Friday, April 25, 2014

Scoppio del Carro

Easter in Florence is one of my favorite times of the year.  The weather is finally starting to warm up, flowers are popping up all over Tuscany, and there is plenty of Colomba di Pasqua (traditional Easter cake) and large chocolate eggs to eat!

The most dramatic part of Easter celebrations in Florence, however, is the Scoppio del Carro - The Explosion of the Cart. 

This event has been held in front of the Duomo for well over 500 years, and it continues to be an incredible spectacle.

It all started back during the first crusade, in the year 1099, when a Fiorentino by the name of Pazzino de Pazzi was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem. To reward the young man, Goffredo di Buglione, the Duca della Bassa Lorena, who was leading the crusade, presented him with 3 shards from the Holy Sepulchre. Pazzino returned to Florence with them and the tradition of lighting the Holy Fire on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) began. Back in those days, the fire would be lit and youth from all of the families of Florence would bring a fecellina (a small torch) to light with the fire and then process through the city, singing hymns and bringing the flame to every home. The fire would be lit by striking the stone fragments of the Holy Sepulchre together, as it continues to be lit today.

Over time, this tradition changed and for awhile the fire was brought to the masses by driving a cart into town with the fire burning on a tripod of coals. Then, at some point, the tradition moved from bearing fire to bearing explosive fireworks. The exact year of this change is not known, but it was sometime in the 14th century. Today, this tradition continues. 

The current Carro (cart) was constructed in the 1490's by the Pazzi family. It has been restored over the years, but it is the same cart as was used more than 500 years ago.

On Easter Sunday, the cart (called "Brindellone" by the Florentines) is paraded through the city, pulled by a team of white oxen, decorated with beautiful spring flowers, and accompanied by around 150 historically costumed guards, musicians, flag bearers, and others. The procession starts at the piazza in Porta a Prato and ends directly in front of the Duomo. The oxen are led away and a wire is affixed to the cart, stretching from the choir within the church. At 11:00, the choir sings "Gloria in excelsies Deo" and a "dove" with a fuse is lit by the fire that was started by the pieces of the Holy Sepulchre. It is released and "flies" down the wire toward the cart, where it ignites a fuse, setting off a spectacular display of firecrackers and fireworks. The "dove" then retreats back into the church on the wire. 

Tradition dictates that a successful ignition of the cart will ensure good crops for the year and success. Indeed, the last time that it failed to ignite was in 1966...and later that year Florence experienced a devastating flood!  Luckily, this year, once again, the dove was successful, so hopefully 2014 will be a great year for all!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Zeppole - La Vita Toscana Blog

La Festa di San Giovanni was this past week (19 March) and to celebrate, I made some delicious zeppole and posted the recipe on my other blog, La Vita Toscana.

Zeppole are not typically Tuscan - they are found more in the southern part of Italy.  However, they are delicious and rather easy to whip together.

Try it for yourself.  You can find the recipe and instructions at

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning the Language

L' bella lingua...
Italian...the beautiful language...

There is no doubt about it - Italian is one of the most romantic of the romantic languages.  Just about everyone knows at least a few words in Italian, thanks to Dean Martin music, Godfather films and the love of Italian food.  But what if you want to really learn the language.  Maybe you want to visit Italy and would like to know some basic phrases to get you by a bit easier...maybe you want to learn this romantic language in order to woo a love interest...or perhaps you want to be able to speak to Italian friends or relatives on their level.

Learning a new language can be difficult, but there are a variety of ways that you can help yourself make it a bit easier.

1.  You already know some Italian words.
I know you do.  Really.  If you have listened to a Dean Martin song, watched a tv program or movie with Italian characters, or eaten at an Italian restaurant, you already know some words and/or phrases.  Think about it. Buongiorno (good morning/good day), arrivederci (goodbye), and ciao (hi/bye)...almost everyone knows those words. already know how to greet people in Italy!

2.  Books
An Italian-English dictionary is an important reference to have. Get a good one to have on hand. (The one I have is the Pocket Oxford Italian Dictionary.) There are tons of language learning books available on the market (and I have quite a few of them now). There are phrase books geared more toward travelers who may want to learn a few key/important phrases, such as: Come stai? (How are you?) Vorrei una pizza con funghi.  (I would like a pizza with mushrooms). Other books can help you learn grammar rules, verb conjugations, vocabulary, etc.

