Student Blog: Food Science Course in Italy
Claire Robinson '11 — theatre arts
"FINALLY! I have made it to Florence, after years of wishing and dreaming."
The Adventures of a Part-Time Vegan Baptist in the Land of Meat, Cheese, and Wine: Spring Break 2010 in Italy
This trip could not have happened without the financial, organizational, and emotional support of the following people — Mrs. Imblum, Debra and Dyke Messinger, Catawba College's Honors Program, and of course my family. Many thanks to all of you for allowing me the opportunity to go to one of the most beautiful countries in the world to eat some of the best food I've ever tasted and learn about another culture. If I end up moving there, it's thanks to you.
When Dr. Sabo told us that we would be required to keep a personal journal during our week-long trip to Italy, I was excited that I would finally have a real reason to keep up with travel journaling. For a few years now, I have tried to faithfully document my travels to places like Singapore, London, and Paris, but I always lose steam halfway through my descriptions (full of florid prose) of experiences like failed haggling with fabric vendors in Singapore's Arab Street district or dealing with a bomb threat in London's Tube system at rush hour. Travel is always a life-changing experience, but this time I was getting graded on it, and consequently I wrote. A lot. Specifically, 71 pages of closely written chickenstratch in a tweed travel journal, with plenty of notes scribbled in the margins and small doodles for when I didn't have time to grab my camera. I write to remember, and I was attempting to capture
every little detail in this exhilarating, whirlwind trip through the highlights of Italy.
The following entries are exact transcriptions of what I wrote in my journal in the moment in Italy, although some have been slightly edited to take out sections that are overly personal or make no sense. The time, date, and location of each entry was noted, and it is important to keep in mind that many times I was writing an entry on the bus the day after things happened, so some entries and the accompanying "margin notes" are slightly out-of-order. Words you see in brackets [like this] are notes that were added while transcribing the handwritten journal into the computer. This trip was full of a lot of firsts for me, such as my first pear, my first alcoholic drink (Baptist, remember?), my first espresso, my first time seeing Rome, and many more. I hope you find my adventures, recorded in a somewhat haphazard and stream-of-consciousness fashion, entertaining, illustrative, and not-too-long-winded.
3/6/10 — On the plane to Munich — 6:40 p.m. EST
Nearly two years have passed since my last entry, and I never did finish that one up. Suff -
Well, then my pen exploded. Ballpoints seem to work better. We have 7 or so hours to Munich, where we have a layover for our connection to Milan. So far we haven't done anything too interesting, to be honest.
When I say "we" (I do have to write these things down, for posterity's sake), I mean my 15-member "Eating in the Arts and Sciences" chemistry/food class. We're going to Italy over spring break — Florence, Siena, Perugia, Parma, Rome — to eat food, experience the culture, and generally be awesome. This is my first time flying with Lufthansa, and it is definitely better than the sardine cans I fly to and from Houston on school breaks. The moist towelettes they passed out are vestiges of ye goode olde days of air travel, when the seats were leather instead of plastic and a plane ticket cost half as much as a new car.
The video map on the drop-down TV shows that we are just about to cross over Massachusetts, probably the last U.S. land we will see for a while.
The choice has come for my hot dinner!:
Vegetarian? -> Semi-vegan, which I am now due to high cholesterol [who knew? 19 and about to go on blood thinners. No thank you.]
Chicken? -> Probably tastier.
I don't know what to do. I'm so conflicted. Do I maintain my identity as a wishy-washy vegan, eating only healthsome vegetables and whole grains (not fruits, because they are sweet and sickly smelling and weird)?
I ended up not having a choice, since they ran out of chicken.
3/6/10 — Time ??? — Location ???
Verbleinde, Geschwindigkeit, Hohe, Uhrzeit im Zeilort, Flugzeit — Funny words in German.
Aberystwyth, Clanmacnois, Caernarvon — Funny town names in Wales.
Seeing the map of the UK and the northern coasts of France makes the travel-planning gears in my head turn. My bike tour of the NW coast of France [those of you who know me well should be rolling on the floor with laughter right about now, since I have never expressed an aptitude for or interest in long-distance biking in my entire life], a pilgrimage to the great literary sites in England, seeing Wales and touring Ireland — all of this must happen eventually (in addition to visiting exciting and faraway places like Addis Ababa, Santa Cruz, and Lisbon).
As we get closer to the ground, you can see that Munich has a dense blanket of snow over it, of all things. In March. I wish we were getting out here so we could go through the Bavarian winter wonderland, but chilly Tuscany will have to suffice.
3/7/10 — Munchen Airport — 10:15 a.m.
While I was doing my stage lighting homework, some of our group began playing Bananagrams and attracted a small audience of Asian tourists who are looking on with amusement and fascination. We have about another hour before we board the plane to Milan, and while we may have some admirers, I worry that we are annoying all of the other passengers (although I am always afraid of that when traveling).
Oh, someone broke out a video camera. Now we'll end up on YouTube! This is why I love traveling. Crazy things happen and you don't know what's going on and it's just wonderful! Only Honors kids would play Scrabble in an airport, by the way. [Big geeks that we are.]
3/7/10 6:45 p.m. — Hotel Lobby — Reggio nell'Emilia
I'm trying to slowly, painfully, difficultly write out our experiences since getting off the plane in Milan. We -
- Well, later. Playing Bananagrams for now.
3/8/10 — 8:40 a.m. — En route to Food factory
Ok, so to catch up! Once we landed in Milan, Italy, we reclaimed our baggage without incident and met Giorgio, our affable prankster of a tour director. We drove about two hours in a huge tour bus with lots of room to spread out and relax, stopping along the way at an Autogrill, a sort of cafeteria and gift store on the highway. I had a Mediterranean salad and ate an anchovy, which was very salty and tasted like vinegar. I didn't like it very much but I see the attraction for daredevil foodies.
We eventually ended up in a nice hotel in Reggio nell'Emilia, a small village in a fairly nondescript area of the countryside. We took a brisk walk down to the village and back for about an hour, passing a junkyard with a stone and terracotta house in the middle, the local church, small restaurants and shops (shuttered, since it was Sunday), and plenty of ruined houses and buildings. I don't know why that is, but the end result is beautiful, at least to me — I'm sure to the residents they are eyesores of a struggling economy. After the walk, we returned to the hotel lobby to warm up and play round after round of Bananagrams before dinner.
Speaking of dinner, I miss vegetables. I'm giving up being a part-time vegan this week, which is a good thing since the meal last night was rolls, prosciutto, pasta with tomato meat sauce, veal, potatoes, and apple pie (my first — it was ok)
Next up — I tried a pear! [It was good!] For now, we are entering a PaRmiGGiano ReGGiano [emphasis on the trilled Rs and hard Gs] factory.
Parmesan Cheese Tasting
- Scent — Pineapples, sweet w/depth
- Texture- Rough, grainy, breaks apart/crumbling, crunching in places
- Taste — meaty, nuts, pungent
The best. Cheese. Ever.
3/8/10 — Back on the bus
* Margin notes — Are there no stoplights in this country?!*
Wow. Just wow. We just finished our tour of the Parmigiano Reggiano factory, where we saw the entire process from beginning to end. Our guide is Melanie, an older woman from the UK who has been in Italy for 40 years and speaks Italian and English beautifully, with full round vowels and lush, crisp consonants.
