FOR EVERY TIME THERE IS A SEASON

WHEN THE BEAUTY BECOMES THE BEAST

Back in June I posted a picture on Instagram of a gorgeous hydrangea bush that I saw on my walk while I was in Pennsylvania.  My hydrangea obsession of the season was to have my hydrangea bushes produce beautiful blooms like the ones they seem to turn out every season back East. I must say that this year in the midwest almost everyone I spoke with was having a banner year with their hydrangeas. No, they weren’t necessarily getting the gorgeous blue of the Pennsyvlania bush, but it was a better than average year for this flower that I love and that has eluded me for so long.

thumb_IMG_0735_1024This summer I did have some lovely lavender and bright pink  which was a huge step forward from other years! Did a few shots of Miracle Gro really do this or was this just a lucky year?   Whatever it was, it was a source of major enjoyment throughout the summer!
Now it is late autumn. My gardens are way past prime.    Perenniels have been cut back and annuals pulled.    What a few months ago was so lovingly nurtured and gave so much pleasure, is now a stub waiting for their time next year.

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And the remnants of my hydrangea beauties are now a pile in my driveway, to be discarded.

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Of the nine trees in our yard, I have a very large maple tree in my front lawn, too big for my taste now, but a beautfiul tree nontheless. I marveled at the fact that this tree in addition to other trees in our neighborhood and all over town had kept their leaves much longer this year.  The foliage also maintained  a brilliant green color way into fall than I thought was evident in previous years. It may have been a result of a very warm September and October. Whatever did it, the other day I went outside and seemingly overnight I was met by a thick blanket of leaves begging to be raked. I know that the gardening gurus say that raking is unnecessary and even counter-productive. But given the depth of the blanket, I felt (perhaps incorrectly) that this could not be good for the lawn long term, particularly since there were many more leaves still waiting to fall. thumb_IMG_1541_1024Generally our lawn service crunches up leaves as they cut the grass every week. But now it was November. Typically they stop cutting at the end of October, further proof that we were about two weeks late in our falling leaves. So just with the leaves under that tree, I raked together 7 lawn bags of refuse that afternoon. The next day there was a new blanket of leaves that had fallen. But what was that sound I heard? It was indeed our lawn service still cutting our grass and mulching up our leaves!
And yet nature always evolves in such a way that there is beauty still in our yard – the turning colors of our azaleas and hostas make me so happy as I look out on them!   To everything there is indeed a season.C584A0A5-708E-4811-A6A1-CFA530E464F4
DECORATING FOR CHRISTMAS
With my leaves now rotting and nurturing my lawn, bushes and trees for spring, my mind is turning to the holidays. My friend’s blog (ivy&ironstone.com) was recently posted and I am adding my own response to her question about when to decorate for Christmas. There is of course the argument that with all the work involved in decorating, why not get it up and leave it up for as long as possible. I am such a purist, though,  that I love the magic of turning on the Christmas lights the day after Thanksgiving, but not before. My feeling is that this gives each holiday its due. The decorating is a sort of announcement that the time of year has come for joy and peace. And this was a year and a time that surely can use an infusion of joy and peace.

It is as usual a very busy time. This year, however, we have already begun to test our strands of light  and my husband has already put them on the bushes  because we will be in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving this year and then away in Ireland the week after.  The strung lights will remain unlit until we get back home in a few weeks.   So we’ll start to sparkle a little later than usual this year.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone!   One of the very many things I am so grateful for, is the ability to write this blog and enjoy so many other blogs that I follow.

Until next time……

 

 

 

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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We have long been in an era of holidays starting earlier and earlier: Valentine’s day advertising will start very soon, Christmas trees go up in stores in late August alongside Halloween decoration displays.    And along with the very early, elongated promotion, every holiday seems to have gotten much BIGGER in every way, taking on even greater and greater significance.    Every holiday is more of an event than the year before – more parties, elaborate mechanized decorating inside and outside the home, more gifts for every occasion (I’m guilty here!).
I’m not necessarily criticizing,  by the way!  I fully recognize my lifelong take on Christmas, for example,  could be considered over the top by some.  My total love of the Christmas season has been documented in past blogs   CHRISTMAS EVE. I will go to almost any length for  food, decorations, gifts and celebrations at Christmastime!DECK THE HALLS!

I’m  similarly crazy about Thanksgiving and love a large family dinner.  I also love a good fireworks display as much as the next guy!

 

9BBD3B81-F73A-49CC-979F-1E971383C8E7But Halloween, no matter how much marketing surrounds it, has somehow escaped me. Even as a child, I half-heartedly went along with getting dressed up in a costume of my own invention but didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I participated more as a social thing with my friends rather than really digging in  and creatively putting together the best costume possible.       I also never quite  got the concept of going to strangers’ doors for candy.   I know, every party has a pooper, that’s why you invited me – sorry, just never been a huge fan!

