New Beginnings – Dancing in Florence

 

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Originally Published in Bloom & Flourish, April 2015

It was a cloudy March day when we strolled through my favorite neighborhood in Florence. Santo Spirito is located on the west side of the Arno River, is filled with tiny streets, bustling restaurants and artisan workshops. I’m drawn to this area because it illustrates true Florentine culture. I was on a weeklong vacation with three close friends from home in Los Angeles and San Diego. We had met up with a realtor and American Expat living and raising her family in Florence. She was acquainting us with the real estate market and history of the area when I was briefly distracted by the sight of two little girls walking by, clearly on their way to ballet class. Their slicked hair, pulled tightly in a bun was the giveaway. The dance bags and comfortable clothing was a sight I knew very well. These girls were the Italian version of my daughter and her friends at their dance studio at home in LA. As they held my gaze with them all the way down the quaint, cobble-stoned street, the dreamer in me thought, “what if?” I loved this neighborhood and I imagined what it would be like to actually live here. Strolling to a local bar for my morning cappuccino, buying fresh produce from the market in Piazza Santo Spirito and my daughter dancing at that studio within walking distance. I could envision it, but it was a distant dream.

That was a little over a year and a lifetime ago. I longed for those moments when I experienced the liberty to shed my domestic self during travel. In recent years, I was lucky to have made annual trips to Italy and it was during those times that I became reacquainted with myself. Travel allowed for complete abandon to be in the moment and open to whatever adventure presented itself, and I couldn’t get enough. When I was in Italy, I felt at home. The balance of life, the passion, the people, the food, it all resonated with me. At home in California, during my daily routine of carpool and laundry, I’d let my mind wonder to what it would be like to live in a foreign country. I studied Italian and lived vicariously through blogs written by expats. I fantasized about someday enjoying extended or permanent stays in Italy.

It was also over a year ago that my 21 year marriage came to an end and I embarked on the difficult journey of building a life on my own. There was much mending to do as I began new relationships with my teenage daughters. They were angry and didn’t understand what had changed or me. The reality was that they didn’t know me. As many women do, I put aside a career and passions to be a mother. We often don’t share with our children who we are outside of our roles as parents. I was fortunate to stay home from the moment they were born, embracing being a wife and mother and creating a welcoming home. Life was not always easy because we had to make many sacrifices so that I could be a stay at home mom. The budget was tight as there was upper education for my husband, followed by private school for the girls. However, I was extremely resourceful with decorating and clothing and could put together a delicious meal with the most basic of ingredients. We had a very nice life in a beautiful suburb of LA.

As the girls got older, I began looking at the next phase and longed to discover my calling. This is when it started to become clear that my husband and I were on different paths. I realized that within our marriage, there was no room for me to be me so I made the painful choice to end it. The courage and strength to continue my search for me came from the overwhelming need to honor my feelings and live authentically. I soon discovered that I had the power to live the life I chose. It has not been an easy journey and I often called on that newfound strength to get me through it. With anything difficult, there is much opportunity for awareness and growth and ultimately, you end up better for it.

Today as I write this, I sit in the peaceful place I now call home, in full appreciation of that life I have created. I have a solid and close relationship with my daughters and complete freedom to follow my calling as a writer and traveler. In a few short months, my daughter and I will be boarding a plane to Italy for an exciting adventure. For a brief time, we will be living like locals on the west side of the Arno in Santo Spirito. We will begin each day with cappuccinos at the local bar, buy fresh produce at the market in the Piazza and walk to her ballet class. She will be attending a two-week course at a dance studio, on that cobble-stoned street, in my favorite neighborhood, hair pulled back in a tight bun and carrying her dance bag, just as I envisioned a year earlier. A distant dream that will very soon become a reality.

 

Valentino With a Side of Fries

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In the heart of Rome can be found the most exclusive shopping in the world.   Italian
designers Armani, Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana and Cavalli have stores that line the streets at the base of the Spanish Steps.

