The Caretaker – Watercolor by Jed

watercolor, Jed Smith, Italywise

The Caretaker – Private Collection of Shelley and Ed Hobson

Just a few days ago I returned from a short trip to the beautiful town of Sulmona in Abruzzo. The experience was incredibly rich and warm (thanks to my amazing host and new friend Novelia) and I am hard at work on writing a blog post (soon to be published) about this amazing slice of paradise here in Italy. While I enjoyed many things in Sulmona, it was impossible to really scratch the surface with all the area has to offer. One thing, in particular, at the top of my list for my return trip is to do a “walk about” with a local shepherd. Novelia already has made calls and is working on possibilities to make this happen. What an artist/photographer’s dream to be able to camp out with and walk the sheep herder’s paths!

As I contemplate and look forward to such an experience, I remembered this watercolor that I painted several years ago, called The Caretaker. I love painting this, not only because of the unique perspective and composition, but because of the theme of a shepherd looking after his flock. I believe I inherited my fascination with flocks of sheep and goats from my highly influential artist mother, who frequently made them the subjects of her paintings.

I am drawn to the theme of the shepherd and his sheep, also because of the metaphorical meanings of having a benevolent force in my life that always is looking out for me, and always on my side.

I’m anything but conservative or fundamental in my spiritual beliefs, but my soul does respond to images and metaphors that become inspiring companions when fear shows up in my life. Currently, I am reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, and she speaks, quiet effectively, to how fear can stop creative pursuits in their tracks. She doesn’t reserve the concept of creativity for artists. She speaks to creating a life that allows a person to express their unique gifts and ideas. This resonates with me as an artist and writer who, all too frequently, can let the voice of fear talk me out of plunging ahead with a project. Ms. Gilbert wisely counsels each of us to not fight our fears, but to allow them to coexist. However, she advises not to let fear have a say or a voice in how we proceed.

As a person who has altered his life dramatically, these sage words of advice also come in handy. Leaving the security of the known can invite some pretty big catcalls from the voice of fear.

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A Moment of Meditation – Photo by Jed

meditation, Italywise

A Moment of Meditation

The woman in this photo represents something important for me, especially these days. This woman is someone who is practicing meditation as part of daily life.

As I am learning to be more present and more observant of life as it unfolds around me, I am struck by the magnitude of people escaping the present moment. Let’s be clear, this includes me much of the time, as my hungry, over active mind constantly is looking for something to chew on. A diversion from what is right here, right now. How can I possibly fully take in life if I am constantly glued to my digital devices checking emails, Facebook posts, news feeds, or playing games? Busted!

Often, those of us of the generations that have grown up and embraced the digital revolution shake our heads sadly at the “older” generations who haven’t seemed to “get onboard” with the same vigor. Maybe they actually are our teachers for learning to be present more often and for not seeking to fill almost every waking moment with a diversion.

Yes, I’m waxing philosophical again, and my blog often is a place for me to journal publicly about what life is teaching me. More often than not, I’m learning to ask questions…and to let those questions just percolate, rather than seeking to find some hard, fixed truth.

A big question for me these days is:

What IS meditation, anyway?

An excellent question. Mostly it conjures up ideas of sitting in an upright posture in a quiet room, and stilling or working to discipline the mind. It can become a structured activity that requires yet another set of ideals for doing it the “right” way. How quickly it becomes yet another impossible something to perfect, a task vs. a place where you can let go from all the doing and trying. Krishnamurti was outspoken in seeking to free people from traditional concepts of meditation.

Real meditation is the highest form of intelligence. It is not a matter of sitting cross-legged in a corner with your eyes shut or standing on your head or whatever it is you do. To meditate is to be completely aware as you are walking, as you are riding in the bus, as you are working in your office or in your kitchen… – J Krishnamurti

Mindfulness has often been used interchangeably with meditation. Be present for what you’re doing vs. being swept along on the autopilot of our conditioning. I have to chuckle at the word “mindfulness” as it seems to mean “full of the mind”. I don’t know about you, but I very much would like to not be ruled by the mind – well, at least not the chatty, persistent left brain interpreter.

