Thursday, February 16, 2017

Dog-sitting Art Assistant

Dear Art Lover,

     And sometimes, he rests.

Art dog pastel wip dogsitting sweet companion Gregory
Gregory the sometimes sweet companion while art making.

Art dog pastel wip dogsitting sweet companion Gregory
Pastel in the works

     If you like, please have a look at some of my paintings and sculpture online here:

Peace and thank you for following this journey with me,


P.S.  Subscribe to the art newsletter here (it is FREE):

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Topini Pussywillow

Dear Art Lover,
     Just when I thought I could not be more in love with my Tuscan home, yesterday I discovered a new delight!  My landlord and I were taking a walk down our street and ended up running into a couple we know at the end of the road who were splitting wood with a band saw attached to a tractor.  (I hope to photograph this for you since I had never seen this configuration before!)

     As I was speaking about something, I turned around and my jaw dropped.  Pussywillow was right behind me!  This plant is a large part of my earliest memories of being a child in Germany.  My mother used to use the branches to make an egg tree for Easter.  And yes, we colored the hollow or wooden eggs ourselves.  I also continued this tradition when I lived in Texas [found the plant in Iowa].  Pussywillow holds a special place in my heart.  I adore it.  I did not know that pussywillow existed in Italia and now… here it is!  I think my friends were amused by my reaction, but it was love, really.  I was invited to take some home, so I did; just two sprigs, you know, not wanting to destroy this treasure.

     When I got home, I wrote to some of my nature-loving friends in Vellano, a village a couple of hills away.  I wanted to know what they call pussywillow in Italian.  Well, the willow family in general is called Salici.  However, there are about 300 varieties of willow, so I wanted something more specific.  Locally, the natives call this plant “topini,” which means “little mice.” You can see that easily enough, right?
Pussywillow or Topini branches Tuscany Italy willow Salici
Pussywillow or Topini branches Tuscany Italy

Gregory and his new friend Two dogs running to find topini
Gregory (front) has a new friend.  Gregory hunts real topini.
     But here is how my mind worked as the American wife and I were doing the translating for the guys… I kept this one to myself until now since I have a tendency to make a bit of naughty jokes when perhaps I would be wise to … not.

      Some time ago, while my friend Kumiko and I were having lunch one day with a group of five Italian men (all artists/colleagues), the guys found it funny to educate us on some Italian ways.  They told us a couple of the words Italian men use to “catcall” women.  In all of Italia, but especially Roma, when men see a “do-able” woman, they call after her, “Fica” or “che fica.”  Italians (even the men) consider this word quite vulgar.  It translates to the first half of the name of my beloved plant, mentioned above. 

     Then one of the guys said, “Well, the Romans would use that word, but here in Toscana, we would say, “Topa.” So I asked the speaker if this is what he calls his wife and got a good chuckle when he immediately said, “Nope!” [as in he would not dare!]  He explained that this word is considered less vulgar, though.  The other funny point I should add here is that generally, in Italia, people do not trust those who come from further south than they do.  So, someone from Milano may not trust a Florentine, whereas both of those may not trust a Roman… and all of them will not trust someone from Napoli, and Sicilians?  “Forget about it!”  So, it makes sense that a Tuscan would consider a Roman also more vulgar.

     Topa” is a female mouse, but the slang refers to female anatomy, apparently with a “cuter” visual than “fica.”  [Oh, I tend to confuse “figa” (which means “cool”) and “fica” and try to remember that the “c” stands for the “C” word in English, which I personally do not want to hear.  You might imagine the mess one can cause when showing appreciation for something really cool!]

    So, after we had our fun with this, I asked the guys what Kumiko and I should say if we were typical Italian women and saw some hottie men walking down the street.  For a moment, the guys looked dumbfounded.  I guess that is the double standard rearing its ugly head.  Then one of them offered, “Bello?” not sounding convinced.  Bello” just means “beautiful” or “handsome,” so, we agreed that this is not the same sort of “compliment” on the flip side of things. I changed tactics, “Ok, so if a woman wanted to make it clear to a man that she was really into him, what would she say or do?”  I was amused when the man sitting to my right said, “If you want him to know that you are interested, you need to stick your tongue inside his mouth.”

