Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barn Project

A few of my Indy friends were in town earlier this fall, and I took them to a neighborhood-wide garage sale. Poor things, they ended up carrying some of my purchases back. I hadn't yet told them that I was pregnant, so my purchase of a wooden barn (along the same lines as a dollhouse) struck them as puzzling. "You could use it to hold your shoes," said one.

My plan was to fix it up and give it to my dad, a farmer and occasional cowboy, to have at home for when his someday grandchildren visited. It looked pretty sad when I bought it, a bit mildewed and weather-beaten, but I had a vision.

One weekend before my dad's birthday, I sat down and got to painting. I used acrylic paint I already had on hand in a dark red, black-brown, grey, and white. It took about 3/4 of a small bottle of each to paint the whole surface, which was lucky because I have no idea if I could have matched that paint in a store since it was leftover from other projects long finished or abandoned. I used scotch tape to make the straight white lines around all of the openings and hand painted the curves.

You can see the paint bottles behind the barn.
I also used the masking tape to keep the red paint off the roof and
floor and to keep the roof color off the walls. I painted the lightest
color (the floors) first so I could be messy with that one.

I even bought some tiny plastic farm animals from a market in Italy to help populate the barn and found an old tractor online. I also found some tiny hay bales at Michael's, which I just couldn't pass up. They were super messy though, so I finally covered them in glue (which dries clear) so they'd stop leaving hay everywhere. We took the barn home to my dad on Thanksgiving, and I'm pretty sure it was a hit. (The cats loved it, anyway!)

My little barn cats.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Day 6: Zipping Around Tuscany in Our Trusty Fiat

We said a goodbye to Lucca and headed toward our next rental in Montepulciano, which is a smallish Tuscan hilltop town in Southeast Tuscany. Highway driving in Italy is much like highway driving in the US. Not particularly scenic. However, you do get the opportunity to see medieval hilltop towns occasionally.

We stopped to buy some lunch at a grocery store on our way into San Gimignano, where we decided to make a quick sight-seeing stop. We bought two kinds of cheese, salami, tomatoes, warm foccacia, and Lion Bars. It started to rain just as we left the grocery store, so we decided we'd have ourselves a little picnic in the car in the parking lot before heading in through the city walls.

It really had not let up when we finished, so we just determined to tough it out and head in anyway. San Gimignano is known as a city of towers. There are a great many that still exist there, and they make for an interesting skyline. We walked up through the narrow streets, looking for both a free bathroom and the highest point (the first a given when you're traveling with me now and the second a given with Nathan).

Nathan had already scoped out the park that was at the top with a nice view of the towers and the surrounding countryside. We climbed some steep streets and then some stairs up through a pretty secluded and very green park. Views, check. No free bathrooms in San Gimignano, check. Privacy found behind a secluded olive tree, double check. Desperate times. (I didn't have a euro to pay for the bathroom.)

I talked Nathan into letting me buy a very cute Italian baby outfit, and then we headed out onto the road again.
That looks like a good party.

Roads are marked in Italy, but sometimes it's a bit of a situation where the sign actually comes after the turn. It can be frustrating. Especially when my GPS did not work for most of the countryside. Also, signs are not uniformly sized, so some are teeny tiny and others are clearly visible. Additionally, in a roundabout you sometimes have to contend with a signpost that has 20 signs on one post. Needless to say, Nathan's blood pressure might have already been elevated when we finally got to Montepulciano, though we found the town itself rather easily.

But the problem came when it came time to find our agriturismo (that's where we were's like a cross between a B&B and a farmhouse). It was now getting dark, dumping rain on us, and we were in one of the highest hilltop towns in Tuscany so basically we were driving through a cloud. Our only directions had been that it was on SP17 between mile marker 2 II and 2III. We eventually found SP17, but could not figure out how to go lower than the 6 mile marker that led us into the center of town. Nathan got out to go look at the street signs in person and eventually found a tourist information office, while I realized I had the phone number and could call Giacomo for more distinct directions.

Our agriturismo, La Caggiole, on a later, sunnier day
Neither of us was particularly successful, though they did point us in the right direction finally. We headed back down the hill, passed the previously mentioned mile markers without so much as a glimpse of their "well-marked sign," passed it again going the other way (but then I saw it as we crept past), and then, third time was the charm, crawled up to it on the way back down again and managed to turn in next to the tiny red sign in the middle of a cypress tree.

