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.”


Yes, we are finally back and somewhat settled in Santa Fiora after a month of travel (and other) adventures. I put “home” in quotes as Sonoma County will always be our true home. But we brought two giant suitcases, two smaller suitcases, and four carry-ons of Sonoma County with us, so it feels very “homey.”

For those who heard, yes I carried live lavender plants with me on the plane (and some seeds), and they spent days and days in some of the poshest hotels and Airbnbs in Europe. Know they are just fine and I was not arrested.

I posted a bunch of photos on Facebook, so let me be a bit brief (ha!) in chronicling our adventures. First, we learned a few things:

  1. Porters are a romantic notion not borne in reality, as are luggage carts. Not even an arm in a sling for a bum shoulder (mine) could conjure one up. What does work is a flash of cash, and in some cases just the sight of two senior (yet adorable) citizens struggling onto and out of planes, trains, and automobiles with eight pieced of luggage.
  2. Virgin Atlantic is a cool airline. The interior doesn’t even have insulation falling out of the walls or agents dragging folks down the aisles.
  3. I can fall flat on the ground (yes, again) even in the best London neighborhood.
  4. The Queen is fine. She returned to Buckingham Castle while we were there, arriving by helicopter from Balmoral (hunting, I presume). Also while we were there (and she wasn’t), they shut down the entire area around the castle and erected HUGE lights for filming a new Mary Poppins movie. Even brought in a gold carriage and fine horses. At least I hope they were fine after seeing the rig they brought them in.
  5. Food in London is wonderful if you find the right restaurant. To find one, you have to send Tim out to scout a laundromat.
  6. The third trip to Paris was not as much fun as the first two. But the Orsay…!
  7. Eight days in Avignon was not enough.
  8. If you go to the huge antique fair in I’sle sur la Sorgue, be sure you a) have a person you hardly know who is willing to load in his car all the shit you bought and store in his garage for you, and b) understand that driving to Provence from Tuscany to pick up said shit must include staying overnight at expensive resorts on the French or Italian Rivera. (Corollary: a bargain is only a bargain if you can carry it home in your purse.)

Our flight to London was swift and rather enjoyable, especially considering it was only $397 round trip each direct from SFO. We stayed at the posh Rubens Hotel across from Buckingham Palace, which was wonderful. On top of #4 above, we enjoyed walking the London streets, riding the underground, shopping, and eating. Love London. The weather, as you can see, was sunny and beautiful.

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After four days we headed to the TGV station at Pancreas Station for the ride to Paris through the Chunnel. Tim wanted to be sure we got there early enough to deal with all our luggage, so we wound up waiting in the station for 1 ½ hours. But this wonderful woman “porter” helped unload and load everything and parked us at a café, then checked in with us every 20 minutes to let us know she’d help us onto the train. Not sure who pays for her, but she got a very nice tip from us.

The train was great, but we went through the Chunnel without even noticing! I thought it would be longer and have some kind of posters, or paintings, or windows looking out to the channel water or something. (Luckily, I’m not a tunnel engineer.) Anyway, I loved looking at the French countryside and farmlands. So many greenhouses (in Italy too).

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In Paris we stayed in the 3-star Hotel Louison in Montmartre in the 6th. We figured we wouldn’t be inside much and it was close to the Musee d’Orsay. We were right. And for some reason, we have no pictures of Paris.


Three days later we were off again on a train to Avignon, our favorite city in the south of France. I planned our stay here to coincide with Tim’s 70th birthday on April 14, and the huge antique fair in I’sle sur la Sorgue. I booked an Airbnb that was perfect, including a garage for our rental car to tour the countryside. The apartment overlooked the town and two churches, which meant we heard bells tolling every hour about two minutes off from each other. Luckily, they stop ringing at 10 PM. The beautiful bell tower on the right below was right outside our window.

After a couple of inquiries (including Rick Steves, who seems to only find places with Americans), I booked what was billed as Avignon’s best restaurant for the birthday boy. It was indeed wonderful. Tim is toiling away on a recap of his entire birthday adventure, so I won’t spoil it. But here is the dinner and some more views of Avignon.

