Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Food

Clearly one of the alluring aspects of Italy is the food.  We have not been disappointed!  For the most part we have not been eating in any restaurants.  The food here is so good and so simple to prepare it is amazingly easy to make something utterly exquisite at home.  And with fresh pasta so readily available it’s hard to want anything more.  We have been dining on gnocchi, ravioli, pesto, cheeses, grilled eggplant, chestnut honey, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.  Henry has been indulging in the meat he’s been finding at the local macelleria.  Gabriella has been to two different gelaterias and finds it hard to say which is better – both experiences were divine.  There’s something about the hazelnuts here that makes them so much tastier than the ones in the US, so we’ve been gobbling those by the handfuls too.  Oh, and the wine.  Yes, the wonderful – and inexpensive - wine!

In the grocery store there is an entire aisle devoted to different types of pasta.  And that’s just the dried stuff.  There is also another equally large section of fresh pasta.  And of course there are all the local shops and weekly markets selling their fresh produce.  We are slowly getting acclimated to the routine of buying what we need fresh from the local market on a daily basis, rather than shopping for an entire week the way we typically do in the US. 

Since we arrived we’ve been blessed with bouts of unseasonably beautiful weather. Did we say that we have a south facing balcony? We have enjoyed many of the above mentioned foods and wines while sitting on our balcony – in fact we just ate lunch there before finishing this blog entry. It is heaven! Getting this apartment was worth all the anxiety, stress and waiting we went through to find it.

Recently Gabriella made ribollita – it’s a Tuscan soup that was cleverly developed to make use of stale bread.  Sound good?  Well, it is - and it’s easy to make!  We found the recipe in a guide book to Arezzo that was written by Scott Tiezzi Grabinger, one of the former students at the language school where we are taking classes.  It’s a great guide book, and if you ever come to Tuscany we suggest you get yourself a copy (no, Scott didn’t pay us to say that – we haven’t even met him!):

Ribollita Recipe

·         You will need to soak the beans overnight before making this soup.
·         The traditional recipe calls for 4 oz. chopped pancetta.  As a mostly vegetarian, Gabriella omitted it from her soup, and it is not included in the ingredients below.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cups vegetable broth
1 medium onion, chopped into bite sized pieces
2 carrots, chopped into bite sized pieces
2 stalks of celery, chopped into bite sized pieces
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 small zucchini, sliced
¼ cup Savoy (or other) cabbage
1 bay leaf
2 cups tomatoes, chopped into bite sized pieces
2 cups cannelloni beans (see below for bean preparation)
1 handful of fresh parsley, chopped
4 cups of dense, dry bread, chopped into ½ inch sized pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

·         Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium high heat.  Add onion, carrots, celery, and minced garlic and sauté until tender.
·         Add cabbage, zucchini, cooked beans, tomatoes, parsley, bay leaf, and stock.
·         Cook slowly for 1-2 hours adding more broth or water if necessary.
·         Add salt and pepper to taste.
·         Five minutes before serving, add bread and stir until mixed into the soup.

To prepare the beans:

·         Place 1-2 cups of cannelloni beans into a pan and cover with water, making sure that the water level is about two inches over the beans.  Set aside to soak overnight.
·         The next day drain the beans and place in a large pan.  Add enough vegetable broth to cover the beans, about one inch over the top.
·         Add two smashed garlic cloves and two bay leaves.
·         Bring to a boil then simmer gently on low heat until the beans are tender but not mushy (about 1-2 hours).
·         When the beans are done you can add them to the Ribollita.  They are also delicious on their own.


Field Trips

One of the field trips we took with our school was to the town of Anghiari about a 40 minute bus ride from Arezzo.  It’s a quintessential small hill town with Etruscan roots.  By comparison it makes Arezzo (population 100,000) seem like a bustling metropolis.  While the old town is breathtakingly beautiful with steep narrow streets, on the edge of town there are two brand new subdivisions, with identical houses (Italian style) on small lots with no trees - just like in Seattle!?

