The Ride of a Lifetime! After sixteen years of trying to live in Italy as "true Italians," we set out to write a book about our experiences. As it turns out, we ended up doing a lot more than just writing a book because we decided that to capture the essence, we really needed music, poetry, drawings, videos and more. So, that's exactly what we did. You can find our complete body of work at www.uncommonpromise.wordpress.com. We hope you can visit us from time to time—let us know what your personal adventure looks like. Perhaps we can all glean some inspiration to go out and write a new chapter in our own stories! Wishing you the best, Cheryl and Emerson


Today, an unexpected guest arrived at our home.

Doors wide open

On a beautiful sunny, cloudless June day in San Diego, something amazing happened. Following our lunch on the patio, we left the door wide open to let outside breezes in. Suddenly, there was a fluttering—a shadowy silhouette against the stark white ceiling. A lone monarch butterfly had decided to pay us a summery afternoon visit. She flitted silently, exploring every nook and cranny—first the bookcase, then the pictures and knick-knacks on the shelves. She floated across the room with intention, lightly touching the corner of the mantle, and then momentarily paused for a short rest on the back of a chair. 

Up close and personal

Cheryl was in the room at the time, reclining on the sofa—a post-lunch lull. She sighed when the butterfly gracefully swooped to clear the door frame, and then watched the antics as she worked her way across the room. Suddenly our unannounced guest landed directly in front of Cheryl’s face and seemed to be staring, unblinkingly at her. Wide-eyed, Cheryl lay nearly breathless, not wanting to make a sound or sudden move—butterflies are notoriously shy, you know. Could it be that this graceful visitor had a message to deliver? 

Have you ever had a monarch butterfly visit you in your home—in your face? It seems pretty rare, so we felt both curious and honored. We decided reflect on the possible meaning of this impromptu encounter. First of all, the monarch butterfly is among the most beautiful of all the butterflies. Their name, Monarch, Is fitting. If there was ever a monarchy over all butterflies, one of these beauties would surely be appointed Queen over the entire Kingdom. 

Subtle energy vibration

For millennia, cultures around the world have
recognized the grace and beauty of the butterfly. Their presence has been considered a sign that we, as humans, might be on our right path, and will most probably achieve our chosen goals. They are also viewed as delicate messengers announcing an impending rebirth or spiritual transformation—arriving to help us navigate through life or simply nudge us onward along the path already chosen. Some say that they’re drawn to particular people by a specific vibration, a subtle energy that emanates from their chosen companion.

Going for the Essence!

Our conclusion: this was a day of joyful reflection and celebration—perhaps it was a time for preparation, signaling some profound events about to unfold. As we continued talking about the brief visit, our thoughts, too, began to take flight.  Our conversation became more playful and lighthearted. Imaginations fluttered, then soared effortlessly through the air, floating high above a beautiful landscaped urban canyon. After a few minutes of ideas, dreams and exploration, we touched ground again. All of a sudden, the world seemed more open, inspiring, expansive and exciting!

Queen of the Royal Family

Fortunately, our butterfly-friend made an entrance that could not be ignored. We concluded that the message had, in fact, been received! We wonder, though, how many silent messengers fly close by, unnoticed every day. What clues have we missed by being too busy, too oblivious to our surroundings to note subtle changes? If nothing else, our colorful friend reminded us to watch more carefully, listen more intently and stay open, hopeful and engaged. She nudged us to pay closer attention to quiet information available to us. Surely, when it comes to magical insights and majestic influence, the Monarch definitely rules!  

Related Stories and Music

You might also enjoy a story called “Lavender, Bees and Butterflies” documenting nature’s party in the hills of Tuscany.

Another story called “Bee Major” reveals a little-known discovery about the song of the Bees.

And finally, a Musical Story called “Make Believe” might trigger your imagination and interest in tuning into the signs and messages from the Universe. 

Wishing well

There’s nothing quite like a good friend!

Best friend Emelee

The saying goes that all you really need in this life is love, a therapist and a good friend, not necessarily in that order, or even all of them at the same time. The “Big Three.” It’s dynamic. For us the love can be a person, a thing or an activity; the therapist can be a religious leader, counselor or healer; and the friend can be a spouse, family member, acquaintance or a beloved pet. In fact, the best of times is when love, the therapist and the friend ARE experienced, all three together. And once in a great while, it’s possible to have all three wrapped into one—for example, in the form of that special little dog. She can be a trusted confidant, someone who will never disclose a single word you’ve said. She can deliver fur therapy that dries the most mournful tears. She might follow every step you make, mirroring the very essence of friendship. To imagine Life without the “Big Three” is to ask the question: How long can you hold your breath under water?

