Monday, November 10, 2008

Cowboy Up!

I really need to start posting on some sort of regular basis. It has been a month since I last laid down any thoughts for you to pick through. Of course, in a place like Naruna, excitement doesn't come along just every day.

There are the little minor adventures, such as Larry's blue heeler who got caught in a hog snare, and to add insult to the injury got sprayed by a passing skunk. This would not normally have affected the general population of Naruna, except the dog insists on following Larry to church. With the week long Revival Meeting kicking off this past Sunday, every one quickly got their fill of this gimpy, smelly dog. The sad part was that the dog only wanted to be everybody's friend and kept trying to quietly slip up next to the ladies sipping on glasses of cold ice tea and wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting finery. The poor dog couldn't understand why none of those good church folk wanted to associate with him, a poor sinner. Positively un-Christian!

I guess the big Naruna news is the Revival meeting, or Revival Crusade as it is being advertised. Last year the little Baptist church in Naruna had a four day revival, and everybody had such a great time, it was decided to extend it to a full week this time around. All the ladies of the church keep cooking and feeding sinners and saints alike. There is a gospel singing group, complete with a young lady playing the fiddle, and a high-powered Evangelist imported all the way from Dallas. They keep filling the little 130 year old church, and people are making decisions and being saved! Makes all the getting ready feel worthwhile. I'll try to put up more info as the week progresses.

Saturday night, the LB and I headed for the south end of Burnet county and a fund-raising event for a local organization, the Hill Country Children's Advocacy Center (or HCCAC). This is a group which serves seven counties in the Texas Hill Country as a centralized agency performing forensic exams of abused children. One of the biggest traumas for abused children is having to repeat their story over and over as they pass through the system. HCCAC works to minimize that trauma. Just at a time when economic downturns are causing a surge in child abuse, the center lost a significant grant this year. The Cowboy Up for Kids event is one way the community is trying to make up that deficit.

We headed out into the countryside, turned down a dusty road, and arrived at a huge tent amongst the mesquite and scrub oak just as the sun was setting over the hills. A group of musicians, replete with well-worn boots, hats and more than one handlebar moustache, were onstage tuning and warming up. Tables filled with items for a silent auction lined the sides of the tent, and a number of big ticket items were arrayed around the dance floor in readiness for the live auction. A bar, with the obligatory longnecks and margarita machine plus bottles of wine for the more refined in the crowd, was fitted into one corner. An oldtime chuckwagon was parked at the back of the tent, and several wood fires were being tended outside. Closer scrutiny showed numerous large dutch ovens either nestled in the coals or suspended over the flames.

Quickly I secured cold beverages for us, and we began to circulate through the crowd, stopping to exchange greetings with acquaintances, while checking out the auction items. The LB located several interesting things and jotted down her opening bids. I was starting to relax and think I might get out without spending too much money, when she discovered that one of the live auction items was for a miniature donkey party for a dozen of the children at the center. Her only question was, "Can I come to the party, too?" I knew I was doomed. She would not rest (nor let me rest!) until I had secured this prize.

Dinner was the next agenda item, with steaks grilled over the open fire, with sides of potatoes and green beans ladled out of steaming pots. Home made rolls baked in the coals in heavy dutch ovens rounded out the meal (and my belly). Just when we couldn't eat another bite, the cooks brought in dutch ovens full of home made peach cobbler. Wonderfully miserable!

As the live auction got underway, and the first few items sold for less than their stated value, I became hopeful...maybe it wouldn't really cost that much. At last, "our" lot went on the block, and a determined looking fellow from Hamilton, Texas quickly tossed out the first bid. As I looked him over, I couldn't help but wonder if he too had a wife who was a donkey junkie? I waved my program in the air, upping the stakes, wondering how determined he would prove to be. Back and forth we went, trading the lead, until finally...he caved! Ha...ha...ha. I had bested him, and all it cost God, what did it cost!?! I kept repeating my mantra of, "It's for the kids, it's for the kids," as I tried to catch my breath and write out the check.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Chocolate Mint Explosion

The LB and our Middle Child decided to repaint what had been the Youngest Child's bedroom. Since she left home over six years ago and hasn't tried to move back yet, they felt it was safe to do some updating, and maybe add a few modern touches to make it over into a serviceable guest room.

