Goodbye Friend

In an earlier essay, I listed our closest friends in Ghivizzano. I realize now that I omitted a special friend from from that list. Unfortunately, he is no longer here. His name was Pippo. He was Ramona and Grazia’s dog, a black giant schauzer mix. Beginning in the winter of 2010/2011 he became our ‘time share’ dog, a loving companion and trusted friend.

Pippo

Pippo was a gentle giant: I have never seen such a docile, obedient dog. When we first came to know and love him, he was indoors most of the time. I knew that Grazia and Ramona walk little (the former because of age, the latter because of back pain). This was during the few weeks of winter when the days in Ghivizzano are bitterly cold and it is even colder after the weak sun sets. I offered to walk Pippo as a favor to Ramona and Grazia, so that they could remain in their warm house. I also wanted this huge dog, with his massive legs and sleek body, to have a chance to use his muscles.  Ramona and Grazia gratefully accepted my offer.  I would arrive after dinner and take Pippo around the neighborhood. He was delighted to get outdoors and he was bursting with energy so we sometimes ran at the start of our walk.  After a week or so, Pippo understood that my arrival usually meant going out. As soon as he heard my voice or saw me standing in the doorway, he came bounding to the door. If I delayed (as I often did, talking to Ramona and Grazia about the day’s events), Pippo impatiently paced to and from the door.  When I finally picked up the leash, he bounced up and down with joy and panted in anticipation.

Sometimes Pepper would talk Pippo out too, especially on pretty days. The walks were beneficial to us all. I think maybe Pippo enjoyed them the most, because we took him far from home, to new smells and new dogs. But I returned to Ramona and Grazia’s house refreshed and calm.  I was happy to help Pippo, but the walks with him benefited me, too. When Pepper and I were troubled or tired and we took Pippo for a walk, his wagging tail and happy gait made the day brighter and our worries less important.

Rusty and Pippo in garden

Pippo was already old when we met him. But recently his health declined quickly. He stopped eating and became lethargic. He was almost deaf by now and my arrival didn’t have the same affect it once had. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even get out of his bed until I came to scratch his sides.  Eventually, Grazia moved him downstairs to the cantina, as he couldn’t climb the stairs any longer.

Grazia postponed the fateful decision as long as possible. The veterinarian prescribed steroids, which allowed Pippo to recover his appetite and some of his energy. But we all knew that this was a temporary reprieve. Pippo was officially Barbara’s dog. But as with many pets brought into the home by a child, Grazia soon assumed his caretaking.  She took him for a short walk in the morning and at night for his ‘bisogni’ and filled his water and food dishes. Grazia kept up a good front, treating Pippo as a responsibility and a duty to maintain. But in those final weeks, the facade cracked. She admitted that many nights she was sleeping little, thinking about ‘povero Pippo’.

The day before the vet’s final visit, Grazia told Pepper and me about it, so we came to say ‘goodbye’. Pippo barely raised his head, but did reward our visit with a couple of thumps of his tail. That evening, I brought back from a restaurant a few bones.  I wasn’t sure he could eat them, but Pippo always loved well-cooked bones. (He was a greedy eater, and more than once he scarfed down an entire bone, only to retch it up later because it was too big).

The next evening, I passed by Ramona’s and Grazia’s house. I dared not go near the cantina. Grazia’s face said everything. Without a word, she shook her head slowly. After a few moments of silence, we talked about Pippo. I was glad to find out that during the last night he did eat all of the bones. So he died with a good meal in his stomach.

It has been a month since Pippo was put to sleep. But Pepper and I still miss him very much. Yesterday as we drove past Ramona and Grazia’s house, I turned my head without thinking. Pepper noticed and asked me if I was looking for Pippo to be stretched out in the shade. And it was true.  He will be in our hearts forever.

 

l’orto – planting

With great enthusiam, Pepper and I went to the local garden center and selected various plants and seeds.  It was springtime according to the calendar, but the rains and cool temperatures were not very spring-like. More than one neighbor complained that his plants were drowned and rotting.