Not that long.

Flame of Friendship

Our morning walk/exercise takes us by a beautiful sculpture that always makes us smile. The name is “Flame of Friendship” by the famous Mexican artist/sculptor Leonardo Nierman, located between the Marina and the Convention Center in San Diego. It was dedicated in 2000 as an expression of the warm friendship that exists between the US and Mexico—a centuries-old partnership, an intertwining of cultures, faiths and the very definitions of the two countries.

Friendship is a fundamental human need that finds expression at many levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural and national, creating bonds that we might literally guard with our very lives. Why? Because our humanity depends on them. We share a fundamental human need for warmth and connection. May the Flame of Friendship! burn ever more brightly.

Gallery

You might be interested in few other stories and songs about different expressions of friendship that have been meaningful for us over the years. Following are three musical stories that begin painting a picture of what friendship/love can look like in the everyday and how simple actions can instantly plumb the depths of feeling, emotion and life itself.

Musical Stories

Finally Friends

Circle of Trust

Helping Hand

Family Ties

Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to become rancid. A terrible smell supposedly wafts into the air. Could that be our problem!

That unmistakable smell

The smell of sweaty tennis shoes clued us in that we had issues with dampness in the small annex building, or anesso as the Italians call it. To us, it’s just our studio. We worked there most days, writing music, drawing, recording and reading. However, the small enclosed cantina, cellar beneath was the culprit, we were sure. Pretending that airing out the space above was sufficient, we tried various techniques to enhance the air quality.

One approach we tried was the muffa mangia, the mildew eater. This device was a half-gallon size plastic box with a tray suspended slightly down from the top. On this tray a block of moisture attractant is placed and as it sucks the moisture from the air, the water fills the space beneath the tray. Didn’t work. It may have worked had it been the equivalent of, say, a family size refrigerator? So we called our engineer friend, Leonardo and requested professional help. His recommendation? Claudio.

Claudio is a contractor who looks completely at home on a motorcycle. He has very dark hair and eyes to match, ties a colorful scarf around his neck and looks the part of the romantic loner. He was our man. We forgot to even ask his last name since he came highly recommended and we had immediate rapport. With an artistic wave of his hand, “Team Claudio” went into high gear.

Rotting wood from inside the cantina

First, they opened the cantina by removing the temporary stone wall where the door should be, only to discover that the original contractors had actually abandoned scaffolding inside. It was an absolutely disgusting scene. After 5 years or so, the wood planks had slowly disintegrated, creating the rotting wood smell that we couldn’t quite recognize from inside the studio above. In addition, a patch of mildew the size of Rhode Island heaved and slimed on the back wall as we watched. Mystery solved! The source for the nauseating smell was exposed.

Finished cantina with triple floor!

Claudio assured us that he could solve the moisture problem by pouring a concrete floor, building an open grid on top of that so that air might circulate, and finally, pouring a second concrete floor on top of the grid. What a GENIUS! At this point (just between the two of us), we began referring to him as “Clau-god,” since in Italian, dio means god. He certainly was our hero, and definitely looked the part.

After the clever double-floor was installed, the guys resurfaced the walls and finally, for good measure, laid a moisture resistant tile floor making our double floor into a TRIPLE. That cinched the deal! The cantina was finally dry and consequently, so was the studio. The ominous smell of dirty gym socks quickly dissipated!

Claudio performed a final inspection and declared the project complete. We agreed and took out our checkbook. Payment was the only thing left. With pen poised above the assegna, check, I remarked, “Claudio, I don’t even know your last name.”

“Tafani.”

Horsefly

Tafani? Doesn’t tafani mean horseflies? “Si, si. In fatti abbiamo una stemma di famiglia, Yes, yes, in fact we have a family crest.” At the same moment, in our mind’s eye, we each pictured a flowing golden silk banner graced with a delicately embroidered horsefly. We glanced at each other as if to say, “this must be a joke.” But, it was not!