    Hmm… subtle.  So, why am I relating these silly stories about “mice” to you?
Buona San Valentino!  Or Happy Valentine’s Day.

Oh, and as a side note:  The Italians call lots of little similar shapes “topini,” so here is a link to a recipe and how-to video to make:  Topini alla fiorentina.  Relax:  It is only a type of pasta!

     If you like, please have a look at some of my paintings and sculpture online here:

Peace and thank you for following this journey with me,


P.S.  Subscribe to the art newsletter here (it is FREE):

Pussywillow or Topini branches Tuscany Italy willow Salici
Pussywillow or Topini branches Tuscany Italy - willow Salici

Pussywillow or Topini branches with pinecones and charcoal for drawing
Pussywillow or Topini branches
Narcissus or Paperwhites Flowers for February in Tuscany Italy
Narcissus - just to throw you off ;-)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seafood in Tuscany Noci d’Oro

Dear Art Lover,
     I have been a workaholic for most of my life.  The instability I gained after my divorce in 2011 had me feeling that I needed to work even harder just to survive out of my own again.  However, for a variety of reasons, it took me five years before I could find a place to call home and feel somewhat safe that I might not lose this one.  With multiple moves (including a temporary one to Croatia and my big one to Italy from the US), my work habits have taken a beating.
     I have been in my new home for just over a year now and judge harshly what I accomplished art-wise in 2016.  Logically, it was not so bad.  I did two large-ish sculptures [one stone, one bronze], finished a few paintings, started several others, and even sold some work from my online efforts.  I have always believed that when the actions do not match the words, the actions show the true desires.  I have not yet decided if I am just out of practice now or if I am truly seeking to change something in my life so that maybe I will be lucky in love and find a peace and balance that elude me more than bring me joy.

   So, I have tried to take an interest in learning to cook.  But the truth is that I do not want to – really.  Like car mechanics, I really wish that I already knew how to do those things, but I do not want to take the time to learn them!  [This is not unlike my desire for understanding and speaking Italian, sadly!]

     So when my landlord hosted a dinner party the other night at his rental house next to the one I rent from him, and hired my neighbor Riccardo, his other tenant and a cook at a nearby restaurant, to prepare all of the food, I asked Riccardo if I could tag along when he went shopping for this seafood dinner.  The one thing I hear most often and consistently from those who love to cook is that buying the right ingredients (in the right condition) is more than half the skill.

shopping for seafood in Tuscany Italy

Frozen octopus in Tuscany Italy
Frozen octopus
     Being in the hills of Tuscany and not close enough to the sea to buy fresh, fresh seafood, Riccardo drove us to a market that specializes in seafood and most of it is immediately frozen after caught.  I told him that I heard that if something smells fishy, it is already not fresh.  He said the better test often is to look at the eyes.  If they are clear, the fish is only recently dead.  Cloudy eyes are a sign of the longer-dead and to be avoided for purchasing. Just in case you were curious.  I am not sure how one would judge cut seafood.

     The store is very clean and contained a huge variety of dead and often shrink-wrapped sea life.  Riccardo bought octopus, a variety of shrimp, clams, squid, and several varieties of whole fish.  One I thought must have been a bottom-feeder by the flatness of his underside; his top a triangular form.  Riccardo confirmed this, but alas, I cannot remember the name of the fish in Italian to translate it to English.  [See how interested I am in learning? Oy yoy] 

     We brought it all home after shopping at a regular grocery store for the extras needed for the dinner of 15 people.  Riccardo ended up sitting the stuff outside with water raining down over it for fear the food would not thaw in time.  His seafood soup required about two hours of cooking, after he cut and cleaned all of the goodies.  While he was working, our landlord and his cousin came by in their Misericordia uniforms.  They had ambulance duty that day.  The young one, Silvio, is paid to work there each day, but most of the men here volunteer for service, usually one day every two weeks, but some do more.  Anyway, the guys dropped by in the afternoon to check on anything that needed to be done and after a 12-hour day for Silvio, they showed up for dinner, still in uniform (much to my delight!).  

shopping cart of sea food Tuscany Italy
This would have freaked me out completely when I was a child!

