domenica 26 marzo 2017

The Road to Freedom

The 25th of April 1945 is the official Liberation Day holiday at the end of World War II.  In the past we have published pictures of the cermonies of rememberance of this day which is special in Cortona because it is also the day of liberation  in 1261 of  Cortona from the control of Arezzo (that nasty neighbor and now head of the province down the road), thus making Saint Mark the patron saint of the city because the 25th of April is his feast day. Those who have followed our earlier posts may remember this.

Last week, I (Jeanette, not Carlotta), had the honor and opportunity to accompany a group of travellers from California to trace events of the Italian campaign of the allied forces in World War II as they fought for control of the country after the King of Italy had signed the armistice agreement with the allies then fled  first to Brindisi and then left Italy for Portugal. Over the years, after living in a land which survived  years of modern warfare on their home soil, I've collected many stories from people who lived during this tragic time and were willing to share them. To give more meaning this year to that long awaited day of April 25, 1945, I feel that it is befitting to share some of these accounts. They were dark times, but I strongly feel that we must remember to really appreciate the value of peace, of diplomacy, of giving a value to human life. I share these stories which were passed on to me as an oral history and write them down here as they were told to me.

What are We Fighting For?

With the announcement on September 8, 1943 that the King of Savoy had signed the Armisitice with the allies and fled to Brindisi, the people of Italy were already starved and strained from the tolls of the war since they entered as part of the Axis with Germany and Japan back in October of 1941, Italy and it's people were now in German occupied territory.
According to my father in law, Oberdan, now 101 years old, he knew on that day he would not fare well as an Italian soldier stationed in Bologna, so he immediately donned his civilian clothes disposed of his uniform and made his way back to Cortona by hitchhiking and walking. His fear was being stopped and captured to be shipped to prisoner and concentration camps in the north.

Oberdan grew up  in San Martino, a small village below the hill of Cortona, his family (especially his mother) wanted to insure him a good education and position in the community and sent him to study in the seminary in Cortona. After he ran away twice, to return home on foot, they gave up on that dream. In the thirties the family was fairly well off with land, but there were few jobs to be had. So Oberdan  enrolled in the army and participated in the Libyan campaign in the calvary division. When war was declared  he was 25 and had returned to civilian life. He was working as a postal clerk when he was recalled to arms. He was considered an "older" veteran soldier and sent to Bologna to work with the military post.

My mother in law Margherita had grown up in Cortona and met Oberdan while working together at the post office there before the war. In the days following the armistice she saw the post office invaded by german soldiers, a bomb planted and the telegraph destroyed to avoid any communications going out. The postal workers were sent home - she returned to the family farm where she lived with her in-laws in San Martino to  wait and hope for Oberdan's safe return.

The family farm was large and had orchards, gardens. They raised chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, a few cows and cattle, and horses. When the war began, the Germans had taken over the farm to become their cooking kitchens. The food supplies were prepared then sent to the soldiers fighting afield, many in Montecassino. In times of peace, the running and managment of a subsistance farm in the tuscan countryside was very different than the way that the german soldiers managed the resources. A single pig was utilized by the italians from head to tail, quite literally using everything but the squeal. In these times of war, Margherita remembered the great hunger suffered by the family and tenent farmers as animals were quickly slaughtered and only the prime cuts used by the germans whilst the rest which could have fed many, were discarded to rot, no one dared to take them back after they'd been seized by the soldiers.

My husband Luciano's grandmother, Pia, was not one who was to take this all in stride. One day exasperated as two of her chickens were being carried off, one in each beefy hand of an enormous German soldier, she sprang upon him from the back her hands gripping his neck crying " And what are we supposed to eat ? La merda?!" Pia was a small woman who did not stand 5 feet tall and her protest was met with amusement by the soldier and his companions as he walked away with his spoils and Nonna Pia clinging to his back. And so she plotted a more subtle revenge.
I lived with my in-laws for 5 years, I was shocked one day as Margherita pulled out a large tin box, as she looked for a good strong spoon to feed the dogs with. The box was filled with stainless steel cutlery all with engraved eagles clutching swastikas on the handles. Nonna Pia had decided that if they were to take her goods, she would collect her own payment and when she had a chance would pilfer their cutlery.

