Monday, December 24, 2007

The Twelve Joys of Christmas (Part II)

7. Pinon scent. There is a very special and particular fragrance that fills the air when pinon wood is burning. You can’t call it generic “pine” because it’s very different. Describing an aroma to someone who’s never experienced it is very difficult, but pinon is like a cross between a very light woodsy incense, juniper, and cedar (sort of ). The scent makes me stop and inhale; it carries an almost-spiritual quality to it and just makes me feel good. To me it is one of the scents of “home”.

8. Christmas Eve dinner. From our first Christmas in New Mexico on through our last we would celebrate Christmas Eve by reserving a table at a special restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque where we’d feast of scrumptious foods without giving a single thought to calories, fat grams, or sugar intake. When my sister moved to New Mexico she came to look forward to this meal for more than a month in advance. It was one of the few dinners out all year where we would truly linger, not think about the time or what may need to be done afterwards, and enjoy all the courses regardless of how stuffed we be by the end, because we knew we’d be walking it off as we covered the entire area to admire the luminarias.

9. Skiing with Santa. For many years we spent Christmas alone, just the two of us. Many people thought it “sad” that we’d not be in the middle of a huge family gathering, but it was fine with us as we’d established our traditions and enjoyed not having to rush between families or keep track of who we spent the last holiday with. We didn’t like to travel over the holidays (too hectic, too many cancelled flights, too expensive) and, understandably, most of our family felt the same way. So, one of the fun things we would do frequently was to hit the slopes on Christmas Day. That was, if Sandia Peak was open and had snow. We would pack a picnic lunch, hot chocolate or cider, and don the ski boots. It was a great time to practice and work up to steeper runs because the slopes were uncrowded. Everyone was always in a good mood, and there was invariably one or two guys dressed like Santa swishing down the mountain.

10. The Light Displays. We always enjoyed bundling into the car to admire the lights around town. My mom would pick up my grandparents and we’d drive around their town, gazing upon the beautifully-lit mansions (or what I had always thought of as mansions) on Main Street and then returning to Grams’ for a piece of pie. Bryan and I did the same around Albuquerque, minus the pie. We saw a lot of over-the-top decorations, I can tell you. A lot of fun ones, too.

11. The Prophecies. I like reading the Nativity account every year, but especially like reading the prophets who foretold the events centuries and centuries before they occurred. That always gives me reassurance, a connection with history, an increased feeling of mystery, and reminds me that God does have a Master Plan for the world.

12. Mr. Jingaling. I’ve written before about this icon who brought immeasurable joy to countless children in northern Ohio. To many of us, he was better than Santa Claus. Santa, after all, could be found on nearly every street corner. Mr. Jingaling, on the other hand, was all ours. We looked forward to visiting him and just *knew* that he was glad to see, too. Those were special times to a kid. But I think the adults were as impressed with Mr. Jingaling as the children.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a joyful New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Twelve Joys of Christmas (Part I)

I have been tagged for this Christmas-themed meme by the perky Passionate Palate, and I’m so happy to be chosen for this one. Originating from Wanderlust Scarlett, the meme says to share twelve of my favorite Christmas things: memories, traditions, songs, presents or beliefs…whatever it is I love about this season. Rather than following one topic (12 memories, 12 songs), I'm mixing it up. Live dangerously, that's me! I'm also making this a two-part post to make the joy last a little long. Here we go!

1. Luminarias. A unique New Mexico tradition, I so miss the sight of these simple, glowing beacons of peacefulness. They’re called farolitos in the northern part of the state, but the concept is the same: a candle in a paper sack with sand in the bottom. They are lit only on Christmas Eve, said to light the way for the Christ child to enter the world. Luminarias line the streets, are jumbled on the lawns, perch on the flat, adobe roofs and peek out of trees all over the state.

2. The Food. It’s always “all about the food” with me. Back in New Mexico we enjoyed posole with red chile and tamales (smothered in green chile sauce) along with bizcochitos, an anise-flavored cookie dusted with cinnamon sugar. Oh, my mouth is watering at the thought. My childhood Christmases consisted of a huge array of cookies, most prepared by my grandmother the consummate baker, but also a few churned out of our own kitchen. Treats like thumbprint cookies, bourbon balls, buckeyes, and even occasionally-if my mom had the stamina for the mess-cut out cookies. I didn’t fully appreciate the taste of date squares back then, but love them now. In my own kitchen I have kept some of these sweets in my traditional line-up, but also included baklava,which I learned to make from a Greek friend and which became rather famous around Albuquerque.

3. Eggs Benedict. Every Christmas morning I would awake to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee and hollandaise sauce as Bryan prepared his annual morning feast of Eggs Benedict. He’d even collect the ingredients himself, and it was a pretty big deal for Bryan to fight the mob at the grocery store, I can tell you. That is, every year of our 21 years of marriage until we moved to Italy. No Canadian bacon, no English muffins. Oh well. We spent last Christmas with friends Giorgio and Francesca and will do likewise this year, so he wouldn’t have been able to take over Chef Giorgio’s kitchen even if he could find the ingredients.

4. Ornaments on the tree. My family collects Christmas ornaments. Not just “the family” singular, but everyone in the family, and we all exchange them with everyone else. My grandmother started this tradition, giving her kids a new ornament every year. My mom carried the tradition down, allowing us to choose for ourselves one bright and shiny new bauble every year. We’d go to one of the nurseries that sold trees and had a big Christmas shop. My sister and I would lament and decide, taking copious amounts of time to decide which one was just perfect that year. And then, clutching our new finds, would take them home and hang them in the very smack-dab front of the tree where we could admire them proudly. On Christmas morn we’d receive new ornaments from our uncles, aunts and grandparents. That adds up, so when Bryan and I got married, I had enough beauties to fill our first tree. The tradition lives on; each year is a trip down memory lane as we hang them and remember who gave them, where we’d found and purchased the special ones together. Alas, they are safely tucked away in storage.

5. Sappy movies. I love, love, love TV Christmas movies, and the sappier the better. The tear-jerkers, the predictable, and the old classics. Sigh. They just make you feel good inside. And let’s not forget the animated ones of my youth: Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (was anyone else scared by the Abominable Snowman?), and Frosty the Snowman. Of course, I’m still very partial to A Christmas Story, and adore The Bishop’s Wife.

6. THE Christmas video. No, I’m not repeating myself from number 5. I’m referring to a home movie that was made during The Big Family Christmas of ’93. My family traveled to Albuquerque to spend the holidays with us New Mexico-style for the first time and my step-dad caught all the fun on tape. From the opening scene of Bryan cutting down the tree in the Santa Fe National Forest, to the entire family decorating it and sipping cider, right on through the silliness of calling in songs to a local oldies-rock radio station and dancing in the living room. We all got a little loopy despite not having much to drink, and even my 80-something Grams whooped it up and danced the Wooly Bully. With a shower cap on her head! You had to be there, but trust me, it was a sight to behold. The video comes out for a viewing each and every year. And it still makes me laugh out loud. Every year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

And it just kept falling

The snow continued all night Saturday and almost all day Sunday, and while it put quite a damper on the monthly antique market and Christmas arts and crafts fair, it sure did make a pretty sight.

We were invited to the hamlet of Vena Piccola, population 6, to have pranzo alla brace (cooked over the fire) with our friends. The drive up the hillside was slow going over the snow-covered roads, and we had to dodge a downed tree at one point. But once we were above Ascoli Piceno we entered a true winter wonderland. Feast your eyes. Bellissima, no?

In case you can't see clearly, those are olive trees and grapevines that are lurking under all that snow!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Now It Feels Like Christmas!

Finally! The snow has come! We'd hoped to see some of the white stuff last year, but nada. Today started with light flurries that quickly became a real and actual snowfall that has not let up. Big, fluffy flakes have been cascading down all day and it's a beautiful sight. Time to break out the Christmas CDs and sip hot cocoa.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bloggers Around Italy, Unite! *CONTEST!*

I’m a great procrastinator, especially when it comes to techy-related things. I have been putting off blog maintenance for far too long. Take the links list. Pitifully short, isn’t it? I’ve been meaning to pump it up. Really. I’ve scribbled notes and bookmarked other Italy blogs I’ve clicked into and enjoyed, but have never made the time to input them. Lazy, I guess.

But that’s going to change. I’m going to create a blog roll to encompass the length and breadth of the Bel Paese and I need your help! (I figure if I’m going to do it, I may as well do it up right!) If you are an expat blogger in Italy, send me your link. It’s that simple. I hope to discover new bloggers who are writing about their unique corner of the peninsula (Anyone blogging in Molise? How about San Marino? Dare I hope, Basilicata?) Old friends aren’t excluded, though. Send in your link, too, even if I currently have it listed. You will be entered for a chance to win a prize! Who doesn’t like an easy contest?

