Back Home Again, and Again

When we bought this little farmhouse in Tuscany, I never thought of it as “home.”

Home has been California since I was born.  When I moved to New York and then Texas with my parents, I longed to “go home.” I saved up babysitting money to go back for the summer I was 14. I applied to colleges only in California (and one safety school in New York which — good, bad, whatever — gave me scholarship money and work/study to make it the most affordable option).

My parents moved back to California in my senior year. My fiance was in New York finishing school, but I “came home” to care for my mother who was dying. I finished school, married my fiance, and went back to New York. It was never “home.”

After the divorce, I returned. As soon as I crossed the Golden Gate, I felt alive again. Every time I drove through the Waldo Tunnel (the one that has rainbows painted on it and is now the Robin Williams Tunnel), it felt like a homecoming. Whether the hills were emerald or ochre or burnt sienna, I smiled and relished the season.

I bought a house in Santa Rosa and married my new husband in the backyard of our home. We opened a business and became part of the community. We experienced giddy happiness and great tragedy, but we did it together and with friends. We felt safe. And loved.

Fifteen years later, we moved to some of those beautiful hills — a ranch in west Sonoma County. It is interesting that many of our neighbors there called their places Home Ranch. It was where their great greats had settled and grew along with their crops and animals, families . Offspring might have moved next door or down the road, but there was always Home Ranch.

Ours was called Canvas Ranch. (If you’d like to read more about how all this went down, here is a link to an article in Fortune magazine, cover story for Retire to the Job You Love.) On the website I created, I said the following about this new “home”:

The undulating hills, the soft sky, the zillions of stars to look at, even the fog make this a landscape that slows you down. Early in the morning, when the chickens are out looking for their first meal near the compost bin, and the lambs are chasing each other around the back field, and the cashmere goats are stretching to catch the first rays of sun, that’s my favorite time to head into the garden. Everything is so new. And there is so much to discover. More beans sprouting. New buds on the tomato vines. Flowers I forgot I planted opening to the day. 

Yes, this describes home to me. We filled the rolling hills of our home with sheep and goats and chickens and vegetables and orchards and ancient grains and art.


And another 15 years later, we said goodbye. It was not a sad goodbye as everything we loved is now in someone else’s hands and doing just fine. It was not sad because we were able to turn one home into two, one in Sonoma County and one in Tuscany. It was not sad at all because a few weeks ago, as we were sitting under our huge fig tree, eating proscuitto and pecorino and drinking fine Italian wine, we looked at each other and said, “It’s so good to be back home again.”

There is a peace here, as there is in Sonoma County. Beauty is everywhere, in the blossoming flowers, ripening tomatoes, bursting chestnuts. And in the faces of the children and the old people and the vendor at the fruit stand. Friends are here, as they are at our other home. It rains, the sun shines, the wind blows, and all the while we watch things grow and die and grow again.

And we know how very lucky we are to be back home again, and again. We have each other.



Tripping Along In 2017

It has been said that there are three types of travel with your spouse: a holiday, a vacation, and a trip. And you’d best agree on which you are on before you set out.

A holiday is to visit family. For some, this might be fun; for others, it is the dreaded, obligatory “time poorly spent” rehashing who is the smartest, prettiest, cleverest sibling and every family story heard hundreds of times before.

A vacation, on the other hand, is personally defined:  for me, it’s the prerequisite 2 or 3 weeks off from work. My husband defines it as palm trees and a lounge chair, with something cold delivered at whim by a gorgeous young woman in a skimpy outfit. I’m not fond of vacations.

My favorite is a trip: sightseeing in beautiful villages in remote locations, exploring vibrant cities, meeting interesting fellow travelers, and learning new cultures. And shopping of course.

Luckily. Tim and I agree on this. So, this has been a year of trips, with a few moments of vacation thrown in (to keep Mr. Tim happy). IMG_2149.JPGThe year began with the closing of the sale of Canvas Ranch on December 10, 2016. The previous fall doesn’t count, even though we traveled to see the new little farmhouse in Italy we bought . The stress of the finalizing of that sale and the sale of the ranch meant I was still working to keep all the balls in play.

