May 4, 2010

Pici & Politics in Pienza

We intended for Pienza to be our "home base" while exploring the smaller towns and wineries throughout Tuscany. What we didn't realize is that we would fall for this charming little town and our momentum would be slowed to a hault.

Pienza is simply beautiful with an old world sophistication. It is a world heritage site and was the birthplace of Pope Pius II. After Pius became Pope, he decided to give his town an Extreme Makeover, Reniassance Edition. As you navigate the small side streets- aptly named lovely things like Via Amore and Via Fortuna- you get glimpses of the Tuscan hillside just outside of town. All streets lead to two things- the Duomo (afterall, a Pope would direct everyone in town to church!) and Via Vista- a stone walkway that stretched around the outside perimiter of town and had the most amazing views of the lush, green Tuscan hills. Needless to say, we walked along this many times during our visit (and yes, I lit a candle inside of the Duomo). We were visiting during Festival dei Fiori (May flower festival) so the private gardens and potted plants outside of the little homes and shops were stunning. Everything was planted in either brown woven hanging baskets or terracotta pots, providing a neutral background for the great bursts of color from the flowers.

Now that I shared the history and lovey vibe of Pienza, it is time to get to the good stuff- the food & wine! We concluded that Pienza is the best cuisine that we have had on this trip to date. (Chad is declaring it the best food on the trip, period- as we are now in a region known for their pesto and pesce- which he doesn't really like. Since I love both pesto & pesce I'm not declaring Pienza the winner just yet.) Our first meal was dinner at Latte di Luna, recommended by Marco, one of the owners of our B&B (Piccolo Hotel La Valle, charming with great views and a fabulous breakfast spread!). This tiny restaurant only served dinner from 7:30-9:30pm, so we were lucky when we showed up right at 7:30 and got a seat. We accidently forgot to say "mezzo" and ended up with a full liter of the house red. Yikes. Molto vino! This drew some sideways glances and giggles from the older couple seated next to us (they were sharing 1/4 of a liter of the house wine, by comparison). I ordered the bruschetta con pomodoro, which was 1 piece of garlic bread, toasted, with a fresh tomato diced up and salted sitting on top of the bread. It was so simple (no basil, cheese or balsamic like the Americanized version of bruschetta)- and it was completely delicious! Following the bruschetta, I was introduced to the handmade pasta that this region is known for- "Pici"- and it was love at first bite. Chad enjoyed a plate of Pici, as well as a secondi of roast beef and potatoes. All this after informing me that he was starving because our occasional grazing on pizza, panini and gelato wasn't cutting it for him- it was time to throw down a serious meal. :-)

After we finished our meal the aformentioned couple sitting next to us (Swiss, speaking French) forced us, through a series of emphatic hand gestures, to order the dessert that they just finished- homemade panacotta with oranges. We were 3/4 of the way through our liter of wine, so we happily agreed. They began talking with us, starting with the basics- them: "we Swiss", us: "we Chicago." Mind you, they were talking to us in French/Italian and we were talking to them in English/Italian! Much like my interaction with Antonio in the shop in Siena, this hilarious attempt at communication is definitely going down as a highlight of our trip. The difference here is that the Swiss couple wanted to talk about politics and money, not cheese and "boogie, boogie."

Here is the very rough interpretation of what we discussed (oh how I wish that I had video of the conversation, because the hand gestures added so much entertainment value!)...

The Swiss: Obama, yes? no?
Us: Yes, yes. Very good.
The Swiss: eh, he ok.
Us: he is from Chicago too.
The Swiss: Chicago, Kenya, Chicago, Kenya? Eh?
Chad to me: we've got a birther up in here!
The Swiss*: We pay very high tax (lots and lots of french words inserted here about their taxes)
Chad to me: Swiss taxes are 80%
Swiss: We have no problem with work, no debt. Everyone has job. School free, you sick it's free, we have no debt.
Us: (lots of head nodding) that's great
The Swiss: Your democracy here (hand gesture down low) our democracy here (hand gesture significantly higher)
Us: that's great
The Swiss: you'll figure it out someday. good luck until then.

We then said our goodbyes to the Swiss, finished our liter of wine and stumbled back to Piccolo Hotel La Valle cracking up about what just happened. Talking about money and politics with complete strangers is tough enough- let alone trying to do so in 3 different languages. They were charming people (they invited us to call them if we ever visited Switzerland), and I am certain that we would have had a very enjoyable and enlightening conversation if we were all speaking the same language.

The next two days involved a lot more Pici and the discovery of the second treasure of this region- Brunello red wine from Montalcino, yum! We only ended up driving to one other town, Montepulciano, where we saw the medievil town center (they recently filmed a scene from New Moon here and there were pictures from the filming all over the place) and we tasted Vino Nobile from this town (not nearly as good as Brunello).

