Monday, November 28, 2011


A little over an hour on the train and I find myself in a completely contrary world: the south.  People are speaking a different language, the traffic moves in new patterns, and the cuisine has reinvented itself.  I'm in beautiful, boisterous Rome!

At lunch with Carlotta, we were eavesdropping on the couple next to us speaking to the waiter, and the conversation went a little something like this:

Rascist Northern Italian Woman (RNIW): You're not from here, are you?  You don't seem Italianissimo (really all that Italian).  Maybe you're from farther south?
Victim/Waiter of RNIW:  No, more like west, Sardegna.
RNIW:  I knew it.

So watch out if you're from south of Rome or one of the islands because your passports may be invalid.

Carlotta and I spent most of our Roman (holi)day at the Musei Capitolini, which holds several very recognizable figures of ancient Roman art, including various body parts of the emperor Constantine, the original She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome, and the incredible bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (if you don't remember who this is, go watch Gladiator again).

Carlotta has a nasty habit of touching the statues.  I only fake touch them.

The museum was hosting an incredible exhibit with sketches from Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci that showed their incredible skill at the human form and engineering, respectively.  I snagged this photo of one of Da Vinci's famous sketches before they told me I wasn't allowed.  Hard to fathom such creative genius.  I was joking with Carlotta: what has happened to the Italians?!  From the Roman Empire to the Renaissance they rocked the world, and now they can't seem to get their act together.  Go figure.

The view from the museum's balcony is one of the most wonderful I've seen in Rome, and we were even graced with a sunset.  The dome in the very distance is St. Peter's (as far as we can tell) and the adorable apartment in the foreground is where Carlotta and I intend to live.


I couldn't resist swinging by a couple of favorite spots, including the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.  I love the illusion of this photo Carlotta shot, as if I was there all alone, when really it was bustling with people.


And then we transitioned from touristy Rome to hidden Rome, taking the metro to the periphery to meet Roberta, Carlotta's best childhood friend, who was hosting us that night.  For dinner, we drove to a small town south of Rome called Ariccia, which is known for its Fraschette, a type of osteria that specializes in local wine, porchetta (roast pig), fresh cheeses and meats, and vegetables "under oil".  It was my kind of place, where we got to go up to the counter, and point at everything we wanted.


Then of course we couldn't resist ordering pasta.  Apparently bibs are required for pasta all'amatriciana, with which our Chillean-born waiter happily provided us.

Saturday we drove to Frosinone and spent time with Carlotta's family (her parents, older sister, Francesca, and younger brother, Andrea), enjoying mozzarella di bufala and sausage, doing some shopping, and relaxing in front of the TV with Nick Cage's National Treasure.  That night we went out for a beer with Roberta, and then all of a sudden it was Sunday morning and time to leave.  I had a two-hour layover in Rome which I spent at Palazzo Venezia (with Mussolini's famous balcony) seeing the "Rome in the Time of Caravaggio" exhibit.

Who knows when I'll see Carlotta again.  After a year in Provence, Dublin, and Cairo, she is soon headed back to Africa, this time Benin (look it up, I had to) for a whole year, to work with poor children who have gotten caught up in human trafficking and other such underground atrocities.  I'll miss her, but am so proud of her!

Time to brush up on my Florentine so as to avert any dirty looks...a weekend down there and my Italian's all muddled!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am thankful for you

My mom insists that her wanting me home for Thanksgiving is not just on account of my mad vacuuming and potato-mashing skills, but the jury's still out!

This holiday is always the hardest for me to spend away from home and always marks the point in the year when I feel the most homesick.  In fact one of the things I feel most thankful for is today's marking the onset of Christmas, reminding me that my trip home is just around the corner and before I know it I will be snuggling on the couch in plaid pajamas drinking hot chocolate and watching Home Alone and Love Actually on repeat with my family.

But let's not skip to Christmas just yet!

While I was away from my biological family this year, I got to have another Thanksgiving with my villa family Wednesday night.  Thanksgiving all'Italiana was a big success, them having learned how to make everything from sweet potatoes to pecan pie over the years.  I made hilarious paper cup turkeys with my students Tuesday night and each one really took on its own personality, making for great additions to the table decor at Le Lance, the restaurant where we spent Thanksgiving, and where our villa cook's husband is head chef.  It's all in the family!