 But I’m also  not really as much of a crank about it as I’m coming off.   I do have a nodding history with Halloween.    Once in about fifth grade I was a “glamour girl” with tight leopard skin pants (where did I find those?), I recall even an off-the-shoulder top and actual high heels.   In retrospect, it seems just a tad risqué to flaunt in the faces of 1950’s nuns.   But the nuns and my parents apparently didn’t mind:   there wasn’t much there to flaunt making this pretty tame by today’s standards.         By high school it was the mid-Sixties and I went to a Halloween dance as a 1920’s Flapper, fringed dress (made by my friend’s mother) feather headdress and all.   Other years I may have been just  a run of the mill hobo.  And we’ve had Halloween parties in our current neighborhood that have been a ton of fun but most of them involved wearing regular  street clothes and carving pumpkins. Another year there was an actual costume party in the neighborhood and we went dressed up but neither my husband nor I  can remember what/who we were.       When my son was little, I gladly put together a costume for him  (although nothing terribly original) and we went  trick or treating but I never  really got into it as much as the media hype said I should.

Halloween is now  an event that has become the kickoff to the other holidays leading up to the end of the year.    Along with pumpkins, mums and ghosts, houses are now festooned with orange lights; skeletons dancing in the windows of upstairs bedrooms (a very cool display in the window of a neighbor that is mesmerizing as you drive by), there’s a Halloween card for everyone on your list, front lawns are pretend cemeteries.    A lot more effort is put into it than when I was a kid.      And again, a lot of it is  pretty cool.

My son, daughter-in-law and grandkids live in Chicago and their immediate and  extended neighborhoods comprise the epicenter for all things spooky, inventive and fun!     I have to say that their goings-on and the exuberance of our grandkids  have shown me how  much fun Halloween really can be! The streets are closed off to traffic around their homes; EVERYONE – kids, parents, grandparents – is in costume; families are out in the street going from home to home; people hand out candy and snacks to revelers; it’s a giant party! I’ve even seen a house or two  or ten where grown ups share adult beverages rather than candy! Everyone is in a great mood! It doesn’t feel like forced fun – it’s real fun!

Before my retirement, I always went into the city directly from my office so I didn’t wear a costume. I’m well aware, no excuse! I could have brought a costume with me to change into, right?  My hand is now slapping my forehead!

I’ve been going into Chicago from the ‘burbs for Halloween for the past eight or nine years, since my grandkids were born, watching them dress in  increasingly impressive costumes.   No run-of-the-mill hobo, witch or ghost for them!!   There was  the time my grandson went as a musk ox during his horned animal phase, or as a construction truck during his construction phase!  Or my granddaughter as a hot air balloon.  I thoroughly enjoyed every costume they’ve had.

My role was one of accompanying  the grandkids trick or treating or handing out candy at their house. But each year, I was aware that I was drawn into the spirit of the whole celebration more and more. Last year I actually put on a semi-elaborate mask while most of the rest of the family dressed as members of the Addams Family or Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Watson.    thumb_IMG_1276_1024

I so enjoyed the Addams Family that I became inspired to participate fully this year.    As my grandson told me what this year’s theme is and asked me what I would like to be within that theme, I came to the conclusion that it’s not Halloween about which I’ve been so tepid.   It’s the thought required to come up with  a theme.   If someone does that thinking for me and presents me with the concept, I can completely rise to the occasion and join in.   So over this past month I have been gathering up the pieces of the costumes that both my husband and I will wear! He and I will be full-on characters  costumed in this year’s family group theme! Look for pictures on Instragram and Facebook on October 31! In the meantime, enjoy!   Happy Halloween, everyone!
And get those Valentine’s decorations up – you’re late!

See you soon…..

 

 

 

 

Home decorating has always been a passion of mine.   My husband and I built our current home in 1989 and, except for  building a deck off of our kitchen immediately after we moved in and, of course, landscaping, occasional painting, it remained pretty much untouched until about 2006 when we contracted a major re-do on our landscaping.

I began to view home design/decorating/renovation  as an actual  hobby when I realized that I almost always have some sort of a project going, big or small.   And if I’m not actually in the midst of completing a project, I’m thinking about it.   We started planning our first major indoor reno about fifteen years ago.   That was when our son and daughter in law got married and we realized that we wanted a place for eventual grandchildren to play in when they weren’t outdoors.    We had a very large vacant basement that ran the full length and width of our house.    This space houses contiguous areas that now include a walk up wet bar, a play area for the grandkids, a TV viewing area and poker table/dining area.    It also includes three enclosed areas:   a half bath in the main basement area, an office, and a utility area.

We found our contractor who would help us to realize our vision for the basement space and we were off to the races!  We found this contractor through referrals from friends and neighbors who had used them and were very satisfied.   We were so happy with his work that we used him for all of our other projects throughout the years.    And actually, when I retired, coincidentally he retired!   We also found a custom cabinet maker who has redone all the cabinetry in our home.

Then about 10 years before I retired, I decided that we needed to evaluate every room in our home for any needed spiffing up and complete  those before my paychecks stopped. We methodically gutted and re-did the two upstairs bathrooms, gutted and re-did our kitchen,  upgraded our trim, replaced our air-conditioning unit and got all new windows.    In that way by my retirement date any room that needed a facelift, got one.