The main road through town. Note the steepness of the hill. The town of Sansepolcro is in the distance.

In the centro storico of Anghiari

In the centro storico of Anghiari
As we were walking around we passed an open door and inside a woman was making jewelry.  She kindly waved us in so we could see what she was doing.  She was braiding 12 fine metal strands into stunning lace-like earrings.  It was amazing to watch her hands move quickly as she wove the wires into an intricate pattern.  She had on display some of the other pieces she had made, including a piece that required weaving 100 threads.  Unfortunately we were too mesmerized to think to take a picture.

The final stop of our brief tour was a bar.  (FYI: A bar in Italy is where you go to get a caffé. They usually also sell wine, soft drinks and snacks.  There are bars about every other block and they are usually just a small space with one or two tables. Kind of like Starbucks but with way more atmosphere, and less comfortable seating.)  This place had a large patio at the back of the bar that over looked the hills and valley below.  It was stunning.  Once again we felt so lucky to be here!

View from an overlook

Anghiari from below
One of the delightful aspects of these medieval towns (including Arezzo) is that what from the outside looks like a tiny, unassuming establishment is actually a much larger, grander place once you get inside.  We have gone into places that at first looked like they could hold only a dozen people at most, and then upon entering found spacious room upon room beyond the front entry.  It seems to be a metaphor for becoming part of the Italian family.  As an outsider it can be difficult to find your place, but once you are invited in you become part of the larger welcoming family.

The other big outing of our week was taking the city bus to the IperCoop (insert irony here).  We were looking for a reading lamp for our apartment and had been told that we might find an inexpensive one there.  We rode the bus to a major 4-lane highway.  We ended up having to walk along it to get to the store, but eventually we discovered a pedestrian walkway that got us to the parking lot safely.  IperCoop is like Fred Meyer on steroids.  It sells everything - except lamps.

As luck would have it on the way home we found several stores selling lamps that we hadn’t noticed before and one of them had the perfect lamp!  As the saying goes, “Things don’t always work out as planned, but they always work out.”

Getting Acclimated to the Language

Since one of reasons for being here is to improve our Italian we immediately signed up for an intensive week of lessons at a local language school.  It’s a small school that offers instruction exclusively on Italian language and culture.  In addition to classes on grammar and conversation there are lectures, tours and seminars.  During our second week here we were in school every day from 9-12, and we went on outings the school organized in the afternoons.  Each week the school arranges a different itinerary.  In the first two weeks alone they offered tours of Arezzo and a neighboring town; a cooking seminar; a visit to a local artisan’s workshop; a lecture on art; a trip to a local farm that makes wine and cheese (including samples!), and a gathering for “happy hour” at a local bar.  We have decided to continue taking classes at this school on a less intensive basis – only twice a week – for the next 12 weeks.  After that we’ll be fluent, right?

At the moment there are only about a dozen students at the school, and we get very personalized attention.  There is clearly an emphasis on creating a sense of community, and we already feel we have friends here.  The other students are from Japan, Ireland, South Africa, Russia and Slovakia, each with varying degrees of proficiency in Italian.  Paola, our teacher, is great.  She is very patient with us and though she knows English, she speaks only Italian with us, very slowly and clearly.

We’ve learned a lot but it’s become painfully obvious that we so don’t know Italian. Any thoughts we had of just kind of fitting in have been quickly dashed.  Especially after Henry went into a coffee shop just to order a simple caffé and the barista started speaking English.  It’s helpful that for the most part people here do NOT speak English, so usually we are able to avoid falling into the trap of using English as a convenient “out.”

