Friday, November 30, 2007

The Old Man Of The Mountain

The Old Man Of The Mountain

The wonder of the journey is often in the unexpected, that serendipitous find waiting around the next bend that makes the whole trip worthwhile.

While we were in Florence Jay and I took a day to hike from the village of Fiesole to the tiny hamlet of Maiano, where we had reservations at a traditional trattoria for lunch. (You're not sick of these Florence anecdotes yet, are you? I hope not, but even if you are you're stuck with this one since I've been waiting for a chance to share it and this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt of walk gave me the perfect opportunity.) You knew food was going to enter into it somehow too, didn't you? I suppose that was a bit of a foregone conclusion, what with me and Italy and all. Nevermind, it's a minor part of this tale. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah...

While walking we came across an old quarry, one hundreds of years old. Rock from this site and others like it built much of Renaissance Florence. I stood at the base of the quarried rock imagining the backbreaking work it must have taken to first quarry it and then transport it to the city miles below. When I looked up, I was surprised to see a face looking back at me out of the rock, just as he must have looked out at so many others over the years. He seemed almost a living part of the stone, a sentinel keeping watch. What emotions hide behind that stony visage? What does he think of this work of man? Was it in fact for the glory of Florence, or the glory of the Church, or did he feel that his world had been ripped away, leaving him raw and exposed? How many stories have those stone eyes seen? What was the reason for the sadness they seem to hold? I could barely look at Michelangelo's Prisoners* in the Galleria dell'Accademia, so painful did I find their imprisonment in the stone, but my old man of the mountain seemed somehow more melancholy than trapped. Perhaps it is because he appears more organic - a living part of the stone, almost its essence, rather than something being freed from its clutches.

I can't help but wonder how he came to become my old man of the mountain. Was he an accident of a workman's chisel, or did the quarry master have a sense of whimsy? However he came to be, I am richer for having found him.

He had some lovely neighbors too. These are a few of the things we stumbled across as we walked through the woods that day.

A warning to watch out for falling signs?

* Michelangelo's Prisoners are a series of unfinished sculptures where the subjects seem to be struggling to break out of solid blocks of marble. Michelangelo believed his figures were divinely created within the rock, that as he attacked the stone with his chisel he was simply chipping away the excess to make them visible.

Ribollita - the ultimate winter soup

A specialty of Tuscany, this hearty bean and vegetable soup is served all over Florence in the winter. To call it a soup though is actually a bit of a misnomer. While it starts out as a soup, it gets thickened with bread before serving and by the time it's brought to the table it's actually more like a stew. A delicious, stick to your ribs, warm you right up from the inside stew.

I gorged myself on sampled ribollita in many different restaurants during our recent trip to Florence (and in fact ran out to buy a Tuscan cookbook to be sure I could recreate my new favorite winter food once I returned home). Out of all the ones I tasted the hands-down winner had to be the one served at Trattoria Mario. That particular one is so well known that it's recipe is posted on the website of an Italian cooking school. Their recipe is the one I used to make the dish you see above (with the substitution of swiss chard for the unavailable in Israel black cabbage).

I couldn't wait to try it out, and now that the weather is cooling off a bit and making it possible to think about soups again I did. I'm happy to say that it was every bit as good as the one I got in the restaurant, though I must admit that the atomosphere was somewhat lacking... I should have brought in a few strangers to share my table and added some house wine and a huge amount of noise to get the full effect.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thursday Thirteen - Hannukah

In honor of the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights, which begins Tuesday night (most of the explanations are taken from Judaism 101 to save me writing everything out all over again - yup, I'm informative but inherently lazy). Follow the links for more information.):

1. This year, Hannukah begins at sundown on December 4th. It ends at sundown on December 12th.
2. The word Hannukah is transliterated from Hebrew, so you may see (or hear*) it spelled many different ways: Hannukah, Hanukkah, Chanukah, Hanukah...

3. The Hannukah Story
The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

4. More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the
Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a nationalist group known as the Maccabees led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

5. According to tradition as recorded in the
Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

6. The Maccabees came from the Modiin area, just about 20 minutes from where I live. Today, Modiin is a bustling city and home to a number of my good friends.

7. The Hannukah Menorah: The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or hanukkiah in Hebrew) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammash (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammash candle is lit and three brachot (blessings) are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammash candle, and the shammash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of half an hour. In many families each child has their own menorah. Here are the ones we used last year - my kids each made their own (and then the school sent home more, we were inundated). The ceramic one belongs to Jay and I. It comes from a pottery collective in Old Jaffa and was a gift from my late mother-in-law the last time she visited Israel. (The weeds flowers in the plastic orange mug were picked by my daughter Maya from the bush downstairs. She LOVES bringing home flowers from that bush. They have no connection whatsoever to the holiday, other than the fact that they bloom in the winter. I just threw that in for extra color.)

8. Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Hanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit. On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing is only recited on the first night of holidays.

9. Why the shammash candle? The Hanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammash), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don't accidentally use the Chanukkah candles. The shammash candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammash.

