28 December 2012

Winter Vacation 2012

We are in Puerto Moreles, Mexico, a small fishing village sandwiched between the party towns of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. So we are enjoying laid-back days in a stunning setting.
Our condo on the beach is comfortable, spacious, and well equipped for a luxurious stay.

We can see the calm Caribbean stretching way out into the horizon. The beaches are white with fine, soft sand. No shells, though.
We watch the sun rise from our beds just after 6:00 AM. The first morning we took a walk on the beach to experience the awakening of the day. The temperature was perfect. The wind was a bit strong but it was warm and not in the least bit unpleasant. As the sun emerged more fully we dove into the sea. Wow, that was sensational.

A string of resort hotels line the beach, but they are pretty low key compared to the ones in Cancun and Playa Del Carmen.

Right near us there's a "lifestyle" resort called Desire!!

Puerto Morelos is a village and walking through its quiet, clean streets you encounter the friendly locals - mainly American and Canadian expats and Mexicans of Mayan descent.

Boats to ferry passengers to the reef

There's a fantastic craft market in the town center. Typical Mexican crafts like embroidered clothes, colorful blankets, and pottery tempt tourists.

It's a lot of fun strolling through the quiet streets of Puerto Moreles. There's a variety of restaurants, a used book store called Alma Libre, and a great cafe to get espresso drinks and people watch.

This leaning lighthouse was knocked over by a hurricane some years ago.

There's a new one built next to it, but this old one is supposed to amuse visitors to the town.

In addition to the warm, tropical weather we are enjoying the fruit - mangoes, papayas, pineapples, flavorful bananas, guavas, passionfruit, and other more exotic stuff.
We go shopping for produce in a neighborhood called Colonia. This area has an authentic, working class ambience with lots of fruit and vegetable stands. I got some plantains here earlier in the week which we fried up to complement our meal of tortillas, beans, guacamole, tomatilla salsa, and roasted poblano peppers.

In the evenings I make margaritas. I sought advice on the best tequila we could find and have been experimenting with different tropical fruit. Sipping these refreshing drinks on the balcony, with an amazing view and the soothing sounds of the sea is quite special.

Premi and I are having fun creating meals with the local ingredients. She has been making a lot of seafood.

Warm, freshly made tortillas are available at every store. We've been having them everyday. Daryl's complaining now, so I'm going to have to make a pasta meal tonight.

It's so easy to succumb to the peace  and beauty here and just read and relax all day. But we've forced ourselves out of our lethargy and went on a couple day trips. We spent most of a day in Playa Del Carmen - about 20 miles south of us. And of course, we spent a day visiting the famous Chichin Itza.

More about those excursions in another blog.

01 August 2012

Vancouver Part 2

You might have noticed from the title that this is my second blog on Vancouver. I strongly recommend reading the previous entry first ... Trust me, it's the right thing to do!

This is the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus. We had quite an enjoyable morning here where we learned a whole lot about the Haida and other aboriginal people of the Northwest. The museum building itself is quite an experience - designed by a famous Vancouver architect called Arthur Erickson - to optimally display the museum's collection of totem poles and other incredible carvings.
Inside the museum there are about 30 totem poles. I have to say in Vancouver you see Totem poles all over the city.

Among other carvings and sculptures displayed in the Great Hall, is a canoe carved out of a single cedar tree trunk. It looked impressive.

Just outside the museum is a model Haida "village" with Haida buildings, longhouses, and more totem poles.

This modern sculpture is the museum's showpiece. It's called The Raven and the First Men and is displayed in a separate rotunda. The artist, Bill Reid, drew his inspiration from a Haida legend about the appearance of the first people on earth. The raven is coaxing the humans out of the clamshell.
This is Wreck Beach. After the museum we walked around campus in search of a pretty place to have our lunch (cherries and blueberries, of course). We saw a trailhead by a forest and got on it. Next thing we knew we were descending an endless flight of stairs. Four hundred steps later we found ourselves on an isolated clothing optional beach. A heron perched on a rock in the water stood guard while we munched our fruit. Notice the huge logs on the beach. Every beach has them. We gazed out across the peaceful bay. It felt like a whole world away from the city.

