Monday, December 19, 2011

The Annual Christmas Post

It seems every year I have to make some kind of post about Christmas and this year will be no exception.

I'm finished with blogs full of outrage about the War on Christmas crap.  For one thing, there seems to be some kind of stalemate in the war this year.  I still see a vocal minority claiming outrage at the phrase "Happy Holidays".  I also see plenty of online requests that we all must keep Christ in Christmas or not celebrate at all.  Those voices just seem much quieter this year.

I like to think the louder voices have become the voices of reason.  If others can't be offended or feel excluded by Merry Christmas, then you have no right to be offended by Happy Holidays.  A winter holiday existed long before Jesus and you can't stop people from celebrating the season as they wish. 

It even seems that the push to shove Christmas down everyone's throats as soon as possible has been mitigated as well.  As I mentioned in another post, businesses are waiting to decorate.  Families are taking time to enjoy Thanksgiving first.  I am even noticing that there is very little Christmas music on the radio.  I suppose some may see this as a War on Christmas, but I see it as simply being reasonable.  Don't rush the holiday.  Let's just celebrate Christmas as it comes.

I digress though.  That's not really what I meant for this post to be about. Rather than talk about how we celebrate Christmas today, I wanted to share one of my nutty Christmas memories.

This post is about that venerable and beloved Christmas carol, Silent Night.

Silent Night was probably the first serious Christmas carol I ever learned as a child.  It is the first one I remember learning anyway.  It's a good song for children because it's short, simple and soothing.  (Who doesn't like the idea of their children singing about "sleeping in Heavenly peace"?)  Even though I didn't dislike the song, and sang it willingly in music class and church, I had a serious problem with it. I really had a problem with the lyrics.

What the heck was a roundyon virgin?

I understood all of the song except for that bit about the roundyon virgin.  What did roundyon mean?  Even though I didn't know what the word virgin meant, I still knew it was referring to the Virgin Mary.  I just assumed when I was really little that "Virgin" was some kind of honorary holy title (and I suppose in the Catholic Church, it is).  But what was roundyon?

I was really curious.  Was I hearing it wrong?  Was I just ignorant.  I was afraid to ask anyone because I knew I would end up laughed at or patronized.  (Ah the joys of having an older brother!) 

I grew older and more literate and saw the lyrics written out.  It wasn't roundyon virgin.  It was round yon virgin.  I wasn't hearing the words incorrectly, but I still didn't know what it meant.

I'm not sure just how faithful the standard English translation of Stille Nacht is to the original German, but I do know that you can't translate a song easily word-for-word without having to do some different - and possibly awkward - phrasing or clipping of the words.  Learning it as a very young child, I was just mimicking words and not really understanding how the sentences in the song were supposed to flow.

This is how I saw the song:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright

This was the nativity weather report.

Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild

This is just the acknowledgement of the players in the story.  They exist.  Hi!

Sleep in heavenly peace.

Good night. 

It would take a few years before I realized that music gives on license to write words incorrectly and make awkward sentences that would never pass muster in English class.  Sadly, no one pointed out  how I should have translated the song.

Silent night, holy night.  All is calm, all is bright around yonder virgin mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace

I suppose if I had asked, someone would have likely explained it to me long before I figured it out for myself.  I would have had to have taken some ribbing and probably would have had to deal with people telling funny anecdotes about the roundyon virgin for the rest of my life.

Decades later I confess.  I suppose everyone can have at it now.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Danger Danger Danger!

I have an obsession with Harley Davidson motorcycles.  Kevin does too.  What can I say?  They're beautiful machines.  They represent fine automotive craftmanship and they're made in the USA.  There is an enormous tradition behind them.  Kevin and I have been known to go to dealerships to walk around admiring the bikes and even indulge in some of the related merchandise.

Do you know I have never ridden on a motorcycle and don't want to?  I'm really rather afraid to do so.

Do you also know that motorcyclists suffer an injury once every 7000 hours of riding and yet horseback riding has an injury rate of one serious accident once every 350 hours?  My choice of hobby is not terribly logical is it?

I suppose that it makes somewhat logical sense that I should be afraid of riding a motorcycle.  There is a story behind it .One day in high school I was driving home from school and cut across a side road.   There was a motorcycle lying on road and someone was covering a body with a blanket.  It's hard to get a picture like that out of your mind.
Even if my motorcycle fear isn't totally baseless, I do find it interesting that humans will perceive so many activities as dangerous while ignoring even worse dangers.
For example, a coworker of mine had just head about a horrific elevator accident in New York City where a woman was crushed to death after an elevator shot up quickly while she was boarding it. Coworker said she wanted to take the stairs for the rest of her life.  You never know when something as innocent as an elevator could end your life on a moment's notice.
"Or," I told her, "You could ride the elevator and arrive at the bottom floor safely, which is statistically likely, and then go home in your car and be killed in a crash, which is also statistically likely, and more statistically likely than dying in an elevator.
How many other situations do we perceive as dangerous, while we indulge daily in occupations that are far more dangerous?

Think of the dangers we are perpetually imagining for our children.  Parents fear that every adult in the world that they don't know is a threat.  Everywhere you go, strangers are out to kidnap and molest your children.  They are going to poison your children's Halloween candy just for the enjoyment of killing mass numbers of children in one night.  They are going to murder your children for fun. 

The most likely person to abduct a child is a non-custodial parent, but children have visits with their non-custodial parents every weekend.  The people most likely to molest a child are people they know well such as relatives and family friends, but holidays and celebrations with extended families and friends continue on.  The person most likely to kill or beat a child is its mother.  How many mothers sometimes feel the need to spend every waking moment with their children?

We pack up our kids in giant vehicles and drive them everywhere because we are afraid of the people on the street.  Yet the car is exactly the place where our children are most likely to be maimed or killed.  Statistically speaking, the suburban assault vehicle has the highest death rates for children, while the safest cars have proven to be mid-size to large import cars (and let me emphasize the word cars in that sentence).  How many adults have that "bigger is better" mentality?

