Archive for the ‘Meaning in Life’ Category

We’ve just finished our last art/culture trip. We’ve sold the business after 15 years. The last 13 of the 15 we married a variety of art courses to the inspiration of Italian life. It has been transformative.

When we began we knew only that the way Italians lived and the intimacy and beauty of Orvieto’s streets, piazzas and buildings touched a cord in us. Over time we discovered that this pairing of art and place reconnected people to their souls. It has been beautiful. Humbling. Evocative. Renewing. Affirming. Yes, transformative.

Changing times and particularly the way technology erodes the ability to be in the moment have had an impact. But even through this very last trip art, Orvieto, and staying in one place absorbing for a week resulted in many people recounting to us how life changing the experience was.

It is a struggle for people to stay connected to their souls, to that inner compass always there to guide us, to stay true to who we individually are. What we have been so privileged to witness is how a week here with us in Orvieto reconnects people to themselves. We have received countless letters, postcards and emails telling us how the trip was a blessing, a milestone, a life changer. It’s not us. It’s this place and way of fulling engaging life, interpreted through a creative medium, that opens eyes to truly see.

Orvieto as seen from Palazzone vineyard

It touched Kristi and me early. Four years in we returned to the U.S. and knew we had to make a change. After four years of biannual visits where we were deeply connected to people and life we could no longer live an anonymous, American suburban life. We began the search. Two years later our house went on the market and we moved to to a connected, soulful, rich life in a small town.

We are lucky. The people who traveled with us are lucky. We’ve all found – or more accurately – uncovered our soul – for it has always been there waiting patiently. For this we have Orvieto, her people, her way of life, and the creative pursuits that helped see it better to thank. There is no way to adequately say thank you. The many soulful lives growing out of the experiences here however, bear testimony to what a great gift this place has given.


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I walk seven to ten miles a day here in Orvieto. I love it. There is a richness to life that happens when you move at the pace of a human. You are in tune with everything around you. You see more. You observe more. You hear more of all the life going on.

It helps that it is a pedestrian friendly environment. Also helpful is the fact that everything you need is right here, so accessible. The city is full of little stores. There are grocery stores – much, much smaller than in the U.S. but they have all you need. Still, it is more fun to go to the various vendors for food. One place for your veggies and fruit, another for your cheese, one for bread, yet another for meat, and one for dessert. 

At these smaller stores you develop a warm relationship with the owners. They learn your preferences, help you find what you prefer or even hold it for you. This is part of the richness, the personal relationships you develop.

On the streets you begin to recognize people and exchange greetings. it is just so personal!

Italy is a sensory place. Being on foot enables us to appreciate and savor all those sensory experiences even more.

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It is just so incredible, so stunning, so surprising despite its frequency this amazing Italian generosity, embracing character, genuine friendliness. My god we are humbled. We have been here two weeks and in that time we have been comped something – wine, dessert, coffee – at least a dozen times. It’s not that we aren’t generous in the United States, but the level of it here on a very personal level is – well, humbling.


The prosecco was given to us as we sat down

You have to earn it, no question. And it springs from a genuineness on our part, but their response knocks your socks off. We don’t expect it and we don’t do it because we expect or hope for a certain response. That is why we are so humbled.


Filet, roasted potatoes, chickory

I don’t want to discount the generosity of all who have shown it this past two weeks. But Cristian is over the top. We have been to his restaurant four times since we’ve between here and he has comped is two of  those meals. He comped our first meal – we always  have our first and last dinner with him. And he comped us last night’s dinner – kristi’s birthday. I’m sorry, but where would you get that treatment in the U.S.?


Julia with Kristi and our panna cotta

This is why we love Italy, and Orvieto. Yes, we have been coming here for 14 years but the same longevity doesn’t translate in America. I’m not being critical, I’m just pointing out a beautiful characteristic of this sweet town that still amazes and stuns me.


Julia, Cristian, and Rolanda our Trattoria d'Aronne family



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The deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie is quoted by Mark Nepo in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen as saying that she feels the vibrations since she can’t hear, saying they are the same thing. She points out that in Italian the word sentire means to hear and to feel. In fact it also means to smell. So it encompasses many of the senses, and in my understanding of the word does really mean all the senses.

This is a characteristic of Italy I’ve often tried to capture in words and have always been inadequate in doing so. How perfectly Italian to have one word that expresses it all, though we have no equivalent word in English. I have only slowly come to understand sentire. Mostly it has been Suor Giovanna at our convent B&B, who has used this word and has slowly woken me to the multiple meanings of the word, to the all encompassing nature of the word.

