I could write non-stop about all the things to do in Italy. Now that I’ve can safely say that I’m “settling in” living in Italy, I’ll be putting on my more adventure-worthy shoes and heading out to provide views and insights that hopefully are well off the beaten path.

Finding your voice – in art, and in life.

Finding your voice sometimes can take a lifetime. We often have to dig our way out of a mountain of conditioning, and voices telling us how things are “supposed” to be and what is “acceptable”. Confusion ensues, and we can be afraid to color outside the lines. Because discovering one’s own voice is such a rich topic, and one central to the fabric of my being, this post will be the first of four installments.

I was blessed to be born to a mother full of life, and with a love of teaching. My mom, Liz Smith-Cox, was a highly influential art educator in the public school system. Her students remember the powerful impact she had on their lives, in the art classroom, and in life in general. I remember how she recognized my artistic abilities at the age of five when I crafted the “Happy Squirrel” out of terra-cotta clay. The little guy had movement, and personality. She kept putting clay, drawing paper, crayons and pencils in my hand, and encouraged me create or draw anything and everything that struck my fancy. No limits.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice - my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice – my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

Then, I entered first grade, where I was under the tyrannical rule of a mean old lady, Mrs. Anderson. Someone had “taken the meat out of her sandwich” years before, and she was keen to rule with an iron fist, and a hard set of rules as to how things should be done. Why such an embittered soul was put in charge of joyous, and impressionable young children is beyond me. On my second report card, Mrs. Anderson gave me D in handwriting. My mother was dumbfounded, and when she met with the teacher to gain an understanding of why, Mrs. Anderson explained that handwriting included “coloring” and I was refusing to color within the lines of the drawings provided. It had nothing to do with my penmanship. My mom was furious. I think this is one of the first times I understood the force of my mom’s belief that creativity should be unfettered. I also remember how she stood up at a PTA meeting and gave a man a thorough dressing down for suggesting that all that was needed for art in the schools was some crayons and a coloring book. “Coloring outside the lines” became a recurring theme and mantra in her many years of teaching and workshops.

My Momma Liz was a tiger when it came to protecting and encouraging the individuality of the creative voice. I am incredibly blessed that she nurtured me along in this regard, as I believe such a foundation has helped me find my voice much more easily. This isn’t to say that I haven’t taken detours into what I believed was the accepted way to go, but something always has harkened me back to my own path.

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Piano Piano – The Art of Slowing Down

Why rush? I’m asking myself this question more and more. Italian life, and the emphasis on slowing down to savor the present moment, steadily has been exposing my American conditioning of go, do, and achieve.

Italians value slowing downs and enjoying the moment.

Italians, as a general rule, value slowing down, connecting with others, and enjoying the present moment.

My favorite saying here in Italy is “piano, piano” which translates as “slowly, slowly” or “softly, softly”. You’ll be hard pressed to find this exact translation if you refer to an Italian-to-English dictionary. This puzzles me because it is used so frequently. My best understanding is that it originates from musical terminology, and is an indication to approach and play a particular piece or section of music more slowly and softly. Nonetheless, it has become a new mantra.

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Lost in thought, or anchored in the present?

 

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts...

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts…

A fair warning…this post is going to be fairly philosophical. I feel compelled to share these rather personal musings with you, since I believe I’ve been asked by life, as part of this major move to Italy, if “thinking” and “thoughts” are serving me, or if I am their prisoner.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that, somewhere along the way in my development, I adopted the belief that thinking was my most powerful weapon, and my best armour to the perils of life. I suspect the real shift or enslavement to thought (vs. “being”) began somewhere around ten or eleven years old when I began plotting a strategy to ensure I would always feel safe in the world, and to get what I wanted. And, this is when I began living locked away in the tower of my mind. This is what I mean by being “lost in thought”.

In retrospect, I see the enormous energy drain that resulted from living this way – watching, thinking, worrying and controlling. This didn’t reach the breaking point, or the point at which I realized “There has to be a better way.” until I made the decision to move my life, lock, stock and barrel, to Italy. I left the security of the familiar, and I couldn’t have asked for a bigger transition that demanded incredible patience, and asked me to “do my best” while simultaneously telling me “to let go”. Old habits don’t die a quick or easy death.

“Trying to change thought with thought is like trying to bite your own teeth.” – Alan Watts

I’ve listened to a fair number of Alan Watts’s lectures. He has always been a great source for shaking up my usual perspectives on how things are supposed to be. This particular quote hit me between the eyes. A few simple words had described the mental battle I had been losing in trying to change myself and adapt.

