Firenze (Italy)

A few things I’ve learned about Italy:

  1. Italy is ridiculously hot in August. Like 100F+ when you’re inland.
  2. Italy is a lot more poor and a lot less glamorous than Americans (me) think (thought).
  3. Toscanans hate Pisans.

Our Italy trip began with a short stay in Florence. It was extremely hot, and it took some getting used to. Our jetlag made us even more uncomfortable, and so we took it easy for the first couple days. We stayed right in front of the River Arno by the Ponte Vecchio.

River Arno is about 150 miles long and originates from Casentino and flows thru Pisa to the sea (east to west). “Ponte Vecchio” means “old bridge,” and, according to our shuttle driver, it was initially built as a slaughterhouse. The initial slaughterhouses on land were too stinky, so they added theses houses on the bridge. The animals would be led there and slaughtered, and their guts and remains would be dumped straight into the river. The stinky water would flow to Pisa, which was perfect because¬†no one liked the Pisans anyway.

Our hotel was also really close to the city center, where the Duomo is. Florence’s Duomo is really an impressive building. My pictures don’t really do it justice. There are a lot of details in the stonework that is really humbling. The city center is also where all the fake (replicas) statues are, but I don’t have any pictures of them because I was too lazy…

We also went to the huge market in Florence to try the roast pork sammiches, as recommended by our friends. I noticed that this place was particularly popular with the Japanese crowd, as they had an article displayed where they were featured in a Japanese magazine. There were also many signs in Japanese describing their foods, and many Asian tourists were clamoring for a photo-op with their storefront… Anyway, the sammiches were good, although a bit salty for me.

Our first dinner in Florence was fantastic. We went to this restaurant called Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco (Restaurant of the White Boar) (also at the recommendation of our friends) and ordered a meat appetizer, a cheese plate, and delicious entrees, including my “chicken in cheese sauce with truffles.” The decor was very unique, and it made the place feel very homey, like a mom-and-pop. Definitely a memorable eating experience. We also went to get gelato at least once a day so far, but it’s usually consumed pretty quickly before I get a pic ūüėČ

On another day in Florence, we went to see The David. Michelangelo was only 26 when he was able to convince the Operai (essentially a public works committee) to let him finish what Agostino started, and it took Michy two years to finish what is now one of the most revered statues. The David is revered because it’s so different from all the other Davids. For example, in Michy’s David, David isn’t standing on the head of Goliath, a monster he’d slain. Instead, this statue captures him in the moment after he has decided to fight Goliath but before the fight has begun; in other words, “It is a representation of the moment between conscious choice and conscious action” (wiki article of The David). I don’t have any personal pics of the guy because we weren’t allowed to take pix. Plus you can just find him online.

Overall, Firenze was neat to experience but I’m not sure if it’s the most beautiful city in Italy, and unfortunately, I think the weather has had a really negative impact on my experience thus far. Like most tourist cities, Florence is a bit stinky and crowded (though probably less so than early summer when even more people are there). Wikipedia: Italy says that Italy is the 25th most developed country and ranks in the top ten of the Quality of Life index, but I think those stats are misleading. According to our Italian shuttle driver, 72% of their paycheck is taken from them in taxes- 51% top marginal tax (based on income) and 21% VAT (value added tax, or tax when a service, product, or material is added… I think). That’s a lot of money to have stolen from you!! So Italians have a difficult time covering living expenses and saving money. The Italian economy isn’t doing so hot, making it a less than ideal place where I’d want to live.

Our time in Florence was short, but there’s still a lot left to do elsewhere in Italy! Next post will be about our half day in Tuscany and Lucca!

Oh, and the answer to why the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built! We heard an interesting story from our shuttle driver the other day: LTP was built to boost the Pisan economy by increasing foot traffic in the area. The idea was that by building a structure that was a little off kilter (literally), it would increase public interest (because a leaning tower is way more interesting than a straight tower) and draw people to Pisa, as there was mass pilgrimage through the area at that time. An interesting and plausible theory!

Intro to Italy & Question of the Day

We made it to Pisa, Italy!

Our shuttle to Florence picked us up and took a special detour for us to see the Leaning Tower.

That’s our morning so far, it’s terribly hot here, and we’re all irritably jet-lagged, so maybe more later tonight!

QOTD: Why was the Tower of Pisa constructed?

(Answer tomorrow ūüôā )

At The Cabbage (Wisconsin)

I always thought of myself as a city girl.

Born and raised in St. Louis, schooled in St. Louis, worked in Dallas, living in Orange County. And Winston-Salem, a step off a beaten path.

