Saturday, December 27, 2014

When in Rome, remember it

Some places are so fabulous that words and photos hardly do justice but we keep trying. 

This is how it was with a recent land tour of Italy and cruise taken by our friends this past fall.

After their return they wrote up a travelog which they then shared with those of us who were tracking their vacation through their posted emails as they journeyed through Italy and then sailed from port to port.

Their travel account, thorough in information and lively with detail, put us there with them in the historic places and charming Slovenian villages.

They pulled out chairs for us so we could feast with them on spreads of delicious food. They regaled us with interesting encounters come upon by chance, or directed to through research on their part before their trip.

When they wrote of flying over the Irish coast it joggled a memory of our first trip to Europe. Our flight took us across Ireland just before dawn. You could see scattered lights as you looked down, and we could also start to discern actual countryside as night began to retreat.

We came in low over the North Sea with dawn breaking. The sky was all pink. From our aerial elevation the sea was gentle as a pond. (Which I really marveled at, always thinking of the North Sea as a stormy gulf between England and France).

I was thankful to our friends for writing about their experience of this, for it awakened our association with our flight to Amsterdam.

They wrote about walking miles in Rome. They bought gelato, found pizza that they’d go back for in a heartbeat dodged crazy traffic and soaked up the present and past, which breathes life from each other in the Eternal City.

After the shops and markets at Campo de’ Fiori they passed the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (first king of unified Italy as they added) and came to the Palazzo Venezia.

This building in the central Rome district, the residence of Cardinals, comes with a lineage. It was built in 336, rebuilt in 833 and in 1451 had a reconfiguration of space with more construction done at that time.

The Palazzo, at this time, was one of the first buildings to quarry rocks from the nearby Coliseum. This became a common practice in the middle ages and lasted into the 17th century. The multitude of temples and ancient buildings close at hand was a builder’s treasure trove.  

In our visit to the Vatican five years ago we were told parts of it are built from rock quarried from the Coliseum. The old Roman landmark was viewed by the pragmatic Romans of that era as a handy provider of building supplies. It was like a Home Depot store of the medieval ages.

The Adriatic ports our friends visited, and the Amalfi coast afterwards, were especially enjoyed. 

These spots, which they explored on foot, and went on tours into the countryside, struck a chord. It was as if they were saying, Here we have what's important in life.

Maybe it's because our friends were first-time travelers. Partially they may have been smitten because everything was new. All they did was novel to their experience and was presented well in animated settings.

The mild sunny weather quite likely also had its influence. The pleasant day-after-day conditions softened all the fibers of their being, as good weather does to vacationers far from home.

They were feeling, as many of us who visit the Mediterranean and the Adriatic areas, that the residents there grasp something essential which we're still in the process of coming to understand.

For thousands of years their culture, separate by region but united as if by sun, an easeful view which in part comes from realizing life will have its way, has flourished, waned and been reborn in this crossing point of western civilization.

From out of all of this has evolved a sense of what’s important from what is not so much. This in turn has been crafted into a lifestyle with impact to anyone visiting from elsewhere.

The combination of respect for food as a source of life, and food as a connector for life's moments (ordinary moments as well as the eventful), the significance of close ties (family and friendships unbroken through the generations), of wine as a salute to life, and gracious weather shapes this region of the Mediterranean and Adriatic.

In the bustle in these places, where there is bustle, there's also a peace which just knocks us over, it can be so unknown to us before.

I'll be thinking of things our friends wrote about these different places for a long time to come.

We’ll read or hear about these places and be reminded they were there, and that they mentioned them in the real and clear picture they drew for us.

When in Rome, remember it. When we’re anywhere (might be a good thought) remember it. 

Let us pay attention to our settings and our experiences and appreciate them as the building materials in our lives. Let us, where we can, share something of these things with others.

We all gain from sharing. When we send out from what’s good in our life there’s an inclination to build and reconstruct with improvement as a natural end goal. Let us all be in the sphere of positive building in this new year of 2015.  

