Palio di Somari… Donkey Races!

It was a warm, sunny, convertible-ride sort of day in late March. We drove through rolling Tuscan countryside, enjoyed a superb lunch in the garden at La Grotta near Montepulciano, and found our way to the small town of Torrita di Siena for the annual Palio di Somari — donkey races.

(Torrita di Siena is completely different than the city of Siena, 40 miles away).

Nearing the piazza, the air was filled with the aroma of fried bread (frittelle). Fortunately, lunch was sufficient.. but I confess I was tempted. Colorful flags, each representing a different contrada (neighborhood), hung from windows and lined the streets.

We entered a long, arena-like piazza with a narrow oval sand track confined by short, movable barriers and, Larry estimated, 5,000 people in the bleachers. Who would have guessed so many people would be curious about donkey races? But it seems this particular tradition represents decades of intense rivalry between the neighborhoods, so no citizen of Torrita di Siena would miss it. Spectators wore scarves and shirts of their contrada’s colors. While a donkey race seemed frivolous, even comedic, to me, it didn’t take long to realize these citizens take this contest very seriously.

A long medieval procession opened the Palio. Each contrada (of eight) was represented by a “nobile” couple, several children, drummers and flag bearers, and an old man carrying an ancient book — all in historic costumes. We never did figure out the book, but we imagined it was a record of each neighborhood’s history or residents.

With great fanfare, the races began! Donkeys were led in by jockeys, each a resident of a neighborhood and dressed in the contrada colors. The first race was two donkeys running twice around the track, with plenty of room side-by-side. The jockey’s strategy was obvious… get the beast to run on the straightaways and cut off your opponent on the turns. Three additional two-donkey races followed, eight donkeys in total.

After a half-time of flag-throwing contests, speeches and another procession, it was back to the races. Vendors worked their way through the crowd with drinks and more fragrant fried dough.

Jockeys rode without saddles (as in the famous Siena horse Palio) and did their best to spur the beasts faster and faster, to steer and to stay on. Most entertaining was each donkey’s willingness — or unwillingness — to run. Very few galloped, most trotted with their jockey’s bouncing like crazy, several only walked and a couple balked altogether.  The crowds chanted and cheered, or groaned in a single voice if their jockey and donkey lost.

Finally, there was a winner — Contrada Porta Nova, the jockey in black and white — appreciated by uproarious applause, more pageantry and long speeches. My favorite jockey wore red and black. He was among the first winners, but lost the final race. Fortunately, he was comforted and congratulated by hundreds of loving neighbors.

It was almost dark when we left. Giving up on the shuttle and deciding to walk, we got lost finding our car. But I always say: getting lost in Italy is just part of the fun.


Epifania… A New Beginning

Each year on January 6 — Epiphany — Christians worldwide remember the wise kings who followed a star over two thousand miles to worship and bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. 

This year Epiphany fell on Sunday. Larry and I arrive early at the small church where we have been attending Mass for over two years. We are still anonymous, quite obviously the only non-Italian regulars. We don’t take the Eucharist because we are not Roman Catholic, we stand respectfully when many kneel, and we quietly blunder through the readings with our awkward Italian. When Mass ends, we andate in pace, go in peace, nodding to people whose faces we recognize but names we do not know.  

Our tiny church is a part of Le Celle, an ancient monastery two miles outside Cortona where Francis of Assisi lived off and on and, in 1226, wrote his last testimony. No matter how often we visit, the honeycomb of stone rooms clinging to the steep hillside astonishes me. These “cells” once housed two hundred monks; today fewer than ten brown-robed brothers maintain Le Celle as a prayer and retreat center. Francis’ original cave-room is still here. His bed, a wooden board about 18 inches by 5 feet, demonstrates his small stature and unassuming character. Francis — who owned nothing and was dedicated to caring for the poor and marginalized as he imitated Jesus’ example — became one of the most influential individuals in history. 

This morning as we wait in a back pew, a few other early-birds chat among themselves. The priest comes out to greet them personally. Then he walks back and introduces himself to us. Fratello Daniele, he says, as he takes my hand in his. “Piacere,” pleasure, I reply and introduce myself. Larry says, “Sono Larry, come Renzo,” I’m Larry, like Renzo. “Larry” is an unfamiliar name to Italians; the Italian diminutive for Lorenzo is Renzo. When Father Daniele asks where we are from, Larry says we are from Chicago, but we are residenti Italiani, Italian residents, living in Cortona.

