Linda Oatman

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Mary Higgins Clark set a bestselling book here, but it’s still – mysteriously – one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets. The idyllic beach town of Spring Lake, situated 65 miles south of Manhattan and the same distance east of Philadelphia, might not have the name recognition of Wildwood or Cape May, but it’s famous to those who visit.

The peaceful haven is a tranquil place: no traffic jams, parking meters, honking horns, or gaudy arcades. Developed by wealthy Irish-Americans in the 1870s, this is a place of elegance and grace. With the largest percentage of Irish-Americans in the United States, Spring Lake has earned the nickname of “The Irish Riviera” from admirers of the village of rambling Victorian mansions and sprawling lawns. The two-mile boardwalk (the longest non-commercial boardwalk in Jersey) is sparkling clean and made of recycled grocery bags and sawdust. The sand is pristine; the beach non-cluttered. It’s well-worth the $8.00 beach tag, and many of the local B&Bs offer free tags for guests.
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One of the best bed and breakfasts in Spring Lake is the White Lilac Inn. Circa 1880, the Inn was built with a bit of Southern flair, with triple-tiered porches encircling the immaculate white exterior of 414 Central Avenue. Owned for over a decade by Mari Kennelly, this B&B is a refuge from everyday life. Decorated with an eclectic Victorian touch, the property is well-loved and comfortable, and there’s even a secret garden that beckons. Guests are provided with complimentary beach tags and bicycle use, and it’s an easy five minute ride to the ocean.
Mari’s breakfast specialty is mandarin orange French toast, served in the bright morning light of the sparkling white Garden Room. Early-riser coffee is available, and many fair-weather guests enjoy sitting on the veranda’s wicker chairs with the morning newspaper. The White Lilac isn’t just a summertime getaway, though. It’s just as lovely in the frosty autumn crisp or bitter winter winds, with the fireplace flickering in the parlor. The White Lilac participated in the 18th annual Candlelight Christmas Inn Tour in December, providing free tour tickets to weekend guests.
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The White Lilac offers a choice of nine exquisite rooms, some with double whirlpool tubs and private porches, all carefully and thoughtfully decorated. I stayed in the Vermont Cabin, a third-level room with a northwoods theme. Sporting fish netting on the slanted ceiling, a brass bed, electric fireplace, and a private bath, the room has proven to be a favorite with the most challenging of bed and breakfast guests: the men. “Lots of women buy gift certificates for their men,” says Mari Kennelly. “It’s a good guy getaway.” Indeed it is! Mari has decorated the walls with old paint-by-number framed works by her grandfather, and the sentimentality is palpable here.
A kid-free environment, the White Lilac has been the setting of proposals, weddings, and anniversaries. Perfect not only for the quintessential romantic getaways, the Inn is also a favorite gathering place for girlfriend weekends, mother/daughter trips, Boomer bondings, and family reunions. “The wallpaper and charming atmosphere remind me of my grandmother’s house,” reflected one guest. “Even the smell of the hydrangeas outside take me back in time.” Spring Lake is ideal for going back in time, yet with plenty to do nearby. There’s antiquing and art galleries, shopping and spas, golfing and Great Adventure park, horse-racing and the historic village of Allaire State Park. Atlantic City is a little more than a hour’s drive, yet a world away from this unspoiled place.
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Another great place of accommodation is The Spring Lake Inn, built in 1888 as the Grand Central Stables. Nestled on a quiet side street one block from the ocean, the inn’s crowning glories are the blueberry-hued Turret room and the majestic Tower View, a two-room ocean view suite with a crystal chandelier and queen-size sleigh bed.
One really can’t go wrong in booking a room – any room – in Spring Lake. Other fine choices are The Chateau Inn and Suites (plasma televisions and imported marble bathrooms), the Evergreen Inn with its Mistletoe Suite and the Juniper Room (sunken bed; floating fireplace; need I say more?!), and the landmark Breakers, an oceanfront resort hotel
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With only 3000 permanent residents, Spring Lake is one of the few seaside places in which visitors can enjoy not only the ocean, but also the lakes. Swans glide and pedestrians stroll or ride bikes over the arched wooden bridges. The main strip of town is Third Avenue, with a lineup of classy shops and stylish little eateries. Even the Pizzeria is gourmet here, with some of the tastiest slices around. Also nearby are fine dining spots such as The Black Trumpet with chef Mark Mikolojczyk’s delectable menu, and The Mill, which boasts of water views and epicurean food.

No stranger to tragedy, the tranquil Spring Lake leapt to action when the Hindenburg zeppelin exploded nearby. The peaceful sanctuary was also the site where lifeguards pulled to shore the survivors of the 1934 Morro Castle cruise ship fire. History buffs dive into their research of the area’s past in the elaborate building housing the Spring Lake Historical Society.

Named for a multitude of underground springs, Spring Lake’s wide tree-lined streets full of weeping willows are a delight. Culture abounds with concerts in the shaded park gazebo, shows by the Spring Lake Theatre group, and a plethora of events at the lovely Tudor-style public library. Easily accessible by highway or train (just one hour via New Jersey Transit from Penn Station), Spring Lake is heaven by the seaside . . . and the lake.

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It’s 1:00 a.m. on the East Coast of America, and I’m somewhere over the ocean, on Eurofly’s inaugural flight to Pescara, Italy. Dinner has just been served, but this is no ordinary airplane meal. This is a feast of fine Italian cuisine, cooked and served in style: Linen tablecloth carefully placed across the tray, my own personal little bottle of olive oil, stainless steel flatware, china, and endless smiles from the immaculately groomed attendants. They all seem to be blessed with great figures, these young Sophia Lorens of the sky. They all have flawless lipstick, gleaming teeth, and luminous skin.

You’d never guess that these women might suffer from jet lag every now and then, or have an off day in the wild blue yonder. This is a pleasant switch from the snappy I’m-Doing-You-A-Favor-By-Giving-You-A-Pack-Of-Pretzals employees that have all too sadly become the norm of the air travel industry. Flying with Eurofly is as travelers must have felt in the early days of airplanes: rather glamorous, relaxed, respected.
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I heartily consume the food – all 5 courses or so – and then pop up my movie screen. Every seat in business class has a screen, with a selection of movies in both Italian and English. Every gorgeously patterned seat reclines, too, with an adjustable footrest. I recline. I close my eyes. I rest my feet. Ahhhhh. La Dolce Vita. This is The Good Life. There’s another Italian saying: Il ddce far niente. The Sweet Doing Nothing. I’m doing nothing, nothing but flying, in style, over the ocean. I sleep, and it’s sweet.

I awaken to the landscape of Pescara, east of Rome on the Adriatic Sea, the calf of the leg in the boot of Italy. This is Eurofly’s first flight to this landing strip, and like their other JFK-based flights, it’s a direct route. In operation for 3 years, Eurofly’s non-stop Italy destinations already include Rome, Bologna, Naples, and now Pescara, a city in the region of Abruzzo.

The landing is smooth, and the Airbus 330 is greeted by a welcoming committee. There’s a red carpet to walk, hands to shake, smiles to exchange, and a jaunty brass band. I feel a little bit like Madonna, whose roots are in Abruzzo. The entire country of Italy welcomes its visitors with open arms, and Abruzzo is no exception to the rule. They seem to love Americans here, and they often acknowledge our role in assisting Italy during the second World War.

The President of Abruzzo tells of his relative who began a successful seamstress business by making a wedding dress with cloth given to her by a U.S.A. soldier. It’s a story that tends to bring tears to the eyes of the listeners, especially those from America. “We live in a troubled time when it’s good to meet and promote peace,” comments one man on the welcoming committee. “We are so happy to see a big plane in our little place,” says another. “Welcome to Abruzzo.”

American immigration was the dream for many people of this region, and those who remained are touched to see Americans immigrating on vacation to Abruzzo. Madonna’s not the only celebrity with Abruzzi roots. There’s Alan Alda and Perry Como, Penny Marshall and James Darren, Henry Mancini and Rocky Marciano and Al Martino. They’ve done their homeland proud, and so have those who remained. There’s a sense of pride in the residents, a strong work ethic and a dedication to open-mindedness, a core value of community and family and food and wine. These people seem to have a deep respect for life and for the passing of time, and they want to savor and enjoy every moment, every meal, every meeting with a stranger from a far land.

Abruzzo is an amazing and geographically unusual place. Within an hour or so, one can drive from the highest of mountains peaks to the greenest of seas, making obsolete the age-old vacation question: Beach or Mountains?
There are four national parks here, and more than a thousand castles. There are shepherds herding sheep, and craftspeople painting brilliant ceramic plates made from the clay of the land. Here too there are eagles and wolves and bear. Three cubs were born during my visit, and the baby bears made the front page news.

