Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Last Day

Friday, my last day, I got up early (to make up for oversleeping on Thursday) and, with Monica's help, took the bus to Ravenna.

Ravenna was once the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and home to some gorgeous mosaics from the Byzantine era. I visited four of the most famous: Battistero Neoniano, Basicial di S. Apollinare Nuovo, Basilica di S. Vitale and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. They were truly breathtaking!

After that, I walked around the city for awhile (ahem, ZARA) and grabbed a potato and mozarella piadina, a flatbread sandwich famous in the region. I caught the early bus back to Faenza, packed and then road Monica's bike out to the farm (6k through beautiful vineyards, in the DARK, which wasn't very smart). The days are cloudy, but even in the dank darkness of November, it's still picturesque.

As an endcap to a fabulous week and wonderful vacation, Monica and Michele, their friends and I, went out to her cousin's seafood restaurant, Titon.

Let me just say, if you can get a cousin/uncle/grandfather to own an restaurant in Italy - DO IT.
We had five different antipasti's (including fish carpaccio, a tomato/squid soup, and prawn and thistle (yes, thistle) stew). Then we had three different kinds of grilled fish, and a seafood "toss" - lightly fried squid, prawns, fish, zuchinni, etc. Plus, all the wine you could drink. (and a 'tween course palate refreshener with lemon and vodka- VODKA!)

Then, oh THEN, came the dessert, including ganache, pistacchio mousse, cannoli, something like a cointreau liquer flan and creme cartanaga (I'm not sure this is the right name but oh. my. god. gargagaahghghghg Homer Simpson noise) I literally rolled out of that restaurant at midnight.

....and was up again at 4 am to catch my flight.

But you know what? Pffft...I'll sleep when I'm dead. This has been the best vacation and worth every penny (paid in Euro and in sleep!) I am now sitting in the airport (back in Amsterdam) with a huge grin on my face, refreshed, renewed - and sober.

Yes, these are what vacations are FOR.

Thanksgiving Italian Style

Thursday Monica had to work, so she left me to my own devices to explore Faenza. I ended up oversleeping, missing the town market AND the ceramic museum but the extra sleep was totally worth it. I did some laundry, had a late lunch and bummed around town.

Later that evening, I joined Monica out at the farm where she works. Several of her friends and co-workers were gathered there, cooking a 4 kilo stuffed turkey and the Thanksgiving works. In between last minute things, Monica made three squash "pumpkin" pies. We roasted sweet potatoes, someone brought homemade stuffing and Michele mashed potatoes. For my part, I snapped beans and drank wine :)

By the time the turkey was done, fifteen people had arrived. We watched Jonathan (the head chef) carve the boneless turkey and place the thick steamy slabs on a plastic platter Monica pulled from somewhere. The best part was a homemade green bean-mushroom-and-fried onion concotion Jonathan pulled from the Food Network website. No Campbells soup here! It was hands-down terrific.

As we organized ourselves buffet style, a few of the un-initiated Italians were unsure of all the food. Monica immediately gave a rundown of the basics, instructing everyone to pile their plates high. Apparently, mixing the savory items with the sweet squash and the roast sweet potatos caused the most consternation. "Plating" is a concept not yet inculcated in American households, so it was interesting to watch the Italians arrange small portions on several plates and make trips back and forth to the buffet. I'm happy to say I piled my plate high and only left the turkey skin as a remnant of my gnoshing.

During the normal course of these international holiday celebrations, talk inevitably floats towards traditions. Thinking it over, I've celebrated Thanksgiving in Switzerland, Singapore, Washington DC and now, Italy. Each time, I bring up my family tradition of going around the table saying what we're thankful for according to letters of the alphabet. In DC, since I hosted, I made everyone at the table do it. I was going to keep quiet about it, but Monica has had thanksgiving with me before and insisted that we do it.

