Wednesday, June 2, 2010


My trip to Italy really had three parts. The first and last parts were mine. The first was the trip over through the bike ride from Siena to Florence. The last was a solo day I spent in Lucca and Florence, plus the travel day, home. Both blocks gave me good "head" time -- so, very much my time.

In the middle were three days spent in and around Florence with Allyson. And really, those three days weren't my trip, they were our trip. If you were to ask, I'd struggle to define our relationship right now. But I'm not sure it needs a traditional label, and as far as that goes, it's been a highly evolutionary relationship anyway, and any given label probably wouldn't stick for long. Labels aside, we're good together -- seemingly any way we're together -- and that's really what matters.

What I wanted most from the three days was to reconnect -- spend time exploring the city, sure. But get some face time, talk, and generally just see how being together felt after the past several months apart. Months in which I've been hit with a lot of change and turmoil. It's been hard not to have her nearby during all of that, and in truth the ongoing shifts in our relationship have been part of that uncertainty. In any case, I really wanted the time.

We didn't overplan the days' activites. If anything we probably under-scheduled. But we did have some cool stuff on the agenda. First, Allyson had suggested we sign up for a cooking class. I'd seen the same class during my search, but it didn't really fall inside the range of stuff I was thinking about (museums, churches and bikes), and moved right on past. But Allyson wasn't so encumbered, and when she saw it, she suggested we do it. I love to cook, and once she floated the idea, it resonated for some reason. Funny, that.

Second, I wanted to get into either the Uffizi or the Academia to see some art. I'd been to both my last trip to Florence, but that was 15 years ago, so it had been a while. My memory of the Academia is that it was basically full of those panels of "Madonna with Saints and Child" or "Christ with Saints and Pope" or other combinations of Jesus, his mother, and/or various historical Christian/Catholic figures. With all due respect, there are only so many of those a guy can look at before they all just blur together into one big gold-leafed, uhh... blur. Of course David is at the Academia, and that's one incredible piece of art. We'd figure out which to do as we went.

Third, I wanted to get into the Duomo this time, as I didn't have time last time I was there. Beyond that I was pretty much open to just exploring.

When I picked her up at the airport Thursday evening, Allyson didn't profess much of an agenda beyond the cooking class, having gelato, and spending time connecting (all good in my book). So we pretty much winged it (wung it?) from there. As it was, things worked out pretty well without overplanning. I think we'd agree that next time we should plan a few more things like the cooking class in advance, and I'd assent to the bus tour without argument (dumb of me to decline), but I'm not sure much else would need to change.

We had never never really traveled together, and there's always the chance of disaster when you first spend that kind of time with someone. There are anxious travelers, obnoxious travelers, complaining travelers, overscheduling travelers, clueless travelers... all sorts. And your travel style doesn't necessarily come out until you travel. I like to have a plan, but I don't like being shackled to one. And I don't like to stand out when I travel -- if there's a dramatic scene to be made, I want no part of it. We turned out to be pretty complementary on this front, which really isn't a surprise. And as a bonus, Allyson has a much better sense of location and direction than I do, and I eventually figured out she was always right about where we were and which direction we should go and ceded navigation responsibilities, to mutual benefit, and hopefully to her satisfaction as well.

Just some highlights of our few days in Florence:
Climbing the bell tower at the Duomo
Tuscan churches and cathedrals often seem to be skinned with white marble, accented with dark green, black, and/or pink marble. The most recognizable of these is the Duomo in Florence, which is really stunning. It's in the process of being cleaned, and the clean sections in particular are just gorgeous, shining brightly in the sun. At the time it was built, the dome was the biggest ever attempted, covering a larger space than any other. In any case, its a beautiful building, with quite a roof. Unfortunately, it's difficult to photograph, because the turret-like baptistry was plopped right in front of it, just about where you'd need to stand to take a picture of the whole thing from head-on. At least with my little digital snap-shooter -- a wider-angle lens might work better.

When we got to the Duomo on Friday morning after breakfast, there was already a hefty line to get in the building. So we sort of made our way around the outside, snapping photos and ooh-ing and aah-ing. One of us (can't remember which) noticed that you could climb up the tower, too. No line, either -- sweet! Lots of steps, though -- 414 each way, and pretty narrow. But well worth the climb, because the views from the top level were fantastic.

Cooking and Food
For me, there are no two countries that say "food" more than Italy and France. And in hindsight, the idea of taking a cooking class in Italy really borders on brilliant.

