Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations
5 comments

Italy Roundtable: Lost at the Table

Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable has grown over the past month! Along with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria, we welcome new member Michelle Fabio from the wonderful Bleeding Espresso blog to explore this month’s theme: lost in translation. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

ibr1

I’m not sure how it came up. We may have been talking about childhood memories, or maybe some American movie, or maybe just our favorite foods from growing up. But for whatever reason, I started describing to my children -bicultural but 90% Italian in matters concerning the palate – that perennial favorite: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

I watched as their expressions shifted from mild interest to disbelief to outright disgust as I described the bright orange powder which, when mixed with milk, butter, and slightly overcooked elbow pasta, would transform through some sort of gastronomic alchemy into what was, in the 1970s, our hands-down favorite meal and one of the pillars of our household cuisine.

“Wait, what? It was dried, powdered chemical cheese?!? And you ate it?” my children cried in horror. And then, “So if you ate that and you’re fine, why can’t we have Coke?”

It seems odd, but I had never really thought about some of my favorite and, admittedly, slightly disgusting favorite dishes from growing up during what was probably the lowest moment for American cuisine. They had gradually faded from my memory over the distance decades and oceans, and it was only during what quickly become one of my children’s favorite topics of dinnertime conversation that I revisited these dishes.

Over the next few weeks, a myriad of nostalgic favorites were discussed, to the growing incredulity of my children. What was served at home and school in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was as odd and gastronomically untranslatable to two Italian children growing up in the Umbrian countryside in the 21st century as molecular cuisine or whatever tube worms eat in the depths of the ocean.

What were the foods – and I use the word “food” loosely – that left them most awed and amazed?

Chili Mac. This was the logical segue after Kraft Mac & Cheese (with a slight, longing detour past Hamburger Helper), and my kids were slightly less scandalized by this, as they have had chili with more or less success. Of course, the chili that they have had is my homemade black bean chili with chipotle and fresh lime which simmers on the stove for the better part of a day. The chili my mother used was made by Hormel and simmered on the stove for exactly 30 seconds before being tossed with overdone macaroni (was there any other pasta shape in the Midwest in 1981?) and served up to much enthusiasm. Had I had the audacity to bring up canned chili, I could have also mentioned Spaghettios and Chef Boyardee Ravioli, but they can’t handle the truth.

The whole genre of orange processed cheeses. Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Kraft Singles. America has invented many wonderful things, but I venture that our eponymous cheese is not one of them. I’ve never been a big fan of American cheese, so understood my sons’ perplexed looks while I described the disconcerting color, rubbery texture, and chemical aftertaste. Cheese is our family Esperanto, apparently. That said, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the public library on Saturday and then afterwards stopping at the Peter Pan Diner for a grilled cheese sandwich…and you can bet your bottom dollar that it was made with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and fried up in margarine. Best lunch ever.

Jello. I have vague memories of opening up the kitchen cabinet and seeing a number of those small boxes neatly stacked in a variety of flavors. We were big jello fans at our house, and jiggly trays would be prepared and then cut into ice-cube sized squares to be popped into the mouth directly from the fridge all afternoon long. Try explaining to a 10 and 13 year old Italian kid that merenda was squares of acid-colored sweet gelatin flavored with artificial fruit flavors. Yeah, it doesn’t really translate that well. Throw in canned mandarin orange slices and marshmallows, and they were backing away from the table at just the thought. But boy did I love that when I was seven. (Also: Jello instant pudding in the similar little boxes. This did not gross the kids out as much, as there is instant budino here. Which they refuse to eat. But they’ve seen it.)

Sloppy Joes. I went into a long explanation of the singular delight that is the Sloppy Joe, and when I finished there was a long silence. Then, “So, what you’re saying is that it’s ragu served on a hamburger bun?” Yeah. Exactly. I’d never really thought of it like that, but yes. They were totally on board with the Sloppy Joe, and I have promised to make it for them some day. Because, you know, they’re two boys. And Sloppy Joes are, well, sloppy. Which is pretty much the attraction there, because otherwise it’s really nothing more than ragu sauce on a bun, you big dummy.

Corn dogs. No one is quibbling about the deliciousness that is the corn dog on a stick. Really, any food on a stick is pretty much the bomb, but the corn dog reigns supreme in pure State Fair joyousness. And yet. Try to explain the corn dog concept to anyone who hasn’t had a chance to actually taste one at an age too young to ask too many questions and you are bound to get Prince-at-the-2015-Grammys shade tossed your way. My kids are off and on about hot dogs (though hamburgers are always a win), and meh about cornbread. So the combination didn’t really sway them, though the concept of it being served on a stick gave them pause. Every once in awhile, just for laughs, they’ll randomly ask me to describe a corn dog again. And I have to admit, the more I talk about it the more I realize that it is kind of weird. But I hear that pretty much everything is battered and fried and served on a stick these days, so corn dogs have become the Atari of fair foods.

Tater tots. One bite of tater tots and they would burn their Italian passports. That is all. You think your favorite school lunch day was Sloppy Joe Day, but that’s because you forgot about Tater Tot Day. The day of the week we all lived for. I haven’t actually eaten a tater tot in probably 30 years, but I was able to perfectly describe the crunchy fried outer layer, lightly dusted in salt, which would be cracked open to reveal the steaming soft totness within. And, as a close cousin to the universally beloved french fry, (so deeply part of our cultural roots that when those rats in France had the audacity to justly question our invasion of Iraq after 9/11, we started calling them “freedom fries” because the alternative—boycotting french fries altogether—was unthinkable), my sons were easy converts.