Isn't it funny how we are always terrified of whatever bacterial infection du jour comes around (avian flu, swine flu, SARS, MRSA etc.) when our chances of getting them are really quite small?  We say we will do anything to avoid contracting a deadly disease, but we continue to sit on the couch, eat crappy food, refuse to wear sunscreen, smoke cigarettes, drink heavily, and do any number of health habits that are guaranteed to add up and kill us horribly.  We can't let our kids eat Halloween candy from "strangers" but we allow them to eat McDonalds, and pizza, and cupcakes to their hearts content.  It's too dangerous for kids to play outside, but they're somehow safe sitting on their butts playing video games all day?

If I said that I don't want to walk down my street anymore because there are several second and third level apartments on the street and I don't want to be hit by a falling piano, you would think I was nuts.  I argue that's what it seems like our society has come to.  Why do we fear unlikely freak accidents and rare diseases while we actively pursue a lifestyle that is guaranteed to kill us unpleasantly? We pass this lifestyle onto our children and send them into an adulthood filled with obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.  Just how much damage to we have to do to ourselves before we realize that we have been worrying about the wrong things?

Do yourself a favor.  Get some exercise today.  Eat breakfast.  Eat some food that came from a farm and not a factory.  Floss your teeth.  Go to bed a little earlier.  Go easy on the booze. Get rid of the ciggies.  There are no guarantees ever that you won't be hit with that falling piano, but it's amazing how much damage to yourself that you can control.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You're Not Rich. You're Not Special. You're Not the 1% (And OWS is fighting for you!)

I am amazed at the hostility to OWS by people who were not even directly affected by it (say by having to fight the crowds to walk to work in the morning).  What do you think these people are protesting?  I suppose you don't know, because the media are telling you the message is garbled and  unfocused sounding.  No, these were not all lazy unemployed hippies, socialists, students, or terrorists.  They were Americans, just like you, who understand that things have become so rigged in this country that only a handful of citizens are benefitting.  We have returned to the Gilded Age - the age of the Robber Baron - and if you are fuzzy about history, the Gilded Age ended with the Great Depression. 

How is it that so many Americans have been convinced to vote against their own interests?  Why are we so convinced that reasonable regulations, ones that have been in place for decades and still allowed people to become very rich, are somehow tantamount to Soviet Russia?  Why are we so convinced that every tax dollar we pay is somehow going into the hands of the undeserving?  Why do we think that the very people who are going out of their way to eliminate their work forces in the US "job creators"? 

It's because the government tells us it's so.  It is because the media tell us so.  The government has been bought by the biggest corporations in the country.  The media have been bought by the biggest corporations in this country.  We have only a handful of companies controlling our message and they're not serving the people anymore.  The Fourth Estate is gone.

This is the Great Myth of The American Taxpayer.  The middle class, the hardest workers, the most deserving people, are being over taxed.  Every tax dollar they pay is going straight into the hands of lazy people who don't want to work.   It's going into the hands of illegal immigrants.  It's going to fund immoral programs.  Taxes are an evil entity that do nothing but reward laziness.

I won't argue that the middle class is overtaxed, but I will argue that it's not because it's there to hand out money to the undeserving.  The middle class (and upper middle class and lower upper class) are being over taxed in order to make sure the most powerful people in the country never have to pay a dime.  The middle class isn't just supporting the poor.  They're supporting the infrastructure, the military, the local services, and the schools.  They're supporting all of the services that every one of us is likely to use or need at some point in our lives.  They're supporting many of the same services that the upper classes will need and use, but won't pay for.

"But I work hard for my money," you whine.  Many Americans work hard for their money.  We have this belief in this country that if you work hard, you are automatically rewarded.  It's the whole Protestant Work Ethic myth.  God rewards hard work, so if you are rich, you are blessed and holy.  Yet there are people who are working hard - really hard - probably harder than any corporate fat cat - at multiple jobs - and still need social services.  What is wrong with this picture?

So you work hard and don't think you should be taxed too heavily, but you think that burden shouldn't go to the wealthiest.  After all, you're wealthy, right?  You are successful.  You have your McMansion and your fancy suburban assault vehicle.  You take nice vacations and dine out often.  You have made it.  You worked hard and you deserve it and no one is going to make you pay a penny more than you should.  To say that the rich need to pay their taxes means that you will have what you deserve taken away from you.

I'm here to say, no it doesn't.

Are you a succesful skilled trained professional, such as a doctor, lawyer, or tradesman?  You're not the 1%

Do you own a successful small business like a well-known retail store (but not a retail chain giant), an ad agency, an independent real estate agency, an investment advisory firm, a contracting business?  You're not the 1%

Are you a successful member of middle management or a top sales person or broker at a Fortune 500 company?  You're still not the 1%

Are you a bankable Hollywood movie actor or star athlete?  Believe it or not, you're not the 1% - even if you are an elitist liberal.

If you are or were a member of the military, you are definitely not the 1%.

Unless you are sitting on the board of directors of a major investment bank, an agribusiness, a defense contractor, a pharmaceutical company,an energy company, or a similar huge corporation, you are most likely not the 1%.

You see, "being rich" isn't the same as being so wealthy that you can buy off the government and the media and be excused from any sort of responsibility of citizenship.  If you're not quite that wealthy, then you should be just as angry as the protestors out on the occupations, because those at the very top are just as repsonsible for the mess the country is in as the lowliest among us.  Why do you want to put the blame and the burden on the shoulders of the Americans who can least afford to bear it?  Why not put it where it rightly belongs?  Put a chunk of it on the backs of those who grow fat off the benefits of living in the US, but won't pay into the system that supports them, or pay the workers who make their business so successful. 

