At home in Ohio, my life can be a hot mess — I run too fast without ever catching up, desperately chasing efficiency and accomplishment. In precious moments of clarity, I know that this freneticism is mostly manufactured, born of the American tendency to equate one’s busy schedule with productivity.

I also know that efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Take, for example, being summoned by one’s Italian bank to come into any branch office and sign a piece of paper. Such was the gist of a letter we received.

We started our quest at our branch in Orvieto, but the office was closed. We walked in the front door, but the bank was empty. Finally, from a darkened interior office, someone proclaimed the obvious: the bank was closed. Posted hours and open door be damned — they were closed.

The following morning, on our way to the thermal baths in San Casciano dei Bagni, we stopped at another branch office. Approaching town, we saw that it was market day. As I eyed the crowds, blocked roads, and parking spaces given over to commerce, my stomach knotted in frustration over my chronic inability to operate efficiently in Italy.

Determined to sign the form and get to the baths, we parked where we could and walked back to the bank, working our way through all the stalls and crowded streets.

Entering the bank, a teller referred us to Il Direttore‘s office, where a diffident, jeans-clad manager lounged at his desk, sitting sideways to the open door. Immersed in what appeared to be a personal, and lengthy, telephone conversation, he finally glanced our way and gave us a surprised, “Oh!!! are you here to see ME???” look.

He invited us in, eventually bid a lengthy goodbye and hung up the phone, and addressed our problem. Apologetically, he explained that we could only sign the form at our branch in Orvieto. He kindly agreed to make an appointment for us at the other branch, and proceeded to call every number could find for it. Each number went unanswered until he finally reached that branch’s direttore on his cell phone.

After a lengthy consultation with his colleague, he told us to go back to Orvieto — the opposite direction from the baths. Fortunately, we were invited to use a much more convenient branch. I direttori promised us that the two Orvieto branches would be uguale (equal).

But we had to hurry, as we were already approaching the bank’s 2-hour lunch closure.

As we tried to rush through the still-bustling market, we encountered a neighbor and spent a few precious minutes catching up with her. Our dreams of the baths dimmed.

Although we reached the next branch before it closed, the woman assigned to our problem quickly determined that we had come to the wrong branch. We told her about i direttori and the “uguale” promise. As the office was being locked up for the lunch hour(s), her fingers continued to work her keyboard. Her officemate jumped in to help, and another man appeared from nowhere to look over her shoulder. Phone calls were placed. An email appeared on her computer screen, and finally the previously inaccessible paperwork arrived.

Filling out the forms in preparation for signing them, we stumbled on a technical question. We knew our commercialista in Rome could help us, but he was in a meeting. So the banker suggested we come back after lunch to sign the forms. The office closed at 4:00, she explained, but she would be there until 5:00.

We hopped on the freeway and raced up to the baths. Enroute, our commercialista handled everything and assured us that the forms were properly filled out and would be awaiting our signatures when we returned to the bank.

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We got to Fonteverde in 45 minutes, ate a quick lunch there and had time for a relaxing swim. We returned to Orvieto, signed the papers, and walked out of the bank before 5:00.

At first, I was flabbergasted by the inefficiencies of the process. But then I thought about it … everyone was very helpful. We were personally engaged with the bankers, all of whom were committed to helping us. We got the forms signed. And we got a random market experience, visited with a neighbor, and went to the baths.

Back in Ohio, I bank alone at my own kitchen table with the sterile efficiency of my über-efficient bank’s smartphone app. I try to pause and appreciate a slower pace. That wonderful, highly inefficient, and very satisfying day of banking in Italy helps.

Say CHEESE

On our recent visit to Benano, Paul and I made a new friend — Alessandra. She’s looking forward to meeting our guests. She doesn’t speak a word of English, but that’s OK. I’ll give you a head start, and you can use sign language to complete your transaction. All you really need to know is that she sells wonderful homemade cheeses and homegrown legumes at her shop, which is just a stone’s throw from Rocca di Benano.

IMG_2176Any former guests reading this will remember the expansive stretch of flat farmland just above the tiny village of Benano where our villa is. Taking the hairpin turns up the steep hill just behind Benano, most newcomers are shocked to find themselves on a broad plain, far different from the hilly terrain in the opposite direction.

File_000 (8)I often walk or jog along the road up there, and my phone is loaded with photos and videos of the big flock of sheep that I occasionally get to see being herded to another pasture across the road. The bells worn by the sheep that clang as they graze are among my favorite sounds of rural Italy.

