Firsts and lasts


It is the first of December today and the countdown to Christmas can officially begin. Irrespective of how much the shops try to convince me otherwise, it is impossible to think seriously about Christmas before I’ve flipped to the last page of the calendar.
Today is also a first as I woke up this morning as an unemployed person. I don’t know about you but the word ‘unemployed’ conjures up all sorts of images that I’d rather not contemplate but the reality is that I have no office to go to on Monday, no meetings scheduled and no deadlines to meet. But sometimes even change that you weren’t anticipating just feels right and that’s how this one feels.

Lucca was the best buffer between the old and new that I could imagine. When you stand at a metaphorical crossroad what you need is an environment that is safe and nurturing and Lucca was that place for me. The people of Lucca didn’t know it but the daily rhythm of their lives was my anchor and instead of feeling uncertain and lost I felt safe and protected, challenged and excited. It was a perfect place to plan and to dream and to remember to be grateful. I may not have a job but I have something much more important. I have peace and as long as I have that I know that all will be well.

This morning I walked to the beach near my house with my camera to catch the sun rising on the first day of the last month of the year. As the water glistened and a dog chased seagulls, a woman out walking with her friend stopped. “We live in paradise” she said, and as I walked back home I realised that whether it’s beautiful Lucca, a beach in Auckland, or anywhere else for that matter, she was right.

sunrise at Murrays Bay

A Presto Lucca

Today is my last full day in Lucca. Although I have marked each day since i arrived on the most amazing cryptic calendar which is hanging on the back of my front door, I can scarcely believe it’s almost time to go home.
I arrived in Lucca on the 5th of November. The trees were still covered in autumn leaves, the sky was brilliant blue and there were people in shorts and t-shirts walking around the Wall. Now the trees have lost all their leaves, the sun is pale and watery and there are definitely no bare legs to be seen.
In the past week or so, Lucca has started to get ready for Christmas. The street lights are up ( but to my great disappointment are not going to be switched on until after I leave), Christmas trees have appeared and the shops are stuffed with Christmas treats. I have spent too much time trying to figure out how to get a panettone into my luggage but have had to admit defeat. Packing is going to be challenging enough.
There have been so many things that I have loved about Lucca. Just being here day after day seeing the same people in the bar having their morning espresso has been a thrill. It’s been lovely to be recognized too. A smile from the barista in the morning, a conversation with the lady who lives downstairs or a complimentary glass of wine at lunchtime are the small things that I have really appreciated.
I’ve loved going to the supermarket and have had to stop myself from taking photographs of the entire aisle of pasta, the huge flagons of freshly pressed olive oil or the dozens of varieties of prosciutto. I’ve loved walking around Lucca without a map, knowing where the short cuts are, and I was thrilled when a group of tourists asked me for directions.
I’ve found a favourite place for coffee, for pizza, gelato, pasta. I’ve found the best filled rolls in the train station in Florence. I’ve paid too much for coffee when I should have known better and avoided the tourist spots, I’ve eaten far too much bread and drunk far too much wine. I’ve sat in a cafe drinking prosecco and reading for an afternoon, I’ve tapped away on my keyboard, and read on a bench in the sunshine on the Wall.
I’ve watched American sitcoms translated into Italian (who remembers Felicity?), tried to read the daily newspaper and I’ve slowly been able to figure out how the TV game shows work. And everywhere that I have tried to speak in my broken Italian I have been met with kindness and patience. The more Italian I know the more I realize that I don’t know and that is both depressing and exciting for one thing that I know for sure is that I will be back someday. A presto Lucca!

Saturday lunch

I’m in one of my favorite places to eat in Lucca. Osteria Baralla is tucked away behind the old Roman amphitheater. It has red brick vaulted ceilings, huge bronze chandeliers and today it is packed and noisy, mostly with big family groups and visitors from the area who have come to Lucca ( the largest town in the area) to shop and eat. There’s Italian chatter swirling around, and lots of eating.
Today I have ordered i piatti di giorni and although I trust my understanding enough to know that I’ll like what I get, I’m still surprised when each course arrives.
First, bread made with flour from the hills beyond Lucca. It’s chestnut flour and the bread is dark and slightly sweet. A perfect accompaniment to a selection of salamis and cured meats.
Then beautiful linguine with coniglio and I make no apologies to the Easter Bunny. It was delicious. And next, pork medallions with fagioli beans. Even more delicious.
By the time I’ve had my coffee, the noise level has dropped but some of the big tables are still on their secondi piatti ( main courses). Eating takes a long time here and I am amazed at how well behaved the very young children are. They start their food education early here.
As I’m leaving I notice a plaque on the wall which says (and this is a loose translation fueled by two glasses of wine) ” an eternal reminder of the libations that were made in this place that was dear to the muses on the occasion of the memorable exhibition of the sculptor Giannetto Salotti”. I can only agree. This is a wonderful place for libations.

