The Making of a Razor

We found ourselves with a free morning recently, with so-so weather that was not inspiring us to do something outdoors. An acquaintance of ours suggested that we check out a local artisan who manufactured world-renowned razors. Mastro Livi is a 6th-generation knife maker who took the family craft and specialized in the art of making custom straight razors.

How much could a custom razor possibly cost, you ask? Well, anywhere from $400 to over $1,000, and having now seen the work that goes into it, I am not surprised. Sarah called the office to see if they were open to guests and determine the time that worked best. They were very casual about the time (typical Italian) and told us to drop by whenever, just not during lunch (also typical for Italians). Of course we brought the boys, because what could possibly go wrong taking two little boys to a metalworking shop where they make razors?

The store sold a variety of knives and razors, most of which he made, although he focused more on razors now. The only knife he makes commonly now is the prosciutto knife, which is a finely sharpened knife specifically made to hand slice 1mm thick slices of cured ham.

The workshop behind the store was guarded by a very aggressive goose (not kidding). Inside it was well-arranged for productivity, if not a bit cluttered. There was a small wood-burning stove in the very center of the room. The smells of sawdust, smoke and tools filled the air, reminiscent for me of my dad’s workshop.

Mastro Livi was very inviting and openly talked about his work and his business. He had a humble demeanor, but spoke openly about the process that he uses, implying that he did not feel threatened by any competition. He was happy to have us watch as he worked, explaining each step, all while stopping to talk to the boys every once in a while. He was methodical and unhurried. It was clear that he had more orders than he could fill, but that he was in no rush to increase  production at the expense of his product.

The razors are a combination of two types of steel, one very hard and one slightly softer. Blending the metals gives the benefit of a hardened steel, but also makes it easier to sharpen, plus the pattern produced by the blending process is stunning. It turns out the blending part was Joshua’s favorite part of the visit.

First, the forge is heated up to approximately the temperature of the sun, the metal is fixed to the end of an iron rod and placed inside. Once the metal is literally red hot, it is compressed using a special machine, which Joshua calls the “bang-bang,” for reasons you can probably guess.

Once the two metals are pressed together sufficiently, they can be made into a blade, slowly sharpened and polished. The handles are custom-made, with the lower end models being simple olive wood and higher-end version being exotic hardwoods, mother-of-pearl, or some combination. IMG_2479

It is easy to listen to someone who is passionate about the topic of conversation; it’s even easier to watch someone who is a master at their craft while they work (having grown up in the house of a master-craftsman, I can speak to this). The boys were also very patient; Joshua was on my shoulders for over 2 hours, transfixed by the fire, the banging and all the tools. Ethan was amused, and was very quiet throughout the whole visit until his stomach was rumbling louder than the machines.

At the end, Mastro Livi made a little keychain for Joshua to take home, then insisted that we join him for lunch, which we did. We had such a good time, it would be easy to forget that we also learned a lot.

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The Real Sword in the Stone

Did you know there really is a Sword in the Stone? It’s not just from a Disney movie we all watched when we were little. We had the opportunity to visit this hilltop and it’s the most enchanting and mystical place I’ve even been. The church that houses the Sword in the Stone is rather unassuming. Inside, embedded in the floor you will find the sword. Predating the legend with King Arthur, the sword belonged to San Galgano Guidotti, a warrior who returned jaded from the Crusades, gave up his military life, jammed his sword in a crevice and become a hermit, dedicating his life to the church.

Don’t try to remove the sword from the stone. Folklore has it that those that have tried are eaten by wolves. The church even has a few skeletal hands, by way of proof, of the poor wretched souls that failed in their attempts.

From this church you take a path downward. As you clear the trees you overlook this absolutely amazing Abbazia (Abbey) of San Galgano.

Built in just 80 years in the 1100s, this church lasted until the 1700s when the bell tower was hit by lighting and collapsed on the roof. For some reason they choose not to repair the roof and abandoned the church. As you can see, the church structure is shaped like a cross.