The milk for the cheese comes from local cows that are grass-fed and aren't treated with antibiotics or growth hormones (it all affects the cheese). I won't go into the details of the process, but we saw vats of curds and whey heated with steam and tended by workers with paddles and various frightening gadgets. The curds are strained through cheesecloth, placed in molds, and pressed to form the huge 100 kilo wheels. After soaking in brine, they are place in a huge room of shelves called "the cheese cathedral" for up to 3 years to age and allow the moisture to be drawn out. Afterwards, we tasted parmesan from the factory, which has no more processing beyond slicing it up into ½ kilo pieces.
"Time and Respect" — the motto of Slow Food production.
We are now almost at Langhirano, a small market town whose main industry is the production of prosciutto, salted ham. Prosciutto is made from the shoulders and haunches of the pig, but like with the cheese nothing is wasted.
Langhirano is in the foothills and there is still a blanket of snow covering the land from last night's snowfall. Off the bus! More later.
3/8/10 — After the factory
That was weird. In a good way. 52,000 hams — that's 13,000 pigs — were in this processing facility. The legs of the slaughtered pigs arrive at the factory and go through a long process of salting, aging, salting, aging, rinsing, pressing, more salting, and finally trimming and aging. 12 months of "rest" (remember — give the raw material time) allows the meat to form a rind (the fat) and develop a full flavor. There are no additives, antibiotics, etc. in this either, and it was wonderful, even for a non-meat lover (although the bits of pig trimmings tracked all over the floor was disconcerting). The pigs for prosciutto are supposed to only be raised in the mountains, where the air from the coast and the forest picks up the scents of wood and the sea and sort of imbibes the meat with these flavors. Of course, that doesn't really happen anymore,
but it is nice to think about.
I tried capicola (neck meat), salami, and standard prosciutto, none of which were cooked, and a chunk of parmigiano. I'm actually feeling a little ill.
Torrequaria — the castle in Langhirano, built for the ruling guy in the 15th cent. For his mistress Bianca. Very square and solid, filming location for Ladyhawke. The legit wife, Antonia, got her dowry back when the marriage failed, and gave it to her 2 eldest daughters before retiring in dignity to a convent. Then she died of bubonic plague.
Lunch! My First Glass of Wine (Heaven help me ... )
- White — Bubbly; sharp, clean fruit/vinegar smell; tastes sweet but tart at same time; taste seeps into tongue, loses some sweetness.
- Red — Bubbly (Lambrusco — award-winning); sharp, clean, tangy; richer, smoother than white.
Artichoke hearts + red peppers = win!!! Also fig preserves, bread, parmesan cheese w/balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto.
I feel like I've been constantly eating for the past 2 days.
Behind the old-fashioned, dimly lit wine cellar is a state-of-the-art wine making and bottling operation, which we watched with fascination before we got kicked out.
Our bus driver, Claudio, operates this vehicle in a terrifying but virtuoso manner. He can pass a cyclist on a curve with oncoming traffic, execute a hairpin turn onto an unpaved country road, and parallel park in a tiny parking lot on the edge of a mountain. It's frightening to be so high up when we're careening along twisty roads, but I wear my seatbelt and pray a lot.
3/8/10 — Nearly 11:00 p.m. — Hotel Nazionale, Firenze!
FINALLY! I have made it to Florence, after years of wishing and dreaming. I almost made it here when my family went to Tuscany when I was about 10, but traffic was horrendous and we ended up having to go back before we saw anything. We made it into the city in one piece and (after embarrassingly wheeling our suitcases through the streets) checked into our very comfortable hotel, full of younger, crazier, louder students than us.
For dinner, Giorgio walked all of us to the piazza outside the Duomo, designed by Bruneschelli in the 15th century, where we split up to eat in the different pizzerias around the square and side streets. After listening to pitches by various outdoor hosts, we went into a place where I ordered vegetable pizza, a nice change after a day of meat and cheese. Some of our group went afterwards to check out the nightlife, but at that point I was already experiencing sensory overload from all my "firsts" today — first pear, first wine, first parmigiano, first prosciutto, first balsamic vinaigrette — and I just don't think I could handle a "first European club" tonight. Maybe another time.
Oh, I nearly forgot! We visited a balsamic vinegar factory (seems like an inappropriate word — it was located in a man's house that was half-store, half-workspace) in between lunch and going to Florence. The owner took us up to the attic where barrels are arranged in rows of 6 in descending order, like so:
The biggest barrel is filled with fresh grape juice every year, and some of the liquid is transferred to the next smaller barrel. The liquid is carried over from one barrel to the next smaller one for years — some barrels have been in this man's possession for 60 years! They are kept in the attic to take advantage of that area's extreme hot and cold temperatures.
Of course, we had to have a tasting afterwards! We tried industrial/common balsamic vinegar and condiment (which is a thicker, more concentrated version of balsamic), and traditional balsamic vinegar & condiment (made by the owner at this location). The first two tasted like nothing more than cough syrup. It was awful. I wasn't liking it at all, until I tried the traditional stuff. The bitterness, astringency, and harsh tang were brought way down, and what I remember best is the raisiny taste that exploded over my tongue when I tried the balsamic condiment.
The final tasting was of the vinegar over vanilla gelato. It tasted like McDonald's soft-serve mixed with a tart raisin sauce, and the weirdness of it highlighted both flavors. Altogether, though, I was glad when we were able to get some water and cleanse the intriguing but unsettling taste in my mouth.
It has been such a long first day! I feel like it's been three days already. Here's hoping we won't get burnt out by Saturday!
3/9/10 — Whatever the heck time it is
This morning we got up bright and early (7:00) and it was cold with flurries of snow, rain, and sleet. Thankfully, we were able to fortify ourselves with a delicious breakfast of pastries, cereal, teas, and coffee in the hotel before we went out (I had a whole grain roll, cold granola cereal, and Ceylon tea. It was wonderful.) We then walked together to the Duomo, where we were 45 minutes early for the meeting with our walking tour guide. To kill time, me, Zach, Quinn, and Danielle went to hit up the ATM [called a Bancomat in Italy] and go shopping. It was a bit early for purses (which I really need — my white canvas tote that says "Paris" on it will not do for Italy in winter), but I helped everyone else pick out scarves — teal for Danielle, tan for Zach, and a very Irish brown/cream plaid for Quinn. Now whenever I see those scarves, I will be reminded
of that shopping experience.
We eventually rendezvoused with our tour guide, who spoke very quietly into her Whisper machine, which is like a small radio that you tune into using a wireless headset Giorgio passed out to each of us. I hate things like that and I couldn't get mine to work anyway, so I just stuck close to her. We waited outside the Duomo (properly the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) and she gave us some background information on the construction of the church and its history. The main façade we see today was actually added in the 19th century in a Gothic style, hence the slight over-doneness of it all. Once the morning service ended we humble tourists (who treat the sacred space like a secular museum) were allowed inside.
The cruciform cathedral is surprisingly sparse of furnishings for such a famous monument. The main ornamentation is the many-colored marble patterning on the floor, which is amazingly complex and varies from areas to area. There are stained glass windows of course, and transepts closed to all but worshippers (as they should be) and two pipe organs and several paintings and a clock from the Renaissance that runs backwards and huge stacked Corinthian columns and a gold cross/altar, but the most magnificent thing is the dome itself, hundreds of feet high and covered in fresco paintings. More on that when I get to the section on our climb.