I do believe there are benefits to having a structured practice and a time set aside to just “be” and to allow the thoughts to float by, much like debris in a stream. But, I’m very much intrigued and attracted to using the in-between moments of daily life as my real practice of meditation. This is turning my world upside down, as all too often I’ve learned to discard these in-between moments as being mere stepping-stones to a better, happier place.

Waiting at a traffic light, sitting on a train, being in a long queue (plenty of those opportunities here in Italy!) are all plentiful opportunities for me to explore meditation in my daily life. This often means leaving my iPad or iPhone at home, or safely tucked away in my backpack. Instead of reaching for one of these devices to stay connected, perhaps I can steer into the space of beingness.

In closing, I want to share a quote that I adore, and one that most perfectly, for me, expresses how and why meditation can be so powerful!

Meditation is like taking a bath to wash the mind. – from Meditation in Daily Life, theartofliving.org

To see this and other photographs, be sure to visit my online gallery.

I’d love for you to become a direct subscriber to Italywise.com. It’s easy. Just enter your email in the upper right column. You’ll receive a confirmation email, and then future blog posts will land directly in your in-box!

A Dream Tuscany Cycling Trip – Women’s Quest

Tuscany Cycling Trip

Twice I have been given special dispensation to hang with the gals, get an amazing workout, and eat sinfully, all while soaking in the Tuscan countryside as part of the Women’s Quest Tuscany Cycling Retreat. I’ve been one lucky fellow.

This year’s Women’s Quest Tuscany Cycling Retreat is September 11-18

I love getting the word out on special resources available to people considering coming to Italy and doing something extraordinary. This Women’s Quest Cycling Trip certainly fits the bill. Sorry guys, this year’s trip IS a women’s trip. BUT, in 2017 the schedule includes a Tuscany Retreat that is Co-ed! Woohoo!!!

I know Women’s Quest pretty intimately because, as part of my former job in California, I participated in doing a story about Women’s Quest and the numerous life-affirming trips they offer. The Founder and Leader of Women’s Quest is the inspiring Colleen Cannon, World Champion Triathlete (1984) and two-time US. National Champion Triathlete (1988 and 1990).

Don’t think about being intimidated by Colleen’s rock star status in the triathlete world – though she, and her incredible staff, will help you explore and push your boundaries. In my opinion, the universe sprinkled fairy dust on Colleen, and you will feel the magic of her guidance and mentoring.

Don’t just take my word for it, read the testimonials!

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Che bordello! – A favorite Italian expression.

Italian Expressions, Italywise

A frequently used Italian expression to communicate a mess of a situation!

One of the things I love most about learning and speaking Italian is stumbling across a phrase or expression utilizing a metaphor that perfectly captures the sentiment a person wishes to convey. “Che bordello!” is an Italian expression that rises to the top of my list of favorites.

“Che bordello!” translates literally into “What a brothel/whorehouse!” but also means “What a mess!”

As you can see, this expression doesn’t work in the English translation. If you said “What a brothel!” in the U.S. people would look at you like you’d lost your mind. Surely you’d offend someone. You might even get slapped.

“E un bordello,” or “It’s a mess,” is a more toned down commentary of a situation that is a bit out of hand.

I had heard the word “bordello” being frequently used, and finally I had the courage to ask someone why he kept talking about a brothel. The explanation came with a smile. As I soon learned, this Italian expression is considered to be one of the best for communicating confusion or a mess of a situation. I hadn’t thought of a brothel as inherently unorganized, but I guess you could say that there’s a lot of different activity going on simultaneously in a whorehouse. And, that prompts me to laugh.

This expression comes in quite handy, and I’m putting it to good use. And, when I do, Italians nod in agreement.

