Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Italy Adventures

Sunday, May 20, 2007
The attendees are beginning to arrive. Glenda and her husband from England, Yvonne from NY and Annette from Australia. It is going to be a fun International week.

Lane’s stocker has returned to AU. He continued to be friendly, but no longer invited us to share wine or champagne. However, I think if Lane had shown the tiniest bit of interest, he would have bowed at her feet. She found him entirely repulsive.

I’ve decided to lose 20 yrs and 100 lbs and then pursue our Italian dandy. He now smiles and greets me warmly – and he has such a delightful smile. I’m certain he is convinced that I’m some wealthy old American broad who may purchase his condo, and therefore it is necessary to give the appearance of being nice. He spends the entire day pacing with a cell phone glued to his ear. Mafioso comes to mind when watching him. It makes for fun conversation with Lane.

Last evening, we had dinner at a little family restaurant in the heart of Pienza. They were busy with mostly locals – it was interesting to watch and listen. Our housekeeper from the hotel was there. She is elderly and so pleasant; always smiling. I would like to know if she lives in one of the beautiful old houses in town – but she speaks NO English and my Italian is li
mited to food requests. Hmmm – that doesn’t seem to fit with losing those 100lbs.

As much as I love it here, I could not bear the summers. The weather has been very pleasant (by my standards) until today. It is warm and the sun is beastly. I believe I would enjoy the winter and early spring – making me a perfect candidate for that time- share system I’m working on developing. I would be happy with the off season.

Monday, May 21, 2007
We had our first dinner together as a group last evening. A total of 26 and it was delightful. I’m thrilled that they are pleased with Pienza, the hotel and this area of Tuscany. The countryside is beyond picturesque. It defies description; most have never traveled and they are in awe.

At the hotels in the States, we are accustomed to having coffee service and water in our sleeping and meeting rooms as standard procedure. This is a new and foreign concept to the Italians. Coffee is made by the cup – not pot, and it is an art form. Some of the women are having difficulty being patient in the morning. There is no Starbucks here, no drive-thru, and no immediate caffeine stimulus. By this time, Lane and I have grown to love the staff as family, and we were a bit disturbed when we noticed some of our people being a bit abrupt when coffee didn’t appear immediately.

To get an immediate early morning coffee fix, Lane purchased a coffee press. It was quite the adventure as we visited the local hardware store and attempted to communicate with the proprietor. He looked at us with complete disdain as we entered the store. It was obvious that he was not happy with tourists and felt that his business was for the locals only. I had learned that Italians do not ‘window shop’ as we do. They enter a store intending to make a purchase and often we Americans are perceived as rude when we blow thru a store – just looking. To be accepted graciously, we need to ask permission to browse. Posso guardare? As soon as I asked the elderly owner this question, our attempts to communicate with him continued with smiles.

We began our class with Lesley this morning and spent the day painting pages and backgrounds for our books. The project is fun and will be a great journal/memento of our trip.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Lane, Julie and I had a great time in class today. Lesley is such a marvelous instructor. She has a very calming presence. We do have a great group of women, some I’m sure will be life long acquaintances. I reminded the group that we are in Italy –to please be patient and enjoy the different culture. Breakfast went better, and all are happy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I had organized a bus trip to Siena for today. It is market day in the city, and there are also many interesting shops and churches to visit. I worried that the bus would not arrive on time, and fretted that I would have a group of unhappy people. The bus was late, as is the Italian way, but I could finally relax after my people were on board and heading for their ‘field trip’. Since I have been to Siena twice, I elected to remain in Pienza and to have a day to myself.

I learned that the hotel owner, Carlo, who now speaks & is more gracious to us, is married to Annarita who works in the office and restaurant. She speaks no English, but she is wonderful and works very hard to make everyone happy. They seem like an unlikely pair, but who am I to judge. Annarita is friendly, and down to earth – full of hugs and smiles. So unlike Carlo. He still remains the stiff business man.

Borjana is like our daughter, she is 40, tall and sexy. She was born in Sarajevo, moved to Italy when she was 12. She also speaks German and French. She has no time for slackers and runs a tight ship. I guess you would call her the hotel manager.