Abruzzo is a place where it’s rare to wait in lines. I didn’t see one turnstile or expensive ticket to be purchased in this place that’s one of the least populated in Italy and the greenest in Europe. The towns are the quintessential Italian villages: narrow winding streets of old stone, steep walks, villas with laundry drying on balconies and flowers lovingly tended by those living inside. There’s the smell of wood smoke and garlic, olive oil and wine, sauce simmering on the stove. There’s also the interesting juxtaposition of modern and ancient. I saw a Fisher Price playhouse in the backyard of an castle, and a big-screen TV flickering within a darkened villa apartment.
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State-of-the-art is no stranger to those who live in this place, but still, they preserve what came before. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying something about there being nothing better than Abruzzo in the fall. I can’t imagine anything better than Abruzzo in April. It’s all good.

A comfortable central place to stay in Abruzzo is the Sporting Hotel Villa Maria. The rooms are clean, there’s a view of the sea, and the spa is incredible. Who has time for a massage or a facial, though, when there’s a wonderland to discover?

Exploring Abruzzo is like going on an enormous treasure hunt with gasp-inducing surprises around every curve. The “ooh” factor is huge here, as big as the sweeping panoramic views of mountains and valleys and water. There’s the fortress in Civitella del Tronto with its battering ram and tiny flowers growing through concrete in dark rooms, the restaurant at the Hotel Zunica, the castle in Capestrano, the snake-catchers in Cocullo (their festival is the first Thursday in May), the lace-makers in Guardiagrele. There’s the dazzling confetti candy – almonds coated with sugar in vivid colors and shaped into bouquets – in Sulmona. There’s the church of the Eucharistic Miracle in Lanciano, and the incredible meals at the Castello Chiola: a breath-taking medieval castle towering over the quaint village of Castello.
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I visited Castello at twilight, and the space between day and night was stunning. The sky shone with a phosphorescent dark blue, glowing as if lit from behind. It looked silky and shimmery, kind of like a gigantic prom dress spread overhead. The slice of moon was the brightest, whitest I’ve ever seen, and a colossal star sparkled just below it. It’s lovely to be under the Tuscan sun, yes, but Italy visitors should plan time to drive a bit south of Tuscany because it’s just as beautiful below the Abruzzi moon.

There’s an Italian word: solare. It means “the light within.” The entire region of Abruzzo is full of solare, and it infuses the visitors, too. It can be found in the faces of the locals, in the smooth glow of the olive oils, in the sheen of the wine, in the hues of the art.

One of the world’s best-known Italian red wines – Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – comes from this place, and so does most of the saffron you may have while in Italy. Harvested from the hills, the flower stamens from which the spice is made must be handpicked, requiring sometimes a quarter million flowers to make just one pound of spice.
Sugar and spice and everything nice: That’s Abruzzo.

I’m in Rome now, which is an easy 3 hour drive from Abruzzo. Not all roads lead to Rome, but this one does. The A-24 highway is an efficient one, with picture-postcard views. And now I’m gazing down on another Kodak-moment-come-true: the view of the Forum area from the Villa Caffarelli terrace restaurant on Capitol Hill. Urns flicker with flames, and the sky is turning first purple, then pink, then a streaky combination of both. It looks like a fruit gelato melting, and spreading sweetly overhead. It’s a lovely sight, and I breathe deelyp of the nighttime smells of one of the oldest cities in the world.

Below the terrace, an old man paints. He’s propped on a stool, easel before him, paintbrush in the air, eyes to the sights. He’s in his own little world, and I know just how he feels. A toddler squeals, two women walk arm-in-arm, and an Italian supermodel type teeters across the cobblestones in spiky heels. Young lovers kiss and old people smile and all is right for the world, here above this city so full of history and religion and faith in what remains.

Now I’m in my room at the Exedra Hotel. The room is a suite, and there’s a loft. From the bed, I can see the fountain of the Piazza della Republicca. I met a woman of Italian descent who told me of having an old black and white home movie of her husband walking around the fountain, 46 years ago. It was their honeymoon, and they were so happy to be in Rome. The husband is now gone; the fountain remains.

From my gigantic window in the Exedra I can also see something brand-new: the world premiere of the Spiderman 3 movie. There’s a carpet (not red, though. It’s black, with spiders), risers painted red, lights and sound and crews of good-looking men in black suits. There are buses and vans and workers and hundreds of spectators. They’re waiting for the stars of the movie to exit the theatre and walk the spider carpet. The crowd keeps stirring and cheering in anticipation, and gorgeous people keep exiting the theatre and strolling the carpet to the flash of digital cameras. TV crews are there, and so is the papparazzi, hoping to get the best shot of Kirsten and Tobey.
But I’m here, in my bed, content. It’s fun to watch the combination of old and new; the union of movie and fountain. The water splashes into concrete ? That’s been here long before films and digital cameras and Hollywood movies.
I feel small here in this big place, and I’m aware of how good life feels now, at this moment. I push the button that opens the curtains a little wider so that I can see more, and then I just kick back and relax: The Sweet Doing Nothing. La Dolce Vita!

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Sunday in Tuscany …Time Here: 4:30 p.m.
Time Elsewhere: Nowhere else exists. There’s just this place, this sunlight, this peace, this moment in time . . . In Cortona, Italy.

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I’m writing this on a stone terrace with wrought iron railings, high on a hillside over the Chianna Valley and Trasimeno Lake. Church bells are chiming from a medieval cathedral. Birds chirp, a rooster crows in the valley, and gray birds are cooing from a hole in an old stone wall. I think they’re doves, but not the mourning kind. Just the cooing, nestle-in-old-holes-and-wiggle-your-feathers kind. There are flowers, blooming hot-pink and warm-orange, in terra-cotta pots. They’re swaying in the breeze, under the sun, below a cobalt sky so blue that it hurts your eyes. The flowers look happy. I know just how they feel. It’s a Zen moment, in a Catholic monastery, in an Italian countryside, experienced by an American woman who doesn’t often enough stop to smell the flowers.

Earlier this week (a different time, in a different country, but the same week and the same Me), I was having packing-passport-panic and travel anxiety and Why Is There All This Confusion In The World dwellings. Now though, the angst is gone, melted into the steep streets of this beautiful, beautiful place. The Italians use the word “bella” a lot, and now I understand why.

I’m sitting before a huge panoramic view. It ebbs and flows, rolling gently below, and the sight makes me feel small and large all at the same time. I like looking down on the Tuscan rooftops, which are exactly as I’ve imagined they will be. There is beauty as far as the eye can see.

The Hotel Oasi Neumann is a hotel, as the name says, yes, but it’s also a holy place. It’s a place where monks rested their heads, and had faith in things unseen. There’s a peace here, a tranquility, a stop-the-world-I’m-getting-off philosophy that`s almost a religion. My monastery room has a luminous oil painting of the Virgin Mary holding her baby. It is outlined in gold. An angel holds a candle in the echoing hall upstairs, offering her light in the reverberating space. There’s a small TV in my room. Most of the shows are in Italian, and I discover that I really like that. It’s relaxing. This language shimmies and rolls and flows, somewhat like the landscape, and I’ve learned the words for Thank You and Good Morning and Please and Excuse Me and Bathroom and Beautiful.

There are massive windows with no screens in the hotel rooms. When I flung open my shutters this morning and leaned out upon the cool windowsill, I felt like the character in that movie “Under The Tuscan Sun.” You know the one: An American woman finds peace and tranquility in Cortona.

The journey began in Rome, a place where a multitude of journeys have started. It was in the capital city that I met Patrick Mahoney, the producing director of the company for which I’m teaching a writing workshop: Toscana Americana. And what a director Patrick is: producing a production that`s as good as it gets.
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It begins with the trains. I love trains. There’s something about the rhythm and the romance and the chugging forward and the view. Italian trains are comfortable, too, with spacious blue seats and gigantic windows. These are some of the cleanest trains you’ve ever seen. The view from the train leaving Rome was resplendent with fields of dazzling sunflowers (it really is true!), stucco-roofed buildings that have been here forever, castles and towers and churches and villas, and Etruscan hilltop structures that took my breath away and made me wonder where this place has been all of my life. It was a great train ride. My writing workshop students – John and Holly – as well as John’s wife Suzanne, met Patrick and me in Rome, and we became easily acquainted during the two hours on the winding tracks of central Italy. Patrick has a knack for immediately seeing to it that the participants are comfortable and relaxed, with a boyish charm and wide smile. This is a man who clearly understands the meaning of “public relations.” Even though you know that he’s seen these wondrous sights a thousand times, Patrick Mahoney is looking at the sunflowers and the towers and the hills anew: through his visitors’ eyes, and his respect for the people and the countryside shines forth. His enthusiasm is contagious, and by the time we arrived on the high winding streets of Cortona, I was flying on adrenaline, despite (or maybe because of) my long sleep-deprived flight.

Dinner last night was prefaced pleasantly with a wine and chocolate tasting in the open air in the walled city, at a place called La Saletta. There’s blue light in the bar, and wrought iron sidewalk tables. This is a perfect starting place for the week, as the evening strollers pass and people perch on the piazza steps nearby. The waiter informed us of the cocoa contents of various chocolates, and presented a serrated knife on a breadboard resplendent with two thick rich chunks of dark chocolate. There were plates of individually-wrapped candies. I thought that maybe the plane had crashed and I went to Heaven.