I must say, though,  that probably the most satisfying upgrade of all has not been on the inside of the house, but on the outside. One fall day about ten years ago, my husband and I were walking around our property, surveying our outside, checking what the exterior of our  house needed.    Painting?   New Roof?   Our neighbor joined us, I think, just to see what new ideas I could come up with.    My husband and I decided that it was probably time for the roof to be replaced since it was the original roof.     With that decision made,  I turned my attention to the deck on the back of the house.      Even with the western exposure  we certainly tried to use our deck,  but found that it grew almost uninhabitable during the mid afternoon in hot July and August, prime time for deck use. And then it  could also become unusable in the evenings as well because of insects. Hmmmmm.      As we walked around the yard, I morphed the conversation going from possibly installing an awning over the deck to maybe adding  a lower level of the deck to the existing structure outside the family room windows. Still I knew that this design, while attractive, fell way short of solving our core problems: the awning would help the sun issue, but would do almost nothing about the unbearable heat in mid-afternoon.    And the insect problem was still in no way addressed.    In my view only one option worked: since we were already going to be redoing the roof on the house itself, why not just extend it over the expanse of the current deck, screen it in, install a large white wicker ceiling fan over the table to create a breeze when none was available naturally. I also opted for a brick patio off the porch to add more entertaining space.    And for good measure, we decided that we should have the house painted, as well!    In for a dime, in for a dollar.  As I outlined the design of this space, my  husband just looked at me, familiar with the usual project creep that came with most of my renovations.

The space would be usable from April through October.   I stopped just short of the next obvious step: making  a true four season room out of it, the proposal of which would have sent my husband to irreversible apoplexy.   When we were finished with our planning that afternoon,  my neighbor just laughed and said, “Well, you just took  a $50,000 walk!”

But my husband had to agree that my plan was pretty much on target for solving the problem. So in March of 2008, we started work on redoing the back of our house. Our contractor had to be sure that the footings of the deck could uphold the new structure that would now include screened walls (and a screened floor to keep out the bugs!), a roof structure, and roofing itself. The deck was already the size and shape I wanted, about 18 feet by 22 feet, so a decent sized rectangle.

thumb_694E685F-87FA-4228-B880-45F20246653D 2_1024It would hold two seating areas on either end of the porch plus a table and chairs that would seat six under a large white wicker ceiling fan. The brick patio would come off the steps at the side of the porch.    The project was completed at the end of May that year, just in time for the prime summer season and to welcome our first grandchild, a boy,  that July!

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Since its completion almost ten years ago, we have enjoyed any number of gatherings in the afternoons and evenings on our screened porch. It easily handles twelve to fifteen people with overflow drifting to the patio for more casual dining and gathering.   When we’re not partying out there, it is where I write, often where I meditate, or just sit out there and enjoy the flowers and the bird sounds.   The TV decorating shows  call places like this “a sanctuary,” or “an oasis.”    I always laugh at how la-dee-da that sounds but  I truly believe that is what our porch is to me – an oasis.   This space and the surrounding outside area has given us many seasons of pleasure, memories and fun with our family and friends.   I think is easily the most enjoyable re-do we have done in almost thirty years of living in our home.1E47A0F4-08AB-4AE3-8543-8FA6521313C7 2

And now as autumn will soon give up its delightful weather, at the end of October we will close down our porch for another year.   We will cover the furnishings, bring in our pottery, store away the toys until next April when I will do my happy dance as we bring it all back together and alive again!

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Before I sign off for now….

This week is the one year anniversary of my blog.  I posted my first entry on October 3, 2016.   I  want to thank you for reading it.   I truly hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it!

Until next time…..

 

SEPTEMBER

 

SUMMER, WHERE DID IT GO!

I say this every year and here I go again – it seems like our summer went by in the blink of an eye. It was a beautiful summer, a moderate summer for us in the Midwest, but it seems like it was just June and now here we are, September and  a day away from  official fall. Last week on her blog my friend wrote very eloquently about moving on seemlessly from summer to fall. But I’m one of those people who has  a tendency to cling to summer for as long as possible.

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Reading in my hammock for the very first time in the two years we’ve had it!

Our weather right now is playing along beautifully with me, holding on with temperatures still in the 90’s but there’s no denying that darkness is falling just a bit earlier each evening. I can no longer walk in twilight at almost 9 p.m. Far from it. It’s now 7:37 p.m. and it is pitch dark outside.

But how fortunate we are! The contrasts of weather in the country now are incredible. While I’m lamenting summer’s end, I think about those who have had their lives upended by the violent hurricanes that devastated  the south and  the islands this season. Three very powerful storms ripped through Texas and Florida and now several more  attacked Puerto Rico and the other islands off our East Coast.   And then the earthquake in Mexico.  When will it end for them?

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I get to put out the mums at my front door, this year a pretty rust color. We started trimming back our bushes. Because of the relative dryness this past month, leaves on the trees are already red and gold mixed in with those that are still green. I  have several stalwart hydrangea blooms hanging in there in this,  the most beautiful summer for hydrangeas that I have experienced in the almost thirty years we’ve lived in this house. I contrast that with those who have had their bushes and trees torn out of the ground and all the other things that have been lost, with loved ones injured or worst. I count my blessings as my heart breaks for them.

