Five years ago today I posted this picture I took in Lucca, Italy around that time.
The text isn’t so ironic now. Indosso la mia maschera “Wearing my mask”.
This week was a bit shorter and different than planned. Originally we were supposed to leave Lucca on Friday and then spend the weekend until Tuesday in Switzerland with friends. However we left Lucca a day earlier than that, and drove home after just one night in CH.
Part of the reason for that decision was that my leg was increasingly painful over the weekend until Wednesday. Another part that my mother isn’t doing well and phone calls with my sister and dad conveyed some urgency. Monday morning I phoned a local doctor about my leg, as during the weekend further internet research pointed to resurfacing chicken pox (herpes zoster), and not heat eczema. By then I had blisters from my knee all the way up my left leg to my middle. So I kept a low profile the first days, resting and reading, but not without heading out for coffee and lunch of course. The visit to the doctor on Monday evening confirmed our suspicion and I returned home with several prescriptions. The pharmacy did not have everything in store, so I went back Tuesday morning to collect the rest. It did mean changing my diet, by replacing the beautiful local wines of the past weeks for a daily fistful of pills.
So given that, we decided on Tuesday to leave Thursday, and skip a planned weekend with friends in Switzerland. Instead we decided to spend one night in Switzerland and drive home on Friday from there.
Having made the decision, my leg of course started improving somewhat the next day. While I was still resting and reading, Elmine started packing up our operation here in Lucca. Our last evening in Lucca we spent on the city wall talking, under the trees, looking out over the hills to the north. A beautiful summer evening.
Thursday morning we took it easy, as we weren’t expected at our friends in Switzerland until the evening. We had a last coffee at Momus, and did some final packing. We had a pleasant lunch in the city and then packed the last bits into the car. I felt better than the past days and drove. Driving up to Switzerland went without problem, but there was a traffic jam in front of the Gotthard tunnel, so I opted to drive over the St. Gotthard pass (2106m), a major north-south axis to cross the Alps since the early 13th century and the watershed between Rhine and Po rivers. Driving up from the south is a smooth road, with beautiful views. Sadly just before reaching the pass itself we entered clouds that were crossing between the peaks. So we did not stop at the highest point but continued on down on the northern side, towards our destination near Zurich.
On the shore of Halwyler See
After spending a pleasant evening with our friends, we left Seengen around 09:30. As it turned out the German highways were quickly filling up, and while we avoided a first traffic jam near Basel by choosing another border crossing, we soon found ourselves in slow traffic. A look on Google maps promised more of the same for the next 300-400kms, so we opted to cross over to Strassbourg in France, and from there drove up through the Vosges towards Luxembourg, briefly switching back into Germany to avoid traffic on the French-Luxembourg border. From Luxembourg we drove through Belgium to Maastricht in the Netherlands. There we had dinner in the inner city, before driving the final 2 hours home. A very European trip, through Strassbourg (seat of European parliament), Schengen (on the Luxembourg border, where the treaty was signed that made crossing 6 borders, CH-D-F-D-L-B-NL, on this day hassle free), and Maastricht (where the 1992 treaty was signed turning the EC into the EU).
After 5 weeks we are now back, and already plotting when we could spend more time in Lucca. Or some place else. It certainly seems to have stirred Elmine much more strongly towards creating/finding more location independent work. After Cambridge, Copenhagen, Berlin, Helsinki and now Lucca, in each of which we have spent longer periods to live, work and relax, I find this trip has shifted our thinking again on how to select a new place to live. We still plan on leaving Enschede somewhere in the coming few years, but we may want to rethink how to choose where to move to.
We are spending a month in Lucca, with some days before and after in Switzerland.
Fully settled in
By now we have fully settled into a daily rhythm here in Lucca. Coffee in the morning, either at Momus (most days, closer and have great pastries) or Il Bernino. I also have figured out the street pattern and confidently navigate the inner city. What first seemed a medieval maze, is now a pretty clear grid.
Mornings, except for coffee are usually given over for a stroll around town, and to do some shopping, or like I did this week, get a haircut. During the heat of the day we withdraw to the apartment, to come out again towards evening for another stroll and dinner.
The afternoons are perfect for some work and reading. I haven’t read all that much compared to other summers, but amongst the books I did read, I enjoy the new Neal Stephenson, SevenEves. I spent time on editing the Serbian open data readiness assessment report, incorporating the feedback I received from colleagues. I also worked several afternoons on the open data barometer research (ODBM) for the WWW Consortium. But with the not so great internet bandwith available, that is slow going. So I am betting on speeding up once I get back to our 1 gigabit connection back home.