Every so often, we open up the gastronomic Pandora’s Box and I’m able to exhume other more or less horrifying (to them)-slash-nostalgic (to me) examples (Tang.), much to our mutual enjoyment. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about highlighting the crazy differences that separate their experiences from mine, but about coming together and reveling in our shared life despite those crazy differences. Sure, food is sometimes lost in translation…but family is a something we all understand.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

3 comments

Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing

We tried. We did. We tried to quit, but we just couldn’t do it. We missed our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable date too much, so I’m back with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria to tackle this month’s theme: cha-cha-cha-changes. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.

ibr1

The Hardest Thing

I used to be a bit more starry-eyed about human nature. I used to observe humanity and see only what unites us: our common basic needs, our social nature, our love of fried foods. I would hum John Lennon and feel at one with the universe.

Now, perhaps a bit more jaded or simply realistic, I tend to see what divides us. The world seems to be cracking down the middle lately in everything from politics to pop culture, and there are less and less fences to sit on. You are either left or right, trash or high culture, vegan or paleo.

One of the divisions in human nature that has come into focus for me lately is this: there are those who need stability and those who need change. I mean, I suppose like sexuality and love of Beyoncé, it’s a spectrum, but — just like sexuality and love of Beyoncé — the vast majority of us are pretty far on one side or the other. And I have discovered, after years of thinking that I was a starter for Team Stability, that I am actually the official mascot for Team Change.

My son recently started using a guitar pick, after two years of lessons playing with his fingers. He fretted and fussed and got frustrated, and then one day picked out the first iconic notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as if he had been doing it for years. And he said to me, with the frank wisdom that is found only in 10 year olds, “It wasn’t that it was hard. I was just scared it was going to be hard. The changing isn’t hard, it’s the thinking before the changing.”

And therein lies the truth, at least for me. The hardest thing isn’t the changing, contrary to what I thought for most of my life. The changing, I have discovered, is my lifeblood. It makes me feel vibrant and courageous and purposeful and, ultimately, triumphant. The hardest thing is the standing still and thinking before the changing.

Which brings me to a Whole Bunch of Great News! Or, at least, great news for a newly-outed Change Poster Child. In our world of the Italy Roundtable, many of us have gone through big changes since we last sat down to chat – babies have been born, international moves have been made, careers have been formed – and I have some news of my own to toss into the ring.

ibr2

Brigolante Goes to Town

We are adding three new apartments on to Brigolante! We have recently taken on three pretty studio and one bedroom guest apartments in a historic palazzo right on the central Piazza del Comune in Assisi. Unfortunately, the Roundtable decided to launch before we are ready with our new website, but in the coming season we will be able to offer guests a choice between Brigolante Country here in the hills outside of Assisi and Brigolante Centro right in the heart of Assisi just steps from all the sights.

After a few years of languishing and feeling a little directionless, when the opportunity came to add new offerings and shake things up a bit, I jumped at it. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a new challenge to stimulate me and get me excited about my business (my first “baby”, born before the real babies came along) again. I’ll be announcing our news with a big website launch, but I wanted to share it with my readers in the meantime.

These apartments have terraces with a view over the piazza, quiet inner courtyards with pizza ovens and ringing churchbells, and lots of space and light. The best part is that with more guests, there’s more of an opportunity to organize activities and events…so get ready for wine tastings and pizza parties and all sorts of fun stuff in the coming months!

ibr3

Rebecca Leaves Town

Another exciting change recently was my involvement in producing a fabulous new travel series for PBS with Dream of Italy, an Italy travel newsletter that I have contributed to a few times over the years. When the editor at Dream of Italy and producer of the PBS series, Kathy McCabe, contacted me about collaborating with the production logistics, I really had to think about it. The project involved traveling for five weeks, which was a logistical challenge both for my family and professional life, and I just wasn’t sure if it was feasible.

But, like the wise boy said, it’s the thinking before the changing. In just a few days, a number of things fell into place in a way that was both serendipitous and timely and I was able to participate in this amazing adventure which took us from Piemonte to Puglia, passing through Tuscany, Umbria (of course Umbria!), Rome, and Naples and the Amalfi Coast along the way.

Dream of Italy – 2015 Teaser from Trivium Films on Vimeo.

It was hard work, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Not only did I meet some amazing people (and see old friends), but I was able to rediscover the passion and warmth that had made me fall in love with this country over 20 years ago which I had begun to lose sight of recently. The series is coming out this spring, so check your local PBS listings to watch!

Other changes? Yes, lots of them. With the fervor of the newly converted, I am giving a stiff beating to my rug of life to see what flies off into the ether and what sticks around and reveals itself to be woven into my essence. It’s taken me a long time to pull that rug up off the floor and take it into the sunshine, but once I did it I realized that it was, surprisingly, the easiest thing.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

ibr1ibr1ibr1

0 comments

Italy Roundtable: Panzanella

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a bit sluggish…blame the August heat.  Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month),  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me have to say. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some popsicles, and join in on the conversation.

ibrgraphic_large

 

August in Italy

August in Italy is hot. Hot hot. Too hot to work (which is why this post is late), too hot to sleep, and too hot to cook—much less eat–much of anything.

There is one dish that I can always stomach, no matter what the thermometer reads. No, it’s not gelato (there are days when even gelato seems a challenge) and it’s not pasta salad (though it’s a close runner-up). It’s panzanella.