From the Duomo we walked for what felt like ages but was probably only about 10 minutes to the Old Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, which like London Bridge of old is covered in shops (particularly gold and silversmiths) and gives a good view up and down the river. We then walked over the Uffizi and saw its huuuuuge line, then to the piazza whose name I can't remember, but it's the one in A Room with a View where Helena Bonham Carter faints. The statues were gorgeous but by that point I couldn't feel my feet anymore and I just wanted to sit down. I was struck by "The Rape [ok, Abduction, Willingly] of the Sabine Women" sculpture, in which 3 figures, springing up and off of each other, create this fantastic 3D spiral of movement.
Once our walking tour ended, we were delivered to a leather goods store, a fairly high-end one that sold everything from keychain wallets to buttery soft leather jackets worth hundreds of euros. We had a short demonstration of the manufacture of a leather jewelry box (1 layer of stiff, wet raw hide for structure plus several layers of softer hide, shaped around a mold and left to dry before being dyed, waxed, and stamped) as well as a crash course in how to tell if that 10-euro leather jacket you're buying is real (hint: it's not real unless the back is suede). The lecturer was an Italian guy about our age, maybe a little older, who had been raised in Buffalo and sounded just like us. I stumped him with a question of what specific kinds of vegetable dyes were used to color the leather. He had no idea J.
* Margin notes — Our hotel room: definitely haunted. The bathroom door opens on its own, the curtains constantly blow back and forth, and we just heard a high-pitched whistling wind in the hallway. *
Afterwards, we shopped in their store and had heart attacks at the prices, but I found a lovely pair of badly needed warm gloves that are suede and knit fabric (all black). Definitely worth it, and I was much more comfortable for the rest of the day.
For lunch we were given the option of eating at a fascinating indoor food market with a soup-and-sandwich stall, vegetable/fruit stalls, meat stalls, fish stalls, prosciutto stalls, etc., but the group I was with was so hungry that we just decided to find somewhere, anywhere to eat something already made. We ended up in a ristorante with a focacceria/pizzeria in the back, where we all ordered individual slices of pizza and we had a great relaxed lunch, warming up and getting full.
On our way to the Galleria Accademia [for our afternoon of free time], Jarrett decided that he was absolutely sure that he knew how to get there, and so he led us through a dizzying outdoor market full of stalls selling purses, tacky souvenirs, scarves, and so on. We weren't finding it (I did ask a lady in a stall "Mi scusi, dove il Accademia, per favore?" which resulted in an unintelligible word and a point in the direction we were already going, unfortunately not specific enough) and it turned out that Jarrett was trying to get us to the Uffizi, not the Accademia. Crystal asked for directions like the girl filled with chutzpah that she is, and I tried to get us to the right place as well, but we ended up passing the entrance and having to double back because the door was just so small, unlabelled and unassuming.
The Accademia is most well-known for Michelangelo's David sculpture, but besides that it has a nice collection of sculpture (marble and plaster casts) and an excellent collection of medieval religious art (which unfortunately is my least favorite period of art, except for the exquisitely detailed altar cloth that gives highlight and shadow to flesh with no more than thread!) The David of course was my favorite. It's a perfect example of classical ideals of the human form, minutely detailed (there are veins on his hands! Veins!) that still expresses emotion and tension. So many classical sculptures are just exercises in developing the human figure, but David is both alive and a perfect statue. I tried drawing him for my costume design renderings, and it kind of worked. I think I had an audience of a couple of French men nearby, since I kept hearing "dessin" and "elle" behind
me. I got frustrated and embarrassed eventually and decided to leave to see the rest of the museum.
At 4:00, we split up again, some people going back to the hotel to rest before dinner and the rest of us going back to the Duomo to climb to the top! We paid our 8 euros to get in and began climbing up the 400-odd steps, huffing and puffing with our hearts pounding in our throats. When we made it out onto the first, inside level of the dome, we gasped at the view of the church floor below. I loved seeing how the marble patterns resolved themselves when viewed from above. We then went up some twisty spiral stairs, short narrow flights broken up by landings that went back and forth, and finally up a steep, steep set of stairs that opened up onto the top of the cupola (all the walls are completely covered in graffiti — some mundane, some sad, some funny) and a breathtaking view of the red-roofed city, the fog-covered hills in the country, and the other churches and towers below. The high
wind whipped around us, tugging at our jackets and hats and scarves and frightening me into imagining us all lifted off the dome and dashed to the soaked cobblestones of the piazza below, but I clung to the railings and columns and survived. After a group photo, we made our way back down more steep stairs, slowly but surely.
The second, higher level of the inside dome brings you close enough to the frescoes to touch them were it not for the protective glass above the walkway. The frenzied demons, bloodthirsty monsters, and rolling-eyed damned of Dante's circles of hell at the bottom give way to beatific saints, serene cherubim and seraphim, and of course Jesus and Mary at the top of the top. Around the edge of the cupola, at the very top is a trompe a l'oeil that makes it seems as though men in robes are leaning over a railing, observing all the goings-on below (an odd position to place mortals — above God — especially in a church).
We needed a sugar rush after all of that exercise, so we rushed to the nearest gelateria where we bought overpriced but delicious creamy gelato and sat together, talking and being entertained by Kyra's attempts to roll her r's in the Italian fashion. We then went back to the hotel, where I got overdressed to go out for our delicious Slow Food meal at 7:00. It was so slow that we returned at 11:00! But it was the most interesting culinary experience that I've ever had.
The Meal began with antipasti:
- Prosciutto, caprese, whole grain bread, liver pate crostini (amazing!), extra virgin olive oil, salami, and red wine.
- The Pasta course — Ricotta ravioli, penne bolognese, flat pasta with wild boar sauce, bread crumb and vegetable stew (perfect for winter! Onions, potatoes, carrots, spinach — I want [to make] this!), barley, white bean, and tomato puree soup — also amazing. Barley is like extra-clumped rice.
- Meat — So much flesh! And so unidentifiable. I only had little pieces. Lamb, chicken, beef, veal, Rabbit. White bean and tomato puree soup, herbed and cooked potatoes, cooked spinach
- Dessert — panacotta, profiteroles, chocolate pie tart thing, custard pie with powdered sugar, fruit tart (didn't try), biscotti with vin santo (weird. Crusty cookie dipped in super-strong amber wine — pungent, burning).
- Wine — Muscato. AMAZING! White wine, sweet, fizzy, floats over your tongue, delicious. I finished my whole glass.
- Espresso — My first! Super rich and bitter, tasty.
Probably about 1:30 a.m. Time for bed. Nearly 8 1/2 pages today. Not bad at all!
3/10/10 — Hotel Lobby
Waiting for our group to gather and set off for our full-day wine (more alcohol!) and cooking lesson. We're making ravioli and who knows what else. But enough about what we've done, I want to talk about how I feel about it.
I've run out of adjectives to describe this trip. As awesome as this all is, I feel like it's just a tease, a little taste that makes me want to come back and stay here forever. The Uffizi especially was something I didn't get to see that I really, really, really wanted to. Someone commented that they wanted to transplant Florence to Salisbury, but I don't think that would quite work. Context, history, relationships with other countries and cultures — those matter. Moving it all to Salisbury and the Piedmont plain kind of ruins it.
I also feel like this week is a dream, one that won't end and I won't have to go back to school and Chartwells. You can't live in a dream forever, I guess.
"Someone left the Youtube in German!" — Quinn, at the hotel computers.
Only when abroad ... well, we're about to leave. More mind-blowing entries to come!
