Coffee is an integral part of Italian culture.

Intreccio

Every morning begins with an espresso, a cappuccino, or a caffè macchiato (an espresso, stained with milk). A fresh pasta, pastry, typically accompanies the coffee. Just those two simple ingredients constitute collazione, breakfast. There are coffee bars in almost every town, even tiny burgs where there are few, if any other shops. We’ve enjoyed the simple ambience of many and how they must compete for the loyalty of locals. Now that the Tokyo olympic games are over, we thought it would be fun to conduct our own little competition for the best Tuscan coffee bar this season!

The criteria for judging this play-off has been established as follows:

(1) best espresso—duhh?

(2) friendliest barrista/staff 

(3) yummiest pastries—whether made in the back room kitchen or brought in daily from a nearby pasticceria, pastry bakery

Sara waiting to go for coffee

(4) best dog treats (Our ever-present doxy, Sara insisted.)

And since we’re reasonably sure that we’ve visited just about every bar in Tuscany at least once for the past two decades, we consider ourselves “expat-experts” of sorts.  

Three outstanding bars made it to the last round of the competition after extensive discussion and debate. The finalists are: 

Bar Cesare in Florence, definitely excels with its in-house pasticceria. Their sfoglia con ricotta, crispy-layered pastry with sweetened cheese, are so delicious that it jostles memories of the famous cartoon dog who floated mid-air with delight when he was given a dog treat. But alas, Bar Cesare offers absolutely NO dog treats. Sara gave it a “dew claw down” (the doggie version of a thumbs down). In fact, the owners, staff and patrons pay very little attention to Sara. Too bad guys! 

Cafe Lorenzo, (which we have written about before) is located in Pian di Mugnone. Great ambience, yummy pastries (made fresh every day on site) and macchiati—so good that we had to restrain ourselves from excessive savoring, to accommodate the rapid 2-sip custom. However, despite their strong competitive scoring, their dog treats are always scraps of cornetti (croissants). So, due to that avoidable, yet critical omission of actual heart-healthy dog treats, we moved on. Sorry Lorenzo

Outstanding K9 hospitality

Cafe Plineo, located in the river-town of Sieci, proved to be the toughest of all competitors. Their coffee is excellent; the owners are delightful; they have a pastry called an intreccio—a cinnamon braided pastry with walnuts (with an outlandish premium 10 ₵ surcharge); and they ALWAYS, ALWAYS make-over Sara and give her a wholesome dog treat just for being cute. Needless to say, Plineo won the competition “paws-down” with the warmed-up intreccio and hearty treats for sweet Sara. According to Sara, they won by a nose—which, for a dachshund is a significant point margin. 

Walter, Simone & 2021 Trophy

Congratulations to Walter (say Vall-tear) and Simone (Mario, unfortunately wasn’t there for the closing ceremony). We appreciate all that you guys do each day to make our Italian bar-hopping experience more delicious and enjoyable—also, for the heartfelt hospitality you extend to dear Sara, our poochy companion. She appreciates your attention to the moon and back.

So, Dear Readers, if you ever find yourself near the small town of Sieci, along the Arno river, you must stop at Plineo for a taste of an incredible intreccio and where you can get a dog treat to go!

Thus ends the annual “Best Italian Bar” competition for 2021 (special pandemic edition). 

Ciao, ciao, ciao!
Cheryl, Em and Sara

You might also enjoy another doggy/bar story complete with music called “Isabella“—written in 2013 about our other previous Italian Doxy companion.

There’s an old saying about Tuscan wines—a Chianti wine you want in front of you at the table. A Pomino wine you must keep by your side—so special, it’s to be reserved for just the right moment.

Pomino

While hiking on a crisp, clear spring morning in the Pratomagno hills of Tuscany, we came upon a valley view that drew us deeper into the Frescobaldi family history. Pomino (which means little apple) is a small town tucked away in the Tuscan Hills that surround the beautiful Renaissance city of Florence, Italy. In 1716, the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici identified the four most highly prized territories of Tuscany for the production of wines. Today, not many know about the intimate burg of just over 200 people, but they certainly know of the famous wine that’s produced there—Pomino Bianco. The town’s elevation is some 600 meters above sea level, where white grapes grow best, so that’s the specialty in that small region. Pomino and its renowned wines are a relatively small part of the historic Marchesi de Frescobaldi estate, which has remained a family operation for over 30 generations and 700 years.