I interpreted this as a sign that my late start was actually beneficial (hooray for procrastination!).

Lettuce

For the next few evenings, I walked down to the orto and worked in the garden.  I hoed a row, then planted the plants or the seeds, then hoed the fresh dirt back over.  I didn’t need to water much, as the soil was soggy.  In fact, evening rains prevented me from working in the garden a few times.  So it took at least a week to get everything in the ground.

My garden plot

I included several plants that did well last year: tomatoes, peppers, beets, and kale. This larger plot, which Albano and I are cultivating together, provided the opportunity to try new types: rucola (arrugula), watermelon, borlotto (a delicious brown bean), and artichoke.  Albano was very busy and, though I reminded him several times to select some plants, all of the plants in the garden were my choices.

Tomatoes and broccoli

Speaking of artichoke, until I came to Italy in 1984, I had never eaten one. I was hooked from the first mouthful.  They are delicious and the plant is beautiful as well. In several ornamental gardens, I’ve spotted artichoke tucked in among the roses and hedges.

Since the climate of Toscana and northern Florida are similiar, I am curious why farmers didn’t cultivate artichoke when I was growing up.  Is it because the farmers are not familiar with it? Are the plants too large to be profitable – they can grow to a meter wide and almost as high, but produce few blossoms.  Or is the different soil and moisture to blame?

I planted my artichokes in April, in the smaller plot I used last year.  On one of his free mornings, Albano used the weed-wacker to clear his land- and lopped the tops off my poor artichokes.  Fortunately, these are hardy plants (being a member of the thistle family, they are really weeds), the plants soon put out new leaves.  I’ve transferred them to the larger plot and they seem to have survived their beheading.

 

 

 

Third Year

It seems like yesterday that Pepper and I arrived in Italy. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been here 3 years now. So much has happened in that time.

In the first year, the major renovation work was completed. We navigated the Italian bureaucracy, going from one office to another and making a thousand phone calls, to obtain visas and permits to open Casa La Pace. We put ourselves on TripAdvisor and opened our doors. And people have been finding us and enjoying their time here in Ghivizzano.

Ghivizzano Alto

In our second year, we concentrated on learning how to manage a B & B. We welcomed our first guests and, during the course of the year, had a wonderful time meeting new people and sharing our home with them.  Most were from the United States, but we had a few guests from other countries, too.

In our third year, our guests are finding us from all over the world. We are truly international now, with new friends in Moscow, Singapore, Scotland, Berlin, and Australia.  Even our American guests are coming from all corners of the U.S.: Minnesota, California, Florida, and, of course, Arkansas.  As we approach our 100th review on TripAdvisor, we are proud of the positive reviews Casa La Pace has received.

In this past year, we were astonished to be awarded TripAdvisor’s award of excellence. As though that weren’t honor enough, Casa La Pace was included in the top 25 Bed and Breakfasts in Italy.

Ghivizzano hasn’t changed much in the past year, not surprising for a village more than 1000 years old. But there are some events worth noting.  In Ghivizzano Alto, the old town, the tower has been restructured and new lights are being installed. There is now an elevator, too!  As is typical, it functions only by key, which is never available, so the elevator has been used only a couple of times, to my knowledge.

The economic crisis continues to take its toll, with Samanta and Francesco closing their shops.  On a positive note, there is a new restaurant a short walk from Casa La Pace. La Coccinella (the Lady Bug) belongs to a charming young man from Bagni di Lucca who worked as a chef for 10 years on Elba. Needless to say, his seafood dishes are marvelous.

Sindi MaloTwo years ago Camparlese experienced a baby boom, with 4 babies arriving in a few short months. The children are all toddling along now, each one adorable and full of life. We see Sindi almost every day, as she and her mother Anna play in the courtyard of Casa La Pace.  Lorenzo, the son of Emmanuele and Claudia, has perfect blond curls, piercing eyes, and is so impatient to run I am convinced he will be a great soccer player. And Ginevra has become the center of Ramona’s universe. Ramona misses no opportunity to visit her great niece, Barbara’s daughter, in their home near Borgo a Mozzano.

