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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Holidays 2008!













The holidays at the Elkhorn Inn in Landgraff, WV: Picking up, wrapping, & shipping West Virginia Coal Tchachkas all over the country! Happily, we filled a lot of orders this year, & thanx to UPS, managed to get all the Christmas orders delivered by Christmas Eve! We sent coal statuettes & ornaments, coal candy, & Geneva's Gems Jams & Jellies all over the place from the Elkhorn Inn Gift Shop, which has truly turned out to be "the little engine that could". 6 years ago when we opened the Inn, if Anyone had suggested to us that we'd be filling 100s of wholesale & retail orders for hand-made WV coal statuettes every year, we would have said they were Mad!
While Dan was hunting w/his buddies in VA in November it snowed twice, & so was truly beautiful for about 20 minutes, but then it started raining, & it's kept that up pretty much ever since, so it's back to being brownish-grey, wet, & soggy :-( After one brief, -6-degree night, it's been 40-50 ever since... meaning it may not feel like the "holidays", but we have water again... The water pressure trickled to nothing on two occasions, (thank you, again, McDowell County PSD...), & so even though we had it running all night as usual, it froze, & left us basically waterless over 2 weekends. Yes, we have 9 toilets, & yes we always have cases & cases of bottled water, but bathing with Wet Wipes is No Fun At All! We were lucky not to have guests at the Inn those days... But now we've got our water back, & I'm down to wearing only 2 layers of clothes(!) We've had a Roaring Fire going most nights, & I even talked Dan into sitting in the Hot Tub with me in the cold of night, like I used to do in Germany...
If anyone wonders how we console ourselves through 6 months of icy cold, wet winter here in the mountains: we Eat- & we do some SERIOUS Food @the Elkhorn Inn!
Dan brought home sashimi tuna & scallops one night, oysters another, & then 2 glorious trays of sushi from Kimono in Princeton AND a bottle of saki! (Yes, Virginia, you can get real Japanese saki in West Virginia!) I got him an assortment of artisan cheddar cheeses from igourmet, & made him a Gourmet Mac 'N Cheese, & he smoked an herb-rubbed duck & made his amazing gumbo... and then he made his fabulous grated potato-sweet-potato latkes on Hanukkah- so all is right with My world! As a response to this unabashed gluttony, I bought myself a Slendertone Belt & gel pads- the eBay version of the Ionithermie treatment I had @the Bella Nova Day Spa in Texas- & I've been using it like a good little soldier every day (along with my magic Scandinavian Cellulite Gel), to try to pull in those abs & tone that tum- 'cause dieting in Chef Dan's Gourmet Abode just ain't happenin'!
Dan worked solidly for weeks on the outside decorations & lights (EVERYTHING is a Project! AAAAUGH!), with the result that the Inn grounds are now Thoroughly decorated! We've got a row of lit-up candy canes bordering the parking lot, our 6' inflatable Hanukkah Menorah, the 11' Snowman, NASCAR Santa & his Elves, & airblown Santa Getting a Ticket From A Cop, a rather unique item we set up in our parking lot- right where the State Troopers keep pulling over speeding cars... Pilot Santa in his airplane is perched up on the edge of the balcony, & Helicopter Santa has landed on the front porch... In my lust for ever more giant, inflatable decor, I went a little goofy on eBay & got Helo Santa (in lieu of getting Dan the Real chopper of his dreams), along with the 8' long inflatable Santa Train, & a giant inflatable New Year's Baby... & as an early 50th birthday present to myself I also bought a 7' airblown birthday cake, complete with 3 giant candles, something I've actually wanted for several years; I will now have it outside the Inn for my Big 5-0... If only we could find ATV Santa! I Badly want Motorcycle Santa, Golf Cart Santa, & Tractor Santa, all of which I've found on eBay, but they will have to wait, as I'm afraid Dan will have a Cow if I spend any more $$ on this sort of stuff! But we're now firmly in the Season of The Brown, Dead Lawn & Crappy Looking Garden, & it really does feel SO much more festive with giant, lit-up inflatables out there!