Claudia and Nico are our servers in the restaurant. Claudia is cute as a button and Nico works his butt off taking care of my group. Our chef is Elena and her meals are amazing.

We are becoming very spoiled; can pretty much order anything and Elena will fix it for us. The restaurant and hotel are still so new to the city, that business is slow, so we can be easily accommodated. Here is an excerpt about the hotel’s history:

In 1935 the Pienza community decided to put up a recreational building; in its first years, thanks also to the patronage of the Pienzan baritone Benvenuto Franci, the theatre has moments of true splendour.To inaugurate the theatre Franci gave an unforgettable performance of the "Rigoletto", which was followed by a series of operas, including the "Barber of Seville".
These superb performances by Benvenuto, together with those of his brother, the tenor Tommaso Franci, another famous Italian opera singer of those days, brought fame and glory to the theatre, that became the most important theatre and dance hall of the town until the Second World War, when it was completely destroyed by a bomb. After the War, the building was partly restored and transformed into a cinema by the local veterans, and remained as such until the end of the fifties. Having been abandoned for several years, the building is now an important part of a large reconstruction project, which is turning the entire surroundings into an area for tourist reception. The first part of the project has been completed and this building is now a modern, efficient hotel residence, with elegant and refined fully serviced rooms, suites and apartments.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Today I skipped school and accompanied Borjana into Arezzo to shop for hotel supplies. We went to a wholesale restaurant/hotel business – quite different than those at home. The items were all displayed in showrooms that were elaborate and gorgeous. More like a department store than wholesale. I would have loved to spend a few hours there, but as most businesses, they close from noon until three and we had to hurry. I did purchase a beautiful Italian platter and salad bowl and a set of flatware for the new house.

From Arezzo, we drove to a high fashion outlet mall. Even at outlet mall standards, the prices were ridiculous. A pair of shoes was €160. Regular price was €320. The Italians are such fashionistas. And I dress as though I am ready to plow the fields.

We finished our class session with Lesley on Friday the 25th. By this time, we have all become quite close and it was a bittersweet ending. Saturday for our last day together as a group, I hired a tour guide and bus to take us into the country.

We visited an incredible Monastery, Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore in the Provience of Siena approximately 1hr from Pienza. Unfortunately for me, it involved many stairs and a long walk down a steep cobblestone road. My scooter is wonderful, but it does not have enough ‘oomph’ to climb up hill. For a short distance, my companions get behind me and give me a boost --- but I was not about to let them suffer this great distance, so I remained in the entry plaza. Everyone took wonderful photos of the frescos, so I am able to enjoy the experience thru their eyes.

From there we ventured to Montalcino, which is another lovely hill village that is known primarily for its Brunello wine. Brunello, is the signature wine of Tuscany's tiny commune of Montalcino, and it holds a special place in the hearts of Italian wine aficionados. Its broad structure and harmony of unusual aromas distinguishes it as a truly noble wine exempt from imitation.

In the pantheon of wine judging, the recognition Brunello receives in the international press generally ranks it among the world's - not just Italy's - best wines. And by the prices willingly paid by collectors - bottles have sold in the hundreds of dollars at recent auctions - its cachet is undisputable. Here is a link to the site that further describes the wine in interesting detail: http://www.thewinenews.com/octnov00/cover.html. There were wine shops and tasting galore. I like it all and could purchase cases to bring home.

We returned to Pienza in time to refresh before our last dinner together. It was a wonderful evening with a great feast prepared by Elena. I was thrilled that my group wanted to gather tips for Elena, Claudia and Nico. I always include a generous tip to the hotel staff as part of my A&S budget for events, but to have something come directly from the attendees is very special. We asked Borjana to bring them into the dining room after dinner and to translate what I said. It was quite an emotional moment, obviously something that has not happened for them in the past.

We all got a bit teary as we said ‘arrivederci’ to one another with sincere promises to re-unite in 2009.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Last summer, Lesley and I, along with 19 others went to Pienza, Italy. There, we experienced the most fantastic, creative and relaxing week imaginable. Lesley led us in making a unique one-of-a kind book in which to keep our travel memories. This was a rare opportunity for me to take a class and I was so excited. We had such a marvelous time that we decided to go again this year. All info is one the Art & Soul website and I encourage you to sign up right away. There is room for only 5 more and we must have a committment by the end of February. We will not be returning to Italy in the future.

