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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tuscany Wine Tasting

No visit to Italy is complete without at least one wine tasting. Tuscany is known for its Sangiovese grape which is used in virtually every red wine made here.

The Avignonesi vineyard comprises a collection of local farms, and makes some very well known wines as well as everyday affordable ones. Their 2004 Riserva Grandi Annate Vino Nobile di Montepulciano was named one of the top 100 wines of 2008 by Wine Spectator magazine. Sadly, it was not among the tasting choices. Neither was their fabled Vin Santo, a high-labor, low-yield dessert wine which runs 160 to 220 euros for a half-bottle and is hard to find because of the low production numbers. It's mainly sold at auctions. But we still got to sample a nice variety, including their 32-euro Desiderio Merlot. I was particularly delighted with their olive oil which I'd asked to taste as well--fruity and very peppery--and bought four half-liters.

I met a nice family from Memphis on the tour--a father (with my eyes closed I swear he sounded just like the actor John Goodman--he was tickled when I told him that) and his son and daughter, the latter who spent the past school year teaching English to primary students in Lisle, just north of Paris. As someone with an eye to possible job opportunities, I later looked into the national language assistant program but, alas, it's limited to those ages 20 to 30. That window's long gone!

Still, it was a lovely way to spend two hours on a hot, sunny Thursday afternoon in bella Toscana.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Respite in Tuscany

I'm wrapping up the first week of my final housesit, at least for some time to come, on a restored farm along a remote dirt road, just outside the lovely village of San Giovanni d'Asso, in the heart of Tuscany in central Italy. I'll be here through the end of May, at which time I'll return to the Loire Valley in France.

The vistas from my little cottage's window are breathtaking, particularly at sunset, when the sun's light is reflected off the terracotta-colored buildings on each hilltop village, causing them to glow as if each edifice sports a deep summer tan. Birds sing here both day and night, and the continual hum of flying insects and chirping crickets is a subtle musical backdrop to the rolling green hills. My cottage is the former hayloft, and consists of a narrow bedroom, bath and a lounge/kitchenette, and despite its diminutive size, is extremely comfortable.

It is here that I have discovered a decidedly enjoyable way to multi-task. I spend at least 90 minutes each day working on my tan while learning French, listening to audio instruction on my laptop. (The irony of studying French in Italy is not lost on me.) This way I don't feel guilty lounging in the sun, and haven't sported a tan this deep since I was on the Mediterranean in Spain two summers ago.

After that, I head for the welcome shade of the porch each afternoon to write, trying hard to ignore the profusion of scary-looking wasps and hornets that abound. (No scorpions spotted yet, although my first few nights I encountered no less than five sizeable centipedes in the bath and kitchen, each easily two or three inches long. Hardly the stuff of Papillon note but disconcerting nonetheless.)

The care of one elderly and slightly infirmed cat in a group of four means I can't venture out terribly far. It may mean missing out on places like Assisi, which I've longed to see, unless I can convince the housekeeper in the main house to do the midday feeding, as Assisi is a 3-hour roundtrip drive. (Beatriz is delightful but doesn't speak English.)

Siena is closer, just an hour away, and I'm sandwiched between Montalcino and Montepulciano, where I've already scheduled this coming Thursday and Friday, respectively, to visit the Avignonesi and La Fortuna vineyards for both wine and olive oil tastings, so it's hardly a complete loss!

If prices aren't too high (gotta watch those centimes now that I'm buying a house in France), I'll stock up on Italian goodies I can't buy in France, including what I'm told is the local prized proscuitto, cinta senese. I'll be sampling some of that on Thursday at the Montepulciano Avignonesi wine tasting. I shall even buy an obscene amount of dried pasta, as it's not easy to find recognizable brands in France, at least in rural areas. Those brands they do carry are unknown to me, whereas at least in Italy, names like Barilla and Di Cecco, popular favorites, abound. That's one advantage to making these journeys by car rather than airplane.

Ciao for now....

Saturday, May 9, 2009

VE Day

Yesterday, France celebrated VE Day--the day the Germans formally surrendered after WWII. I was in Ferriere-Larcon, about 30 kilometers north of where I'll be living come summer.

There, a group of villagers, a friend and I among them, met in the town square for the raising of the French flag. Then we walked up to the cemetery at the edge of town, a cluster of children ahead of us bearing flowers for the war memorial there.

Two villagers took turns reading out the names of those who died in both World Wars. They paused after each name, at which point everyone chanted, Mort pour la France, or 'Died for France.' It was a charming if somber ceremony with a small honor guard. Afterwards, the maire and conseil general read a letter sent to all the town mayors from the French secretaire general. Then we all walked back to the town, to the mairie, where we had drinks.

I was not the only American visitor present. There is a marital blessing taking place in the Ferriere-Larcon church today for a newly married, young American couple. They came to Ferriere in 2007, to the very same housesit I did when I first arrived in France in 2006. They loved the village of Ferriere so much they decided to arrange the blessing, followed by a wedding reception. Village residents volunteered to clean the ancient church (it's rarely used nowadays and has fallen somewhat into disrepair), oiling the doors and scrubbing stone, as well as fetching the flowers and the wedding cake, organizing the caterer and arranging tables and chairs in the mairie's salle des fetes.

The couple's family and friends have been arriving from America over the past few days and have been overwhelmed by the warmth and enthusiasm with which they've been received.

I know how they feel.