Monday

Tuscany Discovered - July 2014



Like many of you, I had been to Florence many times. I even lived here for a year during my college days' Junior Year Abroad. During some of those visits, I had visited Fiesole, the mystical village high in the hills above Florence with its Roman amphitheater and breathtaking views.

I have seen Pisa with its leaning tower a half dozen times, and I have driven with my husband from Florence to Perugia in nearby Umbria, so we had been awed by what is in fact Tuscany, and Florence as its capital.

But the Tuscany countryside many of you know from films and books of recent years is an area we had not explored in detail -- until now.

Here are a few of the panoramas we would like to share with you.

First, San Gimignano with its many towers dating back to the first millennium. Buildings along its medieval streets were constructed anywhere from 1000 to 1400 and beyond.


The main square

  the beautiful residences beyond the square
An ancient castle still standing guard, with vines of caper plants pouring down its walls

After walking the whole town and soaking up its wonderful vibe, we stopped for a cold drink in the main square, listened to the medieval clock chime noon, then moved on to Siena, about 90 minutes away.


Siena is the home of the most authentic Italian language in all of Italy. It is also famous for its yearly Paglio - a horse race in its main conch-shaped square. The various neighborhood "Quarters" surround the square and each has its own flag and its own horse entered into this historic race. The men of Siena participate heartily (women have no role in the Paglio since Middle Age rules excluded them and that has never been changed.) The men still wear ancient costumes (or replicas of those) in the colors of their "Quarter."  The winning horse is allowed into the cathedral as a demonstration of the honor paid to that animal for winning the race. Never doubt that this isn't a VERY serious matter -- even today -- among the Sienesi. If a woman marries a man from another Quarter, on the day of the actual race she goes to her parents' home in her native Quarter not to participate in any way with her husband's rival territory!

Here are some images of lovely Siena:

 Siena's Main Square where the Paglio is held

The Medieval Costumes and Flags of one Quarter

This is a SERIOUS matter!!

We had a lovely lunch in Siena at a restaurant called "Le Sorelline" (The Little Sisters) which we HIGHLY recommend. All the pastas as well as the desserts are made fresh DAILY....the main courses were superb and the prices reasonable (party of 4, 90 Euros or about $120. total or $30. per person!)

Around 4 PM se said good-bye to Siena and headed through the breathtaking Tuscan countryside toward our last stop, Piensa...but I'll just let these images speak for themselves.



Looks like a post card, right??

Finally, the fairytale town of Pienza, one of the most well-kept, meticulously manicures towns I have ever visited.

Pienza's ancient gate with beautiful fresco scene in the arch



Typical Pienza side street



So we said farewell to breathtaking, Pienza hoping that


THESE two (on the side of Pienza's duomo)  will last as long as


                      


THESE TWO






uh..duhh..uh..duhh...That's All Folks!  (for now anyway)



Thursday

The Homeless of Florence-- In Their Humbling Refinement

6/26/2014 Florence - St. James Episcopal Church, Via dei Rucellai

We have been in Italy for two weeks and only now are we experiencing a few welcome showers to cool off a torrid Florence (know as Italy’s “frying pan.”) This is also the day I started my volunteer work at St. James Episcopal Church, one of only three such churches in Italy (the others are in Rome and Bologna.) 

I have had a little experience working with the homeless through my past association with Travelers Aid (now Crossroads Rhode Island.) I have never forgetter former Director Marion Avarista’s reminder that we are all only one paycheck away from homelessness.

The church itself is magnificent - a classic gothic house of worship today decorated for a bride expected later in the day.



The clothing bank at St. James is held every Thursday morning starting at 10. Small bags of food are also distributed (today a can of cannellini beans, cheese, saltines, juice and a piece of fresh fruit will barely take the edge off the hunger of the homeless in a country known for its gourmet food. 

