Can a pragmatist remember how to dream?

On Sunday morning I took a quiz I found on Facebook. Yes, I know – they are often inaccurate, rarely insightful, and almost always inane. But I had a little time to burn before I Skyped with my granddaughters, and figured what the heck.

This quiz was designed to reveal what your political leanings say about you. I answered as honestly as I could, within the confines of the questions, but many of my answers didn’t fall neatly into any of the limited responses offered. The results returned said that I was a political centrist. (Something I’ve been trying to tell my more conservative relatives for years, but that’s another blog post.) It also said I am a rather hardheaded realist, egalitarian, and strongly pragmatic.

Not the stuff whimsy is made of. Continue reading


The view from Assisi’s hilltop

This trip wasn’t meant to be a pilgrimage. But I was raised Catholic, and those ties are strong. When we were in Rome, I was thrilled and deeply touched to be in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis gave an address and blessing a week ago. And as long as I was going to be in Umbria, I hoped to stop in Assisi.

It seems a higher power agreed that I should see the famous hill town. The International Journalism Festival, where my companion was speaking is held in Perugia, which is only half an hour away. For all the sightseeing we’ve done on this trip, we hadn’t joined any tours or hired any guides. So, extravagant as a personal tour was, I felt good when I lined up a guide to pick me up at our hotel, drive me to Assisi and make sure I didn’t miss anything important.

Isabella picked me up bang on time in her little BMW roadster. Her name means “beautiful one” and indeed, she is everyone’s idea of an Italian beauty with thick, wavy dark hair, wide brown eyes and fine Roman nose. Her English was superb.

A lovely corner in Assisi

The great add-on of our arrangement was the drive through the Umbrian countryside. This country is as green as Ireland, dappled with the random red of wild poppies, and dotted with squat olive trees.  Symmetrically planted fields of sunflowers are just green shoots in the spring sunshine. In summer, Isabella told me, they are drifts of yellow. Hanging above this rich land are the hill towns, the ancient cities, precariously perched sentinels, standing guard as they were meant to, for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Isabella was easy to talk to, and as she drove, expertly zooming us around the heavy Perugian traffic, we shared our mutual ups and downs, inspirations and disillusionments of our common faith. We both take great significance and hope in the fact that the new Pope chose the name Francis.

The lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, and the way they intertwined, have always fascinated me. Assisi was crowded that day with large school groups and buses of tourists. But Isabella guides like she drives, an expert in short cuts, an obvious favorite with Cathedral docents and guards. We jumped the queue at several stops, she with a charming smile, me guiltily with my head down and eyes averted. But she made sure I didn’t miss a thing, and filled in some serious gaps in my knowledge of the lives of these saints. The local pink and white limestone give the Basilicas of St. Clare and St. Francis a distinct yet understated beauty, quite fitting to the lives they lived.

However much I did not come as a pilgrim, Assisi is a blessed place. My heart and spirit were filled there, in ways that are too hard to explain. Or maybe it’s just too personal. Suffice it to say I left renewed.

The drive back to Perugia was just as beautiful. Isabella respected my quiet, reflective mood. It was a day of grace and peace and my only regret was that my companion couldn’t share it with us.

Earlier posts from our trip to Europe

‘Shoulda stayed home’; Inner Skeptic Is Left Behind

Flavorful Lyon

An ideal day in Lyon

The wrong train songs rumble through my head on Alpine journey

Romance in wood

Home Away From Home


Living it up at the Hotel Europa

Reflections on the David (but no photos)

Magical Siena

Land of My Grandfather

I am most fluent in helplessness

The Pietà

The Colosseum: definitely a Major League stadium

European churches are glorious, but whom do they glorify?

Perugia Swimming Suits

Italy Odds and Ends



Italy Odds and Ends

Everyone should ride in a cab at least once while in Italy. Yes, I know they’re expensive. Sure, the cabby might take advantage of the Americans by taking a longer route just to run up the fare. But truly, you haven’t experienced Italy until you’re bouncing down an insanely narrow street, filled with pedestrians, bicycles and motorcycles all to a steady accompaniment of horns. If you’re inclined toward motion sickness, take a Dramamine and go. And no averting your eyes as you barrel toward a delivery van with wide mirrors, as a scooter zips in between you both. It beats Space Mountain any time. When our cabby delivered us to the train station yesterday I told him, “You’re an expert driver.” He grinned, shrugged, and rolled his eyes, a non-verbal acknowledgement that he was pleased I enjoyed the ride.