Dinner was at La Locanda nel Loggiato Ristorante in the Piazza di Pescheria. Saying it out loud is like reciting a poem. The meal was a splendiferous work of art. There were hand-painted plates of various appetizers, the first course, the second course, another course, pasta, antipasto, dessert. I had lots of things that I can’t pronounce and forget how to spell, but they were decadent and scrumptious. My dessert was strawberries and gelato. Oh, the gelato! I wax euphoric about Italy’s ice cream, which is like stars and moon melted on your spoon.

At dinner, I learned a lot about the Italian culture and history and language and food. I discovered that the waiters here seem to always be smiling and patient and so ready to serve you, Madame. They are also rather bemused by tourists who gamely attempt to order like a local. I learned that Cortona is full of handmade linens, and that the toilets flush from the wall. I learned that the custom of toasting with wine came from the days when the drink might have been poisoned, and that arms should never be crossed while clinking the glasses. (It’s bad luck, and this is a good luck kind of place). I learned that the locals all seem to know and love Patrick, who’s a native of New England but a zealous convert to the lifestyles of Toscana. I also learned that my student John (who’s a Lutheran minister) uses a 1970s beer commercial as the tune for his family grace. I love that.

The sparrows were flying, dipping ecstatically in the air over La Locanda nel Loggiato, chirping like you’ve never heard birds chirp. This was nighttime. Why were they so happy? Oh, yes, I know the answer.

After dinner, we all meandered back to the place of the wine and chocolate tasting. I’m allergic to wine, which is really a sad thing to have to say when in Italy. I’m not allergic to chocolate, though, and so I had some more. I took some back to my room. I’m taking some home, too, if it makes it through the long flight without me dipping into the stash.
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This morning began with coffee like I never get in Pennsylvania, and a nice breakfast served by Andrea, an animated man speaking fast Italian. Another nice man served a nice lunch, speaking speedy Italian. We didn’t understand anything, so we just said yes to everything. It started with the bread (the quintessential Italian bread, with olive oil. Man – and woman – can indeed live by bread alone, if they live in Tuscany.) Pastas and salads and biscotti and espresso arrived, presented with pride on the handmade linen tablecloths, in the dining room with gold-flake antique paintings of warriors and saints. I’ve been blessed. This eating is a sacred thing.

I learned more at breakfast. I learned from John the fable of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem where Mary leaked milk while nursing Jesus. People of today scrape the stains and drink the scrapings. It’s magic stuff. I learned that there’s a church in Rome, built on Peter’s bones. I learned that there’s a dead Pope in red shoes, on display for public view. He was pumped too full of the stuff morticians use, and the poor guy is now preserved like a wax museum figure. I learned that one can apply to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the excavated tombs. I learned that my student Holly has a daughter whose name became Corey Feldman after marriage. I learned that lots of crispy biscotti can be consumed with just one teeny-weeny cup of very strong espresso.

The workshop started this morning, and my students worked hard. They’re writing now, as I write this. I must go now, though, to shower for dinner. Lunch just ended at about 3:00. The meals here last for oh, about 2 to 3 hours. We’re having dinner at La Saletta. It’s World Cup Soccer night – Italy versus France – and we’ll be joining the cheering throngs. Go, Italy. You’ve given me all this: You deserve to win.

 

 

Monday, but NOT just another Manic Monday
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They won! BRAVO, ITALIA! We watched the World Cup on a TV in La Saletta, in a barroom full of the most passionate, excited Italians I’ve ever seen. The waitress – pigtailed Silvia – was so beside herself that she was dropping things . . . And this was before the game even started. Italy’s National Anthem is a rousing thing, and they were singing it. And singing it, and singing it, before the game. They sing it with gusto. We visitors joined in, even though we didn’t know the words.

The game started, and there was shouting and squealing and screaming and hugging. There was praying and cursing. I don’t even like sports, but I was glued to that TV screen like no Super Bowl fan you’ve ever seen. We four Americans – me and John and Suzanne and Holly – were shouting and squealing and screaming, too. I was also trying to watch the Italians watching the game, without them noticing that I was watching them. Their faces were great. I loved the guy with the smile and the cigar, and the man who picked up the chair and thumped it on the ground when the captain of the French team got red-flagged and kicked out of the game. It was tense as heck when the score was tied at 1-1, and the game went into overtime. At one point, the unthinkable happened: the electricity went off. This happens occasionally in Cortona, but oh Lord, not tonight. There was a moment of stunned shock, and then the waiters and waitresses went into panic mode. There was running and shouting and a man standing up with his hands clasped telling us something serious in Italian. Lights flickered off and on, and off and on, and finally the TV was back on. There was a sigh of relief, and then the volume and the excitement rose to fever-pitch level.

I discovered in that barroom that soccer’s a game I can get into. There are no mysterious stoppings-of-the-clock, no Time-Outs, no unnaturally big-shouldered guys patting one another’s butts, no Budweiser commercials or Janet Jackson halftimes. There’s just the game – “the beautiful game,” as the Italians say. Two halves of 45 minutes each: that’s a game I can take. It’s almost like a ballet, danced on green with a black and white ball in-between. Oh, and the players are hot. Way hot. There’s one with a ponytail and one with a tattoo that says “Anna” on the back of his neck and one with the most handsome Italian face I’ve ever seen that’s not on a statue. As I said, this is a game I can really get in to. Totti and Tono, you can show those ugly Americana football players a thing or two about beauty and grace and the meaning of the game.

When it ended, and Italia was the victor, OHMIGOD. I have never in my life seen such frenzy. Not in Manhattan at rush hour, nor on the Jersey Turnpike. Wow, wow, wow. There was weeping and screaming and leaping and cheering. The people at La Saletta jumped up and down while belting out the National Anthem at the top of their lungs. There were fists of victory, and kissing, and whistling. Some guy hauled out a big flag, and waved it. One man put his hand on his heart with a grin and a proud pulling-up of his shoulders that literally brought tears to my eyes. I’m not even Italian, not even half, but I could have fallen on the ground and wept with happiness at this win that had been 24 years in the making. They’ll be talking about this – July 9th of 2006 – for many, many years.

We went out on the streets to see what was happening. Celebration was happening, and what a celebration it was: jubilant honking of horns and sparklers and torches and running and jumping and dancing. It was spectacular to be in the midst of such patriotism and joy. The unity of it all, the connectedness, was a special thing. I was actually kind of jealous of their country being united as one, having come from, um, a place in which there’s some division going on the past couple of years. Ahem. Anyway . . .
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Our group, cautious Americans that we are, headed back down the steep and narrow streets before the throngs got too crazy. No taxi would come to Cortona, and no one could blame them. There were lines of little Smart cars, convertibles, small ATVs, scooters . . . All converging on Cortona. One big black-bearded man (on a Harley!) was revving his red cycle over and over, expressing his satisfaction through loud American horsepower. People from the valley rushed up the mountain. The cars were flying past, careening, and we were jumping on the roadside banks to get out of their way, just in case the drivers were blinded by joy or wine. Italian flags were everywhere, strung between buildings and hung from windows and flapping from speeding cars. One flag slapped me on the cheek, and it was actually kind of sweet. People slapped us high-fives as we walked by, and the connection of the flesh across continents was a grand thing. Bare-chested boys were wrapped in flags, the word ITALIA written in red, white, and green on their foreheads. Oh, and we ingenious (and cheap) USA tourist people made our own little Italy fan gear, having no patriotic clothes of our own. Patrick gave us each three bar napkins – red, white, and green – and we stuck them in our collars, displaying our colors. The Italians loved it. I met one of them in the bathroom (the sinks are all together here, regardless of gender) and he was wearing Converse shoes: red, white, and blue.

 

“Cool!” I said. “Love the Chuck Taylors.”
“Yes,” he said. “I got them in the U.S. of A.”

 

So anyway, it was one big jubilee in little Italy last night. I spent a few hours just leaning on my stone windowsill, gazing through the open windows at the sparkling valley below. It was a vista of fireworks and headlights and really happy people planning to stay awake all night. Horns were honking . . . And honking, and honking. People were yelling, and singing . . . And singing. I think I dreamed of soccer balls, when I finally did sleep. It was either that, or maybe Totti and Tono.

It was really hard to get up at 8:15 this morning, after the too-short celebration sleep. I dragged myself up and put on my Converse sneakers, because today is the day that we walked to Cortona. This is not just an ordinary walk: this is one steep and winding walk. 700 metres, to be exact.

After two cups of steaming espresso served by the ever-smiling Andrea (“Andrew in American”), I was semi-ready for the trek. I think we did pretty good for 4 over-a-certain-age people from the United States of McDonald`s burgers. We only rested on benches two times. We saw ripe figs and big fresh olives and a lady hanging out of her upstairs window, yanking up a rope holding a basket of bread. By the time we got to the top, where there’s a good wall for sitting and a statue of the soldier who united Italy, I had to find a ladies’ room.

 

“Scuzie,” I said to a group of women in a restaurant. “Toilette?”
“Oh, yeah, the Ladies’ Room is down those steps, “ said one lady. “I’m American, too.”