 

GETTING BACK TO COOKING……

Toward the middle of September, I generally start my way back into the kitchen in a semi-serious way. Magazines and food shows are all about easy living in the summer so it coincides with all of us being less formal about how we prepare and eat our food.

But September means the days are going to start getting slightly cooler, slightly shorter and things move inside, meaning I go back to cooking in the kitchen instead of on the grill. Also it means I review my magazines containing those design and food articles that have been languishing since spring; I cut them out and file them.     I have found that a number  of our friends this summer have taken vacations in Europe which for many of my fellow foodies meant that they have taken cooking classes in places like Hungary, Provence and Italy, leaving me incredibly inspired! I’ve decided that I will try at least two new recipes each week to challenge my skills and also to combat the boredom that sets in with making the same things week after week.

I really do love to cook. What I don’t like is the prep. I watch as Ina and Giada gracefully throw a pinch of this and a cup of that into their latest concoction, all ingredients and tools at their fingertips (let’s forget that they have staff and I don’t).    I’ve assembled a reasonably well appointed kitchen over the years with most of the accoutrements that the directions call for.   I also went out a few years ago and bought myself various sizes of those cute little glass dishes that I can fill in advance of needing them during the cooking process so that I can be prepared and not still foraging madly for the ingredient when the recipe screams, “Do this NOW!”

My one rule of thumb is that when I’m doing a recipe for the first time I follow the instructions to the letter.

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A picture of the original Poblano Soup from Better Homes and Gardens

Also I want it to look reasonably close to the picture in the book.

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My rendition of the Poblano soup – a very close likeness to the original in my opinion!

So I go about my task in my disorganized little way and I must say that although I can become frazzled, the end result usually is not bad and enjoyed by everyone which is really all the encouragement any cook needs.

Yesterday’s offering was Chicken and Poblano Pepper Soup. Never mind that the temperature outside was 91. Possibly I could have waited to do this one until later in the fall. Anyway, this soup was given the seal of approval by both my husband and me.    I will put a checkmark on the recipe meaning that we will have this again. It’s super easy to make and if you’re not a pepper fan, or don’t like spicy, don’t be afraid of this recipe. It’s really not overly spicy since Poblano peppers are milder than chiles and the Jalapeno’s are used only as a topping at the end, so you are in charge of how hot you want it. If you try it, I hope you will like it.

RECIPE – CHICKEN & POBLANO PEPPER SOUP
1 TBSP vegetable oil
1 1/2 lb tomatoes, cored and halved
1 fresh poblano chile peppe, stemmed, quartered, and seeded
1 1/3 cups thinly sliced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 TSP dried oregano, crushed
4 bone-in chicken thighs skinned
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

Tortilla chips
Toppings: crumbled feta cheese, cilantro, sliced jalapeno peppers, chopped red onion and/or lime wedges

In large pot heat oil over medium high heat. Using tongs, carefully place tomatoes, cut side down in the pot in a single layer. Cook without stirring 5 minutes or until well-browned. Add poblano quarters, onion, garlic, oregano, and 1/2 tsp. salt; reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes.
Add chicken and broth to pot. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, coverd, 20 minutes or until chicken is done (175 degrees F)
Strain broth; pressing tomatoes and chile with a spoon; discard solids. Pull meat apart; discard bones. Return chicken and broth to pot; heat through. Serve soup over tortilla chips (I didn’t do it this way because I thought it would make a soggy mess – I served them on the side) with toppings. Makes 4 servings

From BHG.com/Poblano Soup

If you try it, let me know what you thought!

Until next time……….

 

 

SICILY

 

To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the key to everything. – Goethe

My last post a month ago anticipated our family visit to Italy, and, particularly, our first trip to Sicily LECCE AND LA SICILIA.     Lecce, on the heel of the boot on the Adriatic coast, is the birthplace of my mother in law and we visit family there every three years. My husband, son, daughter in law and grandkids and I  go to visit  the aunts, uncles and cousins.    Lecce never disappoints us with its beaches, antiquities and magnificent baroque architecture. But this year, for my husband and me, the crown jewel of our trip was Sicily, this rogue island just 2 miles from mainland Italy at its closest point. My Sicily-high is still very much with me!

My husband and I took our 6-day trip, with him driving us around the island from Palermo to Cefalu` to Santo Stefano di Camastra to Taormina, to Catania where we spent a few short hours on a relaxing Sunday, and then on to Agrigento.   This route took us from the northern part of the island around the east coast and down around to the south, taking us to most of Sicily’s major cities, with the exception of Siracusa, Messina  and Trapani.

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One of the old pictures of Santo Stefano many years ago

My primary pull to Sicily is that this island is where my grandmother was born. I wanted to see the places that she saw, however altered they have become in the 112 years since she left there as young bride in her late teens to come to America. In addition I wanted to know if I could find out if there were still Serio’s – her maiden surname – and if there was anyone I could talk with about Santo Stefano during my visit. My cousin’s husband in Pennsylvania put me in touch with his cousin who lives there and a friend who was born and still lives in this town. Sitting in a cafe in Santo Stefano with my cousin’s friend, I asked him if he had any idea what the town might have looked like when my grandmother lived there.  I actually went into the cafe and took some photos of the old pictures on the walls.   He said that the footprint then  was likely pretty much the same as what we saw. Of course, proper paved roads were put in, and buildings were updated. Many of the buildings we were looking at were most likely there when she was there since they were hundreds of years old, some dating from the 1600’s.