There are times when certain conditions converge and a single, happy moment is seared into your memory. For me, it happened on a narrow side street branching off from the Duomo in Florence. My companion and I were strolling hand-in-hand, having just come from the Uffizi Gallery. The sky was clear, the sun warm, but the street was cool in the shade of the close, high buildings. We were wondering what century they were built, and I noted that every single deep-set window had a box below thickly clustered with herbs. We passed a street-level, open backdoor leading to a restaurant kitchen, the smell of freshly baked bread and the oven’s heat wafting out to us. And then came a woman’s voice, shouting, “Stupido! Aw, STUPIDO!!” Yep, I really am in Italy.


Yes, I did Google how to use a bidet. Yes, now I want one at home.


However much my companion disapproves of the incredible churches to be found in Italy, I can’t help being moved on these soft, spring evening when their bells toll the Angelus. It is a call to prayer, and also a call to good will. Maybe we’d all be a little more calm, a little more civil, a little more kind if we took such a moment every single day.


My companion and I met for lunch today and walking back across the piazza, I saw a silver RV, awning up, selling beverages to a long line of customers. “Is that a beer truck in the middle of the square on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” I asked. “Yeah, it is.” My companion’s sigh was full of admiration. “God, I love it here.”

Beer truck in Perugia park


I did swim today in the new bathing suit I wrote about buying yesterday. And swimming above the Etruscan remains made it worth every painful minute. The pool is beautiful. There’s no hot tub, but it bows out on one end to make a seating area with powerful massaging jets. Two young ladies in bikinis immediately claimed the spot while I was swimming and, giggling, threw off their tops while they enjoyed the bubbling water. (Sorry guys, you’re only getting a picture of the beer truck.)

My companion says he might shop for some swimming trunks tomorrow. Stupido!

Perugia Swimming Suits

The view from our hotel

The sitting room in our suite

We’ve returned to Italy’s hill country, this time to Umbria and the town of Perugia. Our hotel was arranged by the conference where my companion is a speaker. It’s high on the topmost hill of the city, and we’ve been treated as special guests, given a huge suite with a view that looks down over the ancient city. I spent a good deal of last night, and part of this morning just staring out the window.

My sister Carol told me once she never travels without two things: a pair of jeans and a swimming suit. While I brought the jeans, this time I ditched the swimming suit, knowing that all the hotels I arranged didn’t have pools. I should have listened to Carol. Not only does our lovely Hotel Brufani Palace, have an indoor pool, it’s within a medieval vault. The glass pool floor lets you look down on excavated Etruscan ruins. I love to swim, but gliding above ancient ruins? Dear God, how many chances like that am I going to get?

Now, most women know that buying a swimming suit (especially if you’re middle-aged) is one of the most painful and humiliating of shopping endeavors. Even in your own country, where you speak the language and know where you might find “your kind of suit,” it is excruciating.

Buying one in Italy? Multiply that a hundred fold. On my way out, I stopped at the Concierge to ask where I might shop. “Caledonia,” he told me. “Just 100 meters down the block. They have everything. They will be happy to help.” Uh, yeah. The shop only had two-piece suits, of the teeny, tiny variety. When I asked if there were any appropriate to my age, the teen-age shop keepers looked confused. “Si, Signora.” She held up a blue thing with a bit of mesh connecting the bottom and top. “No, no,” I waved it off. “But Signora, such a pretty color.” Maybe, when I was 16. But at 58? Uh-uh. I struck out on my own.

I finally found a shop that had some possibilities. One of the shopkeepers spoke a bit of English, the other none at all. It was a trial for all of us.