Castello Pomino

Clearly we are not wine experts, but we are compulsively drawn to the serenity, beauty and history of Tuscan culture. Surrounding the ancient Castello Pomino, lay an incredibly lush valley of vineyards. The castle was built in the 1500s and now serves as the centerpiece for that unique wine-making territory. The owners refer to the area as: “Elegance and femininity. A hidden gem that’s revealed among the woods of the Florentine mountains.” Irresistible!

The Frescobaldi family made wines that were well known throughout Europe. They socialized with the likes of artists, such as Donatello, Michelozzo Michelozzi, and Filippo Brunelleschi. Most Florentines will tell you that their city, although cosmopolitan, actually enjoys a “small town” feel. Everybody seems to know everybody else. So it’s no surprise to learn that Frescobaldi furnished wines to the well known locals, and further afield to the Papal Court in Rome. After all, at the World’s Fair of 1873 in Vienna, the wines of Pomino won coveted awards, and in 1878 took the gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris, the highest international recognition of its time.

Splash of white wine

You might say that our story is similar to a Pomino wine—you want to save it until just the right moment. We find ourselves reminiscing about those beautiful treks through the rolling Tuscan hills. Now, some 10 years after that quiet hike in the Pratomagno, we decided it was the right time to “uncork this story.” Ahh, breathe in the distinct magic of the elixir! We savor every sip of those memories and hope you too become a bit intoxicated by the romance of it all.

Related stories and music

Tuscan Hills

You might also enjoy another story about inspiration in the Pratomagno mountains called Nipozzano Castle—have a look! And just to get you in the mood for a hypnotic Tuscan adventure, below is our song called “Tuscan Hills” written in 2003. Enjoy!

Gallery

This is a short story with a long, happy ending.

Sometimes, we want something to happen so badly, that we will do just about anything humanly possible to make it so. But, no matter how hard we try, plan and anticipate, it seems that we just can’t force a yield. NOPE. Not happening. 

Then, in that final minute, we wonder whether trying one last time might be the magical push that will work—or maybe just one more try after that? Perhaps another?

Let’s face it. It seems that it would be a cryin’ shame if we gave up just one moment too soon. Then, how do we know when to stop? A reasonable person would understand how to decide that tricky question. But, are WE reasonable? Sometimes, we’re NOT!

Voila!

So, here’s the deal. All we wanted to do was create a little one-room studio apartment in Italy. That sounds so romantic, yet easy enough. Then the twelve months project turned into four grueling years, and we were on the verge of giving up—calling it quits—surrendering to the powers that be—bowing to the bureaucracy—admitting defeat. Then, Voila! One last gut-wrenching try turned our building dirge into a victory dance. Ahhhh!

What we learned was this: there is no real answer to the question of when to let go. The dilemma is always “of the moment.” It can’t be graphed, outlined, critical-pathed or magic-8 balled ahead of time. We’ll quit when we quit . . . or not. Perhaps we might muster an ounce of courage and effort in the last seconds of trying. Give it one more go. When that final push results in success, we are reminded to NEVER GIVE UP! This may be a fool’s lesson, but we’ll take it. ALWAYS try one more time! TRUST in yourself and the process—there could be magic just around the corner!

We invite you to read our BACK STORY—called “Meeting the Notaio.” It’s the story with a happy ending, no matter what trials and tribulations are encountered.

Have you seen my tombino?

Wait, what? Is that a pick-up line? 

It must be here somewhere!?

NO! We just can’t find that darn tombino. In Italy, of course, language results in many quizical and/or dumbfounded glances. In this instance the word tombino verrrrry loosely translates to mean, a large underground junction box. It is the heartbeat of many systems that feed into a country dwelling like ours. Running underground for about 120 meters (roughly 400 feet) are electrical cables, telephone lines and water systems. The tombino is a heavy concrete lidded box. In our Tuscan hideaway, stealthily secluded underground are many of these cement cubes about 5 feet on all sides. Typically unseen and NOT generally a topic of  conversation. However, in these post-pandemic times, it has earned the distinction of being one of the most important talking points in our little corner of the world. Once found, you could probably hide in one, but we wouldn’t recommend it. But, WHERE, oh where, is my tombino? That’s the million-euro-question. Typically they’re fairly easy to locate, but unfortunately, ours has been covered over by years of crunched and compacted gravel mixed with gritty dirt. You get the picture?