The cross shape is quite common, but in most churches the ceiling and the chapels are so extravagant and overwhelmingly beautiful, so elaborate and detailed, you cannot take it all in. Therefore, even this major detail, the fact that the entire structure is shaped like a cross, is lost on the time-rushed tourist.
In this case, man’s ceiling caved in allowing you to view God’s ceiling. Man’s attempt to recreate nature’s colors vanished, with the real colors of nature shining in.

The undoubtedly ornate and intricate marble mosaic floor is now long gone, whether taken by men to build other cathedrals or homes or simply worn down by the sun and the rain. Its absence has allowed grass to grow and the original ground has reclaimed its place. Looking upward at the window frames, you can imagine the stained glass that was once skillfully placed by its creator. Now the sun shines in, also skillfully placed by its Creator.
We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves. It was quiet, perhaps too quiet, as if you had lost your hearing. Or perhaps my brain couldn’t comprehend it all, and was simply focusing on trying to grasp what my eyes where seeing.
Arches lined both sides of the nave.

A bench? An altar? Either way it invited the guest to stop, rest, and look upward.

And then to turn around and gaze down the long hall and attempt to picture it full of people. In the church’s early years, was it loud and joyful? Quiet and sober? Did looking upward bring a feeling of peace or anxiety?

During the many battles between rival villages, the church provided refuge. As such, during times of truce, did memories of the church restore the feeling of peace or fear? As you stand there and let yourself go, you begin to feel the walls looking down at you. They know so much, they have seen so much. I know it’s cliché, but… ‘if only the walls could talk’.

The 300 – Give or Take a Few

This is the view from the street where Joshua’s kindergarten is located.  Do you see the 3 towers on the hill in the distance?  They are on Piazza dei Consoli. Our apartment is right on the piazza. So, yes, when we walk Joshua to school, we walk from waaaay up there, down to school, and then back up.  It actually isn’t terrible. It is about a 40-minute heart-healthy walk and it’s very picturesque.  Here are some pictures of “The 300” – give or take a few – stairs that we walk en route to kindergarten.

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Discount Airlines, Babies & Winter storms, Oh My!

Because we are adventurous (i.e. crazy), we decided that Romania in the dead of winter would be a great place to visit. Because we are not rich, we looked up the best prices and found Wizz Air– a discount airline, similar to Ryan Air.  Pretty much for the price of dinner, you could get a 1-way ticket.  Bobby had enough hotel points to book us into the Hilton for a few nights and Romania’s food, taxis and museums are dirt cheap.  So, off we go with a nursing 8 month old in tow (the three-year old got a nice weekend with his grandparents).

When I think of discount airlines, I think of the kind that allows you to bring 1.437 pounds on board as long as it fits in a suitcase the size of a Tic Tac box, and you have to jump through hoops once you get to the check-in desk- the literal kind, flaming, right before the tiger jumps through (and tries to eat you.)

Okay, it wasn’t really THAT bad and I was actually surprised how much I could pack in a backpack. we had a 10 kg (22 lb.) limit, and only one small carry-on per adult; the baby didn’t get any luggage allotment. I’d also read all sorts of blog articles on flying with these types of airlines because they have crazy rules but if know how to play, you win.

Once I got to the airport, I found things that I didn’t know or hadn’t read, probably because these bloggers are not thirty-something nursing moms traveling with an 8 month-old. As they said, seating is first come first serve so there is no line, no mercy, lots of shoving . . . but passengers with babies get priority boarding – no extra charge.

Even better, with no assigned seating, the other passengers avoided us like the plague. Every seat was taken including the last row, over the engine, and possibly even the wheel well . . . but not the one next to me & baby! (Hubby would have me point out that he DID sit next to me; how sweet of him).

I was pleased with how much I could fit in 2 backpacks. I never thought I could ever be a backpacker. I can be a minimalist while traveling, but let’s not exaggerate. I mean what happens if we end up with free tickets to a famous pianist virtuoso’s last performance and I need a formal dress? Or if I stain every piece of clothing article in the most embarrassing place and need a spare outfit? I have to be prepared.