We signed up for a cooking class through The Accidental Tourist. They offer several different packages, including wine and olive oil tasting, but we just went with the cooking class, followed by a multi-course lunch. We were picked up at a little park across the Arno from the city center, and driven by our lively host out into the countryside, up into the hills and down twisty dirt roads to our destination -- a centuries-old stone farmhouse where flour, eggs, cheese, herbs and hand-crank pasta machines awaited. Wine, too -- always wine.

Making pasta by hand was a new experience for me. I have a Simac pasta machine that I pilfered from my mother when I moved into my first apartment. She'd literally never used it (a gift from my father, when what she really wanted was a hand-cranked one), which I thought was just a shame, really. I've put it to good use since, and I've got experience with pasta dough consitency and texture that served me well in the class. But I've never made the dough by hand, or used a hand-crank machine to stretch and shape the noodles -- they've just always squirted out like a Play-Doh pumper, after two minutes of machine kneading, well-formed in the desired shape.

Not here! Here, we had to pour a cup of Semola pasta flour (coarser than Semolina, said our instructor, Steve) onto a plastic-coated table cloth. Then make a donut shape out of it, break the egg into the hole, and pop the yolk. From there, it became all about mixing the egg up with our index finger, while slowly working in more and more flower, until pretty soon we were working with a ball of dough. As we kneaded, Steve coached us through getting the right consistency -- not too dry, and not too sticky -- in prep for running the dough through the machines. This was tricky because you needed to knead it well to mix in enough flour to dry out the center of the ball, or it'd all be too sticky, and you couldn't tell by looking at the outside alone how sticky it was inside the ball.

Once it was ready, we set it aside and Steve added the ingredients for some ravioli filling to a bowl. Simple stuff -- Ricotta, parm, chopped spinach and a little nutmeg. I mixed the filling for Steve while he ran upstairs to get something. And I must say, I mixed like few before me could possibly have mixed. It was outstanding. Seriously.

In the process of making the filling, I was introduced to a MicroPlane. I'd never seen one of these magnificent graters before, though Allyson informed me that Rachel Ray has one. I was absolutely taken by the speed and ease with which it dismantled a block of Parm, plus the fine, delicate texture of the resulting shavings. Good stuff, and I had to have one. And now do -- thrice used already, once to make ravioli. Oh! There was a mezzaluna knife, too. My mother has one of these, but I never knew it was for chopping spinach and the like. So now I have one of those, too. It's just a cheap little one from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but it works. I'll find a bigger, nicer one someday, maybe.

Once the filling was done, we divided our dough balls in half, and ran the halves through the machines repeatedly, making them thinner and longer with each pass. They ended up maybe a yard long and six inches wide. My second one was really good, and as you can tell I was definitely feeling good about being good at this stuff. The first ribbon was turned into ravioli shells, and the other was turned into fettucini. We filled and folded the shells (the half-moon variety of ravioli, not the square kind) and used a pastry wheel or a fork to cut and/or crimp the edges. I have a pastry wheel, now, too -- also used once so far, and principally by Juliana at that.

All of the resulting pasta went upstairs to be prepared, and after Steve snapped photos for us, we made our way first to the sinks to clean up our hands, then upstairs to eat. The food was fantastic, and the pasta we'd made was only two of the five courses. The ravioli was prepared with sage, butter and parm, and the linguini with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and I forget what else. There was a pizza course, and a mushroom and artichoke frittata (about as eggy as I'll venture), and gelato -- it was all just so good!

At one point during lunch, Allyson leaned over and asked me what I thought Steve's accent said about where he was from. I guessed he was an expat Brit, but it turned out I was pretty far off. He's originally from North Carolina, and as he tells it, he once met a girl in Florence (also from NC) and he decided to stay. They're no longer together, but they're apparently both still there. I can't blame them, really -- it's a fabulous city just brimming with life. Anyway, he seemed like an interesting guy, and it struck me that he has a fun job. The class was a great idea, and a great experience, and it's one I'd like to repeat in other places in the future. Like in multiple regions of France, and other places in Italy. Someday.

That was really just one of many great meals we had there. I'll skip details of what we ate and where, but really, all of the food, save for the free stuff at the hotel buffet, was very good. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners all had something to remember, and even in cases where what I got wasn't quite what I expected, I wasn't disappointed. And yes, the gelato, invented in Florence, was spectacular.

The Boboli Gardens
This was a bit of a letdown. The Palazzo Pitti is sort of the Florentine version of the Louvre, except it's smaller and sits at the base of a hill. It's a palace built by the Medicis, and it's got gardens up and behind it for which a bready, supermarket pizza shell was named. I just made that up, but it might be true.