Father Daniele begins Mass with a welcome, as he often does. But today he specifically welcomes “i nostri amici da Chicago,” our friends from Chicago. People turn and smile warmly. When we “pass the peace,” some come across the aisle to shake our hands. After the service ends, many say farewell and wish us buon anno, a good new year. A few say their names. 

 I sense this Epiphany Sunday is a new beginning for us. With the gift of a personal welcome, it seems we will begin to worship with the community, not as outside observers. Sometimes it takes a long time to be accepted into a community, especially for a foreigner, and sometimes it never happens. But, in our small church in this tranquil and spiritual monastery, we finally feel welcomed. Now, it’s up to us to establish deeper friendships… and to extend the gift of welcome to others.





Sciopero!! Strike!!

I was up at 4am to take Larry to the Terontola station to catch the 4:45am train to Rome for his long flight to Accra, Ghana to help lead a week of important meetings. At the train station, instead of time and track, the departures board said “SOPP.” 


Train strikes in Italy are legendary, but not so frequent these days and they are supposed to be announced in advance. Larry bought his ticket less than twenty-four hours earlier. Trenitalia should have known.

Driving back home in the rain, we weighed the options and decided the best was for Larry to drive our Fiat Panda to Rome and leave it at the airport for the week. Our second car is uninsured in the winter with a sixty-day minimum to reinstate. Larry also texted our local taxi driver, but he didn’t respond. At that hour, he was surely sleeping. If the tables were turned, Larry would have driven me to Rome, but I’m not as comfortable on the Italian autostrada as he is and it’s a five-hour round trip.

In Italy, we depend on trains far more than we do in the USA.

Once I settled into the idea of staying alone in our isolated farmhouse without a car for a week, I decided to treat it like a retreat. If I really needed supplies or wanted to see friends, I could walk to town. It’s a thirty minute trek to the first piazza, including thirteen minutes on a steep uphill trail and a kilometer walk through Cortona’s park, now beautifully lit for Christmas. Would be great exercise.

In an emergency, I could call a friend, though our friends dislike driving our long, steep, bumpy access road and I dislike inconveniencing anyone. In Chicago, I would call a taxi or an Uber. But in a small Tuscan hilltown, a taxi to get groceries or go out to lunch seems terribly decadent, and Ubers don’t exist.

So, the first day (my tiny fridge was empty since Saturday is always market day), I walked to town and carried my bags of fresh produce back home. The second day, I walked in for Sunday lunch with friends and checked out the Cortona Christmas market. And yesterday, the fourth day, I needed milk and more food, and wanted to enjoy a holiday lunch with other friends, so I walked again. On each trip, I’ve run into friends.

What felt like a burden has become an adventure. The weather has been beautiful and the views from the steep trail are always stunning. Mist filled the valley, some days the skies were bright blue, and the exercise was much needed!

That’s life in Italy. Train strikes and making the best of unexpected challenges. When we moved here, an Italian friend said, “Italy will teach you patience.” Somehow, that lesson never seems to end.

Oh, NO… BEES!!

When bees move in, who do you call? A local bee-keeper, of course!

Earlier this week, Daniela, our housekeeper, came running to the house holding her arm. A black stinger remained in the fleshy crease of her elbow. She had opened the bathroom door in the guesthouse to give it a last once-over before our guests arrived the next day — and found the room filled with bees. Thousands and thousands of bees.

She bravely pulled out the stinger, taking a bit of skin with it, and asked for ice to prevent swelling. I feared it was an Italian wive’s-tale remedy, so Googled “bee sting treatment” and learned ice was the best first option. In the next few hours, Daniela’s arm turned pink and puffy, but she insisted it was, “Niente,” nothing.

Larry inspected the guest room and said a colony had moved in between the bathroom window and the outside shutter. With bees swarming the room and without protective gear, it was impossible  to open the shutter to let them out. We didn’t want to kill any because of the alarming decline in honey bee population in North America and Europe from 2007-2014. Essential to pollinate flowering plants, honey bees are finally showing signs of repopulation. But every bee still counts.