To headline this post, I searched for an image that might visually represent this phrase. And, the one above, during the high waters in Venice, won the contest, hands down. Believe me “Che bordello!” is used frequently when the sirens go off in Venice indicating high waters. We have a very good friend who owns two shops in Venice, and when the high waters come, she must rush to her stores to move all of her merchandise off the floors to a level of safety. Shop owners also have dams for their doors to minimize the water, though often the water seeps in from below.

And, of course, there is the matter of getting around Venice during high waters. Even in February, when this photo was taken, Venice is full of tourists and their suitcases. What a messy situation!

Oh, the applications can be plentiful, and I look forward to using “Che bordello!” with great frequency!

I’d love for you to become a direct subscriber to Italywise.com. It’s easy. Just enter your email in the upper right column. You’ll receive a confirmation email, and then future blog posts will land directly in your in-box!

Via Garibaldi, Rome – Photo by Jed

Photography, Jed Smith, Italywise

Via Garibaldi – Photo by Jed Smith

I love capturing images that imply mystery. Often I search out a spot that offers a nice composition, like this corner looking into Via Garibaldi in Rome. Then, I wait for the right moment with the right character/s, and the right sense of movement. Sometimes I wait, and wait, and snap many images, hoping to catch that split second when it feels like a story emerges, and when all the elements work together. While I like this strategy, I also know I can’t try controlling what happens. I have to “be” there, be alert, and then be open to what presents itself.

This has many parallels in my life. I’m reminded again of the credo that a good friend, and mentor taught me:

“Show up. Do your best. And, be unattached to the outcome.”

I’m employing this sage advice with my art, my writing and my photography. I have so many ideas bouncing around in my right brain, all vying for expression. Easily I can become overwhelmed, and frozen into inaction. It’s like my rational, thinking left brain doesn’t know where to start. It also is pretty insistent on knowing that we’ll safely (and perfectly) arrive at our destination before taking action. That’s a recipe for going nowhere.

My latest, and rather huge, revelation is that I’ve spent too much of my life sitting around thinking about stuff, rather than leaping into the unknown, and sayings “Let’s see what happens!” to the Universe. That’s changing, thankfully.

My mom, Liz Smith-Cox, readily leapt into the unknown with her art. A wonderful photo of this wonderful, artistic muse adorns my studio wall, and serves as a reminder to show up, to do my best, and to be unattached to the outcome. Liz would add, “Don’t forget to play!”

To see this and other photographs, be sure to visit my online gallery.

I’d love for you to become a direct subscriber to Italywise.com. It’s easy. Just enter your email in the upper right column. You’ll receive a confirmation email, and then future blog posts will land directly in your in-box!

My Buddy, the Bidet

The Bidet, Italywise

Here in Italy the bidet is indispensable when it comes to person hygiene.

Well, I promised myself I would be faithful to discussing all facets of my new life here in Italy. And, to that promise, today I’m writing lovingly about my buddy, the bidet. Pardon me if I insert a bit of bathroom humor, but I’ll try to keep it clean as possible (the puns already are starting!).

The bidet is found most widely in southern Europe, with Italy topping the list.

Wikipedia will ground you in the basics of the bidet, if for some reason, you need an education. I saw my first bidet many moons ago when I was studying art here in Italy. My university group had landed in Paris, and we were staying there for a couple of nights before taking the train to Florence. In our little hotel I remember my moment of extreme bewilderment when I saw this hybrid of a sink and a toilet. I stood there, wondering if there was a hidden camera recording my confusion, and my eventual choice as to which device to use. Mom and dad hadn’t prepared me for this. I chose wisely, opting to go with the known entity. I asked questions later, but basically got an explanation that it was for women to “freshen up” after using the toilet.

Now I understand so much more. And, I don’t know what I would do without one in our home.

Italians take their personal hygiene and their bathroom habits seriously. I’ve heard many of my Italian friends remark, with disbelief, that a bidet isn’t a common bathroom fixture in the United States, even going so far as to say “Che schifo!”, or “How disgusting!”. This is followed up with an inquiry as to how Americans make sure they’re “clean” after going to the toilet, and remarking that toilet paper surely can’t do a complete job.