10. Hannukah is actually a fairly minor Jewish holiday. It's only become so well known in the West due to its proximity to Christmas. Here in Israel, the gift giving often doesn't go beyond some Hannukah gelt (chocolate coins) or perhaps a few real coins. More serious gift giving is usually kept for Passover.

11. My kids still get a fair amount of loot for the holiday because their relatives send it to them, and because their mom (that would be me) can't get her head around the idea of gifts at Passover instead. We do try to keep things pretty low-key even so. I grew up with the idea of a gift each night (especially for younger children) and really enjoy doing that for my own kids, but the gift is often something quite small, a book, or perhaps a craft to do together. A larger gift is only given the first night and perhaps once after that if the grandparents have gotten involved.

12. It is traditional to play dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top, on the holiday. Most people play for things like pennies, M&Ms or gelt (Las Vegas this is not). The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight.

A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil.

The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel (or, as we called it as kids, "gimme!"), you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until your parent is bored stiff one person has everything. You can play a virtual dreidel game here.

13. It's traditional to eat foods fried in oil for Hannukah, since oil is such a significant part of the holiday. Among Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European origin), a favorite holiday food is latkes, or potato pancakes. In Israel, the most popular holiday treat is sufganiyot - jelly doughnuts (5 minutes in your mouth, 12 hours in your stomach...).

* I snagged the video from Ima Bimah. Thanks Phyllis *smooch*. If you're looking for some more Hannukah fun check out the Chanukah Countdown party she's got running on her blog this week.(Of course she spells Hannukah wrong differently, but we won't hold that against her, right?)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Containing messy play

I never liked just setting my kids free at the kitchen table with paints, playdough, stamps or whatever other current messy play favorite they're into. It invariably gets all over the table, or the playdough falls off and rolls away, or the stamps all fall off the table, or... I didn't want to stifle their creativity and exploration but if I, who am by no means a neat freak, stress out over this I can't imagine how some of the more mess-phobic moms out there cope. The highchair was great for a few years, but now my kids are too big for that too.

My solution?

I repurpose those plastic birthday door signs as craft mats. I started out using them as tablecoths just to protect the table, which worked fairly well, but they tended to slide off (especially when a younger child was involved) and there was still that bouncing playdough thing...

The next logical step was to put the mat right down on the floor. (Mine are tiled so any room that isn't a bedroom works for me (the kids' bedrooms are carpeted), but if you've got carpeting then probably best to stick to the kitchen. ) The messy whatever gets spread out on the mat, giving them plenty of room to play create make a giant mess but it stays contained on the mat. The playdough doesn't even roll away into every corner of the room anymore! Since it's used only for play, I don't care how messy it gets. I just shake it out and put it away until next time. They last forever, too. We're still using one that has to be at least four years old... Not bad for a $4 investment.

This works for me. What works for you?

PS I'm joining in the pre-Hannukah fun over at Ima On and Off the Bima. Come on by and check it out.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On his way home

Common sense (in the form of his commander) prevailed. He's driving now and hopes to be home by midnight. I've got the soup simmering.

Drive safe honey. I love you.

And yet...

...they still manage to screw up my evening.

At least it was a phone call, not a brown envelope. I'd really feel guilty if I'd tempted the fates into sending one last brown envelope.

What a pain in the ass... I will be SO glad when we're done once and for all.

Edited to add that I seem to have panicked a few people. Sorry. Don't worry, it's just for the evening, not for the week's training. He'll be home in a few hours.

But wait, there's more... Me and my damn mouth. Now it looks like he may be stuck there through tomorrow afternoon! He's got a majorly important meeting to run tomorrow morning too, with people flying in from abroad especially for it. He's trying to get an exemption but it's not looking good. I just had to shoot my mouth off, didn't I... Freaking ridiculous!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Very Long Awaited End Of An Era

The end of the era of the dreaded brown envelope that is. The brown envelope containing a letter that calls my husband to army reserve duty each year. Israel has a universal draft, and in theory upon discharge at the end of their three-year compulsory service all combat soldiers must then perform one month of reserve duty each year until they reach the age of forty (other types of soldiers age out at other times). (There are also a lot of shirkers but I'm in a good mood right now so I'm not going to talk about that.)

Each year since getting out of the regular army my husband has been called up for periods of time ranging from the occasional training day to a week's training to the dreaded 28-day call up. Israel is still a small country though, so even when he's gone for the full 28 days there are usually days off and some time to spend at home. I can't even begin to comprehend the year-long overseas deployments that many American military families have to contend with. Still, it's still hardly the month's entertainment I would have chosen for either of us, especially with small children at home who miss their daddy and with a mom who could really use the extra grownup around. It wasn't all awful. The young guys get the worst of it, those with more seniority are better at working the system in their own benefit. A few years ago he was sent to a base just half an hour away and managed to rig things so that he worked a double-shift every day but came home every afternoon at 4, in time to pick up Itai from nursery school. I think we saw more of him that month than we did the rest of the year. Of course there were also the years that he was sent to some very unpleasant places, not to mention the time that several of his buddies out patroling in a jeep got shot. One is still in a wheelchair. I try not to think about that either. Or the time he got an emergency call up notice to go to Gaza on 12 hours notice. I was 5 months pregnant with Itai and not feeling at all well. Two days later we realized it was because I had the chicken pox and was sicker than I'd ever been in my life! That one was a stellar example of how things should work though. All the guys in his unit got together and took over all his shifts so that Jay could come home early to take care of me.