Panzanella is both a quintessentially Umbrian and a quintessentially summer dish. Umbrian because it is a delicious way to use up stale bread, which appeals to the parsimonious Umbrians and their farming traditions of not letting anything go to waste, and because pretty much every cook has their own version of it, depending upon their tastes and vegetable garden. Summer because it is built around flavorful garden tomatoes, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and not much else–all ingredients that abound in these summer months—and involves not a lick of flame to make.

When the temperatures soar, make yourself a big ol’ plate of panzanella. And then take a nap in front of the fan.

panzanella-umbra-1

 

Panzanella

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Ingredients for four servings:

  • 200 grams traditional Umbrian bread (cooked in a wood oven is best), cubed
  • 3-4 ripe tomatoes (cherry tomatoes work fine, as well), chopped
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 stick of celery, sliced
  • (optional, according to taste: 1 cucumber and/or 1 carrot and/or a few leaves of romaine lettuce and/or capers and/or minced garlic and/or red or yellow sweet peppers)
  • a handful of green or black marinated olives (the good ones, people)
  • a bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • red wine vinegar
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

Cut the vinegar with the same volume of water, making enough to soak the bread cubes. Soak for about five minutes, then press out the liquid well (the cubes get a little mushed up…it’s fine.).

Mix the bread with the chopped vegetables, olives, and basil in a large salad bowl. Dress with olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Let the panzanella rest in the refrigerator for about two hours.

Yep, that’s it. Nap time.

ibrgraphic_small

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

7 comments

Italy Roundtable: Talking the Talk

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a mélange, a potpourri–a “Grab Bag”, if you will.  Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month),  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me throw into the pot. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some assorted chocolates, and join in on the conversation.

ibrgraphic_large

Grab Bag

We opened up the topic this month for pretty much anything—I think most of us are limping over the academic year finish line and the creative energy necessary to come up with a compelling topic was just too much to ask—thus shooting ourselves in the foot. Because it turns out that nothing is more paralysing than unlimited choice, as anyone who has ever spent a Saturday evening at Blockbuster Video knows.

As I was ruminating over the topic buffet stretched before me, a recent conversation I had with a fellow expat about fluency came to mind. We had been talking about when, exactly, a person could be considered fluent in a second language; we agreed that the better we spoke Italian, the more we realized how far from fluent we were. And it came to me: perhaps one of the biggest steps towards fluency can be measured not by knowing what a word or phrase means, but by knowing what it doesn’t mean.

Italian is, like many languages, vastly nuanced and often the contextual meaning of a word or phrase and the literal meaning of that word or phrase diverge dramatically. These intricate subtleties are hard to master, and when you reach that magical sweet spot of not only understanding them but employing them to shade your own conversation, it’s a small personal triumph. Here are a few of my favorites, many of which took me years to grasp. Maybe with these helpful explanations, your learning curve will be steeper than mine.

1. una ventina di giorni
What it should mean: around twenty days
What it really means: I have no frigging idea when the spare part I need to repair your deep freezer will arrive-slash-that rash will clear up-slash-your tax returns will be ready for you to come in and sign but it seems either impolite or impolitic to admit it, so I’m just going to throw a random bookmark sort of number out there to appease you, which can either turn out to be tomorrow or turn out to be the 27th of November, 2017. So don’t start calling me on day 19, because that will perplex me. Just assume a zen acceptance of the unknown. And have a glass of wine. Wine helps.
Example:
“When will my cell service be active?”
“Una ventina di giorni.”
“Ok, I’ll go have some wine.”

2. una bella signora
What it should mean: a beautiful woman
What it really means: the first Pavlovian qualifier for any human being with two x chromosomes, regardless of any other accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors which they may have racked up over their lifetime. It can also be tacked on to the end of the list of accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors, casting them into the shadow of the overpowering importance of being una bella signora.
Example:
“Jane Goodall, una bella signora, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.” Or “Jane Goodall is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. She is also una bella signora.”

3. quanto basta
What it should mean: just enough
What it really means: If you find yourself staring at the page in the cookbook where 90% of the measurements fo ingredients listed in the pollo alla cacciatora recipe have, instead of metric quantities, q.b. next to them and you are scratching your head and asking yourself, “Well, how much is just enough?”and, “If I knew how much was just enough, I wouldn’t need a frigging recipe, would I?”, give up. You are obviously not genetically predisposed to the eyeball method of cooking employed with nonchalance and mastery by most Italian cooks and if you shadow them in the kitchen trying to quantify the handfuls and pinches and Nutella jars of ingredients they are tossing into the pot, you will be good-naturedly mocked. Just get yourself invited to dinner to eat the pollo and stick to bringing brownies (the good ones from your mom’s 1973 Better Homes and Gardens) for dessert. Italians love brownies.
Example:
My neighbor’s recipe for crostata:
Flour q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, you know, cicca. Enough to make a mound.”)
Eggs q.b. (“How many is that?” “Oh, it depends on how big they are. 2. Or 4. Sometimes I put in 5.”)
Sugar q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, not too much. You don’t want it too sweet.”)
Oil q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, enough to make a dough.”)