Up for Grabs:

A brand-spanking new English translation of the quintessential Italian cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Who can resist Artusi’s dry wit, words of wisdom, and classic recipes? The English translation makes it a little easier on us foreigners, giving both grams and ounces (or pounds) measurements, in case anyone else still struggle with those conversions. (Or is that just me?) Artusi’s book has been continually in print since 1891 and, like a little black dress, never goes out of style.

And (but wait, there’s more!) – hand-crafted chocolates from the best-darn cioccolateria in Le Marche.

How to Enter:

Send me an email by December 30, and include:
Your Name (as well as your blog moniker if you use one)
Your Blog’s Name and URL address
A one-line description of your blog’s focus
Your Location (city and region)
Send the email to:

italybloggers AT hotmail DOT com

That’s it! Of course, you may also want to alert fellow bloggy buddies about their chance to grab a quick link and (maybe) a prize. We want the party to spread across the whole country!

A few things to note:
*This time around I’m compiling only those blogs that are written by expats living in Italy. At a later, undetermined time (remember, I’m a procrastinator) I’ll run another contest to list those bloggers who write about Italy but are living elsewhere.
*If your blog is completely commercial-focused, I reserve the right to exclude it from the contest. Sorry, but I don’t want those blogs that are only blatant sales pitches without giving out information or providing readers with a view of their town, lives, or Italy in general.
*Blogs that are business-related are acceptable, though…even encouraged! As long as the focus is on providing well-written and informative content, or a glimpse of life in a particular place, send the link!
*The prize will be determined by a drawing (real high-tech: put the names in a hat; Bryan will draw the winner). One prize will be awarded. Drawing will be held on January 1.
*Entries must be received by December 30.

Now send in those entries! Let's cover Italy with our blogs!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tourists and Trinkets

My brother, Chris, and my niece, Nicole, crossed the pond for a whirlwind one-week tour of Italy. Well, Central Italy anyway. It was their first trip outside of America and it was a lot of fun to show them our city, immerse them into the Italian way of life, introduce them to authentic Italian cuisine, and catch up. They spent three nights in Ascoli and it didn’t take long for them to see why we love it here. Then came the inevitable question. It’s a common refrain among visitors. “Where can we find souvenirs?” The short answer is, you can’t. Ascoli Piceno is (thankfully) not a “tourist town” and as such, we mercifully lack those shop-loads of trinkets that you find in every other town of this size. You know the kind I’m talking about; they all carry the same junk, it’s just got a different city’s name inscribed upon it. None of it is made in Italy, much less locally, and little of it bears any real connection to the place. You find the exact same items in shops in Siena, Rome, Florence, and St. Louis. The appeal, I guess, is that it is seen as “something to remember it by”. Knick-knacks, coffee mugs, and plastic baubles, you won’t find them here. You also can’t find a tee shirt, snow globes, or miniature architectural renderings in resin. About the only thing that tourists can buy are post cards, guidebooks rendered into questionable English, and, at one particular tabaccheria, gaudy key chains saying “Ascoli Piceno” along the top, accomapnied by a variety of first names beneath (all Italian names, by the way). I actually think the lack of such tourist trash is something to boast about, and if shops ever start carrying this crap, I will be sorely disappointed. I’ll also hunt you down if I find out that you are one of those tourists demanding such god-awful trinkets.

There are t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the emblem and script of the Ascoli calcio team (soccer) but that can be a tricky purchase. If you take it back to the US it is one thing, I guess; no one there is the wiser. But to sport such a shirt here is to make a strong statement. If I were more in tune with calcio (which I’m not) or if I agreed with the politics of the team (which I don’t) then I might root for them or give little moral thought about making such a purchase. However. It came as quite a surprise to learn that many of the soccer teams here have political underpinnings, and that the fans of any given team are generally passionately allied with a particular party’s philosophy. Ascoli’s team, it turns out, is Fascist. I, like many others, thought Fascism in Italy was a thing of the past, buried along with Mussolini. There is, however, a modern version alive and well, though why anyone subscribes to it is beyond my comprehension. Our current mayor, we are told, is Fascist. There are also ominous groups who hold anti-everything stances (anti-immigration, anti-South, anti-government, anti-semitic) such as Forza Nuova, whose members very much resemble the photos I have seen of neo-Nazis.

Buying the team gear, therefore, just doesn't seem right, though it leaves precious little in the way of traditional souvenirs if you don’t happen to have need of a tacky key chain. But then, we always think the best mementos are those produced locally – a piece of hand-painted ceramics, local wine or biscotti, and carefully hand-made chocolates. Visiting the artisans, interacting with them and supporting their crafts create better memories than plunking down a few euros for a mass-produced tee shirt or made-in-China trinket, even if it does happen to have the town’s name emblazoned on it. Such personal memories are better than souvenirs, anyway.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Please Don't Give Me Your Germs!

Another round of company has come and gone, another round of raffreddore has hit our house. I don't know what it is about taking my family around central Italy, but this is the third time that we've become sick when relations came a'calling! Bryan is threatening to leave my family on the curb next time.

But seriously. I know they are not bringing the germs because none of them have been sick on arrival, but it's still a little strange, don't you think?

It raises an issue, though. We've noted that Italians do not stay home when they are ill. Being a sociable bunch, they don't want to be cooped up inside. They go into the piazza as usual, hack at me when they pass in the street, and - worse - go to work in the bars and restaurants with their drippy noses and caffe-ruining sneezes. Two of our favorite baristas have been seen in such a state, and while they *try* to not cough on the food, well, you know darn well that their hands are at least mildly germy and it's being transferred to us. I've also heard earth-rumbling sneezes emitting from a neighborhood restaurant when I walked by their kitchen door (you can bet I won't be eating there for a while).

"Why don't you stay home and get better?" Bryan asked one such acquaintance involved in food and beverage service. Beh. What am I going to do at home? I'd be bored, he responded. Besides, I don't want to pay someone to come in and run the bar. I feel for them; I realize most bars are a mom-and-pop shop, but still. I really dislike getting sick. Really. Dislike.

So here I am with a crimson nose and mildly-throbbing head, trying to write while feeling foggy. Words don't enter my brain when I want them to. I struggle for cohesive thought. And I keep thinking, I really need to get myself un-addicted to cappuccino. This wouldn't happen if I didn't need my daily fix.

Another thought came up, too. We never caught colds so frequently at home. I think the germs here must be tougher. They've had millennia to adapt and mutate, after all. Our wimpy American immune systems aren't equipped. We lacked the antibodies to resist the different European germs. Or maybe that's just the fog speaking.

I'm off to make a hot toddy. My mom's cure-all for all ailments will surely help break up the congestion if not clear up the fog.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Priest Who Led Me To Strong Drink

My sister departed a few weeks ago and I was sad to see her go. However, my brother arrived yesterday with his daughter, both severely jetlagged but ready for a week-long whirlwind tour of Central Italy. Today we visited the pretty town of Acquaviva Picena, known for the well-preserved Medieval fortezza dominating the hilltop. There was a numbing breeze blowing, like when we visited with Cara.

On that particular visit, it was also a cold day, so we stopped into one of the town’s coffee bars for a warm-me-up before heading on our way.

Inside, standing at the counter was the town priest. I was deliberating on what to order and, as he had just received his hot beverage, recommended I give the punch a try. “E molto buono,” he assured me. Punch is an alcoholic sweet drink that is warmed up by the barista using the espresso steamer wand and served in a tall shot glass. It comes in a variety of fruit flavors as well as chocolate. The priest advised that I try the more local Punch Abruzzese, concocted from a mixture of mountain herbs. “It is very good on a cold, wet day like today,” he said. I had my doubts about this whole affair. I have previously tried another Abruzzese drink called Cento Erbe, also made from wild weeds and it was the strongest brew I’ve ever put into my mouth. We’re talking sugared, herbal moonshine here. But, heck. If the priest tells me to do something, why not? He told me it wasn’t too strong, so I ordered it and went downstairs to the loo.

I came back just in time to find my neatly-warmed punch being set on the counter…and to find my counselor-priest stirring a sugar packet into his own beverage while quietly asking the barista to add hot water to it. I caught wisps of his fervent request with the distinct words, “e troppo forte.” Dude! You just told me “no, it’s not too strong.” Not three minutes ago! I raised the glass to my lips and inhaled herbal fumes. My eyes began to water slightly and I’d not yet imbibed. This would be a drink for flu-sufferers; something to break up chest congestion. I sipped and swallowed. Heat emanated down my throat and into my stomach. I assure you, I felt its path all the way along. He was right about one thing…it was a good drink for a cold day.

