Some Favorite Family Read-Alouds

Hi friends!

Head over to my friend Jessica Snell’s blog to read a piece I wrote about some favorite family read-alouds. I think you’ll enjoy checking out her blog, and hopefully you will find a new title or two to add to your reading list.

Until next time,

Alicia

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Posted in Books to Read, Children, Favorites, Good Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sabbath Books

I’m excited to have Jessica Snell guest post at Always Orange. Jessica was my editor for Everywhere God. Her suggestions and observations made my book better. I love what she’s talking about in this piece and I think you will too.

I want to read more than I do. So do you, probably.

And this is true even though I already read a lot.

(So do you, probably. If you’re reading this—this lovely blog that is neither YouTube video nor cable news offering—you’re probably a reader by both inclination and training.)

In fact, I read enough that people laugh at me when I tell them how many books I have going at the same time. At minimum, it’s usually

1) A non-fiction book I should read (perhaps on parenting, or biology).

2) A novel or anthology I should read (I’m a writer, and so I have to keep up with my genre).

3) A novel I’m reading to my children.

4) A book that lives in the bathroom.

5) A book that lives on my nightstand.

6) A book of poetry, to be read a few pages a day.

(And, yes, it’s necessary to have at least a book a room—stop laughing at me.)

But, even though six-books-at-a-time-at-minimum served me well for a long time, I recently added an obligatory seventh:

7) A Sabbath book.

I added this last category because I needed to.

I found that I was reading more and more, and getting more and more discouraged. My heart was worn. The world kept looking uglier and uglier. And reading was…well, reading was becoming work.

And, actually, it was okay with me that reading was work! Some things are good to know, but hard to read about. Most of the books in the world that are worth reading still have hard parts, or ugly parts, or even downright disagreeable parts. You read them anyway, because it’s worth doing the work of panning away the sand in order to get to those flakes of gold.

But, friends, I had forgotten: Six days shall you labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.

I needed to read books that were pure rest.

And I knew what that meant. For a book to be a book that gave me rest, it needed three things:

  1. It needed to be to my taste. No apologizing here. Some books are good books—in that they’re written with skill, or in that they’re of great moral worth—but they are not to my taste.
  2. It needed to be well-written. I’m a writer and an editor by trade, so poor writing pulls me out of the reading experience. I start editing in my head, and that’s not restful.
  3. It needs to be morally good. I don’t want to fight with my Sabbath books. I don’t want to have to be constantly filtering out the lovely from the unlovely.

In other words, Sabbath books tend to be old favorites. One of the first things I reread, when I realized that my heart needed rest and healing, was the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. And I also dove back into Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

These were books I did not have to fight. I didn’t need to analyze them (though they’re hefty and well-woven and stand up to analysis). I didn’t need to argue with them (most of the good things already in my mind were formed by them, or by books like them).

And they’re beautiful. They brought me back into the land of well-watered gardens, of rivers glinting gold in the sun, and of old and graceful trees, whose green branches bow down to the ground.

This was the rest my heart needed.

I will note, just to close, that these books, in general, are written by authors who allowed their own minds to be formed and shaped by the best of books, by the Bible. The scriptures are the River of rivers, and the green lands of my Sabbath books were tended by people who had themselves been nurtured by the scriptures. That source was part of the shape I was looking for, part of the echo I want to hear. The Bible is, of course, the first and best Sabbath book.

The Bible is the first river I want to swim in, and I want to listen to it and read it often enough that my thoughts start to echo God’s thoughts, and that the shape of His sentences carve the shape of my own. I want the inside of my heart to show the mark of that river, as if my heart were a fertile valley that was shaped by that river’s constant flow.

But I also love reading the work of people who’ve listened longer, and listened better than I have. I want to read the work of people who have also loved this world God has made, and who teach me to look at it again, and to see the glory and the weight and the wonder of being alive in it.

I want to fight my way through hard books, and argue my way through bad books, and discern my way through normal books.

But I also want to be refreshed by good books.

And by taking one day out of seven to read only the very, very best of books, I have been.

Jessica Snell - Copy

Jessica Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in Christ and Pop CultureDaily Science FictionThe Lent Project, and more. She blogs about books, faith, and family at jessicasnell.com and you can follow her on Twitter @theJessicaSnell.

