Our Tuscan adventure taught us that strength, power, intellect, efficiency, and capability are genderless qualities. And sometimes they are named Barbara.

Tuscan Hills

We were determined to find a one room art/music studio in Italy—full of romance, abundance, creativity, magic, wonder, and beauty. Essentially, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the powerful Feminine Energy of the Tuscan Hills—the epicenter of the legendary Italian Renaissance, that incredible experiment in humanity. Florence (Firenze) whispered to us and its rolling northern hills beckoned. Our plan seemed simple enough. We longed to “birth” something new from deep within. However, life is messy sometimes, and cross-cultural life can be downright chaotic.

Just a one room studio

We found the perfect place, unfortunately in ruins. Our friend Pietro said, “This project sounds tricky. There’re many Italian laws you MUST know and follow. You need a good attorney (avvocato). You need Barbara!” Even though her specialty is corporate law, as a favor to Pietro, Barbara agreed to assist. She was an absolute godsend and without her, our dream wouldn’t have been fulfilled. She not only speaks English, but she’s great fun and definitely knew how to work through the intricacies of the Italian bureaucracy. 

It just so happened that Barbara was pregnant with her first child when we started working together. We soon met her husband, Giacomo and our Italian adventure expanded. They were starting their family and we were beginning our dream journey at the same time. As the years passed, we came to understand the significance of Barbara and her baby.  

The site was cleared

The spring was filled with tough negotiations, promises, miscues and confusion. The developers were a challenge to work with, but Barbara remained calm and collected throughout the process. She was up against a negotiating team of 80% men, which made the game even more fun for our Wonder-Woman attorney. Single-handedly, she charged forward with confidence and negotiated everything we needed to close the deal. Although Italy remains a patriarchal society and Italian men basically still run the show, Barbara was amazing and a real powerhouse. We were certain that we had tapped directly into the fierce Tuscan heart of ancient Feminine Energy and perhaps we even caught a glimpse into the not-too-distant future. We just stood back and watched her do what seemed to come natural—the impossible.

That summer Barbara and Giacomo welcomed their first daughter. We shared their excitement as we all greeted the new addition to our Female Power Team. We felt an immediate emotional attachment to their sweet daughter. After all, she was in the room with us (in utero, of course) during all of the negotiations and debates. With our young new partner and renewed enthusiasm we turned our attention to the promise of a completed arts studio. 

The invisible stuff

The second year of the project crept by very slowly, as the construction company readied the site, cleared and prepped for building to begin. There was visible activity, but at a snail’s pace. We had devastating periods of discouragement, due to the contractors’ inaction and constant internal conflicts. To say that it was exasperating would be an understatement. But soon, we received wonderfully distracting news, Barbara and Giacomo announced that a new baby would be joining the family.

Soon, their second daughter was born and the Power Team increased. Barbara was now super-busy with her full-time job as a lawyer, our project and two little girls (bambine) in tow. Since they had become a family of four, they needed more space. So, Barbara and her husband casually added more construction and relocation projects to their to-do list—without even flinching. They were busy times indeed with many changes, EXCEPT for the studio project which continued to drag along at a the pace of an old Tuscan turtle.

Stone walls appeared

As time passed with very little progress, we were nearing the end of our patience. We even entertained the possibility of scrapping the whole project. Once again. Barbara made a quick intervention, saying  “WHEN (more accurately, WHENEVER) the project is completed, it will have definitely appreciated in value.” She emphatically said we would be FOOLISH to withdraw from the contract. Since Barbara was a force of nature to be reckoned with, we followed her advice, immersing ourselves into writing more music and stories—the perfect distraction.

What seemed to be a relatively short time later, Barbara gave birth to her third baby. Unbelievable! Another sweet little girl joined the team representing another substantial increase in Feminine Power. Compared with our slow-motion project, it was incredible to note that 3 perfect little people had been born into our tiny sphere of “family.” How could this happen? How is it possible to create three baby girls in less time than it takes to rebuild/restore an old Tuscan barn? 

Finished Studio?

We finally moved into our dream studio at the end of the four-year odyssey. Although no one could deem it “move-in ready” by any means, our studio was finally a reality—just a wee bit late (più tarde). Somehow, all the delays and consternations were curiously within the limits allowed by Italian law (don’t ask). Never-the-less, we had keys in hand. So we turned our attention to the yard, or as the Italians call it, the GARDEN. We quickly learned that trees are masculine and the fruit is feminine as we focused on “bearing fruit.” Soon enough, we had enclosed and surrounded our little stone studio with lush vegetation—a soft green embrace.  

The Studio Goddess

Our dream studio could not have happened without Barbara, Giacomo and their three sweet little girls. The overwhelming presence of Feminine Energy inspired us. And yes just like the garden, it takes both the masculine and the feminine to make it work, but we’re thinking about an ideal balance of 80/20—majority Female Power. Our little project nestled in the Tuscan hills remains as a powerful symbol for us as we remember that simple truth: “The future is female!” 