In principal this sounded good, but when I was asked to help pick out paint, I knew something was amiss since my choices are always "white" or maybe "off-white". When asked why she needed me, the LB confessed that the salesman told her if she wanted the color she had selected, she had to bring her husband in with her before he would mix it. This aroused my interest to the point where I agreed to tag along.

At the paint display, we found ourselves at opposite ends of the samples. I was in front of the beiges and eggshells, and they went over to the dark side. Quickly, I was over-ruled (like I really thought I would have a vote!) and the decision came down to which flavor of paint they wanted...milk or dark chocolate?

Back in Naruna, furniture was quickly pushed into the center of the room, switchplates and outlet covers removed, and painting clothes put on. The first splashes of dark brown were applied to the mint green the Youngest Child had smeared on the walls while in high school, and after the first feelings of queasiness passed, it looked like nothing so much as a splattering of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Thankfully, the brown went on quickly and before long it was drying and revealing its true milk chocolatey nature.

After the first couple of coats dry sufficiently, it will be time to do some taping and trim work. I may even be allowed to help out with that since I won't have to make any strategic decisions...just put the paint on the wood!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Texas State Fair

Last weekend the LB and I headed up to Dallas to visit family and the state fair. We have gone to the state fair everywhere we have lived; South Carolina, Kentucky, Hawaii, etc.; but had never been to the Texas fair. This has really eaten at my Lovely Bride, especially since we were both born in Texas, raised in Texas, attended schools in Texas, married in get the idea.

I think what finally pushed her over the edge this year was when she found a list of events which was headed by "The Donkey & Mule Show". I don't know if I have mentioned it before, but my LB is not always rational when it comes to the subject of donkeys. After we went to see the movie, "Mamma Mia", our youngest daughter was told she had to have a "wedding donkey" whenever she finds the right guy. Finding that right guy may be more difficult after he finds out about his future mom-in-law and her donkey fetish. The LB is the only woman I know who carries plain granola bars in her purse just in case she runs into a little donkey in need of a snack.

When she discovered the state fair was hosting a show with all sizes and varieties of donkeys, she would not be deterred. She had to attend! And guess who was to be her sidekick for the weekend?

Dallas is usually not my favorite city in Texas, which probably stems from a bad experience with a blind date to the SMU football game during my freshman year at Texas A&M. However, one good aspect of Big D is the multitude of places to dine out. Naruna is a wonderful place to live, but if you want something to eat, you cook it yourself. I decided that if we were to be cruising the midway all day, we needed a decent meal beforehand, so made reservations at Lawry's. This is a great place so long as you are interested in large hunks of beef, presented with a little flair. We had a good meal, a good visit with family, and a good night's sleep before heading to Fair Park early the next morning.

The first stop after entering the fairgrounds was the Equine Pavillion, where all the donkeys were hanging out. Big donkeys, miniature donkeys, unhappy donkeys and sleepy donkeys. After roaming through the barn and failing to find any unsupervised donkeys small enough to slip into her purse, the LB decided to watch some of the competitions in the arena. Exciting as this was, and as cute as the little donkeys were, eventually we moved on to the exhibits and then to the main attraction...The Fried Stuff!

We wandered through the hundreds of food booths, in search of the perfect fair food. You could sample chicken fried bacon, fried banana splits, deep fried S'mores, deep fried grilled cheese sandwichs, and the list goes on forever. The possibility of suffering a grease overdose is everpresent, so careful planning is called for. We started with a smoked turkey leg and some fresh squeezed lemonade... health food. Our first fried food was a battered and deep-fried Moon Pie, drizzled with chocolate syrup and dusted with powdered sugar...a gooey and wonderful mess! Of course, no trip to the fair would be complete without a real State Fair Corny Dog since this is where they were invented and first served. The corny dogs were washed down with some fresh brewed root beer. After riding the ferris wheel, we found fried Jelly Bellys for dessert as we headed for the parking lot and home.

I can already tell we will need to allow more time next year for sampling(and digesting) all the interesting foods. Road trip, anyone??