But the dignity and even the surprising elegance of the homeless here is amazing to see. Yes, some need a bath and a haircut, but, in general, they manage to carry that great Italian grace in their bones and in their rags. The African women especially--  still preferring their native costumes--  are amazingly beautiful and even regal. They are polite and handle the used clothing delicately. Finding nothing that will culturally accommodate their chosen dress, they thank us and leave with only a small bag of food. We agree to look for each other next Thursday when hopefully some items like long scarves or shawls will be on the table ready to be turned into wraparounds or turbans these women can use.

                                                                                                                 

Carla, the main overseer of the clothing table, knows many of these people by name (and shoe or waist size.) She saves items she knows certain men and women have been looking for and— to their delight— runs to her stash to bring out a saved pair or sneakers one woman has been looking for for weeks, in almost her perfect size. Later she tells me she finally gave a new radio from her own home to a man here today who had no TV or radio to listen to all day and night. 

Carla is driven by the contagious realization that what we see in these people at the table could easily be us or people we love. I can already sense she will be my friend here, and the person who will personify the St. James experience in my memory for years to come. I am proud to call myself her colleague.

                                                                                                      

I think my Dad would have been proud of my work here today, in the country he never stopped loving.
     
          
           ____________________END_________________


Wednesday

Open Letter to T-Mobile USA Chief: Get Everyone On The Same Page!

     





This is an open letter to T-Mobile USA President and CEO John Leger.

As a businesswoman and journalist, I celebrated and still celebrate the invention of the mobile phones that have allowed us to keep in touch wherever we may be. I had my first car phone in the 1980’s: it weighed about 3 pounds and straddled the hump between the bucket seats of my car to which it was permanently affixed.

That phone and two-decades-worth of subsequent phones—ever smaller as the years went by—were purchased from and served by the network of AT&T, your major competitor and, some would say, your nemesis.

I came to T-Mobile just a few months ago, delighting in your willingness to pay my Early Termination Fee after years of what was starting to feel like indentured servitude to Ma Bell’s cruel great-grandchildren. I liked your magenta stores, your local sales and support staff, your prices, your plans and our shared desire to put the big AT&T bully in its place.

Your workers seem universally polite and loyal. They help willingly on the phone or in person and they all seem like decent human beings. Unfortunately, however, you are trying to grow so fast that the rules about your plan seem to change almost daily and the troops just can’t seem to keep up.

I spent 6 (count’em) hours on the phone yesterday trying to get a simple, accurate clarification on a couple of questions about my international coverage in the next few weeks when I shall be in Europe.  I spoke with two reps and two supervisors, eventually (because none of them could agree completely and the web site is full of contradictions.) By day’s end, the score was two T-Mobile opinions that said certain calls were free, and two others that said they cost $.20 a minute. At that point I tried an online “chat” with yet another faceless T-Mobile support person who broke the tie. So I guess I’ll go with the majority ($.20 a minute) and hope for the best.

This is not a good way to answer a straightforward question from a customer, but it IS the way things usually are with T-Mobile. You are apparently so busy thinking up new ways to bust AT&T’s chops that plans are modified, created and marketed before your front lines have a chance to learn the facts about the new coverage or changes in plan benefits. It feels as if you all have to take a collective deep breath and start thinking about employee seminars where customer plans and concerns are discussed and clarified until everyone who provides support is on the same page. Making rules up as you go along just won’t cut it.

Much as I like and respect the people helping me on the support lines, I really don’t have the time to double check or triple check the (assorted and often conflicted) answers they give me.

I’m sure you understand this: the question is will you fix it?

I and millions of your customers certainly hope so—though AT&T is probably hoping the disarray among your troops will continue and eventually force many of us to return to the orange—leaving magenta in the dust.

Up to you!

Mary Ann Sorrentino




Sunday

PSH - Always FLAWLESS

                                                                                 


Originally published: February 05 2014 01:00  in the Providence Journal

In the next little while, the media will be describing every possible angle of the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life. He died Sunday — probably from an overdose. Hoffman had bravely told the world last year that he was losing his long battle with his drug addiction: He had fallen off the wagon and was headed for rehab — again.