The past few days,¬†the Lion and I have been¬†hanging out with his extended family at a beautiful cabin by the lake in Door County, Wisconsin. I don’t know how much you know about Door County (I hadn’t even heard of it before), but apparently it is THE place to go if you’re a Chicagoan.

The towns here are so small that I only have 1G on my phone (I didn’t even know 1G existed)! We spent our time here talking and eating with everyone, enjoying the views, playing video games, and of course, playing Settlers of Catan.

One morning, we got to visit the sheep from a nearby sheep farm (“wool farm”?) run by a couple who also hosts a b&b. The couple, Gretchen and Dick, are wonderful people, and their sheep are sweethearts who aren’t afraid to come up to you and ask for kisses (or give you kisses if you happen to be squatting down for a picture!)! The Lion and I have visited a small variety of backyard and larger farms, and they never cease to amaze and inspire us. I am really looking forward to having chickens and goats in our future backyard, and of course some herbs and flowers and vegetables and fruits too (fertilized naturally by our animals and compost bin). I think the quality and freshness of homegrown, organic foods just can’t be beat (plus the animals are extremely entertaining).

But let’s be real, there are some real downsides to Wisconsin country life too: the least powerful shower head I’ve ever experienced, lack of organic produce, fruits, and free-range protein, a heavy emphasis on breads and sugars, and no internet or cell reception…

While many compromises were made, being in a secluded place was enjoyable still because we could hear the water and the trees, breathe in clean air, see all the stars, and enjoy the company and warmth of a wonderful family (and their little canine and bat friends) around a bonfire.

Sometimes it’s good to get away from the city for a bit, girl.

Tempus Fugit

The grandfather clock in the dining room of this little B&B we’re staying at in Wisconsin bears the timeless wisdom, “Tempus Fugit”. I had to look that one up on my phone, it sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember exactly what it meant.

I have a feeling this trip will involve another expression, “Feast or famine”, and quite literally so. We’re used to eating a certain way at home, and while we’re all about experiencing the local fare, unfortunately the local fare seems to vary wildly in terms of quality and quantity in each place we go.

Sicily I think will be more of a feast place. Wisconsin is seeming more like a famine place. Of course, there’s plenty of soda and beer and such!

The time with family here is welcome. But luckily, time flies, so we won’t have to worry about the famine for too long…

This, too, shall pass?

Why We Travel

The Wolf and I¬†were kicking around a few links via e-mail the other day as we (she) put the finishing touches on our South America excursion. We were reading something from one of Tim Ferriss’s guest writers about “how to travel”. The guy was a little sanctimonious in the beginning but ultimately offered some tips I found valuable for getting the most out of my upcoming travels.

I say it was a little sanctimonious as if I am displeased. But as a sanctimonious person myself, I mostly took interest. What the guest author was on about was “good” and “bad” reasons to travel. As I read it, I have to say I couldn’t figure out how anyone could have a “good” reason… it all seemed to boil down to restlessness borne of subtle, unaddressed displeasure with one’s usual circumstances.

I thought about why I like to travel. I noticed a lot of my reasons boiled down to this nagging insecurity and unhappiness thing. I haven’t found a way to rationalize my way out of that bag (and maybe I never will), so in the meantime I thought I’d “invert, always invert” (erroneously attributed by naive financial market philosophes to Charlie Munger) and pose it this way:

Why wouldn’t you want to travel?

I came up with a short, condescending list, in no particular order:

  • You’re completely unaware there is a world of other people and experiences outside the narrow confines of your everyday life
  • You can’t afford it (ultimately because you don’t prioritize the experience highly enough to take the steps necessary to produce enough for others in exchange to pay the cost)
  • You’re a racist
  • You’re intimidated by foreign languages and awkward some-English interpersonal encounters
  • You don’t like the food
  • You realize churches and temples are bizarre no matter where they are in the world and, seeing as how most travelers eventually wind-up staring at a place of foreign worship at some moment or another in their trip, you decide to skip it and stay home
  • You are a Zen-like being of perfect self-knowledge and self-control and there is no felt uneasiness you feel the need to relieve yourself of by journeying beyond your present place and state; in fact, you are so consumed by your enlightened presence that you don’t even travel into the kitchen for a snack… ultimately you stay right where you are until you sublimate into supreme nothingness (aka, you die and leave a smelly mess for the neighbors to find)

I think when you put it this way, it’s pretty clear why we travel and it’s really hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t live life exactly as we are (take THAT, Zen master!)