2nd Anniversary

Warning! A great deal of whining and psychobabble follows:
Today marks the second anniversary of my most recent serious attempt to kill myself. I must quickly state that none of these attempts have ever been deliberate or premeditated...they just seem to happen. This has not kept family members from labelling me as suicidal or at least not very smart when it comes to engaging in risky behaviors.

Two years ago at about this time of day, I was lying in a bed in a large metropolitan trauma center, full of IV drugs, with more catheters and tubes than I had orifices, and was unable and unwilling to move any part of my body because everything hurt. I was in this condition after literally getting lost in the fog on the way to work and failing to navigate a curve I had gotten around without incident twice a day for the past eight years. When I awoke, my motorcycle was on top of me with the headlamp shining up into the fog, and my helmet was sitting upright in the center of the road. After awhile, a couple of guys on their way to work came along and called the appropriate agencies. A quick ride to the local hospital(where I happen to work-embarrassing!), was followed by a helicopter ride to what is dubiously called "the next level of care". After spending 5 or 6 days in the big city hospital, it was decided I was probably stable enough to survive surgery and to begin putting some of the more annoying broken stuff back together.

Now it is two years later, there have been a few more surgeries, and a couple more are still on the not too distant horizon. My body still feels much the same as it did two years ago, with everything still hurting, just not as bad. I still have to stop and think before starting up or down stairs about which foots goes first. Changes in the weather frequently mean sleepless nights with no pain free way of lying down, and a headache only attracts attention when it isn't "the usual".

Whining aside, I have returned to most of my pre-crash activities, and have had some real adventures. Going to Italy this summer for the first time was a fantastic experience, and even though it was physically demanding I would go again without hesitation. With the current economic situation throughout the world, I am glad we went when we did, even though it seemed costly at the time.

The one activity I haven't picked up again has been riding a motorcycle. I have been offered the opportunity a couple of times by friends, but I have pled physical infirmity. My old and beat-up BMW Airhead is sitting in the garage, still minus its fairing. I have intermittently worked at fixing it, but until recently haven't accomplished much. I want to ride it again. I feel I NEED to ride it again. But can I bring myself to actually climb aboard, fire it up, and head off into the sunset?? How much of my desire to ride again comes from being schooled in the John Wayne School of Stoicism & Moral Fiber?..."Get up and climb back on that hoss that just throwed you, Pilgrim!" As long as the bike isn't completed, the mental confrontation and anguish can be delayed and postponed.

I have decided I need to get the bike back together and running. That is the first hurdle. Until I clear that one, I won't think about the next which will be whether to go back to riding again. Now where is the number for that bike shop?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Thrill is Gone!

If there is anything which passes for excitement here in Naruna, it has slipped away. The end of summer is upon us, and the LB is making preparations to return to feeding three or four hundred 2nd and 3rd graders breakfast and lunch every day of the week. Somehow, after being in a hot kitchen all day, she usually isn’t interested much in cooking at home. To make up for the coming nine months of eating leftovers, going out to eat, or just fending for myself, she is baking me a cake today. It goes by a variety of names: Texas Sheet Cake, Church Lady Cake, Cowboy Cake, etc. No matter what name gets hung on it, it is a really rich, moist, chocolate cake which gets iced while still warm, resulting in a wonderfully gooey mess which is magnificent. She is trying a recipe today she found over at . (If you don’t like chocolate, try Pioneer Woman’s creamed spinach! Even confirmed carnivores crave it.)

Summer time in Texas is always a balancing act. We wouldn’t live anywhere else, but our lives are always at the mercy of the weather. Last summer Central Texas almost washed away in the floods. This summer has been one of record days over 100 degrees. A couple of times each year, we pack up and visit relatives in Houston so we can walk on a real lawn again. In the very best of times we have grass, but nothing that would be mistaken for turf. Times like now, that grass is withered, brown and brittle, and quickly crumbles to a fine powder which blows away with the hot south wind.

In the span of just two weeks, Texas has had a hurricane and a tropical storm come ashore. Areas all around us got massive amounts of rain, while Naruna received a total of 0.4”. A few brave sprigs of green are trying to push up, but are being met with a withering blast of heat and quickly shrivel.