Not only am I well into zaftig middle age, I am, apparently much taller and much more modest than most Italian ladies. My shopkeepers were boggled at the length of my shoulder to thigh span, but were not to be thwarted. They began dragging bins out of the backroom.  “Signora, is your color.” Again, a blue one was shoved in my hands. No mesh this time, but cut down so low it would come nearly to my navel. “No,” I said firmly, waving my hand in front of my chest and shaking my head. “Ah, si, si,” the older, non-English speaker seemed to follow. She dug and dug, and came up with a black number, higher-necked, but open on the sides. I shook my head, and pointed to my paunchy, stretch-marked hips, and said, “No one wants to see that.” She didn’t understand the words, but she got the point.

Finally we found a suit I thought would do. Still a bit low in the front, but not embarrassingly so, and it seemed to be cut in my long-body dimensions. I tried it on, opened the curtain and said, “Bigger,” glancing back with raised eyebrows to the rather snug derrière.

“No, Signora, no! Perfection,” the younger woman screamed. I shook my head.

“No, Signora!” What followed from the older woman I cannot say. I think it was a lecture on being too modest, but the words flew too fast for me to gather much. There was a good deal of finger shaking and an obvious reference to my being so much taller than they. It didn’t matter. I went to the bin myself and found the next size up. Like most swimming suits I’ve purchased since I put 30 behind me, I wasn’t thrilled. But it would do. My two shopkeepers clucked and frowned and shook their heads, but rang me up.

It was difficult. It was humbling in two languages. But I’ve got a suit that is decent. And tomorrow I swim with the Etruscans.

The Pietà

Today, I saw the Pietà again.

I was nine years old the first time I saw it, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. When I close my eyes, I can still picture it: The room where it was housed was lit in blue except for the spotlights shining down on the sculpture. Visitors stood on slow moving walkways, allowing everyone a good, long view, while keeping the lines moving for those waiting. What I remember best, though, was how I lost my breath at first sight. Struck dumb, I stared and stared at Mary’s face, so incredibly young, the gentle, open grief so powerful it made me weak in the knees. It was the first time a piece of art evoked a physical and emotional response from me. If my mother would have allowed it, I’d have ridden over and over on that moving walkway for the entire day. If I had been asked what I most wanted to see on this trip to Italy, I would have said, “I want to see the Pietà again.”

Today, I did.

This time, it was in St. Peter’s Basilica. There were no blue lights. There was no moving walkway. Visitors could spend as long as they liked. And I looked for a long, long time.

The first time I saw the Pietà, it was through the eyes of a child. Today, I saw it through the eyes of a grandmother. And I realized I have lived a lifetime with the image in the back of my mind. Sometimes I would think of it, when I held one of my own sons in my arms. I have watched one sister-in-law lose a teenage son through cancer, and throughout his illness, the vision of the Pietà quietly came to my mind. I saw another sister-in-law lose a son in a violent act of war, and, as I watched her weep as they closed the casket for the last time, again, Mary, holding the remains of her sacrificed son, haunted me.

My companion stood quietly, hand on my shoulder today, patiently waiting as again I stared, and stared and stared. I don’t think there’s a mother alive who can look at the Pietà and not feel the weight of her child in her arms, who doesn’t feel the overwhelming, staggering loss etched so eloquently in every line of the marble.

Today I saw the Pietà again.

The Pietà

Land of My Grandfather

I wonder (hope?) if this town with the pretty lilacs might be my grandfather’s village.

Early this afternoon we boarded the train from Siena to Rome. I’ve been riveted by the Tuscan hills rolling by: Orchards, pastures, fields of artichokes, and vineyard after vineyard after vineyard. My maternal grandfather was born in this area of Italy. I tried to discover the name of the town where he was born, but that information seems to be lost. All I was ever told was that it was a small town not too far from Florence.

I wonder, as we pass the red roofs of one quaint hill town after another, if this might be ground he once walked. When he found himself in the gritty city of Bayonne, New Jersey, raising a family of six above the barbershop where he cut hair, did he ever regret leaving a calmer, simpler life? Did this beautiful, fertile land haunt his dreams, the way my Iowa farm haunts mine? He died long before I was ever born. How he felt, like the name of his hometown, is something I will never know.