Ginevra and Ramona

In February, while we were on vacation, Lina Nizzi, our 94-year-old neighbor, lost her sight. (She had complained of headaches and wasn’t eating.)  So her daughter had no choice but to move her to the Casa degli Anziani in Coreglia. Fortunately, they take good care of Lina there, so she has recovered her appetite – and her sharp tongue.  She is still blind, able to see only shadows. Her mind is still clear, though, and she recognizes us by our voices as soon as we greet her.

We continue to meet new people of the village, sometimes at the bar, but more often as we share Ghivizzano with our guests. Ramona and Grazia, Allesandro Albano and Micheleand Marinella, and Albano and Samanta remain our closest frieds. When we are free, we do our best to spend time with them. And they are so warm and generous: more than one guest has had prosecco in Alessandro’s garden or homemade limoncino in Grazia’s family room.

We survived the worst winter ever. It was never really cold. But, from flowers in courtyard 2November through mid-June, it was cloudy, gray, and wet. Records were set for precipitation, fewest sunny days, and coolest months.  I am so thankful that the sun and warmth have finally returned.  I write this sitting in the courtyard, under the umbrella to protect against the blazing sun. No cloud is in the sky, the birds sing, and I am at peace.

 

Gelato in Ghivizzano

From il Giornale di Coreglia Antelminelli:

“Bar Sport of Ghivizzano, also known as ‘La Casa del Gelato’ of the Antoni family, was ranked Number 1 in ‘The Best Gelato’ referendum of the Mediavalle and the Garfagnana.  Sponsored by La Nazione in collaboration with Confcommercio, Bar Sport won with the arrival of a multitude of ballots and an evening awaiting to the end for the announcement of the winner; therefore, the victory was even more gratifying. The award ceremony took place at the headquarters of Confcommercio in the presence of several experts in the sector.’Bar Sport Gelato

‘A little history….this business was born in 1946 as a collection center for the fresh milk just milked by the contadini of the area, where families came to buy the milk, and the remainder was used to make an excellent gelato, and a butter that is still remembered by the more refined palates.  Today the third generation continues, with the business now known as Bar & Gelateria (still known among locals by its original name ‘Da Barsante’), using modern technology but maintaining the original flavors and recipes passed down by the previous generations: whole milk of the highest quality, eggs from free-range chickens, and natural ingredients, from local providers or of the best Italian production. The production of the gelato is always followoed with care, to offer a handmade gelerato that is always the best.

Topped by whipped cream, guaranteed to be freshly made, the gelato is a treat that satisfies not only the taste buds, but also the soul.”

I agree that the gelato at Bar Sport is among the best anywhere. More than a few guests have insisted on returning each day of their stay to Bar Sport for the delicious gelato.

Cristina and Lorenzo

Casa La Pace congratulates Lorenzo & Enrica, Claudia and Christina. And we are thankful that they are here, another treasure of Ghivizzano.

l’orto

The Italian language has two words for ‘garden’.  Il giardino is the area around one’s house, with hedges, flowers, and lawn. L’orto is the area in which one cultivates vegetables, i.e. the vegetable garden.  I recently began work on my orto.

Last year, our friend Albano allowed me to cultivate a small plot on his land. I had a few tomatoes, peppers, and beets. Albano had a separate plot and tended it for his family.  This year, Albano suggested that we cultivate a larger plot together and I readily agreed.  I’m always happy to share the weeding.

My grandparents and my father always had a field of vegetables. My grandmother’s table was overflowing with beans, peas, squash, and okra from their garden. Dad’s was never quite as successful (his number one work-hand – me – was lazy and the weeds quickly took over), but we still had a freezer full of field peas at summer’s end.

working the land

As a computer consultant, I moved regularly and always rented a house. Even so, I tried to plant vegetables in the summer. My results were underwhelming.  For example, the alkaline soil of Pueblo, Colorado, produced about 10 potatoes none larger than a plum tomato.  And the sandy soil of Cape Coral, Florida, was good for basil, but not much else.  Plus, I don’t have the tradition of plants, soil, and weather that previous generations would have handed down.

rusty and albano at garden

But I’ve always been satisfied with my little plots.  After a long day in a gray cubicle, I looked forward to spending a few minutes in the sunshine.  I might plunge my hands deep into the rich soil or merely sit and contemplate the cycle of life that each bean represents.  The experience of gardening was much more important to me than the end result. (And we thankfully live in a time when we need not depend on my meager crops!)

