Thursday, December 21, 2006

Buon Natale

Buon Natale da Ascoli Piceno!

Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a New Year filled with blessings! Thanks for joining in on our adventures and traveling along with us through the blogs.

We're spending Christmas with our dear friends in Roma. Immediately after, we will be traveling to Spoleto to join up with visiting New Mexicans, Maria and Bob, for wine-imbibing and catching-up. For New Year's, my uncle, Roger, and his wife Kathy are flying in for a quick trip. We'll be awash with love and festivities!

Auguri tutti!

(The photo was taken by Bryan in Piazza Arringo. The Migliori shop decorations are cute, but with the cathedral and fountain reflected in the window, I thought this was such a great shot we made it one of Christmas cards this year.)

Buon Natale e buon anno!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bring on the carbs!

Here in Italy, the pasta capital of the world, I am in heaven. An avowed maccheroni-muncher, I cannot fathom how anyone can survive on the Atkin’s diet. No carbs? No risotto? No spaghetti? No thank you! I once read that the average Italian eats sixty pounds of pasta each year. Obviously with such consumption, the Italian nation has perfected the stuff.

There are entire aisles at the grocery store, one devoted to packaged pasta and another one for the fresh, refrigerated noodles. The dried stuff with which we’re so familiar is called pasta asciutta (dried pasta) and is extremely convenient, not to mention inexpensive. For about 65 cents we can buy a pound of good quality penne rigate or linguini and keep it in the pantry, ready to go. Whole grains such as farro, barley, and mixed grains are readily available, too. The shapes are limited only by the space available in the particular store.

But I have come to develop a passion for fresh pasta. It’s readily available in pre-wrapped packages, but I prefer to go to the local shop. Yep, a shop that only makes and sells fresh noodles, and such a storefront is called “pasta all’uovo” or egg pasta. The one I’ve chosen to frequent is only about a four minute walk from our apartment. Each day the owner puts out a sign describing the fresh-made offerings. There are no-pre-cooking necessary lasagna sheets, manicotti leaves, spaghettini or fettuccini strands, as well as tiny squares called quadrucci all shining golden behind the glass. Then there are the real tempters…the filled pastas. Tortellini, agnolotti, and - my favorite at this particular pasta all’uovo - plump ravioli. The ricotta is so fresh it tastes like just-milked cream. Bryan loves those, but also approves heartily of the gnocchi which are the traditional, served-on-Thursday pasta, the little potato-based nobs tender and creamy. A couple of good handfuls of gnocchi, enough to serve two, costs about two euros. A small stack of manicotti sheets knocked me back a whopping 60 cents.

Owned by a couple of ladies who are passionate about pasta and ready to serve, they always know exactly how much I need of a particular type based on how many people will be dining. I mean, exactly. Nothing goes to waste and we’re “just-right” full at the end. I’m happy to have found this little store. I tell you, if Dr. Atkins had encountered this store and tasted this type of pasta, I think even he wouldn’t have given up carbs.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Twinkle Lights

For about a week we have watched as various workmen have been precariously perched upon ladders as they string lights overhead, draped across the streets and attached to the stone buildings on either side. Some are script-written greetings such as “Auguri” and “Buone Feste”. Others are simple dangling strands, still others have bulbs laid out to design gift packages and stars. Shop windows seemed to magically change overnight to boast twinkling lights, festoons of ribbons, and bright, glittery trees. The city appeared to be making preparations for the Christmas season, all’Italiana.

Yesterday we awoke to the bells of Duomo pealing like mad, seemingly louder and longer than normal so Bryan was dispatched to investigate what was amuck. He found curiously empty streets and piazzas, odd for a Friday morning, and discovered that it was a holiday of which we had previously not been aware, which was unfortunate because all the stores were closed and had I known about it being a holiday I could have prepared by shopping for the apparently grocery-less day. It was an oddly sedate morning for our normally lively town, as everyone was (presumably) in church for a mass to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Who knew?

We went out to lunch – the restaurants being mercifully open since I had few provisions in the house - and strolled the practically-empty streets under a clear, blue sky enjoying an unseasonably warm day. After riposo we ventured out again to be met by the city ablaze with lights – the shop windows, the piazzas, the street decorations all lustrous with luminosity. According to our local source for such information, Gianluca our neighborhood barista, this particular feast day is the official kick-off for the holiday season. From now until Epiphany all the stores will be open later and on days they would normally close; people will be gathering more and making merry; the lights will be beaming forth brightly. He also informed us that the local shopkeepers pay for the festive illuminations and this invariably leads to annual arguments over who didn’t pay enough last year, who should pay more because their shop has more street frontage and who is a just scrooge-y or stingy.

Evergreen boughs are now bedecking doors and balconies. There is an artisan mercato set up, and a skating rink is being prepared in Piazza Arringo right smack in front of the Duomo. In short, our lovely medieval city is beautifully festive and it has really put us into the holiday mood, as well. We’ve put some packages into the mail for family and may go into the mountains to cut some evergreen boughs for ourselves tomorrow. We even received our first couple of Christmas cards from home. I started a bit of baking (what I can accomplish in my teensy kitchen). I’ve even made my list for Santa, asking him for my permesso di soggiorno. As we stroll beneath the canopy of twinkle lights we feel warm inside. We’re ready for Christmas in Italia!
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

(Fellow blogger Shelley in Rome has also written about the lights in her neighborhood of Trastevere.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Smallest in Italy

On our first visit to Ascoli Piceno this summer, when we came to be tortured in language school and endured searing temperatures, we took a trip up into the hills to cool down, to have a change of pace, and to see the countryside hereabouts. We happened into the hamlet of Castignano where we saw a sign for the narrowest street in Italy. How cute, we thought, and wandered off to find the little alleyway, snapping some photos grateful that we were slender enough to fit into the tiny space.

So imagine our surprise when we visited Ripatransone and saw a sign there pointing us to the vicolo piu stretto d’Italia. We followed the signs, examined the alley, agreed it was pretty dang narrow and took some more photos, wondering which street really was slimmer. Maybe we’d bring a tape measure, we laughed.

But Italy, the land of superlatives and diminutives, surprised us again when we happened upon yet another sign in yet another town with the same claim. This time it was Civitella del Tronto, which is only about a half-hour from Ascoli but is actually in Abruzzo. Civitella’s is pretty small in the entries but widens a bit through the actual street so we crossed it off as actually being The One that is The Narrowest. No matter, they are making the same claim and we have to wonder…just how many narrowest streets are there?

A quick search on the internet yielded a few more…Citta della Pieve and Castelnuovo Val di Cecina (new clue where that is) are also laying claim to the narrowest alley in the country. I assume they are all trying to turn their teeny streets into tourist bucks. Who knows which one is actually the winner? My money is on Ripatransone but without toting the tape measure I can’t say for certain.

I think I can safely claim the distinction, however, of possessing la cucina piu piccola d’Italia, the smallest kitchen in Italy. It is wider than an alley but no deeper than a broom closet. The limited space has definitely affected my cooking skills. I curse it each and every time I try to prepare more than a basic pasta dish. I am thinking of putting out a sign to see if it draws tourists. (How much would you pay to see the little cooking marvel?) Maybe we could hold a new version of the Iron Chef competition here. They wouldn’t be limited by ingredients but by the space. “The Challenge: Who can cook a full meal in this stall?” Mario Batali, wanna give it a try?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Follow Along

Several weeks back I made a mention of our trip to the southern part of the country to meet up with some cousins. I promised to tell more about this wonderful journey, and fully indended to put the details on the blog. It was such an amazing, really an indescribable day, but I chronicled the trip in my most recent article for my monthly column on Slow Travel. If you have not done so already, hop on over to give it a read!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey Day

A very happy Thanksgiving to you! The past few weeks we’ve been frequently asked one question: what do Italians do for Thanksgiving? The answer is nothing; it’s not a holiday here. We had decided, after much debating, to not make it a big all-out gluttony-fest in our home this year (and caught a lot of grief for that decision from my step-dad!).

Top Ten Reason for Not Making Turkey Today
10. Turkey is not commonly found in the markets except as breast filets
9. If I found a full turkey (or even a full bone-in breast), my oven is too small to accommodate the bird
8. I would have to buy a roasting pan (which would likely not fit into the oven)
7. I would have to buy a casserole dish for baking the dressing (I don’t like it stuffed into the carcass)
6. Friends had planned to come but had to postpone their trip. Other friends are out of town. It seemed frivolous to spend two days cooking all that food for just the two of us
5. Pumpkin needs to be purchased, cooked, mashed and then turned into a pie
4. We are living in a foreign country where this holiday doesn’t exist
3. We try to be thankful every day, not just on a prescribed holiday
2. I have a cold and feel rather cruddy; cooking a feast seemed like a chore
1. We live in Italy where one eats well every day!

