July 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It seems like so long ago that I was sitting outside in the middle of the Alps, eating dinner with my family, my brother and I passing goat cheese toasts over the table and poking at an eggy, over-cooked crème brulée. It seems like just yesterday that he was sitting in the back seat of the rental car complaining that he had seen enough cows, that they’re disgusting animals, that the lemon tart he was eating wasn’t as good as the ones I make, that next time, vacations should be max 2 weeks long. Now, I’m very much alone, sitting in a hotel room, windows wide open overlooking the rooftops around my building. If you just stretch your head out the window, you can see the briny, green river. Running alongside the river brings a variety of views, from picturesque old squares and cathedrals, cafés and sanwicheries, to construction sites, run-down car dealerships, and trailer parks, guarded by yippy, haggard dogs, barely tethered to the fence.
Back in the snow-dusted Alps, you could drive for miles without seeing a single house, and a village meant a cluster of buildings — perhaps six or seven — with one brasserie and, if you were lucky, a post office or pharmacy. Driving down into the valleys, we had to stop once or twice to let the cows cross the road and continue up the mountain to greener pastures. When we stopped at each cheese-making post, we might happen upon the occasional group of hikers, or a small family, with a naked toddler playing in the puddles of melted snow. The bright, crisp freshness of the mountains is now a stark contrast to the smell of seaweed stewing in the summer air.
With about a month to go, the desire to go home is popping up every so often, particularly when I’m waiting in the international terminal watching other flights board around me. When checking-in for my flight to Bordeaux in the Barcelona airport, the line of people checking-in for a United flight to New York tugged at my desire to return to North American breakfasts and dinner-sized salads. But on the plus side, being back in France, understanding everything that is going on around me for the first time in weeks, and restoring my faith in French friendliness, isn’t so bad either.
June 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
After a pretty stark experience in the countryside of the département du nord of France — dreary, wet weather and everywhere shuttered windows and closed storefronts, restaurants utterly abandoned, with only the lonely bar where one could down a petit café in the company of young boys and aging men playing fussball —, I have arrived in Italy. The greetings, the smiles, the helpful advice, all a breath of fresh air. The woman standing by the side of the road selling cartons of cherries and apricots who didn’t buy my “just smile and nod” approach to communication, but was happy to chatter away to me in Italian anyway. The girls who looked up how to say shoemaker on google translate in order to answer my questions about shoe sizes in their shop. The numerous cheesemakers who opened their doors and answered incessant questions about milk temperatures and their childhoods. The family of vinegar makers who took turns giving the full tour of their facilities, all the way up to the attic, where the young children’s “dowries” of vinegar kegs are kept. Everywhere smiles, even though my most commonly used phrase is “ho non capito,” I don’t understand. Everywhere, an earnest wine recommendation, a singing praise of the local ricotta, served in tortelli that night. Never a grumpy look, except perhaps from the strange guy who invited me for a pizza while I was out shopping one morning.
The last few days have been filled with pizza, shoe shopping, and tours and interviews at local cheese, prosciutto and balsamico producers. Each one is a slightly different facility, each with its quirks, but all with quality products, clearly cared for by the passion of the workers, sometimes only 2 or 3 in number. We’ve twirled and twisted on old country roads, never going through a day without asking for directions; wandered through an all-night festival outside our hotel that we somehow never knew was taking place until we were walking right through it; suffered through the scorching heat, without a gelateria in sight. But now, sitting in a roadside motel room in Spilamberto, with its incredible, natural and organic gelateria within walking distance, prepping to take-on la notte bianca, we are slowly reaching the end of Modena. Just a few days left to go.
August 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I was sitting on the ground the other day, in the dirt between the rows of the vegetable patch, picking green beans and yellow peas, and talking to a guy from Australia, who is now studying in Sweden, just outside of Copenhagen, which is one of my favorite cities. As we dug underneath the leaves of the plants, searching for our small treasures, we talked about how this was this third attempt at an undergraduate degree, having started his studies twice in Sydney and consequently dropping out. The first time, he said, he was the middle of an economy lecture when he realized he didn’t want to be doing what he was doing and decided to leave the room. And so now we found ourselves all scratched up from moving wood and trimming vines and sitting in the dirt of a farm in Piemonte.
