Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
– Elton John

Coming back from Magione, the lake, Trasimeno, is always a distraction. Especially now. Its waters in wide warm swaths of turquoise, its islands trying to decide whether to stay anchored in the lake or magnetically attach themselves to the sky of the same color gray carGRAY CAR! RED LIGHTS. BRAKES! STOPSTOP. The gray car turning against the tide of heavy traffic in both lanes – into a busy restaurant. No turn signals. Just brakes. The rest of us, in cars going both directions are scrambling to digest these sudden changes. And slam, one car, two car, three car, four, slam to a stop – inches from each other. Is that how it happened Danielle? Hand’s still gripping my steering wheel I can see out of the corner of my eye, he’s waving at me. Just outside my open passenger window. Right arm raised. Against a blue sky or a blue lake behind him. Can’t quite make it out.

At first I just saw the white cross beside me. Behind the new guard rail separating the traffic from the drop off down to the lake below us. At road speed I might not have noticed the cross, let alone the photo in the midst of its crown of flowers. And it would have been hard to have seen the name “Danielle” written in script above the photo. Easy to take it in here, from the seat of my suddenly lurched-to-a-stop Fiat. From the look of the photo it was taken on a day just like this. A day like any other to a twenty year old with the sun at his back and friends to wave to ahead of him. For the rest f his life. Danielle did you know how short it was going to be? Were you happy in the moment? Are you waving goodbye when the picture was taken? Or waving to get us to slow down today?

Heart beating a bit from our near miss, I’m trying not to, but I keep hearing the crash. Ours that wasn’t and his that was. The sound travels in shock waves, rattling sticks and leaves as it crosses the street, bounces off the parking lot and roughly whips its way through the windows, jostling glasses and silverware on the wooden tables. Heads snap up and freeze, diners digesting, processing, the quick in the crowd scrape their benches back on the concrete floors, and run towards the source of the sound. I see the would-be rescuers, wrinkled cellophane cut outs in a video loop, jumping up running for the crash, jumping up running toward the crash, jumping up, running, jumping. Glassy ghosts of survivors, are still here, still running, still hoping for a different ending the next time the video plays. The survivors themselves probably aren’t here right now. But Danielle is. Still waving as I drive off.

PERENNIAL FAVORITES: The Umbrian plant ladies and I

“Baa BEAR ahhh” “Baa BEAR ahhh”

Who IS she calling? I am at a drive-by Piante e Fiore garden center place along the lake for the third time this trip. Every time we drive this direction for food or furniture odds and ends I stop for a couple more flats of plants. I was here a week ago and had loaded our Fiat Panda rentacar up with flats and yet more flats of happy spring additions to our garden. But that time, due to too many previous stops, that we were euro-challenged. Sigh. And then I found out – at the cash register – that they take only Bancomat cards (that normal Italians have) and not Credit cards that look just like them (that I have.) My credit cards work AT the Bancomat, when we use them for getting cash. I’m explaining that to the sympathetic-eyed man at the cash register. (Like the foreigner that I was born to be, and obviously ever will be. Allora.)

Yes, we should have gotten yet more euros. Since we merrily shopped our way thru the first batch earlier in the day. But, weirdly, the nursery didn’t care a bit. Money? No money? Apparently all the same to them. My saleslady just waved me off and said “next time you’re going by” To a total stranger like me, 44 euros of product? I said oh, no and started pulling things out of the car and she more or less physically stopped me, really wouldn’t hear of it. Not only did she insist we make off with their merchandise, but she topped off my pile of plants with a big pot of complimentary parsley. A gift to go with everything we’d “bought.”

It’s an hour round trip so, on one hand, I’d almost rather have a few less plants than come back. But on the other hand, in the big scheme of things, that kind of blind faith, do-unto-others attitude is in short supply in the world and really should be encouraged. So, here I am on a return trip, euro/cash in hand. “My” sales lady was effusive and laughing as she made me change, at the register. Happy she had taken a chance on me and been proved right.

In the confusion of my previous daring daylight raid on them, I hadn’t caught the names of some of the plants I’d bought, so I thought this would be a good chance to ask. My lady had tried to tell me the name of one of the plants was “Perennial.” Yes, that’s nice to know, but maybe what kind of perennial?

Beyond perennial, she’s not sure. So, that is why we’re standing outside the shop door and singing “Baa BEAR ahhh” “Baa BEAR ahhh”
The way she’s doing it is sounds so fun, so musical, I can’t help joining in the chorus while shading my eyes and trying to see where we are aiming our collective voices. At a certain point, my eyes adjust to the sun and HOLY SHOOT, BATMAN! Is that a supermodel watering a rack of plants off to the side of the parking lot? In one, slow, motion, she swings her black mane over her right shoulder, cocks an eyebrow at us, turns, and and and starts walking toward us. And walking towards us. Where was I? Italy. Good, good. Plants. Yes! Plants! Something . . . about a plant. Yes, yes, that is it! “Can you tell me the name of this plant?”

