Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — November 2009

The wild blue yonder

The first time I sat down with Frank, I was eager to pick his brain.  He has spent time in many places, and I hoped he could help me work out the cities I wanted to visit.  I told him Venice was on my list.  “I would urge you to follow your instinct on that one.  There is no place in the world like Venice.”  So I put it at the top.

When I came to Italy it was with no expectations, but with thoughts of grand adventures in grand cities.  Four weeks have past.  Four weeks of fantastic adventures and wonderfully people.  I’ve had side trips to Lucca and to Florence; to the mountains and to the sea.  But I haven’t visited any of the big cities I had in mind.  Venice and Rome still sit at the top of my list.

I realized a couple of days ago that I really only have 2 weekends left in Italy.  Wow.  Time to get movin’.  I thought that I would have visited three countries by now.  But the day-to-day comfort of a routine has kept me winding up and down the hill from Fornaci to Barga, happy to have a familiar place to sleep and good friends to talk with – content to learn about myself here.

But now, with the end of this leap in sight, I’m ready to venture out.  I asked around.  None of my family or friends had much in the way of suggestions for places to stay, so last night I pulled out my handy-dandy Rick Steves (tragically incomplete, but terrifically helpful) guide to Italy and started working my way through the list of Venice hotels.  I picked about 16 and started checking availability.  By the end of the evening I had 3 places I really liked.  I sent email inquiries to see what the prices would be (Venice hotels list a range of prices on their websites for each room), and checked the trenitalia website to find a good itinerary.

This morning I woke to a number of emails from various hotels.  I was able to find a three night stay in all three of my favorites, and even talked the fancy hotel down to 80 Euro (which I thought was pretty excellent given its usual price of 145).  And then I got an email from Frank.  A couple of emails and 20 minutes later, and I was in his house drinking coffee and talking Venice hotels.  I showed him the ones I was looking at and he gave input as to the locations and décor.  And I looked at the modestly appointed, “functional” hotel he had pulled up on his computer.  I wasn’t wild about it, but it was in a good location, and was about 20 Euro less per night than any of my picks.  “Why don’t you take a cheaper hotel and stay another night?  Venice is wonderful.”  He had a point.

“There is one other place, but it’s really hard to get in.”  He pulled up the clunky website for the Locanda Montin.  Its homepage featured a picture of Jimmy Carter and a list of celebrities and VIPs who frequent the place.  “It’s a really great place.  Shall we give them a call?”  I agreed – so long as Frank talked.  Five minutes later I had a reservation for 3 (or 4) nights at 50 Euro.  We were both shocked and pleased.  Finding availability was one thing, but the price was unbelievable.

I stayed for lunch and Frank pulled out maps and guidebooks for Venice.  We studied the best walking route from the train station to the hotel and discussed which train would be best.

I’m finding it a wonderful thing to accept the help of other people – whether it’s a familiar place to sleep every night, or directions to the path that leads home, or lunch and hotel reservations.  It’s not something I’ve always been so good at.  But here, where I know so little and am so far out of my element, I’m finding it easier and easier.

Tomorrow I leave for Venice, but I won’t go alone.  I’m leaving with Frank’s maps and guidebook, and the knowledge that my little bed will be waiting for me when I come home.

Bookmark and Share

November 25, 2009   3 Comments

The end of the sidewalk

“Have you ever walked down to Fornaci from Barga?”  My request for a new adventure would be answered by the unexpected question from Ryo.  “It’s an ancient path just past the hospital.”

Ryo told me that he had tried to bike the path once, but found a large tree blocking the entrance, and had turned back.

I’ve been struggling a little in the last few days, my poor language skills leaving me with a deep feeling of inadequacy.  A walk in the woods was exactly what I needed.  Growing up, I had taken many hikes in the mountains with my family and with my good friend (and chemistry teacher) Mrs. Healy.  Being able to find paths and make my way through the hills always made me feel confident.  There’s nothing like seeing a distant ridge and knowing that you’ve just made your way from there to here with nothing but your legs and eyes.

And so I started the 90 minute trek from the top of the hill.  “Ryo, where’s the hospital?  And the path?”

“Oh just go out and up and then there’s a sign for the Ospedale.  Then you go on the road, and it forks.  Then, I think you bear right.  I think.  And you wind through some houses.”  He was making swervy motions with his hands, like a fish swimming upriver.  He looked up at me and chuckled.  “And then the road ends and you start going down.”  Deb looked uncertain that I would ever find my way down the hill, and I wasn’t feeling super-confident.  But really, if I went the wrong way, I’d just climb back up and find the studio.  Right?