I started searching for a bee-keeper. On the second morning, a friend called Niccolo, who would come but wanted to wait until after 9PM when the bees would be calm. Our guests arrived mid-afternoon, so we suggested they leave their suitcases outside until the bee-man had worked his magic. Fingers crossed, they could still sleep in the room that night.

Niccolo and his partner arrived soon after dark. Our friends allowed their sons, ages five and eight, stay up past bedtime to watch the action. The boys were mesmerized. While we watched from a safe distance, the bee-keeper donned his gear, started his smoker, entered the guest bathroom, and gently opened the shutter. When he came back outside, the real show began. Layers of waxy honeycomb clung to both the wood and the glass, thick with crawling bees. At night, they were so docile Nicolo didn’t even need his smoker.

Using a large-tubed, gentle vacuum, Nicolo drew the bees into a portable hive. Then he pulled off perfect, ice-white honeycomb dripping with crystal clear nectar and handed them to two wide-eyed boys. A stunning adventure for their very first day in Italy!

This morning, dozens of bees still buzz loudly, agitated and trying to get into the bathroom window. Nicolo said he believes he has the queen, so the remaining drones will eventually fly away. However, he warned to leave the window closed and the shutter open for several days to make sure they don’t resettle. Larry cleaned the remaining dead bees out of the bathroom and our guest room was ready for our friends — complete with a toilet and shower.

The bee-keeper explained to the boys that the colored stuff in the combs was pollen, not bee larvae as they thought. He said we should squeeze the comb to extract the syrup, then let the honey sit for ten days without a lid to mature. We all tasted some of it raw. Who could resist?

There’s always something unexpected happening in the Tuscan countryside. Our bee infestation was more exciting than most, and we could not have orchestrated a better adventure to welcome our guests.

Liberation Day: “That Day…”


On April 25, Liberation Day, Larry and I are sometimes thanked by Italians for liberating Italy. It feels strange. First, we personally did nothing; we weren’t even born in 1945. Secondly, Brits liberated central Italy where we live. American soldiers fought mostly on the coasts.

But the appreciation also feels good. My Uncle Herbert, whom I never met, was barely 20 when he was shot down over the Bay of Naples in 1944. Though his body was never found, a grave marker in his name is in the American Cemetery south of Florence. We sometimes pass it on the train. When we moved to Cortona and were thanked on Liberation Day, I felt connected to WWII, my uncle, my father’s loss and his family’s loss, and I understood how devastating it was for our Italian friends to have Cortona (and so many other towns we now know) occupied by Nazis.

Liberation Day commemorates the day Italian radio announced that power had been seized by the Resistance, with the help of European and American Allies, and the death sentence had been proclaimed for fascist leaders including Mussolini (executed three days later). By May 1, in less than one week, all of Italy had been liberated, putting an end to twenty-three years of fascist dictatorship and five years of war.

Italians have not forgotten. During the occupation in Cortona, Nazis threatened to shoot ten townspeople for every German who was killed. We were told ten schoolboys and elderly men were lined up before the firing squad to pay for a Nazi’s death. As the Nazi soldiers raised their guns, a priest stepped in front of the boys and said, “If them, me first.” The Nazis backed down. When we moved here twelve years ago and first heard the story, that priest was still alive. He was in his nineties, a small and quiet man, which made him seem all the more a hero.

My other favorite story is told by our dear friend Ludovica. Her father, uncle and grandfather were high-ranking Italian aristocrats holding military and political positions under Mussolini and, before that, the Monarchy — true patriots pledged to support Italy’s government, regardless of personal misgivings. Every Liberation Day until his death, lest anyone forget, Ludovica’s father retold his memory of that first Liberation Day celebration.

“That day,” her father would remind his children and grandchildren, “I called the barber to the house and had the best possible shave. That day, I chose a white, starched shirt to wear with my very best suit. That day, I selected my walking stick with the sterling silver ends and, instead of driving, I walked to town. And that day, I stood with my family and friends and, as they passed, I celebrated the Americans against whom I had fought.

When Ludovica told me her father’s story, we were standing in her living room. With tears rimming our eyes, we held one another’s hands, bonded by a memory of something that happened before our lifetimes. Something that allowed us to be born and to live in freedom.