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Santo Stefano, town center

The town of about 5,000 inhabitants is known for its handmade pottery and ceramic artifacts, as well as agricultural production of wine grapes, citrus fruit, vegetables and olives.   We happily bought a handmade pottery plate that now hangs in our dining room made by a local artisan in Santo Stefano.

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The Sanctuary at Letto Santo

Before I left, there was one place I dearly wanted to see – the Sanctuary of the Letto Santo.  It’s a chapel sitting at the top of a mountain in Santo Stefano, a rendering of which is at the chapel at Holy Cross Park in Easton, PA, where many immigrants, including my grandparents,  from Santo Stefano settled when they left Italy.   The rendering is plainly visible in pictures of our family reunion that I wrote about last year COMING TOGETHER.    My husband gingerly drove us up the winding road leading to the chapel and, as we turned a corner,  there it was standing in front of me.

 

 

 

 

In preparation for our trip I tried to read as much as possible about Sicily. Universally ackowledged for its physical beauty, I have to say that much of what I read was not flattering to the island. In the readings, Sicily was often portrayed as poor, disorganized, perhaps dirty, struggling, corrupt and mafia-ridden. “To really appreciate this place, come with an open mind,” my guidebook cautioned.

Indeed Sicily carries stigma, complexities and mystique – but more interesting in some ways than the rest of Italy as I think Goethe was referencing in his quotation above. The cultural legacy alone boasts 25 centuries of foreign domination by civilizations such as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Saracens and Normans, heritages that are deeply relevant,  that left their diverse marks on every aspect of Sicily and that are recognized to this day. In 1860 Italy, and Sicily along with it, were unified as one nation. But, although unified, Sicilians were no better off. It’s telling that from 1871 to 1914, almost one million struggling Sicilians, including my grandparents, emigrated to the US.

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Valley of the Temples

In fact, our guide at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, an archeological site where ancient Greeks built their city of Akragas, talked about the astonishing amalgam of many cultural influences that makes this island what it is today. Throughout her tour, she would say, when discussing the factors that led  to today and how things may or may not have changed with unification into Italy, “After we became Italian…”she would say as she proceeded to elaborate on what had happened.   I found that  phraseology interesting because I view a nationality as something you either are or you aren’t, not something you become but I think with respect to Sicily, that’s a fair assessment.

Regarding organized crime, its important to note that while the mafia still exists, it really seems to have had its heyday from about 1948 to sometime in the 1990’s.  After World War II, the mafia gained its foothold when it was established as the administrator of the island in the absence of other suitable candidates for  this semi-autonomous region. Starting in the 1980’s, large and powerful anti-mafia resistance movements started to have an impact. Now fewer and fewer businesses  pay extortion protection money. New hot topics have taken over the consciousness such as  the  struggling economy and Sicily’s role as a gateway for the immigrants coming in from Northern Africa.

Natural Beauty…

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Mt. Etna in the distance as we started to climb

 

The natural beauty of Sicily is indeed awesome (I NEVER use the ubiquitous word “awesome” because I think it’s way overdone, so take note of the fact that I used it here). Neither my husband nor I were prepared adequately for the jaw-dropping beauty we saw at every turn.

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View of the sea outside our hotel in Cefalu`

 

Immense mountain ranges required that we navigate throughout the island in  miles of tunnels, kilometers of farmland were evident, there was the volcanic majesty of Mt. Etna, the Turkish Steps in Realmonte near Agrigento and the aquamarine coastline that surrounds the island  – it was just one beautiful site after another.

Enhancing nature is cosmopolitan elegance in cities like Catania and the medieval beauty of Taormina, once the capital of Byzantine Sicily in the 9th century, where we stayed at the San Domenico Palace Hotel, built on the original structures of a former Dominican monastery, dating back to the year 1430.

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Entrance to our hotel in Taormina, the San Domenico Palace Hotel

The Food…
Sicily’s cuisine has its roots in its multi-cultural past. Sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, sometimes both. In all my reading, the one thing the authors could agree on was the high quality of the food. I knew it would be fabulous and it was. I ate very little meat while I was there – why would you, when you’re surrounded by seas full of the best, freshest seafood I’ve ever eaten. You can watch the fishermen come in in the mornings with their catches.

And the tomatoes! I ate tomatoes virtually every morning for breakfast and many times throughout the day. The color and the taste were beyond belief.

The olive oil – it is not that anemic yellow-ish green that we often see in the US. It is rich and dark green – from the very first olive pressings. The taste is crazy. And when there was nothing else to put olive oil on, I overate the bread that was everywhere. I ate my annual quota in bread in the month we were in Italy.   I can report that I’ve almost lost all of the  bread pounds I gained while I was there!