Ro Giencke - December 27, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Flurry can be the mixed bag of precipitation which here in Minnesota has fallen from recent skies.

In another observational sense it's the collective stir and action of getting ready for the December holidays.

The seasonal bustle that manifests through multiple events on the calendar, special baking which goes on, shopping for presents, gift wrapping, and all the festive touches lavishly bestowed, is hopefully giving our adrenaline systems a mildly stimulating workout and not draining us silly.

Wherever we are in the midst of our holiday preparations (which can last a great long time, and extend into the New Year) we’re wise to remember a wonderful truth.

Joy is very real within this period of time, and in us, and among us all.

We may as well stop right now and think about it. Joy is the underlining theme of the season. It’s there in the happiness, the delight, the anticipation and the gathering of family and friends, some not seen since last holiday time or before.

In all the experiences that come with living the fact of joy as a constant in our human makeup is very important to how we view this season and all the weeks of the year.

Joy is happiness that knows how to stick around through thick and thin. It isn’t lost or misplaced, as it can seem to be, when something isn't going well.

It can be unimaginable to believe in joy in the deepest trials and grief which, like a specter, streaks through our earthly existence. Nevertheless, we do well to acknowledge joy as part of the strong thread of who we are, as it’s meant to be.

To recognize the place joy has in our life is to say we understand life has shades of meaning and works by methods we don’t always grasp at the moment.

When we depend on joy as there, even when our sense of it comes up paltry to bare, we affirm trust in its presence. It's a signal to the world that we're on secure ground. We know joy is to be found when we look around.

Joy is steadier and deeper than the happiness we feel (or don't feel) as we go through any given day. 

When we expect there'll be something to be happy about it usually shows up. In time this becomes a way of approaching life in general. This translates to joy as we recognize the treasure in each fleeting moment.

There was advice I once read that I’ve come to appreciate, coming to the wisdom in it. The suggestion was to cross an item off your list that isn't bringing you joy, and add (in a second column) an item that has the intention of fun about it. 

The item you identify as fun will probably also introduce more joy into your routine.  

The more we can identify what is fun for us, and worth building time for, the more we get to the things with meaning for us. This frees joy to find us easier, and that can change everything over the long haul.

When days are cool, as they get to be in late December, the warmth is in thoughts of special ones. Holiday cheer wraps a bright bow around everyone, and this too is joy.

The twinkle of holiday lights largely brightens this dark time of the year. Not so dark - where there is cheer!  Enjoy these days, so dark in nature's detail, but shining, beautiful and hopeful in the context of the holiday season.

Ro Giencke – December 24, 2014


Monday, December 22, 2014

Let the sun come out

It’s a wonderful time of the year. 

We hear again the beautiful old carols and picture all the different moments the music has entered our hearts to place us at the Christmas scene.

As official winter begins (yesterday was winter solstice) we’re in a bit of a weather warm-up. This didn’t look very likely after an early chilly start to the season.

Our lawns, back to emerald green, have thrown off their snowy quilt for the time being. 

With staying snow arriving November 10 we were prepared for another endless stretch of snow cover like last year. This changeable cycle, perhaps attributable to El Nino, is called a reprieve by many of us.

Chances for a white holiday are discussed daily. Green grass may be very temporary. The forecast has snow in it before Christmas Day.

There were three days of fifty degree readings last week. It was as though we collectively packed up and moved to Tennessee. 

It rained the last day of this mid-month mild spell. As temperatures fell precipitation came as freezing rain before changing over to snow. We were left with an inch of snow on ground that had been newly bare.

The brief transition to freezing rain glued our mailbox shut. It took more than a yank to break the ice lock on the mailbox door the next day.

When I couldn’t open it (with as determined a pull as I could muster) there was no question as to the next step. I called Al. He had more persuasive influence. He wrenched the door free so we could put out the last of our Christmas cards.

While the thermometer in these parts has been everywhere the sun isn’t around at all. 

We recall two sunny days this month but (for honesty’s sake) we didn’t start counting until the sun started not to show up. December 22 being today, two bright days aren't a great percentage based on our informal recall.