We spent a “vacation” house-sitting the lovely home of friends in Santa Rosa the first three months of 2017. We are so grateful to Betsy and Craig and our dear friend Nan who lent us a car for that time. It was a much-needed break from the previous fall, and gave us a chance to host a great party for close friends from our two previous lives – corporate Santa Rosa and farming Petaluma.

On March 30th, we boarded a flight to London for the start of THE BIRTHDAY IMG_1508CELEBRATION (Tim’s 70th). We stayed at the perfect Rubens Hotel across the street from Buckingham Palace, had perfect weather, and outstanding meals. (You can read more about all of this in previous posts.)

Then it was off to Paris on the TGV train through the Chunnel and three days of art and croissants. Tim’s favorite city, Avignon, was next, where we spent eight days and his actual birthday on April 14th. Provence is beautiful any time of the year, but this year it was especially perfect. We ventured on a “trip” to I’sle sur la Sorgue to the annual antique fair and had a great time reconnecting with two people we had met two years earlier.

Next came a short plane ride from Marseilles to Rome, a rental car, a drive to our home in Santa Fiora, a drive back to Sorgue to pick up all the furniture we bought at the antique fair, and two days in the gorgeous Grand Hotel Henri. Home again via the Italian Riviera and another grand hotel.

Returning to Santa Fiora on April 25th was truly a homecoming. Our good pal Bruno who had spent the previous two months in 7 different hospitals in Italy clinging to life was val_d_orcia173511_760 IMG_2195 IMG_2072 IMG_2182

finally out of the woods. Our neighbors Sandro, Simona, Corinna, Corrado, and Emilio welcomed us back. Sandro had overseen the painting of the upstairs and refinishing of the wood beams on the vaulted ceilings of the bedrooms. The piazza was once again buzzing with men gossiping and families enjoying the spring air, and Christian at Barilotto welcomed me and “Mr. Tim” with big hugs.

For the next three months, I read, wrote, and planted and tended my garden (vacation for me) and Tim refinished doors, designed the remodeled kitchen, worked with the plumber, electrician, and painter to add systems for a washer and new fridge, and cooked and cleaned (a new type of vacation for him).

During this time, my new, high-speed satellite internet (better than anything in the US) allowed me to check Zillow daily for houses to buy. On May 5th, I emailed our friend and Saint Helena Averealtor, Timo, about a house on Saint Helena Ave in the McDonald Historic District of Santa Rosa. He and his wife, their dog, and close friend Nan went to see it, did a video walk-through, and sent it to us with a unanimous thumbs-up. It had been in escrow, so the pest reports had been done and Timo sent those to us. Our son Adam went to inspect what the reports had to say. We knew we had to act fast, so we made an offer and wired a deposit on May 7th. It was accepted the next day and we closed on May 23rd – all from Italy!

On July 12th, we flew back to SFO via Rome and London stop-overs.  Nan was there at the airporter to meet us, provide us with a car again, and we took off for Santa Rosa. This time we imposed on long-time friends/family Susan and David and their spare bedroom (thank you and sorry we outstayed the fish limit!).

Dining Patio Kitchen

The next day we got our first look at the new house. Despite how small it looked on the video, it felt like the perfect size for us. 1400 square feet, living room, large kitchen and dining room, two small bedrooms, one bathroom, and small front and back yards, plus a nice-sized garage offset from the house for Tim’s studio. The amazing thing is that this is exactly what I described when I imagined our new home. (Ah, those intentions!) The neighborhood is awesome, the architecture of the house is great, and it is full of light. Even our furniture fit!



We spent the next two weeks “moving in” from our two PODS and getting the place ready for our friend/house sitter Barb to come the day we leave. And we had quite the social whirl getting together with friends for amazing dinners, wine, and fun. Thank you one and all!

We flew back to Europe from Oakland to Barcelona on July 30th, taking advantage of a $295 round trip ticket. Never again Oakland Airport and never again Iberia, thank you very much. But our hotel in Barcelona . . . Hotel Omm is magnificent! Stay there. Or at least have cocktails on the rooftop deck overlooking the city. It was extremely hot and muggy, so we didn’t do as much walking as I would have liked. Just means we will have to be back.

