Saturday, October 29, 2016

Suite 108 Book Club


Eleven years ago Brittany and I started UCSD by being assigned Suite 108 in Harlan Hall.   With it, we inherited a lovely bunch of girlfriends, with most of whom we're still in touch.  Several of us live in the Bay Area (two of us in the same apartment), but Amanda lives in Chicago and Kristen, in North Carolina.  Weddings, birthdays, vacations: we find meaningful ways to bridge distances and still see each other often.

Earlier this year, Brittany put a book club into motion between the six of us, effectively making us even closer, as we now periodically meet over video calls to catch up and discuss our latest selection.  

Somehow, the stars aligned in late September, and one Saturday while Kristen was in the bay for a friend's wedding, Amanda was flying through SFO with a 3-hour layover.  So we took advantage of the opportunity, and Brittany and I hosted our first-ever in-person Book Club!

Kristen's husband Daniel was our special guest (we should've made him read the book too!), and surprisingly, we spent most of the short time we had altogether actually talking about the book (you should read it: Homegoing), and the rest of it catching up on life and marveling that we were all in the same place at the same time.  If only for an hour and a half, it was pretty spectacular to have that time together!

Not much has changed since Harlan Hall!

We're still reading but now there's wine involved. 

If you're not in a book club, I highly recommend starting one.  I used to be intimidated for some reason, but it's an amazing way to keep in touch with old friends in a meaningful way.  Plus, we have way too much fun!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lighting Up France with Letizia

After Sardinia, I made my way to France to stay with Letizia, who became a dear friend after sharing an apartment in Siena together for just two months, now more than six years ago.

Getting to Letizia

The best things in life aren't easy.  My flight to Paris was delayed, meaning I would miss my train connecting me to Angers, the town about 1.5 hours outside of Paris where Letizia lived.  I didn't have an international phone plan, but was able to coordinate with Leti over wifi from the airport in Sardinia.  It was learned that the last train option for the day, which I had only a slight chance of making, left not from Charles de Gaulle airport, but from Montparnasse station in the middle of the city, close to an hour away.  I figured it was worth a shot, and if I didn't make it, I'd get a hotel and try again in the morning.

So I made it through the delayed flight, not-so-patiently waited for my luggage to come around, and hurriedly lugged my bags through the rainy pathways of the airport to the metro station.  I had gotten my bags at about 8:15, and the train was to leave at 9:27.  The ticket lady helped me with which train I needed to get on to make my way to Montparnasse, handed me a train map, and off I dashed.  Once on the train, surrounded by my bags, I diligently studied the map, comprehending that I would actually need to change lines to make it to the right station.  

At my connecting station, kind gentlemen helped me lift and lower my overweight bags as I navigated the stairs.  The train came immediately and I realized I might actually have a chance.  I made it to Montparnasse with time to spare and was feeling so ecstatic that I started to calm down.  I hummed a little ditty on the escalator.  I walked.  Once at the ticket machine, at about 9:19, I realized that I had mistaken the time of the train and it was actually a few minutes earlier, at 9:23.  Suddenly, I was down to the wire again.  I grabbed my ticket and my bags and rushed to the center of the station to check the monitors for which platform I needed.  There were so many different screens and types of trains in that huge station-I couldn't figure it out.  I almost started to cry, not able to believe I'd gotten that close and would still miss the train.

I collected myself, asked a man near me for help, and realized I needed to run all the way to platform three.  I barely said merci as I fled madly towards the platform, now with only two and a half minutes left and tons of passengers blocking my way.  I made it to the platform only to find two men closing a gate.  It turns out that the platform actually closes two minutes before the train is set to depart!  I refused to break stride and desperately cried "Nooooo!"  The men were so shocked by my behavior that they opened the gate and allowed me onto the train.

They gestured me to the first available cabin, which turned out to be first class.  Not caring, I dumped myself, gasping for breath, in the first seat I could find.  I couldn't believe I'd made it!  It was a crowning achievement.  Of course, I didn't really have a way to let Letizia know my status.  I decided to just try turning on data, got her for two useless seconds, and then lost her in a tunnel that lasted another half hour.  Finally, I was able to get her on the phone again and reassure her that we actually would see each other that night, after four years and one terribly stressful evening of travel.  There were lots of squeals and hugs at the station, to be sure.


Her apartment in Angers was very cute, especially the little garden out back where we ate breakfast the next morning!