Evenings were for strolls (either through the city streets, or up on the city walls), and with the Lucca Summer Festival taking place we were treated to the performances of Mark Knopfler, Robbie Williams and Lenny Kravitz as we walked around. I thought Knopfler’s rendering of Sultans of Swing had slowed down quite a lot from 35 years ago!
Our daily rhythm now feels like something we could easily enjoy another month, or more.
This week we took a day to visit Siena, about 2 hours away from Lucca. It was nice to stroll through the historical center that is built across several hills. After lunch we wanted to withdraw from the heat and the other tourists. For that we went to the botanical garden where there was plenty shade, and the entrance fee kept everybody else out. We were the only two visitors.
The search for the new(er)
Last week I mentioned that finding the old in Lucca was easy, but finding signs of newer initiatives and activism is harder. There are a few places where a more active and younger scene seems to meet-up. One is a vegetarian place called Soup in Town, where we had lunch a few times. It is owned by the friendly and distinct character Daniele. The other is Ciclo DiVino, which is the focal point of a community of wine drinking cyclists, that hang out on the streets in front of the shop several nights per week. My open calls for local people involved in open data or making went mostly unanswered, but two people did get in touch.
One was Andrea, who lives further south, and whom we met in Pisa on Tuesday early evening. We met in a beer shop / bar, run by a former colleague of Andrea, where a growing range of artisanal Italian beers can be tasted and bought. Andrea has been involved in open geo data and mapping for a long time, and currently is part of a project mapping the ‘loss of the night‘ due to light pollution. He grew up and lived in Milano for a long time, and a few years ago returned to the house and land of his grand parents in rural southern Tuscany. There he is trying to find new ways of making the country side more resilient, finding multiple revenue streams, and break the cycle of debt and investment that tourism has brought while making assets less productive (is it useful to take on debt to build a swimming pool to better attract tourists to your farm yard for 10 weeks per year?). Some other guests in the Birreria told us little bit more about how Lucca is different from the surrounding cities like Pisa. It has alwasy been more affluent, and in the last century much less communist that its surroundings. Which may explain why in Pisa spray painted slogans and protest are much easier to spot than in Lucca.
Sunday evening I met up with Davide, a self employed open source software builder, who has recently embarked on a new venture. His focus is on building an architecture that allows everyone to much better describe knowledge and metadata for data objects, and do this in a less centralized way than e.g. semantic web frameworks seem to assume. We walked, starting at Ciclo Divino, for an hour and a half, through the streets of Lucca while chatting about open data, and the adoption of new tools and other topics that came to mind.
WTF is wrong with my leg?
On Thursday I suddenly noticed what seemed like a pretty nasty rash on my left leg. At first I thought it might be eczema caused by heat. But it hurt more over time and it grew worse as well, with lots of blisters. So the last part of the week I wasn’t very mobile, and kept my rest.
For one thing I did get up though, and that was for us to visit the open air theater at Torre del Lago, for the opening night in this year’s Puccini Festival of Turandot, the last opera by Puccini. It was a beautiful summer evening, and we both enjoyed Turandot a lot. The production started of great, and even though we thought the middle part lacked creativity in its production which the final part could not really make up for, the overall experience was very good. Tenor Rudy Park, in the role of Calaf, we thought, carried most of the show with his quality. His rendering of Nessun Dorma during this premiere got a huge applause interrupting the performance. So much so, that he sang it a second time in its entirety to pick up the show again.
We are now entering our final week already here in Lucca!
The second full week in Lucca, where we are staying the month of July, with a week before it, and some days after in Switzerland.
This week contained a few regular tourist outings. One right at the start to the city of Pisa and its leaning tower. Even on a relatively early Monday morning it was already pretty crowded. But as soon as you walk away from the ‘piazza dei miracoli‘ into the streets of Pisa, you quickly lose most of the other visitors. Then you get to see a few glimpses of regular life in this old university town. Like students celebrating their graduation, such as the group next to us on the terrace where we had lunch. Or the anarchist writings on the walls across town and a coffee place that did not look like it had been there for ages.
Tourists holding up the tower of Pisa, and a student coffee shop
As we are near the Mediterranean coast we of course also had to take in a sunset on the beach. So one evening we drove to Viareggio, a to me rather unappealing seaside town, driving past the endless row of privatized beaches, to the public beach right at the edges. The cloudless sky gave us plenty of time to enjoy the sun sinking into the sea.
