Sunday, June 24, 2012


We went to the small Umbrian hill town of Spello earlier this month to experience the infiorata there—profuse but short-lived art in the form of flower-petal mosaic pictures (quadri) and carpets (tappeti) laid out on most of the piazzas and narrow streets.  It is the culmination of months of planning, from developing designs and growing the flowers needed to create them to gathering teams of infioratori to spend a night on their hands and knees painstakingly “painting” with petals, seeds and leaves.

Although created for the religious festival of Corpus Domini, the infiorata is also a competition among breathtaking floral creations.  The materials must all come from plants—fiori, flowers; petali, petals; folie, leaves; semi, seeds; baccelli, pods—and though most are freshly cut, some pastel shading comes from dried petals.  When we arrived Friday evening we found small groups clustered around open cantina doors and in small piazzas all over town industriously pulling petals from bright yellow ginestra blossoms (Spanish broom), cutting feathery wild finocchietto (fennel) into dark green threadlike snippets, making confetti piles from red garofani (carnations), and plucking margherite (marguerite daisies) of several colors.  Some designs use as many as 70 different shades and textures.  We came upon the group shown below cutting up finocchietto, and they gladly accepted Cinzia’s offer to help. The next morning we passed two women diligently pulling apart azure fiordalisi (cornflowers), and they were only too happy to put us to work doing the same.  Over the next few hours we learned that they had grown these flowers—4000 plants started in February—specifically for the infiorata, and also grew white and fuchsia varieties and that these petals would mostly go into a big design to be  created in a piazza at the top of their little street.
Cinzia cuts finocchio with new friends.

Pails full of fiordalisi petals.
Fiordaliso azzurro or cornflower.

Yellow broom, ginestra.

The pictures and carpets are actually fabricated overnight, beginning about dusk on Saturday and finishing before 8 a.m. Sunday.  During the day on Saturday while some, mostly women and children,  pull petals, others, mostly men, set up big white tents in all the piazzas where large pictures will be done.  The structures not only protect the nascent creations from wind and weather, they include bright lighting for the marathon overnight sessions.  By some magic the tents all disappear by the time judges and visitors arrive Sunday morning.  Most of the big works start with a giant paper template or cartoon glued to the pavement with flour paste, some as large as 16’ x 40’.  They look like enormous paint-by-number canvases, using numbers or some other code to specify which color goes where.  Others sketch the plan out with chalk.

The large pictures are created under protective tents
 which take half a day to erect but miraculously disappear by morning.

Color-coded paper patterns are glued to the pavement.

Some do it the old way, with chalk outlines.

Instead of numbers, this team's template uses abbreviations for the flowers required:
FN = finocchio, FAS = fiordalisi azzurri secchi, CAF = calendula arancio fresca, etc.
Compare pattern and product below.  This design is where our blue petals went.

Some of the pieces were very complicated and involved both skillful shading and intricate details.

The picture above was taken after midnight, but by morning a net full of fish had appeared.

There was a category for "Under 14" kids, too.
Below, they are using a cookie-cutter-like form for repetitive designs.

All of this is quite a spectacle, and throughout the process visitors like us wandered the picturesque streets of Spello gawking and admiring.  The weekend before the infiorata the town holds a contest for the best garden, though most “gardens” are pots on stairways and hung from the walls of the stone buildings.  These were still mostly at their peak, adding considerably to the charm of the place.

Five minutes before midnight, Piazza della Repubblica.

A few of the dozens of lovely "gardens" in Spello. 

The festival of Corpus Domini culminates with an 11 a.m. religious procession through the town, including a band, a choir, many church prelates and finally the bishop and the holy communion host under a baldachin, or canopy.  These last travel right over the flowers laid in the street, which is a shame but really the point of the infiorata, deriving from ancient traditions of strewing flowers in front of emperors and evergreen boughs for early holy processions.  But if one wants to see all the beautiful floral art it’s necessary to make the rounds before the bishop gets there.  Here are some of our favorites, first tappeti (carpets) and then quadri (pictures).

This serpentine tappeto ran for a couple of hundred feet.  Above, it is being sprayed
 with water to keep the petals fresh and weight them down in case of breezes.

This creation celebrates solidarity between Spello and Emilia-Romagna,
 both having suffered from earthquakes, Spello in 1997 and Emilia just a month ago. 