My nose started dripping. Each small sip took a little bit of breath away. While breathing fire I glanced at the priest who smiled at me sheepishly before departing. He left half his punch unfinished. Two more sips and I started feeling queasy. My glass remained next to his on the counter, a little more of the strong drink left in mine. The barista gave me some cookies to munch on to override the alcohol, snickering as she removed our glasses. “The priest never drinks anything but communion wine,” she laughed.

I was a little unsettled in the stomach all the way home. I don’t think he meant to lead me astray, but I’ll not be quick to follow a priest’s advice on anything not relating to saints and feast days for some time to come.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Few of my Favorite Things

Sheps (otherwise known as sheep)

I don’t quite know why I'm so enamored of the animals, but I love the sight of sheep on the hillsides, especially when they are accompanied by their shepherds. The wooly things look cuddly when they’re young and just seem to lend a timeless aspect to the landscape. The sound of the bells tinkling as they roam and range provides a peculiar symphony in the otherwise hushed hills. The cheese made from their milk is pretty darn good, and their wool provides natural warmth, so I guess I am just a fan the creatures all the way around.

This little herd surrounded me as they munched their way through the Valle del Castelluccio. They completely ignored me as they tore and chew the grasses while moving along the valley. The dogs seemed way too friendly to be proper sheepdogs, as they came bounding up to me for some affection. The shepherd was a bit too modern for my taste, sitting in his truck up in the distance, then honking his horn as a signal to the dogs to round up the sheps and move them on their way.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Apples and Thyme in Grandma's Kitchen

The Passionate Palate, a scrumptious and inspiring cooking blog, is co-sponsoring a blogging event called Apples and Thyme, giving us a chance to pay homage to the mothers, grandmothers or others who inspired us in the kitchen. This is my contribution to honor my grandmother, Betty (isn't that such a great grandmotherly name?)

Whenever I conjure up a picture of my grandmother I see her in the kitchen. Always. She spent so much of her day in that one room that my mind always captures an image of her there.
She had a little television in the kitchen so she could watch her “program” while she cooked. We often sat at the table playing cards, Grams popping up and down to tend the stove or check on a pie in the oven. Her game of choice was rummy and she didn’t like to lose. I learned some choice words during these games, surprising my mom with them when I returned home. “Who taught you that word?” she would ask me. “Grandma!” I’d respond, knowing she couldn’t punish me for repeating something my grandmother had said.

Grandma and I drank tea and ate cookies and she frequently gave me little tasks to do, like rolling the little balls of bread dough for the rolls, or sprinkling the colored sugar on top of the cookies the instant they came out of the oven. I was able to get my hands dirty mixing up the meatloaf and learned that onion and garlic smells on your hands are best extinguished by wetting them and rubbing in salt. She made most of her mainstays from heart rather than by the book, so I observed how to add spices without measuring and learned how a “pinch” of salt felt in the fingers by dipping into the wooden salt box that hung next to the stove.

But I also learned some of life’s more important lessons, too. She cooked up a storm every day, preparing meals for her own family but also for many others, as well. She frequently delivered meals on our walks to the grocery store, leaving a casserole and a pie on a doorstep, or sometimes just walking straight in the back door to leave a meal in someone’s kitchen before heading on with her errands. Gratitude for such actions embarrassed her. I learned only a year ago that she prepared meals three times a week for one needy family – for six months! Grams never learned to drive, so she delivered her care packages on foot, logging countless miles around her town delivering goodies and good cheer. She would frequently sit and visit with a shut-in who had no other company or pick up books from the library for them, too. Her actions were so inherent she didn’t even realize how heroic they were, but diving in and helping people by providing home-cooked food is a beautiful thing. That she did it every single day of her life is, to me, the making of a great person.

Grams was no gourmet, but she was a good home cook and could make enough to feed the entire town if need be. She baked bread three times a week for 50 years. Her cute clover-leaf rolls were my favorite bread product for years. Roasted chickens, casseroles and soups, her signature potato salad by the gallon, and loads and loads of sweets. I tell you, Grams should have been a pastry chef. She *loved* to bake. The enormous cookie jar in the kitchen was always brimming with treats for the grandkids as well as herself; her sweet tooth was (and still is!) notorious. Pies and fruit crisps appeared weekly. Cupcakes that she carefully decorated were joyfully presented to us on holidays and birthdays. When she moved to assisted living I commandeered her recipe box; lurking inside I discovered 70% of the recipes were for sweets!

Of all those delectable treats I decided to share the recipe for her granola fudgies. She made them frequently, despite the fact that she didn’t much care for chocolate herself, telling us she prepared them just because she loved us. They are also a cinch. Brew yourself a cup of tea and enjoy them over a fine hand of rummy.

Grandma Betty's Granola Fudgies

1/4. cup cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar*
1/2 stick butter
1 1/2 cups granola
1/4 cup sliced almonds or chopped nuts
1/4 cup peanut butter

Place the cocoa in a saucepan and gradually add the milk, stirring well. Stir in the sugar and the butter and bring to a boil for one minute, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut butter, the granola and nuts. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto waxed paper. Refrigerate until firm.

*At home I used Sucanat, which is a whole-cane sugar product, not refining out the essential vitamins and minerals like white sugar does. It's easier on blood sugar level and has a richer taste. You can use regular sugar if you prefer, but if you can find Sucanat or Rapadura you should give them a try. They are a "whole food" rather than a refined, naked "food". Unfortunately, I haven't seen it anywhere in Italy.

Read more about Grams:

Cookies and Lemonade

A Daily Life

Friday, November 02, 2007

...and Misinformed

I’m back, folks! Following two wonderful weeks in the company of my sister, I returned home and promptly came down with a nasty cold. Then Bryan, despite my pleadings to not get sick, couldn’t stand to see me suffer alone and succumbed to the illness himself. A week of hacking and blowing and…well, I’ll spare you the details.

But where were we? Ah yes. Cadogan and their slighting of my Motherland. The opening sentence in their sparse section about Basilicata makes the statement: “The Basilicata has never been one of the more welcoming regions of Italy.”

Really? As with any region that isn’t heavily-touristed, you’ll meet with people or communities who do not seem to be overly pleasant. We’ve encountered that here in Marche in towns like Castorano, where our friendly greetings were left to fall to the ground like dead leaves. People didn’t respond with a smile nor a buongiorno. So be it. We met with a similar experience in Narni (Umbria), which, despite being a well-preserved medieval city with gorgeous landscapes and architecture, does not seem to attract the numbers of visitors as nearby cities; the local people weren’t unfriendly per se, but seemed wary of outsiders wandering their narrow alleyways and gawking around.

So I wonder what town in Basilicata the authors happened into that formed their judgement of the entire region. Or did they even visit (my suspicion from reading their measly morsels of “insight,” is that they did not). Because, in our experience, while the Lucani may not be used to tourists, most of them would sooner sever their arms than appear inhospitable.

We have some travels under our belt and speak conversational Italian which helps, I’m sure. But even on our early trips to these little hamlets we met with curious smiles and a desire to assist. Our forays into the Motherland garner us outright stares. Let’s face it, a little town of 2,000 souls that is perched on top of a mountainside at 1,000 meters surrounded by rural farms and sheep in southern Italy does not draw many Italian tourists, much less foreigners. We are evident outsiders and people stop in their tracks to look us over and determine who we are. For many, this can be disconcerting and may seem unwelcoming. On the other hand, I think it’s just simple curiosity; an out of the ordinary occurrence in their daily lives. Almost every time we smile and speak we are met with grins and torrents of words and questions.

Some of these encounters lead to friendship. Take Belli Cappelli. Otherwise known as Michele, he is so-dubbed because of his long, curly locks. My cousin’s wife says, “he’s the ugliest guy in town but has the most beautiful hair!” He stood in the piazza chatting with us after a simple “ciao” and before we know it, he’s ushering us to the bar and buying us caffe. And this is before he knows that his friend, Michele, is my cousin. Afterwards, when talking about the peperoni cruschi, he promised to dry a string of the peppers just for me, and would set aside some of his home-made wine for us, as well. Other strangers have paid for our drinks, some of whom we had only exchanged greetings with. Unwelcoming? I think not.

When I went into a restaurant in Matera to ask about dinner reservations I was informed they were closed at dinner that evening, but the owner picked up the phone and called a few other restaurants in the area to see who would be open on a Sunday night. I didn’t ask him; he certainly didn’t have to do it, but didn’t want us to go hungry or waste time tramping around town searching. The B&B owner invited us to his newly-opened art gallery, opening it up for a private tour and pointing out finer details we’d have missed on our own. Another B&B owner in Genzano advised us on which restaurant would offer us the best sampling of local fare, calling to make reservations and asking the chef to have a particular wine on our table for us when we arrived.