The Pici, the Brunello, a little bit of rain and beautiful Tuscan hillside views kept us very content and relaxed during the Pienza portion of our trip. We are so happy that we discovered this little town and allowed it to slow us down in our traveling tracks.

We are now in the Cinque Terre (with more rain, boo!) hoping to hike the trail at least once over the next 3 days before heading home (boo again!). I will blog about this portion of of journey next time.
Ciao for now.

Photos from Pienza:

*corrected on 5/5/10: I originally posted, in error, that we said this when actually The Swiss went into very a long prose about how high that their taxes were.

May 2, 2010

Simply Siena

My Italian is rusty. I spent four years with Mrs. Amero & Mazzella at BHS and now I can hardly string a sentence together. They would be so ashamed. Although, I must say that I am kicking ass with my days of the week (oggi รจ Dominica) and my numbers. The other day I joined in with a group of school children (ragazzi) as they chanted off their numbers while climbing the stairs up into the Duomo in Siena (una, due, tre...dieci, undici, dodici...)

As we moved from Florence and into the smaller Tuscan towns my lack of conversational Italian becomes more apparent and challenging. You know how you hear someone speaking English when it isn't their primary language- they have an accent, use incorrect verb tenses or order the words in the sentence akwardly? Well, I would love to hear how I sound to the Italians as I try to speak the language. I imagine it is something like, "please, I tried that in three eight sizes" (instead of my intended, "may I try these on in a size 38 please?"). Anyway, I digress because the highlight of our time in Siena & Pienza has been our entertaining interactions with other people. All of whom don't speak our language.

We arrived in Siena sweaty and tired from hauling our luggage a half mile from the train station up and down the hill to the Hertz office. We picked up our little blue stick shift Fiat and drove to our hotel, Villa Elda, where we were staying for just one night. During the short, predominately uphill drive (less than 4 kilometers) the F-word was used 5 times (averaging more than 1 F-word per kilometer). Once we found a parking spot and got our luggage into the villa, we learned that our room was on the 3rd floor- with no lift, of course. However, the hilly, winding drive and hike up all of those stairs was very worth it once we got into our little room with a beautiful sweeping view of the city of Siena.

We quickly freshened up and headed into Siena- about a 5 minute walk to the city wall from where we were staying. Once you step inside of the city wall it feels like you are stepping back in time. The tour groups were leaving for the day and the schools were just letting out. All foot traffic was heading in one direction- the Piazza del Campo- and we followed. We stopped along the way to inhale a piece of pizza (all that driving, swearing and hauling makes you famished!) Once we got into the Piazza we could understand why this is the center of Siena. All of the locals gathered here, just sitting and talking and sometimes breaking into a chant or song (we were guessing they were doing football chants). We sat here for over an hour and just people-watched. Then we decided it was time for gelato and more strolling. Tough life. :-) During our stroll we came across a meat and cheese shop with red fuzzy ropes hanging vertically across the entire entryway (think beads from the 60's, but in the form of thick red fuzzy ropes). I pushed the ropes aside and curiously peeked inside. The entire shop was filled with dried meats of various sizes (ranging from large to ginormous) hanging from the ceiling. As I pulled my head out to tell Chad what I saw inside, a man grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. Chad quickly followed. Two glasses of red wine were thrust at us and we were barraged by rapidly spoken Italian. We ended up drinking, snacking and visiting inside of this incredible little shop for over 30 minutes. Here's what we were able to gather from the rapidly spoken Italian: the shop owner was named Antonio. He was originally from Naples but had been in Siena for many years with his shop. His insurance agent was also in there drinking wine, but he was just there to pick up his check. He spoke no English but smiled and nodded at us alot. Antonio made a big deal about how much money he gives his insurance agent and what a nice suit he was wearing. A pretty young woman was also in there visiting. She was not yet married, but according to Antonio this was because she went out every night to "boogie, boogie" with her boyfriend. I tried to ask the pretty young woman "come si chiama" (what is your name) but she responded by pointing at Antonio and saying "Antonio." I then told her what my name was, to which she just smiled and nodded. Not sure where I went wrong there, but clearly something was misunderstood. Giggles ensued. When the pretty, young, nameless, boogier went to leave the shop Antonio grabbed her arm, filled her wine glass again and said "aspet, aspet" (wait, wait). Chad and I knew it wasn't going to be easy to get out of there. Not that we minded.