Once upon a time we had reasonable regulations and a more equitable tax structure and you know what happened?  People who deserved to be wealthy still became wealthy.  There has never been equitable income distribution for the sake of equitable income distribution in this country and there never will be.  We did have regulations and taxes at the top though. That doesn't mean that prosperity is impossible under a tax system that removes some of the burdens on the people at the bottom.  Since World War II, plenty of Americans have become very wealthy and stayed that way.  That being said, none of us in the 99%  really knows what a job loss or an accident or an illness or a lawsuit could do to us until it happens to us.  Any one of us has earned benefits and we are all entitled to them. 

I know that what I say won't make a lick of difference in how people feel.  Even my more liberal friends have been sucked into believing that the protests are pointless and bothersome.  I'm glad there are citizens out there who are fighting for all of us.  I hope one day everyone will realize that they truly are fighting for all of us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is It Too Early, and What Is It Too Early For?

For those who celebrate Christmas and related holidays, this time of year can be quite exciting or it can be quite annoying. 

Halloween was just a week ago and Thanksgiving won't be here for two more weeks, but Christmas is already on the brain for many.  Christmas trees, lights, and assorted decorations are creeping into the displays of many stores.  Radio stations pepper their playlists with Christmas songs. 

Some folks love to start the Christmas season early.  They buy fake trees just so they can put one up as early as possible.  They deliberately listen to Christmas music.  They are planning their parties and their menus while they put out their Halloween candy. 

Others can't stand the early hype.  The believe Christmas needs to come in its own time.  Enjoy Halloween.  Enjoy Thanksgiving.  Don't feel pressured to decorate, shop, and feel any sort of "Christmas Spirit" when there is over a month to go.

Lately it seems that the voices of reason are growing louder.  Maybe it's just the anti-early-Christmas voices are growing louder on Facebook.  I don't know. I do know that Nordstrom has decided not to decorate for Christmas until after Thanksgiving.  I don't know what other stores are following suit, but I'm definitely curious. I'm beginning to feel that there is finally a backlash against rushing the season in full force.

I have always been against starting the season early.  There are so many other occasions to think about this time of year.  Fall can be a busy time.  Even though I don't really involve myself much in Halloween, I know I will still have to be prepared for some Halloween-related activities. Then there is Thanksgiving to consider.  If I'm making any or all of the dinner, my mind is way too obsessed with food to worry about Christmas.  Even this year and last year when I am not cooking anything at all but heading to Chicago to have Thanksgiving in a restaurant with Kevin's family, I am still using this time to anticipate a fun vacation. I know Christmas will arrive eventually.  When it does, I will be ready for it in full Christmas mode with my brain cleared of other holidays or activities.

"But wait a minute, Rachel!" you exclaim.  "How can you say early celebrations are wrong, but you constantly preach the virtues of shopping early?"

Does shopping early lump me in the same category as putting up decorations on November 1st?  I suppose it might. 

My rationale for shopping early has always been that I like to get it out of the way because it helps me enjoy the holiday more.  Come December, when I feel it's right to start getting into the spirit of the season, I don't like having my gift list hanging over my head.  I like to enjoy the season, the parties, the music, the kitsch.  It's never quite the same when I have in the back of my mind, "I need to get a gift for X."  That's why I will start thinking about Christmas as early as September, often shopping in October (I bought a few gifts in Italy this year for example), with the goal of having it all finished by the time November ends.  I want to say, "Bring it on!" when December comes.  Then I start enjoying the festivities and planning

Why do stores start decorating for Christmas as soon as they can?  It's simple.  Christmas is a big spending holiday.  They want customers to start thinking of Christmas shopping as soon as possible.  If Christmas is on the customers' minds, they are more likely to start thinking about shopping for gifts.  If the decorations are in your store first, they may start spending their money in your store first.

In my case, the decorations are pretty meaningless.  I will start shopping even before the Halloween decorations come down if the time and the situation are right.  Christmas decorations have no effect on my spending habits.  How is it that I can be so obsessed with Christmas shopping, but not want to see decorations or be reminded of Christmas before the fall holidays are out of the way? 

I guess the answer is that I considering shopping to be a chore.  It's not an unpleasant chore, but it's a chore, an item on the to-do list, all the same.  It's the kind of chore I can break up into manageable bits.  I can make lists here and there. I can shop for an hour online one day and take a half a day to hit the stores another, but I do have to plan for it.   Enjoying decorations and carols isn't a chore.  It's a pleasure, but I feel it's a pleasure that needs to be celebrated in its own time and with a clear head.

This season I am asking myself, "Am I unusual?*  Am I the only person who says, "Stop decorating for Christmas when the kids are still out trick-or-treating," while manically creating my Christmas lists and taking whatever shopping days I can to pick out gifts for people?  The one point I have proved is that decorations have no effect on my spending habits, but is that the same for everyone?

People who wait until the last minute to do their shopping clearly aren't influenced by decorations.  Although "Black Friday" is said to be a busy shopping holiday, the busiest Christmas shopping day of the year is the Saturday before Christmas.  At that point, the decorations have been up for almost two months in many stores.  I remember in college dealing with massive crowds at the mall when I had to cram most of my Christmas shopping in just two or three days before Christmas (there weren't many shopping opportunities when I was away at school with no car, and that's why I didn't shop early during that time). 

Some people who shop at the last minute do so because they hate to shop.  Some wait till the last minute because they are just really busy and keep putting it off.  There are even some people who wait until the last minute because they enjoy shopping under pressure.  It makes shopping more exciting.  Regardless of why one shops at the last minute, it certainly goes to show you that a segment of the population isn't responding to Christmas decorations on display in November.  I would imagine that late shoppers probably feel that pressure from the fesitivies even more keenly than I do and are probably even more annoyed by it. 

Extending the celebration into October and November would turn a profit from only one type of shopper.  It would be the shopper who both loves to start celebrating Christmas early and who also likes to shop early.  How many Christmas revelers who start the festivities before Thanksgiving actually do their shopping early?  If you're listening to Christmas carols right now, are you also making your lists and checking them twice?  Do you already have gifts crossed off it? 