“I’m off.  If I can’t find it, I’ll be back for a ride.”  “Okay, don’t get lost!”  An unsure smile, and I was off.

Finding the hospital was easy, if a bit unsafe.  The narrow, winding roads that define many of the hill towns present a challenge to those walking on them.  Walking on the right is not, generally, a safe thing to do, as the cars can’t see you well.  However, the many blind corners and fast drivers meant that I was crossing the road frequently to put myself on the outside of the curve, or in the cutout formed by a garden gate.

Curve Another curve And another curve

Once past the hospital, the countryside opened up, giving excellent views and picturesque farmhouses.

Vista

Villa

When I finally hit a fork in the road, I had been walking for about 30 minutes.  I was really wondering if I was on the right path.  But, I had the mountains to guide me, and I could see the great butte that shades Fornaci, standing sentinel on the other side of the valley.

As I walked I saw very few cars, and heard them in enough time to get out of the way.  There were more animals than people along the way.  Dogs barked from distant houses and cats darted across the ever-narrowing road.

After another 15 minutes of walking in silence, I was seriously wondering if the road would ever end, and where it would dump me out if it didn’t.  I was considering loading google earth on the laptop in my bag, and seeing where exactly I was, when the road came to an end.

Fork

To the left was a partially-paved lane marked with several signs.  One announced that it was a private drive.  To the right was an unpaved lane that seemed to lead through a gate and into someone’s yard.  The middle path was overgrown.  Leaves and chestnut pods covered it.  And it seemed to wind around the cluster of houses at the end of the private drive.  But it led down – down the valley wall that I had now reached.  And so I looked around, thought about all the friendly people that lived in the houses, and started down.

Ancient path

The ground was positively littered with chestnuts.  Their leaves made the path slippery, but the hairy pods provided a little traction.  The nuts themselves were everywhere, shiny, growing, friendly.

Chestnut pods Chestnut growing Chestnut path

The path led down and the chestnut trees gave way to elm.  I spent most of the time watching my footing, making sure I didn’t slide down to Fornaci.  Every so often, however, something would catch my eye, bringing my focus to the here and now.  It was like little friends waving as I made my way past.

Mushroom Berry

And, after many twists and turns, the path turned uphill, and suddenly I was out of the woods, walking through someone’s yard.  The light was beautiful, filtering dramatically through the clouds.  Everything was beautiful.  Doors, walls, trees.  Everything.

Door

Wall

Trees

I still wondered if I was on the right path – whether I would emerge in Fornaci, and whether I could find the house, even if I did.  But I wasn’t worried.  There were friends all along the way.  Goats smiled, and gnomes began to appear, pointing the way.

Goats Gnome! Gnomes!

When I emerged from the country lane, I wasn’t sure where I was, precisely, but I knew I was close.  The mountains were in the right place, and the power lines that I use to guide myself to the house were overhead.  I was in Fornaci.  As I entered the main street, I looked back to see where I had come out, thinking that maybe sometime I might try the reverse trek up the hill.  When I snapped a picture to make sure I could find the place, I laughed.

Sidewalk

It reminded me of a poem I’d memorized in 6th grade.  It was the Shel Silverstein poem, “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”  I haven’t thought of it in ages, but it seemed appropriate running through my head as I stepped off of the “ancient path” and onto the streets of an Italian town.  Grateful for my adventure I looked around, all feelings of inadequacy gone.  I remembered that I could speak the language of the mountains and the trees.  And there was beauty everywhere.

Bookmark and Share

November 24, 2009   6 Comments

An open letter to the folks at SURVIVOR

Hi.

I know it’s been a while.  Frankly, I was hurt when I didn’t hear from you.  I thought I would be okay.  That the expression of my feelings was the most important thing to me.  That I could tell you how I felt, and that would be enough.  No expectations, no judgment.  That’s what I had intended.

But it’s not the reality of the situation.  That’s funny.  REALITY…

I can’t script my feelings –  and I really don’t want to.  I can’t cast who I fall for – and I fell hard for you.

I mean, I poured my heart out.  Videos, pictures, “three words to describe yourself”.  I did what I was asked.  Not even a phone call.  It’s true, you said you probably wouldn’t call, but I had hoped.  I had dreamed.  I had even planned and schemed a little.  And no call.  I was obsessed with you, studying your every move, your every word.  Enamored.  So, I took some time.