I have to agree.

I now understand that the bidet is designed for both genders. The hurdle for me was getting past the sitting on cold porcelain. Yikes, that’s an abrupt feeling of cold. Now I know what women feel like when the men in their households leave the toilet seat up, and they experience surprise contact with porcelain.

But, now I’m well versed in how to use the bidet. A person can sit facing the faucet or opposite, depending on the task at hand, or personal preference. Soaps for “intimate” areas are always within reach.

What happens when space doesn’t allow for a bidet?

An important question, especially since some bathrooms simply aren’t large enough to accommodate a bidet. If you’ve ever been to Italy, and seen a faucet with a hose next to the toilet, well that’s what it’s for – not to hose down the floor or clean the bath, though it certainly can come in handy in that regard. The problem, for me, with this “solve”, is the inability to control and contain the water during the hose-down of private parts. And, the force of the water often is a bit much for my taste. But, now that my “house training” has adapted me to the benefits of the bidet, I’ll certainly take the hose over not having anything but toilet paper.

Now, when I’m out and about, and a bidet or a special hygiene hose doesn’t exist (as is the case in many restaurants and bar/cafès) I’m not a happy camper. And, when I visit the States, I have to revert to old habits, and settle for not having the extra dose of “clean up”. Certainly not the end of the world, but now that I’ve seen the light, I’m a convert.

Yes, I’m spoiled, but I’m happy not to be soiled (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

I hope you enjoyed this brief post extolling the wonders of the bidet!

 

Remembering Morris

Watercolor of Morris

Morris – Collection of the Artist

I’m still getting familiarized with the holiday schedule here in Italy. Many of the biggies correspond with those in the U.S., but others, like Father’s Day, vary significantly. So, since Italy’s Father’s Day was celebrated in March, and since I’m not receiving a barrage of advertisements for the U.S. event, Father’s Day, as I have celebrated it, almost passed me by. Tributes to dads, ramping up on FB, reminded me to pause and be thankful for being blessed with not just one, but two great dads. My birth dad, Ed Smith, died twenty-three years ago, and his passing came too soon, and the pain cut me to my core. But, soon, another wonderful dad came into my life, and his presence helped ease my pain – especially since his presence brought so much joy to my mother Liz Smith-Cox.

Morris Cox, was an extraordinary man, and a wonderful stepdad. Mom married Morris in her early 70’s, a few years after my dad’s death. I remember Liz remarking, after the first years of being married to Morris, how fortunate she was to have experienced “love like this” twice in her life. Morris made a point of telling her, everyday, how much he loved her and how fortunate he was to have her in his life. This was a powerful lesson to me, as Morris exemplified the belief in gratitude. Studies show (check out this article from Greater Good) that our brains “light up” when we remember and practice gratitude.

Morris also demonstrated an engagement with life and with keeping one’s mind and passions engaged. He was an English professor (and Dean of the Liberal Arts College) at Clemson University, yet in his 60’s he became a student again, this time of law. He practiced law (this is how he met my mom) into his 90’s.

Morris was the epitome of a fine, southern gentlemen. Whenever he and my mom were out and about (often in his baby blue Rolls Royce), he would race around to Mom’s side of the car to open the door for her. He was keen on having impeccable manners and always being kind and generous.

I am incredibly grateful for Morris’s loving presence in my life. His marriage to Liz also brought three wonderful step-siblings into my life, and we enjoyed many “big family” gatherings.

In 1999 I painted the watercolor above of Morris, after a trip with Mom and Morris, and my sisters Shelley and Dale, to Santorini, Greece. I always loved watching Morris. I found his face rich with character, intelligence and kindness. Painting him was my expression of love for this remarkable man.

Morris, I miss you. You lived an extraordinary life, and you gave handsomely.

The Stories We Tell – Our Playground or Our Prison?