In all seriousness, there was plenty of room and weight AND I was taking diapers, wipes, 14 outfits for Ethan and winter coats. Maybe post-baby phase Bobby and I can backpack to more foreign lands.  It was kind of fun traveling light (as light as a nursing mom can travel, with her baby in the Moby wrap).

The price is ridiculously low. Customer service is fine . . . as long as nothing goes wrong. If something does, you are totally on your own, unless you have too much time or an exorbitant amount of patience. Which (hahaha), I have neither! And speaking of things going ‘wrong,’ unfortunately our return trip had a slight hiccup.  But it wasn’t as bad as the trip some other Wizz Air passengers had that same afternoon.

On our way back to tiny, practical, close to home Perugia airport we ran into terrible turbulence. The kind that made me confess all my sins to the Lord as I expected to die and meet my Maker. After riding it for a while – and until all the barf bags had been used – the pilot informed us we were going to Rome Ciampino Airport since it was simply not safe to land in Perugia.  A long 25 minutes later we landed safely, applauded the pilot, were taken by bus to a waiting area . . . where we waited, then waited some more. For a change of pace, we decided to wait even more.

Two hours later we were informed a bus would arrive in 3 hours and take us to Perugia, which is another 3 hours away.  If you are doing the math, that means we would arrive to our destination 8 hours after we were supposed to have arrived. One of the passengers asked the airline attendant “What about the inconvenience it caused?” To which he replied, “The inconvenience? Well, I guess you could buy me a coffee for the inconvenience this has caused me.” (Seriously, he said that!)

Fortunately, if I can use that word, we had low expectations for any customer service and we were ready with a Plan B.  Looking around the terminal, it was obvious most other people had done the same thing, either out of a lack of patience, or the foreknowledge that the airline would not be any help. Out of the 180+ passengers that had been on the plane, maybe 40 or so were still there. That must be the airline’s plan. Wait until everyone is gone and they don’t have to pay to fix it!

Here is where it gets interesting:

We were diverted to Rome for good reason.  The pilot decided that it wasn’t safe to land in Perugia- okay, then I don’t want to land there.  Let’s just go elsewhere before we run out of gas. We were fine with being diverted to Rome.

However, there was another Wizz Air plane that was scheduled to land a short time after us, in Rome, where we ended up.  They were diverted to Perugia! Perugia is 3 hours away, by bus or train, if you remember from above.  The only reason we can come up with for the diversion, is the airline needed a plane in Rome and one in Perugia for later flights in the day, so for absolutely no good reason, they diverted a plane full of passengers aiming for Rome to Perugia and sent them the rest of the way on buses.  That would really get me fired up!  In fact, I am mad on behalf of those passengers.  At least we ended up in Rome with lots of travel options.  They landed in tiny Perugia in the middle of farming fields and pastures!

Anticlimactic conclusion.  Fly budget airlines at your own risk.  If all goes well you saved a boat load of money.  If things don’t go perfectly, you have an interesting story to share!

-Sarah

Bobby’s addendum. I’ve always said that when you travel internationally, you should plan to be inconvenienced. It happens. Fortunately, we rolled with it and didn’t get too upset. I’ve seen more than a few passengers lose their cool over the years and take out their frustrations on the nearest airline representative. At the end, we arrived safely at our destination and we learned where discount airlines cut corners. And really, how much can you expect from a company that thought calling themselves “Wizz” was a good idea?

Tartufo

Tartufo, truffles in English, are a type of mushroom with an intense flavor and aroma. (Joshua’s guide to the correct pronunciation of “tartufo” can be found here.) They grow in the wild in Italy, particularly in the central Italian regions of Umbria and Tuscany. In addition to being in high demand from chefs around the world for their flavor, they are somewhat rare and labor-intensive to find, hence their very high price ($400 per pound and up; much higher for the more rare white truffle).

Last weekend, we went to a festival/show in Umbria spotlighting the tartufo nero (black truffle). Spread over several buildings in a community complex, food-related vendors from around the area were highlighting their products, both tartufo-related and not.