I took some time for myself.  And here I am, making myself a better person – not for you – for me.  I’m making myself a better friend, a better partner, and yes – a better applicant.  And do you notice?  No, it doesn’t matter.  I’m not doing it for you.  Still…

I thought maybe you’d like to know what I’ve been doing while I’m away.

For one thing, I’m building fires.  Yup, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  One match every time.  If I had a flint, I’d be all set.

And I’m gathering food.  I can find food in strange settings, searching for local delicacies.  And I eat what I find.  I’ve made myself sick a couple of times eating strange things.  But it’s worth it.  It’s all worth it.  I’m growing.  Learning a lot about myself.  And the language.  Oh yes, I’m even learning the language.  When I do something, I do it right.  But you wouldn’t know about that.

It’s okay, really it is.  I wouldn’t be here on this adventure if you’d put me on your island.  So, I guess I should say “thank you”.  Thank you.

So now it’s my turn.  You probably won’t hear from me.  Now I’m the interesting one.  And what are you?  An aging fad?  We’ll see who outlasts whom, won’t we?

Well, I’m off to see the world.  I’ll let you know if I’m in your neighborhood.  Or, I mean, I guess you could call sometime if you wanted.  Or something…Oh, who am I kidding?  I still love you.  I still want you.  Maybe we could give it another go?  Tell you what, I’ll send you a video and three words that describe myself.  But only if you’ll call.  Can you handle that?  Just one phone call?  We can take it from there.  We have the whole world in front of us.

Bookmark and Share

November 23, 2009   No Comments

Foodies

Okay all you foodies. This one’s for you.

Yesterday, after accusing Italians of being descendants of Hobbits,I found myself proved temporarily wrong by my friends who decided to skip lunch. I’m pretty sure Hobbits don’t skip lunch. While I headed down the hill to make myself a couple of fantastic little grilled cheese sandwiches, they stayed to work. I told them to call if they wanted me to put the pasta pot on. I’m really glad they didn’t.

When they returned late in the afternoon, I’d had a little lunch and started afternoon tea. The ladies ran in, grabbed a couple of handfuls of bread and two bananas, and we were off to Lucca. We were going for business, but Lucca is home to some friends, so we got to have a bit of fun, too.

Lucca is a beautiful city at night. The shops sparkle as people pass by on bikes and on foot. We found our friends and started our trek through the city. The ladies were pretty hungry, and had missed afternoon tea, so caffeine was high on the list. We popped into a beautiful shop that had chocolate everywhere. Chocolate in the case, chocolate on the walls, and a vat of ciocolata calda stirring itself behind the counter. I noticed this beautiful liquid loveliness as I sipped my macchiato, and thought that I would need to sample some soon.

After trips to a couple of businesses, we made our way to another shop with chocolate lining the walls. A simple sign “chocolat” adorned the front. The little storefront was jammed with people after one thing – ciocolata calda. “Kristin! Con o senza pepperoncini?” With or without spicy pepper. Yummy. Our lovely friend Manuella handed me a plastic cup and spoon of super-dark liquid chocolate sprinkled with flakes of red pepper.

Manuella Calda

We all stirred our scalding cups, sending great columns of steam up, along with an amazing scent.  We spent the next five minutes standing in the street spooning mouthfuls of chocolate and scraping the bottoms of the little cups.

We crisscrossed the streets of Lucca for a couple of hours, everyone growing increasingly hungry and tired. We had plans to attend a friend’s art exhibition in Bagni di Lucca, but the thought of finding some food and heading home was growing increasingly appealing.

In the end, we made the turn to Bagni di Lucca, hoping that we could eat at the restaurant where the exhibition was happening. The wine and focaccia we were greeted with, and the long table set for dinner, were good signs.

After mixing, mingling and checking out the art, we seated ourselves at the table. There was a fascinating mix of people from Italy, Germany, Monaco, Greece and the US. This made dinner conversation excellent. While my language skills were probably the poorest of anyone at the table, they were all very good sports, and more than willing to let me muddle through in broken Italian while we consulted my little dictionary for vocab lessons. Of course, it helped that my family is from Greece, Germany and Chicago, where a couple of the Italian guys had spent time, and that I shared a special kind of kinship with two of the others. For the first time in this kind of setting, I felt able to be more myself. The barrier of not speaking the language really puts me in a place where I’m the observer, listening attentively, trying to work out the words, missing half of what’s said. Last night, I found myself able to understand quite a lot, and even allowed myself to speak a few butchered sentences, which were lovingly understood and corrected by those around me. It was lovely.