This is the little piazza where we cut up finocchio greens Friday night, now transformed.

More "Under 14" creations.
Love the wheat above and balloons below.

Now for a few of the large compositions.  
First below is a rendering of the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

If I were awarding prizes this would have been my first place winner.
 I love the wavy hair and the fresh fruit bouquet she's holding.

This is another of our favorites, with the globe on the left and tower of Babel at right.
You may have noticed this one in progress in one of the photos above.

This is the actual first place winner.

Then along came the procession, which left the net full of fish full of footprint shaped holes.

Pax vobiscum.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Year Later

How was it?  What did you learn?  What was the best part?  What will you miss?  Are you going back?  These are a few of the questions we get about spending our year in Italy, and I’ve been trying to figure out whether I know the answers.  Certainly I can say we’ve had a great time.  Most of our expectations were met and our plans worked out— tocca ferro (touch iron, the same as knock on wood), we’re not home yet.

We’ve learned that no matter where you go and how much research precedes your visit, there is more to see and do than you expected: music concerts, film festivals, patriotic and religious holidays, parades, museums, exhibitions, archeological and historic sites, public markets, enticing shops, places to eat and things to eat.  We’ve learned to make allowances:  for museums that don’t keep the published hours, for buses that don’t come on schedule, for motorcycles that ooze through stopped traffic like lava and erupt across intersections the instant the light changes, for concerts that never start on time, for the occasional sciopero (strike), for city noises from trams and ambulances and for occasional excess rumore (noise) from our neighbor’s TV or festa (party).  We’ve learned to get along pretty well using the Italian language, though the telephone can still be daunting, especially if you get a recorded message.  And we’ve learned to appreciate the restaurant waiters and shop clerks who let us carry on in Italian even though their English is better than our Italian.

 We happened on this medieval flag and drum contest one day at the Colosseum quite unexpectedly.

The best part of our stay has been the luxury of having so much unstructured time, of not being pressed to cram every minute with touristic activity;  so we could balance a day of museum-heavy sensory overload with one of leisurely reading or walking around the city.   More explicit “best parts” include the daily dose of church bells; the ubiquity of antique and ancient architecture, whether medieval porticoes in Bologna or random Imperial-era columns and bits scattered about Rome; and the infinity of wonderful food shops and markets with seductive arrays of produce, cheese and prepared dishes da portare via—to take away.  Then there was the day that the assistant in our local cheese shop asked Cinzia if she wanted her cheese vacuum-packed for taking out of the country.  It was so gratifying when the owner spoke up and said, “No, no, no!  È di Roma!”—She’s from Rome!

An ancient Roman column built into a wall in Trastevere.
Below, only legs remain of this Villa Pamphilii statue.

Wonderful porticoes line Piazza di Santo Stefano in Bologna.
Cheese, cured meats and prepared foods at a Florence supermercato.
Below, where Cinzia was recognized as di Roma.

What will we miss once we’re back in California?  The caffè, meaning both coffee and the place you drink it.  Not that  you can’t get a good cappuccino and pastry in the U.S., but in Italy it is hard to walk more than a block in most cities without passing at least one caffè where the service is fast and the coffee is excellent and inexpensive.  I know I’ll never find cappuccino for $1.50 once we’re home, served in real china in under two minutes by a barista who is helping half a dozen other patrons at the same time.  We’ll also miss having daily access to  open-air markets and local specialty shops where the vendors know us.  After coffee here in Florence we often stop in Piazza di Santo Spirito to buy from Rosa, who has been bringing things from the family farm just south of the city for 45 years.  And in Rome, aside from the kind cheese seller in Antica Caciara, there was Stefano for fruit and veg in Piazza di San Cosimato and the effusive signora in the pescheria there who always had a sincere buongiorno for us whether we were buying fish or not. 

Above, our regular, Baylon Caffè in Rome's Trastevere.
Below, Stefano in Piazza di San Cosimato.

Even though California has plenty of good wine, we’ll miss the super abundance of inexpensive vino available in Italy.  The wine shops and grocery stores have hundreds of possibilities, with the good ones starting at €3 and excellent vintages from about €15 ($19).  There are also shops that sell vino sfuso, where you can bring in your empty bottle and have it filled from their stainless vats.  There’s one right around the corner from our apartment.  For our “house” wines we can get quite nice Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese for under €3.