Review – The 4-Hour Work Week

by Timothy Ferriss; published 2009

A few important takeaway quotes from Chapter 1, “Rules That Change The Rules”:

  1. Retirement is an unsustainable notion:¬†implies you do what you dislike during the most physically capable years of your life; the math doesn’t work; you’ll probably opt to look for a new job or start another company as soon as you retire, out of boredom
  2. Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survival, as well as “thrival”; work only when you are most effective to be more productive and happier overall
  3. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you; if it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually”, just do it and course correct along the way
  4. Ask for forgiveness, not permission; if the potential damage is moderate or in any way reversible, don’t give people the chance to say no
  5. It’s better to emphasize strengths than repair weaknesses; identify your best weapons and focus on wielding them more wisely
  6. The positive use of free time implies doing what you want as opposed to what you feel obligated to do
  7. Relative income uses two variables: money and time
  8. Eustress: role models who push us to exceed our limits, physical training, risks that expand our sphere of comfortable action; people who avoid all criticism fail

The value of money spent is determined by:

  • what you do
  • when you do it
  • where you do it
  • with whom you do it

In other words, quality, not quantity, is the major consideration in “psychic yield” from money spent.

In Chapter 2, Ferriss proposes some “rules that change the rules”. To start with, the concept of saving and sacrificing for an old-age retirement is a broken one because:

  • it assumes up to that point you spend a majority of your time doing something you dislike during the most physically capable years of your life
  • the math doesn’t work and you end up reliving your low-income lifestyle in old-age
  • you’ll likely get bored and look for a job or start a company just to keep yourself busy, negating the whole point

Instead, Ferriss proposes taking periodic “mini-retirements” throughout your life. This concept is consistently applied even down to the weekly and daily level, as he suggests that,

Alternating periods of activity and rest is necessary to survive, let alone thrive… By working only when you are most effective, life is both more productive and more enjoyable.

Many people push their dreams into the future and thereby let “someday” become “never.” Instead of waiting for the perfect time to take a break, Ferriss recommends following a passion as soon as you are aware of it and course correcting along the way.

To use your time wisely in life, focus on the things you are best at, rather than wasting time shoring up your weaknesses. This is an economic concept known as “competitive advantage” and it works for individuals just as well as companies or countries (obviously). Using free time efficiently implies doing what you want to do with your free time, not what you feel obligated to do. Finally, it’s important to seek out eustress, which is healthy stress that results in testing our limits and then pushing them out a little further afterward. In other words,

People who avoid all criticism fail.

Chapter 3 is about overcoming the fear of realizing your dreams. Ferriss opens with the quote,

Many a false step was made by standing still.

To overcome fear, we must define it. Often, we realize that what we fear going wrong is an unlikely, temporary 3 or 4 (on a scale of ten) disaster, in return for a probable and permanent 9 or 10 success. If you don’t like what you’re doing now, and you stick with it, how likely is your situation to be improved one year from now?

Instead of seeing how much definite pain you can tolerate now, Ferriss advises you to pull the cord, take a leap and try something different while you still have a chance. You must develop a habit of doing things you fear on a daily basis because “what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.” You should ask yourself,

If I don’t pursue those things that excite me, where will I be in one year, five years and ten years?

If you’re bored and dissatisfied with your life and not following your passions, and you define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome”, then it follows that “inaction is the greatest risk of all.”

You’ve decided to face your fears and challenge yourself by demanding more. What should you do? As Chapter 4¬†recommends, aim as high as you can, and never let admonitions that what you are attempting is “unreasonable” stop you.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

The bigger the goal, the less competition you will face. The less competition, the better your chances of bagging the big one– “the fishing is best where the fewest go.”

When choosing goals and objectives, ask yourself, “What would excite me?” and then do that thing.

Ferriss’s preferred method for envisioning your future, exciting lifestyle is called “dreamlining”. You are to come up with a number of “having, being and doing” items, and then try to convert the “beings” into “doings” by coming up with specific actionable steps you could take (lessons, events, workshops, etc.) that will transform you into that kind of person. Then, you estimate the cost of these different items and divide each amount by 12 (or however many months you’re giving yourself to realize these dreams, though the shorter the better to avoid “someday”-fatigue) to get your monthly cost for each.

Adding the monthly costs of your dreamline to your current monthly expenses (multiplied¬†by 1.3 to give yourself a savings buffer for something going wrong) gives you your Target Monthly Income (TMI) and gives you a real goal to shoot for in helping you understand how much more you need to make on a monthly basis to start realizing your dreamlines. This is the part where you get creative– sell stuff you don’t need and aren’t using anymore, reduce your expenses by not getting that latte every morning, and think up new sources of income by starting a side business or other passive income stream. You’ll often be amazed how close you are to your dreams when you look at them as a monthly figure and consider ways in which your current spending doesn’t really satisfy your dream desires.

