Jan 12

Tacc di Giüst

Jan 12


As Gina said, it’s a new year. A lot has happened in our lives since we last wrote anything here. Loved ones have passed, new friends have been made and, alas, time continues in its unidirectional march forward.

I guess an update of sorts is long overdue. Both of us are astounded that we will have already been in Chiavenna for 2 years come March. Over the last year, Italy has come to feel more and more like our home. Our friends here make it easy to love the place, having so many friends and family visit on such a regular basis has kept us from feeling isolated from our past and the incredible mountains make it hard to leave so I suppose we’re stuck (in the nicest possible way). In the last few months we’ve even started looking at houses in the area – though, by design, we’re being very slow and relaxed in the process towards homeownership.

In the last year we’ve both started new work. Gina’s job up in Switzerland came to an end over the summer (the woman for whom she was covering returned from leave) and she quickly jumped into the deep-end (Who, Gina?) teaching pilates classes at the local dance school and with helping to get a new private physio clinic up and running from scratch. Both jobs are here in Chiavenna, so she’s got the enviable commute of a pleasant stroll to the center. Back in May, I started with a fantastic company based in Australia called Bonobo, working as a developer on iOS (iPhone and iPad) apps and doing the same web-based applications that I was doing previously as a freelancer. I can’t gush enough about how great they’ve been to work with and how wonderful it is that I have a job where I am encouraged to learn so much new and exciting stuff all the time.

In August we were graced by the presence of 3 Smyth siblings (plus Brían) in Chiavenna for a wonderful week of rock climbing, hiking and dinners on the terrazzo. We then moved the party to Zucchello, where Gina’s parent’s house is, and added the rest of the Smyth clan plus partners. At the peak we were 14 people and those of us not lucky enough to have known the Smyths when they were all still in Dublin got a taste of what it must have been like back then. The phrase “beautiful madness” comes to mind. And on the beach in Sestri one afternoon we were informed that Gina will become an aunty this March! Congrats to Darragh and Sinéad!

As if to remind us that life does indeed have two ends, I lost my grandmother in November. I still don’t think that I’ve fully processed what that means – this was the first funeral I’ve ever been to of someone close to me, and she was particularly close to me. A constant source of confidence for me, I can still hear her chastising my Dad, Granddad or anyone else that had the gall to criticize me. She’ll be missed. And even though the trip home was for very sad circumstances it was lovely to be close to the family and to get to spend time with my brother, sister and parents. In the end, I’m sure the laughter and smiles out-weighted the tears. I think grandma would have approved of that.

December was a month full of celebration and eating. Thanksgiving came to Chiavenna in December this year (due to my trip home) and I think I understand why you don’t want Thanksgiving and Christmas so close together. We were barely finished with the leftovers before heading off to Ireland for a non-stop week of eating, drinking and being merry.

Hmm, I set out to write a short update and now I’ve rambled on for ages. I’ll leave you there but we’d like to remind our readers that we’re now taking bookings for 2012 – don’t procrastinate, spots are filling up fast!

Jan 12

New Year

It is a new year. A new clean sheet. We are all capable of change, and now is as good a time as any. I feel that I need to change. Or rather, I need to change how I think.

I need to relax.

Life is not a test or competition. But I treat it like one. There will be no winner at the end. No prizes given to those who fit the most into their days and years. At the end we leave it all behind. One’s worth is not linked directly to how many hours of work they do, or how “productive” their days are. In reality there is no real measure of a person’s worth. Because, again, it is not a competition. Not an exam. Life is not the Leaving Certificate.

I cannot get an A in “life”.

Life is simply an experience. One in which we are blessed with a body that is amazing in its complexity, and a mind with truly incredible potential. And this body and mind enable us to feel a whole rainbow of sensations and emotions. Both the positive and the negative being experiences we should appreciate as things of wonder. We also have the magical capacity to form deep emotional and physical connections with those around us. To love and be loved. All while surrounded by a natural world that is beautiful on so many levels that words fail us.

Life is simply an experience. Of all of this.