Our friend Heidi is always amazed that lots of places I go I run into people I know. Well, at the Palace of the Popes (the most famous thing about Avignon), there was a huge Rhone wine gathering (which I tried talking my way into without any luck). Later I found out that my Sonoma buddy Sondra Bernstein was in there somewhere!


The following weekend we headed to the antique fair in I’sle su la Sorgue, a picture-perfect town with a river running through it and water wheels, flower troughs, restaurants, and tiny shops galore. We bought, new and old.

Last time we were in Sorgue (two years ago), we got to talking to a couple in a little shop there and we continued a Facebook friendship ever since. So here we had all this stuff and a too small rental car we couldn’t return to Italy, and we had to be out of the Avignon rental the next day. We asked our friends if there was a place to store it in town, and they offered their house. We thanked them profusely (and in French) and promised to come back in a month to pick it up.

It was a wonderful 8 days with perfect weather again.

So, so far, everything had gone well, except for the exhaustion of hauling and heaving the bags. We backed up the bags again, returned the car to the Marseilles airport, and hopped an Iberia airline to Rome. (Cost: $29 each for the flight and $150 for the bags.) We got another rental car (a big Mercedes van-like thing) and drove home to Santa Fiora.

And then we came to our senses and realized we had imposed on two people we hardly knew with all our junk, and here we were with this giant rental car that didn’t fit through the narrow streets of Santa Fiora. After a few days, I booked a hotel on the Italian Rivera halfway to Sorgue and off we went. The drive there and the hotel were fabulous. The place with the most unlikely name, Hotel El Chico, was an old villa right on the Mediterranean in the little town of Varazze, filled with fabulous original art. Not to mention the views of the gardens, the pool, and the sea. Wow.

We headed out the next day and Tim decided he wanted to see more of the little towns along the Cinque Terra and Riviera than the Autostrada. We threaded our way through tiny towns full of traffic, stop signs, red lights, and pedestrians. The views were beautiful, but after five hours I said “enough – off to the Autostrada.”

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Another six hours later, we rolled back into Sorgue and crashed at the Grand Hotel Henri. OMG, we were so tired. Another beautiful old hotel with the most amazing staff, great food, and gorgeous patios.

After retrieving our loot from our friends the next day, we headed back to Santa Fiora via the Autostrada all the way. I had tried to have the rental company let us have the car for longer than 27 days, but they wouldn’t budge. So I booked a three-month rental with Hertz, two days later we drove the 2 ½ hours to Rome and exchanged the car, shopped for more stuff at Ikea (pronounced E-kea in Europe), and drove home, appropriately, in a driving rain and thunderstorm. On the way we saw a stream of sports cars — a Ferrari, a Maserati, a Bugati, and that’s all I could identify. Here you go, boys:


Finally home, we hung curtains, arranged furniture, plugged in lamps, and declared ourselves settled in. And now, to the important stuff – wine and cheese and prosciutto on the patio sitting in our new patio furniture and gazing out at the neighbor’s sheep grazing our pasture. La dolce vita!


Ciao, bellas!!

P.S.: We are so very grateful to our great friends who lent us their house and car for three months while we were back and “homeless” in Sonoma County. To Betsy, Craig, and Nan, we are forever thankful for your generosity. Now it’s your turn to come stay with (or without) us!

The Disruptive Influence

My father called me “The DI,” or Disruptive Influence, from the time I was about 9 or 10 years old. I thought it wasn’t a good thing, that it was about my being too “bossy,” as my sister calls me. I felt bad that that was my place in the family, rather than being “the smart one” or “the pretty one” or even “the troubled one.”

I mentioned this to my brother a few years ago. He said it was just that I would “cause things to happen. It was a good thing.  You’d say, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ And off we’d go. ‘Let’s make taffy!’ And we’d make taffy.”