So in the end we decided to “go local” and go out for lunch instead. But what providence! We sat in the restaurant waiting for the waiter to recite the daily menu choices and were astonished to hear him say “filetto di tacchino…” Huh? What’s that…turkey?! Today of all days! Naturally, seeing the signs in the menu we ordered the breast of turkey (which was sautéed in a light, white wine sauce along with artichoke quarters), a side plate of roasted potatoes, and toasted our compatriots at home with a slightly fizzy house white wine. We explained to the waiter that nearly every inhabitant of America would be dining on turkey today and he was rather amused at the irony of it being on offer this particular day in their restaurant. We ended up having an American Thanksgiving after all, with an Italian flavor.

But, of course, the whole point of the day is giving thanks to God for his love and all the blessings and opportunities he bestows.

This year I am particularly Thankful –
-For the provision, direction, and assistance given during our delays and bureaucratic problems to reach this dream
-For the past six months in Italy and all the incredible experiences we have had, the wonderful people we have met, and the history and culture we get to partake in
-For the family and friends who continue to stay in touch despite the physical distance
-For new friends who are so generous, caring, and patient with us foreigners
-For new opportunities to devote more time to writing (and to actually get paid for it!)
-For a wonderful husband who shares my dreams and is willing to take risks in order to live them out

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Visit From The In-Laws

I have often passed the several McDonald’s that so hideously mar the historic atmosphere in the beautiful cities of Rome and Florence and thought, what kind of fool would come here and eat at McDonald’s when there is so much wonderful food to be had? Enter my father-in-law.

I left him unattended for two minutes. I swear, two, measly minutes! When we next see him he arrives with ice cream cone in hand merrily licking away. From the fast food joint! Soft service ice cream in the land of gelato is just plain wrong. We tried to explain the error of his folly but he was not to be convinced. He was happy with his cone and we could rib him all he wanted. To make matters worse, we couldn’t get him to taste an authentic gelato until his last day in Italia, practically forcing it upon him. Don’t get me wrong, my father-in-law is a great guy and I enjoy his company. But this! Mamma mia!

But actually, we enjoyed their visit and took pleasure in showing them around our adopted home and introducing them to new foods. While prosciutto is something I take for granted, having grown up procuring it from a market in Cleveland, it was fun to see someone who had never tasted it before have their first experience in the realm of mountain-air cured pork. We also experienced a nearly-literal “whole hog” experience when our landlords invited us to a pig-fest, grilling sausages, enormous chops and ribs. My father-in-law valiantly partook of everything that was over-laden upon his plate, drank all the wine that continuously flowed into his cup and tried to interact with our non-English-speaking landlords in a very genuine (but often comical) way. He redeemed himself (somewhat) from the previous Incident.

Most of the restaurants in our area have menus that change constantly and are recited orally rather than having a written menu. I translated as we went along and they bravely tried many new-to-them, regional specialties. I think we convinced them that a trip to Italy really is “all about the food”.

Lest you think I fail to mention my mother-in-law, it’s not from lack of respect but that she just has the good sense to not expose herself to such ridicule. She is easy-going and allowed us to drag her along, letting herself be happily led to each new experience. She thoroughly immersed herself in her son’s passion for Italian coffee, partaking nearly as often he Bryan. We hope they enjoyed the sights and tastes of the bel paese; we enjoyed their visit. One particular ice cream cone excepted.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Are We Italians?

Since our arrival in the bel paese I’ve received numerous looks of surprise when I open my mouth and out come words that are heavily American-accented, normally accompanied by “ma non e italiana?” Wellll, yes and no, I reply and explain my family heritage. Numerous times the good citizens of Anzio would say, “I know you’re from an Italian family,” or some such comment and so I figured I just blended right in and didn’t give it any more thought.

Until they started asking Bryan if he is Italian. His initial shock the first they broached the question was, “HUH? Iii-o?”

One Anzio resident went so far as to declare Bryan as having “classic Roman features”. It was my turn to respond, “HUH?” But as I looked around at the Romani I can see how he may have thought that, especially in the eyes which are a hazel-y color of not-quite-brown but not-quite-green that I have noticed in the faces of Roman residents. It may give me an identity crisis that they think him Italian instead of me. Do I look like a tourist? Good gracious I hope not.

Perhaps it is because I’m not a native-born Italian and we’re staying for a year, so they wonder why would we be here unless my husband were Italian. Maybe we’ve adapted so well to our environment and have become so comfortable with our life here that he appears so at ease and thus “native”. Or maybe they’re being polite and trying to make conversation. But it’s become such a regular occurrence that we are now beginning to wonder just what his mom may have been up to 45 years ago that she produced an Italian-esque son. His parents are in town right now so I’ve been doing some digging to see if there are some Latin skeletons in the closet, but they assure me that there were no Italian mailmen or milkmen who may have come a'calling. Darn. Would have made a better story and maybe could have garnered us citizenship by birthright if there had been. I guess we just have to settle for looking Italian.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Friday, November 03, 2006

Buon Compleanno

Yesterday I saw myself as I had been. I was on the street and saw a girl of about 17 who looked remarkably like I did at that age, accentuated because the fashions of the 80s are right back in style and she was even dressed in clothes that I might have worn then. Her hairstyle, too, was a slightly curly flow at about shoulder-length, though I suspect hers to be natural waves while mine were the result of a Mom-administered home perm. She had that carefree confidence that teens have, the result of being sure that they know everything and are indestructible, something I outgrew sometime in my twenties and thirties when I went out on my own and saw more of the world and realized I didn’t have all the answers, and learned that life was, indeed, tenuous and short. But for now she is youthful and self-assured. They say everyone has a twin somewhere in the world. Mine is Italian and seems to have not aged. This thought gives me a smile since today is my fortieth birthday.

The Big Four-Oh. The one that is the butt of countless jokes, festooned in black, and characterized by horrid, you’re-getting-old gifts. At least in my family, that is the norm. When my mom turned forty, my uncle ordered for her a huge bouquet of dead flowers. Beautifully arranged and tied in festive ribbons, but utterly dead. My other uncle, Mom’s youngest brother, was presented with a prune tree coupled with endless jokes about “regularity”. Bryan received a box of cookies frosted black, in the shape of buzzards. Hideous (but tasty, I confess). What wretched gifts will arrive on my doorstep remains to be seen. I’m hoping that escaping the country will spare me some of the brutality.

The funny thing is, I don’t feel old. Forty, when I was 17, seemed a century away and sound very ancient. Now that I’m there I think, what’s the big deal? I’m just getting started! Because of the fact that my physical health went to pot when I turned thirty (chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia have plagued me since), that milestone was harder than this one. On my thirtieth birthday I awoke in tears with the thought, dang it, I’m no longer in my twenties and that really sucks! I remember feeling that life was skidding past me and I'd not yet accomplished anything noteworthy. It depressed me for awhile.

Forty, instead, is easier for me to accept. It’s just another day on the calendar, after all. I am here in Italy, having taken great risks and overcome great obstacles to get here and fulfill a dream. Forty is the year of my dreams-come-true! Forty is the beginning of new things and marks a milestone of looking-forward and anticipating the next adventure instead of looking backward with regret over lost youth. (Besides, blessedly, I don’t look forty!) I have nothing to prove to anyone (except myself).

As I looked at that young girl I smiled because of her resemblance to me. And I silently wished her well, knowing that I would never want to trade places with her. I wouldn’t want to go back in time and be a teenager again. I like it here just fine. Happy Big 4-0 to me.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, October 28, 2006


No, not snow flurries, though the night-time temperatures have signaled that fall has arrived in le Marche. Leaves are changing color into brilliant yellows and reds in the nearby mountains but day-time temps are still pleasantly warm (thought we did have a few days of raining chill in Umbria and here in Ascoli). What we've been experiencing instead is quite a flurry of activity.

My two cousins, previously unknown to me, arrived a couple weeks ago for a trip south into the wilds of Basilicata in search of our family ties and heritage. We had an incredible, almost unbelievable, trip that I'll detail further later. We had a wonderful time and before the week was up I felt I'd known them all my life instead of having only met them recently. A wonderful experience! We also shared a beautiful villa overlooking the Gulf of Salerno that we didn't want to leave.

The day we departed from Agropoli, my sister and uncle arrived in Rome and we high-tailed it to the Eternal City to meet up with them. We spent a few days bopping around Rome before heading to Umbria for a few days in a lovely agriturismo house, sight-seeing around Citta della Pieve, Assisi and Todi. Malfunctioning car parts prevented our planned round of Orvieto, truly an adventure in the rain to lose one's windshield wipers whilst driving on the Autostrada, then try to find a meccanico to fix it. Turned out the car was too new for them to have it in stock (if it's so new one questions the maintanence by the rental car company, no?) and finally, after one meccanico rigged the driver-side wiper to function un po', we made it back to Citta della Pieve where the wonderful Fiat dealer took the wipers off a new car in the showroom and fixed our broken car.

Other than that adventure with various mechanics (I described the wiper as "being broken and going away" because I didn't know the words for "the dang thing broke and flew off while driving at 120 in the pouring rain") we enjoyed Umbria, and especially the lovely town of Assisi. We drove them to Ascoli for several days of hanging around, exploring our region, eating a lot, laughing a lot, and taking a day trip to San Marino. It's the nutshell version, of course. We returned them to Roma for their last night, where wonderful Uncle Dean, always having connections and brilliant ideas, set up rooms as the plush Hotel Intercontinental for the night, where we were treated in a manner to which we'd like to become accostomed (but cannot afford to!). Dinner with friends and family rounded out the evening and we regretted saying goodbye yesterday as they left for the airport. It was fabulous seeing them.

