Category Archives: Italy

Thirteen hours in Pisa… my passion for Italy

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Pisa Airport, named for Galileo Galilei, greets me like a fond friend. Just as it did six years ago, that very first time I arrived to attend a writer’s retreat, the long narrow concourse has a happy vibe to it. It makes perfect sense considering that it is one of the main gateways to Tuscany – to sunshine and stunning vistas, to that laid-back Tuscan way of living. I notice the abundance of sandals, summer dresses and sun-kissed smiles, both satisfied and expectant.

The Machiavelli leather shop is bustling and I remember how immediately enticing it was on my first visit; soft muted colours of the supplest leather beckoning the newly arrived. Leather is my particular weakness here – every imaginable shade and design, but this time I know to leave the browsing to the many leather shops in Pisa itself.

So, I do the Italian thing and head straight to the espresso cafe with its long, curved marble bar. For most it’s a fleeting visit – we ‘locals’ know it costs more to sit, so one stands, for maybe three minutes at most, tipping back steaming double-thimbles of espresso. Then a swift farewell and a few coins for the server – Ciao, arrividerci!

I linger a little, taking in the chatter amid the clatter of cups and saucers, breathing in the sharp wafts of rich espresso, taking in the comings and goings of locals and tourists. Exiting the airport to hail a taxi, the balmy Tuscan air and terracotta pots of soft pink oleanders greet me. I’m ebullient, I’m ‘home.’

Many people have that one cherished place they return to, that special place of relaxation, refuge and rejuvenation – for me, it’s Italy. This may be my eighth visit, but I’m no longer counting and even before I leave, I’m already plotting my return. What do I love about it? Actually, just about everything.

I love how the Tuscan sun plays on ochre stone walls and on the fortress-like Renaissance tower houses… look up, high up, and you’ll see frescoes telling their stories still, evoking a rich historical past. I’m awed by the weight of history along and under Rome’s ancient streets, the romantic waterways of Venice, the grandeur of Vienna-like Trieste in the north and its dazzling position on the Italian Riviera, the evocative Cinque Terre…

And I adore the trattorias, rustic neighbourhood restaurants with their checkered table cloths, delicious pasta and wines from local vineyards that never make it into a corked bottle; perhaps just a well-worn, wicker encased carafe. Perfect for long lunches with friends.

I’m captivated by the constant parade of shutters in every possible shade of green. I wait for the bells that peal throughout the day, giving even the smallest of towns their lyrical backdrop for everyday life. The tolling of bells has traditionally not only been for their rhythmic serenade, but also to call locals to church, to beckon town folk from slumber, to remind to return to work in the fields, even to warn of intruders or impending disasters.

In Italy, I love unhurried train journeys wending through glorious countryside, the sensuous lyrical language, terracotta pots arrayed on aged flagstone, and the gentle rhythm of Italy’s rural life.

On this visit, my month-long trip begins with the writer’s retreat where I’ll be ensconced for six days with old and new friends. But first, I have thirteen glorious hours in Pisa… a rendezvous, an opportunity to reconnect.

I stay just a long stone’s throw from that tower that leans. It is late afternoon and after a journey that was much longer than it should have been (including three static hours on the Montreal tarmac in a faulty plane), I now throw open the tall window sashes of my inn, once an old tower home, and, as if on cue, I’m greeted with ringing bells. I know they’re from the nearby campanile and as always they are music to my ears. Surely, they’re calling out a welcome for my return!

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After a quick shower to wash away the jet lag, I walk barely two blocks through the tall, ivy sprawled stone gate of Pisa’s imposing old city walls. The familiar scene I know and love unfolds before me. The Piazza dei Miracoli, Square of Miracles, is considered one of the finest architectural complexes in the world; the Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry, and of course that tower that has ever such a tilt. The Leaning Tower is the campanile, the bell tower and naturally, it was never meant to lean.

In fact, due to inadequate foundation, the tower began subsiding during its IMG_9066construction in the 1100’s. Building of the flawed design was halted for a century while the Republic of Pisa engaged in battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca. The lean increased over its decades-long construction and despite many attempts to right it, the Romanesque-style tower with its seven hefty bells, still leans at an angle of almost 4 degrees.

