Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m disillusioned. But it seems that the real trick (which seems like no trick at all) to “beat the stock market” is patience. Patience. There’s so little of that these days. People – advertisers, investors, marketers, boards of directors – brainstorm and work so hard to retain our interest, ranging from the duration of a movie to the duration of a commercial. When that patience fades and you start to mix in a little fear, you end up with something that can get very ugly.

The part of me that may be disillusioned and allows me to perpetually keep a positive outlook is that I can’t recognize the things I don’t know… blissfully unaware, I suppose you could say. The more I learn, the more I realize there is a science to everything. And the more science explains a story, some of the magic can start to disappear.

I currently own one stock and am weighing my options for buying more in different companies. The stock I do own is the result of an Employee Purchase Program. It was kind of a fluke… I signed up for the program without really thinking it though.

The employer would set aside 5% of my check every week, figure out the lowest price of the company’s stock for the quarter, then give me a 10% discount off the stock. Then that weekly money set aside would be used to buy the stock. At the lowest point, I bought stock for $00.88. That’s right – I bought stock when it was on its way to being worth nothing. Then it turned around. It climbed up to $12+ at its high, and it’s back down now to $7-something. That’s still not bad…. and, for me, it was all on a whim. Also, don’t think I’m a bajillionaire now because I’m way, way, way far from that.

Where this decision to buy worked out, I also could have bought a flop, which is what happened with the stock from my other job at the time. My boss there said “You don’t wanna buy that… media stock is never worth anything.” I thought about buying some anyway but didn’t. About a year later, that company’s stock was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. Not good.

At this very moment, I am at a crossroads. It feels like I am in a very adult place at this point, where I have to weigh my options and try to make the best decisions for myself and my family. I keep thinking about dumping the shares I have but can’t ever make that decision hit the “sell” button and jump. I set a target sell price when it was over $12, then missed it when it dipped below that mark. So now it’s like “I should have sold then……buy maybe it will climb back up.” That’s where patience comes into play. One of my family members lost a lot of money in stocks 20 years ago. I don’t know what the stocks were exactly, but I have to wonder how the price compares today to what it was when she decided to sell.

Anyway, it’s time to diversify. It’s a lot of decision-making to prioritize my list of potential buys, which consists of some cheaper, industrial companies (for now, HAH-HAH!!!) and some blue chips. Whatever happens, when my gut stops telling me conflicting things, I certainly won’t be putting all my eggs in the same basket.

Whoever thought diversification would be so hard? Yet the whole process is also very liberating at each step, when you’ve saved up enough, a little bit at a time, to put away for decades.

I guess no matter what happens, I just need to remind myself to breathe… and to have a little patience.

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What a great gift! For my birthday last year, my lady bought (us, technically) a voucher for a hot air balloon ride in Temecula, CA. It was going to expire at the end of this month, so we booked a ride about a month ago. That fell through, as the weather didn’t cooperate, so we ended up rebooking for yesterday.

I had imagined it as being just the two of us and the pilot. In fact, it was us, the pilot, a co-pilot, two other couples, a pair of brothers, and a pair of sisters…. quite different from what I expected!

We all met at a winery at 5:30 AM, and we were then driven to the launch site in an open field a few miles away. It took probably a half-hour to get the balloon set up and we were up, up, and away!

Temecula Hot Air Balloon

Inflating the Hot Air Balloon

There was a heavy marine layer at about 900 ft. so, while the balloon was up in the clouds, we were hanging just below it. The pilot occasionally took us completely up into the clouds so he could get a better feel for how the wind was blowing. I have driven through fog more times than I can count, but it’s a completely different feeling to be floating through through the clouds.

The scenery was gorgeous, with huge estates, vineyards, and grapefruit groves for as far as the eye could see (and the marine layer would allow). At one point, the pilot took us way down, and we gently glided over a vineyard. We were so close you could see grapes on the vines, and my photos look like they were taken from a ladder.

Temecula Vineyard

Flying Over a Vineyard

When the hour-long flight was coming to an end, the balloon was guided down to a field. From there, the ground crew grabbed a hold onto the basket and steered us right onto the trailer! It felt even more calculated than an aircraft carrier landing… pretty amazing.

Fruit Basket at a Temecula Winery

Celebratory champagne (mimosa) post-successful hot air balloon landing

I had never heard very much about the wine in Temecula. Most winos I know haven’t been there, whereas they have all been to Santa Barbara for tastings, and many of them have been even further north to Napa. It now seems like Temecula is a well-kept secret. My expectations were admittedly low, but much of the wine I tried was really, really good. We have never joined a wine club before but couldn’t resist on this trip. I’m looking forward to getting my first, two-bottle shipment in August!