Last February Jay turned forty. The rule says that to be discharged you must be forty in January, when the year begins. I mentioned that Jay turned forty in February, right? Now the big question came. Would the army be so stupid and wasteful as to call him for a week's training this December, knowing full well that he was going to be discharged just a few weeks later? That is the sort of thing armies the world over are known for after all, Israel certainly hasn't cornered the market on military idiocy. Fortunately, common sense has prevailed and they've informed Jay that he will not need to spend a week crawling in the mud this year, that since he's about to be discharged they won't in fact be calling him. No more letters in brown paper envelopes for our house. He's done his twenty years, the archaic tanks he was trained on have long since been sold off for movie props. Enough. It's time to step aside and let the younger guys carry the load. I'm proud that he did his time respectfully and fully and didn't shirk, but I'm glad as hell that it's over.

Now if my son would just continue to believe that the best job in the army is in computers (and thus safely behind the front lines)... And who knows, maybe by then there won't be a need for an army anymore after all... (What did you say? La la la, I can't hear you. I've got my naive liberal pacifist fingers stuck firmly in my ears...)

The Writers Island prompt for this week was The Letter.

Catching up - the book meme

I've been tagged for a bunch of memes lately (and not so lately) that I haven't had a chance to get to. My parents are gone now and I have a small lull before a major work project hits, so this seems like as good a chance to play catch up as I'll ever get.

Fourier Analyst tagged me for the book meme AGES ago, so I'll start with that one:

Total Number of Books I own - I have no idea, but I suspect it's still well up into the hundreds despite the recent purges. I give books I know I won't want to reread to my cleaner, but anything I even remotely liked tends to stay on my shelves forever. And that's not even counting the hundreds of children's books we have. Those are even more fun now that Itai is learning to read English and Maya is suddenly discovering that she enjoys sitting still to let mommy read to her on occasion. (The current flavor of the week is the Hebrew translation of Not Now, Bernard by David McKee, which she got from her preschool's library, but If You Give A Mouse A Cookie and David Gets In Trouble are perennial bedtime favorites.)

Last Book Read - The last book I finished was Alice Steinbach's Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, read, apppropriately enough, on the plane home from Italy. A lovely, engaging read and definitely one to get you reflecting on the path your own life is taking and the choices you're making each day. The book I'm reading now is Reay Tannahill's absolutely fascinating Food in History. A must-read for any foodie. This is a reread actually. I owned this book years ago but it went missing after I lent it out. After years I saying "gee, I really wish I could reread the section on X Y or Z," I finally just went out and bought it again. The good news is it's been updated since I last read it, so I'm on a hunt for new little gems. Next up is probably Tommy Sands' The Songman, which so far I've just had time to skim but it looks enchanting. Either that or whatever it was that I am supposed to be reading for my next book club meeting, but we all know how I tend to procrastinate with those...

Last Book Purchased - I bought a bunch of books online just before my parents came (gotta love that free international delivery service). They included several Florence guidebooks (regular and food-oriented), Food In History, and a mystery novel that will be revealed in a later TT. No, I won't tell you what it is right now.

Five Meaningful Books -

Though I tend to read quite serious books for my book club (no, I don't usually select them, how did you guess?), when left to my own devices I tend away from that towards the much more fun classic escapist literature. Here are five of my favorites, and yes, I cheated by selecting series. Sue me.

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide series - because it simply doesn't get any better than this.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley - not meaningful per se, but great fun and one I find myself coming back to time and again.

The Harry Potter series - not only is this a cracking good story, but also anything that has gotten an entire generation of children to embrace reading needs to be taken seriously.

Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series - a great peek into Britain's Navy during the Napoleanic Wars, as seen through the eyes of one of literature's great pairs - Captain Jack Aubrey and Ship's Surgeon Stephen Maturin. I was absolutely bereft when the last one ended, mid-sentence, left unfinished by the author's death.

CS Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles - as much fun to read now as they were when I was a child, particularly if I ignore the religious overtones. I still have the same set I received when I was nine, pages falling out and much loved. We read the entire series to Itai this year and now he loves them too. For Hannukah this year (otherwise known as the Festival of Overly Expensive Big Budget Children's Musicals here in Israel) I'm taking him to see a (Hebrew language) musical that they've made of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. (We'll be doing that instead of Festigal this year (his choice), though I did agree to buy the Festigal dvd. I wasn't going to shell out for tickets to both though. There are limits...)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Food Shopping, Italian Style

Food stalls in Florence are a feast not only for the taste buds but for all the senses, exploding with color, aroma, and even sound as the hawkers cry their wares. We had a real dilemma before we went, trying to decide if we wanted to be in a hotel or instead in an apartment where we would have the opportunity to cook when the mood struck us. The hotel won out in the end, which was just fine, but still, it would have been fun to be able to actually sample all this bounty ourselves. Instead I settled for photographs, and we'll set our rejuvenated cooking muse free among the riotous melange of color that is the market right down the block. I suspect it won't come up wanting.