Of course being what we are we have set rules and guidelines to follow. The “normal” path of life. What one should do. What is considered a good use of one’s life. Be productive. To-do lists. But I think often we miss the point. We rush towards tomorrow, towards next week, next year. Now is the point. This moment right NOW. The art of simply living, breathing, smelling and sensing the world around us. I need to remember that. And keep remembering it.

Yes life is short, even if right now we feel like we will be forever. But rushing and stressing do not make it last longer. The contrary. My worrying about wasting time, or not being productive enough, or with my fluctuating schedule not always having enough work yet to feel “worthwhile” or “worthy”…this is the waste of time. Waste of life. Yes, I will always keep trying to do my best, that is who I am and I can’t see that changing. But then I need to be able to pause and be happy with that. As it is. And remember that whatever the situation, it too shall pass. All things pass. Both the good and the bad.

It all flies past us regardless.

So my New Year’s resolution is this: To live with my eyes and my heart open. To always be good to those around me, friends and otherwise, sharing the beauty of this life. To relax and remember that I am not living an exam. I cannot get an “A”. And to pause…

…and simply breath.

Happy new year to you all.

Feb 11


This Winter season I decided I was finally going to learn to ski.

My relationship with snow had gotten off to a rocky start 6 years ago. My first-ever day skiing (incidentally in West Virginia with Jeff the first time I went to visit him), ultimately ended in surgery to repair a ligament in my knee. This was followed by a long rehab and years of knee pain due to post-op complications. I decided skiing was not for me. However I was lured back, at least partially, by many magical days in the winter wonderland of White Grass, West Virginia, cross-country skiing with dear friends through the wooded hills. Those were some special trips with special people.

So, when we decided to move to the Alps, and Jeff became an excited expectant child, ready for the winter when it was still 30° C  and sunny outside, I knew a challenge lay ahead for me.

We figured that maybe I could learn how to teleski, where the heel is not attached to the ski, instead of using the usual alpine ski where the heel is attached (and I feel like a disaster waiting to happen.) teleskiing by all accounts is much more tiring for the legs, because you lunge every time you turn the skis, but by many accounts (mostly biased) it is more fun and beautiful, and almost feels like a dance down the snow slope. Other than a lovely couple of afternoons with Jeff and his dad, skiing in the Gardner grandparents back yard and the golf course behind, this November was the beginning for me.

I made various pacts with the mountains and its snow along the way.

“If I stay on this easy slope, until it’s verging on boring, and promise not to get cocky and try to follow the big kids, will you let me through the day??”…

“Now, how about I try this slope here and maybe just go a wee bit faster…is that ok with you??”

And gradually we have worked out some of the kinks in our previously tense relationship, with Jeff acting as a mediator along the way. Now I feel we are timidly starting a friendship of sorts. I hope I don’t mess it up…

Like with most relationships, we have already had a few ups and downs. Funnily enough some of the most striking of these occured on the same day. One which springs to mind was during one of my first off piste ski tours a few weeks ago with Jeff and Mike Pfund, who was over to visit from America. We skinned up from Passo della Spluga to the top of Pizzo Tamborello. (For those who don’t know the lingo that means we skied uphill using “skins” attached to the bottom of our skies to make them grip when going up.) It was a beautiful blue-skied day, with spectacular ever-changing views in all directions as we made our ascent. I felt so happy, strong and alive, pushing our way uphill with chatter and banter. A nice picnic-with-a-view at the top, and then we were ready for the descent. Except I wasn’t apparently. The snow was pretty bad on our descent route, with a crust that made it very difficult to ski, and lets just say I have never before fallen so many times consecutively. From my high mood at the top of the mountain, I crashed into frustration, the mood getting lower the further down we skied and the more tired I got of hauling myself up out of the snow, shaking off and getting ready to fall again. It was quite a spectacularly bad performance…

On the other hand, this past Friday was a particularly good point in our relationship. There was nearly a half a metre of fresh snow covering the mountain, much awaited after a long sunny dry period. It was my first real experience of skiing powder, so I started the day by falling at every second turn with the snow grabbing at my skies as I struggled against it. Then I started listening to what it was trying to tell me, and all of a sudden I was learning to float instead of fall. Such a magical feeling. Jeff and I spent the rest of the day making beautiful sweeping tracks down the side of the mountain.

