Our Italian Christmas has begun...

Steve is so thrifty, he has been carrying a saw around and looking in all the mountain passes for a little tree to "borrow".  I wouldn't let him but it's a very funny thought.

Today, we purchased our Christmas tree and decorated it.  It's an interesting phenomenon- I feel more connected to home having its bright lights and reminiscent scent in the room.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world,
and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. 
~Norman Vincent Peale

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It's beginning to look (and feel) 
a lot like Christmas...

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Rainy day at the movies...

We awoke to our most intense rain yet.  We were suppose to return to Giano dell'Umbria for day #2 of the Olive Oil Festival but we knew it had to be canceled.  So after a day of catching up, we bundled up and ascended the hill to Cinema Corso for the newly released "A Natale mi Sposo".

"A Natale..." is a series of Italian comedies that is very popular- very over the top, almost slapstick at times with a number of jokes based around a guinea pig.  This particular film has George Clooney's girlfriend, Elisabetta Canalis, as one of the stars. 

While silly, we enjoyed motivating to be out in the rain along with a large number of Spoletini.  Going to the movies in Italy is a truly different experience.  It is very social with the conversations continuing throughout the entire film.  Needless-to-say, I didn't feel too guilty when I'd lean over to Steve and ask, "Do you understand what's going on?" several times!  An agreeable way to spend a gloomy day!

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Pumpkin Gnocchi...so much to love about Fall!

Last night's dinner was one of our yummiest at home...the very seasonal delight, Pumpkin Gnocchi.  Purchased at our favorite grocery store, tossed in browned butter with fresh sage and topped with walnuts, these "mouth pillows of goodness" were the sublime conclusion to our autumnal day.
So it seems that a lot of people know that they have heard of gnocchi before (pronounced "nyo key") but they don't really know what it actually is and have never tried it. Despite being listed alongside pasta dishes, gnocchi is not a pasta, but is actually a kind of Italian dumpling. Also worth noting is that gnocchi is not stuffed with anything, but rather incorporates all of the major flavors into the actual dough, which when cooked just right, can give you that tender center. It is usually based on a starch and flour-centric dough, containing things like potato, squash, ricotta, spinach, or today's focus: pumpkin. -From Mike's Table

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Medieval Towns...Snow Covered Mountains... UMBRIA!

Giano dell'Umbria, an 11th century town of about 3,500 residents, is located off the beaten path and a perfect place to spend a Saturday.  We meandered through it's cobblestone streets and absorbed the views of the vast valley below.

We then drove to the top of Monte Martano.  At 3,589 ft. we were above it all.  It was brisk but breathtaking.  Part of a massive mountain range that runs through the heart of Umbria, we both agreed it would be the place for hikes in the summer time and hot chocolate in the winter.

Giano dell'Umbria is a quaint town that makes one think of a "true" Italian village.  A story book written long ago but still worth reading.

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The Abbey of San Felice

We went on an Olive Oil  tour not really realizing we would be spending almost two hours learning, in Italian, about a local church.  L'Abbazia Benedettina di San Felice is the most important church in the Giano area and was erected by the Benedictines over the spot where the bishop Felice was martyred, in an isolated and dominant position.  It's considered a place where history, faith and culture meet.

The founding of the abbey complex dates back to 950 AD, while the present-day church may be dated to the early 12th century (considered a masterpiece of Romanesque art).  In 1452, due to its state of decay, restoration work was begun, which was completed in 1481. In the 16th century the interior received Renaissance additions.  Our guide was very enthusiastic and the information given was very detailed.

Why was an abbey on an olive oil tour?  The trees, established by the Romans, were preserved by the monks during the darkest days of barbaric invasions.  It all makes sense to me now!

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Thanksgiving on an Italian farm ...exceptional!

Thanksgiving dinner was a day late and well worth the wait. After climbing a steep hill through the woods, we came upon Localit√† il Piano, Darcy and Adolfo's idyllic mountain home (the first photo is from their website).  They opened their home to us for an old fashioned, unforgettable and very international holiday feast. 

What interesting dinner companions!  Darcy is American, and her husband Adolfo, is from Spoleto.  They met getting their PhDs at UC Davis.  Gundula, who's German, was there with her Iranian-American husband, Josie.  With children included, there were nine of us celebrating holidays and friendship.  It was perfect!

Dinner consisted almost entirely of items grown on the farm. It was as if we had stepped back in time.  Homemade and homegrown everything.

In lieu of a turkey, a farm raised chicken was served, which Darcy had recently "prepared", from her livestock, for this sumptuous event.  It was delicious as were all the side dishes.  The blissful pie was the result of last year's pumpkin planting.  For those who know me well know I'm a connoisseur and this was one of the best ever!

The vegetables, the bread, the gravy, even the grapes for the wine were grown on the farm or made from scratch...everything was crafted with such care and expertise. It was an incredibly unique experience that Steve and I are so grateful to have been a part of. 