Even the LB’s beagle, Sam, who has boundless energy most of the time, is being affected by the heat. This morning, after making his usual rounds to ensure all was well in Naruna, he trotted across the road to visit with a group of BMW riders taking a water break in the church parking lot. After that, he was pretty much done for the day, only taking a moment to check out the occasional bug crawling around. Tizzy the cat even gave me a glare as though to warn me to stay clear or risk bodily harm.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Venice Re-visited

I was surprised this last week. It seems my Lovely Bride posted a few of my photos from our trip to Italy on the local newspaper's travel site, and I was notified I had won their European Travel Photo contest. This was unexpected, since I didn't know there was a contest! If you are in Central Texas, and would like to see what they have to say, the photo and a short article are supposed to be in the Travel section of the August 17th Austin-American Statesman. I'm not sure if it will show up online , but here is the link.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Play date

Saturday morning dawned soft and grey, with Rosie and Sam whining impatiently at the back door wanting out. Knowing their persistence, I crawled out of bed and let them out to investigate the overnight changes in Naruna. As soon as the door started to swing open, they barreled through the gap, and ran into a big polka-dotted red dog. Some of our closest (about a mile away) neighbors are gone on a cruise to Alaska, and their red heeler puppy got lonesome and came looking for a playmate. It wasn’t his first visit this week, so he has apparently solved the puzzle of opening the gate to his pen.

Rosie lost interest since no food was involved, but Sam and the heeler went zipping around the yard. They both tried their best to convince anybody watching that each was the fiercest puppy in Naruna, snapping and yipping as they tumbled around. After half an hour of this playacting, they collapsed, puffing and panting, best friends again.

Until next time.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Why we liked it!

The LB and I had a wonderful time on our recent trip to northern Italy. It gave us a much needed escape from our normal lives, and allowed us to visit and experience a new part of the world. We saw artworks, cities and cathedrals previously only seen in books, movies or on television. History came alive as we walked through the narrow streets and alleys of the Veneto and Tuscany. But it was people, and the personal connections we made with them, who made our trip truly come to life.
In Venice, “our” gondolier took us on a trip through the canals, pointed out the sights and spoke of the historic people who made Venice what it is today. After our ride, it seemed we bumped into him several times each day. We would be sitting at our neighborhood canal-side café sipping espressos; he would row past with a load of tourists, and give the LB a hearty wave and big grin with nary a pause in his spiel. Walking to dinner across one of the endless bridges, we would hear a “buona sera” and he would go gliding under the bridge on his way to giving more tourists an experience of a lifetime.
American tourists are not common in the little hilltop town of Chiusdino, and most of the inhabitants viewed us as if we had green skin and had just climbed out of a spaceship. Carla went out of her way to make us feel welcome and encouraged us in our attempts to speak Italian. She ran the local fruit, vegetable and wine shop, so mostly we only needed to point to indicate what we wanted. We were able to communicate enough during our daily visits to learn she had studied English in school many years before, but hadn’t used it since. The day before we left, we had to go in just to say goodbye and let her know how much we appreciated getting to know her. All of this with her not speaking any English and us with no Italian.
When we first arrived in Florence, we felt we had arrived in a big city and might have trouble meeting people. The first time we went to catch the city bus to the historic town center, we realized that would not be an issue. We were standing at the stop, and a little old Italian lady walked up and launched into a monologue. She had talked for several minutes, when she finally noticed the blank looks and asked, “Capisca?” After we replied with shakes of our heads, she started up again. Apparently, she didn’t really care if we understood her, she just wanted to talk. By the time our bus came, we knew she was a widow and her husband had been dead for many years, she had been a teacher and had been forced to retire after thirty years because she hit the mandatory retirement age, and she really missed her home in Naples, but was living in Florence because of her son. Apparently, there was enough crossover between my college Spanish and her Italian for me to catch the general drift, but not enough to be able to converse. She blushed a bit when I asked if I could take her photo, but acted pleased.
This is what made our trip special, these and others we met and got to know, if only for a few minutes. They turned what could have been a sterile romp from one museum to the next into a human experience.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Back to Normal

July 1, 2008
The jetlag is gone for the most part, clothes are getting washed, and I’ve gone back to work to start paying for our great vacation. I suppose that means the adventure is over and all is returning to normal. Yesterday afternoon I sat and watched the final of the Euro-2008 tournament where Spain defeated Germany. Italy had been ousted by Spain in the semi round, so at least they were defeated by the eventual champions. It was exciting to be able to watch the entire tournament, even though I didn’t have a personal stake in the outcome.