4. Ci vediamo.
What it should mean: See you soon!
What it really means: This is not in any way an allusion to a future meeting, so don’t be whipping out your daytimer to pencil in a chit-chat. This is merely a non-committal, amicable way to part company, and does not denote a particular desire for the declarer to either see or not see you ever again. This neutral nicety is completely devoid of promise, so when weeks pass and no invite for a drink or dinner comes, do not take it personally. On the other hand, a “Prendiamo un caffè!” may indicate a nano-micro-kind-of-committment, so if fates and the winds decree that your paths serendipitously cross over the next twelve months you may actually share an espresso. Or you may not. It could go either way.
Example:
“Ci vediamo!”
“Sì, ci vediamo!”
“Who was that?”
“I have no idea.”

5. Spaghettata
What it should mean: a casual dinner among friends at which a simple pot of pasta is served
What it really means: A fabulously prepared meal of at least five courses which rivals what you served at your own wedding, during which the hostess spends the entire evening apologizing because there’s not enough food and explaining that everyone should eat up now, because there are only three desserts. And gelato. Because she makes her husband leave in the middle of the meal to pick up some gelato. And for fruit there are just strawberries. But you can have them with whipped cream or sugar and lemon juice. Unless you want them with balsamic vinegar. Do you want them with balsamic vinegar? Because they’re out of balsamic vinegar but they can just call her mother who lives next door and she probably has some, or wait, her great-aunt always has balsamic vinegar. Who wants strawberries with balsamic vinegar? Because as soon as the husband comes back with the gelato he will be sent out again for balsamic vinegar.
Example:
“Listen, Saturday night you want to come around for dinner. Just some friends, nothing special. A spaghettata. There will just be around 30 of us. I started cooking ten days ago. No big deal, really.”

ibrgraphic_small

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

3 comments

Italy Roundtable: In Memoriam

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable touches on a sticky wicket of a topic, but will surely be well played by my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel,  professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a cuppa, and join in on the conversation.

ibrgraphic_large

Women in Italy

On May 5th, 2005 I came home from dinner at a pizzeria in Assisi to find two messages on my home answering machine (remember those?). The first was from my college roommate Susan, living in Asia at the time. “Hi! Listen, give me a call when you get in, okay?” she intoned. “Huh,” I thought happily, “She must be planning a visit. Strange she’d call rather than email, though.” The second message began and I heard the strained voice of my college roommate Pam coming through the line from New York. “Sweetie, call me.”

I didn’t call. I sat and stared at the phone for a good ten minutes, until my husband said, “Well, aren’t you going to call them back?” But I couldn’t pick up that phone–not yet–because there was only one reason that both Susie and Pam would call me. And that reason was our fourth roommate, my dear friend Nina. I knew that once I picked up the phone, once I dialed those numbers, once I heard what I already knew could be only terrible news, nothing would be the same again. So I froze time for those last moments of my girlhood, and then I dialed the phone and became a woman.

I was 22 years old when I moved to Italy, convinced of so many things—first among them my adulthood. I smile now with tender affection at that girl, little more than a child, playing at being a grown-up. So brash and brave and ready to conquer the world, so proud of her adolescent wounds and scars and heartache that she carried like medals of honor into battle, sure that she had weathered the worst and earned her stripes as a woman. So unaware that of all the accoutrements of adulthood—the jobs and marriages, the children and debt—it is, ultimately, loss that pushes us over the threshold.

Nina died at 34. She collapsed on her kitchen floor while making breakfast for her husband and two daughters from a blood clot in her lung. She was one of my closest friends—we lived together for most of college, stood up for each other in our respective weddings, one of her daughters’ middle names is Rebecca—and I would give anything to have her back, all gorgeous 6 feet of her, turning heads with her black hair and red shoes. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, spoke several languages (having majored in her first love, Italian), swore like a sailor, wrote the funniest letters in the history of the English language, gave a great manicure, and viscerally loathed cats, spiders, her brothers’ ex-girlfriends, dirty houses, superficiality, and pretence.

Her death has been both my life’s worst trauma and most precious gift. It marked the beginning of my life as an adult woman, because with it came grief, of course, but also a coming of age that only a loss of that measure can bring. Nina herself had told me this, having lost her mother in a tragic car accident shortly before her wedding in 1995. In one of our long talks during those hard first months, she said, “You know, Mom’s death has made me fearless. Once the worst has happened, you suddenly feel like you have the power to face anything. It’s like I’m a grown-up all of the sudden.”

With this adult awareness there comes both power and duty. I feel the responsibility every day to live my life with double the intensity and mindfulness. I try to savor each fairytale sunset twice as long, breathe in the scent of my sons’ hair twice as deep, laugh with my girlfriends twice as loud. I have–for some inscrutable and unjust reason–been granted a life where another’s has been taken, and so mine must count twice to make some sort of sense of the senselessness.

Last week marked eight years since Nina’s death–a moment and a lifetime—and in keeping with women in Italy it seemed fitting to pay homage to her, the friend whose life inspired me to move to Italy and the friend whose death pushed me to grow into a woman. On the 5th of May this year, like each of the past eight, I wore her favorite color (red) and choked down her favorite cocktail (Blue Hawaii, a drink I find so abhorrent that the bottle of Malibu I bought in her honor has lasted eight years) and renewed the pledge I made at her graveside all those years ago: to live my life fearlessly, like a grown-up. Like a woman. Like Nina.

ibrgraphic_small

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

3 comments

Italy Roundtable: Spring in My Step

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable includes the debut of our new blogger (one of my personal favorites), the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward! Welcome aboard Kate, to this project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a power bar, and join in on the conversation.

ibrgraphic_large

Spring

So, I’d been thinking about spring, because that is our Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month. I’d also been thinking about women in Italy, for reasons that will become clear to you come the second Wednesday of May. And in the delta of these two streams of consciousness, it had come to me how much I hated the theme of spring and that perhaps I should suggest a substitute to my fellow Roundtablers. Except that one overachiever who shall remain unnamed actually WROTE HER POST three weeks ahead of time, so by the time I got around to suggesting a theme tweak it couldn’t be changed anymore.