Pasta has been a staple of my diet all my life but the pasta I ate there was often handmade, served to al dente perfection and had ingredients that I hadn’t tasted before. For example, I ate spaghetti tossed in olive oil and cooked fennel, essence of sea urchins (ricci di mare), and clams. I was a little nervous about the sea urchins, I have to say. But the flavor was fabulous – it was truly just a hint of the urchins and it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I wonder where I can get sea urchins in the midwest???!!!  Never mind! There’s a reason the Mediterraneans live so long!

I’m not a huge sweets fan in any country I visit, so I’ll leave the talk of the gelato, cassata and cannolis to someone else.

The Traffic…

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The autostrada as we left the Palermo airport

The first thing we encountered as we drove away from the airport in Palermo, was the autostrada, the highway. Perhaps because of some of the negativity in my readings,  I may have been expecting cowpaths, narrow unpaved streets, better suited to catering to mules than to cars. Certainly something less primitive than I found!  What I found were thoroughfares that would make some parts of America envious.   Street signs, however,  can be misleading or non-existent but we were being guided by our GPS on our phone and, with one exception, it never failed us.  The one exception was finding ourselves caught in some construction late on a Sunday afternoon and being brought to a gravel road and a farmhouse off the beaten path on the way to Agrigento.   My husband deftly backed out of the road and got us re-routed onto the correct alternate route to our hotel.
In a country full of aggressive drivers, Sicilians are some of Italy’s most aggressive, with a habit of overtaking on blind corners, I found, especially in Taormina with its narrow streets. One gentleman on a motorbike came so close to me after turning a corner that he grazed my skirt! The next day we were with our guide, Manuele, trekking on the foothills of Mt Etna, and I had an opportunity to ask him why I didn’t see bodies strewn all over the roadways. He laughed, and said, “Nancy, you’re thinking too much. When you’re walking in town, just go ahead and do what you want to do and assume that everyone in your way will accommodate you!” After that, I paid particular attention to the choreography between drivers and pedestrians. I noted that Manuele was correct – everyone seemed to recognize their place in the dance and somehow each accommodated the other.   At least most of the time!

Ours was a short but unforgettable stay in Sicily.   I want to go back and see more: Trapani, Siracusa, spend more time in Catania and, of course, Santo Stefano di Camastra.   I’d love to have my son, daughter-in-law and grandkids with us.   I need to do more background work on my ancestry before going back.   I learned from my contact there that I will need to come with more hard facts about marriage and birth dates in the Serio family in order to access records in the local churches and town hall.  It’s an effort I intend to make before I return.

Until next time….

LECCE AND LA SICILIA

I have been to the mainland of Southern Italy quite a number of times now, visiting Lecce, the hometown of my mother in law. It’s a city that is in the region of Puglia. Puglia, a main jumping off point for travel to Greece,  has been touted for a number of years as the next big Mediterranean/Adriatic hotspot, and gradually some tourists weary of crowded Tuscany or Rome, make their way down and stay in Puglia. It’s a beautiful area that really has been left pretty undiscovered by large masses, but seems on the cusp of large-scale discovery at any moment. When people mention Puglia, however, they usually talk about the cities of Bari or Brindisi. It’s still pretty rare that you will hear American voices as you walk through Lecce, even though it’s  a drive of just an hour or two from Brindisi or Bari. Periodically I hear English and German tourists in the restaurants or shops. It seems to me that the regions south of Naples are unknown by Americans and are primarily visited only if people have an ancestral connection. The beautiful north and central regions are beloved and are rightfully American favorites: Venice, the Lake region, Rome, Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Florence where there is definitely an abundance of  beauty and history to explore. But I think one misses out if the cities and villages on the heel and the toe of the boot are overlooked.

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An Alleyway in Lecce

No mistake about it, if you end up in Lecce, it’s because you intentionally wanted to go there – it’s a long drive from Florence or Rome, way down on the heel. But when you get there, you’re rewarded with Lecce, often called “The Florence of the South”, because of its rich history, magnificent baroque architecture and beautiful beaches . It is said that what Florence is to the Renaissance, Lecce is to baroque.     Then there is the unpretentious, mouth-watering cucina povera, peasant food. The gnocchi, the olive infused focaccia, tarallini and yes, I’m told, fresh sea urchin.   And the olive oil that is a shade of green and a flavor not often seen or tasted in the U.S.

We love that our son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren now visit every time we do, and they’ll have a tradition and memories that, I hope, will stay with them a lifetime. They love the beach at San Cataldo just outside Lecce and will experience it again this year.

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On the beach at San Cataldo, three years ago

Besides the beaches,  the many churches and cathedrals, museums and  the culture of Lecce and the surrounding towns that are a few hours drive away are very much worth exploring.   I would love to  revisit the sassi caves of Matera, in which many impoverished inhabitants lived until the 1960’s when the sassi population was resettled in a burgeoning new town higher up on the gorge. Since we last visited the town, a new interactive museum, called Casa Noha, has been built that chronicles Matera’s  desperate past and its emergence as a film-making location, a draw for tourism and a designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.   Matera has also been named the 2019 European City of Culture.   Another historic place to visit would be Alberobello, home of neighborhoods of cone-shaped stone homes called trulli, another World Heritage site.  And we almost never leave Lecce without a trip down the coast a bit to Otranto, almost  at the base of the heel,  a town marked by its amazing cathedral with its medieval mosaic floor and where the bones of 813 martyrs are displayed in a glass case behind the altar.