The Mercato Centrale (home of the infamous porcini mushrooms - yes, right there in that blue bag)

Italians even manage to make garlic and squash look stylish.
. .

Well, most of the time that is. This one from the Mercato Centrale looks more like an Israeli market (or rather the way an Israeli market would look if any of those types of squash were sold here. Ours tend to be these huge giant things that can't be lifted off the ground. You tell the seller how much you want by weight, and he hacks you off a piece with a giant scary looking knife. Either that or teeny tiny round zucchinis and such. Nothing that says "fall" quite as well as these.). I'll bet these Italian ones tasted damn good, too.

A weekly market in the Piazza Santo Spirito. Gives new meaning to the phrase "truck farm", doesn't it? If you look closely you'll see that this little guy has only three wheels. Sort of what you'd get if you bred a big semi and a tricycle...


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is it wrong that I find it really funny

When people looking for this find this instead?

TT - Florence Photo Blogging

This week I've got a photo list for you. These are 13 of the photos I took during my trip to Florence last week. I've selected them to show a diverse slice of Florentine life. I don't know how many people will actually see them with it being Thanksgiving, but I wanted to share my visual impressions of this magnificent city now while they're still fresh in my mind. It was so hard to choose just 13... If you'd like to read more about our trip just click on the "Florence" tag down at the bottom of this post. I'll be writing more about it and sharing more photos over the coming weeks, so check back often.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Happy TT, and happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating today. (Since Thanksgiving is a regular work day here in Israel we'll be celebrating on Saturday with a whole host of good friends and a turkey dinner complete with all the trimmings.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shoe fetish anyone?

Especially for Kelley, who you might have noticed has a small thing for shoes...

And sorry to disappoint you dear, but no, I didn't buy any. While I loved some of the summer shoes I saw in back corners of the occasional store, nearly everything they're showing now were either uber-formal shoes and breakyourneckhigh heels or else very dressy high boots, none of which match my current "works from home mom of two small kids" lifestyle, and it seemed a bit daft to try on the few pairs of leftover sandals I saw when I was freezing my ass off...

I consoled myself with a gorgeous red leather wallet and new brown leather bag instead. I know, life just sucks that way, doesn't it?... Much more "me" than a pair of 4-inch stiletto heels I'd never have occasion to wear (and would instantly want to take off the moment I did try to wear them.)

The Next Ansel Adams?

My parents just brought the kids Fisher-Price digital cameras, and let me tell you, they are the greatest gift EVER. They even cleverly brought two (blue for him, pink for her) so they don't fight over anything. Both of my kids have spent the past 3 weeks discovering their inner shutterbug. These things are great - they take real pictures, there's a display so they can actually see what they're taking (just like mom and dad's camera), they're super-easy to use, uploading photos is a piece of cake, and best of all, they're practically indestructable! My mother was a bit concerned that my first-grader would think it was too childish looking, but that never even occurred to him, he's just thrilled to finally have a camera of his very own (of course they don't sell these here in Israel, so he's never seen it advertised for younger children either). These cameras are the hit of the party, too - every kid that comes over begs to try it.

The picture quality isn't fabulous, and works much better outside in natural light than indoors, but it's more than adequate for a younger child. Itai's been bringing his on trips and taking pictures of scenery, animals, people, whatever he can find, and doing a pretty good job of it too. Of course he also measures his success in quantity, not quality, but hey, with digital cameras that's just fine. Maya's particular area of interest seems to be floors and walls, with the occasional foot or chin thrown in. She may not have a career as a portrait photographer ahead of her (unless someone somewhere is prepared to pay big money for pictures of feet and chins), but she's having a blast.

PS If you're wondering, both of these pictures were taken on my son's camera at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve in southern Israel (the desert oasis mentioned in the Song of Songs, where David hid from King Saul).

This camera definitely works for me. (Thanks mom!) Check out Rocks In My Dryer to see what works for everyone else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Hear that sound?

That's the sound of me breathing in the quiet peaceful feeling you get after houseguests depart (if by that quiet peaceful sound you mean the sound of my daughter jabbering and sleep-avoiding as I sit by her bed, listening the chaotic sounds of things falling down all over the damn place some kind of home repair that is).

My parents left about an hour ago. We had a wonderful visit, but even if your houseguests are family that you love dearly it's still nice to get your house back again. I celebrated the way any red-blooded woman would - by removing my bra and changing into an oversized t-shirt. A girl's gotta be comfortable you know. The kids were both pretty sad to see my parents go, but my mother actually handled it better than usual since they're already planning a return trip in the spring, and most importantly since we sprang the news that we'll be coming to New England for a visit this summer. She always does a lot better when she knows when she'll see us next.