She’s also the editor of Let Us Keep the Feast, a book about celebrating the Christian church year at home. Need ideas for Advent, Easter, and more? Check it out!

Posted in Books to Read, Good Reads, Sabbath, The Christian life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Writer’s Manifesto: The Kind of Writer I Want to Be

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This summer was the first in several that I did not have a writing deadline. The book was finished, published in fact. Outside of one book review due in June, I had no other commitments.

Instead of feeling a sense of freedom and anticipation, I felt lost and overwhelmed. I didn’t write nearly as much as I wanted.

One goal I had for the summer was to promote my book. After a Google search on “how to market your book,” I quickly felt like the biggest failure. No, I haven’t joined Facebook groups or commented on other’s blogs nearly enough. No, I haven’t done a podcast. No, I don’t have pinnable links. No, I don’t use social media enough. Discouragement moved in at my desk.

Suddenly, I felt stuck—no ideas for writing and no motivation to do something, anything in regards to promoting my book.

And then a couple of weeks ago, a fortuitous walk with a fellow writer gave me the necessary clarity I desperately needed. Alicia, what kind of writer do you want to be? Which writers inspire you? Be like them.

Ah, yes!

Like many writers, I have a day job, a very full one. I have to grab snatches of time to write and I often fail due to the demands of my job. I don’t have hours to spend on the internet following current trends and tweeting about them in real time. Often I feel like I read an article and think, “that was the article I wanted to write.” Rather than be bitter that I didn’t think of the pithy 140-character tweet or write the article first, I need to plug away at the work of writing, developing my craft.

So this got me thinking about the kind of writer I want to be. Because I never met a list that I didn’t like, I decided to write down my claims. Maybe I’ll even post them on my refrigerator.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. I want to be a writer whose pieces are thoughtful and insightful. This means I will produce less work. I can’t crank out a piece in a couple of hours. I’m still developing and honing my writer’s voice. I spend a lot of time rewriting and revising. That’s okay because I want to write solid pieces that say something true, good, and beautiful, even if it takes me more time.

2. I want to be a writer whose pieces are honest and humorous. Some of the writers I most admire have this amazing ability to articulate real life in words that make me want to shout, “Yes! Me too!” They also make me laugh at myself in the process. You mean you’re just as neurotic as I am? I want to be that kind of writer.

3. I want to be a writer whose pieces reflect faith intersecting with all parts of life. I will be forever grateful to Edith Schaeffer for opening this door for me. As I wrote in my introduction  to Everywhere God, “She wrote about eating, gardening, walking, cooking, talking, and God all in the same mix.” This means I can write a blog post about the latest fall fashion trends without feeling like my writing is trite or superficial.

4. I want to be a writer who cares less about stats, likes, retweets, you name it, and instead cares more about improving and growing as a writer. This is a hard one for me. I can’t imagine posting an image to Instagram and having, oh, I don’t know, 5,000 people like it!  My writing may never meet with the success that attracts the attention of large publishing houses and prestigious agents. But I know at my deepest level, that I don’t want to write a single word that I don’t believe is true or is written merely to impress others. My calling as a believer and as a writer is to be faithful in the everyday matters of life. To this end, I will write, trusting God with any results that may come my way.

This piece is about writing, but I think the truths apply to other parts of life too. At different points, I’ve found that I’ve had to make a list—literally and figuratively—regarding other areas. What kind of wife, mother, teacher, woman, do I want to be? This exercise is particularly helpful when I fall into the “compare and despair” mentality. It helps me see more clearly the person God has called me to be and who he has not called me to be.

Grace and peace, friends, as you begin a new week.

 

Posted in Everywhere God, Faith, The Christian life, Writing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

La Belle Province, par deux

Next week, our family will visit la belle province—otherwise known as “the beautiful province”—a nickname often used for Quebec. Last summer, Brad and I spent a week exploring Montreal, loving the  European-charm-meets-modern-city feel of the place. During our stay, we found ourselves repeating the phrase, “the kids would love this city.” 

As we began to think about our summer plans and to prepare for this new season of life—semi-empty nesters—making time for a family vacation became a priority. Immediately, Quebec came to mind. For the past twenty-one years, summer has been the four of us. The months of June, July, and August have included visits to extended family as well as some special vacations—Yellowstone, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Lake Tahoe. Slowly, I’m coming to terms with the fact that Jake and Anna won’t be around during the summer months in the years to come.

