Book Expo America — live streaming right here

Book Expo America (BEA) is the largest book selling conference and expo in the US.  It starts in NYC on Tuesday June  5th with a speaker-laden breakfast, and continues until Thursday June 7th at 5 PM.  You can watch the live streaming right here.  If you want to see the schedule for BEA Streaming  click here.


Who gives this man to be married?

Manchester, VT.  The minister is standing before us on the lawn of  the Hildene estate in his madras Bermuda shorts and Ralph Lauren navy polo, squinting into the afternoon sun, book of liturgy in one hand, the other hand raised to block the glare.  He is fitting our wedding rehearsal in between summer barbeques.

“I’ve been known to ask this a couple of times, until I can really hear you all very well.  You have to sound as if you truly mean it.  After all, we are convincing this man to let go of his daughter.  We need to give him assurance that we all are behind this. ‘Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?’   Please respond with ‘We will.’”

And the second time the 50-some rehearsing wedding party and various relatives and raise our voices, supporting the father of the bride, with a resounding and hearty “We will.”

So the minister proceeds:  “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

“Her mother and I do,” the father quietly replies, as he physically releases my future daughter-in-law’s hand to my son, and steps back into the assembled witnesses.

There is no tradition, no ceremony that supports the mother of the groom in letting go of her son.  Perhaps this is an anomaly, left over from frontier and olden days when the daughter-in-law came into the son’s family, worked on the family farm, cooked in her mother-in-law’s kitchen, or danced in the court of her new surname.  But times have changed, and this tradition has not.  Perhaps tradition as it stands is a blind spot that needs addressing.

At one of the warm-up parties in Dallas leading up to the wedding, I chatted with a woman whose child had recently married.  Eager to understand this life passage ahead of us, I asked her, “How was it for you?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” she said as she marched drivenly towards an hors d’oeuvre platter, possibly trying to duck the subject, and me. “There is grief involved.  I know it isn’t supposed to be that way, but it’s there.”  Yes, I was experiencing that already, in flashes.  It is no mistake that so many people mix up the title of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

An Indian friend told me that the Sindhi wedding ceremony lasted a week, and began with a funeral-like ceremony, Wanwas.  Both the bride and groom are dressed in old clothes and are to stay inside for 3 days.  Then seven women from each family gang up on the couple, pouring oil on the top of their heads and ceremoniously tearing and shredding the couple’s old clothes, enacting the end of  family and emotional commitments. Then the torn clothes are thrown into the sea.  In the Oriya marriage ceremony, the groom’s mother is not even allowed to participate, for fear that she may not be able to endure the strain of the celebrations.

These traditions acknowledge that there is grief in the transition of your family unit as you knew it.  The dreams you had for your son or daughter must be released, and their dreams themselves embraced.  No family celebrations will be the same number of people again.  And you likely will have less of them, because you are now sharing your son with another family, or families in the case of divorced parents.  And they are sharing their daughter with you.  Holidays become much more complex then they already were.

Walking down the aisle at your son’s wedding, you cannot help but feel the ghosts of your own marriage, the vows you took that bring you to this moment.  I remembered my dreams for my own marriage.  And I remembered the reality, which ended in divorce.  And I want so much more for my son and new daughter-in-law.   It is a mother’s instinct to keep her offspring safe.  And marriage is a risky business, albeit with strong rewards.

But the grief is the elephant in the room that we don’t walk about. Only joy is allowed as appropriate visible feelings.  When this honest Dallas woman told me “There is grief involved,” I felt the same relief I felt as when, as a new mother, another mother admitted to me that sometimes she wished—in fleeting moments—that she could get out of this motherhood gig and have her freedom back.  A not-allowed moment, but a true one.  And the guilt I was carrying was released.

And here, at this ceremony, we do get out of some clauses of the motherhood gig, and have more freedom back.  And there is guilt related to enjoying that new freedom too.

I began asking other women about how to be a good mother-in-law.  My friend Sarah is very close with her mother-in-law, so I asked her what wisdom she could dispense.  She told me that she initially found herself struggling with her son’s choice of bride.  She confessed to her own mother-in-law, “I am praying that I come to love my daughter-in-law.”  Sarah’s mother-in-law replied, “Don’t pray to love her.  Pray to accept her.  Then you will grow to love her.”    Later, Sarah realized with shock that must have been what her own mother-in-law did, when Sarah married.  This woman who was a dear and close companion had once struggled to accept Sarah.  And now loves her.

While the happy couple is deeply in love, the families may need time to grow into it.  History and shared experiences help build emotional solid ground.  For families far-flung, accumulating enough time together to build that love is sometimes a challenge.

The evening of our rehearsal dinner party, at the Wilburton Inn one hill up from Hildene,  I ask my son to walk with me, and we take a moment.  I express my deep joy in having him in my life.  My pride in the man he has become.  And my faith in his decisions.   He knows this woman well, and as he chooses her wholeheartedly, so I do too.  Since he loves her deeply, I will also.

I realized later that in that moment, I gave this man to be married.  No congregation backing us up, just our own love and history together.
I released his hand to my daughter-in-law.

“Who gives this man to be married?”

“His father and I do. “

With joy, grief, love, anticipation, excitement, and with all our blessings for a strong and supportive life together.

10 writing tips — oh, alright, 17!

  1.  Your way is the write way.
  2. You don’t have to show your writing to ANYone.  You can, but you don’t have to.  Just writing for yourself is very important.
  3. You don’t have to READ what you write.  In fact, it is a good idea to let things “sit” for a while.  Like a stew—let your thoughts stew on paper.  Just keep writing.
  4. Give yourself some space.  Don’t read yesterday today.  Read yesterday next week.
  5. You have permission not to have to be Mozart.
  6. Its okay to love writing.  Or to hate it.  Doesn’t matter.  Just write.
  7. Once you start writing, don’t stop.  Professional writers know that it is so difficult to start writing, that it is best to just keep it going.
  8. Find your best time of day to write.  It may be morning, it may be just before bed, it may require cappuccino.
  9. Three pages is all you need to do.  Just three pages.  (Julia Cameraon)
  10. You have the right to show your reading to NO ONE. (I know it is also number 2, it’s just that it is important.  This helps you write without your critic yelling in your ear.)
  11. Its okay to keep one journal—or five.  If you have several, making one a gratitude journal is a good idea.
  12. Longhand or shorthand—no matter.  Experiment.  Again, it is YOUR way.
  13. There is no one right way to write.
  14. Imitate your favorite author.
  15. Write “the History of your Hair.”
  16. Exchange baby pictures with your best friend, and write a fictional story out that little girl or boy.
  17. enjoy!