I kept a journal and will share it with you now.

May 14-16, 2007
ITALY! The excitement once again has gripped me and reality has finally begun to sink in. This time I am visiting Pienza, a
small Tuscan Village steeped in history. I have contracted with Lesley Riley to teach a 4 day class and 18 attendees will be joining us for 7 days.

I left home on Mothers Day after enjoying a wonderful brunch at the Sheraton with Vonnie, Derek, Luke and Abby. Arriving at the airport, I was sorry to learn that there was no curbside check in for Lufthansa, nor was there a wheelchair available. Derek left the car unattended (illegally) while he helped me schlep the scooter and gianto suitcase to the counter. After waiting in line for hours (or so it seemed), I was told that I didn’t have a valid airline ticket. Impossible! I had a paper ticket – the kind the travel agent
sends in the mail, with a confirmation agenda. Unbelievably, the ticket agent insisted that the confirmation only guaranteed a seat, but that payment had not been received. Did I have my credit card receipt - she asked? Naturally – I always carry the statements from 5 months prior with me. Of course not. The plane was booked; there was one seat available (MINE) and the price --- $8,000. I had no alternative -- Lane was waiting at the gate; we had a car and driver waiting in Florence; I had a meeting scheduled for the afternoon of our arrival. I had to take it – and pray that the travel agent could find and correct the error.

The rest of the trip was uneventful --- the driver was waiting for us with a VAN – just as if he knew how much stuff we were bringing. He spoke no English, so it was fun attempting to communicate during the 2 hr ride. It was a hot and muggy day, the van h
ad little AC and we were both dying to get out and settled. We arrived in Pienza around 3:30 in the afternoon, unpacked, surveyed the hotel and were determined to try and stay awake as long as possible. Borjana, the hotel sales director, made reservations for us to have massages at 6:00pm after which we could fall into bed. It was a delightful experience, much different than a massage at home. Let me just say that Italians don’t cater to modesty.

We crashed and didn’t awake until 10:30 on Tuesday morning. After a quick shower, it was time for lunch and coffee at the hotel restaurant. I had forgotten how much I enjoy, and missed proscuitto and melone. Then we fired up the scooter and headed into town. I am in heaven. For the first time, I have total freedom to explore. The scooter works perfectly on the uneven cobblestones – the only thing that slows me down are steep inclines. At those times, Lane gives me a push and I “pedal”! Works every time. We saw ½ of Pienza today and have decided that we want to purchase an apartment here. The town is charming and the scenery exquisite.

The room next to ours is occupied by an Australian gentleman who is quite taken with Lane. She is gagging as I write this – he is definitely NOT her type. He invited us to share a bottle of wine at the Wine Bar tomorrow evening, and just now he spotted us in the lobby (where we have Internet access) and suggested that we join him this evening and enjoy some champagne. He is a travel guide and has a group with him. He let us know that they are a dismal bunch and that he prefers women who are in their 50’s. Quite the rounder it seems. He left to attend to his flock and shortly thereafter, we saw the hotel staff take a chilled bottle of champagne and three glasses to the elevator. Our minds were in a whirl – seemed like too much of a coincidence. Did he really assume that we would join him in his room?? Laughing like silly teens, we dashed to our room & stuck the “do not disturb” sign on our door...jetlag you know. Fortunately, he leaves for home in two days.

Borjana and I planned the menu for the week and I hope that all will be pleased with my choices. I want them to have an authentic Italian experience.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
We are having difficulty adjusting our internal clocks to the time change. Neither of us is getting a full, restful night of sleep and then we crash in the afternoon. Although for me, I realize that it is all a part of learning to relax. I feel uneasy if I am not rushing at full steam accomplishing something – no matter how trivial. Lane has to continually remind me that we are in no hurry; we have no deadlines and my life can exist without being in front of the computer all day. A concept that is difficult to enforce.

