybe just 3 shops.  One to get lunch, one to get a gelati, and one to buy these cute little hearts that I found???
And yes, I have met some lovely people along the way.  Each time I sit down to eat, I somehow find myself in a conversation with the people seated beside me; whether it be at a coffee shop, on the steps of a monument, or on a bench at the train station.  It has been great!!
And then of course I took a train to Spello yesterday.  I leave here tomorrow to go to Rome for two nights and then on Sunday I am returning to my beloved Sicily for 4 nights.  Can’t wait.
Well, it’s definitely time to end it here. I hope this finds you all happy, healthy & enJOYing your life.
Love Joy xxxx

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Still in Siena...10.6.11

Hi all,
Gosh, it is almost 2 weeks since my last email.  Did you miss me??  Me…Joy…remember…I am over in Italy living the dream!!!  Sometimes I wonder whether I will wake up in my bed in Cairns one day and say ‘did that really happen to me?”.  However at this point, I am still hoping of course to wake up in an Italian castle one day with my ‘Blue Prince’ beside me and know that it did happen!!  But, maybe not this week??? 
Hey, a little trivia on the ‘Blue Prince”.  My friend’s gorgeous daughter, Ashlin, emailed me to say that “il principe azzuro” does definitely  translate to ‘Prince blue’.  That is why in almost every Disney movie, the ‘princes’ are wearing either blue tights or a blue shirt. She learnt that in HER Italian class!! 
It’s always hard to know where to start when there is so much to tell.  My brother told me it takes him 32 minutes to read my “essays”.  Well, this one may take longer, so good time to make a cuppa before you start ‘tackling’ the essay (??).  Actually, better still, make it a glass of vino…I am in Italy after all!
Well, if you are wondering exactly where I am in Italy, I am still in Siena.  I am enjoying myself so much I decided to stay a while longer.  I so love these unplanned holidays!!  I finished my two weeks of Italian lessons and then decided to stay a third week to use Siena as a base while I did day trips out to the smaller villages.  Great decision (more on that later).  And now, I have decided that I will stay a fourth week and return to the Italian language school for another week of lessons!!! 
It really is such a wonderful feeling to stay in one place for a whole month.  The staff at the local corner food store (just 2 minutes walk from my apartment) know me now and I get a special ‘Buon Giorno’ when I walk in.  The pizza place, where I have eaten 5 times (best pizza in Siena) knows which pizza I always order.  AND, I even have a ‘hairdresser’ now!!!  I had a haircut this week and have booked in for foils next week.  At least, I think I have booked in for foils (hair colour).  I showed them a piece of alfoil and pointed to the top of my head…so I think that’s what I am getting???    Surely the couple of grey hairs, which insist on sticking straight up in the air on the top of my head, were a dead giveaway that something needed to be done!!!  And done soon!!!  I fear if I pluck any more grey hairs out, they will be applying paste for ‘hair growth’ instead of ‘colour’.
Sadly, I had to say good-bye to my flatmate Magdalena last Thursday.  However it is funny how fate works, as my new flatmate Hilda (who moved in last Saturday) is also attending the same language school as I am (but in a more advanced class).  She is from Slovakia and speaks NO English, so we have to communicate in Italian!!!  Here I was thinking I was having a break from my Italian lessons, but no, she had different ideas!!!  It’s almost like living with an Italian school headmistress!!  She makes me repeat everything if I don’t pronounce it right, and she even had me writing down words that I will find important for the future… to make sure I remembered them!!  Actually, I think it was my homework.  She told me I had to study them before she got back from her class!!!  AND she gave me her radio and said I had to listen to the Italian songs AND she gave me her digital recorder (where she had taped herself speaking Italian) and told me I had to listen to her because it was good practice!!!  HHHmm..yes, the Slovakian Hitler….
Oh to be fair, Hitler Hilda does actually have a softer side.  She made me dinner last night.  A very very nice fish dish with seasoned vegetables.  She said we should have a balanced diet as all the pasta we have been eating is not great for the waistline.  Is she trying to tell me something???  HHmmm, maybe it was when she saw me balancing a gelati in one hand and a chocolate bar in the other (Joy’s idea of a balanced diet??). 
Actually the “Eat” part of my very own “Eat, Pray, Love” movie continues in a big way. I’ve had many lunches (pranzo) and dinners (cena) out to ensure that I am experiencing much of Siena’s finest culinary delights. Gosh these Italians can cook!!!  I’ve tried their herb seasoned steak a couple of times now and it is to die for!!!  Although, I have received very disapproving looks when I have asked for the steak to be well done.  Apparently it is something you should eat ‘rare’.  My friends were eating it rare (or ‘raw’ in my opinion) and I swear their steak was about to ‘moo’ at me!!!
One of the pasta lunches I had recently was in a small Italian village called Monte Oliveto.  It was amazing.  There was a whole Italian family cooking in a small shed type kitchen and on a BBQ in their back yard.  The back of a house was converted into a huge dining room and a heap of the locals from the village had come for lunch.  It was a public holiday in Italy that day, so this was their way of getting together with the family to celebrate.  Just wonderful.  We sat at the end of a table and it felt like I was back in Sicily at one of their huge family gatherings. Loud, lots of Italian, lots of laughter and of course, lots of food!!!!  A moment I will always remember……..
I’ve been fortunate now to have travelled out to quite a few of the smaller villages.  WOW, WOW, WOW is all I can say about the Tuscan countryside!!!  I think I have taken some of the best photos of my holiday so far this past week.  The amazing patchwork of green; the shapes created by the trees, vineyards, the sloping hills; and their shadows … the beauty of which really can’t accurately be described.  And the villages themselves are so full of character.  The cobbled streets, medieval alleyways, enchanting piazzas and Romanesque churches (Duomos) are a photographers dream come true.
For this week’s school excursion we went to hilltop Montalcino, which sits at the heart of vineyards that produce Brunello wine, which is one of Italy’s finest red wines (could you tell I typed that straight from the Eyewitness Travel Guide??).  We got to taste 3 of them!!!  Wine, that is!!! The first and last wine was very nice.  The second one made my hair curl.  Ewwhhh!!!  I think they left that one in the barrel too long.  HHmm, every seasoned wine drinker is probably thinking that I should have said they took it out of the barrel too soon!!
Last weekend, I was very privileged that Mauro’s personal Italian tuition also extended to personal excursions through the Tuscan countryside.  He should receive a medal for his patience!!  Without once complaining, he stopped the car every 100 metres so I could get a ‘better’ photo of the glorious hillside.   