Restructuring time (growing your own skeleton)

Work creates a structure in our lives.  A steady job circumscribes our time.  Instead of circadian rhythms, we adapt to corporate rhythms, rising with the echoes of old punch clocks and factory whistles, timing our commute to the tides of our Interstate rivulet.  Even our yearly cycles have the imprint of our work environment:  we choose our vacations to coincide or complement the company paid holidays.  We are aware of end of quarters, deadlines, big contract completions—whatever the deliverable bottom line is for our line of work.  

Then, we get “restructured” from the corporate life.  We choose to move to freelance, and begin a creative career.  Or we get a “Workforce Restructuring Action” letter and depart.  In either case, all of our rhythms change.  No need to rise to beat the traffic.  Our job now is to find a client, build a business, or find another job.  The Internet doesn’t have traffic jams, typically.  All the usual borders and boundaries of daily, weekly, quarterly rhythms are gone.  Friends and neighbors often assume you are available for anything anytime, instead of asking “is this a good time to …”

In talking with fellow non-employees, we all agree this disorientation is a developmental stage of the transition process.  It is like having been a lobster, with a shell that moves us along (the corporation), and suddenly we need to grow a skeleton (our creative work flow).  Where work dictated the flows and tides, we now do.  And it takes a while.

I heard of a study where people were voluntarily kept in darkness for several months.  Given food when they requested it, the participants could eat, sleep, exercise according to their own rhythms.  And the results of this study showed that our natural biological rhythms were longer than 24 hours, when left to our own devices.  We had a range of around a 26 to 28 hour natural body clock.

Likewise, upon becoming part of the restructured experiment,  we non-employees need to find our cycles—but not in darkness or isolation.  We find them against various and unfamiliar rhythms of companies, corporations, human resource folks, and now electronic bulletin boards and job boards, whose culture and cycles are foreign to us.  And against the previously and still familiar schedules of our family and friends, with their expectations on our time.

The only ‘cure’ for this disorientation is to grow your own skeleton, to get very clear about what rhythms work for you.  Exercise early AM or late PM?  Make phone calls at 10 or 2?  Write and send letters morning or afternoon?

The gift of this experiment is, when we again find ourselves surrounded by the cycles of a corporation, we’ll know what are our own best rhythms, and will work more effectively.  We’ll remember, that is, until we become fully acculturated again in new company–our own business, or a new corporation.  And forget.

Surprising God

Marrakesh, Morocco, in  Riad Omar.

Sitting inside a beautiful traditional red and green tent, having dinner on top of a riad in Marrakech, I am discussing the Call to Prayer with Jamal.  Jamal is a shopkeeper who has offered to a few guests from Riad Maizie to his relative’s riad for dinner.  He has lived in Marrakesh all his life, and taught himself impeccable English—Jamal was finally inspired to learn a foreign language when he met a woman who he described as “disorientingly beautiful”–and she spoke no Arabic, only English.  Her beauty had worked its magic well with Jamal.  He is extremely articulate in English.

Five times a day there is a call to prayer here, which sounds more primal and plaintiff than I had expected.  I have almost a physical reaction to the amplified sound going out over the city, it sounds like a human air-raid, imploring the living to take refuge—in their Divine.   I have been using the human alarm clock here to offer up my own private silent prayers whenever I hear the call.   Now I press Jamal for details.

“We recognize two types of prayer:  the private prayer between you and your god, and the prayers you offer with others, together.”  Ah, yes, I see the distinction.  “The prayers with others are more powerful because you are connected together.  It is a different kind of prayer—bigger.  The prayer you offer between just you and God is when you surprise God.”

Surprise God?  I was totally stunned.  This is a possibility that I had never considered, never thought to think could exist.  I suspect that Jamal might have intended a different word, but that it also came out perfectly. I knew that I was often surprised _by_ God, by the devine, by life, but this was the first time in my life that I have ever contemplated surprising God.  I mean, if He/She is all knowing, how can I sneak up and surprise a being that knows all?  Perhaps if I asked permission to plan a surprise party, and asked Them not to peek?  I  certainly could see delighting God.   Maybe that is a kind of surprise.

Since we have free will, perhaps that is the loophole.  Today, I will see if I can find a way to surprise God.  Perhaps even to surprise myself.  And maybe to delight us both.

My two Italian husbands

Citta della Pieve, Umbria.
“Call me.  I can do anything for you.  AN-knee-theeng.”

Festa della Donna Mostra on weddingsThis strange man had just thrust his card in front of my face, so close that even with my reading glasses on, I had not a prayer of reading it.  He had followed me through the piazza on my way to buying sfuso wine, asking me if I worked here, and seemed delighted to hear my American Itanglish.  I was brushing him off as best I could, and thought I had shook him off when I settled in to a nice cappucino with my British friend Ingrid, at Stefanini’s Bar.   But here he was, literally in my face.

I did not understand his Italian–the accent was more Sicilian than my ear was used to, so Ingrid translated for me.  Signore Stefanini appeared in the doorway of his cafe, overseeing this interaction.  He had his arms crossed over his chest, and was shaking his head decidedly and vigorously “no” indicating that this interloper and would-be “anything” man was… bad news.  Signore Stefanini’s ancestors I am certain were the original Roman models for the comedy and tragedy masks, so classic are his facial lines.  And a nonverbal “no” from him holds ominous overtones.

I put the card firmly on the table, pushing it away from me.  Ingrid and I debated leaving it there or throwing it in the trash, and opted for leaving it, knowing that Signore Stefanini would properly dispose of it.

Ingrid’s well honed British social sensibilities were incensed on my behalf.  She was quite put out, and upset that this town which she so loved would harbor such a rude would-be Lothario.

“You must come to dinner with me tomorrow night,” Ingrid declared emphatically, as if this somehow endeSaved wedding gown from the exhibitd this situation.  “We will meet here at 8 o’clock and go to Serenella’s.” Of course I was delighted to accept.  Ingrid is wonderful company.