We explored Pienza again today, taking more time to enjoy the history and beauty. I find it to be much more enjoyable than Cortona; there are fewer tourists; the town is much flatter and easier to navigate, and, most importantly, it is not as hot. Of course, scooting around makes an incredible difference for me -- what a delight. I am quite the oddity and garner stares and double takes wherever we travel. And then they look at the scooter. We have already made some friends of shop owners, most of whom are elderly. I think I see some scooters coming to Pienza in the near future.

The flowers are amazing and the homeowners take such pride in their town. Everyone snaps photos of the doorways and windows. Our hotel is under major refurberation/construction. It appears that this little sleepy village has been ‘discovered’ and is experiencing growing pains. We sit atop a hill, as most old towns, with incredible views of the valley below. Pienza is approximately 100 miles from Florence and off the beaten path which keeps the tour buses at bay.

Friday, May 18, 2007
The owner of the San Gregorio is quite a dapper Italian. For three days he did not acknowledge us and for the most part looked away if we were approaching. He is impeccably dressed, complete with pointy shoes. I would guess that he is about 40 something. I’m not certain if his demeanor is due to the Italian perception of women, his inability to speak English or if he is just plain rude. His staff, on the other hand, is wonderful. Most do not speak English, so we have a delightful time attempting to communicate.

Our main contact at the hotel is a tall, beautiful young woman from Slovenia, named Borjana. She and the owner drove us to Castiglione d’Orcia to look at a new condominium. We found it interesting that Borjana never introduced us to the owner and he maintained his distance from us. The town is approximately ½ hr from Pienza, further into the country. It is an incredible area, preserved as an historical ‘park’. No homes can be built – ever. It is rolling hills and farm land. The condos are the last construction allowed and reasonably priced. I find myself thinking of ways to form a time share with 5 others so that we can purchase the property. This part of Italy is growing rapidly and it is an incredible opportunity for investment. The homes here average 2 million euros -- who can afford such luxury? Apparently the English and Japanese – to the dismay of the Italians. The condo is 2 bedrooms, 2 baths with a garage and swimming pool for €280,000.

We returned from Castiglione d’Orcia and then spent the afternoon in Siena. What a contrast to Pienza! The crowds/tourists were almost stifling. We only stayed for 2 hours and were anxious to return to the slower paced country village.

Saturday, May 19, 2007
Today there is a race of sports cars – just like the ones we have seen in the movies. They are literally on the main highway – in amongst regular traffic, passing in front of the hotel. This is the first time that I have seen tour buses in Pienza – people coming to watch the unusual vehicles. They look like antique roadsters --- only very LOUD. The race began in Rome but we have not been able to understand where it ends. Not that it matters – just curiosity. They would buzz into Pienza square, register or something and then be escorted back onto the highway. Cars passed for over 4 hours – it was huge. There were also fancy Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s and some that were quite eccentric looking. These were not racing, but apparently going along with the flow. The crowds had small race flags and cheered their favorites – be it driver or car – who could tell??

I am somewhat dismayed that the swimming pool has not been completed. The website says that it and the spa were to be finished in May 05. Not a whole lot of concern or activity around here when it comes to construction. They were literally putting our chairs together today. The room is enormous – we certainly can spread out and not feel cramped.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Art at Heart

It is now the year 2000 -- we have survived the millennium scare and rubberstamping is at an all time high. I had dabbled a bit, teaching in OR, WA & Canada; met some wonderful people but decided that having to continually develop new classes wasn’t for me. During that time, I attended two more retreats at very rustic camps – one in Canada. My friend and I ended up sleeping in the back of her van because three people were having a snoring competition in our dorm. I swear, the walls vibrated. Other than that and continually being served special gray meat (aka "guess this food")-- I still couldn’t get enough of the camaraderie and excitement of creating together.

While taking classes and “retreating”, I met a fantastic group of new friends. We 50 something’s and one 30ish baby chick – bonded almost immediately. We have become a family and I can’t imagine my life without them. They were willing to try one of those weekend gatherings that I continued to blab about -- as long as I would do all the work. Not a problem! Organizing a party is my kind of fun -- and bingo -- Art at Heart was born. Being 50 ishes – we wanted to be a bit pampered, therefore a woodsy church camp was out of the question so I booked us into The Inn at Spanish Head on the Oregon Coast. http://www.spanishhead.com/

At these retreats, we don’t have an instructor or classes. In fact, there is no structure. You come, you set up your spot for the weekend, you play, you eat, and you sleep. Wonderful….we were hooked. A bit more spendy than church camp, but then we had room service…..and incredible FOOD….and heat. Art at Heart continued for three years and left us wanting something more.