 

Turned out that the group was from Florida, and there were librarians. School librarians! Well, of course, I had to dig out some business cards and schmooze them up with my children’s books and all that. You just never know when – or where – you might find a networking opportunity.

We did some shopping and then some more shopping, we said “Bon Journo” a lot, and I used the Internet/Telephone place while my students were busy scribbling the assignment I’d given: to write from the point of view of an inanimate object witnessing the celebration in the streets last night. The results were amazing.

Holly wrote about an unlit cigar in the pocket of an old man who unwrapped himself like an Italian flag to stand and light his cigar when his team won. He was Signor Cicconi, who sits on the bench with his cronies in the piazza. There really is a group of old men who sit on the bench. I call them my men. I love them. They’re so quintessentially Italian: the Roman noses and the ornery smiles and the jaunty caps and the cigars clenched between their teeth. They just watch the world go by.

John wrote from the point of view of a stone in the street, and it was deep. Thought-provoking and philosophical. I really like my students, which is a lucky thing as we’re spending lots of time together this week.

I mentioned the idea of a teen writing workshop to Patrick, and he seemed to like it. We also talked about a writing conference, with agents and editors and authors and artists. I can’t wait to work up a proposal. I MUST return here, now that this place runs through my veins.

I’m also planning to write a children’s book set in Italy. There wasn’t much in the gift shops, except for Pinocchio. I love Pinocchio, but it’s time for that wooden growing-nose dude to have some competition, and I may just be the writer for the job. You see, I really need to come back and have some book signings and stuff. Frances Mayes, look out. You’re not the only author who can claim Cortona!

So now I think I’ll take a little snooze, because I have work to do. There’s a workshop proposal and an Italy book and – oh, yes! The 3-hour dinner at Trattoria Toscana tonight. Takes a lot of energy to eat that much.
Ciao.
Tuesday
11:00 p.m. In the room that has become almost Home.

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Nighttime in Tuscany is a beautiful thing. There’s that word – beautiful – again. Still, it’s the only word that works.

Our nighttime began with a wine-tasting at Il Pozzo, an eclectic gallery of photography, watercolors, etchings, maps, handmade papers, leather-bound books, Venetian glass pens, and hand-cast jewelry. It’s a lovely place, and the owner (Giovanni, Ivan for short) is a tall and lovely man with a quiet charisma. He turned off the lights after we entered, saying, “And this is the best thing about my shop.”

Ivan pointed at a circle of glass that had looked like a coffee table display area in the light, and there was a collective gasp. Before our eyes, down in the ground below the glass top, was an 11th-century well. Goldfish swam within, and there was a light that shimmered in the waters of the well dug long ago by Etruscan hands. It was a magical moment, full of wonder.

Ivan also showed us the cross over the doorway leading to the alley, explaining the religious significance, along with the fact that donkeys and horses were allowed to sleep inside the house back in those long-ago days. We stared and marveled and clicked pictures and raved about the art in Ivan’s shop, as well as the beautiful work in creating the gallery. Ivan designed it, and it’s incredible. Ivan, however, was modest, dismissing his talents and turning the conversation back to his uncle’s wonderful photography.

Ivan Botanici looked a little bit like John Corbett of “Sex and the City,” and he knew the show. We now knew Ivan (it’s not difficult to make friends in this neighborhood), and he invited us to “come back anytime. Anytime, I will have a glass of wine for you.”

Dinner at Trattoria Toscana was fabulous (what else is new?!) and a bit giggly, thanks mostly to Holly and me. Okay; thanks totally to Holly and me. Sometimes we Americans just have to let loose with a hysterical laughing fit while in an amazing place. It’s a moment of grace: a release of work and worries and worldly concerns.

The nighttime tonight is quiet. The horns have stopped blowing, and nobody’s singing. People are sleeping, and soon, I will be, too. The stars sparkle. A dog barks. A confused rooster crows. The wind lifts, as I lower my head to the pillow. Tomorrow: Florence. Dreams start to come, and I’m ready to go.

 
Tuesday, Midnight in Italy.
Florence – Firenze – is a remarkable place. We walked in the footsteps of Dante and Donatello and Michelangelo. There was the Piazza della Signoria where the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities happened, and Cellini’s Perseus, holding the severed head of Medusa. There was the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) built in 1593, dripping with the gold of glitzy jewel traders.

Florence is somewhat of an Italian Manhattan: bustling, busy, with lots of commerce booming among the ruins. Patrick led us through the huge Central Market, where we gawked at skinny roosters with the heads still attached, rabbits, octopus in all their 8-legged glory, cow stomachs, pig livers, cheese wheels that could probably support a sporty Italian automobile, logs of salami that take two hands to hold. One cheese vendor gave us each a chunk of something, and the pungent and aged taste remained in my mouth for an hour. Then I washed it down with some Coca-Cola Light: the Italian version of Diet Coke. I guess one doesn’t mention the word “Diet” here.

We browsed the many street vendors, selling everything from knock-off purses to hand-embroidered velvet and lace pashninis to Pink Floyd T-shirts. There were wooden Pinocchios everywhere, and leather so soft and supple that you’d think the cow was still living. Oh, and the soccer shirts. Everywhere, the soccer shirts. I bartered for a few pashninis, and a pink “Gucci” watch. It was ten Euros, talked down from twenty.

In the Museo del Bargello, we saw cases of doorknobs that were so huge and ornate they made you wonder what kind of door they opened. There was also very antique jewelry, ceramics, and a bronze cannon elaborately decorated with the most intricate carvings. Patrick said that it was probably a ceremonial cannon, and we agreed. John and Patrick know a lot. We’re all learning. . . A lot. I feel like a sponge here, soaking it up. I’m soaking up the sights and the smells and the sounds and the tastes. I touch things: marble and stone and linen and wood. This is a tactile place. As Patrick is prone to saying: It’s all good. He says that a lot, and it’s true.

There were rows and rows of scooters in Florence. Men and women of all ages rode motorcycles in lollipop colors – red and green and purple and pink – and it wasn’t uncommon to see a grandmother biker with silk scarf flapping behind her.

We stopped to gaze at the river. I was wishing to see a river rat. No rats, but the sight of the water cooled us ever-so-slightly on this very hot day.

There was the Medici Palace and Chapel, the Bargello, the Uffizi, and the Duomo. There was the restaurant with a print of Nantucket on the wall. John and Suzanne have a home in Nantucket, so it felt like a serendipitous moment. Our little group liked to attribute a lot to serendipity, which became one of the words of the week.

Lunch (again!) was fabulous, and I (again!) had spaghetti. You pronounce the Ts distinctly here, as if savoring a noodle as it slides down. I’m learning to twirl. Oh, and Patrick has also taught us how to cut the bread, from the soft inside out to the crust. It works.

We stopped at Gran Caffe Siubbe Rosse Restaurant for gelato. I had strawberry and lemon: Perfecto!! Lots of famous writers have been to this renowned literary café, and now we’ve joined them.

Our group passed some street people on the way out of the city, and I noticed that they use more of a religious ploy here: begging on knees with hands outstretched. There was one young man with a twisted foot and a white dog, and his face haunts me still.

The train was late, so we had water in the station. I’ve consumed more water here than I do in a month in America. Carbonated, non-carbonated (“with or without gas”), poured from lovely jugs. I’d like to have a wall of these beautiful bottles and jugs.

Finally, the train came and Patrick shared his train tactics: “Sit on the opposite side, in the sun. You’ll be shaded on the way back, and have a nice view of Cortona as it approaches.”

The air was noticeably cooler in Cortona, and it was good to be “home.” Patrick and the taxi driver chattered, and I thought I heard the words “aroma” and “orgy.” We wondered if perhaps the driver thought we smelled bad. Turned out that he was talking about Rome (Roma) and Today (oggi.)

Taxied straight to Fufluns for dinner. Holly was craving a cheeseburger and fries, and some time was spent in deliberating various ways to request a burger (folded in a calzone? In a Panini?).

Participants paying package prices for Toscana Americana’s all-inclusive week are well-satisfied, as Patrick is more than magnanimous with menu choices. (“Whatever you want” is another Patrick Mahoney favorite. “Whatever you want.”) It was here at Fufluns that I decided to try just a tiny taste of wine, life-saving Epipen at the ready in case of anaphylactic shock. Guess what?! No reaction. Suzanne clicked a picture, and we all studied my skin for hives. None. Another sip, then another. No wheezing; no swelling. I was just fine, and drinking wine. Patrick attributed this to the fact that I was now drinking a wine that had integrity. No Boone’s Farm here, just the fruits of nearby valleys in rich shades of claret and burgundy and crimson. I don’t remember the names, but it was all good.

After a plateful of Fuma pasta (another one!) and a lemon frozen, hollowed, and filled with refreshing lemon gelato, another night had ended.

Toscana Americana not only covers the food and the tours and the rooms and the view, but they’ve got your back when it comes to cabs, too. We were taxied happily through the week, whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted. Bidding Buona Notte to our cabbie, we headed back into the Hotel Oasi, reclaiming our heavy room keys from the ever-cheerful desk clerk, and went off to sleep the sleep of the blessed.