In the midst of all this touring about, I'm also trying to work on three articles, outline articles for my newest project of writing a newsletter for a vacation rental company, and still outlining with Giorgio the cookbook project. This is in addition to the mountain of laundry to tackle, the nearly-bare cupboards to fill and the floors to mop (always a chore here, as you have read in previous posts). All I can say is, it's a really good thing I don't have "a real job". Who has time?!

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Purple Rain

All over town the stores have been busily changing their displays to highlight the fall and winter styles and I have noticed that purple is the hot color this season. All shades, from iced, muted tones tending toward mauve to vibrant, warm rich violet, the color is raining down upon us from the shop windows.

I mention this not because I am a fashion maven, nor because I am overly fond of purple, but because it is somewhat of a relief that I will blend into the season’s color scheme. Not my wardrobe, mind you, as I possess precious few items in the purple spectrum. No, no…my hair.

The continuing saga of hair adventures, if you are a habitual reader of this blog and have followed the travails of bad haircuts I’ve obtained, has carried over to my life in Italia. Yesterday I purchased a semi-permanent hair color kit to cover the increasing gray sprouts that insist on forcing their way upon my head. Nothing new, as I have had this problem since I was about 18, following my grandmother and mother into the realm of prematurely gray women. I found the brand I normally used at home and perused the shades. I noticed that colorings here, while bearing the same brand and logo, have different tints that I am used to (definitely more vibrant and “fake”, usually tending toward reds), but I consulted the side panel where it shows, “if your hair color is thus, the result will be so”. Nowhere did it foretell the color that my locks currently brandish.

I didn’t even leave it on for the full recommended time (meno male for that, as they say here), and when I rinsed and towel-dried I was greeted by the mirror’s reflection of bad tidings…a purple hue in the magenta range.

For his part, Bryan is amused and thinks it looks good, as many women around here sport unusual hair colorings that are very unnatural shades of red or even black that tends to look blue. He says it is one more step toward becoming a local. With the fall colors in the storefront windows, I guess I’ll have to grin (or grit my teeth) and agree. For my part, I'm hoping it fades as quickly as the fall leaves.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Bunnies Beneath My Feet

There is a phenomenon in Italy that is unexplainable whereby dust accumulates faster than the speed of sound, or at least faster than the normal rate of accumulation in every other corner of the globe, thus leaving the floors in need of sweeping on an all-too-regular basis. While leaving the windows open is common and would explain dome input of dust, it doesn’t explain the rapid flow into the house. No matter how frequently I sweep, the broom gathers together a large pile of matter including large, clumpy dust bunnies which seem to multiply faster than…well, rabbits.

We had an issue with sand leaving a layer on the windowsills and beneath the entry doors in New Mexico, but that was different. It was rather localized. Here the dust is apartment-wide and is constant. A flow beneath my feet.

Speaking of "beneath my feet", everything here is tiled, which is actually a relief in that if there were carpets I’d be worrying about the accumulating dirt getting trapped within its fibers and how gross that is (in addition to the hundreds of chemicals I’d be inhaling, but that is another story). Tile is easy to sweep and mop and so really it’s a practical floor covering (except that I’ve not yet purchased the much-needed steam cleaner for mopping and must continue with the wring-out-the-rag-and-mop method previously noted in the blog archives)

The drawback, of course, is that tile is cold. During the summer when the temperature and humidity had me swooning and whining the tile floors were a blessedly cool relief. Now that the weather is normal and the mornings are a bit cool, my feet are always cold. And before you think me a simpleton, yes, I wear socks but that cold seeps right on through them. Shoes track more dirt through the house. My slippers need to be replaced for while they are cute, all the stuffing has been scrunched down to such an extent that makes them rather useless and they swish off my feet. (“Cute” because my mom gave them to me as a gift; when she saw them she laughed as they bore the banner “Baci” boldly and came stuffed with the Baci candies.)

The other issue with tile is that, when coupled with the plaster walls, the stone floors create echos and even our conversations over the dinner table have a bit of a repeat factor. We need an area rug to absorb sound but it’s been difficult to find a natural fiber at a reasonable price; something to hang on the walls would probably help give some echo relief as well. But really, how much do we want to spend to decorate a home when we don’t know how long we’ll be here? A conundrum for I do like to be comfortable (and I prefer to have warm feet).

Meanwhile, I’m sweeping the floor like I’m training for the winter Olympics curling games and trying to keep my tootsies warm. If you come across some nice, thick wool socks or cute, comfy slippers, let me know. And if you come for a visit, bring along a broom. We can have curling championships in the living room.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There's No "x" in Espresso

(Note: the fact that Bryan wrote about coffee the same week that I did can either mean that "great minds think alike" or that he is a topic thief. I'll have to keep an eye on him.)

Anyone who knows Bryan even casually will know that he is passionate about espresso. Not coffee, mind you, but espresso. Unlike me, who started drinking coffee at the ripe age of 12 or 13, he never touched a cup of American coffee. He thought it akin to drinking dirty water and opted for tea when he wanted caffeine. Until our first visit to Rome, that is.

Jet lag will do funny things to the body and the mind and, desperate to stay awake to feed the cravings in his stomach for the wonderful aromas wafting down the street from the trattorias, he succumbed to an espresso. One packet of sugar to sweeten the brew and his eyes perked up and a smile crossed his face. He had found true love.

That first cup got him started. He spent years trolling the so-called espresso cafes around America in search of a real and satisfying espresso without much luck. Oh sure, there was the occasional “perfect cup” but, like the wine-seekers in Sideways he rarely found that which had the right taste and crema, smooth and whatever else it is he looks for in an espresso. Like wine, I know what I like and drink it rather than examining the “finer qualities”. I’m a cappuccino girl, myself.

Here in Italy my beloved is in espresso heaven. Every day, morning and afternoon like clockwork, he imbibes the brew and is deeply satisfied. There are favored brands. Illy, acknowledged widely as “Italy’s best caffe” is a treat; it is too expensive for an everyday coffee, though the Illy bar in town isn’t too much more for an espresso than an ordinary bar. At home his choice is usually Kimbo; barring its availability he’ll settle for Lavazza. The bars have brands we’ve not heard of before…Saccaria, Mokambo, Tameucci, Cuba Caffe. He’ll taste them all and get back to you on which, in his estimation, rates highest.

Italians, as everyone knows, are passionate about coffee. This is, after all, where all the famous coffee drinks were born…think about the names – espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte – all Italian. They have years of experience in creating these concoctions without watering them down or roasting the beans until they give the resulting beverage a burned taste (like that famous coffee purveyor that serves swill in America at grossly inflated prices). I have never seen a range of syrup bottles (just liquor bottles in case you want a caffe corretto, corrected coffee…grappa with espresso anyone?). No “mochaccinos” or “caramel lattes” around here. We’ve not even tried to explain those to our friends.

If we offer a cup of coffee to our Italian friends they will say, “ah si, prendo un caffe,” then add the clarifying amendment, “uh, but Italian coffee, yes?” Everyone among our acquaintance is in concensus that American coffee is “schifo”, disgusting. Too watery; no taste; cooked flavor…these are complaints we frequently hear about our nation’s cup of joe. Bryan vehemently affirms his agreement and tells them how he never, ever has allowed American coffee to pass his lips and pollute his body. They are duly impressed and proud of him.

I, for my part, enjoy the coffee options here, too, though I admit that a brewed mug of rich Columbian on a cold day, nursed while watching the news or reading the paper, isn’t so bad to me. Heretic, my husband thinks. So we both have our satisfying cups, I, my cappuccino, and Bryan, the purist, his simple caffe with one packet of sugar.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Place to Call Home

We have packed our duffel bags, bid farewell to friends, and informed a couple of baristas that they will be seeing a marked drop in profit. We’re moving on, trading the beach for medieval streets.

After three months cocooned away in Anzio with the tireless care and devotion of friends, we are breaking out on our own. We had not planned to spend so long in Anzio. When we first arrived we thought our paperwork would come through quickly and we’d easily locate a place that beckoned us. Bureaucracy threw us for a loop, and we discovered that each area we visited had a lot of charm and it would be impossible to decide if we continued on a quest. We could spend the entire year traveling about searching, always on the look-out, always exploring.

We’d just need to make a decision with the information we already had. We knew Tuscany was out. It would be too expensive, and we just didn’t feel comfortable there despite its many beauties. Umbria would be convenient but also a bit pricier than we’d hoped. We compared the pros and cons of several other towns and decided at last on Ascoli Piceno, the allure of the city’s atmosphere, the proximity to beautiful mountains as well as the Adriatic Sea making it very attractive.

We needed a place of our own. While our friends have been wonderfully accommodating, we have not been able to fully unpack nor have we felt comfortable rearranging things, for while they came primarily for weekends it was still not our home to rearrange.