Another sign life is returning to normal occurred Saturday night just before bedtime. The LB’s beagle, Sam, was out for his evening constitutional, and began baying frantically. I eased out to explain to him that everybody else was trying to go to bed, and discovered he had encountered a little Boer goat while making his rounds at the church across the road. When the goat spotted me she trotted right past Sam, who was still loudly announcing the intruder’s presence, and followed me around to the pen out back, where she settled in and made herself at home. The next morning at church, the first person I asked knew exactly where the little goat was missing from and gave the owner a call. No cabrito for me!

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Home Stretch

We took our leave of Chiusdino, and headed into the hills of Tuscany. With several extra hours before we were expected in Florence, we wound our way through the small towns located on the back roads, until we came to the hill top town of San Gimignano. This was a beautiful break in our drive, and gave us an opportunity to sample more gelato. Little in the town is level and you seem to be climbing up or down hill no matter where you are going. There are a few cars mixed with the mostly pedestrian traffic to keep you on your toes, but most walk to get around.

Arriving in Florence instantly reminded us we were in a sizable city, rather than some small Tuscan village. Lots of traffic with busy streets and tightly contested parking. We stayed in a hotel between the airport and the historic downtown area, which required a bus ride each way, giving us a chance to meet some of the local inhabitants and see parts of the city not included on the usual tour routes. We only had two full days in Florence and knowing that some of the important museums are closed on Monday, we were determined to visit the “must see” attractions on Sunday. Primarily this meant the Accademia museum, which has the original sculpture of Michelangelo’s “David”. We hopped an early morning bus downtown, and were in line by 8:45, and quickly were allowed into the cool recesses of the gallery. I had always imagined the statue being slightly larger than life, and was taken aback by its fourteen foot height. How was Michelangelo able to look at a block of marble and envision this beauty hidden inside? We wandered the other galleries in the museum, but came back to this artistic magnet again and again. Some had suggested we eavesdrop on tour guides as they discussed exhibits, but there were so many holding forth simultaneously, we quickly tuned them out and felt as though we were completely alone with this wonder from the Renaissance. Emerging into the sunlight, we discovered the waiting line now reached down the block and around the corner. The Duomo was next on our list, followed by the street market outside the church of San Lorenzo. The market gave the LB the opportunity for some unrestricted shopping before we headed back to our hotel. The next day we visited other attractions in Florence; the Boboli Gardens, Ponte Vecchio, Galileo Science Museum, the Loggia, and the Piazza della Repubblica were some of the high points. With the temperature reaching 38.5C (101F) our enthusiasm faded rather quickly. Sadly, although refreshing, the gelato was not up to the standard set for us in Siena.

Interacting with people, both locals and other tourists, was what made our trip so special to us and kept it from being just a “sightseeing” excursion. In Florence, we found a restaurant where our waitress went out of her way to take care of us. In this little “Mom & Pop” place her husband did the cooking, their son ran the pizza oven, while she waited tables and took care of all the customers. She spoke passable English, but we still had some problems deciphering some of the listings on the menu. With her help, we had some wonderful dishes, along with an extremely pleasant atmosphere. The next evening, we decided we would go back again, and discovered she had brought her Italian-English dictionary from home, so she would be able to better help us just in case we came back. This kind of personal contact was what made this trip memorable for us, and will have us getting ready for our next adventure.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Civilization(?) again

We arrived in Florence this afternoon and checked into our hotel. We have a wireless internet connection, so I will try to catch up getting some things posted and a few pictures hung here and there around the blog. Catch you up soon.