I donned my creative cap with the word spring and, though there is a member of the Roundtable who shall remain unnamed who was really hoping for it, I couldn’t come up with any mattress spring-themed post that would be appropriate for a family show. Second on the interpretive list was “spring in my step” and what it is that puts it there when the weather turns warm. Without doubt one of the biggest sources of spring in my step is my annual spring fitness push.

With the thoughts of women in Italy that were already churning in my head, I started ruminating over the differences I’ve noticed over the years between how I (and most of my American girlfriends) approach physical fitness and as opposed to how Umbrian women (in my experience–which is confined to a small set and limited geographical area–so your mileage on my generalizations may vary) of my same age do.

First, a declaimer: I know fit American women and I know fit Umbrian women…and I also know out of shape women in both countries. Though the obesity levels in the US are over-the-top, my social group tends to be in more-or-less acceptable shape. The same is true for my Umbrian friends, who also generally eat much healthier food and have a healthier lifestyle. That said, I’ve found that how the two female cultures view exercise and sports is very different.

Pratiquante_de_haltérophilie_(CrossFit)

What They Do

Americans are more fad-dy. I can say this, because I am firmly in this category. I do not have a particular love of sports, but I do have a very strong love of food. I adore eating but abhor shopping, so to keep me in pants and the zero sum equation balanced, there’s really only one solution.

The reason that I’ve burned through so many different physical activities in the past two decades isn’t due to an ingrained love of sport but a short attention span. I find that I get bored with what I’m doing after about two years. I’ve gone through a plethora of fitness activities–swimming, aerobics, step, spinning, Pilates, kick boxing, salsa, Zumba—and am always ready to try the Next New Thing.

Umbrian women, with a few exceptions, generally concentrate on two activities: walking and “palestra”, and stick with it. I do enjoy walking, but I have come to find that walking for exercise and walking with very chatty Umbrian girlfriends do not mix. Yes, they are there ostensibly to stretch their legs, but they are mostly there to catch up on gossip and swap recipes. When I’m up for a friendly stroll, that’s cool. When I am trying to power walk off a plate of gnocchetti al Sagrantino, I’m hoofing it hard enough to pant. It is not conducive to a lot of chit chat.

Palestra, the Italian word for gym or fitness center, is the most common response when you ask an Umbrian woman what she does for exercise. This is an umbrella term covering anything from walking on the treadmill for an hour to doing a circuit on the weight machines to taking the classes offered, which can range from your standard step aerobics to yoga. Things Umbrian women rarely do in palestra, based upon my two decades of observation: 1. sweat; and 2. lift weights.

Woman_in_orange_doing_CrossFit_pull-up_(February_26_2010)

How They Do It

They rarely do n. 1 for the same reason that I find I can’t power walk with them. The average female gym-goer here does 3 minutes of actual exercise for every 17 minutes of leaning up against a machine to chit chat. So in an hour or two of “training”, there is really only about 12 minutes of actual exercise going on. They rarely do n. 2 because in the gym, as in life, Umbrian women are well turned out. They wear matching (often ironed) active wear, they come in full hair and makeup, they often take a break to head back into the locker room to pull themselves together, and they tend to choose fitness “light”…the stuff that doesn’t muss and fuss.

This is how I go to the gym: I wear a baggy-ass pair of yoga pants that has lost its drawstring, so I have to roll the top over onto itself to keep them up. I wear a Michelle Shocked concert t-shirt from 1991 that has a rip on the collar and is yellow in the pits. I come with no makeup and generally dirty hair (I figure I’m going to shower afterwards, so why bother.) And when I’m there, I work. Hard. At the weights. Again, not because I am particularly athletic but because I am 1. busy and need to pack as much action into 45 minutes as I can; 2. the biggest tightwad on earth. If I’m paying an effing gym, I’m squeezing them for all they’re worth, and 3. I like to eat. Have I mentioned the eating thing?

When I’m done, my face is beet red. My hair is plastered to my temples and I have sweat dripping from my chin. Even if I were to have the propensity to chat, I would hardly have the breath to do it. I am not attractive at the gym. Not attractive at all.

Pilates_01

And Why…

There is a big difference in my experience between the motivations behind exercise for American and Umbrian women. Almost all the Umbrian women I know exercise exclusively for esthetic purposes. To wit, to be thin. Though most American women I know have an element to esthetics in their fitness motivation, I also know many adult women who exercise primarily for sport (marathon runners are thick on the ground), for strength (Crossfitters galore), for peace of mind (meditive movement), and for competition.

I think this may go back to something I’ve talked about before: the fact that most Umbrian women I know spend an enormous amount of time on domestic chores, cooking, and generally GM-ing their families. This doesn’t leave much for activities as self-indulgent as sport for the sake of, you know, fun. It’s mostly about keeping yourself looking good so your husband is less likely to stray. Or, so you are still marketable if he does.