When Oberdan made it home from Bologna a little less than a week after the armistice, the county was now under the martial law of their former allies. It was ordered that all citizens surrender their arms and as penalty for any German life loss to attack by the indigenous people, 10 Italian lives would be taken (woman and children included). Oberdan's youngest brother Betto, who was 17 at the time had been sent with a sack of weapons to be hidden in the mountains to avoid the sequester. The loss of weapons meant a loss of a means of procuring food by hunting, they were too precious to surrender. While on his way, sack slung over his shoulder, he was stopped by a German patrol. Overcome with panic Betto, drew out the pistol he had been given to protect himself and shot one of the soldiers, wounding him, and fled for the hills leaving the precious sack behind.

In the middle of the night, shortly after Betto's escape, my in-laws and all their family were dragged out of bed and out of their house. For Margherita, time seemed endless as they were questioned about the shooting incident. They looked over Oberdan, there was some resemblence but obviously, Betto was much younger. Margherita was sure they would all die that night- but unlike many others, they were spared.

So many had followed Mussolini into believing that they would create a great Empire again, become that great power. Subsidies  handed out to agricultural families and prizes for the birth of more children eased poverty and won him much popularity. Promises that government would be efficient and trains would run on time, a model of modern efficiency in architecture and organization appealed to the fantasy of a powerful future.  They had been lulled into believing that joining the war axis with the Germans was the best choice, They had an up-close view of the strength of their neighbors over the border and had been promised a quick victory. Now they were a hungry, occupied nation, fearing for their lives and hoping for the arrival of liberation.

 Oberdan's father, Agosto, reserved wine in his cellar for the English who he hoped would come to save them.

mercoledì 8 marzo 2017

Up on the Roof

A place that is well loved by our guests is our roof terrace. In the midst of our city we thought it would be nice to have a green spot to sit and enjoy the sunset or sunrise, the company of others with a coffee, tea or glass of wine. Many enjoy having the bird's eye view of the Via Nazionale as strollers and parades pass by.
 As you may know, Jeanette loves cooking and having some fresh herbs on hand so you will find rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, basil in the summer, and whatever can escape her hopelessly brown thumb.  Some guests have found this great for  brewing their own infusions and tisanes, or add a few leaves to sandwiches or salads. We're also excited that it can help support honeybees and butterflies and hopefully sustain our fragile ecosystem.  It seems like a win-win to us.

One of the challenges of running Casa Chilenne with the services and amenities we offer is keeping our energy costs down, Our five rooms with air conditioning, mini-bars , televisions, kitchens with ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, not to mention all our lights, leave a gigantic carbon footprint. We've decided this year to make a change which we hope will enable us to keep offering the same services at the same prices, and also reduce the impact that excess energy consumption has on our budget and the planet. Our well-reknown neighborhood electrician, Giulio Moretti and assistant Simone are back again. This time for more than maintenance after our year and a half restoration project here.  We are converting all of our illumination to LED!  We've been happy with the quality of light that these light sources can now produce (warm and inviting, contrary to some of the earlier versions) so we are very excited about this change. We are hoping we have found another win-win situation.