I arrived at the appointed time, surprised to find Ingrid accompanied by two men:  Haki, a gentle Kuwait man  and Antonio, a dapper and courtly Italian–both married to friends of Ingrid’s, both English women (who happened to be traveling out of the country–and Ingrid was leaving shortly as well).

Ingrid introduced us with “Jill, these gentlemen will be your husbands.  They will give you their phone numbers, and should you need to produce a husband at any point, to deal with that Lothario, they will be happy to stand in.  I assure you they will act quite appropriately and protect you.  You need only to ask.  We are all going to dinner now, and we will take our evening walk around town so that you are seen with them, should that man be lurking about.”

We had a delightful dinner together, just like married folks.  The men chatted away with each other, and Ingrid and I chatted away together too.  I never saw the card holder in question again, and I had my two Italian husbands to call upon at any time, for appropriate protection.

Phone home (cheaply)!

I often get asked about inexpensive ways to call the US from abroad, and  there are some easy steps to take to phone home–and save some money.

Does your phone have the right frequency?

If you are not sure what cellualar technology is being used uin the country where you will be traveling, check an online cell phone site that specializes in unlocked phones.  The cell phone you will use on your travels must “talk” with the country’s technology.  Italy, for instance, has mostly 1800 MHz networks, so a tri- or quad-band will work there.  If you are buying a new phone, go with the quad-band–it will work globally.  Tri-bands work in many countries, but not in the UK.

 Is your phone “unlocked”?

Phones purchased from a telephone provider (like AT&T) are usually locked, which means that the software has been set to accept only that provider’s service.  It is a fairly simple software “fix” to unlock a phone (places in NYC charge  around $25 to unlock it).  Once unlocked, you can use that phone on any phone provider’s service as long as you have their sim card (a small chip that gives you a phone number and membership in their telephone service).

Okay, stay with me here, because the
pay off is,

You can have your own in-country local phone number

for 5 Euros with an unlocked tri or quad band phone, you  have a local phone in Europe with your own European phone number.
Incoming calls to that number, then, are FREE, and only outgoing calls are charged.  You just take out your US SIM card, put in your European  SIM card, and you are good to go.  Presumably you have the chargers and
adapters for the phone already…

How to get a European phone number

So, to get a local European number, take your passport, 5 Euros and your unlocked phone and go to a store that sells phones, or a store with VODAFONE sticker on the window (or TIMM).  My Italian number rang in Morrocco and France, so a Vodafone number should work all over Europe.

You can then send a TXT message to someone in the US, and ask them to call you… (remember, no charge to your phone for incoming calls).  OR, you  can purchase a calling card and punch in a whole bunch of numbers, and call the US for fairly cheaply.
The best calling card company (which my Italian school recommended to their students) is and costs between 2.5 and 3.5 cents a minute, depending on which plan you choose.
ALSO,you can buy minutes on SKYPE and use that to call computer to phone.   You would have to pay a local “Internet Point” (which is what they call internet cafes), and the calls are around 3 cents a minute –plus whatever time charge the internet point levies.  You
would use the computer and a headset, which most internet cafes provide.  You also have VIDEO Skype, which is free–and computer to computer.
If you are going to be in one place for several weeks with dedicated WiFi or internet connection, then I would recommend buying a MAJIC JACK or a Vonage account to use on your travel computer. Both of these hook allow you to call numbers in the US
as if you were in the US–no additional charges.  It is VoIP technology (voice over internet protocol) and doesn’t care about the country you are physically calling from.
It is best to use a phone abroad that you are already comfortable with, so try your phone out in the US.  AT&T has an under-advertised option of a Pay-as-you-go phone, with no contract.  You just pay for minutes.  That’s an easy way to get a SIM card for your now unlocked phone and use the phone in the US before you take it on the road.

About packing

Check out .  This website has a good Photo credit: Jill Hackettpacking list, as does Rick Steves’ website, .  For more than a month, you may not be able to get everything in one bag, but it is a helpful place to start!  And you will not lose your bag.

Things that are either difficult or impossible to find here in Italy, that you might miss from home:

  • Medicines and perscriptions (Ritalin is not sold in Italy, for example)
  • Zip Lock bags (yes really!)
  • Sun screen in Winter is harder to find
  • Index cards
  • Tooth whitener

Bring copies of your prescriptions along with you–if you need a refill you can take them to a farmacia and they will fill your prescriptions either immediately or within a couple of days–often more inexpensively than stateside prices.

Also bring any medical records along with you.  Italians are expected to carry their medical records from doctor to doctor.  If you have a copy of your last dental x-ray, bring it along just in case– or ask your dentist to make you a copy (usually for aroung $5).  It is a good insurance to have.

And speaking of, especially if you are going for a longer stay (over three weeks) consider buying travel medical insurance.  There are several to choose from.  I use American Express Medical Travel Insurance (an Amex card is not required to buy the insurance).  Some features are… it  provides in-country liaison personnel to help you as well as medical evacuation plans, and pays in-country expenses for you while you wait for your own insurance’s reimbursement.

“Make me Harry Potter!”

"Make me Harry Potter!"

"Make me Harry Potter!"

Paciano, Umbria: Festa di Tavolo Lungo

As I was installing a lightning bolt on this British lad’s forehead, a la Harry Potter, his older brother watched carefully, and then signed up for a shooting star on his forehead:  Harry Potter and Merlin as relatives!

It was indeed a day full of magic.   Once a year Paciano offers its festa de tavolo lungo, literally, the festival of the long table.  During this day, this charming Renaissance town becomes one giant dining room.  You buy a ticket for 12 Euros, and are treated to a 6 part meal, served at stations around the town:  Apperitivos, wine and water, fragioli de Umbria (beans), pasta al ragu, porchetto (pork), and dolce con caffe.

My friend Margaret had signed me up to do face painting in the main square.  “You can do this, right?”  “Certo, why not?”  After all, I had years of experience drawing pictures on lunch bags for my children, and I knew children to be a most appreciative audience.  Remembering that my son approved of my rendition of the space shuttle on his lunch bag, with a pleased and proud smile,  I figured faces would be an easier medium.

A wiggle factor

A wiggle factor

What I had not counted on was the wiggle factor.  The youngest were the wiggliest, and the older boys, the most distractable.   So holding onto the to-be-decorated body part was a lot harder than executing the design!

