Posted by: livesimply2livewell | September 4, 2009

Cortona: Memories of the First Time

This continues my posting on Italy (below several posts), drawn from an earlier blog.

Because the plane was so empty on October 11, 2001, I got a full 5 hours of sleep on the flight across from Atlanta to Paris.  Best sleep I ever had on a long flight. 

We arrived, however, at Charles de Gaulle too late to make the early connection to Florence as planned. 

 I summoned up enough high school French to exchange niceties with the Air France representative and claim my free breakfast voucher while I waited for the next flight in a couple of hours.  I had rented a European-band cell phone before leaving the US, so I settled down over a croissant and coffee to call Emily, my daughter whom I was coming to visit. 

 She was on edge about my flight.  She’d have been on edge anyway (more on mothers and daughters sometime, perhaps), but 9-11 had rocked her world severely, and I had promised that I would call as soon as I could after setting foot on European soil (or, in this case, European airport floors).  She was in class, but another student promised to give her the message for me. 

 To the gate, and out onto the tarmac to the small regional jet that would take me from Paris to Florence.   It was another uneventful flight, except that occasionally the copilot, and then the pilot, would emerge from their stations to stroll down the aisle among the passengers.  This, I thought, was something we wouldn’t be seeing anymore in the U.S.  We were served a light breakfast over the Alps – how stunningly lovely!  And then, Florence.

Amerigo Vespucci Airport is small.  Really small.  Five or six gates.  One baggage carousel.  Tiny.  I actually like it very much.  Getting in and out is so much faster (assuming your luggage comes through with you–more on that another time) than in Rome, or Paris, or Atlanta, or Newark….  

[Author’s note:  The above was written in 2003 originally.  There has been an expansion of the Florence airport in recent years, although it remains smallish.]

It’s about 3 km from the historic center of the city, too, as the crow flies – such a view of the Duomo on the approach to the runway!   I claimed my luggage, showed my passport to a disinterested member of the financial police (who also double as customs and immigration at this airport), and emerged into the airport proper, which consists of a small area with several rental car desks and a couple of toilettes. 

The "Duomo" seen not from the Florence airport but from the Piazza Michelangelo, a little bit closer and differently angled.  But still spectacular.

The "Duomo" seen not from the Florence airport but from the Piazza Michelangelo, a little bit closer and differently angled. But still spectacular.

 I filled out the paperwork for my Fiat Punto, found it in the parking, lot, turned the key, and tried to put it into reverse.  It would not shift.  The owner’s manual was in Italian, which at that point I could read only in bits.  The trip was starting to wear on me, and I was feeling fatigue around the edges that made it hard to reason out why I could put Nissans and Toyotas into reverse, but not Fiats.  Back to the rental desk I walked.  The agent spoke beautiful English, and quickly explained (I had the feeling he’d done this before) about the the small ring that had to be pulled upward on the gear stick while shifting into reverse.  I found it, and backed out.

 I had not driven a standard transmission car since 1993, when I traded in my ’83 Nissan, then driven into the ground.  Eight years.  But it came back to me instantly.  I hit the highway, and soon was on the Autostrada pointed in the direction of Cortona, where Emily was spending her junior semester abroad studying art at the University of Georgia at Cortona program. 

 What a rush it is, driving a small five-speed on the Autostrada!  I had been warned about the horrors of Italian driving, all the way up to the day I left my daughter at the Atlanta airport in August; one of her fellow students had parents who had driven in Italy.  The signs are unintelligible, they said, with odd symbols, and always in the wrong places.  And the drivers….!  I was prepared as a result of this and other bits of wisdom from other Americans for a truly awful driving experience.

 I loved it.   Italian driving is fast, independent, and assertive.  I fit right in.  Speed limits were, as the cliché says, only suggestions, as did all other cautionary signs and signals.  In little more than an hour, I reached the Valdichiana exit, where I had arranged to meet my agriturismo hostess, who would pilot me to the farmhouse in Cortona district where I would be staying. 

 Laura M. speaks no English.  A young woman in her late 20s to early 30s, I’d say, she had brought a 12-year-old Anglo-Italian girl who lived across the road (I later discovered) to do any necessary translating.  Little was necessary, but Lizzie, a no-nonsense sort of young lady, was at the ready.  I followed them to Podere le Piazze, in the tiny village of Cignano about 12-13 km from Cortona proper, which I could see on a far hill through one of the bedroom windows in the 3-room apartment.  

 I was introduced to Laura’s mother, Signora M., a country widow still living the farmer’s life.  She spoke no English, either, but over the next few days I came to know her a little anyway.   A quick tour of the apartment – efficient, comfortable, perfect.  A route drawn on the map so I could drive from Cignano to Cortona (by this time I was completely disoriented), and I was left alone.