Breakfast, lunch and dinner

It seems that our utilities have been interrupted by a tiny little country mouse who has nibbled through the yummy gray sheathing on the power cable to create a hole for water to seep in. Once the cable gets wet, you’re only months away from full-on corrosion. One day we’re feeling the “power”and the next day our “current” strength is completely gone. Living Without Power is of course, annoying, unacceptable, and even dangerous. The only way to remedy the situation is to locate the exact position of the “nibbled-through nuisance wire”—good luck with that! We had no choice but to locate all 7 of the buried tombini under the driveway as the first step in our problem-solving process. The first six, okay. Number seven, no way. What a challenge—trying to find a “nibble in a dirt-pack.”

The radiator seems so peaceful

Now, electricity certainly is a utility that we have come to enjoy on a daily basis. With the flip of a switch, we have light. The familiar click of a gas stove reminds us that it uses an electric ignition. But more than a mere creature comfort, it’s essential for surviving frigid winters in Tuscany. Without power, there’s NO heat. Without heat, cast iron radiators freeze. When they freeze, they burst. And they are NOT tidy bursters. They spray and spit rusty water as far as their cracks will allow. The force exerted from them mimics little explosions. It’s certainly not a pretty sight, and hopefully you’ll never have to witness or clean up such a disgusting mess.

Sneaky power work-around

During the pandemic, our neighbor informed us that we had suffered a loss of power in the winter. Yikes! We immediately flashed a joint memory of bursting radiators. Since it was too cold and nearly impossible to repair the electrical lines mid-winter, we borrowed electricity from a neighboring building. Using a very LONG extension cord (as a temporary measure), we kept the radiators happy enough that they didn’t crack-up under the stress. So when  warmer weather arrived, we kicked into high gear to find a quasi-permanent solution for the electricity issue. Hence, we found ourselves in a desperate search for that seventh elusive tombino, which was the key to our success.

Alongside two trusty electricians, we energetically swung picks at the hardened earth and scraped the loosened dirt with our shoes and shovels to clear the debris. After multiple attempts and without success, we shifted again and again, to a different digging location, every time someone shouted “Let’s dig here!” The driveway started to look like giant gophers had taken up residence, randomly having popped up, leaving gaping holes and massive mounds of gravel. Our day ended on a note of dismay and discouragement.

Could it be?

But persistence persisted. Later that evening, our neighbor sent a text, “WOW, I found it.” No, he hadn’t been out digging in the dark, but he had discovered an equally valuable treasure—a single photograph of the house during construction. Some 20 years before, in the foreground, just barely within the frame was an old cement-covered Tuscan wheelbarrow balanced across a hole in the ground—a square hole. Safety first! There, beside that rusty-wheeled implement was a chunk of concrete shaped like—yes, a square lid. In the silence of the night, our sleuthy neighbor dug through hundreds of photos to find perhaps the only picture ever taken of that lonely tombino during construction.

Don’t let a mouse steal your power!

As with any Italian problem, endless loud talking and arm-waving is required, along with a dash of clever insight. But the noise, persistence and cunning almost always pay off. Fortunately, our neighbor snapped pics of the more mundane phases of construction—capturing momentary glimpses of life “uncovered.” We’re not finished with the repairs yet, but we currently have direction. Having a plan and renewed hope is certainly em-POWER-ing!

Related Story and Music

You might check out another story called “Living Without Power” that we wrote and recorded back in 2009 amid a devastating hurricane. Following is the music if you want a quick listen.

 

You’ve probably heard of the dog breed called the Blue Heeler. Well, our experience tells us that most dogs are amazing healers of a different kind.