Bicycling along the Loire River
Our first day together we packed a picnic, rented bikes, and rode along the Loire, stopping to take in the sights and chat with the locals.  We rode through Bouchemaine, continued on to Savennières, and made a final stop on the tiny island of Béhuard.  I have no idea how far we biked, but it's safe to say our booties were feeling it after just half an hour.

The theme of the day was the kindness of strangers, which we encountered time and again. 

We stopped to eat in front of this house in Bouchemaine with a lovely view over the river.  The kind, basket-weaving home-owner arrived while we were lunching, and offered us freshly picked pears and peaches from the orchard, in the case that we had forgotten dessert. 

Next, we stopped by a gentleman's hall where they play a version of bocce ball specific to that region, with a curved court and balls that aren't quite round.  It was just Letizia and me, watching a dozen old Frenchmen kick balls around, learning what we could from them about the history and strategy of the game.  I couldn't help but wonder what their wives were left to do all day while they were ballin'.

We found a calligrapher around the corner, who allowed us to practice her technique of dipping slate in paint to create designs.  Letizia still has our creation!  (This lady was better at art than personal hygiene-it was painful to lean in too close.)

It was warm that day, and many of the paths are narrow.  We exhausted ourselves along the journey but were excited to see more, so we pressed on!

In Savennières, we stopped at Château des Vaults for a self-guided tour of the grounds and a free wine tasting.

For our final stop, we cruised over to the island of Béhuard, which was incredibly picturesque:

This al fresco church on the island was a highlight of the day.  I've never been to one!  Surrounded by trees that form the impression of architecture, and leading up to such a towering altar, we felt we were on sacred ground. So peaceful!

Around Angers

We spent most evenings and one morning around Angers.  One of the funniest moments of the trip happened in this cheese shop.  For weeks before and the entire week I was there Letizia had been dedicated to this metabolism diet where she could only eat certain things each day, and definitely no cheese.  She was so diligent all week, offering me pastries and watching me drink wine while she refused to partake.  Fast forward to this cheese case, where we perused the options, and noticing sample squares, I grabbed a toothpick and popped one in my mouth.  Letizia excitedly followed suit, and as if in slow motion, my eyes grew wide and I started stuttering objections until she realized her grave mistake and spat it out.  It was if she had entered an alternate universe where cheese was allowed and had no recollection of her diet.  We almost died laughing.

I got to meet several of Letizia's friends at an aperitif one evening, both French and Italian, and I also finally got to meet her boyfriend Olivier, who generously had us over for dinner another night.  He's not just into cooking, but presentation.  The ratatouille was cylindrical, and check out that appetizer!  They met through photography, and you'll see a few film photos from them integrated into this post.

The city was gearing up for Angers' annual festival while I was there, and art installations were popping up everywhere-a huge painted dragon along the banks of the river; real boats created to look like they were folded up newspapers; performance art with people the world over parading around in their handmade vehicles (very Mad Max).  It was fun to see the modern images against the back-splash of the old city.

Steak time

Château de Serrant

Letizia, Olivier, and I visited a nearby chateau one afternoon.  The most notable features were the unique copper cookware, an exquisitely detailed piece of wooden furniture with dozens of secret compartments of which there exist only a handful in the world, and the dressing room, which the Queen of England used when once she stayed at the chateau.  We loved imagining preparing for an outing in the beautiful, brightly lit corner room!

We may have enjoyed our photo shoot on the grounds with the leaves and chickens more than anything else!


Another day, we intended to visit the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud (a nearby abbey), but we messed up the public transportation and it turned out it wasn't possible that day.  Instead, we ended up in Saumur, exploring, shopping, and snacking, which turned out to be perfect, really. 

 I can't underscore how much I regretted that luscious cheese later

Indoor equestrian center-
Saumur is famous for its equestrian school

More glutinous goodies


Being fortunate enough to have been to Paris several times before, I didn't feel like I had to visit any specific attractions.  Instead, we wandered the city, starting at the Orangerie Museum (built to display Monet's Water Lilies cycle), lounging in several city parks I'd never visited, shopping a bit, and finally ending up in romantic Montmarte for dinner. 

Monet & me

Asian tourist attack (that's me, in the middle)

Feeling that my last supper with her in France was getting too somber, Leti decided to lighten things up. Literally.  Her napkin caught the flame of the candle while in her hands!  She started hooting and hollering, and before I could be helpful in any way, the proprietor told her to drop it on the tile, and as ash swirled and Letizia flitted about, I figured I could be most helpful by documenting the incident.