3/10/10 — 9:31 p.m. — In the room
*Margin notes — Real vin santo: Aged 7 years. Real extra virgin olive oil: 0.10-0.15% acidity, DOP or IGP stamp*
3/11/10 — Hotel lobby, after breakfast
How is it already March 11th? The time has been flying by, and we're halfway down with this trip L. I have about 30 minutes to kill before we have to pack up and get onto the bus for Siena, so I am going to try and write all there is to write about yesterday.
So we walked, and walked and walked form the hotel past the Ponte Vecchio and the river, crossing at a very different, modern bridge (on which there is a spot where lovers clamp a padlock onto a clump of other padlocks, write their names on the keys, and throw them into the river) into a quieter, less touristy but romantic neighborhood. There, we waited until two white vans pulled up and we all piled in. I rode in the van with Steve, our tour guide for the day, who told us that we was actually originally from Wilmington, North Carolina! He left when he was 22, in 1971, to follow a girl and to continue his studies in music after he graduated from NC School of the Arts. He's been here for almost 36 years, he teaches music privately, and leads tours for The Accidental Tourist, the non-traditional tour company that put together our itinerary for this day. He also speaks with a slight English
accent, since his first wife was from London and he "just likes it better".
After a 20 minute drive through the rolling Tuscan hills carpeted in olive trees, vineyard, and terracotta-roofed stone houses, we arrived at Fattoria di Grignano, a winery and olive oil factory that makes high-quality Chianti and extra virgin olive oil. Steve led us through the entire process, from the picking of the olives (done by hand with a handheld mechanical tree-shaker and nets to catch the olives when they fall on the ground), which are then funneled down to a machine on a lower level that separates the olives from the twigs and leaves and rinses them.
*Margin notes — "Verba volant, scripta manent — Words fly, writing remains"*
The olives are then pressed and separated into their different components and after a variety of stages that I really can't remember, the oil is put into huge terracotta jars, some of which are over a hundred years old, for storage. I bought a small bottle of olive oil, and heaven knows how I'm going to get it home.
After the olive oil, we learned how the wine is made, and I honestly don't remember much of that either. It was much the same process — separating, pressing, filtering, etc. — as the olive oil, except that the wines are placed in huge oak casks to age for at least 1 year, often 2 or 3 (there was at least 1 casks of Chianti Rufina from 2004). Some of these wines sell for 50 euros or more on the open market, and they are placed to age for longer in smaller toasted oak casks which cost 300 euros each and have to be replaced every 3 years! (I keep writing prices. It's probably because I'm just a materialistic American). This particular company, based in a beautiful aristocrat's villa from the Renaissance that is now owned by a family of fashion people, is trying to revitalize and re-invent Chianti as a precious, expensive, high-quality product rather than a way to
get drunk cheaply. They make a "new" version of Chianti Rufina that eliminates the small percentages of white wines and replace them with foreign red wines. About 85% of it is still made with local red wines.
* Margin note — We passed a WWII American cemetery on the way to Siena with a couple hundred graves. Giorgio said most of them were killed when they were about our age.*
Of course, we had to have a wine tasting after seeing how they were all made! We went to a smaller, more rustic house and gathered around a large wooden table that the company founder said was her grandfather's and was 400 years old! We started with slices of crusty Tuscan bread, bland because it has no salt, drizzled with light and slightly olive-tasting olive oil. Then we were all served half-glasses of three different grand riserva red wines:
- Youngest; light red transparent color; fruity, sweet smell/taste; very little bitter aftertaste
- Older wine; darker red, more opaque; more neutral, acid, woody smell/taste; warm, penetrating taste; slightly cough-syrupy on back of tongue
- Oldest; darkest, most opaque color; very woody, acidic, warm; strong!
Ok, we've arrived in Siena. More later.
3/11/10 — On the bus — 2:21 p.m.
*Margin note — "Oh, sugarpuffs!" is Giorgio's favorite expletive*
I LOVE SIENA. It's so old, and pedestrian-friendly, and calmer and less gimmicky than Florence. Despite being cold and snowy, I had a great time and I really want to come back!
Anyway, back to the wine tasting yesterday. In between the three red wines we had more bread with olive oil, which tastes so much better after wine [note: not because we were drunk, your taste buds are just more sensitive or something afterwards]! To finish up, Steve presented a slender bottle filled with an amber wine. He told us it was vin santo, which is one of the desserts we had at the Slow Food Restaurant the other night. The reason he told us that is was so strong before was that it wasn't real vin santo. Real vin santo is made from grapes that have been plucked and laid over rafters to dry until they are pressed to produce a syrupy juice that is aged for 7 years at least. We each received a small glass with a tiny bit of it at the bottom, and Steve told us to sip it and close our eyes while he "played music" — that is, while he sang a beautiful medieval
song about the Annunciation in Latin.
The vin santo itself was ... heavenly (an appropriate adjective). Not at all like the burning alcohol from the other night, but smooth and sweet and warm and rich. That will be the only kind of vin santo I will have, ever.
To San Gimignano!
* Margin note — San Gregorio and Santa Fina — who? Patron saints of San Gimignano? In tower museum*
Our cooking class was led by Steve, who taught us to make pasta dough, half of which we turned into fettuccine noodles and the rest was ravioli.
To make pasta dough you need
- Semola flour (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 egg
- A pinch of salt
That's all! Fold the flour into egg as you scramble it. This creates a ball of sticky dough. Add flour as needed until the dough doesn't leave bits on your hands when you roll it. Knead the dough vigorously, breaking it open and adding flour if there is moistness in the middle.
Flatten the dough into a thin disk. Run it through the pasta machine, twice in each direction on the first setting, and once on each other setting, getting thinner and longer each time.
3/12/10 — 8:22 a.m. — Leaving Borgo San Luigi
*Margin note — What's a bus tour without getting lost?"
We just stayed the night in the most beautiful Tuscan villa, where we, Danielle, and Carrie Foster ate a dinner of soft bread, Parmigiano Reggiano, assorted prosciutto, salad, Nutella, and olive oil.
Danielle had her first Kinder Egg (she got a Smurf and liked it). Almost everyone came over and we had a nice evening, eating and talking and playing Bananagrams, of course. And that was our evening in Borgo San Luigi (once we found it).
Back to pasta making!
To turn the flattened dough into fettuccine, cut it into 12" lengths and run them through the wide-noodle attachment on the machine. Then, thrown them into a big pile and coat them thoroughly in the semola flour.
For ravioli, cut as many circles (about 4" in diameter) as you can out of the flattened strips. Then you add the filling (put flour down on the table to keep everything from sticking):
- Ricotta cheese
- Cooked spinach, well-chopped
- Half of a nutmeg, grated
- A pinch of salt
- Lots of parmigiano!
Mix all of these together very well and put small spoonfuls in the middle of each circle, molding them into narrow oblong shapes. Fold the circles in half, matching the edges and pinching and smoother so there is no air and the ricotta stays in place. Crimp the edges with either a rolling tool or a fork and put the finished ravioli on a baking tray for transport.
After we washed up, we went upstairs (we were in a back building of a local's home) to eat a very late lunch. Christiana, our hostess, cooked a real feast of fritatte (a sort of quiche pancake with zucchini), margherita pizza, and delicious parmesan tomatoes [unlike the Styrofoam in carved-out tomatoes we get in the caf]. Christiana also cooked our ravioli (put in boiling water 3-4 minutes. Serve with light butter and sage sauce) and fettuccine (boiled, served with olive oil and small tomato slices) which we all tried despite all being very, very full. Despite groaning about how stuffed we all were, we all found room to devour Christiana's divine tiramisu, which, no lie was the best tiramisu I have ever had.