The “Mystical Doctor” is open for business

Anyone who has ever had a dog can probably attest to the fact that canines, as well as other different pets, seem to have a sixth sense. It’s a multifaceted and magical capability that goes beyond empathy, love and loyalty to include powerful “healing.” Yes, that’s a big statement, but it’s true—dogs are “Mystical Doctors” rather than “medical doctors.”

For example, our little 9-pound doxy is a profound Healer. We’ve had many dogs over the years, each with a unique personality and special talents, but none have been quite like our little Sara. She seems to be hard-wired to heal.   

If one of us is having a sad or down moment, she seems to single the “patient” out, making physical contact her top priority. She’s always focused on the one in need, leaving the capable other to fend for themselves until her healing is done. It’s as if she’s a sponge, spontaneously drawn to soak up the sad or wounded energy. We joke about the magical capabilities, by calling the process, “fur-therapy.” She thinks it’s just “being a dog.”

As long as it takes—just like her nose

In these pandemic days of video medical appointments and tele-therapy, she insists on laying on the needy lap—a circle-dog all curled-up to provide optimal care. Time and energy are unimportant to Sara. She’s there for the duration, taking in the stress while imparting warmth and comfort.

Recently, Em had a tele-therapy session and Sara assumed her normal healing position in his lap. Then, as Em became agitated, Sara suddenly began to shiver. She seemed uncontrollably cold, which is odd given that it’s summer in California and human laps are typically especially warm. Em noted her strange behavior. The session ended rather abruptly due to his intense emotional reaction. What did Sara sense? 

Following the session, Em lay on the bed to regain his balance. Normally, Sara would assume her familiar conditioned position on his lap to snooze. But she behaved differently. She refused to sleep and instead, she turned away from him and laid down at the foot of the bed. He called and coaxed her to come to him, but she completely ignored his requests and, in fact, wouldn’t even look at him. 

Then Em noticed something he’d never seen before. Sara continued shaking, but now it didn’t seem that she was cold. Instead, It looked like she was shaking to throw off the negative energy she had absorbed from him. Our conclusion was that his negative mood had been too much for her. She had reached overload! Apparently she was just too maxed-out and couldn’t convert the bad energy to good.  Furthermore, she refused to come anywhere near him for the rest of the evening.

The following day, Em regained perspective and equilibrium and Sara couldn’t get enough of him. Perhaps she deemed the remaining energy work to be possible. Or maybe he was feeling so much better she just wanted to soak-up some of that positive energy. In any case, her presence was sorely needed and made all the difference in his day of recovery.

This story is an anecdotal, intuitive recollection of “a day in the life with Sara.” There’s nothing scientific or measurable. However, when you find yourself in need of some therapy, rather than asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, why not consider fur-therapy. Simply ask, “Is there a dachshund in the house?” We think someone will answer the call and come running.

Healing in process

An addendum: As usual for a weekend, we went to get coffee at one of our favorite coffee bars. A woman sitting next to us, noticed Sara and turned toward her. We introduced Sara and the lady smiled and asked to pet her. Then, she requested, “May I hold her?”  We gently handed over all 9 pounds of Sara and she was immediately comfortable with the stranger. Then we  glanced at the woman’s face to see that tears were streaming down her cheeks. She said, “You have no idea how much I needed this love, thank you sooo much!”  Sara responded with a couple of quick licks—which always means, “You’re welcome.”

Related Story and Music

Sweet Isabella

Sara’s older half-sister Isabella (Izzi-B) was our previous “Mystical Doctor,” hanging a shingle outside our home for 16 years. She later became a well-known Italian personality after many adventures in Tuscany. The following story called “Isabella” was written for her in 2013 and we share it now in her loving memory.

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.

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!

 

 

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.”

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. 

The magical, mystical allure of Dominoes.

In the hills of 12th century China, domino tiles were purportedly invented. That said, there are pesky rumors of earlier Egyptian and Arabian origins that have persisted over the centuries. Everyone wants the prestigious honor of having dreamt-up one of the greatest games ever made. But regardless of the domino creation story, it’s fair to say that Italy was the first country in Europe to adopt and adapt il gioco da tavolo, the table game, with its irresistible ivory tiles. Let’s fast-forward 500 years from the hills of China to Italy in the 1600s and take a closer look. 