I have been dreaming of it ever since. 🙂

So I would like to offer a toast to the beautiful mountains in which we find ourselves. That we may continue to develop this friendship of ours, in all the seasons it has to offer. That we never forget to respect them and the powerful and sometimes dangerous forces of nature that surround them. That we have the fortune of sharing the wonder of these mountains with the people we hold dear, both family and friends for years to come. And hopefully one day bring our own kids with us to explore the magic, like we did with our parents… Thanks for that   🙂

Check out more photos here >

Dec 10

Christmas Cheer

I am sitting here in Geneva airport 28 hours after leaving our home in Chiavenna to fly back to Dublin for Christmas. Obviously this side trip to Geneva was unplanned as our original flight was from Milan airport. After hours of delay at Milan the flight was cancelled and I was thrown into panic at the thought of missing Christmas with the family. We were told “Sorry. If you can find space on another flight we’ll change your tickets for you, but if not tough.” Well there’s no Aer Lingus desk in Milan airport so the only options for finding another flight are by yourself through the internet or the call centre. Of course from Milan all seats are booked up until well after Christmas. It was a wonderful example of the Smyth world web in action: Me in Milan on the phone to Darragh in London, who was checking flights online for us. Jeff sitting beside me talking to Dad in Dublin who was concurrently talking to an Aer Lingus lady on the phone. Seats were found on a flight leaving from Geneva for the next day, and all of a sudden Jeff and I were back in our car driving under the pissing rain for 4,5 hrs, through the Mont Blanc tunnel (a first for Jeff 🙂 and on to Geneva. We spent the night in a hotel near the airport and have been back in the airport for 4 hours so far this morning. Currently we are on hold (again) as our flight is indefinitely delayed. Which means right now we don’t know where we will be for Christmas morning  🙁

Airports are of course great places for people watching. Especially with the madness of cancelled and delayed flights left, right and centre. Kids running riot all over the place, bringing smiles to the faces of otherwise disappointed folk. The arrivals area has been completely closed down for a while after they found an abandoned bag. Jeff and I promptly moved ourselves far away from said bag. Just in case. We find ourselves in a type of Irish neighbourhood, as slowly but surely us Irish emigrants returning home, claim the comfiest seats to be found while we settle in for the long wait. There are 2 little birds fluttering in and out of the rafters above our heads, who have found prime feeding grounds in this airport restaurant. So for the moment we live in this weird airport world, like so many people have done in the past week…

So as a time-filler and distraction tactic (especially for me) we have been browsing through the photos stored on Jeff’s computer. Thinking about all the nice times that have been had over the past 9 months in Chiavenna. So here are a few photos of some of the visitors we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming into our new home. There are more in the photo section of the blog. We’ve also put up some of our new friends that we’ve made here. You’ll also find some from our short visit to Jeff’s family in Virginia just over a month ago, to celebrate his Grandmother’s birthday and an early Thanksgiving. It was as heart-warming as ever. We wish they weren’t so far away, but that seems to be story of our lives together.

Christmas being such a time for family and friends we are thinking of you all. The Christmas rush of the past few weeks has now stalled for a while as we sit and wait. Lots of time for reflection and thinking about each of you and where you are and what you’re up to. Hopefully ( I say that with a lump in my throat) we will get to see some of you over the next few days, but if the gods of dublin airport remain angry, we will see you again soon. Lots of love and hugs to you all around the world. From the two Beans in Geneva airport on Christmas Eve 😉

The expansive view

Dec 10

A White Christmas

Last Christmas we were in Pucon, Chile, having just flown back from warm sunny Thailand. Christmas was a little “atypical” for us let’s say. Fun and adventure filled, but not really Christmas as we know it.

Since then another whole year has flown by, but to be honest with so much change this past year it seems like a lifetime ago that we were jet-setting around the world, hanging out in Asia and South America.

