Thursday, October 30, 2008


Dateline: Montisi, Tuscany, Italy, 10/4/08 – 10/11/08

The knitting project for the retreat was something of a mystery before I got to Montisi. It's called Canottiera, and it's a modular, wearable art vest. Jill started releasing patterns for the various pieces in June. They are complex designs with intriguing names like Bit of Italy and Farfalle Knot (named after the villa cat Farfalle). We had a basic schematic, but it was difficult to see how the pieces would fit together.

This project pretty much consumed my knitting life for several months, and frankly, I resented it. Most of the pieces had lots of cables and twisted stitches, not my style, and a type of knitting that I don't enjoy. The pieces were difficult, and there were lots of corrections to the patterns, and just when I thought I had caught up, another piece would be released. I also didn't really like the yarn colors I was using; they were not as bright as I usually use. I kept at it, but also kept finding other projects that I really wanted to start (or continue) working on.

When we got to Montisi and started our workshops (which were scheduled for 2 - 4 hours per day, around other activities), the plan for the Canottiera became more clear and I began to enjoy it more. We steamed the pieces and they started to look much nicer. Jill has a magic touch with steaming; she puts the piece on the kitchen counter, saturates it with steam, and uses her hands to get the piece to look perfect. We started to put the pieces together.

We also did some art felting, which I enjoyed very much, to create a yoke for our vest. We used a needle felting tool to attach pencil roving to "magic paper", then wet the piece, put it in the dryer to felt, then poured boiling water on it to get the magic paper to dissolve. I went wild with colors in my needle felting, so that I'm not really sure that the yoke goes well with the rest of the vest.

I didn't get my vest finished in Montisi; I don't think anyone in the group did. I still have several pieces to knit, and a lot of putting together to do. Without impetus from Jill, Susan, and the rest of the group, I fear this could become a UFO, which would be a shame after all the work I've done on it.

Several months before the retreat, Susan and Jill started a blog that participants could contribute to. I really appreciate this technique; it's a good way to get to know fellow travelers before actually meeting them, and to ask questions about the project. I arranged to take the same flight from Dulles to Rome as 5 other women going to the retreat, and before we met at Dulles we felt as if we almost knew each other. We recognized each other by our "Knitters for Obama" pins. It seemed as if everyone on our retreat was an Obama supporter, or if some were not, they kept it to themselves.

After the 6 of us went through taking 3 different trains together, schlepping all of our luggage, laughing at the tiny elevators we had to take two by two to change platforms in Chiusi, and then the extremely long ramp that was the alternative to stairs in Sinalunga, we were a cohesive group by the time we got to Montisi. We found two other knitters along the way, one in Chiusi and the other in Sinalunga. This group of knitters was one of the nicest I've been with on a retreat, and I hope to remain in touch with them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Life in Montisi

Dateline: Montisi, Tuscany, Italy, 10/4/08 – 10/11/08

During our week in Montisi, we knitters became part of the community of this small town. A lot of people in town knew about the "knitting ladies" and would greet us as we walked around town. One day we staged a KIP (knitting in public) photo op on the piazza, or town square, in front of a mural that featured a woman knitting. And throughout our visit, we tried to adjust our schedule to the town's rhythms.

There are a few small stores in town: two tiny grocery stores, one of which also sells postcards and sewing notions; a gift shop; a bakery. The stores are typically open in the morning, closed for the afternoon, then open again for the late afternoon/early evening, but they didn't always keep to their posted hours. One morning a few of us walked to the grocery/postcard store and found the owner struggling to find her key. As one of us held her coffee for her, she looked but could not find it, and we finally walked back to the villa. I'm sure she didn't like having to turn away so many customers.

We got to know some of the dogs and cats of Montisi. Fritzi (the black and white cat) and her daughter Farfalle ("Butterfly", the white cat) live outside the villa and show up at least twice a day for food. I saw this boxer only once, but thought he made a nice picture in the window of his owners' home. A friendly black dog, Fragolette ("Little Strawberry"), wandered around town, greeting everyone and sometimes following people as they walked.

Montisi is divided into several contradas, or neighborhoods. On our first full day in town, our contrada had a fundraising lunch to support their jousting team (!) and our group attended. The main street was blocked to traffic (not that there was ordinarily a lot of traffic), and two long tables were set up in the street. Contrada residents cooked and served a lunch of several courses, including an excellent lasagna, tripe (which was actually good, but somehow I couldn't eat much of it), and unexpectedly, some of the best French fries I've ever had. Wine was included, of course, and the traditional dessert was vin santo, a sweet wine into which biscotti are dipped. It was great meeting and trying to communicate with some of the local people, and also some foreign visitors.

I'm used to having constant internet access, and maybe it was good for me to break that habit for a while, but I never gave up the quest for access while in Italy. I had no less than two computers with me, a laptop and my iPhone. Montisi has a bar/cafe, Il Rondo, which has a computer that visitors are welcome to use, but I was never able to get a wireless signal inside the bar. I discovered, however, that I could get a signal right outside the bar in the piazza. That became my personal wireless hotspot, and I went there at least twice a day to get news of the outside world: download email and New York Times news, call home, and get stock market quotes (which I might have been happier without; I was asked not to use the word "crash" to describe the market because I was upsetting other knitters, but I still believe this was the right word. Not a good time for us to be retiring and living off our investments.) I had an internet phone package that allowed me to call home very cheaply, but required wireless access. Later I discovered that the wireless signal was also available near the snack bar, so I would go there in the morning, order coffee (which was a good, strong espresso), then sit and use my iPhone.

