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A Texan in Tuscany

Amy's Rotary International Adventure

Journal Info



June 26th, 2007

After a long fun filled day on the Isle of Elba, we awoke to gray skies, chilly weather and heading up into the hills of Livorno with Dr. Claudio Bencini as our guide.  He is a local ER doctor in Livorno and arrived in a minivan to take the Texans around for the day.


Our first stop was the small town on the hills overlooking Livorno, and the highlight was a sacred church, Montenero Sanctuary, all in dedication to Mary.  The interesting fact is that much of Tuscany is Communist, particularly in Livorno… and while they embrace this philosophy, they also revere the Virgin Mary – go figure!  It was interesting, Claudio said, “they want their communist ideas and yet they want their Mary too… how does that work?” 


The church was beautiful and typical of an old, Italian church yet the unique feature that made this one stand out amongst the rest was the tribute it had to Mary throughout the entire sanctuary.  People would come and place drawings, sacred hearts, pieces of personal belongings, etc and all over the walls, giving credit to the Virgin Mary for saving them, healing them, protecting them from certain situations.  And it went on for rooms!!!!  The most interesting was a story in which Claudio actually knew the person.  His wife worked in the hospital too and her chief’s father had been in the Second World War.  Hanging on the wall in a framed box was a sweater with blood and a bullet hole in it, and in the middle of the frame was a Mary Pendant that he was wearing where the bullet hit and saved his life.  You could actually still make out the pendant from the bullet hole… CRAZY!!!  It was so impressive and much more personal than another picture of a Madonna.  And after all the Rosary beads I know Dad rubbed to help get me here, I should have put up a picture myself… I settled for a candle instead!  J


We took a mountainside trolley down the hill and back into town where we then piled back in the mini to tour the Fattori museum that holds some of the best local art from the area.  Afterwards we went into downtown to have a boat tour of the city through the channels.  Most of the coast of this part of Italy was similar to Houston in that the land is at sea level and very saturated.  So in order to create a city around the port, they commissioned people to come live tax free and dig the trenches and build the channels so they were able to create the city.  There were also towers and fortresses built all around to secure the city.  The Livorno port was one of the most important ports during the middle ages and is home to Italy’s naval academy.


After the water tour of the city, we toured the fortress and stopped for lunch at Fortezza Vecchia where we had some great seafood pasta and then some not so great fish soup.  Let me describe this “fish soup” for you…. When I think of fish, I think of the actual fish, with scales and fins that has a meaty texture to it.  Not so much in Italy!  Fish soup consists of anything that comes out of the water in the net, boiled with wine and spices and served up in a bowl…. And that includes complete tentacles (and I’m talking BIG NASY SUCKERS) from octopus.  Now I’m not really opposed to octopus when it’s covered up with batter and fried – but big, red and out in the open is a different matter all together.  And this was even more emphasized when my teammate Helen was about to lose the first course of seafood pasta all together when the bowl was put in front of her.  She was so disgusted with the site of it that she had to zoom her camera in on the dish for a picture in order to show people when she got home!  Ha!  Thank goodness for the yummy bread and wine… and we were saved by the best apricot tart for dessert and a lemoncello frothy drink.  But I can assure you, the next time Fish Soup is offered to me, I think I’ll pass!  J


After lunch we piled back into the mini just in time to miss another afternoon shower and headed to Kaiser Italia Industry.  On our way to the tour we were pulled over by the Polizia, just standing in the middle of the road and holding up a small stop sign.  Claudio got out of the car and asked what the problem was and was told that our leader, Clint (the other front seat passenger), was not wearing his seat belt.  Well Clint was wearing it, but holding it so it wasn’t tight on his neck.  However, it appears the police in Italy can be similar to some in the States and pulled them over because they believed that he was putting on his seatbelt as they went by.  And this is where the story gets good….