I came to see, and doubt, the belief that I could use the power of my mind (thinking) to conquer or muscle my way through anything.

This has lead to some other personal realizations.

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Head to the beautiful heel of Italy – Puglia

A conversation from window to street

A conversation from window to street in Polignano a Mare

I’ve recently returned from a spectacular week’s tour of Puglia. A week is the minimum I’d recommend to feel as though you really have begun to get to know the magnificent heel of Italy. We did cover significant territory, but we returned home knowing much was still to be discovered.

Prior to our journey, my sister Shelley already had been visiting for two weeks. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport we retrieved my brother-in-law Ed, who had just flown in from the States. First, we made a quick stop at an Auto Grill to have a bite to eat, to have a caffè doppio macchiato caldo (“fuel” for the long drive ahead), and to load up on cold acqua frizzante (temps were high 90’s). Then we headed down from Rome towards Naples and then across Italy to Bari (I wish we could have stopped to see the old town of Bari, since I understand it is well worth the visit). Our first destination in Puglia was Conversano, south of Bari and just inland by 10 minutes from Polignano a Mare.

We chose Conversano because of its proximity to Polignano a Mare. August is the month when Italians head to the coast in droves to camp out with their friends and families, and to bake-in a good tan. Had we stayed in Polignano a Mare we constantly would have been fighting crowds and increasing our stress levels merely trying to find a parking space. To our delight, Conversano turned out to be a gem of a town, with incredibly friendly and welcoming people, and a quiet energy – even though we had arrived for the weekend of the Sagra della Mandorla – the Festival of the Almond. Follow this Conversano TripAdvisor.com link to learn more about this delightful little town. We stayed in the elegant and impeccable Corte Altavilla – literally in the heart of town. Initially, we struggled to reach the hotel, since the GPS in the car was taking us in impossible directions, and through incredibly narrow streets. Only later did we learn that we could breach the entrance to the square in front of the castle that was marked “no entry”, and the hotel would take my license number to give to the police so that I would not incur a ticket during our brief unloading of luggage (private parking with a shuttle was provided).

Conversano and Polignano a Mare

Long, cooling showers, and a lovely, relaxing dinner in Conversano, outside in an alleyway, were our just rewards for surviving the 5 1/2 hour journey from Rome. The following day we drove to Polignano a Mare (more on Polgnano a Mare at TripAdvisor.com), parked on the outskirts of town and walked into the city center. Shelley had her swimsuit under a swim dress with intentions of dipping into the Adriac and cooling off from the stifling heat. I had other plans and was armed with my Canon 5D Mark III and a short lens and a long lens. For me, wandering the streets of Polignao a Mare was like hitting an artist’s and photographer’s jackpot. Perfect vignettes and stories were constantly unfolding, and I found it impossible to be quick enough on the draw to capture all that I wanted. At times I wished I could be invisible so as to not alter the energy of a scene. We all know how people instantly change when they know a camera is pointed in their vicinity.

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Trusting life can yield surprising results…

The two "miracle" kittens are happily frolicking outside the house.

The two “miracle” kittens are happily thriving.

If you’ve been following my Italian adventures on this blog, you may have read my post “Courage, and building a new life” in which the challenging circumstances surrounding the birth of three feral kitten taught me about moving ahead in the face of uncertainty. When I last wrote, Micia finally had started producing milk and the two surviving kittens looked as though they had a fighting chance. This was almost two months ago, and I’m happy to report that they are thriving, and frolicking about in our little neighborhood. I named the kitten with the strong black and grey markings “Fonzie”. His little sister is still awaiting her name. You see, until a more careful examination recently, we didn’t realize she was a female. I’m particularly attached to her since I remember when I was huddled up with the newborns, warming them individually in my cupped hands. She was the one who wrapped her tiny paws around my forefinger, and started nibbling on the tip of my finger. She encouraged me to keep going, and she was the one who helped me understand that it wasn’t an inability to feed – it was Micia’s initial inability to produce milk.

These kittens, as well as our dear indoor cat children, Oscar and Francesca, are constant gifts leading me back to the present moment, and away from obsessing about the future.

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Courage, and building a new life.

CourageLeave it to the birth of three kittens to teach me about courage and learning to let life take you on a journey…

Seven days ago it was Sunday afternoon, and our sweet feral cat Micia was crying just outside our front door. Her water had broken and we knew her kittens would be born soon. Just two hours later we heard the faint cries of the hungry newborns coming from the room below our sun room, which houses the water heater, bundles of kindling, and some plastic tarp. I was sure Micia would take good care of her babies. I went to bed that night confident that all would be well when I awoke in the next morning.