What we couldn't find- & didn't order early enough- was Hanukkah candles, and Dan went on a not-so-merry chase thru southern WV on the Big Hanukkah Candle Hunt, returning with but one box of made-in-China Hanukkah candles! He wound up spending $50 on an assortment of other candles which I carved to fit our 4 menorahs while Dan made latkes! My next major purchase will be a full case of real, made-in-Israel Hanukkah candles- we are Not going thru this again next year! We've been lighting the Hanukkah candles each night in 4 of our windows, & it is a cheering sight to see them as you drive up to the Inn...
As for presents, we did Hanukkah & Christmas, and Dan overdid it (as usual), & got me a Garmin GPS for when I go out a-FEMAing, perfume, Bath & Body Shop sugar scrub, Bushmill's Irish whisky, colored cigarettes, & one really useful "defensive" present that I can actually pop tin cans with (!); I got him a totally gorgeous Missoni sweater I'd hunted for all year, the Bass boat shoes, he likes, & Chef's Whites... & a few more things that haven't yet arrived... Since we're pretty much joined at the hip, the only way I can ever surprise him is to order something, & so shopping eBay (thru MyPoints) has become my "designer bargain shopping mecca"... & of course I find the odd thing for me, too! This year I found myself a fairly fabulous coral silk dress I'm hoping to wear on New Year's Eve. Friends & family are coming for New Years (YAY!)- the first time we'll really a real NYE party at the Inn! We're all going to Gary Bowling's House of Art in Bluefield for their New Year's Eve Dinner-Dance, and I'm actually very excited about this, as this is the first time in 6 years there's been a place we wanted to get dressed up & go out to on New Year's Eve! To celebrate this momentous occasion(!), I not only found myself the gorgeous eBay dress, but I went hog-wild @Wally World & got eyeliner, mascara, AND eye shadow! (!) I haven't made up my eyes Properly for several years, & I'm hoping I haven't forgotten how to do the "Smokey Eye" the way they did it to me @Georgette Klinger...
The day after Christmas, having succumbed to the media hype about the "New Black Friday", we got up @5am & drove to Bluefield in the dark to "hit the sales"- & were Sorely disappointed. We went to Sam's Club, Wal Mart, & the Mercer Mall stores, inc. JCPenney & Sears, & I gotta tell you: there wasn't ONE thing that either one of us wanted to buy- & NO bargains. (Unless you were looking for boxes of tree decorations (Sam's), or some Really ugly clothes (Sears)...) Perhaps we weren't there early enough (we got to Sam's at 7a.m. & were regaled with Horror Stories of people snatching gifts out of each others hands, apparently @5:30a.m...), but by the time we arrived there were no crowds, no Great Stuff, and No Deals anywhere. If this, second Black Friday was to save retail, retail is dead... This was the first time in my life I'd gotten up in the wee hours to go to a sale, & it will definitely be the last! I think the Mercer Mall was the saddest of the lot: KB Toys was selling the last of their remaining stock, & the shelves were a jumble of sad-looking, picked-over toys, a lot of the other shops were gone, & the tinsel was tarnished on the empty & forlorn Santa's Grotto... The only action was @Chick Fila, where I tried to order chicken strips & was told I could Only have breakfast but that they were out of eggs! Thoroughly Depressed @not finding Anything worth buying (or eating), & sorely needing a shot of Retail Therapy, we stopped @BigLots, where we did find (as usual) a few kewl marked-down things, had a bite at Dick's Swiss Burger, picked up our eBay arrivals, holiday cards, & the 2009 Burpee & Park Seed Catalogs (the winter "dream books") @the Post Office, & drove home in the pouring rain...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving... Home from FEMA 1791-TX

