Thursday, December 31, 2015

Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child--the best book of 2015

With the Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante brings the final volume of the Neapolitan novels to a powerful, deeply moving conclusion. Reading the book was an exhilarating experience—finishing the book was a depressing one. There are no more Ferrante books to read.

I’ve read everything Ferrante has written and it’s not clear whether anything else will be published. So there’s nothing left but to re-read, and Ferrante’s books are meant to be re-read.

I’m now re-reading the first book and picking up nuances I missed the first time around. The first time I was so absorbed in the story and reading quickly to find out how it would all turn out that I missed a lot of the subtleties.

In an interview in the Sydney Herald, Ferrante has said that the four books are to be read as one long story, which in fact existed in the initial draft:

I don't feel a great difference between my first three books or this last one. Certainly the set up counts: in the past I've written about women in an intolerable moment of crisis, here [in the Neapolitan Novels] the joys and wounds of an entire life are told and it's important how characters react to the alternating currents of good luck or misfortune over a long arc of time.

Most of the major themes of the Neapolitan novels are present in the three earlier books, although without the rich social context. The theme of women’s friendship is not in the earlier books but emerges as the narrative framework of the Neapolitan novels. The life-long friendship between Elena Greco and Lina (Lila) Cerullo is usually considered the main theme of the Neapolitan novels.

To my knowledge, only one reviewer questioned its centrality. But is it more about envy/competition rather than about friendship? Or how the two can become inextricably linked? I no longer see friendship as the central theme of the Neapolitan novels but rather the framework for exploring the choices available to women whose options are constrained by gender/class.

As in the earlier books, there is no one theme—but rather an elaborate tapestry of interrelated themes. Claire Messud has called Ferrante “Italy’s answer to Doris Lessing, Elena Greco is her Anna Wulf, and her tetralogy The Golden Notebook of our era.” Ferrante is a far more powerful writer than Lessing and (I think) a more powerful feminist.

The complex interplay of feminist themes is present in all four books; in the final book the theme of motherhood—-the tension between wanting a life of one’s own and love for one’s children; the fear of failing to protect one’s children, the fear of losing them—-explored in The Lost Daughter, one of Ferrante’s earlier works——emerges as the dominant theme of the Story of the Lost Child. Ferrante explores the horrible consequences that can result from a moment’s inattention.

For me, Ferrante’s books often trigger vivid memories of experiences only dimly recalled.Story of the Lost Child triggered memories of two such incidents. When my child was young, I was always afraid of losing him, of something horrible happening to him. In 1972, we were in Santiago de Chile in the Moneda Palace . I don’t recall exactly how it happened but I was holding my son and put him down on the ground and then looked away for a second and he was gone. He was just starting to walk on his own. I was in a state of total panic and then I looked across the room and there he was looking at me with amusement. I’ll never forget the fear and the overwhelming sensation of relief.

The second time was during the same 1972 trip to South America, this time in a remote village on the Ecuadorian/ Columbian border. We had stopped in a little tavern and a woman grabbed my son and ran off with him. I was in a state of panic. His father who had the advantage of speaking Spanish said I shouldn’t worry as she was just showing him to the other people in the village who had never seen a baby who looked like him. They thought he looked like the Christ child. He was a very beautiful baby with blond curls, enormous brown eyes and a serene, almost Buddha-like smile. But I was not as sanguine as his father was that he would be returned and I spent a very uncomfortable half hour or so. He was returned in a very good mood; he looked like he had enjoyed the tour of the village, but in both cases what I remember was the sheer terror.

SPOILER ALERT: Reading the Story of the Lost Child brought it all back. On a crowded Neapolitan street, Lila looks away for a few minutes and her daughter disappears without a trace, never to be found—-an unforgettable conclusion to an unforgettable series of novels.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Blooms of my December Garden

Winter jasmine

I've been keeping garden records for over 20 years and this has been the warmest November-December in decades. The cheery yellow flowers of winter jasmine which usually blooms in early March are popping up all over my garden.

Probably not the last rose

An early December rose isn't all that unusual but I have quite a few rose buds which just might be blooming in late December

The first snowdrop appeared in early December. I've had December snowdrops before but always in late Decembder.

The intoxicating perfume of Lonicera Fragantisisma--that sounds so much better than fragarant honeysuckle--which usually blooms in early March started this year in mid December.