Pink butterfly

Pink butterfly with purple dots

After Harry Potter, lady bugs were high in popularity with the girls, and the tricolore (the Italian flag) was a favorite, to my surprise, among the boys.  I manufactured butterflies in all colors — purple, pink, green with orange dots.  Hot air balloons, little foot prints walking up the arms, birds, fish, spiders, girasole (sunflowers) all sprouted on arms, hands, foreheads and cheeks.   One pre-teen girl consumed every picture I had on my poster, and still wanted more:  clearly she was going to grow up and be a tattooed biker babe!  I rose to the occasion and created several designs just for her:  a necklace and a ring, painted on– I think it was a combination of emeralds and cinnabar.

Several adults took me up on this “gratis” offer too.
One woman asked, “what can you do?” and remembering my space shuttle, I said,
“Anything.  What do you want?”
“A black cat on my shoulder. Here.”
“Smiling, or arched back?”  Smiling contentedly.  Later my friend Margaret greeted this woman, reaching out to touch her arm, and the woman shrieked “Don’t touch my cat!!! It might smudge!”
Spiderman brings a possie

Spiderman brings a possie

Becoming spiderman

Becoming spiderman

My biggest challenge was the young boy who wanted to be Spiderman.  “Draw me his whole mask.”  Gosh, I only saw the film once, and this fellow clearly could quote some of the dialogue, complete with inflections and timing!  But, rallying with space shuttle courage, I ventured forth, drawing ALL over his face, around his eyes, legs down his cheeks, spider head mid-forehead.  Then I handed him the mirror, awaiting judgement.   He studied  himself, pleased, then said “You forget the line that goes from the chin down the middle of the neck.  That’s where the zipper is hidden.”  So we installed the zipper.

After a while, Spiderman came back, holding one of those long thin balloons, in a kind of loop.  He handed it to me proudly.
“I made this for you.  It’s a heart.”

Gershwin and the Knights of Malta

Maggione.  Opening night, in June.

Jill Hackett

Photo credit: Jill Hackett

Built 9 centuries ago, between 1150 and 1170, the Castle of the Knights of Malta is impeccably restored, and is the first castle I have seen that I have ever wanted to live in.   The cypress trees are ancient and much taller than most you’ll see in Umbria.  They have been protected by knights, benefactors and skilled gardeners.  You walk into the main courtyard– its a bit older, only 15th century– and immediately smell the jasmine that climbs up three stories in each corner of the courtyard.     Tune your ears and you’ll hear German, French, English from New Jersey, and Italian.   It is unusual that here, Italians are not necessarily in the majority attendance.  This music festival has a strong following from abroad.

Though the castle has been here for 9 centuries, the Trasimeno Music Festival is only four years old–started by an incredibly talented Canadian pianist, Angela Hewitt who hand picks musicians from around the world to participate in this week long celebration of music.   The main concerts are here in Magione, with a performance at Gubbio and another in Perugia.

Taking the stage in full-body sequins, on opening night Hewitt shares the piano with Garrick Ohlsson —  four pieces for piano for four hands.   The first half of the program starts with Mozart’s Sonata in F Major,  followed by Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor.   The two pianists take their seats by the same ebony grand, known as a pianoforte in Italy (piano in Italian being the word for floor or level, as in third floor).

As Hewitt and Ohlsson raise their hands, I see not four, but eight hands, their own being perfectly reflected in the polished ebony backdrop to the keyboard.   Watching the hands ballet, the musicians allowing the music to play them.   Spotlights hold the stage in light, as the sun sets.   During the Schubert, a few bats begin to dive in and out of the spotlights.

The highlight of the program, though, was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  I was astonished how home sick I felt when I heard this music, excellently excuted by four hands.   I am not a student of music, so my visceral reaction to the music urprised me even more.  I experienced New York in the late 20’s and 30’s, the sense of an era.  I did not realize that I knew each passage — as it arrived I knew the next theme and could hum it in my head.  The sheer comfort of this magnificient music, played with so much joy and verve.

I was very proud to be an American.  And I felt a bit less homesick.

Dealing with people’s reactions

When you share your plans:  “I’m going to Italy for two (or three) months!” be prepared to handle the reactions.  You’ll find three main reactions.


1.The detractors, who will try to tarnish or take your dream.  (For example: “It is way too hot that time of year.”  “You really should not go alone.”)


2.The attachers, who will try to make your dream theirs.  I had one distant relative offer to stay with me for 2 of my 8 weeks, having never visited me in over 30 years!  And another friend, to whom I offered a visit, spoke then only of “her summer in Tuscany,” and “her trip to Italy,” and nothing of visiting me!


3.And the best of the group, the enhancers.  These are your friends who are rooting for you, and share the little restaurant they found behind the Uffizi, or how to find the best olive oil.  They are savoring your adventure with you.


Sometimes you will get hybrid reactions, like this one from my friend Terry: “Have I told you recently how much I hate you?!  Seriously, I’m so jealous I can’t stand it.  I’m really proud of you!”



And, by the way, for non-EU citizens, the maximum number of days to go without requesting an extended Visa is 90 days.  Used to be that you could just go over a border and re-enter, but since the European Economic Community, this has changed.  Now you may legally be in an EU country (any country or number of them) for 3 months, then need to be out of all EU countries for three months, then you can be back in for 3… you get the idea.



See for more details.


Dreams are one thing, having them another.

It sounds like it should be a simple choice, when the opportunity presents itself, to grab that brass ring. But it isn’t always.
I first learned this when my daughter asked for aCitta_3 051 trip to Europe with me as her graduation present from college, destination: anywhere of my choice. I had never been to Europe, and I had always wanted to go to Ireland. This dream was probably propelled by my great grandmother’s wish to either live to be 100, or win the Irish sweepstakes so she could go back to Ireland. She lived to 92–I went to Ireland.

But in the planning, when I felt my dream in reach, I started to panic. We were going to go biking in Ireland, combining two loves of mine. I called my daughter and said “Maybe we should go to France, and bike between the cathedrals. They are usually about 20 miles apart, so that the friars could walk between them in a day’s time.” And my daughter knew French fluently and was a religion major. Note the mind making things logical, and taking me away from my gut knowing.

My daughter, in her young wisdom, counseled me, “Mom, let yourself have your dream. You have always wanted to go to Ireland. Let’s go! I think you need to make a new dream now, to take it’s place.”