When Brad and I visited Montreal last July, we had no idea that in February we would visit Italy. For those who know me or have read my writing, you know how much I dreamed about a trip to Europe someday. As we planned our 25th wedding anniversary trip, we figured Montreal was as close as we would get to Europe for a while. Little did we know. We were truly excited to explore the city, which was also on our list of places to visit someday. She didn’t disappoint.

In the weeks leading up to our trip, I scoured travel books, Pinterest, and saved magazine articles for places to eat and sites to visit. In the end, our trip represented a mix of the things we love: food, art and culture, and nature.

The Food

Montreal is a foodie city. One of my favorite lunches of all time was the one I ate at Olive & Gourmando. In fact, I ate there twice—once with Brad and once with Jacquelyn, after Brad left to go backpacking and Jacquelyn joined me for a few additional days. My mouth still waters when I think about the “Salty.” The fresh ingredients, coupled with a cool vibe, makes this a favorite spot to eat. Suffice it to say, we will definitely be eating there again this summer.

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The Salty: Homemade ricotta cheese, greens, and a toasted English Muffin

While we never ate a bagel in Montreal (perhaps this trip?), we did eat poutine and the smoked-meat sandwich—two other must-trys when you visit Montreal. I may eat poutine again if it is offered, but it doesn’t top my list as a “must-eat-this-again” dish. I feel the same way about the deli sandwich I enjoyed at Schwartz’s. It was good, but I won’t be disappointed if we miss it on this trip. On a side note, I love that al fresco dining is everywhere. Quebecers know they must savor every moment of the summer months so even humble cafes usually have at least one outside table.

Art & Culture

I’m really glad we visited the La Basilique Notre-Dame. From its sheer size, to the stained-glass windows, to the organ, it is an impressive cathedral. I also visited there twice—once with Brad and once with Jacquelyn. On my second visit, Jacquelyn and I sat in a row and chatted unhurriedly, enjoying the beautiful space while watching tourists come and go. I definitely want Jake and Anna to see this place.

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The organ at La Basilique Notre Dame

Brad and I also enjoyed visiting the Pointe-à-Callière. While there, we learned the history of Montreal and how the city developed over the years. The museum sits on top of the actual spot where the city was founded and visitors can view some of the archaeological ruins.  

Nature

On one of our last days together in the city, we road Bixi bikes to the Mount Royal Park. The Bixi system is an easy way to explore Montreal. Plus, the $5/per-day rental makes it an affordable option. As long as you return your bike to a Bixi station within the allotted time frame, you can check bikes in and out in the 24-hour period without additional charges. In addition, the city has many designated bike lanes, making it easier to share the road with car and bus traffic. Mount Royal Park is a lovely green space in the city. On Sunday afternoons, it becomes the spot for a drum circle, also known as The Tam Tams. Families picnic, couples snuggle, and people play to the beat of the drums.

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Mount Royal Park

Like good books that need to be reread, favorite places need to be revisited and shared with those we love. I’m looking forward to experiencing Montreal (and Quebec City!) with my kids. We will create new memories and most likely share a few stories from previous vacations. Sure, we will get annoyed with one another and our plans may turn out differently than we expected. But for this mom, having the time together, just the four of us, will be a treat in its own right.

 

 

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Road Trip Manual

Summer has arrived in full force on Long Island. The parking lots to the beaches fill before noon. The blooms on the hydrangeas are so plentiful that the branches droop to the ground, trying to bear the weight of the blueish, purple-flowering globes. All of my favorite summer flavors—basil, tomatoes, corn, fresh mozzarella, and berries make regular appearances at my dinner table.

It is also a season for road trips.

Last week, Brad and I returned from a trip to Michigan to visit our parents and extended family. It wasn’t until I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s article “Notes from a Road Trip” in the latest issue of Real Simple that I realized we are a road-tripping family! Together we have logged thousands of miles and traveled many of the major interstates that connect the east and west coasts. Over the years and miles, we have developed our own road trip “manual” that defines how we travel.