* Margin note — Also, Christiana made the most amazing fried olive things that we sampled during our cooking class.*
We said our goodbyes, played with Luna the golden lab, and drove back to Florence. At this point, we were set lose for the rest of the evening. I still hadn't replaced my white Paris tote, which was getting grimier by the second and was out of place in winter in Italy anyway, so I set off to the market with Lori [my roommate] and some other people. The stalls in the open-air market alternate between selling trinkety souvenirs, purses/leather goods, and scarves, or some combination of the three. We had a long, fruitless search for The Perfect Bag:
- Roughly the same size/shape as the Paris tote
- Leather or "leather" in a non-neutral colors
- Zipped closed, with pockets on the inside
- No more than 30 euros
That last factor was the sticking point, because there were literally dozens of bags that would have worked in the stalls that stretched along the streets for days. However, they were all at least twice was I could have paid, and Lori and I ended up walking away empty handed.
*Margin notes — Italian music seems to take a lot from American music. The station Claudio has the radio on has played songs that have very similar-sounding chord progressions, riffs, etc.*
As we were walking along one of the tourist streets, eating Belgian waffles doused in chocolate, I suddenly stopped in front of a store I must have passed several times, but never noticed. "Segue: Value-Priced Purses" (I guessed from the receipt) had a cornucopia of bags, bags, bags — some large, some small, all fake. After searching, I found The Bag, which ended up being red. I was very happy. I feel much more blended in and stylish now. Right next door to Segue was the Holy Grail — a Liberty fabric store. Through the window I gawked at the cottons, silks, and wools, all way too expensive and way too tempting. I took a few pictures for posterity and in case I ever want to go back, but then I ran away for fear of going in and going bankrupt.
Before finally going back to the hotel, we took a short detour to Santa Maria de Novella, the church that we passed almost every time we went anywhere from leaving the hotel. I think Bramante (?) [I was wrong — it was Alberti, in 1470] built it, and it is an excellent example of early 16th [Italian Renaissance, late 15th] century architecture. We went to the square in front, took a few pictures, saw the Gypsies sleeping in the doorways, and went back to our room and went to sleep at 10:30.
Finally! So, Wednesday is done. It's Friday now, and we're almost at the chocolate factory in Perugia. I still need to cover:
- Florence — is a wonderful city, but I didn't get enough! I still need to see the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti and the non-touristy areas and go fabric shopping and so many other things!
- How to eat — This trip has taught me how you should eat:
a. With other people
b. At a table, sitting down
c. With lots of fresh, good food
d. (In small portions)
e. For at least half an hour, about 3 max
*Margin note — Why is everyone sleeping all the time on this bus? *
At the factory. Oh, cioccolata!
3/12/10 — 11:45
*Margin note — Giorgio is comparing and contrasting the Italian and U.S. economies and spending cultures — we're losing.*
I have one milk chocolate and one dark chocolate bar from the factory, which smelled delectable. We got to see a reproduction of a 6-ton baci chocolate they made for a chocolate festival and the factory floor. I love seeing all the machinery working like clockwork, producing immense amounts of product, and seeing all the different super-specialized jobs machines and do now that used to be done by hand. Humans are really just accessories to the entire process. "Baci" means "kisses" in Italian, but unlike Hershey's kisses they are marketed romantically, with a couple embracing under a dark blue starry sky. There are also romantic messages inside, and the chocolates themselves are a dark chocolate shell filled with soft hazelnut/milk chocolate mousse, topped with a hazelnut.
After some speed bumps in getting onto the bus and misinformation on when and where to meet, we were en route to Siena.
Siena is one of the few major cities in Europe that became rich and powerful with being built on a river or on the coast. It got that way because of the bank here, which became extreme influential in the Renaissance and as a money changing operation. Consequently, there are very few poor people, and I didn't see any Gypsies there.
*Margin notes — Giorgio hates Gypsies, not because they don't have jobs or are another race, but because they exploit their children on the street as beggars. Gypsies = illegal U.S. Immigrants? Not sure. Lake Parsignano (sp?) — huge! Roman legions suffered defeat at hands of Hannibal here. *
All of this information came from our walking tour guide, Donatella, a short and peppy Italian woman who had a quirky felt hat with plenty of random buttons sewn on it. She took us into a small church, empty of tourists and full of old dark corners, faded paintings and frescoes, and chipped gilded woodwork, and we sat in the pews and listened to her talk about the history of Siena and of course its famous Palio.
The Palio is the twice-yearly horse race held in the Piazzo del Campo in July and August. The 17 or so districts compete against each other, forming a complex web of alliances and rivalries held together by bribes and promises that may or may not be kept. Competition is fierce, and district membership is taken so seriously that Sienese children are baptized twice — a religious ceremony in the church, and a secular ceremony in the district baptismal fountain. Before the race the district horse (which, like everything else, is chosen by lottery) is taken into the church and blessed (if it drops something inside the sanctuary that is considered good luck). The race lasts a minute and a half, but people pack the square for hours beforehand, building tension. The jockeys are outsiders and ride bareback, and are all given money to bribe each other and threatened with a beating if they take bribes.
This creates a problem, of course, so district leaders have to guess if their jockeys are indeed being bribed or not. The Palio is a time when all the rules are turned upside down and the winners pay the losers. One day I want to come and see it.
*Margin note — Giorgio has been talking about Italy vs. U.S. economy, culture, politics and government for almost an hour [and he had everyone's rapt attention.*]
Phew. So after all that, Donatella led us on a cold, snowy walk up and down the narrow, twisty, cobblestone street with medieval buildings rising up on either side. We eventually came upon the Campo Square itself, which isn't a square at all, but shaped more like a sort of amphitheatre surrounded by ristorantes, pizzerias, and souvenir shops. It wasn't swimming with gross materialism or tourism, which was nice. I had a light lunch of bruschetta with chopped tomatoes and roasted vegetables, including an amazing artichoke heart that was really flavorful (and I'm getting hungry just writing about it so I'll stop).
We finally got to the famous Siena cathedral, which was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. Everything is in differently-colored marbles, and they form complex geometric patterns and full murals on the flour. Sculptures of the popes line the top of the walls, and a vaulted ceiling is painted blue with gold stars. In a side room there were huge illuminated manuscripts beneath colorful and detailed murals. The façade was classical Gothic, with twisted columns, pointed arches, sculptures, multicolored marble, and gold paintings at the very top. I wanted to stay and absorb it, but we were taken back to the Piazza and set loose for two hours.
*Margin note — 9x12 degrees C = 108/5 = 21.6 + 32 = 53.6 degrees F. Yes! The warmest it's been all week!*
Now we are at Civita di Bagnoregio! And I'm feeling nauseous, so I'm stopping. Blech.
3/12/10 — 5:12 p.m. — Entering Rome
I'm so excited! Rome! The city I've wanted to go to since I saw Roman Holiday when I was 8 and wanted to be Audrey Hepburn (well, I still want to be her) and fall in love with Gregory Peck. So far the city is pretty, but not breathtaking like Civita, which we saw earlier this afternoon (more on that later).