 
Wednesday, 11:00 a.m., in a triangle-shaped park
I’m writing this as my students write on separate benches. The three of us make the shape of a triangle. Suzanne is clicking pictures: photographs of the cats and the flowers and the laundry draped from villa windows. Birds chirp, and there are workers nearby, installing something electrical. Pigeons strut and flap. (Holly calls them “party pigeons.”) The strains of organ music float on the breeze, and a bell chimes. On Italian television this morning, I watched MTV. There were the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, dubbed in Italian. There was an American western, dubbed in Italian. There was an infomercial for a weight loss product, dubbed in Italian. There was CNN, with bad news spoken in English. I turned it off.

We were taxied to the very top of Cortona this morning. Up there, at the summit, is a stone fortress with an Italian flag flapping from the tower. There are two huge stones, inscribed in Etruscan. The carved letters are mysterious and we couldn’t tell if they welcome or warn. Perched on the ground beside the stones were two empty bottles of beer.

Here too is the church: The Basilica of Santa Margherita. I like Saint Margherita, Cortona’s patron saint. She’s got a dog, and it’s with her on statues and in paintings. We don’t know the story of the little dog, but we’d all like to know. We’d like to know a lot in this place, and I keep longing for walls to talk. I’d just love to push a button in any given place, and hear the tales of what went on. I’ve also been wishing for a time machine, so that we could travel back to mingle with the Etruscans. I have some questions for them.

Holly and I got ready to enter the church. This means that Holly opened her collapsible travel bag and pulled out a compactly folded skirt. She wriggled it over her hips, over her shorts, and TA-DA! Holly was ready. We tiptoed inside, hushed and reverent, and there laid Saint Margherita, up front, in a glass case. Her body, preserved, is tiny. She’s resting in peace, very darkened by time, dressed in white. This body is over a thousand years old. Candles flicker, and even a whisper would be too loud.

An elderly couple viewed the body. Holly and I were next. The man excitedly told us a story in Italian, gesturing to the Jesus statue. The story involved a bambino and a rising and a lot of stuff we didn’t understand. Holly and I smiled and nodded politely, not having the heart to tell him that we didn’t speak his language. We decided later that the man thought we understood, but that his wife had known we were faking. Women always know.

 
Wednesday, noon, as a cat sleeps in the sunshine.
My students wrote pieces so gorgeous that there were tears. This is good. I’m proud. Holly has a wonderful piece about her late father-in-law, and John has a heartfelt writing about a dead friend. Holly has a story about a turtle and the power of a woman. John has the beginnings of a young adult novel, about the power of a woman. This is serendipity.

We stopped in another church, and I lit a candle. I’m not Catholic, but I’m having some epiphanies and spiritual stirrings in this place. I’m beginning to get it. Maybe. I wonder how long this candle will burn.

 
Wednesday, 5:00 p.m., In the hour after the afternoon nap and before dinnertime.
After another lunch, another luscious lovely lunch, we visited Francesco Campononi’s shop. Francesco’s prints look like they came straight from the pages of The New Yorker magazine. I suggested to Francesco that he look up the website, and submit some cartoons. He nodded, and said, “Perhaps I will do so.“ These are intelligent and witty, quirky and thought-provoking, finely-drawn cartoons, and one could spend hours browsing his little shop of wonders. Jennifer Warnes was playing on a mix CD, and the ambience in the room was very cool, much like the unshaved and artsy-looking Francesco. It was soon time to return to the hotel to wash up for dinner. Tonight is our Tuscan cooking class at Fontelunga. I can’t even cook right in America; how will I manage here, in this place that is The Epitome of Food?

 
Wednesday, midnight-thirty, after the Tuscan cooking class.
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The teachers were Donatello and Lucia. Donatello wore a towering white chef’s hat, and we all donned aprons. The classroom was an enormous kitchen with the biggest pan and rolling pin I’ve ever seen. We learned about cooking rabbit and adding garlic and pouring in the white wine and lining the edges of the pan with olive oil. We learned about rolling snakes of spaghetti pasta between our palms, and about how to punch and knead the dough. We learned how to make Pasta vedova al sugo finto: Widow Pasta With Fake Ragu. Lucia’s boyfriend polished his motorcycle (another Harley) in the drive outside, as we Americans learned Italian cooking in the kitchen.

Joined by a family from Manhattan, we sat down to dine on the fruits (or pastas) of our labors. A discussion of the U.S. President ensued, and due to differing points of view, one of us managed to change the subject back to the non-conflictive topics of this countryside: things like villas and rabbits (“It’s baby’s first meat,” said Donatello) and wine and the correct pronunciation of bruschetta. (It’s a hard “C,” not a “SH” sound.)
The rabbit was melt-in-your-mouth tender and savory, even to this quasi-vegetarian, and the biscotti was magnificent. One of the Manhattan family’s girls was allergic to almonds, and so Donatello cheerfully whipped up another dessert (“You want I should make you a cake? You own special cake?”) as Lucia sped away with her boyfriend.

We all claimed allergies when the dessert was produced, and shared slices of the savory blueberry creation. It was splendid. The stars glimmered, and a cool wind blew through the outdoors dining room.

 
Thursday, one minute past midnight in Tuscany
There’s an orange full moon (“La Luna Rosa,” as John says) hanging low, glowing brilliantly, luminous over the valley. The day has been as full and as colorful as this moon. It was a Siena day. (Did you know that Crayola got the name “Burnt Siena” from the buildings in this city?) Toscana Americana tailors each workshop individually, but many include two day trips. This was our second.

We took the train to Siena after espresso and pastries. I’m really digging these trains (as well as the pastries). Our group sat in an elevated section of three curving blue seats facing three other curving blue seats, with big picture windows behind us. This train is smooth, and the view floats rather than whizzes. And what a view it is: valleys and hillsides, rolling and rising, the same yet always surprising.

The bus ride from the train station to town has somewhat of a subway vibe. It’s first-come first-serve for the seats, and latecomers hold the poles. Siena is a city with a true medieval feel. The piazza is huge, framed by gelato shops and apartments and vendors plying their wares. This is where the Il Palio horse race is held. It’s a famous race, at least in Italy, and it takes place in the summer. The 17 sectors of the community compete against one another, and the stakes are high: community pride.

We went to the Reliquiario Della Croce Santa Cortona, where we saw religious paintings and artifacts and statues. My favorite was the reliquary of Saint Somebody’s bones: glass and gold, ornately carved, holding a skull and bones tied with bows of shimmery gold. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was gruesome yet gorgeous; strange yet everyday. These bones have been here for a thousand years, and they’ll be here for another thousand, long after I am gone. I’d like if someone would do this with my bones: wrap them up like carefully-chosen lovingly-given Christmas gifts, and display them just right (skull in the middle, of course). It was a tender memento, and a fine tribute to Saint Somebody. I wished I had known him (or her) with flesh and blood.

We met Patrick, who was taking a break on the steps outside, and strolled to lunch. I like the strolling. People wander; they sashay. Patrick saunters. In America, at home, in the real world, I rush. I hurry. Not here. There’s no hurry, for these things have been here for a long time – for all time – and they’ll wait. They’re not going anywhere.

An accordion man entertained us with Italian music spattered with shades of Mexico. He had one eye that wouldn’t open. Patrick opened my eyes to the fact that here in Italy, those with “disabilities,” as we say in America, are much more integrated into society. Nobody stares at a club foot or missing fingers or an eye that won’t open. It’s just . . . The way it is.

The accordion man saw me fishing for my wallet, and so of course we were serenaded with another song. A few coins dropped in his hand, and the music man was on his way: to another table, in another place, to play the same songs. He knows these songs by heart.

After lunch came a movie about the horse race. My favorite part was about how the horses go to church to be blessed before the race. Even the animals get some religion here.

Splitting up for souvenir shopping, we visited leather shops and art stores and ceramic displays. I bought a red purse, soft and buttery as the Tuscan sun, and a leather keychain for my son. The leather shop smelled really good. I also bought a tiny sunflower-painted ceramic plate, a few Pinocchios, and then it was once again time to go. It’s always eventually time to go. But the leaving is okay, because we’re simply going to another place.

Stopping for Coca-Cola Lights in the train station, we discussed our swollen ankles, comparing bloated flesh. It was the oddest thing: we 4 American tourists from the ankles down looked to be 9 months pregnant and “retaining water.” The edema was intriguing to me, as I’ve never seen my ankles look quite so poufy. The puff isn’t attractive, but it’s interesting. We deliberate whether it could be salty pasta or mineral water or lots of walking or the heat or the altitude or the plane ride. We decide it’s either all of the above, or none of the above, but it’s okay. To me it is no problem, as I’ve been hearing a lot here in Cortona.

Patrick led the way (Patrick always leads the way; we’ve come to depend upon him. He`s taught us how to cut Tuscan toast and how to swirl the wine in circles before we taste. He`s taught us how to say Please and Thank You and You`re Welcome. Patrick has taught us how to read the train schedules and how to just trust him on this. It`s his favorite saying. And guess what? We trust him. Patrick has taught us how to . . . Just . . . Be.)