I'm sure there are early Christmas lovers who don't buy gifts at all - or limit their gifts to just the children in the family.  Imagine filling every moment from November  1 - January 1 with Christmas decorations and music galore, savoring every public display, decorating your home to the hilt, listening to Christmas carols 24/7 and not buying a single gift.  I'm sure there are folks out there who do just that.  Imagine catering to people who love to celebrate Christmas early and never make a profit out of it.

As of now I have about a quarter of my gifts purchased and half of them planned and not purchased.  I have designated a few days in November for shopping.  That will happen whether there are decorations or not.  I know I won't be putting up a single decoration until December 1.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

You Know What? I Think I Hate Fall

Autumn.  It seems to be everyone's favorite season.  This time of year seemingly everyone is waxing poetic about the crisp air, the turning leaves, and the supposedly perfect weather. 

I am beginning to think I'm being sold a worthless bill of goods.

I'm tired of these autumnal worship sessions.  I think these constant homages to the perfection of fall are over the top and they tend to forget everything bad about this time of year.  Well, I'm here to say that fall isn't all that.

How do I hate fall?  Let me count the ways:

It's Cold - "Crisp" air, my spleen!  Celery is crisp.  How the heck can air be crisp?  It's just a euphamism for "really chilly."  Fall makes people talk wistfully of cozy sweaters, warm blankets and fireplaces.  Do you ever wonder why you are thinking of those things?  It's because it's cold outside! 

Sure there might still be days in the 60s and 70s where it's perfect to be outside enjoying the weather, but as the days go on, they become fewer and farther between.  The sun starts hiding more behind clouds and the temperatures go down below a point where you don't want to stay outside if you're not going to be active.  I'm not going to call it "crisp" and let my love for wool sweaters grow.  I'm going to call it cold and I'm not going to like it.

It's Dark - The official start of autumn is after the Autumnal Equinox.  On that day, we have equal hours of daylight and darkness.  After that day, the dark begins to slowly take over.  Days are shorter and shorter. 

I'm a day person. I thrive in sunlight and I get tired and grumpy when I'm not getting any.  Once Daylight Saving Time* ends, our commutes home from work start happening in total darkness.  What fun.  Autumn lovers claim they don't care about this because they're so incredibly enamored of that crunchy air, but these same people seem awfully happy when Daylight Saving Time comes around again.

Leaf Peeping - Something about the changing leaves makes families and couples suddenly decide to jump in their cars and drive at least an hour north of wherever it is they live in order to view the leaves on the trees that are likely the same colors as the trees right at home.  Try getting a room at a Bed & Breakfast any time in October without booking three months in advance.  Somehow people feel this intense need to be "in the country" every time the leaves turn.  This causes lots of traffic along the highways that lead to these northerly destinations.  Changing leaves are pretty and all that, but they are also a sign of impending decay and death.  Don't fall for it (no pun intended).

Apple Picking - I think this who trend of taking your family to pick apples is a conspiracy by the owners of the orchards who realize it's a great way to save money.  They don't have to house and pay their slave labor migrant farm workers.  They just invite the public to do their own picking for the sake of some kind of authentic country experience - complete with carnival rides - and labor expenses go way down. 

Families and couples pile into their cars, fight the leaf-peeping traffic, and head to some overcrowded orchard, parking in a packed lot made from rutted, packed dirt, for that unique day in the country.  They call it apple picking, but it will come with all kinds of add-ons because kids are going to become with bored pulling apples out of trees very quickly.  So now the farm will give your kids hay rides, corn mazes, and pony rides - for a price. 

Since most kids these days don't actually eat fruit anymore, there will be plenty of kettle corn, candy apples (okay, they will eat fruit if it's covered in sugar), pie, cider doughnuts, and hot chocolate.  Your expenses don't stop with the food though. After doing a fair amount of backbreaking physical labor (partially fueled by the kids' sugar high), you will spend your not only spend your money on your kids' pony rides, corn maze adventure, hay wagon rides, and various snacks.   You will also want to buy a pile of take-home treats like  jars of jam,  indian corn and mini gourds to decorate your front door and front hall, a pie or two, some cider doughnuts, and 6 pounds of apples you realize you will never eat (remember, kids don't eat fruit).  Your wallet is lighter and some orchard owners are smirking behind your backs.

Pumpkin -  Imagine this.  This past weekend Kevin and I were staying at a Bed & Breakfast in celebration of his birthday.  Like many B&Bs, breakfast always includes some kind of homemade muffin or quick bread.  So there I was, sitting down to breakfast seeing a piece of homemade bread on my bread plate.  Eagerly I took a bite.  AAARRRRGGGHHHH  It was PUMPKIN BREAD.

You can't escape it.  That mushy, gooshy, bizarre squash known as pumpkin is in everything.  I'm a food blogger and a cooking enthusiast.  I spend a fair amount of my time reading food blogs, food websites, and food magazines.  This time of year I can't escape the onslaught of pumpkin recipes.  There are pumpkin cookies and pumpkin breads and pumpkin soup and pumpkin pasta, and of course, that classic lead weight of a dessert, pumpkin pie.

Cooks act as if they will die if they don't cram as much pumpkin down their gullets as possible before the end of the season.  They have to make more pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin before the December begins.  Yes, pumpkins do have a short season, but you can buy canned pumpkin (which isn't even pumpkin but another type of squash) year round.  How many people actually bother roasting actual pumpkins.  Most people use canned because pumpkins are a pain to gut and cook and taste even grosser than canned squash.  Enough already with the pumpkin cooking.  There are other ingredients out there.