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Part of the  mosaic in the floor of the cathedral in Otranto

 

One thing I have been eager to do for a very long time during my stays in southern Italy is to go to Sicily, the birthplace of my paternal grandmother, specifically the town of Santo Stefano diCamastra. I can’t believe that in the thirty or so years since I first visited Lecce, we have never made it over to Sicily, the Italian island just 25 miles off the toe of Calabria. I am grateful to have a cousin whose husband has been to Santo Stefano di Camastra many times since his ancestors also come from there. He was kind enough recently   to send me a detailed email about sites to see, friends of his to look up and points of interest relative to our heritage. One of my goals is to try to find out more about my family, if at all possible since my grandmother came to America about one hundred and ten years ago. Her maiden name was Serio and I know there are Serio’s still in Santo Stefano, so we’ll see what I can find out. I feel blessed just to visit the the area and walk the streets that she may have walked. Also Santo Stefano is known for its pottery and ceramics – how cool would it be to bring back a piece of art from her home town!

Whether you go by the ferries or hydrofoils that cross from a number of southern mainland towns, or fly, as we are doing, it’s a bit of a trek to get to Sicily. Our flight will leave Brindisi, fly north to Rome and then south to Palermo in Sicily, where we will pick up our car for our drive to three major places on the island: Cefalu, Taormina, and Agrigento. Sounds like we should have taken the ferry, you say? Well, first you need to get to a town from which a ferry leaves and then sail over. Reggio di Calabria is the shortest water route (35 minutes) but to get to Reggio from Lecce is a many hour car trip. From Naples, also a number of hours from Lecce by car, the water trip is anywhere from seven to eleven hours. So we decided to fly.
We will finally travel around for six days to some of Sicily’s major attractions, about which I  will report back in a blog post after we return. We’ll see how my pre-visit expectations and impressions will measure up or are changed. Universally, anyone I know who has visited Sicily has come back ebullient with praise for the beautiful seas surrounding the island, the resorts, the beaches, the architecture, the culture and, of course, the food. I expect that Sicily will be somewhat primitive, less developed, particularly in the central areas inland from the coasts – like stepping back into time in some ways. On the other hand, popular resorts like Taormina and Cefalu have been characterized to us by friends and our guide books, as magnificent, lovely historic centers with beautiful beaches catering to a long tradition of tourists who have been coming back to these cities for years. We will also be going to Agrigento, site of the Valley of the Temples, where ancient Greeks once built the city of Akragas. It is apparently Sicily’s pre-eminent travel destination. We’ve hired a private guide for this and also for a tour of Mount Etna near Taormina.
As one of my travel books characterizes it, Sicily is “overloaded with art treatures and natural beauty, undersupplied with infrastructure…” and unfailingly boasts that the people are wonderful and the local cuisine is authentic and of the highest quality. The main complaints that I have read are that the island is badly maintained, signage is poor, and there is a lack of care about its antiquities. My husband and I have traveled around much of Europe, and enjoy the freedom of being on our own.    Will Sicily prove to be too much for us or just right?   Book after book and article after article advise visitors  to enter Sicily with an open mind and a healthy appetite!   Will do!
Arrivederci!   Fino alla prossima volta (Until next time)!

SATISFACTION

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A few days ago my husband and I went with friends to see Exhibitionism at Navy Pier in Chicago, the musical history of the Rolling Stones. This is the first major Rolling Stones exhibit, apparently curated by the boys themselves, spread across 18,000 square feet of space and that encompasses about 500 items representing the band’s 50-plus year career. As a testiment to their continued popularity, since 2012, when they celebrated their actual 50 years together as a band, they have sold more than $400 million in concert tickets, according to Boxscore.

F8A64BCB-A84F-4DB8-8E8E-02E07FF9ACA3I didn’t particularly follow them in high school. I was totally devoted to the Beatles in those years, although if I am honest, I tended to like many of the Stones’ songs in the ’60’s, sometimes more than the Beatles’ songs. Ironically, the Stones first hit single was I Wanna Be Your Man which was written by Lennon and McCartney (as lore has it, while Mick and Keith were talking in the same room. The Beatles later recorded it as well.). Satisfaction came out the week before I graduated from high school and I remember that the song was played non-stop at the parties that night. Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown and Mother’s Little Helper were hits the following year. Brown Sugar came out a few years later, and on and on. Stones’ songs were certainly edgier and grittier fare than anyone else was doing at the time unless the song was about the Vietnam War. Even my beloved Beatles didn’t get particularly topical until Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were the good boys (although we found out later that they really weren’t always!); and the Stones were the scruffy bad boys. While the Beatles still wanted to hold your hand, the Stones wanted to spend the night together. Where the Beatles initially came off as cute and funny, a little “cheeky” as they themselves said, the Stones had attitude, were sarcastic and seemed dangerous.