Claudio got out of the car and asked what the problem was, then proceeded to raise his arms, jestering, talking loudly in Italian as the police women shouted back.  He came back to the car and told Clint about the seatbelt and asked him to get out.  Then said in English to us “She’s Crazy!”  The policewomen then replied, “I heard you – I know what Crazy is!!!”  Then the screaming started all over again.  Clint got out of the car to talk about the situation and proceeded to walk back to the police van to discuss the problem.  That’s when Claudio said a line that has been quoted ever since…. “CRAZY COMMUNIST!”  It was hysterical considering the fact that the 5 of us were stuck in the mini, in the rain, watching the leaders of our group walk a fine line with the polizia in a foreign country.  I asked to take bets on the outcome and what we should do if they were taken to jail…. Follow them and bail them out, or take the mini and run!  Ha!  There was no reason to contemplate because  Clint came back to the car calm, collected and with a ticket in hand!  He’s due in court on the 25th of June to pay a 60 Euro fine but by then we’ll be on the Adriatic side of the country.  We’re just hoping he gets to come home and isn’t stopped at the gate before we leave!  Lesson learned…. A fired up Italian rivals a fired up redhead – and is not someone to be messed with, especially when they hold the power of the law – no matter how communistic they may be!  J


After the drama of the ticket we arrived late to Kaiser Industries to be met by Valfredo Zolesi, the president and owner.  This company is responsible for creating most of the experiments for the U.S.A and Russian space programs… and it’s based out of Livorno.  We got an overall presentation about the company then got to see some of the coolest experiments.  I’m not usually one for sophisticated software (Surprise, Surprise!) but this truly was fascinating.  Due to the size of the space shuttle and the requirements for weight, etc. this company is responsible for taking complete labs, shrinking them down to the size of a pillbox and ensuring the experiments will work while in space.  They had the coolest glove that allowed an astronaut to put it on and it would be able to test the strength of the muscles, atrophy, as well as the electrodes that shoot down the fingers while they stayed in space.  Many of these experiments lead to great discoveries in the medical fields, particularly in muscular diseases such as Parkinson’s, MS, etc.  And we were standing there with the man who developed this stuff!  While not in my field of profession, one couldn’t help but be in awe of his mind and ability to contribute so much to science.  After our personal tour, Valfredo wished us well on our travels and promised to let us know when he would be in Houston for the next NASA trip.  We told him we would take him to get some good Mexican in return for his time and hospitality… and hope he takes us up on the offer.


By this time the day was winding down and we returned to downtown Livorno to stop by and see Claudio’s home and family.  He lives in this great apartment complex in the middle of the city with his wife and two daughters.  A lovely home and lovely family for a great guy.  What I love about this experience is that we have the chance to see a person’s home and where they live… especially after they have hosted and shared a bit of themselves and their story with us.  It makes the Italian experience so much more personal and cherished… and to be honest, real!  Because even though the wine, food, countryside and history are phenomenal… they are not the life and spirit of this great land – its people are.  And to share a moment in time with them and enter their lives will be what I cherish most.


As twilight approached, we packed up the mini one more time and headed back to Villa Margarita for the evening.  I realize I have mentioned “the mini” many times in this entry…. But its relevance is significant, maybe because it held such a great presence in many of my own family memories, but throughout the day (and if you ask me, very early in the trip) the bonding of our journey together began.  From piling in the early morning to view the fog-invested country-side, to the pulling over by cops, to watching the craziness of the drivers as an entire group, to singing and laughing, the mini was essential creating a family of this group of strangers and unique characters.  And so the mini continues to bond…  even in Italy. 


We approached our tiny town on the sea and Claudio had one more thing for us to see.  He pulled over and had us walk down a hill and up a cliff to an amazing view of the sea at dusk… truly breathtaking – one more to add to the photo collection!  Back at the “villa” we dragged our weary selves into the restaurant for a light dinner and more laughs.  As dinner finished up we took pictures of the BANDITOS and their ticket, Clint ‘deputized’ Claudio with a badge of ‘Rotary Honor’ and I gave him one of my Texana Packets – complete with a TEXAS MONTHLY.  He was so impressed – I was just glad it was the Best Beaches issue and not Astronaut Sex, unsure how that one would have translated!  J


Tomorrow we are off to Pisa then Piaggio… should be another great day!  Keep posted, internet is hard to find and time is even more precious.  But I will update when I can and hope you all enjoy it with me!






June 19th, 2007

Hello again!  Know my last blog was a bit long and lengthy – but as you can see the days are packed and filled with so many things that it’s hard to know what to leave out!  This time I’ll try to keep it short and sweet… but knowing me, that might be hard!  Ha!


