Thursday, June 9, 2011

Italy #4: Gnocchi

I learned to pronounce it in Italian class in 2000. Domenic Vecchi was in that class, lovely Domenic. A shy, skinny, and modest Greek god-looking guy. I stared at him a lot. Vecchi means "old" in Italian; you pronounce the C twice and make a hard C sound, like a K, due to the "ch." VEK-KI. NYOK-KI. Double C. Chi.

On our first night in Florence, we have a long and confusing walk to the restaurant for dinner. Miscommunication and misdirection lead us to a much longer walk than necessary, as well as extreme hunger, which automatically brings about aggravation and short patience in my family. And we've been together for twelve days straight and have four more days together. In order to still like each other and enjoy one another's company in this beautiful city, we're gonna need to eat some food. Some delicious food. Now.

Long story short, we finally get to Buca Mario and I order the gnocchi. Hard C sound. The menu says that it's served with a gorgonzola sauce. That's it. No meat, no vegetables, no side, just a heavy, creamy sauce on top of small dumplings on a plate. That is what I want, so that is what I order. And this is what I receive:

The sauce coats every piece perfectly without being overbearing. And it's rich - so rich. Not overly cheesy, but plenty flavorful. I have no idea what this gnocchi is made of, whether potato, wheat flour, bread, or something else. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I can take one single gnocchi in my mouth and stretch it over my tongue like bubble gum, but softer and savory and more delicious than any stupid piece of gum could ever dream of being. And at the point at which the bubble should inflate, the gnocchi simply melts. This is how I eat each piece.

And I fall in love. With the gnocchi, the waiter, the restaurant, with Florence. In love with all of it.

So, I guess it's easier than I thought. Just catch me while I'm crabby and hungry, then serve me gorgonzola gnocchi, and I'll belong to you forever.

Well, it might help if we're in Florence. But it's probably worth a try.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Italy #3: Haikus for the Men

Both my sister and my friend Miriam write haikus pretty often. And although they've never been my forte, I've been hearing some in my head as we've walked around Rome these past few days. A warning in advance: YIKES.

1. Curly dark brown hair,
Kind of like an Arab guy
But less like my Dad,

2. Walking with purpose,
Your pants fit you really well.
Appreciated.

3. Casual yet so
together. Suit jacket with
jeans. Very well done!

4. Marriage proposal
from the hotel's cute doorman.
Considering it.

5. Haikus about men.
What is Rome doing to me?
Feel like such a gal...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Italy #2: Bones

I am a big fan of the weird things. Or like...weird touristy things, I should say. Once when BFF Sarah and I visited my sister in Atlanta (for Spring Break 2000, mind you), we drove all the way to Marietta, about 40 minutes away, just to take some pictures with a giant chicken that was part of a KFC. We drove there, took some pictures, got back in the car, and drove back to Atlanta. Why not?


And another time when I was in Atlanta, my sister and I drove to Dahlonega, GA (about a 65 mile trip, one way) to see a zedonk. Yep, a zedonk; half zebra, half donkey. Sara had read an article about it, see, and so since we had a day free, we really didn't have any other choice. I mean, come on guys! Zedonk! The Chestatee Wildlife Preserve was one of the weirdest places I've ever been, but that's another story for another blog entry that doesn't fall in the middle of my Italy series. To summarize, this zedonk was crazy. It was like a regular donkey with tall, zebra-striped legs. And we drove for over two hours that day to see it. Yep.


Whenever people visit me in Madison, some of my favorite places to go include Dr. Evermore's, home of the Forevertron, The Mustard Museum, and the awesome optical illusion of the Capital that you can see from just south of Monona Bay. And although I've still never been to the taxidermy museum in a funeral home (which includes squirrels in various poses and situations), I have big plans to go very soon. Big plans.

I guess I've always loved stuff like this because it's a little funny, or maybe you could even say it's "off the beaten path." That's what people say, right? In fact, I enjoy scouring this one website, Roadside America, to find more hilarious and unusual sights. But today, every "strange" thing I've ever seen fell into the background. Want to know why? Because today we visited a church in Rome that was decorated with the bones of monks. Hundreds of thousands of monk bones.

For real.

We got to the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini Church at about 9 am, right as they were opening. We went directly to the lower level which holds the Capuchin Crypt. This is where one will find the bones. It is believed that over 4000 bodies, mostly those of friars, were brought to this church over a period of about 350 years, between 1528 and 1870. The soil on the ground of the crypt was brought to Rome from Jerusalem, and the bones were arranged to decorate six separate rooms in the crypt, each with a different name, and seemingly, a theme:
  • Crypt of the Resurrection
  • The Mass Chapel
  • Crypt of the Skulls
  • Crypt of the Pelves
  • Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
  • Crypt of the Three Skeletons
We stood in awe next to these rooms, jaws dropped and eyebrows raised, silent and a teensy bit horrified. But mostly in awe. My father began naming the bones we saw, which I know sounds a little funny, but it really wasn't at that moment. It just made it all more real. He was incredulous, looking up at the ceiling and pointing out individual bones, identifying them quietly, and assisting us in making the connection that, yes, these bones come from bodies. Human bodies - thousands of them. In each of the six rooms and in the hallway connecting them, there were ceiling borders made of the flat pelvic bones and hanging lamps made of vertebrae. Long, narrow femurs were arranged to look like flowers and rib bones were attached together on the ceiling to create decorative stars. We weren't allowed take pictures, so these are from National Geographic and some travel sites.