The end of the week we took a train to Firenze. The 80 minute train trip turned out to be surprisingly cheap, compared to home, at 7 Euro one way. We arrived at the 1930’s Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, an example of Italian modernism. Starting from the notion that form should reflect functionality, it is a spacious thing with great filtered daylight, serving some 60 million passengers annually. The architects sought to balance the station with its urban surroundings and the church Santa Maria Novella opposite. Many of the internal details (from the turnstiles, to the benches, and the markers at the beginning of the platforms) were additionally designed by a state architect and more reflective of Italian fascism / realism.
Stepping away from the station you are immediately transported from the 1930’s to the 1400’s when De’ Medici’s put their remarkable stamp on the city. We explored the cathedral, with a great archeological exhibit in the cellars about the pre-existing paleo-Christian church, and visited the Ponte Vecchio of course. We ended the day with a visit to the office. De’ Medici’s uffizi from 1580, not a newfangled coworking space of course, and walked through the endless halls of the ancient family’s enormous collection of art housed there. Even taking in as little as we did from Firenze, we still walked 20 kilometers just that one day.
Finding the old, finding the new
Within the city walls of Lucca you can still see the original street pattern from when the Romans turned this place into a colony in 180BCE. From the Forum where the San Michele church now stands, where the two main perpendicular Roman roads still cross (Fillungo/Cenami and Roma/Santa Croce), to the square built on top of the Roman amphitheater, and the Medieval streets that still largely follow the Roman grid pattern. In other words Lucca is old. Tradition is also a highly visible factor in the shops, and the food on offer. The compactness of the inner city, with its beautiful walls, basically invite this and it is very attractive for tourists. So the old is easy to spot and delivered in large quantities.
Yet I also want to seek out the new, the ‘scene’ in Lucca, if it exists. But it turns out to be harder to find traces of that.
Within the city there are few traces of e.g. street art, although there are wall communiqués from political movements. There is a weekly artisanal market, but most of that is very classic (honey, soap, bijouterie) and not by younger people. Some clothing shops seem to cater to a hipper clientele, and vegetarianism/veganism is apparently a flourishing niche market. But again those traces are few. In general I don’t see many younger people on the streets, nor outside the inner city.
Searching online for traces of open data or maker communities didn’t yield anything. There are nearby FabLabs in Pisa, Cascina, Firenze and Contea, but noone responded yet to a question about contacts in Lucca, although they did organize a FabLab information evening here in March.
Likewise there is an open data project for the Province of Lucca, but the contact person has not responded to my mail. A posting to the Italian open data mailing list did get a response from someone some 200km away, and one other who lives closer. I will try and talk to them both soon.
Cycling is big in Lucca and I spotted fixies as well, the latter a sign of at least some urban scene existing. A few doors down from our apartment is Ciclo DiVino, a bike shop combined with a wine bar. Their expressed mission is to bring together and build a local community around cycling. That seems to work, not only because of the fixies, but because multiple evenings per week the street in front of their shop is filled with 20-somethings sipping drinks and enjoying eachothers conversations.
So maybe we should start hanging out there for our aperitivo’s the coming days, to hear more about what is going on here locally.
This was our first full week in Lucca, where we are staying the month of July, with a week before it, and some days after in Switzerland.
As ever when you arrive in a new city the week started with finding our bearings.
Setting up camp
An early breakfast run on Monday morning to a neighbourhood supermarket for some fruit was the first exploration into this dense maze that is Lucca within the still fully standing city walls. The inner city is mostly a pedestrian / reduced traffic zone (inhabitants have special permits for their cars), and the streets are narrow and still follow the medieval and even Roman patterns. So we walk a lot to explore the city, 7 to 15km per day. The Lucchesi themselves cycle a lot as well, even to get married.
The internet connectivity in our apartment was not up to dealing with the bandwith demands of both of us, so Elmine arranged a 20GB data sim on 4G valid for a month, for her mifi, through a special tourist package by Tre Italia. Providing us with another channel at home, and for the road as well. At 40 Euro that is 0,2 cents per MB. It is a one time package to get tourists on to the pay as you go data plan of Tre Italia, so it cannot be extended against the same rate if we run out. If we do, I’ll get a separate one for my mifi as well. Internet is still spotty though, as it seems the mobile network has trouble coping with all the people visiting the inner city, and we see clear peak-hours in which connectivity slumps to an extremely slow crawl (where it can take minutes to load a webpage).