While these are not uncommon experiences for travelers in Italy, it shows that the Basilicatans are no less hospitable than, say, Tuscans. Closer acquaintances, however, quickly display their true hearts as the Lucani are proud of their roots and their land and enjoy sharing it with others. Meals are long and enormous; no less than 3 pasta dishes would be considered right. Feeding you until you cannot possibly swallow another bite is their way of showing hospitality and affection. We have frequently been greeted with “ciao, are you hungry?” They do not want you to feel even a weak hunger pain.

We have been invited, fed, and made to feel accepted. We have found the Lucani to be among the most welcoming people in Italy. I guess it depends on your attitude and your willingness to overcome their initial wariness with smiles and conversation. The very act of traveling to that remote locale makes them want to like you. Interest in their culture, cuisine and history guarantees they will. But what do I know? The guidebook says it’s not a very welcoming place so it must be true. Right?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

After the Sisterness

My sister, Cara, is here for a visit! That's why I've been incomunicado for a while. We're spending as much time as we can chatting, laughing, drinking caffe, talking, griping, eating, talking, walking, sightseeing, talking and...oh yes, eating! We'll return to the regularly scheduled blog post after her departure.

Cara in the narrowest street in Italy in the pretty town of Ripatransone.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Little Misguided

My cousin, Celia, arrived with a Cadogan Guide, which purportedly covers Southern Italy along with the Bay of Naples. Twelve entire pages out of 300 are devoted to Basilicata. Two paragraphs are dedicated to the important Greek ruins of Metaponto. Such a slighting is common among so-called guide books, so we’re pretty much used to not relying on them in our travels to points south.

But when I read the opening line of their section on Basilicata I quickly decided that Cadogan doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about. “The Basilicata has never been one of the more welcoming regions of Italy.” (Hold that thought until the next post.) The authors must think that the entire region has remained completely unchanged since Levi wrote about it in his famous novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, by calling it “the poorest and most backward corner of all Italy.” Matera, they concede, has a sense of style but say it is subtle and one must stay around a while in order to see it.


Matera, as I already told you, is, in fact, stylish and dramatically beautifully. The lively shopping district, packed with designer wear and must-have gear for the hippest of Italians, speaks clearly of a level of prosperity and panache that you would expect to find in any other provincial city across the peninsula. If they’re looking for the likes of Milan or Rome, you won’t find it here, but nor will you find it in Perugia, Siena, or Ascoli Piceno. Got my hackles up a little bit, can’t you tell?

Moving on. “Most backward”. Whenever I see statements like this I have to wonder, based on whose idea of advancement? Because they maintain a largely-agrarian economy and employment base and hold tightly to traditional crafts, they are considered the country bumpkins down there. I always cringe when an area is considered “backwards” for not polluting their air, ripping out their forests, or encouraging complete consumer consumption. A lack of soul-sapping centro commerciale (malls) must be deemed undeveloped and poverty-stricken. These are, you may have already guessed, the exact reasons we love Basilicata.

There is a deep sense of serenity and timelessness when I enter the Lucanian countryside. Even now when I see it in my mind’s eye I feel the sensation and emotion that the beauty of wide panoramas instills, and I can smell the fragrance of the high-mountain air. There is something tangible in the emotion. It is a rare feeling but I experience it there, like I experience it in the New Mexico autumn when the aroma of pi┼łon fires and roasting green chile fill the air. It is a wondrous sense of place that brings calm and touches my soul. I feel jealous for this area and proud to have roots here.

As for Cadogan, that book lies on the shelf to collect dust until we ever decide to visit Naples. That fair city occupies more than half its pages. I am sure the authors are just echoing what they’ve read elsewhere and have never visited the gorgeous mountain country that we now know well. Perhaps it is just as well. A few more trips and I’ll be able to write a guidebook of my own.

Read the second part of my rant:
...and Misinformed

c. 2007 Valerie Schneider

Friday, October 05, 2007

City of Stone

When the sun shines on Matera, the city absolutely gleams. The nearly-white stone which makes up the bulk of the buildings looks magical in the light. In the rain, the glossy limestone streets turn slick and dangerous and the buildings turn fantastically ghostly in the muted streetlamp glow. We were fortunate to see the city in both of her moods and were captivated by them equally.

This is a city of surprises. Every turn in the winding streets brings something to be awed by…a view of the opposing cliff, a glimpse of a church built out of the rock face, a hidden garden, or tempting smells wafting from kitchens.

Ancient Matera below with medieval castle, Baroque church, and modern housing above

Bryan already wrote about the basics of Matera so I won’t repeat that. But I will say that there is much more to Matera than the Sassi. The centro of the city resting on the level plain above the famous rocky portion of town is a contrast: historic blending with modern; bustling and busy while overlooking the silent caves; trendy yet ancient. It is quiet upscale, a far cry from the imagined city of squalor documented by Carlo Levi in his infamous book. We were taken with Matera…not just the uniqueness of the Sassi but by the upper town, as well. We liked the variations.

In the company of my cousin, Celia, and her partner, Rhonda, we spent three wonderful days laughing, exploring, walking (and groaning) up and down the steep pathways, discovering more pieces of our heritage and reveling in the sights and flavors of Basilicata. These girls are fun travel companions; running jokes were quickly established, nicknames bestowed, and lots of rosy glows imparted by good wine and good company.

Our lodging was a fine example of recuperation of the Sassi. Slowly the old, neglected dwellings are being reclaimed and re-inhabited. The owner of the residenza, GianLuca, a born and bred Materano, designed the renovations and carried out much of the work on the restorations himself, creating beautiful apartments that infuse modern touches while retaining ancient elements. He also carved out (literally!) an art gallery in one of the caves that had in many years gone by formerly housed a church. He designed it to host special exhibitions, like the sculpture exhibit being held during our stay. It is a fabulous exhibition in itself; when filled with artwork it is stupendous.

Lucanian food is noteworthy…it is “down home” Italian cuisine, infusing pure flavors into simple recipes to create perfect taste combinations. Winter brings hearty fare; summer offers an explosion of fresh vegetables grown in the nearby plains. The wine, too, is hearty and explosive with subtle flavors. I’ve written about the peperoni cruschi on my food blog and will be posting more recipes as I continue to recreate the delectable dishes we enjoyed in Basilicata.

Next up…the Motherland!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

On The Road

We are in the Motherland enjoying the hospitality, food, and laughter of la famiglia. Since I've been too busy to write any blog posts, I'll leave you with this lovely scene of Matera until we return home.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A House in the Country

Come on, admit it. You’ve dreamed of owning an Italian country house. Plaster walls, a big kitchen, and a vine-draped courtyard where you can enjoy aperitivi while admiring the view and enjoying the tranquility, and where you can step out your door and walk amidst the ordered rows of vines of your very own vineyard. Anyone who has read the colorful memoirs of moving to Italy has implanted this kind of idyllic vision in their minds.

What’s that you say? Can’t justify buying a vineyard estate in a foreign country? The dream can still be yours, right at home in the good ol’ U.S. of A. My dear friends, Maria and Bob, are selling their beautiful home in the quaint village of Corrales, New Mexico. Maria is the daughter of an Italian immigrant and has infused so much Old World charm into the place that, I swear, it could be in southern Italy.

To reach the property you drive along a rambling road that skirts the Rio Grande through the historic adobe-constructed core of Corrales, where you find cafes and eateries, funky art galleries and a general store that carries the likes of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and pesto sauce, not to mention some seasonal, locally-grown produce. You pass small family-owned farms and estates with horses and llamas in the pastures. Stress melts away as you drive under the canopy of time-weathered cottonwood trees.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this house really feels like home. We spent our last few nights in New Mexico here while enjoying the hospitality of our friends (who cooked up big Italian feasts in the sizeable kitchen lit by Venetian glass pendant lights). It is a fabulous house, comfortable and warm and unpretentious. It blends Italian-style appeal with typically-New Mexican adobe and charm, along with big-sky views. It is the kind of place we would have liked to own if we’d not chosen to move here.

So if you are looking to satisfying your dream for a lovely house surrounded by vineyards, take a look at Bob and Maria’s place. Can’t you just smell the sauce cooking?