This winter we find ourselves in the snow-covered Italian Alps. Our Christmas tree is up, the room filled with that heart-warming smell of pine, and the glow of fairy lights. The streets of our new home town, Chiavenna, are lit with Christmas lights and there seems to be a Christmas fair every few days somewhere in the valley, giving plenty of opportunities for drinking mulled wine and listening to Christmas carols, while browsing the stalls of Christmas crafts that you’ve no intention of buying.

I knew before we made this move to Italy that it was going to be tough at times. A new country with it’s own language and culture. It’s own complicated history, traditions and beliefs. Starting from scratch anywhere is hard, but with a new language it can be plain old terrifying at times. Finding a home, a car, a job, making friends, opening a bank account, learning the language…the list goes on and on. Some days you wake up and it’s all a wonderful adventure: you and your dearest in the midst of all the chaos. Trying to live life for all it’s worth. Other days you wake up and you simply don’t have the energy. It all just seems too difficult. You want to run home, where things are familiar and people understand you. Where you can never be mistaken for stupid just because the right word escapes you. It can be hard to just be yourself through a foreign language. To just relax and have conversation flow, even when you’re tired after a long days work. To crack a joke, on a whim, without having to think it through beforehand. To be sarcastic, without being rude. I have discovered that feeling misunderstood by those around can be pretty exhausting.

It would be an understatement to say I have learnt a few things about myself over the past year. For one, I have discovered how important my job is to me. That it has, for better or worse, become tied to my self-identity in such a way that without it I tend to feel a bit useless. I realise that it has become a part of who I am and how I express myself as a person. A way of contributing to the world around me. I have always been the girl who works hard but then leaves the hospital and makes the most of every moment of free time. Travelling, climbing, hiking, biking, hanging out with friends. There has never been enough time in my week to do everything or see everybody. And yet earlier this summer when I had only a few hours of work a week, I found I only really enjoyed my free time if I felt I deserved it. Free time only feels like free time when there’s work/school to compare it to. Even when you live in the Alps.
Though not actually unemployed I came to understand on a more personal level the negative psychological impact of unemployment. Pretty topical right now unfortunately. People are all different obviously, but for me the need to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and of benefit to others became clear this summer. A purpose, when in the midst of all this change the concept of life can get a bit blurry at times.

Gradually we are settling in here, and it is becoming home for us, with a cosy home, jobs, good friends and a back garden filled with the Italian Alps. In my usual impatience with myself, I hadn’t anticipated it taking quite so long to settle in. Jeff, my American with no Italian family and less of the Italian language, seems to have coped better than me. I put this down to the fact that:

(a) I am more sensitive than him (much to my disgust).
(b) I work in a female-dominated environment, which often ends in tears +/- chaos, and finally,
(c) I worry too much about most things, mainly things that don’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter.

All in all this has been a wonderful experience so far. We have been very fortunate. Mostly to have each other with which to share this whole experience, with its ups and downs. To chat excitedly about the new friends we have made, or the novelty of spending the day skiing 20 mins from home. To vent the frustration of being misunderstood, or of dealing with the UNBELIEVABLE mountain of bureaucracy that smothers Italy. To prepare Thanksgiving dinner together for friends in our home. To curse the internet company that keeps screwing us, and the Postal system that keeps screwing our mail. To marvel over the beauty of the mountains that surround us, and laugh at the little birds that play in the snow outside our window. Most things, good or bad, seem better when shared with someone you love.

Thank you bean 🙂

And Merry Christmas to you all !

Oct 10


The day had started badly. One where you have lots to do, not a lot of time in which to do it and the tools that you depend on to get the job done have turned their backs on you during the rush. For me this meant that my computer, who is beginning to get a few too many italian notions into his circuits, had decided that a strike was in order. By the time Gina opened my office door at 11 with the bags nearly packed and a itch to get into the hills, I was a danger to myself and others. Nothing was good, nothing was helpful, I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone and I certainly didn’t want to go walk around the mountains with a heavy bag on my back. But 20 minutes later there I stood, bag on my back, trekking poles in hand, mood only slightly abated since leaving the vicinity of that bucket of electrons (you backstabber).