American women tend to put less in their domestic gratification basket and more in their personal gratification basket. My American women friends spend a significantly less amount of time at the mop and ironing board, but read and blog, or train for cross-country bike races, or follow all the subplots in Game of Thrones, or pick up Spanish. This also circles back around to What They Do: if you are only exercising to keep in shape, you’re probably fine power walking or doing aerobics three times a week. If you are coming at it from the goal of sport, competition, or simply to pick up a new skill, you’re more likely to be attracted to trying something new and, at times, trendy.

Now, of course, I’ll need to come up with something interesting to say about women in Italy for May, since I blew my idea already this month. But that’s cool. I’ll give it some thought while sweating away at the gym.

ibrgraphic_small

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

1 comments

Italy Roundtable: The Colfiorito Marshlands

We continue the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a some sunflower seeds, and join in on the conversation.

ibrgraphic_large

Mountains/Hills

In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence. Robert Lynd

I am large. When I laugh, diners at neighboring tables look up. When I gesticulate, I take out all wine glasses and candles within a three foot range. When I cook, we are eating the leftovers for days. When I am happy or sad or angry, I’m all in; there are no shades of grey. I am often called by my Italian friends “un fuoco di paglia”–a fire fed with straw, quick to flare into bright, hot flames but just a quick to cool down, damaging nothing and leaving behind only traces of cool ash.

Perhaps because of this often oversized personality, I find I am drawn more and more to silence. I spend so much time cranking up the music, and revving the engine, and cracking my kneecaps on table legs, and swimming in—drowning in—rivers and rivers of words that sometimes what I crave is to turn down the volume for a few hours and be still. Be. Still.

IMG_5039

Luckily, Umbria is filled with silent places so I rarely have to go far to find a still moment. Recently I discovered a new quiet place to head to when life (myself included) just gets too raucous: the Colfiorito marshland.

IMG_5034

By far the smallest of Umbria’s seven regional parks, this postage stamp of a natural reserve is set in the rolling Colfiorito plateau above bustling Foligno in the valley below. The undulating Apennine plain was once covered in seven small lakes, but over the millenia most were drained by nature or man, leaving only one depression which continues to hold water all year round.

IMG_5059

This has become the Colfiorito marshland, a tiny basin of standing water teeming with migratory birds and wildlife which take cover in marsh’s thick reeds and acquatic vegetation. Depending upon the season, the spot becomes a faunistic pit stop for a number of wetland fowl, including majestic grey and purple herons, bitterns, little bitterns, mallards, and shovelers. If you’re able to sit still long enough, you may also be treated to a visit by the area’s mammal life—fox, boar, or deer–as well.

IMG_5037

My thirst for stillness over the past few years has led to an interest in birdwatching, which–along with a passion for opera and a craving for whole grains–is a sure sign that I have become either a fogie or a hipster, neither of which I find particularly heartening. But given that this turn of events has led a number of interesting new hobbies, I’m not going to lose much sleep over the larger meaning and just put on my Wayfarers, load up my iPod with some arias, throw some organic trail mix into my vintage courier bag, and go.

IMG_5043

I’d been thinking a lot about the Colfiorito marshland recently since my previous favorite-place-to-be-quiet-birdwatch-and-generally-hang-out, the Alviano nature reserve in the south of the region near Lake Corbara, was damaged this past fall due to severe flooding that hit much of central Italy. Volunteers have been working to clean it up in time for the spring migration, but for the time being my thirst for stillness must be sated elsewhere.

IMG_5055

And so I head up to the hills, winding along the serpentine Val di Chienti country highway to where the road skirts the wetland, past stands along the sides of the road hawking the local potatoes and lentils, lonely farmhouses, and a hell of a lot of cyclists. I pull off and head out on foot; the park has built a number of wooden walkways, pavilions, and bird blinds for passionate birders, though it’s nice just to take a quiet turn along the path which borders the marsh. I wander, taking frequent bench breaks to oversee the take-offs and landings, watch the sun set, and listen to the silence.

IMG_5061
And be still.

ibrgraphic_small

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

3 comments

Italy Roundtable: A Drink for All Seasons

We are celebrating our second holiday season with the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, help yourself to some Christmas cookies, and join in on the conversation.

 

 

Drinking

If there’s one thing that I love, it’s reward for hard work.

If there’s one thing that I love even more, it’s reward for pretty much doing nothing at all.

Which is why one of my favourite liqueurs to make—and I make quite a number—is bay liqueur. Super simple and quick (unlike, for example, Nocino, which is a pain in the ass to make and takes roughly three years), bay liqueur is a crowd pleaser: easy on the palate, nice in the summer chilled (or, my favourite, on top of ice-cream) and excellent in the winter straight up or to spike an espresso. It comes out a pretty color, too, so present it in an elegant glass bottle with a bit of ribbon and you’ve got yourself a perfect hostess gift for the holidays.

Easy as pie. Actually, easier than pie.

Follow this monkey-proof recipe and watch the kudos pour in. It’s satisfying. Trust me.

Bay Liqueur: The Recipe. Annotated.

Okay, so the one trick to this recipe is that you must use FRESH bay leaves. I had no idea what fresh bay might look like (my previous experience with bay was  a small plastic jar of greyish, brittle leaves on my mother’s 1970’s spice rack, which I duly added to stews when following the recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) until I moved into a house in the Italian countryside with an immense bay bush growing in the front yard. And I only put into focus what type of bush it was the first time I pruned it and the intoxicating perfume of fresh bay hung over the garden for hours. (Never smelled fresh bay? It’s the most delicious scent EVEH. I have a tick every time I pass through my front yard of picking off a leaf and rubbing it between my fingers and sniffing my hand for the next hour or two. People kind of avoid me on the street, but it’s worth it.)