 I like to unpack immediately when I get to a destination.  Gives me a sense of being there.  It doesn’t take long when the suitcase is small.  Once my clothing was in the wardrobe and my toiletries in the shining new bathroom, I called Emily to let her know I was on the way.

 If the Autostrada is a rush, driving the back roads in Tuscany is sheer sweet pleasure. 


View of the Valdichiana from Piazza Garibaldi in Cortona. My accommodation, Podere le Piazze, was in the distance across the fields.

Fields, cypresses….the landscape I’d seen through glass in 1994 on a speeding train from Rome to Florence was now surrounding me on all sides.  Through rolling farmland, into the flat plain of the Valdichiana, and on to Camucia, the larger community at the foot of Cortona’s hill.  Up the hill itself on a switchback road that passed through terraces of silver-leafed olive trees, past Santa Maria di Calcinaia, the old church halfway up the hill, and finally to a public parking lot. 

 I parked at the foot of via Guelpha, and called Emily once more to let her know I was in Cortona itself.  I waited at the foot of Guelpha.  And waited.  And waited.  And finally, there she came, down the steep hill, smiling and vibrant.  She’d gone to the wrong porta and lot at first (something I would understand more fully as I came to know Cortona).   Up Guelpha the two of us went toward the centro storico, to begin in earnest my week in Tuscany.

To be continued.

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | September 3, 2009

What is this thing called “simplicity”?

Simplicity.  I am working toward it, but right now my life does not feel so simple.

It’s getting there.

I’ve been cleaning and organizing my home and home-based business for the past two weeks.  

Deep cleaning, the kind that starts with the under-eaves storeroom (chockablock full, preventing other things from being put there) and works downward and outward.

Arranging by numbered boxes corresponding to inventory SKUs makes it easy to locate a sold book.

Arranging by numbered boxes corresponding to inventory SKUs makes it easy to locate a sold book.

This sort of endeavor creates more chaos as it proceeds.  Things come downstairs, but then other things have to go upstairs to be stored when room comes available.  Down and up.  Up and down.  All day long.

There was a point about 10 days ago when I was ready to lock the door, change my identity, and move to another place entirely to start fresh – as opposed to wake one more morning to disorder and piles of stuff.

My main challenge consisted of about 4,000 books. 

I sell books online at .  Over the decade I’ve been in this business, I’ve gotten better at what I do, and I’ve moved from selling almost any book that might bring a few cents’ net profit to adding inventory only if it will bring a selling price of $20 or more. 

These 4,000 books were the cheaper stuff.   Most of them I got for almost nothing in one fell swoop as leftovers from a charity sale in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I rented a panel van, drove the three-plus hours up there, and hauled thousands of books home.  I’ve recouped my investment and then some, but the leftovers – these 4,000 books that might sell for $5-15 – remained in boxes upstairs in a storeroom off my daughter’s old bedroom.  Which, by the way, was also stuffed with boxes of books I hauled home from my office when I quit university teaching last summer. 

The situation was dire.  I had not been able to put away the Christmas decorations last winter, so there they sat on daughter’s old bed.  And it got worse from there. 

Ridiculous to claim a simple life when this was going on in my own home.  Action was needed.

So I found a taker for the books, hauled them downstairs and out onto the porch, and got rid of them.  100 boxes of books. 

Putting my home office in order gave me the room to organize a "fitness center"!

Putting my home office in order gave me the room to organize a "fitness center"!

Literally, a weight was lifted from my life!

And I developed upper body strength that wasn’t there before.

I’ve spent this week in the aftermath, putting things in order – using the storeroom for actually storing things that are useful or meaningful (like the Christmas decorations).  Reclaiming daughter’s room as a spare bedroom.  Cleaning and organizing my workspace. 

I’m not done yet, but I’m getting there.  Today I am hauling another 500 books to the library to donate them.  Tomorrow I start working on the deck, where some of the indoor stuff is sitting waiting for a decision (keep or throw?), and the yard and garden are begging for attention. 

I’ve found some surprises, and there are questions to be answered about the remaining stuff.  Do I really need four black carry-on suitcases on wheels?  Why do I have so many of them in the first place?  I, who spent 10 days on the road this summer carrying only a backpack and a shoulderbag?  Will I ever use the insulated picnic bag, complete with dishes and tableware, that I got as a grocery store bonus?  And so on.   

For packing and shipping books, having everything in its place and easy to access is important.  I like having natural light, too, while I work.