But something special happened (as only happens on trips) the last night we were there. We got in an elevator at the hotel with another couple, politely chatted, and followed them into the lobby. As I was about to ask the clerk for a restaurant recommendation, I just turned to the couple and said, “So where are you headed for dinner?” They mentioned a restaurant and I asked (in my best stalker voice) if they minded if we followed them. “Of course not,” they warily returned. So we did. But as we waited to cross streets, we started talking.

All the way to the restaurant we talked. They were from Los Altos Hills, he was a retired investment banker (yes, that kind) and current Professor of Finance at San Jose State and IMG_2275.JPGshe was a recently retired elementary principal. They suggested they would change their reservation to a table for four, we objected (several times), but he gave the maître d enough to get a table together. By this time we were really enjoying each other’s company. For the next 3½ hours we shared stories of our travels and all measure of other things. Tim and Frank talked about politics and New York. Sally and I talked about our lives, likes, and dislikes. We ate paella and drank wine and champagne. It was a very special kismet adventure, one we will not forget.

So here we are back in our home in Santa Fiora (yes, both Santa Fiora and Santa Rosa feel like home). The heat wave that is plaguing all of Europe has also hit us in what are the usually cooler green hills of Tuscany. But this year there has been very little rain and heavy heat – 98 degrees last week. We are here until our exciting trip to Sardinia with Petaluma friends Ben and Eileen the first part of September, then its off to Perugia and Umbertide in Umbria with Santa Rosa friends Michael and Darlene and John and Laura. Back in Santa Fiora for the first half of October (chestnuts and olive oil!) and then Tim and I head to Majorca for a week on our way home to Santa Rosa.

Yes, this has certainly been a magical year of tripping. Hope you and yours are well and that we get together somewhere somehow soon!

Auntie Mabel

Auntie Mabel’s birthday is today. She died many years ago, but I still think of her often on her birthday. She was my surrogate mother, my teacher, my best friend, and my sort of role model.

Auntie MabelHer name was Mabel Olive Walton Robb Robb (she married Preston Robb, divorced him, remarried him, and divorced him again) Brown Hollinger. She was my father’s older sister (in so many ways) and had six marriages, the last at the age of 83. I said, “Auntie Mabel, why would you get married again at your age?” She said, in her slight British drawl, “Honey, I just don’t believe in sex outside of marriage!”

She was the only woman I knew who worked. She was a teacher, and dressed up every morning in flowing skirts like Loretta Young did on television (look her up on YouTube!). She had bright red hair and drove a gold Pontiac with huge tail fins and push button shifting — so cool! She was always spouting “Auntie Mabel-isms” that taught me about life and how to have fun.

I went to live with her when I was 6. My mother had had a bad fall and concussion, and my father was in no shape to care for three kids — me, my sister who was 5, and my brother who was 2. So we were parcelled out to relatives — my sister to Aunt Elsie, my brother to Nana, and me to Auntie Mabel 400 miles away from my home in Mill Valley.

I was thrilled. For the first time since I was 17 months old, I was an only child. She was between husbands at the time, so we had all kinds of fun. I learned a whole bunch too. Like when two men come to the house at the same time, you should go to bed early. If it’s Friday and you’re Catholic, you get Morton’s Macaroni and Cheese for dinner and Fudgesicles for dessert. When you have blond hair and it gets washed, it MUST be rinsed with lemon juice. And when you go to the Del Mar racetrack, be sure to bet a $2 daily double on the favorites — you almost always get your $2 back!

When it was time for me to go back to school, it was arranged that I would go to the school she taught in. She was a 4th grade teacher, and I didn’t quite understand that she couldn’t be my teacher for 1st grade. But her best friend was the 1st grade teacher, and she was very nice UNTIL…it was time to get polio shots.

Those were the days they gave the shots to all the kids at school because the vaccine was relatively new. So they lined us all up outside the nurse’s office. When I realized what was going on, I threw a fit. I was convinced I had had the shot at my school in Mill Valley and, if I got a second shot, I WOULD GET POLIO! I was hysterical. Auntie Mabel had to leave her classroom to calm me down, call my parents, and determine that I had not had the vaccine before. I still remember how terrified I was.

Then came Christmas. My parents and sister and brother came down to Temple City for the holiday. And then left. Without me. When I was in my 40s, Auntie Mabel asked me, “Do you know why your parents left you with me that time?” I said no, why? She said, “Well, I have no idea!” They never discussed it!