One evening we went to dinner with Daniela (our landlord), her husband and some of their friends. It was all very wonderful but on our way home we compared notes on what we had talked about.  While we’re not so competent yet at SPEAKING Italian, we’re generally pretty good at comprehending it when someone else is speaking.  However we found we had slightly different versions of what we THOUGHT had been said at various times during the course of the meal, and that many times we had no clue at all as to what was being said. You can see the potential for problems if we’re wondering “Did she say she has an olive grove on her property and that she would love to have our help picking olives, or that she has an olive pit stuck in her throat and she needs our help to get it out?!?” Generally we just smile and say “Si, si.”  So far we’re not aware of having made any egregious errors or insults.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Our First Week

We're here and we're HAPPY!!  Already - we're very happy!  Our apartment is beautiful!
Henry at work
Our Living Room
Our Kitchen
Our Bedroom

Daniela, our landlord, has provided us with a fully furnished apartment - including bathrobes! We even found a utensil in our kitchen drawer that looks like a miniscule automatic whisk. We couldn’t figure out what it was for. It turns out it’s a coffee frothing device. Of course! How silly of us not to recognize this essential kitchen utensil! We don’t, however, have any measuring cups. If you were an Italian which would you prioritize? Who needs measuring cups anyway?

Our first week here was all about getting oriented, filling our pantry and refrigerator, and looking for household items. In a city where you don’t speak the language just getting laundry detergent becomes an adventure. It literally took us several hours to accomplish this simple task, because it involved: 1) finding a store that sells such things; 2) distinguishing laundry detergent from dishwasher soap, toilet bowl cleaner and shampoo (in a foreign language it’s harder than you might think!); and 3) trying to find the environmentally friendly version of the product in a country that hasn’t quite adopted the “green” lifestyle.

After we woke from the slumber of our first night, we unpacked and went out to explore and find food. We ended up at restaurant on Via Cavour just because it looked good and we were hungry. It turned out to be a buffet style place where you pile food on your plate and pay by the gram. It was a beautiful warm day, we’d just arrived to live our dream, the food was amazing (including a great variety of tempting items that Henry could eat without having to worry about his blood sugar), and we were sitting outside and having our first meal in Italy with a glass of wine. By the time his espresso came Henry was so happy he literally began to cry.

In our unpacking we realized we needed more hangers. So as we were leaving the restaurant Gabriella asked the woman at the counter (in Italian of course) if she knew of a place where we could buy some. The woman didn’t remember the name but gave us general directions to a store she thought would have them. (This seems to be common here –locals providing some vague directions to a place they can’t remember the name of). However with those directions we discovered a place we never thought we’d see here, Happy Home!! 

Don’t let the store front fool you. The store is huge. It’s a cross between Cost Plus and a Dollar Store with tons of cheap stuff, including (thankfully) coat hangers. Needless to say it lacks charm or anything remotely authentically Italian. In spite of that, for the first week we went to Happy Home almost every day looking for something - napkins, pillows, detergent. Now it has become an important landmark for us and whenever we need anything Henry’s first response is “Let’s go to Happy Home!!” Gabriella is done with the place though – it does NOT make her happy – it’s not quite part of the dream.

As far as getting settled there have been obstacles and frustrations, but really not anything insurmountable or too onerous.  Overall it's been a very smooth transition.  Well, except Thursday – we both concur Thursday was a bad day - too much bureaucracy, too many technical problems, too many dead ends, and way too many language issues. It was a day when we both wondered “Why are we here at all?” and “Whose idea was this anyway?” But every day since has been a GOOD day. Some have been GREAT days.

One of the biggest glitches has been getting an internet connection, which we finally worked out after multiple trips to the computer store and numerous conversations with the store staff (who don’t speak English) and our landlord (who does). It turns out the apartment has no phone line, and therefore no possibility for a DSL connection. Instead we have a device called an internet key which we plug into our computer and which gives us wireless internet access. YAY!!

Also on the positive side our realtor, Clotilde, and our landlord, Daniela, are being super kind and helpful.  We couldn't possibly ask for more.  Already Daniela has invited us for coffee at her apartment and to a dinner date with friends of hers at a local pizzeria. She also gave us some folding chairs and a small table so we can sit on the balcony for a meal and enjoy the view. Can you say bliss?!?