In the Hero’s Journey as Joseph Campbell describes it, just before the hero gets his prize, there is temptation. Something comes up to test the hero, does he really wish to get to this destination?

As I planned my summer in Italy, this testing happened over and over again. Waves of fear, and many logical reasons why it would be “better” to stay at home. But, I remembered my daughter’s words, and my son and daughter-in-law’s gift: I had always wanted to do this, I had long wanted to live aboard for at least 2 months, long enough to know what it felt like to live in another country. And I had wanted to go to Italy since my college days–40 some years ago. The door was open, the ticket was in my hand. Life had conspired to uproot me repeatedly, and it was doing everything but pushing me across the sea.

Still, I struggled with receiving. Is it alright to be this happy? Is it okay to be this irresponsible by outside standards and this deeply responsive, responsible, to me?

Citta_2 074Julia Cameron uses the phrase “Leap and the net will appear.” I like the visual from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Harrison Ford walks out into thin air, and as each foot goes down, a bridge of land appears under his foot. Taking each step on faith, once I committed to that step, it became firm and clear.

Even once I arrived here in Italy, however, in the early weeks, I had to handle my internal critics. “What are you DOING here? Shouldn’t you be in the US teaching and writing? Shouldn’t you be doing something sensible?”

What helped immensely when these waves came up were emails from home. My children emailing me now and then, popping into my life, knowing we carry each other each day. Cindy giving me updates on my dog sleeping happily in her garden. Bonnie-Kate reporting that my cat Tom was curled up on her lap as she wrote.

And then, practicing receiving. Learning to be present in these moments that might not come again. Opening up the hands and heart, to take it all in.

The beauty here, of earth and people, helps the process.

Italy is not a good place to experience suffering

Every Christmas day, in the fondo of Palazzo della Corgna, the terzieri of Castello presents inspirational scenes for the season (called a presepe).  It is Castello’s gift of the season to the community.  Castello is one of three terzieri’s (a section of the town, with deep historical roots).  Each terzieri has its own taverna and meeting place, as well as traditions.  For Castello, their green and black flags fly at Christmas to herald the opening of their Christmas presepe.

I first saw this presepe  in 2007 just after I moved here to Citta della Pieve for the second time.  I had been warned viewing this exhibition would be very emotional and moving, so I was braced for tears.  This particular year, each of the stations were (human re-enactments of) famous Dutch paintings.

I walked tremulously up to the station of Christ on the cross flanked by two thieves, all three “hanging” on crosses in loin clothes (think gorgeous Italian male bodies in full youth and health—dark lighting, very dramatic and somber).  I was bracing for the tears, about to take in this very real crucifix scene, when…  the gorgeous young man representing Christ stretched, yawned and scratched his arm, then his nicely draped loin cloth, and said “Andiamo, let’s take a break!”

Well, it was not the effect I had expected, needless to say.  So I walked around the exhibit, taking in the somber scenes, and had another go at it, towards the end of my visit, still wanting to fully experience this epic iconic scene of suffering and misery.

Second go, approaching prayerfully, a quiet line of townsfolk before me, I waited my turn.  Finally I was before the visage, and then the three suffering and “dying” men started cracking jokes with each other.

Which served to prove to me, that Italy is not the best place to experience suffering!  This is a country far more made for experiencing joy.

This year’s presepe opens on Christmas Day, and remains open until January 6th, the day of the arrival of the Magi.

Expats are like dandelions

“They are a different breed,” my friend Claire informed me.“The friendships form fast, go deep, and can get pulled up just as fast.”

Expats are like dandelions. We make a wish, and the winds take us to new ground. We grow quickly on our new land. And the taproots of new friendships grow deep. Like a dandelion, when something pulls on it to uproot it again, friendships can be pulled all the way out, the deep tap root too—and suddenly—because the side roots which stabilize other plants are not as well developed.

There is common wisdom that you make the strongest friendships in high school or prep school, when you are thrown into a common environment during a time when your identity is being formed and you are renegotiating your relationship to family and traditions.

It is exactly like this as you become an expat.

Your adopted country is your campus. Your dorm rooms are a bit farther apart than in prep school. And you have a select group of people to choose from.

Like prep school, you share some common characteristics by virtue of the method in which you were chosen to be there. You are all adventurous, independent, curious, come to be relatively self-reliant, and eager to learn.   Most folks come from fascinating backgrounds, with much diversity in the mix.  When there is a language barrier to overcome in the new country, you also can find yourself hungry for meaningful conversations, the kind that kept you up all night in your dorm rooms with your friends.

And nothing bonds like common activities. Since you are “traveling” to some degree at all times, on this newly uncommon ground, your other expat friends become traveling companions, available for side trips, tips, and excellent advice on how to understand the culture and assimilate cultural differences.

I have observed there is a life-cycle to expats. There is the expat-wanna-be time, when folks (usually women, surprisingly) think they would like to like in another specific country, so they take exploratory trips during which they interview current expats to get their experience (what will it be like to live here?) as well as confess their emerging plan (I really think I might…) (For students on junior year abroad, 80 to 85% of the students are female. We tend to take the lead in living abroad.)

Next there is First Leap. It can be a month, or two months, usually the first leap is no more than three. That now is determined by the Schengen Visa requirements in the European Economic Community. Folks without EU passports are allowed to visit only for three months. Longer than that they need to procure a Visa, and in Italy, a Permisso di Sigiorno. Used to be, you could step outside the EU to Switzerland for even a day, and come back in and your 3 months would be renewed, but that is no longer the rule.The rule is, three months in, three months away, then your three months renew again.

During First Leap, you figure out how much you like your dream. What does it really feel like to live abroad? How do the cultural differences fit you? How do they wear on you? Comfortably, or do they rub the wrong way against your native grain so much that it is uncomfortable? How are the connections to family back in your native land? Can the communication methods present work well enough to maintain the connections you want? How is it for you to live with the uncertainties of the fluctuating exchange rate ? How are the friendships? How welcoming or hostile is the community you have picked to live in?

Not all towns are equal in welcoming stranieri (foreigners).  Some places, just as in the US, find foreigners annoying or worse, threats to their own culture, while other places range from accommodating to welcoming.