Back on the train, much more crowded now, I closed my eyes, drifting in the motion of the train and the various voices speaking in a language that I’m just beginning to comprehend. I’m starting to . . . get it.

After cocktails at La Saletta, we walked down to La Grotta. This is a great place, and it feels like, um, a grotto. There was lots of good discussion and brainstorming about more workshops for Patrick. I came up with a kind of “women who run with the wolves” theme idea, with Vespas for women to ride. The wind blowing wildly in their hair would be a fine thing. Patrick has the idea of offering something including St. Frances of Assisi, and his values of peace. Patrick is a peaceful man. He never seems to be in a hurry, never impatient, never perturbed, and the vibe is rubbing off. Our little group is really clicking, cosmically connecting on a spiritual level that comes when one is away from ringing telephones and stacks of bills to pay and yards to mow. We talk about life and we talk about death. We talk about joy and sorrow and trains and babies. We talk about angels and saints and prayer and peeing. (My class has all taken diuretics, you see.) We think that Patrick should perhaps add something in his FAQ section. (“Will my ankles swell in Tuscany?” “Maybe. Bring diuretics.”) We talk about yesterday and today and tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow . . . We hope. Patrick has good plans for Toscana Americana to expand beyond Italy, building bridges between the nations, but he’s patient. There’s time. In Italy, there’s always time.

The taxi driver picked us up at 11:00, and Patrick conversed in rapid Italian with him. Holly and I know what he’s saying: that we need to be picked up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The cabbie isn’t happy about the time, but he accepts it. “It’s my work,” he says with a shrug. “It’s just my work. For me no problem. For you no problem.” And so now here I am: in my feels-like-home room below an orange moon. It’s not quite Burnt Siena; the hue is more of a sheen. It’s the brightest moon I’ve ever seen.

 
Friday morning of the last full day in Tuscany
10:00 a.m.

It’s just another beautiful day in Paradise. I’m sitting in the same place where I began this story, on Sunday. It’s now a Friday, morning, and the mourning dove is cooing. The fountain splashes, the valley is awakening below, and there is the peace. Always the peace.

One of my ankle bones has re-appeared, and I think that the other one is working on it. I’m patient. I can wait. Things take time, and I’ve got lots of time while in Cortona. The watch clicks differently here, at least my ten-Euro Gucci watch that has no numbers and really, really tiny hands. This morning I was out of bed at 7:00, thinking it was 8:00. The extra hour is a gift, though, and so I thank my hard-to-read pink Gucci.

I washed a few skirts in the sink, hanging them from the windowsill like a local. I like this. The sun dries them in no time, and I’ll take home a splash of Tuscan sun and breeze, burned permanently into a couple of American skirts. I also cleaned out my hair brush, releasing a handful of hair into the air, so that maybe birds will use it to build nests for their babies.

Andrea/Andrew in the dining room is cute in an Italian Austin Powers kind of a way: bowtied and bespectacled and very, very eager to please. He laughs like Austin, and I’d just love to hear him say, “Yeah, Baby, Yeah” in Italian. He likes American girls, and the discoteque. He was born in 1974. I know this because he showed me his license, after inviting me for a drink in Cortona. I politely declined, saying that I was having dinner with Patrick and The Group. We are Family: Patrick and The Group. It’s all good.

Next on the Toscana Americana agenda is a Contemporary Music Festival, and the teacher has arrived. I envy him: his week lies ahead. Still, the week that lies behind will be part of me for all of the weeks to come.

I flicked on the television set this morning, and saw that the violence in the Middle East has escalated. There’s been a bombed train in Bombay. More than 100 rockets have been shot somewhere. I turn it off. It matters, it hurts, and it means too much. My brain is taking a break from world news, and my heart needs to remain unbroken, here in this place that’s part of the world yet not.

My class used the wine cellar as part of the writing prompt this morning. It’s cool in there, and the wooden kegs are nice to touch. There are antique chandeliers, and a statue of some pudgy amused saint. The windows are deep, so deep, and I feel insulated from the world. I’d like to be a bottle of wine in this place: chilled, calm, getting better and better with time. We had the hotel employee flick off the lights for a few seconds, and I gave John and Suzanne glow sticks to use as inspiration for their stories, in which I instructed them to include color, the wine cellar, and two universal themes picked from a deck of Brainstorming for Writers cards. We came outside. We’re writing. It’s sublime. I feel as if inspiration is running in my veins in this place. I can understand why Toscana Americana offers painting and art and photography and music and writing and journaling here. If you can’t connect with creativity here, in Cortona, it just ain’t gonna happen. Yeah, Baby, Yeah.

 
Friday, 4:00 p.m., Last Full Day (for now) in Cortona
I’m sitting in an open-air café, savoring the solitude and the late-afternoon passersby and the Coca-Cola Light. There’s a terrace above, with an flag softly faded from sun. An art gallery advertises on a sign reading “Tomorrow Last Day” and the words resonate. Tomorrow is the last day.

 
Friday, midnight-thirty, after lots of fine wine and other dessert liquors
Dinner tonight was a celebration and a farewell. We ate, and ate, and the desserts kept arriving. We shared bites, because after all, we are Family. We laughed and laughed, which was good because it kept the crying of goodbyes at bay. My eyes brimmed earlier in the day when Ivan bid me a sweet goodbye with the traditional European two-cheeked kiss, and the words “I am sorry when you are gone, but I know you will return.”
I said not goodbye, but ariva derci. Till we meet again.

 
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. here; 9:30 a.m. there or 9:30 a.m. here and 3:30 p.m. there.
Neither here nor there.
Somewhere in the Air

I’m over the ocean, in a plane, approaching Ireland and heading for America. Lunch has just been served: chicken and potatoes. It was not like the meals in Cortona. I just viewed some of the photos from the week on my laptop. Mama, Mia. I need a diet. Maybe I can lose the weight before the next time.
There will be a next time. For me it is no problem. Patrick says that I’ll be back, and I trust him on this.

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The elevator doors opened and there he stood: tall (towering!), pierced, tattooed, and famous. Dennis Rodman. I tried to look jaded, and breezed past him with nary a glance, a la chic New Yorkers who are accustomed to notorious 6’7”celebrities standing outside of elevators.

“Wasn’t that Dennis Rodman?” whispered a woman – a tourist – in the hallway of the ultra-chic Manhattan hotel. I nodded, calm and collected until I entered my super-cool room at the super-cool boutique hotel The Alex. “I saw Dennis Rodman,” I blurted into my cell phone. I’d called home – Pennsylvania Dutch Country – to tell the peeps about my celebrity sighting.

“Oh, he was in the paper last night,” stated my teenage son. “He posed naked or something.”
“Cool,” I breathed. “And I saw him.”

Alex HotelThe Alex is notorious for attracting the elite. The not-so-elite come in search of sightings. The not-so-elite includes me: a journalist and children’s book author from Lancaster County. The only celebrities we encounter here are the Amish boys who made the Letterman Show when their drug ring was busted.

My stay at The Alex was sublime. Frette linens, a Sharp Aquos flat-screen TV in the bedroom. One in the living room. One in the bathroom. This place was Heaven. Signature bath products from Frederic Fekkai. Dean and Deluca snack trays. A limestone bath with a rain shower. A fully-equipped deluxe gourmet Poggen Pohl kitchen that included the sweetest refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, and stove I’d ever seen. I’m no Martha Stewart, and kitchens don’t ordinarily excite me, but this one was uber-sleek. Way nice. I admit that I spent some time just standing there looking at the appliances and pretending that they were mine. I also pretended that my suite at The Alex was my own apartment and that I was kind of a modern Mary Tyler Moore/That Girl working chick with a job that could afford the place.

I watched my LCD TV in the living room. I watched it in the bedroom. I watched it in the bathroom. It was lovely.
Designed by David Rockwell, The Alex consists of 203 impeccable guestrooms in mid-town Manhattan. The hotel offers a Girls’ Night Out Package, a Martini Package, a View From The Top Penthouse Package, and a Dinner at Riingo Package. Riingo isn’t a misspelled drummer’s name. It’s a fabulous restaurant, with mouthwatering food prepared by an award-winning chef who combines American with Japanese cuisine. It’s right next to The Alex, and you can have the meal delivered to your room, so that you can watch your flat-screen TV while eating. Or you could just take the elevator down, in hopes of running into Dennis Rodman along the way.
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It was in another luxurious elevator in another luxurious hotel that I stumbled across my second celebrity encounter. My 14-year-old son Zach and I were staying at the Opened in 1927, the hotel maintains its exclusive standards with amenities like huge marble bathrooms (some with the original pedestal sinks.) If you’re lucky, you might get a fireplace suite. The door numbers are hand-painted, and the elevator attendants (two per elevator!) wear white gloves. It was one of the white-gloved men who gave a clue as to the next celebrity we were about to encounter.