We've planted several hectares of fruit, olives and grapes, a permaculture "forest garden", vegetables, a garden of medicinal and culinary herbs and flowers, focusing on heritage varieties and crops which produce well without any chemical treatments or fertilizers.

We've been certified organic since 2004, but feel that there is much more than the buzzword "organic" that makes our food special. We try to combine the best aspects of traditional local agriculture (low waste, low input, saving seed) with the best ideas and practices in modern agriculture (disease-resistant cultivars, drip irrigation, post-harvest management), working to achieve a sustainable system. Both of us are passionate about sustainable agriculture and enjoy hosting guests and WWOOFers who are interested in the subject in depth. http://www.localitailpiano.it/index.htm

Cucinare è una forma d'amore
Italian to English Translation:
Cooking is Love made visible

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Our Thanksgiving in the Olives

Our day was spent at Eve's once again, harvesting olives.  It has been an interesting season, with much rain, meaning no picking.  It's impossible to pick olives in rain, wind, or fog for many reasons: besides the obvious dangers and difficulties of climbing trees and ladders in wind and rain, moisture can cause the olives to spoil in their crates before they are taken to the mill, or frantoio, for pressing.

We awoke to a cloudy but dry day and a phone call from Eve telling us "it's on" so off we went.  I love this description of olive trees, "If you ever get a chance to climb one to pick its fruit - which is remarkably easy to do, given how short and accommodating the younger trees are - the feeling will no doubt remind you of climbing into the lap of a favorite old aunt, the one who'd benignly allow you to yank at her necklace without a hint of protest or resistance."

About olive harvesting:  It's a fact that the quality of the oil decreases with the increase of mechanization and electric tools because the more gently the olives are treated the better the resulting oil. The high quality oils normally are obtained by hand picking the olives directly into a basket (brucatura) - the best method of all but the least efficient and so the most costly (unless you have two American friends who will spend the day picking all for a delightful lunch on your patio).

Our Thanksgiving lunch, overlooking the picturesque valley, along with warm sunshine and great company gave us much to be thankful for. 

We can only be said to be alive in those moments
when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. 
~Thornton Wilder

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Thanksgiving Turkey...

I wish we had taken our camera to Story Time at the library today.  The Italian children learned all about Thanksgiving and created this darling turkey.  I find and create these crafts before sharing them with the bambini.  I get all excited at their cuteness and I'm not really certain how Steve feels about it.  He's not a big craft guy. 

However, today there were two dads who really got into helping their children.  It was so touching to see these big Italian men sitting in a sea of women and children (on miniature chairs) cutting and pasting with seriousness and determination.

What makes this a truly unique craft is the keepsakeness of it.  The 'feathers' are the child's hand and the 'body' is the child's foot:  traced and captured forever.

What we remember from childhood
we remember forever...

permanent ghosts, stamped, inked,
imprinted, eternally seen. 

~Cynthia Ozick

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Spoleto's Sacro Bosco with friends...

The path that runs through the sacred woods, above Spoleto, is the perfect place for a Sunday.  The path is not only scenic but it is lined with "exercise" opportunities that we each participated in along the way.  What should have been an hour long stroll became hours of dallying amongst the foliage and serious joggers.  We laughed at our silliness but ooh and aahed at the resplendent view before our eyes:  lush, natural surroundings of extraordinary beauty.

It was an ideal weekend of spending time with Guenda and Maurizio while meeting new friends, Bonnie and Marco.  We will plan to visit them in Rome for a different view of Italy.

"Too many people grow up. That's the real trouble with the world, too many people grow up.

They forget. They don't remember what it's like to be 12 years old."

-Walt Disney

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A day with friends...

Today was a day of friends, olive oil and wine when Guenda and Maurizio arrived in Spoleto, from Rome, with their friends Bonnie and Marco.  The afternoon was spent at Frantoio Feliziani learning about the fine art of olive oil production in Spoleto. 

This charming family has been crafting "liquid gold" since 1800 and were very gracious hosts serving "Bruschette, Zuppe e Vino" in an intimate setting.  We learned a great deal about the fine art of oil.  Delicious and fun!

Aperitivi in our apartment followed with the evening concluding in dinner at Osteria del Trivio, a delightful restaurant where the owners, Umberto and Mirella (sister of our friend Luciano),  visited our table often and provided great conversation and laughs throughout our meal. 

It was a day full of conversation and discovery.  We can't wait to see what tomorrow holds!

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Friday Night Lights...

When planning our Spoleto sojourn, our apartment here was a large part of the magic.  Its location in the historic center was a plus but Steve and I are "patio people" and our terrace is where we spend a great deal of time.

So after unpacking all our things and getting the necessities that we didn't bring from America (220v Christmas lights) our terrace has been transformed into our own little starry night

The sweet little grandma who lives near us came out when Steve turned them on for the first time and complimented his bella luce.

We cannot hold a torch to light another's path
without brightening our own. 
~Ben Sweetland

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Olives... a gift from the Gods!