Perugia (the capital of Umbria, Italy) for instance, is very accommodating to foreigners who are there to study the language–there is an excellent language school there, Universita per Stranieri di Perugia. The shopkeepers in Perugia are patient with your attempts to speak Italian. It is not the easiest city for people not wishing to speak Italian, though.For that, go to a destination you can readily find in a guide book, like Florence, Siena, Assisi, Cortona, or Rome. Here you will find the atmosphere easier to speak English, but it will be a bit harder to access the experience of living a day to day Italian life.

After First Leap comes The Yearning.This is the period when you have returned to your native land, perhaps thinking you might shake this wandering lust. Then the yearning begins.You feel a part of your heart was left overseas, and you wish you could go back. So you begin planning the Next Leap.

Next Leaps are usually longer than First Leaps, and better planned. You know how to wrap up your affairs in your native land more easily, how to forward mail, how to get cell phones set up and your insurances paid, absentee voting ballets procured. You have your travel insurance at the ready. Next Leaps you do not make the same mistakes you made on First Leaps. You make new mistakes.

With Next Leaps, you also have community to return to in your adopted country. So you are “caught” when you leap. It is a more gentle re-entry. This is my second leap.

Pasticceria GMB — sumptuous, delicious and playful

Castiglione del Lago (PG), Zona Industriale le Pucciarelli.
In the middle of an Italian industrial zone, I found myself listening to an Ommagio a Edith Piaf, sipping French wine (George Deboeuf Beaujolais-Villages), nibbling delicious and beautifully rendered pasteries, and chatting with friends from Australia and Great Britain.   Manola Rosati was singing, and Eleonora Conti accompanied her on the piano.

This presentation of music, wine and food was the gift of owner and master pastry chef Michael Piselli who has created a delightful bistrot in the middle of a drab industrial zone on the outskirts of Castlione del Lago.   Everything is creatively arranged to delight the senses and offer hospitality.

GMB's omaggio to Edith Piaf

GMB's omaggio to Edith Piaf

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People are talking about the Pasticerria GMB — we are rooting for Signore Piselli’s success.   It is not that the business itself that is a new idea:  it is a pastry shop and cafe.  There are many of those here.   It is the creativity, playfulness, and gracious hospitality of the place that is so charming.

As you appoach the pasticceria, you pass trucks and concrete buildings–then come upon a garden filled with boxwoods and cypress.  Outside, a reindeer and sleigh, and a couch and chairs with umbrella for the warm days still gifted to us now and then in this early part of Winter.

Once inside, you are surrounded by crystal chandeliers, a gilded carousel, Christmas packages.   And then, the raison d’etre:  the cases of beautiful pasteries.  Signore Piselli is a master pastry chef, who clearly loves his work.  When I asked him how long he had been doing this work, his face lit up and he shrugged his shoulders in that very Italian way, and said “My family….”  he has always been a baker, surrounded by his family of bakers, born into the tradition.

It is his love of the work, though, that you experience in his cafe.   The details are entended to delight.  Definitely worth the effort to find it.   This coming week, Signore Piselli is offering Mozart on Thursday evening.   I’ll be there.

Language skills

Once you have determined if you will be in the city or rural, and how close to

photo credit: Jill Hackett

Girl talk in Venetian piazza

usual tourism, you will know how much language training you will need.


I highly recommend finding an immersion day for travelers before you arrive.  You can pick up tips from your fellow travelers (I learned it was a wise investment to buy a compass for traveling in the countryside!).


You may wish to supplement this with CD courses or classroom courses.  If you buy a small iPod, you can bring your language courses with you, and listen in country, where you will be more motivated!  And your iPod doubles as a personal radio, alarm, and a disk drive, so you can take files on it to the internet cafes instead of bringing your laptop, if you are traveling with one.


And HarperCollins’ Language Survival Guide, Italy, is very handy to read and have along.  It has a small dictionary at the back, and is filled with useful travel phrases and situations.  Tuck an Italian/English dictionary in your bag, too, before you close it!


For those who are serious and considering long term stays, check out language schools.  La Universita per Stranieri de Perugia has one, two and three month immersion courses at all levels.   You will study for 20 hours a week, and the three month intensive currently costs around 800 Euro.  The University works with a rental agency, and can help you find housing.

Siena also has an excellent language school.  Check with your local Italian Consulate in your home country.  Many consulates maintain a list of language schools for whom they grant extended study visas.

From away, Forestieri and Stranieri

Anyone who is not born in Maine is known as “from away.”  No matter how many years you live in Maine, you will always be from awayFrom away is relative–some folks are more from away than others, but if you are not Maine-born, you are forever from away.

I was crossing Front Street in Portland Maine with friends–one a true born and raised Mainer (who had left for Masschusetts, but she was not considered from away) and her from away husband.  It was Parents’ Weekend at Colby and Bowdoin Colleges, and the restaurants were packed with families.   As we were crossing the street, a car drove by, not stopping for us as required by Maine law.  And the from away husband turned to me and commented, “They really are from away.”

In Italy, this same concept  of from away is known as forestieri, and is applied at the level of the belltower, or town in which you were born, not at the state or province level.   If you were not born here in Citta della Pieve, then you are either forestieri or stranieri.  I am stranieri (a foreigner).  Again, no matter how many years you have lived here, you will always be a forestieri (from away) or a stranieri.

Cyber me, cyber you — what’s in a name?

We all find things about our names that we especially like.  Mine for instance:  in elementary school, we lined up alphabetically–to make it easier on the teacher to keep track of us.  And with my last name of Hackett, I was always the first of the H’s–that is, until Gladys Haas moved to town, and wrecked my alphabetical standing.

Also, when I was growing up there were not many girls named “jill” –and in a small town of 4000, I was the only Jill.  Kind of like Cher, but before her time.  This reign lasted until Junior High when Jill Jacoby moved to town.

I also like how the capital H and the double t’s balance in Hackett, making a visual palindrome,  But I think you know what I’m getting at.  We all have attachments to peculiar aspects of our names.

So it was with great surprise that I found my nomenclature doppelgangers in cyber space.

I logged onto and entered my name.  There were 4 Jill Hackett’s listed in the white pages of the phone books across the United States.  Jill Hackett is currently living in Viola Kansas, Harrison Arizona, Wales Maine, and Oakland California.  (If you find too many in the US, try entering your name in a specific state, or city).

