Wednesday, September 10, 2014


It's that time of year when most of us academics head back to school, only this year, for the first time in many moons, I am not. Instead, I was able to read an insightful NPR piece by Alex Aciman on the 1913 French novel, "Le Grand Meaulnes" ( "The Lost Estate") by Henri Alain-Fournier, killed in combat in 1914, but whose body was not found until 1991. This was Alain-Fournier's only book.

 Aciman makes an eloquent, compelling case for why this is "such an appropriate last book for someone days away from becoming a college student....Without ever actually announcing it, 'The Lost Estate' tells a story about feeling inescapably tied to one's life as a student and a child, but hoping that something far more enchanting will come along and distract us." Like the novel's young hero, "we wish we could be set off course."

I think I know what he means. 
Le grand Meaulnes
Oh, Les beaux jours!
Does one ever get over the complex cocktail of feelings at the start of a new academic year--anticipation, excitement, anxiety, dread?
Here I am not far from my seventh decade, and on fall leave from my academic post, to boot. Yet while Aciman laments hearing about the Staples back-to-school specials, I can still hear the jingle of the Robert Hall song:

"School bells ring and children sing,
It's back to Robert Hall again

Mother knows for children's clothes
It's back to Robert Hall again

You'll save more on clothes for school
Shop at Robert Hall!"

Although that song is just once click away on Google, I easily found it imbedded in my head. Maybe there never was a real Robert Hall behind that chain of clothing stores (he does sound suspiciously like Betty Crocker, another invented face of Americana), and those stores probably closed more than a half century ago. But the company that produced that musical ad deserves an A+: not only has its evocative power stuck with me, but so did the name and vision of the target product itself.

Alex Aciman's piece reminded me of my own discovery of "Le Grand Meaulnes" as an adult while auditing the wonderful class of Yale colleague, Jacques Guicharchnaud. It's to his credit that in his last year of teaching, instead of sticking to his expertise in French theatre, Guicharnaud decided to revisit his youth by teaching for the first time a course on "The Adolescent in French Fiction" that included the favorite, formative books of his youth.

I think that since I have the privilege of not having to head back to school right now, I'm going to follow the lead of Alex Aciman, his grandfather, and Jacques by rereading this classic.

Friday, September 5, 2014


Perils? What perils? What could happen to a reluctant designated driver who gets palpitations at the idea of having to back up en route to home after her husband with the pinched nerve got his last pain shot?  Well, she could run into her best friend coming from the opposite direction on a piece of bumpy, curvy road barely wide enough for one car, and bordered on both sides by deep ditches.

 Here's the situation. With J laid up and relegated to passenger-navigator/cheerleader status, that left me in the driver seat. So with him coaching me to "just stay on the road, dammit," when we saw another car approaching, he advised me as usual to stop and wait for the OTHER person to back up.

 As I dutifully stood my ground and came to a halt, I was thinking how unfortunate it was for that other person to be caught in such a dilemma at such a spot. Then when I recognized my friend P at the wheel of the other car, I felt extra bad. 

But P has more courage in her left thumb than I'll ever have anywhere. At first, like anyone else who drives our dusty road, she couldn't see out her back window. Undaunted, P hopped out of her car, glanced at the surrounding ditches, and did her best to wipe the window enough to get a glimpse of what was back there. Next, despite the burning rubber and smoke coming out of her wheels, she managed to back up enough to let me pass.

I know she'll forgive me, but even so...

Maybe in my next life I will learn how to back up and NOT fall into a ditch. If you read my post from March 2011, 
you already heard me say that "to reach down INTO a ditch is better than getting stuck in one." 

But on the positive side, I need to remind myself that despite the demoralization of having to be pulled out of a ditch by my contadino neighbor, the silver lining was that I made a new friend who turned out to be related to an old friend. This is part of the beauty of living in the countryside. 

As for dealing with our perpetually "guasto" road, I'll be glad when J is back in the driver's seat. Greyhound Bus Lines in America has a great advertising slogan: "Leave the driving to us!" If only!!!


Here she is, early in the season, before she became a jungle. Looks pretty peaceful, no?


Every time I have abandoned her, she has gotten back at me. Ordinarily a very devoted, even compulsive gardener with zero tolerance for weeds, I am full of rationalizations for my neglect. First it was a period of bad weather. Next a trip to visit family. Then trying to care for a husband with a pinched nerve.

But she is not interested in excuses. This is existentialism in action. Good intentions mean nothing. It's only what you do that counts. Today I am trying to make it up to her. We'll see how well that works.

I'm beginning to understand why they call them soldier bugs. I've spent much of the day killing legions of them, but just when I have the illusion that I am making a dent in their ranks, entire new phalanxes appear. When one considers the life cycle, I guess we each have our moment to feel strong and invincible.This is theirs.