“She’ll be here within 5 minutes,” he mumbled in a discreet tone to his fellow attendant. My son and I looked at each other and smiled. Celebrity. The elevator doors opened and we were on the lookout. We could feel the fame in the air of the ornate lobby, which is modeled after the Vatican Library. Heading out into the rainy night with a chocolate craving, Zach and I saw a limo pull up to the curb. Stepping out of the limo was a fur-coated, dark-haired pixie with black eyeliner. Lots of her trademark black eyeliner, and loads of mascara.

 

“Ohmigod,” I whispered. “Liza Minelli.”
“Who?” asked my teenage son.
“Tell you later,” I hissed. “Watch.”
Liza sashayed her way toward the doorman, her people in tow. I touched her arm, or rather, I touched her fur.
“Liza,” I said. “It’s lovely to see you. You look fabulous, dear.”
Liza batted her eyelashes. She batted them again. This required a lot of effort.
“Why, hello,” she said. “Lovely to see you, too.”
Obviously befuddled (and perhaps slightly drunk), Liza took the arm of her escort and left Zach and me hysterically giggling on Fifth Avenue.

 

“Holy crap,” said Zach. “She thought she knew you! Who was she, anyway?”
I explained Liza’s history, including the fact that she was Dorothy’s daughter: Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz!,
We returned to our suite, Snickers bars and Three Musketeers in tow, only to discover Belgian chocolates placed carefully on our plumped pillows. Jazz music was playing softly on the radio. The curtains had been drawn, and the lights dimmed.

 

“Awww; they’re tucking us in,” Zach said, flopping on the bed. “I love this place.”
So do I.

 

The Waldorf-Astoria. Since 1893, the name has been the epitome of the quintessential luxury hotel. A world-renowned art deco treasure, the Park Avenue hotel is a grande old dame. There’s a grand staircase and a grand Starlight Roof and grand ice sculptures in the Peacock Alley restaurant. Even the butter pats are elegant here.
The lobby is beautiful. I could live in the lobby. It was there that I encountered the third celebrity: Donny Osmond.
“Ohmigod!” I gasped. “Donny Osmond!”

 

He smiled. He nodded. He shook my hand. He chatted. Donny was the second-place love of my life when I was 13, taking the runner-up position after David Cassidy. I didn’t tell him that. I told him that he was Number One.
Donny was gracious and kind. I was stammering and blushing. The guy who plays Luke on General Hospital rushed past as we schmoozed.

 

“Ohmigod!” I gasped. “The guy who plays Luke on General Hospital!”
Luke didn’t smile. “No autographs,” he said.
“I guess he figures that if you don’t know his name, you don’t deserve his signature,” Donny Osmond joked. He flashed his famous toothy grin. Donny was nice. He signed my hand. Call it Puppy Love if you want, but Donny Osmond was a sweetheart and he’s still pretty damn cute.

 

As Donny wrote on my hand, John Ritter walked past.
“Ohmigod! It’s John Ritter!” I said.
He smiled. He waved. He was on his way.
John Ritter is gone now, but I met him. It was just a moment, a brief blip in time, but our paths crossed before he left, in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria.

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A grandparent’s job is to sprinkle stardust into the lives of their grandchildren. Sometimes that stardust is made of sand, as in beach vacations, and other times it involves snow, as in skiing, snowmen, sledding, and skating… the four “S” words for which a grandparent needs to be in sufficient shape. We think the best place in the United States for the “S” words is Smugglers Notch: a winter wonderland of a gorgeous mountain resort sprawling across the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains. After driving or being shuttled in from nearby Burlington airport or Essex Junction train station, travelers begin to relax the moment they enter the resort’s gates.
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Catering especially to families, Smugglers Notch is a village unto itself. A variety of eateries, a country store, the Mountain Massage Center, an ice-skating rink, a Nordic Center, a Fun Zone, several teen centers, a daycare center, and 5 communities of condominium housing make Smuggs a place that visitors never want to leave. Founded in the early 1960s, the resort has grown with the times, offering a modern smorgasbord of choices for today’s families. High-tech (wireless computer access in the rooms, X-Box in the teen center, the newest of snow equipment, a Glowbal Dance party) blends seamlessly with the ancient mountains and natural beauty of the forests.

For grandparents in search of a bonding experience never to be forgotten, Smuggs is the answer. Memories are made here. Families return, year-after-year, some with several generations in tow. I met one of those families on a snowshoeing trek from the Nordic Center, an adventure center offering cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing. There’s a plethora of choices, including the popular Snowshoe Night Tour, the Family Snowshoe Cider Walk, and Fireworks and Snowshoes. I chose the Forest Heritage trek, led by nature and fitness expert Zeke Zucker. Zeke’s reverence for the forest and trails and trees is obvious, and in his speech one senses a sacred respect for nature. My trail mates – Joan and Jack from Brooklyn – were visiting with their grandchildren. “This has been an amazing experience,” Joan commented. “Love, bonding, fun, laughter, education, entertainment. Our grandparent/grandchild vacation is everything we could have dreamed.”

“I like that there’s a TV in every bedroom,” said Joan’s granddaughter. “And one in the living room, too! Granny can watch her show, Pop-Pop watches his, and I watch mine!”
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The condos are conducive to comfort. Cozy, clean, and quiet, many have fireplaces and sweeping views of the Vermont vista. There are washers and dryers and fully-equipped kitchens. Grandparents may choose to cook in-room, or to visit one of the restaurants. I sampled a little bit of everything: the pizza at Riga-Bello’s, the monkfish at the cozy country restaurant Hearth and Candle, a hot fudge sundae at the quintessential Ben and Jerry’s Scoop Shop, a delicious chicken salad sandwich at the Green Mountain Deli, a bountiful breakfast buffet at the Morse Mountain Grille, a bowl of steaming chili at Green Peppers, and a fresh salad at the Black Bear Tavern. For those wishing to hike 100 yards across the road from the resort, there’s the lovely Stella Notte Restaurant, serving up scrumptious meals of Italian cuisine made from Vermont country products. Flickering with candlelight, the restaurant is a special treat at night, and seeing the stars of frosty New England with one’s grandchildren is an experience not to be missed. Despite its elegance, the charming restaurant’s cordial owners are very open to serving families, many with a slew of chattering, squirming youngsters.

For those with artistic leanings, Smugglers Notch offers the innovative Artists In The Mountains program, with classes in beading, painting, sculpting, glass etching, and stenciling. The Snowman Family Painting class is a popular choice for grandparents and children. Making every grandchild’s day is a snowmobile tour or dog sled ride. “My grandson says this is the most fun he’s ever had!” enthused one woman with a rosy-cheeked cherub waving goodbye to the sled dogs.
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Snow Sport University offers ski and snowboard lessons for all levels, guaranteeing that each member of your family will learn to ski or snowboard, or will improve technique. There’s Sir Henry’s Learning & Fun Park, serviced by a “magic carpet,” and a Children’s FunFeast pizza party that includes appearances by the resort mascots Billy Bob Bear and Mogul Mouse. For grandchildren skipping school, there’s The Sorcerer’s Study Hall, with academic tricks by Marko The Magician. There’s the Cookie Race for the tiny tots, and Airboarding for extreme teens. Kids of all ages are entertained by the Fun Zone, a huge bubble of an inflatable tent filled with even more inflatable climbing courses, as well as the old-fashioned games of mini golf, ping pong, and basketball.

For families with the very young, there’s Treasures, a state-of-the-art child care center for ages 6 weeks to 3 years. The immaculate daycare center features giant fish tanks in every room, tiny toilets and sinks, ski-in/ski-out convenience, one-way mirror viewing for parents and grandparents, and heated snowmelt walkways.
Other family fun features at Smuggs are the hot chocolate warm up around the bonfire, Bingo Blast, family karaoke and dance parties, Hawaiian Hula Parties, tubing parties, showtime, lap swims, a sled-building class, a video arcade, and the indoor heated pool and hot tubs at SmuggsCentral.

Bring your “S” clothes: swimsuit and snowsuit. Smiles abound here. The employees all seem to be happy, and the on-demand shuttles save energy for the important stuff. Smugglers Notch is spectacular, sparkly, super fun: a wonderful experience for grandparents wishing to impress. I’ll be bringing my grandson Connor as soon as he can walk. He has no idea of the magic that awaits. It’s sweet as maple sugar.