The evidence

So many ecstatic hellos followed by inevitably tearful goodbyes.  The next morning it was time for me to head to the airport, and say au revoir to Letizia.  Our time together was marked by our usual philosophical conversations about life balanced by uncontrollable, infectious laughter.  And while I was there, Letizia was offered her first real job!  It made the week that much more special, getting to share that high with her. 

Thank you, Leti, for putting so much into my visit and as always, being the best company!  Can't wait to see you next.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Gavina + Tino

Before my trip to Italy, I told people I was going to an Italian wedding, but now after having experienced it, I feel obliged to say I attended a Sardinian wedding.  The traditions were so unique to their region, even their small area, that Italians from other regions in attendance were surprised by much of what transpired.  So much so, that I felt I wasn't the only "foreigner" at the festivities!  

La Serenata

The night before the wedding we were told there would be la serenata, or the serenade.  This simply meant that the groom was meant to come to the bride's house and serenade her.  But we didn't know when Tino would show up, or if he would at all.  So a lot of the evening ended up being an act.  We had an aperitivo in the small piazza outside Gavina's parents' house, enjoying more homemade pancetta and sausage, as well as local cheese, until at a certain point Tino came by to pluck the men in our group and take them to a mystery location.  None of the details were disclosed to the women.

All the ladies!

We continued to enjoy the evening outside, playing with Teresa and musing about what they might be planning.  We didn't talk it up too much, as elements of la seranata seemed to be generally unspoken.  Gavina's mom and aunt came out to ask if we were still hungry, to which we of course replied no, so they brought out a huge pot of steaming mussels (just like that) that we ate right from the shells with our teeth.

It was already ten at night and we were starting to grow tired.  Knowing that Gavina would need to be up early to prepare for the wedding, we played our part in the charade and bid her buona notte, with still no sign of Tino or his musical inclinations.  I say this as if I was cognizant of the game, but I returned to our house sour and disappointed that this element of tradition I was so looking forward to wasn't going to happen.  "It's just part of the game!" the girls told me.  "He's still coming!"  Oh.  Okay then.

And just a few minutes later, he did.  We peaked our heads out the door and saw Tino silently strutting down the street, followed by his and our guy friends, and then half the town.  It reminded me of that scene at the end of Love Actually, when Colin Firth walks through the old town followed by dozens of Portuguese people spreading rumors of his intentions as he's led to the beautiful young woman with whom he's fallen in love.  We quickly joined the crowd, hushed but ablaze with a charged, excited energy, making our way around the corner to Tino's beloved.

Tino didn't recognize himself as much of a singer, so he enlisted the help of a male quartet to sang on his behalf.  We all gathered in the piazza outside of Gavina's parents' two-story house as their harmonic voices broke the still of the starry night, carrying the old-world, melancholic melodies of love up to Gavina's ears.  After a couple of minutes, the doors off the balcony opened, and Gavina emerged, her hands clasped over her face in emotion.  She looked down at her betrothed, the most authentic Romeo and Juliette moment I could have imagined (did I mention they have two ducks in their backyard named after those Shakespearean characters?).  The warmth of the night couldn't stop the chills going through our bodies, causing us to marvel at the beauty of the moment, the gift of love, and our gratitude at getting to be a part of it all.

Gavina soon descended and joined Tino in the middle of the quartet as they continued the serenade.  After the main program concluded, the party was just getting started as we passed out beer and wine to the dozens of people in the piazza, and even Tino began to sing.  It was such a pure, lovely evening!

Soon, we all headed to bed for our beauty sleep!

Il Matrimonio

Up bright and early the next day, we were amidst a a flurry of preparations.  We couldn't wait for the moment we'd see Gavina in her dress, which she only described as custom-made and non-traditional.  We were almost expecting a colorful, classic Sardinian-style dress, but then she emerged in this beautiful gown:

We were all gathering once again in the piazza, waiting, as had become our custom, for Tino to show up.  Gavina told me that not only was his outfit a surprise, but she also didn't know how he would be picking her up.  The mystery was another part of the tradition.  He could've shown up on a vespa, riding a horse, who knew!  The suspense was about to kill us when we finally started to hear a distant sporadic horn, and the cacophony of cans.  Tino came tearing around the corner in a classic, orange, VW bus, honking his horn as a gorilla would beat his chest. 