He went on to explain, however, that there had been some bad blood between some of the family members centuries ago, and that after a serious disagreement, the only logical conclusion was for the family to separate. They broke into two distinct factions. In a final act of civility, Claudio’s ancestors had chosen to amicably share the rich heritage of the family horsefly crest. After much debate, they decided to literally cut the image of the horsefly in half.

When we commented that the two halves were virtually equal, Claudio corrected our misperception, “No, no. È stato tagliato orizzontalmente, No, no it was cut horizontally.” WHAT!? WHAT!? Was he saying that one side of the family inherited the top half of a horsefly and the other crest depicts the lower half of the body, legs and all?

Clau-god to the rescue! (a facsimile)

“Si, si. La mia famiglia è rappresentata dalla metà con le gambe, Yes, yes. My family is represented by the half with the legs.” We shook our heads in disbelief as we walked him to his motorcycle. He carefully retied his colorful scarf, tucked his dark hair into his helmet, and swung his leg over the bike. We stifled a chuckle, imagining a horsefly swinging 3 of his 6 legs over the bike. We all waved as he headed down the drive, an ancient noble insect flying away on the sultry summer winds. There was NO fly in our ointment, in fact the air smelled of honeysuckle. We watched as the dust billowed into the dusk. We sighed. There goes our hero, our Clau-god!

This is a true “Italian Moments” story in which everything happened almost exactly as described, in the summer of 2009.

Hidden bits of history are embedded within the new.

Inside new buildings and structures of any large city we find traces of grandeur, clues to a vibrant, distant past. Days-gone-by are tucked in and amongst new forms. We love the diversity and visual interest that’s generated when styles and eras get juxtaposed against each other—natural companions like a grandmother and toddler out for a walk in the sun.

When we moved to San Diego, we wanted to explore and learn all we could about how the city has cared for its elderly buildings—that tells much about who a town’s people really are. We couldn’t think of a better place to start than the old majestic theaters. We wondered: Where are they, and how have they been preserved for future generations? Here’s what we discovered.

Spreckels Theater

 

Terra cotta exterior

In the beginning.

San Diego philanthropist John D. Spreckels  changed the face of the city forever, with his great idea—a “Eureka!” moment. Just after the turn of the century, he decided to build a state-of-the-art theater downtown on Broadway. Completion was planned to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal and the Balboa Park Exposition in honor of that opening. The theater was also planned to have the same number of seats as the year—1915. Spreckels hired architect Harrison Albright to design the interior in the ornate Baroque style, while the exterior was clad in the fashionably new architectural terra cotta. Their deadline, however, didn’t hold. They completed the project and opened three years ahead of schedule, on August 23, 1912. So, did they change the seat count or does the theater have 1915, as planned? That will remain as a good trivia question. 

Spreckels Marquee

The Spreckels Theater is especially important because it was the venue that made large scale performing arts possible in San Diego. Originally, the theater presented live theatrical productions since it preceded “talkies” and the creation of Hollywood, as we now know it. By 1931, everything had changed in terms of cinema-making and it was converted into a first-run movie-house to compete with the Balboa, Fox and California theaters, which had been built in the two decades following the Spreckels first opening, The city was growing fast!

Entrance lobby

Long after the decline of the Hollywood movie extravaganzas, in 1976 the venue was renovated to once again accommodate live performances as it still does to this day. The Spreckels Theater has proudly been in continuous operation as a theater for over 100 years with the exception of brief periods for renovation.

In 1975, the Spreckels Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to operate as a state-of-the-art theater for the enjoyment of San Diegans and visitors alike.

Balboa Theater

The Balboa Theater is the quintessential Spanish Colonial movie palace.

The historic Balboa Theater opened in 1924, twelve years after the Spreckels. Designed by William H. Wheeler in the Mission/Spanish Revival style, the theater holds a special place in the hearts of San Diegans, since its name has always been tied to the local history.

Balboa interior

After years of struggle trying to save the old theater which had been vacant for over 20 years, it was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. An important milestone was finally reached when after years of waiting, the city decided to fully fund its future. Following a careful renovation focused on restoring it to the original grandeur, it reopened as a performing arts venue in 2008 and has been welcomed back as a favorite performance location. The old theater holds a special sentimental attachment for those who have grown-up in the area and the many visitors every year. 