By this point, Nathan was so aggravated he could barely speak. I told him I'd go get us checked in and he could sit in the car and de-stress. I met Giacomo, host of our agriturismo, and he got all our paperwork situated and showed me to our cozy apartment. Nathan wandered in, and we unwound a little by having some tea and checking out our new digs for the next five days. We had tile floors, a little one room kitchen/living room area, a bedroom with a real live FULL bed, and a bathroom with a glorious shower (that almost always had warm water for our WHOLE showers).

After awhile, we decided to venture back out into the weather to go up to the town and get some dinner. We went to a small place Giacomo suggested, where I had another favorite pasta of my trip, pasta with lemon cream sauce and pine nuts. Delicious.

We headed back and slept incredibly well because no one ended up wedged in a crack halfway through the night for the first time of our trip!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 5: Into the Mountains We Go

Tuesday morning dawned sunny and clear, as we set out for a roadtrip up into the mountain towns in Livorno. Nathan had heard about some quaint towns that we should try to explore, so we made our way north, first to Castelnuova di Garfagnana, where we explored a bit and took in the sights from the highest point (of course).

On to Barga, stopping at the Ponte del Diavolo on our way. It's real name is actually the Ponte della Maddalena, but it is known by the name, the Devil's Bridge because supposedly the devil built the bridge after the townspeople agreed he could have the first soul to cross it when completed. According to the legend, when it was completed they sent a dog across first. Poor dog.

Barga was another small beautiful town where we planned to have lunch. Nathan knows his strategy when it comes to keeping me on board (promise lunch to follow) so we walked around town first, including up to the highest point (of course), which had beautiful panoramic views of the town and the surrounding mountains.

After wandering around the very quiet streets, we finally found a place that looked promising. It. Was. Delicious. The small place looked like a bar, but had a hidden restaurant section where they focused on local products. We got an antipasto plate of various local salami and prosciutto (I wasn't really supposed to eat it as I'm pregnant, but felt much less guilty when a very pregnant Italian woman sat down next to us and polished off a large glass of red wine), and then I had a spinach and ricotta ravioli that was one of my favorite meals in Italy. I don't even remember the pasta Nathan had because though it was good, mine took my full attention.

After lunch we rambled back to the car and headed back to Lucca. We were back to Lucca in time to take an un-rained-on walk around the walls. We finished the walk just as the sun was setting and a drizzle started.

And so ended our last day in Lucca because on Wednesday we headed to Montepulciano.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Day 4: On Which the Sun Came Out and Nathan Smiled All Day

Thankfully, when we woke up on Monday morning, the sun was out, perhaps not shining exactly, but it was in the sky with few clouds in sight. We set out for Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is in the region just north east of Tuscany, called Livorno. The name Cinque Terre actually covers five cliff villages along the coast. The villages are connected by a train and by a number of different hiking trails.

It's possible to take a train there all the way there from Florence, but we chose to drive our trusty Fiat to La Spezia, the town just south of Cinque Terre, and catch the train to Cinque Terre from there. Now the problem with just sticking to the Cinque Terre train is that you won't actually get to see any of these cliff towns or the views of the sea because the train connecting these five towns runs mostly underground. So Nathan came up with a great plan to include his pregnant and moderately-hostile-to-hiking wife. We'd do the short easy route from city 1 (Riomaggiore) to city 2 (Manarola), which rambled along the coastline and should take about 20 minutes. Then we'd have some lunch and decide if we wanted to tackle one of the longer 2 hour hikes between some of the other cities.

Of course, this being Italy, the plan did not hold up. As soon as the train pulled into Riomaggiore, we found out from the visitor center that the easy ramble of a hike was closed due to mudslides. While I had no wish to test it out, that meant that we were now picking our routes on the fly. Nathan asked about taking the road to the next town, got a frown from the woman at the visitor center, and decided to do it anyway (this is completely typical for him).

The town of Riomaggiore is basically right on the water. We walked through the gorgeous little village, stopped to buy some cheese, salami, and bread, then headed up the nearest path. This path consisted of an uncountable number of stairs. I started to get a little worried about my future. We got to a lovely view and had our "snack" before we set out to find the road that was high above us.

So much climbing.

Nathan's road shortcut turned out to be a great one except for one small detail. When we got back to the trail, we were now high above Manarola. I was given the option to go all the way down there for lunch before we continued on to Coniglia, town 3, but the pulsating of my temples reminded me that I'd have to come ALL THE WAY BACK UP AGAIN afterward. A nice lunch just didn't seem worth it right then. Of course, I didn't realize how long it would be before I actually got lunch.

So we continued up. And up. And up. I found myself wishing for a burro or a sherpa as my sisters-in-law skipped merrily along beside me and eventually miles in front of me as I breathlessly waved everyone on. "I'll. Catch. Up. Eventually. Don't. Wait," I said between heaves. We got to a small scenic town not part of the official Cinque towns, called Volastra, and then eventually to a plateau with gorgeous views (well, they got there half an hour before me. I got there too eventually.)