After a couple heart-warming speeches to remind us what this holiday is really about, we settled in for the feast.  I sat by Paul, our faculty in residence from Georgetown, and his partner, Vincent, as well as a handful of my students.  Throughout the entire dinner, Eva, our business manager Giuditta's toddler, kept playing tag between her and I from one side of the restaurant to the other.  I had great company, spectacular food, and even a baby!  I couldn't have been more content.

How our Italians manage to make such bomb American pies is a welcome wonder. 

Our end of the table played a wonderful game (at the suggestion of Paul and Vincent, of course) where each person put a question in a cup, and we went around the table each answering everyone's questions.  It was a wonderful way to jump start intimate conversations and to learn more about the wonderful people we spend time with every day here.  Other guests in our party thought we were the strangest people because we would always be intense in conversation, often sniffling at emotional stories or cracking up at hilarious ones.  It was such a special and memorable meal!  Here is my officially bonded Thanksgiving crew.

And what would Thanksgiving be without giving thanks?  Today I stopped by the duomo to light a candle for all the people I love and to thank God for blessing my life with them, I mean you!  Living in this beautiful and privileged place and being far from friends and family reminds me to count my blessings daily, but on this of all days, I want to make sure you all know how thankful I am to have your love, laughter, and support in my life.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Urge for Staying

As promised, what follows is a list of things that I love and will miss about living in Italy.  Don't turn green with envy, instead come visit me before next summer.  That way, next year we can wallow in our shared longings for Italy together.
  1. Espresso (and Italian coffee bar culture in general).  It's a wonderful experience to pop into a bar here, enjoy a quick espresso with a dash of cocoa powder at the counter, and be on your way in two minutes flat.
  2. Trains.  One of the few modes of transportation that doesn't make me motion sick, it's also such a classic and classy way to travel.  Connectivity of trains is one of the few things Italy has better-organized than the U.S.A.
  3. Maids, chefs, and gardeners.  Until I marry Justin Timberlake, I will never be as spoiled as I am living in this villa.
  4. Piazzas, strolling, and doing a "giro".  Italian towns were built quite sensibly, affording citizens wonderful large squares in which to meet, enjoy, shop, hang out, etc.  The city center is condensed, so one can walk around and stumble upon many amusing treats, such as street performances, church concerts, and artisanal markets.  And thanks to the ingenious word "giro", you can propose to meet friends with the intention of just wandering around and seeing what the town has to offer you.
  5. Italian food, duh.  Obvious, but not to be omitted.  I will particularly miss tortellini, gelato from Castiglione, Neapolitan pizza, cantaloupe, figs, fresh ricotta, cured meats, quality sausage, Sandra's spinach, Bolognese sauce, everything Alessandro and Azzurra bring back from Calabria, perfectly cooked potatoes...maybe I should throw all this out and start a gastronomic list instead...
  6. The lack of the term "PC".  You can pretty much say anything you want here and you don't risk getting scolded or sued for using an outrageously derogatory term like "stewardess".
  7. Proximity to other countries.  It takes less time for me to travel to another country here than another state at home, plus travel costs are much more reasonable.  Once I'm back in the states, any European travel will require a huge sum of money and accumulation of time off.
  8. Original, family-run establishments.  If I never see another Applebee's again it will be too soon.
  9. Bologna.  Despite my adoration for other cities, I don't think any has had the impact on me that Bologna has.  I feel a glow just thinking of that jewel of a place.
  10. Aperitivo.  Twelve steps above an American happy hour, aperitivo is a fun, economical occasion to hang out with friends, while enjoying a generous buffet included with the price of one drink.
  11. A room with a view.  I can see the entire panorama of Florence out my bedroom window: Duomo, stadium, Palazzo Vecchio, and river included.  It's incredible.  Along the same lines, I'll miss the vivid sunsets and the peaceful moments at dusk spent breathing in the fresh air and relishing the cityscape from the south terrace.
  12. Fashionable men.  Is it that hard to wear nice shoes, my American boys?  And maybe throw on a sweater or a scarf?  Just try it.  Please.
  13. Art.  I've half-taken four art history classes (I attend the field trips, but not the lectures).  I've finally come to an understanding and appreciation of art, and love learning more about how it ties into the history and culture, religion and politics of a country.  
  14. Unconventional convictions.  There are so many small things that Italians believe and follow relentlessly, especially in regards to food and health.  Shoes or slippers must always be worn indoors.  Olive oil will cure a hangover.  Wearing a scarf will prevent colds.  Never mix cheese and fish.  Air conditioning will be the death of you.  I've come to believe (almost) all of them.
  15. Eating simply, organically, locally, and seasonally.  In America, this is a movement.  In Italy, it just is.
  16. Speaking Italian.  I love Italian for its formality and English for its slang (I'm a walking contradiction).  I wish my Italian could improve as consistently in the states as it does here-it's a skill I can't afford to lose!  There's too many friends to keep in touch with.  Plus, let's admit it, it's sexy.
  17. Really, really ridiculously old stuff.  Time moves differently here, and I think it has to do with the historical timeline of the land and the people.  The street I live on was around long before Thomas Jefferson, and I still haven't wrapped my mind around Sicilian buildings existing from the 7th century BC.
  18. Working to live, not living to work.  Here, the most important things in life are close family and good food, priorities I can get on board with. 
  19. Lack of consumerism.  As opposed to my homeland of flashing billboards and Black Friday, in Italy there is less pressure to have the latest this or that.  It's a peaceful thing.
  20. Drinking in public.  Some laws in America are so strict-it's too bad responsible drinking isn't part of our culture.  Birra sulla spiaggia!  It never gets old.  
  21. Social acceptability of asking "what did you have for lunch" immediately after "how are you?".  Let's get straight to the good stuff, people.
  22. My students.  As much as I won't miss living in a (albeit glorified) dorm, I must say that my students are awesome people and I will miss getting to know more of them.  I'm continually impressed by the caliber and charm of my Hoyas.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Urge for Going