So now we have arrived, soaked through from the rain that beat down upon us the whole of moving day. Our apartment in the centro storico is better equipped than we had anticipated. Our landlady was initially reluctant to rent to us as we requested the space for less than a year. “Non lo so, signora,” she repeated during my phone conversation with her about three weeks ago. I just don’t know. Finally she agreed to let us view the place and then said that if we wanted it, fine, but to be aware that she didn’t plan to put much furniture into it as it would not be economically beneficial to her to do so for our short time period. We agreed and returned to Anzio from this house-hunting mission unsure of what our new home would contain.

We arrived to find rather nice furniture and even a few kitchen items. We’ll be shopping for more objects to finish it off but were happily surprised by the touches and the welcome, her husband even helping Bryan heft all of our heavy luggage up the two flights of stairs, in the rain.

Our first outing in town to the monthly antique market resulted in running into Linda, our teacher when we were in school here, as well the Australian friends from Bryan’s class. Funny to see the only people we know in town on our first day…a nice beginning.

We are trying to settle in, figure out where to put things, which clothes we can stash away in our little attic through the winter months, how to arrange the furniture, and which items are most pressing to buy. We feel like college students just going away to school. Why is it that so much of this experience makes us feel so young and ignorant? I’m still not sure if that’s a good or bad thing, or maybe a combination. But we have a place of our own in a three hundred year old building in the center of a beautiful town. Siamo contenti.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Spectacles

Our stretch of beach was strewn with “important people”. Glitterati. Who knew that beyond the gawdy swimsuits, make-up, and leathery tans lurked some of Rome’s movers and shakers? A famous architect, a school superintendent, a “Renaissance man” married to the Director of a university. Ophalmologist. Psychologist. Banker. A veritable “who’s who” lounging on the lettini in the prima fila at Lido di Cincinnato. They have come every year, for many years like clockwork, and resume their friendships and routines every summer, sunbathing while gossiping, and dining or playing cards. All summer.

Some of these individuals reside seasonally in our street, and one throws a party that is An Annual Event. By virtue of our friendship with Francesca and Giorgio we were invited to this year’s gala.

The grand event has often been held as a costume party. Thankfully, this year it was a more low-key affair and we needed only to dress up in something “un po elegante”. The hostess worked tirelessly in the kitchen bringing out huge platters of food while also welcoming everyone. The enormous garden was lit by candles, with a life raft containing a tray of candles burning as it skimmed the surface of the swimming pool. There were three levels to their garden with tables scattered about, and the food spread out under a portico. The architect husband had thought of every detail for this home, and he flit from group to group pouring wine before any glass dared to be emptied.

We were welcomed warmly by several. One group stood off to the side staring and talking openly about us, we frequently heard “gli americani” sprinkled in their speech, so we knew immediately that we’d be The Spectacles for the evening. One man, Luigi, was kindly and told us how he had been befriended by American soldiers when he was a child in Sicily during World War II. He had become a bank president but his real love was history and he had written several articles for publication.

All went smoothly until about 2:00 a.m. when I just couldn’t possibly stay any longer and we begged leave. We were the first to depart, but several took the opportunity to exit as well. It seems no one wanted to make the first move toward the door, but since gli americani had been so forward, well... Francesca stayed on for political discussions as we dragged our tired hineys home.

A few weeks later we invited to another, more casual gathering, this one held in honor of a marriage. Lilly and Franco had a son who married in Spain, so they wanted a chance to throw a party upon their return. The couple sat quietly off to the side, rather ignored once the initial compliments had been proffered, so I sat and talked with them for a while. Coming from Spain, she understands my difficulties in learning the language and feeling a little displaced sometimes.
Luigi from The Gala made a bee-line to me when he entered, smiling and making the usual greetings. Then he said, “I have a question. I heard a phrase when I was a boy, and always wondered what it meant. When the soldiers would say, “take it easy”, what does that mean?" I explained the phrase and its meanings, and he smiled broadly, having that long-held mystery cleared up.

The Wedding Couple danced obligingly when the parents insisted, more an excuse to start the dancing portion of the party, which is Lilly’s main objective at any party.

Thus commenced what we call Italian Line Dancing. Many songs here have prearranged dance moves that closely resemble a line dance with the shuffling of feet, moving forward, turn, start again types of moves. We don’t dance to begin with, we really don’t do line dances, so they were all sorely disappointed when we sat it out, muttering about gli americani and such things. On the occasion I did dance a waltz with Franco one woman screamed, “Look everyone! The American is dancing!” Yeah, thanks. Draw a little more attention to us, why don’t you? Fortunately, the didn't have YMCA on CD; at every beach party we heard YMCA played at least three times during the course of the evening. And we thought disco was dead.

But really, they are warm-hearted and curious about us. They wonder why we’re here, why Anzio, aren’t we going to live in Rome, the center of the world? How can we be here a year without working? And, why would Americans want to come to Italy when so many Italians still view America as the Dreamland? We’ve heard that question many times and try to explain, but they still don’t really understand.

But this little circle of long acquaintances have allowed us into their circle anyway, plying us with wine and food and laughing at us. We’re glad we can provide them such entertainment. They made our summer more enjoyable, made us feel welcome, and we miss them now that they’ve all returned to Rome, leaving the beaches deserted.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ringing In My Ears

Not long after the summer season got into full swing, I began to hear a curious ringing near the house. The tone, duration, and actual ring sounded nearly identical to the familiar school-bell that announced the classes in my high school. As there is no school nearby and being summer when school is out anyway, we couldn’t imagine what was causing the ringing.

At first it seemed to be coming from the general direction of the house under construction one street over. Bryan surmised that perhaps the sound was a tile cutter. I was dubious but figured he might be right. But then we started hearing it at well after 10:00 p.m. and knew it had nothing to do with construction techniques.

We grew accustomed to the tone and learned to tune it out amid the other summer noises of parties, barking dogs, screaming kids and jovial voices. But then one day the sound seemed to be coming from right outside our gate so we asked Francesca, “What the heck is that?” She laughed and said, “gelato”. Ah, the ice cream truck. Soon after, while taking an evening stroll, we saw and heard it simultaneously and sure enough, she was right. He’d ring the bell then park and wait for people to emerge. Funny, we thought, and then reminisced about bomb pops, drumsticks and fudge bars. Being spoiled with artigianale gelato in town, we didn’t think we’d try the packaged type.

Until a couple nights ago, that is, when I was craving something chocolatey; I heard the school bell and figured I’d suck it up and see what he had. Little did I know! This being Italy I should not have underestimated the ice cream man. This guy had a mobile gelateria, complete with homemade gelato, sorbetto, granita, and banana splits. Cups, cones, and special concoctions. With whipped cream and chocolate sauce, even. At prices that are on a par with what one normally finds in the gelateria in the centro.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

How stupid we’ve been! All summer we could have been partaking in the mobile confections and shunned it thinking it was packaged and manufactured tasteless stuff. We really should have known better. Now I hear that bell and shake my head at my ignorance.

Monday, August 28, 2006


I walked across the threshold into the sparkling grand foyer strewn with precious sculptures and breathed a sigh of relief. I was in the door. At long last, I was going to see the Galleria Borghese. This was not something to be taken lightly. I had tried and failed on three attempts to visit this famed repository of beautiful art.

On our first trip to Rome our hotel was located in the vicinity of the Villa Borghese. The gallery was not yet reopened after years of renovation; it would be another month before reservations would be taken and my parents were among those lucky enough to enter the villa after years of closure. I would have to wait until another trip a year later secure reservations, which we duly obtained. The day arrived, we high-tailed it through the vast park and up the steps of the villa only to be told that the galleria was, that day, chiuso. There was some kind of strike going on involving museum personnel. At least that is what we think he said; it didn’t really matter why, we only knew the museum was closed despite our reservations made months in advance.

Another year, another trip, another reservation secured. The only day available during our stay in Rome was the first thing in the morning on the day after our arrival. If you have suffered jet-lag you will understand why we slept soundly right through our appointed hour. We were told all other reservations for that day were firmly held and we’d not be able to enter unless we wanted to spend the better part of the day waiting around hoping for a no-show. We opted to see other sights.

Another year, another trip, another reservation. We hopped a bus from the Trastevere area, allowing ourselves ample time. Except that we didn’t know there was a huge anti-war demonstration in the heart of the city, causing everything to come to a screeching halt, including our bus which tried to navigate around the mess but was left at a standstill until the driver finally turned the vehicle off and ordered everyone out. We ran and tried to make it, but of course by this time we were a half-hour late and were not admitted.

I gave up hope of ever seeing the wondrous beauties within the 18th century villa. Until Thursday. Francesca made reservations several weeks ago for a small group to see the special exhibition of Raphael works. I guess when I am not the one reserving, things go smoothly. We entered without a glitch (except that Francesca was ordered to check her purse; mine was allowed in, though I’m not sure why). An audio guide helped us understand the background of the museum and the precious contents within, though it didn’t cover any of the Raphael exhibit. Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous! Bernini! Caravaggio! Canova! My favorites, accompanied by the lovely Madonnas of Raphael and we were completely enchanted.