Pictured here are our first efforts, breaking the ground cover and turning the soil. It was hard work and took a couple of weeks. But the soil, being in the alluvial plain of the Serchio River, is rich and loamy, ideal for growing vegetables.

I’ll be providing updates throughout the season.

Off with the Heat!

azalea in the courtyar

According to the calendar, spring arrived on March 21st. But the weather didn’t improve much. This was a terrible winter, with long stretches of gray days. Now with springtime, I awoke hopeful each day, but the clouds, and often rain, greeted me each morning.  The trees and bushes knew that it was time for them to awake from their winter slumber. The temperatures were a little warmer every day. So the cherries began to bloom, the quinces burst into beautiful color, and the daffodils made their appearance. But rather than a pageant of blazing spring colors, the light filtering through the blanket of clouds rendered the hillsides secretive and sad. There was  no blare of festive trumpets – though it wasn’t the funeral dirge of February either.

Flowers at Front Door

Finally, almost a month late, the sun appeared. April 15 was a beautiful day, full of the warmth and hope of spring. When the sunshine finally broke through, it was like a brass band playing. The sky was a perfect blue, the swallows danced in the air, and the people of Ghivizzano threw open our shutters and began to sing (metaphorically).

Rose

 

The walls of Lucca were crowded with people strolling, bicycling, and otherwise enjoying the beautiful weekend. Despite the continuing economic crisis, more automobiles were zipping up the Serchio Valley. Bicyclists donned their specialized garb and whizzed through Ghivizzano, now free from the cold winds.

 

Though we’ve continued with fewer-than-normal sunny days since mid-April, the sun makes an appearance almost every day. There are often showers Casa La Pace in bloom(though they don’t seem unusually heavy or numerous), so the trees and flowers are thriving. It isn’t too warm yet, either, so I don’t bring out the watering can much.

 

I’ve turned the heater off. I’ve made no promises, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the radiators won’t run again until October.

 

 

Update: The cold temperatures returned at the end of May. I turned on the heat again on May 27.  It remained cold through May 31.  Warmer temperatures have finally arrived (for real, this time?) on June 3rd, so I’ve turned the heat off.

Things I Learned about Australia

One of the most rewarding aspects of running a bed and breakfast is meeting a rainbow of people.  We are delighted when non-Americans find us (though I in no way want to dismiss our wonderful compatriots).  It gives us the chance to learn more about places we haven’t yet visited – and places that may not have been on our list of future vacations.

We recently welcomed our first Australians and they were terrific. Leigh was celebrating her 50th birthday and wanted to be in Paris for the big day. So she and her husband travelled to Europe with another couple. As many Aussies do, they were touring Europe for an extended period, in this case 6 weeks. (As always, I am astounded that Americans are satisfied with a pitiful 2 weeks, when the rest of the civilized world gets so much more annual vacation).

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am a huge fan of Olivia Newton-John. So I have a superficial knowledge of Australia. Getting to know these 4 turned Australia into a real place for me. They are from Brisbane (pronounced BRIZ-bin, not bris-BANE).  It turns out Brisbane has a climate very similar to Miami, so these Australians were experiencing a real winter here in Ghivizzano (even though it was spring, according to the calendar).

We talked with them over breakfast each morning or as they drank wine in the evening about how similar are Australia and the United States.  Despite the fact that we are literally poles apart, we share a common history as former British colonies. Australia is a little younger, but we are both young, especially compared to the countries of Europe.