The next project  hopefully for 2018, will be creating a shade structure for the roof terrace and finally repaving to correct the pitch!. It faces south so enjoys full sun all day. Not so great in the summer but the star jasmine and roses seem to be more forgiving than previous victims. We have enlisted the experience of a garden consultant, Francesco, who we have known since he was but a bambino. With his help, We may venture into a little roof top victory garden- will heirloom cherry tomatoes or tuscan round zucchini escape Jeanette's  touch of doom?  The proof will come in the zucchini bread.

venerdì 15 maggio 2015

Wake Up Everybody

Cortona has put on her party dress- the quintieri streets lined with each neighborhoods colorful banners, and on Via Nazionale, daisy wreaths adorn the arches of the vicoli. Easter has past as well as the 25th April Liberation Day/Saint Mark's feast day. The May 1st  holiday is upon us and everyone in Cortona seems ready for La Bella Stagione to begin.Santa Margherita's feast day will be celebrated this weekend with the first of the re-enactment of the ceremony and fanfare associated with the Salimbeni-Casali wedding of the 1300's.

Le Rondine (swifts and swallows) have returned and the trees and fields are filled with blooms. The weather is temperamental as can be expected. Leading all to speculate on the fate of the oil crop this year, after a dismal disappointment in last year's harvest. There is also speculation about the return of visitors as well.

 There is an atmosphere of anticipation, "How are your reservations?" "When are the tourists coming?" "Do you think it's going to be a good year this year?" These are common questions we hear from some of our friends and neighbors in town. Some are, of course,  interested because their livelihood is entwined with the arrival of visitors. Others however look forward to the new life that arrives with people from the world outside the walls. Our pensioners fill the benches in the Piazza della Repubblica where they have front row seats to a stimulating, ever changing show. The romantic weddings on town hall steps, the guided tours which stop to  take in the beauty and monuments of  il Comune- and the Loggia above, the rambunctious groups of scholars visiting Cortona for a field trip are all parts of the theater of life in the piazza. A source of pride for the residents as they watch the reactions of visitors to the beauty of their hometown, as the tourists make happy memories of Cortona which  plants seeds  of the same pride and kinship in the hearts of visitors to the town.

martedì 2 dicembre 2014

The Gifts

There are people who touch our lives who unknowingly  make us better people, just by being themselves. My first legitimate job while  living in Cortona was working for a rather eccentric, yet brilliant Bavarian in a highly experimental and avant-garde language learning center, tucked away in an alley off the Via Nazionale. Working with theories researched by his Canadian/Brit business partner and  fueled by rivers of Ballantine's- they gathered together  a group of ex-pats from all over the world to help them fulfill their dream of creating super-learning, accellerated language courses. To a certain degree they were successful to those ends, but most successful was the gathering of a community of world citizens together who brought with them the essence of their countries, their experiences and made for an interesting, stimulating and exciting workplace.
There are many stories to be told from this time of my life, but the story I want to tell now is a story tied to this season of giving and a wonderful man called Bill I met while working at Alpha Centre International.

Bill was a native northern Californian like myself and I took an immediate liking to him when he came to interview with my colleague Donatella and me. He was living in Florence, studying the language. He came from a family of cattle ranchers and though not super tall, he was the epitome of a clean-cut all-American boy, blond and well dressed, the only nod to his origins were a peek of cowboy boots from the hem of his neat gray, well-cut jeans. It was the late 1980's, so it was also an appropriate nod to fashion.  After we hired him mainly as a teacher, a quick friendship grew between us and I'd taken to calling him Buffalo.

He was a joy to work with, always positive, and took to his role as an English teacher with great verve. He would travel to our schools in Germany as well and was well liked and received by his co-workers as well as his students. 

He proposed organizing a Christmas party at our office that year, something we'd never done and he threw himself into the project. It was a fun evening, with our staff bringing food from their native countries in potluck style, along with the  families of our co-workers. England, France, Australia, Spain, Austria, Germany, Israel, Ireland,   the USA and of course Italy were all represented at our gathering. We were not highly paid and most of us were scraping by to pay rents and keep food on the table, but it was all the same a festive celebration. At a certain point, Bill arrived with a Santa hat and a bag full of wrapped packages. We were taken aback as he pulled out of his sack, package upon package, one for each of us. He had wrapped something for each of us. A reindeer ornament fashioned from a paper roll and pipe-cleaners, a snowman made with other recycled bits of office supply cast-offs, each one transformed with a bit of glitter a marker, paperclips, white-out. He said, "It isn't Christmas without presents!"