Guilt - Halloween (and I suppose Thanksgiving can be tacked on to that) is like Christmas.  There is now a build-up to the date.  Just like there is a "Christmas Season" you can also say there is a "Halloween/Thanksgiving Season" where everyone is supposed to gleefully anticipate the coming holiday. There is a subtle pressure to participate in the activities mentioned above along with harvest fairs and haunted houses and costume parties.  Halloween and related fall decorations have become as prevalent as Christmas decorations as well.  Houses are strung with orange lights and dead bodies hang out of car trunks.  Even those who don't go the scary route are decorating their homes with cobs of dried corn, pumpkins, and scarecrows.

It all just makes me feel as if I'm missing out on something.  I should be out there admiring the leaves or riding in hay wagons or eating apple pie.  I should be drinking hot cider wearing a cable knit sweater by the fireplace and attending haunted houses at night.  I should be gleefully planning my Halloween costume.  It doesn't matter that I spend my October days doing things I enjoy like riding my horses and cooking my husband a nice dinner before tucking myself into bed with a good book.  Even though I'm probably have a better time than those people getting squashed by crowds at the local Apple Fest, I still wonder if I should be among them.  Am I not enjoying "the season" to the fullest?

If the guilt I don't put on myself isn't enough, there is also the guilt I get from others.  Try telling people how much you hate pumpkin.  It rarely ever receives a positive reaction.  Tell your friends you miss the summer sun and they will look at you as if you asked them for a lightly grilled weasel on a bun with french fries.  I don't even want to think about the flame wars this post will raise on the internet.  Saying you hate fall is like saying you hate puppies.  It makes everyone think there is something wrong with you and you must be a terrible person.

This makes me excited for winter.  I hate winter even more than I hate fall, but at least in winter, no one blames me for feeling cranky about it.

*You do know there is only one s in Daylight Saving Time, right?  Good.  Just checking.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Italian Riding Adventures - Part 3

Day 6 -

This morning we rode to Pacina Vineyards.  This is a totally organic winery that has been a vineyard as far as Etruscan times. The property has also housed both a monastery and a convent.  In order for it to be certified organic, they can't do anything with the grapes. Whatever nature does to the vineyards is what nature does to the vineyards.  It was a beautiful spot where Siena was visible in the distance.

The make three wines at Pacina.  Their Chianti Collo Senese (named for hills of Siena that surround the vineyard) is from their oldest vines.  These are deeply rooted in the soil and the grapes have the most intense flavor.  Their Secondo wine is made from the younger vines and the flavor is less intense.  Finally they make a syrah as the owner of the vineyard decided to see how syrah grapes did in the dry, clay-like soil or their terroir and found they did quite well. 

We had a lovely, leisurely tour of the vineyards and the cellars.  They showed us their press room, fermentation room, and aging rooms.  There was a blocked-off staircase that led to their original Etruscan cellars. 

For some reason in the press room I began to cough uncontrollably.  Kevin thought it might be mold, but there was far more mold in the aging rooms than in the press room.  It was very strange.  I just couldn't be in that room very long.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch among the vines.  We had been provided with a bottle of Secondo wine for the picnic and we really enjoyed it.  After a leisurely lunch we  had a very long ride back to the farm.   It was a beautiful day and I was riding Jup again.  It was paradise to be galloping such a nice horse through the Tuscan countryside among the grapevines with the sun shining and the Senese hills surrounding us.  That will always be on my list of "My Happy Places" when I need to go to my Happy Place.

This was our  most grueling ride all week.  We had clocked a total of 5.5 hours in the saddle not including the time spent at the vineyard.  It had been a good day though.  That night we had a bottle of the Pacina Collo Senese with dinner.  I didn't like it as much as the Secondo.  It had a bit too much oak for my taste.

Day 7+

Today's ride was a short and quiet one. I rode Dakot, a flea-bitten gray gelding who was very large, but had beautiful gaits.  I liked him almost as much as Jup.  The three preceding days had been quite warm, but the temperatures cooled off again and the wind really kicked up this day.  Donatella kept us mostly in the woods where we would be sheltered from the wind.  At one point we were walking across an open field and I thought I was going to be blown out of the saddle.  Another couple who was staying nearby joined us for the ride.  The wife was a rider, but the husband was not.  I was very surprised that they put him on Ambrogio.  He would have been my last choice for someone who wasn't experience.

We came back to the farm for lunch and tried some of the local pizza.  Donatella and Sadio wanted us to see how it compared to the pizza back home.  It was pretty good, but it wasn't Sal's.

We had the afternoon to kill.  Sadio had encouraged us (and it is listed in the tour description) to visit a nearby hot springs spa.  I was game, but I was outvoted.  Or, more accurately, no one really asked me what my preferences were.  I was a bit grumpy about that.  I took a short walk to abandoned farm on the ridge for some closeup pictures.

Kevin wanted a riding lesson, so since I had nothing else to do that afternoon, we took a lesson with Donatella together.  I decided to try yet another horse.  He was a large black horse named Dardo.  Kevin and I were both showing in a horse show on Sunday (crazy of us I know) so Donatella was giving us pointers on our dressage tests.  Riding with a new instructor is always humbling.  A different instructor can always point out the faults your regular instructor has learned to ignore.  After the lesson she joked that an hour in the ring with her is tougher than 5 hours out on the trails. 

With the weather being so cold that afternoon there wasn't much to do outside as the sun went down.  We had no choice but to go inside and start packing.  I hated facing the idea that I had to go home, but that's the reality of vacation.  The three of us ate a low-key dinner with Sadio and discussed our departure plans for the next day.  I told Sadio I would try not to cry.  Then I told him to try not to cry too!

Saturday morning we were up early and did our final packing.  I had hoped to give myself a few extra minutes to go out and say goodbye to the horses, but time got away from me a bit.  We said goodbye to Donatella, climbed into the car with Sadio, and drove back to the train station to go back the way we came.