Early game of Dominoes

The game of Dominoes mysteriously appeared in 17th century Italy, in a “new and improved version.” With Italian enthusiasm behind it, the popularity of the game spread across Europe and the rest of the world like wildfire. In China, the game had been called “Pupai,” which means to “lay out.” Although somewhat descriptive, that name was less than dazzling. So, some Italian marketing minds, eager to claim the game, apparently came up with the name Domino to give it more popular appeal.

Palazzo Vecchio Florence- Medici Stronghold

The Latin word dominus means lord or master, which makes some sense since the first player to use all of their tiles becomes the “MASTER” of the game. In addition to the Latin, the Italian word dominare means to dominate, so domino il gioco would literally translate into “I dominate the game.” Given the many power shifts throughout Italy’s history, that name would appeal to those living in the shadow of the forceful Florentine Grand Dukes de’ Medici, or the Vatican’s powerful presence in Rome. Imagine the vicarious sense of strength and authority that dominating a game would give to the powerless in those historic times. So, even though the Italians didn’t invent Dominoes, they did rename it and went on to introduce it to the rest of the world, making it a remarkable success. 

Clergy in hooded black cloaks

There’s another theory in favor of Italian authorship of the game name. Since the Vatican has been the heart of Christianity for centuries, it makes sense that the church would influence the naming of an important cultural pastime. Dominus, meaning Lord, was a pretty direct God reference to the Church. After all, there was nothing much separating Church and State at that time—they were essentially one and the same. The Church wanted the association between the Divine and everyday, ordinary life to be emphasized. 

Fresco of the Dominican Order with dogs

The traditional garb for priests and monks were hooded black cloaks. Curiously, early European game pieces were made with an ivory or bone front with a contrasting back made from ebony. In the mind’s eye, the subtle association was made to the black-shrouded clergy—creating Holy intrigue for the popular game, complete with spiritual force, mystery and authority. Even more specifically, one religious order followed the teachings of Saint Domenico, and so became the Dominicans, a relatively austere order (often contrasted with the Franciscans). Their order name was frequently slurred to Domini-Canes, dogs for God, due to their stringent adherence to scripture. Once again, the connection to the church is quietly reinforced.

The Domino of Carnivale

A third theory to support the Italian influence over the game is based in Venezia, Venice. During the famous Carnivale, costumes are traditionally worn so that the wearer remains anonymous. The cloaks and masks underscore elements of adventure, intrigue, and mystery. Questionable behavior is protected and class differences dissolve for a time. The traditional black-hooded robe with a white mask called a Domino is worn by both men and women. Just by donning a small covering across the eyes, anyone could change their gender and status. The Church obviously frowned upon bad behavior, so wearing a disguise was flaunting individual action over authority. During Carnivale, anyone can be powerful and influential, or at least present the illusion!

Domino theory in action

Even though Dominoes seems old-fashioned today and most likely a relic to be discovered in Grandma’s closet, the game remains compelling. There may be a sentimental longing for the tactile, a need to physically lay the pieces on a table. There’s something soothing about the unmistakable click and clatter of the tiles. In fact, there seems to be a universal compulsion to line the tiles in vertical rows and then listen to the staccato percussion as they knock each other over. In fact, the tiles have gone from simple games at Grandma’s table to complex displays in huge auditoriums. We now have “Domino Competitions” where they’ve become strategic, artistic, mechanical creations. Just tap the first tile and watch the lines of standing pieces cascade into one another.

Then in 1954, President Eisenhower christened the “Domino Theory,” suggesting that a series of countries could also fall in rapid succession to political power. The once humble game of Dominoes has literally shown-up in so many aspects of our lives—our homes, churches, classrooms, thoughts and war rooms. 

Grandma’s game table

But for most of us, the notion of the original game is a sweet trip down memory lane—some family fun at Grandma’s house. Regardless of the origin or the evolution, Dominoes continues to exert a subtle presence in our lives. Even with a potent magic spell you probably couldn’t make that timeless, tried and true game disappear—hocus pocus domino-cus—It’s still there! 

 

Watch the highly evolved version of that simple 12th century Chinese game of Dominance.