For us, car trips were born out of necessity. If we wanted to see family or go on a vacation, we needed to drive. There wasn’t money in the budget for airlines tickets x four, especially during the graduate-school years. Our first long road trip occurred when the kids were little and we lived in the Chicago area. It was my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and the Smith clan was gathering in Montana at my uncle and aunt’s ranch. After seeking advice from several of our friends who had young children, we decided to drive through the night. We left our house around 6 pm and drove for the next twenty hours. I can still remember the point when Brad and I both hit the wall. It was close to 5 am and the first signs of morning streaked the sky. We stopped at a rest area for some brief sleep. At that moment, I was ready to ditch the budget and grab the nearest hotel room where I could sleep in a prostrate position on a comfy bed. Of course, the kids woke earlier than usual as the sunlight streamed through the van’s windows. The final hours to the ranch seemed to last an eternity. We survived and still tell stories about that experience. Thankfully, most of our road trips since then have involved primarily daytime driving, which suits both of us much better.

In a couple of weeks, we will once again hit the road as a family and head north for a week in Quebec, spending time in Montreal and Quebec City. Our road-trip manual will be in play.

First, we will leave the house early, by 6 am if we are lucky. There’s something about starting early on a road trip. Driving during the morning hours invigorates. The unfolding day is fresh and exciting. And, since we live near a major city, we avoid, or at least try to avoid, rush-hour traffic.

Second, we don’t stop for lunch. Instead, we eat our packed lunch in the car. We do this for two reasons: to save money and to save time. Since the majority of our trips are to visit our parents who live twelve-plus hours away, we look for ways to save time by limiting our stops. Another car-trip ritual we follow is to stop for an ice-cream treat in the afternoon. This snack fills our stomachs so we can make it in time for dinner, albeit sometimes a late one. Sitting down to a home-cooked meal after a long day in the car is a delicious reward.

Third, our car trips are a mix of silence and stories. Driving for long stretches definitely puts a person in the “zone.” I always pack a variety of books and magazines to read while we drive, but often I find myself staring out the window, lost in my thoughts. The sound of the car’s tires against the pavement and the passing of trees and other cars becomes a meditative experience, allowing time for reflection—something I often don’t take time for in my everyday life. At different points throughout the day, stories of family memories and previous trips bubble to the surface and are retold. However, lest you think car trips are only filled with tender moments, let me set the record straight.

Sometimes the busyness of preparing to leave on a road trip, coupled with other life stressors, make for tense driving. Additionally, the silence in the car reflects angry thoughts and is the result of an argument rather than the recalling of some sweet family memory. Yet, the miles heal. Eventually, someone apologizes and seeks to sort out the conflict. After all, there is plenty of time.

Lastly, road trips are a chance to forgo the usual habits that govern our days. As our children grew, we allowed more DVD watching. This past Christmas, Anna watched one movie after the next as the miles passed. I never would have allowed that when she was little. But she was adamant that this was the only way she would survive the trip. We also eat foods that we don’t normally consume when we drive. Who cares if the day starts with a donut, involves a mid-morning snack of chips or a candy bar, and includes afternoon ice cream? That’s part of the fun of a road trip.

I am always grateful when the car pulls into our final destination after a long day of driving. I feel like I will never want to sit down again. Later, falling into bed, I am struck by the fact that I began the day at home and now I am in this new place, miles away from where I started. New adventures await. My body relaxes and the hum of the car’s engine fades from memory, ushering in peaceful sleep and dreams.

 

Posted in Family life, Summer, Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Part II: Some Travel Advice

IMG_2185In the weeks leading up to our Italy trip, Brad and I spent a fair bit of time planning and thinking about the places we wanted to visit. We also chatted with some friends who travel regularly to Italy. Being able to ask them questions was extremely helpful.

In Part II, I want to share some of what I learned as it relates to travel. I know there are many websites and resources available to travelers today. This isn’t a list of where you should stay or what you should eat when traveling in Italy. Instead, this post is a collection of  suggestions that I have found helpful as a traveler. Think of my comments as guiding principles as you plan your next trip.

1. Keep a travel journal.

I started keeping a travel journal a number of years ago. I find these journals especially fun to reread. Instantly, I am transported to the sights, smells, and tastes of the places I visited.