At long last I admitted to the gallery. It was worth the wait.
copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bureaucracy Revisited

The wheels of bureaucracy in Italy are badly in need of a little grease. They are well-rusted and creak along slowly. Three months after our arrival we are still waiting for our official Permesso di Soggiorno to arrive, the permit to stay. This may not seem so bad, but when you consider that a friend arrived in Chianti just about 3 weeks ago and has an appointment to pick up her permesso in Firenze on September 5, you’ll understand my frustration. An appointment! Magari! September! Speriamo. We hope.

The visas decorating our passports allowed us to enter the country for a year. Normal tourists can stay up to 90 days and then must take their baggage and leave. To be here officially we need the permits. We dutifully went on our first day here, accompanied by Giorgio and Francesca, and went through the whole rigamorole of being finger-printed, weighed, measured (height) and questioned. (Read all about it in the archives from May.) We were given our ricevuto, a kind of receipt adorned with a tiny photo face-shot saying we’d applied for said permit. And then we began to wait. And wait. And wait.

We returned a couple weeks ago to inquire about the status, but were told that we’d “only applied in May”…how could we possibly expect they’d be ready yet? Maybe September, he said. September; we were aghast. Well, he said, you know it is almost August and there are the vacation schedules…and he mumbled other things I could not hear nor comprehend, speaking as he was into a crackly microphone through the plexiglass window, with a full room of foreign spectators behind me creating a cacophony. We left understanding enough – the permessos wouldn’t be ready for some time.

Today we returned armed with Francesca, a gal who knows her way around bureaucracy. She was packing a weapon – the name of an employee. “It’s the only way,” we were told. “You have to know someone.” Unfortunately, that someone is (predictably) on vacation. Nonetheless, we were again told that we’d only applied in May, so why the impatience? Francesca explained about our friends and their coveted appointment in Firenze. Much gesturing and eye-rolling. Firenze! Mah! Firenze is piccola piccola! We are Roma! The province of Rome is grandissima! We have more than five milioni abitanti and a good part of the world trying to live here. Bah…he barked. Just wait. It turns out to be all about location. We are apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time…the largest province in the country during August, which brings everything to a screeching halt.

And so we wait. And wait. And wait.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Tastes of Italia

Food tastes better here. The same fruits I bought at home – cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches – that were faintly scented and fairly tasteless, here are bursting with juicy fragrance and sweet freshness. Tomatoes, something neither of us ate raw at home, have a different flavor, and we have enjoyed them chopped on bruschetta drizzled with golden-green olive oil, as well as sliced onto salads. Fresh tomatoes…us! It’s unheard of. We have been enjoying fresh, home-grown figs, apricots, and plums. For a month Francesca brought nespole, a Mediterranean fruit we’d never seen before, a funky sweet-tart thing with five large seeds in the middle. Bryan, forever a picky eater, has been much more willing to taste things here (and is actually liking many of them).

The foods available are just plain fresher. The growers are closer at hand, and they are picked at the peak. No picking when they are still hard and green, traveling for hundreds (if not thousands) of miles to sit around in a warehouse, and then in the grocery case. Not in Italy (at least not in our area). The vendors at the weekly market I frequent have signs that pinpoint where the produce was grown, in some cases not only the region of Italy, but also the province.

When we buy fresh produce, it must be consumed within a day or two or it begins to rot. We learned the hard way that we have to buy more frequently in smaller quantities; no American-style once-a-week big grocery shopping here. The first several trips to the weekly market I went ape, letting my eyes feast on the goods at hand, with my hands readily forking over the money for a great quantity that I thought I would use all week, only to find the beautiful veggies going bad in the frigo within a few days.
It is a much more pleasurable experience to pay a visit to the little frutta-verdura lady to supplement what we buy at the mercato, than to troll a garish, florescent-lit, gigantic store chock full of unhealthy, artificially-flavored boxed goods. Our few forays into the gaudy ipermercato ended in blurry eyes, frustration, and a feeling of overload…it was too much like a Super Wal-Mart for my taste and sensibilities. Especially when one has a nice purveyor of produce right in the neighborhood.

The fruit lady lets me select what I’d like in any quantity – if I only want 3 stalks of celery, so be it; a handful of parsley instead of a whole bundle is no problem. She frequently tucks sprigs of basil and oregano into my bags if I am buying tomatoes, figuring I’m going to need the flavorings for a sauce. She also sells various breads, and that, too, can be had in any quantity…a knife is provided for us to cut off the size chunk we want. Even if I fill a bag full of things, I’ve rarely spent more than 3 Euro at a time in her store, her prices are just that darn low, and I don’t know how she can make a profit. Despite the sign that clearly states “non si fa credito”, she tells me to pay domani when I think I’ll need to put something back for lack of sufficient money, or if I try to give her a bill instead of the smaller-denomination euro coins. She also rounds the bill down to the nearest increment every time I go in, so my bill for 2.24 euro today was stated as “2 euro, per favore”. One afternoon I’d arrived after all the zucchini had been sold; the next day when she saw me, she smiled and produced a little bag of the small, freshest zucchini at hand, blossoms still beautiful, and handed over the bag. She had set them aside just for me.

The butcher is kindly and has beautiful meats. He, too, cuts off what you desire when you are buying it. He also fillets the chicken breasts if I ask - at no extra cost- to use for cutlets. When I wanted a small amount of ground beef for stuffed eggplant but didn’t see any in the case, I asked about carne maccinato, and he said, “of course, how much would you like?” I stated the amount I thought I’d need (grams and pounds conversions still pose a mathematical challenge for me on top of the linguistic conversions floating about in my head), then he cut a chunk of meat off of a nice, lean roast and ground it for me on the spot. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.

In our resort area, seafood is everywhere and the fishmongers have the freshest of fishies, as do the restaurants. Giorgio has prepared some fish very simply grilled, but so fresh I could still taste the salt-water in them.

Gelato is so unlike ice-cream it is a shame they translate the word as such. Gelato is creamy and light, bursting with the flavors of what is used to make it…be it strawberries, chocolate or hazelnuts, the source taste shines through. It is not heavy and dense, like American ice cream which is made from great quantities of heavy cream; it is softer, more silky in the mouth; it does not coat the tongue and weigh down the taste, and has less sugar, too. Delightful.

Food is the ever-popular topic of discussion. On trains, on the beach, in the stores…where I hear people interacting, inevitably the conversation turns around to food. Always. On a train, two men in suits were arguing and gesturing, and I thought they were discussing politics. When I strained to hear better - to practice listening in Italian, of course, not to eavesdrop, mind you - the heated discussion was about how best to prepare veal cutlets, Milanese style or in a simple wine sauce.

Truly, Italians are passionate about food and it shows. Truly…food just tastes better here.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Beach Flick

Remember the old Frankie Avalon Beach Blanket movies? The plot was pretty much the same in all of them…Frankie and Annette Funicello running around the beach, barely getting wet in the surf, dancing in long-outdated, now-funny moves upon the sand to fake background music that faded out when they had dialogue. Or the teeny-bopper movies that all seem to follow a formula: teenage angst with apparently over-bearing parents, a break for some kind of freedom, the set-back or ensuing crisis point that requires more angst for a solution, all interlaced with sex or some other coming-of-age situation and a get-the-girl ending? The formulas are universal, as we discovered when we attended our first movie in Italy.

We had been given a free pass to a movie that was filmed last fall here in Anzio, at the stretch of beach and the very restaurant and stabilimento of which I’ve written, as it happens. “Our” lifeguard, a weather-beaten, sea-dog kind of guy who we see frequently, is featured in his acting debut. The restaurant owner was passing out tickets and we happened to be with the right people. A friend of Francesca’s offered us a ride to town to attend, and, having not seen any movies in a while, figured, what the heck. So what if we couldn’t understand the dialogue? It’s a beach film, after all, how deep can it be?

It turned out to be the film’s premier. Not just the opening in the Anzio theatres, but the actual national premier, complete with the actors and director in attendance. We were allowed in only because we had the coveted freebie ticket. We sat between the two rows of reserved seating, set aside for the production crew and various VIPs. Surprisingly, the whole affair was much lower-key than would be in the US, but then Italians are pretty laid back anyway. Sure, there was the popping of flashing bulbs, the smiles, the giddy girls, the clamoring for a good seat well in advance of the start of the movie, but no red carpet, no overdressed starlets…just a casual entrance of the stars, a few words by the director, and the crack of sound and images to begin the main event.

Astonishingly – and maybe this was only because it was a premier and not a run-of-the-mill flick – I heard only one cell phone tinkle and people were actually quiet through the showing, not as I’d expected the normally-verbal Italians to behave in a theatre. There was an intermission, not as long as a stage theater, but enough for the cigarette-dependent to run for a puff. Popcorn, licorice, and refreshments are available, but not at a long, front-and-center, neon-stripped counter which serves as a gauntlet one must bypass, as in the US, but rather in a narrow, cramped room off a little hallway. One has to have the urge and know the room is there to obtain goodies (not many partook). I learned from the entrance sign that normal evening admission costs only 4 Euro; matinees are 2.50. The usual starting time for an evening film is 10:00, rather than the 8:00 showing so common at home.