Quince and forsythia have never bloomed before March but those gorgeous quince blossoms are on the verge of opening and I even have a few forsythia blooms.

And the biggest surprise of all--my giant viburnum which we refer to as "the monster" and which usually blooms in early May is blooming in mid-December.

Not quite sure how I feel about all this...

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Why I’m voting against raising the retirement age for PA judges

I never thought so many judges and prosecutors including state Supreme Court justices, would routinely exchange vicious racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails. Yes, I know that many white men resent the gains that women and people of color have made in recent decades, but I never expected anything this ugly from those entrusted to administer justice. It’s even more of a shock that they felt safe doing this.

This scandal will no doubt lead some voters to reject the proposal on the 2016 primary ballot to raise the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75. I can certainly understand the desire to clean house.

But there’s another more urgent reason to reject this bill. The cohort of judges now reaching 70 are much more likely to be white, male and heterosexual than the pool of potential judges, now in their 30’s and 40’s. (It’s only relatively recently that open LGBTQ candidates have run for and won judicial seats.)

If the retirement age is raised, there is real danger that we will delay the transformation of the judiciary into something more closely resembling what America now looks like. Maintaining the current retirement age is not a solution to the current lack of diversity on the Bench, but at least it doesn’t contribute to the problem.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) documents the lack of judicial diversity: “In many states, the judges do not look like the defendants and plaintiffs who stand in front of them. .. that glaring lack of diversity calls into question the overall fairness of our justice system.

The CAP report argues that if we are to have a diverse judiciary reflecting our increasingly diverse citizenry, we must reduce the influence of money in the judicial selection process. The report recommends reforms, such as public financing in states that continue to elect judges.

The report further argues that “merit selection (a system of appointing judges in which a commission chooses a list of potential nominees based on their qualifications) can be an effective tool for achieving diversity, when the process is structured to take diversity into account.” Although a 2009 American Judicature Society study found that states with merit selection had more diverse supreme courts, the CAP report cautions that some merit selection systems have not resulted in a diverse judiciary: “Even when diversity is mandated at certain points in the process, lawmakers in some states have ignored the mandate.”

It is unlikely that in PA we will have public financing of judicial elections or merit selection anytime soon, so while we fight for substantive reform, let’s not exacerbate the problem by freezing in place the current judiciary by raising the retirement age.

I’ll grant that there are some fine 70-year old judges who could make a contribution for another five years and that mandatory retirement can be viewed as unfair to these individuals. Yes, maybe some of them, as Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Program director Suzanne Almeida has argued, get better with age: According to Almeida “Judging is one of those jobs that the longer you do it the better you get.” Well, maybe with some, but I doubt that judges like Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin are getting better with each passing year.

So yes, maybe mandatory retirement is unfair to some deserving individuals, but if the issue is viewed in terms of what is good for society, mandatory retirement has clear benefits. The baby boom generation is the first generation to really push back on mandatory retirement and it's having an impact on job opportunities for the young--certainly so with professional jobs. There is some evidence that when mandatory retirement for well-paying professional jobs is eliminated, retirements fall sharply.

The reluctance to retire on the part of many university professors has had unfortunate consequences for a generation of younger scholars. From a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education , “The Forever Professors:”
American academe has created a continuing disaster by resting faculty retirement solely on the cornerstones of senior professors’ self-interest and self-assessment. Unless higher education comes up with a mechanism—or social consensus—that makes retiring by 70 the honorable and decent thing to do, everyone’s individual "right to work" past 70 will crush the young.
We must base our decisions about mandatory retirement on what is good for society as a whole rather that what may be in the interest of a particular individual. Moreover, with the judiciary, mandatory retirement is not just about creating job opportunities for the young but about a justice system which reflects the diversity of citizenry. This matters.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Return to Prague: You can’t step in the same river twice.

Tyn Church overlooking Old Town Square

I fell in love with Prague in 1989; at the time, I was expecting a beautiful city with a rich, well-preserved architectural heritage, but I wasn’t prepared for the astonishing beauty of Prague.

This was near the end of the Communist regime but neither we, nor most of the residents of Prague, knew we were on the cusp of radical change. Rick and I were there in July of ’89 and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November of ’89. In July ’89, Prague was still hardline communist. You couldn’t buy a foreign language newspaper--except for the Stalinist British Morning Call. The French and Italian communist papers were deemed too liberal to be sold in Czechoslovakia. It was no doubt a good experience for someone like me, who actually briefly flirted with support for Communism, to get a sense of what it was like to actually live under real existing socialism/ communism.

