April 14th - May 7th 2013
We’ve just returned home to San Francisco after spending more than 3 weeks abroad in Tuscany, and I have to write up a small report while the memories are still fresh.
We left San Francisco on April 14th, flying from SFO to Frankfurt and then on to Firenze (Florence) where we rented a car and drove south into the country. There was a small mix-up at SFO due to Louisa being booked as an infant with an infant on her lap, but the otherwise it was a smooth, albeit long, travel day. In Firenze, upon getting in the rental car and punching in the nearest small town to our house, it took us 30 minutes to realize that somewhere in the GPS options we’d instructed the system to avoid toll roads and therefore were taking the scenic route down to Montevarchi. This was wonderful for awhile as we drove the winding roads in and out of small towns in the Tuscan hills, but the 24-hour travel day caught up to us in the end. We pulled up to the La Selva house in the dark, navigating the final dirt roads with the dome lights and a piece of paper with pictures on it telling us to turn right after the small bridge and other such inscrutable directions made even more difficult with Louisa deciding she had had enough of sitting down and was going to protest by screaming at the top of her lungs! We made it eventually, just in time for family dinner at the long tables, and barely got a glance at the property in the dark before diving into red wine and all of the pasta.
This trip was all part of one of the many non-traditional things GitHub does as a business. Since we are purely a software company (no real physical product) our employees work from all over the world and there is no real necessity to be in the same place at the same time to get your job done. The product we sell actually encourages and facilitates this manner of working by allowing distributed teams to collaborate on large software projects together. There has always been a strong culture of travel at GitHub. It is how we get out and meet hackers from around the world. It’s how we’ve marketed and sold our product: through many small interactions in bars and coffee shops. In this spirit, GitHub has started sponsoring Destinations. These happen multiple times a year all over the US and the world as a chance for some part of the highly distributed work force to get together in the same physical place for a period of time. Half vacation, half business as usual, they feel a little bit like being at summer camp with nicer accommodations. Besides Italy, there are destinations in Hawaii, Maine, Uruguay, and Texas this year.
We awoke the next morning, jet-lagged and a bit grumpy, to the bright Tuscan sun and not just a house to explore, but land as well! La Selva is a renovated old farm house run by a local family and used mainly for tourists, weddings and other local events. We found the place originally on Airbnb and couldn’t look away. Before leaving San Francisco, the girls would sit in the dining room and flip through the pictures on the iPad and ask “Is that my room?”, “Is that Josie’s room?”, and “How do I get from my room to Josie’s room?” The house sits in the middle of about 30 hectares of land with various things tucked away in the corners of the property like an amphitheater, a 2nd swimming pool, and numerous, humorous metal sculptures (a hobby of one of the proprietors, we can only assume). The house itself is quite large with two kitchens and 7 bedrooms. We had family style dinners cooked for us twice a week on long tables with white tables clothes often out on the lawn in the shade. A typical Tuscan family meal included an antipasti (bruschettas, salumi plates, fried artichokes), a primo course (usually pasta), a secundo course (meat and veggies), and dulci (dessert).
Ellery and Louisa roamed the property immediately around the house with a pack of other octokittens, checking in only when hungry or injured. It was a wonderful polar opposite to their city lives and postage stamp back yard. One favorite spot was a big wicker swing suspended from an ancient oak tree in the front yard on which we managed to pile up to 6 kids at a time. The big kids (which officially includes Lou) spent hours in a series of games involving telescopes and pushing each other high enough to grab at leaves off the nearby branches. The next spot to check when trying to locate the pack was the partially covered seating area next to the pool. It was in a yard of little white flowers and sat above a field full of trees, flowers, bushes, and bugs. The kids had a full kitchen/hospital set up where made-to-order flower soups and rock pies were served alongside incredibly thorough medical care. A half-filled washtub proved to be both the joy and the bane of Louisa’s existence, as she could not seem to pass by it without finding herself fully submerged, whether on purpose or not. After a few days of full clothing changes every two hours, we mostly gave up and let the ladies run around as naked or dirty as they pleased. They were pretty much in heaven.
We spent a lot of time just at the house, making food, enjoying the company, working on small projects, and trying to stay up with email and the business. We had a couple of cooking classes from Maria (who also came to cook family dinners) where we made pasta by hand and minimally participated in preparing a meal for everyone.
Culinarywise, the most exciting part of the house was that it had two wood-fired pizza ovens: one inside, one outside. Cooking in the forno was an all day affair, as it takes multiple hours to heat up the oven and get coals hot enough to cook with. We had multiple pizza nights: making dough from scratch (always better when Maria helped) and learning how to get pizzas in and out and rotated around in the forno. My shining forno moment was trying to slide my pizza into the hot, hot oven and flipping it exactly in half making very nice calzone.
We took quite a few day trips to various places a few hours away. Kate and I went wine tasting twice while the kids stayed with Italian baby sitters. Wine tasting in Tuscany is very different than Sonoma or Napa valley wine tasting. You don’t bounce around between wineries taking small samples and purchasing wine. Instead, you eat! And of course there is wine too, but you eat 4 courses with wine paired to each course and then drink vin santo with dessert. (Kate has a newfound love of and need for vin santo.) We visited two very different wineries and drank some delicious wine.