So I finished out the school year and went home to get reacquainted with my family, and begin a life with some major abandonment issues! I spent every summer with her until I was 12 and we moved to New York. I am who I am in large part because of her.

Happy Birthday, Auntie Mabel!


Personally, I am thrilled that Amazon bought Whole Foods. Living in Italy means I can’t enjoy cashew (or even peanut) butter, salsa and chips, Three Twins Ice Cream, or – saddest of all – Korbel brut. (Don’t judge me – I eat really good food at other times, but do love my “healthy” junk food.)

But I’m not sure any of those things would ever make it to me. Stick with me here on this.

I have been an Amazon Prime member (with Smile donations going to Catholic Charities, of course) for several years. I spent nearly 5 months getting satellite internet here in Santa Fiora (read previous entry), and have put it to great use. I download Kindle books and home improvement TV shows. And I order things that I can’t get here without driving for two hours each way on twisty mountain roads.

I am not a spoiled foreigner. I accept that I can only order on the site, so am very limited in what is offered. As requested by Amazon, I have the packages sent to the local post office and pick them up there. It’s called a local drop location, and this has worked fine for three months. We received a shirt for Tim, books, a Sawzall and blades.

And then . . .

Somewhere someone decided this was not a cost-effective arrangement for the post office. Meanwhile, I had ordered a few more things: curtains, a bag of rye flour, a pastry cutter, a blanket, my favorite shampoo, all destined for the post office.

The first tip-off was the curtains. I kept checking on their journey. Instead of heading to the post office, they were with something called BRT. As we were driving around one day, I saw a truck with BRT on the side. I yelled (nicely) to Tim to stop the car, ran over to the driver (who of course didn’t speak any English), and somehow communicated that I was waiting for a shipment that he might have. He seemed to recognize my name, so I gave him my address on a scrap of paper.

Lo and behold, the curtains arrived two days later! (We now wave to the driver whenever we see him around the area!) ((Crazy Americans . . .))

Meanwhile, several other “necessities” were in the Amazon pipeline and due at the post office (and confirmed by Amazon that they were delivered). So every day I’ve checked with them and every day the post office woman would say a whole bunch of things in Italian and throw her arms up, which I took to mean “these things happen” — that the delivery was delayed.

Today Tim drove me down there with my Amazon printouts in Italian clearly saying that my rye flour and pastry cutter were delivered there last week. A little indignantly I thrust the printouts under the post office window to the same woman, who started saying a whole bunch of things in Italian and throwing up her arms. A woman I know came in – I knew she didn’t speak English – and seeing my frustration, tried to help. The papers flew back and forth from the post office woman to my acquaintance and back again, and they both were throwing up their arms.

IMG_1670.JPGAs I was causing a scene and the line was getting longer behind me, the post office woman went online and printed out two different pieces of paper. They showed that the rye flour was indeed delivered to Santa Fiora post office last week, but then “ritorno”-ed to Bologna! My pastry blender was sent to Firenze.

Defeated and having this information in hand, I went next door to the little store where Tim was hiding and showed him and the deaf clerk the printouts. Then my friend joined us too, and another man came in and everyone turned to him and asked if he spoke English.

In broken English he said yes, he learned it in law school, but when he became a lawyer in Rome they forbade him to speak it. Good enough for me. I showed him the papers and the two of us (followed by Tim, my friend, and the deaf store clerk) went next door to the post office lady.

He now translated the whole bunch of things and arm-throwing into the fact that the post office, to save money, decided to contract with delivery companies (like BRT!) to deliver things like rye flour and pastry cutters. So I needed to go online, contact the 6 delivery companies in Tuscany, and give them all my home address. Of course, apparently knew nothing of this.

Home Tim and I went.

IMG_1669And there on our doorstep was an Amazon delivery! Not any of the things I was expecting, but a bedspread I had ordered a few months ago. Delivered by my buddy at BRT. The address on the box? The post office.

Allora . . .


I’m not sure Tim and I are becoming any more fluent in Italian than when we left, but there are some things we’re beginning to understand. It’s more about how they speak and what they mean by it, rather than literal translations into English (or ‘Merican).