You can imagine the uproar when on March 20, 1986, McDonalds opened its first restaurant in Italy located at the Piazza di Spagna. One designer in particular protested the American fast food chain. The Rome headquarters of Valentino backed up to the restaurant and reported that an unbearable smell of fried food was fouling the air. Valentino was one of many Romans that objected to the opening of the American fast food chain. Thus the Slow Food Movement, founded by Carlo Petrini was created with the initial aim to defend regional traditions, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slow pace of life. The movement has since evolved to embrace a comprehensive approach to food that recognizes the strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics and culture. Today, Slow Food consists of 100,000 members around the world that are part of local chapters that bring the Slow Food philosophy to life through the events and activities they organize in their communities.

IMG_2111Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the chairman of the Slow Food Ventura County chapter, Chuck Barth. Chuck and his wife and daughter, opened their home to a gathering of passionate and hungry foodies bringing together food suppliers, farmers, publishers, chefs, cattle operators and educators to highlight the new Ventura chapter of the expanding Slow Food movement.IMG_2109

During a brief stint as a raw foodie, Chuck became deeply connected to his food sources and dedicated to Farmers Markets. When he added meat back in to his diet, he connected with Watkins Cattle Company. They were present at the local Farmers Market, but their sales volumes were too low to remain. That’s when arrangements were made to begin home sales from the Barth garage, complete with a new freezer provided by Watkins. Three years later the freezer is stocked weekly and two new accounts, Pedalers Fork and Apricot Lane Farms, now purchase their pasture-raised meats.

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With sales growing it soon became evident that a business plan was needed. In July, Chuck reached out to Renee Rock of CLU for her assistance. It was during their dialog regarding regional foods that Renee recommended they start a local Slow Food chapter. Chuck explained that his previous experience with Slow Food had never left a meaningful impression. Its presence was absent from any worthwhile activities in the greater LA area. After reading the Slow Food’s chapter handbook realized it was the energy of the members that made for its success.

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With a knack for connecting people and a passion to deliver awareness, Chuck’s excitement for his new venture was contagious. In less than a year, he successfully gathered a large group of foodies to support the motto of Slow Food International: access to good, clean and fair food for everyone.

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Chuck infused the spirit of the Slow Food movement into our gathering. Those at the table understood the significance of the evening and embraced the future of the Slow Food Ventura County Chapter.

 

Today, McDonalds has expanded to over 500 locations throughout Italy, with the original restaurant still operating at the base of the Spanish Steps. While Valentino’s efforts to remove fast food from Rome were unsuccessful, it spawned a movement that is changing the way we view food and the way it is grown, prepared and processed.

 How can you get involved?

You can support Slow Food’s efforts by joining Slow Food USA and choosing the Ventura County Chapter for as little as $30 for an annual membership. http://www.slowfoodusa.org

“Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.”

― Michael PollanThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Simple Pleasures

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Tuscan Inspired Lunch

 


“Simplicity it the ultimate sophistication.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

 

 

 

 

The Italians seem to have mastered this concept.

They celebrate the simple things.

Sharing a bottle of with neighbors.

An espresso at the local bar.

Gelato!

Ripe tomatoes fresh from the garden.

Over fresh food, life slows down and a sense of community is established.

Conversation.

Celebration.

The simple pleasures.

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Fresh tomatoes from the Cipriani family’s garden.

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Rose and Kate overjoyed with the second round of tomatoes during The Art of Writing Workshop, September 2014.

 

From Toronto to Florence

IMG_0260Michelle Tarnopolsky, originally from Toronto, Canada, has lived in Florence with her Italian
husband and young son for 14 years.  Her blog, Maple Leaf Mamma describes what life is like being a young feminist mother raising a son in Italy.  I can only imagine.  She has been on an interesting career path that has had her juggling 3 jobs for a long time.  This is a girl who likes to keep busy and maintain mental stimulation.