The time and creativity he invested in his gifts was touching and will always be remembered. Early the next year, Bill abruptly gave notice. He was heading back to Florence then to California. I was surprised and sad, I would miss his enthuastic optimism and happy nature. 

A year or so later I had the opportunity to make a trip back to San Francisco to visit my family. I was excited to call my friend and say hello and hopefully make an appointment to see one another again. His mother answered the phone, I had met her during a visit she made to Florence to visit her son with her girlfriends. I remember the excited care Bill had taken in planning their itinerary, a visit to Via Tornabuoni to see all the designer shops, Ponte Vecchio, and of course they had to try an ice cream at Vivoli. I met her briefly in Cortona when they came to visit for the day and  I immediately understood where Bill  had inherited his sunny disposition and fashion sense from.

The voice on the line when I called was thin and pained. I explained who I was and that I was hoping to contact Bill. I was shocked and melted into tears as she explained that Bill was no longer amongst us, he had succumbed to the terrible disease called AIDS. I was dumbfounded and floundered for words of condolence "I'm so sorry, sorry he's gone-"   She then was brave for me " You would not have wanted him to live if you saw him at the end. He is at peace now." and our conversation ended. 

World Aids Day was yesterday, December 1, 2014...but everyday is a good day to get informed and find out what you can do to prevent the loss of so many gifts of light in this dark world like my friend Bill. 

We've come a long way but there is a long way to go- Ciao Bill- mi manchi.

lunedì 24 novembre 2014

Where the Wild Things Are...

We are fortunate to have talented artists and designers still striving to intrigue us with interesiting and beautiful designs. If you haven't already found him, be sure to drop-in to visit the gallery of Antonio Massarutto just below Casa Chilenne.

Antonio is an  award  winning designer who won distinction for himself while still a student at l'Accademia di Arti Applicate di Milano. He creates sculpture, wearable and not  in the form of jewelry, handbags and what Daisy and Carlotta appreciate most as Ecotaxidermy!  Using recycled or recuperated materials he creates ironic and amusing sculptures which resemble hunting trophies of days gone by, or images of animals.

A boarhead made of antique bishop's vestments, or upholstry scraps, leather and nails, even foam rubber.
An intriguing majestic polarbear made of chicken wire,  the essential lines captured to give it mass and presence, but with a shift of light, he fades away, disappears- hopefully not an omen of this majestic beast's destiny.

With a bit of irony he provokes irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs run free- immortalizing the pose which he sees too often on his doorstep with a life-sized dog made of duct tape.

Black bristol board becomes an inky boar, lurking in the corner of the showroom while a dauchund, patiently awaits an owner.

Antonio has often said that he tests the success of his animal creations based on Daisy's reaction to it- she has been fooled a few times by the packaging tape dogs,  foraging paper boar and upholstry fabric deer with tree branch antlers.

His website is  for those interested  in seeing a rhinoceros made of potato sacks and other wonderful things...

sabato 9 agosto 2014

Il Buon Giorno si vede dal mattino...

Monday morning homemade croissants- all other days fresh from Pasticceria Banchelli

Besides the wonderful history, sites, artwork and nature, I believe that one of the biggests draws for a visitor coming to Italy would be the food and wine.  The very fine wines of the Val d'Orcia- Brunello of Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are always high on the lists of things to be tasted when a traveller arrives in Tuscany. The Florentine 2 lb t-bone chianina beefsteak, ribollita  bread and vegetable soup (even in sweltering summer heat) are almost always sought after as a  culinary experience not be missed. It's wonderful that travellers are becoming more aware of the fact that some of the most rewarding travel experiences are due to the fact that things are not like home. It is not just doing the things you do normally with a change of scenery.