By the end of the night I had a handful of new vocabulary words, an invite to hold Thanksgiving dinner at a home in Barga, an invite to attend a book club, an invite to another dinner, and an invite to stay in the north of Italy. I need to try to speak Italian more often.

While we talked, food began to appear. The owner announced that, per Luccia’s request (she’s the artist and is a fervent vegetarian), the entire meal would be vegetarian. Wow. Deb and Sandra looked at me with wide eyes. How fantastic! I’d be able to eat everything without asking if it had meat. Amazing.

First was a lovely, delicate pastry filled with zucchini, and drizzled with a saffron sauce.

Zucchini pastry

When the owner came by with a dish to see who wanted more, I was very happy to oblige. It should have registered with me that Deb refused, saying she was full. Here’s a tip for non-Italians eating in Italy: If you are out with a group of people, and food that you have not ordered starts arriving, it’s very possible that you have begun what will be a 2 hour foodapalooza. Unless you are a champion food-eater, or are planning to head to a deserted island for the next month, do not accept second helpings from anyone. There will be plenty more. Have no fear.

After the zucchini pastry came polenta balls in some kind of a creamy cheese sauce, topped with black truffle shavings.

Polenta with black truffle

There were so many plates of these that I ended up eating 3, and almost had 4 before the plate (which had migrated, with others, to me) was taken away. Thank heavens it was taken away.

Next to arrive were long plates of pear and cheese salad. The slices of pear and pecorino were dressed simply with olive oil and black pepper. I had at least two helpings of this.

Pear and cheese salad

I believe I had a piece of bread at this point – or focaccia. Big mistake. While the brown focaccia you can find here is absolutely amazing – salty, nutty, yummy – it seems to be placed strategically to root out the non-locals. There were few of us who actually touched the bread. Fools, all of us.

Bread

As the first plate of pasta came out, I started to wonder if I’d make it through all the courses. The pasta, however, was so incredible, that I stopped thinking and started eating in earnest. Fortunately, I accepted only a few of the beautiful ravioli, which were filled with pureed squash (pumpkin, I think) and maybe caramelized onions, and covered in lovely butter, cloves and walnuts.

Ravioli

I was just thinking how I’d like a couple more when Deb turned to me. “Hey, you want mine?” She didn’t like hers. Joy! I shoveled her portion – which was about twice what I’d just eaten – onto my plate. Here’s a tip for Italian folks who are eating at a dinner like this with non-Italians (specifically Americans): We don’t know that there’s more food coming. Please don’t give us more food. It would even be kind to hide the food from us when we’re not looking. Really.

I’d just polished off Deb’s ravioli when the second THE SECOND plate of pasta arrived.

More pasta

More squash, more butter, more clove. Ancora, ancora, ancora.

At this point, my head was swimming a little. I had consumed roughly 10 times the amount of food that is supposed to fit in my stomach, and I could feel it expanding as I sat at the table, wondering what amazing plate would be set before me next.

Picture 1977

Instead of meat, the owner had prepared fennel baked in a béchamel sauce and covered in cheese (people, we don’t use fennel enough in the US. Its’ seriously good), a roasted tomato, braised radicchio, and baked tomino (cheese) with shaved white truffle and a mushroom that reminded me of a morel. All of it was excellent. I turned down seconds.
Then we sat. And we talked about how much we’d eaten. And how much we’d had to drink. And how much we needed a cappuccino. And then dessert arrived.

Blueberry cheesecake

The cheesecake itself was almost savory. Very little sugar and lots of ricotta. The blueberries on the top gave it its sweetness. Any other night, I would have had three pieces. But, it was the dessert that sent me over the edge. While I was slightly uncomfortable before, I began to wonder if I’d be able to stand up straight when it was time to go.

When we got home, we didn’t have evening tea. It was a short trip to bed, where my distended stomach was comforted by the excellent dinner conversation and the excellent camaraderie of the day.

Bookmark and Share

November 22, 2009   2 Comments

Hobbits

After a trip to Italy, one of my friends remarked that “all young Italian people are beautiful. But, something happens as they age, and they become trolls.” I have to say, I don’t think this is true. I think that Italians are just descendants of Hobbits. Or maybe just I am. It’s hard to say.