To give you some idea, here are a few things we’ve learned that our fabulous Italian tutor left out of our lessons:


This is the most common word in Italian. It is pronounced a-lllooorr-a, often with a deep sigh at either end. If you look it up, it means “then”. Then?? You order a caffe latte and don’t have the right change, allora. You ask your accountant if you need to pay taxes today, allora. You ask to see something in the shop in a different color, allora. And then they proceed to give you or tell you or get you exactly what you wanted. It’s kind of a spacer between “of course” and “I don’t really have time today.”  But it definitely doesn’t mean “then”.

Non è un problema

I think this is the same in Spanish (and Japanese, and Hungarian, and Irish). It means there definitely IS a problem – it could be anything, but it will cost/delay/not work, no matter what it is.

Non possible

This is a corollary phrase. It means whatever it is can’t be done right now, or the way you want, or without a lot more paperwork. It probably can be done, but you will be here for several more hours before you’ll know. And you’ll learn a lot more Italian while you’re here.


You know what this word means, but saying it correctly takes some practice. You don’t just say “bye” to someone. You say “bye, bye, bye, bye”. (It’s easier to do in Italian. Try it.) Oh, and Italians love saying “bye” after we say ciao. Makes them feel very hip.

These things happen

Yes, I know that’s English. But spoken by an Italian in a deadpan tone of voice, it means that they know you did something wrong, but who’s going to tell? Certainly not me. It’s kind of like Tim’s favorite saying: “It was like that when I got here.”

Okay, enough of that. We love Italians and they love trying out their English on us. It is true that very few outside of the tourist towns speak English. But they all love to try, and once you can get un piccolo English word out of them, you’re off to the races. But speak piano, piano, which means slow.



It’s Mother’s Day 2017. My family and a few close friends always wish me a happy Mother’s Day. And it is, even though my daughter, my only child, died many years ago at the age of 12.

It is a happy day because I get to reflect on the many, many things I learned from my daughter in those too-short years. I think most mothers (and I hope fathers) feel the same way. When you have children, your real education as a grown-up begins.

No longer are you number one. No longer are you the center of your universe. You are now a satellite twirling around this new entity. If you’re lucky, you share your orbit with other satellites, hopefully without colliding. In my case, several collisions led to a divorce.

You learn patience. The crying will stop eventually. She will sleep through the night if you stop listening for every breath. The skinned knee will heal. The tooth fairy will come, the kids will stop teasing, she’ll get to the prom and into college somehow.

With my own daughter, I learned she knew a hell of a lot more than I thought she did, no matter what age she was. She saw her father was flawed, long before I did. And from that, I learned tolerance for flaws.

When the divorce happened, she taught me to see that there was no “right” or “wrong” one. She accepted us both as we were, flawed as we were. She could still love equally.

She saw a classmate in fourth grade needed help, but was sworn to secrecy. So she helped, risking the loss of her friend. Because it was the right thing to do. And I learned righting a wrong, and telling the truth, was more important than anything. And sometimes, even if you did the right thing, things don’t work out like in the fairytales.

I learned what it’s like to make the ultimate sacrifice. When she got her diagnosis, she said to me, “Kids shouldn’t get cancer. But if they have to, I’m glad it’s me. Because I can handle it.”

Finally, she taught me to grieve. Then to turn that pain, that grieving into something meaningful, something to help others. She wouldn’t want it any other way.

As your own kids celebrate you on this Mother’s Day, reflect on how much they’ve taught you. And be grateful for how much more you have to learn.

This was a poem my daughter wrote me for Mother’s Day when she was nine years old:

“When a baby tree loses its leaves in winter,

It’s mother (God) picks them back up in spring

And makes everything whole again.

Just like you do for me, mom.”




There are two kinds of navigating I want to address: Italian roads and Italian bureaucracy.

First and foremost, driving in Italy is not at all what the books and blogs say it is. It is no crazier than the Highway 101/12 interchange at rush hour. It is no more dangerous than Barrel Tasting weekend. It is no more crowded than Sonoma Plaza in the summer.

The autostrada is fast indeed, but everyone knows the rules. If you’re in the fast lane, expect someone to come up on your rear bumper an extraordinary speed to pass you. Because you expect that, you generally stay in the right lane doing the speed limit, unless you come upon an Ape – basically a motorized three-wheel bicycle with a cab on it. Top speed 10 knots. Then you check your mirror, note there are no cars in sight, and immediately zip into the fast lane, just as an Audi or Volvo get within an inch of your rear bumper at a speed approaching sound.