Now it's time to get back into a more normal routine - a LOT less eating and drinking (MUST get serious about a diet and get back to the gym), work, playdates and all that. I've also got a lot of blog posts percolating and many photos waiting to be shared. For now I'll have to leave you with this:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

State of the Union (in bullet form)

What's going on in my life this weekend:

  • Florence was amazing, but bloody cold
  • Made it home (by the skin of our teeth)
  • Most things made it safely
  • Except the fresh porcini mushrooms - sadly they brought little visitors with them and had to be trashed (yuck!)
  • And my Swiss Army card (with 0.5cm knife that has successfully passed security dozens of times - until Thursday)
  • Kids were delighted to have us back
  • Grandma and Grandpa survived, happy but exhausted
  • Spent today on a picnic in a forest, plus a visit to 5th century mosaics at a nearby monastary
  • Going out for Japanese food tonight
  • My parents are leaving Tuesday night, so I'll be scarce for a few more days
To all 6 of my faithful readers who are still out there checking on me, bear with me another few days. I'll be back, and I've got loads to say.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

So beautiful I could have wept

We've seen so much incredibly beautiful art since we arrived in Florence that it's difficult to believe that a single piece hidden among so many others could stop me in my tracks, but that it did. It wasn't Michelangelo's David (though his beauty took my breath away) or the delicate frescoes of Masaccio, so beautiful and so historically significant, or Ghiberti's Baptistry doors, magnificent as these "Doors of Paradise" are.


It was a minor piece by Agostino di Duccio (1418-1481). The piece that left me speechless, unable to look away and nearly weeping for joy was a marble relief of a Madonna and Child hanging on a wall in the Bargello Museum. I've seen literally hundreds of works depicting the Madonna and Child in my life and to be honest as a secular Jew the religious impact is pretty much lost on me beyond the historical and socio-political implications, but this particular piece touched my soul. I could have cried at its grace and beauty, the incredible delicacy of the faces, and the way the artist turned cold stone into folds of cloth so soft I had to restrain myself from reaching out to touch them. Mere words on a page could never convey the inner beauty he coaxed from the stone, the life he imbued in it. Photography is not permitted in the art museums, and I felt such a loss at not being able to preserve even a faint memory of the work that had touched me so. What a wonder then to discover that in this internet age all is possible.

I give you "Madonna and Child with Angels", by Agostino di Duccio.

This tiny photograph is merely a pale shadow of the original, but perhaps it will somehow touch your soul in the way that the memory of its counterpart in the Bargello touches mine.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sore feet and a well-earned nap

Today we took a break from Renaissance art. We took a bus up to the nearby town of Fiesole (where we skipped the Etruscan ruins - Israel's got plenty of its own Roman ruins and we'd seen these before). After a quick peak into the cathedral we set off into the hills - on a 2 hour hike over a mountain to a tiny hill village, where we had reserved a table for lunch at a local trattoria - one of only two restaurants in the town (which in itself only seemed to have four or five buildings).

Lunch was superb. Porcini mushrooms are in season now, and for the first time in my life I was able to taste them fresh. I ordered tagliatelle in porcini sauce and practically swooned at the first bite. They looked like ordinary mushrooms but the taste was pure porcini and was out of this world. The rest of the dishes were equally good (I think you'd have to try awfully hard to get a bad meal here...). I finally got to taste the hazelnut pasta sauce I remembered from my first trip to Italy and have been trying to recreate ever since.

After a four-course lunch dinner, if we make it out at all, will probably be pizza and ice cream. Not that I need any extra courses at this point, but I do feel that my gelato survey is falling behind. Can't have that happen now, can we?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hallelujah - clean clothes at last

My bag finally arrived this morning, about 30 minutes before I would have gone completely postal.

Freshly showered and dressed in clean clothes at last, we set out to conquer the town. After reserving tickets for the Uffizi for Wednesday (might as well go out with a bang) we set off for the Pitti Palace where I had my thankfully now clean socks blown off by the frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The paintings were beautiful, especially some of the Raphael's, but it was the rooms themselves that truly took my breath away. I'd read in a guidebook somewhere that Florentine Renaissance painters "sculpted with paintbrushes", but until I saw it for myself I couldn't imagine what this meant. These masters painted pictures of sculpures that were so realistic that I almost needed to touch them to believe that they were in fact flat paintings. (If I could have reached out to stroke them without causing damage or getting myself arrested I would have, believe me.) I have no idea how I could have missed this on my first trip, but perhaps I was too young or busy too really appreciate them then. I'm only sorry that photography wasn't permitted inside the galleries, I'll have to look to Mssr. Go°gle for examples to show you all later. For now, I can only say that their incredible beauty and skill took my breath away.

After another hearty trattoria lunch (I am loving this ribollita soup) we headed to the Brancacci Chapel to see frescoes telling the story of Peter. These delicate, beautiful paintings by Masolino and Masaccio in the 1420s show graphically the impact of the Renaissance on painting. Masolino's frescoes are more simple and decorative and still have some of the medieval tendency to "float" in space. Masaccio's on the other hand are strikingly real and emotional. The figures portrayed show the full range of human emotion and true to real life they are often each looking in different directions, following different parts of the visual story. In the background you see mothers walking with their children, laundry hung out to dry, and other scenes of daily life. Masaccio was a ground-breaker in his use of perspective and the viewer truly feels the scene unfolding before their eyes. After viewing the chapel itself we saw a 45 minute movie which used computer animation to bring the frescoes to life and anchor their place in time and history.