There was one other sun sighting besides the two noted days. This third appearance brought pure joy. 

Sun wasn’t in the forecast for that day. It just happened. The sun broke through cloud cover, which had hung on all day, and dazzled us for about thirty minutes toward setting time.

The first Saturday of December was the sunniest day as we scan our memory.  

We opted not to go directly home after finishing up some shopping that afternoon. Maybe the cheerful sun had some part in it. Maybe it was teasing us to stay out in it and enjoy it.

Constructing our plan on the spot, we decided to make a drive of the area we were in. (We know the area somewhat, but you can always learn a place better.) 

The idea was that we'd wind up in an an adjacent neighborhood and eat out. Maybe, without formulating it as a thought, it was kind of a celebration of the sunny day and the sparkle that overlays the holiday season. 

It was beautifully sunny. The sun came in mellow through the car windows. We remarked on the sun. We admired it, as you do winter sun. We commented that it did much (in theory, anyway) to offset the coolness in the air.

The sun dropped behind the snowy hills as late afternoon came on. It created an orangeish glow at the horizon where the low sun remained visible through scattered stands of evergreens.

As the sun set we thought we were saying goodbye to the sun until tomorrow. We didn’t have a clue how long its absence would be. 

It deserved a much grander send-off. For sure I know I’d have whispered to it as it sank out of sight, “Goodbye, farewell, old friend, until we meet again.” 

Ro Giencke – December 22, 2014


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sprezzatura - style your way

A new word has entered my vocabulary and it ripples with Italian flair. 

Rightly so, for it comes from the Italian.

The word is sprezzatura. It rolls off the tongue with a skip and a knowing wink. 

It has pizzazz. It’s fun to say (or hear it said). Mellifluously it suggests dashing, sparkling, carefree. Even before you know what sprezzatura means your instinct is to pocket the word to make it your own. 

Then you find out the word in Italian pretty much means what you intuitively figure out it suggests. It’s the happy knack of making yourself look good. It’s the artful presentation of you to the world.

Sprezzatura in the fashion sense is the total effect of the clothing we wear through the seemingly unthinking touches we give it. It’s dressing with a statement of nonchalant confidence to it.

I learned the word while visiting “Italian Style,” the Italian fashion retrospective currently showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). 

The style show, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, depicts the evolution of the Italian fashion industry from 1945 to the present.

“Italian Style” runs through January 4, 2015. Time is running out to catch it while it's in town. It makes a great holiday outing. Extended hours now in effect throw you a break so that you can still fit it in.

We went to see the show earlier in the Minnesota visit. Making it a forenoon event won us some time before things got busier. We appreciated our decision to get a move on it and be there prompt at forenoon opening.

There was plenty of elbow room as we began. It allowed us to proceed leisurely to not miss anything. We could circle back to rooms already visited when another peek at the stylish displays was warranted.

Beautiful embellished gowns, impeccable suits, sportswear, leather goods (luggage, handbags, gloves, shoes) and textiles that make up the display are the creations of Italy’s gallery of world-famous designers.

Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Fendi and Armani are names in contemporary Italian fashion but the review is thorough in giving the Italian fashion industry its due all the way back to its postwar beginnings.

Informative panels, pictures, films, along with the clothing exhibits which are the star of the show, tell the story of the fashion dynasties of Milan, Florence and Rome.

These are the fabled designers with their influence on men and women’s wear, the association with luxury by which their labels are known, and the integrity of the fabrics and workmanship that go into their products.

The rich tints, sumptuous fabrics and meticulous detailing make you feel you’re on the movie set of your own “Roman Holiday” as you mosey along.

I learned more than a handy new word with our visit to "Italian Style." The fashion exhibit is a history and cultural lesson that adds perspective to the program as a whole.  

For instance, it was new to us that the Marshall Plan, our American aid program set up after WWII, was instrumental in mobilizing the Italian clothing industry after the ruinous years of war.