The festa was in the small, quiet village of Valtopina, a quiet dot on the map on the backside of a mountain. Many of the houses in the area use wood-burning stoves and fireplaces for heat. It was cold and rainy outside and the cloud cover holds the smoke down in the valley, so the whole village smells like wood smoke.

Walking into the building, everything changed. A small crowd of people moved around the room, looking over the vendor tables. The quiet outside changed to the sound of excited chatter about the food and music from a jazz band that was playing on the other side of the building.

Mostly, the smell was overwhelming, in a good way. While the show was mostly about tartufo, all of the vendors featured other food options, but the common theme throughout the building was foods that are particularly aromatic. Smoked meats, fragrant cheeses and oils were sold throughout the room, with the smells mixing into a blend of Italy’s best fragrances.

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Important note: each booth had free samples; also, it was dinner time.

Italians are passionate about food, probably more than anything else. Each vendor was particularly proud of the product that they carefully crafted. One specialized in pungent cheeses; the blocks of cheese were covered in a thin layer of mold on the outside, then rich and creamy on the inside.

Another vendor had honey, but not just normal honey. They raised bees in specific groves of plants so that the bees collect pollen from only one type of plant; the honey takes on a bit of the flavor from the plant. His selection of honey included apple, onion, pinoli (a type of nut tree), oranges, and olives.

Various types of preserved meats were available, from various proscuittos, to mortadella (which I wrote about here) and sausages. One vendor had a massive cut of meat made from the “other parts of the pig,” such as the cheek, intestines, heart, tongue, etc. Delicious!

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Tartufo was available in many different forms, from whole and raw to pates and sauces. They commonly infuse the oil from tartufo with other foods of a compatible flavor profile, such as mushrooms or artichokes, to make a rich spread.

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We wandered through the aisles several times, sampling various foods and talking to the vendors. I always enjoy listening to someone who is passionate about their craft, and this event did not disappoint. Most of the foods were high-end, so I did not solicit samples for Joshua, but most of the vendors quickly offered him a sample from their selection. He has developed a very broad palate, and enjoyed everything that he tried. As far as a food event goes, there could not have been anything more Italian and more uniquely Umbrian than this festival.

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What it’s like to drop off your child at a school in Italy …

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What is it like to drop off your child at a school in a foreign country?  Like dropping off your child in any situation- your heart always stops and you wonder “what if” (and I won’t list the ‘what ifs’ because you probably already worry about them, and if you don’t, I don’t want to give you more ideas on what to worry about).

I realize that daycares/kindergartens must vary to some degree no matter what, but this has been my experience so far, and I’m tickled at every turn.

Paperwork. Just to sign him up required so much paperwork. One of the more unusual pieces of information was a genealogy chart so they could talk to him about his family.

Food. We are in Italy.  Food is extremely important.  They gave us the menu for the entire month.  That way, they said, by chance we wouldn’t happen to serve him for supper what he ate for lunch (God forbid!).

Menu. No any peanut butter & jelly sandwiches on this menu.  Oh no signore! Going over the monthly menu took 40 minutes alone.  This was to ensure each item was to his (Joshua’s) liking.  If not, they would be happy to substitute it with something he *did* like. Items on the menu include parmigiano with every pasta dish, of course, roast, prosciutto, faro, lentils and oven baked fish (of several varieties). Do they plop each food item on the same plate?  Heavens, no! They serve antipasti, first course, second course, and end with fresh fruit. Yes, our son will have a 4-course meal for lunch at school.

Schedule. You don’t just drop off your child and leave, go about your merry day, and that’s that.  That would be ‘disquieting’ to the child.  Instead there are steps to follow.

1st step: you come for a couple hours, during late afternoon (when there are the fewest number of children) until closing.  You STAY so your child knows you have not abandoned him. Once the teachers believe the child has adapted well, you proceed to the next step.

2nd step:  You drop off your child, you do not enter the school room (*) , and you may not leave (go far) but must stay in the immediate area in case the child shows signs of anxiety, in which you must return immediately and repeat step one.