At a jewelry store in Florence, a young man made conversation with me as my purchase was rung up. He asked me if I had any connection with Italy, and I told him my grandfather was born somewhere in Tuscany. He asked me for his last name. “Barone,” I said. He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes. “Barone! Such a good name, such a fine name.” Having no background information, I could only smile. “Signora, you have come home,” he told me. Not really, I thought.

But maybe, somewhere, a spirit lies a little quieter, a little more satisfied, that the scenery now passing before my eyes once passed before his.

Our train heads south, drawing closer to Rome, and Tuscany is drifting away from me. Maybe it will come back to me in my dreams.

The verdant countryside of Tuscany

Living it up at the Hotel Europa

Our room at the Hotel Europa in Florence

I always get a little nervous when making sight-unseen hotel reservations, even in the States. My companion and I have had our share of bummers. There was the creepy place in upstate New York, where a drunk man banged on our door, demanding that his “whoring” wife open the door. (My barking dog scared him off.) And there was the backwater Connecticut dive where I slept on top of the covers in my clothes, after fishing a condom wrapper out of my dog’s mouth.

So I was particularly wary when making accommodations internationally. I’m happy with a place that’s clean, convenient and reasonably secure. I’d rather spend money on things to do and see rather than places to sleep. But after some reading and research, I took a shot at a place called Hotel Europa in Florence. It is well-situated for the sights I want to see in the city, and the price was reasonable. But remembering our other disasters, I was a little concerned when our cab pulled up in front of a nondescript door, set in a building that undoubtedly dates back several centuries. The creaky elevator, with room for only one person with a big bag, was like something out an old spy movie. If not for the bags, both my companion and I could have plodded up to the 3rd floor check-in faster on foot. As our host accompanied us to our room, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much. Continue reading


Look! Look! Even through a dirty train window, the Alps are breathtaking.

If you’re lucky, your life will hand you moments, however fleeting, of luxury. And if you’re smart, you’ll recognize and never forget them.

Today that moment is on a train, traveling from Zurich to Florence. Around us people speak German, Italian and English. My companion and I are seated across from each other. He loves mountains and was worried our itinerary wouldn’t allow much of a view of them. He was wrong.

We have a small bottle of white wine, and a slice of cake on the table between us. The tart, dry Tuscan wine is the perfect foil against the creamy sweetness. Between sips, we marvel at the views. Before us, behind us, beside us, we keep saying to each other, “Look, look!”

It’s spring in the Alps. Staring up at the white-capped peaks, we see surging falls of snowmelt, tumbling, so full and fierce they seem to be long, thin waves, tumbling over themselves in their rush to the rivers below.  At one bend, we look down on a fly fisherman in his waders, casting rhythmically, again and again, like he’s waving a magic wand. It is nearly impossible to shoot a good picture out the window of a moving train, and at last we give up and just take it all in. “Look, look!” We keep saying it, as if we could look away.

This is luxury. This is privileged. I recognize it. I will never forget it.

Home Away From Home

Kate and Vivi

I don’t care how old you are, there are times on a long trip when you can be struck with homesickness. Three weeks is a long time on the road, and, as Dorothy once said, there’s no place like home.

Unless you’re lucky enough, as I am, to have a little bit of home living right in Switzerland. My niece, Kate Prylow and her family live in the village of Biberist, just a few miles from the larger town of Solothurn. Her husband, Mark, works for Bosch. In June his three-year European assignment is up and they’ll return to the USA. So my companion and I worked in our quick visit in the nick of time.

There is nothing like a familiar, well-loved face beaming at you as she comes hurrying down the train platform. Kate looked dashing, slim and stylish. The fact that she was pushing a baby carriage containing her 1-month-old daughter, Vivi, is a testament to her sound fitness and good health.

Johnny waits patiently for a slice of pizza

What a pleasure to be shepherded to our hotel, and then whisked off to her home. Kate and Mark’s apartment was full, not only with their two older children, Lena and John, but with Mark’s visiting parents as well. But the couple does everything with ease and grace, and as we sat down to a traditional Swiss meal, we felt more than welcome. We felt at home. Amid suggestions of possible excursions and shops my companion and I might like to take in, we caught up on family and friends.

