Sunday, April 29, 2012

Venice

When we initially set out on this nine month sabbatical we were anticipating spending a good deal of time traveling to other parts of Italy and even other parts of Europe.  It seemed logical to take advantage of the proximity and the free time to visit places we’ve never seen.  However, now that we’ve set up our lives here in Arezzo what we really want is to stay put.  The whole point of coming here for a longer period of time was to deepen our experience of living in a foreign country.  Now that we have meaningful relationships here we want to enjoy them for as long as we can.

However, there are a few places we really wanted to see, and on the top of our list was Venice.  We’d never been and after hearing from everyone how beautiful it is we had to go.  Thanks to a direct train from Arezzo it was easy to plan our trip.  We packed our bags, hopped on the train, and four hours later we were in Venice.  When we walked out of the station we were blown away - the view is stunning!  We felt like we’d entered another world!

This is the first sight you see when you walk out of the train station.
While riding the  vaporetto (Venice’s equivalent of a bus – it runs on the water) to our hotel we were nudging each other and pointing out some of the amazing buildings along the Grand Canal.  As many of you know we are not inclined to take lots of pictures, but we made an exception this weekend - our camera got more exercise than ever before.  We kept being amazed at all the bridges, the little canals, the boats, and the buildings.  Every 20 steps or so one of us was stopping to take pictures. 


We spent the better part of one afternoon sitting in a large campo (piazza in Venetian dialect).  There was a caffe nearby with several family groups sitting outside finishing lunch.  All of their kids were playing in the campo, climbing on the well (it was covered!) or just running around, while the parents talked.  It was delightful to be in a “real” part of the city and not in the “centro turistico.”

One evening we went to a concert featuring the music of Vivaldi, a native of Venice.  The performance that evening was exceptional, and the concert hall (a deconsecrated church) was beautiful.  After the show we felt like real Italians going out for dinner at 11pm!

The next day was cloudy and rainy as predicted, but being true Seattleites that didn’t deter us from getting on the vaporetto and going off to Murano. 


Venice is really a collection of islands, and the island of Murano is famous for its glassmaking.  After our trip to the island and back, we realized that the best part was the vaporetto ride, which was a complete circumnavigation of Venice.  It was very interesting to see the city from the water.

  
It was fascinating to learn that Venice was born under dire circumstances.  During the 5th-8th centuries the people who lived on the mainland fled to the marshes to escape the invading Huns and Goths.  Because they had no other choice, they were forced to build their homes there.  Necessity being the mother of invention, they figured out how to erect structures above the level of the water by driving wooden pylons 100 feet into the silty ground.   Over centuries the beautiful city we know today was developed. 

Because the risk of flooding is en ever constant threat, the Venetians keep measures at hand to stop water from pouring into doorways and to help people walk the streets without getting their feet wet.  We saw metal gates about shin high on most doorways.  At first they looked like some kind of baby-gate, but we realized that in Venice the likelihood was that the gates were for keeping water out rather than for keeping children contained.  Though unsupervised children and unaware adults certainly run the risk of getting an unwanted dunking if they are not careful.


It took us a good while to figure out that these stacks of steel and wood were impromptu boardwalks, ready to set up at the first sign of high water.

We were equally fascinated to find that- of course! - everything coming into and out of Venice has to be carried by boat and by hand.  Transporting carts full of produce, mail, recycling, and refuse over the pedestrian-only bridges (they all have steps) is very labor intensive. 

Off-loading
The mail truck
Some sell their goods directly from the boat!
No wonder things are more expensive here!  Restaurant prices are about double what they are in Arezzo.   For example, caffe and a pastry in Arezzo cost 2. In Venice they cost 4.50 (if you stand at the bar), or 7 (if you sit at a table).   Or maybe the reason for the high cost of the food is the gold they sprinkle on their bruschetta

Henry's golden lunch
Seriously. This dates back to the 1400s when it was believed that gold was good for one’s health.  Also the nobles couldn’t miss an opportunity to flaunt their wealth.