More About Corrales:

Corrales Village Site

Money Magazine Article

Corrales Winery

A Vendemmia at Bob and Maria's

Fourth of July in Corrales

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Whole Lot of Wining Going On

When I was a kid, my hometown had a large annual festival that was well-attended and much-anticipated. The Cherry Festival was a grand event for the entire 4-county area. Parades the likes of which one rarely sees, carnival rides, food booths, and bands for entertainment marked the week-long celebrations. We could eat junk food with abandon, munch fresh cherries and spit the seeds right out onto the sidewalk, and enjoy the rides until we made ourselves dizzy (or sick). For my sister and me, though, the highlight was always one particular booth that sold…da da dum…wine snowcones. The syrup was cooked down and sugared, so it’s not like there was any alcohol in the things and they were mighty tasty of grape flavor. We ordered the Lambrusco. Now, how many kids can pronounce Lambrusco, much less order it up on their shaved ice? We even connived our mom once to buy a bottle of the real Lambrusco for the family to taste during a Christmas dinner. (We got little dainty shot-glasses of water with a few drops of wine in it.)

Aside from cappuccino, wine, it must be said, is my beverage of choice when I order something out. Mixed drinks and beer don’t hold a lot of appeal for me. Bryan is a bit of a wine aficionado, or at least his family has long held that belief, simply because they always ask him to choose the wine in restaurants, knowing they like his choices. His secret: he scans the list for an Italian vintage and orders it. Simple as that.

So when we heard that the lovely hill town of Offida plays host to a grand wine festa each year, we naturally wanted to see what manner of hoopla would be offered up. This places oozes charm, and they have turned the old Franciscan monastery into a regional enoteca, to promote the area’s excellent vintages. In this historic setting, they set up tables where at least 40 wineries were represented, handing out brochures and informative descriptions of the wines along with the obligatory tastings. I know. The lengths I go to for the sake of blogging.

With so many wineries present, we knew we’d need to formulate a plan; while we like to taste il vino, we know we have a threshold and can’t overdo it. We wandered on a reconnaissance mission through the facility and then staked out the booths outside which were scattered around the former cloister, in order to prioritize which wineries we’d hit. We decided to go with the smaller vineyards from the province. We are so glad we did! We made some great contacts for future tours and tasted some downright fantastic wines. Many of these vineyards do not distribute their goods beyond the doors of their cantina, not even in stores here in Ascoli. We’ll enjoy taking outings to go into the countryside to procure our new favorites.

This area has a very long tradition in wine-making, dating back to the ancient Piceni tribes, even; yet hardly anyone knows about the “wine roads” or about the unique heritage grapes that produce such good vino. Offida Pecorino, Rosso Piceno Superiore, Passerina…all wonderful! We rounded out our tasting session with the very unique vino cotto, which was much touted by the wine connoisseurs as being an “excellent tasting dessert wine”. It’s cooked to concentrate the sugars, then fermented, creating a sweet, strong wine with an almost syrupy consistency. Makes me wonder how the vino cotto would taste swirled over a snow cone.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dining On Water

(A little note: we had so many activities going on through the summer that I'm still trying to get caught up on posting about them. This one is from July. Summer in Italy is jam-packed with fun stuff to do!)

If you’ve been following our adventures and reading Bryan’s blog, too, you may remember that he wrote about our visit to the seaside area in Abruzzo known as the Costa dei Trabocchi. No? Hop on over and read about the unique, traditional fishing platforms found in that limited area.

Interesting, huh? That’s what we thought. The rickety-looking wooden structures lend a touch of rustic charm to the largely-undeveloped coastline. Small hills rise from the Adriatic, the water is shockingly blue, and the beaches remain mostly open and free. They are composed of small stones rather than sand, keeping the water clean and clear.

So, when we saw that Slow Food was organizing a dinner for a limited number of people on board the trabocchi, we quickly emailed foodie friends Giorgio and Francesca to invite them along and snapped up tickets for the event, which promised “a voyage into the scents and flavors of Abruzzo’s seafood and fishing traditions”. Italians like flowery, long-winded explanations for their brochures. After I weeded through five paragraphs like that, it all boiled down to a grand fish feast using traditional, regional recipes served up al fresco for us to enjoy while perched above the water enjoying the sea breezes. All that for the same price one would pay for the full-on fish dinner in a local restaurant. Who could resist that?

We arrived knowing we’d be experiencing another Seafood Lottery, but we had in tow Giorgio, a long-time chef who would instruct us in the best way to eat the dishes presented to us. He also had to describe what some of the fish were. Being desert dwellers for twenty years, we didn’t get a lot of seafood in our land of sagebrush and, beyond the basics (trout, salmon, etc.), we are not well-informed to know one fish from the next. I grew up just a short distance from fresh-water Lake Erie, but in those parts the sweet-flavored lake perch is served only one way – fried. And that dish is presented in one of two choices – on a plate or on a bun with tartar sauce. Clearly my fish background is lacking, even in English. In Italian, I have little hope of knowing what I’d be eating (again beyond the basics, such as trota and salmone).

The evening was perfect: clear with a cooling, light wind blowing off the water, we had a view of two other, distant trabocchi from our little rustic roost. The trabocchi resemble big, wooden, spider-like sea creatures rising up out of the water. The gangway to reach ours was longer than the neighboring ones, constructed of wooden slats tied firmly together. It swayed just enough to feel like we were walking on water. Arriving on board we were warmly greeted with the delectable aromas wafting from the make-shift kitchen and by the young staff. Local wine (my personal regional favorite, vino Pecorino, no less) began flowing. Other partakers began to arrive, coming from other Adriatic regions such as Emilia Romagna and Molise. We were the only foreigners signed up and word got around quickly as we heard “loro sono americani” being whispered around the tables, good naturedly.

Then, out came the Seafood Lottery, plate by plate. Eight servings of antipasti, all freshly caught. One little critter was some sort of shellfish that tasted like a cross between crab and shrimp, but looked like a marine version of a praying mantis. We had to have Giorgio explain how to crack that open and eat it. It was tasty, but I have to say, it’s a lot of work for one morsel of food. Blessedly, most of the dishes came out pre-cleaned. It’s an American’s nightmare eating seafood in Italy because we are accustomed to having the fish boned, filleted, beheaded and the whole nine yards. Italians, however, prefer to have their fish served up in its entirety. Then you must go to work, reducing it to edible portions. This night, though, the only plate that required such an operation was the famous local brodetto, which smelled heavenly but which I didn’t taste; I was so completely stuffed it was utterly impossible to put even a spoon of broth into my bloated stomach. Who knew that fish could be so filling? The rich broth was filled with large chunks of whole fish that had undergone only a whack with a cleaver. Lots of bones and skin sections took up residence on Giorgio’s plate as he devoured the stuff.

Five hours, many bottles of wine and many helpings of delicious foods later, we made the drive home, arriving back in Ascoli round about 2:00 a.m. with Giorgio and Francesca already discussing who they were going to call first to recount the evening’s menu and unique experience. They were also talking about coming back again next year if the gala is repeated. An “ordinary” fish experience made extraordinary, as only Italians can do, impressed even the resident chef among us. We’ll sign on for next year, too.

*A special thanks to my cousin, Celia, for giving me the SlowFood membership that allowed us to have access to this event!*

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Church Bells and Campanile

One of the great things about Italy is the sound of church bells echoing across the countryside and reverating throughout the cities. Some are tinny and almost tinkling sounding; others are full and resonant, like those of the Cathedral of Sant’Emidio, here in Ascoli. Bells can sound out celebrations and can announce sadness. One day, as we crossed the piazza, the bells started to toll, but not in a normal call-to-mass way. It was, instead, a very rhythmic one clang at a time ring, with a pause between each toll. It was eerie and truly mournful. I had goose bumps. We learned that it was a tribute to the Cardinal whose funeral would take place later in the day.

Pealing bells are a continuity across the peninsula which always make me stop and breathe in, knowing that the sound means, yes, I am in Italy. The towers which house the bells are remarkable and beautiful architectural highlights in many towns. Campanile rising above the piazza stand like sentinels, guardians and witnesses to the history and lives of those below.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Pricey Post

We’ve recently been the grateful recipients of a couple of packages from home, thoughtful family and friends wanting to give us reading material and DVDs to watch. It’s always appreciated since English language books, magazines and movies are hard to come by around here. When I do find a book in my madre lingua it costs at least double the usual paperback rate, if not more. Besides, receiving mail is always fun!

Until la dogana comes a’calling, that is. We learned the hard way that in Italy sometimes mail is held for ransom. While it’s not perpetrated by thugs demanding bundles of unmarked bills, the Customs officials do sometimes request hefty sums before they’ll hand over the goods. Payment must be made on delivery, so while we rummage through the purse, scour the house, and check the sofa cushions for enough money to pay them off, the oh-so-friendly delivery person waits downstairs pushing the door buzzer every 20 seconds to remind us that they are waiting. It makes the gift-receiving just a little frustrating.