Oh, oh, we're passing rich, terracotta-colored stucco buildings. Those are nice. The apartment buildings are blocky and have warm orange and pink and brown walls with colorful shutters, curtains, and balconies. Claudio keeps honking his horn, which interfered with my sleep all the way from Civita. Crazy Neapolitan.
3/13/10 — 12:30 ish a.m. — Hotel Edera
Roma is beautiful, even at night when you're cold, hungry, lost, stressed out, and broke.
[Going back to Siena for now] After eating the yummy vegetables in the restaurant, we went to a free art exhibition by Ali Hassoun, a Lebanese artist who works in Siena and is a friend of Donatella. His work was fascinating: colorful, touches of photorealism, high contrast colors and textures, symbolism and quirky imagery, re-imaginings/homages to artists like Picasso, and a focus on African and Middle Eastern subjects, religions, mothers, and their relationship to the West. It was thrilling and refreshing after so much medieval art.
The last thing we did was try the Sienese specialty of rice flour batter fried in oil and dusted with powdered sugar. A local delicacy, it is only sold at a small wooden store in a corner of the Piazza during March. I tried some and it was sweet, warm, oily, and delicious.
Out of all the cities and towns we have visited, I think I would want to actually live in Siena. Rome (so far) is very hectic and doesn't have a particular "feel" to it, Florence is pretty gimmicky in areas, and the hilltop towns are much too small to nourish my need for dynamic culture. Siena is romantic, calm, and old like Civita de Bagnoregio, but has the beautiful churches and art of Florence, without as many tourist traps. I don't know what I would do there, though — become a banker?
Ok, so that's Siena! We then got on a bus after far too short a time and went to San Gimignano, passing signs for Volterra (!) [city of Twilight: New Moon fame] on the way. A very small town on top of a Tuscan hill, most of the buildings are medieval, including the 14 towers that still stand. While most of our group went to the Museum of Torture, I elected to climb the tallest tower and visit the small medieval art museum inside.
3/13/10 — 8:30 a.m. — Hotel Edera, about to go to the Vatican
The medieval art was all pretty standard — Jesus suffering on the cross, Madonna and child, that kind of thing — except for two multi-paneled murals that depicted the lives of San Gregorio and Santa Fina. The signage was all in Italian and we couldn't figure out either story, so we tried to decipher the meaning based only on the pictures and symbolism. Actually, I felt a lot like the illiterate peasants who were never able to read the texts their beliefs were based on. At the end of our visit I asked the Italian-speaking store people to tell me the story, and they laughed and said to me in halting English that it was a very long, complicated story, but that Santa Fina was a teenage girl who was paralyzed from the waist down. There were miracles, and now she protects the town. The most I could guess about San Gregorio was that he was a bishop or something who also protects
the town. I'll Wikipedia it when I get home, along with the town of Orvieto, which sounds really family in relation to Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon [When I got home, I found out that Orvieto was where Pope Clement fled for refuge when the Spanish emperor, Catherine's nephew, sacked Rome. Santa Fina has her own Wiki page].
The tower climb itself was a little scary, but the view at the top — which was totally manageable, with a thick stone chest-high wall — was breathtaking. We could see the red roofs and mossy brown walls of the town, so densely packed that you couldn't see the streets below. The rolling Tuscan hills stretched away for miles and miles, the higher ones covered in fog, some dusted with snow that looked like powdered sugar, the rest patchworked together into a panoramic quilt of trees, vineyards, olive groves, and fields. It's clichéd really, and I felt like it was just too good to be real, but it was.
Mrs. Sabo left us after that, and we spent some time wandering the twisting cobblestone streets behind people's houses. We found a little park and walked around trying to get up to see some old ruins.
At St. Peter's Square!
*Margin note — Duomo = Home of God*
3/13/10 — 1:35 pm. — Near St. Peter's Square
I just had a delicious panino with prosciutto and formaggi at a small, quiet sandwich shop by St. Peter's Basilica. One of the salespeople from the souvenir shop next door jumped in to help me order before I even opened my mouth. I could have done it too! I would have said –
"Vorrei un panino normale con prosciutto e formaggi, per favore."
* Margin note — Our last day has dawned bright, sunny, clear, and relatively warm. La bella Roma!*
Our tour guide, Nicoletta, was an older Italian woman who used a shiny organza green scarf on a pole to lead us, all the while calling us her "family". We went through the Vatican museums looking at the Grecian and Roman (copies of Greek) sculptures, noting the movement and focus on details. There were entire vaulted ceilings and walls that looked like they were carved in marble reliefs but were actually just painted with plenty of highlight and shadow. The floors and walls were decorated with more geometric marble inlays and floral or geometric mosaics, or at the very least religious frescoes. There was also (surprisingly) an entire section devoted to modern religious art.
3/13/10 — 7:21 p.m. — Squisito
*Margin note — "I didn't give him [Claudio] my wild boar sausage" — Ryan O'Hare, lamenting his forgetfulness in not giving Claudio a parting gift.*
Really hard time navigating cities
[more] Good looks
Incredible ability to make me [Carrie Foster] swoon
Et voila. This was Carrie's speech to Giorgio before giving him his thank-you note and tip. He got up to say thank you and began to get choked up (he hates goodbyes) and sat down with a teary "Sugarpuffs!"
3/13/10 — 10:20 p.m. — Hotel Edera
[In San Gimignano] Carrie, Danielle and I decided to meander back to the meeting point and supermarket via the main cobblestone streets, since our path to the ruins was blocked by a huge freshly fallen tree. Along the way we impulsively bought gelato, despite the weather being cold and threatening snow. I got one scoop of Nutella flavor and one scoop of vin santo flavor, which were both pretty much standard cream flavor with Nutella/purple sauce on top. The purple sauce tasted like fake raspberry flavoring — it was still good!
We went to the supermarket for our feast, and it was very different than Food Lion or Aldi. For one thing, almost all the produce was fresh and fairly seasonal (hence a smaller selection), we saw very few heavily processed products, the butcher/deli was very busy, and white, sliced bread was nonexistent. It was also smaller than an American supermarket and the prices were reasonable as well. Carts are nonexistent, and they had all my favorite European candy.
*Margin notes — They don't have ice in Italy!!! Me and Kyra realized this last night.*
Then we went to Borgo San Luigi, which was beautiful, except it was so old and secluded we thought we were in a horror movie and all about to die. But it was ok and we had a party and went to the chocolate factory the next day [see previous entries for more detail].
3/14/10 — 12:00 noon — Frankfurt am Main airport
RFDU — Royal Fire Department of Uganda. An acronym I came up with during a thrilling abbreviations-only game of Bananagrams during our 3-hour layover in the Frankfurt airport.
Once we settled into our hotel, me and a group of 9 other people walked into the streets of Rome to see the sights and get some dinner. We wandered through the Colosseum, the edges of the Forum, and the victory monument, all of which were lit up in warm ambers and cools blues and were peaceful late at night, with a cool breeze and clear skies.
We went and found a restaurant as soon as possible, where I had a filling meal of lentil soup with plenty of bread, and the friendly waiter (who had a bushy snow-white mustache and a suit to match) was kind enough to split the check for us when we had problems making change for 7 people.