3. Online lessons (FREE!)
There are many places online where you can take language lessons.  Many offer some lessons for free, but also have paid "premium" content to which you can subscribe. is where I first started taking lessons. is another great site that I use as well.  What is nice about some of these sites is that when you submit your exercises to be reviewed, they are reviewed by native speakers.  You will be asked to review some exercises of other members who are learning your native language.  In this way, it is possible to make friends in other countries and help each other learn.  I have made several friends in this way and I highly recommend it!  Some sites will have a chat function where you can send messages or chat either with text, audio or video.  This is great to help you improve pronunciation.

4. Conversation Exchange is a free service to find people to talk to in order to help you learn the language.  You fill out a profile and then you can search for people who speak the language you are learning, who are also learning your native language.  You can become pen-pals and write emails to each other or get on Skype to talk...or even meet for coffee, depending if there is someone in your area looking for an exchange.

Conversing one-on-one is a great way to learn a language.  Skyping with friends that you make via the language learning sites or with a conversation exchange's really a great way to learn to listen and speak correctly.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that unless you have some actual conversation, your language skills will not be so great.  Communication is a two way street, so unless you practice at it, you'll only get to be "so good" at the language.

5. Music, Television, and Movies
Another great way to learn how to speak, listen, and understand a new language is to hear it being spoken. Unless you live in an area where there are a lot of people speaking the language, a good way to do so is to listen to radio and music or to watch television programs and movies.

I started listening to Italian music a year before I ever set food in Italy.  I was hooked almost immediately. Radio Italia has online streaming of their shows ( if you would like to hear some music (and conversation by the on-air personalities...and some advertisements).  Radio 24 is a talk-radio station that also has online streaming ( has several television programs available to view on demand online.  They also have an app for the iPad, which is what I use to watch some of my favorite Italian television programs when I am not in Italy. Another television corporation,, also has video that you can watch online. You can also try pulling up some shows on YouTube.

Netflix has a few Italian films available to view.  I've watched several there, as well as ones that I have checked out from the library. has several titles available too, but make sure that you get DVDs that are compatible with the players in your country.

5. Apps
There are tons of apps for smart phones and tablets that will help you practice Italian.  I have several on my iPhone and iPad.  Check the reviews and try them out.  I only get the free apps (because I don't like spending money when I don't have too).  There are a lot of good ones out there, just take a look around the app store.

6. Rosetta Stone (or other similar products)
These can be expensive.  I purchased Rosetta Stone and personally...I think I got more out of the online free courses and conversation exchanges with friends than I did with Rosetta.  However, that's not saying that it won't work for you.  It is definitely a good way to increase your vocabulary.  I actually stopped using it after finishing the first disc.  I may pick it back up again, just for the purpose of practicing.

Learning Italian, or any new language for that matter, takes a lot of time, practice and patience. Don't be afraid of making mistakes, because you will. Luckily, Italians are very quick to help you learn and to speak their language properly. They will not make you feel like an idiot at all, and normally will be very kind and patient.

Keep practicing and before you know it, you'll be able to speak, read, and understand la bella lingua in no time!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Injury in Tuscany

This past December, I had a bit of an accident.  Somehow, it had slipped my mind to write about it, so I will make up for it now.

We were blanketed in a thick fog for quite a large percentage of days in December.  It's not all that unusual, but it really did give me a bit of a case of cabin fever, since I was unable to get out and walk like I had grown accustomed to doing.

I was thrilled when for the second day in a row, it was clear and sunny.  I planned to head out and walk to Sant'Angelo a Lecore, where Simone's shop is located, and get my hair done.  I gleefully emerged from the apartment and started walking along the country roads, taking the same route that I always had before.

It was a gorgeous day.  The sky was blue and the birds were singing.  I took in the gorgeous scenery along the way:  the vineyards, olive trees, cypress...and breathed in the clean Tuscan air.

The sky was gorgeous that morning!
Walking past Villa Castelletti, I watched a vintage Porsche turn down the street next to it.  Gorgeous.

All of a sudden, as I stepped with my right foot, it hit the edge of the road, causing my ankle to roll and I ended up falling on my hands and knees before rolling over onto my back.