In the afternoon we returned to the downtown area and explored Chinatown. I was amazed at how shabby it was. The stores looked dull and uninviting. Not a place for lingering. The Dr. Sun Yat Sen park and garden brightened up the area, though.
I noticed a significant Asian population in Vancouver. People of many different cultures call this city home, giving it a truly cosmopolitan feel.

I saw this poem on a bus. Vancouver is special in so many ways. It was so easy to get around the city, with frequent buses, helpful drivers, and every so often, a poem to keep you going!

Two striking things about Vancouver come to mind. The people were extraordinarily friendly and goodnatured. They struck up conversations easily and were always offering to help. The other striking feature was how clean the city was. No graffiti, hardly any trash on the streets, strong recycling programs, and an acute awareness of environmental issues. Which just reminded me of a third striking feature: cycling. The downtown area had a well planned network of dedicated bicycle lanes away from car traffic. Many of the locals got around by bike.

On our last evening in Vancouver we had another memorable dinner.   Luck was on our side. We managed to get a table at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts on Granville Island. It was a Friday evening when they do a special buffet. Our three course meal was satisfying in every way. For the first course we had a selection of summer vegetables, each prepared in a uniquely inventive way. The main course was tofu in a light sauce with roast potato and steamed carrots. Two wine flights featuring superb British Columbia reds and rosés accompanied this fine meal. The dessert course was a whole experience unto itself. I could write an entire chapter on it - but I won't - lest I embarrass the person not writing this blog! Suffice it to say the dessert table heaved from the weight of around 15 utterly amazing desserts. Luckily they were all smallish - so multiple visits to the table weren't completely outrageous. In addition to the usual tarts, mousses, and cakes, there were several truffles and other chocolates. I enjoyed the crepe with flambéed peach, chantilly, and cream.

On our last morning we went to the Vancouver Art Gallery, another gorgeous building. I had both good luck and bad luck on this visit. There was a special Matisse exhibition on and I just relished the works on display. These were from the private collection of the Cone sisters who had donated these works to the Boston Museum. Matisse is one of my favorite artists and I was overjoyed to see so many of his paintings (all from the 1920's). Thinking I was getting my money's worth ($20 admission fee) I eagerly went up the escalators to take in the works of BC's most famous artist, Emily Carr. Imagine my disappointment when I saw only four of her works on display! I was gobsmacked. It practically wiped out my excitement from the Matisse exhibition. C'est la vie!

Our flight back home was late in the day so we decided to have an indulgent lunch. VIJ's is open only for dinner, but they have a casual cafe next door (Rangoli) which is open for lunch, dinner, and take out. We sat out on the terrace of Rangoli and enjoyed one last gourmet meal in this city. I can safely say that the spinach paneer dish I had was thé best I'd ever eaten.

Actually, that's the fourth striking feature about this city. The food scene. It's obvious all over the city that fine dining is a high priority.

And as we zipped up our bags and headed for the Canada line, we knew we'd be talking about our gourmet food experiences for a long time.

Au revoir, Vancouver.

Oh yes, a fifth striking feature. The prevalence of French.

31 July 2012

Vancouver Visit

I finally made it to Canada after 25 years of living in North America. I would've had a week in Montreal years ago, but I got called for a job interview a couple days before my flight and even though I got the job, I still harbor bitterness over that episode. Daryl and I chose to spend a few days in Vancouver because it was an easy flight from home, in the same time zone, and would be sufficiently interesting to give us the feeling that we were on vacation. The two hour flight provided some terrific views. This was a view of Mt. St. Helens. Before that, the snow capped cascades were clearly visible. Just before landing we had excellent views of the islands off Seattle and Vancouver.
This was our hotel - the Executive Hotel Vintage Park. We were near False Creek, close to the sea wall. The best feature of this pretty comfortable hotel was the daily wine tastings - free for guests. Every day they served wines from various British Columbia wineries.
The wines were pretty decent. I especially enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon. Sitting out on the terrace provided an enjoyable setting. In our four days in Vancouver we had outstanding weather. Warm, sunny, and comfortable enough for strolling through the various neighborhoods.
After sampling the wines on our first afternoon we strolled through the downtown area of Vancouver. There was a summer vibe in the air. Robson Square (below), outside the Vancouver Art Gallery was especially lively - with a large outdoor cafe, a tourist information booth, and a skating rink. People were sitting on the steps of the beautiful gallery building. Others just milled around. We continued our walk down to the waterfront. 