It was a gorgeous day on the coast. The sun was bright and the water sparkled. In the shade it was cool, but not cold. Our path wound its way through the terraced vineyards and through the olive groves, nearly always with a gorgeous view of the Ligurian Sea off to our left. Locals arranged their olive nets around the bases of the trees to begin harvesting, and we passed a little old couple carrying baskets on their backs on their way to their trees.

We continued up for a long time. It would seem that we couldn't possible be heading up anymore, that any minute we'd start to descend toward the little town that seemed so close, but then no we'd continue up. Finally, about 2 1/2 hours in to the hike, we finally started heading down. And down and down.

By the time we finally reached the streets of Coniglia, my knees were actually knocking from fatigue. We trudged into town to the restaurant I had been picturing for the last three hours, only to have the girl sweeping around the tables turn to me and say "Chiuso." That crushing word in English is "closed." I am only a little ashamed to say that I made it out the door before I sobbed, clutching Nathan's shirt. Three o'clock in Italy is a brutal time to want lunch, I will warn you now. (And you'd think we would learn this, but we never did. Also, don't grocery shop on Sundays-we didn't learn that lesson either.)

Nathan found me some lunch at a small cafe. They served us some delicious pesto coated pasta (as pesto is a local specialty since all of the ingredients are easily grown on the hillsides all around Cinque Terre). I had a (slightly) reinvigorating Lemon Soda, and we decided our next move would be to head on to Vernazza, town 4, thankfully via train. We decided that as it would be getting dark pretty quickly, Vernazza would be our final destination before heading back to La Spezia.

As we waited for the train to Vernazza, the sun set. The sun was nearly out of sight as we got to Vernazza, but there is no more perfect place to watch the sun set than on that little dock. We wandered through the town, Nathan opting to head up lots of stairs multiple times (this too became a theme of our Italy visit-he always found the stairs).

We got back to the train and headed back to La Spezia for dinner. Sus offered to treat us all to dinner with Jenny's money, but we decided to split up when they mentioned going to Pisa on their way back to Florence. Nathan knew I was counting on some seafood pasta, so he said we'd see them later, and he made sure to find me a cozy place to have dinner. We had the whole restaurant to ourselves, and the owner didn't know a word of English. It was a lovely end to the best day in Italy so far.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Day 3: Shocker. Still raining.

As we opened our eyes on the morning of our third day in Italy to more rain, I tried to cheer us both up by saying, "At least it's not nice anywhere else we'd potentially be today. And at least we're not running a marathon," I said pointing to the poor bedraggled marathon runners passing our windows. It didn't help much really, but we got to planning anyway. Nathan's family was coming to visit Lucca for the day, so we had to figure out what our plans were even if the rain didn't let up.

I know Lucca is a lovely little town on a normal day. It's fully surrounded by huge medieval walls that are so wide that the top has been turned into a tree-lined paved pedestrian path with large green parks at each of the balustrades. In the rain, however, it has very little to offer. The cobblestones are uneven meaning you end up slogging through puddles you didn't really see ahead of time. The streets are narrow, which puts you right next to cars splashing by, and everything is grey, grey, grey. Poor Nathan was not getting the same glorious Italian experience I had had in college. He was decidedly underwhelmed.

We picked the family up at the train station and walked them back to our apartment. Everyone settled in for some tea and chatting, and I took my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law to the pasticceria for some breakfast goodies. My mother-in-law was in heaven (one of the many reasons we get along).

We eventually decided to venture out and walk the wall path even in the rain and while dodging marathoners. It was not exactly unpleasant, but we were all very ready to warm up at the pizzeria when we finally got there. We had excellent wood-fired pizzas (personal-sized in my opinion, but my father-in-law seemed to eye my putting it away with some awe-perhaps not everyone considered them so), and then headed back out into the rain again to see the Torre Guinigi, Lucca's main tourist feature (a tall tower with live oak trees growing from the top), generally wander around, and eventually play some huge chess.

Eventually, we made it back to the apartment and spent some time warming up and playing games before we headed back out into the dark for dinner. After a tasty pasta dinner, we sent half the group to brave the frustrations of Sunday train schedules in Italy. Nathan's sisters stayed the night since the four of us were heading to Cinque Terre in the morning.