Caro amico, ti scrivo

Stasera, sulla televisione c’è un programma sul Lucio Dalla chi è stato un musicista, un attore e un cantautore italiano che ha morto più presto quest’anno. Lucio Dalla aveva sessantotto anni. È stato tumulato a Bologna, dove era nato.

Dalla era una persona molto famoso in Italia. La sua canzone di più famoso era Caruso, un canzone che ha scritto per Luciano Pavarotti. Forse, la conoscete.

“Caro amico ti scrivo” è il nome di il suo ‘best of’ CD e anche il nome di una canzone quale mi piace molto. Io proverò comprare i CD mentre sono a Lucca. Questo potrebbe essere un problema perche non c’è solo uno negozio di musica in Lucca ed è piccolo.

(Very) public displays of affection

They’re everywhere. On the platform at the station, on a bench in the piazza, at the next table in the restaurant. In your face, but apparently invisible to everyone, and frankly I don’t know where to look. It’s not just a quick kiss and cuddle. Oh no. There is full blown X rated groping going on, but no grinding. Small mercies.
Yesterday, sitting on the train in the station in Florence, a gay couple (not in the John Key sort of way) were saying their fond farewells. It looked to me as if one of them was going away for a long time, maybe even forever. Imagine my surprise when they both got on the train.
And now, as I sit here enjoying a long lunch, at the next table a couple with octopus arms and a cute way of making little chirpy slurpy noises as they smooch away barely able to stop to order their meal. They are all dressed up and they have the wine glasses reserved for the good wine so maybe it’s a big occasion, or maybe it’s just an ordinary office lunch 🙂

A knock at the door

My birthday officially started twenty five minutes ago in New Zealand and forty minutes ago a strange thing happened. There was a knock at my door and a male voice calling “Signora, Signora, ci sei?” That’s strange because there is only one person in Lucca who knows where I live and she’s not likely to be knocking on my door in the middle of the day. For a minute I thought it was the  man that I chatted with on the Wall a few mornings ago who gave me his phone number and said he’d show me around Pisa. I met him again by chance in the afternoon and got a bit spooked at that to be honest, although Lucca is a small place and I have started to see the same people at different times of the day myself. Irrationally, I thought that the man from Pisa had somehow found out where I lived so I was a bit reluctant to open the door. Being wrapped in a towel had something to do with it too.

Anyway, I did open the door and there was a man (a different one) holding a big bouquet of roses and lillies and smiling and that was how my birthday started.


Thank you Mum, Dad, Fiona, Martin, Cate and Jess xx

La Bella Figura

There is much to see in Lucca. The historical sites, the glittering gorgeous shop windows and the people. How is it possible for there to be so many beautiful people in one small town? In fact, across Italy in every town big or small it is the same. Men and women, young and old, each making their own fashion statement and each one perfectly aware that they are. It’s just what people with Italian genes (pardon the pun) do. They just can’t help it, and I can hardly restrain myself from photographing them as they buy their daily groceries.  La Bella Figura is important and long may it be so.

Even on the Wall, and presumably in the gym, no sacrifice is made to la Bella Figura. I have witnessed this. Early in the morning when I’ve fallen out of bed, pulled on a baggy t-shirt and leggings, and left for some exercise with only a cursory smoothing of my bed-hair, I have seen i Signori with their perfectly groomed ponytails and lip gloss, matching running gear and cute headbands (or ear muffs depending on the temperature).  Sure they run hard and work up a sweat but even then they somehow manage to look good.

So it is with some embarrassment that I must tell you of my first, and hopefully only, sartorial faux pas. One morning, I had an idea to start a new routine. I’d exercise early then stop in a bar for a cappuccino on the way home. It would be a nice way to start the morning and exchange a cheery ‘buon giorno’ with the barista I thought. Ha!

The barista could barely hide his surprise at seeing a red faced, trainer-wearing straniera (foreigner) in his bar. He made me a coffee but clearly would have preferred that I’d chosen another bar. And I did too. His bar happened to be lined with mirrors and everywhere I looked I could see my reflection, the complete opposite of la Bella Figura.

La Bella Figura isn’t just about being well dressed and well groomed. It’s also about having good manners, displaying appropriate behaviour and knowing the correct social etiquette for every situation. In a country blessed with so much glorious art, music, sculpture and architecture, it’s quite fitting that its people live their lives with such style and elegance. And it’s also understandable that they hold everyone to their high standards.

I got a ‘not achieved’ that morning. I finished my coffee and rushed back to my apartment. I took extra care with what I wore for the rest of that day and, although I’ll never compete in the Bella Figura stakes, I’ve done the same every day since.