Just for the record, we do not get this Hollywood Look at the nurseries I frequent in Maine. I’m pretty sure we do not. Now, I’ve got a plant lady on each side of me. I’m putting on writing glasses, balancing plants, note book, pencil. My blonde sales lady, to my right, is still spelling “Perenni” ok, ok, got that. The brunette, to my left, in the OMG chocolate brown sweater knew what I meant and began patiently pronouncing and spelling the long, long two part Latin name. “C.A.M.P.A.N.U.L.A. C.A.R.P.A.T.I.C.A. . . . C.A.M.P.A.N.U.L.A. C.A.R.P.A.T.I.C.A.” See? Just like it sounds.

You know that thing Italians do? Where they pronounce their written letter “e” like we would pronounce our letter “A?” And when they say “eEE” – at some academic level – we know they mean the letter we would write as an “i” but it still is swirling around in our head as our English letter “e?” Well, I had some that going for me, but with all the other distractions here . . . . allora.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Always, always pay your bills. You will be rewarded in heaven. And sometimes, right here on earth.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland



Meanwhile back on Planet Earth we’re still stuck with using our new Garzanti Hazon dictionary. Which is interesting because instead of being lets say “English/Italian” it was more of an “Italian/English” thing. Which is not surprising since we bought it in a book store in Umbria. And it had a feature I’ve never seen in a bi-lingual dictionary. It is called “False Friend.” Just like that, two words, in English and they were call outs in blue boxes on nearly every page

thealone2ESTATHE. The small plastic cup spins around in my brain. I stare at it again. That doesn’t look right. But there it is, perched on a skinny shelf in a Formica cupboard over our stove. Next to the breakfast cereal and a box of pasta. We are in the midst of a ruthless search and destroy cleaning frenzy. Things left in closets, under beds, behind doors, things left alone for years were now being looked at with suspicious eyes. Especially food.
As we all know, in a cleaning situation, any distraction is a good distraction. So, Even though I knew this was a ready to go cup of tea, I got to thinking about its name. And thinking what incredible hoops we poor Innocents Abroad have to go through to digest this. Funny thing about language. We’ve been looking at Italian words for years before we started studying them. Usual suspects, pizza, piazza, paparazzi, these are all words that are so popular and omnipresent that they became bigger than Italian and spilled over into English. There are dozens and dozens of them.


And then you have words in Italian that you don’t really have to learn, you just pronounce them a bit different. “Idea”, for example in Italian, or French for that matter, looks just like “idea” in English. It just sounds different. But you still see it and get it. Same with aeroplano for airplane. I can kind of work out words like that out for myself on a good day. Words like these give you hope that maybe, just maybe, you could kind of wing it, bluff your way to fluency. But when you wake up from that dream, you notice that for every airplane (aeroplano) there’s dozens, no thousands of works like “seat” (sedia) that don’t ring any bells of recognition at all. You just have to grab a sedia, somehow force it into your memory banks and use it until you own it.

And, of course, keep a dictionary nearby. We’ve bought any number of them over the years. But couldn’t find a single one in the house this trip. I could not for the life of me parse out a couple of the lame, round about, pun-based jokes Groucho was making in a new Dylan Dog comic. (My idea of a fine Italian text book. I know, grow up Stew) Very hard, I’ve found, to bluff your way around subtle, double entendres. So we buy another dictionary. Maybe in the false hope that by having the right word in our hand, that that by itself would make us more fluent. You know how getting a health club membership conjures ups vision of friends asking if you have been working out?

booksalonert2(Have you seen, for example, the trailers for the new Di Nero movie “Limitless?” The hero takes a new potent pill and suddenly he can do almost anything. He’s quick, he’s smart, he’s rich. Girls coo “Since when do you speak Italian?” He shrugs modestly. Where can we GET these pills!?! In the movie the pusher friend says they are “fda approved.”)


Meanwhile back on Planet Earth we’re still stuck with using our new Garzanti Hazon dictionary. Which is interesting because instead of being lets say “English/Italian” it was more of an “Italian/English” thing. Which is not surprising since we bought it in a book store in Umbria. And it had a feature I’ve never seen in a bi-lingual dictionary. It is called “False Friend.” Just like that, two words, in English and they were call outs in blue boxes on nearly every page, in both the English and Italian halves of the dictionary. I thought that was funny too. But it’s clearly presumed both English and Italian readers would grasp the concept of a False Friend. Made quickly sense to me and soon found myself looking for these small blue islands of clarity in a sea of words, words, words.