Many feel that the ueber-cool thing to do is to do everything "like  Italians" to have the most authentic experience while you are on your trip - while scoffing at things that "tourists" do. I agree wholeheartedly that moving in the circles that locals do definitely creates a unique experience which can enrich anyone's trip. 

Easter Brunch at Casa Chilenne always includes homemade Ciaramiglia
When it comes to breakfast, the Italian way is a bit different than other places in the world. It is many times broken up into a few coffee breaks spaced throughout the morning. A quick coffee upon rising at home, or  tea and a few pieces of melba toast or cookies, then a dash out the door towards the workplace or school. A pastry and capuccino at the local bar before starting work or school and then a scheduled mid -morning pause at about 10 am or so for a small sandwich or pizzetta, or another pastry and cup of coffee. Breakfast in the Italian tradition is great for people watching and observing  local behaviour at the coffee bar, however, many foreign guests find it to be a bit lacking in substance.
The exception to this would be Cortonese easter breakfast which features umbran cheese bread, tuscanissimo Ciaccia con la ciccia, hard boiled blessed chicken eggs, salami ,  and local egg-brioche style cake/bread with candied fruit and anise called Ciaramiglia.and of course the tradiional dove shaped brioche bread called La Colomba, a yeasted egg bread, studded with almonds and  candied orange peel , glazed with an almond  meringue icing 

When we started the bed and breakfast, we made a conscious decision that we would definitely serve our breakfast on site. We planned our restoration with a breakfast room and kitchen to this purpose. We researched the best local roasted coffee (Moka Più from Arezzo, in our opinion) and made it a priority to offer fresh-baked pastry from Cortona's historic Pasticceria Banchelli daily (except Mondays when they close or bake just for themselves) as well as a homemade sweets,  high quality yogurts, cereals,  local cold-cuts and cheeses and be sure to have fresh fruit available each day.  We also offer more than 20 varieties of Twinings' collection of teas and infusions as well as hot chocolate and orzo barley coffee for non coffee drinkers.  Most of the people around us said, "Why do you bother doing that? Everyone else just gives people a voucher to go to the bar."
Although it makes perfect sense from an economical point of view; no need for breakfast staff, supplies, linens or dedicating a space to breakfast, no waking up at 6:30 each morning and setting tables each night -the concept of having a bed and breakfast meant just that to us. Not a bed and coupon or voucher-for us bed and breakfast means only that. A stay with us should be special and breakfast should be a time to relax and start the day off right.

Cinnamon rolls
Yeasted Waffles with seasonal fruit
We can serve the coffee gulp and dasher as well as the leisurely breakfast lover. We've extended our breakfast menu to include eggs and bacon cooked to order as well as American style waffles and real cultured buttermilk pancakes on request, served with seasonal toppings or with the classic topping of real, organic Canadian maple syrup. We were pleased to find that our guests appreciated this option, both those native to countries where these dishes are common fare at breakfast time as well as travellers who had fond memories of enjoying them while on vacation in the UK or Canada or the USA. Most surprising are the guests who have spent time working or studying in the US, UK or Canada and plan a stay with us specifically to enjoy the morning ritual of a  leisurely, fresh cooked breakfast and share this experience with friends or family who have never experienced  it.  What better way to slow down the pace and  thoroughly enjoy one's holiday?

scrambled eggs and bacon

lunedì 28 luglio 2014

A Handful of Earth

It seems that there is something fascinating and magical in the art of terracotta, or ceramics.  The process of taking this clay rich soil, mixing it with water then shaping and  transforming it into something durable, useful, beautiful is an ancient art which has existed for centuries and centuries. It is a skill, a passion.

The Etruscans, the ancient people who gave Tuscany  it's name and shaped its character as early as 900 BC in some areas were master ceramicists. Many exquisite examples of their craftmanship can be found in museums and collections throughout the world. Probably the most interesting examples were created in "bucchero" a heavy, black ceramic. created to be economic imitations of iron vessels. Bucchero vessels started out as simple red clay vessels which turned black throughout due to the chemical reaction of reduction of the iron oxides in the clay when the pots were fired in kilns starved of oxygen.