I definitely wanted to keep a journal for this trip. I started my first entry at JFK, while waiting to board the plane. Over the next six days, whenever I had a spare moment, I would write down the day’s activities, making observations and describing what we did so I wouldn’t forget.

If you have never kept a travel journal, I highly recommend it. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do this. Your journal may be a series of bullet points or lists, more factual in nature. I also try to pick up business cards from the restaurants,shops, and sights I visit, tucking them into the pages of my journal to be included in that “eventual” scrapbook I plan to complete.

I recently started reading Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the year he spent in Rome with his wife and twin sons. One writing practice that he relates is to write one journal entry a day. Your entry doesn’t have to be long. Just enough information to note what you did each day so that when you read it later you can be transported back in time.

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A page in my journal

2. Don’t over plan your trip. Leave some room for spontaneity.

As I already mentioned, Brad and I planned an itinerary for our trip. We knew we wanted to stay in the Tuscany region since this was home base for us, which helped us limit how far we wanted to drive each day. In addition, our friends recommended that we keep one or two days open—what they called “travel days.” We didn’t do this entirely, but we did have leave some flexibility in our itinerary.

Our first “unplanned moment” happened on our first full day in Italy. While driving to Siena, we drove through Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci. After driving up an extremely narrow road, we found ourselves surrounded by olive groves and the birth home of this famous master. The countryside looked like the pictures—stone farmhouses with terraced gardens and vineyards. Our stop lasted no longer than 15 minutes, but looking at the views of the surrounding valley will be something I always remember. As we left Vinci, Brad noticed a narrow, winding road on the map that would take us back to the main highway. Not one to shy away from an adventure, Brad slowly and carefully maneuvered our Fiat through the switchbacks, making this “detour” even more memorable.

3. Use public transit whenever you can.

One aspect of our travel package that we loved was having a rental car. Brad especially enjoyed speeding down the Autostrada or carefully navigating the endless roundabouts. That said, all of the Italian towns and cities we visited had very strict rules regarding car traffic in their city centers. Fines are hefty if you are caught driving in a Zona Traffico Limitato.

As we planned our itinerary for Florence, we knew we would need to ditch the car and use public transit. This is where resources such as Rick Steves prove helpful. His book on Italy explains parking recommendations for each city he covers. We learned we could park for free in the COOP (a grocery store lot) and take the Tramvia right into the heart of the Florence. And the cost? A mere €1.20 (about $1.30).

I need to add that along with being willing to use public transit you also need to be prepared to allow for extra travel time. While we never experienced any train or subway delays, you do have to adjust your schedule to the transit times. For our time in Florence, we had to factor an additional thirty minutes of travel to get to and from our car.

The other benefit of using public transit is the people watching. Riding alongside the locals makes you feel more connected to the place you visit. These are real people with their own language and culture. Standing or sitting alongside them adds to your trip experience.

4. Purchase advance tickets to major attractions, if you can.

We were grateful to receive this advice before we left for Italy. We knew we wanted to see Michelangelo’s The David as well as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli while in Florence. These famous works are at two separate museums. Even though we were traveling during an off-peak month, I am glad we did this.  

As we approached the Galleria dell’Accademia to see The David, my heart sank. A long line snaked outside the building. It took a couple of minutes before we figured out that this wasn’t our line. It also helped that just as we realized this, a museum worker appeared and showed us where to stand. Within minutes, we were standing inside, holding our tickets not only for the Galleria, but also for the Uffizi, the other museum we would visit later that day. Apparently, Florence’s museums use the same ticketing service, making it convenient for visitors to receive all their tickets in one stop.

5. Drink lots of water and seek out fresh fruits and vegetables when you travel.

Perhaps my last piece of advice seems out of place compared to the others. But here’s what I have discovered when I travel: my body systems get out of whack. I’m mentioning this because I don’t think I’m the only one who experiences this. If I am, well, you can laugh at me.

Keeping your body feeling good and functioning smoothly requires some extra attention when your time zone changes along with your normal habits and routines. Eating different foods also affects how you feel. The next time you stroll past fresh berries in the market, buy them and nibble on them as you walk the streets (wash them first!). Keep your water bottle refilled throughout the day. If you are like me and eating richer foods and either drinking more caffeinated or alcoholic beverages than usual, your body starts to feel sluggish. Maintaining your stamina and energy requires a little extra thought to your body, which will carry and support you on your travel adventures.