Those sheep, it turns out, produce more than memorable “ear candy” — they also produce the milk Alessandra’s family uses to make a variety of delicious cheeses and fresh yogurt. You won’t regret buying some mellow pecorino, creamy ricotta, or tasty ricotta salata to have around during your stay in Benano, or having Alessandra seal some of it in plastic for your trip home.

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The rest of the road on the plain is lined with fields of plants that I couldn’t recognize. It turns out Alessandra’s family grows chickpeas and lentils there. Specialties of the region, they’re the main ingredients in some of my favorite Italian soups. Of course, being sold dried, they also travel well.

Beware the little shop’s limited hours of operation: Thursday evenings (5:00 – 8:00) and Fridays and Saturdays (9:00  – 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 – 8:00). When Alessandra and her husband Francesco are not minding the store, they’re tending the sheep and crops and making cheese.

 

Antiques don’t particularly excite me, yet I love the Arezzo Antiques Fair. I planned this trip around a visit to the Antiques Fair, even though it meant shaking off jetlag and jumping out of bed early on my first full day in Italy.

Arezzo is a small city in Tuscany about an hour north of Benano. On any regular day, it’s a lovely place to visit. On the first Sunday of every month and the preceding Saturday, however, this otherwise quiet little burg hosts a sprawling antiques market and bustles with activity. Hundreds of vendors come from all over the country, and many thousands of people, many with dogs on leashes or babies in strollers, come to buy — or just look. The city is jammed with booths and tables, and the crowds can be thick. Paradoxically, the mood is chill.IMG_1949

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This was my third visit to the fair and my first time by train. The direct, albeit not nonstop, train from Orvieto made it a wonderfully easy and relaxing trip. Even better, the Arezzo train station is a very short walk from the town’s main piazza. I can’t imagine ever deciding to drive again.

My chosen schedule reflected my eagerness for the fair, and I was lucky that  Olga was game to go along with my “the early bird gets the worm” madness. Not only did we get to the Orvieto station with plenty of time to enjoy a cappuccino before our 7:20 train, but we got to Arezzo even before many of the vendors were ready for business.

But it was a bright and brilliant spring morning and I was back in Italy! So I suggested we do what I always do when there’s time to kill in Italy: go check out a church. We opted for the Cathedral of St. Donato because it’s at the top of the town and abuts a lovely, quiet park with a knockout view of the fresh and verdant countryside.

Beyond the church and park, though, antiques are the name of the game. Vendors stand near their tables, piled high with their wares, and engage lookers with the same  friendliness as they do serious shoppers. They are happy to educate the lookers, and mamma mia, did we look! We looked at linens, coins, furs, jewelry, maps, paintings, things worn around the necks of livestock (my Italian failed me on this description), wrought iron accessories, intricately carved boxes, and furniture.

Oh, the funiture! There were upholstered pieces, lots of armoires, table and chairs, dressers, and nightstands. The styles ranged from rustic–even primitive–to ornate and refined. There was outdoor furniture and indoor furniture. There was furniture I loved and furniture I hated. It was mind-boggling.

Although I didn’t know I needed it until I saw it, I found the perfect bucket for the hearth in Benano. The kindly and laconic vendor suggested a price and, when I didn’t nibble, explained that it was from the late 1700’s and came from the Veneto region of Italy, where it had belonged to a noble family. As I looked it over, he pointed out the evidence that it had hung over a fire and showed us that it had been hammered by hand. When he suggested a price that included a “first sale of the day” discount, I could resist no more. Isn’t it pretty?

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Alex and Olga

We got to know Olga and Alex when we bought Rocca di Benano in 2008 and they came on as our caretakers. In short order, they became so much more. They’re now the trusted managers we rely on to make the business run. More than that, though, they’re dear friends.

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It would be impossible to run an Italian rental villa from Cincinnati without lots of help. Throughout the year, on Monday mornings (afternoon in Italy), Olga and I fire up Skype and catch up on mundane things like house repairs and maintenance; vexing utilities bills; and news from the village. I look forward to these calls, which are even better when Alex drops by to say hello. It’s a connection to long-distance “family” that I cherish.

Once the rental season starts, our communications multiply because we have guests to fuss over, each with their own needs and desires for the perfect Italian vacation. Here’s where Alex and Olga really show off how good they are. They welcome our guests when they arrive, but only after having stocked the house with specific groceries that each incoming group or family requests. They make restaurant reservations, have retrieved lost guests, and have rescued locked-out guests (even in the middle of the night). Alex grills an occasional dinner on the terrace and Olga sometimes stops by with a baked goodie. They find and return items left behind including, incredibly, a diamond stud earring that a group of guests had searched for over several days but couldn’t find. Most important, they help our neighbors understand our guests and our guests understand our neighbors.