Parking in the inner city
To avoid daily parking fees, and preferring to have the car in a parking garage out of the sun, I searched online for how to best arrange that. It turns out, unlike in Copenhagen, it is possible to buy a prepaid one month subscription to the parking house nearest to us. So we went to the Metro offices, the municipal service in charge of parking, to arrange that. For 50 Euro we now park a full month, much better than the 13 Euro/day normal rate.
While the city is full of pasticceria, restoranti, trattoria and osteria to find food any time of day we also have a fully equipped kitchen, which has us cooking most of the days and meals. With a great little delicatessen next to our front door and a supermarket in walking distance just outside the city walls, we can eat as Italian as we like by ourselves as well.
Over the course of this first week we found our favourite coffee places (one, with the better pastries, conveniently located near our front door), sampled some wine bars for an early evening aperitivo (still undecided as to which we prefer), and tasted local specialties such as Buccellato (sweetbread with raisins and aniseed) and Panforte (sweetbread with lots of nuts & fruits).
We are trying to settle in a daily rhythm of getting up on time, doing something outside in the morning, and then sit out the heat of the day in our apartment (with thick insulating walls and airconditioning to back those up), before another round of activity in the (early) evening.
One of the mornings we went out to Tore del Lago, where the villa stands where Puccini lived. Next to it, at the shores of a lake, Puccini’s operas are performed every summer. We bought tickets to his last opera, Turandot, for the end of July, before visiting his old house, which is a small museum frozen in time from the moment of his death. On other mornings we succeed much less at getting up early, as we apparantly feel the need to sleep a lot. Next to seeing the local sights, like the Duomo, we also found a great modern art museum is hiding within the city walls, the L.U.C.C.A. Lucca Center for Contemporary Art. They currently have a great exhibit of the work of Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt, as well as interesting works called ‘Life Codes’ by Rudi Pulcinelli. The subtle irony in Erwitt’s photo’s was a lot of fun. Another good find was the Gio Art Gallery, who have a fine collection of Picasso’s, Liechtenstein’s, and Warhol’s on display as well as beautiful sculptures by Gianmaria Potenza. Do we dare ask for their price list?
During the heat of the day, most of the afternoon, staying inside allows some time to work, read or write. I worked on completing a first full draft of the open data readiness assessment report for Serbia, based on the findings during our week long mission there in June, and started the research for the Open Data Barometer 2015, on both Austria and Switzerland. While not difficult, as I know how to get the information, in this first attempt coming to grips with the precise and sometimes contradictory details of the method was rather time consuming.
The evenings are for strolls around town mostly. The top of the city walls have been turned into a park (in the past they also used it for car racing!). You can walk around the entire inner city that way in under an hour, something many people of all ages do at night. Mosquitos, but more fun to see, many bats hunting them, will accompany you as well. This evening stroll over the walls or through the shopping streets, il passeggiata, seems the favourite pastime of the locals as well, exchanging gossip and news along the way.
We heard music the first evening, which turned out was a show by John Legend, as part of the 18th Lucca summer-festival that has several other big names on the program. So on our other strolls we’ve been treated to the sounds of Elton John, Billy Idol and others.
At the end of the week, walking to a wine bar on Saturday, we came across a marching group of drummers, which turned out to be part of one of the four balestra teams in the city. These are cross bow shooting groups, performing yearly shooting matches on 12 July, called the Palio di San Paolino. The teams are organized around neighbourhoods (contrade), and as there are three main ones they are called terziere. The fourth team is a sub-neighbourhood of one of the terziere it seemed.
The tradition originally started in the 12th century and adheres to the oldest shooting competition rules in Europe, that were formalized in 1443. The current event orginates from the early 1970’s, but connects to the old tradition. The drumming parties (there were several) added to the general atmosphere, although it must have been confusing for Elton John and his band to hear them marching past where they were performing. Sunday afternoon canons were fired from the city walls and in the evening we followed the groups of drummers to the square in front of the Duomo. We watched the first few rounds of bolts being fired, and then returned home. Later I learned that at this 41st tournament in the new period, for the first time a female participant won over 40 or so others, from the San Paolino terziere (playing in red). The San Salvatore terziere (in green) provided the 3 next runner-ups, in 2nd to 4th place.
That rounded up the first full week in Lucca. On to the next one!
We’ve packed up the household for a month in Lucca, Tuscany this July with a week in Switzerland before it, and a short stay in Switzerland after it.
More relaxation and sabbatical than working in a different environment this time, so in that sense different from previous month long moves to Copenhagen and Cambridge or other extended working stays in Berlin, Helsinki and Switzerland.
