Tag Archives: Italy

Writing about food

grandpa-typewriter

I still have Grandpa Art’s typewriter.

My grandfather kept a small manual typewriter with him when he traveled so he could keep in touch with family and friends. He hunted and pecked his way through many long, detailed letters describing the places he visited, the people he met and the meals he ate as he and my grandmother spent their retirement years roaming around the U.S. in an Airstream trailer holding most of their worldly possessions.

I never understood why he spent so much time describing the food, much of which he enjoyed at low-budget buffets (Luby’s was a favorite).

I finally get it.

From the moment Dan and I started our long-dreamed-of sabbatical, I kept my own copious notes about what we were eating. Sometimes I’d even snap a picture.

At first I thought this was just a new iteration of my naturally compulsive side. Without the burden of overwhelming “to do” lists for work and home, my brain needed something to grab onto as I eased into a more relaxed state of being.

It wasn’t until we hit our fifth country and eighth city in 18 days that I realized why I needed to remember the food: It triggers the memories of everything else.

Pretzel, Salzburg

Pretzels on the patio cafe at Panorama Restaurant at the Salzburg Fortress in Austria.

When I remember the food, I remember the feelings. The giddy sense of freedom as we enjoyed pretzels and beer on the patio of a restaurant with breathtaking views of the Alps. The sheer joy of shared discovery when we stumbled upon a restaurant with an innovative menu and a quiet outdoor table sheltered from the noisy city street by a natural wall of shrubbery. Feeling that the whole town was celebrating with us as we emerged from a special-occasion dinner within the tunnel wall of an ancient stone city to find that an evening street fair had erupted while we were eating.

Even the less magical meals — the night we ate hamburgers at the hotel because we were simply exhausted, the disappointing minestrone soup — carry memories I cherish for the lessons they taught me. Extraordinary days usually just happen; it is the serendipitous nature of an unexpected experience that makes these moments so special. Ordinary days have their own, quieter purpose: a chance to rest from the constant stimulation of newness. Time to process and be grateful.

For two months, Dan and I explored walled cities and majestic churches. We saw expansive bridges and imposing castles, swollen rivers and lush farmlands. We absorbed heartbreaking stories at a number of historical sites. And we rarely ate a meal in the same place twice.

Now that we have returned home, people often ask me, “What was your favorite place?” “What was tour favorite meal?”

Every place. Every meal.

Yoghurt with creuseli

Yoghurt me cruesli at Staalmeesters in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Grilled mackerel

Mackerel grilled over an open flame at the Fränkisches Bierfest (Franconian Beer Festival) held in the moat of the castle in Nürnberg, Germany.

World Cup sandwich

A World Cup-inspired sandwich at the train station in Nürnberg, Germany.

Pizza vegetariana

Pizza Vegetariana at Pizzeria il Fondaccio in Castellina in Chianti, Italy.

Vegetable au gratin with pecorino

Vegetable au gratin with pecorino at La Bottega di Giovannino, Radda in Chianti, Italy.

IMG_0033

Cappuccino at Hotel Milano in Verona, Italy.

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Dependence and independence

lone-tree-lilliana

Castellina in Chianti, Italy – It’s been great for Dan and me to have so much time together during this sabbatical. Our jobs and lives at home keep us very separate. Like many couples our age, we often share the same space and time but not the same experiences.

During four weeks of absolute togetherness, we’ve had a few moments of fatigue-induced crabbiness (mostly mine). But for the most part our time together has been cozy, collaborative and comfortable. We’ve rediscovered what good friends and easy travel companions we are. I’ve come to rely on our shared troubleshooting of common inconveniences and errors.

On Monday, I decided to reassert my independence. We needed groceries. Dan was happily settled on the couch with a book. I was restless and eager to fly solo for awhile.

Going for groceries may not seem like a big deal, but it is when you’ve never driven an Italian car in Italy.

FiatOur Fiat rental car (or van, really—it seats seven so we can accommodate shifts of guests we are expecting soon) is a lot bigger and boxier than most of the cars we see on local roads. And the roads are much narrower than what we’re used to in the greater-Phoenix area.

Ancient stone walls on both sides of many city center roads feel like they’re closing in on you. Then a delivery truck or (even scarier) an enormous tourist bus starts charging your way from the other direction.

Don’t even get me started on the challenges of parking an oversize vehicle in spaces better suited to Smart cars. And then there are the hazards of distracted pedestrian tourists, local residents darting in and out on bicycles and motorcycles/scooters following no apparent rules of engagement.

I’ve read a lot of stereotyped descriptions of Italian drivers (who are often accused of hyper-aggressive driving and chronic tailgating) but I prefer to look through the same lens as Joseph F. Lomax: “People who say Italians do not know how to drive are measuring them by the wrong yardstick.” Italians are skilled, attentive drivers. It’s their very confidence that makes you realize how scared and uncertain you are.