Next I ventured to, and taking care to put my name in quotes (so the search engine searches for the string of words, both in that order), I found

My name sake is the co-founder of the Santa Clarita Master Chorale, a high-quality choral group in Santa Clarita, California, and she occasionally solo’s for them.  In Kansas, I am the assistant superintendent of the Goddard Public Schools in charge of Human Resourses, and have earned my Ph.D.   In Buckinghamshire England, I have graduated from the Bayly School of Reflexology. I am a second grade teacher in Glenwood NY with a pretty nifty website of children’s work. I own a champion Italian greyhound by the name of VULCAN’S DAYSTAR HERSHEY KISS. Here is one  close to home:  I am director of Communications at Central Michigan University.  When I played this game several years ago, I found I was a 60-something marathoner in Alaska, but her press releases have been archived. Turns out Jill Hackett also herds sheep–there is a podcast on iTunes where she describes the process.

Give it a try–search for yourself on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and find out what’s in a cyber name.  You may enjoy the results!


Snowfall in la Pieve

Citta della Pieve, Umbria.

Looking into the main piazza after snow

We had three inches of snow in la Pieve Friday night into Saturday morning.  The streets are very icy right now, and the temperature quite low.  The BBC online has the headline “FREEZING WEATHER BRINGS MISERY TO EUROPE.”

Not at all sure we are miserable here, but it sure is cold, and three inches of snow was an unusual amount of snowfall for this area.   It was amazing Saturday morning to experience the town’s snow removal strategy:  town workers in their traditional yellow pants with big silver reflective stripes weilding DIRT shovels to manually remove the snow.  Their pointed shovels scraped the stones as they moved the snow off to one side.   Not a single snow shovel in sight because there is so little use for that design, it is not worth the expense to buy and store it.

Snow removal

Typically the snow will melt by the end of the day, but BBC is right–the weather is extremely cold, and the snow melts and then refreezes into ice by the next day.  The main roads (outside of town) are well cleared, though extra caution is wise on the hair-pin turns when the road banks off to one side, with deep ditches just off the shoulder.   The stone stairs of the town have been cleared with shovels and salt.

All will be dry and warm again soon.

Looking north towards Chiusi, the town wall casts a shadow

Choosing your housing

Be clear about your purpose in going to Italy.  Write out a mission statement, because as you drill down into details — this will come in handy often through the process.  You’ll find yourself checking back on your intention, as you get to various decision points.


The first time I came to Italy alone was in 2005, for two months.  My mission statement was: I want to experience living in a foreign country—more rural, to have some time for family and friends to visit, and have time to write.  I do not want to be too isolated. And I want to keep this all within my time and money budgets.


Photo credit: Jill Hackett


So when it came to choosing housing, I found one casa for the first month that sleeps 5 (3 bedrooms, 2 baths, walk into town, beautiful views).  And one smaller casa for the second month, which will provide more writing time.  Both required renting a car.




For finding your own housing, start by talking with your friends, asking who they know who has traveled in Italy.  This is my first trip here, and I learned a lot from other travelers’ tales.  You can also get leads on places to stay—both locations and actual rentals.  I found two lovely options through the friend network.


Some internet sites where you can post questions are: and .

Also check with information about moving and living abroad. and are two sites with good general information on Italy.


You can rent a room in a private villa, often with use of the kitchen.  How many housemates you have and how much use of additional facilities varies greatly.  I found a 4 person villa (including the owner) in Perugia, walk to public transportation, for 450 Euros a month.  You had to rent from the first to the last of the month, and this was with a word of mouth recommendation.


Renting a room in an agriturismo with breakfast in the province of Siena can be found for around 60 Euros per person per night. Renting a small house can run from 2000 to 3000 USD/month and up.


When you are using the internet, stick to sites that your friends and theirs have successfully used.  Post a note in your alumni chat.  Check  Rental sites that have British homeowners or cater to Brits are often more open to pets.


I found my houses through my friend network:  Elizabeth’s friend Jan runs tours through Europe, and Jan recommended Verdidea ( ) who, in turn, recommended my two homes for the summer.


And while you are deciding, check out your CD and DVD store.  There are several good travel CDs out on Italy.  If you subscribe to they also have several which are useful to get a sense of the country and its regions.


Some “getting ready” advice

photo credit:  Jill HackettIf you can pack up your house (or sublet it, or swap houses with an Italian family), the finances of the dream become suddenly much more within reach.  Since mortgage, or rent, is not due in the US, then you have these expenses to apply to your adventure.  Also, you can suspend your home phone and your US cell phone (if it does not have GSM 800/1900 global frequencies – more on this later).  And your utilities can either be suspended or covered by your sublettors.


There are several practicalities, however, that are worth knowing ahead of time.   


Household insurance


If you choose the “put everything you own in storage” option, your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy may no longer cover your items in storage.  You must have a valid US mortgage or lease agreement to keep household insurance.  There are a few insurance companies that cover items in storage:  Tenant One for example.  And failure to notify your insurance company of a change in occupancy may invalidate your policy and possibly future insurability, I was told.


Health insurance


Call your agency and check their policy.  It varies.  Many require you to pay for any medical events aboard out of pocket, and reimburse—with proper paperwork—upon your return, and possibly at a lower percentage rate than for US claims.  So, you may be covered, but understand your financial vulnerabilities and plan accordingly.


Check around for medical travel insurance plans.  For instance, American Express offers an excellent Medical Travel Protection plan, covering you for the first 45 days of any trip, including medical evacuation if necessary—and you need not be an American Express cardholder to purchase the policy.


For travelers applying for an extended VISA, the Italian consultate in the US may require you to sign an affidavite promising to purchase health insurance in Italy, which is equivalent to the insurance offered by Assitalia.   You can purchase this when you arrive in Italy.  More about this at


Staying in touch


Phone cards are the cheapest and easiest way.  A website that has particularly low rates for traveling is .  They offer a “virtual” phone card—your number and PIN are assigned to you online, and you print out the instructions.


For traveling in Italy alone, I strongly recommend getting an unlocked GSM phone BEFORE you leave the states.  Buy one with 800/1900 GSM for Italy.  You can purchase them from eBay, or from Simon Cells (, which gave me excellent service.  Then, when you are in Italy, find a Vodaphone or Omni Tel store and buy a SIMS chip for  about 5 Euro, and – you have your own Italian cell phone!


If you are only going for a week or two, renting a phone may be overall cheaper, but for the longer explorations, buy your own phone.