I laid there for a moment, wishing that I could just stay there for awhile, but knowing that there would be cars around, I didn't want anyone to think I was dead at the side of the road, so I pulled myself up.  I noticed first that the knees of my jeans were torn (which really irritated me, since that was the pair that actually fit me well).  Then I noticed that 4 cars had stopped and people were getting out to assist me.  This blew my mind. Coming from where I do in the US, if you're lucky, maybe one person would stop.  Maybe.  Here - everyone who saw it immediately stopped and came to my aid.  A young couple on their way home from the supermarket were the first to reach me.  They asked if I was ok, what happened, and where I was going. Surprisingly, I actually understood them (since my Italian skills are not that great) and I was able to communicate back with them as well!  They offered to take me to the hospital, but I told them that I was fine and so they drove me to Simone's shop instead.

I sent an SMS text to Simone when I was on the way, telling him about the accident.  When I arrived at the shop, I thanked the couple profusely and crossed the street to wait for Simone to arrive.  Once more, they asked me if I was ok and that they would be happy to take me to the hospital, but I said no and thanked them again.

I stood at the door to the shop, which was locked, and called Simone.  He said he was 2 minutes away and would be there soon.  I was fine standing there.  My ankle hurt quite a bit, but I felt ok for the most part. Once Simone arrived, however, that quickly changed.  He pulled in and as soon as I saw his face looking at me with concern, I started to break out into a cold sweat.  I began to feel nauseous and could barely function.  Simone jumped out of his car and asked me what happened.  All I could manage to say was that I needed to sit.  At that point, I was afraid that I was going to be sick and I didn't want to open my eyes or talk.  Simone opened the door and sat me in a chair.  He grabbed his first aid kit and told me that he was going to run out to his car to get his phone, since he left it there.  While he was gone, I realized that I was going into shock, so I lowered myself onto the floor and elevated my legs on a chair.  I almost immediately started to feel better.  Simone came back inside and was rather surprised that I was lying there.  He put a cold compress onto my ankle and I told him what happened.

My view from the floor.  It hurt.
By that time, my ankle had started to swell.  Simone kept saying, "it's BIG!" and that I should go to the hospital.

Now, being an American and having worked as a nurse, I am used to how the US healthcare system works. A trip in an ambulance can cost about $1000.  If you have insurance, you will probably be charged somewhere around $150 (depending on your policy) as a co-pay for simply walking into the Emergency Room.  Tests, medications, etc, will cost you even more. If you don't have insurance, an ER bill will be incredibly high (well over $1000 for a minor problem, going higher and higher as the severity of problems increase).  Knowing how it is in the US, and knowing that I didn't have insurance, I couldn't imagine how much a trip to the ER in Italy would cost me.

Simone said he would go and ask the misericordia and ask them for advice.  He was gone a few minutes and when he came back, I asked them what they said.  He said that we just had to wait until the ambulance arrived.  I panicked.  How would I be able to afford this?  I started to cry.  Simone knelt down beside me and told me to not think of the money at all.  I was more important than money and I needed to go and have a doctor look at it.  He told me that the ambulance service was free, so not to worry about that at all.  I started to feel a little better after he told me that, plus my ankle REALLY hurt a lot and I was worried that it might be broken.

Simone (on the right) talking to one of the medics.
Before much longer, we heard the ambulance approaching.  It pulled in and the medics walked into the shop. One of them took a look at my ankle and said that he was almost certain that it was just sprained, but that it would be best if they take me to the hospital for an x-ray.  Simone talked to them, gave them all of my information and they placed a immobilizer around my ankle and lower leg.  When we were ready to go, they put me onto a stretcher, carried me out of the shop and placed the stretcher onto a cart and loaded me into the back of the ambulance.  Two of the medics sat in the back with me and Simone told me that he was going to follow the ambulance to the hospital in his car.  We drove to the Pronto Soccorso (Emergency Room) at the Ospedale Careggi (Careggi Hospital) in Florence, which was about 30 minutes away.  The medics were very nice.  One sitting next to me covered me with a blanket to keep me warm and patted me on the arm and told me to rest.  None of the medics spoke English, but the two in the back chatted with me a little and asked me about the US and if I liked Florence, etc.