(I’m not sure this says as much about me as it does my family, but oh well.)

0058I think it was partly self-preservation. I like being busy. I like making things happen. I like adventure. (And obviously, since age 4 or so, I don’t like others pushing me around!)

So, in my new retirement life, the good news is that I finally have a social life. I’ve had coffee or dinner with friends or taken a class (Italian and Pilates) nearly every day. I’ve read a bunch of books, scoured Zillow every day for a house, and gone shopping (online and local).

But, I’m struggling. I’m not busy disrupting things. I’m not making things happen (or not much, anyway). I’m not having adventures (unless you count buying a house in Tuscany). I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing anything.

I started doing a felting craft, but without a place in mind to sell them, I’m bored. I try to sit and relax, but I’ve never figured out how to do that without a glass of champagne – and 10 o’clock in the morning is a bit early for that. I even go on hikes in Annadel, but my body can’t take that every day (as much as it needs it).

As a DI, you would think I’d get into the political scene in a big way. I did do the March and that felt good. But I’ve never been very political, except to end the Vietnam war. Now THAT was disruptive. Or maybe I should learn more about Twitter (who can keep their thoughts to 140 characters??) or nanotechnology or this But, I think my brother once called me a Luddite, so obviously this is not my strong suit.

I helped two people (and my husband) with their business plans, and that felt good. Can I do that more? How about being a virtual assistant? (Still working on getting internet in Italy, as I see it as a game-changer in that field.) Life coaching? What IS that, exactly?

I did promise myself I’d take this year to just chill, and I’ve been really good at trying that. It’s not working. I need to be what I am – a disruptive influence. And no, not like DJT or the nay-sayers about disruption in the business sector.

My personal way of being a DI is seeing things from a different perspective. Dusting off the cobwebs of fear or uncertainty or inertia. Taking a business or an idea and turning it upside down or shaking it out to see its working parts. Asking questions to get to the core, the essence, of a problem or need or issue. It is then helping to turn that into some kind of action, to help a person or an idea move from point A to where it really wants to go.

Is that a job description? Maybe. I guess we all need to be DIs in this new world we’re in. Meanwhile, I will continue my quest. Ideas anyone?

Mad Woman in New York

You’ve watched Mad Men I hope. Because if not, you won’t understand what it was like to work in advertising in New York in the 60s and 70s.

We moved to New York from California in 1962 when I was 12. father worked in public relations for a major company and could have been the doppelganger for Don Draper. He was not quite as good looking, but he had the same suave style and bad habits. We even lived in the same town that the fictional Drapers lived in.

No, I didn’t start working in advertising at age 12. But I did go into the city several times to visit my father at his office. Those were the days when a teenage girl could ride the train from Ossining to Grand Central by herself, walk to the RCA building at 50 W. 5oth Street, take the elevator to the 42nd floor, and say hi to her dad.

I loved the office. I loved the desk overlooking Rockefeller Center. I loved the typewriter. I especially loved the phone, and picked it up and pretend-talked into it every time. I vowed that whatever my life held in the future, it would involve a phone.

Uh huh. Well, in high school I had some fun with writing — stories for the high school creative writing journal (yes, those were the days), a column for the newspaper on fashion (!), and copy editor of the yearbook. I remember my first published story at the ripe old age of 15, “Last Summer’s Sand.” All about returning to a beach vacation and reliving the previous summer’s “romance.” (Read “crush.”)

I’ve written in an earlier post (“Retiring”) about college and almost getting a job writing radio commercials. And about my first jobs in advertising. It wasn’t until I moved back to New York to marry my first husband that my real advertising career started. The marriage was all wrong (even his mother said so) but the career wasn’t. I worked for a supermarket chain putting together (in those days this required excellent cutting and pasting skills) newspaper ads for the weekly specials. I moved on to public television where I did a monthly magazine, sold advertising space with cold-calling, and begged for money on air.