I admire the tower along with a multitude of tourists, but it’s really the side streets of Pisa that draw me. Strolling from the Piazza along the ‘main street’ of Santa Maria, I instinctively look up. I’m less interested in the scenes on the street level where people are dining, enjoying a glass of wine or yes shopping in those fabulous stores brimming with leather. No, it’s the view above eye level that reveal their vivid tales. I wander street after street, veering away from the tourist haunts, delighting in navigating this labyrinth of history.

The tall tower houses, artistic and architectural jewels, were the homes of noble families, mostly built during the middle ages. The torre case were built inside the city walls for defensive purposes, those soaring higher marking the more affluent and influential families. It was not only Pisa where these towers inscribed the Tuscan skies, but also Florence, Sienna, Lucca, and my personal favourite, San Gimignano.

Along with the towers, grand palazzos and trattorias, I pass small long-standing businesses so essential to the Tuscan way of life. And do their names not roll off the tongue like a wonderful symphony – spaghetteria, yogurteria, pasticceria, paineria, gelateria, Liberia, and the essential vineria.

The evening sun is glinting beautifully on the Piazza Dei Cavalieri, or Knight’s Square, as I amble to this quiet landmark. I know that this was once the political center of medieval Pisa, and later the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. In 1558, the square was rebuilt in Renaissance style by Vasari, the talented architect of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici. Medici’s statue looks over the square, framed by two magnificent Palazzos and the charming church of Saint Sebastian.

I’m distracted by strains of music that draw me to the steps of the church. I meet two university students, Oswaldo and Alexandra, as they serenade the evening strollers. This evening ritual of passeggiata is quintessentially Italian – a gentle, languid stroll through the piazzas, the vias, in the countryside, or along the sea-front. A pastime enjoyed by all ages – some fresh air, the chance to see and be seen, perhaps a stop at the gelateria or vineria.

I perch myself on the church steps beside the two musicians  savouring their Spanish love song, delighting in the fading sun dancing on fine Italian marble. I take in the strollers, the buildings and all that I love.

Allore, it was the perfect beginning to this month in Italy, and prelude to a planned visit to Slovenia. But that’s a story for a time soon…

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These particular ones are green…

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New challenges through a blue doorway in Sweden

As I closed my front door a few days ago, I thought of the new door that will soon open for me, wide with opportunities. It’s been a flurry of activity, packing and departing our house in Canada and I write this, finally relaxed, in a cozy hotel lobby in Sweden.  Sunk into a deep sofa, candles flickering on a simple wooden coffee table, we’ve been mostly awake for the past 32 hours.  Trying to keep jet lag at bay, soon after arriving in Copenhagen we made our way to nearby Lund. It’s a beautiful Swedish university town where our eldest has recently moved to study for his Masters degree.

It’s good to see him settled in his little loft apartment and know he’s ready for this next challenge, his new doorway of opportunity. I’m empathetic that many of us are experiencing change at this time of year. It’s the end of summer and the season of new beginnings for students, yet often a time of struggle for parents coping with their departure. By chance, my moving to Kazakhstan has coincided with our son’s transition and as we visited him this evening, I insisted on taking a picture in front of his new blue door.  Although I suggest these photos rather casually wherever we may reside, I know that there’s an ulterior motive. These photos of our more than two dozen front doors evoke poignant and treasured memories of life lived inside, around and through those portals.

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The doors that inspired a piece of writing in Tuscany

Anyone who knows me well, knows, I love doors.  In fact, one of the tasks at a fondly remembered writing retreat* was to wander silently for thirty minutes gathering inspiration for a piece of writing.  Set in a serene bamboo grove, it’s curious that my muse was not drawn from a natural setting within the Watermill grounds. Rather, I was intrigued by a stack of abandoned doors.  Then again, my choice wasn’t all that surprising for someone who sees them as more than a barrier to keep out the elements. For me, a door can be exciting, mysterious and even better if there’s an interesting ‘knocker’ or other hardware on it!

Of those doors tucked away in an old Tuscan shed I wrote;

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In Krakow, Poland

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Stockholm, Sweden

These particular ones are green, in fact many shades of green, the peeling paint revealing layers of life’s moments. They are now stacked in a vertical pile, discarded behind the archway they once inhabited. I am endlessly intrigued by them; their texture and colour, their hardware and design. To me they become subjects to admire, photograph and even collect.  The doors I prefer are old, often in abandoned structures or homes.  They no longer have the joy of being opened, closed, or being left ajar so the cat can slink in and out. Behind their scratched panels and knotted wood, they hold secrets of lives lived within their protection. Lives, perhaps of hard work, turmoil, misery, even grief – but also of joy, laughter and secret words that cascaded up to their secure surface but didn’t venture further; keeping those vignettes tucked safely inside, keepsakes for family and friends.