Saturday was an endless day.  We were flying out of Rome because the flights out of Florence were too early in the morning.  We took the train to Florence.  Once we were in Florence we had to transfer again to Rome.  Our suitcases were huge and heavy, so we were tired of lugging them.  Kevin decided we should splurge on a taxi again to take us to the airport instead of taking the shuttle train.  This didn't turn out to be such a bad idea.  Kevin had never been to Rome before (he wasn't impressed with what he saw) and the taxi ride gave us a bit of a tour of the city.  We went right by  the Forum and the Coloseum, so it gave us a chance to see the sights.  The downside is that the taxi was seriously expensive!

Our flight was delayed a bit, so we were stuck at the crowded airport for a while.  Then we boarded and things didn't get much better.  This was a nine-hour flight and it was almost entirely a day time flight (taking time changes into account).  When you are sitting in an airplane seat for that long you need a lot of entertainment.

There were several movies available to watch during the flight.  It's too bad my little TV died two hours into the flight.

I had a book with me.  It's just too bad my overhead light stopped working and most passengers closed their window shades so there was very little light on the plane.

The best I could do was just sit and try to sleep.  I'll say this much.  I slept more on the flight home from Rome than I slept on the flight to Rome.

We finally made it to NY, but I was not in the best mood.  I was no longer in Italy and had had a miserable flight.  I hoped I would never have to fly Alitalia again! If we want to go back to Tuscany,  Delta flys to Pisa...

Once we were home we had to unpack and do laundry.  I wasn't in bed till almost midnight.  I was glad we had made it home safe and sound, but I knew I would be aching for Italy for a long time.

Being home wasn't all that bad though.  That horse show we entered on Sunday?  Riddle and I took first place!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Italian Adventures - Part 2

Day 4 -
This was one of my favorite days.  The horse they assigned me this day was Jup, who got a good review from Kevin.  She was one of the most rideable horses at the farm. She turned out to be my favorite horse the entire week. We set out with Donatella leading us.

We started out the day by riding to the vineyards of Tenuta Di Arceno.  The road leading to it was a typical Tuscan cypress lane. 

We arrived at the vineyards and settled in for our tasting. 

Before we tasted the wine we were given a brief talk on the winery and its history and property.  We also received a lesson in Chianti wine.  True Chianti wine must be at least 80% San Giovese grape.  It doesn't have to be all San Giovese because it's a strong grape that makes a very strong wine, so it's permissable to blend it somewhat.  Chianti wine is meant to be drunk with food so that something can counteract its strong acidic and tannin qualities.  We tried four wines that day.  We tried their Classico, which is the lightest blend, the Riserva, which has a higher San Giovese grape content, a pure San Giovese wine, and a wine blend that is not considered Chianti at all. 

After having four glasses of wine, I was definitely feeling a bit tipsy.  Our horses were waiting patiently in the olive groves, but I had no wall or block or even a slope to help me get back on.  Jup is not a large horse, but she isn't a pony like Baby or Riddle.  It was utterly comical seeing my drunk self attempt to mount her from the ground!

From the vineyard we rode to the hillside village of San Gusme`. 

We had to tie up our horses and explore on foot.  It's a picturesque little town with amazing views of the surrounding countryside.  Donatella encouraged us to go have a drink at a particular trattoria, but I had consumed enough pre-lunch alcohol that morning.  We strolled through the town and took some photos of the views before rejoining Donatella and the horses.

From there were rode down into the valley and then back up to a plateau of another hill to Campi.  There was a farm and a church there and more beautiful views.

It had been a long morning, so lunch was quite leisurely.  After we had eaten (and drunk more wine) we lay back and attempted a siesta.  The ride back down was not terribly long, so it wasn't too back breaking.  The day was the perfect balance of ridingl, relaxing and wine-tasting.  My horse was wonderful.  It was a good day. 

That night we had company for dinner.  Jenny the English woman from Rendola has brought her guests to stay at Beradenga for the night.  They were on a progressive ride.  Kevin and I  had been considering Jenny's trip when we were choosing our vacation, but we were glad we ended up where we were. There were 8 American women doing the Rendola ride.  They were all very nice, but most of them knew each other prior to the ride and their interal banter was a bit overwhelming. They were a real flock of hens! Throughout the week either Donatella or Sadio joined us at dinner while one of them would have dinner downstairs in their apartment with their daughter.  This particular night was Donatella's night to eat with us, so Kevin was the odd man out.  It all made for a very strange evening, but horse people are horse people no matter where you go, so we all had some common ground to enjoy, sharing photos of horses and miscellaneous animals.

Day 5 -

It's a good thing I'm not a coffee drinker because the Rendola women managed to ravage the coffee supply that morning.  We all had one more meal together before they departed for their ride and their night in Siena.

Today was another half-day ride.  My horse for the morning was Skyan, a gorgeous little black Arabian.  Kevin had ridden him on Monday and wasn't terribly crazy about him.  I was a little tentative about it, but Sadio assured me I'd be fine.  I found he was pretty good. 

A Dutch couple currently living in Colorado who were staying at Montebenichi joined us for the morning's trail ride.  Sadio had us just ride around in their indoor ring (it's not an actual indoor ring, but a small ring under an open pavilion) while we waited for them.  It gave me a chance to get acquainted with Skyan and establish who is boss.  I found him a bit lazy in the ring.  On the trail he was still a tad lazy until it came time to canter.  Then he wanted to just keep going and going.  I had a hard time bringing him down to a trot and a walk after we would canter for a stretch.

The ride was a quiet one.  We rode up the other side of the D'Ombrone Abbey and eventually rode to the property where Donatella first opened her business.  On the way back we went through the woods, which Donatella called the Fairy Forest.  It did look rather enchanted with the bright Tuscan sun filtering through the green leaves.  Lush green forests can seem out of place in Tuscany in a drought.

We returned to the farm for a delicious lunch and then Sadio took us to the Medieval Fortress of Castello di Brolio.  This has been home to the Ricasoli family for 32 generations.  Although not much of the castle is original, the older parts do date back to Medieval times while there is a larger newer part built in the 20th Century and is still occupied by the Ricasoli family.  The Medieval area now houses a small museum displaying artifacts from the estate.  We had a nice tour, but I was forbidden to take pictures inside.  When we left our tour we ran into the Rendola women who were about to embark on the tour themselves.