 Clotilde voluntarily spent several hours with us at the Questura (“national police headquarters” – this is a place where nobody smiles and you want to be sure to behave VERY WELL) and the Post Office (in Italy “Post Office” is a euphemism for “hall of bureaucracy”) helping us with our Residency Permit. Thanks to Clotilde we learned you need to take a ticket number to reserve your spot “in line” after you arrive. There is no line per se. People just stand around waiting for their number to be called. This is the case at the Quetura, the Post Office, and also at the deli counter at the grocery store. This system is particularly helpful because the Italians as a rule do not stand in line. They push their way to the front regardless of who may have arrived before them. If it weren’t for the tickets we’d still be politely waiting to be served. 

By total coincidence for the first few days we ran into either Clotilde or her business partner on the street – even when we were in the far reaches of the city. It helped us feel like we actually know people here!

The City has been bustling this weekend: the weekly Saturday market; an annual “Festa dei Sapori” – a festival of foods from around Europe; and a flea market to raise funds for cancer research. All three of which were noisy, in a good way, and packed with people. But we can’t hear any of it from our apartment – it is so tranquil here. For two English speaking introverts it’s nice to have a quiet place to retreat.

Despite being introverts, we miss our friends! Our email addresses are the same so feel free to send us a message, ask questions etc. We look forward to hearing from you!

Our Arrival

We had an extraordinarily long trip getting to Arezzo (due to delays we were travelling for over 30 hours) and we arrived absolutely exhausted. This was on top of not having gone to bed at all the night before we left. Having our friend Jeanne meet us in the baggage claim area during our layover in New York with fresh food and friendship was welcome indeed! As soon as we got on our second flight Gabriella fell soundly asleep and didn’t wake up until we arrived in Rome. In fact she’s not sure she’s awake yet!

The delay posed a problem not only because it postponed our access to a bed, but also because our realtor was planning to meet us when we eventually arrived at the train station in Arezzo. We needed to find a way to reach her to let her know we would be arriving late. We had no success with the public phones at the train station in Rome (no, we don’t have a cell phone, and even if we did – would it work in Italy?), so we found ourselves on the train to Arezzo without having contacted her. 

Desperate, Gabriella mustered the courage to ask a woman sitting next to Henry if we could use her cell phone (yes, EVERYONE has a cell phone besides us, especially the Italians). Even in the sleep-deprived state she was in, Gabriella managed to stammer something like “Scusi, portrei domandarLe una grande cortesia? Dobbiamo fare una telefonata importanta, ma non abbiamo un cellulare. Potremmo prendere in prestito il Suo cellulare?” Regardless of whether this is grammatically correct, it got the message across and the woman kindly let us use her phone. (We know others might have achieved the same result without the protracted Italian phrasing, by instead relying on basic gestures – a name comes to mind that rhymes with Dana! - but we prefer the more excruciatingly elaborate way of communicating). When Gabriella explained we were calling Arezzo (and not the US!), the woman smiled and said that she was from Arezzo – small world!

Everything worked out well. Clotilde, our realtor, met us at the station. We went to her office to sign the lease, and afterward our landlord (who was also there for the signing) drove us to our apartment.

After a brief tour of our new home we collapsed and slept for over 14 hours. As a result we missed most of our first full day in Arezzo. However we woke to clear blue skies and a view out our windows that is simply charming. This city is even more beautiful than we remembered, and that’s saying a lot! We feel unbelievably fortunate!

A main street in Arezzo
The view from our balcony

Introduction - Welcome to our blog

First a little introduction then the stories. We hope you enjoy reading about our life in Italy.

Caffè Lungo: an Italian term that refers to a cup of espresso with extra hot water added. In the US it’s called an Americano. 