False Friends’ main job is to make you pay attention. And not go off thinking you knew a word when you really are just making a quick leap, a logical assumption.

Take the bookstore in Castiglione del Lago where we got the dictionary for example. Book stores and libraries have a lot in common at some level, no? What with both of them being full of books and all. Guess which one is a “Libreria?” That’s right. Not the Library, but the bookstore. Accident / Incident strangely enough don’t equal Accidenti / Incidenti at all but in fact are double-dealing False Friends of the best sort. They mean exactly the opposite of what you might logically expect. In other words, when in Italy, you have car incidents instead of accidents.

Which brings us back to the plastic cup. A cup of what is evidently by context a cup of “THE.” Italian is truly a wonder to pronounce, as it is perfectly phonetic. See a letter, pronounce it the same. Every, single time. Once you get the hang of it, it is not at all impossible to see a page of Italian and rattle off a few sentences at normal talking speed. And not have the least idea what you are saying. But still be pronouncing somewhat as if you had a clue.


But then there is the letter “H” It is consistent, I’ll say that for it. But consistently silent. It sometimes affects other letters near it, but even then in a regimented way. Ci is pronounced chee but chi with an allegedly silent “h” is suddenly “key”. But, here, in this word, “THE” it is just plain silent. So the word “the” could just as well be spelled “te” but that word is spoken for and means You in a familiar sense. But “the” with an “h” in it means tea in Italian. And ESTATHE is a brand and a cute play on words. (Giocchi di paroli) Pronounce the “esta” and “the” and you have a word that looks like estathe but which, because of that silent “h” in Italian, sounds like “estate.” And despite how that word may look, it doesn’t mean your ancestral home in the country. In Italian “estate” simply means “summer” and what could be better in the summer than a nice iced tea?

Cheers, and See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Bringing Italy home with us

If you are like us, you get a taste of Italy and you don’t like letting go. We just got back from Italy but some part of us feels that we’re still there basking “Under The Tuscan Sun.”

But! Did we tell you we’re working on a way to stretch out that “being there” feeling? That’s why we’re helping start the first ever Italian Life Expo in Portland, Maine. June 9-11th at the Ocean Gateway right on the harbor, across from lead sponsor Auto Europe’s world headquarters.

madampresidenteDozens of exhibitors including generations-old, but undiscovered family vineyards from Lake Garda to artisans in copper from Montepulciano, prosciutto and cheese makers from Parma to tour operators from Siena, so many shiny objects to hold your attention.

Here’s Midge outside Spannocchia who, with Institute for Italian Studies, are lead presenters of the Expo. One day last week, after this picture was taken, Midge, Paul Turina of Turina Italian Wines, and other board members went into Siena for a festive dinner at Antica Osteria da Divo by Chef Pino di Cicco. Everyone came back raving about him and counting the minutes till they could see him again at the Expo.

Good times coming. If you are in New England this June, the Italian Life Expo may be your ticket to Italy. It’s never been closer.

Tickets go on sale this weekend. Check it out.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland

VOLO ! The Flying Bruno

“Bruno, hey. No heat. What do you think? What? yes, of course, I’ve tried turning it on.” He and I are leaning on the glass pastry counter, having coffee at Andrea’s Masolinos in Panicale.

“Bruno, hey. No heat. What do you think? What? yes, of course, I’ve tried turning it on.” He and I are leaning on the glass pastry counter, having coffee at Andrea’s Masolinos, in Panicale. His usual “sacco di cose da fare” list seems especially long today. He’s being roundly teased for his wardrobe and is taking time to model for his latest invention: a found piece of string just over his tummy holding the left and right of his suspenders together. High fashion on low budget.

“But, Bruno can you help me, can you take a peek at the silly caldaio?”

He holds up a finger says “technico,” pulls out his telefonino and using the same finger, starts punching numbers in to it. Walking out into the street for better reception, he is talking loudly into the phone saying “This American here in Panicale says he doesn’t have heat, can you come look at it? No, it doesn’t have to be today. Ho un chiave e entro come un uccello. (I have his keys, I can fly in and out like a bird.)”

And with me, at least temporarily out of his hair, Bruno’s off to his next adventure. Running off to left, toward the piazza, while I’m heading to the right, to the house.

A few paces apart, I turn and say to his back “Grazie per il cafe!” He doesn’t say anything or turn, or break his stride, but his silhouette raises one hand in mute acknowledgment. A few more steps, each going our separate ways, I hear him calling me. He’s still in the dark shade of Via Filatoio, but he’s almost at the piazza. The bright sun is there, behind him. He raises his arms up and down, parka flapping. He’s laughs and says