Dan & I have just had a very pleasant Thanksgiving Dinner @DB's X-clusive in Welch, WV (No dishes to wash! No kitchen to clean!), where the bar actually boasts Glen Morangie, not to mention Tallisker, & The Mac! This is such a wonderful & totally amazing concept to me that I HAD to mention it! Not that we often get there, or much of anywhere, as if we go out, Dan has to drive home, & therefore can't drink, & what's the fun in that?! And so our bar, not to mention Chef Dan's rather amazing kitchen, usually wins, the stuff he cooks up making just about anywhere else pale by comparison, but BD's was nice for a relaxing change, esp. as I'd just arrived from Texas, we didn't get to sleep until after 4a.m. this morning, & neither of us felt like going anywhere Near the kitchen today!
I am Deeply thankful to be home with Dan (& our puppies) this Thanksgiving, for Dan is Truly what I'm most thankful for- today & every day!
Got home around midnight from Houston, Texas, after being deployed the past month on FEMA 1791-TX in response to Hurricane Ike. I spent the last month working in Houston & Beaumont, TX doing Applicant Assistance for FEMA Human Services, which means basically just that: helping people who'd registered with FEMA for assistance following Hurricane Ike trouble-shoot their applications, answering questions about disaster assistance programs, steering people to programs that may be able to help them, and trying to help people not "fall through the cracks". It feels great when you're actually able to help someone, it's a great job, I work with great people, & I'm deeply lucky to be able to do it. Something else to be thankful for!
While I was gallivanting about TX, making the world safe for bureaucracy, Dan was warming his buns in front of the Elkhorn Inn fireplace, working on a gazillion projects, dealing with holiday Gift Shop orders for coal tchatchkas, & setting up our bevy of holiday inflatable decorations and lights! (And now, while I suffer, acclimatizing to the FREEZING COLD of a WV winter & cuddling the dogs for warmth, he gets to go hunting with The Guys @The Cabin, & do Dan's Famous French Squirrel Stew from the 14 squirrels they've got saved for him in the freezer!)
This past month I got to learn a new computer program (whee!), & on our Sunday days off, my coworkers David & Bob & I also got to see a bit of Texas & Louisiana, which was grand! We first went to NASA Space Center Houston, where we spent a really cool day seeing EVERY exhibit & partaking of EVERY attraction! I must say that, all of 49, I felt Really Old @NASA, remembering vividly the amazing summer of 1969 when the Mets won the World Series & men walked on the moon for the very first time... which is now Ancient History to kids for whom shuttle launches are normal... So normal, in fact, that they don't even make the news anymore... That fact saddened us all deeply & we so hope that somehow NASA will again ignite the dreams & wonder of a new generation to the endless possibilities of space exploration... I was enthralled by the incredibly tiny Mercury capsule, vainly trying to imagine spending a week in space curled into a fetal ball inside what looks like a metal ice-cream cone...
We got to eat fried crab & dance at Larry's French Market & Cajun Restaurant in Groves, TX, & go to Tabasco World on Avery Island, Louisiana so I could bring Chef Dan an entire suitcase full of really cool Tabasco products, including seeds for the garden, hot pepper chocolate (yum!), & 4 bags of wood chips for Smokin' Dan's smoker made from the Jack Daniels barrels that Tabasco uses to age their sauce! One of my True Skills is that I can successfully pack breakables in a soft suitcase, & this time I truly outdid myself, coming home with more than 14 full-size glass jars of everything from hot sauces to mayonnaise to chili to pepper jam (not to mention a bottle of Jack Daniels Egg Nog), & not only did everything arrive intact, none of my clothes even smell faintly of hot sauce! I also got to taste everything (more yum!), esp. the jalapeno ice cream, which was truly delicious! (It starts out as a creamy vanilla, & then sneaks up on you with a nice little Zing!) We found a kewl roadside restaurant on the way back from Avery Island, & stuffed ourselves w/crab topped with etoufee & sweet potato fries (& my Maine co-worker got to eat gator for the first time), & I there & then gave up any hope of losing weight on this trip! Whoever said travel isn't broadening never went to Louisiana!
One Sunday we drove to Galveston, & got to see it rebounding after the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Ike, which was great. Galveston is Totally Gorgeous on the beach, & if Dan had been with me I would have insisted we join the folks horseback riding through the surf! My co-workers & I even got to help reopen a really neat biker bar on the coast, enjoying the band while I sipped my Jack Daniels "brunch"! (Elisse's Rule: Carpool whenever possible w/folks who actually Like to drive...)
One of the things I get to do a lot of when I'm deployed is Drive, & in Texas I found myself a couple of Classic Country & Oldie radio stations to make it fun. I got to see a lot of land, some cattle, & a Whole Mess of oil refineries, which I also got to Smell... & it is, uh, Uniquely Texas. The refineries are eerily beautiful in a futuristic-industrial way, esp. at night, when they're lit up with a million lights like George Jetson's idea of Progress, plumes of opaque, grey-blue smoke cascading across the inky sky, dotted by torch-like flames leaping into the night... If you can suspend disbelief, & enjoy it all aesthetically as an artist, without thinking too much (at all, actually...) about what you're breathing, it's actually pretty gorgeous... On this trip I also learned what "skunk" smells like... Relying on www.mapquest.com and Post-It notes stuck to the dashboard of my rental car (a.k.a. "the ashtray on wheels"), I have become a figure of fun amongst my co-workers, to the point where I often defensively brag about how "directionally challenged" I am, being a NYer by birth who got her driver's license at the age of 42... But I do get where I'm going! (I also start off each & every trip with a prayer...) On this trip I got to enjoy my co-worker's GPS systems, often driving behind them while they played follow-the-Garmin. This Usually worked, but not always, & while I really do want one, on this trip I learned that I also want a Really Accurate One...When I deployed to TX I flew into Austin, & I was All Excited, as the Food Network had prepped me for Austin's great dining & club scene, & I thought, happily, I might be stationed there! I had visions of gourmet dining, getting into the Texas Hill country to the "wine trail", & hearing great music on my days off... Maybe next time! Off I was sent to Houston, & I wound up staying at the Pasadena, TX Holiday Inn Express. While there was no place nearby to eat, & I lived on Cup Noodles & PX wine for a week, I Did find one of THE best Thrift Shops (open 'til 9 p.m.!), right next to the hotel! Brand new pink-&-white Timberland boots w/the tag still on for $6.40! A Vittadini dress, new-with-tag from Neiman Marcus, for $4.50! A DK velvet evening sheath dress for $4.50! New Prada slacks for $4.50! And Khakis for FEMA for $2.50 each! For a NYer who twitches at the very Thought of paying retail for anything, there is nothing quite so grand as scoring a Real Bargain; by now somewhat of a "thrift shop connoisseur", I give this place 5 Stars!