But here is where I’ll stop moaning. No human can stand in the magnificence of the high mountains, trees in full autumn colors, with a clear blue sky overhead and feel sorry for themselves or angry for very long. With every passing step and every meter gained I felt better, clearer and happier. By the time we reached the first pass I had completely forgotten about work, computers and the outside world. All that mattered was that Gina had packed lovely panini, that we were exactly where we happened to be at that moment and that I could here the lovely tinkling of bells from around the necks of the goats that dotted the hillsides all around us.

Deep breaths all around…there that’s better isn’t it?

I do this more often than I would like to admit. Building myself into a frenzy over something that, with only the slightest perspective, reveals itself as completely insignificant. Hello, my name is Jeff, and I’m a rage machine.

From this first pass we traversed. And traversed and traversed and traversed. My legs, still wobbly from being laid up in bed with a cold earlier in the week began to tremble beneath each step. But each small ridge we approached, tromping up to peer over the edge at the next valley we’d be dropping into, each basin we traversed across and climbed out of, was childhood exploration at its best. Each view something completely new and unknown to both of us.

And then, all of the sudden, we reached the top of a small rise, uncharacteristically in the middle of a basin, and caught sight of our home for the night, Bivacco Ledù, bright red against the grey stone and brown grass. Like the other bivacco’s scattered around the hills here Ledù is perched high in the mountains, tucked in the crease between two high peaks. Nearly always open year round and nearly always functioning on a donation basis these shelters provide a simple, fun way to stay overnight in the hills without having to carry your tent and the rest of your kit. We’ve been amazed at how many of them exist here and how well cared for they are and Gina and I joke regularly that the extortionately high taxes we’ll be paying here in italy are really to help pay for all these bivaccos not Burlesconi’s lady friends. It makes you feel a little better about, if only for a moment.

Until arriving at the bivacco we hadn’t really placed the strange feeling that both of us had felt the entire day. But as we stood there, sun sinking over the mountains, staring down at a sea of clouds blanketing the bottom of the valley below us we realized what it was, there was no wind. None, not a single breath of wind. Neither of us could remember the last time we’d been in the mountains with absolute calm. It was beautiful. Made all the  more beautiful to be sharing it with my wife and knowing that we were the only humans around to witness this view and this calm.








Oct 10

Open House

A few weeks ago, my little sister was here for a visit and we got talking about the idea of communal living versus that of individuals or couples living “alone”, separate from the extended family/friend network that used to be the norm. For example in Italy, until quite recently really, it was common to have multiple generations of a family living in the one building. This obviously has both pros and cons, but the overall idea was that extended family members lived together supporting one another, if also at times driving each other mental.

Lucia suggested that the current norm of “isolated” living in the West puts a lot of pressure on a couple. That quite simply put: 2 is not enough. That it is, perhaps, not how we are “wired” to live.

I initially dismissed this as exaggerated hippy talk. I thought, in a wise older-sister-voice, “Maybe you’re just not at that stage yet Lucia, but one day you too will want to live alone with your partner in your own place”. And then I took a closer look.

In Blacksburg, USA, where we used to live, Jeff and I had dinner with friends multiple times a week either in our apartment or theirs. Unannounced drop-by visits from friends were the norm. We lived “alone” together, Jeff & I, but were really a part of a close network of people.

Now in Italy we are already busy creating a web of new friends around ourselves. Sharing meals, pilates lessons, and days in the mountains. Also, since June we have had a total of 16 friends/family members to stay with us for anything from one night to a week, coming from America, Ireland and the UK. We obviously like having an ‘open house’. It seems that, in a way, we are trying to create our own type of modern ‘commune’ existence. Apparently we understand the importance of it, even if I’m ready to argue that fact with my little sister.

Every visit has been special. Every guest has left their mark in our home. Sitting alone in the kitchen typing this post I can imagine and almost sense every friend/sibling that has joined us in our lives here so far. Preparing dinner together, making a pot of tea, washing the dishes… The busy readying before heading up hiking in the mountains. It doesn’t just feel like they have visited us, but rather they have lived here for a while, and will be back again soon.

They will be welcomed home 🙂

Aug 10

Climbing around Chiavenna

Just a few shots of the climbing in and around Chiavenna.