The building with the sails, vaguely reminiscent of Sydney's Opera House, is Canada Place. Cruise ship terminal, fancy hotel, convention center are all here in this glitzy building. We got our first good views of North Vancouver from here.
Most fascinating to us at the waterfront was watching seaplanes taking off and landing. This would be a pretty cool way to get to the islands.

I was amazed at how mellow this most touristic part of the city was. Again and again I was aware of how laid back this city is. Even in the peak of summer the city wasn't overrun with tourists. The locals also seemed relaxed and notably friendly. 
We did our research on restaurants before leaving home and number one on our list was VIJ's. Jamie Oliver claims it's the best restaurant in all of Canada. This Indian restaurant with a modern, avant garde menu, doesn't take reservations. It's always packed and typical wait time is an hour and a half. But they make the wait an experience too. We sat out on their attractive, atmospheric terrace with cold beer and they served us hot from the pan appetizers every so often. We struck up a conversation with a young couple who were sitting next to us. We learned from them that VIJ's wins all kinds of restaurant awards in Vancouver all the time. After our long, but enjoyable wait, we were seated inside the elegant restaurant. The menu was unlike anything we'd seen before. Daryl had some combination of vegetables and dumplings in a pomegranate curry. I had shitake mushrooms and other seasonal vegetables in a creamy sauce served with some sort of pilaf involving rice, almonds, and spices. We were totally transported to heaven. Clearly a lot of thought and creativity went into the flavors, textures, and variety. After the meal, as we sauntered across the Granville Street Bridge back to our hotel, we felt satisfied that  Day 1 had worked out so incredibly well.

We started Day 2 on Granville Island. We stumbled upon the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. We noticed their bakery was open and decided to have breakfast there. Turned out to be a most memorable breakfast. The coffee was strong and hot. I had an almond croissant which was so unbelievably light, flaky, and not too sweet. Daryl had a healthy scone studded with seeds and nuts and it was also superb.

We spent the morning wandering through picturesque Granville Island. Loved the views of downtown across False Creek. We truly felt far away from home poking into the shops and arts and crafts galleries displaying Canadian and Northwest native products. Out in the park the totem poles, conifers, and canada geese were further reminders that we were in Canada.
Most prominent on Granville Island is the produce market. Colorful, huge, and vibrant. All the fruit and vegetables in season available in vast quantities. Cherries, blueberries, and raspberries were at their peak. We bought a huge bag of each for our lunch. There were also numerous little restaurants and other specialty food stalls (cheeses, olives, breads, etc.) We sat outside beside the little harbor and ate our sweet, juicy cherries and blueberries. Fringing the water across from us were attractive restaurants and hotels.
We spent the afternoon walking along the seawall promenade in Stanley Park. We saw this iconic northwest "sculpture"just as we entered the park. It's called an Inukshuk and was used by the Inuits as a navigational tool. Entering the park you feel like you've entered the wilderness - in some sense. The park is so big and heavily forested with various pines. Along the promenade you look out to English Bay. Then as you go around Prospect Point you get a terrific view of the Lions Gate Bridge. Now you face the Burrard Inlet and the mountains and skyscrapers of North Vancouver look back at you.
Other highlights of Stanley Park were two lakes - Beaver Lake and the Lost Lagoon Lake.
See that hump in the middle? It's a Beaver lodge. Behind it we saw a beautiful great blue heron.