When I met Michelle in September at The Art of Writing workshop, I recognized from my own experience the internal struggle that so many young mothers experience.  One that has us in constant conflict between loving our babies and wanting to be there for every new stage, yet having the need to create and be challenged in a dynamic way.  Michelle definitely rose to the challenge during our writing sessions and produced captivating stories that gave us a glimpse in to her powerful mind.

Michelle has embraced the Italian culture with a clear passion for its art, beauty and food and openly shared her knowledge and experiences.  All the more impressive to hear her speak Italian with such ease.  Something I dream of doing someday.  I had to know how she felt about Christmastime in Florence and was thrilled when she quickly responded to my questions.

E:  What is your favorite part of Christmastime in Italy?
M:  Like Penny Howard, I definitely enjoy the lights in downtown Florence. When those go up the season has officially begun. There’s something so magical about those twinkly boughs framing your stroll through the streets.

E:  What is your favorite traditional Christmas food?
M:  Well, it’s technically a New Year’s dish in Italy, but I’ve grown quite fond of cotechino with lentils. The taste and texture of the two match beautifully.

E:  What do you miss most from home during Christmas?
M:  Snow! Never thought I’d say that, and for the rest of the winter I don’t complain about the lack of snow at all, but it sure is nice at Christmastime.

Thank you Michelle and Merry Christmas.

Check out her blog at http://www.mapleleafmamma.com

Florence at Christmastime with Penny Howard

Florence by Penny Howard

Christmas lights in Florence. Photo by Penny Howard

I met Penny Howard last September at The Art of Writing, a writer’s workshop taught by author Lisa Clifford.  Penny was the machine behind the operation.  She organized our registration, wire transfers, and had the workshop running with the utmost efficiency.  Not always an easy task when located in remote Bed and Breakfast in Casentino, Italy.  A small mountain town about an hour outside of Florence.

Upon meeting her, you can’t help but instantly like Penny.  Always smiling, she instills an instant comfort.  We share a love for all things Italian, especially the city of Florence.  Penny first fell in love with city while studying art on a school trip in the early 70’s.   She returned on a three-month sabbatical to study Italian at Centro Fiorenza and can now communicate quite impressively.  In 2008, she set up her own company, Beyond the Yalla Dog, providing advice and support on Italian things to do in the Uk and in Florence.  Penny resides in the UK and spends time every month at her flat in Florence.

Penny and classmates at The Art of Writing, September '14.

Penny and classmates at The Art of Writing, September ’14.

When Penny posted the picture of the Christmas lights hanging in the streets of Florence, my heart ached to be there.  It has been something I have always wanted to see in person.  I had to find out more.

E: What is your favorite part of Christmastime in Italy?
P:  When the decorations go up all over the city.

E:  What is your favorite traditional Christmas dish?
P: A Capon – they seem more tasty than Turkeys.
(Capon? I must look in to this)

E:  What do you miss most from home during Christmas?
P:  I have only once stayed in Florence over Christmas and apart from the usual family meal, I have to admit to missing decent UK TV!

Penny’s website Beyond the Yalla Dog can be found at:
http://www.beyondtheyalladog.com

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Celebration circa 1946

Christmas Celebration circa 1946

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to explore the traditions observed in Italy and in America.  With so many expats in both countries, it would be interesting to see how they’ve managed to continue celebrating with their customs and how they’ve incorporated those of their new homes.

Both my grandparents grew up in large Italian American families and they carried on the traditions that they knew.  Family was number one and gathering for holidays was never a question, but an expectation.  The picture above was taken at Christmastime (note the Panettone) and probably soon after my grandparents were married.  It is a perfect example of how our gatherings were revered.  We dressed up for the occasion.