The walls that enclose the rail line are covered with graffiti, and the train terminal feels grimy and is filled with a lot of shady-looking characters. Like Naples, we were also warned about this place, Florence – about the pickpockets lurking in the train station, dressed as tourists. And we were warned about the drug pushers that hang out in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, which is the main thoroughfare to walk into town from the train station. Thankfully, no one bothered us on our way to explore this new destination.

First observation: there seems to be a monopoly on kitschy (crappy) products sold on the street. It’s not just here – it was in Rome, too. The Africans hock handbags and watches on pedestrian bridges and the fringes of piazzas. The inner parts of the piazzas are overrun with Middle Eastern men selling prints of famous art and small helicopter-type toys. You shoot those things way up in the air with a rubberband and watch them slowly twirl back down to the earth. Since they are lit up with a little blue LED, they actually look really cool at night. But the street salesmen are a bit scary and enough of an annoyance that it seems best to not give them even half-a-second of your valuable vacation time.

The Duomo (a.k.a. Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower) is a magnificent structure that, fortunately, we had a beautiful view of from our hotel room. Although the church itself is a magnificently grand structure, the really eye-catching parts are the bell tower and dome. Tours of both are available and, to reach the top of the dome, you climb up 400-some steps and navigate through a number of corridors too tight for the people exiting and the people entering to pass through at once.

The view from the top is incredible, though some people were apparently pretty nervous being about 375 feet up on a structure that is approaching 600 years old. I found it worth the risk. It was awesome seeing the other beautiful cathedrals, the castles off in the distance, and the people on the bell tower across the way looking at you through binoculars and cameras.

 

The view from our hotel room of the Duomo


 

Our dinner choice came about from a recommendation by one of my coworkers. “When you’re in Florence,” he said, “you’ve gotta try the blueberry steak at a place called Acqua al Due. It’s incredible.” So we did, and it was. In fact, this was one of the best dining experiences I have had in Italy so far. The bottle of house Chianti was delicious and fairly priced, and the blueberry steak was something to behold. The steak was a rather nice cut and fantastic by itself, and the blueberry sauce was a great, unique extra touch. Alone, the sauce tasted a lot like barbecue, though the blueberry flavor really popped out on the steak. I’ve gotta figure out that recipe, or at least something close to it… Unfortunately, we were seated next to a group of about ten college kids and two of their professors. They were a little on the loud side, which took away from a more intimate, fine-dining experience, but they were okay.

Florence is the home of Michelangelo’s statue of David. The line to get into the Accademia Gallery that houses it and the sun beating down were both brutal. My lovely lady was getting a little frustrated, as was I to some degree. But when we finally made into the gallery and turned the corner to see the statue, all of that previous tension vanished.

In photos, the David statue looks like….just another statue. But in all actuality, it’s 17 feet tall and was immaculately sculpted: David’s muscles are engorged, as if he just finished the fight in which he slayed the giant. Veins in his arm are visible. The intense look on his face seemingly turns into a slight smirk, depending on your vantage point. I don’t understand the hype over some things, but this one I get. It was truly the work of a master artist, who was only 26 years old when he started sculpting this piece.

Back to that “hype” thing, the Uffizi art gallery is regarded as another one of Florence’s treasures. It’s an enormous museum, filled with paintings and sculptures that have been around for centuries. I wouldn’t exactly say “Once you’ve seen one piece, you’ve seen ’em all,” but the paintings in the Uffizi are almost exclusively of a religious nature, and the sculptures that line the hallways are mostly of people you and I don’t know a single thing about. You really have to like marble and depictions of the Madonna to make the most out of a visit. I will say that there were definitely some “wow!” moments in the gallery but, honestly, I missed the reason why demand is great enough that the travel books recommend buying tickets in advance. We didn’t and waited in line 45 minutes to get in.

Florence is a beautiful town, and I continue to feel blessed to have this opportunity to explore and gallivant around Italy… though it ain’t cheap! Until next time… ciao!

 
Sun Setting Over the Ponte Santa Trinita Bridge in Florence, Italy
 

Siena is such a confusing place, initially, when arriving by rail. You walk out the front door of the train station, and all you see in the vicinity is a mall, straight ahead. The mall, in this case, is key in getting you where you need to go, as it contains a system of ten – yes, ten – escalators that eventually hoist you to the top of a mountain. Had I done my homework beforehand, or happened to carry a topographical map, I would have known that Siena is one of those mountaintop type of towns I was curious about in the “Italy in Cursive” post.

At the top of the mountain, you make a left, go probably half a mile, and you’ll end up in the old part of Siena. Since it’s a walled town, all main roads basically lead to the Piazza del Campo. That’s a massive, open “square” (it’s more circular), where all kinds of people congregate to socialize, eat/drink, and take in the lovely architecture. Also, there is a bareback horse race that takes place in the piazza every year. Nearly all the Sienese neighborhoods are represented by a rider, and the only rule seems to be that the quickest horse must make three laps to win – with or without the jockey still on-board. The race has a rather bizarre history, with the lore including stories of jockeys being kidnapped, riders smacking each other with whips during the race, and horses being drugged before the big event.