I never found out whose wireless network I was using, since both the cafe and the snack bar denied it belonged to them (which may have been due to communication problems on my part). But it was reliable and free, which is more than I can say for the access in our hotels in Florence, Venice and Rome. All of these hotels charged what I considered outrageous rates for internet access, such as 8 Euros per hour. I paid for time but tried to keep my online time to a minimum.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Knitting Retreat in Montisi

Dateline: Montisi, Tuscany, Italy, 10/4/08 – 10/11/08

Y2Knit is a bicoastal company run by two sisters, Jill and Susan Wolcott. Jill lives in San Francisco and is a designer; Susan lives in Maryland and runs a yarn store. Together they sell patterns and yarn, teach classes, and also organize retreats for knitters. This year they had a series of retreats in Montisi, a rural town of about 400 people in Tuscany, dating from medieval times. I attended the second week, along with 9 other knitters. We stayed in Villa Maddalena, a big old house on the main street of the town.

In addition to the knitting workshops, which I’ll cover in a future post, Susan and Jill filled the week with interesting activities without venturing far from Montisi. The theme of the week seemed to be living your passion. All of us are passionate knitters, and thanks to Jill and Susan’s local contacts in Montisi, we were able to meet and interact with several people who are just as passionate about their work.

Elizabeth Cochrane is a British artist who has lived in Montisi for several years and has become a valuable member of the community. She paints the gorgeous Tuscan landscapes, and specializes in painting clouds. Liz also devotes time to helping tourists enjoy Montisi. She served as translator for several of our activities, and also welcomed us into her home and studio. In the picture, Liz has her back to the camera as she translates for Marco during our tour of La Grancia, a former estate which is now used for winemaking and renting apartments to visitors.

For a small town, Montisi has an abundance of excellent food. Tina Hilton, an editor and yarn rep, did most of the cooking for us, and all of the food was wonderful. Three meals especially stood out. One dinner was cooked for us at the villa by Alessandro, a local chef. It included picci, a Tuscan pasta which is like a thicker version of spaghetti. I bought a package to bring home, it cooks for 22 minutes, which is unusually long. Montisi also has two wonderful restaurants that serve locally produced food. Alberto owns La Romita, a hotel and small restaurant that is part of the “slow food” movement. He cooked and unobtrusively served us a wonderful dinner of several courses; a highlight was the chestnut pasta.

Alberto also owns a frantoio, or olive press, which is used to make olive oil from the local crop. His passion really became apparent when he talked to us about olive oil, with Liz as his translator. After explaining how the oil is made, Alberto gave us a tasting of two oils, one ordinary extra virgin from the supermarket, and the other last year’s locally produced oil. He showed us that the supermarket oil had a somewhat rancid smell and taste, while the local oil smelled like freshly cut grass, and was a natural green color. The day we left Montisi was the first day of this year’s olive harvest, and unfortunately none of last year’s oil was left to be sold, so we were not able to buy any. Montisi produces only enough oil to be used locally and does not export it. When I get home to Sigona, my favorite produce store, which sells a variety of Italian olive oils, I’ll look for some Tuscan oil that smells like fresh grass.

On the other end of town from La Romita is Da Roberto, a beautiful restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining. Roberto served us a stupendous lunch, starting with panzanella (Tuscan bread salad) and ending with tiramisu. Roberto does not believe in using vinegar in his salads; he says it’s a “trick” that masks the natural taste of the food. He also doesn’t use alcohol, another “trick”, in his tiramisu. I don’t usually like tiramisu, but this was wonderful, full of chocolate, espresso, and cream.

The next day Roberto, who speaks fluent English, put on a wine tasting for us in his garden. We tasted a white, a rose, and two reds, all produced by small local vineyards. Roberto spoke to us for two hours about the wines, food, and other fascinating topics.

We took several walks in and around Montisi. The longest walk was a 6-kilometer round trip, much of it uphill, to the nearby town of Castelmuzio. Both Montisi and Castelmuzio are hill towns, so of course we had to walk downhill from Montisi and then uphill to Castelmuzio, then vice versa on the way back. I lagged behind with women 10 years older than I am, but at least I was able to complete the walk. While in Castelmuzio we visited the harpsichord studio of Bruce Kennedy, who showed us a beautiful, newly built harpsichord and played a little Bach. We then walked through some of the steep, narrow streets of the town, which really feels like a castle, and visited the local supermarket (only a little larger than our typical convenience store) before starting the walk back to Montisi.

We also enjoyed meeting a genuine celebrity, although I have to admit I had never heard of her before, not being a Harry Potter fan. Miriam Margolyes is a British actress who played Professor Sprout in Harry Potter, among other roles, and some of our group recognized her around town. She came to visit us at the villa and talked to us about her home in Montisi and the new movie she’s about to shoot with Tom Conti and Daryl Hannah. Miriam is on the left in this picture.