The good stuff. Fresh from the bush.

So, if you don’t have fresh bay don’t even bother making this recipe. I don’t know what will happen if you try to use dried bay leaves, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be good.

You’ll need:

  • 96 bay leaves (This is why you had children. Go send them out to pick the bay right now.)
  • Zest of two lemons, cut into strips
  • 1 kg plus 300 g sugar (the evil processed granulated white kind)
  • 1.5 lt water (tap is fine)
  • 1 lt alcohol (You can get 95% alcohol at the grocery store in Italy—You can’t get ibuprofen, but you can get 95% alcohol. Go figure.—but I know that isn’t true everywhere. I have friends in the States who use vodka.)

Put 66 bay leaves, the lemon zest, and the alcohol in a glass bottle, close tightly, and let it sit for 24 hours.

The next day dissolve the sugar in the water, add the remaining 30 bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for a few minutes over a low flame until the syrup takes on the bay flavour. I usually simmer for about 15 minutes.

Let the syrup cool, add the alcohol mixture, and strain it through a coffee filter into glass bottles.Cork or close tightly to store. When ready to serve, filter once more into decorative bottles (if the bottles sit for more than a few weeks there will be a bit of cloudy sediment at the bottom, which is not that pretty but does nothing to the taste.).

The main ingredients and the finished product ready to be stored.

 

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

0 comments

The Piazza: Be There and Be in the Square

We are in the second year of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, help yourself to some pumpkin seeds, and join in on the conversation.

The Piazza

Nothing is as purely and quintessentially Italian as the Piazza Experience (nothing, of course, except the Bureaucracy Experience), but as any connoisseur of sipping and/or dining and/or wooing and/or watching knows, most piazzas in Italy develop over the centuries a specific vibe and purpose. Here are five of my favorite squares in Umbria, each one for a very different reason.

Oops! You missed it.

Assisi’s Piazza del Comune could hardly be considered a hidden gem; one of the most visited hilltowns in Umbria also has one of the most trafficked piazzas. But the vast majority of travellers pass through with their eyes on their maps trying to navigate their way between the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica of Saint Claire (Little tip, folks: relax. Just follow the road straight and it will lead you directly from one to the other through the Piazza.) or on the storefronts trying to navigate their way to the nearest decent gelato (Little tip, folks: give up. The gelato in Assisi pretty much sucks. Head down to the valley and look for the Vecchia Gelateria in Santa Maria degli Angeli across the street from the big basilica. That’s what you want.).

But the gem of Assisi’s piazza is worth a pause and a ponder: the Roman Temple of Minerva, dating from the 1st century BC and flaunting a fabulous facade, the best  preserved in all of Italy.  The fluted Corinthian columns, travertine stairs, and covered portico topped by a triangular pediment is all you’ve come to expect from Roman architecture in a bite-size serving. Skip the interior, no longer a shrine dedicated to the goddess of virginity but now a Baroque Catholic chapel, and instead occupy one of the benches facing the temple across the piazza to catch your breath and admire this singular view more than 2000 years into the past.

Outside the Box

My love affair with Bevagna continues (for those of you who click through, yes, Bevagna is still in her junior year), and one of the many sites that warm the cockles of my heart in this pretty, cockle-warming town (not least the fact that it is flat) is her quirky Piazza Silvestri. In a land of square–or, at the most edgy, rectangular–piazzas, Bevagna’s irregular “square”, which has one side composed of stately straight lines, right angles, and dour unadorned Romanesque facades, and the facing half looking like someone in the 12th century was like, “Listen, guys, just toss up the church and town council however they’ll squeeze in and let’s call Miller time. Oh, and throw a little fountain in there. No, don’t worry about it being in the exact middle. Just wherever is fine.” is a refreshing departure.

Unfortunately, the piazza is surprisingly bereft of a decent cafè to sit and bask in the Romanesque and Gothic facades. So poke your nose into the churches and snap some souvenir pictures before you move on to…

Where You Are Going to Shoot Your Next Movie Set In Italy

Montefalco. Shockingly, I still haven’t gotten around to blogging much about Montefalco, which is strange because it’s probably one of my favorite—if not my favorite—places in Umbria. It’s the wine, of course. And the food, of course. But my ardor is largely based on its near perfect piazza—if by piazza you mean a place where one can pass the evening at an outside table either sipping a Spritz or eating perhaps the best meal of one’s life and/or trip and watch the sun turn the surrounding buildings a soft rose and the kids pop out of nowhere for a cute pick-up soccer match and the little old ladies stroll by arm in arm (quite probably gossiping like vipers) and the little old men stand in tight groups with sweaters draped over their shoulders gesticulating (quite possibly about the same things their wives are gossiping about), and you have this deep, wide, true feeling that you are going to remember this moment forever.

If you want to experience one of the most piazza-y piazzas of them all, head to Montefalco. And spend your time there jotting down the first draft of that film script that has been bouncing around in your head all these years. It’s going to end up being set here. You know it is.

Honorable Mentions:

Piazza with a View: Citerna. Strangely, though you get some amazing views from pretty much every hill town in Umbria very few offer a view from the main piazza. Tiny Citerna does, and some benches to enjoy it from. Good show.