This year, seventy-three years after that first Liberation Day, I was in Piazza della Repubblica in Cortona with my cousin Carolyn and her husband Tom, visiting from Kansas. We stood solemnly as the band played the Italian national anthem. Then the band and a parade of Cortona dignitaries and citizens marched to the other end of town where a wreath was laid at the base of a bronze angel holding a dying soldier. Some years, war vehicles with American and British flags are driven through town, men and women wear their war uniforms (carefully packed away for such occasions), and old photos of the first Liberation Day are on display.

Today, as we walk past the statue and wreath, I am reminded to honor and thank those men and women who give their lives to protect people all over the world from tyranny, to preserve my freedom, and to insure the freedom of my loved ones and of our descendants.


Easter Explosion in Florence

Every Easter morning in Florence, an ancient rite is revived and thousands of viewers pack the piazza to witness the spectacle of Scoppio del Carro, Explosion of the Cart.

Between the Duomo and Baptistery, a Renaissance cart laced with explosives awaits its spark. About 11AM, a dove flies out from the high altar, ignites the cart, and it booms, sizzles, sparkles, and whirls for about twenty minutes. While the cart doesn’t actually explode, the fireworks attached to it fill the piazza with fiery brilliance, smoke and excitement. After the finale, where the top spins, flags pop out with super-loud bangs, and fireworks explode overhead, the cart is quiet. Then viewers, most of whom waited over an hour for this intense but brief extravaganza, work their way out of the throng to go to their next Easter event, typically Sunday Mass or a big family lunch.

This year, Larry and I went with friends who had never witnessed the Scoppio. In Cortona, it poured overnight and was still drizzling when we caught the train at 8:24AM. Happily, the umbrella we carried warded off rain in Florence and the day turned warm and sunny.

We arrived too late to watch the parade preceding the Scoppio, but have seen it before. The 30-foot-tall, painted and gilded Renaissance cart — in use for over 500 years — is pulled through Florence by a team of white, oxen-like Chianina cows, one of the oldest extant cattle breeds in the world. The festooned cows and antique cart are accompanied by musicians, soldiers, dignitaries and townspeople, all in 15th century costumes. Once the cart is in place, a procession of clergy and dignitaries ceremoniously enters the church for a private Mass. Soon singing wafts from the open church doors and bells ring in the Giotto bell tower, while men in a crane basket attach the last fireworks to the tall cart. As the Mass ends, the dove flies out (on a nearly invisible wire), ignites the cart, and the explosions begin!

Following the Scoppio, we stopped for coffee at Gilli’s, a nearby bakery-restaurant in business since 1733. We were delighted to get to see the still-decorated cows pulling the sooty cart back down Florence’s streets. It will be cleaned, fixed up and made ready for next Easter, when it will “explode” all over again.

The Scoppio del Carro dates to 1097, during the First Crusade, when according to tradition, a Florentine soldier was the first to scale the wall in Jerusalem to take back the city for Christianity. To reward his bravery, his commander gave him three stones (flints) from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Each Easter thereafter, a “holy fire” was started from these stones and carried via an oxen-pulled cart through the streets to light the candles in Florentine churches. By the 15th century, the celebration had taken its current form. We were told the holy stones are still carried in the Scoppio procession, but today’s spectacle looked like sophisticated pyrotechnics to me. I’ve seen it a few times and am still shocked by how loud it is!

Two modern observations: This year, more than ever, thousands of arms were in the air holding phones to take photos and blocking others’ views. Fortunately, I’m taller than most Italians, so was able to get a couple good shots. But I didn’t keep my arms up. Second, a friend observes that unlike many Christian traditions that have pagan roots, the Scoppio del Carro started as a Christian ritual that now seems quite pagan.

After coffee, we strolled in the sunshine across the Arno and enjoyed Easter lunch at Trattoria i’Raddi, one of our favorite local spots south of the river.  All in all, a memorable Easter Sunday, celebrating the Risen Christ in a strange, but traditionally Italian way.



Rainy Day in Siena

On a Saturday in March 2018, Larry and I drove to Siena for the first-ever exhibition of paintings by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348). We were delighted the show was held over, as we thought we’d missed it when we were in the USA.