The Wonder Morton Organ

The 1339 seat Balboa Theater originally housed the famous Wonder Morton organ. But, the theater was in such poor condition that the city officials decided to move it for safe-keeping. It went to its new home, The Fox Theater in 1929. From that time, the Balboa functioned without an organ. After the Balboa was restored in 2009, it was then in need of another organ. The city searched for an appropriate replacement. In Pennsylvania, they finally found another 1929 Robert Morton organ, similar to the original—one of only four in the entire world. The organ was relocated to San Diego, where it was refurbished and rededicated. The original Balboa Theater organ still resides in the Old Fox Theater, which is housed inside the Copley Symphony Hall.

The Balboa Theater is also fortunate to be located at a prominent location within the city. It is adjacent to the new Horton Plaza Park, the historic Irving Gill Fountain in the park, and the historic USS Grant Hotel—all on Broadway!

Copley Symphony Hall—Old Fox Theater

Grand opening 1929

That sly Fox!

The Fox Theater first opened to patrons on November 8, 1929 with almost 3,000 seats, over twice the size of the Balboa Theater. Much has happened since then as the movie industry has gone through many changes resulting in closure of the Fox to the public in 1975. It was then converted for live productions in 1977, and reopened as a short-term use solution. Thinking that the movie palaces were relics of the past, city leaders and developers turned their focus elsewhere, even considering demolition as perhaps the best alternative. 

History is tucked inside!

Interest in building an office tower in place of the theater sparked both controversy and creativity. But what about the Fox Theater? The creative solution was to completely strip away the exterior and build a new structure around it without disturbing the original theater within.

In 1985, the old Fox Theater reopened with a new name, the Copley Symphony Hall—an amazingly beautiful restoration, tucked deep inside the new office/hotel/parking tower. Imagine the old Fox Theater as the core of the structure with everything else built completely around it. No matter what goes on in our modern world, the Fox is protected and preserved. Nothing impacts the theater, since it is cocooned inside the Symphony Hall structure. The Fox has its own foundation and a buffer of space around on four sides with its own roof—literally nothing touches it. The solution was a stroke of genius, creating a true win/win for everyone involved. 

Interior detailing is impeccable

While the modern work was underway outside the theater, there was a concurrent project to completely renovate and restore the inside of the theater to meet current codes and return it to its glory days of 1929, as accurately as possible. Fortunately, the company that originally painted the Fox was still in business for the 1985 restoration. So, of course they were hired again 56 years later to completely reproduce the authentic opening-day color scheme. They repainted the faded surfaces, the colors popped, and the Old Fox was revived—brought back to life for a new purpose in all of its historical beauty. 

Organ rises from the floor

Today, during  special performances, the “Wonder Morton” organ rises from its secret hiding place below the stage. The projectionist also casts images on a lowered screen, using the two original carbon-arc projectors for special showings. The combination of the sound of the organ along with the images, creates quite a breath-taking experience! We think that multi-media is a modern invention, yet at the revived Fox Theater, we get a glimpse into the creative imaginations of times gone by.

The grand marquee

Although the grand marquee is now gone, it was a necessary compromise to save the essential parts of the theater. It would  be interesting to have that fantastic piece of illuminated art positioned over the new entrance—in stark contrast to the contemporary tower—an exciting signal that a surprise awaits within: The Old Fox theater, that movie-land jewel of another era is hidden safely inside!

 

The beautiful Fox Theater is our grand finale. We hope you enjoyed this little tour of the “Majestic Theaters of San Diego.” If you get the chance, visit them in person—there’s nothing like seeing the real thing!

Note: The featured black and  white photo at the beginning of this story is in honor of the “New California Theater” of San Diego, which opened in 1919. At the time, it was called the “cathedral of the motion picture,” with ceilings of gold leaf, murals throughout and its own Wurlitzer organ. The original beauty has since faded as neglect has taken its toll. Hopefully, some day soon, it will see its own restoration and resurgence back into the main stream of San Diego’s artistic lifestyle—a dream that is long overdue! 

You might also enjoy another story about discovery, recovery and conservation called “Water’s Edge.” However, instead of architecture in a city, it dives into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the beautiful Italian island of Elba. Join us for an excursion into the “deep blue” with a side trip into our own psychologies.

music

(more…)

Italy is in a class all by itself.