I'm publishing a list of some things I really miss about America so that when I'm sitting in Vacaville in eight months, Italy-less, I can refer back to it and appreciate the variety and functionality of my homeland, and the simplicity of my wants.  I tried to limit the entries that refer to food, but I can't change who I am.  Next I'll make a converse list of the things I better hurry up and appreciate about Italy.
  1. Savory breakfast.  How Italians survive the first four hours of the day on nothing but a chocolate cookie will continue to bewilder both myself and nutritionists. 
  2. The Banana Republic Factory Outlet.  This country does not understand how sales should work, which is constantly and abundantly.
  3. Hummus.  I eat a ton of chic peas here, but mashing them up hasn't caught on yet.
  4. Not living a double life.  I have Italian and American bank accounts, Italian and American wardrobes, Italian and American book collections.  Everything...UNITE!
  5. My dog.  She's really not good at returning my calls.
  6. Thanksgiving.  A brilliant holiday dedicated to food, family, and reflection on life's blessings.  And food.
  7. Personal bubbles.  Please, signore, get out of my face.  And signora, if you bump me one more time with your shopping bag I will make a point to pay with nothing but pennies.
  8. Baseball.  Get me some peanuts and a beer and I'm happy.  I mean, go Giants!
  9. Law & order.  Red does not mean yield, and one-way means just that.  I don't know if it's our puritanical roots or our lack of mafia roots, but we Americans are law-abiding citizens to the core and I like it.
  10. Weekend movie marathons.  I often say on lazy weekends at the villa, "I wish I could turn on the TV and stumble upon the last half of Die Hard with my dad."  Last week I almost downloaded it just to watch the last half on principle, but it felt too forced.
  11. Dollars.  Not actual dollars, because euro are more colorful and sensible and I love two-euro coins, but how can the Eurozone be on the brink of financial collapse, and yet I'm still paying 1.4?
  12. High-speed internet.  I think I've wasted a good month of my life waiting for the world wide web to load. 
  13. Opportunity.  There are few job options here, let alone lucrative ones.  It's hard not to notice the sentiment of hopelessness and desperation at the economic and political situation.  La vita is not quite as bella as everyone thinks.  I'm blessed to have an American contract.
  14. International food.  What shall we have for dinner?  Japanese?  Mexican?  Thai?  Most Italians would run screaming to hide under a box of Barilla rigatoni.
  15. Good over-the-counter drugs.  I brought a one year's supply of NyQuil with me to Italy because otherwise I'd basically have to suffer through it.
  16. Old friends.  Make new friends and keep the old, I know I know.  But I think we know which ones are gold.
  17. Customer service.  Literally a foreign concept.  But at least the waiters here don't ask you five times mid-chew if everything's alright.
  18. Understanding everything.  No matter how much my Italian improves, I will never completely get it.  I miss always knowing what's going on and naturally understanding how things work.
  19. A proper government.  However dysfunctional and controversial, at least in America we don't have to worry about the government periodically dissolving and starting from chaotic scratch.
  20. Driving.  I take door to door transport for granted.  It's the only time wearing heels is actually worth it, I can sing at the top of my lungs, and I don't risk sitting by the foul-smelling town drunk on the bus.
  21. Hosting people.  I just want to cook you dinner.  I really do.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