Ice Cream Dreams

Thursday, June 19, 2008
The opera was a blast last night. We arrived about 2 ½ hours before the performance and had dinner in a restaurant adjacent to the Abbey, operated by one of the local agriturismi. It was a beautiful evening and we sat at a table outside and watched the play of light on the ruins from the setting sun as we sipped our espressos.
I’m not sure if it was just first night confusion, but the show started 30 minutes late. It was sung in a mixture of the original German as well as Italian, and if we didn’t have some idea of the story line, we would have been completely lost. Most of the performers were good and the orchestra did a great job. Theatrical lighting was a challenge in the ruins of the old abbey, and there were several dark spots around the stage with which the singers had to contend. With the late start, we didn’t get home until after 1:00 a.m. I’m not used to these late hours!
Even after the late night, we were up early this morning, in the car, and headed to the town of Siena to see the sights. Our first challenge was to find parking close to this walled hilltop town. Fortunately, Siena has provided parking garages scattered around the perimeter where we can park for just €1.60 or $2.65/hour. They even provide escalators to bring the tourists and their money inside the walls.
Our first stop was the cathedral or Duomo, and its museum. The museum contains many of the fragile original artworks from the cathedral which have been replaced over the centuries with replicas. I was also able to see why they sent San Galgano’s skull home to Chiusdino…they have skulls, fingers and toes from more saints than you can shake a stick at. But the best feature was the Panorama dal Facciatone. Back in the early 1300’s, Siena began an expansion of the duomo which would make it larger than the new cathedral of rival Florence. The Facciatone is the façade for what was to be the grand new entrance, and was the only part finished before the money ran out and the Black Death killed off a third of the city’s population. Climbing tiny, claustrophobic spiral stairs take you to the best view in Siena. Not only is the town on display, but also the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Il Campo is the social center of Siena, and is certainly where the tourists gather. It is a wonderful place to sit and people watch or just stroll about. However, the middle of the day is a bit warm, so we quickly headed in the direction of the escalators and the car park. Just off the Campo, we happened upon a gelateria which provided the best gelato we have sampled so far. Orange-chocolate & pistachio for me and coconut & Amaretto for the LB helped us to cool down as we strolled back through the winding streets. I hear stories of a gelateria in Florence which puts all the others to shame!! Ah, the sacrifices I have to make!!
Ciao for now!

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008
According to the LB, it stormed most of last night, with the same kind of pyrotechnics and sound effects as in that movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”. After stuffing myself at dinner and my one glass of wine, I was totally oblivious, and never knew anything happened. Heavy fog or a low cloud completely enveloped our house this morning. A little Italian man appeared to check on us and ensure we survived the storm with no ill effects, and our electricity and gas were both still on.
This morning Deutsche-Welle announced the victory of Italy 2-0 last night, even though there wasn’t ever much doubt, so they will advance to the quarter finals in the Euro 2008 tournament. We are starting with a lighter breakfast this morning and plan to get out and do a little walking later. We need to pace ourselves so we are ready for the opera which doesn’t begin until 21:00.
We went out walking around the farm this afternoon to work off a little of the good food the LB has been fixing. When we first talked about visiting Italy, I assumed we would be eating every meal in one homey little trattoria after another, especially since her favorite food group is pasta. After a week in Venice with no kitchen, she was almost giddy when she discovered she had a gas four burner stovetop and convection oven to play with. We’ve still eaten out regularly, but when we are feeling a little culturally overwhelmed, she whips up some wonderful dishes, using fresh local ingredients, that stave off any feelings of homesickness we might be having.
The house where we are staying is located on a family run farm, or agriturismo, which has branched out into hosting tourists to supplement the farm’s income. Every day, the workers roll past the house in small 3-wheeled pickups on their way to work in the olive groves, vineyards, and fruit orchards. Several times each day, I will hear the tinkling of bells and get to watch the sheep moving to a new pasture. Walking the narrow tracks that connect the different parts of the farm allow us to see the differences in techniques used here and at home.
Walking past one of the vineyards, we see it doesn’t look at all like the manicured rows we see in the Texas Hill Country. Grasses are allowed to grow around the vines as a means of controlling erosion, since there is plentiful rain and no need for drip irrigation. Flowers, poppies in this vineyard, are planted between rows to help attract honey bees to the grapes, and rose bushes are planted as “canaries” around the vineyards since they are more susceptible to some of the same diseases as the vines. Olive trees are scattered wherever there is enough room, and berry vines are found on most of the fence rows. Fennel, sage and rosemary seem to grow wild in drainage ditches, and I keep being sent out to harvest “just one more sprig” for our next meal. A few days ago, the hands were on ladders around a couple of the fruit trees, and it wasn’t until they moved on I realized they had tied brightly colored plastic bags to limbs to keep birds at bay until the fruit is ready to be harvested.
We never know what we will see when we drive away from the house. Yesterday, it was a beautiful pheasant which seemed to think it owned the driveway and moved along at his own pace. Today, it was a very jolly hog trotting across a pasture alongside the highway. No pig sty for these guys, they really are “free range”, and the quality shows on the dinner table.