 

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An old Roman Villa

Doors are often portrayed as metaphors for life; for hope, opportunity or invitation.  In fact, in Roman religion and myth, Janus is the God of beginnings and traditions, and thereby of gates, doors and doorways. He is depicted as having two faces, one towards the future and one to the past. The Romans even named a month after him – the gateway to the year, January.

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A door in China, protected with door gods

The Chinese and other eastern cultures believe in a ‘door god’, represented in decorations positioned on each side of an entry to a temple, home or business. The ‘god’ wards off evil spirits and fosters good will.  It seems doors have always been symbolic and endowed with purpose; often as portents of change.

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A symbolic heart graces a Norwegian door

In Norway, I was charmed  by ‘hearts’ that were hung on wooden doorways, especially at Christmas time. They seemed to beckon one inside, perhaps away from the damp and cold, into a warm hearth. Doors have traditionally been of wood; oak, cedar, cypress, elm or even olive. However constructed, even flimsily such as a tent or teepee, the door has ever signified a secure boundary.   And yet that boundary opens wide to allow one to go forth and explore, though we all know how comforting the sight of your own front door can be after a tiring day or late night out.

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One of my favourite doors; the town hall in San Gimignano in Tuscany

I have photographed them in many countries, often for their beauty but typically for the curiosity they invoke. Upon leaving the Middle East where we lived for seven years, I even brought two home with me.  One is embedded within a coffee table, the worn, dark red wood now protected with glass. The other was rescued from a garbage pile beside a once imposing, but now dilapidated fort in the barren foothills of Oman.  I like to think I rescued that one from being chopped up for campfire kindling!

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An abandoned door in Sintra, Portugal

And as for the changes they represent, for someone like myself who happens to open and close more than my fair share, it isn’t always easy.  A few days ago as the cabin lights dimmed and the plane taxied down the runway, tears escaped from my eyes. My anticipation for this next phase was overshadowed by a mother’s love for her children. As two of ours remain in Canada the knowledge of the impending distance tore at my heart knowing this family of five is once again separated by countries, even continents.  Yet, there’s the underlying comfort that within some months, a door will be flung open and family will be reunited with stories to tell of all our adventures.

For now, I can’t wait to see the interesting portals I’ll find to walk through to explore, to appreciate more wonders of this interesting world.  Did I mention my next front door will actually be a Hotel…there just might be a few stories forthcoming from there!

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In Christiania, Copenhagen

 

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Lucca, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The Watermill at Posara in Tuscany, as written about in blog post ‘ So you want to be a writer…’

Two backpackers, post restante and a collection…

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We left with backpacks, cameras and journals; that’s all that was necessary really.  Not a cell phone, a tablet or a computer.  Yes, it was wonderful last week to Skype with my son in Thailand and WhatsApp with him today as he sat in a thatched hut in Laos. But I feel privileged to have travelled with the promise…I’ll write soon.

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Two backpackers in India, circa 1989

Understandably, it was wrenching for loved ones to wait for letters and postcards to arrive and hopefully read that all was well.  But that was the beauty of it; to receive that correspondence and devour those long awaited words.  First eagerly, but then more slowly to take in every detail. Those letters could also be secreted away and brought out again and again,  just to feel closer to that person so far from home.

We had planned only a basic itinerary for our six month backpacking trip.  Yet it was enough to inform our parents to send a letter to Poste Restante Dehli on such and such date, then to Kathmandu by another date… and on and on.  That was our only means of communication, we agreed only to resort to collect phone calls if necessary.

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Poste Restante as a return address on an original Aerogramme

Poste Restante is French for ‘post remaining’ or mail that is held.  One could also refer to it as General Delivery.  At the time, walking into one of these main post offices on the other side of the world was an experience in itself.  They were often dark and musty with a uniformed postmaster sitting with disinterest behind an untidy, wooden desk. Not wanting to be disturbed, it was usually a performance for your mail to be located as he hunted the tall shelves, layered with endless cubby holes.  You waited with anticipation yet also with trepidation.   Will there actually be anything for me, did they send it in time?  And if they had, you did not carelessly tear open the envelope. You found a place to open it carefully, then read, hoping all was well back home. I have a distinct vision of the steps to the Poste Restante in Hong Kong; crowded with backpackers eagerly reading their long awaited letters from home.  Not only did we correspond frequently with our parents, we also received many letters in return.