'Tis the Season: Olive Oil

I've been to many a winery, several cheese farms, and have even participated in the making of gourmet Italian chocolates, but never had I seen olive oil production in action!  That is, until last week when we visited the olive mill at Tenuta di Cappezzana in Carmignano.  The picture above is of my director, Alan, and Vincent, our resident French pastry chef slash partner of our visiting Georgetown professor, Paul.

I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want to be a part of this Bonacossi family.  They live in a Medici villa (by extension-apparently the family gave it to a daughter when she married), their ancestors were collectors who donated a private collection of European art and antique furniture to the Uffizi, and they spend their days living in the gorgeous Tuscan countryside producing quality wine and olive oil.  I mean, come on.  Do you have any single males in the family?

But I digress.  Let me walk you through the process!  First, the part we didn't see was them collecting the olives from the trees, making sure to let all the olives fall naturally into their nets but never hit the ground lest they bruise.  Then, within 24 hours of picking they bring them to this guy who funnels them into the machine and picks out large bunches of leaves.

Next, the olives make their way through a fresh water shower and into a machine that churns them into a paste-leaves, pits, skins and all!

Before you know it, the olives are making their way through another tube into the, drum roll please, SUPERDECANTER, where they are spun a trillion times a second (I might be exaggerating), until the centrifugal force separates the oil from the solid and the oil begins to trickle out the other side.  Cool, huh?  I bet you never thought olive oil was supposed to look like buttery snot, but boy, is it delicious nonetheless.

Monday, November 7, 2011


While PM Silvio Burlusconi is quickly losing confidence in parliament, his musical counterpart GIRLusconi has been gaining supporters, namely me.  Last week I went out to Bevo Vino to support a friend's cover band-you really can't not have a good time when drinking wine and singing along to Elton John, especially when there's a cute baby breaking it down Beyonce-style and an Italian woman claiming she's Madonna singing into a wine bottle.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

La Bola

My most unique dining experience in Madrid was hosted by La Bola Taberna, which boasts the best Cocida (boiled meat and chick pea stew) in town.  I went on my own while Shawn was at work, which meant I had to fend for myself linguistically.  I get there early and am seated next to a middle-aged Spanish gentleman who ordered the Cocida as well, meaning I would have a live tutorial.

The promised clay pot arrives, piping hot and ready to blow its top, as if straight out of Beauty and the Beast.  My waiter pours the broth into my bowl of thin, short rice noodles, and retains the meat and chick peas for my second course.  The broth alone is deliciously complex, having been stewing in four kinds of meat for six hours.

Meanwhile, the man next to me is overtly enjoying his stew with borderline-inappropriate satisfactory noises.  I choose to relate to him as a foodie since I, too, am thoroughly enjoying my stew.  More people begin flocking to La Bola, and soon my waiter arrives to pour the rest of my cocida onto my plate.  It was a gorgeous thing, complete with chorizo, chicken, bone marrow, and the most tender pork I've ever experienced.

Next to me, the sounds of my fellow foodie have evolved into mumbled words of emphatic approval.  At this point he is literally talking to himself (or to his food-which is more embarrassing?  I do both) but he takes a moment to ask the waiter for another beer (his third) and soon after a whiskey.  Finally I realize that I haven't been in the company of a foodie, but a lunatic-alcoholic.

During all of my people watching, I'm continuing to enjoy my cocida (along with the cabbage and condiments plate of salsa and green onions) and allow my mind to wander as I unbutton my jeans.  Suddenly I realize I forgot to put more cash into my wallet and am relatively certain they don't accept cards.  I put my card down on the check anyway, hoping for a miracle.  The waiter gruffly denies my miracle.  I shrink down and silently whimper inside. 

