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.