Thursday, July 15, 2004


JULY 15,2004

Yesterday we went to Florence. This was the first time that we’ve been to Florence for the whole day, and of course it was wonderful. This trip was rather unexpected, and we only went because we had offered to take Maria, our neighbor’s daughter, to the train station so that she could go to Florence.

Maria is here because her dad, Frank, our new neighbor from Detroit, was in the hospital last week. A cousin phoned Maria to tell her about her dad, and Maria flew over here with her six year old daughter, Antonia.

Both Maria and Toni have been here many times. Maria’s mom was born in San Venanzo, and although she lived most of her life away from here, the family visited often. At six, Toni has been here at least three times, and remembers quite a bit about those visits.

On previous trips, Maria had taken the bus from San Venanzo to Orvieto, then caught the train to Florence. Her relatives told her that this no longer works…either the bus or the train schedule has changed, making the connections difficult. Frank was unable to take her to a train station because all he has to drive right now is an Ape. Although the three of them have squeezed in the Ape to go to the pool, this won’t work for a longer trip.

Last week we had told Maria that we would be happy to take her to the train station in Ponte San Giovanni, where she could catch the train to Florence. This station is a lot closer and more convenient than the one in Perugia. There’s always parking available, and you don’t have to get into the heavier traffic of Perugia.

At first we weren’t planning on going to Florence. Art and I had both thought about it, but then I looked at the forecast, and it was supposed to be cooler here, in the upper 70’s, but Florence was going to be up to the high 80’s. Florence, heat, and lots of tourists didn’t seem too appealing.

When the forecast was revised, Florence was expected to have much milder temperatures, and we decided to go. Our previous trip to Florence had been a quick stop in the city after a visit to the IKEA store located outside of the city. We had accidentally driven into the centro…a mistake you do NOT want to make! Anyway, we had only spent a few hours there, and knew that we would enjoy another visit. Florence is our favorite city in Italy…so far.

We checked out the schedules, and found that if we left at six a.m. we could get a direct train to Florence which would get us there by eight. I am NOT a morning person. Never have been, never will be. The fact that I had to get up at ungodly hours when I worked at the Post Office never changed this fact. To take this train, we would have to get up before five A.M. and leave the house no later than five fifteen. No thanks. Luckily Maria agreed.

We decided to catch the eight o’clock train, which required a change at Terentola, but would get us into Florence before eleven. Maria agreed with the scheduling, and after checking the weather for a few days, we decided that Wednesday would be the day.

The day started off badly…neither one of our alarm clocks went off, and we didn’t wake up until six thirty! Since we planned to leave the house at seven, we were a little rushed. Luckily I had organized the backpacks and clothes the night before. We arrived at the station in plenty of time to buy our tickets and check out return schedules.

Our mission on this trip to Florence was to visit a store called VIVI in order to look for some food supplies that I couldn’t find in Umbria. Since Florence is a larger city with a larger ex-pat community, the selection of “foreign” foods would be better here. Our friend Judy, who runs a cooking school in Florence (, had told us about this place.
(Please note: I STILL can't get this damn "link" function to work right!!!!!)

We also wanted to visit the Mercato Centrale, a wonderful two story market for fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, flowers and more. We didn’t plan to buy any fresh foods but thought we might pick up some Tuscan olive oil, which is generally more “peppery” than the Umbrian oil.

We also printed out Judy’s recommendations for places to eat near the Mercato, and decided to try Mario’s, a small lunchtime only place that quickly fills up. We planned to stop first at VIVI, then head straight for Mario’s.

The trip to VIVI’s was interesting. Although the store itself is small, they had quite a variety of foreign foods. Lots of oriental foods, Mexican foods, British foods, and of course American. We saw Crisco and Duncan Hines cake mixes. Microwave popcorn and Cheese Tidbits. Vanilla extract, peanut butter, Soft Batch cookies.

We bought ramen noodles to make Oriental cole slaw, Karo syrup, both light and dark…I don’t have a great need for these, but since they were there, why not? We also bought sweet pickle relish and treacle, which the saleslady, an American ex-pat, assured me was the equivalent of molasses. I’ve recently learned that I can turn granulated sugar into brown sugar using molasses! Use less to make light brown, more to make dark brown!

Most of the other items we saw were things that we had either brought with us, or things that we decided if we hadn’t used them for nine months, we really didn’t need. The backpack made carrying everything a little easier.

We headed to Mario’s, and arrived there about 11:30. Although they don’t open until noon, they invited us in to sit and wait. We struck up a conversation with one of the guys, and he told us that Judy had been by earlier in the day with one of her groups. She takes groups through the Mercato Centrale to shop for the best and freshest ingredients, then goes back to her apartment to conduct the cooking class with these ingredients.