We started Day 3 in Gastown, where we had a so-so breakfast at a place called Brioche, which did not have any of its namesake. Sigh! The gas powered clock is this neighborhood's most famous sight. On the hour it releases steam and makes a steam engine type noise.
It was a perfect summer day and we decided to head out to North Vancouver.
The views from the ferry we took to get across Burrard Inlet were quite sensational. Vancouver has such an incredible setting that every photo you take of the city is going to look great. Cape Town is similar with its setting at the foot of dramatic mountains beside the sea.

In North Vancouver we stocked up on cherries and blueberries at the lovely London Quay Market, then took a bus to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. We'd been on some pretty memorable suspension bridges in Costa Rica so this park didn't knock our socks off. It was incredibly crowded. Even though the scenery made us feel like we were in the wilderness, the crowds reminded us that the city was close. I have to say the place had a Disneyfied feel to it. Still, it was pretty remarkable to be immersed in a rainforest, trekking beside sheer cliffs, with views of mountain peaks, appearing above the lanky conifers.
After Capilano we hopped on a bus to Grouse Mountain. In the winter Vancouverites come out here for the day to ski or snowboard. In midsummer the main purpose of going up this mountain is to take in the views of downtown Vancouver. We got on a gondola, along with 90 others and were lifted 4000 feet up. Then we got on a chairlift to get to the actual summit of this mountain. Since it was a cloudless day we had great views of the city and the water around it. Downtown, across the Burrard Inlet was a bit hazy, but it all looked beautiful anyway. We were disappointed at the lack of hiking trails at the top. 

However, we did get to meet a local. I got to see grizzly bears at a sanctuary up in Grouse Mountain.

Before leaving the mountain we had a beer at a café. Sitting on the terrace we had an excellent view of Burrard Inlet and downtown.

For dinner that evening we had a decent wood fired pizza in Gastown. Back at the hotel we relaxed in the jacuzzi, which was on the terrace of the 9th floor. We could see the sails of boats in False Creek between gleaming skyscrapers. The water was a bit too hot for summer so a five minute soak was all we could handle. But it did cap off a pretty pleasant day.

I'll call this part one of the Vancouver trip. Part 2 should appear in the very near future.

12 July 2012

Another School Year Over ...

It’s been well over a month since the school year ended and it’s about time I got my act together and wrote a reflection about the year. Hmmm, that word “reflection” sounds a bit pretentious, not to mention ambitious considering my lethargic state of mind. Now before you start passing judgement on what a lazy sod I am for taking such a godawfully long time to get around to jotting down a few lame words, let me assure you that I have been very occupied these last few weeks. But more on that in a different entry. Before the 2011/2012 year completely disappears into the nethersphere of my memory I want to capture what still lingers in my mind.

This past academic year undoubtedly ranks in the top 5 of all my teaching years. It was one of those years that reminded me why I chose this demanding and often thankless profession. 

My third grade students were all so sweet, so adorable, and so respectful. They loved me on the first day of school. Previous years’ kids and parents had raved about me and so these new kids entered my class with super high expectations. I found this a bit scary. I didn’t want to disappoint them, but at the same time I wanted to establish a disciplined environment right from the start. It all went well in the end. The kids were eager to please and receptive to my requirements.

A year like this one makes me feel immensely grateful to be in a career that brings such joy and satisfaction. Way back when I was a college student and worked at various dull summer jobs I knew I had to be in a profession that I found challenging, and that allowed me to be creative. Teaching at an elementary school satisfied those needs in the early years, but I needed more challenge. More stimulation. This led me to writing – novels, blogs, etc. But, I digress …

The last day of school is always a strange day for me. Usually, the weeks leading up to the last day are incredibly busy, leaving no time to prepare myself for the termination of relationships I had developed over a period of nine months. I find it weird to spend months nurturing a bond with kids and then to abruptly say goodbye to them. For the three summer months they are completely out of my life. Then a new school year begins and they move on, to new adults in their care. A brand new set of kids burrow into my heart and the old kids fade away. All of this feels so unnatural.