After taking in all the art Jay could manage in one day we headed back towards our hotel, stopping for a well-deserved gelato on the way. I ordered a scoop of what I'm guessing was some kind of divinely-inspired cookie dough flavor when the woman behind the counter told me I was entitled to a second flavor for the same price. I panicked trying to choose and asked to taste "panna montana". She explained that that flavor was "plain cream". It was delicious and strangely creamy. Still, the line was building behind me so I said sure, I'll have that. It wasn't until I began eating that I realized that my mystery flavor was whipped cream! I'd actually stood there and asked for a taste of whipped cream, and what's more I hadn't even recognized it when given the taste! Slightly ridiculous, but I suppose there are worse things in life than getting a scoop of fresh whipped cream on top of your ice cream...

I'll stop this novel for now, "Happy Drink" time is over (I'm blogging from the lobby) and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go just came on the radio - time for a fast escape.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Clean socks are overrated anyway

Hello from Florence. Jay and I arrived late last night after a mad dash to make our connection in Vienna (thank you Austrian Airlines for arriving 30 minutes late and screwing up your own connection). Unfortunately our luggage remained back in Vienna and will not arrive in Florence until late tonight, meaning that we won't get our bags until sometime TOMORROW. Fortunately there was a pharmacy open late just down the road from our (cute and perfectly situated) hotel so we were able to buy toothbrushes, shampoo and even a replacement package of the birth control pills that I had very stupidly packed in my suitcase! (Apparently that normally requires a prescription here too, but I knew exactly what I needed and the pharmacist thankfully took pity on me.)

As soon as we ate breakfast this morning we went off to do some much needed shopping - clean socks and underwear (hurray!), a long-sleeved shirt, etc. and even a few of life's non-essentials - new leather wallets for each of us and a gorgeous new leather bag for me. After that we were finally ready for some sightseeing - a quick spin around the Duomo where I yet again gaped open-mouthed at the most incredibly vivid blues and greens used in the stained glass windows (I have a real thing for Chartres blue, turquoise, teal and that whole family of colors - they transform even the most ordinary stained glass windows into something magical, and these were far from ordinary.)

After a few more hours just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere (and a few stray raindrops, but just a few - luckily, since of course my umbrella and all our warm clothes, heck, all of our clothes, are still AWOL in Vienna) we went for an amazing lunch at a traditional trattoria (Mario's for anyone who knows Florence, and yes, it's reputation is absolutely justified). I enjoyed the ribolleta and chick pea soups so much that I went straight from the restaurant to a bookstore for a new Tuscan cookbook to add to my collection (recipes to follow in a few weeks).

We're now back at the hotel to relax for a while. Later we'll head out to a nearby wine bar for drinks and a light dinner (since we're not exactly dressed for fine dining, not to mention because we just had lunch at 3:30).

Hopefully my suitcase will show up tomorrow with my cord for the camera (not to mention all of my clothes!) and then I'll be able to share some pictures.

Ciao for now.

Update: Jay's suitcase just showed up. Mine is nowhere to be found and all the lost and found has is a recording saying "one delivered, one not delivered". Not fair. *pout*

Thursday, November 8, 2007

TT - Going to Florence!

By the time many of you read this (Thursday afternoon my time) my husband and I will be on an airplane on our way to a glorious week in beautiful Florence, the first time we've returned since our first wedding anniversary 15 years ago. Here are a few of the things we'll be encountering (and of course blogging about):

1. Michaelangelo's David at the incredible Accademia Gallery

2. The Duomo (we'll even be able to see the cathedral's dome from our hotel window, just a few dozen meters away)

3. The Baptistry, and in particular its doors

4. The Uffizi

5. The Pitti Palace

6. The Boboli Gardens

7. The view of Florence from the Roman ruins of Fiesole

8. The Ponte Vecchio

9. The San Lorenzo and Central Markets

10. The Science Museum

11. Every enoteca (wine bar) in our neighborhood

12. Amazing food, like steaming plates of pasta followed by Bistecca alla Fiorentini, surely one of the world's most perfect dishes

13. Undertaking a detailed and accurate survey of the city's best gelaterias

What we WON'T be doing is setting an alarm clock for 6:15am, spending endless hours at playgrounds, eating dinner too early "before the kids get too cranky", wiping anyone's bum, or spending hours putting people to bed and then more hours waking them up again, since we're leaving them home with their doting grandparents *runs around the room shrieking and shouting in glee*. Yes, you read that right, we are setting off on our very first real kid-free vacation in seven years! I'm trying not to act too visibly giddy in front of my parents, who are of course here to see all of us and will be the ones doing all these things while we're gone.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The slowest poke on earth

