These are stories about those places that are noteworthy either as public attractions, or perhaps even quiet personal places that make a difference in people’s lives. They are the places that give us energy, sustenance and reflective moments that help us to live richer lives.
On a beautiful morning, July 1st, 1849 Dr. John Edward Summers, an Army physician was on duty at the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá. His task was to record the weather conditions at the post. So he followed orders, even though they were out of the ordinary, and submitted his findings to Washington. In doing so, he became the first official “weather observer” in what was to be the city of San Diego, California—in the United States of America. That simple action began a maritime tradition that would continue on into the future.
Fast forward 155 years to 2004. The beautiful city of San Diego had grown and changed dramatically. The twin residential towers called “Grande North and South” on Pacific Highway neared completion with a surprise in store. Artist, Spencer Finch, was diligently designing a special project for the apex of the architectural masterpieces. His vision harkened back through time to Dr. Summers, his fateful orders and the ongoing seafaring tradition of reporting the weather. The Grande sculpture became a modern-day “lighthouse,” with a dramatic effect, visible for miles around.
In his own words, Finch described his inspiration and intention: “My vision was to create watercolors of the skies that would become a project of light and shadow in the sky at an enormous scale, thereby making the connection between the picture, the idea and the weather forecast.” His creation would tie directly to weather data, giving immediacy and accuracy to his ever-changing climate-predicting message.
To this day, beacons of light announce the upcoming weather. A plaque on a column at the Grande Towers bears the 2000 year-old saying: Red skies at night, sailors’ delight. Gray skies at morning, sailors take warning. Every evening the massive lanterns mimic the layered Pacific skies—with either an orange/red mesmerizing glow like a California sunset, (signaling yet another clear day of delight) or, both towers become a moody gray/blue/violet (if rain is in the forecast). A passing glance at the colors, orange or blue, communicates tomorrow’s prediction. Reporting the weather has never been easier or more straightforward.
Whether you’re an art aficionado, a weather enthusiast, or just wonder if you’re going to need an umbrella, you’ll love Spencer Finch’s Grande idea.
Discovering the Grande Towers and their maritime tradition, we were taken back to a storied time of our own when we battled “Will against will, with the sea.” Fifteen years ago seems like yesterday with fond and vivid memories for sure. We had decided to go on a week long sailing trip to Croatia with friends. It was unlike us, certainly not our normal routine, but we approached it as an opportunity—a very different kind of “workshop” that would certainly teach us something important about ourselves, since it would be so different than anything we had ever done or known. It did exactly that! [. . .]
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
(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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
We were born right smack-dab in the middle of the 20th century. Our entire lives have been full of national middle-class possibility. The Great American Dream was truly achievable, if not expected. The idea was so ingrained in us that we never thought consciously about it. Hard work was the key. As Americans, ideals were at our fingertips—the promise of equal opportunity for all, freedom, prosperity and justice. Right? We fully understood the power of that promise and took full advantage of our privilege. Privilege. Back then, we had no idea that being white had anything to do with anything. But now, we clearly understand that isn’t true. As most “people of color” would say at that time, those years may have seemed more like an American nightmare.
The President of the US at the time was Harry Truman, who signed an Executive Order calling for military integration of races in 1948. Shortly after that, in 1954 the Supreme Court declared an end to Jim Crow laws that allowed separate schools for black and white students. That seminal case, Brown v. The Board of Education, signaled the beginning of the end of state-sponsored segregation.
So we were born into the era of desegregation—at least that was our assumption. Seventy-three years later we caught a first-hand glimpse into a different perspective, through a virtual reality documentary film, “Traveling While Black.” The Canadian/American film was directed by Roger Ross Williams and released in 2019. It was both shocking and powerful for us. The film was set in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a well-known diner in Washington DC. Through the magic of 3-D headsets, we sat virtually with three African-American people in a 4 person booth, listening as they talked about their experience as traveling citizens. It seemed so realistic. Clearly, we had lived in different times, places and cultures. The truth is, we were fellow Americans, but to those people of color, we were inhabitants of totally different countries on opposite sides of the earth. What they said was disturbing and deeply sad.
In 1936, during the era of Jim Crow laws mandating segregation, New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green wrote the “Green Book” to help those of color navigate the hostile and often dangerous American highways and byways. The automobile generally symbolized freedom and made leisure travel possible. Disturbed with “separate, but unequal” public transportation, African-Americans bought cars, if they could, to gain some degree of control over their lives. But even though they could travel, they were often met with a hostile experience—routinely denied access to motels, restrooms, diners, and all other necessities while on the road. The “Green Book” became an essential guide to avoid “discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult,” as George Schuyler wrote in 1930. It truly was a stressful period in American history where unconscionable discrimination was openly enforced until 1965 when many of the laws were finally overturned. But that certainly wasn’t the end of disdain and discrimination.
Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice sat across the table from us at Ben’s Chili Bar, recounting the details of the tragic day when her son died. Everyone in the diner respectfully turned to listen—you could have heard a pin drop. On November 22, 2014 a 12-year-old African-American boy, full of promise, was killed in Cleveland, Ohio. A 26-year-old white policeman, Timothy Loehmann, was the on-duty officer that day. Rice was carrying a replica toy gun which was all the reason Officer Loehmann needed to justify shooting him. The event happened in the blink of an eye. The squad car pulled alongside Tamir, who visibly shrugged his shoulders. In the police camera footage that’s all we saw. But Loehmann responded to the shrug with gunshots. Tamir died the following day.
Our experience that afternoon in the Chili Bowl was terribly uncomfortable, as we sat there alongside the community of color. We were riveted to every word painfully shared by Samaria Rice. All eyes were focused on her and also on us, her booth-mates and the only white people in the room. They looked to us for minute indications of shock, sadness, empathy, solidarity—humanity. Whether traveling across our country or even within their own neighborhoods, people of color have told similar heart-wrenching accounts. Tamir’s story is but one sad tale of events—amid countless insults and injury over centuries. We hope that the “regulars” at Ben’s Chili Bowl who were peering into our faces, saw the empathy and humanity they longed to see.
The hope for shared humanity was the overarching message in the “movie. “The “Green Book” remains an important historic reminder that change and promise may be slow in coming, but they are always possible. We must believe that—and make it so.
Related Story and Music
“End of the Line,” written in 2005 also explores the importance of moving beyond a dualistic world-view to become more accepting of differences; less focused on division; interested in breaking down barriers—simply more inclusive. Feel free to check it out if you’re so inclined.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.”
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?
This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.
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.”
Cheryl & Emerson
Quality time is great—but quantity time is what relationships are built on! Take time to partner.