Keeping in mind that the front room I'm in is quite small and lots of people are watching, I grab my things and my check and head up to the entryway, next to the small bar and kitchen.  "Donde esta' la banca?" I say, half Spanish, half Italian.  The waiters begin to hold a conference in front of me, speaking disapprovingly in Spanish about my situation, but finally my waiter attempts to direct me to the nearest bank, assuming he'll never see my face again.

So I just up and leave, finally finding the atm five minutes away, and then start my own personal walk of shame back to La Bola, so upset that I had ruined such a wonderful meal and thinking that the waiters must hate me.

But when I get back, all their faces light up, and the guy at the bar immediately pours me a limoncello, "Because I'm a good person."  Before I know it, the goofier of the waiters is introducing me to Carlos, behind the bar, who will show me around Madrid at night (with Carlos rolling his eyes, as if to say, "ah, this guy"), while he himself specializes in daytime Madrid.  Soon, little Goofy's grabbing my arm and leading me inside the kitchen for a photo op, he's handing me a pamphlet with the recipe for cocida, Carlos is taking a picture of me, Goofy, and another waiter, and Goofy's getting one of me and Carlos.

As I'm finally about to leave, already mesmerized by their hospitable energy and my sudden transformation from con-artist to celebrity, Goofy asks me to hold on because he wants to give me a gift.  I have no idea what to expect, but soon he comes running back with an adorable clay souvenir from the restaurant just for me.  We exchange a few more words (not many spoken or understood by me), then I thanked everyone profusely and finally made my exit, unable to stop grinning for a full ten minutes as I walked down the street feeling like a magician that turns nightmares into dreams.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

El Escorial & Holy Toledo!

On Sunday we visited El Escorial, the complex situated 30 miles from Madrid built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid-sixteenth century.  El Escorial is all of a royal mausoleum, a basilica, a monastery, and a palace. 

Before making it to the complex, we stopped for paella, and enjoyed lunch so much that we ended up having to rush to make it into El Escorial before they stopped selling tickets for the day!

Unfortunately we were unable to take pictures inside, but it really was a spectacular space containing royal sleeping quarters, curated gardens, an extensive art collection (we learned later that many of the best paintings in the Prado spent time at El Escorial under the King's approving eye), and most impressive of all was the King's Pantheon, which contains two dozen marble sepulchers where the kings of queens of Spain have been laid to rest.  Apparently there's a long waiting process to be accepted into the pantheon, not to mention the fact that they are almost out of room.  Before long they'll have to fashion a golden "No Vacancy" sign to hang on the door.


Later in the week we managed to meet up in Toledo (after taking different trains due to ticket/timing issues) to see the old capital and all of its art.  Toledo is still considered to be the religious capital of Spain, and is historically very accepting of all religions, supporting not only Christians but also people of Jewish and Muslim belief through the religious turmoil and persecution of the centuries.  It is thought that our phrase "Holy Toledo" comes from Spanish immigrants to America who used to make the exclamation in reference to their most holiest of cities.  This first photo is just the train station (imagine!), and the following one is the Museo de S. Cruz.

Within the museum there was a large collection of El Greco paintings, with this one of the Immaculate Conception being the most spectacular.  As it was his latest work, it is thought to be a culmination of his most particular techniques, including the elongation, vibrancy, and movement of figures, the transition between heaven and earth, and the intense emotionalism and spirituality exuded by Mary and the angels.

There was also an exhibit of pottery from various regions in Spain, so I "window shopped" my way through, and of course my favorite style was the most expensive, from Toledo.  Later, in an authentic, non-touristy store, I found a tiny bowl in this style that cost 100 euro.  It must be dipped in unicorn tears.

The cathedral was splendid, with incredible craftsmanship and expensive, ornate details.  I walked around the interior for a full five minutes with my jaw open before I could compose myself and actually read about it.  One interesting thing we learned is that cardinal's red hats hang above their graves until they "disintegrate".  It seemed tacky seeing these tattered red hats hanging all over the cathedral but at least they had a rational!  The choir had three levels of incredibly ornate narrative carvings and the four-story altar seemed to be entirely covered in gold.  One of the greatest perks was stumbling upon the "mini Prado" inside the sacristy that included works by Goya, El Greco, Velázquez, and Caravaggio. 

Here's one last shot of Toledo, with me and Shawn in front of the Alcázar, the city's fortress.