We were picked up by two Rotarians, Vincenzo and Claudio, to be driven to the ferry to take us across to the Isle of Elba.  The ferry ride was just amazing, crossing over the Meditterean Sea with the blue sea below and blue skies above and the wind blowing was a great way to greet the day and the first time the sun shone since we arrived. The Isle of Elba is a small island off the Tuscan coast of Italy and is beautiful.  To me it resembled San Francisco and Monaco all rolled into one – a beautiful beach island that had the most amazing yachts and sailboats docked, surrounded by beautiful little streets with great shops and hotels and houses on hilltops overlooking the sea. 


We were met by Gino Vai, the Rotary President of Elba and another Rotarian, Claudio in Portoferrario, one of Elba’s largest cities and began the day of leisurely strolling and eating on the Isle!  We walked into the main square of Portoferrario to Gino’s office.  He’s an architect and designs homes all over Italy.  The office was very nice and had a lot of old drawings and maps of the area which really gave you a sense of how much history Italy holds.  Now please don’t mistake me, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck – I do realize that Italy holds the key to much of the world’s history… but when you see all of it in person, the reality truly hits and you’re a bit awestruck.  And this was just to be the beginning…


After meeting the people in Gino’s office we walked up this a little street made only of stairs to the top of the hill…. Talk about a work out!  I thought our leader Clint was going to die… the hills of the countryside are quite a contrast to flat ol’ H-town!  Ha!  When we arrived on top you could see straight down through the town and off into the sea – yet another moment to take a deep breath, close my eyes and commit to memory!  Bellisima! 


Elba’s claim to fame is that it was one of the places where Napoleon was put in exile… now if this is exhile, I’ll take it anyday of the week!  At the very top of the hill – the highest part of Portoferrario – was the palace where he stayed.  It still had the furniture from the period, including the personal library that he had with books he brought from France.  And of course, what would Napoleon’s exile home be without paintings of himself in each room looking all powerful and important.  I must admit, I was amused!  The grounds were the best part, you could overlook one entire side of the island and see forever into the horizon – yet another postcard moment.  The funny thing is, this was only just one of two residences that Napoleon had on Elba.  The other one was a summer one and allowed him to see the Armadas out in the Mediterrean.  Seriously… exile???  I don’t think so!


After the tour of the palace we headed back into town for a “casual lunch” on the water front where we saw the most amazing yacht and sailboat dock for the day.  We looked like complete American Tourists all out peering to see the boat and who was aboard, oh well – won’t see the likes of that on Kemah, so who cares??  J  The lunch began again with crostini and proscecco and we met the rest of the Rotarians from Elba.  All of the Rotary meetings are held at night in Italy so they made a special exception to have the meeting at lunchtime for us.  It was again another great meal with very interesting people where we were warmly welcomed by the club and city with open arms!  What can I say, I just love this country…. I only hope that when people come to the states they feel as welcomed.


After lunch Gino took us to his house to refresh and relax for a bit before we headed back to catch the ferry.  His home was the first Italian home we had seen and it was truly spectacular.  As an architect I expected a nice home, but not an house on the cliffs of the island with amazing views overlooking the sea.  We had café and some chocolate on his patio – which was basically an outdoor living room on the cliffs.  I mean these people know how to live!


After our refreshing break at Gino’s home he drove us to the other side of town where there was the public beach and the cutest little town with great shops.  All the other girls loaded up on some great jewelry at a shop but I missed out because Gino insisted I had to have some Gelato!  Yes, I realize the idea of Amy missing out on jewelry for ice cream is shocking – but what can you do when a charming Italian is offering you the best ice cream you’ve had in your life?  J


The day was coming to a close on Elba and we were cutting it close to get back to the ferry in time to go to dinner with the Piombino Rotary Club.  This leads me to telling you briefly about the way Italians drive…. CRAZY!!!!  Yes, even CRAZIER than me (which I’m sure some of you are doubting at this very moment…. Dad!)  They don’t drive with their knees, but they sure drive faster than reasonable (or in my opinion possible) on their little windy, narrow streets…. And tailgate like nobody’s business!  In fact, it’s so well known that their driving is crazy that Rick Steves, the well known travel writer, has on the back of his Italian book “Se non rallenta, vomito!”  Translated: “If you don’t slow down, I’ll throw down!”  So yes, even crazier than me! 