Lee-Ann, Phil, Leigh, and Ross were the perfect guests.  We can only hope that other Aussies that find Casa La Pace are as friendly, talkative, and intelligent.  And Pepper and I have decided to put Brisbane at the top of our list when we finally make it to Australia.

Without further ado, here is a list of things I learned from our new friends from Down Under:

* I learned how to make a flat white.

* Australia does not have a president; it does have a governor-general.

* Mozzies are not cute and cuddly, despite the sweet-sounding nickname.

* Queensland and Arizona are equally contrary: neither observes daylight savings time.

* Aussie Rules is a sport, not an exclamation.

First guests of 2013

The last guests of 2012 at Casa La Pace departed in early December 2012. And while we’ve had the time to make some improvements on the house, we’re ready to welcome new people to Casa La Pace.

Our first guests of 2013 are an impulsive couple. They told us that they planned and executed their wedding in 6 days.  And, though they were in Berlin for New Year’s 2013, they were back in Europe, and here at Casa La Pace, sooner than they expected. Paul got an offer of a new job and Natasha hated hers, so they both quit and spent 5 weeks in Italy.

It has been a long winter, and the cooler temperatures have continued into early spring. But Paul and Natasha didn’t seem to mind. Some days were wetter than others, but they had a positive attitude and welcomed each day, rain or shine. They visited in Venezia, Roma, Firenze, and the Amalfi coast. They came to Casa La Pace to relax and unwind at the end of their vacation.

When Pepper and I were considering Ghivizzano for our bed and breakfast, I worried that it would be too far from the tourist destinations.  The more we discussed it, the more I realized that being “off the beaten path” could be appealing to many travelers. Recalling my trips to Italy, I remembered the long days of movement – museums, walking, churches, and more walking – and of trying to squeeze in as much as possible. Inevitably, by the end of the vacation, I was exhausted and often ill.  Perhaps, I thought, other travelers are smarter than I and would include low-key days in their travel.

Paul and Natasha are just such travelers and seemed happy to end their Italian adventure with us.  Their plans were to be with us for 3 days. Instead, they stayed with us a full week. As their departure approached, Natasha began talking with Pepper about her prompt return to Casa La Pace.

We had a great time with this wonderful couple and they remind us how enjoyable is Casa La Pace with guests.  We hope everyone we meet will be as enthusiastic and kind as they. Pepper and I are now primed and ready for the steady stream of visitors to Ghivizzano.  We can’t wait!

 

Ghivizzano in winter

Most of the popular images of Italy include sunshine.  And from March through November, this is certainly true. Especially in late summer, clouds are rare and the sun blazes from early morning until a late sunset.

But Italy is a four-season country and winter touches all points of the peninsula.  A perfect winter day can be very cold, so long as the skies are clear and the sun is shining.  The previous 2 years seemed to have many more days of sunshine. Unfortunately, I can’t say we’ve had too many this year. The Serchio Valley, has had a wet, gray winter.  We have had many, many cloudy days  sometimes with rain, but often with little or no precipitation.

As of last November, 2012 was the second-driest year since the end of World War II. So I guess the weather gods are making up for last year with a never-ending series of clouds and rain.

As you can imagine, the Apuan Alps and Appenines are snow-covered at various times throughout the winter.  But Ghivizzano doesn’t get the heavy snows that fall further up the valley and into the Garfagnana. We had one snow fall in November.  It snowed in early February (while Pepper and I were on a much-needed vacation in the Canary Islands); some of that snow remains.

This morning, two weeks later, I woke up to huge fluffy snowflakes falling.   In spite of the fact that there is little sunshine today, the view out our window is spectacular.

feb snow window

And I stepped into the courtyard to check on the plants. It snowed in the higher elevations yesterday, so the surrounding mountains are blanketed in white. Cardoso is mystical, snow-covered and often enveloped in mist and cloud.

feb snow cardoso

 

2012 Year in Review

Note: We take a photograph of each set of guests before they leave.  We have them in an electronic picture frame to remind us of our wonderful guests and to share their smiling faces with new arrivals.  A few are included here.