Coming from Landgraff, WV- a place with NO shopping- to Beaumont & Houston, was a Trip, &
one night after work, armed with my http://www.mapquest.com/ directions, I set out on a "driving adventure" to find the Beaumont Mall on Dowlen Road & have a little Retail Therapy in the lingerie dept. of Dillards. I got me a Spanx, the hip, modern version of the one-piece Grandma Girdle of my childhood nightmares, some seamed stockings to make me feel sexy & NOT like a woman who just bought herself a Spanx, & a bra that for once actually fits me, & which, to my horror, was now a 36D. Apres shopping I happily stumbled into a Great Japanese restaurant right across the street: Tokyo Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, & had what turned out to be a fabulous dinner of luscious, melt-in-your mouth sushi, created by a battery of Mexican sushi chefs! I love Texas!
The staff of the Hilton Gardens Inn, Beaumont, TX was SO good to all of us, & if we are ever lucky enough to work again in Beaumont, that is Definitely where we'll all want to stay! They really made us welcome! Thank you all for a great place to come "home" to after work- especially Ralph & Napoleon!
My other find was a great little day spa in Houston: Bella Nova. Feeling "fat & ugly" when I arrived in Texas, I was determined to go home better looking (or at least Feeling better looking) than I was when I left, & so at the end of my deployment, after I checked out & was officially on my way home, I made a beeline to the Uruku Aveda Salon (which was nice enough to give me an evening appointment) & got my hair cut cute & colored w/really kewl blond highlights & red lowlights, & woke up early enough to have a bit of a "spa day" at Bella Nova before high-tailing it to the airport to catch my flight home! I got to have an Ionithermie body treatment, which I'd wanted to try for years, & thought it was super! Based on more science than any other slimming treatment I'm aware of, Ionithermie uses electrodes to stimulate muscles to contract, similar, I believe, to medical treatments both Dan & I have had on our back & legs. The Ionithermie electrodes were targeted on my butt & belly, with the delightful result of measurable inch loss as well as the really cool "buzzy" sensation of a powerful electrical "workout"! (My IBEW dad would have howled at this!) If I get lucky enough to get deployed to Houston again I'll definitely do a series of Ionithermie treatments! I also had a great & relaxing microdermabrasion facial, something else I'd been promising myself for a long time, as well as an excellent pedicure with a glorious foot scrub, & I Did go home feeling a helluvalot prettier! No, this stuff ain't cheap, & I'm sure there are folks out there that will gasp in horror @all this wanton indulgence, but screw 'em! I could get defensive & tell you again how I ate Cup Noodles for a week in Pasadena so I could afford to get my hair done, but instead I'll tell you that I feel rather like the corny embodiment of a L'Oreal commercial: damnit, I AM worth it! And so are you!
Following my wallow in the lap of luxury, I got to partake in, for the first time in my life, that oft-ballyhooed American ritual known as Flying Home For The Holidays, & it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd envisaged! Imagining scenes of utter hysteria, delays, cancellations, misery, & total chaos in the airports, I'd even steeled myself (& Dan) for the prospect of getting bumped off a flight, being stranded, & spending the night in an airport somewhere. But the traffic in Houston was almost non-existent, both the Houston & Dulles airports were calm & staffed with the usual obnoxious & snarky "Meter Maid Mentality" airport personnel seemingly determined to make flying as unpleasant & humiliating as possible, & the planes not even totally full. Perhaps all this was due to our current "recession" (politically correct as I am, I mustn't tell it like it is & use the "D" word...), but the Thanksgiving-eve chaos I'd read about for years was totally non-existent... To make the "travel experience" perfect, I first had to beg & plead with a sarcastic, unhelpful United Airlines clerk to get him to deign to check me in, & pay to send my suitcase as is now the norm, after which I had the excellent experience of having a bottle of nice Aveda hairspray I'd inadvertently packed in my briefcase confiscated by a 400 lb. "security" woman, who, determined to "enforce the law" & get the rush these pillars of society seem to get from making someone's life miserable for 10 minutes, can now congratulate herself on being a jerk. I hope she enjoyed the hairspray. Sorry, but that's what I think of that sort of pin-headed, brainless crap. And crap it is, for it serves no purpose other than to make passengers miserable & feed the egos of the bullies & pin-heads charged with "enforcing" it. It does NOTHING to protect our security in any way, shape, or form, & everyone knows it. If our lives are truly dependant on the so-called "security personnel" confiscating toiletries in our airports, we are in DEEP doo-doo, kids. I've watched these lovelies wrest shampoo from people with smirks of glee on their faces, & I lost my late father's gift Swiss Army pocket knife to one such gem; this time, as usual, I bit my tongue & kept my mouth shut, lest I get thrown out of the airport, but safely home I can now I can vent on my Blog, because I'm blessed to live in a free country... I will say that, on the whole, the United Airlines personnel I encountered were very good, & most were quite pleasant, & that all the flights were delightfully uneventful. I will also say that some of the aircraft had seen better days, as on one plane lights didn't work & cold air whistled in on me through cracks in the walls... But I was pleased that they gave me US Air frequent flier miles, as they've now taken over the Beckley, WV-Dulles route that US Air used to fly. Like most "road warriors", I'm a bit of a "points slut", & try to accrue as many hotel points & frequent flier miles as I can, ever saving & planning for "that next big trip" when Dan & I will get away somewhere TOGETHER! Happy Turkey Day!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Autumn in Landgraff...