One large envelope containing two magazines cost €14.00. Another small box bearing used DVDS and a couple of books set us back a whopping €56.14. I could have ordered new ones from Amazon for about the same amount.

Why they arbitrarily pick some packages rather than others to extract money from us is a mystery. How they arrive at the required fee is another imponderable. But we have learned a few lessons along the way that can ease some of the wallet pain of your loved ones if you’re shipping things overseas.

How To Mail Stuff to Italy:

*Write the Right Stuff
On the customs form when it asks you to disclose the contents of the package, be as vague as possible. Rather than itemizing each and every gift, write “personal care items” or “used goods”. Never state that it contains media objects; it seems that books, movies and magazines are more likely to draw the attention of the customs folks.

*How Low Can You Go
I know it is tough for Americans to do this, but seriously undervalue the contents. Well-intentioned friends think they are being helpful by stating a higher than realistic value in case the package goes missing. In actuality, Customs calculates the charges based on the stated value…the higher the number, the more they’ll ding us. It costs us more to get the box out of hock than worry about replacing the stuff if it gets lost. The Customs Declaration you form you fill out is used to assess - you guessed it, Customs Duty value. Never, ever (never!) give a value higher than $30. $20 or under is better still.

*Stuff it In
If it can fit in a large envelope instead of a box, shove it in there! Boxes draw inquisitive eyes that want to know what’s inside. Envelopes are less beguiling. They also tend to be delivered faster or often don’t require a “pick me up at the main post office” slip, as well.

*Pack It Right
If you do use a box, it’s always well-appreciated if you use the local newspaper as packing cushion. Bryan especially enjoys smoothing them out to read the news from home. Sure, some of the news can be found online, but sometimes you just want to see it in print. Besides, how else are you going to see the marriage announcements, the grain report, and who showed up for the K of C dinner? Okay, maybe that’s just in our home-spun, home-town papers.

*Send it Out
Normal airmail is usually the best route. I can tell you from experience that sending gifts the cheapest rate puts it on a slow boat that takes a couple of months to traverse the ocean. Our immigrant relatives had a faster trip from their remote villages. Airmail arrives within about 10 days on average. It may also help to have it blessed by your parish priest or to say a little pray as you drop it into the hands of the postal service. Sooner or later it will (normally) arrive.

And preferably it won’t arrive in the hands of a customs agent demanding cash on delivery.

c. 2007 Valerie Schneider

Friday, August 24, 2007

Is There Anybody Home?

You’ve probably already heard about the infamous August shut-down, where everybody the length and breadth of the peninsula vacates to go on vacation. Bryan mentioned this phenomenon about a week ago (as well as last year). While Ascoli remains open during the first half the month, (why go away when there are the festivities of La Quintana and the Feast of Sant’Emidio to keep everyone busy and merry, and act as a precursor to the holiday time) when Ferragosto rolled around on August 15, it was like someone flipped a switch activating the Star Trek beam mechanism, transporting everyone away from the city. Everyone, that is, except for *our* very noisy neighbors. We couldn't have that kind of luck. Sigh. All our normal coffee bars, our neighborhood food shops, including the family-run grocery store, hung out the dreaded signs informing us “we’re in ferie so too bad for you”. You may have noticed that several Italy-based bloggers have locked the doors and left, too.

Fine. We’ve learned this is just one of the things about Italian life that one must adapt to. While it may be inconvenient, it also signals to us that traditions are stronger and more important here, something we like.

But I laughed out loud when I came across this “on holiday” sign. Even the priest gets to split town and take a break!

("The 11:00 Holy Mass in this church has been suspended from the middle of July until the end of August.")

Hope you’re enjoying the last few precious days of summer.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Day at the Farm

I’m no stranger to farms. Growing up in rural northern Ohio, I hail from a place where FFA was the biggest club in my high school. That’s Future Farmers of America, for you city folks. My grandfather –and his father before him-have always had horses that they trained and raced (harness racing). My maternal grandparents both grew up on farms and had a slew of relatives maintaining their family spreads. We paid many visits to see baby piglets, pick elderberries, and shuck mountains of sweet corn. In New Mexico, we lived in Corrales, a village that maintains its rural character with small-scale farming. Finding myself behind an ancient tractor on the main road was a common occurrence. Friends there nurture a vineyard, and orchards are common. There is always something calming and reassuring to me about being among fruit-bearing trees and productive gardens.

So when Giorgio Tomassetti said his family was issuing an invitation for us to go to his grandparents’ country place, we were excited. I love being in the country and seeing the bounty coming from the land. You already know Giorgio from his blog, Un Anno a Stelle e Strisce (Stars and Stripes for a Year). No? You haven’t checked out his blog? The link has been residing in my Neighbors in Italy section for some time. Even if you don’t know Italian it’s worth a look; his photos and videos are clear enough to understand the things about American life that captured his attention during his year as an exchange student.

Giorgio’s parents were curious about the Americani living in Ascoli Piceno. We drove the short ten minutes from town to find ourselves in the hills, in a semi-arid landscape that reminded us a lot of New Mexico. You know, except for the olive groves and centuries-old stone buildings. The views were breathtaking, encompassing Mt. Ascensione and Monte Vettore, the highest peak in the Sibilline mountain range. The grandparents keep a nearly self-sufficient place: chickens for eggs and meat, rabbits, and a gigantic pig, ugly as can be but destined to become delicious delicacies like prosciutto, salami and sausages. The animals, in historic fashion, are kept in the stalls and rooms fashioned below the stone house. They reside in the house next-door, and use the rooms above the animals’ pens for the wood-burning pizza oven and larger-scale cooking space for making jams and sauces.

Besides the large plot of olive trees and the vineyards for homemade wines, they have fruit trees (we tasted tiny and sweet-tart plums which were recently harvested), potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables growing in the orto. I was awed by how much they produce. In fact, except for the flour used to make the pizzas, I think pretty much the remainder of the food presented to us by the Nonna was home-grown. I love those kinds of lunches! Afterwards, the Nonno went down to the cantina to decant a bottle of his vino cotto, cooked wine, a strong, delicious dessert wine unique to this area.

Giorgio’s mom, Cinzia, is bubbly and sweet. We hit it off right away, and I hope to meet up with her again soon. We all chatted about life in the US, their travels there, and Giorgio’s experiences. (I must say that I’m still appalled by the less than fabulous Thanksgiving dinner his host family prepared for him…I mean, who consumes a Thanksgiving feast in less than 15 minutes?! Mamma mia!) We’ve promised to make them a proper festa come November.

We answered their questions about our experiences in Italy, why we chose Ascoli Piceno, about our tour company, and told them how much we want to stay here. We recently had other friends comment that they think we’re nuts to live here; the whole world wants to go to America, they told us, and you two choose to come to this little corner of Italy? Well, yes. It’s exactly this kind of experience and hospitality that continually nurtures our love of Italy and the Italian people. A day in the country is all it takes to remind me that this is a wonderful place, indeed.

2007 valerie schneider

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Could You Keep It Down?

Could You Keep It Down?

I’m in desperate need of some sleep. I am now questioning our decision to live in the centro storico instead of an isolated farmhouse surrounded by vineyards. Grapes, after all, are quiet. Our neighbors are not. I’ll write more about the one-woman wrecking crew who is the next-door signora another time. For now I’ll stick with the frenzy of activity we’ve had going on that has kept me away from the blog.

You’ve been reading about La Quintana. It finished up last weekend with the mother of all pageants the Sfilata, in which 1500 participants in costume paraded through town sestiere by sestiere. It’s an epic event proudly carrying medieval overtones, with people representing old-world themes, such as archers, falconers, mountaineers, and more. Fascinating to watch, we stood in the sun for two hours as they marched elegantly past us.

But the end of La Quintana coincided with the Feast of Sant’Emidio, the patron saint of the city who not only protects the town from destructive earthquakes but warrants a major party in his honor which mixes the sacred and profane, as so many things in Italy do…religious processions preceded punk rock concerts; a special mass before the church-sponsored lottery drawing, with everything culminating in a gigantic fireworks display the likes of which we’ve rarely seen even on the Fourth of July. Thundering booms so loud they shook the earth beneath our feet punctuated the sky-filling explosions of elaborate, dancing light.

Did I mention the fireworks didn’t start until 1:00 a.m.? Now you know why I’m so tired. The concerts are in the nearby piazzas and we hear them whether we exit or not. Ditto with the fireworks, so we figure if we’re not going to sleep because of the noise, we may as well join the crowd outside. All week we weren’t getting to bed until well after 2:00 a.m. Those of you who know us well know we’re normally in bed by midnight - max.