The following night Kate took us for dinner at one of her favorite Solothurn restaurants. The food was wonderful and the conversation was the happy, familiar kind that can only happen when two in the group have enjoyed watching the third grow up. Kate is a more confident, capable woman than I ever hoped to be, and there’s something deeply satisfying in knowing the younger generation has come into her own. Our time went too quickly.

The visit was a special little oasis, and when my companion and I left Solothurn this morning we were refreshed and ready to taken the rigors of travel in foreign countries again. Family time will do that for you.

Princess Lena

Flavorful Lyon

There is a feeling when you travel, that you must not waste time. Certainly, that can serve you well. There are sights in every city that shouldn’t be missed. But then again, sometimes we miss the flavor, the tenor, the actual heart of a city because all we see are the sights.

I’ve been lucky while in Lyon, France. We’ve put off most of our sight-seeing until my companion is finished with the three day conference he was invited to attend here. That has left me on my own to wander, not bothering with the main tourist attractions, knowing that we’ll get to them on the weekend. I’ve enjoyed just taking in the city.

My first morning here it took me nearly until noon to get myself together and shake off the jet lag. That’s much too late to watch the city’s top chefs making their purchases at Les Halles de Lyon, an indoor market of gourmet food shops. But Les Halles is easy walking distance from our hotel, so I strolled over anyway. I’m so glad I did.

Enticing offerings at the charcuterie

The place was bustling. Customers shopped with purpose, filling the large shopping bags on their arms with the best of the best. Unobtrusively as possible, I stalked one humpbacked dowager as she made her way from stall to stall, gathering ingredients. She picked new spring peas at green grocer and fresh tagliatelle from the homemade pasta booth. After a stern debate at the charcuterie, she added a lovely, thick slice of pancetta to her bag. I left her picking through bottles at the wine booth, jabbering at the seller, no doubt haggling for a good price.  Assuming she had eggs and lots of pepper at home already, my mouth watered at the thought of the carbonara she’d soon make.

Not surprisingly, I suddenly realized I was hungry. But ordering food in a country where you know nothing more than bonjour and merci can be tricky. Surrounded on every side by wonderful gourmet food, I had no idea how to ask for any of it. Grunting and pointing seemed so crass. A kiosk with posted pictures of sandwiches and salads was crowded with lunchtime business, and again I lurked off to the side, observing. The sandwiches looked marvelous, and every single diner had a small glass of wine by their plates.

My awesome croque madam

At last a barstool opened up, and I shyly snuck onto it, noticing as I did that the young man next to me had just been served what appeared to be a grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. When the very busy clerk stopped in front of me with a “Bonjour,” I pointed to the young man’s plate and said in English, “I’ll have that, please.” The clerk smiled with a, “Oui,” and bustled off. The young man turned to me and said in English, “It’s called “croque madam,” you know, because of the egg. It’s very good here.” We went on to have a pleasant conversation, him telling me the things I should be sure to see in Lyon, and asking if I’d seen the White House when I told him I was from the Washington, D.C. area.

When my food arrived it was even better than I anticipated. The wonderfully textured French bread was charred just enough along the grill marks to give a twinge of bitterness, pleasantly offsetting the rich egg and what could only be a Raclette cheese filling. Twice the waiter stopped, pointing to my plate and raising his shoulders in gallic question. I would nod, and say, “It’s very good.” He’d nod back. The third time he paused, I looked over at my dining companion, unsure how to reassure the waiter I really was pleased with my meal. They exchanged a few words, and then the young man leaned in to whisper, “He’s hoping you’ll say it’s awesome.” Turning to the waiter, I said in my best Midwestern twang, “This is just awesome.” The waiter grinned and pumped his fist in the air. We all had a good laugh and he brought me a small strawberry tart on the house.

Before I left on this trip, a young friend told me if all I did was sit in sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and watching people, it would be time well spent. He is wise beyond his years. Yesterday, I did just that, and found the people of Lyon friendly, happy, well-dressed and deliciously fed.