And the skulls. Oh my god, the skulls. One small area contained probably about 400-500 skulls. They were stacked on top of each other in one area, three wide and eleven high, to make an outlined space. On either side of these columns, more skulls were stacked, but randomly, with neck bones between them to fill the empty space.


In the last small room, The Crypt of the Three Skeletons, one full skeleton hung from the ceiling. In one hand, it carried the scales of justice. In the other, a scythe, which is the tool of the Grim Reaper. Death. And yes, everything, the scales, the scythe, everything, was made from more bones. And underneath the hanging skeleton, a quote:

En Italiano: « Noi eravamo quello che voi siete, e quello che noi siamo voi sarete. »

In English: "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be..."


This place was crazy. It was both chilling and fascinating, leaving me with a weirdly desperate feeling in my stomach - desperate to get out, and soon after, desperate to go back in. This is one of the strangest and most memorable touristy things I've ever done. I mean, The Mustard Museum is great and all, but cannot even hold a candle to the Monk Bones Church. Not even close.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Italy #1: How I Got Here

The first time I came to Italy, it was 1997 and I was 18 years old. My parents, Emil, and I were visiting Amu Jamil, one of Dad's oldest and best friends from Baghdad, and his family. They were, at the time, living in the south of France in a small town near Nice. Jamil and his family were very spontaneous; one morning one of them got it in their head that we should drive into Italy. So we did.

Our goal was to get to Florence, but we only got as far as Portofino and Santa Margherita (of the Pinot Grigio fame) that night. Point A is Nice, Point B is where we ended up, and Point C is where we were trying to go. Whoops a daisy!
We stayed in a hotel overlooking the sea and ate delicious food and drank chianti, and my father and Amu Jamil had their arms around each other at all times singing "Forget Domani" over and over and laughing and smiling. It was two days of pure letting go, forgetting anxiety and troubles, eating and drinking deliciously, and literally, not having a care in the world.


The second time I came to Italy, it was 2001 and I was 22. I'd just finished my undergrad and traveled to Urbino to do a 3-week long piano study. I hooked up with Lauren, a 19 year old classical pianist from Boulder, and Matt, and 18 year old composer from Janesville. The three of us were inseparable for those three weeks.

Every morning we woke up leisurely and walked the two miles into town. The town center was located at the top of an immense and steep hill; there was even the option of paying three euros to take an elevator - that was built into the side of the mountain - to the top. But we always walked. It was like an incredible reward every day, trekking along the busy street outside our dorms in a single-file line, climbing that giant hill, and as we approached the top, taking in the beautiful Renaissance architecture, smelling the espresso wafting from the caf├ęs, and watching the well-dressed citizens go about their business. This is a cell phone picture of a printed picture - see if you can see the steepness of the path in the way back of the picture.

We had a pretty regular daily routine: we'd buy coffee and pastries at a little shop on the Piazza, and then head over to the University to practice and have lessons.
After a few hours, Matt and I usually stopped for a slice of pizza in town, eating it sitting on the curb or standing against a building. We'd then walk back to our dorm rooms, back down the hill, for siesta. Lauren and I were roommates, and we'd lay around talking about boyfriends and love and stuff for hours. After siesta, we'd walk back into town, get a gelato, and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening in our Master Class. We always had to wash our hands in this half-broken and I'm sure ancient fountain outside the school between gelato and class. Some nights after class, we'd go back to the University for dinner in their cafeteria where we sampled delicious gnocchi and fresh vegetables and cheese. Other nights, we splurged, staying in town and finding a little restaurant for dinner. Our standard order:

Una bottaglia di vino di casa rosso - tre bicchiere - e una prosciutto e melone, e una pizza margherita.

It's the only thing I still feel completely comfortable saying in Italian. We had long, slow meals and drank wine late into the night, talking and laughing and learning about each other. Occasionally, we'd head over to a table at the Piazza and sit and watch people, sipping on limoncello or cappuccino or more wine.

We took a day trip to Venice, where we spent a few hours walking over canals and flirting with beautiful men passing by. I remember watching a gondola float under a bridge I was standing on. In it was a man belting out a song I couldn't identify, but knew I'd heard out of the mouth of Pavarotti (via my parents' old records). I couldn't believe it was actually happening right in front of my eyes. The man in white in the first gondola is the singing man.
Leaving Italy, we flew out of the Rome airport at about 4 am. I remember looking longingly at the black sky and hoping some day to come back. It had been a 3-week journey through food, drink, music, and people. It was luxurious and lovely.