Last three photos by The Sus

Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 2: Well Gee, It's Raining in Lucca Too

We woke pretty early on our first day in Lucca because of all of the Vespas whooshing through the puddles outside our windows. Nathan had his cantucci (mini biscotti), coffee, and cereal, and I headed up the street with my umbrella to the most delicious pasticceria in Lucca. It was filled with bellissima croissants, creme puffs, cakes, truffles, and so much more. With pidgin Italian (lots of per favores and grazies and possibly some pointing) I bought an apricot-filled croissant and finished it on the short walk back to the apartment.

It looked a bit different from this when we were there.
The brightly lit windows were really welcoming in the gloomy rain though.

Photo of Lucca Pasticceria by Barbara
 We puttered around the apartment a bit, putting off heading out into the rain, until we thought of heading in to Florence to spend the day with Nathan's family who had just arrived there. Nathan's not usually wild about spending time in museums...unless it's raining. So, after getting in touch with them to determine how to meet up, we headed to the train station.

We got to the Uffizi and met up with Dean who took us to the rest of the family who were waiting in a delicious panini place (he claims it was overpriced, but it was a very tasty 8 panini). Then we headed to the Basilica di Santa Croce for the afternoon. (Dean and I headed off to buy a piccolo gelato beforehand).

 Santa Croce was your typical Italian church: ornate, filled with paintings, frescoes, sculptures, and tombs. It's the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli, to name a few.

Afterward we went for gelato (number 2 of the day for Dean and I. If you wonder why I rave about Dean's tour guiding, this might help explain it.) We headed back to the family's hotel for a bit before they headed out to the infamous dinner at Latini. Sadly, Nathan and I could not go because we had a train to catch, but we stopped at a little grocer's for salami, cheese, tomatoes, and olive-studded focaccia for supplies, and we picnicked on the train ride home.

Not bad for a rainy day in Italy.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Day 1: Ciao, Rainy Italia

So how to even start writing about our trip to Italy? I suppose I'll do an entry for each part of the trip. The first part of the trip consisted of arriving in Florence, renting a car, and driving to Lucca, a small, medieval walled city about an hour directly west of Florence (most of the other parts of the trip will be much more interesting than this one, but I've got to begin at the beginning).

Our flight was incredibly uneventful. Everything departed on time and our 8 hour flight to Zurich was smooth and full of pretty good food (Swiss Air knows how to treat you-fresh croissants and Swiss chocolates, yum!) We both even managed to sleep a little bit.

The Zurich airport seemed very high tech on little to no sleep. Nathan tried to disown me when I used the men's bathroom, but luckily it was a pretty secluded one, so it wasn't even embarrassing. The airport in Zurich is filled with things like Tag Heuer watches, caviar stores, and smoking lounges, so needless to say, I did not feel at home there. Still, we filtered through security, customs, and back through our gate security and was on our short flight to Florence in no time at all. More yummy croissants and chocolates awaited!

Sunrise over the Alps

We arrived in Florence pretty exhausted, waited forever for our shuttle to the car rental lot (Italians don't really seem to follow schedules unless it means closing things right before we get there. Then they are sticklers for that *$#@ schedule.) We got to the car lot and wandered about looking for the rental outfit we used. No sign for Europecar, so we started to wonder if maybe we got scammed, but finally we just started asking at the various booths. The last one (isn't that always how it goes?) had our reservation and set us up pretty quickly with our tiny white Fiat.

It became clear how much we were flying by the seat of our pants when we realized that we didn't have even one map of Italy. The rental place gave us a pretty general one that wasn't super helpful, except to tell us we needed the A11, so Nathan somehow drove us straight through the outskirts of Florence directly to it using only the minimum of road signage and his gut. It was pretty amazing (partly because my gut always tells me the complete opposite of the way I should be going).

Then we came to the first toll booth and realized we hadn't gotten money yet, so we had to turn back, find a random bank on a random side road, and then find the toll road again. In the rain. Easy peasy. (By the way, I should have mentioned that it had been raining pretty continuously since we landed at the airport.)

An hour and a half later, we're finding our way through one of the 4 ports in the Lucca city walls, tracking down and parking space, and traipsing to our apartment. Still no problems, still no arguments, still on very little sleep. We rolled our suitcases across the road and the apartment owner poked her head out the window and said, "Ciao, Hanna." See how easy this was? Incredible.

She showed us around, gave us our keys, and told us where the grocery store and a cafe with free wifi were, and explained that only white parking spaces are for non-residents (so we had to move our car). We moved the car, managed to find our way back in the pouring rain, and collapsed into a lovely nap on our bed that consisted of two twin beds with king size sheets. (This is the way of Europe, people. I do not need any more evidence than that that the US is superior. There are all those studies being done on why the birthrate is so low in Italy, and I know why. It's those damn beds.)