Anyway, it was certainly a terrific year. The last month of school was especially enjoyable. A third grade tradition at our school is to put on a play performance, a musical, for parents and other classes. This requires a lot of practice and rehearsals. The kids always enjoy doing this and it’s a fun way to bring the year to a close. This year’s kids exhibited far more enthusiasm than I ever remember. They eagerly learned their lines and very quickly perfected the dance moves. The kids with the lead roles worked really hard on their solo songs. Putting on a play like this that involves the whole class and a range of skills, is indeed a most enjoyable way to differentiate instruction. The kids with strong academic skills found great joy in challenging themselves to excel in different ways, like singing complex melodies in tune. Quieter kids who fade into the background during normal school days were taking leadership roles, offering valuable suggestions for improvement, and helping other kids hone their performances. It was a fantastic way to get the whole group working together, and taking pride in the finished product.

On the last day of school I asked the kids to write me a letter describing what makes them unique. I said, “In my new book I’d like to use one of you as a character. Tell me about yourself and give me reasons why I should use you. What makes you unique?”
Well, even though it was the last day of school, the kids got silent and wrote for close to an hour. 

I’m looking through these letters now and am utterly struck by how every single one of them is different. It was gratifying to see that they could all write, not just reasonably decent subject/verb/object sentences. But sentences with interesting content, providing the most salient details about them.

Here’s a sample:

I like to do drawings. When I grow up I want to be an artist.

What makes me special is that I can move my thumbs off the bones.

I enjoy reading, archery, and basketball. I like inventing new names for dives and basketball shots.

I am different from other people because I was born a month early. I had to stay in hospital for weeks. I would not eat, but it wasn’t that bad.

I love to swim. I want to be a lifeguard. I like surfboarding.

I like to go outside to write about nature and play “wet my fence”. I love helping my mom with chores, especially washing the bathrooms.

What makes me special is that I love school. I don’t play video games or anything like that like most kids. In my free time I like to read. I love writing and I think I am good at it.

I don’t like wearing pink and cute stuff. I usually play violent video games while girls brush their hair. I am an adventurous gal.

There are four things that make my name unusual.

My favorite team in the NFL is the Chicago Bulls. I was born in Chicago. I love swimming in the deep end.

One thing that makes me special is that I know how to be helpful.

When I grow up I want to be a golfer, singer, and dancer.

I love to travel to places. I love museums, and I have an interest in math.

I am special because I like to swim, I love animals, and I like to play hard songs on the piano.

What makes me special is that I was born in Switzerland. I can ride tandem with my dad on a surfboard.

I like to daydream while I am at school. When I grow up I want to be a scientist and study marine life.

I want to be an actress and a writer. I like making up stories for everything. I even make up stories for games.

I am unique because I love homework, absolutely, positively love math, and I love going to school. There isn’t a better place I could be at.

I can do a 360 on my bike and I can climb trees that are really high.

Away from the kids for over a month now, I smile as I think about their beauty and innocence. Is it human nature to remember the good stuff and forget the many challenges, annoyances, and irritations we, teachers, deal with daily?

14 May 2012

Let's discuss our next book in Codilupo, Italy

Last spring Linda, a member of my book group, brought her Italian sister, Ann, to one of our meetings. Ann enjoyed herself so much that she offered to host a bookgroup meeting whenever we could all get over to her place in Italy. Ann lived and worked in Florence, but she had a weekend home out in the countryside, which she thought would be a fantastic venue. The idea had irresistable allure and we immediately gave it serious consideration, crazy as that might appear. And quite incredibly, a year later five members of our book group found ourselves at Ann’s spacious, medieval stone house in Codilupo.

After my oh so wonderful week in Paris, I got on a plane and flew across the Swiss Alps to Pisa.
From there I took a train to Prato, the big city near Ann’s tiny village of Codilupo. Ann and Linda were waiting for me at the train station with bright smiles. It was a warm, sunny spring day. The scenic drive along the steep, windy mountain road to Ann's place set the tone for a most enjoyable two day party. Jen, Chris, and Leslie, the three other book group members from Santa Barbara, drove in from Rome via the Chianti Valley bearing bottles of Brunello di Montalcino.