Over the years, while paging through tabloids, I paid scant attention to Mick’s highjinx with various fashion models, and drugs. I was also vaguely aware of Keith’s long stay in druggieland. Despite all the sex, drugs and rock ’n rolI, I recognized Mick’s shrewdness  and the band’s longevity although the top guys – Mick and Keith – obviously didn’t see eye to eye on many things. They apparently love creating music, know where their bread is buttered and somehow have seen it through.

In those rare occasions throughout my life when the subject of the Stones came up, I remembered joking with friends that the beauty of being Mick Jagger was that there was no aging process involved: he was as craggy-looking 50 years ago as he looks today. The old pictures that I saw in the exhibit reminded me that that was not at all true. While never what one would call handsome – he was no Paul McCartney, for example – I took note that as a young man he had a sort of menacing babyish face, always with those big sensuous lips. So in my dotage, I definitely can see why one might have given him a second look back in the day. But always being someone who believes that beauty fades, dumb is forever, much later when I learned that Mick was an A student in his primary grades and had the brains to be admitted to and studied at the London School of Economics, I realized there was likely more substance here than I was giving him credit for. That and his musical talent and his business instincts.

And what about Keith? I always viewed him as a supremely talented but burned-out junkie, blessed with the luck that the drugs and lifestyle didn’t kill him over the years, as it did many of his contemporaries. Much more classically handsome than Mick in his youth, as again the exhibit’s pictures reminded me, his current pictures show that his face is rather weathered, shall we say, and I’m being kind. I became intrigued by Keith after reading his widely-acclaimed memoir, Life. It shows us Keith as a boyhood choir boy, an Eagle Scout, a huge fan of the American and, particularly, Chicago blues world. It’s not hyperbole that he’s described as among the best blues guitarists in rock history and in the world. He takes us through his drug hell that lasted for years but a habit he said he kicked 30 years ago. And of course, in his youth, handsomer than Mick, and as a rock star, he too had his pick of women eager to hang on. Now he comes across as something of a country gentleman, living among his eclectic collection of books that he actually reads, with his wife of 32 years, his 5 children and his 5 grandchildren – a life come full circle indeed. As he holds his grandchild in one picture, he now sports a beautiful, wide grandfatherly smile. Besides Life, he’s also written a children’s book called Gus and Me, about his relationship with his own grandfather,  himself a dance band leader, who taught him to play the guitar and be a rebellious non-conformist. According to Keith, Gus told him if he could play Malaguena, he could play anything.”   And learn to play Malaguena he did! Gus and Me is  a lovely  book written by this erstwhile iconoclastic hellraiser illustrated by his daughter, that shows the bond between a grandparent and a grandchild – one I bought to read to our grandchildren. I just have to smile at the circle of life here.     3F230BCD-

About 15 years ago I went with some friends to my first and only Rollings Stones concert at the United Center. I went because I enjoyed their music, they were still a curiosity to me and I knew that it would be a fun night. My friends and I had great seats at the sold-out concert. But, I think maybe because of my diminutive stature (5 feet tall on a good day) that a guard actually came up to me and asked me if I could see. No fool, I said it might be better if I could be closer. At which point, he unexplicably ushered me to within feet of the stage! And there right in front of me was 60+ year old Mick, prancing around that stage like he was a teenager! His lithe body still fit and buff, not taking a break for almost 2 hours. His body was  impressive but when he talked with the crowd, what really captured me was how engaging, smiling and charming he was. And when he did finally take a break, there was his frenemy, Keith Richards, brilliant blues musician that he is, riffing on his guitar for a wonderfully long set. While Mick may be the business brains of the group, Keith is clearly, in my opinion, the heart and soul.

Oh yes, what about the exhibit? I loved it! My husband who was skeptical about going, also completely enjoyed it. It illustrated how it was Brian Jones who may be credited with bringing the group together when he posted an ad in 1962 for musicians interested in joining a blues band he was trying to form. Keith and Mick answered the ad. It showed the early years with a reproduction of the filthy hovel in which they lived and wrote their music. It has sidebar notes of some of the music as it was written. It chronicles how their costuming went from a short stint of wearing very staid hounds-tooth jackets to bizarre multicolored velvet dandy-wear.  It tells how their band logo was envisioned and commissioned to an art student by Mick, who eventually approved the “tongue” logo that has become probably the most oconic logo in rock history.     Their story in the exhibit evolves through the many years and ends finally with a fabulous 3-D concert performance of them doing Satisfaction. The whole exhibit was a lot of fun and very well done!

According to fan club questionnaire completed by the band in 1964, Mick Jagger’s response about his primary desire, he said wanted to “own my own business.” I’d say, “Mission accomplished.” So as this blog post closes, I have done what everyone who writes about them does – focus only on the Glimmer Twins even though today’s Rolling Stones also still include the substantial talents of Charlie Watts, Ron Wood.   Kind of like with the Beatles, back when Ringo was the cute one with his sad-sack eyes and George was the intense one with his spirituality and his virtuosity on the guitar but  Lennon and McCartney still got all the attention.

Until next time…..