On Monday I took a bus out to San Gimignamo.  San Gimignamo’s majestic skyline is dominated by 13 ancient towers.  Yes, I wrote that.  Okay, okay…I stole that from the Travel book too!!!  Anyway, all I can say is that it is not the town to visit on your own if you have no sense of direction.  Because you will see the same thing 6 times if you continually walk around in circles!!!  Have you heard the saying ‘every road leads you somewhere’.  Well, no matter what road I took, I ended up somewhere alright.  ’Somewhere’ = ‘Same place’!!! The only problem was that I had seen a really nice ring in a jewellery store that was NOT located at the ‘same place’ that I continually ended up at!!!!  It was by some stroke of luck that I was attracted to some pretty blue flags hanging from an archway….which then led me to ANOTHER place where I finally found the lovely jewellery store again!!! So, after a wonderful conversation with a nice Italian gentlemen (where I practiced my Italian bartering), I scored myself a very nice amethyst argento ring!!!  No stress involved in the weight of this delightful purchase!!  HHmm, errhh…there have been a couple of other minor purchases through the week, but I needed everything I bought, okay!!! 
Did I tell you that I am returning to Sicily for 4 nights at the end of this month??  I was given an appointment with the Catania Police regarding my Visa application (to remain in Italy for 6 months) and they wouldn’t allow me to attend at any other Police Station in Italy.  Part of me wants to say a huge thank you to Italian bureaucracy!!!  Am so excited about going back to Sicily and seeing everyone again!!!  I rang Maria this morning and she was as excited as I am!!!  I wonder what will be on the menu for my welcome home dinner J!!!! 
Oh, do you recall the lovely couple, Andrea & Angie, who I met on the plane that offered the house-sitting in Tuscany? Well, I took a train ride out to their place last week to have dinner with them.  They are just wonderful.  We had the best conversation over a delicious 3 course meal (that Angie prepared)!! While I won’t be house-sitting, as the dates didn’t work out (I will be back in Sicily and then in Venice when their house is free), I will definitely keep in contact with them. Maybe Angie could offer me cooking lessons instead???  My sister can now relax.  She had been emailing me initially worried that they may have been mass murderers!!!  They had a good laugh when I told them that.  Andrea’s mother was almost as worried.  She warned that I may steal everything in the house while they were gone!!!
The “Pray” part of the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie also continues.  I went into the huge famous Duomo in Siena today for the first time (you have to pay for the privilege of entering this one).  Unbelievable!!!! It is one of the most spectacular churches I have seen.  It was like being back in Rome again with their magnificent churches.  Oh, that reminds me…did I mention that the last time I was in Rome, they were offering the opportunity to give ‘confession’ with an English speaking priest who was secluded away in the ornate confessional box.  I figured I hadn’t been since I was at my good catholic High School (a little while ago??), so I jumped right in and started confessing my sins!!!  Don’t worry, I wasn’t in there long!!!  Actually, I spoke more about my holiday than my sins!!!  And to prove that; he only gave me one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary” as penance!!!  Not a bad effort for not having been to confession for over 25 years!! Maybe I got a discount because he couldn’t understand English all that well (I did have to explain things slowly)???
And lastly before I head off…are you wondering about the “Love” part of the movie???? Well, there may be just a hint of romance with Mauro…….but will leave that for the next email. 
Until then, I hope you are all happy and well and enjoying life as much as I am!!!!!!!!
Ciao Ciao from bella Siena.
Love Joy xxxxxxxxxxx