It turned out that we guessed correctly; knowledge of the language wasn’t too necessary. We understood abbastanza. I easily picked out the obscenities that I’d heard as a child, words that floated into my memory when I heard them, and I snickered a bit, not because the words or situations were really funny but because I hadn’t known I had remembered them; Bryan was clueless until later when I explained the words. "Che ci faccio qui?" is about a sweet-looking boy is supposed to blow town with his buddies after graduation for a tour of Europe, culminating in a concert in Budapest. He doesn’t make the grade and must stay behind. Angry, he sneaks out and takes off on his motorino, ending up on the beach, out of luck and money, where he must work to get his motorino fixed. Loud, contemporary music, a bit of beach dancing, the obligatory sex scene with an older woman, a moment of soul-searching, then true love with a girl his age pretty much wraps up the plot as they ride off into the proverbial sunset on the motorino with the closing music blasting them on their merry way. But it was rather funny and cute, and I did understand more of the conversations than I had expected to, and it was just fun to see the places which we’ve come to know in our short residence here, even to see faces we recognize, on a movie screen. A night of fun at the movies, and an experience of a film premiere all in one. Not shabby for a couple of hangers-on Americani in a little beach town.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Rome When It Sizzles

Rome When It Sizzles
I’m borrowing the title from a movie about Paris (which I’ve never seen…Paris, nor the movie), but it is an apt description of Italy’s current summer conditions. The heat has settled in and made itself right at home in the bel paese, lingering languidly for about a month now. It made itself most intensely felt at the exact moment our relations arrived for a visit.

Bryan’s brother Wayne (the favorite son), his wife, Brenda (my email-pal and book supplier) and their daughter, Leann (a fun fifteen-year old) had spent over a week touring France and made a quick detour to Italy to see us. The temps soared to 39C (about 98F) with high humidity. I know, I know…I gripe a lot about humidity, but I defy any of you to spend nineteen years in the desert and then drop into 70 percent humidity without a grumbling.

Florence was teeming with tourists, and the sun on the ancient streets radiated the heat, searing our legs as we valiantly tried to see some of the famed sights. Not long after lunch, we packed it in for the air-conditioned hotel rooms, venturing out again only to bee-line the short distance to the Duomo, that gloriously pretty stone building maintaining a cool interior. Another rest in the hotel before dinner once the sun had gone away.

Rome is beautiful always – but even I, in my everlasting love for the city – couldn’t bear the heat. The Forum was like a forno (oven); Leann nearly gave it up…who needs to see the Coliseum, she began to say, when she was confronted with the Mamertine Prison. We told her it was where Peter and Paul had been confined before their deaths.
-“Peter and Paul? THE Peter and Paul? Of the BIBLE, Peter and Paul?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with amazement.
-“Yes, that Peter. Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy from here,” I told her.
-“No way!”
-“I want to see it!”
We went to that reverent place, which was cool and refreshing despite the bloody past. We refocused our thoughts and then emerged into the sun, making our way more quickly to the Coliseum.

Evenings were more pleasant, but there was no getting around it…it was just plain, miserably hot. They were tired but trudged along to take it all in anyway. It was great to see them, to show them around, to share meals in some wonderful restaurants, and we felt bad for them, that they had to see our beloved city in such extreme temps. It didn’t help that our favorite restaurant happened to be closed for the weekend, and our back-up restaurant was also inexplicably shuttered. We just weren’t having much luck for those poor, hot visitors!

We returned to Rome for a few hours this week, taking the train up to see a few masterpieces I’d not yet visited. This time we took a splash in the fountain in Piazza del Popolo to cool down. The train ride home was packed to the gills and steamy. Not one of my better ideas, I thought initially, but then again, how many people have the opportunity to pop up to one of the most beautiful cities in the world just to see a couple of Baroque paintings?

Through all the sizzling weather we have come to realize just how important and sensible is the afternoon siesta break. It has become a necessity this past month, to take a respite indoors.

Our current home is not air-conditioned, so we have tried various methods for keeping it cooler. Keep the windows open at night to bring in any wisp of cooler air, then close it all up to try to keep it cool once the sun starts to heat things up. Open up all the windows all day in hopes of getting a breeze from the sea. Adjust the windows and shutters to get a breeze but keep out direct sunlight. We’ve tried it all, and nothing seems to make any real difference; we feel hot and sweaty and sticky all the time.

It’s compounded by the zanzare. I hate them, because they loooove me. No mosquito in its right mind would bite someone else when I am around; I am just too tempting to them, for some reason. I have itchy welts on my legs and feet, their preferred zone of attack. Nothing wards them off; nothing helps the itchy effects after their feasts on my flesh. My legs are unattractive welt-infested trunks. Lovely in a swimsuit, the salt water dries them and makes them itchier. Again, it’s an adjustment because arid New Mexico didn’t have an issue with mosquitoes (though after all the rainfall they’ve had this month, there may be a problem now. My poor New Mexico can’t win…drought or flooding, never in between!)

These are travails of summertime in Italy. Lest you think I’m only griping, I do still have the consolations of gelato, granitas, really good food all the time, the Mediterranean to swim in, art to look at, and no stressful work to deal with. Nope, I can deal with the little annoyances after all.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ascoli Piceno

We have readjusted to life in Anzio following our two weeks of language school in the Marche town of Ascoli Piceno. It was wonderful to be situated in the heart of the city, able to walk to everything we needed for daily life. Quintessentially medieval, it is lively and lovely, boasting two main, distinct piazzas where the citizens gather. Beautifully lit at night, they evoke a sense of drama and mystery. The architecture of Ascoli Piceno is typical for the medieval period, but well-preserved, and it seemed that every turn brought us to a pretty building to gaze at, or a new detail to notice.

The town had been built up with towers, boasting over 100 during her peak. Many of them had been torn down, or deteriorated and then incorporated into other buildings. Today, there are about 50 towers remaining, more than in the more-famous, glitter-sister town of San Gimignano in Tuscany. With the artistic riches and beautiful atmosphere, we were amazed that Ascoli is so unknown; indeed, if it were in Tuscany it would be completely over-run by tourists. Because it is in Marche, well off the normal, well-trod tourist track, it remains a largely-undiscovered treasure.

Ascoli Piceno has ancient roots dating back to the pre-Roman Piceno tribes, and also contains remains from the Roman era, including a couple of Roman bridges, gates, and a theatre; but the bulk of the construction was done squarely in the Middle Ages during the 1200-1600s, lending much charm to today’s city. The historic roots run deep, however, as the Quintana, linked to the medieval cavalier’s tournaments (much like Siena’s famed Palio) is still enacted annually, complete with skilled flag-throwers, costumed processions and jousting matches. The historic quarters (sestieri) maintain their neighborhood pride and cheer on their participants. We were fortunate enough to witness some of these activities, including the band practices and some of the bandieri competitions. The men’s abilities to throw and catch the flags with synchronized precision impressed us, some juggling up to 5 at a time, using their legs and feet to catch them as well as their hands.

The heat was rather intense (as it has been throughout all of Italy for the past month) but fountains are thankfully plentiful around the town. Some evenings as we sat in the lovely Piazza Arringo, we watched the kids entertain themselves by running to and fro, then lining up to drink from and splash in the fountains. Some had contests going to see who could drink from the horse’s mouth without soaking himself, while the others tried to throw the drinker off balance. Innocent fun which was always concluded with a gelato.

Speaking of which, the gelato in Piazza Arringo at a chocolate shop was to-die-for. How many ways can you make chocolate gelato? I’m still trying to figure it out, as each visit brought some new concoction to light…every gelato saturated in some manner with the heavenly goods bestowed from the cocoa bean.

The food of this area was something to truly rave about, even in a country well-renown for cuisine. We really think this region has some of the best cooking in the country, and we were constantly amazed by the low prices. Olive Ascolane, a particular, non-vinegary olive stuffed with meat and fried, is downright addictive. Pasta, fish, meats, an almost-creamy tasting prosciutto, the regional Vino Pecorino, and anisette liqueur all tempt and satisfy the taste buds. We tried -without success- to recall one bad meal we had consumed in our two-week stay. It just didn’t happen. After one dinner at restaurant near our apartment, the waitress remembered and greeted us every time we strolled past (yes, we returned for another meal there our last night in town).

There are two rivers, largely undeveloped, though there is a river-side trail along the Torrento Castellano which led us past several small waterfalls in the blessedly-cool shade of the overhanging trees. An oasis right next to the city. Nearly encircling the town are the Sibilline Mountains, offering hill-towns and majestic beauty just minutes from Ascoli.

There are great museums, a host of Romanesque churches, artwork, markets, shops – all the makings of a beautiful city. In two weeks, we still managed to not see everything. It is largely walkable and liveable, with a sense of community. Ascoli Piceno is definitely on our list of potential spots to call home, along with Sulmona. It is a very tough choice.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Beach is That-a-way

Just two minutes from our door is the Mediterranean Sea. We can hear the surf breaking on the shore, especially on days when the sea is roiling and waves are high. Chinks of sea can be seen from our bedroom window when I open the shutters every morning. To reach the actual beach we must walk a block to the seafront, then descend 109 concrete steps on a winding staircase. Going down is no problem; returning home UP those 109 steps, that mysteriously seem to get steeper and steeper as one ascends, can be a killer.