That would be my son. I love him dearly, but holy cow can that boy be a space cadet, especially early in the morning when it's time to get ready for school. I'm about ready to resort to throwing cold water on him to get him up and moving in the morning, but I'm not sure even that would help. And the actual getting ready? He can sit on the end of his bed in his underwear for 10 minutes straight just staring off into space, apparently incapable of getting ready without an engraved invitation. It boggles the mind how such a competent, intelligent child could be so completely clueless each morning, but there you have it. You wouldn't think that after nearly 7 years on this planet he'd still have to be reminded to brush his teeth each morning, but sure enough he does. I'm actually waking him (and consequently me!) up 45 minutes before he has to leave right now because it takes him that long to accomplish the 7.5 minutes worth of things he has to do before heading out for school

He's asked for an alarm clock which he will get just as soon as I have the chance to go buy the loudest most obnoxious one I can find. Hopefully that will at least help him get out of bed (though I suspect he's going to be even more of a snooze alarm fiend than his mother is was), but I still have to find a way to light a firecracker under him when it comes to actually getting ready to go. His sister does much better with a set morning routine, but that doesn't seem to be speaking to Itai particularly.

Any bright ideas from all you been there done thats?

In the meantime, I'm heading over to Rocks in my Dryer to see if maybe I've got better ideas for someone else's headaches than I've got for my own.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Because my mother knows me so well

Stolen meme

I stole this from someone a while ago (Vader's Mom maybe?) and have been holding it in reserve for a day when I'm busy with my visiting parents and don't have time to blog (which is why a few of the answers may not make sense).

What kind of soap is in your bathtub right now? My bathtub is in the main bathroom downstairs. It has one bar of palmolive (out of reach). The kids' bath soap is kept in the closet because Maya likes to dump in the entire bottle and make herself the bubble bath to end all bubble baths

Do you have any watermelon in your refrigerator? Watermelon season is over here

What would you change about your living room? We desperately to get rid of the ugly bog-standard Israeli shutters and get curtains, but Jay and I can't agree on what to get so it stays this way

Are the dishes in your dishwasher clean or dirty? clean (and it should have been my turn, too. Thanks dear!)

What’s in your fridge? leftover birthday cake, Thai-style spicy shrimp curry, assorted fruits and vegetables, an insane number of condiments, a few soft white cheeses (no hard cheese, I need to get to the store), beer, wine, some sliced turkey, diet soda, fresh OJ, apple juice, milk, a bottle of grape juice I forgot to serve at Maya's party, and other assorted odds and ends

White or wheat bread? homemade, so whatever Jay felt like making. Usually some kind of mixed organic white/wheat, but lately he's been on a crusty Italian loaf kick

What is on top of your refrigerator? You had to ask that... A plastic cube holding memo paper, extra keys (ours and others), 3 aluminum baking pans (2 I need for Maya's preschool party cake and the 3rd I haven't the faintest idea how or why it got there), post-it notes, a strange plastic butter dish we got free from the supermarket and have never used, dishwasher polish refill, stainless steel cleaner, a package of cleaning wipes, pencil holder with assorted pens and pencils, Astonish cleanser for the counters, expired graham cracker pie crust that I bought because I'd never seen one sold in Israel before but then never made the cheesecake for, a friend's tupperware that I keep forgetting to return (because of course I can't see it up there), and a whole lot of dust. You had to ask, didn't you...

What color or design is on your shower curtain? No curtains, we have glass shower doors

How many plants in your home? Inside - 2 in various stages of dying, Roof - about 20, which are mostly surprisingly not dead at the moment! Look here to see why this is so shocking.

Is your bed made right now? No

Comet or Soft Scrub? Astonish (like Soft Scrub)

Can you describe your flashlight? Lost somewhere in the house and more than likely with dead batteries anyway

Do you drink out of glass or plastic most of the time at home? glass

Do you have iced tea made in a pitcher right now? nope, I've got iced coffee

If you have a garage, is it cluttered? We have assigned spots in a communal underground garage (I live in a high-rise in a typical "urban" suburb)

Curtains or blinds? Israeli-style horizontal shutters - very ugly, but practical

How many pillows do you sleep with? I've slept with 2 for years, but I've had a lot of neck and back soreness lately so I'm trying to wean myself onto just one

Do you sleep with any lights on at night? We don't, but I leave the downstairs hall light on for the kids

How often do you vacuum? Not all that often, only the kids' bedrooms have carpeting and there's a rug in the living room. The rest of the floors are all tiled.

Standard toothbrush or electric? Standard, but I've been thinking of trying electric

What color is your toothbrush? white and blue

Do you have a welcome mat on your front porch? yes

What is in your oven right now? the oven trays

Is there anything under your bed? drawers, I have a platform bed

Chore you hate doing the most? cleaning toilets!

What retro items are in your home? some of the older cookbooks in my collection (displayed over my upper kitchen shelves)

Do you have a separate room that you use as an office? bwahahahaha

How many mirrors are in your home? 7, I think

Do you have any hidden emergency money in your home? Not telling that one to the internet, sorry

What color are your walls? mostly cream

Do you keep any kind of protection weapons in your home? a ferocious zebra fish

What does your home smell like right now? cut grass, they're landscaping outside. You wouldn't think that would waft up nine floors, but it does. It's making me sneeze!