I knew all of this before I even tried to drive our rental car because I watched Dan do it first. I saw his white knuckles and heard his colorful language as we tried to navigate our way from Milan to Lake Como without a map or GPS. (The rental car agent skipped a few steps while explaining how easy it was to get there.)

And there’s one more thing: The Fiat has manual transmission, which neither of us has driven in, well, close to 30 years. And it has an unbelievably finicky clutch. This was confirmed by John Genzale, a writer and friend who lives in Como. John graciously agreed to do the driving when we visited so we could enjoy the views–and probably because he saw how freaked out we were.

When I decided to take the car out for the first time I wanted to do it alone. I didn’t want anyone watching me or telling me what to do or try (like I’d been doing to Dan). And I certainly didn’t want anyone I knew within earshot if I got myself in trouble.

I learned to drive a stick shift at age 22, when I bought my very first car as a newly employed reporter for The Pacific Daily New on Guam. I paid my deposit, got the keys for my brand new white Honda Civic and sat down in the driver’s seat. I panicked when I saw the four-on-the-floor gear shift. I looked at the salesman sheepishly. He gave me a very quick description of what to do and I was on my own. The dealership was at sea level; my apartment was at the top of a very high hill in Agana. Motivated by a strong desire to keep my life, my job and my new car, I very quickly figured out the “feel” of the clutch and the gear shift.

I was no less motivated to reach an understanding with this Fiat. I went outside, started the car and…couldn’t remember how to put it in reverse. I struggled for several minutes before swallowing my pride and heading back to the house to ask Dan to explain it.

Back in the driver’s seat, I backed up and pulled forward to ease down the rutted gravel road leading from our villa to the road below. I crept slowly and carefully into town, allowing everyone behind me to pass. I made it to the store, managed to park, bought groceries and headed home.

The road leading to our villa pops out of nowhere after a hairpin turn. I made a sharp right turn, crossed a narrow bridge that doesn’t look anywhere near wide enough to accommodate a mini-van and experienced an elated sense of accomplishment I haven’t felt in a very long time.

“That was fun!” I declared, a bit over-confidently, as I walked into the kitchen with our groceries.

“Good!” said Dan, an intelligent and easygoing guy whose sense of self-esteem is largely driven by the satisfaction he feels in solving problems–his own and those facing his litigation clients. “You’re in charge of the driving.”

bridge-to-lilliana

 

Sabbatical

tuscany-lavendarYesterday my husband and I ended a 23-day dash around Europe. Today we begin a quieter four weeks in the Tuscan countryside, nine kilometers north of Siena, Italy.

So where to begin? We committed to this sabbatical two years ago. Preparations for it were exhausting, expensive and often overwhelming. Dan and I both have demanding work lives and tasks that had to be taught and delegated to others. We have a home, a cat, bills that must still be paid and concerns about aging parents.

Our plan was probably too ambitious. But here we are. Thanks to the generous and insightful planning of earlier partners at Dan’s law firm who recognized the value of regenerative time, we are on sabbatical: two months of time to travel, think, read, write, experience, enjoy and celebrate.

I have been taking hundreds of pictures and furiously scribbling notes in the Italian leather travel journal my sons David and Andy gave to me for Mother’s Day this year. (“They know their mother well,” my husband said when it arrived in the mail.) Any time we had a few hours on a train, I’d pull out my laptop and pound the keyboard. I didn’t want to forget a thing–not one meal, not one scenic vista, not one exciting revelation.

Now it is time to process: to absorb, reflect upon, appreciate and enjoy again the experiences of the past few weeks. And to gently step into the new adventures this beautiful Italian countryside has to offer.

Before we went to bed last night, Dan and I were relaxing in an upstairs room the first of our guests (my cousin’s daughter Andrea, 23, and her friend Lauryn, 21) immediately dubbed “the wi-fi room.” Dan was catching up on some reading and I was emailing family members when a huge wasp flew in through one of the screen-less windows.

It couldn’t figure out how to escape. It would buzz angrily, then pause for a bit of rest. It kept setting its sights too high–aiming for the ceiling instead of recalibrating its flight back toward any of several large open windows.

So many obvious escapes. So little satisfaction from pounding relentlessly into a hard brick ceiling and ancient wood beams.

There was nothing Dan or I could do. We didn’t want to risk getting stung by trying to ease the wasp toward an opening. Eventually we went to bed, closing our bedroom door against the sound of its frustration.

This morning, as I tiptoed down the red-tiled stairway to the kitchen, I found the wasp, dead, on one of the steps. It had exhausted itself.

I made some coffee and enjoyed my breakfast — hazelnut biscotti, a ripe banana, some sunflower and pumpkin seeds. A gentle breeze and the whispers of tall, swaying pines just outside the kitchen door drew me to the patio, where I discovered a giant patch of lavender. Dozens of bees buzzed happily around it, doing work they know in a place they love. Just enough work.