At that time Americans were segregated in ugly hotels on the outskirts of Prague and the food in the restaurants was truly horrible. Now there are good hotels and restaurants and we had no trouble getting the international New York Times. Among the restaurants that I highly recommend:

Cantinetta Fiorentina
Fred and Ginger’s

Clearly life is much better for the citizens of Prague and I’m happy for them. However, for me, the magic was gone. Gorgeous Old Town Square was as packed with people as NYC’s Times Square during the holiday season. It was really difficult to cross the Charles Bridge because of the crush of people and the gauntlet of souvenir shops. We found ourselves avoiding the places we loved and lingered at in 1989.

The Charles Bridge as I remember it--without tourists

Like the Poles in Krakow, the Czechs have realized the tourist potential of the old Jewish Quarter which in 1989 was shabby and neglected, with very few tourists. In 2015 the Jewish Quarter is beautifully restored and packed with tourists, cafes, restaurants, trendy shops. The money generated by the tourists is no doubt responsible for the restoration and for the very moving memorial dedicated to the 80,000 Czech Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

Maisel Synogogue

Memorial to Holocaust Victims, Pinkas Synagogue

I was very happy to revisit Prague, but Rick and I both don't think we will be back. Prague no longer has a hold over my imagination. I returned to Santiago de Chile after many decades and had the same reaction. You really can’t step in the same river twice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DRESDEN: The Germany Diaries, Part IV

In every trip there is always something we wish we had done differently. This time we wished we had given more time to Dresden. Much of Dresden was destroyed during World War II but its historic baroque architecture has been beautifully restored. Dresden has a wealth of museums to rival Berlin’s and deserves a week rather than the two days we gave it.

If we ever get back to Dresden, we’ll try to stay in the same charming, centrally located hotel, Buelow Residenz. It's connected to its far more expensive sister hotel the Buelow Palace which housed a 2 star Michelin restaurant and much less expensive but quite good bistro. One consequence of widening income inequality is that the Michelin star restaurants have become much more expensive than the average restaurant. When we travelled a lot in France during our working years we usually managed to fit in one Michelin star restaurant. Now we don’t even try.

I also recommend Restaurant Daniel, a kind of German equivalent of French Nouvelle Cuisine—much lighter than traditional German fare with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes.

Despite our limited time in Dresden, we did manage to fit in the Dresden Opera’s production of the Flying Dutchman. I’m no Wagner fan and wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, but Rick assured me that Dutchman is one of Wagner’s more accessible operas and the Dresden opera house one of Europe’s most beautiful, so we decided to get tickets.

I’m glad we did but it didn’t change my feelings about Wagner. Sure, there was some thrilling music, impressive stagecraft and very good singers, but it was such a ridiculous story. Granted the plots of beloved Verdi operas are also ridiculous, but I’ll put up with that because I love Verdi so much. I have a lot less tolerance for Wagner’s absurd plots.
Dresden's Rococco Opera House

Outside the opera house there was a demonstration organized by the members of the anti-immigrant group Pegida who gather every Monday to protest what they consider Germany’s too liberal immigration policies. They were a very sedate crowd; the expressions on their faces were nothing like the hate–contorted faces of photos I’ve seen of anti-immigration, Tea Party demonstrators in the US.

However in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris the demonstrations have changed dramatically. On November 16 around 8,000 people carrying gigantic crosses joined the Pegida movement for a rally in Dresden, protesting Angela Merkel's decision to allow up to one million migrants into Germany.

Sure glad we weren’t in Dresden for this and happy to live in a city where although there is anti-immigrant sentiment, I can’t imagine anything like the November 16 Dresden rally in Philadelphia.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part III

Prenzlauerberg, Berlin

Since we had seen most of the top tier attractions on our first trip to Berlin, we had time to explore some of Berlin’s neighborhoods such as the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg. It reminded me of Greenwich Village about 40-50 years ago.

While wandering around Prenzlauerberg, we stumbled on a fascinating museum, Museum in der Kulturbrauerei, about daily life in the former GDR. What I found most fascinating was the government’s attempts to foster group think – what they saw as socialist solidarity. Workers were organized in brigades and were expected to keep tabs on each other informing on those seen as slackers. They were expected to socialize with those in their brigade and even vacation together. Each apartment building had someone charged with keeping detailed records of those who visited residents’ apartments. Of course I knew about the omnipresent Stasi but the details of daily life made it more chilling, more soul-destroying than I had realized.