* You don’t enter the school room since other children might see you and become ‘disquieted’. Honestly, this part makes sense. From serving in church nursery I always inwardly sigh when parents come pick their kids up early, making all the other kids freak out- “Where is my mamma????”

3rd step: The child may stay for lunch. If all goes well:

4th step: the child may stay the whole day, which by law may not exceed 10 hours.

Etiquette. During the first day, I silently watched Joshua interact with the other teachers and children.  The only time I butted in was when Joshua and another boy accidentally knocked down a girl while playing.  The teachers picked up the girl and moved her over.  I went over and told Joshua he needed to apologize to the girl.    They said “oh, no. He didn’t do it on purpose.”  To which I replied, “It doesn’t matter, she still got knocked down.” The teachers didn’t know what to do with that.

Bidet What is it?  Well, these kids know what it is and how to use it.

Also, the first day, when it as time to leave, I told Joshua to get ready to go.  He dutifully put away all the toys he had been playing with. The teachers were very impressed (granted, it could have been a stall tactic, but whatever, it made me look good).

Another day, Joshua came out with a scratch on his face.  The teacher was horrified.  He had taken a toy from a little girl and she scratched him.  The teacher just couldn’t stop her in time, she said.  Oh, well, I replied, that will teach Joshua not to take toys from classmates.  The teacher just stared at me.

Needless to say, Joshua did fine the first day with me, the second day without me, the third day at lunch and the fourth day as a whole day.

The teachers are working with him on the Italian words for colors, numbers and animals.  He isn’t shy about correcting them, either.  They pointed to a picture and said “Scimmia!”  He wagged his finger at them, and said: “Nooooo. Monkey!”

He understands some Italian, and even uses some Italian words correctly in sentences.  He does, however, randomly insert the word ‘cappuccino’ in his sentences, but we’ll blame Bobby for that, since he too randomly inserts the word ‘cappuccino’ in his sentences!

-Sarah

Keep Calm and Eat Chocolate

Charles Schulz supposedly said “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” I don’t know how you define a little chocolate, but this is how they define it at the Perugina factory.

IMG_3634In one minute at the Perugina factory, they produce 1,500 Baci (similar to a Hershey’s Kiss, but a little bigger), 800 other little chocolates, 2,700 caramels, and 300 chocolate bars. This is also how Sarah defines “a little chocolate.”

Their location is only a few miles down the road from our apartment, so we went on a tour of the factory this morning, which included a generous sampling.

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After the sampling and some background information on the company, we were able to walk through the production floor above the workers and machines. As soon as the door to the production floor opened, the smell of warm chocolate billowed out, causing everyone in our tour group to pause and soak in the smell of thousands of pounds of warm chocolate.

Unfortunately, they did not allow pictures of the production area, presumably because corporate espionage is very pervasive in the chocolate industry and they could not afford to let their secrets slip to a certain Pennsylvania-based competitor. (Pssssst, Hershey! If you are reading this, I am happy to perform some more taste-testing, um, intelligence gathering, for a moderate sum).

The tour itself was fascinating. It turns out chocolate is made through a complex process where they . . . oh who cares, they gave out a lot of samples!

We did get to pose by the replica of the largest chocolate treat ever made. In 2003, for the annual chocolate festival in Perugia, they made a 13,183 lb. version of their famous Baci and displayed it before breaking it up into chunks and giving it away at the festival. That’s over 33,000 chocolate bars, and they still hold the Guinness record to this day.

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Italy’s food scene is not just about the pasta, they make a pretty good chocolate as well. If you don’t believe me, ask Ol’ Blue Eyes, who was their main pitch man through the 60s.

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Sarah and her mom were not the only people to enjoy the tour. Joshua loved the walk through the factory floor. Much of the process is automated, so there were several dozen robots quickly packing Baci into boxes, or stacking chocolate bars for easy packing. For someone whose life revolves around cranes, trains and planes, this was quite the treat! I also enjoyed it, but I am even more excited about our next food adventure coming up in a week.

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