Despite the tourists and the costs, Venice was absolutely everything we had heard it would be – an extraordinarily beautiful city with a remarkable history. 


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Commerce and Culture


video
A Saturday morning on Arezzo's main street. 

We mentioned in our entry about Easter that everything shuts down for the holiday.  Well, that’s no longer true. It was national news that one grocery store chain, Pam, was open on Easter Sunday.  The store reported big crowds and good sales.  Because of the economic crisis the big stores are doing a brisk business.

For several decades the national government has regulated when stores could be open.  This applied mostly to the big chain stores and was presumably done to protect the small local stores from being overwhelmed by the big boxes as well as giving employees a paid day off.  In his drive to rev up the economy, Mario Monti, Italy’s current prime minister, revoked this national control to allow stores to open whenever they want. 

This caused a huge uproar!  Unions and some mayors were against it, whereas the corporations and other government officials were for it.  Easter was the first test.  The next national holidays are April 25 (National Independence Day) and May 1 (Italian Labor Day).  Pam has said that they will be open.  Other stores are still deciding whether to follow suit. We’ll see what happens but it seems the big stores will win this one.

This seems to be the first step on the road to the 24/7 economy that is now the norm in the States.  Already a few small shops here in Arezzo are not closing for the afternoon break or are closing for a shorter period.  We understand that this is the way the world is going but it’s sad to see that, at least on this front, Italy is losing its uniqueness and becoming like the rest of the industrialized world.  It’s a shame to see this part of the Italian way of life beginning to disappear.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fruttivendolo

The other day we went into a fruttivendolo that we had never been to before.  After we had paid for our groceries the shopkeeper offered us some celery and stuck it in the bag for us.  We were delighted and perplexed, and we tried to figure out what we had done to make ourselves worthy of this spontaneous gift.  We learned later from Monica, our Italian teacher, that many of the older fruit and vegetable vendors will infer from the ingredients you’re buying that you are planning to make a particular soup or a specific dish.  If so they will throw in an extra stalk or two of celery, some sprigs of rosemary or other odore (aromatic herbs) at no charge.  Frequently they will also check to make sure you have the other ingredients you’ll need, asking “Do you need any sage or onions?” or “Do you have bread for tonight?” for example.  As a result, shopping for food is more like a conversation than a simple act of commerce. 

We love shopping at the fruttivendolo run by Anna and her family.  This is because she has taken an interest in us and we always end up chatting each time we go in.  Often, but not always, our conversation is about food: what we’ve enjoyed eating in Italy; how the produce here is different than in the US; the best time to add compost to a garden; recipes; etc.  Sometimes the conversation expands to include other customers who come into the shop - just about everyone has an opinion or a story to share.  We make a point of going there regularly even though the shop is a 30 minute walk from our apartment.

Anna takes an interest not just in us, but in all her customers.  For example, Henry was in her store recently when a man came in with a list. When Anna asked him how much of an item he wanted, he replied “How much does my wife usually get?”  Anna knew the answer. 

Shopping in Italy, for anything, is first and foremost a social activity.  It’s not just a task on a “to do” list, it’s an aspect of a relationship.  Customers and vendors chat together seemingly oblivious to anyone who may be waiting their turn to be served.  As a result we’ve found that it’s best to allow several hours to complete the day’s grocery shopping.  Though it can be inconvenient at times, we love living a life in which personal connection is valued more than efficiency.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter in Arezzo

The rainy season has started here so that means it must be Easter, at least according to the locals.  Apparently rain is pretty much guaranteed at Easter in Arezzo the way it is for the 4th of July in Seattle.  While annoying, it is also very welcome at the moment in Italy as a whole.  There has been very little rain since last summer.  In some areas of the country there has been a real drought.  At Il Bellini, for example, they were very worried about the survival of their olive trees and the effect on the harvest in the fall.