We ended the evening getting settled on the rooftop of the Villa Elda with a bottle of wine, a hunk of bread and a slice of parmigiano from Antonio. Sadly, our wine opener broke inside of the cork of the bottle of wine and Chad became very grumpy. This signaled the end of our charming evening in Siena.

The next morning we enjoyed breakfast in the garden of Villa Elda and walked into town to join an 11am walking tour of Siena. No one showed up at the tour meeting spot (we later learned that we needed to call ahead to reserve a spot), so we did our own little walking tour which consisted of food, shopping and actual touring of the the inside of the Cathedral in Siena. The cathedral included amazing Renaissance pieces, a Michelangelo sculpture and a lot of pagan art. We learned that the Sienese were incredibly independent and they fashioned their church with a mix of religious and pagan art to make a statement to Rome and Florence that they were different. It was easily the most artistic and interesting church that we toured to date on this trip.

After the Fitzgerald walking tour of Siena we returned to the Fiat, took a deep breath and started our drive to Pienza. I am happy to report that this drive was uneventful and the ratio of cursing to kilometers was much more favorable. I must say that Chad is doing an amazing job navigating the small, winding roads of the Italian countryside- especially considering that there is almost always and agressive Italian driver riding directly on his bumper.

We will be in Pienza for one more day and I will post more about our time here and in the surrounding small Tuscan towns next time.
Ciao for now.

Photos from Siena:

May 1, 2010

Firenze Fabulous

I am paying 11 Euro to use this computer for 1 hour. It comes with a fabulous view, overlooking the lush, hilly Tuscan countryside in the town of Pienza, so I suppose that makes it a bit more worth the price. It is also used to writing in Italian, so it currently is underlining all of my words in red (indicating that they are mis-spelled) so please pardon any true mis-spellings- you know me, I count on spellcheck to help me clean up the mess that I typically make when storytelling!

Nevertheless, I was eager to sit and share experiences thusfar in Northern Italy.

After a cancelled connecting flight and an unexpected 5-hour layover in Frankfurt, we arrived in Florence around 5pm on Monday. We quickly freshened up and headed out for dinner in the Piazza della Santa Maria Novella. Over a basket of bread and a bottle of red wine (ironically, from Argentina) my eyes began to close right there at the table. It came as no surprise once we figured out that we had been awake for 31 straight hours! When we got back to our hotel there was American Country music (Johnny Cash & Shania) blaring from the piazza below our room, which just cracked us up!) We thought it would be charming to sleep with the windows open, but between Garth Brooks and Chad getting eaten alive by mosquitos that was the last night of that.

Anyway, after a decent night's sleep we prepared for day one in Florence- aptly nicknamed "Chad & Kellie's Day-of-Art!" (Friends, anyone?) Quick funny story from breakfast before I continue...Chad and I were enjoying our breakfast and yummy Cappucinos when we overheard the following interaction: A couple sitting next to us (English) was chatting with the husband of the couple who owned our hotel. The English man said to the Italian hotel owner, "they are calling for rain today" and the Italian man said in a loud skeptical tone "Who?" It was one of those giggle-inducing language barrier moments.

Moving on, our first step was at La' Accademia to see The David. We took a fabulous tip from one of my co-workers and downloaded Rick Steve's free audio tour of The David from iTunes and we fired up our iPods once we entered this small museum. I highly recommend doing this- we got great commentary, history and directions around the small museum which we could pause and restart at our own pace. The David is simply amazing. He is an absolute must-see masterpiece! I was moved by Michaelangelo's "Prisoners" which lined the hallway leading up to The David. It is amazing to think of Michaelangleo looking at a large block of marble and carving these incredibly realistic human forms. Also, since I am a tad bit claustraphobic, The Prisoners got my heart racing- I felt like I wanted them freed from the heavy stone that still encased the rest of their bodies.

After La' Accademia we had a fabulous lunch on a small side street in Florence at i Fratelli (The Brothers), a sandwich shop that we saw highlighted in a Rick Steve's TV special on Florence. The line went down the block but moved quickly. You ordered your sandwich and glass of wine by number, stood in the street and enjoyed it, and then set your empty glass on a little shelf attached to the brick exterior wall before you left. It was charming and delicious! (I ate a sandwich with peccorino cheese, truffles & arrugella for only 3 Euro!)