Simone opening the door for one of the medics
We finally arrived at the hospital and they wheeled me in.  A doctor walked up and looked at my ankle and asked if I was in pain (I was).  They had me move from the cart to a wheelchair and wheeled me into a smaller room where a nurse sat behind a desk to get my information.  One of the medics told him what happened and gave him my information.  While we were there, I saw out the window facing the waiting room that Simone had just arrived.  The nurse was finished getting my information and wheeled me out into the waiting room and told Simone that they would call for me when they had a room available.

We waited for probably 20 minutes before they came out for me.  The nurse wheeled me back and Simone stayed in the waiting room.  I sat in the wheelchair in an examination room for a couple minutes before the doctor came in and introduced himself as Lorenzo and asked me what happened.  He spoke perfect English, which made things easier for me.  He examined my ankle and said that he was positive that it was just a bad sprain, but wanted to make sure by taking a couple x-rays.

I spent quite some time sitting out in the hall next to the x-ray room.  While I was waiting, I watched patients being wheeled in and out.  One patient was brought in obviously from a calcio (soccer) match, as he was in uniform.  (He ended up having a broken arm and a few other issues, from what I gathered.) Eventually the x-ray technician wheeled me in and had me get onto the table.  When I got up, my ankle really hurt.  It had been ok while I was just sitting, but standing was a whole other story.  I almost cried when I had to move my leg for the second x-ray.

After it was over, I got back into the wheelchair and was taken back into the hallway.  I sat there for several minutes when finally a nurse came and wheeled me into another room.  He introduced himself as Fabrizio and told me that my ankle was not broken, but it was a bad sprain.  He told me that I should keep off of it for a week, keep it elevated, put ice on it for 10 minutes/4 times a day, and then follow up with my doctor.  He had a prescription for some medication that I could take for pain. Then he showed me my bill.

77 euros.

That equated to about $105 in US dollars.  I was practically giddy.  Fabrizio told me that since I was a foreigner that they had to charge me the full amount.  I kept my glee to myself as best I could.  If my ankle wasn't causing me so much pain, I may have leapt up and danced!  $105 for an ER visit, 2 x-rays, a diagnosis...I just couldn't believe it.

Fabrizio helped me onto the table and proceeded to clean and wrap my ankle with a plaster bandage. He cleaned the wound on my left knee and bandaged that as well.  Then he helped me back into the wheelchair and brought me back out to Simone.

I gave the paperwork to Simone and he went out to bring the car around.  He wheeled me out to the car and helped me get in.  That was an experience.  My ankle hurt even more than before.  We drove back to the apartment and then it got really interesting - I couldn't put any weight on my right foot at all.  We somehow made it up the 4 steps into the house and he helped me to the bedroom where I collapsed on the bed.  He made an ice pack for my ankle, fixed dinner and helped me eat it in bed.  Later, he carried me to the bathroom.  He really did take very good care of me.

My hugely swollen ankle, the day after the accident
Now here it is, a little over a month later and I am finally able to walk without too much of a limp.  For awhile, I had to use a cane to get around.  It hurt terribly for the first 2 weeks.  It's still a bit swollen and bruised, but it feels better each day.  I still have to take it easy, but I can at least walk around the grocery store and go here and there.  Hopefully in another month I will be well enough to take long walks again for exercise.

When Nurse Fabrizio was bandaging me up, he asked me what the differences were between healthcare in the US and healthcare in Italy.  I told him, honestly, I thought it was much better in Italy.  He was surprised, but I explained to him about how expensive it is and that a lot of people won't go to the doctor or the hospital because they can't afford it.  I received some of the best care that I have ever had at this hospital. They all were very kind and did a thorough job.

I had heard horror stories of tourists getting hurt or sick while in a foreign country.  Perhaps in other areas it is a problem, but is not a problem at all.  You will get the best care and will not have to pay very much at all, compared to what you would have to pay in the US.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sister Blog - La Vita Toscana

Ciao!  I wanted to let you all know about my other blog, which I'm calling a sister blog to this one, called La Vita Toscana.  

I do love blogging about my adventures in and around Italy, but I wanted to have another venue to be able to help people to learn how to adopt some facets of the Tuscan lifestyle into their own.  Not everyone can live in Tuscany, but I believe everyone can learn something from the Tuscans and use that knowledge to enrich their lives!

So, La Vita Toscana was born.  If you would like to learn more about the Tuscan way of, traditions, etc., then please take a look at  You can sign up for email updates, follow the blog through Google+ or Blogger, share posts with friends via email, Facebook, or Twitter, and much more.  