I began to think of an art retreat in a broader scale. What if we had some instructors? Could we attract attendees to a larger function? All those coming to Art at Heart were acquaintances – how would I advertise a major venue? I had planned, directed and organized events for years---but never for myself. I didn’t have to promote them – that was up to the individual, county, state or business that had contracted with me. I was fully aware of the expense and commitment necessary to produce the caliber of event that I wanted to start. This was scary. My friends thought I was nuts, but were incredibly supportive. My family didn’t understand the art that I frantically made in my studio anyway – so attempting to explain my ideas to them for a new career was a total waste of time and energy. I was on my own.

In the middle of the night, while at the beach, I made a decision to go for it. I contacted my friend, Doni Meyer, who owned First Impression. She too thought I had lost my mind, but was willing to help sponsor the first Art & Soul. First Impression had a mailing list of over 7,000 and they became my target audience.

In between owning a pharmacy, working in politics and organizing events – I had also worked in a hotel. Many parties were contracted thru hotels and it was a logical mix for me. Thus I had good contacts and the JQH Portland Embassy Suites was selected based on their reputation and staff training requirements. (as you know --- the staff is amazing -- they think of you as family and look forward to us returning each year)

Having the infrastructure set – I now needed instructors. Fortunately, again thru First Impression, I had great contacts. To this day, I am grateful to those instructors who took a chance on me and Art & Soul that first year. We had 194 attendees and I was thrilled. The hotel was thrilled. Instructors were happy. Attendees were ecstatic! It was all that I had hoped for – and more.
I soon realized that in order to maintain my standards of a high quality event that I needed to quit my "real" job and make Art & Soul a full time career. Another very scary decision to make. Art retreats held in a hotel do not generate a healthy income....they are very expensive to produce...thus it became apparent that more than one Art & Soul would have to be held so that I could live.
Once again, in the middle of the night, I made a decision. I decided that we would try an event on the East Coast. I hadn't traveled any further east than LaCrosse, WI -- so I had NO idea what I was doing or where we were going. The JQH Embassy Suites had just completed a new hotel in Hampton, VA and it seemed to be in the middle of the East Coast --- easily available to everyone???? I closed my eyes and signed the contract. We are returning to Hampton for the 3rd time this May!!
Art & Soul is truly a blessing and I love all aspects of production. We are now in our 6th year and because of marvelous instructors, incredible attendees and devoted friendships everything just keeps getting better!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Retreat in the Woods

Thank you all for the kind words of encouragement! This is certainly a new avenue for me to travel and with your help I should find my way easily. So…onward…….

In 1998 I discovered rubber stamps and EMBOSSING POWDER!! It was a miracle! Where had I been? Artistic freedom….I didn’t have to know how to draw and I could create wonderful things. It became a serious addiction—I had to have everything. And stamps – one could never have too many. I took every class that was offered – so many and so quickly that I couldn’t retain what I learned. It was heaven.

During one class, the instructor told us that she was organizing a weekend art retreat. The location was a short drive from Portland -- it sounded like fun, so I convinced two friends and off we went on a road trip. Laughing and giggling like high school kids, we excitedly arrived at our destination full of anticipation. As we located the address and drove down the road, it was like we had run head first into a brick wall. All three of us just sat there in the car with our mouths open. We were deep in the woods – it was dark, dreary and damp. The buildings looked ready to collapse and most had blue tarps on the roofs – why were they not condemned? No paved roads. As I recall, not even gravel roads. We were escorted to our sleeping room which turned out to be a cold, drafty cabin with 2 bunk beds. That’s it -- bunk beds. Not a table or chair in sight. Well, that was ok, after all – we would only sleep there. But what about the other amenities – like sink and shower and toilet? Oh, yeah, they were a short hike thru the woods and were shared by anyone and everyone staying at the facility. Upon closer inspection, the toilets had no doors. They did however attempt to hang a curtain in each enclosure to give the illusion of privacy. The showers were old metal units that snapped and popped as you moved and scrubbed. There was no heat and this was March. OK – it’s only for 3 days, we are rugged women and we are energized with new creative juices – this is an adventure! We unpacked and then went looking for the dining room and the rest of our group. It was time for dinner.

