San Miniato: Tuscany’s truffle town

If you’re driving from Pisa to Florence (or vice versa) and looking for a pit stop in between, may I interest you in the lovely hilltop town of San Miniato?

Because, truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany pasta with black truffle

San Miniato is the center of Tuscany’s truffle-producing belt, an area responsible for a whopping 25% of all of Italy’s truffles. That alone should tell you this little town shouldn’t be missed.

Marlon and I stopped here for lunch on our way to K and J’s Tuscan wedding; because we liked it so much, we dropped by again on our way back to Pisa airport. We had truffle everything. I’m not talking about that nasty chemical impostor, truffle oil, either. In San Miniato, generous shavings of the town’s signature product make even the simplest lunch—from fried eggs to a parmesan-and-olive-oil pasta—a sublime stopover.

San Miniato Tuscany white truffle

You can also buy San Miniato’s precious white truffles to take home. At 90 Euro cents per gram, or about €100-135 per piece, white truffles are a bargain right here at the source. But beware: truffles must be used up within four days from the date of purchase. That’s not a whole lot of time!

By the way, San Miniato hosts a white truffle fair during the last three weekends of November. Too bad we were a few months too early.

San Miniato Tuscany black truffles

Black truffles are a more affordable alternative. But they also have the same use-by time frame as white truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany truffle salsa

We decided to go for bottled truffle products, such as truffle oil, salt, butter, honey, salsa and more. Although they have a longer shelf life, they must be consumed within 10 days of opening (even with refrigeration). It makes more sense to buy multiple smaller jars instead of one or two big ones, so that’s just what we did.

Once we got our truffle fix, it was time to turn our attention to the rest of San Miniato. Yep, there’s more to this town than just truffles.

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A wedding in Tuscany

My first gig as a flower girl was when I was three, maybe four years old. I cried for days leading up to the wedding, and cried all the way down the aisle, because I believed with every fiber of my being that I was meant to go home with the newlyweds as their child. I seriously thought that was how mommies and daddies got kids!

Where I got that notion, I have no idea. Imagine my relief when I still got to go home with my mom after the wedding. *whew*

Tuscany wedding Il Poggio alle Ville Raffaele Edlmann

Our friends K and J invited us to their wedding in Tuscany, with a special request for Tala to be a flower girl. I accepted the invitation over a year ago, not knowing if Tala would start walking in time. Thankfully, she did! She took her first steps just two weeks before the wedding. I sent a video of her first steps to K, with the message: “I sure hope you have a short aisle.”

Tuscany wedding mother and daughter flower girl

A few notes from my first stint as mother of the flower girl:

First, set expectations with the bride and groom. She might walk, or she might not. Children, especially toddlers, are notoriously moody and fickle. Keep communication open to placate even the most stressed-out Bridezilla—not that my friend was one, but they do exist.  I updated K every now and then (we have her dress, she’s walking, she’s teething and miserable, we’re practicing walking today) and I think she appreciated that.

Second, keep it light and playful. No pressure. Tala didn’t want to hold flowers, but she got really excited about my handbag. She loved putting it on her shoulder, saying “dag!” (Dutch for “bye!”) and waving to everyone before we walked. So I just let her—never mind if it’s vintage Dior and she dragged it down the hillside. Whatever makes her happy.

Third, it’s not about you. I dressed to match the wedding motif, but moms are invisible. I don’t think anyone was cooing and sighing over me, but the upside is nobody thought I was a bad mom because my 18 month-old wouldn’t walk by herself. Cuteness will always save the day.

Tuscany wedding flower girl walks down the aisle

Fourth, having a goal helps. Tala’s goal was to reach Marlon, who we agreed would stand at the end of the aisle. She was extremely attached to him all week, so she wanted nothing more than to reach Papa. It worked, and she got a big cuddle after.

Tuscany wedding Papa and his flower girl

The rest of the wedding was a dream. Click through to see more pictures from this gorgeous wedding in Tuscany.

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Life outside the semicircle

I moved abroad seven years ago, after Marlon and I were married. In those seven years, I’ve missed many things from abundant sunshine and ripe mangoes, to good restaurants and sharing wardrobes with my mom and sister. But the biggest hole in my heart was the one I made when I left the Ateneo Chamber Singers.

With ACS in Riga

Before the competition in Riga

Since I left, my ACS family—because that’s what it is, really, a family—has changed. Many of my closest friends have moved overseas and moved on to other things, replaced by many people I don’t know very well. Still, I jumped at the chance to be reunited with them in Vienna and Riga. Sitting in the audience, face to face with what I had given up to pursue this life, I felt quite confronted—by loss, reality, I don’t know what to call it. It’s more than nostalgia, and more than I could ever recreate by joining another choir or making new friends.