We made the ferry just in time to run to the ship while Gino went to get the tickets, said Arriverdici and headed back to the mainland for yet another great meal.  Vincenzo and Claudio were there along with Franco, the president of the Piombino Rotary Club.  We went to the Caledario Resort where they have natural springs that were once Roman Baths.  We toured the property and sat down to another great meal.  I sat next to Vincenzo, a former special ops officer, and Barbara, an Italian who received her PHD in Physics from Harvard!  Needless to say the conversation was really interesting and another great meal and evening had by all.


Franco and Vincenzo dropped us off back at Villa Margarita and we went to bed tired, full and with another beautiful day of memori

June 12th, 2007

Ciao again friends and family!  Thanks for all your kind comments and emails – sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond to them but we’ve been starting our days at 8:30 in the morning and not returning home until after midnight, which leaves little time to share the amazing experiences I’ve had.


So I thought I’d start “from the very beginning – a very good place to start….” (for those of you who are not musical buffs – this is from “The Sound of Music” and I’m happy to report that all the girls are huge fans of all musicals and we’ve often had our own sing-a-longs!  J Obviously a group of “soul sistas” you could say… and poor Clint and Averell just tolerate us!) 


Sunday morning we were picked up by three Rotarians from Cecina, a small town south of Livorno to tour their part of Italy.  The day started out cool and rainy but it was certainly not dampened by the enthusiasm and welcome we received.  We started the day by touring the Marina Di Cecina, a relatively new marina which is home to beautiful yachts and sailboats that sail the Mediterrean Sea – in fact this is where Roberto Cavalli keeps his yacht and the paint changes colors as the sun changes position throughout the day – and I thought a speedboat was impressive!  After the tour we headed into a bar right on the boardwalk to have what…. Yet some more proscecco and crostini!  And it was only 11:30 AM!  Oh well – do as the Romans – I mean, Cecians do!  J 


We left the marina to have lunch at a private beach club… because what else would you do after proscecco and crostini – but to eat another 4 course meal????  It was really nice and looked out onto the blue sea, dotted with white sailboats that complimented the white beach with blue sunchairs and umbrellas.  And all set on the backdrop of a sky with billowy, white clouds everywhere – it was really beautiful and amazing.  The only thing that could top it was the meal and company, and it certainly satisfied.  The meal began with Antipasta: typical brushetta which includes bread with tomatoes that we all know, some fresh pate and a variety of meats and cheese.  Then followed by the Primo course of pasta, and of course the Secondi course of grilled swordfish and lightly fried zucchini flowers, the third course of Frutta and then finished off with chocolate ice cream bonbons and of course their version of coffee, espresso – AMAZING!  I’ve decided they need the espresso shot to keep them awake from such a long and filling meal – but man alive – that stuff is strong and potent!!!!  I don’t care how many times I’ve had it, my face still cringes and my body shakes when I drink it. 


I must say that my favorite part so far is the dining experience… and not because of the food.  But this is the time when you can sit and talk and get to know the Italians, about their lives, their ideas and interests, their views on the world…. And they take the time to enjoy being there – in the moment.  It really is so nice when you can have a conversation with someone and you are both stumbling through each other’s languages and there’s a common ground created… where the basis is laughter.  The Italians have a tremendous sense of humor, which is why I probably enjoy them so much.


After lunch we toured the company and factory of the Cecian Rotary President, Giuseppe Piccirillo. He is the president of a valve company for the oil and gas industry and his clients include some of the largest companies in the world, for instance GE.  All his engineers are required to speak at least four languages because they do so much business worldwide – the interesting thing is – he speaks none, not even a lick of English!  So the tour was interesting to say the least, he’d speak fast and explain the materials – and look at us like we knew what he was talking about.  Thank goodness for a Rotarian that was able to translate!   


At this point it was about 3:00 pm and we started heading through the hills of Tuscany to tour three medieval towns – Monteseudario (famous for its wine), Guardistallo, and Casale.  All of them appeared to be frozen in time, with their golden streets and buildings, windy roads just nestled at the top of the hills overlooking scenes that are straight out of postcards and paintings.  I asked one of the Italians if they ever get bored of the beauty of their land – his response, “Um… No!”  Thank goodness – otherwise I’d have to bring out pics of the Bayou City and really put things in perspective!  Ha!  When we arrived in Casale we stopped off the main street and there on the steps of the church were three little old men, just chatting and enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  This scene summed it up for me, the life of a quiet Tuscan town and the peacefulness of the country… what a picture to make me stop and appreciate the moment.