For packing and shipping books, having everything in its place and easy to access is important. I like having natural light, too, while I work.

Nevertheless.  My life is simpler than it was two weeks ago. 

It’s a lighter life, and I feel a little bit more in command of it than I did with the weight of 4,000 unwanted books on my upstairs floor joists.

I am not finished with this awkward journey toward simplicity, but I feel as though I am on the way. 

Having less makes me feel as though, somehow, I have more.

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | August 5, 2009

Mind-Traveling to Tuscany

Cypress trees and the Tuscan landscape around San Gimignano

Cypress trees and the Tuscan landscape around San Gimignano

I am thinking about Tuscany today.  Maybe it’s the lush tomato harvest and the basil just steps away from my kitchen door.  Maybe the heat this week, humid and heavy, evokes a languor that makes me more given to daydreams than usual.  I don’t know.

There’s a calendar next to my desk.  It’s like the calendars that I buy when  I am in Florence, at one of the news-stand/souvenir kiosks that dot the piazzas of the city.  This particular calendar, however, came from the Barnes & Noble, as I have not been to Italy since 2007.  The photo for August shows rolling green hills near Pienza, with just a hint of late summer in the gold that tinges some of the fields.  Cypresses punctuate the landscape like exclamation points, and rows of grapevines in a small vineyard are abundant with clusters of grapes.  In the distance, an ancient farmhouse, and beyond that, tree-covered hills.  It’s beautiful.

Cypress trees on a mountain overlooking Terontola, near the Tuscan-Umbrian border

Cypress trees on a mountain overlooking Terontola, near the Tuscan-Umbrian border

When I gaze at a view like this, if I’m having a day when I can be “in the moment” instead of thinking about books to send to customers and project deadlines and bills and what to fix for dinner, I’m transported back to the Tuscan countryside.  My first glimpse was in 1994, on a train ride from Rome to Florence.  The beautiful, green November landscape, broken by occasionally fallow fields or recently mown hay fields, sped by the windows.  I thought, “Aha.  It’s a Renaissance painting’s background come to life.”  And it was. 

That first trip was urban – Rome, then Florence, then back to Rome and on the plane.  Tuscany remained a concept, a view beyond the glass windows of a speeding InterCity on the Trenitalia ferrovia. 

Until 2001, that is.  I landed square in the far Tuscan countryside in October, one month after 9-11, when planes flew across the Atlantic almost empty and every traveler seemed on edge.  Reaching my destination was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opened up the farmhouse door after being rocked by the cyclone – and discovered the Land of Oz in green and gold and lushness.

 To be continued…..

(Author’s note:  I first published a series of posts about Tuscany in a blog I built myself, from scratch, a few years ago.  That blog is gone – victim to spammers – but I thought that the words still had something to say.  I envision a series of travel-related posts coming, probably weekly.)

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | August 2, 2009

Little Shop of Horrors: The Carnivorous Plant in the Kitchen

Carnivorous plants on my windowsill.  Flies, beware.

Carnivorous plants on my windowsill. Flies, beware.

No, I don’t mean the use of carnivorous plants as ingredients. 

I suspect there would be a certain defining taste to a venus fly trap, a sundew, or a pitcher plant that might not go well with my usual recipes.

Rather, I am using a planter of assorted carnivorous plants to control the fruit flies, house flies, and other assorted insects with wings that find their way indoors and buzz around kitchens in the summertime.

It was an impulse buy, the sort of purchase that I am trying to avoid as I lurch awkwardly toward simplicity and redefine what abundance means. 

I was making my last pass through the Piedmont Triad Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.  My shopping for peaches and nectarines and blackberries was finished, and a little money remained in the wallet.  Then I passed a vendor with tables full of cultivated carnivorous plants native to the Carolinas.  I’d just been thinking that the blackberries would be sure to draw fruit flies almost immediately, even as I prepared them for freezing. 

I came away $15.00 lighter in the wallet and lugging a planter of fairly good size full of plants that derive their nutrients from insects they lure with sticky-sweet nectar. 

How to use this newfound organic power to trap and kill flies was something that took a little consideration. 

If I keep the planter on the windowsill, it will need additional grow-lighting.  That’s probably not the best thing compared with having a lot of natural light just a few steps away outdoors.   And boggy carnivorous plants like humidity much more than I do.

Plus, the plants will need dormancy in the winter months.  They’re hardy enough here in central N.C., and they benefit from a dormant time with temperatures in the 35-55 range or so.  My house is cold in winter.  But not that cold.  Seems as though they will need to be either out on the deck, brought in during a cold snap, or in the store-room under my office with my freezer, winter apples, and dormant angel trumpet container plants.