The incomparable Vespa is known around the world, but that’s just one minor detail in the vast array of Italian accomplishments. The distinctions are many, including: food, art, the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, the Vatican, incredible villas, world-class fashion, fast cars (Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati ), passionate lovers, espresso, the original organized crime group (a dubious distinction), beautiful cities, culture, opera, and the list goes on and on. But, in addition to the many significant accomplishments over literally millennia, there is nothing quite like the unique Italian personality—a tireless energy, generosity and unmistakable presence, easily seen in their facial expressions, synchronized with flamboyant gestures or easily heard in their voices, as they speak. Spoken words sound like poetry, lyrical and lilting. The Tuscans are particularly proud of their language, since their favorite son, Dante Aligheri, invented it.

Traveling around Italy, wandering the towns and narrow back-streets, one can find all sorts of clever, cute, hilarious and sometimes downright unbelievable Italian sights. Following is a gallery of some surprising and often quirky discoveries we’ve made over several decades of living amongst the amazing Italians. They offer a seemingly endless source of inspiration, and yes, humorous, free entertainment. Their most fascinating contributions can be found scattered around in the every-day activities. You absolutely have to love the Italians!

 

 

San Diego is a multi-cultural city.

How do we know that? Just listen! Aside from English, and of course Spanish, you’ll hear Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Tagalog, along with other Pacific Island and Asian languages. You’ll notice that the air is laced with spoken melodies of French, Italian, Portugese, Armenian, Persian, Greek, German, Russian, Polish, Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew. Various African words and phrases also float about, intermixed with Navajo and other Native North American languages as well. Some, of course, are more prevalent than others, but they all have their day in the California sun, and they all have their “say.”

“Soul” of the city

In addition to hearing the multi-cultural diversity, you can now actually see it, thanks to Jaume Plensa. He is a world-renowned sculptor from Barcelona, who has bestowed his sculpture to San Diego, representing his interpretation of the “Soul” of the city. His multi-lingual expression graces the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway, just outside the new Pacific Gate Tower. The work is an every-day reminder of the importance of diversity in creating who we all are—together.

The human figure, titled “Pacific Soul,” appears to be crouched down, gazing west into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The figure seems to grasp a knee with each hand, adding tension to an otherwise serene form. About this work, Plensa explains, “The ocean is always in movement, always changing; we never know precisely where a drop of water will go, or where it has been before. It is filled with potential.” San Diego is much like its ocean companion—always changing and full of possibility. Serenity and tension co-exist.

Roots to the Pacific

As you approach the imposing figure, you may be drawn to step inside. As you stand there, an infant in a womb, centered in the body, just imagine the magnitude of the idea—The life-giving waters of the Pacific are being drawn upward through the massive “roots” of the sculpture, giving strength and sustenance to anyone inside. We have a sense of being forever linked to the sea. As a baby is linked to its mother, we too are directly connected to the vast ocean beyond.

Looking skyward

The brilliant blue sky creates stark contrast as we gaze upward. Woven together are seemingly random sweeping white ribbons and a variety of shapes. Quickly, letters come into view. These are the lines and figures that enclose us. The myriad diverse letters are gathered from many languages heard within and around the city. Words seem to float in the very air we breathe. You become, and remain an integral part of this bustling metropolis whether living here or just visiting. You can feel the ocean breeze wafting past you, like a balmy current through a screen door on a warm summer day. You are changed.

You begin to understand that your very presence makes you part of Plensa’s multi-cultural “Pacific Soul.” In addition to becoming part of the sculpture, you are also part of the unique, evolving and diverse collective we call San Diego.

Welcome!

Tuscan Hills

We wrote another story and song about diversity in 2011, called “Layers” that you might enjoy reading. Instead of the warm San Diego sun, we were inspired by the hills of Tuscany, where centuries layer upon each other to create a rich history and incredible landscape. That layering deepens individual lives, as well as the texture of generations, forming unmatched magical diversity.

Something happened as we drove  home the other day.

Skinniest two-way traffic in Borgunto

Returning from a routine visit into Fiesole to buy a few groceries and for Em to get a haircut, we rounded the curve just beyond the small town of Borgunto, home to the “bottle-neck capital” of Italy. To our surprise, an oncoming car flashed its headlights. It was broad daylight and we wondered, “What’s that about?  Was that a friend and we just didn’t recognize their car?” A few more yards and we encountered another oncoming car. Again, headlights flashed. “What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with the car that we don’t know about?”