Dinner was prepared by a crusty, gray haired lady who had to be at least 102 yrs old. She could barely carry the pans to the table and most of us felt that it was our duty to assist her. She looked as if she would drop dead any minute. I do not remember her name, but I do remember that she wanted no part of any help from the likes of us. She had a “no-good bum” in the kitchen that was her assistant, thank you very much. The bum finally appeared and took over the buffet line duties – thank god. As he removed the cover from the chafing dish, we looked at the selection and then at each other. Then back at the food. It was slices of meat kind of a pasty gray/green color smothered in matching gray/green sauce. To this day, I’m not certain what we ate for those 3 days, but my legs would swell to the size of an elephant each evening.

After dinner, we moved into our classroom which was actually an old, fragile looking storage building. The organizer had done her best to set the room beautifully with tables, ample lighting and candy. Did I mention that it was March? …. in the Pacific Northwest mountains…..probably about 40 degrees, raining and windy with a temperamental antique heater cycling off and on. But we had a ball!! We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, stamping, embossing, painting, cutting, laughing and freezing. We dressed in layers, put on three pairs of socks, ate chocolates and warmed our hands around cups of hot tea. I couldn’t get enough.

We returned to Portland exhausted and energized. I was determined put my event planning experience to work organizing an art weekend!!

Friday, January 18, 2008

I am one of those foolish, non-techno savvy individuals who were certain that blogs would be a short term fad. Lesley and Claudine have been after me for over a year to get with the program. "Blogs are the future!” Lesley would say. "Blogging is one way to have a personal connection with people around the world" chimed in Claudine. "But it’s just a journal", I would lament, “I don't get it….who wants to read about me?” Did I mention that I was foolish? Well -- here I am--beginning my blogging journey..
I suppose I should explain WHO I am and how I got to this place. While in school, I tried art classes. The art teacher was not impressed with my endeavors. My clay sheep got a D; sculpture and pottery were not my forte. How about Calligraphy? The teacher says – practice, practice, practice. My hands shake and I have no patience with ink. Got C’s in that class. (I also have warm hands so I couldn’t be a cake decorator either – the frosting melts). I tried oils. I painted. 4 times. My mother has them all. They aren’t bad – you can tell that the ship is sailing and that the apples aren’t tomatoes. But they weren’t “in my head”. Doesn’t a true artist envision an object and frantically fill a sketch book? The best grade I got in art class was a C – obviously I should try choir instead.
As an adult, in my first life, my husband and I owned a pharmacy. This exposure gave me ample opportunity to explore all aspects of retail operations, business associations and event planning. Event planning? In a pharmacy? Yup – always the consummate organizer, it wasn’t long before I was involved in the local Chambers and developing business associations. Flower arranging for annual banquets soon led to becoming a planner of weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and other private parties.

Soon, all of these events brought me to 1987 and my most proud achievement: the direction and organization of the first Festival of Lights at The Grotto in Portland, Oregon. http://www.thegrotto.org/events/lights. The Festival of Lights has continued and is highlighted as one of the premier Holiday events in the city.

All my business contacts soon led me to a short bout in City Hall, but I quickly learned that politics (although challenging and most interesting) was NOT for me. I liked the organization part – but there was no opportunity for artistic creativity. Stuffy old politicians. So I continued with special event commissions and worked part time for an attorney.

My creative outlet was satisfied by designing special ‘theme’ parties, arranging flowers and all that goes along with producing a successful extravaganza. I once hosted a traveling family circus as they were transitioning from an event in Washington State. I wanted them to participate in the grand opening ceremonies of Portland’s Light Rail. Someone had to give them a spot for the lions, tigers and bears….oh my. And since animals are my all time passion – of course they would stay with me. It was quite an experience and one I will never forget.

Stay tuned for the second installment of the road I traveled in the creation of Art and Soul.