As part of the post mortem, his films will be endlessly analyzed until the one-of-a-kind stamp Hoffman left on every role he played is blurred. People will recall his Oscar-winning best actor performance in “Capote” and the challenging electricity between him and Meryl Streep in “Doubt.” They will surely mention his last big movie, with the equally eccentric Joachim Phoenix, “The Master.”

Few will talk about my Hoffman favorite, a 1999 drama with romantic-comedy edges called “Flawless,” about an ultraconservative street-wise New Yorker (Robert DeNiro) who has a stroke and becomes dependent on his much-hated neighbor, a drag queen played beautifully by Hoffman. “Flawless” was made 15 years ago, when Hoffman was cleaner and more sober and DeNiro had not yet wasted his great talent by playing second banana to Billy Crystal.

One poster for “Flawless” showed a color portrait of Hoffman in drag and DeNiro at a piano. This final scene of the film, behind the rolling credits, shows the queen using musical notes, drilled over and over, for speech therapy for DeNiro. One copywriter added, “They couldn’t like each other less, or need each other more.”

Watching a bevy of drag queens and a tough, homophobic street guy bond is pure delight. The queens bringing comfort and gifts to the stroke victim is the mirror image of the scene in “Zorba” when the dying heroine lies helpless and unaware as shrieking Greek widows plunder her home.

As a movie buff, I have watched many of Hoffman’s films — some twice or more. Though he was real and mesmerizing, we loved him because he was like most of us — imperfect.

He wasn’t breathtaking, like Johnny Depp, or intense like Ben Affleck. He was not a great romantic lead like Montgomery Clift. Hoffman was just the person he was playing — perfectly. He was an average drag queen, a real one, not a rare hermaphroditic beauty like the Lady Chablis in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” or Peter O’Toole, about whom Noel Coward noted they “would have had to call it Florence of Arabia” had the star been any more beautiful.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s drag queen was, instead, your gay cousin from Pawtucket. He wasn’t a man you’d mistake for a beautiful woman, but a gay man, in drag, feminizing his aid to a bigot who might otherwise feel threatened by a nurse who was too much of a “guy.”
How brilliant.

Like millions of movie fans, I shall miss him, but I shall never forget him.
                                               ______________________

Mary Ann Sorrentino (thatmaryann@yahoo.com) writes from Cranston and Hillsboro Beach, Fla.

Tuesday

RIP JFK: A Half-Century Later, Johnny, We Hardly New You

__________________________________________________________________
 
 


The soft autumn dusk draped the city. Blocks from the Duomo in Tuscany's capital, I drank tea with a friend in Florence's Torricelli Café. Suddenly, the third member of our Junior Year Abroad trio bounded into the tearoom, breathless and teary. Leaning on our table to steady herself she blurted out, "The President's dead!"

That is how I learned that John F. Kennedy, prince of the Camelot America longed for, had been taken away by an assassin's bullet that instantly sent him into history.

On November 22, 1963, American students in Italy (for a year designed to shape our lives) stammered, wept, and held tight to each other, trying to stay grounded. A cocktail of emotions sped to our heads and our hearts, blurring the lines where grief began and shock ended; where fear started and overwhelming loss took control.

In those days before instant news, cell phones and internet connections, we made our way to Florence's main train station in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, hoping to find the Herald Tribune and details on our nightmare. Florentine pedestrians approached us to express condolences, as if we were Kennedy intimates. Many wept with us.

Florence then, as now, is a sophisticated capital of art and elegance. Its residents have been politically discrete and emotionally controlled for centuries. Tuscans are proud and reluctant to invade the emotional space of outsiders. Yet, on that cool fall night when Oswald's shot reverberated around the world, Americans clung to the comfort Florence offered-- its natives, like us, devastated by the loss of a young president who had personified hope for the future.

We were paralyzed in a dark and terrifying political void, missing the comfort of Kennedy's steadying presence-- a paralysis many of us still feel, a half-century later.