My grandmother remembers her father making sausage and having it ready to be served after they attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  My grandfather carried on that tradition making sausage from scratch and also serving it after midnight mass.  As the family grew, my great-aunt hosted Christmas Eve dinner and either served “Sauce” or Lasagna.  For dessert, we enjoyed traditional homemade Italian cookies.  After that, Christmas became very American with my grandmother staying up all night wrapping presents and for Christmas dinner, serving ham topped with crushed pineapple that was dyed red and green and a layered jello salad.  I have no memory of a television ever being on and of course, there were no cell phones or electronics.  If we weren’t cooking then a game of cards would begin.  There was constant food and commotion.

After learning of the sausage meal, I suggested to the girls that we should make that for Christmas Eve dinner this year.   My idea was met with much resistance.  They firmly stated that we couldn’t change from our dinner of spaghetti and sauce.  It’s our family tradition!

Sneakers in Italy? A Day at the Palio

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Trailing the petite Italian woman, we navigated our way up the stairs, through narrow hallways and in to the fresco adorned rooms of the historic Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.  Our guide demonstrated the art of gracefully walking in heels.  A skill I’m convinced every Italian woman is born with.  I guess when you are forced to master walking on ancient cobblestone streets and handling a vespa in not so sturdy shoes, for the sake of fashion, a few flights of stairs on slippery marble would be a walk in the park.

It was July 2nd and the day of the Palio, a horse race that has been held twice a year since the 16th century.  The city of Siena, divided in to 17 districts known as Contradas, competes for a hand painted silk banner called the Palio.  For this special occasion, the Sienese go all out donning their finest, colorful linen, stylish sunglasses, magnificent leather bags and belts, sockless loafers and of course, strappy heels.  Their golden tanned skin only accentuates their fashionable attire.

Outside on the loggia to our delight were beautiful tables garnished with Tuscan bread, prosciutto, pecorino and olives.  Spying the gelato bar our eyes grew wide with excitement.  The delight hadn’t registered before we were handed a cool glass of Prosecco.  Is this for real?  My sweet bubble of La Dolce Vita suddenly burst when I noticed a glare coming from the direction of my feet.  I’m mortified to realize that the afternoon sun was bouncing off my bright white, big, American sneakers.  I may have the tanned legs, but the casual shorts and shoes are an embarrassment.  I was dressed for pure comfort and function, doing nothing to dispel the stereotype of the sloppy American in sneakers.  I did not represent well that day.

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Having been to a few races, I was well prepared for the challenges that the day may bring.  It is always hot, there are crowds of people and if you are not walking over the packed dirt track then you are climbing the extremely small, almost ladder like, steps of the bandstand, only to squeeze in to the tiniest of seats that by American standards would qualify for a child’s seat.  It is the ONLY day I ever wear sneakers while visiting the country that is known for its fashion.

Finishing my first Prosecco, I relaxed and let my embarrassment go, counting the good fortune to be viewing the event from a place where royalty usually reside. We have observed the spirited race from many vantage points and each offered a different experience.

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First Palio. Front row at ground level.

At the ground level, squeezed in the enclosed center track with thousands of spectators, you feel the soul of the Palio.  From the beating of the drums, the enormity of the oxen pulling the cart that displays the Palio banner, to the rumble on the ground when the legion of mounted carabinieri charge by.  Only from this position can you see the intense concentration on the flag bearer’s faces as they hurl their flags  while competing for the judges.  When the race begins and the horses blast 3 times around the track, the energy and excitement are unbelievable.  Finally, pandemonium breaks out and the tears of both joy and sorrow flow passionately.  Keep in mind that to obtain the optimum vantage point at the edge of the track, you must claim your spot hours before the procession begins and bear standing in the hot July sun for what feels like eternity.  It may be free, but be prepared for a long day.

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Ox-drawn wagon bearing the Palio banner.

Rushing the winning horse and jockey.

Rushing the winning horse and jockey.

The passion!

The passion!

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Supporting a balcony on our backs in the bleacher seating.