So when we left Monday for the sleepy hamlet in Basilicata that is my ancestral town we were excited about the prospect not only of hanging out with my cousin but getting some decent shut-eye. Despite having a patron festival going on, we knew that the place had only 2000 inhabitants, so how rowdy could it get?

Quite a lot, it turns out. The population swelled to 5000, what with the returning Lucani who live in other parts of the country, students home for the summer, and people from neighboring villages…all of whom wait all year for this grand party. Who knew? Our rustic cabin (read, *rustic*) was set in the woods and quiet, so that wasn’t the issue. The partying family who wouldn’t relinquish us to bed was the problem. What do you mean you want to leave? It’s only 1:30! exclaimed Michele. Only? We’re exhausted, we whined! But what could we do? We were the guests and didn’t want to offend them so we soldiered on, returning to the cabin after 2:00 a.m. every night, dropping like the dead into bed and then waking with the sun when it glinted through the wooden slats.

Their hospitality was overwhelming, though. We were welcomed into their circle and accepted immediately by their friends. The notion of southern hospitality is alive and well in Basilicata. They shared their wine, their food and their hearts and we will be ever grateful and ever touched by their kindness to the foreigners. We sat down for lunch and spent 3 ½ hours dining among them, learning dialect words for the dishes and learning that here we are considered family. One dinner ended at midnight and was capped with fireworks at the top of the mountain, which in turn set the hillside ablaze. The dry grasses ignited easily but quickly flamed out on the rocky terrain, but gave us a dose of adrenaline that (of course) had to be tempered with a digestivo. Michele and the crowd remained at the bar at 2:15 when we gave it up and went home with their cries of protest and laughs at our wimpy-ness echoing in our ringing ears.

They wanted us to stay longer. The festa would continue another two weeks, after all, why should we leave now? For some sleep, we said. We need some sleep. We’ve discovered that Italians like to part-ty. Everyone is on vacation in August, so why not live it up? Even in a sleepy village on the side of a mountain in remote Basilicata.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my pillow is calling my name. While the Ascolani are eating lunch it may be the only quiet time I get for a nap. I need to take advantage of every precious hour I can.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I'm Such a Schmoozer!

Many thanks to Erin at the Olive Notes for nominating me for a Schmooze Award! What a sweet thing. I think. It’s a good thing, right?

Actually, it is. I’ve been following Erin’s chronicles about their upcoming move to Italy and their excitement is infectious, as well as memory-jogging about our own preparations and trepidations when we left the US. She has a great personality and voice, a great outlook on life and a great willingness to jump in and make the world a better place. I thank her for that as well as for bestowing the award on me.

"This award goes to bloggers "who effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship."

While most of the blog links I’ve listed are Italy-related, I enjoy a wide spectrum of reading in the blogosphere, so I’ve selected a variety to pass on the Schmooze Award.

Shelley at Really Rome
She not only shares insider secrets about the best places to go in my favorite city, she dishes up doses of kitsch, wit, and the quirky too. She is also downright nice and hosts great contests, which makes her a hit in my book.

Jeff in Puglia
Maybe it’s because he’s in the south of Italy, an under-appreciated area. Maybe it’s his great photos (and the fact that he considerately puts his videos on a separate YouTube page so as to not lock up my slow connection). Or maybe it’s the shared Midwest upbringing that makes me like this blog. Probably all of the above, but I really like how he shares his corner of Italy with us.

Jessica at In Search of Dessert
I recently met Jessica in person and have to say she’s as sweet as I’d pictured. I love that she writes very openly, with a touch of humor, and always with a great outlook. She’s smart and talented and together with Shelley started a book exchange group, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books. Cool, huh?

Palmabella’s Passions
Palma is a fellow Slow Traveler and the consummate party planner. She is passionate about entertaining well, eating well, and traveling well, and shares it all on her blog. Her photos not only make her elaborate parties look so inviting, she actually makes it all look easy.

Picturing New Mexico
Beautiful photos of the Land of Enchantment by my friend Lynn Schibeci never fail to make me smile. She is a talented photographer with a great eye for great shots. Best of all, when I see her photos I can see her taking them. A dose of home away from home, courtesy of a friend.

So, give them a look. They're interesting, diverse bloggers who will make you smile.

Here are the directions to participate:

1. Write a post with links to 5 blogs that have schmoozed you into submission.
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the award.
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Power of Schmooze Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote

NB: I'm still working on #3. I can't get the link to work, but will keep trying.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Wanted: A Palio Winner

In the continuing story of this year’s edition of La Quintana, we attended last week’s jousting match, called La Giostra. As I explained in my last entry, the match is held in a special stadium with a horse track that runs around the inside perimeter, then turns into a figure eight-shaped course in the middle. The rider must control the horse on the tight curves, hang onto a very long wooden lance which he uses to pummel the target, a human-shaped dummy with an extended arm onto which the jousting target-board is affixed. He gets three passes through the center of the figure 8, aiming at the target each time. He must then high-tail it out of the track at high speed to complete the course and gain points for speed, accuracy of his lance, and general horsemanship. It’s an adrenaline rush to watch.

This year’s July joust was rife with problems and controversy, though, making it more heated and exciting than usual. The evening started with the stadium being thrust into darkness just as the cavaliers were warming up. Some kids tried to scale the fence to enter without paying, tripping the circuit and cutting off electricity. Unfortunately, two of the cavaliers had been barreling around the track and the sudden darkness scared the horses, who managed to get themselves free from their riders and run off frightened while several figuranti gave chase. They were eventually corralled without harm to the horses or the humans.

Once the lights were finally restored the jousting match began. After the first round, however, the crowd around us started screaming at the groundskeepers, calling them over to fill the holes in the track. Each attempt to rake the course brought louder cries, “over here, this one is as deep as a well for crying out loud.” This would continue throughout the evening and play into the controversy later.

The first run for the Porta Maggiore rider didn’t go so well when he hit the target and promptly lost his lance, disqualifying him from that round. His second turn was more tragic, the horse lost his footing and careened down taking the rider with him. It looked like a hard fall and the horse was limping slightly, the rider holding his back in pain while he wept in frustration. We felt terrible for him. Another cavalier and his horse went down on a tight curve, thankfully neither was injured. The crowd began screaming about the too-wet track that was causing this to happen.

Then the real kicker – the cavalier from Porta Solesta started his tornata while one of the groundskeepers, who had been called back out onto the field by the fans of that very sestiere, was trying to placate them and fill the holes they were pointing out. The rider nearly mowed the guy down, having started too soon without the official signal. He was disqualified for the round. Disgruntled, the cavalier approached the mayor and council to protest. In what can only be described as stupid, the mayor ruled that the guy could re-run his round. Meanwhile, the other sestieri competed and our own Piazzarola garnered good points. When the announcement was made in favor of giving Porta Solesta another run the crowd, the figuranti, the neighborhood dogs all went wild, screaming “schifo” and calling out some choice epithets about the mayor. I’ve heard colorful cursing before but this episode brought out some real doozies. Things involveing pigs and the cavalier’s mother that made the poor guy next to us blush. He kept leaning over to tell us stranieri that “it’s not normally like this”. It’s alright, we assured him; it’s more exciting this way! He was embarrassed, though.

The other sestiere, particularly Piazzarola who would be the winner if the other guy hadn’t gotten a do-over, crowded the field to protest. Much discussion and gesticulating ensued. Our friend who accompanied us tired and went home. We were invested in the drama by now and waited to see the outcome. At one point an announcement was made that if the figuranti didn’t return to their seats the entire competition would be cancelled. Another tornata remained and no one wanted to be completely eliminated, so order was restored and the games continued more heatedly.

The remaining jousts were carried out without ordeal but the energy level in the stadium was peaking as the official winner was calculated and everyone awaited the announcement. Because of the second chance the cavalier had garnered high points and came out the winner, but because of the controversial nature, it was highly contested. Why shouldn’t the riders who fell also get to re-do their turns? The mayor is biased! He has money riding on that horse! So it went among the people around us. The final decision was that there would be no decision that night. A meeting would take place and an announcement made the following day.

Three days after, the city was still in uproar and still impatient to know who would get the beautiful Palio. The mayor and councilors had convened, met with the players, discussed it ad nauseum, reviewed the films. The other sestieri had their say, discussing the poor track conditions and that the two possible contenders should be punished for their actions by awarding to the Palio to the third-place jouster.