The Stories We Tell, Italywise

A dear friend recently complimented me on my patience and thoroughness in planning for and making the move to Italy. The grand re-envisioning and re-building of my life wasn’t something I could have approached without research and a plan. My vision served me well, and though there were course corrections as new information came to light, I could not have completed the journey without having a “North Star”.

In the process of following my dream I created a story of how it was “supposed” to all unfold and look. Being in my fourth year of residency here, now I can tell you that becoming fixated and insistent on MY preconceived story was the least helpful and most anxiety producing posture or mindset. When I metaphorically set down my pen, and began to allow the story to write itself, and to evolve and change (often significantly) I found myself in a much better place.

Things happen differently for different people. For some, things just flow and fall into place, and they have a natural ability to go with the flow of life. I suspect these folks are the exception rather than the rule.

The stories we tell are a manifestation of an evolutionary, conditioned need to explain life and the world around us.

The earth is densely populated with 7.4 billion individual brains looking outward at the world, and interpreting events through unique filters and conditioning. That means 7.4 billion variations on the story we call our world and universe. Yes, we may agree on some things, but every person is a unique story-teller. Our interpretive left brains, through the evolutionary process, rule all too often, how we respond to the world. Looking through the metaphorical periscope at life, and surveying the landscape for potential dangers, indeed have served us well when we were in danger of becoming some creature’s next meal. Yet, I believe this interpretive function has run amuck, dominating our lives, and telling us stories about everything. We then take these stories to be true, and our psyches and physiologies get thrown out of whack.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE storytelling. I love how stories can approach or hint at truths that never can be contained or articulated with our small human brains. I love how changeable and creative we can be with our stories – as long as we approach them lightly and as long as we don’t make them hard, fixed and literal. If we do, judgment can rear its ugly head determining how to respond, and then we tell ourselves further stories about what everything means. I believe this marriage to our stories can create a prison – one that isn’t “out there” but in our minds.

We never really know what everything means.

Personally speaking, I’ve spent far too much of my life insisting on have an explanation, or at least an answer, NOW. That’s pretty demanding and pardon my expression, rather ballsy. Like most of my fellow Earth inhabitants, I feel God or the Universe owes me an explanation. But, in my life, I’m finding that is a complete trip into futility. While some of my stories are playful, creative and exciting, too many of my other stories are judgments or indictments of the events around me that do not fall in line with my vision of how things “should” be. My imagination is a potent force. But, it can get a bit out of control, and can start trying to create a story or non-stop commentary about everything happening around me. I share this not as a dramatic confession, but as a breakthrough of understanding how my mental circuits get fried on occasion. It’s like the interpretive, storytelling throttle gets stuck in high gear.

All too often, we have a thought, and then we create a story and decide, because these thoughts and stories have appeared in our heads, they must be real…they must be true. They must be dealt with. We’re saying “I know better.” Consequently, when we find ourselves under the sway of dark emotions, often it’s because of the story we’re telling ourselves as to the “truth” of a situation.

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A Decidedly Italian Wedding

Cortona Wedding

Cortona Wedding is a photo by Jed Smith.

 

Years ago, I was having a nice leisurely lunch in Cortona, Tuscany, with friends who were visiting from the States. We were dining outside, and overlooking the square below and the city hall just opposite. The restaurant was La Loggetta, one of the best restaurants in Cortona.

If you aren’t familiar with Cortona, it is widely know for being the setting of the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Many years before Frances Mayes published her widely successful book, I studied art in Cortona for a summer with my alma mater, the University of Georgia (they still maintain a campus there). While there, I fell in love with this old Etruscan village – well before wide-scale fame and tourism was dropped on Cortona’s doorstep.

As we were lunching, we realized we had front row seats to a wedding party descending the steps of the city hall, presumably after the act had been completed. Fortunately, I had brought my zoom lens, which I promptly put to use as I endeavored to capture this unique wedding experience, and one that says, we’re Italians and we take pride in expressing ourselves. For this reason alone, more often I’d love to play the role of a paparazzo (that’s a singular photographer) to capture, furtively, such beautifully and naturally orchestrated scenes. I can imagine it now, a version of The Wedding Crashers, but with me as a photographer who shows up, and tries to blend in.