Then we walked. And walked. And walked, trying to get to the Pantheon with an inaccurate and vague map. When we did get there it was dark and closed, so we admired from afar. We did go into the McDonald's on the lit-up square, where they have a delicious-looking tiramisu milkshake (no, I did not buy anything; I do still have a soul). Afterwards, I led us to the Trevi Fountain, or what we thought was the Trevi Fountain — we went right instead of left at an important street and ended up at the Piazza Quirinale, a large cobblestone terrace in front of a government building with a 19th-century-looking fountain in front of it and a great view of the dome of St. Peter's basilica.
We asked a Swedish? German? Dutch? A nice-non-Italian-English-speaking couple where we were and they laughed a little and showed us their map. Using their help, we finally got there, and it was "predictably" swarming with school groups, kissing couples, and people hawking roses and light-up toys. I admired, looked around for Gregory Peck, and threw a coin over my left shoulder so that I would come back to Rome. Its happening, no question.
I helped Lizzie bargain for a cheap fake Louis Vuitton bag to carry home her wine and olive oil in, and then I led us all the way back to the hotel (Crystal, feisty and filterless as ever, asked a dozing policeman in his booth where we were, just to check), without getting lost once, I might add. I felt in my element in Rome, with the tall old buildings and cars whizzing by and narrow streets and strange languages all around and that city smell of course, not to mention danger around every corner.
Back to the Vatican! I didn't even know that there was such a thing as modern religious art, not in any direct way. I thought that after the Renaissance it more or less wasn't allowed, or at least after the birth of abstract art. I wanted to stop and take it in, because modern art can and should still be a highly regarded expression of Christian faith, but of course we had to rush along to the Sistine Chapel.
Oh my, the Sistine Chapel.
- Yes it was astounding. Smaller than I had expected, but every inch was covered in colorful, detailed frescoes. This really was Michelangelo's masterpiece.
- There are a lot of inside jokes, like how one of the really ugly demons is modeled after a cardinal that Michelangelo didn't like.
- Is it worth dying for art? I don't really think so. Michelangelo worked for 9 years on the chap, went blind, and died. Now we revere him for it. I'm not sure it's worth it.
- The Sistine Chapel? Not. A. Chapel. I couldn't connect or commune with any God I know in that place, which was noisy, full of stressed people, yelling guards, whining children, chattering guides, flashing cameras, people smacking gum, and worst of all a P.A. system intermittently blasting admonitions not to do all of the above things in various languages.
- Plus there was a rood screen. Clerical snobbery!
It was a blessed relief to get out of there and walk to St. Peter's. On the way we passed the Holy Door, which is opened every 25 years (roughly one generation back when it was originally built). Nicoletta told us that the idea is that during the year that it is open, anyone can pass through it at any time to begin or renew their spiritual lives in one of the holiest places for Christians. I think that is beautiful, and I will hopefully walk through it the next time it is open, in 2024.
The Basilica itself is, of course, breathtaking. Michelangelo's Pieta is graceful and arresting, the "paintings" are actually mosaics made of millions of tiny tiles in an entire spectrum of colors, and there is a multicolored marble inlay and goldwork and carving and Bernini's twisty altar cover and incredibly complex marble sculptures, but what was most impactful for me was the faith of those who were visiting. Parts of the transepts are blocked off to tourists and are reserved "for the faithful" — people who pray, quietly, and light candles and go to confession and view the space and more than a museum, unlike the Sistine Chapel. The toes on the statue of Saint Peter have been worn away by centuries of believers touching them for blessings and good luck. Lamps that burn oil from Jerusalem are kept going all day long and the windows, although they were
high in the vaulted ceiling, let in crisp rays of clear sunshine, some of the first we had seen all week. Despite our group's hustle and bustle, I did get a feeling of peace in that place, and I left regretfully.
*Margin note — They do still hold daily Mass in St. Peter's *
The square outside and the columns were impressive in size but not very interesting otherwise, and at least the souvenir shop we were not-so-subtly hinted to buy from was surprisingly not chaotic. We had an hour of time to shop and at (which is when I had my panino) and then we boarded the bus for the last time, to ride from the Vatican (I would love to explore their library some day!) to the Colosseum.
*Margin note — We said a tearful goodbye to Claudio at the Colosseum*
Costumed "gladiators" aside, it really was cool, if dirtier, smeller, and more run-down than I was expecting. The entire surface (really, all the ruins in Rome, which are all over and are intergrated into the city itself) is pitted with holes, which are left over from the cannibalization of the iron support bars during the Middle Ages. It was your pretty standard amphitheatre really, and I just wish that we had been let down into the labyrinth that would originally have been covered by the wooden floor. We techies just have to see what's going on backstage. Our tour guide, Giovanni, spoke very cultured, metropolitan Italian and English, and rather than a shiny green scarf to lead us he just held his hand above his head, his fingers curved in a beckoning gesture. He helped us understand how Romans weren't really terrible, evil people because they like seeing gladiators
fight and die, but that they didn't view the gladiators as people, just animals for entertainment. It seems unlikely any of them would have ever even met a gladiator. That helped me come to terms with the whole idea of what went on in the Colosseum. Also, sailors were in charge of opening and closing the canvas curtains/screen over the audience. Those crazy riggers.
After the Colosseum we went over to the Forum, which is filled with fragments of columns and walls and blocks which are just used for benches by visitors now. Somehow, they're able to figure out what an entire building looked like based only on a tiny bit of wall or arch or whatever. It's really amazing — we saw a piece of the temple to Vesta, a huge complex of arches and walls that was a palace on Palatine Hill, walked on the original (treacherous) cobblestone streets, saw the triumphal arches which were at one point walled up and turned into flats, a temple that had been turned into a church when it was half-underground (like all the ruins in Rome) until the early 20th century and consequently had a door floating in the middle, a basilica which was probably originally at least as big as Keppel Auditorium, and finally a Pantheon-style temple with original bronze doors from the 4th century
A.D. They were greened out and had a few holes and streaks, but people go in and out of them every day regardless.
*Margin notes — They don't use B.C.E. or C.E. here — they're old school. I like it. *
Giovanni thanked us for our attention and left us outside the forum. Since we took longer than expected, we ended up having no free time at all, but began walking en masse to Squisito, the restaurant where we were learning how to make pizza. The group I was walking with found a lush green park along the way that was cool and refreshing, where we saw old people taking slow walks with their little dogs, couples all over each other on the benches, and a father carefully watching his young daughter as she played in the plants along the path. It's nice to know that normal life still goes on for most people despite the attractions and chaos all around this huge, crazy city.
We got to the restaurant on time, perhaps 10 minutes after the others but still early.
*Margin note — I find it ironic that the U.S. is considered a somewhat more socialized healthcare system, while Giorgio tells us that Italy is considering a more privatized healthcare system. The grass is always greener on the other side... *
We had a feast of all kinds of different pizzas (I put peppers and ham on mine) that lasted for a couple of hours, and split up after dinner, full and happy. I went back to the hotel with several other people to sleep and pack.
*Margin note — You know how there are all these "Made in Italy" cards? Well, they're not. They're completely assembled in China except for the side view mirrors and the spare tire, which are added in Italy. False advertising!*
As we were walking, some of us were accosted by a guy outside a gelateria who was passing out cards for an American bar with "Good people! Good booze! Good DJ! All night!" Then he also told us girls that we were in luck, because he was looking for an American wife so he could get his green card. I laughed at him. We scampered off and returned to the hotel with no more incidents. I went upstairs, wrote in here a little, packed, and then went to sleep. I got up at 3:30 in the morning to get to the airport and haven't slept since. I'm still on the plane, somewhere over Canada, and they have just served:
Mozzarella and focaccia, which I'm having with black coffee. How Italian! How appropriate. 1:34 to D.C. I'm quivering with anticipation (not). I really didn't want this trip to end, or at least I didn't want to leave Europe. Why is that? Do I just hate America? I don't know. I just know that whenever I'm there it all just feel right and beautiful. Maybe I'd feel that way about Salisbury or Houston if I was from Rome or London — but I don't know.