The Germans are honest about their troubled past and all the history museums we’ve visited in Germany reflect this. In addition to the GDR museum we went to the German History Museum which is worth far more time than we gave it. In addition to the compelling exhibits, the building has architectural interest with an annex for special exhibits designed by I. M. Pei.

Annex to German History Museum designed by I. M. Pei

There were two museums we visited last time and planned to return to. Sadly, one was closed for restoration--the Neue Nationalgalerie with a very impressive 20th century art collection housed in a building designed by Mies Vander Rohe. One of my all time favorite museums was thankfully open--the the Gemäldegalerie with its astonishing collection of European painting from the 13th to 18th century beautifully displayed.

Maybe I do want to go back to Berlin one last time.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part II

Frederick the Great's Summer Palace, Sans Souci in Potsdam

We moved a lot more slowly this time—no doubt in part because we are four years older. We are so glad we travelled a lot during our working years because it is getting harder. It takes a lot longer to get over jet lag than it once did.

We decided to skip Museum Island this time. This is one of the great cultural treasures of the world and we certainly hadn’t exhausted it. It would take months for that—but this time we wanted, at least to some extent, to get off the beaten tourist track. Our first full day in Berlin, we didn't try to pack much in, but rather spent a relaxing half day at Berlin’s very impressive botanical gardens and the nearby Dahlem museums. It is a testament to Berlin’s wealth of museums that Dahlem with its impressive Asian and African art collection is considered a second tier attraction.

Photos from the Botanical Gardens:
Alpine Gardens

Colchicum, one of the gems of the Fall garden

Our second full day we went to Potsdam which we had not managed to fit in on our first trip to Berlin. We soon discovered that Potsdam is worth more than one day and returned to Potsdam before leaving Berlin. Potsdam was Frederick the Great’s creation, with all his passions and eccentricities on display. I was intrigued by the king who composed music, collected art, was seriously interested in architecture and corresponded with Voltaire at the same time he was waging war and building his empire. Frederick was also something of a penny pincher. At Frederick's imposing New Palace I thought I was having an optical illusion. The bricks looked fake. And when we went up to them, sure enough the façade was painted to look like a real brick building.
Frederick's fake bricks

According to our guidebook, Frederick didn’t want to spend the money on real bricks! However, he spared no expense on the interior of the New Palace and on the jewel in Potsdam’s crown, Frederick’s Summer Palace, San Souci. For me the great attraction of San Souci was the Italianate formal gardens.
formal gardens, San Souci

At this stage in my life I'm likely to prefer a garden over a museum—-some exceptions of course. More on Berlin’s museums to come.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Return to Berlin: The Germany Diaries, Part I


My husband Rick wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday in Berlin. I enjoyed Berlin, but certainly didn’t fall in love with it and thought that it would be the last time I saw Berlin. Rick, however, had an itch to get back there and so this year we decided one more time in Berlin. We take turns with vacations. I’m drawn to Southern Europe; he’s drawn to Eastern and Central Europe and this year was his turn.

To my surprise, I liked Berlin better the second time around—probably because we were more relaxed. We weren’t ticking off all the “must see” tourist attractions—Museum Island, the Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum etc.

Another reason no doubt is that this time there were no hotel hassles unlike last time which was something of a horror show—the charming hotel we booked was certainly charming enough, but our room was a 6th floor walk-up.

We spend a little more on hotels now—a comfortable bed is a necessity. We loved our hotel—-Louisa’s Place in the Charlottenburg neighborhood; it is a suite hotel with really large suites and a great staff. Right next door is a seriously good restaurant, Balthazar.

We used to traipse all over town for a highly recommended restaurants. Now we take the hotel’s recommendations for good restaurants in the neighborhood and there was quite a selection of good restaurants within easy walking distance: Il Calice;Lamazere;,a wonderful Turkish restaurant Tugra ,and a traditional German restaurant Ebert.

Rick thought that since we were in Germany we should try at least one German restaurant and I reluctantly agreed. We had heard that Ebert was traditional German cooking done very, very well. It lived up to its reputation with the best duck I’ve ever had—with crispy duck skin to die for. However, the dumplings while delicious were incredibly heavy. I could manage only one bite of the dumpling and could not manage even one bite of the huge bowls of red and green cabbage.