On the beach there is a restaurant with a fake-thatched roof that juts out over the water. A few steps further down, in the direction of the Saracen tower, is a coffee bar (very good espresso for 70 cents). They offer full restaurant service on the weekends, specializing in seafood (naturally). Small shells are abundantly scattered about on the beige sand.

Ubiquitous are the stabilimenti. These businesses erect ordered rows of umbrellas and chairs - colorful shadings to be had for a price. These represent the only ordered anything in Italy, by the way. They also include little changing cabins and cold-water showers, along with snack bars or full restaurants. Francesca pointed out to us the few small expanses of free beach open to anyone. These are dismal, unkept plots of sand with trash and doggy doo-doo. No umbrellas or chairs unless you haul your own down the 109 steps. No shade; no showers to rinse off the salt. We have inquired about the prices at the stabilimenti closest to us. The lure of shade and the prettiness of the well-tended rows prove very enticing after an hour of roasting on the shabby public plot.

Sunscreen is rather costly here, and the SPFs available are lower than we normally buy. Bottles containing lotion with an SPF rating of 2 and 4 are common; why bother, I say. Anything with a rating of 20 or above is clearly marked “per bambini”. Only kids and foreigners would consider it necessary to have real sun protection. The sun worshippers bake and burn, toasting themselves to a golden brown, oblivious that doing so makes their skin look leathery. One friend of Francesca is frequently found in various poses to maximize sun exposure, despite surviving cancer a few years ago. Sunscreens also contain a high proportion of strong scents, making me gag when I try to find one senza profumo. Finally, after much searching I located one at the farmacia in Anzio and forked over gladly the 14.00 Euro for a small bottle (SPF 20, thank you).

As for swimsuit fashion, anything less than a bikini cannot be tolerated, apparently. I have seen only about 5 one-piece swimsuits thus far. Irregardless of body shape, overhanging bellies, saggy boobs, or cellulitic backsides…it matters not, bikinis are the choice. The surprise is not how truly awful some of them look in their bikinis (which many of them do), but how utterly confident they are that they look good. If they are wearing what is in, they must be attractive. I don’t have such self-assurance. While I sport a two-piece suit, I am fully aware of my deficits and where I am sagging.

Immigrant salesman, referred to as vu compru, troll the beaches hawking everything from fresh coconut and watermelon slices, to sunglasses, t-shirts, beach towels and jewelry. They haul around heavy loads in the hot sun, trudging through the sand for miles. On the streets, small trucks drive slowly through the neighborhood with loudspeakers perched on the roofs announcing services such as knife sharpening and shutter repairs. Giorgio tells us they are not worth the money (and that he sadly has learned by experience).

These are the tell-tale signs of a beach resort on the Mediterranean. It is a different life than most of Italy, which is why so many flock here in the summer, for a taste of something different, something more casual, more colorful. Indeed, the atmosphere is much more casual than usually seen in an Italian city. Romans, normally well-dressed, come here and wear flip-flops, shorts, tank tops, wild colors and big sunglasses. They are careful to re-dress themselves in their city clothes before returning home, though. There is a carnival-like atmosphere, with beach parties on the weekends, karaoke nights, aerobics classes and beach volleyball. Ice-cream bars and granitas, the Italian version of a snow-cone, can be purchased from carts at the water’s edge. Jolly voices, barbecues smells, and music waft through the neighborhood. It’s like a holiday every weekend. Then Sunday night arrives and the Romans clog the roads northward. Some will spend a week or a month here during the August holiday season, and for that month we know that we won’t be able to find a chair or patch of sand to rest upon, but for now the weekdays are back to a quieter, less-crowded tempo.

The nice thing is that most of the tourists here are Italians, coming for the sun and surf. The majority of shopkeepers do not speak English and we are the oddities, the few Americans to hang around for an extended period. It’s a good way to hone our Italian language skills, even if it means I must do so in a two-piece swimsuit.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider

Friday, July 07, 2006

Music and Confetti

We are in Ascoli Piceno for language school, which is much like boot camp complete with a drill instructor, fatigue, and heat, all the things a boot camp conjures up in the mind, but set in a beautiful medieval city with fantastic regional foods and lovely mountains nearby. The temperatures have been in the 90s with humidity, something we are completely unaccustomed to and which we feel intensely. The heat makes us cranky and exhausted as well as lethargic and, to make matters worse, I have an itchy heat-rash on my arm and legs to go along with the mosquito bites I acquired in Anzio before coming here.
The two-week class we enrolled in has proven to be draining on the brain as well as the body. I have an hour of individual lessons with the school’s director before my regular group instruction, rendering me nearly brain-dead before I enter my group. In my class there is a girl from Poland and a man from Mexico, so Italian is the only common language. It can be difficult to understand as they both have their own accents on top of their Italian (as do I). Bryan and I come back from class feeling like our brains have turned to polenta. And so, come Friday we decided we needed a little break for the weekend. We packed a few things and set off on Saturday for points south in Abruzzo. There were several towns we had desired to explore as possible living quarters, and the high mountains of the Gran Sasso beckoned us with the promise of cooler air. We drove as fast as the little Lancia Ypsilon would carry us into the hills.

Abruzzo is one of the overlooked regions of Italy. It has remained somewhat isolated by the Apennine Mountains, and tucked away within its confines are beautiful hill towns, castles, and gorgeous mountains rising majestically. The autostrada has many tunnels and vertigo-inducing bridges erected high over the valleys. Much of the landscape is rugged and peaked, reminiscent of the San Juans in Southern Colorado.

We began by stopping into some towns on a postcard-hunting mission: several friends’ families are from this area and we wanted to send them picture cards of their ancestral lands. Spoltore, Penne and Popoli provided our entrée’ into Abruzzo. Then, more personally, we headed to Sulmona, our main destination. Driving into town gave us a very good first impression – it is one of the few cities set on the valley floor instead of carved into the hillside, and is virtually encircled by mountains. Beautiful. The town itself is lovely and much more “upscale” feeling than we had expected. The passeggiata brought out most of the town, the streets teeming with people stylishly dressed with care, laughing and walking, eating gelato, meeting and greeting. It gave a nice impression of an active community. We joined in, sometimes walking, sometimes sitting on the steps of the museum to watch and take it all in.

The hotel owners were very kind, spoke slowly so I could understand them (and I did understand them very well and conversed rather easily, I must say), kindly inviting us to a neighborhood party (more about contradas and sestieri in another blog post), and telling us a bit about the closest mountains. We felt duly welcomed.

Architecturally speaking, it is a pleasing sight with several grand palazzos and the typical, narrow streets lined with medieval buildings. At the end of town there is a section of medieval acquaduct that proved to be a meeting spot. After dinner we strolled down there and found a nice surprise: about 5 older citizens were ensconced in chairs with musical instruments, a sweet, little band playing old Italian folk music and 1940s and 50s classics. They were energetic and played quite well. Nearby an old woman, who had to be at least 85, was dancing to and fro to the music and clapping her hands, clearly enjoying the revelry. People milled in and out, applauding and smiling. After the performance someone popped open the Prosecco for the musicians, their payment for providing the town with some entertainment.

Sulmona is famous for their confetti - colorful, candy-coated almonds that are traditionally given out at wedding receptions. They are fashioned into elaborate shapes – bouquets of flowers, pretty pussywillows, cute snails sitting on a leaf. They are adorably simple treats (and quite tasty, too). There are several producers in town and many of the shops specialize in these little confections, to which we are now duly addicted.

We hated to leave. We wanted to explore the town a little more in-depth but had to return to school. We will go back for another visit, to get a better feel of the town, but it is definitely on our “possibilities” list. Sulmona seems a very charming place, indeed; you gotta like a town that welcomes you with music and confetti.

copyright2006 Valerie Schneider

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Chance of a Lifetime

Rome is an incredible city. I ponder this every time I enter her storied walls; every time I arrive at the train station I think, Rome is una citta incredibile. Truly, I feel almost giddy every single time. This city makes my heart dance and my senses sing.

Yesterday we went to Rome. I flushed as usual, but we were on a mission…an amazingly incredible mission. We had discovered, barely in time, that there was an exceptional exhibition for four days only. A palazzo in the heart of Rome – historical and noteworthy by itself – was putting on display a painting by Caravaggio, the famed artist, my favorite Baroque painter, no less. The Conversion of Saul is one of those rare and priceless works still held in a private collection and the Principessa was throwing open the doors of the palazzo to allow us mere mortals the chance to view this masterpiece. For free. (I told you it was a chance of a lifetime.)