Deciding what to order was a challenge. We wanted to try everything, but ended up going with one bowl of ribolitta, the famous Tuscan vegetable/bread soup, and an order of beans to start. Although the ribolitta is best in the late fall when the black cabbage is in season, we decided to take a chance since it’s one of our favorites and we haven’t had it for a long time.

As expected both dishes were wonderful. To follow this we had taken Judy’s recommendation and ordered the bistecca fiorentino…a TWO POUND t-bone that was about an inch thick! The waiter showed it to us before they cooked it, and it looked more like a roast than a steak.

The steak was delivered to us already cut in half and still sizzling. I took the slightly smaller of the two pieces and we both cut our first piece with anticipation. Judy had promised that it would melt in our mouth….and she was right! I didn’t think that a steak that large could be so tender, but it was absolutely delicious!

Since this is a small place, a single woman had been seated at our table with us. This is standard practice in European restaurants. Our tablemate turned out to be a fellow American, a teacher from North Carolina who was in Florence to teach a month-long photography class. This was her first visit to Mario’s as well, and we told her what little we knew about it and showed her the printout from Judy’s website. She decided to try the Wednesday special, Braciole with salsa, also recommended by Judy. Not surprisingly, this was excellent too!

After lunch we wandered around the Mercato, just looking at all the wonderful choices. We talked with a few of the people, mostly because we were looking for the more “peppery” Tuscan olive oil. We didn’t see any point in lugging around oil that wasn’t peppery, since we have more than enough fresh oil from last fall. We thought maybe we’d walk over to the place near the Ponte Vecchio where we had bought our oil before.

On the way we stopped in Edison’s, a bookstore located on the Piazza della Republica, because we knew they had English language books. Although I didn’t find any of the books I was looking for, Art did find a book that had short stores printed side by side in English and Italian. This will help with his understanding of Italian. He also found a paperback entitled “The Mailman” which seemed interesting.

We were hopeful that the olive oil shop would be open…it was early afternoon, and in Umbria, everything closes from one o’clock until 3:30 or four. Since Florence is a larger city filled with many tourists, most shops stay open all day. Luckily our little olive oil shop did too.

We tasted several oils, but the salesman was quite honest in telling us that last years oil was not especially peppery, but that the crop for this year would be much better. We thanked him for his advice, and left, promising to return.

Art wanted to buy some old balsamic vinegar, but I just couldn’t see paying $50 or more…it’s just not something we need, especially when the stuff I can buy at the grocery is so good!

Art also wanted to buy some olive wood, but the only piece that I really wanted was a bread board, and it was €65…about $80 at the current exchange rate! Maybe when we go to Montalcino I can find one cheaper.

After this I was ready to hit Vivoli’s! A trip to this gelateria is a MUST for any visit to Florence. As usual, I got chocolate, banana, and just a tiny bit of strawberry. The flavors in gelato are so much more intense than in ice cream, and Vivoli’s is always wonderful

We walked back through town, taking our time, people watching and sightseeing. The Doumo looks wonderful since it’s been cleaned…the white marble just shines!

Amazingly the city wasn’t nearly as packed as we had expected. Maybe because we did most of our walking around after noon the large tour groups had left.

We had agreed to meet Maria and Toni at the train station before four, to catch the train that left at 4:09. At five minutes after four they FINALLY walked in…I was already at the train, and had told Art that I would NOT miss this train! It seems that Maria’s watch is five minutes slow…although I thought that getting there at four was still pushing it. I like to be early for things, so that I know there’s not a problem.

For this train, I knew that we’d have a problem getting a seat, and would have preferred to board around then minutes till four! As it was, we had a hard time finding seats. Luckily we did find two sets of two seats in the same car. We wanted to stay close so that Maria would know when to change trains.

On the trip to Florence, we had sat facing one another for the first leg, then sat separately for the second leg. Art thought I was being “unfriendly” because I had brought a book to read, and when we ended up not sitting with them for this second leg, he REALLY thought it was an unfriendly gesture.

I of course, saw things differently. If he had his way, Art would have offered to show Maria and Toni around Florence, turning into his “Mr. Tour Guide” alter ego. Since Maria had been to Florence before, and since I knew she wanted to go shopping in the San Lorenzo Mercato for tapestries, I knew that this was not something she would be interested in.