Then Hollywood came along and was swept off its feet by all things Italian. 

Big-screen entertainment, with its huge impact on mid 20th century America, gathered up its movie audiences and most of the rest of us to include us in its love affair with Italy.

The Hollywood connection with Italy stayed strong into the 1960s. Movies were filmed on location in Italy and suddenly Italy was the new international playground for stars and celebrities.

Italian actresses like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida were household names. Italian scenes became familiar through movies like “Roman Holiday,” in which Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant play out their fleeting chance at love against the stately background of 1950's Rome.

Jacqueline Kennedy marked her vote for Italian design when she ordered from Valentino. We were taking our cues from the well dressed and the well dressed were looking to Paris and the fashion houses of Italy.

American consumers with growing disposable income wanted more than to simply emulate the smart dressers of the day. 

Increasing contact with European culture, intensified by the US military presence there during WWII, created a desire to add Continental suavity to hometown ingenuity. 

All of this contributed to the interest in Italian fashion, which remains a notable player in fashion today despite many changes as fashion becomes a global industry.

With information gained in the walk-throughs of the different exhibit rooms I found myself, at the end of “Italian Style,” circling back to the word sprezzatura.

I like the word not only for how it sounds. It's useful for describing my clothing style (as I wish it to be). In truth, sprezzatura is more an idea. It's what I could pull off if I put commitment to the result to the test. 

Clearly I’ve got the hang of casual, which is part of what sprezzatura suggests to me. 

This aspect of my personal style is well broken in. My closet holds simple, functional pieces. It gets me dressed fast. It can be thought of as sturdy pieces and mindlessly simple assemblage.

To demonstrate that something tangible has come from grasping the nuances of sprezzatura means I have a job to do. 

It'll take concentrated effort to get to the place where it looks like it takes no time at all to get dressed, and to make it seem all nicely fitting (in the Italian way), and absolutely uncontrived.

“Italian Style” made me take note of the inner workings of style. It helped me see that many of us, not clothes-conscious in one sense, manage to create a personal style that suits us and, more importantly, let’s who we are shine through

“Italian Style” is gentle encouragement to value what we wear as the conscious choices of who we are, with some of the best in apparel as standards to hold up to our light.

The exhibit put a little fire under me. Afterwards, I set down some pointers for getting closer to sprezzatura my way.

The thoughts jotted down (which follow) are a mix of ideas picked up from everywhere. 

A few borrowed from somewhere else, a few my own interpretation. Like the real sprezzatura the secret is to take it all and make it your own.

Sprezzatura – style your way                       

When you put on what you wear each day keep in mind that looking at the top of your game is often about simple presentation.

A confident style (as if your outfit was effortlessly pulled together) is not always as breezily constructed as it appears. It usually takes time and work. Judge if that extra time and consideration is a priority for you.

Mix up what you wear. Play with your pieces. Create new matches. Introduce unexpected pieces to signature staples to keep your personal style fresh.

The key to dressing well and happily is to have items in your closet that you love and that flatter you. You know the ones they are!

Invest in versions of your favorite pieces. Wearing what you like the most gets you closer to your authentic look. The ease this gives you in turn boosts your clothes authority.

Dress more to feel good and dress less to try to compare yourself to others. Being you is always the best first step in getting yourself together.

Reducing your closet inventory can be a good thing. It lets you focus on the clothes that really speak to you and which project you. 

When it fits don't you just know it! 

When the mirror says you nailed the look the energy you receive from this affirmation is amazing.

Accessories (everything from handbag to wristwatch to Grandma’s old brooch) can draw attention away from what you have on, which is sometimes exactly what you want. They can put focus on your outfit as well. Know how to utilize accessories to retool your basic look.

Think of a scarf as an investment piece. Get smart in the ways to tie a scarf. Keep a few quality scarves (wool, silk, cotton) in your fashion arsenal. You have an ally in your scarf. It’s like a buddy who plays sidekick for you.

What you put on your feet is eminently important. Fashion is fashion, but with style there’s a spot for being comfortable. 