I wasn’t interested in any more traditional German restaurants--not my type of food--but Rick convinced me that since we were in Germany, we should try at least one more German restaurants. So our last night in Berlin we went to Marjellchen, a highly recommended, incredibly friendly restaurant with reasonably priced German comfort food. The restaurant owners made you feel like guests rather than customers.

Berlin is more affordable than other major European cities—possibly because it’s not a major tourist hub like Paris or London. And we certainly haven’t exhausted the museums or tourist attractions in Berlin. Rick is already talking about going back one more time.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Ravenna: the Northern Italy Diaries, Part VIII

There’s always something we regret about the way we planned a trip. This time it was shortchanging Ravenna, once the capital city of the Western Roman Empire. We knew that Ravenna’s 6-7th century mosaics were a major attraction, but we did not know how incredibly beautiful they are. If we had known, we would have given Ravenna more than a one night stop.

We stayed at a wonderful, affordable hotel in the old town, the Albergo Cappela. The hotel had a very good restaurant and the rooms were beautifully furnished. I’ve never before stayed in a room with 14th c. frescoes!

It probably won’t happen, but I would love to get back to Ravenna again and give the city the time it deserves.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Pistoia and Montepulciano:Northern Italy Diaries, Part VII

Cathedral in Pistoia

In addition to revisiting hill towns we had fallen in love with love like Siena and Lucca, we also went to towns we hadn't seen on previous trips to Tuscany, towns often overlooked by tourists such as Pistoia immortalized by Dante . The main attraction is the cathedral with a very impressive facade. Unfortunately the facade was all we saw, as we arrived during the 2-hour mid-day closing. While major tourist spots like Florence have generally stopped the traditional midday closing, in towns off the main tourist track the mid-day closing still prevails and should be taken into account when planning a trip to Italy.

In addition to the Cathedral, Pistoia has a spectacular Piazza del Duomo, bordered by well-maintained medieval and renaissance buildings, including a perfectly proportioned Renaissance palazzo, now the town hall. Campanile in Piazza del Duomo,Pistoia

Siena and Lucca have been supplanted as my favorite hill town by Montepulciano, the most beautiful Tuscan hill town that we’ve visited. Perched on a steep hill above the lush vineyards which produce Montepulciano wine, it has spectacular panoramic views.
Views of surrounding hillsides from streets of Montepulciano.

At first we didn’t think we were up to trekking up the hill to the Piazza Grande, but the town is so beautiful that we kept climbing the hill and eventually reached the Piazza Grande—certainly one of the most impressive piazzas in the country of beautiful piazzas.

We set in a café on the Piazza drinking Campari for far too long, and didn’t have time for the visit to the Abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore we had planned for that day. Cafe on Piazza Grande in Montepulciano

When you find yourself in a town as beautiful as Montepulciano, you just have to take the time to savor the experience. It’s always impossible to see everything you’ve planned, and maybe that’s a good thing—a reason to return. If there’s a next time in Tuscany, we’ll see the Abbey and we’ll make sure we get back to Montepulciano.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Tuscan Hill towns of Siena and Lucca:The Italy Diaries, Part VI

At this stage in our lives we are slow travelers and we no longer try to pack several towns into one day. We gave Siena and Lucca one day each and I could happily have spent a week in each. The problem of course with using Fiesole as a base and making day trips to hill towns is that we don’t see the towns at night. I recall that the medieval streets of Siena were truly magical at night.

This was our third trip to Siena –the first in the heat of summer, the second in the chill of winter. Finally we saw Sienna on a gorgeous sunny October day. The austere, brick buildings of Siena’s medieval old town really need the warmth of sunlight.

When Florence defeated Siena in 1300’s, it prohibited any further building, so that old town Siena was frozen in time as a medieval city--an open air architectural museum. The Piazza del Campo where the famous horse races are held was every bit as impressive as I remember as was the enormous cathedral which my little son on our first rip to Italy called the cathedral with zebra stripes.

