I just talked to my best friend Cheryl on the phone, and I could hardly think of a thing to tell her about what I'm doing. Now, of course I've been doing lots of fun stuff -- I just can't always remember what it is on the spur of the moment (should I make "talking points" for a call to my best friend???). As a result (and knowing that she reads my blog), I'll summarize some things I've been doing since I got home from Italy:
1. Still trying to catch up with things at work: phoning to touch base with people I haven't seen in a while, making arrangements for special services, planning for the Advent season, (still) opening mail and responding when necessary. Trying to work through the piles of papers that seem to grow on my desk like mushrooms. Sometimes I walk into my office and say to the secretary, "Susan, who made this mess on my desk?" It's only me, of course. Trying to re-establish the very good habit of essentially finishing my sermon by the close of work on Thursday, so Friday and Saturday can truly be Sabbath time for me. I made it this week! Of course I always do the Sunday morning "last edit," where I read through, make any minor changes I want, and print it both for my own delivery and for distribution to the parish (I make copies available for whoever wants them).
2. Organizing my materials and pictures from Italy, so that I can do a presentation for my parish next month. I have three big maps: one of Italy, one of Sicily, and one of Rome, and I've mounted them on foam core board and am using push-pins to mark the sites of the black madonnas: green for the ones I've seen and red for the ones I didn't get to. I've organized a big notebook with booklets, postcards, and photographs. I want to do some more background work on the internet.
3. Hauling and burning brush, raking pine needles for next spring's garden mulch, and today I pulled up fencing and raised bed borders in preparation for reducing my veggie garden by about 1/3. I loved the little compact backyard "kitchen gardens" that I saw from the train as I rode through Italy. They managed to feed a family from a lot less space than I'm using. Mine got too big for me to keep up, and so I'm going to try for a smaller size.
4. Making cream soups. I've got excess gallons of raw, whole milk (including thick top milk), and so have had cream of potato soup twice this week, and today I made a big pot of clam chowder. Yum, yum, comfort food. It has been warm and sunny during the day, but the nights are cold here, and so a big mug of hot cream soup tastes pretty good.
5. Getting back to my regular practices of running and yoga, trying to remember to eat a good breakfast and take my vitamins. The whole summer, with all the travel and illness, played hell with what I call my "foundational practices:" those things that, if I do them, guarantee that I will feel good. I really have four "foundational practices:" running at least 4 times per week, yoga at least twice a week, morning pages every day, and trying to eat right (which means breakfast, vitamins, and avoiding junky foods and fast foods).
Okay, now for Genoa and beyond.
From Biella, I went to Alessandria. I knew the helpful young man in Milan had said that access to Santuario di Crea was through Alessandria. Of course, when I arrived, the timing was perfect for me to cool my heels for just a bit until the tourist office opened, so that I could find out information about and transportation to the Santuario. What I found out was that I could not travel there until the next day, and that I would have to take the bus, which would drop me 1k from the santuario. The train wouldn't get me closer than 11k, and I had no info about shuttles or other transportation to the sanctuary itself. On the spur of the moment I decided that access to Santuario di Crea might be easier from Genoa, so I bought a ticket and arrived at Genoa's main station about 5 pm. Wow. The tourist office was closed at the train station (which was in a rather unsavory part of town). There was no information about how to find tourist information. The railroad information office had a sign that clearly said "No Tourist Information." Oops. Sorry. But I'm in a totally unfamiliar place with no city map and no guidance. I went into a bookshop at the station and threw myself on the mercy of the clerk, doing my best with phrasebook Italian to convey: "I know this isn't your job, but I'm desperate. How can I find a tourist information office?" She was lovely. She told me to catch the number 25 bus to Piazza Ferrari, and ask there for directions to the tourist office. She sold me a bus ticket.
Now this is something I need to address right here. Nearly every step of my way on this trip, there were angels who helped me get from here to there safely and (relatively) accurately. I do not think of Italians as "nosy," but rather observant. If someone gets on the bus who obviously doesn't speak Italian (I ask the driver, "Piazza Ferrari?" but don't go into any long conversation, as an Italian would), and I'm clutching a map or slip of paper in my hand, and hardly know how to validate my ticket, they assume I'm a tourist. And they help me. They tell me when to get off the bus, practically shoving me toward the door (thank God). Or if they get off the bus before I do, they tell the driver to tell me when to get off. You can't imagine how much these angels helped me. Every day.