Lollipop police

Then, just after the last turn off (and the final escape route) we saw them: Two police officers were randomly signaling cars to pull over for a routine check. Their style and flair in doing such a mundane task was actually a thing of beauty. They each wore the recognizable uniform of the Carabinieri, local police—navy blue head to toe, single-breasted blazer, silver braid around the red and white collar and cuffs, red piped epaulets on each shoulder, single red stripes down each trouser leg, a dramatic white diagonal sash, and black boots, where they store their little hand held “stop sign on a stick” when it’s not in use.

Carabinieri in action

We amuse ourselves by calling those ridiculous signaling devices “lollipops,” and so of course we refer to the historically significant and highly esteemed carabinieri as the “lollipop police.” Oh yes, they carry another piece of equipment at all times, a holstered pistol, which is classified as an “ordinary” weapon. But, as beautiful as they are, these dedicated enforcers of the law are far more than “eye candy.” They are the keepers of all things lawful.

We thought little of the request since we had all the necessary documents—title, registration, and international driver’s license—neatly stashed and at the ready in the glove box. We were seasoned “residents,” models of perfectly honest, part-time Italians with flawless organization skills. We had been randomly pulled over before, so this seemed somewhat routine. We soon discovered that it was anything but!  

The rule book looked sorta like this

One officer strolled over to the driver’s side window, while the second remained at a safe distance, evidently serving as the back-up “protector” just in case a fight broke out. The impressive figure at the window examined the neatly stacked documents in his gloved hand, and then without a word, walked over to his colleague. Together they looked at our documents as we watched their faces change from “cool Italians” to “puzzled police officers.” Then, after several minutes, they opened the trunk of their subcompact Fiat squad car and took out a voluminous book of rules—so massive, it took both of them to pick it up. One started leafing through the pages and then turned it over to his partner, pointing to a particular place on the page. His forehead wrinkled and eyes squinted. We laughed to each other thinking that maybe we had a couple of trainees on our hands. In previous checks, the officers had only made cursory glances at the documents. These guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing—or so we thought.

The first officer returned to our car and said, “C’è un problema. Parlate italiano?”  “There is a problem. Do you speak Italian?” Since our language skills were iffy at best, we said, “No.” We thought under-stating was the best strategy—they might feel sorry for us and let us go. 

Sidelined—our little car given a “time-out”

Without hesitation, the officer continued his explanation in full speed Italian. We clearly understood key words like, invalido, invalid, and knew that we indeed had a problem. We just didn’t know exactly what, yet. Time to call our friend and attorney, Barbara. After about 5 seconds of hearing our explanation, she asked to speak to the officer. We heard her muffled chattering and his responses. We understood quasi niente, almost nothing. The officer handed the phone back and Barbara’s instructions were clear, “You have no chance. You must pay il multo, the fine, sulla strada, on the road. And you cannot drive la macchina, the car—ancora, again. 

WHAT?!! A FINE?!! CAN’T DRIVE THE CAR?!! BUT, BUT .  . . 

A lot, but not nearly enough

Once we realized that we had to pay, we asked, “quanto costa, how much?” (Even tourists can ask “how much” but usually to buy souvenirs and pay the check after lunch). 275 euro was the reply, plus an additional 73 euro for something else, yet unidentified. Nearly 350 total! We asked, “How do we pay?” “In contante, in cash,” came the answer. 

Okay. Let’s review.

We just received a fine of over 300 euro that must be paid in cash right now. We usually have about 40-50 euro between us on a good day. We can’t drive our car to the bank in Fiesole to get the money. Our international driver’s licenses were useless. The only choice was to ask the carabinieri to give us a ride to the bank. 

The Shaq in action

At first they seem surprised, but soon realized that it was the only possible solution. So we climbed into the backseat of the subcompact Italian squad car, sequestered criminals locked in, and headed in the direction of town. One officer apologized for the inconvenience. “Mi dispiace per questo, I’m sorry for this.” Then, the other officer decided that small talk was in order, probably since they didn’t often have captive Americans on board. “Gioca pallacanestra?” We gave each other blank stares in disbelief. Then he offered in stilted English, “Bahs-keet-ball, you play?” Oh yeah . . . that question. Em is 6’5” and so it’s the single most-asked question of his entire life. (But in Italy, his height earns him the distinction of fetching top-shelf items at the grocery stores for many Italian mammas). The officer went on to say that it was his dream to play basketball—with Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is 7’-1”. Mr Carabinieri is  maybe 5’-8” in his police boots. The idea made us chuckle but we didn’t let on—B-ball talk or not, we were still in trouble with the law. 