We're officially in the U.S., west of Boston. Less than 1 hour until we land. Woohoo.
U.S. Customs and Immigration seems so complicated! Europe was pretty much just "Ok, show us your passport, you're good." The U.S. is like "Go over here! Any cheese? What about fruit? Are you a terrorist? Why do you hate freedom? No photographs!" We're so paranoid, I guess with good reason, but no wonder people don't want to travel here.
Ow. My hand hurts. I've been writing on and off for several hours now, and I've developed some new calluses. I've written ... 12 pages during this flight. Not bad for taking breaks to sleep and fill out Customs stuff (I have a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, so shoot me).
3/19/10 — Almost 1 week later — The benches in front of Catawba's student center
So, we've been back for a while now, and after some decompression and time to absorb everything I think I'm ready to finish up this journal. It's sad, closing the book on this experience — maybe that's the real reason I never finished my last journal entry for Paris and London. The best I can do is tell myself that I will go back, someday. Why do I have this insatiable desire to travel and be somewhere not-here? Maybe that's what this itching in my feet is — wanderlust.
I love how you make friends temporarily while traveling. One of my seatmates on the flight to D.C. was a man in a well-made suit who, once we began chatting, turned out to be a professor of finance at American University in Washington, D.C. He is originally from Belgium and was very curious about our trip and Catawba. We also bonded over how terrible the in-flight movie was. We said goodbye at the shuttles to the different terminals in the D.C. airport, and that was that (well, he did alert us to the fact that some of our group members had boarded the wrong shuttle). All ended well though, and we got on our flight to Charlotte and our bus to Catawba in one piece.
This trip helped me in so many ways. It was by no means perfect, but traveling with my friends made it memorable. I learned how to really appreciate good food and wine; how to eat like an Italian; how to live out of a single carry-on bag for a week; how to make pasta; how to walk in Europe; and how to write about all of it in this journal. This trip completely threw my ideas of what I want to do this summer out of the window, and now I want to return to where we were a few weeks ago. Florence in summer? Kill me now. Or don't, because I still need to see Berlin, the Czech Republic, and Poland. And Bali. And India. And Japan. And, well, pretty much everywhere.
In short, travel changes your life. Italy was no different. I'm sure my itching feet will take me there again, but until then I'm glad I've kept this journal. Remembering requires paper.
Giving Thanks for Deep Chocolate: My Family's New Vegan Tradition
My sister Rachel's announcement of her conversion to veganism near the end of the summer of 2009 was met with shock, awe, apprehension, and cries of "But what will you EAT?" from my mother. My parents both come from families where most meals consist of dishes like buttered rice, fried chicken, and a generous helping of Blue Bell ice cream for dessert. Coming from this background, my sister's desire to stop eating any and all animal products seemed not just foreign but completely impossible to my parents.
I was supportive but apprehensive when Rachel told me about her plans. "What about dessert?" I asked her, since both of us have a terrible sweet tooth, and I didn't relish the idea of eating cookies, cakes, or ice cream made without eggs, milk, or butter. "What about Thanksgiving?!" I continued, foreseeing meltdowns in the kitchen over whether to serve tofu or turkey for the main course. "I'll think of something!" Rachel said indignantly, before turning back to her bowl of Rice Dream, a brand of brittle and dry vegan ice cream made with soy milk, and her copy of Alicia Silverstone's veganism guide/cookbook The Kind Diet.
When I got home the day before Thanksgiving I could see that Rachel had begun a transformation into a vegan chef, someone who kept turbinado sugar and raw molasses from Canada in the pantry and talked about something called "seitan" and "tempeh". The actual Thanksgiving meal was fairly standard, with Rachel substituting her own spicy squash stew for the roasted chicken and whole-grain brown rice for the mashed potatoes. While we finished off the bird she went into the kitchen and began to sift and boil and whisk things together, and before long a rich smell of dark chocolate and coffee began to waft through the entire house. Soon afterwards, Rachel called us into the kitchen for dessert, and we congregated around the table to see what she had concocted.
It was a thing to behold. A simple bundt cake, so full of dark chocolate and coffee that it was nearly black, was resting on a white china plate in the middle of the table. Against a light blue floral tablecloth and with no garnish other than a light dusting of white powdered sugar, it looked elegant and not at all like a vegan cake. Astounded, I wordlessly cut a slice and took a tentative bite. And then another. And another. "You used something," I accused Rachel. "This tastes too good. This can't be vegan." The cake was somewhat dense but moist, with a deep intense taste of chocolate and richly roasted coffee. I didn't believe Rachel when she swore that it was dairy-free, but the recipe she used from the Veganomicon supported her claim. "Lower-fat Deep Chocolate Bundt Cake" was not only delicious but also relatively heart-healthy, with
the only fat in the entire thing coming from a few tablespoons of vegetable oil. By the next morning, it was completely gone.
It was after that Thanksgiving that my thoughts on veganism started to change, from something only really crazy people did to an understandable way to eat to something that hey, maybe I wanted to try. And I have, making a New Year's resolution to guide my eating in a way that relies more on plants than animals, in the interest of my own health. I credit Rachel's cake with "converting" me, showing me that it is possible to eat more healthily and not have to completely give up the good things like dessert that bring people together and make the holidays so enjoyable. I don't know what we'll be doing for Thanksgiving this year — maybe we'll all fall off the bandwagon and go back to our whole-fat ice cream and fried chicken. Personally, though, I'll be pushing for Rachel to break out the dark chocolate cocoa powder and coffee again, and this time, I'll be in the kitchen helping her.
Lower-Fat Deep Chocolate Bundt Cake (from the Veganomicon by Moskowitz and Romero)
Time: 70 minutes
- 1 ¾ cups fresh brewed coffee (I used instant)
- 2/3 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder (just use Hershey's, either unsweetened or special dark, I don't remember if one is better than the other)
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup canola oil (any vegetable oil except olive is fine)
- 1/3 cup applesauce (don't think you can skip this!)
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (though I recommend NOT using this b/c I used it the first time I made this and it tasted blecky)
- 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour OR 2 cups all-purpose white flour (never made it with whole wheat PASTRY flour, so use all-purpose white- NEVER all-purpose whole wheat because that'll screw up the texture)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons confectioners' sugar (don't know what this is ... is it powdered sugar??)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease an 8- or 10-inch Bundt pan.
Bring the coffee to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Once it is simmering, turn down the heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until it has dissolved. Remove from the heat and set aside to bring to room temperature.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the granulated sugar, canola oil, applesauce, and cornstarch until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved, about 2 minutes. Mix in the extracts (I always forget to do this before putting in the chocolate). Once the chocolate has cooled a bit, mix that in as well.
Sift in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Beat until relatively smooth, about 1 minute with a hand mixer or 2 minutes with a whisk.
Pour batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick or butter knife inserted through its center comes out clean. If you pan is on the smaller side, it could take up to 55 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate to cool completely. Once cool, sift confectioners' sugar over the top and enjoy.
PHOTOS: Food Science Course in Italy