He had decorated the van with white tulle, Gavina's favorite sunflowers, and stickers of their family. 

After some breakfast treats at the house, we all piled into our cars, and then leaning generously and melodically on our horns, we began the caravan to the church.  The ceremony was very traditional, with a beautiful chorus and interspersed exclamations from Teresa.

Teresa, celebrating what she thought was her wedding

As Mr. and Mrs. emerged from the church, we were eagerly waiting with confetti canons and handfuls of grain and rice.  This magical moment of pure joy was the highlight of all the celebrations:

I quickly learned that breaking plates was meant to bring good fortune, when Gavina's mother, after no pomp and circumstance spontaneously (from my perspective) launched a plate onto a rock, smashing it to pieces and startling the guests into cheers.

We took a few minutes as the crowd was dispersing for a group photo shoot in front of one of the historical stone towers, common throughout the island. 

Azzurra and me, reunited after too many years!

Our Sardinian household

After a quick stop back at the house for a quick brindisi, or toast, we headed on to Castelsardo for lunch.

Il Pranzo

Me, Gavina, and Azzurra

The wedding meal was phenomenal.  Nine appetizers.  Handmade pasta.  Porcetto cooked in mirto liquor.  There was even a palette cleanser of lemon sorbet between the second courses!  After each course half the guests would rise to go outside for a smoke, and most of the others would follow because any calorie burned walking meant a few extra you could eat back at the table.

The restaurant, perched atop a hill overlooking the old town of Castelsardo, was breathtaking; 180 degree views of the sea, and the bluest of skies.  

Perhaps the most striking part of the experience was the ruckus!  You could barely get a bite and a sip of wine in before someone would start another chant, another song, another crazy, table-banging, uproar.  Some people literally had to pick their wine up to keep it from toppling over.  They broke a table, for goodness' sake.  But, oh, was it fun

And that's not even to speak of the plate-breaking.  To bring good fortune to the couple and I imagine good fun to themselves, the guys would hit their plates so hard on the table during the hubbub that they would crumble to pieces.  They broke so many plates that the bride eventually told the wait staff to cut them off.  When plastic plates were presented to the culprits, they proceeded to rip those in half as well.  I wonder, does that bring the same level of luck?

Note the broken plate, still covered in food

Joining in the chants and songs

The afternoon continued so leisurely, everyone enjoying the food, wine, and company, alternating between the bar inside and the terrace outside.

Me with Nicola, the brother of my friend Giacomo,
who just happened to be at Gavina's wedding!

Past the tipsy point

Gavina was such a beautiful, joyful bride.  She just wanted to enjoy the day, and she certainly did!  Not worrying about details, smiling and singing, relaxing on the patio with her guests after lunch.  It was an inspiration to remember what a wedding should be all about.

Il Giro di Castelsardo

After leaving the restaurant, we decided to make a pit stop in Castelsardo before heading to the discotheque for the dancing part of the evening.

There were a dozen of us, all Gavina's out-of-town friends, unsteadily rushing up the cobblestone lanes, trying to get to the top in time for sunset.  We must've looked crazy, asking every old lady on the corner how to find the best view.

We caught the tail-end of it, and marveled over the gorgeous moment with new friends in such a stunning setting.

La Discotecca

The highlights of the late-night part of the evening were dancing to 50 Special as a group, and then witnessing the shocking tradition of the groom's striptease!  Although I have to say, it does seem fair that there's a sexy counter-tradition to the garter removal.

La Sposareddu

The next day, we headed to a house in the country to gather again as a group, recount the wedding, and eat the leftovers!  It was a good chance to say goodbye as many made their way to the airport.

There were so many magical moments over the course of the weekend where I simply couldn't believe my luck at having met these wonderful people nine years ago and putting into motion so many wonderful experiences, including my attendance at this wedding.  A lot of what I experienced there can't adequately be conveyed in writing, or even in English.  I was not only reconciled with my friends, with the land, cultures, and food that I love, but also with the me that I am when I'm there, when I'm in Italian.  I had missed and still do miss her.

A huge thank you to Gavina, who made good on her promise from eight years ago that she would invite me to her Sardinian wedding once she found a groom.  Saluti!  It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Now here's hoping another one of my Italian friends will follow suit.  I can't wait to see what the other regions' weddings are like!