My thinking was (and still is), that Maria and Toni had planned to go to Florence on their own to begin with. Maria didn’t seem to have a problem with this. When we offered to take them to the train station, we made this trip possible. Maria’s Italian is pretty rusty, and Art was able to get schedule and price information for her much more easily than she could have on her own. Of course, if she had been by herself, she would have managed, just as we have in the past.

Once on the train, we knew that we had to change trains, and also that we might have to change quickly. Art knew to ask the conductor which track we would need to go to in Terentola. Luckily for us, we had about 25 minutes until our train arrived, but we have made the switch when we had barely enough time to get from one track to the other before the train pulled out.

Anyway, although Art didn’t say so specifically, I knew that he was disappointed that I had made it clear we were going our own way and would meet up with Maria and Toni at the station. I told her that we would direct her to the tourist information office, where she could get a map and maybe ask about some things that Toni might like.

It would have been different if we had been with our own grandchild, but honestly, the thought of spending time waiting for Toni to decide which little trinket she would spend her money on was just too much. These decisions can be quite agonizing, especially when the parent is trying to gently nudge their child AWAY from blowing their money on something that will be broken in ten minutes, will never be used again, or is just downright inappropriate. With a small child you can’t let on that you don’t agree with their choice…you have to find something BETTER, then say, “oh honey, look at THIS!’, and hope they’re distracted from their original choice.

Also, I didn’t want to spend time wandering around the Mercato while Maria shopped for tapestries. Sure the Mercato is great, but we’ve seen it before, and weren’t there to shop for trinkets/presents/leather. I’ve never liked shopping with someone else. I want to look at what I want to look at, WHEN I want to, and for however long I want to. I hate to feel pressured, and even more than that, I hate being ready to leave and having to wander around while the other person is still looking.

So, call me the meanie, but this is what I wanted. I wanted for Art and me to have the day in Florence to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. I only agreed to go because I love Florence so much, and spending it with Art was what I had planned. I hurt my feelings that he would rather spend time with them than with me. Art didn’t see it this way at all.

Art thought that he was merely being “friendly”, and that I was being Unfriendly. I thought that they were pretty lucky to have someone offer to take them to the train station, and the fact that we were on the same train, going to the same place was almost irrelevant. Not that I would have ignored them, or minded telling them when to change trains, but that still didn’t mean we had to be chained to them for the whole day. And you know too, that I did NOT want to see Art turn into Mr. Tour Guide! I think that’s been made clear enough before!

Although I’m sure that Art still thinks (deep down) that I was mean and unfriendly, he’s still easy going enough, and smart enough to know when to give in. And the mean side of me still thinks that he wasn’t being friendly so much as he was hoping to get to be Mr. Tour Guide.

I have more thoughts along this same line concerning people who visit us, but I’ll save that for another blog.


At 10/11/2004 05:31:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way you use the word "Mr Tour Guide" sounds pretty condescending, no wonder Art said you were being unfriendly. Anyone who read this segment of your blog can tell that you are not the ideal poster child for being generous, especially with the comment "they were pretty lucky to have someone offer to take them to the train station". Taking someone to the train station should be a neighbourly thing to do for anyone who is in your shoes. Isn't that true you have received plenty of help from Wendy and your neighbours? Isn't it just a karma thing, spreading the good life?

At 10/12/2004 04:09:00 AM , Blogger Barbara said...

I guess this is one of the problems with the written word...your meaning can be easily misunderstood. As I mentioned in the frtst paragraph, we had offered to take them to the station (a 30-4- minute drive) even when we were not planning to go to Florence. I meant they were lucky not to infer that they owed us something, but just that it was a stroke of good luck. Even tho they have many relatives in the area, none of them would have taken them to Ponte San Giovanni...maybe it's just a small town mentality, but many people in San Vnenazo have never been beyond Marsciano.

Since Maria had been to Italy many, many times before, she had previously taken the bus to Orvieto, and caught the train from there. Unfortunately, the schedules changed and that no longer works. We were gald that we were able to help, given that Maria really did want to go to Florence, and that her dad had no way to get her to the station. I agree with you 100% about passing along the good karma...I couldn't imagine that Maria wouldn't get to Florence, and so we did something to rememdy that situation.

Another point I'd like to clear up is that Maria was on a mission in Florence...SHOPPING! Since I'm not much of a shopper, I guess Art's just not used to this, and just assumed that she would be sightseeing. Of course he had also forgotten that Maria has been here many times before, so she really didn't need someone to show her around anyway. Yes, he does like being "Mr Tour Guide", and luckily for me, he doesn't find that term offensive...just accurate.

As for me wanting to read on the train...sorry, that's just my preference. No apologies to you, Art, or anyone else.


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