Ateneo Chamber Singers at the World Choir Games Riga 2014

Sitting in the audience at the World Choir Games

I wondered why I was sitting outside the semicircle, listening to beauty instead of creating it. I wondered why I wasn’t singing anymore. I wondered: what is my song? What am I an instrument of? Listening to my friends’ voices soaring, I wondered if I had maybe, somehow, over the years, lost the part of me that could soar. (There are very few experiences that allow one to soar. So if you find one, seize it.)

ACS wins Musica Sacra at the World Choir Games

Victory!

Yes, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster— a contemplative, almost spiritual experience. The sound of ACS singing tends to do that to people. After all that wondering (and quite a few tears), the answers came. There were no words, only pictures—images of everything I love about living here.

ACS in Riga

I’ve been away from home a long time. I don’t hide from the sun anymore.

Life requires different things of us at different times. Once it demanded me to let my voice soar in packed churches and concert halls, together with the voices of friends I knew so well that I literally knew when they would breathe. Now life asks me to hush and sing softly to my baby in the silence of her room, for an audience of one.

Seeing what I’ve been missing out on was confronting for me. But confronting the result of my choices made me realize that that’s what being an adult is all about. We live with the choices we make; we make the most of them; and we make a life we love out of them.

With Tala and Marlon at the World Choir Games

Keeping Tala quiet (and occupied) during the competition

So this is what my life as a choir groupie was like. It inspired me to return to my “real” life—to Marlon, Tala, Amsterdam, Europe—with a renewed commitment to what I’ve chosen, and a deeper determination to make it truly worth what I’ve given up.

Related reading: For an insider’s perspective, check out this blog post by ACS alto Trina Belamide.

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Jurmala: Summer by the Baltic Sea

Jurmala Latvia sunset at Majori

For my summer as a choir groupie, I had the choice of watching my friends from the Ateneo Chamber Singers compete in either Latvia or Spain. I always jump at the chance to scratch a new country off our scratch map, so we picked Latvia. My research led me to the resort town of Jurmala, which boasted an 11-kilometer stretch of white, sandy beach just 20 minutes from Riga. I thought: “Perfect!”

Okay, the Baltic coast isn’t quite the same as the Costa Blanca. And maybe I did feel a twinge of envy seeing my friends living it up on the blindingly sunny beaches of Spain. But I have no reason to regret our visit to Jurmala.

I found Jurmala quiet, lovely, and relaxed—a formula for the kind of vacation that doesn’t make you need another vacation just to recover from it. (When school holidays begin in August, maybe not so much.) Beautiful soft golden sand, plenty of space to share, liquid gold sunsets and cocktails on the beach? Meets my basic requirements for a beach. I’ll take it.

Jurmala Latvia grand old wooden house by the beach

The most unique thing about Jurmala are its 19th-century wooden houses. From grand old mansions to weather-beaten cottages, they add a touch of old charm to the seaside atmosphere.

Jurmala Latvia charming wooden house

To attract its wealthy Russian neighbors, Jurmala is seeing an upswing in luxury boutique hotels and low-rise residential condominiums. Many of the old houses have also been turned into tourist accommodation.

Jurmala Latvia wooden house window

But plenty of families still live here, especially outside the main town of Majori, and because of a strong local community, there’s much authenticity to be found.

Jurmala Latvia old wooden house

These cutout panels remind me of the callado details in old Filipino colonial homes. Love.

In this relaxed little town, we enjoyed a wonderful three days of family time in the sun. These are the moments you treasure.

Jurmala Latvia Gingersnaps

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Alternative Riga: Kaņepes kultūras centrs

Kanepes cultural center Riga black lion

Who says grit and culture don’t mix? At the Kaņepes kultūras centrs in downtown Riga, these two unlikely companions kick back, have a drink, and dance together on a Saturday night.

The Kaņepes cultural center was the last stop on our alternative walking tour of Riga, which I highly recommend if you’re looking to discover urban Riga beyond the restored facades of the Old Town.

Kanepes cultural center Riga 1

This building has seen numerous incarnations in its over 100-year lifetime, from an aristocratic residence to a music school. Today, it’s a popular bar and club that’s a hotspot for live music, DJs, experimental art, and cinema—for nightlife in Riga with a laid-back, modern Bohemian vibe.

Now I love places like this, but the real reason I fell hard for the Kaņepes kultūras centrs: it’s surprisingly baby- and toddler-friendly! Since modern Bohemians are largely nocturnal, it’s quiet in the daytime. The wide front yard and terrace provides plenty of room for parking a stroller, or for a little one to toddle around while Mama and Papa enjoy a cup of coffee, a beer or even (ssshhhh, don’t tell) an early cocktail.

Kanepes cultural center Riga interior

Kanepes cultural center Riga Kanepes cultural center Riga bar

Although it sports peeling paint and stenciled graffiti on the outside, Kaņepes is laid-back and welcoming on the inside. I love all this warm wood offsetting the moody hues of the floors and ceilings.

Kanepes cultural center Riga wooden staircase

The most intriguing detail beckons at the foot of the stairs: the wispy tail of a long braid.

Tail end of braid Kanepes cultural center Riga

Shall we follow it and see where it goes?

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