The next morning brought distraught cries from Micia. She was waiting for me at the front door, and she quickly moved in the direction of the kittens, looking back to make sure I was following her. When I entered the room housing the kittens, my heart sank. The three kittens were lying on their backs, they were not moving, and their tongues were protruding from their mouths as if they had painfully departed from this world. I picked one up and I felt a cold, stiff body. Micia looked up at me as if to implore me to “do something.” What could have happened in the course of the night?

I was convinced they were dead, so I put them in a basket and began the grim task of finding a proper burial site.

Then, I saw the faintest of movements. They weren’t dead, just on the verge of making that transition. My head was spinning. What could I possibly do? I ran in the house, read about hypothermia and dehydration of newborn kittens on my Ipad. I was going to have to wing it. So, I went back to the tiny room, and I took each kitten and held them individually in my cupped hands, stopping to stroke them and give them whatever comfort and warmth I could. Micia was steadfast, sitting next to me. She was confused. Her eyes never left me, and they conveyed a trust and hope as she watched me.

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Trastevere’s Antica Caciara delivers heavenly, fresh ricotta…and more.

Ricotta di Pecora - fresh sheep's milk ricotta

Ricotta di Pecora – fresh sheep’s milk ricotta

I’m going to gush. Fair warning.

Trastevere’s Antica Caciara is paradise on earth when it comes to gourmet cheese and cured meats. “Caciara” is an Italian word meaning “confusion, bedlam, hubbub, muddle; mess, disorder.” The experience inside this shop is full of energy – energy from customers queueing up to make sure they don’t miss out on the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta prominently displayed in one of the front windows. And, you’d better grab some when you see they have it, because it will definitely make you want to slap someone out of enthusiasm once you taste it. I can’t believe it’s less than five euro a kilo. No wonder it flies out the door.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

But, there’s more, loads more – a vast assortment of artisanal cheeses, and every variety of cured meat you could hope for. At one entrance you practically have to shoulder your way past a huge display of guanciale, which is made from pork cheek or jowl, and is an essential ingredient (a preferred cut over traditional pancetta) in Bucatini all’Amatriciana. In case you don’t know, Bucatini all’Amatriciana is one of Rome’s hallmark dishes, originating just outside of the city in the town Amatice in the Sabine Hills.

When I go to Antica Caciara, which is often, I load up on ricotta, a special spicy salame, and a salame with fennel. The people who run the shop couldn’t be more gentile. They recognize me now, and they always greet me warmly. What a great business to be delivering a big slice of culinary paradise to eager customers. If you’re in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, be sure to check it out, especially if you want to fill your bag for a gourmet picnic, and then head up the hill to see Bramante’s Tempietto, and one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Rome.

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

Baccala - Another staple in la cucina Romana

Baccala – Another staple in la cucina Romana

Simplifying and Pruning Back

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Friday, March 13. Today, I was furiously attacking the shrubbery in the front of my Umbrian home. How dare it be thriving so much that it would impede the amazing view of the surrounding mountains? But, why was I pruning with such fervor? Then I realized this was a metaphor for aspects of my life that have become so overgrown that the “view” to the rest of the world was becoming obscured.

I have a wonderful life. I live in italy, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a wonderful home and an amazing partner. So, what’s the problem?

I have been in Umbria for almost five days. I came here to tackle a ton of stuff to get the house in readiness for making it home base for most of spring and summer. An ambitious “to do” list for my six days here (I’m heading back to Rome tomorrow night) was heavily weighted towards purging and pruning. Simone recently has been steering me towards books and online resources for simplifying and “tidying up” one’s life. I think he was sharing this information as a form of intervention. You see, I’ve allowed parts of my life to become overgrown and I have not been traveling “light”. I’ve been a great example of consumerism, subscribing eagerly to the belief that by adding more material possessions I was nailing a key part of the formula for happiness. Now I realize the pursuit of more has been crowding out who and what is truly adding to my happiness.

While this isn’t an earth-shattering realization for many of you, it is for me. Making a public confession is cathartic. As I write this, I’m wondering why it has taken so long for me to wake up to the facts that I am a hoarder – not the extreme kind you’ve seen on the news or in documentaries, where people live amongst stacks and stacks of useless stuff while sharing their living quarters with dozens of cats or dogs. I’ve been a hoarder simply because I’ve accumulated more stuff than I need or use. When I open my closets they’re jammed with so many choices (shoes included) that I become overwhelmed and opt for something familiar and comforting. Could my happiness really be about quality and not quantity? Could I feel more spacious and centered with less things vying for my attention?