Whereas Siena is impressive, Lucca is welcoming--with its narrow streets opening up to gorgeous piazzas crowned by churches in what is known as the Pisan style, characterized by slender columns in white, pink, and green marble.
One of Lucca's most beautiful churches, San Michele

This was our second trip to Lucca and and sadly we have yet to see Lucca at night--and probably never will.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Florence is worth all the hassles:The Italy Diaries, Part VI

Despite all the hassles of driving in Florence, this city was worth every bit of pain. (And there was pain.)It is without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

For the most part we found ourselves returning to the places we loved rather than discovering new treasures in Florence—although we decided to skip the Uffizi this time. We’ve been there twice before and certainly haven’t exhausted it, but this time we just couldn’t deal with the long lines and the crowds.

We decided instead to revisit the Pitti Palace which is much more manageable. The Pitti Palace is a treasure trove of old masters; unfortunately, many of the paintings are hung so high on the wall, they’re impossible to see. Artemisia Gentileschi’s La Guiditta (fortunately hung at eye level) is one of my favorites, partly because it is by one of the very few women artists of the Italian Renaissance and because it’s a compelling, highly unusual take on a popular Renaissance /Baroque subject—the biblical story of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes. Usually there’s a grisly scene of Judith displaying Holofernes’ severed head dripping with blood. Here Holofernes’ head is not center stage but partially concealed in a basket. The focus is all on Judith.

For me, one of the great pleasures of travel in Italy is discovering painters I had never heard of but who are really, really good. There was so much artistic talent in Renaissance Italy and most of us have only heard of the most famous. Usually the ones who became famous are the ones who have pioneered a new style. The European tradition prizes innovation and those who are not trailblazers but who do wonderful work within established tradition are often forgotten. This time my "discoveries" included the frescoes of Allori in Santa Maria Novella and the portraits of Guistus Sustermann in the Pitti Palace
Portrait of Galileo in the Uffizzi

If there's a next time in Florence, I'll make sure to see the Susterman portraits in the Uffizi

facade of Santa Maria Novella

In addition to Santa Maria Novella, we revisited other beloved churches, including of course the Duomo. I could spend all day staring at the façade of the Duomo, a confection of pink and white and green marble. The first time I saw the Duomo was on incredibly hot, hazy summer day. The second time was on a gray winter day--finally this time we saw the Duomo against the bright blue sky of a balmy October day.

Another church we had to see again was Santa Maria Del Carmine; the church’s Brancacci chapel contains a wondrous fresco cycle by Masaccio; his expulsion of Adam and Eve is one of the most haunting paintings I’ve ever seen.

I would love to spend a year in Florence taking it all in, but alas at this stage of life that is clearly not going to happen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Vacation Rentals in Italy--Some Things to Consider: The Italy Diaries, Part V

Most of our vacation rentals have been in the U.S., most recently in Block Island where everything always goes smoothly—no snafus, no unpleasant surprises. Not the case in Italy.

We wanted a base in Tuscany and chose Fiesole, which is close to Florence and a good base for exploring the Tuscan hill towns. We wanted a hilltop villa with a wonderful view of the Tuscan hills. We hadn’t considered that if the villa is on the top of a hill getting there just might be a challenge. Actually it was a nightmare. In order to drive into town from our hilltop house we had to make our way through through a maze of incredibly narrow—albeit incredibly picturesque—streets. We finally learned how to navigate the streets but not before doing some serious damage to our rental car. Moral of the story: if you are staying in a hill town, ask questions about driving conditions to the rental property, and if you are dealing with a situation like ours, by all means rent the smallest car you are comfortable with.

One problem with rental properties is that often you do not know what questions to ask. It never occurred to me to ask if there was a landline. When we got to the house, we looked around for a phone, and when we saw none in sight, I realized it was a good thing I brought my cell phone. If I had known there was no landline, I would have bought a European cell phone plan and would have avoided an astronomical cell phone bill.

Also, ask questions about bathrooms. Since an old friend was joining us, we needed 2 bathrooms. We rented our house both because it had a view over the Tuscan hills and because it had 2 bathrooms. I assumed they would be adjacent to the bedrooms, but to my surprise, the second bathroom was in the basement down a steep flight of stairs. The Italians don’t share the American predilection for at least as many bathrooms as there are people sharing a dwelling, and it turned out to be difficult to find an affordable rental property with 2 bathrooms. Moral of the story: if you are renting a place with more than one bathroom, ask questions about its location. In Italian houses, second and third bathrooms are often recent additions, and can be in very inconvenient places.