Real Football

Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Out and about early this morning. Headed over to the abbey to see if we can pickup tickets for the Siena opera, which is to take place in the ruined abbey tomorrow night. We get to see Il Flauto Magico, by some fellow named Mozart. See...and y’all thought I was just a country bumpkin with no dam couth.
After getting our tickets, we hit the road to do some cruising and see what this part of Italy holds. We headed off towards Grosseto until my Lovely Bride announced she had found an “interesting road” on the map for us to take. I made the turn and the “interesting road” turned into a gravel one laner through the local equivalent of a national forest. The promised turnoff for a ruined castle never appeared, but after an hour in second gear, we at least returned to a paved road. It can be the little things which sometimes mean the most.
Rained in this afternoon. We came back to the house to take a nap and hand wash a few things, so naturally it started raining right after the LB got the clothes hung out. Rain kept up through time to go find dinner. There’s nothing quite like driving in the rain on twisting mountain roads in the dark, with no idea of where you are going. We ended up at a ristorante named Il Palazzetto, not too far from our house. As we arrived, the pre-game festivities for the France –Italia Futbol match are underway on the projection TV which was moved to project on an entire wall. Dinner was memorable in that we both managed to forget our phrase books, and thus were at the mercy of the non-English speaking staff. We have no idea what we ate, but it was very, very good. As the game began, the mood in the place ramped up quickly. Food and service became secondary as the Italians and French fought it out, with the local boys demonstrating their superior ball control techniques early in the match, and with the room erupting from time to time in celebration of Italian good moves, or French faux pas. As we made our exit after the first period, with Italy leading 1-0, the LB asked me why college football can’t be that exciting. Nearly an hour of non-stop action, a half-time for the Band, followed by more full speed action. This instead of the interminable starts and stops for first downs, team time outs, media timeouts, official time outs, etc, which drag an hour of playing time out to 2½ - 3 hours. Now she has a mission and wants A&M to find an Italian coach to fire them up. Maybe she is on to something.

Lazy Day

Monday, June 16, 2008
Lazy day around the house, and then went to town for some shopping. The LB tossed some fresh stuff together and came up with a wonderful zuppa di pasta e fagioli. We keep feeling jet lagged after the 3 hour train ride from Venice (hey, we’re Aggies), and the soup was just the thing to help.
During the day we wandered about Chiusdino a little more. We visited San Galgano’s birthplace which has been a number of things since, including a jail when Napoleon was in charge of Italy. There was also the Church of the Visitation of the Archangel Michael, commemorating when he appeared to San Galgano and threw down the gauntlet, so to speak, of giving up warring and turning to church work. Or maybe it remembers when Mike visited Galgano’s mommy who was barren up ‘til then to let her know she was going to conceive…it gets confusing, especially since everything is in Italian. Anyway, the church has the reliquary holding San Galgano’s head tucked away in a corner. Siena had it for several hundred years, but gave it back to Chiusdino in the 1970’s when they couldn’t come up with any practical use for a slightly used skull.