We had a 4pm reservation for the Uffizi gallery (all Renaissance art) so between lunch and Uffizi we walked all over Florence (and we began to understand why Rick Steve's referred to the city as the "Renaissance Treadmill"). Our walk through piazzas and neighborhoods included a stroll over the Ponte Vecchio. While there were approximately 870 things that I wanted to buy on this charming little bridge of jewelry heaven, Chad kept me grounded and reminded me that it was only our 2nd day in Italy and I certainly wouldn't want to blow my entire budget of spending money on the 2nd day of the trip. I didn't believe him at the time, but now I suppose he was right. :-)

In the Uffizi we once again listened to a free and fabulous Rick Steve's audio guide and learned about many significant pieces in the Renaissance movement. It undoubtably was a beautiful and fascinating time to live in Italy. By the end of this giant museum we were feeling a little tired, as was demonstrated when Chad pointed at a portrait near the exit of the museum and said "that guy looks like Dr. Fraiser Crain." I cracked up for about 20 minutes.

"Chad & Kellie's Day-of-Art" wrapped up with a walk through the Loggia of the Piazza il Signoria (which has amazing sculptures and fountains all out in an open forum) and dinner at Al Acqua al Due (Giada's favorite restaurant in Italy). While our meal at Acqua was delicious (I had a 5 pasta sampler that was like Italian-style Tapas- yum! Chad had a blueberry filet that the restaurant is famous for, and he also loved his dish) we were seated with a Mother-daughter couple from Atlanta who were less than ideal. I will spare you the racist remarks and complaints that they shared with us, thinking that we were "like-minded Americans." Yuck. Il conto per favore! (Check please!)

Day 3 in Florence was full of wonderful surprises. It started with us sleeping in and missing breakfast, so instead we grabbed a slice of pizza and enjoyed it at La Piazza del Duomo, overlooking the massive and beautiful church, tower & dome in the center of Florence. There was fabulous people watching. I was especially taken by the dressed up Italian men and women zipping around on their bicycles (Italian fashion observations to be featured in a future blog post). We spent the day touring churches (yes Mom, I lit candles inside of every one!) and then we hiked across the river and up a large hill to the Piazza del Michaelangelo. The views of Florence from this point were breathtaking. The energy on the other side of the river was very different. There were fewer tourists, more authentic shops and less English spoken. We really enjoyed our afternoon there.

Our evening contained the greatest surprise of the day. We asked Louise, the charming Aussie ex-pat married to the Italian hotel owner, to make us reservations for dinner at a restaurant that was recommended to us by 3 friends. She looked at us and simply said "No. You should do this instead" and then she planned out our evening. Chad and I just shrugged at each other and said Va Bene (Ok). She made us reservations for a new program in Florence called Art Viva which features a lecture by a local artist and a local aristocrat, intended to give visitors a sampling of life and culture in Florence. The first speaker of the night was sculptor Robert Bodem who was from the east coast but relocated to Florence 12 years ago to start the sculpture art program at the Accademia of Art. He showed us a number of his pieces and talked about his creation process (he focuses on life-sized nudes that are sculpted in clay but then bronzed). The second speaker was Count Sebastione Capponi of the Capponi family which dates back to 1200's nobility in Florence. He had wonderful stories of his family history and his current business of running 20 family villas and a Chianti Classico winery. He was smart, witty and did I mention he was a Count!?! We ended the evening chatting with him about his family, my family and what it means to be Italian (and he asked Chad "how does it feel to be IBM?"). He gave us the phone number to his winery and an autographed bottle of his Chianti. On our way out, the 3 women running the event complemented my outfit and told me I was the best dressed attendee that they had seen at Art Viva. (I was wearing my Anthropology map sweater, Philip Lim leather skirt, JCrew necklace & Chie Mihara heels- all accessorized with a "when in Italy" hip sway). Needless to say that was the icing on the cake and we left the event grinning from ear to ear and eternally grateful to Louise for the recommendation. A delicious dinner at La Decima Musa (also a Louise recommendation) followed. It was a great day and evening!

Which brings me to our final day in Florence which was short, but made very sweet by a quick little shopping spree. That morning we profusely thanked Louise for the wonderful recommendations and enjoyed our final breakfast with her and her husband. We then headed to the train station to drop off our bags and buy our tickets to Siena. We had 2 hours to kill so we walked back through some of our favorite neighborhoods. I was lured into the Missoni store by a small sign reading "outlet" posted in the front window. The merchandise was spectacular, but it was not really "outlet priced." Nevertheless, I left with a charming little coral colored dress that fits like it was molded for me by Michaelangelo. I also induldged in a feminine Doctor-style bag in cream, buttery soft Italian leather. I must say that I thought my shopping was incredibly reserved considering the abundance of beautiful shoes, bags, jewlery and clothing available in this amazing city.

So after just 3 days and a few hours, our time in the lovely city of Florence ended and our adventures in the Italian countryside began. I will follow up with posts about our night in Siena and our time in the stunning little town of Pienza (where I sit today).
Ciao for now!

