Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Week in Italy

Hello all,

We are happily back in the saddle after several days on tenterhooks: our bathroom contractor had the nerve to actually cash his check, thus depleting our bank account, which made things a bit tight until we could top off the tank, so to speak -- which we found is none too easy from abroad, especially if the SOS e-mail to your broker gets returned as spam!  Anyway we did manage to get as far afield as:

Assisi
Assisi, auspiciously on Sunday:  En route we were distracted by the blessing of the animals (the feast of the “cult” of St. Anthony in the suburb Santa Maria degli Angeli.  Throngs of people in the piazza, most accompanied by dogs, plus rabbits, birds, turtles, horses, and even a couple of camels! Also for Nick’s edification there was a car show, consisting primarily of Fiat 500s, the beloved Italian equivalent of the Beetle.  Anyway once we wound up the hill to the top of Assisi we walked down the lane to the church of San Francesco (i.e., St. Francis). There were actually two churches atop each other – the upper was a proper cathedral with high ceilings (painted a deep blue with gold stars) and loads of frescoes by Giotto (well, there’s a bit of dispute over that, but Robin remains convinced). These depicted the life of Francis as wel as the traditional New Testament scenes. The lower church was similarly decorated though more grotto-like, and featured the crypt in which Francis’s remains lie along with several items from his life, including his robe, grey and white patched wool, a bloody handkerchief used to stanch his stigmata, and a reputed sample of the stigmata itself, a fairly unpleasant, yet fascinating, large swatch of skin with a hole in it. We then sauntered up the souvenir-lined street to the Piazza de Commune, where we admired the looming Roman Temple of Minerva, now of course a church, though the massive building also served as a prison at one time.


San Sepolcro


We also ventured back to San Sepolcro for the street market, picking up some fruit and cheese and a pair of sneakers for Piper. Aside from the fact that the ones she brought were in a sorry state after having served as Stella toys, she had been advised to wear some…. Well, let me back up.  We had, in a precipitous experiment, gone to the local elementary school and through a series of broken Italian phrases, hand gestures, and other gyrations, gotten Pi admitted to what was essentially a 4th grade class, to see if she liked it. (It should be stated that she was very excited by this prospect.) If she did, we were prepared, or so we thought, to enroll her for the duration of the trip.  As it turned out, she was not thrilled, since of course it was rather stressful to be the only person in the room who spoke not a word of Italian. We also came to the decision that having her in class every day for at least a half day would curtail our activities too much. Anyway one of the kids urged Pi to wear sneakers upon her return. So now she has nice new shoes.


The rest of the time we spent close to home, prowling around San Giustino, sipping the odd cappuccino, buying newspapers to burn – whereby we learned of the oncoming winter storm in Umbria, which had in recent weeks roared through the rest of Europe with hurricane force and subzero temps.  We were somewhat of mixed emotions yesterday when it started snowing. Beautiful – but we had yet to purchase chains for the car and would definitely need them if the roads were snowed in.


LATER


In the interim since I wrote the above we paid a visit to Arezzo, another hilltown R & I have been to a couple of times before. The boys and girls split up for a hour: I can’t speak for them but I took Nick on a very Sean-like aimless wander through the maze of lanes, remarking on odd door knockers and medieval locks, statuary, gothic archways, and the like, in various states of erosion – always with the end goal of finding a restroom fit for human habitation. Some of them, you wonder why anyone bothers to require a key, they are in such a state of desuetude. One of Arezzo’s main attractions is the piazza, which unusually sits at about a 20-degree angle, flanked by an impressive loggia where we had lunch, and ringed by antique shops.  Another is an ancient church whose columns (in front) apparently all were pillaged from neighboring territories, hence are all different. The days was especially successful in that (a) the bank account was restored, (b) we bought some chains for the car, (and (c) we hunted down the elusive (seemingly illusive) “Punto Blu” and with an astonishing lack of bureaucracy got the tollbooth ticket annulled, which paid for the chains and then some.



To give the kids a break we are tending to spend roughly every other day in town, if not the Molino. The other day R & I braved the chill and walked down, passing a morning with coffee, Internet at the friendly Algerian’s place, and walkies in general. Today I broke away and drove to Pieve Santo Stefano, a riverside village that looked like it ought to be more interesting than it turned out to be; I drove another 20 klicks to Chiese de la Verna, up in the snowy mountains, which were bright with sun. The tourists were milling around La Verna itself, slightly beyond -- the retreat of S. Francesco -- so I didn’t stop, but it gave me the lay of the land.


Perugia
Yesterday we spent the better part of the day in Perugia about a hour away, which is a great town for exercise up and down its hills, even given a number of escalators. Starting with the traditional snack and coffee (we’ve introduced Nick to those joys) we then prowled around, taking in stupendous views of the surrounding city and valley; then I forced everyone to find the Via Appia with me, which I at least found rewarding. It features a serpentine staircase that winds up joining up with a Roman acquadotto (aquaduct) that once was an Etruscan path and now has been turned back into an elevated walkway. From there we gradually made our way to the Temple of St. Mark, an unusual round church which, alas, was under reconstruction, so inaccessible. We returned to the city center via the famous Etruscan Arch, which was later added to by the Romans and then later generations, and I got a lesson in the history of “tipica” Italian matches, which are cutely tiny and made of some unknown waxy/plastic material due to the lack of expendable wood in Italy. They are also deucedly difficult to light. We stumbled on a street market selling the usual array of bizarre antiques as well as some bonafide crafts, such as hand-knitted ski hats, one of which Piper bought. Returning to the car we first discovered the amazing Rocca, a subterranean castle built by a vengeful pope and now housing some shops, a museum, and still more street vendors.  Extremely cool – dark and and labyrinthine.  We met both a very charming barista who was pleasantly correcting our Italian as we attempted to converse with him…he turned out to be a native Californian, bringing up his middleschooler in Perugia! – and then in a little bookshop -- Libreria Filosofi Bookshop -- that sold English books we found that the aged bookseller Graziela was amazingly fluent in English (having taught it) – she regaled us with her story and philosophy of life, and incidentally sold us some books for the kids, including Roethke’s Selected. 40 euros for a few remainders, but hey, we got a frequent buyer card from her.


Hope all is well with you – we all miss our friends and relations – wish you were here, as they say!

 

Cheers

Sean / Robin/Nick/Piper

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