Ah, autumn in Landgraff, WV... the air gets crisp, the leaves change colors, and people steal your political signs off your property...
I start this post with the unhappy news that our McCain-Palin sign was stolen from our side lawn the other day.


Either a desperate McCain supporter, unable to find ANY PLACE IN WEST VIRGINIA to buy such a sign, felt they had no choice but to swipe ours, or a disgruntled Obama supporter decided they had to personally "change" reality, but in any event it's gone- & I am NOT a happy camper. Here is photo of what it looked like Before it was stolen, and if anyone has a Great Big "Veterans for McCain-Palin" sign they can get us PDQ, Please send it to: Elisse Clark, P.O. Box 100, Eckman ,WV 24829.
No kidding- you really Can't buy one in WV.

































Dan & I went ATV leaf-peeping the other day, and had a great afternoon riding through the gorgeous mountains, thru Ashland and past the infamous "Stair-Steps", all the way to "ATV Paradise" for hamburgers and fries. We then got help fixing a flat on our ATV from a Great Guy at the Wagon Wheel, just down the road, where we got hot coffee to warm us up (3 layers is NOT enough once the sun goes behind the mountains!), and then rode home- Really Cold!
Yes, it's Fall... it may be 77 in the sunshine, but it's Damn Cold in the shade! The down quilts and our Korean "mink" blanket is back on the bed, the heaters are on, there's a fire burning in the fireplace almost All the time, and I'm layering... Ugh! I know this is "four seasons" country, but I could live nicely without 7 months of winter!
Other signs of fall: We just harvested the last of our watermelons, and have a pumpkin to go pick & corn stalks to cut down and do fall decorating with... Our "Grim Reaper" Halloween inflatable arch is up, and the dining room tables are decorated with Martha-esque centerpieces of mini-pumpkins, gourds, cider-scented potpourri, and out little pumpkin breakfast plates... And I'm watching the Weather Channel for frost warnings, lest we lose our herbs- I'm determined to "winter them over" inside on the windowsills, so I can harvest herbs all winter for Chef Dan!

Our other Gourmet News is that Dan has started making real, crusty Italian bread (the likes of which you literally Can Not get here) in our Great Bargain Of the Year: the "$200 50-cent bread machine"! Dan came home a couple of months ago with one of his flea-market finds at which I rolled my eyes: a never-used West Bend bread machine- no box or instructions, of course- for 50 cents. While trying to find the instructions on the internet I found that it had been recalled, and duly called it in. West Bend, while rather surprised we had a new bread machine they hadn't made for 5 years, did send us the UPS return label, and we returned it. And last week we were rewarded with our brand new, AbFab digital bread machine- and this baby does Everything except sing "I'm a little muffin"! It is SO great to find another company that stands behind their products! It is such a great machine that even I can make bread with it! (I am determined to make Italian Herb Bread with rosemary and other fresh herbs from our garden, and to try my hand at the Prosciutto Bread I remember with great fondness from Balducci's in NYC...) Even the Easy Bread that comes out of it is totally wonderful: crusty on the outside, warm & soft on the inside... SO good, in fact, that I couldn't help myself: I ordered a selection of Italian cheeses (plus some truffles and anchovies and saffron...) from www.igourmet.com, and now we'll have THE bread for them!!!!! All we need is some of that Montefiorelle Chianti Classico...
This past Friday (Oct. 18) we went to an opening at Gary Bowling's House of Art in Bluefield, WV, and I was VERY impressed. Gary, his wife, and their artist friends, have done Amazing things with the space, and created a truly professional gallery and special event space in Bluefield! The opening, for Richard Shrewsbury, a West Virginia-born artist, was great, with an artsy, upscale crowd enjoying wine, yummy hors d'ouevres, and a band, and best of all, the work was selling, which bodes Really well for the future of art in our neck of the woods! The gallery has a cafe, as well, so you can have lunch or a snack, surrounded by some really fun artwork; I especially liked Gary's work, much of which is made with "found" items; I loved his hand-painted chairs, and the dragonfly (with fan-blade wings) hanging from the ceiling!
After the opening, Dan & I went to my Absolutely Favorite Restaurant in West Virginia, the excellent Kimono in Princeton, and had a bang-up sushi-saki feast! Oh, those luscious, buttery scallops!!! Dinner at Kimono always cheers me up!
On another happy note, the Sweepstakes Queen of Landgraff, WV just won another contest: the www.Brickfish.com "Shoe" contest, to which I submitted a photo of & story about the fur high-heels I bought in 1985 with an entire month of my IDF salary- and which I still have! I posted my entry on our www.facebook.com page in the hopes that friends would vote for it, and today found out I've won a Marshall's Shoe Shopping Gift Certificate! And I am WAY excited about that! We've got happy guests at the Elkhorn Inn tonight, including 2 journalists from Virginia; the puppies are curled up in their little beds and snoring, and the Inn is toasty warm and smells great from the logs burning in the fireplace... And so, to bed! :-)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Italy... after 26 years...

