The talk of the town

Massa Macinaia, Italy, is no different than Preston, Iowa – at least in one respect. People notice newcomers. Who are they? What are they doing here? How long will they stay?

Mary and I stick out, for sure. We carry our cameras and stop anywhere and everywhere to take photos – street signs, flowers growing out stones, church towers, cemeteries.

Like most of us, these folks may not realize how beautiful their hometown is, especially to new eyes. Of course our limited grasp of Italian is immediately obvious. We use every word we know and many that we don’t, but we’re trying. We pick up new vocabulary daily, by reading signs and figuring out meaning from context. We also have Mary’s handy iPhone with Google Translate.

But most of all, we stick out as the two women who came to write. We hauled a table out under a tree in the garden and sit for hours each day staring at the screens, typing away. We see our neighbors watching us from their upstairs windows.  They look at us as though we’re exotic animals – you came all the way to Italy … to write?

I hope they also notice I stare just as often at the Tuscan hills terraced with olive trees and vineyards and that either one of us may look up at any moment and exclaim, “Is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?” They can’t see it, but I wish they also knew I relax, rejuvenate and am inspired by sitting under the Tuscan sun, breathing in country air, absorbing this beauty.

I am beginning to recognize our neighbors. This morning a woman we saw at the deli the first day we were here called out ‘Buon giorno!’ as we passed her home.

Our neighbor across the street knows we are studying Italian and he is helping by cheerfully and enthusiastically refusing to speak a word of English to us. He also shared his newspaper.

Our landlord seems a little anxious we won’t really see Italy. When he came to adjust the seats on our bicycles, he said we should go to Pisa and Florence. Having heard that we write, write, write, he may have thought we intended never to leave our yard. We will put him at ease.

Tomorrow morning: Lucca. There we will check out the trains. This week, we’re giving locals something to talk about.

Next week? Maybe we’ll be natives.


Who tells your story?

A maxim of the public relations business is ‘tell your own story or someone else will tell it for you. And you may not like what they say.’

Anyone who has written a memoir has chosen to tell his or her own story. Readers make their own interpretation of those stories. I couldn’t help but think of memoir writing as we walked through Tuscan cemeteries this week.

Each grave is a small bit of personal history – some attempt to tell a story. These graves are all above ground vaults, each decorated with large, fresh, floral bouquets and often an eternal flame. The names and dates of those interred are engraved on the top of the vault. Frequently, religious statuary also tops the grave.

The stories cemeteries tell are cultural, familial and personal. The most personal aspect of each grave was a framed picture of the deceased. It’s these pictures that had me thinking.

Almost always the faces reflected the person near the age that they died. So there was the incongruous image of a 40-year old man with his 70-year old wife. This would not have seemed so unusual except that the images had been merged – not Photoshopped, but very close to it – to appear as though they were taken at the same time. The result appeared as though the man was posing with his mother.

Sometimes, the pictures depicted people of like age, even when the death dates would have indicated images quite different. I imagine the person who chose the pictures – the surviving spouse or the children? – wanted to remember a time when the two were alive. Together. And younger.

Some graves also departed from religious icons. One replaced a religious statue with a set of organ pipes. The picture showed the deceased playing an organ. His story of a life love of music is clear.

The statue on another grave was a bust of the man deceased. His bust looked exactly like his picture. The grave commemorated him. But what about his wife? He had one. There was a small photo of her.

I could not help but recall the graves in my hometown cemetery for Ed Black who was the editor of the local newspaper for 50 years. His tombstone includes his full name and dates of birth and death. His wife’s tombstone is smaller and says simply: Mrs. Black.

At home in Italy

Today was all about getting to know our Italian neighborhood. Our landlady Cristina gave us a driving tour of our village, Massa Macinaia – pointing out the supermarket, bank, restaurants and a deli famous for its gelato – and arranged for bicycles we can use the rest of the time.

Anselmo (Cristina’s father) is hesitant about us biking to Lucca, though he says around the neighborhood is okay. Even the neighborhood seems dicey to me. The roads are narrow and bike paths nonexistent. Even with very small cars, there is not room for two cars to pass if we are walking on the roadside. So far, everyone is gracious and we are still alive.

Our house – Le Macine – was formerly a horse stable and hay barn for the mill next door. Angled tiles maximized circulation and kept forage from rotting or spontaneously combusting. Now they serve as a quaint reminder of times past.

Our home is completely remodeled and modern. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen. Many Italians are converting properties to meet the interest of tourists. We found Le Macine on If you want to see more, go to and search for

After a wobbly start with our new wheels, we biked to the deli where we bought a “savory,” which means anything with bread and meat, as our breakfast. We also bought ‘due mele’ in homage to our Rosetta Stone language program that relied so heavily on apples. We ate the savories at outside tables and watched our bicycles blow over. It was quite windy all day, though the sunshine was bright and the temperature perfect. Then on to a well stocked supermarket.

Since we were carrying everything, we were mindful of weight. A bottle of wine. A loaf of bread. A chunk of cheese. Plus enough eggs and vegetables for an omelet were enough. I made it home without breaking the bottle of wine, the bottles of tomato juice or the eggs. Applause is in order!

In the afternoon, we walked another part of the neighborhood, checking out two churches that share a priest, windy streets that dissolve into home courtyards, and a cemetery that either is a family plot or a village cemetery for a berg populated only by Lucchesi’s or Franchesini’s.

We did tuck in a little writing today. I worked on my newest project – an e-book on book promotion. Mary waded into social media promotion. Heavy lifting on our novels begins tomorrow. Wish us well.


Leaving on a jet plane

As we drove to the airport, I said to my husband that it felt as though with every step I was leaving my comfort zone, moving steadily into the unknown. This Italian writing retreat would be a real adventure.

My writing buddy – Mary – and I spent the first day on airplanes. Des Moines to Chicago to London to Pisa. In the course of 18 hours, we flew over the U.S., England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Amazingly, every plane departed on time and landed on time. The weather was perfect. Are we blessed? I should say so.

In Heathrow Airport, I got up close and personal with airport security. I beeped going through the scanner. Very soon, I had the full body pat down. Twice. Then a wand scan. Followed by a trip to the full-body x-ray scan. The culprit? My underwire bra!

Now I can say I’ve experienced the latest security screening. I didn’t find it particularly intrusive or embarrassing. But it does demonstrate the inconsistency of screening equipment. My bra has never been so offensive before. Perhaps overnight on the airplane caused it to be so?

Also at the screening booth was a young woman who ranks as the most interesting person of the day. I spotted her earlier in one of the queues (Brit for lines.) She wore a torso brace attached to her leg, causing an awkward gait and uncountable stares. Turns out she is with the circus. When her comrades used her body as a jump rope, she fractured her back. She was quite good humored about it all.

Even cruising at 37,000 feet, the sights were impressive. Midwest farm fields – tidy, square, and even contrast with English and French farm fields – all different shapes and sizes and all bordered by trees or bushes. Morning sun reflected off the white cliffs of Dover as we crossed the English Channel. I was in awe of Switzerland’s snow-capped peaks, where villages follow the highways through mountain creases. The Mediterranean Sea is as blue as advertised – reflecting the cerulean skies and dotted with sailboats. Descending into Italy, we saw the Mediterranean coast lined with resort hotels, the beaches packed with lounge chairs. Ready for the season.

Our good luck continued. We made it through immigration checkpoints and bought bus tickets from Pisa to Lucca (only 3 Euros) with 10 minutes to spare. Our host met us at the Lucca bus station. She and her father welcomed us to our home for the next month with a picnic of meat, cheese and wine.

Do we need anything else? I think not.