Some sweet Italian men two in Misericordia uniforms
These guys are two of the reasons I have ridden in an ambulance here!

One way to thaw frozen seafood octopus squid fish
One way to thaw frozen seafood
      I took off in the afternoon to my yoga therapy class and was charmed to see some freshly washed stuffed animals on a line outside of a window in my little village.   
freshly washed childrens stuffed animals Tuscany Italy hung on clothesline

     And shortly after yoga class started, one of the ladies passed me as we walked around the room, loosening up.  As she did, she put four of these noci d’oro” (golden nuts) in my hand.  She explained that this is a custom to share with friends what I believe are gold-wrapped almonds to celebrate her and her husband’s 50th wedding anniversary!  Everyone in our yoga class got a small handful of these.  Fifty years of married life!  Imagine.  In the car after class all of these older married Italian ladies (I am the youngest in the class by about two decades maybe) agreed that it is not easy, even for their husbands. 

Noci d'oro to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary
Noci d'oro to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary in Italy
     Such bittersweet celebrations, though, especially because one of the ladies in the car just lost her beloved husband.  While we like to be happy for others, no doubt these events remind us of beautiful things we may never experience.  He was a man much loved in this community and I was honored when I was asked by his granddaughter if I had a photo of this man for the funeral service (and I did!).  Like many experiences in my adopted country, the funeral, my second to attend in Italy, was a surreal experience.  But, I digress, as I do.  Oh, I never opened my noci d’oro.  Instead, I handed them out to the married couples who attended the seafood dinner, as a sort of good luck charm.

Octopus being chopped up for seafood soup Toscana Italia
Octopus being chopped up for seafood soup: Toscana, Italia
Candied lemons from garden; spinach, ham, and tomato pie Italy
Candied lemons from garden; spinach, ham, and tomato pie
Cooking seafood soup Tuscany Italy
And the seafood soup gets started - 2 hours roughly
Seafood varieties cut up by cook Riccardo Tuscany Italy
Mussells for spaghetti, on the left; other soup ingredients cut.

Riccardo cooks up some seafood soup Tuscany Italy
No small feat:  Cooking for 15 people!

Seafood soup made in Tuscany Italy
I admitted to Riccardo that this looked like Klingon food to me.
     In the end, I returned too late to see much of the cooking while I got myself cleaned up and went over to help set the table and later wash dishes; we cleaned up the rest the next afternoon.  However, before dinner, a couple of the guests/our friends came over to see the progress of my mural, a fake window with scene that might exist if there was a real window there. I do not work on this often since I have other projects that may help me pay the rent, and the mural became much more involved than I envisioned in that it is a specific landscape. As you may see here, each local Italian who views it starts to point out various locations of meaning to him. This is fun, and seriously, I cannot wait to finish this mural and then have an Open House!  [see image below]

     Happy 50th birthday to my little brother Steve!  Life is pretty amazing and I am glad that you are creating yours to be what you want it to be, including being a great father to a lovely and smart daughter.

     If you like, please have a look at some of my sculpture online here:

Peace and thank you for following this journey with me,


P.S.  Subscribe to the art newsletter here (it is FREE):

The mural work-in-progress of the local landscape Tuscany Italy
The mural work-in-progress of the local landscape-Tuscany, Italy

Happy 50th birthday, brother Steve!
Sister and Brother enjoying the CinqueTerre, Italy
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