I recently wound up in Italy for a week, having won the "Tuscany & Cinque Terre" 8-day tour from Intrepid Travel (yes, the Sweepstakes Queen strikes again...)
I haven't traveled on a group tour since I was 14 and went to Israel with my father on an AJC Tour (where the other guests Gasped With Horror when Papa ordered us wine with our dinners!), & I truly had no idea if it would be a Good Thing, but it seemed, at the time, like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a "girlfriend getaway" with my Best Friend, and I sold all my gold jewelry & Papa's 1913 swords to make it happen... but, as they say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"!

The tour itself was excellent, thanks in Great measure to the fact that Tamara, our Trip Leader (the link is to her website and photographs), had (& miraculously retained) her great sense of humor, the genetic ability (from her mathematician father) to divide restaurant bills by 11(!), and the patience of a saint! :-) The other members of the group were great, flexible, and full of good humor, and we shared a lot of laughter throughout the week, along with sore feet & a taste for grappa! We got to travel "with the locals" by train & bus, and to hike enough that in theory I shouldn't have gained any weight from all the wonderful food...
I'd gone to school in Firenze back in 1977 when I was at The Cooper Union, studying painting (watercolor & encaustic) with Prof. Maurizio Martelli at his studio within the grounds of the Medici Chapel, living at the Pensione Arizona next to the Synagogue, and riding my Cimatti motorino around town... I also lived in Firenze thru the Very Cold Winter of 1978-79, when I woke up with a layer of snow covering my pile of blankets, working as a waitress at The Cheapest Restaurant in Florence (hard by the Church of Santa Maria Novella near the train station), and selling watercolors to the tourists from my cafe table at Cafe Rivoire... I was married by the Mayor of Scandicci in Feb. 1979, given red roses & carnations by the Partitos Radicale & Communisti respectively, as well as the book "Il Sole e Muore" by Orianna Fallacci, and so became un vero citizina Italiana... The last time I was in Italy was in 1981 for Carnivale in Venice... Given that I truly never thought I'd be getting back to Italy any time soon, it was, in many ways, a rather magical week for me, and some of the highlights (in no particular order) were:
1. Being able to speak my "Bad Italian" for the first time in 26 years! It was Wonderful to find that I could still speak enough Italian to make myself understood, AND (more importantly) understand at least 80% of what was said to me in return! I got a big kick out of being able to struggle through newspaper articles, read signage, and eavesdrop a bit on cafe conversations going on around me...

2. Learning that my 1970s & 80s Idols of Great Italian Pop Music, Renato Zero & Eduardo Bennatto, are still "known", and still creating & performing music! (I did feel about 104 years old when 30-something Tamara had NO idea who Eduardo Bennatto or Renato Zero were! But in chatting to Italians over 30 on the train, I discovered that they ARE still known- and appreciated!)
3. The first night and day that I had in Siena on my own (Maria having missed the flight...), to wander about Siena and take it all in... To find the Pinacoteca, and wander slowly past 100s of gilded 1300s Madonnas, to find the Synagogue, with the plaque listing the names of the Jews deported and murdered during WWII... to sit in cafes on the Piazza del Campo, drinking my first-in-a-long-time cappuchinos... to photograph the small Palio parades with the children in their fabulous costumes waving the colorful flags of their Contrade...


The Tourist Office Lady was wonderful, and found me a bargain (38 Euro/night) pensione just steps from the Piazza del Campo: the excellent Tre Donzelle at Via delle Donzelle 5, Tel: 0577.280358. The staff was charming & helpful, and I had a simple room on the top floor, with a classic Tuscan view from my window: yellow ochre washed walls, dark green shutters, the balconies of neighboring apartments, ancient stone & brick, and terra cotta roof tiles.... it took me right back to my student days at the Pensione Arizona! I even enjoyed falling asleep to the sounds of Siena closing up in the wee hours (the clanging of metal grates) and waking up shortly thereafter (more clanging of metal grates), and the (spotlessly clean) toilet and shower down the hall...