In fairness, we didn't see all of the gardens, it seems -- there was a bunch of stuff we somehow missed off to the East side -- but even so, I'd probably skip this next time. I mostly wanted to walk around outside in a nicely manicured floral setting, but it was hot and not shady and not so floral or manicured. Not that it was bad -- the views were great and there were some romantic nooks where you just knew a dalliance (or a hundred) had transpired. It just wasn't quite what I expected.

There was this cool work of art though -- the Medici Grottos. This was a fountain of sorts, built as an open-front building, and decked out like a cave, with sculpture worked into what looked like stalactites and stalagmites and other limestone formations. It was really the most interesting part of the gardens, not counting the views of the city.

The Uffizi
The Uffizi is also sort of like Florence's version of the Louvre, except that it's not a former palace that's been turned into a fabulous art museum, it's the former city offices. And again, smaller. It's a cool old building with great ceilings and is a much more manageable size than the Louvre. The Uffizi can be appreciated in a matter of hours, whereas I think most people (myself at least) ought to spread the Louvre out over several days, because it's very hard to appreciate that much great art all at once without getting jaded, bored or just overwhelmed.

The big deal at the Uffizi for me was the collection of Botticelli's. Of those, the two I liked best were Spring and The Birth of Venus. But Pallas and the Centaur is neat, too. All of his women look about six months pregnant, which you may know -- Google those works, and you'll see what I mean. Somehow that makes the work more fun to me, though I'm not sure what that says about me, now that I've written that down.

We also got there the day they opened the Caravaggio and Caravaggisti exhibit, which was a cool surprise, since neither of us had known anything about a special exhibit. The opening Caravaggio is the recognizable painting of Medusa's severed head. I never realized this painting is on a parade shield, rather than a canvas. But there it was -- the parade shield, sitting in a glass case. That shield sort of tees up more of his work, plus those of men and women who picked up his very realistic and softly-lit style from there. Biblical Judith makes several appearances, along with Holofernes and/or his head, including in Caravaggio's version.

I'm no Art History major, and there's plenty more in there to see, of course. But those are the parts I enjoyed most, and the two Botticellis left enough of an impression for me to pick up the postcards in the gift shop at the end.

What would Italy be without shopping? I needed a belt, since I forgot mine at home, and since I've lost a bunch of weight, and haven't been able to really keep up with my falling waist size in buying new clothes. On that note, Allyson gave me a good talking-to about that while we were there -- arms crossed, sitting back in her chair, etc. Must have had an impact, because I seem to have leveled off, since I got back (lighter than when I left), and have added a pound or two back since. We'll see what happens over the summer.

In any case, I needed a belt. Plus some sunglasses, since I broke mine in the car on the ride to the airport, at home. And wine and olive oil, of course. Plus gifts for the girls. I ended up getting a small red leather (very nice, too) purse for Ava, a very cute shirt for Juli, and simple glass-pendant necklaces and hard candy for both. I considered, but passed on, both a hat and a wallet. Allyson picked up a bunch of stuff, too, but was most focused on finding a red leather bag. Florence is definitely the place for leather bags, and she was wildly successful at finding one worth buying, in the same red leather as the one I bought Ava.

None of this was extravagant stuff, except maybe my Ray-Ban's, and most everything seemed haggle-ready at the shops we went into. Certainly at the open air market, they started you off with a discount, with plenty of additional room to fall as the day progressed. And the prices rose like the sun to their original levels the next day, to repeat the cycle again. It may have been this way for centuries -- who knows?

But I wasn't really there for the food or the shopping or the art or architecture. All of those made the venue fantastic, but I was there to connect. And happily, we did. Allyson and I have a really good dynamic -- a dynamic I've missed in the six months since she left, and missed even more after I dropped her at her gate at the Florence airport. As I said earlier, labels are hard to apply right now, and it's hard to see precisely where our relationship is headed, how it will evolve, and what parts of it will survive and/or thrive. It's even hard to predict where she'll end up, now that she's tasted living abroad and has easy access to all these fabulous destinations. Or where I'll end up, as I make my way through my divorce, the sale of my house, and the re-establishment of my career. The re-establishment of my life, in a sense, though I understand now more than ever that you don't ever really start over the way you might initially think.

What I can say is that it felt good to be there. And to be there with her. I'm hopeful -- I trust -- that as we continue to build separate lives on two continents, we'll stay connected. So that when we emerge on the other side, we'll have a pair of solid foundations upon which to build something new.

All for now,


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