Winding down from the hills overlooking the green and gold countryside, we worked our way to the winery of Poggio Gagliardo and met the owner, Andre Sarbone, for a private tour.  We were over an hour late and needless to say he was less than thrilled with us – especially on his Sunday.  However, he graciously accommodated us and began the tour.  He and his family have four wineries that produce 250,000 bottles of wine a year, both red and white as well as olive oil.  Once the tour began and he realized we were really interested in learning about the process he warmed up to us… what can I say, the wino in me was thrilled!  We saw the fermentation vats, the oak barrels, then went to see some of the vineyards.  He harvests the chardonnay grapes first and then works his way to the cabernet sauvignon – the last to stay in the sun – which is why he named his wine, Utlimosole, the last in the sun!  Once we finished the tour we were taken into the coolest Tuscan room with arched ceilings, wooden beams, tile floors and a beautiful harvest table all set for our tasting.  WOOOO-HOOOO!!!!  Bring on the vino!!! 


Andrea had spoken Italian throughout the tour as we listened intently and relayed back to him in our broken, twangy Italiano replies that we “Capisco” understood.  As the tasting started, he introduced the wines and what they were – speaking English!!!!  We died laughing… told him he’d been holding out on us and then began the festivities of tasting his amazing wines – 5 of them!  Once it was over we posed for pictures and the he presented us with our own bottle of wine to take with us – one that he only gives to gifts to family and friends.  It’s Se Stante, named after a compass for sailors – to put you on the right path.  A perfect gift to start our journey – one that I’m sure will leave me with a new pair of eyes to see the world.


Andrea was so enchanted with the “Bellas from Bayou City” that he offered to take us around his vineyard in his truck and see the entire place – including his villa!  It was the coolest thing… we were driving in his Jeep through rolling hills of grapes and olive groves and could see for miles the breathtaking countryside.  We even stopped to see a beautiful, dilapidated farmhouse and a spot on his land that will be excavated next year because they think they found some bones from the 12th century.


When we arrived back after the tour of the vineyard to meet the rest of the group it was getting to be sunset and I thought the day was over.  Not quite yet, we then headed to the beautiful walled city of Bolgheri to close out this wonderful day with another great meal.  The restaurant was on the edge of the wall and you could look down into the beautiful valley at sunset…. Truly breathtaking!  I sat next to a German woman whose husband, Hans had been my personal tour guide all day (he was the driver of the car I was in.  J ) She was lovely and they had moved from Germany 8 years ago to live in an old farmhouse, work the land and make their own wine and olive oil.  Now this is what I’m talking about!  Their English, German and Italian were impeccable and they were both so friendly and interesting.  Dinner was a lot of fun, and I told the Italians how I’m a “wino” and really enjoy their vino!  It was a big hit and I’m happy to say, that this time – it wasn’t lost in translation.


What an amazing first day on this trip and know that the others will be similar too.  Will update with the others soon, so please stay tuned.  Miss you all and look forward to seeing ya soon!




June 6th, 2007

Ciao everyone!  My apologies for not posting sooner but I had some issues with the blog site and we haven’t had a moment’s rest since we arrived and so I’ve had to delay my storytelling from Italy as I experience the most amazing country and culture!

After surviving the “middle-seat-misery” on the nine hour flight to London, we arrived in Pisa around noon on Saturday and were welcomed with open arms, two kisses and “Ciaos!” from four Rotarians.  They drove us to the west coast of Tuscany to Quiacerella, a small town just outside of Livorno to an amazing hotel on the coast overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  We’re staying here this week and being picked up from different Rotary Clubs around the area to tour the local towns, see the sites and experience their own personal Italy.

After getting settled and exploring the area a bit, we were picked up to have dinner at the Rotary Club’s President’s home in Livorno.  She lives in a lovely condominium community on the third floor that faces the water and has amazing views and a beautiful terrace... What a site to see the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea on our first evening in Italy!  The dinner was hosted by Livorno Rotary Club as a welcoming party and gave us the opportunity to interact with local Rotarians and their spouses.  And this is where my Italian Adventure begins….