3a. The beautiful scenery on the train from Milan to Florence, but Especially from Florence to Siena. The landscapes were truly magnificent, and as tired as I was after the flight, it was glorious to see the vineyards and hills of Tuscany again, awash in the warm afternoon light... The lovely dining cars of my youth, however, have been replaced, even on the fancy "EuroStar" trains, by dismal stand-up "bar cars", where one stands drinking mediocre coffee from throwaway cups as the train lurches to & fro... :-( This was a Major disappointment, as one of the things I'd been looking Very forward to was again sitting at an elegant, linen-clothed table with my cappuchino, watching the scenery go by...

4. Getting to see and walk (at least part of) the gorgeous Cinque Terre, and through the beautiful little towns of Riomaggiore, Cerniglia, Vernazza, and Monterossa, on the mountain path above the sea and along the beach... & the Truly fab lunch of local anchovy-and-roasted pepper pannini & white wine at the annual Monterossa Anchovy Fest, one of the "great good meals" of life, that I so wish I could have shared with Dan... I had never been to the Cinque Terre, and for me this was one of the major highlights of the trip.











































4a. A lovely, delicate ravioli with Salsa Noci (nut sauce) for lunch, with a glass of house red, at a trattoria in Riomaggiore, sketching the view across the cobblestone street from my table ...

4b. The adorable Mar Mar Apartment, down a winding lane in the center of Riomaggiorre. I enjoyed waking up to sunshine & the music of the church bells, and throwing open the shutters, pretending, for a moment this was really "my" apartment... And I loved the murals and mosaics by Benedetto that grace the RR tunnel and walls throughout town...











5. Finding THE best wine-bar/salumeria in Siena: Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana, at 93/95 Via Di Citta, the ring road right outside the Piazza della Campo. I think this place was really "the" find of my trip! The wines, house-made salamis and hams, cheeses, and crusty breads were EXCELLENT, and Antonio & Massimo were a delight! We had two great evenings there, and the rest of the group wound up there and had a great time, as well! The paninno they made me for our picnic lunch the next day was truly great: wild boar proscuitto & peccorino on crusty bread... This place is worth going to Siena for!







5a. The great Happy World Internet Cafe in central Siena- my one, true bargain!

5b. The glorious installation of modern art horses on display all over Siena...













6. The luscious saffron-cream "house" pasta sauce at our first group dinner in a simple Siena trattoria...

7. Sketching by the pool at our beautiful Tuscan "villa" in Greve in Chianti- the first time I'd sketched in my journal in Many years... It was truly wonderful to sit in the sun with a glass of wine & sketch again... When Andrew pulled out his watercolors and began to paint, it really did inspire me to start sketching again...



























8. Both the great & inexpensive local wine in its no-lable, cork-topped bottles, & our Chianti Classico wine-tasting dinner at that same villa in Greve in Chianti. I especially enjoyed the "interestingly oaky" Chianti that Sue kept insisting "smelled like bad breath"! I will be forever hunting for Just that Chianti!












9. The AMAZING white truffle pasta sauce at that dinner... Truffles are "earthy" in the best way- like a good "peaty" single malt whisky, it's sort of like eating dirt- but in a really refined, gourmet way! :-) I lucked into this pasta by asking the waiter for "qualcosa interresante da qui"- what I hoped meant "something interesting from here"- and he suggested a pasta with truffle sauce. I then asked "white or black truffles?" so he'd think I knew more than I did, & when he said "white" I nodded sagely & smiled my delight... and was rewarded with a totally fabulous and uttterly luscious pasta sauce... This is the kind of risky restaurant business that sometimes results in fabulous food; I've been lucky, but the truth is that I've Never eaten badly or had a bad glass of wine in Italy- ever. I've come to believe that it's not possible to eat or drink badly in Italy!

10. The delicious chingialle (wild boar) sausage & ham at our lunch at the terrace restaurant in the burgo of Montefioralle overlooking Tuscany... and Robin's scrumptious desert (which she graciously passed around) of peccorino cheese, pears, honey, & walnuts! Yum! This was another "great good meal" that that gave us all the strength for the rest of the 9-hour forced march (I mean "3-hour gentle hike") thru the gorgeous (and delicious!) olives and grapes of Toscana- singing Broadway show tunes with Andrew, a veritable mobile songbook of everything from Oliver thru South Pacific! Although I'd done the requisite "Chianti Winery Tour" when I was a student, I'd never actually walked thru Tuscany, past the olives and the grapes, much less sampled the odd (sweet!) grape, and so this was a totally new and wonderful way to see the countryside...



10a. Noting the similarities between the southern West Virginia ATV trails & Tuscany, as we marched (I mean "hiked") the narrow, rocky path thru the forest, back to Greve...