(In other news, I'm attempting to update the with new features, but I've hit a snag and the whole site is currently down.  Simone and I are working on trying to get it back up and running (and improved!), so hopefully it will be back up again soon.  I'll post about that when we get it working again!)

I hope everyone has had an enjoyable holiday season and that 2014 will bring lots of luck, love and good fortune to you all!  Auguri!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Epifania e La Cavalcata dei Magi

January 6th marks the 12th day of Christmas, otherwise known as Epiphany.  In Florence, this holiday (yes, it is a national holiday in Italy!) is celebrated with an amazingly HUGE historical parade called La Cavalcata dei Magi, the Cavalcade of the Magi, which recalls the arrival of the Magi (or the 3 Wise Men) visiting the infant Jesus. This grand parade was resurrected in 1997 during the 700th anniversary of the laying of the foundation of the Duomo.  The parade first appeared in the early 1400's (the earliest written evidence of this was in 1417) and ran every 3 years (every 5 years after 1447).  Today, it runs every year, so you can plan to see the parade if you happen to be in town this time of the year.

The parade route begins at Palazzo Pitti, continues up Via Guicciardini, crosses the Arno River via the Ponte Vecchio, then winds around a bit before finally ending in Piazza del Duomo.  There is a live nativity at a little stable next to the front of the church (which contains a large presepe - nativity scene - of terra cotta figures throughout the Christmas season), and this is where the "magi" end their procession through town and finally present the baby Jesus with their gifts.  Live animals are present, usually fenced in next to the stable.

An adorable lamb being shown before the parade arrives at the Duomo

Miniature horse being shown to the crowd awaiting the parade's arrival
In front of the Duomo, on the steps, is where the dignitaries sit.  Both church and government officials view the parade together from this vantage point.  Some speak to those gathered prior to and after the parade.  A children's choir sings from the steps before the parade arrives.

A children's choir performs for the crowd
Over 500 people from Florence and across Tuscany participate in the parade, all of which are in historical costume.  Musicians, sbandieratori (flag bearers), and representatives from towns across the province of Florence take part in the procession.

2 of the 3 Magi
Another participant in the parade is Befana!  Befana is the traditional Epiphany figure in Italy.  She is depicted as an old woman with a broom, much like a witch.  Tradition is that she flies around on her broomstick and visits children at night, leaving good little boys and girls candy, sweets and small toys.  Bad children are given coal.  The story goes that Befana was an old woman who was approached by the Magi when they were on their way to find the Christ child.  She provided them with directions and shelter for the night, but did not accompany them on their journey due to having "too much housework" to do.  Of course, later, she regretted her decision and changed her mind, so she went off on her own to try to find the Magi and the baby Jesus, but could not find them.  So, to this day she wanders around searching still.

Befana arrives!
After everyone arrives at the Piazza, singing and cheering on of city pride commences and then finally balloons are released into the air, concluding the festivities.

Witnessing the Cavalcata is a lot of fun.  It can get a bit chilly standing on the stones, so if you go, I suggest wearing warm socks under your shoes!  My toes were like ice last year when we went!  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Foggy Days

For the past 4 or 5 days, I have been in a fog.  Of course, I'm not the only one in a fog around here, because the entire area has been under a thick blanket of fog!

Fog tends to happen quite a bit in the wintertime here.  I remember last winter that we had several days of dense fog and the trend continues.  Usually, it's not too bad and will clear up around midday, but sometimes it will last from dawn until dusk without a reprieve!  That's the way it's been lately around here.  The other day, even the airport was closed due to the extreme fog!

Fog on Saturday, 7 December, 2013...
...compared to a clear, sunny day on Thursday, 5 December, 2013

I was able to get out on Saturday for a little while despite the fog.  I took a walk out to the cemetery in Signa, which is about a 15 minute or so walk from where I'm staying.

Memorial to those who fell during WWI

The cemetery was extra eerie with all the fog.  I always notice how quiet cemeteries are, but with this heavy fog, it seemed extra silent.  At one point a flock of birds flew overhead and I could hear - quiet loudly - the sound of their flapping wings.

 I did get some neat pictures out of the visit, though!

Walkway along the top of the cemetery wall

Stained glass window at the back of a family crypt