A long letter on parchment paper from Nepal

A long letter on parchment paper from Nepal

 

And thankfully, every one of them was kept.  Each letter and postcard recounting the tiny details one forgets through the years. To read them now evokes images and memories that electronic gadgets will never replicate.  They are now hidden away, somewhere safe, in the hope that one day they’ll be appreciated for what they represent.  A time when words were chosen carefully and written in your most presentable penmanship.  A time when words were savoured. In fact as travellers, most evenings we would happily write by candlelight which would shed a more romantic sheen on the often basic hostel we found ourselves in. Updating our journals or writing long letters on carefully chosen stationery became a relaxing ritual, with the added comfort of knowing how much pleasure they would bring. Once they finally arrived on the distant shores of Canada and Scotland.

It seems my love of paper and stationery was with me even before I jaunted off to Asia.  For some reason I can’t explain, I have always adored it.

The first paper collected, the iconic Florentia from Italy

The first paper collected, the iconic Florentia from Italy

 

 

My collection began on my first trip to Italy when I was 18; that lovely ‘Florentia’, with its paper of finely embossed gold, woven through vibrant flowers and leaves.  I remember it was displayed on my desk once I returned home and I couldn’t bring myself to use it.  It was just too beautiful.  I now wander into the tiny shops when I return to Italy and find it impossible to not treat myself to just one more bundle of notes or calling cards, anything will suffice really.  And I gladly use them now, as often as I can!

My compact souvenirs, stationery

My compact souvenirs, stationery

 

 

That first purchase prompted me to also collect hotel stationery. That one sheet of paper and envelope encapsulates a moment in time and place, each with a unique letter head and often foreign language.  It evokes the sights admired and the time enjoyed, in a place you’ve been fortunate to have visited.   And so I admit, since that backpacking trip in 1989, I have taken just one piece of paper from each hotel.  However, nowadays, I often have to ask as it appears that

Letterheads that evoke a time and place

Letterheads that evoke a time and place

 

 

 

 

stationery is a dying art, much to my dismay. Though I’m sure the demand has diminished, what with those handy tablets and computers! Of course we couldn’t live without them, however there’s nothing I’d like more than to reach into my mail box tomorrow and discover a waiting letter. Post marked from Asia, with stamps that hint of where it’s from, with an address that’s just yours, with an exotic letterhead…ah, one can but dream.  Let’s see if he reads this!

So You Want To Be A Writer…

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I have to admit, being announced as a writer at the recent #FIGT conference was a proud moment. It had long been a dream of mine and my eventual epiphany was inspired by a borrowed book. That book would eventually lead me to a writing retreat in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, it changed my life.

Becoming a writer…in Tuscany

Becoming a writer…in Tuscany

I’ve always been envious of people who are diligently committed to their writing, as opposed to simply proclaiming their wish to be a writer, as I had done for years.  Having lived and travelled for twenty-three years in countries strung across the globe, I have nevertheless written every step of the way. Though up until now, those experiences have languished in my journals, begging to be released. They attest to adventures such as safari by camel in Rajasthan, truffle hunting in the Arabian desert, and trekking in Nepal.  To be fair, a few of those diary pages made it to published articles;  Fleeing Tiananmen Square was one and thankfully, on a happier note, Shopping in the Silver Souks of Oman.  The latter is definitely a lighter read!

Yet there’s still no book to speak of despite pleas from my ever patient husband and even a grandmother’s admonishment to, “Please write that book dear so I’ll know what you been up to all these years”.  Sadly, she’s no longer with us, which reminds me that time is knocking at the door.  It seems there hasn’t been that all consuming desire to lock myself away and write, that persistent need to tell my story. I could blame it on raising sons on different continents and working part time which kept me more than busy.  No excuse, countless writers produce a manuscript with far less ‘crippling’ situations than mine.  I now appreciate that perhaps we need to grow into things, to arrive at that place more experienced, more poised, and to forgive ourselves for ‘lost’ time.