For real.

This is how my average day goes: Get up around 9. Have breakfast. Go to Barga. Have second breakfast, which might be before or after Elevenses with Deb’s mom (depending on the day). Work for a couple of hours. Go back to Fornaci. Have lunch. Maybe nap. Have afternoon tea. Work for a while more. Go home to start dinner. Have evening tea. Sleep. Repeat.

Now, this schedule suits me just fine. Except for eating dinner super late, I’ve adjusted to this without any problem. I like sleeping in.  Even when i get up an hour earlier than the ladies, it’s still hours later than I’m used to.  It seems that Deb and Sandra work more than most. It eems like it, but I’m not totally sure, because the work day is late (compared to the US), due to the extended lunch that closes down shops everywhere. It’s this late lunch that sends dinner late into the night, and allows for the multiple morning meals. (Okay, I’m also not sure that everyone takes both a second breakfast and elevenses. However, I’m here to experience the culture and the people, and what better way than to do it over a nice patry?)

This week was a week of good food. It started with Albertina, Sandra’s mom , and her niece and nephew showing up with a giant bowl of dough and two waffle-type irons. The next two hours were spent with the 7 of us crowded around the table building amazing sandwiches with the wafers that Albertina handed us, fresh from the irons.

Yummy

They had the feel and taste of a cake cone, but were thicker and a little chewier when hot. And they were HOT. We’d each take our turns accepting one from Berti and then spend several minutes burning ourselves while trying to cut them in half, or open them like pitas. The others filled them with meaty meats, thinly sliced from the deli. I filled them with slices of lovely cheeses and roasted peppers Sandra had prepared. Three or four of these I had. And then we started filling them with nutella. I stopped myself just before I exploded (yay me). And declared that I might never eat again.

And then we went to Deb’s family’s place for dinner.

The week was filled with lovely breakfasts: bits of toast and jam and tea or croissants and cappuccini; lovely coffees with Barbara, Andre and Deb – and sometimes Alfredo (a funny man who always plays with Andre.  Pictured here with Andre’s dog).

Barbara and Andre Elevenses Alfredo

Second breakfasts that included a lovely ricotta pastry.

Ricotta pasta

It was so good I didn’t even mind that there were raisins hiding in there.

Deb is usually the mistress of lunch, preparing amazing and simple pasta dishes for us. This week we were treated to tortellini with butter and sage. She threw a hunk of butter into the pan and went to the garden to pick the sage leaves.

Butter and Sage

This week’s afternoon teas included a nice poundcake made by Sandra’s mom. It was hugely long and wonderful and had a crust of chocolate chips. It put me in mind of breads my mom and nana make. I also stopped by a favorite coffee place for an afternoon cappu and biscotto. I don’t know what it was, exactly, but it was good for dipping and perfectly sweet.

Biscotto

We hit the same place twice this week for dinner Il Baretto in Gallicano– a great place that serves pizza, primi, secondi and everything else. When I walked in, I felt like I was in another of Deb and Sandra’s galleries. The walls were adorned with one of Sandra’s murals, and a series of pictures detailing the art of pizza making. Beautiful.

The first night there we all had pizza. Amazing, wonderful pizza. We watched it being cooked and then scarfed it down.

Making pizza Pizza Rigali
The second night Sandra opted for a meaty dish and fried artichokes and Deb and I opted for calzone.

Meat Fried Artichoke Calzone - Il Baretta
This calzone was one of the best things I’ve eaten since I’ve been here. It was a huge, 4 cheese creation with a reservoir of sauce on the top. The best part was the gorgonzola that was lurking inside, just around the edges where the crust was doubled up and folded over. I reached it last, after attacking the mozzarella in the middle, drawing out great strings of it. When I found it, the lovely liquid gorgonzola oozed out to mingle with the tomato sauce. I mopped it up with chunks of the crunchy crust. It was absolutely divine.

The dinner was almost exclusively in Italian. I sat quietly observing, Sandra and Deb checking in on me periodically. As the dishes were cleared, Sandra told me to say something in Italian. I chose “penso che vorrei qualcosa ciocolata, e caffe, forse.” I’d been thinking about dessert since about half way through the calzone.

So Paula, our fourth, and I ordered something chocolate. Profiterole with chocolate sauce.

Profiterole Profiterole non ce

Sandra offered me bread to clean up the sauce. I seriously considered it.

Bookmark and Share

November 21, 2009   2 Comments