Ann pointed out the plaque on the garden wall in front of her sister, Gina's house when we arrived. Gina and Ann live on the same property, a few hundred meters from each other. The houses on this estate were built in the 13th century. 

This is the view from outside Gina's house. Codilupo is in the mountains outside of Florence. Even though this is Tuscany, the vegetation is subalpine. The mountain slopes are covered with deciduous trees, which were still mostly bare when we were there. A few blossoming fruit trees provided cheerful color to the pretty scenery.

So, don't look for lanky cypresses and ancient olive groves here.

This is Gina's house. The interior is every bit as charming as the exterior promises. Gina is an artist and everything, from the furniture, to the paint colors, to the home items, is carefully selected and arranged. Even the staircase leading to the upstairs rooms is a work of art. On our first night Gina prepared a sumptuous meal which we relished in her huge farmhouse kitchen.

Ann lights the fire in Gina's kitchen as dinner is being prepared. The hearth is enormous, creating an ambience of intimacy in the spacious farm style kitchen. As the sun disappears the temperature up here in the mountains plummets. We're sitting around a long, wooden table, grateful for the warmth from the fire as Leslie, Jen, and Chris gush about the Sistine Chapel and other great sights they'd just visited during their two days in Rome. 

Time to open up the Prosecco. Gina was busy adding the finishing touches to the fagiole. There was a traditional version, made with cured ham, and a vegetarian version for me. 

Gina went all out to make our first evening in Codilupo an evening to treasure. Beautiful flowers, Andrea Bocelli's haunting arias, candles ... Wow! We all felt quite special to receive this treatment.

A bowl of fagiole served up for me. This is a traditional Tuscan bean stew made with a selection of beans and thickened with farro. It is slow cooked for hours and seasoned with rosemary, thyme, and parsley. Gina past around a bottle of exquisite olive oil -thick, dark, fragrant -to drizzle over the dish before eating. Linda sawed through a humungous hunk of crusty Tuscan bread, which she past around. I cannot even begin to describe how flavorful, how utterly satisfying the fagiole was. An incredible meal prepared by a real Italian, who takes the art of cooking quite seriously. 

The cheese course consisted of several pecorinos, a Reggiano, and a soft cheese. We were a contended group as we munched through this feast and shared travel stories in a most remarkable setting. A rustic farmhouse kitchen with a crackling, robust fire, in the company of caring friends who would normally be chatting up a storm, laughing, and making merry. But alas, the long, adventurous drive from Rome on unfamiliar roads took its toll on Leslie, Jen, and Chris. So the mood was more subdued than would have been expected.

After our feast we headed out to Anne's place, another house filled with character and charm. The centuries old stone floor is uneven and the tiles are worn. The thick walls lean, though not in a scary way. Enormous wooden beams spread across the ceilings. This house felt incredibly solid, and safer than any modern house. Just walking through the halls and into the rooms was an experience. Despite its rustic looks, our stay here was pretty damn luxurious. We slept on comfortable beds in charming bedrooms. Period furniture and traditional linen reminded us that we were indeed in the Old World, thousands of miles from Santa Barbara, California. The fact that everything was so different to what is familiar to us made it all feel so utterly romantic, exotic, and exciting. One of those big differences was the plumbing. Upstairs, there was no hot water and low water pressure. So, we couldn't have hot showers. But there was a proper bathroom, with all the fine touches (potpourri, candles, fragrant soaps and lotions) and a proper toilet, so really, it was all pretty luxurious. We slept well, out here in the countryside, away from the disturbances of the city.

In the morning I looked out the window and saw a most uplifting sight. A light layer of mist blanketed the forest and the morning sun, filtering through, shed a magical light over the mountains. Despite the mist the air held the promise of another warm, sunny day.
The aroma of strong coffee wafted through the medieval house. Downstairs Ann had already got a roaring fire going. For breakfast we had strong cappuccinos, fresh squeezed orange juice with oranges from Sicily, and toast with Ann's homemade marmalade. This marmalade is a reason by itself to make that flight across the pond to visit Ann in Codilupo. Imagine the perfect marmalade - not sweet, not bitter, fruity with the right amount of tartness, and the texture somewhere between smooth and lumpy. Who could blame you if you just shoved spoonfuls straight into your mouth?