Style, after all, is the look you own. If your feet feel good it’s likely you do too. 

That transmits to everything. It shapes how you’re perceived. Feel free to skip the cramped toes, stiletto height, or any other fashion trend if it doesn’t make you smile an hour after you put it on. 

Get up and get dressed for the miracle that meets you today. This is my own bit of fashion advice. It popped into my head a couple years ago and I liked it and wrote it down.

Ro Giencke – December 13, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

Garlands and lights, small towns celebrate December holidays

We came through a small town west of the Cities the other day which was all decked out for the season. 

Christmas decorations of vintage origin dressed up the streets. 

The holiday display began at the very edge of town, where the first buildings sprang up. 

The lighting continued through the next section of businesses and main street residences and brought its old-fashioned charm to the end of town. I could picture the sweet twinkle of lights if you drove this way at night.

We commented on the spirit of these small towns to keep an identity and be stewards of the community traditions that often link many generations. 

Years ago, when everything wasn't lit at night as it is now, you can imagine the joy and wonder in the small towns whose streets through the Christmas season were brightened by municipal holiday lights.

The lights were simple (and charming because of their simplicity). They were saved forever and put up each year.

Elaborate lighting and presentation are the norm almost everywhere these days. Society is always craving "more." Pretty and sufficient are no longer enough. We expect something to be continually novel if it's to interest us.

This is why this season brings out an appreciation for yesterday in many of us. The past evokes remembrances of more easily appreciated ways and times.

The small town lights seen with my husband called to mind my hometown at Christmas when I was small.

The electric glow of the December streets after dark created an aura of anticipation for the happy arrival of Christmas Day as the town trundled through weeks of short daylight and the first cold snaps of winter.

We shopped for presents (as a family, probably making one Christmas shopping trip downtown each year). We went after supper – in the cold and dark - after the dishes were done.

In other blogs I’ve written about Christmas shopping as a girl. My brother and me - at some age allowed to go off together on our own - covered the few blocks of shops handily in the time given to get our purchasing done.

With spending money in our pockets we were as much on the lookout for what we hoped to receive as what we'd set out to buy. We were independent, out in the crowds and Christmas was coming. Nothing could have been finer.

These shopping trips, paltry as a grand total as they'd be if actually tallied up, persist as a pleasant memory of holiday expeditions carried out a hundred times.

Strings of festive street lights and the ringing of bells on opened store doors stand out as impressions made on two young kids.The cheerful lighting made us welcome and the store bells ushered us into the warmth inside. 

My friend Barb also has a story of small town lights. Eighteen years ago she and her husband found themselves in one of the range cities, the catch phrase for the rugged mining towns that dot the Minnesota Iron Range.

Dark comes early in December in the north country. Dusk is a brushstroke away from the pitch black of long cold night. They were still a good stretch from home as the light began to steal away.  

The town's old-time Christmas decorations impressed Barb as she noticed them from the car. 

They warmed her through and through, catching her (as they did) at a tired moment at the end of the day. Their day had been spent checking out assisted living places for a relative (the reason for the trip to "the range"). 

Anyone who has done this kind of looking can appreciate the weariness that hits after the search has gone on for a period of time. Barb was in need of a lift and the Christmas lights delivered. 

"The garland strung across the main street was still the real thing" she notes of the transformed street that filled her with delight. 

By “the real thing” she alludes to the evergreen boughs that made up the garlands. 

The fragrant branches would have been gathered from surrounding forestland to compose the green living banner above the commercial district that marked downtown. 

This is not done so commonly now, which makes the recollection extra special to her.

"All garlands arched to the corner of the main street in the form of a crown where a bright star was hung, with all its old wattage light bulbs shining like the North Star.”

“It was snowing lightly" she adds, underscoring the charm a soft drift of snowflakes lends to a holiday scene.

 "It was magical and romantic," she says of the experience. "That old town charm . . . I felt like a little girl again in the tiny port city of Superior, Wisconsin."   

Ro Giencke - December 5, 2014