The Sword in the Stone - Really

Sunday, 16 June 2008
A late start today, but we only went as far as the Abbey of San Galgano. San Galgano is the Chiusdino favorite son as well as patron saint, a young man born here who turned from the life of a soldier to the church. He had a vision of the Archangel Michael, and to show his resolve plunged his sword into a stone on a hilltop within sight of our house. Later, in the 1100’s the church built an Abbey nearby and a small chapel over the stone where only the sword hilt and a short portion of the blade is visible. Some say this is the original source of the Arthurian legend, while others hold that Galgano was only a copycat. At any rate it makes for an entertaining story and having the Abbey and chapel close at hand help us to feel we are enmeshed in the history of this place. One day this week, we plan to visit his casa natale in downtown Chiusdino. Hey, nobody can say we’re not having an exciting time on our vacation.
After a week in Venice, it is exciting to just be able to see and enjoy some of the little joys of nature. At S. Galgano’s, the honey bees were everywhere, pollinating the vineyards, as well as flitting to the beautiful flowers which we saw all around. We’ve found that driving in the early afternoon is much less congested as many take the Italian version of a siesta, allowing us to slow down and leave the windows open smelling everything in the outdoors. Right now, I’m sitting under an arbor in front of the house, enjoying the sun and breeze, listening to chickens at the next little farmhouse over, as well as constant birdsongs.
It seems our biggest challenge since arriving in Tuscany is getting ourselves on the right schedule. W e seem to sleep later here, have a little breakfast, and then head out to see what the day holds for us, just about the same time the local restaurants and stores are closing for siesta. I don’t like to be out driving after dark on these little roads, so we are trying to find somewhere to eat long before any normal person; i.e., Italian, would even think of dining. Last night we found a spot on the road to Siena which looked interesting. It was about 6:30pm, all we could get was pizza, and they stuck us in the back room along with all the other crazy tourists who were eating at that ungodly hour.


After taking the train from Venice to Florence, we picked up a rental car and took off on our own. Once away from the chaos of Florence, driving the small back roads of Tuscany was a totally wonderful experience. The roads were mostly deserted, and as long as I stayed 10 or 15 kph over the posted speed limit, I didn’t hold up the local traffic too much. As we moved into the area southwest of Siena known as the Val d’Merse, or the Merse river valley, the hills got larger and the roads began to twist and turn more vigorously. No problem, at least until some of the locals became impatient with my progress, and started sitting on my bumper. Our little car, a new Ford Focus with a turbo-diesel, was up to the challenge of the tight corners and very short straights heading up the mountain, but I was the obvious limiting factor in this game. The tailgaters finally swept past us on a blind uphill turn, and were gone from sight in seconds. Benvenuto a Italia!!
Without further excitement we arrived in the small hilltop town of Chiusdino where we were to stay for this week. Studying the map and directions sent by the rental agent, got us headed down a one lane track more appropriate for a tractor or four-wheel drive truck. At the bottom of this path, we found an old German who managed to convince us we were beyond lost. Backtracking to Chiusdino, we spotted another little road which might fit the description given in the directions. We tried to translate the written directions into actions, and ended at another dead end, this populated by an ancient Italian woman, 2 geese and a dog of indeterminate ancestry. With much waving of her walking stick and gesturing, she managed to convey to us that, no we weren’t in the right place, but just needed to return to the last intersection and keep going despite what the directions said. Another ten minutes of maneuvering along gravel paths brought us to our home for the next week, Casa Emilia. The rental agent was at the house, and gave us a quick introduction to the place. One reason for the brevity was her complete lack of English and our lack of either Italian or German. Oh well, that’s why we have phrase books, right?
With a German rental agent, the house was spotless, including the kitchen, whose shelves were completely bare of any foodstuffs. We packed up and headed back to the town above, to find a restaurant for a bite to eat and then off to the COOP, which is the HEB of Italy. We finally located the restaurant, which was closed at the time, so we headed into the COOP. It turned out to not be nearly as large as the one we had been frequenting in Venice, more like a gas station mini-mart. We picked up a few things, headed next door to the meat market and then down the street to the fresh fruit and wine shops. Of course, between each of these shopping opportunities, it was necessary to return to the parked car and unload. Our reward was some delicious steak au poivre, fried potatoes with green beans, sliced tomatoes with asiago cheese, and a fresh baked baguette, accompanied by a very nice Maglianello Chianti Reserva. This was our first real meal outside a restaurant since we left Texas.