As luck would have it, the local carabinieri headquarters is directly across the street from Banca Toscana. Once out of the car, we headed into the bank before returning to finalize our paperwork at the carabinieri headquarters. Fiorella, our favorite teller saw the looks of dismay on our faces and immediately asked, “Che è successo, what happened?” We mumbled our new vocabulary words and phrases, “la macchina, multo, sulla strada, carabinieri.” She said, “Mamma mia! Quanto costa? She shook her head side to side, grimaced and offered her condolences with a deeply sincere sadness, “Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.”

Off to Driver’s Ed—Italian style

After making the report and paying the fine, we were told that neither of us could drive the car. The car documents showed that we had not done the mandatory revisione, which is the bi-annual service/safety check required by Italian law. Unfortunately, we didn’t know such a law existed. The car was to be parked until the revisione could be scheduled. In addition, they confiscated Em’s US driver’s license just for good measure, since we had resident status and were required by Italian law to have patenti italiani—the much dreaded Italian driver’s license. Oops! 

So here’s the riddle: Can a car, that can’t be legally driven, arrive across town for a scheduled appointment, when driven by people who can’t drive because they don’t have valid driver’s licenses?

Answer: Maybe.

This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.

A friendly hello, or goodbye—you choose

The two pleasant carabinieri officers kindly returned us to our car with strict orders not to drive it—except for our immediate drive directly home (that favor required some significant begging and groveling). We were under strict orders that the car was to remain parked until we were legally able to drive it again. We promised to comply as we climbed out of the back seat of the tiny squad car. Then, in one wonderful moment of total linguistic confusion, rather than saying “Goodbye,” Mr Carabinieri extended his hand, and in an effort to close on a high note of international accord, simply said, in English, “HELLO.”  Then he turned in confident military fashion and climbed back into his government-issued Fiat squad car. Their work was finished. 

They surely went immediately to Riccardo‘s bar for coffee, but as for us, our “problemi“ problems had just begun!

This is a true “Italian Moments” story that took place in Fiesole Italy in the spring of 2005.

You might be interested in another kind of “Italian car story,” except this one has a happier ending—called “True Italians.”

Rose Louise Kleis Martlage Henneke.

Rose at home

Wow! Quite a powerful name, don’t you agree? Of course, it is fitting, since she’s such a powerful individual. She’s definitely one of a kind, and today is her 99th birthday. If you were to meet her, we think you’d like her. Oh, sure, she has a few little quirks and peccadillos, but who doesn’t? And if you were to tally the pros and cons of her life, it would be HEAVILY weighted toward the pros—thereby making her an absolute “PRO” at this messy business of living. We’re impressed with her stamina and desire to achieve the sweet age of 99, and offer our congratulations along with a few hearty compliments on her admirable style as well.

A part of the dream come true

Born on April 3, 1922, she was Alice and Will’s third child making her the lucky last one in line to get the lion’s share of abundant parental doting, with the bonus of a big brother and sister adding to the dotage. She set-out to create the best possible version of the “American Dream” (which was impressed onto everyone’s psyche at the time). Her goals were simple: deep and sustaining faith, member of a church that she cherishes, a loving husband, healthy and happy children, and of course a safe and beautiful home in the suburbs. For her, it was a fairy-tale come true, and couldn’t get any better. Even as she lived her dream, she saw her fair share of sorrow and heartache, as well. True to  the custom of the day, when troubles arose, she just prayed, shed a few tears, then propped herself back up and started in again—powered by undaunted drive and persistence which was her hallmark.