We chose Caffè Lungo as the title of our blog for several reasons:
  • Since the caffè lungo is a blend of Italian and American culture it serves as an excellent symbol for our sabbatical as Americans in Italy.
  • Caffè lungo literally translates as “long coffee.” We’re considering our nine month stay a (very) long coffee break.
  • As a consummate coffee drinker in the US, Henry has come to rely on the caffè lungo as the substitute for his morning coffee, and he loves it!
Where we are and why we’re here

We are in the town of Arezzo, Italy. It is one of many medieval towns in the hills of Tuscany and is located about 100 kilometers southeast of Florence. 

We decided several years ago that at some point we would like to live somewhere other than our home in Seattle, WA. Just for the adventure and experience of it. Well, to be fair, Henry decided this, and Gabriella begrudgingly agreed. She is now however as excited as Henry is to be here. 

Having made several visits to Italy over the past years we began to focus on it as the place we would like to live out this experience. We considered many towns, large and small. When we came to Arezzo, at the suggestion of our friend and Italian teacher, Federica, we knew we had found our place. It has lots of green space and is big enough so that we don’t stand out (too much) and small enough to be manageable. Also the culture is very traditional, very few people speak English, it’s not very touristy and it’s not mentioned in Rick Steves’ book!

We’ve rented a small furnished apartment on the edge of the centro storico (the old town). We plan to do some traveling in Italy and to other parts of Europe but mostly we want to stay here and as much as possible be part of the town. We’re here to continue learning the language, and to more fully experience the culture and way of life. If that means we have to drink a lot of wine, so be it! 

Heartfelt Thanks!
Any bold undertaking requires the help and support of many people. We have learned that it takes a village to prepare for a sabbatical! We wouldn’t be here without the generous and enthusiastic support of many of our friends, family and neighbors. To each of you we are deeply indebted:

Kim and Rachel – for inspiring us and showing us how it’s done, for answering our questions, and for the essential luggage scale! 

Federica – for introducing us to Arezzo, for our years of Italian lessons together and the friendship they generated, and for practical advice and support with everything from getting our visas to finding a place to live.

Jenny - for our Italian lessons, for very practical advice, and for invaluable assistance in our Skype conversations with our Italian realtor – which saved Henry from having to make a separate trip to Italy and doing all the negotiating himself!

Mette- for tending to us and our affairs with infinite helpfulness, loyalty and love.

Sarah – for storing our computers, for keeping a watchful eye on our house, for taking us to the airport at 5am for our flight, for supplying us with the necessary luggage as we packed our bags the night before we left, and for ongoing encouragement and interest in our adventure all along the journey.

Penny – for many practical words of travel advice, for offering resources, and for fostering all our houseplants while we are away.

Gabriella’s clients – for being flexible and understanding – and enthusiastically supportive! - as Gabriella takes nine months away.

Nancy, Julene, Jennifer, Nancy, Phoebe and Doug – for being foster gardeners in Gabriella’s absence.

Julie – for lovingly tending to our garden.

Zachariah and Lynn – for keeping Waltz etc. alive while Henry waltzes around Italy.

Marilee and George – for storing our vehicles on their property on Whidbey Island.

Phoebe – for cheerfully taking over Gabriella’s role as the steward for Ballard Corners Park.

Mark and Marc – for enthusiastic encouragement and invaluable visa advice.

Claude and Beth – for paparazzi-style rides to and from the Italian consulate in San Francisco, for meals and a bed, and for the celebratory Prosecco once we finally got our visas!

Vicki & Dana – for being an integral part of our Italian adventure from the very beginning, and for keeping us well fed and amused all along the way.

Jeanne – for meeting us at the airport in New York during our layover on our way to Rome, and for bringing us a delicious picnic to enjoy in the romantic setting of the baggage claim area.

Mimi – for finding the perfect tenants to rent our home in Seattle, and for tending to every possible concern we have.

Kevin- for overseeing the safety and security of our home while we are away and for introducing us to the indispensible Magic Jack.

Daniela – for anticipating and providing every practical thing we could possibly need in our apartment in Arezzo – including bathrobes!

And everyone else who offered help, encouragement, and practical advice – THANK YOU!