So yes, the lady in the bookshop, who didn't have to help me at all, was one of those. And the people who nearly shoved me (with my luggage) off the bus at Piazza Ferrari, were angels that day. So I did as I was told, nearly fell off the bus during rush hour, and asked everyone I encountered where the Tourist Office was. I was directed to the next piazza over, which was a matter of steps (literally -- there was a wide, shallow staircase), Piazza Matteoti. At the tourist office I was given a map, a list of cheap hotels, and advised that I wouldn't be helped to get to Santuario di Crea ("We only have information about Genoa." Sigh.
As evening fell, I knew I would not find a hotel from this list, as I was having trouble getting myself oriented to the map and the streets. So I went back up to Piazza Ferrari, which seemed to be the "happening place," with a gorgeous fountain (I have a picture that I took at night, is too dark, needs editing) and lots of tourists and locals hanging around. As I walked the perimeter of the piazza, I saw a simple sign, "Hotel Doria," with an arrow. It seemed much more of a possibility for me than the grand hotels that surrounded the piazza, with their amazing architecture and obvious four stars. So I walked the block down to explore "Hotel Doria," went down a steep flight of stairs to an alley, and went inside. It was a perfectly lovely little family hotel, and I got a room with a bath en suite for 55 euros.
So -- I love Genoa. I spent 2 nights and about 2.5 days there, and I'm charmed. I had a failed attempt to use the internet (which my landlord facilitated by calling a friend and getting me permission to buy internet time at another hotel), I found a dark madonna icon at a nearby church (by dint of hard searching and labor), and I had another dinner that was so good that I wanted to cry. I forgot that Genoa was a seaport (DUH -- where Christopher Columbus is from!) -- and the spaghetti with frutti di mare that I got in a little cafe with NO atmosphere, but other single women eating there) was the best I had my whole trip. Amazing. Calamari, which I've always refused/avoided. Mussels, little clams, Oh. My. God. What an unexpected gift.
I got in on Saturday, and realized on Sunday that nobody I asked had ever heard of a church I heard about on the internet, "Stes. Stefano e Lazaro," but I was within easy walking distance of a church called "Ste. Stefano" (no Lazaro). So I thought I would explore it. I got directions -- twice -- but missed the turn straight up a set of steps to the church, but rather walked this roundabout drive which took me an hour longer, but resulted in views like this:
Oh, it was a pretty climb, and my question to passersby "San Stefano?" left me confident that I was going in the right direction. So I got to the church, went in, and found some kind of ritual about to begin. There were flowers, and confessions being said in an adjoining chapel, and I couldn't quite figure out what was happening. There was a madonna icon that was definitely not European in color, perhaps rather "ruddy," but definitely not black, either. I got a couple of pictures, but again, they are dark, and need editing. After some inquiry outside the church from people entering, I was able to gather that this was a Ukranian service -- thus the presence of the icon.
This is the church of San Stefano. The direct access staircase (for those who prefer not to walk the long, circuitous route that I took) is at the far left of this picture.
The next morning I set out for Livorno and Pisa, on down the coast from Genoa. I knew I'd get to see some of the beautiful coast. I was in a dilemma about whether to cut across to Venice, Veneto, Padua, Parma, etc. on the northeast coast, or to travel a bit on down the western coast. I was seriously considering my options here. I knew I definitely wanted to go to Rome, Loreto, and Sicily, and also knew by this time that I'd have to omit a whole bunch of sites on my original, tentative itinerary. But my decision was to head to Livorno (actually, the madonna I wanted to see was in Montenero, very close to Livorno), then probably Pisa, and then I'd decide about the rest. Once I learned about traveling times, these were only decisions I could have made with experience.
I caught a train from a different station, within walking distance from my hotel. It was actually a very nice neighborhood, and I wish I had arrived at that station, rather than the grittier main station. Next time, I'll know!