Listening to Barry Schwartz’s TedTalk “The Paradox of Choice” was what initially help to wake me from my “gotta-have-more” slumber. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is now helping guide me towards a less cluttered life.

As of today, I have officially donated and “retired” at least 1/2 of my clothes and shoes. This involved five giant, packed, heavy-duty garbage bags. I almost strained my back trying to get them out of the house. Mind you, this was already after divesting myself of about 1/3 of my stuff when I moved from the States. Obscene? Yes. And, I am tempted to make yet another pass. I won’t believe myself anymore when I tell myself that I’ll use something “someday”. It’s a lie.

Soon I will tackle other areas of accumulation – most notably my computer data. Don’t laugh. Now that I have a new MacBook Pro to replace my very old iMac and MacBook Pro (over six years old), I’m downsizing, and planning on working with only my new laptop paired with a larger monitor. However, I’m a bit more intimidated by this task because I am weighed down by data – files and files of photos and documents. Again, I’ve been kidding myself when I say I’ll use it all. Time for major data pruning.

The list for pruning goes on and on…including the prolific growth outdoors here in Umbria. AND, and last (and certainly not the least) are the contents of my overactive mind. That is a topic worthy of its own post.

Staying on top of all of these things, and not allowing the same accumulations to insidiously creep into my life, is a step towards a freer mind and heart. More time and attention for the things that bring authentic happiness – my partner, family, friends, art, writing, and this wonderfully inspiring country called Italy!

My Latest Italian Food Find – Agriturismo di Ivan

My new front runner of culinary delights is "Gnocchi di polenta", a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

My new front runner of Italian culinary delights is “Gnocchi di polenta”, a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

Thursday, February 5.

Today we visited friends in Udine, a two-hour train ride northeast of Venice. We left behind powerful, gusty winds, rain mixed with snow, and rising waters. I was happy to be inside the warm train, speeding out-of-town until the waters receded. Little did I know that our journey north would lead to the best dish I’ve had yet here in Italy.

Our friends took us to Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, deep in the countryside. This restaurant was heavily populated with locals and workmen. I felt as though I was slipping into a place largely unfrequented by tourists. In fact I felt as though I stood out quite blatantly.

Everything was rustic, and cozy. A mature fire was close by, and low, warm lighting made this a place where I wanted to linger well after the meal.

The menu was simple and incredibly inexpensive. I spied several items of interest. Our friends pointed out a specialty of the house, a gnocchi of polenta with smoked ricotta and speck (a type of ham) and insisted we try it. I shelved my usual low carb restrictions and jumped onboard. This turned out to be one of the wisest culinary decisions I’ve ever made.

I guess I was expecting typical gnocchi shapes, just made with corn flour. Instead, these gnocchi looked like little polenta “cubes” doused with shavings of the smoked ricotta and chunks of speck. I took my first bites and became speechless. I was so engrossed in this new culinary experience that my chatty left brain shut down. I just ate…and ate. I’ll be thinking about this dish for a long time, and a trip back to this area, just to partake of this polenta gnocchi, will be well worth it.

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

This in no way should indicate that Agriturismo di Ivan is a one-trick pony. The cheeses and prepared meats will knock your socks off. The table wines are tasty, and the other pasta dishes, secondi and contorni (particularly the spinach in butter) are delicious.

We’re back on the train to Venice and to yet another fine dining experience at a favorite restaurant there – Osteria Anice Stellato.

Personal Reflections on Making a Big Life Change

Even the best of big life changes can challenge you in unexpected ways.

Even the best of big life changes can challenge you in unexpected ways.

I’m writing a lot about the practical experiences of building a life in Italy. Now, I’d like to pause and talk about the incredible mind shifts and life shifts that have been occurring as a result of making a big life change. I’ve loved how the adventure has unfolded, but it has challenged some long-held beliefs and ways of relating to the world. I suspected the move wouldn’t just be a romantic, magical manifestation (though there has been plenty of magic). I suspected I really would have to see how comfortable I was in my own skin.

I had a wonderful career in creative marketing, working with many talented and kind-hearted people. Friends thought I was insane to leave such a great gig to venture into a world that didn’t provide me a regular paycheck, and a matured social network and support system. I can understand such concerns, because I knew I would have to weather the transition of suddenly living in a dramatically different place and culture – one in which I would feel like a complete novice, and one in which I would be have significantly more time for personal creativity, and reflection.

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