This is a true “Italian Moments” story of actual events from 1999 – 2004

Related Stories and Music

 

The story called “Good Girl” speaks to the essential life-giving power of feminine energy.

We wrote another short story and music a few years back about our romance with Tuscany called “Tuscan Hills.” Check it out if you’re so inclined. 

When first arriving at the site of the ruins, we were captivated and swept away in the mystery of it all. We called it “My Treasured Heart.”

Palazzo in Firenze

Once upon a time, in a magnificent palazzo in the center of Firenze (Florence) Italy, lived Beatrice Portinari with her adoring family. They spent their summers and weekends in the cool Florentine hills in her family’s serene villa—the quiet and lush Tuscan countryside unfolding just beyond the city. Italy, in 1275, was on the cusp of the Italian Renaissance, poised to leave medieval times behind.

Tuscan hills at Villa

“Bice,” celebrated her 8th birthday with a lavish party at her country villa. There she met young Dante Alighieri for the first time. The 9 year-old-boy found himself speechless—love at first sight. More than just smitten with her beauty, he sensed something deeper. Her presence seemed to exude a spiritual quality, an aura of perfection. Had Dante seen an angel? Perhaps. Would his life ever be the same? No.

Dante Alighieri

Dante also lived in Firenze, but his family had a country villa, as well. In fact, his country home was just a ten-minute walk from Beatrice‘s place. Even though they shared a geographically small world, they only encountered one another a few times in their lives. Sadly, Bice died at the age of 24, but her influence remained a constant companion in both Dante‘s writing and in his dreams—she was his muse and inspiration.

Likeness of Beatrice

Dante‘s book La Vita Nuova was written about his love for Beatrice. His adoration was neither physical nor earthly, but was rather an ethereal, aspirational, platonic or even agape love that inspired his journey toward enlightenment. In Dante’s La Davina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), Beatrice appeared as a guide to lead him into Heaven. While Dante could only approach Heaven, Beatrice took her seat next to God, as an amazing divine spirit—truly other-worldly.

We imagine our “Best Self” as a modest reflection of Heaven’s perfection. In order to move toward our “Heavenly Best,” don’t we all need a muse—someone who inspires, guides and leads us to our highest possibility? How romantic a thought, to be smitten by an earthly presence who shows us a way that we could otherwise never even imagine. For us, the story of Dante and Beatrice presents a powerful, idealistic yet tangible image—a vision to help us navigate this Life on Earth and beyond.

Credits

Featured image above: Dante encounters Beatrice in the historic center of Florence, Italy C1285—this painting is dated 1883 by the artist Henry Holiday, on display in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England.

Dante: Painting by Attilio Roncaldier 1801-1884, Ravenna, Museo Dantesco.

Beatrice: Painting by Washington Allston 1819, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Related Stories and Music

Winter’s End
This musical story and lyrics were written by Cheryl, alone in Tuscany on a cold winter dusk as she gazed out the window toward the beautiful Villa Portinari. Following are her poetic musings put to music. 

Beatrice’s Ghost
This music was spontaneously written and recorded in our Tuscan cantina by Joshua Housh in 2009—inspired by the mystery of the nearby historic villas of Beatrice and Dante.

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.

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.

Autumn arrived in Italy.

South side of the Arno

Turning from warm summer breezes in the shade, to cool gray rains, the fall season clearly was approaching. Winter wouldn’t be far behind. We were grateful to be staying in a friend’s small unused apartment in Florence, just across the Arno river, with easy access to the historic center—a delightful 10 minute walk. We enjoyed being in a different part of the city, which offered us new perspectives.

We had stayed in many different places over the past four years as we waited for the long-delayed completion of our dream-studio in the nearby Florentine countryside. Our romantically naïve plan was to run off together to a peaceful place of inspiration, leaving behind the often hectic pace of the Silicon Valley. The Tuscan hills beckoned.

Awesome view

We imagined ourselves living a simple life in nature with just the bare necessities—a small stone one room studio with an awesome view, where we could write stories and music about our experiences of life in Italy. We planned to share heartfelt conversations in front of an old open Tuscan fireplace, while sipping on hot mugs of coffee—dreaming, creating, spinning story and song into contemporary fables and fairytales that could actually come true. Still very much in love after nearly 30 years together, we were up for the challenge of taking our relationship to the next level, whatever that meant—longing to find out.

We decided to recommit

The message of another delay in the project arrived on that cold rainy day, and we felt our patience fray. Frustrated and deeply saddened by the thought of yet another problem, we actually considered ending the project. Just call it quits. As we talked it over, though, the vision slowly started coming back into view. We reminisced about our feelings and desires that led to this dream in the first place. We found ourselves re-engaging, breathing new life into our intentions. Determination and commitment rallied to fill in the gaps as we took a collective deep breath. Looking into each other’s eyes, we both felt a shared resolve.The answer: the dream must continue. The strength of our partnership literally rose-up in that moment of need to protect our fragile possibilities.