If you told me a year ago I would be spending the last two weeks of my summer on an Italian farm, waking up at 5 a.m. with the crowing of the rooster, running at the sunrise to the next town over — where you might find another corner store and bar — and tossing and turning in bed in the scorching heat of midday before the evening shift of work started, I would have laughed in your face. As I type, I am sitting in the back of a rickety old caravan, driving up the twisting roads into the mountains, on our way to tomorrow’s market. This morning, I was setting out jams and honeys at another market in Alba, going around to the other stalls to taste pungent organic goat cheeses, slurping out the middles of stringy green figs from sticky hands while walking down the alleys of Alba, white truffle country. My forefingers are red, cut and bloody from hours of cutting out the rotting spots of apples, fallen before they could be picked, and my legs are covered in long red stripes from where blackberry branches have been ripped across them. But there are four containers fill of tiny, sweet blackberries to sell at the market, and a blackberry clafoutis sitting in the kitchen cupboard leftover from dinner last night.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time. Maybe it’s not really mine either. But there are moments when, covered in sweat, you feel like it might be worth the effort; brief, small moments when it seems like the world has turned itself right side up again. Sitting in the back of a tractor, after three long hours of moving chopped wood close to the house in preparation for the winter, with the wind in my face, my body jumping with every dip in the dirt and gravel road, just might make it worth it. The bite of half a purple fig, the very first one off of the tree, handed to me by the grandmother of my new “Italian family” while berry picking at noon and a spoon of hazelnut goat milk yogurt while sitting on the hammock after driving home from the market. The minute you walk into the one bar in town, a twenty minute uphill walk from the farm, and grab a beer from the fridge, imported from Germany, and ignore the strange looks from men who have spent their entire lives on a stool in that bar. Dipping your hands in the washing basin next to the grocery store, where you can pick up the bare necessities (many types of sausages, milk, and chocolate hazelnut cream filled cookies to name a few) and watching the German and Swiss motor bikers cruise by, the bikes practically parallel to the ground as they round the curves in the road. Scavenging for wild blackberries on the walk home from town, hoping they really are wild, or that at least the neighbors won’t notice us. The red sun rising and falling and collapsing into bed at 10 p.m., exhausted and drunk from the two liters of wine plunked down on the table at dinner. Or maybe it was the spoonful of hazelnut gelato, made from fresh cream and hazelnut cream, the specialty of the area for which there is an entire festival next weekend, from a small teacup at the end of a drawn-out dinner, that seemed to emerge from the storeroom out of nowhere, that really got to me.
The farm makes you crazy, crazy from the heat and the exhaustion, and the never-ending lists of tasks to be completed, and the feeling that you could never shower enough times in one day, or ever escape the sounds of the roosters and the dogs barking and jumping on you and licking your sweat, crazy from the need to get out. It might be the hardest thing this city girl has ever done, committing to two weeks in the middle of fucking nowhere. And strangely, it’s not the work that’s getting to me, not the long hours spent weeding in the sun and the repetition of tossing large branches, some covered in thorns, into the back of the tractor. It’s not the fact that this house is filled with strange smells — most not all that enticing — or that I have been turned off of apple butter forever after seeing the state of the apples that are used to make it, let’s say the cast-offs of better times. Rather the hardest part of this place is feeling like I have been thrown into the work without being welcomed into the home, that they smile and say you are part of the family and then get angry when you don’t understand vague instructions given in halting French, or worse, instructions in Italian to which you can only stare back blankly. The hardest part is hearing the woman tear into her husband after every little thing that goes wrong (and even just when he is slow on the uptake) and having to choke back a second piece of the blackberry clafoutis, which is, after all that, far too cloyingly sweet and made with even the hardest, dried-up berries, because she couldn’t bear to sacrifice any.
So yes, I had an alternate ending to this story, and this post. I had a couple of paragraphs written about not quitting despite being far out of my element. I had paragraphs written about the golden sun setting as I sat in the back of the caravan and about the universal language of the kitchen. But the people and the shouting and the snapping got to me. It’s a beautiful region, filled with mountains and valleys and cresses and rows of grape vines that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I’m leaving. Sometimes you just have to pick up and leave.
August 15, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I’m sitting on a regional train heading up the west coast of Italy and kicking myself because I don’t know why I ever thought eight hours spent on a train would be a good idea. And then two hours spent in the train station. And then another one and a half on a bus to Alba. The little boy sitting diagonal from me has long since finished his panino and exhausted the possibilities of playing with the kids in the compartment next to us. The man across from me has removed himself for about ten cigarette breaks since our departure in Formia. My train ticket has been checked five times. And still there’s two hours to go.
I have tried watching the Italian countryside out the window, fields upon fields of sunflowers, the Mediterranean Sea glistening on the other side, children’s clothes and dishcloths hanging out the windows to dry. I’m starving, and already missing the home cooking I had gotten used to, but the rickety cart that bangs down the aisle selling panini and chocolate bars has little appeal.
