January 1, 2014!
From Florence, Italy:
As I am sitting here in my apartment in Florence, overlooking the Duomo and the Church of San Lorenzo (and with the Palazzo Vecchio in the distance), listening to the bells and enjoying the sunshine (which often appears for only about two minutes per day this time of year), I am filled with a sense of gratitude as well as a sense of excitement.
I have put my life on "pause," by taking a year-long sabbatical in Italy; I arrived in Florence, not knowing anyone except my rental agent, and armed only with lots of advice and information from friends and an overwhelming feeling of adventure. Since then, I have met a lot of lovely and interesting folks -- mostly expats from the States, the UK, Australia, Canada, Israel, Croatia, etc. and also some lovely native Florentines and other Italians.
Everyone who is living here (for a few months or a few years or more) has a fascinating relationship with this beautiful and complex city. I have been going pretty consistently to the British Institute here in Florence each Wednesday evening for a free lecture about something important and/or artistic in Italy (followed by a networking opportunity, complete with bowls of potato chips!), and I have assembled and keep meeting a group of friends there. Florence is a small city, and the expat community is, of course, even smaller, so it is pretty easy to keep in touch.
I also took a marvelous semester-length walking art history course, "Masterpieces and Monuments", where both the people and the material were incredible. Under the guidance of our great teacher, Elaine (originally from Milwaukee), we walked all over Florence, stopping in piazzas and churches and museums, and sometimes climbing scaffolding to get really close, to gawk at the brilliant masterpieces that abound. I have been able to learn and to appreciate and to revel in the genius that has breathed the Florentine air, and I have stood in front of great beauty. As I said, I am feeling pretty damn lucky, in so many ways.
Florence has been good for me, and my four months here have actually flown by. I leave Florence on January 6th to spend some time in Sicily. As with everything else about this sabbatical year, I have no idea what I am doing, and I am not necessarily acting rationally, and I am trying to learn to "live in the moment" and just understand that planning and controlling isn't always necessary for me now. I think the sun and sea in Sicily will be a wonderful interlude, especially after the urbanization of Florence (very few trees!), and January and February could be quite interesting. I will rent an apartment in Siracusa, in the Ortigia neighborhood I hope, and will be able to explore from there. After Sicily, I just don't know yet what I will do. I will spend some time in Rome in March, and then may come back to Florence for a month or so before the hoards of tourists descend (now that I am not a tourist). I still have to figure out how to spend the summer here in Italy, and I want to escape both the heat and the crowds. I'll see.
While being based in Florence, I did make a number of trips into Tuscany and Umbria and beyond. I have ventured to (in no special order): Venice, San Casciano di Bagni (home of thermal baths since the Etruscan times), Pistoia, Prato, Assisi, San Miniato, Livorno, Lucca, Rome, Siena, San Gimignano, Viareggio and beyond, either with friends or alone.
My wonderful family is very supportive of my "senior year abroad," and David and Meredith visited at Thanksgiving (we shared our Italian Thanksgiving dinner with the college girls living next door and it was great) and Alex and June were just here for a few days in Rome and here in Florence. Needless to say, it was marvelous for me to have them here and to share this fabulous place with them; at this point I do have my favorite bars, trattorias, stores, walks, museums, churches, wine bars, views, etc. My apartment is located in Piazza Mercato Centrale, so I am in walking distance of everything in Florence, and walking, eating and shopping (I'm still working actively to locate my 'Italian style') are, of course, the best ways to enjoy the city.
I have also met some lovely Italians here. I put a free ad in the Florentine, the newspaper for English-speakers, looking for a 'language partner' with whom to speak Italian and English, and I got many, many responses and had many, many cups of coffee with Italian folks of all ages. I have had lunch each week with Franca, one of my partners, and a few days ago she and I and Alex and June and some other Florentine friends, including the owners of the restaurant, had a marvelous long lunch. I have really enjoyed learning a bit about life in Italy from these native Florentines, and can begin to understand the complexity and the joys of living here. Among other things, the job market is really bad here, and I have heard that 42% of young people (under 25 or so) are unemployed, with many more (in all age groups) being under-employed.
My 'boys' and their families, meanwhile, are all fantastic, and I am grateful for their presence and light in my life. I am pleased that they each grew up to be caring, competent and connected - I especially love that they are friends with each other and Iconsider that to be a real accomplishment; apparently, we did a good job raising each other to adulthood!
Life is good in so many ways. Con amore a tutti.