Being primarily a Catholic country, Easter is a big deal here.  The country pretty much shuts down for Sunday and Monday.  The church bells ring with increased frequency to signal the daily mass, and families are out and about taking a stroll in the streets and parks (when they’re not in church).  Shops are filled with enormous, elaborately wrapped chocolate eggs, which we’ve been told contain a surprise gift inside.  Those who live away from home return for a big Easter lunch.  We were on a train last week and it was packed with people traveling for the holiday.  Many Italians take this week to enjoy a vacation.  And in fact we’ve noticed a lot of Italian tourists here these past few days.  It’s been fun to be amongst them feeling as though WE are the locals!

We spent Easter Sunday with a small group of students from our school. 

Henry with Yuka, Denise and Masae

Denise invited us all to her place for lunch.  We were expecting a very casual meal but when we arrived, we found that she had prepared mountains of food and laid out a beautiful table.  She claims to be full-blooded German, but we suspect there’s Italian somewhere in her genes!
 
 
We had a huge feast with all the fixings of a traditional Italian Easter lunch – except for the lamb.  Those of us who eat meat (i.e. everyone except Gabriella) had chicken instead. 

Around the time we were ready for dessert, Yuka’s ragazzo (boyfriend) Stefano and his friend Marco arrived. They brought dessert and a bottle of passito, which is a dessert wine like vin santo, but a little sweeter.  Whereas vin santo is made here in Tuscany, passito is made primarily in the south of Italy.  The best stuff, which is what Stefano kindly brought for us, comes from a small island near Sicily called Pantelleria.  We enjoyed it very much along with all the desserts, including Marco’s lemon cake.  Just to break any misconceptions about cooks in Italy, we’ve found that many Italian men are passionate and talented chefs.

When we decided it was time to leave, we realized that we had been there for over 5 hours eating and talking.  Feeling stuffed to the gills we felt like real Italians – until we learned from our friend, Cristina, that to be real Italians we had to then eat something for dinner as well.  OK, so we’re still Italians in training.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jam Tarts



Gabriella first got the idea for making jam tarts after watching our friend Angiolette make an impromptu crostata for us one morning when we were visiting her soon after our arrival in Arezzo.  The following is a recipe Gabriella adapted from one she found after doing a quick web search.  With gratitude to David Lebovitz for posting his excellent creation on-line (http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2008/07/jam-tart/), we present this very simple, very delicious, no-fail recipe for you.  Gabriella has been using it liberally for occasions like the celebration of San Giuseppe (see posting on “Adventures in Miscommunication”), gatherings with our school, and meals with friends.  Keeping a batch of the dough in the freezer makes it especially easy to prepare an attractive and tasty dessert in no time at all.

Ingredients:
9 Tablespoons (110 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup (100 grams) sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 cup brandy
1½ cups (190 grams) flour
½ cup (70 grams) stone-ground cornmeal (or polenta)
½ teaspoon sea salt
Pinch nutmeg
2 teaspoons baking powder
1¾ cups (450 grams) jam (any type you prefer or have on hand)
Coarse raw sugar (cassonade, turbinado, demerara) for topping (about 2 Tablespoons)

Optional: lemon zest, cinnamon, cardamom, ground almonds

Preparation:
Beat together the butter and sugar until well combined.  Mix in the egg, egg yolk, almond extract and brandy (and lemon zest, if you desire).  In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, cornmeal, salt, nutmeg and baking powder (and other spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, and ground almonds if you desire).  Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, just until the mixture comes together.

Use 2/3 of the dough to pat into a disk.  Wrap in wax paper (or plastic) and chill for at least 2 hours.  Use the remaining 1/3 dough to roll into a log about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter.  Wrap and chill also for at least 2 hours.  If you are not going to use the dough right away you can freeze it for later use.

Remove the disk of dough from the fridge and allow it to come to approximately room temperature (about 10 to 15 minutes - just long enough to get the dough pliable).  With heel of the hand, press dough into the bottom and sides of an unbuttered tart pan.  (Using muffin tins to make tartlets also works well).  Spread jam evenly over dough (the jam will bubble up as the tart bakes, so do not be overly generous with the filling).