In this particular scene from an Italian wedding, I invite you to zoom out to see the full image (if you haven’t already). I love the movement of all of the characters coming down the stairs, and leading to a focus on the bride and groom. Girasole, or sunflowers, are the chosen flowers of the wedding, giving a nod to the proliferation of these beauties throughout the area in the heat of summer. Even the groom’s boutinniere is a small sunflower. Brilliant.

Now my favorite part – the formality has been toned down with how naturally the bride and groom seem to be attired and styled. I particularly love how the groom is wearing hip sunglasses, and sporting a sexy open collar (yeah, with a couple of buttons unfastened). I looked at this scene, and thought to myself that these newlyweds wanted to be themselves, rather than conforming to a strict and formal matrimonial expression.

The right place at the right time. As an artist and photographer I’m continually amazed at how such captivating and intriguing scenes present themselves. Moments like these seem to be more elusive when I purposefully hunt for them. I’m learning it is useful to have a plan and to be prepared, but even more importantly, there comes a moment of getting out of the way and letting magic happen. And, it will.

For this and other wedding photos, be sure to visit my online gallery.

 

 

 

The Art of Italian Exclamation

Italian exclamation, Italywise

An exclamation of beauty.

Learning Italian can be daunting, especially if you insist on understanding and mastering the grammar. However, learning a few basics can take you far. Essentials are greetings, learning how to politely ask for something, and graciously thanking someone. If you desire to express your enthusiasm for the experiences you’ll have in Italy, which will be plentiful, then you might want to add a few simple phrases in your speaking arsenal.

A spontaneous expression easily can be constructed using the following formula:

Che + adjective (which must agree with the gender to which it is referring)!

Che, pronounced like “kay” (the ch makes a hard k) is the equivalent of saying “How”.

Che bella! – How beautiful!

Because, in the photo above, this refers to the vista, or the city, which is città, and both are feminine, this is why you say bella and not bello. Of course, if you see a handsome man, you might say “Che bello!” I use this expression most often when greeting friendly dogs on the street (once I know their gender).

Che buono! – How good!

This is a great expression to show your satisfaction with a meal. (In this instance buono refers to the food in general, which is cibo. If you were talking about a steak, a bistecca, it would be “Che buona!”).

While this is an exclamation of delight with your food, many westerners make the mistake of trying to be overly effusive. Don’t be over the top and say it’s the best you’ve every had, or that it is fantastic or spectacular. “Che buono!” will communicate your pleasure quite effectively.

Che caldo! – How hot!

When you’re trekking through Italy in the thick of summer, you’ll find yourself saying this fairly frequently. The converse is, “Che freddo!” or “How cold!”

Che brutto! – How ugly (or bad)!

If you’ve seen an especially ugly piece of art or architecture, this works (though it probably is best to say this quietly, or keep it to yourself, so as not to offend). Also, this can refer to someone who has behaved badly (again, practice caution, and not say this directly to someone so as not to escalate a situation).

Finally, my favorite…

Che schifo! – How disgusting!

Just a few days ago this came in handy. I was sweating away on the treadmill at our gym, when a guy hopped on the one next to me. As he started up, he pointed at a discarded wad of gum the previous person had stuck on the control panel, making a face of disbelief. I looked over, and exclaimed “Che schifo!”, to which he rolled his eyes and nodded in agreement.

The list goes on, but I advise focusing on using just a few. Once you have a better command of speaking Italian, and once you understand which adjectives work naturally with this formula, you can go to town.

And in closing, an important cautionary note – don’t exaggerate!

Americans in particular have seen too many movies with Italian themes, and when speaking Italian they often are “over the top” in volume and in exaggeration. Hollywood, is mostly the culprit, frequently having made caricatures of Italians and how they speak. Practice proper pronunciation, but speak evenly and politely, and you’ll be in fine shape.

 

 

 

 

 

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