There is a neighborhood in Cortona, just outside the city walls which is called Cocciai . This is the neighborhood my husband grew up in after his family left the walled cit, post World War II, when he was five. In local dialect the word "coccio" refers to a terracotta vessel and Cocciai was the neighborhood of the potters.

Besides the traditional pottery for storing oil, water,food and bowls for the household or handwarmers and cooking vessels, the cocciai (potters) made special novelty items for the holidays small whistles for children, some simple, some held water to create a gurgling whistle sound, ocarinas and  other small toys and figurines.

This is a picture of the last of the original Cocciai - Giuseppe Marconi with the dark shirt, taking pots out of the original stone kiln which was heated with fire from below 

Each medieval town has a maiolica pattern to distinguish it from the others. Orvieto with small birds, Perugia has a dragon design, Deruta pottery traditionally has a rooster. Cortona's traditional pattern is the creamy yellow background with a simple 12 petaled sunflower or some call it a daisy design in green (copper oxide)  and brown (manganese oxide).

I had always been told that the design was a daisy to pay homage to Santa Margherita one of Cortona's two patron saints. However, Giulio Lucarini, the last of the ceramists trained at Cocciai, along with his wife Antonella Fazzini tells different story which traces the sunflower design to the turn of the last century and to the city of Boston in the United States.

According to Giulio's maestro cocciaio, the original design of Cortona was a simple flower, not the 12 petaled flower we see today. It's said that there was a bostonian merchant acquiring wares in the 1800's in Florence and he was taken by the ceramics sold there and produced in Cortona. He was able to procure the address of the producers in Cortona and travelled down from Florence to directly negotiate an export deal. As the merchants travelled through the countryside they were accompanied by Giulio's maestro, Giuseppe Marconi, a young boy at the time, who was given the task of showing these merchant's  the scenery around the area during their visit.  Taken by the sights in the fields around them they asked that a modification be made to change the simple flower to a sunflower design and as they bid the boy farewell, they gave him a tip to thank him for his services which far surpassed the sum of 2 months salary for his father. After that, this young Giuseppe's task was to pack the crates with the ceramics for shipping to Boston, carefully copying the shipping instructions for delivery to the vessel called the "King David". These shipments continued until the Second World War.
Here's a picture of the original flower jug
Here is a sunflower jug

Even Cortonese born Gino Severini, Futurist artist of the 20th century, was fascinated by this craft of his hometown. He would make visits to the cocciai to try his hand at sculpture and decoration, leaving them with original designs for them to reproduce on their pieces.
A design by Gino Severini on a jug
a closer detail
Giulio's workshop is in an alley below his home and the store where he sells his wares is  Terrabruga, on the street level of Via Nazionale. After learning his trade from the artisans of Cocciai, Giulio started his own workshop. Drawing from the generations of experience passed on to him he continues to create the traditional patterned terracotta, like many of the plates we use for breakfast as well as new and modern designs. Antonella, Giulio's wife is especially good at suggesting pieces for Giulio to decorate which fit in as accents to modern tableware  as well.

Giulio's love of nature is reflected in many of the "one of a kind" whimsical pieces he creates using the same rough, terracotta to shape and  recreate the flora and fauna of our area in amazing detail. Each piece is unique and is the fruit of his talent, skill and some luck as well. The firing of clay can be a tricky business and not all the pieces he slaves hours or days over make it through the process safely.

I was once told a poignant story by the descendant of an Italian immigrant to the United States that during the years when Italians were compelled to leave their homeland to search for a better life elsewhere, they would  take a handful of soil with them as they braved the ocean journey to a new life.

So many visitors fall in love with Cortona as they live their vacations here, and so many bring home a piece of terracotta with our daisy/sunflower pattern-perhaps this is a new version of that ritual- a way to keep a bit of this beautiful place in their homes.