Ellery and Louisa got out with us a few times as well to spend a day in Firenze and another day in Castellina in Chianti. Firenze was beautiful, interesting, and very busy. Ellery probably walked 4 miles holding up only under the promise of more gelato. Being a tourist was not her idea of a good time. Highlights of the city included espresso and treats at Gilli (a gorgeous pastry maker and cafe in the Piazza della Republica), gelato at Grom, a quiet walk through the stunning Duomo with Louisa asleep in the ergo, and a quick tour of Ponte Vecchio and many statue-filled piazzas. The girls headed home on the train at the end of the day, and I stayed into the early morning for the GitHub drink-up we threw in the city. It is always surprising to see how many people know and love GitHub from all over the world. I loved meeting some of the Italian coders and hearing about tech in Italy right now. Everyone wants to be involved and the industry is growing, but things are incredibly nascent compared to San Francisco and the Bay Area. A couple of the developers even knew me and my co-worker Brian Lopez by name based on our work on GitHub which still catches me off guard.
Kate did her best to avoid spending a fortune on things she would have to carry home in her bag, but once back to La Selva from Firenze she began to regret not purchasing one of the stove-top espresso makers we had been using daily for the whole trip at the actual Bialetti store. On the last day of the trip, she and Louisa got up early and caught the morning train into the city for an adventure. They wandered and explored, took in the Galileo museum, walked for hours, picked up a bright green mokapot, and got home in time to make pizzas with the crowd. It’s nice to be somewhere long enough to feel comfortable getting around!
The biggest trip we took was a couple of days up north of Firenze into the hill country to try and find Monte Belvedere and trace some 10th Mountain history. With the help of Francesco (proprietor of La Selva), I tracked down HopPop’s friend Bruno who owns a hotel in Vidiciatico. It turned out Bruno was on vacation until after we were going to be back in the States, and his hotel was closed. It was sad to miss him, but we had a good conversation on the phone and he sent his best wishes to Hugh and Ann. We decided to head up anyway and booked a room at a hotel down the block from the Montegrande. The drive up through the country was fabulous. We had fantastic weather and the mountain towns were sleepy and completely free of tourists. We gathered that it was probably the mud season between ski and summer activities. On the way to Vidiciatico we stopped in various small towns along the way to let the girls get out and run. Wonderfully, each little town had an almost identical playground set with various permutations on a set of swings, a slide, and some rockers. The girls were ecstatic, and will probably tell you more about the playgrounds than anything else on our Monte Belvedere adventure.
We ended up being the only people staying at the hotel and the wonderfully nice owner gave us the run of the place. After a night of sleep we headed out the next morning to find Monte Belvedere by picking where we thought it was on the GPS map. In Querciola, a serendipitous wrong turn brought us right to the 10th Mountain Piazza and the wonderful ‘Alpini per la pace’ sculpture. We decided the American trooper looked like HopPops. From there, the Monte Belvedere trailhead was actually quite easy to find. We hiked a few kilometers to the top, Ellery protesting every step of the way. We were the only ones out that day and spent a good hour soaking in the history and the views, reading the monuments, exploring the old encampment, and making various soups and pies out of grass and flowers. Ellery perked up on the way down and ran the whole way through one of the open meadows back to our car.
We detoured through Lucca and (briefly) Pisa on the way home to La Selva. Pisa was underwhelming (complete with prostitutes giving you the sultry as you got off the highway), but Lucca was amazing. The town is entirely encircled by an ancient wall that has a wonderful, wide, tree lined walking path on top of it. We strolled through the narrow medieval streets, got a drink at a cafe, and then walked half way around the top of the wall looking out over everything.
There are so many other small details living at La Selva that are hard to remember, but one of the real highlights of being there for so long was getting to see almost the full transition of the spring season. The front of the house has a covered patio with a small table where the entire roof of the patio is this huge wisteria vine: creeping up on of the support pillars and extending across the entire patio roof and off the sides. When we got to La Selva, the wisteria had just started to bloom and the entire time we were there it was beautiful and vibrant in color and smells and literally buzzing with bees and insects. By the time we left, every last wisteria blossom had fallen off.
The wisteria also held another La Selva joy: a young pair of kittens and their mother. We named mother cat Pecorino (after the cheese that we would feed her out the back door of the kitchen), and the kittens seem to have been born and raised on the roof. Mother would come down to prowl and hunt (very much a wild cat and not a pet) and the kittens would tussle on the roof but never venture over the edge. You could hear them from underneath and go up to one of the second story bedrooms to look down and watch them. This bedroom (Andy’s) became a magnet for all the small children. “Kittens!?” Louisa would say to me. And we would go open the windows and peer down on their lives. By the very last few days of our stay they had started to venture down the wisteria vines to the lower levels letting us touch them (barely) and see their little faces up close.
There’s so much more to tell, but this is long enough already. We drank great wine every night, often around the fire after the children had all gone to bed. Kate polished up her (posh) British accent with my English co-worker Luke and his wife Lara and then later worked on her Irish accent with another co-worker of mine, Ciara and her husband Paul. It does seem that accents improve proportionally to quantity of wine consumed. The girls ran, swam (briefly) in the (freezing) salt water pool, cajoled adults to push them on the swing, and individually pulled the petals off thousands of small white flowers to make food for the gatinis. We split wood and stoked the forno, cooked 8 dozen pizzas, met the horse at the end of one the paths (Ellery would have nothing to do with him), tried out our Italian (Kate is pretty good, Ellery can count and say “grazie”, Louisa’s got “ciao” down if prompted), drove a lot of winding roads, and generally just enjoyed being off the grid for a while. We made it back to San Francisco, safe and sound, with nary a complaint from the girls. My only complaint about them is that they are now wide awake and ready to go at 3 am every morning.