You can add minutes as you use them (“top up”) by buying more time at a Tabac shop in 10 Euro increments.  Calls to your phone are free, and on Vodaphone, calls within Italy are charged currently at 19 cents per minute, and to call the US is 50 cents a minute.


The refurbed Sony Ericsson phone I purchased from doubles as an alarm clock and stop watch as well.  If you are going for a remote adventure, buy the car recharger—it will serve you well.


Computers and electronics


If you are taking your computer with you to Italy (as I have) you will want an Italian surge protector.  I brought my dependable US surge protector multi-plug with me, and it blew the house circuits twice with quiet an accompanying soundtrack.  When I finally found the local internet place (20 minute drive), I purchased a Kraun “Multipresa 5 posizini” with “protezione da impulse di rete” (aka surge protection).  It s 8,90 Euros, and worth the piece of mind!  Kraun’s website is, and it is model number KR.C5.


You’ll want to bring at least two US-to-Italian plug adapters with you, that takes our 2 prong and fits it to their 2 prong, or our grounded three prong to their grounded 3 prong plug.  These are available at Radio Shacks and most places where travel items are sold.


One place tried to sell me a $40 transformer for the computer, which was heavy, and was not for Italy current.  Most places in Italy have 110V, so an adapter (not a transformer) should serve well enough.  And many laptops also have a built-in surge protector.  However, good to be extra safe, and not fry your hard drive.


I’m in the countryside, where the surges (da impulse di rete) varies, so the surge protector helps.  Several folks showed me that my computer has a built in surge variance allowance, which is true.  But I’d rather replace an 8 Euro plug set than an $1000 laptop any day.




If you are near a city, you should have no problem staying connected.  Many hotels offer “internet service” but they may not mean free Wi-Fi the way we enjoy it in the states.


You purchase a prepaid card from Telecom Italia at a Tabac shop (5 Euros for 5 hours), to use the one or few machines in a lobby or café area.  [See] Or if your own computer has Wi-Fi capability, you can log in once you purchase your Telecom card and get a username and password.


Some hotels offer a network plug in your room, but you need your own dial up Internet Service Provider (ISP) to take advantage of that connection.  AOL does have access numbers in Italy.


Vodafone sells an adapter that plugs into your laptop, and connects to the internet using cellular technogy.  Currently the adapter (here) sells for around 150 to 200 Euros–if you have an UNLOCKED adapter from the US, you can just buy the SIM chip from Vodafone.  Then ask for a _no_contract_ month at a time accocunt.  For 30 Eruos you buy 100 hours of internet time, and can connect anywhere in Italy.

More towns have ADSL lines, which, for longer stays, is definitely worth the investment.  You can then use VoIP technology to “phone home.”


You may wish to set up a web email address, such as hotmail or yahoo, which are free services.  They are somewhat easier to access than smaller internet services email applications.



You will need temporary homes for your pets, your car, your valuables (if you are putting everything in storage).


Get your pets’ shots up to date, arm the pet sitter with their records, medicine, a gift certificate to the local pet store for food, and a note and notice to your veterinarian that they are permitted to obtain medical services in your absence for your pet.


You can take dogs and cats into Italy, with no quarantine time at this time.  Dogs must be micro chipped at least 30 days before leaving the country, and recent rabies shots verified.  See the Italian immigration website for current details.  Some US states also have their own procedures—for instance, in Maine, the veterinarians must have your pet’s international papers cleared and signed by the State Veterinarian.  Allow an extra week for that procedure.


Check with your rental agency about their policy on pets, before you show up with your dog.  And check about screens in the rental property, if you are considering traveling with a cat.  Agencies that rent to Brits or British landlords are often quite welcoming of pets, while other potential landlords may be more hesitant or, in some cases, refuse.


And there is a practical consideration for you and your pet.  It is hard on the animals to fly, and their presence, as comforting as it is, can make museum hopping and touring more complex.  In the Tuscan heat, you do NOT want to leave a pet in the car.




Check with your bank to see what kind of an automatic billpayer application they offer.  Either use this, or pre-pay any accounts so your credit stays in tact while you adventure.  Also, call all of your credit cards, and ask what their surcharge is for using the cards overseas.  My cards ranged from 1 to 3% surcharge.  When you have determined which cards you will be using, call them and notify them of the dates that you will be using the card and in what countries.  This will avert difficulties for you, and they make a note on your account.


AAA has a VISA travel card, which you can pre-load with money.  This is useful if you are traveling with another person and sharing expenses.  You can both pre-load the card, and pay lodging, etc. with the card.  Have someone back in the US able to reload the card for you both, should you need it.

You may need to wire your payment to your landlord ahead of time.  Many banks now have online wire services.  Allow a week to 10 days for the money to be credited to your recipient’s account.

Ford: an outstanding foreign car

Citta della Pieve, Chiusi, and Paciano (Umbria.)

A Ford in every parking lot

My Uncle Ross always owned a Ford, his whole life.  Every three years, he would trade  in his Ford Station Wagon, country squire edition (with the “wood” panels) for another newer one.  It was his farm and road trip car.  He and Aunt Verna would drive it from Pennsylvania to their Florida for their annual migration–snow birds, wisely escaping ice and heating bills.  Uncle Ross deeply believed in the reliability and quality of a Ford; they served him well for many years.

I am surprised to find that a Ford can be found in every parking lot in Citta della Pieve, Chiusi, and Paciano–keeping company with Fiats, Lancia’s, Audi’s, and VWs–and the very occasional Honda. It’s clear that Ford’s reliable reputation has followed it to Europe–and is particularly strong among my British friends.

Paul Nelson, a British Ex-pat living in Italy, used to manage European car fleets for a large company.  Paul explains that “80% of the fleet were always Fords–Good value for the money, and you can always find a Ford dealership nearby in Europe.”   My friend Ingrid owns a spiffy Ford Fusion, diesel engine, which has generous carrying room and excellent gas mileage.   Manual transmission, of course– much-needed on the hills in Umbria and Tuscany.

And it is not just the British and my Uncle Ross who appreciate Ford:  their sales are up 19.8% over last year’s sales for November, and Ford is ringing in at the number 2 best-selling car in Europe.   From Ford’s website, “Confirmed as leading imported brand in Italy and France. Italy‘s sales volume increased to 18,900 (up by 5,700) versus November 2008, the highest November volume since 1997. ”

Guess Uncle Ross was right!