Somehow we got into a discussion about the Catholic church. Ann, who had long rejected the religion under which she was raised, wanted so badly to believe something good about the Catholic church. But each time she said something in its defense, we all pointed out quite forcefully that in fact, she was wrong. Ann is such a good hearted person, full of warmth and goodness. We didn't enjoy having to take an opposing position with her.

After breakfast everyone went for a hike on one of the many trails into the surrounding countryside. I felt a bit under the weather so I stayed indoors. I sat by the fire and read the New Yorker on my iPad.

Back from their walk, Jen and Linda are enjoying a glass of wine.

Lunch preparation in full swing. Linda is grilling zucchini using the method of Italian farmers. Ann is in the kitchen, preparing an omelette with the blossoms from these zucchini.

For lunch the two zucchini dishes were accompanied by cheeses, Tuscan bread, olives, and prosciutto.

After lunch I felt slightly better. Even though I had a slightly sore throat and my energy level felt low, I knew I had to get out into the beautiful sunshine. So I joined the gals on their second hike. The fresh mountain air, warm temperature, and stunning scenery made for thoroughly enjoyable hiking. We saw lots of wild primroses. Leslie joked that we were walking down the primrose path.

After a delightful day of relaxing, chatting, hiking, and absorbing the peace and beauty of the area, it was time for the big evening of gathering together to indulge in yet more exquisite food and a discussion of our book. We had selected Galileo's Daughter for obvious reasons ..

Linda and Ann did the smart thing of having dinner catered so that we would all be able to relax and enjoy the day. They knew someone in Prato who wouldn't let them down on the food front. We had ricotta filled ravioli in a tomato sauce accompanied by grilled vegetables.

It was all absolutely delicious. The ravioli were obviously freshly made. They were soft and light. The grilled vegetables were superbly seasoned and cooked to just the right texture.

Notice the wine. It's a Brunello di Montalcino, of course. A 2004 vintage. Leslie, Chris, and Jen bought a pair of bottles when they made a stop in Montalcino en route from Rome to Florence. After letting it breathe for an hour this complex, robust wine was like a trip to heaven. So there we were - in Ann's dining room, savoring the delights of gourmet Italian cuisine and the finest wine in the region. Ann's favorite Italian singer in the background enhanced the celebratory mood.

We resumed our earlier conversation about religion and the role of the Catholic Church.

For dessert the caterer made us an entire millefoglie. The French call this Mille-Feuille. In America we have some version of it that we call a Napolean. Flaky puff pastry interlayered with a rich, creamy custard. You know how you see something in a fancy schmancy bakery that looks sensational and you buy it even though it's absurdly priced? Then you take a bite and your heart sinks? I have tried mille-feuille so many times at so many different places. More often than not I've found them to be too dense or soggy or too sweet.
But this beauty that you see here absolutely exceeded my expectations. You should have seen the delight on everyone's faces. My goodness, it was to die for, and I really thought we were going to die. After second helpings we prayed for somebody to tie up our hands.

Our tummies were quite satisfied. It was time to get down to business. Ann lit a second fire closer to the sofas so that we could all get comfortable in the living room.

And there we are. We really did discuss the book. It was quite amazing to be sitting in a house that existed during Galileo's time. And he had spent many years right there in the Florence area. The book turned out to be a great one to discuss because of the many issues raised in it. The fate of unmarried, illegitimate women, the cruelties of the Catholic church, the conflicts that Galileo wrestled with, the incredible intellectual output from him, and so much more that had likely been destroyed, etc., etc. Linda acquired an Italian version and was excited to read it and compare it with the English version.

Our discussion of the book was energized by Ann's lemony homemade Limoncello, the tastiest in all of Tuscany.

This was certainly a unique book group meeting.
We knew it was going to be enjoyable. But it turned out to be an experience beyond anything we could have hoped for.