They both grew up in Moldova and came to Italy, separately, 16 years ago. They met in Turin, after they had each been in Italy for a year. It was love at first sight for Olga, and it didn’t take long for Alex to catch up. Together they have created a comfortable, productive, and love-filled life in Italy. They both speak Italian, Romanian, and Russian. Olga is an Italian citizen, and Alex is working on it. Alex speaks English, and Olga is working on that.

They work hard. In addition to managing Rocca di Benano, they’re the caretakers of another beautiful villa owned by our good friends Jeff and Robin, who introduced us to Alex and Olga. Alex also works at our favorite agriturismo, Pulicaro, and Olga is working on a Masters degree in Philosophy and Spirituality. They live about 10 minutes from Benano in a cozy house that sparkles with warmth. If you happen to be exploring nearby Torre Alfina, you may just run into them.

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They cherish visits with their families, who are scattered all over the world. We are blessed to be part of that extended family. They take wonderful care of us and shower us with kindness and affection. And they take care of our Italian rental villa business by treating our guests as family, too.

We can’t wait for you to meet them!

The first time we rented a villa was on a vacation we took with another couple to Positano, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast. The view from this 2-bedroom / 2-bathroom apartment was just as spectacular as advertised. Breathtaking, really. Very, very romantic. Everything was perfect … except for the tiny detail that the second bedroom could be accessed only by going through the first bedroom. We had rented a beautiful two bedroom apartment with an incredible view and zero privacy.

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The view from the decidedly unromantic Positano villa we rented with another couple

We want the surprises awaiting guests at Rocca di Benano to be good surprises — like how inviting, restorative, and relaxing an Italian villa vacation can be.

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After a very rocky start, our week at the villa in Puglia turned out to be a great one

From the moment prospective guests contact us, I describe the villa and the area as accurately as I can and offer to provide all the personalized help they need to make their stay at Rocca di Benano a trip of a lifetime. I know how important this trip is to them, and I love to pass along tips that can make the difference between it being a project and a vacation: time-tested advice on flight itineraries, transportation to Benano, how and where to rent cars, international drivers licenses, and the various forms of trip insurance to consider; user-friendly information on getting to the villa (taking into account that said users might be jet-lagged) and everything they’ll find when they get there; and tips on all the “don’t-miss” attractions, vistas, tours, museums, trattorias, gelaterias, shopping opportunities, and cultural experiences guests would want to know about — whether they be found at Benano’s doorstep, in one of the lovely hill towns that dot Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio, or on guests’ day trips to larger cities like Rome, Florence, and Assisi.

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Bolsena — 30 minutes from Benano

In helping our guests prepare for their villa vacation, I’m mindful of the experience we had renting another Italian villa in a rural part of Puglia. It wasn’t until we had driven around for what seemed like hours that we realized that the directions and hand-drawn map to the villa were wholly insufficient. We were relieved to reach the English-speaking villa manager on her cell, but she was at a soccer match and couldn’t get away to help us. She advised us to stop and ask for directions. Soon a group of men had spilled out of a bar and were leaning over our car’s hood studying the incomprehensible map, also to no avail. Finally, one of them hopped on his ape and led us for several miles in a totally different direction, to a place he thought the villa might be.

It was quite an adventure just to find the villa we had rented. The memory of the helpful Italian barflies is great to recall, but the episode made for an unnecessarily stressful afternoon. We are determined not to subject our guests at Rocca di Benano to any such drama.

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I give our guests good directions to our villa and how they’ll get the key, but I don’t stop there. We realize it takes a lot more than directions and a key to achieve our goal of making sure our guests enjoy the best that our corner of Italy has to offer. I want them to unlock more than just a beautiful villa. I want them to unlock their trip of a lifetime.

Work Spaces and Places

Until the open office revolution reared its ugly head, I never gave much thought to workspaces. Though unremarkable, my offices were always just fine.

And then Corporate America became besotted with the promised miracles of open offices. Without walls separating people, creativity would flow. Collaboration would flourish and we would be more productive. We kind of expected whiter teeth and smarter kids, too.

I’m happy to see more articles talking about the downsides of cubicle farms. I think very fondly of my years at work, but not of the years my team and I spent in the basement (try though they might, they could never get us to call it the lower level) in our “veal pens.”

And now my I work at my kitchen counter. Or a comfortable armchair. Or, when I’m in Italy as I am this week, here.