In the end? They ruled no one gets the Palio. The behavior of all involved meant no one merited the prize. In the midst of it all, the mayor says he’ll penalize Porta Solesta and Piazzarola in some manner (I’ve not heard what time of reprimand will be meted out) and the papers continue to carry news and editorials about the situation. Surprisingly to me, no one is really hurling accusations at the mayor himself; he seems to have successfully focused the arguments onto the sestieri by denouncing the bad behavior, while also deflecting attention from the fact that none of these actions would have occurred if he’d not ruled the silly do-over in the first place.

The colorful Palio will be interred in the Quintana office, a display of the debacle for generations to come. Naturally, no one is happy with the decision and the electricity is building intensely for the August joust, when the competitions will take on greater importance and rivalry. I can now see how city-state wars broke out so frequently in the Middle Ages.
2007 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Men in Tights and Armored Knights

A little note to acknowledge that I'm a bit behind in posting these exciting events to the blog. The Quintana turned into a "never-before" spectacle this year...details will be posted in the next installment.

Men in Tights and Armored Knights
The steady, persistent pounding of the drumbeats beckoned us from our house. Closer and louder, we knew we had to hurry. Down the two flights of stairs we raced to catch the knights and their noble entourage marching in serious concentration to the ever-rhythmic drum. Down the hill they went to slowly strut into the civic square, Piazza Arringo. Our sestiere’s representatives for La Giostra made a distinctive entry.

One by one, the other five sestiere joined them, rounding together before the official Quintana band and the Magnifico Messiere (the role is fulfilled by the mayor) and his councilors led them all through the streets of the centro storico to the small Piazza Sant’Agostino, where they assembled in the shadow of the medieval landmark, the Twin Towers.

The piazza takes its name from the Romanesque church of the same name and on the steps awaited the Monsignor, who prayed for the cavalieri, their horses, the comune and proclaimed the power bestowed upon the fair city by the church’s important Madonna della Pace. The painting, said to broker peace even in times of distress, was reverently brought forth as the cavalieri held their hats forward and bowed. The horses were given a benediction along with a sprinkling of holy water.

One sestiere at a time, they departed as they came. Drum beats calling out the steps, each man marching in time with solemn faces. They paused in the Piazza del Popolo as the beautiful, vibrant Palio was interred within the Palazzo dei Capitani, awaiting to be awarded to the winner of the Giostra.

The following day the assembly gathered in another piazza, this time growing exponentially in size as the courts and damas and their attendants, all in sumptuous costume, made a spectacular sight striding through town to the Squarcia, the stadium where the jousting match, La Giostra della Quintana, was held. Not to be snarfed at, this parade held nigh 1200 participants all wearing velvet, brocade, and woolen tights. Men in tights, people! Knights in *actual* armor! Women in glorious gowns! It’s a step back to the Middle Ages when the noble families and their courtiers along with the valiant cavaliers who defended the city amassed before the common folk to show their power, prestige, skill and beauty. Today, the beauty and skill part are still evident remainders of the tradition. Whether the figuranti hold power and prestige, being a foreigner I am not too sure. The entire assembly arrayed themselves in the middle of the field awaiting all of the participants to make their circle of the stadium and then gather together. They completely filled the center portion of the stadium, a resplendent gathering of rich fabrics, elaborate head-dresses, and colorful flags. The drumbeats continued unabated throughout the entire scene.

The joust utilizes a unique figure 8-shaped track; in the middle is a target called the Saracen or the Moor. No, political correctness hasn’t invaded medieval traditions. The cavalieri must ride the horse around the track, enter the figure 8 and skillfully maneuver the horse on the tight turns while holding on tight to a long, heavy wooden lance that he uses to pound the target. All at full speed, I might add. Exciting stuff being played out before thousands of spectators, all of whom have strong affiliation with their sestieri or their parents’ sestieri, screaming in favor of their cavalier and jeering at the others.

Next up…La Giostra and the Aftermath.
2007 Valerie Schneider

Monday, July 09, 2007

Raise Your Banner High

Heralding trumpets sounded the arrival of the stately procession. On horseback the crier arrived in the piazza accompanied by armoured knights and regal companions bearing long jousting swords in splendorous array. Banners of the city were held high and the year’s colorful Palio presented to the Captain of the People. A heavy scroll was unfurled and the official proclamation announcing the opening of La Quintana was read with a booming voice. The entire procession then departed the piazza to sound the news to another quarter of the city. Ascoli Piceno’s medieval games had begun.

Comparable in scope and pageantry to the more famous Palio of Siena, La Quintana is Ascoli Piceno’s annual fete, showing once again how this city’s soul is deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. The sestieri of the city continue to compete against each other to display their civic pride and manly skill.

This weekend we witnessed the sbandieratori, or flag throwing competitions. Forget any image you may have of a majorette with a baton. These guys are athletes with great balance, strength, coordination, stamina and a touch of showmanship. Beginning with singles, then small-group competitors working together, they launched the heavy banners in a show of artistry filling the space above the piazza with a blaze of unfurling color. Some worked as many five flags at a time, deftly using their feet as well as their hands to fling the flags skyward in an explosion of waving glory. The second night brought the doubles competitions, and the most amazing event, the large-group competitions, whose choreography incorporated the movements and intermingling of the musicians, making American marching bands look positively bland. Drummers twirled in formation while long wooden-handled flags whipped past their heads. Without flinching. Slender elongated brass trumpets blasted while their players wove among the host of characters. The entire scene looked like an elaborate, beautiful dance. Oh yes, and all of this is performed while wearing heavy brocade and velvet costumes.

Each of the sestieri took their turn to defend the honor of their district. Our own Piazzarola didn’t fare too well. The team is relatively young and still learning the necessary skills; they lacked the refined choreography exhibited by most of the other sestieri, but not for lack of practice. Nearly nightly for about two months now we have heard the unique musical song of the district as they rehearsed in the campo uphill from us. After their competitions we cheered loudly. I’m always for the underdog, after all.

At the conclusion, the points of all the sbandieratori events were tallied and the Palio awarded to Porta Solesta. They have won more than any other sestieri, so no one was wholly surprised, but there were still a number of people around us crying “schifo” and “thieves”. The participants then paraded out of the Piazza Arringo in order of their standing, marching to the Piazza del Popolo where citizens awaited to accompany their sestiere’s heroes home.

In the upcoming weeks the processions, events and festivities will continue. The July version of La Quintana is sort of a primer for the “real” events in August, culminating on the Feast of Sant’Emidio, the city’s patron saint. The competitions are truly amazing to watch and kept us mesmerized. What is more amazing is that this grand, historical enactment is so unknown that there were only three small metal grandstands erected in the piazza for the spectators. The rest crowded around the perimeter like us, standing the entire time to take in the show. No tickets, no actual crowd control, no souvenir stands. Just a lovely tradition being carried out for yet another year.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Double Dose of Heat!

At first glance I thought we'd made a terrible mistake. Approaching the hotel, the doors and windows of the lobby area were thrown wide open and I had a moment of panic. The website said "air conditioned". I couldn't have mistranslated "aria condizionata". No way. There is supposed to be cold air blowing within the walls of this establishment! Had they lied? Was it not functioning? I feared we'd be searching for a different place to stay.

It may seem trivial, but we wanted relief and had booked this place specifically because it had the ol' a/c. Fortunately, the friendly manager escorted us to the room and explained how the simple control panel operated, turning it on and allowing the chilled air to flow forth. Aaaah. Yessss. Blessed relief if only for one night.

Assisi is beautiful always, so when our former neighbor in Corrales contacted us that she'd be touring Italy with her sister and the closest stop to us was Assisi, we quickly agreed to meet up with them. We hadn't made any getaways recently, so it was a nice little break. And, did I mention the a/c? Yes, I guess I did.Irene and Helen arrived in the late afternoon, bus-weary but ready for a dinner out on the town. After introducing us to their group leader, a personable chap named Andrea, and freshening up, we drove the short distance from their hotel into the centro storico of the pink-stoned splendor that is Assisi. The restaurant was packed but the meal was very good, and we chatted nonstop about their trip thus far, what's been happening in Corrales and Albuquerque, our adventures of the past year, and generalities about life in Italy. A few hours of fun-filled dining with our neighbor. It was great!

Then the second heat wave hit...two sack-loads! Treasures in little containers...the yellow label bearing the New Mexico Zia symbol, with the precious words HOT green chile. This is the kind of heat we can stand! Sweet Irene...she toted twenty (count 'em, twenty!) cans of green chile across the ocean in her luggage, hauling it along on the trip to deliver into our very grateful hands. We did wait until we got home to Ascoli to crack one open, though the tempation was great to ask the pizzaiolo to top our pizza al taglio with the stuff at lunch the next day.

In one day we got to have air-conditioned bliss and a welcome dose of heat for our mouths. Thanks, Irene!