Orvieto Sunset - Afterglow

Orvieto Sunset – Afterglow

To truly experience the world we engage all the senses at once, what Nepo calls the one living sense. I think this is what happens to us and to those who travel with us to Italy. You can’t help but have all your senses engaged. It is partly an outgrowth of going slow, staying in one place for a week so you slow down, absorb the rhythms, let each and every sense become aroused. And partly this is Italy and Italians and how they live.

Nepo goes on to say, “Joy is a barometer that lets us now that everything is well tuned.” I love that. I think most of us in Italy do experience joy. I’d say that those who travel with us find joy. But I never moved beyond that to say everything is well tuned. Well, it is, and I think it is because we are hearing fully with all our senses.

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That’s a quote from Tom Callanan found in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. It speaks to one of the great joys of travel. It is easy when everything is familiar to lose our sense of wonder. Even though we often decide on a place to live and choose a house based on things we love, we tend to lose sight of those things over time.

Travel reopens our eyes. When things are new and fresh we easily regain our sense of wonder. That wonder extends to your home when you return. Once again you rediscover the reasons why you picked a place. Then again, as happened for Kristi and me, it can awaken you to the mediocrity of a place. It was the stark contrast between a rich, enlivening Orvieto and a mundane, soulless suburbia that induced us to look for something better. And so for three years we have enjoyed our new intimate, small town mountain community of Morganton.

We still wonder at everything here. I think we will continue to do so because it, like Italy, cuddles and embraces you. Too, our twice yearly trips to Orvieto enable us to return to appreciate the wonder even more. We are two lucky souls!

Wonder in our back yard

Wonder in our back yard

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Our trips to Italy are about art in several ways. Many of our trips contain an art component, and people travel with us to be with great teachers to learn and develop an art form. Underlying these trips and all our trips however, is the fact that how we live life can and should be an artful experience.

It is hard to remember this, particularly in this season of commerce. It is tough to remember it in the U.S. generally because we are a consumer society, which ultimately is driven by money. Money is not art nor artful. And the reason Italy resonates so much with Americans is because it reminds us that life is art.

Italy doesn’t do this consciously. It is simply the way Italians live. They relish life and immerse themselves in it. We can’t help but notice this when we visit. It is a marvel to us. It is discernible in just about everything that is done, in everything we come into contact with while in Italy. As the ever wise Suor Giovanna, our convent B&B host said, “We live in our art.”

Shopping for your food in the market is an artful way to live!

Shopping for your food in the market is an artful way to live!

Perhaps one of the rudest awakenings Kristi and I experience each and every time we return home from Italy, is when we board the plane home. After weeks of exquisitely simple yet exceptional food we are served what a commercial society has come to deem acceptable in some of the worst food imaginable. From the sublime to the horrific!

The way we live here is not inevitable. We have come to find a much more artful way of living in Morganton, NC our home of 2.5 years now. And every single one of the people who travel with us returns home embracing the artful life that was in them all along.

This is not airline food!

This is not airline food!

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The End of Heat

As news unfolds about retailers deciding to open on Thanksgiving, thus eliminating what was perhaps the last day out of 365 in which we were not completely submerged in commercialism, I go to one of the last paragraphs in Heat (see the previous two entries). Buford is responding to Mario Batali’s offer to help open his own restaurant. Buford said,

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef, just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals – like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

Just to be more human. This is what Italy does for those of us who visit and spend a little time there. It makes us more human, puts us in touch with our senses and the essence of life. It is a huge gift, one I wish I could convey to all those suits who have decided to open their retail doors on Thanksgiving!!

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More Heat

Following up on yesterday’s post about the book Heat, which I finished last night. The author, Bill Buford, is summing up his experience in Italy, and he talks about food there and as it is done modern day.

My theory is one of smallness. Smallness is now my measure: a variation on all the phrases I’d been hearing, like the Maestro’s “it’s not in the breed but the breeding” or Enrico’s “less is more.” As theories go, mine is pretty crude. Small food – good. Big food – bad. For me the language we use to talk about modern food isn’t quite accurate or at least doesn’t account for how this Italian valley has taught me to think. The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture; slow food will save it. You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object – like any other commodity – that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market. In effect, the two essential players in the food chain, (those who make the food and those who buy it) swapped roles. One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life and the change has produced many benefits. I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economics, except in this respect – in what it has done to food.