The second Palio was beheld from the luxury of bleacher seating known as palchi.  This perspective allows for the best viewing of the historical procession of Contradas.  Dressed in medieval costumes, each district displays their pageantry and skills.  This is also good placement for obtaining beautiful photos and naturally, people watching.  Added entertainment is witnessing the poor, fair tourists in the center track succumb to the heat and have to be carried off by stretcher.  Although there is a hefty fee for obtaining  bandstand seating, once you have found a seller, you have the convenience of arriving to your reserved seat at the last minute.  Just make sure to have photos taken of your seat before committing to the purchase.  One year we sat crouched on the top row with a medieval balcony resting on our shoulders for 3 hours.

Not wanting to support another balcony the next year, our ticket buyer made sure to have photos and written word insuring we would have plenty of head room.  This time we had a larger group and a few first time guests.  To our dismay, our ticket numbers led us to the very same seats we had the year before.  Phone calls were made, ticket seller and originator arrive and tense conversation ensues.  After much hand waving and drama, we were prepared to walk away from the deal and observe the race from a big screen at a nearby bar.  We headed to our favorite lunch spot to ease our disappointment with some wine and a good meal.  To our surprise, our trusted ticket broker arrived announcing that an arrangement had been made and he was ready to show us to our seats.  As we enter the historical building with looks of question and astonishment, we are assured that for the sake of the reputation of Siena and the Contrada, we will be taken care of with better seating.  The city and the neighborhood surpassed their promise and delivered us to luxury.  This is how we came to view the Palio from the Palazzo Pubblico, surrounded by elegance, sipping Prosecco and enjoying all the gelato we desired while wearing our big, white, casual, sneakers.  A day we will never forget.

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The Biserno Experience

20140224-212010.jpgA warm breeze rustles the jasmine that climbs the terracotta wall, filling the air with it’s sweet perfume.  The fragrance matches the visual beauty surrounding us.  In the distance beyond vine covered hills, is the blue of the Tyrrhenian.  Vines meet sea…an exquisite sight!  On the veranda of Tenuta di Biserno, we are seated around a table adorned with plump olives, savory crackers and a bowl of pistachios, all to be enjoyed with our first tasting of Mount Nelson, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.  Our host Vittorio Mazzetti announces the rules.  We could not proceed until we finish the wine and the food.  With this statement, I know Vittorio and I were kindred spirits.

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We met up with Vittorio for a brief and animated history of Bolgheri and it’s lesser known neighbor, Bibbona located in the northern extreme of the Upper Maremma.   Biserno is “a project of passion” that brought the two brothers Lodovico and Piero Antinori together for the first time for a new adventure after discovering a terroir offering great potential.  Our host, Vittorio Mazzetti grew up with the Antinori family and since 1997, has worked for Marchesi Antinori.  It is clear that the External Relations Director for Tenuta di Biserno feels as passionately about the project as it’s creators.

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Admitting he was not a numbers guy, there would be no boring percentages or telling of what we “should” taste such as “a queer gecko on a fig leaf.”  We instantly loved Vittorio with his priceless descriptions.  “In a wine, we don’t want Simon and Garfunkel, we want the choir!”  When he added that wine should be enjoyed paired with food and that it is all about the experience, we knew we were in for a special day.  Surrounded by pots of lemon trees and overflowing hydrangeas, we enjoyed each other’s company, while sipping the refreshing wine.  Life was good.

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Moving inside to where we would continue the tasting with lunch, we were distracted taking in the detail of the beautiful estate.  The vast space and classic Tuscan arched brick ceilings were magnificent.  Our faces lit up like children at Christmas when we spied the table that awaited us.  Each place was elegantly set with multiple, shiny wine glasses.

20140224-170956.jpgFirst served were the antipasti.  Caprese, pickled zucchini, bruschetta and proscuitto were to be savored with another Sauvignon Blanc called Ram’s Hill.  Following Vittorio’s directions, we happily cleaned our plates.