A lesser-known but important Sienese School artist, Ambrogio Lorenzetti influenced the transition from Gothic to early Renaissance. His paintings are elegant, depicting human emotions, naturalism, and perspective typically not seen until the Renaissance. He died of the plague in 1348 in Siena in the height of his career.

Ambrogio is best known for his masterpiece “The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government” (1338-1339) in Siena’s town hall, Palazzo Publicco. It contains the first image documenting the existence of the hourglass. (I want to go back to Siena to find it!)

He and his older brother, Pietro, also decorated the entire interior of the Basilica of Santa Margherita in our town of Cortona (sadly destroyed in a renovation). A few fresco fragments and a magnificent carved crucifix by brother Pietro are preserved in Cortona’s Museo Diocesano.

We spent three hours mesmerized by Ambrogio’s creations — with a startling  interruption when sirens went off and we had to evacuate. At least they didn’t send us out in the drizzle, but assured our safety, then let us continue our tour.

Most shocking to me was how close we could stand to the paintings. Except for a few loaned pieces behind protective glass, we could have touched most of these 700 year-old treasures with our noses (of course, we didn’t).

Located in the Piazza del Duomo, the museum building, Santa Maria della Scala, was one of the first hospitals in Europe. It was famous for caring for cast-off babies, orphans, outcasts, indigents, and pilgrims. Siena’s fine art museum since 1995, it’s been renovated since we were last there and is a stunning space.

Lunch was even more meaningful than the exhibition. Larry surprised me by ordering Prosecco, which we rarely have at lunch. He raised his glass and toasted me… saying tenderly, “As of today, I’ve been in love with you for half of my life.” What a lovely milestone, and what a dear husband to have planned a special event to celebrate. At that moment, the sun emerged, highlighting a beautiful villa framed through the restaurant window. With teary eyes and full hearts, we clinked glasses… and began a superb, long, leisurely lunch on a rainy… and romantic… day in Siena.



Women’s Day 2018

In early March, florists, garden centers, and grocery stores all over Italy are full of bright yellow puff-balls with a delicate, sweet aroma — Mimosa, blossoms of the Acacia tree and official flower of Women’s Day in Italy. To celebrate, always on March 8, women invite one another to lunch or dinner and exchange small Mimosa bouquets.

For Women’s Day 2018, I had lunch with friends at Canta Napoli, just outside our hometown of Cortona. We indulged in fried calamari and seafood pastas, and sipped crisp, chilled Greco di Tufa wine, toasting the accomplishments, contributions and importance of women. Each of us shared about specific women who had influenced and inspired us. Not surprising, most important were our mothers.

The best story was about a nun, the school teacher of Leisel, who years later called Leisel saying she’d escaped the convent by climbing over the wall. Then, years later yet, called to say she was getting married — to a millionaire. The former nun rode away from her fairytale wedding in a Silver Cloud Rolls Royce!

To celebrate, Liz brought a huge basket of lovely handmade mimosa bouquets, each wrapped in a lacy doily and tied with ribbon. Sheryl brought Venchi chocolate eggs, with mimosa spring decorations. The restaurant served us decadent desserts, compliments of the house, even though we pleaded that we were too full. Not a morsel was left!

In Italy, where food is paramount and family recipes are passed on through generations, there’s even a traditional Women’s Day Cake, decorated with teeny cake cubes mimicking the mimosa flower.…cakes/mimosa-cake…italian/19111

Women’s Day is international, in origin and now in practice. It was first observed in 1909 in New York City, and in 1910 in Denmark. In 1914 in Germany, Women’s Day was dedicated to women’s right to vote, which was not won until 1918. Soon, Women’s Day became official in England, Russia, Austria and is now called International Women’s Day.

I believe women are the glue of most societies, and never more true than in Italy where family is the most important unit. Italian women hold the families together, raise the children, feed the fathers and grandfathers, make the decisions regarding their family, and teach family members to be respectful, hardworking, clean and honest. For twelve years in Cortona, I’ve observed the women. To me, most Cortonese women seem dignified and never idle. This ancient culture is held together, not by the politicians or business leaders, but by the women.

I left our lunch carrying my mimosa bouquet, delighted to be a woman, and thankful to celebrate this day with amazing women who, like me, have chosen to live in Italy.