                                                    ____________

Saturday

Highland Beach Memories : When Life was Beautiful


Warwick’s Highland Beach epitomized the wholesome side of 1950’s America. Stay-at-home Moms devoted themselves to their families in airy homes with all the latest gadgets and comforts. Their husbands provided enough income for almost every want to be met and we children suspected even then that we were experiencing close-to-perfect childhoods.
Highland Beach came alive each summer on the bay front just north of Rocky Point. Our house on Burnett Road had a lawn about 30 feet deep that ended at a sea wall with steps bringing swimmers directly into the bay. A year-round garrison it had a sweeping porch facing Barrington’s Rumstick Point across the water. Similar homes stretched along the beach toward Longmeadow to our north, most occupied by families eager to enjoy a summer retreat. There were few year-rounders.
The mainly Italian-American residents had names like Pari, Zinno, Radoccia, Isacco, D’Arezzo, and Palmisciano forming one huge summer clan.  On beach days, children knew that if their own mothers were home cleaning or baking, the mothers with us were our overseers. We understood that we answered to and could be scolded by all and any of them. This insured against sassiness and, conversely, only added to our sense of well-being as we stared adulthood in the eye.
Our fathers returned each evening, weary from the hour-long drive from the hot city before Rt. 95. After a quick swim, they dined on the porch with the family. My mother often served pasta with littlenecks: she was a champion quahauger able to harvest dozens from the murky bay bottom in minutes. As summer waned, the sweetest corn from Morris Farms hit the table. For dessert there were sliced peaches in red wine. There was no rush to watch Fox news: better, there was no Fox news.
Offspring of hard-working immigrants, we were living the American dream and we knew it. Yet the traditions of our roots lived on.  Mothers swam on the feast of St. Ann (July 26) when that saint-- the mother of Mary and patron of mothers, grandmothers, homemakers and housewives-- traditionally bestowed blessings on the bather. I don’t remember any openly feminist women in the Highland Beach of my childhood, though I feel certain some there must have been planting those seeds, however subtly.
Newborns were baptized at St. Benedict’s Church in Conimicut where the dead were also remembered, and after-Mass feasts always included the traditional pastas, roasts and cakes our grandmothers had served. Even “hot dog roasts” relied heavily on Italian sausages lovingly brought to the beach house from the city’s Charles Street, Federal Hill or Silver Lake neighborhood shops by our commuting Dads. Fried zucchini flowers spilled off heaping platters, and homemade wine always materialized.
For us children it was paradise, with guardian angels around every corner. When I fell out of a tree at Carol Radoccia’s tenth birthday party, a host of Moms were at my side in seconds spewing ice cubes and comfort. On torrid days when none of us wanted to come out of the water, someone’s Mom would appear beachside with sandwiches and watermelon slices for whoever needed them. Elders who didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, would slip into the Neapolitan dialects of their parents. Drug problems and infidelities were never discussed in any language: In Washington, Senators McCarthy and Kefauver were busy taking care of anything that might be wrong with America.
Highland Beach was the place where most of us experienced our first cigarette, our first kiss and our first death. When, at sixteen, one beloved son died of Mediterranean anemia-- an affliction most of our parents had never heard of—he was waked, buried, mourned and remembered in the traditional ways which insured that, even now—a half-century later—his name still echoes in our hearts.
Highland Beach was the hothouse for the ethic which still lives in all who spent summers there.  In the stillness of late summer mornings, from my bed,  miles and a lifetime away from my room on Burnett Road, I sometimes still strain to hear the quahaugers’ voices being carried ashore on gentle low-tide waves.  And sometimes, I think I still hear my Mom downstairs in the kitchen baking a mulberry crostata with fruit from her neighbor’s bayside garden.
Having returned many times to my father’s and grandfathers’ beloved island of Ischia in Italy’s Mediterranean, I appreciate why my Dad loved Highland Beach so much, and can still hear him whispering-- as he often did, relishing HIS Highland Beach-- “Che meraviglia!”  (“What a marvel!”)
And that it was.               