The local dialect even has an expression for that: "E suo tempo." This is not the first time I have heard this philosophical comment whose implication is, "Well, what do you expect? Isn't it September in the garden?" I wrote on this a bit in June of 2011

Once, when I asked the local garden store owner why my kitchen was suddenly invaded by armies of flying ants, he didn't hesitate to say, "E suo tempo." I wrote about that in an earlier post, ON BEING A PRINCIPESSA (OR IMAGINING THAT YOU ARE)...  Everyone, even the insects decimating my beans, deserves his moment in the sun. Although I see that any sense of permanent victory is illusory, I'm still hoping that my efforts will result in less war and a little more peace in my garden. 

(I was thinking of including some photos of the various stages of these soldier bug guys, but then I remembered that my 90-year-young mom said "basta with those insect pictures!" OK, mom. This is part of my birthday present to you. Here come a few more pre-jungle garden shots, instead.) 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


You try to check on the status of the stool you ordered on Amazon--the one that will allow your pinched nerve husband to remain seated in the kitchen and feel better by cooking us some great food.

Although my phone-phobic, hearing-challenged self is unhappy speaking on the telephone in any language, to do so in Italian from our house has been a special trial. When you live as deep into the countryside as we do, in order to get any reception at all, one has to:
1.station herself in front of a particular window
2.NOT move
3.pray to the Telephone Gods that there won't be too much static at the other end, and that the person at the other end will have the patience to stick with you, and that you won't get cut off mid-sentence due to ???

In terms of speaking to the nice lady about tracking your package, you also need to pray that either you or your husband doesn't have "number anxiety" when having to recite long Italian numbers, and that one of you actually knows the Italian alphabet. But most importantly, you better hope that your package tracking number is not W269438157.

Even though I am the designated Telephone Talker in the family, I am number and alphabet challenged. Fortunately my temporarily handicapped husband is not. So when we sat down together to call about the whereabouts of his new stool, he was confident that having learned the Italian alphabet in Yale's Intensive Beginning Italian class, he'd be able to pitch in at the right moment.

Even so, we decided a little preparation might be necessary, since not even he could remember how to say the letter W.  But techno-savvy man that he is, he quickly found an on-line tutorial that teaches the alphabet. Of course they started at the beginning by telling us how many vowels there were, and reciting each one. The consonants were next.

We waited with great anticipation for the W, but the teacher himself seemed to have forgotten the W. How come? Could he/we have missed it?

We started the the tutorial again and got the same result. Then the light bulb went off:THIS LANGUAGE HAS NO W! Now what?

We were lucky in that the nice tracking lady didn't hang up when we couldn't respond with the tracking number. She's probably used to dealing with analphabetic dumb foreigners, and found a way around the problem.

And the best news? That the stool was en route, and that we could, all by our incompetent selves, call Driver Man, Antonio, directly on his cell phone to explain that he would never be able to find our house, but that if the gods were kind, we'd be able to find HIM at the justly popular Asterix Bar in our nearest village.

This story actually has a happy ending, since after not much of a wait, Antonio appeared bearing a stool-shaped box that contained a really lovely stool that looks as if it were made for the home of a pinched nerve victim in need of a place to rest his weary, cortisone-filled bum.

Looks great from all angles, right?

This first grouping was supposed to show just how much at home the new stool feels.

So why did we need another photo? Well, since we think too much matching is over-rated, we have three different kinds of kitchen chairs, and one was feeling left out.

(I have a more embarrassing French equivalent of my telephone trials, but my face is already red enough for now. To get the courage to tell that one, I need to go downstairs and admire the new stool just to remind myself that good things, not just news of disaster, can come from a telephone call. So please don't hang up yet. The French version will be coming up soon.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


(I've been writing about a different kind of shots in the context of J's medical situation, but when I heard two loud bangs this morning, this next post is what came out.)

Yesterday our Italian valley was totally tranquil. Today's gunshots tell a different story:it's the first day the hunters have license to shoot birds. That means it's no day for a walk in the woods.

My slender brother, Leigh, who last September at 63 died suddenly of a heart attack, loved birds. As kids, we used to watch excitedly what appeared to be the same sparrow family nesting atop a pillar on our front porch.

Leigh never outgrew that  passion, continuing to feed birds from wherever he lived. Now he lives in the Sons of Jacob Cemetery in Minnesota. I still love birds, but less loyally than he.

On the other hand, at our 44th anniversary lunch which coincided with the ceremony for the unveiling of Leigh's headstone, something made me decline the offer of the guinea fowl.

My father, who like his own father, died at 63 from a troubled heart, used to love to quote my toddler son's exclamation, "the birdies--they flied 'avay'!"

I am hoping that these vulnerable Italian birds will do the same.

By another odd confluence of events, I have finally arrived at the end of my journey with Tim Parks' book, "ITALIAN WAYS: On and off the rails from Milan to Palermo." The last chapter is titled "EPILOGUE." 

This wise book offers a fantastic lens through which to view Italian culture.

Coincidentally Epilogue is the title of my high school yearbook of which I was the editor 50 years ago, and for which I've been asked to write a little personal blurb as part of our 50th Class Reunion.