Rapping off the guard rail into Placche di Boggia


Placche di Boggia


Placche di Boggia


Placche di Bette - Nice multi-pitch slab climbing 10 minutes from town (Yes. That's Chiavenna in the background)


The view from Placche di Bette (Chiavenna and Pizzo di Prata on the left)


I was there too.


Climbing on the Spazzacaldera in Albigna.


The big dam at Albigna in the background.


Beans on top of the world

As usual, there are more photos on Flickr. You can look at them on the photo page here or on Flickr.

Jul 10


I would like to stop time for a moment please.

There is so much happening and changing that we could really do with a pause to acknowledge it. That’s life I suppose. It was different when I was a kid. I’m sure time went slower then. Has someone turned the clock onto mega speed while I wasn’t looking?

Where does one go to check that sort of thing?

I am happy to say that I no longer feel like a cowering hamster at work. I’m still a little nervous each morning on my way to work, but every day I feel more like “Gina the Physio”, only in Italian. There are occasions, like when I’m trying to explain (in Italian) something tricky to a patient, such as chronic pain, and I wonder how I managed to get the job… But I’ve been enjoying the banter with my patients, and that feeling you get when you’re able to help someone. Walking out of the hospital each time I look up and can’t believe that this is where I work. Right below some amazingly beautiful mountains, one of which Jeff and I, and the motley crew of Darragh, Conor and Ritchie climbed a few years ago. It’s quite surreal working where you are usually on holidays. I love it. Jeff is also working away (on the internet), and enjoying his job more than any other I’ve seen him do. It sure beats the stressed-out, angry Jeff that used to come home from the middle school teaching job in VA. That was a Jeff we’re both happy to leave behind!

We had the pleasure of Kathy’s company here for a week in June. It was wonderful. Lots of time spent walking in the mountains together, chatting and catching up, with gelato in the piazza, and Italian-style extended dinners served with wine and laughter. One day while out hiking together we came across an elderly Italian man working on the trail that passes his ‘baita’ (mountain cottage). He invited us in for coffee (with a dash of hard liquor!) with him and his wife, and we dutifully obliged. I’ve often said that you can tell a lot about an area by how friendly the people are that you pass on the hiking trails. Some places people will actually ignore you when you say “hi”. Here you get invited in for drinks.

My Italian exam has come and gone. Results are still awaited. As is any further progress with my application for recognition of my qualifications in Italy. I have been waiting over 11 months at this stage. Thankfully I have given up holding my breath, and am happily earning more money with nicer work conditions across the border in Switzerland 🙂

We have just moved into a new apartment, complete with two big balconies with mountain views, an “office” room for Jeff to work, a spare bedroom for guests, and great little “orto” (vegetable patch), in which I immediately planted 30 tomato plants. If all were to survive we’d have enough tomatoes for the entire neighborhood, but considering I planted them so late I have my fingers crossed that enough will survive to bear fruit. We are the youngest residents in a condominio of 6 big apartments. All the rest are elderly and I feel like we have become the grandkids. One neighbor has been helping me with the gardening, providing advise, equipment, plant cuttings and company while weeding. He even waters our plants when we’re away. Our little chats, over the tops of his giant tomato plants, are a pleasure that I look forward to when heading out to the garden, trowel in hand.

We have continued to enjoy the company of our new friends here in Chiavenna, with aperitivos, dinners, and hikes together becoming regular occurrences. This past week we also got to spend a long (nearly five day!) weekend with some friends from Ireland in the French Alps a few hours away. A sweet trip, spent playing in the mountains with old friends, and cooking up big dinners together in the campsite each night. In a magical way it felt a bit like jumping back a few years in time. The same old crew, just a few extra stories under our belts (and one very cute baby boy!).

Two weeks have passed since I first started writing this blog entry. Time keeps flying by without the least bit of concern for me, Jeff or any “to-do” lists that get written on yellow post-its and then lost somewhere in the bottom of your bag. It’s probably best to just leave them there. To be found a few months down the road, when you realize that you got on fine without them anyway…

I’ve also just decided to write shorter blog entries from now on. If it takes me two weeks to finish writing something, how long does it take someone to read it..?

Pictures coming tomorrow (I use that term loosely).