It's a good exercise in that it reminds us what we have in our lives (my Love, was one of them; Parents were another) and also elicits laughs for the more difficult letters (Questra turque (THIS turkey, for "q"). Although hokey, it's nice to see some traditions carry over. I think my mom would be proud.

I snuck away after dinner to skype my family, but someone kindly delivered a delicious piece of squash pumpking pie (plus homemade whip cream!). More wine. Caffe's all around. Jokes. Things devolved into only Italian later on the evening, but for the most part I was able to follow the conversation. Here was a place for people to gather, laugh, care for one another and eat mightily.

Now that's home, isn't it?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Viva Italia!

On Monday, we drove to the romanticized and much loved region of Tuscany, three hours from Monica's place in Faenza. It's November in Italy, and while there's no snow, overall it's cloudy, grey and foggy. However, after crossing over the Appenines, the weather immediately became sunnier and warmer. While romantics might encourage thinking this comes from the beauty of Tuscany, Monica assured me it was strictly geographical - there is simply no Po river valley in Tuscany!

We stopped first in Cortona and later, after dark, hit Montepulciano. (Side note: turns out that several scenes from the New Moon (Twilight) movie were filmed in Montepulciano. Who knew there were vampires in Italy?) We stopped at a copper smith, who made me a small bookmark while he chatted with Monica (he stamped 8 flowers on it, "One for each children" he winked) and then on to a small winery for some delicious Vino Nobile.

That night, we stayed with their friend, Pietro, who owns a small farmhouse in Gallina and had prepared wild boar stew for our visit. Being big cyclists (Monica owns a bike touring company), the next day we biked 26k through the Val d'Orcia to Montalcino. Best. ride. ever (even if I swore my undying hatred to Monica's fiance during the last 6k - an excruciatingly long 7 degree climb to the top of the hilltown. He took it in stride though - at one point, he biked and pushed me with one hand). I was rewarded at the top with a delicious meal of rabbit, polenta and Brunello wine.

That evening, the four of us headed to a small public hot spring. Having experienced the onsens of Japan, I was excited, and expecting a small hut, or place to change and wash before entering. Nope. It really was just two pools of hot water at the base of mountain, under a lamppost, next to a road, with some benches around it. It was rustic, and beautiful. A half moon and twinkling stars dangled above the valley, a few naked men lounged along the edge. I couldn't have imagined a better end to the perfect day.

After a late night of drinking Cuban rum and playing board games, we finally rolled out of bed and said goodbye to Pietro, his chickens and his lovely Tuscsan farmhouse. We found our way to Pienza and Siena, the latter being a truly gorgeous city. We crawled home, exhausted, ordered pizza from the shop round the corner. I slept for 12 hours.

I am hard pressed to remember a vacation as satisfying and relaxing as this one. When I backpacked through Rome and Florence in college, I distincly remember not liking it very much. Too many people, too much male attention, too dirty, too touristy. I keep teasing my friends that they've singlehandedly changed my perception of an entire country.

When I arrived on Sunday, Monica took me to a truffle and oil festival. As we chatted with one of the vendors (and smelled his white truffles - wow!), he found out that I'd only be here a week. "That's just enough time to make you stay longer," he said.

He's not wrong.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kindred Spirits

I returned home from my last trip, little worse for wear (save a wicked cold). Jumped straight into work (again), and then turned around and got on a plane two weeks later to Mombasa, Kenya. There's not much to post about that trip, as I spent it mostly inside a conference room.

Now, I am in Italy - resting - and, following on the advice of Elizabeth Gilbert - eating.

I'm also visiting my good friend and her fiance, whom I love to bits. They recently got engaged and I've never been more excited to look at churches, explore reception areas and discuss life plans. Anne Shirley would call them Kindred Spirits.

Having recently hit a milestone in my life, which I feel really good about, I'm realizing that life is made up of Kindred Spirits. You need these people - the ones that understand you, sniffle with you and call internationally when need be. I would've crawled from Africa to get here.

Anyway, that's my only thought these days. Make friends, keep family close, but keep your kindred spirits closer.