“My Grandma and Poppy are so cool!” said one young guest, dressed in a jacket brilliant and blue as the Vermont sky. “I had the bestest time.”
“Smuggs is awesome,” agreed her brother. “We want to come back again.”
“And again and again,” said their grandmother. “This will be our winter tradition. It’s cold outside, and cozy-warm in the condo. We love the fireplace!”
Grandparents with a goal of sprinkling stardust in grandchildren’s lives find it to be easy at Smugglers Notch. The snow sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight, and as every Sinatra fan over the age of 50 knows: There’s nothing quite like the moonlight in Vermont.
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Just an hour from Philly or New York City, there’s a seaside haven of rocking chairs on porches and a boardwalk bandstand, old-time penny candy and homemade ice cream, free parking, quiet streets, and more Victorian houses than the famed Cape May. It’s a magical place, transcendent, not unlike the setting of a really good beach book.
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Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s best-kept secret for more than 130 years, is quickly becoming the hippest getaway for urban professionals, artists, families, and those in search of refuge, rest, and renewal. I’m here now, writing this article on my own private balcony from the king-sized Room #5 of the Majestic Hotel. The Majestic has it all: a widow’s walk, an underground surf shop, a video library of movies for all tastes, and the on-site Oceania Restaurant where you can grab an Ostrich Burger for lunch. The Majestic is a castle, fit for any discriminating king or queen. Catering to the corporate market, there’s the requisite wireless access and the modern conveniences of the office with all the ambience and repose of the beach. My room is quiet, and my balcony is sublime. From here, right now, I can hear the ocean, and the strains of a group of kids singing “God Bless America.” A dog barks. A boy skims past on a skateboard. An August nighttime breeze blows, and for this moment I can forget about impending winter and tragic news in the world outside. It’s a Sunday evening in Ocean Grove, and a church bell chimes. Down at the Daily Grind, home of the best coffee in town, a husband-wife acoustic team called Raphael and Aly croons. Earlier today I saw a “praise band” religious service being held in a tent on the beach, just a few feet away from where a group of goth teens huddled in metal band shirts. Sporting black lipstick, thick eyeliner, and chains, the teens sneakily smoked cigarettes, probably hoping that their parents wouldn’t show up early from church.
This is a diverse place, but it seems to have no divisions. I was watching an elderly woman – probably 90 years old and 90 pounds at her heaviest – as she watched the acoustic music at The Daily Grind. The lady had a cane, and she was bopping it to the beat. She was also lifting her feet and bringing them down as Raphael strummed his guitar. She was in sync with him, and I was digging her digging the music.
All is cool in Ocean Grove, and Ocean Grove is cool for all. In the past two days, I’ve met a fabric designer, a harpist, a multi-pierced rock star, three teachers, a pro baseball player, two attorneys, a construction worker, a “magician” who used to work on Wall Street but now washes the sheets for a B&B, five writers, one painter, a maid who makes great quilts from men’s ties, and a few chefs. I’ve discovered that Bruce Springsteen’s publicity agent lives here, and so does a nice old aqua-haired lady named Alice, who does needlepoint and sings in her church choir.
A Shangri-la of seagulls and a non-commercialized boardwalk, Ocean Grove boasts a dignified row of eateries and shops on the tree-lined Main Avenue. There are no tacky T-shirt joints in sight. No arcades. No water slides or rides. Visitors rent bicycles (the old-fashioned kind: no gears or handlebar brakes) at Ocean Grove Hardware, a wooden-floored establishment with antiques upstairs. The hungry have about ten restaurants from which to choose, including Nagle’s Apothecary Cafe with its collection of old pharmaceutical bottles. In the evenings, people line the sidewalk, waiting patiently for an ice cream cone from Nagle’s takeout window. Another great choice is Ott’s Restaurant, perched on the north end of Ocean Grove’s boardwalk, bordering the edges of Asbury Park. Ott’s menu is reasonably-priced and the food is outstanding, not to mention the view.
Ocean Grove is the quintessential town that time forgot. A National Historic district, the community was founded by Dr. William Osborn, a Methodist minister. The location was just what the doctor ordered: a high beach, thick groves of pine, cedar, and hickory trees, and no mosquitoes. Natural boundaries were made by two lakes and the ocean, with gates across the remaining side. Until 1980, the town gates were closed with chains from midnight Saturday through midnight Sunday. No cars were allowed on the Sabbath. The nickname of the place was “Ocean Grave,” back in those days.
Dr. Osborn and a group of other religious-minded folks joined together in 1869 to form the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association. The association continues to this day. The town is dry, with no alcohol served within the one-mile radius of Ocean Grove. Those with a thirst for alcohol or clubs, though, can make a two-minute drive and be in the hottest music scene around: Asbury Park, home of the famed Stone Pony. I’ve seen a couple of great bands there: Days Awake, Jody Joseph, Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Pony is a happening place, and there are always the rumors of Bruce or Bon Jovi stopping by for a surprise visit. It’s happened, just never when I’m there.
I attended Asbury’s 31st annual Clearwater Festival. Continuing in the Pete Seeger tradition, Clearwater includes lots of environmental and political activism, plenty of kids’ activities, and a Circle of Song. There were lots of hippies young and old, rocking out to the Smithereens and the Maybe Pete band. Singer-songwriter Ken Shane played on the Family Stage, as did George Wirth. It was a great day, and now I’m back in Ocean Grove, as Asbury Park goes dark and people prepare for another week of work.
The center of activity in Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium, an impressive structure that’s almost football-field size. Featuring speakers and statesmen, opera stars and orchestras, as well as old folkies such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Auditorium has been visited by Presidents and personalities from Ulysses S. Grant to Guy Lombardo. Boasting a huge pipe organ, the Great Auditorium offers free organ concerts on summer Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Nestled around the Auditorium are 114 tent structures, with fireproof canvas in the front and cabin/cottages built onto the back. Many of those who own the tents are fourth and fifth generation families: relatives of the original Camp Meeting Methodists. Some say that there s a 30-year waiting period to buy a tent.
The beach, named by USA Today as one of the best in the world, is clean and thong-free. The beach badge, at $7.00 per day, is well-worth the cost.
A perfect example of a 19th century planned urban community, the town is laid out so that the buildings nearest the ocean were built farther back from the street. This created a funnel to capture the sea breezes and channel them westward. This clever plan also allowed most porches along the street to enjoy the ocean view. Savvy innkeepers have lined their porches and balconies with rocking chairs.
Even a loud car radio seems out of place here, where most of the bed and breakfast establishments lock the doors at 11:00.
Claiming the country s largest collection of Victoriana, Ocean Grove offers many lovingly-preserved guest houses and B&Bs. One of the best-known is the Manchester Inn. Reigning upon Ocean Pathway, the Manchester beckons visitors with its huge and welcoming front porch. Located just one block from the ocean, The Manchester’s magic begins with camel back sofas and a Steinway piano in the lobby/common room. Muraled hallways and a collection of antique hand mirrors greet those ascending to one of the many charming guest rooms. There s a Sunday jazz brunch at the Inn’s Secret Garden Restaurant, and murder mystery events throughout the year. Innkeepers Clark and Margaret Cate have brainstormed a litany of popular events that keep the rooms filled throughout the year. There’s a Civil War Re-Enactment Weekend in November and a Chocolate-Lovers party in February and my own Writing by the Seaside in the summertime. The Manchester also offers a Harpists Escape and Spiritual Renewal Weekends.
In the southern part of Ocean Grove is the Sea Spray Inn. The epitome of elegance, the Sea Spray faces both Fletcher Lake and the ocean, giving each and every guest a magnificent panoramic view hard to find anywhere else on the East Coast. There’s a garden that provides flowers for the rooms and herbs for the kitchen, as well as a porch and a second floor wrap-around deck. The formal dining room is used for breakfast, and guests often stray to the porch swing for morning coffee. The house offers all the modern conveniences, such as wireless internet connections and big-screen TV in the living room, but also available are old-fashioned entertainment such as Backgammon and Scrabble. Innkeepers Nancy and Tom Garson seem to have thought of everything, including beach bags in the rooms, towels, chairs, and all the necessities for a trek to the sand.

With a choice of 6 guest rooms, I stayed in the Venetian room, charming with its red and gold theme and elaborate wall fresco. Considered by many to be the most romantic room in the Inn, the Venetian room boats a huge bathroom with a shower built for two. There is also the Asian-themed Birdcage Room, The twin-bedded Rosebud Room, the quaint blue and white Toile Room, the British Colonial Paisley Room with a gentleman’s flair, and the lovely Lavender Room. Located beneath the Sea Spray Inn is Sea Spray Snacks, an informal and easy option for beach-goers.
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A great choice for families with toddlers or teens in tow is the Albatross Hotel, directly across the grass of Ocean Pathway from The Manchester. Owners Bill and Marcie Reiley are parents of a big brood, and cheerfully welcome tousling two-year-olds as well as sulking teens. “This is what life is all about!” says the perpetually unruffled Marcie.
The Albatross offers a clean and cozy stay, with delicious continental breakfast. “I love the cranberry/apple muffins,” raved one young guest as her sister munched on a bowl of Fruity Pebbles.
Guests love to return to The Albatross again and again, and many think of the Inn as their “home away from home.”
For families in search of an informal and comfortable hotel, the Ocean Vista is another fine choice. One of the few boardwalk properties, the Ocean Vista offers the mandatory porch with rockers, a continental breakfast and morning coffee, and affordable prices. That’s important. The house dog Pelle recently passed away, and so his beloved Frisbee, collar, and leash form a poignant altar in the lobby. Guests have been breaking down in tears upon finding that sweet old Pelle has died.
“He was loved,” says Diana Herr, owner/innkeeper. “He was really loved.”
And so is Ocean Grove.