For the rest of summer and fall, I’ve decided to keep the plants just outside my kitchen door, where I can make sure they don’t dry out and where they might distract and intercept errant house flies before the nasty little buzzing things breach the perimeter.  Occasionally I will bring the planter into the kitchen for a few hours to deal with the fruit flies.

So far the sundews have picked up many fruit flies, and there is a house fly showing interest in the venus fly trap. 

The plants themselves are beautiful in a prehistoric sort of way.  I love the

The plants are beautiful in a prehistoric sort of way.  Sundews and pitcher plants tower above the toothed, plated leaves of the venus flytrap.

The plants are beautiful in a prehistoric sort of way. Sundews and pitcher plants tower above the toothed, plated leaves of the venus flytrap.

filigree of the sundews against the toothed plates of the venus fly trap leaves, and the pitcher plants tower gracefully above, giving the arrangement some height.  Green and red of many shades mingle in the leaves and flowers. 

I’m hoping my little shop of (flying insect) horrors will do its job for a long time.

Information on conditions and care of carnivorous plants from the International Carnivorous Plant Society

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | August 1, 2009

Another summer vegetable garden

A beautiful, asymmetric, dusky, complex Cherokee Purple enjoying the shade of a Genovese basil plant, the perfect accompaniment to tomatos in the kitchen.

A beautiful, asymmetric, dusky, complex Cherokee Purple enjoying the shade of a Genovese basil plant, the perfect kitchen accompaniment to tomatoes of all kinds.

I had the pleasure yesterday of paying a visit to a couple who are living in their first home and cultivating their first garden on the property this summer.

Beth and Morris are growing Cherokee Purple tomatoes, patty pan squash, burpless cucumbers, zucchini, and a “volunteer” bell pepper plant that is currently setting fruit in the middle of the cucumbers. 

We are raising the same species, but the varieties produce a completely different garden, at least to my eyes.   As a first garden – as a garden, period – it was thriving.

This is a more typical North Carolina back yard garden than mine.  It’s a well defined and self contained patch of what looks to me to be pretty decent topsoil but over a hard clay bed. 

(My own yard lacks that hard piedmont clay, a fact for which I’m thankful.  I’ve been in my house 20 years, and from the start the garden I dug from sod has been rich and loamy.   On my property there is clay, but far down, and only in some places.)

Herbs grow in pots at the back door.  I’m envious of their container rosemary bush surrounded by thyme.  I have both, but nowhere near as conveniently located. 

Their yard is huge compared with mine, and they have a small stream at the back of it with wooded area.  I don’t envy the tending of the grass, but I like the potential I saw there. 

Gardeners always cut straight to the potential.  We live on hope and promise and a belief that next season will be better.

The Cherokee Purple is a misshapen tomato, muddy red and green skin and dark flesh.  It is, hands down, one of the best tomatoes for the classic summertime white-bread-mayonnaise-tomato sandwich, best eaten over the sink to catch the juice. 

I’m not growing them this year – last year and the year before, yes – but I highly recommend them as one of the tastiest slicer tomatoes around. 

I brought one large tomato home with me and ate it between two slices of white bread for supper at the kitchen sink.  It was so heavenly that I felt just a little twinge of regret for not having grown Cherokee Purple in my own garden this summer.

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | July 28, 2009

Tomatoes, seeds from Italy, and mid-summer garden bounty

Pomodor Costoluto Fiorentino

Pomodoro Costoluto Fiorentino

Tomatoes.  Vigorous, abundant, lovely tomatoes.  I have them.

A few at a time last week.  More this week.  Buckets full by the weekend.

Tomatoes raised from seed back in the winter, tended under grow-lights, nurtured in a small greenhouse contraption on the deck in the springtime.

Uses for them are many.  Not all involve throwing overripe ones at mean people. 

I will share some of these better uses as I develop my “food” section of this blog.

Pomodoro tondino Maremmano

Pomodoro tondino Maremmano

They are all, this year, heirloom Italian varieties, purchased through my favorite online seed company,   Parks and Burpees and other well established American vendors are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but Seeds from Italy is special.

When I go to Italy, which is not nearly often enough, I favor the small Tuscan and Umbrian hill towns.  There is always a market in one of them, regardless of the day I launch my rental Fiat onto the back roads and byways .  And in the market is always a vendor of seeds.  The same varieties I can now buy online from a very nice man in Massachusetts who imports them.   

Opening a box from Seeds from Italy is like taking a gardener’s mini-vacation across the Atlantic. 