But despite all this complaining, I love, love Italy. It’s worth putting up with a few inconveniences.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Driving in Tuscany: The Italy Diaries, Part V

Street in Fiesole

One of the reasons we chose Fiesole as our base in Tuscany was to have easy access to Florence. Florence has changed since our last visit in the mid 1990’s—-more cars, more traffic jams, and far fewer parking spaces. We quickly discovered that driving in Florence is a major challenge and parking is practically impossible. We found the pedestrians even scarier than the drivers. They would dart out into the streets seemingly unconcerned about their safety. We had one near-miss.

Our first drive into Florence was a nightmare. Signage was bad, street signs were lacking, and it took us over an hour to find a parking space. We would have taken a bus into Florence and avoided all this, but there is no long-term parking in Fiesole and we had no place to leave the car. Since our rental property was at the top of a steep hill, we couldn’t leave our car there because there was no way we could walk up and down that hill to get to the bus stop. We had no choice but to drive into Florence.Fortunately, Rick is a quick study and by the time we left Florence he was easily navigating the streets of Florence.

What really made our lives easier was our discovery of what we called “the secret parking place” which we stumbled upon by accident. From the road it looks like a little parking lot jammed with cars. However, behind these cars is an opening to a long narrow parking lot strung along the old city walls, with about a half mile of precious parking spaces. There were always spaces available, so when we drove into Florence we parked there and either walked or took a cab to our destination. Of course our secret parking place was no secret to the locals. We heard no language other than Italian in the parking lot and saw no people other than ourselves carrying tourist guides.

If there is a next time in Tuscany, we will be carfree.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ferrrara: The Italy Diaries, Part IV

Castello Estense, Ferrrara

After our trip to Italy in the Fall of 2014 I wrote a few blog posts abut the trip( See So happy to be back in Veniceand Verona’s Magical Old Town.) But then I got so involved in politics and then gardening that I never finished posting my Italy notes.

My last post was about our trip to the incredibly beautiful Lake Garda.
We wanted to stay for forever at the lake side Villa Giulia but considering how expensive the wonderful hotel restaurant was, it was just as well we had to move on.

Then off to Ferrara. On my 70th birthday, I got an unpleasant surprise. I got an email from the hotel in Ferarra telling us that we didn’t show up last night and would be charged for the no-show. I checked my email confirmation and it turned out we had the date mixed up. I had booked for 9/29 rather than for 9/30 as I had intended. We got a room for 9/30 but would have to pay for both nights. Rick and I have been traveling together for over 30 years and have never screwed up the dates like this. What a horrible thing to happen on one’s 70th birthday--confirmation of how we’re losing it!

Our brief stop in Ferrara convinced us that we were too old for these one night stops. When we were younger we did lot of hopping about from town to town. But now we don’t have the energy.

Given our fondness for staying in medieval old towns, locating a hotel can be a real challenge. After we’ve settled into our hotel there’s at most a few hours of daylight left for sightseeing, and the next day we’re on the road again.We promised each other this would be the last trip with one-night stops.

Of course, the down side of staying 4-5 days in one town is that you're usually doing a lot of driving back and forth to nearby towns. Also when you are using one town as a base to visit towns in a region, you usually don’t get to see those other towns at night—essential to really get the feel of the town. But then you’re not dealing with the hassle of constantly changing hotels. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

We chose Ferrara because it was mid-point between Lake Garda and Fiesole. Ferrara was not a town I fell in love with but perhaps with more time I would have discovered more of its charms. The major sites are all within walking distance of each other, but we only had time for the cathedral and a brief walking tour of the old town. We did discover a charming reasonably placed restaurant in the cloister of Santa Anna Church. And our hotel, Horti Della Fasanara, situated in a very large garden was so charming, I didn’t mind so much that we paid for it twice thanks to our reservations mix-up.

Hotel Horti Della Fasanara
There are always mishaps in traveling but they’re particularly annoying when they are your own fault.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The hydrangeas are back!

Nikko Blue is back

2014 was the year without hydrangeas—or at least without my beloved hydrangea macrophylla AKA mopheads. Unlike the mopheads, the lacecaps can apparently survive the most brutal winter and I did have lacecap hydrangeas in 2014.

I was really afraid that the exceptionally cold winter of 2015 would mean another summer without hydrangea macrophylla. To my great relief that did not occur.

One of the fun things about hydrangea varieties--the color varies depending on where you plant them. Endless summer is purple in my front yard
Endless summer is blue in my back yard