People-watching: It’s a tie, and not a tie residents of either of these towns would be particularly happy with, given their long rivalry. The two principal cities in northern Umbria are Perugia and Foligno, and if you are hankering to observe the local fauna in its expensive plumage, either of these are a good choice. People in Foligno are nicer, though. But don’t tell the Perugians that I said that.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

 

5 comments

Italy Roundtable: Country Mouse, City Mouse

We are in the second year of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, pop a piece of Bazooka Joe in your mouth, and join in on the conversation.

Children

My children have recently decided that they want to relocate to America.

Now, before we waste a bunch of time and energy parsing the psychology behind this decision, or the economics behind this decision, or the sociology behind this decision, let me clarify that they regard the United States as the land of milk and honey based exclusively on the following:

  1. There is no school. (Or so they think. We always go during the holidays, so they have surmised that there must be no mandatory school in America as their cousins never seem to be attending one when we visit.).
  2. Bedtimes, discipline, and vegetables are all negotiable. (See above.).
  3. There are really cool flavors of chewing gum.

Now, when you are eight and eleven, these are more than sufficient reasons to make a big move. Come to think of it, I’ve known mature adults who have relocated based entirely on ephemera like weather or a promise of a job or a weekend fling, so I guess my kids are more rational than I give them credit for. That said, I posit that their life here in Italy is much richer and fuller and, ultimately, happier than what it would be if we were living in America.

Of course, this an impossible thesis to demonstrate with any amount of scientific credibility. I’m a big fan of chaos theory, sliding doors, and parallel universes…I realize that in a world where the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Burkina Faso may influence the corn crop six months later in Iowa, there are simply too many variables to control when comparing a theoretical life in the US with a very real one in Italy, and a couple of theoretical kids in the US with the two very real nature and nurture cocktails that call me Mom here in Italy.

That said, there are a couple of really wonderful aspects to raising kids in the Italian countryside that I have a hard time imagining ever being able to replicate in an alternative life in the US, which would have almost certainly played out in an urban area. This is because though my children have been raised as country mice, and I am a city mouse. I live in the country now and have fallen in love with the rural lifestyle in many ways, but I remain a city mouse at heart. I would have never chosen this life path had I not had a farm essentially fall into my lap—believe me, I have days when I still wonder about the great karma wheel which dropped me here—and the circumstance of ending up with a farm to run in the US seems almost unthinkably improbable.

My country mouse sons will have a chance to pick up all the fun city mouse stuff that I so identify with in the future…the dynamism, the culture, the contact with all sorts of humans different from themselves. But in the meantime they are busy cultivating a foundation that I believe will be invaluable for them in the future, as mice or men, country or city.

A relationship with food

I have become quietly more and more messianic about food and farming with time. If rural Italy has taught me one thing, it’s the important—no, vital–connection between ourselves, our food, and our planet. Part of this is because Italy is such a food (as opposed to foodie) culture, part of this is because when you run a farm you inevitably become very well versed in agropolitics, and part of this is because the more I see of the world the more I value what I have in my own backyard. I have taken care to pass these lessons on to my sons (though, honestly, it has been part and parcel of living in Umbria). They have a very immediate relationship with the food they eat, the work that is involved in raising that food, and the difference between local, fresh food and imported, commercial food. This is such an important framework on which to build a more general philosophy of environmental sensibility, healthy nutrition, and cultural conservation and I feel fortunate that they’ve been raised in a place so conducive to developing these values.

Survival skills

Ok, I’m actually not a subscriber to the apocalyptic peak oil social disintegration scenario. Mostly because that just scares the bejesus out of me. I’d like to think that we are going to miraculously pull ourselves out of this tailspin of economic and social disfunction and, worse case scenario, end up with a world something like a Jane Austen novel: no fossil fuels but horses and crackling fires and strings of hares brought in the flagstoned kitchen by strapping young men.

And guess what. My kids can be just those men. They know how to do stuff. They know how to fix stuff. They know how to make stuff. All this because they have grown up on a farm in the country, where much time and effort each day is spent doing, fixing, and making stuff. They’re not very hip, I’ll admit. They are just starting to get interested in pop culture, video games, slang, and coolness in general. But if push comes to shove, the turtlenecked iPod-listening hipsters of Brooklyn are going to be pretty much screwed while my kids will be busy bringing home the bacon (after having raised, butchered, and cured it). Anyway, I’m cool enough for the three of us.

Genius loci

I have a visceral love for Chicago, the city that formed the backdrop to most of my first 20 years on this earth, but I don’t any real connection to a specific place there. My grandmother sold her big, rambling Victorian a few years back for a modern condo, soul-less but without a roof that needed replacing and radon in the basement. None of my other relatives live in houses that are part of my past. When I go back to the city, I feel both at home and a stranger. I have no roots there.

My kids are incredibly rooted here. I will be doing my best come their 19th year to kick them out of Italy for at least a period of higher education and career development, but they will always have that elusive yet centering sense of belonging to a place that I sometimes long for. Their home is Brigolante, just like their father, their grandfather, their great-grandfather, and at least five or six generations before him. In hard times, rough waters, job loss, break-ups, sickness, suffering, solitude…they can always come home again. Not many people in our roiling, boiling, mobile America can say that—I certainly can’t–and I suspect that it gives one’s wings just that little extra bit of lift knowing that there will always be a nest to come back to.

So my sons can continue to dream of the New World and the better life they envision there. But I’ve seen the grass on both sides of the fence, and for the moment it’s greener right here where we are.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.