Our bottles are filled at a vino sfuso shop in Florence.

Although I will admit that our area of California is culturally rich, we will miss the wealth of free and inexpensive concerts that we’ve enjoyed in Italy this year.  Bologna’s many music schools offered opera, piano and other instrumental recitals in charming settings around the city, with performers who seemed too young to be so good.  Rome has hundreds of churches with nicely reverberant acoustics, and many host visiting performers from around the world; the same is true in Florence.  (I don’t know where but in Italy we would have come across concerts for fisarmonica in every city we lived in.  We heard the woman in this link in the church of Sant’Antonio Portoghese in Rome.)

A free lunch-time concert in Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.
I can’t leave the ‘what we’ll miss’ category without mentioning gelato.  In hot Bologna last summer we ate it at least once a day, and we’re pretty much doing the same now in Florence.  We have two great shops near our apartment that both offer unusual flavors—such as melon, pink grapefruit (pompelmo rosa) or sesame with swirls of dark chocolate—for under $2 a cup.  And of course they have luscious limone, frutti di bosco, fragole, pesca and amarena (lemon, wild berries, strawberry, peach and sour cherry).  It’s much lower in fat than U.S. ice cream and has a delightful-on-the-tongue silky texture.  Yes, we’ll miss gelato a lot. 

Lower fat means more intense flavors in gelato.
Not only people like gelato.
This good-mannered dog in Pisa had her own cone, which she licked just like a person would.

Several of our friends in the States have asked how the Euro economic crisis has affected us during our yearlong stay in Italy, and what evidence of it we see around us.  The answer is that for us the biggest impact has been the increase in the value of the US dollar against the Euro.  Last June when we arrived the exchange rate was $1.45=€1.00.  A year later it is $1.25=€1.00.  So at the bancomat (ATM), a €350 withdrawal costs me $70 less now.  That’s a lot of cappuccini.  

The sales tax on most things went up 1% last fall as part of the effort to balance Italy’s budget, but we can’t easily see that because the sales tax (a value-added tax called IVA here) is not listed as a separate item on receipts—it’s incorporated in the marked prices on the shelf.  The IVA rate is typically 21% (scheduled to go to 23% in Sep. 2012) and applies to almost everything.   

One commodity price that has gone up noticeably is automobile and truck fuel.  Last summer when we rented a car in Turin, the diesel was about €1.62 per liter.  Last weekend for a trip to Umbria the fuel was €1.90 per liter—about $9.00 per US gallon (including a 2¢/liter tax to help pay for earthquake relief in Emilia-Romagna).  The favorable currency exchange rate difference just about balanced the price increase for us, but Italians are paying about 17% more to fill their tanks than last year.  As a result most prices for food and everything else brought by truck to markets and stores has gone up as well, though often the rise has been so slow that it’s hard to see from day to day.

Fuel prices are one of the reasons so many Italians ride motorcycles and scooters or drive small cars.  Here in Florence there are long stretches, sometimes whole blocks of street parking reserved for motocicli, and they are often all full.  In TV commercials tonight in less than two hours I saw ads for 5 different small cars, priced between €7,900 (Peugeot “107”) and €10,125 (Ford “Fiesta”).  For a similar reason, photoelectric arrays have sprung up all over the place.  From trains and highways you can see lots of PE systems laid out in vineyards and wheat fields, on schools, factories and some houses.  We pay about $0.45 per KWH of electricity here (over 4x our U.S. rate), which may explain the lack of electric clothes dryers, the timers on apartment building stairwell lights and why some elevators cost €0.10 per ride. (Better have that dieci centessimi coin handy to drop in the slot or else head for the stairs.)

Above, motorcycles and scooters  in Florence on the Lungarno Corsini.
Below, laundry in this Trastevere vicolo is not for scenic effect but a sign of high electricity prices.

Finally, will we return to Italy?  Certamente!  Certainly!  But when and for how long a stay we can’t say.  I’d like to think this was a dress rehearsal for another lengthy stay, but economies, both ours and the world’s will have to settle down a bit first.  A permanent move to Italy doesn’t seem likely, especially considering the newly imposed worldwide wealth tax on Italian residents and the onerous bank account and tax-reporting requirements.  Meanwhile, I have over 13,000 pictures to sort through and several topics never explored that I would like to add to this journal.  So whether we’re physically in Italy or not, we’ll be here in spirit.