We learned about Barone Bettino Ricasoli who was one of the first prime ministers of Italy after the Risorgimento (when Italy became a unified country in the 19th century).  He was also a scientist and an artist and much of his work and studies were on display in the museum.  His best claim to fame though is that he is the inventor of Chianti wine.  He was the one who came up with the formula to temper the strong taste of the San Giovese grape. 

Because this is the birthplace of Chianti wine, the property houses a winery that makes several kinds of Chianti wine and other vintages as well.  We visited the winery for a tasting.  Our price of admission to the museum only bought us one wine each, but Kevin and I each tried a different one and swapped sips.  I tried a robust Chianti, while he tried a sweet ice wine. 

We also spent some time walking the grounds.  The views were stunning.  The gardens were particularly beautiful with their perfectly manicured shrubbery.

From Brolio we stopped on the way home to the house that was the site of the movie Stealing Beauty.  It's not occupied now.  The lower floor has horse stalls in it and that's where Jenny was keeping the Rendola horses for the night while their tour spent the night in Siena.  (Kevin joked that the next morning a hotel in Siena was going to run out of coffee very quickly.)  I recognized the little cottage where Liv Tyler stayed in the movie.  There were the signature olive groves there was well. 

It was back to the farm for a nice quiet dinner with just Kevin, Miriam and Sadio.

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Italian Adventures - Part 1

Cue Music: O Babbino Mio Caro

Although we only began planning this trip a few months ago, the genesis of this trip happened over 10 years ago. 

Back in 2001 my mother had just received a copy of the now-defunct Cross Country International catalog and showed it to me.  Kevin and I were planning our honeymoon at the time, and this catalog was like the ultimate honeymoon wishbook.  It featured horseback riding trips all over the world.

Ever since I took up riding as a hobby I had dreamed of trips to places like Ireland and Scotland.  I knew that riding vacations were abundant in those countries as they were mentioned often in the horse magazines I read obsessively.  I imagined rides over windswept hills, rugged coastlines, and seemingly enchanted forests. 

The Cross Country International catalog had plenty of trips like that in the offering, but it also alerted me to trips in other countries.  The British Isles were not the only places to have horseback vacations.  I could ride in Spain, France, and, most dear to my heart, Italy.  Kevin and I both agreed that an Italian riding holiday would be the ultimate fantasy honeymoon. 

It didn't happen of course.  Planning our wedding and buying our home left us with little time or energy to plan any sort of elaborate honeymoon.  Riding trips would have to be put on hold for a while until we could be in the best place to plan one.

Eventually we took that trip to Ireland.  It was magical and was all I had dreamed of since childhood.  After it was over I still dreamed of Italy.  You see, I have always been something of an Italophile, having studied the language for many years in middle school and high school.  Then I took a tour in high school as well.  I put a lot of pressure on Kevin to take me there over the years.  Finally he said, "We will go for our 10th anniversary."  I told him I would hold him to that.  At the time it seemed our 10th anniversary was quite far away.  It came up faster than we expected though, and this year I held him to it.  We booked the trip.

When we first discovered Italian riding trips, we had looked at the catalog for only one tour company and that tour company only offered one trip.  After Cross Country International went out of business I spent more time checking out Equitours and Hidden Trails.  They had far more trips available and it was hard to choose which one we wanted.  We preferred stationary rides to progressive ones.  We wanted trips where the locations were accessible. We wanted them to be as inclusive as possible.  We wanted to know we would be seeing a good number of interesting sights.  The Chianti Country Ride and Wine Tasting Tour fit the bill for the most part.  We were a bit intimidated by the need for the plane and train transfers, but otherwise we felt the trip would mix riding with unmounted sightseeing, and, best of all, wine tasting!

The trip was booked.  The plane tickets bought.  We were ready to go. So Begins the adventure.

Day 1+

We arrived at the Alitalia terminal at JFK and checked in easily, but the security line was huge.  I hoped it wasn't a bad omen.  I kept thinking about the old joke that Alitalia is an acronym for Always Late In Takeoff, Always Late In Arrival.  All went smoothly though.  Once we got past the first checkpoint, the security line moved a bit faster. We made it to the gate in reasonable time and the flight was not delayed.

It was a rough flight because sleep evaded me.  I'm getting better at sleeping on planes than I used to be, but that night was just awful (even though wine is free on Alitalia).  By the time we arrived in Rome in the morning I was incredibly grumpy.  It did cheer me up a little bit to see Rome outside the window though.  Although it had been over 25 years since I was last there, something felt familiar to me. 

We had to get off the plane onto the Tarmac and then take a shuttle bus to the gate.  From there we had to walk forever through the terminal, have our passport checked (but not stamped- they didn't stamp till we left) before we finally arrived at the gate.  When it was time to board, we had to get back on a shuttle bus and drive to the plane, then board next one from the Tarmac yet again.  Then the plane sat there for an hour.  I managed to get a nap at that point.  I slept more while waiting for the plane to take off for Florence than I did during the entire flight to Rome.  The actual flight to Florence was shorter than the amount of time we sat sitting on the runway.

My mood improved a bit when we began our descent into Florence.  Just before the plane hit the ground I saw the iconic red dome of the Duomo of Santa Maria Dei Fiore and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.  We had arrived unmistakably.

The journey was far from over.  We had transfers galore to make.  First we had to go to the Santa Maria Novello train station. There were airport shuttle buses, but we had two giant, heavy suitcases and were rather exhausted, so we weren't feeling much in the mood to find the bus and then drag our bags around.  We opted to splurge on a taxi.  Once we arrived at the station, we still had two hours until the train we told our hosts we would be taking was set to depart.  Fortunately they have a left luggage office and we were able to pay to store our bags and take a walk.