Photos from Florence:

Jul 29, 2009

Rest In Beast

Today we bid farewell to a dear member of our family. Our 1995 Toyota 4-runner (Limited Edition, Chad insists that I add), The Beast.

We decided to take advantage of the Cash for Clunkers program and recycle The Beast in exchange for $4500 cash towards a new car. A stellar deal considering that we would be hard pressed to get $500 for The Beast otherwise. However, it is bittersweet because it feels a bit like we are putting an old pet to sleep. The Cash for Clunkers program mandates that when an old vehicle is turned in, the parts of the car can be stripped but the engine block must be rendered inoperable (insert ominous music here). warns softies like me, “the program rules lay out various ghastly means to accomplish that. Don't look. It will only break your heart.”

Sure, The Beast had no air conditioning, no antenna, a missing volume knob, a broken driver’s side mirror, a busted off gas door, rusted back and side paneling, and a license plate attached with zip ties (thanks to Andrew’s innovation!). However it had more personality and character than any other car that I ever drove, and I will miss it.

I loved driving a car that so dramatically contradicted with my personal style and femininity. There was something very fun about climbing up into a rusted out SUV wearing 4” Jimmy Choos and a dress. I embraced the irony, I knew that we didn’t look like we should be together, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care what others thought when the temperature would dip below 30 degrees and The Beast would scream (literally) in protest. Hell, I hate when it is that cold too, we should all be allowed to scream that way until we warm up! I didn’t care what others thought when I would come barreling around the corner of our alley and accidentally clip the dumpster. The dumpster was the one that needed to be worried. I loved piling my family, my dog, my friends (and even my entire team once!) into that car and always having a memorable ride.

So while our new car will smell good and be cool (literally and figuratively) and quiet and ride smoothly- it won’t have a name or a personality. We will treat it well and welcome it into our family, but The Beast will always have an extra special place in our hearts.

Apr 30, 2009

Places to Put Stuff Wins the Noblesse Oblige Award

Thank you to Laura Reviews for presenting my blog with the Noblesse Oblige Award! 

Laura Reviews is a fun, enlightening, and passionate blog about reading. The blog is full of wonderful author interviews, insights on current event articles, and many exceptional book reviews! It is hard to believe that Laura began blogging only 4 months ago! I also admire Laura’s tech savvy integration with Facebook and Twitter as a vehicle to let people know when she has a new post. If I could turn around and give this award right back to her, I would- but alas, I must oblige (pun intended) to follow the rules. Here is a little information about the award:

The recipient of this award (that’s me!) is recognized for the following:

1) The Blogger manifests exemplary attitude, respecting the nuances that pervades amongst different cultures and beliefs. (Thank you!)

2) The Blog contents inspire; strives to encourage and offers solutions. (I try!)

3) There is a clear purpose at the Blog; one that fosters a better understanding on Social, Political, Economic, the Arts, Culture and Sciences and Beliefs. (Hmm, I might need to work on this, I have more of a potpourri approach)

4) The Blog is refreshing and creative. (Thank you!)

5) The Blogger promotes friendship and positive thinking. (Well, I may have made a few enemies during the election.)


The Blogger who receives this award will need to perform the following steps: 

1) Create a Post with a mention and link to the person who presented the Noblesse Oblige Award. (Done)

2) The Award Conditions must be displayed at the Post. (Done)

3) Write a short article about what the Blog has thus far achieved – preferably citing one or more older post to support. (Done, see below)

4) The Blogger must present the Noblesse Oblige Award in concurrence with the Award conditions. (Done, see below)

5) The Blogger must display the Award at any location at the Blog. (Done)

First and foremost, my blog has provided me with an opportunity to write for fun again! I genuinely enjoy sharing my thoughts, observations and experiences with others. I also enjoy provoking discussions about difficult topics- whether politics or personal safety. I believe that life and learning are only made more rich by others sharing their thoughts and experiences with you.

With this, I present the award to two fellow bloggers:

Putting the Pieces Together: Yes, Dani Jo is my sister-in-law, but don’t you dare call this award nepotism. Her blog is a beautiful, optimistic, and realistic look into her life with two children on the Autism spectrum.


Michael’s Thoughts and Tips: Mike is a real estate agent here in Chicago, and a good friend. I admire his blog because it is very informative and incredibly optimistic (just like Mike himself). I find it to be a refreshing change from the negative economic press that plagues us daily. Like Laura, Mike has also embraced Twitter and Facebook to drive people to his blog- so he gets bonus points from me for exploring social media!

On a final note, is it bad that I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and I didn’t even know that Noblesse Oblige is the motto of the NHS until I found it on Wikipedia while researching for this blog?