About an hour ago, we passed the five towns of Cinque Terre, where I spent a weekend at the beginning of July. It was a lazy weekend that somehow managed to jam-pack clubbing in Milano, swimming, sun-bathing and uphill hiking and eating a few too many gelatos and breadcrumb stuffed mussels from high perches overlooking the sea. Now from the train window, I see the rocky shore where we stopped for our first swim in Corniglia and the steep set of stairs that brings you from the Manarola train station to the center of town.
As we arrive in Genova, many of the passengers disembark and I finally have space to put my feet up. Only an hour to go. I start thinking about getting on a plane and going home. It wouldn’t take much longer than this train trip. The little boy is passed out with his mouth and eyes half-open, but I’m pretty sure he’s asleep. His father sitting next to me is reading some inane book in English, very slowly. I’m listening to Colder Weather, and while I’m pretty sure it’s warmer here than it is anywhere else, it seems to fairly accurately reflect this journey. Except instead of road-side diners, I’m seeing a lot of beach town sandwich joints called bars. That is, when I am not seeing someone’s clean underwear hanging out the window. Now both parents are passed out too and I’m trapped in this compartment, right as I was considering tracking down that pitiful food cart and trying to score a Kinder bar.
The famous gelato shop in Gaeta had Kinder flavored gelato. And Snickers gelato, only they called it Mr. Nico. And Nutella of course, only for some strange reason that was one of the flavors they rotated out over the course of the week. Damn, the cart just passed and the man didn’t even look up so I could ask it to stop. Though, it might take me a little while to figure out how to ask that. Maybe I’ll be ready by the next time it passes by.
August 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
When I stumbled into the kitchen this morning at 6:15, early enough for a long run before the sun started beating down hard at 8 a.m., I was surprised to find nonna already awake, with a couple of whole fish in her hands by the stove. She didn’t seem surprised at all to see me though, as she seems keenly aware of all movements in her apartment, just steps from the Mediterranean Sea. I made a gesture to indicate “running” and she replied “caffe?” without skipping a beat. Si grazie.
The caffe is dark and smooth, pressing a jolt of energy into just a small tip of the pot. She heats the water over the flame of gas stove and then pours me perhaps the equivalent of three espresso shots. Sugar is provided, just for me, though I even admit it is unneeded and often opt for just a small splash of milk. Ten minutes later, I am running up the hill to the Mausoleum, and back down around the Aragonese-Angevine Castle, through the old town and along the wharf side of the peninsula. Along the way, stray cats scamper down alleys that are just a flight of stairs, an older woman with a shaggy dog more than half her size gestures at me to stop and curiously asks a question, which I do not understand and for which I have no answer. Along the water, middle-aged men gather near the edges of the parking lots, tanned and pruned from the sun. One or two people take a caffe at the nearby bars, but for the most part the town of Gaeta is barely awake, lazily tossing and turning in the rising heat.
Back home now, nonna sets out the rest of the crostata, filled with strawberry jam, that she made a few days earlier, and a bowl of fresh fruit — green figs, stringy and sweet, small, ripe pears the size of a baby’s fist, and huge, fuzzy peaches. She teaches me how to cut off the top of a fig and peel back the skin, and starts peeling all the other fruits…the peaches, the plums, the pears all become skinless in seconds in her unwavering hands. On the stovetop, brilliant red tomatoes is already roasting with garlic and basil for the lunch she will set on the table at one.
Nonna refuses help with everything but setting the table, you have to fight her to be able to clear it. Her movements in the kitchen, if slow, are deliberate. As she speaks no English, she and I get along mostly with gestures, or her granddaughters translating, though the early morning provides the time to practice the few thoughts I can string together in Italian, pertaining to how long I expect to be gone running that morning. In the afternoons she stays at home when we walk the two minutes to the beach. Long lines of pre-paid umbrellas line the white sand, and the turquoise water is filled with jumping children and guys playing water volleyball, who stop and stare. The girls laugh because they know what the guys are saying, and it usually goes something like “look, she has blond hair!”
We come home, sticky and sandy, skin crusted with salt, in the early afternoon. Lunch is a long, drawn out affair: grilled strips of eggplant folded over melted fresh mozzarella and topped with slow roasted cherry tomatoes from the garden, spaghetti with calamari and tomato sauce. The cheese as a rule, is set out on clean plates only after the rest of the table has been cleared, and then comes huge (and mandatory) slices of watermelon, which are the size of a massive, egg-shaped pumpkin. When, at long last, the table is empty, we are sent back to the beach before dinner.