A lot has happened, and is happening, to us and our close relatives on both sides of the family, making it a challenging year. So some extended time to be together with the two of us is something I was looking forward to a lot. At the same time I hope to be able to do some reflection, research and writing as well, in the hours where it’s too hot to venture out anyway. Before heading out to explore and enjoy Tuscany more, as I’ve never visited this area.
Half-way stop: Switzerland
The first week we spent halfway to Lucca, in Switzerland. Staying with dear friends in their home on Lake Zug, Elmine took it easy, while I spent most of my time working.
Swiss open data conference
Monday was spent on creating two presentations, one on open data as an instrument for policy implementation, one on the economic and organizational rationale for a national data infrastructure of ‘core registers’ such as the Netherlands and Denmark have, and others are currently exploring. Tuesday afternoon I took a train to the Swiss capital Bern for an early bird and speaker’s dinner with the organizers of the Opendata.CH conference. A lovely dinner at the bank of the river Aare. We were just underneath the Swiss parliament building perched on the edge of the higher lying old inner city, in a bend of the river. People were swimming in the river, letting the stream transport them before walking back upriver to jump in again.
The Opendata.ch conference took place for the 4th time this year (I spoke there in 2012 as well), at the University of Bern. Over 200 people ignored the sweltering summer heat and sat in stuffy lecturing halls to discuss opening Swiss government data together. In the morning I gave a keynote where I asked how come we are still meeting like this, to encourage and convince? Why is the visibility of impact so fragmented? After which I proceeded with how starting from a (policy) goal, mobilizing stakeholders with open data leads to more easily visible impact. At the same time also creating intrinsic government motivation to keep publishing open data, as it becomes a valuable policy instrument. It seems the presentation went over well, getting a mention in the press.
The afternoon was given over to workshops. Together with my Swiss colleague André Golliez and with Alessia Neroni (Bern Univ for Applied Sciences) we hosted a workshop on building a national data infrastructure around core registers. I presented the experiences we made in Denmark (research done by colleague Marc) and Netherlands, as well as touching upon France (link to a opinion piece I wrote) and other countries. The Swiss current situation was very well described by Alain Buogo (Deputy director at Swisstopo) and Bertrand Loison (board member of the Swiss statistical office). This was the first such discussion in Switzerland and one I hope to continue.
After the conference I returned to Walchwil by train, joining three board members of the Swiss open data community until Zurich.
The next day I traveled to Zurich again to talk more with André Golliez, meeting at the Impact Hub, an international oriented co-working space in one of the spans of a railway viaduct, in the hipster dominated Hardbrücke area. We planned some next steps for our collaboration, which likely will see me return late next month for more meetings. Then we moved next door to pub and music podium Bogen F (viaduct span F), for the 60th birthday party of André, as well as the launch of his new open data consultancy. It was a good opportunity to meet some of his family, friends and professional peers. The relaxed bbq, and some wheat beers, made my German slip into a stronger Austrian accent (where I learned it as a kid), to the amusement of the Swiss.
Open Data Barometer
Friday was spent mostly in conference calls while gazing out over Lake Zug. In the morning working with Aleksandar in Belgrade on the Serbian open data readiness assessment (see recent posting), and in the afternoon taking a deep dive into the methodology behind the W3C Open Data Barometer. The research for the 2015 edition is starting now, and me and my colleague Frank are doing the research for six countries (Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium and Netherlands). In the evening we had a leisurely dinner at the lakeside, in restaurant Engel.
Off to Lucca, but first…
We had originally planned to drive to Lucca on Saturday but traffic and weather predictions suggested to do otherwise. So instead we met up with our dear friends Hans and Mirjam, who moved to Switzerland 18 months ago, for a nice summer bbq. Much better to spend time in conversation than standing in a traffic jam in tropical temperatures. Sunday we then left relatively early at 8:30, cutting through the Gotthard Tunnel with ease and cruising along mostly empty Italian motorways (except for near Milano), to our destination Lucca, arriving early afternoon.
Here in Lucca, originally an Etruscan city, we were met by our kind host Enrico, who guided us to our apartment located right within the old city walls and gave us some useful tips to help us find our way around. In a renovated former nunnery we now enjoy a quiet home looking out over a garden towards the city wall, with the busiest shopping street Via Fillungo (dating from Roman times), with coffee, wine, shoes, and Italian food right in front of our doorstep. A nice basic meal at Gigi, after unpacking, finished up this first week.