Living your dream is about doing, and making bold decisions for yourself. This is why Ferriss ends the chapter by stating:

To have an uncommon lifestyle, you need to develop the uncommon habit of making decisions, both for yourself and others.

The next time someone asks you for a decision on something (where to go for lunch, what to do about that client, etc.), MAKE ONE and course correct if necessary. Almost everything is reversible.

Chapter 5 develops the theme of time management. The focus is on the 80/20 principle of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, namely, focus on eliminating the 20% of sources causing 80% of your problems while spending that freed up time on the 20% of sources responsible for 80% of your desired outcomes and happiness. Productive efficiency is about doing more by doing less ineffective stuff via selectivity.

The most important lesson: lack of time is actually lack of priorities.

Give yourself short, clear deadlines to work out critical tasks that contribute the most to your work or quality of life. Ignore or eliminate the rest. A few other tips:

  • Ask yourself, “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?”
  • Never arrive at the office, your computer or anywhere else without a clear list of priorities– otherwise you’ll make up distractions to fill your time
  • Compile your to-do list for tomorrow no later than this evening
  • You should never have more than two mission-critical items to complete each day
  • Do not multitask

Chapter 6, The Low Information Diet, takes these principles and applies them further. Stop wasting time reading the news; start using, “Tell me, what’s new in the world?” as a conversation starter and let others read the news and summarize headlines for you.

If you need to learn how to do something, read the autobiography of someone who has done it. If you’re suffering from information overload, ask yourself, “Will I definitely use this information for something immediate and important?” And practice the art of nonfinishing– if something is boring or not useful, stop reading it/listening to it/watching it, etc.

Stop asking people “How are you?” and instead ask them, “How can I help you?” The former invites interruptions, the latter invites action.

Living The New Rich Lifestyle Starts With Mini-Retirement Jet-setting Practice

Paraphrasing (in Ferriss’s words) the first few paragraphs of the chapter about doing a life-reset by traveling abroad:

Some jobs are simply beyond repair. Improvements would be like adding a set of designer curtains to a jail cell. Most people aren’t lucky enough to get fired and die a slow spiritual death over 30-40 years of tolerating the mediocre. Being able to quit things that don’t work is integral to being a winner. The person who has more options has more power. Don’t wait until you need options to search for them. Take a sneak peek at the future now and it will make both action and being assertive easier.

Begin your new lifestyle of mini-retirements and following your life’s passion by relocating to one place for one to six months before going home or moving to another locale. This will give you time to relax and enjoy the new experiences without having to worry about catching your flight home, and without shortchanging yourself by assuming you won’t be around long enough to really submerse yourself in the local culture and language.

Chose a location where your money will go further than back home (such as Argentina, Thailand or Eastern Europe). To get there, use credit card miles or buy your tickets either far in advance or at the last minute, comparison shopping with Orbitz.com or Kayak.com and the airlines’ own websites and then bidding on Priceline.com for 50% off, moving up in increments of $50 at a time. Consider using major airlines to get to travel hubs in foreign countries and then buying a local airline ticket to make the final leg(s) of the trip from there.

When you arrive, stay in a hostel or cheap hotel and query fellow travelers and hostel/hotel owners for the lay of the land. Tour around local neighborhoods with hop on/hop off bus tours or public transit, or rent a bike. Go look for an apartment (fully furnished and full of amenities) and set up your base for a few months.

If you’re relocating to a country where you can use dollar-arbitrage to your advantage, you can likely live much better than you do back home, enjoying a nice apartment, eating out at fancy restaurants and enjoying entertainment and nightlife you couldn’t dream of back home.

You should also look into local, private language instruction (several hours per week), as well as other local activities such as cultural dance, music, athleticism and exercise, that will allow you to learn from experts, mix with locals, learn the language and do it all for less money than you’d spend back home for equivalent experiences.

Practice taking less with you: take one week of clothes, no toiletries and allocate $100-300 to buy the rest of what you need when you get there. When you come home, leave the excess behind. You should be able to travel internationally with a carry-on and a backpack.

Final Remarks About Living Life Well

If you can’t define it or act upon it, forget about it.

Have at least one 2-to-3 hour dinner and/or drinks per week with those who make you smile and feel good.

Eat a high-protein breakfast within 30 minutes of waking and go for a 10-to-20 minute walk outside afterward, ideally bouncing a handball or tennis ball.

A good question to revisit whenever overwhelmed: Are you having a breakdown, or a breakthrough?

Rehearse poverty regularly. (You’ll fear it less when you know what it’s like and that you can handle it.)