Posts Tagged: chiavenna

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

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).

Jul 10

We live here?!

Today we moved most of our stuff to our new apartment. It took three trips with the car which is both a bit puzzling and a bit troubling. We’ve not even been here 5 months and already we have three car loads of belongings to move from one place to another? And a car to move those loads with?! We’re becoming entrenched. This would bother me more except that every morning I wake up and look out the window at the looming peaks around us, every time I go in a shop and spend much longer than I had planned because the shop keeper wants to have a chat and every time I have a glass of wine before dinner, sitting in the street listening to, and struggling (less every day) to speak, Italian I feel a little more a part of this place. Can entrenched be used in a positive way?

Since arriving, we have invested in a small library of guidebooks (a contribution to the car loads) and over the course of quite a few hikes and days climbing using said guidebooks I have decided that I need to change my beliefs and become hindu. There is just no way that we’ll ever have time to get through everything that we want to do before we leave this earth, com’on reincarnation! But maybe that’s part of the beauty of it as well. At the risk of sounding trite: there is no destination, only a journey. Just a never ending stream of climbs, hikes, bike rides, days of skiing and, of course, aperitivo’s.

Here are a few photos of the latest day out in the mountains. For those geography nerds our there (and Ray), we started down near Lago di Como from a tiny village called San Bartolomeo and hiked up to Sasso Canale then over to the Bivaco di Manco and then over another ridge to Alpe Campo and finally found our way back to the valley floor by way of Val Bodengo. Roughly 8 hours in total.







Jun 10

Out of my comfort zone

We have spent quite a bit of the past few months out of our comfort zones. I suppose it’s good for people for a while. You tend to learn a lot, when you need to swim to prevent drowning. That might sound a little drastic, but the past few weeks for me have provided quite a few occasions that warrant such drama.

To begin with I was called to do my first ever formal interview in the Italian language, just across the border in Switzerland. Interviews in general tend to be nail-biting experiences, now imagine it all in another language that you are just getting to grips with. I spent the days before it busily translating my CV and any vocab that might be relevant. Not a pretty sight.

I initially thought that even if they liked me I couldn’t get the job because I don’t have my qualifications recognized in Switzerland yet (the same process which has, so far, taken over 9 months in Italy, but that’s a different kettle of fish…). To cut a long story short they gave me the job anyway, with approval from the powers-that-be to start work while the recognition process goes on quietly in the background. Sweet 🙂 The job is only part-part-time to start with (which suits me fine for now), but the pros of being in Switzerland include better pay and generally less chaos.

I looked into the process for recognition of my qualifications in Switzerland. I need a language diploma in Italian. Hmmm. I clearly do not have this. So I signed up for the only exam available this side of September, which happens to be less than 2 weeks away. Apparently you need 400 hrs of preparation before this exam. How many hours are in 2 weeks?? Needless to say, the timing is not optimal, and I won’t be ready, much like my first driving test, which I failed by the way. So I am trying, and failing, to remember all I learnt on the meditation course. If I pass I pass, if I fail… there’s always september.

A language test is official something which CANNOT be crammed for. Not that cramming has ever been really my style. But the option would be nice in this case…

In the midst of all of this we have;

Organized residency here (I AM NOW OFFICIAL LIVING IN ITALY!- jeff is not sadly…I hope he joins me soon…)

Found an apartment to move into in a few weeks time

Organized some loved-ones in the States to pack our stuff into the shipping container which will make it’s way to us over the next few weeks. (Thanks guys!)

I celebrated my first birthday in Chiavenna, shared with new friends. A pleasure.

Jeff has worked like a dog for more hours each day than is healthy

And I started my first job working through Italian. It is really very, very scary. I am hoping that in a few weeks time, after the exam and a bit of settling in time in the job, I will start to feel more human.

And less like a frightened hamster.

Jun 10

Qualche foto della famiglia





Check out more photos on flickr!

May 10

6 Planes, 7 Trains and I’m going to bed

In the past 3 and a half weeks, between Chiavenna, Virginia (USA) and Bristol (UK) Jeff and I have enjoyed the pleasure of some ‘quality time’ with every member of our direct family, except my brother Matthew. In the process we have further enlarged our carbon footprint to embarrassing proportions. It now resembles a large astroid crater rather than a footprint and shall be referred to from here on as our “carbon crater”. Our feeble attempt to reduce it (or rather, prevent it growing) by buying a GPL car seems like a laughable idea at this stage…

Anyway, as I was saying, we enjoyed our first visitors to Chiavenna, with a trip up by my parents for a few days, and more recently a short but sweet visit by two wonderful friends Síle and Ben. In between we spent 8 days in Virginia for my sister-in-law (Amy)’s wedding, and a 3 day stint in Bristol, UK with all my siblings (and “partners”) except Matthew, who was missed. 🙁

It’s impossible to cram all of the fun of the past few weeks into one blog post, and quite frankly it is unnecessary. So here’s a random collection of memories that come to me…

Strolling through the streets of Chiavenna, arm in arm with my mum, busy solving all of the world’s problems.

Hiking up the mountain side in the pishing rain with my Dad, as only the Irish do well.

Being refused permission to board my flight to America, and nearly ending up stranded in London instead of at Amy’s wedding. Of course I remained calm and Zen-like throughout.

The buzz of wedding plans in the final few days, with many an hour of ribbon tying and decoration-making and displaying.

Photos of the bride-to-be playing basketball in a red bikini the night before her wedding. Officially the most relaxed bride I’ve ever seen. And of course beautiful, in that lovely glowing bride kinda way. Good work Amy. 🙂

Dancing our socks off for hours on the wedding dance floor with my family of in-laws, with some particularly memorable dance moves from my brother-in-law (aka “an entire boyband in one body”) and my father-in-law (dentist turns gangster rapper).

Laughing ‘like ol’ times’ with some of the crew from Blacksburg who made the trip up to Jeff’s folks house for a sweet night of chatting, eatin’ and appreciatin’.

Touring the streets of Bristol with Lucia, my sis, catching up and philosophizing while scouring all the skips (dumpsters) for potential plant pots for her new garden.

The look on Diarmuid’s face when he discovered his siblings waiting for him in Lucia’s back garden for his birthday surprise.

A day in the park with most of the Smyths (& co), and some special cousins, playing ultimate frisbee in sweltering midday sun, and circus school with Lucia, who by the way, is very good at what she does.

And finally, a blissful 24 hours with Síle and Ben, friends from Ireland, during their somewhat spontaneous visit to Chiavenna, filled with ice-cream, pizza, walks and wine, under the sweet italian sunshine. 🙂

Normal life in Chiavenna recommences tomorrow. Although, we’re not really sure what that is yet. Whatever it is, it begins tomorrow morning when I head to the town-hall, papers in hand, to officially become a resident of Italy.

The rest remains to be seen…
(as do the photos which Jeff will post soon…)