As is our custom, we turned to music and story to sort out the jumble of feelings we were experiencing—the hope, love and appreciation for both the challenges and successes. We decided to write a song to commemorate that time as if we were getting married again—recommitting to our shared vision, the romantic dream, the Tuscan studio. It became a  ceremony of rebirth (Renaissance) in our little borrowed home in Florence.

Music can sort things out

Friends Patrizia and Virginio dropped by for an unexpected visit later that evening. We had just finished a rough version of the song, and decided to sing it for them. They quietly listened as we stumbled through our newly penned lyrics and still-settling melody. Little did we know, that song would became the touchstone for this journey of the heart. We were delighted to share that moment of celebration and hope with them as they unknowingly became silent partners in our autumn sojourn.

On that cold, damp fall night, we did exactly what our hearts desired, fulfilling the essence of our shared dream. We vowed an Uncommon Promise to one another, knowing that it would be strong enough to carry us through—whatever was to come!

Music

Uncommon Promise

Here’s the song we wrote nearly 20 years ago to commemorate that turning point—commitment no matter what! It remains a touchstone for our relationship to this day. The name is as you might expect, “Uncommon Promise.”

Note: This post became the first to be recreated into a podcast with additional commentary, also under the name of “Uncommon Promise.”

Fogged in

We awakened to a gray morning in the valley with fog just outside the window so thick you could see it hanging in clumps. Cheryl turned to me and said “Come stai oggi, how are you today?” “Sto male, I’m not well,” I said with a coarseness in my voice. It seemed that my sinus condition had worsened in the night and had reached a critical point. It was clearly time to see Francesco, our local pharmacist to ask what could be done for my deteriorating condition. 

We got dressed and went downstairs, and as was our custom, we flipped through the Italian dictionary to make sure that we had all of the words we needed to get right to the point. This was not the time for a miscue in communication—say it right one time, get some medicine, and then back home into bed.

Feeling well-prepared for the conversation, we got in the car and Cheryl drove us to Fiesole, the nearest town, where we hoped the pharmacy would be open. (We’ve been told by many shop owners that they are ALWAYS open, unless they’re not.)  I went in while Cheryl kept watch with the car, illegally parked on the sidewalk out front (that’s normal). To my dismay, Francesco wasn’t there, so I had to explain my condition to his associate/pharmacist I had never met before. I thought to myself, “My issue is rather simple and fairly common so it shouldn’t be a problem. With the season change, surely sinus issues are addressed daily.” With my confidence bolstered due to my self-reflection and recent language lesson brush-up, I approached the counter and stated my case. 

I’ll never forget that look!

I began my explanation in a pleading tone befitting someone not feeling well. I said, “Ho un’infezione nel mio seno, I have an infection in my sinus.” The look on the pharmacist’s face was one of both astonishment and confusion. Checking for possible errors, she cautiously asked me to repeat what I had just said, and so I did—loudly enough for everyone in line behind me to hear. Each customer was suddenly privy to the personal details of my condition. She then repeated it back to me in a questioning tone, with a look of slight repulsion, she began pointing to her breasts. What!?

My new best friends

Now, this really confused me. At first, as unbelievable as it may seem, I thought there was an outside chance she was hitting on me. Was I delirious? Surely, in my condition and in the pharmacy line, of all places, this could not be the case. Then, I instinctively pointed to my nose. Instantly, she was relieved about our seemingly imminent first date, and the issue was suddenly clear. There was an almost audible sigh of empathetic relief from all of my “new best friends” behind me. I turned and offered a polite but awkward smile. The pharmacist quickly prepared an appropriate remedy. I paid her in cash and gathered my gift-wrapped package (they sometimes do that in Italy and we have no idea why). I shuffled through the door, breathing a raspy sigh of relief, eager to begin administering my new healing regimen.

As I approached the car, I detected a look of embarrassed concern on Cheryl’s face. It seems that while I was inside the pharmacy, she was outside, practicing her reading skills. There was a large poster in the pharmacy window advertising a cream for breast enhancement. She had spotted the word seno and knew that I was inside at that very moment, asking for some help with my seno. Oooff. She knew before I did that, depending on the context, the word seno is unfortunately, the same for both sinus and breast (why oh why would they do that?) With 450,000 words in the Italian language, evidently, they couldn’t add one more? There was no pronunciation or even a grammar error this time. 

I’ll do better next time

To this day, I’m still troubled by the incident. Why, given the two choices between sinus or breast, did the pharmacist think that I meant breast, since I am obviously a man (I did though, at that very moment question my own masculinity). I was sure she could clearly hear the raspy nasal tone in my voice that indicated a sinus infection. Maybe I inadvertently placed my hand on my chest, giving her the wrong visual cue.

So from that day forward, I’m extremely careful to make sure my hand gestures are tightly synchronized with what I’m trying to say—just like any good Italian!