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It’s yet another thing I love and appreciate about retirement.

Part I:  Wherein The Passport Gods Giveth

When I suggested that we go to Italy early next month, Mom jumped at the idea. Then she groaned in misery. Her passport had expired and we would be leaving in just over 3 weeks. She didn’t think there would be time to get a new passport.

Of course, there was plenty of time. The U.S. State Department’s Passport Office operates a very efficient system. It’s easy to download an application from the website, and the passport office offers a couple of levels of expediting the new passport. While Mom walked to drugstore in Bothell to get the required photo taken, I sat at my computer in Cincinnati, filled out her application, and emailed it to her. She got back, wrote the check (it cost an additional $60 for the expedited service), signed the application, and packaged it up with her expired passport. The little package was in the mail the next morning.

Her new passport arrived about 2 weeks later.

Part II:  Wherein the Passport Gods Taketh Away

Ever hear of the Schengen requirements? If you’re traveling to the Schengen area, which includes Italy, you need to know about them. This is from the State Department’s website:

Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area … requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure.  If your passport does not meet the Schengen requirements, you may be refused boarding by the airline at your point of origin or while transferring planes.  You could also be denied entry when you arrive in the Schengen area.

This is serious stuff. The passport gods can taketh away your vacation.

The State Department website continues:

For this reason, we recommend that your passport have at least six months’ validity remaining whenever you travel abroad. 

Six months’ validity! This doesn’t fall into the “common knowledge” category.

Keep the passport gods on your side. Renew early and often.

Mamma Mia!

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

– William James

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Mom on a zipline in Whistler, B.C.

When I asked my mother if she wanted to go to Italy on very short notice, I knew she would say yes. One doesn’t issue half-hearted invitations a woman who has lived more than 80 years unafraid of life. If she’s afraid of anything, it’s that her life will end before she’s had enough excitement. She doesn’t want to miss anything.

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Mom in an outrigger canoe in Hawaii

Her habit of finding excitement in unlikely places mortified me as a teenager. As if anonymity would shield me from the slings and arrows of adolescence, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. I yearned for a normal life that would be spectacularly unworthy of note. And there I was, plagued by a remarkable mother who was not afraid of life. It was my curse.

If I could tell my teenaged self anything, it would be this: calm down. You can’t imagine how fast the years are about to spin away. Long before you’re ready for it, you’re going to find yourself middle-aged and hoping you inherited some of her spunk.

And so it is that Mom, who still doesn’t act her age, and the middle-aged me trying to live life as fearlessly as she, are going to Benano next month. I’ll keep you posted.

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Grace

I felt my heart race in frustration as I slumped onto the green park bench. On one of the last days of our vacation, we had very little time to get down to Orvieto for lunch. While American restaurateurs feed their customers throughout the day, our favorite restaurants, those in Italy that cater to Italians, observe traditional mealtimes. The trattoria we wanted to go to would close after lunch and stay closed until 8:00, so we were hustling.

Rocca-di-Benano-Orvieto-July-026 (2)Juggling keys, glasses, and phones, we had hurried down our steps, dashed past the side of the church and under the archway, around the corner and strode across the tiny piazza. We raced through the stone gate and stopped in our tracks. We saw what was going on in the parking lot and groaned.

It was shopping day in Benano. As he does each Friday, Paulo had parked his white panel truck just outside the walls of the village. He was there to sell general merchandise to the ladies who don’t drive to town to get their provisions. Our car was behind the truck, blocked by the suddenly-not-so charming mobile mini-mart. We weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Instead of dashing off to the city, I retreated to the metal bench. A misaligned slat on the seat poked me in the rump and provoked even more annoyance.

Squirming for a comfortable position, I watched a man drive up to an empty parking spot. He went to the back of his car while his wife emerged from the side of the village and directed him as he wrestled a roll of chicken wire from the trunk.

IMG_3599An ape (“AH-pay”), that quintessentially Italian three-wheeled, one-person hauling vehicle, putt-putted up with a load of grapes. Someone in the village would be making wine.

I settled on the bench, which sat under one of the handful of trees that line the parking area. The gentle breeze rustled the leaves overhead.

My limited Italian made it easy for me not to eavesdrop or get wrapped up in our neighbors’ conversations, and for once, I was grateful. Their melodious voices, the clatter of dishes from a nearby open window, and the distant chug of a tractor harmonized into soothing background music.

Sempre via (“you’re always going away”), Giovanna tsk-tsked as she joined me on the bench. From her kitchen window, she had noticed how busy we had been all week. Or was she encouraging me to be content where I was?