The watery eggs Gianni bought when he fell asleep after lunch: big food. Granny’s eggs sold under the counter to Panzano regulars: small food. Th pig I brought home on my scooter: Small food. A ham from a chemically treated animal that has spent its life indoors in a scientifically controlled no-movement pen (every cut perfectly identical as though made by a machine): big food.

The Italians have a word, casalinga, homemade, although its primary sense is “made by hand.” Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved my learning how to use my own hands differently. My hands were trained to roll out dough, to use a knife to break down a thing to make sausage or lardo or po;pettone. With some techniques, I had to make my hands small. With others, I made them big. With hands, cooks express themselves like artists.

And perhaps that is the difference: food made with your own hands, reflecting care and investment and love. It is unrealistic to think we will go back or that we can feed the numbers we have to feed otherwise. But we can at least make conscious choices. We can shop local, support local farmers, buy in season. Thankfully, this seems to be happening. Buon appetito!

Making food by hand

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Our Sense of Calling

Mark Nepo‘s October 19 entry in his Book of Awakenings struck a cord today. It struck a cord just because I’m human, but also because, for those who travel with us, I believe this reading is true for them. So here it is:

Our Sense of Calling

Every year, around the scalp of the planet, the caribou run the same path of migration along the edge of the Arctic Circle. They are born with some innate sense that calls them to this path. And every year, along the way, packs of coyote wait to feed on the caribou. And every year, despite the danger, the caribou return and make their way.

Often nature makes difficult things very clear. What feels like confusion is frequently our human refusal to see things for what they are. What lesson do the caribou shout to us with the thunder of their hooves as they deepen the crown of the planet? They are evidence, even as we speak, of the fact that in every living thing there is an inner necessity that outweighs all consequence. For the caribou it is clear what it is.

For spirits carried in human form, it is a blessing and a curse that we don’t always know our calling. Part of our migration is the finding out. What is it we are called to, beneath all formal ambition? The caribou tell us that, though there are risks and dangers that wait in the world, we truly have no choice but to live out what we are born with, to find and work our path.

These elegant animals bespeak a force deeper than courage, and, though some would call the caribou stupid, the mystery of their migration reveals to us the quiet, irrepressible emergence of living over hiding, of being over thinking, of participating over observing, of thriving over surviving.

I love that last bit:  living over hiding, of being over thinking, of participating over observing, of thriving over surviving. What a great call to life. He writes to sit quietly and ask what you are called to. Whatever it is, he suggests, you receive as “an energy that lives inside you and not as a goal you have to achieve.” That, I think, is beautiful advice. Don’t make it a goal. I believe our travelers are living, being, participating and thriving. It’s why they choose our trips!

Orvieto Sunset – Afterglow

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Home In Yourself

Kristi led me to the Artist’s Way about 12 years ago. She had found it very useful for her path. It was a great book for me at the time too. One thing I took away from it and still use are “Morning Pages.” Not a journal really, more of a brain dump. Mostly, there’s not a lot there. But every once in a while something emerges from all the chatter going on in my brain.

Morning Pages in Italy

This morning was one of those days of emergence. Last night I started reading a book by brother of one of our great, and very talented college friends. It is about him and his wife’s building a log cabin in remote Montana. (It’s called One Log at a Time and you can find it on Amazon.) It got me thinking about my wilderness roots, my international roots, and the path we – Kristi and I – have ended up taking.

Kristi, you could argue, has been helping women find themselves. She nurtures, supports, encourages and enables the expression of the creative spark in every one of us. Often she helps her students get there through reflection and the recounting of each student’s unique journey. It is all there, it just needs to be brought forward, which is what she helps them do.

For my part, I’ve worked in historic preservation, downtown revitalization and

Building on what is unique

community planning. This morning, in writing, I characterized that work as helping people build a home of their community. Whether through historic buildings, the character of downtown, or building on what was unique and special about a community, it gave those I worked with a sense of ownership, and pride, a feeling of home about the community in which they lived.

So then I wondered, what the heck are we doing now in Italy? Italy sprang from a great passion we both have for travel and for exploring other worlds and cultures. We love it because of the richness and variety of this planet, but also because the contrasts we face when we travel are a form of reflection and help you discover yourself.

And I recognized that, though we didn’t plan it this way, nor do we try to make it happen, our trips are, not surprisingly, an extension of what we both had been doing. For on our trips where people are immersed in another culture, they, through the contrasts, through observation, through artistic expression, are finding themselves. What I realized in my writing this morning is that our trips are very much about our travelers finding a home in themselves

Home in yourself. It is a great feeling.

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