Rose and sweet daughter Sue

She always told us she was going to live to be 100. We believed her, but never quite imagined what that prediction really meant or would look like. Now we’re beginning to get an inkling. So, in anticipation of her upcoming 100th year, it seems appropriate to honor her magnificent dream as she charges forward toward achieving her goal. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her this morning and she giggled. We don’t question whether or not she’ll celebrate the next one, because knowing her, she WILL, and possibly even set a new goal. She lives life with a Master Plan—the way she wants things to turn out. In fact, we always joked that she was a “dessert-first planner.” When creating a menu for a dinner party she would consistently decide on the dessert, then make the rest of the meal play toward that end. This upcoming 100th birthday is her “icing on the cake,” and you can be sure she’s in the “kitchen” making everything just right!

Cheers!

This story isn’t just about Rose, or the magical age of 100, or the goodness of a life. Rather, it’s about the power of vision, commitment and determination. Those qualities are readily available to all of us no matter what our name, stage or age. They’re free. Please join in a metaphorical toast to all of us—our hopes, dreams, visions and goals. “Here’s to the power of positive thinking!” Mom’s will-power and the way she lives her strategy is a model for us all. That unmistakable approach and style remains simple. She merely sees this complex world through “Rose-colored glasses.” Well done and happy Birthday!

We love you!

Note: The photo of the 99th birthday party was taken by T.C. Christenberry

The Espresso experience is so much more than drinking a cup of coffee.

Of course the ultimate espresso can only be found in Italy. Case closed. Nothing can match the total experience of the morning espresso and pasta, pastry at a real Italian neighborhood bar. What makes it unique? Hmm, well . . . we’ll take a shot at it?

Caffè Lorenzo

It all starts at Caffè Lorenzo, in the small burg of Pian di Mugnone just outside of Firenze, Florence. In this example, the barista is called Fiore, standing in position wearing a black apron, facing the beautiful stainless steel espresso machine with his back to us as we walk in. A quick glance into the gleaming mirror alerts him of our arrival. Without a second’s hesitation, he slides two more mini saucers with bitsy spoons onto the counter and continues his finely choreographed moves in pursuit of the “real” thing. No motion is wasted. Time is of the essence.  He prides himself in knowing what each of the regulars drink, so the option to change-it-up is pretty much nonexistent, unless you yell it out immediately. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Fiore and his cohort Marta both know that we’ll be choosing a delicious pastry as well, and Marta stands poised with tongs in hand to claim our prize. 

Artistic expression

There’s a captivating rhythm to the process—a morning cadence of steady percussive sounds: the hissing of milk being steamed; constant clinking of the tiny ceramic cups lined up like soldiers guarding the bar; the relentless banging of the spent grounds into the handy pivoting bin; all punctuated by random plucky calls of completed orders. Ahh, music to our ears!  

Okay, but what’s so compelling about such an ordinary “Italian breakfast” experience?

Well, all of the regulars are there with warm greetings as we walk in the door. Some, inevitably offer our little doxy Sara a handy, pocketed doggie treat. If no goodies are forthcoming, Marta may disappear into the kitchen to fetch Sara some pastry scraps. She’s done this so often that Sara watches for Marta to duck into the adjacent room. Intense excitement ensues.

Tasty treats from the kitchen

People are packed into the small space, so there’s a sense of being in a tiny kitchen, having to turn sideways to let someone by, or carefully reach over people to grab an extra napkin. Of course, the true Italian downs a classic espresso within two quick sips—maybe three. Any longer and you risk having your cup swiftly swooped away to make room for the next one. So, we’ve learned never to take a finger from the cup until we’ve completely finished our morning elixir. The staff watches every move to insure that each customer’s completely satisfied.

Since there aren’t any rules about lines in Italy, it’s a bit of a fast action free-for-all where courtesy counts and patience matters. Italians typically don’t queue in any obvious order, but are quite generous in letting someone ahead of them at the cashier (their least favorite part). It’s a messy process for sure, but maybe that’s what makes it so endearing. 

No Roberto today

Although the coffee is delicious, it’s just one small piece of the overall experience. An image of the coffee bar is the first thing that comes to mind whenever Italy is mentioned. It’s definitely the first thought upon waking up to an Italian morning. Strangely enough, it takes us 20 minutes just to get to Caffè Lorenzo, and we’re only there about 15 minutes max. As we leave, we look for our friend Roberto, sitting on his balcony above the bar, waving friendly hellos and remarking about the day. We always leave smiling, satisfied and certain that everything is right in the world, or at least in that small part of Italy—and that’s well worth the hour spent and the 2 euro price tag.