Piazza Del Campo in Siena, Tuscany, Italy

This is part of the Piazza del Campo, as described above.

Trying to take in a little bit at a lot of different places, we decided to depart from Siena for a day and take a tour of the medieval town of San Gimignano. From a distance, the town is incredibly beautiful, with 15 of the original 72 towers remaining, dating as far back as the 11th century. The towers were apparently built by wealthy merchants as a sign of power. Aside from the incredible architecture, the tiny town is a huge tourist trap.

San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy

The second half of our guided tour was spent at Tenuta Torciano winery. The visit was more of a class than just a simple tasting. The proprietor (well, one of them – it’s a family operation) showed our small tour group the proper way to hold the glass, swirl the wine, smell the bouquet and, finally, drink.

Pairing the wines with locally-grown and -made salad, salami, cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and truffle oil made the experience above and beyond the many U.S. tastings I have tried. Plus, it’s refreshing to have a vintner NOT try to steer your pairing preferences. You might be able to imagine him telling us in a thick Italian accent: “If you-a like the bold meat with a white wine, you like-a what you like.”

Back in Siena, it was a little bittersweet leaving the town because it’s rustic charm was a little addicting and made it hard to want to leave. On to Florence!

Duomo di Siena Cathedral, Tuscany, Italy

Another one of the beautiful Sienese churches


Siena, Italy

Naples could use some work… some oversight… maybe a good scrubbing with lots of bleach. I was told by a colleague that it’s “not a place you would want to visit until your fourth or fifth, maybe even sixth time in Italy.” Now that I’ve seen it, I get it, but it was convenient to explore, being on the road to Pompeii.

The streets in “Napoli” are filthy. Trash is strewn about, there are many pungent odors wafting in the air, and the dogs randomly run the streets.

A nice, classic Italian scene, but notice all the garbage on the stairs…

Many of the locals seem a bit on the rough side, though just as anywhere, some genuinely pleasant people can be found. My wife and I stopped at a random dessert bar on the way back to the train station. The bar was clean and inviting, like a diamond in the rough, and the bartender was really pleasant and nice. The limoncellos we tried were super-sweet but good. We had been to other dessert bars, always keeping an eye open for a bottle of the aforementioned drink but, when we finally asked about it, we discovered they keep it chilled in a fridge.

Unfortunately for us, the town’s/society’s siesta schedule caused us to miss out on trying the Margherita pizza from the restaurant Brandi, which is where that particular offering was invented in 1889. Hungry, we wandered around that part of town until we found a pizzeria open at 5 PM (most places are closed from 4-7), up a random side-street. The Margherita pizza there was great! It seems like Naples is the only place that keeps it authentically simple, with basil leaves that you can actually see. The Margherita pizza we tried in all the other towns looked just like cheap, American-style cheese pizza. The other pizza ordered – the “Pizza Bolognese” – wasn’t so good. There is something about hamburger meat, resting atop a pool of olive oil, that is really unappetizing.

Although Naples is an old-school, too-rustic-for-its-own-good kind of town, one thing super helpful is the occasional street map posted throughout the city – something we didn’t see in Rome a single time.

Italy in Cursive

06/12/2012

Staring out the window at a beautiful countryside. Bellissimo. Old castles are perched atop hills, slowly becoming one with the land. Villages cling to mountain ranges, making me question how they ended up there any why. There is so much green to see- the vineyards, olive trees, soy beans, corn (very occasionally), and prairie-type grass on the rolling hills, gently swaying in the breeze.

I’m glad to be sitting, because everything hurts right now from walking miles and miles and miles every day. I slept nine hours last night but feel like my whole being could use a full 24 hours in bed to recuperate. I’m far from sedentary in my usual, daily life, but this amount of walking makes it feel like switch has been flipped and I’m doing a 180 compared to what I’m used to. A big part of it is the hills – so much up and down… and a lot of those hills in town are paved with uneven cobblestones. These over-engineered, American sports shoes just aren’t enough in Italy.

 

Classic Italian Street - Siena, Italy

 

Despite all the activity, the cuisine is already taking a toll… I’m a growing boy – but growing “out” rather than “up” these days. My, uhhh, ya know, rock-hard abs have started to disappear, and my arms are less toned… or less “beefy” is an adjective you might use. hah!

Pizzerias and dessert bars are found on seemingly every block, and the five-course, fine dining restaurants leave me full after just the second course. The locals seem to be in great shape for all the oils poured on breads, pastas, and salads. “Would you like some bread with your olive oil?” seems like a fair question.