Let me first state that I’m very impressed with all of the Italians ability to converse in English (something it seems we all take for granted.)  At the dinner there were about 10 Rotarians with their spouses and about half spoke English quite well.  In fact they often speak with a British accent because they were taught “proper English” in school…. A far cry from the “Texas Twang” I can assure you!  While we were introducing ourselves to everyone and visiting before dinner was served, I introduced myself to a very fashionable, older Italian lady.  She looked at another Italian Rotarian standing there and stated to her in Italian, “I can’t understand her, she sounds odd.  She doesn’t speak English that I can understand.”  That my friends would be the “Twang”… and how it gets lost in translation!!  Needless to say, it was funny yet rather embarrassing!  In order to save the opportunity for communication (and face to be quite honest) I opted for the universal language of photos and showed her the album I brought of family, friends, hobbies and interests and all was restored.  J NEVER underestimate the ability of “bambini” to create smiles and understanding!  Thank you James and Julia, your Aunt Amy is ever grateful!

After the mingling and munching of crostini, we got to the real dining.  Now I’ve always been a fan of Italian cuisine – but really, nothing compares to the real deal – it’s like ordering Taco Bell after eating Lupe Tortialla’s fajitas!  Eating and drinking in Italy is truly an art form that centers around the family, socializing and enjoying the moment… and it NEVER stops and ALL of it is delicious!  They begin the meal with crostini and a glass of proscecco (bubbly wine) as they visit as they wait to be seated at the table.  As most of you know, I’m not one to really favor “bubbles” myself, and usually prefer to get on with the good ole vino… but the reason they start with this refreshing proscecco is so that the “bubbles” or “gas” (and yes – they do say ‘gas’) expands and prepares the stomach for the rest of the meal.  So if any of you have heard otherwise, don’t blame me about mentioning “gas” and expanding stomachs…. I heard it straight from the Italians themselves.  Ha!

After the introductory course of proscecco, crostini and mingling, our hostess Crys Cagidiaco brought out the most delicious pasta with fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.  We all know that the pasta would be the main course in the States…. So we Texans loaded our plates up not once, but twice to enjoy the good grub.  Well – pasta here is the “antipasta” which is the first course of what was to be another FIVE!  So needless to say we felt foolish and full!  But were accommodating and sampled the ones that followed: pizzas and cheese, meats and more cheese, more meats, salad and dessert followed by café.  And they do this everyday… how in the world they stay trim and slim is beyond me, but I’m hoping to be able to learn it before I roll myself home at the end of the month.  ;-)

The evening ended with the “Chin-Ching” of toasts and well wishes for Buon Viaggio!  We also finally received our itinerary for the week which included a tour of a port, private wine tour, and dinner at a walled city on Saturday, a day trip into Elba on Monday, and a historic tour of Livorno and visiting with an Italian company that provides testing equipment for the space shuttle and station for NASA.  Tomorrow we visit Pisa and conclude our first week with our Italian Presentation to the Rotary Club at the Yacht Club on Thursday!

As you can see…. The experience thus far has been amazing and I’m still pinching myself everyday that I’m here experiencing it all.  My fellow teammates are awesome and we’ve already all created a great kinship that I know will carry on well after the month is over.

The Italians are as warm and welcoming as the country they live in.  I’ve been so impressed and amazed by the Rotarians over here – the lives they’ve had, the accomplishments they’ve achieved, and cannot find words to describe their hospitality and overwhelming generosity.  I’ve discovered that they are a spirited, flirty people who love laughter and enjoy living life…. It’s amazing how those aspects are universal and can translate (even with a Twang!)

Thanks for your emails and support… wish you were all here enjoying it with me!  I promise to update as much as I can, want to share all of it with ya’ll!  Take care and keep in touch.




May 31st, 2007

Buon Giorno!

Howdy everyone, here's my first attempt at "blogging".... but really, it's to keep all of you updated on my experiences as a TEXAN IN TUSCANY!  I'm participating in the Rotary International Group Study Exchange to Italy and hope ya'll will tune in to my travels, stories and pictures while I'm abroad.  Stayed tuned - should be a great adventure!  Ciao - Amy
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