We arrived to a line about halfway down the short block. It was humid and hot, and people in line were strangely quiet (Italians are not known for their quietude). While waiting we gazed at the architecture of the Palazzo Odescalchi - the façade of the monumental building designed by Bernini; at the church across the street; at the people passing by clutching their guidebooks, enroute to the Trevi Fountain without a clue as to what they were passing and missing. To think that we could have missed it ourselves. It was sheer good fortune that Bryan picked up a free newspaper one day on the bus into the Anzio, apparently left behind by a commuting Roman. He perused the cell phone ads, the TV schedule and was about to lay it aside when I caught a glimpse of the photo and the caption saying “Caravaggio”. Whoa, wait a sec. Take that home! Later, I translated it and discovered that an organization whose aim it is to open splendid homes to display rare works of art was sponsoring this event for four days only. It is an annual event each June. Last year they displayed a Botticelli and a Fra Lippo Lippi. This year, fortuitously, this particular Caravaggio. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but we had to hurry! It opened the day the newspaper was printed…that left us with Sunday for the trip to Rome.

So there we were, in that magnificent city, in a famous palace. After about forty-five minutes in line, we were ushered into the inner sanctum – the one room of the palace we were permitted to enter, to gaze upon the glory of one lone picture with lighting designed just perfectly to best permit the incredible luminescence by the hand of the artist to shine forth. Powerful, incredibly realistic…this is why I so admire Caravaggio’s work. A troubled, temperamental man with incredible vision, skill, and profound insight into scriptural events, he presented the conversion of Saul into St. Paul in vivid, muscular, dark-edged and light-ensconced brilliancy. I was moved. Only ten of us were permitted to enter at a time, so the room was uncrowded and we were able to view it up-close for detail before moving to the back of the room for the “full view” as it was intended to be seen in the original setting in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

Truly incredible, I thought. I could not believe we had the opportunity to see a priceless work such as this, that few people even in this city of art have the chance to view. We strolled out smiling, thinking, “and people really wonder why we want to live in Italy?”

copyright2006 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, June 17, 2006

We Have Much to Learn

Abbiamo molto imparare; we have much to learn.

We frequently feel like stupid children. Not only do we have difficulty in communicating at a juvenile level, but basic tasks bring challenges, too. How to work the washing machine, for example. Why are there 13 numbers on the dial? Why does the machine stop for a long rest after number 3? Into which of the four compartments do we place the soap powder? Where do we buy soap powder, forget trying to find the unscented soap I use at home, I don’t know where to find any at all. Then there is the task of hanging the clothes out to dry. Simple enough, one would think, but for us electric dryer-dependent Americans it is an art that defies us. I don’t know how to maximize space on the lines to get the all clothes to fit. Then, I forgot to bring the clothes in one evening so when we awoke the morning dew had wetted them anew. Dew? We didn’t have such a thing in arid New Mexico! Another day of drying was required, and I felt like a complete idiota.

I found a broom and swept all the tile floors, then discovered a bottle of lavipavimento (the label so simple even I knew it was for cleaning the floors), so went in search of a mop. I found an electric vacuum, a couple of long-handled, short-bristled brushes, and another broom. Bryan went to the hardware store down the street to buy a mop. What he was presented with was a long-handled, short-bristled brush like we saw at home. Hmmm. How does one mop with a stiff brush without flooding the floor? Is this like the Fuller Brush days? I just don’t know these things and my hosts are immensely amused when I inquire of them. What do I know? Mops are sponge-like, I say, but I became completely devoted to my steam cleaner, the likes of which Francesca tells me she uses in their house in Roma, but not here. Drat. Tomorrow I will attempt to mop the floor with a brush. Here’s hoping I don’t get every piece of furniture completely soaked in the process. (As it turns out, you fill the bucket with water, add the lavipavimento, which smells vile, and then toss in a special mopping rag which you wring out, throw on the floor and place the bristled brush on top of, then commence the mopping action. Wouldn’t a mop be easier?)

I had better success cleaning the bathrooms. That was easy enough to figure out in terms of cleaning products, but again, the smell is rather noxious to me and I must find where one goes to buy nontoxic cleaning supplies, if such a place exists.

How do I light the oven? I can do the burners, and even more proudly, I figured out how to ignite the broiler. The oven defeated us both, though. And in the nearby market, I can’t figure out the difference between a panino, a tramezzino and a piadina. All mean “sandwich” in my dizionario. When I dared to touch the head of lettuce, I felt like a wanton hussy as a woman rushed over and snatched it out of my hand to bag it for me, asking what else I would like to have. No fondling the veggies, apparently.

Swimsuit shopping proved an exercise in humiliation as I didn’t know the proper size in European numbers, to the consternation of one store clerk. She looked me over and handed me what she said would fit. Into the dressing room I ventured, only to be met by the less-than-beautiful reflection of my derriere hanging out below the equator. I told her they were troppo piccolo (too little). Nonsense, she said; impossibile! She commenced a conversation with the other clerk, both shrugging and eye-rolling their assent that I must be drunk or stupid but no way could those bottoms not fit properly. I left them to their superiority. In another store the whole affair was more self-service, so the humiliation was my own in the privacy of the dressing room. I came out empty-handed but with the knowledge that swimsuit sizes are universally set arbitrarily to deflate one’s ego.

Bryan makes trips to the ferramenta (hardware store). He writes little phrases or words on a scrap of paper to request the items he needs. Despite not speaking Italian he seems to come home with a bag of things each time; apparently hardware is a male lingua franca.

These are the little things that we didn’t know about and which, in addition to learning a new language, we must discover through sometimes painful (to the ego, at least) trial and error.

So we will continue to feel very much like deviant, unschooled children for a while. Luckily, most Italians are extremely patient with us and allow us to make stupid missteps and slaughter their language, all the while telling us that we are molto bravo and parli bene. Yeah, right. But it is encouraging nonetheless.

Abbiamo molto a imparare.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Buon' Amici

How we got so incredibly lucky, I don’t know, but we are extremely blessed to have such kind friends as Giorgio and Francesca. They are hospitable, generous, tolerant, and downright fun to be with. They come for weekends to enjoy the sea, the garden and the casual atmosphere, but live on the northern outskirts of Rome during the week. They have two grown sons who do not come to the seaside (I can’t quite figure out why).

Francesca is a consummate gardener. She is out in the yard immediately upon rising each morning, dead-heading flowers, picking up bits and pieces of things that may have blown in during the night, and watering; she is out there until well after dark, “to say goodnight to the flowers,” Giorgio says. She spends a great deal of time puttering around, inspecting, tying up and trimming plants. She talks to the flowers and sings to the snails and mutters darkly about the dreaded pidocchi (aphids). Every weekend she arrives with more flowers and herbs to plant, and takes sickly-looking leaves to the fioraio (nursery) for inspection and possible solutions. Walks with Francesca in the neighborhood are piano, piano (slow) as she gazes over walls and through gates to observe the flowers and trees, pointing out her favorites. She works like a fury, always in motion, tending and cleaning and rearranging until she goes to the beach to meet with friends for rousing games of cards. She loves to win and often comes home smugly victorious. She is active and devout in her church, but in a way that exudes a living faith, not of piety but of real concern for others and real devotion to God. When the nearby church bells tinkle out the Ave Maria at 8:00 each evening, she hums along while puttering in the yard.

Giorgio partakes of none of this. He is in the garden only when Francesca calls him out to assist with something (though he was gratefully replaced in these tasks by Bryan the minute Francesca heard he had worked in landscaping at one time). Instead, Giorgio prefers to be in the kitchen. Her passion for gardening is matched by his passion for food. He was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, and enjoys immensely the entire process of cooking, from thought conception to the final presentation. (We met them in their restaurant on our first trip to Rome, where he painstakingly explained the daily menu to us, clearly reveling in the dishes he had on offer that night.) He carries a folio containing scraps of paper onto which he has jotted down notes for new recipes. After he has finished his morning coffee (heck, sometimes before he has finished it) he is cooking a sugo or marinating fish for pranzo. He has a shelf of cookbooks from nearly every region of Italia, in case his innate inspiration fails him (it rarely does). He prepares simple fare - in true Italian fashion - always delicious, always served lovingly and with great pride.

When not cooking, he likes to be in front of the TV, to Francesca’s great consternation. He sits down and is immediately hypnotized. He stares transfixed and usually falls asleep promptly, the monotonous blare his lullaby. He sneaks snorts of grappa and whisky in the evening, saying, “shhhh, Francesca no know”. She tends his high blood pressure as carefully as her garden and monitors his salt and alcohol intake, clucking and rolling her eyes when he is errant. He does not walk to the beach, the many steps to reach it are too difficult for him after his hip replacement surgery. He has a desire to start an Italian food export company; we discuss collaborating on a cookbook. Food is his zeal.

Together, they are a wonderful couple, patient with each other, loving toward each other. They know themselves and the other well, adapt easily, anger slowly, and have a finely honed rhythm in their partnership which is a joy to watch. They joke and tease and talk and discuss; arguments are short and quiet and always respectful. They have mastered the fine art of a marital relationship, the blending together of two personalities and minds, while maintaining a large circle of friends and opening their hearts to others (even foreigners like us). They are genuine – with us and with each other. Far beyond their amazing generosity to us, we are truly blessed to know them.

copyright 2006 Valerie Schneider