And I did come back. The third time I came to Italy was yesterday. It was another long and annoying journey, as has been the case on this current trip. We'd driven two hours from Fethard to Dublin, flown 2 1/2 hours from Dublin to Frankfort, then ran for over half a mile through the stupidly gigantic Frankfort airport in an attempt to make our connecting flight. Although I ran more and faster than I have in about 20 years, we missed our flight.

Thankfully, we rebooked and were in Rome about 3 hours later. But I was on edge; sick of traveling and flying anxiety, exhausted and hungry, desperately needing alone time and probably a shower. Rough start to this beautiful country I have come to love so much. But within about five minutes of being in Rome, we passed a man in the street playing an accordion and singing, and these other things just started to melt away. After about an hour of rest and some cold water splashed on faces, we ventured out for dinner. It was a small restaurant down the road from our hotel with tables crowded next to each other and signed pictures on the wall of all the famous people who had eaten there. Most of the pictures featured the owner of the restaurant kissing the famous ladies on the cheek - but I did spot one of him kissing Burt Reynolds as well.

We ate prosciutto and melon, caprese salad, and deliciously fried artichokes.

We each ordered a different pasta and sampled each others'.



Dad ordered gelato to split at the end of the meal. Ridiculously decadent. Today we toured parts of Rome and Vatican City, then ate pizza and a meat antipasto for lunch (eat your heart out, Delicious Food!). Now we're back at the hotel for siesta and the window is open to let in a slight breeze that gently moves the sheer curtains, as well as the voice of an invisible man singing somewhere outside. And somebody practicing their flute.

It all feels so unreal, even when right in front of me. This country that has me smiling all day, the people who somehow get by on spending their days leisurely drinking espresso on the street or eating the most delicious food that exists. Spontaneous singing and accordion playing. Not to get all Eat Pray Love on your ass or anything, but really, this country is unlike any other - it emphasizes pleasure, luxury, relaxation, happiness. It really seems too good to be true, but then you remember, no. We're right here, and it's real, and that guy is seriously singing O Solo Mio. Believe it.

Dearest Italy, are you for real? Regardless, thank you, and good timing. I needed a little fantasy world in my life right now. And I cannot wait to write about the fourth time I came to Italy. And the fifth. And so on.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ireland #5: Immediate and Immense

We were invited to Ashling's (Ian's fiance) parents' house for dinner tonight, just two days before the wedding. Never before have I met a family so identical to mine back in Chicago...

Your drink is mysteriously kept full all night without you seeing. There's more than enough food for everybody in the house, plus more for anybody who happens to stop by last minute. A boyfriend shows up late after his football game, and within no time, has taken a shower and has a warm plate of food in front of him. The neighbors are invited in. Everybody is obviously welcome.

The kitchen is the spot for action. Bustling. Plates going in and out of the oven, the dishwasher, the fridge. Smells you can't identify but love anyway. People getting in each others' way and laughing. Way too many cooks in the kitchen, and thank goodness for that because these are some of the best cooks you'll ever know.

We sit around, talking across tables, talking across the whole room, yelling over one another, until there's an unspoken, spontaneous decision to listen to one person. People sit, hearing each other's stories, sipping tea and booze, learning our own history from each other. My father tells the story of the first time he met my mother's parents (special treat - listen to my parents tell the story here on Storycorps!). Although I have heard the story a million times, I watch the others listening to him, and hear it with whole new ears. I smile and laugh with them, and I look forward to hearing their stories.

Although this is the first time we've ever met, there's a beauty, connection, comraderie that arises immediately. We are family automatically, not by blood or legality, but by love. Immediate and immense love. Just like at home.

To feel so comfortable and so natural right away, I guess it could be partly attributed to the fact that we're pretty easy, socially. Maybe a bit. But really, it's because of the setting, the feel, the energy that this family has created and welcome us into. I did not feel like a stranger. All I felt tonight was joy and happiness and love. That's what they welcomed us with. Their attitudes towards people - us, each other - towards life was so beautiful. A quote from my aunt on the car ride home, after talking about how happy Ian and Ashling and the whole family seemed:

If I'd wish anything on anybody, it'd be that they find happiness. You can get through an awful lot if you just have happiness in your life.

What a beautiful way to think and to live. Thank you, Mary Kenrick.

Two days later we celebrated the marriage of Ashling and Ian. We ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced for 12 hours straight; well, some of us for 15 hours straight, but I didn't make it that far. I did shots with cousins I didn't even know I had. There was no "her family" and "his family," just our family.

At some point late into the night, I spotted Ashling's sister Tracy running up to Sara and I in her yellow bridesmaids dress, yelling something about a dance we had to do. Laughing, I let myself be pulled to the dance floor and paired up with Christy, one of the guys who carried our bags on our first night, and found myself in the middle of a traditional Irish line dance. As I trip over my own feet, trying desperately to learn the steps, I watch my two great-aunts, both in their 80s, dance like pros on the dance floor. I see old men, my uncles and aunts, teenagers, Ashling's and Ian's friends, all dancing, laughing, singing along. "My god," I think, "it's just like Chicago."

I leave Ireland a day later with so much love in my heart; for my new family, for my old family, for Ian and Ashling, and for love itself. Love for the sake of love. This? This was a damn good trip.