Later we dragged ourselves out into the rainy night to get groceries, find the cafe, and then a small restaurant where we got some delicious Faro Soup (a specialty to Lucca).

 End of Day 1. Only 12 more to go!

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Husband the Scavenger

List of things Nathan ate off of random trees/bushes/vines in Italy

Yes, he was stealing tomatoes off someone's
vines, but in his defense there were a number
of tomatoes just rotting on the vine.
I don't think they'll miss the ones he took.

1. Olives
2. Pomogranate
3. Tomatoes
4. Olives
5. Persimmon
6. Grapes
7. Olives (He was truly in denial about how bad they taste fresh. He kept telling me that maybe this one would be ripe. FYI: It doesn't help.*)
8. Orange

*Did you know that no olive tastes good right off the vine? They are all terribly terribly bitter. Olives must be fermented or cured to be edible.

Conversation #14

Him: I think this is my favorite meal yet.
Me: What? No! It's terrible. It's just a bunch of strong-tasting foods in a big bowl.
Him: That's exactly why I like it. It does need some chow meins though.
Me: You eat like a little kid. That's what kids do.
Him: Think how easy it will be to feed two.
Me: What? Oh, two kids, meaning you and the baby. Yeah. Sigh.
Him: Do you think they make baby chow meins? How cool would that be in a restaurant? You pulling out a bag for me and then a bag of tiny chow meins for the baby?
Me: No. Just no.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just a Minute: October Edition

Last month's Just a Minute is a bit late because it is practically impossible to do a whole post from my phone. Plus, I was busy stuffing my face with as much pasta as I could stand, so I really didn't feel much like trying anyway.

reading…I took exactly two physical books on this trip (one to cover take-off and landing for both flights), but accidentally left one of them unread on the first plane. Luckily, I was not too heartbroken, and luckily I had loaded up my iPad with free classics to read on the Kindle app. I AM NOT A CONVERT, but I did want to have plenty of room to bring back lots of goodies. Nathan did not entirely cooperate with that plan, but I did bring back 25 Lion Bars, so it was not an entire loss. On the Kindle app, I read Chronicles of Avonlea, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Love Among the Chickens and Right Ho, Jeeves (Man, do I love me some Wodehouse). But then we downloaded the new Ticket to Ride: Europe game and got a little obsessed.

watching…on the plane to Italy, I watched Brave (awesome), Moonrise Kingdom (excellent), and Dark Shadows (not bad). On the way home again, I watched Ted (relatively funny), The Odd Life of Timothy Green (pretty good), To Rome with Love (enjoyed it more than most Woody Allen movies, I guess), and The Dark Knight Rises (fabulous). I'm a little ashamed that I passed up Beast of the Southern Wild for some of these, because it looks great and much more artistic than some of them, but I suppose I'd rather pay money to rent that one than to rent Ted.

listening…to the Scissor Sisters, Baby Come Home, which played every five minutes on MTV, the only channel in English on Italian TV. Do you know how devastating it is to find the one and only channel you can understand only to come to the realization that it is in the middle of a Jersey Shore's marathon? Seems like Italians may take their native Dante a little too seriously by ensuring that American tourists are subjected to this tenth circle of hell.

loving…As mentioned above, the Ticket to Ride: Europe game (I bought the iPhone version so we could use it on both) is fully and completely worth the $1.99 price. It's a little more challenging than regular Ticket to Ride, so it has definitely kept my attention for the 25 or so games I've played so far. It has options to play with someone else both virtually and sitting right next to you and you can play with computer generated characters too. Plus, unlike the actual board game, which can take ages to play, you can knock out a game against the computer in 15 minutes or less.

making...I've started on some fun stocking stuffers! Can't post anything about them yet as really most of the recipients are among my only readers.

baking…After eating so much delicious focaccia in Italy, I am going through withdrawal. I definitely plan on making it more often, probably starting this weekend.


There's nothing like traveling to really make you relish your home, cat hair tumbleweeds and all. I have never slept so well as I do the night I finally get home again after a long trip. After 13 days in Italy (as incredibly lovely as it was), I have never been so thankful for a warm shower, no matter how long I stay in it. I've never been so thrilled to do laundry in a washing machine AND A DRYER, and never found the cats to be so snuggly.

Yes, everyone's happy we're home again.

 Get ready though because I'm going to be telling you all about our trip to Italy in the next dozen or so posts, I'm sure. It was as filled with great food and gorgeous vistas as you'd imagine, but we also had our share of adventure and, so, so much climbing. (Those elderly Italians have got to be mobile, I tell you, because there is not a level street to be found in all of Tuscany. Everything is at the top of a very steep hill.)