While living in Norway these previous four years, I finally heeded my husband’s protestations  and “find something I was passionate about if I wasn’t going to write that darn book”.  I did cultivate my passion for history and became a tour guide.  And I did write, so to speak, with verbal narratives.  I can tell you everything you want to know about the Vikings, shipping fleets and herring exports, or why most of the wooden houses in Norway are painted white. In fact, I would tell stories for three hours at a time, weaving history and local culture into rich tapestries, but alas they’re not on paper. My stories were informative and entertaining, but ephemeral nonetheless.

And so it was through a book lent to me, written by Maggie Myklebust, that I finally became committed to writing.  Maggie had an inspiring story to tell and she was brave enough to do so in her book Fly Away Home.  It touched me on many levels, but mostly Maggie’s determination to become an author, something she could not have envisioned.  Her publisher was Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing, who would that autumn lead a writing retreat in Tuscany. After years of dabbling as a writer, I dug up the courage to put my proclamations to the test. And if it all failed miserably, at least I would have had a week in beguiling Tuscany.

The Tuscan Writers

The Tuscan Writers

Eleven strangers had chosen to be thrown together. Eleven strangers who shared a love of words, poetry and story telling, but could we write?   We all had doubts as to why we had taken this plunge; frightened, yet excited with the possibilities of what the week would bring.

Writing at the Vine Terrace

Writing at the Vine Terrace

The group was mostly British including eighty- four year olds, Pamela Mary and Peeta.  These lovely ladies arrived together, their sun hats set firmly atop their silvery coiffures. They had  been raised by nannies and servants in Her Majesty’s far flung colonies while their fathers served the British Empire.   Both were eager to record their stories from a bygone era for family and posterity. They only wrote with pen and paper, no lap tops, and their penmanship was beautiful, of course.  We were inspired that they had the courage to begin the journey of writing their memoir, confirmation that it is never too late to fulfill a dream.

The Watermill at Posara was the ideal setting for a writing retreat. The Tuscan sunshine, superb hospitality and gorgeous surroundings welcomed us with open arms.  With the back drop of a cobblestoned courtyard and terracotta pots stuffed with bouganvilla, we embarked on six days of lessons and inspired writing. Most of our work took place under the Vine Terrace. Shaded by a mass of grape vines, their plump grapes poking through the trellises, the terrace welcomed us into its safety.  It is here our writing would evoke emotions of sorrow, joy, disappointment and laughter, along with tears.

Our mandate was to learn and observe, to write, to polish, to present by 5 p.m. This did not vary. Every day, bar one, we knew at this time we must present a piece of work to be read aloud for all to hear, to ponder and to comment upon. As the sunflowers nodded in the late afternoon sun and the nearby bells of Posara chimed, we ruminated with our words and reached into our souls.

Frightening and challenging yes…

Instructive and inspiring, yes again..

Life Changing, absolutely.

At precisely 6:30 each evening, we were reminded that it was Apertivo time as the tiled table was promptly set with a fruit laden decanter of Aperol and carafes of Chianti.  It was a welcome reward for our writing toil, and balm for our souls that we had bared to each other.  After a delicious meal, our day would conclude in the comfort of the drawing room. Sinking into deep sofas, we engaged in lively conversation while sipping on chilled, locally made Limoncello.

The only male in our group was a famous British screenwriter (who shall remain anonymous) and we wondered why he was there, though pleased that he was.  He would read from his poignant memoir, recently begun but already captivating.  He would also regale us with stories of his Hollywood exploits, just as intriguing, I can assure you!  We all contributed with tales of jungle treks, of living on a houseboat, of lovers, of simpler times, of loss.  Each evening, was more entertaining than the previous. Each evening, eleven ‘strangers’ with different pasts became closer, breaking down barriers that would enable us to bare our souls just a little more in our writing the next day.  With the window sashes thrown open allowing the moonlight to peek into our lively gatherings, we would comment that another day had indeed been well lived at The Watermill!

The most integral member of that group and the reason we were all there, was Jo Parfitt.  We blossomed under her nurturing guidance, her magnanimous manner and her colourful scarves that greeted us each day. Because of her, we became writers… we became a writing family.

The nodding sunflowers

The nodding sunflowers

I had arrived in Tuscany with my sandals, sundresses and my favoured Uni-ball pens firmly packed.  I left……a writer.

 

P.S.  I’m finally writing that darn book!