                                                     Winter visit to Highland Beach, circa 1946 

This piece originally was published in the Providence Journal 8-4-2013
 

MOTHERS AND OTHERS: Two Heroes


Most of life’s truths are best learned at the hearth. In my case, two women with limited education provided a masters’ level home school in practicality, determination and tolerance.
Lu helped my Mom, Lily, with the housework. A black woman from Providence’s Lippitt Hill ghetto before gentrification, Lu would wait on a corner near the famed Celebrity Club to ride with Lily to our home in Mt. Pleasant. A day of serious housecleaning awaited.
Lily wore a housedress: Lu would be turned out in high heels, nylons, freshly-pressed suit, handbag and, sometimes, a hat. Lily often observed, “If we get stopped by a cop, you’ll look like the lady of the house and I’ll look like the cleaning lady!” At our house, Lu would change into her cleaning clothes, returning to her more fashionable duds later for the ride home.
Midway through vacuum cleaners humming and flipped mattresses we’d stop for lunch. Later, while Lily washed dishes at the pantry sink Lu routinely placed her plate and silverware in a separate pile on the counter. Exasperated, Lily would add them dramatically to the dishpan containing our dishes exclaiming, “Lu, they all get washed together!”
I was in elementary school, far from appreciating the lesson in this exchange between two women bound by a mutual affection and respect. Lily never marched in Selma, but she understood-- and taught by example--  everything a kid needed to know about acceptance and equality.
My Mom left school as an adolescent to work in Brier’s jewelry factory in Providence. Lu, still separate and unequal in those days, cleaned homes to care for and educate her only daughter. I was receiving valuable lessons from two teachers who didn’t even know they were teaching!
Every summer, Lu would take the bus from the Outlet downtown to our beach house. Lily would wait at the Grove Fire Station in Warwick’s Longmeadow, and they’d drive home together-- same housedress, same white summer suit and high heels, same dishes in the dishpan, same affection, respect and life lessons.
Lu told stories about growing up black in pre-war Providence, “the Mobile of the North.” She had dreamed of being a gloved elevator operator in Gladdings but never reached that highest level of achievement for too many women like her. Bitterness in check and determination at full throttle, she worked hard, loved people and invested in her daughter’s dreams instead. She learned to rise above ignorance and told me to do the same and, mostly, to “…do what you gotta do!”
Lily, meanwhile, became my idol (though, like most daughters, I only fully appreciated her greatness later.) She survived a mid-life widowhood by returning to the only job she knew-- jewelry press work. She, too, was investing in her daughter and her determination matched Lu’s. I did my evening homework while Lily studied in the next room with a tutor she’d hired—to replace the teachers she’d never had.
I have often thought that Mao’s little book of quotes could be outclassed by a “Book of Lily.” When Jewish friends complained about parents discouraging dates with gentiles, I curiously asked her view on interfaith marriage.  “You can even marry a Turk…” she replied, “you’re the one who’ll live with him!” (Why she singled out Turks remains a mystery. I imagine it was because it would have been harder to find one in Providence in those days.) A query on the probability of “the one true religion” being marketed by my nuns at school prompted, “No one ever came back from the other side to say which church is the real one. Just be a good person!”
What amazingly clear perspective expressed in language no one could misunderstand!
Years later, Lu was in elder housing in Providence and would come shopping downtown in the facility’s van.  Her degreed daughter was now supporting her. One day, returning to my office on Westminster Mall, I spotted Lu, ran to her and squeezed her as hard as she squeezed me.  Tears flowed and she turned to her friend and said, “This is my little girl that you saw on the television. I brought her up!”
And in a very important way, she had.
I lost my Mom in 1978: I celebrate being her daughter every day. With Lily’s faithful nurturing and Lu’s loving pruning, I grew to survive and thrive in a male-dominated, sometimes-challenging world. Like the dishes in the dishpan—these two diverse influences kept me on one straight path, with clear markers that urged, “Stay strong!” “Be fair!” and “Just keep going!”
I’ve tried because I wanted to make them proud.

                                                              __________________________
(This piece was originally published in the Providence Journal 9-8-2013)