Favorite candle scent? maybe vanilla, I don't really have one

What kind of pickles (if any) are in your refrigerator right now? VERY spicy ones that Jay bought instead of the yummy mini-gherkins I'd asked him for

What color is your favorite Bible? Not relevant

Ever been on your roof? Of course, I live in a penthouse so our roof is a patio

Do you own a stereo? not anymore, it died. Since then we've been using the dvd player and cable box

How many TV’s do you have? 2

How many house phones? 3 extensions, but 2 are cordless

Do you have a housekeeper? yes

What style do you decorate in? modern

Do you like solid colors in furniture or prints? solids

Is there a smoke detector in your home? not in our home, but the building does have right outside our door. Buildings here are generally built of concrete and cinder block, and I don't use freestanding heaters either, so fire is not a major threat.

What are the items in your house which you’d grab if you only could make one quick trip? my kids of course. After that my laptop and my photo albums.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


If I had enough
I could quit this working thing
And blog all day long

But until that happens, I'll be scarce. My parents are in town visiting and I'm trying to compress my normal work hours into just a few days so that I can have time to spend with them. I'm blogging and visiting when I can, but for the most part my limited computer time is sadly crammed full of OPC (other people's crap). Between that and my upcoming trip to Florence (just 4 more days(!!), after which I should return with my creative batteries recharged and my soul brimming over with beauty to share) I'll be scarce this week.

Look here to see what people with time to heed their muse had to say about money.

We've Got Winners

With a little help from I'm pleased to announce the two winners in my Fall Y'All Bloggy Giveaway:

Janet Tamaro's So That's What They're For: Breastfeeding Basics book: ~velia (no blog)

Breastfeeding cover-up: Sarah (sarah_carol) (also no blog)

Both winners have been contacted by e-mail.

Thank you everyone for playing along, it was great fun. I especially loved hearing all of your heartwarming stories about why you love breastfeeding, and best wishes to those of you who are currently awaiting the arrival of your new little breastfed babies.

Happy breastfeeding to one and all, and there will always be a comfy chair and an extra place around the island, so come back and visit again.

Visit Shannon's Bloggy Giveaways for links to all the winners.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

First Grade Doodles

This cracked me up.

What else would a first-grader doodle if not loads of check marks, properly circled and decorated? Oh, and he gave himself a few good grades, too. The grade of 200 was a personal favorite of mine LOL.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

TT - 13 Book Club Books

This week I've listed 13 books my book club has read in recent years. There have actually been many more than 13, but these are a sampling of the ones that generated the best discussions, for those of you looking for ideas. We almost never all agree on how we feel about a given book, but these are some that actually kept us on topic - talking about the book itself rather than about our kids, jobs, vacations, daily travails and other assorted topics that usually fill up the evening. Links lead to online reviews and/or discussion guides.

1. The History of Love - Nicole Krauss - touching, creative, poignant, a wonderful book club book

2. Atonement - Ian MacEwan - I hated the first third, tolerated the second, and loved the last. Even now I can't decide how I'd sum up my feelings about this book. Read it and decide for yourself.

3. Reading Lolita In Tehran - Azar Nafisi - a fascinating insight into the life of a woman, and an intellectual university professor at that, under the Ayatollah's regime

4. The Emporer of Scent - Chandler Burr. I'm including this one in the interests of fairness. I can honestly say that I hated, truly hated, every single word on every page of this miserable non-fiction account of biophysicist Luca Turin's claims of a revolutionary new understanding of the science of scent. Turin was such an ass that I found no justifiable reason for slogging through pages and pages of indecipherable science to find out whether he ever gained the recognition he claimed that the establishment was keeping from him. I was so put off by the book itself that I couldn't have cared less, not about the individuals involved, the process, nor the scientific discoveries. That said, many others in the book club found it absolutely fascinating. Perhaps I'm just more of a boor than they are, but I did not find it to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, let alone to be "fascinating". Still, it garnered several hours of intense discussion as we vociferously argued it's pros and cons, so I suppose as a book club choice it was a success. I still hated it though.

5. Anil’s Ghost - Michael Ondaatje - a gripping tale set amidst the horrors of civil war in Sri Lanka

6. The Book of Illusions - Paul Auster - personally, I found this horribly depressing, but an excellent read

7. The Secret Life Of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd. This one was lovely. I don't think anyone actually disliked it, a rarity in our group.

8. Eleven Minutes - Paulo Coelho - I have to say, I've disliked everything I've ever read by Coelho, but I was in the minority on this one

9. Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood. I was in the minority again on this one. I considered it one of the best books I'd read that year, but several others hated it.

10. Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri - truly excellent, and since it's a collection of short stories there was plenty of fodder for the discussion

11. The Namesake - another one by Jhumpa Lahiri, a full-length novel this time, and equally good

12. She's Come Undone - Wally Lamb. Very disturbing, and very thought-provoking.

13. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides. Wonderful. Really wonderful.