In the villages, such as ours, some of the streets are so narrow that cars can’t even get through them. So you are expected to know this and not try to squeeze your Mercedes rental car between two 15th century stone pillars without closing your side mirrors. You can tell tourist cars by their torn-off mirrors and long scratches on their doors. And don’t even think about parking in these villages. You park outside and walk, walk, walk.

You also must know that the Italians invented roundabouts. They are spaced every 20 feet, or so it seems, in many of the villages. You can’t hesitate entering them either. As you enter the outside lane, you must move to the inside lane and quickly scan all the blue signs (ignore all the white and yellow ones, and the green autostrada sign unless you’re going there), find the next town in the direction you want to go, and head for that exit. But don’t simply cut across the outside lane to your exit! Move there with confidence. If you can’t do that all in one motion, go around the circle several times until you can. That’s all I can say.

Now, about Italian bureaucracy. It’s infamous, no? No! We are either very, very lucky or this is an absolute fallacy about Italy. (I’m inclined to think we’re just cute and charming, but that’s me.)

IMG_1975There are some challenges. Shopping — groceries, hardware, banking — has its own rules. Stores are open when they want to be, and never (almost) between the hours of 12 and 4. Or on Mondays. Or when there’s a festival. Or a soccer game.

Or when you ask about something, the conversation goes something like this:

Me: Buon giorno. Do you speak a little English?

Answer: No! (A look of terror crosses their face.)

Me (with a charming smile): Maybe a little – un piccolo?

Answer: No!

Me: Okay, I just wanted to pay my taxes.

Answer: What is your name and address?

Or, it could be you are Tim and you are in a hardware store, and asking if they have a Skilsaw. What you get from the clerk/owner is a complete blank stare. No blinking eyes, no words come out, just a stare. So you ask again, you ask in several ways, and finally you draw a picture. That elicits a volley of Italian from the clerk, all smiles, all hands in the air. But no Skilsaw.

The other option is to enter a store with at least one other person in there. The law of averages is that one out of two people really do know enough English (they all had to learn it in school) to be able to act as a semi-translator. And you’ve made a new friend who invites you to his home.


Actual brick wall in the town hall.

Yesterday we were brave enough to enter our “town hall” to get a Declaration of Presence. You may not be familiar with this document, but it basically says we now live in Santa Fiora and want to pay taxes. Don’t, by mistake, ask to “register,” or you will be given a one-pound packet for a Permesso di Sorggiorno card. This requires a twelve-page application, all in Italian, and to be able to pass an interview, also in Italian, about their laws, history, civic and social culture, and more. I had been reading about this and thought we might actually have to do it.

UNTIL…I saw a small paragraph that said if I was a member of the EU, all I needed was a Declaration of Presence. Well, ye gads if I’m not also a British citizen with a British passport! (Thank you brother Vic and good buddy Frances for helping me with that.) Luckily, spouses of EU citizens are also exempt. So Tim and I headed to the town hall with the required paperwork:  the deed for our house, a copy of our marriage license, a statement of adequate funds in our bank account, and passports.


Actual stamping tools.

Of course, they had never heard of a Declaration of Presence. So I had to show the printout and my passport. The fellow in charge was “No speak Inglese!” Rather than retreat, I stood my ground and pulled out more paperwork. Italians LOVE paperwork. He held up his hand and disappeared.  A minute later he returned with a young woman named Guilia (“Julia”). She only spoke very broken English, but was so helpful and so wanting to make sure we got everything worked out. Stampa, stampa, stampa, and voila! We now are tax-paid citizens of Santa Fiora and we have a health card – free medical, dental, and eyeglasses. And next week, I’m taking my paperwork to the local auto club (that apparently handles such things) to see if we can own a car. (We have a free one that someone wants to give us, but we can’t register it or get insurance if we’re not citizens. And so it goes…).


Bottom line: the key to navigating everything in Italy is stand your ground and smile.

Small corollary: we also learned that if you do something that is not exactly legal, such as take down part of a stone wall by your house so the workers can get their rototiller in, and anyone asks about it, just do what our architect friend said when he saw it – he deadpanned, “These things happen.”