We didn't have too much time to explore.  The duomo was nearby, so we walked around it.  We also found Dante's church and museum.  I had hoped to make it to the Piazza Signoria, but there was no time and I didn't have a map anyway (although if we just found the Palazzo Vecchio tower rising above the city and walked toward it, I'm sure we would have found it eventually if we had the time).  We headed back to the station, claimed our luggage, and boarded the train from Montevarchi.

The train ride was sort of disappointing.  I was expecting to see typical Tuscan countryside as soon as we left the city, but the area was kind of ugly.  The rolling hills were there, but there were many  industrial buildings around.  It wasn't terribly picturesque.  This went on for a while and I was beginning to wonder how close the farm was to this stuff.

We finally arrived in Montevarchi, a fairly nondescript town.  We had hoped our hosts would be there to greet us, but when we left the train, no one was there.  We watched for quite some time as cars pulled up to the station, but there was still no sign of our ride.  Finally an English woman approached us and asked if we were waiting for Sadio.  She said she was from another riding center (Rendola, a trip that was on our list of contenders for our vacation) and was there to pick up her guests.  She would let Sadio know we were waiting.  As it turns out, we were waiting on the wrong side of the tracks and he was looking for us!  We met up with our host Sadio as well as the one other guest staying at the farm that week, Miriam, a German woman currently living in Amsterdam.

It wasn't a long ride to the farm (and the countryside became more picturesque as we grew closer to it) and we were grateful when we arrived that the seemingly endless journey of planes, trains, and automobiles was finally over.

When we reached Centro Ippico Di Beradenga, Sadio took our luggage to our rooms and gave us a tour of the house.  Our rooms were all lovely and we felt we had reached paradise at this point. Then he took us out to view the barn and the grounds.  We met his wife Donatella along with some of the horses and the dogs.

After we had unpacked our stuff, we were restless and had a fair amount of time to kill before dinner, so we decided to take a walk up to Montalto, the castle that overlooks the farm.  The property of the riding center used to be part of the Montalto estate.  We had a beautiful view of the castle at sunset and took a few pictures then rushed back down the hill to get back to the farm before it was dark.

We ate a delicious dinner with Donatella and Sadio that night.  When I told Donatella that I spoke some Italian she became determined that week to help me speak it better.  It made for some interesting conversations.

Day 2

This was our first riding day.  I was very excited to meet my horse and start exploring the countryside.  We met Donatella and Sadio at 10 AM and they helped us mount up.  I rode a handsome chestnut named Ambrogio.  Kevin rode a sweet little white Dutch mare named Jup.  Miriam was on a large flea-bitten gelding named Dakot.  I nicknamed Ambrogio "Bro", which I said made me a "Bro Ho."

Within our first 30 minutes of riding I found out that this was definitely not a typical nose-to-tail, give-your-horse-a-loose-rein-and-let-him-follow trail ride.  You really had to ride your horses.  They would not automatically go on autopilot following the horses in front of them.  Right from the first trot I found Ambrogio liked to take the bit in his teeth, curl his neck, and threaten to buck, occasionally succeeding in doing so.  I really had to learn to ride him properly.  His canters were speedy.  Although we are told to stand up at the canter prior to the ride, Sadio told me to sit Bro and take more control of his stride.  By the end of the day I had figured him out and managed to control and enjoy our last bouts of cantering.

Our visit started with a ride to Montalto.  From there we rode by the vineyards of Monastero D'Ombrone, a former monastery with some of its structures dating back to the 8th century.  There were gorgeous views from here of the Val D'Orcia beyond the olive groves and grapevines.  In the very far distance we could even see Siena. 

We rode down into a valley, getting off and walking our horses part of the way (helpful for our poor, aching knees) and stopped for a picnic lunch that Donatella had driven to us.  We were quite warm when it started, but the temperatures dropped toward the end and the wind kicked up.  We were anxious to be back on our nice warm horses.

We rode back into the hills to the village of Rapale.  After exploring the village a bit we went back down the hill using the terraced landscape.  It felt a bit treacherous.  Ambrogio tended to spook and I was really begging him to stay calm on the way down because a spook could send us both over the edge. 

The final part of the ride was through tobacco fields.  I did not know they grew tobacco in Italy, but Sadio said they make a certain type of cigar in Italy.  He said his father used to smoke them and they are pretty foul. 

Exhausted we made it back to riding center and watched Donatella give a riding lesson (she's a tough cookie) to the local students until it grew too cold to stay outside.  We were grateful for the fireplace that night.

Day 3

We started with a very chilly morning that gradually grew warmer.  My horse for the day was a large bay mare named Cleo.  She had rather bumpy gaits, but she was a bit calmer than Ambrogio.  Today was only a half day ride.   Sadio took us to the village of Montebenichi.  There is a very nice hotel here.  We rode back to the farm after that and had lunch on their clubhouse patio.

After lunch they drove us to Siena.  We didn't have much time to really explore the sites in depth, but we were able to see the churches of San Domenico and the Duomo along with a few other charming churches.  Of course we also went to the Piazza Del Campo where they run Il Palio every year. 

On the drive there I spotted two women at the side of the road waving their arms.  Sadio said, "Those women are what you think they are."  At first I thought, "So people get away with hitchhiking around here?"  Then I realized what he meant.  Who knew there was that much business out in the country?

Since we didn't have time to wait on line for museums or to go inside the Duomo, we spent a fair amount of time shopping.  I was eager to start Christmas shopping.  Miriam, Sadio, and Donatella seemed rather surprised by that.  Is trying to get your Christmas shopping early an American thing, or is the obsession with Christmas shopping in general an American thing?  I did pick up a few gifts, although not as many as I had hoped.  I particularly wanted to find some interesting Italian gifts for the children, but the toy stores were all typical American-style toy stores.

We made sure to have some gelato of course.  Nocciola please!

Back to the farm in the evening and early to bed to rest of for another day-long ride. 

To be continued...