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Next poured was Biserno’s well-known Insoglio, easily recognized by the picture of the wild boar on the label.  The most beautiful plates of Pesto Linguine were placed before us.  The aroma of basil and pine nuts, Heavenly!  Baskets of sliced, crusty Tuscan bread enhanced each end of the table.  In Italy, it is not tradition to dip your bread in olive oil, however, I can’t resist when the local, fruity and very delicious olive oil is available.  I swear, I could survive on wine, bread and olive oil alone.

Then it was the Coronato, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot…here we go!  We sampled the Il Pino, which depicts the two brothers, Piero and Lodovico, as the two boars on the label.

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Lastly presented was the Biserno which was 100% Merlot.  Accompanied with this delicious wine was the final dish of succulent, grilled beef and the popular Italian green beans stewed with tomato and garlic.

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Just as we swore we couldn’t possibly eat another thing, bowls of Tiramisu arrived.  Eyes grew moist at the sight of the dolce that was completely covered with shaved chocolate.

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Throughout the meal we were filled with the rich history of this beautiful collaboration.  For Vittorio, it was as much a part of his past as it was theirs.   The afternoon was truly magical, our stomachs, hearts and souls were full.  Tenuto Biserno lived up to its motto that to truly enjoy wine it should be about the experience.

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Thank you Vittorio for an amazing day at Biserno, for sharing your love and knowledge and expanding my love and appreciation of Italian wines.  You didn’t bore us with numbers which can cause one to lose the fundamental pleasure of enjoying wine.  That day you provided the experience allowing us to enjoy the happiness of drinking wine.

Salute!

Friendship and Travel

Friendship has been foremost on my mind this week.  I’ve reunited with childhood friends, one of them my best.  Ours began in the seventh grade and continued through middle school, high school and college.  Along with all the normal teenage stuff, we shared dreams and goals…and we had big ones!  My first trip abroad was to meet up with her after she finished a semester in London.  I wouldn’t say this trip created my love for travel, it was there much earlier, but it definitely gave me the desire for more.  Little did I know that it would be 17 years until I finally made it to Italy and as they say, the rest is history.

London 1987

London 1987

Since then I’ve had a serious travel bug with a desire to return to Italy as often as possible.  In a week, I will be arriving in Florence accompanied by 3 girlfriends.  We plan to soak up as much of the Italian lifestyle as possible, delighting in the culture, style, beauty and feasting on pasta, Prosecco and pastries.  The best caffe in the world will keep us energized throughout.  During our visit, we will join up with friends we’ve made on recent trips and probably meet more.

Tuscany 2009

Tuscany 2009

There is something about travel that bonds you with people on a different level.  Perhaps it’s knowing your time is short allowing the connection to happen faster.  I believe that travel brings out your true character and frees you to be open to adventure.  The shared experience with friends creates a lifetime bond.  I can’t wait to spend the next week forging new memories with old and new friends.

Paris 2012

Paris 2012

Getting together with my childhood best friend has rekindled the same closeness we shared as teenagers.  We both feel that after the 20 plus years that we were apart, we picked up right where we left off.  Only now we’re older and wiser, not to mention we have families.  The next chapter of our friendship is exciting and like the earlier years, I’m certain it will involve travel.

Tuscany 2013

Tuscany 2013

All of this reflection has me feeling grateful for the wonderful friends in my life; past, present and future.  It is the experiences and memories we share that connect us and make our lives richer.

Italian Style

There is nothing like it!

When you grow up with names like Armani, Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada, Valentino and Versace, how can you be anything but stylish?

It’s the Italian’s birth right and they own it.  Their presence exudes confidence.

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They don’t hold back wearing colorful linen.

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Even on the hottest days, they manage to look unwrinkled and elegant.

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The bare ankles with the Italian loafers is quite the sexy look.

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The glasses, the leather briefcase…

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a bike and cell phone.  All mere accessories.

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These two were the epitome of Italian style.  They didn’t miss a detail…the cigarette, the luggage, the dog and that dog collar!

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It doesn’t get much better than this.