I purchased my entire year’s garden last fall.  Sugar peas and cavolo nero (Tuscan kale with spear-shaped, black-green leaves) and broccoli rabe.  Arugula, chard, carrots, beets.  Onions and leeks.  Five kinds of pole beans.  Warty yellow crookneck squash and deeply ribbed Florentine zucchini.   Cucumbers and pumpkins.  Eggplant and peppers.

And of course the tomatoes. 

An all purpose smallish salad tomato from the Maremma.  A Florentine heirloom that looks as though it were crafted of satin gathered into folds.  “Fiaschetto” a Puglian San Marzano-style.  Another San Marzano, “Scatolone,” almost as big as my fist.  And more.   My only concession to American seeds this year was a planting of Clemson Spineless okra.  

Part of the 2009 Garden

Part of the 2009 Garden

Okra aside, my garden looks and feels like Nonna’s kitchen garden, any Nonna in any hill town. 

Adding to the ambiance, the fig tree is about to put forward its second crop, the big one that will flourish from August till frost.

Basil grows, sage is abundant, and the rosemary bush has never looked better.

And there are bees.  Many, many bees. 

Happy garden.

Happy gardener.

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | July 27, 2009

Who am I, and what am I doing here?

Existentialist sensibilities aside, let’s start with my name, sex, age, marital status, offspring, and place of birth: 


Female (pretty obviously from the name). 

Age:  Baby Boomer, in fact I pretty much rode the crest of that demographic wave.   We are the ever-young, Peter-Pan generation, so whatever calendar age I might post, trust me:  “I was so much older then – I’m younger than that now.”  (thanks, Bob Dylan) 

Marital status:  Divorced long enough to be over it.

Offspring:  Light of my life, sweetest young woman you would ever want to know, my daughter.  She’s turning 28 this year, married happily to a wonderful man who treats her well.  Just thinking of Emily and the life she has shaped makes me smile.

Place of birth:  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Avalon in the North Boroughs, to be exact.

(Have a look at the “about” tab at the top of the page for a few other facets of me-ness).

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | July 27, 2009

A simple welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog, where I hope that what I write on my version of living simply and well will be interesting and thought-provoking, and maybe even useful from time to time. 

It’s a slow, hot dog-days sort of morning here in central North Carolina.  Not the best day to start a blog, perhaps, as the brain moves about as slowly in this weather as the leaves on the dogwood tree outside my window do in this heavy, still air.

I have an active day ahead of me – some business to transact (more on that later), a neighbor’s dog to tend while the owner’s away, some papers to get in order for a meeting tomorrow, and oil painting at Casa Savilla, Greensboro artist Karine Thoresen’s studio, tonight.

Posted by: livesimply2livewell | July 27, 2009

Dog-sitting. Because it’s what neighbors do.

I’ve just returned from looking in on the neighbors’ dog while they’re away at the beach for a week.  The dog is old and frail, and probably failing.  Rimadyl soothes his arthritic joints, and he doesn’t hear, see, or smell very well any more.

The dog, which has a wiry terrier-airedale-something coat and slightly apprehensive eyes, has two names.  Fafa and Boyo.  I do not remember why.  Fafa is older than the children who live in the home.  He’s outlived several of my dogs and a few of my cats.  Ya gotta give him credit for tenacity.

I struggle to define simplicity in life.   But I recognize an absence of simplicity when I see it. 

When it takes more than a paragraph to leave instructions for pet care, there is probably not as much simplicity going on as we might hope.  

The last time I left my two dogs and four cats in someone else’s care, I said as she drove me to a trip rendezvous point, “Food’s in the kitchen.  Let them out in the morning.  Bring them in at night.  Call my cell if you have any questions.”   The week passed without incident.  Simple.

Fafa’s care covers (in small font, with marginal notations) two sides of an 8.5 x 11 inche piece of paper.  In fairness, he is on medication, he is elderly with ingrained habits, and his owners really do care about him. 

Keeping an elderly, ailing pet in the home is by definition something that will make life not so simple.   I know.  It’s not been a year since I said goodbye to my chow-lab Annie, and less time since I sent my beautiful white cat Bubba to his final rest.  More on them another time.

I am not sure that Fafa recognized me when I went in.  Generally he sees me as the enemy rather than his caretaker.  From time to time in past caregiving weeks we have had words about his need to go outdoors instead of lurking, snarling, in a narrow hallway.  But this morning (and last night too) he was docile enough. 

Maybe he has decided that this is to be his version of living simply.  Don’t cause trouble, eat when they give you food, drink when you’re thirsty, take your medicine, pee where you’re supposed to.  And the rest of the time you get to lie on a nice, soft bed in a cool, quiet home where nobody bothers you for hours at a stretch.


Doesn’t sound half-bad.