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Rick Steves mentions in one of his books that nothing can take the place of the memories you hold from a place you traveled. This is so true. I still have a lot to learn as a traveler. With each trip I take, I add more memories and I learn more about how to be a good traveler.

What about you? What are some travel guidelines or suggestions that you follow?

Posted in Europe, Italy, Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Part I: My Top 5 Favorites of Italy

I told myself I wasn’t going to apologize anymore. But, I must. The last post I wrote was in February, before the Italy trip. Two months have passed. So, I must apologize—especially if you have checked alwaysorange with any regularity, wondering when I would finally write something. This post is a bit longer; in fact, it is part one. I promise you won’t have to wait two months for part two. Grab a cup of coffee—an espresso, perhaps—and enjoy.

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Where to begin? What to say? What to write?  Italy was amazing. I fell in love with the place. I know, everyone says that. But it’s true. In the ensuing weeks (months) since the trip, my mind has been a collection of thoughts, images, and memories. I’m calling this post my “Top 5 Favorites” of Italy. Part II will be my version of a travel advice piece.

The Food

How could I not start with the food? Mama Mia! Our travel package had Brad and I flying into Milan where we picked up our rental car for the week. Our hotel, Croce de Malta, was located in the smallish town of Montecatini, about a 3.5- hour drive from Milan. Florence the capital of Tuscany was a 40-minute drive from our hotel. Friends had told us about the Auto Grills in Italy—the US version of a toll oasis or a truck stop. They said if we wanted a snack or a coffee, we should stop. I’m sure I looked like the googly-eyed tourist as we walked into our first one. No row upon row of processed chips and cookies. Instead, I found myself looking at a food counter with sandwiches and pizzas nestled behind glass counters, waiting to be warmed for hungry customers. A full service coffee bar also served espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes. No plastic to-go cups here. Instead, coffee was served in porcelain cups with saucers. Once we picked our sandwich to share (ham, arugula, and cheese panini), the woman warmed it in the oven for us. Off to one side, I could see that this Auto Grill had its own bakery to make its bread each day. Really?

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Later that night, we headed out to dinner—I felt very Italian eating dinner at 8:30 pm, btw—to a local pizzeria called Don Chisciotte. This was our first introduction to authentic Italian pizza. Each pizza is meant to serve one person and comes on a large dinner plate. This isn’t thick- crust pizza. Most restaurants, maybe all of them, bake their pizzas in a wood-fired oven. The crust puffs a bit around the edges and often have a bit of char on them, making them look all the more rustic. The dough also has a pleasant “chew.” I ordered a cherry tomato and mushroom pizza. Brad had the ham and fresh buffalo cheese pizza. Our pies hit the spot and we topped off our evening with some gelato at a nearby cafe. Falling into bed that night, I couldn’t believe we were actually in Italy.

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While we ate many delicious meals, one of our favorites also took place in Montecatini. It was Sunday night and we had been gone all day to Bologna and then to Reggio Emilia to watch a soccer game. We wanted a relaxed, sit-down dinner. The woman at the hotel front desk came through with another winner and told us about Da Lorenzo.  

From the moment we walked into the restaurant, the service was attentive and friendly. Very quickly, we figured out that this was a family affair. As we met different members of the Da Lorenzos, we picked up pieces of their stories—a granddaughter who was a university student in Florence, the son who now ran the restaurant, the father/grandfather who made the pizzas. When we entered the restaurant, our server asked us where we wanted to sit and we chose a table near the prep station and wood-fired oven. Watching individual dishes being prepared with love and care was a highlight. To celebrate, we ordered a delicious bottle of champagne. Over the next two-plus hours as we dined on pasta and steak, we talked with the different family members and oohed and ahhed over our dishes. They clearly loved that we loved the experience and the food as much as we did. As our meal finally wound down and we polished off the last crumbs of our desserts, our server arrived with tiny, frosted glasses. As this was the second time we received complimentary limoncello at the end of a meal, I felt like I had passed the “test.” Italians want you to like their food. They don’t want false praise, but genuine enjoyment of good cooking. Tired and full as were at this point, we sipped our limoncello and nibbled on the small pieces of dark chocolate that our server included with our drinks with smiles on our faces.