I have wanted to pick olives since before arriving in Italy.  Laurie and Norma introduced us to their friend Eve who has over 70 trees to be harvested. Our perfect day was spent snatching delicious tidbits off trees while marveling at fantastic scenery and our good fortune at knowing such interesting and diverse people.

Eve must have a minimum of 100 kilos (220.46 lbs) of olives to get them pressed into what Homer called "liquid gold."  We all worked well together and had a great amount of fun.  I got to climb trees which is one of my favorite things to do.  We had lunch overlooking such beauty and it was a spectacular autumnal day to be outdoors...out in it all.  Plus we got to help in the making of exquisite, famous Umbrian olive oil.

Italians, and now the rest of the discerning world, treasure the distinguishing qualities of Umbrian olive oil for its superb taste and for its beneficial effects.  The source of Umbria's pre-eminence in the world of olive oils is derived form three factors: first, the soil (rocky and acidic) and climate (hot and dry in the summer, cold and wet in the winter) create a perfect environment for olive trees; second, the tradition of olive oil production that stretches back thousands of years prohibits the introduction of artificial measures used in many oil producing regions; and, third, the characteristics of Umbrian oil, dark green with a potent bite at the back of the mouth, indicating a high concentration of polyphenols, the anti-oxidants that produce many of olive oil's health benefits.

"Good oil, like good wine, is a gift from the gods.
The grape and the olive are among the priceless benefactions
of the soil,
and were destined, each in its way,
to promote the welfare of man."

George Ellwanger

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Pisa for an interlude...

We left yesterday morning for the early train to Pisa.  We meandered through the countrysides of Umbria and Tuscany, savoring the sights and making wish lists of future adventures.

Birthplace of Galileo and home of the famous Field of Miracles, Pisa has existed since 180 BC,
but really began to take shape in 1118, year the cathedral (Duomo) was consecrated. It was not until 35 years later, in 1153, that work would begin on the Pisan Baptistery. In 1172, after another 20 years, a widow of a wealthy Pisan merchant made a substantial donation of 'sixty coins' to the church with instructions to build the marvelous campanile (bell tower).

We had only an afternoon and evening so we decided to devote our limited time to the Romanesque Duomo.  At 5 PM, the bells called everyone to mass and Steve and I joined the large group flowing through the amazing main doors, the effect of first seeing inside is surreal.

There is no way for me to describe the beauty of this event.  While not catholic and having never really been to a mass celebrating the Eucharist, especially in Italian,  the incredibly historic setting, angelic singing with breathtaking acoustics, and the grandeur of the ritual itself, made the evening an indelible experience.  Italy continues to surprise us!

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"Did you drive all the way here from California?"

It was a funny question asked of Steve at an Autogrill stop on our way home from La Spezia.  Mom's taxi has safely arrived with everything as it was when we left it three months ago in Los Angeles.

It is like Christmas here as we discover things we didn't know we packed and delight in the new clothes we will be able to wear.  We are certain to stand out.  We have seen maybe five yellow cars in Italy.  We were told by the shipping coordinator that white is the common color of car here because it's less expensive. 

Dr. Seuss said it best,
"Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You!"

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La nostra Spiaggia Verde (our green beach)...

Umbria is the only region, of Italy's 20, that is completely landlocked.  So Steve and I embraced the couple of hours of sunshine that washed over la nostra terrazza verde.  It was a welcomed burst of warmth and leisure after a chilly, busy week.

We are still enjoying the memories we made yesterday with the delegation from Charleston.  What a fun group.  One of the guests, Lisa, was celebrating her birthday so I taught everyone how to sing "Happy Birthday" in Italian.  I'm pretty certain that will be an unforgettable moment for many.  I came to the realization that yesterday impacted me so much because this was the first time we were able to "host" guests.  We received this rewarding comment from Charles Van Rysselberge, CEO of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce,  "You were outstanding hosts and brought Spoleto to life in such a personal way for all of us!"  Steve and I are looking forward for the next opportunity.

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Charleston visits Spoleto... what a day!

What a wonderful way to spend a Friday!  "Friends are strangers you have yet to meet" could not be a more appropriate quote to sum up our day with the delegation from Charleston, South Carolina.

At 11 AM, we met a fantastic group of fun and friendly people from Spoleto's Sister City. And it was an amazing day.  We called it an aperitivo...a treat to wake up one's hunger.  I fell in love with Spoleto in one January afternoon and I think the same magical spell was cast upon today's visitors.

In the short amount of time we had together, we saw and did some incredible things:  sightseeing at the Rocca and Ponte; a meeting with City and business officials; an abundant and delicious lunch at one of our favorite spots- Sabatini's; wine and art at the Anna Mahler Project Space; a tour of the Archeological Museum;  photos and awe at the Teatro Nuovo (1864) concluding in a sumptuous dinner at Il Tartufo.  It felt like a day with old friends. 

 Buon Cibo, Buon Vino, Buoni Amici
Italian to English Translation: Good Food, Good Wine, Good Friends

Steve has blogged today at Charleston's website.

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