As we begin 2013, Pepper and I reflect on the past year at Casa La Pace.  We are amazed that the year flew by.  We met many interesting people from around the world.  We’ve learned so much about so many places that we haven’t yet been; it’s almost like traveling without packing our bags. (Of course, I still love to travel, so I’m always adding to my list of future destinations!)

Guests of CLP

My favorite time with our guests is breakfast. As I prepare breakfast on the first morning after arrival, I lay out our offerings of local cheeses, meats, bread, and fruit. During the next hours, each person shares stories of his or her life, where they’ve been and what they hope for the future.  I’ve learned a lot about Dubai (UAE), Cork (Ireland), and Oslo (Norway).  I’ve taken imaginary trips to Washington (state and D.C.), Michigan, and North Carolina, too.

Guests of CLP

Pepper helps our guests plan their day. He has become a wonderful guide to Ghivizzano Alto, the old town, and brings it to life for everyone. Our many friends in Ghivizzano also welcome Pepper and our guests into their flower shop, bar, and grocery. More than one has joked that Pepper should run for mayor.

Guests of CLP

Many of our guests have fallen in love with the Serchio Valley; several have even expressed serious interest in buying a home here.  Pepper seems to be a real estate agent at times.  Villagers regularly stop us to tell us about a house they or a family member is selling.

Guests of CLP

A mother and daughter who stayed at Casa La Pace for an extended period kept up a running conversation about opening a Mexican restaurant here.  The daughter was leaving  home for college soon after, so it was bittersweet to listen to them share this dream.

Guests of CLP

We have helped celebrate birthdays, most recently two lovely ladies who have been friends since elementary school. They left their husbands behind and celebrated their 60th birthday year with us.

We’ve also coordinated several birthday surprises, including cakes sneaked into a local restaurant.

Guests of CLP

Casa La Pace has become a honeymoon destination, sometimes a year or two after the wedding ceremony. A wonderful young couple were with us for a week, two years after their wedding.  Another couple celebrated their 20th anniversary with us. As they departed, they said it was one of their most memorable vacations.

It should go without saying how very happy we are when old friends come to stay with us.  They bring with them love and great companionship. We resume the conversations that were interrupted when we left.  And it is with heavy heart that we wave goodbye to them once again.  There isn’t much of America that we miss, but top of the list is friends and family.

So far, our mishaps have been few.

Lucca is a short train or bus ride and a full day there is interesting and tranquil, without the rushing around expected in a larger, more famous city.  One couple found Lucca captivating and spent the entire afternoon on the walls of Lucca.  They lost track of time and missed the last train to Ghivizzano by a hair. (They said they reached out and touched the train as it pulled away from the station).  A taxi brought them home; they were thrilled by the adventure, rather than bothered by the expense.

Guests of CLP

Many of our guests have taken a day trip to the Cinque Terre. These beautiful cliff-side villages on the Ligurian coast are overrun with American tourists most of the time. But their charm and the stunning vistas make the trip worthwhile.  I always worry as our guests set out on the early-morning train.  I hope they’ll have a great time, but also fret that they’ll get lost in the beauty and forget to get the train back.  So far, everyone has returned to Ghivizzano, happy and tired.  Over dinner, they recount the day’s adventure to us, including quite a few funny anecotes about the train journey.

One of the most common questions we are asked is about being a B&B owner.  Pepper and I are truly loving the experience.  It is thrilling to greet a new arrival. Of course, we can never know what the next guest will be like.  But we have been lucky so far in the people who have chosen to stay at Casa La Pace. And we have shed more than a few tears when they have left us.  Most satisfying is that so many promise to return and that several have, in fact, done so.

Guests of CLP

If there is a drawback, it is the days without guests.  Yes, it is nice to have a break of a day or two, to recharge our batteries, so to speak. But by the third day, the house feels empty and I begin to feel rudderless.

Guests of CLP

As 2013 begins, we look forward with great anticipation to our first guests. We hope that this year will be as enjoyable and rewarding as  the last. AndWe look forward to the many new friends we will make and to renewing old acquaintances.