And then I was hired as a copywriter/producer for an advertising agency where I met the most adorable art director. The first week I was asked to produce four 15-second commercials for a bank. I had never done a TV commercial in my life (I think they thought working in public television gave me a leg up). My concept was a puzzle that was pieced together by an off-camera hand and the line, “We fit the right loans to your needs.” Pretty good, huh.

So I asked the adorable art director to create the puzzle pieces. He labored over them, but they were so well made that it would have taken the off-camera hand 30 minutes to put them together. I solved the problem, and the adorable one and I fell in love.

I wasn’t exactly Peggy Olson (see earlier reference to Mad Men), but the world I entered was very much like the show. Sexist, sleazy sometimes, rampant with kickbacks and booze and dirty dealings.

The stories are so cliche.

Three months into the agency job, my boss asked me to meet her in the ladies room. From one stall to the other, she told me that she was leaving, taking all the clients and the employees, setting up her own agency, and would I like to join her. Uh, okay. I was told by the HR director that hired me for my first job that it was because of my legs. When a later ad agency boss suggested to a client that I would be fun to work with, the client cornered me in a cloak room and, breathing heavily down my neck, offered me a red Corvette.

But I had fun too. I did some great work, won a few national awards, had one of my campaigns appear on the cover of Time magazine,  produced a commercial with Vanessa Williams (at the time, recently dethroned as Miss America for appearing nude in Playboy) (link:VD Commercial), and gained enough experience to open my own agency (with the adorable art director) when I finally moved back to California.

And that was the start of another chapter.

In Between

This is such a great week, the week in between Christmas/ Hanukkah and New Year’s. In between two of the biggest holidays of the year. In between years. In between family and friends gathering to celebrate, bookended by memories and expectations old and new.

These are part of the halcyon days. The halcyon was a mythical sea bird whose arrival heralded 14 days of calmed seas around the time it was nesting and hatching its eggs. These magical two weeks of tranquil weather came roughly on either side of the winter solstice – which occurred on December 21st.

Today, halcyon days are associated with the sweet, lazy days of youthful summer. But I prefer to think of these original winter halcyon days as the time for quiet repose and reflection. Granted, we don’t have young children in the house, so we aren’t distracted by pre-Christmas energy and high expectations. We also don’t usually (especially this year) have the busyness of a tree and tinsel and poinsettias and packages.

What we do have is the luxury of enjoying this time in a beautiful home with a sweet car full of memories provided by generous friends. Friends old and new come over to play. We spend good hours with family, watching dance performances and eating pie. We drive through the streets looking at Christmas lights, marveling at the amount of work they take to set up and (we assume) take down. We shop and stand in line with no more urgent agenda than to smile at others we meet.

And so, our halcyon days this year are even more charmed with relaxation and reflection.

We are also “in between” – both personally and as a world – as we face enormous change. Personally, we have said goodbye to a home and a lifestyle we loved, but it was time. We look forward to settling into our new part-time home in Italy and filling it with “us.”  Deborah said goodbye to a career that helped center and grow businesses small and large, losing an anchor to part of her definition of self. She looks forward to growing her self. Tim is glad to be past a year filled with health (and ladder) challenges, marauding goats and hungry coyotes, and machinery that refused to fix itself. He looks forward to the art of making art.

Perhaps these halcyon days will provide an opportunity for our nation’s new leaders – and those of other countries –  to reflect on what they have inherited and how quickly that might dissolve. Otherwise, we fear what rough seas may lie ahead.

Like many people, I always spend a few hours during this time setting goals for the coming year.  I divide the list into categories – financial, farm, professional, personal, and spiritual. Actually, my list hasn’t changed much in the 15 or 20 years I’ve been doing them – be nice to people, lose weight, etc. But it is awesome to see what goals I have accomplished (no, not lose weight). Enjoying a little sense of accomplishment is a very “in between” activity in my book.

So, during these halcyon “in between” days, spending some introspective time picturing the year ahead is exactly what the halcyon bird did. And the seas quieted, and the winds slowed, and the days were ones of quiet anticipation and new birth. Sounds good to me!