Remove the log of dough from fridge, slice into cookie-sized disks, about ¼ inch thick, and then lay them over the jam decoratively.  Decorate with sliced almonds if you desire.  Top with at least 2 Tablespoons of sugar.

Bake at about 375 degrees Fahrenheit (about 180 degrees Celsius) for about 25 minutes. Remove from oven, allow to cool, and enjoy.

Adventures in Miscommunication

As we were walking back to our apartment the other day we ran into a man on the street who has a furniture restoration shop across from our building.  While we’ve seen him numerous times since we moved in and have waved and said hello, we’ve never actually met.  This time the few words we exchanged turned into a conversation and we introduced ourselves.  As we were getting ready to part ways, the man, Alfredo, said that the following day was the celebration of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph), the patron saint of woodworkers.  He said he was going to be hosting a small gathering for his clients and friends and he invited us to come. 

He said something about “dolce” (sweets), and we weren’t sure if he meant we should bring some, or if he was going to be providing them.  (To be fair, it’s not that we didn’t grasp his Italian - we actually understood him perfectly, it’s just that he didn’t always use complete sentences.  For example, when he mentioned the “dolce” that was in fact all he said: “Dolce.”)  To be safe, we decided to bring something to contribute.  When we asked about the timing of the party he said “mezzogiorno” (12pm), which Henry took to mean “beginning at 12pm”, and Gabriella took to mean “ending at 12pm.”  To be safe, we decided to arrive “verso il mezzogiorno” (around 12pm).  That was our first mistake – no one ever arrives on time.

The next day, certain we were in for another unexpected adventure, we headed over with our tray of Gabriella’s home-made jam tarts a little before 12pm.  We expected to find a room full of people mingling about with half empty plates of food in their hands.  Instead we found a long banquet table prepared for a sit-down meal with about 25 place-settings, and the only people there were Alfredo and his colleague, Domenico.  Plates of food were at the ready in the back room.  Clearly we were early - very early.

Being infinitely gracious and generous (as are all the Italians we have met to date!) they invited us in and offered us something to eat and drink.  Alfredo said that most of the guests would be arriving between 12:30pm and 1:30pm and that he was expecting the children to arrive soon.  We stood around awkwardly for a while trying to make conversation, not being sure if we should stay or go.  Would it be more rude to continue to impose our awkward presence on them, or to disappear as though we were not grateful for what they were offering?  We decided to stay, and managed to pass what seemed an eternity until the aforementioned children arrived (Alfredo’s grandchildren) who provided sufficient distraction for all of us.  It’s hard enough for us to make conversation in situations like this when we’re in Seattle speaking English.  Small talk is not our forte!  Here we were trying to pull it off in Italian!  We later learned from Monica, our ever wise Italian teacher, that in her opinion we were right to stay, regardless of how uncomfortable it was. 

Once the guests began arriving we felt much more at ease.  Now we were part of the party, no longer ignorantly early Americans.  Alfredo kindly made a point of personally introducing us to each and every guest, and made sure we had seats when the time came to sit for the meal.  We were served so much food (four courses, including Domenico’s home-made vino rosso and vin santo) that we didn’t need to eat again for the rest of the day.  Seriously.

It turns out others had also brought various types of “dolce” (thanks goodness we got that part right!), and each guest was served a plate full of an assortment of them.  Warmly and good-heartedly, Alfredo pointed out that Gabriella had brought the jam tarts, and in response there was a spontaneous chorus of “buonissime!” (delicious!).   Score one for the Americans!

Everybody started leaving around 3pm, and we too took our cue to go.  While we had initially thought we were heading over for a casual 20 minute visit, we ended up spending over three hours with people we had never met!  On our way back across the street to our apartment we weren’t sure if we should feel embarrassed about or thankful for the experience.  What about the invitation hadn’t we properly understood?   We learned though that when someone says a particular time, it’s probably better to arrive a little later (though this is tricky – some Italians actually ARE punctual).  One thing is for sure,  we now know that when someone says they’re celebrating something it’s going to involve a big sit down meal, a lot of people, a lot of food,  and a lot of time.