Paulo bustled through the small crowd asking if anyone could break a big bill for him. When he wasn’t seeking change from bystanders, Paolo stood inside his truck and  fetched whatever his customers wanted—laundry detergent, coffee, paper goods, bags of pasta—from the shelves that lined his market’s tiny aisle.

IMG_1041Un attimo (“just a second”), Paulo called out to us. Change procured and his last transaction completed, he slid the side panel door closed and slowly walked his elderly customer home, carrying her purchases in several tightly packed white plastic bags. In a bit more than un attimo, he bounded back down the hill to the truck. With a “grazie” to us for our patience, he closed his back doors with a loud creak and roared away to the next village.

We didn’t go to Orvieto that day. Instead, we picked through what we had in the kitchen: foccacia on the verge of being stale, the last of the sharp Pecorino cheese, and wilting salad. Of the tens of thousands of meals I’ve had in my lifetime, that one, flavored as it was with the contentment of staying put and the friendship and love we had seen in the parking lot, was one of my favorites.

For each new morning with its light,

For rest and shelter of the night,

For health and food, for love and friends,

For everything Thy goodness sends,

We offer thanks. Amen.

                                                                                                             — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many thanks to Brendon for contributing this post. I love the “will it result in good memories?” standard. Read to the end to see what I mean. 

There’s a little restaurant in Canino, which is a village outside of Tarquinia, which is a town outside of Rome. The restaurant is Archibusacci. Surrounded by olive trees, Archibusacci also produces olive oils. There’s a dried hog in the center of the main dining room, and the staff can slice off prosciutto that is as fresh as it possibly can be. Joined by friends new and old, we sat down at round table under a window that allowed a setting sun to shine on our table. The waiter brought us a cart full of antipasti, traditional starters for an Italian meal. Tired, a little out of sorts, and unable to communicate, I was the happiest guy in the world.

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That was exactly a year ago, and I’m still reflecting on the memories from a wonderful first trip to Italy. The food, the wine, the sights, the history, the company—all were perfect. All of it centered around Rocca di Benano, the most splendid little villa, just outside of Orvieto. Rocca di Benano was our home base for a week in Umbria, which allowed us to explore big and small Italy all with ease and convenience.

The small towns of Italy are not to be missed. In one day, we enjoyed espresso and gardens in Radicofani, a spectacular lunch of truffles and egg in Montechiello, art and history in Pienza, and Banfi wine in Montalcino. We drove by countless Italian towns, wishing we could stop at all of them, or at least marking them down so we could visit on the next trip. We returned to Orvieto in the evening, drove down a dark road, and pulled up to Risto-Pizzeria de Zia Graziella, where, as the only diners, we had the full attention of the lovely Zia Graziella. Her full attention led to no less than six pizzas, a slew of appetizers, a digestif, a dessert, and even a private tour of her kitchen.  It was the most full I had ever been. Zia Graziella reminded me of my grandmother, especially as she was watching closely to make sure we enjoyed her cooking. It was the most memorable meal of the trip, and that’s something.

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The next day, my wife and I woke up early, and for the opposite experience, took a train to the big city of Florence. We were there in just under two hours (that gave me the chance to watch the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad,” downloaded via wifi at the villa the night before), and when we hopped off the train, we went straight to the Mercato Centrale. We browsed and grazed and marveled at the varieties of mushrooms, dried meats, and produce. During a full day, we climbed the Duomo, walked across the Ponte Vecchio, and ate an amazing meal at 4 Leoni. We walked through gardens, stopped for espressos and gelato, and took selfies galore. The train brought us back to Orvieto that evening, and we were in our bed for a restful sleep.

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Small towns, big cities, Benano was perfect.

What’s funny is that we almost didn’t go. My wife and I received an invite to travel with our friends Paul and Karen, the owners, but we already had a holiday trip scheduled to Paris in December for another friend’s wedding. Two trips to Europe in four months seemed a bit much. But after work one day, I was visiting with someone whose opinion on travel (and a lot of other things) is to be respected. His question to me at the time was whether the trip would result in good memories. I said it probably would, and he said then it would be foolish not to go. He even went so far as to say if we had a bad experience, he would pay for my trip. It was the safest of bets. Life is about making memories, he said that day, and he was right.

One year later, we’re longing to go back. We miss the food, we miss the relaxed way of life (va bene!) and we miss the adventures. One year later, the memories are still bringing us joy. So this week, we’ll open a bottle of wine from the region, raise a glass to Benano, and hope that our return trip is sooner rather than later.

Ciao.

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