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The Coffee

I love coffee. It it part of my morning ritual. But I don’t regularly drink cappuccinos or espressos. In Italy, cappuccinos start the day. At our hotel, a fancy machine served up hot coffee drinks for hotel guests at breakfast. I wanted to experience Italy like an Italian so I did the same, starting my day with a cappuccino, or two. However, the part I really came to love was the espresso at the counter at any point in the day. Actually, I ended up ordering a macchiato mostly, which is an espresso with foamed milk. I also don’t add sugar to my coffee, but I found I really liked the taste of the milk and sugar in my macchiato. For €1, sometimes a €1.20 for a macchiato, a person could grab a quick shot of caffeine at a gelateria, an auto grill, a bistro, a bar, and of course, a restaurant. Italians generally stand at the counter to drink their espressos because they are small and can be swallowed with one gulp. Again, I felt like a local standing at the counter drinking my coffee. I also found the hit of caffeine to be the right amount of pick-me-up in the late afternoon.

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The Landscape

The Tuscan landscape doesn’t disappoint. It was every bit as charming as the pictures and postcards portray it. I can only imagine how lovely it looks now with spring flowers blooming. I guess I wasn’t prepared to see stone farmhouse after stone farmhouse everywhere I looked. In addition, the terraced gardens with rows of olive trees and vineyards dotting the rolling hills added to the charm. Even driving along the busy Autostrada, the modern, high-speed highway, you can’t escape the rustic farmhouse in the distance. On some of our day trips, we had this view along with the snow-covered Apennine Mountains in the distance, delighting us as we drove from one destination to the next. Probably a favorite image was seeing the town of Cortona in the distance while driving to Orvieto. The sun-soaked hillside made me realize why Frances Mayes titled her book, which is set in Cortona, Under the Tuscan Sun.

Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre

The People

In my pre-trip reading, I knew that I was headed to a place where both men and women took fashion seriously. I was told I wouldn’t find an Italian dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt having coffee or lunch. Instead, one would be dressed for the day before heading out of the house for any activity. I certainly observed this reality during my visit. The only time I saw people in workout gear was at St. Luca, where a 5k run had taken place earlier that morning. What I found myself falling in love with, though, was the Italian, fashionably dressed or not. I loved watching the gestures, the mannerisms, and the expressions used when talking with friends over a meal or sipping an espresso at the counter. Throughout our stay, I encountered friendly, easy-going Italians. It was refreshing. I’ll be honest and say that I actually thought of a few responses I might give to a person once they learned I was an American. I was ready for the presidential jokes and comments. To my surprise, this never came up during any conversation. It seemed as if it didn’t matter where I came from. Instead, did I like my food? Was I enjoying my stay? These are my kind of people! However, I must add that I was surprised by how many Italians smoke. Thankfully, this wasn’t an issue inside restaurants or other enclosed places, but I saw young and old regularly lighting up during our stay.   

The Art

On Thursday, our first full day in Italy, we drove to Siena. So much to love about this city. I wish I would have had more time there. I could probably say this about most places we visited. I think that the Duomo in Siena tops my list as a favorite. Maybe because it was the first one we toured in Italy. Something about the black and white marble used throughout the space, or the original, vibrant frescoes in the Piccolomini Library that hardly looked like they were painted 500 hundred years ago (!), or the mosaic floor panel, one of many, that so beautifully and accurately depicts man’s attempt to control his own destiny and the folly of this way of thinking, moved me on many levels. On Friday, I stood close to Michelangelo’s The David and marveled over the fact that someone carved this sculpture out of a solid piece of marble. In the afternoon, I toured the Uffizi and saw more great works of art. On our last day in Italy, we climbed the steps of Milan’s Duomo to the terraced rooftop, enjoying the views of the piazza below. Despite the rain, we were amazed at the detail and intricacy of the spires all around us. The sheer size of the Duomo is also impressive. Again, I wished we had more time. It felt in some ways, that a person could spend a lifetime looking at art in Italy and still not see it all. I’m grateful for what I did see during our trip.

The Duomo in Siena

Whew! There you have it—some of my favorites about Italy. Stay tuned for Part II. In the meantime, if you have been to Italy, I would love to hear some of your favorites.

 

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