It was atypical that we Middletown High Schoolers chose a theme for that yearbook--Time. The cover featured a dangling pocket watch, and we arranged the class photos in a circle that looked like a clock. Even in 1964, some of us were thinking ahead to how that might play out over the years.

Now as a 67.5-year-old "child/studentessa" in Italy to whom everything is news, I'm grateful for many things. I especially like the words Tim Parks quotes from the meditation worship for which he arrived late, because he lost track of time.

On the last day of that workshop,  Edoardo Parisi (is France following me everywhere?) led the meditation of the metta bhavana:

"Let your mind go out to all those who are close to you and wish them well… Then to all those you are acquainted with. Finally, to all people and creatures everywhere. If you have offended anyone, perhaps, in your thoughts, you could seek pardon from them, and if anyone has offended you, you could try to grant them your sincere pardon."

Now that is a worthy Epilogue.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


I would have liked to continue the Ferragosto Holiday in Italy saga by adding  
STEP FIVE:WHAT TO DO AFTER DRIVING FROM ORVIETO TO TERONTOLA TO GET YOUR MRI. But my being a Technodunce has once again gotten in the way of my plan. 

I was also thinking that after not posting anything for so long, it kind of worked out well that the last post I had put up in November 2013 featured photos taken in the Sanitaria Surgical Appliance store where we were renting J's crutches and wheelchair in the wake of last Ferragosto's mishap. Husband J of the pinched nerve, who has no trouble understanding technology, says that EVERYBODY knows that blog chronology works backwards, so that what you see is the most recent, and there's no need to fret about what looks like goofy timing. OK, I'm going to try to set aside my antediluvian sense of proper order and just continue. As I said before in my two favorite languages, AVANTI! EN AVANT! 

Here we go.


So what's going on here? While waiting to get the MRI, J surfed around to find a good place to eat, which can go a long way toward making a pinched nerve more bearable. Now he should have been a little suspicious that the name of this highly acclaimed restaurant in nearby Castiglione del Lago was named Le Scalette, which translates as "Little Staircase." 

Because I am also driving challenged and can only try to point the car in the direction my skillful navigator says (and even at that, it's not always easy to stay on the road), we followed the GPS (which I do not know how to use) to the restaurant. When it said that we had arrived at our destination, it failed to mention the GIANT "scaletta" between us and a great lunch. 

Given the mystery of how far away that lunch might be and that I was the only one of us with working limbs, I was elected to head the search party. There was no point in making that climb only to not find the place, or to find it closed. It was good that I went ahead, because I had to go out of my way and ask two different people before finding it, nicely tucked into what was indeed a steep but "Little Staircase." 

I went back to the BIG staircase and looked down at handicapped hubby to see if he was up to making the climb. It's a tribute to those medicines and J's love of a good meal that he decided to go for it, and it was worth it to have had what he called "the best wild boar dish of his life." Whether you are having an MRI in Terontola or not, DO eat at Le Scalette! 

Was it a coincidence that this historic family trattoria had a prime view of the Casa del Mutilato? We're not exactly sure what that place is all about. After climbing all those stairs because you parked in the wrong place, will you be ready for the House of the Maimed? Well, not in our case. Maybe to eat wild boar even has more curative powers than a butt full of cortisone!

Undaunted man (Sisyphus?) with pinched nerve en route to a great lunch. This was the BIG staircase, not to be confused with the little one that will be the next hurdle. 

After the climb, this staircase was a piece of gateau, which is what you get to have after eating the best wild boar of your life (or in my case, roasted carp fresh from the lake) 

the view of the Casa Del Mutilato from the terrace of Le Scalette 

Full frontal view of the Casa where I don't think we want to reside, even if it is across from a superb restaurant

Whether or not you have a pinched nerve, need an MRI, or don't like climbing staircases large or small, DO eat at Le Scalette!

Delicacies made from the justly famous Cinta Sinese Tuscan pig 

Homemade cappellacci filled with perch in "sauce of the lake"

Best ever wild boar with truffles, balsamico, and glazed onions

Sublimely silken spinach

I am not usually a fan of the ubiquitous Italian crostata, but this one (pictured here, minus a few bites that I sneaked while my husband wasn't looking) of ricotta and wild cherries was a winner


Glass pen purchased in Italy decades ago, along with the peacock blue ink that I have loved since 5th grade.

THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING. YOU KNOW HOW YOU REALLY MEAN TO WRITE TO SOMEONE YOU TRULY CARE ABOUT,  but then life intervenes, too much time passes, and there you are, feeling very abashed?  In my professional life as a writing coach, I pride myself on being able to get anyone unblocked and over the hump. So how come I haven't posted anything since last November? It's not that I have not been writing; I do that all the time. But posting pieces on my blog site has been another story. My friend Susan who REGULARLY writes the great Half-Year Italian blog is inspiring me to get on the stick.

Now if a student presented me with what I just wrote above, I would gently say, "enough with the preamble, already! Life is short. AVANTI! EN AVANT!  I would also encourage the person to omit that entire opening bit. But in the interest of full disclosure, I'm leaving it there. Here we go!