11. Buying wine from the charming man who opened the church in Montefioralle for us and showed & explained to us the wonderful paintings... and those Excellent red cherry peppers stuffed with anchovies at our "home-cooked" group dinner at the "villa" that evening...






12. "Limoncello & Grappa Nights" in Riomaggiore, when "Mamma" poured the first round of shots... Limoncello is the sort of overly sweet liqueur that must be served Ice Cold, preferably in frozen shot glasses, lest the sugary-sweetness of it rot your teeth before you have a chance to become "tiddly"... but it has a way of 'growing' on one... as does grappa, which I found to be Far smoother than the rotgut I recall from my wild Florentine youth... "Back in the day", grappa was a drink rough old men quaffed while standing up in neighboorhood bars... this was, of course, before "foodies" got hold of it, before the invention of the word "foodie", actually...
13. "Armagnac Morning", following our walk about Siena, when Andrew & Maria did at least 4 snifters of it while their "livers were being watched" by Robin, who Does Not Drink Before Sundown- it's just not Done!
14: Finding Our Lady of the Good Trip Companions with her blue neon halo, as Maria & I walked back to the hotel, our last night in Siena...
15. Learning several key Hungarian phrases from Tamara, none of which I shall Ever forget...
16. Getting to walk about Firenze again (as well as Pisa & Siena)... tasting again Gnocchi with Pesto... finding a corner cafe with the "perfect view" of the Leaning Tower, Duomo, & Baptistry... getting to spend 6 hours in the Uffizi with Maria, seeing again the Botticellis, DaVincis, & Artemesia Gentileschi's painting, and having coffee up on their lovely terrace cafe overlooking the Duomo... walking again across the Ponte Vecchio (but finding "my" cafe, (with Mario the Barrista, who looked like Sylvester Stallone), long gone, having been replaced by a fancy new one...)... tasting again luscious Italian gelato... hearing opera singing in the Pzza. Republica, amidst the glittering backdrop of a carousel... & sitting again at Cafe Rivoire, listening to a brass band play by the Palazzo Vecchio... even tho' I had to shove 30 gazzilion tourists out of the way to do it all! (Remind me not to go to back to Florence until October...)




























17. Sitting in as many little cafes as possible throughout Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, drinking cappucho after cappucho, watching the world go by, and writing in my Trip Journal, a.k.a. Elisse's Therapy Diary...

My sadness (and need for the Therapy Diary) stemmed from the fact that during this trip I lost a friend, one who'd I'd considered my Best Friend prior to this trip. So from that standpoint, it was a very expensive and sad lesson that I could have nicely lived without... I do have a few fond memories of some time we enjoyed together on this trip, especially at the Civil Museum in Siena and at the Uffizzi, and the evenings in Siena at the Pizzicheria and finding "Our Lady of the Good Trip Companions"... More than anything, I wish I'd been able to do the tour with Dan, for then it would have been 1000% Wonderful & THE most romantic of holidays... Someday I hope to show Dan "my" Italy, and together we can taste all the wonderful things Italy has to offer...

I do wish I'd had at least one more day to wander about Firenze, to go again to the Brunelleschi-domed Synagogue, and Santa Croce, to see the Van Gogh exhibition, find "my" old apartment on Via Campuccio & see the Pallazzo Pitti again, to have a trattoria meal, to spend some time at the Medici Chapel where "my" studio was, and go again inside the Duomo & Baptistry-in other words, to revisit "my" Firenze, go back to the art store when I bought my colors, and find the historic pharmacy at the Church of Santa Maria Novella that still makes Catherine di Medici's perfume... and I wish I'd had a better exchange rate for the US dollar!!!! The dollar is Truly in the pits, and the exchange rate was SO bad (I got 330 Euros for $600!) that I had to think about every small expenditure which wasn't a lot of fun. Prices in Euros seemed good until you realized you had to DOUBLE them when thinking in dollars! AAAAAUGH!

But the absolute BEST part of my trip was coming home with a suitcase full of wine, pasta sauces, honey, Limoncello from Pisa, & Monterossa anchovies, and being able to share it all with my wonderful husband!!!! Oddly, as gorgeous as the clothes and jewelry were (and Florence has clothes & shoes what-to-die-for, as it always has had), for the first time in my life (perhaps because I felt Fat & had just sold all my jewelry...) I lusted after neither... the Only thing I wished I'd had more money for was to buy and bring home more wine and sauces and other delicious things (Truffles! Cinque Terre peppers stuffed with tuna!) to enjoy with Dan... We cracked open that bottle of really great Montefioralle Chianti Classico the other night, & had Monterossa anchovy-roasted pepper pannini on crusty, home-baked bread at the Elkhorn Inn! And now I REALLY have to lose 20 lbs!!